The meeting of the board of directors of Megalobe began promptly at ten in the morning. Kyle Rohart was Chairman now, had grown with the years of responsibility that had been thrust upon nun. He motioned for silence.
“I think that we had better get started because there is a lot of ground to cover. Our annual report to the stockholders is due in a month and we are going to have difficulty in getting it together in time. The way production has grown on the new MI-directed assembly lines is almost unbelievable. But before we begin I would like you to all meet our new board member. Sven, I want to introduce you to the other members.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rohart, but that will not be necessary. I recognize them from their photographs, know them well from their histories and records. Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to serve beside you. Please call upon me for any specialized information you might need. Remember that I have been with machine intelligence from, you might truthfully say, the very beginning.”
There were murmurs of appreciation, even a few looks of blank astonishment from members not closely acquainted with MI. Rohart looked at his notes.
“We will begin with new products. Brian has something of importance to tell you. But before he does I must let you know that the first MI ship ever built has just sailed from Yokohama. The MI is both captain and crew, but at the insistence of the Japanese government a mechanic and an electrician will also be aboard. I know they will enjoy the voyage since they will have absolutely nothing to do.” There was an appreciative laugh.
“Another thing you will want to hear about,” Kyle said. “Our NanoCorp Division’s new molecular microscope is now working almost perfectly. As you probably know it resembles a medical ultrasound scanner — but it is a million times smaller because we are using the latest nanotechniques. It operates by sending mechanical vibrations to nearby molecules and then analyses the resulting echoes. When we insert its probe into the nucleus of a cell we can find and explore the chromosomes, read that individual’s entire genome in only a few minutes. Eventually this data will be used to reconstruct the full story of how every animal evolved. With this kind of knowledge we should be able to build from scratch virtually any kind of creature we want. For example, one of our geneticists sees no great problem to making a cow that gives maple syrup.” There were a few appreciative laughs, and some other murmurs of concern. “Brian, you have the floor.”
“Thanks Kyle. Gentlemen, I am being a little premature in telling you about a new product, but the prospects are so exciting that I felt you should know what we are working on. All credit goes to Sven for this one. It is his discovery and he worked out all of the details of how to make it into a practical process even before he brought me into the picture.”
Brian took a deep breath. “If the math is correct and the new material, called SupereX, can be fabricated — it should change the whole picture of how we use energy. It will change the entire world!”
He waited until the room had quieted down before he went on. “This all has to do with the quantum theory in physics, of what the Nobel laureate Tsunami Huang called ‘anisotropic phonon resonance’. But until now that theory has never been put into practical use. Sven has shown how to do just that. You’ve all heard of superconductors that transmit electricity without any loss. Now Sven has done the same for heat. His new material conducts heat almost perfectly, in one direction. In the opposite direction SupereX should be an almost perfect insulator. As you know the expensive modern insulations in our walls have R-values in the hundreds. According to the new theory, SupereX should have an R value of approximately one hundred million. And it can easily be sprayed on in the form of a paint — applied with a polarizing field.”
He waited for a reaction, but no one knew what to say.
“An example — if a very thin film of SupereX is applied to a beer can, that can will keep the beer cold for years. We can throw away all the refrigerators in the country, eliminate our heating costs entirely. Electrical superconductors were never very practical because they did not work at normal temperatures. But now SupereX insulation will enable superconducting cables to transmit power without any loss — even between distant continents. The possibilities are incredible. Longitudinally polarized SupereX thermal-conducting cables will bring heat from the deserts and cold from the poles. To generate virtually cost-free thermo-electricity anywhere in between!”
This time there was a real reaction, shouts and cries that almost drowned Brian out.
“Think of what the world will be like! We can stop burning fossil fuels — terminate forever the threat of the greenhouse effect. Clean, nonpolluting energy can be the salvation of mankind. The Mideast oil crisis will end for good when all the oil wells there are shut down. If petroleum is used only as a chemical feedstock there is more than enough in America for all of our needs. The possibilities are almost endless. Sven has worked out some of the development details and will tell you about them. Sven?”
“Thank you, Brian,” the MI said. “You are most generous in crediting me with the discovery, but your mathematical contribution far outweighed mine. I will begin with a development analysis.”
Brian’s phone buzzed and he tried to ignore it. When it buzzed again he picked it up.
“I told you to hold all calls—”
Why was he interested in this package so much that he had brought it over himself? It had to be important — and he wanted to find out why. Sven was doing very well here without him, and this shouldn’t take long.
“All right. Tell him to bring it up and I’ll be waiting for him.”
Brian slipped out and was waiting in the outer office when Woody came in.
“It’s from overseas, Brian, and personally addressed to you. Since you went off to Europe to launch your revolution I thought there might be some connection.”
“Might be. Where is it from?”
“The return address on this says Schweitzer Volksbank in St. Moritz.”
“I was there once, but didn’t go near any bank… St. Moritz — let me see that!”
He tore off the wrapping and a videocassette dropped onto the bench.
“That’s what it looked like in the X rays. Any message with it?”
“This is message enough. It says ‘play me’ loud and clear.” He weighed it in his hand, looked at Woody’s dark, stolid face. “I must look at this alone. Your suspicions were right — it is important. But I can’t break a promise so I can’t tell you why right now. But I will make another one. I’ll let you know what it is about just as soon as I can.”
“You do just that. Don’t see I have any choice.” Then he frowned. “Don’t do anything stupid, hear?”
“Loud and clear. Thanks.”
He went into the first empty office, closed the door and slipped the cassette into the machine. The screen flickered and cleared and showed a familiar book-lined study. Dr. Bociort was in his armchair. He raised a hand to the camera and spoke.
“I am saying good-bye, Brian. Or rather I have said good-bye sometime ago, since I made this recording soon after we met. I am an old man and filled with years — and mortal as the next. This recording has been left with my bank, which has instructions laid out in my will to post it to you after my demise. Therefore, you might say that I speak from the grave, as it were.
“When we met here I must now admit that I withheld one rather important bit of information from you. I do beg your forgiveness since it was done from pure selfishness. Had I revealed it, and had it led in turn to your discovering who your enemies are — that might have led in turn to my own death. We know they stop at nothing.
“I will talk no more about that. What I wish to tell you is that J. J. Beckworth is alive and living here in Switzerland. A country that specializes in anonymity and the keeping of secrets. It was only by accident that I saw him, coming out of a bank in Bern. Pure chance that he did not see me first. I of course no longer go to Bern, that is the reason I am here in St. Moritz. However, I did employ a firm of reliable investigators who located his residence. He is now living in a very expensive suburb of Bern under the name of Bigelow. I will read his address out to you and then I will say not
Brian broke the stunned silence that followed Bociort’s words with a cry of excitement.
“He’s alive — and I know where to find him!”
Beckworth alive — the thought cut through him like a knife. The one man who would know all the details, all the people behind the theft and murders, would know everything. They tried to kill me, tried more than once. Almost wiped out my brain, put me in the hospital, altered my life in every way.
He would find Beckworth, find who was behind him. Find them and make mem pay for what they had done to him. Brian paced the floor, forcing away the excitement and making himself think clearly — then reached for his telephone.
Benicoff would know what to do. He had started his investigation — now he was going
Ben was as elated by the news as Brian was — though he wasn’t happy about the terms forced upon him.
“The police can grab him after we have talked to him. I want to meet him face-to-face, Ben. I must do it. If you don’t want to come with me I just have to do it alone. I have his address and you don’t.”
“Please don’t think that. It is just the way I have to go. You and I talk to him first and then the police grab him. We will take Sven along to record everything said. Okay?”
In the end Brian extracted reluctant agreement. Brian went back to the meeting but heard little of it. There was only a single thought in his mind now. Beckworth. As soon as possible he slipped out and went back to his apartment to pack a bag. Before he was done Sven knocked on the door.
“I was going to send for you as soon as the meeting ended. I have news—”
“I know. I listened to that video with great interest.”
“I should have known.”
“I was intrigued as you about the package. Will we be leaving soon?”
“Now. Let’s go.”
They met Ben at the Orbitport in Kansas in time for the evening flight to Europort in Hungary. The flight, out of the atmosphere and then back in, took less than half an hour. They spent ten times that amount of time on the sleeper train to Switzerland. Sven enjoyed the trip, enjoyed the attention he got. MIs in public were still a novelty.
The cabdriver passed the house, as instructed, and dropped them off at the next comer. Ben was still worried.
“I still think we should talk to the police before we go in there.”
“There is too big a risk. If there is even the slightest chance that the people behind this thing have an informant or a tap in the local police department, we risk losing everything. The compromise is a good one. Your office will be on to Interpol and the Bern police in a half an hour. That means we get to talk to him first. Let’s go.”
A chime sounded somewhere inside the house and a moment later an AI opened the door. It was one of the simpler production models made under license in Japan.
“Mr. Bigelow, if you please.”
“Is he expecting you?”
“I certainly hope so,” Brian said. “I am a former associate of his from the United States.”
“He is in the garden. This way, please.”
The AI led the way through the house to a large room that opened out through French doors to the patio beyond. Beckworth sat with his back to them reading his newspaper.
“Who was it?” he asked.
“These gentlemen to see you.”
He lowered the paper and turned to see them. His face froze when he saw Brian; he slowly rose to his feet.
“Well, gentlemen — it is about time you showed up. I have been keeping track of your activities and am quite amazed at your lack of enterprise. But you are here at last.” There was no warmth in his voice; cold hatred in his expression. “So — Brian Delaney at last, and one of the new MIs. And I see that you have brought Ben as well. Still clumsily in charge of the investigation — which appears to finally have succeeded or you would not be here. Though I am afraid, Ben, that I cannot offer you my congratulations—”
“Why, J.J.? Why did you do it?”
“That is a singularly foolish question for you to ask. Didn’t you know that the parent companies behind Megalobe were about to retire me? No insult intended, they said, but they wanted somebody with more technical skills. I considered this, then decided that retirement on my own terms would be more beneficial. It would also let me get rid of the old house, and old wife — and even more boring and grasping children. I would make a new life — and a far more financially rewarding one.” He looked directly at Brian for the first, his face a sudden mask of icy hatred. “Why didn’t you die the way you should have?”
Brian’s face mirrored Beckworth’s, hatred — but hard memories of pain were there as well. He was silent for a long moment as he carefully put his emotions under tight control. Then he spoke quietly.
“Who is behind the murders — the theft?”
“Don’t tell me that you came all the way here just to ask me that? I should think that the answer would be obvious by now. You know better than I do who in the world is doing AI research.”
“That’s no answer,” Brian said. “There are plenty of universities—”
“Don’t be stupid. I was referring to national governments. Where else do you think the immense sums would come from to finance an expensive operation such as the one that was mounted against Megalobe?”
“You’re lying,” Brian said coldly, his anger suppressed, controlled. “Governments don’t commit murder, hire assassins.”
“My dear young man — have you been living under a rock? Anyone who has opened a newspaper in the last fifty years would laugh at your na?vet?. Are you no student of world history? In this particular case the French government sent assassins to blow up a boatload of nuclear protesters — and succeeded very nicely in even killing one of them. And when the plot was discovered they whitewashed the whole thing, even lied enough to New Zealand to let the convicted murders go free. Nor are the French alone in this sort of operation on the world scene.
“Consider the Italian government and their undercover operation titled Gladio. Here the politicians authorized a secret network — in their own country and all of the NATO countries as well — with the criminally asinine idea of arming groups to fight guerrilla warfare — in the completely unlikely chance that the Warsaw Pact countries might not only win a war with them and occupy them as well. In reality Gladio gave weapons to right-wing terrorists and more people died.”
“Are you telling me that the French — or the Italians backed your criminal plan?”
“Consider the British. They sent troops into Northern Ireland with a shoot-to-kill policy against their own citizens. When this was investigated by a police officer from the mainland they bankrupted and ruined an innocent businessman in order to halt the investigation. Then, not satisfied with shooting citizens on their own islands, they sent a team of cold killers to Gibraltar to shoot down foreign nationals in the streets there. Then they even sent experts overseas to teach soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most murderous regimes in history, how to plant sophisticated mines to murder more civilians.”
“It’s the British, then?”
“You are still not listening. The Russian Stalin sent millions of his own citizens to death in the gulags. That fine monster, Saddam Hussein, used napalm and poison gas on his own Kurdish citizens. Nor are our hands that clean. Didn’t the CIA slip down to Nicaragua, a country we were theoretically at peace with, and plant mutes in the harbors there—”
“Which of them, then?” Benicoff said, breaking in. “I’m not going to deny that many crimes have been committed by many countries. That is one of the nastier legacies of nationalism and painfully stupid politicians that, along with war, must be eliminated. Nor did we come here for any political lectures. Which one did you approach with this plan? Which one is behind the theft and murders?”
“Does it matter? They are all capable and I can assure you that more than one was eager to do it. Perhaps I should tell you — but there is something far more important that I have to do.”
Beckworth reached into his jacket pocket and took out a pistol, which he pointed at them.
“I am very good with this — so stand where you are. I’m leaving — but first I have something for you, Brian. Something too long delayed. Your death. If you had died the way you were supposed to I would not be hiding here but would be a free and honored man. And exceedingly rich. I’m leaving — and you are dying. At last—”
Sven roared the words, amplified and ear-destroying. Hurled itself forward at the same instant. Reaching for Beckworth.
Three shots sounded in rapid succession and the MI fell back. Holding onto Beckworth. Shuddered and fell to the ground still clutching the man in unbreakable embrace. Beckworth struggled to free himself, to raise the gun. Aimed at Sven’s head. Fired again — into the brain case.
The result was instantaneous — horrifying.
As every single branch of the tree manipulators sprung apart, largest to smallest, largest to smallest, countless thousands of them sprung wide.
Sharper than the sharpest knives, the tiny twigs of metal slashed through the man’s body. Severed cell from cell, sliced open every blood vessel in an instant. In a silent explosion of gore Beckworth died. One moment alive — then only blood-welling flesh.
Ben gazed at the terrible sight, turned away. Brian did not. He ignored the gory flesh, saw only Sven, his MI. His friend. As dead as Beckworth.
Still alive in its other incarnations. But now, here, dead.
“An accident,” Ben said, getting himself under control.
“Was it?” Brian asked, looking down at the two unmoving and silent forms. “It could have happened that way. Or Sven might just have saved us a lot of trouble. We’ll never know.”
“I suppose not. Nor will we know which country Beckworth went to. But as he said, I wonder if it really matters. It’s all over now, Brian — and that is what counts.”
“Over?” Brian raised his head and his face was cold and empty of all emotion. “Yes, it’s over for you. Over for Sven as well. But it is certainly not over for me. They killed me, don’t you realize that? They killed Brian Delaney. I have some of his memories — but I am not him. I’m half a person, half a memory. And I am beginning to believe that I am something not quite human either. Look what they took away. First my life — then my humanity.”
Ben started to speak and Brian silenced him with a raised finger.
“Don’t say it, Ben. Don’t try to reason with me or argue with me. Because I know what I am. Perhaps it is better this way. I’m closer to an MI now than I am to you. I accept that. I don’t like it or dislike it — I just accept it. So let it be.”
Brian’s smile was wry, crooked, not at all funny. “Let it go at that. As an MI I won’t have to mourn for my lost humanity.”
The wailing sirens of the approaching police cars were the only sounds that broke the silence of the room.