Herman Schofield, senior Republican senator from Montana and Chairman of the Joint Congressional Commerce Committee, slammed his gavel once, hard, onto its sounding block. He’d much rather have smashed it against the skull of the witness who sat before him.
Schofield straightened his tie out of habit and scowled, thinking back to when he had tied it that morning in front of his tinted dressing room mirror. As he’d correctly predicted then, another depressing day was unwrapping itself. Lunch had been thoroughly unappetizing—as it had been for the last two months running. Just as bland and off-putting as everything else in the world, lately.
“This hearing will now come to order, please,” he said. “Dr. Tart, I remind you that you remain under oath from this morning’s session.”
Schofield peered down at the mousy, bespectacled man sitting alone and forlorn at the witness table under the elevated countenance of the Committee. It was hard to believe how this little man, this Director of Research at the Apex Paint Company, could have created such mischief.
The Senator cleared his throat. “Dr. Tart, continuing the line of inquiry from this morning’s session, please explain to us in your own words the objectives of your company’s research program, those which may be pertinent to the subject of these hearings.”
Tart visibly squirmed in his chair. As well he should, Schofield thought, snorting. The weasel!
“We, ah . . . we wanted to make a better brand of paint, Senator. It’s a very competitive business.”
“That you succeeded is patently obvious, Dr. Tart. The several governmental regulatory agencies overseeing your industry have yet to find any specific violations of law in your actions, per se. Yet, I must ask you point-blank: Had you ever expressed misgivings to your superiors about using so-called ’nanotech’ in your product line?”
The little man stiffened and seemed to grow a few inches in his chair. “Sir, in point of fact, the paint industry pioneered the earliest commercial applications of nanotechnology quite a few years ago. The development of sub-micron-sized dispersions of pigment and binder have yielded increasingly superior paint products over at least the last two decades. At Apex, we felt we were merely extending this technology in an incremental fashion.”
“More than a simple increment, I should think. It got out of hand, yes?
“You are referring to the Apex Paint lab incident, I presume?”
Schofield slammed his fist down hard on the table. “Yes, specifically that! Great Scott, man! Why else would we be sitting here flapping our gums?”
Dr. Tart, caught in the crosshairs of the senator’s sudden emotional outburst, reacted like a whipped puppy. His body shrank back into a compressed, utterly subservient posture. The man opened his mouth to answer, closed it again. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief, cleared a clot of phlegm from his throat, and, in a low, almost inaudible voice, finally said, “I agree that the decision to test the application of more ’intelligent’ nano-agents in our paint formulations may have been made in too hasty a manner. In particular, introducing the features of motility, self-replication, and the ability to adapt and alter local surface chemistries to the service of the coating was, ah, probably more than we should have bitten off all at once.”
“Even so, it appears that you forgot to add one additional ingredient,” Schofield said, “that being some sort of safeguard to terminate the progressive action of these so-called ’intelligent’ nano-agents. Is that not correct?”
“In retrospect, yes, that was our biggest mistake, Senator.”
Schofield swept his arms out in front of himself to encompass the entire room. “And so we sit here now in this pink chamber, with its pink furniture and pink drapes and pink carpet and pink people, every article inside it painted pink, and look out these pink-tinged windows at the entirely pink world stretching to the far horizon and beyond.”
He paused and sighed deeply. Over the last few weeks, he had cashed in a few chips and used some good old-fashioned positional bullying to get the FBI to investigate Tart. They’d found no evidence of any ties to Communists, terrorist organizations, liberal wacko groups or anything else. The man appeared, for all the world, to be completely apolitical in his worldview. To Schofield, it merely meant that Tart was clever, oh so clever, at hiding his true motivations. Damn him!
“Unfortunately, Dr. Tart, this Committee lacks the judicial power to cast you into the depths of a federal prison cell—where I personally feel that you and your company executives belong. But before I dismiss you and adjourn this afternoon’s session, I feel compelled to ask one final question: What in Heaven’s name led you to run that infernal test using such an un-American color, of all the others you might have chosen? I mean, good God, sir. A pink Capitol building? A pink Washington Monument?”
Tart’s face lit up like that of a young schoolboy who knew the answer to a teacher’s tough question. “Oh, we’ve always used pink in our lab tests, Senator. That is in deference to my daughter. It’s her favorite color!” He seemed to catch himself up, lowered his head for a moment, then added in a small voice, “I suppose, if you wanted, we could whip up a batch of Royal Blue to overcoat the existing color. Would that, ah . . . would that help any?”