We're Friends, Now

by Henry Hasse

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: The little man stood in front of the monstrous machine as the synaptic drone heightened to a scream. No. no, he whispered. Don't you understand....

Today more than other days Raoul Beardsley felt the burden, the dragging sense of inevitability. He frowned; he glanced at his watch; he leaned forward to speak to the copter pilot and then changed his mind. He settled back, and from idle habit adjusted his chair-scope to the familiar broad-spoked area of Washington just below.

“I’ll not have it happening again today!” he told himself grimly ... and at once his thoughts quavered off into many tangles of self-reproach. “Blasted nonsense the way I’ve been acting. A machine, a damned gutless machine like that! Why do I persist in letting it get to me?”

He pondered that and found no solace. “Delusion,” he snorted. “Hyper synapse-disorder ... that’s how Jeff Arnold would explain me. I wish he’d confine his diagnostics to the Mechanical Division where it belongs! He’s amused, they’re all amused at me--but damn it they just don’t know!”

Beardsley’s rotund body sagged at the thought. Adjusting the chair-scope, he fixed his gaze on the broad facade of Crime-Central Building far across the city; again he felt the burgeoning embarrassment and foreboding, but he put it down with an effort before it reached the edge of fear. Not today, he thought fiercely. No, by God, I just won’t permit it to happen.

There. So! He felt much better already. And he had really made good time this morning. Today of all days he mustn’t keep ECAIAC waiting.

[Illustration: Beardsley was the only one not to panic when the infallible machine broke down.]

Mustn’t ... Something triggered in Beardsley, and he was assailed with a perverse rebellion at the thought.

Must not? But why not? Why shouldn’t he just once keep ECAIAC and Jeff Arnold and his clique stewing in their own tangle of tubes and electronic juice? And wouldn’t this, he gloated, be the perfect day for it! Arnold especially--just once to shatter that young man’s complacent routine...

No. Beardsley savored the thought tastily, and let it trickle away, and the look of glee on his cherubic face was gone. For too many years his job as serological “coördinator” (Crime-Central) had kept him pinned to the concomitant routine. Pinned or crucified, it was all the same; in crime analysis as in everything these days, personal sense of achievement had been too unsubtly annihilated. Recalling his just completed task--the Citizen Files and persona-tapes and the endless annotating--Beardsley felt himself sinking still further into that mire of futility that encompassed neither excitement nor particular pride.

He brought himself back with a grimace, aware that he was clutching the briefcase of tapes possessively from long habit. The pilot had touched the news-stat, and abruptly one of the new “commerciappeals” grated on Beardsley’s senses:

“ ... we repeat, yes, PROT-O-SUDS is now available in flake or cake or the new attachable luxury-spray. Remember, PROT-O-SUDS has never been laboratory-tested, it contains no miracle ingredients, no improved scientific formula, and NO LANOLIN. Then what is the new PROT-O-SUDS? I tell you frankly, friends, it is nothing but a lot of pure soft soap! Remember ... we make no fabulous claims for PROT-O-SUDS ... we assume that you are reasonably clean to start with! And now for your late breakfast news, PROT-O-SUDS takes you direct to the Central News Bureau for a final survey on the Carmack murder case...”

Beardsley groaned. New voice in the background, while the screen presented a slow montage. Cine-runs of the great Carmack himself, including those at the International Cybernetics Congress a year ago ... survey of the murder scene, the Carmack mansion ... close-up of ECAIAC ... diagrammatic detail of ECAIAC ... then dramatically, the grim and imposing figure of George Mandleco, Minister of Justice.

And then the news-caster’s voice: “ ... certain that final processing will go forward today. It would be a gross understatement to say that the Carmack Case has captured the attention of the nation, both officialdom and public alike! Never in the history of Crime-Central has there been such an undercurrent of speculation and excitement...”

“Excitement?” murmured Beardsley.

“And now it is heightened, by no less an authority than the Minister of Justice himself, who brought both plaudits and censure upon himself today with the outright statement that deep-rooted political issues may well be involved. As you must know by now, it was the murdered man himself--Amos Carmack--who some years ago carried on the incessant lobbying that resulted in ECAIAC being accepted pro bono publico by Crime-Central. What devastating irony! For now it is ECAIAC itself that must weigh each detail, correlate all factors, probe every motive and machination leading to the murder of its creator...”

“That’s not entirely true, you know,” muttered Beardsley.

Quick flicker, again a close-up of ECAIAC, and the drama-laden voice: “ECAIAC! Electronic Analysis Integrator and Computor. And now--an exclusive! From a very reliable source this reporter has learned that three Primes are involved...”

“Ha!” grated Beardsley.

“ ... and they will be broken down in quotient. Two must ultimately be eliminated--barring, of course, the possible emergence of any minor factor to status of Prime, which at this stage seems unlikely. It is estimated that by today or tomorrow at the latest Carmack’s murderer will be brought to justice...”

Beardsley had taken as much as he could of this pseudo-factual mush. He jerked forward violently, rapped the pilot on the shoulder. “DAMN IT! WILL YOU SHUT THE DAMN THING OFF!”

He was immediately appalled at his outburst, and by the pilot’s startled glance, but the stat went off immediately.

Beardsley leaned back muttering to himself. Carmack, Carmack! For seven weeks now he had lived with it intricately and intimately, as the case shoved everything else right off the news-stat. People took the latest echoes to bed with them, commuters gobbled it with their breakfast cereal. Thank God today would see the end, and they could once more have the hot South Polar crisis with their cereal.

Seven weeks! He clutched the bulging briefcase with a wearisome horror. Twenty-two persona-tapes from Central File, all neatly processed and ready for ECAIAC. End result of the endless chart sifts, emphasis (as always!) on parietosomatic recession, the slow emergence of minor constants, the inexorable trend toward Price Factor and then verification, verification, to each his own, with all the subtle and shaded values of the Augment Index brought finally to focus on the relevance-graph Carmack.

Sure, thought Beardsley. A thing of augment-indexing and psych-tapes, quite without possibility of error. Now in the old days of crime detection--it might have taken them seven months instead of weeks, not to mention frustration and leg-work and false-leads and sweat, but--

His mouth pulled down bitterly. Serological Coördinator. Glorified file-clerk is more like it. High-salaried errand-boy.

“Here we are, sir!” The pilot’s voice jarred him to reality as the copter berthed.

Beardsley hurried toward the roof entrance. His faded blue suit, a size too large, flapped about him, and the outmoded felt hat seemed to sink to the level of his thick-lensed glasses. The guard greeted him, but suppressed a smile as the cherubic little man flashed his official pass.

For there was something about Raoul Beardsley that eternally evoked amusement--an air of vacuous innocence and a remote forlornness. He gave the appearance of a person who sold shoes during the day, washed his wife’s dishes at night and then solved two or three galacti-gram puzzles before turning off the light precisely at ten. Few, if any, remembered that this nervous little man had once been top Inspector of New York City’s Homicide Bureau ... but that was a dozen long years ago. Since then he had seen the antiquated detective methods of 1960 disappear, and he had died a little, too, seeing his Homicide Bureau relegated to a mere subsidiary with the growth of the Coördinate and Mechanical Divisions. His appointment to Chief of Co-ördinants, Federal, was automatic and unquestioned; and Beardsley would have been the last to know, or to care, that he had correlated some eight million miles of serological data for the entrains of ECAIAC, a perfect record of not a single unsolved case.

And the penalty was in his eyes, if one cared to look beyond the thick-lensed glasses. No one ever did. They were remote eyes, a little bewildered, a little hurt ... a mirror gone dull from times remembered but irretrievably lost.

Beardsley stepped onto the corridor slidewalk, coasted to the escalator and rode it down. Still immersed in his thoughts, he pushed into ECAIAC’s room... and again it happened.

So shockingly sudden, there was not even time for remonstrance at himself. The feeling hit him as always before, straight and unerring, a surging impact that smashed forward and stopped him in his tracks, literally paralyzed.

He caught his breath convulsively. How often had he come here? And how often had this happened, even when he’d sworn he wouldn’t let it? There was something about the sight and sound and feel of ECAIAC that got to him, that seeped beneath flesh and bone and into his brain and sent his senses singing. Beardsley managed to gulp, as he observed the shiny black colossus that filled the entire length of the ninety-foot room; a dozen techs scurried around it, taking notes, attentive to the flashing lights in red-and-green and the faint clicking of thousands of relays that rose in susurration.

But more than that arose. It was something that pervaded the room, not a pulsing but a presence, a sort of snapping intangible intelligence that reached beyond the audible and sheared at Beardsley’s nerve-ends.

And it hadn’t been there a moment before. That was the shocking thing. Beardsley knew that it knew! It was sentient, it was alive and aware and waiting, and it was listening.

As always, it knew that he had entered.

Beardsley gulped again, stood frozen for half a minute. None of the techs seemed to notice; they had often chided him about it, but he was used to that now. At last he broke the spell and made his legs move, feeling cold sweat as he hurried along the length of ECAIAC toward Arnold’s office.

There ... just about there ... by the rheostats, where the four red lights and the two green made a baleful pattern against the black metal skin. He felt it stronger than ever this time, something reaching and sinister aimed solely at him. He skirted the place with a quick goosey hop, stumbled a little and felt panic, but made it all right to the office.

Beardsley hated these moments. He was still trembling as he made a hurried entrance. Sure enough, as if on cue Jeff Arnold glanced up from his charts and grinned.

“Ah, good morning, Beardsley! Now don’t tell me our pet goo--uh--snapped at you again?”

It was the routine remark, but today Arnold was immediately contrite for a change. “Sorry,” he said, and a certain weariness replaced the grin. He gestured to the alco-mech. “Can I dial you a drink? Feel in need of one myself!”

“Eleven-C,” said Beardsley, and slumped into the pneumo-chair. Arnold rose and dialled 11-C, handed him the drink and dialled 9-R for himself. Sipping it, he moved around the desk.

There was something very strange and preoccupied in his movements, Beardsley thought, more than a mere tiredness. He had never seen Arnold this way.

“Yes sir, this is the day!” A muscle twitched in his corded neck; Arnold eased his long frame into a chair, rubbed thumb and forefinger at his eyes. “Been up half the night running off clearance tests. Can’t afford to foul up on this one!”

Beardsley tossed off his drink and blinked at the fiery strength of it. Now why should Arnold say that? When had ECAIAC ever fouled up? He watched the man across the desk. Jeff Arnold was a vigorous, striking specimen, handsome in an athletic way, with long stubborn jaw and unhappy gray eyes beneath his unruly hair; the sort of face that intrigues women, Beardsley catalogued from past experience. And, he added, altogether too young a man to be operating a monster like ECAIAC.

Arnold indicated the empty glass. “Another?”

“No, I think not,” Beardsley replied carefully.

Arnold hesitated, eyeing the briefcase in Beardsley’s clutch. “It’s been rough on you, too, I imagine. Hope there aren’t more than thirty variants! We’re set up for more, of course, but it’ll necessitate--”

“Twenty-two,” Beardsley assured him. Carefully, he spread the coded and sealed persona-tapes across the desk. “Fresh from Citizen-File Augment, everything annotated and cross-checked. Blood-count, emotional stasis, plethora, psycho-geneological index, neuro-thalamic imbalance--every type factor is here. We really went to the Files on this case.”

“Looks as if you did! How does it narrow down?”

“Fifteen possibles, four Logicals and three Primes--” Beardsley stopped abruptly. (That news-caster: how had he known there were three Primes? This stuff was not supposed to leak!) “Twenty-two who knew Carmack,” he went on. “That includes associational as well as motive-opportunity factors, with a probability sphere of .004...”

Arnold nodded thoughtfully; his fingers moved unconscious and caressing across the edge of the desk. “Yes, I see. That’s close! Good job,” he said uncertainly.

“Should be! Seven weeks for annotation and code.” Beardsley was watching Arnold’s fingers; there was something aimless and fretful as they pushed among the code-sealed tapes. Beardsley made his voice casual. “If it interests you,” he said, “yes--you are there.”

He wanted a reaction and he got it.

“Me!” Arnold stiffened, pulled his fingers away hastily.

“That surprises you? Don’t worry, you’re not one of the Primes; probably be rejected on the first run. It’s just that you once knew Carmack rather well. Cal Tech, wasn’t it, when Carmack was doing his special work on magnetronics? Naturally you’ve had contact since, due to the nature of your job.”

Arnold nodded, frowning. “That’s right. It just hadn’t occurred to me that--”

Beardsley realized that he wasn’t lying. It was not the thought of his own tape that bothered Arnold.

“Oh, we’re thorough over at ‘Coördinates Division!’” Beardsley laughed, making a minor joke of it. “Now here,” he touched a spool labelled in red, “is your Basic Invariant. Carmack--Amos T. Murdered man. Found bludgeoned in library of his home, night of April 4. Age 56, held all outstanding patents on ECAIAC, worth millions, and”--he looked up, beaming--”leaves beautiful wife.”

He paused for the merest moment. Save for a soft drumming of fingers on the desk, Arnold was silent.

“And here’s a sub-Basic: Mrs. Carmack will be a rich woman now. She was considerably younger than Carmack--and she’s been having an affair with another man.” Beardsley smiled at Jeff Arnold. “That’s a sociological note beyond our sphere, but we managed to get the data. I’ll bet the department was appalled that such a gorgeous woman could be resolved into neo-Euclidian equations!”

“Why?” Arnold was suddenly irritable. “It’s been done a thousand times before!”

“Of course,” shrugged Beardsley. “And it’s really up to ECAIAC, isn’t it? A Prime can be negated, while on the other hand a variant can shift from possible to Logical to Prime. Or am I wrong? I’ve never been up on the mechanics.”

Arnold grunted. “There’s bound to be some correlatory shift! The Primes--how many did you say?”

“Three as of now.”

Arnold rose abruptly, then strode to the alco-mech and dialled himself another drink. He took an uncommonly long time about it. “Look,” he said, “we both know about these things! In a case like this there are bound to be political repercussions--” He hit Beardsley with a gauging glance. “Well,” he blurted, “I have to admit I’m damn curious! Mind telling me who are the three Primes? Ah--strictly off the record, you understand.”

Beardsley had expected something like this, and he was quite ready to answer; but he carefully removed his glasses, massaged the bridge of his nose and frowned. “Well, now...”

“Come on, give! I know it’s against protocol and all that ... but hell! We’ll have the answer anyway in a matter of hours.”

Beardsley nodded with a show of thoughtfulness. “Yes, that’s true, isn’t it? Very well. But strictly off the record! I warn you--not only will the first Prime startle you, but the information could be dangerous!”

He waited a moment, then he leaned forward and whispered: “Mandleco!”

For a moment Arnold didn’t move. His face was ludicrous. Then Beardsley saw his hands clench.

“Mandleco!” the word jolted from his lips. “George Mandleco, Minister of Justice? I don’t believe you!”

“It’s a fact,” Beardsley told him. “Right now he equates into an uncertain Prime.”

“Yes, yes ... but Mandleco! Good Lord...”

“I said uncertain Prime. As you mentioned yourself, there is sure to be a shift of variants. Surely you have faith in ECAIAC?”

“Of course! But Mandleco, why Mandleco?”

“Why not? He was a friend of Carmack’s--or a business associate shall we say? He worked with Carmack on the ECAIAC lobby, was largely responsible for pushing it through.”

“Yes, I--say, that’s right! It would be in C-F...”

“There are things,” murmured Beardsley, “in Central File that would astound you.”

Arnold was staring at the coded tapes. “Mandleco,” he breathed. “And with elections coming up!” He shook himself out of the daze. “The--the other two Primes?”

“Next is not so startling. A really strong Recessive Factor there ... Professor Karl Losch.”

Arnold jerked erect suddenly. “Losch? Say, I remember him! Now there’s a man pursued by bad luck. He was working along similar lines to Carmack--in fact, wasn’t he in Carmack’s employ for a while?--but Carmack was first with the patents. You don’t suppose that Losch--”

“I’m not supposed to suppose,” Beardsley said softly. “But clinically, it is interesting to note that motive factor alone equates Losch from Logical into Prime. Plus a high neuro-thalamic imbalance--132 over 80 on the last Index, with pronounced efforts at suppression.”

He watched Arnold absorb that, and went on: “Now for the third Prime. I think it’ll interest you...”

He waited deliberately. He looked at Jeff Arnold for a long moment and saw that the man was calm. Too calm. So absolutely motionless that it wasn’t real.

“Third Prime. A strong one, believe me. In a way most interesting of all.” He pressed the words out slowly and flatly. “The third Prime,” said Beardsley, “is ... Pederson.”

He watched Arnold relax ever so slowly, leaning back, the tension going away as he uncoiled in the chair; but the young man’s face wasn’t so much relieved as it was puzzled.

“Pederson. Pederson? I don’t seem to--You can’t mean Brook Pederson, the one-time tele-columnist?”

“None other. I don’t suppose you remember, but back in ‘60 he opposed the ECAIAC lobby. I mean opposed it, fought it! Predicted that Government installation of such a machine would not inspire confidence, that the nation’s crime rate would rise ... he saw nothing but chaos. For a while there he was quite a man. Got himself a following. Had ambitions.”

“But I do remember it!” Arnold thumped the desk. “Of course! Pederson headed a bloc against ‘Carmack’s Folly,’ but he backed the wrong horse, and when the bubble burst he was out in the cold. Became a laughing stock.” Arnold paused, and his glance held something of shrewdness and a livening challenge. “Actually, Pederson couldn’t have been more wrong. In those first two years ECAIAC reduced the crime-rate by some forty percent.”

“So it’s claimed!” This was a sore point and Beardsley rose to the bait. “It couldn’t be that crime was on the down-grade already? I could show you plenty of statistics that--why, I could show you methods--”

“I’ll just bet you could.” Arnold gave a thin tolerant smile. “I refuse to enter that argument again, not with you, Beardsley. I for one trust in machines not in evolution. I’ve told you before...”

And Beardsley found himself sitting there with a flush of heat at his hair-roots, half-angry and half foolish as he realized how he had been baited.

Jeff Arnold was abruptly all business. He plunged his finger at a button, spoke into the intercom. “Joe! How’s that test-run coming?”

“All-X so far! Give us ten minutes for clearance.”

“Take twenty, but make sure it’s clearance. Checked Quantitative, have you? How about feed-backs? ... yes ... what’s that? Semantic circuits! Hell yes, check all synaptics for clearance! I want no excess data fouling up this run!”

He clicked off and sat there moodily, and Beardsley watched him, noting the quick nervous rhythm of Arnold’s fingers. Arnold noticed it, too, and desisted.

“Look,” he said. “Mandleco, Losch, Pederson. Those three Primes just don’t make sense to me!”

“They don’t?” Beardsley allowed just the proper note of resentment. “Surely you are not questioning Coördinates...”

“You know I’m not! But--”

Beardsley waited, knowing it was coming now. The thing Arnold had been aching to voice for the past five minutes.

“But--well, damn it, there is Mrs. Carmack, for example. As you pointed out yourself, she’ll be a rich woman now! It would seem to me--”

“That she’d be a Prime? I’m surprised at you, Jeff; that’s ancient thinking.” If there was a trace of sarcasm, it was lost on Arnold. “Oh, I grant you it used to hold true--principle beneficiary was always prime suspect. Fiction especially was full of it. Queen, Dickson Carr, Boucher you--know the ilk. But with ECAIAC we’ve gotten away from all that, haven’t we?”

Arnold stared at him suspiciously, hesitated, then brought it out with an effort. “Well--how did she equate?”

“Who? Oh yes, the beautiful widow. She only made Logical, and even that is borderline.”

“I see.” Arnold rose, dialled himself another drink, then changed his mind and put it down untouched. He turned to gather up the tapes, and his voice was apologetic.

“It’s not that I’d ever questioned Coördinates Division! We’re too closely aligned for that, Raoul...” (First time he’s ever used my first name, thought Beardsley.) “You have a splendid record to uphold, as we do here at Mechanical. That’s why ... well, I want to get this off as smoothly as possible!”

Something indefinable, a queasy feeling, took Beardsley about the middle. He said sharply: “Any reason why not?”

“No, not really. But in recent weeks--I tell you this in strictest confidence, understand!--in recent weeks it’s been a rather ticklish thing to get total synaptic clearance.”

Synaptics? Beardsley began thinking back to the Crime-Central “Required Annual Basic.” The Mechanical had never been his strong point. He said uncertainly, “But--that’s serious!”

“It’s just that we’ve found ECAIAC holding back excess data from previous runs. Fouls up the relays, takes hours to iron out the clearance.” Arnold gave him a keen look. “More of a nuisance really, but the weirdest thing. Stubborn!”

Stubborn. Beardsley could have thought of a better word. Through the panelled glass he glimpsed the black metal sheathe of the monster out there, the shapeless crouching and malevolent winking lights, and he felt himself going to pieces inside with a sudden shaking crumble; he hated himself for it but he couldn’t stop it; his hands clenched until the knuckles showed white.

“ ... matter of time until we find the cause,” Arnold was saying, “but I guarantee total clearance today. Shall we get on with it?” Hands loaded with tapes, he moved for the door.

“No!” Beardsley cried. “Arnold, if you don’t mind, I--”

“Oh, for God’s sake, not again! Raoul, I swear I’m going to do something about this phobia of yours; it’s getting to be not so funny any more.” With a show of exasperation, Arnold propelled him through the door. “I give you my absolute word our pet won’t snap at you. Not today. It’s going to be far too busy for the likes of you!”

And Jeff Arnold was right, Beardsley discovered. Those baleful overtones were gone, replaced by a sustained soft whisper along the ninety-foot hull--a rather impatient whisper but not at all unpleasant. Beardsley relaxed by slow degrees, but kept a cautious distance, while Arnold pointed out every light along the length flashing green for Total Clearance.

“She’s rarin’ to go,” said Arnold with a display of good humor, “but we’ll let her wait a while, eh?” He clapped a friendly arm across Beardsley’s shoulder. “You just come along now and watch; I think your trouble is, you’ve never been properly introduced! We’ll have no more of this feudin’ and fussin’ between you and ECAIAC.”

So Beardsley, showing more courage than he felt, trailed the cyberneticist through every unit of final check-up. Much of it he knew already from the “Required Annual Basic” ... or thought he knew. For this was so different from the Manuals! He felt at once ashamed and awed as he viewed at first hand the unfolding schematic structure. He was thrilled at sight of the selectors and analyzers of processed beryllium, the logic-and-semantic circuits in complex little bundles, the sensitized variant-tapes waiting for transferral impress, all revealed by a flick of Arnold’s fingers that threw open entire sheathed sections to bare the inner secrets. The thousands of tiny transistors amazed Beardsley. The endless array of electric eyes startled him. And the spongy centers of synaptic cell-clusters horrified him, recalling too vividly to mind what he knew of the physical human brain.

Along the monstrous length he trailed Jeff Arnold; he trailed and he watched and he listened, not interfering once by word or gesture. And before it was over his heart was surging with a great revelatory beat because suddenly he knew... he knew...

Arnold seemed in high good humor as they paced back. “So,” he nudged Beardsley in the ribs, “we’ll have no more of this nonsense between you and ECAIAC. Eh? You’re just bound to be good friends now.”

Beardsley didn’t answer. The revelation was still too much with him. He watched as Arnold conferred with a group of his techs about a micro-chron, and the time was carefully noted for Central Record.

Then the first of the tapes went in. The Basic Invariant--Amos Carmack.

It reached synapse and a tiny blip registered on cue.

The rest of the tapes fed in, razoring through the rollers, past the selenic-sensitized tips of the relays. There was no progressive order. After the Basic Invariant progression didn’t matter. Possible or Logical or Prime, all factors would correlate or cancel; any divergent status-shift would be duly handled by transferral impress.

Beardsley counted the tapes. Twenty ... twenty-one ... twenty-two.

The techs dispersed, taking up their various posts where special eject-tapes clicked out a second-by-second record of the progression.

Nothing much happened. The sound of ECAIAC became a steady inundant drone; or did Beardsley just imagine that he detected something of the gleeful in it? With an effort he put the thought from him, and keeping a cautious distance he took a turn around the monster, up one side and down the other.

He stopped by Jeff Arnold, who was jotting down figures from the chrono. That seemed silly, as nothing had happened yet.

Arnold glanced up and grinned at him, as if totally unconcerned that this was the most repercussive case in the entire history of Crime-Central! A little disconcerted, Beardsley said, “What happens first?”

“Oh, plenty is happening. But the first you’ll notice will be a total reject. Watch when that happens. Complete silence, every light red for exactly two and a half seconds--the reject, and then everything continues.”

“How about Transferral Impress? You know--possible to Logical, or Logical to Prime?”

Arnold paused over his notes for the merest instant. “Why--it’s progressive, of course. That you won’t notice!”

Beardsley stared at him curiously, started to speak and then changed his mind. He wandered again, watching the techs but not interfering. And suddenly he was aware that the first total reject had come. It happened with smooth and sudden silence just as Arnold had described, ECAIAC breaking pace for mere seconds ... then all was clear again, and one of the techs hurried down the aisle with the tape, which he handed to Arnold.

Beardsley was aware of a wild pounding of pulse as he stared at the anonymous tape. One of the fifteen “possibles”? It might even be a rejected Logical. Mrs. Carmack? She was borderline. Or a Prime! It could be Mandleco himself--or Losch or Pederson. No ... it was unlikely any Primes would fall this early...

But maybe they were no longer Primes! Maybe right now Transferral Impress was at work, maybe one or more of them was being relegated to lower coördinate-status somewhere there in the entrails...

He felt a bounding excitement. And, as if reading his thoughts, Jeff Arnold gave him an amused look.

“Don’t let it get to you, Raoul. I used to find it the same; we all do. But then you get to thinking, hell, why try to guess? Identities don’t matter now!” He indicated the coded tape. “A total reject--anonymous. ECAIAC’s way of telling us that person could not possibly be the murderer.”

“But--you’re not even curious?”

“At rejects? Why?” Arnold seemed perplexed. “Oh, you mean because I’m among the ‘possibles.’ Frankly it doesn’t bother me. I know I’m not the murderer, and I have faith in ECAIAC. If this isn’t my tape, the next will be--or the eighth, or the fifteenth.”

Beardsley nodded slowly. With ECAIAC it was only the final equate that mattered, the total result of Cumulative. He saw the truth in that, and the perfection. Or--his eyes beneath the glasses came to a quick bright focus--was it quite perfection? He watched in silence as Arnold consulted the micro-chron and jotted more notes. Rej. Q-9 (code): ( .008 synap. circ.): 11:23 A.M.

Beardsley wandered again, watching the techs. A sudden shivering seized him. How could they remain so calm? Were they so close to the forest they couldn’t notice? Something was about to happen ... to him it was unmistakable, in the very atmosphere, sharpened and heightened by the four walls--a pervading sense of wrongness and a pyramiding tension.

Even Arnold wasn’t aware; audibly nothing had changed, as ECAIAC continued its soft-clicking whisper and the techs methodically checked the progress tapes. Beardsley stood numbly for a moment, struggling against a welter of panic. Palms sweating, he moved a safe distance away and waited.

Eight minutes later came another reject. Six minutes later, the third. ECAIAC continued its blithe, soft-throated rhythm--but Beardsley was not fooled.

Someone sent out for coffee. It arrived in steaming thermo-containers. Beardsley was on his first cup of coffee when rejects 4, 5 and 6 came through.

He was on his second cup when number 7 ejected, and he had just taken a last swallow when all hell broke loose.

It wasn’t much different from the other rejects. Total silence, every light in every section red ... trouble was, they couldn’t seem to get together again. Some went back to green, others blinked with ominous uncertainty, still others said “to hell with it” and exploded in vicious shards of glass that sprayed across the room. That was only the beginning. Twenty feet from Beardsley came a louder explosion, a sort of muffled hissing. He ducked, as a complete bank of transistors zoomed past his head. From a dozen places along the ninety-foot length angry trails of smoke poured out. A tech yelled “Damn!” as he pulled back a burned hand. Sheathes crashed open. Long strands of vari-colored wire burst out and began a crazy aimless writhing, accompanied by an ominous buzzing sound as if a swarm of angry metallic bees had escaped. Someone was yelling, “Master-switch! The master-switch!”

Beardsley saw Arnold leap to the master-switch, where he became entangled with a tech who was screaming at him, “My God, sir, hurry! It’s BREAKDOWN!”

Cursing, Arnold shoved the man aside and pulled the controls.

But now that it was roused, ECAIAC didn’t want to give up so easily. There came a staccato series of minor explosions--defiant gesture, thought Beardsley!--before silence engulfed the room together with a drift of acrid smoke.

It was acrid and angry smoke. From a safe distance Beardsley adjusted his glasses and observed the frantic, scurrying techs, many of them nursing burned hands. Aside from a pounding heart he was amazed at his own calm; nevertheless, he tread with caution as he approached Arnold, who was on his haunches dolefully surveying the area of major damage.

“Uh--is it something serious?”

Arnold glared up at him. “Overload on the feed-backs. If that’s all it is, we can pull out the unit and replace it in a few hours.”

“Never happened before, eh?”

“Not like this,” Arnold groaned. “Lord--it just seemed to go berserk!”

Beardsley glanced around nervously. “You see? You see? I didn’t think our beautiful friendship could last...”

Arnold snarled, “Get out, Beardsley! What the hell you doing here anyway? Go somewhere and read a book!”

“Yes. Yes, I--” Beardsley swallowed hastily. He then straightened, took a last look around and pulled himself together. Without a word, he turned and strode resolutely into Jeff Arnold’s office; he closed the door carefully, then hurried over to the stat and pushed the button for priority.

“Hello,” he said. “Mandleco’s office? ... this is Mechanical Division ... no, I want Mandleco ... I don’t care, get him I said! This is emergency! Put him on at once!”

Mandleco arrived twenty minutes later. The Minister of Justice was tall and raw-boned with a long hook-nose, a shock of whitening hair, and more than a suggestion of military arrogance. He paused for precisely one second in the doorway, then strode straight over to Jeff Arnold. Before saying a word he bent slightly and peered into the maze of mechanism.

Beardsley wanted to say, “Do you find the cause of the trouble, sir?” But he held his tongue.

Mandleco straightened up, glaring. “Arnold, what is the meaning of this?”

“Breakdown, sir.”

“I can see that! The cause, man, the cause!”

“I--it’s only the feed-back, sir.” Arnold struggled with the terminals, most of which were a fused and tangled mess. “Not as bad as it looks, I assure you. I’ve already contacted Maintenance; they’re sending up a new unit.”

“What precisely does that mean? Can you complete the run or not! This has got to go through today!”

Arnold touched a hot terminal, jerked back his hand and swore. “It will, sir. Give us a few hours. We had seven total rejects, so I doubt the tapes are at fault. More like a synaptic overload. Transferrals are okay, so I want to try it with a stepped-up synaptic check; that’ll alleviate any overload without drain on the minor selective, which is better than setting up complete new correlation-grams.”

It was too much for Mandleco. Grinding a fist in his palm, he stared into the matrix and muttered, “Unprecedented. Absolutely unprecedented! Arnold, I just can’t understand why--”

“Happened pretty suddenly,” Beardsley intruded. His voice was low and laden with meaning. “Almost as if it had gone berserk! And little wonder, if you ask me...”

Mandleco turned quickly. “Eh? What do you mean?”

“Well ... how would you feel if you had just been handed the news, out of the blue, that someone you loved had been brutally murdered? ECAIAC reacted, is all. She must have regarded Carmack as a father--”

Arnold looked up in amazement. “Beardsley, will you stop that crazy nonsense!”

“Nonsense?” Beardsley appeared hurt. “Why--you said yourself that you wanted me and ECAIAC to become great friends!” He appealed to Mandleco. “That’s what he said, sir, and he even took pains to introduce me and all, and--”

“It was in the nature of a joke, sir!” Arnold’s voice rose an octave. “A private little joke, and he’s trying to make it appear--”

“Stop it, stop it!” Mandleco thundered. “Arnold--you get that new unit installed on the double! Put your best men on it. That’s an order! Beardsley, I’m glad you had the presence of mind to contact me. Commendable, most commendable.”

Arnold scowled, hit Beardsley with an accusing look.

“Above all,” said Mandleco, “not a word of this must leak! Damn it, why should this have to happen now? Public confidence will be undermined if they think ECAIAC is--is--”

“Not infallible?” suggested Beardsley.

“Exactly. You hear me, Arnold? Not a word of this must get out!”

“I’m sure it won’t,” Arnold glared venomously at Beardsley, “if you’ll just keep him away from the tele-stats.”

The Minister of Justice walked away, still muttering something about public confidence and political repercussions. Beardsley kept pace beside him until they were across the room. Then he spoke, timidly at first.

“Pardon me, sir, but--I’d like to ask you something.” His voice was low and confidential. “If you’ll just look around you...”

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