The Complete Stories (Page 14)
"Till now," said Foster, "you didn’t mind my risking loss of grants and position. Why do you turn so tender about it now? Now let me explain something to you. When you first came to me, I believed in organized and directed research; the situation as it existed, in other words. I considered you an intellectual anarchist, Dr. Potterley, and dangerous. But, for one reason or another, I’ve been an anarchist myself for months now and I have achieved great things.
"Those things have been achieved not because I am a brilliant scientist. Not at all. It was just that scientific research had been directed from above and holes were left that could be filled in by anyone who looked in the right direction. And anyone might have if the government hadn’t actively tried to prevent it.
"Now understand me. I still believe directed research can be useful. I’m not in favor of a retreat to total anarchy. But there must be a middle ground. Directed research can retain flexibility. A scientist must be allowed to follow his curiosity, at least in his spare time."
Potterley sat down. He said ingratiatingly, "Let’s discuss this, Foster. I appreciate your idealism. You’re young. You want the moon. But you can’t destroy yourself through fancy notions of what research must consist of. I got you into this. I am responsible and I blame myself bitterly. I was acting emotionally. My interest in Carthage blinded me and I was a damned fool."
Foster broke in. "You mean you’ve changed completely in two days? Carthage is nothing? Government suppression of research is nothing?"
"Even a damned fool like myself can leam, Foster. My wife taught me something. I understand the reason for government suppression of neutrin-ics now. I didn’t two days ago. And, understanding, I approve. You saw the way my wife reacted to the news of a chronoscope in the basement. I had envisioned a chronoscope used for research purposes. All she could see was the personal pleasure of returning neurotically to a personal past, a dead past. The pure researcher, Foster, is in the minority. People like my wife would outweigh us.
"For the government to encourage chronoscopy would have meant that everyone’s past would be visible. The government officers would be subjected to blackmail and improper pressure, since who on Earth has a past that is absolutely clean? Organized government might become impossible."
Foster licked his lips. "Maybe. Maybe the government has some justification in its own eyes. Still, there’s an important principle involved here. Who knows what other scientific advances are being stymied because scientists are being stifled into walking a narrow path? If the chronoscope becomes the terror of a few politicians, it’s a price that must be paid. The public must realize that science must be free and there is no more dramatic way of doing it than to publish my discovery, one way or another, legally or illegally."
Potterley’s brow was damp with perspiration, but his voice remained even. "Oh, not just a few politicians, Dr. Foster. Don’t think that. It would be my terror, too. My wife would spend her time living with our dead daughter. She would retreat further from reality. She would go mad living the same scenes over and over. And not just my terror. There would be others like her. Children searching for their dead parents or their own youth. We’ll have a whole world living in the past. Midsummer madness."
Foster said, "Moral judgments can’t stand in the way. There isn’t one advance at any time in history that mankind hasn’t had the ingenuity to pervert. Mankind must also have the ingenuity to prevent. As for the chronoscope, your delvers into the dead past will get tired soon enough. They’ll catch their loved parents in some of the things their loved parents did and they’ll lose their enthusiasm for it all. But all this is trivial. With me, it’s a matter of important principle."
Potterley said, "Hang your principle. Can’t you understand men and women as well as principle? Don’t you understand that my wife will live through the fire that killed our baby? She won’t be able to help herself. I know her. She’ll follow through each step, trying to prevent it. She’ll live it over and over again, hoping each time that it won’t happen. How many times do you want to kill Laurel?" A huskiness had crept into his voice.
A thought crossed Foster’s mind. "What are you really afraid she’ll find out, Dr. Potterley? What happened the night of the fire?"
The historian’s hands went up quickly to cover his face and they shook with his dry sobs. Foster turned away and stared uncomfortably out the window.
Potterley said after a while, "It’s a long time since I’ve had to think of it. Caroline was away. I was baby-sitting. I went into the baby’s bedroom midevening to see if she had kicked off the bedclothes. I had my cigarette with me … I smoked in those days. I must have stubbed it out before putting it in the ashtray on the chest of drawers. I was always careful. The baby was all right. I returned to the living room and fell asleep before the video. I awoke, choking, surrounded by fire. I don’t know how it started."
"But you think it may have been the cigarette, is that it?" said Foster. "A cigarette which, for once, you forgot to stub out?"
"I don’t know. I tried to save her, but she was dead in my arms when I got out."
"You never told your wife about the cigarette, I suppose."
Potterley shook his head. "But I’ve lived with it."
"Only now, with a chronoscope, she’ll find out. Maybe it wasn’t the cigarette. Maybe you did stub it out. Isn’t that possible?"
The scant tears had dried on Potterley’s face. The redness had subsided. He said, "I can’t take the chance. . . . But it’s not just myself, Foster. The past has its terrors for most people. Don’t loose those terrors on the human race."