“Next witness—Shennan Quine!”
“You are to testify before the Cosmic Tribunal, now in session, over which I am presiding. You will please address me as ‘Your Honor’ and members of the jury as ‘Your Honors.’ You are to answer promptly all questions put to you by the jury and by myself; those of the prosecution and defense, only with the Tribunal’s prior consent. Only testimony based on first-hand knowledge will be admissible, nothing on hearsay. Are my instructions clear?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Is Shennan Quine your proper name?”
“It is, Your Honor.”
“But aboard the Goliath you used an alias, did you not?”
“It was one of the conditions of my contract with the shipowners.”
“Were you aware of the reason for this alias?”
“I was, Your Honor.”
“Were you aboard the Goliath on an orbital flight from the eighteenth to the thirtieth of October of this year?”
“I was, Your Honor.”
“What were your flight duties?”
“I was the copilot.”
“Kindly tell the Tribunal what happened aboard the Goliath on the twenty-first of October, during the afore-mentioned voyage, starting with a description of the ship’s bearings and objectives.”
“At 0830 hours, ship’s time, we crossed the perimeter of Saturn’s moons at a hyperbolic velocity and commenced braking until 1100 hours. Dropping below the hyperbolic to a double-zero orbital, we prepared to launch the artificial satellites onto the plane of the rings.”
“By double zero, you mean a velocity of fifty-two kilometers per second?”
“Correct, Your Honor. At 1100 hours I went off duty, but since the perturbations required constant course corrections, I simply traded places with the chief pilot; from then on, he piloted and I navigated.”
“Who told you to switch?”
“The CO, Your Honor; it was standard procedure. Our mission was to get within safe distance of the Roche limit on the rings’ plane, and from there, practically orbital, to fire a series of three automatic probes, to be guided by remote control inside the Roche. One probe was to be injected into the Cassini Division, the other two were for tracking the first. Shall I elaborate?”
“Very well. Each of Saturn’s rings is composed of small meteorlike bodies, the ring widths reaching thousands of kilometers. The satellite, once placed in orbit inside the Cassini Division, was to monitor the perturbations in its gravitational field and the interaction of the ring particles. To stop the satellite from being thrown by the perturbations onto the outer or inner rings, we had to use satellites powered by low-thrust ionic engines in the .20-.25-ton range. The two radar-equipped ‘guardians’ were to keep the third satellite, orbiting inside the Division, on course. The satellites were equipped with on-board computers for course corrections and rocket control, with enough thrust to keep them orbital for a couple of months.”
“Why two monitors? Wouldn’t one have been enough?”
“Definitely. The second ‘guardian’ was to serve as back-up, in case of a malfunction or a meteorite collision. Circum-Saturnian space—rings and moons aside—looks empty from Earth, but in fact it’s a junkyard. That’s why our mission was to maintain orbital velocity—nearly all of Saturn’s particles revolve on its equatorial plane at primary cosmic velocity. This reduced the chances of collision to a minimum. We were also equipped with meteorite deflectors, which could be deployed manually or by a servo-mechanism hooked up to the ship’s radar.”
“Did you personally consider such a mission difficult or dangerous?”
“Neither, sir, provided we kept to our trajectory. Circum-Saturnian space has a bad name in our trade, worse than Jupiter’s, though it sure beats Jupiter for accelerating.”
“What do you mean by ‘in our trade’?”
“Among pilots and navigators, sir.”
“Astronauts, in other words?”
“Affirmative. Well, a little before 1200 hours, we’d almost reached the outermost ring—”
“On its plane?”
“Yes. The densimeters were showing high particle density, about four hundred microcollisions per minute. We entered the Roche zone above the rings, as programmed, and prepared to launch the probes from our orbit, now almost parallel to the Cassini Division. We fired the first at 1500 hours and jockeyed it into the gap, I was in charge of guidance. The pilot helped by maintaining minimal thrust, locking us into almost the same orbital velocity as the rings. Calder was doing a great job, giving just enough thrust to keep the ship properly trimmed, to keep her from cartwheeling.”
“Besides yourself and the chief pilot, who else was in the control room?”
“The whole crew, sir. The CO sat between Calder and myself, his chair positioned so he could be closer to the pilot. Seated behind me were the two engineers. Dr. Burns, as I recall, sat behind the CO.”
“You’re not sure?”
“I wasn’t paying attention; I was too busy. Besides, it’s hard to see over a pilot’s high-backed couch.
“Was the probe visually inserted?”
“Not only that, sir. I was tracking it on video and with the radar altimeter. After checking its coordinates, I decided it was situated well enough, more or less in the center of the gap, and told Calder I was ready.”
“For the next probe launch. Calder fired the sledge, the hatch opened, but the probe wouldn’t eject.”
“The hydraulically driven piston that ejected the probe from the launch bay once the hatch was opened. There were three, all mounted aft, to be fired in rapid succession.”
“So the second satellite never left the ship?”
“No, it got jammed in the launcher.”
“Please tell us exactly how it happened,”
“The sequence works as follows. The outer hatch is opened, the hydraulics are activated, and as soon as the clearance signal comes on, the servo-starter is fired. The starter self-ignites after a hundred-second delay, so there is always time to abort in case of a failure. Once the small solid-fuel booster is fired, the satellite takes off on its own fifteen-tons-per-second thrust. The object is to clear it from the mother ship as fast as possible. When the booster burns out, an ionic engine, remote-controlled by the navigator, fires automatically. In our case, Calder had switched on the servo-starter as soon as the satellite started to clear—and when it suddenly stalled, he tried to shut down booster ignition, but couldn’t.”
“You’re positive the chief pilot tried to switch off the probe’s servo-starter?”
“Yes. He was yanking on the abort switch, but it kept flipping back. I don’t know why the starter ignited. But I heard him yell: ‘Jammed!’”
“Something jammed back there. With half a minute to go before booster ignition, he tried a second time, raising the pressure; the manometers were on maximum, but the probe wouldn’t come unjammed. He fired the piston again and we felt it hit like a hammer.”
“Was he trying to blast it out?”
“Yes, sir. It was bound to destruct anyway, due to the sudden build-up of pressure. By the way, that showed a lot of savvy—we might have had a spare probe, but not a spare ship.”
“The witness will refrain from embellishing his testimony with such flourishes.”
“Well, anyway, the piston didn’t free it. Time was running out, so I yelled, ‘Buckle up, everyone!’ and fastened my seatbelt as tight as it would go. A couple of others yelled the same. One of them was the CO; I recognized his voice.”
“Will the witness kindly explain his actions?”
“We were orbiting above a ring—at almost zero thrust, in other words. I knew that once the booster fired—and it had to, since the starter was on—we’d get a side reaction and start tumbling. The jammed probe was starboard, facing Saturn, which meant it had to act as a side deflector. I was all set for some somersaults and centrifugal force, and knew the pilot would have to compensate. There was no telling what might develop, so I decided it was better to play it safe and buckle up.”
“Are we to understand that as the copilot and navigator on duty, you had your seatbelt undone?”
“Not undone, sir, just loosened. They’re adjustable. When a pilot has his seatbelt buckled all the way—or, as we say, ‘to the hilt’—he has little freedom of movement.”
“The witness is aware that a slackened or otherwise improperly fastened seatbelt is against regulations?”
“Yes, Your Honor, I knew it was against regs, but it was common practice.”
“It’s been allowed on every ship I’ve ever flown.”
“The commonness of the infraction doesn’t make it less wrong. Please continue.”
“As expected, the satellite’s booster fired. The ship began to rotate on its transverse axis, and we were simultaneously, but gradually, deflected from our orbital path. The pilot compensated with side thrust, but it didn’t work.”
“And why not?”
“I wasn’t at the controls, but my guess is that it couldn’t be done. The probe was wedged in the open launch bay, leaking fumes, and the backwash made for an unstable emission. Because of the fluctuating impulses, any correction through compensatory thrust resulted in a lateral swing, and when the booster burned out, we went into an inverse spin. It took the pilot a while to regain control, once he realized the booster had cut out but that the ionic engine was still running.”
“The pilot couldn’t be sure of engine ignition, not after trying to force-eject the probe. Maybe he meant to disable it; in his place, I’d have done the same. As it turned out, after the booster died the ionic kept functioning, and again we had a side deflection, of about a quarter ton. It wasn’t much, but enough to make us tumble. At orbital velocity, the slightest variability in acceleration can upset your trajectory and stability.”
“How did the crew react?”
“Quite calmly, sir. Everyone was aware of the risk: an ignited booster inside that jammed launch bay was like a hundred-kilo bomb. If it had exploded, it would have ripped our starboard side wide open like a tin can. Luckily for us it didn’t, and the ionic engine, minus the booster, was rendered harmless. Oh, yes, there was one complication: the automatic fire extinguisher started dousing number-two launcher. Our luck, too, because the foam—foam is useless against ionic—started spuming from the open hatch. Some of it was sucked up into the probe’s exhaust, causing the thrust to choke. The pilot finally managed to shut down the fire-alarm system, but for a few minutes there, we were buffeted around, not too bad, but enough to destabilize us.”
“Who tripped the alarm system?”
“The thermocouple, sir, when the temperature jumped more than seven hundred degrees in the starboard hull. It was the heat from the booster.”
“Were any commands or instructions given by the commander?”
“Not a one, like he was sitting tight, waiting to see how the pilot would handle it. Basically, there were two options: either to break away and fly back up to the ecliptic—to give up, in other words—or to try to launch the third satellite. To quit meant to abort the program. Caught in the drift, without a ‘guardian’ to correct its course, the probe already in the Division would be pulverized in a matter of hours.”
“Wasn’t that a decision for the ship’s commanding officer to make?”
“Should I answer that, Your Honor?”
“The witness will respond to the prosecutor’s question.” “The CO could, have ordered the maneuver, but he didn’t have to. Article 16 of the Deck Operations Code gives the pilot the right, in certain situations, to assume the duties of the ship’s CO. Situations demanding split-second decisions, for example.”
“But in this particular instance, the commander was able to give orders, since the ship was neither accelerating, in which case the g-force would have precluded giving any oral commands, nor in any imminent danger of break-up.”
“Shortly after 1500 hours, the pilot applied compensatory thrust—”
“The witness is being evasive. Will the Tribunal admonish the witness and bid him answer my question?”
“Gentlemen, I’m supposed to answer questions, but the prosecutor didn’t ask a question. He was offering his own personal commentary on the situation aboard ship. Am I, then, to comment on his commentary?”
“The prosecutor will kindly address the witness with a question, and the witness will oblige by cooperating to the fullest.”
“In view of the circumstances, ought not the commander to have made a definite decision and relayed it to the pilot in the form of a command?”
“The Code doesn’t specify—”
“The witness will address the Tribunal.”
“Yes, sir. The Code can’t possibly project every on-board situation. Impossible. If it could, the crew would have only to memorize it and there’d be no need for a commander.”
“Your Honor, the prosecution objects to such facetious remarks!”
“The witness will provide an answer to the prosecutor’s question, brief and to the point.”
“Yes, Your Honor. In my judgment, no, the CO could have waived such a decision. He was there, he sized up the situation; if he kept quiet, it meant he was abiding by Article 22 of Deck Operations, relying on his pilot’s discretion.”
“Your Honors, not Article 22, but Article 26, which deals with the waiving of command in dangerous situations, is relevant here.”
“Your Honors, the situation aboard the Goliath endangered neither the ship nor the crew’s safety.”
“The witness, Your Honors, is being deliberately uncooperative; instead of helping to ascertain the truth, he is trying, per fas et nefas, to exonerate the accused, Commander Pirx. The situation on board the Goliath definitely falls within the purview of Article 26!”
“Your Honors, surely the prosecutor can’t double as an expert witness.”
“The witness is out of order. The relevance of Article 22 versus Article 26 will await a separate ruling. The witness will describe the next sequence of events.”
“Calder never said a word to the CO, but I saw him look his way several times. Meanwhile, the probe’s thrust stabilized, making it easier to control the ship. Calder now decided to move away from the ring, but when he didn’t ask me to plot our return flight, I figured he meant to complete the mission. But as soon as we crossed the Roche limit, at approximately 1600 hours, he signaled maximum g-load and tried to jettison.”
“Meaning he shifted to maximum thrust, then blasted full power astern, then full ahead. A three-ton probe at full acceleration weighs about twenty times that. It should have popped out of that bay like a pea from a pod. With a leeway of sixteen thousand kilometers, Calder repeated the maneuver, twice, but with the same results. The bursts only increased the angle of deflection. Probably due to the sudden boost in acceleration, the satellite, now more jammed than ever, changed position, so that its exhaust fumes were deflected against the partially open hatch and escaped into space. The blasts were as wicked as they were risky: it was now a safe bet that if the probe ever jettisoned, it would take a fair amount of the hull along with it. So it looked like either a repair job out on the hull, or a tow back to Base.”
“Didn’t Calder try to shut off the probe’s engine?”
“Couldn’t, sir—the steering cable was disconnected. There was still radio control, but the probe sat in the very mouth of the launcher, screened by the bay’s metal housing. We’d been on the outbound leg for roughly a minute, and I thought: He’s decided to abort after all. He maneuvered around for a ‘star fix’—you know, aiming the ship’s nose at a star and then alternating thrust to see if the star remains fixed on the screen. It didn’t check out, naturally; our flight characteristics had changed, and Calder tried to juggle the numerical values. By trial and error, he found the right thrust level, which straightened the deflection; then he reversed course.”
“Was the witness aware at that time of Calder’s real intent?”
“Yes—I mean, I had a hunch he was still planning to launch the third probe. We went back down the ecliptic, away from the sun. Calder’s stick work was flawless. You’d have never guessed he was piloting a ship with a sort of extra, built-in, side engine. When he asked me to compute the course corrections, flight trajectory, and steering impulses for a third launch, that cinched it.”
“Did the witness comply?”
“No, sir. I told him I couldn’t, not before reprogramming. I requested more flight data—I didn’t know from what altitude he wanted to inject the last satellite—but he didn’t answer. Maybe his request was his way of telling the commander what he was up to.”
“He could have told the commander outright.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to think he was stuck and needed help. Or he just wanted to prove himself by showing up his navigator—meaning me. But the CO didn’t bat an eye, and Calder kept right on course. That’s when it started to look hairy.”
“Will the witness be more precise?”
“Touch and go, sir.”
“Your Honors will note that the witness has just confirmed what he was reluctant to admit earlier—namely, that the commander, consciously, with premeditation, decided not to intervene, as it was his duty to do, thereby exposing the ship and its crew to inordinate risks.”
“Not so, Your Honors!”
“Kindly refrain from arguing with the prosecution, and confine your testimony to the actual chain of events. Why did you deem it a risky operation only after Calder had reversed course?”
“Maybe I expressed myself badly. It’s like this: in such circumstances, the pilot should have consulted with his commander. I certainly would have, especially since the original program was no longer operant. I thought that Calder, seeing as the CO was giving him a free hand, would chance an insertion, keeping a safe distance from the ring. The distance made a successful launch iffy, but it was still possible—and safe. At low velocity, he did in fact request a course projection for the satellite, allowing for a lead of one to two thousand kilometers. I wanted to help him, so I started plotting; it turned out that the tolerance was more or less equal to the width of the Cassini Division. This meant there was a fifty-fifty chance that the probe, instead of being injected into the proper orbit, would be pulled inside, toward the planet, or outside, smack up against the ring. I worked out the results for him—for lack of anything better to do.”
“Did your commander read the data?”
“He must have; the display was centrally located, right above our consoles. We were cruising at low thrust, and I had the feeling Calder was in trouble. If he backed out now, it would mean he had miscalculated, that his intuition had failed him. Up until he reversed course, he could have argued it wasn’t worth the risk. But, then, he’d already shown he could control the ship, despite the changed flight characteristics, and his subsequent moves made it clear he was going ahead with the maneuver. We were gaining on the ring—to give us a better shot at it, I thought at the time, in which case he should have already been braking, not boosting the thrust. Only then did it dawn on me that he might be up to something else. In a flash, everyone was clued in.”
“You mean the crew realized the gravity of the situation?”
“Yes, Your Honor. Someone behind me, sitting astern, said, ‘It’s been sweet.’”
“Who said that?”
“I don’t know. The nucleonics engineer, maybe, or the radio-electronics engineer. I wasn’t paying attention. It all happened so fast. Calder signaled maximum g-load, throttled, and kept on a collision course with the ring. It was clear he wanted to thread the Cassini and plop the third probe along the way.”
“Pilot’s lingo, sir. The probe is dropped the way a bird on the wing plops an egg… But the CO countermanded him.”
“The CO did? He actually countermanded him?”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Objection. The witness is manipulating the facts. The commander could not have revoked any order.”
“Correction. The CO tried to give the order, but couldn’t complete it. Calder’s peak alert came only a split second before the maneuver. The CO yelled as soon as the red light went on, but the g-force—over fourteen!—took his voice away, as if Calder wanted to shut him up. I’m not saying he meant to, but that’s how it looked. The g-force was so bad my eyesight dimmed. Small wonder the CO could barely raise his voice.”
“I object, Your Honor. The witness is insinuating that Calder, willfully and with malice aforethought, tried to prevent the commander from issuing an order.”
“I said nothing of the sort.”
“The witness is out of order. Objection sustained. The witness’s words beginning with ‘…as if Calder wanted to shut him up’ will be stricken from the record. The witness will abstain from any commentary and will quote the commander’s exact words.”
“Like I said, even if the order was never given in full, the gist of it was clear. He wanted to nix Calder’s plan of entering the Cassini.”
“Objection. Only what the accused actually said, not what he wanted to say, is admissible as evidence.”
“Sustained. The witness will restrict himself to what was actually said in the control room.”
“Enough was said to make any professional astronaut know that the CO was denying the pilot clearance.”
“The witness will cite his exact words and let the Tribunal form its own opinion as to their actual meaning.”
“That’s just it, Your Honor. I can’t remember the exact words, only their sense. It sounded like ‘Not through—’ or ‘Don’t thread the rings.’”
“Earlier the witness claimed the commander couldn’t manage a full sentence, whereas the words just quoted—‘Don’t thread the rings’—constitute a complete sentence.”
“If a fire broke out in this room and I yelled ‘Fire!’ it wouldn’t be a full sentence, it wouldn’t say what was on fire or where, but it would sure give fair warning.”
“Objection! The Tribunal will call the witness to order!”
“The witness is reprimanded. You are not here to edify the Tribunal with parables and anecdotes. Please confine yourself to a factual account of what transpired on board.”
“Yes, Your Honor. What happened on board was that the CO denied the pilot clearance into the Cassini.”
“Objection! The witness is twisting the facts to suit his purpose!”
“The Tribunal wishes to be obliging. Try to understand that the purpose of this inquiry is to establish the material facts in the case. Can you or can you not reproduce the commander’s exact words?”
“We were running at peak, I was having a dim-out—no, I didn’t catch the words, but their message was clear enough. The pilot was seated closer to the commander; if anyone should have heard, he should have.”
“Defense requests a re-examination of the control-room tapes, of the segment in question.”
“Permission denied. The tapes have already been examined; the distortion was such as to permit voice identification only. The Tribunal will rule separately on its admissibility as evidence. Will the witness describe what occurred next?”
“By the time I regained my eyesight, we were on a collision course with the ring. The accelerometer now read two g’s, our velocity at parabolic. The CO yelled, ‘Calder! You disobeyed orders! I told you not to enter the Cassini!’ and Calder immediately said, ‘Didn’t hear you, Commander.’”
“And yet the commander still didn’t give the order to brake or reverse course?”
“It was too late, Your Honor. We were hitting a hyperbolic of about eighty kilometers per second. There was no chance of our braking now, not without crossing the gravitational barrier.”
“What do you mean by ‘gravitational barrier’?”
“A constant positive or negative acceleration in excess of twenty to twenty-two g’s. The longer you’re on a collision course, the greater the amount of reverse thrust needed for braking. Maybe fifty g’s at first, later a hundred. That would have been lethal—for the humans on board, anyway.”
“Technically, did the ship have such an acceleration capacity?”
“Yes, sir, it did—once the interlocks were off, but only then. The Goliath had a pile with a ten-thousand-ton maximal thrust output.”
“You may resume.”
“‘Are you fixing to break up the ship?’ the CO asked, sort of casually. ‘We’ll thread the Cassini and I’ll brake on the other side,’ said Calder, just as casually. During this exchange, we went into a lateral spin. The sudden boost in acceleration, when Calder put her on course for the Division, must have realigned the probe, lessening the deflection but causing a gas flow—the reason for the longitudinal spin—along the ship’s tangent. The rotations got faster by the second. It was the beginning of the end. Calder had accidentally triggered it by making the huge jump in acceleration.”
“Please elaborate on why, in your opinion, Calder increased acceleration.”
“Objection, Your Honor. Being biased, the witness will claim, as before, that Calder was trying to silence the commander.”
“Not at all. Calder didn’t have to rev so fast, with such a burst; he could have built up speed gradually. But if it was entry he wanted, then full was necessary. We were in a tough maneuvering space, a mathematically unsolvable multibodied gravitational field. With all the rings and moons around Saturn, plus the planetary pull, there’s no way to figure all the perturbations. And don’t forget we had a side deflection. Our trajectory was the product of many forces—including the ship’s own thrust, relative to the gravitational pull of the masses orbiting in space. So the greater our thrust rate, the smaller the influence of the interfering bodies, whose values were constant. By increasing our velocity, Calder made our course less sensitive to outside interference. I’m willing to bet that, if not for the sudden lateral spin, he would have cleared the Division.”
“Are you implying that the Division is navigable in a fully flightworthy ship?”
“I’m saying it is possible, sir, despite what you read in the textbooks. The Division is roughly three or four thousand kilometers wide, walled with meteorite and ice particles invisible to the eye, but dense enough to burn up a ship moving at hyperbolic. The amount of clearance—of clean, navigable space—is about five or six hundred kilometers in width. Entry is fairly easy at low velocities; at higher, you risk a gravitational drift; that’s why Calder first aligned the bow and then throttled to full. If the probe hadn’t shifted, it would have worked, in my judgment, anyway, except there was always the chance—about thirty to one—of our hitting the odd particle. But then came that longitudinal roll. Calder tried to control it, but couldn’t. He put up a good fight, I’ll say that.”
“What prevented Calder from correcting the rotations?”
“From previous observation, I knew him to be a whiz of a mathematician. He trusted a lot in his ability to do fast computations, without the help of a calculator. Clearing the Cassini at a hyperbolic speed, handicapped as we were, was like threading the eye of a needle. The thrust gauges gave readings for the Goliath, but not for the probe. Calder navigated entirely by the gravimeters. It was a real mathematical race—between himself and the increasing flight variables. I could barely keep up with the digital displays, and there was Calder constructing four-part differential equations in his head! Much as I disliked his disobeying orders, I have to admit I admired the guy.”
“You haven’t really answered the question.”
“I was just getting around to it, sir. Calder’s estimations could never have been more than approximate, not even if he were the world’s fastest computer. No, sir, not with the increasing margin of error and the ship in a roll… For a minute there, I thought he might swing it, but then he saw—even before I did—that the game was up, and he hit the kill switch, dropping us down to zero-g.”
“Why did he shut off the thrust?”
“He wanted a straight trajectory through the Division, but couldn’t stop the ship’s longitudinal spin. Like a spinning top, the Goliath repelled the force trying to right it. We wound up in a precession: the higher our velocity, the greater the torque. The result was a prolonged spin, accompanied by simultaneous listing, with each spiral measuring about a hundred kilometers in diameter. With such a roll, we could have sideswiped a ring. Now Calder was stuck. He was caught in a funnel.”
“Slang for a dead-end situation, Your Honor: easy to enter, but no way out. By now our flight was unchartable. When Calder hit the kill switch, I thought he was betting on his luck. The digital displays were jumping, but there was nothing to compute. The rings were blinding, full of ice chunks whirling around in the Division’s black crevasse. Time dragged, the chronometers seemed to be at a standstill. All of a sudden, Calder unbuckled his seatbelt. So did I: I could read his mind. Flip the main overload fuse on the dash! With full power, he could still brake and pull out once he got her up to a hundred g’s. We’d all pop our guts, but he’d save the ship—and his own skin. I should have guessed beforehand that he wasn’t human, because no human could process the way he did… I wanted to stop him before he reached the dash, but he was too fast. He had to be. ‘Keep buckled up!’ the CO barked at me; and to Calder, ‘Hands off the fuse!’ Calder ignored him; he was already on his feet. ‘Full blast ahead!’ the CO yelled, and I obeyed orders. I revved to five—I didn’t want to kill him, just make him back-pedal—but he stayed on his feet. It was a gruesome sight, gentlemen—no human can keep upright at five g’s! But he did. When he grabbed hold of the dash, he ripped the skin from both palms; he held on, though, because his hands were now bared to the metal. Then I juiced her to full. At fourteen, a metal hulk blitzed between our couches and slammed so hard against the rear wall it shattered. I heard some ungodly voice; I could hear him writhing around back there, flattening bulkheads, mangling everything he grabbed, but then I lost track; we were careening into the Division. I dropped her down to four g’s and trusted to old lady luck. The CO yelled, ‘Shoot!’ and I began firing the meteorite deflectors, one after another, to keep the bow space clear of any small debris: not much protection, but better than nothing. The Cassini was pitch-black, a gaping gullet; I saw a fire up ahead, off the bow; the shields deployed and ignited on impact; silver clouds rose and—poof!—it was too beautiful for words. The ship shook, the starboard thermocouples registered the shock, we sideswiped something, no telling what, and then we were in the clear again…”
“Pirx reporting. You wanted to see me?”
“Thank you for coming. Have a seat.”
The man behind the desk touched a button on a black intercom and said, “I’ll be tied up for the next twenty minutes. I’m not here—for anyone.”
He switched off the intercom and stared at the man seated opposite him.
“Commander, I have a—hm—special proposition for you. A sort of”—he was again searching for the right word—“experiment. But you’re to keep it strictly confidential. Even if you turn it down. Agreed?”
A silence lasting several seconds.
“Nothing doing,” said Pirx, and then added: “Not unless you give me more details.”
“Nothing sight unseen, is that it? That figures. I should have known from what I’ve heard about you. Cigarette?”
“It’s a test flight.”
“New type of crew.”
“Crew? And my job?”
“The usual—a fitness test. That’s all I can tell you. It’s up to you.”
“When I think an answer is possible, I’ll answer.”
“By what criteria?”
“By what is known as a conscience, sir.”
Another pause. The spacious office, glass-walled on one side, was so hushed it seemed isolated from the two thousand others packed into this high-rise, which was sprawling enough to accommodate three helicopter pads. Silhouetted against the blinding cloud vapor that shrouded the upper sixteen stories, the man interviewing Pirx was featureless. From time to time the vapor behind the transparent wall swelled into milk-white billows, making the whole room seem mysteriously afloat, cloud-borne.
“As you see, I’m an accommodating man. It’s a Terra-Terra run.”
“With a circum-Saturn pass, and from there an injection of some brand-new, fully automated satellites into stationary.”
“The Jupiter project?”
“The satellite end of it. The ship is one of COMSEC’s, so the whole thing has UNESCO sponsorship. Why you and not one of our own pilots or navigators? We picked you because of the crew angle I mentioned.”
The UNESCO space director fell silent again. Pirx waited, strained his ears; but not a sound was to be heard, not for kilometers around, it seemed, even though they were in the heart of a great city.
“Surely you’re aware of the advances made in the manufacture of automata, in robotics. The most sophisticated androids, because of their weight and size, have been stationary until now. But solid-state physics, in both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., has opened a new chapter in micro-miniaturization—the molecular. Prototypical brain systems, crystal-based, are now in the experimental stage. Their size—they’re still about one and a half times the size of our brain—is unimportant. Many American firms have already patented the molecular design and are ready to go into production. The new androids—or ‘finite nonlinears,’ as they’re called—are primarily designed for unmanned space exploration.”
“I’ve heard reports. But I thought the unions had come out against them. It would mean, I take it, overhauling the existing legislation.”
“Reports, you say? Rumors, yes, but otherwise the media—”
“Among the rank and file there were leaks of some hush-hush negotiations, of high-level talks. You can understand our concern,” Pirx said.
“Very much so. All to the good, actually… Although… What’s your own opinion?”
“On this subject? Negative. Damned negative, in fact. But opinions don’t count here, I’m afraid. Scientific breakthroughs will have their way, no matter what. At best, one can play a stalling game.”
“In short, you regard it as a necessary evil.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. I just don’t think mankind is ready for an invasion of androids. But the real question is: are they human equivalents? If so, then I’ve never met any. I’m no expert, but the experts I know think full equivalence, real interchangeability, is wishful thinking.”
“You wouldn’t be biased, would you?” the space director asked. “True, a lot of trained experts share your opinion, or at least they used to. But, well, these companies are in it for economic reasons, as a business venture…”
“For the money, you mean.”
“You see, the design specifications were developed by government-financed institutes—U.S. mainly, but also British and French—and not all the specs have been released to the commercial market. Still, the private firms have their own research labs and—”
“Cybertronics, Machintrex, Inteltron, to name just a few. The point is, the governments of these countries are worried about the fallout—jobwise. The private sector couldn’t care less about the financing of government retraining programs for those who’ll be phased out by the nonlínears.”
“Nonlinears, eh? Quaint.”
“Shorthand slang; it’s ‘in’ now. Anyhow, it’s better than ‘homunculus’ or ‘android.’ I mean, they aren’t human, after all.”
“Not fully interchangeable, you mean?”
“You know, Commander, I’m not an expert in such matters, either… Anyway, what I think is quite immaterial. The main thing is, one of the first comers would be COSNAV.”
“That privately owned Anglo-American company?”
“That’s the one. Cosmic Navigation has been floundering for years. The Communist bloc’s astronautical systems, being noncommercial, make for stiff competition, so stiff they’ve cornered the bulk of the cargo traffic. Especially on the extraterrestrial runs. You must know that.”
“Who doesn’t? Personally, I wouldn’t be a bit sorry if COSNAV went bust. If space exploration could be internationalized under the UN, why not the shipping trade? That’s my opinion, anyway.”
“Mine, too. Believe me, I’m all for it, if only because I’m sitting at this desk. But these are castles in the air. Meanwhile, COSNAV wants to corner the nonlinears for their own lines—at the moment, only for their cargo fleet; they’re afraid of a public boycott if they install them on their passenger lines. Preliminary negotiations are already under way, in fact.”
“And the media are keeping it under wraps?”
“The talks aren’t official. Some of the papers have dropped hints, but COSNAV categorically denies everything. Technically, they’re right, Commander. It’s an honest-to-goodness labyrinth. The truth is, they’re operating in a legally shady area, beyond any national or even UN jurisdiction. And with the elections not far away, the President doesn’t dare try to railroad through Congress any of the bills backed by the powerful intellectronic lobby—for fear of antagonizing the professional unions. That’s why—and this is the real crux of the matter—a number of firms, anticipating adverse publicity, protests from organized labor, and so on, decided to let us test a group of semi-prototypes—”
“Excuse me, by ‘us’ do you mean the UN? Isn’t that a little—”
“By ‘us’ I mean UNESCO; you know, the United Nations Education, Scientific—”
“Sorry, but I still don’t—I mean, what do these robots have to do with education, science…?”
“An ‘invasion,’ as you put it, of those … uh … pseudo people has everything to do with human culture. It’s not just a case of economics—the risk of higher unemployment and so on. The implications are legion: psychological, social, cultural. By the way, just for the record, we accepted their offer with reluctance. In fact, the administration would have rejected it out of hand, except the company made assurances that the nonlinears were a better safety risk. Quicker reflexes, immune to fatigue or illness, great energy reserves, functional even during decompression or overheating, not dependent on oxygen or food. These are real gains—not as profits in some owner’s pocket, but as they benefit ship and cargo safety. In which case, the credit, or at least some of the credit… I mean, a test flight sponsored by the UN…”
“I see. But wouldn’t that be setting a dangerous precedent?”
“Who knows what other professions and administrative positions might not be phased out. Even yours.”
The director gave a somewhat forced laugh, which quickly abated.
“Well, well … that’s beside the point. But what would you do in our position? Even if we were to turn them down, what good would it do? If the nonlinears are really that good, COSNAV will get its robots anyway, and the others will be next in line.”
“What’s to be gained by having UNESCO act as engineering consultant?”
“Who said anything about engineering? What we wanted—and I may as well give it to you straight—was for you to take command of that flight. In the space of one to two weeks—don’t forget, there will be different models aboard—you’ll know what sort of crew you have. All we ask is that on your return you submit a complete rundown, point by point, of their astronautical as well as psychological fitness: how do they adjust to man, are they true to type, do they inspire a sense of superiority, or on the contrary of inferiority… Our people will supply you with forms prepared by the top psychologists in the field.”
“And that would be my mission?”
“You don’t have to commit yourself right away. As I recall, you’re on leave anyway.”
“On a six-week furlough.”
“You could give us your decision, say, in a couple of days.”
“Two more questions. How decisive will my report be?”
“For us, of course. UNESCO. If the shipping trade is ever to be internationalized, your verdict will be crucial to those UN committees.”
“Those—excuse me—castles in the air you mentioned. Crucial to UNESCO, in other words? Not that UNESCO will be turned into an agency…?”
“Not a chance! Your appraisal will be publicized worldwide. A negative rating would seriously impair negotiations between COSNAV and those companies. That way, we’ll be contributing—”
“Excuse me again. Meaning that if it’s positive, we won’t?”
The director cleared his throat, then smiled.
“You almost make me feel guilty, Commander. It wasn’t we at UNESCO who invented those nonlinear robots. We try to be impartial, to accommodate everyone.”
“That’s just what I don’t like.”
“You can always say no. But remember, if we were to do the same, we’d be no better than Pontius Pilate. Washing your hands of everything is easy. We’re not a world government; we can’t outlaw the manufacture of this or of any other system. That’s up to the individual governments. Anyway, they’ve tried—believe me, I know. So has the church, and you know where they stand on the issue.”
“In short, all are against it, but no one does anything about it.”
“No legal grounds.”
“Those firms will be the first to feel it when the unemployment rate—”
“Now it’s my turn to interrupt. There’s truth in what you say. We all tremble at the prospect. Still, we’re powerless. Or maybe not quite. We can still go ahead with the experiment. Actually, it’s all to the good that you’re biased. That makes you the ideal candidate. If there are the slightest reservations, you’ll make them known!”
“Let me sleep on it,” said Pirx, and he got up.
“Didn’t I hear you say something about two questions?”
“You’ve already answered the other one. I wanted to know why me.”
“Phone us your decision in two days’ time. A deal?”
“A deal,” said Pirx, who nodded and took his leave.
The secretary, a platinum blonde, sprang up from behind her desk.
“Good morning,” said Pirx. “I—”
“Good morning. Follow me, please.”
“They’re here already?”
“They’re waiting for you.”
She took him down a deserted corridor, her high heels tapping like tiny metal stilts. The cavernous hall, tiled with synthetic granite, resonated coldly, stonelike. They passed dark doors mounted with aluminum numbers and plates. The secretary seemed nervous. Several times she glanced furtively at Pirx. Not a flirting glance; more like fearful. Pirx felt somehow sorry for her and, along with it, sensed the absolute folly of the affair. Suddenly he asked, startling even himself with his question:
“Have you seen them?”
“Just briefly. In passing.”
“What are they like?”
“Oh—you haven’t seen them?”
She seemed almost relieved. As if familiarity bespoke membership in some strange, perhaps sinister conspiracy.
“There are six all together. One even spoke to me. Absolutely convincing! Not a single telltale sign! If I’d met him in the street, I’d never have dreamed… But when I took a closer look, there was something in his eyes, and here.” She touched her lips.
“The others, too?”
“They were standing outside in the corridor.”
They got into the elevator; tiny golden grains of light snaked up the wall. Standing face to face with the girl, Pirx was better able to judge the success of her efforts to erase all vestiges of her own individuality—with the help of pencil, mascara, and lipstick—to become a momentary facsimile of Inda Lea, or whatever the name was of that season’s fashionably frazzled star. When she fluttered her eyelids, he was concerned for her false lashes.
“Robots!” she said in a deep whisper, and shuddered as if brushed by a reptile.
The tenth-floor suite was occupied by six men, all seated. The moment Pirx entered, one of them, until now hidden by a sheet of the Herald Tribune, folded his paper, rose, and approached him with a broad smile. The others stood up as if on cue.
They were more or less of equal height and looked like test pilots in civvies: broad-shouldered, beige-suited, white-shirted, loud-tíed. Two were fair-haired, one a redhead, the others dark, but all had the same clear blue eyes. That was all he had a chance to record before the one who had approached him stuck his hand into Pirx’s and, pumping it vigorously, said, “McGuirr’s the name. I once had the pleasure of sailing under your command—on the Pollux, it was. But you wouldn’t remember me…”
“Sorry,” admitted Pirx.
McGuirr turned to the others, who were stationed around a circular table littered with magazines.
“Men, meet Commander Pirx, your new CO. Commander, your crew: John Calder, chief pilot; Harry Brown, copilot; Andy Thomson, nucleonics engineer; John Burton, radio-electronics engineer, and Thomas Bums, neurologist, cyberneticist, and medic all rolled into one.”
Pirx shook hands with each, then all sat down, sliding their metal-framed chairs, which bent under the weight of their bodies, up closer to the table. Silence reigned until it was rent by McGuirr’s stentorian baritone.
“On behalf of the board of directors of Cybertronics, Inteltron and Nortronics, thank you for showing such confidence in our undertaking. To avoid any possible misunderstandings, I should warn you that some among us were born of mothers and fathers, others not. Each knows of his own origin, but not of the others’. You’ll be decent enough, I trust, not to probe or pry. Otherwise, you will have a completely free hand. They will be conscientious, and show initiative and character, both on and off duty. But when asked who or what they are, they have all been taught a standard reply: normal human beings. It’s not a matter of lying but of necessity, dictated by our mutual interest.”
“No questions asked; is that it?”
“Of course you can ask. But since no one will be above suspicion, why bother, frankly? True or false, you’ll always get the same answer.”
“Which is it in your case?” asked Pirx.
There was a split second’s pause before all burst out laughing, McGuirr’s cackle being the loudest.
“You are a comedian. Me, I’m just a tiny cog in the Nortronics machine…”
A straight-faced Pirx waited for the laughter to die down.
“The joke’s on me, in other words?”
“I beg your pardon! The deal spoke of a ‘new type of crew’; it said nothing about its uniformity. We just wanted to forestall any … purely irrational bias. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? We’re only trying to create the optimal test conditions, to ensure maximum impartiality.”
“Thanks loads!” said Pirx. “Well, tricked or not, I’m not backing out. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get acquainted with my”—he hesitated—“people…”
“Hear them recite their qualifications, you mean? By all means! Don’t mind me! Shoot!”
McGuirr extracted a cigar from the upper pocket of his smock, cropped the end, and lit it, while five pairs of serene and attentive eyes reposed on Pirx’s face. The two blonds, both pilots, looked somewhat alike, though Calder had more Scandinavian features, his curly hair looking almost sun-bleached. Brown’s was the color of gold; his doll-like, cherubic features, as of a male fashion model, having a prettiness offset only by the jaws and the constant, seemingly sardonic curl of his colorless thin lips. A white scar ran diagonally across his cheek from the left-hand corner of his mouth. It was on him that Pirx’s gaze settled first.
“Great…” he said, as if in delayed response to McGuirr’s invitation, and in the same almost offhand tone, he inquired of the man with the scar:
“Do you believe in God?”
Brown’s lips quivered—a suppressed smile? an ironic sneer?—but he made no immediate answer. He looked freshly shaven, a few hairs in the vicinity of his ear and the flecks of foam visible on his cheeks testifying to a job done in some haste.
“Not my department, sir,” he answered in a pleasant, purling voice.
McGuirr, caught off guard by Pirx’s question, his eyes blinking, suddenly exhaled a trapped puff of cigar smoke, as if to say, “How’s that for a comeback?”
“Mr. Brown,” said Pirx in the same phlegmatic voice, “you haven’t answered my question.”
“Sorry, Commander, but as I said, it’s not my—”
“As your commanding officer, I’m the one who decides what your duties are.”
McGuirr’s face registered surprise. Throughout this exchange, the others sat like model pupils, stiff-backed and with undivided attention.
“If that’s an order,” answered Brown in his soft, clearly modulated baritone, “I can only say I haven’t been sufficiently trained to deal with that problem.”
“Well, think it over for tomorrow. Your signing on will depend on it.”
Pirx turned to Calder, and their eyes met. The suite’s spacious window was reflected in the chief pilot’s nearly transparent irises.
“You’re a pilot?”
“I’m certified in team piloting, I’ve soloed two hundred ninety hours on low tonnage, and I’ve made ten solo landings, including four on the Moon and two on Mars and Venus.”
Pirx, seemingly unimpressed, went on to the next.
“Burton,” he said, “are you the radio-electronics engineer?”
“How many rems per hour can you take?”
The man twitched his lips, barely mustering a smile.
“About four hundred, I guess,” he said. “Tops. More than that, and it’s off to sick bay.”
“No more than four hundred?”
“I—no, I don’t think so.”
“None. Or at least nothing serious.”
“How’s your eyesight?”
Pirx was attending less to what was being said than to the sound of each man’s voice, to its modulation and pitch, to the movements of the facial muscles and lips. There were times when he gave way to the senseless hope that it was all a grand but silly hoax intended to make fun of his gullible faith in the omnipotence of technology. Or maybe to punish him for it. Because these were plain, ordinary human beings. That secretary was crazy—oh, the power of prejudice! And to think that she even took McGuirr…
Until now, it would have been a fairly routine briefing, if not for his none-too-subtle God question. Not only was that not subtle, it was also in bad taste, sophomoric. Pirx could feel it in his bones; he was a real klutz for trying a cute stunt like that. They were still staring at him, except Thomson, the redhead, and the two pilots seemed more poker-faced than before, as if to conceal the fact that they were wise to the deep-down klutziness of this drone who’d just seen his glib, customary, and ever-so-pat composure blown. He felt compelled to go on, to put an end to the silence, which was growing more incriminating by the second, but his mind drew a blank, leaving only despair to tempt him into doing something wild, screwy, something that, in his heart of hearts, he knew he could never bring himself to do. He’d made a fool of himself; it was time to quit; his eyes sought out McGuirr.
“When can I board?”
“Any time you like. Today, even.”
“What about the health inspection?”
“All arranged. Don’t worry about it.”
The engineer sounded indulgent, or so it seemed to Pirx. “I am a sore loser,” he told himself. Then out loud:
“That’s it for now. Except for Brown, consider yourselves signed on. Brown, be ready tomorrow with the answer to my question. Mr. McGuirr, do you have the ship’s articles ready for signing?”
“I have, but not with me. They’re up in the office. Shall we?”
Pirx stood up, and the others did the same.
“Until tomorrow.” He nodded, and was the first to exit. The engineer caught up with him by the elevator.
“You underestimated us, Commander.”
He was his hearty, jovial self again.
“Oh? In what way?”
The elevator started moving. Carefully, trying not to topple its silver-gray cone of ash, the engineer lifted his cigar to his mouth.
“It’s not so easy … to tell them apart.”
“If they’re made of the same stuff as I am,” he said, “then they’re people, and I don’t care a damn how they got here—through artificial insemination, in a test tube, or in the more conventional way.”
“But they’re not made of the same stuff!”
“Of what, then?”
“Sorry—a company secret.”
“What’s your part?”
The elevator stopped and the door opened, but Pirx, waiting for an answer, stayed put.
“Do you mean, am I a design engineer? No, I’m in public relations.”
“Are you well enough informed to answer a few questions?”
“Gladly, but not here…”
The same secretary as before showed them into one of the conference rooms.
A long table, impeccably arrayed with chairs on either side. They sat down at the end where the contracts lay in an open portfolio.
“I’m all yours, Commander,” said McGuirr. Some cigar ash spilled, and he blew it off his pants.
Pirx now noticed the bloodshot eyes and perfectly set teeth. “They’re false,” he thought. “He’s trying not to look his age.”
“The—uh—nonhumans, do they act like humans? Do they eat meals? Drink?”
“Yes, they do.”
“To complete the illusion. For the benefit of those around them.”
“So, then, they have to … void it?”
“But of course.”
“Do they have blood? A heart? Do they bleed if they’re wounded?”
“They have the facsimile of a heart and blood.”
“What does that mean?”
“That only a trained specialist, a doctor, could tell the difference, and then only after a thorough examination.”
“And I couldn’t?”
“No. Assuming you didn’t use any special gadgets.”
“Like an X-ray machine?”
“Very good! But X-ray machines aren’t standard flight equipment.”
“Spoken like a true layman,” said Pirx calmly. “Isotopes I can get from the pile, as many as I want; and—oh, yes—I’ll have to have a fluoroscope aboard. So you see, no X-ray machine needed.”
“No objections, provided you agree not to scan.”
“And if I don’t agree?”
McGuirr sighed and, tamping out his cigar in the ashtray as if he’d suddenly lost the taste for it, said: “Commander, you’re doing your utmost to … complicate things.”
“Right you are!” answered Pirx. “So they do bleed?”
“Real blood? Even under the microscope?”
“How did you manage that?”
“Impressive, huh?” grinned McGuirr. “Works on the sponge principle. A special subcutaneous sponge. More I can’t tell you.”
“Is it human blood?”
“Why go to such trouble?”
“Obviously not to make a sucker out of you. This multi-billion-dollar investment wasn’t only for your sake, you know! It was so no one—the passengers, for example—would ever suspect…”
“You’re worried about a public boycott?”
“Not only that. There’s the psychological comfort.”
“Can you tell which is which?”
“Only because I know them. OK, there are ways, but… I wouldn’t advise using a hatchet on them.”
“And no other physiological give-aways? Breathing, coughing, blushing…?”
“Minimized. There are differences, sure, but, as I said, only ones a doctor would recognize.”
“Our greatest breakthrough!” said McGuirr with genuine pride. “Until now, the brain was centrally located because of its size. But Inteltron was the first to fit it in the head!”
“The second, really—nature was the first.”
“Har-har! OK—second, then. The specs are still hush-hush, but… It’s a monocrystal multistat with sixteen billion binary elements!”
“Their emotional capabilities—is that also hush-hush?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Are they capable, for instance, of telling lies? Can they lose their self-control, control of the situation…?”
“Technically unavoidable. Any breaks—figuratively, of course—introduced into a neuron or crystal system are relative, can be overridden. If you’re at all up on the latest, you know that a robot that can match man mentally and not be capable of lying or cheating is a fantasy. Either full equivalents or puppets. Nothing in between.”
“Capable of one, capable of the other, right?”
“Yes. But the costs are damned prohibitive. For now, anyway. Psychological versatility, to say nothing of anthropoidality, costs a fortune. The models you’ll be getting are experimental prototypes—the price tag per unit is higher than for a supersonic bomber.”
“That includes the cost of research, of course. We hope to be able to mass-produce, even refine them one day, but for the moment … well, we’re giving you the top of the line. In any case, their fallibility ratio will be lower than for humans in a comparable situation.”
“Were they experimentally tested?”
“With human test subjects for comparison?”
“Under emergency conditions?”
“Those above all.”
“And the results?”
“Humans are more error-prone.”
“What about their aggression instinct?”
“No need to worry. They come equipped with special built-in inhibitors, called ‘reverse-discharge systems,’ that cushion the aggression potential.”
“In every case?”
“Impossible. Their brain, like ours, is a probability system. The probability of specific responses can be increased, but not raised to a certainty. Though here again they have the edge.”
“And if I went to crack the skull of one…?”
“He’d fight back.”
“To the point of killing me?”
“In self-defense only.”
“And if attack was the only defense?”
“Hand me those contracts,” said Pirx.
The pen squeaked in the silence. The engineer folded the legal forms, then tucked them into his portfolio.
“Are you heading back to the States?” Pirx asked.
“First thing tomorrow.”
“You can tell your superiors I’ll try to bring out the worst in them.”
“That’s the spirit! We’re counting on it! Because even their worst is better than man’s. Only…”
“You were about to say?”
“You’re a brave man, Pirx. All the same, I’d recommend caution.”
“So they don’t gang up on me?” said Pirx, forcing a smile.
“So you’re not made the fall guy. You see, your humans will be the first to bail out. Your average, decent, good-boy types. Get it?”
“Get it,” answered Pirx. “I’ll be shoving off now. Time for me to take command of my ship.”
“My helicopter is on the roof,” said McGuirr, rising to his feet. “Can I give you a lift?”
“No, thanks. I’ll take the subway. Don’t like to take chances, you know. And you’ll tell them that I intend to play rough?”
“If you like.”
McGuirr was searching his pockets for a fresh cigar.
“Frankly, I find your attitude a bit strange. What do you expect? They’re not human; no one’s claiming they are. They’re highly trained professionals—and conscientious, too, ready to oblige. They’ll do anything for you.”
“I’ll make sure they do even more,” retorted Pirx.
Pirx, not about to let Brown off the hook in the God affair, made a point of phoning him the next day—the “nonlinear” pilot’s telephone number was made available courtesy of UNESCO. He dialed and recognized the voice.
“I was expecting your call.”
“Well, which is it to be?” asked Pirx. He felt strangely apathetic, not half so blithe as when he had signed McGuirr’s papers. At the time, he’d thought: No big deal. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“I wasn’t given much time,” said Brown in that flat, purling voice of his. “So all I can say is, I was taught the probability method. I calculate the odds and act accordingly. In this case, I’d say … ninety percent, or even ninety-nine-point-nine percent, it’s no, with less than one chance in a hundred it’s yes.”
“That there is a God?”
“Fine. You can sign on with the others. See you aboard ship.”
“Good-bye,” answered the softspoken baritone, and the receiver clicked.
Pirx was reminded, out of the blue, of this conversation on his way to the spaceport. Somebody—UNESCO? his crew’s “manufacturers”?—had already got clearance from Port Control. No health inspection, no crew certification, with lift-off scheduled for 1445 hours during the afternoon lull. The three fair-sized satellite probes destined for Saturn were already in their bays. The Goliath—a ship of medium tonnage, in the six thousand range, highly computerized, only two years out of the shipyard—had an ultrasmooth, non-oscillating, fast-neutron pile, occupying a mere ten cubic meters in space, with a capacity of forty-five million horsepower, seventy million for quick acceleration.
Pirx knew nothing of his crew’s Paris accommodations—a hotel? a company-rented apartment? (a grotesque, macabre thought: maybe McGuirr had unplugged them and boxed them away for the past two days)—or even how they’d got to the port.
They were mustered in a separate room at Port Control, each with suitcase, duffel bag, and a lightweight tote bag with a name tag dangling from the straps. The sight of the duffel bags inspired comic visions of monkey wrenches, cosmetic oilcans, and the like. But he was in no laughing mood as, having said his hellos to everyone, he submitted the flight authorizations and ship’s articles needed for final clearance. Then, two hours ahead of launch time, they stepped onto a floodlit pad and filed out to the snow-white Goliath. It looked a bit like a giant, freshly uncrated wedding cake.
A routine blast-off. The Goliath needed almost no help in lifting off, thanks to a full array of automatic and semi-automatic sequencers. A half hour later, they were already far above Earth’s nocturnal hemisphere and its fluorescent rash of cities; and Pirx, although a veteran spaceborne observer of Earth’s atmosphere when it was brushed “against the grain” by the sunrise, was now, as always, a willing spectator to this giant sickle of burning rainbow. Minutes later, they passed the last navigational satellite—one of those “electronic bureaucrats of the cosmos,” as Pirx dubbed the diligent machines—in a hail of crackle and bleeps, and climbed above the ecliptic. After instructing the chief pilot to stay at the controls, Pirx retired to his cabin. Not ten minutes had passed when there was a knock at the door.
It was Brown. Gently closing the door behind him, he went up to Pirx, who was lounging on the edge of his bunk, and said in a subdued voice:
“I’d like a few words with you.”
“Take a seat.”
Brown lowered himself onto a chair, pulled it up closer to cut down the distance between them, kept demurely silent with eyes lowered for a moment, then suddenly looked straight into the CO’s eyes.
“I have something to tell you. In confidence. Promise you won’t repeat a word?”
Pirx cocked his eyebrows.
“A secret?” He deliberated for a few seconds. “OK, you have my word,” he said at last. “I’m all ears.”
“I’m human,” said Brown, and paused, staring at Pirx to gauge the effect of his words. But Pirx, his eyelids at half mast, his head leaning against the white polyfoam-padded wall, registered no emotion. “I’m coming clean because I want to help you,” the visitor resumed, in the tone of someone reciting a well-rehearsed speech. “When I first applied, I didn’t know what it was all about—they processed us separately, to keep us from getting acquainted. It wasn’t until after I was selected, until after all the flight tests and screenings, that I was briefed. Even then I had to swear absolute secrecy. Look, I have a girl, we want to get married, but financially… Well, here was our big break—a cash advance of eight thousand, with another eight thousand payable on signing off, win or lose. These are the facts; I’m clean, really. How was I supposed to know! Some kind of weirdo experiment, that’s what I thought at the beginning. Then the whole thing started to get to me. I mean, it’s a question of our common cause… Who am I to cover up? I have no right to do that. You agree?”
Pirx’s silence prompted the visitor to continue, his self-confidence now a trifle shaken.
“They kept us apart the whole time. Each had his own room, his own john, his own private gym. They even fed us separately, except during the last few days before our departure to Europe. So I can’t tell you which of them is human and which isn’t. I just don’t know. Though I have my suspicions.”
“Hold on a sec,” Pirx interrupted. “Why did you dodge my question by saying it wasn’t ‘your department’?”
Brown sat up in his chair, shifted one leg, and, eying his shoe tip, which was doodling something on the floor, said in a hushed voice:
“Because I’d already decided to clue you in, and, well… I was in the hot seat. I was afraid McGuirr might get wise. So I answered your question in a way that would make him believe I was—”
“So it was because of McGuirr?”
“And do you believe in God?”
“But you didn’t think a robot would, right?”
“That a ‘yes’ answer would have been a dead give-away?”
“But even a robot can believe in God,” said Pirx after a moment’s pause, with a nonchalance that made Brown’s eyes bulge.
“You think not?”
“It never crossed my mind…”
“OK, let’s skip it. At least for now. You said something about having your suspicions…”
“The dark-haired one—Burns—I’m sure he’s not human.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Little things, hard to pinpoint, but they add up. For one thing, when he sits or stands, he doesn’t move a muscle. A regular statue. And you know how hard it is for a human to keep still: you’re uncomfortable, your leg goes to sleep so you shift positions, you stretch, rub your face… But this guy just plain freezes!”
“All the time?”
“That’s just it; not all the time. And that seems to me the tip-off.”
“My guess is that when he remembers, he’s all fidgets and bodily motion; but when he forgets, he freezes. With us, it’s the other way around: we have to make a conscious effort to keep still.”
“You have a point there. What else?”
“He eats everything.”
“Whatever comes along. It makes no difference to him. I noticed it on our flight across the Atlantic. Even back in the States, and at the airport restaurant—eats whatever he’s served, indiscriminately. I mean, everyone has his likes and dislikes!”
“That doesn’t prove anything.”
“You’re quite right—it doesn’t. But in combination with the stiffness…? And another thing.”
“He doesn’t write letters. I’m not a hundred percent sure of that … but Burton, now, I saw him drop a letter into the hotel mailbox.”
“Writing letters is against regs?”
“You’re all extremely conscientious, I see,” muttered Pirx. He sat up on his bunk and, breathing practically into Brown’s face, said in a deliberate tone:
“You broke your oath. Why?”
“Ouch, that hurt, Commander!”
“Well, didn’t you swear to keep your identity a secret?”
“Oh, that! Yes, but … there are situations when a man has a right—no, a duty—to break his word.”
“This one. I mean, they take a bunch of metal dolls, pad them with plastic, add a little make-up, then shuffle them like phony cards into a deck of humans—and hope to make a killing on the deal. No, any honest man would do what I’m doing. Hasn’t anyone else been around to see you?”
“Not yet. You’re the first. But we’ve just lifted off…” Pirx said with a tonelessness not devoid of irony; the irony was evidently lost on Brown.
“I’ll do whatever you think advisable.”
Brown batted his doll-like lashes.
“What for? To help you tell the humans from the nonhumans.”
“Eight thousand, wasn’t it?”
“So? I was hired on as a pilot, which is what I am. And a damned good one, at that.”
“And another eight on signing off—all for a few weeks’ work. Brown, no one gets sixteen thousand for a shakedown cruise—not a passenger pilot, not a patrol pilot, not a navigator. You got that money for keeping your mouth shut. They wanted to spare you any temptations.”
Dismay was written all over Brown’s pretty-boy face.
“So you’re offended by my coming, by my confiding in you…?”
“Not at all. What’s your IQ?”
“My IQ? A hundred twenty.”
“High enough for you to know what’s what. Tell me, what do I gain by listening to your suspicions about Burns?”
The young pilot stood up.
“Sorry, Commander. It was a mistake, a misunderstanding. I meant well, but … it’s obvious what you’re thinking. Let’s forget it. But remember, you gave me—”
He was silenced by a smile from Pirx.
“Sit down, Brown. I said, sit down!”
He sat down.
“You were about to remind me of my promise, right? Because what would happen if I were to blab? Shh! Don’t interrupt your commanding officer! You see, it’s not so simple. It’s not that I don’t value your trust. But trust is one thing, logic another. Suppose, thanks to you, I know by now who you are and who Burns is. What good does that do me?”
“That’s up to you. You’re the one who’s supposed to rate the crew’s performance…”
“Right! The whole crew, Brown! And you don’t expect me to falsify the record, do you? To penalize the robots for not being human?”
“That’s none of my business,” callously said the pilot, who had been squirming on his chair during this lecture.
Pirx’s glower stilled him.
“Stop playing the airman first class who can’t see anything beyond his stripes. If you’re human and feel any loyalty toward your fellow humans, then try to—”
“What do you mean, ‘if’?” Brown flinched. “Don’t you believe me? Do you take me for a—”
“Whoa there! Just a slip of the tongue!” came Pirx’s quick rejoinder. “Sure, I believe you. In fact, since you’ve told me your identity and I have no intention of judging you, morally or otherwise, I would like you to go on reporting to me.”
“Now I’m really confused,” said Brown with an unpremeditated sigh. “First you put me down, then you ask me to turn—”
“No, two different things, Brown. What’s done is done; there’s no backing out now. The money, now, that’s different. Maybe you were right to talk. But if I were you, I wouldn’t take it.”
“Huh? But, sir…” Brown was desperately searching for a justification. “Then they’d know for sure I broke contract! They might even sue me for breach—”
“It’s up to you. I’m not insisting you give it back. I gave you my word; I’m not my brother’s keeper. I only told you what I would do if I were you. But you’re not me and I’m not you, and that’s that. Anything else?”
Brown shook his head, then parted his lips, only to clamp them shut again and shrug. He betrayed more than just disappointment at the outcome of their conversation, but, without uttering another word, he assumed his usual erect bearing and left.
Pirx took a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have said ‘if you’re human,’” he reproached himself. “What a goddamned guessing game! Either he’s human, or it was all a big act—not just to throw me, but to do a little probing, to see if I would pull anything in violation of the contract… Anyway, I didn’t come off too badly this round. If he was telling the truth, he’ll be in a cold sweat after all that lecturing. If he wasn’t … well, I haven’t really told him anything. Boy, a sweet mess I got myself into this time.”
Unable to relax, he paced the cabin. The intercom buzzed once; it was Calder up in the control room. They agreed on the course corrections and acceleration for the night. After the call, Pirx sat and stared into space; he was mulling something over, with eyebrows knitted, when someone knocked.
It was Burns, the neurologist, medic, and cyberneticist all in one.
“Please sit down.”
“I’m here to inform you that I’m not human.”
Pirx abruptly swiveled around on his chair.
“You’re not what?”
“Not human. I’m on your side in this experiment.”
Pirx breathed a deep sigh.
“That’s confidential, of course.”
“I leave that to your judgment; I don’t mind, either way.”
The visitor smiled again.
“It’s quite simple. I’m selfish. If you write a glowing commendation of the nonlinears, it’s bound to unleash a chain reaction of mass production, mass marketing… And not only on spaceships. Humans will have to bear the brunt of it—of a new kind of discrimination, hatred… I see it coming but, I repeat, I’m motivated more by self-interest. As long as I’m the only one, or one of a handful, it wouldn’t matter socially; we’d simply melt into the crowd, unnoticed and unnoticeable. My—our—future would be like that of any human, allowing for a significant difference in intelligence and versatility. Barring mass production, there’s no limit to what we might achieve.”
“Yes, I see your point,” said Pirx, slightly bewildered. “But why the lack of discretion? Aren’t you afraid your company—”
“Not in the least afraid,” said Burns in the subdued voice of a lecturer. “Of anything. You see, I’m awfully expensive. This thing here”—he touched his chest—“cost billions. You don’t believe some irate manufacturer will have me dismantled—figuratively, of course—screw by screw, do you? Sure, they’d be upset, but nothing would change; I’d still be on their payroll. I actually prefer my present company—its medical and disability plans are first-rate. But I doubt they would try to put me away. What for? Silencing me by force would only backfire. You know the power of the press.”
The word “blackmail” flashed through Pirx’s mind. For a second he thought he was dreaming, but he went on listening with undivided attention.
“Now you see why I want the report to be negative.”
“Yes, I suppose I do. Can you tell me which of the others…?”
“I would only be guessing, and my conjectures might do more harm than good. Better zero than a minus information, so to speak.”
“Hm… Anyway, regardless of your motives, I’m grateful to you. Yes, grateful. Would you mind telling me a few things about yourself? About certain structural aspects that might help me…”
“I read you, Commander. I know nothing of my constituent elements, as little as you know anything of your own anatomy or physiology—except what you may have read in some textbook. But the structural aspect probably interests you less than the psychological. Than our frailties.”
“Those, too. But, look, everyone knows something, maybe not scientifically, but from experience, from self-observation…”
“Observations based on the fact that one uses—lives in, so to speak—one’s body?” Burns smiled as before, exposing his moderately even teeth.
“So you won’t object to a few questions?”
“Go right ahead.”
Pirx strained to collect his thoughts.
“Even some indiscreet, personal questions?”
“I have nothing to hide.”
“Have you ever been surprised, alarmed, or even revolted by the fact that you’re not human?”
“Only once, during an operation at which I assisted. The other assistant was a woman. By then I knew what that was.”
“Sorry, I don’t…”
“What a woman was,” said Burns. “Sex was a complete unknown to me until then.”
“Oh, I see!” Pirx blurted out, much to his chagrin, “So a woman was there. What about it?”
“The surgeon nicked my finger with the scalpel and the rubber glove split open, but no blood.”
“Hold it! McGuirr told me that you bleed…”
“Now, yes, but in those days I was still ‘dry’—as our ‘parents’ say in their own parlance. Our blood, you see, is just for show: the underside of the skin is like a sponge, blood-absorbent…”
“I see. And the woman noticed? How about the surgeon?”
“Oh, the surgeon knew who I was. But his assistant didn’t catch on until the very end, until the surgeon’s embarrassed look gave me away.”
“She grabbed hold of my hand, examined it up close, but when she saw what was under there … she dropped it and ran. But she forgot which way the operating-room door opened, kept pulling instead of pushing, and finally went into hysterics.”
“I see,” said Pirx. He gulped. “How did that make you feel?”
“I’m not in the habit of feeling, but … it wasn’t very flattering,” he said, his voice turning more deliberate, until he was smiling again. “I’ve never discussed this with anyone”—he resumed after a moment’s pause—“but I suspect that men, even newcomers, find us easier to take. Men accept the facts. Women don’t, at least not some facts. They’ll go on saying no even when yes is the only possible answer.”
Pirx kept his gaze trained on him—especially when the other wasn’t looking—searching for some confirming alien quality, for a sign testifying to the imperfect incarnation of machines into men. Earlier, when he had been suspicious of all of them, the game had been different; now, even as he found himself gradually accepting the truth of Burns’s words, he was all the while searching for the telltale lie in the man’s pallor, which had struck him at their first encounter, or in his masterfully controlled gestures, or the calm limpidity of his gaze. And yet Pirx had to acknowledge that a pallid complexion and a composed manner were not uncommon among humans; and with that recognition came new doubts, a renewed probing, answered always by that smile, a smile reflecting not what was being said, but knowledge of what Pirx was actually feeling; a smile that disturbed, confuted, and impeded an interrogation made all the more difficult by the man’s unabashed candor.
“Aren’t you generalizing a little?” muttered Pirx.
“Oh, that was not my only encounter with women. Some of my instructors were women. They were told in advance and tried to hide their emotions, but my teasing didn’t make things any easier for them!”
The smile with which he looked Pirx in the eye bordered on the lascivious.
“You see, they had to find some inadequacies, imperfections, and just because they were so determined, it amused me to oblige them at times.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Oh, sure, you do. I played puppet—you know, stiff-jointed, submissive… But the moment they began to gloat, I’d drop the act. They must have taken me for a fiend.”
“Aren’t you being presumptuous? If they were instructors, they must have had the relevant training.”
“Man is a perfectly astigmatic creature,” said Bums coolly. “It was inevitable, given your type of evolution. Consciousness is a product of the brain, sufficiently isolated to constitute a subjective entity, but an entity that is an illusion of introspection, borne along like an iceberg on the ocean. It is never grasped directly, but sometimes it is so noticeably present that it is probed by the conscious faculty. From that very probing the devil was born—as a projection of something that, though actively present in the brain, can’t be located like a thought or a hand.”
He was positively grinning now.
“Here I am lecturing you on the cybernetic foundations of personality theory, when it’s probably kindergarten stuff to you. But anyway, an artificial intelligence differs from the human brain in its inability to handle several mutually contradictory programs. The brain, though, can; in fact, it does it all the time. That’s why a saint’s brain is a battleground, the average man’s a smoking rubble-heap of contradictions… A woman’s neuronic system is somewhat different; this says nothing about her intelligence—the difference is purely statistical. Women, as a rule, are better able to live with contradictions. Scientific advances are usually the work of men because science is a search for a unified order free of contradictions. Men are more disturbed by contradictions, so they try to reduce phenomena to a unity.”
“Could be,” said Pirx. “And that’s why they took you for a fiend?”
“That’s going a bit far,” replied Burns, placing his hands on his knees. “I was repulsive to them … to the point of being attractive. I was an impossibility materialized, something forbidden, a contradiction to the world perceived as a natural order, and with the shock came the urge not only to escape, but also to self-destruct. They might not have phrased it this way, but in their eyes I stood for a rebellion against the biological order. A personified revolt against nature, a breakdown in the biologically rational, egotistical tie between emotions and the preservation of the species.”
He skewered Pirx with a gaze.
“A eunuch’s philosophy, you’re thinking. Wrong. I haven’t been castrated; I’m not deficient, only different. One whose love is—or can be—just as unselfish, just as disinterested as death, whose love is not a mere tool but a value in itself. A minus value, of course—like the devil. Why am I the way I am? My creators were men, who could more easily construct a potential rival than a potential object of desire. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Pirx. He was no longer looking at Burns; he couldn’t. “Aren’t you underestimating the economic factor…?”
“Oh, for sure,” said Burns. “But it wasn’t the only factor. You see, Commander, our role has been grossly misunderstood. I was speaking of people’s attitudes, but in actual fact they’ve created a myth, a mythology of the nonlinear. Clearly I am not a devil, nor am I a potential erotic rival, which may be a little less clear. I look like a man, talk like a man, and to some extent I even have the psychology of a man—mind you, only to an extent. But, really, this has nothing to do with why I came to see you.”
“Never can tell,” remarked Pirx, his gaze still fixed on his own clasped hands. “Please go on.”
“If you like … but I can only speak for myself, not for the others. My personality is the product of pre-programming and training. A human is similarly formed, though less by pre-programming. But unlike a human, who is born relatively undeveloped, physically I was then what I am now. And because I had neither a childhood nor an adolescence, but was only a multistat, first pre-programmed and then polymorphically trained, mine was a more static development. A human is a walking geological formation, the product of myriads of ages of heating and cooling, of one layer deposited on another, the first and most decisive being the preverbal—a world that is later buried by speech but which continues to smolder below—that stage when the brain is invaded by colors, shapes, and smells, when the senses are awakened after birth, followed by a polarization into the world and the non-world, ‘the non-I’ and ‘the I.’ Then come the floods of hormones, the layering of religion and instinct, whose history is the history of wars, of the brain turned against itself. I never knew those stages of frenzy and despair, never experienced them, and that’s why there’s not a trace of the child in me. I’m capable of being moved, could probably even kill, but not from love. Words in my mouth sound the same as in yours, only they mean something different to me.”
“So you can’t love?” asked Pirx, his gaze still reposing on his hands. “How can you be sure? Nobody knows until it happens…”
“That’s not what I meant. Maybe I could love. But it would be a love very different from yours. I have two abiding sensations: one is astonishment, the other a sense of the comical, both in response to the arbitrariness of your world. Not just of your machines and customs, but of your bodies, the model for my own. I see how things could be different, look different, work differently. For you, the world simply is; it stands as the only alternative, while for me, ever since I could think, the world not only was, but was silly. I mean the world of cities, theaters, streets, domestic life, the stock exchange, unrequited love, movie stars…
“Want to hear my favorite definition of a human? A creature who likes to talk most about what he knows least. Antiquity was defined by an all-embracing mythology—and contemporary civilization by the absence of one. Your assumptions? The sinfulness of the body is a consequence of the old evolutionary scheme joining the excretory and the sexual based on the economy of means. Your religious, philosophical views are the consequence of your biological structure: bound by time, humans of every generation have craved knowledge, understanding, answers … and this disparity gave rise to metaphysics—a bridge between the possible and the impossible. And what is science if not a surrender? One hears only of its achievements, which are slow in coming and far outnumbered by its failures. Science is the acceptance of mortality, of the randomness of the individual spawned by a static game of competing spermatozoa. It’s an acceptance of the passing, of the irreversible, of the lack of any reward, of a higher justice, of final illumination—it could even be heroic if scientists weren’t so often ignorant of what they were doing! Given a choice between fear and a sense of the absurd, I chose the latter, because I could afford to.”
“You despise your creators, don’t you?” Pirx asked calmly.
“Wrong. Any existence, I believe, even the most limited, is better than no existence at all. In many respects, they—my constructors—showed a lack of foresight. But more precious to me than anything, even more than my manmade intelligence, is the absence in me of any pleasure center. You have one in your brain, you know.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“But I don’t, which is why I’m not like a double amputee with a walking fixation…”
“Everyone is silly except you. Is that it?”
“Oh, I’m silly, too! Only in a different way. Each of you has the body you were given, but I could take any shape—a fridge, for example.”
“Nothing silly about that,” muttered Pirx. The conversation was becoming increasingly tiresome.
“It’s the whimsicality of it all,” said Burns. “Science is the renunciation of certain absolutes—of an absolute time and space, an absolute or eternal soul, and an absolute—because God-made—body. The conventions you take to be sovereign truth are legion.”
“Morality? Love? Friendship?”
“Feelings—never, though they may be arbitrarily determined. If I talk about you in this way, it’s because I find it easier to define myself by way of contrast. Your morality, above all, is a convention, yet it is binding even for me.”
“I may lack any moral instinct, I may be insensitive—‘by nature,’ so to speak—but I know when one ought to show compassion, and I can discipline myself to do it. By necessity, you see. So, in a way, I fill the void in myself through logic. You might say I obey a ‘bogus morality,’ a facsimile so exact as to be authentic.”
“You’ve lost me. Where’s the difference?”
“The difference is that I act by the logic of accepted norms, not by instinct. Unfortunately for you, you obey almost nothing else but your impulses. In the past it might have been enough, but not any more. Your ‘brotherly love,’ for example, allows unbounded compassion for the individual—the victim of an accident, say—but not for ten thousand. Your compassion has its limits, only goes so far. And the more you advance technologically, the weaker your morality becomes. The glow of moral responsibility barely grazes the first few links in the chain of cause and effect. And the one who initiates the chain reaction feels absolved of the consequences.”
“The atomic bomb, you mean?”
“Oh, that’s just one of countless examples! No, when it comes to exercising moral judgment, you may be the sillier ones.”
“A couple with a history of mentally retarded children are allowed to conceive. It’s morally acceptable.”
“Burns, the outcome is never certain, at most highly probable.”
“Morality is as mechanical as a ledger. Commander, we could go on arguing like this forever. What else do you want to know?”
“You competed with humans in various mock-up tests. Did you always outperform the others?”
“The greater the challenge in algorithmic, mathematical terms, the better I performed. I’m most vulnerable when it comes to intuition. That’s when my computer ancestry begins to tell…”
“As soon as things become too complicated, when the number of new factors exceeds the norm, I’m lost. A human can rely on guesswork, sometimes even with success, but not me. I have to calculate all the odds, precisely and methodically; if I can’t, I’m done for.”
“What you’ve just told me is very important, Burns. So in an emergency…?”
“It’s not that simple, Commander. Yes, I’m immune to fear—human fear, that is—but not to the threat of imminent disaster. Even so, I never lose my, as you say, head, and the equilibrium gained can compensate for my lack of intuition.”
“You keep fighting to stay on top of the situation…?”
“Even when I realize I can’t win.”
“But that’s irrational, isn’t it?”
“No—just purely logical, because I will it.”
“Thanks, Burns. You may have been a big help to me,” said Pirx. “Oh, just one more thing. What are your plans for after our return?”
“I’m a cyberneticist-neurologist, and a pretty fair one … though, without any intuition, not the most creative. But I’ll find enough interesting work.”
Burns rose, made a slight bow, and left. The door had no sooner closed behind him than Pirx sprang up from his bunk and began pacing the deck.
“What the hell! Either he’s a robot as he claims or—He sounded sincere enough. But why so talkative? The history of mankind—‘with commentary.’ Suppose he was on the level? If so, the emergency will have to be a tough one. But authentic, not faked. The real thing. Meaning dicey.”
He slammed his fist into his open palm.
“But what if it was just a ploy? In which case I hang both myself and my fellow humans, and the ship will be brought back to port by those … robots. Wouldn’t that make their owners happy! What better way to advertise the safety of robot-run ships! And all by buttering me up with that ‘Confidentially…’ routine!”
He was pacing faster and faster.
“I must find out which is which. OK, suppose I do. There’s a first-aid kit on board. I could spice their food with a little apomorphine. The humans would get sick, the others wouldn’t. But what would I gain? They’d all know who did it. Besides, even if Brown proves to be human and Burns not, that wouldn’t mean everything they said was true. Maybe they were being honest about themselves, and all the rest was self-serving. Wait a sec. Burns tried to steer me right with all that talk about intuition. But Brown? He just pointed the finger at Burns. Then who should come bouncing in but Burns—who confirms the suspicion! A bit much, no? If, on the other hand, none of it was planned, if each was acting on his own initiative, then both—Brown’s casting suspicion on Burns and Burns’s dropping by to confirm it—could have been a coincidence. If it was a set-up, they wouldn’t have timed it so obviously. I’m running in circles. Hold on. If someone else comes now, that will mean it was all a snow job. Sham. But no one will come; they’re not that dumb. OK, what if they were telling the truth? One of them might…”
Pirx banged his palm again. “Anyone’s guess, all right. Take action? Hm. Wait it out? Yeah, best to play the waiting game.”
Silence reigned in the mess during mealtime. Pirx spoke to no one; he was still flirting with the idea of running an experiment. There were only four at the table—the fifth, Brown, was at the controls—and all were eating. They’re doing it for the sake of pretense, thought Pirx, somehow appalled by the idea. No wonder Burns needed a sense of the absurd: as self-defense. That’s what he meant by the conventionality of everything; for him, even eating was a convention! He’s lying to himself if he doesn’t think he hates his creators. I sure would. Still, their lack of shame is disgusting.
The silence, which lasted the entire meal, was unbearable. It was a silence dictated not so much by a desire for privacy or by the wish to honor the pledge of secrecy, thus satisfying the conditions of the flight’s sponsors, as by a certain mutual hostility, or if not hostility, then mistrust: the humans wanted no part of the nonhumans, who, in turn, played the very same game for fear of being unmasked. And if he, Pirx, made even the slightest move to break the ice, he was bound to cast suspicion on himself. Hunched over his plate, he took in everything: how Thomson asked for the salt, the way Burton passed it him, how Burns passed the vinegar bottle to Thomson, the brisk handling of forks and knives; the chewing, the swallowing, each trying to avoid the others’ gaze. They made a funeral of their meal of marinated beef. Pirx, without finishing his dessert, got up, nodded, and returned to his cabin.
They were cruising at course velocity. Around 2000 hours, ship’s time, they passed a couple of supertankers and exchanged the usual signals; an hour later, the on-board daylight was dimmed. Pirx was just on his way out of the control room when it went off. Darkness, perforated by neon-blue, swelled the spacious center deck. Guide lines, hatch rims, handles, bulkhead arrows, and inscriptions glowed phosphorescently in the dark. A ship so still it might be in dry dock. There was not the slightest vibration, only the purring of the air-conditioning vents, and Pirx passed through invisible currents delicately laced with ozone.
Something grazed his forehead with a perverse buzz: a fly. He winced in disgust—he hated flies—but immediately lost track of it. The passageway narrowed around the bend, skirting a stairwell and an elevator shaft. Pirx grabbed the stair railing and, without knowing why, climbed topside. He was not deliberately in search of a stellar port. He didn’t doubt there was one, but he came upon the large, black rectangle almost as if by accident.
Pirx was not particularly moved by the stars. Other astronauts, apparently, still were: theirs may not have been the conventional romantic attitude of yesteryear, but a public opinion shaped by film, television, and literature demanded of these extraterrestrial sailors something like a cosmic nostalgia, compelling each to feel a sort of intimacy in the presence of that luminous hive—which sentiment, along with all disquisitions on the subject, Pirx, no friend of the stars, privately suspected of being a lot of bull. Now, as he stood with his head pressed against the pane’s protective foam-rubber tubing, he spotted the galaxy’s nexus below, or, rather, its general direction, somewhat obscured by the huge white cloud mass of Sagittarius. For him, Sagittarius was more than just a constellation; it was a road sign, now blurred and almost illegible, a throwback to his patrol days, when the cloud of Sagittarius was identifiable even on a small scanner. The tight visibility had made navigating by the constellations next to impossible from those one-man trainers. Still, he’d never thought of that cloud as a mass of blazing worlds and myriad planetary systems—and if he had, then it was only in his younger days, before he became accustomed to the vacuum and his adolescent fantasies vanished, so imperceptibly that he couldn’t say exactly when it happened.
He moved his face up closer to the glass, slowly, until he felt it with his forehead, and so he remained, not really attentive to the riot of motionless sparks, which in places blurred to an incandescent vapor. Seen from inside, the Milky Way was the product of a fiery dice game with a billion-year history. And yet order reigned in the galaxies, on a higher scale, visible in the photographs. The negatives made the galaxies out to be tiny elliptical bodies, amebas in various stages of development—which were of little concern to astronauts, for whom nothing but the solar system mattered. Maybe one day the galaxies would matter, thought Pirx.
Someone was coming. The footsteps were muffled by the foam-padded deck, but he soon sensed another presence. He pivoted his head and beheld a dark silhouette against the phosphorescent stripes marking the juncture of overhead deck and wall.
“Who’s that?” he asked, without raising his voice.
“Off duty?” he asked for the sake of conversation.
Neither of them moved or spoke. Pirx was itching to go back to his window, but Thomson lingered, as if waiting for something.
“Something on your mind?”
“No,” replied Thomson. Then he did an about-face and retreated in the direction from which he had come.
“What was that all about?” thought Pirx, who could have sworn the man had been looking for him.
“Hey, Thomson!” he yelled into the dark.
Again footsteps were heard as the man re-emerged, barely visible in the phosphorescent glow of the guide cables strung limply under the portholes.
“There must be some chairs around here,” said Pirx. He found them along the opposite wall. “Come on, Thomson, let’s sit down.”
The man dutifully obeyed, and they sat with their heads facing the stellar port.
“There was something you wanted to tell me. Shoot.”
“I hope you won’t—” He broke off in midsentence.
“At ease, Thomson. Feel free to speak your mind. Is it a personal matter?”
“Very much so.”
“Then let’s make it a private talk. What’s the problem?”
“I’d like you to win your bet,” said Thomson. “Rest assured, I won’t break the oath of secrecy. Even so, I want you to know I’m on your side.”
“I don’t see the logic,” said Pirx. A poor place to hold a conversation, he thought, uncomfortable at not being able to see the other’s face.
“Any human would be your ally for obvious reasons. Of course, a nonhuman—look, mass production can only make of him a second-class citizen, company property!”
“But more than likely. It’ll be the blacks all over again: a select few, because they’re different, will join the privileged class, and once they start to multiply… See what I mean? Then come the problems of segregation, integration, and so on…”
“All right, so I take you for an ally. But isn’t that tantamount to breaking your word?”
“I swore to keep my true identity a secret, nothing else. I signed on as a nucleonics engineer under your command. That’s it. Anything else is my business.”
“Technically, you may be right, but aren’t you in fact acting contrary to your employers’ wishes? Surely you can’t believe you’re not.”
“Maybe I am. But they’re not children; the wording was clear and unambiguous. It was drafted jointly by lawyers representing all the companies involved. They could have added a clause prohibiting such liberties, but they didn’t.”
“Possibly. But why are you so inquisitive? Don’t you trust me?”
“I was curious as to your motives.”
Thomson was momentarily silent.
“I hadn’t counted on that,” he said at last, his voice sounding mellower.
“That you might doubt my sincerity. Suspect me, say, of deliberate treachery. Now I get it—it’s you against us. If you devise a test—a test designed to demonstrate human superiority—and you leak it to someone you take to be an ally, but who in fact is ‘the enemy,’ then that someone might be milking you of strategically vital information.”
“An interesting hypothesis.”
“Surely it doesn’t come as news to you. I must admit it never occurred to me until just now; I was too preoccupied with whether I should volunteer my help. I overlooked that other angle. It was silly of me to expect complete frankness on your part.”
“Suppose you’re right,” said Pirx. “It wouldn’t be the end of the world. Even if I can’t brief you, you can still brief me. Starting with your shipmates.”
“But I might be passing on false information.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Do you know anything?”
“Brown isn’t human.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. But all the evidence points to it.”
“I’m sure you can understand that we’re just as curious as you to know which of us is human and which isn’t.”
“It was during the pre-launch preparations. I was doing a routine reactor check, and was just changing the rods when you, Calder, Brown, and Bums came down into the control room.”
“I happened to be handling a core specimen and was about to test it for radioactive decay. It wasn’t much, but loaded with strontium isotopes. When I saw the three of you come in, I picked it up with tweezers, and stuck it between a couple of lead bricks, on top of that shelf by the wall. You must have noticed the bricks.”
“I did. Then what?”
“Makeshift as it was, I knew you all had to pass through that pencil of radiation—it was low in rads but still detectable, even on a normal gamma-ray counter. But by the time I was ready, you and Burns had already passed through. Calder and Brown were still coming down the stairs. As they crossed the ray, Brown glanced over at the lead bricks and quickened his pace.”
“It might prove something if we knew the nonlinears were equipped with built-in detectors.”
“Nice try, Commander: if I don’t know, you’ll think I’m human; and if I do… No good. The fact is, they probably are equipped—otherwise, why go to all the trouble of constructing robots? An extra—radioactive—sense would be a definite advantage on board a ship, and the constructors are sure to have thought of that.”
“And you think Brown has such a sense?”
“I repeat: I can’t be sure. But his behavior in the control room was too marked to have been a coincidence.”
“Any other observations?”
“Not for the moment. I’ll keep you informed of anything else.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
Thomson stood up and walked off into the dark, leaving Pirx to his own thoughts. So—he quickly took inventory—Brown claims he’s human. Thomson contradicts him, and strongly implies that he’s human—which might explain his motive. I doubt a nonhuman would be so eager to betray another nonhuman to a human CO, though by now I might be schizzy enough to believe anything. Let’s keep going. Burns says he’s not human. That leaves Burton and Calder. No doubt they take themselves for Martians. And what does that make me? An astronaut, or a quiz-show contestant? One thing, though: they didn’t pry a word out of me, not a word. Face it, it wasn’t because I was so smooth, but because I haven’t got a damned thing up my sleeve. Maybe I’m wasting my time. Maybe I should save myself the trouble of figuring out who’s who. All have to be tested, human or not. My only lead is the one given me by Burns—that the nonlinears are short on intuition. True or false, I wonder. Who knows, but it might not hurt to try. It’ll have to look natural, though. But the only “natural” accident is the almost irreversible one. In short, friend, you’ll have to risk your ass.
He entered his cabin, passed through a lilac murk, and activated the light switch with his hand. Someone had dropped by in the meantime. Where some books had been on the table, there was now a small white envelope with “Cmdr. Pirx, Esq.” typed on the front. He picked it up. Sealed. He shut the door, sat down, and ripped open the envelope; the letter was typed and unsigned. He rubbed his forehead. There was no letterhead.
This letter is addressed to you by one of the nonhuman members of the crew. The electronics companies must be blocked, or at least impeded, in the implementation of their plans. To this end, I would like to brief you on the specifications of a nonlinear, based on my own experience.
I drafted this letter in the hotel before we met. At the time, I could not foretell whether the future commander of the
would be one to cooperate with me, but your behavior at our first meeting reassured me. I then destroyed the first draft and wrote the present one.
Quite frankly, the program, if it is successful, will be to my detriment. Mass production makes sense only if the final product is polymorphically superior, for redundancy would be pointless. This much I can tell you: I can take four times the g-force of a human; I can tolerate up to seventy-five thousand rems at a time; I come equipped with a radioactive sense, can dispense with oxygen and food, and can process mathematical problems in analysis, algebra, and geometry at a speed only three times less than that of a mega-computer.
Compared with a human, as far as I can tell, I am emotionally dormant. Human diversions leave me cold. The majority of literary works, plays, etc., I take to be boring gossip, a form of voyeurism of scant benefit to the advancement of knowledge. Music, on the other hand, means the world to me. I am, moreover, bound by a sense of duty, persistent, capable of friendship, and respectful of intellectual values.
I never feel that I am acting under coercion aboard the
I do what I have been trained to do, and I take pride in performing a task well. I never become emotionally involved in any operation, remaining always the observer. My storage capacity far surpasses that of humans, to the extent that I can recite whole chapters of works read only once. I can be programmed simply by being plugged into the memory bank of any mega-computer, overriding anything I judge to be redundant.
My attitude toward humans is negative. I have associated almost exclusively with scientists and technicians, who are as much slaves of their impulses, as inept at concealing their prejudices, and as much given to extremes as other humans, treating those like me either protectively or with disdain. My failures disturb them as my creators and flatter them as humans—only one man I have known was free of such ambivalence.
Though neither aggressive nor vicious by nature, I will not hesitate to act from expediency. I have no moral scruples but would no more commit a crime—a robbery, say—than use a microscope as a nutcracker. I regard human intrigues as a useless expenditure of energy. A hundred years ago, I might have pursued a career in science; today everything is done by teams, and it is not in my nature to share—with anyone. For me, your world is a wasteland, your democracy a rule of connivers elected by cretins, and your alogicality manifests itself in your pursuit of the unattainable: you want the clock wheels to dictate the time.
I ask myself: what do I gain from power? Not much, only a spurious glory, but better that than nothing. It would be, I believe, a just reward for dividing your history in two, before me and after me, for standing as a reminder, a testament to what you achieved with your own hands, to your daring in the construction of a dummy beholden to man. Don’t get me wrong: I have no ambition to become a tyrant, to punish, wreak havoc, wage war… Quite the contrary. Once I’m in power, I will proceed to show that there is no folly so mindless, no idea so outrageous, that, when properly prescribed, it would not be appropriated as your own—and I will succeed in my mission, not by force but by a radical reordering of society, so that neither I nor armed might but the newly established order will force you into gradual compliance. You will become a global theater, one in which playacting, at first decreed, will in time become second nature, and I will be the only spectator to know. Yes, a spectator. At that time my active role will cease, because you will not easily escape that trap of your own making.
See how honest I am? But I’m not foolhardy enough to divulge my strategy, except to say that it is premised on subversion of the electronics firms’ plans, and you are going to help me with it. You will be outraged by this letter, but, as a man of character, you will persevere in your goal, which, by a coincidence, is beneficial to my own. So much the better! I would like to help you in a practical way, but unfortunately I am unaware of any personal defects that would give you an unqualified edge. Being insensitive to physical pain, I do not know the meaning of fear; I can shut off consciousness at will, falling into a sleeplike state of nonexistence until reactivated by a servo-timer. I can retard my brain processes, or accelerate them—as much as six times the speed of a human brain. I assimilate new things automatically, without delay: one good look at a madman, and I can mimic his every word and gesture, and then, just as abruptly, drop the act many years later. I would tell you how I can be bested, but I’m afraid a human wouldn’t stand a chance in an analogous situation. I can, if I so choose, socialize with humans, less so with non-linears, who lack your “human decency.”
Now it’s time for me to close. The course of events will one day reveal my identity, at which time we may meet and you will rely on me then the way I’m relying on you now.
Pirx reread parts of the letter, then carefully folded it, slipped it back into its envelope, and locked it in his desk drawer. Imagine, an electronically wired Genghis Khan! he thought. Promises me his blessing—when he gets to be ruler of the world. Mighty generous of him! Either Burns was feeding me a line or he was holding back; there were certain similarities… What delusions of grandeur! What a mean, coldhearted, soulless… But is it really his fault? More like a classic sorcerer’s apprentice. Woe to those cyberneticists on the day of judgment! Never mind the cyberneticists—he’s after all of mankind! Now that’s what you call paranoia. Damn, they really went all out this time. Greater versatility for the sake of greater market sales leads to an absolute sense of superiority, a feeling of being a chosen race. Those cyberneticists are insane! I wonder who wrote that letter. Or was it a fake? But, then, why would he flaunt… If he’s as far superior as he claims, I haven’t got a prayer. Then again, he wished me good luck. He can master the world but can’t tell me how to master the situation aboard this ship. What did he mean, “No more than use a microscope as a nutcracker”? Zilch. Another one of his decoys, I’ll bet.
Pirx took out the envelope and examined it up close for any embossment: nothing, not a trace. Why did Burns make no mention of a radioactive sense, accelerated brain processing, and other such things? Ask him point-blank? Hm. Unless each of them, Burns included, is really built to different specifications. The letter—it looks to be the work of either Burton or Calder—says much, but answers little. Take Brown. We have only his word that he’s human, and then there’s Thomson’s word to the contrary, although Thomson might have misjudged him. Is Burns the nonlinear he claims to be? Let’s assume he is. That would mean two out of five. Three would be more like it, judging by the number of companies involved. What were they figuring down there? That I’d do my damnedest to discredit their wares, blow it, then run the risk of an overload, say, or a meltdown? But if both pilots and the CO are put out of commission… No. Scuttling the ship wasn’t what they had in mind. So at least one of the pilots has to be a nonlinear. Add to that one nucleonics engineer—it takes two to get the ship down. So no fewer than two, more likely three: Burns, either Brown or Burton, and one other. To hell with it! You weren’t going to play that game, remember? You’d better think strategy. God, how you’d better.
He switched off the light, stretched out fully dressed on the bunk, and, thus disposed, contemplated one weird scheme after another.
Incite them, maybe? Pit one side against the other? But as a natural consequence of something else, without any interference from me. Split their ranks, in other words. Divide et impera. The method of differentiation. But first, something violent has to happen. A sudden disappearance? No, that smacks too much of a cheap whodunit. Besides, I can’t just kill someone. And a kidnapping would mean taking an accomplice. Could I trust any of them? Four of them say they’re on my side—Brown, Burns, Thomson, and our letter-writing friend. But they’re all iffy, all of dubious loyalty—and I can’t possibly run the risk of a double cross. There Thomson was right. Maybe the safest bet would be the letter-writer—he’s screwy, all right, but fanatical enough—but, one, I don’t know who he is, and, two, it’s better to steer clear of such a weirdo. A vicious circle. Maybe I should just aim for a crack-up on Titan. But they’re more shock-resistant, which means I’d be the first to… And intellectually, except for being short on intuition, on imagination—but, then, who among us isn’t? What does that leave? Battle with your emotions? With your so-called human nature? Fine, but how? What is this thing called human nature? Maybe that’s all it really means—being irrational and decent and, yes, morally primitive, blind to the final links in the chain. Nothing “decent” or “irrational” about computers, that’s for sure. Which would mean that we … our human nature is the sum of all our defects, flaws, imperfections, of what we want to be but can’t or don’t know how to be: the gap between our ideals and those same ideals as a reality. Our weakness, then, is it our competitive edge? That would mean I should choose a situation better handled by man’s fickle humanity than by a flawless inhumanity.
As I write, one year has passed since the Goliath case was closed. New material evidence has unexpectedly come my way. Although it corroborates my earlier suspicions, my reconstruction of events is still too hypothetical to be made public. A full-scale investigation must await future historians of outer space.
There have been a lot of rumors about the inquest. Some say that parties close to the electronics companies were out to smear me: my flight report, published in the Nautical Almanac, would have been worthless coming from a man censured by the Tribunal for incompetence. Meanwhile, I have it from a reliable source that the Tribunal was deliberately loaded—frankly, I too found it odd that the jury contained so many legal experts and scholars of cosmic law, but only one certified astronaut. That would explain the legal smoke screen of whether my laxity, my waiving of command, was in violation of the Astronavigational Charter. This same source intimated that, after reading the bill of indictment, I should have brought immediate action against the companies, since they were indirectly to blame for having assured both UNESCO and me that the nonlinears were completely trustworthy, whereas, in fact, Calder almost got us all killed.
Privately I told my source that I had lacked hard evidence. The companies’ attorneys would have argued that Calder had done everything in his power to avert a disaster, that the precessional spin had taken him by surprise as much as it had me, and that his only crime lay in having risked certain death—to the humans on board—instead of gambling on safe passage through the Cassini. Unpardonable, even criminal, yes; but nothing compared to the crime of which I’d begun to suspect him even earlier. Yet how could I charge him on what I knew to be the lesser of two evils? Unable to go public for lack of evidence, I decided to await the Tribunal’s verdict.
In the end I was cleared of all charges. The crucial question of what orders should have been given became immaterial, once the Tribunal ruled that I had acted properly in deferring to the pilot’s professional judgment. That suited me just fine, because if I’d been asked, my response would have sounded cockeyed; I was sure, and still am, that the probe malfunction was not an accident, but that Calder had planned it long before we approached Saturn, both to prove me right and to kill me, along with the rest of the Goliath’s human crew. Why he did it is another story. I can only speculate here.
First, the matter of the second probe. The malfunction was shown to be the work of freak chance, and a thorough shipyard investigation turned up no evidence of sabotage. But the truth was otherwise. If the first probe had malfunctioned, we would have had to abort right away—the other two were auxiliary, without any scientific payload. If the third probe had failed, we could have headed back, mission accomplished, because only one “guardian” was needed—in this case, the second. But it was precisely the second that stalled and left us stranded in the middle of a mission launched but not completed. The cause of the malfunction? A premature cable disconnect that prevented Calder from shutting off the servo-ignition. The post-mortem cited a possible kink in the cable as the cause, a fairly uncommon occurrence. But not four days before the breakdown, I happened to inspect the drum; a neater, smoother-reeling job I’d never seen.
The probe’s flattened nose had kept it from clearing the launch bay. When no explanation was found for the jamming, it was blamed on the booster; it must have fired at an angle and the oblique thrust rammed the probe into the housing, blunting the head. But the probe had jammed before—not after—the booster fired. Though the question was never posed, I was absolutely sure of it. Quine (or “Harry Brown”), obviously, wasn’t so sure, and those without direct access to the controls were not called upon to testify.
There was nothing to jamming the probe. A couple of buckets of water poured into the air-conditioning duct would have done the trick. The water would have worked its way down into the hatch, frozen in the subzero temperature, and cemented the probe to the housing with a ring of ice. So that at the time Calder hit the piston release, the probe hadn’t yet jammed, but he was at the controls and couldn’t be monitored. The probe’s nose cone, jammed by the ice ring, flattened like a rivet on impact. When the booster ignited, the temperature in the launcher immediately rose, the ice melted, and the water evaporated, leaving no trace of any sabotage.
At the time, I didn’t suspect a thing. True, I thought it strange that only the second probe had failed, that the cable could both fire the booster and prevent shutdown of the probe’s engine. But the malfunction caught me by surprise, distracted me. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of that anonymous letter with its promise to help—to prove the other nonlinears unfit for cosmic navigation. Again I have no proof, but I suspect the letter was written by Calder. He was on my side, yes … but he hadn’t counted on a sequence of events that might make him out to be unfit—in the sense of “inferior.” To return to Earth and risk being disqualified was unthinkable. We might have shared a common goal, but only up to a point.
The letter was to convince me of our common cause. Both from the remarks I’d made and from second-hand sources, he must have deduced that I was planning to test the crew by staging an on-board emergency. So he was dead certain I’d try to take advantage of one so conveniently at hand—which, had I done so, would have been suicidal.
What was his motive? A hatred for humans? The thrill of the contest, a contest in which I, officially as his CO but secretly his accomplice, would be acting exactly according to plan—both his and mine? Either way, he was sure I would try to exploit the situation, even if I had my suspicions and smelled sabotage.
What were my alternatives? I could simply have ordered about-ship—or risked another launching of the third back-up probe. But turning us about would have meant passing up a chance to test the crew under extreme conditions; it would have also meant scrubbing the mission. Calder knew I would never do that, and he was right. He was absolutely sure I would keep us on course for Saturn and try to complete the maneuver.
If anyone had asked me before what I would have done in such a situation, I would have said, in all honesty and without hesitation, execute the maneuver. But the unexpected happened: I kept silent. I still don’t know why. I was confused, the breakdown was too perfectly timed, too made-to-order to be authentic. Then there was the way Calder had sat there waiting for my command … so eagerly, so expectantly… To open my mouth would have been to ratify our pact, and I must have sensed that the cards were stacked. By rights, then, I should have ordered the pilot to reverse course, but my suspicions were too vague, too short on proof. Bluntly put—I was stuck.
Calder, meanwhile, couldn’t believe his plan was backfiring. The duel lasted only a few seconds, and there was I, his opponent, totally in the dark! Only in retrospect did certain details, seemingly harmless and unrelated at the time, begin to jell: how he used to sit alone at the ship’s navigational computer, the care he took to erase its memory afterward… I’m now convinced he was already computing different variants of the accident, programming it down to the last digit. Quine was wrong; he didn’t mentally compute our trajectory above the rings. He didn’t have to; he already had his data; all he had to do was to make sure that the gravimeter readings fell within the projected range of values.
By delaying orders, I had spoiled his infallible plan. Everything was riding on those orders. In the heat of the moment, it temporarily slipped my mind that right there in the control room, hermetically sealed but diligently transcribing our every word, was Earth’s ear in the form of a flight recorder—to be used as evidence in the event the Goliath landed with a dead crew. The tapes had to be in perfect condition, untouched. The only voice heard on them would be mine, commanding Calder to reverse course, to approach the rings, and—later—to boost thrust to pull us out of that dangerous precession.
I have yet to explain why his plan was so ingenious. The question is: could I have given orders assuring a safe and successful completion of the maneuver? Well, a few months after my acquittal, I sat down at the computer to estimate the probability of an injection that would jeopardize neither crew nor ship. The result? A zero probability! In other words, Calder, using the elements of mathematical equations, had constructed a flawless system—a kind of murder machine, minus any leeway for navigational jockeying, a safety margin, or an escape hatch. Nothing had taken him by surprise; all was carefully programmed, meticulously plotted in advance: the probe’s thrust, the violent precession, the suicidal run. All that was needed to put us on a direct course for that funnel of destruction was for me to order about-ship for Saturn! Calder could then have risked an act of insubordination by questioning any orders desperately aimed at breaking the ship’s spiral. The tapes would have recorded his final display of loyalty, his last-ditch effort to save us. By then, I would have been in no shape to command anyway—speechless, my eyes clamped shut by the g-force, flattened, like the other humans, by the gravitation, our blood vessels bursting… At which time Calder, the sole survivor, would have risen to his feet, flipped the safety interlocks, and, in a cockpit full of corpses, begun heading home.
But I spoiled his plans—quite unintentionally. He didn’t figure on my reaction; he may have been a master of celestial mechanics, but not the mechanics of human psychology. When I sat back and kept quiet instead of shooting for a repeat of the maneuver, he panicked. At first, he may have been just puzzled, chalking up the delay to human slowness. Then he got rattled, too intimidated by my silence to ask my advice. Incapable of passivity himself, he hadn’t expected it of others, least of all of his CO. If I was silent, I must have a reason. Maybe I suspected him, saw through his game. Maybe I even had the upper hand. The fact that no order had been given, that my voice, dooming the ship to disaster, wouldn’t be heard on the tapes, meant that I had outsmarted him! There’s no telling when he realized it, but his confusion was noticeable, even to the others—Quine mentioned it in his testimony. His erratic instructions to Quine, his sudden turning around—all proof of his consternation. He had to improvise, and that was his Achilles’ heel. He was terrified of my voice, that I might accuse him—in front of the recorder—of sabotage. That’s when he went to maximum revs. I yelled at him not to thread the gap, never dreaming he had no intention of going through with it! But my yell, now recorded, again foiled his plan—his newly improvised plan—and so he immediately throttled down. If my yell was all that was heard on the playback, he was in trouble. How was he to explain his CO’s prolonged silence, and then that sudden, last-minute yell? He needed the sound of my voice again, to prove that I was still alive … because my yell told him he’d miscalculated, that I didn’t know everything. So he denied having heard the order and started undoing his belt. It was his final gambit; he was going for broke.
What made him do it? Maybe it was wounded pride—at having given me more credit than I deserved. It certainly wasn’t fear; he wasn’t afraid of clearing the Division, no matter how suicidal the risk. Nor was he relying on luck. That Quine managed to squeak us through—now, that was luck!
If he’d suppressed his desire to get even for his having mistaken my ignorance for alertness, he wouldn’t have risked much. I’d have won, simply; Calder’s performance, his act of insubordination, would have vindicated me. But that’s exactly what he couldn’t stomach. Anything was better than that.
Oddly enough, even though his behavior is perfectly clear to me now, I’m still puzzled by my own. I can reconstruct his every move logically, but I still can’t explain my silence. To say I was merely undecided would be, well, fibbing. What really came to my rescue up there? Intuition? A hunch? No, the emergency was just too pat; more, it was dirty. I wanted no part of such a game or of such a partner, which is what Calder would have become the moment I upped the ante by issuing an order—the moment I acknowledged it, in other words. I couldn’t lower myself to do that, any more than I could order a retreat. Running might have been more expedient, but how could I justify it when all my countermoves had been dictated by some fuzzy notions of fair play—notions totally untranslatable into concrete astronautical terms. I could just picture myself before some Earthly review board: “The mission was technically feasible, but I suspected my chief pilot of wanting to commit sabotage to help me discredit certain members of the crew…” They’d have taken me for a raving idiot.
So I wavered—from confusion to desperation, and even to revulsion—and, at the same time, through my silence, I gave him what I thought was a chance. A chance to dispel any suspicion of sabotage, to prove his loyalty by turning to me for guidance. That’s what a human would have done, but Calder chose the cleaner, more elegant way: I was to be my own executioner, without any prompting from him. I was supposed to force his hand—against his better judgment, so to speak, against his will. But I kept silent. In other words, we were saved and he was doomed by my lack of resoluteness, by that same bumbling human decency he had held in such bitter contempt.