43. December 31, 2024

“You made pretty good time, Ben.”

“Military jet. Very cramped, very fast. When we stopped to refuel for the last leg this passport was waiting. All filled out except for your signature. I was ordered to instruct you to sign it in my presence.”

“I’ll do that now.” Brian went to the desk for a pen.

“Keeping well, Sven?” Ben asked.

“Batteries charged and rarin’ to go.”

Brian smiled at Ben’s astonishment. “Sven is developing new linguistic skills — and a sense of humor.”

“So I see. The two of you are top of the news worldwide.”

“That was my intention. I’ll tell you everything that I have uncovered and what I plan to do, just as soon as you bring me up to date about what has been happening.”

“Will do. And I have a message to you from Shelly—”

“No. No mention of that name, no communication. Subject closed.”

“If that’s the way you want it, Brian. But—”

“And no buts either. Okay?”

“Okay. I had it out with General Schorcht as soon as I found out you had gone missing. He kept it under wraps for three days. That was his mistake. If I and my superiors had known what was happening he might have survived…”

“He’s dead!”

“He might as well be. Forced retirement and living in a bungalow on the grounds of Camp Mead in Hawaii. It was either that or face possible charges of insanity. He had the engineers attempt to break into your laboratory — and practically blew themselves away. There were short circuits, premature explosions — almost as though someone inside was working to stop them.”

Brian had to laugh. “There was — Sven-2. A very up-to-date MI.”

“We found that out when your MI rang all the police and TV stations to let them know what was happening. Schorcht was on the way out ten minutes later.”

“I’ll have to phone. Sven-2 and congratulate it. So how do things stand now?”

“The military is gone at last from Megalobe and there is civilian security there now. It will be just as secure, you will be happy to know. When Major Wood discovered he had been suckered by the General, who knew all about your escape plans and let them go ahead, he applied for a discharge. So he’s still in charge of security — still will be even when he is out of uniform.”

“That’s good to hear. What was the General’s idea behind letting me think I was escaping?”

“He had the suspicion, probably from all of his wiretaps and intelligence reports, that you knew more about who the criminals were than you were letting on. By permitting you to escape, then letting you out on a long leash and keeping track of you, he thought you would lead us to them.”

“If he believed that — then he must have thought I would be in danger of my life. And he didn’t care!”

“My conclusion exactly. Which is the reason why he is now watching daytime television in that bungalow. The President was not amused. If you had led General Schorcht to the thieves all might have been forgiven. But when you gave your watchdogs the slip the ceiling fell in.”

“Have you talked with Dr. Snaresbrook?”

“I have. She hopes you are well. Sends her love and looks forward to seeing you back in California. She is highly incensed at being used by the General, at being fooled into aiding your escape in what might have been a dangerous situation.”

“Can’t say that I blame her. She took a big risk to help me — and the operation was blown even before it started.”

“Then that’s it,” Ben said, walking the length of the room and back. “Still cramped from the plane. Nothing more to tell. So maybe you can satisfy my curiosity now. Where did you go — and what did you do?”

“I can’t tell you where I went. But I can tell you that Dr. Bociort is still alive and has told me everything that he knows. He was hired to work with my stolen AI by Beckworth using a fake name. Bociort knew that the entire operation was rotten from the very beginning and did what electronic snooping he could—”

“Brian, be kind to an old man! Jump to the ending and fill in the details later. Did he find out who was behind the theft and murders?”

“Unhappily, no. He did discover that it was an international conspiracy, though. Beckworth is an American. It was a Canadian who arranged for the helicopter pickup. Plus the reports that orientals drove the truck that cleaned out my house. And one more big one. When Beckworth had to make an emergency call he telephoned Canada — and talked to an Englishman.”

“Who?”

“He couldn’t find out — the phone was disconnected at once.”

“Damn. Then we are really back to square one. The thieves and killers are still out there.”

“That’s right. So since we can’t find them we have to render them harmless. First off we take out patents on the AI they have. So what they stole will be available to anybody who wants to pay the patent fees. That takes care of the past. All we need think about now is the future—”

“Which explains your and Sven’s television appearance today.”

“Perfectly correct. It’s a whole new ball game. We forget the past — I know that I would like to — and look to the future. When tomorrow comes it is going to be a good one. We let the world know that Megalobe is manufacturing MIs. Like any new invention we take all needed precautions against industrial espionage. And get the production lines rolling at once. The more MIs there are out there the safer I and Sven are. I doubt if the people behind the theft and killings will be out for revenge, but I’ll still take all the precautions that any engineer with technical knowledge would. What do you think?”

“That it will work!” Ben shouted, slamming his fist into his palm. “That it has to work. Those bums, whoever they are, paid millions for absolutely nothing. Let’s drink to that.” Ben looked around the room. “Got a bar here?”

“No — but I can ring down for whatever you want.”

“Champagne. Vintage. And about six sandwiches. I haven’t eaten for over five thousand miles.”

Only one thing happened that spoiled Brian’s complete satisfaction. The press no longer mobbed the hotel; police were at the front entrance and admitted only other guests and journalists he had made appointments with. He had eaten enough meals in hotel rooms so he joined Ben next morning in the restaurant for breakfast.

“Where’s Sven?” Ben asked. “I thought he liked publicity and his newfound freedom?”

“He does. But he discovered that Stockholm has phone numbers for what is called therapeutic sexual conversation. So he is both practicing his Swedish and doing research into human sexual practices.”

“Oh, Alan Turing, would you were but alive in this hour!”

They were finishing a second pot of coffee when Shelly came into the dining room, looked around, then walked slowly over to their table. Ben stood up before her.

“I don’t think you’re wanted here — even if Military Intelligence managed to get you past the police.”

“I’m here on my own, Ben. No one helped me. I simply registered in the hotel. And if you don’t mind, I would like to hear Brian tell me to leave. I want to talk to him — not you.”

Brian half stood, his face red, his fists clamped. Then he dropped back into the chair and ordered the anger to drain away.

“Let her stay, Ben. This will have to be done sooner or later.”

“I’ll be in my room.” The big man turned away and left them alone.

“May I sit down?”

“Yes. And answer one question—”

“Why did I do it? Why did I betray you? I’m here because I want to tell you about that.”

“I’m listening.”

“I hate it when your voice gets cold like that, your face freezes. More like a machine than a man—”

Tears rolled down her cheeks and she dabbed at them angrily. Brought herself under control.

“Please try to understand. I am a serving officer in the United States Air Force. I took an oath — and I can’t betray it. When I went to Los Angeles to see my father, that was when General Schorcht sent for me. He gave me an order. I obeyed it. It’s as simple as that.”

“That is not very simple at all. At the Nuremberg trials—”

“I know what you are going to say. That I am no better than the Nazis who were ordered to murder Jews — and did so. They tried to escape justice by saying they were just obeying orders.”

“You said it, I didn’t.”

“Perhaps they had little choice, they did what everyone else was doing. I’m not defending them — just trying to explain what I did. I had a choice. I could have resigned my commission, walked right out of there. I wouldn’t have been shot.”

“Then you must have agreed with the order to lie to me — to spy on me?” Still calmly, still without anger.

She had emotion enough for both of them, pounding her fists slowly and silently on the table, leaning forward to whisper out her words.

“I thought that if you escaped alone you would be in danger, I really did. I wanted to protect you—”

“By phoning from the train and telling Schorcht all my plans?”

“Yes. I believed that there was a strong possibility that you couldn’t cope, might be hurt, so I wanted you protected. And, yes, I believe that Military Intelligence should have known what you were doing. If you had knowledge that was vital to the country I believe that it was vital for your country to know it as well.”

“National security goes before betraying a friend?”

“If you want to phrase it that way then, well, yes I think it does.”

“Poor Shelly. Living in the past. Putting nationalism, flag-waving jingoism ahead of personal honor, ahead of everything. Not knowing that little nationalism is dead and world nationalism is the name of the game. The cold war is dead as well, Shelly, and hopefully soon, all war will be dead. And we’ll be free of the burden of the military at last. A fossil, extinct — but too stupid to lie down. You’ve made your decision and you have told me about it. End of conversation. Good-bye Shelly, I don’t think we’ll be meeting again.” He wiped his lips with his napkin, stood and turned away.

“You can’t dismiss me like that. I came to make some explanation, apology maybe. I’m a person and I can be hurt. And you are hurting me, do you understand that? I came to make amends. You must be more machine than man if you can’t understand that. You can’t just turn your back on me and walk away!”

Which of course is exactly what he did.

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