View Full Version : Mote In God's Eye, The - Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

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06-07-2007, 08:15 PM
Chapter 16 - Idiot Savant

Dr. Buckman was on duty in the observation room when the blinding laser signal from the inner system went out.
There was a planet there all right, about the size of Earth, with a distorting fringe of transparent atmosphere...Jfenadded in satisfaction; that was a lot of detail to see.iCthis distance. The Navy had good equipment and they used it well, Some of the petty officers would make good astronomical assistants; pity they were wasted here
What was left of his astronomy section went to work analyzing data from observations of the planet, and Buckman called Captain Blaine.
"I wish you'd get me back some of my men," he complained. "They're all standing around the lounge watching the Mode."
Blaine shrugged. He could hardly order the scientists around. Buckman's management of his department was his own affair. "Do the best you can, Doctor. Everyone's curious about the alien. Even my Sailing Master, who's got no business down there at all. What have you got so far? Is it a terrestrial planet?"
"In a manner of speaking. A touch smaller than Earth, with a water-oxygen atmosphere. But there are traces in the spectrum that have me intrigued. The helium line is very strong, far too strong. I suspect the data."
"A strong helium line? One percent or thereabouts?"
"It would be if the reading were correct, but frankly-Why did you say that?"
"The breathing air in the Motie ship was 1 percent helium, with some rather odd components; I think your reading is accurate."
"But, Captain, there's no way a terrestrial planet could hold that much helium! It has to be spurious. Some of the other lines are even worse."
"Ketones? Hydrocarbon complexes?"
"Dr. Buckman, I think you'd better have a look at Mr. Whitbread's report on the atmosphere in the Mote ship. You'll find it in the computer. And take a neutrino reading, please."
"That won't be convenient, Captain."
"Take it anyway," Rod told the stubborn, bony face on the intercom screen. "We need to know the state of their industry."
Buckman snapped, "Are you trying to make war on them?"
"Not yet," Blaine answered; and let it go at that. "While you've got the instrumention set up, take a neutrino reading on the asteroid the Motie ship came from. It's quite a way outside the Trojan point cluster, so you won't have a problem with background emissions."
"Captain, this will interfere with my work!"
"I'll send you an Officer to help out." Rod thought rapidly, "Potter. I'll give you Mr. Potter as an assistant." Potter should like that. "This work is necessary, Dr. Buckman. The more we know about them, the more easily we can talk to them. The sooner we can talk to them, the sooner we can interpret their own astronomical observations." That ought to get him.
Buckman frowned. "Why, that's true. I hadn't thought of that at all."
"Fine, Doctor." Rod clicked off before Buckman could voice a further protest. Then he turned to Midshipman Whitbread in the doorway. "Come in and sit down, Mr. Whitbread."
"Thank you, sir." Whitbread sat. The chairs in the Captain's watch cabin were nettng on a steel frame, lightweight but comfortable. Whitbread perched on the very edge of one. Cargill handed him a coffee cup, which he held in both hands. He looked painfully alert.
Cargill said, "Relax, boy."
Nothing happened.
Rod said, "Whitbread, let me tell you something. Everyone on this ship wants to pick your brain, not later, but now. I get first crack because I'm Captain. When we're finished, I'll turn you over to Horvath and his people. When they're finished with you, if ever, you'll go off watch. You'll think then that you're about to get some sleep, but no. The gun room will want the whole story. They'll be coming off watch at staggered intervals, so you'll have to repeat everything half a dozen times. Are you getting the picture?"
Whitbread was dismayed-as he ought to have been.
"Right, then. Set your coffee down on the niche. Good. Now slide back until your spine touches the chair back. Now relax, daminit! Close your eyes."
For a wonder, Whitbread did. After a moment he smiled blissfully.
"I've got the recorder off," Blaine told him-which wasn't true. "We'll get your formal report later. What I want now is facts, impressions, anything you want to say. My immediate problem is whether to stop that Mote ship."
"Can we? Still? Sir?"
Blaine glanced at Cargill. The First Lieutenant nodded. "It's only half an hour away. We could stop it any time in the next couple of days. No protective Field, remember? And the hull looked to be flimsy enough through your helmet camera. Two minutes from the forward batteries would vaporize the whole ship, no sweat."
"Or," Blaine said, "we could catch up with it, knock out its drive, and take it in tow. The Chief Engineer would give a year's salary to take that electromagnetic fusion system apart. So would the Imperial Traders' Association; that thing's perfect for asteroid mining."
"I'd vote against that," Whitbread said with his eyes closed. "If this were a democracy. Sir."
"It isn't, and the Admiral's inclined to grab that Mote ship. So are some of the scientists, but Horvath's against it. Why are you?"
"It would be the first hostile act, sir. I'd avoid that right up until the Moties tried to destroy MacArthur." Whitbread opened his eyes. "Even then, wouldn't the Field scare them off? We're in their home system, Captain, and we did come to see if we could get along with them-at least I think we did, sir."
Cargill chuckled. "Sounds just like Dr. Horvath, doesn't he, Skipper?"
"Besides, sir, what is the Motie ship doing that might interfere with us?"
"Going home alone, probably with a message."
"I don't think there was a message, sir, He didn't do anything that might have been writing, and he didn't talk at all."
"She," Elaine told him. "The biologists say the Motie is female. Both of the little ones are too, and one is pregnant."
"Pregnant. Should I have noticed that, sir?"
Blaine grinned. "What would you have looked for? And where? You didn't even notice that all the little ones have four arms each."
• "Never mind that, Mr. Whitbread. You saw no messages, but then you didn't know the Motie was programming-or building-an autopilot until the ship took off. And an empty ship is a message all by itself. We ready for visitors, Jack?"
Cargill nodded. "And if we're not, you can bet Lenin is."
"Don't count on too much help from Lenin, Number One. Kutuzov thinks it might be interesting to see what kind of account of herself MacArthur could give against the Moties. He might not do anything but watch, then run for home."
"Is that-that doesn't sound much like the Admiral, sir," Cargill protested.
"It sounds like him if you'd overheard the fight he had with Dr. Horvath. Our Minister of Science keeps telling the Admiral to keep out of the way, and Kutuzov is about to take him at his word." Blaine turned to his midshipman. "You don't have to spread this around the gun room either, Whitbread."
"No, sir."
"Now, while we've got the time, let's see what you can remember about that Motie ship." Blaine touched controls and several views of the alien craft appeared on his wall screens. "This is what the computer knows so far," Rod explained. "We've mapped some of the interior already. There was no shielding from our probes, nothing to hide, but that doesn't make it all that easy to understand."
Blaine took up a light pointer. "These areas held liquid hydrogen. Now there was heavy machinery here; did you see any of it?"
"No, sir, but that back panel looked as if it would roll up."
"Good." Blake nodded and Cargill sketched it in with the screen stylus.
"Like that?" the First Lieutenant asked. "Fine." He touched the record button. "Now, we know there was quite a lot of hydrogen fuel hidden away. And that drive of theirs ionizes, heats, and enriches the hydrogen with hot carbon vapor. It takes a lot of machinery to do that. Where was it?"
"Sir, shouldn't the Chief Engineer be here?"
"He should be here, Mr. Whitbread. Unfortunately there are about ten things happening at once on this ship, and Commander Sinclair is needed elsewhere. He'll get his chance at you soon enough- Jack, let's not forget the Mote design philosophy. We keep looking for separate mechanisms to do each job, but on that probe, everything did four or five overlapping things at once, so to speak. It could be we're looking for too much machinery."
"Yes, sir-but, Captain, no matter how you slice it, that ship had to perform a minimum number of functions. Had to. And we can't find equipment enough for half of them."
"Not with our technology, anyway," Blaine said thoughtfully. Then he grinned, a young man's broad and impertinent grin. "We may be looking for a combination microwave oven, fuel ionizer, and sauna. OK, now the alien herself. Your impressions, Whitbread. Is it that intelligent?"
"She didn't understand anything I said. Except that one time, when I screamed 'Turn off the force field!' She understood that right away. Otherwise nothing."
"You've edited that a bit, lad," Cargill said. "But never mind. What do you think, boy? Does the alien understand Anglic? Is she faking?"
"I don't know. She didn't even understand my gestures, except once. That was when I handed her her own suit- and that's a pretty pointed hint, sir."
"She may simply be stupid," Rod said.
"She's an asteroid miner, Captain," Cargill said slowly. "That's fairly certain. At least that's an asteroid miner's ship. The hooks and clamps at the stern have to be for hanging on durable cargo, like ore and air-bearing rock."
"So?" Elaine prompted.
"I've known some asteroid miners, Skipper. They tend to be stubborn, independent, self-reliant to the point of eccentricity, and close-mouthed. They'll trust each other with their lives, but not with their women or property. And they forget how to talk out there; at least it seems that way."
They both looked hopefully at Whitbread, who said, "I don't know, sir. I just don't know. She's not stupid. You should have seen her hands moving around in the guts of the instrument panel, rewiring, making new circuits, recalibrating half a dozen things at once, it looked like. Maybe-maybe our sign language just doesn't work. I don't know why."
Rod pushed a finger along the knot in his nose. "It might be surprising if it did work," he said thoughtfully. "And this is one example of a completely alien race. If we were aliens and picked up an asteroid miner, what conclusions would we draw about the Empire?" Blaine filled his coffee cup, then Whitbread's. "Well, Horvath's team is more likely to come up with something than we are, they have the Motie to work with."

Sally Fowler watched the Motie with a feeling of deep frustration. "I can't decide whether she's stupid or I am. Did you see what happened when I drew her a diagram of the Pythagorean Theorem?"
"Uh huh." Renner's grin was no help at all. "She took your pocket computer apart and put it back together again. She didn't draw anything. She's stupid in some ways, though," he said more seriously. "Meaning no insult to our eminently trustworthy selves, she's too damned trusting. Maybe she's low on survival instincts."
Sally nodded and watched the Motie at work.
"She's a genius at building things," Renner said. "But she doesn't understand language, gestures, or pictures. Could the bloody alien be a genius and a moron at the same time?"
"Idiot savant," Sally murmured. "It happens with humans, but it's quite rare. Imbecile children with the ability to extract cube roots and do logarithms in their heads. Mathematical whizzes who can't buckle their shoes."
"It's a difference in perceptions." Horvath had been engaged in a more thorough study of the small Moties. "One has to learn that a picture is a picture. Your drawings- Good God, what's it doing now?"
Someone screamed in the companionway.
Ostensibly Cargill was delivering Whitbread to the scientists. Actually, he had no doubt that Whitbread could have found his way to the wardroom where they had brought the Moties while artificers built a cage for the miniatures in the petty officers' lounge. But Jack Cargill was curious.
Halfway through the companionway he caught his first sight of the alien. It was disassembling the wardroom coffee maker-an act of malice made all the more diabolical by the innocence of her smile.
She cringed away at Cargill's yell-and the First Lieutenant saw that it was too late. Tiny screws and parts were scattered across the table. The alien had broken the percolator tube, possibly to analyze the soldering technique. Bits of the timing mechanism were neatly arrayed. The Motie had pulled the cylindrical shell open along its welded seam.
Cargill found that the Science Minister had him by the arm. "You're frightening the alien," Horvath said in a low voice. "Go away, please."
"Doctor, have the goodness to tell me -- "
"Elsewhere." Horvath propelled him to the other end of the room. Cargill glimpsed the miniature aliens squatting on the games table, surrounded by members of the life sciences group and by samples from the galley: grain, bread, carrots and celery, defrosted raw and cooked meat. "Now," said Horvath. "What do you mean by barging into -- "
"That monster ruined the wardroom coffee maker!"
"We're lucky," Midshipman Whitbread said irreverently.
"She was trying to take apart the number-four air lock mechanism until I stopped her."
"All she's interested in is tools." Horvath was pointedly ignoring Cargill's agitation. "For once I even agree with Admiral Kutuzov. The alien must not be allowed to see the Alderson Drive or the Field generators. She seems able to deduce what a thing is for and how it works almost without touching it."
"Never mind that!" Cargill said. "Couldn't you have given the Motie something else to play with? That coffee maker is half repairs anyway. Nobody could figure out how it's made since Sandy Sinclair finished with it. And the Motie's broken some of the parts."
"If they were that easy to break, they can probably be fixed," Horvath said soothingly. "Look, we can give you one of the urns from the labs, or have one of our techs- Ah, Miss Fowler, has the alien calmed down? Now, Mr Whitbread? We're glad you're here; we've been waiting for you, as the only man to have actually communicated with the alien. Here, Commander Cargill, please stay away from the Motie -- "
But Cargill was halfway across the room. The alien cringed a bit, but Cargill stayed well out of her reach. He glowered at her as he considered his coffee maker. It had been reassembled.
The Motie pulled away from Sally Fowler. She found a conical plastic container, filled it with tap water, and used it to fill the coffee maker. One of the wardroom stewards sniggered.
The Motie poured in two containers of water, inserted the grounds basket, and waited.
The amused steward looked to Cargill, who nodded. The messboy dug out the tin of ground coffee, used the measuring spoon, and started the urn. The alien watched closely all the while. So did one of the miniatures, despite the distraction of a biologist waving a carrot in her face. "It did that before, watched me make the coffee, sir," the steward said. "Thought it might want some, but the scientists didn't offer it none."
"We may have a godawful mess here in a minute, Ernie. Stand by to clean up." Cargill turned to Sally. "How good is that monster at putting things together again?"
"Quite good," Sally told him. "She fixed my pocket computer."
The percolator bubbled, and the water in the indicator tube turned brown. Cargill hesitantly poured a cup and tasted. "Why, that's all right," he said. He handed the cup to the Mode.
She tasted the black, bitter brew, squawled, and threw the cup at the bulkhead.

Sally led Whitbread into the wardroom pantry. "You made the Motie understand you. How?"
"It was only that once," Whitbread said. "I've been wondering if I made a mistake. Could she have decided to let me loose about the time I opened my helmet and screamed?"
Sally scowled. "She just stands there. She doesn't even seem to know we're trying to talk to her. And she never tries to talk back..." She dropped her voice, muttering mostly to herself. "It is a basic characteristic of intelligent species that they attempt to communicate. Whitbread, what's your first name?"
Whitbread was startled. "Jonathon, my lady."
"All right, Jonathon, I'm Sally. As man to woman, Jonathon, what in blazes am I doing wrong? Why won't she try to talk to me?"
"Well, Sally," Whitbread said tentatively. He liked the taste of the name. And she wasn't more than a couple of years older than he was- "Sally, I could think of half a dozen reasons. Maybe she reads minds."
"What would that have to do with -- "
"She wouldn't know about language, would she? What you're trying to teach wouldn't make sense. Maybe she can only read our minds when we're screaming mad, like I was."
"Or Commander Cargill was -- " Sally said thoughtfully. "She did move away from the coffee maker. But not for long. No, I don't believe it."
"Neither do I. I think she's lying."
"Playing dumb. She doesn't know what to tell us, so she tells us nothing. Plays for time. She is interested in our machinery. This gives her time to learn about it."
Sally nodded slowly. "One of the biologists had the same idea. That she's waiting for instructions, and learning as much as she can until they come- Jonathon, how would we catch her at it?"
"I don't think we do," Whitbread said slowly. "How would you catch an intelligent mouse playing dumb, if you'd never seen a mouse and neither had anyone else?"
"Blazes. Well, we'll just have to keep on trying." She frowned, thinking of the Motie's performance with the coffee maker, then gave Whitbread a long, thoughtful look. "You're exhausted. Go get some sleep, there's nothing you need to tell us right away, is there?"
"No." Whitbread yawned. There was a scampering sound behind him and they both turned quickly, but there was nothing there. "Speaking of mice," Whitbread said.
"How can they live on a steel ship?" Sally asked.
Whitbread shrugged. "They come aboard with the food supplies, even in personal gear. Once in a while we evacuate portions of the ship, move the crew around, and open up to space, to control them, but we never get them all. This trip, with all the extra personnel aboard, we haven't even been able to do that."
"Interesting." Sally nodded. "Mice can live almost anywhere humans can-you know, there are probably as many mice in the galaxy as people? We've carried them to nearly every planet. Jonathon, are the miniatures mice?"
Whitbread shrugged. "She certainly didn't care about them. Killed all but two-but why bring two aboard? And a randomly selected two at that."
Sally nodded again. "We watched her catch them." She laughed suddenly. "And Mr. Renner was wondering if they were baby Moties! Get to sleep, Jonathon. We'll see you in ten hours or so."