by Ernest M. Kenyon

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: If you let a man learn, and study, and work--and clamp a lid on so that nothing he takes into his mind can be let out--one way or another he'll blow a safety valve!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Suddenly Collins snapped the pencil between his fingers and hurled the pieces across the lab, where they clattered, rolled from the bench to the floor, and were still. For a moment he sat leaning against the desk, his hands trembling. He wasn’t sure just when the last straw had been added, but he was sure that he had had enough. The restrictions, red tape, security measures of these government laboratories seemed to close in on his mind in boiling, chaotic waves of frustration. What was the good of his work, all this great installation, all the gleaming expensive equipment in the lab around him? He was alone. None of them seemed to share his problem, the unctuous, always correct Gordon, the easy-mannered, unbearable Mason, all of them gave him a feeling of actual physical sickness.

Gardner’s “Nucleonics and Nuclear Problems” lay open on the desk before him, but he looked instead beyond through the clear curving glass windows toward the sweep of green hills and darkening sky and the shadows of the lower forests that gave Fair Oaks its name. Beside him unfinished lay the summaries of the day’s experiments, and the unorganized, hurriedly jotted notes for tomorrow’s work. The old intellectual alertness was gone. Delight in changing theory, in careful experimentation no longer sprang from his work and were a part of it. There was a dull, indefinable aching in his head and a dry, dissatisfied sensation in his mouth.

Along the ordered walks below his laboratory windows workers and technicians streamed toward the gates, checking out for the day through the usual mass of red tape, passes, and Geiger tests. Lights were flicking on in the long East Wing Dormitory across the quadrangle, and the mess hall, where he had recently eaten a tasteless supper, was lighted.

Shortly after restrictions had really begun to tighten up last fall, he had written to a worker who had published making a minor correction in his calculations and adding some suggestions arising from his own research. A week later his letter was returned completely censored, stamped “Security-Violation.” It was that evasive Gordon’s fault. He knew it, but he couldn’t prove it. Collins suspected that the man was not a top-notch researcher and so was in administration. Perhaps Gordon was jealous of his own work.

Even the Journals were drying up. Endless innocuous papers recalculating the values of harmless constants and other such nonsense were all that was being published. They were hardly worth reading. Others were feeling the throttling effects of security measures, and isolated, lone researchers were slowing down, listless and anemic from the loss of the life blood of science, the free interchange of information.

The present research job he was doing was coming slowly, but what difference did it make? It would never be published. Probably it would be filed with a Department of Defense code number as Research Report DDNE-42 dash-dash-dash. And there it would remain, top-secret, guarded, unread, useless. Somewhere in the desk drawers was the directive worded in the stiff military manner describing the procedures for clearing papers for publication. When he had first come here, he had tried that.

“Well, good, Collins,” Gordon, the Division Administrator, had said, “glad to check it over. Always happy when one of our men has something for publication. Gives the Division a good name. I’ll let you know, but we have to be careful. Security you know.”

Somehow he had never heard. The first time he had made a pest of himself with Gordon who was polite, evasive, always plausible. Gordon, Gordon--it was becoming an obsession with him he knew, but the man appeared at every turn. He personified the system.

In the past months his work had seemed to clog up in details and slow down. The early days of broad, rapid outlines and facile sketching in of details were gone. Now the endless indignities, invasion of personal rights and freedom, the hamstringing of his work, the feeling of being cut off from the main currents of his field, filled him with despair, anger, and frustration.

Suddenly he raised his head, slammed the notebook shut and switched off the desk lamp. Not tonight. Tomorrow would be time enough to write out this stuff. He needed a drink.

The hall was dark as he locked the door to his lab except at the far end near the stairway where a patch of yellow light shone through an open doorway. Mason, he thought, Allan Mason, the one guy at Fair Oaks Nuclear Energy Laboratories who was always so damnedly cheerful, who didn’t seem to mind the security restrictions, and who was seen so often with Gordon. As he walked rapidly past the open doorway, he caught a flashing impression from the corner of his eye of Mason’s tall figure bent over his bench, his long legs wrapped around a lab stool, the perpetual unlit pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. Then as he swung quickly toward the stairs, he heard Mason’s cheerful hail.

“Hi, Milt, hold up a sec.”

Reluctantly he paused at the head of the stairs scowling momentarily, and then slowly turning and retraced his steps.

The lab was brightly lighted, and Mason stretched and smiled pleasantly.

“Come in, old man, I’m about ready to knock off for the evening. How goes it?”

Collins mumbled an O.K. trying to keep the irritation out of his voice, and Mason went on.

“Just finishing up some loose ends so I can get off to the Society meeting on Monday. You going?”

Shaking his head Collins felt his dislike for this man growing. The annual meeting of the North American Society of Theoretical Physicists. He didn’t even give it any thought any more. Maybe he could go, but it didn’t seem worth the effort. In the past he had tried to go to the meetings, but somehow work, rush work, some change of emphasis had come up on the project, and he had had to cancel his plans. He’d finally given up, but with Mason these things seemed to come easily, and he wondered why--

“That’s too bad”--his voice droned pleasantly on, and Collins’ eye caught several botany texts in the book rack above Mason’s desk. So, he had time to read stuff outside of his field. His work was going well. He had time for meetings and was allowed to go to them--the anger rose slowly like a swelling bubble from the hard core of his stomach. Then he realized that Mason had stopped talking and was looking at him.

“Milt, you look glum tonight. Is there-- Why not have supper with me, and we’ll take in the movie in the lounge?”

“I’ve eaten already.” Collins was on his feet. He forced a, “Thanks anyway. See you tomorrow. I’m--” and he was gone.

As he strode angerly across the quadrangle Mason’s words and cheerful attitude rankled in his mind. The gravel of the walk spurted from under his shoes, and the night air was clear and cool. It was good at least to feel something other than despair again, even anger.

But once in his study with its attached bedroom and bath that made up his living quarters, he sank to the couch near his desk, all of the fight gone. He needed a drink. Today all the irritations, tensions, and suspicions of the past months seemed to close in on him. His work was going badly. Perhaps seeing Mason had brought it to a head. The fifth of bourbon in the bottom desk drawer was partly gone from the party last month. He took a swallow neat, and the fire of the liquid burned and clawed its way down his throat and spread with blossoming warmth in his stomach.

Kicking off his shoes and loosening his tie he leaned back with the bottle on the floor beside him.

Later in the evening when the early clarity of thought had left him and his mind moved disjointedly in and out of seemingly brilliant, emotional solutions to his problem, he knew he must have a showdown. Lying back on the couch he drifted into sleep determined to have it out with Gordon in the morning--resign if necessary.

The momentary pause of lighting his cigarette gave Collins a chance to decide where to start, as he sat across from Gordon. The Division Administrator was older with a heavy-jowled, close shaven face, and he waited patiently for Collins to speak.

“Dr. Gordon, I am having a great deal of difficulty in making an adjustment both in my work and in my personal relations here at Fair Oaks, and last night I realized that I would have to talk to you about it.”

Gordon’s face changed slightly, his eyebrows rising almost imperceptibly.

“So, what ... how do you mean, Milt?”

Use of the first name--the familiar approach thought Collins--administrative technique number blank blank dash blank.

“Dr. Gordon, these security measures we are under, the difficulty of publishing, of getting to scientific meetings, the problem of getting furloughs, lack of knowledge of what is going on in my own field, it’s just a little too much. It’s personally irritating, but it greatly hampers my work as well. Frankly, I’m against the entire security program as it now stands. If it isn’t stopped research will ... well, simply be impossible. Free interchange of information is essential to--” His fingers were gripping the arms of his chair.

“Yes, of course, Milt, but corny as it sounds there is a war on you know. Oh, not a war with military weapons--yet, but a cold war of science and engineering, a struggle for supremacy in many fields of knowledge. If information of our work leaks out, gets to the enemy, we might as well not do that work. We can’t be too careful.”

“I agree, but it goes too far.” He leaned forward. “My private mail is read, and on my last furlough I am certain I was watched from the time I left the gates out there until I returned, and I don’t like it. I can’t prove it, but-- That’s getting to the point that life’s not worth while.”

“Come now, Milt, don’t you think you’re taking this a little too seriously? You’re getting stale, overwrought. You need a fresh point of view. Lots of our people feel as you do at one time or another, but most of us learn to live with these necessary regulations, and do our work in spite of them. Let me make a suggestion, relax, take a little time off, develop a hobby. Why not do some reading in a field of science other than your own. It’s good for you. Several of the people here are doing it. I do it, Carter, even Mason for instance--”

Collins could feel the anger rising in him again.

“Look, Gordon, I’m not going to mince words. I’m sick and tired of this mess, and you might as well know it. You can have all your damn relaxations and hobbies, or what have you. I want to do my work, and if I can’t do it here, I’m going somewhere where I can do it. In plain English unless we can have an understanding right now--I resign.”

It had come out, and Collins was breathing hard, but Gordon’s expression hardly changed as he looked over the tips of his joined fingers, while the younger man stopped and crushed out his cigarette viciously in the ash disposer on the arm of his chair. Gordon doodled on a small pad for a moment, his eyes not meeting Collins’. Then he spoke slowly.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Milt. I ... I’m afraid I cannot accept your resignation. You see,” he said softly, “none of us can leave Fair Oaks--now.”

Collins looked up, amazement and incredulity written on his face.

“What do you mean--can’t leave? I can leave any time--”

Gordon slowly shook his head almost sadly. “No, only assistants, technicians, maintenance people, and they are carefully watched or restricted to this area. People like yourself, like me, we have information, knowledge which cannot be let out of government hands at this time. We’re here probably for the ‘duration’; maybe longer.”

“But--this is barbarous. I--” the words clogged, jumbled as he tried to get them out. His emotions ran from anger, to amazement, to indignation, followed by a trickle of fear, and as he stared at Gordon, the fear grew. He could scarcely hear Gordon’s words--

“Take my advice--relax--and forget your fears--accept the restrictions and go ahead--read in some other field--come in again when you’ve thought it out.” He was scarcely aware when Gordon slipped a bound journal volume into his hands and walked with him to the door--and closed it behind him.

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