Sixth column, p.7
Robert A. Heinlein
Despite Scheer’s optimism the task of building a temple on the mountain top above the Citadel developed unexpected headaches. None of the little band had had any real experience with large construction jobs. Ardmore, Graham, and Thomas knew nothing at all of such things, although Thomas had done plenty of work with his hands, some of it carpentry. Calhoun was a mathematician and by temperament undisposed to trouble himself with such menial pursuits in any case. Brooks was willing enough but he was a biologist, not an engineer. Wilkie was a brilliant physicist and, along lines related to his specialty, a competent engineer; he could design a piece of new apparatus necessary to his work quite handily.
However, Wilkie had built no bridges, designed no dams, bossed no gangs of sweating men. Nevertheless the job devolved on him by Hobson’s choice. Scheer was not competent to build a large building; he thought that he was, but he thought in terms of small things, tools, patterns, and other items that fitted into a machine shop. He could build a scale model of a large building, but he simply did not understand heavy construction.
It was up to Wilkie.
He showed up in Ardmore’s office a few days later with a roll of drawings under his arm. “Uh, Chief?”
“Eh? Oh, come in, Bob. Sit down. What’s eating on you? When do we start building the temple? See here—I’ve been thinking about other ways to conceal the fact that the Citadel will be under the temple. Do you suppose you could arrange the altar so that—”
“Excuse me, Chief.”
“We can incorporate most any dodge you want into the design, but I’ve got to know something more about the design first.”
“That’s your problem—yours and Graham’s.”
“Yes, sir. But how big do you want it to be?”
“How big? Oh, I don’t know, exactly. It has to be big.” Ardmore made a sweeping motion with both hands that took in floor, walls, and ceiling. “It has to be impressive.”
“How about thirty feet in the largest dimension?”
“Thirty feet? Why, that’s ridiculous! You aren’t building a soft-drinks stand; you’re building the mother temple of a great religion—of course you aren’t, but you’ve got to think of it that way. It’s got to knock their eyes out. What’s the trouble? Materials?”
Wilkie shook his head. “No, with Ledbetter-type transmutation materials are not a problem. We can use the mountain itself for materials.”
“That’s what I thought you intended to do. Carve out big chunks of granite and use your tractor and pressor beams to lay them up like giant bricks.”
“No? Why not?”
“Well, we could, but when we got through it wouldn’t look like much—and I don’t know how we would roof it over. What I intended to do was to use the Ledbetter effect not just for cutting or quarrying, but to make—transmute—the materials I want. You see, granite is principally oxides of silicon. That complicates things a little because both elements are fairly near the lower end of the periodic table. Unless we go to a lot of trouble and get rid of a lot of excess energy—a tremendous amount; darn near as much as the Memphis power pile develops—as I say, unless we arrange to bleed off all that power, and right now I don’t see just how we could do it, then—”
“Get to the point, man!”
“I was getting to the point, sir,” Wilkie answered in hurt tones. “Transmutations from the top or the bottom of the periodic scale toward the middle give off power; contrariwise, they absorb energy. Way back in the middle of the last century they found out how to do the first sort; that’s what atom bombs are based on. But to handle transmutations for building materials, you don’t want to give off energy like an atom bomb or a power pile. It would be embarrassing.”
“I should think so!”
“So I’ll use the second sort, the energy-absorbing sort. As a matter of fact I’ll balance them. Take magnesium for instance. It lies between silicon and oxygen. The binding energies involved—”
“Just assume that I never got through third grade. Now can you make the materials you need, or can’t you?”
“Oh, yes, sir, I can make them.”
“Then how can I be of help to you?”
“Well, sir, it’s the matter of putting the roof on and the size. You say a thirty-foot over-all dimension is no good—”
“No good at all. Did you see the North American Exposition? Remember the General Atomics Exhibit?”
“I’ve seen pictures of it.”
“I want something as gaudy and impressive as that, only bigger. Now why are you limited to thirty feet?”
“Well, sir, a panel six by thirty is the biggest I can squeeze out through the door, allowing for the turn in the passage.”
“Take ’em up through the scout-car lift.”
“I thought of that. It will take a panel thirteen feet wide, which is good, but the maximum length is then only twenty-seven feet. There’s a corner to turn between the hangar and the lift.”
“Hmm—Look, can you weld with that magic gimmick? I thought you could build the temple in sections, down below here, then assemble it above ground?”
“That was the idea. Yes, I suppose we could weld walls as big as you want. But look, major, how big a building do you want?”
“As big as you can manage.”
“But how big do you want?”
Ardmore told him. Wilkie whistled. “I suppose it’s possible to give you walls that big, but I don’t see any way to roof it over.”
“Seems to me I’ve seen buildings with that much clear span.”
“Yes, of course. You give me the services of construction engineers and architects and heavy industry to build the trusses needed to take that span and I’ll build you as big a temple as you want. But Scheer and I can’t do it alone, even with pressors and tractors to do all the heavy work. I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t see an answer.”
Ardmore stood up and put a hand on Wilkie’s arm. “You mean you don’t see an answer yet. Don’t get upset, Bob. I’ll take whatever you build. But just remember—This is going to be our first public display. A lot depends on it. We can’t expect to make much impression on our overlords with a hotdog stand. Make it as big as you can. I’d like something about as impressive as the Great Pyramid—but don’t take that long to build it.”
Wilkie looked worried. “I’ll try, sir. I’ll go back and think about it.”
When Wilkie had gone Ardmore turned to Thomas. “What do you think about it, Jeff? Am I asking too much?”
“I was just wondering,” Thomas said slowly, “why you set so much store by this temple?”
“Well, in the first place it gives a perfect cover up for the Citadel. If we are going to do anything more than sit here and die of old age, the time will come when a lot of people will have to be going in and out of here. We can’t keep the location secret under those circumstances so we will have to have a reason, a cover up. People are always going in and out of a church building—worship and so forth. I want to cover up the ‘and so forth.’”
“I understand that. But a building with thirty-foot maximum dimensions can cover up a secret stairway quite as well as the sort of convention-hall job you are asking young Wilkie to throw up.”
Ardmore squirmed. Damn it—couldn’t anyone but himself see the value of advertising? “Look, Jeff, this whole deal depends on making the right impression at the start. If Columbus had come in asking for a dime, he would have been thrown out of the palace on his ear. As it was, he got the crown jewels. We’ve got to have an impressive front.”
“I suppose so,” Thomas answered without conviction.
Several days later Wilkie asked permission for Scheer and himself to go outside. Finding that they did not intend to go far, Ardmore gave permission, after impressing on them the need for extreme caution.
He encountered them some time later proceeding down the mai
“Uh, a piece of mountain, sir.”
“So I see. But why?”
Wilkie looked mysterious. “Major, could you spare some time later in the day? We might have something to show you.”
“If you won’t talk, you won’t talk. Very well.”
Wilkie phoned him later, much later, asked him to come and suggested that Thomas come, too. When they arrived in the designated shop room everyone was present except Calhoun. Wilkie greeted them and said, “With your permission, we’ll start, Major.”
“Don’t be so formal. Aren’t you going to wait for Colonel Calhoun?”
“I invited him, but he declined.”
“Go ahead then.”
“Yes, sir.” Wilkie turned to the rest. “This piece of granite represents the mountain top above us. Go ahead, Scheer.”
Wilkie took position at a Ledbetter projector. Scheer was already at one; it had been specially fitted with sights and some other gadgetry that Ardmore could not identify. Scheer pressed a couple of studs; a pencil beam of light sprang out.
Using it as if it were a saw he sliced the top off the boulder. Wilkie caught the separated portion with a tractor-pressor combination and moved it aside. He set his controls and it hung in air; where it had been the stone was flat and of mirror polish. “That’s the temple’s base,” said Wilkie.
Scheer continued carving with his pencil beam, trucking his projector around as necessary. The flat top had now been squared off; the square was the summit of a four-sided truncated pyramid. That done, he started carving steps down one side of the figure. “That’s enough, Scheer,” Wilkie commanded. “Let’s make a wall. Prepare the surface.”
Scheer did something with his projector. No beam could be seen, but the flat upper surface turned black. “Carbon,” announced Wilkie. “Industrial diamonds probably. That’s our work bench. O.K., Scheer.” Wilkie moved the detached chunk back over the “bench”; Scheer carved off a piece; it turned molten, dripped down on the flat surface, spread to the edges and stopped. It now had a white metallic sheen. As it cooled Scheer nipped each corner, then, using one pressor as a vise to hold it firmly to the boulder and another as a moving wedge, he turned each corner up. It was now a shallow, open box, two feet square and an inch deep. Wilkie whisked it aside and hung it in air.
The process was repeated, but this time a single sheet rather than a box was formed. Wilkie put it out of the way and put the box back on the pedestal. “Let’s stuff the turkey,” announced Wilkie.
He transferred the chopped-off chunk back to a position over the open box. Scheer carved off a piece and lowered it into the box, then played a beam on it. It melted down and spread over the bottom. “Granite is practically glass,” lectured Wilkie, “and what we want is foamed glass, so we use no transmutation in this step—except the least, little bit to make the gases to foam it. Let’s have a shot of nitrogen, Scheer.” The master sergeant nodded and irradiated the mess for a split second; it foamed up like boiling fudge, filling the shallow box to the rim, and froze.
Wilkie snagged the simple sheet out of the air and caused it to hover over the filled box, then to settle so that it lay, somewhat unevenly, as a cover. “Iron it down, Scheer.”
The sheet glowed red and settled in place, pressed flat by an invisible hand. Scheer walked his projector around, welding the cover of the box to the box proper. When he had finished Wilkie set the filled box up on edge at one edge of the pedestal. Leaving the controls of his projector set to hold it there, he walked over to the far side of the room where a tarpaulin covered a pile of something on a bench.
“To save your time and for practice we made four others earlier,” he explained and whipped off the tarpaulin. Disclosed were a stack of sandwich panels exactly like that one just created. He did not touch them; instead Scheer lifted them off by projector one at a time and built a cube, using the newly made panel as the first face and the pedestal as the bottom of the cube. Wilkie returned to his projector and held the structure rigid while Scheer welded each seam. “Scheer is much more accurate than I am,” he explained. “I give him all the tough parts. O.K., Scheer—how about a door?”
“How big?” grunted the sergeant, speaking for the first time.
“Use your judgment. Eight inches high would be all right.”
Scheer grunted again and carved a rectangular opening in the side facing the slope on which he had begun earlier to carve steps. When he finished Wilkie announced, “There’s your temple, boss.”
No human hand had touched the boulder nor anything made from it, from start to finish.
The applause sounded like considerably more than five people. Wilkie turned pink; Scheer worked his jaw muscles: They crowded around it. “Is it ‘hot’?” inquired Brooks.
“No,” answered Mitsui, “I touched it.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“No, it’s not ‘hot’,” Wilkie reassured him, “not with the Ledbetter process. Stable isotopes, all of them.”
Ardmore straightened up from a close inspection. “I take it you intend to do the whole thing outdoors?”
“Is that all right, Major? Of course we could work down below and assemble it up above, from small panels—but I’m sure that would take just as long as to work from scratch with big panels. And I’m not sure about assembling the roof from small units. Sandwich panels like these are the lightest, strongest, stiffest structure we can use. It was the problem of that big roof span you want that caused us to work out this system.”
“Do it your way. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
“Of course,” admitted Wilkie, “we can’t finish it in this short a time. This is just the shell. I don’t know how long it will take to dress it up.”
“Dress it up?” inquired Graham. “When you’ve got a fine, great simple shape why belittle it with decoration? The cube is one of the purest and most beautiful shapes possible.”
“I agree with Graham,” Ardmore commented. “That’s your temple, right there. Nothing makes a more effective display than great, unbroken masses. When you’ve got something simple and effective, don’t louse it up.”
Wilkie shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I thought you wanted something fancy.”
“This is fancy. But see here, Bob, one thing puzzles me. Mind you, I’m not criticizing—I’d as soon think of criticizing the Days of Creation—but tell me this: why did you take a chance on going outside? Why didn’t you just go into one of the unoccupied rooms, peel off the wall coating and use that magic knife to carve a chunk of granite right out of the heart of the mountain?”
Wilkie looked thunderstruck. “I never thought of that.”
A patrol helicopter cruised slowly south from Denver. The PanAsian lieutenant commanding it consulted a recently constructed aerial mosaic map and indicated to the pilot that he was to hover. Yes, there it was, a great cubical building rising from the shoulder of a mountain. It had been picked up by the cartographical survey of the Heavenly Emperor’s new Western Realm and he had been sent to investigate.
The lieutenant regarded the job as a simple routine matter. Although the building did not appear in the records of the administrative district in which it was located there was nothing surprising in that. The newly conquered territory was enormous in extent, the aborigines, with their loose undisciplined ways—so characteristic of all the inferior races—kept no proper records of anything. It might be years before everything in this wild new country was properly indexed and cross-filed, particularly as this pale anemic people was almost childishly resistant to the benefits of civilization.
Yes, it would be
Those were no thoughts for a man on the Heavenly Emperor’s duty! He recited over to himself the Seven Principles of the Warrior Race and indicated to the pilot an alp in which to land.
The building was more impressive from the ground, a great square featureless mass, fully two hundred yards across in every dimension. The face toward him shone with a clear monochromatic emerald green, although it faced away from the afternoon sun. He could see a little of the wall to the right; it was golden.
His task group of one squad filed out of the helicopter after him and were followed by the mountain guide who had been impressed for this service. He spoke to the white man in English. “Have you seen this building before?”
“This part of the mountains is new to me.”
The man was probably lying, but it was useless to punish him. He dropped the matter. “Lead on.”
They trudged steadily up the slope toward the immense cube to where a broad flight of steps, wider still than the cube itself, led to its nearer face. The lieutenant hesitated momentarily before starting to mount them. He was aware of a general feeling of unease, a sense of mild disquietude, as if a voice were warning him of unnamed danger.
He set foot on the first step. A single deep clear note rolled across the canyon; the feeling of uneasiness swelled to an irrational dread. He could see that his men were infected with it. Resolutely he mounted the second step. Another and different tone echoed through the hills.
He marched steadily up the long flight, his men following reluctantly. A slow, ponderous and infinitely tragic largo kept time to his labored steps—labored because the treads were just too broad and the lifts just too high for comfort. The feeling of impending disaster, of inescapable doom, grew steadily greater as he approached the building.
Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes