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The Venture

It was dusk when Hasenpfeffer shook me awake.

"Hey, Tom. Are you all right?"

"Huh? Yeah. I guess so."

"I just wanted to tell you that actually, we were able to salvage very little. Only the money, some wrecked circuits—that you may or may not be able to do something with—and this. It was the only piece of legible paper that I was able to save. Do you have any idea of what it is?"

I was feeling sort of woozy.

"Uh, sure. It's a circuit schematic."

"I deduced that. But does it mean anything to you?"

"Well, it's strange. He's got digital, analog and R-F components in the same circuit. Maybe I can figure it out. Later. Look, I don't feel so good."

"You don't look so good, either. I have already sent Ian for an ambulance. He said to tell you that alcohol is not a pain killer. It's a pain delayer and relocator."

"Uh, if Ian was all hung over, why didn't you go yourself?"

"Because I don't feel so good either."

Then for a while there my memory gets sort of spotty. It was a lot like when you're on a good drunk only without any of the fun involved.

Medical types were always waking me up to do something to me. Hauling me into an ambulance, out of an ambulance, into bed, out of bed. Asking weird questions I couldn't quite follow. Waking me up to get some more shots. Waking me up again to take my sleeping pills. I tell you that medics have less respect for your personal individuality than the average Air Force sergeant.

Eventually, the fog cleared some and Hasenpfeffer was leaning over me.

"Radiation sickness and some sort of chemical poisoning," Hasenpfeffer said. "You are going to be all right, but you came about as close to being dead as you could get."

"So, why didn't you get it, too?" I said.

"I did. But you spent much more time in the rubble than I. Ian was the least affected, due to his distance from the event and all that Jim Beam you poured into him. It seems that alcohol reduces the effects of radiation on the system."

"He poured it into himself. Look, where is Ian?"

"In his room. He still has difficulty getting around."

"Hey, I thought that you said he was okay."

"From the radiation," Hasenpfeffer said. "But that sand in his foot blocked off the blood supply to his toes. Gangrene. He lost half his right foot."

"Christ. We should have gotten him to the hospital sooner."

"Perhaps. But the doctors said that it wouldn't have helped any. There is no technique for pulling sand out of someone's foot when it didn't make a hole getting in there in the first place. No prior medical art."

"Shit. Uh, what about the money?"

"When it became obvious that we were having medical difficulties, I locked the money and the rest of our salvage into those detachable saddlebags of mine and hid them a few kilometers from the site. This was fortunate, because by morning the medical types had reported the radiation sickness and the place was crawling with government types."

"And the money?" I asked.

"Safe and sound. I picked it up this morning."

"Hey, great! What about the guy who got sliced up?"

"Woman. Her name was Barbara Elaine Kruger. Nobody seems to know anything about her, except that she was maybe sixty, and her neighbors didn't like her. She had no relatives that anybody knows about," Hasenpfeffer said.

"Weird. Just her up there puttering all alone?"

"That's what it looks like. But now you are in for a grilling by the AEC, the FBI and Air Force Intelligence."

"Uh, that last is a contradiction in terms."

"Hush. Your story is that we heard an explosion and went to investigate. When we got there, we all fell asleep. You woke up once or twice and saw a number of flying saucers cruising in formation. Then you went to sleep again and woke up in the hospital."

"Hey, why not just . . ."

"Tell the truth? If we did that, we would loose a quarter of a million dollars, and possibly a good deal more," Hasenpfeffer said.

"Uh, okay. Why the flying saucers?"

"Because mentioning them is the best way to get things hushed up."

So for the next three weeks, until I got out of the hospital, I was grilled about twice a day by different people wearing white shirts and narrow ties. I just played dumb. Four years as a SAC Trained Killer made me a past master at the game of pretending that you're stupider than your boss, even though you've got seventy IQ points on him. Since most of the government bozos grilling me were even dumber than your average sergeant, none of them caught me at it.

Ian had more problems, since his training in college and at GM was all about how to look smart even when you don't have the slightest idea of what's going on. I wish I could have given him some pointers, but the rooms were generally bugged.

The hubbub about the radioactive explosion site died out surprisingly fast, without a single word of it getting into the papers.

Hasenpfeffer was released from the hospital in a few days, but another month went by before Ian and I were mobile.

Ian's company-paid Blue Cross-Blue Shield covered all his bills, and Hasenpfeffer somehow talked the Air Force into picking up my hospital tab. At least I had to sign a paper saying that it wasn't the fault of the U.S. Air Force, but they were treating me for radiation poisoning purely out of the goodness of their hearts and I wasn't allowed to sue the shit out of them for it later.

Hasenpfeffer didn't have to pay for his own bills, either, though I'm not quite sure how he worked that. Maybe he got one of the girls in billing to pad his bill into mine or Ian's. He was good at that sort of thing.

Because of the repeated interrogations we'd been through, with a strange assortment of unmannerly government types asking us nonsensical questions that varied from the stupid to the rude, we had been afraid to talk freely with each other in the hospital. Once I actually found a tape recorder in my room, and Ian was acting downright paranoid.

Finally, the ordeal over, we celebrated in a private dining room at the best restaurant Hasenpfeffer could find. He picked the place while we were in the taxicab on the way there, so we figured that they couldn't possibly have the place bugged.

"Gentlemen, I feel that a serious discussion is in order," Hasenpfeffer said as we sat back, stuffed with high calorie, greasy, salty, and glorious food after weeks of that disgustingly healthy hospital pap.

"Well, I don't feel like anything should be in order, except maybe another glass of this Grand Mariner stuff." I puffed on a two-dollar cigar. "Then, let's play vegetable for three hours, followed by having another pretty waitress bring us four more bottles of wine, another round of caviar, three more steaks, some more Cherry Jubilees, and then some more cigars and . . ."

"Tom, you sound like a first century Roman glutton," Ian said. "I'm due back at the plant in a few days. If I go back."

"Then again, I don't feel much like arguing, either."

"Excellent. To sum up, we find ourselves in a unique position. We are suddenly the proprietors of both some radical technology and the capital with which to develop it."

"IF it's ours, Jim," Ian said. "They both really belong to that Kruger woman."

"Who is irretrievably dead, with no apparent heirs or relatives. I'm sure that she would have wanted someone to carry on her work. Now, the question is, what do we do with our windfall?"

"Hey, you might call it a windfall, but for Ian and me it was pretty damned expensive. He lost half his foot, and my radiation poisoning cost me every hair on my body. I'll be on chemotherapy for a year, and— "

"Gentlemen, in our ignorance we have sustained accidents and injuries, but nothing devastating. When you consider that Ian couldn't dance before his accident, and the fact that you weren't beautiful with your hair, you must conclude that your collective losses aren't that severe."

"Yeah, but I still think you ought to pitch in your part. Like maybe your left testicle. What say, Ian?"

"I think it's time that you cut your Polish blarney. Nobody made me stick my foot into that hole, and none of us knew about the radiation. If it hadn't been for Jim's quick thinking, we probably wouldn't have either the money or those bits of circuits. The only fair way to handle this is as an even three-way partnership."

"An excellent suggestion. I second it." Hasenpfeffer smiled.

"Oh, what the hell. I'll third it."

"We are agreed, then. The next obvious question is, 'Besides the money, what exactly do we have?' Tom, you've had time to look over that circuit. Could you duplicate it?"

"Sure. No sweat. It's all standard parts, so I could probably get it together in a week or so. But I couldn't tell you why it did whatever it did. And I'd want to be about four miles away when we turned it on."

"You feel that we could produce something useful in a relatively short time?"

"Well, that depends on what you mean by useful. Lookit, a few ounces of electronics stuff did about as much damage as a two-thousand-pound bomb. The Air Farce would call that damn useful."

"You are suggesting that we develop the military aspects of this?"

"Hell, no! If uncle found out about this thing, we'd be under tight security for the rest of our lives. Look, do you know what it's like working in a government top-secret area? Showing your badge to armed guards six times a day? Filling out forms in triplicate to get a resistor? Having a TV camera in the john watching you crap?" I shivered.

"More important," Ian said. "If we develop the military side of this before we have the civilian uses on the market, we might never be allowed to develop the industrial products at all."

"Then you see commercial uses in this?"

"Dozens of them, so many that I feel like a phlogiston chemist who just got a good look at the Periodic Table of Elements. Think about mining. Put one of those circuits against the side of a cliff. Turn it on, and before the chips come back, get a conveyor belt in there to haul them out. Then put another circuit against the far wall and repeat the process. I tell you that we could tunnel at a cost of a few dollars a foot, where the competition would have to charge thousands!"

"I see. And the difference between those two figures is called profit?"

"Sure. You think I'm a 1930s style socialist? But more important, think about what we could do with cheap tunnels. A lot of mountain ranges—the Rockies and the Andes—are too wet on one side and too dry on the other. Think about big tunnels to carry irrigation water to the deserts. Or, think about an underground highway system. No snow on the roads to cause accidents. No rain to wash out bridges. No bridges at all, for that matter. No fog or other problems with visibility. No dogs or other animals to hit. No children to worry about. Without all the obstructions, it would be easy to automate, so bad drivers wouldn't be a problem, either! I tell you it would save billions of dollars and fifty thousand lives a year!"

"So you are suggesting that we become involved with the construction industry?"

"Sure. But it's even more than that. Do you realize that half of the lumber that's harvested is turned into sawdust and scrap? You saw what the circuit did to the wood in that house. Smooth polished surfaces on both sides of the cut, with absolutely no waste. That translates out to less expensive wood and fewer trees cut."

"Hey, aren't some of those sawmills powered by burning sawdust?" I asked.

"Let 'em buy coal. We can tunnel it out cheap. Or better still—well, maybe I don't believe this one myself, but think of a piston engine with one of these gadgets where the spark plug used to be. If we could somehow work it so that the circuit didn't destroy itself, and could make the air in the cylinder go away without hurting the engine, atmospheric pressure would naturally force the piston into the cylinder, and if we can make the air come back at the right time, we push the piston back out. It sounds like nearly free power. I mean, the circuit was powered by a transistor radio battery, and when you do the math about how much stuff was removed . . ."

"Uh, huh. What about the Second Law of Thermodynamics?" I said.

"That's what bugs me about the idea. . . . Anyway, back to cutting techniques. Do we have to make chips that are spheric segments, or can we shape this field, or whatever it is, into other contours? Do you know what we have to do to make an automotive quarter panel? You take an ingot of steel and run it through ten million dollars worth of rolling mills to turn it into sheet metal. Then you take the sheet metal and run it through typically six dies worth a half million each. Dies you have to throw away to make next year's model. Maybe with a properly shaped field, we could cut parts directly off the original ingot. Then all we'd have to do is weld 'em together."

"Hey, maybe not even that," I said. "You saw that stick I put through the stone?"

"Hey, yeah! Look, we clamp our support brackets right where the fender is going to reemerge. Then—"


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