The Sixth Palace by Robert Silverberg
Ben Azai was deemed worthy and stood at the gate of the sixth palace and saw the ethereal splendor of the pure marble plates.He opened his mouth and said twice,"Water!Water!"In the twinkling of an eye they decapitated him and threw eleven thousand iron bars at him.This shall be a sign for all generations that no one should err at the gate of the sixth palace.
ー lesser Hekhaloth
There was the treasure,and there was the guardian of the treasure.And there were the whitening bones of those who had tried in vain to make the treasure their own.Even the bones had taken on a kind of beauty,lying out there by the gate of the treasure vault,under the blazing arch of heavens.The treasure itself lent beauty to everything near it—even the scattered bones,even the grim guardian.
The home of the treasure was a small world that belonged to red Valzar.Hardly more than moonsized,really,with no atmosphere to speak of,a silent,dead little world that spun through darkness a billion miles from its cooling primary.A wayfarer had stopped there once.Where from,where bound?No one knew.He had established a cache there,and there it lay,changeless and eternal,treasure beyond belief,presided over by the faceless metal man who waited with metal patience for his master's return.
There were those who would have the treasure.They came,and were challenged by the guardian,and died.
On another world of the Valzar system,men undiscouraged by the fate of their predecessors dreamed of the hoard,and schemed to possess it.Lipescu was one:a tower of a man,golden beard,fists like hammers,gullet of brass,back as broad as a tree of a thousand years.Bolzano was another:awl-shaped,bright of eye,fast of finger,twig thick,razor sharp.They had no wish to die.
Lipescu's voice was like the rumble of island galaxies in collision.He wrapped himself around a tankard of good black ale and said,"I go tomorrow,Bolzano."
"Is the computer ready?"
"Programmed with everything the beast could ask me,"the big man boomed."There won't be a slip."
"And if there is?"Bolzano asked,peering idly into the blue,oddly pale,strangely meek eyes of the giant."And if the robot kills you?"
"I've dealt with robots before."
Bolzano laughed."That plain is littered with bones,friend.Yours will join the rest.Great bulky bones,Lipescu.I can see them now."
"You're a cheerful one,friend."
Lipescu shook his head heavily."If you were realistic,you wouldn't be in this with me,"he said slowly."Only a dreamer would do such a thing as this."One meaty paw hovered in the air,pounced,caught Bolzano's forearm.The little man winced as bones ground together.Lipescu said,"You won't back out?If I die,you'll make the attempt?"
"Of course I will,you idiot."
"Will you?You're a coward,like all little men.You'll watch me die,and then you'll turn tail and head for another part of the universe as fast as you know how.Won't you?"
"I intend to profit by your mistakes,"Bolzano said in a clear,testy voice."Let go of my arm."
Lipescu released his grip.The little man sank back in his chair,rubbing his arm.He gulped ale.He grinned at his partner and raised his glass.
"To success,"Bolzano said.
"Yes.To the treasure."
"And to long life afterward."
"For both of us,"the big man boomed.
He had his doubts.The big man was sly,Ferd Bolzano knew,and that was a good combination,not often found:slyness and size.Yet the risks were great.Bolzano wondered which he preferred—that Lipescu should gain the treasure on his attempt,thus assuring Bolzano of a share without risk,or that Lipescu should die,forcing Bolzano to venture his own life.Which was better,a third of the treasure without hazard,or the whole thing for the highest stake?
Bolzano was a good enough gambler to know the answer to that.Yet there was more than yellowness to the man;in his own way,he longed for the chance to risk his life on the airless treasure world.
Lipescu would go first.That was the agreement.Bolzano had stolen the computer,had turned it over to the big man,and Lipescu would make the initial attempt.If he gained the prize,his was the greater share.If he perished,it was Bolzano's moment next.An odd partnership,odd terms,but Lipescu would have it no other way,and Ferd Bolzano did not argue the point with his beefy compatriot.Lipescu would return with the treasure,or he would not return at all.There would be no middle way,they both were certain.
Bolzano spent an uneasy night.His apartment,in an airy shaft of a building overlooking glittering Lake His,was a comfortable place,and he had little longing to leave it.Lipescu,by preference,lived in the stinking slums beyond the southern shore of the lake,and when the two men parted for the night they went in opposite ways.Bolzano considered bringing a woman home for the night but did not.Instead,he sat moody and wakeful before the televector screen,watching the procession of worlds,peering at the green and gold and ochre planets as they sailed through the emptiness.
Toward dawn,he ran the tape of the treasure.Octave Merlin had made that tape,a hundred years before,as he orbited sixty miles above the surface of the airless little world.Now Merlin's bones bleached on the plain,but the tape had come home and boot-legged copies commanded a high price in hidden markets.His camera's sharp eye had seen much.
There was the gate;there was the guardian.Gleaming,ageless,splendid.The robot stood ten feet high,a square,blocky,black shape topped by the tiny anthropomorphic head dome,featureless and sleek.Behind him the gate,wide open but impassable all the same.And behind him,the treasure,culled from the craftsmanship of a thousand worlds,left here who knew why,untold years ago.
No mere jewels.No dreary slabs of so-called precious metal.The wealth here was not intrinsic;no vandal would think of melting the treasure into dead ingots.Here were statuettes of spun iron that seemed to move and breathe.Plaques of purest lead,engraved with lathework that dazzled the mind and made the heart hesitate.Cunning intaglios in granite,from the workshops of a frosty world half a parsec from nowhere.A scatter of opals,burning with an inner light,fashioned into artful loops of brightness.
A helix of rainbow-colored wood.A series of interlocking strips of some beast's bone,bent and splayed so that the pattern blurred and perhaps abutted some other dimensional continuum.Cleverly carved shells,one within the other,descending to infinity.Burnished leaves of nameless trees.Polished pebbles from unknown beaches.A dizzying spew of wonders,covering some fifty square yards,sprawled out behind the gate in stunning profusion.
Rough men unschooled in the tenets of esthetics had given their lives to possess the treasure.It took no fancy knowledge to realize the wealth of it,to know that collectors strung from galaxy to galaxy would fight with bared fangs to claim their share.Cold bars did not a treasure make.But these things?Beyond duplication,almost beyond price?
Bolzano was wet with a fever of yearning before the tape had run its course.When it was over,he slumped in his chair,drained,depleted.
Dawn came.The silvery moons fell from the sky.The red sun splashed across the heavens.Bolzano allowed himself the luxury of an hour's sleep.
And then it was time to begin....
As a precautionary measure,they left the ship in a parking orbit three miles above the airless world.Past reports were unreliable,and there was no telling how far the robot guardian's power extended.If Lipescu were successful,Bolzano could descend and get him—and the treasure.If Lipescu failed,Bolzano would land and make his own attempt.
The big man looked even bigger,encased in his suit and in the outer casement of a dropshaft.Against his massive chest he wore the computer,an extra brain as lovingly crafted as any object in the treasure hoard.The guardian would ask him questions;the computer would help him answer.And Bolzano would listen.If Lipescu erred,possibly his partner could benefit by knowledge of the error and succeed.
"Can you hear me?"Lipescu asked.
"Perfectly.Go on,get going!"
"What's the hurry?Eager to see me die?"
"Are you that lacking in confidence?"Bolzano asked.Do you want me to go first?"
"Fool,"Lipescu muttered."Listen carefully.If I die,I don't want it to be in vain."
"What would it matter to you?"
The bulky figure wheeled around.Bolzano could not see his partner's face,but he knew Lipescu must be scowling.The giant rumbled,"Is life that valuable?Can't I take a risk?"
"For my benefit?"
"For mine,"Lipescu said."I'll be coming back."
"Go,then.The robot is waiting."
Lipescu walked to the lock.A moment later he was through and gliding downward,a one-man spaceship,jets flaring beneath his feet.Bolzano settled by the scanner to watch.A televector pickup homed in on Lipescu just as he made his landing,coming down in a blaze of fire.The treasure and its guardian lay about a mile away.Lipescu rid himself of the dropshaft,stepping with giant bounds toward the waiting guardian.
The televector pickup provided full fidelity.It was useful for Bolzano's purposes,and useful,too,for Lipescu's vanity,for the big man wanted his every moment taped for posterity.It was interesting to see Lipescu dwarfed by the guardian.The black faceless robot,squat and motionless,topped the big man by better than three feet.
Lipescu said,"Step aside."
The robot's reply came in surprisingly human tones,though void of any distinguishing accent."What I guard is not to be plundered."
"I claim them by right,"Lipescu said.
"So have many others.But their right did not exist.Nor does yours.I cannot step aside for you."
"Test me,"Lipescu said."See if I have the right or not!"
"Only my master may pass."
"Who is your master?I am your master!"
"My master is he who can command me.And no one can command me who shows ignorance before me."
"Test me,then,"Lipescu demanded.
"Death is the penalty for failure."
"The treasure does not belong to you."
"Test me and step aside."
"Your bones will join the rest here."
"Test me,"Lipescu said.
Watching from aloft,Bolzano went tense.His thin body drew together like that of a chilled spider.Anything might happen now.The robot might propound riddles,like the Sphinx confronting Oedipus.
It might demand the proofs of mathematical theorems.It might ask the translation of strange words.So they gathered,from their knowledge of what had befallen other men here.And,so it seemed,to give a wrong answer was to earn instant death.
He and Lipescu had ransacked the libraries of the world.They had packed all knowledge,so they hoped,into their computer.It had taken months,even with multi-stage programming.The tiny shining globe of metal on Lipescu's chest contained an infinity of answers to an infinity of questions.
Below,there was long silence as man and robot studied one another.Then the guardian said,"Define latitude."
"Do you mean geographical latitude?"Lipescu asked.
Bolzano congealed with fear.The idiot,asking for a clarification!He would die before he began!
The robot said,"Define latitude."
Lipescu's voice was calm."The angular distance of a point on a planet's surface north or south of the equator,as measured from the center of the planet."
"Which is more consonant,"the robot asked,"the minor third or the major sixth?"
There was a pause.Lipescu was no musician.But the computer would feed him the answer.
"The minor third,"Lipescu said.
Without a pause,the robot fired another question."Name the prime numbers between 5,237 and 7,641."
Bolzano smiled as Lipescu handled the question with ease.So far,so good.The robot had stuck to strictly factual questions,schoolbook stuff,posing no real problems to Lipescu.And after the initial hesitation and quibble over latitude,Lipescu had seemed to grow in confidence from moment to moment.Bolzano squinted at the scanner,looking beyond the robot,through the open gate,to the helter-skelter pile of treasures.He wondered which would fall to his lot when he and Lipescu divided them,two-thirds for Lipescu,the rest for him.
"Name the seven tragic poets of Elifora,"the robot said.
"The fourteen signs of the zodiac as seen from Morneez,"the robot demanded.
"The Teeth,the Serpents,the Leaves,the Waterfall,the Blot—"
"What is a pedicel?"
"The stalk of an individual flower of an inflorescence."
"How many years did the Siege of Lanina last?"
"What did the flower cry in the third canto of Somner's Vehicles?"
"'I ache,I sob,I whimper,I die,'"Lipescu boomed.
"Distinguish between the stamen and the pistil."
"The stamen is the pollen-producing organ of the flower;the pistil—"
And so it went.Question after question.The robot was not content with the legendary three questions of mythology;it asked a dozen,and then asked more.Lipescu answered perfectly,prompted by the murmuring of the peerless compendium of knowledge strapped to his chest.Bolzano kept careful count:the big man had dealt magnificently with seventeen questions.When would the robot concede defeat?When would it end its grim quiz and step aside?
It asked an eighteenth question,pathetically easy.All it wanted was an exposition of the Pythagorean Theorem.Lipescu did not even need the computer for that.He answered,briefly,concisely,correctly.Bolzano was proud of his burly partner.
Then the robot struck Lipescu dead.
It happened in the flickering of an eyelid.Lipescu's voice had ceased,and he stood there,ready for the next question,but the next question did not come.Rather,a panel in the robot's vaulted belly slid open,and something bright and sinuous lashed out,uncoiling over the ten feet or so that separated guardian from challenger,and sliced Lipescu in half.The bright something slid back out of sight.Lipescu's trunk toppled to one side.His massive legs remained absurdly planted for a moment;then they crumpled,and a space suited leg kicked once,and all was still.
Stunned,Bolzano trembled in the loneliness of the cabin,and his lymph turned to water.What had gone wrong?Lipescu had given the proper answer to every question,and yet the robot had slain him.Why?Could the big man possibly have misphrased Pythagoras?No:Bolzano had listened.The answer had been flawless,as had the seventeen that preceded it.Seemingly the robot had lost patience with the game,then.The robot had cheated.Arbitrarily,maliciously,it had lashed out at Lipescu,punishing him for the correct answer.
Did robots cheat,Bolzano wondered?Could they act in malicious spite?No robot he knew was capable of such actions;but this robot was unlike all others.
For a long while,Bolzano remained huddled in the cabin.The temptation was strong to blast free of orbit and head home,treasureless but alive.Yet the treasure called to him.Some suicidal impulse drove him on.Sirenlike,the robot drew him downward.
There had to be a way to make the robot yield,Bolzano thought,as he guided his small ship down the broad barren plain.Using the computer had been a good idea,whose only defect was that it hadn't worked.The records were uncertain,but it appeared that in the past men had died when they finally gave a wrong answer after a series of right ones.Lipescu had given no wrong answers.Yet he too had died.It was inconceivable that the robot understood some relationship of the squares on the hypotenuse and on the other two sides that was different from the relationship Lipescu had expressed.
Bolzano wondered what method would work.
He plodded leadenly across the plain toward the gate and its guardian.The germ of an idea formed in him as he walked doggedly on.
He was,he knew,condemned to death by his own greed.Only extreme agility of mind would save him from sharing Lipescu's fate.Ordinary intelligence would not work.Odyssean cleverness was the only salvation.
Bolzano approached the robot.Bones lay everywhere.Lipescu weltered in his own blood.Against that vast dead chest lay the computer,Bolzano knew.But he shrank from reaching for it.He would do without it.He looked away,unwilling to let the sight of Lipescu's severed body interfere with the coolness of his thoughts.
He collected his courage.The robot showed no interest in him.
"Give ground,"Bolzano said."I am here.I come for the treasure."
"Win your right to it."
"What must I do?"
"Demonstrate truth,"the robot said."Reveal inwardness.Display understanding."
"I am ready,"said Bolzano.
The robot offered a question."What is the excretory unit of the vertebrate kidney called?"
Bolzano contemplated.He had no idea.The computer could tell him,but the computer lay strapped to fallen Lipescu.No matter.The robot wanted truth,inwardness,understanding.Lipescu had offered information.Lipescu had perished.
"The frog in the pond,"Bolzano said,"utters an azure cry."
There was silence.Bolzano watched the robot's front,waiting for the panel to slide open,the sinuous something to chop him in half.
The robot said,"During the War of Dogs on Vanderveer LX,the embattled colonists drew up thirty-eight dogmas of defiance.Quote the third,the ninth,the twenty-second,and the thirty-fifth."
Bolzano pondered.This was an alien robot,product of unknown hand.How did its maker's mind work?Did it respect knowledge?—Did it treasure facts for their own sake?Or did it recognize that information is meaningless,insight a nonlogical process?
Lipescu had been logical.He lay in pieces.
"The mereness of pain,"Bolzano responded,"is ineffable and refreshing."
The robot said,"The monastery of Kwaisen was besieged by the soldiers of Oda Nobunaga on the third of April,1582.What words of wisdom did the abbot utter?"
Bolzano spoke quickly and buoyantly."Eleven,forty-one,elephant,voluminous."
The last word slipped from his lips despite an effort to retrieve it.Elephants were voluminous,he thought.A fatal slip?The robot did not appear to notice.
Sonorously,ponderously,the great machine clevered the next question.
"What is the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere of Muldonar VII?"
"False witness bears a swift sword,"Bolzano replied.
The robot made an odd humming sound.Abruptly it rolled on massive tracks,moving some six feet to its left.The gate of the treasure trove stood wide,beckoning.
"You may enter,"the robot said.
Bolzano's heart leaped.He had won!He had gained the high prize!
Others had failed,most recently less than an hour before,and their bones glistened on the plain.They had tried to answer the robot,sometimes giving right answers,sometimes giving wrong ones,and they had died.Bolzano lived.
It was a miracle,he thought.Luck?Shrewdness?Some of each,he told himself.He had watched a man give eighteen right answers and die.So the accuracy of the responses did not matter to the robot.What did?Inwardness.Understanding.Truth.
There could be inwardness and understanding and truth in random answers,Bolzano realized.Where earnest striving had failed,mockery had succeeded.He had staked his life on nonsense,and the prize was his.
He staggered forward,into the treasure trove.Even in the light gravity,his feet were like leaden weights.Tension ebbed in him.He knelt among the treasures.
The tapes,the sharp-eyed televector scanners,had not begun to indicate the splendor of what lay here.Bolzano stared in awe and rapture at a tiny disk,no greater in diameter than a man's eye,on which myriad coiling lines writhed and twisted in patterns of rare beauty.He caught his breath,sobbing with the pain of perception as a gleaming marble spire,angled in mysterious swerves,came into view.Here,a bright beetle of some fragile waxy substance rested on a pedestal of yellow jade.There,a tangle of metallic cloth spurted dizzying patterns of luminescence.And over there—and beyond—and there.
The ransom of a universe,Bolzano thought.
It would take many trips to carry all this to his ship.Perhaps it would be better to bring the ship to the hoard,eh?He wondered,though,if he would lose his advantage if he stepped back through the gate.Was it possible that he would have to win entrance all over again?And would the robot accept his answers as willingly the second time?
It was something he would have to chance,Bolzano decided.If is nimble mind worked out a plan.He would select a dozen,two dozen of the finest treasures,as much as he could comfortably carry,and take them back to the ship.Then he would lift the ship and set it down next to the gate.If the robot raised objections about his entering,Bolzano would simply depart,taking what he had already secured.There was no point in running undue risks.When he had sold this cargo,and felt pinched for money,he could always return and try to win admission once again.Certainly,no one else would steal the horde if he abandoned it.
Selection,that was the key now.
Crouching,Bolzano picked through the treasure,choosing for portability and easy marketability.The marble spire?Too big.But the coiling disk,yes,certainly,and the beetle,of course,and this small statuette of dull hue,and the cameos showing scenes no human eye had ever beheld,and this,and this,and this—
His pulse raced.His heart thundered.He saw himself traveling from world to world,vending his wares.Collectors,museums,governments would vie with one another to have these prizes.He would let them bid each object up into the millions before he sold.And,of course,he would keep one or two for himself—or perhaps three or four—souvenirs of this great adventure.
And someday when wealth bored him he would return and face the challenge again.And he would dare the robot to question him,and he would reply with random absurdities,demonstrating his grasp on the fundamental insight that in knowledge there is only hollow merit,and the robot would admit him once more to the treasure trove.
Bolzano rose.He cradled his lovelies in his arms.Carefully,carefully,he thought.Turning,he made his way through the gate.
The robot had not moved.It had shown no interest as Bolzano plundered the hoard.The small man walked calmly past it.
The robot said,"Why have you taken those?What do you want with them?"
Bolzano smiled.Nonchalantly he replied,"I've taken them because they're beautiful.Because I want them.Is there a better reason?"
"No,"the robot said,and the panel slid open in its ponderous black chest.
Too late,Bolzano realized that the test had not yet ended,that the robot's question had arisen out of no idle curiosity.And this time he had replied in earnest,speaking in rational terms.
Bolzano shrieked.He saw the brightness coming toward him.
Death followed instantly.