19. The Marble
It was curious to look into his face and find it alien, he who had been so intimate a part of my mind. The emotionless features, the strange, quicksilver eyes belonged to De Kalb but the voice was—as I pointed out to him—the voice of Esau.
He wasn’t amused. He seemed to find his own body rather strange for a moment or two, for after he had left me he tried it out stiffly, moving to and fro with short steps.
“You look like De Kalb,” I said, watching him. “You move like De Kalb. Belem,were isDe Kalb now?”
He gave me a swift, strange, emotionless look. “I told you I was beginning to understand,” he said. “I was. But I haven’t the full answer yet and—look, Cortland.”
I followed his gesture. The enormous room, braced with its monstrous girders, lay before us. There was orderly activity all through the vast place, centering around a control panel that might be the device creating the dome of light that shielded this area, a white wall curtaining off everything outside the windows. Sometimes coruscating flashes sparkled here and there along the curtain. Attacks—failing? So little time had elapsed, really, since we left Paynter. This siege must be less than half an hour old and its full violence yet to come.
Under a web of shimmering fire at the far side of the room the table still stood with a body stretched out on it. Here most of the figures were at work on their second-stage Mechandroid, waiting for it to come alive.
“That’s the most important thing that’s happening here now,” Belem said gravely. “I’m needed. I have no time nor mental energy to spare to solve your puzzles for you. Later, if we live, I’ll try.”
He turned swiftly away from me and crossed the big room toward the table. I followed in silence.
The second-stage Mechandroid lay quiet on its table, its eyes closed, the face serene and not quite human. There was, I thought, a remote familiarity about it too. Belem? I glanced at him, recognizing a likeness but not enough to explain the feeling that I had seen this man before. Man? Machine? Both and either.
“Is he alive yet?” I asked.
“It should take about four days more,” one of the workers answered in English, speaking with mechanical precision. He sounded as if he had learned the language from records, so accurately that he reproduced even the buzz and click of the recording machine.
“He is beginning to think and be alive already, but he will not be finished for four days. Before then our defenses will have gone down, I think. We haven’t enough power to maintain the blocking screens for long.”
“Couldn’t we all go out the way I came in?” I asked. “We could not take him along.”
“No, it’s impossible. All we can do is defend ourselves as long as we can and hope to finish in time. I doubt if we will,” he added casually.
“The other time a second-stage Mechandroid was attempted,” I said rather tactlessly, “they blew up the whole city, didn’t they? Why don’t they do it now?”
“That was recognized as an error at the time,” Belem told me. “They have improved siege weapons now and they will be curious about our devices. We must do the blowing up ourselves to prevent them when the time comes.”
“But you’ll go right on working until—”
“Naturally.” Belem sounded surprised. “There is a demonstrable mathematical chance that we may succeed. It would be foolish to throw such a chance away. I was set a problem, you see, and I must work to solve it as long as I am able to move and think. This is part of the solution—this second-stage Mechandroid.”
“I should think,” I said with even less tact, “that you’d have a sort of built-in block against making anything really dangerous to civilization.”
“So we have, within limits. This creation will not be basically destructive. Paynter is wrong. Human thinkers are very often wrong. The Man-Machine will endanger only obsolete things that should be destroyed. Humans ignore the obvious fact that machines can evolve exactly as men can. They have evolved.
“What is a city but a machine? Sooner or later it would have been necessary to create a second-stage Mechandroid anyhow. The coming problems will be too complex for solution by either humans or Mechandroids.”
Belem looked down impassively at the serene sleeping face. Then he turned and walked away with a purposeful stride. I trailed him curiously. We ducked under girders and circled groups of workers who ignored us, reaching at last a rusty wall that opened under Belem’s touch. I looked into the time-worn room of matter-transmission from which I had first glimpsed this scene.
On the rusted floor a silver marble lay. That was all.
“It was gold before,” I said stupidly.
“Simple transmutation. It’s a tricky pattern of radio-elements.”
“It’s so small,” I said.
“Pick it up.”
I tried. I could easily slip my fingers around it but it wouldn’t budge. It might have been riveted to the floor.
“Nothing—no known force—has power enough to move a negatively-charged activated matrix of this type,” Belem said.
“The well-known immovable body.”
“You know that paradox. What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable body?”
“But the existence of one automatically negates—”
“That’s just my compensatory humor,” I said. “I’m scared to death, so I’m joking.” He didn’t seem entirely satisfied. Well, neither was I.
I kicked at the thing and hurt my toes.
I can’t describe that battle because I didn’t understand what was going on. It was probably an epic. I couldn’t tell. Outside the windows the shining wall occasionally sparkled and sometimes bells would ring and the needles on gauges would jump wildly. From outside our protective shell it was probably a more spectacular scene.
Inside there wasn’t even a feeling of tension because the Mechandroids went calmly about their duties and showed no sign of nervousness. Belem got busy on tasks of his own. I wandered around and watched, trying to make myself believe I was a war correspondent. Sometimes I went back and looked into the matter-transmitter at the silver marble. It just lay there.
That was the strange, yet obvious point about this future—I didn’t understand the simplest basic things. I got glimpses of the Galaxy in operation, but I didn’t know why it worked that way. A Neanderthaler legman on the Piltdown Chronicle might have had some similar difficulty in writing a feature story about Oak Ridge so his hairy readers could understand it.
Well, with matter-transmission, you could live on a planet named South Nowhere, right on the edge of the Galaxy at the jumping-off-place, and yet be able to reach out your hand and pick up a California orange, practically fresh off the tree.
Space didn’t mean anything any more, so concepts of thinking based on familiar spatial frames of reference had to change. Except, perhaps, as far as initial exploration went. The first matter-transmitter had to be taken bodily to its destination. After that you could step into a transmitter on earth and step out on South Nowhere.
So, in a war in this time, the trick was to immobilize your opponent. Nail him down—as we were nailed down. After that, just keep pounding.
What we needed was a claw-hammer to pull up that nail.
I had seen enough of this future to begin thinking galactically. Stray thoughts crossed my mind—random concepts involving yanking Centaurus II out of its orbit, clamping on a tractor-beam—what the devil was a tractor-beam?—and letting Centaurus pull up the silver marble, as a tractor pulls a mired car out of the ditch. I mentioned this idea to Belem. He said it was a striking bit of fantasy but not very practical—and what was a tractor-beam?
Discouraged, I sat down and thought some more.
“What makes you think the second-stage Mechandroid can destroy the nekron?” I asked Belem.
He kept working on a cryptic device composed chiefly of vari-colored lenses. His placid face never changed.
“I can only hope so,” he said. “He was designed expressly to solve that problem and he will have a fifty-five-power brain, compared to my twenty-power one. He’ll be a tool—an extension of the social mechanism.”
“With free will?”
“Yes—within obvious limits. He’ll have to fulfill his purpose. He wouldn’t be functional unless he did that.”
“What is his purpose? Besides destroying the nekron?”
“I told you he was an extension. Like the specialized tool of your hand.”
“But I can control my hand.”
“Not always consciously,” Belem pointed out. “If you suddenly found yourself falling your hand would seize the nearest grip. Extend that parallel a bit farther and imagine your hand has a brain of its own.
“It will do—within its limits—what a hand can do best and it would know its potentialities better than you could. And it wouldn’t try to rebel, because it’s part of the unit. The second-stage Mechandroid is a better hand for humanity—or a better brain in matters of intellect and logic.”
He turned to his work again, flashing lights on and off at what looked like random. After a moment he went on speaking.
“As for the nekronic matter itself, it may be symbiotic or vampiric. I wonder. Thought and matter are very similar. It may be that nekronic matter has the potential ability to embody itself provided it finds a suitable host. It’s significant that the creature itself is superficially manlike. Quite possibly it uses whatever prey it feeds on as a pattern from which to shape itself.”
“You think it feeds?’
“You know as much as I about that. Probably more if you were capable of thinking the thing through. We don’t know why the embodied nekronic entity kills. The most obvious solution is to replenish itself, to spread. Even a null-entropy organism might do that, in a sort of reverse pattern from the norm.”
He flashed a blue light thoughtfully and considered the results. So far as I could tell, there had been none but Belem seemed to fall into a minor trance for a few minutes, considering his work.
I was watching a rift like black lightning that ran across the light-wall outside. A red cloud puffed through but the gap healed swiftly and the cloud was dissipated.
Belem twisted a dial, bringing two lenses into sharper focus. “Very likely we’ll never know,” he said. “We can’t last much longer now. A War Council has taken command of this planet.”
“He’s one of them. That’s odd. They’ve outvoted him three times already on the question of attack. He doesn’t want us destroyed—which means he doesn’t want you destroyed.”
“Nice of him,” I said. “After he tried to kill me in the Subterrane.”
“Paralyze, not kill,” Belem corrected.
Silence after that, while Belem worked and I watched. “What would happen if you had time and material enough to make another of those marbles?” I inquired idly, after a while.
“A great deal. Both matrix-weapons—technically they’re electronic matrices—would be negatively charged, and would repel each other. Unfortunately we have neither time nor equipment for that.”
“What you need is a hacksaw to split that marble in two,” I said. “Then they’d both change from immovable bodies to irresistible forces and shoot each other out of the galaxy. Right?”
“Wrong. Besides being impossible it wouldn’t help. You wouldn’t have two electronic matrices of the same pattern as before. It’s exactly the same reason why the second-stage Mechandroid wouldn’t be dangerous to the social body. The whole is never larger than the sum of its parts, and the sum of the parts always equals the whole.”
“Then you never heard of Banach and Tarski,” I said.
“Once I was assigned to write a feature science story on their experiment. I did plenty of research, because I had to find human interest in it somewhere and it was pure mathematics. The Banach-Tarski paradox, it was called—a way of dividing a solid into pieces and reassembling them to form a solid of different volume.”
“I should remember that,” Belem said, “since I have all your memories. It was only theoretical, wasn’t it?” He searched my memory. I felt uncomfortable as though, under partial anaesthesia, I watched a surgeon investigating my digestive tract.
“Theoretical, sure,” I said. “But I did a repeat on the subject later. It took twenty-three years before somebody figured out how to apply the trick to a physical solid. I forget the details.”
“No you don’t,” Belem said, turning from his work and staring at me. “You have no control over your mind, that’s all. But the information is stored there. Apparently I didn’t get all the details when Paynter searched your memories. There’s a name—Robinson?”
“It could be. I don’t know.”
His face showed no change but I thought I sensed a growing excitement within him. “Cortland,” he said, “I want to enter your mind again. I think—”