The broadcast ended abruptly. Betsy's screen went blank. The colonel was notified. A courier took tapes to Washington by high-speed jet. Life in Research Establishment 83 went on sedately. The barracks and the married quarters and the residences of the officers were equipped with Mahon-modified machines which laundered diapers perfectly, and with dial telephones which always rang right numbers, and there were police-up machines which took perfect care of lawns, and television receivers tuned themselves to the customary channels for different hours with astonishing ease. Even jet-planes equipped with Mahon units almost landed themselves, and almost flew themselves about the sky in simulated combat with something very close to zest.
But the atmosphere in the room in Communications was tense.
"I think," said Howell, with his lips compressed, "that this answers all your objections, Graves. Motive--"
"No," said Lecky painfully. "It does not answer mine. My objection is that I do not believe it."
"Huh!" said Sergeant Bellews scornfully. "O' course, you don't believe it! It's phoney clear through!"
Lecky looked at him hopefully.
"You noticed something that we missed, Sergeant?"
"Hell, yes!" said Sergeant Bellews. "That transmitter diagram don't have a Mahon unit in it!"
"Is that remarkable?" demanded Howell.
"Remarkable dumb," said the sergeant. "They'd ought to know--"
The tall young lieutenant who earlier had fetched Sergeant Bellews to Communications now appeared again. He gracefully entered the room where Betsy waited for more broadcast matter. Her standby light flickered with something close to animation, and the similar yellow bulbs on Al and Gus responded in kind. The tall young lieutenant said politely: "I am sorry, but pending orders from the Pentagon the colonel has ordered this room vacated. Only automatic recorders will be allowed here, and all records they produce will be sent to Washington without examination. It seems that no one on this post has the necessary clearance for this type of material."
Lecky blinked. Graves sputtered: "But--dammit, do you mean we can work out a way to receive a broadcast and not be qualified to see it?"
"There's a common-sense view," said Sergeant Bellews oracularly, "and a crazy view, and there's what the Pentagon says, which ain't either." He stood up. "I see where I go back to my shop and finish rehabilitatin' the colonel's vacuum cleaner. You gentlemen care to join me?"
Howell said indignantly: "This is ridiculous! This is absurd!"
"Uh-uh," said Sergeant Bellews benignly. "This is the armed forces. There'll be an order makin' some sort of sense come along later. Meanwhile, I can brief you guys on Mahon machines so you'll be ready to start up again with better information when a clearance order does come through. And I got some beer in my quarters behind the Rehab Shop. Come along with me!"
He led the way out of the room. The young lieutenant paused to close the door firmly behind him and to lock it. A bored private, with side-arms, took post before it. The lieutenant was a very conscientious young man.
But he did not interfere with the parade to Sergeant Bellews' quarters. The young lieutenant was very military, and the ways of civilians were not his concern. If eminent scientists chose to go to Sergeant Bellews' quarters instead of the Officers Club, to which their assimilated rank entitled them, it was strictly their affair.
They reached the Rehab Shop, and Sergeant Bellews went firmly to a standby-light-equipped refrigerator in his quarters. He brought out beer and deftly popped off the tops. The icebox door closed quietly.
"Here's to crime," said Sergeant Bellews amiably.
He drank. Howell sipped gloomily. Graves drank thoughtfully. Lecky looked anticipative.
"Sergeant," he said, "did I see a gleam in your eye just now?"
Sergeant Bellews reflected, gently shaking his opened beer-can with a rotary motion, for no reason whatever.
"Uh-uh," he rumbled. "I wouldn't say a gleam. But you mighta seen a glint. I got some ideas from what I seen during that broadcast. I wanna get to work on 'em. Here's the place to do the work. We got facilities here."
Howell said with precise hot anger: "This is the most idiotic situation I have ever seen even in government service!"
"You ain't been around much," the sergeant told him kindly. "It happens everywhere. All the time. It ain't even a exclusive feature of the armed forces." He put down his beer-can and patted his stomach. "There's guys who sit up nights workin' out standard operational procedures just to make things like this happen, everywhere. The colonel hadda do what he did. He's got orders, too. But he felt bad. So he sent the lieutenant to tell us. He does the colonel's dirty jobs--and he loves his work."
He moved grandly toward the Rehab Shop proper, which opened off the quarters he lived in--very much as a doctor's office is apt to open off his living quarters.
"We follow?" asked Lecky zestfully. "You plan something?"
"Natural!" said Sergeant Bellews largely.
He led the way into the Rehab Shop, which was dark and shadowy, and only very dimly lighted by flickering, wavering lights of many machines waiting as if hopefully to be called on for action. There were the shelves of machines not yet activated. Sergeant Bellews led the way toward his desk. There was a vacuum cleaner on it, on standby. He put it down on the floor.
Lecky watched him with some eagerness. The others came in, Howell dourly and Graves wiping his moustache.
The sergeant considered his domain.
"We'll be happy to help you," said Lecky.
"Thanks," said the sergeant. "I'm under orders to help you, too, y'know. Just supposing you asked me to whip up something to analyze what Betsy receives, so it can be checked on that it is a new wave-type."
"Can you do that?" demanded Graves. "We were supposed to work on that--but so far we've absolutely nothing to go on!"
The sergeant waved his hand negligently.
"You got something now. Betsy's a Mahon-modified device. Every receiver that picked up one of those crazy broadcasts broke down before it was through. She takes 'em in her stride--especial with Al and Gus to help her. Wouldn't it be reasonable to guess that Mahon machines are--uh--especial adapted to handle intertemporal communication?"
"Very reasonable!" said Howell dourly. "Very! The broadcast said that the wave-type produced unpredictable surges of current. Ordinary machines do find it difficult to work with whatever type of radiation that can be."
"Betsy chokes off those surges," observed the sergeant. "With Gus and Al to help, she don't have no trouble. We hadn't ought to need to make any six transmitters if we put Mahon-unit machines together for the job!"
"Quite right," agreed Lecky, mildly. "And it is odd--"
"Yeah," said the sergeant. "It's plenty odd my great-great-great-grandkids haven't got sense enough to do it themselves!"
He went to a shelf and brought down a boxed machine,--straight from the top-secret manufactory of Mahon units. It had never been activated. Its standby light did not glow. Sergeant Bellews ripped off the carton and said reflectively: "You hate to turn off a machine that's got its own ways of working. But a machine that ain't been activated has not got any personality. So you don't mind starting it up to turn it off later."
He opened the adjustment-cover and turned something on. The standby light glowed. Closely observed, it was not a completely steady glow. There were the faintest possible variations of brightness. But there was no impression of life.
Graves said: "Why doesn't it flicker like the others?"
"No habits," said the sergeant. "No experience. It's like a newborn baby. It'll get to have personality after it's worked a while. But not now."
He went across the shop again. He moved out a heavy case, and twisted the release, and eased out a communicator of the same type--Mark IV--as Betsy back in the Communications room. Howell went to help him. Graves tried to assist. Lecky moved other things out of the way. They were highly eminent scientists, and Metech Sergeant Bellews was merely a non-commissioned officer in the armed forces. But he happened to have specialized information they had not. Quite without condescension they accepted his authority in his own field, and therefore his equality. As civilians they had no rank to maintain, and they disagreed with each other--and would disagree with the sergeant--only when they knew why. Which was one of the reasons why they were eminent scientists.
Sergeant Bellews brought out yet another box. He unrolled cables. He selected machines whose flickering lights seemed to bespeak eagerness to be of use. He coupled them to the newly unboxed machines, whose lights were vaguely steady.
"Training cables," he said over his shoulder. "You get one machine working right, and you hook it with another, and the new machine kinda learns from the old one. Kinda! But it ain't as good as real experience. Not at first."
Presently the lights of the newly energized machines began to waver in somewhat the manner of the ready-for-operation ones. But they did not give so clear an impression of personality.
"Look!" said Sergeant Bellews abruptly. "I got to check with you. The more I think, the more worried I get."
"You begin to believe the broadcasts come from the future?" demanded Graves. "And it worries you? But they do not speak of Mahon units--"
"I don't care where they come from," said the sergeant. "I'm worryin' about what they are! The guy in the broadcast--not knowing Mahon units--said we'd have to make half a dozen transmitters so they'd take over one after another as they blew out. You see what that means?"
Lecky said crisply: "You pointed it out before. There is something in the wave-type which--you would say this, Sergeant!--which machines do not like. Is that the reasoning?"
"Uh-uh!" The sergeant scowled. "Machines work by the golden rule. They try to do unto you what they want you to do unto them. Likes an' dislikes don't matter. I mean that there's something about that wave-type that machines can't take! It busts them. If it sort of explodes surges of current in 'em--Look! Any running machine is a dynamic system in a object. A jet-plane operating is that. So's a water-spout. So's a communicator. But if you explode surges of heavy current in a dynamic system in a operating machine--things get messed up. The operating habit is busted to hell. I'm saying that if this wave-type makes crazy surges of current start up--why--if the surges are strong enough they'll bust not only a communicator but a jet-plane. Or a water-spout. Anything! See?"
Lecky blinked and suddenly went pale.
"But," said Howell reasonably, "you said that Betsy handled it. Especially well when linked with other Mahon machines."
"Yeah," said the sergeant.
"I think," observed Graves jerkily, "that you are preparing new machines, without developed--personalities, because you think that if they make this special-type wave they'll be broken."
"Yeah," said the sergeant, again. "The signal Betsy was amplifyin' coulda been as little as a micro-micro-watt. At its frequency an' type, she'd choke it down if it was more. But even a micro-micro-watt bothered Betsy until she got Al and Gus to help. She was fair screamin' for somebody to come help her hold it. But the three of them done all right."
Howell conceded the point.
"That seems sound reasoning."
"But you don't broadcast with a micro-micro-watt. You use a hell of a lot more power than that! The transmitter the guy in the screen said to make was a twenty-kilowatt job. Not too much for a broadcast of sine waves, but a hell of a lot to be turned loose, in waves that have Betsy hollerin' at the power she was handlin'!"
"It might break even the Mahon machines in this installation?" demanded Howell.
"You're gettin' warm," said the sergeant.
Graves said: "You mean it might break all operating communicators in a very large area?"
"You're gettin' hot," said the sergeant grimly.
Lecky wetted his lips.
"I think," he said very carefully, "that you suspect it is a wave-type which will break any dynamic system, in any sort of object a dynamic system can exist in."
"Yeah," said the sergeant. He waited, looking at Lecky.
"And," said Lecky, "not only operating machines are dynamic systems. Living plants and animals are, too. So are men."
"That's what I'm drivin' at," said Sergeant Bellews.
"So you believe," said Lecky, very pale indeed, "that we have been given the circuit-diagram of a transmitter which will broadcast a wave-type which destroys dynamic systems--life as well as the operation of machines. Persons--in the future or an alien creature in a space-ship, or perhaps even the Compubs--are furnishing us with designs for transmitters of death, to be linked together so that if one fails the others will carry on. And they lure us to destroy ourselves by lying about who they are and what they propose."
"They're lyin'," said the sergeant. "They say they're in the future and they don't know a thing about Mahon units. Else they'd use 'em."
Lecky wetted his lips again.
"And--if they are not in the future, they are trying to get us to destroy ourselves because that would be safer and surer than trying to destroy us by--say--transmitters of death dropped upon us by parachute. Yet if we do not destroy ourselves, they will surely do that."
"If we don't bump ourselves off, it'll be because we got wise," acknowledged the sergeant. "If we get wise, we could bump them off by parachute-transmitter. So they'll beat us to it. They'll have to!"
"Yes," said Lecky. "They'll have to. It has always been said that a death-ray was impossible. This would be a death-broadcast. If we do not broadcast, they will--whoever they are. It is--" He smiled mirthlessly at the magnitude of his understatement. "It is urgent that we do something. What shall we do, Sergeant?"
A squadron of light tanks arrived at Research Installation 83 that afternoon, with a shipment of courier motorcycles. They had been equipped with Mahon units and went to the post to be trained.
The Pentagon was debating the development of a Mahon-modified guided missile, and a drone plane was under construction. But non-military items also arrived for activation and test. Automatic telephone switching systems, it appeared, could be made much simpler if they could be trained to do their work instead of built so they couldn't help it.
Passenger-cars other than jeeps showed promise. It had long been known that most accidents occurred with new cars, and that ancient jalopies were relatively safe even in the hands of juvenile delinquents. It was credible that part of the difference was in the operating habits of the cars.
It appeared that humanity was upon the threshold of a new era, in which the value of personality would reappear among the things taken for granted. Strictly speaking, of course, Mahon machines were not persons. But they reflected the personalities of their owners. It might again seem desirable to be a decent human being if only because machines worked better for them.
But it would be tragic if Mahon machines were used to destroy humankind with themselves! Sergeant Bellews would have raged at the thought of training a Mahon unit to guide an atom bomb. It would have to be--in a fashion--deceived. He even disliked the necessity he faced that afternoon while a courier winged his way to the Pentagon with the top-secret tapes Betsy and Al and Gus had made.
The Rehab Shop was equipped not only to recondition machines but to test them. One item of equipment was a generator of substitute broadcast waves. It could deliver a carrier-wave down to half a micro-micro-watt of any form desired, and up to the power of a nearby transmitter. It was very useful for calibrating communicators. But Sergeant Bellews modified it to allow of variations in type as well as frequency and amplitude.
"I'm betting," he grunted, "that there's different sorts of the wave-type those guys want us to broadcast. Like there's a spectrum of visible light. If we were color-blind and yellow'd bust things, they'd transmit in red that we could see, and they'd tell us to broadcast something in yellow that'd wipe us out. And we wouldn't have sense enough not to broadcast the yellow, because we wouldn't know the difference between it and red until we did broadcast. Then it'd be too late."
Howell watched with tight-clamped jaws. He had committed himself to the authenticity of the broadcasts claiming to be from a future time. Now he was shaken, but only enough to admit the need for tests. Graves sat unnaturally still. Lecky looked at Sergeant Bellews with a peculiarly tranquil expression on his face.
"Only," grunted the sergeant, "it ain't frequency we got to figure, but type. Nobody hardly uses anything but sine waves for communication, but I got to make this gadget turn out a freak wave-type by guess and golly. I got a sort of test for it, though."
He straightened up and connected a cable from the generator to the Mark IV communicator which was a factory twin of Betsy.
"I'm gonna feed this communicator half a micro-micro-watt of stuff like the broadcast--I think," he announced grimly. "I saw the diagrams of the transmitters they want us to make. I'm guessing the broadcast-wave they use is close to it but not exact. Close, because it's bad for machines. Not exact, because they're alive while they use it. I hope I don't hit anything on the nose. Okay?"
Lecky said gently: "I have never been more frightened. Go ahead!"
Sergeant Bellews depressed a stud. The communicator's screen lighted up instantly. It was receiving the generator's minute output and accepted it as a broadcast. But the signal was unmodulated, so there was no image nor any sound.
The communicator's standby light flickered steadily.
Sergeant Bellews adjusted a knob on the generator. The communicator's standby flicker changed in amplitude. Bellews turned the knob back. He adjusted another control. The standby light wavered crazily.