Margie was scornful. "School? What's there to write about school? I hate school."
Margie always hated school, but now she hated it more than ever. The mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse until her mother had shaken her head sorrowfully and sent for the County Inspector.
He was a round little man with a red face and a whole box of tools with dials and wires. He smiled at Margie and gave her an apple, then took the teacher apart. Margie had hoped he wouldn't know how to put it together again, but he knew how all right, and, after an hour or so, there it was again, large and black and ugly, with a big screen on which all the lessons were shown and the questions were asked. That wasn't so bad. The part Margie hated most was the slot where she had to put homework and test papers. She always had to write them out in a punch code they made her leam when she was six years old, and the mechanical teacher calculated the mark in no time.
The Inspector had smiled after he was finished and patted Margie's head. He said to her mother, "It's not the little girl's fault, Mrs. Jones. I think the geography sector was geared a little too quick. Those things happen sometimes. I've slowed it up to an average ten-year level. Actually, the over-all pattern of her progress is quite satisfactory." And he patted Margie's head again.
Margie was disappointed. She had been hoping they would take the teacher away altogether. They had once taken Tommy's teacher away for nearly a month because the history sector had blanked out completely.
So she said to Tommy, "Why would anyone write about school?"
Tommy looked at her with very superior eyes. "Because it's not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago." He added loftily, pronouncing the word carefully, "Centuries ago."
Margie was hurt. "Well, I don't know what kind of school they had all that time ago." She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, "Anyway, they had a teacher."
"Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn't a regular teacher. It was a man."
"A man? How could a man be a teacher?"
"Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions."
"A man isn't smart enough."
"Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher."
"He can't. A man can't know as much as a teacher."
"He knows almost as much, I betcha."
Margie wasn't prepared to dispute that. She said, "I wouldn't want a strange man in my house to teach me."
Tommy screamed with laughter. "You don't know much, Margie. The teachers didn't live in the house. They had a special building and all the kids went there."
"And all the kids learned the same thing?"
"Sure, if they were the same age."
"But my mother says a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches and that each kid has to be taught differently."
"Just the same they didn't do it that way then. If you don't like it, you don't have to read the book."
"I didn't say I didn't like it," Margie said quickly. She wanted to read about those funny schools.
They weren't even half-finished when Margie's mother called, "Margie! School!"
Margie looked up. "Not yet, Mamma."
"Now!" said Mrs. Jones. "And it's probably time for Tommy, too."
Margie said to Tommy, "Can I read the book some more with you after school?"
"Maybe," he said nonchalantly. He walked away whistling, the dusty old book tucked beneath his arm.
Margie went into the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her. It was always on at the same time every day except Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.
The screen was lit up, and it said: "Today's arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday's homework in the proper slot."
Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather's grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.
And the teachers were people...
The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: "When we add the fractions 1/2 and l/4-"
Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.
Noel Meyerhof consulted the list he had prepared and chose which item was to be first. As usual, he relied mainly on intuition.
He was dwarfed by the machine he faced, though only the smallest portion of the latter was in view. That didn't matter. He spoke with the offhand confidence of one who thoroughly knew he was master.
"Johnson," he said, "came home unexpectedly from a business trip to find his wife in the arms of his best friend. He staggered back and said, 'Max! I'm married to the lady so I have to. But why you?' "
Meyerhof thought: Okay, let that trickle down into its guts and gurgle about a bit.
And a voice behind him said, "Hey."
Meyerhof erased the sound of that monosyllable and put the circuit he was using into neutral. He whirled and said, "I'm working. Don't you knock?"
He did not smile as he customarily did in greeting Timothy Whistler, a senior analyst with whom he dealt as often as with any. He frowned as he would have for an interruption by a stranger, wrinkling his thin face into a distortion that seemed to extend to his hair, rumpling it more than ever.
Whistler shrugged. He wore his white lab coat with his fists pressing down within its pockets and creasing it into tense vertical lines. "I knocked. You didn't answer. The operations signal wasn't on."
Meyerhof grunted. It wasn't at that. He'd been thinking about this new project too intensively and he was forgetting little details.
And yet he could scarcely blame himself for that. This thing was important.
He didn't know why it was, of course. Grand Masters rarely did. That's what made them Grand Masters; the fact that they were beyond reason. How else could the human mind keep up with that ten-mile-long lump of solidified reason that men called Multivac, the most complex computer ever built?
Meyerhof said, "I am working. Is there something important on your mind?"
"Nothing that can't be postponed. There are a few holes in the answer on the hyperspatial-" Whistler did a double take and his face took on a rueful look of uncertainty. "Working?"
"Yes. What about it?"
"But-" He looked about, staring into the crannies of the shallow room that faced the banks upon banks of relays that formed a small portion of Multivac. "There isn't anyone here at that."
"Who said there was, or should be?"
"You were telling one of your jokes, weren't you?"
Whistler forced a smile. "Don't tell me you were telling a joke to Multivac?"
Meyerhof stiffened. "Why not?"
Meyerhof stared the other down. "I don't have to account to you. Or to anyone."
"Good Lord, of course not. I was curious, that's all... But then, if you're working, I'll leave." He looked about once more, frowning.
"Do so," said Meyerhof. His eyes followed the other out and then he activated the operations signal with a savage punch of his finger.
He strode the length of the room and back, getting himself in hand. Damn Whistler! Damn them all! Because he didn't bother to hold those technicians, analysts and mechanics at the proper social distance, because he treated them as though they, too, were creative artists, they took these liberties.
He thought grimly: They can't even tell jokes decently.
And instantly that brought him back to the task in hand. He sat down again. Devil take them all.
He threw the proper Multivac circuit back into operation and said, "The ship's steward stopped at the rail of the ship during a particularly rough ocean crossing and gazed compassionately at the man whose slumped position over the rail and whose intensity of gaze toward the depths betokened all too well the ravages of seasickness.
"Gently, the steward patted the man's shoulder. 'Cheer up, sir,' he murmured. 'I know it seems bad, but really, you know, nobody ever dies of seasickness.'
"The afflicted gentleman lifted his greenish, tortured face to his comforter and gasped in hoarse accents, 'Don't say that, man. For Heaven's sake, don't say that. It's only the hope of dying that's keeping me alive.' "
Timothy Whistler, a bit preoccupied, nevertheless smiled and nodded as he passed the secretary's desk. She smiled back at him.
Here, he thought, was an archaic item in this computer-ridden world of the twenty-first century, a human secretary. But then perhaps it was natural that such an institution should survive here in the very citadel of computerdom; in the gigantic world corporation that handled Multivac. With Multivac filling the horizons, lesser computers for trivial tasks would have been in poor taste.
Whistler stepped into Abram Trask's office. That government official paused in his careful task of lighting a pipe; his dark eyes flicked in Whistler's direction and his beaked nose stood out sharply and prominently against the rectangle of window behind him.
"Ah, there, Whistler. Sit down. Sit down."
Whistler did so. "I think we've got a problem, Trask."
Trask half-smiled. "Not a technical one, I hope. I'm just an innocent politician." (It was one of his favorite phrases.)
"It involves Meyerhof."
Trask sat down instantly and looked acutely miserable. "Are you sure?"
Whistler understood the other's sudden unhappiness well. Trask was the government official in charge of the Division of Computers and Automation of the Department of the Interior. He was expected to deal with matters of policy involving the human satellites of Multivac, just as those technically trained satellites were expected to deal with Multivac itself.
But a Grand Master was more than just a satellite. More, even, than just a human.
Early in the history of Multivac, it had become apparent that the bottleneck was the questioning procedure. Multivac could answer the problem of humanity, all the problems, if-if it were asked meaningful questions. But as knowledge accumulated at an ever-faster rate, it became ever more difficult to locate those meaningful questions.
Reason alone wouldn't do. What was needed was a rare type of intuition; the same faculty of mind (only much more intensified) that made a grand master at chess. A mind was needed of the sort that could see through the quadrillions of chess patterns to find the one best move, and do it in a matter of minutes.
Trask moved restlessly. "What's Meyerhof been doing?"
"He's introduced a line of questioning that I find disturbing."
"Oh, come on, Whistler. Is that all? You can't stop a Grand Master from going through any line of questioning he chooses. Neither you nor I are equipped to judge the worth of his questions. You know that. I know you know that."
"I do. Of course. But I also know Meyerhof. Have you ever met him socially?"
"Good Lord, no. Does anyone meet any Grand Master socially?"
"Don't take that attitude, Trask. They're human and they're to be pitied. Have you ever thought what it must be like to be a Grand Master; to know there are only some twelve like you in the world; to know that only one or two come up per generation; that the world depends on you; that a thousand mathematicians, logicians, psychologists and physical scientists wait on you?"
Trask shrugged and muttered, "Good Lord, I'd feel king of the world."
"I don't think you would," said the senior analyst impatiently. "They feel kings of nothing. They have no equal to talk to, no sensation of belonging. Listen, Meyerhof never misses a chance to get together with the boys. He isn't married, naturally; he doesn't drink; he has no natural social touch-yet he forces himself into company because he must. And do you know what he does when he gets together with us, and that's at least once a week?"
"I haven't the least idea," said the government man. "This is all new to me."
"He's a jokester."
"He tells jokes. Good ones. He's terrific. He can take any story, however old and dull, and make it sound good. It's the way he tells it. He has a flair."
"I see. Well, good."
"Or bad. These jokes are important to him." Whistler put both elbows on Trask's desk, bit at a thumbnail and stared into the air. "He's different, he knows he's different and these jokes are the one way he feels he can get the rest of us ordinary schmoes to accept him. We laugh, we howl, we clap him on the back and even forget he's a Grand Master. It's the only hold he has on the rest of us."
"This is all interesting. I didn't know you were such a psychologist. Still, where does this lead?"
"Just this. What do you suppose happens if Meyerhof runs out of jokes?"
"What?" The government man stared blankly.
"If he starts repeating himself? If his audience starts laughing less heartily, or stops laughing altogether? It's his only hold on our approval. Without it, he'll be alone and then what would happen to him? After all, Trask, he's one of the dozen men mankind can't do without. We can't let anything happen to him. I don't mean just physical things. We can't even let him get too unhappy. Who knows how that might affect his intuition?"
"Well, has he started repeating himself?"
"Not as far as I know, but I think he thinks he has."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I've heard him telling jokes to Multivac."
"Accidentally! I walked in on him and he threw me out. He was savage. He's usually good-natured enough, and I consider it a bad sign that he was so upset at the intrusion. But the fact remains that he was telling a joke to Multivac, and I'm convinced it was one of a series."
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