Isaac Asimov

Petrovich (Rusia) 1920 – New York: april 1992


Grotto – part 2

He could recognize none of the equipment.

How could he? He was entirely a theoretician and when he worked in his own field, he used computerized devices that he had designed and modified himself. For a moment, he felt a stab of nostalgia for his laboratory at the university, for his books, for the smell of the animal cages, even for the stupid obstinacy of his colleagues.


There were people everywhere in the Grotto. There were a dozen nearby and others further off and the impression was of the interior of a human ant hill crawling with machinery, with humanity, with purpose.


No one paid any attention to the newcomers, or to each other. They went about their work in silence, their steps muffled by their sandals.


Again, Boranova seemed to read Morrison’s mind, and when she spoke it was in a whisper:


– We keep our counsel here. None of us knows more than it is good for him, or her, to know. There must be no leaks of significance.

– But surely they must communicate?

– When they must, they will, minimally. It reduces the pleasure of camaraderie, but it is necessary.

– This kind of compartmentalization slows progress, – said Morrison.

– It’s the price to pay for security, – said Boranova –, so if no one talks to you, it is not a personal matter. They will have no reason to talk to you.

– They’ll be curious about a stranger.

– I have seen to it that they know you are an outside expert. That is all they need to know.


Morrison frowned:

– How can they expect an American to be an outside expert?

– They don’t know you’re an American.

– My accent will give me away at once as it did to the serving-woman.

– But you will not talk to anyone, except for those to whom I will introduce you.

– As you wish, – said Morrison, indifferently.


He was still looking around. Since he was here, he might as well learn what he could, even if trivial. When – if – he returned to the United States, he would surely be asked for every detail he had observed, and he might as well have something to give them.


He said in Boranova’s ear:

– This must be an expensive place. What fraction of the national budget is expended here?

– It’s expensive, – said Boranova, admitting nothing further –, and the government labours to limit the expense.


Dezhnev said, sourly:

– I had to work for an hour this morning to persuade them to allow a small additional experiment for your benefit; – may the Committee catch the cholera!


Morrison said:

– The cholera no longer exists, even in India.

– May it be reinstated for the Committee!


Boranova said:

– Arkady, if these supposedly humorous expressions of yours get back to the Committee, it will do you no good.

– I’m not afraid of those pigs, Natasha.

– I am. What will happen to next year’s budget, if you infuriate them?


Morrison said, with sudden impatience, but speaking even more softly:

– What concerns me is neither the Committee nor the budget, but the simple question of what it is I am doing here?


Dezhnev said:

– You are here to witness a miniaturization and to be given an explanation of why we need your help. Will that satisfy you, Comrade Am – Comrade Outside Expert?


Morrison followed the other two to something that looked like a small old-fashioned train carriage on a very narrow gauge tracks.


Boranova placed her thumb on a smooth patch, and a door slid open smoothly, and without noise:

– Please get in, Dr Morrison.


Morrison held back:

– Where are we going?


– To the miniaturization chamber, of course.

– By railroad? How big is this place?

– It is large, doctor, but not so large. This is a matter of security. Only certain individuals can use this device, and only by using it can one penetrate into the core of the Grotto.

– Are your own people so untrustworthy?

– We live in a complex world, Dr Morrison. Our people are trustworthy but we do not wish to subject large numbers to temptations they need not face. And if someone persuades one of us to go elsewhere, as we have persuaded you, it is safer if their knowledge is limited, you see. Please get in.


Morrison entered the compact vehicle with some difficulty.


Dezhnev followed him with equal trouble, saying:

– Another example of senseless cheese-paring. Why so small? Because the bureaucrats spend billions of roubles on a project, and they feel virtuous if they save a few hundred in odd places at the cost of making hard-working people miserable.


Isaak Asimov

 Journey to the centre of the mind

Will follow on next issue of AIR