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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnwise Child - Chapter 9
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Unwise Child - Chapter 9 Post by :traffic-tart Category :Long Stories Author :Randall Garrett Date :May 2012 Read :3005

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Unwise Child - Chapter 9

Captain Sir Henry (Black Bart) Quill was seated in an old-fashioned, formyl-covered, overstuffed chair, chewing angrily at the end of an unlighted cigar. His bald head gleamed like a pink billiard ball, almost matching the shining glory of his golden insignia against his scarlet tunic.

Mike the Angel had finally found his way through the maze of underground passageways to the door marked _wardroom 9 and had pushed it open gingerly, halfway hoping that he wouldn't be seen coming in late but not really believing it would happen.

He was right. Black Bart was staring directly at the door when it slid open. Mike shrugged inwardly and stepped boldly into the room, flicking a glance over the faces of the other officers present.

"Well, well, well, Mister Gabriel," said Black Bart. The voice was oily, but the oil was oil of vitriol. "You not only come late, but you come incognito. Where is your uniform?"

There was a muffled snicker from one of the junior officers, but it wasn't muffled enough. Before Mike the Angel could answer, Captain Quill's head jerked around.

"That will do, Mister Vaneski!" he barked. "Boot ensigns don't snicker when their superiors--_and their betters--are being reprimanded! I only use sarcasm on officers I respect. Until an officer earns my sarcasm, he gets nothing but blasting when he goofs off. Understand?"

The last word was addressed to the whole group.

Ensign Vaneski colored, and his youthful face became masklike. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

Quill didn't even bother to answer; he looked back at Mike the Angel, who was still standing at attention. Quill's voice resumed its caustic saccharinity. "But don't let that go to your head, Mister Gabriel. I repeat: Where is your pretty red spaceman's suit?"

"If the Captain will recall," said Mike, "I had only twenty-four hours' notice. I couldn't get a new wardrobe in that time. It'll be in on the next rocket."

Captain Quill was silent for a moment, then he simply said, "Very well," thus dismissing the whole subject. He waved Mike the Angel to a seat. Mike sat.

"We'll dispense with the formal introductions," said Quill. "Commander Gabriel is our Engineering Officer. The rest of these boys all know each other, Commander; you and I are the only ones who don't come from Chilblains Base. You know Commander Jeffers, of course."

Mike nodded and grinned at Peter Jeffers, a lean, bony character who had a tendency to collapse into chairs as though he had come unhinged. Jeffers grinned and winked back.

"This is Lieutenant Commander von Liegnitz, Navigation Officer; Lieutenant Keku, Supply; Lieutenant Mellon, Medical Officer; and Ensign Vaneski, Maintenance. You can all shake hands with each other later; right now, let's get on with business." He frowned, overshadowing his eyes with those great, bushy brows. "What was I saying just before Commander Gabriel came in?"

Pete Jeffers shifted slightly in his seat. "You were sayin', suh, that this's the stupidest dam' assignment anybody evah got. Or words to that effect." Jeffers had been born in Georgia and had moved to the south of England at the age of ten. Consequently, his accent was far from standard.

"I think, Mister Jeffers," said Quill, "that I phrased it a bit more delicately, but that was the essence of it.

"The _Brainchild_, as she has been nicknamed, has been built at great expense for the purpose of making a single trip. We are to take her, and her cargo, to a destination known only to myself and von Liegnitz. We will be followed there by another Service ship, which will bring us back as passengers." He allowed himself a half-smile. "At least we'll get to loaf around on the way back."

The others grinned.

"The _Brainchild will be left there and, presumably, dismantled."

He took the unlighted cigar out of his mouth, looked at it, and absently reached in his pocket for a lighter. The deeply tanned young man who had been introduced as Lieutenant Keku had just lighted a cigarette, so he proffered his own flame to the captain. Quill puffed his cigar alight absently and went on.

"It isn't going to be easy. We won't have a chance to give the ship a shakedown cruise because once we take off we might as well keep going--which we will.

"You all know what the cargo is--Cargo Hold One contains the greatest single robotic brain ever built. Our job is to make sure it gets to our destination in perfect condition."

"Question, sir," said Mike the Angel.

Without moving his head, Captain Quill lifted one huge eyebrow and glanced in Mike's direction. "Yes?"

"Why didn't C.C. of E. build the brain on whatever planet we're going to in the first place?"

"We're supposed to be told that in the briefing over at the C.C. of E. labs in"--he glanced at his watch--"half an hour. But I think we can all get a little advance information. Most of you men have been around here long enough to have some idea of what's going on, but I understand that Mister Vaneski knows somewhat more about robotics than most of us. Do you have any light to shed on this, Mister Vaneski?"

Mike grinned to himself without letting it show on his face. The skipper was letting the boot ensign redeem himself after the _faux pas he'd made.

Vaneski started to stand up, but Quill made a slight motion with his hand and the boy relaxed.

"It's only a guess, sir," he said, "but I think it's because the robot knows too much."

Quill and the others looked blank, but Mike narrowed his eyes imperceptibly. Vaneski was practically echoing Mike's own deductions.

"I mean--well, look, sir," Vaneski went on, a little flustered, "they started to build that thing ten years ago. Eight years ago they started teaching it. Evidently they didn't see any reason for building it off Earth then. What I mean is, something must've happened since then to make them decide to take it off Earth. If they've spent all this much money to get it away, that must mean that it's dangerous somehow."

"If that's the case," said Captain Quill, "why don't they just shut the thing off?"

"Well--" Vaneski spread his hands. "I think it's for the same reason. It knows too much, and they don't want to destroy that knowledge."

"Do you have any idea what that knowledge might be?" Mike the Angel asked.

"No, sir, I don't. But whatever it is, it's dangerous as hell."

* * * * *

The briefing for the officers and men of the _William Branchell_--the _Brainchild_--was held in a lecture room at the laboratories of the Computer Corporation of Earth's big Antarctic base.

Captain Quill spoke first, warning everyone that the project was secret and asking them to pay the strictest attention to what Dr. Morris Fitzhugh had to say.

Then Fitzhugh got up, his face ridged with nervousness. He assumed the air of a university professor, launching himself into his speech as though he were anxious to get through it in a given time without finishing too early.

"I'm sure you're all familiar with the situation," he said, as though apologizing to everyone for telling them something they already knew--the apology of the learned man who doesn't want anyone to think he's being overly proud of his learning.

"I think, however, we can all get a better picture if we begin at the beginning and work our way up to the present time.

"The original problem was to build a computer that could learn by itself. An ordinary computer can be forcibly taught--that is, a technician can make changes in the circuits which will make the robot do something differently from the way it was done before, or even make it do something new.

"But what we wanted was a computer that could learn by itself, a computer that could make the appropriate changes in its own circuits without outside physical manipulation.

"It's really not as difficult as it sounds. You've all seen autoscribers, which can translate spoken words into printed symbols. An autoscriber is simply a machine which does what you tell it to--literally. Now, suppose a second computer is connected intimately with the first in such a manner that the second can, on order, change the circuits of the first. Then, all that is needed is...."

Mike looked around him while the roboticist went on. The men were looking pretty bored. They'd come to get a briefing on the reason for the trip, and all they were getting was a lecture on robotics.

Mike himself wasn't so much interested in the whys and wherefores of the trip; he was wondering why it was necessary to tell anyone--even the crew. Why not just pack Snookums up, take him to wherever he was going, and say nothing about it?

Why explain it to the crew?

"Thus," continued Fitzhugh, "it became necessary to incorporate into the brain a physical analogue of Lagerglocke's Principle: 'Learning is a result of an inelastic collision.'

"I won't give it to you symbolically, but the idea is simply that an organism learns _only if it does _not completely recover from the effects of an outside force imposed upon it. If it recovers completely, it's just as it was before. Consequently, it hasn't learned anything. The organism _must change_."

He rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked out over the faces of the men before him. A faint smile came over his wrinkled features.

"Some of you, I know, are wondering why I am boring you with this long recital. Believe me, it's necessary. I want all of you to understand that the machine you will have to take care of is not just an ordinary computer. Every man here has had experience with machinery, from the very simplest to the relatively complex. You know that you have to be careful of the kind of information--the kind of external force--you give a machine.

"If you aim a spaceship at Mars, for instance, and tell it to go _through the planet, it might try to obey, but you'd lose the machine in the process."

A ripple of laughter went through the men. They were a little more relaxed now, and Fitzhugh had regained their attention.

"And you must admit," Fitzhugh added, "a spaceship which was given that sort of information might be dangerous."

This time the laughter was even louder.

"Well, then," the roboticist continued, "if a mechanism is capable of learning, how do you keep it from becoming dangerous or destroying itself?

"That was the problem that faced us when we built Snookums.

"So we decided to apply the famous Three Laws of Robotics propounded over a century ago by a brilliant American biochemist and philosopher.

"Here they are:

"'_One: A robot may not injure a human being, nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm._'

"'_Two: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law._'

"'_Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law._'"

Fitzhugh paused to let his words sink in, then: "Those are the ideal laws, of course. Even their propounder pointed out that they would be extremely difficult to put into practice. A robot is a logical machine, but it becomes somewhat of a problem even to define a human being. Is a five-year-old competent to give orders to a robot?

"If you define him as a human being, then he can give orders that might wreck an expensive machine. On the other hand, if you don't define the five-year-old as human, then the robot is under no compulsion to refrain from harming the child."

He began delving into his pockets for smoking materials as he went on.

"We took the easy way out. We solved that problem by keeping Snookums isolated. He has never met any animal except adult human beings. It would take an awful lot of explaining to make him understand the difference between, say, a chimpanzee and a man. Why should a hairy pelt and a relatively low intelligence make a chimp non-human? After all, some men are pretty hairy, and some are moronic.

"Present company excepted."

More laughter. Mike's opinion of Fitzhugh was beginning to go up. The man knew when to break pedantry with humor.

"Finally," Fitzhugh said, when the laughter had subsided, "we must ask what is meant by 'protecting his own existence.' Frankly, we've been driven frantic by that one. The little humanoid, caterpillar-track mechanism that we all tend to think of as Snookums isn't really Snookums, any more than a human being is a hand or an eye. Snookums wouldn't actually be threatening his own existence unless his brain--now in the hold of the _William Branchell_--is destroyed."

As Dr. Fitzhugh continued, Mike the Angel listened with about half an ear. His attention--and the attention of every man in the place--had been distracted by the entrance of Leda Crannon. She stepped in through a side door, walked over to Dr. Fitzhugh, and whispered something in his ear. He nodded, and she left again.

Fitzhugh, when he resumed his speech, was rather more hurried in his delivery.

"The whole thing can be summed up rather quickly.

"Point One: Snookums' brain contains the information that eight years of hard work have laboriously put into it. That information is more valuable than the whole cost of the _William Branchell_; it's worth billions. So the robot can't be disassembled, or the information would be lost.

"Point Two: Snookums' mind is a strictly logical one, but it is operating in a more than logical universe. Consequently, it is unstable.

"Point Three: Snookums was built to conduct his own experiments. To forbid him to do that would be similar to beating a child for acting like a child; it would do serious harm to the mind. In Snookums' case, the randomity of the brain would exceed optimum, and the robot would become insane.

"Point Four: Emotion is not logical. Snookums can't handle it, except in a very limited way."

Fitzhugh had been making his points by tapping them off on his fingers with the stem of his unlighted pipe. Now he shoved the pipe back in his pocket and clasped his hands behind his back.

"It all adds up to this: Snookums _must be allowed the freedom of the ship. At the same time, every one of us must be careful not to ... to push the wrong buttons, as it were.

"So here are a few _don'ts_. Don't get angry with Snookums. That would be as silly as getting sore at a phonograph because it was playing music you didn't happen to like.

"Don't lie to Snookums. If your lies don't fit in with what he knows to be true--and they won't, believe me--he will reject the data. But it would confuse him, because he knows that humans don't lie.

"If Snookums asks you for data, qualify it--even if you know it to be true. Say: 'There may be an error in my knowledge of this data, but to the best of my knowledge....'

"Then go ahead and tell him.

"But if you absolutely don't know the answer, tell him so. Say: 'I don't have that data, Snookums.'

"Don't, unless you are...."

He went on, but it was obvious that the officers and crew of the _William Branchell weren't paying the attention they should. Every one of them was thinking dark gray thoughts. It was bad enough that they had to take out a ship like the _Brainchild_, untested and jerry-built as she was. Was it necessary to have an eight-hundred-pound, moron-genius child-machine running loose, too?

Evidently, it was.

"To wind it up," Fitzhugh said, "I imagine you are wondering why it's necessary to take Snookums off Earth. I can only tell you this: Snookums knows too much about nuclear energy."

Mike the Angel smiled grimly to himself. Ensign Vaneski had been right; Snookums was dangerous--not only to individuals, but to the whole planet.

Snookums, too, was a juvenile delinquent.

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The _Brainchild lifted from Antarctica at exactly 2100 hours, Greenwich time. For three days the officers and men of the ship had worked as though they were the robots instead of their passenger--or cargo, depending on your point of view. Supplies were loaded, and the great engine-generators checked and rechecked. The ship was ready to go less than two hours before take-off time. The last passenger aboard was Snookums, although, in a more proper sense, he had always been aboard. The little robot rolled up to the elevator on his treads and was lifted into the body of the ship. Miss
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