By way of cutting the argument short, Curanov said, "Where do these prints lead?"
Leeke indicated the marks with a shiny finger. "It looks as if the creature came out of the woods and stood here for a while—perhaps watching us as we stalked the buck. Then he turned and went back the way he came."
The four robots followed the footprints into the first of the pine trees, but they hesitated to go into the deeper regions of the forest.
"Darkness is coming," Leeke said. "The storm's almost on us, as Janus predicted. With our senses as restricted as they are, we should be getting back to the lodge while we've still enough light to see by."
Curanov wondered if their surprising cowardice was as evident to the others as it was to him. They all professed not to believe in the monsters of myth, and yet they rebelled at following these footprints. Curanov had to admit, however, that when he tried to envision the beast that might have made these tracks—a "man"—he was more anxious than ever to reach the sanctity of the lodge.
* * *
The lodge had only one room, which was all that they required. Since each of the four was physically identical to the others, no one felt a need for geographical privacy. Each could obtain a more rewarding isolation merely by tuning out all exterior events in one of the lodge's inactivation nooks, thereby dwelling strictly within his mind, recycling old data and searching for previously overlooked juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated information. Therefore, no one was discomfited by the single, gray-walled, nearly featureless room where they would spend as much as several weeks together, barring any complications or any lessening of their interest in the challenge of the hunt.
They racked their drug rifles on a metal shelf that ran the length of one wall, and they unbolted their other supplies that, until now, they had clipped to various portions of their body shells.
As they stood at the largest window, watching the snow sheet past them in a blinding white fury, Tuttle said, "If the myths are true, think what would be done to modern philosophy."
"What myths?" Curanov asked.
"About human beings."
Steffan, as rigid as ever, was quick to counter the thrust of Tuttle's undeveloped line of thought. He said, "I've seen nothing to make me believe in myths."
Tuttle was wise enough, just then, to avoid an argument about the footprints in the snow. But he was not prepared to drop the conversation altogether. "We've always thought that intelligence was a manifestation solely of the mechanized mind. If we should find that a fleshy creature could—"
"But none can," Steffan interrupted.
Curanov thought that Steffan must be rather young, no more than thirty or forty years out of the factory. Otherwise, he would not be so quick to reject anything that even slightly threatened the status quo that the Central Agency had outlined and established. With the decades, Curanov knew, one learned that what had once been impossible was now considered only commonplace.
"There are myths about human beings," Tuttle said, "which say that robots sprang from them."
"From flesh?" Steffan asked, incredulous.
"I know it sounds odd," Tuttle said, "but at various times in my life, I have seen the oddest things prove true."
"You've been all over the earth, in more corners than I have been. In all your travels, you must have seen tens of thousands of fleshy species, animals of all descriptions." Steffan paused, for effect. "Have you ever encountered a single fleshy creature with even rudimentary intelligence in the manner of the robot?"
"Never," Tuttle admitted.
"Flesh was not designed for high-level sentience," Steffan said.
They were quiet.
The snow fell, pulling the gray sky closer to the land.
None would admit the private fear he nurtured.
"Many things fascinate me," Tuttle said, surprising Curanov, who had thought that the other robot was done with his postulating. "For one—where did the Central Agency come from? What were its origins?"
Steffan waved a hand disparagingly. "There has always been a Central Agency."
"But that's no answer," Tuttle said.
"Why isn't it?" Steffan asked. "For all intents and purposes, we accept that there has always been a universe, stars and planets and everything in between."
"Suppose," Tuttle said, "just for the sake of argument, that there has not always been a Central Agency. The Agency is constantly doing research into its own nature, redesigning itself. Vast stores of data are transferred into increasingly sophisticated repositories every fifty to a hundred years. Isn't it possible that occasionally the Agency loses bits and pieces, accidentally destroys some of its memory in the move?"
"Impossible," Steffan said. "There are any number of safeguards taken against such an eventuality."
Curanov, aware of many of the Central Agency's bungles over the past hundred years, was not so sure. He was intrigued by Tuttle's theory.
Tuttle said, "If the Central Agency somehow lost most of its early stores of data, its knowledge of human beings might have vanished along with countless other bits and pieces."
Steffan was disgusted. "Earlier, you ranted against the idea of Second Awareness—but now you can believe this. You amuse me, Tuttle. Your data vault must be a trove of silly information, contradictory beliefs, and useless theorizing. If you believe in these human beings—then do you also believe in all the attendant myths? Do you think they can only be killed with an instrument of wood? Do you think they sleep at night in dark rooms? Sleep like beasts? And do you think that, though they're made of flesh, they cannot be dispatched but that they pop up somewhere else in a new body?"
Confronted with these obviously insupportable superstitions, Tuttle backed down from his entire point. He turned his amber visual receptors on the snow beyond the window. "I was only supposing. I was just spinning a little fantasy to help pass the time."
Triumphant, Steffan said, "However, fantasy doesn't contribute to a maturation of one's data vault."
"And I suppose that you're eager to mature enough to gain a promotion from the Agency," Tuttle said.
"Of course," Steffan said. "We're only allotted two hundred years. And besides, what else is the purpose of life?"
Perhaps to have an opportunity to mull over his strange theories, Tuttle soon retired to an inactivation nook in the wall beneath the metal shelf on which the guns lay. He slid in feet first and pulled the hatch shut behind his head, leaving the others to their own devices.
Fifteen minutes later, Leeke said, "I believe I'll follow Tuttle's example. I need time to consider my responses to this afternoon's hunt."
Curanov knew that Leeke was only making excuses to be gone. He was not a particularly gregarious robot and seemed most comfortable when he was ignored and left to himself.
Alone with Steffan in the lodge, Curanov was in an unpleasantly delicate position. He felt that he, too, needed time to think inside a deactivation nook. However, he did not want to hurt Steffan's feelings, did not want to give him the impression that they were all anxious to be away from him. For the most part, Curanov liked the young robot; Steffan was fresh, energetic, obviously a first-line mentality. The only thing he found grating about the youth was his innocence, his undisciplined drive to be accepted and to achieve. Time, of course, would mellow Steffan and hone his mind, so he did not deserve to be hurt. How then to excuse oneself without slighting Steffan in any way?
The younger robot solved the problem by suggesting that he, too, needed time in a nook. When Steffan was safely shut away, Curanov went to the fourth of the five wall slots, slid into it, pulled the hatch shut, and felt all of his senses drain away from him, so that he was only a mind, floating in darkness, contemplating the wealth of ideas in his data vault.
Adrift in nothingness, Curanov considers the superstition that has begun to be the center of this adventure: the human being, the man:
1. Though of flesh, the man thinks and knows.
2. He sleeps by night, like an animal.
3. He devours other flesh, as does the beast.
4. He defecates.
5. He dies and rots, is susceptible to disease and corruption.
6. He spawns his young in a terrifyingly unmechanical way, and yet his young are also sentient.
7. He kills.
8. He can overpower a robot.
9. He dismantles robots, though none but other men know what he does with their parts.
10. He is the antithesis of the robot. If the robot represents the proper way of life, man is the improper.
11. Man stalks in safety, registering to the robot's senses, unless clearly seen, as only another harmless animal—until it is too late.
12. He can be permanently killed only with a wooden implement. Wood is the product of an organic lifeform, yet it lasts as metal does; halfway between flesh and metal, it can destroy human flesh.
13. If killed in any other way, by any means other than wood, the man will only appear to be dead. In reality, the moment that he drops before his assailant, he at once springs to life elsewhere, unharmed, in a new body.
Although the list goes on, Curanov abandons that avenue of thought, for it disturbs him deeply. Tuttle's fantasy can be nothing more than that—conjecture, supposition, imagination. If the human being actually existed, how could one believe the Central Agency's prime rule: that the universe is, in every way, entirely logical and rational?
* * *
"The rifles are gone," Tuttle said when Curanov slid out of the deactivation nook and got to his feet. "Gone. All of them. That's why I recalled you."
"Gone?" Curanov asked, looking at the shelf where the weapons had been. "Gone where?"
"Leeke's taken them," Steffan said. He stood by the window, his long, bluish arms beaded with cold droplets of water precipitated out of the air.
"Is Leeke gone too?" Curanov asked.
He thought about this, then said, "But where would he go in the storm? And why would he need all the rifles?"
"I'm sure it's nothing to be concerned about," Steffan said. "He must have had a good reason, and he can tell us all about it when he comes back."
Tuttle said, "If he comes back."
Curanov said, "Tuttle, you sound as if you think he might be in danger."
"In light of what's happened recently—those prints we found—I'd say that could be a possibility."
Steffan scoffed at this.
"Whatever's happening," Tuttle said, "you must admit it's odd." He turned to Curanov. "I wish we hadn't submitted to the operations before we came out here. I'd do anything to have my full senses again." He hesitated. "I think we have to find Leeke."
"He'll be back," Steffan argued. "He'll return when he wants to return."
"I'm still in favor of initiating a search," Tuttle said.
Curanov went to the window and stood next to Steffan, gazing out at the driving snow. The ground was covered with at least twelve inches of new powder; the proud trees had been bowed under the white weight; and snow continued to fall faster than Curanov had ever seen it in all his many journeys.
"Well?" Tuttle asked again.
"I concur," Curanov said. "We should look for him, but we should do it together. With our lessened perceptions, we might easily get separated and lost out there. If one of us became damaged in a fall, he might experience a complete battery depletion before anyone found him."
"You're right." Tuttle said. He turned to Steffan. "And you?"
"Oh, all right," Steffan said crossly. "I'll come along."
* * *
Their torches cut bright wounds in the darkness but did little to melt through the curtain of wind-driven snow. They walked abreast around the lodge, continuing a circle search. Each time that they completed another turn about the building, they widened their search pattern. They decided to cover all the open land, but they would not enter the forest even if they hadn't located Leeke elsewhere. They agreed to this limitation, though none—not even Steffan—admitted that half the reason for ignoring the woods was a purely irrational fear of what might live among the trees.
In the end, however, it was not necessary to enter the woods, for they found Leeke less than twenty yards away from the lodge. He was lying on his side in the snow.
"He's been terminated," Steffan said.
The others didn't need to be told.
Both of Leeke's legs were missing.
"Who could have done something like this?" Steffan asked.
Neither Tuttle nor Curanov answered him.
Leeke's head hung limply on his neck, because several of the links in his ring cable had been bent out of alignment. His visual receptors had been smashed, and the mechanism behind them ripped out through the shattered sockets.
When Curanov bent closer, he saw that someone had poked a sharp object into Leeke's data vaults, through his eye tubes, and scrambled his tapes into a useless mess. He hoped that poor Leeke had been dead by then.
"Horrible," Steffan said. He turned away from the grisly scene, began to walk back to the lodge, but stopped abruptly as he realized that he should not be out of the other robots' company. He shuddered mentally.
"What should we do with him?" Tuttle asked.
"Leave him," Curanov said.
"Here to rust?"
"He'll sense nothing more."
We should be getting back," Curanov said, shining his light around the snowy scene. "We shouldn't expose ourselves."
Keeping close to one another, they returned to the lodge.
As they walked, Curanov reviewed certain disturbing data: 9. He dismantles robots, though none but other men know what he does with their parts ....
* * *
"As I see it," Curanov told them when they were once again in the lodge, "Leeke did not take the rifles. Someone—or something—entered the lodge to steal them. Leeke must have come out of his inactivation nook just as the culprits were leaving. Without pausing to wake us, he gave chase."
"Or was forced to go with them," Tuttle said.
"I doubt that he was taken out by force," Curanov said. "In the lodge, with enough light to see by and enough space to maneuver in, even with lessened perceptions, Leeke could have kept himself from being hurt or forced to leave. However, once he was outside, in the storm, he was at their mercy."