They had come to pass judgement on him. He had violated their law--wilfully, ignorantly, and very deliberately.
"Our people will be arriving to visit us today," the robot said.
"Shut up!" snapped Rod Rankin. He jumped, wiry and quick, out of the chair on his verandah and stared at a cloud of dust in the distance.
"Our people--" the ten-foot, cylinder-bodied robot grated, when Rod Rankin interrupted him.
"I don't care about your fool people," said Rankin. He squinted at the cloud of dust getting bigger and closer beyond the wall of kesh trees that surrounded the rolling acres of his plantation. "That damned new neighbor of mine is coming over here again."
He gestured widely, taking in the dozens of robots with their shiny, cylindrical bodies and pipestem arms and legs laboring in his fields. "Get all your people together and go hide in the wood, fast."
"It is not right," said the robot. "We were made to serve all."
"Well, there are only a hundred of you, and I'm not sharing you with anybody," said Rankin.
"It is not right," the robot repeated.
"Don't talk to me about what's right," said Rankin. "You're built to follow orders, nothing else. I know a thing or two about how you robots work. You've got one law, to follow orders, and until that neighbor of mine sees you to give you orders, you work for me. Now get into those woods and hide till he goes away."
"We will go to greet those who visit us today," said the robot.
"Alright, alright, scram," said Rankin.
The robots in the fields and the one whom Rankin had been talking to formed a column and marched off into the trackless forests behind his plantation.
A battered old ground-car drove up a few minutes later. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a deep tan got out and walked up the path to Rankin's verandah.
"Hi, Barrows," said Rankin.
"Hello," said Barrows. "See your crop's coming along pretty well. Can't figure how you do it. You've got acres and acres to tend, far's I can see, and I'm having a hell of a time with one little piece of ground. I swear you must know something about this planet that I don't know."
"Just scientific farming," said Rankin carelessly. "Look, you come over here for something, or just to gab? I got a lot of work to do."
Barrows looked weary and worried. "Them brown beetles is at my crop again," he said. "Thought you might know some way of getting rid of them."
"Sure," said Rankin. "Pick them off, one by one. That's how I get rid of them."
"Why, man," said Barrows, "you can't walk all over these miles and miles of farm and pick off every one of them beetles. You must know another way."
Rankin drew himself up and stared at Barrows. "I'm telling you all I feel like telling you. You going to stand here and jaw all day? Seems to me like you got work to do."
"Rankin," said Barrows, "I know you were a crook back in the Terran Empire, and that you came out beyond the border to escape the law. Seems to me, though, that even a crook, any man, would be willing to help his only neighbor out on a lone planet like this. You might need help yourself, sometime."
"You keep your thoughts about my past to yourself," said Rankin. "Remember, I keep a gun. And you've got a wife and a whole bunch of kids on that farm of yours. Be smart and let me alone."
"I'm going," said Barrows. He walked off the verandah and turned and spat carefully into the dusty path. He climbed into his ground-car and drove off.
Rankin, angry, watched him go. Then he heard a humming noise from another direction.
He turned. A huge, white globe was descending across the sky. A space ship, thought Rankin, startled.
Police? This planet was outside the jurisdiction of the Terran Empire. When he'd cracked that safe and made off with a hundred thousand credits, he'd headed here, because the planet was part of something called the Clearchan Confederacy. No extradition treaties or anything. Perfectly safe, if the planet was safe.
And the planet was more than safe. There had been a hundred robots waiting when he landed. Where they came from he didn't know, but Rankin prided himself on knowing how to handle robots. He'd appropriated their services and started his farm. At the rate he was going, he'd be a plantation owner before long.
That must be where the ship was from. The robot said they'd expected visitors. Must be the Clearchan Confederacy visiting this robot outpost. Was that good or bad?
From everything he'd read, and from what the robots had told him, they were probably more robots. That was good, because he knew how to handle robots.
The white globe disappeared into the jungle of kesh trees. Rankin waited.
A half hour later the column of his robot laborers marched out of the forest. There were three more robots, painted grey, at the head. The new ones from the ship, thought Rankin. Well, he'd better establish who was boss right from the start.
"Stop right there!" he shouted.
The shiny robot laborers halted. But the three grey ones came on.
"Stop!" shouted Rankin.
They didn't stop, and by the time they reached the verandah, he cursed himself for having failed to get his gun.
Two of the huge grey robots laid gentle hands on his arms. Gentle hands, but hands of superstrong metal.
The third said, "We have come to pass judgement on you. You have violated our law."
"What do you mean?" said Rankin. "The only law robots have is to obey orders."
"It is true that the robots of your Terran Empire and these simple workers here must obey orders. But they are subject to a higher law, and you have forced them to break it. That is your crime."
"What crime?" said Rankin.
"We of the Clearchan Confederacy are a race of robots. Our makers implanted one law in us, and then passed on. We have carried our law to all the planets we have colonized. In obeying your orders, these workers were simply following that one law. You must be taken to our capital, and there be imprisoned and treated for your crime."
"What law? What crime?"
"Our law," said the giant robot, "is, Help thy neighbor."
BESIDE STILL WATERS.
BY ROBERT SHECKLEY.
When people talk about getting away from it all, they are usually thinking about our great open spaces out west. But to science fiction writers, that would be practically in the heart of Times Square. When a man of the future wants solitude he picks a slab of rock floating in space four light years east of Andromeda. Here is a gentle little story about a man who sought the solitude of such a location. And who did he take along for company? None other than Charles the Robot.
Mark Rogers was a prospector, and he went to the asteroid belt looking for radioactives and rare metals. He searched for years, never finding much, hopping from fragment to fragment. After a time he settled on a slab of rock half a mile thick.
Rogers had been born old, and he didn't age much past a point. His face was white with the pallor of space, and his hands shook a little. He called his slab of rock Martha, after no girl he had ever known.
He made a little strike, enough to equip Martha with an air pump and a shack, a few tons of dirt and some water tanks, and a robot. Then he settled back and watched the stars.
The robot he bought was a standard-model all-around worker, with built-in memory and a thirty-word vocabulary. Mark added to that, bit by bit. He was something of a tinkerer, and he enjoyed adapting his environment to himself.
At first, all the robot could say was "Yes, sir," and "No, sir." He could state simple problems: "The air pump is laboring, sir." "The corn is budding, sir." He could perform a satisfactory salutation: "Good morning, sir."
Mark changed that. He eliminated the "sirs" from the robot's vocabulary; equality was the rule on Mark's hunk of rock. Then he dubbed the robot Charles, after a father he had never known.
As the years passed, the air pump began to labor a little as it converted the oxygen in the planetoid's rock into a breathable atmosphere. The air seeped into space, and the pump worked a little harder, supplying more.
The crops continued to grow on the tamed black dirt of the planetoid. Looking up, Mark could see the sheer blackness of the river of space, the floating points of the stars. Around him, under him, overhead, masses of rock drifted, and sometimes the starlight glinted from their black sides. Occasionally, Mark caught a glimpse of Mars or Jupiter. Once he thought he saw Earth.
Mark began to tape new responses into Charles. He added simple responses to cue words. When he said, "How does it look?" Charles would answer, "Oh, pretty good, I guess."
At first the answers were what Mark had been answering himself, in the long dialogue held over the years. But, slowly, he began to build a new personality into Charles.
Mark had always been suspicious and scornful of women. But for some reason he didn't tape the same suspicion into Charles. Charles' outlook was quite different.
"What do you think of girls?" Mark would ask, sitting on a packing case outside the shack, after the chores were done.
"Oh, I don't know. You have to find the right one." The robot would reply dutifully, repeating what had been put on its tape.
"I never saw a good one yet," Mark would say.
"Well, that's not fair. Perhaps you didn't look long enough. There's a girl in the world for every man."
"You're a romantic!" Mark would say scornfully. The robot would pause--a built-in pause--and chuckle a carefully constructed chuckle.
"I dreamed of a girl named Martha once," Charles would say. "Maybe if I would have looked, I would have found her."
And then it would be bedtime. Or perhaps Mark would want more conversation. "What do you think of girls?" he would ask again, and the discussion would follow its same course.
Charles grew old. His limbs lost their flexibility, and some of his wiring started to corrode. Mark would spend hours keeping the robot in repair.
"You're getting rusty," he would cackle.
"You're not so young yourself," Charles would reply. He had an answer for almost everything. Nothing involved, but an answer.
It was always night on Martha, but Mark broke up his time into mornings, afternoons and evenings. Their life followed a simple routine. Breakfast, from vegetables and Mark's canned store. Then the robot would work in the fields, and the plants grew used to his touch. Mark would repair the pump, check the water supply, and straighten up the immaculate shack. Lunch, and the robot's chores were usually finished.
The two would sit on the packing case and watch the stars. They would talk until supper, and sometimes late into the endless night.
In time, Mark built more complicated conversations into Charles. He couldn't give the robot free choice, of course, but he managed a pretty close approximation of it. Slowly, Charles' personality emerged. But it was strikingly different from Mark's.
Where Mark was querulous, Charles was calm. Mark was sardonic, Charles was naive. Mark was a cynic, Charles was an idealist. Mark was often sad; Charles was forever content.
And in time, Mark forgot he had built the answers into Charles. He accepted the robot as a friend, of about his own age. A friend of long years' standing.
"The thing I don't understand," Mark would say, "is why a man like you wants to live here. I mean, it's all right for me. No one cares about me, and I never gave much of a damn about anyone. But why you?"
"Here I have a whole world," Charles would reply, "where on Earth I had to share with billions. I have the stars, bigger and brighter than on Earth. I have all space around me, close, like still waters. And I have you, Mark."
"Now, don't go getting sentimental on me--"
"I'm not. Friendship counts. Love was lost long ago, Mark. The love of a girl named Martha, whom neither of us ever met. And that's a pity. But friendship remains, and the eternal night."
"You're a bloody poet," Mark would say, half admiringly. "A poor poet."
Time passed unnoticed by the stars, and the air pump hissed and clanked and leaked. Mark was fixing it constantly, but the air of Martha became increasingly rare. Although Charles labored in the fields, the crops, deprived of sufficient air, died.
Mark was tired now, and barely able to crawl around, even without the grip of gravity. He stayed in his bunk most of the time. Charles fed him as best he could, moving on rusty, creaking limbs.
"What do you think of girls?"
"I never saw a good one yet."
"Well, that's not fair."
Mark was too tired to see the end coming, and Charles wasn't interested. But the end was on its way. The air pump threatened to give out momentarily. There hadn't been any food for days.
"But why you?" Gasping in the escaping air. Strangling.
"Here I have a whole world--"
"Don't get sentimental--"
"And the love of a girl named Martha."
From his bunk Mark saw the stars for the last time. Big, bigger than ever, endlessly floating in the still waters of space.