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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnwise Child - Chapter 13
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Unwise Child - Chapter 13 Post by :traffic-tart Category :Long Stories Author :Randall Garrett Date :May 2012 Read :2096

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Unwise Child - Chapter 13

Leda Crannon sat down on the edge of the bunk in Mike the Angel's stateroom, accepted the cigarette and light that Mike had proffered, and waited while Mike poured a couple of cups of coffee from the insul-jug on his desk.

"I wish I could offer you something stronger, but I'm not much of a drinker myself, so I don't usually take advantage of the officer's prerogative to smuggle liquor aboard," he said as he handed her the cup.

She smiled up at him. "That's all right; I rarely drink, and when I do, it's either wine or a _very diluted highball. Right now, this coffee will do me more good."

Mike heard footsteps coming down the companionway. He glanced out through the door, which he had deliberately left open. Ensign Vaneski walked by, glanced in, grinned, and went on his way. The kid had good sense, Mike thought. He hoped any other passers-by would stay out while he talked to Leda.

"Does a thing like that happen often?" the girl asked. "Not the fast solution; I mean the beat note."

"No," said Mike the Angel. "Once the system is stabilized, the tubes tend to keep each other in line. But because of that very tendency, an offbeat tube won't show itself for a while. The system tries to keep the bad ones in phase in spite of themselves. But eventually one of them sort of rebels, and that frees any of the others that are offbeat, so the bad ones all show at once and we can spot them. When we get all the bad ones adjusted, the system remains stable for the operating life of the system."

"And that's the purpose of a shakedown cruise?"

"One of the reasons," agreed Mike. "If the tubes are going to act up, they'll do it in the first five hundred operating hours--except in unusual cases. That's one of the things that bothered me about the way this crate was hashed together."

Her blue eyes widened. "I thought this was a well-built ship."

"Oh, it is, it is--all things considered. It isn't dangerous, if that's what you're worried about. But it sure as the devil is expensively wasteful."

She nodded and sipped at her coffee. "I know that. But I don't see any other way it could have been done."

"Neither do I, right off the bat," Mike admitted. He took a good swallow of the hot liquid in his cup and said: "I wanted to ask you two questions. First, what was it that Snookums was doing just before he came into the Power Section? Black Bart said he'd been galloping all over the ship, with you at his heels."

Her infectious smile came back. "He was playing seismograph. He was simply checking the intensity of the vibrations at different points in the ship. That gave him part of the data he needed to tell you which of the tubes were acting up."

"I'm beginning to think," said Mike, "that we'll have to start building a big brain aboard every ship--that is, if we can learn enough about such monsters from Snookums."

"What was the other question?" Leda asked.

"Oh.... Well, I was wondering just why you are connected with this project. What does a psychologist have to do with robots? If you'll pardon my ignorance."

This time she laughed softly, and Mike thought dizzily of the gay chiming of silver bells. He clamped down firmly on the romantic wanderings of his mind as she started her explanation.

"I'm a specialist in child psychology, Mike. Actually, I was hired as an experiment--or, rather, as the result of a wild guess that happened to work. You see, the first two times Snookums' brain was activated, the circuits became disoriented."

"You mean," said Mike the Angel, "they went nuts."

She laughed again. "Don't let Fitz hear you say that. He'll tell you that 'the circuits exceeded their optimum randomity limit.'"

Mike grinned, remembering the time he had driven a robot brain daffy by bluffing it at poker. "How did that happen?"

"Well, we don't know all the details, but it seems to have something to do with the slow recovery rate that's necessary for learning. Do you know anything about Lagerglocke's Principle?"

"Fitzhugh mentioned something about it in the briefing we got before take-off. Something about a bit of learning being an inelastic rebound."

"That's it. You take a steel ball, for instance, and drop it on a steel plate from a height of three or four feet. It bounces--almost perfect elasticity. The next time you drop it, it does the same thing. It hasn't learned anything.

"But if you drop a lead ball, it doesn't bounce as much, and it will flatten at the point of contact. _The next time it falls on that flat side, its behavior will be different. It has learned something."

Mike rubbed the tip of an index finger over his chin. "These illustrations are analogues of the human mind?"

"That's right. Some people have minds like steel balls. They can learn, but you have to hit them pretty hard to make them do it. On the other hand, some people have minds like glass balls: They can't learn at all. If you hit them hard enough to make a real impression, they simply shatter."

"All right. Now what has this got to do with you and Snookums?"

"Patience, boy, patience," Leda said with a grin. "Actually, the lead-ball analogy is much too simple. An intelligent mind has to have time to partially recover, you see. Hit it with too many shocks, one right after another, and it either collapses or refuses to learn or both.

"The first two times the brain was activated, the roboticists just began feeding data into the thing as though it were an ordinary computing machine. They were forcing it to learn too fast; they weren't giving it time to recover from the shock of learning.

"Just as in the human being, there is a difference between a robot's brain and a robot's mind. The _brain is a physical thing--a bunch of cryotrons in a helium bath. But the _mind is the sum total of all the data and reaction patterns and so forth that have been built into the brain or absorbed by it.

"The brain didn't have an opportunity to recover from the learning shocks when the data was fed in too fast, so the mind cracked. It couldn't take it. The robot went insane.

"Each time, the roboticists had to deactivate the brain, drain it of all data, and start over. After the second time, Dr. Fitzhugh decided they were going about it wrong, so they decided on a different tack."

"I see," said Mike the Angel. "It had to be taught slowly, like a child."

"Exactly," said Leda. "And who would know more about teaching a child than a child psychologist?" she added brightly.

Mike looked down at his coffee cup, watching the slight wavering of the surface as it broke up the reflected light from the glow panels. He had invited this girl down to his stateroom (he told himself) to get information about Snookums. But now he realized that information about the girl herself was far more important.

"How long have you been working with Snookums?" he asked, without looking up from his coffee.

"Over eight years," she said.

Then Mike looked up. "You know, you hardly look old enough. You don't look much older than twenty-five."

She smiled--a little shyly, Mike thought. "As Snookums says, 'You're nice.' I'm twenty-six."

"And you've been working with Snookums since you were eighteen?"

"Uh-huh." She looked, very suddenly, much younger than even the twenty-five Mike had guessed at. She seemed to be more like a somewhat bashful teen-ager who had been educated in a convent. "I was what they call an 'exceptional child.' My mother died when I was seven, and Dad ... well, he just didn't know what to do with a baby girl, I guess. He was a kind man, and I think he really loved me, but he just didn't know what to do with me. So when the tests showed that I was ... brighter ... than the average, he put me in a special school in Italy. Said he didn't want my mind cramped by being forced to conform to the mental norm. Maybe he even believed that himself.

"And, too, he didn't approve of public education. He had a lot of odd ideas.

"Anyway, I saw him during summer vacations and went to school the rest of the year. He took me all over the world when I was with him, and the instructors were pretty wonderful people; I'm not sorry that I was brought up that way. It was a little different from the education that most children have, but it gave me a chance to use my mind."

"I know the school," said Mike the Angel. "That's the one under the Cesare Alfieri Institute in Florence?"

"That's it; did you go there?" There was an odd, eager look in her eyes.

Mike shook his head. "Nope. But a friend of mine did. Ever know a guy named Paulvitch?"

She squealed with delight, as though she'd been playfully pinched. "Sir Gay? You mean Serge Paulvitch, the Fiend of Florence?" She pronounced the name properly: "_Sair_-gay," instead of "surge," as too many people were prone to do.

"Sounds like the same man," Mike admitted, grinning. "As evil-looking as Satanas himself?"

"That's Sir Gay, all right. Half the girls were scared of him, and I think _all the boys were. He's about three years older than I am, I guess."

"Why call him Sir Gay?" Mike asked. "Just because of his name?"

"Partly. And partly because he was always such a gentleman. A real _nice guy, if you know what I mean. Do you know him well?"

"_Know him? Hell, I couldn't run my business without him."

"Your business?" She blinked. "But he works for--" Then her eyes became very wide, her mouth opened, and she pointed an index finger at Mike. "Then you ... you're Mike the Angel! M. R. Gabriel! Sure!" She started laughing. "I never connected it up! My golly, my golly! I thought you were just another Space Service commander! Mike the Angel! Well, I'll be darned!"

She caught her breath. "I'm sorry. I was just so surprised, that's all. Are you really _the M. R. Gabriel, of M. R. Gabriel, Power Design?"

Mike was as close to being nonplused as he cared to be. "Sure," he said. "You mean you didn't know?"

She shook her head. "No. I thought Mike the Angel was about sixty years old, a crotchety old genius behind a desk, as eccentric as a comet's orbit, and wealthier than Croesus. You're just not what I pictured, that's all."

"Just wait a few more decades," Mike said, laughing. "I'll try to live up to my reputation."

"So you're Serge's boss. How is he? I haven't seen him since I was sixteen."

"He's grown a beard," said Mike.

"No!"

"Fact."

"My God, how horrible!" She put her hand over her eyes in mock horror.

"Let's talk about you," said Mike. "You're much prettier than Serge Paulvitch."

"Well, I should hope so! But really, there's nothing to tell. I went to school. B.S. at fourteen, M.S. at sixteen, Ph.D. at eighteen. Then I went to work for C.C. of E., and I've been there ever since. I've never been engaged, I've never been married, and I'm still a virgin. Anything else?"

"No runs, no hits, no errors," said Mike the Angel.

She grinned back impishly. "I haven't been up to bat yet, Commander Gabriel."

"Then I suggest you grab some sort of club to defend yourself, because I'm going to be in there pitching."

The smile on her face faded, to be replaced by a look that was neither awe nor surprise, but partook of both.

"You really mean that, don't you?" she asked in a hushed voice.

"I do," said Mike the Angel.

* * * * *

Commander Peter Jeffers was in the Control Bridge when Mike the Angel stepped in through the door. Jeffers was standing with his back to the door, facing the bank of instruments that gave him a general picture of the condition of the whole ship.

Overhead, the great dome of the ship's nose allowed the gleaming points of light from the star field ahead to shine down on those beneath through the heavy, transparent shield of the cast transite and the invisible screen of the external field.

Mike walked over and tapped Pete Jeffers on the shoulder.

"Busy?"

Jeffers turned around slowly and grinned. "Hullo, old soul. Naw, I ain't busy. Nothin' outside but stars, and we don't figger on gettin' too close to 'em right off the bat. What's the beef?"

"I have," said Mike the Angel succinctly, "goofed."

Jeffers' keen eyes swept analytically over Mike the Angel's face. "You want a drink? I snuck a spot o' brandy aboard, and just by purty ole coincidence, there's a bottle right over there in the speaker housing." Without waiting for an answer, he turned away from Mike and walked toward the cabinet that held the intercom speaker. Meantime, he went right on talking.

"Great stuff, brandy. French call it _eau de vie_, and that, in case you don't know it, means 'water of life.' You want a little, eh, ol' buddy? Sure you do." By this time, he'd come back with the bottle and a pair of glasses and was pouring a good dose into each one. "On the other hand, the Irish gave us our name for whisky. Comes from _uisge-beatha_, and by some bloody peculiar coincidence, that also means 'water of life.' So you just set yourself right down here and get some life into you."

Mike sat down at the computer table, and Jeffers sat down across from him. "Now you just drink on up, buddy-buddy and then tell your ol' Uncle Pete what the bloody hell the trouble is."

Mike looked at the brandy for a full half minute. Then, with one quick flip of his wrist and a sudden spasmodic movement of his gullet, he downed it.

Then he took a deep breath and said: "Do I look as bad as all that?"

"Worse," said Jeffers complacently, meanwhile refilling Mike's glass. "While we were on active service together, I've seen you go through all kinds of things and never look like this. What is it? Reaction from this afternoon's--or, pardon me--_yesterday afternoon's emergency?"

Mike glanced up at the chronometer. It was two-thirty in the morning, Greenwich time. Jeffers held the bridge from midnight till noon, while Black Bart had the noon to midnight shift.

Still, Mike hadn't realized that it was as late as all that.

He looked at Jeffers' lean, bony face. "Reaction? No, it's not that. Look, Pete, you know me. Would you say I was a pretty levelheaded guy?"

"Sure."

"My old man always said, 'Never make an enemy accidentally,' and I think he was right. So I usually think over what I say before I open my big mouth, don't I?"

Again Jeffers said, "Sure."

"I wouldn't call myself over-cautious," Mike persisted, "but I usually think a thing through pretty carefully before I act--that is, if I have time. Right?"

"I'd say so," Jeffers admitted. "I'd say you were about the only guy I know who does the right thing more than 90 per cent of the time. And says the right thing more than 99 per cent of the time. So what do you want? Back-patting, or just hero worship?"

Mike took a small taste of the brandy. "Neither, you jerk. But about eight hours ago I said something that I hadn't planned to say. I practically proposed to Leda Crannon without knowing I was going to."

Peter Jeffers didn't laugh. He simply said, "How'd it happen?"

Mike told him.

When Mike had finished, one drink later, Peter Jeffers filled the glasses for the third time and leaned back in his chair. "Tell me one thing, ol' buddy, and think about it before you answer. If you had a chance to get out of it gracefully, would you take back what you said?"

Mike the Angel thought it over. The sweep hand on the chronometer made its rounds several times before he answered. Then, at last, he said: "No. No, I wouldn't."

Jeffers pursed his lips, then said judicially: "In that case, you're not doing badly at all. There's nothing wrong with you except the fact that you're in love."

Mike downed the third drink fast and stood up. "Thanks, Pete," he said. "That's what I was afraid of."

"Wait just one stinkin' minute," said Jeffers firmly. "Sit down."

Mike sat.

"What do you intend to do about it?" Jeffers asked.

Mike the Angel grinned at him. "What the hell else can I do but woo and win the wench?"

Jeffers grinned back at him. "I reckon you know you got competition, huh?"

"You mean Jake von Liegnitz?" Mike's face darkened. "I have the feeling he's looking for something that doesn't include a marriage certificate."

"Love sure makes a man sound noble," said Jeffers philosophically. "If you mean that all he wants is to get Leda into the sack, you're prob'ly right. Normal reaction, I'd say. Can't blame Jake for that."

"I don't," said Mike. "But that doesn't mean I can't spike his guns."

"Course not. Again, a normal reaction."

"What about Lew Mellon?" Mike asked.

"Lew?" Jeffers raised his eyebrows. "I dunno. I think he likes to talk to her, is all. But if he _is interested, he's bloody well serious. He's a strict Anglo-Catholic, like yourself."

_I'm not as strict as I ought to be_, Mike thought. "I thought he had a rather monkish air about him," he said aloud.

Jeffers chuckled. "Yeah, but I don't think he's so ascetic that he wouldn't marry." His grin broadened. "Now, if we were still at ol' Chilblains, you'd _really have competition. After all, you can't expect that a gal who's stacked ... pardon me ... who has the magnificent physical and physiognomical topography of Leda Crannon to spend her life bein' ignored, now can you?"

"Nope," said Mike the Angel.

"Now, I figger," Jeffers said, "that you can purty much forget about Lew Mellon. But Jakob von Liegnitz is a chromatically variant equine, indeed."

Mike shook his head vigorously, as if to clear away the fog. "_Pfui! Let's change the subject. My heretofore nimble mind has been coagulated by a pair of innocent blue eyes. I need my skull stirred up."

"I have a limerick," said Jeffers lightly. "It's about a young spaceman named Mike, who said: 'I can do as I like!' And to prove his bright quip, he took a round trip, clear to Sirius B on a bike. Or, the tale of the pirate, Black Bart, whose head was as hard as his heart. When he found--"

"Enough!" Mike the Angel held up a hand. "That distillate of fine old grape has made us both silly. Good night. I'm going to get some sleep." He stood up and winked at Jeffers. "And thanks for listening while I bent your ear."

"Any time at all, ol' amoeba. And if you ever feel you need some advice from an ol' married man, why you just trot right round, and I'll give you plenty of bad advice."

"At least you're honest," Mike said. "Night."

Mike the Angel left the bridge as Commander Jeffers was putting the brandy back in its hiding place.

Mike went to his quarters, hit the sack, and spent less than five minutes getting to sleep. There was nothing worrying him now.

He didn't know how long he'd been asleep when he heard a noise in the darkness of his room that made him sit up in bed, instantly awake. The floater under him churned a little, but there was no noise. The room was silent.

In the utter blackness of the room, Mike the Angel could see nothing, and he could hear nothing but the all-pervading hum of the ship's engines. But he could still feel and smell.

He searched back in his memory, trying to place the sound that had awakened him. It hadn't been loud, merely unusual. It had been a noise that shouldn't have been made in the stateroom. It had been a quiet sound, really, but for the life of him, Mike couldn't remember what it had sounded like.

But the evidence of his nerves told him there was someone else in the room besides himself. Somewhere near him, something was radiating heat; it was definitely perceptible in the air-conditioned coolness of his room. And, too, there was the definite smell of warm oil--machine oil. It was faint, but it was unmistakable.

And then he knew what the noise had been.

The soft purr of caterpillar treads against the floor!

Casually, Mike the Angel moved his hand to the wall plaque and touched it lightly. The lights came on, dim and subdued.

"Hello, Snookums," said Mike the Angel gently. "What are you here for?"

The little robot just stood there for a second or two, unmoving, his waldo hands clasped firmly in front of his chest. Mike suddenly wished to Heaven that the metallic face could show something that Mike could read.

"I came for data," said Snookums at last, in the contralto voice that so resembled the voice of the woman who had trained him.

Mike started to say, "At this time of night?" Then he glanced at his wrist. It was after seven-thirty in the morning, Greenwich time--which was also ship time.

"What is it you want?" Mike asked.

"Can you dance?" asked Snookums.

"Yes," said Mike dazedly, "I can dance." For a moment he had the wild idea that Snookums was going to ask him to do a few turns about the floor.

"Thank you," said Snookums. His treads whirred, he turned as though on a pivot, whizzed to the door, opened it, and was gone.

Mike the Angel stared at the door as though trying to see beyond it, into the depths of the robot's brain itself.

"Now just what was _that all about?" he asked aloud.

In the padded silence of the stateroom, there wasn't even an echo to answer him.

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Mike the Angel spent the next three days in a pale blue funk which he struggled valiantly against, at least to prevent it from becoming a deep blue. There was something wrong aboard the _Brainchild_, and Mike simply couldn't quite figure what it was. He found that he wasn't the only one who had been asked peculiar questions by Snookums. The little robot seemed to have developed a sudden penchant for asking seemingly inane questions. Lieutenant Keku reported with a grin that Snookums had asked him if he knew who Commander Gabriel _really was. "What'd you say?" Mike had asked. Keku
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The _William Branchell_--dubbed _Brainchild_--fled Earth at ultralight velocity, while officers, crew, and technical advisers settled down to routine. The only thing that disturbed that routine was one particularly restless part of the ship's cargo. Snookums was a snoop. Cut off from the laboratories which had been provided for his special work at Chilblains, he proceeded to interest himself in the affairs of the human beings which surrounded him. Until his seventh year, he had been confined to the company of only a small handful of human beings. Even while the _William Branchell was being built, he hadn't been allowed any more
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