Kramer leaned back. "You can see the situation. How can we deal with a factor like this? The perfect variable."
"Perfect? Prediction should still be possible. A living thing still acts from necessity, the same as inanimate material. But the cause-effect chain is more subtle; there are more factors to be considered. The difference is quantitative, I think. The reaction of the living organism parallels natural causation, but with greater complexity."
Gross and Kramer looked up at the board plates, suspended on the wall, still dripping, the images hardening into place. Kramer traced a line with his pencil.
"See that? It's a pseudopodium. They're alive, and so far, a weapon we can't beat. No mechanical system can compete with that, simple or intricate. We'll have to scrap the Johnson Control and find something else."
"Meanwhile the war continues as it is. Stalemate. Checkmate. They can't get to us, and we can't get through their living minefield."
Kramer nodded. "It's a perfect defense, for them. But there still might be one answer."
"Wait a minute." Kramer turned to his rocket expert, sitting with the charts and files. "The heavy cruiser that returned this week. It didn't actually touch, did it? It came close but there was no contact."
"Correct." The expert nodded. "The mine was twenty miles off. The cruiser was in space-drive, moving directly toward Proxima, line-straight, using the Johnson Control, of course. It had deflected a quarter of an hour earlier for reasons unknown. Later it resumed its course. That was when they got it."
"It shifted," Kramer said. "But not enough. The mine was coming along after it, trailing it. It's the same old story, but I wonder about the contact."
"Here's our theory," the expert said. "We keep looking for contact, a trigger in the pseudopodium. But more likely we're witnessing a psychological phenomena, a decision without any physical correlative. We're watching for something that isn't there. The mine decides to blow up. It sees our ship, approaches, and then decides."
"Thanks." Kramer turned to Gross. "Well, that confirms what I'm saying. How can a ship guided by automatic relays escape a mine that decides to explode? The whole theory of mine penetration is that you must avoid tripping the trigger. But here the trigger is a state of mind in a complicated, developed life-form."
"The belt is fifty thousand miles deep," Gross added. "It solves another problem for them, repair and maintenance. The damn things reproduce, fill up the spaces by spawning into them. I wonder what they feed on?"
"Probably the remains of our first-line. The big cruisers must be a delicacy. It's a game of wits, between a living creature and a ship piloted by automatic relays. The ship always loses." Kramer opened a folder. "I'll tell you what I suggest."
"Go on," Gross said. "I've already heard ten solutions today. What's yours?"
"Mine is very simple. These creatures are superior to any mechanical system, but only because they're alive. Almost any other life-form could compete with them, any higher life-form. If the yuks can put out living mines to protect their planets, we ought to be able to harness some of our own life-forms in a similar way. Let's make use of the same weapon ourselves."
"Which life-form do you propose to use?"
"I think the human brain is the most agile of known living forms. Do you know of any better?"
"But no human being can withstand outspace travel. A human pilot would be dead of heart failure long before the ship got anywhere near Proxima."
"But we don't need the whole body," Kramer said. "We need only the brain."
"The problem is to find a person of high intelligence who would contribute, in the same manner that eyes and arms are volunteered."
"But a brain...."
"Technically, it could be done. Brains have been transferred several times, when body destruction made it necessary. Of course, to a spaceship, to a heavy outspace cruiser, instead of an artificial body, that's new."
The room was silent.
"It's quite an idea," Gross said slowly. His heavy square face twisted. "But even supposing it might work, the big question is whose brain?"
It was all very confusing, the reasons for the war, the nature of the enemy. The Yucconae had been contacted on one of the outlying planets of Proxima Centauri. At the approach of the Terran ship, a host of dark slim pencils had lifted abruptly and shot off into the distance. The first real encounter came between three of the yuk pencils and a single exploration ship from Terra. No Terrans survived. After that it was all out war, with no holds barred.
Both sides feverishly constructed defense rings around their systems. Of the two, the Yucconae belt was the better. The ring around Proxima was a living ring, superior to anything Terra could throw against it. The standard equipment by which Terran ships were guided in outspace, the Johnson Control, was not adequate. Something more was needed. Automatic relays were not good enough.
--Not good at all, Kramer thought to himself, as he stood looking down the hillside at the work going on below him. A warm wind blew along the hill, rustling the weeds and grass. At the bottom, in the valley, the mechanics had almost finished; the last elements of the reflex system had been removed from the ship and crated up.
All that was needed now was the new core, the new central key that would take the place of the mechanical system. A human brain, the brain of an intelligent, wary human being. But would the human being part with it? That was the problem.
Kramer turned. Two people were approaching him along the road, a man and a woman. The man was Gross, expressionless, heavy-set, walking with dignity. The woman was--He stared in surprise and growing annoyance. It was Dolores, his wife. Since they'd separated he had seen little of her....
"Kramer," Gross said. "Look who I ran into. Come back down with us. We're going into town."
"Hello, Phil," Dolores said. "Well, aren't you glad to see me?"
He nodded. "How have you been? You're looking fine." She was still pretty and slender in her uniform, the blue-grey of Internal Security, Gross' organization.
"Thanks." She smiled. "You seem to be doing all right, too. Commander Gross tells me that you're responsible for this project, Operation Head, as they call it. Whose head have you decided on?"
"That's the problem." Kramer lit a cigarette. "This ship is to be equipped with a human brain instead of the Johnson system. We've constructed special draining baths for the brain, electronic relays to catch the impulses and magnify them, a continual feeding duct that supplies the living cells with everything they need. But--"
"But we still haven't got the brain itself," Gross finished. They began to walk back toward the car. "If we can get that we'll be ready for the tests."
"Will the brain remain alive?" Dolores asked. "Is it actually going to live as part of the ship?"
"It will be alive, but not conscious. Very little life is actually conscious. Animals, trees, insects are quick in their responses, but they aren't conscious. In this process of ours the individual personality, the ego, will cease. We only need the response ability, nothing more."
Dolores shuddered. "How terrible!"
"In time of war everything must be tried," Kramer said absently. "If one life sacrificed will end the war it's worth it. This ship might get through. A couple more like it and there wouldn't be any more war."
They got into the car. As they drove down the road, Gross said, "Have you thought of anyone yet?"
Kramer shook his head. "That's out of my line."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm an engineer. It's not in my department."
"But all this was your idea."
"My work ends there."
Gross was staring at him oddly. Kramer shifted uneasily.
"Then who is supposed to do it?" Gross said. "I can have my organization prepare examinations of various kinds, to determine fitness, that kind of thing--"
"Listen, Phil," Dolores said suddenly.
She turned toward him. "I have an idea. Do you remember that professor we had in college. Michael Thomas?"
"I wonder if he's still alive." Dolores frowned. "If he is he must be awfully old."
"Why, Dolores?" Gross asked.
"Perhaps an old person who didn't have much time left, but whose mind was still clear and sharp--"
"Professor Thomas." Kramer rubbed his jaw. "He certainly was a wise old duck. But could he still be alive? He must have been seventy, then."
"We could find that out," Gross said. "I could make a routine check."
"What do you think?" Dolores said. "If any human mind could outwit those creatures--"
"I don't like the idea," Kramer said. In his mind an image had appeared, the image of an old man sitting behind a desk, his bright gentle eyes moving about the classroom. The old man leaning forward, a thin hand raised--
"Keep him out of this," Kramer said.
"What's wrong?" Gross looked at him curiously.
"It's because I suggested it," Dolores said.
"No." Kramer shook his head. "It's not that. I didn't expect anything like this, somebody I knew, a man I studied under. I remember him very clearly. He was a very distinct personality."
"Good," Gross said. "He sounds fine."
"We can't do it. We're asking his death!"
"This is war," Gross said, "and war doesn't wait on the needs of the individual. You said that yourself. Surely he'll volunteer; we can keep it on that basis."
"He may already be dead," Dolores murmured.
"We'll find that out," Gross said speeding up the car. They drove the rest of the way in silence.
For a long time the two of them stood studying the small wood house, overgrown with ivy, set back on the lot behind an enormous oak. The little town was silent and sleepy; once in awhile a car moved slowly along the distant highway, but that was all.
"This is the place," Gross said to Kramer. He folded his arms. "Quite a quaint little house."
Kramer said nothing. The two Security Agents behind them were expressionless.
Gross started toward the gate. "Let's go. According to the check he's still alive, but very sick. His mind is agile, however. That seems to be certain. It's said he doesn't leave the house. A woman takes care of his needs. He's very frail."
They went down the stone walk and up onto the porch. Gross rang the bell. They waited. After a time they heard slow footsteps. The door opened. An elderly woman in a shapeless wrapper studied them impassively.
"Security," Gross said, showing his card. "We wish to see Professor Thomas."
"Government business." He glanced at Kramer.
Kramer stepped forward. "I was a pupil of the Professor's," he said. "I'm sure he won't mind seeing us."
The woman hesitated uncertainly. Gross stepped into the doorway. "All right, mother. This is war time. We can't stand out here."
The two Security agents followed him, and Kramer came reluctantly behind, closing the door. Gross stalked down the hall until he came to an open door. He stopped, looking in. Kramer could see the white corner of a bed, a wooden post and the edge of a dresser.
He joined Gross.
In the dark room a withered old man lay, propped up on endless pillows. At first it seemed as if he were asleep; there was no motion or sign of life. But after a time Kramer saw with a faint shock that the old man was watching them intently, his eyes fixed on them, unmoving, unwinking.
"Professor Thomas?" Gross said. "I'm Commander Gross of Security. This man with me is perhaps known to you--"
The faded eyes fixed on Kramer.
"I know him. Philip Kramer.... You've grown heavier, boy." The voice was feeble, the rustle of dry ashes. "Is it true you're married now?"
"Yes. I married Dolores French. You remember her." Kramer came toward the bed. "But we're separated. It didn't work out very well. Our careers--"
"What we came here about, Professor," Gross began, but Kramer cut him off with an impatient wave.
"Let me talk. Can't you and your men get out of here long enough to let me talk to him?"
Gross swallowed. "All right, Kramer." He nodded to the two men. The three of them left the room, going out into the hall and closing the door after them.
The old man in the bed watched Kramer silently. "I don't think much of him," he said at last. "I've seen his type before. What's he want?"
"Nothing. He just came along. Can I sit down?" Kramer found a stiff upright chair beside the bed. "If I'm bothering you--"
"No. I'm glad to see you again, Philip. After so long. I'm sorry your marriage didn't work out."
"How have you been?"
"I've been very ill. I'm afraid that my moment on the world's stage has almost ended." The ancient eyes studied the younger man reflectively. "You look as if you have been doing well. Like everyone else I thought highly of. You've gone to the top in this society."
Kramer smiled. Then he became serious. "Professor, there's a project we're working on that I want to talk to you about. It's the first ray of hope we've had in this whole war. If it works, we may be able to crack the yuk defenses, get some ships into their system. If we can do that the war might be brought to an end."
"Go on. Tell me about it, if you wish."
"It's a long shot, this project. It may not work at all, but we have to give it a try."
"It's obvious that you came here because of it," Professor Thomas murmured. "I'm becoming curious. Go on."
After Kramer finished the old man lay back in the bed without speaking. At last he sighed.
"I understand. A human mind, taken out of a human body." He sat up a little, looking at Kramer. "I suppose you're thinking of me."
Kramer said nothing.
"Before I make my decision I want to see the papers on this, the theory and outline of construction. I'm not sure I like it.--For reasons of my own, I mean. But I want to look at the material. If you'll do that--"
"Certainly." Kramer stood up and went to the door. Gross and the two Security Agents were standing outside, waiting tensely. "Gross, come inside."
They filed into the room.
"Give the Professor the papers," Kramer said. "He wants to study them before deciding."
Gross brought the file out of his coat pocket, a manila envelope. He handed it to the old man on the bed. "Here it is, Professor. You're welcome to examine it. Will you give us your answer as soon as possible? We're very anxious to begin, of course."
"I'll give you my answer when I've decided." He took the envelope with a thin, trembling hand. "My decision depends on what I find out from these papers. If I don't like what I find, then I will not become involved with this work in any shape or form." He opened the envelope with shaking hands. "I'm looking for one thing."
"What is it?" Gross said.
"That's my affair. Leave me a number by which I can reach you when I've decided."
Silently, Gross put his card down on the dresser. As they went out Professor Thomas was already reading the first of the papers, the outline of the theory.