By Proxy - Cover

By Proxy

by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It's been said that the act of creation is a solitary thing--that teams never create; only individuals. But sometimes a team may be needed to make creation effective....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Mr. Terrence Elshawe did not conform to the mental picture that pops into the average person’s mind when he hears the words “news reporter.” Automatically, one thinks of the general run of earnest, handsome, firm-jawed, level-eyed, smooth-voiced gentlemen one sees on one’s TV screen. No matter which news service one subscribes to, the reporters are all pretty much of a type. And Terrence Elshawe simply wasn’t the type.

The confusion arises because thirty-odd years of television has resulted in specialization. If you run up much Magnum Telenews time on your meter, you’re familiar with the cultured voice and rugged good looks of Brett Maxon, “your Magnum reporter,” but Maxon is a reporter only in the very literal sense of the word. He’s an actor, whose sole job is to make Magnum news sound more interesting than some other telenews service, even though he’s giving you exactly the same facts. But he doesn’t go out and dig up those stories.

The actual leg work of getting the news into Maxon’s hands so that he can report it to you is done by research reporters--men like Terrence Elshawe.

Elshawe was a small, lean man with a large, round head on which grew close-cropped, light brown hair. His mouth was wide and full-lipped, and had a distinct tendency to grin impishly, even when he was trying to look serious. His eyes were large, blue, and innocent; only when the light hit them at just the right angle was it possible to detect the contact lenses which corrected an acute myopia.

When he was deep in thought, he had a habit of relaxing in his desk chair with his head back and his eyes closed. His left arm would be across his chest, his left hand cupping his right elbow, while the right hand held the bowl of a large-bowled briar which Elshawe puffed methodically during his ruminations. He was in exactly that position when Oler Winstein put his head in the door of Elshawe’s office.

“Busy?” Winstein asked conversationally.

In some offices, if the boss comes in and finds an employee in a pose like that, there would be a flurry of sudden action on the part of the employee as he tried frantically to look as though he had only paused for a moment from his busy work. Elshawe’s only reaction was to open his eyes. He wasn’t the kind of man who would put on a phony act like that, even if his boss fired him on the spot.

“Not particularly,” he said, in his slow, easy drawl. “What’s up?”

Winstein came on into the office. “I’ve got something that might make a good spot. See what you think.”

If Elshawe didn’t conform to the stereotype of a reporter, so much less did Oler Winstein conform to the stereotype of a top-flight TV magnate. He was no taller than Elshawe’s five-seven, and was only slightly heavier. He wore his hair in a crew cut, and his boyish face made him look more like a graduate student at a university than the man who had put Magnum Telenews together with his own hands. He had an office, but he couldn’t be found in it more than half the time; the rest of the time, he was prowling around the Magnum Building, wandering into studios and offices and workshops. He wasn’t checking up on his employees, and never gave the impression that he was. He didn’t throw his weight around and he didn’t snoop. If he hired a man for a job, he expected the job to be done, that was all. If it was, the man could sleep at his desk or play solitaire or drink beer for all Winstein cared; if the work wasn’t done, it didn’t matter if the culprit looked as busy as an anteater at a picnic--he got one warning and then the sack. The only reason for Winstein’s prowling around was the way his mind worked; it was forever bubbling with ideas, and he wanted to bounce those ideas off other people to see if anything new and worthwhile would come of them.

He didn’t look particularly excited, but, then, he rarely did. Even the most objective of employees is likely to become biased one way or another if he thinks his boss is particularly enthusiastic about an idea. Winstein didn’t want yes-men around him; he wanted men who could and would think. And he had a theory that, while the tenseness of an emergency could and did produce some very high-powered thinking indeed, an atmosphere of that kind wasn’t a good thing for day-in-and-day-out work. He saved that kind of pressure for the times that he needed it, so that it was effective because of its contrast with normal procedure.

Elshawe took his heavy briar out of his mouth as Winstein sat down on the corner of the desk. “You have a gleam in your eye, Ole,” he said accusingly.

“Maybe,” Winstein said noncommittally. “We might be able to work something out of it. Remember a guy by the name of Malcom Porter?”

Elshawe lowered his brows in a thoughtful frown. “Name’s familiar. Wait a second. Wasn’t he the guy that was sent to prison back in 1979 for sending up an unauthorized rocket?”

Winstein nodded. “That’s him. Served two years of a five-year sentence, got out on parole about a year ago. I just got word from a confidential source that he’s going to try to send up another one.”

“I didn’t know things were so pleasant at Alcatraz,” Elshawe said. “He seems to be trying awfully hard to get back in.”

“Not according to what my informant says. This time, he’s going to ask for permission. And this time, he’s going to have a piloted craft, not a self-guided missile, like he did in ‘79.”

“Hoho. Well, there might be a story in it, but I can’t see that it would be much of one. It isn’t as if a rocket shoot were something unusual. The only thing unusual about it is that it’s a private enterprise shoot instead of a Government one.”

Winstein said: “Might be more to it than that. Do you remember the trial in ‘79?”

“Vaguely. As I remember it, he claimed he didn’t send up a rocket, but the evidence showed overwhelmingly that he had. The jury wasn’t out more than a few minutes, as I remember.”

“There was a little more to it than that,” Winstein said.

“I was in South Africa at the time,” Elshawe said. “Covering the civil war down there, remember?”

“That’s right. You’re excused,” Winstein said, grinning. “The thing was that Malcom Porter didn’t claim he hadn’t sent the thing up. What he did claim was that it wasn’t a rocket. He claimed that he had a new kind of drive in it--something that didn’t use rockets.

“The Army picked the thing up on their radar screens, going straight up at high acceleration. They bracketed it with Cobra pursuit rockets and blew it out of the sky when it didn’t respond to identification signals. They could trace the thing back to its launching pad, of course, and they nabbed Malcom Porter.

“Porter was furious. Wanted to slap a suit against the Government for wanton destruction of private property. His claim was that the law forbids unauthorized rocket tests all right, but his missile wasn’t illegal because it wasn’t a rocket.”

“What did he claim it was?” Elshawe asked.

“He said it was a secret device of his own invention. Antigravity, or something like that.”

“Did he try to prove it?”

“No. The Court agreed that, according to the way the law is worded, only ‘rocket-propelled missiles’ come under the ban. The judge said that if Malcom Porter could prove that the missile wasn’t rocket-propelled, he’d dismiss the case. But Porter wanted to prove it by building another missile. He wouldn’t give the court his plans or specifications for the drive he claimed he’d invented, or say anything about it except that it operated--and I quote--’on a new principle of physics’--unquote. Said he wouldn’t tell them anything because the Government was simply using this as an excuse to take his invention away from him.”

Elshawe chuckled. “That’s as flimsy a defense as I’ve heard.”

“Don’t laugh,” said Winstein. “It almost worked.”

“What? How?”

“It threw the burden of proof on the Government. They thought they had him when he admitted that he’d shot the thing off, but when he denied that it was a rocket, then, in order to prove that he’d committed a crime, they had to prove that it was a rocket. It wasn’t up to Porter to prove that it wasn’t.”

“Hey,” Elshawe said in admiration, “that’s pretty neat. I’m almost sorry it didn’t work.”

“Yeah. Trouble was that the Army had blown up the evidence. They knew it was a rocket, but they had to prove it. They had recordings of the radar picture, of course, and they used that to show the shape and acceleration of the missile. They proved that he’d bought an old obsolete Odin rocket from one of the small colleges in the Midwest--one that the Army had sold them as a demonstration model for their rocket engineering classes. They proved that he had a small liquid air plant out there at his place in New Mexico. In other words, they proved that he had the equipment to rebuild the rocket and the fuel to run it.

“Then they got a battery of high-powered physicists up on the stands to prove that nothing else but a rocket could have driven the thing that way.

“Porter’s attorney hammered at them in cross-examination, trying to get one of them to admit that it was possible that Porter had discovered a new principle of physics that could fly a missile without rockets, but the Attorney General’s prosecutor had coached them pretty well. They all said that unless there was evidence to the contrary, they could not admit that there was such a principle.

“When the prosecutor presented his case to the jury, he really had himself a ball. I’ll give you a transcript of the trial later; you’ll have to read it for yourself to get the real flavor of it. The gist of it was that things had come to a pretty pass if a man could claim a scientific principle known only to himself as a defense against a crime.

“He gave one analogy I liked. He said, suppose that a man is found speeding in a car. The cops find him all alone, behind the wheel, when they chase him down. Then, in court, he admits that he was alone, and that the car was speeding, but he insists that the car was steering itself, and that he wasn’t in control of the vehicle at all. And what was steering the car? Why, a new scientific principle, of course.”

Elshawe burst out laughing. “Wow! No wonder the jury didn’t stay out long! I’m going to have to dig the recordings of the newscasts out of the files; I missed a real comedy while I was in Africa.”

Winstein nodded. “We got pretty good coverage on it, but our worthy competitor, whose name I will not have mentioned within these sacred halls, got Beebee Vayne to run a commentary on it, and we got beat out on the meters.”

“Vayne?” Elshawe was still grinning. “That’s a new twist--getting a comedian to do a news report.”

“I’ll have to admit that my worthy competitor, whose name et cetera, does get an idea once in a while. But I don’t want him beating us out again. We’re in on the ground floor this time, and I want to hog the whole thing if I can.”

“Sounds like a great idea, if we can swing it,” Elshawe agreed. “Do you have a new gimmick? You’re not going to get a comedian to do it, are you?”

“Heaven forbid! Even if it had been my own idea three years ago, I wouldn’t repeat it, and I certainly won’t have it said that I copy my competitors. No, what I want you to do is go out there and find out what’s going on. Get a full background on it. We’ll figure out the presentation angle when we get some idea of what he’s going to do this time.” Winstein eased himself off the corner of Elshawe’s desk and stood up. “By the way--”


“Play it straight when you go out there. You’re a reporter, looking for news; you haven’t made any previous judgments.”

Elshawe’s pipe had gone out. He fired it up again with his desk lighter. “I don’t want to be,” he said between puffs, “too cagey. If he’s got ... any brains ... he’ll know it’s ... a phony act ... if I overdo it.” He snapped off the lighter and looked at his employer through a cloud of blue-gray smoke. “I mean, after all, he’s on the records as being a crackpot. I’d be a pretty stupid reporter if I believed everything he said. If I don’t act a little skeptical, he’ll think I’m either a blockhead or a phony or both.”

“Maybe,” Winstein said doubtfully. “Still, some of these crackpots fly off the handle if you doubt their word in the least bit.”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Elshawe said. “He used to live here in New York, didn’t he?”

“Still does,” Winstein said. “He has a two-floor apartment on Central Park West. He just uses that New Mexico ranch of his for relaxation.”

“He’s not hurting for money, is he?” Elshawe asked at random. “Anyway, what I’ll do is look up some of the people he knows and get an idea of what kind of a bird he is. Then, when I get out there, I’ll know more what kind of line to feed him.”

“That sounds good. But whatever you do, play it on the soft side. My confidential informant tells me that the only reason we’re getting this inside info is because Malcom Porter is sore about the way our competition treated him four years ago.”

“Just who is this confidential informant, anyway, Ole?” Elshawe asked curiously.

Winstein grinned widely. “It’s supposed to be very confidential. I don’t want it to get any further than you.”

“Sure not. Since when am I a blabbermouth? Who is it?”

“Malcom Porter.”

Two days later, Terrence Elshawe was sitting in the front seat of a big station wagon, watching the scenery go by and listening to the driver talk as the machine tooled its way out of Silver City, New Mexico, and headed up into the Mogollon Mountains.

“Was a time, not too long back,” the driver was saying, “when a man couldn’t get up into this part of the country ‘thout a pack mule. Still places y’can’t, but the boss had t’ have a road built up to the ranch so’s he could bring in all that heavy equipment. Reckon one of these days the Mogollons ‘ll be so civilized and full a people that a fella might as well live in New York.”

Elshawe, who hadn’t seen another human being for fifteen minutes, felt that the predicted overcrowding was still some time off.

“‘Course,” the driver went on, “I reckon folks have t’ live some place, but I never could see why human bein’s are so all-fired determined to bunch theirselves up so thick together that they can’t hardly move--like a bunch of sheep in a snowstorm. It don’t make sense to me. Does it to you, Mr. Skinner?”

That last was addressed to the other passenger, an elderly man who was sitting in the seat behind Elshawe.

“I guess it’s pretty much a matter of taste, Bill,” Mr. Skinner said in a soft voice.

“I reckon,” Bill said, in a tone that implied that anyone whose tastes were so bad that he wanted to live in the city was an object of pity who probably needed psychiatric treatment. He was silent for a moment, in obvious commiseration with his less fortunate fellows.

Elshawe took the opportunity to try to get a word in. The chunky Westerner had picked him up at the airport, along with Mr. Samuel Skinner, who had come in on the same plane with Elshawe, and, after introducing himself as Bill Rodriguez, he had kept up a steady stream of chatter ever since. Elshawe didn’t feel he should take a chance on passing up the sudden silence.

“By the way; has Mr. Porter applied to the Government for permission to test his ... uh ... his ship, yet?”

Bill Rodriguez didn’t take his eyes off the winding road. “Well, now, I don’t rightly know, Mr. Elshawe. Y’see, I just work on the ranch up there. I don’t have a doggone thing to do with the lab’r’tory at all--’cept to keep the fence in good shape so’s the stock don’t get into the lab’r’tory area. If Mr. Porter wants me to know somethin’, he tells me, an’ if he don’t, why, I don’t reckon it’s any a my business.”

“I see,” said Elshawe. And that shuts me up, he thought to himself. He took out his pipe and began to fill it in silence.

“How’s everything out in Los Angeles, Mr. Skinner?” Rodriguez asked the passenger in back. “Haven’t seen you in quite a spell.”

Elshawe listened to the conversation between the two with half an ear and smoked his pipe wordlessly.

He had spent the previous day getting all the information he could on Malcom Porter, and the information hadn’t been dull by any means.

Porter had been born in New York in 1949, which made him just barely thirty-three. His father, Vanneman Porter, had been an oddball in his own way, too. The Porters of New York didn’t quite date back to the time of Peter Stuyvesant, but they had been around long enough to acquire the feeling that the twenty-four dollars that had been paid for Manhattan Island had come out of the family exchequer. Just as the Vanderbilts looked upon the Rockefellers as newcomers, so the Porters looked on the Vanderbilts.

For generations, it had been tacitly conceded that a young Porter gentleman had only three courses of action open to him when it came time for him to choose his vocation in life. He could join the firm of Porter & Sons on Wall Street, or he could join some other respectable business or banking enterprise, or he could take up the Law. (Corporation law, of course--never criminal law.) For those few who felt that the business world was not for them, there was a fourth alternative--studying for the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. Anything else was unheard of.

So it had been somewhat of a shock to Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton Porter when their only son, Vanneman, had announced that he intended to study physics at M.I.T. But they gave their permission; they were quite certain that the dear boy would “come to his senses” and join the firm after he had been graduated. He was, after all, the only one to carry on the family name and manage the family holdings.

But Vanneman Porter not only stuck to his guns and went on to a Ph.D.; he compounded his delinquency by marrying a pretty, sweet, but not overly bright girl named Mary Kelley.

Malcom Porter was their son.

When Malcom was ten years old, both his parents were killed in a smashup on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child went to live with his widowed grandmother, Mrs. Hamilton Porter.

Terry Elshawe had gathered that young Malcom Porter’s life had not been exactly idyllic from that point on. Grandmother Porter hadn’t approved of her son’s marriage, and she seemed to have felt that she must do everything in her power to help her grandson overcome the handicap of having nonaristocratic blood in his veins.

Elshawe wasn’t sure in his own mind whether environment or heredity had been the deciding factor in Malcom Porter’s subsequent life, but he had a hunch that the two had been acting synergistically. It was likely that the radical change in his way of life after his tenth year had as much to do with his behavior as the possibility that the undeniably brilliant mental characteristics of the Porter family had been modified by the genes of the pretty but scatter-brained wife of Vanneman Porter.

Three times, only his grandmother’s influence kept him from being expelled from the exclusive prep school she had enrolled him in, and his final grades were nothing to mention in polite society, much less boast about.

In her own way, the old lady was trying to do her best for him, but she had found it difficult to understand her own son, and his deviations from the Porter norm had been slight in comparison with those of his son. When the time came for Malcom to enter college, Grandmother Porter was at a total loss as to what to do. With his record, it was unlikely that any law school would take him unless he showed tremendous improvement in his pre-law courses. And unless that improvement was a general one, not only as far as his studies were concerned, but in his handling of his personal life, it would be commercial suicide to put him in any position of trust with Porter & Sons. It wasn’t that he was dishonest; he simply couldn’t be trusted to do anything properly. He had a tendency to follow his own whims and ignore everybody else.

The idea of his entering the clergy was never even considered.

It came almost as a relief to the old woman when Malcom announced that he was going to study physics, as his father had done.

The relief didn’t last long. By the time Malcom was in his sophomore year, he was apparently convinced that his instructors were dunderheads to the last man. That, Elshawe thought, was probably not unusual among college students, but Malcom Porter made the mistake of telling them about it.

One of the professors with whom Elshawe had talked had said: “He acted as though he owned the college. That, I think, was what was his trouble in his studies; he wasn’t really stupid, and he wasn’t as lazy as some said, but he didn’t want to be bothered with anything that he didn’t enjoy. The experiments he liked, for instance, were the showy, spectacular ones. He built himself a Tesla coil, and a table with hidden AC electromagnets in it that would make a metal plate float in the air. But when it came to nucleonics, he was bored. Anything less than a thermonuclear bomb wasn’t any fun.”

The trouble was that he called his instructors stupid and dull for being interested in “commonplace stuff,” and it infuriated him to be forced to study such “junk.”

As a result, he managed to get himself booted out of college toward the end of his junior year. And that was the end of his formal education.

Six months after that, his grandmother died. Although she had married into the Porter family, she was fiercely proud of the name; she had been born a Van Courtland, so she knew what family pride was. And the realization that Malcom was the last of the Porters--and a failure--was more than she could bear. The coronary attack she suffered should have been cured in a week, but the best medico-surgical techniques on Earth can’t help a woman who doesn’t want to live.

Her will showed exactly what she thought of Malcom Porter. The Porter holdings were placed in trust. Malcom was to have the earnings, but he had no voice whatever in control of the principal until he was fifty years of age.

Instead of being angry, Malcom was perfectly happy. He had an income that exceeded a million dollars before taxes, and didn’t need to worry about the dull details of making money. He formed a small corporation of his own, Porter Research Associates, and financed it with his own money. It ran deep in the red, but Porter didn’t mind; Porter Research Associates was a hobby, not a business, and running at a deficit saved him plenty in taxes.

By the time he was twenty-five, he was known as a crackpot. He had a motley crew of technicians and scientists working for him--some with Ph.D.’s, some with a trade-school education. The personnel turnover in that little group was on a par with the turnover of patients in a maternity ward, at least as far as genuine scientists were concerned. Porter concocted theories and hypotheses out of cobwebs and became furious with anyone who tried to tear them down. If evidence came up that would tend to show that one of his pet theories was utter hogwash, he’d come up with an ad hoc explanation which showed that this particular bit of evidence was an exception. He insisted that “the basis of science lies in the experimental evidence, not in the pronouncements of authorities,” which meant that any recourse to the theories of Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, Bohr, or Fermi was as silly as quoting Aristotle, Plato, or St. Thomas Aquinas. The only authority he would accept was Malcom Porter.

Nobody who had had any training in science could work long with a man like that, even if the pay had been high, which it wasn’t. The only people who could stick with him were the skilled workers--the welders, tool-and-die men, electricians, and junior engineers, who didn’t care much about theories as long as they got the work done. They listened respectfully to what Porter had to say and then built the gadgets he told them to build. If the gadgets didn’t work the way Porter expected them to, Porter would fuss and fidget with them until he got tired of them, then he would junk them and try something else. He never blamed a technician who had followed orders. Since the salaries he paid were proportional to the man’s “ability and loyalty”--judged, of course, by Porter’s own standards--he soon had a group of technician-artisans who knew that their personal security rested with Malcom Porter, and that personal loyalty was more important than the ability to utilize the scientific method.

Not everything that Porter had done was a one-hundred-per cent failure. He had managed to come up with a few basic improvements, patented them, and licensed them out to various manufacturers. But these were purely an accidental by-product. Malcom Porter was interested in “basic research” and not much else, it seemed.

He had written papers and books, but they had been uniformly rejected by the scientific journals, and those he had had published himself were on a par with the writings of Immanuel Velikovsky and George Adamski.

And now he was going to shoot a rocket--or whatever it was--to the moon. Well, Elshawe thought, if it went off as scheduled, it would at least be worth watching. Elshawe was a rocket buff; he’d watched a dozen or more moon shots in his life--everything from the automatic supply-carriers to the three-man passenger rockets that added to the personnel of Moon Base One--and he never tired of watching the bellowing monsters climb up skywards on their white-hot pillars of flame.

And if nothing happened, Elshawe decided, he’d at least get a laugh out of the whole episode.

After nearly two hours of driving, Bill Rodriguez finally turned off the main road onto an asphalt road that climbed steeply into the pine forest that surrounded it. A sign said: Double Horseshoe Ranch--Private Road--No Trespassing.

Elshawe had always thought of a ranch as a huge spread of flat prairie land full of cattle and gun-toting cowpokes on horseback; a mountainside full of sheep just didn’t fit into that picture.

After a half mile or so, the station wagon came to a high metal-mesh fence that blocked the road. On the big gate, another sign proclaimed that the area beyond was private property and that trespassers would be prosecuted.

Bill Rodriguez stopped the car, got out, and walked over to the gate. He pressed a button in one of the metal gateposts and said, “Ed? This’s Bill. I got Mr. Skinner and that New York reporter with me.”

After a slight pause, there was a metallic click, and the gate swung open. Rodriguez came back to the car, got in, and drove on through the gate. Elshawe twisted his head to watch the big gate swing shut behind them.

After another ten minutes, Rodriguez swung off the road onto another side road, and ten minutes after that the station wagon went over a small rise and headed down into a small valley. In the middle of it, shining like bright aluminum in the sun, was a vessel.

Now I know Porter is nuts, Elshawe thought wryly.

Because the vessel, whatever it was, was parallel to the ground, looking like the fuselage of a stratojet, minus wings and tail, sitting on its landing gear. Nowhere was there any sign of a launching pad, with its gantries and cranes and jet baffles. Nor was there any sign of a rocket motor on the vessel itself.

As the station wagon approached the cluster of buildings a hundred yards this side of the machine, Elshawe realized with shock that the thing was a stripped-down stratojet--an old Grumman Supernova, circa 1970.

“Well, Elijah got there by sitting in an iron chair and throwing a magnet out in front of himself,” Elshawe said, “so what the hell.”

“What?” Rodriguez asked blankly.

“Nothing; just thinking out loud. Sorry.”

Behind Elshawe, Mr. Skinner chuckled softly, but said nothing.

When the station wagon pulled up next to one of the cluster of white prefab buildings, Malcom Porter himself stepped out of the wide door and walked toward them.

Elshawe recognized the man from his pictures--tall, wide-shouldered, dark-haired, and almost handsome, he didn’t look much like a wild-eyed crackpot. He greeted Rodriguez and Skinner rather peremptorily, but he smiled broadly and held out his hand to Elshawe.

“Mr. Elshawe? I’m Malcom Porter.” His grip was firm and friendly. “I’m glad to see you. Glad you could make it.”

“Glad to be here, Dr. Porter,” Elshawe said in his best manner. “It’s quite a privilege.” He knew that Porter liked to be called “Doctor”; all his subordinates called him that.

But, surprisingly, Porter said: “Not ‘Doctor,’ Mr. Elshawe; just ‘Mister.’ My boys like to call me ‘Doctor,’ but it’s sort of a nickname. I don’t have a degree, and I don’t claim one. I don’t want the public thinking I’m claiming to be something I’m not.”

“I understand, Mr. Porter.”

Bill Rodriguez’s voice broke in. “Where do you want me to put all this stuff, Doc?” He had unloaded Elshawe’s baggage from the station wagon and set it carefully on the ground. Skinner picked up his single suitcase and looked at Porter inquiringly.

“My usual room, Malcom?”

“Yeah. Sure, Sam; sure.” As Skinner walked off toward one of the other buildings, Porter said: “Quite a load of baggage you have there, Mr. Elshawe. Recording equipment?”

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