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Period of Error by Francis G Rayer

This short story first appeared in the magazine New World, Issue Number 52, dated October 1956
Editor: John Carnell. Publisher: Nova.
Country of first publication: Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved.

Period of Error

By Francis G. Rayer (writing as George Longdon)

Since its development early in the 1939-45 war, Radar has continued to advance with enormous strides, although the factor of human error is ever present. How near will radar get to the prediction in this story— where human fallibility is eradicated ?

Illustrated by HUTCHINGS

Jack Bennett lifted his brows and moved the phone to almost arm’s length. “ Yes, sir. The system is completed, all work finished.”
“ And time too !” The voice was still almost too loud for comfort. “ When I was a young man of your rank, Captain, I would not have permitted such delay !”
Jack did not point out that becoming General had not increased Farram’s tolerance or improved his temper. Instead, he waited until the irate tones ceased.

“ The whole system is very complex, General Farram.” He schooled his voice to a mildness he did not feel. “ The northmost station has new radar devices no one can jam and is the most efficient in the world — ”

“ It should, considering the money spent !” Farram rapped.
Jack sighed, his lips twitching. Farram seldom let a subordinate complete a sentence, and Jack felt that one day things would become unendurable, his pent resentment boil over, and pop would go his three captain’s stars.

“ My report will have to be made within three days, at the most,” General Farram was saying. “ It will not be favourable unless I am convinced !” The phone diaphragm shook with ire. “ Is Major Cornforth there ?”

“ No, sir. He’s out in a helicopter making personal checks.”
“ Then tell him to call me immediately he is back !”
The line went dead and Jack cradled the phone, lips compressed. General Farram understood none of the intricacies of the Cornforth System of Distant Enemy Warning radar, and his calls to the DEW headquarters had become increasingly frequent and irritating.

Jack leant over his desk and pressed a button. “ If Major Cornforth comes in will you say I’d like to see him.”
“ Yes, sir.”
“ And if General Farram rings, say I’ve gone to inspect the station.”
“ I will, sir.” The girl’s voice carried understanding.

It was two hours flight to the DEW equipment site, Jack reflected, and wondered if he should wait until Cornforth came in. The office window overlooked the distant airfield from which the Major’s helicopter had spun off into the clear northern sky, but there was no hint of his early return. Allowing two hours each way, and two to inspect the equipment, he should be back quite soon, Jack decided.

He watched a few moments, then went along a corridor to the other wing of the building. Five years in construction, it had matched the slow rising of the lattice radar towers straddling the Springpark site four hundred miles to the north. In polar regions, swept by blizzard and snow, the site had been named in jest by a wit unknown. Apt because opposite, it stuck.

Remy Johnson was sitting idly on a green-topped mushroom stool, but straightened up as Jack entered. Jack’s nostrils twitched but he did not point out that a Signals Sergeant was not supposed to smoke on duty.

“ Had any message from Springpark, sergeant ?”
Johnson shook his head. Young, he looked intelligent but bored. “ I understood all personnel had been cleared, now everything is finished, sir.”

“ They have. But I wondered if the Major had signalled.”
Johnson tapped the message records. “ There’s been nothing from Springpark in twenty-four hours.”

Jack left him. After five years of rush, a relaxing calm had come, broken only by the irascible Farram. All the scanning, pulse generating and receiving equipment was at the far away site, but radio links extended to the headquarters building, and no one need stay at Springpark. He would wait half an hour, then set out, if Cornforth was not back, Jack decided. It would be both his duty and satisfaction to view the completed station.

He spent the time sorting his reports into order, ready for General Farram’s eagle eyes. With minutes to spare he mused over the chart that showed the line of remote towers, from which would radiate a matrix of radar no enemy could avoid. The Cornforth System was both highly complex and top secret, and Jack doubted if anyone living - except Major Cornforth himself understood it as a whole. Many technicians had been involved, but the work had been in sections, one group not knowing what the others were doing. The expense had been vast— on that point he could agree with Farram. No man with a reputation lesser than Cornforth’s would have gained permission to spend so much.

The thirty minutes had just gone when a whine began somewhere in the building, grew to a screech, and stayed there. Jack rose so quickly his chair fell over, unnoticed. Someone was running, feet pounding. Nerves twanging with shock, and the unearthly screech, Jack raced for the radio wing, thoughts a bedlam of astonishment. A general warning from DEW !

Remy Johnson had lost his colour. A single screen on the wall lit and faded rhythmically. Its name plate stated General Warning. Johnson’s gaze flashed to it, and back.

“ It — it can’t be enemy planes, sir!”
No, Jack thought, it couldn’t. The line of stations had been erected as a future safeguard, not because of an immediate threat. His eyes fled over the glowing screen, the others, dead silver, and the mass of indicators, markers and pointers.

“ Don’t you know exactly what it means? ”
Johnson gestured helplessly. “ No, sir ! The trained radar watch was beginning tomorrow. All I know is what it says — General Warning.”

“ You can’t be more exact ?” Jack snapped.
“ No, sir.” The Signals Sergeant chewed a lip. “ Could it be Major Cornforth flying by the stations to test them ?”

“ He’d not do that without advising us !” . No-one in their senses would initiate a General Warning, Jack thought. It would automatically alert defence projectile stations throughout the country. Men would be swarming to predictors and launching units, eyes turned skywards. In terms of man-hours, alarm and expense, a pointless General Alarm probably was as wasteful as the loss of a major aircraft carrier at sea, with all personnel and equipment.

The sounds of running were converging on the radio room. Jack went out as the main rush of staff officials and technicians arrived. There was one thing to do, he thought as he hurried out — take a helicopter to Springpark and see what happened !

illustration from Period of Error Radar masts appeared slowly in the greyness ahead, gaunt and black on the white plain, and Jack took the helicopter skimming down to reduced altitude. Whorls of powdery snow raced on the wind across the icy wilderness, but no human was visible, nor any plane that could have tripped a warning.

Jack set the machine down a hundred yards from a steel lattice tower, and threw open the cockpit cover. Cold wind struck his cheeks, plucked at his dark hair, and he hastily drew up the hood of his fleece-lined suit. He stood up, surveyed the scene to the limit of visibility, and depressed the panel radio call button.

“ Captain Bennett reporting from the Springpark site. There is no sign of Major Cornforth, his machine, or anyone else. Did you get a warning of my approach ?”

“ Yes, sir.” Remy Johnson sounded fully awake now. “ On one of the directive screens. I’ve been watching for it.”
“ Good. I’ll call if anything arises.”
Wind shook the helicopter fiercely as Jack got out. The moment the General Warning had sounded he had felt it did not indicate enemy craft, but some totally unexpected fault in the equipment. Major Cornforth would probably know what to suspect, he thought.

Ankle deep in snow, he squinted up at the radar mast. Eleven metre antennae topped it, radiating a modulated pulse no anti-radar jamming device could deceive. Lower were the centimetre directive parabolics that twirled ceaselessly upon a vertical axis, exactly tracking any object from horizon to zenith. On side members projecting from the mast stood other aerials, odd in shape and the subjects of special care by Cornforth, Jack remembered. A gust struck him, almost tilting him off balance, and snow stung his eyes. He pulled goggles down off the hood, and plunged through the white dunes to the reinforced steel dome that covered the station entrance.

The recessed door had a palm lock responding only to Cornforth, himself, and two senior headquarters staff. Inside, he watched it close with a whirr, and the icy blast was excluded. Steps descended from the tiny metal igloo, terminating in a corridor off which branched several chambers housing pulse generators, receivers, and robot equipment. Jack had never pretended to understand some of the units, especially those Cornforth had personally supervised. But one room contained rows of meters and indicators designed to show any fault anywhere in the whole installation. He checked them systematically. All was in order.

Nearly an hour had passed when he left, sealing the door. The wind had risen slightly, but the snow had ceased, leaving a clear view over the frozen wastelands around. He hesitated, his dark brows drawn down and his lips twitching. He could only assume some unknown fault had arisen, then cleared itself.

Out in the open the wind was strong. He ran to the helicopter, ducked under its flapping blades, and gained the cockpit. The panel radio indicator was at red and he pressed the button.

“ Captain Bennett speaking.”
“ I’ve been trying to get you for ten minutes, sir — ”
Jack wondered at the note in young Remy Johnson’s voice. “Yes ?”
“ A foot patrol reported seeing a crashed helicopter. He is trying to reach it but says it will take hours, so radioed for aid. We’ve sent out a machine, but the crash is quite near you.”

Jack operated the motor starter. Major Cornforth, he thought. “ Give me the co-ordinates !”
He noted them down even as the craft began to rise. Thirty miles from the Springpark site, but over three-hundred and eighty from headquarters. He would undoubtedly reach the crashed machine first.

The map references indicated a point a little off the direct route, where the ground became broken and began to rise in hills that joined low mountains many miles east. He guessed the foot patrol had been on the hills, and had possibly observed the crashed machine across several miles of almost impassable terrain.

The helicopter lay upside down, crumpled rotors pressed into the frozen snow and fuselage poised oddly on a twisted shaft. Jack circled, his machine bucking from the spinning upcurrents of the hillside, and found a flat a trifle lower. Wheels and struts sank deep, but the craft rested firm.

As he walked to the inverted machine, feet crackling through frozen snow, deep lines grew upon his youthful face and he felt a sudden responsibility almost more than his thirty-odd years could bear. Major Cornforth lay on his back under one of the rotor blades, hat gone from his sandy hair, blue eyes open but unseeing, a look of astonishment on his pleasant face. His hands, face and body were icy cold.

Jack drew on his gauntlet. He could not lift the rotor, and hours had passed since Cornforth had died. Back in his own machine he radioed the headquarters building.

“ The Major is dead. I don’t know whether he crashed, and was thrown out. Or whether his machine developed a fault, so that he came down, and the wind overturned it on top of him. As he was off course the craft was probably faulty.” He waited acknowledgement. “ You’ll send a rescue squad right away? I’m coming back.”

He sat gazing moodily at the upturned helicopter, his own machine quivering each time the wind struck it. The integrating mind behind the Cornforth System was no more. He wished the Major had not exercised care almost to the point of being secretive.

When a heavy drone grew in the sky and a large machine sloped steeply for the hillside, he jerked shut the cockpit cover and took the single-seater up at a speed that left a trail of settling snow in his wake. The hills fringing the Springpark site began to dwindle rapidly behind.

A striped, two-rotor craft Jack did not recognise stood outside the headquarters building. Inside, the desk girl looked pale in her spruce grey uniform.

“ General Farram is waiting for you in your office, sir,” she said. Jack noted the quiver in her voice as he nodded and went up. A subdued silence had invaded the building. Jack tapped on his door and entered. Farram sat behind the desk, mighty in the chair Jack found amply large for his own sparse frame. The General’s dark, wild hair stood in disorder, his face was red, his brow scarlet, and his eyes fierce.

“ I have had to wait, Captain Bennett!” he stated irritably.
Jack felt his lips twitch, but held his features resolutely wooden. “ I’ve been out to the DEW site, sir.”
“ Then perhaps you can explain this disgraceful General Warning !” Farram snapped. “ In thirty years as a soldier I’ve never experienced its like.”

“ Apparently there was some error — some fault in the equipment, sir.”
General Farram shook as with pent wrath. “ Then that in itself is a condemnation of the whole system ! You alert the whole military and air forces, then suggest it’s a minor fault — ”

Jack felt colour in his cheeks. “ The equipment is automatic, sir. There is only robot apparatus, designed to work without attention.” “ And to raise a warning when there is none ?” Farram demanded. “ No, sir !” Jack stood woodenly. “ The system was only just beginning to function. Much equipment needs adjustment at first — there is an initial period of error.”

“ Which you have located and corrected?”
Jack looked at his shoes. “ No, sir.”
“ Ah !” Triumph and anger blended. Farram rose precipitantly and stabbed the papers on the desk with a finger. “ I was against the whole idea from the beginning, on the ground of unjustified expense, and Major Cornforth knew it.”

Jack met the other’s wrathful gaze. “ The Major is dead, sir.”
“ So I have been informed ! That is why I now regard the whole system as being your responsibility, Captain ! I expect it to work correctly and in a reliable manner. It will be my duty to present a report to my superiors.”

Farram walked to the door, halting with his thick brows twitching. “ Your future career in the Service will depend on my words, Captain Bennett.” '

Jack ignored the almost deliberate provocation of tone. “ I always carry through tasks set me, sir.”
The door banged. Alone, Jack half unconsciously ran fingers over his three gold stars. As Farram said, it would look bad if the Springpark work proved a fiasco. The total expense had reached eight figures, and the high brass obviously expected value.

He sat on the edge of his desk, frowning. The Springpark venture had its unknown quantities, dreamt up by Major Cornforth, built by technicians who never saw the whole, and too complex for easy analysis. Upon them the fall of the three gold stars might depend. But one thing Jack knew — Cornforth was sure the radar equipment was the best in the world, and his fifty years of technological reputation had stood behind every smallest part.

Jack had been pondering on his notes for an hour when the desk buzzer sounded. He pressed the button.
“ Captain Bennett here.”
“ A Miss Cornforth is asking to see you, sir.”
Jack frowned. “ I know no one that name.”
“ Major Cornforth’s daughter, sir. She says she is sure you will see her.”

Silent, Jack tried to recall any mention of a daughter, but failed. The Major had lived far away, arriving by helicopter daily. He had never talked of personal matters, Jack remembered.

“ Very well,” he said. “ Show her up.”

The newcomer had her father’s kindly features, but his sandy hair had emerged as light gold. Moderate in build, she could not be over twenty-five, and had a swiftly expressive face that smiled fleetingly.

Jack expressed his sorrow and found blue eyes the image of the Major’s fixed on him. “ Father believed in this radar system, Captain Bennett. If it fails, his reputation is ruined. I have heard there was trouble—”

“ A warning of approaching craft when there was none.”
“ So I gathered.” She nodded slowly. “ Father talked about Springpark sometimes. I believe there were radar devices which had never previously been used. Father had studied radar systems all his life, and done original work.”

Moved by her intensity, Jack was silent. If Farram blew the whole scheme up, Cornforth’s reputation would join the dust.
The clear blue eyes remained on him. “ If I can help, I wish to. Father didn’t put much on paper, or destroyed what he wrote, but there are a few notes. I — I have a Degree in communications technology, and can go over the systems step by step in the light of what my father told me, though that’s not much.”

Lack of complete knowledge of the Cornforth System was hindering, Jack reflected. The Major had been almost secretive, for security reasons.

As time passed he knew that his first impression of Susie Cornforth had not been mistaken. Her quick intelligence quite matched his own, he admitted, and he grew to look for the abrupt jerk of her head that meant she understood. The centimetre directive radar was standard practice, and presented no difficulty. The short wave modulated system proved only a little more awkward.

“ Father’s plan was that the modulation prevents jamming by anti- radar devices,” Susie Cornforth said, golden head bent over the block plans. “ A jamming transmitter cannot produce a modulation which must vary in a specific but unpredictable manner. Any dissimilarity between the received and transmitter signal would trigger a warning.”

Jack scratched his dark head. Four hours had drained him, but left the girl as fresh as when she entered. “ Could it be that which initiated the General Warning ? ”

“ No.” The close gold curls shook a quick negative. “ It could only happen if an enemy or jamming station were in action. We know that isn’t so.”

Only the third set of equipment remained. It occupied space equalling both Eleven-Metre and centimetre directive apparatus. Susie Cornforth studied plans of the side aerials on the Springpark towers.

“ This was Father’s pride, and the real heart of the Cornforth System,” she said pensively. “ Also the part he talked least about. I remember him chuckling and telling me no enemy craft would evade giving ample warning if they came within five hundred miles of it, if they tried from now till Domesday.”

“ If the other equipment is in order, presumably that is.” Jack felt tired.
Her blue eyes met his quickly. “ You’re still looking for a — fault ? ”
“ Of course. There was a warning with no planes.”

Half an hour later she left. Jack had coffee, put his feet on the desk for twenty minutes, then sat up to write his report for Farram. In it he expressed confidence in the whole Springpark system, said no fault could be located, gave it as his opinion that all was in order, and concluded by stating he considered the whole network of radar stations now fully operative. Signed and sealed, he delivered it into the hands of an orderly for immediate dispatch to General Farram, and felt more at ease. Susie Cornforth should not feel that her father was to be made ridiculous.

He stretched, standing at the window. The long evening of such latitudes was near and he felt rest would be welcomed and justified. He had just locked his desk when a bleating, wailing sound awoke in the building. He froze, mouth open. Within a moment his desk phone was buzzing. He snatched it up.

“ Duty radio operator here. Is that Captain Bennett ?”
“ It is !” Jack noted the breathlessness of the operator’s voice.
“ It’s a General Warning from the Springpark station, sir !”
Jack groaned, his heart lead. “ I’m coming !” He banged the phone down and pressed a stud for the entrance office. “ Is the messenger who just took a report from me there ? If so, stop him !”

A delay, then : “ He’s gone, sir.”
Jack released the button and his lips set. The simultaneous arrival of the report and new alert would act on Farram like the approach of a match to gunpowder !

A new radio man was in the radio room, but clearly as helpless as Remy Johnson. His face was pale and his eyes uneasy.
“ General Farram left instructions you were to be informed, sir,” he said. “ He has been rather — displeased, sir.”

Jack looked at the blinking screen. “ If he reprimands you try to point out that Major Cornforth died without explaining the overall working of the system to us, or refer him to me.”

The man appeared doubtful. Farram was not the kind of superior with whom it was easy to discuss difficulties. The beeping in his ears, Jack wished the screen listings were more detailed. The general warning did not even give a directive bearing on the craft or planes — he stopped himself abruptly : there were no planes, only an error !

“ I’m going out to look again !” he snapped.
As he ran from the building he was aware of lighter steps following.
“ Captain Bennett ! Can I come ? ”

He halted, saw it was Susie Cornforth, and nodded. “ The helicopter can carry two easily. Get a polar suit from stores — the DEW site is no picnic !”

She was back, dragging the zip to her throat, almost as soon as he had started the motor. She jabbed her curls under the fleecy cap, lowering herself into the second seat. She pointed.

“ Someone wants you ! ”
From the corner of his eye Jack saw General Farram burst from the main doors, bare-headed, face thunderous. Jack operated the controls and the helicopter bounced for the sky.

“ I haven’t seen anyone !” he said.
He put the craft upon the course he had flown so many times before, but never so urgently. Springpark, four hundred miles and two hours away, held some mystery likely to ruin both Cornforth’s reputation and his own career, unless it could be found quickly.

Signs of civilisation drifted behind, growing less frequent, and the greyish-white of skies over ice and snow began to appear ahead. Susie Cornforth did not speak, and when he looked at her she was frowning.

The radar towers stood like tall metal skeletons in the dim light. The wind had gone, leaving a white, crisp stillness, and stars shone bright and near. Frozen snow crunched under their feet and glistened on the dome. Jack opened the door, entered, and put on the fluorescents.

“ Both the eleven and centimetre equipment would give directive indications,” Susie Cornforth said as she descended the narrow metal steps. “ As no directive reading was given it must be Father’s special apparatus.”

Which reduced chances of finding any fault to about one in a hundred, Jack thought. He opened the door of the indicator room.
“ If anything is wrong we should spot it.”
Over half the meters were associated with the special equipment, and all stood at marked readings showing correct operation. So did those wired to the remaining two smaller sets of apparatus. Jack scowled at the steady pointers.

“ Nothing is wrong — but it doesn’t work as we expect !”
Her gaze travelled over the rows of dials. “ Perhaps it is working as Father would expect.”
Jack frowned. Some obvious fault could be corrected — but this was baffling.

A thunderous hammering shook the main entrance door, ceased, then began again. Susie Cornforth grimaced.
“ Perhaps someone you didn’t see saw you !” she murmured.
The banging did have the sound of authority, Jack thought. When he unfastened the door, a scarlet face under dark, wild hair confronted him.

“ Your ghost planes over again, Bennett?” Farram snapped.
Jack let him enter and closed the door. “ We miss Major Cornforth’s assistance, sir. Part of the equipment was designed by him, and it is there the trouble arises.”

The metal steps thudded under General Farram’s angry descent. “ Three alarms — there was another soon after you left ! Have you any idea what that means in terms of wasted money and time ?” He snorted. “ I know of no other project so expensive, troublesome, and useless !” A contemptuous glance swept the lit corridors. “ Waste on such a vast scale is serious, Captain Bennett.”

Jack held his breath, lips twitching, and suppressed the urge to point out that DEW, by its very complexity, made a quick solution impossible. Instead, he opened the meter room door.

“ Miss Cornforth, sir. We hope she may help us gain a full understanding of Major Cornforth’s equipment.”

Farram grunted recognition. His eyes swept the meters and his face adopted the expression of a child confronted by the inside of a tri-colour video set.

Jack indicated some of the meters quickly. “ Each pointer shows voltage and current readings and has to lie on the green sector, sir. A fault would change readings, and the meters show where the fault lies.”

Glaring under mobile brows, Farram studied them systematically. Jack waited, avoiding Susie’s eye, until the silence was impossible.
“ All are in order, sir.”
“ In order !” Ire shook the General’s tall, wide frame. “ You say that — after three false warnings — ”
“ I mean the readings are in order, sir !” Jack corrected quickly. “ We suspect the special equipment, because of no directive reading.”

Farram abandoned the dials. “ Show it me!”
Jack did. Oil-cooled thyratrons flanked the walls, topping pulse-delay and synchronising equipment. To one side was apparatus Jack could not name, as it had been Major Cornforth’s special concern. In the next room Farram glared at the centimetre magnetron valves and anti-jamming modulator.

“Ten million pounds of rubbish !” he stated.
Jack let it pass. Farram ascended to the dome, and they followed, silent. There, the General halted.
“ Your whole system is useless, Captain Bennett ! It is an abominable waste of Military funds, manpower, and time ! When I send in my report in two days time I shall make a point of condemning it in the strongest terms !”

Jack saw Susie Cornforth’s cheeks grow pale. “ You will close the station — and ruin my Father’s reputation, General Farram ?”
Thick brows twitched at the tone. “ Probably, Miss Cornforth. Facts are facts. The system is useless. I shall be just, but do what is my duty !” He halted, hand on the open door. “ A warning device that cries Wolf where there is none is worse than useless ! I shall at once instruct that no further warning from the system be acted upon !”

“ Which is about the end of Father’s reputation — and mine,” Susie Cornforth said as the General stamped away across the snow to where his pilot had come to attention.

Jack gazed at the sullen, silent sky, devoid of any aircraft. The normal centimetre radar had a range of hundreds of miles and would have disclosed the presence of even the smallest robot or single-seater plane. He frowned, watching the helicopter gain altitude.

“ My own name will be mud when General Farram’s report goes in. If we’re to make anything of this it will only be by systematic investigation from bedrock.”

Fleeting gratitude was followed by doubt on her face. “ If we knew more — had a clue — ”
“ We must look for clues !” Decision brought a snap to his voice. In addition to saving the Cornforth name, and himself, would be the added pleasure of proving Farram wrong, Jack thought.

They spent another hour studying the equipment, and Jack was, as always, impressed by its quality, precision, and scientific craftsman-ship. As they left Susie Cornforth summed up his unexpressed opinion.

“ I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with it !” she said.
Starlight and a half moon shone on the frozen snow. The Springpark site drifted behind, the helicopter gaining speed. Only once below did Jack see movement, a motor sledge with a single man camped beside it. Tired, he decided sleep would have to come before investigation.

He rose long before dawn, much refreshed, and was in his office early. Years of working under the technical guidance of Major Cornforth had left a feeling of reliance upon the Major’s decisions. As his daughter said, the Springpark Distant Enemy Warning system should be faultless, if brains and money unsparingly expended gave perfection.

Elbows on desk and chin on hands, Jack pondered. Assuming the equipment to be faulty led nowhere, because no defect could be discovered. Investigation on other lines might help, he decided. Only one other assumption remained : the system was giving warning of some causative agent so far unnoticed by Farram, himself, Susie, and the staff. After much thought he phoned the main airfield adjacent to Farram’s H.Q., and contacted the meteorological officer.

“ This is Captain Bennett at DEW headquarters building.”
“ Yes ?” The voice suggested three fake warnings had not been without impact.
“ I am looking for any possible external cause which might influence a new radar installation.”
“ Yes, Captain ?” The tone proved things had happened at the airfield during the warnings. “ Such as what ?”
Jack carefully considered his mental list. “ Unusually large meteorites. Ionisation of the atmosphere due to aurora borealis or other effects. Unusual storms. Migratory birds. Reflection from a moving wind front, or any other cause.”

He heard the officer contacting other personnel. As he waited his desk communicator buzzed and he depressed the button.
“ Miss Cornforth wishes to see you, sir.”
“ Send her up.”
The meteorological officer was talking when she came in. There had been no report of any unusual weather, meteorite showers, or other abnormal conditions. Jack thanked the officer and rang off.

“ It seemed worth trying.” He realised the words were an excuse for his failure to save Susie’s name. “ I thought some special set of conditions might have triggered your father’s equipment.”

She stood by the window, gold hair almost silvery in the cold light. “ I’ve spent hours studying Father’s diaries and notes, but haven’t got anywhere.” She placed two little black books on the desks. “ These are the only ones he kept since working on the DEW project.” Jack flipped through them, reading chance phrases. Most were records of progress ; some were personal notes ; others meant little. He leaned back heavily in his chair.

“The whole thing’s baffling. The alarm sounds three times. We dash out there at once. Admittedly it’s a two hour journey, but there’s no sign of any possible cause. A craft within hundreds of miles would be tracked by the centimetre directive equipment, and its bearing and distance shown. Nothing has ever shown on the directive screens except our own helicopters, and the radar watch officer has observed us arrive and leave. The devil is, that your father’s special apparatus gives no indication at all of range and bearing.”

“ That is a grave weakness,” Susie Cornforth admitted. “ Yet it was in that part of the equipment that Father’s main pride was, as I told you. He often said it was the heart of the Cornforth System.” The desk phone silenced Jack’s reply. He lifted it. “ Captain Bennett here.”

“ This is General Farram !”
Jack hastily removed the receiver from near his ear. “ Yes, sir ?” “ You will remember my report has to be in during the next twenty-four hours. I assume you have still failed to correct the errors in the Springpark equipment ? ”

Colour came to Jack’s cheeks and his lips twitched. “There has been little time, sir ! The equipment was built separately in sections, for security reasons, and no man except Major Cornforth clearly understands the whole. I would like at least a month — ”

“ You cannot have a month !” Irritation vibrated the diaphragm. “ You have been employed on the project since its beginning, and should be familiar with it ! The system fails, yet you cannot explain why — a fact not likely to inspire confidence in your ability, Captain Bennett, you will agree !”

Jack shut his lips determinedly. To blow up now would lose any thousandth chance of saving the Cornforth name.
“ No, sir,” he said flatly.
“ Your failure will of necessity have to be included in my report !”

The line went dead and Jack swore long and with feeling. Farram’s decision was justified, he supposed, even if his manner with subordinates was not.

Susie Cornforth had obviously heard both sides of the phone conversation. A frown marked her clear forehead, and her close curls tossed.
“Twenty-four hours to prove Father was not a crank !” she said bitterly. “ If we fail, what will they do ?”

“ Send personnel elsewhere. Dismantle everything and sell it as scrap. General Farram never liked the scheme and will be glad to demonstrate how right he was !”
They studied the plans and diary notes until noon. Many had been intended for no other eyes and were frequently scanty or unintelligible. As he prepared to leave for a break Jack pointed out a recent entry : “ Try to make directive. Ignore warning flying time from DEW.”

Susie Cornforth read it and shook her head. “ I fear we’re beaten. We haven’t even located some defect we could promise to put right.”

Her eyes were tired, her face sad. Jack wondered if she had. slept at all the previous night. As with the untiring Major, she had appeared to forget time and fatigue, but now certain defeat emphasised both. He pressed her arm momentarily at the door.
“ I’m sorry.”

She smiled fleetingly, a bare movement of the lips, and was gone. Jack ate in the building canteen, following with strong coffee as he reviewed yet again all he knew of the Springpark project. Cornforth System, and three fake General Warnings. The Major had been a technician of the highest ability and was wholly confident in his system. “ No planes will get by if they try till Doomsday,” he had said. That suggested he believed DEW was perfect. Assume the Major, never given to exaggeration, was correct, Jack thought. What constituted a perfect radar system ? Equipment no known anti-radar device could jam — the eleven metre apparatus. Second, units giving exact bearings and distance — the centimetre directives. Both sets of equipment were known and predictable, but still remained the special apparatus, larger than either.

Jack gave it up and left the canteen. Not even a stray flock of birds, or brace of meteorites to explain it, he thought. Just the warning. Then he jumped into the ’copter, flew there, and found nothing. He frowned, something nagging at his mind. Cornforth was not a crank. Therefore behind it all lay some perfectly logical explanation. A jigsaw puzzle was also logical, he thought as he went to his office. Each piece fitted — when one knew where.

Farram stood outlined against the window like a shadowy giant. A large envelope under one uniformed arm was undoubtedly the report, devastating in its acid exasperation.

Jack saluted, mind still on the problem. Three warnings. Three flights to Springpark. One notebook was still open on the desk. “Try to make directive. Ignore warning flying time from DEW.” None of Cornforth’s notes were pointless scribbles. The note must refer to the special system equipment, since only that was undirective. Corn- forth had wanted to make the system directive, but apparently failed. Meanwhile, the second sentence seemed to be a caution. Ignore warning flying time from DEW. Jack repeated it and felt inspiration leap within him. Indeed the perfect radar system !

“ My report is completed !” Farram said tartly.
Jack regained awareness of the room. The perfect system, he thought jubilantly. One so effective it could give a general warning two hours before the event ! It knew in advance — was predictive !

A light tap came on the door and Susie Cornforth entered. Her gaze went from Jack to Farram and the greeting in her eyes died. Jack faced Farram over the desk.

“ I have good reason to believe the Cornforth System is faultless, sir, and has to date given no incorrect result.”
The General seemed to increase in width against the back lighting. “ Three fake warnings — and you call that no error !”
“ I do ! Or any error present was in interpretation, not in the equipment!”
Farram swelled with anger. “ Ridiculous — ”

“ Not at all !” Jack felt pleasure in cutting him short. “ Major Cornforth made his system able to predict. It looks ahead two hours. Each warning had been of a helicopter’s arrival at the Springpark site, two hours flying time away. The Cornforth System looks ahead through time. Hence his secrecy. Eventually we shall find how it works. Until then, we can use the system as it stands.”

Farram’s shoulders visibly shook with anger. “ You expect me to believe we were having a radar warning of your approach before you had actually taken off !”

“ That makes no difference ! The helicopter was going to arrive there in two hours, and the warning was given. Major Cornforth knew the flying time from here about equalled the predictability period of his equipment, and wrote this, doubtless to be incorporated in instructions.” Jack indicated the diary.

As General Farram read, Susie Cornforth moved near Jack. “ It fits,” she whispered. “ Father once said he believed radar waves could be propagated into the future, over a short period — ”

“ Two hours,” Jack said.
A wailing silenced him, howling and screeching from somewhere in the building. Farram banged the diary on the desk.
“ The General Warning, Bennett !” he snapped. “ That proves you wrong ! Knowing what you do, you won’t at once fly to investigate ! There won’t be any plane near Springpark today, nor any other day, when my report goes in — ”

Jack moved to the window, the wail ringing in his ears. A striped two-rotor craft was just taking off. A step took him to the desk communicator.
“ Give me the duty officer !”
Time lapsed, then : “ Yes, sir ?”
“ Who just left in a helicopter — General Farram’s, I think ?”

“ His pilot, sir. General Farram left instructions it was to fly out to Springpark to fetch an officer I understand went out by sledge to watch for planes.”
“ Thanks.”
Jack released the button and saw that Farram had heard every word. His brows twitched, his crimson cheeks shook, and he gulped audibly.

“ I — I will delay my report, Captain Bennett,” he said.
Jack knew it was the nearest Farram would ever get to an apology. He opened the door, and closed it when Farram had gone.
“ Remember seeing the sledge in the moonlight ?” Susie Cornforth murmured.

Jack smiled, and his hand went to the three stars at his shoulder. With luck, he should soon be a crown up. “ The Cornforths have a special perfection,” he said. “ There’s no error about that !”

George Longdon.
pseudonym of
Francis G. Rayer.

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This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved. F G Rayer's next of kin: W Rayer and Q Rayer. May not be reprinted, republished, or duplicated elsewhere (including mirroring on the Internet) without consent.

Note: The Northern Distant Early Warning line began construction in 1954, and was operational in 1957. This story appeared in October 1956. DEW was upgraded to North Warning System in 1993. There is no indication the system has ever had precognitive properties.