Authors: Poul Anderson
She picked up the detective story she had planned to read. For a moment the bright cover rested between uncertain fingers, and she almost sat down with it. Then, shaking her head, she laid it back and went over to the crowded bookshelf, took out Pete’s worn copy of
, and returned to the armchair. Midafternoon came before she realized that she had forgotten all about lunch.
Corinth met Felix Mandelbaum in the elevator going down. They were that rare combination, neighbors in a New York apartment building who had become close friends. Sheila, with her small-town background, had insisted on getting to know everyone on their own floor at least, and Corinth had been glad of it in the case of the Mandelbaums. Sarah was a plump, quiet, retiring
sort, pleasant but not colorful; her husband was a horse of quite another shade.
Felix Mandelbaum had been born fifty years ago in the noise and dirt and sweatshops of the lower East Side, and life had been kicking him around ever since; but he kicked back, with a huge enjoyment. He’d been everything from itinerant fruit picker to skilled machinist and O.S.S. operative overseas during the war—where his talent for languages and people must have come in handy. His career as a labor organizer ran parallel, from the old Wobblies to the comparative respectability of his present job: officially executive secretary of a local union, actually a roving trouble shooter with considerable voice in national councils. Not that he had been a radical since his twenties; he said he’d seen radicalism from the inside, and that was enough for any sane man. Indeed, he claimed to be one of the last true conservatives—only, to conserve, you had to prune and graft and adjust. He was self-educated, but
widely read, with more capacity for life than anyone else of Corinth’s circle except possibly Nat Lewis. Fun to know.
“Hello,” said the physicist. “You’re late today.”
“Not exactly.” Mandelbaum’s voice was a harsh New York tone, fast and clipped. He was a small, wiry, gray-haired man, with a gnarled beaky face and intense dark eyes. “I woke up with an idea. A reorganization plan. Amazing nobody’s thought of it yet. It’d halve the paper work. So I’ve been outlining a chart.”
Corinth shook his head dolefully. “By now, Felix, you should know that Americans are too fond of paper work to give up one sheet,” he said.
“You haven’t seen Europeans,” grunted Mandelbaum.
“You know,” said Corinth, “it’s funny you should’ve had your idea just today. (Remind me to get the details from you later, it sounds interesting.) I woke up with the solution to a problem that’s been bedeviling me for the past month.”
“Hm?” Mandelbaum pounced on the fact, you could almost see him turning it over in his hands, sniffing it, and laying it aside. “Odd.” It was a dismissal.
The elevator stopped and they parted company. Corinth took the subway as usual. He was currently between cars; in this town, it just didn’t pay to own one. He noticed vaguely that the train was quieter than ordinarily. People were less hurried and unmannerly, they seemed thoughtful. He glanced at the newspapers, wondering with a gulp if
had started, but there was nothing really sensational—except maybe for that local bit about a dog, kept overnight in a basement, which had somehow opened the deep freeze, dragged out the meat to thaw, and been found happily gorged. Otherwise: fighting here and there throughout the world, a strike, a Communist demonstration in Rome, four killed in an auto crash—words, as if rotary presses squeezed the blood from everything that went through them.
Emerging in lower Manhattan, he walked three blocks to the Rossman Institute, limping a trifle. The same accident which had broken his nose years ago had injured his right knee and kept him out of military service; though being yanked directly from his youthful college graduation
into the Manhattan Project might have had something to do with that.
He winced at the trailing memory. Hiroshima and Nagasaki still lay heavily on his conscience. He had quit immediately after the war, and it was not only to resume his studies or to escape the red tape and probing and petty intrigue of government research for the underpaid sanity of academic life; it had been a flight from guilt. So had his later activities, he supposed—the Atomic Scientists, the United World Federalists, the Progressive Party. When he thought how those had withered away or been betrayed, and recalled the brave clichés which had stood like a shield between him and the Soviet snarl—there for any to see who had eyes—he wondered how sane the professors were after all.
Only, was his present retreat into pure research and political passivity—voting a discouraged Democratic ticket and doing nothing else—any more balanced? Nathan Lewis, frankly labeling himself a reactionary, was a local Republican committeeman, an utter and cheerful pessimist who still tried to salvage something; and Felix Mandelbaum, no less realistic than his chess and bull-session opponent Lewis, had more hope and energy, even looked forward to the ultimate creation of a genuine American Labor Party. Between them, Corinth felt rather pallid.
And I’m younger than either one!
He sighed. What was the matter with him? Thoughts kept boiling up out of nowhere, forgotten things, linking themselves into new chains that rattled in his skull. And just when he had the answer to his problem, too.
That reflection drove all others out. Again, it was unusual: ordinarily he was slow to change any train of thought. He stepped forward with a renewed briskness.
The Rossman Institute was a bulk of stone and glass, filling half a block and looking almost shiny among its older neighbors. It was known as a scientist’s heaven. Able men from all places and all disciplines were drawn there, less by the good pay than by the chance to do unhampered research of their own choosing, with first-rate equipment and none of the projectitis which was strangling pure science in government, in industry, and in too many universities.
It had the inevitable politicking and backbiting, but in lesser degree than the average college; it was the Institute for Advanced Study—less abstruse and more energetic, perhaps, and certainly with much more room. Lewis had once cited it to Mandelbaum as proof of the cultural necessity for a privileged class. “D’you think any government would ever endow such a thing and then, what’s more, have the sense to leave it to itself?”
“Brookhaven does all right,” Mandelbaum had said, but for him it was a feeble answer.
Corinth nodded to the girl at the newsstand in the lobby, hailed a couple of acquaintances, and fumed at the slowness of the elevator. “Seventh,” he said automatically when it arrived.
“I should know that, Dr. Corinth,” grinned the operator. “You’ve been here—let’s see—almost six years now, isn’t it?”
The physicist blinked. The attendant had always been part of the machinery to him; they had exchanged the usual pleasantries, but it hadn’t meant a thing. Suddenly Corinth saw him as a human being, a living and unique organism, part of an enormous impersonal web which ultimately became the entire universe, and yet bearing his own heart within him.
, he asked himself amazedly,
should I think that?
“You know, sir,” said the attendant, “I been wondering. I woke up this morning and wondered what I was doing this for and if I really wanted more out of it than just my job and my pension and—” He paused awkwardly as they stopped to let off a third-floor passenger. “I envy you. You’re going somewhere.”
The elevator reached the seventh floor. “You could—well, you could take a night course if you wanted,” said Corinth.
“I think maybe I will, sir. If you’d be so kind as to recommend—Well, later. I got to go now.” The doors slid smoothly across the cage, and Corinth went down hard marble ways to his laboratory.
He had a permanent staff of two, Johansson and Grunewald, intense young men who probably dreamed of having
labs of their own someday. They were already there when he entered and took off his coat.
“Good morning … ’Morning … ’Morning.”
“I’ve been thinking, Pete,” said Grunewald suddenly, as the chief went over to his desk. “I’ve got an idea for a circuit that may work—”
“Et tu, Brute,”
murmured Corinth. He sat down on a stool, doubling his long legs under him. “Let’s have it.”
Grunewald’s gimmick seemed remarkably parallel to his own. Johansson, usually silent and competent and no more, chimed in eagerly as thoughts occurred to him. Corinth took over leadership in the discussion, and within half an hour they were covering paper with the esoteric symbols of electronics.
Rossman might not have been entirely disinterested in establishing the Institute, though a man with his bank account could afford altruism. Pure research helped industry. He had made his fortune in light metals, all the way from raw ores to finished products, with cross-connections to a dozen other businesses; officially semi-retired, he kept his fine thin hands on the strings. Even bacteriology could turn out to be useful—not very long ago, work had been done on bacterial extraction of oil from shales—and Corinth’s study of crystal bonds could mean a good deal to metallurgy. Grunewald fairly gloated over the prospect of what success would do to their professional reputations. Before noon, they had set up a series of partial differential equations which would go to the computer at their regular scheduled time to use it, and were drawing up elements of the circuit they wanted.
The phone rang. It was Lewis, suggesting lunch together. “I’m on a hot trail today,” said Corinth. “I thought maybe I’d just have some sandwiches sent up.”
“Well, either I am too, or else I’m up you know what creek with no paddle,” said Lewis. “I’m not sure which, and it might help me straighten out my ideas if I could bounce them off you.”
“Oh, all right. Commissary do?”
“If you merely want to fill your belly, I suppose so.” Lewis went in for three-hour lunches complete with wine and violins, a habit he had picked up during his years in
pre-Anschluss Vienna. “One o’clock suit you? The peasantry will have gorged by then.”
“Okay.” Corinth hung up and lost himself again in the cool ecstasy of his work. It was one-thirty before he noticed the time, and he hurried off swearing.
Lewis was just seating himself at a table when Corinth brought his tray over. “I figured from your way of talk you’d be late,” he said. “What’d you get? The usual cafeteria menu, I suppose: mice drowned in skim milk, fillet of sea urchin, baked chef’s special, baked chef—well, no matter.” He sipped his coffee and winced.
He didn’t look delicate: a short square man of forty-eight, getting a little plump and bald, sharp eyes behind thick, rimless glasses. He was, indeed, a hearty soul at table or saloon. But eight years in Europe did change tastes, and he insisted that his postwar visits had been purely gastronomical.
“What you need,” said Corinth with the smugness of a convert, “is to get married.”
“I used to think so, when I began leaving my libertine days behind. But, well, never mind. Too late now.” Lewis attacked a minute steak, which he always pronounced as if the adjective were synonymous with “tiny,” and scowled through a mouthful. “I’m more interested in the histological aspect of biology just now.”
“You said you were having trouble—”
“That’s mostly with my assistants. Everybody seems jumpy today, and young Roberts is coming up with even wilder ideas than usual. But it’s my work. I’ve told you, haven’t I? I’m studying nerve cells—neurones. Trying to keep them alive in different artificial media, and seeing how their electrical properties vary with conditions. I have them in excised sections of tissue—Lindbergh-Carrel technique, with modifications. It was coming along pretty good—and then today, when we ran a routine check, the results came out different. So I tested them all—Every one is changed!”
“Hm?” Corinth raised his eyebrows and chewed quietly for a minute. “Something wrong with your apparatus?”
“Not that I can find. Nothing different—except the cells themselves. A small but significant shift.” Lewis’ tones came
faster, with a hint of rising excitement. “You know how a neurone works? Like a digital computer. It’s stimulated by a—a stimulus, fires a signal, and is thereafter inactive for a short time. The next neurone in the nerve gets the signal, fires, and is also briefly inactivated. Well, it turns out that everything is screwy today. The inactivation time is a good many microseconds less, the—well, let’s just say the whole system reacts significantly faster than normally. And the signals are also more intense.”
Corinth digested the information briefly, then, slowly: “Looks like you may have stumbled onto something big.”
“Well, where’s the cause? The medium, the apparatus, it’s all the same as yesterday, I tell you. I’m going nuts trying to find out if I’ve got a potential Nobel Prize or just sloppy technique!”
Very slowly, as if his mind were shying away from a dimly seen realization, Corinth said: “It’s odd this should have happened today.”
“Hm?” Lewis glanced sharply up, and Corinth related his own encounters.
“Very odd,” agreed the biologist. “And no big thunderstorms lately—ozone stimulates the mind—but my cultures are sealed in glass anyway—” Something flashed in his eyes.
Corinth looked around. “Hullo, there’s Helga. Wonder what made her so late? Hi, there!” He stood up, waving across the room, and Helga Arnulfsen bore her tray over to their table and sat down.
She was a tall, rangy, handsome woman, her long blonde hair drawn tightly around the poised head, but something in her manner—an impersonal energy, an aloofness, perhaps only the unfeminine crispness of speech and dress—made her less attractive than she could have been. She’d changed since the old days, right after the war, thought Corinth. He’d been taking his doctorate at Minnesota, where she was studying journalism, and they’d had fun together; though he’d been too much and too hopelessly in love with his work and another girl to think seriously about her. Afterward they had corresponded, and he had gotten her a secretarial post at the Institute, two years
before. She was chief administrative assistant now, and did a good job of it.