J.W.P.'s eyes read the trembling of the gold fountain pen held between the General's fingers like a seismometer.
"Mister Parsons, I do my best to go day to day not believing in devils, but you are making it hard for me."
A quaver. Barely registered, a shiver.
"I am not in league with those well-paid alarmists who claim egghead bohemians are working to destroy America from within with a trifecta of jazz, anarchism and international finance. I am a military man with a military mind. Even if that were your goal, Occam's razor rules out any chance of your success. Simple aims for simple means."
The needle stopped still.
"So tell me: What exactly were you doing in the laboratory when my men caught you fondling the rockets?"
J.W.P. shrugged inside his dark, heavy robe. "An experiment?"
"Or maybe you were solving equations. With the hull of the rocket as a blackboard. Fuel-to-thrust ratios. Which is why my equipment is covered in grease pencil monkey scribble that makes career soldiers vomit."
"Complex equations," J.W.P. agreed. Was it safe to nod?
The General sighed through his nose. "Parsons, this is your security clearance at risk. I hired you for your expertise. I don't care what fraternal bull-and-mouth you've been involved in, I care about results and security. It isn't very secure if I think you're a mad scientist. You aren't, are you?"
But the scientist, having fallen into a state of self-hypnosis, was no longer listening. His hand at his neck, he idly fingered the stitchery on his hood and murmured aloud, his stare ending in space just short of the General's desk. "'For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.'"
The General groaned. "To think they named a crater after you."
The groan triggered a return to lucidity. The scientist leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands together, forming an arrow of imprecation. Silly get-up aside, this was the John Whiteside Parsons the General remembered hiring, the man made famous by Popular Mechanics, the line of his brow a shadowed slash of charcoal: the perfectly serious scientist who promised to one day cast javelins at the moon.
"You want efficiency. You want fuel. You want rockets that don't fart like a thousand lions at takeoff, waking half the continent?"
Relief hit the old man like lithium. "God, yes!"
"Let me return to work, the way I am now, and I will deliver you rockets that run on blood."
"I've given up trying to sire Crowley's moonchild on a human. If it's going to be done, it's got to be accomplished scientifically, mechanically, and with sacrifice. Tons of sacrifice. I intend to turn those lifeless explosive cylinders in the hanger opposite into golems capable of siphoning entire cities dry." J.W.P. read a fresh series of tremors off his superior. He sensed he was losing his audience. His voice raised in pitch. "Cost would be minimal. We'd only need a few hundred to eliminate the Soviets."
The General squirmed as though suffering an attack of colitis. He threw his pen. The padded leather armchair creaked. He stood, carefully, his fingertips on the edge of his desk, and stepped over to the stained oak coat-rack by the window. Abstracted, he turned away, took a few paces toward the phone, then stopped, picked his cap up off the desk, took it by the band, drew back a fist and punched a hole straight through it. The fabric gave with a broken drum head thump.
"All right, my boy." Donning the ruined object, the General turned to face J.W.P., who viewed the General with a skepticism bordering on alarm. The General held up his hand in a sign of benediction. "I'm no Bircher, but I'd like to see you try. By God, you deliver me a bushel of flying hypodermics to turn loose on the Russkies, and I will give you carte blanche to do anything you want, short of indecency with officers."
The scientist scooted forward in his chair. "The secretarial pool?" The collar of his ceremonial robe was black with perspiration.
"Anything. Only please, don't tell me."
The force with which J.W.P. threw open the General's door dented the filing cabinets. Papers careened around the office like sea birds. The General watched the scientist fly down the corridor, his robe billowing.
"Named a crater after him." He peered through the hole in his cap. "Should have named him after the crater."