13. Lord Paynter’s Problem
Not human, I thought, remembering those eyes of cool metal. I sent an inward thought searching out the mind that crowded my own mind in the narrow confines of my head. Not human? I got no answer, for a moment. Then there was a whisper like a distant voice.
Watch and wait, it told me quietly.
“I don’t know what a Mechandroid is,” I said as calmly as I could. “I don’t seem to know much of anything about this place. One thing I’d like to get clear—where I’m not. Tell me, Paynter—Murray—whoever you are, whether you remember anything about the Face of Ea.”
He scowled thoughtfully. I was watching but I saw no flicker of recognition.
“I can have inquiries made,” he offered. “It means nothing to me, but we have colonies now on so many worlds—”
“Never mind,” I said rather dizzily. “Forget it.” Whether he knew or not he wasn’t going to give away anything in that connection. “All right, one more thing then. What century is this?”
He told me. It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t the time of the world’s end. I was sure of that—or as sure as I could be of anything just then. Nowhere in the galaxy yet was that red twilight or the towering Face. Something had gone wrong during our journey. Something had broken it and roused us to wakefulness too soon. Perhaps millennia too soon. And I was the only one of us who remembered at all what mission we’d set out upon.
Remembered? A sudden idea struck me and I said quickly.
“How about this, Paynter—suppose you really are Murray with amnesia? You could have awakened and forgotten somehow. You might—”
“That’s impossible,” he said firmly, shaking his head. “I know my complete history. I was born Job Paynter, on Colchan Three, of Earth stock, fifty years ago, and I can remember a complete life. No intervals missing.”
“All right,” I said. “You suggest something.”
“I wish I could. We seem to be at a stalemate. We—”
His voice suddenly went thin and dim in my ears. I felt my breath rush inward with a shuddering gasp and—
Out of the past, into the secret recesses of my mind burst a familiar soundless roar of energy. Paynter and the garden behind him, were fading, insubstantial shadows. Nothing existed for a terrible blinding moment except this bursting light-speed gush of energy as—
As the thing made its kill.
The next thing I saw was Paynter’s face. He was watching me narrowly out of hard blue eyes and it seemed to me his cheeks were curiously flushed.
I don’t know how long a time had elapsed. Obviously it was time enough for a report to come through, for he was speaking into an instrument on his wrist. I didn’t understand the language he used. I sat there limply, too dazed still to move or think, while he watched me with that pale stare.
I struggled to regain my detachment in the face of a shock that had left me sweating with plain physical fear. Somehow I had lost touch with my human companions in the long journey but it was clear that there was one fellow-traveler whom I had not lost. The creature whose track was the nekron—the killing thing whose touch was an infection of matter itself.
Paynter lowered his wrist. “Cortland,” he said, “one of the men who helped set up this machine has been killed just now. Burned. It’s something no one seems to have seen before—burns of that type, I mean. You—ah—you seemed affected just now. Have you anything to tell me about this?”
I looked at him dumbly. Then there was a stirring in my mind and the metallic gaze of the dweller there seemed to glance out through mine.
That was very curious, the cold, watchful awareness that was De Kalb said calmly. Comply with Paynter now. Do as he suggests. I think I may be starting to understand.
I sighed heavily. I hoped he was. Things were entirely out of my hands now. I watched Paynter take a black helmet out of the smaller box before him, plug in its cord to the larger box, hold the headpiece out to me.
“Here,” he said briskly. “You and I could ask one another questions until doomsday and not come nearer any understanding. This will put us in a mental rapport—fast and complete.”
I looked at the thing skeptically, feeling dubious. It was all very well for De Kalb in my mind to urge compliance. How did I know what his real interests were? What Paynter’s were? Certainly not the same as mine.
“Let me think this over a minute,” I said doubtfully. “I don’t understand—”
“The control is set for certain basic problems.” Paynter said in an impatient voice. “Well open our minds to each other, that’s all. There’s automatic screening to eliminate trivialities but everything centering around the basic of time-travel will be revealed in three seconds, much more clearly than you could possibly convey it in words. In return, I’ll understand all you need to know, so that you can talk to me intelligently and won’t have to stop for questions every third word. Put it on, man, put it on!”
I lifted the helmet dubiously. For a moment I hesitated. Then the memory of the dead man so near us flashed vividly through my mind and I knew I had no time to lose. It might happen again. I was afraid of what Paynter might discover—but how could I refuse now? How much had he noticed when the killer struck? Perhaps it would be better if he knew the whole story.
The helmet slipped easily on my head and seemed to adjust itself automatically. Paynter was saying something about projection.
“You had books in your time. In a good one there’s projection—you felt the way the author wanted you to feel. This is simply a further development. You may relive the experiences of historical persons, if the screening works out that way. I’ll get certain knowledge from you, you from me—and we draw on the projection library as a supplement, a concordance, if necessary.”
His fingers were busy adjusting controls. I had time enough to think, “This is the forerunning of the Record, of course. One of the steps toward something more complex.”
Then a bar of spinning light sprang up from the larger box, whirling so rapidly that atoms of light seemed to spiral out from it. And—then I was somebody else.
I was a guy named Bannister who’d been born after Hiroshima. I was standing in a room a mile underground. The General was sitting at his desk playing with a pistol. We were temporarily safe here, though it wasn’t really safe anywhere. Still, there was a half mile of valves, Geigers and filters—the atomic absorption stacks—between us and the surface, so not much radiation could get in.
“Let’s have it,” the General said,
This was one war that hadn’t gone by the rules. This time the top men were getting killed—the ones who’d always died in bed before. So they were beginning to grope frantically around in Pandora’s box muttering, “Where’d Hope get to?”
They were beginning to find out they should have stood in bed.
The Second Atomic War. I—whoever I was–never thought about it. I’d lived it for some years. I guess I was one of the early mental mutations, part of the social mutation that had to take place after the world began to rock like a gyroscope slowing down. I knew already I didn’t think in quite the same way the older men did. Sometimes I wondered if the change, after all, meant only a keener ruthlessness.
The General said, “Well? Where’s the report?”
“He’s done it, sir,” I said.
The General put the pistol down on his desk and showed his teeth. “Is is practical? That’s the point.”
“It’s practical sir,” I said. “Inanimate matter only, so far. But such matter can be transported for a thousand-mile radius. A receiver must be spotted first, though. It means interplanetary colonization one of these days—because the first space-ship can take a receiver with it and open up a pipeline for supplies. This is only the start.”
“A matter-transmitter,” the General said and suddenly crumpled the papers on his desk. “Armistice? We’ll forget that now. GHQ will change its tune now we’ve got this new weapon.”
“The inventor wants to use the device for peaceful purposes, sir,” I said. “I heard rumors the war was over.”
He looked at me. “They all do. Yes, the war was over yesterday. But well start it again.”
Then I knew that I was a mutation after all—mentally. The General and I just didn’t think the same way. We didn’t have the same values and we never would. He hadn’t matured in an atomic world.
I had. I picked up the pistol from the General’s desk. His brain was obsolescent anyway.
Then I was somebody else.
“Cities?” I said to my visitor. “No, we’ll never rebuild them. We won’t need to.”
“But the world is in ruins.”
“Technology is the answer.”
“You mean machines can build where men cannot?”
“Aren’t they doing it?”
They were—yes. Old as I was, over a hundred—whoever I was–I could not remember a time when the planet had not been radiotoxic. Not all of it, of course. The men that were left, the survivors, gathered in the islands relatively free from the poison. Travel, even by plane, would have been too dangerous, but we had the matter-transmitters. So we were not insular. There were the colonized planets.
Still, Earth was the home. With the halftime of the radio-dust, it would be a long time before most of the planet would become habitable. Yet Earth could be rebuilt, in preparation, by machines.
“I will show you my plan,” I said. “Come with me. I’ll be dead long before there’s a use for my Mechandroids, but that day will surely come.”
He followed me along the corridor. He was a powerful man, one of the most powerful in the world, but he followed me like a young student.
“It’s hard to know the best plan,” he said, half to himself.
“We have a Galaxy to colonize. Human minds can’t cope with that. Nor can machines. The machines must fail because they’re emotionless and inhuman. What you need is a human machine or a mechanical human. A perfect blend. A synthesis. Like my Mechandroids.”
I pulled back a curtain and showed him the young strong body in the glass coffin. The machines clicked and hummed from all around. The wires quivered slightly.
“This is one of my Mechandroids,” I said. “They cannot reproduce; they do not breed true. But they can be manufactured. It’s as though a machine had given birth to a human.”
“He looks thoroughly normal.”
“I chose his parents. I needed the right heredity. I selected the chromosomes most suited to my needs—and I tried time after time before I succeeded. But then this Mechandroid was born. Almost since birth he has been trained—hypnogenically—educated, indoctrinated, by the thinking-machines.
“He has been taught to think as accurately as a machine. The human brain is theoretically capable of such discipline but the experiment has never been tried before to this extent. Mechandroids, I believe, can solve all human problems, and solve them correctly.”
“Machine-trained?” he said doubtfully. “Machines must serve men. They must free men, so that the capacity of the human brain may be fulfilled. These Mechandroids will smooth the path, so that man may follow the highest science—that of thought.”
“There’s no danger?” he asked, looking at the silent Mechandroid.
“There’s no danger,” I said.