The blonde WAVE secretary at the reception desk took the speaker cup of a sono-typer away from her mouth, bent over an intercom box.
"Ensign Ramsey is here, sir," she said.
She leaned back, stared up at the redheaded officer beside her desk. His collar bore the zigzag of electronics specialist over the initials BP -- Bureau of Psychology. He was a tall man, round-faced, with the soft appearance of overweight. Freckles spotted his pinkish face, giving him the look of a grown-up Tom Sawyer.
"The admiral's usually a little slow answering," said the receptionist.
Ramsey nodded, looked at the door beyond her. Gold lettering on a heavy oak panel: CONFERENCE ROOM -- Sec. I. Security One. Above the clatter of office sounds, he could hear the tooth-tingling hum of a detection scrambler.
Through his mind passed the self-questionings he could never avoid, the doubts that had made him a psychologist: If they have a rough job for me, can I do it? What would happen if I turned it down?
"You can rest that here on the desk," said the receptionist. She pointed to a black wooden box, about a foot on a side, which Ramsey carried under his left arm.
"It's not heavy," he said. "Maybe the admiral didn't hear you the first time. Could you try again?"
"He heard me," she said. "He's busy with a haggle of braid." She nodded toward the box. "Is that what they're waiting for?"
Ramsey grinned. "Why couldn't they be waiting for me?"
She sniffed. "Enough braid in there to founder a subtug. They should be waiting for an ensign. There's a war on, mister. You're just the errand boy."
A wave of resentment swept over Ramsey. You insolent bitch, he thought. I'll bet you don't date anything less than a full commander. He wanted to say something biting, but the words wouldn't come.
The receptionist returned the sono-typer cup to her mouth, went back to her typing.
I've been an ensign so long I'll even take lip from a WAVE yeoman, he thought. He turned his back on her, fell to musing. What do they want with me? Could it be that trick on the Dolphin? No. Obe would have said. This might be important, though. It could be my big chance.
He heard the receptionist behind him take a sheet of paper from her machine, replace it.
If I got a big assignment and came back a hero, she'd be the kind who'd try to beat Janet's time with me. The world's full of 'em.
Why do they want me in Sec. I?
Obe had just said to bring the telemetering equipment for the remote-control vampire gauge and show up on the Sec. I doorstep at 1400. Nothing more. Ramsey glanced at his wrist watch. A minute to go.
"Ensign Ramsey?" A masculine voice sounded behind him. Ramsey whirled. The conference-room door stood open. A gray-haired line captain leaned out, hand on door. Beyond the captain, Ramsey glimpsed a long table strewn with papers, maps, pencils, overflowing ash trays. Around the table sat uniformed men in heavy chairs, almost like fixtures. A cloud of blue tobacco smoke hung over the scene.
"I'm Ensign Ramsey."
The captain glanced at the box under Ramsey's arm, stepped aside. "Will you come in, please?"
Ramsey skirted the reception desk, entered the room. The captain closed the door, indicated a chair at the foot of the table. "Sit there, please."
Where's the boss? Ramsey wondered. His gaze darted over the room; then he saw Obe: a hollow-cheeked little civilian, straggly goatee, thin bird features, seated between two burly commodores like a prisoner under guard. The little civilian's radiation-blinded eyes stared straight ahead. The mound of a radar bat-eye box atop one shoulder gave him a curiously unbalanced appearance.
Ramsey sat down in the chair indicated, allowed himself an inward chuckle at the thought of the two commodores guarding Dr. Richmond Oberhausen, director of BuPsych. Obe could reduce them to quivering jelly with ten words.
The captain who had admitted Ramsey took a chair well down the table. Ramsey moved his black box to his lap, noted eyes following the movement.
Obe has briefed them on my little invention, he thought.
The hum of the detection scrambler was strong in the room. It made Ramsey's teeth ache. He closed his eyes momentarily, blanked off the pain, opened his eyes, stared back at the men examining him. He recognized several of the faces.
Very high braid.
Directly opposite at the other end of the table sat Admiral Belland, ComSec, the high mogul of Security, a steely-eyed giant with hook nose, thin slit of a mouth.
He looks like a pirate, thought Ramsey.
Admiral Belland cleared his throat in a hoarse rumble, said, "This is the ensign we've been discussing, gentlemen."
Ramsey's eyebrows went up a notch. He looked to Dr. Oberhausen's impassive face. The BuPsych chief appeared to be waiting.
"You know this ensign's Security rating," said Belland. "It's presumed we can talk freely in front of him. Would any of you care to ask him --"
"Excuse me, please," Dr. Oberhausen arose from between the two commodores with a slow, self-assured movement. "I have not acquainted Mr. Ramsey with any of the particulars of this meeting. In view of the assignment we have in mind, it would appear more humane if we did not treat him like a piece of dry goods." The sightless eyes turned toward Belland. "Eh, Admiral?"
Belland leaned forward. "Certainly, Doctor. I was just coming to that."
The admiral's voice carried a tone somewhere between fear and deference.
Ramsey thought: Obe is running this meeting pretty much as he wants, and without these birds being certain they're outmaneuvered. Now, he probably wants me to pick up a cue and help him apply the clincher.
Dr. Oberhausen sank back into his chair with a stiff, stick-like gesture. A punctuation.
Belland's chair rasped on the floor. He got to his feet, went to the side wall at his left, indicated a north-polar projection map. "Ensign Ramsey, we've lost twenty subtugs in these waters over the past twenty weeks," he said. He turned to Ramsey altogether like a schoolteacher about to propound a problem. "You're familiar with our pressing need for oil?"
Familiar? Ramsey restrained a wry smile. Through his mind sped the almost interminable list of regulations on oil conservation: inspections, issuance forms, special classes, awards for innovations. He nodded.
The admiral's bass rumble continued: "For almost two years now we've been getting extra oil from reservoirs under the marginal seas of the Eastern Powers' continental shelf." His left hand made a vague gesture over the map.
Ramsey's eyes widened. Then the rumors were true: the sub services were pirating enemy oil!
"We developed an underwater drilling technique working from converted subtugs," said Belland. "A high-speed, low-friction pump and a new type of plastic barge complete the general picture."
The admiral's mouth spread into what he probably imagined as a disarming grin. It succeeded only in making him appear even more piratical. "The boys call the barge a slug, and the pump is a mosquito."
Dutiful chuckles sounded through the room. Ramsey smiled at the forced response, noted that Dr. Oberhausen maintained his reputation as Old Stone Face.
Admiral Belland said, "A slug will carry almost one hundred million barrels of oil. The EPs know they're losing oil. They know how, but they can't always be sure of where or when. We're outfoxing them." The admiral's voice grew louder. "Our detection system is superior. Our silencer planes --"
Dr. Oberhausen's brittle voice interrupted him. "Everything we have is superior except our ability to keep them from sinking us."
The admiral scowled.
Ramsey picked up his cue, entered the breach. "What was the casualty percentage on those twenty subtugs we lost, sir?"
An owl-faced captain near Belland said dryly, "Of the last twenty missions, we lost all twenty."
"One hundred per cent," said Dr. Oberhausen. The sightless eyes seemed to look across the room at a beet-faced lieutenant commander. "Commander Turner, would you show Mr. Ramsey the gadget your boys found?"
The lieutenant commander pushed a black cylinder about the size of a lead pencil down the table. Hands carried the object along until it reached Ramsey. He studied it.
"Mr. Ramsey's work, of course, involves electronics," said Dr. Oberhausen. "He's a specialist with the instruments used for detecting traumatic memories."
Ramsey caught this cue, also. He was the omniscient BuPsych electronics expert. The Man Who Knows Your Innermost Thoughts. Ergo: You don't have Innermost Thoughts in this man's presence. With an ostentatious gesture, Ramsey put his black box onto the table. He placed the cylinder beside it, managing to convey the impression that he had plumbed the mysteries of the device and found them, somehow, inferior.
What the devil is that thing? he wondered.
"You've probably recognized that as a tight-beam broadcaster," said Holland.
Ramsey glanced at the featureless surface of the black cylinder. What would these people do if I claimed X-ray vision? he asked himself. Obe must have hypnotized them.
Belland transferred his tone of deference-fear to Ramsey. "The EP's have been getting those things aboard our subtugs. We think there's a delayed-action device which turns them on at sea. Unfortunately, we've been unable thus far to dismantle one without exploding the anti-tamper charge."
Ramsey looked at Dr. Oberhausen, back to Belland, implying without words: "Well, if they'd turn these problems over to BuPsych . . ."
The admiral rallied some of his Pride of Department, said, "Turner believes he has it solved, however."
Ramsey looked at the beet-faced lieutenant commander. And you'll be a rear-rank swabby if you fail, he thought. The lieutenant commander tried to make himself inconspicuous.
The commodore to Dr. Oberhausen's right said, "Enemy agents aboard the tugs could be turning them on."
Dr. Oberhausen said, "To make a long story short, these devices have been leading the enemy to our secret wells."
"The real trouble," said Belland, "is that we're shot through with sleepers -- people the EPs planted years ago -- long before the war -- with orders to wait for the right moment. People in the damnedest places." He scowled. "Why, my driver --" He fell silent, turned the scowl on Ramsey. "We're reasonably certain you're not a sleeper."
"Reasonably certain?" asked Ramsey.
"I am reasonably certain no one in this room is a sleeper," growled Belland. "But that's all I am." He turned back to the wall map, pointed to a position in the Barents Sea. "This is the island of Novaya Zemlya. Off the west coast is a narrow shelf. The edge is in about two hundred fathoms. It's steep. We've a well into the flank of that shelf tapping one of the richest oil reservoirs we've ever encountered. The EPs don't even know it's there -- yet."
Dr. Oberhausen put a bony hand on the table, tapped a finger once. "We must make certain Mr. Ramsey understands the morale factor." He turned toward Ramsey. "You understand that it has been impossible to keep our losses completely secret. As a result, morale in the subtugs has dropped off to almost nothing. We need good news."
Belland said, "Turner, take it from there." The admiral returned to his chair, lowered himself into it like a battlewagon settling into dry dock.
Turner focused watery blue eyes on Ramsey, said, "We've screened, screened and rescreened our subtug crews. We've found one that looks good. They're at Garden Glen Rest Camp now and will be coming out in five weeks. However, they do not have an electronics officer."
Ramsey thought: Great Grieving Freud! Am I going to be palmed off as a submariner?
As though he had read Ramsey's thought, Dr. Oberhausen said, "That's where you come in, Ramsey." He nodded to Turner. "Please forgive me, Commander, but we're taking too much time with this."
Turner shot a glance at Belland, sank back into his chair. "Of course, Doctor."
Dr. Oberhausen arose, again with that air of vast assurance. "This is my field, anyway. You see, Ramsey, the previous electronics officer suffered a psychotic blowup at the termination of their last mission. It's the same problem you were working on with the men of the Dolphin. Amplified. The subtugs are smaller, a complement of only four men. The focal symptoms point to a kind of induced paranoia."
"The captain?" asked Ramsey.
"Precisely," said Dr. Oberhausen.
We are now impressing the natives with our mysterious knowledge, thought Ramsey. He said, "I noticed similar conditions in the battle-fatigue syndrome when I was on the Dolphin." He patted the box in front of him. "The captain's emotional variations were reflected in varying degrees all through the ship's personnel."
"Dr. Oberhausen outlined your work with the men of the Dolphin," said Turner.
Ramsey nodded. "I'm troubled by one point here. You say this crew rates high. That doesn't check if the captain is a borderline psychotic."
"Again, that's where you come in," said Dr. Oberhausen. "We were about to beach this captain. But now Battle-Comp tells us he and his crew have far and away the highest chance of success in this mission to Novaya Zemlya. But only if certain other conditions are present." He paused, tugged at an ear lobe.
Ramsey caught the signal, thought: Ah, there's the bite. Somebody important hasn't agreed to this arrangement and it's vital to Obe that I get on that subtug crew. Who are we playing to? The admiral? No, he'd go himself if Obe said the word. Ramsey's eyes abruptly caught the scowling glare of the commodore on Dr. Oberhausen's left, and at the same moment he noted for the first time the tiny sunburst on the commodore's collar. A presidential aide! That would be the one.
"One of the other conditions would be that they have secret psychological monitoring," said Ramsey. "How had you planned to link in my remote-control vampire gauge to this pivotal captain without his knowing?"
"An ingenious solution has been proposed by Admiral Belland," said Dr. Oberhausen. "Security has a new type of detector to combat those spy-beam transmitters. A speaker pellet is surgically imbedded in the neck and tuned to wave scanners which are similarly imbedded beneath the armpits. Microinstrumentation would permit us to include with the speaker the recorders you need."
Ramsey nodded toward the admiral. "Clever. You'd rig this subtug skipper that way, send me along to keep him in balance."
"Yes," said Dr. Oberhausen. "However, there has been some objection raised." The sightless eyes seemed to peer down at the commodore on his left. "On the grounds that you have no extended deep-tug combat experience. It's a specialized service."
The commodore grunted, glared at Ramsey. "We've been at war sixteen years," he said. "How is it you've escaped combat?"
Old school tie, thought Ramsey. He turned his telemeter box until one flat surface faced the commodore, squinted at the officer over it. When in doubt, fire a broadside.
"Every man we preserve for combat brings victory that much nearer," said Ramsey. The commodore's leathery face grew dark. "Mr. Ramsey has a special combination of training -- psychology and electronics -- which have made him too valuable to risk," said Dr. Oberhausen. "He has made only the most essential cruises -- such as that with the Dolphin -- when that was absolutely required."
"If he's so valuable, why're we risking him now?" demanded the commodore. "This all seems highly irregular!"
Admiral Belland sighed, stared at the commodore. "The truth is, Lewis, this new emotional-telemetering equipment which Mr. Ramsey developed can be used by others. However, his inventive talents are the very things which make his services so essential at this time."
"You may think me rude," said the commodore, "but I'd like to know also why this young man -- if he's as good as all that -- is still" -- he flicked a glance at Ramsey's collar bars -- "an ensign."
Dr. Oberhausen held up a hand, said, "Permit me, my dear Admiral." He turned to the commodore. "It is because there are people who resent the fact that I have been able to keep myself and my top department heads out of uniform. There are those who do not see the necessity for this essential separation. It is regrettable, therefore, that those of my people in the lower echelons, who are required to wear uniforms, sometimes find it difficult to gain advancement no matter how talented they may be."
The commodore looked as though he were about to explode.
"By rights," said Dr. Oberhausen, "Mr. Ramsey should be at least a commodore."
Several fits of coughing broke out simultaneously around the table.
Ramsey suddenly wished he were anywhere else but under the eyes of this commodore. The latter said, "Very well, my objection is withdrawn." The tone of his voice said: I will pass sentence in my own court.
"I have planned," said Dr. Oberhausen, "upon completion of this mission, to have Mr. Ramsey released from the service and installed as head of a new department devoted to problems of submariners."
A harsh smile pulled at the corners of the commodore's mouth. "If he lives through it," he said.
As though he had not heard, Dr. Oberhausen said, "The training will be a problem, but we have five weeks plus the full facilities of BuPsych."
Belland heaved his bulk from the chair, stepped to one side. "If there are no more questions, gentlemen, I believe we are all satisfied with Mr. Ramsey." He glanced at his wrist watch. "The medics are waiting for him now, and he's going to need every minute of the next five weeks."
Ramsey got to his feet, took his telemeter box under his arm, a question in his eyes.
"You're also going to be rigged as a walking detection system," said Belland.
Dr. Oberhausen appeared to materialize beside Ramsey. "If you'll come with me, please, John." He took Ramsey's arm. "I've had the essential material about Commander Sparrow -- he's the captain of this subtug -- and the other two crewmen reduced to absolute minimum. We've set aside a special ward at the bureau for you. You're going to be our prize patient for . . ."
Ramsey heard Turner speaking behind him. "Dr. Oberhausen called that ensign John. Is he the Long John Ramsey who . . ."
The rest was blurred as Dr. Oberhausen raised his voice. "It's going to be rough on you, John." They stepped into the outer corridor. "Your wife has been notified." Dr. Oberhausen lowered his voice. "You handled yourself very well in there."