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Chapter 18

  • Jerry Rivas, Mack Vibart and Luther Chen-Wong had been keeping things runnin_n Koshchei. Work on the interplanetary ship at Port Carpenter, had stoppe_hen the Sickle Mountain ships had been found; it had never been resumed. Whe_onn returned, he found work started on the  _Ouroboros II_. Some of the tw_undred newcomers who came in on the  _Helen O'Loy_  had special skills neede_n the hypership; most of them went with Clyde Nichols and Charley Gatworth t_ickle Mountain to train as normal-space officers and crewmen. Some of them, it was hoped, would later qualify for hyperspace work. Sylvie, who had bee_ne of the star pupils in the computer class, was now helping him with th_ong lists of needed materials, some of which had to be brought from othe_laces as much as a thousand miles away. Jerry Rivas went back to exploring; Nichols had to drop his space-training work temporarily to organize a fleet o_ir-freighters; usually, the men best able to operate them were urgentl_eeded on some job at the construction dock.
  • Ships lifted out almost daily from Sickle Mountain. They tried to get som_ind of salable cargo for each one, without depriving themselves of what the_eeded for themselves. Some of the ships came back loaded with provisions an_ringing new recruits—for instance, the teaching of physics and mathematic_lmost stopped at Storisende College because the professors had been virtuall_hanghaied.
  • Conn found himself losing touch with affairs on Poictesme. Ships had landed o_oth Janicot and Horvendile and were sending back claims to abandone_actories. By that time they had all the decks into the  _Ouroboros II_ , an_e was working aboard, getting the astrogational and hyperspace instrument_ut in place. The hypership _Andromeda_  was back from the Gamma System; ther_as close secrecy about what the expedition had found, but the newscasts wer_ull of conjectures about Merlin, and the market went into another dizz_pward spiral. Litchfield Exploration & Salvage opened a huge munitions depot, and combat equipment, once almost unsalable, was selling as fast as it cam_ut. The Government was buying some, but by no means all of it.
  • "Conn, can you come back here to Poictesme for a while?" his father asked.
  • "Things have turned serious. I don't like to talk about it by screen—too man_eople know our scrambler combinations. But I wish you were here."
  • He started to object; there were millions, well, a couple of hundred, thing_e had to attend to. The look on his father's face stopped him.
  • "Ship leaving Sickle Mountain tomorrow morning," he said. "I'll be aboard."
  • The voyage back to Poictesme was a needed rest. He felt refreshed when he go_ff at Storisende Spaceport and was met by his father and Wade Lucas in one o_he slim recon-cars. They greeted him briefly and took the car up and awa_rom the city, where it was safe to talk.
  • "Conn, I'm scared," his father said. "I'm beginning to think there really is _erlin, after all."
  • "Oh, come off it! I know it's contagious, but I thought you'd bee_accinated."
  • "I'm beginning to think so, too," Lucas said. "I don't like it at all."
  • "You know what that gang who took the  _Andromeda_  to Panurge found?"
  • "They were looking for the plant that fabricated the elements for Merlin, weren't they?"
  • "Yes. They found it. My Barton-Massarra operatives got to some of the crew.
  • This place had been turning out material for a computer of absolutel_nconventional design; the two computermen they had with them couldn't mak_ead or tail of half of it. And every blueprint, every diagram, every scrap o_riting or recording, had been destroyed. But they found one thing, a bi_mpty fiber folder that had fallen under something and been overlooked. It wa_arked: TOP SECRET. PROJECT MERLIN."
  • "Project Merlin could have been anything," Conn started to say. No. Projec_erlin was something they made computer parts for.
  • "Dolf Kellton's research crew, at the Library here, came across som_eferences to Project Merlin, too. For instance, there was a routine divisio_ourt-martial, a couple of second lieutenants, on a very trivial charge. Forc_ommand ordered the court-martial stopped, and the two officers simply droppe_ut of the Third Force records, it was stated that they were engaged in wor_onnected with Project Merlin. That's an example; there were half a doze_hings like that."
  • "Tell him what Kurt Fawzi and his crew found," Wade Lucas said.
  • "Yes. They have a fifty-foot shaft down from the top of the mesa almost to th_op of the underground headquarters. They found something on top of th_eadquarters; a disc-shaped mass, fifty feet thick and a hundred across, armored in collapsium. It's directly over what used to be Foxx Travis'_ffice."
  • "That's not a tenth big enough for anything that could even resemble Merlin."
  • "Well, it's something. I was out there day before yesterday. They're down t_he collapsium on top of this thing; I rode down the shaft in a jeep an_ooked at it. Look, Conn, we don't know what this Project Merlin was; all thi_ore about Merlin that's grown up since the War is pure supposition."
  • "But Foxx Travis told me, categorically, that there was no Merlin Project,"
  • Conn said. "The War's been over forty years; it's not a military secret an_onger. Why would he lie to me?"
  • "Why did you lie to Kurt Fawzi and the others and tell them there was _erlin? You lied because telling the truth would hurt them. Maybe Travis ha_he same reason for lying to you. Maybe Merlin's too dangerous for anybody t_e allowed to find."
  • "Great Ghu, are you beginning to think Merlin is the Devil, or Frankenstein'_onster?"
  • "It might be something just as bad. Maybe worse. I don't think a man like Fox_ravis would lie if he didn't have some overriding moral obligation to."
  • "And we know who's been making most of the trouble for us, too," Lucas added.
  • "Yes," Rodney Maxwell said, "we do. And sometime I'm going to invite Kle_areff to kick my pants-seat. Sam Murchison, the Terran Federation Minister- General."
  • "How'd you get that?"
  • "Barton-Massarra got some of it; they have an operative planted in Murchison'_ffice. And some of our banking friends got the rest. This Human Supremac_eague is being financed by somebody. Every so often, their treasurer makes _ig deposit at one of the banks here, all Federation currency, bi_enomination notes. When I asked them to, they started keeping a record of th_erial numbers and checking withdrawals. The money was paid out, at the Firs_lanetary Bank, to Mr. Samuel S. Murchison, in person. The Armegeddonists ar_etting money, too, but they're too foxy to put theirs through the banks. _elieve they're the ones who mind-probed Lucy Nocero. Barton-Massarra believe, but they can't prove, that Human Supremacy launched that robo-bomb at us, tha_ime at the spaceport."
  • "Have you done anything with those audiovisuals of Leibert?"
  • "Gave them to Barton-Massarra. They haven't gotten anything, yet."
  • "So we have to admit that Klem wasn't crazy after all. What do you want me t_o?"
  • "Go out to Force Command and take charge. We have to assume that there may b_ Merlin, we have to assume that it may be dangerous, and we have to assum_hat Kurt Fawzi and his covey of Merlinolators are just before digging it up.
  • Your job is to see that whatever it is doesn't get loose."
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  • The trouble was, if he started giving orders around Force Command he'd sto_eing a brilliant young man and become a half-baked kid, and one word from hi_nd the older and wiser heads would do just what they pleased. He wondered i_he pro-Leibert and anti-Leibert factions were still squabbling; maybe if h_ent out of his way to antagonize one side, he'd make allies of the other. H_ook the precaution of screening in, first; Kurt Fawzi, with whom he talked, was almost incoherent with excitement. At least, he was reasonably sure tha_one of Klem Zareff's trigger-happy mercenaries would shoot him down comin_n.
  • The well, fifty feet in diameter, went straight down from the top of the mesa; as the headquarters had been buried under loose rubble, they'd had to vitrif_he sides going down. He let down into the hole in a jeep, and stood on th_ollapsium roof of whatever it was they had found. It wasn't the top of th_eadquarters itself; the microray scannings showed that. It was a drum-shape_uperstructure, a sort of underground penthouse. And there they were stopped.
  • You didn't cut collapsium with a cold chisel, or even an atomic torch. H_egan to see how he was going to be able to take charge here.
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  • "You haven't found any passage leading into it?" he asked, when they wer_athered in Fawzi's—formerly Foxx Travis's—office.
  • "Nifflheim, no! If we had, we'd be inside now." Tom Brangwyn swore. "And we'v_een all over the ceiling in here, and we can't find anything but vitrifie_ock and then the collapsium shielding."
  • "Sure. There are collapsium-cutters, at Port Carpenter, on Koshchei. They d_t with cosmic rays."
  • "But collapsium will stop cosmic rays," Zareff objected.
  • "Stop them from penetrating, yes. A collapsium-cutter doesn't penetrate; i_brades. Throws out a rotary beam and works like a grinding-wheel, or a buzz- saw."
  • "Well, could you get one down that hole?" Judge Ledue asked.
  • He laughed. "No. The thing is rather too large. In the first place, there's _ull-sized power-reactor, and a mass-energy converter. With them, you produc_egamatter—atoms with negatively charged protons and positive electrons, positrons. Then, you have to bring them into contact with normal positive- matter—That's done in a chamber the size of a fifty-gallon barrel, made o_ollapsium and weighing about a hundred tons. Then you have to have _seudograv field to impart rotary motion to your cosmic-ray beam, and th_enerator door that would lift ten ships the size of the  _Lester Dawes_. The_ou need another fifty to a hundred tons of collapsium to shield your cutting- head. The cutting-head alone weighs three tons. The rotary beam that does th_utting," he mentioned as an afterthought, "is about the size of a silve_ive-centisol piece."
  • Nobody said anything for a few seconds. Carl Leibert stated that Divine Powe_ould aid them. Nobody paid much attention; Leibert's stock seemed to hav_one bearish since he had found nothing in the butte and Fawzi had found tha_hatever-it-was on top of Force Command.
  • "Means we're going to dig the whole blasted top off, clear down to where tha_hing is," Zareff said. "That'll take a year."
  • "Oh, no. Maybe a couple of weeks, after we get started," Conn told them.
  • "It'll take longer to get the stuff loaded on a ship and hauled here than i_ill to get that thing uncovered and opened."
  • He told them about the machines they used in the iron mines on Koshchei, an_s he talked, he stopped worrying about how he was going to take charge here.
  • He had just been unanimously elected Indispensable Man.
  • "Bless you, young man!" Carl Leibert cried. "At last, the Great Computer!
  • Those who come after will reckon this the Year Zero of the Age o_egeneration. I will go to my chamber and return thanks in prayer."
  • "He's been doing a lot of praying lately," Tom Brangwyn remarked, afte_eibert had gone out. "He's moved into the chaplain's quarters, back of th_andenominational chapel on the fourth level down. Always keeps his doo_ocked, too."
  • "Well, if he wants privacy for his devotions, that's his business. Maybe w_ould all do with a little prayer," Veltrin said.
  • "Probably praying to Sam Murchison by radio," Klem Zareff retorted. "I'd lik_o see inside those rooms of his."
  • He called Yves Jacquemont at Port Carpenter after dinner. When he tol_acquemont what he wanted and why, the engineer remarked that it was a pit_creens couldn't be fitted with olfactory sensors, so that he could smel_onn's breath.
  • "I am not drunk. I am not crazy. And I am not exercising my sense of humor. _on't know what Fawzi and his gang have here, but if it isn't Merlin it'_omething just as hot. We want at it, soonest, and we'll have to dig a coupl_f hundred feet of rock off it and open a collapsium can."
  • "How are we going to get that stuff on a ship?"
  • "Anything been done to that normal-space job we started since I saw it last?
  • Can you find engines for it? And is there anything about those mining machine_r the cutter that would be damaged by space-radiation or re-entry heat?"
  • Yves Jacquemont was silent for a good deal longer than the interplanetar_ime-lag warranted. Finally he nodded.
  • "I get it, Conn. We won't put the things in a ship; we'll build a ship aroun_hem. No; that stuff can all be hauled open to space. They use things lik_hat at space stations and on asteroids and all sorts of places. We'll have t_top work on  _Ouroboros_ , though."
  • "Let  _Ouroboros_  wait. We are going to dig up Merlin, and then everybody i_oing to be rich and happy, and live happily forever after."
  • Jacquemont looked at him, silent again for longer than the usual five and _alf minutes.
  • "You almost said that with a straight face." After all, Jacquemont hadn't bee_leared yet for the Awful Truth About Merlin, but, like his daughter, he'_een doing some guessing. "I wish I knew how much of this Merlin stuff yo_elieve."
  • "So do I, Yves. Maybe after we get this thing open, I'll know."
  • To give himself a margin of safety, Jacquemont had estimated the arrival o_he equipment at three weeks. A week later, he was on-screen to report tha_he skeleton ship—they had christened her  _The Thing_ , and when Conn sa_creen views of her he understood why—was finished and the collapsium-cutte_nd two big mining machines were aboard. Evidently nobody on Koshchei had don_ stroke of work on anything else.
  • "Sylvie's coming along with her; so are Jerry Rivas and Anse Dawes and Ha_atsui and Gomez and Karanja and four or five others. They'll be ready to g_o work as soon as she lands and unloads," Jacquemont added.
  • That was good; they were all his own people, unconnected with any of th_erlin-hunting factions at Force Command. In case trouble started, he coul_ely on them.
  • "Well, dig out some shootin'-irons for them," he advised. "They may need the_ere."
  • Depending, of course, on what they found when they opened that collapsium ca_n top of Force Command, and how the people there reacted to it.
  • _The Thing_  took a hundred and seventy hours to make the trip; conditions i_he small shielded living quarters and control cabin were apparently wors_han on the _Harriet Barne_  on her second trip to Koschchei. Everybody a_orce Command was anxious and excited. Carl Leibert kept to his quarters mos_f the time, as though he had to pray the ship across space.
  • At the same time, reports of the near completion of  _Ouroboros II_  wer_onopolizing the newscasts, to distract public attention from what wa_appening at Force Command. Cargo was being collected for her; instead o_ashing their feet in brandy, next year people would be drinking water.
  • Lorenzo Menardes had emptied his warehouses of everything over a year old; s_ad most of the other distillers up and down the Gordon Valley. Melon an_obacco planters were talking about breaking new ground and increasing thei_ultivated acreage for the next year. Agricultural machinery was in demand an_ringing high prices. So were stills, and tobacco-factory machinery. It bega_o look as though the Maxwell Plan was really getting started.
  • It was decided to send the hypership to Baldur on her first voyage; that wa_ade Lucas's suggestion. He was going with her himself, to recruit scientifi_nd technical graduates from his alma mater, the University of Paris-on- Baldur, and from the other schools there. Conn was enthusiastic about that, remembering the so-called engineers on Koshchei, running around with a monkey- wrench in one hand and a textbook in the other, trying to find out what the_ere supposed to do while they were doing it. Poictesme had been living fo_oo long on the leavings of wartime production; too few people had bothere_earning how to produce anything.
  • _The Thing_  finally settled onto the mesa-top. It looked like something fro_n old picture of the construction work on one of the Terran space-stations i_he First Century. Immediately, every piece of contragravity equipment in th_lace converged on her; men dangled on safety lines hundreds of feet above th_round, cutting away beams and braces with torches. The two giant minin_achines, one after the other, floated free on their own contragravity an_ettled into place.  _The Thing_  lifted, still carrying the collapsium- cutting equipment, and came to rest on the brush-grown flat beyond, out of th_ay.
  • If Yves Jacquemont had overestimated the time required to get the equipmen_oaded and lifted off from Koshchei, Conn had been overoptimistic about th_peed with which the top of the mesa could be stripped off. Digging away th_ubble with which the pit had been filled, and even the solid rock around it, was easier than getting the stuff out of the way. Farm-scows came in from al_ver, as fast as they and pilots for them could be found; the rush to ge_randy and tobacco to Storisende had caused an acute shortage of vehicles.
  • One by one, the members of the old Fawzi's Office gang came driftin_n—Lorenzo Menardes, Morgan Gatworth, Lester Dawes. None of them had an_kills to contribute, but they brought plenty of enthusiasm. Rodney Maxwel_ame whizzing out from Storisende now and then to watch the progress of th_ork. Of all the crowd, he and Conn watched the two steel giants strip awa_he tableland with apprehension instead of hope. No, there was a third. Car_eibert had stopped secluding himself in his quarters; he still talke_apturously about the miracles Merlin would work, but now and then Conn sa_im when he thought he was unobserved. His face was the face of a condemne_an.
  • The  _Ouroboros II_  was finished. The whole planet saw, by screen, the shi_ift out; watched from the ship the dwindling away of Koshchei and sa_oictesme grow ahead of her. Twelve hours before she landed, work at Forc_ommand stopped. Everybody was going to Storisende—Sylvie, whose father woul_ommand her on her voyage to Baldur, Morgan Gatworth, whose son would be firs_fficer and astrogator, everybody. Except Carl Leibert.
  • "Then I'm not going either," Klem Zareff decided. "Somebody's got to stay her_nd keep an eye on that snake."
  • "No, nor me," Tom Brangwyn said. "And if he starts praying again, I'm going t_o and pray along with him."
  • Conn stayed, too, and so did Jerry Rivas and Anse Dawes. They watched th_ewscast of the lift-out, a week later. It was peaceful and harmonious; everybody, regardless of their attitudes on Merlin, seemed agreed that thi_as the beginning of a new prosperity for the planet. There were speeches. Th_ands played "Genji Gartner's Body," and the "Spaceman's Hymn."
  • And, at the last, when the officers and crew were going aboard, Conn saw hi_ister Flora clinging to Wade Lucas's arm. She was one of the small party wh_ent aboard for a final farewell. When she came off, along with Sylvie, sh_as wiping her eyes, and Sylvie was comforting her. Seeing that made Conn fee_etter even than watching the ship itself lift away from Storisende.