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Authors: Charles Sheffield

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Hidden Variables

BOOK: Hidden Variables
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Hidden Variables

Charles Sheffield

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1981 by Charles Sheffield
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
eISBN: 978-1-61824-060-6

"The Man Who Stole the Moon" copyright © 1980 by Charles Sheffield; first appeared in
Vol. 2, No. 3.

"The Deimos Plague" copyright © 1978 by Random House, Inc.; first appeared in STELLAR #4, Del Rey Books.

"Forefather Figure" copyright © 1981 by Charles Sheffield; first appeared in A SPADEFUL OF SPACETIME, edited by Fred Saberhagen, Ace Books.

"Moment of Inertia" copyright © 1980 by Davis Publications, Inc.; first published in

"The New Physics" copyright © 1980 by Davis Publications, Inc.; first appeared in

"From Natural Causes" copyright © 1978 by Ultimate Publications, Inc.; first appeared in
Amazing Stories.

"Legacy" copyright © 1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation; first appeared in

"The Softest Hammer" copyright © 1981 by Mercury Press, Inc.; first appeared in
Fantasy & Science Fiction.

"Hidden Variable" copyright © 1980 by Charles Sheffield; first appeared in
Vol. 2, No. 4.

"A Certain Place in History" copyright © 1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation; first appeared in

"All the Colors of the Vacuum" copyright © 1981 by Davis Publications, Inc.; first appeared in

"Perfectly Safe, Nothing to Worry About" copyright © 1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation; first appeared in

"Summertide" copyright © 1981 by Charles Sheffield; first appeared in
Vol. 3, #2.

"The Marriage of True Minds" copyright © 1980 by Mercury Press, Inc.; first appeared in
Fantasy & Science Fiction.

For Ann, Bowler, Deb, Simon, and Jo.


"Most readers come to see the show, not to watch the stage manager take bows in front of the footlights."

—Stephen King,
Night Shift.

I'll keep this short.

Story collections present two dangers to the buyer. They may be a re-packaging of old material under new titles, so nearly all the stories can be found in other collections. Or they may contain good stories padded out with unpublishables, dead dogs that no editor would buy. It's easy to find examples of both these ways of cheating the reader.

I can't tell you how good the stories are in this collection—for that you have to read them. But I can guarantee that none of them appeared in the earlier collection, VECTORS, and all of them were bought by respected editors. Maybe I should also add that of the 356 pages in this book, 281 were either unpublished or committed when VECTORS came out, so this is not the sweepings left over from a first collection.

One thing is common to VECTORS. I still believe that a bad story cannot be improved by a self-serving or explanatory introduction to it. I will instead provide brief afterwords that aim to provide perspective on how or why the story came out the way it did. But the story's the thing, the whole thing.

—CHARLES SHEFFIELD, October 8th, 1980


The line was quite short but it was moving very slowly. By the time they reached the service desk, three hours had passed since they entered the License Office.

"Application number?" The woman behind the desk did not look up at the two young men. She was in her mid-twenties, sloppily made-up and about forty pounds overweight. Her smeared make-up was a perfect match for the cluttered desk top and the battered metal filing cabinets behind her.

"I'm Len Martello." The taller and thinner man was looking about him impatiently. "And this is Garry Scanlon. We've got an Evaluation petition in here, and we wonder what's happened to it."

"Yeah?" The woman looked up at them for the first time. There was no flicker in interest in her eyes as she slowly scanned from one to the other. "I need yer Application number. Can't do nothin' without that. D'ya have it?"

"Here's what we have. But it's not an Application number." Martello handed a slip of paper across the desk. He was thin, dark-haired and nervous, with sharp features and a pale, bony face. An old wound on his upper lip had healed to give him a twisted mouth and a skeptical, sardonic look. "We never received an Application number from you. All that came back to us was this, with a file code and an Evaluation petition acknowledgement. Look here." He leaned forward, trying to communicate his own urgency to the woman behind the desk. "We filed for the evaluation of our propellant
four months
ago, and we've had no answers at all. Not a word from here. What's the delay?"

She stared at the yellow slip for a few seconds, rubbing one hand against her pimply cheek. At last she shook her head and handed it back. "You got the wrong office. You shoulda gone to Room Four-forty-nine. You'll hafta go over there."

"But dammit, we asked downstairs, and they
us to come here." Martello had crumpled the yellow slip and stood there, fists clenched. "We asked the guard, and he was quite definite about it."

The woman shrugged. "He tol' ya wrong, then. Ya know, we only do applications in here. We
to do 'em, evaluations, but not now. I mean, not since I've been here. You'll hafta go to Room Four-forty-nine, nex' floor up."

Her look turned to the clock on the office wall. She began to pull tissues from a box on the desk and transfer them to her shoulder bag.

"Look, we made six phone calls from outside, before we came over here." Martello's voice was furious. "Nobody seemed to be able to tell us where to go or what to do or
We've taken all day just to get this far."

"Yeah. But you shoulda gone to Four-forty-nine." The woman stood up, showing a thick bulge of fat over her tight skirt. "They do evaluations, we only do the applications. Anyway, I can't stay an' talk now. You know, I gotta car pool."

Garry Scanlon put a restraining hand on Len Martello's arm and stepped forward. He was fair-haired, pink cheeked, and slightly pudgy. "Thank you, ma'am. "He smiled at her. "I was wondering, could you maybe call up there and tell them we're on the way? We'd like to see them, and we shouldn't have to wait in line all over again."

"Sorry." Her eye turned again to the clock. "You'll hafta start over anyway. I mean, they close same time we do, in another coupla minutes. They won't see you today. I can't change that, ya know."

"You mean we'll have to begin the whole thing again tomorrow?"

"Guess so, yeah. Offices here open at eight-thirty." She picked up her bag and shepherded them in front of her, out into the corridor, then looked at them uncertainly. "Well, have a nice day," she said automatically, and was off, wobbling away on her high heels.

Garry Scanlon slumped back against the corridor wall and took a deep breath. "Christ, Len, there's another whole day wasted."

"Yeah." Martello was paler than ever, with anger and frustration. "God, no wonder we couldn't get any sense out of these turkeys over the phone. If they're all like her, I don't see how Government evaluations ever get done at all."

"So what do we do now?"

Martello shrugged. "What the hell
we do? We'll have to come back. We're trapped, Garry. It's going to be the same old crap. If we don't get an approval, we'll never get an industrial group to look at us. And we've agreed that we'll never get the bench tests done without outside financing."

He shook his dark head. "I hope the propellant's as good as we think it is. Another night in this crazy place, and I thought we'd be on our way back to Dayton by now. Come on, let's see if we can check in at the Y again."

He started to walk away, head bowed, along the dingy corridor. After a final, helpless look at the empty office, Garry Scanlon followed him.

* * *

"Yes, yes, it's here all right. Martello and Scanlon, right, Evaluation Request 41468/7/80. Now, if you'll wait a minute I'll run a computer search and see where it's got to."

The speaker was small and white-haired. He wore a flowered red vest, opened to show old-fashioned suspenders and a well-pressed white shirt. A carved wooden sign on the desk in front of him read: "Henry B. Delso—the Last One Left." He hummed softly to himself as he carefully entered the data request, pecking away at the keyboard with two gnarled fingers. When it was done he swivelld the display screen around so that they could all see it.

"Be just a few seconds, while it does the search. Rocket propellant, you said?"

"That's right." Len Martello swallowed. "A good one."

"Don't get many of those any more." Delso shook his head. "Well, here she comes."

The characters that filled the display screen were unintelligible to Len and Garry. They watched Delso, trying to read his expression.

"What's it say?" asked Garry.

"Not much." Delso shook his head again, and looked at his watch. "I'll get a hard copy output of this for you, and tell you how to read it. But I don't think it'll do much for you."

He leaned forward in his wooden, high-backed chair. "Look, how long have you boys been working on this?"

"Here in Washington? Just three days." Garry's pink face was earnest. "But we filed the forms over four months ago."

Delso nodded. "First application, right?"

"Yes. Did we file it the wrong way?"

"Nope. You did it right, evaluation request's on the right form, everything's in order there." He looked again at his watch. "I'm done for the day, just about. Gimme a hand here and I'll boil up a cup of tea for all of us—better for your gut than the stuff in that coffee urn—and I'll tell you what the problem is. Can't tell you the solution, wish I could. You'll have to figure something out for yourselves. Good luck on that."

He carried a battered shiny kettle into the back room, filled it, and came back. "Go bring the teapot and milk through here, would you? And get cups and a spoon while you're there." He plugged the electric kettle into an outlet on the wall behind him. "There we go. Three minutes, and it'll be boiling."

He leaned back. "So, you've got a new propellant? I'll believe you, even believe it might be a good one. But do you know what happens when you file your evaluation form with the Government here?"

Garry and Len looked at each other in bewilderment. Len shrugged. "I guess somebody here takes a look at it. And decides if it's dangerous for us to test it. If it's not, we get a permit from you and we go ahead and do the bench tests."

"Just so." Henry Delso was carefully measuring four spoons of tea into the big brown pot. "Sounds very fair and logical, eh? And you know, it used to be. I've been around this office for thirty-five years—as long as we've had the evaluation procedure. When I first started here, I read
the applications—we didn't distinguish in those days between applications and evaluations, that only came in fifteen years ago. I'd take each application, and I'd study it for a day, maybe two days. For something like a propellant I'd dig out the relevant patents, and the engineering handbook. Maybe do a few calculations, see if things seemed to be in the right ball-park. And you'd get an answer, yes or no. It took a week, sometimes two weeks, from start to finish."

"But we've waited over four months," said Len.

"Right." A rueful smile. "That's progress, yer see?"

Delso looked around his office, at the ranks of file cabinets, the computer terminal, and the elaborate multi-channel telephone. "I had none of this in the old days. Look at what we have to do now. Rocket propellant, see, first thing I have to do is look up the Industrial Codes. I can do it in that book"—he pointed at a three-inch thick volume with a bright red cover—"or I can check through the terminal there. That tells me which Government departments must be involved in the evaluation procedure, where they are, and so on."

"Hell, if we'd known that we could have contacted them before we sent in the forms," said Len. "We could have saved you a lot of time here."

"Not the approved method." Henry Delso poured tea into three chipped cups and pushed the tray forward. "Help yourselves to milk and sugar."

He picked up a cup. "I can tell you the complete list if you want it, but it wouldn't help you. The law says that they have to be contacted from here, whether you talk to them or not. Let's look at just a few of them. Environmental Protection Agency, naturally—you have to get their approval, because you'll be releasing some substances into the air. It might affect the environment when you do the bench tests. Center for Air Quality, same thing applies to them. Food and Drug Administration"— he looked at them over the top of his thick glasses—"didn't think of them, did you? You'll be working with new compounds, they'll want samples to test for the effects on humans, plants, and animals. Might be harmful effects there. Then there's Defense, they have to be involved on anything that might have defense implications. Then, let's see, Office of Safety are on the list—with a new material test, they have to be sure there'll be no danger to workers who'll be involved."

BOOK: Hidden Variables
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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