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Chapter 11
 In the beginning there was silence and it never changed. No sound came to break the stillness. Darkness changed to light with regularity or not, but in the particular universe in which she lived there was never any noise nor any conversation, and music was unknown. She didn't miss it.
There were also machines in the universe in which she dwelt and these too observed a dichotomy. Some machines were warm and soft and this distinguished them from those which were hard and cool. The warm ones started themselves when they were very small. Later they grew up but they didn't know how they did it. Neither did she. Once she was little and she didn't remember doing anything to change it, but it did change.
The hard machines she knew more about. They didn't always have picture receptors on top. Some were blind and some saw more than she did, though not quite in the same way. She could never tell by looking at them which was apt to do which.
(There was a stupid little running machine that she had discovered once that was perpetually scurrying about looking for things to do. It would never have survived on Earth because there was an unexpected flaw in it. She herself had sensed the fault and started to fix it only to realize that here was an unexpected stroke of luck. Curiosity circuits there were by the million but they were all mechanical and what they produced could be strictly predicted. But this was unique. A deviation in the manufacturing process, a slight change in the density of the material, whatever it was something extraordinarily fine had been put together and it would take a hundred years of chance to duplicate it.)
(Midway she had changed her mind and instead had altered the machine to encourage the basic sensitivity. She hadn't seen it recently. She hoped someone who didn't understand hadn't undone her work.)
The known order crumbled under the touch into something that was strange. But where sight itself would not suffice, it was possible to touch reality, to soak it into the skin, like understanding which cometh slowly to the growing mind. But what was understanding? Parts of it were always left out and she could venture toward it only a little way.
She twisted the head on the bench. The silence was unchanging. (What was silence?) Other heads on the bench didn't move; they weren't supposed to. Once they had been attached to clumsy machines and could move about with a stiff degree of freedom. They couldn't now, though they could twist the light perceptors in whichever direction suited them.
But they didn't know where to look.
She herself couldn't see the thing that was approaching. It was because her eyes were imperfect. Lenses were pliable and nerve endings were huge things, too gross to catch the instant infinitesimal signals. Or perhaps it was permeability—force bounced on distant impenetrability and bounded back to and through her senses.
She'd have to align the heads to help them help her, string them together for what reinforcement they offered each other. And still they wouldn't see because what they depended on for seeing was too slow. By itself the hookup wouldn't correct their sight.
But nearby was a fast mind though a lazy one. It liked routine once the meaning of it was made clear. And it worked with instantaneity. Blind itself it could fingertip touch the incredible impulses and interpret what it felt for those who had eyes. It would join with her, reluctantly but surely if she made it interesting, a game at which it could always win. And winning wouldn't be difficult for it, not against these nine circuit bound minds, even if it was true that they did augment one another. Singly there were stupid and even added they were not much better. Their virtue was that they were electronic.
(Alone) Were there intangible machines? Sometimes she thought there might be. People twisted their mouth and (not because they were smiling) to indicate that they too understood. She could touch the air coming out but the impulses had no meaning. It was not like vibrations machines set up, harmonics that told of the unseen structure. There was nothing mechanical that could be concealed from harmonics—there were no hard and fast secrets. But what came out of mouths was senseless. It told nothing, or if it did have meaning her hands and her skin were unable to relay the interpretation further. (People were soft machines and they did not ring true. It was difficult to understand.)
Her hands were usually quite capable. (Now) she wove wires so fine that only occasional light was caught and brilliantly reflected. Each strand led somewhere. She removed panels from the robots' heads and grouped them closer. They were beginning to shake off their incomplete individuality. They were no longer separate mechanisms, each of which could only grope for a small fragment of reality. They were merging, becoming larger and stronger. There was more to be done to them but she couldn't do it.
As light as her touch was it was too inaccurate for what must follow. There were objects smaller than her eye could see, movements finer than her muscles could control. She summoned a repair machine whose microsenses were adequate to begin with. She would like to have the one she repaired some time ago (actually it was quite smart) but it had disappeared and she didn't know where to find it. However this one would do.
It was set merely to repair what was already built, but what she wanted was not yet made. She changed the instructions; they were not to her liking anyway.
She delved into the machine and set the problem. The statement of it was complex and she wasn't sure how much data the robot aide would need. When she finished it stood there thrumming. It didn't move.
She waited but nothing happened. The robot, whose senses were far finer than her own, remained frozen and baffled. Impatiently she restated the problem, rephrased it so that it could reach every part of the circuit almost instantly. Where it was complex she simplified, reducing it at last to an order the robot could act on. It began to work, slowly at first.
It copied exactly a circuit she had made previously. After she approved it started another, like the first but much smaller, attaching it in series. Satisfied it was obeying instructions, she left it. It would continue to make those circuits, each one progressively smaller, the final one delicate enough to contact the gravity computer.
Meanwhile there was her own work. It wouldn't suffice that the geepees be linked with the gravity computer. They would then see what she had discovered long ago—but it was people who had to be shown. Their eyes were even less sensitive than hers.
Fortunately this was the easiest part. She went to the screen and began to alter it. It could be made to scan what the gravity computer passed on to the geepee heads. A row of dominos, each of which would topple if the first were struck, and the screen was the last of the series.
"Hello," said a voice. "So this is where you always are. What a dreary place to work."
She didn't hear the voice. She felt the footsteps and the air brushing against her skin. She turned around, letting her hands continue, deft and sure. She didn't need to see what she was doing. The smile was involuntary.
He leaned against the wall, watching her. It was embarrassing the way she gazed back. He wished she could say something but then he'd always wished it. He'd had a thesis once, hadn't he? that for mechanics deafness wasn't a handicap considering how noisy machines were. A deaf person could withstand a concentration of sound the average man would find intolerable. And there was no need for such a person to talk since there was no one who could hear.
The connections in her hands grew swiftly. She felt that she could work better while he was near. Why was this?
"What do you respond to?" he said gruffly. "Diagrams, blue-prints? If so I'll have to learn to draw the damnedest things." He laughed uncertainly. "Come on, help me a little bit. I've got some ideas that might help you break out of your shell if you'd try to respond."
He fixed things too, warm soft mechanisms. She didn't know but she thought it was a higher skill than hers. He was not as adept as she was, though he could learn to be. There was so much more he could do if he would realize. His mouth was a handicap. He moved it often when he should be thinking.
"Listen, robot face, I left a career for you. Do you think they wouldn't take me back? The Medicouncil wouldn't like it but I'd have been a popular hero. Sometimes they want their heroes to fail. Besides from their viewpoint it was the best possible solution. Now they don't have to think of people like you out on that god-forsaken asteroid. You're off their conscience and they don't have to have bad dreams about you."
She smiled again and it was infuriating. What he said or did had no effect. "At least show that you recognize me. Stop what you're doing. It can't be important."
He drew her to him roughly and the work fell from her hands. The connections had been done minutes before and she'd continued to hold them because she didn't want to move away from him. She was willing to let him look at her closely if he wanted. It was surprising how much he wanted to.
Later he held her away from him. "I take it back," he said softly. "You're not a robot face. There's no point of resemblance to a machine. And look, you've even discovered that you've got more than one expression."
The robot aide that had been laboring on whirred inaudibly and clacked its extensibles. It rolled away from the work bench, brushing lightly against the doctor as it did so.
Cameron glanced down blankly, not actually seeing it. "What do I do now?" he said with unexpected gloominess. "You're a child. You're as old as Jeriann, maybe as old as I am, but in this you're hardly more than a child." What was consent and how would he know when he had it? Well, no, that was not the problem—he knew, but would she? What could he explain to her? He put his arms around her and gazed thoughtfully over her head at the odds and ends of machinery she had been stringing together. The screen flickered and sprang into illumination.
He glared at it for interrupting his thoughts. It seemed to him he had just discovered something very significant and if he'd had a few more minutes he'd have been able to say it in a way he'd never forget. But there was a shape on the screen and he couldn't ignore it. The image wavered in and out of focus, growing clearer as the machine learned to hold it steady.
It was a ship.
A ship. He dropped his hands. "Don't give up on me. I'm not going to run out on you." Was it his imagination that the ship was growing larger? His throat was dry and tight. The last thing he wanted to see was a ship.
"I don't know what we can do about this, Nona, but come on. We'll see."
She leaned against the wall, showing no inclination to follow. She seemed to be disturbed but he would guess it was not about the same thing he was. "Come on," he said. "We've got to tell the others."
And still she didn't move. "I can't stay here," he muttered and kissed her. He started walking away fast so he'd be able to leave.
She could tell that he was upset by the unexpected appearance of the ship on the scanner. Perhaps he thought they were alone in space, that emptiness was lonely. He ought to have known better. She had seen it long ago, and guessed what it meant. It would have to be overcome.
What she couldn't understand was what happened to her when he touched her. Others had tried to come close and either she minded or was indifferent and they went away. But this was surely outside of her experience. She thought it meant something to touch a machine and to know therefrom what it was. But to come in contact with him and to learn all at once what he was—yes and herself too.... The warm soft mechanism that she was behaved strangely—never the same way twice.
And now she was becoming confused—because she would always feel this when he was near—and she didn't mind.
She closed her eyes and could see him more clearly. (What was choice?)
Docchi walked on, carefully skirting one of the columns that supported the dome. Once it had seemed huge and unshakable and now it was remarkably slender. The dome itself was hardly adequate to keep the darkness overhead from descending. This was the dull side of their rotation; they were looking back at the way they'd come. The stars were gray and faint. "Where did you see it?" he asked after a long silence.
"In the place Jordan described. It's deep underground but I believe it's near one of the piles. I felt the wall and it was warm."
"Somewhere below the gravity computer," said Docchi. "Why there, I don't know, but Nona may have had a reason. What I want to know is: how do you account for the ship?"
"What?" said Cameron. "Oh, I leave that to you and Jordan. I can't explain it."
Docchi guessed why the doctor was less concerned than he tried to be. Let him live with his exaltation for a while. It might not last. "Part of it's easy, how the ship came to be there."
"It isn't to me," said Cameron. "We haven't been gone long, not much more than a month."
"Six weeks to be exact. Six weeks on our calendar."
"I see, relative time. I heard we were approaching the speed of light but I didn't think we were close enough to make any difference." He glanced at his watch as if it held secrets he couldn't fathom. "How long have we actually been gone, Earth time?"
"I don't know. We haven't any figures on our acceleration rate nor our present speed."
"What are you planning to do? We can't just sit here and let them overtake us."
"I don't know. We're not helpless." Docchi's plans were vague. There was much that had to be determined before he could decide on anything. "You're certain it's one of ours? It's not an alien ship?"
The idea hadn't occurred to Cameron. He turned the image around in his mind before he answered. "I'm not familiar with ship classifications, but it's ours unless these aliens use the English language. There was a name on it. I could read part. It ended in -tory."
"The Victory class," said Docchi. "The biggest thing built. At one time it was intended for interstellar service, before the gravity drive fizzled."
"That's how they were able to do it," said Cameron. "I've been wondering how they were able to send a ship after us so soon, even allowing for the fact that we've been gone longer than it seems to us, maybe two or three months instead of six weeks."
He had nothing definite to go on but in Docchi's opinion the time was closer to half a year. "Right. Since the ships were already there rusting in the spaceport all they had to do was clean them up and add an information unit to the drive. They may have started work on it while we were in the solar system, when they were still looking for Nona."
The special irony was that our own discoveries were being used against them. Nona's first, the resurrected drive, and then his own not negligible contribution. Docchi himself had told them. His thoughtless remark that the drive would function without Nona had been relayed back to Earth. Vogel the engineer had probably picked it up and sent the information on. Someone would have chanced on the idea anyway, but he had given them weeks. And a week was of incalculable importance—planets could be won or lost.
Cameron was silent as they walked on. "There's a ship but we don't know where. Let's not worry until we find where it's going."
Docchi didn't answer. That the scanner Nona had built was capable of detecting a ship between the stars indicated a tremendous range—old style. But distances had shrunk lately. There was a ship behind them and it wasn't far. Neither was it on a pleasure jaunt.
At the hospital steps they conferred briefly and then separated, Cameron leaving to find Jeriann. Docchi went into his office and tried unsuccessfully to locate Jordan.
Ultimately he gave it up. Jordan had his own ideas of what was important and lately had been mysteriously concerned with some undertaking he refused to disclose. He had even tried to conceal that there was something he was working on. Docchi switched his efforts and finally contacted Webber. At a time like this they needed what support they could get. Webber was not a substitute for Jordan but he'd do. The person he'd most have liked to have along was Anti but she couldn't leave the prison, her tank. They missed her. They always would as long as she was confined.
Docchi sat down while he waited for Webber. He needed the rest. He had been hoping that the pursuit would not begin as soon as it had. They would find some way to throw off the ship behind them—but it was not the biggest threat.
"Do you suppose she hid here when the guards were looking for her?" said Webber.
"Doesn't seem likely," said Docchi, trying to keep up. The other's composite body gave him strength he wasn't aware of. Docchi couldn't match the effortless stride, the endurance. "Guards searched here too."
They had, but how thoroughly? The asteroid had once been a planet, a world with an atmosphere, oceans, lakes, streams. Water had seeped into the ground, creating imperceptible weaknesses in the crust. And long ago when the catastrophe came it had struck suddenly. The planet had been split with such violence that whole chunks had been hurled apart, each one intact except that the shock had enlarged on the work begun by water. Faults became underground caverns, tortuous caverns in the rock that intersected the man-made tunnel.
No matter what their orders were, the guards wouldn't have been anxious to explore too far. Under the stress of unusual gravity fissures could close again on the unwary—it was possible they'd made only a token search here.
"If we come here often there ought to be an easier way than this," said Webber as they went along.
Docchi had been thinking of it. He would be able to tell when he saw it whether it would be possible to move the scanner. If so a good place might be in gravity center. As nearly as he could tell it was almost directly overhead.
Voices sprang out of the tunnel as they neared the destination. "Don't know what's keeping them," grumbled Jordan. "Maybe we ought not to wait."
"He was looking for you," said Jeriann, her voice carrying in the stillness of the underground. "He said it was urgent for you to be here."
"A few minutes won't hurt," said Cameron. "Lucky we found you when we did or you'd have missed it."
"What do you mean, lucky?" growled Jordan. "I was on my way here when you yelled."
"Have you seen it in operation?" said Jeriann. "Cameron said you found the place."
"If I had I'd have told you. The scanner wasn't finished last time I was here. I figured Nona would let us know when she was ready."
The tunnel turned sharply and though they could hear Jordan's voice the words were indistinct. It was a quirk of acoustics because, as they travelled on, utter silence descended. They could hear nothing at all until the tunnel curved again and they entered the cavern.
He glanced around once before they were noticed. The nine geepee heads Cameron had described were almost indiscernible under the mass of circuitry that covered them. Nona had improved the scanner. He could identify some of the components but the arrangement was totally unfamiliar.
He thought he could trace the basic outline. It was a gravity device of some kind, what kind he wasn't sure. If he had thought about it previously he would have realized it practically had to be that.
"They're here," said Jeriann at his side, and he hadn't seen how she'd got there. Seconds before she'd been arguing with Jordan and now she was next to him.
Jordan looked up and Nona clipped a few connections in place. She stayed close to the doctor. "We all know what we came for so there's no need for preliminaries," said Docchi. "Cameron, can you tell Nona to start the scanner?"
"My communication is rather primitive," said Cameron with a slight smile. "However——" He had no time to say more. Nona didn't move but the scanner responded.
A shape glowed, a vague nebula, far away. It came closer and the nebula dissolved—it was a ship. There was darkness all around and yet the ship wasn't dark. The lights that streamed out of the ports couldn't account for this, there was nothing to reflect it on the hull. Radar was one explanation, a gravity radar. The impulses left the asteroid, traversed the space to the far away object and bounced back—in no-time.
"It's a military ship," said Jordan. "The biggest."
The ship rocked a little or perhaps the scanner resolved the image better. The name began to swing into sight. "Tory," repeated Webber when he was able to read it. "Victory. And victory always ends with tory."
"Star Victory," said Jeriann as the ship rotated and the full name grew visible. "They're premature. They haven't won yet."
"But how far away?" growled Jordan. "We ought to know the power of the screen."
The scanner wasn't calibrated and so they didn't know the distance. Later Nona might add that refinement but if she didn't there was practically no way of telling her what they wanted. Now there was merely a three quarter view, the nose of the ship and enough to make out that the rockets weren't flaring. Gravity drive of course. But they knew that.
"We've seen it," said Webber flatly. "Now what?"
"We're not going to let them take us," said Jeriann. "Docchi will think of something."
Her confidence wasn't warranted. Actually he'd done little to bring them this far. Intellectual force perhaps. He had turned discontent into something positive—and joint action had so far overcome the obstacles. But it was Nona who had given them the power to make the action worthwhile. And she was limited too—there would come an end to the seemingly endless flow of invention. There were circumstances against which no ingenuity could prevail.
At the present they needed more to go on. They knew there was a ship behind them. The relationship had to be defined. Space was vast and they might be able to elude the pursuer. They had to find out where the ship was.
They looked at Nona. She was standing close to Cameron, very close. She seemed to know what was expected of her, a mass rapport. She touched the doctor wonderingly as he smiled down at her and then she went to the scanner, working on it, changing the connections with negligent skill.
The ship wavered as she worked. It disappeared for seconds and when it came back it was rapidly approaching the viewing surface of the scanner. Closer—they touched the hull—and then they were inside, gazing out of a screen.
Jordan frowned. "They've duplicated the drive—have they duplicated her scanner?"
"I don't think so," said Docchi. "They have telescreens of short range. But there's no reason why two completely different systems can't be spliced together."
They were looking at an empty room and no one came in. Impatiently Nona touched the connections and the scene dissolved, shifted and blurred and when it cleared they were elsewhere, another screen, a different room. A broadshouldered man hunched over a desk, muttering and scratching his scalp. He signed his name several times; one of the sheets he crumpled and discarded, first tearing out his signature. The rest of the documents he dispatched in a slot.
When he turned around they saw it was General Judd.
He reached hastily for the switch but withdrew his hand before it got there. "Well, the orphans have come back, hand in hand." He smirked with calm deliberation. "Or should I say arm in arm, Cameron?"
Docchi noticed it if no one else did. The general hadn't called Cameron a doctor. As far as the Medicouncil was concerned Cameron probably no longer was. It was the final proof, if Docchi had needed it; of which side Cameron was on.
"We have a whole new alignment," continued the general. "Cameron with Nona, and our rebellious engineer with Jeriann."
Docchi's face began to glitter but he caught the light as it surged through his veins, willing it to stop before it showed in his skin. "We haven't come back, General. We didn't think it would hurt to talk, though, if you don't mind."
"I never mind a little chat, Docchi. Always willing to hear what the other fellow has to say—as long as he comes to the point."
The general thought his position was strong enough that he could be as insulting as he wanted. He was very nearly right. "First we'd like to know what you want."
"Our terms haven't changed a bit. Turn around and go back." Judd smiled broadly, an official wolfish expression. "We don't insist you return to the same orbit. In fact it might be better if you moved the asteroid closer to Earth."
Where the Medicouncil could keep a perpetual watch. And where they would swing through the heavens forever in sight of Earth but never a part of it. "Naturally we don't accept," said Docchi. "However we don't reject negotiations completely. There are some of us who might go back for one reason or another—homesickness mostly. If you're willing we can make arrangements to transfer them to your ship."
"Ah, trouble," said the general gravely, trying to conceal his delight. "And I think I know where the trouble is. We came fully prepared for every emergency that we—or you—might meet. The Medicouncil is very thorough."
The picture of Maureen crouched in a darkened room, whimpering through clenched teeth that she didn't want ever to see anyone. The tautness as one set of muscles extended her hand toward the door and another set tore it away. And there were other images, vague now, but in time they could become threatening.
The Medicouncil had foreseen this; there were biologicals on the ship to cure Maureen. Docchi's face twitched and he hoped the general didn't notice. "I haven't checked to see how many are willing to go with you. I will, if it's satisfactory."
"Don't bother," said the general. "In case you weren't listening, I didn't say that we're a cozy little group of altruists, just anxious as hell to take over your responsibilities. The biologicals are here. You'll get them when we land a crew to make sure you do go back. My orders are very plain. We want all of you—or none."
"You know what we'll say," said Docchi. "None of us, of course." The letdown was less than he expected. He'd half known the conditions; it was consistent with all the attitudes toward accidentals—once human but now not quite. It was a typical way to ease their conscience—load the ship with every medical supply—and then refuse those in need unless they all came back. "We're getting along quite nicely without your help," he continued, and if it was less true than he liked, it was more so than the general realized. "One thing, Judd, don't try to land without our consent."
"So you still think we're stupid," said the general affably, at ease in the situation. He didn't expect us to surrender, thought Docchi. Then why had he asked? "We won't attempt to land until you cooperate. You will. Sooner or later you will."
"I hardly think so. We decided that a long time ago."
The general shrugged. "Suit yourself. Remember we're not vindictive, we're not trying to punish you. We do insist that you're sick and helpless. You'll have to come back and be placed under competent medical care." He glanced amusedly at Cameron.
"You don't act as if we're helpless," said Jeriann.
"Dangerously sick," said the general. "Have you ever heard of hysteria, in which the patient must be protected against himself—and he may hurt others?" He was fingering a chart on the desk, had been all the while he was talking. He examined it briefly and then looked up. "What goes on here? How can you talk across this distance?"
"It took you a long time to realize it, General. We're not right next to you." Again it was Docchi's bad habit to talk too much but there was a reason for it and this time he wasn't telling the general anything he wouldn't figure out for himself.
The general's jaw hardened and he pawed futilely at the switch. "How do we do it?" said Docchi. "It's our secret." But the general didn't reply and he wouldn't reveal the information Docchi wanted. Nona finally broke the connection at her end.
Webber breathed noisily as the image faded. He stamped the mechanical foot, echoes rolling through the cavern. "Will somebody tell me why the general's so polite? Why won't he land unless we ask him to?"
"It's not consideration," said Docchi. "The asteroid's much larger than his ship, and nearly as fast. Did you ever try to land on a stationary port?"
Webber looked abashed. "I keep forgetting we're moving."
"Sure. Aside from the fact we could smash his ship and it wouldn't inconvenience us unless it hit the dome, not a very large part of the total surface, what else can he do? Come close and try to send out men in space suits? We veer off and leave them stranded until he picks them up. If he wants to we'll play tag half way across the galaxy with him."
"So he can't land," said Webber, gaining assurance. "Why didn't I think of the reasons?"
"Because one man can't figure out everything," said Jeriann. "If there was just Nona we'd still be back in the solar system. Or Docchi by himself, or Jordan, or Anti. Together we get the answers."
So far—but it might not always hold true. Docchi was worried by the general's lack of concern. He hadn't expected to contact the accidentals but when they'd got in touch with him he wasn't startled. He knew what to do because he had been told. He wasn't a fast thinker who could improvise, his specialty was carrying out a plan.
But if Judd was not at first disconcerted he'd made up for it when he became aware they weren't using conventional communication. Docchi would have given a lot to see the chart the general had. He'd tried to provoke the officer but the ruse hadn't been effective. The general knew the distance between the ship and the asteroid, but he hadn't revealed it.
Webber walked noisily to the scanner, peering into the circuits. "The general's communication experts will be working overtime for a while," he remarked.
"For the rest of the voyage. They'll know the scanner's a gravity device but that won't help them." It was another count against them. Communication at practically unlimited range was not a prize easily given up.
But what they really wanted was Nona. Indirectly she'd given them back the gravity drive, and now this. And they would think, rightly, that there was more where these inventions came from.
He wished Anti were here to advise them. Docchi looked around to ask Jordan about her but he was already gone. Cameron was standing quietly in a corner with Nona, talking to her in a low voice while she smiled and smiled. Webber was still looking into the scanner.
Only Jeriann was waiting for him. Now that the general had mentioned it, Docchi wondered if she really was waiting for him—and for how long.


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