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,"
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'
"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.