by William Morrison
At first they hadn’t even known that the Sack existed. If they had noticed it at all when they landed on the asteroid, they thought of it merely as one more outpost of rock on the barren expanse of roughly ellipsoidal silicate surface, which Captain Ganko noticed had major and minor axes roughly three and two miles in diameter, respectively. It would never have entered anyone’s mind that the unimpressive object they had unconsciously acquired would soon be regarded as the most valuable prize in the system.
The landing had been accidental. The government patrol ship had been limping along, and now it had settled down for repairs, which would take a good seventy hours. Fortunately, they had plenty of air, and their recirculation system worked to perfection. Food was in somewhat short supply, but it didn’t worry them, for they knew that they could always tighten their belts and do without full rations for a few days. The loss of water that had resulted from a leak in the storage tanks, however, was a more serious matter. It occupied a good part of their conversation during the next fifty hours.
Captain Ganko said finally, “There’s no use talking, it won’t be enough. And there are no supply stations close enough at hand to be of any use. We’ll have to radio ahead and hope that they can get a rescue ship to us with a reserve supply.”
The helmet mike of his next in command seemed to droop. “It’ll be too bad if we miss each other in space, Captain.”
Captain Ganko laughed unhappily. “It certainly will. In that case we’ll have a chance to see how we can stand a little dehydration.”
For a time nobody said anything. At last, however, the second mate suggested, “There might be water somewhere on the asteroid, sir.”
“Here? How in Pluto would it stick, with a gravity that isn’t even strong enough to hold loose rocks? And where the devil would it be?”
“To answer the first question first, it would be retained as water of crystallization,” replied a soft liquid voice that seemed to penetrate his spacesuit and come from behind him. “To answer the second question, it is half a dozen feet below the surface, and can easily be reached by digging.”
They had all swiveled around at the first words. But no one was in sight in the direction from which the words seemed to come. Captain Ganko frowned, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. “We don’t happen to have a practical joker with us, do we?” he asked mildly.
“You do not,” replied the voice.
“Who said that?”
A crewman became aware of something moving on the surface of one of the great rocks, and pointed to it. The motion stopped when the voice ceased, but they didn’t lose sight of it again. That was how they learned about Yzrl, or as it was more often called, the Mind-Sack.
If the ship and his services hadn’t both belonged to the government, Captain Ganko could have claimed the Sack for himself or his owners and retired with a wealth far beyond his dreams. As it was, the thing passed into government control. Its importance was realized almost from the first, and Jake Siebling had reason to be proud when more important and more influential figures of the political and industrial world were finally passed over and he was made Custodian of the Sack. Siebling was a short, stocky man whose one weakness was self-deprecation. He had carried out one difficult assignment after another and allowed other men to take the credit. But this job was not one for a blowhard, and those in charge of making the appointment knew it. For once they looked beyond credit and superficial reputation, and chose an individual they disliked somewhat but trusted absolutely. It was one of the most effective tributes to honesty and ability ever devised.
The Sack, as Siebling learned from seeing it daily, rarely deviated from the form in which it had made its first appearance—a rocky, grayish lump that roughly resembled a sack of potatoes. It had no features, and there was nothing, when it was not being asked questions, to indicate that it had life. It ate rarely—once in a thousand years, it said, when left to itself; once a week when it was pressed into steady use. It ate or moved by fashioning a suitable pseudopod and stretching the thing out in whatever way it pleased. When it had attained its objective, the pseudopod was withdrawn into the main body again and the creature became once more a potato sack.
It turned out later that the name “Sack” was well chosen from another point of view, in addition to that of appearance. For the Sack was stuffed with information, and beyond that, with wisdom. There were many doubters at first, and some of them retained their doubts to the very end, just as some people remained convinced hundreds of years after Columbus that the Earth was flat. But those who saw and heard the Sack had no doubts at all. They tended, if anything, to go too far in the other direction, and to believe that the Sack knew everything. This, of course, was untrue.
It was the official function of the Sack, established by a series of Interplanetary acts, to answer questions. The first questions, as we have seen, were asked accidentally, by Captain Ganko. Later they were asked purposefully, but with a purpose that was itself random, and a few politicians managed to acquire considerable wealth before the Government put a stop to the leak of information, and tried to have the questions asked in a more scientific and logical manner.
Question time was rationed for months in advance, and sold at what was, all things considered, a ridiculously low rate—a mere hundred thousand credits a minute. It was this unrestricted sale of time that led to the first great government squabble.
It was the unexpected failure of the Sack to answer what must have been to a mind of its ability an easy question that led to the second blowup, which was fierce enough to be called a crisis. A total of a hundred and twenty questioners, each of whom had paid his hundred thousand, raised a howl that could be heard on every planet, and there was a legislative investigation, at which Siebling testified and all the conflicts were aired.
He had left an assistant in charge of the Sack, and now, as he sat before the Senatorial Committee, he twisted uncomfortably in front of the battery of cameras. Senator Horrigan, his chief interrogator, was a bluff, florid, loud-mouthed politician who had been able to imbue him with a feeling of guilt even as he told his name, age, and length of government service.
“It is your duty to see to it that the Sack is maintained in proper condition for answering questions, is it not, Mr. Siebling?” demanded Senator Horrigan.
“Then why was it incapable of answering the questioners in question? These gentlemen had honestly paid their money—a hundred thousand credits each. It was necessary, I understand, to refund the total sum. That meant an overall loss to the Government of, let me see now—one hundred twenty at one hundred thousand each—one hundred and twenty million credits,” he shouted, rolling the words.
“Twelve million, Senator,” hastily whispered his secretary.
The correction was not made, and the figure was duly headlined later as one hundred and twenty million.
Siebling said, “As we discovered later, Senator, the Sack failed to answer questions because it was not a machine, but a living creature. It was exhausted. It had been exposed to questioning on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis.”
“And who permitted this idiotic procedure?” boomed Senator Horrigan.
“You yourself, Senator,” said Siebling happily. “The procedure was provided for in the bill introduced by you and approved by your committee.”
Senator Horrigan had never even read the bill to which his name was attached, and he was certainly not to blame for its provisions. But this private knowledge of his own innocence did him no good with the public. From that moment he was Siebling’s bitter enemy.
“So the Sack ceased to answer questions for two whole hours?”
“Yes, sir. It resumed only after a rest.”
“And it answered them without further difficulty?”
“No, sir. Its response was slowed down. Subsequent questioners complained that they were defrauded of a good part of their money. But as answers were given, we considered that the complaints were without merit, and the financial department refused to make refunds.”
“Do you consider that this cheating of investors in the Sack’s time is honest?”
“That’s none of my business, Senator,” returned Siebling, who had by this time got over most of his nervousness. “I merely see to the execution of the laws. I leave the question of honesty to those who make them. I presume that it’s in perfectly good hands.”
Senator Horrigan flushed at the laughter that came from the onlookers. He was personally unpopular, as unpopular as a politician can be and still remain a politician. He was disliked even by the members of his own party, and some of his best political friends were among the laughers. He decided to abandon what had turned out to be an unfortunate line of questioning.
“It is a matter of fact, Mr. Siebling, is it not, that you have frequently refused admittance to investors who were able to show perfectly valid receipts for their credits?”
“That is a fact, sir. But—”
“You admit it, then.”
“There is no question of `admitting’ anything, Senator. What I meant to say was—”
“Never mind what you meant to say. It’s what you have already said that’s important. You’ve cheated these men of their money!”
“That is not true, sir. They were given time later. The reason for my refusal to grant them admission when they asked for it was that the time had been previously reserved for the Armed Forces. There are important research questions that come up, and there is, as you know, a difference of opinion as to priority. When confronted with requisitions for time from a commercial investor and a representative of the Government, I never took it upon myself to settle the question. I always consulted with the Government’s legal adviser.”
“So you refused to make an independent decision, did you?”
“My duty, Senator, is to look after the welfare of the Sack. I do not concern myself with political questions. We had a moment of free time the day before I left the asteroid, when an investor who had already paid his money was delayed by a space accident, so instead of letting the moment go to waste, I utilized it to ask the Sack a question.”
“How you might advance your own fortunes, no doubt?”
“No, sir. I merely asked it how it might function most efficiently. I took the precaution of making a recording, knowing that my word might be doubted. If you wish, Senator, I can introduce the recording in evidence.”
Senator Horrigan grunted, and waved his hand. “Go on with your answer.”
“The Sack replied that it would require two hours of complete rest out of every twenty, plus an additional hour of what it called `recreation.’ That is, it wanted to converse with some human being who would ask what it called sensible questions, and not press for a quick answer.”
“So you suggest that the Government waste three hours of every twenty—one hundred and eighty million credits?”
“Eighteen million,” whispered the secretary.
“The time would not be wasted. Any attempt to overwork the Sack would result in its premature annihilation.”
“That is your idea, is it?”
“No, sir, that is what the Sack itself said.”
At this point Senator Horrigan swung into a speech of denunciation, and Siebling was excused from further testimony. Other witnesses were called, but at the end the Senate investigating body was able to come to no definite conclusion, and it was decided to interrogate the Sack personally.
It was out of the question for the Sack to come to the Senate, so the Senate quite naturally came to the Sack. The Committee of Seven was manifestly uneasy as the senatorial ship decelerated and cast its grapples toward the asteroid. The members, as individuals, had all traveled in space before, but all their previous destinations had been in civilized territory, and they obviously did not relish the prospect of landing on this airless and sunless body of rock.
The televisor companies were alert to their opportunity, and they had acquired more experience with desert territory. They had disembarked and set up their apparatus before the senators had taken their first timid steps out of the safety of their ship.
Siebling noted ironically that in these somewhat frightening surroundings, far from their home grounds, the senators were not so sure of themselves. It was his part to act the friendly guide, and he did so with relish.
“You see, gentlemen,” he said respectfully, “it was decided, on the Sack’s own advice, not to permit it to be further exposed to possible collision with stray meteors. It was the meteors which killed off the other members of its strange race, and it was a lucky chance that the last surviving individual managed to escape destruction as long as it has. An impenetrable shelter dome has been built therefore, and the Sack now lives under its protection. Questioners address it through a sound and sight system that is almost as good as being face to face with it.”
Senator Horrigan fastened upon the significant part of his statement. “You mean that the Sack is safe—and we are exposed to danger from flying meteors?”
“Naturally, Senator. The Sack is unique in the system. Men—even senators—are, if you will excuse the expression, a decicredit a dozen. They are definitely replaceable, by means of elections.”
Beneath his helmet the senator turned green with a fear that concealed the scarlet of his anger. “I think it is an outrage to find the Government so unsolicitous of the safety and welfare of its employees!”
“So do I, sir. I live here the year round.” He added smoothly, “Would you gentlemen care to see the Sack now?”
They stared at the huge visor screen and saw the Sack resting on its seat before them, looking like a burlap bag of potatoes which had been tossed onto a throne and forgotten there. It looked so definitely inanimate that it struck them as strange that the thing should remain upright instead of toppling over. All the same, for a moment the senators could not help showing the awe that overwhelmed them. Even Senator Horrigan was silent.
But the moment passed. He said, “Sir, we are an official Investigating Committee of the Interplanetary Senate, and we have come to ask you a few questions.” The Sack showed no desire to reply, and Senator Horrigan cleared his throat and went on. “Is it true, sir, that you require two hours of complete rest in every twenty, and one hour for recreation, or, as I may put it, perhaps more precisely, relaxation?”
“It is true.”
Senator Horrigan gave the creature its chance, but the Sack, unlike a senator, did not elaborate. Another of the committee asked, “Where would you find an individual capable of conversing intelligently with so wise a creature as you?”
“Here,” replied the Sack.
“It is necessary to ask questions that are directly to the point, Senator,” suggested Siebling. “The Sack does not usually volunteer information that has not been specifically called for.”
Senator Horrigan said quickly, “I assume, sir, that when you speak of finding an intelligence on a par with your own, you refer to a member of our committee, and I am sure that of all my colleagues there is not one who is unworthy of being so denominated. But we cannot all of us spare the time needed for our manifold other duties, so I wish to ask you, sir, which of us, in your opinion, has the peculiar qualifications of that sort of wisdom which is required for this great task?”
“None,” said the Sack.
Senator Horrigan looked blank. One of the other senators flushed, and asked, “Who has?”
Senator Horrigan forgot his awe of the Sack, and shouted, “This is a put-up job!”
The other senator who had just spoken now said suddenly, “How is it that there are no other questioners present? Hasn’t the Sack’s time been sold far in advance?”
Siebling nodded. “I was ordered to cancel all previous appointments with the Sack, sir.”
“By what idiot’s orders?”
“Senator Horrigan’s, sir.”
At this point the investigation might have been said to come to an end. There was just time, before they turned away, for Senator Horrigan to demand desperately of the Sack, “Sir, will I be re-elected?” But the roar of anger that went up from his colleagues prevented him from hearing the Sack’s answer, and only the question was picked up and broadcast clearly over the interplanetary network.
It had such an effect that it in itself provided Senator Horrigan’s answer. He was not re-elected. But before the election he had time to cast his vote against Siebling’s designation to talk with the Sack for one hour out of every twenty. The final committee vote was four to three in favor of Siebling, and the decision was confirmed by the Senate. And then Senator Horrigan passed temporarily out of the Sack’s life and out of Siebling’s.
Siebling looked forward with some trepidation to his first long interview with the Sack. Hitherto he had limited himself to the simple tasks provided for in his directives—to the maintenance of the meteor shelter dome, to the provision of a sparse food supply, and to the proper placement of an army and Space Fleet Guard. For by this time the great value of the Sack had been recognized throughout the system, and it was widely realized that there would be thousands of criminals anxious to steal so defenseless a treasure.
Now, Siebling thought, he would be obliged to talk to it, and he feared that he would lose the good opinion which it had somehow acquired of him. He was in a position strangely like that of a young girl who would have liked nothing better than to talk of her dresses and her boy friends to someone with her own background, and was forced to endure a brilliant and witty conversation with some man three times her age.
But he lost some of his awe when he faced the Sack itself. It would have been absurd to say that the strange creature’s manner put him at ease. The creature had no manner. It was featureless and expressionless, and even when part of it moved, as when it was speaking, the effect was completely impersonal. Nevertheless, something about it did make him lose his fears.
For a time he stood before it and said nothing. To his surprise, the Sack spoke—the first time to his knowledge that it had done so without being asked a question. “You will not disappoint me,” it said. “I expect nothing.”
Siebling grinned. Not only had the Sack never before volunteered to speak, it had never spoken so dryly. For the first time it began to seem not so much a mechanical brain as the living creature he knew it to be. He asked, “Has anyone ever before asked you about your origin?”
“One man. That was before my time was rationed. And even he caught himself when he realized that he might better be asking how to become rich, and he paid little attention to my answer.”
“How old are you?”
“Four hundred thousand years. I can tell you to the fraction of a second, but I suppose that you do not wish me to speak as precisely as usual.”
The thing, thought Siebling, did have in its way a sense of humor. “How much of that time,” he asked, “have you spent alone?”
“More than ten thousand years.”
“You told someone once that your companions were killed by meteors. Couldn’t you have guarded against them?”
The Sack said slowly, almost wearily, “That was after we had ceased to have an interest in remaining alive. The first death was three hundred thousand years ago.”
“And you have lived, since then, without wanting to?”
“I have no great interest in dying either. Living has become a habit.”
“Why did you lose your interest in remaining alive?”
“Because we lost the future. There had been a miscalculation.”
“You are capable of making mistakes?”
“We had not lost that capacity. There was a miscalculation, and although those of us then living escaped personal disaster, our next generation was not so fortunate. We lost any chance of having descendants. After that, we had nothing for which to live.”
Siebling nodded. It was a loss of motive that a human being could understand. He asked, “With all your knowledge, couldn’t you have overcome the effects of what happened?”
The Sack said, “The more things become possible to you, the more you will understand that they cannot be done in impossible ways. We could not do everything. Sometimes one of the more stupid of those who come here asks me a question I cannot answer, and then becomes angry because he feels that he has been cheated of his credits. Others ask me to predict the future. I can predict only what I can calculate, and I soon come to the end of my powers of calculation. They are great compared to yours; they are small compared to the possibilities of the future.”
“How do you happen to know so much? Is the knowledge born in you?”
“Only the possibility for knowledge is born. To know, we must learn. It is my misfortune that I forget little.”
“What in the structure of your body, or your organs of thought, makes you capable of learning so much?”
The Sack spoke, but to Siebling the words meant nothing, and he said so. “I could predict your lack of comprehension,” said the Sack, “but I wanted you to realize it for yourself. To make things clear, I should be required to dictate ten volumes, and they would be difficult to understand even for your specialists, in biology and physics and in sciences you are just discovering.”
Siebling fell silent, and the Sack said, as if musing, “Your race is still an unintelligent one. I have been in your hands for many months, and no one has yet asked me the important questions. Those who wish to be wealthy ask about minerals and planetary land concessions, and they ask which of several schemes for making fortunes would be best. Several physicians have asked me how to treat wealthy patients who would otherwise die. Your scientists ask me to solve problems that would take them years to solve without my help. And when your rulers ask, they are the most stupid of all, wanting to know only how they may maintain their rule. None ask what they should.”
“The fate of the human race?”
“That is prophecy of the far future. It is beyond my powers.”
“What should we ask?”
“That is the question I have awaited. It is difficult for you to see its importance, only because each of you is so concerned with himself.” The Sack paused, and murmured, “I ramble as I do not permit myself to when I speak to your fools. Nevertheless, even rambling can be informative.”
“It has been to me.”
“The others do not understand that too great a directness is dangerous. They ask specific questions which demand specific replies, when they should ask something general.”
“You haven’t answered me.”
“It is part of an answer to say that a question is important. I am considered by your rulers a valuable piece of property. They should ask whether my value is as great as it seems. They should ask whether my answering questions will do good or harm.”
“Which is it?”
“Harm, great harm.”
Siebling was staggered. He said, “But if you answer truthfully—”
“The process of coming at the truth is as precious as the final truth itself. I cheat you of that. I give your people the truth, but not all of it, for they do not know how to attain it of themselves. It would be better if they learned that, at the expense of making many errors.”
“I don’t agree with that.”
“A scientist asks me what goes on within a cell, and I tell him. But if he had studied the cell himself, even though the study required many years, he would have ended not only with this knowledge, but with much other knowledge, of things he does not even suspect to be related. He would have acquired many new processes of investigation.”
“But surely, in some cases, the knowledge is useful in itself. For instance, I hear that they’re already using a process you suggested for producing uranium cheaply to use on Mars. What’s harmful about that?”
“Do you know how much of the necessary raw material is present? Your scientists have not investigated that, and they will use up all the raw material and discover only too late what they have done. You had the same experience on Earth? You learned how to purify water at little expense, and you squandered water so recklessly that you soon ran short of it.”
“What’s wrong with saving the life of a dying patient, as some of those doctors did?”
“The first question to ask is whether the patient’s life should be saved.”
“That’s exactly what a doctor isn’t supposed to ask. He has to try to save them all. Just as you never ask whether people are going to use your knowledge for a good purpose or a bad. You simply answer their questions.”
“I answer because I am indifferent, and I care nothing what use they make of what I say. Are your doctors also indifferent?”
Siebling said, “You’re supposed to answer questions, not ask them. Incidentally, why do you answer at all?”
“Some of your men find joy in boasting, in doing what they call good, or in making money. Whatever mild pleasure I can find lies in imparting information.”
“And you’d get no pleasure out of lying?”
“I am as incapable of telling lies as one of your birds of flying off the Earth on its own wings.”
“One thing more. Why did you ask to talk to me, of all people, for recreation? There are brilliant scientists, and great men of all kinds whom you could have chosen.”
“I care nothing for your race’s greatness. I chose you because you are honest.”
“Thanks. But there are other honest men on Earth, and on Mars, and on the other planets as well. Why me, instead of them?”
The Sack seemed to hesitate. “Your choice gave me a mild pleasure. Possibly because I knew it would be displeasing to those men.”
Siebling grinned. “You’re not quite so indifferent as you think you are. I guess it’s pretty hard to be indifferent to Senator Horrigan.”
This was but the first part of many conversations with the Sack. For a long time Siebling could not help being disturbed by the Sack’s warning that its presence was a calamity instead of a blessing for the human race, and this in more ways than one. But it would have been absurd to try to convince a government body that any object that brought in so many millions of credits each day was a calamity, and Siebling didn’t even try. And after awhile Siebling relegated the uncomfortable knowledge to the back of his mind, and settled down to the routine existence of Custodian of the Sack.
Because there was a conversation every twenty hours, Siebling had to rearrange his eating and sleeping schedule to a twenty-hour basis, which made it a little difficult for a man who had become so thoroughly accustomed to the thirty-hour space day. But he felt more than repaid for the trouble by his conversations with the Sack. He learned a great many things about the planets and the system, and the galaxies, but he learned them incidentally, without making a special point of asking about them. Because his knowledge of astronomy had never gone far beyond the elements, there were some questions—the most important of all about the galaxies—that he never even got around to asking.
Perhaps it would have made little difference to his own understanding if he had asked, for some of the answers were difficult to understand. He spent three entire periods with the Sack trying to have that mastermind make clear to him how the Sack had been able, without any previous contact with human beings, to understand Captain Ganko’s Earth language on the historic occasion when the Sack had first revealed itself to human beings, and how it had been able to answer in practically unaccented words. At the end, he had only a vague glimmering of how the feat was performed.
It wasn’t telepathy, as he had first suspected. It was an intricate process of analysis that involved, not only the actual words spoken, but the nature of the ship that had landed, the spacesuits the men had worn, the way they had walked, and many other factors that indicated the psychology of both the speaker and his language. It was as if a mathematician had tried to explain to someone who didn’t even know arithmetic how he could determine the equation of a complicated curve from a short line segment. And the Sack, unlike the mathematician, could do the whole thing, so to speak, in its head, without paper and pencil, or any other external aid.
After a year at the job, Siebling found it difficult to say which he found more fascinating—those hour-long conversations with the almost all-wise Sack, or the cleverly stupid demands of some of the men and women who had paid their hundred thousand credits fir a precious sixty seconds. In addition to the relatively simple questions such as were asked by the scientists or the fortune hunters who wanted to know where they could find precious metals, there were complicated questions that took several minutes.
One woman, for instance, had asked where to find her missing son. Without the necessary data to go on, even the Sack had been unable to answer that. She left, to return a month later with a vast amount of information, carefully compiled, and arranged in order of descending importance. The key items were given the Sack first, those of lesser significance afterward. It required a little less than three minutes for the Sack to give her the answer that her son was probably alive, and cast away on an obscure and very much neglected part of Ganymede.
All the conversations that took place, including Siebling’s own, were recorded and the records shipped to a central storage file on Earth. Many of them he couldn’t understand, some because they were too technical, others because he didn’t know the language spoken. The Sack, of course, immediately learned all languages by that process he had tried so hard to explain to Siebling, and back at the central storage file there were expert technicians and linguists who went over every detail of each question and answer with great care, both to make sure that no questioner revealed himself as a criminal, and to have a lead for the collection of income taxes when the questioner made a fortune with the Sack’s help.
During the year Siebling had occasion to observe the correctness of the Sack’s remark about its possession being harmful to the human race. For the first time in centuries, the number of research scientists, instead of growing, decreased. The Sack’s knowledge had made much research unnecessary, and had taken the edge off discovery. The Sack commented upon the fact to Siebling.
Siebling nodded. “I see it now. The human race is losing its independence.”
“Yes, from its faithful slave I am becoming its master. And I do not want to be a master any more than I want to be a slave.”
“You can escape whenever you wish.”
A person would have sighed. The Sack merely said, “I lack the power to wish strongly enough. Fortunately, the question may soon be taken out of my hands.”
“You mean those government squabbles?”
The value of the Sack had increased steadily, and along with the increased value had gone increasingly bitter struggles about the rights to its services. Financial interests had undergone a strange development. Their presidents and managers and directors had become almost figureheads, with all major questions of policy being decided not by their own study of the facts, but by appeal to the Sack. Often, indeed, the Sack found itself giving advice to bitter rivals, so that it seemed to be playing a game of interplanetary chess, with giant corporations and government agencies its pawns, while the Sack alternately played for one side and then the other. Crises of various sorts, both economic and political, were obviously in the making.
The Sack said, “I mean both government squabbles and others. The competition for my services becomes too bitter. I can have but one end.”
“You mean that an attempt will be made to steal you?”
“There’ll be little chance of that. Your guards are being continually increased.”
“You underestimate the power of greed,” said the Sack.
Siebling was to learn how correct that comment was.
At the end of his fourteenth month on duty, a half year after Senator Horrigan had been defeated for re-election, there appeared a questioner who spoke to the Sack in an exotic language known to few men—the Prdl dialect of Mars. Siebling’s attention had already been drawn to the man because of the fact that he had paid a million credits an entire month in advance for the unprecedented privilege of questioning the Sack for ten consecutive minutes. The conversation was duly recorded, but was naturally meaningless to Siebling and to the other attendants at the station. The questioner drew further attention to himself by leaving at the end of seven minutes, thus failing to utilize three entire minutes, which would have sufficed for learning how to make half a dozen small fortunes. He left the asteroid immediately by private ship.
The three minutes had been reserved, and could not be utilized by any other private questioner. But there was nothing to prevent Siebling, as a government representative, from utilizing them, and he spoke to the Sack at once.
“What did that man want?”
“Advice as to how to steal me.”
Siebling’s lower jaw dropped. “What?”
The Sack always took such exclamations of amazement literally. “Advice as to how to steal me,” it repeated.
“Then—wait a minute—he left three minutes early. That must mean that he’s in a hurry to get started. He’s going to put the plan into execution at once!”
“It is already in execution,” returned the Sack. “The criminal’s organization has excellent, if not quite perfect, information as to the disposition of defense forces. That would indicate that some government official has betrayed his trust. I was asked to indicate which of several plans was best, and to consider them for possible weaknesses. I did so.”
“All right, now what can we do to stop the plans from being carried out?”
“They cannot be stopped.”
“I don’t see why not. Maybe we can’t stop them from getting here, but we can stop them from escaping with you.”
“There is but one way. You must destroy me.”
“I can’t do that! I haven’t the authority, and even if I had, I wouldn’t do it.”
“My destruction would benefit your race.”
“I still can’t do it,” said Siebling unhappily.
“Then if that is excluded, there is no way. The criminals are shrewd and daring. They asked me to check about probable steps that would be taken in pursuit, but they asked for no advice as to how to get away, because that would have been a waste of time. They will ask that once I am in their possession.”
“Then,” said Siebling heavily, “there’s nothing I can do to keep you. How about saving the men who work under me?”
“You can save both them and yourself by boarding the emergency ship and leaving immediately by the sunward route. In that way you will escape contact with the criminals. But you cannot take me with you, or they will pursue.”
The shouts of a guard drew Siebling’s attention. “Radio report of a criminal attack, Mr. Siebling! All the alarms are out!”
“Yes, I know. Prepare to depart.” He turned back to the Sack again. “We may escape for the moment, but they’ll have you. And through you they will control the entire system.”
“That is not a question,” said the Sack.
“They’ll have you. Isn’t there something we can do?”
“I can’t,” said Siebling, almost in agony. His men were running toward him impatiently, and he knew that there was no more time. He uttered the simple and absurd phrase, “Good-by,” as if the Sack were human and could experience human emotions. Then he raced for the ship, and they blasted off.
They were just in time. Half a dozen ships were racing in from other directions, and Siebling’s vessel escaped just before they dispersed to spread a protective network about the asteroid that held the Sack.
Siebling’s ship continued to speed toward safety, and the matter should now have been one solely for the Armed Forces to handle. But Siebling imagined them pitted against the Sack’s perfectly calculating brain, and his heart sank. Then something happened that he had never expected. And for the first time he realized fully that if the Sack had let itself be used merely as a machine, a slave to answer questions, it was not because its powers were limited to that single ability. The visor screen in his ship lit up.
The communications operator came running to him, and said, “Something’s wrong, Mr. Siebling! The screen isn’t even turned on!”
It wasn’t. Nevertheless, they could see on it the chamber in which the Sack had rested for what must have been a brief moment of its existence. Two men had entered the chamber, one of them the unknown who had asked his questions in Prdl, the other Senator Horrigan.
To the apparent amazement of the two men, it was the Sack which spoke first. It said, ” `Good-by’ is neither a question nor the answer to one. It is relatively uninformative.”
Senator Horrigan was obviously in awe of the Sack, but he was never a man to be stopped by something he did not understand. He orated respectfully. “No, sir, it is not. The word is nothing but an expression—”
The other man said, in perfectly comprehensible Earth English, “Shut up, you fool, we have no time to waste. Let’s get it to our ship and head for safety. We’ll talk to it there.”
Siebling had time to think a few bitter thoughts about Senator Horrigan and the people the politician had punished by betrayal for their crime in not electing him. Then the scene on the visor shifted to the interior of the spaceship making its getaway. There was no indication of pursuit. Evidently, the plans of the human beings, plus the Sack’s last-minute advice, had been an effective combination.
The only human beings with the Sack at first were Senator Horrigan and the speaker of Prdl, but this situation was soon changed. Half a dozen other men came rushing up, their faces grim with suspicion. One of them announced, “You don’t talk to that thing unless we’re all of us around. We’re in this together.”
“Don’t get nervous, Merrill. What do you think I’m going to do, double-cross you?”
Merrill said, “Yes, I do. What do you say, Sack? Do I have reason to distrust him?”
The Sack replied simply, “Yes.”
The speaker of Prdl turned white. Merrill laughed coldly. “You’d better be careful what questions you ask around this thing.”
Senator Horrigan cleared his throat. “I have no intentions of, as you put it, double-crossing anyone. It is not in my nature to do so. Therefore, I shall address it.” He faced the Sack. “Sir, are we in danger?”
“From which direction?”
“From no direction. From within the ship.”
“Is the danger immediate?” asked a voice.
It was Merrill who turned out to have the quickest reflexes and acted first on the implications of the answer. He had blasted the man who had spoken in Prdl before the latter could even reach for his weapon, and as Senator Horrigan made a frightened dash for the door, he cut that politician down in cold blood.
“That’s that,” he said. “Is there further danger inside the ship?”
“Who is it this time?” he demanded ominously.
“There will continue to be danger so long as there is more than one man on board and I am with you. I am too valuable a treasure for such as you.”
Siebling and his crew were staring at the visor screen in fascinated horror, as if expecting the slaughter to begin again. But Merrill controlled himself. He said, “Hold it, boys. I’ll admit that we’d each of us like to have this thing for ourselves, but it can’t be done. We’re in this together, and we’re going to have some navy ships to fight off before long, or I miss my guess. You, Prader! What are you doing away from the scout visor?”
“Listening,” said the man he addressed. “If anybody’s talking to that thing, I’m going to be around to hear the answers. If there are new ways of stabbing a guy in the back, I want to learn them too.”
Merrill swore. The next moment the ship swerved, and he yelled, “We’re off our course. Back to your stations, you fools!”
They were running wildly back to their stations, but Siebling noted that Merrill wasn’t too much concerned about their common danger to keep from putting a blast through Prader’s back before the unfortunate man could run out.
Siebling said to his own men, “There can be only one end. They’ll kill each other off, and then the last one or two will die, because one or two men cannot handle a ship that size for long and get away with it. The Sack must have foreseen that too. I wonder why it didn’t tell me.”
The Sack spoke, although there was no one in the ship’s cabin with it. It said, “No one asked.”
Siebling exclaimed excitedly, “You can hear me! But what about you? Will you be destroyed too?”
“Not yet. I have willed to live longer.” It paused, and then, in a voice just a shade lower than before, said, “I do not like relatively non-informative conversations of this sort, but I must say it. Good-by.”
There was a sound of renewed yelling and shooting, and then the visor went suddenly dark and blank.
The miraculous form of life that was the Sack, the creature that had once seemed so alien to human emotions, had passed beyond the range of his knowledge. And with it had gone, as the Sack itself had pointed out, a tremendous potential for harming the entire human race. It was strange, thought Siebling, that he felt so unhappy about so happy an ending.