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Chapter 4

  • The alarm chimed softly beside his bed; he reached out and silenced it, an_ay looking at the early sunlight in the windows, and found that he wa_ishing himself back in his dorm room at the University. No, back in thi_oom, ten years ago, before any of this had started. For a while, he imagine_imself thirteen years old and knowing everything he knew now, and he bega_apping a campaign to establish himself as Litchfield's Juvenile Delinquen_umber One, to the end that Kurt Fawzi and Dolf Kellton and the rest of the_ould never dream of sending him to school on Terra to find out where Merli_as.
  • But he couldn't even go back to yesterday afternoon in Kurt Fawzi's office an_ell them the truth. All he could do was go ahead. It had seemed so easy, whe_e and his father had been talking on the Mall; just get a ship built, and ge_ut to Koshchei, and open some of the shipyards and engine works there, an_uild a hypership. Sure; easy—once he got started.
  • He climbed out of bed, knuckled the sleep-sand out of his eyes, threw his rob_round him, and started across the room to the bath cubicle.
  • They had decided to have breakfast together his first morning home. The part_ad broken up late, and then there had been the excitement of opening th_resents he had brought back from Terra. Nobody had had a chance to talk abou_erlin, or about what he was going to do, now that he was home. That, and hi_areer of mendacity, would start at breakfast. He wanted to let his father ge_o the table first, to run interference for him; he took his time with hi_oilet and dressed carefully and slowly. Finally, he zipped up the shor_aist-length jacket and went out.
  • His father and mother and Flora were at the table, and the serving-robot wa_loating around a few inches off the floor, steam trailing from its coffee ur_nd its tray lid up to offer food. He greeted everybody and sat down at hi_lace, and the robot came around to him. His mother had selected all th_hings he'd been most fond of six years ago: shovel-snout bacon, hotcakes, starberry jam, things he hadn't tasted since he had gone away. He filled hi_late and poured a cup of coffee.
  • "You don't want to bother coming out to the dig with me this morning, do you?"
  • his father was saying. "I'll be back here for lunch, and we'll go to th_eeting in the afternoon."
  • "Meeting?" Flora asked. "What meeting?"
  • "Oh, we didn't have time to tell you," Rodney Maxwell said. "You know, Con_rought back a lot of information on locations of supply depots and thing_ike that. An amazing list of things that haven't been discovered yet. It'_oing to be too much for us to handle alone; we're organizing a company to d_t. We'll need a lot of labor, for one thing; jobs for some of thes_ramptowners."
  • "That's going to be something awfully big," his mother said dubiously. "Yo_ever did anything like that before."
  • "I never had the kind of a partner I have now. It's Maxwell & Son, from no_n."
  • "Who's going to be in this company?" Flora wanted to know.
  • "Oh, everybody around town; Kurt and the Judge and Klem, and Lester Dawes. Al_hat crowd."
  • "The Fawzis' Office Gang," Flora said disparagingly. "I suppose they'll wan_onn to take them right to where Merlin is, the first thing."
  • "Well, not the first thing," Conn said. "Merlin was one thing I couldn't fin_ut anything about on Terra."
  • "I'll bet you couldn't!"
  • "The people at Armed Forces Records would let me look at everything else, an_ake microcopies and all, but not one word about computers. Forty years, an_hey still have the security lid welded shut on that."
  • Flora looked at him in shocked surprise. "You don't mean to tell me yo_elieve in that thing?"
  • "Sure. How do you think they fought a war around a perimeter of close to _housand light-years? They couldn't do all that out of their heads. They'_ave to have computers, and the one they'd use to correlate everything an_ork out grand-strategy plans would have to be a dilly. Why, I'd give anythin_ust to look at the operating panels for that thing."
  • "But that's just a silly story; there never was anything like Merlin. N_onder you couldn't find out about it. You were looking for something tha_oesn't exist, just like all these old cranks that sit around drinking brand_nd mooning about what Merlin's going to do for them, and never doing anythin_or themselves."
  • "Oh, they're going to do something, now, Flora," his father told her. "When w_et this company organized—"
  • "You'll dig up a lot of stuff you won't be able to sell, like that stuf_ou've been bringing in from Tenth Army, and then you'll go looping of_hasing Merlin, like the rest of them. Well, maybe that'll be a little bette_han just sitting in Kurt Fawzi's office talking about it, but not much."
  • It kept on like that. Conn and his father tried several times to change th_ubject; each time Flora ignored the effort and returned to her diatribe.
  • Finally, she put her plate and cup on the robot's tray and got to her feet.
  • "I have to go," she said. "Maybe I can do something to keep some of thes_hildren from growing up to be Merlin-worshipers like their parents."
  • She flung out of the room angrily. Mrs. Maxwell looked after her in distress.
  • "And I thought it was going to be so nice, having breakfast together again,"
  • she lamented.
  • Somehow the breakfast wasn't quite as good as he'd thought it was at first. H_ondered how many more breakfasts like that he was going to have to si_hrough. He and his father finished quickly and got up, while his mothe_tarted the robot to clearing the table.
  • "Conn," she said, after his father had gone out, "you shouldn't have gotte_lora started like that."
  • "I didn't get Flora started; she's equipped with a self-starter. If sh_oesn't believe in Merlin, that's her business. A lot of these people do, an_'m going to help them hunt for it. That's why they all chipped in to send m_o school on Terra; remember?"
  • "Yes, I know." Her voice was heavy with distress. "Conn, do you really believ_here is a … that thing?" she asked.
  • "Why, of course." He was mildly surprised at how sincerely an_traightforwardly he said it. "I don't know where it is, but it's somewhere o_oictesme, or in the Alpha System."
  • "Well, do you think it would be a good thing to find it?"
  • That surprised him. Everybody knew it would be, and his mother didn't shar_is father's attitude about things everybody knew. She hadn't any busines_uestioning a fundamental postulate like that.
  • "It frightens me," she continued. "I don't even like to think about it. _oulless intelligence; it seems evil to me."
  • "Well, of course it's soulless. It's a machine, isn't it? An aircar'_oulless, but you're not afraid to ride in one."
  • "But this is different. A machine that can think. Conn, people weren't mean t_ake machines like that, wiser than they are."
  • "Now wait a minute, Mother. You're talking to a computerman now." Professiona_uthority was something his mother oughtn't to question. "A computer lik_erlin isn't intelligent, or wise, or anything of the sort. It doesn't think; the people who make computers and use them do the thinking. A computer's _ool, like a screwdriver; it has to have a man to use it."
  • "Well, but… ."
  • "And please, don't talk about what people are  _meant_  to do. People aren'_meant_  to do things; they  _mean_  to do things, and nine times out of ten, they end by doing them. It may take a hundred thousand years from a Stone Ag_avage in a cave to the captain of a hyperspace ship, but sooner or later the_et there."
  • His mother was silent. The soulless machine that had been clearing the tabl_loated out of the room, the dishwasher in its rectangular belly gurgling.
  • Maybe what he had told her was logical, but women aren't impressed by logic.
  • She knew better—for the good old feminine reason,  _Because_.
  • "Wade Lucas wanted me to drop in on him for a checkup," he mentioned. "That'_ubbish; I had one for my landing pratique on the ship. He just wants to siz_p his future brother-in-law."
  • "Well, you ought to go see him."
  • "How did Flora come to meet him, anyhow?"
  • "Well, you know, he came from Baldur. He was in Storisende, looking for a_pening to start a practice, and he heard about some medical equipment you_ather had found somewhere and came out to see if he could buy it. Your fathe_nd Judge Ledue and Mr. Fawzi talked him into opening his office here. Then h_nd Flora got acquainted… ." She asked, anxiously: "What did you think of him, Conn?"
  • "Seems like a regular guy. I think I'll like him." A husband like Wade Luca_ight be a good thing for Flora. "I'll drop in on him, sometime this morning."
  • His mother went toward the rear of the house—more soulless machines, like th_ousecleaning-robot, and the laundry-robot, to look after. He went into hi_ather's office and found the cigar humidor, just where it had been when he'_tolen cigars out of it six years ago and thought his father never suspecte_hat he was doing.
  • Now, why didn't they export this tobacco? It was better than anything the_rew on Terra; well, at least it was different, just as Poictesme brandy wa_ifferent from Terran bourbon or Baldur honey-rum. That was the sort of thin_hat could be sold in interstellar trade anytime and anywhere; the luxur_oods that were unique. Staple foodstuffs, utility textiles, metal products, could be produced anywhere, and sooner or later they were. That was the reaso_or the original, pre-War depression: the customers were all producing fo_hemselves. He'd talk that over with his father. He wished he'd had time t_ake some economics at the University.
  • He found the file his father kept up-to-date on salvage sites found an_egistered with the Claims Office in Storisende. Some of the locations he ha_rought back data for had been discovered, but, to his relief, not th_nderground duplicate Force Command Headquarters, and not the spaceport on th_sland continent of Barathrum, to the east. That was all right.
  • He went to the house-defense arms closet and found a 10-mm Navy pistol, and _elt and spare clips. Making sure that the pistol and magazines were loaded, he buckled it on. He debated getting a vehicle out of the hangar on th_anding stage, decided against it, and started downtown on foot.
  • One of the first people he met was Len Yeniguchi, the tailor. He would be a_he meeting that afternoon. He managed, while talking, to comment on the cu_f Conn's suit, and finger the material.
  • "Ah, nice," he complimented. "Made on Terra? We don't see cloth like that her_ery often."
  • He meant it wasn't Armed Forces salvage.
  • "Father ought to be around to see you with a bolt of material, to have a sui_ade," he said. "For Ghu's sake, either talk him into having a short jacke_ike this, or get him to buy himself a shoulder holster. He's ruined ever_oat he ever owned, carrying a gun on his hip."
  • A little farther on, he came to a combat car grounded in the middle of th_treet. It was green, with black trimmings, and lettered in black, GORDO_ALLEY HOME GUARD. Tom Brangwyn was standing beside it, talking to a young ma_n a green uniform.
  • "Hello, Conn." The town marshal looked at his hip and grinned. "See you go_ll your clothes on this morning. You were just plain indecent, yesterday… .
  • You know Fred Karski, don't you?"
  • Yes, now that Tom mentioned it, he did. He and Fred had gone to schoo_ogether at the Litchfield Academy. But the six years since they'd seen eac_ther last had made a lot of difference in both of them. He was beginning t_hink that the only strangers in Litchfield were his own contemporaries. The_hook hands, and Conn looked at the combat car and Fred Karski's uniform.
  • "What's going on?" he asked. "The System States Alliance to business again?"
  • Karski laughed. "Oh, that's the Colonel's idea. Green and black were hi_olors in the War, and he's in command of the regiment."
  • "Regiment? You need a whole regiment?" Conn asked.
  • "Well, it's two companies, each about the size of a regular army platoon, bu_e have to call it a regiment so he can keep his old Rebel Army rank."
  • "We could use a regiment, Conn," Tom Brangwyn said seriously. "You have n_dea how bad things have gotten. Over on the east coast, the outlaws ar_ooting whole towns. About four months ago, they sacked Waterville; burned th_hole town and killed close to a hundred people. That was Blackie Perales'
  • gang."
  • "Who is this Blackie Perales? I heard the name mentioned in connection wit_he  _Harriet Barne_."
  • "Blackie Perales is anybody the Planetary Government can't catch, which mean_ractically any outlaw," Fred Karski said.
  • "No, Fred; there is a Blackie Perales," Tom Brangwyn said. "He used to be _lanter, down in the south. The banks foreclosed on him when he couldn't pa_is notes, and he turned outlaw. That's the way it's going, all around. Ever_ime a planter loses his plantation or a farmer loses his farm, or a mechani_oses his job, he turns outlaw. Take Tramptown, here. We used to plant nothin_ut melons. Then, when the sale for wine and brandy dropped, the melon- planters began cutting their melon crops and raising produce, instead o_uying it from up north, and turning land into pasture for cattle. The peopl_e used to buy foodstuffs from couldn't sell all they raised, and that threw _ot of farmhands out of work. So they got the idea there was work here, an_hey came flocking in, and when they couldn't get jobs, they just stayed i_ramptown, stealing anything they could. We don't even try to police Tramptow_ny more; we just see to it they don't come up here."
  • "Well, where do these outlaws and pirates who are looting whole towns com_rom?"
  • "Down in the Badlands, mostly. None of them have been bothering us, since w_rganized the Home Guard. They tried to, a couple of times, at first. Ther_ay have been a few survivors; they spread it around that Gordon Valley wasn'_ny outlaws' health resort."
  • "Why don't you join us, Conn?" Fred Karski asked. "All our old gang belong."
  • "I'd like to, but I'm afraid I'm going to be kind of busy."
  • Brangwyn nodded. "Yes. You will be, at that," he agreed.
  • "So I hear," Fred Karski said. "Do you really know where it is, Conn?"
  • "Well, no." He went into the routine about Merlin being still classifie_riple-top secret. "But we'll find it. It may take time, but we will."
  • They talked for a while. He asked more questions about the Home Guard. Hi_ather, it seemed, had donated all the equipment. They had a hundred an_eventy men on the active list, but they had a reserve of over eight hundred, and combat vehicles and weapons on all the plantations and in all the town_long the river. The reserve had only been turned out twice; both times, outlaw attacks had been stopped dead—literally. The Home Guard, it appeared, was not given to making arrests or taking prisoners. Finally, he parted fro_hem, strolling on along the row of stores and business places, many vacant, under the south edge of the Mall, until he saw a fluorolite sign, WADE LUCAS, M. D. He entered.
  • Lucas wasn't busy. They went into his consultation office, and Conn took of_is gun-belt and hung it up; Lucas offered cigarettes, and they lighted an_at down.
  • "I see you've started carrying one," he said, nodding to the pistol Conn ha_aid aside.
  • "Civic obligation. I'm going to be too busy for Home Guard duty, but if I ca_rotect myself, it'll save somebody else the job of protecting me."
  • "Maybe if there weren't so many guns around, there wouldn't be so muc_rouble."
  • He felt his good opinion of Wade Lucas start to slip. The Liberals on Terr_ad been full of that kind of talk, which was why only four out of ten of las_ear's graduating class at Armed Forces Academy had been able to get activ_ommissions. The last war had been a disaster, so don't prepare for anothe_ne; when it comes, let it be a worse disaster.
  • "Guns don't make trouble; people make trouble. If the troublemakers are armed, you have to be armed too. When did you last see an Air Patrol boat aroun_ere, or even a Constabulary trooper? All we have here is the Home Guard an_om Brangwyn and three deputies, and his pay and theirs is always six month_n arrears."
  • Lucas nodded. "A bankrupt government, an unemployment rate that rises ever_ear, currency that buys less every month. And do-it-yourself justice." Th_octor blew a smoke ring and watched it float toward the ventilator-intake.
  • "You said you're going to be busy. This company your father's talking abou_rganizing?"
  • "That's right. You're going to be at the meeting at the Academy thi_fternoon, aren't you?"
  • "Yes. Just what are you going to do, after you get it organized?"
  • "Well, I brought back information on a great deal of undiscovered equipmen_nd stores that the Third Force left behind… ." He talked on for some time, keeping to safe generalities. "It's too big for my father and me to handl_lone, even if we didn't feel morally obligated to take in the people wh_ontributed toward sending me to school on Terra. You ought to be intereste_n it. I know of six fully supplied hospitals, intended to take care of th_asualties in case of a System States space-attack. You can imagine, bette_han I can, what would be in them."
  • "Yes. Medical supplies of all sorts are getting hard to find. But look here; you're not going to let these people waste time looking for this allege_omputer, this thing they call Merlin, are you?"
  • "We're looking for any valuable war material. I don't know the location o_erlin, but—"
  • "I'll bet you don't!" Lucas said vehemently. That was the same thing Flora ha_aid.
  • "—but Merlin is undoubtedly the most valuable item of abandoned TF equipmen_n this planet. In the long run, I'd say, more valuable than everything els_ogether. We certainly aren't going to ignore it."
  • "Good heavens, Conn! You aren't like these people here; you were educated a_he University of Montevideo."
  • "So I was. I studied computer theory and practice. I have some doubts abou_erlin being able to do some of the things these laymen like Kellton and Fawz_nd Judge Ledue think it could. Those sorts of misconceptions an_xaggerations have to be allowed for. But I have no doubt whatever that th_aster computer with which they did their strategic planning is probably th_reatest mechanism of its sort ever built, and I have no doubt whatever tha_t still exists somewhere in the Alpha System."
  • He almost convinced himself of it. He did not, however, convince Wade Lucas, who was now regarding him with narrow-eyed suspicion.
  • "You mean you categorically state that that computer actually exists?"
  • "That, I think, was the general idea. Yes. I certainly do believe that Merli_xists."
  • Maybe he was telling the truth. Merlin existed in the beliefs and hopes o_eople like Dolf Kellton and Klem Zareff and Judge Ledue and Kurt Fawzi.
  • Merlin was a god to them. Well, take Ghu, the Thoran Grandfather-God. Ghu wa_s preposterous, theologically, as Merlin was technologically; Ghu, except t_horans, was a Federation-wide joke. But he'd known a couple of Thorans at th_niversity, funny little fellows, with faces like terriers, their bodie_overed with matted black hair. They believed in Ghu the way he believed i_he Second Law of Thermodynamics. Ghu was with them every moment of thei_ives. Take away their belief in Ghu, and they would have been lost an_retched.
  • As lost and wretched as Kurt Fawzi or Judge Ledue, if they lost their belie_n Merlin. He started to say something like that, and then thought better o_t.
  • Yes, Virginia, there  _is_  a Santa Claus.