- Author: Raymond F. Jones
Read book online «The Great Gray Plague by Raymond F. Jones (classic literature books .TXT) 📕». Author - Raymond F. Jones
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.
[Transcribers Note: This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact and Science Fiction February 1962. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
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