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14. Vega-Born

Then I was somebody else.

Saturn blazed in the sky above me, blotting out half the firmament, as I fled down the twisting street from the Mechandroid. I had to find somebody who knew what to do. But nobody seemed alive in the city. Nobody but the silent striding creature that was pursuing me.

Homecoming, eh? I was Vega-born. I was sixteen. Id taken the great jump across interstellar space in the matter-transmitter with my Age Groupnine of themfor the Earth tour and, because all Solar tours start with the outer planets, wed stepped out of the matter-receiver in Titan.

Then everything happened at once, too fast for me to follow. The Mechandroid came running toward usand we began to fall, one by one. So we scattered. With my usual bad luck, I managed to blunder right into a group of the Mechandroids who were working at something.

They were in a big room, gathered around a table where a body lay. Above the table was a shining weba neural matrix, hooked up to a matter-transmitter. I knew enough about basic physics to get some idea of what was happening and I stopped right there, like a statue, watching.

The Mechandroids were making a super-Mechandroidif thats the term. People had talked about the possibility. Everybody, I guess, was a little afraid, because the Mechandroids were plenty smart and if they worked out a collateral mutationtheyre individually sterilewhy, then, a super-Mechandroid would be horribly powerful and dangerous.

For the Mechandroids can be controlled, but a super-Mechandroid couldnt.

They said, not long ago, that they werent capable of solving certain galactic problems and they wanted to go ahead and build what they called a second-stage Mechandroid. Of course they were forbidden.

But the body on the table before me, under the shining neural web, was a super-Mechandroid in the making. If a thing like thatwith all its potential intelligence and lack of emotioncame alive it would be too dangerous to think about.

I turned around and started running again. I kept on running. Once I heard a scream, pretty far away.

If the only way the Mechandroids could build their second-stage Mechandroid was to destroy every human in the Titan citywhy, that was the logical solution. So thats what theyd done. I passed an Exploratory Station and took a minute to go in and grab a vacuum suit. Carrying it, I headed for a gate in the great dome that covered the city.

Two hours later I was sitting on a mountainside half a mile away, looking down on the dome and wondering how long my air would last. I felt pretty lonesome with Saturn dropping toward the horizon and only the dark and the stars around me.

After awhile I saw the ships come. You dont see many ships these days but I knew what they were. Half a dozen of them came down silently out of the blackness and hovered above the city and a moment later there wasnt any cityjust a big burst of light and sound and energy.

I sent up my SOS rockets and got picked up. On the trip back I heard a lot of talk about how we were going to get the Mechandroids under tight control and keep them there. Supervision for every one of the creatures. No chance to get together and make a super-Mechandroid.

I guess I didnt enjoy Earth as much as Id thought. It had been rebuilt and most of the radioactivity was gone. There was just one machine-city lefta museum these days. But the planet seemed small.

Of course we started out from Earth in the beginning. But now weve got the Galaxy.

Then I was somebody else.

I was Job Paynter.

Every individual is expendable, but the race is not. I am not, but not unnecessarily. My value to the solar community is high. And why not? I am competent in my workgeneral integration, Seventh Galactic Sector, Earth-based. (I am competent, or was until we opened that cavern under the mountain on Earth, and found Job Paynter asleep there. No, I am competent still. Puzzled but able to find an answer when all the returns are in. Meanwhile I must think objectively about this mystery. I must think objectively.)

The Mechandroid Belems desertion should have been reported to me immediately. There is no excuse for incompetence in a world where specialized training begins before birth and where reorientation treatment can be had as often as necessary.

When I investigated Belems disappearance I was much disturbed to learn how many other Mechandroids had vanished at the same time. I immediately assigned an all-out search, Galaxywide. But I was not too hopeful.

The race moves on. It has its human limitations. The tools we make have no limitations at all. When we educate ourselves to learn to handle those tools most efficiently we can go on to the next step, whatever it may be. Meanwhile there must be check and balancerigid control.

I assigned to the Mechandroid Belem a problem involving the opening of the Betelgeuse system. I had worked with Belem before. While Mechandroid knowledge and experience goes into a common pool Belems reactions would be a shade quicker since he had once opened a similar system before, so I asked him. At that time I was on the Antares base. When I checked later on Belem he had vanished.

We went through the automatic routine. We studied the records and traced Belems movements up to the moment of his disappearance. We learned several interesting things. Obviously Belem had thought it necessary to disappear in order to solve his assigned problem. So we checked on the problem. The Andromeda system was involved and we discovered that there was something odd, hitherto undiscovered, about the Andromeda sector.

First of all there was a potential nova involved. Secondly, a new type of matter existed on one of the planets revolving about the star that was preparing to explode. It seemed to be a neutral matter, in absolute stasis. We quarantined the system immediately, pending farther investigation.

You never know into what queer bypaths a Mechandroids investigation will lead. The creatures see factors involved that no human mind would bother with. Theyre never content with ten decimals but always work down to the absolute quantity. It didnt surprise me a great deal to find recording-tapes in Belems laboratory which described and localized a terrestrial time-axis.

We went to the point charted. Belem had already worked out a system for displacing the special atomic structure involved and waking the subjects. What subjects? I learned that soon enough.

At the time-axis, which existed not far from the ancient bed of the St. Lawrence River, we found a shell of matter. R-type radiations showed us there were four living beings within that shell. They were in drugged hypnotic sleep. One of them was the Mechandroid Belem. The second was myself. The others were an unknown man and woman.

My Director discussed the situation with me.

Belem has been located? I asked.

We thought so, the Director said, but youre in the time-axis chamber too. Youre apparently in two places at onceso Belem may be as well. You know how dangerous a Mechandroid on an unorthodox problem can be. Dont forget what happened to Titan twenty years ago. Well, obviously four people have, in the past, used drags and hypnosis to free their minds from time-consciousness as their bodies were freed by the atomic displacement their device has set up around them.

And Im with them, it seems.

You have no memory of it? But they came out of the pastall three of them.

Circular time? Spiral time?

I dont know, the Director said. Its theoretical so far. The empirical method obviously is to waken these four and find out what happened to them. How they came to be in this time-axis. Certainly a Mechandroid loose in time is too dangerous to be permitted. As for you

We had no answer to that, either of us. I was standing here, solid and real. But my double, my other self, was in the time-axis.

Waken them, the Director said.

That was obviously the next step. The only possible step.

Very well, I said. It was my job. A job must be completed at any cost. Men are expendable. Mankind is not.

Then I was Jeremy Cortland again.

We were in the Swan Garden, Paynter and I, looking at each other across far distances. The shadows of a dozen other selves faded and wavered through my mindand simultaneously I felt a strange sort of mental withdrawal. With the dying remnant of Paynters memory, I knew the reason. As I had been readingliving inother minds, so he had been reading my own.

But he did not know that the Mechandroid BelemDe Kalbwas spying through my brain. I felt certain of that, as certain as thoughDe KalbBelem had told me in so many words. No, Paynter might have stripped my mind clean of its memories, but there was one memory of the Mechandroids curious powers had kept from his graspthe brief adventure I had had, via matter-transmitter, on another planet among Mechandroids.

Abruptly full realization came to me. I remembered the autopsy I had glimpsedthe Mechandroids clustered about a long table on which a body lay and above which a shining web quivered. Once, twenty years ago, a boy had seen a similar sight on Titanthe creation of a super-Mechandroid, the experiment utterly forbidden through all the Galaxy. A city had been blasted into dust to stop that danger. I remembered, strangely, with another mans memory.

Now it was happening again. A second stage man-machine was being constructed somewhere on some far planetand Paynter did not know that, and I could not tell him. The post-hypnotic command was too strong for me. I could not betray the secret to Paynter even if I tried.

Which reminded me that Paynter now had my memories. His face was grayish as he watched me.

That new type of matter weve just found in the Andromeda system, he said. I know what it is now. You called it the nekron.

Then he must know as well that I was infected with thethe thing, that I was a carrier, a culture for that swift, slaying thing that no grip could hold.

But he did not mention it. Instead, in a troubled way, he began to talk about Belem.

Belem was set the problem of opening the Betelgeuse system. Which is simple enough. But the Mechandroids are thorough. I suspect that Belem checked all the possible influential factors, and saw that nekronic matter exists in Andromeda on a planet of a sun ready to become a nova. When that happens the violent explosion will carry the nekronic atoms, on light radiations, far into interstellar spacefar enough to reach and infect Betelgeuse. For some reason I dont know yet Belem decided the time-axis should be He paused, scowling. Did he leave those notes purposely? Did he want us to open the time-axis chamber, Cortland?

How should I know? I asked. Youve got all my memories now, havent you?

I think he did. But where is Belem now? I knew thatbut I couldnt tell him.

Why did Belem disappear? Why have a dozen other Mechandroids disappeared? Why didnt they announce the problem publicly?

He had forgotten he was still wearing the helmet. Now he lifted it slowly from his head and I followed his example. Because they had to work in secret, he said tentatively. Now what could they do in secret that they couldnt do with all the science of the Galaxy to help them? Theres only one thing. The Mechandroids must solve the problems set them

They are making a second-stage Mechandroid, Paynter said flatly. That must be whats happening. Scylla and Charybdis then. For a super-Mechandroid is as certain a menace as the nekron itself.

But why? I asked, prompted by a conviction that the devil I knewthe nekronic infectionwas far worse than any manlike machine, no matter how perfected.

Because the Mechandroids would probably obey it instead of us, Paynter told me. The Mechandroids are vulnerable because theyre partially human. A second-stage type probably wouldnt be. When you consider the knowledge and skills the Mechandroids already haveand if theyre applying them to the creation of a mutation of their ownwhy, such a monster could easily be invulnerable. Suppose it worked on absolute logic? That might call for the extinction of all life-forms! I dont know. No one knows. How can anyone think like a mutation from the Mechandroid type?

I shook my head. Dont ask me. Ive got my own problems. Those four asleep in the time-axis. There must be an answer somewhere, Paynter. There must be!

There is an answer. He said it so soberly that I felt an instants chill in my own mind. I had good reason to feel a chill. Paynter went on in a very somber voice. Now Ill tell you the truth, Cortland, he said.

13. Lord Paynter s Problem | The Time Axis | 15. Crumbling Flesh