Security

by Poul Anderson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: In a world where Security is all-important, nothing can ever be secure. A mountain-climbing vacation may wind up in deep Space. Or loyalty may prove to be high treason. But it has its rewards.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It had been a tough day at the lab, one of those days when nothing seems able to go right. And, of course, it had been precisely the day Hammond, the Efficiency inspector, would choose to stick his nose in. Another mark in his little notebook--and enough marks like that meant a derating, and Control had a habit of sending derated labmen to Venus. That wasn’t a criminal punishment, but it amounted to the same thing. Allen Lancaster had no fear of it for himself; the sector chief of a Project was under direct Control jurisdiction rather than Efficiency, and Control was friendly to him. But he’d hate to see young Rogers get it--the boy had been married only a week now.

To top the day off, a report had come to Lancaster’s desk from Sector Seven of the Project. Security had finally cleared it for general transmission to sector chiefs--and it was the complete design of an electronic valve on which some of the best men in Lancaster’s own division, Sector Thirteen, had been sweating for six months. There went half a year’s work down the drain, all for nothing, and Lancaster would have that much less to show at the next Project reckoning.

He had cursed for several minutes straight, drawing the admiring glances of his assistants. It was safe enough for a high-ranking labman to gripe about Security--in fact, it was more or less expected. Scientists had their privileges.

One of these was a private three-room apartment. Another was an extra liquor ration. Tonight, as he came home, Lancaster decided to make a dent in the latter. He’d eaten at the commissary, as usual, but hadn’t stayed to talk. All the way home in the tube, he’d been thinking of that whiskey and soda.

Now it sparkled gently in his glass and he sighed, letting a smile crease his lean homely face. He was a tall man, a little stooped, his clothes--uniform and mufti alike--perpetually rumpled. Solitary by nature, he was still unmarried in spite of the bachelor tax and had only one son. The boy was ten years old now, must be in the Youth Guard; Lancaster wasn’t sure, never having seen him.

It was dark outside his windows, but a glow above the walls across the skyway told of the city pulsing and murmuring beyond. He liked the quiet of his evenings alone and had withstood a good deal of personal and official pressure to serve in various patriotic organizations. “Damn it,” he had explained, “I’m not doing routine work. I’m on a Project, and I need relaxation of my own choosing.”

He selected a tape from his library. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik lilted joyously about him as he found a chair and sat down. Control hadn’t gotten around to making approved lists of music yet, though you’d surely never hear Mozart in a public place. Lancaster got a cigar from the humidor and collapsed his long gaunt body across chair and hassock. Smoke, whiskey, good music--they washed his mind clean of worry and frustration; he drifted off in a mist of unformed dreams. Yes, it wasn’t such a bad world.


The mail-tube went ping! and he opened his eyes, swearing. For a moment he was tempted to let the pneumo-roll lie where it fell, but habit was too strong. He grumbled his way over to the basket and took it out.

The stamp across it jerked his mind to wakefulness. _OfiSal, sEkret, fOr adresE OnlE_--and a Security seal!

After a moment he swallowed his thumping heart. It couldn’t be serious, not as far as he personally was concerned anyway. If that had been the case, a squad of monitors would have been at the door. Not this message tube ... He broke the seal and unfolded the flimsy with elaborate care. Slowly, he scanned it. Underneath the official letterhead, the words were curt. “_Dis iz A matr uv urjensE and iz top sEkret. destrY Dis letr and Du tUb kontAniN it._ tUmOrO, 15 jUn, at 2130 ourz, U wil gO tU Du obzurvatOrE, A nIt klub at 5730 viktOrE strEt, and ask Du hedwAtr fOr A mistr Berg. U wil asUm Dat hE iz an Old frend uv yOrz and Dat Dis iz A sOSal EveniN. Du UZUal penaltEz ar invOkt fOr fAlUr tU komplI.”

There was no signature. Lancaster stood for a moment, trying to imagine what this might be. There was a brief chill of sweat on his skin. Then he suppressed his emotions. He had nothing to fear. His record was clean and he wasn’t being arrested.

His mind wandered rebelliously off on something that had occurred to him before. Admittedly the new phonetic orthography was more efficient than the old, if less esthetic; but since little of the earlier literature was being re-issued in modern spelling not too many books had actually been condemned as subversive--only a few works on history, politics, philosophy, and the like, together with some scientific texts restricted for security reasons; but one by one, the great old writings were sent to forgetfulness.

Well, these were critical times. There wasn’t material and energy to spare for irrelevant details. No doubt when complete peace was achieved there would be a renaissance. Meanwhile he, Lancaster, had his Euripides and Goethe and whatever else he liked, or knew where to borrow it.

As for this message, they must want him for something big, maybe something really interesting.

Nevertheless, his evening was ruined.


The Observatory was like most approved recreation spots--large and raucous, selling unrationed food and drink and amusement at uncontrolled prices of which the government took its usual lion’s share. The angle in this place was astronomy. The ceiling was a blue haze a-glitter with slowly wheeling constellations, and the strippers began with make-believe spacesuits. There were some rather good murals on the walls depicting various stages of the conquest of space. Lancaster was amused at one of them. When he’d been here three years ago, the first landing on Ganymede had shown a group of men unfurling a German flag. It had stuck in his mind, because he happened to know that the first expedition there had actually been Russian. That was all right then, seeing that Germany was an ally at the time. But now that Europe was growing increasingly cold to the idea of an American-dominated world, the Ganymedean pioneers were holding a good safe Stars and Stripes.

Oh, well. You had to keep the masses happy. They couldn’t see that their sacrifices and the occasional short wars were necessary to prevent another real smashup like the one seventy-five years ago. Lancaster’s annoyance was directed at the sullen foreign powers and the traitors within his own land. It was because of them that science had to be strait-jacketed by Security regulations.

The headwaiter bowed before him. “I’m looking for a friend,” said Lancaster. “A Mr. Berg.”

“Yes, sir. This way, please.”

Lancaster slouched after him. He’d worn the dress uniform of a Project officer, but he felt that all eyes were on its deplorable sloppiness. The headwaiter conducted him between tables of half-crocked customers--burly black-uniformed Space Guardsmen, army and air officers, richly clad industrialists and union bosses, civilian leaders, their wives and mistresses. The waiters were all Martian slaves, he noticed, their phosphorescent owl-eyes smoldering in the dim blue light.

He was ushered into a curtained booth. There was an auto-dispenser so that those using it need not be interrupted by servants, and an ultrasonic globe on the table was already vibrating to soundproof the region. Lancaster’s gaze went to the man sitting there. In spite of being short, he was broad-shouldered and compact in plain gray evening pajamas. His face was round and freckled, almost cherubic, under a shock of sandy hair, but there were merry little devils in his eyes.


“Good evening, Dr. Lancaster,” he said. “Please sit down. What’ll you have?”

“Thanks, I’ll have Scotch and soda.” Might as well make this expensive, if the government was footing the bill. And if this--Berg--thought him un-American for drinking an imported beverage, what of it? The scientist lowered himself into the seat opposite his host.

“I’m having the same, as a matter of fact,” said Berg mildly. He twirled the dial and slipped a couple of five-dollar coins into the dispenser slot. When the tray was ejected, he sipped his drink appreciatively and looked across the rim of the glass at the other man.

“You’re a high-ranking physicist on the Arizona Project, aren’t you, Dr. Lancaster?” he asked.

That much was safe to admit. Lancaster nodded.

“What is your work, precisely?”

“You know I can’t tell you anything like that.”

“It’s all right. Here are my credentials.” Berg extended a wallet. Lancaster scanned the cards and handed them back.

“Okay, so you’re in Security,” he said. “I still can’t tell you anything, not without proper clearance.”

Berg chuckled amiably. “Good. I’m glad to see you’re discreet. Too many labmen don’t understand the necessity of secrecy, even between different branches of the same organization.” With a sudden whip-like sharpness: “You didn’t tell anyone about this meeting, did you?”

“No, of course not.” Despite himself, Lancaster was rattled. “That is, a friend asked if I’d care to go out with her tonight, but I said I was meeting someone else.”

“That’s right.” Berg relaxed, smiling. “All right, we may as well get down to business. You’re getting quite an honor, Dr. Lancaster. You’ve been tapped for one of the most important jobs in the Solar System.”

“Eh?” Lancaster’s eyes widened behind the contact lenses. “But no one else has informed me--”

“No one of your acquaintance knows of this. Nor shall they. But tell me, you’ve done work on dielectrics, haven’t you?”

“Yes. It’s been a sort of specialty of mine, in fact. I wrote my thesis on the theory of dielectric polarization and since then--no, that’s classified.”

“M-hm.” Berg took another sip of his drink. “And right now you’re just a cog in a computer-development Project. You see, I do know a few things about you. However, we’ve decided--higher up, you know, in fact on the very top level--to take you off it for the time being and put you on this other job, one concerning your specialty. Furthermore, you won’t be part of a great organizational machine, but very much on your own. The fewer who know of this, the better.”

Lancaster wasn’t sure he liked that. Once the job was done--if he were possessed of all information on it--he might be incarcerated or even shot as a Security risk. Things like that had happened. But there wasn’t much he could do about it.

“Have no fears.” Berg seemed to read his thoughts. “Your reward may be a little delayed for Security reasons, but it will come in due time.” He leaned forward, earnestly. “I repeat, this project is top secret. It’s a vital link in something much bigger than you can imagine, and few men below the President even know of it. Therefore, the very fact that you’ve worked on it--that you’ve done any outside work at all--must remain unknown, even to the chiefs of your Project.”

“Good stunt if you can do it,” shrugged Lancaster. “But I’m hot. Security keeps tabs on everything I do.”

“This is how we’ll work it. You have a furlough coming up in two weeks, don’t you--a three months’ furlough? Where were you going?”

“I thought I’d visit the Southwest. Get in some mountain climbing, see the canyons and Indian ruins and--”

“Yes, yes. Very well. You’ll get your ticket as usual and a reservation at the Tycho Hotel in Phoenix. You’ll go there and, on your first evening, retire early. Alone, I need hardly add. We’ll be waiting for you in your room. There’ll be a very carefully prepared duplicate--surgical disguise, plastic fingerprinting tips, fully educated in your habits, tastes, and mannerisms. He’ll stay behind and carry out your vacation while we smuggle you away. A similar exchange will be affected when you return, you’ll be told exactly how your double spent the summer, and you’ll resume your ordinary life.”

“Ummm--well--” It was too sudden. Lancaster had to hedge. “But look--I’ll be supposedly coming back from an outdoor vacation, with a suntan and well rested. Somebody’s going to get suspicious.”

“There’ll be sun lamps where you’re going, my friend. And I think the chance to work independently on something that really interests you will prove every bit as restful to your nerves as a summer’s travel. I know the scientific mentality.” Berg chuckled. “Yes, indeed.”


The exchange went off so smoothly that it was robbed of all melodrama, though Lancaster had an unexpectedly eerie moment when he confronted his double. It was his own face that looked at him, there in the impersonal hotel room, himself framed against blowing curtains and darkness of night. Then Berg gestured him to follow and they went down a cord ladder hanging from the window sill. A car waited in the alley below and slid into easy motion the instant they had gotten inside.

There was a driver and another man in the front seat, both shadows against the moving blur of street lamps and night. Berg and Lancaster sat in the rear, and the secret agent chatted all the way. But he said nothing of informational content.

When the highway had taken them well into the loneliness of the desert, the car turned off it, bumped along a miserable dirt track until it had crossed a ridge, and slowed before a giant transcontinental dieselectric truck. A man emerged from its cab, waving an unhurried arm, and the car swung around to the rear of the van. There was a tailgate lowered, forming a ramp; above it, the huge double doors opened on a cavern of blackness. The car slid up the ramp, and the man outside pushed it in after them and closed the doors. Presently the truck got into motion.

“This is really secret!” whistled Lancaster. He felt awed and helpless.

“Quite so. Security doesn’t like the government’s right hand to know what its left is doing.” Berg smiled, a dim flash of teeth in his shadowy face. Then he was serious. “It’s necessary, Lancaster. You don’t know how strong and well-organized the subversives are.”

“They--” The physicist closed his mouth. It was true--he hadn’t the faintest notion, really. He followed the news, but in a cursory fashion, without troubling to analyze the meaning of it. Damn it all, he had enough else to think about. Just as well that elections had been suspended and bade fair to continue indefinitely in abeyance. If he, a member of the intelligentsia, wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with the political and military facts of life to make rational decisions, it certainly behooved the ill-educated masses to obey.

“We might as well stretch ourselves,” said the driver. “Long way to go yet.” He climbed out and switched on an overhead light.


The interior of the van was roomy, even allowing for the car. There were bunks, a table and chairs, a small refrigerator and cookstove. The driver, a lean saturnine man who seemed to be forever chewing gum, began to prepare coffee. The other sat down, whistling tunelessly. He was young and powerfully built, but his right arm ended in a prosthetic claw. All of them were dressed in inconspicuous civilian garb.

“Take us about ten hours, maybe,” said Berg. “The spaceship’s ‘way over in Colorado.”

He caught Lancaster’s blank stare, and grinned. “Yes, my friend, your lab is out in space. Surprised?”

“Mmm--yeah. I’ve never been off Earth.”

“Sokay. We run at acceleration, you won’t be spacesick.” Berg drew up a chair, sat down, and tilted it back against a wall. The steady rumble of engines pulsed under his words:

“It’s interesting, really, to consider the relationship between government and military technology. The powerful, authoritarian governments have always arisen in such times as the evolution of warfare made a successful fighting machine something elaborate, expensive, and maintainable by professionals only. Like in the Roman Empire. It took years to train a legionnaire and a lot of money to equip an army and keep it in the field. So Rome became autarchic. However, it was not so expensive a proposition that a rebellious general couldn’t put some troops up for a while--or he could pay them with plunder. So you did get civil wars. Later, when the Empire had broken up and warfare relied largely on the individual barbarian who brought his own weapons with him, government loosened. It had to--any ruler who got to throwing his weight around too much would have insurrection on his hands. Then as war again became an art--well, you see how it goes. There are other factors, of course, like religion--ideology in general. But by and large, it’s worked out the way I explained it. Because there are always people willing to fight when government encroaches on what they consider their liberties, and governments are always going to try to encroach. So the balance struck depends on comparative strength. The American colonists back in 1776 relied on citizen levies and weapons were so cheap and simple that almost anyone could obtain them. Therefore government stayed loose for a long time. But nowadays, who except a government can make atomic bombs and space rockets? So we get absolute states.”


Lancaster looked around, feeling the loneliness close in on him. The driver was still clattering the coffee pot. The one-armed man was utterly blank and expressionless. And Berg sat there, smiling, pouring out those damnable cynicisms. Was it some kind of test? Were they probing his loyalty? What kind of reply was expected?

“We’re a democratic nation and you know it,” he said. It came out more feebly than he had thought.

“Oh, well, sure. This is just a state of emergency which has lasted unusually long, seventy-two years to be exact. If we hadn’t lost World War III, and needed a powerful remilitarization to overthrow the Soviet world--but we did.” Berg took out a pack of cigarettes. “Smoke? I was just trying to explain to you why the subversives are so dangerous. They have to be, or they wouldn’t stand any kind of chance. When you set out to upset something as big as the United States government, it’s an all or nothing proposition. They’ve had a long time now to organize, and there’s a huge percentage of malcontents to help them out.”

“Malcontents? Well, look, Berg--I mean, you’re the expert and of course you know your business, but a natural human grumble at conditions doesn’t mean revolutionary sentiments. These aren’t such bad times. People have work, and their needs are supplied. They aren’t hankering to have the Hemispheric Wars back again.”

“The standard revolutionary argument,” said Berg patiently, “is that the rebels aren’t trying to overthrow the nation at all, but simply to restore constitutional and libertarian government. It’s common knowledge that they have help and some subsidies from outside, but it’s contended that these are merely countries tired of a world dominated by an American dictatorship and, being small Latin-American and European states, couldn’t possibly think of conquering us. Surely you’ve seen subversive literature.”

“Well, yes. Can’t help finding their pamphlets. All over the place. And--” Lancaster closed his mouth. No, damned if he was going to admit that he knew three co-workers who listened to rebel propaganda broadcasts. Those were silly, harmless kids--why get them in trouble, maybe get them sent to camp?


“You probably don’t appreciate the hold that kind of argument has on all too many intellectuals--and a lot of the common herd, too,” said Berg. “Naturally you wouldn’t--if your attitude has always been unsympathetic, these people aren’t going to confide their thoughts to you. And then there are bought men, and spies smuggled in, and--oh, I needn’t elaborate. It’s enough to say that we’ve been thoroughly infiltrated, and that most of their agents have absolutely impeccable dossiers. We can’t give neoscop to everybody, you know--Security has to rely on spot checks and the testing of key personnel. Only when organizations get as big as they are today, there’s apt to be no real key man, and a few spies strategically placed in the lower echelons can pick-up a hell of a lot of information. Then there are the colonists out on the planets--our hold on them has always necessarily been loose, because of transportation and communication difficulties if nothing else. And, as I say, foreign powers. A little country like Switzerland or Denmark or Venezuela can’t do much by itself, but an undercover international pooling of resources ... Anyway, we have reason to believe in the existence of a large, well financed, well organized underground, with trained fighting men, big secret weapons dumps, and saboteurs ready for the word ‘go’--to say nothing of a restless population and any number of covert sympathizers who’d follow if the initial uprising had good results.”

“Or bad, depending on whose viewpoint you take,” grinned the one-armed man.

Lancaster put his elbows on his knees and rested his forehead on shaking hands. “What has all this got to do with me?” he protested. “I’m not the hero of some cloak-and-dagger spy story. I’m no good at undercover stuff--what do you want of me?”

“It’s very simple,” Berg replied quietly. “The balance of power is still with the government, because it does have more of the really heavy weapons than any other group can possibly muster. Alphabet bombs, artillery, rockets, armor, spaceships and space missiles. You see? Only research has lately suggested that a new era in warfare is developing--a new weapon as decisive as the Macedonian phalanx, gunpowder, and aircraft were in their day.” As Lancaster raised his eyes, he met an almost febrile glitter in Berg’s gaze. “And this weapon may reverse the trend. It may be the cheap and simple arm that anyone can make and use--the equalizer! So we’ve got to develop it before the rebels do. They have laboratories of their own, and their skill at stealing our secrets makes it impossible for us to trust the research to a Project in the usual manner. The fewer who knew of this weapon, the better--because in the wrong hands it could mean--Armageddon!”


The run from Earth was short, for the space laboratory wasn’t far away at the moment as interplanetary distances go. Lancaster wasn’t told anything about its orbit, but guessed that it had a path a million miles or so sunward from Earth and highly tilted with respect to the ecliptic. That made for almost perfect concealment, for what spaceship would normally go much north or south of the region containing the planets?

He was too preoccupied during the journey to estimate orbital figures, anyway. He had seen enough pictures of open space, and some of them had been excellent. But the reality towered unbelievably over all representations. There simply is no way of describing that naked grandeur, and when you have once experienced it you don’t want to try. His companions--Berg and the one-armed Jessup, who piloted the spaceboat--respected his need for silence.

The station had been painted non-reflecting black, which complicated temperature control but made accidental observation of its existence almost impossible. It loomed against the cold glory of stars like a pit of ultimate darkness, and Jessup had to guide the boat in with radar. When the last lock had clanged shut behind him and he stood in a narrow metal corridor, shut away from the sky, Lancaster felt a sense of unendurable loss.

It faded, and he grew aware of others watching him. There were half a dozen people, a motley group dressed in any shabby garment they happened to fancy, with no sign of the semi-military discipline of a Project crew. A Martian hovered in the background, and Lancaster didn’t notice him at first. Berg introduced the humans casually. There was a stocky gray-haired man named Friedrichs, a lanky space-tanned young chap called Isaacson, a middle-aged woman and her husband by the name of Dufrere, a quiet Oriental who answered to Hwang, and a red-haired woman presented as Karen Marek. These, Berg explained, were the technicians who would be helping Lancaster. This end of the space station was devoted to the labs and factories; for security reasons, Lancaster couldn’t be permitted to go elsewhere, but it was hoped he would be comfortable here.

“Ummm--pardon me, aren’t you a rather mixed group?” asked the physicist.

“Yes, very,” said Berg cheerfully. “The Dufreres are French, Hwang is Chinese, and Karen here is Norwegian though her husband was Czech. Not to mention ... There you are, I didn’t see you before! Dr. Lancaster, I’d like you to meet Rakkan of Thyle, Mars, a very accomplished labman.”


Lancaster gulped, shifting his feet and looking awkwardly at the small gray-feathered body and the beaked owl-face. Rakkan bowed politely, sparing Lancaster the decision of whether or not to shake the clawlike hand. He assumed Rakkan was somebody’s slave--but since when did slaves act as social equals?

“But you said this project was top secret!” he blurted.

“Oh, it is,” smiled Karen Marek. She had a husky, pleasant voice, and while she was a little too thin to be really good-looking, she was cast in a fine mold and her eyes were large and gray and lovely. “I assure you, non-Americans are perfectly capable of preserving a secret. More so than most Americans, really--we don’t have ties on Earth. No one to blab to.”

“It’s not well known today, but the original Manhattan Project that constructed the first atomic bombs had quite an international character,” said Berg. “It even included German, Italian, and Hungarian elements though the United States was at war with those countries.”

“Come along and we’ll get you settled in your quarters,” invited Isaacson.

Lancaster followed him down the long hallways, rather dazed with the whole business. He noticed that the space station had a crude, unfinished look, as if it had been hastily thrown together from whatever materials were available. That didn’t ring true for a government enterprise, no matter how secret.

Berg seemed to read his thought again. “We’ve worked under severe handicaps,” he said. “Look, just suppose a lot of valuable material and equipment were ferried into space. If it’s an ordinary government deal, you know how many light-years of red tape are involved. Requisitions have to be filled out in triplicate, every last rivet has to be accounted for--there’d simply have been too much chance of a rebel spy getting a lead on us. It was safer all around to use whatever chance materials could be obtained from salvage or through individual purchases on other planets. Ever hear of the Waikiki?”

“Ummm--seems so--wasn’t she the big freighter that disappeared many years ago?”

“That’s the one. A meteor swarm struck her on the way to Venus. Furthermore, one of them shorted out her engine controls, so that she swooped out of the ecliptic plane and fell into an eccentric skew orbit. When this project was first started, one of our astronomers thought he’d identified the swarm--it has a regular path of its own about the sun, though the orbit is so cockeyed that spaceships hardly ever even see the things. Anyway, knowing the orbit of the meteors and that of the Waikiki at the time, he could calculate where the disaster must have taken place--which gave us a lead in searching for the hulk. We found it after a lot of investigation, moved it here, and built the station up around it. Very handy. And completely secret.”

Lancaster had always suspected that Security was a little mad. Now he knew it. Oh, well--


His room was small and austere, but privacy was nice. The lab crew ate in a common refectory. Beyond the edge of their territory, great bulkheads blocked off three-fourths of the space station. Lancaster was sure that many people and several Martians lived there, for in the days that followed he saw any number of strangers appearing and disappearing in the region allowed him. Most of these were workmen of some kind or other, called in to help the lab crew as needed, but all of them were tight-lipped. They must have been cautioned not to speak to the guest more than was strictly necessary.

Living was Spartan in the station. It rotated fast enough to give weight, but even on the outer skin that was only one-half Earth gravity. A couple of silent Martians prepared undistinguished meals and did housework in the quarters. There were no films or other organized recreation, though Lancaster was told that the forbidden sector included a good-sized room for athletics.

But the crew he worked with didn’t seem to mind. They had their own large collections of books and music wires, which they borrowed from each other. They played chess and poker with savage skill. Conversation was, at first, somewhat restrained in Lancaster’s presence, and most of the humor had so little reference to things he knew that he couldn’t follow it, but he became aware that they talked with more animation and intelligence than his friends on Earth. Manners were utterly informal, and it wasn’t long before even Lancaster was being addressed by his first name; but cooperation was smooth and there seemed to be none of the intrigue and backbiting of a typical Project crew.

And the work filled their lives. Lancaster was caught up in it the “day” after his arrival, realized at once what it meant, and was plunged into the fascination of it. Berg hadn’t lied; this was big!

The perfect dielectric.

Such, at least, was the aim of the project. It was explained to Lancaster that one Dr. Sophoulis had first seen the possibilities and organized the research. It had gone ahead slowly, hampered by a lack of needed materials and expert personnel. When Sophoulis died, none of his assistants felt capable of carrying on the work at any decent rate of speed. They were all competent in their various specialties, but it takes more than training to do basic research--a certain inborn, intuitive flair is needed. So they had sent to Earth for a new boss--Lancaster.

The physicist scratched his head in puzzlement. It didn’t seem right that something so important should have to take the leavings of technical personnel. Secrecy or not, the most competent men on Earth should have been tapped for this job, and they should have been given everything they needed to carry it through. Then he forgot his bewilderment in the clean chill ecstasy of the work.


Man had been hunting superior dielectrics for a long time now. It was more than a question of finding the perfect electrical insulator, though that would be handy too. What was really important was the sort of condensers made possible by a genuinely good dielectric material. Given that, you could do fantastic things in electronics. Most significant of all was the matter of energy storage. If you could store large amounts of electricity in an accumulator of small volume, without appreciable leakage loss, you could build generators designed to handle average rather than peak load--with resultant savings in cost; you could build electric motors, containing their own energy supply and hence portable--which meant electric automobiles and possibly aircraft; you could use inconveniently located power sources, such as remote waterfalls, or dilute sources like sunlight, to augment--maybe eventually replace--the waning reserves of fuel and fissionable minerals; you could ... Lancaster’s mind gave up on all the possibilities opening before him and settled down to the immediate task at hand.

“The original mineral was found on Venus, in the Gorbu-vashtar country,” explained Karen Marek. “Here’s a sample.” She gave him a lump of rough, dense material which glittered in hard rainbow points of light. “It was just a curiosity at first, till somebody thought to test its electrical properties. Those were slightly fantastic. We have all chemical and physical data on this stuff already, of course, as well as an excellent idea of its crystal structure. It’s a funny mixture of barium and titanium compounds with some rare earths and--well, read the report for yourself.”

Lancaster’s eyes skimmed down the sheaf of papers she handed him. “Can’t make very good condensers out of this,” he objected. “Too brittle--and look how the properties vary with temperature. A practical dielectric has to be stable in every way, at least over the range of conditions you intend to use it in.”

She nodded.

“Of course. Anyway, the mineral is very rare on Venus, and you know how tough it is to search for anything in Gorbu-vashtar. What’s important is the lead it gave Sophoulis. You see, the dielectric constant of this material isn’t constant at all. It increases with applied voltage. Look at this curve here.”

Lancaster whistled. “What the devil--but that’s impossible! That much variability means a crystal structure which is--uh--flexible, damn it! But you’ve got a brittle substance here--”

According to the accepted theory of dielectricity, this couldn’t be. Lancaster realized with a thumping behind his veins that the theory would have to be modified. Rather, this was an altogether different phenomenon from normal insulation.

He supposed some geological freak had formed the mineral. Venus was a strange planet anyway. But that didn’t matter. The important thing now was to get to know this process. He went off into a happy mist of quantum mechanics, oscillation theory, and periodic functions of a complex variable.

Karen and Isaacson exchanged a slow smile.


Sophoulis and his people had done heroic work under adverse conditions. A tentative theory of the mechanism involved had already been formulated, and the search had started for a means to duplicate the super-dielectricity in materials otherwise more suitable to man’s needs. But as he grew familiar with the place and the job, Lancaster wondered just how adverse the conditions really were.

True, the equipment was old and cranky, much of it haywired together, much of it invented from scratch. But Rakkan the Martian, for all his lack of formal education, was unbelievably clever where it came to making apparatus and making it behave, and Friedrichs was a top-flight designer. The lab had what it needed--wasn’t that enough?

The rest of Lancaster’s crew were equally good. The Dufreres were physical chemists par excellence, Isaacson a brilliant crystallographer with an unusual brain for mathematics, Hwang an expert on quantum theory and inter-atomic forces, Karen an imaginative experimenter. None of them quite had the synthesizing mentality needed for an overall picture and a fore-vision of the general direction of work--that had been Sophoulis’ share, and was now Lancaster’s--but they were all cheerful and skilled where it came to detail work and could often make suggestions in a theoretical line.

Then, too, there was no Security snooping about, no petty scramble for recognition and promotion, no red tape. What was more important, Lancaster began to realize, was the personal nature of the whole affair. In a Project, the overall chief set the pattern, and it was followed by his subordinates with increasingly less latitude as you worked down through the lower ranks. You did what you were told, produced results or else, and kept your mouth shut outside your own sector of the Project. You had only the vaguest idea of what actually was being created, and why, and how it fitted into the broad scheme of society.

Hwang and Rakkan commented on that, one “evening” at dinner when they had grown more relaxed in Lancaster’s presence. “It was inevitable, I suppose, that scientific research should become corporate,” said the Chinese. “So much equipment was needed, and so many specialties had to be coordinated, that the solitary genius with only a few assistants hadn’t a chance. Nevertheless, it’s a pity. It’s destroyed initiative in many promising young men. The top man is no longer a scientist at all--he’s an administrator with some technical background. The lower ranks do have to exercise ingenuity, yes, but only along the lines they are ordered to follow. If some interesting sideline crops up, they can’t investigate it. All they can do is submit a memorandum to the chief, and most likely if anything is done it will be carried out by someone else.”

“What would you do about it?” shrugged Lancaster. “You just admitted that the old-time genius in a garret can’t compete.”

“No--but the small team of creative specialists, each with an excellent understanding of the others’ fields, and each working in a loose, free-willed cooperation with the rest, can. Indeed, the results will be much better. It was tried once, you may know. The early cybernetics men, back in the last century, worked that way.”

“I wish we could co-opt some biologists and psychologists into this,” murmured Rakkan. His English was good, though indescribably accented by his vocal apparatus. “The cellular and neural implications of dielectricity look--promising. Maybe later.”

“Well,” said Lancaster defensively, “a large Project can be made more secure--less chance of leakage.”

Hwang said nothing, but he cocked an eyebrow at an almost treasonable angle.


In going through Sophoulis’ equations, Lancaster found what he believed was the flaw that was blocking progress. The man had used a simplified quantum mechanics without correction for relativistic effects. That made for neater mathematics but overlooked certain space-time aspects of the psi function. The error was excusable, for Sophoulis had not been familiar with the Belloni matrix, a mathematical tool that brought order into what was otherwise incomprehensible chaos. Belloni’s work was still classified information, being too useful, in the design of new alloys, for general consumption. Lancaster went happily to work correcting the equations. But when he was finished, he realized that he had no business showing his results without proper clearance.

He wandered glumly into the lab. Karen was there alone, setting up an apparatus for the next attempt at heat treatment. A smock covered her into shapelessness, and her spectacular hair was bound up in a kerchief, but she still looked good. Lancaster, a shy man, was more susceptible to her than he wanted to be.

“Where’s Berg?” he asked.

“Back on Earth with Jessup,” she told him. “Why?”

“Damn! It holds up the whole business till he returns.” Lancaster explained his difficulty.

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