Angus McIntosh vigorously scuffed the tarnished nameplate on the wrecked cargo carrier. Then he stepped back and squinted under shaggy gray eyebrows.
Letter by letter, number by number, he coaxed out the designation on the crumpled bow of the spacer in the vine-matted gorge: “RT... 3070 ... VG-II.”
His lean frame tensed with concern as he turned to stare soberly at the other. “A Vegan robot trader!”
Bruce Drummond grinned. “Are we lucky! Clunkers are worth money--in any condition.”
Angus snorted impatiently. “Let’s get out of here, quick.”
“Get out?” the stocky Drummond repeated incredulously as he ran thick-set fingers over the black stubble on his cheek. “Ain’t we going to salvage the clunkers? The book says they’re ours after fifty years.”
“The hold’s empty. There’s no cargo.”
“There was when it landed. Look at the angle of incidence on those fins.”
“Exactly.” Frowning, Angus shifted his holster around on his hip and strode back toward the plain. “Ever hear of a frustrated compulsion?”
Drummond, following hesitantly, shook his head.
“Those clunkers have to satisfy a basic behavior circuit,” McIntosh explained as he hastened his step. “We don’t know what the compulsion of this bunch is. Suppose--well, suppose they have a chiropractic function. How’d you like to be the first person to show up after they’ve been frustrated for a hundred years?”
“Oh,” Drummond said comprehendingly, stumbling to keep pace.
Angus McIntosh brushed a mass of tendrils aside and stepped out on the plain. “We’ll report it and let them send in a deactivation crew. That way, at least, we’ll get fifty per cent of salvage and no danger.”
“Even that ain’t bad--just for following an SOS a hundred light-years. Taking an uncharted route and picking up that signal sure paid off like--”
Drummond gagged on his words as he gripped Angus’s arm and pointed.
Their ship was a shining oval, bobbing and weaving on a sea of silver that surged across the plain toward a cliff on the left.
“Clunkers!” Drummond gasped. “Hundreds of ‘em--making off with our boat!”
He unholstered his weapon and fired.
Angus struck his wrist sharply. “Why don’t you just run out waving your arms? We don’t have enough firepower to get more than eight or ten of them.”
But the warning was too late. Already the tide had washed away from the ship and was surging toward the gorge.
There was a noise behind them and Angus spun around. Ten feet away stood a robot with the designation RA-204 on his breast-plate.
“Welcome, O Jackson,” the clunker said reverently.
Then he hinged forward on his hip joints until his head almost touched the ground. The gesture was a clockwork salaam.
McIntosh’s thin legs dangled in front of 204’s breast-plate and his ankles were secure in the grip of metal fingers as he rode the robot’s shoulders.
RA-76 strode alongside, carrying a squirming and swearing Drummond. Around them, the shining horde marched along noisily.
“He has come!” cried one.
“Jackson has come!” chanted the others of the shining horde.
“He will show us the way!” shouted RA-204.
Drummond kicked, but 76 only held his legs more firmly. Furious, Drummond reached for his gun.
“That’s using your head,” Angus said sarcastically. “Agitate them. Then we’ll never get out of here.”
Drummond let the weapon slip back into its holster. “What did we get into--a nest of fanatics? Who’s Jackson?”
Angus helplessly shrugged his bony shoulders.
The procession filtered through a narrow woods and broke out on another plain, headed for the nearby cliff.
Angus leaned forward. “Put me down, 204.”
“Thou art Jackson,” said the robot solemnly. “And Thou art testing me to see whether I would so easily abandon my Supervisor.”
“Not testing,” Angus said. “Just asking. Come on, how about it?”
“Praise Jackson!” 204 cried.
“Jackson! Jackson!” intoned the throng.
Drummond leaned an elbow on 76’s skull plate and disgustedly cupped his chin in his hand. “What if they are chiropractor robots?”
“We’ll probably need one after this ride,” Angus said uncomfortably.
“Not like we’ll need a way to get back to the ship and cut off those converters before they over-charge.”
“Slow charge?” Angus asked between grunts timed with 204’s stride.
“Hell, no. I didn’t think we’d be here more than a couple of hours. By tomorrow at this time, there’ll be a crater out there big enough to bury the Capellan fleet.”
“Great,” said Angus. “That gives us another thing to worry about.”
The robots fell into two groups as they neared a cave in the cliff.
“Jackson is my Supervisor!” chanted the ones on the right.
“I shall not rust!” answered those on the left.
“He maketh me to adjust my joint tension!” cried the first group.
“Oh, brother,” said Drummond.
“Sounds like a psalm,” suggested Angus.
“You ought to know. You always got your nose in that Bible.”
“Notice anything peculiar about them?”
“Very funny,” sneered Drummond at the question.
“No, I’m serious.”
“They bounce the daylights out of you when they walk,” Drummond grumbled.
“No. Their finish. It’s shiny--like they were fresh out of the factory--not like they’ve been marooned here for a hundred years.”
Drummond scratched his chin. “Maybe their compulsion is metal polishing.”
“Not with the kind of fingers they have.”
Angus indicated the hand that held his ankle. Three digits were wrenches of various sizes. The index finger was a screwdriver. The thumb was a Stillson wrench. The thumb on the other hand was a disclike appendage.
Drummond hunched over. “76, what’s your function?”
The robot looked up. “To serve Jackson.”
“You’re a big help,” said Drummond.
“Why dost thou tempt us, O Jackson?” asked RA-204. “Wouldst Thou test our beliefs?”
“We’re no gods,” Angus declared as the robot drew up before the cave.
“Thou art Jackson!” insisted 204.
Drummond and McIntosh were hoisted to a ledge beside the mouth of the cave. The robots backed off, forming a half circle, and bowed in obeisance.
Angus ran a hand helplessly through his sparse gray hair. “Would you say there are four hundred of them?”
“At least.” Drummond surveyed the expanse of metal bodies. “You know, maybe they don’t have a function.”
“Impossible. Hasn’t been a clunker in five hundred years without a primary compulsion.”
“Think they forgot theirs?”
“Can’t. They may forget how to put it in words, but the compulsion is good for as long as their primary banks are intact. That’s not what’s worrying me, though.”
“Religious robots! There can’t be any such brand. Yet here they are.”
Drummond studied them silently.
“Before there can be theological beliefs,” McIntosh went on, “there has to be some sort of foundation--the mystery of origin, the fear of death, the concept of the hereafter. Clunkers know they come from a factory. They know that when they’re finally disassembled, they’ll be lifeless scrap metal.”
Drummond spat disdainfully. “One thing’s for sure--this pack thinks we’re God Almighty.”
“Jackson Almighty,” Angus corrected somberly.
“Well, God or Jackson, we’d better get back to the ship or this is going to be a long visitation.”
Drummond faced the almost prostrate robots and made a megaphone of his hands. “All right, you guys! How’s about knocking it off?”
Slowly, the robots reared erect, waiting.
“Take us back to our ship!”
RA-204 stepped forward. “Again Thou art testing us, O Jackson.”
Angus spread his arms imploringly. “Look, fellows. We’re men. We’re--”
“Thou art our Supervisor!” the throng roared.
“One of you is Jackson,” explained 204. “The other is a Divine Test. We must learn which is the True Supervisor.”
“You’re not being tested!” McIntosh insisted.
“Our beliefs are firm, O Jackson!” cried a hundred metallic voices.
“Thou are the Supervisor!” declared 204 resolutely.
“For God’s sake,” urged Drummond, “tell ‘em you’re their Jackson and then lay down the law.”
“No. Can’t do it that way.”
“Why not? Unfair advantage, I suppose?” There was a cutting edge on the younger man’s words.
Angus stared thoughtfully at the robots. “If we only knew how they forgot their origin, how they got religion, we might find a way to get through to them.”
Drummond laughed contemptuously. “You figure it out. I’m going to play Jackson and get back to the ship.” He turned toward the robots.
But McIntosh caught his arm. “Let me try something else first.” He faced the horde below. “Who made you?”
“Thou hast, O Supervisor!” the robots chanted like a gleeful Sunday school class.
“And Thou hast put us on this world and robot begot robot until we were as we are today,” added 204 solemnly.
Drummond slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Now they think they’ve got a sex function!”
Angus’s shoulders fell dismally. “Maybe if we try to figure out their designation. They’re all RAs--whatever the A stands for.”
There was a hollow rumbling in the cave that grew in volume until the cliff shook. Then a second group of robots emerged and fanned out to encircle the ledge.
“Hell,” said Drummond in consternation. “There’s twice as many as we figured!”
“Thought there’d be more,” Angus admitted. “That ship was big enough to hold a thousand clunkers. And they didn’t waste space in those days.”
The newcomers fell prostrate alongside the others.
The planet’s single satellite hung like a lost gem over the low mountains east of the plain. It washed the cliff with a cloak of effulgence and bathed the forbidden ship in an aura of gleaming silver.
Below the ledge, the reverent robots wavered occasionally and highlights of coruscation played capriciously across their plates. Their whispered invocations were a steady drone, like the soft touch of the wind.
“Quit it!” Drummond yelled angrily. “Break it up! Go home!”
Angus sat with his head against the cliff, face tilted up. “That didn’t help any.”
“When are they going to give up?”
McIntosh glanced abstractedly at the horde. “How long would we keep it up if our God appeared among us?”
Drummond swore. “Damned if you haven’t been reading the print off that Bible!”
“What do you suppose happened,” Angus went on heedlessly, “to make them more than clunkers--to make them grope for the basic truths?”
Drummond spat disgustedly in answer.
“Civilization goes on for a hundred years,” Angus said as he leaned back and closed his eyes, “spreading across a hunk of the Galaxy, carrying along its knowledge and religious convictions. And all the while, there’s this little lost island of mimic beliefs--so much like our own creed, except that their god is called Jackson.”
Drummond rose and paced. “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to set them straight, if we’re still sitting on this shelf eleven hours from now.”
“Maybe that’s what it’ll take--bringing them step by step through theology.”
No, not overnight, Angus realized. It would take months to pound in new convictions.
Drummond slipped down from the ledge. “Here goes nothing.”
Interestedly, Angus folded his arms and watched the other square his shoulders and march off confidently through the ranks of robots toward the ship in the distance.
For a moment, it seemed he would succeed. But two of the RAs suddenly reared erect and seized him by the arms. They bore him on their shoulders and deposited him back on the ridge beside McIntosh.
“Warm tonight,” Drummond observed bitterly, glancing up at the sky.
“Sure is,” Angus agreed, his voice calm. “Wouldn’t be surprised if we got some rain tomorrow.”
Drummond flipped another pebble and it pinged down on a metal back. “Seven out of thirteen.”
“Look, let’s tell ‘em we’re their Supervisor and end this marathon worship.”
“Which one of us is going to play the divine role?”
“What difference does it make?”
Angus shrugged and his tired eyes stared off into the darkness. “One of us is--Jackson. The other is an impostor, brought here to test their faith. When they find out which is which, what are they going to do to the impostor?”
Drummond looked startled. “I see what you mean.”
The miniature moon had wheeled its way to the zenith and now the first gray tinge of dawn silhouetted the peaks of the mountain range.
Angus rose and stretched. “We’ve got to find out what their function is.”
“It looks like religion is their only interest. But maybe that’s because they’re completely frustrated in their basic compulsion. If we could discover their function, maybe we could focus their attention back on it.”
“RA,” Drummond mumbled puzzledly. “Robot agriculturist?”
Angus shook his head. “They wouldn’t be frustrated--not with a whole planet to farm. Besides, they’d be equipped with agricultural implements instead of wrenches.”
Drummond got up suddenly. “You figure it out. I have something else to try.”
Angus followed him along the ledge until they reached the mouth of the cave.
“What are you going to do?”
Drummond hitched his trousers. “The way we’re ringed in here, it’s a cinch we won’t get past ‘em in the six hours we have left.”
“So you’re going to make off through the cave?”
The younger man nodded. “They might take off after me. That’ll give you a chance to get to the ship and cut off those converters before they make like a nova.”
Angus chuckled. “Suppose half of them decide to stay here with me?”
Drummond swore impatiently at his skepticism. “At any rate, one of us might get back to the converters.”
“And leave the other here?”
“He can say he’s Jackson and order an attack in force on the ship.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Skidding the ship in a circle with the exhaust blowers on,” Drummond explained patiently, “will take care of ten thousand clunkers.”
He dropped from the ledge and raced into the cave. None of the robots stirred. Either they hadn’t noticed Drummond’s departure, Angus reasoned, or they weren’t concerned because they knew the cave led nowhere.
The sun came up, daubing the cliff with splotches of orange and purple and striking up scintillations in the beads of dew on the robots’ backs.
And still the tiresomely shouted veneration continued.
Angus paced the ledge, stopping occasionally to stare into the impenetrable shadows of the cave. He checked his watch. Five hours to go--five hours, and then time would be meaningless for the rest of his life, with the ship destroyed.
It was unlikely that rescue would come. The wrecked spacer’s automatic distress signals had gone out in an ever-expanding sphere for a hundred years, and he and Drummond had been the only humans to hear them.
Trade routes were pretty stable in this section of the Galaxy now. And it was hardly possible that, within the next ten or twenty years, one would be opened up that would intercept the SOS that had lured them here.
He stood up and surveyed the robots. “RA-204.”
204 reared erect. “Yes, Jackson?”
“One of us is gone.”
“We know, O Supervisor.”
“Why did you let him get away?”
“If he is not the True Jackson, it doesn’t matter that he fled. If he is the Supervisor, he will return. Otherwise, why did he come here to us in the first place?”