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"Think I ought to go to her?"
Flora shook her head. "Just keep on with what you're doing here. There isn't anything you can do for her now."
"The best thing you can do for her, Conn, is prove that you weren't lying about Merlin," Sylvie told him.
The _Lester Dawes_ didn't make it from Force Command to Storisende and back until after dark, and the green and white and red and orange lights were rising in folds and waves. Rodney Maxwell had heard about his wife's condition; it was the first thing he spoke of when Conn and Flora and Sylvie met him as he got off the ship.
"There isn't anything we can do, Father," Flora said. "They'll call us when there's any change."
He said the same thing Sylvie had said. "The only thing we can do is get that infernal thing uncovered. Once we do this, everything'll be all right. We'll show your mother that it isn't a fake and it isn't anything dangerous; we'll put a stop to all these horror-stories about mechanical devils and living machines...."
Conn drew his father off where the girls couldn't overhear.
"This is something worse," he said. "This is a bomb that could blow up the whole Federation."
"Are you going nuts, too?" his father demanded.
Conn told him about Shanlee; he repeated, almost word for word, the story Shanlee had told.
"Do you believe that?" his father asked.
"Don't you? You were in Storisende when the Travis statement came out; you saw how people acted. If this story gets out, people will be acting the same way on every planet in the Federation. Not just places like Poictesme; planets like Terra and Baldur and Marduk and Odin and Osiris. It would be the end of everything civilized, everywhere."
"Why didn't they use Merlin to save the Federation?"
"It's past saving. It's been past saving since before the War. The War was what gave it the final shove. If they could have used Merlin to reverse the process, they wouldn't have sealed it away."
"But you know, Conn, we can't destroy Merlin. If we did, the same people who went crazy over the Travis statement would go crazy all over again, worse than ever. We'd be destroying everything we planned for, and we'd be destroying ourselves. That bluff young Macquarte and Luther Chen-Wong and Bill Nichols made wouldn't work twice. And if they weren't bluffing...."
His father shuddered.
"And if we don't, how long do you think civilization will last here, if it blows up all over the rest of the Federation?"
The big machine cut on, a little spot of raw energy grinding away the collapsium, inch by inch; the undulating curtains of colored light illuminated the Badlands for miles around. Then, when the first hint of dawn came into the east, they went out. The steady roar of the generators that had battered every ear for over twenty-four hours stopped. There was unbelieving silence, and then shouts.
The workmen swarmed out to man lifters. Slowly the heavy apparatus--the reactor and the converters, the cutting machine, and the shielding around it--was lifted away. Finally, a lone lifter came in and men in radiation-suits went down to hook on grapples, and it lifted away, carrying with it a ten-foot-square sheet of thin steel that weighed almost thirty tons.
When they had battered a hole in the vitrified rock underneath, guards brought up General Shanlee. Somebody almost up to professional standards had given him a haircut; the beard was gone, too. A Federation Army officer's uniform had been found reasonably close to his size, and somebody had even provided him with the four stars of his retirement rank. He was, again, the man Conn had seen in the dome-house on Luna.
"Well, you got it open," he said, climbing down from the airjeep that had brought him. "Now, what are you going to do with it?"
"We can't make up our minds," Conn said. "We're going to let the computer tell us what to do with it."
Shanlee looked at him, startled. "You mean, you're going to have Merlin judge itself and decide its own fate?" he asked. "You'll get the same result we did."
They let a ladder down the hole and descended--Conn and his father, Kurt Fawzi, Jerry Rivas, then Shanlee and his two guards, then others--until a score of them were crowded in the room at the bottom, their flashlights illuminating the circular chamber, revealing ceiling-high metal cabinets, banks of b.u.t.ton- and dial-studded control panels, big keyboards. It was Shanlee who found the lights and put them on.
"Powered from the central plant, down below," he said. "The main cables are disguised as the grounding-outlet. If this thing had been on when you put on the power, you'd have had an awful lot of power going nowhere, apparently."
Rodney Maxwell was disappointed. "I know this stuff looks awfully complex, but I'd have expected there to be more of it."
"Oh, I didn't get a chance to tell you about that. This is only the operating end," Conn said, and then asked Shanlee if there were inspection-screens. When Shanlee indicated them, he began putting them on. "This is the real computer."
They all gave the same view, with minor differences--long corridors, ten feet wide, between solid banks of steel cabinets on either side.
Conn explained where they were, and added:
"Kurt and the rest of them were sitting here, all this time, wondering where Merlin was; it was all around them."
"Well, how did you get up here?" Fawzi asked. "We couldn't find anything from below."
"No, you couldn't." Shanlee was amused. "Watch this."
It was so simple that n.o.body had ever guessed it. Below, back of the Commander-in-chief's office, there was a closet, fifteen feet by twenty. They had found it empty except for some bits of discarded office-gear, and had used it as a catch-all for everything they wanted out of the way. Shanlee went to where four thick steel columns rose from floor to ceiling in a rectangle around a heavy-duty lifter, pressing a b.u.t.ton on a control-box on one of them. The lifter, and the floor under it, rose, with a thick ma.s.s of vitrified rock underneath.
The closet, full of the junk that had been thrown into it, followed.
"That's it," he said. "We just tore out the controls inside that and patched it up a little. There's a sheet of collapsium-plate under the floor. Your scanners simply couldn't detect anything from below."
Confident that Merlin would decree its own destruction, Shanlee gave his parole; the others accepted it. The newsmen were admitted to the circular operating room and encouraged to send out views and descriptions of everything. Then the lift controls were reinstalled, the lid was put back on top, and the only access to the room was through the office below. The entrance to this was always guarded by Zarel's soldiers or Brangwyn's police.
There were only a score of them who could be let in on the actual facts. For the most part, they were the same men who had been in Fawzi's office on the afternoon of Conn's return, a year and a half ago. A few others--Anse Dawes, Jerry Rivas, and five computermen Conn had trained on Koshchei--had to be trusted. Conn insisted on letting Sylvie Jacquemont in on the revised Awful Truth About Merlin. They spent a lot of their time together, in Travis's office, for the most part sunk in dejection.
They had finally found Merlin; now they must lose it. They were trying to reconcile themselves and take comfort from the achievement, empty as it was. They could see no way out. If Merlin said that Merlin had to be destroyed, that was it. Merlin was infallible. Conn hated the thought of destroying that machine with his whole being, not because it was an infallible oracle, but because it was the climactic masterpiece of the science he had spent years studying. To destroy it was an even worse sacrilege to him than it was to the Merlinolators.
And Rodney Maxwell was thinking of the public effects. What the Travis statement had started would be nothing by comparison.
"You know, we can keep the destruction of Merlin a secret," Conn said.
"It'll take some work down at the power plant, but we can overload all the circuits and burn everything out at once." He turned to Shanlee.
"I don't know why you people didn't think of that."
Shanlee looked at him in surprise. "Why, now that you mention it, neither do I," he admitted. "We just didn't."
"Then," Conn continued, "we can tinker up something in the operating room that'll turn out what will look like computation results. As far as anybody outside ourselves will know, Merlin will still be solving everybody's problems. We'll do like any fortuneteller; tell the customer what he wants to believe and keep him happy."
More lies; lies without end. And now he'd have a machine to do his lying for him, a dummy computer that wouldn't compute anything. And all he'd wanted, to begin with, had been a ship to haul some brandy to where they could get a fair price for it.
Peace had returned. At first, it had been a frightened and uneasy peace. The bluff--he hoped that was what it had been--by the Koshchei colonists had shocked everybody into momentary inaction. In the twenty-four hours that had followed, the forces of sanity and order had gotten control again. Merlin existed and had been found. As for Travis's statement, the old general had been bound by a wartime oath of secrecy to deny Merlin's existence. The majority relaxed, ashamed of their hysterical reaction. As for the Cybernarchists and Armageddonists and Human Supremacy Leaguers, government and private police, vastly augmented by volunteers, speedily rounded up the leaders; their followers dispersed, realizing that Merlin was nothing but a lot of dials and b.u.t.tons, and interestedly watching the broadcast views of it.
The banks were still closed, but discreet back-door withdrawals were permitted to keep business going; so was the Stock Exchange, but word was going around the brokerage offices that Trisystem Investments was in the market for a long list of securities. n.o.body was willing to do anything that might upset the precarious balance; everybody was talking about the bright future, when Merlin would guide Poictesme to ever greater and more splendid prosperity.
Conn's father and sister flew to Litchfield; Flora stayed with her mother, and Rodney Maxwell returned to Force Command, shaking his head gravely.
"She's still unconscious, Conn," he said. "She just lies there, barely breathing. The doctors don't know.... I wish Wade hadn't gone on the ship."
The price of what he had wanted to do was becoming unendurably high for Conn.
They ran off the computations Merlin had made forty years before, and rechecked them. There had been no error. The Terran Federation, overextended, had been cracking for a century before the War; the strain of that conflict had started an irreversible breakup. Two centuries for the Federation as such; at most, another century of irregular trade and occasional war between independent planets, Galaxy full of human-populated planets as poor as Poictesme at its worst. Or, aware of the future, sudden outbursts of desperate violence, then anarchy and barbarism.
It took a long time to set up the new computation. Forty years of history for almost five hundred planets had to be abstracted and summarized and translated from verbal symbols to the electro-mathematical language of computers and fed in. Conn and Sylvie and General Shanlee and the three men and two women Conn had taught on Koshchei worked and rested briefly and worked again. Finally, it was finished.
"General; you're the oldest Merlin hand," Conn said, gesturing to the red b.u.t.ton at the main control panel, "You do it."