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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnwise Child - Chapter 8
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Unwise Child - Chapter 8 Post by :traffic-tart Category :Long Stories Author :Randall Garrett Date :May 2012 Read :1920

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Unwise Child - Chapter 8

The underground tubeway shot Mike the Angel across five miles of track at high speed. Mike left the car at Stage Twelve and headed up the stairway and down the corridor to a heavy double door marked _freight loading_.

He put on his parka and went through the door. The foyer was empty, and, like the one at the rocket landing, protected from the Antarctic blast only by a curtain of hot air. Outside that curtain, the light seemed to lose itself in the darkness of the bleak, snow-filled Wastelands. Mike ignored the snowscape and headed across the empty foyer to the door marked _entrance_.

"With a small _e_," Mike muttered to himself. "I wonder if the sign painter ran out of full caps."

He was five feet from the door when he heard the yell.

"_Help!_"

That was all. Just the one word.

Mike the Angel came to a dead halt and spun around.

The foyer was a large room, about fifty by fifty feet in area and nearly twenty feet high. And it was quite obviously empty. On the open side, the sheet of hissing hot air was doing its best to shield the room from the sixty-below-zero blizzard outside. Opposite the air curtain was a huge sliding door, closed at the moment, which probably led to a freight elevator. There were only two other doors leading from the foyer, and both of them were closed. And Mike knew that no voice could come through those insulated doors.

"_Help!_"

Mike the Angel swung toward the air curtain. This time there was no doubt. Someone was out in that howling ice-cloud, screaming for help!

Mike saw the figure--dimly, fleetingly, obscured most of the time by the driving whiteness. Whoever it was looked as if he were buried to the waist in snow.

Mike made a quick estimate. It was dark out there, but he could see the figure; therefore he would be able to see the foyer lights. He wouldn't get lost. Snapping down the faceplate of his parka hood, he ran through the protective updraft of the air curtain and charged into the deadly chill of the Antarctic blizzard.

In spite of the electroparka he was wearing, the going was difficult. The snow tended to plaster itself against his faceplate, and the wind kept trying to take him off his feet. He wiped a gloved hand across the faceplate. Ahead, he could still see the figure waving its arms. Mike slogged on.

At sixty below, frozen H_{2}O isn't slushy, by any means; it isn't even slippery. It's more like fine sand than anything else. Mike the Angel figured he had about thirty feet to go, but after he'd taken eight steps, the arm-waving figure looked as far off as when he'd started.

Mike stopped and flipped up his faceplate. It felt as though someone had thrown a handful of razor blades into his face. He winced and yelled, "What's the trouble?" Then he snapped the plate back into position.

"I'm cold!" came the clear, contralto voice through the howling wind.

A _woman_! thought Mike. "I'm coming!" he bellowed, pushing on. Ten more steps.

He stopped again. He couldn't see anyone or anything.

He flipped up his faceplate. "Hey!"

No answer.

"Hey!" he called again.

And still there was no answer.

Around Mike the Angel, there was nothing but the swirling, blinding snow, the screaming, tearing wind, and the blackness of the Antarctic night.

There was something damned odd going on here. Carefully putting the toe of his right foot to the rear of the heel of his left, he executed a one-hundred-eighty-degree military about-face.

And breathed a sigh of relief.

He could still see the lights of the foyer. He had half suspected that someone was trying to trap him out here, and they might have turned off the lights.

He swiveled his head around for one last look. He still couldn't see a sign of anyone. There was nothing he could do but head back and report the incident. He started slogging back through the gritty snow.

He stepped through the hot-air curtain and flipped up his faceplate.

"Why did you go out in the blizzard?" said a clear, contralto voice directly behind him.

Mike swung around angrily. "Look, lady, I--"

He stopped.

The lady was no lady.

A few feet away stood a machine. Vaguely humanoid in shape from the waist up, it was built more like a miniature military tank from the waist down. It had a pair of black sockets in its head, which Mike took to be TV cameras of some kind. It had grillwork on either side of its head, which probably covered microphones, and another grillwork where the mouth should be. There was no nose.

"What the hell?" asked Mike the Angel of no one in particular.

"I'm Snookums," said the robot.

"Sure you are," said Mike the Angel, backing uneasily toward the door. "You're Snookums. I couldn't fail not to disagree with you less."

Mike the Angel didn't particularly like being frightened, but he had never found it a disabling emotion, so he could put up with it if he had to. But, given his choice, he would have much preferred to be afraid of something a little less unpredictable, something he knew a little more about. Something comfortable, like, say, a Bengal tiger or a Kodiak bear.

"But I really _am Snookums," reiterated the clear voice.

Mike's brain was functioning in high gear with overdrive added and the accelerator floor-boarded. He'd been lured out onto the Wastelands by this machine--it most definitely could be dangerous.

The robot was obviously a remote-control device. The arms and hands were of the waldo type used to handle radioactive materials in a hot lab--four jointed fingers and an opposed thumb, metal duplicates of the human hand.

But who was on the other end? Who was driving the machine? Who was saying those inane things over the speaker that served the robot as a mouth? It was certainly a woman's voice.

Mike was still moving backward, toward the door. The machine that called itself Snookums wasn't moving toward him, which was some consolation, but not much. The thing could obviously move faster on those treads than Mike could on his feet. Especially since Mike was moving backward.

"Would you mind explaining what this is all about, miss?" asked Mike the Angel. He didn't expect an explanation; he was stalling for time.

"I am not a 'miss,'" said the robot. "I am Snookums."

"Whatever you are, then," said Mike, "would you mind explaining?"

"No," said Snookums, "I wouldn't mind."

Mike's fingers, groping behind him, touched the door handle. But before he could grasp it, it turned, and the door opened behind him. It hit him full in the back, and he stumbled forward a couple of steps before regaining his balance.

A clear contralto voice said: "Oh! I'm _so sorry!"

It was the same voice as the robot's!

Mike the Angel swung around to face the second robot.

This time it was a lady.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. She was all wrapped up in an electroparka, but there was no mistaking the fact that she was both human and feminine. She came on through the door and looked at the robot. "Snookums! What are you doing here?"

"I was trying an experiment, Leda," said Snookums. "This man was just asking me about it. I just wanted to see if he would come if I called 'help.' He did, and I want to know _why he did."

The girl flashed a look at Mike. "Would you please tell Snookums why you went out there? Please--don't be angry or anything--just tell him."

Mike was beginning to get the picture. "I went because I thought I heard a human being calling for help--and it sounded suspiciously like a woman."

"Oh," said Snookums, sounding a little downhearted--if a robot can be said to have a heart. "The reaction was based, then, upon a misconception. That makes the data invalid. I'll have to try again."

"That won't be necessary, Snookums," the girl said firmly. "This man went out there because he thought a human life was in danger. He would not have done it if he had known it was you, because he would have known that you were not in any danger. You can stand much lower temperatures than a human being can, you know." She turned to Mike. "Am I correct in saying that you wouldn't have gone out there if you'd known Snookums was a robot?"

"Absolutely correct," said Mike the Angel fervently.

She looked back at Snookums. "Don't try that experiment again. It is dangerous for a human to go out there, even with an electroparka. You might run the risk of endangering human life."

"Oh dear!" said Snookums. "I'm sorry, Leda!" There was real anxiety in the voice.

"That's all right, honey," the girl said hurriedly. "This man isn't hurt, so don't get upset. Come along now, and we'll go back to the lab. You shouldn't come out like this without permission."

Mike had noticed that the girl had kept one hand on her belt all the time she was talking--and that her thumb was holding down a small button on a case attached to the belt.

He had been wondering why, but he didn't have to wonder long.

The door behind him opened again, and four men came out, obviously in a devil of a hurry. Each one of them was wearing a brassard labeled SECURITY POLICE.

_At least_, thought Mike the Angel as he turned to look them over, _the brassards aren't in all lower-case italics_.

One of them jerked a thumb at Mike. "This the guy, Miss Crannon?"

The girl nodded. "That's him. He saw Snookums. Take care of him." She looked again at Mike. "I'm terribly sorry, really I am. But there's no help for it." Then, without another word, she opened the door and went back inside, and the robot rolled in after her.

As the door closed behind her, the SP man nearest Mike, a tough-looking bozo wearing an ensign's insignia, said: "Let's see your identification."

Mike realized that his own parka had no insignia of rank on it, but he didn't like the SP man's tone.

"Come on!" snapped the ensign. "Who are you?"

Mike the Angel pulled out his ID card and handed it to the security cop. "It tells right there who I am," he said. "That is, if you can read."

The man glared and jerked the card out of Mike's hand, but when he saw the emblem that Lieutenant Nariaki had stamped on it, his eyes widened. He looked up at Mike. "I'm sorry, sir; I didn't mean--"

"That tears it," interrupted Mike. "That absolutely tears it. In the past three minutes I have been apologized to by a woman, a robot, and a cop. The next thing, a penguin will walk in here, tip his top hat, and abase himself while he mutters obsequiously in penguinese. Just what the devil is going _on around this place?"

The four SP men were trying hard not to fidget.

"Just security precautions, sir," said the ensign uncomfortably. "Nobody but those connected with Project Brainchild are supposed to know about Snookums. If anyone else finds out, we're supposed to take them into protective custody."

"I'll bet you're widely loved for that," said Mike. "I suppose the gadget at Miss What's-her-name's belt was an alarm to warn you of impending disaster?"

"Miss Crannon.... Yes, sir. Everybody on the project carries those around. Also, Miss Crannon carries a detector for following Snookums around. She's sort of his keeper, you know."

"No," said Mike the Angel, "I do not know. But I intend to find out. I'm looking for Captain Quill; where is he?"

The four men looked at each other, then looked back at Mike.

"I don't know, Commander," said the ensign. "I understand that several new men have come in today, but I don't know all of them. You'd better talk to Dr. Fitzhugh."

"Such are the beauties of security," said Mike the Angel. "Where can I find this Dr. Fitzhugh?"

The security man looked at his wrist watch. "He's down in the cafeteria now, sir. It's coffee time, and Doc Fitzhugh is as regular as a satellite orbit."

"I'm glad you didn't say 'clockwork,'" Mike told him. "I've had enough dealings with machines today. Where is this coffee haven?"

The ensign gave directions for reaching the cafeteria, and Mike pushed open the door marked _entrance_. He had to pass through another inner door guarded by another pair of SP men who checked his ID card again, then he had to ramble through hallways that went off at queer angles to each other, but he finally found the cafeteria.

He nabbed the first passer-by and asked him to point out Dr. Fitzhugh. The passer-by was obliging; he indicated a smallish, elderly man who was sitting by himself at one of the tables.

Mike made his way through the tray-carrying hordes that were milling about, and finally ended up at the table where the smallish man was sitting.

"Dr. Fitzhugh?" Mike offered his hand. "I'm Commander Gabriel. Minister Wallingford appointed me Engineering Officer of the _Branchell_."

Dr. Fitzhugh shook Mike's hand with apparent pleasure. "Oh yes. Sit down, Commander. What can I do for you?"

Mike had already peeled off his electroparka. He hung it over the back of a chair and said: "Mind if I grab a cup of coffee, Doctor? I've just come from topside, and I think the cold has made its way clean to my bones." He paused. "Would you like another cup?"

Dr. Fitzhugh looked at his watch. "I have time for one more, thanks."

By the time Mike had returned with the cups, he had recalled where he had heard the name Fitzhugh before.

"It just occurred to me," he said as he sat down. "You must be Dr. _Morris Fitzhugh."

Fitzhugh nodded. "That's right." He wore a perpetually worried look, which made his face look more wrinkled than his fifty years of age would normally have accounted for. Mike was privately of the opinion that if Fitzhugh ever really _tried to look worried, his ears would meet over the bridge of his long nose.

"I've read a couple of your articles in the _Journal_," Mike explained, "but I didn't connect the name until I saw you. I recognized you from your picture."

Fitzhugh smiled, which merely served to wrinkle his face even more.

Mike the Angel spent the next several minutes feeling the man out, then he went on to explain what had happened with Snookums out in the foyer, which launched Dr. Fitzhugh into an explanation.

"He didn't want help, of course; he was merely conducting an experiment. There are many areas of knowledge in which he is as naive as a child."

Mike nodded. "It figures. At first I thought he was just a remote-control tool, but I finally saw that he was a real, honest-to-goodness robot. Who gave him the idea to make such an experiment as that?"

"No one at all," said Dr. Fitzhugh. "He's built to make up his own experiments."

Mike the Angel's classic face regarded the wrinkled one of Dr. Fitzhugh. "His own experiments? But a robot--"

Fitzhugh held up a bony hand, gesturing for attention and silence. He got it from Mike.

"Snookums," he said, "is no ordinary robot, Commander."

Mike waited for more. When none came, he said: "So I gather." He sipped at his black coffee. "That machine I saw is actually a remote-control tool, isn't it? Snookums' actual brain is in Cargo Hold One of the _William Branchell_."

"That's right." Dr. Fitzhugh began reaching into various pockets about his person. He extracted a tobacco pouch, a briar pipe, and a jet-flame lighter. Then he began speaking as he went through the pipe smoker's ritual of filling, tamping, and lighting.

"Snookums," he began, "is a self-activating, problem-seeking computer with input and output sensory and action mechanisms analogous to those of a human being." He pushed more tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with a bony forefinger. "He's as close to being a living creature as anything Man has yet devised."

"What about the synthecells they're making at Boston Med?" Mike asked, looking innocent.

Fitzhugh's contour-map face wrinkled up even more. "I should have said 'living _intelligence_,'" he corrected himself. "He's a true robot, in the old original sense of the word; an artificial entity that displays almost every function of a living, intelligent creature. And, at the same time, he has the accuracy and speed that is normal to a cryotron computer."

Mike the Angel said nothing while Fitzhugh fired up his lighter and directed the jet of flame into the bowl and puffed up great clouds of smoke which obscured his face.

While the roboticist puffed, Mike let his gaze wander idly over the other people in the cafeteria. He was wondering how much longer he could talk to Fitzhugh before Captain Quill began--

And then he saw the redhead.

There is never much point in describing a really beautiful girl. Each man has his own ideas of what it takes for a girl to be "pretty" or "fascinating" or "lovely" or almost any other adjective that can be applied to the noun "girl." But "beautiful" is a cultural concept, at least as far as females are concerned, and there is no point in describing a cultural concept. It's one of those things that everybody knows, and descriptions merely become repetitious and monotonous.

This particular example filled, in every respect, the definition of "beautiful" according to the culture of the white Americo-European subclass of the human race as of anno Domini 2087. The elements and proportions and symmetry fit almost perfectly into the ideal mold. It is only necessary to fill in some of the minor details which are allowed to vary without distorting the ideal.

She had red hair and blue eyes and was wearing a green zipsuit.

And she was coming toward the table where Mike and Dr. Fitzhugh were sitting.

"... such a tremendous number of elements," Dr. Fitzhugh was saying, "that it was possible--and necessary--to introduce a certain randomity within the circuit choices themselves-- Ah! Hello, Leda, my dear!"

Mike and Fitzhugh rose from their seats.

"Leda, this is Commander Gabriel, the Engineering Officer of the _Brainchild_," said Fitzhugh. "Commander, Miss Leda Crannon, our psychologist."

Mike had been allowing his eyes to wander over the girl, inspecting her ankles, her hair, and all vital points of interest between. But when he heard the name "Crannon," his eyes snapped up to meet hers.

He hadn't recognized the girl without her parka and wouldn't have known her name if the SP ensign hadn't mentioned it. Obviously, she didn't recognize Mike at all, but there was a troubled look in her blue eyes.

She gave him a puzzled smile. "Haven't we met, Commander?"

Mike grinned. "Hey! That's supposed to be _my line, isn't it?"

She flashed him a warm smile, then her eyes widened ever so slightly. "Your voice! You're the man on the foyer! The one...."

"... the one whom you called copper on," finished Mike agreeably. "But please don't apologize; you've more than made up for it."

Her smile remained. She evidently liked what she saw. "How was I to know who you were?"

"It might have been written on my pocket handkerchief," said Mike the Angel, "but Space Service officers don't carry pocket handkerchiefs."

"What?" The puzzled look had returned.

"Ne' mind," said Mike. "Sit down, won't you?"

"Oh, I can't, thanks. I came to get Fitz; a meeting of the Research Board has been called, and afterward we have to give a lecture or something to the officers of the _Brainchild_."

"You mean the _Branchell_?"

Her smile became an impish grin. "You call it what you want. To us, it's the _Brainchild_."

Dr. Fitzhugh said: "Will you excuse us, Commander? We'll be seeing you at the briefing later."

Mike nodded. "I'd better get on my way, too. I'll see you."

But he stood there as Leda Crannon and Dr. Fitzhugh walked away. The girl looked just as divine retreating as she had advancing.

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