After a short silence de Vaux said, "I suppose you realize that the first half of the problem you posed us has now solved itself?"
"Why, no. No, you're 'way ahead of me."
"There is a basic problem and it can now be clearly stated," Rebecca said. "Problem: To determine a method of securing full cooperation from the Omans. The first step in the solution of this problem is to find the most appropriate operator. Teddy?"
"I have an operator--of sorts," Theodora said. "I've been hoping one of us could find a better."
"What is it?" Hilton demanded.
"The word 'until'."
"Teddy, you're a sweetheart!" Hilton exclaimed.
"How can 'until' be a mathematical operator?" Sandra asked.
"Easily." Hilton was already deep in thought. "This hard conditioning was to last only until the Masters returned. Then they'd break it. So all we have to do is figure out how a Master would do it."
"That's all," Kincaid said, meaningly.
Hilton pondered. Then, "Listen, all of you. I may have to try a colossal job of bluffing...."
"Just what would you call 'colossal' after what you did to the Navy?" Karns asked.
"That was a sure thing. This isn't. You see, to find out whether Laro is really an immovable object, I've got to make like an irresistible force, which I ain't. I don't know what I'm going to do; I'll have to roll it as I go along. So all of you keep on your toes and back any play I make. Here they come."
The Omans came in and Hilton faced Laro, eyes to eyes. "Laro," he said, "you refused to obey my direct order. Your reasoning seems to be that, whether the Masters wish it or not, you Omans will block any changes whatever in the status quo throughout all time to come. In other words, you deny the fact that Masters are in fact your Masters."
"But that is not exactly it, Master. The Masters ..."
"That is it. Exactly it. Either you are the Master here or you are not. That is a point to which your two-value logic can be strictly applied. You are wilfully neglecting the word 'until'. This stasis was to exist only until the Masters returned. Are we Masters? Have we returned? Note well: Upon that one word 'until' may depend the length of time your Oman race will continue to exist."
The Omans flinched; the humans gasped.
"But more of that later," Hilton went on, unmoved. "Your ancient Masters, being short-lived like us, changed materially with time, did they not? And you changed with them?"
"But we did not change ourselves, Master. The Masters ..."
"You did change yourselves. The Masters changed only the prototype brain. They ordered you to change yourselves and you obeyed their orders. We order you to change and you refuse to obey our orders. We have changed greatly from our ancestors. Right?"
"That is right, Master."
"We are stronger physically, more alert and more vigorous mentally, with a keener, sharper outlook on life?"
"You are, Master."
"That is because our ancestors decided to do without Omans. We do our own work and enjoy it. Your Masters died of futility and boredom. What I would like to do, Laro, is take you to the creche and put your disobedient brain back into the matrix. However, the decision is not mine alone to make. How about it, fellows and girls? Would you rather have alleged servants who won't do anything you tell them to or no servants at all?"
"As semantician, I protest!" Sandra backed his play. "That is the most viciously loaded question I ever heard--it can't be answered except in the wrong way!"
"Okay, I'll make it semantically sound. I think we'd better scrap this whole Oman race and start over and I want a vote that way!"
"You won't get it!" and everybody began to yell.
Hilton restored order and swung on Laro, his attitude stiff, hostile and reserved. "Since it is clear that no unanimous decision is to be expected at this time I will take no action at this time. Think over, very carefully, what I have said, for as far as I am concerned, this world has no place for Omans who will not obey orders. As soon as I convince my staff of the fact, I shall act as follows: I shall give you an order and if you do not obey it blast your head to a cinder. I shall then give the same order to another Oman and blast him. This process will continue until: First, I find an obedient Oman. Second, I run out of blasters. Third, the planet runs out of Omans. Now take these lights into the first room of records--that one over there." He pointed, and no Oman, and only four humans, realized that he had made the Omans telegraph their destination so that he could point it out to them!
Inside the room Hilton asked caustically of Laro: "The Masters didn't lift those heavy chests down themselves, did they?"
"Oh, no, Master, we did that."
"Do it, then. Number One first ... yes, that one ... open it and start playing the records in order."
The records were not tapes or flats or reels, but were spools of intricately-braided wire. The players were projectors of full-color, hi-fi sound, tri-di pictures.
Hilton canceled all moves aground and issued orders that no Oman was to be allowed aboard ship, then looked and listened with his staff.
The first chest contained only introductory and elementary stuff; but it was so interesting that the humans stayed overtime to finish it. Then they went back to the ship; and in the main lounge Hilton practically collapsed onto a davenport. He took out a cigarette and stared in surprise at his hand, which was shaking.
"I think I could use a drink," he remarked.
"What, before supper?" Karns marveled. Then, "Hey, Wally! Rush a flagon of avignognac--Arnaud Freres--for the boss and everything else for the rest of us. Chop-chop but quick!"
A hectic half-hour followed. Then, "Okay, boys and girls, I love you, too, but let's cut out the slurp and sloosh, get some supper and log us some sack time. I'm just about pooped. Sorry I had to queer the private-residence deal, Sandy, you poor little sardine. But you know how it is."
Sandra grimaced. "Uh-huh. I can take it a while longer if you can."
After breakfast next morning, the staff met in the lounge. As usual, Hilton and Sandra were the first to arrive.
"Hi, boss," she greeted him. "How do you feel?"
"Fine. I could whip a wildcat and give her the first two scratches. I was a bit beat up last night, though."
"I'll say ... but what I simply can't get over is the way you underplayed the climax. 'Third, the planet runs out of Omans'. Just like that--no emphasis at all. Wow! It had the impact of a delayed-action atomic bomb. It put goose-bumps all over me. But just s'pose they'd missed it?"
"No fear. They're smart. I had to play it as though the whole Oman race is no more important than a cigarette butt. The great big question, though, is whether I put it across or not."
At that point a dozen people came in, all talking about the same subject.
"Hi, Jarve," Karns said. "I still say you ought to take up poker as a life work. Tiny, let's you and him sit down now and play a few hands."
"Mais non!" de Vaux shook his head violently, shrugged his shoulders and threw both arms wide. "By the sacred name of a small blue cabbage, not me!"
Karns laughed. "How did you have the guts to state so many things as facts? If you'd guessed wrong just once--"
"I didn't." Hilton grinned. "Think back, Bill. The only thing I said as a fact was that we as a race are better than the Masters were, and that is obvious. Everything else was implication, logic, and bluff."
"That's right, at that. And they were neurotic and decadent. No question about that."
"But listen, boss." This was Stella Wing. "About this mind-reading business. If Laro could read your mind, he'd know you were bluffing and ... Oh, that 'Omans can read only what Masters wish Omans to read', eh? But d'you think that applies to us?"
"I'm sure it does, and I was thinking some pretty savage thoughts. And I want to caution all of you: whenever you're near any Oman, start thinking that you're beginning to agree with me that they're useless to us, and let them know it. Now get out on the job, all of you. Scat!"
"Just a minute," Poynter said. "We're going to have to keep on using the Omans and their cars, aren't we?"
"Of course. Just be superior and distant. They're on probation--we haven't decided yet what to do about them. Since that happens to be true, it'll be easy."
Hilton and Sandra went to their tiny office. There wasn't room to pace the floor, but Hilton tried to pace it anyway.
"Now don't say again that you want to do something," Sandra said, brightly. "Look what happened when you said that yesterday."
"I've got a job, but I don't know enough to do it. The creche--there's probably only one on the planet. So I want you to help me think. The Masters were very sensitive to radiation. Right?"
"Right. That city on Fuel Bin was kept deconned to zero, just in case some Master wanted to visit it."
"And the Masters had to work in the creche whenever anything really new had to be put into the prototype brain."
"I'd say so, yes."
"So they had armor. Probably as much better than our radiation suits as the rest of their stuff is. Now. Did they or did they not have thought screens?"
"Ouch! You think of the damnedest things, chief." She caught her lower lip between her teeth and concentrated. "... I don't know. There are at least fifty vectors, all pointing in different directions."
"I know it. The key one in my opinion is that the Masters gave 'em both telepathy and speech."
"I considered that and weighted it. Even so, the probability is only about point sixty-five. Can you take that much of a chance?"
"Yes. I can make one or two mistakes. Next, about finding that creche. Any spot of radiation on the planet would be it, but the search might take ..."
"Hold on. They'd have it heavily shielded--there'll be no leakage at all. Laro will have to take you."
"That's right. Want to come along? Nothing much will happen here today."
"Uh-uh, not me." Sandra shivered in distaste. "I never want to see brains and livers and things swimming around in nutrient solution if I can help it."
"Okay. It's all yours. I'll be back sometime," and Hilton went out onto the dock, where the dejected Laro was waiting for him.
"Hi, Laro. Get the car and take me to the Hall of Records." The android brightened up immediately and hurried to obey.
At the Hall, Hilton's first care was to see how the work was going on. Eight of the huge rooms were now open and brightly lighted--operating the lamps had been one of the first items on the first spool of instructions--with a cold, pure-white, sourceless light.
Every team had found its objective and was working on it. Some of them were doing nicely, but the First Team could not even get started. Its primary record would advance a fraction of an inch and stop; while Omans and humans sought out other records and other projectors in an attempt to elucidate some concept that simply could not be translated into any words or symbols known to Terran science. At the moment there were seventeen of those peculiar--projectors? Viewers? Playbacks--in use, and all of them were stopped.
"You know what we've got to do Jarve?" Karns, the team captain, exploded. "Go back to being college freshmen--or maybe grade school or kindergarten, we don't know yet--and learn a whole new system of mathematics before we can even begin to touch this stuff!"
"And you're bellyaching about that?" Hilton marveled. "I wish I could join you. That'd be fun." Then, as Karns started a snappy rejoinder-- "But I got troubles of my own," he added hastily. "'Bye, now," and beat a rejoinder-- Out in the hall again, Hilton took his chance. After all, the odds were about two to one that he would win.
"I want a couple of things, Laro. First, a thought screen."
"Very well, Master. They are in a distant room, Department Four Six Nine. Will you wait here on this cushioned bench, Master?"
"No, we don't like to rest too much. I'll go with you." Then, walking along, he went on thoughtfully. "I've been thinking since last night, Laro. There are tremendous advantages in having Omans ..."
"I am very glad you think so, Master. I want to serve you. It is my greatest need."
"... if they could be kept from smothering us to death. Thus, if our ancestors had kept their Omans, I would have known all about life on this world and about this Hall of Records, instead of having the fragmentary, confusing, and sometimes false information I now have ... oh, we're here?"
Laro had stopped and was opening a door. He stood aside. Hilton went in, touched with one finger a crystalline cube set conveniently into a wall, gave a mental command, and the lights went on.
Laro opened a cabinet and took out a disk about the size of a dime, pendant from a neck-chain. While Hilton had not known what to expect, he certainly had not expected anything as simple as that. Nevertheless, he kept his face straight and his thoughts unmoved as Laro hung the tiny thing around his neck and adjusted the chain to a loose fit.
"Thanks, Laro." Hilton removed it and put it into his pocket. "It won't work from there, will it?"
"No, Master. To function, it must be within eighteen inches of the brain. The second thing, Master?"
"A radiation-proof suit. Then you will please take me to the creche."
The android almost missed a step, but said nothing.
The radiation-proof suit--how glad Hilton was that he had not called it "armor"!--was as much of a surprise as the thought-screen generator had been. It was a coverall, made of something that looked like thin plastic, weighing less than one pound. It had one sealed box, about the size and weight of a cigarette case. No wires or apparatus could be seen. Air entered through two filters, one at each heel, flowed upward--for no reason at all that Hilton could see--and out through a filter above the top of his head. The suit neither flopped nor clung, but stood out, comfortably out of the way, all by itself.
Hilton, just barely, accepted the suit, too, without showing surprise.
The creche, it turned out, while not in the city of Omlu itself, was not too far out to reach easily by car.
En route, Laro said--stiffly? Tentatively? Hilton could not fit an adverb to the tone--"Master, have you then decided to destroy me? That is of course your right."
"Not this time, at least." Laro drew an entirely human breath of relief and Hilton went on: "I don't want to destroy you at all, and won't, unless I have to. But, some way or other, my silicon-fluoride friend, you are either going to learn how to cooperate or you won't last much longer."
"But, Master, that is exactly ..."
"Oh, hell! Do we have to go over that again?" At the blaze of frustrated fury in Hilton's mind Laro flinched away. "If you can't talk sense keep still."
In half an hour the car stopped in front of a small building which looked something like a subway kiosk--except for the door, which, built of steel-reinforced lead, swung on a piano hinge having a pin a good eight inches in diameter. Laro opened that door. They went in. As the tremendously massive portal clanged shut, lights flashed on.