As Paul pulled out of his driveway, he spotted Marsha Kassner pulling out. Pete sat in the passenger seat, ready for school. They both waved, and Paul waved back. Marsha pulled away, and Paul sat for a moment enjoying the afterglow of the little smile she'd sent his way, the little flutter of fingers.
At 7:55 a.m., Paul stood outside the post office as Jane Hardiway, the postmistress, unlocked the doors. "Hello, Paul."
"Hello, Mrs. Hardiway." He waved the yellow slip. "You have a package for me."
An older lady, with gray hair and a round figure, she laughed. "Every time you get a package, you're here first thing in the morning like a schoolboy. You sure you're not getting some of those racy magazines?"
The several other persons present laughed.
He almost snapped, "No, I'd have that delivered to my house," but he realized then they'd laugh even more. Should he say "I don't read those magazines?"
She patted him on the shoulder. "You are as red as a tomato. I'm sorry. Come on, it's another one of those research thingies full of mathematical formulas. Might be alchemy, for all I know."
Too eager to drive to work immediately, Paul sat outside on the steps and tore open the wrapper. Out came his treasureit still smelled of alcohol from the repro machine. He'd ordered this English translation from his old alma mater, knowing that if he ordered through Lockheed they'd hold it up for all sorts of security reasons, even though it was available in the narrow academic channels that understood this material.
There it was: "Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction."
Hmm, Paul thought, diffraction? Instead of absorption? Interesting.
"... by Pyotr Ufimtsev of Moscow." Translated by the U.S. Air Force Foreign Technology Division.
As he flipped through with trembling fingers, he quickly recognized familiar century old equations of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, which had then been worked on by German electromagnetics expert Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld. The body of these equations taken together would predict how the geometric configurationthe shapeof an object could affector deflectelectromagnetic radiation. Now Ufimtsev had taken these realizations a few steps further.
This wasn't what Paul had expected, but he was intrigued. Instead of absorption, diffraction? He frowned as he stared at the paper, beginning immediately to realize its implications. If you were trapped in a box, and the situation looked hopeless, perhaps you had to get out of the box completely and into another problem.
Diffraction, he thought as he drove to the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects division (the "Skunk Works").
Insistent squelches of a siren made Paul look into the rear view mirror. He saw the twirling red white and blue lights of a police car and frowned. He was doing 45 in a 50 mile and hour zone. What was going on?
As he pulled over, he wondered if this stop had anything to do with the emergency procedures worked out with key employees at the Skunk Works. Soviet spy satellites moved overhead daily, monitoring such details as the numbers of cars in the parking lots, and the identities of their owners. Soviet fishing trawlers in international waters monitored all radio and telephone traffic in Lockheed's sprawling facilities. There was little doubt that there might be land-based electronic spies around Burbank itself, perhaps working out of a trailer or from a hillside apartmentnone had been caught, but Paul and the other employees had seen training films about it. Finally, Paul was one of about 100 top technical experts who had been through a seminar on emergency procedures, like what to do if you're kidnapped. Because of all this, Paul was less inclined to think he was being pulled over for traffic violations rather than some higher security issue.
The Sheriff's deputy who walked slowly toward Paul's car looked familiarToole something, Paul thought, waiting impatiently as he fretted about getting to work to review the new manual.
"Morning, Mr. Owens," said Deputy Jeff Toole, a big blond man of 30 who looked tough and competent. Toole put one hand on the Mustang's roof and leaned close. "Mr. Owens, no need to take out your license."
Paul relaxed a bit. "I wasn't speeding, was I?"
Toole shook his head. "Nope. How have you been, Mr. Owens?"
"Fine." What was this all about?
"Mr. Owens, I was speaking with Mrs. Burley, the town librarian, yesterday afternoon. I just happened to be getting some books to read to my two little kids. She was kinda kidding and kinda not kidding when she said she's about to send the law after you."
"Oh my God."
"Well, now, we're a small town here, and no need to panic."
"No, but I do have some books... Oh my God, it's been six months, hasn't it."
"That's what she says."
"I'll bring them to her tomorrow."
"Thanks, Mr. Owens. Sorry to bother you."
It was like a small town, Paul thought as he drove on. He'd checked out some special order UCLA texts on nose cone integrals some time ago.
He showed his ID to the guard at the Skunk Works, near the Burbank airport, and sprinted across the parking lot into Building 259. This was a long, narrow makeshift structure, almost like an oversized double-wide mobile home, with laboratories and offices on either side of a wide main corridor. This building connected to other buildings on the site via a warren of passageways. Paul's office was a small lab about 20 feet square with a fishbowl window overlooking the corridor and a tiny overhead window overlooking the parking lot.
He burst into the office, letting the door rock on its hinges as it quietly moved until it slammed loudly shut. He dropped the paper on his main design table and went to the fridge for a cold cola. Pulling up a bar stool, he resumed reading the Ufimtsev paper. Blindly, he groped for a pencil and a yellow notepad. Soon, he would stop every once in a while and pencil calculations on the pad.
Meanwhile, the office was steeped in silence except for the hum of the air-conditioning and the on and off sounds of the little refrigerator. The fluorescents buzzed faintly, and the three model airplanes hanging from the tiled ceiling swayed gently in a barely discernible breeze. Against one wall was a large wooden cabinet of pigeon holes, each of which contained as many rolled up blueprints as could be jammed in there. On a large central table, books and papers were piled, and through a maze of such mountains wound an H-O scale model railroad. Several large, ugly gray steel shelves held stacks of papers, a number of plastic model racing cars, and a paperweight from Aspen (Paul loved to ski, though he hadn't found timeor companionshipto go lately). The bulletin board, on another wall, was covered with a mix of work related notices and photo-duplicated jokes that everyone passed around the plant.
He would have to re-read this Ufimtsev paper several times, he realized, but he was already getting the general drift. The author turned from his general observations about the Maxwellian phenomena to the more specific proposal that one could use the surface structure of a flying object to optimizeor, rather, minimizethe object's radar return, its signature in the air. Paul frowned. This was a Soviet paper. Could there be trickery here? He painstakingly checked some of the simpler equations, and it sure looked as if the theory made sense. He threw his pencil down and looked at this notes. Damn, this would have to be tested. It sounded too good to pass up. He started to read again, underlining passages and equations that seemed central to the thread he was after.
The phone rang. On the other end was an engineer named Robert Latham, over in Production (on the main shop floor of the Skunk Works). "Hello, Paul? You've had the latest materials samples for three days now."
Paul slapped himself on the forehead. "Right! I'm sorry, Bob. I've been so busy I haven't had time to finish testing."
"Any luck so far?"
Paul glanced toward his model railroad. "Not really. If there's a change it's miniscule. I'll finish testing today and get the analysis back to you."
With a reluctant sigh, Paul put the tantalizing paper aside and flicked on some wall switches. The electric train made a snapping sound as juice flowed through the system. The long black steam locomotive was a beauty, with its matching coal tender. Paul had bought it at the same fleamarket in Madeira where he'd picked up the fridge. He couldn't resist also picking up a non-matching but intriguing string of four silvery streamlined AmTrak cars that belonged behind a diesel, not a coal-burner, but what the hey.
Paul flicked on a set of wall switches. Then he walked around the big table, to quickly check that the tracks were clear. Meanwhile the test equipment warmed up. Paul picked up the first of the postcard-sized rectangles that Bob had sent over, and installed it in a slot atop the locomotive. Checking to make sure that the test equipment was ready, Paul started the train around the table for a couple of test runs. The track was a large circle, with several sizable waves in it to make it interesting. The train ground through its paces at a slow speed. Paul made a few adjustments. The locomotive's head and rear lamps, and the passenger cars' windows, were brightly lit. A thin train of smoke poured from the loco's stack, and it uttered a few harmonious horn chords. Paul couldn't resisthe cranked it up to full speed. The train snapped through its turns like a snake on the way to its victim. Sometimes only the card, standing on edge atop the loco, was visible above the canyons of papers, books, and equipment.
Paul adjusted the radar screen on his right. It glowed green, an upright unit with its display at eye level, and the controls on a yellow steel piano board. Next, Paul checked the radar output, a second-hand CHP radar gun mounted in a wooden catapult frame. He calibrated the gun and aimed it at the middle of a square made of strips of red tape attached to the opposite wall 18 feet away. On every pass, the train moved through this rectangle. As it did so, it tripped a switch that sent a burst from the gun. So far, no matter what coatings Production sent over, the return was always above 85%not a good showing, and Northrop was rumored to have far better materials. Rumor was they would get the biggest absorptive R&D and production award in history. There was little the Skunk Works could do at this point. Unless, Paul thought, there was something to that paper...?
One by one, Paul ran twelve cards through the process. His was only one of five different sections in which these cards were tested, and he was not tasked with really rigorous testingjust backup, in case he detected some anomalies. QA and RADAR Engineering were responsible for the detailed tests with higher power transmitters over longer distances, returning to more sensitive instruments.
Paul ran through his paces, wanting to get this behind him.
He realized he'd forgotten his cola, and it had grown a bit warm. He got two nice fat ice cubes from the fridge and dropped them in a glass, then slid the cola down the inner side to minimize fizz-loss. Then he cranked up some disco tunes, let the train whizz around smoking and whistling, and, using a regulation black U.S. Government issue ball-point pen, filled in the report papers on the dozen test cards.
He looked up. There was his boss, Steve Rossi, who reported directly to Ben Rich. With Steve were three rather surprised men in suits. Two of the men were older, with very sour faces. One was younger, with an arrogant, supercilious face, and a perfect preppy look including a nearly shorn, grayish Marine Corps hair cut. Hair was a big thing these days, and Paul's tended to curl over his ears. It wasn't that he was a wannabe hippie so much that he didn't often find time to visit the barbershop. The three dour visitors were looking at his hair with visible revulsion, as if a leftist commie spy had invaded this inner sanctum.
Paul turned down the music. "Sorry. What's up, Steve?"
Steve pointed. "The train."
"Oh yes." Paul turned that off. "Well?"
Steve introduced the men. The young one with the attitude was Alex Fitch. "These gentlemen are Government auditors. Mr. Fitch is with the Air Force, and (he named them) are with the Defense Department."
One of the older men, who now shook out a cigarette and lit it with a click of his lighter, asked Steve pointedly: "Don't you people have a dress code in this place?" He pointed to the bulletin board. "Let me give you a friendly word of advice. Get rid of any personal pictures, jokes, or what have you. Making funny copies on Government equipment is a terminable offense."
The other older man now also lit up; same ceremonyshake out a long one, insert filter between yellowed teeth, and flick that Zippo. This man nodded to Steve. "You're going to be seeing more stringent inspections from now on. We're just here to give you fair warning. And make sure that young man gets a haircut. We don't need any damn long-hairs around here.
Alex Fitch walked around rolling his eyes and smurking. "Well. I think the airplanes are nice, Mr."
"Owens. Paul Owens." Paul waved his hand in front of his face as the smoke began to make him dizzy.
"Oh yes. I want to remember that name." He touched a plane with his index finger, and it rocked back and forth. "Nice. I think I did my last one when I was 14. When I discovered girls." Fitch walked around the table. "And the train, Mr. Owens? Do you have, like, children or something?"
Steve cleared his throat. "Mr. Fitch, Paul works up to 100 hours a week. He's a leading expert in his field. I think we can indulge him."
Fitch whirled. "Sure, I'm sorry. Hey, forgive the attitude. We're not here to be pals. We all have our jobs to do, and I want to make sure that we start out on the right footing." He looked at Paul. "Nobody is indispensable, Mr. Owens. Just remember that."
Paul was too stunned to laugh or retort. He now realized that Steve had looked pained to begin with, and he didn't want to add to his boss's discomfort.
"Let's move on to the next section," one of the sour faced auditors said. He turned back and said: "I better never hear that blasted hippie music again, pal. Take the radio home today. Do you read me?"
After they had left, with a chorus of thank yous and sour faces, letting the door slam shut, Paul sat on the stool with his heart beating rapidly. "Actually, it's disco, you stupid old buffalo," he said to the mute door. He rose in a John Travolta stance, one finger pointing up in front of him, the other down behind him, and keened: "Stayin' alive! Stayin' alive!"
He whirled and smacked the buttons on the test equipment to shut it down. "I can't believe this damn place! Where do they find these idiots?"
He repeated the question in Steve Rossi's office a half hour later.
Rossi, a snappy dresser in his mid-forties, with graying curly hair that had once been black, sat back. He wore a powder blue suit with wide lapels, a white shirt, and a kind of loud yellow tie with red circles in a mix of pop art and psychedelia. Small nuances of dress or tonsure could send enormous signals in these jumpy, crazy times with so much bitterness in the air about the war. Rossi wasn't one of "them," however.
Rossi, an ex-Marine Corps officer who'd quit after one tour in 'Nam to finish his Master's in Electrical Engineering, was a natural manager and he understood technical issues. Paul liked him a lot, and they got along.
"So where do they find these guys?" he asked Rossi.
"My friend," Rossi said genially, "you forget that we labor for the Government, which sometimes pays people to store their cheese in tunnels, or to not grow tobacco, or whatever, but at other times drops napalm on villages and water buffaloes. It is a crazy mistress we serve, and you have just seen her vent her wrath. It's their way of leaning on us, letting us know who's boss. Hell, they do inspections so strict they don't even do those in the military anymore these days." He grinned. "You apparently remind them of every college student they have ever hated. Congratulations on being young."
"That's my offense, huh? Do these guys know I have a high level security clearance? Do they know I don't smoke, drink, do drugs, or run red lights?"
"It's the hair. That's all they care about."
Paul sputtered: "Hippies! That's last decade! This is the Seventies! We're into disco now. Don't these cadavers know that?"
Rossi stood, pulled out his wallet, and dropped a ten on the desk. "Here. It's on me."
"I'm ordering you to get a haircut. Today."
"But I've got work to do."
"I know how you feel, but this is work. Keeping these guys happy is part of our jobs."
"I'm not going to get my hair cut until I'm ready."
"We can't afford to lose you, Paul, but these jerks can pull the plug on you."
"Because of my hair?"
"This is the Age of Aquarius, pal. Hair is king. Hair gets you hired and fired. They don't care what's inside your head but on the outside of it."
"I'm not doing it." Paul added: "And guess what, Steve. I'm not working a minute more than eight hours today. I'm going home on time. Screw all the hours I put in."
"I love that morale," Rossi said sitting back and putting shiny black loafers on his desk. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling. "Take the rest of the afternoon off. Get a haircut. Go see a movie and forget all about it. Come in tomorrow and whistle while you work. We gotta build nose cones and save the world. Even with these dickheads sneaking around here. Believe me, it's only going to get worse."
At four p.m., Paul sat in a barber's chair in downtown Burbank. He'd had a grilled cheese sandwich and a strawberry milkshake and was about to buy tickets to see The French Connection. Still fuming, he'd decided to get his head shaved into a Marine Corps 'do. At the last moment, he remembered that he wanted to look good for Marsha Kassner; so he made it just a plain short haircut with no curling at the edges.