The Nail and the Oracle – Theodore Strugeon

Despite the improvements, the Pentagon in 1970 was still the Pentagon, with more places to walk than places to sit. Not that Jones had a legitimate gripe. The cubical cave they had assigned to him as an office would have been more than adequate for the two-three days he himself had estimated. But by the end of the third week it fit him like a size-6 hat and choked him like a size-12 collar. Annie’s phone calls expressed eagerness to have him back, but there was an edge to the eagerness now which made him anxious. His hotel manager had wanted to shift his room after the first week and he had been stubborn about it; now he was marooned like a rock in a mushroom patch, surrounded by a back-to-rhythm convention of the Anti-Anti-Population Explosion League. He’d had to buy shirts, he’d had to buy shoes, he’d needed a type-four common-cold shot, and most of all, he couldn’t find what was wrong with oracle.

Jones and his crew had stripped oracle down to its mounting bolts, checked a thousand miles of wiring and a million solid-state elements, everything but its priceless and untouchable memory banks. Then they’d rebuilt the monster, meticulously cross-checking all the way. For the past four days they had been running the recompleted computer, performance-matching with crash-priority time on other machines, while half the science boys and a third of the military wailed in anguish. He had reported to three men that the machine had nothing wrong with it, that it never had had anything wrong with it, and that there was no reason to believe there ever would be anything wrong with it. One by one these three had gone (again) into oracle’s chamber, and bolted the door, and energized the privacy field, and then one by one they had emerged stern and disappointed, to tell Jones that it would not give them an answer: an old admiral, an ageless colonel and a piece of walking legend whom Jones called to himself the civilian.

Having sent his crew home—for thus he burned his bridges—having deprived himself of Jacquard the design genius and the 23 others, the wiring team, all the mathematicians, everyone, Jones sighed in his little office, picked up the phone again and called the three for conference. When he put the instrument down again he felt a little pleased. Consistencies pleased Jones, even unpleasant ones, and the instant response of all three was right in line with everything they had done from the time they had first complained about oracle’s inability to answer their questions, all through their fiddling and diddling during every second of the long diagnostic operation. The admiral had had an open line installed to Jones’ office, the colonel had devised a special code word for his switchboard, the civilian had hung around personally, ignoring all firm, polite hints until he had turned his ankle on a cable, giving Jones a reason to get him out of there. In other words, these three didn’t just want an answer, they needed it. They came, the admiral with his old brows and brand-new steel-blue eyes, the colonel with starch in his spine and skin like a postmaneuver proving grounds, the civilian limping a bit, with his head tilted a bit, turned a bit, a captivating mannerism which always gave his audiences the feeling that history cared to listen to them. Jones let them get settled, this admiral whose whole career had consisted of greater and greater commands until his strong old hand was a twitch away from the spokes of the helm of the ship of state; this colonel who had retained his lowly rank as a mark of scorn for the academy men who scurried to obey him, whose luxurious quarters were equipped with an iron barracks bed; and this civilian with the scholarly air, with both Houses and a Cabinet rank behind him, whose political skills were as strong, and as deft, and as spiked as a logroller’s feet.

“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “this may well be our last meeting. There will, of course, be a written report, but I understand the—uh—practicalities of such a situation quite well, and I do not feel it necessary to go into the kind of detail in the report that is possible to us in an informal discussion.” He looked at each face in turn and congratulated himself. That was just right. This is just between us boys. Nobody’s going to squeal on you.

“You’ve dismissed your crew,” said the civilian, causing a slight start in the admiral and a narrowing of the colonel’s eyes and, in Jones, a flash of admiration. This one had snoopers the services hadn’t even dreamed up yet. “I hope this is good news.”

“Depends,” said Jones. “What it means primarily is that they have done all they can. In other words, there is nothing wrong with oracle in any of their specialties. Their specialties include everything the computer is and does. In still other words, there’s nothing wrong with the machine.”

“So you told us yesterday,” gritted the colonel, “but I got no results. And—I want results.” The last was added as an old ritual which, apparently, had always gotten results just by being recited.

“I followed the procedures,” said the admiral, intoning this as a cardinal virtue. “and also got no results.” He held up a finger and suspended operations in the room while he performed some sort of internal countdown. “Had I not done so, oracle would have responded with an ‘insufficient data’ signal. Correct?”

“Quite correct,” said Jones.

“And it didn’t.”

“That was my experience,” said the civilian, and the colonel nodded.

“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “neither I nor my crew—and there just is not a better one—have been able to devise a question that produced that result.”

“It was not a result,” snapped the colonel.

Jones ignored him. “Given the truth of my conclusion—that there is nothing wrong with the machine—and your reports. which I can have no reason to doubt, there is no area left to investigate but one, and that is in your hands, not mine. It’s the one thing you have withheld from me.” He paused. Two of them shifted their feet. The colonel tightened his jaw.

The admiral said softly, but with utter finality, “I can not divulge my question.”

The colonel and the civilian spoke together; “Security ” and “This is a matter ” and then both fell silent.

“Security.” Jones spread his hands. To keep from an enemy, real or potential, matters vital to the safety of the nation, that was security. And how easy it was to wrap the same blanket about the use of a helicopter to a certain haven, the presence of a surprising little package in a Congressional desk, the exact relations between a certain officer and his argh!

This, thought Jones, has all the earmarks of, not our security, but of three cases of my security . . . I’ll try just once more.

“Thirty years ago, a writer named William Tenn wrote a brilliant story in which an Air Force moon landing was made, and the expedition found an inhabited pressure dome nearby. They sent out a scout, who was prepared to die at the hands of Russians or even Martians. He returned to the ship in a paroxysm, gentlemen, of laughter. The other dome belonged to the U. S. Navy.”

The admiral projected two loud syllables of a guffaw and said, “Of course.” The colonel looked pained. The civilian, bright-eyed, made a small nod which clearly said, One up for you, boy.

Jones put on his used-car-salesman face. “Honestly, gentlemen, it embarrasses me to draw a parallel like that. I believe with all my heart that each of you has the best interests of our nation foremost in his thoughts. As for myself—security? Why, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been cleared all the way back to Pithecanthropus erectus.

“So much for you. so much for me. Now, as for oracle, you know as well as I do that it is no ordinary computer. It is designed for computations, not of math, specifically, nor of strictly physical problems, though it can perform them, but for the distillation of human thought. For over a decade the contents of the Library of Congress and other sources have poured into that machine—everything: novels, philosophy, magazines, poetry, textbooks, religious tracts, comic books, even millions of personnel records.

There’s every shade of opinion, every quality of writing—anything and everything that an army of over a thousand microfilming technicians have been able to cram into it. As long as it’s printed and in English, German, Russian, French or Japanese, oracle can absorb it. Esperanto is the funnel for a hundred Oriental and African languages. It’s the greatest repository of human thought and thought-directed action the world has ever known, and its one most powerful barrier against error in human affairs is the sheer mass of its memory and the wide spectrum of opinion that has poured into it.

“Add to this its ability to extrapolate— to project the results of hypothetical acts —and the purposely designed privacy structure—for it’s incapable of recording or reporting who asked it what question— and you have oracle, the one place in the world where you can get a straight answer based, not in terms of the problem itself, but on every ideological computation and cross-comparison that can be packed into it.”

“The one place I couldn’t get a straight answer,” said the civilian gently.

“To your particular question, Sir, if you want that answer, you have got to give me that question.” He checked a hopeful stir in the other two by adding quickly, “and yours. And yours. You see, gentlemen, though I am concerned for your needs in this matter, my prime concern is oracle. To find a way to get one of the answers isn’t enough. If I had all three, I might be able to deduce a common denominator. I already have, of course, though it isn’t enough: you are all high up in national affairs, and very close to the center of things. You are all of the same generation” (translation: near the end of the road) “and, I’m sure, equally determined to do the best you can for your country” (to get to the top of the heap before you cash in). “Consider me,” he said, and smiled disarmingly. “To let me get this close to the answer I want; namely, what’s wrong with oracle, and then to withhold it—isn’t that sort of cruel and unusual punishment?”

“I feel for you,” said the civilian, not without a twinkle. Then, sober with a coldness that would freeze helium into a block, he said, “But you ask too much.”

Jones looked at him, and then at the others, sensing their unshakable agreement. “OK,” he said, with all the explosive harshness he could muster, “I’m done here. I’m sick of this place and my girl’s sick of being by herself, and I’m going home. You can’t call in anyone else, because there isn’t anyone else: my company built Oracle and my men were trained for it.”

This kind of thing was obviously in the colonel’s idiom. From far back in his throat, he issued a grinding sound that came out in words: “You’ll finish the job you were ordered to do, mister, or you’ll take the consequences.”

Jones shouted at him, “Consequences? What consequences? You couldn’t even have me fired, because I can make a damn good case that you prevented me from finishing the job. I’m not under your orders either. This seems a good time to remind you of the forgotten tradition that with this”—he took hold of the narrow lapel of his own sports jacket—“I outrank any uniform in this whole entire Pentagon.” He caught the swift smile of the civilian, and therefore trained his next blast on him. “Consequences? The only consequence you can get now is to deny yourself and your country the answer to your question. The only conclusion I can come to is that something else is more important to you than that. What else?” He stood up. So did the officers.

From his chair, the civilian said sonorously, “Now, now . . . gentlemen. Surely we can resolve this problem without raising our voices. Mr. Jones, would the possession of two of these questions help you in your diagnosis? Or even one?”

Breathing hard, Jones said, “It might.”

The civilian opened his long white hands. “Then there’s no problem after all. If one of you gentlemen ___”

“Absolutely not,” said the admiral instantly.

“Not me,” growled the colonel. “You want compromise, don’t you? Well, go ahead—you compromise.”

“In this area,” said the civilian smoothly, “I possess all the facts, and it is my considered judgment that the disclosure of my question would not further Mr. Jones’ endeavors.” (Jones thought, the admiral said the same thing in two words.) “Admiral, would you submit to my judgment the question of whether or not security would be endangered by your showing Mr. Jones your question?”

“I would not.”

The civilian turned to the colonel. One look at that rock-bound countenance was sufficient to make him turn away again, which, thought Jones, puts the colonel two points ahead of the admiral in the word-economy business.

Jones said to the civilian, “No use. sir, and by my lights, that’s the end of it. The simplest possible way to say it is that you gentlemen have the only tools in existence that would make it possible for me to repair this gadget, and you won’t let me have them. So fix it yourself, or leave it the way it is. I’d see you out,” he added, scanning the walls of the tiny room, “but I have to go to the john.” He stalked out, his mind having vividly and permanently photographed the astonishment on the admiral’s usually composed features, the colonel’s face fury-twisted into something like the knot that binds the lashes of a whip, and the civilian grinning broadly.

Grinning broadly?

Ah well, he thought, slamming the men’s-room door behind him—and infuriatingly, it wouldn’t slam. Ah well, we all have our way of showing frustration. Maybe I could’ve been just as mad more gently.

The door moved, and someone ranged alongside at the next vertical bathtub. Jones glanced, and then said aloud. “Maybe I could’ve been just as mad more gently.”

“Perhaps we all could have,” said the civilian, and then with his free hand he did four surprising things in extremely rapid succession. He put his finger to his lips, then his hand to the wall and then to his ear. Finally he whisked a small folded paper out of his breast pocket and handed it to Jones. He then finished what he was doing and went to wash up.

Shh. The walls have ears. Take this.

“All through history,” said the civilian from the sink, his big old voice booming in the tiled room, “we read about the impasse, and practically every time it’s mentioned, it’s a sort of preface to an explanation of how it was solved. Yet I’ll bet history’s full of impasses that just couldn’t be solved. They don’t get mentioned because when it happens, everything stops. There just isn’t anything to write down in the book anymore. I think we’ve just seen such an occasion, and I’m sorry for each of us.”

The old son of a gun! “Thanks for that much, anyway, sir,” Jones said, tucking the paper carefully away out of sight. The old man, wiping his hands, winked once and went out.

• • •

Back in his office, which seemed three limes larger than it had been before the conference, Jones slumped behind his desk and teased himself with the small folded paper, not reading it, turning it over and over. It had to be the old man’s question. Granted that it was, why had he been so willing to hand it over now, when three minutes earlier his refusal had been just about as adamant as—adamant? So, Jones, quit looking at the detail and get on the big picture. What was different in those three minutes?

Well, they were out of one room and into another. Out of one room that was damn well not bugged and into one which, the old man’s pantomime had informed him, may well be. Nope—that didn’t make sense. Then—how about this? In the one room there had been witnesses. In the second, none—not after the finger on the lips. So if a titan concluded that the civilian probably never had had an objection to Jones’ seeing and using the question, but wanted it concealed from anyone else—maybe specifically from those other two . . . why, the man had the big picture.

What else? That the civilian had not said this, therefore would not bring himself to say it in so many words, and would not appreciate any conversation that might force him to talk it over. Finally, no matter how reluctant he might be to let Jones see the paper, the slim chance Jones offered him of getting an answer outweighed every other consideration— except the chance of the other two finding out. So another part of the message was: I’m sitting on dynamite, Mr. Jones, and I’m handing you the detonator. Or: I trust you, Mr. Jones.

Sobeit, old man. I’ve got the message.

He closed his eyes and squeezed the whole situation to see if anything else would drip out of it. Nothing . . . except the faint conjecture that what worked on one might work on the other two. And as if on cue, the door opened and a blandfaced major came in a pace, stopped, said “Beg pardon, sir. I’m in the wrong room,” and before Jones could finish saying “That’s all right,” he was gone. Jones gazed thoughtfully at the door. That major was one of the colonel’s boys. That “wrong room” bit had a most unlikely flavor to it. So if the man hadn’t come in for nothing, he’d come in for something. He hadn’t taken anything and he hadn’t left anything, so he’d come in to find something out. The only thing he could find out was whether Jones was or was not here. Oh! and whether he was or was not alone.

All Jones had to do to check that out was to sit tight. You can find out if a man is alone in a room for now, but not for ten minutes from now, or five.

In two minutes the colonel came in.

He wore his ”I don’t like you, mister” expression. He placed his scarred brown hands flat on Jones’ desk and rocked forward over him like a tidal wave about to break.

“It’s your word against mine, and I’m prepared to call you a liar.” grated the colonel. “I want you to report to me and no one else.”

“All right,” said Jones, and put out his hand. The colonel locked gazes with him for a fair slice of forever, which made Jones believe that the Medusa legend wasn’t necessarily a legend after all. Then the officer put a small folded paper into Jones’ outstretched palm. “You get the idea pretty quick. I’ll say that, mister”, he straightened, about faced and marched out.

Jones looked at the two scraps of folded paper on the desk and thought, I will be damned.

And one to go.

He picked up the papers and dropped them again, feeling like a kid who forces himself to eat all the cake before he attacks the icing. He thought, maybe the old boy wants to but just doesn’t know how.

He reached for the phone and dialed for the open line, wondering if the admiral had had it canceled yet.

He had not, and he wasn’t waiting for the first ring to finish itself. He knew who was calling and he knew Jones knew, so he said nothing, just picked up the phone.

Jones said, “It was kind of crowded in here.”

“Precisely the point,” said the admiral with the grudging approval the colonel had shown. There was a short pause, and then the admiral said. “Have you called anyone else?”

Into four syllables Jones put all the outraged innocence of a male soprano accused of rape. “Certainly not.”

“Good man.”

The Britishism amused Jones, and he almost said Gung ho. what?; but instead he concentrated on what to say next. It was easy to converse with the admiral if you supplied both sides of the conversation. Suddenly it came to him that the admiral wouldn’t want to come here—he had somewhat farther to travel than the colonel had—nor would he like the looks of Jones’ visiting him at this particular moment. He said, “I wouldn’t mention this, but as you know. I’m leaving soon and may not see you. And I think you picked up my cigarette lighter.”

“Oh,” said the admiral.

“And me out of matches,” said Jones ruefully. “Well—I’m going down to oracle now. Nice to have known you. sir.” He hung up, stuck an unlit cigarette in his mouth, put the two folded papers in his left pants pocket, and began an easy stroll down the catacombs called corridors in the Pentagon.

Just this side of oracle’s dead-end corridor, and not quite in visual range of its security post, a smiling young ensign, who otherwise gave every evidence of being about his own business, said, “Light, sir?”

“Why, thanks.”

The ensign handed him a lighter. He didn’t light it and proffer the flame: he handed the thing over. Jones lit his cigarette and dropped the lighter into his pocket. “Thanks.”

“That’s all right,” smiled the ensign, and walked on.

At the security post, Jones said to the guard, “Whoppen?”

“Nothing and nobody, Mr. Jones.”

“Best news I’ve had all day.” He signed the book and accompanied the guard down the dead end. They each produced a key and together opened the door. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

“All the same to me.” said the guard, and Jones realized he’d been wishfully thinking out loud. He shut the door, hit the inner lock switch, and walked through the little foyer and the swinging door which unveiled what the crew called oracle’s “temple.”

He looked at the computer, and it looketl back at him. “Like I told you before,” he said conversationally, “for something that causes so much trouble, you’re awful little and awful homely.”

Oracle did not answer, because it was not aware of him. Oracle could read and do a number of more complex and subtle things, but it had no ears. It was indeed homely as a wall, which is what the front end mostly resembled, and the immense size of its translators, receptors and the memory banks was not evident here. The temple—other people called it Suburbia Delphi—contained nothing but that animated wall, with its one everblooming amber “on” light (for the machine never teased gulping its oceans of thought), a small desk and chair, and the mechanical typewriter with the modified Bodoni type face which was used for the reader. The reader itself was nothing more than a clipboard (though with machined guides to hold the paper exactly in place) with a large push button above it placed on a strut which extended from the front of the computer, and lined up with a lens set flush into it. It was an eerie experience to push that button after placing your query, for oracle scanned so quickly and “thought” so fast that it was rapping away on its writer before you could get your thumb off the button.


Jones sat at the desk, switched on the light and took out the admiral’s lighter. It was a square one, with two parts which telescoped apart to get to the tank. The tight little roll of paper was there, sure enough, with the typescript not seriously blurred by lighter fluid. He smoothed it out, retrieved the other two, unfolded them, stacked them all neatly; and then, feeling very like Christmas morning, said gaily to the unresponsive oracle:


Seconds later, he was breathing hard. A flood of profanity welled upward within him—and dissipated itself as totally inadequate.

Wagging his head helplessly, he brought the three papers to the typewriter and wrote them out on fresh paper, staying within the guidelines printed there, and adding the correct code symbols for the admiral, the colonel and the civilian. These symbols had been assigned by oracle itself, and were crosschecked against the personnel records it carried in its memory banks. It was the only way in which it was possible to ask a question including that towering monosyllable “I.”

Jones clipped the first paper in place, held his breath and pushed the button.

There was a small flare of light from the hood surrounding the lens as the computer automatically brought the available light to optimum. A relay clicked softly as the writer was activated. A white tongue of paper protruded. Jones tore it off. It was blank.

He grunted, then replaced the paper with the second, then the third. It seemed that on one of them there was a half-second delay in the writer relay, but it was insignificant: the paper remained blank.

“Stick your tongue out at me. will you?” he muttered at the computer, which silently gazed back at him with its blank single eye. He went back to the typewriter and copied one of the questions, but with his own code identification symbols. It read:


He clipped the paper in place and pushed the button. The relay clicked, the writer rattled and the paper protruded. He tore it off. It read (complete with quotes):


“A wise guy,” Jones growled. He returned to the typewriter and again copied one of the queries with his own code;


Wryly, oracle answered: don’t eat a bite until your execution.

It actually took Jones a couple of seconds to absorb that one, and then he uttered an almost hysterical bray of laughter.

The third question he asked, under his own identification, was:


The answer was a flat no, and Jones did not laugh one bit. “And you don’t find anything funny about it either.” he congratulated the computer, and actually, physically shuddered.

For Henny—the Honorable Oswaldus Deeming Henny—was an automatic nightmare to the likes of Jones. His weather-beaten saint’s face, his shoulder-length white hair (oh, what genius of a public relations man put him onto that?), his diapason voice, but most of all, his “Plan for Peace” had more than once brought Jones up out of a sound sleep into a told sweat. Now, there was once a mail who entranced a certain segment of the population with a slogan about the royalty in every man, but he could not have taken over the country, because a slogan is not a political philosophy. And there was another who was capable of turning vast numbers of his countrymen —for a while—against one another and toward him for protection: and he could not have taken over the country, because the manipulation of fear is not an economic philosophy. This Henny, however, was the man who had both, and more besides. His appearance alone gave him more nonthinking, vote-bearing adherents than Rudolph Valentino plus Albert Schweitzer. His advocacy of absolute isolation brought in the right wing, his demand for unilateral disarmament brought in the left wing, his credo that science could, with a third of munitions-size budgets, replace foreign trade through research, invention and ersatz, brought in the tech segment, and his dead certainty of lowering taxes had a thick hook in everyone else. Even the the most battle-struck of the war wanters found themselves shoulder to shoulder with the peace-at-any-price extremists, because of the high moral tone of    his disarmament plan, which was to turn our weapons on ourselves and present any aggressor with nothing but slag and cinders—the ultimate deterrent. It was the most marvelous blend of big bang and beneficence, able to cut chance and challenge together with openhanded Gandhiism, with an answer for everyone and a better life for all.

“All of which,” complained Jones to the featureless face of the computer, “doesn’t help me find out why you wouldn’t answer those three guys, though I must say. I’m glad you didn’t.” He went and got the desk chair and put it down front and center before the computer. He sat down and folded his arms and they stared silently at each other.

At length he said. “If you were a people instead of a thing, how would I handle you? A miserable, stubborn, intelligent snob of a people?”

Just how do I handle people? he wondered. I do—I know I do. I always seem to think of the right thing to say, or to ask. I’ve already asked Oracle what’s wrong, and Oracle says nothing is wrong. The way any miserable, stubborn, intelligent snob would.

What I do, he told himself, is to empathize. Crawl into their skins, feel with their fingertips, look out through their eyes.

Look out through their eyes.

He rose and got the admiral’s query— the one with the admiral’s own identification on it—clipped it to the board, then hunkered down on the floor with his back to the computer and his head blocking the lens.

He was seeing exactly what the computer saw.

Clipboard. Query. The small bare chamber, the far wall. The . . .

He stopped breathing. After a long astonished moment he said, when he could say anything, and because it was all he could think of to say: “Well I’ll. . . be . . . damned . . .”

• • •

The admiral was the first in. Jones had had a busy time of it for the 90 minutes following his great discovery, and he was feeling a little out of breath, but at the same time a little louder and quicker than the other guy, as if he had walked into the reading room after a rubdown and a needle-shower.

“Sit down. Admiral.”

“Jones, did you ___”

“Please, sir—sit down.”

“But surely ___”

“I’ve got your answer, Admiral. But there’s something we have to do first.” He made waving gestures. “Bear with me.”

He wouldn’t have made it, thought Jones, except for the colonel’s well-timed entrance. Boy oh boy, thought Jones, look at him, stiff as tongs. You come on the battlefield looking just like a target. On the other hand, that’s how you made your combat reputation, isn’t it? The colonel was two strides into the room before he saw the admiral. He stopped, began an about-face and said over his left epaulet, “I didn’t think ___”

“Sit down. Colonel,” said Jones in a pretty fair imitation of the man’s own brass gullet. It reached the officer’s muscles before it reached his brain and he sat. He turned angrily on the admiral, who said instantly. “This wasn’t my idea.” in a completely insulting way.

Again the door opened and old living history walked in, his head a little to one side, his eyes ready to see and understand and his famous mouth to smile, but when he saw the tableau, the eyes frosted over and the mouth also said: “I didn’t think ___”

“Sit down, sir,” said Jones, and began spieling as the civilian was about to refuse, and kept on spieling while he changed his mind, lowered himself guardedly onto the edge of a chair and perched his old bones on its front edge as if he intended not to stay.

“Gentlemen.” Jones began. “I’m happy to tell you that I have succeeded in finding out why Oracle was unable to perform for you—thanks to certain unexpected cooperation I received.” Nice touch. Jones. Each one of ’em will think he turned the trick, singlehandedly But not for long. “Now I have a plane to catch, and you all have things to do. and I would appreciate it if you would hear me out with as little interruption as possible.” Looking at these bright eager angry sullen faces. Jones let himself realize for the first time why detectives in whodunits assemble all the suspects and make speeches. Why they personally do it— why the author has them do it. It’s because it’s fun.

“In this package”—he lifted from beside his desk a brown paper parcel a yard long and 15 inches wide—“is the cause of all the trouble. My company was founded over a half century ago. and one of these has been an appurtenance of every one of the company’s operations, each of its major devices and installations, all of its larger utility equipment—cranes, trucks, bulldozers, everything. You’ll find them in every company office and in most company cafeterias.” He put the package down flat on his desk and fondled it while he talked. “Now. gentlemen. I’m not going to go into any part of the long argument about whether or not a computer can be conscious of what it’s doing, because we haven’t time and we’re not here to discuss metaphysics. I will, however, remind you of a childhood chant. Remember the one that runs: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost: for want of a shoe the horse was lost: for want of a horse the message was lost; for want of the message the battle was lost; for want of the battle the kingdom was lost—and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’ ”

“Mr. Jones.” said the admiral, I—we —didn’t come here to ___”

“I just said that,” Jones said smoothly, and went right on talking until the admiral just stopped trying. “This”—he rapped the package—”is Oracle’s horseshoe nail. If it’s no ordinary nail, that’s because Oracle’s no ordinary computer, it isn’t designed to solve problems in their own context: there are other machines that do that, Oracle solves problems the way an educated man solves them—by bringing everything he is and has to bear on them. Lacking this one part”— he thumped the package again—”it can then answer your questions, and it accordingly did.” He smiled suddenly. “I don’t think oracle was designed this way,” he added musingly. “I think it . . . became . . . this way . . .” He shook him self. “Anyway. I have your answers.”

Now he could afford to pause, because he had them. At that moment, the only way any of them could have been removed was by dissection and haulage.

Jones lined up his sights on the colonel and said. “In a way, your question was the most interesting, Colonel. To me professionally, I mean. It shows to what detail oracle can go in answering a wide theoretical question. One might even make a case for original creative thinking, though that’s always arguable. Could a totally obedient robot think if you flatly ordered it to think? When does a perfect imitation of a thing become the thing itself?”

“You’re not going to discuss my question here.” said the colonel as a matter of absolute, incontrovertible fact.

“Yes I am,” said Jones, and raised his voice. “You listen to me. Before you stick that trigger finger of yours inside that tunic. Colonel. I’m in a corny mood right now and so I’ve done a corny thing. Two copies of a detailed report of this whole affair are now in the mail, and, I might add, in a mailbox outside this building. One goes to my boss, who is a very big wheel and a loyal friend, with as many contacts in business and government as there are company machines operating, and that puts him on the damn moon as well as all over the world. The other goes to someone else, and when you find out who that is it’ll be too late, because in two hours he can reach every paper, every wire service, every newscasting organization on earth. Naturally, consistent with the corn, I’ve sent these out sealed with orders to open them if I don’t phone by a certain time—and I assure you it won’t be from here. In other words, you can’t do anything to me and you’d better not delay me. Sit down, Admiral,” he roared.

“I’m certainly not going to sit here and ___”

“I’m going to finish what I started out to do whether you’re here or not.” Jones waved at the other two. “They’ll be here. You want that?”

The admiral sat down. The civilian said, in a tolling of mighty sorrow. “Mr. Jones, I had what seemed to be your faithful promise ___”

“There were overriding considerations,” said Jones. “You know what an overriding consideration is, don’t you, sir?” and he held up the unmistakable Oracle query form. The civilian subsided.

“Let him finish,” gritted the colonel. “We can—well, let him finish.”

Jones instantly, like Oracle, translated: We can take care of him later. He said to the colonel, “Cheer up. You can always deny everything, like you said.” He fanned through the papers before him and dealt out the colonel’s query. He read it aloud:


The colonel’s face could have been shipped out, untreated, and installed on Mount Rushmore. The civilian gasped and put his knuckles in his mouth. The admiral’s slitted eyes went round.

“The answer,” said Jones, “makes that case for creative thinking I was talking about, Oracle said: ‘DETONATE ONE BOMB WITHIN UNDERGROUND H. Q. SPEND YOUR SUBSEQUENT TENURE LOOKING FOR OTHERS.’ ”

Jones put down the paper and spoke past the colonel to the other two. “Get the big picture, gentlemen? ‘underground h. q.’ could only mean the centralized control for government in the mountains. Whether or not the President —or anyone else—was there at the time is beside the point. If not, he’d find another way easily enough. After that happened, our hero here would take the posture of the national savior, the only man competent to track down a second bomb, which could be anywhere. Imagine the fear, the witchhunts, the cordons, the suspicion, the ‘Emergency’ and ‘For the Duration’ orders and regulations.” Suddenly savage, Jones snarled, “I’ve got just one more thing to say about this warrior and his plans. All his own strength, and the entire muscle behind everything he plans for himself, derives from the finest esprit de corps the world has ever known. I told you I’m in a corny mood, so I’m going to say it just the way it strikes me. That kind of esprit is a bigger thing than obedience or devotion or even faith, it’s a species of love. And there’s not a hell of a lot of that to go around in this world. Butchering the President to make himself a little tin god is a minor crime compared to his willingness to take a quality like that and turn it into a perversion.”

The civilian, as if unconsciously, hitched his chair a half inch away from the colonel. The admiral trained a firing-squad kind of look at him.

“Admiral,” said Jones, and the man twitched, “I’d like to call your attention to the colonel’s use of the word ‘eliminate’ in his query. You don’t, you know, you just don’t eliminate a live President.” He let that sink in, and then said, “I mention it because you, too, used it, and it’s a fair conjecture that it means the same thing. Listen: “WHAT SINGLE MAN CAN I ELIMINATE TO BECOME PRESIDENT?”’

“There could hardly be any one man,” said the civilian thoughtfully, gaining Jones’ great respect for his composure. Jones said, “Oracle thinks so. It wrote your name, sir.”

Slowly the civilian turned to the admiral. “Why, you sleek old son of a bitch,” he enunciated carefully, “I do believe you could have made it.”

“Purely a hypothetical question,” explained the admiral, but no one paid the least attention.

“As for you,” said Jones, rather surprised that his voice expressed so much of the regret he felt, “I do believe that you asked your question with a genuine desire to see a world at peace before you passed on. But, sir—it’s like you said when you walked in here just now—and the colonel said it. too: ‘I didn’t think . . .’ You are sitting next to two certifiable first-degree murderers; no matter what their overriding considerations, that’s what they are. But what you planned is infinitely worse.”

He read, ” ‘CAN MY SUPPORT OF HENNY BING PEACE?’ You’ll be pleased to know —oh, you already know; you were just checking, right?—that the answer is Yes. Henny’s position is such right now that your support would bring him in. But— you didn’t think. That demagog can’t do what he wants to do without a species of thought policing the like of which the ant-heap experts in China never even dreamed of. Unilateral disarmament and high morality scorched-earth! Why, as a nation we couldn’t do that unless we meant it, and we couldn’t mean it unless every man, woman and child thought alike—and with Henny running things, they would. Peace? Sure we’d have peace! I’d rather take on a Kodiak bear with boxing gloves than take my chances in that kind of a world. These guys,” he said carelessly, “are prepared to murder one or two or a few thousand. You,” said Jones, his voice suddenly shaking with scorn, “are prepared to murder every decent free thing this country ever stood for.”

Jones rose. “I’m going now. All your answers are in the package there. Up to now it’s been an integral part of Oracle —it was placed exactly in line with the reader, and has therefore been a part of everything the machine has ever done. My recommendation is that you replace it, or Oracle will be just another computer, answering questions in terms of themselves. I suggest that you make similar installations in your own environment . . . and quit asking questions that must be answered in terms of yourselves. Questions which in the larger sense would be unthinkable.”

The civilian rose, and did something that Jones would always remember as a decent thing. He put out his hand and said. “You are right. I needed this, and you’ve stopped me. What will stop them?”

Jones took the hand. “They’re stopped. I know, because I asked Oracle and Oracle said this was the way to do it.” He smiled briefly and went out. His last glimpse of the office was the rigid backs of the two officers, and the civilian behind his desk, slowly unwrapping the package. He walked down the endless Pentagon corridors, the skin between his shoulder blades tight all the way: Oracle or not, there might be overriding considerations. But he made it, and got to the first outside phone booth still alive. Marvelously, wonderfully alive.

He heard Ann’s voice and said, “It’s a real wonderful world, you know that?”

“Jones, darling! . . . you certainly have changed your tune. Last time I talked to you it was a horrible place full of evil intentions and smelling like feet.”

“I just found out for sure three lousy kinds of world it’s not going to be,” Jones said. Ann would not have been what she was to him if she had not been able to divine which questions not to ask. She said, “Well, good,” and he said he was coming home.

“Oh, darling! You fix that gadget?”

“Nothing to it,” Jones said. “I just took down the THINK sign.”

She said, “I never know when you’re kidding.”


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