Science Fiction Vol. 1 (2 of 3)


Uploaded by The16thCavern on 04.11.2012

Transcript:
ONE-SHOT By James Benjamin Blish
You can do a great deal if you have enough data, and
enough time to compute on it, by logical methods. But given
the situation that neither data nor time is adequate, and an
answer must be produced ... what do you do?
On the day that the Polish freighter _Ludmilla_ laid an egg in New York
harbor, Abner Longmans ("One-Shot") Braun was in the city going about
his normal business, which was making another million dollars. As we
found out later, almost nothing else was normal about that particular
week end for Braun. For one thing, he had brought his family with him—a
complete departure from routine—reflecting the unprecedentedly
legitimate nature of the deals he was trying to make. From every point
of view it was a bad week end for the CIA to mix into his affairs, but
nobody had explained that to the master of the _Ludmilla_.
I had better add here that we knew nothing about this until afterward;
from the point of view of the storyteller, an organization like Civilian
Intelligence Associates gets to all its facts backwards, entering the
tale at the pay-off, working back to the hook, and winding up with a
sheaf of background facts to feed into the computer for Next Time. It's
rough on the various people who've tried to fictionalize what we
do—particularly for the lazy examples of the breed, who come to us
expecting that their plotting has already been done for them—but it's
inherent in the way we operate, and there it is.
Certainly nobody at CIA so much as thought of Braun when the news first
came through. Harry Anderton, the Harbor Defense chief, called us at
0830 Friday to take on the job of identifying the egg; this was when our
records show us officially entering the affair, but, of course, Anderton
had been keeping the wires to Washington steaming for an hour before
that, getting authorization to spend some of his money on us (our
clearance status was then and is now C&R—clean and routine).
I was in the central office when the call came through, and had some
difficulty in making out precisely what Anderton wanted of us. "Slow
down, Colonel Anderton, please," I begged him. "Two or three seconds
won't make that much difference. How did you find out about this egg in
the first place?"
"The automatic compartment bulkheads on the _Ludmilla_ were defective,"
he said. "It seems that this egg was buried among a lot of other crates
in the dump-cell of the hold—"
"What's a dump cell?"
"It's a sea lock for getting rid of dangerous cargo. The bottom of it
opens right to Davy Jones. Standard fitting for ships carrying
explosives, radioactives, anything that might act up unexpectedly."
"All right," I said. "Go ahead."
"Well, there was a timer on the dump-cell floor, set to drop the egg
when the ship came up the river. That worked fine, but the automatic
bulkheads that are supposed to keep the rest of the ship from being
flooded while the cell's open, didn't. At least they didn't do a
thorough job. The _Ludmilla_ began to list and the captain yelled for
help. When the Harbor Patrol found the dump-cell open, they called us
in."
"I see." I thought about it a moment. "In other words, you don't know
whether the _Ludmilla_ really laid an egg or not."
"That's what I keep trying to explain to you, Dr. Harris. We don't know
what she dropped and we haven't any way of finding out. It could be a
bomb—it could be anything. We're sweating everybody on board the ship
now, but it's my guess that none of them know anything; the whole
procedure was designed to be automatic."
"All right, we'll take it," I said. "You've got divers down?"
"Sure, but—"
"We'll worry about the buts from here on. Get us a direct line from
your barge to the big board here so we can direct the work. Better get
on over here yourself."
"Right." He sounded relieved. Official people have a lot of confidence
in CIA; too much, in my estimation. Some day the job will come along
that we can't handle, and then Washington will be kicking itself—or,
more likely, some scapegoat—for having failed to develop a comparable
government department.
Not that there was much prospect of Washington's doing that. Official
thinking had been running in the other direction for years. The
precedent was the Associated Universities organization which ran
Brookhaven; CIA had been started the same way, by a loose corporation of
universities and industries all of which had wanted to own an ULTIMAC
and no one of which had had the money to buy one for itself. The
Eisenhower administration, with its emphasis on private enterprise and
concomitant reluctance to sink federal funds into projects of such size,
had turned the two examples into a nice fat trend, which ULTIMAC herself
said wasn't going to be reversed within the practicable lifetime of CIA.
I buzzed for two staffers, and in five minutes got Clark Cheyney and
Joan Hadamard, CIA's business manager and social science division chief
respectively. The titles were almost solely for the benefit of the
T/O—that is, Clark and Joan do serve in those capacities, but said
service takes about two per cent of their capacities and their time. I
shot them a couple of sentences of explanation, trusting them to pick up
whatever else they needed from the tape, and checked the line to the
divers' barge.
It was already open; Anderton had gone to work quickly and with decision
once he was sure we were taking on the major question. The television
screen lit, but nothing showed on it but murky light, striped with
streamers of darkness slowly rising and falling. The audio went
_cloonck_ ... _oing_, _oing_ ... _bonk_ ... _oing_ ... Underwater
noises, shapeless and characterless.
"Hello, out there in the harbor. This is CIA, Harris calling. Come in,
please."
"Monig here," the audio said. _Boink_ ... _oing_, _oing_ ...
"Got anything yet?"
"Not a thing, Dr. Harris," Monig said. "You can't see three inches in
front of your face down here—it's too silty. We've bumped into a couple
of crates, but so far, no egg."
"Keep trying."
Cheyney, looking even more like a bulldog than usual, was setting his
stopwatch by one of the eight clocks on ULTIMAC's face. "Want me to take
the divers?" he said.
"No, Clark, not yet. I'd rather have Joan do it for the moment." I
passed the mike to her. "You'd better run a probability series first."
"Check." He began feeding tape into the integrator's mouth. "What's your
angle, Peter?"
"The ship. I want to see how heavily shielded that dump-cell is."
"It isn't shielded at all," Anderton's voice said behind me. I hadn't
heard him come in. "But that doesn't prove anything. The egg might have
carried sufficient shielding in itself. Or maybe the Commies didn't care
whether the crew was exposed or not. Or maybe there isn't any egg."
"All that's possible," I admitted. "But I want to see it, anyhow."
"Have you taken blood tests?" Joan asked Anderton.
"Yes."
"Get the reports through to me, then. I want white-cell counts,
differentials, platelet counts, hematocrit and sed rates on every man."
Anderton picked up the phone and I took a firm hold on the doorknob.
"Hey," Anderton said, putting the phone down again. "Are you going to
duck out just like that? Remember, Dr. Harris, we've got to evacuate the
city first of all! No matter whether it's a real egg or not—we can't
take the chance on it's _not_ being an egg!"
"Don't move a man until you get a go-ahead from CIA," I said. "For all
we know now, evacuating the city may be just what the enemy wants us to
do—so they can grab it unharmed. Or they may want to start a panic for
some other reason, any one of fifty possible reasons."
"You can't take such a gamble," he said grimly. "There are eight and a
half million lives riding on it. I can't let you do it."
"You passed your authority to us when you hired us," I pointed out. "If
you want to evacuate without our O.K., you'll have to fire us first.
It'll take another hour to get that cleared from Washington—so you
might as well give us the hour."
He stared at me for a moment, his lips thinned. Then he picked up the
phone again to order Joan's blood count, and I got out the door, fast.
A reasonable man would have said that I found nothing useful on the
_Ludmilla_, except negative information. But the fact is that anything I
found would have been a surprise to me; I went down looking for
surprises. I found nothing but a faint trail to Abner Longmans Braun,
most of which was fifteen years cold.
There'd been a time when I'd known Braun, briefly and to no profit to
either of us. As an undergraduate majoring in social sciences, I'd taken
on a term paper on the old International Longshoreman's Association, a
racket-ridden union now formally extinct—although anyone who knew the
signs could still pick up some traces on the docks. In those days, Braun
had been the business manager of an insurance firm, the sole visible
function of which had been to write policies for the ILA and its
individual dock-wallopers. For some reason, he had been amused by the
brash youngster who'd barged in on him and demanded the lowdown, and had
shown me considerable lengths of ropes not normally in view of the
public—nothing incriminating, but enough to give me a better insight
into how the union operated than I had had any right to expect—or even
suspect.
Hence I was surprised to hear somebody on the docks remark that Braun
was in the city over the week end. It would never have occurred to me
that he still interested himself in the waterfront, for he'd gone
respectable with a vengeance. He was still a professional gambler, and
according to what he had told the Congressional Investigating Committee
last year, took in thirty to fifty thousand dollars a year at it, but
his gambles were no longer concentrated on horses, the numbers, or shady
insurance deals. Nowadays what he did was called investment—mostly in
real estate; realtors knew him well as the man who had _almost_ bought
the Empire State Building. (The _almost_ in the equation stands for the
moment when the shoestring broke.)
Joan had been following his career, too, not because she had ever met
him, but because for her he was a type study in the evolution of what
she called "the extra-legal ego." "With personalities like that,
respectability is a disease," she told me. "There's always an
almost-open conflict between the desire to be powerful and the desire to
be accepted; your ordinary criminal is a moral imbecile, but people like
Braun are damned with a conscience, and sooner or later they crack
trying to appease it."
"I'd sooner try to crack a Timkin bearing," I said. "Braun's ten-point
steel all the way through."
"Don't you believe it. The symptoms are showing all over him. Now he's
backing Broadway plays, sponsoring beginning actresses, joining
playwrights' groups—he's the only member of Buskin and Brush who's
never written a play, acted in one, or so much as pulled the rope to
raise the curtain."
"That's investment," I said. "That's his business."
"Peter, you're only looking at the surface. His real investments almost
never fail. But the plays he backs _always_ do. They have to; he's
sinking money in them to appease his conscience, and if they were to
succeed it would double his guilt instead of salving it. It's the same
way with the young actresses. He's not sexually interested in them—his
type never is, because living a rigidly orthodox family life is part of
the effort towards respectability. He's backing them to 'pay his debt to
society'—in other words, they're talismans to keep him out of jail."
"It doesn't seem like a very satisfactory substitute."
"Of course it isn't," Joan had said. "The next thing he'll do is go in
for direct public service—giving money to hospitals or something like
that. You watch."
She had been right; within the year, Braun had announced the founding of
an association for clearing the Detroit slum area where he had been
born—the plainest kind of symbolic suicide: _Let's not have any more
Abner Longmans Brauns born down here_. It depressed me to see it happen,
for next on Joan's agenda for Braun was an entry into politics as a
fighting liberal—a New Dealer twenty years too late. Since I'm mildly
liberal myself when I'm off duty, I hated to think what Braun's career
might tell me about my own motives, if I'd let it.
All of which had nothing to do with why I was prowling around the
_Ludmilla_—or did it? I kept remembering Anderton's challenge: "You
can't take such a gamble. There are eight and a half million lives
riding on it—" That put it up into Braun's normal operating area, all
right. The connection was still hazy, but on the grounds that any link
might be useful, I phoned him.
He remembered me instantly; like most uneducated, power-driven men, he
had a memory as good as any machine's.
"You never did send me that paper you was going to write," he said. His
voice seemed absolutely unchanged, although he was in his seventies now.
"You promised you would."
"Kids don't keep their promises as well as they should," I said. "But
I've still got copies and I'll see to it that you get one, this time.
Right now I need another favor—something right up your alley."
"CIA business?"
"Yes. I didn't know you knew I was with CIA."
Braun chuckled. "I still know a thing or two," he said. "What's the
angle?"
"That I can't tell you over the phone. But it's the biggest gamble there
ever was, and I think we need an expert. Can you come down to CIA's
central headquarters right away?"
"Yeah, if it's that big. If it ain't, I got lots of business here, Andy.
And I ain't going to be in town long. You're sure it's top stuff?"
"My word on it."
He was silent a moment. Then he said, "Andy, send me your paper."
"The paper? Sure, but—" Then I got it. I'd given him my word. "You'll
get it," I said. "Thanks, Mr. Braun."
I called headquarters and sent a messenger to my apartment to look for
one of those long-dusty blue folders with the legal-length sheets inside
them, with orders to scorch it over to Braun without stopping to breathe
more than once. Then I went back myself.
The atmosphere had changed. Anderton was sitting by the big desk,
clenching his fists and sweating; his whole posture telegraphed his
controlled helplessness. Cheyney was bent over a seismograph,
echo-sounding for the egg through the river bottom. If that even had a
prayer of working, I knew, he'd have had the trains of the Hudson &
Manhattan stopped; their rumbling course through their tubes would have
blanked out any possible echo-pip from the egg.
"Wild goose chase?" Joan said, scanning my face.
"Not quite. I've got something, if I can just figure out what it is.
Remember One-Shot Braun?"
"Yes. What's he got to do with it?"
[Illustration]
"Nothing," I said. "But I want to bring him in. I don't think we'll lick
this project before deadline without him."
"What good is a professional gambler on a job like this? He'll just get
in the way."
I looked toward the television screen, which now showed an amorphous
black mass, jutting up from a foundation of even deeper black. "Is that
operation getting you anywhere?"
"Nothing's gotten us anywhere," Anderton interjected harshly. "We don't
even know if that's the egg—the whole area is littered with crates.
Harris, you've got to let me get that alert out!"
"Clark, how's the time going?"
Cheyney consulted the stopwatch. "Deadline in twenty-nine minutes," he
said.
"All right, let's use those minutes. I'm beginning to see this thing a
little clearer. Joan, what we've got here is a one-shot gamble; right?"
"In effect," she said cautiously.
"And it's my guess that we're never going to get the answer by diving
for it—not in time, anyhow. Remember when the Navy lost a barge-load of
shells in the harbor, back in '52? They scrabbled for them for a year
and never pulled up a one; they finally had to warn the public that if
it found anything funny-looking along the shore it shouldn't bang said
object, or shake it either. We're better equipped than the Navy was
then—but we're working against a deadline."
"If you'd admitted that earlier," Anderton said hoarsely, "we'd have
half a million people out of the city by now. Maybe even a million."
"We haven't given up yet, colonel. The point is this, Joan: what we need
is an inspired guess. Get anything from the prob series, Clark? I
thought not. On a one-shot gamble of this kind, the 'laws' of chance are
no good at all. For that matter, the so-called ESP experiments showed us
long ago that even the way we construct random tables is full of
holes—and that a man with a feeling for the essence of a gamble can
make a monkey out of chance almost at will.
"And if there ever was such a man, Braun is it. That's why I asked him
to come down here. I want him to look at that lump on the screen
and—play a hunch."
"You're out of your mind," Anderton said.
A decorous knock spared me the trouble of having to deny, affirm or
ignore the judgment. It was Braun; the messenger had been fast, and the
gambler hadn't bothered to read what a college student had thought of
him fifteen years ago. He came forward and held out his hand, while the
others looked him over frankly.
He was impressive, all right. It would have been hard for a stranger to
believe that he was aiming at respectability; to the eye, he was already
there. He was tall and spare, and walked perfectly erect, not without
spring despite his age. His clothing was as far from that of a gambler
as you could have taken it by design: a black double-breasted suit with
a thin vertical stripe, a gray silk tie with a pearl stickpin just
barely large enough to be visible at all, a black Homburg; all perfectly
fitted, all worn with proper casualness—one might almost say a formal
casualness. It was only when he opened his mouth that One-Shot Braun was
in the suit with him.
"I come over as soon as your runner got to me," he said. "What's the
pitch, Andy?"
"Mr. Braun, this is Joan Hadamard, Clark Cheyney, Colonel Anderton. I'll
be quick because we need speed now. A Polish ship has dropped something
out in the harbor. We don't know what it is. It may be a hell-bomb, or
it may be just somebody's old laundry. Obviously we've got to find out
which—and we want you to tell us."
Braun's aristocratic eyebrows went up. "Me? Hell, Andy, I don't know
nothing about things like that. I'm surprised with you. I thought CIA
had all the brains it needed—ain't you got machines to tell you answers
like that?"
I pointed silently to Joan, who had gone back to work the moment the
introductions were over. She was still on the mike to the divers. She
was saying: "What does it look like?"
"It's just a lump of something, Dr. Hadamard. Can't even tell its
shape—it's buried too deeply in the mud." _Cloonk_ ... _Oing_, _oing_
...
"Try the Geiger."
"We did. Nothing but background."
"Scintillation counter?"
"Nothing, Dr. Hadamard. Could be it's shielded."
"Let us do the guessing, Monig. All right, maybe it's got a clockwork
fuse that didn't break with the impact. Or a gyroscopic fuse. Stick a
stethoscope on it and see if you pick up a ticking or anything that
sounds like a motor running."
There was a lag and I turned back to Braun. "As you can see, we're
stymied. This is a long shot, Mr. Braun. One throw of the dice—one
show-down hand. We've got to have an expert call it for us—somebody
with a record of hits on long shots. That's why I called you."
"It's no good," he said. He took off the Homburg, took his handkerchief
from his breast pocket, and wiped the hatband. "I can't do it."
"Why not?"
"It ain't my _kind_ of thing," he said. "Look, I never in my life run
odds on anything that made any difference. But this makes a difference.
If I guess wrong—"
"Then we're all dead ducks. But why should you guess wrong? Your hunches
have been working for sixty years now."
Braun wiped his face. "No. You don't get it. I wish you'd listen to me.
Look, my wife and my kids are in the city. It ain't only my life, it's
theirs, too. That's what I care about. That's why it's no good. On
things that matter to me, _my hunches don't work_."
I was stunned, and so, I could see, were Joan and Cheyney. I suppose I
should have guessed it, but it had never occurred to me.
"Ten minutes," Cheyney said.
I looked up at Braun. He was frightened, and again I was surprised
without having any right to be. I tried to keep at least my voice calm.
"Please try it anyhow, Mr. Braun—as a favor. It's already too late to
do it any other way. And if you guess wrong, the outcome won't be any
worse than if you don't try at all."
"My kids," he whispered. I don't think he knew that he was speaking
aloud. I waited.
Then his eyes seemed to come back to the present. "All right," he said.
"I told you the truth, Andy. Remember that. So—is it a bomb or ain't
it? That's what's up for grabs, right?"
I nodded. He closed his eyes. An unexpected stab of pure fright went
down my back. Without the eyes, Braun's face was a death mask.
The water sounds and the irregular ticking of a Geiger counter seemed to
spring out from the audio speaker, four times as loud as before. I could
even hear the pen of the seismograph scribbling away, until I looked at
the instrument and saw that Clark had stopped it, probably long ago.
Droplets of sweat began to form along Braun's forehead and his upper
lip. The handkerchief remained crushed in his hand.
Anderton said, "Of all the fool—"
"Hush!" Joan said quietly.
Slowly, Braun opened his eyes. "All right," he said. "You guys wanted it
this way. _I say it's a bomb._" He stared at us for a moment more—and
then, all at once, the Timkin bearing burst. Words poured out of it.
"Now you guys do something, do your job like I did mine—get my wife and
kids out of there—empty the city—do something, _do something_!"
Anderton was already grabbing for the phone. "You're right, Mr. Braun.
If it isn't already too late—"
Cheyney shot out a hand and caught Anderton's telephone arm by the
wrist. "Wait a minute," he said.
"What d'you mean, 'wait a minute'? Haven't you already shot enough
time?"
Cheyney did not let go; instead, he looked inquiringly at Joan and said,
"One minute, Joan. You might as well go ahead."
She nodded and spoke into the mike. "Monig, unscrew the cap."
"Unscrew the cap?" the audio squawked. "But Dr. Hadamard, if that sets
it off—"
"It won't go off. That's the one thing you can be sure it won't do."
"What is this?" Anderton demanded. "And what's this deadline stuff,
anyhow?"
"The cap's off," Monig reported. "We're getting plenty of radiation now.
Just a minute— Yeah. Dr. Hadamard, it's a bomb, all right. But it
hasn't got a fuse. Now how could they have made a fool mistake like
that?"
"In other words, it's a dud," Joan said.
"That's right, a dud."
Now, at last, Braun wiped his face, which was quite gray. "I told you
the truth," he said grimly. "My hunches don't work on stuff like this."
"But they do," I said. "I'm sorry we put you through the wringer—and
you too, colonel—but we couldn't let an opportunity like this slip. It
was too good a chance for us to test how our facilities would stand up
in a real bomb-drop."
"A real drop?" Anderton said. "Are you trying to say that CIA staged
this? You ought to be shot, the whole pack of you!"
"No, not exactly," I said. "The enemy's responsible for the drop, all
right. We got word last month from our man in Gdynia that they were
going to do it, and that the bomb would be on board the _Ludmilla_. As I
say, it was too good an opportunity to miss. We wanted to find out just
how long it would take us to figure out the nature of the bomb—which we
didn't know in detail—after it was dropped here. So we had our people
in Gdynia defuse the thing after it was put on board the ship, but
otherwise leave it entirely alone.
"Actually, you see, your hunch was right on the button as far as it
went. We didn't ask you whether or not that object was a live bomb. We
asked whether it was a bomb or not. You said it was, and you were
right."
The expression on Braun's face was exactly like the one he had worn
while he had been searching for his decision—except that, since his
eyes were open, I could see that it was directed at me. "If this was the
old days," he said in an ice-cold voice, "I might of made the colonel's
idea come true. I don't go for tricks like this, Andy."
"It was more than a trick," Clark put in. "You'll remember we had a
deadline on the test, Mr. Braun. Obviously, in a real drop we wouldn't
have all the time in the world to figure out what kind of a thing had
been dropped. If we had still failed to establish that when the deadline
ran out, we would have had to allow evacuation of the city, with all the
attendant risk that that was exactly what the enemy wanted us to do."
"So?"
"So we failed the test," I said. "At one minute short of the deadline,
Joan had the divers unscrew the cap. In a real drop that would have
resulted in a detonation, if the bomb was real; we'd never risk it. That
we did do it in the test was a concession of failure—an admission that
our usual methods didn't come through for us in time.
"And that means that you were the only person who did come through, Mr.
Braun. If a real bomb-drop ever comes, we're going to have to have you
here, as an active part of our investigation. Your intuition for the
one-shot gamble was the one thing that bailed us out this time. Next
time it may save eight million lives."
There was quite a long silence. All of us, Anderton included, watched
Braun intently, but his impassive face failed to show any trace of how
his thoughts were running.
When he did speak at last, what he said must have seemed insanely
irrelevant to Anderton, and maybe to Cheyney too. And perhaps it meant
nothing more to Joan than the final clinical note in a case history.
"It's funny," he said, "I was thinking of running for Congress next year
from my district. But maybe this is more important."
It was, I believe, the sigh of a man at peace with himself.
End of ONE-SHOT By James Benjamin Blish
Out Around Rigel
By Robert H. Wilson
The sun had dropped behind the Grimaldi plateau, although for a day
twilight would linger over the Oceanus Procellarum. The sky was a hazy
blue, and out over the deeper tinted waves the full Earth swung. All the
long half-month it had hung there above the horizon, its light dimmed by
the sunshine, growing from a thin crescent to its full disk three times
as broad as that of the sun at setting. Now in the dusk it was a great
silver lamp hanging over Nardos, the Beautiful, the City Built on the
Water. The light glimmered over the tall white towers, over the white
ten-mile-long adamantine bridge running from Nardos to the shore, and
lit up the beach where we were standing, with a brightness that seemed
almost that of day.
"Once more, Garth," I said. "I'll get that trick yet."
The skin of my bare chest still smarted from the blow of his wooden
fencing sword. If it had been the real two-handed Lunarian dueling
sword, with its terrible mass behind a curved razor edge, the blow would
have produced a cut deep into the bone. It was always the same, ever
since Garth and I had fenced as boys with crooked laths. Back to back,
we could beat the whole school, but I never had a chance against him.
Perhaps one time in ten—
"On guard!"
The silvered swords whirled in the Earth-light. I nicked him on one
wrist, and had to duck to escape his wild swing at my head. The wooden
blades were now locked by the hilts above our heads. When he stepped
back to get free, I lunged and twisted his weapon. In a beautiful
parabola, Garth's sword sailed out into the water, and he dropped to the
sand to nurse his right wrist.
"Confound your wrestling, Dunal. If you've broken my arm on the eve of
my flight—"
"It's not even a sprain. Your wrists are weak. And I supposed you've
always been considerate of me? Three broken ribs!"
"For half a cent—"
He was on his feet, and then Kelvar came up and laid her hand on his
shoulder. Until a few minutes before she had been swimming in the surf,
watching us. The Earth-light shimmered over her white skin, still
faintly moist, and blazed out in blue sparkles from the jewels of the
breastplates and trunks she had put on.
When she touched Garth, and he smiled, I wanted to smash in his dark
face and then take the beating I would deserve. Yet, if she preferred
him— [TN-1]And the two of us had been friends before she was born. I
put out my hand.
"Whatever happens, Garth, we'll still be friends?"
"Whatever happens."
We clasped hands.
"Garth," Kelvar said, "it's getting dark. Show us your ship before you
go."
"All right." He had always been like that—one minute in a black rage,
the next perfectly agreeable. He now led the way up to a cliff hanging
over the sea.
"There," said Garth, "is the _Comet_. Our greatest step in conquering
distance. After I've tried it out, we can go in a year to the end of the
universe. But, for a starter, how about a thousand light-years around
Rigel in six months?" His eyes were afire. Then he calmed down.
"Anything I can show you?"
[Note: Editor's Note: The manuscript, of which a translation is here
presented, was discovered by the rocket-ship expedition to the moon
three years ago. It was found in its box by the last crumbling ruins of
the great bridge mentioned in the narrative. Its final translation is a
tribute at once to the philological skill of the Earth and to the
marvelous dictionary provided by Dunal, the Lunarian. Stars and lunar
localities will be given their traditional Earth names; and measures of
time, weight, and distance have been reduced, in round numbers, to
terrestrial equivalents. Of the space ship described, the _Comet_, no
trace has been found. It must be buried under the rim of one of the
hundreds of nearby Lunar craters—the result, as some astronomers have
long suspected and as Dunal's story verifies, of a great swarm of
meteors striking the unprotected, airless moon.]
I had seen the _Comet_ before, but never so close. With a hull of
shining helio-beryllium—the new light, inactive alloy of a metal and a
gas—the ship was a cylinder about twenty feet long, by fifteen in
diameter, while a pointed nose stretched five feet farther at each end.
Fixed in each point was a telescopic lens, while there were windows
along the sides and at the top—all made, Garth informed us, of another
form of the alloy almost as strong as the opaque variety. Running
half-way out each end were four "fins" which served to apply the power
driving the craft. A light inside showed the interior to be a single
room, ten feet high at the center of its cylindrical ceiling, with a
level floor.
"How do you know this will be the bottom?" I asked, giving the vessel a
shove to roll it over. But it would not budge. Garth laughed.
"Five hundred pounds of mercury and the disintegrators are under that
floor, while out in space I have an auxiliary gravity engine to keep my
feet there."
"You see, since your mathematical friends derived their identical
formulas for gravity and electromagnetism, my job was pretty easy. As
you know, a falling body follows the line of least resistance in a field
of distortion of space caused by mass. I bend space into another such
field by electromagnetic means, and the _Comet_ flies down the track.
Working the mercury disintegrators at full power, I can get an
acceleration of two hundred miles per second, which will build up the
speed at the midpoint of my trip to almost four thousand times that of
light. Then I'll have to start slowing down, but at the average speed
the journey will take only six months or so."
"But can anyone stand that acceleration?" Kelvar asked.
"I've had it on and felt nothing. With a rocket exhaust shoving the
ship, it couldn't be done, but my gravitational field attracts the
occupant of the _Comet_ just as much as the vessel itself."
"You're sure," I interrupted, "that you have enough power to keep up the
acceleration?"
"Easily. There's a two-thirds margin of safety."
"And you haven't considered that it may get harder to push? You know the
increase of mass with velocity. You can't take one-half of the
relativity theory without the other. And they've actually measured the
increase of weight in an electron."
"The electron never knew it; it's all a matter of reference points. I
can't follow the math, but I know that from the electron's standards it
stayed exactly the same weight. Anything else is nonsense."
"Well, there may be a flaw in the reasoning, but as they've worked it
out, nothing can go faster than light. As you approach that velocity,
the mass keeps increasing, and with it the amount of energy required for
a new increase in speed. At the speed of light, the mass would be
infinite, and hence no finite energy could get you any further."
"Maybe so. It won't take long to find out."
A few of the brightest stars had begun to appear. We could just see the
parallelogram of Orion, with red Betelguese at one corner, and across
from it Rigel, scintillant like a blue diamond.
"See," Garth said, pointing at it. "Three months from now, that's where
I'll be. The first man who dared to sail among the stars."
"Only because you don't let anyone else share the glory and the danger."
"Why should I? But you wouldn't go, anyway."
"Will you let me?"
I had him there.
"On your head be it. The _Comet_ could hold three or four in a pinch,
and I have plenty of provisions. If you really want to take the
chance—"
"It won't be the first we've taken together."
"All right. We'll start in ten minutes." He went inside the ship.
"Don't go," Kelvar whispered, coming into the _Comet's_ shadow. "Tell
him anything, but don't go."
"I've got to. I can't go back on my word. He'd think I was afraid."
"Haven't you a right to be?"
"Garth is my friend and I'm going with him."
"All right. But I wish you wouldn't."
From inside came the throb of engines.
"Kelvar," I said, "you didn't worry when only Garth was going."
"No."
"And there's less danger with two to keep watch."
"I know, but still...."
"You are afraid for _me_?"
"I am afraid for you."
My arm slipped around her, there in the shadow.
"And when I come back, Kelvar, we'll be married?"
In answer, she kissed me. Then Garth was standing in the doorway of the
_Comet_.
"Dunal, where are you?"
We separated and came out of the shadow. I went up the plank to the
door, kicking it out behind me. Kelvar waved, and I called something or
other to her. Then the door clanged shut. Seated before the control
board at the front of the room, Garth held the switch for the two
projectors.
"Both turned up," he yelled over the roar of the generators. His hands
swung over and the noise died down, but nothing else seemed to have
happened. I turned back again to look out the little window fixed in the
door.
Down far below, I could see for a moment the city of Nardos with its
great white bridge, and a spot that might be Kelvar. Then there was only
the ocean, sparkling in the Earth-light, growing smaller, smaller. And
then we had shot out of the atmosphere into the glare of the sun and a
thousand stars.
On and up we went, until the moon was a crescent with stars around it.
Then Garth threw the power forward.
"Might as well turn in," he told me. "There'll be nothing interesting
until we get out of the solar system and I can put on real speed. I'll
take the first trick."
"How long watches shall we stand?"
"Eighteen hours ought to match the way we have been living. If you have
another preference—"
"No, that will be all right. And I suppose I might as well get in some
sleep now."
I was not really sleepy, but only dazed a little by the adventure. I
fixed some things on the floor by one of the windows and lay down,
switching out the light. Through a top window the sunlight slanted down
to fall around Garth, at his instrument board, in a bright glory. From
my window I could see the Earth and the gleaming stars.
The Earth was smaller than I had ever seen it before. It seemed to be
moving backward a little[TN-2], and even more, to be changing phase. I
closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, sleepily, the bright area
was perceptibly smaller. If I could stay awake long enough, there would
be only a crescent again. If I could stay awake—But I could not....
Only the rattling of dishes as Garth prepared breakfast brought me back
to consciousness. I got to my feet sheepishly.
"How long have I slept?"
"Twenty hours straight. You looked as if you might have gone on forever.
It's the lack of disturbance to indicate time. I got in a little myself,
once we were out of the solar system."
A sandwich in one hand, I wandered over the vessel. It was reassuringly
solid and concrete. And yet there was something lacking.
"Garth," I asked, "what's become of the sun?"
"I thought you'd want to know that." He led me to the rear telescope.
"But I don't see anything."
"You haven't caught on yet. See that bright yellowish star on the edge
of the constellation Scorpio. That's it."
Involuntarily, I gasped. "Then—how far away are we?"
"I put on full acceleration fifteen hours ago, when we passed Neptune,
and we have covered thirty billion miles—three hundred times as far as
from the moon to the sun, but only one half of one per cent of a
light-year."
I was speechless, and Garth led me back to the control board. He pointed
out the acceleration control, now turned up to its last notch forward;
he also showed me the dials which were used to change our direction.
"Just keep that star on the cross hairs. It's Pi Orionis, a little out
of our course, but a good target since it is only twenty-five
light-years away. Half the light is deflected on this screen, with a
delicate photo-electric cell at its center. The instant the light of the
star slips off it, a relay is started which lights a red lamp here, and
in a minute sounds a warning bell. That indicator over there shows our
approach to any body. It works by the interaction of the object's
gravitational field with that of my projector, and we can spot anything
sizable an hour away. Sure you've got everything?"
It all seemed clear. Then I noticed at the top three clock-like dials;
one to read days, another to record the speeds of light, and the third
to mark light-years traveled.
"These can't really work?" I said. "We have no way to check our speed
with outer space."
"Not directly. This is geared with clockwork to represent an estimate
based on the acceleration. If your theory is right, then the dials are
all wrong."
"And how long do you expect to go ahead without knowing the truth?"
"Until we ought to be at Pi Orionis. At two weeks and twenty-five
light-years by the dials, if we aren't there we'll start back. By your
figuring, we shouldn't be yet one light-year on the way. Anything more?"
"No, I think I can manage it."
"Wake me if anything's wrong. And look out for dark stars." Then he had
left me there at the controls. In five minutes he was asleep and the
whole ship was in my hands.
For hours nothing happened. Without any control of mine, the ship went
straight ahead. I could get up and walk about, with a weather eye on the
board, and never was there the flash of a danger light. But I was unable
to feel confident, and went back to look out through the glass.
The stars were incredibly bright and clear. Right ahead were Betelguese
and Rigel, and the great nebula of Orion still beyond. There was no
twinkling, but each star a bright, steady point of light. And if Garth's
indicators were correct, we were moving toward them at a speed now
seventy-five times that of light itself. If they were correct.... How
could one know, before the long two weeks were over?
But before I could begin to think of any plan, my eye was caught by the
red lamp flashing on the panel. I pressed the attention button before
the alarm could ring, then started looking for the body we were in
danger of striking. The position indicators pointed straight ahead, but
I could see nothing. For ten minutes I peered through the telescope, and
still no sign. The dials put the thing off a degree or so to the right
now, but that was too close. In five more minutes I would swing straight
up and give whatever it was a wide berth.
I looked out again. In the angle between the cross hairs, wasn't there a
slight haze? In a moment it was clear. A comet, apparently, the two of
us racing toward each other. Bigger it grew and bigger, hurtling
forward. Would we hit?
The dials put it up a little and far off to the right, but it was still
frightening. The other light had come on, too, and I saw that we had
been pulled off our course by the comet's attraction. I threw the nose
over, past on the other side for leeway, then straightened up as the
side-distance dial gave a big jump away. Though the gaseous globe,
tailless of course away from the sun, showed as big as the full Earth,
the danger was past.
As I watched, the comet vanished from the field of the telescope. Five
minutes, perhaps, with the red danger light flickering all the time.
Then, with a ghastly flare through the right hand windows, it had passed
us.
Garth sat straight up. "What happened?" he yelled.
"Just a comet. I got by all right."
He settled back, having been scarcely awake, and I turned to the board
again. The danger light had gone out, but the direction indicator was
burning. The near approach of the comet had thrown us off our course by
several degrees. I straightened the ship up easily, and had only a
little more difficulty in stopping a rocking motion. Then again the
empty hours of watching, gazing into the stars.
Precisely at the end of eighteen hours, Garth awakened, as if the
consummation of a certain number of internal processes had set off a
little alarm clock in his brain. We were forty-one hours out, with a
speed, according to the indicator, of one hundred and twenty-eight times
that of light, and a total distance covered of slightly over one quarter
of a light-year. A rather small stretch, compared to the 466 light-years
we had to go. But when I went back for a look out of the rear telescope,
the familiar stars seemed to have moved the least bit closer together,
and the sun was no brighter than a great number of them.
I slept like a log, but awakened a little before my trick was due.
Exactly on schedule, fourteen days and some hours after we had started
off, we passed Pi Orionis. For long there had been no doubt in my mind
that, whatever the explanation, our acceleration was holding steady. In
the last few hours the star swept up to the brilliance of the sun, then
faded again until it was no brighter than Venus. Venus! Our sun itself
had been a mere dot in the rear telescope until the change in our course
threw it out of the field of vision.
At sixty-five light-years, twenty-three days out, Beta Eridani was
almost directly in our path for Rigel. Slightly less than a third of the
distance to the midpoint, in over half the time. But our speed was still
increasing 200 miles a second every second, almost four times the speed
of light in an hour. Our watches went on with a not altogether
disagreeable monotony.
There was no star to mark the middle of our journey. Only, toward the
close of one of my watches, a blue light which I had never noticed came
on beside the indicator dials, and I saw that we had covered 233
light-years, half the estimated distance to Rigel. The speed marker
indicated 3975 times the speed of light. I wakened Garth.
"You could have done it yourself," he complained, sleepily, "but I
suppose it's just as well."
He went over to the board and started warming up the rear gravity
projector.
"We'll turn one off as the other goes on. Each take one control, and go
a notch at a time." He began counting, "One, two, three ..."
On the twentieth count, my dial was down to zero, his up to maximum
deceleration, and I pulled out my switch. Garth snapped sideways a lever
on the indicators. Though nothing seemed to happen, I knew that the
speed dial would creep backward, and the distance dial progress at a
slower and slower rate. While I was trying to see the motion, Garth had
gone back to bed. I turned again to the glass and looked out at Rigel,
on the cross hairs, and Kappa Orionis, over to the left, and the great
nebula reaching over a quarter of the view with its faint gaseous
streamers.
And so we swept on through space, with Rigel a great blue glory ahead,
and new stars, invisible at greater distances, flaring up in front of us
and then fading into the background as we passed. For a long time we had
been able to see that Rigel, as inferred from spectroscopic evidence,
was a double star—a fainter, greener blue companion revolving with it
around their common center of gravity. Beyond Kappa Orionis, three
hundred light-years from the sun, the space between the two was quite
evident. Beyond four hundred light-years, the brilliance of the vast
star was so great that it dimmed all the other stars by comparison, and
made the nebula seem a mere faint gauze. And yet even with this gradual
change, our arrival was a surprise.
When he relieved me at my watch, Garth seemed dissatisfied with our
progress. "It must be farther than they've figured. I'll stick at
twenty-five times light speed, and slow down after we get there by
taking an orbit."
"I'd have said it was nearer than the estimate," I tried to argue, but
was too sleepy to remember my reasons. Propped up on one elbow, I looked
around and out at the stars. There was a bright splash of light, I
noticed, where the telescope concentrated the radiation of Rigel at one
spot on the screen. I slept, and then Garth was shouting in my ear:
"We're there!"
I opened my eyes, blinked, and shut them again in the glare.
"I've gone around three or four times trying to slow down. We're there,
and there's a planet to land on."
At last I could see. Out the window opposite me, Rigel was a blue-white
disk half the size of the sun, but brighter, with the companion star a
sort of faint reflection five or ten degrees to the side. And still
beyond, as I shaded my eyes, I could see swimming in the black a speck
with the unmistakable glow of reflected light.
With both gravity projectors in readiness, we pulled out of our orbit
and straight across toward the planet, letting the attraction of Rigel
fight against our still tremendous speed. For a while, the pull of the
big star was almost overpowering. Then we got past, and into the
gravitational field of the planet. We spiralled down around it, looking
for a landing place and trying to match our speed with its rotational
velocity.
From rather unreliable observations, the planet seemed a good deal
smaller than the moon, and yet so dense as to have a greater
gravitational attraction. The atmosphere was cloudless, and the surface
a forbidding expanse of sand. The globe whirled at a rate that must give
it a day of approximately five hours. We angled down, picking a spot
just within the lighted area.
A landing was quite feasible. As we broke through the atmosphere, we
could see that the sand, although blotched with dark patches here and
there, was comparatively smooth. At one place there was a level
outcropping of rock, and over this we hung. It was hard work, watching
through the single small port in the floor as we settled down. Finally
the view was too small to be of any use. I ran to the side window, only
to find my eyes blinded by Rigel's blaze. Then we had landed, and almost
at the same moment Rigel set. Half overlapped by the greater star, the
faint companion had been hidden in its glare. Now, in the dusk, a corner
of it hung ghostlike on the horizon, and then too had disappeared.
I flashed on our lights, while Garth cut out the projector and the floor
gravity machine. The increase in weight was apparent, but not
particularly unpleasant. After a few minutes of walking up and down I
got used to it.
Through a stop-cock in the wall, Garth had drawn in a tube of gas from
the atmosphere outside, and was analyzing it with a spectroscope.
"We can go out," he said. "It's unbreathable, but we'll be able to use
the space suits. Mostly fluorine. It would eat your lungs out like
that!"
"And the suits?"
"Fortunately, they've been covered with helio-beryllium paint, and the
helmet glass is the same stuff. Not even that atmosphere can touch it. I
suppose there can be no life on the place. With all this sand, it would
have to be based on silicon instead of carbon—and it would have to
breathe fluorine!"
He got out the suits—rather like a diver's with the body of
metal-painted cloth, and the helmet of the metal itself. On the
shoulders was an air supply cylinder. The helmets were fixed with radio,
so we could have talked to each other even in airless space. We said
almost anything to try it out.
"Glad you brought two, and we don't have to explore in shifts."
"Yes, I was prepared for emergencies."
"Shall we wait for daylight to go out?"
"I can't see why. And these outfits will probably feel better in the
cool. Let's see."
We shot a searchlight beam out the window. There was a slight drop down
from the rock where we rested, then the sandy plain stretching out. Only
far off were those dark patches that looked like old seaweed on a
dried-up ocean bed, and might prove dangerous footing. The rest seemed
hard packed.
My heart was pounding as we went into the air-lock and fastened the
inner door behind us.
"We go straight out now," Garth explained. "Coming back, it will be
necessary to press this button and let the pump get rid of the
poisonous, air before going in."
I opened the outer door and started to step out, then realized that
there was a five-foot drop to the ground.
"Go ahead and jump," Garth said. "There's a ladder inside I should have
brought, but it would be too much trouble to go back through the lock
for it. Either of us can jump eight feet at home, and we'll get back up
somehow."
I jumped, failing to allow for the slightly greater gravity, and fell
sprawling. Garth got down more successfully, in spite of a long package
of some sort he carried in his hand.
Scrambling down from the cliff and walking out on the sand, I tried to
get used to the combination of greater weight and the awkward suit. If I
stepped very deliberately it was all right, but an attempt to run sank
my feet in the sand and brought me up staggering. There was no trouble
seeing through the glass of my helmet over wide angles. Standing on the
elevation by the _Comet_, his space-suit shining in the light from the
windows, Garth looked like a metallic monster, some creature of this
strange world. And I must have presented to him much the same
appearance, silhouetted dark and forbidding against the stars.
The stars! I looked up, and beheld the most marvelous sight of the whole
trip—the Great Nebula of Orion seen from a distance of less than one
hundred and fifty light-years its own width.
A great luminous curtain, fifty degrees across, I could just take it all
in with my eye. The central brilliancy as big as the sun, a smaller one
above it, and then the whole mass of gas stretching over the sky. The
whole thing aglow with the green light of nebulium and blazing with the
stars behind it. It was stupendous, beyond words.
I started to call Garth, then saw that he was looking up as well. For
almost half an hour I watched, as the edge of the nebula sank below the
horizon. Then its light began to dim. Turning, I saw that the sky
opposite was already gray. The dawn!
Why, the sun had just set. Then I realized. It was over an hour since we
had landed, and a full night would be scarcely two hours and a half. If
we were in a summer latitude, the shorter period of darkness was natural
enough. And yet it was still hard to believe as, within ten minutes, it
was as bright as Earth-light on the moon. Still clearer and clearer grew
the light. The stars were almost gone, the center of the nebula only a
faint wisp. There were no clouds to give the colors of sunrise, but a
bluish-white radiance seemed to be trembling on the eastern horizon.
And then, like a shot, Rigel came up into the sky. The light and heat
struck me like something solid, and I turned away. Even with my suit
reflecting most of the light away, I felt noticeably warm. The _Comet_
shone like a blinding mirror, so that it was almost impossible to see
Garth on the plain below it. Stumbling, and shielding my eyes with my
hand, I made my way toward him.
He was standing erect, in his hands two old Lunarian dueling swords.
There was hate in his voice as the radio brought it in my ears.
"Dunal, only one of us is going back to the moon."
I stared. Was the heat getting him? "Hadn't we better go inside," I said
quietly and somewhat soothingly.
He made no reply, but only held out one of the hilts. I took it dumbly.
In that instant he could have struck my head from my body, if he wished.
"But, Garth, old friend—"
"No friend to you. You shall win Kelvar now, or I. I'm giving you a
sporting chance. One of your light cuts letting the fluorine inside will
be as deadly as anything I can do. The one who goes back will tell of an
accident, making repairs out in space. Damn you, if you don't want me to
kill you where you stand, come on and fight."
"Garth, you've gone mad."
"I've been waiting ever since I got you to leave the moon. On guard!"
With a rush of anger I was upon him. He tried to step back, stumbled,
had one knee on the ground, then hurled himself forward with a thrust at
my waist that I dodged only by an inch. I had to cover, and in spite of
myself, with the cool work of parrying, my animosity began to disappear.
And so began one of the strangest battles that the Universe has seen.
Lumbering with our suits and the extra gravity, we circled each other
under the blazing sky. The blue-white of Rigel shimmered off our suits
and the arcs of our blades as we cut and guarded—each wary now,
realizing that a touch meant death. As that terrible sun climbed upward
in the sky, its heat was almost overpowering. The sweat poured off every
inch of my body, and I gasped for breath. And still we fought on, two
glittering metal monsters under the big blue star sweeping up to its
noon.
I knew now that I could never kill Garth. I could not go back to Kelvar
with his blood. Yet if I simply defended, sooner or later he would wear
me down. There was just one chance. If I could disarm him, I could
wrestle him into submission. Then he might be reasonable, or I could
take him home bound.
I began leading for the opening I wanted, but with no result. He seemed
resolved to tire me out. Either I must carry the fight to him, or I
would be beaten down. I made a wide opening, counting on dodging his
slow stroke. I did, but he recovered too soon. Again on the other side,
with no better result. Still again, just getting in for a light tap on
Garth's helmet. Then I stepped back, with guard low, and this time he
came on. His sword rose in a gleaming arc and hung high for a moment. I
had him. There were sparks of clashing, locked steel.
"Damn you, Dunal!" He took a great step back, narrowly keeping his
balance on the sand. On another chance, I would trip him. My ears were
almost deafened by his roar, "Come on and _fight_."
I took a step in and to the side, and had him in the sun. He swung
blindly, trying to cover himself with his whirling point but I had half
a dozen openings to rip his suit. When he moved to try to see, I would
lock with him again. I watched his feet.
And as I watched, I saw an incredible thing. Near one of Garth's feet
the sand was moving. It was not a slide caused by his weight;
rather—why, it was being pushed up from below. There was a little hump,
and suddenly it had burst open, and a stringy mass like seaweed was
crawling toward his leg.
"Look out, Garth," I yelled.
How he could see through that terrible sun I do not know, but Garth
swung through my forgotten guard with a blow square across my helmet
glass. The force threw me to the ground, and I looked up, dazed. The
beryllium glass had not broken to let in the fluorine-filled air, but
Garth was standing over me.
"That's your last trick, Dunal." His blade rose for the kill.
I was unable even to get up, but with one hand I pointed to the ground.
"Look!" I shouted again, and on the instant the thing wound itself
around Garth's foot.
He swung down, hacking it loose. I had got to my feet. "Run for the
ship," I cried, and started off.
"Not that way."
I looked back, and saw that I had run in the wrong direction. But it
made no difference. Over a whole circle around us the sand was rising,
and directly between us and the _Comet_ there was a great green-brown
mass. We were surrounded.
We stood staring at the creatures. Spread out to full dimensions, each
one made a sphere about four feet in diameter. In the center, a solid
mass whose outlines were difficult to discern; and spreading out from
this a hundred long, thin, many-jointed arms or legs or branches or
whatever one could call them.
The things were not yet definitely hostile—only their circle, of
perhaps fifty yards radius, grew continually thicker and more
impenetrable. Within the enclosed area, the only ripples we could see in
the sand were heading outward. There was to be no surprise attack from
below, at least; only one in mass. What, I wondered, might be a sign of
friendship, to persuade them to let us go.
And then the circle began to close in. The things rolled over and over
on themselves, like gigantic tumbleweeds. At one point, to the right of
the direct route to the _Comet_, the line seemed thinner. I pointed the
place out to Garth.
"Break through there, and make a run for it."
We charged into the midst of them with swinging blades. The very
suddenness of our rush carried us half-way through their midst. Then
something had my legs from behind. I almost fell, but succeeded in
turning and cutting myself free. The creatures from the other side of
the circle must have made the hundred yards in four or five seconds. And
the rest had now covered the breach in front. It was hopeless.
And so we stood back to back, hewing out a circle of protection against
our enemies. They seemed to have no fear, and in spite of the
destruction our blades worked among them, they almost overcame us by
sheer numbers and weight. It was a case of whirling our swords back and
forth interminably in the midst of their tentacles. Against the light,
the long arms were a half-transparent brown. Our swords broke them in
bright shivers. Formed from the predominant silicon of the planet, the
creatures were living glass!
For perhaps a quarter of an hour we were in the thick of them, hewing
until I thought my arms must fall, slashing and tearing at the ones that
had got underfoot and were clamping their tentacles around our legs.
Only for the space-suits, we should have, by this time, been overpowered
and torn into bits—and yet these garments could not be expected to hold
indefinitely.
But at last there was a breathing space. The crippled front ranks
dragged themselves away, and there was left around us a brief area of
sand, covered with coruscating splinters of glass. Garth got the breath
to say something or other encouraging. It was like old days at school.
Only this time the odds were all against us. We were still a good
hundred yards from the _Comet_, and in our path stood a solid wall of
the creatures. Even if we got free, they could outrace us to the goal.
And with our limited strength, we could not hope to kill them all. In a
minute or two, they would attack us again.
Somehow we must fight our way as long as we lasted. Perhaps they might
be frightened. We threw ourselves at the side next our goal. The line
gave perhaps a yard, then stiffened, and we found ourselves swallowed up
in a thick cloud of brown smoke.
Poison gas! It must be shot out of their bodies, at a cost so great that
it was kept as a last resort. Through the rolling vapor it was just
possible to see our opponents, but they made no forward move. They were
waiting for us to be overcome. Suppose their compound could eat through
even our helio-beryllium? But it did not. We were safe.
"Stand still, Garth," I whispered, counting on the radio to carry my
voice. "Let them think we're dead, and then give them a surprise."
"All right."
Long, long minutes.... If only they did not know that it was the
customary thing for a dead man to fall.... Slowly they began to move in.
Then Garth and I were upon them. They halted as if stupefied. We had
hacked our way half through their mass. The rest fled, and we began
running toward the _Comet_, praying that we might reach the ship before
they could get organized again. How we floundered through the sand in
wild and desperate haste.
Before we had covered half the distance, the pursuit began. There was no
attempt to drag us down directly, but the two wings raced past to cut us
off in front. At the base of the little cliff where the _Comet_ lay, the
circle closed.
"Jump," I called, and threw myself up over them toward the stone. Garth
would have fallen back, but I caught his hand and pulled him to safety.
We had won.
But had we? Joined by reinforcements from somewhere, the creatures were
packed all around the base of the cliff and had begun to climb its
walls, to cut us off from the ship. We rushed separately toward the two
sides, and they backed away. But those in front were now established on
the top. We stepped backward, and the whole line came on. But now we
turned and ran for the _Comet_.
We were just able to turn again and clear them away with our swords. In
a moment others would be climbing up from behind over the ship. And the
door to safety was on a level with our heads.
There was just one chance. Stamping threateningly, we cleared the things
out for ten feet in front of us. But once we turned our backs for a
running start they were at us again.
"Boost you up, Dunal," said Garth pantingly.
"No, you first."
But in the midst of my words, he almost threw me into the doorway. I
turned to pull him up after me. They were around his legs, and one had
jumped down upon his helmet. And he must have known it would happen.
"Go back to her," he cried, and slammed shut the door.
There was no time to help him, to interfere with the way of expiation he
had chosen. I tried to look away, but a sort of fascination kept me
watching him through the glass. He had been dragged to his knees. Then
he was up again, whirling to keep them away on all sides in a mad,
gallant fight. But the creatures knew it was the kill. Now they were
around his knees, now up to his waist in their overpowering mass. It was
only a matter of minutes.
Garth took a staggering step backward, dragging them all with him. He
was facing me, and swung up his sword in the old Lunar salute. "Good
luck, Dunal." The words, coming clearly over the radio, had a note of
exaltation.
Then flashing his blade over his head, he hurled it into the midst of
the accursed things. With a tremendous effort, Garth tore the protecting
helmet from his head, and plunged backward over the cliff....
There was nothing to do but get in out of the lock and start for home,
and little on the trip is worthy of recounting. Without unsurpassable
difficulty, I was able to operate the machinery and steer, first for
Betelguese, then for the sun. Counting on the warning bells to arouse
me, I managed to get in snatches of sleep at odd intervals. At times the
strain of the long watches was almost maddening.
By the time the midpoint had been passed, I was living in a sort of
waking dream; or rather, a state of somnambulism. I ate; my hands moved
the controls. And yet all the while my mind was wandering elsewhere—out
to Garth's body under the blazing light of Rigel, back to the moon and
Kelvar, or else in an unreal, shadowy world of dreams and vague
memories.
With perfect mechanical accuracy I entered the solar system and adjusted
the projectors for the sun's attraction. Running slower and slower, I
watched Venus glide by. And then, gradually, everything faded, and I was
walking along the great Nardos bridge with Kelvar. The ocean was so
still that we could see mirrored in it the reflection of each white
column, and our own faces peering down, and beyond that the stars.
"I shall bring you a handful for your hair," I told her, and leaned over
farther, farther, reaching out.... Then I was falling, with Kelvar's
face growing fainter, and in my ears a horrible ringing like the world
coming to an end.
Just before I could strike the water, I wakened to find the alarm bell
jangling and the object-indicator light flashing away. Through the
telescope, the moon was large in the sky.
It was an hour, perhaps two, before I approached the sunlit surface and
hovered over the shore by Nardos. Try as I would, my sleep-drugged body
could not handle the controls delicately enough to get the _Comet_ quite
in step with the moon's rotation. Always a little too fast or too slow.
I slid down until I was only ten or fifteen feet off the ground that
seemed to be moving out from under me. In another minute I should be
above the water. I let everything go, and the _Comet_ fell. There was a
thud, a sound of scraping over the sand, a list to one side. I thought
for an instant that the vessel was going to turn over, but with the
weight of the reserve mercury in the fuel tanks it managed to right
itself on a slope of ten or fifteen degrees.
From the angle, I could barely see out the windows, and everything
looked strange. The water under the bridge seemed too low. The half-full
Earth had greenish-black spots on it. And the sky?
So dead with sleep that I could scarcely move, I managed to crane my
neck around to see better. There was no sky, only a faint gray haze
through which the stars shone. And yet the sun must be shining. I
stretched still further. There the sun burned, and around it was an
unmistakable corona. It was like airless space.
Was I dreaming again?
With a jerk, I got to my feet and climbed up the sloping floor to the
atmosphere tester. My fingers slipped off the stop-cock, then turned it.
And the air-pressure needle scarcely moved. It was true. Somehow, as the
scientists had always told us would be the case eventually, the air of
the moon, with so little gravity to hold it back, had evaporated into
space.
But in six months? It was unthinkable. Surely someone had survived the
catastrophe. Some people must have been able to keep themselves alive in
caves where the last of the atmosphere would linger. Kelvar _must_ be
still alive. I could find her and bring her to the _Comet_. We would go
to some other world.
Frantically, I pulled on my space-suit and clambered through the
air-lock. I ran, until the cumbersome suit slowed me down to a
staggering walk through the sand beside the Oceanus Procellarum.
Leaden and dull, the great sea lay undisturbed by the thin atmosphere
still remaining. It had shrunk by evaporation far away from its banks,
and where the water once had been there was a dark incrustation of
impurities. On the land side, all was a great white plain of glittering
alkali without a sign of vegetation. I went on toward Nardos the
Beautiful.
Even from afar off, I could see that it was desolate. Visible now that
the water had gone down, the pillars supporting it rose gaunt and
skeletal. Towers had fallen in, and the gleaming white was dimmed. It
was a city of the dead, under an Earth leprous-looking with black spots
where the clouds apparently had parted.
I came nearer to Nardos and the bridge, nearer to the spot where I had
last seen Kelvar. Below the old water level, the columns showed a
greenish stain, and half-way out the whole structure had fallen in a
great gap. I reached the land terminus of the span, still glorious and
almost beautiful in its ruins. Whole blocks of stone had fallen to the
sand, and the adamantine pillars were cracked and crumbling with the
erosion of ages.
Then I knew.
In our argument as to the possible speed of the _Comet_, Garth and I had
both been right. In our reference frame, the vessel had put on an
incredible velocity, and covered the nine-hundred-odd light-years around
Rigel in six months. But from the viewpoint of the moon, it had been
unable to attain a velocity greater than that of light. As the
accelerating energy pressed the vessel's speed closer and closer toward
that limiting velocity, the mass of the ship and of its contents had
increased toward infinity. And trying to move laboriously with such vast
mass, our clocks and bodies had been slowed down until to our leaden
minds a year of moon time became equivalent to several hours.
The _Comet_ had attained an average velocity of perhaps 175,000 miles
per second, and the voyage that seemed to me six months had taken a
thousand years. A thousand years! The words went ringing through my
brain. Kelvar had been dead for a thousand years. I was alone in a world
uninhabited for centuries.
I threw myself down and battered my head in the sand.
More to achieve, somehow, my own peace of mind, than in any hope of its
being discovered, I have written this narrative. There are two copies,
this to be placed in a helio-beryllium box at the terminus of the
bridge, the other within the comet[TN-3]. One at least should thus be
able to escape the meteors which, unimpeded by the thin atmosphere, have
begun to strike everywhere, tearing up great craters in the explosion
that follows as a result of the impact.
My time is nearly up. Air is still plentiful on the _Comet_, but my
provisions will soon run short. It is now slightly over a month since I
collapsed on the sands into merciful sleep, and I possess food and water
for perhaps another. But why go on in my terrible loneliness?
Sometimes I waken from a dream in which they are all so near—Kelvar,
Garth, all my old companions—and for a moment I cannot realize how far
away they are. Beyond years and years. And I, trampling back and forth
over the dust of our old life, staring across the waste, waiting—for
what?
No, I shall wait only until the dark. When the sun drops over the
Grimaldi plateau, I shall put my manuscripts in their safe places, then
tear off my helmet and join the other two.
An hour ago, the bottom edge of the sun touched the horizon.
End of Out Around Rigel
By Robert H. Wilson
Pygmalion's Spectacles by Stanley Grauman Weinbaum
"But what is reality?" asked the gnomelike man. He gestured at the tall
banks of buildings that loomed around Central Park, with their countless
windows glowing like the cave fires of a city of Cro-Magnon people. "All
is dream, all is illusion; I am your vision as you are mine."
Dan Burke, struggling for clarity of thought through the fumes of
liquor, stared without comprehension at the tiny figure of his
companion. He began to regret the impulse that had driven him to leave
the party to seek fresh air in the park, and to fall by chance into the
company of this diminutive old madman. But he had needed escape; this
was one party too many, and not even the presence of Claire with her
trim ankles could hold him there. He felt an angry desire to go
home—not to his hotel, but home to Chicago and to the comparative peace
of the Board of Trade. But he was leaving tomorrow anyway.
"You drink," said the elfin, bearded face, "to make real a dream. Is it
not so? Either to dream that what you seek is yours, or else to dream
that what you hate is conquered. You drink to escape reality, and the
irony is that even reality is a dream."
"Cracked!" thought Dan again.
"Or so," concluded the other, "says the philosopher Berkeley."
"Berkeley?" echoed Dan. His head was clearing; memories of a Sophomore
course in Elementary Philosophy drifted back. "Bishop Berkeley, eh?"
"You know him, then? The philosopher of Idealism—no?—the one who
argues that we do not see, feel, hear, taste the object, but that we
have only the sensation of seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting."
"I—sort of recall it."
"Hah! But sensations are _mental_ phenomena. They exist in our minds.
How, then, do we know that the objects themselves do not exist only in
our minds?" He waved again at the light-flecked buildings. "You do not
see that wall of masonry; you perceive only a _sensation_, a feeling of
sight. The rest you interpret."
"You see the same thing," retorted Dan.
"How do you know I do? Even if you knew that what I call red would not
be green could you see through my eyes—even if you knew that, how do
you know that I too am not a dream of yours?"
Dan laughed. "Of course nobody _knows_ anything. You just get what
information you can through the windows of your five senses, and then
make your guesses. When they're wrong, you pay the penalty." His mind
was clear now save for a mild headache. "Listen," he said suddenly. "You
can argue a reality away to an illusion; that's easy. But if your friend
Berkeley is right, why can't you take a dream and make it real? If it
works one way, it must work the other."
The beard waggled; elf-bright eyes glittered queerly at him. "All
artists do that," said the old man softly. Dan felt that something more
quivered on the verge of utterance.
"That's an evasion," he grunted. "Anybody can tell the difference
between a picture and the real thing, or between a movie and life."
"But," whispered the other, "the realer the better, no? And if one could
make a—a movie—_very_ real indeed, what would you say then?"
"Nobody can, though."
The eyes glittered strangely again. "I can!" he whispered. "I _did_!"
"Did what?"
"Made real a dream." The voice turned angry. "Fools! I bring it here to
sell to Westman, the camera people, and what do they say? 'It isn't
clear. Only one person can use it at a time. It's too expensive.' Fools!
Fools!"
"Huh?"
"Listen! I'm Albert Ludwig—_Professor_ Ludwig." As Dan was silent, he
continued, "It means nothing to you, eh? But listen—a movie that gives
one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your
interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the
story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of
being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would
that be to make real a dream?"
"How the devil could you do that?"
"How? How? But simply! First my liquid positive, then my magic
spectacles. I photograph the story in a liquid with light-sensitive
chromates. I build up a complex solution—do you see? I add taste
chemically and sound electrically. And when the story is recorded, then
I put the solution in my spectacle—my movie projector. I electrolyze
the solution, break it down; the older chromates go first, and out comes
the story, sight, sound, smell, taste—all!"
"Touch?"
"If your interest is taken, your mind supplies that." Eagerness crept
into his voice. "You will look at it, Mr.——?"
"Burke," said Dan. "A swindle!" he thought. Then a spark of recklessness
glowed out of the vanishing fumes of alcohol. "Why not?" he grunted.
He rose; Ludwig, standing, came scarcely to his shoulder. A queer
gnomelike old man, Dan thought as he followed him across the park and
into one of the scores of apartment hotels in the vicinity.
In his room Ludwig fumbled in a bag, producing a device vaguely
reminiscent of a gas mask. There were goggles and a rubber mouthpiece;
Dan examined it curiously, while the little bearded professor brandished
a bottle of watery liquid.
"Here it is!" he gloated. "My liquid positive, the story. Hard
photography—infernally hard, therefore the simplest story. A
Utopia—just two characters and you, the audience. Now, put the
spectacles on. Put them on and tell me what fools the Westman people
are!" He decanted some of the liquid into the mask, and trailed a
twisted wire to a device on the table. "A rectifier," he explained. "For
the electrolysis."
"Must you use all the liquid?" asked Dan. "If you use part, do you see
only part of the story? And which part?"
"Every drop has all of it, but you must fill the eye-pieces." Then as
Dan slipped the device gingerly on, "So! Now what do you see?"
"Not a damn' thing. Just the windows and the lights across the street."
"Of course. But now I start the electrolysis. Now!"
There was a moment of chaos. The liquid before Dan's eyes clouded
suddenly white, and formless sounds buzzed. He moved to tear the device
from his head, but emerging forms in the mistiness caught his interest.
Giant things were writhing there.
The scene steadied; the whiteness was dissipating like mist in summer.
Unbelieving, still gripping the arms of that unseen chair, he was
staring at a forest. But what a forest! Incredible, unearthly,
beautiful! Smooth boles ascended inconceivably toward a brightening sky,
trees bizarre as the forests of the Carboniferous age. Infinitely
overhead swayed misty fronds, and the verdure showed brown and green in
the heights. And there were birds—at least, curiously lovely pipings
and twitterings were all about him though he saw no creatures—thin
elfin whistlings like fairy bugles sounded softly.
He sat frozen, entranced. A louder fragment of melody drifted down to
him, mounting in exquisite, ecstatic bursts, now clear as sounding
metal, now soft as remembered music. For a moment he forgot the chair
whose arms he gripped, the miserable hotel room invisibly about him, old
Ludwig, his aching head. He imagined himself alone in the midst of that
lovely glade. "Eden!" he muttered, and the swelling music of unseen
voices answered.
Some measure of reason returned. "Illusion!" he told himself. Clever
optical devices, not reality. He groped for the chair's arm, found it,
and clung to it; he scraped his feet and found again an inconsistency.
To his eyes the ground was mossy verdure; to his touch it was merely a
thin hotel carpet.
The elfin buglings sounded gently. A faint, deliciously sweet perfume
breathed against him; he glanced up to watch the opening of a great
crimson blossom on the nearest tree, and a tiny reddish sun edged into
the circle of sky above him. The fairy orchestra swelled louder in its
light, and the notes sent a thrill of wistfulness through him. Illusion?
If it were, it made reality almost unbearable; he wanted to believe that
somewhere—somewhere this side of dreams, there actually existed this
region of loveliness. An outpost of Paradise? Perhaps.
And then—far through the softening mists, he caught a movement that was
not the swaying of verdure, a shimmer of silver more solid than mist.
Something approached. He watched the figure as it moved, now visible,
now hidden by trees; very soon he perceived that it was human, but it
was almost upon him before he realized that it was a girl.
She wore a robe of silvery, half-translucent stuff, luminous as
starbeams; a thin band of silver bound glowing black hair about her
forehead, and other garment or ornament she had none. Her tiny white
feet were bare to the mossy forest floor as she stood no more than a
pace from him, staring dark-eyed. The thin music sounded again; she
smiled.
Dan summoned stumbling thoughts. Was this being also—illusion? Had she
no more reality than the loveliness of the forest? He opened his lips to
speak, but a strained excited voice sounded in his ears. "Who are you?"
Had he spoken? The voice had come as if from another, like the sound of
one's words in fever.
The girl smiled again. "English!" she said in queer soft tones. "I can
speak a little English." She spoke slowly, carefully. "I learned it
from"—she hesitated—"my mother's father, whom they call the Grey
Weaver."
Again came the voice in Dan's ears. "Who are you?"
"I am called Galatea," she said. "I came to find you."
"To find me?" echoed the voice that was Dan's.
"Leucon, who is called the Grey Weaver, told me," she explained smiling.
"He said you will stay with us until the second noon from this." She
cast a quick slanting glance at the pale sun now full above the
clearing, then stepped closer. "What are you called?"
"Dan," he muttered. His voice sounded oddly different.
"What a strange name!" said the girl. She stretched out her bare arm.
"Come," she smiled.
Dan touched her extended hand, feeling without any surprise the living
warmth of her fingers. He had forgotten the paradoxes of illusion; this
was no longer illusion to him, but reality itself. It seemed to him that
he followed her, walking over the shadowed turf that gave with springy
crunch beneath his tread, though Galatea left hardly an imprint. He
glanced down, noting that he himself wore a silver garment, and that his
feet were bare; with the glance he felt a feathery breeze on his body
and a sense of mossy earth on his feet.
"Galatea," said his voice. "Galatea, what place is this? What language
do you speak?"
She glanced back laughing. "Why, this is Paracosma, of course, and this
is our language."
"Paracosma," muttered Dan. "Para—cosma!" A fragment of Greek that had
survived somehow from a Sophomore course a decade in the past came
strangely back to him. Paracosma! Land-beyond-the-world!
Galatea cast a smiling glance at him. "Does the real world seem
strange," she queried, "after that shadow land of yours?"
"Shadow land?" echoed Dan, bewildered. "_This_ is shadow, not my world."
The girl's smile turned quizzical. "Poof!" she retorted with an
impudently lovely pout. "And I suppose, then, that _I_ am the phantom
instead of you!" She laughed. "Do I seem ghostlike?"
Dan made no reply; he was puzzling over unanswerable questions as he
trod behind the lithe figure of his guide. The aisle between the
unearthly trees widened, and the giants were fewer. It seemed a mile,
perhaps, before a sound of tinkling water obscured that other strange
music; they emerged on the bank of a little river, swift and
crystalline, that rippled and gurgled its way from glowing pool to
flashing rapids, sparkling under the pale sun. Galatea bent over the
brink and cupped her hands, raising a few mouthfuls of water to her
lips; Dan followed her example, finding the liquid stinging cold.
"How do we cross?" he asked.
"You can wade up there,"—the dryad who led him gestured to a sun-lit
shallows above a tiny falls—"but I always cross here." She poised
herself for a moment on the green bank, then dove like a silver arrow
into the pool. Dan followed; the water stung his body like champagne,
but a stroke or two carried him across to where Galatea had already
emerged with a glistening of creamy bare limbs. Her garment clung tight
as a metal sheath to her wet body; he felt a breath-taking thrill at the
sight of her. And then, miraculously, the silver cloth was dry, the
droplets rolled off as if from oiled silk, and they moved briskly on.
The incredible forest had ended with the river; they walked over a
meadow studded with little, many-hued, star-shaped flowers, whose fronds
underfoot were soft as a lawn. Yet still the sweet pipings followed
them, now loud, now whisper-soft, in a tenuous web of melody.
"Galatea!" said Dan suddenly. "Where is the music coming from?"
She looked back amazed. "You silly one!" she laughed. "From the flowers,
of course. See!" she plucked a purple star and held it to his ear; true
enough, a faint and plaintive melody hummed out of the blossom. She
tossed it in his startled face and skipped on.
A little copse appeared ahead, not of the gigantic forest trees, but of
lesser growths, bearing flowers and fruits of iridescent colors, and a
tiny brook bubbled through. And there stood the objective of their
journey—a building of white, marble-like stone, single-storied and vine
covered, with broad glassless windows. They trod upon a path of bright
pebbles to the arched entrance, and here, on an intricate stone bench,
sat a grey-bearded patriarchal individual. Galatea addressed him in a
liquid language that reminded Dan of the flower-pipings; then she
turned. "This is Leucon," she said, as the ancient rose from his seat
and spoke in English.
"We are happy, Galatea and I, to welcome you, since visitors are a rare
pleasure here, and those from your shadowy country most rare."
Dan uttered puzzled words of thanks, and the old man nodded, reseating
himself on the carven bench; Galatea skipped through the arched
entrance, and Dan, after an irresolute moment, dropped to the remaining
bench. Once more his thoughts were whirling in perplexed turbulence. Was
all this indeed but illusion? Was he sitting, in actuality, in a prosaic
hotel room, peering through magic spectacles that pictured this world
about him, or was he, transported by some miracle, really sitting here
in this land of loveliness? He touched the bench; stone, hard and
unyielding, met his fingers.
"Leucon," said his voice, "how did you know I was coming?"
"I was told," said the other.
"By whom?"
"By no one."
"Why—_someone_ must have told you!"
The Grey Weaver shook his solemn head. "I was just told."
Dan ceased his questioning, content for the moment to drink in the
beauty about him and then Galatea returned bearing a crystal bowl of the
strange fruits. They were piled in colorful disorder, red, purple,
orange and yellow, pear-shaped, egg-shaped, and clustered
spheroids—fantastic, unearthly. He selected a pale, transparent ovoid,
bit into it, and was deluged by a flood of sweet liquid, to the
amusement of the girl. She laughed and chose a similar morsel; biting a
tiny puncture in the end, she squeezed the contents into her mouth. Dan
took a different sort, purple and tart as Rhenish wine, and then
another, filled with edible, almond-like seeds. Galatea laughed
delightedly at his surprises, and even Leucon smiled a grey smile.
Finally Dan tossed the last husk into the brook beside them, where it
danced briskly toward the river.
"Galatea," he said, "do you ever go to a city? What cities are in
Paracosma?"
"Cities? What are cities?"
"Places where many people live close together."
"Oh," said the girl frowning. "No. There are no cities here."
"Then where are the people of Paracosma? You must have neighbors."
The girl looked puzzled. "A man and a woman live off there," she said,
gesturing toward a distant blue range of hills dim on the horizon. "Far
away over there. I went there once, but Leucon and I prefer the valley."
"But Galatea!" protested Dan. "Are you and Leucon alone in this valley?
Where—what happened to your parents—your father and mother?"
"They went away. That way—toward the sunrise. They'll return some day."
"And if they don't?"
"Why, foolish one! What could hinder them?"
"Wild beasts," said Dan. "Poisonous insects, disease, flood, storm,
lawless people, death!"
"I never heard those words," said Galatea. "There are no such things
here." She sniffed contemptuously. "Lawless people!"
"Not—death?"
"What is death?"
"It's—" Dan paused helplessly. "It's like falling asleep and never
waking. It's what happens to everyone at the end of life."
"I never heard of such a thing as the end of life!" said the girl
decidedly. "There isn't such a thing."
"What happens, then," queried Dan desperately, "when one grows old?"
"Nothing, silly! No one grows old unless he wants to, like Leucon. A
person grows to the age he likes best and then stops. It's a law!"
Dan gathered his chaotic thoughts. He stared into Galatea's dark, lovely
eyes. "Have you stopped yet?"
The dark eyes dropped; he was amazed to see a deep, embarrassed flush
spread over her cheeks. She looked at Leucon nodding reflectively on his
bench, then back to Dan, meeting his gaze.
"Not yet," he said.
"And when will you, Galatea?"
"When I have had the one child permitted me. You see"—she stared down
at her dainty toes—"one cannot—bear children—afterwards."
"Permitted? Permitted by whom?"
"By a law."
"Laws! Is everything here governed by laws? What of chance and
accidents?"
"What are those—chance and accidents?"
"Things unexpected—things unforeseen."
"Nothing is unforeseen," said Galatea, still soberly. She repeated
slowly, "Nothing is unforeseen." He fancied her voice was wistful.
Leucon looked up. "Enough of this," he said abruptly. He turned to Dan,
"I know these words of yours—chance, disease, death. They are not for
Paracosma. Keep them in your unreal country."
"Where did you hear them, then?"
"From Galatea's mother," said the Grey Weaver, "who had them from your
predecessor—a phantom who visited here before Galatea was born."
Dan had a vision of Ludwig's face. "What was he like?"
"Much like you."
"But his name?"
The old man's mouth was suddenly grim. "We do not speak of him," he said
and rose, entering the dwelling in cold silence.
"He goes to weave," said Galatea after a moment. Her lovely, piquant
face was still troubled.
"What does he weave?"
"This," She fingered the silver cloth of her gown. "He weaves it out of
metal bars on a very clever machine. I do not know the method."
"Who made the machine?"
"It was here."
"But—Galatea! Who built the house? Who planted these fruit trees?"
"They were here. The house and trees were always here." She lifted her
eyes. "I told you everything had been foreseen, from the beginning until
eternity—everything. The house and trees and machine were ready for
Leucon and my parents and me. There is a place for my child, who will be
a girl, and a place for her child—and so on forever."
Dan thought a moment. "Were you born here?"
"I don't know." He noted in sudden concern that her eyes were glistening
with tears.
"Galatea, dear! Why are you unhappy? What's wrong?"
"Why, nothing!" She shook her black curls, smiled suddenly at him. "What
could be wrong? How can one be unhappy in Paracosma?" She sprang erect
and seized his hand. "Come! Let's gather fruit for tomorrow."
She darted off in a whirl of flashing silver, and Dan followed her
around the wing of the edifice. Graceful as a dancer she leaped for a
branch above her head, caught it laughingly, and tossed a great golden
globe to him. She loaded his arms with the bright prizes and sent him
back to the bench, and when he returned, she piled it so full of fruit
that a deluge of colorful spheres dropped around him. She laughed again,
and sent them spinning into the brook with thrusts of her rosy toes,
while Dan watched her with an aching wistfulness. Then suddenly she was
facing him; for a long, tense instant they stood motionless, eyes upon
eyes, and then she turned away and walked slowly around to the arched
portal. He followed her with his burden of fruit; his mind was once more
in a turmoil of doubt and perplexity.
The little sun was losing itself behind the trees of that colossal
forest to the west, and a coolness stirred among long shadows. The brook
was purple-hued in the dusk, but its cheery notes mingled still with the
flower music. Then the sun was hidden; the shadow fingers darkened the
meadow; of a sudden the flowers were still, and the brook gurgled alone
in a world of silence. In silence too, Dan entered the doorway.
The chamber within was a spacious one, floored with large black and
white squares; exquisite benches of carved marble were here and there.
Old Leucon, in a far corner, bent over an intricate, glistening
mechanism, and as Dan entered he drew a shining length of silver cloth
from it, folded it, and placed it carefully aside. There was a curious,
unearthly fact that Dan noted; despite windows open to the evening, no
night insects circled the globes that glowed at intervals from niches in
the walls.
Galatea stood in a doorway to his left, leaning half-wearily against the
frame; he placed the bowl of fruit on a bench at the entrance and moved
to her side.
"This is yours," she said, indicating the room beyond. He looked in upon
a pleasant, smaller chamber; a window framed a starry square, and a
thin, swift, nearly silent stream of water gushed from the mouth of a
carved human head on the left wall, curving into a six-foot basin sunk
in the floor. Another of the graceful benches covered with the silver
cloth completed the furnishings; a single glowing sphere, pendant by a
chain from the ceiling, illuminated the room. Dan turned to the girl,
whose eyes were still unwontedly serious.
"This is ideal," he said, "but, Galatea, how am I to turn out the
light?"
"Turn it out?" she said. "You must cap it—so!" A faint smile showed
again on her lips as she dropped a metal covering over the shining
sphere. They stood tense in the darkness; Dan sensed her nearness
achingly, and then the light was on once more. She moved toward the
door, and there paused, taking his hand.
"Dear shadow," she said softly, "I hope your dreams are music." She was
gone.
Dan stood irresolute in his chamber; he glanced into the large room
where Leucon still bent over his work, and the Grey Weaver raised a hand
in a solemn salutation, but said nothing. He felt no urge for the old
man's silent company and turned back into his room to prepare for
slumber.
Almost instantly, it seemed, the dawn was upon him and bright elfin
pipings were all about him, while the odd ruddy sun sent a broad
slanting plane of light across the room. He rose as fully aware of his
surroundings as if he had not slept at all; the pool tempted him and he
bathed in stinging water. Thereafter he emerged into the central
chamber, noting curiously that the globes still glowed in dim rivalry to
the daylight. He touched one casually; it was cool as metal to his
fingers, and lifted freely from its standard. For a moment he held the
cold flaming thing in his hands, then replaced it and wandered into the
dawn.
Galatea was dancing up the path, eating a strange fruit as rosy as her
lips. She was merry again, once more the happy nymph who had greeted
him, and she gave him a bright smile as he chose a sweet green ovoid for
his breakfast.
"Come on!" she called. "To the river!"
She skipped away toward the unbelievable forest; Dan followed, marveling
that her lithe speed was so easy a match for his stronger muscles. Then
they were laughing in the pool, splashing about until Galatea drew
herself to the bank, glowing and panting. He followed her as she lay
relaxed; strangely, he was neither tired nor breathless, with no sense
of exertion. A question recurred to him, as yet unasked.
"Galatea," said his voice, "Whom will you take as mate?"
Her eyes went serious. "I don't know," she said. "At the proper time he
will come. That is a law."
"And will you be happy?"
"Of course." She seemed troubled. "Isn't everyone happy?"
"Not where I live, Galatea."
"Then that must be a strange place—that ghostly world of yours. A
rather terrible place."
"It is, often enough," Dan agreed. "I wish—" He paused. What did he
wish? Was he not talking to an illusion, a dream, an apparition? He
looked at the girl, at her glistening black hair, her eyes, her soft
white skin, and then, for a tragic moment, he tried to feel the arms of
that drab hotel chair beneath his hands—and failed. He smiled; he
reached out his fingers to touch her bare arm, and for an instant she
looked back at him with startled, sober eyes, and sprang to her feet.
"Come on! I want to show you my country." She set off down the stream,
and Dan rose reluctantly to follow.
What a day that was! They traced the little river from still pool to
singing rapids, and ever about them were the strange twitterings and
pipings that were the voices of the flowers. Every turn brought a new
vista of beauty; every moment brought a new sense of delight. They
talked or were silent; when they were thirsty, the cool river was at
hand; when they were hungry, fruit offered itself. When they were tired,
there was always a deep pool and a mossy bank; and when they were
rested, a new beauty beckoned. The incredible trees towered in
numberless forms of fantasy, but on their own side of the river was
still the flower-starred meadow. Galatea twisted him a bright-blossomed
garland for his head, and thereafter he moved always with a sweet
singing about him. But little by little the red sun slanted toward the
forest, and the hours dripped away. It was Dan who pointed it out, and
reluctantly they turned homeward.
As they returned, Galatea sang a strange song, plaintive and sweet as
the medley of river and flower music. And again her eyes were sad.
"What song is that?" he asked.
"It is a song sung by another Galatea," she answered, "who is my
mother." She laid her hand on his arm. "I will make it into English for
you." She sang:
"The River lies in flower and fern, In flower and fern it breathes a song.
It breathes a song of your return, Of your return in years too long.
In years too long its murmurs bring Its murmurs bring their vain replies,
Their vain replies the flowers sing, The flowers sing, 'The River lies!'"
Her voice quavered on the final notes; there was silence save for the
tinkle of water and the flower bugles. Dan said, "Galatea—" and paused.
The girl was again somber-eyed, tearful. He said huskily, "That's a sad
song, Galatea. Why was your mother sad? You said everyone was happy in
Paracosma."
"She broke a law," replied the girl tonelessly. "It is the inevitable
way to sorrow." She faced him. "She fell in love with a phantom!"
Galatea said. "One of your shadowy race, who came and stayed and then
had to go back. So when her appointed lover came, it was too late; do
you understand? But she yielded finally to the law, and is forever
unhappy, and goes wandering from place to place about the world." She
paused. "I shall never break a law," she said defiantly.
Dan took her hand. "I would not have you unhappy, Galatea. I want you
always happy."
She shook her head. "I _am_ happy," she said, and smiled a tender,
wistful smile.
They were silent a long time as they trudged the way homeward. The
shadows of the forest giants reached out across the river as the sun
slipped behind them. For a distance they walked hand in hand, but as
they reached the path of pebbly brightness near the house, Galatea drew
away and sped swiftly before him. Dan followed as quickly as he might;
when he arrived, Leucon sat on his bench by the portal, and Galatea had
paused on the threshold. She watched his approach with eyes in which he
again fancied the glint of tears.
"I am very tired," she said, and slipped within.
Dan moved to follow, but the old man raised a staying hand.
"Friend from the shadows," he said, "will you hear me a moment?"
Dan paused, acquiesced, and dropped to the opposite bench. He felt a
sense of foreboding; nothing pleasant awaited him.
"There is something to be said," Leucon continued, "and I say it without
desire to pain you, if phantoms feel pain. It is this: Galatea loves
you, though I think she has not yet realized it."
"I love her too," said Dan.
The Grey Weaver stared at him. "I do not understand. Substance, indeed,
may love shadow, but how can shadow love substance?"
"I love her," insisted Dan.
"Then woe to both of you! For this is impossible in Paracosma; it is a
confliction with the laws. Galatea's mate is appointed, perhaps even now
approaching."
"Laws! Laws!" muttered Dan. "Whose laws are they? Not Galatea's nor
mine!"
"But they are," said the Grey Weaver. "It is not for you nor for me to
criticize them—though I yet wonder what power could annul them to
permit your presence here!"
"I had no voice in your laws."
The old man peered at him in the dusk. "Has anyone, anywhere, a voice in
the laws?" he queried.
"In my country we have," retorted Dan.
"Madness!" growled Leucon. "Man-made laws! Of what use are man-made laws
with only man-made penalties, or none at all? If you shadows make a law
that the wind shall blow only from the east, does the west wind obey
it?"
"We do pass such laws," acknowledged Dan bitterly. "They may be stupid,
but they're no more unjust than yours."
"Ours," said the Grey Weaver, "are the unalterable laws of the world,
the laws of Nature. Violation is always unhappiness. I have seen it; I
have known it in another, in Galatea's mother, though Galatea is
stronger than she." He paused. "Now," he continued, "I ask only for
mercy; your stay is short, and I ask that you do no more harm than is
already done. Be merciful; give her no more to regret."
He rose and moved through the archway; when Dan followed a moment later,
he was already removing a square of silver from his device in the
corner. Dan turned silent and unhappy to his own chamber, where the jet
of water tinkled faintly as a distant bell.
Again he rose at the glow of dawn, and again Galatea was before him,
meeting him at the door with her bowl of fruit. She deposited her
burden, giving him a wan little smile of greeting, and stood facing him
as if waiting.
"Come with me, Galatea," he said.
"Where?"
"To the river bank. To talk."
They trudged in silence to the brink of Galatea's pool. Dan noted a
subtle difference in the world about him; outlines were vague, the thin
flower pipings less audible, and the very landscape was queerly
unstable, shifting like smoke when he wasn't looking at it directly. And
strangely, though he had brought the girl here to talk to her, he had
now nothing to say, but sat in aching silence with his eyes on the
loveliness of her face.
Galatea pointed at the red ascending sun. "So short a time," she said,
"before you go back to your phantom world. I shall be sorry, very
sorry." She touched his cheek with her fingers. "Dear shadow!"
"Suppose," said Dan huskily, "that I won't go. What if I won't leave
here?" His voice grew fiercer. "I'll not go! I'm going to stay!"
The calm mournfulness of the girl's face checked him; he felt the irony
of struggling against the inevitable progress of a dream. She spoke.
"Had I the making of the laws, you should stay. But you can't, dear one.
You can't!"
Forgotten now were the words of the Grey Weaver. "I love you, Galatea,"
he said.
"And I you," she whispered. "See, dearest shadow, how I break the same
law my mother broke, and am glad to face the sorrow it will bring." She
placed her hand tenderly over his. "Leucon is very wise and I am bound
to obey him, but this is beyond his wisdom because he let himself grow
old." She paused. "He let himself grow old," she repeated slowly. A
strange light gleamed in her dark eyes as she turned suddenly to Dan.
"Dear one!" she said tensely. "That thing that happens to the old—that
death of yours! What follows it?"
"What follows death?" he echoed. "Who knows?"
"But—" Her voice was quivering. "But one can't simply—vanish! There
must be an awakening."
"Who knows?" said Dan again. "There are those who believe we wake to a
happier world, but—" He shook his head hopelessly.
"It must be true! Oh, it must be!" Galatea cried. "There must be more
for you than the mad world you speak of!" She leaned very close.
"Suppose, dear," she said, "that when my appointed lover arrives, I send
him away. Suppose I bear no child, but let myself grow old, older than
Leucon, old until death. Would I join you in your happier world?"
"Galatea!" he cried distractedly. "Oh, my dearest—what a terrible
thought!"
"More terrible than you know," she whispered, still very close to him.
"It is more than violation of a law; it is rebellion! Everything is
planned, everything was foreseen, except this; and if I bear no child,
her place will be left unfilled, and the places of her children, and of
_their_ children, and so on until some day the whole great plan of
Paracosma fails of whatever its destiny was to be." Her whisper grew
very faint and fearful. "It is destruction, but I love you more than I
fear—death!"
Dan's arms were about her. "No, Galatea! No! Promise me!"
She murmured, "I can promise and then break my promise." She drew his
head down; their lips touched, and he felt a fragrance and a taste like
honey in her kiss. "At least," she breathed. "I can give you a name by
which to love you. Philometros! Measure of my love!"
"A name?" muttered Dan. A fantastic idea shot through his mind—a way of
proving to himself that all this was reality, and not just a page that
any one could read who wore old Ludwig's magic spectacles. If Galatea
would speak his name! Perhaps, he thought daringly, perhaps then he
could stay! He thrust her away.
"Galatea!" he cried. "Do you remember my name?"
She nodded silently, her unhappy eyes on his.
"Then say it! Say it, dear!"
She stared at him dumbly, miserably, but made no sound.
"Say it, Galatea!" he pleaded desperately. "My name, dear—just my
name!" Her mouth moved; she grew pale with effort and Dan could have
sworn that his name trembled on her quivering lips, though no sound
came.
At last she spoke. "I can't, dearest one! Oh, I can't! A law forbids
it!" She stood suddenly erect, pallid as an ivory carving. "Leucon
calls!" she said, and darted away. Dan followed along the pebbled path,
but her speed was beyond his powers; at the portal he found only the
Grey Weaver standing cold and stern. He raised his hand as Dan appeared.
"Your time is short," he said. "Go, thinking of the havoc you have
done."
"Where's Galatea?" gasped Dan.
"I have sent her away." The old man blocked the entrance; for a moment
Dan would have struck him aside, but something withheld him. He stared
wildly about the meadow—there! A flash of silver beyond the river, at
the edge of the forest. He turned and raced toward it, while motionless
and cold the Grey Weaver watched him go.
"Galatea!" he called. "Galatea!"
He was over the river now, on the forest bank, running through columned
vistas that whirled about him like mist. The world had gone cloudy; fine
flakes danced like snow before his eyes; Paracosma was dissolving around
him. Through the chaos he fancied a glimpse of the girl, but closer
approach left him still voicing his hopeless cry of "Galatea!"
After an endless time, he paused; something familiar about the spot
struck him, and just as the red sun edged above him, he recognized the
place—the very point at which he had entered Paracosma! A sense of
futility overwhelmed him as for a moment he gazed at an unbelievable
apparition—a dark window hung in midair before him through which glowed
rows of electric lights. Ludwig's window!
It vanished. But the trees writhed and the sky darkened, and he swayed
dizzily in turmoil. He realized suddenly that he was no longer standing,
but sitting in the midst of the crazy glade, and his hands clutched
something smooth and hard—the arms of that miserable hotel chair. Then
at last he saw her, close before him—Galatea, with sorrow-stricken
features, her tear-filled eyes on his. He made a terrific effort to
rise, stood erect, and fell sprawling in a blaze of coruscating lights.
He struggled to his knees; walls—Ludwig's room—encompassed him; he
must have slipped from the chair. The magic spectacles lay before him,
one lens splintered and spilling a fluid no longer water-clear, but
white as milk.
"God!" he muttered. He felt shaken, sick, exhausted, with a bitter sense
of bereavement, and his head ached fiercely. The room was drab,
disgusting; he wanted to get out of it. He glanced automatically at his
watch: four o'clock—he must have sat here nearly five hours. For the
first time he noticed Ludwig's absence; he was glad of it and walked
dully out of the door to an automatic elevator. There was no response
to his ring; someone was using the thing. He walked three flights to the
street and back to his own room.
In love with a vision! Worse—in love with a girl who had never lived,
in a fantastic Utopia that was literally nowhere! He threw himself on
his bed with a groan that was half a sob.
He saw finally the implication of the name Galatea. Galatea—Pygmalion's
statue, given life by Venus in the ancient Grecian myth. But _his_
Galatea, warm and lovely and vital, must remain forever without the gift
of life, since he was neither Pygmalion nor God.
He woke late in the morning, staring uncomprehendingly about for the
fountain and pool of Paracosma. Slow comprehension dawned; how
much—_how much_—of last night's experience had been real? How much was
the product of alcohol? Or had old Ludwig been right, and was there no
difference between reality and dream?
He changed his rumpled attire and wandered despondently to the street.
He found Ludwig's hotel at last; inquiry revealed that the diminutive
professor had checked out, leaving no forwarding address.
What of it? Even Ludwig couldn't give what he sought, a living Galatea.
Dan was glad that he had disappeared; he hated the little professor.
Professor? Hypnotists called themselves "professors." He dragged through
a weary day and then a sleepless night back to Chicago.
It was mid-winter when he saw a suggestively tiny figure ahead of him in
the Loop. Ludwig! Yet what use to hail him? His cry was automatic.
"Professor Ludwig!"
The elfin figure turned, recognized him, smiled. They stepped into the
shelter of a building.
"I'm sorry about your machine, Professor. I'd be glad to pay for the
damage."
"_Ach_, that was nothing—a cracked glass. But you—have you been ill?
You look much the worse."
"It's nothing," said Dan. "Your show was marvelous, Professor—marvelous! I'd have told you so,
but you were gone when it ended."
Ludwig shrugged. "I went to the lobby for a cigar. Five hours with a wax
dummy, you know!"
"It was marvelous!" repeated Dan.
"So real?" smiled the other. "Only because you co-operated, then. It
takes self-hypnosis."
"It was real, all right," agreed Dan glumly. "I don't understand
it—that strange beautiful country."
"The trees were club-mosses enlarged by a lens," said Ludwig. "All was
trick photography, but stereoscopic, as I told you—three dimensional.
The fruits were rubber; the house is a summer building on our
campus—Northern University. And the voice was mine; you didn't speak at
all, except your name at the first, and I left a blank for that. I
played your part, you see; I went around with the photographic apparatus
strapped on my head, to keep the viewpoint always that of the observer.
See?" He grinned wryly. "Luckily I'm rather short, or you'd have seemed
a giant."
"Wait a minute!" said Dan, his mind whirling. "You say you played my
part. Then Galatea—is _she_ real too?"
"Tea's real enough," said the Professor. "My niece, a senior at
Northern, and likes dramatics. She helped me out with the thing. Why?
Want to meet her?"
Dan answered vaguely, happily. An ache had vanished; a pain was eased.
Paracosma was attainable at last!
The Repairman
By HARRY HARRISON
Illustrated by KRAMER
Being an interstellar trouble shooter wouldn't be so bad ... if I
could shoot the trouble!
The Old Man had that look of intense glee on his face that meant someone
was in for a very rough time. Since we were alone, it took no great feat
of intelligence to figure it would be me. I talked first, bold attack
being the best defense and so forth.
"I quit. Don't bother telling me what dirty job you have cooked up,
because I have already quit and you do not want to reveal company
secrets to me."
The grin was even wider now and he actually chortled as he thumbed a
button on his console. A thick legal document slid out of the delivery
slot onto his desk.
"This is your contract," he said. "It tells how and when you will work.
A steel-and-vanadium-bound contract that you couldn't crack with a
molecular disruptor."
I leaned out quickly, grabbed it and threw it into the air with a single
motion. Before it could fall, I had my Solar out and, with a wide-angle
shot, burned the contract to ashes.
The Old Man pressed the button again and another contract slid out on
his desk. If possible, the smile was still wider now.
"I should have said a _duplicate_ of your contract—like this one here."
He made a quick note on his secretary plate. "I have deducted 13 credits
from your salary for the cost of the duplicate—as well as a 100-credit
fine for firing a Solar inside a building."
I slumped, defeated, waiting for the blow to land. The Old Man fondled
my contract.
"According to this document, you can't quit. Ever. Therefore I have a
little job I know you'll enjoy. Repair job. The Centauri beacon has shut
down. It's a Mark III beacon...."
"_What_ kind of beacon?" I asked him. I have repaired hyperspace beacons
from one arm of the Galaxy to the other and was sure I had worked on
every type or model made. But I had never heard of this kind.
"Mark III," the Old Man repeated, practically chortling. "I never heard
of it either until Records dug up the specs. They found them buried in
the back of their oldest warehouse. This was the earliest type of beacon
ever built—by Earth, no less. Considering its location on one of the
Proxima Centauri planets, it might very well be the first beacon."
I looked at the blueprints he handed me and felt my eyes glaze with
horror. "It's a monstrosity! It looks more like a distillery than a
beacon—must be at least a few hundred meters high. I'm a repairman, not
an archeologist. This pile of junk is over 2000 years old. Just forget
about it and build a new one."
The Old Man leaned over his desk, breathing into my face. "It would take
a year to install a new beacon—besides being too expensive—and this
relic is on one of the main routes. We have ships making
fifteen-light-year detours now."
He leaned back, wiped his hands on his handkerchief and gave me Lecture
Forty-four on Company Duty and My Troubles.
"This department is officially called Maintenance and Repair, when it
really should be called trouble-shooting. Hyperspace beacons are made to
last forever—or damn close to it. When one of them breaks down, it is
_never_ an accident, and repairing the thing is never a matter of just
plugging in a new part."
He was telling _me_—the guy who did the job while he sat back on his
fat paycheck in an air-conditioned office.
He rambled on. "How I wish that were all it took! I would have a fleet
of parts ships and junior mechanics to install them. But its not like
that at all. I have a fleet of expensive ships that are equipped to do
almost anything—manned by a bunch of irresponsibles like _you_."
I nodded moodily at his pointing finger.
"How I wish I could fire you all! Combination space-jockeys, mechanics,
engineers, soldiers, con-men and anything else it takes to do the
repairs. I have to browbeat, bribe, blackmail and bulldoze you thugs
into doing a simple job. If you think you're fed up, just think how I
feel. But the ships must go through! The beacons must operate!"
I recognized this deathless line as the curtain speech and crawled to my
feet. He threw the Mark III file at me and went back to scratching in
his papers. Just as I reached the door, he looked up and impaled me on
his finger again.
"And don't get any fancy ideas about jumping your contract. We can
attach that bank account of yours on Algol II long before you could draw
the money out."
I smiled, a little weakly, I'm afraid, as if I had never meant to keep
that account a secret. His spies were getting more efficient every day.
Walking down the hall, I tried to figure a way to transfer the money
without his catching on—and knew at the same time he was figuring a way
to outfigure me.
It was all very depressing, so I stopped for a drink, then went on to
the spaceport.
By the time the ship was serviced, I had a course charted. The nearest
beacon to the broken-down Proxima Centauri Beacon was on one of the
planets of Beta Circinus and I headed there first, a short trip of only
about nine days in hyperspace.
To understand the importance of the beacons, you have to understand
hyperspace. Not that many people do, but it is easy enough to understand
that in this _non_-space the regular rules don't apply. Speed and
measurements are a matter of relationship, not constant facts like the
fixed universe.
The first ships to enter hyperspace had no place to go—and no way to
even tell if they had moved. The beacons solved that problem and opened
the entire universe. They are built on planets and generate tremendous
amounts of power. This power is turned into radiation that is punched
through into hyperspace. Every beacon has a code signal as part of its
radiation and represents a measurable point in hyperspace. Triangulation
and quadrature of the beacons works for navigation—only it follows its
own rules. The rules are complex and variable, but they are still rules
that a navigator can follow.
For a hyperspace jump, you need at least four beacons for an accurate
fix. For long jumps, navigators use as many as seven or eight. So every
beacon is important and every one has to keep operating. That is where I
and the other trouble-shooters came in.
We travel in well-stocked ships that carry a little bit of everything;
only one man to a ship because that is all it takes to operate the
overly efficient repair machinery. Due to the very nature of our job, we
spend most of our time just rocketing through normal space. After all,
when a beacon breaks down, how do you find it?
Not through hyperspace. All you can do is approach as close as you can
by using other beacons, then finish the trip in normal space. This can
take months, and often does.
This job didn't turn out to be quite that bad. I zeroed on the Beta
Circinus beacon and ran a complicated eight-point problem through the
navigator, using every beacon I could get an accurate fix on. The
computer gave me a course with an estimated point-of-arrival as well as
a built-in safety factor I never could eliminate from the machine.
I would much rather take a chance of breaking through near some star
than spend time just barreling through normal space, but apparently Tech
knows this, too. They had a safety factor built into the computer so you
couldn't end up inside a star no matter how hard you tried. I'm sure
there was no humaneness in this decision. They just didn't want to lose
the ship.
It was a twenty-hour jump, ship's time, and I came through in the middle
of nowhere. The robot analyzer chuckled to itself and scanned all the
stars, comparing them to the spectra of Proxima Centauri. It finally
rang a bell and blinked a light. I peeped through the eyepiece.
A fast reading with the photocell gave me the apparent magnitude and a
comparison with its absolute magnitude showed its distance. Not as bad
as I had thought—a six-week run, give or take a few days. After feeding
a course tape into the robot pilot, I strapped into the acceleration
tank and went to sleep.
The time went fast. I rebuilt my camera for about the twentieth time and
just about finished a correspondence course in nucleonics. Most
repairmen take these courses. Besides their always coming in handy, the
company grades your pay by the number of specialties you can handle. All
this, with some oil painting and free-fall workouts in the gym, passed
the time. I was asleep when the alarm went off that announced planetary
distance.
Planet two, where the beacon was situated according to the old charts,
was a mushy-looking, wet kind of globe. I tried to make sense out of
the ancient directions and finally located the right area. Staying
outside the atmosphere, I sent a flying eye down to look things over. In
this business, you learn early when and where to risk your own skin. The
eye would be good enough for the preliminary survey.
The old boys had enough brains to choose a traceable site for the
beacon, equidistant on a line between two of the most prominent mountain
peaks. I located the peaks easily enough and started the eye out from
the first peak and kept it on a course directly toward the second. There
was a nose and tail radar in the eye and I fed their signals into a
scope as an amplitude curve. When the two peaks coincided, I spun the
eye controls and dived the thing down.
I cut out the radar and cut in the nose orthicon and sat back to watch
the beacon appear on the screen.
[Illustration]
The image blinked, focused—and a great damn pyramid swam into view. I
cursed and wheeled the eye in circles, scanning the surrounding country.
It was flat, marshy bottom land without a bump. The only thing in a
ten-mile circle was this pyramid—and that definitely wasn't my beacon.
Or wasn't it?
I dived the eye lower. The pyramid was a crude-looking thing of
undressed stone, without carvings or decorations. There was a shimmer of
light from the top and I took a closer look at it. On the peak of the
pyramid was a hollow basin filled with water. When I saw that, something
clicked in my mind.
Locking the eye in a circular course, I dug through the Mark III
plans—and there it was. The beacon had a precipitating field and a
basin on top of it for water; this was used to cool the reactor that
powered the monstrosity. If the water was still there, the beacon was
still there—inside the pyramid. The natives, who, of course, weren't
even mentioned by the idiots who constructed the thing, had built a nice
heavy, thick stone pyramid around the beacon.
I took another look at the screen and realized that I had locked the eye
into a circular orbit about twenty feet above the pyramid. The summit of
the stone pile was now covered with lizards of some type, apparently the
local life-form. They had what looked like throwing sticks and arbalasts
and were trying to shoot down the eye, a cloud of arrows and rocks
flying in every direction.
I pulled the eye straight up and away and threw in the control circuit
that would return it automatically to the ship.
Then I went to the galley for a long, strong drink. My beacon was not
only locked inside a mountain of handmade stone, but I had managed to
irritate the things who had built the pyramid. A great beginning for a
job and one clearly designed to drive a stronger man than me to the
bottle.
Normally, a repairman stays away from native cultures. They are poison.
Anthropologists may not mind being dissected for their science, but a
repairman wants to make no sacrifices of any kind for his job. For this
reason, most beacons are built on uninhabited planets. If a beacon _has_
to go on a planet with a culture, it is usually built in some
inaccessible place.
Why this beacon had been built within reach of the local claws, I had
yet to find out. But that would come in time. The first thing to do was
make contact. To make contact, you have to know the local language.
And, for _that_, I had long before worked out a system that was
fool-proof.
I had a pryeye of my own construction. It looked like a piece of rock
about a foot long. Once on the ground, it would never be noticed, though
it was a little disconcerting to see it float by. I located a lizard
town about a thousand kilometers from the pyramid and dropped the eye.
It swished down and landed at night in the bank of the local mud wallow.
This was a favorite spot that drew a good crowd during the day. In the
morning, when the first wallowers arrived, I flipped on the recorder.
After about five of the local days, I had a sea of native conversation
in the memory bank of the machine translator and had tagged a few
expressions. This is fairly easy to do when you have a machine memory to
work with. One of the lizards gargled at another one and the second one
turned around. I tagged this expression with the phrase, "Hey, George!"
and waited my chance to use it. Later the same day, I caught one of them
alone and shouted "Hey, George!" at him. It gurgled out through the
speaker in the local tongue and he turned around.
When you get enough reference phrases like this in the memory bank, the
MT brain takes over and starts filling in the missing pieces. As soon as
the MT could give a running translation of any conversation it heard, I
figured it was time to make a contact.
I found him easily enough. He was the Centaurian version of a
goat-boy—he herded a particularly loathsome form of local life in the
swamps outside the town. I had one of the working eyes dig a cave in an
outcropping of rock and wait for him.
When he passed next day, I whispered into the mike: "Welcome, O
Goat-boy Grandson! This is your grandfather's spirit speaking from
paradise." This fitted in with what I could make out of the local
religion.
Goat-boy stopped as if he'd been shot. Before he could move, I pushed a
switch and a handful of the local currency, wampum-type shells, rolled
out of the cave and landed at his feet.
"Here is some money from paradise, because you have been a good boy."
Not really from paradise—I had lifted it from the treasury the night
before. "Come back tomorrow and we will talk some more," I called after
the fleeing figure. I was pleased to notice that he took the cash before
taking off.
After that, Grandpa in paradise had many heart-to-heart talks with
Grandson, who found the heavenly loot more than he could resist. Grandpa
had been out of touch with things since his death and Goat-boy happily
filled him in.
I learned all I needed to know of the history, past and recent, and it
wasn't nice.
In addition to the pyramid being around the beacon, there was a nice
little religious war going on around the pyramid.
It all began with the land bridge. Apparently the local lizards had been
living in the swamps when the beacon was built, but the builders didn't
think much of them. They were a low type and confined to a distant
continent. The idea that the race would develop and might reach _this_
continent never occurred to the beacon mechanics. Which is, of course,
what happened.
A little geological turnover, a swampy land bridge formed in the right
spot, and the lizards began to wander up beacon valley. And found
religion. A shiny metal temple out of which poured a constant stream of
magic water—the reactor-cooling water pumped down from the atmosphere
condenser on the roof. The radioactivity in the water didn't hurt the
natives. It caused mutations that bred true.
A city was built around the temple and, through the centuries, the
pyramid was put up around the beacon. A special branch of the priesthood
served the temple. All went well until one of the priests violated the
temple and destroyed the holy waters. There had been revolt, strife,
murder and destruction since then. But still the holy waters would not
flow. Now armed mobs fought around the temple each day and a new band of
priests guarded the sacred fount.
And I had to walk into the middle of that mess and repair the thing.
It would have been easy enough if we were allowed a little mayhem. I
could have had a lizard fry, fixed the beacon and taken off. Only
"native life-forms" were quite well protected. There were spy cells on
my ship, all of which I hadn't found, that would cheerfully rat on me
when I got back.
Diplomacy was called for. I sighed and dragged out the plastiflesh
equipment.
Working from 3D snaps of Grandson, I modeled a passable reptile head
over my own features. It was a little short in the jaw, me not having
one of their toothy mandibles, but that was all right. I didn't have to
look _exactly_ like them, just something close, to soothe the native
mind. It's logical. If I were an ignorant aborigine of Earth and I ran
into a Spican, who looks like a two-foot gob of dried shellac, I would
immediately leave the scene. However, if the Spican was wearing a suit
of plastiflesh that looked remotely humanoid, I would at least stay and
talk to him. This was what I was aiming to do with the Centaurians.
When the head was done, I peeled it off and attached it to an attractive
suit of green plastic, complete with tail. I was really glad they had
tails. The lizards didn't wear clothes and I wanted to take along a lot
of electronic equipment. I built the tail over a metal frame that
anchored around my waist. Then I filled the frame with all the equipment
I would need and began to wire the suit.
When it was done, I tried it on in front of a full-length mirror. It was
horrible but effective. The tail dragged me down in the rear and gave me
a duck-waddle, but that only helped the resemblance.
That night I took the ship down into the hills nearest the pyramid, an
out-of-the-way dry spot where the amphibious natives would never go. A
little before dawn, the eye hooked onto my shoulders and we sailed
straight up. We hovered above the temple at about 2,000 meters, until it
was light, then dropped straight down.
It must have been a grand sight. The eye was camouflaged to look like a
flying lizard, sort of a cardboard pterodactyl, and the slowly flapping
wings obviously had nothing to do with our flight. But it was impressive
enough for the natives. The first one that spotted me screamed and
dropped over on his back. The others came running. They milled and
mobbed and piled on top of one another, and by that time I had landed in
the plaza fronting the temple. The priesthood arrived.
I folded my arms in a regal stance. "Greetings, O noble servers of the
Great God," I said. Of course I didn't say it out loud, just whispered
loud enough for the throat mike to catch. This was radioed back to the
MT and the translation shot back to a speaker in my jaws.
The natives chomped and rattled and the translation rolled out almost
instantly. I had the volume turned up and the whole square echoed.
Some of the more credulous natives prostrated themselves and others fled
screaming. One doubtful type raised a spear, but no one else tried that
after the pterodactyl-eye picked him up and dropped him in the swamp.
The priests were a hard-headed lot and weren't buying any lizards in a
poke; they just stood and muttered. I had to take the offensive again.
"Begone, O faithful steed," I said to the eye, and pressed the control
in my palm at the same time.
It took off straight up a bit faster than I wanted; little pieces of
wind-torn plastic rained down. While the crowd was ogling this ascent, I
walked through the temple doors.
"I would talk with you, O noble priests," I said.
Before they could think up a good answer, I was inside.
The temple was a small one built against the base of the pyramid. I
hoped I wasn't breaking too many taboos by going in. I wasn't stopped,
so it looked all right. The temple was a single room with a
murky-looking pool at one end. Sloshing in the pool was an ancient
reptile who clearly was one of the leaders. I waddled toward him and he
gave me a cold and fishy eye, then growled something.
The MT whispered into my ear, "Just what in the name of the thirteenth
sin are you and what are you doing here?"
I drew up my scaly figure in a noble gesture and pointed toward the
ceiling. "I come from your ancestors to help you. I am here to restore
the Holy Waters."
This raised a buzz of conversation behind me, but got no rise out of the
chief. He sank slowly into the water until only his eyes were showing. I
could almost hear the wheels turning behind that moss-covered forehead.
Then he lunged up and pointed a dripping finger at me.
"You are a liar! You are no ancestor of ours! We will—"
"Stop!" I thundered before he got so far in that he couldn't back out.
"I said your ancestors sent me as emissary—I am not one of your
ancestors. Do not try to harm me or the wrath of those who have Passed
On will turn against you."
When I said this, I turned to jab a claw at the other priests, using the
motion to cover my flicking a coin grenade toward them. It blew a nice
hole in the floor with a great show of noise and smoke.
The First Lizard knew I was talking sense then and immediately called a
meeting of the shamans. It, of course, took place in the public bathtub
and I had to join them there. We jawed and gurgled for about an hour and
settled all the major points.
I found out that they were new priests; the previous ones had all been
boiled for letting the Holy Waters cease. They found out I was there
only to help them restore the flow of the waters. They bought this,
tentatively, and we all heaved out of the tub and trickled muddy paths
across the floor. There was a bolted and guarded door that led into the
pyramid proper. While it was being opened, the First Lizard turned to
me.
"Undoubtedly you know of the rule," he said. "Because the old priests
did pry and peer, it was ruled henceforth that only the blind could
enter the Holy of Holies." I'd swear he was smiling, if thirty teeth
peeking out of what looked like a crack in an old suitcase can be called
smiling.
He was also signaling to him an underpriest who carried a brazier of
charcoal complete with red-hot irons. All I could do was stand and watch
as he stirred up the coals, pulled out the ruddiest iron and turned
toward me. He was just drawing a bead on my right eyeball when my brain
got back in gear.
"Of course," I said, "blinding is only right. But in my case you will
have to blind me before I _leave_ the Holy of Holies, not now. I need my
eyes to see and mend the Fount of Holy Waters. Once the waters flow
again, I will laugh as I hurl myself on the burning iron."
He took a good thirty seconds to think it over and had to agree with me.
The local torturer sniffled a bit and threw a little more charcoal on
the fire. The gate crashed open and I stalked through; then it banged to
behind me and I was alone in the dark.
But not for long—there was a shuffling nearby and I took a chance and
turned on my flash. Three priests were groping toward me, their
eye-sockets red pits of burned flesh. They knew what I wanted and led
the way without a word.
A crumbling and cracked stone stairway brought us up to a solid metal
doorway labeled in archaic script _MARK III BEACON—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL
ONLY_. The trusting builders counted on the sign to do the whole job,
for there wasn't a trace of a lock on the door. One lizard merely turned
the handle and we were inside the beacon.
I unzipped the front of my camouflage suit and pulled out the
blueprints. With the faithful priests stumbling after me, I located the
control room and turned on the lights. There was a residue of charge in
the emergency batteries, just enough to give a dim light. The meters and
indicators looked to be in good shape; if anything, unexpectedly bright
from constant polishing.
I checked the readings carefully and found just what I had suspected.
One of the eager lizards had managed to open a circuit box and had
polished the switches inside. While doing this, he had thrown one of the
switches and that had caused the trouble.
Rather, that had _started_ the trouble. It wasn't going to be ended by
just reversing the water-valve switch. This valve was supposed to be
used only for repairs, after the pile was damped. When the water was cut
off with the pile in operation, it had started to overheat and the
automatic safeties had dumped the charge down the pit.
I could start the water again easily enough, but there was no fuel left
in the reactor.
I wasn't going to play with the fuel problem at all. It would be far
easier to install a new power plant. I had one in the ship that was
about a tenth the size of the ancient bucket of bolts and produced at
least four times the power. Before I sent for it, I checked over the
rest of the beacon. In 2000 years, there should be _some_ sign of wear.
The old boys had built well, I'll give them credit for that. Ninety per
cent of the machinery had no moving parts and had suffered no wear
whatever. Other parts they had beefed up, figuring they would wear, but
slowly. The water-feed pipe from the roof, for example. The pipe walls
were at least three meters thick—and the pipe opening itself no bigger
than my head. There were some things I could do, though, and I made a
list of parts.
The parts, the new power plant and a few other odds and ends were chuted
into a neat pile on the ship. I checked all the parts by screen before
they were loaded in a metal crate. In the darkest hour before dawn, the
heavy-duty eye dropped the crate outside the temple and darted away
without being seen.
I watched the priests through the pryeye while they tried to open it.
When they had given up, I boomed orders at them through a speaker in the
crate. They spent most of the day sweating the heavy box up through the
narrow temple stairs and I enjoyed a good sleep. It was resting inside
the beacon door when I woke up.
The repairs didn't take long, though there was plenty of groaning from
the blind lizards when they heard me ripping the wall open to get at the
power leads. I even hooked a gadget to the water pipe so their Holy
Waters would have the usual refreshing radioactivity when they started
flowing again. The moment this was all finished, I did the job they were
waiting for.
I threw the switch that started the water flowing again.
There were a few minutes while the water began to gurgle down through
the dry pipe. Then a roar came from outside the pyramid that must have
shaken its stone walls. Shaking my hands once over my head, I went down
for the eye-burning ceremony.
The blind lizards were waiting for me by the door and looked even
unhappier than usual. When I tried the door, I found out why—it was
bolted and barred from the other side.
"It has been decided," a lizard said, "that you shall remain here
forever and tend the Holy Waters. We will stay with you and serve your
every need."
A delightful prospect, eternity spent in a locked beacon with three
blind lizards. In spite of their hospitality, I couldn't accept.
"What—you dare interfere with the messenger of your ancestors!" I had
the speaker on full volume and the vibration almost shook my head off.
The lizards cringed and I set my Solar for a narrow beam and ran it
around the door jamb. There was a great crunching and banging from the
junk piled against it, and then the door swung free. I threw it open.
Before they could protest, I had pushed the priests out through it.
The rest of their clan showed up at the foot of the stairs and made a
great ruckus while I finished welding the door shut. Running through the
crowd, I faced up to the First Lizard in his tub. He sank slowly beneath
the surface.
"What lack of courtesy!" I shouted. He made little bubbles in the water.
"The ancestors are annoyed and have decided to forbid entrance to the
Inner Temple forever; though, out of kindness, they will let the waters
flow. Now I must return—on with the ceremony!"
The torture-master was too frightened to move, so I grabbed out his hot
iron. A touch on the side of my face dropped a steel plate over my eyes,
under the plastiskin. Then I jammed the iron hard into my phony
eye-sockets and the plastic gave off an authentic odor.
A cry went up from the crowd as I dropped the iron and staggered in
blind circles. I must admit it went off pretty well.
Before they could get any more bright ideas, I threw the switch and my
plastic pterodactyl sailed in through the door. I couldn't see it, of
course, but I knew it had arrived when the grapples in the claws latched
onto the steel plates on my shoulders.
I had got turned around after the eye-burning and my flying beast hooked
onto me backward. I had meant to sail out bravely, blind eyes facing
into the sunset; instead, I faced the crowd as I soared away, so I made
the most of a bad situation and threw them a snappy military salute.
Then I was out in the fresh air and away.
When I lifted the plate and poked holes in the seared plastic, I could
see the pyramid growing smaller behind me, water gushing out of the base
and a happy crowd of reptiles sporting in its radioactive rush. I
counted off on my talons to see if I had forgotten anything.
One: The beacon was repaired.
Two: The door was sealed, so there should be no more sabotage,
accidental or deliberate.
Three: The priests should be satisfied. The water was running again, my
eyes had been duly burned out, and they were back in business. Which
added up to—
Four: The fact that they would probably let another repairman in, under
the same conditions, if the beacon conked out again. At least I had done
nothing, like butchering a few of them, that would make them
antagonistic toward future ancestral messengers.
I stripped off my tattered lizard suit back in the ship, very glad that
it would be some other repairman who'd get the job.
The gadget was strictly, beyond any question, a toy.
Not a real, workable device. Except for the way it could work
under a man's mental skin....
BY HARRY HARRISON
[Illustration: SHOP]
Because there were few adults in the crowd, and Colonel "Biff" Hawton
stood over six feet tall, he could see every detail of the
demonstration. The children—and most of the parents—gaped in wide-eyed
wonder. Biff Hawton was too sophisticated to be awed. He stayed on
because he wanted to find out what the trick was that made the gadget
work.
"It's all explained right here in your instruction book," the
demonstrator said, holding up a garishly printed booklet opened to a
four-color diagram. "You all know how magnets pick up things and I bet
you even know that the earth itself is one great big magnet—that's why
compasses always point north. Well ... the Atomic Wonder Space Wave
Tapper hangs onto those space waves. Invisibly all about us, and even
going right through us, are the magnetic waves of the earth. The Atomic
Wonder rides these waves just the way a ship rides the waves in the
ocean. Now watch...."
Every eye was on him as he put the gaudy model rocketship on top of the
table and stepped back. It was made of stamped metal and seemed as
incapable of flying as a can of ham—which it very much resembled.
Neither wings, propellors, nor jets broke through the painted surface.
It rested on three rubber wheels and coming out through the bottom was a
double strand of thin insulated wire. This white wire ran across the top
of the black table and terminated in a control box in the demonstrator's
hand. An indicator light, a switch and a knob appeared to be the only
controls.
"I turn on the Power Switch, sending a surge of current to the Wave
Receptors," he said. The switch clicked and the light blinked on and off
with a steady pulse. Then the man began to slowly turn the knob. "A
careful touch on the Wave Generator is necessary as we are dealing with
the powers of the whole world here...."
A concerted _ahhhh_ swept through the crowd as the Space Wave Tapper
shivered a bit, then rose slowly into the air. The demonstrator stepped
back and the toy rose higher and higher, bobbing gently on the invisible
waves of magnetic force that supported it. Ever so slowly the power was
reduced and it settled back to the table.
"Only $17.95," the young man said, putting a large price sign on the
table. "For the complete set of the Atomic Wonder, the Space Tapper
control box, battery and instruction book ..."
At the appearance of the price card the crowd broke up noisily and the
children rushed away towards the operating model trains. The
demonstrator's words were lost in their noisy passage, and after a
moment he sank into a gloomy silence. He put the control box down,
yawned and sat on the edge of the table. Colonel Hawton was the only one
left after the crowd had moved on.
"Could you tell me how this thing works?" the colonel asked, coming
forward. The demonstrator brightened up and picked up one of the toys.
"Well, if you will look here, sir...." He opened the hinged top. "You
will see the Space Wave coils at each end of the ship." With a pencil he
pointed out the odd shaped plastic forms about an inch in diameter that
had been wound—apparently at random—with a few turns of copper wire.
Except for these coils the interior of the model was empty. The coils
were wired together and other wires ran out through the hole in the
bottom of the control box. Biff Hawton turned a very quizzical eye on
the gadget and upon the demonstrator who completely ignored this sign of
disbelief.
"Inside the control box is the battery," the young man said, snapping it
open and pointing to an ordinary flashlight battery. "The current goes
through the Power Switch and Power Light to the Wave Generator ..."
"What you mean to say," Biff broke in, "is that the juice from this
fifteen cent battery goes through this cheap rheostat to those
meaningless coils in the model and absolutely nothing happens. Now tell
me what really flies the thing. If I'm going to drop eighteen bucks for
six-bits worth of tin, I want to know what I'm getting."
The demonstrator flushed. "I'm sorry, sir," he stammered. "I wasn't
trying to hide anything. Like any magic trick this one can't be really
demonstrated until it has been purchased." He leaned forward and
whispered confidentially. "I'll tell you what I'll do though. This
thing is way overpriced and hasn't been moving at all. The manager said
I could let them go at three dollars if I could find any takers. If you
want to buy it for that price...."
"Sold, my boy!" the colonel said, slamming three bills down on the
table. "I'll give that much for it no matter _how_ it works. The boys in
the shop will get a kick out of it," he tapped the winged rocket on his
chest. "Now _really_—what holds it up?"
The demonstrator looked around carefully, then pointed. "Strings!" he
said. "Or rather a black thread. It runs from the top of the model,
through a tiny loop in the ceiling, and back down to my hand—tied to
this ring on my finger. When I back up—the model rises. It's as simple
as that."
"All good illusions are simple," the colonel grunted, tracing the black
thread with his eye. "As long as there is plenty of flimflam to distract
the viewer."
"If you don't have a black table, a black cloth will do," the young man
said. "And the arch of a doorway is a good site, just see that the room
in back is dark."
"Wrap it up, my boy, I wasn't born yesterday. I'm an old hand at this
kind of thing."
Biff Hawton sprang it at the next Thursday-night poker party. The gang
were all missile men and they cheered and jeered as he hammed up the
introduction.
"Let me copy the diagram, Biff, I could use some of those magnetic waves
in the new bird!"
"Those flashlight batteries are cheaper than lox, this is the thing of
the future!"
Only Teddy Kaner caught wise as the flight began. He was an amateur
magician and spotted the gimmick at once. He kept silent with
professional courtesy, and smiled ironically as the rest of the bunch
grew silent one by one. The colonel was a good showman and he had set
the scene well. He almost had them believing in the Space Wave Tapper
before he was through. When the model had landed and he had switched it
off he couldn't stop them from crowding around the table.
"A thread!" one of the engineers shouted, almost with relief, and they
all laughed along with him.
"Too bad," the head project physicist said, "I was hoping that a little
Space Wave Tapping could help us out. Let me try a flight with it."
"Teddy Kaner first," Biff announced. "He spotted it while you were all
watching the flashing lights, only he didn't say anything."
Kaner slipped the ring with the black thread over his finger and started
to step back.
"You have to turn the switch on first," Biff said.
"I know," Kaner smiled. "But that's part of illusion—the spiel and the
misdirection. I'm going to try this cold first, so I can get it moving
up and down smoothly, then go through it with the whole works."
[Illustration: ILLUSTRATED BY BREY]
He moved his hand back smoothly, in a professional manner that drew no
attention to it. The model lifted from the table—then crashed back
down.
"The thread broke," Kaner said.
"You jerked it, instead of pulling smoothly," Biff said and knotted the
broken thread. "Here let me show you how to do it."
The thread broke again when Biff tried it, which got a good laugh that
made his collar a little warm. Someone mentioned the poker game.
This was the only time that poker was mentioned or even remembered that
night. Because very soon after this they found that the thread would
lift the model only when the switch was on and two and a half volts
flowing through the joke coils. With the current turned off the model
was too heavy to lift. The thread broke every time.
"I still think it's a screwy idea," the young man said. "One week
getting fallen arches, demonstrating those toy ships for every brat
within a thousand miles. Then selling the things for three bucks when
they must have cost at least a hundred dollars apiece to make."
"But you _did_ sell the ten of them to people who would be interested?"
the older man asked.
"I think so, I caught a few Air Force officers and a colonel in missiles
one day. Then there was one official I remembered from the Bureau of
Standards. Luckily he didn't recognize me. Then those two professors you
spotted from the university."
"Then the problem is out of our hands and into theirs. All we have to do
now is sit back and wait for results."
"_What_ results?! These people weren't interested when we were hammering
on their doors with the proof. We've patented the coils and can prove to
anyone that there is a reduction in weight around them when they are
operating...."
"But a small reduction. And we don't know what is causing it. No one can
be interested in a thing like that—a fractional weight decrease in a
clumsy model, certainly not enough to lift the weight of the generator.
No one wrapped up in massive fuel consumption, tons of lift and such is
going to have time to worry about a crackpot who thinks he has found a
minor slip in Newton's laws."
"You think they will now?" the young man asked, cracking his knuckles
impatiently.
"I _know_ they will. The tensile strength of that thread is correctly
adjusted to the weight of the model. The thread will break if you try to
lift the model with it. Yet you can lift the model—after a small
increment of its weight has been removed by the coils. This is going to
bug these men. Nobody is going to ask them to solve the problem or
concern themselves with it. But it will nag at them because they know
this effect can't possibly exist. They'll see at once that the
magnetic-wave theory is nonsense. Or perhaps true? We don't know. But
they will all be thinking about it and worrying about it. Someone is
going to experiment in his basement—just as a hobby of course—to find
the cause of the error. And he or someone else is going to find out what
makes those coils work, or maybe a way to improve them!"
"And we have the patents...."
"Correct. They will be doing the research that will take them out of the
massive-lift-propulsion business and into the field of pure space
flight."
"And in doing so they will be making us rich—whenever the time comes to
manufacture," the young man said cynically.
"We'll all be rich, son," the older man said, patting him on the
shoulder. "Believe me, you're not going to recognize this old world ten
years from now."
_Don't believe in flying saucers? Neither do we, but that doesn't necessarily mean
that there can be no other way for Earth to get its last...._
WARNING FROM THE STARS
By RON COCKING
ILLUSTRATOR SUMMERS
It was a beautifully machined container, shaped like a two pound
chocolate candy box, the color and texture of lead. The cover fitted so
accurately that it was difficult to see where it met the lip on the
base.
Yet when Forster lifted the container from the desk in the security
guards' office, he almost hit himself in the face with it, so light was
it.
He read the words clumsily etched by hand into the top surface with some
sharp instrument:
TO BE OPENED ONLY BY: Dr. Richard Forster,
Assistant Director, Air Force Special Research Center,
Petersport, Md.
CAUTION: Open not later than 24 hours after receipt.
DO NOT OPEN in atmosphere less than equivalent of 65,000 feet
above M.S.L.
He turned the container over and over. It bore no other markings—no
express label or stamps, no file or reference number, no return address.
It was superbly machined, he saw.
Tentatively he pulled at the container cover, it was as firm as if it
had been welded on. But then, if the cover had been closed in the thin
atmosphere of 65,000 feet, it would be held on by the terrific pressure
of a column of air twelve miles high.
Forster looked up at the burly guard.
"Who left this here?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, sir." The man's voice was as close to
insolence as the difference in status would allow, and Forster
bristled.
"I just clocked in an hour ago. There was a thick fog came on all of a
sudden, and there was a bit of confusion when we were changing over.
They didn't say anything about the box when I relieved."
"Fog?" Forster queried. "How could fog form on a warm morning like
this?"
"You're the scientist, sir. You tell me. Went as fast as it came."
"Well—it looks like very sloppy security. The contents of this thing
must almost certainly be classified. Give me the book and I'll sign for
it. I'll phone you the file number when I find the covering
instructions."
Forster was a nervous, over-conscientious little man, and his day was
already ruined, because any departure from strict administrative routine
worried and upset him. Only in his field of aviation medicine did he
feel competent, secure.
He knew that around the center they contemptuously called him
"Lilliput." The younger researchers were constantly trying to think up
new ways to play jokes on him, and annoy him.
Crawley Preston, the research center's director and his chief, had been
summoned to Washington the night before. Forster wished fervently that
he was around to deal with this matter. Now that relations between East
and West had reached the snapping point, the slightest deviation from
security regulations usually meant a full-scale inquiry.
He signed for the container, and carried it out to the car, still
seething impotently over the guard's insolence.
He placed it beside him on the front seat of his car and drove up to the
building which housed part of the labs and also his office.
He climbed out, then as he slammed the door he happened to glance into
the car again.
The seat covers were made of plastic in a maroon and blue plaid pattern.
But where the box had rested there was a dirty grey rectangular patch
that hadn't been there before.
Forster stared, then opened the door again. He rubbed his fingers over
the discolored spot; it felt no different than the rest of the fabric.
Then he placed the box over the area—it fitted perfectly.
He flopped down on the seat, his legs dangling out of the car, fighting
down a sudden irrational wave of panic. He pushed the container to the
other end of the seat.
_After all_, he rationalized, _plastics are notoriously unstable under
certain conditions. This is probably a new alloy Washington wants tested
for behavior under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure.
What's gotten into you?_
He took a deep breath, picked up the box again. Where it had rested
there was another discolored patch on the car seat covers.
Holding it away from him, Forster hurried into the office, then dumped
the box into a metal wastebasket. Then he went to a cabinet and pulled
out a Geiger counter, carried it over to the wastebasket. As he pointed
the probe at the box the familiar slow clicking reassured him, and
feeling a little foolish he put the instrument back on its shelf.
[Illustration: In his pressurized chamber, Forster read the startling
message.]
Hurriedly, he went through his mail; there was nothing in it referring
to the package. Then he called the classified filing section; nobody
there knew anything about it either.
For some reason he couldn't explain to himself, he wasn't even
surprised.
He stared into the wastebasket. The clumsily etched instructions glinted
up at him: "_To be opened as soon as possible...._"
He picked up the phone and called the decompression chamber building.
There was no valid reason why he should have been self-conscious as he
talked to the lab attendant in charge of the decompression tank. He used
it a dozen times a month for tests and experiments, yet when he gave his
instructions his voice was labored and strained.
"Some genius in Washington sent this thing down without any covering
instructions, but it has to be opened in a hurry in a thin atmosphere.
Er—I'd like you to stay on the intercom for a while in case it blows up
in my face or something." He tried to laugh, but all that came out was a
croak.
The attendant nodded indifferently, then helped Forster into the helmet
of his pressure suit. He climbed up the steps into the chamber, pulling
the airtight door shut behind him. He placed the box on the desk in
front of the instrument panel, then turned back to push the door clamps
into place.
For the first time in the hundreds of hours he'd spent in the tank, he
knew the meaning of claustrophobia.
Mechanically, he plugged in his intercom and air lines, went through the
other routine checks before ascent, tested communications with the lab
attendant, then flicked the exhaust motor switch.
Now there was little to do except wait. He stared at the box; in the
artificial light it seemed full of hidden menace, a knowing aliveness of
its own....
Forster shrugged his shoulders impatiently, as though to throw off the
vague blanket of uneasiness that was settling around him. So somebody
had forgotten to send a covering message with the container, or else it
had been mislaid—that could happen, although with security routine as
strict as it was, the possibility was remote. All the same, it could
happen. After all, what other explanation was there? What was it he was
afraid of? There was something about it—
He glanced at the altimeter. The needle showed only 10,000 feet, and
seemed to be crawling around the dial. He resolved not to look at it
for three minutes by the clock on the panel.
When he checked the altimeter again, it registered just over 30,000
feet. Not even half way yet.
As the pressure in the tank decreased, he began to be conscious of the
need for "reverse breathing"—and he concentrated on using his tongue to
check the flow of air into his lungs, then using the thoracic muscles to
exhale against the higher pressure inside the suit.
Time seemed to be passing in micro-seconds ... 25,000 feet ... 30,000
... 40,000 ... 50,000.
At 62,500 feet he gently tested the cover of the container again; it
lifted.
As the altimeter needle flickered on the 65,000-foot mark, he cut the
exhaust motor and picked up the box. The cover slipped off easily.
His feeling of anticlimax was almost ludicrous. As he looked in, all the
box contained was a flattened roll of some greyish material.
He took it out; despite its comparative bulk, it was feather-light. It
had the appearance of metal, but was as porous and pliable as a good
grade of bond paper. He could not feel its texture through his heavy
gloves. He took a good look.
It was new all right—no doubt Washington wanted some tests run on it,
although without covering instructions and data this trip was wasted.
But some heads would roll when he reported back on the way the container
had been shipped in.
He started to unroll the material to get a better look at it, then he
saw that it was covered with cramped, closely spaced handwriting in a
purplish ink—handwriting that was elusively familiar.
Then he read the words written in neat capitals at the top, the name of
the man with the familiar handwriting, and fear came back, clamped cold
fingers around his throat:
_James Rawdon Bentley_
Dear Dick, the writing went on, Take a large economy-size grip on
yourself. I know this is going to sound like a voice from the dead, but
I'm very much alive and kicking—in the best of health in fact....
The writing blurred, and instinctively Forster put his fist up to rub
his eyes, only to meet the hard plastic of his helmet visor. James
Rawdon Bentley....
It was January 18, 1951, three years ago, and the jagged line of the
Australian coast stretched like a small-scale map to the black curve of
the horizon.
From the converted bomber that was his flying lab, Forster could see the
other American observation plane cruising on a parallel course, about
half a mile away, and beyond it downwind the fringe of the billowing
cloud dome of the super-secret British thermonuclear shot.
Then suddenly Bentley's voice from the other plane was crackling over
the earphones, sharp and urgent:
"Our Geigers and scintillometers are going crazy! We're getting out of
here! There's something coming inside ... a light...."
Silence. Forster had watched in helpless horror as the other ship dipped
a silver wing, then nosed down ever so slowly, it seemed ... down ...
down ... in a dive that seemed to take hours as Forster's plane tracked
it, ending in a tiny splash like a pebble being thrown into a pond; then
the grimly beautiful iridescence of oil and gasoline spreading across
the glassy waters of the Timor Sea.
No parachutes had opened on the long journey down. An Australian air sea
rescue launch and helicopter were at the scene of the crash in minutes,
but neither bodies nor survivors had been found, then or later....
"Everything okay, Doctor Forster?"
"Yes," he said hoarsely. "Yes ... everything's okay ... just routine."
Forster focussed his eyes on the writing again. There was no doubt at
all that it was Bentley's. They had roomed and studied together for four
years at MIT, and then there had been a couple of years' post-graduate
work after that. During all that time they had used each other's notes
constantly.
But Bentley was dead.
Forster read on, stunned:
First, you'll want to know what happened over the Timor Sea after the
shot. Put very simply, I, the rest of the technicians, and the crew of
the B-29 were transhipped to another vehicle—without any damage to
ourselves. How, I'm not allowed to explain at this stage. Actually, they
only wanted me, but it wasn't feasible to collect me and leave the rest
behind, so they're all here, safe and well.
Who are "they," and where am I? The second question I can't answer—not
allowed to. "They," roughly translated, are "The Shining Ones," which
doesn't tell you anything, of course. Briefly, they're a couple of
light-years ahead of Earth in evolution—mentally, morally, and
physically, although I use the last word loosely. Too bad that English
is a commercial language, it's so hard to discuss really abstract ideas.
Why am I here? The whole reason for this message is wrapped up in the
answer to that.
As you probably know, Project Longfall, which I was heading up was
delayed about a year due to my removal. That was the sole purpose,
although I and the rest of us are getting special instruction to keep us
occupied.
About the same time, they also took several other key people from
Britain, Russia, and the United States. Others were already here.
The idea then was _delay_—to delay more test shots of atomic weapons,
in the hope that East and West would come to some agreement. Now,
because of the growing volume of tests, and the critical tension which
prevails, delay will no longer suffice, and far more drastic steps are
to be taken.
I wish you could be here for only a few minutes to see what happens
after a multi-megaton thermonuclear test shot is set off on Earth.
I can't describe it in terms which would have any relation to your
present knowledge of physics. All I can say is that life here is
intimately bound up with the higher laws of electro-magnetism which at
present are only being guessed at on your level. It's not the
radioactivity which you know as such which causes the trouble—there are
neutralizing devices throughout the planetary system to take care of
that. The damage is caused by an ultra-ultra-short wave radiation which
not even the most sensitive scintillometer you have can pick up, a very
subtle by-product of every chain reaction.
It doesn't have too much immediate effect on the lower forms of
life—including human beings, if you'll pardon the expression. But here,
it causes a ghastly carnage, so ghastly it sickens me even to think
about it for a second.
The incredible thing is that the people here could stop Earth from
firing another shot if they wished to, and at 24 hours' notice, but
their philosophy is totally opposed to force, even when it means their
own destruction. That will give you an idea of the kind of people they
are.
(Here they say that Einstein was on the fringe of discovering the theory
involved when he died, but was having trouble with the mathematics.
Remember how Einstein always complained that he was really a poor
mathematician?)
But with atomic warfare threatening to break out on Earth at any minute,
they have got to do something.
This is what they plan to do—this is what they _are going to do_.
Starting within a few hours after you receive this message, a mass
removal of key scientists will begin. They will take 20, 30, or
40—roughly equal numbers from both sides—every few hours as technical
conditions allow. That will go on until East and West agree to drop this
whole mad weapons race. It will be done quietly, peacefully. Nobody will
be hurt except by a fluke. But if needs be, they will lift every major
scientific brain off the face of Earth to stop the present drift to
disaster for everybody. There are no weapons, no devices that you have
at present, which can stop this plan going into effect. There it
is—it's as simple as that.
If you knew what you were really headed for, it would need no steps
from here to make both sides on Earth stop this horrible foolishness in
a moment.
The lesson of Mars is part of the orientation course here. (I'm _not_ on
Mars). I'm using up space, so I'll go into note form for a bit. Martians
had an atomic war—forgot they had to breathe ... destroyed 60 per cent
of their atmosphere ... canals on Mars aren't ... they're closely-spaced
line of shafts leading to underground cities ... view from Earth
telescopes, shaft mouths appear as dots which run together into lines
due to eye-fatigue ... British Royal Astronomical Society figured that
out 30 years ago at least ... see papers on their proceedings ...
photographs here show monsters created by wholesale mutations ... lasted
about four generations before reproduction failed ... now only
vegetation on Mars ... saw pictures of last survivors ... horrible ... I
was ill for days after ... imagine having to take 40 separate breaths
after making a single step!
Getting back to the others here ... a regular U. N. Remember O'Connor
and Walters in our class? They're here. Check, you'll find that O'Connor
is "detached" from Oak Ridge and Walters from Aiken for "special duty."
That's Central Intelligence's story for their disappearance.
Remember those top German boys the Russians were supposed to have gotten
to before the Allies could reach them after the Nazi collapse? _They're
here too!_ And Kamalnikov, and Pretchkin of the Russian Academy.
Believe me (the style and the writing was a little less urgent again
now), I've had all the intellectual stuffing knocked out of me here.
We all have had, for that matter. We're supposed to be the cream of the
crop, but imagine sitting down to instruction from people whose I.Q.s
start where yours leaves off!
But what has really made most of us here feel pretty humble is the way
they have demolished Earth's so-called "scientific method"—and used the
method itself to prove that it doesn't stand up!
You know how we've always been taught to observe, collect data, then
erect a theory to fit the data, a theory which has to be modified when
other data came along which don't fit into it.
Here they work the opposite way—they say: "Know the fundamental
principles governing the operation of the universe and then all the
pieces fit together inside this final Truth."
I understand now why so many of the Oak Ridge boys turned to religion
after they had been exposed to the electron microscope for a while—they
realized they had gone as far as their "scientific" training would ever
take them.
Time and space are running out. I know all this must sound confused and
incredible, Dick; I'm still confused myself. But I want you to think
about what I've written, then take the action you think best. I know it
won't be easy for you.
If you think this is some maniac's idea of a joke, you'll have proof
very soon that it isn't, because _one of the people at your Center is
due to leave for here any time now_.
You're wondering why I used this weird and wonderful means of
communication. The problem was to find a writing material which would
stand up in Earth's atmosphere—oddly enough, it's not the oxygen which
causes the trouble, but the so-called "inert" nitrogen. The container
will probably not disintegrate for a couple of days at sea level
atmospheric pressure, but this material I'm writing on would not last
more than a few seconds. That's one reason they picked you—most people
just don't have a spare decompression chamber up in the attic! The other
reason was that with your photographic memory, you'll know this is my
handwriting, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I hope.
I'm sure you've sat in that pressure suit long enough. But remember, if
you want to take another look at this, you'll have to put it back in the
container before you go "down."
Wishing you all you would wish for yourself,
Jim.
Forster examined the signature. That was the way Bentley made the
capital J—it looked almost like a T, with just a faint hook on the
bottom of the down-stroke. Then the way it joined the—
"Hey, Doc—are you going to tie up the tank all day? I've got work to
do."
Forster recognized the voice on the intercom as Tom Summerford's.
Summerford was one of the crop of recent graduates to join the
Center—brash, noisy, irresponsible like the rest of them. He knew
Forster hated being called "Doc," so he never lost an opportunity to use
the word. True, he was gifted and well-trained, but he was a ringleader
in playing the practical jokes on Forster which might have been funny in
college, but which only wasted a research team's time in these critical
days.
Practical joke.
Anger flooded over him.
Yes, this was all a macabre game cooked up by Summerford, with the help
of some of his pals. Probably they were all out there now, snickering
among themselves, waiting to see his face when he came out of the
decompression chamber ... waiting to gloat....
"Hey Doc! You still with us?"
"I'll be out very shortly," Forster said grimly. "Just wait right
there."
He spun the air inlet controls; impatiently, he watched as the
altimeter needle began its anti-clockwise movement.
He'd call a staff meeting right away, find the culprits and suspend them
from duty. Preston would have to back him up. If Summerford proved to be
the ringleader, he would insist on his dismissal, Forster decided. And
he would see to it that the young punk had trouble getting another post.
The fantastic waste of time involved in such an elaborate forgery ...
Forster trembled with indignation. And using the name of a dead man,
above all a scientist who had died in the interests of research, leaving
behind him a mystery which still troubled the Atomic Energy Commission,
because nobody had ever been able to explain that sudden dive in a plane
which was apparently functioning perfectly, and flown by a veteran
crew....
He glanced down at the roll.
Was it his imagination, or had the purplish ink begun to fade? He ran a
length of it through his fingers, and then he saw that in places there
were gaps where the writing had disappeared altogether. He glanced up at
the altimeter needle, which was sliding by the 24,000-foot mark.
He looked back at his hands again, just in time to see the roll part in
two places, leaving only the narrow strip he held between his gloved
fingers.
He put the strip on the desk, and bent clumsily in his suit to retrieve
the other pieces from the floor. But wherever he grabbed it, it fell
apart. Now it seemed to be melting before his eyes. In a few seconds
there was nothing.
He straightened up. The strip he had left on the desk had disappeared,
too. No ash, no residue. Nothing.
His thought processes seemed to freeze. He glanced mechanically at the
altimeter. It read 2,500 feet.
He grabbed at the two pieces of the container. They still felt as rigid
as ever. He fitted them together carefully, gaining a crumb of security
from the act.
He realized vaguely that the altimeter needle was resting on zero, but
he had no idea how long he had been sitting there, trying to find a
thread of logic in the confused welter of thoughts, when he heard the
scrape of metal on metal as somebody wrestled with the door clamps from
the outside.
He was certain of only one thing. His memory told him that the signature
that was no longer a signature had been written by Jim Rawdon, who
couldn't possibly have survived that crash into the Timor Sea....
From behind, somebody was fumbling with his helmet connections, then
fresh air and familiar sounds rushed in on him as the helmet was taken
away.
Summerford's thin, intelligent face was opposite his.
"Doc! Are you all right?" he was asking sharply. For once, there was no
superciliousness in his voice.
"I'm fine," Forster said heavily. "I—I've got a headache. Stayed in
here too long, I suppose."
"What's in the box?" Summerford asked.
The way he asked told Forster at once that the youngster knew nothing
about it.
"Er—just some half-baked idea out of the Pentagon. Some colonel trying
to justify his existence." He clutched the box to him as though
Summerford might try to take it away. "The tank's all yours."
He turned and clambered out of the chamber. He put the box down on the
concrete floor, and climbed out of the pressure suit, watching the box
all the time. It seemed to gleam up at him, as though it had eyes, full
of silent menace.
He realized vaguely that Summerford was standing in front of him again,
looking anxious.
"Are you quite sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," Forster said, hardly recognizing his own voice.
He picked up the box and stumbled out, heading for his office.
When he walked in, his secretary was answering the line fitted with a
scrambler, which connected directly with the Pentagon.
"General Morganson," she said, handing him the receiver.
Forster took the receiver, sat down at his desk and took a deep breath,
fighting hard to regain his self control.
"Forster," he said into the mouthpiece when the office door closed
behind the girl.
"Forster! What the dickens has happened to Preston? My driver met the
train here this morning, but there was no sign of him. But the Pullman
porter checked him in last night, and we found all his gear and papers
in his compartment!"
"He left here in plenty of time to catch the train, General," Forster
heard himself say. "He took the train to get a night's rest." He
realized how irrelevant the last statement was only after he had made
it.
The General was talking again ... important meeting with the Joint
Chiefs ... whole briefing team was being held up ... he'd reported it to
the C.I.A. as a precautionary measure....
Forster could see the words on the roll, the roll that wasn't, as though
they were engraved on his eye-retinas: _As a beginning, and to prove
this isn't just a bit of hocus-pocus, one of the people at your Center
is due to leave for here any time now._
"General," Forster broke in hoarsely. "I've got some very important
information which you must have. I'll leave by heliplane right away."
He replaced the phone receiver in its cradle, wondering how convincing
he would be able to make his story. At least, even if he didn't have
Bentley's letter, he had the container. That should help.
But when he looked across the desk, he saw that it too had disappeared,
without a trace.
General Morganson was the newest product of the Atomic Age, half
soldier, half scientist—shrewd and perceptive, an intellectual giant.
He listened carefully, without comment or change of expression, as
Forster doggedly went through his story in chronological order.
Half way through, he held up his hand and started pushing buttons on the
console built into his desk. Within a few moments men began filing into
the room, and sat down around Forster.
Then the general motioned to the clerk seated in the corner by a tape
recorder.
"Gentlemen, listen to this playback and then I'll have Dr. Forster here
go on from there."
What was left of Forster's confidence leaked away as he heard his own
diffident voice filling the room again. It was like being awake in the
middle of a weird dream.
But when the tape recorder hissed into silence, he went on, staring
straight ahead of him in quiet desperation.
When he ended his story, there was silence for a moment. Everyone sat
motionless.
Then Morganson looked up and around.
"Well gentlemen? Mr. Bates, C.I.A. first."
This was no longer a story told by one man; it had become a problem, a
situation to be evaluated objectively.
"Well, sir ... the only part of the thing I can comment on at this point
is the stuff about O'Connor and Walters. That checks. They both
disappeared without a trace. It was treated as a maximum security
situation, and we did give out the story they had been assigned to
special duty." He glanced briefly at Forster. "Up until now, we assumed
that only the directors at Aiken and Oak Ridge knew the real
situation—outside of the Atomic Energy Commission and C.I.A., of
course. This represents a very serious leak—or...." His voice trailed
away.
"Colonel Barfield, Intelligence?"
The young colonel tried to sound flippant, unsuccessfully.
"General, acting on the assumption the story is true, it would answer
about two hundred question marks in our files. Maybe more, with further
study."
The C.I.A. man cleared his throat and raised a finger.
"For everybody's information," he said, "a preliminary field check shows
that Dr. Preston's train was stopped for ten minutes by fog last night.
The train's radar installation failed simultaneously. There wouldn't be
anything odd about that except the temperature at the time was about 65
degrees, and the humidity was only 55 per cent. Consider that,
gentlemen.
"Theoretically, fog can't form under such conditions. Similar local fog
occurred on the occasions when O'Connor and Walters were reported
missing. The Met. people couldn't explain that, either. That's all."
Morganson sat up straight, as though he had suddenly made a decision.
"I don't think there's any value in further discussion at this point.
You will all have transcripts of Dr. Forster's statement within a few
minutes. According to that statement, we are due to lose a number of key
men in the next few hours. I'll have Code One emergency precautions
instituted at all research establishments, and I think the chairman of
the Joint Chiefs should hear from me right away. Colonel Barfield, I'd
like you to ask Colonel Malinowski, the Russian military attaché to see
me here not later than an hour from now. We'll have a full dress
conference here at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, with written evaluation
reports in detail from all branches. Dr. Forster, consider yourself
assigned to Pentagon duty as of now, and until further notice."
Forster sat, dazed, until he realized that the others had left, and the
general was standing in front of him.
"Go get some rest, Forster," the other man said with surprising
gentleness. "You've had a tough day."
As Forster slept that early summer night, weathermen across the world
were marking their weather maps with thousands of observations—feathery
wind arrows, temperatures, barometric pressures and relative humidities.
Then, as they drew their isobars, the pattern for the northern
hemisphere emerged. A giant high pressure system with its center in
northern Oklahoma promised warm fair weather across America. Another,
centered east of the Ural Mountains, forecast clear weather for most of
Europe and northern Asia.
A low pressure trough between was dropping light warm rain on the green
fields of England, but from Seattle to Washington, D. C, from Stettin to
Vladivostock the sun was rising or setting in clear skies.
Then about 9 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, a thickening mist descended
over warm and drowsy southwest South Carolina. It was a fog that was not
a fog, observers said afterwards, because there was no damp, no
coldness—just a steady loss of visibility until a man couldn't see his
hand held up in front of his face, even though a bright moon was
shining. Most of the reporting night shift at the Aiken hydrogen bomb
plant never reached the tightly-guarded gates. Those who did were not
allowed in.
At the same hour, across the world at the newly-built underground heavy
water factory of Rossilovskigorsk, west of the southern tip of Lake
Baikal, the late morning sun cast deep shadows into the gaping holes in
the hillside which marked the plant entrances and exits. Deep below,
miles of filtration chambers hissed quietly as they prepared their
deadly concentrate.
Then, without warning, the sun grew watery and paled, and within a few
minutes a haze began to form at ground level. It grew thicker and
thicker; the sun became a dim orange sphere, then was blotted out. Total
darkness enveloped the area.
And at the same hour, the watchers manning the lonely circle of probing
radar domes, facing each other across the frozen wastes of the Arctic,
cursed softly in Russian and English as their scopes sweeping the upper
air first went blank and then dark.
They were shaken men at the meeting in General Morganson's office the
next morning.
"Over 30 key men gone from Aiken," Morganson was saying. "In terms of
goals, it means that our 1960 program now cannot possibly be fulfilled
until 1965. If the situation develops as forecast in Dr. Forster's
statement, our entire nuclear weapons program will grind to a halt
within two weeks. If we drain men from civilian research, it will cause
a total breakdown in the civilian atomic power production program. As
you all know, the nation's entire economic expansion program is based on
the availability of that power. Without it, industry will be forced into
a deep freeze. That in turn means we might as well run up a white flag
on the White House lawn."
He smiled thinly. "I would be a lot more worried than I am except we
have the first indications that the other side is in the same boat. I
broke every regulation in the book last night when I talked to
Malinowski. I took the liberty of warning him, on the basis that there
was nothing to lose. His reaction then was that it was all a Wall
Street-capitalist plot—'psychological warfare,' he called it.
"He phoned me an hour ago. Sounded as though he'd just seen a ghost. He
said the Russian ambassador had asked for an appointment with the
Secretary of State this morning...."
Forster, bewildered and out of his depth in these global problems, let
the flood of words pour over him.
Then he realized that Morganson was staring at him over the telephone
receiver at his ear, and that the room was very quiet.
Then Morganson said respectfully: "Very well, Mr. President. We'll have
Doctor Forster there."
Forster was relegated to the sidelines after his interview with the
grave-faced man in the White House. Events were moving swiftly—events
which Forster could read behind the blurred black headlines of the
newspapers.
The Russian ambassador was closeted with the Secretary of State for a
record six-hour talk. Then the Soviet Foreign Minister took off for
Washington at 30 minutes' notice, and another record was made when he
spent all day with the President. The Washington columnists began to
hint of lessening tension in the cold war, and the wire services carried
reports of Russian radio broadcasts talking of a new era of cooperation
between East and West.
Only fragments of the broadcasts could be monitored, because radio
reception had suddenly deteriorated right across the world. The reports
could not be confirmed because Russia had cut all phone communication
with the outside world. There was no possible mode of contact.
Meanwhile, in the United States, television reception was blacking out
for hours at a time, with no explanation available. The Civil
Aeronautics Administration and the Air Force banned all plane movements
under instrument flight conditions, because radar navigational equipment
had become so unreliable as to be useless.
Newspapers across the nation were reporting sudden fogs of short
duration which baffled local weathermen. The U. S. Weather Bureau in
Washington refused to comment.
For the first time in the history of an East-West conference, there was
no haggling, no propaganda speeches. Hour after hour, even as the talks
went on, the cream of the world's scientific brains quietly continued to
disappear, it was revealed later.
In three days, the major powers accomplished what they had failed to do
in the previous 15 years. Just 4 days and 21 hours after Forster had
first talked to General Morganson at the Pentagon, a treaty was signed
ending the world atomic weapons race.
And it had all happened, was over and done, before the people of the
globe could realize what was happening, before they could rise in mass
panic in the face of the incredible unknown.
Almost immediately after the announcement, radio and radar
communications suddenly returned to normal, and reports of the
mysterious fogs ceased.
Back at the Center, as he walked down the floodlit ramp of the heliport
towards his car, Forster found himself thinking of the experimental work
on the dream state which he had performed as a graduate student. He knew
that a dream which might take half an hour to recount took only a
fraction of a second to occur in the sub-conscious of the sleeper as he
awoke.
It was the same way with the events of the last five days; already
details were becoming fuzzy and blurred as though they had happened
five years ago.
He opened the car door, and the soft glow of the dome light filled the
interior.
Then he saw again the neat rectangular discoloration on the seat covers,
and the jolt back to reality was almost a physical thing. Relief,
overwhelming, flooded over him.
He looked up into the indigo-velvet sky. Above him was the enormous
triangle formed by Deneb, Vega, and Altair. Framed within it were a
thousand other dimmer stars, but all, he knew, far, far bigger than the
speck of solidified gases called Earth.
Somewhere out there, living, thinking, breathing was Bentley.
"Good night," Forster said out loud.
And somehow, he was sure he wasn't talking into thin air.
End of Pygmalion's Spectacles by Stanley Grauman Weinbaum