Hilton glanced at his tell-tales, one inside, one outside, his suit. Both showed zero.
Down twenty steps, another door. Twenty more; another. And a fourth. Hilton's inside meter still read zero. The outside one was beginning to climb.
Into an elevator and straight down for what must have been four or five hundred feet. Another door. Hilton went through this final barrier gingerly, eyes nailed to his gauges. The outside needle was high in the red, almost against the pin, but the inside one still sat reassuringly on zero.
He stared at the android. "How can any possible brain take so much of this stuff without damage?"
"It does not reach the brain, Master. We convert it. Each minute of this is what you would call a 'good, square meal'."
"I see ... dimly. You can eat energy, or drink it, or soak it up through your skins. However it comes, it's all duck soup for you."
Hilton glanced ahead, toward the far end of the immensely long, comparatively narrow, room. It was, purely and simply, an assembly line; and fully automated in operation.
"You are replacing the Omans destroyed in the battle with the skeletons?"
Hilton covered the first half of the line at a fast walk. He was not particularly interested in the fabrication of super-stainless-steel skeletons, nor in the installation and connection of atomic engines, converters and so on.
He was more interested in the synthetic fluoro-silicon flesh, and paused long enough to get a general idea of its growth and application. He was very much interested in how such human-looking skin could act as both absorber and converter, but he could see nothing helpful.
"An application, I suppose, of the same principle used in this radiation suit."
At the end of the line he stopped. A brain, in place and connected to millions of infinitely fine wire nerves, but not yet surrounded by a skull, was being educated. Scanners--multitudes of incomprehensibly complex machines--most of them were doing nothing, apparently; but such beams would have to be invisibly, microscopically fine. But a bare brain, in such a hot environment as this....
He looked down at his gauges. Both read zero.
"Fields of force, Master," Laro said.
"But, damn it, this suit itself would re-radiate ..."
"The suit is self-decontaminating, Master."
Hilton was appalled. "With such stuff as that, and the plastic shield besides, why all the depth and all that solid lead?"
"The Masters' orders, Master. Machines can, and occasionally do, fail. So might, conceivably, the plastic."
"And that structure over there contains the original brain, from which all the copies are made."
"Yes, Master. We call it the 'Guide'."
"And you can't touch the Guide. Not even if it means total destruction, none of you can touch it."
"That is the case, Master."
"Okay. Back to the car and back to the Perseus."
At the car Hilton took off the suit and hung the thought-screen generator around his neck; and in the car, for twenty five solid minutes, he sat still and thought.
His bluff had worked, up to a point. A good, far point, but not quite far enough. Laro had stopped that "as you already know" stuff. He was eager to go as far in cooperation as he possibly could ... but he couldn't go far enough but there had to be a way....
Hilton considered way after way. Way after unworkable, useless way. Until finally he worked out one that might--just possibly might--work.
"Laro, I know that you derive pleasure and satisfaction from serving me--in doing what I ought to be doing myself. But has it ever occurred to you that that's a hell of a way to treat a first-class, highly capable brain? To waste it on second-hand, copycat, carbon-copy stuff?"
"Why, no, Master, it never did. Besides, anything else would be forbidden ... or would it?"
"Stop somewhere. Park this heap. We're too close to the ship; and besides, I want your full, undivided, concentrated attention. No, I don't think originality was expressly forbidden. It would have been, of course, if the Masters had thought of it, but neither they nor you ever even considered the possibility of such a thing. Right?"
"It may be.... Yes, Master, you are right."
"Okay." Hilton took off his necklace, the better to drive home the intensity and sincerity of his thought. "Now, suppose that you are not my slave and simple automatic relay station. Instead, we are fellow-students, working together upon problems too difficult for either of us to solve alone. Our minds, while independent, are linked or in mesh. Each is helping and instructing the other. Both are working at full power and under free rein at the exploration of brand-new vistas of thought--vistas and expanses which neither of us has ever previously ..."
"Stop, Master, stop!" Laro covered both ears with his hands and pulled his mind away from Hilton's. "You are overloading me!"
"That is quite a load to assimilate all at once," Hilton agreed. "To help you get used to it, stop calling me 'Master'. That's an order. You may call me Jarve or Jarvis or Hilton or whatever, but no more Master."
"Very well, sir."
Hilton laughed and slapped himself on the knee. "Okay, I'll let you get away with that--at least for a while. And to get away from that slavish 'o' ending on your name, I'll call you 'Larry'. You like?"
"I would like that immensely ... sir."
"Keep trying, Larry, you'll make it yet!" Hilton leaned forward and walloped the android a tremendous blow on the knee. "Home, James!"
The car shot forward and Hilton went on: "I don't expect even your brain to get the full value of this in any short space of time. So let it stew in its own juice for a week or two." The car swept out onto the dock and stopped. "So long, Larry."
"But ... can't I come in with you ... sir?"
"No. You aren't a copycat or a semaphore or a relay any longer. You're a free-wheeling, wide-swinging, hard-hitting, independent entity--monarch of all you survey--captain of your soul and so on. I want you to devote the imponderable force of the intellect to that concept until you understand it thoroughly. Until you have developed a top-bracket lot of top-bracket stuff--originality, initiative, force, drive, and thrust. As soon as you really understand it, you'll do something about it yourself, without being told. Go to it, chum."
In the ship, Hilton went directly to Kincaid's office. "Alex, I want to ask you a thing that's got a snapper on it." Then, slowly and hesitantly: "It's about Temple Bells. Has she ... is she ... well, does she remind you in any way of an iceberg?" Then, as the psychologist began to smile; "And no, damn it, I don't mean physically!"
"I know you don't." Kincaid's smile was rueful, not at all what Hilton had thought it was going to be. "She does. Would it be helpful to know that I first asked, then ordered her to trade places with me?"
"It would, very. I know why she refused. You're a damned good man, Alex."
"Thanks, Jarve. To answer the question you were going to ask next--no, I will not be at all perturbed or put out if you put her onto a job that some people might think should have been mine. What's the job, and when?"
"That's the devil of it--I don't know." Hilton brought Kincaid up to date. "So you see, it'll have to develop, and God only knows what line it will take. My thought is that Temple and I should form a Committee of Two to watch it develop."
"That one I'll buy, and I'll look on with glee."
"Thanks, fellow." Hilton went down to his office, stuck his big feet up onto his desk, settled back onto his spine, and buried himself in thought.
Hours later he got up, shrugged, and went to bed without bothering to eat.
"Look," said Stella Wing to Beverly Bell. "Over there."
"I've seen it before. It's simply disgusting."
"That's a laugh." Stella's tawny-brown eyes twinkled. "You made your bombing runs on that target, too, my sweet, and didn't score any higher than I did."
"I soon found out I didn't want him--much too stiff and serious. Frank's a lot more fun."
The staff had gathered in the lounge, as had become the custom, to spend an hour or so before bedtime in reading, conversation, dancing, light flirtation and even lighter drinking. Most of the girls, and many of the men, drank only soft drinks. Hilton took one drink per day of avignognac, a fine old brandy. So did de Vaux--the two usually making a ceremony of it.
Across the room from Stella and Beverly, Temple Bells was looking up at Hilton and laughing. She took his elbow and, in the gesture now familiar to all, pressed his arm quickly, but in no sense furtively, against her side. And he, equally openly, held her forearm for a moment in the full grasp of his hand.
"And he isn't a pawer," Stella said, thoughtfully. "He never touches any of the rest of us. She taught him to do that, damn her, without him ever knowing anything about it ... and I wish I knew how she did it."
"That isn't pawing," Beverly laughed lightly. "It's simply self-defense. If he didn't fend her off, God knows what she'd do. I still say it's disgusting. And the way she dances with him! She ought to be ashamed of herself. He ought to fire her."
"She's never been caught outside the safety zone, and we've all been watching her like hawks. In fact, she's the only one of us all who has never been alone with him for a minute. No, darling, she isn't playing games. She's playing for keeps, and she's a mighty smooth worker."
"Huh!" Beverly emitted a semi-ladylike snort. "What's so smooth about showing off man-hunger that way? Any of us could do that--if we would."
"Miaouw, miaouw. Who do you think you're kidding, Bev, you sanctimonious hypocrite--me? She has staked out the biggest claim she could find. She's posted notices all over it and is guarding it with a pistol. Half your month's salary gets you all of mine if she doesn't walk him up the center aisle as soon as we get back to Earth. We can both learn a lot from that girl, darling. And I, for one am going to."
"Uh-uh, she hasn't got a thing I want," Beverly laughed again, still lightly. Her friend's barbed shafts had not wounded her. "And I'd much rather be thought a hypocrite, even a sanctimonious one, than a ravening, slavering--I can't think of the technical name for a female wolf, so--wolfess, running around with teeth and claws bared, looking for another kill."
"You do get results, I admit." Stella, too, was undisturbed. "We don't seem to convince each other, do we, in the matter of technique?"
At this point the Hilton-Bells tete-a-tete was interrupted by Captain Sawtelle. "Got half an hour, Jarve?" he asked. "The commanders, especially Elliott and Fenway, would like to talk to you."
"Sure I have, Skipper. Be seeing you, Temple," and the two men went to the captain's cabin; in which room, blue with smoke despite the best efforts of the ventilators, six full commanders were arguing heatedly.
"Hi, men," Hilton greeted them.
"Hi, Jarve," from all six, and: "What'll you drink? Still making do with ginger ale?" asked Elliott (Engineering).
"That'll be fine, Steve. Thanks. You having as much trouble as we are?"
"More," the engineer said, glumly. "Want to know what it reminds me of? A bunch of Australian bushmen stumbling onto a ramjet and trying to figure out how it works. And yet Sam here has got the sublime guts to claim that he understands all about their detectors--and that they aren't anywhere nearly as good as ours are."
"And they aren't!" blazed Commander Samuel Bryant (Electronics). "We've spent six solid weeks looking for something that simply is not there. All they've got is the prehistoric Whitworth system and that's all it is. Nothing else. Detectors--hell! I tell you I can see better by moonlight than the very best they can do. With everything they've got you couldn't detect a woman in your own bed!"
"And this has been going on all night," Fenway (Astrogation) said. "So the rest of us thought we'd ask you in to help us pound some sense into Sam's thick, hard head."
Hilton frowned in thought while taking a couple of sips of his drink. Then, suddenly, his face cleared. "Sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but--at any odds you care to name and in anything from split peas to C-notes--Sam's right."
Commander Samuel and the six other officers exploded as one. When the clamor had subsided enough for him to be heard, Hilton went on: "I'm very glad to get that datum, Sam. It ties in perfectly with everything else I know about them."
"How do you figure that kind of twaddle ties in with anything?" Sawtelle demanded.
"Strict maintenance of the status quo," Hilton explained, flatly. "That's all they're interested in. You said yourself, Skipper, that it was a hell of a place to have a space-battle, practically in atmosphere. They never attack. They never scout. They simply don't care whether they're attacked or not. If and when attacked, they put up just enough ships to handle whatever force has arrived. When the attacker has been repulsed, they don't chase him a foot. They build as many ships and Omans as were lost in the battle--no more and no less--and then go on about their regular business. The Masters owned that half of the fuel bin, so the Omans are keeping that half. They will keep on keeping it for ever and ever. Amen."
"But that's no way to fight a war!" Three or four men said this, or its equivalent, at once.
"Don't judge them by human standards. They aren't even approximately human. Our personnel is not expendable. Theirs is--just as expendable as their materiel."
While the Navy men were not convinced, all were silenced except Sawtelle. "But suppose the Stretts had sent in a thousand more skeletons than they did?" he argued.
"According to the concept you fellows just helped me develop, it wouldn't have made any difference how many they sent," Hilton replied, thoughtfully. "One or a thousand or a million, the Omans have--must have--enough ships and inactivated Omans hidden away, both on Fuel World and on Ardry here, to maintain the balance."
"Oh, hell!" Elliott snapped. "If I helped you hatch out any such brainstorm as that, I'm going onto Tillinghast's couch for a six-week overhaul--or have him put me into his padded cell."
"Now that's what I would call a thought," Bryant began.
"Hold it, Sam," Hilton interrupted. "You can test it easily enough, Steve. Just ask your Oman."
"Yeah--and have him say 'Why, of course, Master, but why do you keep on testing me this way?' He'll ask me that about four times more, the stubborn, single-tracked, brainless skunk, and I'll really go nuts. Are you getting anywhere trying to make a Christian out of Laro?"
"It's too soon to really say, but I think so." Hilton paused in thought. "He's making progress, but I don't know how much. The devil of it is that it's up to him to make the next move; I can't. I haven't the faintest idea, whether it will take days yet or weeks."
"But not months or years, you think?" Sawtelle asked.
"No. We think that--but say, speaking of psychologists, is Tillinghast getting anywhere, Skipper? He's the only one of your big wheels who isn't in liaison with us."
"No. Nowhere at all," Sawtelle said, and Bryant added: "I don't think he ever will. He still thinks human psychology will apply if he applies it hard enough. But what did you start to say about Laro?"
"We think the break is about due, and that if it doesn't come within about thirty days it won't come at all--we'll have to back up and start all over again."
"I hope it does. We're all pulling for you," Sawtelle said. "Especially since Karns's estimate is still years, and he won't be pinned down to any estimate even in years. By the way, Jarve, I've pulled my team off of that conversion stuff."
"Oh?" Hilton raised his eyebrows.
"Putting them at something they can do. The real reason is that Poindexter pulled himself and his crew off it at eighteen hours today."