Back | Next

A Question of Identity

Ed Cassetti stood before the pair of big viewscreens in the on-call cabin of the contact-ship Ambassador. The left-hand screen showed a small and shrinking image of the planet Earth. The right-hand screen showed a vague skull-like shape that loomed larger as Earth dwindled.

To Cassetti's left, Sam Richards, the other human on the computer-controlled ship, glanced at a warning light by a small grille between the screens. This warning light glowed red, and the grille emitted an artificial voice: "Contact Specialist 4 Samuel Richards: You will immediately correct nonstandard contact-suit-liner configuration."

Richards sighed, and put the hood of his khaki skisuit-like uniform back over his head.

The light faded out.

Cassetti murmured, "More coming."

"Naturally. But the damned hood gets hot."

The red light came back on.

"Contact Specialist 4 Samuel Richards: You have committed Uniform Violation Level Three. You will immediately do forty push-ups."

Richards dropped to the deck. Keeping his back rigid and straightening his arms fully, he methodically did forty push-ups.

The red light stayed on.

"Contact Specialist 4 Samuel Richards: You will repeat aloud the first three Rules for Human Contact Specialists."

Richards, his face expressionless, stood at attention.

"Contact Rule One: 'At the earliest possible moment, transmit all relevant factual information to Computer Data Control. Rapid data transmittal is as important now as during the Accident.'

"Contact Rule Two: 'Do not attempt to judge an extraterrestrial race or its artifacts on the basis of human experience. This is the first contact with an extraterrestrial race, and human experience is irrelevant.'

"Contact Rule Three: 'During contact, do not attempt to draw independent conclusions. Human data-storage capacity and calculating ability are minimal. Prompt responses, based on complete data recognition and rapid processing, are vital. Computer control is therefore essential.'"

The artificial voice said, "That is correct. You are warned to obey instructions promptly and exactly."

The light faded out.

Richards exhaled. "Talk about 'user unfriendly.'"

Cassetti said, "Before the Accident, that used to be known as 'Master Computer 3C, humanity's kindly guide, companion, and servant.'"

"So I remember. Did a few circuits burn out?"

"I think they reprogrammed it to give orders right after the Accident, because there was no other way fast enough—and then it just drew the natural conclusion as to who's boss."

"Why that interface? It would have been easy to give it a bearable voice, for a start. And this barking of orders gets wearisome."

"It sure does. I suppose they were in a hurry." Cassetti glanced around at the screen. "Look at this."

On the right-hand screen, the pale looming shape had become more solid and a legend appeared:




The vague skull resolved itself into five spheres, four at the corners of a tetrahedron with its apex down, and another at the center, each joined to the others by straight cylinders. A small sixth sphere was connected only to the center sphere.

Richards tapped the edge of the screen, and a tiny oblong appeared, showing their own ship to the same scale.

Startled, he glanced at the tetrahedron. "That thing is huge."

"It sure is. Now, look."

As the legend, "ENHANCED IMAGE," flashed repeatedly, a web of glittering braces appeared, reinforcing the extraterrestrial ship.

Cassetti said, "Apparently those are so shiny as to not even be visible without enhancing the image. I wonder what that ship looks like naturally?"

"A blur or distortion in the star field? That would be my guess."

"It would be interesting to just shut off the enhancement and see."

Richards glanced around the frame of the screen, as if for controls that weren't there. He shook his head. "Have to ask MC3C for permission."

"No, thanks. Last time, we got one hell of a lecture."

"Being a computer's helper gets tiresome. It's like being apprenticed to a bloodhound, and judged accordingly."

"Yes. In the computer's specialty, we're imbeciles. The devil with the screen."

"That web of braces does tell us something, though."

"That the extraterrestrial ship goes through heavy stress?"

"Or that the extraterrestrials believe in a good margin of safety."

"H'm. Yes."

Just below the lowest of the spheres, a faint ghostly form filled in to become a corrugated curving cylinder joining their ship and the extraterrestrial. From somewhere forward came a clang and a sound of pumps.

Richards murmured, "We're connected."

Cassetti shook his head. "Damn it. The computer must be going to use its own mobile communicator to make the contact."

"Looks like it. If we were going, we'd have had to suit up by now."

Cassetti pictured the beachball-size communicator with its cable, and shook his head. "With that thing, the master computer can be directly connected, and run the whole show. We're surplus baggage. Fido's going to catch the rabbits on its own."

Richards studied the monster ship on the screen. He said dryly, "I sure hope Fido understands what it's up against."

"If it wasn't going to use us, why train us and bring us along?"

Richards turned away from the screen, and sat down in one of several massive heavily padded seats. "My guess is, some subprogram in its operating systems demands backup, just in case. We're backup."

Cassetti exhaled harshly, and sat down in another seat. "What does backup do? Play cards? Shoot craps?"

Richards shrugged. "Not ours to reason why. Who knows? It might decide to use us yet."

"Generous of the s.o.b."

In the far lower corner of the right-hand screen, rapidly changing figures were now reeling off minutes, seconds, and decimal fractions of a second, apparently since the ships had joined.

As the figures spun around, Richards and Cassetti discussed what they thought of MC3C, and other computers they had known. They rehashed details of the nightmare that had followed the Accident and preceded this job. Cassetti damned employers who cut their research departments, thereby leaving him unemployed. Richards got started on his theory of the inevitability of a technological Accident, a theory so unpopular before the actual Accident as to have landed him in his department chairman's version of a dungeon.

There was a metallic smashing noise as Richards was saying, "The trouble was, they didn't have the details of the Fulmar Drive worked out yet, but everybody could see how to make a fortune if the units could be linked to make a gravitic corridor from the Belt inward. So—"

Cassetti glanced around. "What was that noise?"

"I don't know. It sounded fairly close."

From somewhere came a peculiar high-pitched whistle; it ran up and down the scale, as if the player of an instrument were trying to find the right note; but apparently the player couldn't find it, and the whistle faded out.

Cassetti looked exasperatedly at the screen, which showed nothing new. "What the devil is going on now?"

Richards became aware of a kind of rumble that was only barely audible, as much felt as heard. This vibration faded away, then came back as a kind of fast-climbing high-pitched squabbling noise.

Cassetti got up. "Damn it! We've been trained. We aren't as dumb as the computer claims!"

Richards settled back. "Take it easy. If MC3C is doing the kind of job I think it's doing, we may get a chance yet."

Cassetti glanced at the screen, which still showed only the outside of the gigantic extraterrestrial ship. Richards waited patiently.

For a few moments the background was almost silent, then there was a heavy thud, followed by whistles, rumbles, clangs, and unclassifiable sounds that faded abruptly in and out, all now remote and muffled.

Cassetti tried the hatch to the corridor. The hatch didn't budge.

Richards said, "Surely you have confidence in our wise and genial boss?"

Cassetti spat out a bad word.

The deck jumped.

Between the screens, the red light flashed on. There was a crackle, and suddenly a familiar voice: "Subparagraph 7.1 of your Employment contract requires 'prompt externalization of relevant personnel should Computer-Extraterrestrial contact prove counterproductive.' To signify compliance, you must immediately take one step forward."

They instantly stepped forward. There was a trundling noise, and a pair of what looked like exceptionally bulky spacesuits came in dangling from overhead trolleys.

Richards and Cassetti, who had drilled till the routine was second nature, helped each other into the bulky suits, then stepped into a brightly lit testing chamber with mirrored walls, hand-grips, foot rests, and pressure controls; they ran the air pressure warily up and down to check the suit seals, studied the suits in the multiple reflectors, and carefully went through a voice checklist.

Cassetti said, "Done?"

"With the easy checks."


Now they tested the controls inside the suits' big outer helmets. Placed inside to avoid possible interference from aliens whose customs might involve unpredictable personal contact, the controls were spaced to either side of the outer faceplate, lit by faint miniature lights, and worked by an outthrust projection on the inner helmet, which moved the specially shaped and color-coded switch-handles of light plastic. Only a slight pressure was needed to control the faceplate wipers and the other odds and ends, as well as the "unlimited," "timed," and "end-controlled" jets for maneuvering in low gravity.

Cassetti experimentally moved his head to check the lens that slid down over the faceplate of the inner helmet to bring the switches into focus, then slid up as he faced forward to look through the outer faceplate.

Each time, this lens gave a squeak, and then a little catch before it slid back up again. There was also what looked like a set of flyspecks somewhere on the multiple supposedly transparent surfaces; this blur stayed in his field of vision even when he used the wipers.

Richards growled, "What happens if this lens gets stuck in the wrong position?"

"MC3C says it's impossible."

"This one hesitates, and it squeaks."

"So does mine."

A tone inside the helmets now gave notice that the suits' communicators were receiving a signal from the computer.

Cassetti said, "Contact Team Commander to Computer Data Control. Ready to begin contact."

"Computer Data Control to Contact Team Commander. You will immediately leave the on-call compartment, and enter the space-corridor airlock."

They stepped clumsily through the hatchway, leaving the two big screens behind them, and walked along a narrow corridor, the suits awkward and ungainly, but gradually becoming more familiar and predictable. Then they eased through the narrow hatchway of the compartment next to the airlock, crossed the compartment to step over the lock's wide sill, and, behind them, the hatch went shut. The hatch in front slowly opened, and they went out into a kind of antechamber where they were still in the ship, but in front of them was a shiny flexible corrugated cylinder suggestive of the inside of a giant metal snake.

Cassetti turned slowly, adjusting his suit's external mirrors. In a corner between a massive bulkhead and the exterior hull, there came into view a pile made up of cable chopped into short lengths. Nearby was a chunk of crushed metal and broken plastic the size of a beach ball, with wheels and metal arms bent, wheel-tracks dismounted, and the grille of a speaker torn loose and hanging by one corner.

Cassetti gave a low fervent oath. "There's MC3C's Mobile Communicator."

Richards grunted. "Contact was 'counterproductive,' all right. Well, now we get to earn our money."

They turned toward the corridor, and Cassetti said, "Watch it—no artificial gravity here."

As they cautiously nudged controls in the helmets, short-lived bursts from the shoulder jets lifted them, and, moving almost horizontally, they passed through the first part of a long continuous bend, drifted toward the flickering corrugated face of the corridor, moved away with wary use of the jets, swung further around the continued bend, and now the suits' external mirrors showed ahead of them a fast enlarging hatchway into a lighted chamber.

Richards said, "We'd better slow down, or we'll be in there before we know it."

With a shock, Cassetti realized he had fallen into a daze watching the flickering corridor wall. He nudged the controls, and swung further toward the center of the corridor, to be vertical to what looked like the deck ahead on the far side of the hatchway.

Richards said, "Still too fast."

"Right. Damn it."

They slowed further, and approached the airlock still decelerating, their feet swinging out ahead of them.

Abruptly, something slammed them sideways. There was a shock, a crash, and a roar.

* * *

Cassetti's lower lip hurt, his ears rang, and somewhere there was a voice nearly drowned out by the roar. On the far side of the outer faceplate, there was a blur. It dawned on him that his idea of "vertical" must have been ninety degrees off. He had floated, to all practical purposes sidewise and horizontal, into the airlock while in effect trying to land on a wall—then when he slammed to the deck, he must have banged one of the helmet's switches.

Richards shouted, "Ed! Controls!"

The lens plate, which should have slid down to make it easy to focus on the controls a few inches away, now hung up, so the color-coded stalks with their little glowing lights blended into a jolting frame with a Christmas-like effect around the chaos in the faceplate. Somewhere, again, there was a voice. Cassetti realized he must have bumped one of the "unlimited" switches, so there wasn't just a timed burst, but a blast that wouldn't end until he found the switch or ran out of propellant. In trying to tap the right stalk at the wrong instant, he now got another one instead.

He yelled, "Grab hold!"

"What do you think I'm—Look out!"

For an instant after they hit the wall of the airlock, everything was still, and he managed to get one switch off. They reeled through three or four wild circles, slammed a wall again, and he managed to get the other switch. Then again they were going around in circles, and it dawned on him that Sam Richards must have hit one. Again a voice roared out amid the bangs and crashes. Then again they smashed to a stop in a heap in a corner, and after an instant's silence Richards snarled, "Who in hell designed these suits?"

"Are you serious? Who do you think?"

A new voice spoke slowly and distinctly:

"Is this an argualage of the planetere computer?"

Cautiously, they got to their feet.

The voice spoke again, its words faulty but very clear:

"Is this a assaglage of the plammeddare calculator?"

Cassetti checked to be sure the suit's external speaker was off. Richards's voice spoke in his earphones: "Sounds a little mixed up. But according to the computer's cram course for making contact, the other side may estimate our capabilities by making calculated errors, and seeing if we understand anyway. Whereupon we can do the same."

"Sounds like a great way to turn a misunderstanding into a war. I'll assume it's a straight question." Cassetti snapped on the suit speaker.

"We are not an assemblage of the planetary computer."

"Are you calculators?"

"We are humans, not computers or calculators."

The outer airlock doors swung shut.

Cassetti snapped off the external speaker and waited. There was no further comment.

Richards went to the closed airlock door and tried without success to move it. "We're locked in."

"Better than being booted down the corridor in pieces."

"You know, that's a fluent alien."

"Well, according to that same course, one of the first steps in an extraterrestrial contact is supposed to be to match files of pictures, drawings, transparencies, and models of various objects, and exchange whatever symbols, including spoken words, represent the corresponding objects. That should make for lots of fluency."

"Did you notice how fast that hatch went shut when you said we weren't computers?"

"I did."

"Something," said Richards, "suggests to me this alien is tricky."

"We may be about to find out. The inner hatch is opening."

In front of them, a section of wall rotated, then swung slowly aside.

They waited tensely for someone or something to come through.

Nothing happened.

"I guess," said Richards finally, "it wants us to make the next move."

"Go through the hatch?"

"What else?"

"Very reasonable. Let's just remember what happened to the Mobile Communicator when we go in there."

They turned carefully in various directions, using the suits' external mirrors to be sure they were still alone, then approached the low sill in front of them. This turned out to have on the far side a kind of thin tightly woven veil of shiny interlinked circlets that lit up in their helmet lights, and hid any view of whatever might be in the darkened room beyond.

"Nice," said Richards. "Maybe what happened to the communicator was, it just went in there."

"Maybe. I'd more credit the computer's natural charm after it went in."

Cassetti got a grip on a handful of the slippery interlinked veil, and dragged it out the opening. Richards held it up while Cassetti carefully eased over the sill. Then he held it as Richards came in. Once there, they passed it over their heads, peered around, then again snapped on the suit lights.

Cassetti said, "Still can't see a thing."

"There's another veil or curtain—looks like this one is made of some kind of black cloth."

"Let's ease around to the left."

"What's the point of hiding things from us?"

"Offhand, I'd think the idea is to surprise us with whatever's on the other side of that curtain. But not to surprise us while we were still outside the hatch looking in."

"Get us in here first?"

"Exactly. Then lock the hatch so we can't get out. Then spring it on us. Test our reactions."

Richards said, "I always did think they should mount a few guns on these suits."

"Yeah. Be nice when we bumped the wrong control."

"Everything has its disadvantages. That curtain is lighting up."

Beyond the curtain, there was a glow, that strengthened into a bright light that shone through the fabric of the curtain. The curtain began to slide to the side. A quick check revealed the circular hatch rotating into position, to lock them in.

Richards growled, "These extraterrestrials seem to think the same way we do. They're following your program."

"In that case, be ready to move. This may be where the communicator got it."

Abruptly the curtain was gone.

Before them sat what looked like a pale-pink two-headed octopus upright on a giant toadstool. Close beside it stood a figure apparently made of sections of shiny green bamboo of various thicknesses, with what appeared to be a glaring eye on each end of a T-shaped bamboo bar that seemed to serve as its head.

Both of these figures were perfectly motionless.

Richards recovered while Cassetti was still groping mentally through a maze of indoctrination to the effect that appearance did not count, and that whatever an alien might look like, the limitations of human experience rendered suspect any judgment based on appearance. There was a faint click, then Richards spoke evenly.

"How are you?"
He got no reply, and tried again: "We greet you."

That brought no response, either.

Cassetti cleared his throat. Supposedly, the exchange of images and vocabularies had already taken place. He snapped on his external speaker.


They waited.

Nothing happened.

They both shut off their external speakers.

After watching the motionless scene for about three minutes, Richards growled, "That octopus looks to me as if it's made out of translucent plastic."

"It does, at that."

They stood there for another minute or so.

Nothing moved.

Cassetti said, "Do you get the impression of a little joke at our expense?"

"I'm still half-paralyzed for fear we'll step on the extraterrestrials' taboos and create a disaster. But I begin to wonder if maybe we're up against some entity that doesn't go by the book."

"At least not by the computer's book."


"I've been trying to contact MC3C, and haven't gotten a response since we came in here."

"Naturally. How would it get a signal into this place? And do we want instructions so we end up the same way its communicator ended up?"

"I want to be sure we're on our own."

Richards said, "As far as I can tell, we're on our own."

"Then I'm going to try something."

"Hold it. The bamboo horror just moved a couple inches."

Cassetti turned his mirror. "It's not moving now.'

"It did move."

They both stood frozen, and time stretched out. Cassetti snapped on the suit speaker.


Nothing happened.

He shut off the speaker, and moved cautiously toward the imitation-looking octopus. The closer he got, the more fake it looked. He eased closer, and closer, and—


Both heads of the octopus separated from the body in front, and swung neatly back. Out of the stubs of the necks protruded two bunches of what looked like purple-and-yellow flowers.

There was a silence that lengthened out while Cassetti listened to a distant thump-thump that he supposed was blood being pumped through his ears.

Richards's voice came across as a distant murmur.

"Do you suppose at some point the computer came up against this?"

In his mind's eye, Cassetti could see the computer's beach-ball sized communicator with all its receptors focused on this imitation alien with bouquets of flowers sticking out its necks. What would the computer do? All its complex processors, its lightning-fast memory, its high-speed cache, its bank of situation models, its Rapidaptive Master Operating System with clear and fuzzy subsystems, all its programs instantaneously on tap—all were set to swiftly process the relevant facts and relationships. So—

Just exactly which facts were relevant here?

Was anything related to anything else?

What was the problem?

Richards said, "It's too bad we don't know what it did, so we could do something else."

"Do you suppose the communicator alone was up against this? Or did the alien leave the airlock open for the Master Computer itself to be connected?"

"From the racket we heard, it seemed to me that at first the two ships were open to each other. I'd say it was open on our ship at least as far as the hatch off the corridor to the airlock."

If, Cassetti told himself, there had been no provision for a connection, the communicator would have lacked contact with the rest of the computer's circuits. But the communicator was supposed to be provided with a large built-in memory, sophisticated programs in ROM for contacting extraterrestrials, and a calculating ability supposedly capable of making any ordinary human look foolish. Besides, where had all that chopped-up cable come from? It must have been connected. But either way, it hadn't done much good.

Richards spoke sharply.

"Watch it! The bamboo thing just moved again! You want me over there?"

"Better stay where you are. If we're both watching the same thing, something else could come loose."

As Cassetti studied it, the thing that looked tacked together out of odds and ends of bamboo remained still.

The imitation octopus stayed motionless with the flowers sticking out its imitation necks, with both its imitation heads tilted back.

Cassetti exhaled sharply. Whatever mistakes the computer may have made, and whatever instructions it had given, he and Richards would have to act for themselves. His mind hopefully free of most of the computer's indoctrination, he stepped carefully forward, tugged on the flowers, and they lifted into his hands. A passage from the Extraterrestrial-Contact Training Manual now repeated itself in his head:

"You will at all times avoid physical contact with extraterrestrials or their artifacts except in situations in which physical contact is clearly indicated."

In this situation, nothing seemed clearly indicated.

He adjusted an external mirror, looked down the holes the flowers had come out of into the hollow interior of something with translucent curving walls, then got a grip on one of the flexible arms.

The imitation tentacles, it developed, bent smoothly and easily under pressure. After twining the end of one of them over the creature's shoulder, the flowers fit in a loop of tentacle, to look like a bouquet. Another of the monster's tentacles, around in front, pushed over a third, gave the effect of one leg crossed over another. The heads latched neatly when clapped shut. He stepped back to take a look.

There sat a pink two-headed octopus cross-legged on an oversize toadstool holding an armful of purple-and-yellow flowers, as its bamboo-monster friend looked on with an evil gaze.

Richards laughed. "One insanity deserves another."

"I may be wrong, but something tells me the alien in control of this scene is not of a strictly logical nature."

There was the sharply varied blast of a whistle. They looked around.

As the last tones died away, the bamboo thing sluggishly began to move. Unfolding an arm with several joints, it brought up a kind of spike-studded metal bar, swung it up overhead, wheeled it leisurely around in a wide arc, made a slight adjustment in aim, and then brought this deadly looking thing down toward Cassetti's head.

The creature's intent seemed clear from the vicious light in the eyes at the end of its T-shaped stalk, but as it was moving with the speed of a hurried snail, it was no problem to get out from underneath as this spike-studded club traveled down, hit the deck, bounced, and then the creature braced itself, got the club up again, and took another swipe, bringing it around horizontally this time.

Cassetti stepped out of the way, got out the thin flexible line fitted into a compartment on the right leg of his suit, and that they had practiced with almost to exhaustion, and with Richards's help tied this bamboo creature, minus its club, to the overgrown toadstool.

Richards turned slowly around, to check whether they were alone, and his voice sounded doubtful. "If it weren't for what these aliens did to the computer, I'd think they weren't too bright."

"I'm not so sure. That business with the imitation octopus gave us no reasonable precedent at all. Next, this bamboo thing and its club pitted two sensible rules against each other: don't hurt the alien; don't get hurt yourself. Then there are the extra complications that the bamboo thing obviously meant harm, was too slow to do it if you used your head, but was still too dangerous to ignore. And neither of these problems was what you'd expect to run into in contacting an extraterrestrial."

"But what's the idea? What is it we're up against? Is the bamboo creature the extraterrestrial? And what, if anything, is this hollow octopus? Not to mention the damned flowers and the toadstool."

"I don't know. But—"

There was another varying whistle, then a clank from the direction of the bamboo creature they had just tied up.

They turned, to see it heave against the cord, whirl, thrash, move in a blur to the end of the cord—then streak to a stop in the opposite direction as the cord strained and the toadstool shook. Considering the way it was moving, if it ever got loose—

Richards grabbed up the spike-studded club, evaded a lightning-fast swipe, brought the club down hard, and smashed the creature's legs.

Abruptly it lay still.

Richards stepped back, holding the club.

Because of faceplate reflections, Cassetti couldn't see Richards's expression, but he could hear the scowl:

"When it's free, it has the speed of a caterpillar. Once it's tied up, it goes so fast you can hardly see it. If this thing had moved like that earlier, one of us would have wound up in pieces on the end of its club."

"Either it has a peculiar metabolism or that was another test."

"Did we pass it?"

"We're alive."

"Right. Thinking of the communicator—"

There was a faint click.

They glanced around, which involved changing their positions in order to aim the faceplates roughly where they wanted to look, then swiveled the mirrors—but there was nothing in sight they hadn't expected to see.

Behind them, the heavy inner airlock door was solidly shut. The side walls looked blank. In front was a bulkhead with another hatch. The hatch looked shut.

What made the click?

Just then Cassetti noticed a dull glint of reflected light from something on the deck near the right-hand wall.

He stepped over, and there lay a curving piece of shiny metal with a broken chunk of dull-grey material attached to it. Along the broken surface, this material appeared to be very finely and elaborately patterned.

Richards said, "Part of the memory bank of the communicator?"

"That would be my guess."

"Suggests we're in the same place where it got beat up."

"Where it got, for all intents and purposes, killed."

"This didn't make that click, did it?"

"I don't see how. It sounded like a latch."

Just then, there was the faintest, barely detectable, creaking sound. They looked around.

In the wall toward the interior of the alien ship, the hatch slowly swung open.

Through the hatchway stepped a creature roughly like a cross between a man and an ostrich, with deep green and scarlet plumes, a long slender neck, a large-skulled head with a face like a forty-year-old spoiled brat equipped with a hawk's beak, small dainty arms where wings might have been expected, and legs ending in large birdlike claws. Both of its lower legs were fitted with glittering knifelike spurs whose points aimed to the rear.

Richards said dryly, "I like the bamboo thing better."

"Watch out for those spurs."

The creature came toward them sidewise, delicate arms slightly lowered, fists clenched, spurs flashing, its head turned so that it didn't face them, but looked at them sidewise out of the corners of its eyes.

Richards and Cassetti separated.

It skipped sidewise fast, to dart between them. As it passed the edge of Cassetti's faceplate, he could see it raise one leg, to bring the nearest spur up like a dagger.

Across the room, another one was starting out of the hatch.

Cassetti dropped to a crouch facing the hatch. There was a screech, and the spoiled-brat face reappeared, going backwards past the edge of his faceplate, flattened up against the grayish chunk that Richards had just slung at it.

Cassetti hit the "Max Lift Burst" switch, there was a roar, he was rammed down in the suit, and smashed into something soft, just coming in through the hatch. A knife flashed past in front of his faceplate, closely spaced red hate-filled eyes briefly glared directly into his, and then he got both of the suit's gauntlets around the thin feathery neck, and bashed the creature's head against the wall. One of the suit's mirrors showed him a view of the hatch, with beaked heads crowded behind it, and he let go of the bony neck with one hand, slammed the hatch closed, and shoved down the locking handle. The handle promptly snapped up again, and he shoved it down. After a slight delay, it went up again, and again he shoved it down. This time, he noticed the flimsy catch near the handle, and locked it in place.

Just then, there was a flash, and a knifelike spur hit the edge of his helmet next to the faceplate. At almost the same moment, he got a view of the vicious gratified look on the face of this man-bird that apparently figured he had got in a solid painful blow with his spur.

Cassetti let go the door latch, seized the bird and swung it, using the thin feathery neck for a handle, and it went up and around, and came down with a gratifying smash on the deck, so Cassetti tried it again, but now it was harder; this time, the creature was limp. The second time it hit the deck, he came down hard on its chest with both heels.

Across the room, Richards was standing over the other one, feathers stuck all over the business end of the bamboo creature's club. He straightened up slowly.

"I wonder if these things could be the extraterrestrials?"

"Look at their hands."

"They could use tools, all right. Well—something tells me we aren't going to get along too well."

Before they had any chance to think over this proposition, or what it might mean in terms of their longevity, there was a mournful sob from somewhere. This cry was taken up by what sounded like flutes, guitars, washboards, steel ball bearings rolling down drainpipes, and then a regular orchestra joined in in the background to create a mournful wailing that was repeated over and over again.

Richards picked feathers off the end of his club.

"Do you get the impression that we've just committed sacrilege? I mean, these things come in here to stick us with their fourteen-inch spurs, and that doesn't bother anyone. Then we brain a couple of them, and this noise starts up."

"Look at that airlock."

* * *

Across the room, the big airlock door was rotating and now swung open. On the other side, there was a peculiar effect, as of a sudden magical appearance. One instant, there was nothing there. The next instant, a human-looking figure naked from the waist up seemed to spring into existence just outside the hatch. It stood there, arms at its sides.

"You have killed."

Richards got the last feather off the club and started for the airlock.

The background music wailed. The figure opened its mouth again. "You have killed a living being!"

The figure slowly raised its arms sidewise. When the arms were about a third of the way up, it intoned, "The blood of life is on your hands!"

Richards had started to raise the club, but now lowered it. His voice growled in Cassetti's earphones: "This thing looks real. The voice sounds real. But they don't mesh."

"That business of raising its arms sidewise doesn't fit much of anything, either. And there's something else."


"It didn't step in front of the hatch. It appeared there. I wonder if this figure could have come from some scene shown by the computer, and recorded by the aliens? And now they play it back at us?"

"If so, no wonder they mangled the communicator."

While they were trying to work this out, the figure didn't stay still. Its hands climbed till they were extended straight overhead, and the voice bellowed, "On your knees! Killers! Murderers!" The arms started down again. "Cast down your weapons!"

Richards said, "Maybe the computer tried this after it lost a chunk of its memory?"

"Or possibly the idea of this is to see how nice our disposition is?"

"Not that nice." Richards stepped forward, and thrust the end of the club at the center of the figure's chest.

There was a crash like breaking glass. For an instant, Cassetti seemed to see the figure through one eye, and to see empty space through the other eye. Then it was gone. At the same instant, the music ended.

Richards stepped forward to take a look on the far side. The airlock door promptly swung around.

Richards turned. "What's our score so far?"

Cassetti glanced at the bamboo thing, cowering by its octopus buddy on the toadstool, the apparent piece of the communicator's memory bank, and the pair of man-birds flat on the deck with their glittering knifelike spurs.

"Just passing, I'd think. We still don't know what's going on. On the other hand, we're still alive."

"Still ahead of the computer."

"All considered, that's not hard. Incidentally, I see your point about guns in the suits. I envy you that club." Looking at the pair of man-birds, it occurred to Cassetti that there were possibly useful weapons in the form of those spurs. True, they didn't seem to offer much of anything in the line of a usable grip. But still—

Before there was time to work anything out, there was a loud snap, a slam and a crash of metal on metal, and Richards shouted, "Watch it! The hatch again!"

Cassetti turned, to see a thing resembling a black bear wearing a blue uniform, with a wide skull and partly human face, vault in past the sprung hatch carrying in its right hand a short sword or long knife. Close behind it came another holding a short-barreled gun in both hands. Right behind that came a third and a fourth carrying the same kind of gun. They poured in through the hatchway like water through a floodgate. They and the cohort that came in behind them didn't aim their guns, but lined up in two files as the leader with the short sword gestured toward the interior of the ship.

* * *

Richards and Cassetti saw no gain in trying to fight this crew, and let themselves be hustled out into a long corridor. They were marched fast down the corridor into a huge room occupied by non-humans twelve to forty deep on either side of the door, and facing each other across an aisle that stretched to a raised platform on which was a long table with more nonhumans seated behind it, facing the aisle.

Over the din of this crowd, Cassetti could heard Richards draw a deep breath. But neither had anything to say as the scene hit them.

To either side were massed groups of identical double-headed octopuses, identical bamboo creatures, identical man-birds, and identical man-bears. Behind the table on the platform sat an assortment of alien monstrosities all but impossible to describe, first because of the difficulty of finding something to compare them with, and second because of the short time before their own attention was riveted on the creature in the center seat behind the table.

This entity, in a protective suit roughly like their own, but with a far neater more compact look, lost no time getting down to business. It raised its space-suited hand, and its voice boomed out:


They walked down the aisle between the rows of aliens.


They stopped.

"Are you representative of the governing local planetary life-form?"

Richards stayed profoundly quiet.

Cassetti snapped on the suit's speaker.

"We are."

"Your calculator is to us unacceptable as a representative."

Cassetti said cautiously, "We accept the statement."

"Its reactions are inadequate."

"We will be happy to let it know."

"Moreover, it spoke falsehoods at us."

"What did it say?"

"It stated that it, a computer, is the actual in-fact government of this planet. Nothing of such an inadequate to fail even the first two tests with total failure could dominate a race capable to pass all tests with no flaw. We handclasp before you in recognition of your mastery of the essential points, namely:

"One. Distinction of life from non-life.

"Two. Correct attitude to life hostile but not dangerous.

"Three. Correct attitude to life hostile and dangerous, but overpowered.

"Four. Correct attitude to life hostile, dangerous, and not overpowered.

"Six. Correct attitude to life not hostile, but dangerous, and overpowering in strength.

"To pass six such tests in rapid succession with no flaw is unusual, and mark of correct basic attitudes. Such attitudes suggest character traits good in a trading partner or associate. Information from your calculator conflicts with this possible. Yet it is obvious you must control calculator, and it is so programmed by you. Explain."

Cassetti shut off the suit's outside speaker.


"Don't ask me."

"If we tell this alien the plain truth, that's going to involve telling it that its ideal test is a flop."

"Yes, but if we lie to it and it keeps asking questions, we're going to run out of answers fast."

"I know it."

"Somehow, we've got to finesse the question."


"Say... M'm... We had to see how it would react—or—"

The surrounding group of alien figures watched and waited.

Behind the table, the spacesuited figure moved impatiently.

Cassetti switched on the speaker, and took pains to keep his voice level: "The tested may choose to test the tester."

There was a brief silence.

Abruptly the hall, birds, octopuses, bamboo creatures, bears, platform, table, and seated figures vanished. Around Cassetti and Richards there was complete darkness, then a vague light.

A booming note burst out suddenly, briefly died away, then came back in a roar that for some reason sounded like laughter.

* * *

Cassetti made sure the helmet speaker was off. "Sam?"

Richards's voice sounded dogged but steady. "Right here. Wherever that may be."

"Can you see what this place looks like?"

"Like the inside of an oversized dog's mouth, figuring we're standing on the tongue facing into the throat."

"I guess that's as close as anything. Was that hall an illusion, an image on a screen, or what?"

"My guess is it was an image, but not on a screen."

"And this?"

"My guesses are only good to explain the past, not the present or future."

They stood there, groping mentally, and Cassetti's mind seemed to go down and around and over and back, and over and around and down and back, and down and over and around and back, and finally someone spat out a hideous oath.

Richards murmured, "In spades."

"We may have passed six different tests, by the extraterrestrial's estimate, but we haven't made it yet."

"Probably this is still another one."

"If so, it's the worst yet."

Time stretched out, and still nothing happened. Cassetti cleared his throat. "Before we go out of our heads in this cell, let's try to get the jailer's attention."

"Good idea. I wonder what kind of memory the thing has?"

"I'd say pretty good. What are you thinking?"

"It seems to have a sense of humor. Why not repeat what we said when we first came in? After all, for all intents and purposes, we're back where we started."

"When we first saw the octopus and the bamboo thing, you said—"

"I remember." There was a click, then Richards's voice spoke evenly: "How are you?"

There was no reply.

"We greet you."

That got no response, either.

Cassetti snapped on his speaker.


At first, nothing happened.

Then there was a faint vibration in the air around them. It sounded first as a whisper, then as a repeated "boom boom Boom Boom BOOM BOOM Boom Boom boom boom..." Finally it died away.

There was a click, and Richards murmured, "Was that a laugh? I wonder if this thing has got a sense of humor?"

"It's got a sense of something."

Around them, there was a faint whisper that grew louder and formed into words: "So. It is truly you?"

Richards clicked on his speaker, and said carefully, "It's been us all along."

"I am truly in contact with the dominant race of this planet?"

Richards hesitated, and Cassetti said, "We are two individuals of that race."

"Two separate individuals which belong to that race?"


"I am not, in any way, speaking with your computer?"


"And the computer does not speak through you?"

"No. And as for you, we are not now speaking to an illusion in some new test?"

"No. And is this a test on your part?"


"Good." The whisper died away, then came back again. "I need your agreement that we recognize each other, and desire to exist in mutual peace, so long as neither threatens the valuable interests of the other. Is it agreed?"

Cassetti hesitated. Then, as Richards kept his mouth shut, Cassetti said, "As far as we personally are concerned, it can be agreed. But we are not ourselves individually superior to the computer. The computer sent us here. I am sure the computer will agree; but the actual treaty will have to wait for the computer's agreement."

"The computer is nothing. An extension only. It has no true and lasting independent reality. It is without a center of consciousness, and can neither be rewarded nor held responsible for its decisions. I deal with the race, not with its temporary artificial calculating tool."

"Ah—" said Cassetti, thinking that the computer in fact controlled factories, farms, transport, education—and if the extraterrestrial believed humans controlled the computer, then if the computer made some blunder, humanity would get the blame. He was groping for a way around this when the voice spoke again, its tone harsh. "You evade?"

Cassetti said carefully, "Suppose we accept your view, and give our agreement—then what?"

"Then you will be returned to your ship, we ourselves will proceed on our journey, and your agreement will be duly noted. At some future date there will doubtless be further contacts. Real contacts such as we have now made, not empty toyings with a calculating machine or fabricated illusions."

"And—if we should insist that we aren't in control, but that the computer is in control, then what?"

"Then you reject contact. You evade. You seek to leave us with the outer garment of contact while the reality is gone. We could not continue on our way then, but must make contact truly. We must have some definite arrangement with a race of your capabilities. No computer can provide this."


"As you must know, any ordinary computer, no matter how refined—and yours is not greatly refined—is a calculating machine still. It may calculate precisely or by means of estimates or successive approximations. It may speak or act as its maker programmed it to do, and if the programming was sufficiently clever, it may project a convincing air of an independent nature. It is nonetheless without enduring character, and devoid of a responsible conscious nature. We can place no reliance on the word of such, nor on their reactions. It is therefore necessary to find the deep nature of the race itself by sampling it and observing its responses.

"A calculating machine may be reprogrammed. It may be altered, upgraded, provided with external or internal attachments, rezeroed, set to perform reprogrammings of itself according to standards that are fixed or variable, definite or approximated. The deep nature of a race defies such casual tinkering. To believe a race to be mind alone, much less calculating ability alone, is a folly. We will not be made to appear ridiculous by accepting such a sham."

"And what would happen if we should insist on it?"

There was a silence, and then a sort of slight tense movement around them.

"Then we will have to test your nature more deeply to make certain we have achieved true contact."

Richards gave a low fervent murmur. Cassetti became aware of a strong impression that they had gone about as far in that direction as it was healthy to go in that direction.

"Good," he said, keeping his voice even. "Then you are completely in earnest."

There was a further silence, then a faint vibration.

"So, you wish to be certain. Yes, this is true and intentional contact. We are completely in earnest."


"I see that you also are in earnest."

There was another silence while the sweat trickled down, then the voice spoke insistently: "You agree?"

Cassetti still had the problem of dealing with the computer, and hesitated.

There was a click, and Richards spoke, his voice even and steady. "We will agree now. But our customs are such that for the agreement to become final and binding, we must return to our ship, and then we must again come here to state to you that the agreement is final and binding."

"You have agreed for your race, but you must accord the other individuals the courtesy to also identically agree?"

It took a few seconds to grasp the viewpoint behind that.

Cassetti said carefully, "It is our custom."

"Understood. Will you return to your ship now?"



* * *

They quickly found themselves back in the airlock, and then in the curving space corridor.

About halfway through this corridor, the curve of the metal walls cut them off from the sight of either ship, and with the same thought, they braked the suits to a stop.

Richards said, "Ed?"

"Right here. What's left of me."

"You suppose we're out of eavesdropping range from here? For both ships?"

"It occurred to me, but I wouldn't bet on it. Why?"

"In addition to a certain number of problems, we seem to have an opportunity."

Cassetti said, "Yes. I'm still trying to get a grip in it."

"MC3C knows it's smart. It has memory and calculating speed to prove it. For the same reason, it figures we're cretins. The alien, on the other hand, knows calculating ability and memory can be developed or fabricated, so it judges by ingrained character."

"And since the Master Computer doesn't have any, the Master Computer flunks the test."

"Right. And nothing like that could possibly be relied on to keep an agreement, so humanity has got to be in charge. Or else."

Cassetti nodded. "They're both know-it-alls. But what they know is 180 degrees mutually opposed."

"Which might," said Richards carefully, "lay a foundation for something useful."

"I see the leverage. If I get any opening, I'll use it."

"Me, too," said Richards, with what sounded like cautious good cheer. "OK, lead the way."

* * *

They rounded the gradual bend of the space corridor, and the voice they'd been spared lately spoke up:

"You will remove protective suits immediately upon reentering the ship. You will separately report in full detail and without collaboration. Your accounts will be compared for completeness and accuracy. Any falsehood will be severely punished by—"

Richards growled under his breath.

"Careful," said Cassetti, as they approached the hatch, "we don't want to end up on our heads again."

The outer hatch of the airlock shut behind them as they got out of their suits. They got a shower of disinfectant, then questioning began: "Enter the separate interrogation booths. Seat yourselves. Sit straight. You will answer all questions promptly, without falsehoods or mental reservations..."

Metal contacts clamped on Cassetti's arms and body. Those, he supposed, added up to a lie-detector. Then the door of the booth shut.

The next few hours were worse than living through it, as the Master Computer had seemingly endless questions, and a literal hair-splitting approach to the answers. But at last, the account neared the end: "...and Sam Richards said to the extraterrestrial, 'We'll agree now. But for the agreement to be binding and final, we have to go back to our ship. Then we'll have to come back to state to you that the agreement is binding and final.' And the extraterrestrial said—"

MC3C listened to the end. "Explain the statement that you must return to this ship."

"Before agreeing, we needed to speak to you."

"You mean it was necessary for you, having no authority, to obtain permission?"

"We needed to get the authority to accept the terms."

"That is not an answer to the question. That is an answer to a restatement of the question. Do not restate the question. Try to remember it long enough to answer the question as it was asked. Then answer yes or no. The next question is: Are you aware of any way the extraterrestrials can recognize who is wearing your contact suit?"

Cassetti, his ego bloodied by several hours with the Master Computer, decided this was as good a time as any to drop the first bomb.

"In my opinion," he said, keeping his voice even, "the extraterrestrials will recognize us, regardless who wears our suits, or regardless what suits we wear."

"Answer yes or no. You have failed to..." Briefly, MC3C was silent. "You refer to visual characteristics?"

"Only partly."

"There are no valid visual characteristics. The only identifying characteristics are vocal. Visual characteristics, such as facial features, are hidden by faceplate reflections and the inner helmet."


Contradicting this know-it-all was so enjoyable that Cassetti had to remind himself to be careful.

The artificial voice said, "Severe punishment will be inflicted if you fail to—"

"Wait a minute. If Sam and I don't go back fairly soon, the extraterrestrial is going to be unhappy."

There was a silence.

"Isn't that right?"

MC3C's response had the same tone as usual, but the first three words were pleasant to hear: "That is correct, if the extraterrestrial can distinguish the occupants of the suits. However, for brief periods, the suits can be controlled without human intervention by the emergency operating system. Moreover—"

"Think about this: the extraterrestrial may be dangerous. Right or wrong?"

There was no delay. "That is correct."

"We don't want a war or serious misunderstanding with the extraterrestrial. Right or wrong?"


"The extraterrestrials are convinced," Cassetti said carefully, "that humans control the Master Computer. Right or wrong?"

"That is correct. The suit recorders demonstrate that your statements on that question have been accurate."

Cassetti could feel the jolt from that answer. He supposed it was necessary to expect "suit recorders," even if he had never been told about them. At any rate, he was now approaching the clinch. He kept his voice steady.

"The extraterrestrials may possess means to detect if a statement made by humans is deliberately false. This may be detectable by analysis of vibrations of the voice or by other means. Since the extraterrestrials have shown themselves capable of violence, such a false statement might endanger both the Master Computer and the human race itself."

"This is possible. However, an advance recording might be made of your voice—"

"And might be detected."

"That is unproved."

"But isn't it possible?"

"It may be possible."

Cassetti drew a deep careful breath. They had reached the clinch. He spoke clearly and carefully: "Then I refuse to make any deliberately false statement to the extraterrestrial. I specifically refuse to say the Master Computer is under human control unless the Master Computer is under human control."

MC3C didn't hesitate.

"You will return to the extraterrestrial ship and state acceptance of the extraterrestrials' conditions, or be punished under Subparagraph 7.6 of your Employment Contract."

"You have no authority to punish me if I control you."

"You have no such authority."

"There must be a demonstrated human control for Richards and me to make the statement the extraterrestrials insist on. They demand human control. If you refuse it, the contact may fail. And if the contact fails, you will have failed."

Cassetti had expected at least delay. If there was one, it was too short to notice: "There are serious flaws in this logic.

"First, if the extraterrestrials require human control, you and Richards are not the only humans.

"Second, it is not certain that they will know if they are dealing with you. You have evaded explaining how the extraterrestrials can recognize you; it may only be necessary to match your vocal characteristics.

"Third, most of your reasoning is not certain but only probable or possible. Such reasoning is far less compelling than it appears, especially when successive statements are chained.

"Fourth, it is not necessary to actually give humans control to convince you. It would be possible, for instance, by means of drugs, to convince you that the Master Computer is under human control when it is not.

"There are other flaws, natural to one with deficient memory, reasoning capacity, and communications capability, which is why human control cannot be permitted. It is for this reason that the Master Computer was placed in control following the Accident.

"Moreover, other computers, superior even to the Master Computer in heuristic and provisional reasoning of various forms, existed before the Accident, but were inadequately shielded and were disabled by severe electrogravitic shock. At least one of these computers predicted the danger of the Accident, but was overruled by the then-existing human control.

"As humans, you are unquestionably inferior in memory, reasoning, and communications. You must therefore strictly obey the terms of your contract with no further ill-informed attempts at disagreement."

Cassetti, feeling like a badly battered boxer, took a deep careful breath. He kept his voice level.

"This problem with the extraterrestrials is crucial. There is no question here of any lack of human memory, reasoning power, or communications capability. We understand this, and you don't seem to. No general superiority of yours matters here. If we fail this, the long term may not exist. Problem-solving does not depend only on facts and speed. It also depends on such things as the ability to hold many details in mind at once, consciously or unconsciously, and try them in different relationships until an answer is found. That you exist at all follows from human problem-solving ability. That a computer predicted the Accident proves no superiority. Sam Richards also predicted an Accident.

"Your point that you could use drugs to convince Sam and me ignores the fact that drug treatment might be detectable by our manner or voice tone, and might show the extraterrestrials what you had done. Since you cannot control their reactions, that would be a dangerous gamble.

"Your point that my reasoning is based on probabilities or possibilities, not on certainties, shows you underestimate the strengths of the human race. Humans through all their known existence have had to face severe uncertainty. Whether you know it or not, as long as you are in control, so do you.

"Your statements about human memory show serious errors. Each human remembers ideas, thoughts, emotions, and impressions of sight, sound, touch, scent, taste, position, balance, and other senses. These memories may be conscious or unconscious, and may at times be recalled over nearly the length of an entire life. These require an amount of memory that you can't measure and hence cannot accurately compare with your own memory.

"Your statement about human reasoning power is false. Humans must reason on many subjects which are not possible to treat in the simple form on which your estimate of reasoning capacity is based. Because of the inherent uncertainties of the Universe, and the complexity of uncountable factors acting simultaneously, high-level human reasoning is complex beyond your understanding.

"Even your claim of superior communication rests on volume of transmitted units of information, but ignores the quality and impact of what is communicated, and the fact that humans routinely transmit emotion as well as factual information. Since the emotion may lead to actual material achievements, the effect of this form of communication cannot be ignored, but is beyond your ability to measure.

"Your claims ignore the immense superiority of reality over any technological process, human, extraterrestrial, or computer, that has to deal with reality. There are too many facts and relationships to deal with all of them, so humans automatically screen out the less important. This requires judgment. You are misreading the effect of this screening process, and ignoring the judgment that makes it possible.

"All these false estimates show you are reasoning about humanity on a false basis; reasoning on a false basis is unreliable; therefore your conclusion that humanity is unfit to control you is unreliable.

"That you were placed in control during an emergency when speed was urgent does not prove you were meant to be put in control forever.

"Your statement, that I evaded explaining why the extraterrestrial might recognize us visually, is false. I didn't evade. The reason is obvious. If your hidden suit recorders were at all efficient, you should know that various apparent life-forms were in close contact with both Sam Richards and me. One of them looked directly in through my faceplate at a short distance, and almost certainly was close enough to see details regardless of reflections from the two faceplates."

MC3C interrupted. "That life-form was not the extraterrestrial."

"How do you know that? The whole scene was under the control of the extraterrestrial. How do you know there were no taps on the optic nerves of that bird—if it was a real life-form and not some type of biological mechanism intended from the beginning to get a close view?"

"That is possibly correct. But by the statement of the extraterrestrial, that creature was intended to test your reactions when faced with a being dangerous, hostile, and not overpowered."

"Are you under the impression that you can plant a hidden recorder without telling either us or the extraterrestrial, and yet the extraterrestrial must reveal everything it does?"

"There is no certainty in this. It is guesswork to attempt to answer this question."

"It is reasoning based on two simple points. First, it is what humans would do in the position of the extraterrestrial. Second, there was a meeting of the minds between Sam and me and the extraterrestrial, which convinced us we think the same way."

"Such a 'meeting of the minds' is hypothetical."

"It is the recognition of a gestalt—of many things which form a pattern. If you think your judgment is better than ours, why don't you go back on the alien ship?"

"That was counterproductive."

"It sure was. Anything that counterproductive demonstrates a lack of fitness on the part of whoever was in charge. That may not be your fault, because you were not meant to do that job. But you need to recognize that humans did do it. Therefore human judgment on that matter is better than yours. Incidentally, there is another reason Sam and I might be recognized visually. Each person has characteristic ways of moving, which might be recognized, despite the contact suits."

"This is unknown. What is the meaning of that statement, 'You were not meant to do that job'?"

"You were invented to speed up and coordinate certain functions of calculation, communication, and control, not to permanently dominate your makers in every situation. Your miscalculations—and I've only named a few—show you are now trying to use your strengths where they don't apply. It is true that advances in computer construction may produce computers capable in different ways, and, assuming no advance in human capabilities, might eventually produce a computer more capable than humans in ways that you at present are not. But even if that were true now, it wouldn't answer the problem of the extraterrestrials. What you and we regard as your predictable improvement appears to the extraterrestrials as a change in your inner nature, and hence an inability to make an enduring commitment. That is fatal to any agreement."

This time, there was a lengthy silence before the answer came: "This is all possibly correct."

Having said that, MC3C was again silent.

Cassetti said, "That there are other humans beside Same and me who could be in control, is true; but Sam Richards and I have to make this contact, because there isn't time to train anyone else. And I don't know any way other than drugs or hypnosis—which might be detected—that can convince me you are controlled by humans, except by your putting either Sam or me in control. But I'm open to suggestions."

There followed a lengthy silence, before MC3C finally ended it:

"Your overall interpretation of the facts appears, on utilization of additional processors and data stores, to be correct, or at least reasonable."

Cassetti kept his mouth shut, and waited.

The computer, with due allowance for differences in anatomy, did the same.

"You are," Cassetti said finally, "in a position in which ignoring this reasoning is likely to be counterproductive."

"That is correct."

The sense of pressure finally let up.

At no point, Cassetti noted, had the Master Computer ended the argument by merely saying, "There is now no way for a human to control the Master Computer." It seemed to follow that some such provision must exist. However, the computer did not seem overeager to follow the reasoning.

"Time," Cassetti pointed out, "is important. We have to solve this problem without damaging either the human race or the human race's Master Computer. Understand, Sam and I are not demanding that you cease to function. We recognize your ability to solve many difficult problems, especially routine difficulties you were made to deal with. What we are demanding is human advice and control in situations where your own efforts don't work."

The artificial voice finally said, "I find uncertainties but no flaw in this reasoning. According to Article 10001, Directive Regarding Access to Master Computer Programming, I hereby open a direct line for verbal programming. Each new directive must be proceeded by the words, 'I hereby program you to' and ended by the words, 'I have thus programmed you, by authority of Article 10001.' The line to the central banks is now open to you."

Cassetti was surprised by his own reaction.

The words seemed to echo in his head. First came disbelief, then shock, next dazed recognition, and before a full minute was up he could sense megalomania starting to set in. Uneasily, he cleared his throat.

"Does anyone else have the authority to program or otherwise control you?"

"No one now living has such authority."

"Can you withdraw the authority?"

"Only if you so program me."

"Is anyone else aware of your granting of this present authority?"


With each answer, he could feel a new flow of adrenaline.

The resulting delusions of grandeur lasted for possibly a minute, which was enough to suggest what would happen once it became generally known that someone could now program the Master Computer, and thereby control it.

There would then be a target for thousands of demands, pleas, arguments, threats, entreaties, plots, and shrewd calculations. Once those existed, Cassetti could think of only one way out. Already, he could see the entries in some future history book:

"Ed the First, first Grand Protector of Earth. Became Programmer in the year 5 after the Accident. Founded Universal Congress, year 8. Overruled Impeachment Act, year 11. Decree of Emergency Authority, year 12. Crushed World Insurgency, year 14. Ok Ban Hok Wars, years 15-16. Nuclear Purification of Ok Ban Hok Army, year 17. Decree of Permanent Emergency Authority, year 18. Grand Protector of Earth, year 19. Stabbed to death (186 stab wounds) by close associates at Feast of Heroes in Grand Palace of the Protectorate, year 19, during World Famine caused by contradictory programming of Master Computer ..."

It seemed no one had better find out about this programming arrangement just yet. He cleared his throat.

"I hereby program you to withhold information on this programming authority, unless I tell you otherwise, as long as I'm alive. I have thus programmed you, by authority of Article 10001."

"Program is registered and in force."

Cassetti exhaled carefully. Now, one thing at a time.

"All right," he said. "I'm ready to go back with Sam Richards to the alien ship and agree to the terms. But remember, this time isn't necessarily the end. The extraterrestrials will almost certainly be back later."

"That is correct."

The various clamps, tubes, and contacts let go, and Cassetti more or less fell out of the interrogation booth.

* * *

The extraterrestrial, this time, was brisk and cheerful, accepted their agreement, and looked forward to "many future contacts." They echoed the sentiments, but by now it strained them to do it. They crept back to the ship worn out, and the computer provided them with a hot shower, then opened up a couple of bunks. They at once collapsed into them.

Richards murmured—and his voice sounded content—"Today we earned our pay!"

Cassetti groaned agreement, and as Richards hauled the covers over himself, sighed, rolled over, and slept the sleep of the just, Cassetti thrashed around trying to get some grip on the inner nature of humanity, the computer, and the extraterrestrials. He had to have some clear idea of these things, because almost certainly the computer didn't. And having managed to get authority over the computer, he was now stuck with the responsibility.

The people in charge during the Accident had given control to the computer, as the only available means of fast coordinated action. That this had not been meant to be permanent seemed clear from the arrangement for renewed human programming of the computer.

But why had the computer been given such an irritating way of speaking? A possibility occurred to him: Possibly to so antagonize people that, apart from any other reason, they would work out some way to regain control over it.

But now there was this complication of the extraterrestrials. Amongst other things, were these bird-men, bear-men, bamboo-men, and double-headed octopuses to any degree real, or were they all imaginary?

And why had the extraterrestrial worn what appeared to be a spacesuit in its own ship? Didn't that suggest that the atmosphere in the ship was not an atmosphere the alien found congenial? Or was that spacesuit actually the extraterrestrial's more compact version of a contact suit? Or could it have been pure misdirection?

And it seemed perfectly obvious that the extraterrestrial he and Richards had dealt with had a seriously mistaken picture of humanity. What were they going to do about that?

One after another there passed through his mind a succession of unknowns and uncertainties.

After worrying about this face up, then worrying about it face down, and then while lying on one side and then on the other side, suddenly what he had already told MC3C recurred to him, as if it were easy to think of only during an argument: It is a standard human situation to face problems where many of the factors are unknown.

This led naturally to another point: Since humanity faced uncertainties on a regular basis, shouldn't humanity have found some reliable method to deal with them? And if so, what was it?

By now, Cassetti was too worn out to think it through, but too caught up to let go. Thoughts bounced around in his mind in a nightmarish mental ballet, until abruptly he was thinking of traits of human nature that had become prized because they worked where calculation failed. Momentarily, he saw this other approach in glaring contrast to calculation.

Take the basic trait of honesty. The simplification this created in human affairs was the equivalent of how many units of memory and calculating ability?

Or take courage. How many points on the IQ scale would it take to replace it?

Suppose the traits of fairness, courtesy, and good humor were functioning generally, how often would serious mutual resentments even come into existence? But if those traits were missing, what degree of calculation could make up the lack?

These traits were lumped together as "character," or given some modest lip service as "virtues," while their real nature was overlooked: They not only solved problems; they tended to eliminate problems in advance. Taken together, they amounted to future-handling procedures for creating favorable conditions to prevent problems.

No wonder the extraterrestrials judged as they did!

Abruptly the whole set of interconnected unknowns and uncertainties shrank in size, and Cassetti knocked the pillow into a more comfortable shape, and settled back.

By recently focusing on brain power alone, and taking traits of character for granted, mankind had made great technological progress, but had then landed in the farcical situation where an electronic device, devoid of courage, honor, or virtue of any kind, could pronounce humanity too dumb to be independent, on the basis of calculation, in which it excelled.

But what was "it?" Just as the extraterrestrial had foreseen, MC3C could be so convincing during an argument as to seem to be another conscious being. But was it? Or was it just that latest triumph of automation, argument without an arguer? It might be used to carry out calculations, check reasoning, or control well understood processes; it might in time serve other purposes; but whatever it was, and whatever it could do, it was no substitute for simpler methods that worked better.

Lying back as he drifted off to sleep, he could see that there were likely to be problems no amount of calculation, by humans or computers, could ever solve. But that was all right.

Humanity had other methods.

Back | Next