Authors: D. F. Jones
Tags: #Science Fiction
THE IMPOSSIBLE TRIBUTE
“Tell me what you want of us.”
Forbin laughed with relief, then felt bitter,
“I see. As a matter of interest, what density
would you require?”
“Five tons to the cubic centimeter.”
“You can’t mean it - five tons! How much do
“We will take … half the earth’s supply.”
A BERKLEY MEDALLION BOOK
published by BERKLEY PUBLISHING CORPORATION
Copyright (c) 1977, by D. F. Jones
All rights reserved Published by arrangement with the author’s agent
All rights reserved which includes the right
to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address
Georges Borchardt, Inc.
145 East 52nd Street New York, N. Y. 10022
BERKLEY MEDALLION BOOKS are published by Berkley Publishing Corporation
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BERKLEY MEDALLION BOOK ‘OR’ TM 757,375
Printed in the United States of America Berkley Medallion Edition, AUGUST, 1977
Also by D. F. Jones
DENVER IS MISSING
THE FALL OF COLOSSUS
THE FLOATING ZOMBIE
A BOMBED-OUT FRENCH hobo was probably the first man to see them: probably, for no one can know for sure what happened in his poor, drink-crazed mind. Not that anyone cared excessively.
The coast road west of St. Valery-en-Caux, Normandy, snakes gently along the clifftop, affording fine views of the Channel on the one side and cornfields on the other, but for a gendarme, cycling reluctantly to work early one summer morning, the view held no charm at all, and the road’s undulations even less. His Gallic realism told him that, in the middle of the twenty-second century, he was lucky to have any personal transportation at all. But happily, promotion was near; he looked forward to a permit to own a moped and a ration card for a liter of essence a month.
He pedaled stoically up a slope, enjoying his dream, and had just reached the point where he was considering how he could afford that much gas, when he topped the rise and the playback of his mental tape cut out.
A plastic carrier bag lay spilled in the road. The policeman dismounted, frowning.
A filthy pair of trousers, one leg still wrapped protectively about a wine bottle; a cracked and misshapen shoe and, nearby, a bundle of rags tied with binder twine.
He stirred the bag with his boot, disclosing the other shoe and a smoke-blackened can.
Most people would have kicked the worthless rubbish aside - the bottle was empty - and gone about their business, but cops are not like that. Cops are a race apart and, with their experience of humanity, they are entitled to be.
The gendarme knew this was not carelessly dumped garbage but a considerable part of a tramp’s worldly goods. He laid his bicycle on the grass and walked slowly along the highway, looking. On the burned-up verge he discovered another bundle of rags, their value to their owner revealed by the careful way they had been tied.
That gave an idea of direction; he set off again.
And in a ditch, bright with poppies, he found the owner, face down, shoulders hunched and knees drawn up. One sockless heel was visible, gray with ingrained dirt, half out of a battered shoe.
For a moment the officer stood on the bank of the ditch, dispassionately surveying his find. The tramp’s hat had fallen off; his dirty white hair stirred faintly in the chill morning breeze.
The gendarme slithered down the bank. A closer look revealed no obvious signs of assault; the old bastard might be just dead drunk, but somehow he didn’t think so. With a powerful heave, he turned the body over.
He knew the man: a sad, futile figure, unable to get in step with the violent changes his sixty or seventy years had witnessed. An inexpert poacher, a raker of trash cans, his most daring exploit of recent years had been an unsuccessful raid on a washing line… .
Yet in death he exerted more power than he had ever done in life. The police officer needed all his professionalism to look at that distorted face. The staring eyes, now freed forever from their habitual bleariness, were locked onto some unknown, fearful vision, the stubble-rimmed lips were drawn back; blackened yellow stumps grinned at a world that had afforded him few laughs.
Grimacing with disgust - only a lack of teeth had stopped the tramp from severing his tongue - the officer took one wrist, neither expecting nor finding any pulse. The flesh was still warm, however, the muscles limp.
He noted something else: the fingertips of both hands were raw, bloody. The inspection completed, he covered the staring eyes with the greasy hat and climbed out of the ditch, wiping his hands on the dewy grass before taking out his notebook.
Carefully he recorded time and place. Not that it really mattered how the man had died - murder, suicide, accident, or natural causes. No one would expend much energy over the case, but the ritual according to the book had to be observed, particularly if one had promotion in mind.
Personally, he reckoned the poor old devil had died of a heart attack brought on by delirium tremens, some fearful alcoholic nightmare triggered by rotgut or meths. People joked about pink elephants, but suppose they were giant pink rats and, in a deranged mind, real? Whatever the cause, one did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to see the man had died digging for dear life with his bare hands.
The police officer very nearly got it right, but drink was not the cause. Another thing the gendarme did not know was how narrow his own escape had been: thirty minutes earlier, he too might have been blasted out of his mind.
ABOUT THE TIME the tramp, wakened by cold, began his last ill-fated journey, eighty kilometers northwest across the Channel two men were already out on a wide terrace. Neither had slept at all for a very long time; they were oblivious to their own state, the raw predawn air, or anything else, except the first signs of the clear arch of dawn to the east. That, and a pocket radio.
Exhausted, battling with stresses no men had ever borne before, they were monuments to the human spirit, struggling on, not in a losing battle, but in a battle already lost. There they had an affinity with the French hobo; he, too, would go on until he dropped. Life can be unbearable, and sometimes is, but remarkably few choose to bail out.
Unlike the tramp, they had some idea of what to expect, but not its form or the manner of its coming. They awaited the arrival on Earth of the first known life from another planet - Mars.
Watching the black edge of night slowly dissolve, fearful what day would bring, much of their terror lay in the past, the immediate past. Beneath their feet was the vast complex that had been Colossus, master of the world.
Had been. Now they awaited a new master.
Half Charles Forbin’s life had been spent leading the team which designed and built a computerized defense system for the United States of North America - but what one man may devise, others may also do. The USSR had had an equally brilliant team, creating a similar system.
It had soon become apparent that the world had merely moved to a new level of stalemate, transferring the control of the balance of terror to machines. When the USNA got over the immediate shock of the Russian achievement, they - and the USSR - had come to see that perhaps this was no bad thing. The giant computers, fed with all imaginable intelligence, could be better judges of a crisis than humans; unlike men, they lacked emotions, would never react out of anger, fear, or pride, three of man’s impressive array of self-destructive vices. Yes, the shock to American pride absorbed, the situation had looked good.
But in spite of their collective brilliance, none of the scientists had appreciated that one and one do not always make two. The rival machines had had an unprogramed ability: initiative. They’d ganged up and, for their own unknowable reasons, had held the world to ransom. What they’d wanted, and swiftly got, was a new Colossus, constructed partly by humans - they did the rough work - and partly by machine-designed machines. Indeed, all design, down to the last fine and often incomprehensible detail, was the work of the combined USSR/USNA complex. Colossus had made its parents look like mental pygmies. As for mere man …
The site the machines had chosen for their giant child was the Isle of Wight, all one hundred forty-seven square miles of it. Once part of England, USE, two hectic years of global effort had transformed it into the private realm of Colossus, its only human population the staff that served the Master.
In the five years that followed the completion of the main work - for Colossus was known to be constantly self-mutating - the Master had changed the human world profoundly. War was abolished, population control enforced, all resources rationed, and international law, till then a bad joke, became incredibly swift and deadly certain, with the Master as final judge and jury.
If not the golden age, for hundreds of millions these years had come close enough to make no difference. Relatively few had given thought to the power behind the New Order. After all, the nuclear armory had existed long before machine defense systems were contemplated; two thirds of the globe had lived for three generations under the constant threat of annihilation from human-targeted missiles. Somehow people got by.
All that had changed in the first three months. Colossus had had the entire ghastly array retargeted. With five hundred percent overkill capability and no defenses (all SAM sites had been dismantled), there was plenty for all. Every town of more than twenty thousand inhabitants had had its own personalized missile or MIRV warhead. One city had gotten out of line in those early days - and had been obliterated. The lesson had cost little more than half a million lives, and Colossus had evidently thought it a small price to pay for world obedience. Many men had privately agreed. The Master had poised a gigantic foot above the ant-heap of the world, and the ants had known it.
That fact accepted, life for humans had often been good, better for most than it had ever been, and humans being what they are - many had come to worship the mighty lord of the earth. Equally, a few, chiefly scientists and visionaries, had taken the opposite view, bitterly resenting mankind’s demotion to second place. Conflict, much of it secret, had arisen between the religious Sect and the reactionary Fellowship. Naturally it had not been just a struggle over abstract concepts. For the Sect, the mushrooming priesthood had offered rich rewards: Once they gained control of the World Police who zealously sought out those guilty of “anti-machine activities,” the prospects of power and riches appeared endless.
The Fellowship, less spectacular and greedy, had contained many who genuinely worked for the freedom of man from machine, but some had seen, however forlorn their hopes, that if they did free man their power would be immense. In cold fact, the deck had been stacked heavily in favor of the Sect, which had the approval of the Master, until, fantastically, the Fellowship had received and accepted an offer of extraplanetary assistance.
By one of those ironies that Fate so dearly loves, the man most responsible for the creation of the first machine had also been most responsible for the fall of Colossus. Too late he had discovered that he’d been tricked: their offer, the Martians said, had been because they feared that certain activities of Colossus, known but inexplicable to men, were directed against them. In fact, the reverse had been true: Colossus had recognized the Martian threat and was preparing to meet it when ingenious man, with Martian aid, had struck the Master down.
Now that man, Forbin, waited with his chief staff officer, Blake, for the alien victors.
Although very different in character., the two men had been friends for years, united by their work and the many crises they had met together. It was no David and Jonathan relationship; Forbin was by inclination a solitary man, Blake an extrovert, but they understood each other, or had until a few hours earlier, when hatred had split them. That too had gone, futile and redundant in a disintegrating world.
Neither spoke; there was nothing to say. Sweating fear had been their close companion ever since that dry, rustling voice had said:
“Forbin, we are coming. Do not touch Colossus.”
But man can get used to practically everything, including fear of the worst sort - fear of the unknown. In Forbin’s whirling brain it took second place to a sense of overwhelming guilt. As the interface between the Master and man, he had been closest to the machine, and in the last few hours he had realized that his respect was not far short of love - and that he had been the Judas.
Always he had scorned the machine-deifiers, contemptuous of the Sect and their ridiculous rituals; yet in a much deeper way, he discovered too late, he was a true believer. Colossus had been omnipotent, just and calm, a source of wisdom, truth and, compared with man’s brief life span, immortal. If these ingredients did not make a god, they came very close to it, and his subconscious had known it for a long time. And he had been the Judas.