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Chapter 9
 Jeriann came into the office. "I've got it down to twenty," she said briskly.
"What?" said Docchi absently. Management details were unfamiliar to him and he was trying to pick them up as he went along. The scattered records were in order but some were still unaccounted for. "Oh. The deficiency biologicals. Good. How did you do it?"
"I asked them."
"And they knew? It's surprising. I'd expect them to be familiar with their standard treatment. But not something that's entirely new."
Jeriann smiled faintly. "I'm not that good. I did find out what they used to get and then scrounged around in storage until I found supplies. If the old stuff kept them healthy once it should do so now."
He hadn't thought of that, but then he wasn't accustomed to considering the same things a doctor would. Any trained person would know that sulfa hadn't been discarded with the discovery of penicillin, nor penicillin with the advent of the neo-biotics. Docchi studied her covertly; Jeriann was a competent woman, and an attractive one.
"Of the remaining twenty we don't have biologicals for, I've determined we can make what eleven need."
Only nine who were left out. It was a remarkable advance over a few days ago when there were forty-two. Nine for whom so far they could do nothing. It was queer how he worried about them more as the number diminished. Somehow it had greater significance now that he could remember each face distinctly. "And Maureen?" he inquired.
Instinctively Jeriann touched the decorative belt that was so much more than what it seemed. "I'm afraid I misjudged her. I couldn't locate a thing for her."
"You're sure she didn't destroy her prescription?"
"I don't see what difference it makes as long as we don't have it," said Jeriann. "But yes, I'm sure. Once something is brought in it's simply not possible for a person as ignorant of the system as she is to track down and destroy every entry relating to it."
"All right. I believe you." He glanced down at the list she'd given him. The actual figures weren't as optimistic as her report had been. "Wait. I notice you say here that out of twenty that we don't have supplies for that we can synthesize biologicals for eleven."
She sat down. "That's what I said. How else can we get them? We've got the equipment. The asteroid never did depend on Earth for very many of our biologicals."
He knew vaguely how the medical equipment functioned, rather like the commonplace food synthesizers. "We don't have anyone with experience."
Jeriann shrugged. "I'm not a technician but I used to help out when there was nothing else to do. I expected to run it."
The light flashed on his desk but Docchi ignored it. "Have you thought what an infinitesimal error means?" he asked.
"Of course." He was struck by her calmness. "One atom hooked in the wrong place and instead of a substance the body must have it becomes a deadly poison. I've talked it over with the deficients. They agreed to it. This way they know they have a chance."
"We'll do something," he acknowledged. "Pick out the worst and work for their deficiency. Check with me before you give them anything."
"I've selected them," she said. "There are four extreme cases. They won't collapse today or tomorrow. Perhaps not in a week. But we can't let them get close."
"Agreed." The light kept flashing annoyingly in his eyes. Another complaint. Nodding at Jeriann Docchi nudged the switch and glanced at the screen. "Anything wrong?" he asked.
It was Webber. "Nothing much. Jordan and I just bumped into an old acquaintance. I suppose we'd better bring him in."
"Cameron," exclaimed Docchi as Webber moved aside, revealing the man behind him.
The doctor's clothing was rumpled and he hadn't shaved but he was calm and assured. "You seem to be running things now," he said. "I'd like a chance to talk with you."
Docchi didn't answer directly. "Where did you find him, Webber?"
"He was living out in the open near a stream which, I imagine, was his water supply. We were checking some of the stuff the guards didn't wreck when we spotted him. We saw bushes move and went over to investigate, figuring it might be a geepee at loose ends. There was our man."
"Did he give you any trouble?"
Webber shrugged. "He wasn't exactly glad to see us. But he must have known there was no place to hide because he didn't actually try to get away."
"That's your interpretation," said Cameron, his face beside Webber. "The truth is I wanted to make sure you had no way of sending me back with the general's forces. I was taking plenty of time."
From beyond the screen Jordan snorted.
Cameron continued. "There was no use going back to Earth. My career wasn't exactly ruined—but you can appreciate the difficulties I'd have. Anyway a doctor is trained to take the most urgent cases, and I thought they were here. I'm sorry only that I had to be discovered. It spoiled the entry I was going to make."
Jeriann's face showed what she thought. Relief, and was there something else? The thought was distasteful if only because it indicated there was now a normal human present. The deadly comparison was back with them.
But it was more than that—how much more was up to him to find out. Docchi kept his emotions far away. It would hardly do to let Cameron know what he thought. "Well, there's work to do, if that's what you want. Come up as soon as you can get here."
Cameron cocked his head. "If they'll let me."
"They'll let you." Docchi switched off the screen and turned to see Jeriann getting up.
"Don't leave. I want you to check on him."
"Why should we check?" she asked in surprise.
Another one who accepted the doctor at face value. There would be plenty of others like her. Perhaps Cameron had remained for the reasons he'd given. If so it ought to be easy to prove. "Did I say we'd have to watch him? I didn't mean quite that. Cameron's here and we intend to use him. At the same time we must admit that he has many conventional ideas. We'll have to give him our slant on what we need."
She sat down. "I don't want to waste your time or his."
"You're not." Docchi pretended to be busy while they waited. He had to learn whether his suspicions were unfounded. Cameron may have stayed in the best medical tradition. But there was another tradition less honorable and it was an equal possibility.
It was better not to say anything to Jeriann. She respected the doctor but she wouldn't be blinded by that attitude. She'd report any untoward thing she saw. And she was attractive. Sooner than anyone else save Nona, who couldn't communicate, she'd learn what the doctor's true motives were.
Docchi found himself studying her. She didn't have to be that anxious. He wished she weren't so eager for the doctor to arrive.
Cameron shook his head. "Don't let your enthusiasm run away with you. I can help the deficients but if new treatments are developed it will probably be the result of ideas you people have."
"What about the list? Can we synthesize for them?"
"I haven't studied it and I'm not familiar with the medical history of everyone here. I do know three of the eleven that Jeriann's selected and in each one she's exactly right. It's merely a matter of testing the preparations. I'll check but I'm sure she can do it as well as I can."
It was nice to know that they were doing all right by themselves, that they'd have gotten along without the doctor. It helped that he was here but they'd have survived anyway. "Can you do anything for Maureen?" asked Docchi.
"I don't remember her. I'll have to look it up."
"The records aren't in the best condition."
"Guards?" Docchi noted that Cameron scowled. Either he was a good actor or he was sincere. "I tried to get the general to restrain them but he wouldn't listen."
"No harm done, I suppose," said Docchi. He wanted to forget as much of that episode as he could. "However I can tell you what's wrong with Maureen. No male hormones."
"I remember." Cameron pondered. "I've never had anything to do with her. Most of her treatment came direct from Earth. I don't know. I really can't say."
"Most glands are paired. Can't you transplant one, or part of one, from some of us? We'll get donors."
"Off hand I'd say that if it were possible it would have been done long ago. For reasons that aren't understood transplants aren't always effective. Sometimes the body acts to dissolve foreign tissue or, if there's irritation, grow a tumor around it."
"That's why she's still a deficient?"
"It's my guess. They tried transplants but had to cut them out." Cameron turned to Jeriann. "Do we have equipment for synthetic hormones?"
"Maybe. I never prepared any."
The doctor leaned over the desk, flipping through the files until he came to the section he wanted. "Some test animals. Probably not enough," he said after studying it briefly. "I'll do something to keep her quiet until I can figure out a substitute."
"No experiments on us, Cameron."
He smiled wryly. "The history of medicine is a long series of experiments. If it weren't for that we'd still be in the stone age, medically speaking."
Docchi shrugged. "Suit yourself. Do what you can with Maureen."
"What about Anti?"
"We haven't had time to think about her."
"I'll see what I can do. If I stumble on anything that seems beneficial I'll let you know." Cameron turned to leave and Jeriann went with him.
Docchi watched him go. The doctor was an asset they hadn't counted on. His presence would help silence the objections of those who agreed with the woman at the meeting but hadn't said anything yet. This was the temporary advantage.
But there was still the doubt. Cameron might have stayed at the general's request. A few serious illnesses or a death here and there might influence them to turn back. Somehow Docchi couldn't credit the doctor with such intentions.
Then what? Well, the doctor might have remained with them on a long, long chance. A gamble, but he was the kind who took risks.
It was not suspicion alone that made Docchi suddenly tired and morose. He wished he could call Jeriann back on some pretext. She'd gone and she hadn't looked his way when she left.
Anti bobbed gently in the acid. "What's the contraption?"
"An idea of mine," said Jordan, lowering the coils carefully so the acid didn't splash.
Anti looked at it judicially. "Maybe next time you'll think of something better."
"Don't be nasty," said Jordan as the coils reached the surface of the liquid and began to submerge. "Cameron thinks it will work."
"My faith is shaken."
"It isn't a question of faith and anyway he's as good a doctor as we've ever had." Jordan kept lowering until the mechanism reached the bottom. A single cable over the side of the tank was the only thing visible. Jordan wiped his hands on the grass. "I was thinking about radiation when this thing occurred to me."
"Would you believe it? Once I was young and radiant myself."
"It's not the same thing."
"Don't think I wouldn't trade."
"You won't have to," said Jordan. "This is my idea, not the doctor's. He merely confirmed it."
"In that case it's bound to work."
Jordan pulled a tuft of grass loose and tossed it into the tank. It disappeared in a soundless blaze. To conform with what was expected of her, Anti blinked. "Don't be so afraid we're going to fail that you can't listen to what I have to say. Do you want to be cured and not know why? I've run my legs off to make this gadget."
"A figure of speech," commented Anti.
"A figure of speech," agreed Jordan. "To begin with we discovered that when you were exposed to space the cold caused the fungus flesh to die back faster than it grew. Right?"
"The fungus came from Venus," said Anti. "It's only natural it wouldn't grow well in the cold."
"The origin doesn't have anything to do with it. Normally it doesn't grow in flesh and it had to make concessions to live in the human body, the biggest one being adaptation to body temperature. At the same time the body cells tried to outgrow it but the faster they grew the more there was for the fungus to live in. A sort of an inimical symbiosis."
"If you can imagine inimical symbiosis," said Anti. "I can't."
"You haven't tried very hard. Anyway, there seems to be a ratio between the amount of fungus in one connected mass and the vigor. The more there is the faster it grows, and conversely."
"Such a pleasant reference," said Anti. "Mass. Still it's an accurate description of me, though I can think of a better one. Lump." She swam, splashing ponderously toward the edge of the tank. "Are you trying to say that if I can ever get below a certain point my body will be able to keep the fungus in check?"
"What's wrong with the treatment we discovered? Give me an oxygen helmet and tie me to a cable and let me float outside the dome."
"You wouldn't float as long as the gravity's on. Besides, we can do it better. In space you lose heat solely by radiation. Radiation depends on surface and the larger a body is the more surface it had in proportion."
"Convection is what you meant," said Anti. "Acid alone helps, but a cold acid would combine treatments."
"A very cold acid. Supercold."
Anti nodded and nodded and then stopped. "A fine piece of reasoning except for one thing. When the temperature is decreased chemical activity slows down."
"That's the triumph of my gadget," said Jordan. "It's not only a refrigerant coil but electronically it steps up ionizations as the temperature is lowered. We sacrifice neither effect."
Soundlessly Anti sank below the surface and remained there for some time. When she came up acid trickled over her face. "I had to think. It's been so long since I dared hope," she said. "When can I walk?"
"I didn't say you would," said Jordan hastily. "There may be a lower limit beyond which it's dangerous to continue the cold acid treatment."
"Then what's the use?" said Anti. "I'm not interested in merely reducing. I'll still be bigger than a house. I want to get around."
"This is the first step," explained Jordan patiently. "After this is successful we'll think of something else."
"What language," said Anti. "The first step when obviously I'm nowhere near taking one. Can't you turn off the gravity?"
If they did it would hinder others, and the odds were nearly a thousand to one. Of course they might compromise, a short gravityless period at intervals. It would be unsatisfactory to everyone but it might give Anti the encouragement she needed.
Besides, he was unsure they could turn off the gravity without also turning off the drive. Their momentum would carry them along at the same speed they had been going—but was it wise to tamper with a mechanism that till now was functioning so smoothly and was so important?
Jordan shook his head. "I said we'd think of something else and we will. Continue with this treatment and watch your weight go down."
"Don't think I'm not aware of your cheerful intentions," said Anti. "How can you possibly weigh me as long as I have to stay in the tank?"
"The same way Archimedes did—fluid displacement. I've rigged up a scale so you can keep track of what's happening." He didn't tell her what the scale was calibrated in. Absolute figures were disheartening. It was only the progress which counted.
Anti looked at the dial near the edge of the tank. "I thought it was just another gadget." When Jordan didn't answer she looked for him. "Hey, don't leave me to freeze in this cold goop."
"You're not cold and you know it. You can't feel a thing."
"Don't be so frank," she grumbled. "Hardly anyone comes to talk to me. I like company."
"Sure, but I've got to get busy on that other idea." He didn't have one but he looked very wise and it had the desired effect.
"Guess I can't stop you," grumbled Anti. "Tell someone to come and visit with me."
Again she looked long at the dial. It was a pleasant surprise to find she was not so far from average that she could be weighed. Jordan was a gadgeteer but sometimes his contraptions worked and once in a while his ventures in psychology were extraordinarily shrewd.
For instance, the dial.
She imagined she could feel her toes tingling from the cold—if she still had toes. Soon they would emerge from the fungus flesh in which they were buried. She felt she was shedding.
What did they have that made anything seem possible? Jordan, the sometimes wonderful gadgeteer. Docchi, a competent engineer but no more than that. Unsure of himself personally he had a passion for correcting inequalities. And then there was Cameron, a good doctor who was trying to realign his principles. He wouldn't have made it except that he had a powerful attraction ahead of him. Lord knows what he saw in Nona or she in him.
And lastly there was Nona herself, to whom big miracles came easier than small ones. There was a fragile grandeur about her but she knew nothing at all of the human body, especially her own.
And this is what they relied on. It was strikingly little to balance against the forces of Earth, which had failed them. And yet it was enough; the accidentals would not fail.
It didn't matter what the resources were as long as they weren't aimed in the right direction. She didn't have figures on the conquest of cancer but the one-time scourge of mankind could have vanished far sooner if the cost of one insignificant political gesture had been spent instead to wipe out the disease.
Perhaps this was one answer. They were struggling not to make beautiful men and women still more beautiful but to restore those who were less than perfect to some sort of usefulness, especially in their own evaluation.
The lights in the dome dimmed appreciably. It was the lengthening shadows which made the needle on the dial that Anti was watching quiver and seem to turn downward.
Jordan rode the repair robot away from the tank. It was more than had ever been done for Anti but it wasn't enough. A fifty per cent reduction and she still wouldn't be able to walk. He'd have to check with anyone who had ideas of what to do. He didn't have much hope there; nobody but himself had given much thought to Anti recently.
The machine he was on wasn't functioning properly. Nothing definite, it just wasn't. He was sensitive enough to notice this through his preoccupation with other problems. It was sluggish to his touch. It was not unexpected; there was a lot of equipment that was supposed to be foolproof and wasn't, any number of machines built to last forever which didn't.
Once it would have been easy to blame technicians for failure to keep the robots in proper condition. Now he couldn't because he was that technician, the only one. Nona kept the big stuff working and Docchi helped out with anything else when he could find them. But minor machines were important too and this was his province. Robot repair units affected gross corrections on themselves but weren't capable of detecting defects in the basic repair circuit. This was his responsibility.
He stopped the squat machine and opened it. There was nothing wrong that he could see. Some other time he'd work it over thoroughly. He climbed back on and touched the controls he added for his own use.
For a while nothing happened and then an extensible started flailing. It was not what he'd signalled for. He shoved the lever in the opposite direction and though it didn't stop the gyrations of the extensible it did start the treads. The machine rumbled away at greater than ordinary speed. Jordan would have fallen off if an extensible hadn't steadied him.
Momentarily he wondered; the last response was not within the machine's capacity. It was built to repair other machines and, within limits, itself. It had no knowledge of the frailties of the human body. He wondered at this and then forgot it completely.
The robot lurched heavily, narrowly missing one of the columns that supported the dome. A collision at this speed—well, no, the column wouldn't have been greatly damaged.
Hastily Jordan reached to shut it off. There was a shower of sparks and the handle grew hot and sputtered. The grip flashed, fusing, visibly becoming inoperative.
The robot no longer faltered. Jordan wasn't in immediate danger. He could always swing off, slide off, or fall. But he ought to stop it before it wrecked itself or, worse, the dome.
The dome enclosed a good part of the asteroid but it came to an end somewhere, curving downward and joining the ground at a flexible seal. Naturally it was protected against collision and naturally the protection wasn't complete. It was conceivable that an uncontrolled robot could break through. Jordan clutched an extensible as the machine jolted and rocked. The nearest place it could damage the dome was miles away. He'd disable it long before it got there.
He steadied himself and reached for the panel, prying it open. He thrust his hand in and the lid slammed shut on his fingers. He yelled and pulled loose, leaving part of his skin inside. The lid was firmly closed.
He glowered at the machine. It was an accident that a wildly moving extensible clamped the lid down as he reached inside. He didn't like those kinds of accidents; the element of purpose was very strong.
He hesitated whether he should disable the machine. It was valuable equipment and they wouldn't get more like it. It would have to last for the duration. "Easy does it," he muttered but it wasn't easy. His hand slid back to the toaster—and it wasn't there. The sensible thing was to suppose that it had been jolted loose. The machine couldn't think in complex terms.
Or could it? He glanced down; there were indications the robot had been sliced into and he thought he knew who had done it. It was probably the one he and Docchi had disabled long ago on their escape from the asteroid. It had been repaired since and the technician who had done so had altered the circuits.
The essential thing was to stop it before it caused real damage. He suspected that, with a number of extensibles curled firmly around him, there was no danger he'd fall off. Maybe he couldn't get off if he wanted to.
He wished he'd encounter someone. He hated to admit it but he needed help. In the distance he saw people and shouted. They knew him; he was the person who rode the robot. They waved gaily and said something unintelligible as he sped by. It was irritating that they didn't see anything amiss.
The edge of the dome loomed up. They'd been going longer than he'd thought. He squirmed uneasily; he should have gotten off long ago and used something else to intercept the errant machine. A geepee, if he'd had sense enough to get one, could run it down and smash it. His only excuse was that he hadn't wanted to destroy valuable machinery.
With tremendous effort he tore himself loose and using the power of his overdeveloped arms he threw himself off. He covered his head and rolled along the ground in a tight ball. He was free.
But not for long. The treads whining in reverse, the robot whirled, scooping him up as it passed by. This time it didn't pause as it headed toward the edge of the dome. It was all his fault. The dome would seal itself after the robot plunged through, but not without loss of air—and one good mechanic.
The machine churned on but surprisingly didn't plow heedlessly into the curved transparent wall. The extensibles felt the surface, the speed was checked and the direction changed. The robot moved parallel with the edge of the dome. It had a better sense of self-preservation than was common with robots of this type.
It felt the wall as it rolled along. There was nothing noteworthy about the surface, smooth, hard, and slightly curved. Another extensible emerged from the squat body; the tip flashed a light toward the outside.
It was strange out there. Jordan hadn't often seen it; not many people came to look out. When the asteroid was in the solar system jagged rocks had gleamed in the sharp light of the sun. But now the landscape was always dark except when some curious person wanted to remind himself what the rest of his world was like. It was a torn and crumpled sight the robot's light displayed, as if some giant had risen and tossed aside the rocks he slept in. But not completely rumpled; here and there were smooth areas that some vast engine might have planed flat—or the same giant had straightened out with a swipe of his hand before departing.
The robot flicked off the light and turned away. Jordan breathed with relief when he saw where it was going, toward the central repair depot to which all robots returned periodically. It would slide into a stall and stop. He would get off. And he would see to it that the robot was thoroughly checked over before it was called out again.
The entrance slot was extremely wide and equally low; it wasn't built for passengers on the robots. Momentarily the thought flashed across his mind that he should let himself be scraped off. But it seemed a precipitous way to dismount and anyway the machine would soon stop and he could get off more conventionally. Instinct won and Jordan flattened himself as they swept under the gate. He could feel the masonry twitching at his clothing.
The slot opened into a circular space in which other robots were stationed in stalls. In the center were bins of spare parts. Jordan called out, not too hopefully. Robots were assigned from here on a broadcast band; he didn't think there were facilities for responding to the human voice.
His machine headed toward a stall at the rear. This far from the entrance the light was dim. Jordan wondered why there was any light at all; robots didn't need it. Upon reflection he decided it was a concession to human limitations.
But the machine didn't slow down as he expected. It rumbled between walls, turned at a sharp angle—and the parking slot was not what it had seemed. They were in a passageway, narrow and even more dimly lighted. That it was lighted at all indicated it wasn't a chance fissure. It had been built long ago and forgotten.
This was serious. Where was the machine going and when would it stop? He hoped it would stop. An outcropping in the passageway loomed ahead of him; he flung himself flat. A sharp projection grazed his ear. The tunnel wound on through solid rock. He was lost by the time it ended.
There were no true directions on the asteroid. Toward the sun or away from it; toward the hospital or the rocket dome. These were the principle orientations and the main one had been left behind—the sun. He didn't know where he was except that it was somewhere under the main dome. He was sure of this because he was still alive. There was air.
The passageway terminated in a large cavern. Once he saw it he relaxed. It was a laboratory and a workshop and he knew whose. There was only one person who would disassemble nine general purpose robots and arrange their headpieces in a neat row on a stone slab. Their eyes revolved slowly as the machine rumbled farther in. He stared back; the intensity with which they gazed at him was uncomfortable. How long Nona had had this workshop he didn't know. Perhaps it was here she'd hidden from the guards.
Nine pair of eyes followed their progress as the machine rolled across the floor. Jordan glared back. He could see that they were not merely in a row, that they were hooked together by a complex circuitry that wove an indefinable pattern between them. The purpose was obscure.
A repair robot was an idiot outside the one thing it was built to do. A general purpose robot, the geepee, was a higher type. It was a moron. Were nine morons brighter than one? With men, not necessarily; stupidity was often merely compounded. But with mechanical brains, using modules of computation, the combination might constitute an accurate data evaluating system.
Jordan squirmed to get a better glimpse of the heads on the slab—and fell off the machine that held him captive. He was free.
His first impulse was to scurry away. When he remembered how far he had to go and by what labyrinth route he decided to wait. Something better might come up. He raised himself and rubbed fine gravel off his cheek. Dust irritated his nose; he sneezed. Eighteen eyes glowered at him.
The repair robot ignored him. Having brought him so far and clung possessively, now it refused to notice him. On the bench there was something new to interest it. The unshakable directive around which it was built had taken over: there was a machine which should be fixed.
What? A mechanism of some sort. Not the nine heads. The repair robot raised a visual stalk and scanned. Jordan craned but couldn't see to the top of the stone bench. Extending other stalks the robot began working up high on the unknown something.
His own curiosity was aroused. Jordan swung to the bench and, gripping the edge, hoisted himself up. Parts of disassembled geepees and other electronic devices were scattered over the slab. He inched carefully along until he could see what his robot, microsenses clicking furiously, was busy with.
It was disappointing. He had expected to find a complicated machine and instead it was nothing at all—a strand of woven wire with a rectangular metal piece at one end. A belt with a buckle on it. This was what fascinated the repair robot.
Jordan went closer. The robot hummed and shook, extensibles racing through the scattered parts which it sorted and laid aside for other stalks to add to the end of the slender strand. It worked on, from time to time stopping to buzz inquisitively. When nothing happened after these outbursts it resumed activity. The pattern was clear: the belt was not functioning properly and the robot was busy repairing it.
Gradually it slowed and the pauses became longer. It clattered loudly and sputtered, extensibles waving uncontrollably until they seemed to freeze. The directive completely frustrated, the robot whined once and then was silent. It was motionless.
Jordan reached for the object, ready to swing away if there was any objection. There wasn't. He examined it closely; it was not a belt. And the rectangular metal piece was not a buckle though it could serve as one. Actually it was a mechanism of some kind, though what it was supposed to do he couldn't tell.
It was one of Nona's experiments. Of that there was little doubt. The strands were not wires but microparts fastened together and woven into an intricate pattern. Jordan snorted; the robot hadn't improved on what Nona had wrought.
He inspected it thoroughly. He could see where the robot had begun to add parts. Methodically he unhooked the surplus components. If Nona had thought they should be on there she would have attached them. They didn't belong.
When he was down to the original mechanism he looked at it perplexedly. It was designed to be worn as a belt. He fastened it around his waist and touched the stud.
By now he had some idea of what it was intended for. It was not surprising that it worked perfectly.
He expected that it would. Nona seldom failed. What Jordan didn't notice and would never discover—no one would—was that there were three minute parts that the robot had added, almost too small for the human eye to see. And those three parts were indispensable. Without them the belt would not function at all. For the lack of them Nona had discarded the idea as unworkable.


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