Tuesday, November 28, 2017

EXCERPT: Dinosaurs

This is an excerpt from one of my two favorite stories from THERE WILL BE WAR VOL. VIII. It's a very clever explanation for one of the great mysteries of history.

by Geoffrey A. Landis

When the call came in at 2 A.M. I wasn’t surprised. Timmy had warned me it was coming. “Today or tomorrow, Mr. Sanderson,” he’d said. “Today or tomorrow for sure.” His voice was serious, far too serious for his age. I’ve learned to accept his prognostications, at least when he was sure, so I had my people ready. When the colonel called, I was already reviewing what we could do.

Timmy has a gift for time. He can, sometimes, see into the future, and a few days into the past as well. Perhaps because of his particular talent, he has a passion for paleontology. He’s got quite a collection of fossils: trilobites and fossilized ferns and even one almost-intact dinosaur skull. He’s particularly interested in dinosaurs, but perhaps that’s not so unusual. After all, Timmy was only eleven.

He has one other talent as well. I hoped we wouldn’t have to depend on it.

I found Timmy in his room. He was already awake, passing the time sorting his collections of fossils. We’ll be joining them soon enough, I thought. Maybe in a million years the next species will be digging up our bones and wondering what made us extinct. We walked in silence to the conference room. Sarah and January were already there. Sarah was still in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Jan had managed to throw on a pair of rather tight jeans and a faded Coors T-shirt. A moment later, Jason, our hypnotist, arrived. There was no need to brief them. They already knew.

Sarah was my number two talent. We found her while testing people who claimed to be able to locate subs underwater. We didn’t find any, but we found her. She’d been one of the controls. Instrumentation for the control group had failed a lot more often than for the test subjects. Perhaps another project team might have ignored this, but I’d instructed my team to investigate the inexplicable—in any form. So we investigated the controls and finally came up with the cause: Sarah. She was a feisty, forty-year-old divorced housewife who had the Murphy talent, an ability to make complex equipment screw up. After some training, she’d even gotten to the point where she could control it. Some.

My third talent was January. She’d shown an ability to enhance the rate at which things burn. With a little more training, she might be the most dangerous one of all. Now, though, she was just a college student with an untrained talent.

I had a handful of other people, with an erratic smattering of other talents. Nothing that might be useful against what was coming, though.

“Sarah, how you feeling?”

“Burned out, Danny boy, feeling burned out. Never was good for much after midnight.”

“That’s not so good. Let’s see, you work best awake. Jan, how about you?”

“I think I’d better go under, Dan. I’m too nervous to do any good awake.”

“Right.’’ I nodded to Jason, and he went over to put her to sleep. “How about you, Timmy? Ready to go under?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling really hot tonight, Mr. Sanderson.” He grinned at me. “Real good.”

If so, he was the only one.

Once I’d thought that being assigned to Project Popgun was the last stop in a one-way journey to obscurity, a dead-end directorship of a make-work project. But even if I was relegated to a dead-end project, I resolved to make it the best-run dead-end project in the government.

Maybe I should explain what Project Popgun is. Popgun is a tiny government agency set up to study what the military euphemistically call “long shot” projects. What they mean is “crackpot.” Psychic assassins, voodoo priests, astrologers, tea leaf readers, people who claimed to be able to contact UFOs. Nobody really thought any of these would pan out, but they were each carefully investigated, just in case. Dogs who could foretell the future, children who could bend spoons, gamblers who could influence the fall of dice. There were always new crackpots to investigate as fast as the old ones were dismissed. After all, with the defense budget numbering hundreds of billions, a few million to check out crackpots is considered a bargain.

The psychics, the palm readers and fortune tellers, none of them turned out to be worth the investigation. But here and there, in odd nooks and by-ways across the nation, I’d found a few genuine talents. I’d begged, bribed, coerced, and flat-out hired them to come work for me here in Alexandria, where we could study them, train them to use their talents, and maybe even figure out what they were good for.

Strangely enough, as long as I had reported negative results, I was commended for rigorous work and carefully controlled test procedures. Once I started to report something worthwhile, though, we were accused of sloppy research and even downright falsification. The investigating committee, although not going so far as to actually endorse our results, finally suggested that our findings “might have legitimate defense applications,” and recommended that I be given limited scope to implement near-term applications. So I’d asked for—and received—a hardwire link to the threat evaluation center at NORAD, the North American Air Defense command. Voice plus video images of the main NORAD radar screen, carried on EMP-proof fiber-optic cables.

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Blogger Ingot9455 November 28, 2017 7:30 PM  

I believe the line is, "Always leave them wanting more."

Blogger tuberman November 28, 2017 8:06 PM  

This is the reality, as in, if there are any inexplicable abilities, they would tend to be minor, and almost playfully amusing, rather than super hero talents. Timmy's talent though, is close to super hero in this story though.

Anonymous Brick Hardslab November 28, 2017 9:00 PM  

I need to read what comes next.

Anonymous CoolHand November 28, 2017 9:02 PM  

Damnit Vox, I've got work to do and you keep dropping juicy new sci-fi to read.

Not helping.

Blogger Jack Ward November 28, 2017 9:23 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Jack Ward November 28, 2017 9:25 PM  

OK. You have thrown the hook and I bite it. Just purchased.
Thank You Sir! May I have another?

Anonymous Mark McSherry November 28, 2017 9:46 PM  

I'm sure that Mr. Landis was well aware of Heinlein's 1953 short story, "Project Nightmare" when writing this.

Anonymous Causal Lurker November 28, 2017 11:21 PM  

@7 got it before me. I recognized some similar plot elements, with an interesting twist at the end. We're not clumsy old dinosaurs, fortunately. "The Irvhank Effect" was another good tale, with a sobering insight buried about 2/3 way in. I had not read Vol VIII when originally published. It has a lot of other good examples and ideas.

The Wall was coming down and the Warsaw Pact was fracturing in nightmare progression at that time, and my attention was on handling the "now". Recently, people started writing down the series title and looking into all of Pournelle's works when I mentioned the buried treasures. Patience and examples from my dog-eared and cracking paperbacks paid off.

Anonymous Tanjil Bren November 29, 2017 1:18 AM  

From the small amount I have read to date, I like this collection very much (but that goes for pretty much everything from the 'Golden Age').
Apologies, but I'm unsure whether you mentioned that Castalia will be doing a hardcover or not (and my review has failed to find the possible reference).
Please advise.

Blogger VD November 29, 2017 5:00 AM  

We will be doing single-volume hardcovers in the royal octavo size.

Anonymous Caspar Vega November 29, 2017 6:14 AM  

Thanks to the Castalia House team for the latest newsletter - what a pleasant surprise to receive a free John C. Wright book in my inbox.

Anonymous Quartermaster November 29, 2017 12:10 PM  

Good story, that! Won't spoil it for those who haven' read it.

Anonymous Tanjil Bren November 29, 2017 9:17 PM  

Thanks for that.

Blogger Grant Boone November 30, 2017 2:02 AM  

Dang. Just read the whole thing. That's fire.

Blogger aodlord13 December 03, 2017 9:13 PM  

Thanks for a great article. :D

Blogger aodlord13 December 03, 2017 9:16 PM  

Thanks for a great article. :D

Blogger aodlord13 December 03, 2017 9:17 PM  

Thanks for a great article. :D

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