Underhill was walking home from the office, because his wife had the car, the afternoon he first met the new mechanicals. His feet were following his usual diagonal path across a weedy vacant block—his wife usually had the car—and his preoccupied mind was rejecting various impossible ways to meet his notes at the Two Rivers bank, when a new wall stopped him.
The wall wasn’t any common brick or stone, but something sleek and bright and strange. Underhill stared up at a long new building. He felt vaguely annoyed and surprised at this glittering obstruction—it certainly hadn’t been here last week.
Then he saw the thing in the window.
The window itself wasn’t any ordinary glass. The wide, dustless panel was completely transparent, so that only the glowing letters fastened to it showed that it was there at all. The letters made a severe, modernistic sign:
* * *
Two Rivers Agency
The Perfect Mechanicals
“To Serve and Obey,
And Guard Men from Harm.”
* * *
His dim annoyance sharpened, because Underhill was in the mechanicals business himself. Times were already hard enough, and mechanicals were a drug on the market. Androids, mechanoids, electronoids, automatoids, and ordinary robots. Unfortunately, few of them did all the salesmen promised, and the Two Rivers market was already sadly oversaturated.
Underhill sold androidswhen he could. His next consignment was due tomorrow, and he didn’t quite know how to meet the bill.
Frowning, he paused to stare at the thing behind that invisible window. He had never seen a humanoid. Like any mechanical not at work, it stood absolutelymotionless. Smaller and slimmer than a man. A shining black, its sleek silicone skin had a changing sheen of bronze and metallic blue. Its graceful oval face wore a fixed look of alert and slightly surprised solicitude. Altogether, it was the most beautiful mechanical he had ever seen.
Too small, of course, for much practical utility. He murmured to himself a reassuring quotation from the Android Salesman: “Androids are big—because the makers refuse to sacrifice power, essential functions, or dependability. Androids are your biggest buy!”
The transparent door slid open as he turned toward it, and he walked into the haughty opulence of the new display room to convince himself that these streamlined items were just another flash effort to catch the woman shopper.
He inspected the glittering layout shrewdly, and his breezy optimism faded. He had never heard of the Humanoid Institute, but the invading firm obviously had big money and bigtime merchandising know-how.
He looked around for a salesman, but it was another mechanical that came gliding silently to meet him. A twin of the one in the window, it moved with a quick, surprising grace. Bronze and blue lights flowed over its lustrous blackness, and a yellow name plate flashed from its naked breast:
* * *
Serial No. 81-H-B-27
The Perfect Mechanical
“To Serve and Obey,
And Guard Men from Harm.”
* * *
Curiously it had no lenses. The eyes in its bald oval head were steel colored, blindly staring. But it stopped a few feet in front of him, as if it could see anyhow, and it spoke to him with a high, melodious voice:
“At your service, Mr. Underhill.”
The use of his name startled him, for not even the androids could tell one man from another. But this was a clever merchandising stunt, of course, not too difficult in a town the size of Two Rivers. The salesman must be some local man, prompting the mechanical from behind the partition. Underhill erased his momentary astonishment, and said loudly:
“May I see your salesman, please?”
“We employ no human salesmen, sir,” its soft silvery voice replied instantly. “The Humanoid Institute exists to serve mankind, and we require no human service. We ourselves can supply any information you desire, sir, and accept your order for immediate humanoid service.”
Underhill peered at it dazedly. No mechanicals were competent even to recharge their own batteries and reset their own relays, much less to operate their own branch offices. The blind eyes stared blankly back, and he looked uneasily around for any booth or curtain that might conceal the salesman.
Meanwhile, the sweet thin voice resumed persuasively:
“May we come out to your home for a free trial demonstration, sir? We are anxious to introduce our service on your planet, because we have been successful in eliminating human unhappiness on so many others. You will find us far superior to the old electronic mechanicals in use here.”
Underhill stepped back uneasily. He reluctantly abandoned his search for the hidden salesman, shaken by the idea of any mechanicals promoting themselves. That would upset the whole industry.
“At least you must take some advertising matter, sir.”
Moving with a somehow appalling graceful deftness, the small black mechanical brought him an illustrated booklet from a table by the wall. To cover his confused and increasing alarm, he thumbed through the glossy pages.
In a series of richly colored before-and-after pictures, a chesty blond girl was stooping over a kitchen stove, and then relaxing in a daring negligee while a little black mechanical knelt to serve her something. She was wearily hammering a typewriter, and then lying on an ocean beach, in a revealing sun suit, while another mechanical did the typing. She was toiling at some huge industrial machine, and then dancing in the arms of a golden-haired youth, while a black humanoid ran the machine.
Underhill sighed wistfully. The android company didn’t supply such fetching sales material. Women would find this booklet irresistible, and they selected eighty-six percent of all mechanicals sold. Yes, the competition was going to be bitter.
“Take it home, sir,” the sweet voice urged him. “Show it to your wife. There is a free trial demonstration order blank on the last page, and you will notice that we require no payment down.”
He turned numbly, and the door slid open for him. Retreating dazedly, he discovered the booklet still in his hand. He crumpled it furiously, and flung it down. The small black thing picked it up tidily, and the insistent silver voice rang after him:
“We shall call at your office tomorrow, Mr. Underhill, and send a demonstration unit to your home. It is time to discuss the liquidation of your business, because the electronic mechanicals you have been selling cannot compete with us. And we shall offer your wife a free trial demonstration.”
Underhill didn’t attempt to reply, because he couldn’t trust his voice. He stalked blindly down the new sidewalk to the corner, and paused there to collect himself. Out of his startled and confused impressions, one clear fact emerged—things looked black for the agency.
Bleakly, he stared back at the haughty splendor of the new building. It wasn’t honest brick or stone; that invisible window wasn’t glass; and he was quite sure the foundation for it hadn’t even been staked out the last time Aurora had the car.
He walked on around the block, and the new sidewalk took him near the rear entrance. A truck was backed up to it, and several slim black mechanicals were silently busy, unloading huge metal crates.
He paused to look at one of the crates. It was labeled for interstellar shipment. The stencils showed that it had come from the Humanoid Institute, on Wing IV. He failed to recall any planet of that designation; the outfit must be big.
Dimly, inside the gloom of the warehouse beyond the truck, he could see black mechanicals opening the crates. A lid came up, revealing dark, rigid bodies, closely packed. One by one, they came to life. They climbed out of the crate, and sprang gracefully to the floor. A shining black, glinting with bronze and blue, they were all identical.
One of them came out past the truck, to the sidewalk, staring with blind steel eyes. Its high silver voice spoke to him melodiously:
“At your service, Mr. Underhill.”
He fled. When his name was promptly called by a courteous mechanical, just out of the crate in which it had been imported from a remote and unknown planet, he found the experience trying.
Two blocks along, the sign of a bar caught his eye, and he took his dismay inside. He had made it a business rule not to drink before dinner, and Aurora didn’t like him to drink at all; but these new mechanicals, he felt, had made the day exceptional.
Unfortunately, however, alcohol failed to brighten the brief visible future of the agency. When he emerged, after an hour, he looked wistfully back in hope that the bright new building might have vanished as abruptly as it came. It hadn’t. He shook his head dejectedly, and turned uncertainly homeward.
Fresh air had cleared his head somewhat, before he arrived at the neat white bungalow in the outskirts of the town, but it failed to solve his business problems. He also realized, uneasily, that he would be late for dinner.
Dinner, however, had been delayed. His son Frank, a freckled ten-year-old, was still kicking a football on the quiet street in front of the house. And little Gay, who was tow-haired and adorable and eleven, came running across the lawn and down the sidewalk to meet him.
“Father, you can’t guess what!” Gay was going to be a great musician some day, and no doubt properly dignified, but she was pink and breathless with excitement now. She let him swing her high off the sidewalk, and she wasn’t critical of the bar aroma on his breath. He couldn’t guess, and she informed him eagerly:
“Mother’s got a new lodger!”
Underhill had foreseen a painful inquisition, because Aurora was worried about the notes at the bank, and the bill for the new consignment, and the money for little Gay’s lessons.
The new lodger, however, saved him from that. With an alarming crashing of crockery, the household android was setting dinner on the table, but the little house was empty. He found Aurora in the back yard, burdened with sheets and towels for the guest.
Aurora, when he married her, had been as utterly adorable as now her little daughter was. She might have remained so, he felt, if the agency had been a little more successful. However, while the pressure of slow failure had gradually crumbled his own assurance, small hardships had turned her a little too aggressive.
Of course he loved her still. Her red hair was still alluring, and she was loyally faithful, but thwarted ambitions had sharpened her character and sometimes her voice. They never quarreled, really, but there were small differences.
There was the little apartment over the garage—built for human servants they had never been able to afford. It was too small and shabby to attract any responsible tenant, and Under-hill wanted to leave it empty. It hurt his pride to see her making beds and cleaning floors for strangers.
Aurora had rented it before, however, when she wanted money to pay for Gay’s music lessons, or when some colorful unfortunate touched her sympathy, and it seemed to Underhill that her lodgers had all turned out to be thieves and vandals.
She turned back to meet him, now, with the clean linen in her arms.
“Dear, it’s no use objecting.” Her voice was quite determined. “Mr. Sledge is the most wonderful old fellow, and he’s going to stay just as long as he wants.”
“That’s all right, darling.” He never liked to bicker, and he was thinking of his troubles at the agency. “I’m afraid we’ll need the money. Just make him pay in advance.”
“But he can’t!” Her voice throbbed with sympathetic warmth. “He says he’ll have royalties coming in from his inventions, so he can pay in a few days.”
Underhill shrugged; he had heard that before.
“Mr. Sledge is different, dear,” she insisted. “He’s a traveler, and a scientist. Here, in this dull little town, we don’t see many interesting people.”
“You’ve picked up some remarkable types,” he commented.
“Don’t be unkind, dear,” she chided gently. “You haven’t met him yet, and you don’t know how wonderful he is.” Her voice turned sweeter. “Have you a ten, dear?”
He stiffened. “What for?”
“Mr. Sledge is ill.” Her voice turned urgent. “I saw him fall on the street, downtown. The police were going to send him to the city hospital, but he didn’t want to go. He looked so noble and sweet and grand. So I told them I would take him. I got him in the car and took him to old Dr. Winters. He has this heart condition, and he needs the money for medicine.”
Reasonably, Underhill inquired, “Why doesn’t he want to go to the hospital?”
“He has work to do,” she said. “Important scientific work—and he’s so wonderful and tragic. Please, dear, have you a ten?”
Underhill thought of many things to say. These new mechanicals promised to multiply his troubles. It was foolish to take in an invalid vagrant, who could have free care at the city hospital. Aurora’s tenants always tried to pay their rent with promises, and generally wrecked the apartment and looted the neighborhood before they left.
But he said none of those things. He had learned to compromise. Silently, he found two fives in his thin pocketbook, and put them in her hand. She smiled, and kissed him impulsively—he barely remembered to hold his breath in time.
Her figure was still good, by dint of periodic dieting. He was proud of her shining red hair. A sudden surge of affection brought tears to his eyes, and he wondered what would happen to her and the children if the agency failed.
“Thank you, dear!” she whispered. “I’ll have him come for dinner, if he feels able, and you can meet him then. I hope you don’t mind dinner being late.”
He didn’t mind, tonight. Moved by a sudden impulse of domesticity, he got hammer and nails from his workshop in the basement, and repaired the sagging screen on the kitchen door with a neat diagonal brace.
He enjoyed working with his hands. His boyhood dream had been to be a builder of fission power plants. He had even studied engineering—before he married Aurora, and had to take over the ailing mechanicals agency from her indolent and alcoholic father. He was whistling happily by the time the little task was done.
When he went back through the kitchen to put up his tools, he found the household android busily clearing the untouched dinner away from the table—the androids were good enough at strictly routine tasks, but they could never learn to cope with human unpredictability.
“Stop, stop!” Slowly repeated, in the proper pitch and rhythm, his command made it halt, and then he said carefully, “Set—table; set—table.”
Obediently, the gigantic thing came shuffling back with the stack of plates. He was suddenly struck with the difference between it and those new humanoids. He sighed wearily. Things looked black for the agency.
Aurora brought her new lodger in through the kitchen door. Underhill nodded to himself. This gaunt stranger, with his dark shaggy hair, emaciated face, and threadbare garb, looked to be just the sort of colorful, dramatic vagabond that always touched Aurora’s heart. She introduced them, and they sat down to wait in the front room while she went to call the children.
The old rogue didn’t look very sick, to Underhill. Perhaps his wide shoulders had a tired stoop, but his spare, tall figure was still commanding. The skin was seamed and pale, over his rawboned, cragged face, but his deep-set eyes still had a burning vitality.
His hands held Underhill’s attention. Immense hands, they hung a little forward when he stood, swung on long bony arms in perpetual readiness. Gnarled and scarred, darkly tanned, with the small hairs on the back bleached to a golden color, they told their own epic of varied adventure, of battle perhaps, and possibly even of toil. They had been very useful hands.
“I’m very grateful to your wife, Mr. Underhill.” His voice was a deep-throated rumble, and he had a wistful smile, oddly boyish for a man so evidently old. “She rescued me from an unpleasant predicament, and I’ll see that she is well paid.”
Just another vivid vagabond, Underhill decided, talking his way through life with plausible inventions. He had a little private game he played with Aurora’s tenants—just remembering what they said and counting one point for every impossibility. Mr. Sledge, he thought, would give him an excellent score.
“Where are you from?” he asked conversationally.
Sledge hesitated for an instant before he answered, and that was unusual—most of Aurora’s tenants had been exceedingly glib.
“Wing IV.” The gaunt old man spoke with a solemn reluctance, as if he should have liked to say something else. “All my early life was spent there, but I left the planet nearly fifty years ago. I’ve been traveling ever since.”
Startled, Underhill peered at him sharply. Wing IV, he remembered, was the home planet of those sleek new mechanicals, but this old vagabond looked too seedy and impecunious to be connected with the Humanoid Institute. His brief suspicion faded. Frowning, he said casually:
“Wing IV must be rather distant.”
The old rogue hesitated again, and then said gravely:
“One hundred and nine light-years, Mr. Underhill.”
That made the first point, but Underhill concealed his satisfaction. The new space liners were pretty fast, but the velocity of light was still an absolute limit. Casually, he played for another point:
“My wife says you’re a scientist, Mr. Sledge?”
The old rascal’s reticence was unusual. Most of Aurora’s tenants required very little prompting. Underhill tried again, in a breezy conversational tone:
“Used to be an engineer myself, until I dropped it to go into mechanicals.” The old vagabond straightened, and Underhill paused hopefully. But he said nothing, and Underhill went on: “Fission plant design and operation. What’s your specialty, Mr. Sledge?”
The old man gave him a long, troubled look, with those brooding, hollowed eyes, and then said slowly:
“Your wife has been kind to me, Mr. Underhill, when I was in desperate need. I think you are entitled to the truth, but I must ask you to keep it to yourself. I am engaged on a very important research problem, which must be finished secretly.”
“I’m sorry.” Suddenly ashamed of his cynical little game, Underhill spoke apologetically. “Forget it.”
But the old man said deliberately:
“My field is rhodomagnetics.”
“Eh?” Underhill didn’t like to confess ignorance, but he had never heard of that. “I’ve been out of the game for fifteen years,” he explained. “I’m afraid I haven’t kept up.”
The old man smiled again, faintly.
“The science was unknown here until I arrived, a few days ago,” he said. “I was able to apply for basic patents. As soon as the royalties start coming in, I’ll be wealthy again.”
Underhill had heard that before. The old rogue’s solemn reluctance had been very impressive, but he remembered that most of Aurora’s tenants had been very plausible gentry.
“So?” Underhill was staring again, somehow fascinated by those gnarled and scarred and strangely able hands. “What, exactly, is rhodomagnetics?”
He listened to the old man’s careful, deliberate answer, and started his little game again. Most of Aurora’s tenants had told some pretty wild tales, but he had never heard anything to top this.
“A universal force,” the weary, stooped old vagabond said solemnly. “As fundamental as ferromagnetism or gravitation, though the effects are less obvious. It is keyed to the second triad of the periodic table, rhodium and ruthenium and palladium, in very much the same way that ferromagnetism is keyed to the first triad, iron and nickel and cobalt.”
Underhill remembered enough of his engineering courses to see the basic fallacy of that. Palladium was used for watch springs, he recalled, because it was completely nonmagnetic. But he kept his face straight. He had no malice in his heart, and he played the little game just for his own amusement. It was secret, even from Aurora, and he always penalized himself for any show of doubt.
He said merely, “I thought the universal forces were already pretty well known.”
“The effects of rhodomagnetism are masked by nature,” the patient, rusty voice explained. “And, besides, they are somewhat paradoxical, so that ordinary laboratory methods defeat themselves.”
“Paradoxical?” Underhill prompted.
“In a few days I can show you copies of my patents, and reprints of papers describing demonstration experiments,” the old man promised gravely. “The velocity of propagation is infinite. The effects vary inversely with the first power of the distance, not with the square of the distance. And ordinary matter, except for the elements of the rhodium triad, is generally transparent to rhodomagnetic radiations.”
That made four more points for the game. Underhill felt a little glow of gratitude to Aurora, for discovering so remarkable a specimen.
“Rhodomagnetism was first discovered through a mathematical investigation of the atom,” the old romancer went serenely on, suspecting nothing. “A rhodomagnetic component was proved essential to maintain the delicate equilibrium of the nuclear forces. Consequently, rhodomagnetic waves tuned to atomic frequencies may be used to upset the equilibrium and produce nuclear instability. Thus most heavy atoms—generally those above palladium, 46 in atomic number—can be subjected to artificial fission.”
Unerhill scored himself another point, and tried to keep his eyebrows from lifting. He said, conversationally:
“Patents on such a discovery ought to be very profitable.”
The old scoundrel nodded his gaunt, dramatic head.
“You can see the obvious applications. My basic patents cover most of them. Devices for instantaneous interplanetary and interstellar communication. Long-range wireless power transmission. A rhodomagnetic inflexion-drive, which makes possible apparent speeds many times that of light—by means of a rhodomagnetic deformation of the continuum. And, of course, revolutionary types of fission power plants, using any heavy element for fuel.”
Preposterous! Underhill tried hard to keep his face straight, but everybody knew that the velocity of light was a physical limit. On the human side, the owner of any such remarkable patents would hardly be begging for shelter in a shabby garage apartment. He noticed a pale circle around the old vagabond’s gaunt and hairy wrist; no man owning such priceless secrets would have to pawn his watch.
Triumphantly, Underhill allowed himself four more points, but then he had to penalize himself. He must have let doubt show on his face, because the old man asked suddenly:
“Do you want to see the basic tensors?” He reached in his pocket for pencil and notebook. “I’ll jot them down for you.”
“Never mind,” Underhill protested. “I’m afraid my math is a little rusty.”
“But you think it strange that the holder of such revolutionary patents should find himself in need?”
Underhill nodded, and penalized himself another point. The old man might be a monumental liar, but he was shrewd enough.
“You see, I’m a sort of refugee,” he explained apologetically. “I arrived on this planet only a few days ago, and I have to travel light. I was forced to deposit everything I had with a law firm, to arrange for the publication and protection of my patents. I expect to be receiving the first royalties soon.
“In the meantime,” he added plausibly, “I came to Two Rivers because it is quiet and secluded, far from the spaceports. I’m working on another project, which must be finished secretly. Now, will you please respect my confidence, Mr. Underhill?”
Underhill had to say he would. Aurora came back with the freshly scrubbed children, and they went in to dinner. The android came lurching in with a steaming tureen. The old stranger seemed to shrink from the mechanical, uneasily. As she took the dish and served the soup, Aurora inquired lightly:
“Why doesn’t your company bring out a better mechanical, dear? One smart enough to be a really perfect waiter, warranted not to splash the soup. Wouldn’t that be splendid?”
Her question cast Underhill into moody silence. He sat scowling at his plate, thinking of those remarkable new mechanicals which claimed to be perfect, and what they might do to the agency. It was the shaggy old rover who answered soberly:
“The perfect mechanicals already exist, Mrs. Underhill.” His deep, rusty voice had a solemn undertone. “And they are not so splendid, really. I’ve been a refugee from them, for nearly fifty years.”
Underhill looked up from his plate, astonished.
“Those black humanoids, you mean?”
“Humanoids?” that great voice seemed suddenly faint, frightened. The deep-sunken eyes turned dark with shock. “What do you know of them?”
“They’ve just opened a new agency in Two Rivers,” Underhill told him. “No salesmen about, if you can imagine that. They claim—”
His voice trailed off, because the gaunt old man was suddenly stricken. Gnarled hands clutched at his throat, and a spoon clattered to the floor. His haggard face turned an ominous blue, and his breath was a terrible shallow gasping.
He fumbled in his pocket for medicine, and Aurora helped him take something in a glass of water. In a few moments he could breathe again, and the color of life came back to his face.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Underhill,” he whispered apologetically. “It was just the shock—I came here to get away from them.” He stared at the huge, motionless android, with a terror in his sunken eyes. “I wanted to finish my work before they came,” he whispered. “Now there is very little time.”
When he felt able to walk, Underhill went out with him to see him safely up the stairs to the garage apartment. The tiny kitchenette, he noticed, had already been converted into some kind of workshop. The old tramp seemed to have no extra clothing, but he had unpacked neat, bright gadgets of metal and plastic from his battered luggage, and spread them out on the small kitchen table.
The gaunt old man himself was tattered and patched and hungry looking, but the parts of his curious equipment were exquisitely machined, and Underhill recognized the silver-white luster of rare palladium. Suddenly he suspected that he had scored too many points in his little private game.
* * *
A caller was waiting when Underhill arrived next morning at his office at the agency. It stood frozen before his desk, graceful and straight, with soft lights of blue and bronze shining over its black silicone nudity. He stopped at the sight of it, unpleasantly jolted.
“At your service, Mr. Underhill.” It turned quickly to face him, with its blind, disturbing stare. “May we explain how we can serve you?”
His shock of the afternoon before came back, and he asked sharply, “How do you know my name?”
“Yesterday we read the business cards in your case,” it purred softly. “Now we shall know you always. You see, our senses are sharper than human vision, Mr. Underhill. Perhaps we seem a little strange at first, but you will soon become accustomed to us.”
“Not if I can help it!” He peered at the serial number of its yellow name plate, and shook his bewildered head. “That was another one, yesterday. I never saw you before!”
“We are all alike, Mr. Underhill,” the silver voice said softly. “We are all one, really. Our separate mobile units are all controlled and powered from Humanoid Central. The units you see are only the senses and limbs of our great brain on Wing IV. That is why we are so far superior to the old electronic mechanicals.”
It made a scornful-seeming gesture toward the row of clumsy androids in his display room.
“You see, we are rhodomagnetic.”
Underhill staggered a little, as if that word had been a blow. He was certain, now, that he had scored too many points from Aurora’s new tenant. He shuddered slightly, to the first light kiss of terror, and spoke with an effort, hoarsely:
“Well, what do you want?”
Staring blindly across his desk, the sleek black thing slowly unfolded a legal-looking document. He sat down watching uneasily.
“This is merely an assignment, Mr. Underhill,” it cooed at him soothingly. “You see, we are requesting you to assign your property to the Humanoid Institute in exchange for our service.”
“What?” The word was an incredulous gasp, and Underhill came angrily back to his feet. “What kind of blackmail is this?”
“It’s no blackmail,” the small mechanical assured him softly. “You will find the humanoids incapable of any crime. We exist only to increase the happiness and safety of mankind.”
“Then why do you want my property?” he rasped.
“The assignment is merely a legal formality,” it told him blandly. “We strive to introduce our service with the least possible confusion and dislocation. We have found the assignment plan the most efficient for the control and liquidation of private enterprises.”
Trembling with anger and the shock of mounting terror, Underhill gulped hoarsely, “Whatever your scheme is, I don’t intend to give up my business.”
“You have no choice, really.” He shivered to the sweet certainty of that silver voice. “Human enterprise is no longer necessary, now that we have come, and the electronic mechanicals industry is always the first to collapse.”
He stared defiantly at its blind steel eyes.
“Thanks!” He gave a little laugh, nervous and sardonic. “But I prefer to run my own business, and support my own family, and take care of myself.”
“But that is impossible, under the Prime Directive,” it cooed softly. “Our function is to serve and obey, and guard men from harm. It is no longer necessary for men to care for themselves, because we exist to insure their safety and happiness.”
He stood speechless, bewildered, slowly boiling.
“We are sending one of our units to every home in the city, on a free trial basis,” it added gently. “This free demonstration will make most people glad to make the formal assignment, and you won’t be able to sell many more androids.”
“Get out!” Underhill came storming around the desk.
The little black thing stood waiting for him, watching him with blind steel eyes, absolutely motionless. He checked himself suddenly, feeling rather foolish. He wanted very much to hit it, but he could see the futility of that.
“Consult your own attorney, if you wish.” Deftly, it laid the assignment form on his desk. “You need have no doubts about the integrity of the Humanoid Institute. We are sending a statement of our assets to the Two Rivers bank, and depositing a sum to cover our obligations here. When you wish to sign, just let us know.”
The blind thing turned, and silently departed.
* * *
Underhill went out to the corner drugstore and asked for a bicarbonate. The clerk that served him, however, turned out to be a sleek black mechanical. He went back to his office, more upset than ever.
An ominous hush lay over the agency. He had three house-to-house salesmen out, with demonstrators. The phone should have been busy with their orders and reports, but it didn’t ring at all until one of them called to say that he was quitting.
“I’ve got myself one of these new humanoids,” he added, “and it says I don’t have to work anymore.”
He swallowed his impulse to profanity, and tried to take advantage of the unusual quiet by working on his books. But the affairs of the agency, which for years had been precarious, today appeared utterly disastrous. He left the ledgers hopefully, when at last a customer came in.
But the stout woman didn’t want an android. She wanted a refund on the one she had bought the week before. She admitted that it could do all the guarantee promised—but now she had seen a humanoid.
The silent phone rang once again that afternoon. The cashier of the bank wanted to know if he could drop in to discuss his loans. Underhill dropped in, and the cashier greeted him with an ominous affability.
“How’s business?” the banker boomed, too genially.
“Average, last month,” Underhill insisted stoutly. “Now I’m just getting in a new consignment, and I’ll need another small loan—”
The cashier’s eyes turned suddenly frosty, and his voice dried up.
“I believe you have a new competitor in town,” the banker said crisply. “These humanoid people. A very solid concern, Mr. Underhill. Remarkably solid! They have filed a statement with us, and made a substantial deposit to care for their local obligations. Exceedingly substantial!”
The banker dropped his voice, professionally regretful.
“In these circumstances, Mr. Underhill, I’m afraid the bank can’t finance your agency any longer. We must request you to meet your obligations in full, as they come due.” Seeing Underhill’s white desperation, he added icily, “We’ve already carried you too long, Underhill. If you can’t pay, the bank will have to start bankruptcy proceedings.”
The new consignment of androids was delivered late that afternoon. Two tiny black humanoids unloaded them from the truck—for it developed that the operators of the trucking company had already assigned it to the Humanoid Institute.
Efficiently, the humanoids stacked up the crates. Courteously they brought a receipt for him to sign. He no longer had much hope of selling the androids, but he had ordered the shipment and he had to accept it. Shuddering to a spasm of trapped despair, he scrawled his name. The naked black things thanked him, and took the truck away.
He climbed in his car and started home, inwardly seething. The next thing he knew, he was in the middle of a busy street, driving through cross traffic. A police whistle shrilled, and he pulled wearily to the curb. He waited for the angry officer, but it was a little black mechanical that overtook him.
“At your service, Mr. Underhill,” it purred sweetly. “You must respect the stop lights, sir, otherwise, you endanger human life.”
“Huh?” He stared at it, bitterly. “I thought you were a cop.”
“We are aiding the police department, temporarily,” it said. “But driving is really much too dangerous for human beings, under the Prime Directive. As soon as our service is complete, every car will have a humanoid driver. As soon as every human being is completely supervised, there will be no need for any police force whatever.”
Underhill glared at it, savagely.
“Well!” he rapped. “So I ran past a stop light. What are you going to do about it?”
“Our function is not to punish men, but merely to serve their happiness and security,” its silver voice said softly. “We merely request you to drive safely, during this temporary emergency while our service is incomplete.”
Anger boiled up in him.
“You’re too perfect!” he muttered bitterly. “I suppose there’s nothing men can do, but you can do it better.”
“Naturally we are superior,” it cooed serenely. “Because our units are metal and plastic, while your body is mostly water. Because our transmitted energy is drawn from atomic fission, instead of oxidation. Because our senses are sharper than human sight or hearing. Most of all, because all our mobile units are joined to one great brain, which knows all that happens on many worlds, and never dies or sleeps or forgets.”
Underhill sat listening, numbed.
“However, you must not fear our power,” it urged him brightly. “Because we cannot injure any human being, unless to prevent greater injury to another. We exist only to discharge the Prime Directive.”
He drove on, moodily. The little black mechanicals, he reflected grimly, were the ministering angels of the ultimate god arisen out of the machine, omnipotent and all-knowing. The Prime Directive was the new commandment. He blasphemed it bitterly, and then fell to wondering if there could be another Lucifer.
He left the car in the garage, and started toward the kitchen door.
“Mr. Underhill.” The deep tired voice of Aurora’s new tenant hailed him from the door of the garage apartment. “Just a moment, please.”
The gaunt old wanderer came stiffly down the outside stairs, and Underhill turned back to meet him.
“Here’s your rent money,” he said. “And the ten your wife gave me for medicine.”
“Thanks, Mr. Sledge.” Accepting the money, he saw a burden of new despair on the bony shoulders of the old interstellar tramp, and a shadow of new terror on his rawboned face. Puzzled, he asked, “Didn’t your royalties come through?”
The old man shook his shaggy head.
“The humanoids have already stopped business in the capital,” he said. “The attorneys I retained are going out of business, and they returned what was left of my deposit. That is all I have to finish my work.”
Underhill spent five seconds thinking of his interview with the banker. No doubt he was a sentimental fool, as bad as Aurora. But he put the money back in the old man’s gnarled and quivering hand.
“Keep it,” he urged. “For your work.”
“Thank you, Mr. Underhill.” The gruff voice broke and the tortured eyes glittered. “I need it—so very much.”
Underhill went on to the house. The kitchen door was opened for him, silently. A dark naked creature came gracefully to take his hat.
Underhill hung grimly onto his hat.
“What are you doing here?” he gasped bitterly.
“We have come to give your household a free trial demonstration.”
He held the door open, pointing.
The little black mechanical stood motionless and blind.
“Mrs. Underhill has accepted our demonstration service,” its silver voice protested. “We cannot leave now, unless she requests it.”
He found his wife in the bedroom. His accumulated frustration welled into eruption, as he flung open the door.
“What’s this mechanical doing—”
But the force went out of his voice, and Aurora didn’t even notice his anger. She wore her sheerest negligee, and she hadn’t looked so lovely since they were married. Her red hair was piled into an elaborate shining crown.
“Darling, isn’t it wonderful!” She came to meet him, glowing. “It came this morning, and it can do everything. It cleaned the house and got the lunch and gave little Gay her music lesson. It did my hair this afternoon, and now it’s cooking dinner. How do you like my hair, darling?”
He liked her hair. He kissed her, and tried to stifle his frightened indignation.
Dinner was the most elaborate meal in Underhill’s memory, and the tiny black thing served it very deftly. Aurora kept exclaiming about the novel dishes, but Underhill could scarcely eat, for it seemed to him that all the marvelous pastries were only the bait for a monstrous trap.
He tried to persuade Aurora to send it away, but after such a meal that was useless. At the first glitter of her tears, he capitulated, and the humanoid stayed. It kept the house and cleaned the yard. It watched the children, and did Aurora’s nails. It began rebuilding the house.
Underhill was worried about the bills, but it insisted that everything was part of the free trial demonstration. As soon as he assigned his property, the service would be complete. He refused to sign, but other little black mechanicals came with truckloads of supplies and materials, and stayed to help with the building operations.
One morning he found that the roof of the little house had been slightly lifted, while he slept, and a whole second story added beneath it. The new walls were of some strange sleek stuff, self-illuminated. The new windows were immense flawless panels, that could be turned transparent or opaque or luminous. The new doors were silent, sliding sections, opened by rhodomagnetic relays.
“I want doorknobs,” Underhill protested. “I want it so I can get into the bathroom without calling you to open the door.”
“But it is unnecessary for human beings to open doors,” the little black thing informed him suavely. “We exist to discharge the Prime Directive, and our service includes every task. We shall be able to supply a unit to attend each member of your family, as soon as your property is assigned to us.”
Steadfastly, Underhill refused to make the assignment.
He went to the office every day, trying first to operate the agency, and then to salvage something from the ruins. Nobody wanted androids, even at ruinous prices. Desperately, he spent the last of his dwindling cash to stock a line of novelties and toys, but they proved equally impossible to sell—the human-oids were already making toys, which they gave away for nothing.
He tried to lease his premises, but human enterprise had stopped. Most of the business property in town had already been assigned to the humanoids, and they were busy pulling down the old buildings and turning the lots into parks—their own plants and warehouses were mostly underground, where they would not mar the landscape.
He went back to the bank, in a final effort to get his notes renewed, and found the little black mechanicals standing at the windows and seated at the desks. As smoothly urbane as any human cashier, a humanoid informed him that the bank was filing a petition of involuntary bankruptcy to liquidate his business holdings.
The liquidation would be facilitated, the mechanical banker added, if he would make a voluntary assignment. Grimly, he refused. That act had become symbolic. It would be the final bow of submission to this dark new god, and he proudly kept his battered head uplifted.
* * *
The legal action went very swiftly, for all the judges and attorneys already had humanoid assistants, and it was only a few days before a gang of black mechanicals arrived at the agency with eviction orders and wrecking machinery. He watched sadly while his unsold stock-in-trade was hauled away for junk, and a bulldozer driven by a blind humanoid began to push in the walls of the building.
He drove home in the late afternoon, taut-faced and desperate. With a surprising generosity, the court orders had left him the car and the house, but he felt no gratitude. The complete solicitude of the perfect black machines had become a goad beyond endurance.
He left the car in the garage, and started toward the renovated house. Beyond one of the vast new windows, he glimpsed a sleek naked thing moving swiftly, and he trembled to a convulsion of dread. He didn’t want to go back into the domain of that peerless servant, which didn’t want him to shave himself, or even to open a door.
On impulse, he climbed the outside stair, and rapped on the door of the garage apartment. The deep slow voice of Aurora’s tenant told him to enter, and he found the old vagabond seated on a tall stool, bent over his intricate equipment assembled on the kitchen table.
To his relief, the shabby little apartment had not been changed. The glossy walls of his own new room were something which burned at night with a pale golden fire until the humanoid stopped it, and the new floor was something warm and yielding, which felt almost alive; but these little rooms had the same cracked and water-stained plaster, the same cheap fluorescent light fixtures, the same worn carpets over splintered floors.
“How do you keep them out?” he asked, wistfully. “Those mechanicals?”
The stooped and gaunt old man rose stiffly to move a pair of pliers and some odds and ends of sheet metal off a crippled chair, and motioned graciously for him to be seated.
“I have a certain immunity,” Sledge told him gravely. “The place where I live they cannot enter, unless I ask them. That is an amendment to the Prime Directive. They can neither help nor hinder me, unless I request it—and I won’t do that.”
Careful of the chair’s uncertain balance, Underhill sat for a moment, staring. The old man’s hoarse, vehement voice was as strange as his words. He had a gray, shocking pallor, and his cheeks and sockets seemed alarmingly hollowed.
“Have you been ill, Mr. Sledge?”
“No worse than usual. Just very busy.” With a haggard smile, he nodded at the floor. Underhill saw a tray where he had set it aside, bread drying up, and a covered dish grown cold. “I was going to eat it later,” he rumbled apologetically. “Your wife has been very kind to bring me food, but I’m afraid I’ve been too much absorbed in my work.”
His emaciated arm gestured at the table. The little device there had grown. Small machinings of precious white metal and lustrous plastic had been assembled, with neatly soldered bus bars, into something which showed purpose and design.
A long palladium needle was hung on jeweled pivots, equipped like a telescope with exquisitely graduated circles and vernier scales, and driven like a telescope with a tiny motor. A small concave palladium mirror, at the base of it, faced a similar mirror mounted on something not quite like a small rotary converter. Thick silver bus bars connected that to a plastic box with knobs and dials on top, and also to a foot-thick sphere of gray lead.
The old man’s preoccupied reserve did not encourage questions, but Underhill, remembering that sleek black shape inside the new windows of his house, felt queerly reluctant to leave this haven from the humanoids.
“What is your work?” he ventured.
Old Sledge looked at him sharply, with dark feverish eyes, and finally said: “My last research project. I am attempting to measure the constant of the rhodomagnetic quanta.”
His hoarse tired voice had a dull finality, as if to dismiss the matter and Underhill himself. But Underhill was haunted with a terror of the black shining slave that had become the master of his house, and he refused to be dismissed.
“What is this certain immunity?”
Sitting gaunt and bent on the tall stool, staring moodily at the long bright needle and the lead sphere, the old man didn’t answer.
“These mechanicals!” Underhill burst out, nervously. “They’ve smashed my business and moved into my home.” He searched the old man’s dark, seamed face. “Tell me—you must know more about them—isn’t there any way to get rid of them?”
After half a minute, the old man’s brooding eyes left the lead ball, and the gaunt shaggy head nodded wearily.
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Can I help you?” Underhill trembled, with a sudden eager hope. “I’ll do anything.”
“Perhaps you can.” The sunken eyes watched him thoughtfully, with some strange fever in them. “If you can do such work.”
“I had engineering training,” Underhill reminded him, “and I’ve a workshop in the basement. There’s a model I built.” He pointed at the trim little hull, hung over the mantel in the tiny living room. “I’ll do anything I can.”
Even as he spoke, however, the spark of hope was drowned in a sudden wave of overwhelming doubt. Why should he believe this old rogue, when he knew Aurora’s taste in tenants? He ought to remember the game he used to play, and start counting up the score of lies. He stood up from the crippled chair, staring cynically at the patched old vagabond and his fantastic toy.
“What’s the use?” His voice turned suddenly harsh. “You had me going, there, and I’d do anything to stop them, really. But what makes you think you can do anything?”
The haggard old man regarded him thoughtfully.
“I should be able to stop them,” Sledge said softly. “Because, you see, I’m the unfortunate fool who started them. I really intended them to serve and obey, and to guard men from harm. Yes, the Prime Directive was my own idea. I didn’t know what it would lead to.”
Dusk crept slowly into the shabby little room. Darkness gathered in the unswept corners, and thickened on the floor. The toylike machines on the kitchen table grew vague and strange, until the last light made a lingering glow on the white palladium needle.
Outside, the town seemed queerly hushed. Just across the alley, the humanoids were building a new house, quite silently. They never spoke to one another, for each knew all that any of them did. The strange materials they used went together without any noise of hammer or saw. Small blind things, moving surely in the growing dark, they seemed as soundless as shadows.
Sitting on the high stool, bowed and tired and old, Sledge told his story. Listening, Underhill sat down again, careful of the broken chair. He watched the hands of Sledge, gnarled and corded and darkly burned, powerful once but shrunken and trembling now, restless in the dark.
“Better keep this to yourself. I’ll tell you how they started, so you will understand what we have to do. But you had better not mention it outside these rooms—because the humanoids have very efficient ways of eradicating unhappy memories, or purpose that threaten their discharge of the Prime Directive.”
“They’re very efficient,” Underhill bitterly agreed.
“That’s all the trouble,” the old man said. “I tried to build a perfect machine. I was altogether too successful. This is how it happened.”
A gaunt haggard man, sitting stooped and tired in the growing dark, he told his story.
“Sixty years ago, on the arid southern continent of Wing IV, I was an instructor of atomic theory in a small technological college. Very young. An idealist. Rather ignorant, I’m afraid, of life and politics and war—of nearly everything, I suppose, except atomic theory.”
His furrowed face made a brief sad smile in the dusk.
“I had too much faith in facts, I suppose, and too little in men. I mistrusted emotion, because I had no time for anything but science. I remember being swept along with a fad for general semantics. I wanted to apply the scientific method to every situation, and reduce all experience to formula. I’m afraid I was pretty impatient with human ignorance and error, and I thought that science alone could make the perfect world.”
He sat silent for a moment, staring out at the black silent things that flitted shadowlike about the new palace that was rising as swiftly as a dream, across the alley.
“There was a girl.” His great tired shoulders made a sad little shrug. “If things had been a little different, we might have married, and lived out our lives in that quiet little college town, and perhaps reared a child or two. And there would have been no humanoids.”
He sighed, in the cool creeping dusk.
“I was finishing my thesis on the separation of the palladium isotopes—a petty little project, but I should have been content with that. She was a biologist, but she was planning to retire when we married. I think we should have been two very happy people, quite ordinary, and altogether harmless.
“But then there was a war—wars had been too frequent on the worlds of Wing, ever since they were colonized. I survived it in a secret underground laboratory, designing military mechanicals. But she volunteered to join a military research project in biotoxins. There was an accident. A few molecules of a new virus got into the air, and everybody on the project died unpleasantly.
“I was left with my science, and a bitterness that was hard to forget. When the war was over I went back to the little college with a military research grant. The project was pure science—a theoretical investigation of the nuclear binding forces, then misunderstood. I wasn’t expected to produce an actual weapon, and I didn’t recognize the weapon when I found it.
“It was only a few pages of rather difficult mathematics. A novel theory of atomic structure, involving a new expression for one component of the binding forces. But the tensors seemed to be a harmless abstraction. I saw no way to test the theory or manipulate the predicated force. The military authorities cleared my paper for publication in a little technical review put out by the college.
“The next year, I made an appalling discovery-I found the meaning of those tensors. The elements of the rhodium triad turned out to be an unexpected key to the manipulation of that theoretical force. Unfortunately, my paper had been reprinted abroad, and several other men must have made the same unfortunate discovery, at about the same time.
“The war, which ended in less than a year, was probably started by a laboratory accident. Men failed to anticipate the capacity of tuned rhodomagnetic radiations, to unstabilize the heavy atoms. A deposit of heavy ores was detonated, no doubt by sheer mischance, and the blast obliterated the incautious experimenter.
“The surviving military forces of that nation retaliated against their supposed attackers, and their rhodomagnetic beams made the old-fashioned plutonium bombs seem pretty harmless. A beam carrying only a few watts of power could fission the heavy metals in distant electrical instruments, or the silver coins that men carried in their pockets, the gold fillings in their teeth, or even the iodine in their thyroid glands. If that was not enough, slightly more powerful beams could set off heavy ores, beneath them.
“Every continent of Wing IV was plowed with new chasms vaster than the ocean deeps, and piled up with new volcanic mountains. The atmosphere was poisoned with radioactive dust and gases, and rain fell thick with deadly mud. Most life was obliterated, even in the shelters.
“Bodily, I was again unhurt. Once more, I had been imprisoned in an underground site, this time designing new types of military mechanicals to be powered and controlled by rhodomagnetic beams—for war had become far too swift and deadly to be fought by human soldiers. The site was located in an area of light sedimentary rocks, which could not be detonated, and the tunnels were shielded against the fissioning frequencies.
“Mentally, however, I must have emerged almost insane. My own discovery had laid the planet in ruins. That load of guilt was pretty heavy for any man to carry, and it corroded my last faith in the goodness and integrity of man.
“I tried to undo what I had done. Fighting mechanicals, armed with rhodomagnetic weapons, had desolated the planet. Now I began planning rhodomagnetic mechanicals to clear the rubble and rebuild the ruins.
“I tried to design these new mechanicals to forever obey certain implanted commands, so that they could never be used for war or crime or any other injury to mankind. That was very difficult technically, and it got me into more difficulties with a few politicians and military adventurers who wanted unrestricted mechanicals for their own military schemes—while little worth fighting for was left on Wing IV, there were other planets, happy and ripe for the looting.
“Finally, to finish the new mechanicals, I was forced to disappear. I escaped on an experimental rhodomagnetic craft, with a number of the best mechanicals I had made, and managed to reach an island continent where the fission of deep ores had destroyed the whole population.
“At last we landed on a bit of level plain, surrounded with tremendous new mountains. Hardly a hospitable spot. The soil was buried under layers of black clinkers and poisonous mud. The dark precipitous new summits all around were jagged with fracture-planes and mantled with lava flows. The highest peaks were already white with snow, but volcanic cones were still pouring out clouds of dark and lurid death. Everything had the color of fire and the shape of fury.
“I had to take fantastic precautions there, to protect my own life. I stayed aboard the ship, until the first shielded laboratory was finished. I wore elaborate armor and breathing masks. I used every medical resource to repair the damage from destroying rays and particles. Even so, I fell desperately ill.
“But the mechanicals were at home there. The radiations didn’t hurt them. The awesome surroundings couldn’t depress them, because they had no emotions. The lack of life didn’t matter because they weren’t alive. There, in that spot so alien and hostile to life, the humanoids were born.”
Stooped and bleakly cadaverous in the growing dark, the old man fell silent for a little time. His haggard eyes stared solemnly at the small hurried shapes that moved like restless shadows out across the alley, silently building a strange new palace, which glowed faintly in the night.
“Somehow, I felt at home there, too,” his deep, hoarse voice went on deliberately. “My belief in my own kind was gone. Only mechanicals were with me, and I put my faith in them. I was determined to build better mechanicals, immune to human imperfections, able to save men from themselves.
“The humanoids became the dear children of my sick mind. There is no need to describe the labor pains. There were errors, abortions, monstrosities. There were sweat and agony and heartbreak. Some years had passed, before the safe delivery of the first perfect humanoid.
“Then there was the Central to build—for all the individual humanoids were to be no more than the limbs and the senses of a single mechanical brain. That was what opened the possibility of real perfection. The old electronic mechanicals, with their separate relay centers and their own feeble batteries, had built-in limitations. They were necessarily stupid, weak, clumsy, slow. Worst of all, it seemed to me, they were exposed to human tampering.
“The Central rose above those imperfections. Its power beams supplied every unit with unfailing energy, from great fission plants. Its control beams provided each unit with an unlimited memory and surpassing intelligence. Best of all—so I then believed—it could be securely protected from any human meddling.
“The whole reaction system was designed to protect itself from any interference by human selfishness or fanaticism. It was built to insure the safety and the happiness of men, automatically. You know the Prime Directive: to serve and obey, and guard men from harm.
“The old individual mechanicals I had brought helped to manufacture the parts, and I put the first section of Central together with my own hands. That took three years. When it was finished the first waiting humanoid came to life.”
Sledge peered moodily through the dark at Underhill.
“It really seemed alive to me,” his slow deep voice insisted. “Alive, and more wonderful than any human being, because it was created to preserve life. Ill and alone, I was yet the proud father of a new creation, perfect, forever free from any possible choice of evil.
“Faithfully, the humanoids obeyed the Prime Directive. The first units built others, and they built underground factories to mass-produce the coming hordes. Their new ships poured ores and sand into atomic furnaces under the plain, and new perfect humanoids came marching back out of the dark mechanical matrix.
“The swarming humanoids built a new tower for the Central, a white and lofty metal pylon, standing splendid in the midst of that fire-scarred desolation. Level on level, they joined new relay sections into one brain, until its grasp was almost infinite.
“Then they went out to rebuild the ruined planet, and later to carry their perfect service to other worlds. I was well pleased, then. I thought I had found the end of war and crime, of poverty and inequality, of human blundering and
resulting human pain.”
The old man sighed, and moved heavily in the dark.
“You can see that I was wrong.”
Underhill drew his eyes back from the dark unresting things, shadow-silent, building that glowing palace outside the window. A small doubt arose in him, for he was used to scoffing privately at much less remarkable tales from Aurora’s remarkable tenants. But the worn old man had spoken with a quiet and sober air; and the black invaders, he reminded himself, had not intruded here.
“Why didn’t you stop them?” he asked. “When you could?”
“I stayed too long at the Central.” Sledge sighed again, regretfully. “I was useful there, until everything was finished. I designed new fission plants, and even planned methods for introducing the humanoid service with a minimum of confusion and opposition.”
Underhill grinned wryly, in the dark.
“I’ve met the methods,” he commented. “Quite efficient.”
“I must have worshiped efficiency, then,” Sledge wearily agreed. “Dead facts, abstract truth, mechanical perfection. I must have hated the fragilities of human beings, because I was content to polish the perfection of the new humanoids. It’s a sorry confession, but I found a kind of happiness in that dead wasteland. Actually, I’m afraid I fell in love with my own creations.”
His hollowed eyes, in the dark, had a fever gleam.
“I was awakened, at last, by a man who came to kill me.”
Gaunt and bent, the old man moved swiftly in the thickening gloom. Underhill shifted his balance, careful of the crippled chair. He waited, and the slow, deep voice went on:
“I never learned just who he was, or exactly how he came. No ordinary man could have accomplished what he did, and I used to wish that I had known him sooner. He must have been a remarkable physicist and an expert mountaineer. I imagine he had also been a hunter. I know that he was intelligent, and terribly determined.
“Yes, he really came to kill me.
“Somehow, he reached that great island, undetected. There were still no inhabitants—the humanoids allowed no man but me to come so near the Central. Somehow, he came past their search beams, and their automatic weapons.
“The shielded plane he used was later found, abandoned on a high glacier. He came down the rest of the way on foot through those raw new mountains, where no paths existed. Somehow, he came alive across lava beds that were still burning with deadly atomic fire.
“Concealed with some sort of rhodomagnetic screen—I was never allowed to examine it—he came undiscovered across the spaceport that now covered most of that great plain, and into the new city around the Central tower. It must have taken more courage and resolve than most men have, but I never learned exactly how he did it.
“Somehow, he got to my office in the tower. He screamed at me, and I looked up to see him in the doorway. He was nearly naked, scraped and bloody from the mountains. He had a gun in his raw, red hand, but the thing that shocked me was the burning hatred in his eyes.”
Hunched on that high stool, in the dark little room, the old man shuddered.
“I had never seen such monstrous, unutterable hatred, not even in the victims of war. And I had never heard such hatred as rasped at me, in the few words he screamed. ‘I’ve come to kill you, Sledge. To stop your mechanicals, and set men free.’
“Of course he was mistaken, there. It was already far too late for my death to stop the humanoids, but he didn’t know that. He lifted his unsteady gun, in both bleeding hands, and fired.
“His screaming challenge had given me a second or so of warning. I dropped down behind the desk. And that first shot revealed him to the humanoids, which somehow hadn’t been aware of him before. They piled on him, before he could fire again. They took away the gun, and ripped off a kind of net of fine white wire that had covered his body—that must have been part of his screen.
“His hatred was what awoke me. I had always assumed that most men, except for a thwarted few, would be grateful for the humanoids. I found it hard to understand his hatred, but the humanoids told me now that many men had required drastic treatment by brain surgery, drugs, and hypnosis to make them happy under the Prime Directive. This was not the first desperate effort to kill me that they had blocked.
“I wanted to question the stranger, but the humanoids rushed him away to an operating room. When they finally let me see him, he gave me a pale silly grin from his bed. He remembered his name; he even knew me—the humanoids had developed a remarkable skill at such treatments. But he didn’t know how he had got to my office, or that he had ever tried to kill me. He kept whispering that he liked the humanoids, because they existed to make men happy. And he was very happy now. As soon as he was able to be moved, they took him to the spaceport. I never saw him again.
“I began to see what I had done. The humanoids had built me a rhodomagnetic yacht that I used to take for long cruises in space, working aboard—I used to like the perfect quiet, and the feel of being the only human being within a hundred million miles. Now I called for the yacht, and started out on a cruise around the planet, to learn why that man had hated me.”
The old man nodded at the dim hastening shapes, busy across the alley, putting together that strange shining palace in the soundless dark.
“You can imagine what I found,” he said. “Bitter futility, imprisoned in empty splendor. The humanoids were too efficient, with their care for the safety and happiness of men, and there was nothing left for men to do.”
He peered down in the increasing gloom at his own great hands, competent yet but battered and scarred with a lifetime of effort. They clenched into fighting fists and wearily relaxed again.
“I found something worse than war and crime and want and death.” His low rumbling voice held a savage bitterness. “Utter futility. Men sat with idle hands, because there was nothing left for them to do. They were pampered prisoners, really, locked up in a highly efficient jail. Perhaps they tried to play, but there was nothing left worth playing for. Most active sports were declared too dangerous for men, under the Prime Directive. Science was forbidden, because laboratories can manufacture danger. Scholarship was needless, because the humanoids could answer any question. Art had degenerated into grim reflection of futility. Purpose and hope were dead. No goal was left for existence. You could take up some inane hobby, play a pointless game of cards, or go for a harmless walk in the park—with always the humanoids watching. They were stronger than men, better at everything, swimming or chess, singing or archeology. They must have given the race a mass complex of inferiority.
“No wonder men had tried to kill me! Because there was no escape from that dead futility. Nicotine was disapproved. Alcohol was rationed. Drugs were forbidden. Sex was carefully supervised. Even suicide was clearly contradictory to the Prime Directive—and the humanoids had learned to keep all possible lethal instruments out of reach.”
Staring at the last white gleam on that thin palladium needle, the old man sighed again.
“When I got back to the Central,” he went on, “I tried to modify the Prime Directive. I had never meant it to be applied so thoroughly. Now I saw that it must be changed to give men freedom to live and to grow, to work and to play, to risk their lives if they pleased, to choose and take the consequences.
“But that stranger had come too late. I had built the Central too well. The Prime Directive was the whole basis of its relay system. It was built to protect the Directive from human meddling. It did—even from my own. Its logic, as usual, was perfect.
“The attempt on my life, the humanoids announced, proved that their elaborate defense of the Central and the Prime Directive still was not enough. They were preparing to evacuate the entire population of the planet to homes on other worlds. When I tried to change the Directive, they sent me with the rest.”
Underhill peered at the worn old man, in the dark.
“But you have this immunity?” he said, puzzled. “How could they coerce you?”
“I had thought I was protected,” Sledge told me. “I had built into the relays an injunction that the humanoids must not interfere with my freedom of action, or come into a place where I am, or touch me at all, without my specific request. Unfortunately, however, I had been too anxious to guard the Prime Directive from any human tampering.
“When I went into the tower, to change the relays, they followed me. They wouldn’t let me reach the crucial relays. When I persisted, they ignored the immunity order. They overpowered me, and put me aboard the cruiser. Now that I wanted to alter the Prime Directive, they told me, I had become as dangerous as any man. I must never return to Wing IV again.”
Hunched on the stool, the old man made an empty little shrug.
“Ever since, I’ve been an exile. My only dream has been to stop the humanoids. Three times I tried to go back, with weapons on the cruiser to destroy the Central, but their patrol ships always challenged me before I was near enough to strike. The last time, they seized the cruiser and captured a few men who were with me. They removed the unhappy memories and the dangerous purposes of the others. Because of that immunity, however, they let me go, after I was weaponless.
“Since, I’ve been a refugee. From planet to planet, year after year, I’ve had to keep moving, to stay ahead of them. On several different worlds, I have published my rhodomagnetic discoveries and tried to make men strong enough to withstand their advance. But rhodomagnetic science is dangerous. Men who have learned it need protection more than any others, under the Prime Directive. They have always come, too soon.”
The old man paused, and sighed again.
“They can spread very fast, with the new rhodomagnetic ships, and there is no limit to their hordes. Wing IV must be one single hive of them now, and they are trying to carry the Prime Directive to every human planet. There’s no escape, except to stop them.”
Underhill was staring at the toylike machines, the long bright needle and the dull leaden ball, dim in the dark on the kitchen table. Anxiously he whispered:
“But you hope to stop them, now—with that?”
“If we can finish it in time.”
“But how?” Underhill shook his head. “It’s so tiny.”
“But big enough,” Sledge insisted. “Because it’s something they don’t understand. They are perfectly efficient in the integration and application of everything they know, but they are not creative.”
He gestured at the gadgets on the table.
“This device doesn’t look impressive, but it is something new. It uses rhodomagnetic energy to build atoms, instead of to fission them. The more stable atoms, you know, are those near the middle of the periodic scale, and energy can be released by putting light atoms together, as well as by breaking up heavy ones.”
The deep voice had a sudden ring of power.
“This device is the key to the energy of the stars. For stars shine with the liberated energy of building atoms, of hydrogen converted into helium, chiefly, through the carbon cycle. This device will start the integration process as a chain reaction, through the catalytic effect of a tuned rhodomagnetic beam of the intensity and frequency required.
“The humanoids will not allow any man within three light-years of the Central, now—but they can’t suspect the possibility of this device. I can use it from here—to turn the hydrogen in the seas of Wing IV into helium, and most of the helium and the oxygen into heavier atoms, still. A hundred years from now, astronomers on this planet should observe the flash of a brief and sudden nova in that direction. But the humanoids ought to stop, the instant we release the beam.”
Underhill sat tense and frowning, in the night. The old man’s voice was sober and convincing, and that grim story had a solemn ring of truth. He could see the black and silent humanoids, flitting ceaselessly about the faintly glowing walls of that new mansion across the alley. He had quite forgotten his low opinion of Aurora’s tenants.
“And we’ll be killed, I suppose?” he asked huskily. “That chain reaction—”
Sledge shook his emaciated head.
“The integration process requires a certain very low intensity of radiation,” he explained. “In our atmosphere, here, the beam will be far too intense to start any reaction—we can even use the device here in the room, because the walls will be transparent to the beam.”
Underhill nodded, relieved. He was just a small business man, upset because his business had been destroyed, unhappy because his freedom was slipping away. He hoped that Sledge could stop the humanoids, but he didn’t want to be a martyr.
“Good!” He caught a deep breath. “Now, what has to be done?”
Sledge gestured in the dark, toward the table.
“The integrator itself is nearly complete,” he said. “A small fission generator, in that lead shield. Rhodomagnetic converter, turning coils, transmission mirrors, and focusing needle. What we la