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Norby tnc-2

Isaac Asimov


  ( The Norby Chronicles - 2 )

  Isaac Asimov

  Janet Asimov

  Isaac Asimov, Janet Asimov

  Norby's Other Secret

  to the beautiful younger generation





  1. Danger

  Jefferson Wells sat in front of the main computer screen, trying to keep his mind on Earth history.

  "Hey, Norby," he called out, "I hope you're fixing the kitchen computer without making things worse. Albany Jones and my brother, Fargo, will be here soon and I don't want to leave the Roman republic again just because the chicken has to be basted."

  No one answered.

  "Norby?" Jeff made it to the kitchen in a fast stride-his legs were long for a fourteen-year-old-and found no one fixing the computer or attending to the cooking.

  Jeff shook his head. He knew lots of people with personal robots, but he was the only one blessed with a mixed-up robot. He basted the chicken in a hurry, muttering to himself. Then he hastened back through the living room and into the bedroom.

  There, in front of the other terminal of the main computer was Norby, his back eyes firmly shut. Jeff could tell from the dim reflection in the computer screen that Norby's second pair of eyes were open on the other side of his head. Those eyes were staring at words that moved down the screen almost rapidly enough to blur, for Norby could read faster than most people could think. This was especially true when he closed one pair of eyes in order to concentrate entirely with the other pair.

  Norby's body-a metal barrel about sixty centimeters high-teetered back and forth on his fully extended legs, the feet of which were symmetrical fore and back. His multi-joined arms, just as fully extended, had hands that also faced both ways. One of those hands remained pressed dramatically to his barrel torso. The other flung itself away suddenly, in a gesture common among politicians and actors.

  "Friends, Romans, countrymen," intoned Norby in a voice a little too deep to be natural to him, the words sounding through a hidden speaker in his unremovable domed hat. Norby always talked through his hat, which lifted only far enough to show his four remarkably human eyes. He proceeded to raise his outstretched arm and point at the computer terminal as if it were an audience.

  "Lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…"

  "I'll bury you." Jeff said, "if you don't fix the kitchen computer in a hurry."

  Norby opened his back eyelids and blinked at Jeff. "It's such a boring machine, Jeff. It doesn't know any Shakespeare."

  "I think that means you haven't figured out how to repair it yet."

  "And it doesn't like me. It thinks I'm alien."

  "The kitchen computer has no feelings and practically no brains. There's no use bragging to it about how your first owner put alien parts in you."

  "Oh," said Norby. "Then don't you think I should avoid associating with inferior machines? Don't you think I should improve the quality of my mental data bank by studying?"

  Jeff groaned. "You could at least study real history. All you do is indulge yourself in Shakespeare or try to remember how to get to whatever alien planet your alien parts came from."

  "Well, you won't find it. You humans haven't even settled beyond your own solar system, and you haven't developed telepathy…"

  "Great galaxy! What's the use of you being able to communicate with me telepathically if you're not going to use it to help me learn history quicker?" Jeff stomped back to the kitchen and set about mashing the potatoes, a job the kitchen computer was supposed to do.

  Norby pattered after Jeff, his telescopic legs almost completely withdrawn so that he seemed very small and humble. "You don't seem grateful that I succeeded in helping you pass the Martian Swahili exam."

  "Right now I need help with history," said Jeff, thumping the bowl so hard that a bit of unmashed potato flew up and hit him on the nose. Exasperated, Jeff rolled his eyes upward and saw that more potato was stuck on the ceiling. "For a supposed teaching robot, you probably haven't learned one bit of history yourself."

  "I have too. I'll prove it to you."

  Jeff never had a chance to ask Norby what he meant, because at that moment the door speaker buzzed to attract attention. Then it announced, "Cadet Wells-Admiral Yobo is here to see you."

  "He's here, on Earth? To see-me? Let him in!"

  Jeff dashed into the living room, forgetting the large plastic apron he had tied around his waist. Norby, retracting his legs all the way inside his barrel, made use of his personal antigrav to sail through the air beside him.

  Jeff's legs tangled with a scatter rug and he sat down abruptly, while Norby hovered over his head and made an odd sound.

  "Are you laughing at me?" Jeff asked through clenched teeth.

  "That's an interesting question," said Norby. "Let me see if the facts correlate. Number one, I do have emotive circuits, and number two, you do look rather funny…"

  "That's enough," said Jeff, scrambling to his feet. "Robots manufactured in this solar system do not have emotive circuits or a perverted sense of humor. I order you to go into the bedroom, and don't come out until you've learned history-or how to cook."

  Norby shut his back eyes at Jeff, went into the bedroom, and slammed the door shut.

  "Hello, Admiral," Jeff said as he opened the door to the hall. "Welcome to my apartment."

  Boris Yobo was big and his enormous black hand engulfed Jeff's in a hearty shake that seemed to loosen Jeff's shoulder from his body.

  "Cadet," he rumbled, "where's that brother of yours? I haven't been able to reach him." Yobo took off a plain civilian coat to reveal a splendid uniform, weighed down with solid rows of medals, most of which could be worn only by the head of the Federation's Space Command.

  Jeff was sure that Admiral Yobo was not in the habit of paying calls on Space Academy cadets-not even orphaned ones-nor even on their older brothers who happened to work as agents for the Space Command. Especially unannounced calls. "Fargo should be here soon for dinner, Admiral."

  Yobo sniffed. "Whatever it is, it smells good after the synthomeals they've been feeding me at the meetings I've been attending. If we continue to eat those meals we'll never work out ways of controlling this new batch of pirates plundering the solar system. In fact, I'd be tempted to join them myself."

  He sniffed again. "Your Earth food doesn't have quite the tang of the stuff we grow under domes in the Mars Colony. Personally, I don't think you Earth people know how to season properly. Shall I demonstrate?"

  "It's almost done, sir," Jeff said, "so it's too late for improvements." Admiral Yobo was known for his exotic gourmet taste in food, and once a dish suited his fancy, it was inedible to anyone else. "Would it be all right for me to know why you are here?"

  "Smells like roast chicken."

  "And left-over meatloaf. Albany Jones is coming, too."

  "You can have the meatloaf, but the chicken would suit me well. I suppose, Cadet, you want to know why I didn't phone first."

  Yobo sat on the couch heavily and didn't wait for Jeff to reply. "For all I know," he said, "your phone is tapped by spies from the Inventors Union. They're a difficult, proud and powerful group, and they're determined to get the secret of miniaturized-antigravity devices like Norby's. That's why I've come here secretly to warn you that the Inventors Union may try to kidnap your robot. Maybe soon."

  "No!" said Jeff. "They'll want to take Norby apart. I'm not going to let them."

  Yobo said, "The Inventors Union is working around the clock to discover how to make miniantigrav units, and they're getting impatient. So are some others. Everyone's tired of antigrav units so big that only a six-person vehicle
can accommodate them. Even I'm tired of them. Now either that old, mad spacer, McGillicuddy, invented miniantigrav, or he found it on an alien spaceship that nobody else can find and used it when he constructed Norby. Since McGillicuddy's been dead for years, there's only Norby left to work with. You know, Jeff, I'm fond of Norby, but surely you understand that the needs of the Federation…"

  "Norby doesn't know how he does it, Admiral, and he doesn't remember an alien ship."

  "He doesn't have to know or remember. My scientists at the Space Command could analyze his workings down to subatomic levels…"

  "No"' said Jeff. "No-sir! I won't allow it. Norby is my property." He shoved both hands through his curly brown hair.

  The phone rang with the family call signal.

  Relieved at the interruption, Jeff said, "Wells answering."

  The screen lit up to show Farley Gordon Wells-twenty-four-years-old, athletically wiry, a little taller than Jeff, his eyes blue, his hair wavy and dark. Behind Fargo was a strikingly attractive girl in a Manhattan police uniform. She was beautiful, and she looked happy in a way (it seemed to Jeff) that most women looked when they were around Fargo.

  "Hello, kid monster," said Fargo. "I'm still at the precinct. I'm afraid I'll be late."

  "Hello, geriatrics case," said Jeff. "You always are."

  "Albany's fault. Her professional responsibilities required her to foil a holdup with some high-powered karate, which made it necessary for her to change uniforms and…" Fargo's eyebrows suddenly elevated. "Is that Admiral Yobo behind you? What have I done?"

  "Probably a great deal," said Yobo, "but nothing I'm aware of at the moment. This is a social call. Space home life gets boring, even in a spome as big as Space Command. Don't you remember my suggesting dinner when I was in New York for meetings?"

  Fargo's eyebrows came down and closed together, "Is this the week you're having meetings in Manhattan? When I'm in love?"

  "Just for this week?" asked Albany, her beautiful eyes crinkling.

  "Bring some TGAF candy with you when you come, Fargo," said Jeff.

  "Sure," said Fargo, with a grin. "You'd better start dinner without us, though I won't be expecting too much left over with the Admiral there."

  The phone shut off.

  "TGAF," said Jeff, "is our private family code. It stands for 'The Game's A-Foot'. It means trouble so Fargo understands that you're here on business, not a social call."

  Yobo sighed, and sat down at the table. "I know that private family code of yours. I wish you had one that indicates big trouble, because your romantic brother believes he can always talk himself out of danger, and we may need more than talk this time."

  "Are we going to need weapons?" asked Jeff.

  "I'm not sure, but we had better be ready. I don't know when or where-or even, if-the Inventors Union is likely to strike, but we've got to prepare for the worst." The admiral stopped talking and sniffed. "You're letting the chicken dry out," he said.

  "Norby," called Jeff, "serve the chicken!"

  There was no answer and Jeff flung open the bedroom door. "That crazy barrel has gone again!"

  "Taken off into hyperspace?" asked Yobo.

  "He must have. I hurt his feelings-or maybe he needed to refuel. That's where he does it. What are we going to do?"

  "About Norby? Nothing. The chicken comes first," said Yobo, heading for the kitchen.

  During dinner, Jeff managed to make his way through half a drumstick with an almost total lack of appetite as he waited for Norby to return. Finally he said, "Sir, I'm afraid that Norby may have overheard you. He's a pretty brave robot, but he does have this prejudice against being taken apart, and he may have gone into hyperspace to save himself. I can't communicate with him when he's there, and he's supposed to tell me when he's going."

  "Indeed?" said Yobo, who had already demolished his drumstick and a mountain of mashed potatoes and was slicing himself a helping of white meat. "Since there's nothing we can do about it, let's finish dinner. I'm sure he'll come back because it will get lonely out there after a while." Admiral Yobo attacked the chicken again. Between bites he said, "But see here. Everyone knows about Norby's personal antigrav. But only you and your brother and I know about Norby's secret ability to enter hyperspace with his built-in hyperdrive mechanism. If the greedy Inventors Union finds out about his hyperdrive, added to his miniantigrav, they'll tear the solar system apart to get it."

  "Fargo thinks Norby's ability to travel in hyperspace is related to his miniantigrav," Jeff said. "So it's all one secret talent of Norby's."

  "What Fargo thinks doesn't mean a thing. The only way to keep the Inventors Union away from Norby is to arrange to have my own scientists…"

  "Please, sir-"

  "Cadet," thundered Yobo, "you know that eventually someone has to examine Norby, and it might as well be my scientists. He's too valuable to be just the pet robot of a boy."

  Jeff stared at the admiral in horror. He's the enemy, too, he thought to himself. What do I do?

  There was no time to wonder if any answer to that question existed because at that moment there was a loud thump in the bedroom.

  "Norby?" asked Jeff, getting up from his chair. He felt a wash of relief sweep over him at the thought that his robot might be back. Yet a feeling of fear came almost immediately afterward at the thought of what Yobo might do.

  Following the thump, however, there was a more complicated noise, a very strange one. Strange, that is, to be heard in an apartment in the sovereign nation of Manhattan, USA sector of the Terran Federation.

  "Jeff, that was a rather disturbing growl," Yobo said. "Have you got an animal in there? It sounded like a large one."

  "Not that I know of, sir…Norby!"

  A small barrel shot out of the bedroom into Jeff's outstretched arms. Norby's hat tilted back and a pair of wide-open eyes looked up.

  "It's not my fault!" said Norby.

  Jeff's lips tightened. Norby said that frequently, and usually, it wasn't true.

  Something followed Norby into the living room. It was sand-colored. It looked hungry. And it had the beginnings of a mane.

  "Space and time!" said Yobo, in a husky whisper, "it's a lion. I've been meaning to get around to visiting the Africa of my ancestors, but I have no great desire to have this portion of it visit me."

  "Norby, what have you done?" Jeff asked, scarcely able to force the words out.

  The lion advanced slowly into the room.

  2. Getting Away

  "It's only a small lion," said Norby plaintively. "Just a cub."

  "A cub, my foot!" said Jeff, who was clutching Norby and backing toward the kitchen door. "It's almost full-grown and you know it. Where did you get it?"

  "In a sort of zoo," said Norby. "It jumped on me and came with me when I went into hyperspace to get home. It wasn't my fault. It followed me."

  Admiral Yobo grunted and stood up. Slowly, majestically, he picked up the chair on which he had been sitting and held it in front of him, the legs pointing at the advancing lion. He moved around the table until he was standing in front of Jeff, shielding him.

  The lion roared, and Yobo brandished the chair menacingly. The lion snarled and lifted one broad paw.

  Norby's hat slammed down until his head had disappeared inside the barrel. His arms and legs sucked inward as well, so that only the metal barrel remained in view.

  "Coward," muttered Jeff, but he might have been talking to himself. He was ashamed that he was not defending his own admiral as a space cadet should, instead of vice versa.

  The lion's uplifted paw showed its claws as he hit out at the chair leg.

  "Get back, you fatuous feline," shouted Yobo, stamping his foot as he pushed the chair forward.

  "What zoo?" Jeff asked Norby as the lion began to alternately growl and roar.

  "Not a nice one," came the words through the hat. "Very bad."

  "I can see that," said Jeff. "The lion looks underfed."

  "Cadet!" roared Yobo,
louder and deeper than the lion. "Stop practicing the fine art of conversation by making diagnostic comments. Do something. Get into the kitchen and send for help. My ancestors might have battled lions, but not while wearing dress uniforms. I don't plan to get down to hand-to-paw wrestling with this beast. It looks as though it might have fleas."

  The lion sprang and Yobo met it with the chair and forced it back. It snarled again and the muscles in its haunches bunched as if it were about to spring again, possibly over the chair.

  Jeff put Norby down and ran to the table. The lion, possibly surprised at the sudden movement, stopped snarling at the admiral and turned its menacing yellow eyes on Jeff, who snatched up what was left of the roast chicken and threw it at the lion.

  "A dubious accomplishment," said Yobo, as the lion retreated to a corner and began to devour the chicken, bones and all. "You've bought a little time, at the cost of feeding my dinner to that underfed, oversized cat. Now get to the phone and…"

  The door speaker interrupted. "Fargo and Albany are here," it announced.

  Since Fargo's thumbprints were keyed to the lock, Jeff didn't have to let him in.

  As she entered the apartment, Albany gasped, reached automatically for her gun, and stopped the motion midway. "Drat! No gun," she said turning to Fargo, "Well, you loquacious lout, you're the one who tells me it isn't dainty to wear a gun on a date. You say smooth talk is all one needs. Well, smooth-talk that oversized tomcat."

  Fargo's eyes had lit up when he saw the lion. They always did at the sight of danger. But then they fell. "Is that my dinner that lion is eating, after I've saved up an appetite just for the occasion?"

  "It's my dinner the lion is eating," said Yobo, still holding the chair in the direction of the animal. "I came here to explain to Jeff that the Inventors Union appears to be planning to confiscate Norby as an alien device possessing great technological secrets, and Norby seems to have retaliated by bringing us a wild pet from a bad zoo."