Vectors, p.1

Vectors, page 1



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  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 © 1979 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: 978-1-61824-064-4

  "What Song the Sirens Sang" copyright ©1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation.

  "Fixed Price War" copyright ©1978 by Conde Nast Publications Inc.

  "Marconi, Mattin, Maxwell" copyright ©1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation.

  "Power Failure" copyright © 1978 by Ultimate Publishing Co.

  "Killing Vector" copyright © 1978 by Charles Sheffield.

  "Dinsdale Dissents" copyright © 1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation.

  "We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident" copyright©1977 by Ultimate Publishing Co.

  "Skystalk" copyright © 1979 by Charter Communications Inc.

  "How to Build a Beanstalk" copyright © 1979 by Charter Communications Inc.

  "Transition Team" copyright © 1978 by Charter Communications Inc.

  "Bounded in a Nutshell" copyright © 1978 by Conde Nast Publications Inc.

  "The Long Chance" copyright ©1977 by UPD Publishing Corporation.

  "The Treasure of Odirex" copyright ©1978 by Ultimate Publishing Co.

  "The Dalmatian of Faust" copyright ©1978 by UPD Publishing Corporation.

  All stories reprinted by arrangement with the author.

  For Ann and Kit:

  iudices crudeles.


  "If she be not so to me,

  What care I how fair she be?"

  The words on the cover have promised great things, enough to persuade you to go this far and look inside. Now you need a reason to take the next step and buy the book.

  The most common way of luring you on to the next step is an introduction—written by somebody well-known, ten pages long, full of superlatives and promising you the treat of a lifetime.

  I think that approach is a sham. I've found out from my own experience that such an introduction is often the only readable part of the book, and the bigger the build-up, the worse the let-down. A story, or a set of stories, is like a blind date. Reading is romance, and no matter how much I tell you how wonderful it will be, those words don't mean a thing until you've proved it for yourself by direct experience.

  No inflated introduction, then. Real stories don't need one, and bad stories (which to me mean dull stories) can't be saved by one.

  I can offer only one alternative. Read the stories and form your own view of them. After that, I'll tell you what I was trying to do, what that blind date meant to me. You can judge if I succeeded or failed.

  Here's to a fine romance.


  June 18th 1979.


  My death won't bring out the banner headlines. That's fine with me. I suppose by rights I should be up there with Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Leon Monde and What's-his-name Bremer. I'll settle for being the one that got away. Saved civilization, too—as I see civilization—but that won't last too long. Just until I'm gone.

  Do not go gentle into that good night. I hear you, Dylan, and I'll keep up the struggle. But I've ridden ten thousand days and nights from James Webster's death, I'm old and tired, and no man lives forever. It's the right time for this.

  Why am I recording here? Maybe I can't bear to see a piece of history going wrong into the record books. And maybe I want to warn my spiritual heirs to be ready when it happens again.

  I came to cover the Webster campaign in '80 by accident. Got in late, when Jim Dotter had his first stroke. It's been a short twenty years since Jim went. I still remember the shock of the news, the rush to get ready and out of the office and onto the plane. It sounds like boasting when I say that I was overkill for that local primary but I'm past the age for modesty—and I don't expect I'll have to defend this to anybody.

  There was no time for a briefing from the Channel before I was on my way, but after thirty years I could manage well without it. During the flight I read releases of Webster's speeches and looked at the local coverage reports of his meetings. The combination didn't make much sense. Trite words, banal sentiments—and a tremendous response from the crowds. Something was out of tune. Thin gruel in the speeches, rich reactions from the audiences.

  I picked up the campaign trail in Atlanta. Peach blossom time, with the heat cracking eighty the afternoon I flew in. You could see the Southern beauties opening in the sun like buds. Riding in from the airport I could feel a pressure in the air like the undercurrent of a thunderstorm. Electricity, building up and raising the hair on the back of my neck—and all on a cloudless March afternoon. I'd felt it only twice before, and never as strongly. People fever. Alamogordo, on the day of the first test of the first bomb. And Washington, D.C. the afternoon of Nixon's resignation. Something was taking hold of Atlanta and winding it up like the spring on an old-fashioned watch.

  There's not a gift the world can give like that it takes away. I won't argue the point, but seniority has its advantages. The younger men were eager to tell me what had happened before I had arrived. A movement for Webster, building to great peaks every night at his open-air rallies. Orgasms of emotional response that left the audiences drained but uplifted. That, from experienced newsmen. Whatever it was that the vintners buy, James Webster was selling it in Atlanta.

  As you may know from my writing, human interest isn't my main line. For political analysis, I need facts. Over bourbon and branch I got a fair sprinkling of them from a young local reporter. Webster had sprung up from nowhere, overnight. No previous track record in politics, no big backers pushing him along as a puppet—but somehow he had persuaded the local power groups that he could take this primary.

  Support staff? Almost none. Lighting up a big cigar (building an image—how well I remembered it. Thirty years earlier I was struggling to keep a pipe alight) the youngster went on. Webster made all the plans for his meetings himself, wrote his own speeches to the last comma, set the exact timing for everything. Brief press conferences, and no remarks off the record.

  "Ever try for an interview with him?" I asked.

  "Oh, sure. No good though—a few words with him on the telephone were as far as I got," he said. Not too surprising—a local and an unknown began with a couple of strikes against him.

  How about family and friends? A bit more meat there. From a rich family near Athens, Georgia, but James Webster was almost the end of the line. One great aunt still living up north of Athens on the family estate. Easy enough to get to see her, but hard to understand what she said when you did. Yes, he'd done that, was sure I could do it too.

  I brightened a bit. Old ladies are one of my strong points. Either I just like them, or they relish my polite approach. Miss Amelia Webster would be on my visiting list.

  Before we could get to Webster's early life it was time to cover the evening rally. My young friend put out his cigar with considerable relief, and we left.

  Outside, there was still that feeling of excitement in the air. The swarms of people converging on the great field where Webster held his rallies were chattering to each other as though a real treat was in store for them. At a political rally? There may be duller events in the world, and the political pros do get a big kick from them—but they are caviar to the general public.

  I took up my position in the crowd, about a third of the way back from the stage. Like the psychologist a
t the burlesque show, I got part of my moneysworth looking at the reactions of the audience.

  It began at eight, with no introductory speakers or warm-ups. First, a low pleasant music from the big speakers hung around the field. Familiar, vaguely so, but I couldn't place it. At eight-five, Webster came onto the floodlit stage with its black curtains and white canopy. I began to make notes.

  Short, tendency to pudginess, receding dark hair, a pleasant plump face. No sign of the great vitality or exceptional good looks that the charismatic (dreadful word) leaders so often enjoy. He stepped forward to the battery of microphones and began to speak. To my surprise the soft music continued, blending with his words.

  Like most reporters, I have a very good memory for words. We need it. It's partly training, partly natural talent. I've taught myself to supplement memory, as a matter of course, with notes made on the fly during speeches. With their aid I can get an almost verbatim reconstruction.

  After Webster's speech I realized that I had encountered a unique phenomenon. For the first time in twenty years, I had forgotten to take any notes.

  Forgotten? That's the wrong word. My notes of his speech read—in total—"slightly nasal voice. Odd variations in pitch and intonation." That's it, the whole thing. I had stopped writing because listening had become so important, I didn't want to risk missing a word.

  Webster was amazing. When he talked about the past, I felt as though I could see and hear the fathers of the country, working to create and protect my heritage. When he spoke of the future, I felt my duties, my responsibility, my part in building a brave new world for our children. I felt these, physically, like a fever in my blood. As Webster directed I laughed, I dreamed, I raged, I cried, I planned. At last he ceased and raised his arms above his head. After a long hushed pause the first tentative applause built rapidly and became thunderous and prolonged.

  Back in my hotel room at midnight I tried to draft an article to send north. It wouldn't come. How do you put on paper the most stirring event of your life? After a while I stopped trying and leaned back in my chair. A new but very old thought was tugging at the edge of my attention. I'm just old enough to remember the newsreels of the goose-stepping figures and the crashing shouts of'Sieg Heil.' There is something very frightening about a crowd with a single mind—a mob, that's still the best word for it. If James Webster had told us to go and pull down City Hall, what would we have done? I could guess.

  I didn't sleep well.

  * * *

  Next morning I called Webster's campaign office and asked for an interview. After a surprisingly short run-around from a secretary, he came on the telephone himself. Was I the Bill Forrest of T.V. and newspaper fame? Yes, I was. (Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. I never failed to get a thrill from being recognized, even by crooks and villains.) Again, the seniority was paying off. Webster would be very happy to see me at his office at two o'clock.

  Close-up, I confirmed last night's impression. Physically unimpressive, with a distant look in his eyes. I began the interview conventionally and asked about the election.

  If you had asked me about Webster's voice after last night's speech I would have ignored my first scribbled note and told you that it was compelling and persuasive. Today it was nothing. Monotonic, soft. He wouldn't look me in the eye. Yes, this was his first campaign. No, he would refuse a television interview now, he was not quite—hesitation—prepared for it. Perhaps in a month or so. Certainly, he was completely confident of a win here. Future plans? Wait and see, but this was only a beginning.

  After three quarters of an hour I gave up and left. James Webster was sharp and confident all right but he came across to me as a cold fish, a man you wouldn't trust with a dime or your daughter. I knew I couldn't send back an interview that said that, without rhyme or reason, I disliked and distrusted the man. But I did, strongly.

  What had happened to the man who had spoken last night? No sign of him today. One phrase came back again. Not prepared for a television interview yet. Why had he agreed to an interview with me? Well, I could guess at that. Even a villain—and that's how I was thinking of Webster now, with no evidence to support me—likes to go on ego-building trips.

  I'd picked up a few useful things during the interview. First and foremost, James Webster thought that James Webster was wonderful. I've sensed that from many—from most—politicians, but here it came across as a contempt for anything that was not James Webster. Long-time politicians may feel that way, some of them, but they hide it a whole lot better. Second, the campaign really was one hundred percent his own. No one else was more than a minor hanger-on, dispensed with if and when Webster chose to do it.

  I had a day of useless churning and frustration, until I finally rented a car and drove north for Athens, and Miss Amelia Webster. According to James Webster she was his only surviving relative. I wanted to check his version of his early career with her recollections. According to him it had been brilliance too much for his teachers to understand, until he had become impatient with them and left the stupid school system forever.

  I moved to another universe. At eighty-five, the present must seem rather like a dream world. The real world, the world that matters, is mostly the past. Amelia Webster was sitting outside on a stone patio, looking out over a landscaped formal garden from a brightly colored reclining chair. I was led to her through the house and left to stand a few minutes inside while her companion went to her and told her about my arrival.

  The fading photographs on the side tables showed a woman in her twenties and thirties, black-haired and vivacious. No photographs after that. Amelia Webster, wisely, had frozen her recorded image at thirty-five.

  The bone structure and the alert dark eyes were still there, but everything else had changed beyond recognition. Thomas Hardy said it exactly. 'They must forget, forget! They cannot know what once they were, or memory would transfigure them and show them always fair.'

  On that warm patio, sustained by endless cups of China tea from pale blue cups, we drifted for three hours, back and forth over eighty years. I didn't hurry. Now and again we circled back to 'young James,' then away again to the Christmas Ball through the deep snow, the beloved killed in the Great War, to the first automobile ride. By five o'clock I knew the real Amelia Webster, passionate and sparkling, hidden inside the accidental husk of old age. And I had built a clear and disturbing picture of James Webster.

  'Bad blood.' That was the ominous key phrase that Amelia had used. The other words? Glacially intelligent. Selfish. Vain. Those are mine, not Amelia's, but her longer descriptions added to produce the unpleasant summary. After high school James Webster had attended college for two years, then quit suddenly and returned to the family estate. There was a faint impression of something about his departure that would not be mentioned to anyone outside the family. I checked it later at the college and found well-disguised traces of a tragedy involving the death of a mentally retarded girl.

  All this confirmed my own instinctive reaction. The central discovery from my meeting with Amelia was more tangible. James Webster maintained a study and complete recording studio in one wing of the house. For the past year, he had spent all his time there until he began his campaign.

  That night I drove back to Atlanta and again attended Webster's rally. This time, I was determined to remain aloof and analyze his speech in objective terms. Can you believe me when I tell you I failed totally? The setting was just as before, the simple outdoor meeting place, the soft music before he appeared. I made my notes about the audience, the lighting and the expectant tension in the air. Then Webster began to speak and I was gone again.

  I returned to my senses and control of my own body more than an hour later. I had been carried to great heights, shown the beauties of the world, dipped far into the future, offered happiness beyond belief—if I would help James Webster in his chosen works.

  Another sleepless night followed. Smoking and drinking like a fool, until the back of my throat was raw and my head spun wh
en I lay back. But by morning I knew what I wanted to do. I made another appointment with Amelia Webster and drove again to the big house with its long oak-shaded drive. The weather had broken and it was twenty degrees cooler, so today we remained inside. Lunch was served in a dining room big enough for thirty people. Amelia made sure that I was served enough for three meals but limited herself to soup, cheese and wine. Again, we talked our way here and there through the century, while I tried to refuse a succession of well-prepared dishes.

  With the coffee, Amelia Webster showed me what a mistake it would have been to underrate the mind in the fragile body.

  "Now, Mr. Forrest, that was very enjoyable. I don't have too many interesting guests these days, you know. But why don't you tell me now what you came for." She smiled. "I'm well aware that men no longer court me for myself alone. What do you want?"

  She was half-wrong, in my case, but half-right too. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled back at her.

  "Miss Amelia, I suspect that you know already."

  "I think I do. It's James' studio, isn't it? You were very polite yesterday but I could see you almost sniffing the air when I mentioned it. You see, I've had the feeling for a long time that James has been up to something—and my instincts tell me that it's not something that I'll feel proud of."

  She rose with difficulty from her chair and went slowly over to a large teak sideboard.

  "I don't know why I should trust you this way, but that's always a mystery. Here are the keys to the West Wing. The study and studio are on the second floor. James will not be back to the house until tomorrow evening. I ask one thing only, Mr. Forrest. Tell me nothing of what you find. Peace of mind is something I cherish these days."

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