‘This is one of the repair shops,’ he told her.
She noticed the different sections allotted to the mending or replacement of damaged tentacles, legs, lenses or other parts.
‘There seem to be a lot of breakages,’ she said.
‘There are, but it doesn’t matter. Once we tried giving the machines a more complex nervous system for their own protection. It worked, but we gave it up. It caused unnecessary pain when there was an accident, and the parts are very easily renewed. There is only one thing which we cannot replace, and that is memory, because each individual’s memory is built up of his own accumulation of observations. If that is smashed, a fresh memory blank must be put in and the machine has to begin all over again. It is as near to death as a machine can come for it has lost everything which built its personality.’
Joan was reminded of a question which she had several times intended to ask:
‘Those queer machines in the bushes and on the desert there’s nothing like them here. What are they?’
‘Mistakes, mostly. Mistakes or experiments which have either escaped or been turned out there to see how they survive.’
‘But why haven’t you destroyed them?’
‘They don’t worry us and they seldom come near the cities. Usually they roam about in bands. You see, they have no factories and if anything goes wrong, they must rebuild themselves from one another’s parts. There is still such a thing as luck in the world, and it’s not impossible that the “mistakes” may prove valuable in teaching the rest something.
‘The machines are by no means perfect yet probably they never will be so there are constant attempts to improve them. At one time we thought we could build a machine which need not start with blank memory plates. It would save the time spent in building memories education, if you like to call it that. A groundwork of artificial memory was built in to give them a start usually with deplorable results. Now we think it impossible, but for many years experimenters went on trying and it was during that time that most of the “mistakes” were created. If one takes these machines’ he waved a hand around him ‘if one takes these as normal, one might say that those in the desert are mad. Nowadays we try (or, rather, the machines try, for they build themselves) very little tampering with mind.’
‘Mind,’ Joan repeated. ‘I wish I could grasp that. A mechanical brain in control I find difficult to understand: a mechanical mind, impossible.’
Vaygan looked puzzled. ‘Mind is the control of brain ‘ by memory why should that be hard to understand?’
Joan gave it up. How could she explain one tenth of her difficulties to a man who regarded machines as a race of beings differing from himself only in the material of their construction?
After her medical examination an affair of blood testing machines, mechanical ultra short wave cameras and automatic response registers Vaygan took her back to the room on the third level of the central building. She shed her air suit and helmet with relief. ‘,
‘When shall we know when I can meet the others?’ she asked. He thought it likely that the reports of the tests would be made the next morning.
‘And what about my friends?’ she went on. ‘What is happening to them?’
She half hoped that he would switch on the television panel again, but the idea did not seem to occur to him. He said:
‘The machines are looking after them.’
‘What do you think they will do?’
‘They’re going to send them back very soon.’
‘Certainly. Your friends could not live peacefully with our machines. They do not understand them. Nor could your people mix with ours; there is too much difference. Your race is young and ambitious; ours has that peace which the approach of death is said to give to the aged. As a race, we are resigned. .’
He stood beside the window. The sunlight was slanting now. The spaces between the buildings were thrown into deep shadow, beyond them the arid red sand still sparkled as though it quivered.
‘As a race…’ ,Joan said. ‘But you? What are you thinking as a man, Vaygan?’
His smile was wistful as he turned to her.
‘I was not so much thinking as feeling, feeling history.’
‘The growing pains of young civilizations. Mars was not always old, you know. In its adolescence there were ambitions, wars, victories, defeats and, above all, hopes. It was a beautiful world. There were trees, animals, flowers; there were seasons when the leaves came and seasons when they fell; there were men and women in their millions. We have histories. . .
‘But then, very many thousands of years ago Mars began to grow old. The water became scarcer and scarcer; that united us. For the first time in our history all the nations worked together, and they built the great canals which kept our soil fertile for many generations. But it was only a temporary victory. There were always desert patches, and as time went on they spread like a malignant disease. They drove back the plants until it was only on the canal banks that anything could grow.
‘Our air grew thinner. It leaked slowly away into space until life in the open became impossible for us: We have put off the end in one way and another; cling ing until the last as life always clings. We don’t know why. Everything must end in time. In some hundreds of millions of years the sun itself will flicker for the last time and every trace of life will vanish from the system yet we have struggled to preserve ourselves against our reason for a few generations longer. And so, in spite of all we have done and everything we know, we have come to a dwindling end; a few listless survivors who must spend their lives in a prison of their own building.
‘I was thinking of all that we have lost: all that you still have. And of the things that I have never had. We are born old. I never knew the joy, energy and ambitions which are in youth yet I know the loss and I feel that I have been robbed of my heritage. You can dream of the future and of your children’s future: we can dream of nothing but the past. I think that I should be content with that as very old people are content, but I am not. I have seen the men of your race and I am jealous of them. Against my reason I resent the fate which has placed me in a dying world where existence has no features. It is as though a forgotten thing had revived in me. An unfamiliar stirring, or perhaps an empty aching impossible of fulfilment. I feel that I could cry out: “Give me life. Let me live before I die.”’
He paused and looked at her again, searching her face.
‘You don’t understand you can’t understand. Youth flows in you; it rises in your veins as sap used to rise in our trees. It colours every thought of yours, this hope, this sense of the future. Even when you are old you will not feel the tired dry barrenness which we can never forget.’
‘And yet,’ Joan said gently, ‘you are not speaking now as if life held nothing for you. You talked before as if you had forgotten emotion, and yet now—
‘I had. I had forgotten it. We must forget it in this world … This is not the real Vaygan talking to you now; not the Vaygan you met last night. This is a younger Vaygan; the Vaygan who might have been a million years ago. The Vaygan who dare not exist now lest he should die of discouragement.’
‘It is you who have done this to me. You and those others with you. But mostly you, yourself. You have given me a glimpse, a vision of people who still live. There is something how shall I say? a spirit in you and around you. It is the life force of young things striving, reaching out, still climbing upward to the peaks of life. We crossed those peaks long ago and we have been descending on the other side these thousands of years. Yet there is this thing which calls from you to me and stirs in me those vestiges of a Vaygan who in the long forgotten ages was joyously scaling those peaks with no knowledge of the futility which lay beyond. This thing almost makes me think against my better knowledge that the end is not just the coldness of universal cinders. I feel now that only to have lived would have been an achievement perhaps only to have died, like those men in the rocket. At least they knew hope before they died.’