Kramer leaned back. “You can see the situation. How can we deal with a factor like this? The perfect variable.”
“Perfect? Prediction should still be possible. A living thing still acts from necessity, the same as inanimate material. But the cause-effect chain is more subtle; there are more factors to be considered. The difference is quantitative, I think. The reaction of the living organism parallels natural causation, but with greater complexity.”
Gross and Kramer looked up at the board plates, suspended on the wall, still dripping, the images hardening into place. Kramer traced a line with his pencil.
“See that? It’s a pseudopodium. They’re alive, and so far, a weapon we can’t beat. No mechanical system can compete with that, simple or intricate. We’ll have to scrap the Johnson Control and find something else.”
“Meanwhile the war continues as it is. Stalemate. Checkmate. They can’t get to us, and we can’t get through their living minefield.”
Kramer nodded. “It’s a perfect defense, for them. But there still might be one answer.”
“Wait a minute.” Kramer turned to his rocket expert, sitting with the charts and files. “The heavy cruiser that returned this week. It didn’t actually touch, did it? It came close but there was no contact.”
“Correct.” The expert nodded. “The mine was twenty miles off. The cruiser was in space-drive, moving directly toward Proxima, line-straight, using the Johnson Control, of course. It had deflected a quarter of an hour earlier for reasons unknown. Later it resumed its course. That was when they got it.”
“It shifted,” Kramer said. “But not enough. The mine was coming along after it, trailing it. It’s the same old story, but I wonder about the contact.”
“Here’s our theory,” the expert said. “We keep looking for contact, a trigger in the pseudopodium. But more likely we’re witnessing a psychological phenomena, a decision without any physical correlative. We’re watching for something that isn’t there. The mine decides to blow up. It sees our ship, approaches, and then decides.”
“Thanks.” Kramer turned to Gross. “Well, that confirms what I’m saying. How can a ship guided by automatic relays escape a mine that decides to explode? The whole theory of mine penetration is that you must avoid tripping the trigger. But here the trigger is a state of mind in a complicated, developed life-form.”
“The belt is fifty thousand miles deep,” Gross added. “It solves another problem for them, repair and maintenance. The damn things reproduce, fill up the spaces by spawning into them. I wonder what they feed on?”
“Probably the remains of our first-line. The big cruisers must be a delicacy. It’s a game of wits, between a living creature and a ship piloted by automatic relays. The ship always loses.” Kramer opened a folder. “I’ll tell you what I suggest.”
“Go on,” Gross said. “I’ve already heard ten solutions today. What’s yours?”
“Mine is very simple. These creatures are superior to any mechanical system, but only because they’re alive. Almost any other life-form could compete with them, any higher life-form. If the yuks can put out living mines to protect their planets, we ought to be able to harness some of our own life-forms in a similar way. Let’s make use of the same weapon ourselves.”
“Which life-form do you propose to use?”
“I think the human brain is the most agile of known living forms. Do you know of any better?”
“But no human being can withstand outspace travel. A human pilot would be dead of heart failure long before the ship got anywhere near Proxima.”
“But we don’t need the whole body,” Kramer said. “We need only the brain.”
“The problem is to find a person of high intelligence who would contribute, in the same manner that eyes and arms are volunteered.”
“But a brain...”
“Technically, it could be done. Brains have been transferred several times, when body destruction made it necessary. Of course, to a spaceship, to a heavy outspace cruiser, instead of an artificial body, that’s new.”
The room was silent.
“It’s quite an idea,” Gross said slowly. His heavy square face twisted. “But even supposing it might work, the big question is whose brain?”
It was all very confusing, the reasons for the war, the nature of the enemy. The Yucconae had been contacted on one of the outlying planets of Proxima Centauri. At the approach of the Terran ship, a host of dark slim pencils had lifted abruptly and shot off into the distance. The first real encounter came between three of the yuk pencils and a single exploration ship from Terra. No Terrans survived. After that it was all out war, with no holds barred.
Both sides feverishly constructed defense rings around their systems. Of the two, the Yucconae belt was the better. The ring around Proxima was a living ring, superior to anything Terra could throw against it. The standard equipment by which Terran ships were guided in outspace, the Johnson Control, was not adequate. Something more was needed. Automatic relays were not good enough.
—Not good at all, Kramer thought to himself, as he stood looking down the hillside at the work going on below him. A warm wind blew along the hill, rustling the weeds and grass. At the bottom, in the valley, the mechanics had almost finished; the last elements of the reflex system had been removed from the ship and crated up.
All that was needed now was the new core, the new central key that would take the place of the mechanical system. A human brain, the brain of an intelligent, wary human being. But would the human being part with it? That was the problem.
Kramer turned. Two people were approaching him along the road, a man and a woman. The man was Gross, expressionless, heavy-set, walking with dignity. The woman was—He stared in surprise and growing annoyance. It was Dolores, his wife. Since they’d separated he had seen little of her...
“Kramer,” Gross said. “Look who I ran into. Come back down with us. We’re going into town.”
“Hello, Phil,” Dolores said. “Well, aren’t you glad to see me?”
He nodded. “How have you been? You’re looking fine.” She was still pretty and slender in her uniform, the blue-grey of Internal Security, Gross’ organization.
“Thanks.” She smiled. “You seem to be doing all right, too. Commander Gross tells me that you’re responsible for this project, Operation Head, as they call it. Whose head have you decided on?”
“That’s the problem.” Kramer lit a cigarette. “This ship is to be equipped with a human brain instead of the Johnson system. We’ve constructed special draining baths for the brain, electronic relays to catch the impulses and magnify them, a continual feeding duct that supplies the living cells with everything they need. But—”
“But we still haven’t got the brain itself,” Gross finished. They began to walk back toward the car. “If we can get that we’ll be ready for the tests.”
“Will the brain remain alive?” Dolores asked. “Is it actually going to live as part of the ship?”
“It will be alive, but not conscious. Very little life is actually conscious. Animals, trees, insects are quick in their responses, but they aren’t conscious. In this process of ours the individual personality, the ego, will cease. We only need the response ability, nothing more.”
Dolores shuddered. “How terrible!”
“In time of war everything must be tried,” Kramer said absently. “If one life sacrificed will end the war it’s worth it. This ship might get through. A couple more like it and there wouldn’t be any more war.”
They got into the car. As they drove down the road, Gross said, “Have you thought of anyone yet?”
Kramer shook his head. “That’s out of my line.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m an engineer. It’s not in my department.”
“But all this was your idea.”
“My work ends there.”
Gross was staring at him oddly. Kramer shifted uneasily.
“Then who is supposed to do it?” Gross said. “I can have my organization prepare examinations of various kinds, to determine fitness, that kind of thing—”
“Listen, Phil,” Dolores said suddenly.
She turned toward him. “I have an idea. Do you remember that professor we had in college. Michael Thomas?”
“I wonder if he’s still alive.” Dolores frowned. “If he is he must be awfully old.”
“Why, Dolores?” Gross asked.
“Perhaps an old person who didn’t have much time left, but whose mind was still clear and sharp—”
“Professor Thomas.” Kramer rubbed his jaw. “He certainly was a wise old duck. But could he still be alive? He must have been seventy, then.”
“We could find that out,” Gross said. “I could make a routine check.”
“What do you think?” Dolores said. “If any human mind could outwit those creatures—”
“I don’t like the idea,” Kramer said. In his mind an image had appeared, the image of an old man sitting behind a desk, his bright gentle eyes moving about the classroom. The old man leaning forward, a thin hand raised—
“Keep him out of this,” Kramer said.
“What’s wrong?” Gross looked at him curiously.
“It’s because I suggested it,” Dolores said.
“No.” Kramer shook his head. “It’s not that. I didn’t expect anything like this, somebody I knew, a man I studied under. I remember him very clearly. He was a very distinct personality.”
“Good,” Gross said. “He sounds fine.”
“We can’t do it. We’re asking his death!”
“This is war,” Gross said, “and war doesn’t wait on the needs of the individual. You said that yourself. Surely he’ll volunteer; we can keep it on that basis.”
“He may already be dead,” Dolores murmured.
“We’ll find that out,” Gross said speeding up the car. They drove the rest of the way in silence.
For a long time the two of them stood studying the small wood house, overgrown with ivy, set back on the lot behind an enormous oak. The little town was silent and sleepy; once in awhile a car moved slowly along the distant highway, but that was all.
“This is the place,” Gross said to Kramer. He folded his arms. “Quite a quaint little house.”
Kramer said nothing. The two Security Agents behind them were expressionless.
Gross started toward the gate. “Let’s go. According to the check he’s still alive, but very sick. His mind is agile, however. That seems to be certain. It’s said he doesn’t leave the house. A woman takes care of his needs. He’s very frail.”
They went down the stone walk and up onto the porch. Gross rang the bell. They waited. After a time they heard slow footsteps. The door opened. An elderly woman in a shapeless wrapper studied them impassively.
“Security,” Gross said, showing his card. “We wish to see Professor Thomas.”
“Government business.” He glanced at Kramer.
Kramer stepped forward. “I was a pupil of the Professor’s,” he said. “I’m sure he won’t mind seeing us.”
The woman hesitated uncertainly. Gross stepped into the doorway. “All right, mother. This is war time. We can’t stand out here.”
The two Security agents followed him, and Kramer came reluctantly behind, closing the door. Gross stalked down the hall until he came to an open door. He stopped, looking in. Kramer could see the white corner of a bed, a wooden post and the edge of a dresser.
He joined Gross.
In the dark room a withered old man lay, propped up on endless pillows. At first it seemed as if he were asleep; there was no motion or sign of life. But after a time Kramer saw with a faint shock that the old man was watching them intently, his eyes fixed on them, unmoving, unwinking.
“Professor Thomas?” Gross said. “I’m Commander Gross of Security. This man with me is perhaps known to you—”
The faded eyes fixed on Kramer.
“I know him. Philip Kramer ... You’ve grown heavier, boy.” The voice was feeble, the rustle of dry ashes. “Is it true you’re married now?”
“Yes. I married Dolores French. You remember her.” Kramer came toward the bed. “But we’re separated. It didn’t work out very well. Our careers—”
“What we came here about, Professor,” Gross began, but Kramer cut him off with an impatient wave.
“Let me talk. Can’t you and your men get out of here long enough to let me talk to him?”
Gross swallowed. “All right, Kramer.” He nodded to the two men. The three of them left the room, going out into the hall and closing the door after them.
The old man in the bed watched Kramer silently. “I don’t think much of him,” he said at last. “I’ve seen his type before. What’s he want?”
“Nothing. He just came along. Can I sit down?” Kramer found a stiff upright chair beside the bed. “If I’m bothering you—”
“No. I’m glad to see you again, Philip. After so long. I’m sorry your marriage didn’t work out.”
“How have you been?”
“I’ve been very ill. I’m afraid that my moment on the world’s stage has almost ended.” The ancient eyes studied the younger man reflectively. “You look as if you have been doing well. Like everyone else I thought highly of. You’ve gone to the top in this society.”
Kramer smiled. Then he became serious. “Professor, there’s a project we’re working on that I want to talk to you about. It’s the first ray of hope we’ve had in this whole war. If it works, we may be able to crack the yuk defenses, get some ships into their system. If we can do that the war might be brought to an end.”
“Go on. Tell me about it, if you wish.”
“It’s a long shot, this project. It may not work at all, but we have to give it a try.”
“It’s obvious that you came here because of it,” Professor Thomas murmured. “I’m becoming curious. Go on.”
After Kramer finished the old man lay back in the bed without speaking. At last he sighed.
“I understand. A human mind, taken out of a human body.” He sat up a little, looking at Kramer. “I suppose you’re thinking of me.”
Kramer said nothing.
“Before I make my decision I want to see the papers on this, the theory and outline of construction. I’m not sure I like it.—For reasons of my own, I mean. But I want to look at the material. If you’ll do that—”
“Certainly.” Kramer stood up and went to the door. Gross and the two Security Agents were standing outside, waiting tensely. “Gross, come inside.”
They filed into the room.
“Give the Professor the papers,” Kramer said. “He wants to study them before deciding.”
Gross brought the file out of his coat pocket, a manila envelope. He handed it to the old man on the bed. “Here it is, Professor. You’re welcome to examine it. Will you give us your answer as soon as possible? We’re very anxious to begin, of course.”
“I’ll give you my answer when I’ve decided.” He took the envelope with a thin, trembling hand. “My decision depends on what I find out from these papers. If I don’t like what I find, then I will not become involved with this work in any shape or form.” He opened the envelope with shaking hands. “I’m looking for one thing.”
“What is it?” Gross said.
“That’s my affair. Leave me a number by which I can reach you when I’ve decided.”
Silently, Gross put his card down on the dresser. As they went out Professor Thomas was already reading the first of the papers, the outline of the theory.
Kramer sat across from Dale Winter, his second in line. “What then?” Winter said.
“He’s going to contact us.” Kramer scratched with a drawing pen on some paper. “I don’t know what to think.”
“What do you mean?” Winter’s good-natured face was puzzled.
“Look.” Kramer stood up, pacing back and forth, his hands in his uniform pockets. “He was my teacher in college. I respected him as a man, as well as a teacher. He was more than a voice, a talking book. He was a person, a calm, kindly person I could look up to. I always wanted to be like him, someday. Now look at me.”
“Look at what I’m asking. I’m asking for his life, as if he were some kind of laboratory animal kept around in a cage, not a man, a teacher at all.”
“Do you think he’ll do it?”
“I don’t know.” Kramer went to the window. He stood looking out. “In a way, I hope not.”
“But if he doesn’t—”
“Then we’ll have to find somebody else. I know. There would be somebody else. Why did Dolores have to—”
The vidphone rang. Kramer pressed the button.
“This is Gross.” The heavy features formed. “The old man called me. Professor Thomas.”
“What did he say?” He knew; he could tell already, by the sound of Gross’ voice.
“He said he’d do it. I was a little surprised myself, but apparently he means it. We’ve already made arrangements for his admission to the hospital. His lawyer is drawing up the statement of liability.”
Kramer only half heard. He nodded wearily. “All right. I’m glad. I suppose we can go ahead, then.”
“You don’t sound very glad.”
“I wonder why he decided to go ahead with it.”
“He was very certain about it.” Gross sounded pleased. “He called me quite early. I was still in bed. You know, this calls for a celebration.”
“Sure,” Kramer said. “It sure does.”
Toward the middle of August the project neared completion. They stood outside in the hot autumn heat, looking up at the sleek metal sides of the ship.
Gross thumped the metal with his hand. “Well, it won’t be long. We can begin the test any time.”
“Tell us more about this,” an officer in gold braid said. “It’s such an unusual concept.”
“Is there really a human brain inside the ship?” a dignitary asked, a small man in a rumpled suit. “And the brain is actually alive?”
“Gentlemen, this ship is guided by a living brain instead of the usual Johnson relay-control system. But the brain is not conscious. It will function by reflex only. The practical difference between it and the Johnson system is this: a human brain is far more intricate than any man-made structure, and its ability to adapt itself to a situation, to respond to danger, is far beyond anything that could be artificially built.”
Gross paused, cocking his ear. The turbines of the ship were beginning to rumble, shaking the ground under them with a deep vibration. Kramer was standing a short distance away from the others, his arms folded, watching silently. At the sound of the turbines he walked quickly around the ship to the other side. A few workmen were clearing away the last of the waste, the scraps of wiring and scaffolding. They glanced up at him and went on hurriedly with their work. Kramer mounted the ramp and entered the control cabin of the ship. Winter was sitting at the controls with a Pilot from Space-transport.
“How’s it look?” Kramer asked.
“All right.” Winter got up. “He tells me that it would be best to take off manually. The robot controls—” Winter hesitated. “I mean, the built-in controls, can take over later on in space.”
“That’s right,” the Pilot said. “It’s customary with the Johnson system, and so in this case we should—”
“Can you tell anything yet?” Kramer asked.
“No,” the Pilot said slowly. “I don’t think so. I’ve been going over everything. It seems to be in good order. There’s only one thing I wanted to ask you about.” He put his hand on the control board. “There are some changes here I don’t understand.”
“Alterations from the original design. I wonder what the purpose is.”
Kramer took a set of the plans from his coat. “Let me look.” He turned the pages over. The Pilot watched carefully over his shoulder.
“The changes aren’t indicated on your copy,” the Pilot said. “I wonder—” He stopped. Commander Gross had entered the control cabin.
“Gross, who authorized alterations?” Kramer said. “Some of the wiring has been changed.”
“Why, your old friend.” Gross signaled to the field tower through the window.
“My old friend?”
“The Professor. He took quite an active interest.” Gross turned to the Pilot. “Let’s get going. We have to take this out past gravity for the test they tell me. Well, perhaps it’s for the best. Are you ready?”
“Sure.” The Pilot sat down and moved some of the controls around. “Anytime.”
“Go ahead, then,” Gross said.
“The Professor—” Kramer began, but at that moment there was a tremendous roar and the ship leaped under him. He grasped one of the wall holds and hung on as best he could. The cabin was filling with a steady throbbing, the raging of the jet turbines underneath them.
The ship leaped. Kramer closed his eyes and held his breath. They were moving out into space, gaining speed each moment.
“Well, what do you think?” Winter said nervously. “Is it time yet?”
“A little longer,” Kramer said. He was sitting on the floor of the cabin, down by the control wiring. He had removed the metal covering-plate, exposing the complicated maze of relay wiring. He was studying it, comparing it to the wiring diagrams.
“What’s the matter?” Gross said.
“These changes. I can’t figure out what they’re for. The only pattern I can make out is that for some reason—”
“Let me look,” the Pilot said. He squatted down beside Kramer. “You were saying?”
“See this lead here? Originally it was switch controlled. It closed and opened automatically, according to temperature change. Now it’s wired so that the central control system operates it. The same with the others. A lot of this was still mechanical, worked by pressure, temperature, stress. Now it’s under the central master.”
“The brain?” Gross said. “You mean it’s been altered so that the brain manipulates it?”
Kramer nodded. “Maybe Professor Thomas felt that no mechanical relays could be trusted. Maybe he thought that things would be happening too fast. But some of these could close in a split second. The brake rockets could go on as quickly as—”
“Hey,” Winter said from the control seat. “We’re getting near the moon stations. What’ll I do?”
They looked out the port. The corroded surface of the moon gleamed up at them, a corrupt and sickening sight. They were moving swiftly toward it.
“I’ll take it,” the Pilot said. He eased Winter out of the way and strapped himself in place. The ship began to move away from the moon as he manipulated the controls. Down below them they could see the observation stations dotting the surface, and the tiny squares that were the openings of the underground factories and hangars. A red blinker winked up at them and the Pilot’s fingers moved on the board in answer.
“We’re past the moon,” the Pilot said, after a time. The moon had fallen behind them; the ship was heading into outer space. “Well, we can go ahead with it.”
Kramer did not answer.
“Mr. Kramer, we can go ahead any time.”
Kramer started. “Sorry. I was thinking. All right, thanks.” He frowned, deep in thought.
“What is it?” Gross asked.
“The wiring changes. Did you understand the reason for them when you gave the okay to the workmen?”
Gross flushed. “You know I know nothing about technical material. I’m in Security.”
“Then you should have consulted me.”
“What does it matter?” Gross grinned wryly. “We’re going to have to start putting our faith in the old man sooner or later.”
The Pilot stepped back from the board. His face was pale and set. “Well, it’s done,” he said. “That’s it.”
“What’s done?” Kramer said.
“We’re on automatic. The brain. I turned the board over to it—to him, I mean. The Old Man.” The Pilot lit a cigarette and puffed nervously. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
The ship was coasting evenly, in the hands of its invisible pilot. Far down inside the ship, carefully armoured and protected, a soft human brain lay in a tank of liquid, a thousand minute electric charges playing over its surface. As the charges rose they were picked up and amplified, fed into relay systems, advanced, carried on through the entire ship—
Gross wiped his forehead nervously. “So he is running it, now. I hope he knows what he’s doing.”
Kramer nodded enigmatically. “I think he does.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” Kramer walked to the port. “I see we’re still moving in a straight line.” He picked up the microphone. “We can instruct the brain orally, through this.” He blew against the microphone experimentally.
“Go on,” Winter said.
“Bring the ship around half-right,” Kramer said. “Decrease speed.”
They waited. Time passed. Gross looked at Kramer. “No change. Nothing.”
Slowly, the ship was beginning to turn. The turbines missed, reducing their steady beat. The ship was taking up its new course, adjusting itself. Nearby some space debris rushed past, incinerating in the blasts of the turbine jets.
“So far so good,” Gross said.
They began to breathe more easily. The invisible pilot had taken control smoothly, calmly. The ship was in good hands. Kramer spoke a few more words into the microphone, and they swung again. Now they were moving back the way they had come, toward the moon.
“Let’s see what he does when we enter the moon’s pull,” Kramer said. “He was a good mathematician, the old man. He could handle any kind of problem.”
The ship veered, turning away from the moon. The great eaten-away globe fell behind them.
Gross breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s that.”
“One more thing.” Kramer picked up the microphone. “Return to the moon and land the ship at the first space field,” he said into it.
“Good Lord,” Winter murmured. “Why are you—”
“Be quiet.” Kramer stood, listening. The turbines gasped and roared as the ship swung full around, gaining speed. They were moving back, back toward the moon again. The ship dipped down, heading toward the great globe below.
“We’re going a little fast,” the Pilot said. “I don’t see how he can put down at this velocity.”
The port filled up, as the globe swelled rapidly. The Pilot hurried toward the board, reaching for the controls. All at once the ship jerked. The nose lifted and the ship shot out into space, away from the moon, turning at an oblique angle. The men were thrown to the floor by the sudden change in course. They got to their feet again, speechless, staring at each other.
The Pilot gazed down at the board. “It wasn’t me! I didn’t touch a thing. I didn’t even get to it.”
The ship was gaining speed each moment. Kramer hesitated. “Maybe you better switch it back to manual.”
The Pilot closed the switch. He took hold of the steering controls and moved them experimentally. “Nothing.” He turned around. “Nothing. It doesn’t respond.”
No one spoke.
“You can see what has happened,” Kramer said calmly. “The old man won’t let go of it, now that he has it. I was afraid of this when I saw the wiring changes. Everything in this ship is centrally controlled, even the cooling system, the hatches, the garbage release. We’re helpless.”
“Nonsense.” Gross strode to the board. He took hold of the wheel and turned it. The ship continued on its course, moving away from the moon, leaving it behind.
“Release!” Kramer said into the microphone. “Let go of the controls! We’ll take it back. Release.”
“No good,” the Pilot said. “Nothing.” He spun the useless wheel. “It’s dead, completely dead.”
“And we’re still heading out,” Winter said, grinning foolishly. “We’ll be going through the first-line defense belt in a few minutes. If they don’t shoot us down—”
“We better radio back.” The Pilot clicked the radio to send. “I’ll contact the main bases, one of the observation stations.”
“Better get the defense belt, at the speed we’re going. We’ll be into it in a minute.”
“And after that,” Kramer said, “we’ll be in outer space. He’s moving us toward outspace velocity. Is this ship equipped with baths?”
“Baths?” Gross said.
“The sleep tanks. For space-drive. We may need them if we go much faster.”
“But good God, where are we going?” Gross said. “Where—where’s he taking us?”
The Pilot obtained contact. “This is Dwight, on ship,” he said. “We’re entering the defense zone at high velocity. Don’t fire on us.”
“Turn back,” the impersonal voice came through the speaker. “You’re not allowed in the defense zone.”
“We can’t. We’ve lost control.”
“This is an experimental ship.”
Gross took the radio. “This is Commander Gross, Security. We’re being carried into outer space. There’s nothing we can do. Is there any way that we can be removed from this ship?”
A hesitation. “We have some fast pursuit ships that could pick you up if you wanted to jump. The chances are good they’d find you. Do you have space flares?”
“We do,” the Pilot said. “Let’s try it.”
“Abandon ship?” Kramer said. “If we leave now we’ll never see it again.”
“What else can we do? We’re gaining speed all the time. Do you propose that we stay here?”