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Caliban c-1, Page 2

Isaac Asimov

  Humans, on the other hand: These days, the sight of blood and violence scarcely bothered Alvar Kresh. Human beings could get used to such things. They could adapt. Donald knew that was so intellectually, he had observed it, but he could not understand how it was possible. To see a human in distress, in danger, to see a human as the victim of violence, even dead, and to be unmoved—that was simply beyond his comprehension.

  But human or robot, the police saw a lot, especially on Inferno, and experience did make it easier in some ways. The paths of his positronic brain were well worn with the knowledge of how to deal with this situation, however disturbing that might be. Stay back. Observe. Gather data. Let the meds do their work.

  And then wait for the human, wait for Alvar Kresh, wait for the Sheriff of the city of Hades.

  The med-robots worked on the still form, rushing to stabilize her, ensure her blood supply, patching up the gashes in her shoulder and face, attaching monitor pads and drug infusers, moving her to a lift stretcher, shrouding her in blankets, inserting a breather tube into her mouth, cocooning her from sight behind their protections and ministrations. And that is how it should be, Donald thought. Robots are the shield between humans and the dangers of the world.

  Though the shield had clearly failed this time. It was a miracle that Fredda Leving was even alive. By all appearances the attack had been remarkably violent. But who had done this, and why?

  The observer robots hovered about, recording the images of this scene from every angle. Maybe their data would be of some use. Let them soak in all the details. Donald shifted his attention to the two sets of bloody footprints that led from the body. He had already tracked them out as far as they went. Both sets of prints faded away into invisibility after only a hundred meters or so, and he let it go at that. Police technical robots were already using molecular sniffers to try to extend the trails, but they wouldn’t get anywhere. They never did.

  But there was no missing the key fact, the vital piece of evidence. And no denying the horrible, unthinkable conclusion they suggested.

  Both sets of footprints were robotic. Both sets. Donald, designed, programmed, trained in police work, could not avoid making the obvious and terrifying inference.

  But it could not be. It couldn’t be.

  Donald devoutly wished for Alvar Kresh to arrive. Let a human take over, let someone who could get used to such things deal with the impossible thought that a robot could have struck Fredda Leving from behind.

  THE night sky roared past Sheriff Alvar Kresh, and the scattered lights of buildings in Hades’s outskirts gleamed bright below. He looked up into the dark sky and saw the bright stars glowing down at him. A beautiful night, a perfect night for a speed run over the city, something he only got the chance to do on official business, and he had to be in a foul mood.

  He did not care for being awakened in the middle of the night, did not care for anyone but Donald helping him to dress.

  He tried to cheer himself up, to soothe himself. He looked out into the night. Tonight was the best weather Hades had had in a long time. No sandstorms, no dust-haze. There was even a fresh tang of seawater blowing in off the Great Bay.

  At least he could burn off his adrenaline and his anger by flying his aircar himself, rather than leaving the chore to a robot. He took a certain pride in that. Few humans even knew how to fly an aircar. Most people felt the chore of controlling an aircraft beneath them. They let the robots do it. No doubt most people thought it was damned odd that Alvar liked to fly his own car. But few people were likely to say that to the Sheriff’s face.

  Alvar Kresh yawned and blinked, and punched the coffee button on the aircar’s beverage dispenser. He was alert, clear-eyed, but there was still a shroud of tiredness over him, and the first sip of the coffee was welcome. The aircar sped on through the night as he flew it one-handed, drinking his coffee. He grinned. Lucky Donald isn’t here, he thought. It was stunts like flying one-handed that made it all but impossible for him to fly his own car when Donald, or indeed any robot, was on board. One false move and the robot would instantly leap into the copilot’s seat and take over the craft’s controls.

  Ah, well. Maybe the Settlers sneered at robots, but no Spacer world could function for thirty seconds without them. That having been said, the damned things could be incredibly infuriating all the same.

  Alvar Kresh forced himself to calmness. He had been roused from a sound sleep in the dead of night, and he knew from bitter experience that interrupted sleep made him more edgy than usual. He had learned long ago that he needed to do something to take the edge off himself when he was too keyed up, or else he was likely to take someone’s head off instead.

  Alvar breathed the cool thin air. A nightflight over the desert at speed with the top open and the wind howling through his thick thatch of white hair helped drain away some of his temper, his tension.

  But crimes of violence were still rare enough in Hades for him to take them personally, to get angry and stay that way. He needed that anger. This savage and cowardly attack on a leading scientist was intolerable. Maybe he did not agree with Fredda Leving’s politics, but he knew better than most that neither the Spacer worlds in general nor Inferno in particular could afford the loss of any talented individual.

  Alvar Kresh watched as the city swept by below him, and began to slow the aircar. There. The aircar’s navigation system reported that they were directly over the Leving Robotics Labs. Alvar peered over the edge of the car, but it was difficult to get a fix on the precise building at night. He eased the car to a halt, adjusted its position over the landscape slightly, and brought it down to the ground.

  A robot ground attendant hurried over to the car and opened the door for him. Alvar Kresh stood up and stepped out of the car, into the night.

  There was a busy rummaging-about going on. A red and white ambulance aircar squatted on the ground near Kresh’s car, its lift motors idling, its running lights on, obviously ready to lift off the moment its patient was aboard. A squad of med-robots bustled through the main door of the lab, two of them carrying a stretcher, the others holding feed lines and monitoring equipment hooked up to the patient. Leving herself was not quite visible under the tangle of life-support gear. A human doctor lounged by the hatch of the ambulance, watching the robots do the work. Alvar stood still and let the robots pass as they carried the victim from the scene of the crime.

  He watched, his anger rising inside him, as the meds carried her into their van, and watched as the indolent human doctor eased his way into the ambulance behind his busy charges. How could anyone commit such violence against another human being? he asked himself.

  But raw, unchanneled anger would not help catch Fredda Leving’s assailant. Remain calm, he thought. Keep your anger controlled, focused. Alvar Kresh lifted his hand to a med-robot that was carrying a first-aid kit back to the ambulance. “What is the condition of your patient?” he asked.

  The gleaming red and white med-robot regarded Kresh through glowing orange eyes. “She received a severe head injury, but no irreparable trauma,” it said.

  “Were her injuries life-threatening?” Kresh asked.

  “Had we been delayed in reaching Madame Leving, her injuries could easily have been fatal,” the robot said, a bit primly.

  “However, she should recover completely, though there is the distinct possibility that she will suffer traumatic amnesia. We shall place her in a regeneration unit as soon as we reach the hospital.”

  “Very good,” Kresh said. “You may go.” He turned and watched the last of the med team climb into the ambulance and take off into the night. Good that she would recover, but it could be very bad indeed if she did suffer amnesia. People with holes in their memories made for bad witnesses. But the words of the med-robots changed the nature of the case. Her injuries could easily have been fatal. That changed a simple assault with a deadly weapon case into one of attempted murder. At last he turned to go inside the building, to see what Donald and his foren
sic team had come up with.


  “ALL right, Donald,” Kresh said as he came in, “what have you got?”

  “Good evening, Sheriff Kresh,” Donald replied, speaking with a smooth and urbane courtesy. “I am afraid we do not have a great deal. The crime scene does not tell us much that we can use, though of course you may well note something we have missed. I have not been able to form a satisfactory interpretation of the evidence. Did you have the opportunity to examine my update regarding the maintenance robot’s statements?”

  “Yes, I did. Damn strange. You did right to get the data out of him, but I don’t want to take any chances on the rest of the staff robots. I don’t even want to get near them myself. I want the department’s staff roboticists to interview them all—carefully.” Normally the police roboticists dealt with robots who had been tricked into this or that by con artists skilled in lying to robots and convincing them to obey illegal orders under some carefully designed misapprehension. A man could make a pretty fair living convincing household robots to reveal their masters’ financial account codes. It would do the roboticists good to deal with something a little out of the ordinary. “But we can worry about that tomorrow. Is the scene clear?”

  “Yes, sir. The observer robots have completed their basic scan of the area. I believe you can examine the room without danger of destroying clues, so long as you practice some care.”

  Alvar looked closely at Donald. After a lifetime of dealing with robots, he still did that, still looked toward the machines as if he could read an emotion or a thought in their expressions or postures. On some robots, on the very rare ones that mimicked human appearance perfectly, that was at least possible. But there were precious few of those on Inferno, and with any other robot type the effort was pointless.

  Even so, the habit gave him a moment of time to consider the indirect meaning of the robot’s words. No “satisfactory interpretation of the evidence.” What the hell did that mean? Donald was trying to tell him something, something the robot did not choose to say directly, for fear of presuming too far. But Donald was never cryptic without a purpose. When Donald got that way, it was for a reason. Alvar Kresh was tempted to order Donald to explain precisely what he was suggesting, but he restrained his impatience.

  It might be better to see if he could spot the point that was bothering Donald himself, evaluate it independently without prejudgment. There was, of course, precious little a robot would miss that a human could notice. Much of what Donald had said was so much deferential nonsense, salve for the ego. But the words Donald had used were interesting: “The crime scene does not tell us much that we can use.” As if there were something there, but something distracting, meaningless, deceptive. So much for avoiding prejudgment, Alvar thought sardonically. That was the trouble with robot assistants as good as Donald—you tended to lean on them to much, let them influence your thinking, trust them to do too much of the background work. Hell, Donald could probably do this job better than me, Alvar thought.

  He shook his head angrily. No. Robots are the servants of humans, incapable of independent action. Alvar stepped through the doorway, fully into the room, and began to look around.

  Alvar Kresh felt a strange and familiar tingle course through him as he set to work. There was always something oddly thrilling about this moment, where the case was opened and the chase was on. A strange chase it was, one that started with Alvar not so much as knowing who it was that he pursued.

  And there was something stranger still, always, about standing in the middle of someone’s very private space with that person absent. He had stood in the bedrooms and salons and spacecraft of the dead and the missing, read their diaries, traced their financial dealings, stumbled across the evidence of their secret vices and private pleasures, their grand crimes and tiny, pathetic secrets. He had come to know their lives and deaths from the clues they left behind, been made privy by the power of his office to the most intimate parts of their lives. Here and now, that began as well.

  Some work places were sterile, revealing nothing about their inhabitants. But this was not such a place. This room was a portrait of the person who worked here, if only Alvar could learn to read it.

  He began his examination of the laboratory. Superficially, at least, it was a standard enough setup. A room maybe twenty meters by ten. Inferno was not a crowded world by any means. People tended to spread out. By Inferno standards it was an average-sized space for one person.

  There were four doors in all, in the corners of the room, set into the long sides of the room: two on the exterior wall, leading directly to the outside, and two on the opposite, interior wall, leading into the building’s hallway. Alvar noted that the room was windowless, and the doors were heavy; they appeared to be light-tight. Close them, cut the overhead lights, and the room would be pitch-black. Presumably they did some work with light-sensitive materials in here. Or perhaps they tested robot eyes. Would the reason for, or the fact of, a light-tight room be important or meaningless? No way to know.

  Alvar and Donald stood by one of the interior doors, toward what Alvar found himself thinking of as the rear of the room. But why is this end the rear? he wondered. No one specific thing, he decided. It was just that this end of the room seemed more disused. Everything was boxed up, in storage. The other end clearly was put to more active use.

  Work counters ran most of the length of the room, between the pairs of doors. There were computer terminals on the counters. The walls held outlets for various types of power supplies, and two or three hookups Kresh could not identify. Special-purpose datataps, perhaps.

  Every square centimeter of the countertops seemed to have something on it. A robot torso, a disembodied robot head, a stack of carefully sealed boxes, each neatly labeled Handle with Care. Gravitonic Brain. Alvar frowned and looked at the labels again. What the devil were gravitonic brains? For thousands of years, all robots had been built with positronic brains. It was the positronic brain that made robots possible. Gravitonic brains? Alvar knew nothing at all about them, but the name itself was unsettling. He did not approve of needless change.

  He filed away the puzzle for future reference and continued his survey of the room. All of the room’s side counters were full of all sorts of mysterious-looking tools and machines and robot parts. Yet there was no feel of chaos or mess about the room; all was neat and orderly. There was not even so much as an air of clutter. It was merely that this entire room was in active use by someone who seemed to have several projects going at once.

  Two large worktables sat in the center of the room. A half-built robot and a bewildering collection of parts and tools were spread out on one table, while the other was largely empty, with just a few odds and ends here and there around the edges.

  Wheeled racks of test equipment stood here and there about the room. A huge contraption of tubing and swivels stood between the two tables. It was easily three meters tall, and took up maybe four meters by five in floor space. It was on power rollers, so it could be pushed out of the way when not in use.

  “What the devil is that thing?” Alvar asked, stepping toward the center of the room.

  “A robot service rack,” Donald replied, following behind. “It is designed to clamp onto a robot’s hard-attachment points and suspend the robot at any height and in any attitude, so as to position the needed part of the robot for convenient access. It is used for repairs or tests. I thought it a large and awkward thing to keep in the middle of the room. It would certainly interfere with easy movement between the two worktables, for example.”

  “That’s what I was thinking. Look, you can see the empty space along the wall on the rear end of the room. They rolled it over there when they weren’t using it. So why is it out in the middle of the room? What good is an empty robot rack?”

  “The clear implication is that there was a robot in it recently,” Donald said.

  “Yes, I agree. And notice the empty space on the center of the empty worktable. About th
e right size for another robot there, too. Unless they moved the same robot from the table to the rack, or vice versa. Maybe that was the motive for the attack? The theft of one or two experimental robots? We’ll have to check on all that.”

  “Sir, if I could direct your attention to the floor in front of the service rack, Fredda Leving’s position on it has been marked out—”

  “Not yet, Donald. I’ll get there. I’ll get there.” Alvar was quite purposefully ignoring the pooled blood and the body outline in the center of the room. It was too easy to be distracted by the big, obvious clues at a crime scene. What could the body outline tell him? That a woman had been attacked here, bled here? He knew all that already. Better to work the rest of the room first.

  But one thing was bothering him. This room did not match Fredda Leving’s character. He knew her slightly, from the process of ordering Donald, and this place did not fit her. It had the feel of a male domain, somehow. Tiny details he had seen but not noted suddenly registered in Alvar’s consciousness. The size and cut of a lab coat hanging by the door, the size of the dust-sealed lab shoes sitting on the floor beneath the lab coat, certain tools stored on wall hooks that would be well out of reach for the average-sized woman.

  And there was, indefinably, something about the neatness of this room that spoke of a shy, compulsive, tidy man, something that did not match an assertive woman like Fredda Leving. If she lived up to her very public image, her lab would be a mess, even after the robots got through cleaning, for she would flatly refuse to let them near most of it. The great and famous Fredda Leving, hero of robotics research, the crown jewel of science in Inferno, was not a compulsive fussbudget—but the occupant of this room clearly was.

  Alvar Kresh stepped back into the hallway and checked the nameplate next to the door. Gubber Anshaw, Design and Testing Chief; it read. Well, that solved one minor mystery and replaced it with another. It wasn’t Leving’s lab, but Anshaw’s, whoever he was.