The voice was gone. And then even the static was gone.
"That does it," Rajcik said. "The calculator? Did he mean the Fahrensen Computer in our hold?"
"I see what he meant," said Captain Somers. "The Fahrensen is a very advanced job. No one knows the limits of its potential. He suggests we present our problem to it."
"That's ridiculous," Watkins snorted. "This problem has no solution."
"It doesn't seem to," Somers agreed. "But the big computers have solved other apparently impossible problems. We can't lose anything by trying."
"No," said Rajcik, "as long as we don't pin any hopes on it."
"That's right. We don't dare hope. Mr. Watkins, I believe this is your department."
"Oh, what's the use?" Watkins asked. "You say don't hope--but both of you are hoping anyhow! You think the big electronic god is going to save your lives. Well, it's not!"
"We have to try," Somers told him.
"We don't! I wouldn't give it the satisfaction of turning us down!"
They stared at him in vacant astonishment.
"Now you're implying that machines think," said Rajcik.
"Of course I am," Watkins said. "Because they do! No, I'm not out of my head. Any engineer will tell you that a complex machine has a personality all its own. Do you know what that personality is like? Cold, withdrawn, uncaring, unfeeling. A machine's only purpose is to frustrate desire and produce two problems for every one it solves. And do you know why a machine feels this way?"
"You're hysterical," Somers told him.
"I am not. A machine feels this way because it knows it is an unnatural creation in nature's domain. Therefore it wishes to reach entropy and cease--a mechanical death wish."
"I've never heard such gibberish in my life," Somers said. "Are you going to hook up that computer?"
"Of course. I'm a human. I keep trying. I just wanted you to understand fully that there is no hope." He went to the cargo hold.
After he had gone, Rajcik grinned and shook his head. "We'd better watch him."
"He'll be all right," Somers said.
"Maybe, maybe not." Rajcik pursed his lips thoughtfully. "He's blaming the situation on a machine personality now, trying to absolve himself of guilt. And it is his fault that we're in this spot. An engineer is responsible for all equipment."
"I don't believe you can put the blame on him so dogmatically," Somers replied.
"Sure I can," Rajcik said. "I personally don't care, though. This is as good a way to die as any other and better than most."
Captain Somers wiped perspiration from his face. Again the notion came to him that the problem--the real problem--was to find a way out of this hot, smelly, motionless little box.
Rajcik said, "Death in space is an appealing idea, in certain ways. Imagine an entire spaceship for your tomb! And you have a variety of ways of actually dying. Thirst and starvation I rule out as unimaginative. But there are possibilities in heat, cold, implosion, explosion--"
"This is pretty morbid," Somers said.
"I'm a pretty morbid fellow," Rajcik said carelessly. "But at least I'm not blaming inanimate objects, the way Watkins is. Or permitting myself the luxury of shock, like you." He studied Somers' face. "This is your first real emergency, isn't it, Captain?"
"I suppose so," Somers answered vaguely.
"And you're responding to it like a stunned ox," Rajcik said. "Wake up, Captain! If you can't live with joy, at least try to extract some pleasure from your dying."
"Shut up," Somers said, with no heat. "Why don't you read a book or something?"
"I've read all the books on board. I have nothing to distract me except an analysis of your character."
Watkins returned to the cabin. "Well, I've activated your big electronic god. Would anyone care to make a burned offering in front of it?"
"Have you given it the problem?"
"Not yet. I decided to confer with the high priest. What shall I request of the demon, sir?"
"Give it all the data you can," Somers said. "Fuel, oxygen, water, food--that sort of thing. Then tell it we want to return to Earth. Alive," he added.
"It'll love that," Watkins said. "It'll get such pleasure out of rejecting our problem as unsolvable. Or better yet--insufficient data. In that way, it can hint that a solution is possible, but just outside our reach. It can keep us hoping."
Somers and Rajcik followed him to the cargo hold. The computer, activated now, hummed softly. Lights flashed swiftly over its panels, blue and white and red.
Watkins punched buttons and turned dials for fifteen minutes, then moved back.
"Watch for the red light on top," he said. "That means the problem is rejected."
"Don't say it," Rajcik warned quickly.
Watkins laughed. "Superstitious little fellow, aren't you?"
"But not incompetent," Rajcik said, smiling.
"Can't you two quit it?" Somers demanded, and both men turned startedly to face him.
"Behold!" Rajcik said. "The sleeper has awakened."
"After a fashion," said Watkins, snickering.
Somers suddenly felt that if death or rescue did not come quickly, they would kill each other, or drive each other crazy.
"Look!" Rajcik said.
A light on the computer's panel was flashing green.
"Must be a mistake," said Watkins. "Green means the problem is solvable within the conditions set down."
"Solvable!" Rajcik said.
"But it's impossible," Watkins argued. "It's fooling us, leading us on--"
"Don't be superstitious," Rajcik mocked. "How soon do we get the solution?"
"It's coming now." Watkins pointed to a paper tape inching out of a slot in the machine's face. "But there must be something wrong!"
They watched as, millimeter by millimeter, the tape crept out. The computer hummed, its lights flashing green. Then the hum stopped. The green lights blazed once more and faded.
"What happened?" Rajcik wanted to know.
"It's finished," Watkins said.
"Pick it up! Read it!"
"You read it. You won't get me to play its game."
Rajcik laughed nervously and rubbed his hands together, but didn't move. Both men turned to Somers.
"Captain, it's your responsibility."
"Go ahead, Captain!"
Somers looked with loathing at his engineer and navigator. His responsibility, everything was his responsibility. Would they never leave him alone?
He went up to the machine, pulled the tape free, read it with slow deliberation.
"What does it say, sir?" Rajcik asked.
"Is it--possible?" Watkins urged.
"Oh, yes," Somers said. "It's possible." He laughed and looked around at the hot, smelly, low-ceilinged little room with its locked doors and windows.
"What is it?" Rajcik shouted.
Somers said, "You figured a few thousand years to return to the Solar System, Rajcik? Well, the computer agrees with you. Twenty-three hundred years, to be precise. Therefore, it has given us a suitable longevity serum."
"Twenty-three hundred years," Rajcik mumbled. "I suppose we hibernate or something of the sort."
"Not at all," Somers said calmly. "As a matter of fact, this serum does away quite nicely with the need for sleep. We stay awake and watch each other."
The three men looked at one another and at the sickeningly familiar room smelling of metal and perspiration, its sealed doors and windows that stared at an unchanging spectacle of stars.
Watkins said, "Yes, that's the sort of thing it would do."
By Robert Sheckley
Destroying the spirit of the enemy is the goal of war and the aliens had the best way!
They never did discover whose fault it was. Fannia pointed out that if Donnaught had had the brains of an ox, as well as the build, he would have remembered to check the tanks. Donnaught, although twice as big as him, wasn't quite as fast with an insult. He intimated, after a little thought, that Fannia's nose might have obstructed his reading of the fuel gauge.
This still left them twenty light-years from Thetis, with a cupful of transformer fuel in the emergency tank.
"All right," Fannia said presently. "What's done is done. We can squeeze about three light-years out of the fuel before we're back on atomics. Hand me The Galactic Pilot--unless you forgot that, too."
Donnaught dragged the bulky microfilm volume out of its locker, and they explored its pages.
The Galactic Pilot told them they were in a sparse, seldom-visited section of space, which they already knew. The nearest planetary system was Hatterfield; no intelligent life there. Sersus had a native population, but no refueling facilities. The same with Illed, Hung and Porderai.
"Ah-ha!" Fannia said. "Read that, Donnaught. If you can read, that is."
"Cascella," Donnaught read, slowly and clearly, following the line with a thick forefinger. "Type M sun. Three planets, intelligent (AA3C) human-type life on second. Oxygen-breathers. Non-mechanical. Religious. Friendly. Unique social structure, described in Galactic Survey Report 33877242. Population estimate: stable at three billion. Basic Cascellan vocabulary taped under Cas33b2. Scheduled for resurvey 2375 A.D. Cache of transformer fuel left, beam coordinate 8741 kgl. Physical descript: Unocc. flatland."
"Transformer fuel, boy!" Fannia said gleefully. "I believe we will get to Thetis, after all." He punched the new direction on the ship's tape. "If that fuel's still there."
"Should we read up on the unique social structure?" Donnaught asked, still poring over The Galactic Pilot.
"Certainly," Fannia said. "Just step over to the main galactic base on Earth and buy me a copy."
"I forgot," Donnaught admitted slowly.
"Let me see," Fannia said, dragging out the ship's language library, "Cascellan, Cascellan ... Here it is. Be good while I learn the language." He set the tape in the hypnophone and switched it on. "Another useless tongue in my overstuffed head," he murmured, and then the hypnophone took over.