"I . . . uh . . . turned over the preliminary examination to an assistant. He was distracted for a few days over the costs in the sub-micro refiling system. We all know that's top priority if we ever hope to effect any big savings in . . . Oh, dear. I'm explaining this badly."
"What did your assistant find?"
"The Dornbaker Account. For three days we have been receiving nothing but material on this Dornbaker Account."
"That's why I was so sure that my Chief Accountant would know what . . ."
Sil-Chan pressed backward into his chair. "Impossible! There's no account in our records that big."
"I'm afraid there's at least one such account. Material on it is still pouring out. The last running tab showed eighteen billion stellars spent on the Dornbaker Account in the first seven months of this fiscal year."
Sil-Chan opened his mouth, closed it without a word. Then: "I shall resign immediately, of course. I cannot . . ."
"Oh, don't be a fool! Not a complete fool, at least."
"Sir, I don't understand how you got these records and we in Accountancy have never heard of them."
"It was the way I phrased my request. How do you summon the records each year?"
"Accounts for readjustment, of course."
"I asked for all large expenses."
"Don't blame yourself, my boy," Tchung said. "I know the procedure. How could you suspect such a . . ."
"Even so, our cross-checks and random accounting procedures . . . anything that big has to be justified in the budgets!"
"It was marked DA. Does that suggest anything to you?"
"Deteriorated Accumulation -- the fuel budget! Deteriorated fuel. I see! It was . . ."
". . . thrown in with fuel costs. They were large, but we expect them to be large and. . . ."
"Doesn't the Central Computer explain this Dornbaker Account?"
Tchung referred to the micro projection on his desk, flipped switches and read from the projection. "It refers to Dornbaker access, Dornbaker counterbalance -- that's one million six hundred and eight thousand stellars annually just for robot upkeep -- and there's Dornbaker re-routing and . . ." Tchung mopped his forehead. "It takes forty-two minutes just to list the subsections of this account. I won't go on with it."
Sil-Chan swallowed in a dry throat. "Forty-two minutes just to . . . Did you say counterbalance?"
"There's obviously some stupid error here, sir. How could. . . ."
"No error. When I saw counterbalance, I began to suspect that . . . well . . . You must understand, Sooma, that some matters are reserved for the Director. There's a question of legality here. It seems that we don't have the legal right to readjust this account."
"But all that money, sir. How long since that account has even been studied for possible . . ."
"Five thousand and two Standard Years Modern, six thousand and twenty-nine by the old reckoning."
Sil-Chan felt a constriction of his chest. He felt suddenly old and incomplete. "I know, sir, that we've never been noted for our economies, but. . . ."
Tchung waved him to silence. "I will risk the open channels." He flipped a switch beside his desk projector, indicated the open microphone to the Central Computer. "Sooma, how would you phrase the question to get as succinct an answer as possible? Seventy-four point four one two percent of standby and primary logic banks already are engaged in the first phase of this Dornbaker Account. You must ask a question which uses a primary channel without higher monitor."
Sil-Chan nodded, ran a hand through his blonde brush. "Computer?"
"Computer recognizes Sil-Chan." The metallic voice carried an impersonal and attenuated tone which Sil-Chan found uncharacteristic. Perhaps it was Tchung's own office setting.
"I am propounding a top priority question," Sil-Chan said. "This question takes precedence over all other matters now being considered. Give us an elementary, condensed explanation which requires no more than a few minutes -- What is this Dornbaker Account?"
A rasping buzz sounded from the speaker followed by clicks and tappings, then the metallic voice: "Information available only to the Director."
"Give us that information!" Tchung ordered. "Computer recognizes Director Tchung," the metallic voice said. "Does Director Tchung wish this information disclosed to the other person with him?"
"Noted and filed. Free Island Dornbaker is a land mass of approximately two hundred and seventy-four kilometers length, one hundred and fifty-eight kilometers width. It is located on planet surface approximately four hundred kilometers from the community of Magsayan which is on the shores of Climatic Control Sea number fifteen. The island. . . ."
"Island?" Sil-Chan interrupted.
"A body of land entirely surrounded by water," said the computer."
"I know what an island is!" Sil-Chan snapped. "I was just surprised."
"Computer cannot always distinguish between surprise and the need to know," the Computer said.
"Get on with it!" Tchung ordered.
"Dornbaker Free Island is an autonomous area by treaty and numerous precedental decisions in Stellar Law that would be applicable in present circumstances. Beneath the island in roughly a cone shape, the original property attached to the autonomous area projects to within three hundred kilometers of planetary core. There is also the restriction on airspace which . . ."
"Under the island?" Sil-Chan asked.
The Computer clicked, then: "Surprise or interrogation?"
"Interrogation," Sil-Chan said.
"Computer obeys. The three hundred kilometers beneath this downward projection were ceded to Galactic Archives when this planet was the Terran Autonomy. That was at the time of the gravitronic unit's installation. This installation occurred immediately prior to the planetary reduction in mass which made room for storage of . . ."
"But what do you mean by cone-shaped property?" Sil-Chan demanded.