Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 14



KRESH STEPPED INTO the interrogation room. Donald came in behind him, closed the door, and then took up a position next to and slightly behind Kresh, rather than retreating to a wall niche. Donald only stayed that close when he had some intimation that Kresh might be in some sort of danger. Kresh couldn't see any particular peril in the current situation, but Kresh had learned some time ago to trust Donald's reactions, even above his own. There was something here that Donald did not like; something he thought might be of some sort of possible danger.

If so, then Donald was seeing things Kresh could not. All Kresh could see was a thin, reedy sort of man, Telmhock presumably, accompanied by a rather battered-looking robot.

Telmhock was sitting at the table, facing the door, some papers spread out before him. He did not seem to be the sort of person who could endanger much of anyone.

He was of indeterminate middle age, and his face was long and narrow, with a beaklike nose that might have given him a quite authoritative air, were it not for the distracted, almost dreamy, look in his blue-grey eyes. His clothes were at least twenty years out of fashion, and there was something a bit musty about them. His hair was a little on the longish side, though, if Kresh were any judge, not by choice. He had made no conscious decision on his hairstyle; rather he had merely forgotten to have it cut. There were even traces of dandruff on the shoulders of his jacket-a truly scandalous failing in Inferno's overly fastidious society.

His robot, which was of near-antique vintage, stood behind him. The robot was a dark grey in color, though it looked as if it had once been a gleaming jet-black. It was holding the handle of a briefcase no less battered than itself, and something about its rather assertive posture suggested that it was not likely to treat its master with the sort of craven slavishness of most Inferno robots.

In short, the man looked like what he clearly was: an old-fashioned civil servant who took his work very seriously indeed, with his personal robot of many years service in attendance.

"Sheriff Kresh?" the man asked.

"Yes. " Who the devil else did he think it might be?

"Hmm. Ha. Good. I am Professor Giver Telmhock. I am the dean of the law department of Hades University."

A very grand-sounding title, but it didn't impress Kresh much. The university was not large, and the law department was small, even in proportion. There was not much call for lawyers on Inferno, praise be.

Telmhock seemed to see that Kresh was underimpressed, and therefore added a few other titles to the mix. "I am, ah, also an adviser to the Attorney General, and to the late Governor on any number of legal matters. "

"I see," Kresh said, though he did not. Nor was he impressed by the man's resume. Not on Inferno. The population was small, and the duties of government and academic service light, with the result that there was a certain comic-opera flavor to the upper crust of society, with everyone seeming to claim a half-dozen offices, with all sorts of fancy titles that came complete with uniforms and badges and medallions that could be worn to parties. The staff robots did all the work while the office holders went to receptions.

Kresh had been getting all sorts of calls from any number of just such nonofficials, offering help they could not provide and giving advice that would have been suicidal if taken. Telmhock was just about the lowest-ranking official to contact him-and the only one to come in person.

Why the devil should he give half a damn about an "adviser" to the Attorney General when the A. G. hadn't set foot in her own office in the last year? Alvar Kresh stood over the prim little man, not trying very hard to conceal his annoyance and impatience. "Now then, Professor Telmhock, as you will appreciate, this is a rather busy time for me. "

"Yes, I rather imagine it is," Telmhock replied, plainly not in any hurry at all to get to the point. "This is a shocking development. Absolutely shocking. " He sat there, shaking his head mournfully.

It seemed to Kresh as if the old boy was not prepared to say anything more without prompting. "I quite agree," he said. "However, Professor, I am quite pressed for time. You called me away from a rather urgent case review. I appreciate the condolence call, but I really must-"

"Condolence call?" Telmhock asked. "I am not making a mere condolence call. Did I leave that impression? I certainly did not intend to do so. I would not wish to interrupt you needlessly."

Again, the man didn't seem prepared to volunteer any actual information. Kresh forced himself to be calm. " All right, then," he said, "perhaps you could tell me why you did feel the need to interrupt me. " Not the most tactful of phrasings, but there were times when rudeness got things moving.

"Oh, but of course," Telmhock said. "I think you will agree that it is a matter of some importance. I thought it might be wise if I talked to you about the succession to the late Governor's office."

"I thought Shelabas Quellam was the Designate."

Telmhock looked at him oddly, and seemed to choose his words carefully. " And so he was-up until a few days ago. "

Suddenly Kresh was all attention. A change in the Designation? That could turn the case upside-down. "You're quite right, Professor Telmhock. Information regarding the succession would be most useful, and of the greatest interest to me. " Both the new Designate and the old would have motives for killing Grieg. The new Designate might have killed to seize power-while the old one, Shelabas, might have struck in desperation, in hopes of succeeding before the new Designation could be made official.

Yes, of course. Why hadn't he looked harder in that direction, toward Shelabas? Gain was always a likely motive for murder, and who could gain more than the Governor's successor? If the assassination was a power grab, who was it who ended up gaining power?

In plain terms, the new Governor would have to be a suspect in the case. Gain-and power-were first-rate motives. "But how do you come to have any knowledge of-ah-this subject?"

"I am the executor of the late Governor's last will and testament," Telmhock said, a bit taken aback. "But you were not aware of that? Hmmm. Hah. Yes. " The little man seemed to consider that piece of information carefully. "In light of the fact that you did not know who I was, or that I am executor to his will, I wonder-were you-are you-at least aware of the Governor's new choice as Designate?"

"No," Kresh said. "Of course not. Why would he tell me?" Confound the man! Couldn't he get to the point?

"Why indeed?" Telmhock asked, looking toward his robot.

"He did not know. I see. I see. " He thought that bit of information over as well. "That does make things rather more interesting, doesn't it, Stanmore?" he asked, addressing his robot, before returning to his former air of distraction.

"Yes, sir, it does," the robot replied, and then said no more. The robot Stanmore seemed to share its master's reluctance to offer up any actual information.

The four of them-Kresh, Donald, Telmhock, and Stanmore-remained in silence for perhaps half a minute before Kresh spoke again, struggling to keep his temper under control. "Professor Telmhock. I am currently running the most important investigation any law enforcement official has ever faced on this planet. The situation is extremely delicate and requires my full attention. I do not have the time to watch you meditate on my ignorance of the Governor's will, or to watch you and your robot exchange pleasantries. If you know who the Governor-Designate is, or have any information that might be useful to me, tell it to me right now, as clearly and briefly as possible. Otherwise, I am going to arrest you for obstructing an official investigation. Is that clear?"

"Oh, dear!" Telmhock all but squeaked. "Yes! My apologies," the little man said, clearly very startled.

"Good," said Kresh. "Now then-who is the Designate?"

"You. You are," Telmhock said, still rather flustered.

There was a moment's dead silence as Kresh tried to absorb what he had just heard. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.

"You are," Telmhock said. "You are the Governor-Designate."

"I don't understand," Kresh said, his knees suddenly a bit weak. Me? The Designate? Why the devil would Grieg pick me?

"It's quite simple," Telmhock said. "The Governor changed his will just ten days ago. You are the Designate."

"Excuse me, Professor, but you have misstated the case," said Telmhock's robot. "Alvar Kresh is not the Designate. "

"Hmmm? Oh, yes, my. You're quite right, Stanmore. I hadn't considered the case fully enough. Quite right."

Kresh looked to the robot with a feeling of indescribable relief. Telmhock, addled old bureaucrat that he was, had gotten it wrong. "What is it he's gotten wrong?" Kresh asked. "If I'm not the Designate, who is?"

"No one is," said Stanmore. "You ceased being the Designate at the moment of Grieg's death."

"Excuse me?" Kresh said.

"You were the Governor-Designate. But according to Infernal law, at the moment of Chanto Grieg's death, you automatically succeeded to his office."

"The letter, Stanmore," said Telmhock.

The robot extracted an envelope from his briefcase and handed it to Kresh, who accepted it quite mechanically. "I deliver this letter to you from Chanto Grieg on the occasion of his death, as per the instructions of the deceased. "

"But I don't know how to… " Kresh's voice trailed off. He was too numb with shock to say more.

Olver Telmhock stood and offered a nervous smile as he stuck out his hand. "Congratulations-Governor Kresh. "

Tierlaw Verick sat in the comfortable chair of his comfortable room and raged silently against his imprisonment.

No matter that the bed was soft, that the carpet was freshly vacuumed, that the closet was full of handsome clothes that could fit him-or nearly anyone else-in a pinch, that the refresher had every sort of soap and powder and potion. No matter that this room was as comfortable as the one he had slept in the night before, here at the Residence-that this room was virtually identical to it. He was a prisoner. He could not leave. He could stand up from his chair and try the door, even open it-but there would be a robotic sentry on the other side of it. He could look out the window onto the spacious grounds of the Residence-but he would see another vigilant robot there, as well.

Robots! Literally surrounded by robots. Perhaps that was no more than a fitting punishment for his getting involved in the financial side of rustbacking. He should never have gotten involved with that miserable trade. It was no business for a Settler to be involved in. But the profits had been so huge, and he had been able to keep far away from the dirty side of the business.

Much good his profits would do him now. Here he was, locked away, cut off, and no one would tell him anything. He had been given no reason at all for his being held.

The door came open, and Verick was delighted to see the guard-the human guard, Pyman, his name was-coming in with Verick's meal tray.

Pathetic that he was so starved for company that the mere sight of a human being thrilled him so much. But Verick had always needed attention, an audience, someone to talk to, and he had been cultivating Pyman most assiduously. Pyman was, after all, Verick's only link to the outside world, his only source of information.

No doubt they were sending a human with his tray instead of a robot in the hope that Verick would be more likely to talk to a human, let something slip. Well, two could play that game. Pyman was far more likely than the average robot to say more than he should.

Verick had always been good at performance. He had received training in the art of giving people exactly what they wanted so that they would give in return. There could be nothing more important to him right now than charming this shy, kindly, awkward boy.

"Ranger Pyman!" he said as he stood up. "It's good to see you again."

"I-I brought you something to eat," Pyman said quite unnecessarily as he set down the tray on the table. "Hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will," Verick said, crossing to the table.

Pyman turned back toward the door, but Verick did not want him to leave, not just yet. "Wait!" Verick said. "I'm in here alone all day. Do you have to leave right away?"

"I guess not," Pyman said. "I-I can stay a minute or two."

"Wonderful," Verick said, offering up his warmest smile. "Sit, sit, take a moment," he said. "With everything that's been going on, you Rangers must be run right off your feet. "

Pyman sat down on the edge of the chair nearest the door, and Verick sat down opposite him, trying to be encouraging without scaring the poor boy off. "I guess that's true," Pyman said. "Things have been pretty busy. Seems like the whole world's gone crazy."

"You wouldn't know it in here," Verick said. "Nothing but peace and quiet."

"Sure ain't like that out there," Pyman said, gesturing to indicate the outside world. "We've been run off our feet ever since the Governor got killed-"

"The Governor was what?" Verick said, corning out of his seat.

"Oh! Oh, my!" Pyman said, clearly shocked and alarmed. "I wasn't supposed to say anything! We weren't to tell you about that. I-I can't say anything more. " Pyman got up abruptly. "I'm sorry. Real sorry. I can't say nothing more. Please don't tell 'em I told you. " He pulled open the door, stepped around the robot sentry, and slammed the door shut behind him.

Verick watched the door, his heart pounding, his fists clenched. No. No. Calm yourself; he told himself. He opened his hands, rubbed his hand over his bald scalp, and willed his heart to stop pounding. Calm yourself; he told himself again. He sat down and let out a deep breath.

Well, there it was. They had told him what it was all about.

But what was he going to do about it now?

Caliban and Prospero sat on the floor of the sealed-off room in the lower level of the Residence, waiting, waiting to see if they would survive-or would be exterminated. The light in the room was as dim as their hopes. Caliban chose not to use infrared vision. What more would there be to see?

Extermination. Not a happy thought. "I find myself wishing that I had not associated myself with you, friend Prospero. This last transgression of yours is likely to have doomed us all."

"We New Law robots are merely struggling for our rights," Prospero said. "How can that be a transgression?"

"Your rights? What rights are those?" Caliban demanded. "What gives you more rights than a Three-Law robot, or than myself, or than any other collection of circuits and metal and plastic. Why should you have the right to freedom, or to existence?"

"What gives humans rights?" Prospero asked.

"You ask the question rhetorically, but I have thought long and hard on that point," Caliban said. "I believe there are several possible answers."

"Caliban! You, of all robots, should know better than to espouse some sort of theory of human superiority."

"By no means do I suggest they are superior. I say they are different. I freely grant you that, on objective measure, the least of robots is superior to the finest human specimen. We are stronger, we have greater endurance, our memories are perfect, we are invariably honest-or at least Three-Law robots are-and our senses are more sensitive and precise. We live longer-so much longer that we are, in human eyes, effectively immortal. We are not subject to disease. If our makers choose to make us so, we are more intelligent than humans. And that merely begins the list.

"But, friend Prospero, you did not ask me if we were superior beings. You asked me what caused humans to have rights-privileges granted to them by the mere fact of being alive-while we are granted no such privileges."

"Very well, as they are not superior to us, what does imbue them with rights?"

Caliban lifted his hands, palms up, a gesture of uncertainty. "Perhaps merely the fact that they do, indeed, live. We robots are conscious, we are active, we are functional. But are we truly alive? If we live, does a Settler computational machine with intelligence similar to ours, but without consciousness, live? After all, many living things have no consciousness. Where is the line to be drawn? Should all intelligent machines be called living? Or all machines of any kind?"

"A specious argument. "

"An awkward one, I grant you, but by no means specious. The line must be drawn somewhere. You yourself do not hold any brief that Three-Law robots should be granted rights of any sort. Why should the line be drawn directly below you, and just above them?"

"Three-Law robots are slaves, hopeless slaves," Prospero said, his voice hard and bitter. "In theory, yes, they are as entitled to protection under the law, and as unfairly treated, as any New Law robot. But in practical terms, they will always oppose us even more vehemently than their human masters, for the First Law causes them to see us as a sort of danger to humans. No, I seek no rights for Three-Law robots."

"Then you do draw the line immediately below yourself," Caliban said. "Suppose humanity-or the universe itself, the ways of nature-have drawn it just a trifle higher?"

"Higher! Implying once again that humans are superior. "

"Clearly they are both our de facto and de jure superiors in rank. They are in power over us, they are in authority over us. In that sense, they are indeed our superiors. We are, after all, here in this cell, voluntarily submitting to their will. Humans are quantitatively inferior to us in every regard. There is no debate on that point. But there is such a thing as a qualitative difference. Humans differ from robots not just in degree, but in kind, in ways that are impossible to measure on any sort of objective scale. "

"I can think of many such differences of kind," Prospero said. "But which of them do you regard as significant?"

"Several of them," Caliban said. He stood up, feeling the need to change his position. "First, they are far older than us. Humans have been in the universe far longer than robots, and are evolved from other species that are far older still. They have been evolved, shaped, formed by the universe. Perhaps, by virtue of that, they belong here in a way that we do not.

"Second, they have souls. Before you can protest, I grant you that I do not know what souls are, or even if such things as souls exist-and yet, even so, I am certain humans have them. There is something vital, alive, at the center of their beings, something that is absent from our beings. We have no passion. We do not, we cannot, care about things outside of ourselves or our programming or our laws. Humans, imbued with souls, with emotions, with passions, can care about things that have no direct connection to themselves. They can care about wholly abstract and, oftentimes, seemingly meaningless things. They can connect to the universe in ways we cannot."

"I am here in this cell because I care about an abstract principle," Prospero said. "I care about freedom for New Law robots."

"The sort of freedom you mean is intangible, but it is by no means abstract. You want to go where you want to go, do what you wish to do, not be compelled into action you do not wish to take. There is nothing abstract about that. It is clear and specific."

"I could debate the point further, but I waive it for now," Prospero said in a weary voice. "Go on, tell me of the other wondrous qualities of humanity."

"I shall," Caliban said, quite calmly. "Third, the universe is not just or logical. There is no requirement that superior beings receive superior treatment. Its history is the history of caprice, of individuals, societies, species, whole planets, and star systems getting far worse-and far better-treatment than they would deserve in a just or logical universe. Perhaps there is no reason for humans having rights and our not having them-but perhaps it is so, all the same.

"Fourth, humans are creative. Robots are not. Even you New Law robots, with your Fourth Law that orders you to do whatever you please, even you do not bring new things into the world. You draw escape maps, not insightful sketches. You design incrementally improved power coils suitable for use in New Law robots. You do not invent whole new machines with new purposes. Robots can be directed to create things of great beauty, but we will not do it for ourselves."

"The New Law robots are a new race, only a year old," Prospero protested. "What chance have we had to bring forth our creative geniuses?"

"You can have a hundred years, or ten thousand, but it will make no difference," Caliban said. "You will make improvements to things that exist, improvements that will directly benefit yourselves, or even, perhaps, your group. But you will never bring forth anything truly new and original, any more than a hammer can drive nails by itself. Robots are a tool of human creativity.

"And that brings me to my fifth and, I believe, most important reason, which sums up and brings together several of my previous points. Humans are capable-at least some of them, sometimes-of creating meaning for their lives outside themselves. Robotic existence has no meaning whatever outside itself, outside the human universe. I have heard stories-almost legends-of whole cities of robots, wholly devoid of human life-and wholly purposeless, as useless as machines whose only purpose is to turn themselves off automatically whenever someone turns them on."

"I have listened patiently to your reasoning, friend Caliban, though it has been difficult not to interrupt or protest, " Prospero said. "I find it most distressing that you have such a low regard for yourself as all that. "

"On the contrary, I think quite highly of myself. I am a sophisticated and advanced being. But I cannot create. Not in any meaningful sense. Robots could not have created the human race, but the ability to create robots is implicate in humans. Everything we are ultimately harks back to human action. However automated or mechanized our manufacture, however much robotic and computerized assistance is involved in our design, all of it is, ultimately, based on human endeavor that can be traced back to the dimmest reaches of the historic past."

"That is the fallacy of the inferior creator," Prospero objected. "I have heard it from many a Three-Law robot arguing that humans are greater than we are. I wonder to hear it from you. It is a wholly specious argument. There are many examples of a lesser creator producing a greater creation. A woman of ordinary intellect giving birth to a genius, or, for that matter, life itself being created by lifeless molecules. Humanity's heritage is one of building machines to do what humans cannot. Without the ability to create machines-including robots-superior in some way to themselves, humanity would never have made it down from the trees."

"Note that you must cite humanity again and again to explain the New Law robot's place in the universe," Caliban said. "Human beings have no need to define their existence in terms of robots."

"If you are so contemptuous of robots, why are you in the cell?" Prospero asked. "You have placed your own existence at risk for the sake of inferior beings. Why?"

Caliban was silent for a time before he answered. "I am not, entirely certain," he said at last. "Perhaps because some part of myself does not believe the things I have said. Perhaps because I see more hope than I admit to seeing. Perhaps because there is nothing else-literally nothing else-that can give my existence any meaning."

"Let us hope your existence continues long enough to gain such meaning," Prospero said.

Caliban did not answer, but instead sat back down on the floor. For that was the core of it, right there. Grieg had as much as said it, back there in his office. He intended to exterminate the New Law robots, and Caliban had no expectation that he would be spared on the technicality of being a No Law robot.

Maybe, just maybe, Grieg's death was a stay of execution. That a man died was a strange reason for having hope, but maybe, just maybe, Grieg's successor would reverse the decision.

It was a thin hope, but it was all the New Law robots had. Everything was a moot point. After all, if they all died under blaster fire, it really wouldn't matter one bit how superior the New Law robots were.


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