One -shot

by James Blish

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Computers are increasingly important, and public companies are often taking over roles reserved for government agencies in the 50's. Even the comments about not really understanding how hard it is to produce really random data is all spot on. What was missed of course was the fact computer prices would drop as fast as they grew more powerful, union/mob style gangsters would go out of fashion and ESP wouldn't pan out at all.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

On the day that the Polish freighter Ludmilla laid an egg in New York harbor, Abner Longmans (“One-Shot”) Braun was in the city going about his normal business, which was making another million dollars. As we found out later, almost nothing else was normal about that particular week end for Braun. For one thing, he had brought his family with him--a complete departure from routine--reflecting the unprecedentedly legitimate nature of the deals he was trying to make. From every point of view it was a bad week end for the CIA to mix into his affairs, but nobody had explained that to the master of the Ludmilla.

I had better add here that we knew nothing about this until afterward; from the point of view of the storyteller, an organization like Civilian Intelligence Associates gets to all its facts backwards, entering the tale at the pay-off, working back to the hook, and winding up with a sheaf of background facts to feed into the computer for Next Time. It’s rough on the various people who’ve tried to fictionalize what we do--particularly for the lazy examples of the breed, who come to us expecting that their plotting has already been done for them--but it’s inherent in the way we operate, and there it is.

Certainly nobody at CIA so much as thought of Braun when the news first came through. Harry Anderton, the Harbor Defense chief, called us at 0830 Friday to take on the job of identifying the egg; this was when our records show us officially entering the affair, but, of course, Anderton had been keeping the wires to Washington steaming for an hour before that, getting authorization to spend some of his money on us (our clearance status was then and is now C&R--clean and routine).

I was in the central office when the call came through, and had some difficulty in making out precisely what Anderton wanted of us. “Slow down, Colonel Anderton, please,” I begged him. “Two or three seconds won’t make that much difference. How did you find out about this egg in the first place?”

“The automatic compartment bulkheads on the Ludmilla were defective,” he said. “It seems that this egg was buried among a lot of other crates in the dump-cell of the hold--”

“What’s a dump cell?”

“It’s a sea lock for getting rid of dangerous cargo. The bottom of it opens right to Davy Jones. Standard fitting for ships carrying explosives, radioactives, anything that might act up unexpectedly.”

“All right,” I said. “Go ahead.”

“Well, there was a timer on the dump-cell floor, set to drop the egg when the ship came up the river. That worked fine, but the automatic bulkheads that are supposed to keep the rest of the ship from being flooded while the cell’s open, didn’t. At least they didn’t do a thorough job. The Ludmilla began to list and the captain yelled for help. When the Harbor Patrol found the dump-cell open, they called us in.”

“I see.” I thought about it a moment. “In other words, you don’t know whether the Ludmilla really laid an egg or not.”

“That’s what I keep trying to explain to you, Dr. Harris. We don’t know what she dropped and we haven’t any way of finding out. It could be a bomb--it could be anything. We’re sweating everybody on board the ship now, but it’s my guess that none of them know anything; the whole procedure was designed to be automatic.”

“All right, we’ll take it,” I said. “You’ve got divers down?”

“Sure, but--”

“We’ll worry about the buts from here on. Get us a direct line from your barge to the big board here so we can direct the work. Better get on over here yourself.”

“Right.” He sounded relieved. Official people have a lot of confidence in CIA; too much, in my estimation. Some day the job will come along that we can’t handle, and then Washington will be kicking itself--or, more likely, some scapegoat--for having failed to develop a comparable government department.

Not that there was much prospect of Washington’s doing that. Official thinking had been running in the other direction for years. The precedent was the Associated Universities organization which ran Brookhaven; CIA had been started the same way, by a loose corporation of universities and industries all of which had wanted to own an ULTIMAC and no one of which had had the money to buy one for itself. The Eisenhower administration, with its emphasis on private enterprise and concomitant reluctance to sink federal funds into projects of such size, had turned the two examples into a nice fat trend, which ULTIMAC herself said wasn’t going to be reversed within the practicable lifetime of CIA.

I buzzed for two staffers, and in five minutes got Clark Cheyney and Joan Hadamard, CIA’s business manager and social science division chief respectively. The titles were almost solely for the benefit of the T/O--that is, Clark and Joan do serve in those capacities, but said service takes about two per cent of their capacities and their time. I shot them a couple of sentences of explanation, trusting them to pick up whatever else they needed from the tape, and checked the line to the divers’ barge.

It was already open; Anderton had gone to work quickly and with decision once he was sure we were taking on the major question. The television screen lit, but nothing showed on it but murky light, striped with streamers of darkness slowly rising and falling. The audio went cloonck... oing, oing... bonk... oing ... Underwater noises, shapeless and characterless.

“Hello, out there in the harbor. This is CIA, Harris calling. Come in, please.”

“Monig here,” the audio said. Boink... oing, oing...

“Got anything yet?”

“Not a thing, Dr. Harris,” Monig said. “You can’t see three inches in front of your face down here--it’s too silty. We’ve bumped into a couple of crates, but so far, no egg.”

“Keep trying.”

Cheyney, looking even more like a bulldog than usual, was setting his stopwatch by one of the eight clocks on ULTIMAC’s face. “Want me to take the divers?” he said.

“No, Clark, not yet. I’d rather have Joan do it for the moment.” I passed the mike to her. “You’d better run a probability series first.”

“Check.” He began feeding tape into the integrator’s mouth. “What’s your angle, Peter?”

“The ship. I want to see how heavily shielded that dump-cell is.”

“It isn’t shielded at all,” Anderton’s voice said behind me. I hadn’t heard him come in. “But that doesn’t prove anything. The egg might have carried sufficient shielding in itself. Or maybe the Commies didn’t care whether the crew was exposed or not. Or maybe there isn’t any egg.”

“All that’s possible,” I admitted. “But I want to see it, anyhow.”

“Have you taken blood tests?” Joan asked Anderton.


“Get the reports through to me, then. I want white-cell counts, differentials, platelet counts, hematocrit and sed rates on every man.”

Anderton picked up the phone and I took a firm hold on the doorknob.

“Hey,” Anderton said, putting the phone down again. “Are you going to duck out just like that? Remember, Dr. Harris, we’ve got to evacuate the city first of all! No matter whether it’s a real egg or not--we can’t take the chance on it’s not being an egg!”

“Don’t move a man until you get a go-ahead from CIA,” I said. “For all we know now, evacuating the city may be just what the enemy wants us to do--so they can grab it unharmed. Or they may want to start a panic for some other reason, any one of fifty possible reasons.”

“You can’t take such a gamble,” he said grimly. “There are eight and a half million lives riding on it. I can’t let you do it.”

“You passed your authority to us when you hired us,” I pointed out. “If you want to evacuate without our O.K., you’ll have to fire us first. It’ll take another hour to get that cleared from Washington--so you might as well give us the hour.”

He stared at me for a moment, his lips thinned. Then he picked up the phone again to order Joan’s blood count, and I got out the door, fast.

A reasonable man would have said that I found nothing useful on the Ludmilla, except negative information. But the fact is that anything I found would have been a surprise to me; I went down looking for surprises. I found nothing but a faint trail to Abner Longmans Braun, most of which was fifteen years cold.

There’d been a time when I’d known Braun, briefly and to no profit to either of us. As an undergraduate majoring in social sciences, I’d taken on a term paper on the old International Longshoreman’s Association, a racket-ridden union now formally extinct--although anyone who knew the signs could still pick up some traces on the docks. In those days, Braun had been the business manager of an insurance firm, the sole visible function of which had been to write policies for the ILA and its individual dock-wallopers. For some reason, he had been amused by the brash youngster who’d barged in on him and demanded the lowdown, and had shown me considerable lengths of ropes not normally in view of the public--nothing incriminating, but enough to give me a better insight into how the union operated than I had had any right to expect--or even suspect.

Hence I was surprised to hear somebody on the docks remark that Braun was in the city over the week end. It would never have occurred to me that he still interested himself in the waterfront, for he’d gone respectable with a vengeance. He was still a professional gambler, and according to what he had told the Congressional Investigating Committee last year, took in thirty to fifty thousand dollars a year at it, but his gambles were no longer concentrated on horses, the numbers, or shady insurance deals. Nowadays what he did was called investment--mostly in real estate; realtors knew him well as the man who had almost bought the Empire State Building. (The almost in the equation stands for the moment when the shoestring broke.)

Joan had been following his career, too, not because she had ever met him, but because for her he was a type study in the evolution of what she called “the extra-legal ego.” “With personalities like that, respectability is a disease,” she told me. “There’s always an almost-open conflict between the desire to be powerful and the desire to be accepted; your ordinary criminal is a moral imbecile, but people like Braun are damned with a conscience, and sooner or later they crack trying to appease it.”

“I’d sooner try to crack a Timkin bearing,” I said. “Braun’s ten-point steel all the way through.”

“Don’t you believe it. The symptoms are showing all over him. Now he’s backing Broadway plays, sponsoring beginning actresses, joining playwrights’ groups--he’s the only member of Buskin and Brush who’s never written a play, acted in one, or so much as pulled the rope to raise the curtain.”

“That’s investment,” I said. “That’s his business.”

“Peter, you’re only looking at the surface. His real investments almost never fail. But the plays he backs always do. They have to; he’s sinking money in them to appease his conscience, and if they were to succeed it would double his guilt instead of salving it. It’s the same way with the young actresses. He’s not sexually interested in them--his type never is, because living a rigidly orthodox family life is part of the effort towards respectability. He’s backing them to ‘pay his debt to society’--in other words, they’re talismans to keep him out of jail.”

“It doesn’t seem like a very satisfactory substitute.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Joan had said. “The next thing he’ll do is go in for direct public service--giving money to hospitals or something like that. You watch.”

She had been right; within the year, Braun had announced the founding of an association for clearing the Detroit slum area where he had been born--the plainest kind of symbolic suicide: _Let’s not have any more Abner Longmans Brauns born down here_. It depressed me to see it happen, for next on Joan’s agenda for Braun was an entry into politics as a fighting liberal--a New Dealer twenty years too late. Since I’m mildly liberal myself when I’m off duty, I hated to think what Braun’s career might tell me about my own motives, if I’d let it.

All of which had nothing to do with why I was prowling around the Ludmilla--or did it? I kept remembering Anderton’s challenge: “You can’t take such a gamble. There are eight and a half million lives riding on it--” That put it up into Braun’s normal operating area, all right. The connection was still hazy, but on the grounds that any link might be useful, I phoned him.

He remembered me instantly; like most uneducated, power-driven men, he had a memory as good as any machine’s.

“You never did send me that paper you was going to write,” he said. His voice seemed absolutely unchanged, although he was in his seventies now. “You promised you would.”

“Kids don’t keep their promises as well as they should,” I said. “But I’ve still got copies and I’ll see to it that you get one, this time. Right now I need another favor--something right up your alley.”

“CIA business?”

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