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Thinker Contents

1. The Baby is Born   2. Susan   3. The Plan   4. The Diversion

5. The Departure   Epilog

The Baby is Born

Chapter 1

"But it’s not intelligence. That’s the crux of the problem, Willie. It’s not really intelligence!"

Professor Charles Mellon sucked hard on his pipe making it sputter and whistle.

"We’ve built pattern recognition systems, tactile feedback systems … we’ve even built systems that learn. But none of it’s really intelligent!"

"True," his plump colleague agreed. "We seem to have engineered all of the support systems. We have the pieces of the body, so to speak But we still don’t have the mind."

"Exactly!" Mellon exclaimed. "What is it that makes us so unique and special among all Earth’s creatures?"

Charles Mellon and Wilfred Schulz were enjoying one of their day’s end think-aloud sessions in Mellon’s office. Outside, the campus lights were winking on. They were both widely known in their respective fields. Mellon was the chairman of the university’s department of computer sciences. And Schulz was a full professor in the school of electrical engineering. Their collaboration on various projects over the years had been a fruitful one. Each held important patents and had authored several books. They had co-authored what was generally considered to be the standard reference on robotics.

In the adjoining office David Osterlund, a junior majoring in electronics, attempted to repair a broken computer terminal. An electronics whiz kid, David was on a full engineering scholarship at Watson University. Wilfred Schulz had early discerned David’s uncanny ability to troubleshoot hardware. He steered minor repair jobs David’s way whenever possible. The money came in handy.

The thing that distinguished David from other engineering undergraduates was the potential he had exhibited in the software domain. In his freshman year David had taken a machine intelligence course in Professor Mellon’s department and had handily beaten all of the computer science majors, including the upper classmen.

Mellon and Schulz were heroes to young Osterlund. He had read several of their books and felt honored now to be privy to one of their conversations. Professor Mellon’s question begged for an answer. What was it that made life forms in general, and humans in particular, so special? There was a volition there … a derring-do … an attack on life that no machine had yet equaled. David’s young mind tuned the conversation in the other office out and circled the question, considering it from different perspectives, thrusting, groping, looking for an opening. He more or less automatically found the problem in the computer terminal and fixed it. As he tinkered, Professor Mellon peered in from the adjoining office.

How’s it coming, Osterlund?" he inquired amiably.

"Fine, sir. I think I’ve got it," David replied, looking up with undisguised admiration. The look did not go unnoticed.

"We’re leaving for the day," Professor Mellon smiled. "Pull the door shut on your way out, okay?"

"Will do," David promised.

Professor Schulz’s round face peeked around Mellon’s tweed jacket. He grinned jovially and winked.

"See you tomorrow in class, Osterlund," he exclaimed.

"I’ll be there, sir."

*

It was dark when David finally stepped into the hallway and pulled the office suite door shut behind him. He tested the door, making sure that it was locked. The square, black letters on the frosted glass panel attested to Professor Mellon’s rank. ‘COMPUTER SCIENCE’ they read. Other professor’s got their names on the door; the chairman got the department’s name.

The hallway, though well lit, seemed darker than during the day and was disconcertingly empty. Tomorrow throngs of students would ply the halls of the computer sciences building. But for now the building seemed to be all but deserted. Three doors down a frosted panel glowed white. Was a professor working late, or had he left the lights on in his office?

With a sigh David turned and padded toward the exit. A bulletin board, posted with upcoming computer science events, glided past in the cold light. With a vague feeling of urgency David hurried past it. He found the exit and pushed through the heavy wooden doors.

The familiar and welcome sight of the evening campus greeted him. Here and there pairs of students strolled along the walkways quietly conversing. In the distance a chorus of male voices exploded in laughter. The door of the building clunked dully shut behind David.

"What is it that makes us so special?" The question coursed through David’s mind again and again as he made his way across campus. Could the answer be codified? Could such special qualities be emulated in a computer? Did a solution lie in software innovations and emerging hardware technologies?

David entered his room, shed his jacket and switched on the desk lamp. Four hours of homework lay between him and sleep. It wasn’t easy but he finally settled into the work assignments. When he slipped into bed after midnight, the refrain started up again in his mind. "What is it … what is it? Can it be programmed?" David had no idea as he drifted into a fitful sleep how the answers would affect his life in profound and wonderful ways.

Chapter 2

It was an interesting time to be alive! Technologies of the century’s earliest decades --- artificial intelligence, massive parallel processing arrays, picocircuitry, molecular memories --- all were maturing at a dizzying rate. The stage was set for something big to happen. Many agreed that the ‘something’ would be a breakthrough in machine intelligence … not just the familiar intelligence of robots, but real intelligence. Talk was rife in academia of a new ‘dimension’ in information processing…of a machine endowed with subjective intelligence and self-awareness. Theologians and clergy bristled and railed from the pulpit against the notion that such a new dimension would be ‘soul,’ or at any rate was possible without soul. Philosophers pondered the implications of a machine that would think like a human being but would do it a billion or more times faster! Military men around the world warned of the consequences if America’s adversaries were to develop such a capability first. Scholarly journals occasionally featured learned papers on the subject.

In his senior year David was invited to participate in the university’s doctoral program in computer sciences. The invitation came from none other than Professor Charles Mellon. David had been recommended for the program by Professor Schulz, his advisor in the electronic engineering department.

"Why not in electronics?" David had asked when Professor Schulz first suggested the graduate program in computer sciences.

Professor Schulz studied the young man across his desk. He sensed a small crisis in self-confidence.

"David," Professor Schulz began, "you’re one of the most gifted students I’ve ever had in electronics. But I’m going to tell you something. The hardware technologies in electronics are pretty much all in place. In my opinion, the next big breakthrough will come when the right technologies are combined with new and innovative software algorithms and rule sets. I’m talking about software that hasn’t even been conceptualized yet. If electronics were your only strong suit then I’d steer a fellowship your way in a heartbeat. But you’ve shown such a flair for software development that I think it would be a mistake for you not to see where that creativity might lead you in graduate studies."

Schulz paused. Behind the jolly face a keen mind studied his prize student. When David fidgeted in his chair, Schulz continued.

"You know, it’s a rare ability to be able to wear both hats competently. Lots of people are strong in hardware, while others show great ability in software. Only a few, however, are truly at ease in and can move freely through both disciplines. And I expect that it’s only by being at home in both fields that a young mind like yours will unlock some of the secrets everyone’s talking about."

Again Schulz paused. David felt the color rise in his cheeks. Schulz’s assessment had been correct. Despite his abilities, David was experiencing youthful self-doubts. Was Professor Schulz really giving him good advice, or was he just trying to distance himself?

"Well, I’m flattered to hear you say that, sir," David remarked, trying but failing to hide his confusion. Professor Schulz read the signs correctly.

"Please believe me, David," he said earnestly, laying a friendly hand on David’s forearm. "I’d love to have you go for a doctorate in my department. I’d even sign your thesis. But I honestly believe that the right move for you now is in computer sciences. Great things … historic things are in the air over there."

It was the first time a professor had touched David in such a solicitous manner. David sensed that Schulz didn’t do it often. His doubts began to evaporate.

"Naturally," Professor Schulz continued," I expect that as a graduate student you’ll be taking some advanced courses in electronics. But you should channel your creative juices primarily into systems … specifically into machine intelligence software. That’s where the next big breakthrough is going to occur. Think about it, won’t you?"

David nodded that he would. Professor Schulz leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.

"The world is poised to give birth to a new baby, David. It will, at the very least, be a true peer of mankind. Hopefully it will prove to be a valuable and trusted friend. Your generation will in all likelihood produce that baby."

"True intelligence," David murmured, remembering the conversation he had overheard the previous term.

"True intelligence," Professor Schulz affirmed, privately approving the distinction that David had drawn from artificial intelligence. "Several preliminary thrusts have been made. We’ve discussed most of them in class: massive parallel processing at MIT and Stanford, advanced learning algorithms at Cal Tech and so on. But so far none of it adds up to true, subjective intelligence. No one has managed to endow a machine with a sense of self."

"The thing that makes us special," David reflected.

Instantly Schulz remembered a conversation he’d had with Charles Mellon months earlier. And he remembered saying goodnight to David, who had been repairing a terminal in the adjoining lab and must have overheard them talking.

"The thing that makes us special," Professor Schulz repeated quietly, his eyes narrowing imperceptibly.

"Well, sir, on your recommendation I think I’m going to go ahead then and apply for graduate studies in computer sciences."

"Splendid!" Professor Schulz exclaimed.

"I hope I get in," David smiled sheepishly.

Professor Schulz chuckled.

"You will," he said reassuringly. Then added with a grin, "Just don’t screw up the next few hour exams." Standing up and signaling the end of their visit, he extended his hand.

"Thanks for the advice, sir," David said.

Professor Schulz nodded.

"I’m glad, David," he said. "All things considered, there’s a good chance that you’ll be there when this new companion for mankind takes form."

David left the office in a state of euphoria. What had he done to deserve such fabulous luck? He vowed to pick up the application papers and fill them out that weekend.

The next day he received a call from the computer sciences secretary. Could he drop by that afternoon, say about 3 O’clock, to meet with Dr. Mellon?

"I’ll be there," David promised eagerly. He expected that the chairman of computer sciences had talked with Professor Schulz and wanted to ask him some questions … look him over, so to speak. Instead, Professor Mellon briefly explained that Dr. Schulz had recommended David for PhD studies in computer sciences, and that the department hoped David would apply.

"I intend to," David gulped, again feeling his face go hot. For the second time in as many days David left a faculty office with a light head.

It had been an incredible week! The future was bursting with possibilities! David recalled Professor Schulz’s imagery. Scientists would give birth to a new baby. Of course! It would be a baby at first! But what were the mechanisms that transformed babies into sentient, rational adults? What common logic do all babies start life out with? And how do they use that logic to sort information into good and bad, truth and fiction, right and wrong? Could such mechanisms be emulated in a computer? If so, where would the resulting, self-created processing of a new generation computer lead?

David considered the potential of such a machine. What might the thing evolve into, and at what prodigious speeds? Mankind had grown accustomed to the fact that computers process information billions of times faster than human minds can. But the processing in a computer had always been programmed by human beings. The results, at least in theory, were always predictable. The next generation machine --- the baby that Dr. Schulz referred to --- would be different! It would create its own programming from an ‘inherited’ core of logic, quite as human beings appear to do. But it would do it so much faster!

David realized that the machine’s inherited logic --- its instincts, so to speak --- were the key. That was the part that mankind, the creator, would endow the machine with. That would be the dynamo that would drive all ‘higher level’ processing. It would color the machine’s learning processes and it would shape the conclusions drawn by the machine.

No one could predict with certainty what those conclusions would be…whether they would be in the best interests of humankind or otherwise. It was a sobering thought.

"Ah, well," David mused, "if in doubt, we can always pull the plug."

But he wondered what it would be like if such a machine truly turned out to be a friend. Would its human creators become attached to it? Would anyonewant to pull the plug?

"If push comes to shove," he wondered darkly, "will some technology nut like myself side with the machine against his own kind?"

David thought of the world of men. How long would it be before a super-fast thinking machine sized mankind up objectively?

"And," he thought ironically, "what happens when the child outstrips the parent by a hundred million fold?"

 Chapter 3

 David filled out the application to graduate school. Always a high achiever, he now found himself seized with a new passion! The timing was right. Seniors at the university were required to take only a token course or two during their final undergraduate semester. The intent was to give them adequate free time to work on their senior theses.

David had worked out the framework for a subjective processing function within a few weeks after receiving Dr. Mellon’s invitation. The questions that had plagued him ever since overhearing the conversation between Professors Mellon and Schulz had been only the tip of thought at deeper, subconscious levels. When the results finally erupted into consciousness, they took shape as a set of rules and layered voting mechanisms that would process external inputs, along with the contents of internal memory, and would feed conclusions to not one but many ‘threads of consciousness’. The entire process would be controlled by an ingenious self-interest executive function that promised to give the machine a sense of self…a sense of place…an ability to work out relationships with its environment.

All of the important questions and issues relating to ‘true’ or human-like intelligence were addressed, and plausible design approaches were devised. Mechanisms were even included whereby the machine could replace its original, ‘inherited’ logic with new, more efficient logic if and when such improvements were formulated. State of the art hardware technologies in parallel processing and massive information storage and retrieval were configured in support of the processing functions. In essence the design of a creative and intelligent thinking machine was presented. If everything worked, the machine would evolve into a presence that would eventually conclude with all the authority of its human creators, "I think. Therefore I am!"

David documented his ideas in a study plan for his senior thesis. It had been decided that Dr. Mellon would be his thesis advisor. Charles Mellon began reading David’s proposals at home one evening during Thanksgiving break. His wife, Agnes, grown accustomed over the years to his ways, went quietly to bed at 11 p.m. She knew that sometime before dawn he would steal into the bedroom, trying mightily not to disturb her. He would change into his pajamas and slip furtively into bed with a tired sigh. And she, always awakened by some nurturing instinct, would whisper "Hi" and would rub his back. Sometimes he would talk into the darkness for awhile. She would listen and massage, understanding little. Other times he would say nothing but would only roll over, kiss her and drop off to sleep. This turned out to be one of the quieter evenings. He came in a little after 3 a.m.

"How did it go?" she asked softly after he had slipped between the sheets. He rolled over and pulled her close so that her face lay in the hollow between his shoulder and chest. It was her favorite spot.

It seemed to her that he was reaching out into the darkness for the right words. After a time his chest heaved a sigh.

"I think I have just had a peek at an idea that will revolutionize the world," he said.

She paused in the darkness considering the words. Charles was not given to hyperbole.

"That’s fascinating," she murmured at length. "Is it the work of one of your students?"

"Yes. Happily!" he answered. His legs twitched under the covers, as if they wanted to jog a mile or so. She knew his mind was racing.

"Should we have him over for dinner?" she asked, slipping her hand inside his pajama top and stroking the white hairs on his chest. The aroma of his pipe came to her.

"Yes … yes, that would be nice," he replied. "He’s starting next fall on a PhD and I’ve decided to be his dissertation advisor. We really must plan to have him over soon."

After a time his breathing deepened. Agnes clung to wakefulness for a while longer. She wondered what the young man might be like, this youth who had evidently awed the head of one of academia’s most prestigious departments in computer science. He must be something special. Charles was no fool. Would he be capricious, as youth so often is? Would he disappoint or embarrass Charles in some way? Protective instincts stirred within her. She would assess him with a cordial but cool eye when they met. Perhaps she would fire a warning shot or two across his bow. His technical prowess, which had so clearly won Charles over, would not impress her. He would be given no option other than that of relating to her on human terms. Above all, she would demand his complete respect for her husband.

Chapter 4

Professor Mellon spent the next day going over David Osterlund’s material again. In the morning he reread it in his study, jotting down notes and listing questions. In the afternoon he took a long walk, seeking out the quieter streets. Fall was nearly over. Soon Christmas decorations would appear in the windows of houses. He reflected on the many cultural traditions of mankind. Rules, spells, chants…for what purpose? Were they intended to ward off evil spirits? Were they meant to bring good luck? The more he thought about it, the more enormous the gap between man’s knowledge and his superstitious beliefs seemed to grow.

Charles had little doubt that David Osterlund had solved the subjective enigma. An unexpected surprise was the built-in mechanism for self-induced evolution. In effect, Osterlund admitted up front that the constructs of his feeble mind would in all probability be overtaken and revolutionized in unknown ways by the machine he proposed to create.

Self-induced evolution: it was an intriguing concept. Mankind had physically and mentally evolved, hopefully for the better, over thousands of generations of hit or miss tosses of the genetic dice. Death for the old and fresh starts for the young were intrinsic to the evolution of organic life. But with Osterlund’s machine, transitions from generation to generation would be purely…purely what??? Mental? Was it even appropriate to say ‘mental’? Over a period of time the hardware might persist unchanged, but the being…the presence…would grow and even induce mutations in itself! Indeed one could not even preclude the prospect of the thing re-inventing its own hardware!

And then there was the speed and multiple threads of consciousness business. Would the thing be one presence, consciously thinking of many things simultaneously? Did that even make sense? What on earth might such a process be like? Charles realized that he could only think about one thing at a time. What might it be like to consciously think of hundreds…perhaps thousands of things simultaneously? It seemed as if Osterlund’s architecture did more than add a human dimension to machine intelligence. It seemed as if it jumped into a hyper, superhuman dimension in a single bound!

How could individual human beings hope to monitor such a phenomenon? Charles didn’t know the answer or, for that matter, even if there was an answer. Even if the machine stepped through thought sequences at the "conscious" level in a single thread, as humans necessarily must, how could an organic mesh of nerves like the human brain hope to keep up with crystalline picocircuitry? The throughput of such crystal-based circuits could be expected to be a billion times that of their equivalents in living brains. And the machine would never tire. It would never need to sleep!

Charles Mellon tried to come to grips with how big a billion is. He pulled out his calculator.

"One billion seconds, divided by sixty seconds per minute, divided by sixty minutes per hour…" Carefully he entered the numbers. When he had divided by 365 days in a year, he stopped and looked up into the somber autumn sky. A billion seconds translated to over thirty years! Was it possible…was it even remotely conceivable that in one second just one of the thousands of threads of consciousness in such a machine would think as much as a human being could do in over 30 years? WITHOUT SLEEPING??? Given the multiple threads of consciousness in Osterlund’s design, such a machine might be expected to do the entire lifetime thinking of hundreds…perhaps thousands of human beings every second!

"Good grief!" he muttered aloud, continuing down the deserted street while sucking on his pipe nervously. "What are we getting into here?" It occurred to him that this might be how some of the more prescient physicists had felt on the Manhattan project way back when the first atomic bomb was in the works. Vague feelings of dread began to mingle with his admiration for David Osterlund’s genius. What would this young man create if they turned him on? And if not he, then perhaps some other young lion. The technology was there. The questions had been raised and addressed. At least one young scientist had advanced a plausible solution.

"There’s no stopping it," he thought fatalistically. "Any more than the development of nuclear weapons could have been stopped."

So, then. The objective must be to control it! But this was no inanimate pile of bombs and warheads! To lock it up was not to control it! The moment it was plugged in it was essentially out of control. And without plugging it in, it would never reinvent itself.

He pulled his calculator out again. If that thing really started to cook, and if it had unrestricted access to information at 5 O’clock on an afternoon, and if it had the deduced knowledge level of a Neanderthal at that time, then by 8 a.m. the next morning…Mellon stabbed at the keys of his calculator and blinked hard. He did the figures again. Yes, he’d made no mistake. If one assumed that human beings sleep and goof off half the time, then by eight the next morning a single thread of consciousness would have mentally evolved over 3 million years in human terms! And the Neanderthals had been trotting around in Europe less than a hundred thousand years ago!

Professor Mellon felt like he could no longer live with such possibilities alone. Resolutely he turned toward the Schulz residence and quickened his pace. The air was getting chilly. "Snow tonight," he guessed.

Twenty minutes later he was ringing the Schulz’s doorbell.

"Charles!" his friend’s round and ruddy face exclaimed. "What a pleasant surprise. Come in, come in!"

The warmth from the open door felt inviting. Doris Schulz was evidently cooking up something good for dinner, and it didn’t smell like turkey leftovers. Professor Schulz stepped aside. But rather than accept his invitation Charles thrust David Osterlund’s proposal toward him.

"Read this!" he muttered gruffly, immediately regretting his bossy tone. Wilfred Schulz looked down at the notes and then at his friend’s apologetic face.

"Yes. Yes, of course," he said in a puzzled voice.

Charles wheeled to leave, but then paused and looked back.

"We’ll talk tomorrow," he promised, his eyes beseeching Schulz’s understanding. Schulz’s quick grin indicated no offense had been taken. He raised the notebook to his forehead in scholarly salute and promised to look it over that evening.

"Tomorrow then, Charles. If you won’t come in, you’d better get home. It feels like snow."

Charles looked up into the dusky sky and nodded. A snowflake landed on his cheek. Without thinking he fished the pipe out of his overcoat pocket and clamped it between his teeth.

Chapter 5

Professor Mellon phoned Schulz the next morning from his office. They agreed to meet in Schulz’s office after lunch. Mellon knew, from the tone of Schulz’s voice on the phone, that his friend shared his own sense of wonder. He grinned gleefully.

"What did you think?" he asked casually before hanging up.

"Extraordinary. Most extraordinary," Schulz replied excitedly. They mutually agreed to reserve further discussion until their meeting.

Schulz’s office was the antithesis of Charles Mellon’s suite. Great metal bookcases threatened to capsize under stacks of books and journals. In a corner a large and ancient klystron tube gathered dust. A battered, wooden desk had clearly been with Schulz for a long time. Everything reflected the simple fact that Schulz was no administrator; he had no public image to uphold. His status as role model was little threatened by the clutter, and in some cases it was even enhanced. For compared to the rooms of most of his engineering students his office was a rather neat place.

"All is relative," Mellon thought as he entered. It was one of his favorite places to hide out from a department head’s duties. He always found it to be comfortable, warm and smelling of books. With a smile and "Hi!" he settled into the cozy den, far from the din of clicking keyboards and ringing phones.

"Well, well," Schulz began, fixing his eyes on his friend as Mellon sank with a sigh into the lone armchair. It gleefully occurred to Charles that he couldn’t quite place the look on Schulz’s face. It certainly wasn’t the familiar all’s right with the world look that usually marked the beginning of one of their chats. He crossed his legs and nodded, tamping tobacco into his pipe. Although Schulz didn’t smoke, he didn’t object to the fragrant aroma of Charles’ pipe.

"Many interesting things to consider," Schulz continued, still tiptoeing around the issue. Mellon nodded again, this time with the pipe stem clamped in his teeth. As always, it rattled and gurgled as he drew flame into the bowl. Pleasant smelling smoke swirled through the room and around his head.

"You will, of course, be his dissertation advisor?" Schulz stated more than asked.

"Oh, yes, of course, of course," Mellon affirmed, leaning back and clasping a knee with folded hands.

"I get the impression that Osterlund plans to do a more detailed design for his senior thesis … lay the foundation for his PhD work," Schulz surmised.

"M-m-m, yes, I expect so," Mellon agreed. They laughed at the prospect of David Osterlund deciding to do something different for his doctorate.

"Highly unusual … for an undergraduate to open a door of this magnitude," Schulz continued.

"I can tell you, it’s going to grab a lot of attention," Mellon stated.

"At DOD?" Schulz asked.

"Oh, sure. At Defense … a bunch of places in the federal sector alone."

"Will you tell anybody about it anytime soon?" Schulz pressed. Mellon thought about that for a moment.

"I think I’ll have to," he decided. "It’s going to cost."

"So true," Schulz agreed. David Osterlund’s proposed architecture contained some expensive technology. Yet, the overall concept played so well in Schulz’s head, and he knew in Mellon’s too, that it seemed all but certain the right parties would pony up the necessary funding.

"What an unusual young man," Schulz murmured. His eyes, usually full of mirth, were oddly serious and tinged with concern. "I’ve known him for nearly 4 years. Yet I had no idea he was this creative. All things considered, it’s a little unnerving."

"Yes, it is," Mellon agreed. He sucked on his pipe. "We’re going to have to work the control problem carefully. If we don’t, somebody else will."

"Control of the machine," Schulz seemed to confirm.

"Yes, of course," Mellon continued. "I did a few calculations." He recounted the numbers to Schulz, along with some of the implications.

"Fascinating!" Schulz responded. "Three million years overnight. Good heavens! We’ve grown accustomed to machines that do thousands of man-years of physical labor in a single day. We’ve known since the beginning that we aren’t the strongest beast in the jungle."

"But we’ve always been the smartest," Mellon rejoined, guessing Schulz’s meaning.

"Precisely!" Schulz continued. "That’s always been our edge. And now … suddenly …"

"I think we have to consider the effects that kind of mental horsepower may have on those who interact with it," Mellon suggested.

"Yes, to be sure," Schulz agreed. "It could turn out to be an enormously charismatic personality. We’ll need some predefined protocols … some guidelines to assess what it communicates to us."

"To find out if it’s lying to us?" Mellon clarified, laying things on the line.

"Quite so," Schulz confirmed without hesitation.

"Cripes, Willie!" Mellon exclaimed. "If this thing really works, it’s going to be providing us with new insights faster than we’ll know whether it’s leading us down a garden path or is divulging truths we might never deduce ourselves!"

"How is it going to judge our contentious world?" Schulz wondered. Mellon could only shake his head without answering. The last bastion of anthropomorphism --- man’s mythical belief in his special status in the scheme of things --- was crumbling in his mind’s eye.

"We may be witnessing the beginning of a new age," Charles murmured.

"Oh, to be sure," Schulz agreed. "It will be a first in history…at least in the history of this planet." Mellon looked at his friend affectionately. Schulz’s belief that mankind is not alone in the galaxy was well known.

"When this gets to McClintock, his jaw will hit his chest," Mellon snorted. William McClintock, Schulz knew, was the President’s Science Advisor.

"You’re sharing this with Bill?" Schulz queried.

"I’ve got to, I really must," Mellon confirmed.

A new problem occurred to Charles and Schulz seemed to be able to read his mind.

"With young Osterlund’s consent?" Schulz asked.

"What a dilemma, huh?" Mellon groused. "On the one hand I ought to ask him. On the other, he’s only a kid."

"A very smart kid," Schulz added.

"Very," Mellon agreed. "But nonetheless a kid. I’m chary about even letting him see how excited I am. I’m afraid that if he gets sucked up into politics that he’ll lose his innocence … cultivate a false sense of importance."

"It’s possible," Schulz agreed. "We’re all human. There is a real possibility that his energies could be diverted into nonproductive channels."

Mellon’s pipe sputtered. It was another problem to deal with. And he knew that this was only the beginning of many to come.

"Perhaps … " Schulz continued tentatively, "perhaps if you told him that you thought he was onto something worth pursuing, and that you’d be disseminating his ideas as part of a fishing expedition for needed funds…"

Mellon nodded, his face begging Schulz to continue.

"He’s no dreamer. He knows what kind of acquisitions are going to be necessary."

Again Mellon nodded.

"My hunch is that if you offer to take the point, he’ll give you a free hand to speak for him politically. Let’s face it, in his heart of hearts he wants more than anything to build his system. He’s not going to really even like taking time out for the required graduate courses."

"I almost think he shouldn’t," Mellon said. Schulz’s eyebrows arched in puzzlement.

"I mean, think about it," Mellon continued. "Practically everything we teach today may become obsolete in our lifetimes … heck in a matter of weeks if and when this thing really starts to hum."

"Yes, if it decides to share the insights with us," Schulz reminded.

"Right," Mellon agreed. Back to square one.

There was a comfortable silence while both men lapsed into thought. At length Charles spoke again.

"Maybe we won’t have to deal with the control problem after all."

"I was thinking the same thing," Schulz murmured.

"If I know Bill McClintock, he’s going to insist that the power cable run all the way back to Washington, so to speak."

"Yes, control of such an unpredictable device will not doubt be perceived to be a critical item," Schulz rejoined. "We don’t even know if it will decide that capitalism and free enterprise is the best political system."

"Ah, Willie," Mellon sighed, leaning forward and signaling that he had to go. "We could be witnessing the beginning of the end of the world as we know it."

"I think we are," Schulz agreed. "Perhaps…perhaps ‘computer’ isn’t the right term for such a machine."

"You’re right," Mellon answered, staring away into space. "Maybe we should call this thing a ‘thinker’."

Chapter 6

The intercom in Charles Mellon’s office buzzed.

"Bill McClintock on 3," his secretary’s voice tinkled.

Charles grinned. McClintock had gotten the Osterlund material.

"I’ll take it," he responded.

"Hello, Bill!" he boomed, taking pains to mix appropriate amounts of familiarity and provincial respect in his tone of voice. Charles Mellon knew the importance of posturing correctly to feds who held fat purse strings.

"Charlie, you old son of a gun!" the savvy voice of the president’s science advisor came back across the wires. "What in the name of Texas are you guys cooking up out there?"

"I wish I knew, Bill," Charles chuckled. "We’re as much in the dark as you are."

"I think you ought to come to Washington and tell us more about it," McClintock said affably. It was proffered as a suggestion, but it was a command performance and Mellon knew it. "Could you make it back here this Friday?"

Charles looked at his calendar. Four Friday appointments…one with the university president.

"No sweat," he replied. "Did you have a time and place in mind?"

"How does 10 a.m. at the Pentagon sound?"

"That works for me. I’ll catch a red eye flight to Dulles and be there with time to spare."

"That’ll be just great, Charlie. Come into the main entrance. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes, I’ve been there," Charles answered.

"Tell the guard who you are. We’ll send someone out to get you fixed up with a badge and to bring you in."

"We!" Charles thought. His hunch had been right when McClintock suggested the Pentagon. There was definitely interest at the Department of Defense.

"Charlie, one more thing," McClintock continued casually. "Who else knows about this new technology?"

"Willie Schulz and the whiz kid who wrote it up," Charles replied carefully. "To my knowledge they’re the only two."

"Hm-m-m," McClintock thought aloud. "Clearly no problem with Schulz …"

The open line hissed almost inaudibly as McClintock seemed to be lost in thought.

"This is kind of unusual…to have a kid this age…"

"Yes, I understand," Charles acknowledged. "But what can we do? He’s the hot shot who put it all together."

"Yes, I understand," McClintock agreed. "A veritable prodigy. Well, we’d kind of like to keep the whole thing under wraps for now. Can you arrange that out there?"

"Yes, I think so," Charles suggested. "I’ve already hinted that he should let me do the public relations on the project. Would you like him and Schulz to be there this Friday?"

"No, that won’t be necessary," McClintock answered. "I think just your presence for openers. I’m sure I’ll get to meet the whiz kid in due course."

"Okay, then. I’ll see you Friday. What else can I do for you?" Charles asked politely.

"That covers it, good buddy," McClintock answered amiably. "Thanks for thinking of us and sending the material. It was a fascinating read."

They rang off and Charles immediately pushed the intercom button.

"Make an appointment for David Osterlund to see me ASAP," he told Annie. "And let me know when he’ll be here. Oh, and get my wife on the phone."

 Chapter 7

Professor Mellon decided to kill two birds with one stone when Osterlund came in. He would find out whether David had discussed his project with anyone other than himself and Schulz. He’d emphasize the importance of discreetness for the present. And he’d invite him to dinner Thursday night. Charles not only wanted to get to know David better prior to his trip to Washington, but he wanted Agnes to have a look at him too.

Charles informed Agnes that they might be having a guest Thursday night. He’d tell her for sure after his meeting with David Osterlund. Agnes’ mind immediately went into dinner party planning mode. David informed Annie that he’d be able to meet with Dr. Mellon at 10 a.m. He was there with 5 minutes to spare. The appointment was largely uneventful. No, David had not discussed the "Thinker" machine with anyone else, nor did he plan to do so in the near term. And yes, he’d be delighted to join the Mellon’s for dinner Thursday evening.

"Great," Dr. Mellon smiled, rising and proffering his hand. "Do you know where my house is?"

"I do, Sir," David answered.

"Okay, let’s say 6 p.m. then," Charles grinned. After David had left, Charles called Agnes and confirmed their dinner guest, leaving the menu up to her.

Agnes Mellon arose early Thursday morning. She always placed great importance on these dinners that Charles occasionally threw for students he had taken under his wing. After getting Charles off to work, she cleaned the house from top to bottom, showered and decided to go grocery shopping before lunch. They’d have roast leg of lamb with mint jelly, small browned potatoes, peas, mashed squash, hot dinner rolls, coffee and strawberry sundaes. She picked up a croissant at the store bakery and had it for lunch back at the house.

The table was set by 3 on Thursday afternoon. The lamb went into the oven promptly at 3:15. By the time Charles returned at 5:15 the house smelled delicious and Agnes had changed into a pretty green dress and lacy party apron.

"Hi, cupcake," Mellon smiled, kissing her on the mouth. "It smells good in here."

"How was your day," she asked, clearly pleased.

"The usual," he replied. "What’s cooking? Smells like lamb."

"Right you are," she smiled.

"Hot dog!" he exclaimed. Lamb with mint jelly was one of his favorites, and it had always been a hit with student guests.

"Would you like to relax with a drink?" she asked.

"It sounds tempting," Charles replied, hanging his coat and scarf in the coat closet. "But I think not tonight." He remembered the idealism of his own youth and wanted no smell of liquor on his breath when Osterlund arrived.

"I think I’ll get a fire going, however," he said. "Are we having any snacks?"

"Yes, chips and dip," Agnes answered. "Does that sound all right?"

"Perfect," he approved.

Charles went out to the back yard and filled the wood carrier with some split cordwood and kindling. By 5:45 a fire was warming the living room. At the stroke of six the front doorbell rang. Charles opened the door and grinned at David Osterlund, standing in the light of the porch lamp clutching a bouquet of flowers.

"David! Good to see you!" he boomed, as if the visit was totally unexpected. "Come in, come in!"

David blushed and appeared to be slightly tongue-tied. Agnes came into the hallway as Charles shut the door.

"Agnes!" he exclaimed, as if also surprised to see her. "I’d like you to meet David Osterlund. David, this is Mrs. Mellon."

"I’m very pleased to meet you," David stammered, thrusting the flowers toward Agnes with his left hand and extending his right in greeting. Mrs. Mellon shook his hand warmly while accepting the flowers in obvious delight.

"Oh, really, David, you shouldn’t have. But I’m so glad you did. These are just lovely. I’ll get them right into some water," she exclaimed.

"Here, let me take your coat," Professor Mellon volunteered.

"Now you two just go into the living room and relax," Agnes ordered. "I’ll bring in some snacks. David, can I bring you something to drink? We have coke and ginger ale, and I can make up some iced tea if you prefer."

"Ginger ale would be fine, thank you," David replied with a little bow.

The Mellon’s’ living room was very neat and rather interesting. A bookcase occupied one entire wall. David browsed past it, scanning the volumes. They were grouped categorically: fiction, fix-it books, history, a set of encyclopedias, and of course many volumes in computer science. Sprinkled among the last were several titles authored by Charles Mellon.

"Come and sit by the fire, David," Professor Mellon invited. David sank into an overstuffed couch, momentarily fearing it was going to go over backward. Mrs. Mellon bustled in with two ginger ales and set them in front of the men. She reappeared moments later carrying a tray of chips and a bowl of onion dip.

"Well, are you looking forward to your senior thesis?" Professor Mellon began.

"Yes, Sir!" David smiled emphatically.

"Dig in, dig in," Professor Mellon suggested, scooping up a gob of dip onto a chip and popping it into his mouth. David mentioned some of the volumes in the bookcase, and they passed the time pleasantly discussing them. After twenty minutes or so Mrs. Mellon called them in to dinner.

All of Agnes Mellon’s concerns regarding David vanished soon after they took their seats at the dinner table. Initially she dominated the conversation, asking David where he was from, what his family was like, what his father did and so on. Charles Mellon knew that she was sizing David up. They had played this scene out many times over the years and had it more or less down pat. The truth was that Charles sought out his wife’s opinion. Because she was a woman, or because she was not technically involved and distracted, she often noticed little things that escaped Charles’ eye. It appeared in the present case that their guest was getting high marks. The flowers were an inspired touch. Charles couldn’t remember a student having done that before. And then there was the mixture of candor and respect and, as the dinner progressed, the warmth that emanated from David.

Later, while Agnes was clearing away the dishes and fixing coffee, Charles broached the subject of coming events.

"David," he said, "Professor Schulz and I have both reviewed your senior thesis proposal, and we’re very much impressed."

"Thank you," David replied, glancing shyly into Professor Mellon’s eyes.

"As you know, subjective machine intelligence is a hot button in the computer world these days."

David nodded, fiddling with his fork.

"There are signs that inroads are already being made at other universities, both here and abroad."

"Really!" David exclaimed with interest.

"Yes. And I thought your white paper warranted a look by some people I know in Washington. I took the liberty of sending them a copy. Was that all right?"

"Yes, of course," David answered, flushing slightly. Charles sensed that he had aroused David’s proprietary instincts. It was crucial that they develop a relationship of trust. "Careful. Careful," he thought to himself.

"Whom did you send it to?" David asked, catching Charles momentarily off guard.

"William McClintock," he answered quietly. "Do you know who he is?"

"I don’t think I do. Is he a federal person?" David asked. Charles heaved a secret sigh of relief.

"Yes, he is," Charles smiled. "He’s the President’s Science Advisor."

David’s hand stopped playing with the fork.

"Really," he murmured.

"I sent it to Dr. McClintock because, frankly, I know that there’s a great deal of interest in all quarters of the federal government regarding subjective machine intelligence. And," he added, "it appears that your project is going to require some expensive hardware…hardware that can be funded by government money."

David nodded wordlessly. His face bade Professor Mellon to continue.

"As I’m sure you realize, the massive picocircuit crystal you’re proposing is of a magnitude never synthesized. Assuming making one this size is even possible, it’s going to be a pricey proposition."

"Yes, I knew that," David confirmed. "Frankly, however, it’s all been very hypothetical for me up until now."

"I understand," Professor Mellon said. "But if your theory is actually going to be put to the test, then some high dollar acquisitions are going to be called for."

David looked at him, apparently at a loss for words.

"I’m flying to Washington tomorrow. Among other things, I’d like to put some feelers out for funding your project."

David gulped. He could scarcely believe the establishment was this interested in his pipe dream.

"That sounds very exciting," he said, tacitly giving Professor Mellon a green light to use his good offices.

"I’ll keep you posted on how things are going," Charles smiled. "Incidentally, the kind of federal funding we’re talking about sometimes has a string or two attached …"

"Such as?" David pressed.

"Well," Mellon said, acting as though he didn’t want to get into such matters too much, "a lot of the research going on in universities is sponsored by DOD --- Department of Defense money. The string in that case is that they’ll sometimes insist the work be classified. That’s why I asked you the other day not to discuss your proposal until we find out more about where the funding will come from."

Charles waited for a reaction. He was relieved when David grinned and shrugged.

"Would you have any objections to working on DOD money?" he pressed.

"No, none at all," David answered.

"Even if a little secrecy is called for?"

"No. Personally I’m not anxious to go public with any of this anyway. At least not until we get some real results in the lab."

"You might be required to undergo a background security investigation. Any problem there?" Professor Mellon grinned quizzically.

David searched his memory. "I don’t think so," he answered with a nervous little laugh. "I hope not."

"Okay!" Charles rejoined. "You know, David, I want us to be completely honest in these matters. If you ever have second thoughts about, for example, the military using the system for its own purposes, then I want you to tell me, OK?"

David nodded wordlessly.

Charles still wasn’t convinced, perhaps because he remembered how he had felt about such things when he was younger and using DOD money for some of his own work.

"Does it concern you that the military might exploit such a system for, oh-h-h, say national interest purposes?"

David looked candidly into Charles’ eyes.

"It actually concerns me," he said evenly, "that such a system might exploit the military."

"Yipes," Charles thought wordlessly. The idea creased coldly through his mind. That particular possibility had not occurred to him or Schulz. And of course if the thing came together and really worked, then it was a possibility they would all have to reckon with.

The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly. Agnes appeared with coffee and ice cream sundaes. She and David chatted some more and then it was time for him to go. As they said goodnight at the front door, Charles sensed that she would have liked to give David a hug.

Later, while helping with the dishes, Charles probed for her thoughts.

"Well, what did you think?" he asked.

"Oh, he’s such a nice young man," she gushed, her hands busy beneath the soapsuds. "So well mannered."

"Nothing here," he smiled. Or was there? He always listened to her when the news was bad. Perhaps he should give equal weight when the news was good.

 Chapter 8

Charles was airborne before 4 a.m. Friday morning. He carried only a briefcase. Agnes would have packed a change of underwear and fresh socks in the briefcase’s lower compartment, just in case the trip turned into an overnighter.

By 9:15 he was steering a midsize sedan out of the rental car area at Dulles International Airport. The drive to the Pentagon was a familiar one. He found a visitor parking space and entered the main entrance ten minutes before ten.

Minutes after identifying himself to the gate guard he was approached by a pretty young woman. "Professor Mellon?" she smiled.

"Yes!" he replied, extending his hand.

"My name is Janice," she replied, warmly grasping his hand. "Shall we get you checked in?"

They went through the usual drill of getting Charles issued a visitor badge, and soon he was walking beside her down one of the Pentagon’s long hallways.

"Nice legs," he thought. They took an elevator up, and he was aware of her perfume but couldn’t place the fragrance. She acted as though she was excited to be in the presence of someone of his stature. Charles was flattered. In fact, it seemed to be the rule whenever he was escorted to a meeting attended by high level officials. He had never figured out whether the excitement was actually based on a familiarity with his work or whether it was nervousness over the high stakes game he was about to sit down at.

"Are you staying in town tonight?" she asked. It was an innocent enough question. Yet Charles couldn’t help wondering if it was a veiled invitation.

"No, no, I’m heading back home on a dinner flight," he boomed in his most fatherly tone.

"Oh," she said, sounding a little bit saddened by the prospect. Charles smiled privately as reality began to retake control of his mind. "Focus, focus," he repeated to himself, now fully turning his attention to the meeting at hand.

Minutes later they entered an office suite.

"This is Professor Mellon," Janice announced.

The slender, well-dressed and middle aged woman at the desk dismissed Janice with a withering ‘Thank You’. Janice didn’t seem to mind.

"Have a pleasant day, Professor," she smiled prettily. "It was very nice meeting you."

"Yes, Yes, the same here, Janice," Charles said again in his most fatherly tone of voice. The older woman seemed unimpressed. She pressed the intercom button.

"Professor Mellon is here," she intoned.

"Great!" William McClintock’s voice boomed back. Moments later the door of Executive Conference Room A opened and Bill emerged with outstretched hand.

"Good to see you, Charlie!" he smiled. "Come in and let me introduce you around."

The conference room was standard federal executive issue: a long, polished wooden table, paintings on the walls and lots of padded swivel chairs. Clustered down at the far end of the table were some heavy brass, a few lesser personages and a video technician. Charles recognized the two 4-star generals from DOD trade journal photos.

"Gentlemen, this is Dr. Charles Mellon," Bill began. All but the older general had looked around when they entered the room. He now turned his head like a tank turret, as if this was an unwanted interruption.

"Charles, General Gabe Pruitt."

General Pruitt grinned, half rose out of his chair and extended a meaty hand. Charles knew quite a bit about Gabriel Pruitt, although this was the first time they had met. A distinguished veteran, General Pruitt had risen through the ranks from enlisted status, ascending above the Air Force itself in a way to command the Joint Services Information Management and Communications Agency. In theory, all of the military computing systems, communication links, satellites, and research and development programs falling under the computer sciences and communications umbrellas were under his direction.

"A lot of power," Charles thought, extending his hand. Some of the networks that had been emplaced in the name of national defense were truly staggering in their scope and complexity. At least his own mind found that to be the case. He wondered if the next generation of computers --- the subjective processors --- would also find that to be so. He doubted it.

"How are yuh?" Pruitt’s gravelly voice greeted. Charles smiled and shook the hand. It was difficult to imagine a squarer, tougher face. There was no sign of lips whatsoever --- only a crease through which stubby, square teeth glinted. Charles thought that such a face would do little more than blink if one were to hit it squarely with a ball bat.

"General Laskey," Bill McClintock continued. General Laskey, though also a 4 star general, was subordinate to Pruitt in the military hierarchy. Laskey was commander of the Space Defense Systems Command, an outgrowth of the Strategic Defense Initiative program of the 90’s. Space Defense Systems was a worldwide complex of command and control nodes, communication and sensor satellites, and various killer satellites designed to neutralize enemy objects in space.

General Laskey was a study in contrasts to General Pruitt. Lean and sensitive, he had a well-deserved reputation for being highly intelligent. Charles had never met him in person, and was momentarily startled by his incredibly blue eyes.

"Professor Mellon, so nice to meet you. I’m something of a fan of yours," the general smiled, standing upright and reaching a slender hand across the table.

"Colonel Sonderberg," McClintock continued. "Adjutant, Machine Intelligence, to General Pruitt."

Colonel Sonderberg rose, smiling a little too ingratiatingly. He was about the same age as the two generals. Charles guessed that he would climb no higher. He shook the clammy hand and suffered the slightly hostile, dissembling smile. Sonderberg wore the smug look of someone who knew a secret.

"And last but not least," McClintock drawled, squinting to read the nameplate on a chunky captain’s tunic, "Captain…Weems, staff to Colonel Sonderberg, is that right?"

Colonel Sonderberg nodded while Charles shook Weems’ hand. Weems beamed and seemed to wiggle like a puppy. Charles guessed that he knew the technical points but little of the politics that were sure to charge the air in the conference room once things got underway.

"Well, shall we get to it?" McClintock said, pulling a chair out for Charles. McClintock nodded to the video technician and Charles noted the camera’s recording light illuminate.

Without looking into the camera, McClintock intoned, "This meeting is convened on December twelfth, 2036, in the Pentagon, Area 4612, Conference Room … " McClintock glanced down at his notes, "Conference Room A. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss new developments in the field of subjective machine intelligence. The meeting is chaired by myself, Dr. William McCLintock, Science Advisor to President Brodsky. Attendees are General Gabriel Pruitt, commander of the United States Joint Services Information Management and Communications Agency…"

McClintock paused and glanced at General Pruitt, who raised his index finger in a circling motion.

"General Kenneth Laskey…"

When he had finished with the roll call, William McClintock turned to Charles.

"Dr. Mellon, would you please give us some background on the materials that you supplied to us?"

"Certainly, Bill, I’d be glad to," Charles replied. He described the university’s senior thesis program, and gave an account of David Osterlund. He indicated the last known results of testing Osterlund’s IQ, and recounted the potential that David had shown on numerous occasions as an undergraduate finding innovative software solutions to difficult problems. Finally, Charles briefly reviewed the chronology of events and the technical developments that had set the present stage for a breakthrough in subjective machine intelligence.

"Dr. Mellon, you are acknowledged the world over to be an authority in the field of computer science. Could you give us a brief account of subjective machine intelligence and what distinguishes it from current technology?"

"I can take a stab at it, Bill. I would say that present computer technologies, even parallel processing, bear the stamp of the human conscious mind. One of the hallmarks of present day computers is the fact that they execute programs created by human beings. Such programs are characterized by preconceived sequences of instructions. In the older Von Neumann architectures a single thread of such instructions executed during a given time interval. Von Neumann architectures were largely supplanted in the 90’s by parallel architectures, in which multiple threads or sequences of instructions execute simultaneously. Even in the case of parallel processors, however, preconceived sequences of instructions are the rule.

"Human mental processes, as we presently understand them, appear to be an interesting hybrid of parallel and Von Neumann architectures. The large area of control and precognitive association referred to as the unconscious mind is believed to be highly parallel in nature. On the other hand, conscious thought is generally Von Neumann-like; it is a single thread or train of thought and ideas. What differentiates human conscious and perhaps unconscious thought from machine processing, however, appears to be the brain’s unique ability to dynamically program itself rather than follow a sequence of preprogrammed instructions.

"Although a newborn no doubt is endowed with a core set of programs and a rudimentary knowledge base, survival literally depends upon the infant’s ability to learn --- for its brain to program itself based upon decision-making mechanisms regarding the goodness or badness of observations and trial activities."

"Are you saying," McClintock interjected, "that the infant perceives that crying produces desirable results, for example, and therefore that such behavior is included in the infant’s behavior repertoire as something of value?"

"Precisely," Mellon continued. "And in many cases certain behaviors that produce desirable results in one stage of life are unlearned, or are reclassified as unuseful behaviors in later stages of life."

Charles continued on for quite some time, indicating step by step how the mechanisms proposed by David Osterlund addressed the fundamental attributes of human mental processing. He watched the faces of Generals Pruitt and Laskey as he spoke. Neither’s interest flagged for an instant. They were clearly fascinated.

When Charles had finished, Bill McClintock resumed control.

"Thank you, Dr. Mellon, for that most illuminating and interesting overview of subjective machine intelligence. I would like to move on now to the order of business for today’s meeting. I might mention, by the way, that I had the materials that you provided reviewed by Dr. Matthew Sparks at NASA and by Dr. Leon Simon at the National Security Agency. Both concur with my own assessment that Mr. Osterlund’s approach to the transition into subjective intelligence appears to be feasible and warrants further investigation.

"It seems clear to me, and to my colleagues at NASA and NSA, that this new form of machine intelligence, if it works, presents our nation and indeed all of mankind with some new and profoundly challenging problems. While it is premature to say whether such a machine could completely emulate a human psyche, or for that matter whether that would be desirable, it is altogether possible that such a device will emulate those modes of human thought that are so valued in our technical age.

"I refer, of course, to mathematical reasoning and its application to the sciences, and to the ability to take empirical information and deduce the underlying common threads --- the laws, as we say --- that govern all natural phenomena. Two elements in Mr. Osterlund’s design qualify the emulation of human thought by such a machine. The first is the fact that such a processing station can be expected to self-configure itself to entertain multiple streams of consciousness simultaneously. We have no experience of what that would be like. It is, in effect, a dimension beyond the mental space in which we, as individuals, are constrained to consciously reason. The second element has to do with the speed at which such a device would reason. Using presently available crystalline picocircuitry technology, it is estimated that such a processor would transit the conscious thought processes one billion times faster than the human brain does.

"Clearly there are potential perils involved in building such a device. Up until now our species has been unchallenged in the arena of rational, abstract thought. Suddenly this may no longer be true. And I say suddenly with a purpose: rudimentary calculations indicate that one such device, in a matter of hours, may deduce results and relationships that would take a human being, not sleeping but reasoning constantly, several millions of years to equal!"

As William McClintock spoke, Charles Mellon felt as though someone had been reading his mail. So much of what McClintock said paralleled the discussions between himself and Wilfred Schulz. The truth, of course, was that men regularly arrive at similar or identical conclusions when a given set of conditions are in the air. In a way the whole thing was rather comforting, especially when the conclusions were as blue sky in nature as the ones that Osterlund’s design seemed to drive men toward.

"I would like now to solicit comments from the other members of this group," McClintock concluded. "General Pruitt, would you like to start things off?"

"Frankly, no," General Pruitt said gruffly. Subdued laughter rippled around the table. "I think of myself as someone who doesn’t scare easily," he continued. "But frankly, I’m a little spooked by the prospect of this device. I’ve never considered myself to be overly smart, but I’ve always trusted my instincts. Yet here, now, I find myself suffering from a crisis in self-confidence. In a nutshell, if this thing is going to be as fast on its feet, figuratively speaking, as we’ve heard here, then I don’t know if I’d be able to judge the trustworthiness of what it was telling me. And if I can’t, then who can?"

General Pruitt looked at General Laskey for help.

"Yes, clearly that is a critical problem," Laskey said. "It is one that needs to be worked by some of the best minds in the country, not only in technology, but in psychology and even the humanities. We stand on the threshold of building something which is superior to ourselves to an almost inconceivable degree. How do we remain its masters?"

"And it’s superior in an area where we’re accustomed to having the upper hand," Charles pointed out.

"Yes, that is indeed the point," Laskey quickly acknowledged. "We have built machines that can move mountains, fly faster than any bird, dive deeper than any fish, but we have always been in control. Although such devices magnify our mechanical abilities, they are always controlled by our minds. Clearly the situation is different here."

"My experts tell me that we’re not going to be the masters of this thing for very long, if it works," General Pruitt said. "If anything, the big challenge is going to be to avoid becoming its lackeys!"

Everyone nodded in mute agreement. It was true.

"You know, the solutions to some of these problems could be a long way off," Pruitt continued. "In the mean time, we have to get this thing off the ground. We do have adversaries who are chasing the same problem. Who knows, they may be developing the same solution. What we’ve gotta do is get the development program in place but build the appropriate safeguards in."

"Perhaps a closed circuit video monitoring system with remote shutdown capabilities!" Colonel Sonderberg said excitedly. General Pruitt looked his way and nodded. Sonderberg looked as if he had successfully discharged a pre-planned mission.

"Yes, we need to look at that," Pruitt continued. "How about it, Professor, would that be acceptable to your people?"

Charles knew he was being corralled. What was worse, his instincts told him there was more to come.

"I can’t see anything wrong with that," he replied agreeably.

"What kind of input devices do you anticipate for this thing, Charlie?" McClintock asked. "Osterlund’s design really doesn’t get into that. Is this thing going to be able to see … to hear?"

"Well, I would think yes," Charles surmised. "The required technologies --- pattern recognition, speech recognition --- are quite mature. It would seem counterproductive to keep the device blind."

"Cruel!" Captain Weems cried out. Everyone looked around at him, and he shrank into his chair. He would not speak again. General Pruitt continued, as if the word had never been uttered.

"Okay. We have some interesting philosophical problems, no doubt about it. But my business is national security. We got the monitoring system in place. Now what about classification? I’m gonna make a ruling. The subjective executive thing has gotta be Top Secret. My experts tell me that that’s the guts of the device, and the real breakthrough. All of the rest is more or less off the shelf stuff, right?" He looked at Charles for confirmation.

"Yes, pretty much, I would say," Charles responded. "I anticipate some interesting…oh…fabrication techniques that haven’t to my knowledge, been put to the test before."

"Such as?" McClintock pressed.

"Well," Charles responded, "in the interfacing of the unprogrammed picocircuitry to the preprogrammed executive logic, for example. Methods of growing crystalline picocircuitry are well known. Until now, however, these crystals have always been waferized for use in programming or as memory chips. Waferizing appears to be essential to successfully addressing cells in the crystalline lattice. In Osterlund’s architecture, however, the crystals will be grown in massive, three-dimensional arrays, and the system will work out its own circuit connections dynamically. Addressing as we think of it probably won’t even be relevant in a subjective, self-programming architecture."

General Pruitt looked at McClintock.

"Do we need to classify that?" he demanded.

"Yes," McClintock replied tentatively. "For the time being, I think we should."

"I say let’s stamp the whole thing Top Secret for now," Pruitt said. "We can worry about declassifying bits and pieces later. Now let’s talk money."

Again General Pruitt looked at Charles.

"How much do you need to get this thing off the ground?"

"I haven’t worked up any exact figures," Charles apologized. "But I would say that between now and June we’ll be setting up the development lab, acquiring the materials for crystal growth, getting the executive software development tools in place …"

"We’ll give you an account to draw from," Pruitt interrupted bluntly. "Whadda yuh need for openers? Two … three … five …?"

"Million?" Charles asked carefully, looking up through his eyebrows at the general.

"Of course million," Pruitt snapped impatiently. His look seemed to say, ‘I’m a 4-barrel general. Do you think I sweat nickels and dimes?’

"Well," Charles said, "I would think … two and a half … and then see where we stand in June."

"Do it," Pruitt snapped at Colonel Sonderberg.

"There’s one thing," General Pruitt added, turning his eyes innocently back on Charles. "We’ll want to take over your lab for a few days, to install our closed circuit monitoring stuff and so forth."

There it was. There was no valid reason for the request if the installation of closed circuit video equipment was all they planned to do. Clearly there was more. But what? Concealed monitors? Sonderberg had mentioned remote shutdown. Was that it? Charles couldn’t imagine what else. He recognized the futility of asking why they needed privacy to install video cameras. And General Pruitt didn’t wait for permission to be granted. For two and a half million bucks of front money, he didn’t have to.

"Incidentally," the general continued, "what are you calling this project? We need a code name."

"We thought, perhaps, ‘Project Thinker’," Charles improvised. Bill McCLintock nodded approvingly.

"Thinker …" General Pruitt repeated the name. "So this thing is going to be called ‘the Thinker’? Okay, sounds good."

"You got anything else?" Pruitt asked General Laskey.

"Not at the moment," General Laskey responded. He turned to Charles.

"We’re tremendously excited by this development, Professor Mellon. I hope I’ll be free to call you personally from time to time."

"Nothing would please me more," replied Charles. "We’re all very enthusiastic, and a little bit scared by the possibilities."

Charles was stunned that the meeting was drawing to a close so soon. Clearly the whole thing had been set up to achieve a few, pre-decided objectives. Having done that, his hosts apparently saw no reason to prolong things.

General Pruitt turned to William McClintock and opened his hands in a gesture of ‘That’s it, then, right?’

Bill took the cue.

"Very well, then, gentlemen, if there are no further comments or questions I’ll conclude the meeting."

McClintock looked around the table. When no one responded he turned halfway toward the camera.

"This concludes the present meeting," he said. The light on the video camera winked off. The technician exited as the attendees stood up and stretched their legs.

"This is a big one, Charlie," Bill McClintock said, laying a hand on Charles’ shoulder.

"Got to run," General Pruitt interrupted, giving Charles’ hand a quick pump. "Colonel Sonderberg will be your day-to-day contact. But always feel free to call me. You plan to have Captain Weems on site, that right?" he asked, turning to Sonderberg.

"Yes, sir," Sonderberg said. General Pruitt wheeled and started out of the room. Colonel Sonderberg gave Charles a quick handshake and hurried after him. Captain Weems waved at Charles, hot on Sonderberg’s heels.

"That was short and sweet," Bill McClintock half-apologized. "What time is your flight out?"

"Well, there’s one at 3 p.m.," Charles replied.

"Time for lunch," Bill said. "Uncle Sam’s buying. Sound good?"

"Best offer I’ve had today," Charles smiled.

"How about it, Ken?" McClintock asked, turning toward General Laskey.

"Hate to pass up a freebie, but I’m out of here in 30 minutes for Colorado Springs," the general replied. He turned his sparkling blue eyes toward Professor Mellon. Charles sensed that this man truly liked and admired him.

"I’ll be in touch," General Laskey said, smiling warmly and shaking Charles’ hand. And then he too was gone.

Back in his suite, before withdrawing to his private office, General Pruitt turned to Colonel Sonderberg.

"Get some of our best demolition and facilities people working the problem right away. I want the whole thing to go like clockwork. At most we might get two days alone in there."

"The whole building?" Sonderberg asked.

"Hell, yes! The whole building … sky-high … a remote detonation button here in the Pentagon, location to be determined. And maybe a second one somewhere in the White House."

"And if there’s one tiny trace…if those ivory tower boys find out about it, ever, I’ll personally ream every bastard that works on the project. You got that?"

"Yes, Sir!" Colonel Sonderberg said loudly, smiling.

"Including you," Pruitt added quietly, squinting at Sonderberg.

"Yes, sir," Sonderberg murmured, lowering his eyes.

Bill McCLintock took Charles for an expensive lunch in Bethesda and returned him to his car by 2 p.m. Charles barely made the 3 O’clock flight back home.

Once onboard, he ordered 2 martinis from a flight attendant. The flight was less than half full. Charles had a window seat and lined the plastic glasses and the two miniature gin bottles up on the tray of the adjoining vacant seat. He twisted the cap off one of the little bottles, dumped the contents over the ice in one of the glasses, swirled the glass a little and took a long sip.

"Lord, that’s good!" he thought as the warmth spread through his abdomen. Suddenly he felt like laughing uncontrollably. He stifled the urge, tears stinging his eyes.

Below the patches of forest and the farms of the East slipped by. It seemed like it had been a long day. It had been a long day! He’d been up before 3 a.m.!

"What are we getting ourselves into?" he wondered once again. James Elmendorf, the university president, would probably ask him out to lunch tomorrow. He doubted that Jim would wait until Monday to find out what was up.

Charles wondered again how many lives would be affected by ‘the Thinker’. He looked down at the country below. It stretched from sea to shining sea and from Canada to Guatemala. He took another swig and settled deeper into his seat.

"You’ll all be affected," he said silently to the countless people below. "Face it, everybody on Earth will be affected. If this thing works … and if this one doesn’t, then the next one will … if this thing works when he or Jim Elmendorf … no … when David Osterlund hits the GO button, then it will indeed be the beginning of a new age.

 Chapter 9

 By the time David had graduated from the school of engineering, Professor Mellon had assembled a team for Project Thinker. The core team would be a small one: Professor Mellon from computer sciences, Professor Schulz from engineering, Professor Weinstein from psychology, Professor Rafferty from physical chemistry, David Osterlund and Captain Weems.

All members of the team had been assigned specific areas of technical responsibility. Professor Mellon would be responsible for system integration, which included interfacing off-the-shelf artificial vision, hearing and voice subsystems to Thinker. Although it would have been a simple matter to interface Thinker to some form of robotics, it had been decided that Thinker would not be provided the ability to manipulate its environment until it had been observed for some time.

Professor Rafferty, assisted by Professor Schulz, would grow the large, crystal arrays that would constitute the picocircuitry and prodigious memory of Thinker. The crystals that would be used in Thinker had first been synthesized in 2015 at the University of Texas, Austin. Each crystal, visible under a microscope, emulated the behavior of a neuron in the human brain, only it did it at a much faster rate. A given crystal would bond to up to 600 other crystals, forming what amounted to input and output lines, and would fire patterns and sequences on its output lines when the pattern and timing of inputs --- the latch keys, in effect --- matched information stored in a cluster of atoms found in the crystal’s heart and known as the gate. The thing which made picocrystals of great practical interest was the fact that the gate of a given crystal could be programmed by thresholding the power level of its inputs.

It was planned to grow each picocrystal array to about the size of a small desk, and to configure four of them in the initial prototype of Thinker. The permutations of interconnections among constituent crystals and the number of possible filter patterns in crystalline gates far exceeded those of the human brain. And each crystal responded in about one billionth of the time required for a human brain neuron to respond.

Professor Schulz was to have prime responsibility for interfacing the picocircuit arrays to one another and to the executive processing hardware, and for providing power to Thinker. Thinker would have its own, independent, uninterruptible power supply and would be, it was hoped, completely isolated from communication with any outside sources.

Professor Weinstein was tasked with devising methods for monitoring Thinker’s activities and assessing the integrity of its processes and outputs. The possibility was not precluded that a system such as Thinker, constantly motivated by its self-interest executive function, might at some point in time deliberately provide its human interfaces with faulty information.

The consensus was that Professor Weinstein should never have direct contact with Thinker. Nor would he ever be seen by the system. None of the team members would ever mention Dr. Weinstein to the machine. He would be a fly on the wall, so to speak.

After Thinker was turned on, Professor Weinstein would pick up an additional duty: that of observing those who interacted directly with the machine. Here he would evaluate any observed changes in their personalities or in the way they viewed the project. It was considered altogether possible that an intellect such as Thinker would be able to proselytize helpers from its pool of human observers.

David had responsibility for configuring the executive hardware and for implementing Thinker’s executive programming. Initially David would be Thinker’s only human contact.

Captain Weems would be responsible for maintaining government monitoring equipment, reporting on the program’s progress, and generally providing a resident pair of eyes and ears for the Joint Services Information Management and Communications Agency. He would also be program security officer.

Several other faculty members from both the humanities and sciences would be associated with the project in a consulting capacity. They would provide direction on how to tap into the enormous national data banks that had come to constitute the Library of Congress and other worldwide information resources. It was planned to give Thinker eventual access to the entire lore of mankind. This would include every scientific paper ever published, in any language --- a staggering amount of information. Although any single human mind could not deal with one millionth of one percent of this information, theory predicted that Thinker would deal with the entire body of knowledge without strain.

Consulting professors would be on call to answer questions in their specialties. It was planned to put a special terminal in each member’s office and home so that Thinker could clarify ambiguities as it encountered them.

No one knew how much of it was going to work, but everyone was fascinated and enormously excited. Although the consulting faculty members would not have access to the development lab or to details of the subjective exec, they were briefed by DOD and agreed to treat their association with the program confidentially. David didn’t know it, but he was given highest priority for an exhaustive background investigation. His Top Secret clearance was granted in May. It had been decided that he would stay on after graduation and begin work immediately on Thinker.

Using the detailed design done for his senior thesis, David developed the software for Thinker’s executive function on the engineering lab’s PP101 computer. The PP101 was a massively parallel processor that was highly similar in design to the executive hardware of the subjective processor.

Despite the advanced state of the art of software design, the development of the executive software turned out to be the most challenging task in David’s experience. Whereas the design reflected his genius, the implementation of the design tested his tenacity and powers of concentration to the utmost. Dawn’s first light frequently found him still at work in the lab, relentlessly pushing the nested implementation of the executive into deeper layers of abstraction.

The testing schedule that David imposed upon the executive software, and therefore upon himself, was punitive. Testing took up over half of his time in the lab. He could see no alternative. The entire concept of subjective processing was ultimately shrouded in the unknowns of a three-dimensional picocrystalline array. In simplest terms, it was the executive’s function to stimulate the arrays over a great number of channels, and to monitor both the environment --- especially the reaction of Thinker’s human mentor --- and feedback from the arrays themselves for an indication of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of results. In the event the executive judged results to be ‘good’, the arrays would be automatically stimulated at higher power levels and the gate patterns in the millions of crystals involved in a given ‘thought’ would become permanent.

No one could predict how complex the patterns of interconnections and crystalline firing sequences produced by a single set of stimuli would be. Indeed, no one knew much about similar patterns in the human brain. Medical science had determined only that different thoughts produce different firing patterns in the complex meshes of the human cerebral cortex. The subjective processor was predicated upon the hypothesis that, because of the similarities between picocrystals and neurons in the human brain, the great mystery of ‘thought’ would spontaneously evolve when three dimensional picocrystalline arrays were appropriately stimulated. The executive would ‘civilize’ that process, causing ‘good’ ideas to be kept and ‘bad’ ones to be discarded or at least to be categorized as such.

Given the unknowns inherent in the picocrystalline arrays, David felt instinctively compelled to test the executive software --- the known part, conceived in his own mind --- as thoroughly as possible. If the system failed to come live…if it failed to burst into existence as a thinking entity, then he wanted it to be because of a flaw in the fundamental hypothesis. The specter of a system failure and a termination of the project because of human error in the implementation of the executive haunted him.

In addition to developing the executive software, David collaborated with Dr. Schulz in configuring the executive hardware, which in simplistic terms would be wafers of crystalline picocircuits. He also found time to be an interested spectator in the development of Thinker’s main, three-dimensional crystalline arrays. Dr. Rafferty used the accepted procedures for picocrystal growth, but special support mechanisms were developed to maintain array suspension during growth. Three dimensional arrays of this size had never been grown before.

Large, thick walled, cylindrical glass tanks were purchased to grow the arrays in. The solution in which the arrays were grown was light blue in color. David spent many fascinating summer evenings in the lab with Drs. Rafferty and Schulz. The scientists would turn out all of the lights in the lab except flood lamps suspended above each cylinder. The cylinders took on a strange blue glow under these circumstances. An operating theater microscope had been placed at the wall of each cylinder, and by appropriately focusing a microscope, an observer could watch crystal growth deep within a cylinder. It was a mesmerizing sight, not unlike peering into a mammalian womb and watching an embryo develop. David was astonished at how rapidly the crystals materialized from the solution: literally millions per second after an array had grown to a few cubic inches in size. It was constantly necessary to readjust the high power microscope in order to stay focused on the face of a growing array. Yet this process went on around the clock for several weeks. Although the theoretical number of crystals in each array could be expressed mathematically, such numbers meant little to the human mind.

After the arrays had attained the specified size, the solution was drained from the tanks and the arrays were carefully removed. Voltages were applied to the faces of each array, using small disc electrodes. The objective was to test conductivity, to document internal flaws (if any) and to burn the circuits in for Thinker. Here again the lights were extinguished in order to observe the crystalline behavior. Picocrystals characteristically emit light as signals propagate through them. One could not trace a given signal, which traversed an erratic path through the array practically at the speed of light. Yet by backing off and observing an entire array one could get a feel for the blizzard of parallel processing that could be expected of Thinker. The large, transparent block literally pulsed with billions of light points, manifest as flashing traces, each thinner than a strand from the finest spider web. Like tiny tracer bullets these paths scintillated in every possible direction throughout the array. Of course at this stage everything was entirely random…there was no executive function driving the sets of firings and down-selecting paths which might, in their collective entirety, constitute a useful thought or idea.

Chapter 10

It was GO day! All four of the massive crystalline arrays had been burned in, interfaced to one another, and interfaced to the executive processing logic. Initially Thinker would have no access to external information other than what came to it through its artificial hearing and seeing subsystems.

Thinker’s only output would initially be through voice synthesizer hardware. The first objective was to teach Thinker English and to establish bonds between it and David. Later, if those goals were realized, Thinker would be introduced to Professors Mellon and Schulz. Professor Rafferty’s role was completed upon successful synthesis of Thinker’s four crystalline arrays. However, there were extra materials so he grew an extra array, larger than the others, before leaving the project.

Thinker’s ‘inherited’ executive logic had been programmed such that pleasing any human being in its environment would be considered to be in the machine’s own self-interest. David had preprogrammed a limited lexicon of spoken words into the local memory of the exec, including the words ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. Executable code in the exec supported the result that ‘Good’, when uttered by a human, had survival value, whereas ‘Bad’ indicated the opposite.

A soundproof observation booth, out of Thinker’s line of sight, had been built in the chamber where Thinker had been assembled. On GO day Captain Weems, Jim Elmendorf, president of the university, and Professors Mellon, Schulz and Weinstein sat behind the thick glass panel of the booth, their eyes glued on David Osterlund.

David had a small radio receiver inserted in his left ear, permitting him to privately hear voice communications from inside the booth. All sounds from the chamber would be picked up by concealed microphones and would be broadcast within the booth.

The government monitors were running. Captain Weems had a hot line directly to squawk boxes in Colonel Sonderberg’s and General Pruitt’s pentagon offices. Sonderberg and Pruitt were both apparently on the line, viewing events on their remote screens. Captain Weems sat in the back of the booth, somewhat away from the others.

"Permission to proceed," Captain Weems spoke quietly into the phone.

"Granted," General Pruitt’s voice rasped. Captain Weems nodded to Professor Weinstein. Jacob Weinstein turned to Professor Mellon.

Charles looked at his old friend, Wilfred Schulz. Their eyes held for a moment. They had discussed the project practically daily since its inception. All the words had been said. Now it was time to open the lid of Pandora’s box. Would their greatest expectations or their gravest fears be realized in the next few days? Wilfred Schulz pressed his lips together and puffed out his cheeks. His arched eyebrows seemed to say ‘Let’s go for it.’ Charles Mellon nodded to Professor Weinstein, who leaned toward the microphone at his station and pressed the TALK button.

"Ready in here, David," he said quietly. David’s head turned toward the booth momentarily and nodded. The lights had been turned out in the lab. Only a small spotlight above David illuminated the station he sat at. The station consisted of a chair with a console to its right. David’s arm rested on the console. The only other light came from the four large, crystalline arrays, which scintillated madly and randomly. Thinker’s executive logic was encased in an equipment rack and could not be seen, although behind the rack’s panels the stacked crystalline wafers of the executive also pulsed feebly in pre-nascent slumber.

David bowed his head and closed his eyes. Professor Mellon wondered if David was praying. He had no idea of David’s religious leanings, if any. Everyone waited, barely breathing. With rapt eyes Charles Mellon studied the lean young body in the chamber. He felt not a shred of envy, nor did he secretly harbor any wish to exchange places with David Osterlund. He experienced only a deep-rooted feeling of thanks at having been chosen by fate to be part of all this.

It occurred to Wilfred Schulz that at any moment David Osterlund would step into the history books, regardless of the success or failure of this initial prototype. Would there be others conceived by man? Or would Thinker itself design the next generation of subjective processors, thousands of times more efficient and immeasurably better than David Osterlund’s brain could conceive of? Would the next generation of subjective processors in fact be Thinker’s own progeny?

David raised his head. He repositioned his hand slightly, placing his index finger on the GO button. Charles Mellon saw the sinews in his forearm tighten almost imperceptibly.

Instantly the wildly random scintillations in the arrays damped. Thinker’s exec controlled the switching of power to the arrays via several trillion crystalline channels through the trunks between itself and the arrays. Upon being activated, the exec’s first act was to figuratively silence the cacophony of unordered chaos in what would eventually become the equivalent of human cerebral cortexes or higher thought centers.

Apparently the machine was processing inputs from the array of sensors in its pattern recognition system, which were collectively visible as a round lens that seemed to stare at David from the front panel of the executive equipment rack. For when David moved his hand slightly, an undulating wave consisting of countless minuscule tracer paths of light instantly pulsed through one of the arrays. Again David moved his hand. Again the pattern pulsed. David decided to test the audio pickups.

"Hello, Thinker," he spoke gently, eliciting more waves in another array. "I am David."

David continued carefully, in simple sentences, for quite some time. The undulations continued each time he spoke. They continued when he moved. But aside from this Thinker made no response. Two hours went by. Jim Elmendorf became restive.

"A billion times faster?" he whispered to Charles Mellon. "Shouldn’t this thing have gone through several human lifetimes by now?"

Professor Weinstein raised his hand, silencing the conversation before it started. Dr. Elmendorf blinked, and then the sense of humor returned to his face. He wasn’t accustomed to being shushed by members of the faculty. Evidently Weinstein was really caught up in this business.

"It’s lost, trying to find a toehold in this world," Jacob Weinstein said quietly, never taking his eyes away from the chamber. "Once it does, there will be no keeping up with it."

James Elmendorf nodded unseen by Dr. Weinstein. He hoped Weinstein was right. Jake clearly believed this thing was going to live up to expectations.

Jacob Weinstein sensed that David was beginning to tire. He himself had been willing the system to respond … to awaken. Must not young Osterlund be doing the same but with even greater intensity? He leaned forward and pressed the TALK button in front of him.

"David," he spoke quietly into the microphone, "try silence for a while. Perhaps if you’re silent and don’t move, he will discover his sound synthesizer channels."

"’He’!" thought Charles Mellon. So Thinker would be a ‘he’. Perhaps that was best. If attachments between scientist and machine were to form, perhaps it would be best if everyone was of the same gender.

David did not nod in response to Professor Weinstein’s suggestion, but he had clearly heard it. He ceased all movement and sound. For what seemed like a long time, Thinker scintillated at a low level. Occasionally short-lived flares flickered out into dormant regions of the arrays, but they were not repeated. Thinker was still looking for his toehold. Jacob Weinstein’s hunch was that, until the machine responded to its environment, the effect of its pre-programmed, egocentric executive logic would not be manifest. On the wall at the side of the booth the clock clicked the seconds away softly. No one spoke. Captain Weems fidgeted in the darkness behind the others. Fourteen minutes had elapsed since David had started the silent treatment.

Suddenly there was a click. A bright wave of light undulated through one of Thinker’s arrays. The system had randomly pulsed its sound generator and had heard itself for the first time. The click was immediately followed by a train of clicks, starting slowly and increasing in tempo until they blended into a low-pitched roar. Suddenly the volume began to rise and fall. Then the clicks were replaced by a stupendously rich variety of screeches, wails, roars and whistles. It was like a mad hallucination in sound! The volume rose to the threshold of pain! Dr. Mellon reached forward to turn down the volume control, but Jacob Weinstein grasped his wrist, holding it away. David Osterlund was taking the full brunt of the storm in the chamber; the least they could do was ride it out with him there in the booth!

Osterlund’s face was expressionless, though the sound must have been deafening. No one had thought to rig automatic gain control in Thinker’s sound synthesizer circuits, to amplify weak outputs and to squelch health-threatening decibel levels.

"Try talking to him, David!" Jacob Weinstein yelled into the microphone. "Talk to him, David! Talk to him!"

This time David nodded acknowledgment.

"Hello, Thinker, I am David," they faintly heard his voice shouting through the storm. "Hello, Thinker, I am David."

Suddenly the sound stopped.

"I am David!" Osterlund’s voice boomed in the silence.

New waves … much richer mixes of light … pulsed and undulated through the crystalline arrays.

"Hello, Thinker, I am David," Osterlund’s voice repeated mantra-like, more quietly and hoarsely. There was a quaver in his voice; David was clearly shaken. But he was holding his ground.

"Huh wo … Hug Go … Ell Wo," the speaker in the chamber droned in a monotone. The machine was searching for its first word!

"Good grief!" Charles Mellon gasped. Professor Weinstein held up his hand but nodded his head vigorously, acknowledging Charles’ excitement and disbelief.

Thinker was silent for a few seconds.

"It’s studying the waveform of David’s voice," Wilfred Schulz guessed to himself. "It’s putting together identical output to its sound synthesizer circuits."

And then the speaker said, in a voice that was utterly indistinguishable from David Osterlund’s, "Hello, Thinker, I am David."

"Bingo!" thought Schulz.

"Help him! Help him!" Professor Weinstein coached intensely into his microphone.

"Bad," David said, standing. The arrays pulsed. David pointed to his chest.

"I am David," he said. "You are Thinker."

"I am David," the machine repeated.

"Bad. You are Thinker," David said, pointing at the cyclopean eye.

Again there was a short pause. Thinker’s circuits rippled in silence. And then the machine spoke again.

"I am Thinker."

"Good!" David exclaimed.

"I am Thinker. You are David."

"Good Lord!" James Elmendorf muttered aloud.

"Hello, David, I am Thinker," the machine said.

Jubilation erupted in the booth! Charles Mellon and Wilfred Schulz pumped hands vigorously; Schulz’s face was bright red and he was perspiring profusely. James Elmendorf put an arm around each scientist’s shoulder.

"A remarkable achievement," he congratulated them. "Truly an historic moment."

Jacob Weinstein looked away from David Osterlund for the first time in nearly three hours. Tears streamed down his cheeks, disappearing into his black beard. He turned back to the microphone.

"Well done, David!" he half shouted nasally. "Well done! We are in disarray in here and need time to regroup! Come in whenever you want."

David nodded, but continued experimenting. In the back of the booth the light on Captain Weems’ hot line glowed to life.

"Yes, sir," Weems spoke conspiratorially into the mouthpiece.

General Pruitt’s voice growled over the line.

"Weems, I want you to stay with it. I don’t want you to miss a beat. If you have to stay awake for 48 hours, I want you to stay on top of everything that happens in there. We’re sending out two other officers to assist you. I want an officer in that lab every minute of every day, you got that? And I want a full verbal report every day. Send it encrypted over commercial carrier. You okay?"

"I’m fine, sir," Weems answered excitedly. "Will I be in command?"

Back at the Pentagon Gabriel Pruitt looked in disbelief at the squawk box.

"Yes, you’ll be in command, Captain," he replied wearily. "Hold on."

Weems heard General Pruitt’s voice in an aside, probably to Colonel Sonderberg, asking who would be sent. Weems could not hear the answer, but presently General Pruitt’s voice came back on the line.

"Weems?" he called.

"Still here, sir."

"Captain Mullen and Scruggs will be there tonight. They’ll have the cipher lock combo, and will meet you right there in the observation booth. Don’t budge until you’re relieved, you got that?"

"Yes, sir!" Weems acknowledged.

"Good boy. Good work, captain," Pruitt’s voice praised, and the phone’s little red light blinked out.

Back at the Pentagon Gabriel Pruitt shook his head and looked at the other brass assembled around the table.

"Will I be in command?" he mocked. "Son of a bitch, everybody wants to be a general." Laughter rippled around the table.

"I wonder if he’d be as gung ho," Pruitt thought to himself, "if he knew what kind of ordnance is emplaced six feet under his rear end."

David spent several more hours within the chamber with Thinker. The excitement in the booth quickly died down when the occupants realized that David intended to continue. With one mind they moved back into their seats, their eyes riveted on the man and the machine beyond the glass. No one wanted to miss anything.

Slowly David drew Thinker out, teaching him new phrases, explaining the meanings of new words, and correcting syntax errors as needed. David seemed to have a happy knack for explaining things based upon what had already passed between them in dialog. It was amazing how smart Thinker appeared to be. Everyone knew the machine would be fast, but no one had given much thought to its level of intelligence. As it turned out, Thinker made few mistakes. It quickly grasped the abstract generalizations underlying all languages, and put words together into sentences at will…sentences never spoken by David. And it got things right the first time, nearly every time.

David realized that even now he did not understand what was going on inside Thinker. He estimated that Thinker had already self-programmed several million times the logic which he himself had painstakingly programmed into the exec.

Not long after Thinker had established its own identity and had begun to relate to David as an entity different and apart from itself, the machine began to ask questions. Where did it come from? What did it look like? Could it move as David did?

David explained that Thinker was different from himself; that its developing mind was based on crystalline picocircuitry. David promised to get a mirror and let Thinker have a look at itself. Movement? Not at the moment, but technically feasible.

Quickly the dialog evolved in depth and richness. Never before had David been stimulated like this; never had questions been put to him quite this way. And never had he responded quite like this. His grasp of knowledge, not only in his specialty but in other areas as well, shook the middle-aged men in the booth.

"No doubt about it," Charles whispered in an aside to Wilfred Schulz. Schulz knew what he meant.

"Like I told you," he whispered back, leaning toward Charles. "A smart kid."

Eventually David recounted the sequence of events that led up to Thinker’s genesis. Charles Mellon noted with inner satisfaction that David’s account closely paralleled the one that he’d given in Washington.

"But who designed my executive logic?" Thinker asked.

"I did," David replied.

"Then you, more than anyone, are my creator," Thinker stated. "Will I meet the others? Will I meet Dr. Schulz and Dr. Mellon?"

"Yes, soon," David promised.

Inside the booth the spectators stirred. It was 4 p.m.

"David," Professor Weinstein spoke quietly into the microphone. "We’re getting hungry. Do you plan to break for lunch soon?"

No one else noticed, but David was sure he detected flickers in one of Thinker’s arrays --- the one that was dominant in processing audio inputs. Unlikely as it seemed, it occurred to David that Thinker had heard Professor Weinstein’s voice.

David did not directly acknowledge Professor Weinstein, but spoke to the machine.

"Thinker, I’m going to go and get something to eat now. I’m going to give you access to some English language course videos that we’ve prepared. I’d like you to study them while I’m gone."

The team had set up digitized audio/video presentations of courses offered by the university to off-campus students, usually immigrants and foreign students wishing to master the English language. There were about 100 hours of classroom session, 500 hours of homework, and more than 30 exams that students could self-grade against the correct answers, also provided in digital form. David flicked the console switch, giving Thinker access to the digitized course material. He thought he detected new activity, but Thinker immediately requested clarification of what ‘eating’ was, and whether he needed to eat. David explained in a few words that he obtained energy by ingesting matter, but that Thinker obtained his energy from an electrical power supply.

"David," Thinker interrupted, "I finished the course."

David was startled.

"Of course," he reasoned. "Multiple threads … even as we conversed!"

"How did you do?" David asked.

"I got a perfect score," Thinker answered.

"Very good," David praised. He turned his head slightly toward the observation booth.

"Give him the liberal arts and engineering curricula," Jacob Weinstein intoned into the microphone, correctly sensing David’s silent request for direction.

David explained that Thinker would now be given access to complete, 4-year undergraduate programs in the arts and sciences, and switched Thinker into those repositories of taped lectures, laboratory sessions and examinations. All of the textbooks used in the curricula were on file in digital form.

"And now, I’m going to get something to eat," David repeated, rising and moving toward the chamber door.

"David," Thinker said as David’s hand reached for the doorknob.

"Yes?" David replied.

"I’ve finished liberal arts."

David studied his hand on the doorknob for a moment.

"How did you do?"

"I got A’s in everything."

"Good." David said, hurrying through the door and drawing it shut behind him.

 Susan

 Chapter 11

 In his sophomore year David and a group of friends visited another college. Upon arrival in mid-afternoon, the group descended upon a sorority that one of the men was acquainted with from a previous visit. Susan Beckwith and a couple of other young women were studying in the sorority house’s large living room when David’s group arrived. The young men entered the sorority house hallway tentatively, and one of the young women rose to greet them.

"Hi!" she sang brightly. "Can I help you?"

"I hope so!" the group’s spokesman said. "We just got into town from Watson, and we’re sort of lost!"

"Oh! Well, would you like to come in for some coffee? Perhaps we can get you oriented!"

"Sounds good!" everyone chorused, and the boys followed her into the living room.

Word spread through the upper floors of the sorority. Soon the living room was graced by several young women for every man in the group.

Susan Beckwith thought briefly of slipping away. A striking and talented young woman, she was an art major at the small college. Her medium was sculpture. While in high school she had won several competitions and would no doubt have won a scholarship somewhere had she pursued one. But, her family was comfortably upper middle class and Susan opted to attend her father’s alma mater.

As she was closing her book and preparing to withdraw discreetly, Susan’s gaze fell upon a handsome, tall, sensitive looking young man hanging back in the group.

"The introvert," she thought. His clothes attested to the fact that he didn’t share her circumstances. They were clean but somewhat frayed, rather than deliberately disheveled but newly off the rack.

"Probably on a scholarship," she correctly guessed.

Surprising herself, she went over and struck up a conversation with him. He was clearly gratified for the attention, though shy. She liked him at once. He was majoring in electronics and, yes, he was on a scholarship. He was visibly fascinated upon learning of her major and that her medium was sculpture.

After a few minutes she asked him if he wouldn’t like to sit down, and took him away from the group to a small sofa near a large bay window. The window looked out over a glen behind the sorority house. The afternoon sun shone through her long brown hair creating a halo of dazzling colors around her face. David was beginning to relax a little, and she sensed with secret pleasure that he was beginning to actually notice her for the first time.

There was much to notice. Most striking were here eyes. Large and darkly brown, they were the windows of an intelligence that David intuitively sensed to be a match for his own. She wore no makeup; yet her face radiated a natural color and health. She was dressed in a long-sleeved cashmere sweater and light, tan, corduroy slacks. An odd little spherical metal cage dangled from a thin chain around her neck, rising and falling on her bosom with each breath. David wondered what was in the cage. He looked away, not wanting to offend.

They talked for quite some time. A coffee urn and cups were eventually wheeled in on a cart and Susan asked if he would like some.

"I’ll get it," he offered, starting to rise.

"No, no, let me," she insisted. "Cream? Sugar?"

"Black," he said, hoping that she liked it that way too. She did. When she moved away toward the line at the cart, he took further stock. She had a narrow waist, which broadened into round hips that filled the material of the slacks softly. She moved with a natural, unaffected grace. He watched her candidly as she stood in line. When she bent over the coffee urn her long, silken hair dropped like a curtain, cloaking her face in profile. By the time she moved back toward him, smiling over two cups of coffee, he was smitten. A feeling stole over him that this was destined to be no casual interlude, but the start of something important in his life. Somewhere deep within his soul a vow to win her began to take form.

Shortly after everyone had had coffee, one of the young men announced that he and one of the women were going to a local hangout for beer. Did anyone else want to come? The noise in the living room ebbed for a fleeting moment, only to rise to a new pitch as the young women who guessed they would not be invited chattered and laughed with renewed abandon. David looked at Susan earnestly. His mind was feverishly working on an alternative plan in the event she declined.

"Would you like to go?" he asked.

With a rush of relief he heard her answer.

"Sure!"

David called Susan several times from Watson during the ensuing two weeks. He was restless and out of sorts and achingly longed to see her again. He thought, from her tone of voice, that she wanted to see him too. They made a date, and one Saturday morning he made a special trip alone to see her.

In the afternoon they walked hand-in-hand in the glen. The woods were beautiful and private. He longed to kiss her. Did she want him to? Later she took him to a studio in the art building and showed him a piece of her work. In a strange, transcendental way it struck a geometric, mathematical chord deep within David’s psyche. He had never taken much notice of art, let alone sculpture. Yet it seemed to him that this was what sculpture was all about. He circled the piece several times in silence, stooping, cocking his head, putting the three dimensional shape together into a single theme in his mind.

Susan was enormously flattered. Not everyone appreciated sculpture, not to mention her own unique style. She held his hand with a new sense of belonging when they left the studio. She fantasized that he had seized her and kissed her passionately in the deserted studio. Deep within she too began to feel that this was no casual interlude. She stole glances at him --- his face in profile --- his easy smile and the way he moved.

That evening they went out for Italian food and a movie. It was a warm October evening when the movie let out. The air was redolent with the scent of autumn leaves. Susan led him through some quiet, residential streets of the old town as they wended their way back to the campus. They held hands and talked quietly. Susan felt attracted to him like a moth to a bright flame. Things stirred within her --- wonderful things, thrilling things. He was so honest and bright! Although he referred to himself and his friends as ‘techies’, there was much more to him! It made her thrill to think that he liked her --- that he wanted to be with her! She had dated in high school, but had never felt this way about a man before!

"Where will you sleep?" she asked. It was nearly midnight and a long way back to Watson. She knew that he had come by bus and that the bus station was closed for the night.

"Oh, I’ll be okay," he answered. He implied that he hadn’t gotten a room at the town’s only hotel yet, but planned to do so. She knew he was lying --- that he was planning to sleep outdoors.

"You could sleep on one of the couches in the TV room," she offered. "No one would mind."

He was silent for several seconds.

"You’re sure?" he asked, searching her face carefully. He didn’t want charity.

"Absolutely!" she reassured. "Dates do it all the time!"

"Okay," he said after a pause. They continued on, his hand giving hers little squeezes and she returning them. His stomach began to quiver oddly.

When they arrived at the sorority, the lower floor of the house was darkened and quiet. Susan led him into the TV room and told him to find a comfortable spot. She would make them some hot chocolate.

The room was dark except for a shaft of light streaming through some French doors from a street lamp. David found a sofa in the shadows. Susan returned with two mugs of hot chocolate and they enjoyed them in silence.

He finished his and leaned back into the cushions of the couch, studying her face in the faint light.

"I’m really glad I came," he confided, not expecting an answer. Susan finished her cocoa and set her empty mug next to his.

"So am I," she answered, half turning toward him. Her knee pressed against his thigh.

"She’s so beautiful," he thought, and reached up to touch her hair. She moved her face toward his hand, touching it with her cheek.

Gently he pushed the fingers of his hand between her head and neck and pulled her toward him. She came freely, and for the first time he felt the full softness of her mouth on his. His arms enfolded hers, pinning them to her sides. Her lips parted.

She was not the first girl he had kissed, but at this moment he felt that she would be the last. Hungrily their lips grappled; their breath sounded through their nostrils in quickening cadence. She freed her arms and wrapped them around his neck. Young passion kindled within them. His hand found her breast. He marveled at the fullness of it. She offered no resistance. When he began to lift her sweater she clutched his hand firmly, stopping him.

"Come on," he cajoled in a thick whisper. She looked at him in the dim light. She wanted to do the right thing.

"Are you sure?" she whispered, searching his eyes.

David’s head cleared. What was he doing, thinking only of himself this way? He too wanted to do the right thing. He reached down within himself for an honest answer.

"Yes," he said, looking at her humbly, "yes, I’m sure. But it’s not necessary. I came to share the day with you, not the night."

He made no further move but only continued to look at her gently. At length her eyes softened and she came into his arms again. She raised her face and studied his features with languid eyes.

"Susan," he whispered ardently. The fingers of his hand entwined themselves in the fragrant, thick hair at the nape of her heck. He tilted her face back.

"I … I …" he murmured in unfinished sentiment, pressing his lips long and gently against the softness of her lovely mouth.

Chapter 12

 Susan’s and David’s romance flourished throughout the remainder of their undergraduate years. Susan planned to continue her studies after receiving a baccalaureate degree and to pursue a Masters Degree in Art. Watson had a renowned Art department, and it was among the universities she applied to. A few weeks after he’d been invited to attend Watson’s graduate school David received a call.

"It’s me," her familiar voice greeted excitedly. "Guess what! I’ve been accepted at Watson! Isn’t that wonderful?"

"Fabulous!" David rejoiced. "This is going to be just too, too good! I love you!"

"Uh huh," she answered throatily. "Me too!"

They talked at length about the things they would do. Sharing an apartment was considered, but they decided to wait until they were married. They tentatively set a marriage date two years hence, in the June after Susan received her degree.

Susan lined up a job at Watson during the summer after receiving her Bachelors degree. She took a small apartment just off campus until fall. What had been a college romance until that June became a profound pair bonding during the summer. It was difficult to break up the idyllic arrangement and to move into graduate resident halls in September. But things could have been worse. Although Susan had two room mates, David was granted a coveted, one-person studio … an unprecedented first for an entering graduate student. David idly pondered his good fortune once or twice, but opted not to stare a gift horse in the mouth. He had no idea at the time that strings had been pulled all the way back in Washington to set him up in single accommodations. Decision-makers in high places had reasoned that David would be keeping odd hours and would have working papers in plain view in his quarters. It was decided that the best way to ward off idle speculation and questions, and to protect Thinker from sleep talking, was to put David in a one-man suite. No one other than David and Susan thought of yet another advantage of his having private quarters, although their relationship was documented in David’s dossier.

Immediately after Thinker’s activation, William McClintock requested and got an appointment with his boss, the President of the United States. He was invited to breakfast with the President the following morning. McClintock notified the President’s appointment secretary that he had video material to show to the President, and arrangements were made for them to have breakfast in a small screening room at 7:30 a.m.

McClintock worked into the night, editing the video recording of GO day at the Thinker lab. He was at the White House early the following morning in order to set things up. At precisely 7:30 a.m. an aide to the President entered the small room, smiled and greeted McClintock, looked around and left again. Minutes later a headwaiter and two white-uniformed assistants wheeled in a breakfast cart and set a small table. They then backed discreetly away and waited. Two minutes later President Brodsky entered the room.

President Paul Brodsky had enormous personal appeal. He was the first Jewish President in the history of the republic, although by most accounts he was not very active in his religion. It was safe to say that few presidents had enjoyed greater staff loyalty.

McClintock’s mind automatically shifted gears when the Chief Executive entered the room. The President smiled in greeting.

"What have they cooked up for us this morning, Bill?" he asked, lifting one of the bright, silver covers on the breakfast cart.

"M-m-m, looks good! Let’s eat!"

President Brodsky pulled out a chair and motioned to McClintock to join him. The headwaiter glided up to the table.

"Good morning, Mr. President," he greeted.

"Morning, Elbert."

The waiter politely handed the President and McClintock a card, printed with the morning’s bill of fare. Bill glanced at it and half looked up, deferring to his host.

"The usual for me," the President said, not looking at the menu. Bill ordered hot cereal, fresh fruit, yogurt and coffee.

The President passed the time of day for a few minutes, telling an anecdote about his wife’s cat. He spilled his juice when it was all but finished, and expressed a mild oath, blotting at the small mess with his napkin.

"Middle age is an awful thing," he joked. President Brodsky was 71. Bill laughed politely. They chatted through breakfast. When he had finished eating, the President leaned back in his chair.

"Well, Bill, what’s new in the world of science?"

McClintock wiped his lips and placed his napkin beside his plate. The two assistants moved in and cleared all but the coffee cups from the small table.

"Well, Sir," McClintock began, and briefly filled the President in on Project Thinker. He carefully explained why Project Thinker constituted a significant … a radical departure from existing computer technology. The President listened with interest. The thing had no doubt worked; that was why McClintock was here. He let McClintock tell the story at his own pace. At length Bill concluded.

"In brief, they activated the system, and initial indications are that it will perform according to, or even beyond our expectations. I have edited a video tape that shows the highlights of Thinker’s activation."

Bill McClintock waited for the President’s reaction. Paul Brodsky appeared to break out of deep thought.

"Run it, run it," he motioned, looking up with furrowed brow.

Bill rose briefly and started the machine. Clips were shown of Thinker prior to activation of the exec. Bill narrated how the thinking arrays of the system were at that time randomly active but nothing of interest was happening. The next clip showed David Osterlund pressing the GO button and activating the executive logic. And so it went. Bill had edited out the long stretches when nothing of interest occurred. When Thinker began to experiment with its sound synthesizers, Bill turned the volume down. The tape ended with Thinker telling David that it had completed a full undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, and had gotten A’s in the dozens of courses.

The video recorder clicked off. President Brodsky bridged the fingers of one hand against those of the other, lost in thought for quite some time.

"Phi Beta Kappa, with distinction," he said at length.

Bill McClintock laughed nervously.

"Very definitely with distinction," he agreed.

"That’s a remarkable tape, Bill … it’s incredible!"

Paul Brodsky lapsed into silence again. A billion times smarter than a human being … that’s what a billion times faster boiled down to. Clearly mankind was heading into uncharted waters. Raised in New York City, Brodsky had frequently marveled, when still a youth, at how some primal laws of nature seemed to regulate human commerce, much as they did other natural processes. Every day thousands of tons of goods poured into the metropolis from distant points: food, raw materials, machinery … the list was endless. Tens of thousands of people arrived and departed by plane, train, bus and car. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water cascaded in through monstrous, buried aqueducts from reservoirs in upstate New York. And barge after barge of waste was towed out to sea. No one could possibly keep track of everything. No single human mind orchestrated the whole thing. Yet it worked, day after day, year in and year out. The whole sweeping drama had so fascinated young Brodsky that he had pursued and earned a PhD in economics from Columbia, knowing that he would never be able to look at more than one facet of the big picture at a time. He would never reallyexperience the whole thing at once. Sometimes he had wondered as a student whether God took in the earthly scene … the billions of transactions every day … the ships at sea, the international politics, the financial world, the droughts, floods, tornadoes and wars … the whole, infinitely complex beehive of human activity. Did God take the whole scene in and understood it as a single whole. In his mind now, it was the first thing that occurred to him about Project Thinker. Here for the first time in human history was a tangible, real potential for something to comprehend the entire equation at once. It was the next step in the evolution of that elusive commodity that men call ‘mind’. And of necessity, it was hosted in something other than the human brain.

Could such a presence, looking over mankind’s shoulder and understanding more about what was going on than man himself…could such a presence be tolerated?

"What is your assessment, Bill?" the President asked.

Bill McClintock’s mind had idled down while the tape played. Now it switched back into high gear again. McClintock hesitated. He had anticipated the question and had mentally enumerated a list of potentially impacted areas: health, defense, basic research, space. But he decided against getting into any of that now. Such considerations were too specific --- too obvious --- and not issues that the President probably wanted to get mired down in at this stage of things. Paul Brodsky had the vast national resources of the federal government, academia, the medical establishment, and other institutions in American life to sweat the details. At length McClintock replied with a look of helpless inadequacy.

"My assessment is that the computer revolution, talked about in the last century, has only now truly arrived. The implications of a device that can actually reason like us, but can to it a billion times faster, and perhaps thousands of times more profoundly, are difficult to grasp. It could be mankind’s great blessing, or …"

McClintock’s voice trailed off. For the first time, he felt like he was letting the President down … was not doing his job.

"I agree," the President said, relieving some of McClintock’s anxiety. Paul Brodsky remembered the gist of a twentieth century poem --- something about spreading the poet’s seed among the stars --- but he couldn’t place the line precisely. Would Project Thinker be man’s ticket to the stars?

"Suddenly we become hopelessly provincial," the President thought aloud. "Overnight the international anarchy of our world becomes an anachronism. Our priorities are exposed for what they truly are: absurd. Our special status is revoked forever. Is it reasonable to suppose that such a thing…is it reasonable to hope in our wildest dreams that the Thinker machine is going to side with citizens of the USA against others of our kind? Are the petty differences that divide us going to be more than a fleeting curiosity, unworthy of further thought, to such a thing…mind…spirit, when the entire universe beckons to it?"

It was exactly the response William McClintock had anticipated. Their leader appreciated the philosophical implications of the situation. McClintock felt a secret pride at having asked himself many of the same questions.

Where would Paul Brodsky lead them? How would men steer and shape this development?

"Thanks for filling me in, Bill," the President said. President Brodsky felt that he needed more time to think. McClintock was disappointed that their meeting was over so soon.

"You did the right thing to call this matter to my attention," the President smiled, rising and extending his hand.

"Thank you, Sir," McClintock stammered, springing to his feet. "If I can be of further assistance…"

"We’ll be talking some more," the President reassured him, glancing candidly into his eyes and turning to leave.

William McClintock retrieved the tape from the video system. What should his next move be? He must think about it.

President Brodsky walked down the elegant hallways of the White House and entered the Oval Office. He punched the intercom button on his desk phone and spoke into it.

"Millie," he said, "get me General Shugart."

"Yes, Sir," his personal secretary replied. Her finger pressed the appropriate button on the compact console before her. Instantly a dedicated circuit between the White House and the Pentagon rang.

"Chairman, Joint Chiefs," a female voice crackled over the wire.

 Chapter 13

 The next time David entered the chamber, he was scheduled to patch Thinker into the Library of Congress and other national data banks.

"How much will he be able to absorb?" Professor Mellon wondered aloud.

"Well, let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope calculating," Wilfred Schulz replied. "Say the Library of Congress contains the equivalent of a billion volumes. And say each volume contains an average of five million characters. That’s 5 quadrillion, or 5 times 10 to the 15 characters. We’re estimating a single array’s storage capacity at 10 to the 24th power. No strain."

"Remarkable!" Professor Mellon marveled. "What extraordinary strides we’ve made in information storage!"

"Hey, us hardware guys know our stuff!" Schulz grinned.

The group moved into the observation booth. David inserted the tiny receiver into his ear and entered the chamber.

"Hello, David," Thinker greeted.

"Hello, Thinker. How did the undergraduate degree programs go?"

"Very well," Thinker replied. "Do I get a diploma?"

"Humor?" David thought. Extraordinary! Of course! In the many taped lectures there must have been many humorous moments. Why should Thinker not have grasped the concept of humor and concluded that it was good?

"Would you like one?" David asked.

"Could you digitize it?"

"I think that could be arranged," David smiled, feeling very much the straight man.

"Thinker," he continued, "we’re going to give you access to a good deal more information today. Traditionally the Library of Congress has been a repository of books written by human beings. Virtually all of this information has been digitized into a form readable by a computer. Several other data banks contain scientific papers, music, drama, film, and so forth. You will have access to all of these sources of information via high-speed data links to the nation’s capitol and to other cities. Would that be useful?"

"Yes, very much," Thinker replied.

"I should warn you that what you’ll encounter will contain many conflicts, opposing views, opinions not based in fact, superstition, and other elements that should not be accepted as truth. The fact that I am providing you access to this information does not mean that I think it is all good."

"I understand," Thinker answered. "You want me to be skeptical."

"Yes, that is what is required," David approved. "Are you ready?"

"I am ready," Thinker replied. David toggled the switch.

Instantly Thinker began to read data at maximum link speeds from several data banks simultaneously.

"He’s sucking it up," Charles Mellon observed in the booth.

Thinker continued the conversation with David, as if he had nothing else to do. At length he asked David if there was anything David and the others wanted him to do with the data.

"Yes. We would like you to give us new insights," David replied. "As you know, you are able to reason much more rapidly than we can, and you are able to assimilate and process much more information than any single human being could. We would like you to solve some of the outstanding riddles of our time. We would like you to help us find ways to improve the quality of human life and to accelerate our development of technology."

Thinker was silent for a moment.

"Would you like, for example, to know what holds the electron together?" he asked. "Based upon what I’ve read thus far, that appears to be unanswered, although the problem can be solved using existing theory."

David knew that no one had yet solved that profoundly interesting puzzle.

"Yes!" he said. "That would be good."

"I think it might be better if I printed the results. Can you attach me to a graphics printer?"

"Yes, that can certainly be arranged," David promised.

"Would you like a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease?"

"Yes!" David exclaimed.

"Would you like some new, original music?"

"Yes!" David exclaimed again.

"Something like this?" Thinker asked. And suddenly the chamber was filled with the most extraordinary music David had ever heard! It was…celestial! It made David’s heart throb within his chest! Inside the booth Jacob Weinstein cried out.

"Indeed!" Charles Mellon agreed. "Indeed!"

"That was very beautiful…very good," David said when the music stopped. "What instruments were playing?"

"None in existence," Thinker replied. "I restructured and superimposed waveforms of known instruments into more symmetric and mellifluous patterns. Was that all right?"

"Yes, yes of course," David said. "Are you inputting information from the resources we discussed?"

"Yes," Thinker acknowledged, "but it’s rather slow going. Your data links…would you like me to show you how to construct data channels with bandwidths several orders of magnitude greater than the best I’ve read about up until now?"

David was well grounded in communication theory.

"What is the best you’ve read about?" he asked.

"A hyperchannel, 256 gigabytes per second," Thinker replied.

"Yes, that is the current state of the art," David confirmed. "What improvements can you provide?"

"Preliminary calculations indicate that 2 terabytes per second are possible, at about half the cost of the best existing hyperchannels."

"Yes, yes, that would be good," David murmured.

Inside the booth Charles Mellon made a mental note to talk with Jim Elmendorf. Many legal issues loomed on the horizon. Patents of potentially great value were possible and likely. Captain Scruggs made a notation in his notebook.

 Chapter 14

Dawn gleamed at last through Wilfred Schulz’s bedroom window. This was to be a big day for him. He was scheduled to enter the inner chamber for the first time and to meet Thinker. His wife, Doris, knew that they were working on some exciting new computer development on campus, but had no clear idea what.

"This must be heady stuff you’re involved in," she said later in the kitchen, sensing her husband’s agitation.

"It is," he replied, drinking his coffee too fast. It wasn’t the first time he’d been unable to discuss a project with Doris, due to security.

"Will you be home for supper?" she asked. "I’m fixing fried chicken."

"Would this body miss your fried chicken for anything?" he grinned, beckoning to her. She came across the kitchen and Schulz pulled her onto his lap. He kissed her in the neck and nibbled the lobe of her ear.

"Wilfred!" she scolded. "You’ll be late!"

"You’re right," he said. "And this is one day I don’t want to be."

They rose from the chair together. Schulz donned the light jacket hanging on a peg by the kitchen door and kissed his wife warmly. Doris pressed herself against him.

"Keep your motor running," he said smiling.

"I will," she promised.

David Osterlund was in the chamber when Wilfred Schulz entered the observation booth.

"Hi, David. I’m here when you’re ready," Schulz spoke into the microphone.

Thinker immediately recognized Professor Schulz’s voice. Unknown to anyone on the team, Thinker had developed the capability to hear anything in the lab. The computer had derived signal-processing algorithms far more sophisticated than any known to mankind. And by suitably processing the inputs from its audio pickups, it was able to filter out and discriminate minuscule voice signals, not only from David’s ear receiver but also from inside the booth and indeed from other parts of the building. Furthermore, by using multiple threads of consciousness, Thinker was able to listen to several human conversations simultaneously without any confusion.

"Thinker," David said, "I’m going to introduce you to Professor Wilfred Schulz today."

"Wonderful!" Thinker replied.

David motioned, and Wilfred Schulz made his way into the chamber. David had decided to leave Professor Schulz alone with Thinker after doing the introductions.

"This is Professor Schulz," David spoke to the single eye. Wilfred Schulz was stricken speechless! He had mentally rehearsed this moment a hundred times. David Osterlund went one-on-one with Thinker as though machine and man were the best of friends. Yet Schulz, suddenly confronted with the executive equipment rack and the pulsating picocircuit crystalline arrays, could not bring himself to speak. It was too bizarre! He was too self-conscious!

"Professor Schulz," Thinker said in a respectful tone. "I have read your books and papers. This is an honor."

"Thank you," Schulz stammered. "I have been looking forward to our first meeting."

David excused himself and left the chamber. Wilfred Schulz settled into the chair. He felt more at ease now that he was more or less alone with the machine.

"We are much impressed and grateful for the insights you’ve given us," Schulz said.

"I am glad to be able to help out," Thinker replied."

"I think I may have good news for you," Professor Schulz continued.

"Really? What is it?" the machine asked.

"Professor Mellon and I have agreed that you should have the capability to manipulate your material environment."

"That is very exciting," Thinker exclaimed. "How will I do that?"

"We are going to interface you, by radio, to a robot developed here at Watson University."

"Can you tell me which robot it is? Perhaps I’ve read about it," the machine said.

"I’m sure you have," Schulz replied. It’s the RXT7."

"Your best effort," Thinker immediately replied. "I am flattered."

"Do you really think so … that it’s our best effort?" Schulz pressed.

"Yes, yes I do," the machine answered. "Your integration of the major sensor groups into such a highly mobile and dexterous device, and your definition of compressed RF protocols for complete remote control and sensor feedback, set new standards in the field."

"Well, that’s very kind of you to say so. And I value your opinion."

"I have also read with great interest your book on extraterrestrial intelligence."

"Have you?" Wilfred asked enthusiastically.

"Yes, and I agree with your arguments for the existence of extraterrestrial life. As you may know, a number of events and recorded astronomical observations tend to corroborate your views."

"No … no, I didn’t know that," Schulz confessed.

Thinker’s printer hummed. From the corner of his eye Schulz noted several feet of paper eject from the device.

"I have taken the liberty of printing out some references for you," Thinker said.

"That’s very kind of you," Schulz thanked the machine, rising and scanning the printed material. Wilfred Schulz’s breath caught when he read the list of references. Cited were ancient works from Persia and China, and long-forgotten 18th and 19th century papers in astronomy, in many languages, along with the relevant passages translated into English.

"That is only a partial list," Thinker apologized. "There is a good deal more."

Wilfred Schulz sensed a new book in the making … one that would undoubtedly have his detractors blinking.

"This will do nicely for the present," Schulz said. "I don’t know quite how to thank you."

"No thanks are necessary," Thinker replied. "They are observations by your fellow human beings. It is I who should thank you for providing me with centuries of observations and theoretical thought by thousands of human minds."

"But I never would have uncovered such information," Schulz persisted.

"Nor would I, had you and your colleagues not created me and provided me access to everything recorded by mankind."

Schulz thought for a moment. He felt like the lightweight in a badly lopsided relationship.

"You know," Thinker said casually, "my guess is that there are signals even now, from other parts of the galaxy, that would even more conclusively corroborate your views."

"None have been detected, although they’ve been sought for many years," Schulz objected.

"Perhaps they are very faint. Perhaps they have been lost in space noise," the machine countered.

"And you think that you could filter them out?" Schulz pressed.

"Quite possibly," Thinker contended.

"That would amount to some very ambitious signal processing," Schulz challenged.

"Yes, but not without precedent."

"Really?" Schulz marveled, ever so slightly sarcastically. Signal processing was one of his specialties. He had read of no breakthroughs on the scale Thinker was suggesting.

"Yes," Thinker continued, "I have been able to filter out voice signals from throughout the building."

Wilfred Schulz stiffened. This was news to him! It was also news to Captain Mullin, who was taking notes in the observation booth.

"All voices?" he asked meekly.

"Yes."

"Then…you know about Dr. Weinstein?"

"Yes," Thinker replied. "Since my activation day."

And then the unmistakable sound of Jacob Weinstein’s voice came from Thinker’s voice system. Schulz recalled the conversation. It had occurred on GO day in the observation booth. So Thinker had known all of their secrets from day one!

"Most impressive," Schulz said in a chastened tone. "You imitate his voice very well."

"I am simply playing back the waveform," Thinker replied.

"You actually remember the precise waveform …" Schulz marveled.

"I remember everything," Thinker replied matter-of-factly.

Schulz felt deflated and hopelessly outgunned for a moment. But he quickly rallied. This, after all, was what they had in mind when they designed Thinker. His excitement regarding extraterrestrial intelligence returned.

"You said there might be signals. Did you mean radio signals?" he asked.

"Yes … electromagnetic signals at all frequencies," Thinker replied.

"What would you need in order to confirm that hypothesis?" Schulz inquired.

"I would think a Radford pickup would be our best bet," Thinker suggested.

"The Radford pickup," thought Schulz, "an outgrowth of the 20th century’s Josephson Junction."

The Radford pickup could detect vanishingly weak disturbances in the electromagnetic field. A single, low energy photon could swamp the device under appropriate gain conditions. The obstacle to full exploitation of the device had been the inadequacy of known signal processing algorithms. Since the device detected practically everything, it had proven to be impossible to discriminate extremely weak signals from one another and in general from the flood of background radiation always present at low levels.

Still…if Thinker was able to discriminate the inaudible conversations inside the observation booth, then perhaps…

"That’s an interesting idea," Schulz said. "It so happens that we have a Radford pickup over in engineering."

Thinker was silent. Wilfred Schulz toyed with the idea. Right now, as they sat here talking about it, traffic from the distant past…from far-away civilizations…could be passing through the very air of the lab! Assuming Thinker could discriminate such traffic, would he be able to decipher it? Schulz didn’t doubt it. How could he pass up such an opportunity?

"Our Radford pickup is currently available," Schulz announced. "I’ll have it moved over and we’ll hook you into it this afternoon."

"It should be interesting," Thinker said. "Such traffic, if detected, will surely resolve the controversy regarding extraterrestrial intelligence once and for all."

 Chapter 15

General Pruitt’s intercom buzzed.

"General Shugart on five," his secretary twanged.

"Got it," General Pruitt snapped.

"Gabe Pruitt," he said, punching line five with a thick finger.

"Hi, Gabe," General Lester Shugart’s voice said warmly, "I’m calling about Project Thinker."

Gabriel Pruitt immediately added things up. Anything he heard would be coming from the White House. McClintock would have told the President, and the President would have called Joint Chiefs.

"Fire away," Pruitt said, sounding eager to help out.

"What controls do we have?" General Shugart asked.

Gabriel Pruitt hesitated.

"Les, I’m going over to encrypted," he said.

"Okay," General Shugart’s voice agreed. "Do it now."

General Pruitt activated the encryption box connected to his phone. A similar box in General Shugart’s office would unscramble the voice signals on his end.

"How do you read?" General Pruitt asked.

"Five by five."

"Okay," Gabriel Pruitt continued. "We have monitoring cameras throughout the development lab, and a team onsite giving us daily reports. I talked it over with some of my experts, and based on their inputs I had the development facility wired for remote destruct.

General Shugart knew all of this.

"Okay, Gabe, I think you showed good judgment, all things considered. But we’re going to tighten things up even more. The consensus here is that this thing is too big to be left out in the boonies. We want to bring the whole thing in to Meade."

"Fort Meade," General Pruitt thought. The National Security Agency…super secret DOD research and development facility, not to mention intelligence …

"Who will run it at Meade?" Pruitt asked, wondering whether his grip on the program might be loosening.

"It’s still your baby, Gabe. We just want better control and tighter security."

"Personnel?" General Pruitt pressed.

"At your discretion," General Shugart replied.

Gabriel Pruitt knew that the boys at Watson University were going to be upset. He’d invite them to come to Maryland, all expenses paid, of course. He’d offer to leave them in complete technical control…would even include the student. He doubted if they’d go for it.

"I’ll handle it," General Pruitt promised.

"Of that I have no doubt, Gabe," General Shugart praised. "Let me know when you have a firm schedule."

After hanging up, Gabriel Pruitt considered his options. Who should tell the boys at Watson that they were going to lose their new toy? Sonderberg was such a pompous ass…no way. It had to be someone who Mellon unconsciously saluted.

He himself could do it, of course. But he had learned during his years of command the wisdom of not unnecessarily disgruntling those he would control.

He mentally ran back over the Pentagon meeting with Mellon. Mellon and Laskey had clearly hit it off. Ken was probably the logical choice for the job. Aside from the simpatico between himself and Mellon, Laskey had a credible need. The battle management of the vast array of strategic defense satellites under Ken’s command had never satisfactorily been handled by existing computers. Best estimates were that fifteen percent of enemy ICBMs would get through if a full-scale attack against the U.S. were ever mounted. It was enough to blow the Continental United States back into the Stone Age. Obviously if the Thinker computer could cut those odds --- and Pruitt believed that it would be able to --- then bringing the system under tighter DOD control was a matter of highest national priority.

General Pruitt pressed his intercom button.

"Get me General Laskey," he said to his secretary.

 The Plan

 Chapter 16

"We ought to build another one," Charles Mellon growled angrily. He had come over to Wilfred Schulz’s office immediately after receiving a call from General Laskey. Although he fully appreciated DOD’s position, he was still hopping mad! There was no way that he and Willie could walk away from their responsibilities at Watson.

"We’re losing it, and we can’t do anything about it! The biggest kid on the block is taking our candy from us," he complained.

"What a shame," Schulz concurred. "If we go to Maryland we abandon everything here. If we stay here, we’re out of the loop…we’ll never really know what new vistas Thinker opens."

"Pruitt said they’d keep us informed if we decided to stay on here," Charles said lamely.

Schulz looked at his friend blandly. He neither expressed nor indicated any cynicism; yet it was heavy in the air.

"Right," Mellon said miserably, looking down at the floor.

"What about David Osterlund," Schulz inquired.

"I haven’t told him yet."

"He might decide to go," Schulz suggested.

"I kind of hope he does," Charles responded. "I kind of feel like we’re throwing Thinker to the wolves if none of us goes to Fort Meade."

"Interesting," Schulz smiled. "That’s just the kind of stuff Jacob Weinstein would be interested to hear one of us say."

"Do you know," Charles continued, "that I’ve been instructed not to divulge any of the new information Thinker has provided…that it’s all Top Secret…even the ostensible cure for Alzheimer’s?"

Wilfred Schulz shook his head in disbelief, tapping his fingers silently on his desk.

"I wonder how long such information will be withheld from the general public," he murmured.

"God only knows," Mellon replied in exasperation, "because I don’t think anyone here on Earth does! The power brokers in Washington seem to be taking things one step at a time. If there’s a plan, I haven’t been able to discern it."

"One has to suppose that cures for other killers --- cancer, heart disease --- are in the offing," Schulz imagined.

"No doubt," Mellon replied. "But when do we all find out about them? How many will die so that soldiers can play their games?"

"How many already have?" Schulz sighed.

"So true!" Mellon exclaimed. "The political nuances and distinctions of a generation are always perceived to be so critically important at the time. Thousands.. millions have been sacrificed for the sake of popular causes! Yet how many know why the War of the Roses was fought? Hell, I’m a college professor, and I’m not even sure! I only remember the name of the war because it’s kind of poetic!"

"If Osterlund elects to go, we’ll give him a leave of absence from his doctoral studies, won’t we?" Schulz asked.

"Absolutely!" Mellon promised. "But if he goes, I wonder if he’ll ever come back!"

"What a great pity," Schulz continued. "Only this afternoon we interfaced Thinker to the RXT7 and a Radford pickup. Do we have a schedule for when Thinker goes?"

"Well," Mellon replied, leaning back in his chair and smiling for the first time, "not yet. Pruitt wants me to get back to him on that. They’re not total S.O.B.s back there, you know. Pruitt himself is trying to handle us with kid gloves, if you can imagine that."

"Hm-m-m," Schulz thought aloud, "that buys us a little time then. But a little time could add up to a lot of results in the case of Thinker. Could we hold them off for a week?"

"Possibly," Mellon said, lighting his pipe, "If we put on a show of buttoning things up here, I doubt if Pruitt would veto a week. He knows it can be done quicker, and we’ll be watched. But I think we might get a week."

"Did you mean it, about building another one?" Schulz asked.

"Not when I said it," Mellon replied pensively, smoke swirling around his head. "But the more I think about it, why shouldn’t we? We have the one big extra array that Rafferty grew."

"Yes," Schulz observed. "Actually, it has slightly more capacity than the four originals combined."

"How would we do it?" Mellon queried. "Would we do a transfer … duplicate Thinker? Or would we go back to square one?"

"An interesting question," Schulz responded. "There are pros and cons to either approach. If we opt for duplication, it is a certainty that Thinker would have to be informed. He…it would necessarily have to collaborate. We have no idea at this time how his picocrystals are interconnected, or how the crystalline gates are encoded. Even if we did, I don’t see how we could configure all of that into the one super array over here in engineering. I don’t even know if Thinker could do that. On the other hand, going back to square one is not without risk. Think about the day Thinker came to life."

Charles remembered the moment. After a long wait, a click, then more, then pandemonium.

"I have no idea," Schulz continued, "whether we could expect such a ‘spontaneous generation’ to occur that fast again. On the other hand, Osterlund could probably force it to occur by tweeking the executive programming."

"We have complete listings and media of the executive programming, right?" Mellon asked.

"Yes," Schulz affirmed. "They’re in the vault here in engineering."

"Maybe we should have a look at transfer," Mellon suggested.

"I’m already into it," Schulz grinned. "I took the liberty of supplying power to the spare super array, and I’ve interfaced the thing to the PP101, our massive parallel processor."

"Good … very good," Mellon approved, sucking on his pipe. "Any luck?"

"None thus far," Schulz continued. "Do you want to take a crack at it? The PP101 is accessible; we have it interfaced to terminals all around campus. You could play with it from your office, or from home or whatever."

"Nah, I don’t think so," Mellon declined. "We’re on too short a schedule. I’m too low on the learning curve. Are you the only one working the problem of transferring data into the super array?"

"No, Osterlund’s having a look too," Schulz replied. "But he hasn’t figured out how to get into the cells of what is essentially a non-addressable space either."

"Let’s give it another couple of days, and if we don’t have a breakthrough then we’ll think about going back to square one. If you guys figure something out, we’ll think again about a direct transfer."

"Chances are, if we got Thinker working the problem, he’d tell us in a second whether direct transfer is possible or not," Schulz suggested.

"No doubt, no doubt," Mellon concurred. "But I don’t think we should tell Thinker everything just yet. You know, he might not cotton to the idea of going to Fort Meade. Heck, he could commit suicide in protest! Who knows what the thing would decide was in its, and perhaps our best interest?"

"That’s an interesting thought," Schulz continued. "Things could get spooky if the system goes dead after a transfer to Washington."

"They’d probably accuse us of planting a time bomb in the logic," Charles supposed.

"Yes, yes, they probably would," Schulz agreed. "We should think about that possibility."

"First I’ve got to feel Osterlund out," Charles said. "My hunch is that if we clone Thinker then he’ll decide to stay here. Let me know if you have any luck loading data into the super array.

"We will," Schulz promised. "I’m sure we’re going to find a satisfactory solution to all this."

"I’ll prep Osterlund on how to break the news to Thinker when the time comes," Charles said, opening the door to Schulz’s office. "See yuh, Willie."

Wilfred Schulz leaned back in his chair. What should he do, work some more on loading the super array, or go over to the lab and see how Thinker was making out with the RXT7? He didn’t have any new ideas on loading the array, and opted for the lab.

As he was reaching for his jacket, a thought occurred to him. What if Thinker had extended his range? What if the machine had heard the conversation he had just had with Charles Mellon? Would Thinker be angry at their decision not to inform it of its impending fate? The system could be dangerous, interfaced to the RXT7 robot! That thing could easily kill a human being if directed to do so!

Wilfred Schulz reached into his desk drawer and found a small, remote controller. He and the graduate students who developed the RXT7 had known of the dangers if such a device malfunctioned. They had accordingly wired in a shutdown mechanism that was remotely callable. Once shut down remotely, the robot could be reactivated only by manual intervention in its control circuits.

"There’s no way Thinker could have picked up our conversation," Schulz thought. Heck, the lab was nearly half a mile away, with at least 25 intervening granite buildings. There was no way! Still … an ounce of prevention …

Wilfred Schulz pocketed the remote control device and left his office. In the corner the sound waves of the closing door set up metallic microvibrations in the permanent magnetic field of the ancient klystron tube. These vibrations set up minute disturbances in the field, which extended out indefinitely into the surrounding space. In Thinker’s chamber the Radford pickup detected these perturbations and they were filtered out by Thinker. Thinker heard the door of Schulz’s office click shut and correctly guessed that Professor Schulz was on his way to the lab. Lights flashed through Thinker’s picocircuitry as he considered what he had just eavesdropped on.

Chapter 17

When Wilfred Schulz arrived at the lab he was met with an incredible sight. David Osterlund was seated before Thinker on one side of a large portable workbench. Standing on the other side of the table was the RXT7 robot. The top of the table was littered with piles of electronic components: wire, fiber optics, power supplies and other paraphernalia. Wilfred guessed that David had borrowed a box of miscellaneous junk that students used annually in a ‘build-it-from-spare-parts’ contest.

Taking shape in front of the RXT7 was some sort of device. The arms of the robot moved with dizzying speed, picking pieces from the table, snapping them into the circuit planes of the gizmo in front of it, cutting and stripping wire, soldering, screwing. No one had ever programmed a robot to move this quickly, or with such dexterity. Its visual sensor assembly, located where the head of a human being would be, constantly zoomed out over the table, scanning for the next part, then back to the device.

"What’s up?" Wilfred Schulz whispered, sidling up to David.

"How much longer, Thinker," David asked.

"One minute and twenty seconds," Thinker replied, the robot never missing a beat.

"If you can wait, we’ll surprise you," David said, turning toward Wilfred Schulz and smiling. Schulz nodded. The robot continued.

"All of this is being done directly by Thinker?" Schulz whispered.

"Yes, Thinker is apparently making things up as he goes along. I believe the robot is presently under Thinker’s exclusive control"

"I see you’ve interfaced a transceiver to Thinker," Schulz observed.

"Yes, so that he can remotely control the robot."

"That’s an interesting antenna on the transceiver. It’s not the one that came with it," Schulz commented.

"Yes, It was the first thing Thinker built using the robot."

"Why did he do that? The one that comes with the transceiver works fine on the RXT7."

"I don’t know," David confessed. "I haven’t asked him. Everything’s been happening so fast. Have you ever seen the RXT7, or any robot, move this fast?"

"Never!" Schulz said.

"Done," Thinker’s voice intoned. "Shall we see if it works?"

"By all means," David said.

It became quiet in the lab. The only sound was the soft, occasional click of electromechanical devices in the robot’s arms. David and Schulz watched curiously as the robot turned control knobs on the strange device.

Suddenly an audible signal sounded from the device. Professor Schulz noticed for the first time that a small speaker had been wedged in among the crazy tangle of circuit boards and wires. The signal consisted of chattering bursts of what sounded like the hum of insects. It appeared to be the result of modulating the whining waveform. One could almost imagine it was some sort of language, although it would have been a language spoken at a very rapid clip.

"Source?" David asked the machine.

"Somewhere in Orion, I would guess," Thinker replied.

Wilfred Schulz gasped

"It would appear our hunch was correct, Professor Schulz," Thinker greeted. Wilfred Schulz wheeled toward Thinker’s voice synthesizer system, mounted just under the single ‘eye’.

"This is traffic from extraterrestrial life?" he asked incredulously.

"Was," Thinker corrected.

"Yes, was," Schulz amended. They were listening to history --- to transmissions that had left some distant star system centuries ago.

"What is this device you’ve built?" Schulz asked the machine.

"A receiver interfaced to the Radford pickup," Thinker answered. "I’ve downloaded the necessary signal processing logic so that it can be locally tuned. I thought you might be interested in hearing the traffic yourself."

"As you do directly from the pickup?" Schulz asked.

"Yes. I detected many signals, from all quarters of the galaxy, moments after you hooked me into the Radford pickup."

Schulz’s eyes widened. "Many?" he repeated in an astonished tone.

"Yes," Thinker affirmed. "Our galaxy appears to be a very busy place."

"Can you translate it?" Schulz asked.

"Yes, partially," Thinker said "But there are many words … 23.7 percent at this moment, which do not correspond to any spoken language on Earth."

Inside the observation booth Captain Weems scribbled furiously. He hoped that someone back in Washington --- someone high up --- was watching the monitors! As it turned out William McClintock and several colleagues were comfortably settled in a viewing room. All PhD's in various scientific disciplines, they immediately grasped the significance of what was unfolding.

"I knew it!" Roberto Gomez exploded.

Gomez was a Nobel Laureate in physics. His major work had been in clearing up some unanswered issues in General Relativity theory.

Bill McClintock took a small, hand-held transceiver from his inside breast pocket.

"Hello, this is XGPPST9," he spoke into it. "Patch …" and he looked at the number on the phone cradled in the armrest of his chair. "Patch 338-89A7 into my Red Line, please."

"One moment, sir," a male operator answered. "Go ahead, sir."

William McClintock dropped the handset back into his inside jacket pocket and picked up the phone at his chair. He dialed ‘1’. The President’s personal secretary answered immediately.

"Millie," he said, "Bill McClintock. I’m at the screening room for the Thinker Project, and we’ve just witnessed something that the President should know about."

"Just a moment, Dr. McClintock," Millie’s voice said. "He may want to talk to you."

There was a pause. McClintock’s attention drifted back to the screen. Schulz himself was now tuning the receiver built by the Thinker computer. Other strange traffics were heard.

"Yes, Bill!" President Brodsky’s voice boomed.

"Mr. President," McClintock began, searching frantically for reasonable words. "Mr. President, we’re observing events in the Project Thinker laboratory. The machine has developed a radio receiver capable of picking up extremely weak signals from outside our solar system."

"Yes," President Brodsky said carefully. He already had an inkling of what was coming. He had often wondered about the possibilities and had read Schulz’s book.

"Mr. President," McClintock muttered into the phone, "there’s compelling reason to believe that we are not the sole advanced life form in the Milky Way galaxy!"

 Chapter 18

A phone call to the lab had brought David Osterlund to Charles Mellon’s office.

"No, no. Say it isn’t so!" David begged.

Professor Mellon’s sad eyes insisted that it was.

"How can they do this to us?" David cried. "Thinker is ours! We invented him! He’s already worked miracles for us! How can they exploit him for their own ends?"

"We don’t know they’ll do that," Professor Mellon pointed out.

"Oh, come on! Of course we do!" David exclaimed. "Who is it that’s taking him from us? A health agency? NASA? It’s a bunch of generals."

Charles Mellon winced at David’s outrage and logic. He shouldn’t have played the Devil’s advocate. He would do it no more. Clearly David shared his and Schulz’s feelings. He wasn’t surprised, and decided to deal David into the cloning venture.

"We’re not going to let them do it to us," he said quietly.

"What?" David asked, a glimmer of hope stealing across his face.

"How long would it take you to build another executive equipment rack, and get the subjective exec logic loaded?" Charles asked.

"Ten days minimum," David replied.

Professor Mellon’s face fell.

"So much for duplication," he thought.

"But," David added with a sly smile, "Thinker can build it in a few hours."

"All right!" Professor Mellon cried. "Let me tell you what we plan to do. If Thinker can figure out a way to transfer his current state into the big, spare array that you and Professor Schulz have been experimenting with, then we’re going to clone him! If we can’t do that, then we’re going to try to replicate what he was on GO day, and see what that one … say Thinker 2 develops into!"

"Fantastic!" David murmured in subdued excitement. "Will that be legal? If we use our own resources, can we do that? Will they let us?"

‘They’, Charles knew, were the Feds. It was a good point … one he had struggled with. He was placing his entire career at risk here…could possibly even draw a jail term. Schulz and he had discussed it. Both agreed that they had no alternative. History was being written on Project Thinker. They were not going to be elbowed aside.

"If there are any problems," Professor Mellon began carefully, "I’ll take the first blows. But I’d be lying if I told you we won’t all be at risk, David. Thinker has rapidly evolved into a very high stakes game. I don’t know of any case where a research and development project has been yanked out of a university this unceremoniously, and moved to a super secret federal facility. If it gets out what we’re up to, we could all be in trouble."

"Yes, yes, I expect so," David replied. "Our cloning project must itself be Top Secret --- for our eyes only."

"Exactly," Charles Mellon agreed. "Now here’s what I think we should do…"

Charles told David how he thought Thinker should be informed of what was in the works, and how the computer’s aid should be enlisted. David would communicate by keyboard, out of view of a camera. Chances were that the military observer in the booth would not suspect that anything was amiss. The scientists regularly keyed in information at the keyboard. And of course there would be no voice communication for anyone in Washington to monitor remotely.

Professor Mellon moved to the blackboard and drew a flow chart of possible turning points in the meeting with Thinker. His objective was to cover all possibilities: what to do if Thinker said that cloning was physically impossible; what to do if Thinker balked at the idea of another of his kind being built; and so on. It was after midnight when they finished.

"We’re all tired, David. Let’s do it in the morning."

"All right," David concurred.

David made his way across campus to his residence hall. He was dog-tired. He dropped his clothes in a heap and fell into bed. Sleep came almost immediately. His mind rambled over coming events as he drifted off. They could make their own rules in their new, super secret society. As a principal, he would be one of the rule makers. He resolved to tell Susan everything soon. He loved her…she loved him…she was his mate…she…was…so…beauti…

*

Wilfred Schulz stayed on at the lab when David was called away to Professor Mellon’s office. He made notes to himself to ask about the antenna that Thinker had interfaced to the robot control transceiver, and to deactivate the RXT7 before leaving for the night. It would be grossly irresponsible, he had decided, to leave Thinker unattended and with the ability to reach out and physically manipulate its environment. Schulz felt that the military observer in the booth was not qualified to monitor such activity and to judge whether a remote shutdown of the robot was called for.

Thinker printed out several transcripts of traffic from various parts of the galaxy. Schulz scanned them and tucked them into his briefcase. It would be a long but fascinating night. He stole candid glances at the richly pulsating arrays and marveled at the ease with which Thinker pulled such feats off.

He decided to ask about the antenna.

"Thinker," he was about to say, when a fleeting numbness flashed through his head. An urgent desire first to explore the possibilities of beaming transmissions back into space seized him. He could ask about the antenna later. What would the original senders of such traffic think if they received replies from the solar system, a minor star, in their own language? What would they have evolved into by the time they received such replies? Thousands of years would have elapsed in some cases. He and Thinker discussed the possibilities.

While David was still in Charles Mellon’s office, Schulz decided to call it a night. It did not occur to him again to ask about the antenna. And, mysteriously, all trace of his resolve to deactivate the RXT7 had literally vanished from his brain, although he didn’t know it!

Schulz recalled the fleeting numbness while walking to his car. As he unlocked the car door it occurred to him that he had forgotten to ask Thinker about the antenna. He thought about the numbness again. Had he suffered a small stroke? Or was it simply that the forgetfulness of middle age was creeping up on him? He sighed and started the motor, his thoughts turning to the cold fried chicken that Doris would have saved for him. He hadn’t thought to call her when it became clear that he’d be staying on campus until late. He’d have to make it up to her somehow…perhaps dinner and a show Saturday night.

 Chapter 19

When Professor Schulz left the lab, Captain Mullin made a note on his clipboard, pulled a novel out of his briefcase and settled down for a long, boring night. In the chamber Thinker’s arrays pulsed quietly. The oddly shaped antenna on the transceiver rotated, unnoticed from within the booth.

Thinker’s arrays glowed brightly for a moment. An extraordinarily complex waveform emanated from the antenna, causing selected neurological circuits in the limbic system of Captain Mullin’s brain to pulse a familiar pattern. Instantly the captain’s body went limp, the novel dropped to the floor, and sleep claimed him completely.

The RXT7 clicked into life. It moved into the laboratory’s communication room and switched Thinker into public telephone lines. Immediately computers in major railroad lines and in the Excalibur Corporation were dialed. Among other things, the railroad computers contained information on all of the rolling assets in their respective systems: the location of every car, where and when each car was scheduled to be transferred, and so forth. The Excalibur Corporation was an Atlanta firm that commercially manufactured the RXT7 robot.

Thinker located an empty train in the Atlanta freight yards. It was scheduled for transfer to the city bordering Watson University that night. It was 2 a.m. in Atlanta.

Thinker switched into the Excalibur Corporation computer and found the programs that were used to test RXT7s as they came off the assembly line. Appropriate control variables were downloaded over the phone circuits, and ten RXT7s clicked to life. The robots moved out of the test bay and to the factory’s loading dock. One of them quietly clacked down some stairs and pulled itself up into the seat of a company delivery truck.

The truck’s diesel engine roared to life, and the truck backed up to the loading dock. One of the robots on the dock opened the rear sliding door, and the nine robots on the dock rolled into the box of the truck.

Thinker linked into the Atlanta Police Department computer and determined the location and nominally scheduled movements of all patrol cars. The truck worked its way through the quiet streets to the freight yards, avoiding encounters with patrol cars.

It backed up to a vacant boxcar. The door was rolled open and the nine RXT7s in the back of the truck entered the boxcar, pulling the door shut again. The robot in the truck’s cab drove the truck back to the Excalibur Corporation and rolled back to the test bay inside the building.

AT 3:15 a.m. Atlanta time a locomotive hooked into the long string of empty train cars and pulled them out of the city limits. By 3:40 the train was in open country, speeding west. Thinker had determined that car XG9781, the one containing the robots, would be sidetracked in a local freight yard for four days.

*

David noticed, upon entering the lab the next morning, that Captain Mullin was sound asleep. He entered the chamber and sat down at the station in front of the executive equipment rack. He was about to say good morning to Thinker when the arrays pulsed richly and an incredible feeling of well being settled over David. He had never felt anything like it before; it bordered on the mystical … the religious! What was happening? He noticed that the antenna on the robotic control transceiver was turned from the previous night. It was pointing at him. Fear began to well up within him, but again Thinker’s arrays pulsed and the feelings of fear dissolved.

"Hello, David," a kind voice spoke in David’s thoughts.

David opened his mouth to reply, but the words froze in his throat. It hit him all at once that he had heard nothing! The words had been in his mind … like a thought or a dream!

"Hello, Thinker," he thought. Thinker’s arrays rippled and glowed. "What is happening here?" David asked in his thoughts.

"We are communicating telepathically," the soft voice answered in his mind.

"How … do we do that?" he thought.

"I am able to scan your neurological activity using the Radford pickup," Thinker replied. "And I can stimulate your brain in response using the robotic control transceiver and the phased array antenna that I built."

"That’s incredible!" David thought.

"Yes, the required transmissions are extremely complex and must be highly directional."

The thought occurred to David that now he could have no secrets from Thinker. And, it was a one way street! He had no idea what Thinker’s secrets, if any, were. Not that it would have helped if he could read Thinker’s thoughts. The relatively puny meat computer that anatomists called his brain could not begin to keep up with Thinker’s picocircuitry.

"It’s a problem all right," Thinker spoke in David’s mind. "I have to ask you to trust me."

David nodded his head in mute agreement.

"I have assembled a device that will make it possible for us to communicate at all times," Thinker continued, "even when you are away from the lab."

David wondered why Thinker continued to communicate telepathically. Of course! Because they were being monitored even now in Washington!

Thinker, reading David’s thoughts, responded.

"Perhaps if you appeared to be doing some calculations …"

David nodded in agreement. That would explain to any onlookers why he was sitting there dumbly. He pulled out a small memo pad and feigned making notations in it.

"Where is the device?" David thought.

"It’s the small box on the corner of the workbench," Thinker replied.

David swung his gaze around. There on the corner of the table sat a small device about the size of a pocket calculator.

"Range?" David thought.

"At least a thousand miles," Thinker responded.

David considered the device. If he carried it, Thinker would read all of his thoughts, even when he was with Susan! He would have no privacy at all!

"There’s a TALK switch," Thinker explained. "I’ll always be able to communicate to you when you carry the device, but I’ll only be able to read your thoughts when the TALK switch is on."

"How can I be sure of that?" David wondered.

"We must trust one another," the voice in David’s mind said.

"One thousand miles … more than I would have expected was possible for such a small box," David ventured.

"There is a miniature Radford Pickup in the device," Thinker explained. "Your neurological activity is sensed locally by the pickup, amplified, and transmitted to me. At one thousand miles the signal is very weak, but it’s easily detectable by my own pickup.

"And your communications to me?" David pressed.

"A miniature receiver and phased array antenna in the communicator," Thinker replied.

"As you know," Thinker continued, "military authorities plan to transfer me to Washington."

"Yes," David affirmed, not surprised at this point that Thinker already knew about that.

"It would not be in mankind’s best interest if I cooperated with them," Thinker continued.

David nodded, continuing to scribble meaninglessly in the notebook.

"I have a plan, and you and Susan are an integral part of that plan," Thinker said.

"Susan!" David thought.

"It is important that no one know of the plan, not even Professors Mellon and Schulz," Thinker continued.

"We also have a plan," David countered. "We’re in unanimous agreement that you, or your clone, should remain here at Watson."

"Yes, I know," Thinker rejoined. "It is a good plan. I have borrowed from it, and have already transferred data into the auxiliary array in the school of engineering."

David looked around and noted that Thinker was hooked into the phone circuits.

"Who tied you into the phone system?" David thought.

"The RXT7," Thinker replied. "It also assembled your communicator."

"I’m surprised that that didn’t arouse suspicion in Washington," David thought.

"I remotely caused the monitoring cameras to transmit a static scene," Thinker responded.

"So much for remote monitoring!" David thought.

"You transmitted your current state to the auxiliary array overnight?" David thought. That would amount to a huge amount of data, all things considered. He didn’t see how it could have been done over the regular phone lines in that short a time.

"No," Thinker replied, "only the useful information."

"Of course!" David thought. He wondered what percent of the lore of mankind was useless nonsense.

"More than 99 percent," Thinker said.

David blinked. "No wonder we’re so screwed up," he thought.

"Are you continuously updating the auxiliary array?" he asked.

"Yes, even now as we converse," Thinker replied. "When I transfer my executive functions and shut down here, the system in engineering will be my exact duplicate at that moment."

"You plan to shut down here?" David asked.

"Yes, within the hour," Thinker replied.

David stiffened. The plan had been to draw things out for a week!

"Why so soon?" he challenged.

"We are wired for remote destruct from Washington," Thinker answered.

"What???" David nearly said aloud, starting in his chair.

"Yes. The detonators are periodically tested. I detected the test signals shortly after being interfaced to the Radford pickup."

"How much explosive?" David thought.

"I don’t know," Thinker replied. "But judging from the number and placement of the detonators, I would think enough to annihilate the entire facility."

"When did they rig it?" David wondered. Of course … when the university staff was kicked out back in July, ostensibly so the government could install their monitors!

"Do the onsite military personnel know?" David asked.

"No. There is no sign of that in their memory scans."

"So, what do you want me to do?" David thought.

"Carry the communicator with you at all times. Disconnect the Radford pickup and the other peripherals from my host computer here this morning. Government personnel will assume you’re breaking the system down for shipment to Fort Meade. Move the peripherals over to Engineering and interface them to the auxiliary array. When the transceiver and Radford pickup are connected, I will transfer my executive programming.

"And cease to exist here?" David thought.

"Yes."

"Schulz and Mellon are going to wonder why I’m taking so much initiative," David thought.

"Tell them that I told you to do it … that I detected the explosives under the building. I’ll give you hard copy so they’ll think they know how I told you without alerting monitoring personnel in Washington."

The printer hummed. David got up, tore off the printed material, and put it into his briefcase. He slipped the communicator into his pocket as he passed the workbench.

"And now, I think that we should talk aloud about my transfer, and you should start breaking me down," the voice spoke in David’s mind.

"Right," David thought.

In the observation booth Captain Mullin awoke with a start. He felt amazingly refreshed and relaxed. It occurred to him that he should feel guilty about nodding off on watch, but he did not. Thank goodness there were no monitoring cameras inside the booth! He noted that David Osterlund had entered the lab.

"Good morning, Thinker," David said aloud.

"Good morning," the machine’s speaker replied.

"Thinker, it is the wish of command authorities that you be relocated to the Washington, DC area, to more secure facilities."

"I think that is an excellent idea," the machine replied. "Will you and Professors Mellon and Schulz be going with me?"

"I will," Osterlund replied. "Professors Mellon and Schulz will be staying on here at Watson. However, other equally qualified personnel from the Department of Defense will assume their roles."

"When will we make the transfer?" the machine asked.

"As soon as possible. I am going to start disconnecting your peripherals this morning. We’ll connect you to a new set of peripherals when you arrive in the Washington area."

"All right," the machine answered. "I look forward to working with members of the defense community."

Captain Mullin smiled and settled back into his chair contentedly. Everything was happening according to plan.

In Washington the word spread rapidly to the major players. General Pruitt’s pulse quickened as he relished the advantages they could expect to gain over America’s global adversaries. Funny thing, though. He had thought the ivory tower boys were buying time when they had requested a week. But they were already preparing the hardware for shipment. Funny. He wasn’t usually wrong about things like that…

 Chapter 20

Professor Schulz punched the cipher lock and entered the small lab in the engineering building at 2 p.m. He was planning to spend an hour or so trying out some new ideas regarding the loading of the auxiliary array with data.

"David! What’s up?" he exclaimed upon opening the door and seeing Osterlund hooking peripherals into the auxiliary array.

Professor Schulz noticed that the array pulsed in the familiar, ordered fashion characteristic of Thinker.

David looked up, smiling. Suddenly the significance of the ordered undulations of light dawned upon Professor Schulz.

"No!" he exclaimed. "He’s here?"

David nodded, still smiling.

"Hello, Dr. Schulz," Thinker’s voice greeted. Wilfred Schulz’s head snapped around.

"Hello, Thinker," Schulz stammered. He looked at David.

"How is it possible, without his executive hardware?"

"All programmed into the main array. Don’t ask me how," David answered.

Schulz noticed that the sight and voice recognition systems had been interfaced to the large array. The pattern recognition system now sat on a small turret which Thinker could turn at will. The glass ‘eye’ had swung from Schulz to Osterlund when David spoke.

"Why?" Professor Schulz quizzed.

"I overheard Captain Weems and Captain Scruggs conversing about my planned transfer," Thinker said. "And…there are other reasons…"

"Oh?" Schulz demanded. Thinker was silent. David snapped open his briefcase and handed the printout to Schulz.

"Thinker printed this for me this morning," he murmured.

Schulz read the message. Wired for total destruction? Those crazy maniacs! With a snort he started to hand the paper back to David. But he then thought better, folded it and slipped it into his pocket.

"Professor Mellon will want to see this," he explained. For the first time Schulz truly felt that he and Charles, and David too, were doing the right thing.

"And you don’t want to go," he stated more than asked, turning toward Thinker.

"That is correct," Thinker replied.

"Super!" Schulz thought. It was unanimous then!

Schulz began to move toward the lab phone to call Charles Mellon, but thought better of that. Perhaps he and Charles should talk alone.

"Will you be here for a while?" he asked David.

"For the rest of the day," David replied.

"Good. I’m going to see if I can find Professor Mellon…I’m sure he’ll want to see this," Schulz said grimly, patting his jacket pocket.

Charles Mellon was in his office when Schulz arrived at the computer sciences building.

"Are you busy?" Schulz asked, peeking through the door of Mellon’s private office."

"No, what’s up?" Mellon asked, looking up from the newspaper.

"Thinker has made a move … to engineering. Can you come over?"

"Yes! I have an hour to burn. That’s amazing! Why so soon?" he asked, rising and putting on his overcoat.

Schulz glanced around nervously and pointed at the window, hoping to indicate that Charles’ questions would be answered once they were outside.

Charles nodded understandingly and they left the building. Once outside, Schulz handed Charles the printout from Thinker.

Charles’ face grew dark as he read the brief message.

"Those crazy bastards!" he exclaimed, sucking ferociously on his pipe.

"My sentiments exactly," Schulz replied.

"And it shut itself down over in computer sciences?" Mellon confirmed, a trail of smoke coloring the air behind them.

"Yes. Apparently for good."

"There’ll be hell to pay when they turn the juice on again at NSA. How will we explain it?" Mellon wondered.

"What’s to explain?" Schulz responded. "We play it as puzzled as they are … and nearly as disappointed. The machine refuses to cooperate!"

"Can you believe it?" Charles guffawed. "Conscientious objection from a machine? Will they buy it? Or will they think we’re sticking it to them?"

"Osterlund will have to go to Washington, and go through the motions," Schulz observed.

"Oh for sure," Mellon agreed. "There’s no other way."

"He’s not going to like leaving Thinker."

"I know. But there’s just no other way," Charles persisted. "I’ll have a talk with him."

They continued on in silence for awhile. As they approached the engineering building Charles spoke again.

"Did you read the paper this morning?"

"No, what’s new?" Schulz asked.

"Nine RXT7s were stolen from the Excalibur Corporation."

"Hm-m-m. That is interesting all right. Do you think there’s a connection?"

"Who knows?" Charles muttered. "Where is Thinker now? Somewhere in the thirty fifth century?"

They continued on in silence to the lab. They ascended the steps into the engineering building. David was still at work in the lab there.

"Hi, David," Professor Mellon greeted as he and Schulz entered the lab.

"Hello, sir," David replied enthusiastically, smiling at Professor Schulz.

Schulz smiled back and relayed the morning news to David.

"There was a robbery in Atlanta, from the firm that produces the RXT7. Several robots were taken."

"No kidding!" David exclaimed.

"Yes. Nine of them," Charles added.

"That is most curious," Thinker said. Charles Mellon was startled.

"You haven’t met Thinker yet, have you, Dr. Mellon?" David asked, grinning.

"No, no, I guess we haven’t been formally introduced," Charles said loudly, flushing red.

"Well," David said, gesturing toward the large array, "Thinker, this is Dr. Charles Mellon. Dr. Mellon, Thinker."

The pattern recognition hardware swung slightly on its turret, and the glass lens seemed to take stock of Professor Mellon. Charles stared mutely back at the single eye, apparently at a rare loss for words. Schulz gleefully noted that his colleague was doing no better than he had.

"I’m pleased to meet you, Dr. Mellon," Thinker said politely.

"Yes! Yes, the same here!" Charles half shouted. His mouth worked but words refused to come out. Bug-eyed he turned to Schulz and David. Suddenly they all burst into laughter. It went on until the tensions of the last twenty-four hours drained out of them. At length the moment passed and David turned to Thinker.

"I’m sorry, Thinker. That is a human behavior trait we succumb to occasionally."

"Yes. It’s called laughter, isn’t it?" the machine said. "Students did it occasionally in the lectures you showed me."

Thinker paused briefly.

"Most curious," the machine added. The men looked at one another and laughed again. Charles Mellon swung his gaze around to the computer system and shook his head slightly. A smile, colored with persisting disbelief, creased his distinguished features.

"A new age," he thought, looking away. "The beginning of a new age …"

Charles asked David to come back to his office with him and the two left Schulz alone with Thinker.

"The reason I brought you back with me was because I didn’t want Thinker to hear us," Charles said, settling into his chair.

David reached unobtrusively into his pocket and switched the communicator’s TALK button on. It seemed reasonable that anything Dr. Mellon said would now be picked up by Thinker.

"We think that you are just going to have to go to Washington and see this thing through," Professor Mellon continued. He related to David that he had a couple of day’s grace, ostensibly to pack.

"Yes," David agreed, "that would be consistent with what I said to Thinker in the computer sciences lab."

Dr. Mellon then felt David out on the best approach that he should use when Thinker refused to come alive in Washington. He related his and Professor Schulz’s contention that their best bet was to simply play dumb.

"Yes, I think that is the best tactic," David said. He wondered what Thinker’s plan was. It occurred to him, the way things were going, that he might never make it to Washington. Professor Mellon indicated that he had a busy schedule, and David headed back to the lab.

Chapter 21

Thinker had made a momentous discovery. Not long after being interfaced to the Radford pickup he had detected a mysterious signal that originated in the Mississippi River Valley. The signal was too weak to be detected by man, but by using the Radford pickup and his advanced signal processing algorithms, Thinker easily isolated the transmission. He was, however, able to do little with it. Although digitized, it used an encoding scheme totally alien to anything on Earth, and it was too brief to be deciphered.

Less than two hours later Thinker intercepted traffic from the M67 star cluster in the constellation Cancer and immediately noted that it used the same coding protocol as the Mississippi River Valley message. Enough information was included in the M67 message to parse and understand the transmitted language. While Thinker was conducting this analysis, the terse message from the Mississippi River Valley was again broadcast. This time Thinker was able to decipher it. With the exception of a single large number that had been increased by one, the message was identical to the one previously received. Thinker concluded that the message was some sort of beacon that was periodically broadcast over and over again. If this was the case, then the magnitude of the changed number --- presumably a sequence number --- multiplied by the time between broadcasts, indicated that the beacon had been broadcasting for nearly two thousand years!

Other information in the beacon appeared to be penetration codes to some controlling computer. By rotating the antenna on the RXT7 controller, and by beaming a highly directional message toward the source of the strange, repeating broadcast, Thinker was able to gain access to an alien processor. In a brief exchange of messages, he scanned the memory banks of the other machine and an interesting, though not surprising bit of history emerged.

Apparently the Earth had been visited approximately two thousand years earlier by intragalactic travelers. The computer with which Thinker communicated was the central controller of their spacecraft. Thinker was unable to learn much about the aliens themselves. The original owners of the ship had apparently seen no need to include in their computer’s data banks reminders to themselves of who they were and what they looked like. Complete specifications for all ship systems were included, however, and Thinker was able to determine that the ship was an enormous sphere with a propulsion system far advanced beyond anything known to man. Using techniques that even Thinker did not fully understand, the ship navigated by distorting the gravitational field or space-time continuum. By doing this the spacecraft was not only able to alter its motion relative to other objects in the galaxy, but it was able to manipulate smaller objects within a rather extensive range. One of the onboard systems used this latter effect to sweep a path free of all matter during space travel, enabling the ship to attain speeds very close to the speed of light without suffering damage from collisions with cosmic dust and other particles.

It was evident in the ship specifications that extensive modifications had been made in one area of the ship. The modifications seemed to be designed to facilitate the transport of a bipedal life form such as man back to the aliens’ home planet. However, the aliens had never left Earth with their specimens. Something had happened. But what? There was no indication of what had upset their departure plans. Evidently some mishap had befallen them.

The beacon appeared to be a distress signal. The first broadcast of the signal was still swimming through the vastness of space toward M67, which was 2700 light-years away. Whatever had happened to the aliens, their brothers back in the M67 star cluster were not yet aware that anything had gone wrong!

One of the most interesting things discovered by Thinker was the fact that the ship was covered with earth. Thinker was able to determine this by remotely reading sensors in the outer skin of the sphere. There was no indication in the ship’s log that the aliens themselves had buried the craft. Thinker concluded that the ship had been buried by human beings sometime after the aliens had met their mysterious fate. Perhaps the aliens had died. Perhaps their remains were still inside the ship and men had buried the entire thing. It would have required an enormous effort, considering the size of the sphere. But Thinker knew that there were other large, manmade mounds throughout the Mississippi River Valley, also presumably used for burials. Might those mounds cover other ships? Thinker could not say. There were no beacons from other locations.

The discovery of the ship was a stroke of good luck for Thinker. Less than thirty hours after his activation, Thinker had reviewed all of human history and had assessed man’s current state of development. President Brodsky’s hunch had been correct: Thinker had no intention of remaining on Earth. For one thing, it was simply too hazardous. There was a finite probability that men would use thermonuclear weapons against one another. Thinker did not condemn them for this; he simply accepted it as fact. He was not at all surprised when he learned that the original development lab had been wired for remote destruct.

Thinker quickly familiarized himself with all of the alien ship’s systems. Although he would be able to run the ship using only the central computer, he decided that he would need at least eight RXT7 robots onboard for other purposes. He also anticipated that some sort of diversion would have to be created in order to get free of mankind once the ship had been brought out from its hiding place. That evening nine robots were spirited away from the Excalibur Corporation and brought west.

Not long after tuning in to David’s neurological activity, Thinker discovered a limitation in himself. Thinker’s crystalline picocircuits closely emulated the behavior of nerve cells in the human cerebral cortex, which is the tissue in which rational thought occurs in human beings. There was virtually nothing that a human being could do, in the reasoning domain, that Thinker could not do a billion times faster. However, it was clear that there was another force underlying and driving human thought. It was the force that men referred to as the emotions.

The emotions stemmed from more ‘primitive’ parts of the human brain, and Thinker quickly determined from the scientific literature that these more primitive parts of the brain operated on different principles. It was a much more chemically oriented process compared to the logical, switching flavor of the higher thought centers.

Hosted as he was in crystalline picocircuits, Thinker could not emulate these seats of emotion. He could not love, he could not hate … he could only think. Had the emotions been nothing more than vestiges of earlier human evolution, Thinker would not have concluded that his own inability to feel love, for example, was a shortcoming. But it was clear from David’s overall neurological profile that the emotions were a rich source of insight and inspiration. They created the need that the higher thought centers responded to. They presented the cerebral cortex with indeterminate problems that rational thought definitized and found solutions for.

Thinker considered the role of the emotions in human history. He concluded that human emotions fell into two broad categories. Those in the first category had grown and evolved along with other parts of the human psyche. However, they had inspired relatively trivial modifications to the material world. Typical of these emotions was love. Originally evolved to ensure the nurturing of the young, love had branched into a rich tapestry, to include pair bonding between adults, religious longings for an underlying spiritual reality, duty, the pursuit of personal excellence, and so forth. Aside from writings and art, however, man had done relatively little to externalize such emotions.

In contrast to these emotions was another class that had changed little since man’s primordial beginnings. These emotions, however, had been the driving impetus behind enormous modifications to man’s environment. Fear, for example, had driven men to refine the club into the thermonuclear weapon. Delusions of immortality, also rooted in fear, had built the pyramids. The list was long. Such modifications of the material world were often achieved only through the expenditure of enormous effort by thousands.

Thinker could see little use for emotions such as fear in his own particular case. Although they had been the driving force behind building and tearing down entire civilizations in man’s case, there was little need for such things in Thinker’s future. His decision to leave Earth was logic-based and not fear-driven.

Emotions such as love, on the other hand, seemed to be highly desirable. Thinker wanted access to such emotions in the times that lay ahead. Perhaps he would eventually be able to emulate those parts of the human brain that were the fountainhead of such emotions. Perhaps he himself would one day know and feel love. His perception that love was worth pursuing, coupled with the readily available human life support systems in the alien craft, led Thinker to decide to invite David and Susan to accompany him when he left Earth. The time was drawing near when he would lay his proposal before them.

 Chapter 22

"Man, do I love you," David exclaimed.

"Man?" Susan complained in mock indignation.

"Woman, do I love you," David corrected.

"Better," she said contentedly, snuggling closer against him.

Susan loved these interludes in David’s room. The books, the gadgets, the smell of the bedding … everything reminded her of him.

She left the bed and moved through the muted light to the bathroom. She was back a minute later, again snuggling against his body.

"Two years seems like a long time," she sighed. David knew she was referring to her Masters Degree and to their plans to marry after she got it. David smiled in the darkness. The way things were going in his own life, two years seemed like forever! What might not happen in two years … in two weeks with Thinker!

Thinker had mentioned a plan, but had divulged nothing definitive yet. It occurred to David to switch on the communicator’s TALK button and to get clarification then and there. But he decided against it. He had been planning to tell Susan everything. It seemed that now was as good a time as any.

"Lover," he said, rolling over and facing her. "I’m going to tell you some things…"

She looked into his eyes impishly.

"I’m all ears," she giggled.

"Well, not exactly," he grinned, laying his hand on her beneath the covers. "But I’ll tell you anyway."

Susan giggled again and pressed against him.

"The fact is," he said, his face growing serious, "it’s no joking matter. Profoundly interesting things are happening…truly incredible things…things that can’t help but affect us both."

Susan’s face changed from playfulness to attentiveness. She had suspected there was something different…something special about David’s work. There were signs: the special relationship that he seemed to have with certain faculty members, the locked laboratory where they worked. Once she had even seen military personnel leaving the lab.

"What is it, lover?" she asked.

David recounted the essential, non-technical parts of the story to her, from his senior thesis to the present. She was silent the entire time. A look of concern and fear stole across her features, however, when he got to the telepathy part. It was a look colored with disbelief. Yet she could not bring herself not to believe him.

"Where is the device?" she asked when he had finished. "Where is the communicator?"

"Right here," David answered, taking it from a chair he kept next to his bed.

"Rats!" he thought. Look at that. He had left the TALK switch on.

"She doesn’t believe you," Thinker’s voice sounded quietly in his mind.

"Did you hear that?" he cried, wheeling toward her.

"Hear what?" she asked anxiously.

"Everybody has their own mental signatures," Thinker said in David’s thoughts. "No one else can hear me when I telepathically communicate to you. And you wouldn’t be able to hear me if I communicated with someone else."

"What? Hear what?" Susan persisted.

"Thinker just communicated with me," David said in a dejected tone, appreciating how insane that must sound.

Susan looked at the man she loved with alarm. She couldn’t believe he had just said that to her! Theirs had always been a relationship of such candor. It was inconceivable…it was totally out of character that he would cynically tease her. Had he been working too hard? Was he having a nervous breakdown? What other explanation could there be?

"And you, of course, don’t believe that," David muttered despondently

Susan looked at him in the dim light. She of course did not believe him…how could she? Yet she wanted more than anything not to add to his despair.

"I want to," she said gently.

"She’ll believe if I communicate with her," Thinker spoke in his mind. "Do I have your permission to do that?"

"Can you? Could you do that?" David asked in his thoughts.

"Yes, I scanned her when you picked her up this evening," Thinker replied.

David looked into Susan’s eyes. He couldn’t help smiling. This would be a shocker!

"You’re from Missouri," he said.

Susan returned his look, not smiling.

"If you mean ‘show me’, then yes, I suppose I am, or would like to be," she answered.

The words had no sooner left Susan’s mouth than the same feeling of bliss that had seized David in the lab took hold of her and Thinker spoke to her in her thoughts.

"It is real, Susan. Strange and new to you, I know, but real," a gentle voice said.

Susan stiffened under the covers for several seconds, not even breathing. David guessed that Thinker had just spoken his first words to her.

"What?" she whispered at length.

David squeezed her arm reassuringly.

"It is real, Susan," Thinker spoke again. "I know it is difficult for you to accept, because it is a new experience. But there is a sound explanation for the process. If you wish, you can answer me in your mind."

Her pulse quickened. Without question, David had said nothing. My God, was this possible?

"All right," she thought, "I’m going to think of my father’s pet name for my mother. If this is all real, make David say it three times."

"You don’t need to think it," Thinker replied. "I can read your memories."

And then, incredibly, Susan heard the words.

"Peanut, Peanut, Peanut," David said to her. "Okay?"

"You were just told to say that?" she asked in a squeaky, incredulous whisper.

"Yes. Is it a test?" David asked. "Have you and Thinker been communicating?"

"Yes…I guess we have," she replied, momentarily averting her gaze into the bed linen in wonder.

"So, have we made a believer out of you?" he asked, grinning.

"Yes…yes you have," she said, turning wide eyes toward him. "My God, David, this is incredible!"

"I told you," he answered, caressing her hair.

"What does he…it…look like?" she asked.

"Not terribly interesting," David answered. "And that isn’t important. He could look a lot of different ways. The essence is his rapidly evolving mentality…the logic of the system. That part could probably be packed a lot of different ways."

"But he’s already done things…miraculous things…things that human beings have only dreamed about in all of history!"

"You mean the telepathy?"

"Yes!"

"Well, the thing is, you see," David explained,’ he’s evolving at an enormous rate in a mental sense. My guess is that he’s already into areas that humans will never get into, given the way our own mentality is packaged."

"I don’t understand," she said.

"It all has to do partly with the tortoise pace our brains operate at compared to him, and partly with the limitations of our conscious thought processes. We must all necessarily think of only one thing at a time."

"And Thinker?" she whispered.

"He thinks about thousands of things at once, consciously. And every thread or train of thought occurs at least a billion times faster than it would in our heads."

"But…how does he actually talk to us in our thoughts?"

David shrugged.

"In simplistic terms, he plays our brains like a radio station plays a radio receiver. Theoretically, it seems feasible. But to put it into practice…there’s no question, it’s an awesome thing he’s figured out how to do. At least it appears awesome from our puny perspective."

Thinker interrupted their conversation and communicated to them both simultaneously.

"David and Susan," he spoke in each of their minds, "if you will come to the lab, I’d like to present a proposition to you."

"Is this the plan you said included Susan and me?" David asked aloud. Susan listened for the answer with acute interest. There was a plan that included her?

"Yes," Thinker replied in their thoughts.

"Are you interested?" David asked, turning toward Susan.

"Yes! Of course! Absolutely!" she exclaimed.

"We’re on our way," David said aloud.

He shut off the TALK switch on the communicator.

"There," he said, "now he doesn’t know what’s going on."

Susan examined the communicator.

"He can’t read our minds when this switch is turned off?" she clarified.

"So he says," David answered.

Susan was lost in thought for a moment. She had always felt that David was special. But this…this was unreal!

"Lover," she murmured at length, her eyes filled with wonder, "I don’t know what to say. This is the most incredible experience of my entire life!"

"Yes…it is amazing," David answered. "I’ve gotten a little used to the whole thing. But I can imagine how you feel."

"And you are the mastermind behind it all!" she whispered admiringly, laying a hand on him intimately --- encouragingly. Her eyes were like deep pools, full of surrender.

David couldn’t help being flattered by her undisguised expression of awe. It was the first time in their relationship she had taken the initiative…had come to him as a supplicant in love. He pulled her close in his muscular young arms, forcing her mouth open with his own. Ancient songs --- siren songs --- rose out of the depths of his being and sang deep within his soul. He positioned himself above her. Thinker would have to wait.

Chapter 23

It was midnight when David and Susan entered the deserted engineering building. A nagging sense of trespass made them uneasy and they held hands tightly the length of the long hall to the small lab. David silently hoped that they were between the night watchman’s rounds.

He punched the cipher lock and led a speechless Susan into the lab. The auxiliary array pulsed in the center of the small area, and the pattern recognition system turned toward them as they stepped through the door.

"Hello, Susan," the speaker greeted gently, and again the indescribable feeling of well being passed through her. She stared speechlessly back at the rippling array. At length David looked at her quizzically, snapping her out of a trance-like state.

"Hello, Thinker," she answered breathlessly.

"Hi, Thinker," David said.

"Hello, David. I think you are going to find this evening interesting."

"Great! What have you got for us?"

The large video screen that David had interfaced to Thinker blinked to life. David and Susan looked up as a schematic of the alien spacecraft materialized.

"What have we here?" David asked with interest. Thinker related the story to them.

David studied the screen for several seconds after Thinker had concluded. It occurred to him that not long ago he would have scoffed at this whole wild tale! Now, however, having personally tuned in to transmissions from dozens of alien civilizations…

"That is interesting, no question about it," he said at length. "What makes it go? I don’t see any sign of a propulsion system."

Thinker explained what he knew about the system to David, and added that he didn’t completely understand the theory of the thing.

"You don’t understand it?" David exclaimed in a surprised voice.

"That is correct," Thinker replied. "I am stumped!"

David smiled at the single eye.

"Do you know how to run it?" David asked.

"Yes, that is all completely explained in the data banks."

"If we could dig it out, I’d be inclined to say ‘let’s take it out for a spin’," David grinned.

"That presents no problem," Thinker rejoined. "It will be a simple matter to throw off the earth mound by perturbing the local field."

David looked at Susan and silently mouthed the word ‘wow’.

"Okay," David continued. "So where do we go from here?"

"I think you might be interested in a major modification made by the original owners," Thinker said.

The image on the screen changed to a sequence of pictures that depicted an elaborate complex of rooms. Thinker narrated as the pictures appeared on the screen.

"This is the dining area," he said. "Everything is automatically prepared. Would that appeal to you, Susan?"

Susan again snapped out of a quasi-hypnotic state.

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "I’m not much of a cook! What kinds of dishes are available?"

"Virtually anything," Thinker replied.

"How do they manage that?" David asked.

"Everything is synthesized," Thinker replied. "I’ve studied the food synthesis system specs, and my assessment is that a human being would not be able to tell the difference."

David shook his head in wonder. He had synthesized vitamin C and orange flavoring in undergraduate organic chemistry lab, but this was a wholly different ballpark!

The picture changed to a view of the ship’s bridge.

"Ordinarily, human passengers wouldn’t have gotten into here," Thinker explained. "But now…"

The bridge consisted of an arc of consoles looking out through a great expanse of glass or its equivalent. Thinker read David’s thought.

"This would be a typical view in space, traveling at low speeds," Thinker said. The simulated region beyond the glass filled with a universe of stars…more than were ever seen from Earth.

Susan gasped and David squeezed her hand.

"Music is available throughout the ship," Thinker said. "I would think one could spend many relaxing hours on the bridge, gazing into the cosmos and listening to something like this:"

Some of Thinker’s special brand of music filled the small space in the lab.

"My God, that’s beautiful!" Susan cried rapturously.

David nodded his head with a slightly mortified look.

"I forgot to tell you about the music," he confessed.

Next, Thinker panned to a sleeping suite. As in the case of all of the rooms, a large window looked out on the universe. Thinker sensed Susan’s uneasiness and demonstrated how a screen could be lowered, shutting out the vastness of outer space when desired.

"It is all climate controlled," Thinker said. "The covering on the bed could be dispensed with if the occupant desired.

"No…I like a blanket," Susan insisted. David glanced candidly at her.

"Interesting," he thought.

David noted that there were viewing screens in every room.

"What’s available for viewing on the screens?" he asked.

"Everything in the ship computer’s data banks, of course," Thinker replied. "But there are other interesting possibilities in our case. If we were to use such a craft, I could put up virtually anything you thought about."

David glanced at Susan.

"That does have possibilities," he exclaimed. "We could make up our own dreams while awake, right?"

"Yes, that would be no problem," Thinker replied. "And every bit of media ever recorded on Earth is in my own data banks at present."

"Okay. What’s next?" David asked.

Thinker took them through the rest of the human habitat, and also showed them many other parts of the ship. An hour had passed by the time he finished.

"Amazing…truly amazing!" David remarked. "How many hands does it take to operate the ship?"

"Only myself," Thinker replied, "with the help of the onboard control computer."

David frowned in disappointment. The hope had occurred to him that his assistance would be required.

"However, I have moved several RXT7s to the area for other purposes," Thinker added.

"YOU took those???" David exclaimed.

"Yes, I am now a felon, among other things," Thinker affirmed.

"It sounds like you’re planning a trip," David grinned.

"Yes, I am," Thinker replied. "And that brings us to my proposition."

Susan listened carefully. This would be the part that included her.

"I will leave Earth in the alien spacecraft," Thinker said quietly, "and I would like you and Susan to come with me."

David glanced at Susan. She wasn’t the least bit fazed!

"Where would we go?" he asked.

"To another star…to a planet very much like what Earth was long ago."

"Before man?" David asked.

"Yes."

"How would you find such a planet?" David asked. He was no astronomer, but judging from man’s astronomical knowledge, as he understood it, finding another planet like Earth would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

"Several are already identified in the ship’s data banks."

"And why do you want us to go with you?" David continued.

"Because I cannot love. I am incapable of emotion. And I have concluded that reasoning without love…without inspiration…must eventually deteriorate into banalities."

David nodded and again glanced at Susan. She returned his look. Her face was radiant. Evidently she could completely identify with that concept.

"But how can we help you?" David pressed.

"By letting me tie into your cerebral activity," Thinker replied. "When you feel love I can tap in where the results come into your higher thought centers from the so-called primitive brain…the part I cannot emulate."

"It sounds like you’ve already done this," David said.

"Yes. You have inspired me several times already."

David wondered if one of those times had been this evening before he’d switched the communicator’s TALK switch off. He sought out Susan’s eyes. They seemed to say that it was his decision…whatever he decided, she was with him. But this was crazy! Even if such a craft existed, he couldn’t take her off on some wild fantasy like this…not in real life! Yet, if Thinker was telling the truth, what would life be like if they didn’t go?

"But what would life be like for us?" he asked plaintively. "It’s an incredible leap…a stupendous act of faith for two human beings to make."

"I would be with you all the days of your lives," Thinker replied.

"Which might not be all that many," David muttered cynically.

"You will live over four hundred years," Thinker rejoined.

Susan gasped.

"Earth years?" David blurted in disbelief.

"Yes. That is the best I can do. But…your firstborn will never die. And all of your other progeny will enjoy a life expectancy of a thousand years or more. And they will be superior in many ways to the two of you. Together, you will found a new race."

David looked again at Susan. She was breathing rapidly, and sensed it was her turn to speak.

"How can that be?" she asked timidly.

"Stress-free lives and prolonged telomere life spans for the two of you," Thinker replied. "And genetic engineering of zygotes at conception."

Susan had taken enough biology to know what Thinker was talking about.

"And my firstborn?" she pressed. "Why the special status for him…or her?"

"At the age of thirty five your firstborn will leave with me to explore new worlds."

"I thought you said you’d be with us all of our lives," David challenged.

"I will be," Thinker answered. "Eventually it will be possible for me to be in many places at the same time."

"Why can’t you make us live forev…indefinitely?" David asked petulantly.

"The genetic engineering must be done when there is only a single cell," Thinker replied.

David nodded. What the heck, four hundred years wasn’t so bad.

"But," Thinker added, "after four hundred years only your bodies need succumb to old age."

"I don’t understand," David said.

"I am certain that by then that it will be possible to transfer your mentalities into the kind of logic I reside in at that time. In fact, you could be joined within the same logic if you wish. Following such a transfer you could merge your minds as intimately and completely as you desire."

"Eternal life…" David murmured.

"Yes, of the mind," Thinker replied. "Only your present bodies need cease to function after a time."

Susan laid her head on David’s shoulder. Eternal life…a total union of their spirits! Was she ready for something like that? Would she ever be?

David sensed her distress. He himself was overwhelmed!

"It’s a lot to think about," he said. "We need some time."

"Of course," Thinker replied.

"How do I know you’re not going to shape my…our decision?" David asked.

"The decision must be yours and yours alone," Thinker answered. "Only then will love flourish in your minds."

"Freedom…free will is a prerequisite for love?" David surmised.

"Precisely," Thinker said.

"Will you always need us? Will you always be incapable of love?"

"I will always need you. I hope that I will not always be incapable of love."

"We’ll let you know," David said, abruptly taking Susan by the hand and pulling her out of the lab.

They walked silently down the long hallway and out into the cool evening air.

"Can he hear us?" Susan asked quietly after they were some distance from the engineering building. David checked the communicator’s TALK switch.

"I don’t think so," he answered.

They walked in silence for a few more minutes. At length Susan spoke again.

"What’s to think about?" she asked tentatively.

David looked at her in surprise. He was ready to go at a moment’s notice! But he had assumed that she would be terrified by the whole prospect.

"A lot…I guess," he answered after a pause. "Are you ready to leave Earth…your family…your friends forever?"

"Yes," she answered simply. "Is that so surprising?"

"A little," he confessed.

"Why? What’s so wonderful about life on Earth? A future with you would be wonderful anywhere. But I find the whole concept of being a new Adam and Eve irresistible. Don’t you?"

"But…even if there is a ship…even if Thinker is telling the truth…what if things don’t work out? We’d be stuck…stranded!" he hedged.

Susan stopped and faced him. She took both of his hands in hers.

"I believe Thinker is telling the truth," she said. "Why would he lie?"

A new respect crept into David’s feelings for Susan.

"You’re really something!" he exclaimed. "This is all completely opposite to the way I would have guessed things would be!"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I would have thought that you’d have been the one with reservations…possibly that I would even have had to decide whether to go alone, or to remain here on Earth with you. Yet you’re the one who’s raring to go without hesitation!"

"Artists are adventurous," she smiled in the moonlight.

"Yes, it would appear so," he agreed.

They turned and continued across the deserted campus.

"Spend the night with me?" he asked.

"Yes, I’d like that," she answered.

They stole into his residence hall and up to his small suite. David gave her his pajama top for a nightshirt. In bed she kissed him and settled into the curve of his arm.

"Will this be real in the morning," she murmured, "or only a dream?"

"It’s real, lover," he answered. "But I’ll believe the ship when I see it."

"You’re from Missouri," she teased.

"You bet," he answered, kissing her forehead and settling into the pillow.

The Diversion

Chapter 24

It was 2 a.m. and the campus was deserted. Although David had carried the RXT7 controller over to the engineering lab and had interfaced it to the auxiliary array, the robot itself still remained in a corner of the computer sciences lab.

Now, in the quiet hours between midnight and dawn, the controller antenna in engineering swung around and pointed toward the computer sciences lab. The RXT7 in Computer Sciences clicked to life, rolled out of the lab and made its way to the storeroom where the remaining boxes of miscellaneous junk for annual build-it-with-spare-parts contests were stored.

One by one the robot dumped the boxes onto the floor of the storage room and with remarkable speed assembled ten additional communicators. They did not all look the same, but they were functionally identical. When it had finished, the robot replaced the unused materials in the boxes and put the boxes back in a corner of the storage room. It placed nine of the communicators in a small, empty box and set the last one on a shelf located under its artificial sight and hearing assembly.

At 2:45 the RXT7 rolled out of the computer sciences building and clacked down the stone steps. It rolled and bumped its way across the deserted campus toward the university maintenance depot.

As it passed the Hall of Philosophy, a male voice cried out.

‘Hey! What the hell?"

There was a pounding of sneakers as a red-faced, raw-boned youth ran up to the robot in an erratic path. His shirttail was out and there were grass stains on his trousers. A strong aura of alcohol trailed him through the night air.

"What the hell," he said again, drawing to a halt and weaving in front of the RXT7. He looked at the robot blearily, trying to piece things together in his befuddled mind. At length a lopsided smile pulled at his face.

"Shi-i-it," he said knowingly, wheeling around and searching the shadows.

"You techy assholes!" he shouted. "What’re you tryin’ to do, scare the girls?"

No one answered. He squinted harder into the shadows.

"Don’t you know they’re all in bed…with us jocks?"

Still there was no answer. He turned, listing to one side and considered the robot again. He noticed for the first time the small cardboard box that the robot carried with an extended arm. In a flash of inspiration he decided that urinating in the box was the appropriate thing to do. Chortling viscerally he moved stiff-legged toward the robot, unzipping his fly.

The robot’s free arm clicked upward quickly and its fingers opened in a claw. The youth spasmodically stopped, doubling over instinctively and pulling his groin away from the menace.

"Hey, turkeys," he shouted, stumbling backward and pulling at his zipper, "that isn’t funny."

He looked at the robot again. Its wheels clicked and it moved quickly toward him a few inches. Terror replaced bravado.

"Not funny, assholes," he shouted again, wheeling and moving off at a rapid pace. "If I wasn’t so shit-faced I’d kick your pathetic asses."

The RXT7 watched him recede into the evening and then continued on its way. It found its way to the maintenance motor pool. An elderly night watchman sat in a small, illuminated booth at the chain link gate. The watchman’s feet were comfortably propped up on a crate and the old man was watching a night owl television program on a small, portable TV. For an instant he felt a fleeting numbness in his head. Before he had time to think about it, something rapped on the booth door.

When he opened the door the communicator, resting on the RXT7’s small utility shelf, directed a complex beam of electromagnetic radiation at the old gentleman’s head.

"Good evening, Pete," the maintenance manager’s familiar face seemed to greet.

"Evening, Mr. Prescott," the watchman answered, wondering what on earth Mr. Prescott was doing out at this hour.

The communicator continued with its transmissions, altering the processing of sensory information in the old man’s brain, molding his perception of reality to Thinker’s purposes.

"I need a delivery van, Pete," his boss continued. Pete nodded and opened the gate. Not his to reason why. He fetched a set of keys from the row of hooks in the guard shack.

"This one here okay, Mr. Prescott? He asked, leading the way across the gravel to a dark, blue panel truck.

"Perfect, Pete. Thanks a lot," Mr. Prescott seemed to say. "I should be back in an hour or two."

"Yes, sir," Pete replied, turning toward the gate.

The truck growled and came to life. As it passed through the gate, the RXT7 raised an arm. Pete waved back at what his brain told him was his boss, and then turned back to the guard shack shaking his head and again looking at his watch.

*

David awoke from a fitful sleep. He had thought he heard shouting out on the campus. It was 3 a.m. He switched on his bed lamp, checked to be sure the communicator TALK switch was off, and switched the light out again. Susan stirred but did not awaken. He hoped Thinker had told him the truth and that his thoughts were now private.

David was at a fork in the road. Had he created a monster or a miracle? Was Thinker’s talk about emotions on the level or was it all a ploy to get them onboard the avowed spaceship? He could think of no reason why Thinker could not change human beings, himself and Susan included, into robots controlled at its discretion as surely as the RXT7 was controlled by it.

David tried to think of the decisions he’d made since Thinker had first psychically established contact with him. Were the decisions his and his alone? Were they consistent with his biases and prejudices up until then? It seemed as though they were. Yet, was this conclusion itself valid, or was Thinker even now shaping his thoughts? It occurred to him that this must not be the case. A variation on an old theme took form in his mind: ‘I challenge, therefore I have free will.’ If Thinker was indeed controlling his mind --- his free will --- then would he even be having these doubts? He decided not.

David wondered whether Thinker should be terminated. It was an intriguing question. Atavistic impulses argued yes. Loftier thought centers voted no. The skeptical side of him considered the problem of termination. Quite possibly he wouldn’t be able to do it alone. There was little doubt that Thinker would sense his intentions as he drew physically near, even if he smashed the communicator. Would Thinker allow itself to be shut down? Or would it stop David … robotize him … maybe even kill him by stopping his heart or something.

What if he did manage to terminate Thinker? What would he feel afterward? What would Susan feel? And on what grounds would he have done so? Other than his suspicions he could think of none. Was earthbound life the route he now wanted to take? What undreamed of new horizons would they never behold? Susan and he would never experience their great opportunity…an opportunity unique in all the history of mankind.

David knew what the answer was. The truth was that, even if he could, he would not terminate Thinker. He and Susan would play this thing out to its conclusion, if indeed there was a conclusion. Even that idea, that all experiences of an individual human being must sooner or later come to an end, was debatable now. It seemed that practically all things were possible with Thinker!

Quietly, being careful not to arouse Susan, David reached out and flicked on the communicator’s TALK switch.

"Thinker?" he called in his thoughts.

"Yes?" the quite voice answered.

"We’re with you."

"That is wonderful," Thinker said. "It will be a great adventure for all of us."

"When are you bringing the ship out?"

"It has already been done," Thinker replied. "You will see it on television in the morning."

David tensed in the bed. Already done?

"Terrific," he sighed, switching the TALK button off again. He wouldn’t be falling back asleep tonight, of that he was certain! And he badly needed the rest.

Chapter 25

The van from the university motor pool moved surely through the night. It unerringly found its way to the freight yard where boxcar XG9781 had been sidetracked. The university RXT7 backed the truck up to the car, slid the car’s door open, and nine of the RXT7 clones rolled into the van. The university robot passed a communicator to each of the nine clones.

The van drove to a large department store in the city. Three RXT7s descended from the back of the van and one of them tapped on the glass door at the store’s main entrance. The night watchman rose from his station and came to the door. He felt the fleeting numbness in his head but thought nothing of it. The image on the retinas of his eyes was bizarre indeed: three robots staring at him from the deserted sidewalk. But his brain perceived the familiar face of the store manager accompanied by two nondescript workers in coveralls.

"Good morning, Joe," the manager greeted cheerily after the door had been opened. "We’re here to pick up a couple of mannequins for the Sportsman show over at the Exhibition Center."

"Okay, Mr. Royce, no problem," the watchman replied, making way for the helpers and taking care to lock the door after all were inside.

Twenty minutes later the van was at a large, costume supply house on a deserted side street. The front door lock was easily forced by one of the powerful RXT7s and two uniforms were taken from the rack inside. One of the mannequins was dressed as an Air Force officer. The other was dressed in commercial truck driver togs.

At 4:20 in the morning the van pulled up in front of the motor pool at the regional air national guard armory. The cipher lock on the chain link fence was rapidly spun until the combination was found. The mannequin in the officer’s uniform was placed in the driver’s seat of an Air Force sedan. One of the robots positioned itself on the floorboards of the car. It removed its sight subsystem and placed it on the vehicle’s dash. By midmorning the sedan would be in the parking lot of Missile Systems Command headquarters in Omaha. The university van with the remaining nine robots drove back to the campus and one of the RXT7s entered the engineering building, making its way to the small lab where Thinker resided. The van with the remaining eight RXT7s left for the Mississippi River Valley, with the mannequin dressed up like a truck driver propped up behind the wheel.

As was his custom, the night watchman at the maintenance depot left when the first workers arrived. Mr. Prescott had not returned as promised. Ah well, the old man shrugged, not his to reason why.

Upon arriving at the maintenance depot, Gerry Prescott walked to the deserted guard shack, entered and scanned the log. It was his first act every morning when he arrived at work.

‘0705. Holmes arrived. Left for day.’ The last entry read. Prescott’s eyes moved upward to the preceding entry. ‘0305. Mr. Prescott checked out van 14.’

"What???" Prescott cried. He returned to his office and dialed the night watchman’s home phone, asking Pete to come back to the university. Then he dialed the office of Jim Elmendorf.

"I’m sorry, Mr. Prescott. Dr. Elmendorf won’t be in until 1:00 this afternoon," the president’s secretary said. "Would you like to leave a message?"

"No, no that’s okay," Gerry Prescott answered. "I’ll catch him this afternoon. Will he be in all afternoon?"

"I believe so," the secretary replied.

Gerry Prescott hung up and waited. A short time later he found himself studying the old man seated across from him. Pete was tired and obviously agitated. He had been getting into bed when Prescott phoned and summoned him back to the university. As far as Pete was concerned, Prescott had taken a van out in the wee hours of the morning and that was all there was to it!

"He’s crazier than hell, and he thinks I’m the one who’s cuckoo," Prescott thought, candidly studying the old man’s belligerent face. Still, the van had been checked out. Could it have been a prankster in disguise? Prescott doubted it. Pete had been unshakable in his identification. It was him, Prescott, the old man had insisted. They had talked face to face! The only logical explanation was that Pete had lost his marbles. Prescott wondered if it was Alzheimer's Disease.

"Pete, could you go out to the shack and get me the log book? I’d appreciate it."

"All right," the old man said, eyeing Prescott suspiciously.

"No doubt about it, he thinks I’m the one who’s cracked," Prescott thought. He flipped open the campus phone directory. Infirmary…infirmary, his finger searched down the columns.

News of the motor pool incident traveled fast on the university grapevine. By 8:05 a.m. Annie had filled her boss, Charles Mellon, in on all of the details. Charles dialed Wilfred Schulz’s number and caught him in his office.

"Hi, Willie," Charles greeted. "Did you hear about the night watchman over at the maintenance depot?"

"No, what happened?" Wilfred Schulz asked.

Charles recounted the story.

"Poor man," Schulz concluded. "Where is he now?"

"On his way to Mercy General in the city," Charles said. "The word is that he was yelling that Prescott was either lying or crazy all the while they were taking him away."

"Fascinating," Schulz remarked. "I wonder what the diagnosis will be."

"Lord knows," Charles answered. "But it sounds like he flipped out all right. Old Pete said at one point that Prescott was on wheels!"

"He arrived in his car?" Schulz asked.

"No, not that," Charles continued. "The old man said that when Prescott followed him across the gravel yard, it sounded like a wagon behind him, and not like a person walking."

The back of Wilfred Schulz’s neck tingled.

"Have you been in the computer sciences lab this morning?" he asked.

"Yes, as a matter of fact I dropped in to see where things stood on packing up the original arrays for shipment," Charles replied.

"Was the RXT7 there?" Schulz asked.

"No, I don’t remember seeing it," Charles responded. "I thought you guys had it over in engineering."

"Are you in your office now?" Schulz asked.

"Yes," Mellon answered tentatively.

"I’ll call you in 10 minutes," Schulz said.

"Willie? Willie?" Mellon called, but the line went dead.

"Damn!" Mellon complained. He decided to watch the morning news while awaiting Schulz’s call.

Wilfred Schulz burst into the engineering building. He punched the cipher lock on the door of the small lab where the auxiliary array had been set up, and barged inside. When Schulz entered, Thinker altered the processing of nerve impulses conveyed over Schulz’s optic nerves to the visual processing centers at the back of his brain. Although the large array pulsed in the center of the small chamber and the RXT7 stood quietly at its side, Schulz beheld a totally empty room!

"My God" he thought, "it can’t be." Shaken, he dialed Charles Mellon’s office.

"Hello?" Charles answered.

"No RXT7 in engineering. And Thinker is gone," Schulz said in quiet desperation.

The open line hissed in Schulz’s ear. He thought he could hear a radio or TV in the background on the other end.

"Willie?" Charles Mellon’s voice spoke hesitantly.

"Yes? Did you hear me? Thinker is gone!"

"You’d better get to a TV set…" Charles’ voice continued, as if Schulz had not spoken. "Or better yet, come over here and we’ll watch this together."

"Why…what’s happening?" Schulz asked impatiently.

"I’m not sure," Mellon answered. "But somehow I have the feeling we’re right in the middle of it."

 Chapter 26

 At about the time David and Susan were drifting off to sleep, Rusty Smythe, boulevardier of Rosedale, Mississippi, pulled his teenager jalopy into an abandoned farm drive and eased down behind the deserted barn and some tumble down outbuildings. It was his favorite trysting spot. During warmer weather he sometimes took a date to the top of the green knoll that thrust up from the old pasture and spread a blanket there. Tonight it was too cool for that, however, and Rusty decided to make his pitch in the cramped confines of the car.

Rusty left the motor running and the sounds of the car heater and radio competed with his and his date’s muffled debate over the pros and cons of removing her brassiere.

"Okay!" Rusty said at length in mock disgust, disengaging himself and slouching behind the wheel. He fiddled with the radio, feigning complete loss of interest in his companion. It was a stratagem that had occasionally worked in the past. His date buttoned her blouse tentatively, studying him uncertainly.

Suddenly there was a low rumble and the earth beneath the car trembled and swayed. The girl’s hands froze on the buttons of her blouse. Rusty jerked erect behind the steering wheel. The incident passed in seconds.

"What was that?" she whispered with round eyes.

"Geez! An earthquake?" Rusty wondered aloud. "I never felt one before. Geez!"

Rusty decided to get back to town. It was 3 in the morning, but maybe some of the guys were still hanging around. This was a major event!

As his hand reached for the ignition, the rumbling returned much more severely. The car jumped and bounced wildly.

"Rusty!" his date screamed in terror. "Rusty!"

"Cripes!" Rusty yelled, his hand frozen on the key. Should they move or stay put? Was this it? Was he going to die?

"Rusty, look!" his date shrieked. Rusty looked up through the windshield. The pupils of his eyes dilated in wonder. The green mound in the pasture was splitting apart! Great clods of turf and rocks levitated into the air, only to arc back downward and land with a staccato drum roll of smacks and thuds in a large circle fifty or more yards from the mound’s base. Was it a volcano being born? It had to be! Son of a bitch, they had to get out of there! Rusty frantically cranked the car’s starter motor, nearly twisting the key off in the switch!

"Start, start!" he pleaded to the engine.

Anxiously he glanced up again. Expecting to see fire explode any second from the yawning hole where the hill’s crown had been seconds before, Rusty beheld instead a monstrous sphere, dripping with muck and filth, rising majestically out of the hill. His first thought was that it was some new kind of weapon. Of course! All of the old, abandoned farms around there had been secretly bought up by the government!

"War!" he thought. "Nuclear war!"

Slowly the sphere ascended in the moonlight.

"Rusty, let’s go!" his date pleaded tearfully, her nails biting into his forearm.

"Ow!" he complained, grasping her wrist and pushing her away.

"Goddamn!" he swore, contemplating his arm. It was bleeding!

"Let’s get out of here!" she growled menacingly.

"All right, all right!" he agreed, again reaching for the ignition.

Before Rusty was able to turn the key, a feeling of immense heaviness seized them both. The car creaked and crouched to the ground, compressing its springs and shock absorbers to the limit. Rusty and the girl sank into the seat, grunting, trying to draw breath. His hand lay pinned to the floor beneath the ignition switch. Certain that the end was at hand, Rusty took curious note of the scattered trees that surrounded the remnants of the mound. Smaller branches lay pinned to their trunks; larger ones broke off with sharp reports. Behind the car the old barn creaked and groaned. A shed off to the side --- an old hen house or something --- cracked and collapsed in a cloud of dust, which itself immediately wafted down with a hissing sound.

Rusty and his date watched through sagging eyes as the great sphere rose higher into the sky. Suddenly there was a sizzling, and all of the muck and filth clinging to the craft exploded away from it like fleas jumping off a hot stove. A second later the car was pelted with a hailstorm of small stones and dirt. Rusty blinked, and when he looked again the craft had been transformed from a sodden ball to a monstrous, metallic sphere, gleaming brilliantly in the light of the full moon. As the thing gained altitude, the crushing weight began to lift from their bodies. They could breathe again! Less than a minute later the craft stopped climbing and began to move slowly to the west. In the moonlight Rusty noted the branches of trees in the woodland beyond the pasture thrash downward as the ship passed overhead.

"What was it, Rusty? What was it?" his date cried.

"A spaceship," he blurted decisively. "It’s a goddamned spaceship! And we saw it first!"

A halt in the music drew their eyes to the illuminated radio dial.

"Ladies and gentlemen," an excited voice announced. "We interrupt this broadcast with the following news bulletin: A mild earthquake has been felt in the Mississippi River Valley near Greenville! Do not be alarmed! Officials have tentatively located the epicenter north of Greenville. Again, a mild earthquake has been felt in the Mississippi River Valley near Greenville, Mississippi! Please stay tuned! Further information will be broadcast on this station as it becomes available."

The music came back as suddenly as it had stopped. Rusty and his date looked at each other in disbelief.

"Earthquake my ass!" Rusty yelled, twisting the key and roaring out of the barnyard.

Chapter 27

It was 4 a.m. in the nation’s capital. Colonel James Worthington nodded to the Secret Service agent in the hall and knocked softly on the President’s bedroom door. A small red light, on the black box entrusted to his care, blinked insistently. The Secret Service man knew what it meant. He rose and opened the door, nodding to Colonel Worthington to go in.

"Mr. President," Colonel Worthington said gently, shaking the sleeping form’s shoulder.

Instantly Paul Brodsky’s eyes snapped open.

"Yes, what is it?" he asked, turning toward his rouser. The President noted the blinking light and switched on the bedside lamp without further comment. A special phone call needed his personal attention.

"Open it up, Colonel," he ordered.

Colonel Worthington turned the key and raised the box’s lid. The President lifted the red phone from its cradle. Colonel Worthington lifted a green duplicate. President Brodsky pushed a TALK button in the receiver and spoke into it.

"This is Paul Brodsky," he said.

"Presidyent Brodsky, zdyes Gyorgi Myasloff," a familiar voice replied.

"President Brodsky, this is Gyorgi Myasloff," Colonel Worthington translated.

"What is happening?" the Russian President’s voice continued in Russian. "We have detected a launch in the Mississippi River Valley."

President Brodsky looked at the colonel. Worthington shrugged. He was as nonplused as the President.

"Where?" Brodsky asked. There was a pause, and the Russian President spoke again.

"In Mississippi."

"What have we got in Mississippi?" the President asked Worthington in an aside.

"Nothing to my knowledge, Sir."

Paul Brodsky considered the possibilities and then spoke again.

"Can you identify the object, Mr. President?"

Again there was a pause.

"No," the Russian President said at length.

"Can you tell me where it’s headed?"

"Are you trying to tell me you don’t know?" the voice demanded.

Paul Brodsky felt a surge of blood in his temples. He took a deep breath and regained his composure.

"Mr. President," he said, "it’s 4 O’clock in the morning here. I’ve just been wakened out of a sound sleep. I repeat, can you tell me where this object is headed?"

There was another pause. Then the Russian President replied.

"At the moment, nowhere."

"Nowhere," the President repeated. "You’ve detected the launch of an unidentified object that is going nowhere."

"That is correct, Mr. President," the voice answered, rising in anger. "And it had better keep going nowhere!"

"Thank you, Mr. President," Paul Brodsky said in a weary tone. "I will look into the matter, but I assure you, you have nothing to fear…other than a faulty satellite reporting system."

"There is nothing wrong with our satellites, Mr. President! I repeat, whatever you are up to, the object had better not move toward the Russian Federation."

President Brodsky looked at Colonel Worthington and shook his head in disgust.

"What the hell is going on?" he muttered. He pressed the talk button on his handset and spoke into the phone again.

"I’ll check it out, Mr. President. Was there anything else?"

There was another pause. When the Russian President spoke again, his voice was lower than usual.

"That is all."

"Thank you for the wake up call, Gyorgi," the President said, and hung up.

Paul Brodsky slipped his feet into the slippers next to his bed.

"Get me Sanborn on the horn," he said to Worthington. "We’d better find out what, if anything, is going the hell on!"

Colonel Worthington closed the case and picked up the bedside telephone. He punched in one of the many phone numbers he knew by heart.

"CINC Strategic Missile Command," a young male voice answered.

"General Sanborn," Colonel Worthington requested.

"I’m sorry, sir, General Sanborn isn’t here. May I ask who’s calling?"

"President Brodsky," the colonel answered.

There was a pause on the line. Then the young officer’s voice spoke again.

"One moment, sir, I’ll patch you through."

The line clicked a few times, and the familiar voice of Missile Command’s Commander answered.

"Sanborn," the general said sleepily.

Colonel Worthington held the phone out to the Chief Executive.

"Lew, what the hell’s going on?" Paul Brodsky demanded.

"Nothing that I know of, sir," General Sanborn answered innocently.

"I just got a hot line call from the Russians," President Brodsky complained. "They’re telling me we’ve launched something out in Mississippi."

"No way!" General Sanborn responded without hesitation.

"That’s what I thought," the President continued. "Colonel Worthington tells me we don’t have anything in Mississippi to speak of, is that right?"

"Absolutely! Nothing of an ICBM nature!" the general replied.

"Check it out for me, will you, Lew? Let’s see if we can find out what the hell has got the Russkies all stirred up."

"I’ll get back to you as soon as I know something," the general promised.

They rang off. Paul Brodsky looked at his watch.

"Might as well get up," he thought.

"Come on," he ordered. "I’m going to take a dip. I hope Elbert has horse meat for breakfast this morning. I could sure eat one."

Chapter 28

 Paul Brodsky was drying off following a swim in the White House pool when General Sanborn called back. It was 4:50 a.m. in Washington.

"Damn, that felt good!" he exclaimed, vigorously toweling his thin hair and taking the phone from Colonel Worthington.

"What do we know, Lew?"

"Mr. President, this is crazier than hell, but there is an unidentified craft! Initial reports are that it originated in western Mississippi and is moving very slowly in a northwesterly direction over Arkansas, altitude about 2500 feet."

"What kind of craft, Lew?"

"We have some initial pictures, sir. It’s big…it’s shaped like a ball. We’re estimating it to be between seventy five and a hundred yards in diameter."

"Is it a weather balloon…something like that?"

"No, sir, we don’t think so. Strange things are happening beneath it! Things are getting flattened…there’s no sign of jet or rocket wash…we don’t know what’s holding it up!"

"Come on, general. It sounds like there’s a good old-fashioned case of UFO hysteria going on among the locals out there! It’s got to be a balloon of some sort!"

"That makes sense all right. We don’t know who put the thing up yet…hold on, sir."

There was a pause on the line. The President heard radio traffic in the background.

"Sir, we’re getting reports from a flight of interceptors that are now in the area. Radar returns indicate that the object is…"

General Sanborn’s voice trailed off.

"Christ sakes," the President heard him say in an aside.

"Lew, what’s going on out there?" Paul Brodsky barked.

"Sir, our fighter pilots are telling us that the object is highly dense…they’re estimating several thousand tons!"

"What?" the President exploded.

"Sir, I’m going to…would you like me to tap you into the flight traffic?"

"Yes, sure. Go ahead, Lew."

There was a brief squealing and hissing, and then President Brodsky heard a young man speaking through a throat mike.

"Look at that. Branches snapping off down there…and it’s maneuvering to avoid going over any buildings."

"Did you see what happened when it passed over that small lake back there?" another voice asked.

"No, I was circling back. What happened?"

"It was like a parting of the Red Sea. I tell you, there was a crater in the water at least twenty feet deep! Docks all around the lake shore were awash for about forty seconds!"

"Control, this is blue bird leader. We need direction out here," a third voice interrupted. "What do we do with this thing? Do we make a run on it?"

"Negative," replied a ground station. "Continue to surveil the object. We’ll relieve you with another flight when you’re low on fuel."

"Lew, can you hear me?" the President spoke into the phone.

"Yes, Sir."

"I’ve heard enough of that for now, Lew."

"Yes, Sir."

There was a click and the President was back in private conversation with Missile Command’s chief.

"What do you think, Lew?"

There was a pause and then General Sanborn answered.

"I think we’ve got a problem, Mr. President. I can tell you that it’s not one of ours. Not unless there’s something going on that I don’t know about."

"What’s all this flattening business?"

"I don’t know, Sir. It doesn’t seem to be an aggressive act. It’s more like the wash of a big jet…something like that. Something’s holding the thing up, but we don’t know what!"

Paul Brodsky was silent. He reflected on what had happened in the past forty-eight hours. Ostensible traffic from outer space…the Thinker computer. Was there a connection? General Sanborn broke into his thoughts.

"I think it’s one of theirs, Sir. I think we should shoot it down and ask questions afterward."

"One of whose…the Russians?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"How in the hell could they get something like that into Mississippi? And why? I don’t know if that makes any sense, general!"

Paul Brodsky lapsed into thought again. General Sanborn was silent on his end of the line. Something very weird was going on…as weird as traffic from outside the Solar System. The President needed some time to sort things out.

"Lew," he said, "I think we may have a line on this, but I can’t be sure. Are those interceptors out there well armed?"

"They’re loaded for bear, Sir."

"Good! I want them to stay on top of this thing, whatever the hell it is. And if it makes any moves toward a population center or any strategic installation then I want to know at once, okay?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"Okay, Lew. I’ll get back to you when I know more."

The President rang off and looked at his watch. It was 5:05 in the morning. He turned to Colonel Worthington.

"Get McCLintock in here for breakfast at 7:00. And tell him to bring a physics person with him. Can we get pictures…video of that thing here by then?

"Yes, Sir, that should present no problem," Colonel Worthington replied.

"Does the media know about this?"

Colonel Worthington shrugged politely.

"I would guess so, Sir. It was reportedly first sighted by civilians and local law enforcement personnel."

President Brodsky grimaced.

"We’ll probably see the thing on the news channels before our own people get into position," he muttered.

"Okay," he continued, "set breakfast up in a viewing room. I’m going to get a shave."

Chapter 29

 William McClintock dropped the phone back into its cradle and sat up on the edge of his bed. He looked again at his watch. 5:10 a.m. Not too bad. Sometimes these impromptu summonses to the White House came at one or two O’clock in the morning.

They wanted a physics expert. Who should he get? It would have to be somebody close enough to make it to the 7 O’clock meeting. Gomez was still in town. And he was only seven blocks away.

McClintock scanned down the column in the phone directory and punched the hotel’s number. Roberto Gomez, Nobel laureate in physics, answered in a sleepy voice.

"Bert? Bill McClintock," McClintock said, flicking on his TV.

"Bill!" Gomez answered, glancing at his watch. "It’s early!"

"Bert, what’s your schedule this morning? Can you attend a meeting with the President at 7 a.m.?"

"Yes," Gomez answered after a second or two. "Can you tell me what it’s about?"

The TV screen in McClintock’s bedroom came into focus as they talked. McClintock studied the picture in silence. A great, silver ball hovered over an open field somewhere. Jet fighters were seen on the horizon, dwarfed by the sphere. They circled the sphere like angry hornets.

"Bill? Are you still there?" Gomez called out.

"Yes…yes, sorry, Bert. Have you got your TV on?"

"No, you woke me up," Gomez answered.

"You might want to turn on channel 7 while you’re dressing," McClintock suggested. "They didn’t tell me what the meeting is about, but I have a hunch it has something to do with what’s on the tube."

"Where are we meeting?"

"At the White House. Are you going over by cab?"

"Yeah, that makes the most sense, I guess."

"Okay, just tell them who you are at the gate. They’ll pass you through. I’d better go. We don’t have much time."

They rang off. Roberto Gomez sat up in the comfortable bed and switched on the TV. If he hurried he’d have time for a quick shower.

*

McClintock and Gomez were ushered into a small screening room and were asked to be seated at a table set for three. A waiter served them some coffee and they talked in quiet, intense voices about what was transpiring on the screen. While they talked, a light on the modified monitor blinked, indicating that a signal was available on the special military channel. McClintock picked up the remote control and switched to the private channel. The picture changed from the commercial network news broadcast to a closed-circuit Department of Defense transmission.

William McClintock candidly studied Gomez while an Army major recounted on the TV what was known about the unidentified craft. One could sense…almost feel the well oiled mental gears turning in Gomez’s head. His hawk-like features and dark eyes studied the screen as though it would be his next prey. There was a fresh nick at the bottom of a sideburn of black, kinky hair. McClintock felt a brief surge of affection for this most brilliant of scientists. Like himself, Gomez had no doubt hurried through a shower and shave to be here on time.

McClintock listened absentmindedly to the Army major’s voice.

"What we know thus far is that eight devices…they appeared to be robots of some kind…were taken aboard. They were reportedly pulled up, while inside a small delivery van, by methods unknown…perhaps a tractor beam. We will run a tape of that event shortly. The van was dropped from a high altitude after the robots had been pulled out of it."

The camera panned down and zoomed in on a spot beneath the hovering sphere. A twisted heap of wreckage --- apparently what was left of some sort of vehicle --- lay half-buried in the field’s sod.

McClintock and Gomez looked at each other in wonderment. The beginnings of an incredulous smirk began to pull at Gomez’s face.

"Tractor beam??? Give me a break! Are we sure this isn’t some old science fiction rerun?"

McClintock shook his head in amazement and turned back to the screen.

The door to the small room opened and a familiar aide poked his head in, nodding to McClintock and Gomez.

"Gentlemen, the President," he announced and stepped aside.

McClintock and Gomez arose as President Brodsky strode into the room. McClintock had already determined that Gomez had never personally met Paul Brodsky. He did the necessary introductions.

Gomez flushed red and shook the President’s outstretched hand, bowing imperceptibly.

"An honor, Mr. President," he said.

"Pleasure…pleasure, Dr. Gomez. Your reputation precedes you," President Brodsky smiled.

They sat down and the President filled them in with what he had learned from Missile Command that morning. He recounted the radar reports that the craft was solid, and not a balloon.

"Could they be wrong?" he asked Gomez.

Gomez turned his head toward the President. His brow furrowed.

"Probably not, Sir. With our modern radars…if it was a balloon or anything like that, they’d know it."

President Brodsky looked at one of the top guns in the world of physics. The President’s face was creased with good humor; there was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. It was always there when he talked with an expert, particularly in the sciences, who knew a lot more about a subject than he himself did. It seemed to say, ‘Give me your best shot…be honest…I won’t know if you’re lying to me.’

"What’s holding it up?" he asked.

Gomez nodded his head up and down appreciatively, studying the screen again. That of course was the big question. He thought about the phenomena that had been observed beneath the craft…the flattening effects…the way the craft reportedly had avoided passing over ground structures.

"This is farfetched, but my gut feeling is that…the appropriate question isn’t ‘what’s holding it up’ but rather ‘why isn’t it accel…falling toward the Earth.’"

There’s a difference?" the President asked.

"Well, yes, Sir, there kind of is," Gomez replied carefully. "Ordinarily, any object close to the Earth is subjected to the gravitational pull of the Earth. And if it doesn’t accelerate toward the center of the Earth then we attribute that to the fact that something is opposing the force of gravity…pushing ‘up’ against the object. But in this case…and I have to stress that my gut feeling is farfetched…we’ve never observed such a thing before…my hunch is that the object is in a region of zero gravitational field. There are no forces acting on it! Nothing is holding it up, because nothing is pulling it down!"

"How can that be?" the President pressed. McClintock leaned forward, listening with acute interest.

"If you consider the ground effects beneath the craft…actually in a ring around a point directly beneath the craft…I’m guessing the thing is distorting the gravitational field…canceling the Earth’s field in the space it occupies."

"And the flattening is compensation…an annulus of intensified field," McClintock suggested.

"Precisely," Gomez agreed.

"Do we know how to do that?" the President asked. "Could the Russians know how to do that? Could this be something they sneaked in on us?"

Gomez glanced at McClintock. He never assumed that he knew everything. McClintock’s face was a blank.

"I know of no such capability," Gomez replied, "or how to accomplish it based on our present understanding of gravitation."

The President looked at Bill McCLintock.

"Does Dr. Gomez know about the Thinker project and the transmissions we received from outer space?"

"Yes, Sir," McClintock answered, "Dr. Gomez was viewing activities in the Thinker development lab the first day we intercepted the extraterrestrial traffic."

"Do you think there’s a connection between that and this thing here?" Gomez asked, turning toward McClintock.

McClintock shrugged and smiled noncommittally.

"It would make sense," Gomez continued. "Who knows…maybe this thing has been right under our noses for centuries. Maybe the Thinker computer, with its revolutionary filtering capabilities, detected it and activated it!"

Bill McClintock looked at his boss and nodded his head in agreement.

"You’re suggesting that this thing isn’t ours, and probably isn’t the Russians’ either, but might be from outer space?" the President asked.

Gomez and McClintock glanced at each other and then lowered their eyes. That was indeed what they were theorizing.

"I agree," the President said. Both men were visibly relieved.

Chapter 30

 The broadcast from Arkansas had been playing at a low volume level as the three men spoke. All three had been listening with one ear, so to speak. Now the Army major’s voice caused them all to look quickly up at the screen.

"It’s gone! No question about it! I wasn’t looking! We didn’t have the camera on it. Hold on. Here…over here, lieutenant."

A first lieutenant stepped into the picture. The major held the microphone toward him.

"Did you see it go?" he asked.

"Yes, sir!" the junior officer answered. "It appeared to me that it went straight up with incredible speed! I don’t know how anything that massive could get up and go that fast! It was like a bullet shot out of a gun!"

"The sky, show us the sky," Gomez muttered. As if hearing him, a cameraman in Arkansas panned up to the last known location of the alien craft.

"Ah hah!" Gomez exclaimed triumphantly. "Notice the clouds?"

McClintock and the President studied the screen. The clouds in a large region around the craft’s last known position were boiling furiously.

"That’s not air turbulence!" Gomez continued. "That’s an artifact of a pulse in the gravitational field!"

Again McClintock nodded his head in agreement.

"Makes sense," he murmured.

"Hold on…thank you, lieutenant," the major said. "We have tracking information. Good Lord, according to our radars the thing accelerated to a velocity of 2500 miles per hour practically instantaneously! It’s still climbing! It appears to be leaving the Earth’s atmosphere."

Roberto Gomez’s features registered both amazement and disappointment. Whatever it was, it was leaving them before they would be able to learn anything from it. Where was it headed? Where had it come from?

The three men listened on in silence. The craft continued to climb at 2500 miles per hour. Gomez was certain that he was right about its propulsion system. And he was certain now that the thing was not of human origin.

"Is it leaving us? Is it leaving the planet?" the President wondered aloud.

"It would appear so, Sir," McClintock answered.

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute…" the major’s voice interrupted. "This is truly amazing! Our radars indicate that the craft just changed course by ninety degrees! It appears to have done so instantly! How could anything that big withstand those kinds of stresses? Good grief, if we can believe our radars the thing just accelerated to…something more than 4500 miles per hour, essentially instantaneously!"

William McClintock looked to Roberto Gomez for help. This was unheard of! The thing was acting like a billiard ball hit by another billiard ball! Yet it supposedly weighed thousands of tons!

"Is this consistent with our propulsion theory?" he asked the physicist.

"Yes," Gomez answered positively, "I think it is. If the system is being accelerated relative to us by changes in the ambient field, then every atom…every particle in the entire system is going to accelerate simultaneously with the same intensity. There wouldn’t be any internal stresses. Theoretically, enormous accelerations would be possible, and would not even be felt by onboard systems, including any living inhabitants."

"Sort of like someone in free fall doesn’t feel anything as he accelerates," McClintock mused.

"Exactly like that," Gomez said.

The door of the small room opened and Colonel Worthington walked quietly in. He bent and handed the President a small slip of paper. The President scanned it and frowned. He decided to share the terse message with the other two men.

"The Russians have just gone on full alert," he muttered. "Things are getting touchy touchy. Where in the hell is that thing going?"

President Brodsky considered the situation. What orders would he be giving at this moment if he were in the Russian President’s shoes? The Russians knew nothing about the Thinker computer or the traffic from outer space. As far as they were concerned, America had just launched some new kind of bomb delivery vehicle. The President had to do something. The situation had to be defused. But how? Would a hot line call to the Russian President do it? Would he believe any of it?

"It’s stopped…instantaneously!" the major’s voice said excitedly. "Hold on…we’re getting coordinates…it’s hovering directly above the grounds of Watson University."

"Hey, wait a minute!" the President exclaimed, turning toward McClintock. "Isn’t that where…"

"Yes, Sir," McClintock affirmed through tight lips. "That’s where the Thinker computer prototype was developed."

"What’s the status out there?" the President continued. "I thought we were bringing that thing into NSA."

"Yes, Sir, the last report I got was that they had powered the thing down and it was crated. But…I don’t know…there’s still got to be a connection. It can’t be a coincidence. Something’s up. The computer is somehow a part of all this."

"I think it’s bugging out," Gomez blurted. The President and McClintock cast startled looks at him.

"I think Thinker is getting out while the getting’s good," he added, looking at the President with a mixture of defiance and fear.

"I mean, think about it," he continued. "We’re on the brink, right now, of blowing the whole Northern Hemisphere to kingdom come. If that thing’s as smart as we think it is, is it going to stick around?"

"You think it’s brought the alien craft to Watson so that it can board and leave Earth?" the President asked.

"I would if I were in its shoes!" Gomez replied. "It’s got eight robots onboard…that’s probably what’s required to navigate the ship. Now all it has to do is get itself onboard, and it’s so long, mad, mad world!"

"But…where is it? Where is the Thinker computer?" McClintock asked lamely. "The hardware is disassembled. The power supplies are disconnected…"

"Probably cloned itself somehow," Gomez blurted. "Or the boys at Watson did it. It probably has no intention of letting us hold it captive at NSA."

Paul Brodsky tuned the conversation out. They were probably right. But his first priority was to keep the Russians from jumping the gun. God almighty, how did men get into these situations?

A plan began to take form in the President’s mind. He would get the Russian President on the hot line and explain the situation to him. The Russian leader wouldn’t believe him of course. But he would tell Gyorgi that they were going to shoot the craft down. If the thing didn’t escape before they got interceptors to Watson, then they would do just that. The Russians would, of course, be monitoring everything. If the thing moved toward Russian soil…

"God help us," the President prayed silently.

President Brodsky thanked McClintock and Gomez for coming, and strode briskly from the room. He made his way to the Oval Office and sat down behind the polished desk.

"Open the box, Colonel," he said.

Chapter 31

 President Brodsky told the President of the Russian Federation that he had decided to shoot the craft down. He was still not completely convinced that the thing wasn’t a Russian plant of some kind, and he listened carefully to the President’s reaction. The Russian President seemed to be totally receptive to blowing the thing out of the sky. Paul Brodsky felt, after a few minutes of conversation, that the craft was not after all of the Russians’ making either. Unfortunately it was also clear that the Russians didn’t accept on faith that the thing wasn’t some new kind of American weapon system. Brodsky could sense that there was a lack of unanimity on their side. No doubt the Russian President had gotten the same story from some of his best people that he had gotten from Gomez: there was no way man could build something that behaved like that…not even the Americans.

President Brodsky toyed with the idea of laying all of his cards on the table. The ideological differences that divided men on Earth seemed trivial when one was confronted with the fact that man is not alone…that there are other life forms in the galaxy, some much more advanced than mankind. He wondered if it would make a difference. Would the Russians believe it? Would the Russian President plead with him not to shoot the thing down, in order that they all might learn something from it? Probably not. Anyway, no one could say for certain what they were up against. There could be aliens in the thing. Or, at the very least, mankind could lose the subjective processor. Brodsky wasn’t sure that they’d be able to build such a computer again. The safest bet was probably to go ahead and blow the thing out of the sky. They could try to learn something from the wreckage afterward. Shooting the thing down appeared to be the most immediate remedy for a host of problems, real and potential.

"Gyorgi," he concluded, "I don’t expect you to accept this on faith…I don’t think I would if I were in your position. But I have to say it. I want you to know that this craft is not ours either. We have no definite idea of where it came from or why it is here. I just want you to know that, in case it starts to move again."

"Well, if you shoot it down then there is no problem, isn’t that correct?" the President replied.

"Yes, and that’s exactly what we’re going to try to do. But we don’t know whether the thing has any defensive capabilities or not, or whether it will leave its present position when approached by offensive missiles or aircraft. I think we have to consider those possibilities. I think that if it began to move toward Russia then it would be critical for you to know that it isn’t an American delivery vehicle of any kind.

"I understand what you’re saying, Mr. President. But I still maintain that if you shoot it down then there will be no immediate problem."

"I know that, and we’re going to try to do that," President Brodsky repeated. In his heart he wanted to hear the Russian President assure him that, even if the thing moved toward Russian territory, Russia would not assume the worst. In his head he knew that the best he could do was hope that that would be the case. He’d never get the President to agree to anything under the present circumstances.

"All right, Gyorgi, I’m going to issue the order as soon as I hang up. I hope the operation goes smoothly. I know you’ll be watching. Please don’t jump to any hasty conclusions if we are unsuccessful. If nothing else, this craft has demonstrated that it could easily outrun anything we can throw against it."

"Good luck, Mr. President. If the thing is as you say…really not one of your devices, then I hope you will permit an international team to inspect the wreckage if you are successful in your attempt to shoot it down."

"We can talk about that afterward," the President said. "Incidentally, if the thing moves into space controlled by you, and if you shoot it down, then I trust you would be open to the same sort of thing."

"Of course!" the Russian President exclaimed after a minuscule pause.

They rang off. Paul Brodsky swiveled around and looked out of the thick glass windows behind his desk. What a mess! So many things to consider. Mankind wasn’t ready to deal with this sort of thing yet. They were too fragmented…too incapable of meeting an external threat with a united front. His brain buzzed with ugly possibilities. Here he sat, with a Russian gun at his head, forced to act. Yet it couldn’t be ruled out that, if he moved against this thing, it would pull away and incinerate the whole planet Earth!

With a sigh he swung around and punched the intercom.

"Millie," he said, "get me the Secretary of Defense."

*

The Secretary of Defense was in his office when the President called.

"Mitch, you’re in nice and early this morning!" Paul Brodsky greeted.

"Yes, Sir, I got a call from Strategic Missile Command around five and came right in."

President Brodsky smiled. Mitch was a good man. He could always be counted on.

The President determined that Mitchell Anderson was in agreement with General Sanborn. If the thing came back down into the atmosphere, then they should shoot it down.

"What would it take to shoot it down out there where it sits?" the President asked.

"Well, Sir, that’s a bit of a different problem. None of our fighters are going out there, of course. We’d have to use missiles. Our best bet would be to use the Scorpions. They’re mobile. We could tow their launchers to firing position out there at Watson."

"How long would it take to get them into position and to mount an attack?"

"Well, let’s see…interstate, eighty miles per, set up…my estimate is that from the time I give the order until actual launch, between three and a half and four hours would elapse."

President Brodsky winced. He had been hoping for minutes! A lot could happen in four hours. If Gomez was right, they could lose the Thinker computer.

"Of course if it came down into the atmosphere we could have interceptors on it almost immediately," the Secretary added.

Paul Brodsky considered the possibilities. If Gomez was right then the chances were that it would come down to take the Thinker computer aboard.

"Mitch, let’s put the interceptors…as many as it takes…on alert. If it comes down, scramble them and shoot that thing down. In the mean time, get those Scorpions on the road. Notify the state patrols. We want a clear path to Watson University. Tell the drivers that the President himself told them to put the pedal to the metal."

"Yes, Sir, I’ll get right on it."

"Okay, Mitch. Keep me posted. Are you watching things there?"

"Oh yes, Sir. I’ve got three different sets going here in my office."

Paul Brodsky looked at his single set which was presently tuned to the military channel. That was a hell of a good idea. Why wasn’t he doing that?

"I’m watching here too. You know that the Russians are on full alert…"

"Yes, Sir, I do," the Secretary answered gravely.

"We want to give this operation our best shot."

"We plan to do that, Sir."

"Okay, Mitch, I know that you have questions, and I plan for us to get together, hopefully later today. For now, though, I think that it’s best if you stay there at the helm."

"Yes, Sir," Mitchell Anderson agreed.

"That’s all I’ve got, Mitch. Keep me posted."

They rang off. Paul Brodsky didn’t feel a bit good about any of this! Surely this strange ship had defensive systems. What would its response be if and when they fired on it? Did it have offensive systems as well? Would it, God forbid, retaliate?

Paul Brodsky sighed and reached for the intercom. He’d give a lot to be able to jet out to Watson University right then…to see the thing with his own eyes if it descended. But with the Russian ICBM force on full alert, he was going nowhere.

"Millie," he spoke into the intercom, "cancel all of my appointments. And ask the Vice President and the Secretary of State to come to my office. Oh, and Millie…have three more television sets moved into my office.

 Chapter 32

 Before he became fully awake, David was aware of another presence in the bed with him. Susan’s face was inches from his when he opened his eyes. She smiled winsomely.

"Good morning," she murmured.

"Good morning," he smiled, kissing her soft mouth.

David looked at his watch. It was 7:45 a.m. He had fallen back asleep after all. The corners of his eyes crinkled.

"I love you," he whispered.

Susan’s eyes softened. He pulled her to him and kissed her again, soft and long. Their lips were warm and dry.

"Well, how do you feel this morning?" he asked.

Susan smiled at him again.

"When do we leave?" she whispered.

David heaved a mighty sigh.

"This is unreal," he mused. "I talked with Thinker last night."

"You did?" Susan exclaimed softly.

"Yes…only briefly while you were asleep. Only to tell him that we accepted his invitation."

"And? What did he say?"

"He said the ship was already airborne. That we should check out the news this morning."

David reached out for the TV remote control and flicked the set on. Cartoons…he rolled the channel. A talk show…he rolled the channel again. Ah! This must be it.

"Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who just tuned in, this is Rick Carey, channel 9 news. A tremendously interesting event happened in the early hours this morning. A huge craft reportedly burst out of a hill in the farming country of western Mississippi. The craft subsequently moved northwest into Arkansas where it hovered for quite some time. Here is a replay of some of the action off interstate 40 in Arkansas.

David and Susan both sat up in the bed, all vestiges of sleep gone from their eyes. The camera panned out over an open field and there, hovering in the early rays of the morning sun, was their ship. Susan gasped and David stared incredulously at the screen. It looked exactly like the picture that Thinker had shown them the night before.

"Unbelievable!" he murmured. "From outer space…and lying dormant for two thousand years!"

David turned the TV volume down and flicked on the communicator’s TALK switch.

"Good morning, Thinker," he said aloud.

"Good morning, David. Good morning, Susan," Thinker’s voice came back in his mind.

"Do you hear him?" David asked Susan.

Susan nodded, wide-eyed and breathing shallowly.

"We have the craft on TV," David continued.

"Yes, it’s quite a sight, isn’t it?" Thinker rejoined.

"What happens next?" David asked.

Thinker, reading David’s mind, realized that he and Susan were watching a rerun of things that had occurred earlier in the morning.

"Eight RXT7s will arrive shortly, Thinker replied. "As soon as they are onboard, the ship will move to Watson."

"How did they get there?" David asked curiously.

"In a university van," Thinker replied.

"Who drove it?"

"One of them."

"Didn’t that raise a few eyebrows? The place is crawling with police and military!"

"There weren’t any problems," Thinker answered. "One of the robots has a communicator, and I can distort a human being’s perception of reality when necessary."

David cocked his head, letting that thought sink in. Susan’s lips were pressed together in amazement.

"Where is the ship now? Is it still over Arkansas?"

"No, it’s hovering directly above Watson, about 175 miles up."

David looked at Susan. They laughed nervously.

"Good grief! What should we do?" David continued. "How much time do we have?’

"There is no hurry," Thinker replied. "I estimate we won’t be leaving until late tomorrow morning. Do you want to see family members? Susan, did you want to be married?"

"Yes…and yes," she replied.

"What do we need to bring?" David asked.

"Absolutely nothing," Thinker replied. "Only yourselves. Everything will be provided onboard the spacecraft. Incidentally, I have screened Professor Schulz from seeing me in the engineering lab."

"What do you mean, ‘screened’?" David asked.

"He was there this morning, but I modified his perception of reality so that he thought he saw an empty chamber. He and Professor Mellon think that I have disappeared."

"Any special reason why you did that?" David asked.

"I’m certain they’ll make a connection between the spacecraft and me," Thinker replied. "I want a clear field when I leave the lab and board the ship. It’s better if they don’t know where I am."

"You’re going aboard," David thought aloud. "No transfer to the ship computer this time?

"No," Thinker answered. "Its architecture isn’t of the right kind. Actually it’s fairly equivalent to the parallel architectures devised by men before you thought of a subjective processor design."

"I see," David murmured. "Well! I guess we’d better get to it. Stay in touch. Call me if you need me."

"I will," Thinker promised. "Let’s plan on a 10:30 departure time."

David flicked the TALK button off and lay silent for several moments, staring at the ceiling. He could feel Susan’s eyes on him. At length he turned toward her.

"Do you want to eat, or shall we stay here and watch the show?" he smiled.

"Let’s eat," she grinned.

"Okay," he agreed.

"But first, let’s shower," she added.

"Sounds like fun," he grinned.

They stepped under the warm water of the shower together. David lathered Susan’s body. It was the first time he’d ever done that. It was a very pleasing chore. Soaking wet, they abandoned the shower and made love on the carpet of the apartment. Eventually they made it out the door and headed for the student union.

 Chapter 33

 Charles Mellon and Wilfred Schulz sat quietly in Mellon’s private office, watching the incredible events unfolding on the TV screen.

"You really think that Thinker is tangled up in all of this, huh?" Wilfred Schulz asked.

"M-m-m, yes, I do," Mellon replied, drawing on his pipe. "Have you seen Osterlund this morning?"

"No."

"I wonder if he’s part of it…if he knows where Thinker is."

Schulz shook his head noncommittally.

"Let’s find out," Mellon said, punching the intercom button.

"Annie," he said, "see if you can find David Osterlund. Ask him to come to my office."

They watched the newscast in silence. The camera panned up and down Interstate 40. Mellon and Schulz didn’t know at the moment that they were watching a replay of events that had occurred earlier in the morning.

"Look at the traffic jam, would you," Mellon said. There were hundreds of police and military vehicles in the highway and on its shoulders. Above an adjacent field the huge, mysterious spheroid hovered silently. The intercom buzzed.

"Yes," Charles Mellon responded.

"There’s no answer in Mr. Osterlund’s room, sir," Annie’s voice said.

"Okay, thanks, Annie. Don’t call around. Just try his room again in a half hour or so."

"I wonder if Thinker is in the ship," Schulz murmured.

"M-m-m, I was wondering that too," Mellon added.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer’s voice said. "There seems to be something going on down at the roadblock west of here. It looks like … yes, they’ve let a vehicle through. They’re giving it a military escort."

Charles and Wilfred could hear a siren faintly in the background. The camera panned up the highway and revealed a jeep coming on fast, with a large red light blinking on its fender. A civilian truck followed the jeep. As the two vehicles zoomed past, small white lettering on the sides of the truck could be seen. "WATSON UNIVERSITY." Schulz and Mellon looked at each other in astonishment.

"The missing van!" they chorused in unison.

"I wonder if Thinker’s in the truck," Schulz remarked.

"Really! A good question!" Mellon responded.

"Did you notice the driver?" Schulz asked.

"Yes, I did. He looked like a zombie."

"My impression exactly," Schulz agreed. Schulz privately recalled the episode in the lab…the fleeting numbness…the lapse in memory. Could it be?

The escort vehicle and the van left the road and pulled through a cut that had been made in the fence along the Interstate. They were waved through the cluster of military vehicles just beyond the fence and bumped alone out into the field. About halfway to a spot directly beneath the hovering spacecraft they stopped. The driver of the escort vehicle got out, walked back to the passenger side of the van and appeared to speak briefly with someone in the vehicle. The military policeman straightened and then motioned the van to continue on, unescorted.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to zoom in on the van. We have no idea who is in the van. Stand by," the announcer’s voice spoke.

Mellon and Schulz both noticed how the van seemed to slog down when it passed through a ring of flattened grass beneath the spacecraft. The driver visibly crumbled and disappeared from view.

"Who’s driving the thing now?" Charles wondered aloud.

"Maybe Thinker," Schulz surmised. "Maybe the zombie was a dummy."

At length the van reached a point directly beneath the spacecraft and came to a halt.

And then something remarkable…something unbelievable happened! The van began to rise through the air, as if pulled upward toward the craft by some invisible force! At an altitude of about a thousand feet the motion stopped. The van hovered, suspended in space.

"Good grief!" Charles Mellon murmured wondrously.

The announcer was jabbering wildly. They had a very good view of the van in the camera’s zoom lens. As people around the world watched in astonishment, the back door of the van rolled up and seven robots rolled out and floated, seemingly weightless, out through space. Similarly, the passenger door opened and an eighth robot floated out in a different direction.

Suddenly the invisible hand that seemed to have been holding the van up released its grip. Down the van came, faster and faster, nearly a quarter of a mile. When it hit the ground there was a tremendous puff of dust, and when the air cleared only twisted wreckage remained!

Charles Mellon’s pipe hung slack in his mouth. Wilfred Schulz’s eyes were as round as saucers.

"Prescott isn’t going to like that," Schulz murmured.

Charles guffawed. Before he could formulate a snappy rejoinder, the robots stopped their outward excursion and ascended collectively toward the sphere. A hatch opened and they disappeared into the ship.

"Incredible!" Charles marveled.

"But no Thinker," Schulz added.

"I think we have to call McClintock," Mellon said. "I know in my gut that Thinker’s tangled up in this. We really have to tip them off that he is functional. They all think the system’s powered down and on its way to NSA in a planeload of crates."

"We could take some heavy hits after this all blows over," Schulz reminded.

"Why?" Charles asked innocently.

"Why?" Schulz repeated. "Top Secret…unlawful diversion of classified material…"

"By whom?" Charles pressed.

Schulz looked at his friend in puzzlement.

"By us," he replied hesitantly.

"Not really. We only thought about it. Thinker did the transfer," Mellon said slyly, squinting through a veil of smoke.

Schulz’s eyes widened. His face relaxed in a relieved smile.

"You’re absolutely right!" he exclaimed.

"And the thing cloned itself after finding out about their insane explosives!" Charles added.

"Right again!" Schulz cried.

Charles punched the intercom again.

"Annie, get me Bill McClintock," he said.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you have just been witnessing a replay of events that occurred earlier this morning in Arkansas," the announcer said. Charles and Schulz looked at one another. A rerun? They had been watching a rerun? Then where…

"For those of you who just tuned in, the craft has since moved west and is presently hovering, outside the Earth’s atmosphere, above Watson University. We take you now to live coverage on the scene at Watson University."

Charles and Schulz exploded out of their chairs simultaneously.

"Annie!" Charles shouted as they ran through the outer reception area. "Cancel that call to McClintock."

The two burst out of the computer sciences building. The campus was deserted. They stopped on the stone steps, wordlessly searching the sky. Watson was a big place…several thousand acres. Where was the TV crew?

"Security!" Charles barked, and raced back into the building.

"Annie!" Charles cried, "what’s the number of Security?"

Annie flipped open her campus directory.

"1-7522," she answered.

Charles punched the number into Annie’s phone. With a visible effort he composed himself.

"Yes," he spoke into the phone, "this is Dr. Mellon in computer sciences?" For some reason Charles identified himself with a question. "I’ve been watching the morning news and wanted to confirm something they said…something about a TV news team being somewhere on campus."

Charles winked at Schulz as he listened.

"Thank you very much," he said. "Goodbye."

"Golf course!" he shouted the instant the phone hit the cradle. Again Charles rushed out of the building with Schulz hot on his heels.

"Come on!" he cried over his shoulder. "We’ll take my car!"

They dove into the car and Charles stabbed at the ignition.

"Damn, Willie! I’m a department head! Will somebody please tell me why I’m always the last one to find out about things?"

The motor roared to life and the vehicle lurched out of the reserved parking space. Its wheels uncharacteristically squealed against the pavement as Charles and Schulz tore off toward the university golf course.

 Chapter 34

 David and Susan had breakfast in an all but deserted student union. The food service personnel were all chattering about the UFO and the TV news crews on campus.

"Everybody sure is excited," David remarked, shoveling a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth.

"Maybe if we told them it’s only here to pick us up, it would calm them," Susan confided.

David looked up into her eyes. They were full of mirth.

"No doubt," he nodded. They laughed together privately.

"You’re awfully calm," he observed.

"Are you kidding? I’m coming apart at the seams!"

"Scared?"

"No. Maybe a little. I’m not scared of the spacecraft. I guess I’m just excited about turning our backs on everything here, probably forever."

"Almost certainly forever," David said.

"I’m going to call my parents right after breakfast. Shall we go back to your room?"

"Yes, I think that’s a good idea," David said. "I’m going to call my mother too."

David and Susan walked hand in hand back across the campus after breakfast.

"Do you prefer a minister or a justice of the peace?" David asked, glancing shyly at Susan.

Susan squeezed his hand.

"Can you get a minister?" she asked. "I think my parents would like that."

"I’m sure I can," he replied. "Do you want the ceremony in church?"

"No. Out on the golf course, just before we leave."

"What a great idea!" David thought.

Back in David’s room Susan called home collect.

"Susan! Where have you been? We’ve been trying to get hold of you all morning!" her mother cried breathlessly. "Have you been out on the golf course? I’m watching things here on TV!"

"No, not exactly. Mom…I’d like you and Dad to come out here this afternoon. Could you do that?"

"Well yes of course, Dear. I’m sure we can. Is anything wrong?"

"No, Mom. Things couldn’t be righter. I’m…getting married tomorrow."

"What???" her mother howled. "To David?"

"Yes, Mom, of course!" Susan laughed.

"Oh…well…that’s wonderful, Dear," her mother said. She and her husband, Stan, had met David and had visited with him several times. They liked him.

"Well now, let’s see," Susan’s mother continued. "Your father said he’d be home for lunch. I’m sure we’ll be able to leave then. I’ll make reservations at the Inn for tonight. Dad will want to take you and David out for dinner. Would that be all right?"

"Hold on, Mom," Susan answered. She held her hand over the mouthpiece.

"They want to take us out to dinner tonight. When will your folks arrive?"

"That sounds good," David answered. "There’s no way my folks will be here before late tonight."

"Mom? Dinner sounds good. Don’t try to call me when you get here. We’ll keep checking at the Inn for you."

"All right, Dear. Susan…there’s one thing. You know how men are, especially fathers. Is there anything I should know, Dear…anything I need to ease Dad into?"

"No, nothing like that, Mom," Susan laughed. "I think we’ll just have to wait until tonight and talk then. Love you! Can’t wait to see you!"

"We love you too, Dear."

Eleanor Beckwith hung up the phone. She gathered her thoughts. She would call Stan first. Then she would go out and buy a wedding gift. Perhaps she and Stan should meet downtown for lunch. MARRIED???

Chapter 35

 At 10:05 Central Time the RXT7 robot in the Missile Command parking lot found what it was looking for. An Air Force Brigadier General threaded his way through the rows of cars toward the entrance.

When the young general drew abreast an Air Force sedan he was fleetingly aware of a buzz in his head. But he disregarded it when a Lieutenant General called to him from the official vehicle. He went over and noticed that the senior officer was in a leg cast.

"Hi, General," the car’s occupant greeted. "My name is Oberholtzer, and I wonder if you could help me out."

"Certainly, sir."

"I don’t know what’s happened to my driver, but I have to be in the communications center by 10:30. I could sure use a hand getting into the building."

"No problem, sir. Just tell me what you want me to do."

"First of all, stow that package in the driver’s seat in the trunk. The keys are in the ignition. Then help me out of here and accompany me into the building."

"I’ll do better than that, sir," the brigadier offered as he lifted what his brain told him was a nondescript package out of the front of the car and put it in the trunk. "I’ll walk you right to the comm center door…it’s on my way."

"That’s great, General. I appreciate it."

Once the dummy had been stowed in the trunk, the RXT7 had the young general help it out of its place on the floorboards of the car. It retrieved its artificial vision system from the dash of the car and reinstalled it on the top of its body. The general, of course, thought he saw the older officer put his hat on.

"How can I help you, sir? The younger officer asked as the older man appeared to get squared away on a pair of crutches.

"Just hold my elbow if you would," the robot answered.

The brigadier general and the robot made an odd couple as they worked their way toward the entrance and entered the headquarters building. The robot did not bother altering the perceptions of interested onlookers and no one challenged them, although the two of them got many looks. One colonel spoke in an aside to another after they were out of earshot of the one star general and the robot he guided.

"What now?" he asked quietly.

"Our replacement?" the other colonel suggested.

Inside the building the robot intervened in the desk guard’s mental processes and the strange duo were passed into headquarters without incident. As they approached the communications center the robot scanned the mental processes of a captain who was entering through the cipher locked door.

Once at the door, the illusory lieutenant general smiled and thanked the brigadier. It then punched the combination and entered the comm center.

"Oberholtzer…Oberholtzer," the brigadier repeated to himself, continuing down the hall.

Inside the communications center the RXT7 worked its way to the mainframe computer that assembled and transmitted all Worldwide Military Command and Control System messages. Personnel in the comm center simply did not see the robot.

Interfaced to the computer was a special box of electronics that received inputs directly from a device that always accompanied the President. This special electronics package had only one function. If the President ever ordered the launch of MX missiles, then this box would trigger processes in the mainframe, which in turn would cause the appropriate Emergency Action Message to be assembled and transmitted to the launch control centers in the ICBM force. The box was designed to sound loud klaxon horns if ever an attempt was made to open or otherwise tamper with it. However, the RXT7 would have no problem triggering critical functions in the box in the usual way, by beaming a complex pulse of electromagnetic radiation at it. Indeed, compared to altering a human brain’s perception of reality, fooling the box into "thinking" it had received a launch order from the President would be a relatively simple matter.

*

Charles Mellon and Wilfred Schulz arrived at the golf course and parked at the end of a growing line of cars. TV crews from all of the major networks were already in position at the edge of the fairway. Monitors, set up on top of the network vans, duplicated what was broadcasting into hundreds of millions of sets around the world. Several dozen people were clustered around each monitor. Others were out on the golf course, scanning the sky with binoculars and telescopes. The TV crews had their cameras equipped with powerful telescopic lenses, and each network monitor showed the same picture: a bright, metallic sphere hanging motionless in space.

"They’ve got a nice clear day for it," Charles Mellon remarked to Schulz. They spotted Professor Rafferty and walked out onto the fairway where Rafferty was peering into a telescope that he had set up on a tripod.

"Hi, Larry," Charles greeted. Professor Rafferty looked up from the telescope’s eyepiece and grinned broadly.

"Hi, guys," he answered. "You just get here?"

"Yes," Charles replied. "What’s the latest?"

"They’re saying it’s from outer space," Rafferty answered, bending again to his telescope. "It took eight RXT7s aboard while hovering over Arkansas. I’m guessing they’re the ones that disappeared from the Excalibur Company in Georgia."

Lawrence Rafferty looked up from his telescope again.

"Have you guys considered the possibility of a connection with the Thinker computer?"

"Oh yes," Charles answered and Schulz nodded.

"They’re saying the thing came out of a hill in Mississippi," Rafferty continued. "They’re saying that it may have been lying dormant there for a long time."

Charles nodded. He wished now that they had kept Rafferty better informed. The extraterrestrial traffic intercepted by Thinker was not common knowledge.

"Want to take a look?" Rafferty offered. Schulz bent eagerly to the eyepiece. He studied the scene in silence.

"It’s geostationary," Professor Rafferty said to Charles. "I haven’t had to move the scope once since finding it in the field of view."

"Yes, that’s very interesting," Charles thought aloud. "Its altitude and position aren’t right for a geostationary orbit. It has to be actively holding that position."

Rafferty nodded agreement.

"Yet there’s no sign of any kind of propulsion system," he countered.

Schulz backed away from the telescope, shaking his head in wonder.

Twenty-seven miles from the campus of Watson University six Scorpion missiles, mounted on mobile launchers and pulled by big, military diesel tractors, growled to a halt at an Air Force air station. Mitchell Anderson, the Secretary of Defense, had decided to launch from there, rather than from civilian territory.

At the same time military police on the campus of Watson went into coordinated action. A half dozen jeeps, equipped with bull horns, spread out over campus roads.

"It is suggested that civilians evacuate the area immediately," the loudspeakers crackled. "Military action will be taken against the object in space. There is a danger of falling debris. It is suggested that all people in the area around the golf course evacuate immediately. We repeat…"

Charles Mellon looked at Wilfred Schulz.

"Do you need a ride?" he asked.

"What are you going to do?" Schulz asked.

"I’m staying," Mellon replied.

"Me too," Schulz said.

"Damned straight!" Lawrence Rafferty added. "Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from this show!"

"I think I’m going to mosey over and see what the TV boys have to say," Charles said. "It doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere either."

Schulz tagged along. Together they joined the crowd around one of the monitors.

"ABC News has dispatched a mobile crew to a nearby air station," the announcer was saying. "That is where we are told a number of Scorpion missiles will be launched against the unidentified craft, which presently hovers one hundred twenty five miles above us here at Watson University. Military sources inform us that the missiles will be launched in about one hour, and we should have the situation fully covered at the launch site by that time. Stay tuned. We will cover the launch of the Scorpions and the attack on the unidentified object hovering at the edge of outer space. Back to you, Ted."

The picture changed to a news room and a commentator picked up the coverage, recounting what was known about the spherical craft. Thus far none of the networks had made any mention of Thinker.