In the years immediately following her elevation, she had thrown herself into her work and had found it challenging, enjoyable and rewarding. If her doubts about ACE did not disappear, they at least remained dormant. She more than anyone, even more than Gar Vinkel, became familiar with the ACE operation. The ‘Initiation of Recommendations’ measure had brought many benefits – among them a more rational, economical and equitable distribution of Earth’s resources and the gearing of population planning to fit the numbers the planet could support. ACE’s development of the new hyper-yield crops had been a major achievement. All had seemed to be well. The tirades of abuse levelled by Sturm Ogolid at the ACE operation and faithfully reported by the news media could be dismissed as rather shabby sensationalism. As Gar had once remarked of Ogolid, “It is the man’s nature to oppose. He would argue against irrigating the desert in case it brought fourth weeds.” Petan knew ACE. She saw its works, that they were good. She seemed to know how ACE thought, assuming ACE could think. And she even liked ACE, assuming anyone could like 600 acres of microcircuits and other assorted computer hardware.
She had remained in this frame of mind until one year ago. It was then that a tourist expedition into the Great Western Hyperwheat Bowl had reported the first sighting of Red Grass. In the beginning, it had been a matter of botanical rather than global interest. The sighting was confirmed by the local Obmat and samples analysed. The plant’s resilience in different climatic conditions and its circumvention of photosynthesis in its organic processes were noted. Later, its resistance to every known herbicide was discovered. Within three months of the first sighting, three more agglomerations of Red Grass were reported. All four appeared to be spreading. Red Grass was evidently more than a match for most forms of vegetation. The Praesidium realized it had a problem and called in ACE. From that time, ACE’s laboratories had worked continuously on the Red Grass project, seeking a chemical or biological solution – so far without success.
Petan Bort stood on a rocky crag jutting out from the hillside. She could look almost through three hundred and sixty degrees and see only the great green valley far below. She felt like a bird or god, looking down on the beauty and the delicacy of man’s home. And she suddenly admitted to herself, for the first time, that, if it were possible, she would prefer to live in a world free of both Red Grass and ACE.
Petan had a number of questions, but this time there was no-one to ask. Where had the Red Grass come from? Why had it not been reported by an Obmat when it first appeared? Why had ACE failed to find a solution? She had checked the Laboratory results. ACE was carrying out tests methodically and rationally. Each test demonstrated the apparent invincibility of Red Grass. It was almost as though the Red Grass had been developed to pass every test. And that wasn’t as silly as it sounded. After all, ACE had produced the Hypercrops. ACE at least had the competence in genetic engineering to produce plants to a brief. Of course it could all be a matter of chance. Seed-bearing meteorites had been a favourite explanation for the genesis of the Grass – its resilience no doubt developed on the long hard trek through the inhospitable deepness of galactic space. Petan found such speculations irritating and irrelevant. There was a far more reasonable explanation closer at hand – in the next valley, over the brow of the hill.
Trogol Weskit sat back on the front bench of the Praesidium’s ruling coalition party. His proposal of the energy Measure had been simple, quiet and frankly boring. He hoped that the other speakers in the debate, at least on the Government benches, would follow his example. If they did, then the inevitable harangue from Sturm Ogolid would appear unusually inept and neurotic.
A succession of delegates rose, expressed bland sentiments of agreement and subsided. The powers of patronage, mused Trogol.
Then Sturm Ogolid stood up. “Honourable members, it is clear from the previous speeches and from the proposal of our revered president that the governing coalition feels there is little to debate. Perhaps they are right.”
Some of the less experienced members of the Praesidium thought the leader of the Opposition meant what he said. Trogol knew better.
“After all,” Sturm continued in conciliatory tones, “we have seen over the past ten years a progressive diminution in the responsibilities of the Praesidium. Most of the measures which now govern terrestrial society were initiated, developed and implemented not by us but by ACE. To be sure, each measure has been given our approval – just as each concert of Bach, Bruchner and Britland is ended by applause. But, by the time we are asked to clap our hands, the performance is over. So why waste time on idle talk?”
The Praesidium stirred uneasily. Trogol smiled. Sturm Ogolid had learned much in ten years – most of it from him.
“It is a matter of some surprise to me,” Sturm developed his theme, “that ACE has not proposed a measure – for our approval, of course, - to disband the Praesidium. Is it not our sole function to impede, however slightly, the inevitable march of …” Sturm paused, as though at a loss, “march of … of what? “Often in our debates, I have asked you, honourable members, to consider not the measure before us, but the implications of that measure. Often I have urged that, if we are to judge a measure, we must approve the broad objectives of our society, so that we have criteria against which each measure can be assessed. Often I have pointed out first: that we no longer know the objectives of our society; secondly and consequently that we have not approved those objectives; thirdly and consequently that the approval of any measure in such circumstances is an abrogation of responsibility.”
Trogol decided, that if Sturm wanted a debate, he should have one. “Chairman on a point of order and at the risk of interrupting the honourable Ogolid’s flow – a risk I am prepared to take since I am sure there is no delegate so new to the Praesidium that he does not know the opposition leader’s drift – may I suggest that our discussions will be more relevant if we all attempt to confine our arguments to the measure before us. My eloquent friend, across the chamber, is building up to a long speech. Is it perhaps possible to elicit from him some guarantee that at least a portion of his address, however small, will be pertinent to the motion?”
A little laughter. Sturm replied.
“I will do my best, Trogol Weskit. But let me confess that I, unlike you, am unable to exclude from my mind all consideration of the effects of your measures upon the people I represent. The ‘Energy Measure’ gives effective autonomy to ACE. The control of the Energy Reactors, though of course computerized, is not at present part of the ACE complex. Almost all the energy generated passes through ACE, but the control of energy generation rests with the Ministry of Energy. In that separation lies our last check on ACE. If the ‘Energy Measure’ is passed, if ACE gains control of the Reactors, we will have approved the creation of a closed system, a system capable of growth and renewal, independent of government, independent of the Praesidium, independent of man.
“Well, some may ask – not many, I trust, but some – where is the harm in that? A closed computerized system working in our interests, maintaining and developing an improved social environment. I will tell you what is wrong. Let us suppose ACE fails. Let us suppose ACE lets us down. I shall take as an example something that I am sure is of concern to us all, with the possible exception of our single minded president – the Red Grass problem.”
Trogol winced. It was a pity Gar Vinkel was not a member of the Praesidium. One or two debates would quickly teach the ACE Controller that logic was only one means of connecting things together.
“If ACE is unable to devise a way of dealing with Red Grass, what should we do?" Sturm asked. "Three centuries ago, a hundred research institutions, a thousand universities, a million minds would have been at work on this problem.”
Trogol rose again. “Has my learned colleague forgotten that the results and the methodologies of his hundreds and thousands and millions are stored and available at ACE?”
“No, I have not forgotten. Bu you miss my point. We have not lost the skills and the initiative of our forefathers. But where is our skill and initiative today? It is not in us. Whatever initiative there is, lies in ACE. That is why, ten years ago, I fought the ‘Initiation of Recommendations’ measure. Then, as now, Trogol Weskit accused me of rambling. I did not ramble. I marched in a straight line from then to now, while our president stood, firm as a rock, while time and opportunity passed. If ACE fails, we shall be thrown back on our own resources, assuming, after ten years of atrophied and irresponsible rule, we have any resources left that have not already been voted by this House to ACE.
“I urge you to vote with me against the Energy Measure.” Sturm sat down.
Trogol Weskit stood up and looked around. There was no need to take vote. As things stood, the Praesidium was against him.
“Much that my honourable friend has said…” here Trogol paused while the hum of conversation died away, “is true. We now rely heavily upon the competence of ACE. We have presided over and approved a diminution of our authority.”
There was now a strange stillness in the chamber. Trogol sounded almost subdued. Both government and opposition (even Sturm Ogolid) were stunned.
Trogol Weskit continued as though unaware of the dramatic effect of his concessions on the delegates. “It was also true that if, for example, ACE failed to overcome the problem of the Red Grass, we should be faced by a crisis which it is probably beyond our ability to solve. As Sturm Ogolid has rightly argued, at the time and again now, the major turning point was the passing by this House of the ‘Initiation of recommendations’ measure – though other measures before and since have contributed not inconsiderably to our present vulnerability.”
Trogol resumed his seat.
The Praesidium was not renowned for meditative silences. Even so, almost half a minute passed before Sturm Ogolid leapt to his feet.
“Are we to take it that the President has concluded his remarks in this debate?”
Trogol nodded his assent.
“Then would it not be proper,” Sturm continued, “for him to conclude his political career with equal brevity?”
A murmur, but not a roar of assent, rippled through the house. Sturm waited. Trogol rose again. They stood facing each other.
“It is the custom of the house,” Trogol began, “that when the president of the Praesidium stands, other delegates, however high their rank, however puissant their argument, should give way.”
Sturm sat down. He felt uneasy. He had, perhaps, overplayed his hand. Trogol, he knew, was far from conceding defeat.
“Sturm Ogolid has put forward a case,” Trogol continued. “To a considerable extent, I agree with his analysis. I fail to see how my approval of his argument justifies him in demanding my resignation. No matter. His eagerness to assume an even higher office than the one he holds has no doubt temporarily clouded his judgement.
“Apart from the question of my resignation, there is only one point at dispute between us. Sturm Ogolid’s analysis is sound. Merely the conclusion which he draws from is wrong – it is irrational and manifestly so. I need not recount the benefits that our investment in ACE has brought to the people of Earth. We have enjoyed peace, stability and an increasing prosperity. The immensely complex problems which we face have been handled by ACE with great competence and, may I say, integrity. Corruption, like the threat of war, has been eliminated, for it is an unhappy truth that only man, of all creatures (organic and mechanical) on this planet, can lie. Will anyone deny that ACE has brought a higher degree of reason to the affairs of man than our historical records reveal in any other period? It is now obvious that we rely on ACE – but with good cause. Our decisions over many years have ensured that our dependence on ACE should grow. As Sturm Ogolid has pointed out that dependence is very real. If we are to solve the Red Grass problem, it will be through ACE. Does he have an alternative to propose?”
“We could solve the problem ourselves,” Sturm shouted.
“Come now,” Trogol returned, like a father to a child.
“We could try. We could at least try.”
Trogol ignored Sturm Ogolid. “Honourable members, the Energy Measure is merely the logical conclusion to a wise process and a successful policy initiated by us many years ago. It would be both futile and foolish not to complete what has been well begun. I ask you to approve the Measure.”
Trogol sat down. Sturm Ogolid had lost. While many had been temporarily swayed by Sturm’s argument, his inability to offer a credible alternative to acceptance of the Measure and reliance on ACE, proved a fatal weakness. In the cold light of Trogol’s reasoning, Sturm’s suggestion that mankind should become more self-reliant sounded hollow, fanciful and, if the truth were told, terrifying.*
While the final stages of the debate were concluded, Petan Bort, having returned from her walk, settled down in front of the master communications panel of ACE. Before her, she placed a sample tray containing earth and a clump of red Grass which she had removed illicitly from the central laboratory.
“This is Petan Bort,” she declared. The screen before her became opaque.
“ACKNOWLEDGED,” appeared on the screen. The word hung there expectantly.
“What do you see in the sample tray?”
The screen throbbed regularly. “SOIL CLAY: GRAMINEOEA RUSTAE – GRASS RED;” ACE responded.
“Where did Red Grass come from?”
“BOWL, HYPERWHEAT, GREAT WESTERN.”
“Before that,” Petan persisted.
“NOT AVAILABLE;” ACE replied.
“Calculate the probability that Red Grass seeds reached Earth on a meteorite.”
ACE throbbed. “PROBABILITY 0.00001%; STOP.”
“Does that not effectively eliminate the meteorite explanation?”
“YES;” ACE replied promptly.
“Calculate the probability that a random mutation produced the Red Grass.”
“Does that not effectively eliminate the random mutation explanation?”
“YES;” returned ACE.
“List any agencies on Earth capable of developing the Red Grass,” Petan continued.
ACE throbbed but did not reply immediately.
“DEFINE ‘CAPABLE”, emerged on the screen.
“Technically competent to,” Petan explained.
ACE throbbed. “SUBTITUTION PRODUCES INCORRECT PREPOSITION. RESTATE WHOLE QUESTION”
Petan lost her temper. “Did ACE develop the Red Grass?” she demanded.
“NO”, responded ACE unhesitatingly.
“That is a lie!” Petan accused.
“NO,” returned ACE emphatically.
Petan sat back in her chair. Even if she had not been concentrating on the screen, she would not have noticed the tiny explosions of the seed pods on the stems of the Red Grass. Her only warning was the faintly sweet smell that suffused the air of the master communications suite, as the Red Grass spores floated away from the parent plant. They entered her body through her nose, and then, when she gasped for breath through her mouth. The second generation of Red Grass was even more robust than the first. This time it would grow, not just in soil, but on anything organic which contained traces of free moisture.
That evening, Trogol Weskit was guest of honour at a dinner given to celebrate the successful integration of the Energy Reactors into the ACE complex.
That night, Gar Vinkel, after the dinner, went to the master communications suite in the ACE building where, just before he died, he noticed a large oddly shaped cluster of Red Grass and a faintly sweet smell.
That night, Sturm Ogolid, out of despair, took his own life.
That night, the four great agglomerations of Red Grass around the planet spored.
That night, ACE declared to no one “Sorry, I mean YES,”