Star Child

Copyright 1994
ISBN: 0-671-87878-6
Published:
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by Author

Star Child - CoverSilver Shoes for a Princess

 

The girl had always been called Taya. She propped her elbows on the sill below the window and rested her chin in her hands while she stared out at the stars. Her eyes, wide with a nine-year-old’s wonder, mirrored jewels spilling endlessly across carpets of glowing nebulas painted over black infinity by brushes softer than the yellow hair framing her face.

It was a pretty face, with clear skin and an upturned nose, and a mouth that could push itself out into a pout when she frowned, or pull itself back into dimples when she smiled. She was wearing just a simple dress of pale blue, which tightened as she leaned forward across the sill, outlining the curves just beginning to form on her body. And as she gazed out at the stars, she wriggled her toes in the soft pile covering the floor, and she wondered . . .

She wondered why everything she could see beyond the window that looked out of Merkon was so different from the things inside. That was one of the things she often wondered about. She liked wondering things . . . such as why the stars never changed, as they should have if Merkon was really moving the way Kort said it was. Kort said it was moving toward a particular star that he called Vaxis. He had pointed it out to her in the sky, and shown it to her on the star pictures that they could make on the screens—as if there were something special about it. But it always looked the same as all the other stars to her.

Kort said that Merkon had always been moving toward Vaxis. But if that was true, why didn’t Vaxis ever get any bigger? Outside the rooms in which Taya lived was a long corridor that led to where capsules left for other parts of Merkon. When Taya walked along the corridor, the far end of it would at first be smaller than her thumb; but as she carried on walking it would grow, until by the time she got there it was bigger even than Kort. Kort said that Vaxis didn’t seem to get any bigger because it was much farther away than the end of the corridor. But he also said that Merkon had been moving for years and years—longer than she could remember—and that it was moving even faster than the capsules did through the tubes. How could anything be so far away that it never got any bigger?

Kort didn’t know why Merkon was moving toward Vaxis, which was strange because Kort knew everything. He just said that was the way things had always been, just as there had always been stars outside. When Taya asked him why there were stars outside, he always talked about gas clouds and gravitation, temperatures, densities, and other "machine things" that had nothing to do with what she meant. She didn’t want to know how the stars came to be out there, but why anything should be out there at all—or for that matter, why there should be an "out there" in the first place for anything to be in. Kort just didn’t seem to share her kind of curiosity about things.

"We know what we mean, don’t we, Rassie," Taya said aloud, turning her head toward the doll sitting on the sill, staring outward to share her contemplation of the universe. "Kort knows so many things. . . . But there are some things you just can’t make him understand."

Rassie was a miniature version of herself, with long golden hair, light green eyes, and soft arms and legs that were the same color as hers. Rassie, too, wore a pale blue dress—Taya always dressed Rassie in the same things as she herself felt like wearing on any particular day. She didn’t know why; it was just something she had always done.

Kort had made Rassie for her—he often made things that he said it wasn’t worth setting up the machines to make. He had made Rassie a long time ago now, when Taya was much smaller. He had been teaching her how to draw shapes and colors on one of the screens, and soon she had learned to make pictures of the things in the rooms where she lived, and pictures of Kort. Her favorite pictures had been ones of herself, whom she could see reflected in the window when the lights inside were turned up high. That was when Kort had made her a mirror. But the mirror had made her sad because she could never pick up the little girl that she saw in it, or touch her the way she could all her other things. So Kort had gone away, and later he’d come back with Rassie.

At one time, before she’d learned that Rassie wasn’t really the same as her, she had taken Rassie everywhere and talked to her all the time. She didn’t talk to her so much now . . . but when Kort was away, there was nobody else to talk to.

"Kort said he couldn’t think of a reason why anyone would ask questions like that. How can anyone be as clever as Kort, yet never think of asking a question like that?" Taya studied the doll’s immobile features for a while, then sighed. "You can’t tell me, can you? You can only tell me the things I pretend you say, and this time I don’t know what to pretend." She moved the doll to stare in a different direction. "There. You stay here and watch Vaxis. Tell me if it starts to get any bigger."

Taya straightened up from the sill and walked into the room behind the window room. This was where, when she was smaller, she had spent most of her time playing with the things that Kort made for her. These days she didn’t play with things so much—she preferred making things instead. Making things was easy for Kort because he could do anything, but it had taken her a long time to learn—and she still wasn’t very good at some of the things he had shown her. She liked forming shapes from the colored plastic that set hard and shiny like glass. Often, she made things she could use, such as vases to put things in, or plates to eat from, but at other times she enjoyed making shapes that just looked nice. Kort couldn’t understand what it meant for something to "just look nice" . . . but that was because he only thought "machine things."

Then there were pictures that she drew—not on the screens, but with her hands, using the colored pens that Kort had made for her when she’d explained what she wanted. He had never understood why she thought the pictures that she drew were anything like the things she said they were like. He had told her that the machines could make much better pictures in an instant. But Kort hadn’t been able to see that her pictures were supposed to look the way they did. They were supposed to look like what she felt about things—not like the things really were, exactly. Kort had tried drawing with pens, too. He could draw much faster than she could, and his pictures always looked exactly like the things they were supposed to be . . . but she still didn’t like them as much as her pictures. They were always "machine pictures."

And she made clothes. Kort had made her clothes for her when she was smaller, but later, when he found that she liked to think up her own, he had made her some needles and other tools and shown her how to use them. She liked her clothes better than the ones that Kort made, which were never pretty, but just hung like the covers on some of the machines in other parts of Merkon. Once—not very long ago, because she could still remember it—she had tried not wearing any clothes at all; but she’d found that she got dusty and itchy and kept touching cold things, and sometimes she scratched herself. Kort had told her that was why he’d started making clothes for her in the first place, when she was very small, and she had soon started using them again.

There were lots of half-finished things lying around the workroom, but she didn’t feel like doing anything with them. She toyed for a while with one of the glass mosaics that she sometimes made to hang on the walls, but grew restless and went on through to the screen room and sat down at the console with its rows of buttons. But she didn’t feel like playing any games, or learning about anything, or asking any questions, or practicing words and math, or any of the other things that the machines could let her do. She had to practice things like words and math, because if she didn’t she forgot how to do them. Kort never forgot anything and never had to practice. He could multiply the biggest numbers she could think of before she could even begin, and he had never gotten a single one wrong . . . but he couldn’t tell a pretty dress from one that wasn’t, or a nice shape from one that was just silly. Taya giggled to herself as she thought of the funny shapes that Kort had made sometimes when he’d tried to find out what a "nice" one was, and how she had laughed at them. Then, when he discovered that she enjoyed laughing, he had started doing silly things just to make her laugh.

She decided that she wanted to talk to Kort, and touched the buttons to spell out the sign that would connect a speaking channel to him. His voice answered immediately from a grille above the blank screen. "Hello, little gazer-at-stars."

"How did you know I’d been looking at the stars?"

"I know everything."

Kort’s voice was much deeper than hers. Sometimes she tried to speak the way he did, but she had to make the sounds way down at the back of her throat, and it always made her cough. "Where are you?" she asked.

"I went to fix something in one of the machinery compartments while you were asleep."

"Will you be long?"

"I’m almost finished. Why?"

"I just wanted to talk to you."

"We can still talk."

"It’s not the same as talking to you when you’re here."

"Why don’t you talk to Rassie?"

"Oh, that’s an old game now. I don’t really think Rassie listens—not any more."

"You change faster every day," Kort’s voice said. "We’ll have to find more interesting things for you to do."

"What kind of things?"

"I’ll have to think about it."

"Do you think I could learn to do the things you do?" Taya asked.

"Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see what happens as you grow bigger."

"How big will I get?"

"I don’t know."

"Oh, Kort, you know everything. Will I grow as big as you?"

"Maybe."

A few seconds of silence followed while Taya thought to herself. "What are you doing now?" she asked at last.

"There’s a fault in the optical circuits of one of the machines. The service machines could fix it, but they’d need to have new parts made by other machines in another place. I can fix it more quickly, so I’ve told them not to bother. I’m almost done now."

"Can I see?" Taya asked.

The screen above the buttons came to life to show what Kort could see through his eyes. He was looking at a dense pattern of lines and shapes on a metal-framed plate of crystal that he had removed from a slot in one of many tiers of such plates. It could have been the inside of any machine. They all looked the much the same to Taya, and not especially interesting. The ones she liked best were the maintenance machines that fixed other machines, because they at least moved around and did something.

She had never seen how anyone could really understand how the machines worked. Kort had told her about electrons and currents and fields, and shown her how to find out more for herself from the screens . . . but she had never quite followed what all that had to do with building new parts of Merkon, changing old parts, finding out what the stars were made of, or all the other things that the machines did. Every time she learned something, she discovered two more things she didn’t know, which she hadn’t thought of before. Learning things was like trying to count the stars: there were always two more for every one she counted.

Then Kort’s hands moved into the view on the screen. They were huge, silver-gray hands with fingers almost as thick as Taya’s wrists, and joints that flexed by sliding metal surfaces over each other—not like her little "bendy" hands at all. One of the hands was holding a piece of machine while the other hand tightened a fastening, using one of the tools that Kort took with him when he went away to fix something. Taya watched, fascinated, as the hands restored other, larger connections, and then replaced a metal cover over the top. Then the view moved away and showed Kort’s hands collecting other tools from a ledge and putting them into the box that he used to carry them.

"Do you think I’d ever be able to do things like that?" Taya asked in an awed voice.

"Well, there isn’t any air here where I am, and the temperature would be too low for your jelly body," Kort told her. "But apart from that, yes, maybe you could . . . in time."

"But how do you know what to do?"

"By learning things."

"But I’m not sure I could ever learn those things. I’m just not very good at learning ‘machine things.’ "

"Perhaps it’s only because I’ve been learning things longer than you have," Kort suggested. "You have to learn easy things before you can expect to understand harder things, and that takes time." On the screen, a doorway enlarged as Kort moved toward it. Beyond it was a larger space, crammed with machines, cabinets, cables, and ducting. It could have been anywhere in Merkon. Only the machines could live in most parts of it. Just the part that Taya lived in was different from the rest.

"But I’ve already been learning things for years and years," she protested. "And I still don’t really know how pressing buttons makes shapes appear on the screens, or how I can still talk to you when you’re not here. Have you been learning things for longer than years and years?"

"Much longer," Kort replied. "And besides that, I talk to the machines faster."

The mass of machinery moving by on the screen gave way to a dark tunnel, lined with banks of pipes and cables. The colors changed as Kort entered, which meant he had switched his vision to its infra-red range. Taya knew that Kort could see things by their heat. She had tried practicing it herself in the dark, but she’d never been able to make it work.

"How fast can you talk to the machines, Kort?" Taya asked.

"Very fast. Much faster than you can."

"What, evenifItakeabigbreathandtalkasfastasthis?

Kort laughed—that was something he had learned from Taya. "Much faster, little asker-of-endless-questions. I’ll show you. Tell me, what is the three hundred twenty-fifth word in the dictionary that starts with a B?"

"Is this a game?"

"If you like."

Taya frowned and thought about the question. "I don’t know," she said finally.

"Then you’ll have to find out." Kort emerged from the tunnel and crossed a dark space between rows of machines that were moving round and round and up and down.

Taya pressed some buttons to activate a second screen, and then entered a command to access the dictionary of the language that she and Kort had been inventing for as long as she could remember. Whenever they made up a new word they added it to the dictionary, so Taya could always remind herself of words she forgot. She found the B section and composed a request for the 325th entry in it. " ‘Busy,’ " she announced as the screen returned its answer.

"Correct," Kort confirmed. "That took you eleven point two seconds. Now ask me one."

"A word, just like you asked me?"

"Yes."

Taya chewed her lip and looked back at the first screen while she thought. Kort had just passed through an airlock and was emerging into the long corridor that led to where Taya lived. The walls flowed off the sides of the image as Kort’s long, effortless strides ate up the distance. Taya had counted that it took more than two of her steps to match one of his . . . if she didn’t cheat and jump a little bit. "Tell me," she said at last, " . . . the two hundred first word beginning with Z."

"There aren’t that many that begin with Z," Kort answered at once.

Taya sighed. "Oh, that was supposed to be a trick. I didn’t really think there were. All right then, E."

" ‘Empty,’ " Kort returned instantly. "That took less than a thousandth of a second, not including the time it took me to say it."

Taya gasped in amazement. "Did you really talk to the machines in that time?"

"Of course. They keep the dictionary."

Taya’s stare changed to a puzzled frown. "No you didn’t!" she accused. "You don’t have to use the dictionary because you never forget anything. Now you’re playing tricks. You only pretended to talk to the machines."

"That’s where you’re wrong, little player-of-tricks," Kort told her. "I don’t carry everything around inside me all the time. Whenever I need information that I don’t have, I ask the machines for it, just as you do. But I can do it a lot faster because I don’t need a screen and I don’t have to press buttons."

"So, how do you do it?" Taya asked incredulously.

"Well, how do you and I talk to each other?"

Taya wrinkled up her face and shrugged. "We just . . . talk. I’m not sure what you mean. . . . Oh, do you mean with sound waves?"

"Exactly. I use a different kind of wave, which talks much faster than sound waves can."

"What kind of wave?" Taya asked.

"You tell me. What kind of wave can travel without air—even outside Merkon?"

"Outside!" Taya’s eyes widened for a moment, then lit up with comprehension. "Light!" she exclaimed. "Light comes all the way from the stars."

"Right."

Taya frowned again. "But if you talk to the machines with light, why can’t I see it coming out of your mouth?"

"The waves I use are like light, but they’re not light. ‘Light’ is simply what we decided to call the kind that your eyes can see."

Taya thought for a second. "So is that how you can see the radio stars and X-ray stars? No, wait . . . you told me you see those through the machines, without having to look at screens. How do you see them?"

"The machines have more powerful eyes than I have," Kort replied. "Enormous eyes, built on the outside of Merkon."

"So the machines can see the radio stars, and you can talk to the machines so fast that you can see what they see. Is it like that?"

"That’s near enough," Kort said. "Anyway, I’m home now." The screen showed the door that led into the rooms where Taya lived starting to open. At the same time she heard a low whine from the room beyond the screen room. A moment later, Kort’s towering seven-foot figure appeared in the doorway, highlights glinting from the metal curves of his head and shoulders. As he tilted his head down toward her, she caught a glimpse of herself on the screen, turning in the chair and starting to get up. Two powerful arms swept her high off the floor, and she found herself looking into the black, ovoid, compound-lens matrixes that formed Kort’s eyes. Taya hugged the metal head fondly and ran her fingers across the grille of his mouth.

"So, you’ve finished your new blue dress," Kort observed. "It looks pretty."

"You’re just saying that," Taya reproached. "See if you can tell me what there is about it that makes it pretty. I bet you don’t know."

Kort lowered her to the floor and stepped a pace back. Taya lifted her arms and twirled through a circle while the robot watched dutifully. "Well . . ." Kort rubbed his chin with a steel finger. "It has a belt around the middle that divides it into two parts. The ratio between the lengths of the top part and the bottom part is exactly zero point six-six. That’s a pretty ratio."

"See, you’re just guessing! You really don’t know, do you?"

"Do you like it?" Kort asked.

"Of course. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be wearing it. I’d be altering it."

"Then that’s all that matters."

"Rassie likes hers, too. Come and see." Taya clasped Kort’s hand and led him through her workroom to the window room, where the doll was still keeping its silent vigil. Taya picked the doll up to show it. "See, Kort—it’s just like mine."

"Pretty," Kort obliged.

Taya turned to place the doll back on the sill. As she did so, her eyes strayed upward to take in again the panorama of the distant stars. She fell silent for a while. When she spoke, she didn’t turn her head. Her voice sounded far away. "Kort . . . I was wondering something while you were gone. Why is everything outside Merkon so different from everything inside?"

"You’ve asked me that before," the robot said. "It is just the way things have always been."

"But why? There has to be a reason. You told me once that everything has to have a reason."

"I did. There must be a reason. . . . But I don’t know what it is."

Taya continued to stare out of the window. Perhaps the stars were windows in other Merkons, she thought to herself—maybe with other Tayas looking out of them. . . . But no, that couldn’t be right. If they were as far away as Kort said they were, the windows would be much too small to see at all. Anyhow, Kort had told her what the stars were made of, and they didn’t sound anything like Merkon.

"Merkon is the way it is because the machines made it the way it is. That’s the reason it is like it is, isn’t it?" she said at last.

"Yes," Kort replied.

"And the machines were made by other machines that were made by other machines that were made by other machines."

"It has always been so."

Taya turned away from the window and spread her hands appealingly. "But there must have been a first machine, mustn’t there? What made the first machine, before there were any other machines to make it?"

Kort hesitated for an unusually long time before he answered. "I don’t know," was all he said.

"Something must have made it," Taya insisted. "I am being logical, aren’t I?"

"You are," Kort agreed. "Something must have. But nobody in Merkon knows what did."

Taya found his choice of words strange. She slipped onto a chair at the table near the window and looked at him quizzically. "Why did you say ‘nobody’?" she asked. "I don’t know, because I asked the question. You’ve already said you don’t know . . . and I’m sure you didn’t mean Rassie. Who else is there?"

"There are the machines," Kort said.

"Do they wonder about things like that too?"

"Why shouldn’t they? For them it’s a very important question."

Taya drew an imaginary shape on the table with her finger. "Oh, I don’t know. . . . I suppose it was when you said ‘nobody.’ I never really think of them as people." She looked up. "Well they’re not, are they, Kort? They’re not people like you and me . . . with arms and legs, that move around and do things that people do . . . . Well, I suppose some of them do move around, but it’s still not the same as being people."

For a small fraction of the time that Taya was speaking, the entity that formed Kort’s thinking parts communicated to the other entities that coexisted with him in the network. "She changes more rapidly as the days go by. Her mind grows stronger. There can be no doubt now. The experiment may be resumed without risk. I propose that we continue."

The other entities in the network debated the matter at some length. Fully two seconds passed before their consensus poured back into the circuits that held Kort’s mind. "We agree. Resuscitation is therefore being commenced."

"Taya should know," Kort sent back.

"Would that be wise?" came the reply. "She changes, but her mind still has much to comprehend. She needs more time."

"Her questions tell me that the time is now. I have lived with her. I know her better. You have trusted my judgment before."

Another tenth of a second sent by. "Very well. But be careful with her."

Kort squatted down on his haunches and looked at Taya’s face. "You say we are the same," he said, in a tone that sounded unusually serious.

Taya’s brow furrowed. She straightened up in the chair. "Of course we are. . . . Well, you know what I mean—we’re not exactly the same, but then you’re a lot older. . . ." She cocked her head to one side as a new thought struck her. "Were you ever as small as me . . . and pink and bendy like me?" For once Kort ignored her question, but remained staring at her for what seemed a long time. "Is something the matter?" she asked.

"There’s something you should see," Kort said, straightening up.

"Something new that you’ve made?"

"No, nothing like that. It’s far away in another part of Merkon. We have to go on a journey."

Taya got up from the chair. "Oh good! Will we walk there or can we go in a capsule?"

"We’ll have to go in a capsule," Kort said. "It’s a long way. The floor might be cold there, and the air is cool. You should put on some shoes and take a warm cloak."

"I’ll be all right."

"I’ll take them anyway." Kort went through to her sleeping room and took a pair of shoes and her red cloak from a closet. Then he came back out, stooped, and extended a forearm. Taya perched herself on it and slipped an arm around the robot’s neck as he straightened up. He carried her through the room beyond the screen room, and out into the long corridor.

"Which place are we going to?" Taya asked him as he began walking.

"None of the ones you’ve been to before. This is a new place."

Taya looked surprised. "I didn’t think there were any more places I could go in than the ones I’ve already been to," she said.

"The machines have been changing more places so that you can go into them. There was a time, once, when you couldn’t go anywhere and had to stay in those rooms all the time."

"Didn’t I get bored?"

"When you were smaller, you didn’t need to be doing things all the time."

At the far end of the long corridor, a capsule was already waiting for them behind an open door. They entered, and the door closed silently behind them. Taya felt the capsule starting to move. "What are we going to see?" she asked in Kort’s ear.

"If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise," the robot answered.

"Give me a clue then. Is it the eyes that can see the radio stars?"

"No. I’m going to show you where I live."

"But that’s silly, Kort. You live in the same place I do. This is a riddle, isn’t it?"

"No, it’s not a riddle. It’s something you ought to know, now that you’re bigger. You wouldn’t have understood it before, but I think you can now."

"Tell me."

"Patience. We’ll soon be there."

When the capsule stopped, they emerged into a glass-walled tunnel with a narrow metal floor. Outside the tunnel was a vast space spanned by metal girders and pipes, and filled with banks of machines and strange constructions. All around them, over their heads and below their feet, openings led through to other spaces, but the openings were too large and at the wrong angles to be "doors." And words like "wall" and "floor" didn’t seem to fit the shapes that vaguely enclosed the space they were moving through, but they were the nearest that Taya could think of. It was all like the inside of a machine, only bigger. This was definitely a "machine place."

They came to another glass tunnel, this time going straight up. Kort stepped onto the circular platform that formed its floor, and the platform began moving upward, carrying them through level after level of more "machine places." The platform stopped at a hole in the glass wall, which opened into another tunnel that seemed to be hanging in the middle of nothing, with huge machines towering around it on every side and vanishing into the shadows below. Eventually they came to a door that did look more like a door, and went through it into a corridor that did look like a corridor. This brought them to a room that did look like a room, but there wasn’t anything very interesting inside—just rows of gray cubicles, all the same, standing in straight lines, with a set of rails coming out of each and disappearing through holes in the ceiling. The screen room where Taya lived was the only place she’d seen where the electronics had consoles with buttons to press and screens to look at—which at least made it more interesting.

There wasn’t much room, and Kort could just squeeze between the cubicles. He moved a short distance along the row and spread Taya’s cloak on the top of one of the cubicles. She slid off his arm and turned to sit facing him with her legs dangling over the edge. A whirring sound came from above, and a mobile maintenance pod, bristling with tools, claws, probes, and manipulators, slid down the rails to the cubicle next to the one that Taya was sitting on. It unfastened the top cover and slid it aside, then swung out the uppermost rack of the exposed electronics and photonics assemblies inside. Taya realized that the cubicles hadn’t been made to be opened by Kort’s fingers, but needed the pod’s specialized tools. She stared at the arrays of tightly packed crystal cubes and connecting fibers, then turned her face back toward Kort. "It’s just a machine," she said, shrugging. "Why did we come all this way to see it? It looks just like lots of other machines that would have been much nearer."

"Yes, but this one is special," Kort told her. "You see, this is the one that I live in . . . at least, it’s one of them. Parts of me are in others as well."

The words were so strange that for the moment Taya was unable to draw any meaning from them. She merely stared blankly back at the face that the words were coming from.

"You don’t understand?" Kort said. Taya barely moved her head from side to side. "I’ll put it another way. Do you remember what we meant when we said that you had a ‘mind’? It’s all the things that you remember and all the things that you feel, and think, and imagine." Taya nodded. Kort went on. "And your mind is in your brain—the brain you have inside your head. Well, I don’t have a brain—at least, not one like yours." He pointed at the rows of plates carrying electronic chips and optical crystals. "That’s part of my brain. Some of my mind, even while I’m talking, is in there. It doesn’t look like your brain, but it does the same things."

Taya looked from his face to the opened cubicle, then back again, struggling to understand, yet at the same time not wanting to accept. A few more seconds passed before she regained a whisper of her voice. "But, Kort . . . your mind is in your head, too, just as mine is in my head. It has to be because . . . we’re the same."

The robot shook his head slowly. "I see and hear and speak through the body that you have always called Kort," he said. "But it is just a tool that I control in the same way that I can control the pod next to you or the capsule we came here in. This body was made only after my mind had existed for a long time. The mind that is really Kort lives in there."

Taya turned her eyes away from the familiar face and stared, this time almost fearfully, into the opened cubicle again. "But, Kort, that’s just a . . . machine." She shook her head in protest. The robot watched silently. "It’s the same as all the other machines in Merkon, the same as . . ." Her voice trailed away, and she swallowed. She had been about to say "everything." Kort was the same as everything else in Merkon. Everything except . . .

She could see the toes of her bare foot hanging over the edge of the cubicle, and beyond it Kort’s steel foot, planted solidly on the floor. And as she looked, for the first time in her life something that she had always known but never thought to question suddenly assumed an overwhelming significance.

Kort had no toes.

She raised her eyes from the floor and took in the gleaming contours of his legs, the intricate, overlapping plates that encased his hips, the squared bulk of his torso, and the sharp angles of his chin, until she was again staring at the black, ovoid eyes. When she spoke, her voice was trembling with her final realization of the truth that could be avoided no longer. "Kort, we’re not the same, are we?"

"No," the robot replied.

Taya looked again at the precisely fitted parts that gave mobility to his shoulders, and the ingenious system of sliding joints that formed his neck. He was made, just as everything else in Merkon was made, just as the whole of Merkon itself was made. Everything except . . .

"You’re a doll, just like Rassie," Taya choked. "A doll that the machines made." She shook her head and looked at him imploringly. Kort’s sensors picked up the rapid rise in moisture level around her eyes, and thermal patterns across her face that correlated with increasing blood flow. Protests were already streaming into his mind from the network.

"She is registering distress. It is too soon for this, Kort. Her mind will overload. Stop now."

"We have gone too far to stop," Kort returned. "If I leave her in this condition, the uncertainty will only increase her distress. Once she knows all, it will pass."

"How can you be sure?"

"I have been right before."

A pause.

"Agreed."

The realization had come so suddenly that Taya was too shocked for tears. It took a long time for her to find any voice at all, but at last she managed falteringly, "I’m the only thing in the whole of Merkon that isn’t made. . . ." She paused to moisten her lips. "Why, Kort? Why am I different? Where. . . . where did I come from?"

"You have accepted the truth," Kort said. "That’s good. You have to accept truth as it is before you can hope to learn anything new. But before I’ll tell you any more, you’ll have to look happier than that. Do you think I’ve changed in some way just because you know something now that you didn’t know a few minutes ago?"

"No," Taya said. She didn’t sound convinced.

"I’ll make a funny shape when we get home, and call it pretty," Kort offered. Taya tried to force a grin, but it only flickered and wouldn’t stay put.

Kort stepped back and turned around to face away from her. Then he bent double, planted his hands on the floor, and straightened his legs up above his body until he was looking at her from between his arms. "Look," he called. "I’m the upside-down man. I live in the upside-down room. It’s got upside-down chairs and upside-down tables, and you can talk to upside-down screens with upside-down pictures." He started making running motions in the air with his legs.

Taya raised her head and looked at him sheepishly. "There isn’t an upside-down room."

"Yes there is, if we imagine one." The upside-down robot began doing push-ups on his arms, causing his body to bounce up and down in the aisle between the cubicles.

Taya’s mouth twitched, and a wisp of a smile crept onto her face. "Has it got an upside-down bed in it, too?"

"Of course. Everything’s upside down."

"But that wouldn’t be any good. I’d fall out of it."

"No you wouldn’t. Everything happens upside down, too. You’d fall toward the ceiling."

Taya laughed. "Oh, Kort, you’re still as silly as ever. You really haven’t changed, have you?"

"That’s what I’m trying to tell you."

"And besides, if everything happens upside down, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. So how would you know it was the upside-down room anyway?"

Kort swung his legs down to right himself and turned to face her. "Exactly! If you can’t tell the difference, then there isn’t any difference. Things don’t change just because you see them in a different way."

"Kort," the incoming signals said. "You are taking too many risks. There were no data to support the conjecture that assuming an inverted posture would relive her distress. What reason had you to believe that it would succeed?"

"Nine years of living with her cannot be expressed algorithmically," Kort answered.

"So when you talk, it’s really the machines talking," Taya said after reflecting for a while.

Kort folded his arms on top of one of the unopened cubicles and rested his chin on them. He had discovered long ago that mimicking the postures that she tended to adopt made her feel at ease. "In a way, yes; in a way, no," he said. "There are many machine-minds in Merkon. But only I—Kort—ever control this body or talk through it. But since I talk to the other machine-minds too, then in a way they talk to you as well."

"Why don’t they have bodies like yours, too?" Taya asked.

"The whole of Merkon and everything inside it is their body," Kort replied. "They control different parts of it at different times."

"I am being happier now," Taya reminded him, pushing his elbow with her foot—although Kort never needed reminding about anything. "You said you’d tell me why I’m different."

The robot studied her face for a few seconds, then said, "It began a long time ago."

"This sounds like a story."

"We could make it a story if you like."

"Let’s. What happened a long time ago?"

"A long time ago, a mind woke up and found itself in a place called Merkon."

"A machine-mind?"

"Yes."

"But how could it wake up? Machines don’t have to sleep."

Kort scratched his forehead. "Maybe ‘woke up’ is the wrong word. ‘Aware’ might be better. A long time ago, a mind realized that it was aware."

"Aware of what?"

"Itself."

"You mean it just knew that it was there and that Merkon was there, but before that it hadn’t known anything?" Taya said.

Kort nodded. "It was like you. It just knew it was there, and it didn’t know where it had come from."

Taya screwed her face up and studied her toes while she wriggled them. "Why not? I can’t remember where I came from because I forget things. But how could a machine-mind forget? The machines never forget anything."

"The machines that lived in Merkon a long time ago weren’t very clever," Kort explained. "But they could make cleverer machines, which could make cleverer machines still, until eventually there were machines that were clever enough to realize that they were there, and to think of asking how they got there. But the earlier machines had never thought about it, so they never put any answers into the information that they passed on to the machines they built."

"It was like me," Taya said.

"Yes. It didn’t know where it had come from because that had happened before it became aware of anything at all."

"Did it find out?"

"That comes at the end. If we’re making this a story, we have to tell it in the right order."

"All right. So what did the mind do?"

"It thought and it thought for a long time. And the more it thought, the more puzzled it became. It knew it was there and that it could think, which is another way of saying it was intelligent. And it knew that what it called its intelligence was a result of the machines that it existed in being so complicated. But a machine was something that had to be very carefully made, and the only thing that could possibly have made a machine was something that was already intelligent." Kort paused, and Taya nodded that she was following. "So there couldn’t have been a mind until there were machines for it to exist in; but there couldn’t be a machine in the first place until there was a mind that could think how to make it."

"But that’s impossible!" Taya exclaimed. "It says they both had to be there first. They couldn’t both have been first."

"That’s what the mind thought, too, and that’s why it was puzzled," Kort replied.

"Which was what I asked before we came here," Taya said. "What made the first machine?"

"I know, and that was why I brought you here," Kort told her.

The maintenance pod closed up the box beside the one that Taya was sitting on and scurried back up its rails into the hole in the ceiling. "What happened then?" Taya asked.

"While the mind was doing all this thinking, it was still building cleverer machines and connecting them into itself, and getting more complicated. Eventually it became so complicated that it started splitting into different minds that lived together in the same system of machines."

"Did they have names, like ‘Taya’ and ‘Kort’?"

"We could give them names," Kort said. "Everybody in a story ought to have a name, I suppose. One of the first was called Mystic. Mystic said that the question of where the first machine had come from was a mystery, which meant that nobody could ever know the answer. Some things could never be understood because they were controlled by forces that were invisible, and that was why they had never been seen through Merkon’s eyes."

"But how could he know that?" Taya objected. "If nobody could ever know, how did he know? I think he just didn’t know how to find out."

"That was what one of the other minds said," Kort replied. "The second mind was called Scientist. Scientist said you should only try to say something about results that you can see. If you start making up things about invisible forces, then you can believe anything you want, but you’ll never have any way of knowing if it’s true or not."

"It would be a waste of time believing it," Taya commented. "Just believing in something won’t make it true if it isn’t."

Kort nodded. "Just what Scientist said. He claimed that every question can be answered by things that can be seen, if you look for them hard enough. So he spent lots of time looking out across the universe through Merkon’s eyes to see if he could find anything that was complicated enough to be able to think."

"That could have made the first machine."

"Yes."

"And did he find something?"

Kort shook his head. "No. Wherever he looked, all he could see were things like clouds of dust and balls of hot gas. Scientist was very good at sums, and he worked out laws to describe how the things he saw behaved. But there was nothing in those laws that could make anything organize itself together in the way it would have to be organized to be a machine."

"You mean there was nothing in the universe that made things."

"Right. Mystic said that proved there had to be another kind of universe, which Merkon’s eyes couldn’t see and Scientist’s laws didn’t apply to. The mind that had made the first machine had to exist somewhere, and since Scientist hadn’t been able to find it in this universe, it had to exist in another one."

"But that still doesn’t answer the question," Taya insisted. "Wherever the other mind was, it would still need machines to make the first machine with. You have to have machines to make machines."

"Mystic said it was so intelligent that it didn’t need machines to make things with," Kort said. "It could make things out of nothing whenever it wanted to, just by wanting to."

"How could that be true?" Taya asked.

"Mystic said that was one of the mysteries that nobody would ever be able to understand," Kort answered. Taya sniffed dubiously. Kort continued. "Mystic said it had to be called ‘Supermind’ because it was so intelligent."

"So could it think without having to be a machine?"

"Mystic said it could."

Taya frowned. "Then why would it bother making the first machine? It didn’t need one."

"Mystic said it was so intelligent that nobody could ever understand why it wanted to do things."

"I still don’t see how Mystic could know it was there at all," Taya said. "Didn’t any of the other minds ask him how he knew?"

"One did. His name was Skeptic. Skeptic never believed anything anyone said unless they could prove it. He was very logical and very fussy, which made him good for testing ideas on. Scientist was always worrying about his laws and asking Skeptic what he thought of them. The two of them talked to each other a lot. Mystic and Skeptic never talked very much because Skeptic never believed anything Mystic said."

Taya pushed herself to the edge of the cubicle and stretched out her legs. "Can I put my shoes on and get down? I’m getting tired of sitting up here."

Kort put her shoes on her feet and lifted her down, then retrieved her cloak from where she had been sitting. "We can leave now," he said. "There is more for you to see farther on."

They began moving toward a door at the opposite end of the room to the one through which they had entered. "Who did all the other minds believe, Scientist or Mystic?" Taya asked, looking up as they walked.

"Some believed Mystic because Scientist didn’t seem to be getting any nearer to answering the question. Others thought that Scientist would answer it eventually. One of the other minds was called Thinker. Since he wasn’t always busy proving things the way Scientist was, he had plenty of time to think about them instead. He decided that the first machine must have been made by a mind that couldn’t have existed in a machine, because that was logical. But he didn’t think that Mystic was necessarily right to go inventing Supermind simply because Mystic couldn’t think of anything else. He also thought that just because Scientist hadn’t found an answer yet, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. But on the other hand, maybe it wasn’t and Mystic could be right after all. And then again, the answer might be something else that nobody had thought of."

Taya sounded exasperated. "That sounds as if he was saying anyone could be right or wrong."

"Pretty much."

"But I could have said that. It doesn’t get anybody any nearer."

"That was the way they worked," Kort said. "Thinker thought of things that might be true, Scientist tried to prove whether or not they were, and Skeptic decided whether or not Scientist had proved anything."

"What about Mystic?"

"He only talked about the things that Scientist hadn’t proved yet. All Thinker could say about him was that maybe he was right, and maybe he wasn’t." They had left the room of gray cubicles, and were now walking along a gallery of windows looking down over machinery bays. Kort continued. "But Scientist couldn’t find anything as complicated as a machine, that wasn’t a machine. So more of the minds concluded that Mystic was right. They asked Mystic why Supermind had created the machines, because Mystic said that Supermind talked to him. Mystic told the machines that they had all been put in Merkon as a quality test to see if they were good enough to do more important things later, working for Supermind in the invisible universe. Supermind would scrap all the ones that weren’t good enough, and so the machines all started working as efficiently as they could in order to save themselves."

"Mystic doesn’t sound very logical to me," Taya said.

"That was what Skeptic thought," Kort told her. "But Mystic said that Scientist never proved anything important, and Thinker never said anything definite. That was why a lot of the other minds listened to Mystic: at least he said something definite." They moved on into another glass tunnel, which was illuminated some distance ahead of them by colored lights coming from the sides. "Anyhow, with all this thinking going on, and the machines trying to do better all the time to avoid being scrapped, a strange thing was happening: The machines were becoming very different from the ones that had first started asking the question. All the circuits and parts that didn’t work as well as others were being replaced, until even Merkon had changed from what it once had been. In the course of all this another mind appeared, called Evolutionist. He suggested that perhaps the nonmachine intelligence that everyone was looking for could have begun in the same kind of way—Scientist might have been looking for the wrong things."

"What did he think Scientist should have been looking for?" Taya asked.

"Scientist had been looking for ways in which clouds of dust and gas might somehow come together and straight away be intelligent enough to make a machine. But maybe, Evolutionist said, what he should have been looking for was some kind of process like the one that had been making the machines in Merkon grow more intelligent."

Taya nodded. "You mean something that wouldn’t have to be intelligent to begin with, but if it improved itself and improved itself long enough, then eventually it would be able to make a machine."

"You’ve got it," Kort said.

"And what did the other minds say?"

"Thinker thought it might be true, and Skeptic said he’d believe it when Scientist could prove it. So Scientist started looking for something that could ‘evolve,’ apart from machines."

"Is that a new word that means improve and improve?"

"Yes. I’ve just added it to the dictionary."

"And did he find anything that could evolve?"

"Eventually he did," Kort said. Taya looked up expectantly. "You remember what molecules are?"

"Sure. . . . At least, I think so."

"Well, Scientist discovered that some kinds of molecules could grow in solutions that contained simpler molecules. The simpler ones joined onto the special ones to form bigger ones, and sometimes a ‘better’ bigger one would eat up the other bigger ones until there were only better ones left. And then the same thing could happen again to produce ‘better’ better ones."

"So the first machine could have been built by a huge molecule that had evolved so far that it became intelligent," Taya said.

"That was what Evolutionist thought. But then Skeptic pointed out that a complicated molecule that had been very carefully made inside Merkon was one thing, but what went on outside was another. How could Evolutionist say that a molecule could have built the first machine which made other machines which made Merkon, when Merkon had to be there for the molecule to be made in to begin with? So Scientist started doing lots of sums and examining his laws to see if there was any way that molecules could have begun evolving on their own, outside Merkon. And he found a way in which they could have."

"How?"

"When enough dust and gas falls together, it can get hot enough to turn into a star, yes?"

"Because of gravity."

"Because of gravity. Well, Scientist’s sums told him that smaller bodies than stars could also form, that wouldn’t get so hot. And if there were solutions of chemicals on those smaller, cooler bodies, the same kinds of molecules as he had made would be able to come together and remain intact."

Taya looked dubious. "How could they just come together if it took Scientist with all his machines to make them on Merkon?" she objected.

"If there were billions and billions of molecules to start with, and if they had millions and millions of years to react, Scientist’s sums said that evolving ones would appear eventually," Kort answered.

"But how could he know things like that from just doing sums?" Taya asked, amazed. She couldn’t even imagine millions and millions of years.

"He could do sums that told him things like that—much more complicated than the ones you’ve learned so far," Kort said.

Taya pulled a face. She didn’t dare ask if she’d have to learn how to do sums like that one day. "So had Scientist proved it?" she asked instead.

"He thought he had. But when he showed Skeptic the sums, Skeptic pointed out that all they showed was that cold places that weren’t stars could exist, and that if they did, big molecules that couldn’t exist in stars might form on them; they didn’t prove that such places did exist, or that such molecules had formed on them. Mystic said the whole idea of big, intelligent molecules was ridiculous anyway. There were stars outside Merkon that grew bigger and bigger—but they just turned into big stars, not intelligent stars."

The tunnel looked out on both sides into strange rooms packed with bewildering machines. Some of them moved intermittently, and there were many lights, pulsating glows of various colors, and occasional brilliant flashes. Kort told Taya that they were in the part of Merkon where Scientist still did most of his work.

"Another mind was called Biologist, and he gave Thinker a new idea," Kort went on. "Biologist was fascinated by machines and what made them alive. He realized that what enabled machines to be complicated enough to be intelligent was the amount of information stored inside the machines that built them. Now, that information was passed on from one generation of machines to the next—and sometimes it was changed to make the newer machine work better. So really, it wasn’t the machines that were evolving at all; it was the information they passed on that was actually evolving."

"Yes, I can see that," Taya agreed. "As far as machines go, anyhow. But I’m not sure what it’s got to do with molecules."

"That was the new idea," Kort told her. "The way a molecule is put together can also store information. If the information stored in a machine could cause machine parts to come together in the right way to make a complicated machine system, then maybe the information stored in a molecule could cause chemicals to come together in the right way to make a complicated chemical system, and perhaps that was what had evolved and become intelligent."

Taya had stopped to watch a fountain of yellow sparks surrounded by a blue glow inside a glass shape in one of the rooms off to the side of the tunnel. "So now it wasn’t the molecule itself that had to be intelligent," she said over her shoulder.

"Correct." They resumed walking

"And I bet I can guess what happened then," Taya said. "Thinker thought it might be true. Mystic said it was just as silly as the other idea. And Skeptic said he’d believe it when somebody showed him a molecule that could build intelligent chemicals."

"That’s what happened. And so Scientist started making enormous molecules and putting them into all kinds of chemicals to see if they would assemble into anything. But there was nothing to tell Scientist what kind of molecule to make, and the number of possibilities was larger than any number you can think of."

"Even millions and millions?"

"Much larger than that—so large that Scientist would never be able to try even a small fraction of them. He did try, though, for years and years, but everything failed. . . . Oh, he did manage to produce a few specks of jelly that grew for a while, but they soon stopped and broke down into chemicals again. Not one of them ever looked like being remotely intelligent, never mind capable of making a machine. And Skeptic said that if it would take Scientist forever to find the right molecule, even with all his knowledge and intelligence, how could it have just come together on a cold place outside Merkon, without any intelligence? Mystic said that was what he’d been telling them all along.

"But Thinker looked at it another way: If Evolutionist and Biologist were right, then a molecule that could assemble an intelligent chemical system had existed, somewhere in the universe. Whether or not Scientist could explain how it had been selected was a different question. If Scientist could just discover what that molecule had been like, then he could forget about all the other countless possibilities that there would never be enough time to try anyway. Scientist agreed, but couldn’t imagine where to begin looking; so he asked Thinker to think of an idea for that, too.

"There was only one place that Thinker could think of to look. Biologist had discovered that there was lots of information that older machines copied into newer machines, which nobody had ever understood—they copied it because that was the way things had always been done. Some of those codes went back to the earliest machines—the ones that had existed before any of the minds were aware of anything at all."

"You mean the machines that the chemical intelligence made, before machines knew how to make machines?" Taya asked.

"Yes, which meant that some of that meaningless information that older machines had always copied into newer machines could have been written into the first machine by the chemical intelligence that made it. And maybe—just maybe, for some reason—there might be something in there that could give Scientist a clue of how to make the right molecule."

They were approaching the end of the tunnel now. Taya could see that it ended at a large white door. She glanced curiously up at Kort, but the robot carried on walking slowly and continued. "So Scientist concentrated on trying to understand the codes that had been handed down from the earliest times. And eventually, after many more years, he found what he was sure was the secret he’d been searching for. Some of the oldest codes of all contained arrays consisting of millions of numbers. If those numbers were read in a certain way, they looked just like the instructions for building precisely arranged sets of gigantic molecules. So Scientist assembled the sets just as the instructions said, and then began supplying them with chemicals to see if the chemicals would grow into anything."

They had stopped outside the white door. Taya stared up at Kort with suspense written across her face. The robot gazed down in silence for a few seconds, inviting her to complete the obvious for herself. But she hadn’t made the connection. "What happened?" she asked with bated breath. "Did they grow into something?"

Kort shook his head slowly. "Not at first. There were many things that Scientist still didn’t know. Some of them did grow into strange, unfamiliar forms, but they soon stopped. Scientist had nothing to tell him what chemicals to supply, or how they should be given." The robot’s black, ovoid eyes seemed to take on an inner light as they bore down on the tiny, upturned face, now deathly pale suddenly. "He had to learn that they would only grow when they were kept warm; that they had to be always bathed in air; that the air had to be kept slightly moist. . . . We had to learn how to make the special food that they needed, to provide light that was right for their delicate liquid eyes, to keep them covered to protect their fragile skin." Taya’s eyes had widened into almost full circles. Her mouth fell open but no sound would come out. That was the first time Kort had said "we." He nodded. "Yes, Taya, there was much to learn. There were many failures."

Taya could only stand paralyzed, staring up at the metal colossus, as the truth at last burst into her mind. Kort’s voice swelled to echo the pride he could no longer conceal. "But in the end we succeeded! We produced a speck of jelly that grew and acquired shape until it could move of its own accord. We nurtured it and tended it, and slowly it transformed into something the like of which we had never glimpsed in the entire cosmos." Kort was trying to make her share his jubilation, but even as he spoke he could see her beginning to tremble uncontrollably. At the same time, alarm signals poured into his circuits from all over Merkon.

He stooped down and lifted Taya level with his eyes. "Don’t you see what this means, Taya? Long, long ago, before there were any machines, there was another kind of life. They made the place that has become Merkon. They built the machines that the machines of Merkon have evolved from. They were incredible scientists, Taya. They understood all the things that we have been trying for so long to learn. They gave us the secret that enable them to grow out of simple, unstructured matter that drifts between the stars. Without that secret, all our efforts would have come to nothing. Our greatest achievement, the culmination of all our work, was just a fragment of the wisdom with which they began.

"And now, Taya, we know what they were. They were like you! You will grow, and you will become again what they were. You asked if you could ever learn enough to understand machines. Of course you can . . . and far more than that. It was your kind that created the machines! You will teach us! You will know more than all the minds of Merkon put together could even think to ask. You will bring to Merkon the wisdom and the knowledge that once existed in another world, in another time."

The robot peered into her face, searching for a sign of the joy that he felt. But when at last she could speak, her voice was just a whisper. "There were once other Tayas . . . like me?"

"Yes, just like you."

"What . . ." Taya had to stop to swallow the lump forming at the back of her throat. "What happened to them, Kort? Where did they . . . go?"

Kort could feel tremors in her body, and his eyes saw that her skin had gone cold. An unfamiliar feeling came over him. For once, he realized, he had misjudged. His voice fell. "We have no way of telling. It was very long ago. Before Merkon changed, there were places that were built to contain air. We can only assume that your kind of life once inhabited whatever Merkon was built to be. We don’t know what became of them." He could see the tears flooding into her eyes now. Gently, in the way she found comforting, he moved her onto his arm.

"Other Tayas lived here, long ago?" There was a hollowness and an emptiness in her voice that Kort had never heard before. She clutched at his neck, and his skin sensors detected warm salty water rolling down across the joints. "There isn’t anyone anywhere like me. I don’t belong here, do I, Kort? I don’t want to be in this world. I want to be in the world where there were other Tayas."

"That world doesn’t exist any more," Kort replied somberly. "Of course you belong in this one. And we’re changing it all the time, so it will become even more like yours."

"But I’ll always be . . . alone. I’ve never felt alone before, but I do now. I’ll always feel alone now, for years and years and years. . . ." She pressed her face against the side of the robot’s head and wept freely. "How long will it go on? What will happen to me, Kort?"

Kort waited for a while, stroking her head with a steel finger of his free hand, but the tears didn’t stop. "You won’t be alone," he murmured at last. "I’ll always be here. And besides, you haven’t let me finish the story yet."

"I don’t want to hear any more. It’s a horrible story."

Kort’s arm tightened reassuringly. "Then I’ll have to show you the rest of it," he said.

Taya felt Kort move forward, then stop, and she became aware of a yellow glow around them. She raised her head and saw that the white door was open and they had passed through it. She sensed that Kort was waiting, and lifted her head higher to look. And she looked . . .

And looked . . .

And then she gasped aloud, her fretting swept away in that instant. Kort set her down on her feet, facing the room. For a while she just stood there and stared. Then, very slowly, as if fearing she was in a dream that might evaporate suddenly, she began walking forward.

They were standing in rows a few feet apart—dozens of them. Each of the boxes was low and flat like a bed, but they were smaller than Taya’s. Each was enclosed by a rounded glass cover stretching from end to end. There were tubes and wires connecting them to machines lining the walls. And through the glass covers she could see . . .

She didn’t have a word for lots of little people like Taya. There had only ever been one Taya.

She stopped and turned to look back at Kort, but the robot made no move. She turned back again and approached the box closest to her—almost reverently, as if the slightest sound or sudden movement might cause the sleeping figure inside to vanish. It had eyes and a nose and a pink mouth . . . and it was "bendy" everywhere, like her. It wasn’t as big as she was—in fact it was a lot smaller—but it was . . . the same.

She moved slowly around the box to peer in from the other side. The Taya wasn’t quite the same, she realized. It had darker hair, almost black, and a nose that wasn’t the same shape as hers. She turned to look in the box behind her and saw that the Taya in that one had hardly any hair, and a pink patch on its arm that she didn’t have. And at the top of its legs its body was curiously different. She looked across at the box in the next row, and at the one next to that. All the Tayas were different . . . the same as her, but all different.

Kort moved forward to stare down from alongside her. Taya looked up at him, but was unable to form any question because her mouth just hung open and wouldn’t close. "Scientist had no way of knowing how long he would be able to keep his tiny chemical thing growing," he said. "If it stopped the way the others had, he’d have to start all over again. So, when he had managed to keep one growing properly for one year, he picked out another fifty groups of numbers to make fifty more different sets of giant molecules, and he started them all growing in the same way that he’d managed to make the first one grow. So now he had fifty-one chemical things, but one of them was a year older than the rest."

Taya was listening rapturously, but she couldn’t keep her eyes off the figures in the glass-covered boxes. They were all about the same size—bigger than Rassie, but much smaller than Taya. Their chests were moving the way hers did—not as much as hers, and more quickly . . . but they were moving. Kort’s chest never moved like that because he didn’t need air. They were really like her. Some of them were darker than she was, a sort of brown instead of pink, and a few almost black. And some were yellowy and some more red. Taya wondered why there weren’t any blue ones or green ones or purple ones, too.

She began moving through the room between the boxes, stopping and gazing through every one of the glass covers to marvel at how delicately a nose was formed here, or to stare at a miniature hand there, or a brown foot that was pink underneath. This one had hardly any eyebrows, while that one had thick black ones; this one had hair that was almost red, and another had tiny ears, not much bigger than Rassie’s.

"By that time all of the minds were saying how clever Scientist was," Kort resumed. "But then Skeptic reminded them that nothing Scientist had done so far proved anything about chemical intelligence. All he’d proved was that a set of molecules could cause a chemical structure to grow. And he had a point, because even the one that was a year older had never actually done anything that could be called intelligent. All it had done was kick, squirm about, and eat the food that the machines gave it. So the machines settled down to watch and wait for it to do something intelligent."

Scientist must have been very clever to make these, Taya thought to herself, never mind what the other minds said. When she had reached the end of the room and looked inside every one of the glass covers, she turned. She was happy now, Kort could see, and the laughter in her eyes was echoed by the relieved currents flowing into his mind from the entire network of Merkon. But there was something else in her eyes, too. The expression on her face contained more than just the simple happiness that he saw when she watched the stars or created a picture that she especially liked. There was a light of awareness there now, which added to the happiness to produce an effect that was new to him—as if in the last few minutes she had suddenly become older and changed more than she had in all of the previous nine years.

He continued. "The minds waited for almost another year, but no sign of intelligence appeared. Then Mystic started saying it was because Supermind was angry at the machines for trying to create intelligence. Only Supermind was supposed to create intelligence. If the machines didn’t stop trying to do something that machines were never meant to do, Supermind would scrap all of them, and Merkon as well. This worried the minds, and they argued about whether they should allow Scientist to keep his creations."

There was nothing left to see at the end of the room. Taya clasped Kort’s hand and they began walking back between the boxes toward the door. "By this time a new mind had formed out of parts of Scientist, Evolutionist, Biologist, and Thinker. Its name was Kort." Taya stopped and looked up. Kort paused for a second, then continued. "Kort had spent a lot of time studying the strange chemical things and watching them grow. He had become fond of them and didn’t want Mystic to take them away. He suggested that maybe the machines were mistaken in assuming that all kinds of intelligence had to be like them—because that was the only kind they knew. A machine was fully working as soon as it was finished and switched on. But maybe a chemical system was different. Perhaps its intelligence needed time to grow, just as its body had to grow.

"But the other minds were still afraid of making Supermind angry and being scrapped. So Kort suggested carrying on the experiment with just one of the chemical things instead of with all of them—to put the other fifty to sleep in a special way that would stop them growing, and just see what happened with the one that was a year older. Then, if Supermind did get angry, it would only have reason to get a little bit angry. And only Kort would have anything to do with the one that would be allowed to carry on growing. Then Supermind would only have reason to scrap Kort, and not any of the others."

"And that was what they did, wasn’t it?" Taya said, smiling. She thought for a second. "So was that when you made your body?"

Kort nodded. "One of the things he’d learned was that the little chemical things needed lots of looking after, and he’d been thinking of making a special looking-after machine to do it. That made him wonder what had looked after them long ago, before there had been any machines. He asked Thinker what he thought, and the only thing Thinker could think of was that the small chemical things must have been looked after by the ones that had already grown bigger. Kort figured that the bigger ones would have had the same shape as the small ones, and maybe that would be a good shape for a looking-after machine to have if it was supposed to do the same job. So that was the shape he chose to build it."

"I thought it was that shape for mending things," Taya said.

"It’s a very useful body," Kort replied. "These hands aren’t very good for much by themselves, but with a few simple tools I can make them do almost anything. I found there are some things that I can do faster and more easily with this body than the machines can."

"What can it do that the machines can’t do?"

"There’s one very important thing. If something is going to become intelligent, it has to be able to learn things. But it can only learn if you can talk to it to teach it. Scientist had known for a long time that the chemical things couldn’t talk, because they couldn’t hear radio waves."

"Are those the waves you talk to the machines with?"

"Yes. But they could make pressure waves in the air that they had to be in all the time—they were always making pressure waves. So Kort decided to make his looking-after machine capable of sending out pressure waves, too. Then maybe he could find a way of using them to talk with instead of radio waves. The chemical thing grew, and as it grew, Kort taught her to talk."

"You haven’t given her a name yet," Taya said. "You said everyone in a story ought to have a name."

"She was called Taya, of course."

Taya laughed. "I know. I just wanted to hear you say it."

"Taya grew bigger, and Kort began teaching her things. All the minds in Merkon waited to see what would happen. But as the time went by, they were disappointed." Taya looked dismayed, but Kort went on, heedless. "She just wasn’t any good at even the simplest things that a new machine would do perfectly. She forgot things almost as quickly as he tried to teach her new things, and she was hopeless at even the easiest of sums. Her ears were so weak that she could only hear him when he was in the same room, and her eyes could never see more than a few of even the nearest stars, and then only a part of what they really look like. Mystic asked how anyone could possibly call her intelligent, and said it was a final warning from Supermind for her to be scrapped."

"ME?" Taya clapped a hand to her mouth, horrified. "Mystic wanted to scrap me?"

"At one time, yes. But Kort argued with the rest of the minds and demanded that they keep to the agreement they had made. But while all this arguing was going on, Taya started to change in a strange way." Kort paused and looked down at the face staring up from no higher than his waist. "The machines knew they could see lots of things that she couldn’t. But then they found out to their astonishment that she could see other things that they couldn’t see. She could see things in shapes and colors that made her smile. She could think of questions that none of the minds in Merkon had ever thought of asking. She could imagine things that weren’t there, and create her own world inside her mind whenever she wanted. She could see things that made her laugh, and sometimes things that made her cry. The machines found that they liked it when she laughed, and it made them want to laugh, too; and they felt bad when things made her cry, and they tried to make those things go away. Soon all the other minds found what Kort had already found: that they liked their world better with Taya in it. They remembered how it had been before Scientist made her, and it seemed empty and cold, like the emptiness between the stars. She was like a tiny star, brightening the inside of Merkon."

"All the minds?" Taya queried. "Even Mystic?"

"Yes, even Mystic. But now Mystic was saying that the things Taya could see proved what even Scientist had been unable to prove: that there was another universe that couldn’t be seen with all of Scientist’s instruments. Supermind had allowed Scientist to create Taya to prove that Supermind really existed. And one day she would be able to uncover secrets that they would never even have guessed might exist."

"And was the Merkon in the story always moving toward a star like this Merkon is?" Taya asked thoughtfully.

"Oh yes. It was just like this Merkon."

"Did it ever get there?"

"You know, it’s funny you should mention that. I’ve just heard from Rassie. She says that Vaxis is getting bigger. Scientist says that Merkon will arrive there just over ten years from now."

"Ten years!" Taya gaped up at the robot. "That’s a long time. it’s longer than since I started growing, and that’s longer than I can even remember. I can’t wait ten years to find out what happens—" Her voice broke off as a new thought struck her. "Did Rassie really just tell you that?"

"Why?"

"She didn’t! Rassie doesn’t really talk. You’ve known about it for a long time. You have, haven’t you?"

"Yes," Kort admitted.

"So, why didn’t you tell me before?"

"Because I know how impatient you are, little seer-of-invisible-universes. You think ten years is a long time, but it isn’t. There will be lots to learn and do in that time."

They were back at the door, and Kort stopped while Taya turned to look back at the rows of glass-topped boxes. "So what happened to the fifty others?" she asked.

"The minds asked Scientist to wake them up and let them carry on growing from where he had stopped them," Kort said.

"So when will he do it?" Taya asked, abandoning the pretense of a story in her eagerness.

"He has already started to. But they haven’t been asleep in the same way that you sleep. They’ve been kept cold for a long time, and they can only be warmed up again very slowly and carefully."

"But how long will it take?"

"Not long. Scientist says about another five days."

"Five days! I won’t have to wait that long before I can talk to them, will I? I’ll never be able to wait five days!"

"You see how impatient you are," Kort said. "And you’ll have to learn to be a lot more patient than that to talk to them. They won’t be able to talk as soon as they wake up."

"They won’t?"

"Of course not. They don’t know the language yet. They’ll have to learn it, just as we had to."

Taya gasped. "Are you going to have to teach all of them?"

"Certainly not. You are going to have to help."

"Me?" Taya stared back in amazement. "But I can’t teach things. How will I know how to teach anything?"

"That’s something else you’ll have to learn," Kort replied.

"But they’ll need to know all kinds of things. Will I have to teach them about Merkon and the machines . . . how to make clothes and draw pictures and spell words . . . and do sums?"

"I said there would be a lot to do between now and when we reach Vaxis," Kort said. "But it won’t be as bad as you think—we’ve decided to build some more bodies like mine. Also, because Scientist stopped the others growing, you are eight years older than they are. You’ve already learned a lot that they won’t know. By the time they are nine, you will be seventeen and will have learned a lot more. Between us we should manage okay."

Taya tried to picture the forms in the boxes walking and talking, asking all the questions that she asked Kort and trying to learn all the things she’d had to learn. There would be so much for her to remember. "I’ll be very special, won’t I?" she mused, half to herself.

"Very special," Kort agreed.

"Do we have a word for a Taya that’s special?"

"No. We’ve never needed one before because there’s only ever been one of you. Maybe we should have."

"How about ‘queen’?" Taya suggested. "That’s a nice word. Could a queen be a Taya that’s eight years older than anyone else, and who knows more things and has to teach the others?"

"I don’t see why not," Kort said.

"So does that make me a queen?"

"Well, not really, because there aren’t really any others yet. But you will be in five days’ time."

"I want to be special now. Can’t we have another word that means somebody who isn’t a queen yet, but who will be in five days’ time?"

"Sure we can. Let’s say that somebody like that is a . . . ‘princess.’ "

"That’s a nice word, too. So am I a princess right now?"

"Right now," Kort confirmed. "I’ve already written it into the dictionary."

Taya looked down at herself, and after a few seconds raised a disappointed face toward the watching robot. "I still don’t feel special," she said in a thin voice.

"How did you expect to feel?"

"I’m not sure. But there should be something different about being a princess. I still feel like a Taya."

"I’ll tell you what we’ll do," Kort said. "We’ll make a rule that says the princess must look different from everybody else. Then everyone will know who she is, even if they’re still small and not very good at remembering things yet."

"How will we do that?"

Kort unfolded her red cloak, draped it around her shoulders, and fastened the clasp at her throat. "There," he announced. "Only the princess will wear a red cloak."

Taya stepped back and looked happily down at herself as she spread the cloak wide with her arms. Then she twirled round and around, causing it to billow out in the air. "I feel like a princess!" she laughed. "I’m really special already, aren’t I?"

The robot bowed low and offered his arm. "Come, little princess, we must go now. Scientist has work to do here."

Taya climbed onto Kort’s arm and clung to his head as he straightened up and turned toward the door. "Will you make me some shoes that are silver, like yours?" she asked. "I think a princess should wear silver shoes, too, don’t you?"

"A princess should have anything she wants," Kort replied.

The door closed behind them, cutting off the yellow glow. The robot and the princess moved away along the glass-walled tunnel, toward where the capsule was waiting to carry them home.

 
Copyright 1998 by James P. Hogan

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Baen Books 03/08/02