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The Answer

The Answer
Category: Short stories
Title: The Answer
Release Date: 2006-05-08
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
Count views: 21
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Transcriber's notes.
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe Science Fiction, December, 1959. Extensiveresearch did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.
A number of typographical errors found in theoriginal text have been corrected in this version. A list of theseerrors is found at the end of this book.

The Answer

by

H. Beam Piper

 


For a moment, after the screen door snapped and wakened him, LeeRichardson sat breathless and motionless, his eyes still closed, tryingdesperately to cling to the dream and print it upon his conscious memorybefore it faded.

"Are you there, Lee?" he heard Alexis Pitov's voice.

"Yes, I'm here. What time is it?" he asked, and then added, "I fellasleep. I was dreaming."

It was all right; he was going to be able to remember. He could stillsee the slim woman with the graying blonde hair, playing with the littledachshund among the new-fallen leaves on the lawn. He was glad they'dboth been in this dream together; these dream-glimpses were all he'd hadfor the last fifteen years, and they were too precious to lose. Heopened his eyes. The Russian was sitting just outside the light from theopen door of the bungalow, lighting a cigarette. For a moment, he couldsee the blocky, high-cheeked face, now pouched and wrinkled, and thenthe flame went out and there was only the red coal glowing in thedarkness. He closed his eyes again, and the dream picture came back tohim, the woman catching the little dog and raising her head as though tospeak to him.

"Plenty of time, yet." Pitov was speaking German instead of Spanish, asthey always did between themselves. "They're still counting down fromminus three hours. I just phoned the launching site for a jeep.Eugenio's been there ever since dinner; they say he's running aroundlike a cat looking for a place to have her first litter of kittens."

He chuckled. This would be something new for Eugenio Galvez—for whichhe could be thankful.

"I hope the generators don't develop any last-second bugs," he said."We'll only be a mile and a half away, and that'll be too close to fiftykilos[Pg 6] of negamatter if the field collapses."

"It'll be all right," Pitov assured him. "The bugs have all been chasedout years ago."

"Not out of those generators in the rocket. They're new." He fumbled inhis coat pocket for his pipe and tobacco. "I never thought I'd runanother nuclear-bomb test, as long as I lived."

"Lee!" Pitov was shocked. "You mustn't call it that. It isn't that, atall. It's purely a scientific experiment."

"Wasn't that all any of them were? We made lots of experiments likethis, back before 1969." The memories of all those other tests, eachending in an Everest-high mushroom column, rose in his mind. And the endresult—the United States and the Soviet Union blasted to rubble, awhole hemisphere pushed back into the Dark Ages, a quarter of a billiondead. Including a slim woman with graying blonde hair, and a little reddog, and a girl from Odessa whom Alexis Pitov had been going to marry."Forgive me, Alexis. I just couldn't help remembering. I suppose it'sthis shot we're going to make, tonight. It's so much like the otherones, before—" He hesitated slightly. "Before the Auburn Bomb."

There; he'd come out and said it. In all the years they'd workedtogether at the Instituto Argentino de Ciencia Fisica, that had beenunmentioned between them. The families of hanged cutthroats avoidmention of ropes and knives. He thumbed the old-fashioned Americanlighter and held it to his pipe. Across the veranda, in the darkness, heknew that Pitov was looking intently at him.

"You've been thinking about that, lately, haven't you?" the Russianasked, and then, timidly: "Was that what you were dreaming of?"

"Oh, no, thank heaven!"

"I think about it, too, always. I suppose—" He seemed relieved, nowthat it had been brought out into the open and could be discussed. "Yousaw it fall, didn't you?"

"That's right. From about thirty miles away. A little closer than we'llbe to this shot, tonight. I was in charge of the investigation atAuburn, until we had New York and Washington and Detroit and Mobile andSan Francisco to worry about. Then what had happened to Auburn wasn'timportant, any more. We were trying to get evidence to lay before theUnited Nations. We kept at it for about twelve hours after the UnitedNations had ceased to exist."

"I could never understand about that, Lee. I don't know what the truthis; I probably never shall. But I know that my government did not launchthat missile. During the first days after yours began coming in, Italked to people who had been in the Kremlin at the time. One had beenin the presence of Klyzenko himself when the news of your bombardmentarrived. He said that Klyzenko was absolutely stunned. We alwaysbelieved that your government decided upon a preventive surprise attack,and picked out a town, Auburn, New York, that had been hit by one of ourfirst retaliation missiles, and claimed that it had been hit first."

He shook his head. "Auburn was hit an hour before the first Americanmissile was launched. I know that to be a fact. We could neverunderstand why you launched just that one, and no more until after oursbegan landing on you; why you threw away the advantage of surprise andpriority of attack—"

"Because we didn't do it, Lee!" The Russian's voice trembled withearnestness. "You believe me when I tell you that?"

"Yes, I believe you. After all that happened, and all that you, and I,and the people you worked with, and the people I worked with, and yourgovernment, and mine, have been guilty of, it would be a waste of breathfor either of us to try to lie to the other about what happened fifteenyears[Pg 7] ago." He drew slowly on his pipe. "But who launched it, then? Ithad to be launched by somebody."

"Don't you think I've been tormenting myself with that question for thelast fifteen years?" Pitov demanded. "You know, there were people insidethe Soviet Union—not many, and they kept themselves well hidden—whowere dedicated to the overthrow of the Soviet regime. They, or some ofthem, might have thought that the devastation of both our countries, andthe obliteration of civilization in the Northern Hemisphere, would be acheap price to pay for ending the rule of the Communist Party."

"Could they have built an ICBM with a thermonuclear warhead in secret?"he asked. "There were also fanatical nationalist groups in Europe, bothsides of the Iron Curtain, who might have thought our mutual destructionwould be worth the risks involved."

"There was China, and India. If your country and mine wiped each otherout, they could go back to the old ways and the old traditions. OrJapan, or the Moslem States. In the end, they all went down along withus, but what criminal ever expects to fall?"

"We have too many suspects, and the trail's too cold, Alexis. Thatrocket wouldn't have had to have been launched anywhere in the NorthernHemisphere. For instance, our friends here in the Argentine have beendoing very well by themselves since El Coloso del Norte went down."

And there were the Australians, picking themselves up bargains inreal-estate in the East Indies at gun-point, and there were the Boers,trekking north again, in tanks instead of ox-wagons. And Brazil, with anot-too-implausible pretender to the Braganza throne, calling itself thePortuguese Empire and looking eastward. And, to complete the picture,here were Professor Doctor Lee Richardson and Comrade Professor AlexisPetrovitch Pitov, getting ready to test a missile with amatter-annihilation warhead.

No. This thing just wasn't a weapon.

A jeep came around the corner, lighting the dark roadway between thebungalows, its radio on and counting down—Twenty two minutes. Twentyone fifty nine, fifty eight, fifty seven—It came to a stop in front oftheir bungalow, at exactly Minus Two Hours, Twenty One Minutes, FiftyFour Seconds. The driver called out in Spanish:

"Doctor Richardson; Doctor Pitov! Are you ready?"

"Yes, ready. We're coming."

They both got to their feet, Richardson pulling himself up reluctantly.The older you get, the harder it is to leave a comfortable chair. Hesettled himself beside his colleague and former enemy, and the jeepstarted again, rolling between the buildings of the living-quarters areaand out onto the long, straight road across the pampas toward thedistant blaze of electric lights.

He wondered why he had been thinking so much, lately, about the AuburnBomb. He'd questioned, at times, indignantly, of course, whether Russiahad launched it—but it wasn't until tonight, until he had heard whatPitov had had to say, that he seriously doubted it. Pitov wouldn't lieabout it, and Pitov would have been in a position to have known thetruth, if the missile had been launched from Russia. Then he stoppedthinking about what was water—or blood—a long time over the dam.

The special policeman at the entrance to the launching site remindedthem that they were both smoking; when they extinguished, respectively,their cigarette and pipe, he waved the jeep on and went back to hisargument with a carload of tourists who wanted to get a good view of thelaunching.

"There, now, Lee; do you need[Pg 8] anything else to convince you that thisisn't a weapon project?" Pitov asked.

"No, now that you mention it. I don't. You know, I don't believe I'vehad to show an identity card the whole time I've been here."

"I don't believe I have an identity card," Pitov said. "Think of that."

The lights blazed everywhere around them, but mostly about the rocketthat towered above everything else, so thick that it seemed squat. Thegantry-cranes had been hauled away, now, and it stood alone, but it wasstill wreathed in thick electric cables. They were pouring enoughcurrent into that thing to light half the street-lights in Buenos Aires;when the cables were blown free by separation charges at the blastoff,the generators powered by the rocket-engines had better be able to takeover, because if the magnetic field collapsed and that fifty-kilo chunkof negative-proton matter came in contact with natural positive-protonmatter, an old-fashioned H-bomb would be a firecracker to what wouldhappen. Just one hundred kilos of pure, two-hundred proof MC2.

The driver took them around the rocket, dodging assorted trucks andmobile machinery that were being hurried out of the way. The countdownwas just beyond two hours five minutes. The jeep stopped at the edge ofa crowd around three more trucks, and Doctor Eugenio Galvez, thedirector of the Institute, left the crowd and approached at an awkwardhalf-run as they got down.

"Is everything checked, gentlemen?" he wanted to know.

"It was this afternoon at 1730," Pitov told him. "And nobody's beenburning my telephone to report anything different. Are the balloons andthe drone planes ready?"

"The Air Force just finished checking; they're ready. Captain Urquiolaflew one of the planes over the course and made a guidance-tape; that'sbeen duplicated and all the planes are equipped with copies."

"How's the wind?" Richardson asked.

"Still steady. We won't have any trouble about fallout or with theballoons."

"Then we'd better go back to the bunker and make sure everybody there ison the job."

The loudspeaker was counting down to Two Hours One Minute.

"Could you spare a few minutes to talk to the press?" Eugenio Galvezasked. "And perhaps say a few words for telecast? This last is mostimportant; we can't explain too many times the purpose of thisexperiment. There is still much hostility, arising from fear that we aretesting a nuclear weapon."

The press and telecast services were well represented; there were closeto a hundred correspondents, from all over South America, from SouthAfrica and Australia, even one from Ceylon. They had three trucks, withmobile telecast pickups, and when they saw who was approaching, theyreleased the two rocketry experts they had been quizzing and pounced onthe new victims.

Was there any possibility that negative-proton matter might be used as aweapon?

"Anything can be used as a weapon; you could stab a man to death withthat lead pencil you're using," Pitov replied. "But I doubt ifnegamatter will ever be so used. We're certainly not working on weaponsdesign here. We started, six years ago, with the ability to producenegative protons, reverse-spin neutrons, and positrons, and thetheoretical possibility of assembling them into negamatter. We have justgotten a fifty kilogramme mass of nega-iron assembled. In those sixyears, we had to invent all our techniques, and design all ourequipment. If we'd

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