The Cosmic Computer
by Henry Beam Piper
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"You mean you'd litigate about this?" the lawyer demanded, and began to laugh.

"If we have to. Look, if you people don't want her, sign her over to Litchfield Exploration & Salvage. But if you do want her, you'll have to pay for her."

"We'll give you twenty thousand sols," the lawyer said. "We don't want to be tightfisted. After all, you fought a gang of pirates and lost some men and a couple of boats; we have some moral obligation to you. But you'll have to realize that this ship, in her present state, is practically valueless."

"The collapsium on her is worth twice that, and the engines are worth even more," Jacquemont said. "I worked on them."

The discussion ended there. By midafternoon, Luther Chen-Wong, the junior partner of the law firm, arrived from Storisende with a couple of engineers of his own. Reporters began arriving; both sides were anxious to keep them away from the ship. Conn took care of them, assisted by Sylvie, who had rummaged an even more attractive costume out of what she called the loot-cellar. The reporters all used up a lot of film footage on her. And the Fawzis' Office Gang arrived from Force Command, bitterly critical of the value of the spaceport against its cost in lives and equipment. Brangwyn and Zareff returned to Force Command with them. A Planetary Air Patrol ship arrived and removed the captured pirates. The liberated prisoners were airlifted to Litchfield.

The third day after the battle, Conn and his father and Sylvie and her father flew to Litchfield. To Conn's surprise, Flora greeted him cordially, and Wade Lucas, rather stiffly, congratulated him. Maybe it was as Tom Brangwyn had said; he hadn't been on Poictesme in the last four or five years and didn't know how bad things had gotten. His mother seemed to think he had won the Battle of Barathrum single-handed.

He was even more surprised and gratified that Flora made friends with Sylvie immediately. His mother, however, regarded the engineer's daughter with badly concealed hostility, and seemed to doubt that Sylvie was the kind of girl she wanted her son getting involved with. Outwardly, of course, she was quite gracious.

Rodney Maxwell and Yves Jacquemont flew to Storisende the next morning, both more optimistic about finding a ship than Conn thought the circumstances warranted. Conn stayed at home for the next few days, luxuriating in idleness. He and Sylvie tore down his mother's household robots and built sound-sensors into them, keying them to respond to their names and to a few simple commands, and including recorded-voice responses in a thick Sheshan accent. All the smart people on Terra, he explained, had Sheshan humanoid servants.

His mother was delighted. Robots that would answer when she spoke to them were a lot more companionable. She didn't seem to think, however, that Sylvie's mechanical skills were ladylike accomplishments. Nice girls, Litchfield model, weren't quite so handy with a spot-welder. That was what Conn liked about Sylvie; she was like the girls he'd known at the University.

They were strolling after dinner, down the Mall. The air was sharp and warned that autumn had definitely arrived; the many brilliant stars, almost as bright as the moon of Terra, were coming out in the dusk.

"Conn, this thing about Merlin," she began. "Do you really believe in it? Ever since Dad and I came to Poictesme, I've been hearing about it, but it's just a story, isn't it?"

He was tempted to tell her the truth, and sternly put the temptation behind him.

"Of course there's a Merlin, Sylvie, and it's going to do wonderful things when we find it."

He looked down the starlit Mall ahead of him. Somebody, maybe Lester Dawes and Morgan Gatworth and Lorenzo Menardes, had gotten things finished and cleaned up. The pavement was smooth and unbroken; the litter had vanished.

"It's done wonderful things already, just because people started looking for it," he said. "Some of these days, they're going to realize that they had Merlin all along and didn't know it."

There was a faint humming from somewhere ahead, and he was wondering what it was. Then they came to the long escalators, and he saw that they were running.

"Why, look! They got them fixed! They're running!"

Sylvie grinned at him and squeezed his arm.

"I get you, chum," she said. "Of course there's a Merlin."

Maybe he didn't have to tell her the truth.

When they returned to the house, his mother greeted him:

"Conn, your father's been trying to get you ever since you went out. Call him, right away; Ritz-Gartner Hotel, in Storisende. It's something about a ship."

It look a little time to get his father on-screen. He was excited and happy.

"Hi, Conn; we have one," he said.

"What kind of a ship?"

"You know her. The Harriet Barne."

That he hadn't expected. Something off Mothball Row that would have to be flown to Barathrum and torn down and completely rebuilt, but not the one that was there already, partly finished.

"How the dickens did you wangle that?"

"Oh, it was Yves' idea, to start with. He knew about her; the T. & O.'s been losing money on her for years. He said if they had to pay prize-money on her and then either restore her to original condition or finish the job and build a spaceship they didn't want, it would almost bankrupt the company. They got up as high as fifty thousand sols for prize-money and we just laughed at them. So we made a proposition of our own.

"We proposed organizing a new company, subsidiary to both L. E. & S. and T. & O., to engage in interplanetary shipping; both companies to assign their equity in the Harriet Barne to the new company, the work of completing her to be done at our spaceport and the labor cost to be shared. This would give us our spaceship, and get T. & O. off the hook all around. Everybody was for it except the president of T. & O. Know anything about him?"

Conn shook his head. His father continued:

"Name's Jethro Sastraman. He could play Scrooge in Christmas Carol without any makeup at all. He hasn't had a new idea since he got out of college, and that was while the War was still going on. 'Preposterous; utterly visionary and impractical,'" his father mimicked. "Fortunately, a majority of the big stockholders didn't agree; they finally bullied him into agreeing. We're calling the new company Alpha-Interplanetary, we have an application for charter in, and that'll go through almost automatically."

"Who's going to be the president of this new company?"

"You know him. Character named Rodney Maxwell. Yves is going to be vice-president in charge of operations; he's flying to Barathrum tomorrow or the next day with a gang of technicians we're recruiting. T. & O. are giving us Clyde Nichols and Mack Vibart, and a lot of men from their shipyard. I'm staying here in Storisende; we're opening an office here. By this time next week, we're all going to wish we'd been born quintuplets."

"And Conn Maxwell, I suppose, will be an influential non-office-holding stockholder?"

"That's right. Just like in L. E. & S."


He found Jerry Rivas and Anse Dawes and a score of workmen making a survey and inventory of the spaceport. Captain Nichols and four of the original crew of the Harriet Barne, who had shared his captivity among the pirates, had stayed to take care of the ship. And Fred Karski, with one gun-cutter and a couple of light airboats, was keeping up a routine guard. All of them had heard about the formation of Alpha-Interplanetary when Conn arrived.

The next day, Yves Jacquemont arrived, accompanied by Mack Vibart, a gang from the T. & O. shipyard, and a dozen engineers and construction men whom he had recruited around Storisende. More workers arrived in the next few days, including a number who had already worked on the ship as slaves of the Perales gang.

It didn't take Conn long to appreciate the problems involved in the conversion. Built to operate only inside planetary atmosphere and gravitation, the Harriet Barne was long and narrow, like an old ocean ship; more than anything else, she had originally resembled a huge submarine. Spaceships, either interplanetary or interstellar, were always spherical with a pseudogravity system at the center. This, of course, the Harriet Barne lacked.

"Well, are we going to make the whole trip in free fall?" he wanted to know.

"No, we'll use our acceleration for pseudograv halfway, and deceleration the other half," Jacquemont told him. "We'll be in free fall about ten or fifteen hours. What we're going to have to do will be to lift off from Poictesme in the horizontal position the ship was designed for, and then make a ninety-degree turn after we're off-planet, with our lift and our drive working together, just like one of the old rocket ships before the Abbott Drive was developed."

That meant, of course, that the after bulkheads would become decks, and explained a lot of the oddities he had noticed about the conversion job. It meant that everything would have to be mounted on gimbals, everything stowed so as to be secure in either position, and nothing placed where it would be out of reach in either.

Jacquemont and Nichols took charge of the work on the ship herself. Chief Engineer Vibart, with a gang of half-taught, self-taught and untaught helpers, went back to working the engines over, tearing out all the safety devices that were intended to keep the ship inside planetary atmosphere, and arranging the lift engines so that they could be swung into line with the drive engines. There was a lot of cybernetic and robotic equipment, and astrogational equipment, that had to be made from scratch. Conn picked a couple of helpers and went to work on that.

From time to time, he was able to snatch a few minutes to read teleprint papers or listen to audiovisual newscasts from Storisende. He was always disappointed. There was much excitement about the new interplanetary company, but the emphasis was all wrong. People weren't interested in getting hyperships built, or opening the mines and factories on Koshchei, or talking about all the things now in short supply that could be produced there. They were talking about Merlin, and they were all positive, now, that something found at Force Command Duplicate had convinced Litchfield Exploration & Salvage that the giant computer was somewhere off-planet.

Rodney Maxwell flew in from Storisende; he was accompanied by Wade Lucas, who shook hands cordially with Conn.

"Can you spare us Jerry Rivas for a while?" Rodney Maxwell asked.

"Well, ask Yves Jacquemont; he's vice-president in charge of operations. As an influential non-office-holding stockholder, I'd think so. He's only running around helping out here and there."

"We want him to take charge of opening those hospitals you were telling us about. Wade and I are forming a new company, Mainland Medical Materials, Ltd. Going to act as broker for L. E. & S. in getting rid of medical stores. Nobody in the company knows where to sell that stuff or what we ought to get for it."

Wade Lucas began to talk about how desperately some types of drug and some varieties of diagnostic equipment were needed. Conn had it on the tip of his tongue to ask Lucas whether he thought that was a racket, too. Lucas must have read his mind.

"I really didn't understand how much good this would do," he said. "I wouldn't have spoken so forcefully against it if I had. I thought it was nothing but this Merlin thing—"

"Aaagh! Don't talk to me about Merlin!" Conn interrupted. "I have to talk to Kurt Fawzi and that crowd about Merlin till I'm sick of the whole subject."

His father shot him a warning glance; Lucas was looking at him in surprise. He hastened to change the subject:

"I see Len made you a suit out of that material," he said to his father. "And I see you're not bulging the coat out behind with a hip-holster."

"Oh, I stopped carrying a gun; I'm a city man, now. Nobody carries one in Storisende. Won't even be necessary in Litchfield before long. Our new marshal had a regular reign of terror in Tramptown for a few days, and you wouldn't know the place. Wade, here, is acting mayor now."

They went back to talking about the new company. "You're going to have so many companies you won't be able to to keep track of them before long," Conn said.

"Well, I'm doing something about that. A holding company; Trisystem Investments, Ltd.; you're a non-office-holding stockholder in that, too."

Merlin was now a political issue. A bill had been introduced in Parliament to amend the Abandoned Property Act of 867 and nationalize Merlin, when and if discovered and regardless by whom. The support seemed to come from an extremist minority; everybody else, including the Administration, was opposed to it. There was considerable acrimony, however, on the propositions: 1) that Merlin was too important to the prosperity of Poictesme to become a private monopoly; and 2) that Merlin was too important, etc., to become a political football and patronage plum.

It was discovered, after they were half assembled, that the controls for the Harriet Barne would only work while she was in a horizontal position. The whole thing had to be torn out and rebuilt. There was also trouble with the air-and-water recycling system. The City of Nefertiti came in from Aton for Odin; Rodney Maxwell was almost frantic because they hadn't gotten together a cargo of medical stores from the first hospital to be opened.

"There's all sorts of stuff," he was fuming, by screen. "Stuff that's in short supply anywhere and that we could get good prices for off-planet. Get Federation sols for it, too."

"The City of Asgard will be along in six months," Conn said. "You can have a real cargo assembled by then. You can make arrangements in advance to dispose of it on Terra or Baldur or Marduk."

"There are a couple of other companies interested in interplanetary ships now," his father added. "One of them had gotten four old freighters off Mothball Row, and they're tearing them down and cannibalizing them into one spaceship. That work's being done here at Storisende Spaceport. And another company has gotten title to a couple of old office buildings and has a gang at work dismantling them for the structural steel. I think they're going to build a real spaceship."

That wasn't anything to worry about either. The Harriet Barne was better than half finished. There was a collapsium plant at Storisende Spaceport, but Yves Jacquemont said it was only half the size of the one at Barathrum; it would be three months before it could produce armor for one, let alone both, ships.

The crackpots were getting into the act, now, too. A spirit medium on the continent of Acaire, to the north, had produced a communication purporting to originate with a deceased Third Force Staff officer, now in the Spirit World. There was considerable detail, all ludicrous to Conn's professional ear. And a fanatic in one of the small towns on the west coast was quoting the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavadgita to prove that if Merlin were ever found, Divine vengeance in a spectacular form would fall not only on Poictesme but on the entire Galaxy.

The spaceship that was building at Storisende got into the news; on-screen, it appeared that the work was progressing rapidly. So was the work of demolishing a block of empty buildings to get girders for the second ship, on which work had not yet been started. The one under construction seemed to be of cruciform design, like an old-fashioned pre-contragravity winged airplane. The design puzzled everybody at Barathrum. Yves Jacquemont thought that perhaps there would be decks in the cross-arm which would be used when the ship was running on combined lift and drive.

"Well, till we can get a shipyard going on Koshchei and build some real spaceships, there are going to be some rare-looking objects traveling around the Alpha System. I wonder what the next one's going to look like—a flying sky-scraper?" Conn said.

"What I wonder," Yves Jacquemont replied, "is where all the old interplanetary ships got to. There must have been hundreds of them running back and forth from here to Janicot and Koshchei and Jurgen and Horvendile during the War. They must have gone somewhere."

"Couldn't they all have been fitted with Dillingham hyperdrive engines and used in the evacuation?"

"Possible. But the average interplanetary ship isn't very big; five hundred to seven-fifty feet in diameter. One of those things couldn't carry more than a couple of hundred people, after you put in all the supplies and the hydroponic tanks and carniculture vats and so on for a four- to six-month voyage. I can't see the economy of altering anything that small for interstellar work. Why, the smallest of these tramp freighters that come in here will run about fifteen hundred feet."

They didn't just disintegrate when peace broke out, that was for sure. And there certainly weren't any of them left on Poictesme. He puzzled over it briefly, then shoved it aside. He had more important things to think about.

In his spare time he was studying, along with his other work, everything he could find on Koshchei, with an intensity he had not given to anything since cramming for examinations at the University. There was a lot of it.

The fourth planet of Alpha Gartner was older than Poictesme; geologists claimed that it was the oldest thing, the sun excepted, in the system, and astrophysicists were far from convinced that it hadn't been captured from either Beta or Gamma when the three stars had been much closer together. It had certainly been formed at a much higher temperature than Janicot or Poictesme or Jurgen or Horvendile. For better than a billion years, it had been molten-hot, and it had lost most of its lighter elements in gaseous form along with its primary atmosphere, leaving little to form a light-rock crust. All that had remained had been a core of almost pure iron and a mantle that was mostly high-grade iron ore.

The same process had gone on, as it cooled, as on any Terra-size planet. After the surface had started to congeal, gases, mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor, had come up to form a secondary atmosphere, the water vapor forming a cloud envelope, condensing, and sending down rain that returned immediately as steam. Solar radiations and electric discharges broke some of that into oxygen and hydrogen; most of the hydrogen escaped into space. Finally, the surface cooled further and the rain no longer steamed off.

The whole planet started to rust. It had been rusting, slowly, for the billion or so years that had followed, and almost all the free oxygen had become locked in iron oxide. The air was almost pure carbon dioxide. It would have been different if life had ever appeared on Koshchei, but apparently the right amino acids never assembled. Some attempts had been made to introduce vegetation after the colonization of Poictesme, but they had all failed.

Men went to Koshchei; they worked out of doors in oxygen helmets, and lived in airtight domes and generated their own oxygen. There had been mines, and smelters, and blast furnaces and steel mills. And there had been shipyards, where hyperships up to three thousand feet had been built. They had all been abandoned when the War had ended; they were waiting there, on an empty, lifeless planet. Some of them had been built by the Third Fleet-Army Force during the War; most of them dated back almost a century before that, to the original industrial boom. All of them could be claimed under the Abandoned Property Act of 867, since all had been taken over by the Federation, and the original owners, or their heirs, compensated.

And there was the matter of selecting a crew. As an influential non-office-holding stockholder in all the companies involved, Conn Maxwell, of course, would represent them. He would also serve as astrogator. Clyde Nichols would command the ship in atmosphere, and act as first mate in space. Mack Vibart would be chief engineer at all times. Yves Jacquemont would be first officer under Nichols, and captain outside atmosphere. They had three real space crewmen, named Roddell, Youtsko and O'Keefe, who had been in Storisende jail as a result of a riotous binge when their ship had lifted out, six months before. The rest of the company—Jerry Rivas, Anse Dawes, Charley Gatworth, Mohammed Matsui, and four other engineers, Ludvyckson, Gomez, Karanja and Retief—rated as ordinary spacemen for the trip, and would do most of the exploration work after landing.

They got the controls put up; they would work in either position. The engines were lifted in and placed. Conn finished the robo-pilot and the astrogational computers and saw them installed. The air-and-water recycling system went in. The collapsium armor went on. In the news-screen, they saw the spaceship at Storisende still far from half finished, with swarms of heavy-duty lifters and contragravity machiners around it, and a set of landing-stands, on which the second ship was to be built, in the process of construction.

A tramp hyperspace freighter landed at Storisende, the Andromeda, five months from Terra, with a cargo of general merchandise. Rodney Maxwell and Wade Lucas had assembled a cargo of medicines and hospital equipment which they thought could be sold profitably. They began dickering with the owner-captain of the hypership.

A farm-tramp down in the tobacco country to the south, evidently ignorant that the former commander of the Third Force was still alive, had proclaimed himself to be the reincarnation of Foxx Travis and was forbidding everybody, on pain of court-martial and firing squad, from meddling with Merlin. And an evangelist in the west was declaring that Merlin was really Satan in mechanical shape.

The Harriet Barne was finished. The first test, lifting her to three hundred miles, turning her bow-up, and taking her another thousand miles, had been a success. They brought her back and set her down in the middle of the crater, and began getting the supplies aboard. Kurt Fawzi, Klem Zareff, Judge Ledue, Franz Veltrin and the others flew over from Force Command. Sylvie Jacquemont came from Litchfield, and so did Wade Lucas, Morgan Gatworth, Lester Dawes, Lorenzo Menardes and a number of others. Neither Conn's mother nor sister came.

"I don't know what's the matter with those two," Sylvie told him. "They always seem to be scrapping with each other now, and the only thing they can agree on is that you and your father ought to stop whatever you're doing, right away. Your mother can't adjust to your father being a big Storisende businessman, and she says he'll lose every centisol he has and both of you will probably go to jail, and then she's afraid you will find Merlin, and Flora's sure you and your father are swindling everybody on the planet."

"Sylvie, I had no idea things would be like that," he told her contritely. "I wish I hadn't suggested that you stay there, now."

"Oh, it isn't so bad, so far. Your mother and I get along all right when Flora isn't there, and Flora and I get along when your mother isn't around. Mealtimes aren't much fun, though."

His father came out from Storisende, looked the ship over, and seemed relieved.

"I'm glad you're ready to get off," he said. "You know this hyperspace freighter, the Andromeda? Some private group in Storisende has chartered her. She's loading supplies now. I have a private detective agency, Barton-Massarra, trying to find out where's she's going. I think you'd better get this ship off, right away."

"We have everything aboard, all the supplies and everything," Jacquemont told him. "We can lift off tonight."


The ship lurched slightly. In the outside screens, the lights around, the crowd that was waving good-bye, and the floor of the crater began receding. The sound pickups were full of cheering, and the boom of a big gun at one of the top batteries, and the recorded and amplified music of a band playing the traditional "Spacemen's Hymn."

"It's been a long time since I heard that played in earnest," Jacquemont said. "Well, we're off to see the Wizard."

The lights dwindled and merged into a tiny circle in the darkness of the crater. The music died away; the cannon shots became a faint throbbing. Finally, there was silence, and only the stars above and the dark land and the starlit sea below. After a long while a sunset glow, six hours past on Barathrum, appeared in the west, behind the now appreciable curvature of the planet.

"Stand by for shift to vertical," Captain Nichols called, his voice echoing from PA-outlets through the ship.

"Ready for shift, Captain Nichols," Jacquemont reported from the duplicate-control panel.

Conn went to the after bulkhead, leaning his back against it. "Ready here, Captain," he said.

Other voices took it up. Lights winked on the control panels.

"Shifting over," Nichols said. "Your ship now, Captain Jacquemont."

"Thank you, Mr. Nichols."

The deck began to tilt, and then he was lying on his back, his feet against the side of the control room, which had altered its shape and dimensions. There was a jar as the drive went on in line with the new direction of the lift and the ship began accelerating. He got to his feet, and he and Charley Gatworth went to the astrogational computer and began checking the data and setting the course for the point in space at which Koshchei would be in a hundred and sixty hours.

"Course set, Captain," he reported to Jacquemont, after a while.

A couple of lights winked on the control panel. There was nothing more to do but watch Poictesme dwindle behind, and listen to the newscasts, and take turns talking to friends on the planet.

They approached the halfway point; the acceleration rate decreased, and the gravity indicator dropped, little by little. Everybody was enjoying the new sense of lightness, romping and skylarking like newly landed tourists on Luna. It was fun, as long as they landed on their feet at each jump, and the food and liquids stayed on plates and in glasses and cups. Yves Jacquemont began posting signs in conspicuous places:


His father came on-screen from his office in Storisende. By then, there was a 30-second time lag in communication between the ship and Poictesme.

"My private detectives found out about the Andromeda," he said. "She's going to Panurge, in the Gamma System. They have a couple of computermen with them, one they hired from the Stock Exchange, and one they practically shanghaied away from the Government. And some of the people who chartered the ship are members of a family that were interested in a positronic-equipment plant on Panurge at the time of the War."

"That's all right, then; we don't need to worry about that any more. They're just hunting for Merlin."

Some of his companions were looking at him curiously. A little later, Piet Ludvyckson, the electromagnetics engineer, said: "I thought you were looking for Merlin, Conn."

"Not on Koschchei. We're looking for something to build a hypership out of. If I had Merlin in my hip pocket right now, I'd trade it for one good ship like the City of Asgard or the City of Nefertiti, and give a keg of brandy and a box of cigars to boot. If we had a ship of our own, we'd be selling lots of both, and not for Storisende Spaceport prices, either."

"But don't you think Merlin's important?" Charley Gatworth, who had overheard him, asked.

"Sure. If we find Merlin, we can run it for President. It would make a better one than Jake Vyckhoven."

He let it go at that. Plenty of opportunities later to expand the theme.

The gravitation gauge dropped to zero. Now they were in free fall, and it lasted twice as long as Yves Jacquemont had predicted. There were a few misadventures, none serious and most of them comic—For example, when Jerry Rivas opened a bottle of beer, everybody was chasing the amber globules and catching them in cups, and those who were splashed were glad it hadn't been hot coffee.

They made their second, 180-degree turnover while weightless. Then they began decelerating and approached Koshchei stern-on, and the gravity gauge began climbing slowly up again, and things began staying put, and they were walking instead of floating. Koshchei grew larger and larger ahead; the polar icecaps, and the faint dappling of clouds, and the dark wiggling lines on the otherwise uniform red-brown surface which were mountain ranges became visible. Finally they began to see, first with the telescopic screens and then without magnification, the little dots and specks that were cities and industrial centers.

Then they were in atmosphere, and Jacquemont made the final shift, to horizontal position, and turned the ship over to Nichols.

For a moment, the scout-boat tumbled away from the ship and Conn was back in free fall. Then he got on the lift-and-drive and steadied it, and pressed the trigger button, firing a green smoke bomb. Beside him, Yves Jacquemont put on the radio and the screen pickups. He could see the ship circling far above, and the manipulator-boat, with its claw-arms and grapples, breaking away from it. Then he looked down on the endless desert of iron oxide that stretched in all directions to the horizon, until he saw a spot, optically the size of a five-centisol piece, that was the shipbuilding city of Port Carpenter. He turned the boat toward it, firing four more green smokes at three-second intervals. The manipulator-boat started to follow, and the Harriet Barne, now a distant speck in the sky, began coming closer.

Below, as he cut speed and altitude, he could see the pock-marks of open-pit mines and the glint of sunlight on bright metal and armor-glass roofs, the blunt conical stacks of nuclear furnaces and the twisted slag-flows, like the ancient lava-flows of Barathrum. And, he reflected, he was an influential non-office-holding stockholder in every bit of it, as soon as they could screen Storisende and get claims filed.

A high tower rose out of the middle of Port Carpenter, with a glass-domed mushroom top. That would be the telecast station; the administrative buildings were directly below it and around its base. He came in slowly over the city, above a spaceport with its empty landing pits in a double circle around a traffic-control building, and airship docks and warehouses beyond. More steel mills. Factories, either hemispherical domes or long buildings with rounded tops. Ship-construction yards and docks; for the most part, these were empty, but on some of them the landing-stands of spaceships, like eight-and ten-legged spiders, waiting for forty years for hulls to be built on them. A few spherical skeletons of ships, a few with some of the outer skin on. It wasn't until he was passing close to them that he realized how huge they were. And stacks of material—sheet steel, deckplate, girders—and contragravity lifters and construction machines, all left on jobs that were never finished, the bright rustless metal dulled by forty years of rain and windblown red dust. They must have been working here to the very last, and then, when the evacuation elsewhere was completed, they had dropped whatever they were doing, piled into such ships as were completed, and lifted away.

The mushroom-topped tower rose from the middle of a circular building piled level on level, almost half a mile across. He circled over it, saw an airship dock, and called the Harriet Barne while Jacquemont talked to Jerry Rivas, piloting the manipulator-boat. Rivas came in and joined them in the air; they hovered over the dock and helped the ship down when she came in, nudging her into place.

By the time Conn and Jacquemont and Rivas and Anse Dawes and Roddell and Youtsko and Karanja were out on the dock in oxygen helmets, the ship's airlock was opening and Nichols and Vibart and the others were coming out, towing a couple of small lifters loaded with equipment.

The airlocked door into the building, at the end of the dock, was closed; when somebody pulled the handle, it refused to open. That meant it was powered from the central power plant, wherever that was. There was a plug socket beside it, with the required voltage marked over it. They used an extension line from a power unit on one of the lifters to get it open, and did the same with the inner door; when it was open, they passed into a dim room that stretched away ahead of them and on either side.

It looked like a freight-shipping room; there were a few piles of boxes and cases here and there, and a litter of packing material everywhere. A long counter-desk, and a bank of robo-clerks behind it. According to the air-analyzer, the oxygen content inside was safely high. They all pulled off their fishbowl helmets and slung them.

"Well, we can bunk inside here tonight," somebody said. "It won't be so crowded here."

"We'll bunk here after we find the power plant and get the ventilator fans going," Jacquemont said.

Anse Dawes held up the cigarette he had lighted; that was all the air-analyzer he needed.

"That looks like enough oxygen," he said.

"Yes, it makes its own ventilation; convection," Jacquemont said. "But you go to sleep in here, and you'll smother in a big puddle of your own exhaled CO_2. Just watch what the smoke from that cigarette's doing."

The smoke was hanging motionless a few inches from the hot ash on the end of the cigarette.

"We'll have to find the power plant, then," Matsui, the power-engineer said. "Down at the bottom and in the middle, I suppose, and anybody's guess how deep this place goes."

"We'll find plans of the building," Jerry Rivas said. "Any big dig I've ever been on, you could always find plans. The troubleshooters always had them; security officer, and maintenance engineer."

There were inside-use vehicles in the big room; they loaded what they had with them onto a couple of freight-skids and piled on, starting down a passage toward the center of the building. The passageways were well marked with direction-signs, and they found the administrative area at the top and center, around the base of the telecast-tower. The security offices, from which police, military guard, fire protection and other emergency services were handled, had a fine set of plans and maps, not only for the building itself but for everything else in Port Carpenter. The power plant, as Matsui had surmised, was at the very bottom, directly below.

The only trouble, after they found it, was that it was completely dead. The reactors wouldn't react, the converters wouldn't convert, and no matter how many switches they shoved in, there was no power output. The inside telemetered equipment, of course, was self-powered. Some of them were dead, too, but from those which still worked Mohammed Matsui got a uniformly disheartening story.

"You know what happened?" he said. "When this gang bugged out, back in 854, they left the power on. Now the conversion mass is all gone, and the plutonium's all spent. We'll have to find more plutonium, and tear this whole thing down and refuel it, and repack the mass-conversion chambers—provided nothing's eaten holes in itself after the mass inside was all converted."

"How long will it take?" Conn asked.

"If we can find plutonium, and if we can find robots to do the work inside, and if there's been no structural damage, and if we keep at it—a couple of days."

"All right; let's get at it. I don't know where we'll find shipyards like these anywhere else, and if we do, things'll probably be as bad there. We came here to fix things up and start them, didn't we?"


It didn't take as long as Mohammed Matsui expected. They found the fissionables magazine, and in it plenty of plutonium, each subcritical slug in a five-hundred-pound collapsium canister. There were repair-robots, and they only had to replace the cartridges in the power units of three of them. They sent them inside the collapsium-shielded death-to-people area—transmitter robots, to relay what the others picked up through receptors wire-connected with the outside; foremen-robots, globes a yard in diameter covered with horns and spikes like old-fashioned ocean-navy mines; worker-robots, in a variety of shapes, but mostly looking like many-clawed crabs.

Neither the converter nor the reactor had sustained any damage while the fissionables were burning out. So the robots began tearing out reactor-elements, and removing plutonium slugs no longer capable of sustaining chain reaction but still dangerously radioactive. Nuclear reactors had become simpler and easier to service since the First Day of the Year Zero, when Enrico Fermi put the first one into operation, but the principles remained the same. Work was less back-breaking and muscle-straining, but it called for intense concentration on screens and meters and buttons that was no less exhausting.

The air around them began to grow foul. Finally, the air-analyzer squawked and flashed red lights to signal that the oxygen had dropped below the safety margin. They had no mobile fan equipment, or time to hunt any; they put on their fishbowl helmets and went back to work. After twelve hours, with a few short breaks, they had the reactors going. Jerry Rivas and a couple of others took a heavy-duty lifter and went looking for conversion mass; they brought back a couple of tons of scrap-iron and fed it to the converters. A few seconds after it was in, the pilot lights began coming on all over the panels. They took two more hours to get the oxygen-separator and the ventilator fans going, and for good measure they started the water pumps and the heating system. Then they all went outside to the ship to sleep. The sun was just coming up.

It was sunset when they rose and returned to the building. The airlocks opened at a touch on the operating handles. Inside, the air was fresh and sweet, the temperature was a pleasantly uniform 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the fans were humming softly, and there was running hot and cold water everywhere.

Jerry Rivas, Anse Dawes, and the three tramp freighter fo'c'sle hands took lifters and equipment and went off foraging. The rest of them went to the communications center to get the telecast station, the radio beacon, and the inside-screen system into operation. There were a good many things that had to be turned on manually, and more things that had been left on, forty years ago, and now had to be repowered or replaced. They worked at it most of the night; before morning, almost everything was working, and they were sending a signal across twenty-eight million miles to Storisende, on Poictesme.

It was late evening, Storisende time, but Rodney Maxwell, who must have been camping beside his own screen, came on at once, which is to say five and a half minutes later.

"Well, I see you got in somewhere. Where are you, and how is everything?"

Then he picked up a cigar out of an ashtray in front of him and lit it, waiting.

"Port Carpenter; we're in the main administration building," Conn told him. He talked for a while about what they had found and done since their arrival. "Have you an extra viewscreen, fitted for recording?" he asked.

Five and a half minutes later, his father nodded. "Yes, right here." He leaned forward and away from the communication screen in front of him. "I have it on." He gave the wave-length combination. "Ready to receive."

"This is about all we have, now. Views we took coming in, from the ship and a scout-boat." He started transmitting them. "We haven't sent in any claims yet. I wasn't sure whether I should make them for Alpha-Interplanetary, or Litchfield Exploration & Salvage."

"Don't bother sending in anything to the Claims Office," his father said. "Send anything you want to claim in here to me, and I'll have Sterber, Flynn & Chen-Wong file them. They'll be made for a new company we're organizing."

"What? Another one?"

His father nodded, grinning. "Koshchei Exploitation & Development; we've made application already. We can't claim exclusive rights to the whole planet, like the old interstellar exploration companies did before the War, but since you're the only people on the planet, we can come pretty close to it by detail." He was looking to one side, at the other screen. "Great Ghu, Conn! This place of yours all together beats everything I ever dug, Force Command and Barathrum Spaceport included. How big would you say it is? More than ten miles in radius?"

"About five or six. Ten or twelve miles across."

"That's all right, then. We'll just claim the building you're in, now, and the usual ten-mile radius, the same as at Force Command. We'll claim the place as soon as the company's chartered; in the meantime, send in everything else you can get views of."

They set up a regular radio-and-screen watch after that. Charley Gatworth and Piet Ludvyckson, both of whom were studying astrogation in hopes of qualifying as space officers after they had a real spaceship, elected themselves to that duty; it gave them plenty of time for study. Jerry Rivas and Anse Dawes, with whomever they could find to help them, were making a systematic search. They looked first of all for foodstuffs, and found enough in the storerooms of three restaurants on the executive level to feed their own party in gourmet style for a year, and enough in the main storerooms to provision an army. They even found refrigerators and freeze-bins full of meat and vegetables fresh after forty years. That surprised everybody, for the power units had gone dead long ago. Then it was noticed that they were covered with collapsium. Anything that would stop cosmic rays was a hundred percent efficient as a heat insulator.

Coming in, the first day, Conn had seen an almost completed hypership bulking above the domes and roofs of Port Carpenter in the distance. He saw it again on screen from a pickup atop the central tower. As soon as the party was comfortably settled in the executive apartments on the upper levels, he and Yves Jacquemont and Mack Vibart and Schalk Retief, the construction engineer, found an aircar in one of the hangars and went to have a closer look at her.

She had all her collapsium on, except for a hundred-foot circle at the top and a number of rectangular openings around the sides. Yves Jacquemont said that would be where the airlocks would go.

"They always put them on last. But don't be surprised at anything you find or don't find inside. As soon as the skeleton's up they put the armor on, and then build the rest of the ship out from the middle. It might be slower getting material in through the airlock openings, but it holds things together while they're working."

They put on the car's lights, lifted to the top, and let down through the upper opening. It was like entering a huge globular spider's web, globe within globe of interlaced girders and struts and braces, extending from the center to the outer shell. Even the spider was home—a three-hundred-foot ball of collapsium, looking tiny at the very middle.

"Why, this isn't a ship!" Vibart cried in disgust. "This is just the outside of a ship. They haven't done a thing inside."

"Oh, yes, they have," Jacquemont contradicted, aiming a spotlight toward the shimmering ball in the middle. "They have all the engines in—Abbott lift-and-drive, Dillingham hyperdrives, pseudograv, power reactors, converters, everything. They wouldn't have put on the shielding if they hadn't. They did that as soon as they had the outside armor on."

"Wonder why they didn't finish her, if they got that far," Retief said.

"They didn't need her. They'd had it; they wanted to go home."

"Well, we're not going to finish her, not with any fifteen men," Retief said. "One man has only two hands, two feet and one brain; he can only handle so much robo-equipment at a time."

"I never expected we'd build a ship ourselves," Conn said. "We came to look the place over and get a few claims staked. When we've done that, we'll go back and get a real gang together."

"I don't know where you'll find them," Jacquemont commented. "We'll need a couple of hundred, and they ought all to be graduate engineers. We can't do this job with farm-tramps."

"You made some good shipyard men out of farm-tramps on Barathrum."

"And what'll you do for supervisors?"

"You're one. General superintendent. Mack, you and Schalk are a couple of others. You just keep a day ahead of your men in learning the job, you'll do all right."

Vibart turned to Jacquemont. "You know, Yves, he'll do it," he said. "He doesn't know how impossible this is, and when we try to tell him, he won't believe us. You can't stop a guy like that. All right, Conn; deal me in."

"I won't let anybody be any crazier than I am," Jacquemont declared, and then looked around the vastness of the empty ship with its lacework of steel. "All you need is about ten million square feet of decks and bulkheads, and air-and-water system, hydroponic tanks and carniculture vats, astrogation and robo-pilot equipment, about which I know very little, a hyperspace pilot system, about which I know nothing at all.... Conn, why don't you just build a new Merlin? It would be simpler."

"I don't want a new Merlin. I'm not even interested in the original Merlin. This is what I want, right here."

He told his father, by screen, about the ship. "I believe we can finish her, but not with the gang that's here. We'll need a couple of hundred men. Now, with the supplies we've found, we can stay here indefinitely. Should we do more exploring and claim some more of these places, or should we come home right away and start recruiting, and then come back with a large party, start work on the ship, and explore and make further claims as we have time?" he asked.

"Better come back as soon as possible. Just explore Port Carpenter, find out what's going to be needed to finish the ship and what facilities you have to produce it, and get things cleaned up a little so that you can start work as soon as you have people to do it. I'm organizing another company—don't laugh, now; I've only started promotioneering—which I think we will call Trisystem & Interstellar Spacelines. Get me all the views you can of the ship herself and of the steel mills and that sort of thing that will produce material for finishing her; I want to use them in promotion. By the way, has she a name?"

"Only a shipyard construction number."

"Then suppose you call her Ouroboros, after Genji Gartner's old ship, the one that discovered the Trisystem."

"Ouroboros II; that's fine. Will do."

"Good. I'll have Sterber, Flynn & Chen-Wong make application for a charter right away. We'll have to make Alpha-Interplanetary one of the stockholding companies, and also Koschchei Exploitation & Development, and, of course, Litchfield Exploration & Salvage...."

It was a pity there really wasn't a Merlin. If this kept on nothing else would be able to figure out who owned how much stock in what.

They found the on-the-job engineering office for the ship in a small dome half a mile from the construction dock. Yves Jacquemont and Mack Vibart and Schalk Retief moved in and buried themselves to the ears in specifications and blueprints. The others formed into parties of three or four, and began looking about production facilities for material. There was a steel mill a mile from the construction site; it was almost fully robotic. Iron ore went in at one end, and finished sheet steel and girders and deck plates came out at the other, and a dozen men could handle the whole thing. There was a collapsium plant; there were machine-shops and forging-shops. Every time they finished inspecting one, Yves Jacquemont would have a list of half a dozen more plants that he wanted found and examined yesterday morning at the latest.

Some of them were in a frightful mess; work had been suspended and everybody had gone away leaving everything as it was. Some were in perfect order, ready to go into operation again as soon as power was put on. It had depended, apparently, upon the personal character of whoever had been in charge in the end. The nuclear-electric power unit plant was in the latter class. The man in charge of it evidently hadn't believed in leaving messes behind, even if he didn't expect to come back.

It was built in the shape of a T. One side of the cross-stroke contained the cartridge-case plant, where presses formed sheet-steel cylinders, some as small as a round of pistol ammunition and some the size of ten-gallon kegs. They moved toward the center on a production line, finally reaching a matter-collapser where they were plated with collapsium. From the other side, radioactive isotopes, mostly reactor-waste, came in through evacuated and collapsium-shielded chambers, were sorted, and finally, where the cross-arm of the T joined the downstroke, packed in the collapsium cases. The production line continued at right angles down the long building in which the apparatus which converted nuclear energy to electric current was assembled and packed; at the end, the finished power cartridges came off, big ones for heavy machines and tiny ones for things like hand tools and pocket lighters and razors. There were stacks of them, in all sizes, loaded on skids and ready to move out. Except for the minute and unavoidable leakage of current, they were as good as the day they were assembled, and would be for another century.

Like almost everything else, the power-cartridge plant was airtight and had its own oxygen-generator. The air-analyzer reported the oxygen insufficient to support life. That was understandable; there were a lot of furnaces which had evidently been hot when the power was cut off; they had burned up the oxygen before cooling. They put on their oxygen equipment when they got out of the car.

"I'll go back and have a look at the power plant," Matsui said. "If it's like the rest of this place, it'll be ready to go as soon as the reactors are started. I wish everybody here had left things like this."

"Well, we'll have to check everything to make sure nothing was left on when the main power was cut," Conn said. "Don't do anything back there till we give you the go-ahead."

Matsui nodded and set off on foot along the broad aisle in the middle. Conn looked around in the dim light that filtered through the dusty glass overhead. On either side of the central aisle were two production lines; between each pair, at intervals, stood massive machines which evidently fabricated parts for the power cartridges. Over them, and over the machines directly involved in production, were receptor aerials, all oriented toward a stubby tower, twenty feet thick and fifty in height, topped by a hemispherical dome.

"That'll be the control tower for all the machinery in here," he decided. "Anse, suppose you and I go take a look at it."

"We'll take a look at the machines," Rivas said. "Clyde, you and I can work back on the right and then come down on the other side. You know anything about this stuff?"

"Me? Nifflheim, no," Nichols said. "I know a robo-control when I see one, and I know whether it's set to receive or not."

There was a self-powered lift inside the control tower. Conn and Anse rode it to the top and got out, Anse snapping on his flashlight. It was dark in the dome at the top; instead of windows there were viewscreens all around it. Five men had worked here; at least, there were four chairs at four intricate control panels, one for each of the four production lines, and a fifth chair in front of a number of communication screens. There was a heavy-duty power unit, turned off. Conn threw the switch. Lights came on inside, and the outside viewscreens lit.

They were examining the control-panels when Conn's belt radio buzzed. He plugged it in on his helmet. It was Mohammed Matsui.

"There's one big power plant back here," the engineer said. "Right in the middle. It only powers what's in front of it. There must be another one in either wing, for the isotope plant and the cartridge-case plant. I'll go look at them. But the power's been cut off from the machines in the main building. There's four big switches, one for each production line—"

He was interrupted by a shout, almost a shriek, from somewhere. It sounded like Jerry Rivas. A moment later, Rivas was clamoring:

"Conn! What did you turn on? Turn it off, right away!"

Anse jumped to the switch, pulling it with one hand and getting on his flashlight with the other. The lights went out and the screens went dark.

"It's off."

"The dickens it is!" Rivas disputed. "There are a couple of big supervisor-robots circling around, and a flock of workers...."

At the same time, Clyde Nichols began cursing. Or maybe he was praying; it was hard to be certain.

"But we pulled the switch. It was only the lights and viewscreens in here, anyhow."

"It didn't do any good. Pull another one."

Matsui, back at the power plant, was wanting to know what was wrong. Captain Nichols stopped cursing—or praying?—and said, "Mutiny, that's what! The robots have turned on us!"

He knew what had happened, or was almost sure he did. A radio impulse had gone out, somehow, from the control tower. Something they hadn't checked, that had been left on. There was just enough current-leakage from the units in the robots to keep the receptors active for forty years. The supervisor-robots had gone active, and they had activated the rest. Once on, cutting the current from the control tower wouldn't turn them off again.

"Put the switch in again, Anse; the damage is done and you won't make it any worse."

When the screens came on, he looked around from one to another. The two supervisors, big ovoid things like the small round ones they had used in repairing the power reactors the first day, were circling aimlessly near the roof, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise, dodging obstructions and getting politely out of each other's way. At lower altitude, a dozen assorted worker-robots were moving about, and more were emerging from cells at the end of the building. Sweepers, with rotary brooms and rakes, crablike all-purpose handling robots, a couple of vacuum-cleaning robots, each with a flexible funnel-tipped proboscis and a bulging dust-sack. One tiling, a sort of special job designed to get into otherwise inaccessible places, had a twenty-foot, many-jointed, claw-tipped arm in front. It passed by and slightly over the tower, saw Clyde Nichols, and swooped toward him. With a howl, Nichols dived under one of the large machines between two production lines. A pistol went off a couple of times. That would be Jerry Rivas. Nobody else bothered with a gun on Koshchei, but he carried one as some people carry umbrellas, whether he expected to need it or not and because he would feel lost without it.

That he took in at one glance. Then he was looking at the control panels. The switches and buttons were all marked for machine-control in different steps of power-unit production. That was all for the big stuff, powered centrally. There weren't any controls tor lifters or conveyers or other mobile equipment. Evidently they were handled out in the shop, from mobile control-vehicles. He did find, on the communication-screen panel, a lot of things that had been left on. He snapped them off, one after another, snapping them on when a screen went dark. There were fifteen or twenty robots, some rather large, in the air or moving on the floor by now.

"We can't do anything here," he told Anse. "These are the shop-cleaning robots. They were the last things used here when the place closed down, and the two supervisors were probably controlled from a vehicle, and it's anybody's guess where that is now. When you threw that switch, it sent out an impulse that activated them. They're running their instruction-tapes, and putting the others through all their tricks."

Three more shots went off. Jerry Rivas was shouting: "Hey, whattaya know! I killed one of the buggers!"

There were any number of ways in which a work-robot could be shot out of commission with a pistol. All of them would be by the purest of pure luck. The next time we go into a place like this, Conn thought, we take a couple of bazookas along.

"Turn everything off and let's go. See what we can do outside."

Anse put on his flashlight and pulled the switch. They got into the lift and rode down, going outside. As soon as they emerged, they saw a rectangular object fifteen feet long settle over their aircar, let down half a dozen clawed arms, and pick it up, flying away with it. It had taped instructions to remove anything that didn't belong in the aisleway; it probably asked the supervisor about the aircar, and the supervisor didn't return an inhibitory signal, so it went ahead. Conn and Anse both shouted at it, knowing perfectly well that shouting was futile. Then they were running for their lives with one of the crablike all-purpose jobs after them. They dived under the slightly raised bed of a long belt-conveyer and crawled. Jerry Rivas fired another shot, somewhere.

The robots themselves were having troubles. They had done all the work they were supposed to do; now the supervisors were insisting that they do it over again. Uncomplainingly, they swept and raked and vacuum-cleaned where they had vacuum-cleaned and raked and swept forty years ago. The scrap-pickers, having picked all the scrap, were going over the same places and finding nothing, and then getting deflected and gathering a lot of things not definable as scrap, and then circling around, darting away from one another in obedience to their radar-operated evasion-systems, and trying to get to the outside scrap pile, and finding that the doors wouldn't open because the door openers weren't turned on, and finally dumping what they were carrying when the supervisors gave them no instructions.

One of them seemed to have dumped something close to where Clyde Nichols was hiding; if his language had been a little stronger, it would have burned out Conn's radio. Their own immediate vicinity being for the moment clear of flying robots, Conn and Anse rolled from under the conveyer and legged it between the two production lines. Immediately, three of the crablike all-purpose handling-robots saw them, if that was the word for it, and came dashing for them, followed by a thing that was mostly dump-lifter; it was banging its bin-lid up and down angrily. About fifty yards ahead, Jerry Rivas stepped from behind a machine and fired; one of the handling-robots flashed green from underneath, went off contragravity, and came down with a crash. Immediately, like wolves on a wounded companion, the other two pounced upon it, dragging and pulling against each other. That was a hunk of junk; their orders were to remove it.

The mobile trash-bin went zooming up to the ceiling, reversed within twenty feet of it and came circling back to the ground, to go zooming up again. It had gone crazy, literally. It had been getting too many contradictory orders from its supervisor, and its circuits were overloaded and its relays jammed. Rats in mazes and human-type people in financial difficulties go psychotic in very much the same way.

The two surviving all-purpose robots were also headed for a padded repair shop. They had come close enough to each other to activate their anticollision safeties. Immediately, they flew apart. Then their order to pick up that big piece of junk took over, and they started forward again, to be bounced apart as soon as they were within five feet of one another. If left alone, their power units would run down in a year or so; until then, they would keep on trying.

Soulless intelligences, indeed! Then it occurred to him that for the past however-long-it-had-been he hadn't heard from Mohammed Matsui. He jiggled his radio.

"Ham, where are you? Are you still alive?"

"I'm back at the power plant," Matsui said exasperatedly. "There's a big thing circling around here; every time I stick my head out, he makes a dive at me. I didn't know robots would attack people."

"They don't. He just thinks you're some more trash he's been told to gather up."

Matsui was indignant. Conn laughed.

"On the level, Ham. He has photoelectric vision, and a picture of what that aisle is supposed to look like. When you get out in it, he knows you don't belong there and tries to grab you."

"Hey, there's a lot of junk in here in a couple of baskets at the converter. Say I chuck one out to him; what would he do?"

"Grab it and take it away, like he's taped to do."

"Okay; wait a minute."

They couldn't see the archway to the power plant, or even the robot that had Matsui penned up, but after a few minutes they saw it soaring away, clutching a big wire basket full of broken boxes and other rubbish. It headed for the mutually repelling swarm of robots around the door that wouldn't open for them. Conn and Anse and Jerry ran toward the rear, joined by Clyde Nichols, who popped up from behind a pile of spools of electric wire. They made it just before the coffin-shaped thing that had carried off the aircar came over to investigate.

"You want to be careful back there," Matsui told them, as they started toward the temporary safety of the power plant. "All the reactor-repair robots are there; don't get them on the warpath next."

Of course! There were always repair-robots at a power plant, to go into places no human could enter and live. Behind the collapsium shielding, they wouldn't have been activated.

"Let's have a look at them. What kind?"

"Standard reactor-servicers; the same we used at the administration center."

Matsui opened the door, and they went into the power plant. Conn and Matsui put on the service-power and activated the two supervisors; they, in turn, activated their workers. It was tricky work getting them all outside the collapsium-walled power-plant area; each worker had to be passed through by the supervisor inside, under Matsui's control. Because of the close quarters at which they worked inside the reactor and the converter, they weren't fitted with anticollision repulsors, and, working under close human supervision, they all had audiovisual pickups. It took some time to get adequate screens set up outside the collapsium.

Finally, they were ready. Their two supervisors went up to the ceiling, one controlled by Conn and the other by Matsui. The larger, egg-shaped shop-labor supervisors were still moving in irregular orbits; those of the workers still able to receive commands were trying to obey them, and the rest were jammed in a swarm at the other end.

First one, and then the other of the labor-boss robots were captured. They were by now at the end of what might, loosely, be called their wits. They weren't used to operating without orders, and had been sending out commands largely at random. Now they came to a stop, and then began moving in tight, guided circles; one by one, the worker robots still able to heed them were brought to ground and turned off. That left the swarm at the door. The worker-robots under direct control of the power-plant supervisors went after them, grappling them and hauling them down to where Anse and Jerry Rivas and Captain Nichols could turn them off manually.

The aircar was a hopeless wreck, but its radio was still functioning. Conn called Charley Gatworth, who called a gang under Gomez, working not far away; they came with another car.

It took all the next day for a gang of six of them to get the place straightened up. Neither Conn nor Gomez, who was a roboticist himself, would trust any of the workers or the two supervisors; their experiences out of control had rendered them unreliable. They took out their power units and left them to be torn down and repaired later. Other robots were brought in to replace them. When they were through, the power-unit cartridge plant was ready for operation.

Jerry Rivas wanted to start production immediately.

"We'll have to go back to Poictesme pretty soon," he said. "We don't want to go back empty. Well, I know that no matter what we dug up, and what we could sell or couldn't sell, there's always a market for power-unit cartridges. Electric-light units, household-appliance units, aircar and airboat units, any size at all. We run that plant at full capacity for a few days and we can load the Harriett Barne full, and I'll bet the whole cargo will be sold in a week after we get in."


The Harriet Barne settled comfortably at the dock, the bunting-swathed tugs lifting away from her. They had the outside sound pickups turned as low as possible, and still the noise was deafening. The spaceport was jammed, people on the ground and contragravity vehicles swarming above, with police cars vainly trying to keep them in order. All the bands in Storisende seemed to have been combined; they were blaring the "Planetary Hymn";

Genji Gartner's body lies a-moldering in the tomb, But his soul goes marching on!

When they opened the airlock, there was a hastily improvised ceremonial barge, actually a farm-scow completely draped in red and white, the Planetary colors. They all stopped, briefly, as they came out, to enjoy the novelty of outdoor air which could actually be breathed. Conn saw his father in the scow, and beside him Sylvie Jacquemont, trying, almost successfully, to keep from jumping up and down in excitement. Morgan Gatworth to meet his son, and Lester Dawes to meet his. Kurt Fawzi, Dolf Kellton, Colonel Zareff, Tom Brangwyn. He didn't see his mother, or his sister. Flora he had hardly counted on, but he was disappointed that his mother wasn't there to meet him.

Sylvie was embracing her father as he shook hands with his; then she threw her arms around his neck.

"Oh, Conn, I'm so happy! I was watching everything I could on-screen, everything you saw, and all the places you were, and everything you were doing...."

The scow—pardon, ceremonial barge—gave a slight lurch, throwing them together. Over her shoulder, he saw his father and Yves Jacquemont exchanging grins. Then they had to break it up while he shook hands with Fawzi and Judge Ledue and the others, and by the time that was over, the barge was letting down in front of the stand at the end of the dock, and the band was still deafening Heaven with "Genji Gartner's Body," and they all started up the stairs to be greeted by Planetary President Vyckhoven; he looked like an elderly bear who has been too well fed for too long in a zoo. And by Minister-General Murchison, who represented the Terran Federation on Poictesme. He was thin and balding, and he looked as though he had just mistaken the vinegar cruet for the wine decanter. Genji Gartner's soul stopped marching on, but the speeches started, and that was worse. And after the speeches, there was the parade, everybody riding in transparent-bodied aircars, and the Lester Dawes and the two ships of the new Planetary Air Navy and a swarm of gunboats in column five hundred feet above, all firing salutes.

In spite of what wasn't, but might just as well have been, a concerted conspiracy to keep them apart, he managed to get a few words privately with Sylvie.

"My mother; she didn't get here. Is anything wrong?"

"Is anything anything else? I've been in the middle of it ever since you went away. Your mother's still moaning about all these companies your father's promoting—he never used to do anything like that, and it's all too big, and it's going to end in a big smash. And then she gets onto Merlin. You know, she won't say Merlin, she always calls it, 'that thing.'"

"I've noticed that."

"Then she begins talking about all the horrible things that'll happen when it's found, and that sets Flora off. Flora says Merlin's a big fake, and you and your father are using it to rob thousands of widows and orphans of their life savings, and that sets your mother off again. Self-sustaining cyclic reaction, like the Bethe solar-phoenix. And every time I try to pour a little oil on the troubled waters, I find I've gotten it on the fire instead. And then, Flora had this fight with Wade Lucas, and of course, she blames you for that."

"Good heavens, why?"

"Well, she couldn't blame it on herself, could she? Oh, you mean why the fight? Lucas is in business with your father now, and she can't convince him that you and your father are a pair of quadruple-dyed villains, I suppose. Anyhow, the engagement is phttt! Conn, is my father going back to Koshchei?"

"As soon as we can round up some people to help us on the ship."

"Then I'm going along. I've had it, Conn. I'm a combat-fatigue case."

"But, Sylvie; that isn't any place for a girl."

"Oh, poo! This is Sylvie. We're old war buddies. We soldiered together on Barathrum; remember?"

"Well, you'd be the only girl, and...."

"That's what you think. If you expect to get any kind of a gang together, at least a third of them will be girls. A lot of technicians are girls, and when work gets slack, they're always the first ones to get shoved out of jobs. I'll bet there are a thousand girl technicians out of work here—any line of work you want to name. I know what I'll do; I'll make a telecast appearance. I still have some news value, from the Barathrum business. Want to bet that I won't be the working girl's Joan of Arc by this time next week?"

That cheered him. A girl can punch any kind of a button a man can, and a lot of them knew what buttons to punch, and why. Say she could find fifty girls....

He had a slightly better chance to talk to his father before the banquet at the Executive Palace that evening. They shared the same suite at the Ritz-Gartner, and even welcoming committees seldom chase their victims from bedroom to bath.

"Yes, I know all about it," Rodney Maxwell said bitterly. "I was home, a couple of weeks ago. Flora simply will not speak to me, and your mother begged me, in tears, to quit everything we're doing here. I tried to give her some idea of what would happen if I dropped this, even supposing I could; she wouldn't listen to me." He finished putting the studs in his shirt. "You still think this is worth what it's costing us?"

"You saw the views we sent back. There's work on Koshchei for a million people, at least. Why, even these two makeshift ships they're putting together here at Storisende are giving work, one way or another, to almost a thousand. Think what things will be like a year from now, if this keeps on."

Rodney Maxwell gave a wry laugh. "Didn't know I had a real Simon-pure altruist for a son."

"Pardner, when you call me that, smile."

"I am smiling. With some slight difficulty."

He didn't think well of the banquet. Back in Litchfield, Senta would have fired half her human help and taken a sledgehammer to her robo-chef for a meal like that. Even his father's camp cook would have been ashamed of it. And there were more speeches.

President Vyckhoven managed to get hold of him and Yves Jacquemont afterward, and steered them into his private study.

"Have you any real reason for thinking that Merlin might be on Koshchei?" the Planetary President asked.

"Great Ghu, no! We weren't looking for Merlin, Mr. President. We were looking for a hypership. We have one, too. Calling her Ouroboros II. Twenty-five-hundred-footer. We expect to have her to space in a few months. I surely don't need to tell you what that will do toward restoring planetary prosperity."

"No, of course not; a hypership of our own. But...." He looked from one to the other of them. "But I understood.... That is, Mr. Kurt Fawzi was saying...."

"Mr. Fawzi is looking for Merlin here on Poictesme. If anybody finds it, that's where it'll be found. I'm interested in getting business started again. If Merlin is found, it would help, of course." He shrugged.

"Don't look at me," Jacquemont said. "Mr. Maxwell—both of them, father and son—want some spaceships. They hired me to help build them. That's all I have in it." Then he relit the cigar the President had given him and leaned back in his chair, staring at the stuffed alcesoid head with the seven-foot hornspread above the fireplace.

Conn described the interview to his father after they were back at the hotel.

"I hope you convinced him. You know, he's afraid of Merlin. A lot of people have been saying that if Merlin's found, it should be used to determine Government policy. A few extremists are beginning to say that Merlin ought to be the Government, and Jake Vyckhoven and his cronies ought to be dumped. Into the handiest mass-energy converter, preferably. You know, if anybody found Merlin and started it auditing the Planetary Treasury, Jake Vyckhoven'd be the one who'd be wanting a hypership."

Tom Brangwyn ran him down the next morning in the dining room.

"Conn, I wish you'd come along with me," he said. "Some of us are up in Kurt's suite; we'd all like to talk to you."

Somehow, he was acting as though he were making an arrest. That might have been nothing but professional habit. Conn went up to Fawzi's suite, and found Fawzi and Judge Ledue and Dolf Kellton and close to a dozen others there.

"I'm glad you could come, Conn," the Judge greeted him. Now that the defendant had arrived, the trial could begin. "I wish your father could have gotten here. I asked him to come, but he had a prior engagement. A meeting with some of the financial people here, about some company he's interested in."

"That's right; Trisystem & Interstellar Spacelines."

"Interstellar!" Kurt Fawzi almost howled. "Great Ghu! Now it isn't enough to go out to Koshchei; he wants to go clear out of the Trisystem. That's what we wanted to talk about; all this nonsense you and your father are in. Merlin's right here on Poictesme. It's right at Force Command, and if your father hadn't robbed us of all our best men, like Jerry Rivas and Anse Dawes, we'd have found it by now. I don't think you and your father care a hoot if we ever find Merlin or not!"

"Kurt, that's a dreadful thing to say," Dolf Kellton objected in a shocked voice.

"It's a dreadful thing to have to say," Fawzi replied, "but you tell me what Conn Maxwell or Rodney Maxwell are doing to help find it."

"Who showed you where Force Command was?" Klem Zareff asked.

Nobody could think of any good quick comeback to that.

Conn took advantage of the pause to ask, "Why do you want to find Merlin?"

"Why do we ..." Fawzi spluttered indignantly. "If you don't know...."

"I know why I do. I want to see if you do. Do you?"

"Merlin would answer so many questions," Dolf Kellton told him gently. "Questions I can't answer for myself."

"With Merlin, we could set up a legal code and a system of jurisprudence that would give everybody absolute justice," Judge Ledue said.

As if absolute justice wasn't the last thing anybody in his right senses would want; a robot-judge would have the whole planet in jail inside a month.

"We have a man who joined us after you went off to Koshchei, Conn," Franz Veltrin said. "A Mr. Carl Leibert. He's some kind of a clergyman, from over Morven way. He says that Merlin could formulate an entirely new religion, which would regenerate humanity."

"Well, I don't have any such lofty ideas," Fawzi said. "I just want Merlin to show us how to get some prosperity here; bring things back to what they were before Poictesme went broke."

"And that's what Father and I are trying to do. You're going into the woods with a book on how to chop down a tree, and no ax." Fawzi looked at him in surprise, started to say something, and thought better of it. "If we want prosperity, we need tools. Our problem is loss of markets. If we find Merlin, and tape it with everything that's happened in the forty years since it was shut down, Merlin will tell us where to find new markets. But the markets won't come to us. We'll have to do our own exporting, and we'll need ships. Now, you men have been studying about Merlin, and hunting for Merlin, all your lives. I can't add anything to what you know, and neither can my father. You find Merlin, and we'll have the ships ready when you do find it."

"Kurt, I think he has a point," somebody said.

"You're blasted well right he has," Klem Zareff put in. "If it wasn't for Conn Maxwell, you know where we'd be? Back in Litchfield, sitting around in Kurt's office, talking about how wonderful things'll be when we find Merlin, and doing nothing to find it."

"Kurt, I believe Conn is entitled to an apology," Judge Ledue ruled. "How close we are to finding Merlin I don't know, but it is due to him that we have any hope of finding it at all."

"Conn, I'm sorry," Fawzi said. "I oughtn't to have said some of the things I did. But we're all on edge; we've been having so much trouble.... Conn, it's right there at Force Command; I know it is. We've been all over the place. We have shafts sunk at each of the corners; we've used scanners, and put off echo shots. Nothing. We looked for additional passages out of the headquarters; there aren't any. But it has to be somewhere around. It just has to be!"

"Maybe if I go out to Force Command with you, I might see something you've overlooked. And if I can't, I'll try to scrape up some stuff on Koshchei for you. Deep-vein scanners, that sort of thing, from the mines."

They took the Lester Dawes out at a little past noon and turned south and east. Everybody aboard was happy—except Conn Maxwell. He was thinking of the years and years ahead of these trusting, hopeful old men, each year the grave of another expectation. Two hundred miles from Force Command, the Goblin met them, her sides still spalled and dented from the hits she had taken in Barathrum Spaceport. When they came in sight of it, the mesa-top was deserted. Fawzi began wondering where in Nifflheim all the drilling rigs, and the seismo-trucks, were. Somebody with a pair of binoculars called attention to activity on the side of the high butte on top of which the relay station was located. Fawzi began swearing exasperatedly.

"Might be something Mr. Leibert thought of," Franz Veltrin suggested.

"Then why in blazes didn't he screen us about it?"

"Who is this Leibert?" Conn asked. "Somebody mentioned him this morning, I think."

"He joined us after you left, Conn," Dolf Kellton said. "He's a clergyman from Morven. No regular denomination; he has a sect of his own."

"Yah, he would!" Klem Zareff rumbled. "Pious fraud!"

"He's really a good man, Conn; Klem's prejudiced. He says we ought to use Merlin to show us the true nature of God, and how to live in accordance with the Divine Will. He says Merlin can teach us a new religion."

A new religion, based on Merlin; that would be good. And then the fanatics who thought Merlin was the Devil would start a holy war to wipe out the servants of Satan, and with all the combat equipment that was lying around on this planet.... For the first time since this business started, he began to feel really frightened.

An aircar came bulleting away from the butte and landed on the mesa as the Lester Dawes set down. The man who met them at the head of the vertical shaft wore Federation fatigues—baggy trousers, ankle boots and long smock, dyed black. He was bareheaded, and his white hair was almost shoulder-long. He had a white beard.

"Welcome, Brothers," he greeted, a hand raised in benediction. "And who is this with you?"

His voice was high and quavery; not a good pulpit voice, Conn thought.

Kurt Fawzi introduced Conn, and Leibert grasped his hand with a grip that was considerably stronger than his voice.

"Bless you, young man! It is to you alone that we owe our thanks that we are about to find the Great Computer. Every sapient being in the Galaxy will honor your name for a thousand years."

"Well, I hadn't counted on quite that much, Mr. Leibert. If it'll only help a few of these people to make a decent living I'll be satisfied."

Leibert shook his head sadly. "You think entirely in material terms, young man," he reproved. "Forget these things; acquire the higher spiritual values. The Great Computer must not be degraded to such uses; we should let it show us how to lift ourselves to a high spiritual plane...."

It went on like that, after they went down to Foxx Travis's—now Fawzi's—office, where there were silver-stoppered decanters instead of the old green-glass pitcher, and gold-plated ashtrays, and thick carpets on the floor. The man was a lunatic; he made Fawzi's office gang look frigidly sane. Furthermore, he was an ignoramus. He had no idea what a computer could or couldn't do. Anybody who could build a computer of the sort he thought Merlin was wouldn't need it, he would be God.

As he talked, Conn began to be nagged by an odd sense of recognition. He'd seen this Carl Leibert before, somewhere, and somehow he was sure that the long white hair and the untrimmed beard weren't part of the picture. That puzzled him. He doubted if he'd have remembered Leibert from six years ago, almost seven, now, though a lot of itinerant evangelists showed up in Litchfield. That might have been it.

"I tell you, the Great Computer is there, in the heart of the butte," Leibert was insisting, now. "It has been revealed to me in a dream. It is completely buried. After it was made, no human touched it. The men who were here and used it in the War communicated with it only by radio."

That could be so. There were fully robotic computers, intended for use in places where no human could go and live. There was a big one on Nifflheim, armored against the fluorine atmosphere and the hydrofluoric-acid rains. But there was no point in that here, the things were enormously complicated, and military engineering of any sort emphasized simplicity—Aaaagh! Was he beginning to believe this balderdash himself?

Klem Zareff fell in with him as they were going to dinner. "Revealed in a dream!" the old Rebel snorted. "One thing you can always get away with lying about is what you dream."

"You think he's lying? I think he's just crazy."

"That's what he wants you to think. Look, Conn, he knows Merlin is here; he's trying to keep us from it. That's why he shifted all that equipment over on the butte. He's working for Sam Murchison."

"I thought your theory was that the Federation had lost Merlin."

"It was, at first. It doesn't look that way to me now. It's right here at Force Command, somewhere. They don't want it found, and they're going to do everything they can to stop us. I oughtn't to have left this fellow Leibert here alone; well, I won't do that again. Get Tom Brangwyn to help me."


The voyage back to Koshchei had been a week-long nightmare. When she had been the pride and budget-wrecker of Transcontinent & Overseas Airline, the Harriet Barne had accommodated two hundred first-class and five hundred lower-deck passengers, but the conversion to a spaceship had drastically reduced her capacity. The three hundred men and women who had been recruited for the Koshchei colony had been crammed into her with brutal disregard for comfort, privacy or anything else except the ability of the air-recyclers to keep them breathing. When Captain Nichols set her down at the administration building at Port Carpenter, a few had had to be carried off, but they were all alive, which made the trip an unqualified success.

The dozen leaders of the expedition were congratulating themselves on that in one of the executive offices after the first dinner at Port Carpenter. Rodney Maxwell, in Storisende, had joined them in screen-image; he was mostly listening, and sometimes contributing a remark apropos of something the rest of them had said five minutes ago.

"Our hypership," Conn was saying, "is going to have to be item two on the agenda. The first thing we need is a ship for the Poictesme-Koshchei run. By this time next year, we ought to have a thousand to fifteen hundred people here at the least. We can't haul them all on that flying sardine can."

"We'll need supplies, too. What was left here won't last forever," Nichols added.

"And you're going to have to run this at a profit," Luther Chen-Wong, who had come along for first hand experience and to help with administrative work, added. "You have a big payroll to meet, and you'll have to keep the stockholders happy. People like Jethro Sastraman and some of these Storisende bankers aren't going to be satisfied with promises and long-term prospects; they'll want dividends."

"We'll have to get claims staked on something besides Port Carpenter, too. Those ships that are building at Storisende will be finished before long," Jerry Rivas said. "If we don't get some more things claimed, the first thing you know, we'll own Port Carpenter and nothing else."

"Well, let's see what we can find in the way of a big airboat, or a small ship," Conn said. "Jerry, you can pick a party for exploring. Just zigzag around the planet and transmit in locations and views of whatever you find, and we'll send it on to Storisende."

"And don't pick anybody for your exploring party that can't be spared from anything here," Jacquemont added. "We don't want to have to chase you halfway around the world to bring back the only specialist in something yesterday at the latest."

"Are you going to come along, Conn?" Rivas asked.

"Oh, Lord, no! I'm going to be doing fifteen things at once here."

All the computer work. Finding materials to make astrogational equipment and robo-pilots. Studying hyperspace theory—fortunately, there was an excellent library here—and setting up classes, and teaching school. And keeping in touch with his father, on Poictesme. It was making him nervous not to know what sort of foolishness the older and wiser heads might be getting into.

The next morning, they began organizing work-gangs and setting up committees. Three men, two girls and about twenty robots got an open-pit iron mine started; as soon as the steel mill was ready, ore started coming in. Anse Dawes had a gang looking for something they could build a 350-foot interplanetary ship out of; Jacquemont and Mack Vibart were getting plans and specifications and making lists of needed materials. Conn gathered a dozen men and women and started classes in computer theory and practice; at the same time, he and Charley Gatworth were teaching themselves and each other hyperspatial astrogation, which was the art of tossing a ship into some everythingless noplace outside normal space-time, and then pulling her out again by her bootstraps at some other place in the normal continuum, light-years away.

Roughly, it compared to shooting hummingbirds on the wing, blindfolded, with a not particularly accurate pistol, from a mile-a-minute merry-go-round.

That was something you could only do with a computer. A human, with a slide rule, a pencil and pad, could figure it out, of course—if he had fifty-odd thousand years to do it. A good computer did it in thirty seconds. That was one difference between people and computers. The other difference was that the desirability of making a hyperspace jump would never occur to a computer, unless somebody pushed a button and taped in instructions.

They found a three-hundred-foot globular skeleton, probably the nucleus of a big hyperspace ship, and decided that was big enough for what they wanted. The entire colony got to work on it. Photoprinted plans and specifications poured out as Jacquemont and a couple of draftsmen got them up. Steel came out of the steel mill at one end while ore came in at the other. A swarm of big contragravity machines, some robotic and some human-operated, clustered around the skeletal hull like hornets building a nest.

Trisystem & Interstellar Spacelines was chartered; the lawyers reported having to overcome a little more resistance than usual from the Government about that. And the bill to nationalize Merlin, which had died in committee, was resuscitated and was being debated hotly on the floor of Parliament. The Administration was now supporting it.

"Are they completely crazy?" Conn wanted to know, when he heard about that. "They pass that bill and nobody's going to look for Merlin if they know the Government will snatch it as soon as they find it."

"That is precisely Jake Vyckhoven's idea," his father replied. "I told you he was afraid of Merlin. He's getting more afraid of it every day."

He had reason to. There was a growing sentiment in favor of turning the entire Government over to the computer as soon as it was found. To his horror, Conn heard himself named as chairman of a committee that should be set up to operate it. The moderates, who had merely wanted Merlin used in an advisory capacity, were dropping out; the agitation was coming from extremists who wanted Merlin to be the whole Government, and now the extremists were developing an extreme wing of their own, who called themselves Cybernarchists and started wearing colored-shirt uniforms and greeting each other with an archaic stiff-arm salute, and the words, "Hail Merlin!"

And the followers of the gospel-shouter on the west coast were now cropping up all over the mainland, and on the continent of Acaire to the north, and another cult, non-religious, was convinced that Merlin was a living machine, with conscious intelligence of its own and awesome psi-powers, a sort of super-Golem, which, if found and awakened, would enslave the whole Galaxy. Fortunately, these two hated each other as venomously as both did the Cybernarchists, and spent most of their energies attacking each other's meetings. The news-services were beginning to publish casualty lists, some heavy enough for outpost fighting between a couple of regular armies.

One thing, it helped the employment situation. Everybody was hiring mercenaries.

"But what," Conn asked, "are the sane people doing?"

"You ought to know," his father told him. "I suspect that you have all of them on Koshchei now."

The sane people, if that was what they were, were being busy. They were putting a set of Abbott lift-and-drive engines together, and Conn's computer class was estimating the mass of the finished ship and the amount of energy needed to overcome gravitation and give it constant acceleration from Koshchei to Poictesme. They were learning, by trial and error, largely error, how to build a set of pseudograv engines. And they were putting together a hundred and one other things, all of which was good training for the time they'd be ready to start work on Ouroboros II.

Jerry Rivas had found a contragravity craft which seemed to have been used by some top official for business and inspection trips, had gathered a crew of non-specialists who weren't urgently needed at Port Carpenter, and set out to circumnavigate the planet. It worked just the reverse of expectation. He found a big uranium mine, with an isotope-separation plant and a battery of plutonium-breeders; that meant that Mohammed Matsui and half a dozen other nuclear-power people had to get into another boat and speed after him to see what he had really found. As soon as they landed, Rivas took off again to discover a copper mine and a complex of smelters and processing plants. That took a few more experts, or reasonable facsimiles, away from Port Carpenter. And then he found a whole city that manufactured nothing but computers and robo-controls and things like that.

Conn loaded his whole computer-theory class onto a freight-scow and took them there. By the time he landed, his father was screening him from Storisende.

"When are you going to get the ship finished?" he was asking. "Kurt Fawzi's pestering the daylights out of me. He wants that equipment you promised him."

"We're working on it. What's happened, has Carl Leibert had another revelation?"

"I don't know about that. Kurt's sure Merlin is directly under Force Command. And speaking about Leibert, Klem Zareff's been after me about him. You know I've contracted for the full-time and exclusive services of this Barton-Massarra detective agency. Well, Klem wants me to put them to work investigating Leibert."

"Yes, I know; Leibert's a Terran Federation spy. Why do you need the full-time services of the biggest private detective agency on Poictesme?"

"There have been some odd things happening. People have been trying to bribe and intimidate some of my office help. I have found microphones and screen-pickups planted around. I caught one of our clerks trying to make copies of voice-tapes. I think it's some of these other Merlin-chasing companies, trying to find out how close we are to it. Klem Zareff is recruiting more guards. But how soon are you going to get that ship built?"

"We're working on it. That's all I know, now."

He went back to work getting a classroom ready for his students. If he'd accepted that instructorship at Montevideo, he wouldn't be a full professor now, but none of the rest of this would be happening, either.

That night, he had the dream about starting the big machine and not being able to stop it again.

There was street-fighting in Storisende between the Cybernarchists and Government troops. There was a pitched battle in the west between the Armageddonists (Merlin-is-Satan) and the Human Supremacy League (Merlin-is-the-Golem), with heavy losses and claims of victory on both sides. President Vyckhoven proclaimed planet-wide martial law, and then discovered that he had nothing to enforce it with.

Luther Chen-Wong screened him from Port Carpenter. His voice was almost inaudibly low at first.

"Conn, I just had a call from Jerry and Clyde. I think we can knock off work on that ship we're building now. We won't need it."

"Have they found a ship?" If they had, it would be the first one anybody had found. "Where?"

"They haven't found a ship, Conn; they've found all of them. All the ships in the Alpha System except the Harriet Barne and the two they're building at Storisende. The place is marked on the map as Sickle Mountain Naval Observatory. It's just a bitty little dot, but the map was made before the evacuation started. It's where most of the troops in the system were embarked on hyperships, I think. Wait till I show you the views."

Conn put on another screen; the first view was from an altitude of five miles. He didn't need Luther's voice to identify Sickle Mountain; a long curve, with a spur at right angles to one end, the name must have suggested itself to whoever saw it first. The observatory had been built where the handle of the sickle joined the blade; as the ship from which the view had been taken had approached, the details grew plainer. At the same time, it became evident that the plain inside the curve of the sickle was powdered with tiny sparkles, like tinsel dust on red-brown velvet.

"Great Ghu, are those all ships?"

"That's right. Look at this one, now."

The view changed. The aircraft was down, now, below the crest of the mountain, circling slowly above the plain. Hundreds, no, over a thousand, of them; two- and three-and five-hundred-footers, and here and there a thousand-footer that could have been converted into a hypership if anybody had wanted to take the trouble. The view changed again; this time from an aircar dropped from the ship, he supposed; it was down almost to the tops of the ships, and he could read names and home ports: Pixie, Chloris; Helen O'Loy, Anaitis. They were from Jurgen. Sky-Rover, Port Saunders; she was from Horvendile. Ships from Storisende, and Yellowmarsh on Janicot, and....

"Now we know where they all went."

It was logical, of course. Most of the hyperships used in the evacuation had been built here. It had been less trouble to lead the troops and the civilian workers from Poictesme and the other planets onto small normal-space ships and bring them here than to take the big ships away on short interplanetary runs to the other planets.

"Have you screened my father yet?"

"Yes. This is going to knock the bottom out of the companies that are building those ships at Storisende, I'm afraid."

"Their tough luck."

"It could be everybody's tough luck. Both those companies have been issuing stock, and there's been a lot of speculation in it. This market's so inflated now that a puncture at one place might blow the whole thing out."

He knew that. He shrugged. "Father will have to think of something. Tell him I'll screen him from Sickle Mountain."

Then he went back to his classroom.

"All right, class dismissed," he said. "You have twenty minutes to get your bags packed. We're going to work for real, now."

Airboats and airships flocked to Sickle Mountain; some of them hastened back to Port Carpenter for loads of food, for there was none in the storehouses at the embarkation camp. They inspected ship after ship, and chose two three-hundred-footers. They sent airships and freight-scows to the dozen-odd cities and industrial centers that had been already explored, to gather cargo, as far as possible the items in shortest supply on Poictesme.

"Don't worry about a market smash," his father told him. "We have that taken care of. Trisystem Investments has just bought up a lot of stock in both of those companies, and we've set up agreements with them—informally, of course; we'll have to get them voted on by our own companies—to sell them ships from Koshchei. In return, the company that's building the ship out of four air-freighters will go to Janicot, and the company that's building a ship out of the old Leitzenring Building will go to Jurgen, and they'll both stay off Koshchei. Sterber, Flynn & Chen-Wong will probably be defending antitrust suits till the end of time. The Planetary Government has stopped liking us, you know."

"Then we'll have to get one that will like us. There'll be an election about this time next year, won't there?"

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse