When Paul arrived at work, he found a security guard hovering around the parking area. Paul drove right into his old parking spot, only to hear the guard yelling and to notice that there was a new sign up: "Reserved. Alex Fitch."
The guard approached the rolled down window. "I'm sorry, Paul. They switched everything around. Wait until you get inside. You won't recognize the place."
"Thanks." Paul backed up and found a spot several rows away. Grabbing his Ufimtsev paper, he walked toward the plant.
As he walked down the long, shadowy corridor, whose ancient linoleum sparkled like some underwater glass, he spotted Steve Rossi down the hall. Rossi, wearing a dark suit, white tie, and dark red tie, stood half in and half out of his office. When he saw Paul, he started walking.
Paul pushed the door of his lab openand froze.
Everything was gone. Along one wall were a group of cardboard boxesAlex Fitch's?and some ugly gray metal filing cabinets.
Paul felt as if there were a hole at the bottom of his stomach, and sand were running out.
"What the hell happened?"
"We're moving things around. Come into my office and don't say anything until I get the door closed."
Paul followed as in a dream. He sat down in Steve's narrow, cluttered office. Pictures on the wall showed rockets lifting off, with employees' signatures on them; planes the Skunk Works had built; awards Steve had won.
Steve closed the door. "I'm sorry, Paul. None of this was our idea. You know that Ben and Kelly and I support you 100%."
Paul said leadenly: "The FBI has been questioning people about me. It's embarrassing."
Steve sat at his desk and winced.
"I'm embarrassed that the librarian had to give them a list of what I read. What are they going to say when they find out I've been reading a Soviet mathematical paper?" Paul shook the Ufimtsev paper, his fist trembling with rage. "That I'm a Communist spy? If I can't get you to listen to me, what can I expect from these auditors and the FBI?"
"I don't blame you for being angry. I'm angry too, Paul. Do you know what we're up against here? There are vast sums in contracts floating around. I just found out we may have missed getting a million bucks of seed money for a proof of concept on a new class of stealth planes. So what the Government does, because contractors have a reputation of cost overruns and inefficiency, is they put pressure on companies. And, hey, we're the Skunk Works, we're one of the loosest organizations around. When those guys came in here, it was like a den of iniquity to them. They are going to be doingas far as Ben and Kelly can stop themwhat they do at all the other big contractorsGeneral Dynamics, Northrop, you name it. They'll send auditors in unannounced to inspect people's cubicles. No photos, no cartoons, no jokes, no nothing. Bare walls. Clean, bare desk with all work neatly put in drawers. Christ, Paul, they don't even treat active military like this, but it's that 1940's mentality. They're military men from the old school." He paused to light a cigarette. "And then there's you." He puffed. "One look at you and the Sixties came alive again. I've got news for you. Those guys weren't under fire in any foxholes. Most of them were Navy and Army NCO's pushing paperwork. That's why they're here. They know paperwork. They know bureaucracy. They are from Byzantium, and they invented petty intrigue. And, unfortunately, they hate your guts on sight, no questions asked. What small minds they have are already made up."
"Am I fired?"
"Fired? No. But you're damaged. There is only so much we can do. If it makes you feel a little better, Kelly and Ben are talking to a four-star Air Force officer about this."
"What about 'this' exactly, anyway, Steve?"
" 'This,' as you call it, is that they're throwing everything at you that they can. Including the FBI. You're gonna come out clean like you did before, because you have a Top Secret clearance now, so why should anything be any different?"
"They'll find something."
"Didn't last time."
"They will invent something if they have to."
"Now wait a minute, Paul. Not the FBI. Don't accuse them of."
"Okay. Maybe I'm overreacting if that is possible. Where is all my stuff?"
"It's under lock and key."
"My private property."
"It's in a temporary hold status, Paul."
Paul rose and leaned against the wall. He leaned his forearm against the wall and stared at the fist he was making. He felt rage rushing in his ears.
"Paul take it easy."
Paul took a deep breath, wound up, and slammed his fist down on Steve's little side table so hard that the metal bent a little. Then he realized he'd lashed out at a friend and sat down. He covered his face in shame. "I'm sorry."
"No problem," Steve said, grunting as he tried to straighten the little metal drawer.
Paul rose, put his knee against it, straightened it, and pushed it into the desk. "That was uncalled for and I apologize."
"Just so you don't hit me like that. I'm too out of shape."
"I've never hit anyone in my life."
"Good." Steve sat upright and raised both palms. "Paul, you have a little bit of a temper, and I want to warn youdon't play into the hands of these dickheads. Be cool."
"Okay, I'm cool. Where's my crap?"
"Under lock and key while the FBI check is going on. They have to check through all your gear because you're under this investigation. And now the bad news."
"Oh Christ, now what?"
"Your clearance is temporarily dropped from Top Secret to Secret until the results are back. Which could take a few weeks, or even months."
"And that means I can't let you on the shop floor. I have to replace you until we can get your TS back. I'm sorry."
"I can't believe this. We haven't even discussed what's in this paper." He waved the paper again.
"You got my ear."
Paul was almost too upset to talk, so he blurted it out in chunks he hoped were not too incoherent. "Not coatings alone. Not absorption by itself. Shape, structure, and absorption. I think we can get at least a tenfold reduction in the back signature, but I won't know for sure until I can test. I can't test until I get a model built. I can't get a model built until I draw up the designs. And I can't do that until I get approval from you."
Steve looked almost happy. "Will that keep you busy?"
"Yeah. Will you help me?"
"You bet. We don't want to lose you, Paul. You're one of the best there is. We just have to sweat this out. If they don't find anything more than they didn't find last time around, we could be back in business in a month or so. They're just throwing their weight around anyway they can, and you're an easy target. They have our attention now, see, and that's what they're really after."
"Yeah, they are. What do we know? Maybe they have to be. Aw hell, Paul, I'm sorry about all this and I'll do everything I can to help you. There is an office available in a non TS work area if you want, or you can work from home."
"Okay." A little of the glow returned to Paul. "Listen, I'll explain this whole concept to you. Since it's not an official project, you can help me without getting in trouble. I'm going to work from home as much as I can."
"Good. Keep a low profile."
"Right. And I'm going to have you build a small prototype for me. Now the first thing I'll need is computer time."
"Fifty hours of CPU time."
"Whew. That's a lot. I think we can sneak you in between batch jobs at night. It'll be disjointed20 minutes here, 30 minutes there."
"That will have to do. I'm going to go home and work on the equations. I'll need to write some FORTRAN programs. But now, let me explain what I think we have here." He rose and stepped to the small blackboard. Picking up a piece of chalk, he drew a triangle while Steve listened intently. "As long as this figure is not perpendicular to you, and it's coated with Radar Absorbent Material (RAM), and it has the latest inner layered absorption structures and materials, this shape will send you almost a zero return." Bit by bit, he led Steve, who had a decent grasp of mathematics from a practical engineering standpoint, into the new world of stealth that he could envision so clearly by now. And Steve began to nod appreciatively. "The only thing is the aerodynamics obviously suck, so it's going to be a hard sell. But I'll hear you out, and I'm sure Ben will too. Just don't get your hopes up. Remember, we're trying to buy you a low profile? Everyone believes in absorption. If you try to run the ball another way on the court, you'll be noticed."