Read book online «That Sweet Little Old Lady by Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer (best novels to read .txt) 📕». Author - Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer
Illustrated by Freas
"What are we going to call that sweet little old lady, now that mother is a dirty word?"
n 1914, it was enemy aliens.
In 1930, it was Wobblies.
In 1957, it was fellow travelers.
And, in 1971....
"They could be anywhere," Andrew J. Burris said, with an expression which bordered on exasperated horror. "They could be all around us. Heaven only knows."
He pushed his chair back from his desk and stood up—a chunky little man with bright blue eyes and large hands. He paced to the window and looked out at Washington, and then he came back to the desk. A persistent office rumor held that he had become head of the FBI purely because he happened to have an initial J in his name, but in his case the J stood for Jeremiah. And, at the moment, his tone expressed all the hopelessness of that Old Testament prophet's lamentations.
"We're helpless," he said, looking at the young man with the crisp brown hair who was sitting across the desk. "That's what it is, we're helpless."
Kenneth Malone tried to look dependable. "Just tell me what to do," he said.
"You're a good agent, Kenneth," Burris said. "You're one of the best. That's why you've been picked for this job. And I want to say that I picked you personally. Believe me, there's never been anything like it before."
"I'll do my best," Malone said at random. He was twenty-eight, and he had been an FBI agent for three years. In that time, he had, among other things, managed to break up a gang of smugglers, track down a counterfeiting ring, and capture three kidnapers. For reasons which he could neither understand nor explain, no one seemed willing to attribute his record to luck.
"I know you will," Burris said. "And if anybody can crack this case, Malone, you're the man. It's just that—everything sounds so impossible. Even after all the conferences we've had."
"Conferences?" Malone said vaguely. He wished the chief would get to the point. Any point. He smiled gently across the desk and tried to look competent and dependable and reassuring. Burris' expression didn't change.
"You'll get the conference tapes later," Burris said. "You can study them before you leave. I suggest you study them very carefully, Malone. Don't be like me. Don't get confused." He buried his face in his hands. Malone waited patiently. After a few seconds, Burris looked up. "Did you read books when you were a child?" he asked.
Malone said: "What?"
"Books," Burris said. "When you were a child. Read them."
"Sure I did," Malone said. "'Bomba the Jungle Boy,' and 'Doolittle,' and 'Lucky Starr,' and 'Little Women'—"
"When Beth died," Malone said, "I wanted to cry. But I didn't. My father said big boys don't cry."
"And your father was right," Burris said. "Why, when I was a ... never mind. Forget about Beth and your father. Think about 'Lucky Starr' for a minute. Remember him?"
"Sure," Malone said. "I liked those books. You know, it's funny, but the books you read when you're a kid, they kind of stay with you. Know what I mean? I can still remember that one about Venus, for instance. Gee, that was—"
"Never mind about Venus, too," Burris said sharply. "Keep your mind on the problem."
"Yes, sir," Malone said. He paused. "What problem, sir?" he added.
"The problem we're discussing," Burris said. He gave Malone a bright, blank stare. "Just listen to me."
"All right, then." Burris took a deep breath. He seemed nervous. Once again he stood up and went to the window. This time, he spoke without turning. "Remember how everybody used to laugh about spaceships, and orbital satellites, and life on other planets? That was just in those 'Lucky Starr' books. That was all just for kids, wasn't it?"
"Well, I don't know," Malone said slowly.
"Sure it was all for kids," Burris said. "It was laughable. Nobody took it seriously."
"Well, somebody must—"
"You just keep quiet and listen," Burris said.
"Yes, sir," Malone said.
Burris nodded. His hands were clasped behind his back. "We're not laughing any more, are we, Malone?" he said without moving.
There was silence.
"Well, are we?"
"Did you want me to answer, sir?"
"Of course I did!" Burris snapped.
"You told me to keep quiet and—"
"Never mind what I told you," Burris said. "Just do what I told you."
"Yes, sir," Malone said. "No, sir," he added after a second.
"No, sir, what?" Burris asked softly.
"No, sir, we're not laughing any more," Malone said.
"Ah," Burris said. "And why aren't we laughing any more?"
There was a little pause. Malone said, tentatively: "Because there's nothing to laugh about, sir?"
Burris whirled. "On the head!" he said happily. "You've hit the nail on the head, Kenneth. I knew I could depend on you." His voice grew serious again, and thoughtful. "We're not laughing any more because there's nothing to laugh about. We have orbital satellites, and we've landed on the Moon with an atomic rocket. The planets are the next step, and after that the stars. Man's heritage, Kenneth. The stars. And the stars, Kenneth, belong to Man—not to the Soviets!"
"Yes, sir," Malone said soberly.
"So," Burris said, "we should learn not to laugh any more. But have we?"
"I don't know, sir."
"We haven't," Burris said with decision. "Can you read my mind?"
"No, sir," Malone said.
"Can I read your mind?"
Malone hesitated. At last he said: "Not that I know of, sir."
"Well, I can't," Burris snapped. "And can any of us read each other's mind?"
Malone shook his head. "No, sir," he said.
Burris nodded. "That's the problem," he said. "That's the case I'm sending you out to crack."
This time, the silence was a long one.
At last, Malone said: "What problem, sir?"
"Mind reading," Burris said. "There's a spy at work in the Nevada plant, Kenneth. And the spy is a telepath."
The video tapes were very clear and very complete. There were a great many of them, and it was long after nine o'clock when Kenneth Malone decided to take a break and get some fresh air. Washington was a good city for walking, even at night, and Malone liked to walk. Sometimes he pretended, even to himself, that he got his best ideas while walking, but he knew perfectly well that wasn't true. His best ideas just seemed to come to him, out of nowhere, precisely as the situation demanded them.
He was just lucky, that was all. He had a talent for being lucky. But nobody would ever believe that. A record like his was spectacular, even in the annals of the FBI, and Burris himself believed that the record showed some kind of superior ability.
Malone knew that wasn't true, but what could he do about it? After all, he didn't want to resign, did he? It was kind of romantic and exciting to be an FBI agent, even after three years. A man got a chance to travel around a lot and see things, and it was interesting. The pay was pretty good, too.
The only trouble was that, if he didn't quit, he was going to have to find a telepath.
The notion of telepathic spies just didn't sound right to Malone. It bothered him in a remote sort of way. Not that the idea of telepathy itself was alien to him—after all, he was even more aware than the average citizen that research had been going on in that field for something over a quarter of a century, and that the research was even speeding up.
But the cold fact that a telepathy-detecting device had been invented somehow shocked his sense of propriety, and his notions of privacy. It wasn't decent, that was all.
There ought to be something sacred, he told himself angrily.
He stopped walking and looked up. He was on Pennsylvania Avenue, heading toward the White House.
That was no good. He went to the corner and turned off, down the block. He had, he told himself, nothing at all to see the President about.
Not yet, anyhow.
The streets were dark and very peaceful. I get my best ideas while walking, Malone said without convincing himself. He thought back to the video tapes.
The report on the original use of the machine itself had been on one of the first tapes, and Malone could still see and hear it. That was one thing he did have, he reflected; his memory was pretty good.
Burris had been the first speaker on the tapes, and he'd given the serial and reference number in a cold, matter-of-fact voice. His face had been perfectly blank, and he looked just like the head of the FBI people were accustomed to seeing on their TV and newsreel screens. Malone wondered what had happened to him between the time the tapes had been made and the time he'd sent for Malone.
Maybe the whole notion of telepathy was beginning to get him, Malone thought.
Burris recited the standard tape opening in a rapid mumble: "Any person or agent unauthorized for this tape please refrain from viewing further, under penalties as prescribed by law." Then he looked off, out past the screen to the left, and said: "Dr. Thomas O'Connor, of Westinghouse Laboratories. Will you come here, Dr. O'Connor?"
Dr. O'Connor came into the lighted square of screen slowly, looking all around him. "This is very fascinating," he said, blinking in the lamplight. "I hadn't realized that you people took so many precautions—"
He was, Malone thought, somewhere between fifty and sixty, tall and thin with skin so transparent that he nearly looked like a living X ray. He had pale blue eyes and pale white hair and, Malone thought, if there ever were a contest for the best-looking ghost, Dr. Thomas O'Connor would win it hands—or phalanges—down.
"This is all necessary for the national security," Burris said, a little sternly.
"Oh," Dr. O'Connor said quickly, "I realize that, of course. Naturally. I can certainly see that."
"Let's go ahead, shall we?" Burris said.
O'Connor nodded. "Certainly. Certainly."
Burris said: "Well, then," and paused. After a second he started again: "Now, Dr. O'Connor, would you please give us a sort of verbal run-down on this for our records?"
"Of course," Dr. O'Connor said. He smiled into the video cameras and cleared his throat. "I take it you don't want an explanation of how this machine works. I mean: you don't want a technical exposition, do you?"
"No," Burris said, and added: "Not by any means. Just tell us what it does."
Dr. O'Connor suddenly reminded Malone of a professor he'd had in college for one of the law courses. He had, Malone thought, the same smiling gravity of demeanor, the same condescending attitude of absolute authority. It was clear that Dr. O'Connor lived in a world of his own, a world that was not even touched by the common run of men.
"Well," he began, "to put it very simply, the device indicates whether or not a man's mental ... ah ... processes are being influenced by outside ... by outside influences." He gave the cameras another little smile. "If you will allow me, I will demonstrate on the machine itself."
He took two steps that carried him out of camera range, and returned wheeling a large heavy-looking box. Dangling from the metal covering were a number of wires and attachments. A long cord led from the box to the floor, and snaked out of sight to the left.
"Now," Dr. O'Connor said. He selected a single lead, apparently, Malone thought, at random. "This electrode—"
"Just a moment, doctor," Burris said. He was eying the machine with a combination of suspicion and awe. "A while back you mentioned something about 'outside influences.' Just what, specifically, does that mean?"
With some regret, Dr. O'Connor dropped the lead. "Telepathy," he said. "By outside influences, I meant influences on the mind, such as telepathy or mind reading of some nature."
"I see," Burris said. "You can detect a telepath with this machine."
"Well, some kind of a mind reader anyhow," Burris said. "We won't quarrel about terms."
"Certainly not," Dr. O'Connor said. The smile he turned on Burris was as cold and empty as the inside of Orbital Station One. "What I meant was ... if you will permit me to continue ... that we cannot detect any sort of telepath or mind reader with this device. To be frank, I very much wish that we could; it would make everything a great deal simpler. However, the laws of psionics don't seem to operate that way."
"Well, then," Burris said, "what does the thing do?" His face wore a mask of confusion. Momentarily, Malone felt sorry for his chief. He could remember how he'd felt, himself, when that law professor had come up with a particularly baffling question in class.
"This machine," Dr. O'Connor said with authority, "detects the slight variations in mental activity that occur when a person's mind is being read."
"You mean, if my mind were being read right now—"
"Not right now," Dr. O'Connor said. "You see, the bulk of this machine is in Nevada; the structure is both too heavy and too delicate for transport. And there are other qualifications—"
"I meant theoretically," Burris said.
"Theoretically," Dr. O'Connor began, and smiled again, "if your mind were being read, this machine would detect it, supposing that the machine were in operating condition and all of the other qualifications had been met. You see, Mr. Burris, no matter how poor a telepath a man may be, he has some slight ability—even if only very slight—to detect the fact that his mind is being read."
"You mean, if somebody were reading my mind, I'd know it?"