Like a lot of discoveries, this one had been more accident than design. Several things went into it: the fact that, by some accident of engineering, the lab apparatus had a backup and the overhead lighting didn’t; the fact that Hank Jeter’s great-grandfather had worked as a railroad chief porter during the 1920’s; and the fact that Hank was seeing what time it was at the exact moment when a drunk slammed into the power pole out on Rhawn Street.
The lab was in an interior room, with no windows, and the sudden darkness was Stygian. People swore in disgust. Somebody tripped over a stool, which fell with a crash. “Where’s the flashlight, goddamit?” somebody else said.
Hank didn’t need it; not, at least, to look at his watch. That watch had been in his family since his great-grandfather’s day. As a matter of fact, it was a conductor’s watch, but great-grandpa had bought it all the same, just as soon as he could afford it. He loved it, and why not? It had been keeping good time for more than sixty years now, a big, old-fashioned stemwinder with a long, thick gold chain, perfect for wearing in a vest pocket. It had a radium dial that glowed in the dark.
Except it wasn’t glowing now. Hank held it so close to his face that it almost bumped his nose, squinted until his eyes crossed. Nothing.
Just then, someone found the flashlight. It was pointed straight at Hank’s face when it got turned on. In total blackness, it was like a magnesium flare exploding. Hank yelped and nearly dropped his watch.
One drink became several. After a while, Irv said, “What time has it gotten to be?”
“Why are you asking me? You’ve got a watch on your wrist,” Jeter retorted in mock anger. “Just because I’m black, you make me do all the work.”
“Oh, bull. If I didn’t ask you to haul out that brass turnip of yours, you’d sulk for a week.”
“A likely story.” Chuckling, Hank looked at his great-grandfather’s watch. “It’s twenty to seven.” He frowned. “That’s funny.”
“No it isn’t. I just remembered I’m supposed to be in Southbridge at seven, and I’m never gonna make it.”
“No. Look at the dial.”
“I’ve seen it a million times, thanks.”
“It’s glowing,” Jeter said. “Well, I should hope so. It’s a wonder you don’t futz up half the experiments in the lab with the radioactivity in that damn thing.”
“You have no respect for an heirloom, my man. The point is, though, when the electricity went out this afternoon, I was looking right at it and there was nothing to see, just black.”
“Probably you were looking at the back side and didn’t realize it in the dark,” Irv suggested.
“Hey, no, man, I’m serious,” Jeter said. “I had it out before the power blew. I can’t remember the last time I looked at it in the dark; I just figured the radium paint had worn out or something. Now I don’t know what to think.”
Irv Farmer stared owlishly at his friend. He had drunk just enough to take him seriously; a little more and he wouldn’t have cared one way or the other, a little less and he would have rationalized everything away. Instead, he said, “All right, I give up. What happened?”
Hank shrugged. “Just one of those things, I guess.” Being almost twice Farmer’s size, he hadn’t been hit as hard by his shots of Hiram Walker’s. As long as everything seemed back to normal, he was happy enough—relieved might be a better word.
Irv finished his porter. “Let’s go back and see if we can duplicate it,” he said suddenly.
It was Jeter’s turn to gape. “Probably nothing there to duplicate.”
“Then what have we lost? A little time.”
“To turn the lights back on. I’ve got an idea.” Farmer rummaged around until he found a Geiger counter. He held the Geiger tube up to the watch. The lazy clicking of background radiation, present everywhere, did not change. Irv and Hank looked at each other.
Irv started turning off pieces of lab equipment. The Geiger counter immediately began to chatter.
“Do you know what we’ve got here if we can find out what makes this tick?” Farmer said softly, oblivious to any thought of wordplay. “We’ve got a Nobel prize right in our laps, that’s what.”
Hank Jeter regarded him most soberly. “It may not be anything nearly as trivial as that,” he said.
Lack of understanding, though, was not the chief reason they kept things to themselves. The more they played with what they had begun to call the Irvhank Effect, the more they realized just how big a thing they had stumbled across. That first field of theirs was a very strong, very tight one: it damped all radioactivity above background level, but it only had an effective radius of about ten meters.
‘‘We could clean up Three Mile Island with this,” Irv said. Hank only grunted. He had bigger things in mind.
Their early tries at altering the field only succeeded in eliminating it altogether. It was Irv’s turn to think more progress impossible, Hank Jeter’s to keep pushing. After a good deal of frustration, they finally found the components of the system they had to modify to change the strength of the Irvhank Effect. They also found that each weakening of the field increased the range over which its effect spread.
It took many months of work before they got the kind of field Hank had conceived of the moment he heard that quiet Geiger counter: one weak enough to allow the barest chain reaction, the level found in an atomic pile, but strong enough to prevent the catastrophic fission of nuclear weapons.
That was the one that sent the two of them into the Nevada desert, to see if their circuits did what they were supposed to (they take the gadget next to Nellis Air Force Range and Nuclear Testing Site. The newspaper had an announcement that a nuclear test was scheduled for 10:52 on that day. The gadget successfully prevents the nuclear device from detonating)
. Actually, the trip was conservative; if their haywire calculations were right, at that level the field should cover most of the United States. When they found out that the device worked, they hooked it up to wall current and let it run night and day.
“Let the Russians roar,” Hank declared. “Those sons of bitches aren’t going to blow us all away now, no matter how much they want to. Do you know what we’ve done, Irv? We’ve declared peace against the whole world, and we’ve won.”
As things worked out, the Russians, weren’t doing much roaring of late. They were grumbling, mostly among themselves. It was Irv who noticed the name of a prominent Soviet general in the “Milestones” column of Time
“‘Retired,’” he read. “‘Marshal Pavel Serafimov, 62. Western intelligence sources believe that Serafimov, a leading expert in nuclear weaponry, was forced into early retirement because of the unexpected difficulties the Red Army is having with the warhead of the new SS-26 ICBM.’”
Hank’s smile was blissful. “We aren’t just covering the USA, then. I sort of suspected you were too cautious with your numbers, Irv. If the Russians’ bombs won’t go off even at home, we’ve got the whole planet blanketed. Now we don’t have to worry about a nut in the White House or the Department of Defense, either. To say nothing of the Israelis, the South Africans, the Pakistanis, the Argentines—how long do you want me to go on?”
“No need, no need,” Irv said. “I think it’s about time we looked into publishing.”
You have to understand that I’ve pieced all this together. Obviously, I wasn’t there when the two of them discovered the Irvhank Effect. There are still lots of things I don’t know about it. And, as I’ve said, they were careful about covering up what they were doing, for amateurs anyway.
I tell you frankly: a lot of people were tearing their hair, trying to figure out why none of the bomb tests would work. After the first couple of failures, we were also going out of our minds trying to keep the Russians—to say nothing of Congress—from learning things were on the fritz.
Of course, it turned out the Russians had troubles of their own, but we didn’t know that then. You can imagine how relieved we were when we found out. At least they weren’t responsible for screwing us up.
But who was?
It took a lot of time—people time and computer time—before a possible answer emerged. Again, I don’t have the details, just what I got in my briefing. Apparently, somebody was smart enough, or desperate enough, to ask for a computer search of any and all anomalies having anything to do with radiation, and then to stick pins in a map to see if there was a pattern. Sure enough, there was.
Some of the items had made the newspapers, others hadn’t. The day when all the nuclear plants east of the Mississippi hiccupped for six seconds was one of the latter. With everyone loving nuclear power so much these days, most of the plant directors had covered up as best they could, especially since they didn’t know what had gone wrong either. But those people are amateurs too.
Other things were less spectacular—high-energy physics experiments gone awry, disappointingly ineffective cancer treatments, and so on. Those were also more localized. They gave us an idea of where the center of the problem-circle was. We were able to start putting together a list of names.
Two people on the list, it turned out, had been vacationing in Las Vegas on the morning when a bomb test was inexplicably late. That was enough to be worth looking into, anyhow, and that was when I got my orders.
As it happened, I went to Irv Farmer’s condo first, while he was at work. Jackpot the first time, too; I found the half-written paper on the Irvhank Effect in the typewriter, with all the notes beside it. I skimmed through them. The machine itself, I learned, was at Hank Jeter’s apartment, under the bed.
I took all the documents and stuffed them into the repairman’s bag I carried in case anyone got curious about what I was doing wandering the halls. Then I went out and goofed around for several hours. I knew just what Irv Farmer would do when he got home and found his place burgled—he’d rush over and tell Hank. That was fine. I needed to talk with both of them.
My timing was right. I heard two voices when I paused to listen outside the door. I went on in. Apartment-house locks aren’t made to keep out the likes of me.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” I advised the two of them as I shut the door behind me. I was mostly talking to Jeter, nobody’d told me what a mountain of beef he was. “This in my hands is a silenced UZI machine-pistol with a forty-round box. A burst will make a noise like Donald Duck sneezing and leave you both hamburger.”
I had to give Irv Farmer credit. He went white as a sheet, but his voice came out steady: “I thought you weren’t supposed to fire bursts through a silencer.”
“For emergency use only,” I agreed, “but your friend there on the sofa is big enough to qualify.”
“If you want money, my cash is in the silverware drawer in the kitchen,” Jeter said. He didn’t sound as though he believed it himself; even in the US of A, robbers don’t pack UZI’s with silencers. When I just stood there, he sagged a little. “Who are you with?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Believe it or not, at the moment all I intend to do is have a chat.”
Hank was still a bit stunned; Irv was quicker on the uptake. “If you’re the one who was at my place”—he paused, and I nodded—“then I think we know what you want to, ah, chat about.”
I nodded again. “No doubt. Tell me, can your gadget, say, protect the United States from nuclear attack but leave the Soviet Union open?”
“No way,” Farmer said. “The whole planet gets protected at that setting. It’s in the nature of the field.”
I would have believed him even if glancing over his notes hadn’t led me to the same conclusion; you could read his sincerity in his face. “So what exactly is it you’re accomplishing, then?”
That roused Hank Jeter. “Putting an end to the possibility of nuclear war,” he growled. The look he sent my way said that even somebody like me should be able to figure that one out for himself.
I shrugged. “And so?”
“What do you mean, ‘And so?’” he said. “And so peace, of course.”
“We’re at peace now,” I reminded him. “We have been since 1945, more or less.”
“A peace based on terror,” he said scornfully. “That kind of peace never lasts, and the kind of war we can fight with today’s weapons is too terrible to imagine.”
“There I agree with you,” I said, and saw I’d surprised him. I went on, “But what makes you think that turning off all the nuclear weapons is going to do anything to promote peace?”
He looked at me as if he thought I was crazy. He probably did. “We won’t be able to blow ourselves away, that’s what.”
“With all the germs and gases stockpiled, I wouldn’t even bet on that,” I said. “Let it go, though. Just tell me this. Suppose you’re the President of the Soviet Union. And suddenly your missiles and the Americans’ missiles are only so many big Roman candles. You take a look toward Western Europe. You’ve got about a 3-1 edge in tanks, 2-1 in planes, maybe 3-2 in ground troops. Nothing much is going to happen to your country if you move. So what do you do?’’
“Nothing much is going to happen?” Irv echoed. “You’re still going to get the hell bombed out of you, and invaded if you start losing.”
“By Russian standards, that’s nothing much,” I said. “And the last people who made a go of invading Russia were the Mongols. Hardly anybody on this side of the Atlantic remembers that the Russians did the dirty work in World War II after the Germans jumped ’em. They took eleven, maybe thirteen million armed forces deaths, plus another seven million or so civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Irv and Hank were both staring at me now. They grew up with Vietnam: fifty-odd thousand dead, spread over a dozen years. They were too young to remember how easy it was to fight a really big conventional war.
I said so, adding, “Why do you think we haven’t fought the third World War yet? It could have started any time: over Korea, or Hungary in ’56, or the Berlin Wall, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in ’81, or Vietnam, or the Middle East half a dozen different times. For that matter, why doesn’t China try to take most of Siberia back from the Russians? Their maps claim it, you know.” They plainly didn’t.
I said, “Aside from anything else, there’s another reason to keep away from World War III—we’d probably lose. The Russians outweigh us by too much in conventional weapons, and the geography favors them.”
“China,” Farmer said. He’d been paying attention, some.
“Maybe, just maybe,” I admitted. “But that’s a deal with the devil, too, the same as the one we had with Stalin to beat Hitler. We’d probably just be setting up the next round.”
“You have one sick view of human nature, man,” Hank Jeter said.
I shrugged. “I suppose so, but I’m afraid I’ve got an awful lot of history to back it up. Seems to me the only thing that’s kept such peace as we’ve got is the terror you were sneering at. What else is strong enough? And what’s going to happen when people find out there’s nothing to be afraid of any more?”
If I sound like I was pleading with them, I was. I’d never gotten a set of orders I liked less, and I was looking for some excuse to break them. But try as I might, I couldn’t find one. Maybe Irv and Hank could. After all, they were bright enough to have created this flap in the first place.
No luck, dammit. They hadn’t thought out the consequences any further than keeping the bombs from falling, and that wasn’t far enough. Any minute now, somebody was likely to realize that things weren’t going bang because they couldn’t go bang. Then it would be time to hold onto your hat, assuming you still had a head to wear it on.