Love Among The Robots
By EMMETT McDOWELL
Henry Ohm, staid scientist, found he couldn’t
keep his mind on his work—with that girl around.
Such was the development of her—ah—personality
that even the robots began getting ideas!
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Henry Ohm leaped to his feet, stared across the intervening ground at igloo number 2, plainly visible through the clear plastic walls. Its door had just been flung violently open. Then Sofi Jokai scooted out and fled madly across the jagged surface of the asteroid.
Hard on the girl’s heels pounded R-7. The robot, Hen saw with a gulp, was waving a large wrench in one metal fist.
“Oh-oh!” Hen muttered and plunged down the incline for the airlock.
He shot a second glance through the transparent curved walls, slowed down. The robot would never catch Sofi. Even burdened by her oxygen suit, the girl was leaving R-7 far in the rear.
At the airlock, Henry Ohm paused, regarding the chase with sober, deep-set black eyes. He was a tall, thin young man, nearing thirty. His face was narrow; prominent cheek bones and a thin, straight nose gave his features an angular pleasant mould. He made no move to don the emergency oxygen helmet beside the lock, but waited with a vague expression of annoyance.
Sofi reached the airlock, burst inside, sealed and locked the outer door behind her. The air had scarcely filled the chamber before she flung open the inner door, confronted Henry Ohm, and exploded into a flood of angry words. Not a sound escaped her plastic helmet which she had forgotten to remove.
He let her rattle away silently inside her helmet, nodding at intervals, rubbing his chin until she paused for breath.
“That’s what you get for trying to run a mine all alone on this god-forsaken asteroid,” he informed her, “even if you are a yellow-haired hell cat.”
Sofi looked at him blankly.
Ohm rapped with his knuckles on her helmet. “If you’d take that thing off, you could hear me. But you’re the excitable type. Probably have an overactive thyroid.”
Sofi jerked off her helmet. She had a mass of fine wavy yellow hair cut like a halo about her oval face. Her features were delicately moulded, her eyes large and blue. She was only a few inches shorter than Henry Ohm, but more slenderly built.
“What the hell were you saying?” she demanded suspiciously.
“I wanted to know what you’d been doing to the robots this time?”
“What happened in the mine?”
“Rational robots!” Sofi Jokai planted hands on slender but ample hips. “I was an idiot to listen to you, Hen.”
He repressed a chuckle. His glance flicked to the surface of the asteroid beyond the plastic walls of the igloo. R-7, he saw, had taken a stance at the lock like a cat at a mouse hole.
Although built along the general design of man, the robot was no grotesque copy. He was a complex functional piece of machinery as beautiful in his way as the cobwebby spans of a bridge, a streamlined jet plane, or a fine watch.
“But Sofi, they’re still in the experimental stage. They—”
“Experimental’s right,” the girl interrupted passionately. “D’you realize what R-7 has done now?”
He grinned. “No. What?”
“He’s taken the mining worm apart—that’s what. I knew he would!”
“Knew he would? Did you warn him not to?”
“Yes. Of course I did. I had to leave him to check the reduction plant. I had a presentiment….”
“Woman’s intuition, I suppose,” Hen interrupted. “You’d sold yourself on the idea R-7 was going to take the worm apart.”
“If you like,” returned Sofi in a chilly voice. “When I came back, R-7 was gone and the worm was strewn all over the floor. I was furious. I found R-7 on the fourth level. I started to land into him, but—but—”
“He looked so queer.”
“How the hell can a piece of machinery look queer?”
“Well, he did,” said Sofi indignantly. “He looked as if he was going to take me apart, too!”
Henry groaned. “Go on,” he said resignedly.
“Why, then R-7 wanted to know if I was put together or if I came all in one piece.” She bit her lip. “He started to find out.”
She slipped off the oxygen suit. She was clad in comfortable baggy coveralls similar to Hen’s.
“That rascal,” Hen chuckled. Sofi grew pink with rage.
“Rascal!” she retorted witheringly. “Is that all you can say? One of those mechanical monstrosities dismantles the worm, then starts on me—and you think it’s cute!”
“Well, it’s damned queer they always react emotionally when you’re around.”
Sofi set her jaw, began to stride up the incline. She was a rangy girl with a long pantherish stride. Hen followed her, his brow furrowed.
When they came out on the sun deck of the two-storied half-sphere of clear plastic that was the living quarters, he began, “I’ll take a look at the mining worm. I think I can get it reassembled all right.” He frowned, cracked his bony knuckles. “The robots have been developing some unexpected quirks. I wouldn’t be surprised, Sofi, if this tinkering with machinery isn’t the expression of a sexual urge. The emergence of an instinct to perpetuate the species….”
“Sexual urge!” Sofi Jokai halted before Hen, shook her finger under his nose. “If I could sneak up behind R-7, he’d never make calf-eyes at another mining worm!”
But Hen wasn’t listening. He fumbled in the pockets of his coveralls, resurrected a notebook, wrote: “Robots manifesting decided curiosity towards machinery. May be emergence of secondary sex characteristics.” He frowned, added in bold script: “Have noted nascent antipathy towards organic life.” Again he hesitated, then scrawled: “Shows signs of developing into active antagonism.” He snapped the notebook shut, jammed it in his pocket.
“Where are you going,” Sofi asked as he started for the door.
“Get my oxygen suit. I want a look at their mining worm.”
“You’d better take a crowbar along to fend off R-7.”
“Poor psychology,” Hen replied with more confidence than he felt. “Fear and coercion’ll only cause their antagonism to become firmly implanted. The rational robot, Sofi, can be either the greatest single step man has made towards freedom or….”
“Enslavement!” It sounded sententious after he had said it. But it was true. He started for the door again.
“What do you mean by that crack?” Sofi stopped him.
He didn’t answer her directly. Instead, he replied: “I’m not sure that Robots Incorporated didn’t make a mistake when they selected this asteroid as a proving ground. It’s too….”
“Don’t you go turning in any report like that!” interrupted the girl hotly.
Sofi Jokai had been operating her wildcat uranium mine on a shoestring before Robots Incorporated approached her with their proposition. Now the corporation was paying all the operational expenses so that the proceeds of the mine were pure gravy. Further, they had guaranteed that any improvements which they installed would automatically revert to Sofi when the experimental units were withdrawn. Machinery damaged by the robots was to be replaced at the corporation’s expense. A substantial bonus to compensate for the risk involved was included. Robots Incorporated hadn’t even over-looked Henry Ohm, their experimental physicist, whom they’d sent along to check the robots. Sofi was to get a monthly check to cover Henry Ohm’s board, lodging and nuisance value.
“Hell,” said Sofi, “R-7 can chase me twice around the asteroid before breakfast. Just because I blew my top about the mining worm doesn’t mean….”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Hen said grimly. “The asteroid’s too well adapted to the robots’ needs. Airless, waterless, an abundant supply of metals. There’s the laboratory. Your mine and equipment. And only the two of us as a check on them.”
“Check?” Sofi’s blue eyes had gradually widened. “What are you driving at?”
“Why do you suppose Robots Incorporated chose this asteroid as a proving ground?”
“They—they said the mine would afford an opportunity to observe how well the robots adapted themselves to actual working conditions.”
“That’s not all. They wouldn’t let you go into this blind.”
“No,” she admitted nervously. “They mentioned something else that struck me at the time, but it was too golden an opportunity to pass up. They said that should the experiment prove—ah—impractical, they would have the infection isolated on a small asteroid well out in the belt.”
“Exactly. Look, I helped develop these robots. I’ve been on the problem seven years, but it was started long before I joined the experimental staff of Robots Incorporated.” He paused.
“In fact,” he went on dryly, “they were predicted even before science had advanced to a point where it could set up the intricate nervous system necessary. A conscious machine, Sofi, is the result of fusing two sciences which have always been considered more or less antagonistic.”
“You mean psychology and physics?” Sofi had begun to pace nervously up and down the room.
“It was a logical deduction from mechanistic psychology, which itself is an outgrowth of the old school of Behaviorism. Mental life is response to stimulus. Consciousness is like the spark between two electrodes in a circuit of feeling arising from viscera, muscles, blood vessels, glands—”
“Get to the point!” commanded Sofi.
Hen set his jaw. He was sounding like a lecturer, he realized. But it annoyed him for the girl to point it out.
“I’m getting there as fast as I can. We were faced with devising an intricate mechanical nervous system. Thus, should a joint grow warm from lack of lubrication, an impulse of distress could be telegraphed to the central clearing center, identified, shunted to the lubricatory system which would oil the joints. A spark of consciousness would be created. It would manifest itself as acute distress in the defective joint.
“We incorporated a simple metabolism by which the robots converted raw stuff into fuel and lubrication. The rest of the mechanism was much the same as that of any animal confronted by the necessity of self preservation. Organs for locomotion and work. Organs for perception.”
Sofi frowned. “So?”
“Most things in nature serve multiple purposes. Arms and legs are no exception. They provide offensive as well as defensive weapons. We’ve succeeded in building a conscious machine without any adequate control.”
“But you sound as if you thought it might turn on man,” protested the girl with a shudder. “Why should it?”
“For the same reason we built it,” he said with a touch of irony. “Freedom. So long as it doesn’t learn to reproduce itself, though, it’s not a danger. That is, not to the race.”
“But a machine! Surely you can forecast how a machine will act!”
“Can we?” His voice was savage. “How would a conscious machine react to its environment? What would its thoughts be? I tell you, once it integrates itself, we have no means of predicting its reactions!”
Once in his own quarters, Henry Ohm began dragging on his oxygen suit. He could still see the girl through the glass partitions of the igloo. She had dropped into a chair, lit a cigarette.
“About as private,” he thought wryly, “as a gold fish bowl.”
The igloos, he knew, were manufactured for housing on the airless asteroids of the belt. They were built of a clear thermal plastic and incorporated heating, atmosphere and water units. Henry Ohm felt rather strongly though that the partitions could have been clouded.
Sofi’s holdings had not been designed to accommodate visitors. In fact, Henry Ohm had spent the past week in a state of mild embarrassment.
He settled his helmet over his head, bolted it in place. He glanced toward the living room, but Sofi wasn’t there. Then he saw her in her own quarters. She was skinning out of her coveralls, preparing to shower.
“Damn all glass houses,” he muttered and bolted for the air lock.
Hen emerged on the surface, swept the tight horizon with his eyes. It was empty of life. R-7 had lost patience, evidently, and wandered off.
To the left was the laboratory and machine shop, a gleaming plastic igloo resembling the living quarters. Robots Incorporated had provided it for him to observe, diagnose, repair his mechanical charges. Beyond the laboratory a somewhat larger igloo housed the mine shaft, reduction plant and tipple. A dilapidated tramp freighter sprawled beside the tipple like a foundered whale.
Hen frowned. Operations had come to a halt. He could catch no glimpse of movement through the plastic walls.
He lengthened his stride, passed through the door, still open just as Sofi had left it when she fled. The interior reminded him of the appearance of a shop from which the proprietor has just stepped to buy a paper.
A subtle feeling of uneasiness began to pervade his whole being. He descended the shaft in the automatic cage. The light was burning on each of the four levels. Tools had been abandoned and left lying on the floors. He found the dismembered anatomy of the mining worm on level three. But of the eight robots there was no sign.
Hen ran the cage back to the surface at top speed. He was sweating profusely. A trickle kept running off his forehead into his eye. He pawed at the plastic helmet, shook his head. Then perversely his nose began to itch.
It did no good to tell himself these were nervous manifestations. He could only grit his teeth and suffer. He ran outside, glanced hopefully about the surface once more.
The landscape was rough, inhospitable, barren, resembling a clinker on a larger scale. The sun hung just above the western horizon. It was a brilliant but unimposing disc about the size of a dime.
There was still no sign of the robots.
Hen swore softly to himself. In a few minutes it would be dark. It was hopeless to begin a search now. He returned to his quarters in the igloo, shucked off the oxygen suit.
Maybe he could raise them with the radio. The robots’ hearing and speaking apparatus extended beyond the range of audible sound into the realm of electro-magnetic waves. He went out to the sun deck, switched on the communicator. He was unable to contact them, though. There was no ionized strata of air on the asteroid to reflect the waves back to the surface, and he concluded they had wandered below the horizon.
With a groan, he flung himself into a chair. He pulled the notebook out of his pocket, thumbed through the pages, reading bits here and there.
“… machine thought processes diverging from human at progressively increasing rate … amazing deductive and assimilative faculties. Able to assimilate page of text at a glance. But seem to lack creativeness….”
He paused, frowned, wondering if the inability to perform creative, inductive thinking wasn’t a fundamental limitation of the machine. Organic life differed in four precepts which until a short time ago science had been unable to duplicate. It was able to grow and reproduce itself; it felt emotion and thought.
But the robots appeared to think.
And some forms of organic life didn’t feel emotion. Plants, for one. The oviparous man-like bowmen of Venus, who had emerged from the Great Swamp and which a few crackpot visionaries were hailing as homo superior, for another.
Only the ability to grow and reproduce itself seemed inherently organic. The act of conception both in a biologic and mental sense was the birthright of the organism.
With an increase of the uneasiness he had felt since the discovery of the robots’ defection, he returned to his notes.
“… robots showing aversion to water, oxygen, corrosive acids; believe to be caused by dread and/or attendant pain of oxidation … have been forced to release air in mine and laboratory and discontinue atmosphere units to induce robots to return to work. Humidity of atmosphere being especially distasteful to them … treated R-3 for mild acid corrosion of right pedal digit. Complained of itching sensation….”
He frowned. How in the hell could a hunk of metal experience an itching sensation? From what source could it have plucked the mental pattern? He came to the end of his notes, wrote: “All work at stand still. Robots have disappeared.”
He returned the book to his pocket, elevated his feet on another chair, closed his eyes.
He was still in that position when Sofi streamed out of her quarters with a towel draped about herself.
“Resting the old brain?” she inquired brightly.
Hen opened his eyes, said in a pained voice, “I’m thinking,” and closed them again.
“Which end do you use?”
Hen allowed his feet to clomp to the floor, sat up. He said grimly, “The robots have run off.”
Sofi’s blue eyes widened. “Wait a minute,” she said breathlessly and flashed from the room.
Hen kept his eyes studiously on the deck.
The sprawling sun-drenched hives of Terra, he was beginning to realize, insured an impersonal attitude by the multitude of their citizenry. That same impersonalness was disconcertingly hard to maintain when a man and a girl were cooped together on an uninhabited asteroid. The pre-plastic emotions were only too apt to assert themselves.
It distracted him when he felt he needed his full powers of concentration.
Sofi returned in belted coveralls. She took a seat, asking him, “What does it mean?”
“The disappearance of the robots? I don’t know. I didn’t think they were sufficiently integrated yet to mutiny.”
“But what can they do?”
He frowned. “I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but I’ve pointed out before how suited the asteroids are to them. If once they learned how to duplicate themselves, there’d be no end to them. They have everything here they need to get a fundamental grasp of our science—even to a rocket ship. They could spread through the asteroid belt like a plague.”
Sofi bit her lip. Her eyes were opened wide and brilliant. Her cheeks were flushed. She didn’t interrupt.
Hen said, “Look what it would mean. An alien, intelligent, almost indestructible race of monsters saddling the planetary system!”
He drove his right fist into his left palm. “A control! That’s what we have to discover! A control!”
Hen had no idea what he ate that night at supper. He said suddenly over coffee and cigarettes, “Ceres is approaching an inferior conjunction. If those robots haven’t appeared by morning, I’m going to radio the station there for help. Then I’m going to scour every inch of this diminutive world.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult for you,” Sofi remarked maliciously. “Of course, there’s only about two thousand-five hundred square kilometers to cover.”
Hen looked disgruntled.
“Maybe they’ve jumped off,” suggested Sofi with a giggle.
He made a remark under his breath.
“Why, Henry! What an idea! You’re worrying yourself into a nervous breakdown. Relax. I’ll tell you what: we’ll play some checkers.”
“Checkers!” he snorted. He had played checkers every night since he had been on the asteroid and he didn’t even like the game. Besides, the girl always beat him.
Undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm, Sofi began to clear away the dishes and get out the men.
Hen sat back with a pained expression. It was black outside the plastic hemisphere. Only the vivid stars relieved the absence of light. Jupiter, by far the brightest, was visible as a small disc. The lights were still on in mine and lab, but nothing stirred in the two igloos.
“It’s your move,” said Sofi.
She was seated directly across from him, knees touching his. Her coveralls were open at the neck, and he could see the white pillar of her throat, the swell of her small, high, virginal breasts. He was conscious of his pulse ticking away in his throat, and grew furious with himself. He couldn’t concentrate on the game; he couldn’t concentrate on the much more serious problem of the robots.
The girl, he felt sure, was aware of her effect on him and used it deliberately to confuse him. He said grumpily, “I can’t beat both of you.”
“Both of me?”
“Yeah. You and your body.”
“Why, what a thought, Hen!” She was obviously trying to hold back laughter. “But I thought you were superior to that sort of thing.”
He jumped up from the table, turned his back to the girl staring off through the plastic walls. Immediately all thoughts of Sofi vanished.
“The robots. They’ve come back. They’re in the laboratory. Look.”
She came around the table, brushing against him, stared out at the lighted igloo. The heavy man-like machines were moving about inside the laboratory. Hen started for his quarters.
“Where are you going?” Sofi cried sharply.
“Get my oxygen suit.”
“Wait. Don’t be foolhardy. How do you know what they’re up to? Talk to them first.”
Hen hesitated. “All right.” He went out onto the sun deck instead, snapped on the communicator.
“R-7,” he called. “R-7.”
“Here,” came the robot’s voice through the audio. “Is that you, father?”
“Father?” Hen ejaculated. He heard Sofi giggle. “Where did you get that idea?”
“Didn’t you make us, father?”
“Yes,” he admitted. Sofi was laughing out loud. “But you didn’t think of that yourself.”
“The girl told us, father,” said the robot.
Hen ground his teeth. That, of course, was Sofi’s idea of a joke. “Where have you been?” he asked.
“Prospecting for what?”
Sofi said, “Ask them if they found anything!” Her voice was eager.
Hen narrowed his black eyes, ignored her. He said to R-7 over the transmitter, “Go back to work at once.”
“But you don’t work, father.”
Hen felt a surge of uncertainty. The robots were too delicately receptive to expect to keep them in ignorance. Their perceptions were infinitely more sensitive than man’s. Even on this asteroid there were too many factors involved to regulate their environment. He had tried to implant science without revealing the greater implication of science. But language was too faulty a tool. There was the girl, too—headstrong, excitable, hyper-thyroid. It was amazing how faithfully the robots tended to reflect her emotional instability.
How much of the robots’ erraticness originated in Sofi’s inexact thinking?
He said, “Everything has to work.”
“Man either produces the needs of his body or he dies,” he explained with growing irritability. The conversation was progressing further and further out of hand. “In your case, it’s fuel and repairs. Without them you would terminate.”
“But we have those here, father. Why should we work for you or the girl?”
That was it—the ultimate question which he had foreseen and which he could neither avoid nor answer. It was impossible to explain the complicated social system in which man, the disinherited, exchanged his labor for a small percentage of the articles he produced. But the robots were self sufficient.
He said with growing desperation, “Either you return at once to work, or I’ll terminate you.”
How indeed? Hen fumed inwardly, said with sudden inspiration, “We’ll radio for help. There are machines capable of blasting the lot of you into your component atoms.”
“But the radio station is here in the laboratory,” R-7 pointed out. There was a faint hesitation, then the robot added, “We will terminate you instead.” The instrument clicked off.
Hen gulped, realized in dismay that it hadn’t occurred to the robots to destroy them until he had planted it in their minds.
“You are the bright lad,” drawled Sofi. “What do you propose now—Brain?”
He turned his black eyes on her, regarded her without seeing her. His glance strayed beyond the girl to the lab.
“What the devil are they doing now?” he cried suddenly.
Sofi spun around. Hen leaped past her to press his nose against the clear plastic walls of their igloo. The robots, he saw, had one of their number clamped on the work bench and were dismantling him.
“Damnation!” he said. “They must be trying to duplicate themselves. You and your silly jokes about fathers.”
“What do you think gave them the idea of reproduction? Their thinking never rises above the level of deductive reasoning. They had to derive the idea from an outside source.”
“But—but can they do it?”
“Of course they can! It’s an intricate job, but they only have to copy themselves. The laboratory and machine shop is complete. They’ve amassed a staggering knowledge of science.”
“But why?” protested Sofi.
Hen shook his head. “It’s beyond me. They should adjust readily to whatever line of work they’re applied to. They shouldn’t evince ambition. Ambition, by its nature, should be impossible to a machine. But that’s not the only organic trait they’ve been developing. It’s what Robots Incorporated was afraid might happen.”
He snapped his fingers suddenly.
“The freighter! If we can sneak aboard the freighter, we can get to Ceres and bring back an atom gun. If they’re developing emotions we may be able to overawe them. If not….” He hesitated, his mind drawing back from framing the thought. The truth was that the robots were like children, precocious children. He set his mouth grimly.
“If they don’t respond to fear, we can destroy them.”
Sofi looked across the darkened interval into the lighted lab where the robots were busy dissecting their fellow and shivered.
“Industrious little monsters!”
Hen said, “Get your oxygen suit.”
“Now? You mean we’re going to make a dash for the space ship now?”
“Of course now! We’ve got to clear out of here before they carry out their threat to terminate us!”
There was no light outside the igloo. House and lab and mine stood out like three jeweled domes, reflecting their rays onto the ragged surface, glinting unexpectedly from upthrust peaks in the distance. Hen and Sofi crouched against the outside of the housing unit, staring across the patchwork of black shadow and light at the lab.
“Don’t talk,” he cautioned Sofi over the radiophones built into their helmets. “The robots’ auditory apparatus is sensitive to radio waves. They may tune in on us.”
“What the hell did you try to do? Make them invincible?”
He said, “We tried to build them with controls, but—don’t you see?—those were weaknesses, flaws! The machine remained dead. The first law of life is self preservation. We had to make the machine self-regulating, independent, to produce awareness. Now shut up! Don’t ask me any more questions.”
He led off into the darkness away from the lab, away from the mine and space ship It was too risky to attempt passing the lab. The light was apt to reflect from their suits, discover their presence to the robots inside. But by describing a circle he could avoid the lighted areas and come up behind the dilapidated tramp freighter.
He glanced upward at the stars, impressing their position on his mind. The constellations were little altered. He found Polaris in the tail of the little dipper. It was not the axis star as it was on Earth, but it served to fix his sense of direction in the impenetrable blackness.
They tripped and stubbed their toes, stumbled into shallow fissures, climbed sharp-edged crests. Sofi, forgetting the radiophone, muttered several well-chosen expletives to herself. They would have done credit to a spaceman. Hen was so shocked, he forgot to reprimand her.
In a few minutes the lights of the igloos reappeared to guide them, the vast black bulk of the tramp freighter screening part of the mining unit. They crept up to the ship, and hugging its shadow, moved noiselessly towards the port. Light from the reduction plant picked them out brightly as they came around the stern.
Hen’s stomach contracted. There was a sudden bitter taste in his mouth. He halted so abruptly that Sofi bumped against his shoulder.
The port was open. The gleaming functional mechanism that was R-3 stood complacently in the entrance.
The space ship was being guarded.
The robot caught sight of the humans at the same moment. His reaction, although mechanical, was almost as instantaneous as their instinctive one.
He moved to block the entrance, sent out a call for help.
Hen, guessing his intention, tuned his helmet receiver to the robot’s wave length. R-3’s mechanical voice rang suddenly inside his helmet.
“… attacking the space ship! Aid! Aid! Father attacking the space ship! Aid!”
Hen switched back to the girl’s wave length. “Run,” he commanded tersely. “He’s calling for help. He’ll have the lot of them down on our heads.”
Suiting action to words, he took to his heels, plunging for the housing unit.
“Lock ourselves in!” he grunted.
“But the ship!” Sofi wailed over her radiophone.
“Might as well try to get past a tank as R-3,” he panted. He saw four of the robots break from the laboratory, turn to intercept them. “Faster,” he cried. “If we don’t get back to the igloo we’re done for! These suits haven’t but a seven hours oxygen supply!”
“Faster,” he cried. “If we don’t get back to the igloo we’re done for!”
He swung sharply to the right, traveling in sixty-foot leaps like an ungainly grasshopper, to jump completely over the head of the closest robot.
He over-estimated the last jump, smashed into the tough plastic wall of the igloo. He slithered to the ground, half dazed, as Sofi whipped inside, started to close the lock. Hen got his foot in the crack just in time.
“What the hell are you trying to do?” he roared wrathfully. “Lock me out?”
He yanked the door open, flung himself into the compartment. He got it barred just as the robots reached the igloo.
They milled around outside a moment, then trooped back to the laboratory, leaving one of their number, R-6, on guard.
“We’re prisoners!” Sofi breathed through the radiophone.
Hen decided it was childish not to speak. He growled, “Yes,” in a voice which he hoped conveyed the depth of contempt, but Sofi didn’t seem to notice it. Hell, she was probably too frightened to even realize that she had tried to lock him out.
As soon as the pressure reached normal, they left the lock, trooped dejectedly up the incline to the sun deck, and pulled off their oxygen suits.
“Keep them handy,” said Hen ominously when Sofi started to put them away. “We’d better get extra oxygen containers, too.”
The girl bit her lip. Her cheeks were flushed, her large blue eyes starry with fright. “Then—then you think they’ll try to break in here?”
“Of course they will! We’re a menace to their continued existence. If we could just get hold of an atom gun, though. R-3 sounded frightened!”
“Frightened?” asked Sofi. She was still breathing heavily, but she had begun to quiet down. “Now who’s reading emotion into the robots?”
He said with a puzzled expression, “It wasn’t so much the nuance as his choice of words. ‘Father is attacking the space ship! Aid! Aid!’ He gave every appearance of being as frightened as we were. It’s impossible, but they seem to be developing emotions!”
Sofi dropped weakly in a chair, clasped her arms around her knees. “Why should it be impossible?”
“You sound like R-7.” He began pacing the sun deck. “Emotion results from glandular activity. The robots don’t have glands.”
“They’ve got their counterparts.”
“Maybe,” he admitted doubtfully. “You’re referring to the metabolism that breaks down the rawstuffs and converts it into fuel, lubrication—that sort of chemical change?”
“I don’t know. Anyway, it’s worth a try. If they really experience fear, we might be able to bluff them.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked breathlessly.
He said, “Remind them that every three Terran months a supply ship puts in here. And if we’re harmed they’ll be destroyed.”
“But what about the space ship? Couldn’t they escape to another asteroid? They’d never be located in the belt.”
“It shouldn’t occur to them,” returned Hen thoughtfully. “Not unless the idea reached them from us.”
He went to the radio contact, switched it on. “R-7,” he called. “R-7.”
“Here, father,” the voice of the robot issued from the audio.
He said, “R-7, I’m giving you one last chance. Return to work at once or all of you will be terminated.”
He explained tersely about the supply ship, and what would occur if so much as a hair of their heads was injured. Silence greeted the ultimatum. For a moment Hen wondered if R-7 had switched himself off. Then the robot said, “We are going to load the ship and hide out in the belt. They’ll never be able to locate us.”
Hen was too stunned to argue. He nipped off the set, sank into a chair. “It’s inconceivable,” he said, “and monstrous! It just isn’t possible!”
“I don’t see why,” protested Sofi. “It didn’t take conception to figure that out. We tried to run away. We set the precedent.”
“No, no,” he protested. “Not that at all. But the coincidence. We were afraid that might occur to them. And it did! Even the phrasing was ours—yours, to be exact.”
“You mean telepathy.”
“In a sense. The brain gives off minute electrical discharges that vary with the brain’s activity. The robots are sensitive, much more so than man. It takes a machine to detect the brain discharges in the first place.”
“But then they’re aware of every move we could make just as soon as we are.”
“That’s just it! They’ve forestalled us every time.” He drove his right fist against his left palm. “You were afraid R-7 would dismantle the mining worm. You planted the suggestion in his mind. Then it occurred to you that he might try to take you apart; so he did. I explained the danger inherent in a conscious machine. The robots incorporated it into their thought processes. We were afraid they would block our escape in the space ship. If we hadn’t been afraid we wouldn’t have circled. So they blocked us!”
Sofi’s color had heightened. Her eyes looked too large in her delicately modelled face. “Then we’re trapped!”
He nodded, said, “If they escape from the asteroid, they’ll be a menace to the entire human race.”
“The larger problem doesn’t interest me,” she said bitterly. “How long do we have?”
He shook his head.
“Oh, well,” she shrugged, eyes feverishly bright. “Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die.” She giggled half-hysterically.
Hen’s nerves were keyed up to the breaking point. The girl screamed, and he almost jumped out of his skin.
“Here they come!”
He wheeled around.
Seven of the robots were advancing on their igloo. Only the eighth was missing, and he lay scattered in parts about the laboratory. They were hauling the heavy cutting torch with them.
“They’re going to cut through the walls with the torch,” he ejaculated. “I was afraid of that! Get on your oxygen suit!”
“What’s the use?” Sofi asked despondently. “They’ll kill us anyway.”
He turned on her angrily, thought, “Damn these unstable hyper-thyroid types!” An expression of dawning comprehension broke across his long, narrow face. The thyroid was the great energizer, raising the energy level of the brain. And Sofi was hyper-thyroid.
Outside, the robots began setting up the apparatus. A knife of blue flame licked from the muzzle, spattered against the tough plastic.
But Hen was staring at the girl, a queer expression in his black eyes.
“Do something!” she cried, springing to her feet. “Do something!”
The lank physicist swallowed. He took a deep breath. “You asked for it,” he breathed, “but, boy, I’m going to feel silly if I’m wrong!”
Then he hit the girl square on the point of her chin with all the bone and gristle of his six-foot frame behind the blow.
Sofi’s head snapped back. She collapsed limply in his arms.
Hen laid her out on the floor, leaped for the communicator, and flipped it on.
The robots were still training the torch on the wall of the igloo, but there was an aimlessness about their movements as if their purpose was gone.
“R-7!” he called. “R-7!”
“Shut off the torch!”
There was a faint hesitation during which Hen could feel the sweat prickle his forehead. Then, “Yes, father,” came the robots unstressed syllables. The blue flame disappeared.
“Go back to work!” He hastily detailed each robot to its operation.
The robots turned, disappeared in the direction of the mine.
He had done it! He blew out his breath, dropped limply in a chair. He really ought to look after Sofi, but he’d have to wait until the strength flowed back in his legs.
Soft was really was out cold. “Wake up,” said Hen, “you’re not dead.” He sprinkled more water over the girl’s face.
Her eyelids fluttered. She gazed up at him blankly, then stark terror gleamed from her eyes. “The robots!”
“No more of that!” He shook her roughly. “They’re machines. They don’t have consciousness; only the semblance of consciousness!”
Sofi sat up, asking, “What—?” in a bewildered voice.
“They don’t think! They aren’t conscious! They’re like a mirror; they reflect what we expect them to do.”
“Don’t try to tell me that!” cried the girl springing to her feet. “Hell, haven’t I seen them thinking? Where are they?”
“They’ve gone back to work.”
“What?” said Sofi. She looked puzzled, passed her hand over her face.
“Don’t you see?” Hen broke out jubilantly. “They’re sensitive, inordinately sensitive, so sensitive that they even respond to our thoughts. From beginning to end they’ve done exactly what we—you expected them to do.”
He came to a halt, said, “The fact is, you’re a rebel, Sofi. If you weren’t, do you think you’d be trying to develop independently a mine on an uninhabitable asteroid? Don’t you see? You expected the robots to revolt because you couldn’t imagine a rational creature willing to submit to a twenty-four hour work day from which he stood to gain nothing!”
“And I’m responsible for—everything?”
He nodded vigorously. “The robots respond to both of our thought patterns, of course, but primarily to yours. You’re hyper-thyroid. The thyroid raises the energy level of the brain. They have done principally what you’ve expected them to do.”
Sofi was recovering amazingly from her fright. She said, “If that isn’t just like a man. Blame it on the woman. Even Adam—”
“Nonsense,” Hen interrupted. “The robots haven’t acted independently once. Not even to finish dismantling that robot in the lab. They went prospecting when you thought how silly it was for them to work for you when they could find a mine of their own.
“They wandered back aimlessly after they lost contact. But by that time I had inadvertently planted the thought in your mind that they were in revolt and would attempt to duplicate themselves.
“They drew on us both, but the dominating influence was yours.”
Sofi massaged her sore jaw, raised her eyebrows. “It’s too bad only machines respond so cooperatively,” she said with a twinkle in her blue eyes.
A grim expression descended over Hen’s features. He regarded Sofi pensively. “I’m going to recommend that you be returned to Earth during any further experiments. You’re too upsetting an influence—”
“On the robots, of course,” Sofi interrupted with a chuckle. “You’re much too well-integrated to be swayed by a mere woman—even a hyper-thyroid woman.”
“There’s a limit to my endurance,” said Hen in a grim voice.
Sofi looked startled, but she couldn’t resist adding, “Why Henry, I didn’t guess you’d been exercising such magnificent self-control!”
She took a sudden backward step as he advanced ominously. “Henry! Now, Henry!”
With a shriek, she turned and fled, Henry Ohm, distinguished physicist, hard on her heels.