Two of the aliens had brushed the mechanics--very gently--aside and were doing their work for them. Ignoring the hoist, one native had picked the tube up and was holding it exactly in place on the Mayfield. The other, hands moving faster than the eye could follow, was locking it--micrometrically precise and immovably secure--into place.
"How about this?" one of the mechanics asked of his immediate superior. "If we throw 'em out, how do we do it?"
By a jerk of the head, the non-com passed the buck to a commissioned officer, who relayed it up the line to Sawtelle, who said, "Hilton, nobody can run a Mayfield without months of training. They'll wreck it and it'll cost you ... but I'm getting curious myself. Enough so to take half the damage. Let 'em go ahead."
"How about this, Mike?" one of the machinists asked of his fellow. "I'm going to like this, what?"
"Ya-as, my deah Chumley," the other drawled, affectedly. "My man relieves me of so much uncouth effort."
The natives had kept on working. The Mayfield was running. It had always howled and screamed at its work, but now it gave out only a smooth and even hum. The aliens had adjusted it with unhuman precision; they were one with it as no human being could possibly be. And every mind present knew that those aliens were, at long, long last, fulfilling their destiny and were, in that fulfillment, supremely happy. After tens of thousands of cycles of time they were doing a job for their adored, their revered and beloved MASTERS.
That was a stunning shock; but it was eclipsed by another.
"I am sorry, Master Hilton," Laro's tremendous bass voice boomed out, "that it has taken us so long to learn your Masters' language as it now is. Since you left us you have changed it radically; while we, of course, have not changed it at all."
"I'm sorry, but you're mistaken," Hilton said. "We are merely visitors. We have never been here before; nor, as far as we know, were any of our ancestors ever here."
"You need not test us, Master. We have kept your trust. Everything has been kept, changelessly the same, awaiting your return as you ordered so long ago."
"Can you read my mind?" Hilton demanded.
"Of course; but Omans can not read in Masters' minds anything except what Masters want Omans to read."
"Omans?" Harkins asked. "Where did you Omans and your masters come from? Originally?"
"As you know, Master, the Masters came originally from Arth. They populated Ardu, where we Omans were developed. When the Stretts drove us from Ardu, we all came to Ardry, which was your home world until you left it in our care. We keep also this, your half of the Fuel World, in trust for you."
"Listen, Jarve!" Harkins said, tensely. "Oman-human. Arth-Earth. Ardu-Earth Two. Ardry-Earth Three. You can't laugh them off ... but there never was an Atlantis!"
"This is getting no better fast. We need a full staff meeting. You, too, Sawtelle, and your best man. We need all the brains the Perseus can muster."
"You're right. But first, get those naked women out of here. It's bad enough, having women aboard at all, but this ... my men are spacemen, mister."
Laro spoke up. "If it is the Masters' pleasure to keep on testing us, so be it. We have forgotten nothing. A dwelling awaits each Master, in which each will be served by Omans who will know the Master's desires without being told. Every desire. While we Omans have no biological urges, we are of course highly skilled in relieving tensions and derive as much pleasure from that service as from any other."
Sawtelle broke the silence that followed. "Well, for the men--" He hesitated. "Especially on the ground ... well, talking in mixed company, you know, but I think ..."
"Think nothing of the mixed company, Captain Sawtelle," Sandra said. "We women are scientists, not shrinking violets. We are accustomed to discussing the facts of life just as frankly as any other facts."
Sawtelle jerked a thumb at Hilton, who followed him out into the corridor. "I have been a Navy mule," he said. "I admit now that I'm out-maneuvered, out-manned, and out-gunned."
"I'm just as baffled--at present--as you are, sir. But my training has been aimed specifically at the unexpected, while yours has not."
"That's letting me down easy, Jarve." Sawtelle smiled--the first time the startled Hilton had known that the hard, tough old spacehound could smile. "What I wanted to say is, lead on. I'll follow you through force-field and space-warps."
"Thanks, skipper. And by the way, I erased that record yesterday." The two gripped hands; and there came into being a relationship that was to become a lifelong friendship.
"We will start for Ardry immediately," Hilton said. "How do we make that jump without charts, Laro?"
"Very easily, Master. Kedo, as Master Captain Sawtelle's Oman, will give the orders. Nito will serve Master Snowden and supply the knowledge he says he has forgotten."
"Okay. We'll go up to the control room and get started."
And in the control room, Kedo's voice rasped into the captain's microphone. "Attention, all personnel! Master Captain Sawtelle orders take-off in two minutes. The countdown will begin at five seconds.... Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Lift!"
Nito, not Snowden, handled the controls. As perfectly as the human pilot had ever done it, at the top of his finest form, he picked the immense spaceship up and slipped it silkily into subspace.
"Well, I'll be a ..." Snowden gasped. "That's a better job than I ever did!"
"Not at all, Master, as you know," Nito said. "It was you who did this. I merely performed the labor."
A few minutes later, in the main lounge, Navy and BuSci personnel were mingling as they had never done before. Whatever had caused this relaxation of tension--the friendship of captain and director? The position in which they all were? Or what?--they all began to get acquainted with each other.
"Silence, please, and be seated," Hilton said. "While this is not exactly a formal meeting, it will be recorded for future reference. First, I will ask Laro a question. Were books or records left on Ardry by the race you call the Masters?"
"You know there are, Master. They are exactly as you left them. Undisturbed for over two hundred seventy-one thousand years."
"Therefore we will not question the Omans. We do not know what questions to ask. We have seen many things hitherto thought impossible. Hence, we must discard all preconceived opinions which conflict with facts. I will mention a few of the problems we face."
"The Omans. The Masters. The upgrading of the armament of the Perseus to Oman standards. The concentration of uranexite. What is that concentrate? How is it used? Total conversion--how is it accomplished? The skeletons--what are they and how are they controlled? Their ability to drain power. Who or what is back of them? Why a deadlock that has lasted over a quarter of a million years? How much danger are we and the Perseus actually in? How much danger is Terra in, because of our presence here? There are many other questions."
"Sandra and I will not take part. Nor will three others; de Vaux, Eisenstein, and Blake. You have more important work to do."
"What can that be?" asked Rebecca. "Of what possible use can a mathematician, a theoretician and a theoretical astronomer be in such a situation as this?"
"You can think powerfully in abstract terms, unhampered by Terran facts and laws which we now know are neither facts nor laws. I cannot even categorize the problems we face. Perhaps you three will be able to. You will listen, then consult, then tell me how to pick the teams to do the work. A more important job for you is this: Any problem, to be solved, must be stated clearly; and we don't know even what our basic problem is. I want something by the use of which I can break this thing open. Get it for me."
Rebecca and de Vaux merely smiled and nodded, but Teddy Blake said happily, "I was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel on this project, but that's something I can really stick my teeth into."
"Huh? How?" Karns demanded. "He didn't give you one single thing to go on; just compounded the confusion."
Hilton spoke before Teddy could. "That's their dish, Bill. If I had any data I'd work it myself. You first, Captain Sawtelle."
That conference was a very long one indeed. There were almost as many conclusions and recommendations as there were speakers. And through it all Hilton and Sandra listened. They weighed and tested and analyzed and made copious notes; in shorthand and in the more esoteric characters of symbolic logic. And at its end: "I'm just about pooped, Sandy. How about you?"
"You and me both, boss. See you in the morning."
But she didn't. It was four o'clock in the afternoon when they met again.
"We made up one of the teams, Sandy," he said, with surprising diffidence. "I know we were going to do it together, but I got a hunch on the first team. A kind of a weirdie, but the brains checked me on it." He placed a card on her desk. "Don't blow your top until after I you've studied it."
"Why, I won't, of course...." Her voice died away. "Maybe you'd better cancel that 'of course'...." She studied, and when she spoke again she was exerting self-control. "A chemist, a planetographer, a theoretician, two sociologists, a psychologist and a radiationist. And six of the seven are three pairs of sweeties. What kind of a line-up is that to solve a problem in physics?"
"It isn't in any physics we know. I said think!"
"Oh," she said, then again "Oh," and "Oh," and "Oh." Four entirely different tones. "I see ... maybe. You're matching minds, not specialties; and supplementing?"
"I knew you were smart. Buy it?"
"It's weird, all right, but I'll buy it--for a trial run, anyway. But I'd hate like sin to have to sell any part of it to the Board.... But of course we're--I mean you're responsible only to yourself."
"Keep it 'we', Sandy. You're as important to this project as I am. But before we tackle the second team, what's your thought on Bernadine and Hermione? Separate or together?"
"Separate, I'd say. They're identical physically, and so nearly so mentally that of them would be just as good on a team as both of them. More and better work on different teams."
"My thought exactly." And so it went, hour after hour.
The teams were selected and meetings were held.
The Perseus reached Ardry, which was very much like Terra. There were continents, oceans, ice-caps, lakes, rivers, mountains and plains, forests and prairies. The ship landed on the spacefield of Omlu, the City of the Masters, and Sawtelle called Hilton into his cabin. The Omans Laro and Kedo went along, of course.
"Nobody knows how it leaked ..." Sawtelle began.
"No secrets around here," Hilton grinned. "Omans, you know."
"I suppose so. Anyway, every man aboard is all hyped up about living aground--especially with a harem. But before I grant liberty, suppose there's any VD around here that our prophylactics can't handle?"
"As you know, Masters," Laro replied for Hilton before the latter could open his mouth, "no disease, venereal or other, is allowed to exist on Ardry. No prophylaxis is either necessary or desirable."
"That ought to hold you for a while, Skipper." Hilton smiled at the flabbergasted captain and went back to the lounge.
"Everybody going ashore?" he asked.
"Yes." Karns said. "Unanimous vote for the first time."
"Who wouldn't?" Sandra asked. "I'm fed up with living like a sardine. I will scream for joy the minute I get into a real room."
"Cars" were waiting, in a stopping-and-starting line. Three-wheel jobs. All were empty. No drivers, no steering-wheels, no instruments or push-buttons. When the whole line moved ahead as one vehicle there was no noise, no gas, no blast.
An Oman helped a Master carefully into the rear seat of his car, leaped into the front seat and the car sped quietly away. The whole line of empty cars, acting in perfect synchronization, shot forward one space and stopped.
"This is your car, Master," Laro said, and made a production out of getting Hilton into the vehicle undamaged.
Hilton's plan had been beautifully simple. All the teams were to meet at the Hall of Records. The linguists and their Omans would study the records and pass them out. Specialty after specialty would be unveiled and teams would work on them. He and Sandy would sit in the office and analyze and synthesize and correlate. It was a very nice plan.
It was a very nice office, too. It contained every item of equipment that either Sandra or Hilton had ever worked with--it was a big office--and a great many that neither of them had ever heard of. It had a full staff of Omans, all eager to work.
Hilton and Sandra sat in that magnificent office for three hours, and no reports came in. Nothing happened at all.
"This gives me the howling howpers!" Hilton growled. "Why haven't I got brains enough to be on one of those teams?"
"I could shed a tear for you, you big dope, but I won't," Sandra retorted. "What do you want to be, besides the brain and the kingpin and the balance-wheel and the spark-plug of the outfit? Do you want to do everything yourself?"
"Well, I don't want to go completely nuts, and that's all I'm doing at the moment!" The argument might have become acrimonious, but it was interrupted by a call from Karns.
"Can you come out here, Jarve? We've struck a knot."
"'Smatter? Trouble with the Omans?" Hilton snapped.
"Not exactly. Just non-cooperation--squared. We can't even get started. I'd like to have you two come out here and see if you can do anything. I'm not trying rough stuff, because I know it wouldn't work."
"Coming up, Bill," and Hilton and Sandra, followed by Laro and Sora, dashed out to their cars.
The Hall of Records was a long, wide, low, windowless, very massive structure, built of a metal that looked like stainless steel. Kept highly polished, the vast expanse of seamless and jointless metal was mirror-bright. The one great door was open, and just inside it were the scientists and their Omans.
"Brief me, Bill," Hilton said.
"No lights. They won't turn 'em on and we can't. Can't find either lights or any possible kind of switches."
"Turn on the lights, Laro," Hilton said.
"You know that I cannot do that, Master. It is forbidden for any Oman to have anything to do with the illumination of this solemn and revered place."
"Then show me how to do it."
"That would be just as bad, Master," the Oman said proudly. "I will not fail any test you can devise!"
"Okay. All you Omans go back to the ship and bring over fifteen or twenty lights--the tripod jobs. Scat!"
They "scatted" and Hilton went on, "No use asking questions if you don't know what questions to ask. Let's see if we can cook up something. Lane--Kathy--what has Biology got to say?"
Dr. Lane Saunders and Dr. Kathryn Cook--the latter a willowy brown-eyed blonde--conferred briefly. Then Saunders spoke, running both hands through his unruly shock of fiery red hair. "So far, the best we can do is a more-or-less educated guess. They're atomic-powered, total-conversion androids. Their pseudo-flesh is composed mainly of silicon and fluorine. We don't know the formula yet, but it is as much more stable than our teflon as teflon is than corn-meal mush. As to the brains, no data. Bones are super-stainless steel. Teeth, harder than diamond, but won't break. Food, uranexite or its concentrated derivative, interchangeably. Storage reserve, indefinite. Laro and Sora won't have to eat again for at least twenty-five years...."
The group gasped as one, but Saunders went on: "They can eat and drink and breathe and so on, but only because the original Masters wanted them to. Non-functional. Skins and subcutaneous layers are soft, for the same reason. That's about it, up to now."
"Thanks, Lane. Hark, is it reasonable to believe that any culture whatever could run for a quarter of a million years without changing one word of its language or one iota of its behavior?"
"Reasonable or not, it seems to have happened."
"Now for Psychology. Alex?"
"It seems starkly incredible, but it seems to be true. If it is, their minds were subjected to a conditioning no Terran has ever imagined--an unyielding fixation."
"They can't be swayed, then, by reason or logic?" Hilton paused invitingly.
"Or anything else," Kincaid said, flatly. "If we're right they can't be swayed, period."
"I was afraid of that. Well, that's all the questions I know how to ask. Any contributions to this symposium?"