Turning Point

by Alfred Coppel

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The man is rare who will give his life for what is merely the lesser of two evils. Merrick's decision was even tougher: to save human beings at the expense of humanity, or vice versa?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

This, then, was the Creche, Anno Domini 2500. A great, mile-square blind cube topping a ragged mountain; bare escarpments falling away to a turbulent sea. For five centuries the Creche had stood so, and the Androids had come forth in an unending stream to labor for Man, the Master...

Quintus Bland, The Romance of Genus Homo.

Director Han Merrick paced the floor nervously. His thin, almost ascetic face was pale and drawn.

“We can’t allow it, Virginia,” he said, “Prying of this sort can only precipitate a pogrom or worse. Erikson is a bigot of the worst kind. The danger” He broke off helplessly.

His wife shook her head slowly. “It cannot be prevented, Han. Someone was bound to start asking questions sooner or later. History should have taught us that. And five hundred years of secrecy was more than anyone had a right to expect. Nothing lasts forever.”

The trouble is, Merrick told himself, simply that I am the wrong man for this job. I should never have taken it. There’s a wrongness in what we are doing here that colors my every reaction and makes me incapable of acting on my own. Always the doubts and secret questioning. If the social structure of our world weren’t moribund, I wouldn’t be here at all...

“History, Virginia,” he said, “can’t explain what there is no precedent for. The Creche is unique in human experience.”

“The Creche may be, Han, but Sweyn Erikson is not. Consider his background and tell me if there hasn’t been an Erikson in every era of recorded history. He is merely another obstacle in the path of progress that must be overcome. The job is yours, Han.”

“A pleasant prospect,” Merrick replied bleakly. “I am an organizer, not a psychotechnician. How am I supposed to protect the Creche from the likes of Erikson? What insanity bore this fruit, Virginia? The Prophet, the number one Fanatic, coming here as an investigator in the name of the Council of Ten! I realize the Council turns pale at the thought of the vote the Fanatics control, but surely something could have been done! Have those idiots forgotten what we do here? Is that possible?”

Virginia Merrick shook her head. “The stone got too hot for them to handle, so they’ve thrown it to you.”

“But Erikson, himself! The very man who organized the Human Supremacy Party and the Antirobot League! If he sets foot within the Creche it will mean an end to everything!”

The woman lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “We can’t keep him out and you know it. There’s an army of Fanatics gathering out there in the hills this very minute. Armed with cortical-stimulant projectors, Han. That isn’t a pleasant way to die”

Merrick studied his wife carefully. There was fear under her iron control. She was thinking of the shattering pain of death under the projectors. Nothing else, really. The Creche didn’t matter to her. The Creche didn’t really matter to any of the staff. Three hundred years ago it would have been different. The custodians of the Creche would have gladly died to preserve their trust in those times...

What irony, Merrick thought, that it should come like this. He knew what the projectors did to men. He also knew what they did to robots.

“If they dare to use their weapons on us it will wipe out every vestige of control work done here since the beginning,” he said softly.

“They have no way of knowing that.”

“Nor would they believe it if we told them.”

“And that brings us right back to where we started. You can’t keep Erikson out, and the Council of Ten has left us on our own. They don’t dare oppose the Fanatics. But there’s an old political maxim you would do well to consider very carefully since it’s our only hope, Han,” Virginia Merrick said, “‘If you can’t beat someonejoin him.’”

She dragged deeply on her cigarette, blue smoke curling from her gold-tinted lips. “This has been coming on for ten years. I tried to warn you then, but you wouldn’t listen. Remember?”

How like a woman, Merrick thought bitterly, to be saying I told you so.

“What would you have me do, Virginia?” he asked, “Help the bigot peddle his robot-hate? That can’t be the way. Don’t you feel anything at all when the reports of pogroms come in?”

Virginia Merrick shrugged. “Better they than we, Han.”

“Has it occurred to you that our whole culture might collapse if Erikson has his way?”

“Antirobotism is natural to human beings. Compromise is the only answer. Precautions have to be taken”

Precautions!” exploded Merrick. “What sort of precautions can be taken against pure idiocy?”

“The founding board of Psychotechnicians”

“No help from that source. You know that I’ve always felt the whole premise was questionable. On the grounds of common fairness, if nothing else.”

“Really, Han,” Virginia snapped, “It was the only thing to do and you know it. The Creche is the only safeguard the race has.”

“Now you sound like the Prophet. In reverse.”

“We needn’t argue the point.”

“No, I suppose not,” the Director muttered.

“Then what are you going to do when he gets here?” She ground out her cigarette anxiously. “The procession is in the ravine now. You had better decide quickly.”

“I don’t know, Virginia. I just don’t know.” Merrick sank down behind his desk, hands toying with the telescreen controls. “I was never intended to make this sort of decisions. I feel helpless. Look here”

The image of the ravine glowed across the screen in brilliant relief. The densely timbered slopes were spotted with tiny purposeful figures in the grey robes that all Fanatics affected. Here and there the morning sun caught a glint of metal as the Fanatics labored to set up their projectors. Along the floor of the ravine that was the only land approach to the Creche moved the twisting, writhing snake of the procession. The enraptured Fanatics were chanting their hate-songs as they came. In the first rank walked the leonine Erikson, his long hair whipping in the moisture-laden wind from the sea.

With a muttered curse, Merrick flipped a toggle and the scene dimmed. The face of a secretary appeared superimposed on it. It was the expressionless face of an android, a fine example of the Creche’s production line. “Get Graves up here,” he ordered, “You may find him at Hypno-Central or in Semantic Evaluation.”

“Very good, sir,” intoned the android, fading from the screen.

Merrick looked at his wife. “Maybe Graves and I can think of something.”

“Don’t plan anything rash, Han.”

Merrick shrugged and turned back to watch the steady approach of the procession of grey-frocked zealots in the ravine.

Graves appeared as the doorway dilated. He looked fearful and pale. “You wanted to see me, Han?”

“Come in, Jon. Sit down.”

“Have you seen the projectors those crackpots have set up in the hills?” Graves demanded.

“I have, Jon. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“My God, Han! Do you have any idea of what it must feel like to die from cortical stimulation?” Graves’ voice was tense and strained. “Can’t we get out of here by ‘copter?”

“No. The ‘copters are both in Francisco picking up supplies. I ordered them out yesterday. Besides, that wouldn’t settle anything. There are almost a thousand androids in the Creche as of this morning. What about them?”

Graves made a gesture of impatience. “It’s the humans I’m thinking about.”

Merrick forced down the bitter taste of disgust that welled into his throat and forced himself to go on. “We have to take some sort of action to protect the Creche, Jon. I’ve held off until the last moment, thinking the Council would never allow a Fanatic to investigate the Creche, but the Ten are more afraid of the HSP rubber stamp vote than they are of letting a thousand androids be slaughtered. But we can’t leave it at that. If we don’t prevent it, Erikson will precipitate a pogrom that will make the Canalopolis massacre look like a tea-party.” For some reason he held back the information about the effect of the Fanatic weapon on robot tissue. The vague notion that knowing, Jon Graves might cast his lot with Erikson, restrained him.

“Of course, Erikson will come in wearing an energy shield,” Graves said.

“He will. And we have none,” Virginia Merrick said softly.

“Can we compromise with him?” Graves asked.

There it was again, Merrick thought, the weasel-word ‘compromise.’ There was a moral decay setting in everywherethe founders of the Creche would never have spoken so. “No,” he said flatly, “We cannot. Erikson has conceived a robot-menace. All the old hate-patterns are being dusted off and used on the rabble. People are actually asking one another if they would like their daughters to marry robots. That sort of thing, as old as homo sapiens. And one cannot compromise with prejudice. It seduces the emotions and dulls the mind. No, there will be no appeasing of Sweyn Erikson or his grey-shirted nightriders!”

“You’re talking like a starry-eyed fool, Han,” Virginia Merrick said sharply.

“Can’t we take him in and give him the works?” Graves asked hopefully. “Primary Conditioning could handle the job. Give him a fill-in with false memory?”

Merrick shook his head. “We can’t risk narcosynthesis and that’s essential. He’ll surely be tested for blood purity when he leaves, and scopolamine traces would be a dead give-away that we had been trying to hide something here.”

“Then it looks as though compromise is the only way, Han. They’ve got us up against the wall. See here, Han, I know you don’t agree, but what else is there? After all, we all believe in human supremacy. Erikson calls it a robot-menace, we look at it from another angle, but our common goal is the betterment of the human culture we’ve established. People are on an emotional jag now. There has been no war for five centuries. No emotional release. And there have been regulations and conventions set up since the Atom War that only a very few officials have been allowed to understand. Erikson is no savage, Han, after all. True he’s set off a rash of robot-baiting, but he can be dealt with on an intelligent plane, I’m sure.”

“He is a man of ability, you know,” Virginia Merrick said.

“Ability,” Merrick said bitterly. “Rabble rouser and bigot! Look at his record. Organizer of the riots in Low Chicago. Leader in the Antirobot Labor Leaguethe same outfit that slaughtered fifty robots in the Tycho dock strike. Think, you two! To tell such a man what the Creche is would be to tie a rope around the neck of every android alive. Lynch law! The rope and the whip for every one of them. And then suppose the worm turns? It can, you know! Our methods here are far from perfect. What then?”

“I still say we must compromise,” Graves said. “They will kill us if we don’t”

“He’s no troglodyte, Han, I’m certain” Merrick’s wife said plaintively.

The Director felt resistance flowing out of him. They were right, of course. There was nothing else he could do.

“All right,” Merrick’s voice was low and tired. He felt the weight of his years settling down on him. “I’ll do as you suggest. I’ll try to lead him off the trail first” that was his compromise with himself, he knew, and he hated himself for it “and if I fail I’ll tell him the whole truth.”

He flipped the telescreen toggle in time to see Sweyn Erikson detach himself from his followers and disappear through the dilated outer gate in the side of the Creche. A faint, almost futile stirring of defiance shook him. He found himself in the anomalous position of wanting to defend something that he had long felt was wrong in concept from the beginningand not being able to take an effective course of action.

He reached into his desk drawer and took out an ancient automatic. It was a family heirloom, heavy, black and deadly. He pulled back the slide and watched one of the still-bright brass cartridges snap up into the breech. He handled the weapon awkwardly, but as he slipped it into his jumper pocket some of the weariness slipped from him and a cold anger took its place. He looked calmly from his wife to Graves.

“I’ll tell him the whole truth,” he said, “And if he fails to react as you two think he will, I shall kill him.”

Sweyn Erikson, in a pre-Atom War culture, might have been a dictator. But the devastation of the war had at long last resulted in a peaceful world-state, and where no nations exist, politics becomes a sterile business of direction and supervision. It is war or the threat of war that gives a politician his power. Sweyn Erikson wanted power above all else. And so he founded a religion.

He became the Prophet of the Fanatics. And since a cult must have an object of group hate as a raison-d’etre, he chose the androids. With efficiency and calculated sincerity, he beat the drums of prejudice until his organization had spread its influence into the world’s high places and his word became the law of the land.

People who beheld his feral magnificence, and listened to the spell-binding magic of his oratoryfollowed. His power sprang from the massesunthinking, emotional. He gave the mob a voice and a purpose. He was like a Hitler or a Torquemada. Like a Long or a John Brown. He was savage and rapacious, courageous and bitter. He was Man.

There were four cardinal precepts by which the membership of the Human Supremacy Party lived. First, Man was God. Second, no race could share the plenum with Man. Had separate races still remained after the Atom War, the HSP racism might have been more specific, but since there remained only humanity en masse, all human beings shared the godhead. Third, the artificial persons that streamed from the Creche were blasphemy. Fourth, they must be destroyed. Like other generations before them, the humans of this age rallied to the banner of the whip and the rope. Not since the War had blood been spilled, but the destructive madness of homo sapiens found joy in the word of the Prophet, and though the blood was only the red sap of androids, the thrill was there.

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