Those Gentle Voices
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by George Alec Effinger
Category: Science Fiction
Description: THOSE GENTLE VOICES A Promethean Romance of the Spaceways "Because it's there..." That was why Earth men climbed Mt. Everest and why, in 2017, they set out for the distant star, Wolf 359. In 1988, they had learned that intelligent inhabitants from a planet orbiting Wolf 359 had been signaling Earth. That fact was reason enough to dispatch a manned probe to explore and investigate. But perhaps there was another reason for the journey. A reason too incredible for Earth people ever to imagine. A reason they might never understand even when they land on the planet they call Jennings' World. Author George Alec Effinger was a true master of satirical Science Fiction. Before his death in 2002, he gained the highest esteem amongst his peers for his pitch-perfect stylistic mimicry and his great insight into the human condition. Despite a life filled with chronic illness, Effinger was a prolific novelist and short story writer, earning multiple Nebula and Hugo Award nominations.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1976
eBookwise Release Date: February 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [265 KB]
Reading time: 170-238 min.
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It was nearly six weeks into the second International Astrophysical Year. The technicians at the New Orleans Center for Coordinated Astrometrics were still working in a kind of festival atmosphere. The facility had been given a rather large sum of money to pursue chiefly abstract ideas--the sort of assignment these scientists thought of as "fun." Here there were no military contracts, no desperate competition with the world's other interplanetary colonial powers. There was just the opportunity to study the universe with the kind of leisure that had always been necessary, but never practical.
The main building of the New Orleans center was a restored Victorian mansion on St. Charles Avenue. It was shaded by palm trees and surrounded by dense subtropical growth. A long curving drive ran from the avenue up to the pillared front of the great house where, many years before, uniformed servants helped wealthy Orleanians from expensive carriages. Now the old ballrooms were divided into prosaic cubicles for the systems analysts; the several pantries had become the IAY Library Standards Update Center; and, in the back of the lovely old house, overlooking the site of one of old New Orleans's most renowned gardens, a large formal dining room had been cleared of furniture and now housed five of the most sophisticated computers in existence. The 440/65s stood in a row down the middle of the room, beneath the huge, ancient chandeliers. There were two blue 440s, two yellow ones, and one red. At eleven o'clock on the morning of July 9, only the single red console was active. That it was operating at all was a source of concern to the young program analysts in the room.
One young man stood anxiously by the side of a high-speed printout, watching as the computer spewed page after page of indecipherable figures into a wire hopper. Finally, unable to endure the uncertainty any longer, he ripped the pile from the computer, tearing the paper along its perforated edge, and carried the mass of data to his superior, Dr. Janet Short.
"What's wrong, Benarcek?" asked Dr. Short.
"Here," said the technician, "look at this." He dropped the printout sheets on the young woman's desk and waited. She was very busy herself, and this new snag obviously annoyed her. But she pushed her own work aside and paged slowly through the computer's results.
"Where's this coming from? The 440s?" she asked.
"Yes," said Benarcek, "but that's not bad enough. From the red system."
Dr. Short pushed her glasses up, onto the top of her head. Her blue eyes stared at Benarcek for a moment, thoughtfully. Then she roused herself. "It couldn't be," she said at last.
"Well, doggone it, it is," said Benarcek. He stood silently, waiting for Dr. Short's orders.
"Is it still running?" she asked.
"I didn't want to stop it. I can't figure out why it's turning this stuff out, and I was afraid that it would just dump. It was still running when I came in here."
"Okay," said Dr. Short. "Can you bring it in on one of the CRTs?"
"Sure thing, Dr. Short," said Benarcek. He crossed the room to the bank of optical data readers belonging to the Data Retrieval Group. In a few seconds he had plugged into the red system's busy communications, and the strange columns of numbers and equations marched down the green viewscreen of a CRT, just as they had filled the paper pages of the hard-copy printer. Dr. Janet Short watched wordlessly for a full minute.
"Is there a Computer Output Microfilm unit on-line?" she asked.
Benarcek frowned. "I don't think so, Dr. Short," he said. "Just the paper printout."
"Well, can we interrupt this garbage without stopping the whole program?"
"That's what I can't say for sure," said Benarcek, watching the lines of symbols creeping down the face of the CRT. "The red system shouldn't even have gone into operation. Not until the blues and yellows had digested and classified all the Data Source Library programs."
Janet Short stood up and joined the young man by the CRT. She stared at the screen, the emerald glow of the machine casting strange shadows on her youthful features. Her blonde hair was long, tied behind and falling down outside her white lab coat. The unexpected bug in the computer system caused her to frown in concentration, making her look older than her twenty-nine years. "Well, then," she said slowly, perhaps the blues and yellows are finished. Maybe this isn't somebody's expensive mistake."
Benarcek shook his head. "It can't be, Dr. Short. We figured on at least three months of documentation before we could even begin the red process. There hasn't been enough time. You saw the books of data. On the short cards it took nearly two weeks to feed it into the blues. Even the new 440s couldn't have correlated it overnight."
"Well, then, our problem is simple," said Dr. Short, switching off the CRT and returning to her desk. "Either this is a basic and pretty stupid error, and we'll have to start all over again; or it's not a mistake, and we'd better be paying attention. The paper printout's still running, isn't it?"
"Yes. Do you want me to stop it?"
"No, no, of course not. We're going to have to analyze these figures. There's a chance these are our results. If they are, somehow we've saved ourselves a couple of months of work." Dr. Short riffled through the pages of printout. "It could be," she said. "It just could be."
Benarcek looked doubtful. "The way it's pumping out those figures, it could run all day. If it's garbage, we're going to waste a hell of a lot of computer time. And our budget's mighty small that way, Dr. Short."
She looked up, suddenly very troubled. "You're right. Okay, I admit I don't know what to do. What do you think?"
Benarcek seemed surprised. "Well, it's certainly over my head. I suppose we ought to let Dr. Jennings know."
"Sure," said Dr. Short with a quick smile. "Grab that stuff and come with me. Maybe if we both pass the buck together it won't look so foolish." Benarcek picked up the folded sheets of computer printout and followed Dr. Short across her office and through the Data Retrieval Resource room, up the wide spiral stairway to the office of Dr. Robert L. Jennings, Jr., chief of the entire astrometrics project. His office had once been the master bedchamber of the mansion, and the thick carpeting and the polished wooden paneling still held tenuous hints of the glory of New Orleans's celebrated Garden District.
Dr. Short stopped outside Jennings's door. She turned to Benarcek, who was standing uncomfortably, shifting the package of computer sheets from arm to arm. Dr. Short smiled encouragingly, but Benarcek only shrugged his shoulders and frowned. The woman turned and knocked loudly on Dr. Jennings's door. There was a long silence, and then the director's secretary came to the door.
"Good morning, Dr. Short," said Miss Brant, the secretary. "Dr. Jennings is on the phone right now. Is your problem serious?"
"I think he's going to have to tell us that," said Dr. Short. "I want him to take a look at these results as soon as he possibly can. He might save the project a lot of time and money."
Miss Brant frowned. "I see," she said. "He's talking to IAY Group Two in Washington. But if you think it's important, I'll break in on him. Wait inside, I'll be out in a moment." Miss Brant preceded the two mathematicians across the heavy carpeting of the outer office, knocked briefly on the door of Dr. Jennings's private chamber, and entered. Dr. Short admired Miss Brant's initiative; it was qualities like that that might make the second IAY one of the more important ventures in the history of science. And, at least in the New Orleans center, Dr. Robert L. Jennings, Jr., was personally responsible for the efficiency of his staff.
Miss Brant returned quickly. "He cut off his call to Washington," she said. "He'll see you now."
"Thank you, Miss Brant," said Dr. Short. "I think our snag justifies the trouble." Still followed by Benarcek, Janet Short entered the private office of Dr. Jennings, Administrative Director of the New Orleans Center for Coordinated Astrometrics.
Dr. Jennings rose to his full height as he came around his desk to greet them. "Good morning, Dr. Short," he said, reaching to grasp her hand.
"Good morning, Dr. Jennings," said Dr. Short. "Thanks for giving us a minute here. We hit a bug this morning, but a rather strange one. You know Analyst Benarcek, don't you?"
Dr. Jennings smiled and nodded. "Justin has taken me out on his Sunfish a couple of times," he said. Benarcek grinned at the memory. "Now, tell me," said the director, "what kind of bug can make me hang up on the Washington money boys?"
"Well," said Dr. Short, "the whole thing is puzzling. Benarcek, put those sheets down on Dr. Jennings's desk, please." The analyst did so, and Dr. Jennings began idly paging through them.
"Is there something wrong with this data?" he asked.
"I don't really know," said Dr. Short softly. "For all I can tell, they may be perfectly all right. It's more where they came from that troubles me."
"All right, Dr. Short," said Jennings, looking at the young woman thoughtfully, "don't have me guessing. Where did this garbage come from?"
"The red system," she said.
Dr. Jennings looked very surprised. "That's not what I thought you meant," he said. "Okay, we do have a real dilemma, then. Is there a chance some color-blind operator or programmer pumped up the red instead of the blue machines?" There was an embarrassed silence. "Well," said Dr. Jennings with a short-lived smile, "I was vaguely serious. That kind of foul-up has happened before. I don't suppose anyone's put this stuff through Data Reduction?"
"No, sir," said Benarcek. "It just started coming out a little while ago. I showed it to Dr. Short here, and she figured to show it to you."
"That's the next step, then," said Dr. Jennings. He sat on the corner of his huge mahogany desk and tapped his pen on the pages of data. "While you people downstairs run this through DR, I think I'd better have the EDP Downtime Documentation specialists run some thorough tests on the hardware. And Dr. Short, I expect you'll want your staff to evaluate the whole programming literature. There's been a massive error here, and it'll probably cost us a fortune."
Janet Short frowned. After only six weeks, the "fun" project was already becoming vicious. Dr. Jennings saw her displeasure. "Don't worry," he said. "No heads will roll. There hasn't been any critical sabotage, just a gross waste of time. So let's get back on the track as quickly as possible and try to see that it doesn't happen again."
"Thank you, Dr. Jennings," said Dr. Short. "I sort of feel like the mistakes of those programmers are my responsibility."
Dr. Jennings laughed briefly. "They are, Dr. Short, they are."
Benarcek and Janet Short left the office and retraced the path to their own domain. On the stairs Benarcek spoke up. "You know," he said, "Dr. Jennings is the first director or supervisor I've ever worked under that didn't have a nickname. You know, like 'Ironass' or 'Superwhip' or something like that. Everybody just calls him 'Dr. Jennings'."
"There's a reason for that," said Dr. Short. "I admire the man. I like working for him. I think I want the project to be a success because of him. He inspires that kind of cooperation in all of his staff. It's a rare talent."
"That's for sure," said Benarcek.
"So tell me," said Dr. Short as they entered the Data Retrieval Group's cubicles, "what's my nickname?"
Benarcek just laughed, and Dr. Short pushed him away, smiling. The young supervisor of the Data Retrieval Group carried the pages of the printout to her desk. She set them down and stared for a few seconds at the severe, military-style walls. She was lost in thought and barely saw her surroundings: a horizontal line at about waist level divided a dark green from the lighter green on all of the walls. Beyond her office, the desks and cubicles cut up the floor space into efficient but unattractive work areas. Overhead, everywhere, were the ugly gray public address loudspeakers. Dr. Short shook her head. What dreams she had entertained in her college days. What romantic visions of gleaming steel and flashing lights. All her training had come down to this, now: a five-pound slab of pure numerical nonsense that had to be sifted for a costly mistake. Just busywork; any high school sophomore could be trained to do it in an hour. But the job itself might take days, even weeks, and the project couldn't afford that. With a sigh, Janet Short sat down at her desk and got to work.
She picked up her phone and dialed the Data Source Library.
"DSL, Miss Briarly," said the voice on the other end.
"Chris," said Dr. Short, "I wonder if you could make up a spare fiche of the Project PTP job material for me."
"All of it, Dr. Short?"
"Yes, we found a pretty big bug this morning. We might have to start the whole thing over from scratch. I want all the programs, the variable data addresses, the Job Control Language decks, and the system documentation."
"I'll do my best, Dr. Short," said Miss Briarly skeptically. "How soon do you need all that?"
"Well, you won't have it before tomorrow morning. Can I put it all together? It would be a whole lot simpler that way."
Dr. Short thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose it would be easier for you. But I'm going to have to scan it all on one of these old monoptic readers. You could do me a great favor. Put the program on one fiche, the documentation on another, and the rest of the stuff on a third. And while you're at it, make me a stat of the DSL indexing on Project PTP."
"All right," said Miss Briarly, "but I guess we can't finish all of that before tomorrow night. We'll try, though, Dr. Short."
Dr. Short gritted her teeth. The librarians always knew the easiest way to annoy her. "Good," she said, "try your hardest. Group Two in Washington is going to find out about this before morning, and we're all going to want to be able to reassure them. They have other places to spend their grants, you know."
"I'll have our staff get right to it," said Miss Briarly. From the sudden terseness of the librarian's speech, Dr. Short guessed that the technicians had a talent for annoying the DSL people, as well. Dr. Short sighed as she hung up the phone. She looked at the stack of printout sadly and, rather than tackle it, dialed the phone again.
A man's voice answered. "Data Retrieval Group, Benarcek."
"Janet Short, Justin. Do you have the Data Reduction unit on-line?"
"Check," said Benarcek. "After we left Dr. Jennings's office, I figured that would be the first thing we had to do."
Dr. Short smiled. Her own group was as dependable as any she had ever worked with. If only the semi-skilled jobs could be filled with people with as much interest and concern ... "Great, Justin. How's it going?"
"Well, we respooled the red system's tapes and fed them through one of the old 1515s that's not being used. The paper tape of the red system's results started spitting out about ten minutes ago, and it's going right into the Data Reduction unit. The 1515 is just reprinting the figures, not computing them; it'll be running about twice as fast as the red system. But the red's got about an hour's head start, and the DR will slow the thing down. I imagine we'll have that stack of paper on your desk reduced by five o'clock tonight. No telling how long the red system'll be putting out new garbage, though. Are you sure you don't want me to stifle it?"
"No, we might as well let it babble. The clue to the whole thing might not show up for quite a while. There's no reason the red system can't stay on until we figure it all out. It's eating up a fortune in computer time, but we can't do anything else in the meantime, anyway."
"All right, Dr. Short," said Benarcek. "Everything in the Group is busily chattering away. All I have to do now is wait. This is going to be one of those jobs where my crossword puzzle talent really gets sharpened up."
Dr. Short muttered a goodbye and hung up. She sighed again. Maybe Benarcek would have nothing better to do than crossword puzzles, but the same could hardly be said for her. She pulled the printout sheets across her desk and reluctantly began her study.
The afternoon passed slowly. After lunch there was a memo on her desk from Dr. Jennings advising her of a supervisors' meeting later in the day. Generally the meetings were long, boring, repetitive, and, because of the guidelines the project received from Group Two in Washington, unavoidable. But the new situation made such a conference necessary; Dr. Short only hoped that by that time someone would have something practical to suggest.
Dr. Short's own work was frustrating; the pages and pages of five-digit numbers meant little to her. After fifteen minutes of sifting the data, she gave up. She would have to wait until Benarcek came in with the Data Reduction profile. She still had to finish some abstracts that she had been writing before the bug appeared. She took up that chore again, but her mind wouldn't concentrate. There was no way that she could understand what was happening within the red system until the technicians finished their tests; she was annoyed that her own routines were so dependent on the others. Still, out of duty she stayed at her desk and wrote reports for the Group Two secretaries to file.
At three-thirty Benarcek came into Dr. Short's office with the DR profile of the first part of the red system's output. "This is that damned bunch of pages we got this morning," he said, putting a small rectangular film on the desk.
Dr. Short picked it up and held it to the fluorescent lights. The fiche was four by six inches, and it held tiny reproductions of forty-nine pages of computer paper printout. Each of those pages represented a decoding and condensing of up to twelve of the original pages that had so baffled Dr. Short.
"Thanks, Justin, for getting it done so quickly," she said. "I can't wait to get at this, but there's a meeting with Dr. Jennings in less than half an hour. By the way, I suppose you ought to make up a fiche for him, too."
"Got it right here," said Benarcek.
"The universe is going to love you, Justin," said Dr. Short. "This project just might stumble on all sorts of tasty things."
"I can just see it in the A.S.A. Journal: 'Program Analyst Uncovers Meaning of Life.' It's just waiting here in this fiche, but it'll have to keep. Nothing holds me here past five o'clock, not even the promise of immortality in the halls of Science. I've got tickets for the Indians' game tonight."
Dr. Short laughed. "All right, Justin, you've done your share of work today. Keep that DR going, though; we'll want the whole thing on fiche tomorrow morning. Would you do me a favor before you take that up Dr. Jennings? Would you wheel that old viewer-calculator over to my desk? I want to get at least a glimpse of what our metal friends are trying to pass off as a final answer."
Benarcek did as she asked and left. Dr. Short slipped the fiche into place in the viewer. Instead of columns of five-digit integers, the fiche showed a seemingly endless parade of equations, lists of variables and constant values, analyses of sub-routines, and a running estimate of the margin of error; the latter never seemed to go over eight percent. It would take a while to interpret this data, but it was in a form more readily usable by a human technician. Dr. Short was curious about what Dr. Jennings's reaction might be.
She could not have predicted his excitement accurately. At the meeting of supervisory personnel, he was positively flustered.
"Ladies and gentlemen, let us begin," he said, nodding to Dr. Short as she entered his office, which had been rearranged to accommodate the meeting. "I have here the output of the red system, which Dr. Short's group has partially DRed. I'm going to put this fiche on this screen here, so you all can see it. Now, after just a cursory examination, I've made a few surprising discoveries. First, I don't believe that there's been any kind of major programming error, after all."
The room full of department heads reacted with surprise. "If you mean that," said Dr. Milton Rausch, the project's chief hardware engineer, "you have to mean that we have our answer. It's impossible for the red system to operate until the blue and yellow have completed all the preliminary computations. The only thing that could come out of the red is the final results. And if there isn't any program bug, then ... uh ... Project PTP can type up its report and go home."
"Well, not quite," said Dr. Jennings. "The prime objective of Project PTP, simply speaking, is to correlate the astronomical data that has accumulated during the last few decades. Then, by purely mathematical means, we are to ascertain whether any intelligent agency could be responsible for largely unexplained cosmic phenomena discovered since the development of modern astrometric apparatus. It is possible that the answer to that very important puzzle is right here." Dr. Jennings touched the screen on which the fiche was projected. "We'll know for certain very shortly. But even if this facet of our research has so abruptly ended, we are still faced with many weeks of work. There is no reason for concern about your jobs, and you should strive to reassure your subordinates along these lines." The others laughed.
Dr. James Chareaux, the chief of the Standards Update section, spoke up. "I just can't accept it, Bob. I can't see how even the 440/65s could have gone through that data so quickly."
"It's easy, Jim," said Dr. Jennings, with his familiar quiet smile. "All it means is that the answer is a whole lot simpler than we've ever wanted to believe. What information we've been able to gather concerning such things as QS Radio Sources, pulsars, and most especially Orienne-Mallesque stars has done little to illuminate our conception of the universe. In the last twenty-five years, science has stored away few facts and many theories. Now, with the techniques and facilities we have mobilized through the International Astrophysical Year, we're attempting to close in on some of those secrets. We can chart the relative positions and velocities of these phenomena; we can predict with a fair degree of accuracy the sudden appearances and disappearances which so baffled our colleagues twenty years ago. Using hydrogen-line frequency measurements we can estimate the size and age of each anomaly. We all know how long it took to assemble this material, to code it, to fit it all into a massive series of programs digestible by our 440s. We did our job, and the 440s did theirs. We're just about six months ahead of schedule."
"I still don't believe it," said Dr. Chareaux.
"Well, perhaps this morning the universe merely laughed in our faces," said Dr. Jennings, shrugging. "We'll find out."
"The problem doesn't have to be in the software," said Dr. Short. Her voice was softly modulated, a sharp contrast to Dr. Jennings's loud enthusiasm and Dr. Chareaux's persistent doubt. "It may be a simple failure of the machines themselves."
"We spent the afternoon checking them out," said Dr. Rausch. "I'll vouch for the blue and yellow systems. There's not much we can do with the red until it stops its routine, but what we have checked has been perfectly normal."
"Well, gang," said Dr. Jennings, "that's the situation. If I'm correct, and for the sake of my scientific curiosity I hope that I am, we may know tomorrow whether or not the human race is alone in the universe. I feel certain that this data will pinpoint our cosmic neighbors, or once and for all destroy the hope of finding any. Off the record, I'm praying that your analyses will prove me right, that this isn't just the result of some malfunction. There's no need to express how disappointed we'd all be. For that reason alone, I see no cause to advise anyone, neither our superiors in Washington nor outsiders, of the situation until we have something more definite. I'm personally frustrated by the delay, but there's no point in beginning work until the red system has decided that it's finished its job. I hope that will occur sometime tonight. So, if all goes well, in the morning we may be able to divide the computer's output among you, and the second phase of Project PTP will begin. I suggest you all go home, get a good night's rest, and come in with as clear a head as you can manage. I don't suppose I'll have to ask you to be on time." He smiled and indicated that the meeting was over.
Afterward, there was a cluster of people around Dr. Jennings, all anxiously trying to get him to elaborate on the reasons for his optimism, but he would say nothing further. Janet Short was less interested, preferring to wait until the data became definite. She was absorbed in her own thoughts on the way back to her office, when she became aware that Dr. Jennings had spoken to her. She turned to see him following her down the curving staircase.
"You're certainly keeping your own counsel about this, Dr. Short," said the tall, serious, administrative director.
Dr. Short smiled self-consciously. "I don't really see any purpose in putting forth any ideas until I have a chance to study the facts. I haven't even had time to get as familiar with them as you are."
"I suppose yours is the safest and wisest course," said Dr. Jennings, finding in her words an amused reference to his own excitement. "That's why I advised temporary secrecy to the others. But I'm sure you can understand what this project means to me. To have an answer--and to such a question, after all!--nearly within my reach is enough to drive me crazy. I guess I'll have to wait, but I don't have to enjoy it."
They walked together past the security guard at the old mansion's great double doors. The late afternoon sun was still hot, and emerging from the air-conditioned interior onto the columned porch they were halted by the stifling atmosphere.
"I still haven't gotten used to this weather," said Dr. Short, shaking her head ruefully.
"You came from New York, didn't you?" asked Dr. Jennings.
"I'm sure you have my folder memorized by now," said Dr. Short. "And my last job isn't interesting enough to start a real conversation. But I did quite a bit of work in dexterity equivalencies. I had a grant from the Biomath people in St. Louis, along with an old colleague of mine. But, of course, the money ran out just as we were beginning to show some results."
"At least we don't have that problem here," said Dr. Jennings. "It's a very rare circumstance, having administrators in Washington who admit they don't know what's happening and are willing to trust my judgment. They'll gladly pay for any toy I requisition, because they know that basically I'm stingier than they are."
"So far, it's been a real joy working here."
Dr. Jennings smiled. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "You mean all except this weather, huh?"
"It's not the heat, it's the humidity," she said, laughing.
"Sometimes it's both. Has it kept you from exploring our part of the country?" They left the porch and walked down the drive together.
"When I first got to town, I was told to look into the French Quarter. I went down to Bourbon Street and I was pretty disappointed. All there was were rows of strip joints and bars. It was like the owners were still stuck back in 1970 or something. Nothing different from any big town I've ever seen. New York has Times Square, Baltimore has its Block, Cleveland has its Short Vincent. I guess I just have better ways to spend my time."
"I hope that doesn't mean that you're going to be one of those dedicated scientists, always stuck in a hot room reading journals right through Mardi Gras," said Dr. Jennings.
Dr. Short was taken aback for a few seconds. She didn't want to seem overly prim, but she didn't want to look foolish, either. She was spared the necessity of answering by Dr. Jennings's sudden apology.
"I'm very sorry, Dr. Short," he said softly. "I suppose I got out of line for a minute. I didn't mean to be so accusing. It's just that visitors to New Orleans generally get only a quick glimpse of our city, as you said, just a bit of Bourbon Street's flash and racket. It's frustrating to me, because New Orleans is one of the most fascinating places in the United States, even the world. We natives want it to be properly appreciated."
"Oh, there's no need for you to apologize," said Dr. Short quickly. "I understand perfectly. It's only that sometimes it's more difficult for a newcomer to find the right places."
"Well, then," said Dr. Jennings, "I'd be flattered if you'd let me help you discover some of our more essential sights."
Dr. Short paused on the sidewalk, considering the propriety of the situation, but stopped that line of thought when she looked into her director's pleasant, open face. "Nothing could make me happier," she said, smiling again. "But don't we have to worry about interoffice gossip?"
"They wouldn't dare," said Dr. Jennings. "I'm too easy a target, and you're too fine a person."
"With a line like that," she said, "it's lucky you weren't an English major, Dr. Jennings."
"First off," he said, "we drop the 'Doctors' after five o'clock. I'm Bob and you're Janet. I'll call my waiter and see about a table at Antoine's for dinner."
"That would be wonderful, Bob," she said. "I was sure I'd have to go through this whole project without seeing the inside of Antoine's. I've been hearing about it since college."
"Their reputation is well-earned," said Dr. Jennings. "But you'll get to know their menu well enough. You live near Tulane, don't you?"
"I wonder what you don't know about me," said Dr. Short.
"We'll find out tonight. Do you like oysters Rockefeller?"
"We'll find out tonight."
"Fine," said Dr. Jennings. "I'll go home and call Paul, my regular waiter. Is seven-thirty all right with you? I'll come by your apartment around six-thirty, so we can take a leisurely ride downtown. They used to have a streetcar line on St. Charles Avenue here, up until a few years ago. It's a shame you never saw it. The trolleys were much more picturesque than San Francisco's, I think."
"I'll have time to put on something special, then," said Janet Short. "I'm looking forward to it, so don't be late."
"Not me," said Dr. Jennings. "I have the secrets of the universe on my shoulders. I need a rest."