The Great Gray Plague - Cover

The Great Gray Plague

by Raymond F. Jones

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: There is no enemy so hard to fight as a dull gray fog. It's not solid enough to beat, too indefinite to kill, and too omnipresent to escape.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Dr. William Baker was fifty and didn’t mind it a bit. Fifty was a tremendously satisfying age. With that exact number of years behind him a man had stature that could be had in no other way. Younger men, who achieve vast things at, say, thirty-five, are always spoken of with their age as a factor. And no matter what the intent of the connection, when a man’s accomplishments are linked to the number of years since he was born there is always a sense of apologia about it.

But when a man is fifty his age is no longer mentioned. His name stands alone on whatever foundation his achievements have provided. He has stature without apology, if the years have been profitably spent.

William Baker considered his years had been very profitably spent. He had achieved the Ph. D. and the D. Sc. degrees in the widely separated fields of electronics and chemistry. He had been responsible for some of the most important radar developments of the World War II period. And now he held a post that was the crowning achievement of those years of study and effort.

On this day of his fiftieth birthday he walked briskly along the corridor of the Bureau building. He paused only when he came to the glass door which was lettered in gold: National Bureau of Scientific Development, Dr. William Baker, Director. He was unable to regard that door without a sense of pride. But he was convinced the pride was thoroughly justifiable.

He turned the knob and stepped into the office. Then his brisk stride came to a pause. He closed the door slowly and frowned. The room was empty. Neither his receptionist nor his secretary, who should have been visible in the adjoining room, were at their posts. Through the other open door, at his left, he could see that his administrative assistant, Dr. James Pehrson, was not at his desk.

He had always expected his staff to be punctual. In annoyance that took some of the glint off this day, he twisted the knob of his own office door and strode in.

He stopped just inside the room, and a warm wave of affection welled up within him. All nine members of his immediate staff were gathered around the table in the center of his office. On the table was a cake with pink frosting. A single golden candle burned brightly in the middle of the inscription: Happy Birthday, Chief.

The staff broke into a frighteningly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” William Baker smiled fondly, catching the eye of each of them as they badgered the song to its conclusion.

Afterward, he stood for a moment, aware of the moisture in his own eyes, then said quietly, “Thank you. Thank you very much, Family. This is most unexpected. None of you will ever know how much I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

“Don’t go away,” said Doris Quist, his blond and efficient secretary. “There’s more. This is from all of us.”

He opened the package she offered him. A genuine leather brief case. Of course, the Government didn’t approve of gifts like this. If he observed the rules strictly, he ought to decline the gift, but he just couldn’t do that. The faces of Doris and the others were glowing as he held up the magnificent brief case. This was the first time such a thing had occurred in his office, and a man hit fifty only once.

“Thanks so much for remembering,” Baker said. “Things like this and people like you make it all worth while.”

When they were all gone he sat down at his desk to take up the day’s routine. He felt a little twinge of guilt at the great satisfaction that filled him. But he couldn’t help it. A fine family, an excellent professional position--a position of prominence and authority in the field that interested him most--what more could a man want?

His meditation was interrupted by the buzzing of the interphone. Pehrson was on the other end. “Just reminding you, Chief,” the assistant said. “Dr. Fenwick will be in at nine-thirty regarding the request for the Clearwater grant. Would you like to review the file before he arrives?”

“Yes, please,” said Baker. “Bring everything in. There’s been no change, no new information, I suppose?”

“I’m afraid not. The Index is hopelessly low. In view of that fact there can be no answer but a negative one. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. I can make Fenwick understand, I’m sure. It may take a little time, and he may erupt a bit, but it’ll work out.”

Baker cut off and waited while Pehrson came in silently and laid the file folders of the offending case on the desk. Pehrson was the epitome of owl-eyed efficiency, but now he showed sympathy behind his great horn-rimmed spectacles as he considered Baker’s plight. “I wish we could find some way to make the Clearwater research grant,” he said. “With just a couple of good Ph. D.’s who had published a few things, the Index would be high enough--”

“It doesn’t matter. Fenwick is capable of handling his own troubles.” Pehrson was a good man, but this kind of solicitousness Baker found annoying.

“I’ll send him in as soon as he comes,” Pehrson said as he closed the door behind him.

Baker sighed as he glanced at the folder labeled, Clearwater College. Jerkwater is what it should be, he thought. He almost wished he had let Pehrson handle Fenwick. But one couldn’t neglect old friends, even though there was nothing that could be done for shortsighted ones.

Baker’s memories shifted. He and Fenwick had gone to school together. Fenwick had always been one to get off into weird wide alleys, mostly dead ended. Now he was involved in what was probably the most dead ended of all. For the last three years he had been president of little Jerkwater--Clearwater College, and he seemed to have some hope that NBSD could help him out of the hole.

That was a mistake many people made. Baker sometimes felt that half his time was spent in explaining that NBSD was not in the business of helping people and institutions out of holes. It was in the business of buying for the United States Government the best scientific research available in the world.

Fenwick wanted help that would put Clearwater College on its feet through a research contract in solid state physics. Fenwick, thought Baker, was dreaming. But that was Fenwick.

The President of Clearwater College entered the outer office promptly at nine-thirty. Pehrson greeted him, and Doris showed him into Baker’s office.

Dr. John Fenwick didn’t look like a college president, and Baker, unknowingly, held this vaguely against him, too. He looked more like a prosperous small business man and gave the impression of having just finished a brisk workout on the handball court, and a cold shower. He was ruddy and robust and ill-equipped with academic dignity.

Baker pumped his hand as if genuinely glad to see him. “It’s good to see you again, John. Come on over and sit down.”

“I’ll bet you hoped I’d break a leg on the way here,” said Fenwick. He took a chair by the desk and glanced at the file folder, reading the title, Clearwater College. “And you’ve been hoping my application would get lost, and the whole thing would just disappear.”

“Now, look, John--” Baker took his own seat behind the desk. Fenwick had always had a devilish knack for making him feel uncomfortable.

“It’s all right,” said Fenwick, waving away Baker’s protests with a vigorous flap of his hand. “I know Clearwater isn’t MIT or Cal Tech, but we’ve got a real hot physics department, and you’re going to see some sparks flying out of there if you’ll give us half a chance in the finance department. What’s the good word, anyway? Do we get the research grant?”

Baker took a deep breath and settled his arms on the desk in front of him, leaning on them for support. He wished Fenwick wasn’t so abrupt about things.

“John,” Baker said slowly. “The head of your physics department doesn’t even have a Ph. D. degree.”

Fenwick brightened. “He’s working on that, though! I told you that in answer to the question in the application. Bill, I wish you’d come down and see that boy. The things he can do with crystals would absolutely knock your hat off. He can stack them just like a kid stacking building blocks--crystals that nobody else has ever been able to manipulate so far. And the electrical characteristics of some of them--you wouldn’t believe the transistors he’s been able to build!”

“John,” said Baker patiently. “The head of the physics department in any institution receiving a grant must have a Ph. D. degree. That is one absolutely minimum requirement.”

“You mean we’ve got to wait until George finishes his work for his degree before we get the grant? That puts us in kind of a predicament because the work that we hoped to have George do under the grant would contribute towards his degree. Can’t you put it through on the basis that he’ll have his degree just as soon as the present series of experiments is completed?”

Baker wiped his forehead and looked down at his hands on the desk. “I said this is one minimum requirement. There are others, John.”

“Oh, what else are we lacking?” Fenwick looked crestfallen for the first time.

“I may as well be blunt,” said Baker. “There is no conceivable way in which Clearwater College can be issued a research grant for anything--and especially not for basic research in any field of physical science.”

Fenwick just stared at him for a minute as if he couldn’t believe what he had heard, although it was the thing he had expected to hear since the moment he sat down.

He seemed deflated when he finally spoke. “I don’t think it was the intent of the Congressional Act that made these funds available,” he said, “that only the big, plush outfits should get all the gravy. There are plenty of smaller schools just like Clearwater who have first rate talent in their science departments. It isn’t fair to freeze us out completely--and I don’t think it’s completely legal, either.”

“Clearwater is not being frozen out. Size has nothing to do with the question of whether an institution receives a grant from NBSD or not.”

“When did you last give a grant to a college like Clearwater?”

“I am afraid we have never given a grant to a college--like Clearwater,” said Baker carefully.

Fenwick’s face began to grow more ruddy. “Then will you tell me just what is the matter with Clearwater, that we can’t get any Government research contract when every other Tom, Dick, and Harry outfit in the country can?”

“I didn’t state my case in exactly those terms, John, but I’ll be glad to explain the basis on which we judge the qualifications of an institution to receive a grant from us.”

Baker had never done this before for any unsuccessful applicant. In fact, it was the policy of the Bureau to keep the mysteries of the Index very carefully concealed from the public. But Baker wanted Fenwick to know what had hung him. It was the one more or less merciful thing he could do to show Fenwick what was wrong, and might be sufficient to shake him loose from his dismal association with Clearwater.

Baker opened the file folder and Fenwick saw now that it was considerably fuller than he had first supposed. Baker turned the pages, which were fastened to the cover by slide fasteners. Chart after chart, with jagged lines and multicolored areas, flipped by under Baker’s fingers. Then Baker opened the accordian folds of a four-foot long chart and spread it on the desk top.

“This is the Index,” he said, “a composite of all the individual charts which you saw ahead of it. This Index shows in graphical form the relationship between the basic requirements for obtaining a research grant and the actual qualifications of the applicant. This line marks the minimum requirement in each area.”

Baker’s finger pointed to a thin, black line that crossed the sheet. Fenwick observed that most of the colored areas and bars on the chart were well inside the area on Baker’s side of the line. He guessed that the significance of the chart lay in this fact.

“I take it that Clearwater College is in pretty sad shape, chartwise,” said Fenwick.

“Very,” said Baker.

“Can you tell me how these charts are compiled?”

Baker turned back to the sheaf of individual charts. “Each item of data, which is considered significant in evaluating an applicant, is plotted individually against standards which have been derived from an examination of all possible sources of information.”

“Such as?”

“For example, the student burden per faculty Ph. D. That is shown on this chart here.”

“The what? Say that again,” said Fenwick in bewilderment.

“The number of students enrolled, plotted against the number of doctorate degrees held by the faculty.”


“As you see, Clearwater’s index for this factor is dismally low.”

“We’re getting a new music director next month. She expects to get her doctorate next summer.”

“I’m afraid that doesn’t help us now. Besides, it would have to be in a field pertinent to your application to have much weight.”


“Doesn’t help you at all for the present. You would require a minimum of two in the physics department alone. These two would have to be of absolutely top quality with a prolific publication record. That would bring this factor to a bare minimum.”

“You take the number of Ph. D.’s and multiply them by the number of papers published and the years of experience and divide by the number of students enrolled. Is that the idea?”

“Roughly,” said Baker. “We have certain constants which we also inject. In addition, we give weight to other factors such as patents applied for and granted. Periods of consultation by private industry, and so on. Each of these factors is plotted separately, then combined into the overall Index.”

Baker turned the pages slowly, showing Fenwick a bleak record of black boundary lines cutting through nearly virginal territory on the charts. Clearwater’s evaluation was reflected in a small spot of color near the bottom edge.

Fenwick stared at the record without expression for a long time. “What else do you chart?” he said finally.

“The next thing we evaluate is the performance of students graduated during the past twenty-five years.”

“Clearwater is only ten years old,” said Fenwick.

“True,” said Baker, “and that is why, I believe, we have obtained such an anomalous showing in the chart of this factor.”

Fenwick observed that the colored area had made a considerable invasion on his side of the boundary on this chart. “Why anomalous? It looks like we make a pretty good showing here.”

“On the face of it, this is true,” Baker admitted. “The ten-year record of the graduates of Clearwater is exceptional. But the past decade has been unusual in the scope of opportunities, you must admit.”

“Your standard level must take this into account.”

“It does. But somehow, I am sure there is a factor we haven’t recognized here.”

“There might be,” said Fenwick. “There might be, at that.”

“Another factor which contributes to the Index,” said Baker, “is the cultural impact of the institution upon the community. We measure that in terms of the number and quality of cultural activities brought into the community by the university or college. We include concerts, lectures, terpsichorean activities, Broadway plays, and so on.”

“Terpsichorean activities. I like that,” said Fenwick.

“Primarily ballet,” said Baker.


“Clearwater’s record here is very low. It fact, there isn’t any.”

“This helps us get turned down for a research grant in physics?”

“It’s a factor in the measurement of the overall status.”

“Look,” said Fenwick, “the citizens of Clearwater are so infernally busy with their own shindigs that they wouldn’t know what to do if we brought a long-hair performance into town. If it isn’t square-dancing in the Grange Hall, it’s a pageant in the Masonic Temple. The married kids would probably like to see a Broadway play, all right, but they’re so darned busy rehearsing their own in the basement of the Methodist Church that I doubt they could find time to come. Besides that, there’s the community choir every Thursday, and the high school music department has a recital nearly every month. People would drop dead if they had any more to go to in Clearwater. I’d say our culture is doing pretty good.”

“Folk activities are always admirable,” said Baker, “but improvement of the cultural level in any community depends on the injection of outside influences, and this is one of the functions of the university. Clearwater College has not performed its obligation to the community in this respect.”

Fenwick appeared to be growing increasingly ruddy. Baker thought he saw moisture appearing on Fenwick’s forehead.

“I know this is difficult to face,” said Baker sympathetically, “but I wanted you to understand, once and for all, just how Clearwater College appears to the completely objective eye.”

Fenwick continued to stare at him without comment. Then he said flatly, “Let’s see some more charts, Bill.”

“Museum activities. This is an important function of a college level institution. Clearwater has no museum.”

“We can’t afford one, in the first place. In the second place, I think you’ve overlooked what we do have.”

“There is a Clearwater museum?” Baker asked in surprise.

“Two or three hundred of them, I guess. Every kid in the county has his own collection of arrowheads, birds’ eggs, rocks, and stuffed animals.”

“I’m not joking, John,” said Baker bleakly. “The museum aspect of the college is extremely important.”

“What else?” said Fenwick.

“I won’t go into everything we evaluate. But you should be aware of several other factors pertaining to the faculty, which are evaluated. We establish an index of heredity for each faculty member. This is primarily an index of ancestral achievement.”

Fenwick’s color deepened. Baker thought it seemed to verge on the purple. “Should I open the window for a moment?” Baker asked.

Fenwick shook his head, his throat working as if unable to speak. Then he finally managed to say, “Apart from the sheer idiocy of it, how did you obtain any information in this area?”

Baker ignored the comment, but answered the question. “You filled out forms. Each faculty member filled out forms.”

“Yeah, that’s right. I remember. Acres of forms. None of us minded if it was to help get the research grant. We supposed it was the usual Government razzmatazz to keep some GS-9 clerk busy.”

“Our forms are hardly designed to keep people busy. They are designed to give us needed information about applicant institutions.”

“And so you plot everybody’s heredity.”

“As well as possible. You understand, of course, that the data are necessarily limited.”

“Sure. How do our grandpas stack up on the charts?”

“Not very well. Among Clearwater’s total faculty of thirty-eight there were no national political figures through three generations back. There was one mayor, a couple of town councilmen, and a state senator or two. That is about all.”

“Our people weren’t very politically minded.”

“This is a measure of social consciousness and contemporary evaluation.”

Fenwick shrugged. “As I said, we aren’t so good at politics.”

“Achievements in welfare activities are similarly lacking. No notable intentions or discoveries, with the exception of one patent on a new kind of beehive, appear in the record.”

[Illustration: ... But liars figure... !]

“And this keeps us from getting a research grant in physics? What did our progenitors do, anyway? Get hung for being horse thieves?”

“No criminal activities were reported by your people, but there is a record of singular restlessness and dissatisfaction with established conditions.”

“What did they do?”

“They were constantly on the move, for the most part. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were primarily pioneers, frontiersmen, settlers of new country. But when the country was established they usually packed up and went somewhere else. Rovers, trappers, unsettled people.”

“This is not good?” Fenwick glanced at the chart that was open now. It was almost uncolored.

“I regret to say that such people are not classed as the stable element of communities,” said Baker. “We cannot evaluate the index of hereditary accomplishment for the Clearwater faculty very high.”

“It appears that our grandpas were among those generally given credit for getting things set up,” said Fenwick.

“Such citizens are indeed necessary,” said Baker. “But our index evaluates stability in community life and accomplishments with long-range effects in science and culture.”

“We haven’t got much of a chance then, grandpa being foot-loose as he was.”

“Other factors could completely override this negative evaluation. You see, this is the beauty of the Index; it doesn’t depend on any one factor or small group of factors. We evaluate the whole range of factors that have anything to do with the situation. Weaknesses in one spot may be counterbalanced by strength in others.”

“It looks like Clearwater is staffed by a bunch of bums without any strong spots.”

“I wouldn’t say it in such terms, but the reason I am pointing these things out to you, John, is to try to persuade you to disassociate yourself from such a weak organization and go elsewhere. You have fine talents of your own, but you have always had a pattern of associating with groups like this one at Clearwater. Don’t you see now that the only thing for you to do is go somewhere where there are people capable of doing things?”

“I like Clearwater. I like the people at the College. Where else are we in the bums category?”

Baker suddenly didn’t want to go on. The whole thing had become distasteful to him. “There are a good many others. I don’t think we need to go into them. There is the staff reading index, the social activity index, wardrobe evaluation, hobbies, children--actual and planned.”

“I want to hear about them,” said Fenwick. “That wardrobe evaluation--that sounds like a real fascinating study.”

“Actually, it’s comparatively minor,” said Baker. “Our psychologists have worked out some extremely interesting correlations, however. Each item of a man’s wardrobe is assigned a numerical rating. Tuxedo, one or more. Business suits, color and number. Hunting jackets. Slacks. Sport coats. Work shoes. Dress shoes. Very interesting what our people can do with, such information.”

“Clearwater doesn’t rate here?”

Baker indicated the chart. “I’m afraid not. Now, this staff reading index is somewhat similar. You recall the application forms asked for the number of pages of various types of material read during the past six months--scientific journals, newspapers, magazines, fiction.”

“I suppose Clearwater is a pretty illiterate bunch,” said Fenwick.

Baker pointed soundlessly to the graph.

“Hobbies and social activities are not bad,” Baker said, after a time. “Almost up to within ten points of the standard. A few less bingo parties and Brownie meetings and that many more book reviews or serious soirees would balance the social activity chart. If the model railroad club were canceled and a biological activity group substituted, the hobby classification would look much better. Then, in the number of children, actual and planned, Clearwater is definitely out of line, too. You see, the standard takes the form of the well-known bell-shaped curve. Clearwater is way down on the high side.”

“Too much biological activity already,” Fenwick murmured.

Baker looked up. “What was that? I didn’t hear what you said.”

Fenwick leaned back and extended his arms on the desk. “I said your whole damned Index is nothing but a bunch of pseudo-intellectual garbage.”

Baker felt the color rising in his face, but he forced himself to remain calm. After a moment of silence he said. “Your emotional feelings are understandable, but you must remember that the Index permits us to administer accurately the National Science Development Act. Without the scientific assurance of the Index there would be no way of determining where these precious funds could best be utilized.”

“You’d be better off putting the money on the ponies,” said Fenwick. “Sometimes they win. As it stands, you’ve set it up for a sure loss. You haven’t got a chance in the world.”

“You think Clearwater College could make better use of some of our funds than, say, MIT?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the boys at MIT or Cal Tech or a lot of other places couldn’t come up with a real development in the way of a fermodacular filter for reducing internucleated cross currents. But the real breakthroughs--you’ve closed your doors and locked them out.”

“Who have we locked out? We’ve screened and fine combed the resources of the entire country. We know exactly where the top research is being conducted in every laboratory in the nation.”

Fenwick shook his head slowly and smiled. “You’ve forgotten the boys working in their basements and in their back yard garages. You’ve forgotten the guys that persuade the wife to put up with a busted-down automatic washer for another month so they can buy another hundred bucks worth of electronic parts. You’ve remembered the guys who have Ph. D.’s for writing 890-page dissertations on the Change of Color in the Nubian Daisy after Twilight, but you’ve forgotten guys like George Durrant, who can make the atoms of a crystal turn handsprings for him.”

Baker leaned back in his chair and smiled. He almost wished he hadn’t wasted the effort of trying to show Fenwick. But, then, he had tried. And he would always have regretted it if he hadn’t.

“You’re referring now to the crackpot fringe?” he said.

“I suppose so,” said Fenwick. “I’ve heard it called that before.”

“One of the things, above all else, which the Index was designed to accomplish,” said Baker, “was the screening out of all elements that might be ever so remotely associated with the crackpot fringe. And believe me, you’ll never know how strong it is in this country! Every two-bit tinkerer wants a handout to develop his world-shaking gadget that will suppress the fizz after the cap is removed from a pop bottle, or adapt any apartment-size bathtub for raising tropical fish.”

“You ever heard of the flotation process?” said Fenwick abruptly.

Baker frowned at the sudden shift of thought. “Of course--”

“What would the world be like without the flotation process?”

“The metals industry would be vastly different, of course. Copper would be much scarcer and higher priced. Gold--”

“A ton of ore and maybe a pound of recovered metal, right?” said Fenwick. “Move a mountain of waste to get anything of value. Crush millions of tons of rock and float out the pinpoint particles of metal on bubbles of froth.”

“That’s a rough description of what happens.”

“You’ve heard of high-grading.”

“Of course. A somewhat colloquial term used in mining.”

“The high-grader takes a pick and digs for anything big enough to see and pick up with his hands. He doesn’t worry about the small stuff that takes sweat and machinery to recover.”

“I suppose so. I fail to see the significance--”

“You’re high-grading, Bill,” said Fenwick. He leaned across the desk and spoke with bitter intensity. “You’re high-grading and you should be using a flotation process.”

Fenwick slowly drew back in his chair. Baker felt overwhelmed by the sudden intensity he had never before seen displayed in John Fenwick. Any reaction on his part seemed suddenly inadequate. “I fail to see any connection--,” he said finally.

Fenwick looked at him steadily. “Human creativeness can be mined only by flotation methods. It’s in low-grade ore. Process a million stupid notions and find a pin point of genius. Turn over enormous wastes of human thought and recover a golden principle. But turn your back on these mountains of low-grade material and you shut out the wealth of creative thought that is buried in them. More than that, by high-grading only where rich veins have appeared in the past, you’re mining lodes that have played out.”

“An ingenious analogy,” said Baker, recovering with a smile now. “But it’s hardly an accurate or applicable one. The human mind is not a piece of precious metal found in a mountain of ore. Rather, it’s an intricate device capable of producing computations of unbelievable complexity. And we know how such devices that are superior in function are produced, and we know what their characteristics are. We also know that such a device does not ‘play out’. If it is superior in function, it can remain so for a long time.”

“High-grading,” said Fenwick. “And the vein is played out. You’ll never find the thing you’re looking for until you develop means of processing low-grade material.”

Baker watched Fenwick across the desk. He was weary of the whole thing. He certainly had no need to prove himself to this man. He had simply tried to do Fenwick a favor, and Fenwick had thrown it right back in his face. Yet there was a temptation to go on, to prove to Fenwick the difference between their two worlds. Fenwick belonged to a world compounded of inevitable failure. The temptation to show him, to try again to lift him out of it was born of a kind of pity for Fenwick.

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