Norby The Mixed-Up Robot


Isaac Asimov, Janet Asimov

To all who like our robot stories,

especially to

H. Read Evans and Robert E. Warnick



1. Into Trouble And Out Of School

 

"Trouble?" asked Jeff, a little shakily. "Why am I in trouble?" He was only fourteen, for all his height, and it seemed to him that he had been asking that question for at least twelve of those years.

At first he had had to ask it of his parents, then his older brother, his teacher, and his computer control. It hadn't been too bad then, but having to ask it now of the head of the Space Command was setting a new record. He didn't exactly feel good about it.

Standing right next to Jeff was Agent Two Gidlow, who was no help at all. He was dressed entirely in gray, and his angry red eyes glared at Jeff with contempt. Even his skin seemed sallow and off-color.

"You're not only in trouble," Gidlow said to Jeff. "You are trouble. " He turned to Admiral Yobo and cut the air horizontally with a sweep of his hand, as if that were Jeff's neck it was passing through. "Admiral, when a troublemaker muddles the computers…"

The admiral stayed calm. The Space Academy, which was under Space Command, had serious problems to face and he was at the cutting edge of it all. The matter of a misbehaving cadet was not something he had to twist his insides over.

Besides, he liked Jeff, who was the kind of tall and clumsy teenager he himself had once been some years ago (though that was beside the point), and he found himself wearied now and then by Gidlow's strenuous disciplinarianism (though that was beside the point, too).

"See here, Gidlow," said Admiral Yobo with a mild frown corrugating his wide, black forehead, "why all the fuss? Remember that you are not part of the academy and have no authority here. If you're going to follow up every prank by hauling the cadet in question into my office to be grilled by Federation Security Control, I'm going to have no time for anything else. All I've gotten so far is that he was trying to sleep-learn, and there's nothing in the rules against that."

"If you do it right, there isn't, Admiral," said Gidlow. "Doing it wrong is another thing. He tied into the main computer network-he says by accident-"

"Of course by accident, Agent Gidlow," said Jeff earnestly. He pushed his curly brown hair out of his eyes and stood as straight as he could so he'd be taller than the agent. "I mean why should I do it on purpose?"

Gidlow smiled unpleasantly. His rather pointed teeth seemed as gray as his clothing and his sallow skin. "If you prefer, Cadet, you did it out of stupidity, which is no better. Admiral, I bring this to you because it is a security expulsion matter, and that's for you to handle."

"Security?"

"The way this cadet tied himself into the main computer network-by accident, he says-has resulted in the kitchen computer getting the wrong set of data."

"Data? What data?" Gidlow pursed his lips, "It would not be proper to discuss it before a cadet."

"Don't be a fool, Gidlow. If this is an expulsion matter, the young man has a right to know what he's done."

"One thing is-and it may be enough all by itself-as a result of his idiotic link-up, everything is being filtered through the kitchen computer. And this means, among other things, that all the recipes are now in Martian Colony Swahili."

The admiral, who had been playing with the buttons on his desk, began to chuckle as he stared into his private viewer. "I see that one Jefferson Wells, age fourteen, failed to pass Martian Colony Swahili last semester."

"Yes, sir," said Jeff, trying not to fidget. "I didn't seem to get the hang of it. I'm doing makeup now, sir, and I was trying to sleep-learn before the final exam next week. I'm terribly sorry about the computer. I thought I was following the directions correctly, and I can't think where I went wrong."

"You can't think, period," said Gidlow. "What it amounts to, of course, Admiral, is that until the recipes are reconverted into Terran Basic, or until the kitchen computer is reprogrammed to handle Martian Swahili, there's no way of running the kitchen. No one in Space Command is going to be able to eat. We won't even be able to have canned food released. I think," he added glumly, "we might be able to get a supply of stalk celery that hasn't yet been indexed."

"What!" roared Yobo.

Jeff stirred uneasily. He remembered with a sinking sensation that Admiral Yobo was famous for his thorough knowledge of Martian Swahili, including its colorful expletives-and also for his prodigious appetite.

"Yes, sir," said Gidlow stiffly.

"But that's ridiculous," said Admiral Yobo through clenched teeth. "The computer should know Martian."

Gidlow looked sidewise at Jeff, who was trying to stiffen his stand at attention even further. He said, almost in a whisper, "Very important secrets have been shoved into the kitchen computer, along with everything else, and Computer Control now says that everything in the kitchen computer is classified. That means the cook-robots won't work, and it will be a long haul before we can get into the kitchen computer to do anything about it."

"Which means," said the admiral, "it will be a long haul before I-before any of us can get anything to eat."

"Yes, sir, which is why this is expulsion material. In fact, we're going to have to take this cadet mentally apart before we expel him, in order to find out if he's learned any classified material."

"But Mr. Gidlow," said Jeff a little hoarsely, for his mouth had gone dry with fright-he had heard stories about what could happen to people under mental invasion-"I don't know any Swahili, not even now. The sleep-learning didn't do any good, so I didn't get any classified material. I didn't get anything except some strange Martian recipes-"

"Strange?" said the admiral, glowering. "You think Martian food is strange?"

"No, sir, that's not what I meant-"

"Admiral," Gidlow said, "he clearly got classified information he thinks are recipes. He must be taken apart."

Jeff felt desperate. "There's nothing classified in me. Just recipes. What makes them strange is that they're in Martian Colony Swahili, which I keep telling you I don't understand."

"Then how do you know they're recipes? Eh? Eh? Admiral, this little troublemaker is convicting himself with his own mouth."

"I know the Martian names for some of their dishes," said Jeff. "That's how I know. I like to go to Martian restaurants. My brother used to take me to them all the time. He always says there's nothing like Martian cooking."

"Quite right." Admiral Yobo stopped glowering and nodded. "Quite right. Your brother has good sense."

"That has nothing to do with anything, Admiral," said Gidlow. "The cadet will have to leave school and come with me. I'll find out what he knows."

"I can't leave school," said Jeff. "The semester is almost over, and I've signed up for summer school so I can learn advanced robotics and invent a hyperdrive."

Gidlow sniggered. "With your record, you'll probably use the hyperdrive to send Space Command into the Sun. No one's invented a hyperdrive, and no one ever will. And if anyone ever does, it won't be a numbskull like you. You're not going back to school, because you're suspended-permanently, I hope."

Yobo said very quietly, "Am I not the one to make that decision?"

"Yes, Admiral," said Gidlow. "But under the circumstances, you'll find you can't make any other decision. Where matters of security are concerned-"

"Please," Jeff said faintly, "it was all an accident." The dark, paneled walls of the admiral's private office seemed to be closing in on him, and Gidlow seemed to be getting bigger and grayer.

"Accident? Hah! You're a danger to the Solar Federation," said Gidlow. "And even if you weren't, your stay at the academy is over. It so happens, Admiral, that Cadet Jefferson Wells's tuition payments are long overdue. I have investigated the matter and found that there is no money with which to make the payment. The Wells family corporation is bankrupt. Farley Gordon Wells-the so-called Fargo Wells-has seen to that."

"No! That's a l-That's not true!" Jeff shouted in outrage. Admiral Yobo bent forward in his enormous chair. "Fargo Wells is the head of the family?"

"Yes, sir," said Gidlow. "Do you know him?"

"Only slightly, only slightly," said Yobo without any expression in his face. "He used to be in the fleet."

"Forced to resign-because of general incompetence, I suspect. It clearly runs in the family. And he's just as incompetent in handling the family finances."

"It's not so! It's not so!" Jeff said.

"If it's not incompetence, then it's general sabotage. It's the only alternative. He could be in the pay of Ing's League for Power. One of Ing's spies."

"You're wrong!" shouted Jeff. "My brother is no traitor. He wasn't forced to resign. He had to resign when our parents were killed in an accident and there was no one else to run the family shipping business. And I'm sure he did a good job."

"Such a good job," said Gidlow, "that he didn't even leave you enough money to pay your tuition. Which doesn't matter, because even if you had a million credits, you would have to leave-and that should be a consolation to you. You will come with me to Security Control for prolonged probing. And if you know where your brother is, I'll send you to him when we're quite through with you." Gidlow looked up at the admiral. "I tried to locate Fargo Wells and failed."

"I don't know why," said Admiral Yobo calmly. "I've consulted Computer Central, and there seems to have been no trouble." His fingers stabbed quickly at the control buttons on his desk, and the screen on the wall lit up.

Jeff's heart leaped as his older brother's image appeared. He needed Fargo's strength and cheer-but that was only an initial feeling, followed by sudden dismay. There was no familiar twinkle in Fargo's sharp blue eyes, and his rumpled black hair was neatly combed.

I really am in trouble, Jeff thought. Even Fargo isn't letting himself be himself on my account.

Fargo's holographic image nodded gravely. "I see that you have company, Admiral, and I can guess the reason. Does our Mr. Gidlow believe that Jeff is in Ing's pay? I admit that my kid brother is big for his age, but no Space Cadet should be forced to undergo one of Gidlow's famous probings. Even the matter of Ing the Ingrate should not justify that."

"Your guesses miss the mark, Mister Wells," Gidlow said stiffly. "It is not that we suspect your brother of being in league with Ing-though there are few we can completely trust these sad days. We merely want to find out what classified material he learned from the computer in Martian Swahili, and I assure you we will. You will not stop me, Mr. Wells."

"Gidlow, I admire your firm and absolute assurance, but Space Academy is part of Space Command," said Yobo, "and when probing is in question, I somehow suspect that I am the final authority."

"When matters of security are concerned, we cannot have divided responsibility, Admiral. With respect, I make the decisions there."

"With respect, Gidlow, you don't." Yobo rose majestically, looming up like Mons Olympus on his native Mars. "I will decide what's to be done with the boy."

Suddenly Fargo laughed and began to speak in rapid Martian Colony Swahili.

Gidlow gasped, while Admiral Yobo clenched his huge fists and frowned.

Jeff felt bewildered. "Fargo, what are you doing?"

"Mentioning a few state secrets, little brother."

The Admiral looked down at Jeff. "You didn't understand a word of that, did you?"

"No, sir."

"He's lying," Gidlow said.

"I don't think he is," said Yobo. "It would have taken a polished actor to remain blank-faced, considering what Fargo Wells said. It is quite safe to accept the fact that Wells has just proved, in his little charade, that the boy's attempt to sleep-learn failed, as he said it did. He may return to the academy."

"I must protest, Admiral," said Gidlow. "The director of the academy has admitted to me that the boy's tuition is so far overdue that only his excellent-his previously excellent-record has kept him in school. She said she thought the boy could get a scholarship, but in view of his damage to the computers, that is not in the range of possibility now."

As Admiral Yobo began to glower again, Fargo Wells intervened smoothly. "There is something in what Gidlow says, Admiral. We don't have much money, and we can't pay any tuition. It's almost summer and my brother can probably use a vacation, and-well, we may be able to begin to restore our fortunes in the interval." He winked at Jeff.

But Jeff drew back at the suggestion. "I don't want a vacation, Admiral. I like it at the academy. I want to join the fleet some day."

"Not this summer," said Fargo flatly. "And it will be worthwhile for you, Jeff. We're not completely penniless. We have a scoutship, and we can get spacer jobs, which will be useful experience. There's even enough to get you back to Earth by transmit so that we can celebrate summer solstice together."

At any other time, Jeff's heart would have bounded at the thought. Summer solstice was tomorrow, and the entire system would be at one in its celebration. All the giant space homes, or "spomes," each with their tens of thousands of inhabitants-the Lunar State, the Martian Colony-all kept the conventions of the calendar of the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. (Even Australia had finally given in.) It was in deference to the original Solar Federation headquarters in the old UN on the Northern Hemisphere island of what was now the Manhattan International Territory, which had agreed to consider itself, rather reluctantly, part of the Solar Federation.

Jeff turned pleadingly to the admiral. "If I can be allowed to stay at the academy, sir, for my summer courses-"

Fargo intervened. "Kids that mix up computers need to get away from them and stay awhile in a nice primitive spot like Manhattan. Under my care, of course. Don't you agree, Admiral?" Fargo and Yobo exchanged a long look.

Jeff felt resentful. He hated it when grown-ups talked over his head as if he were not there. Fargo hardly ever did that. What was the matter?

"Yes," said Yobo. "Go and pack, Jefferson Wells."

"But I-" began Gidlow.

"The boy goes home," said Yobo. "He's of no interest to you.")

"Come on, Jeff," said Fargo. "The faster you hurry, the sooner you'll be deprived of Gidlow's fascinating company. Come on, and I'll tell you interesting stories about the misdeeds and ambitions of Ing the Ingrate. Remember the motto TGAF, eh? See you tonight." His image faded out.

"What does that motto mean?" demanded Gidlow.

Jeff thought quickly. "That's just Fargo's way. He means all difficulties can be overcome."

"TGAF? All difficulties can be overcome? Admiral, there is some sort of conspiracy-"

"No," said Jeff. "It's just the way he thinks of difficulties. He's so handsome that…well, TGAF means 'the girls are findable."'

The admiral burst into a loud roar of laughter. "That's authentic Fargo," he said, and Jeff tried to stifle his sigh of relief.

"In any case," said Gidlow, "this boy will not be coming back to the academy. Be sure of that, boy!" He swirled out, the very lines of his back showing his anger.