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.