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Sixth Veil by Francis G Rayer

This short story first appeared in the magazine New Worlds SF. Issue Number 120, dated July 1962.
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.

Sixth Veil

By Francis G. Rayer

Mr. Rayer has always been noted for his communication stories, after all, he is a radio expert. The following story is a very different kind of communication idea- how to contact a man buried alive with no possible chance of reaching him?

The transformer station casing, of half inch hardened steel, was finished. A single aperture, to admit a man, remained. Ralph Maperley circled the excavation, slapping brown earth from his overall. The casing was twenty five feet by fifteen, and ten high. Between it and the excavation sides a four foot space awaited the rapid hardening concrete. Eight feet of reinforced concrete would top the casing, to take the busy road, temporarily closed, from the city railway station.

"Think she’ll last the contract time ?" a friendly voice asked.

Ralph nodded briefly. “ Easily, Reg. We build and contract for twenty years, but this would last fifty.” He surveyed the giant metal box, deep in its hole. Workmen were sealing conduit lock nuts with bitumen. “ This is no ideal place for a transformer station. But a surface site is impossible.” He glanced at the new, high buildings close by. “There’s a lot of vibration, but the concrete and steel will take it. These transformers will be good as new twenty years from now.”

Reg Curtis nodded. He was about Ralph’s age, thirty, with a lean, kindly face, and was momentarily idle, his part in checking the steel casing finished.

"When will they pour the concrete ?” he asked

Ralph checked his watch. “ Not long, now. It’s a rush job, because we’re blocking the main road. The concrete sets in twenty minutes, will bear eighty per cent of its full load in forty. An hour and a half after we’ve finished pouring, traffic can pass.”

Two large mixers were ready loaded with aggregate. Ralph anticipated an early tea with his wife Judy. Macgregor Electrics worked its employees hard, but Macgregor himself worked as long and late as anyone. A queer man, Macgregor, Ralph thought, as he moved to where the workmen were scaling up ladders out of the hole.

“ I’ll leave you to it!” Reg Curtis said briefly. "I’ve been here since four this morning, when the excavation was finished and we began on the casing.”

Ralph nodded. The road could be closed only twenty four hours. When the excavators had finished, the enormous casing baseplate had been lowered. It rested on steel stilts, and there would be six feet of concrete below it. The transformers and associated gear had been installed, and the side plates went up. Reg Curtis was one of many men swarming over the casing. The enormous top plate, a single section, with its tiny manhole, had been lowered, secured. The manhole cover rested near, to be held tight by nuts run on threaded stubs.

A short, thickly built man of fifty, with a lined face and bright blue eyes, came from behind one of the waiting mixers. Macgregor himself. Ralph greeted him briefly.
“ We’re all on time, Mr. Macgregor.” Actually, something of a marathon task- but that was not worth mentioning. Macgregor always expected marathon achievements.

“ Good.” The blue eyes were grave, the gaze everywhere. The lips were tight, sometimes twitched. They always did “ I’d like you to make a final check inside.”
Ralph’s thin sandy brows rose. “ One of my best men has been through everything. So have I. The checklist was sent you. I was going to get the manhole cover on.”

Macgregor nodded. “ Yes, but not yet. I’ve seen expensive projects ruined by slight oversights. A junction not sealed, a coolant cock not opened, perhaps merely a tool left near a high voltage bushing. Simple things like that. When she’s sealed she has to work for twenty years. Surface stations get a complete five year check. This station can’t. It’s vibration proof, moisture proof, air-tight, because there’s seepage in the subsoil. Once the pouring’s finished and concrete set it would take a week to get inside again.”

True, Ralph agreed. An electric lamp to clip on a belt still bulged in his pocket.
“ Very well, Mr. Macgregor. You’ll hold them off until I’m out ?” . .
Macgregor’s angular head jerked. “ Fifteen minutes should see you through.”
Ralph glanced at his wristwatch. “ Right.”

He slewed one of the ladders across the gap, descending its sharp slope to the top of the housing. Tough steel rang under his boots. The manhole cover was near the opening, the nuts lightly screwed on the projecting stubs, waiting.

He lowered himself through, feet on the steel ladder below. Eerie gloom filled the casing. Eleven separate transformers occupied it, some nearly meeting the steel roof ten feet above. Farther from the manhole, a horizontal shelf, braced by girders, and bearing two layers of smaller transformers, divided the casing. Trunking, ducts, housings, girders and insulators glinted in the torch light. Everything was planned as a three dimensional jigsaw, with mere room for a man to crawl. Noises reverberated as if ten men were inside.

Ralph checked quickly but systematically, working along one narrow path from the manhole, towards the remote, two-layer end of the casing. Practically everything carried check tabs, already marked by himself. A master list, sent to Macgregor’s office, confirmed each test. There was no litter, no abandoned tools, no dirt from workmen’s boots, to dry out, form dust, perhaps drift in vibration, and settle on insulators.

The remote end of the casing, holding the small transformers, was hard to reach. They were braced together, and to the floor, walls, and roof. Like climbing through some steel cavern, Ralph thought. Noises outside came dully- heavy rumbles of machinery, traffic on the diversion, sometimes the ponderous sound of a train at the railway station. His boots made sharper, clearer echoes, small hammer blows. Once there was a distant clang as of someone jumping to the casing top.

Everything was perfect, the best Macgregor Electrics could produce. Built to endure, as Macgregor put it. A peculiar man, Macgregor, Ralph thought, as he squirmed round the last corner and began to worm back towards the manhole end.

Once, years before, Macgregor was trapped with half a dozen other men in a giant caisson thirty feet under water up by the docks. Macgregor was the only man to get out alive. The agony of waiting had marked his face and character for ever.

Impossible to hurry. There was one way in among the transformers and their mountings, and one way out. Ralph squeezed between the shelf stanchions, and could stand upright for the first time. He pressed his body along the narrow channel between one of the largest transformers and the thick steel of the casing. Ahead should have been the manhole, but no bright circle of daylight was visible. He frowned, halting, wondering if he had mistaken his way.

He played the handlamp beam round. It was all very familiar, a layout planned by himself, executed in a model, then built here in brief hours. The ladder was visible, and the manhole should be almost above.
The beam showed a circle of fixed studs, and a thin line barely separating a disc of steel. Breathing and thought froze. The cover had been fitted.

He sprang to it, pushing. It was as solid as the roof of the casing, immovably locked by many nuts outside. He shouted, hammering at the steel with the base of the lamp. The sounds echoed, but there was no reply, only the dull murmur and rumble of machinery outside.

The huge mixer engines thundered, the drums rotated, water jets playing over the aggregate. The concrete was of neutral expansion, to avoid stressing the steel housing. It had a very rapid set, so the highway could be re-opened with minimum delay. As the first batch was poured, Macgregor gazed into the excavation with a curiously fixed expression.

The concrete flowed under the casing, building up a six foot layer there. Waiting lorries recharged one mixer, while the other discharged its load into the excavation. Men swarmed round, maneuvering crane-suspended air-driven rammers, vibrating the mix to clear bubbles or cavities.

Soon the four feet wide space between housing and excavation walls was full, and the concrete flowed over the top of the huge metal box. It obscured the ring of bolts locking the manhole. After the next load, a sea of concrete covered the whole area, hiding everything.

Men and machines worked fast. There were to be eight feet on top of the housing, reinforced at one foot intervals by huge prefabricated grids. The repeated layers of concrete and steel mesh would easily support the highway.

Soon the full depth was placed. The air rammers, mixers and chutes were withdrawn, and a road building gang began to prepare. The initial chemical set of the concrete would be sufficiently advanced in twenty minutes for the gang to begin, after that, the concrete would harden quickly, a solid, all enveloping block with the transformer station at its core.

Judy Maperley examined herself in the kitchen mirror, touching her dark curls briefly. Medium height, slender, but with a deceptive mildness of expression, she wished Ralph would come in soon. Tea was ready- the kind of things he liked most. She checked with the clock. He was nearly half an hour late, and that was unusual. Perhaps there had been some delay at the transformer station.

She adjusted the tea things needlessly, stood at the window watching the road along which Ralph came. Minutes drifted. Abruptly she decided to phone the site.

At length there was a reply, and she recognised the voice of a site foreman. The line from the temporary office by the transformer station brought a background noise of machinery.

“ This is Mrs. Maperley. Is my husband still there ?”
“ Ralph Maperley ? I’ll see, Mrs. Maperley.”
Delay grew into minutes. The phone brought a continuous roar, as of a machine laying hot tarmac. Then the man was back.

“ No one has seen him for a bit, Mrs. Maperley.”
“ How long ?”
“ Three quarters of an hour or more. One of the men saw him talking to the boss then.”

“ I see.” Judy wondered if Ralph was already on the road home. “ Did any delay keep him?”
“ Not that I know, Mrs. Maperley.”
“ Everything was as arranged ?”
“ Yes- all the concrete was finished a half hour or so ago, and the road gang are busy.” He sounded bored. “ The road should be open again early.”
“ Thanks.”

She hung up. She could only wait. The house seemed very quiet, empty, with Ralph not there. He normally arrived like clockwork, as she had once laughingly put it. She had not known just how much she had relied upon his regularity, his always being there.

It was hot in the casing. Ralph sat on his heels, his lamp temporarily out to conserve the battery. His forehead and back were cold with sweat. He had hammered at the manhole cover, fierce with knowledge of his danger. There was too much noise outside. A heavy, dull sound, like a sluggish sea washing steel walls, had come, and soon been repeated. He looked at his watch and felt the distant vibration of the air rammers, and knew the pouring had begun.

Impossible to open the manhole from inside. The threaded stubs were welded in. A mere half inch beyond his hands was light, air, life itself. It could have been ten thousand miles away. With half his mind he realised this manhole was a mistake. A type that could be released from both outside or inside would have done. But no one had anticipated this situation.

The sounds of pouring were repeated regularly. Noises from outside grew gradually muffled, diminished, and quite suddenly they became very remote and dull. Ralph knew that the steel flat top of the casing was covered.

He noted the time. His danger must be discovered, made known, in fifteen minutes. Within that period the concrete could be washed with hoses and shovelled aside, and the cranes could haul out the steel reinforcing grids. After that time, the concrete would set, and all the equipment in the country would not breach it within a week.

He sought frantically for some means of signalling. A tiny hole, through which he could thrust a rod, would make those above aware of his presence. But there was no hole, no rod. Time after time he returned to the manhole, but it was as impregnable as the continuous steel roof itself.

Conductors entered the housing at several points, but most went directly into transformer casings built over the entry spot. All were sealed in conduit, and no conduit was larger than a man’s wrist. The conduits and conductors did not emerge to the surface except at a considerable distance, and would soon be alive with lethal voltage. He had no tools, no equipment, and the whole station had been assembled to withstand vibration and use for twenty years.

Plans flashed into his mind, all abandoned as impossible. He could not introduce a fault- an open circuit or short- which would make them know. Conductors half the size of his wrist were welded, sealed. Every nut on every casing, stanchion, and girder was locked, immovable even with a wrench, if he had a wrench. There were no loose parts, nothing that could be opened, dismantled, unscrewed, broken or shifted.

Half an hour after he had heard the wave of concrete cover the casing roof, Ralph squatted down to rest. His clothing was stuck to his back, his breathing laboured. He realised there was little air. Everything fitted so well, was so designed to make the best use of the space, that the free air capacity was small. The encasing concrete was already too hard to break.

Judy’s unease grew sharper, and when Ralph was three quarters of an hour overdue she decided to ring his friend Reg Curtis. Reg seemed surprised at her enquiry.

“ No, nothing should have kept him at the site. I was talking to him a bit before they started filling up and everything was fine. Practically everyone will have left, except the road gang.”

“ Ralph didn’t say anything which would explain ?”
“ Not a word.”
Judy felt puzzled, unaccountably afraid. “ Could you meet me at the site, Reg ?”
“ If you think it’ll help.”
“ It may. Say in fifteen minutes.”

She quickly wrote an explanatory note, in case Ralph came in. Buses passed the door, and one dropped her within easy distance of the site. Reg Curtis was already there. He indicated a short stretch of new road, where workmen were fixing curbs.

“ The whole job is nearly finished, Judy.” He seemed cheerful.
She looked round quickly. Equipment was being prepared for removal. “ You haven’t seen Ralph ?”
“ Afraid not.”
They went to the temporary office hut. A linesman was disconnecting the phone.

“ Have you seen Mr. Maperley ?” Reg Curtis asked.
“ No, sir, not recently.”
“ How long ago ?”
The man scratched his nose. “ Maybe an hour or more.”
The result was the same everywhere- no one had seen Ralph for a long time. Judy became more acutely worried.

They had been across the new stretch of highway, and questioned everyone to be found, when the linesmen came from behind the hut.

“ Mr. Maperley’s car is still where he parked it,” he pointed out.

They went to look. A dark green coupe, which Judy at once recognised. She felt a shock of fear. Ralph would not go away and leave his car.
“ It’s been there since early this morning, when he came,” the linesman offered.

Alone again, Reg Curtis gripped Judy’s arm. “ We must contact Macgregor, and make a complete check. I’ll find the concreting gang boss and have him question his men.”

He disappeared beyond the buildings flanking the site, and Judy stood alone. The workmen had nearly finished the road and she stood by the new kerb. It was odd to think of the new transformer station built below ground level, virtually under her feet, encased in the hardest reinforced concrete men could devise.

She crossed the new tarmac, now cold and sprinkled with grit. A man was lifting unused slabs into a motor truck. She went back, and saw Reg coming from the road between the buildings.

“ The concretor foreman is getting his men now,” he said. “ Fortunately they’re all back at the depot clearing up before signing off for the day. We’ll soon be hearing from him. Meanwhile, we’re going to Macgregor’s office.”

She rode silently in Reg’s car, dismayed at the speed with which every investigation was coming to a blank end. Reg drove fast, and they walked rapidly up the Macgregor Electrics building steps, along a corridor, to his outer office. A girl admitted them.

Macgregor rose from behind his desk. His face had an aged, pinched look.
"I said on the phone what’s worrying us, sir,” Reg Curtis said, standing. “ We’ve not seen Ralph for an hour and a half, Or more, and can’t find anyone who has."

Macgregor chewed at his lip. Judy thought he was strangely tense. An undrunk cup of cold coffee was on his desk.
“ I’m sorry,” he said flatly.

The words were unexpectedly deep with feeling. Judy tried to explain.

“ Ralph’s never late. He always comes when he said, or lets me know. And his car is still out there. I-I simply don’t know what to do.” She felt helpless.

“ Can we get back the foremen and gangs, sir ?” Reg Curtis put in. “ We may be able to build up some idea of what Ralph was doing.”
Macgregor nodded. “ Try,” he agreed heavily.
Judy saw that they would not accomplish much here. Reg took her arm, guiding her towards the door.

“ We’ll get started, sir,” he said. “ There will be a lot of men to question.” He paused. “ When did you last see him, sir ?”
Macgregor sat down in his chair, almost as if a dummy.

“ About twenty minutes before they started pouring concrete. I asked him to make a final check.” He looked at his desk blotter, face heavy. “ I came away just after- there was a call from the highway authority.”

Reg closed the door and guided Judy through the outer office, and along the corridor. Only slowly did Macgregor’s words penetrate, bringing realisation of what they could mean. She halted, frozen.

“ Ralph went back- down there-” she whispered.
Looking at Reg’s face, she saw that he had understood. A white, pinched expression was on his lips.
“ It-it’s impossible,” he breathed.

The next half hour was a nightmare to Judy. Foremen, workmen, concretor gang, truck drivers, always the same question, always the same answer. Lots of men had seen Ralph shortly before the concrete was poured. After, no one had seen him. The worker who had fixed the manhole cover said his gang boss had told him to do it. The gang boss explained uneasily that the concretor gang foreman had asked for the casing to be sealed. The foreman pointed to his time schedule, and said there was no contradictory delaying order.

The fear became certainty. She read it on all faces, most on Reg’s. Ralph was sealed in the transformer station housing! It was no one’s fault, if not Macgregor’s, but rather mere bad luck. Two hours and more had passed since the concrete had been placed and consolidated, and traffic could use the road. Unable to endure it all any longer, Judy wept.

The air in the casing was very stale. Ralph had wormed slowly through every cranny of the transformer station, seeking inspiration, or means of escape, knowing there was none. Now, it was too late. It they knew he was below, they could not save him. The concrete was hard. Dull, repeated rumblings showed the road was already in use. If someone suspected the truth, it would take too long to close the road, tear up the roadway, and attack the concrete. Power hammers, cutting torches, even explosives, could not reach him inside a week.

He felt extreme unwillingness to die. Life held so much. Unthinkable to leave it all, to leave Judy! He swore at Macgregor’s carelessness, at the order sending him down into the casing, at the man who had screwed on the cover. Simple, innocent events, each in itself harmless.

He sat on his heels under the steel roof, his lamp very dim. From the first he had understood the impossibility of escape. He had forced himself to hope, but now that pretence had gone, leaving surging fury at events, and a burning desire to live.

He tried to estimate how long the air might last, but could not. The free space in the casing was small, impossible to compute. Nor had he much idea of how long a given volume of air would last. He could only guess, from his discomfort, that the free air space was small, the remaining time very short.

Judy’s face floated before him, dreamlike. He longed to see her, to be free, to tell Macgregor and the workmen what he thought of their carelessness, to cost a man his life! Surrounding all thought was knowledge that the minute examination he had made was useless, that escape was impossible, and that the air would not last long.

Sometimes the heavy rumble, as of a distant train, came dully. But after the concrete was poured, sounds had been muted, remote. He wondered if Macgregor had felt like this when trapped in the sunk caisson.

Sometimes he got up, stumbling through the tiny spaces between the transformers, bruising himself, the dim yellow glow of his lamp reflected on steel walls, girders conduit boxes bushings, and gear. Once he fell, panting, and knew the end was very near.

Judy’s heart was ice, as she stood by the new stretch of road. Tears had dried in her eyes. She could Weep no more. Ralph was so near- yet eternities away, for ever.

“ It’s impossible,” the concretor gang foreman was saying. “ That concrete is hard as granite- worse, with the steel mesh. Using everything we’ve got, I wouldn’t undertake to get into the casing in less than a week, even if then.”

He was silent, and Judy knew they were consulting with the doctor urgently fetched from nearby. From the plans, some computation of the available air had been possible. The volume was remarkably small. The doctor examined the figures, face serious.

“ I could only give a man six hours, at the outside,” he said. “ Three have gone. That leaves three more. Frankly, I doubt if life would remain even up to that period, which is the absolute maximum.”

Judy pleaded with Reg piteously. “ Do something-anything ! Don’t just leave him there to die !”
He tried to calm her. “ It’s not in our power, Judy ! We’d be all working like slaves, if it were, if there was any chance at all-”

She knew what he meant. There was no hope. Ralph was as if already dead.
Once, she turned on Macgregor fiercely. “ You sent him down in there ! You should have stayed until he came up, or told someone !” Fiercely accusing, she spoke from her agony of mind. He heard her out, not speaking, then lowered his head, and walked slowly into the office.

Later, she went with Reg into the hut. Macgregor was sitting there, sunken in bitter gloom. He looked up quickly at their arrival, momentary hope illuminating his face, then fading. They sat down, silent.

We can’t do anything here,” Reg said softly at last. “It- it would be better to go home, Judy. I’ll take you.”

She stared at him, hollow eyed, somehow not understanding. All her thoughts were with Ralph, trapped at the heart of the huge concrete mass under the road. It was unthinkable to go away, though useless to remain.

Ralph knew time was very short indeed. Breathing was agony, but there remained the overwhelming desire to live. He did not want to lose his life, and bitterly resented events. He longed to see Judy, to confront Macgregor with his criminal carelessness.

Every cell of his being longed to escape from the hot steel room. Breath rasping, he wondered if Macgregor had felt like this, in the sunk caisson. Facts of the occasion were few, but Ralph recalled that Macgregor’s survival had been called a miracle. All the others had died, down there. It was before Ralph joined Macgregor Electrics.

His torch showed a dim filament, giving no light. His groping hands touched only steel, unyielding- never to yield. A dull, throbbing roar filled his ears. He fought back unconsciousness, wanting to live. As in a dream, he saw Judy waiting for him above, with Reg and Macgregor.

Macgregor’s lips moved. “ It is not a dream, Maperley. It is teleaesthesia, direct perception of distant scenes. I see you, Maperley. You see me. Come-come-”

Ralph’s fluttering senses faded into blackness, then returned, keen. Gasping, he knew life would soon cease, here. He longed desperately to live. The desire to be outside, with Judy, was overwhelming-- a physical thing. Never had he felt such urgency of wanting, such motivation. It was so immediate, actual, beyond the usual scope of his live ordinary senses. It was becoming real-- an overmastering desire to be free, to live, and it would not be denied. It need not be denied, because man had this capacity !

The heat went, the dull throbbing, the gasping for breath. Cool evening air swept into his lungs. Judy stood by the hut door, and Reg. Macgregor was in the doorway, both hands outstretched.

“ You’ve come, Maperley, you’ve come !” Irrepressible relief in Macgregor’s voice. “ I was afraid I’d made a mistake -even after watching you all these years.”

Ralph studied him. Everything had a new, vivid clarity, as if a veil had been torn aside, giving an astonishing look at the full ability of men.

“ That- that’s how you got out of the sunk caisson,” Ralph said, understanding.

“ Of course ! It needed the motive, the determination- the overwhelming desire to live! Without that, you could never have escaped.”

They stood silently looking into each other’s eyes, and Ralph understood it all. Now there were two- Macgregor and himself. This was what man could do ! He looked up momentarily at the night sky, until now peopled with stars unattainable.

Ralph smiled. It was worth it. And Macgregor had been sure. Men like Macgregor, like himself did not make mistakes! And there was this new, unexplored, fascinating and wonderful facet of humanity. Teleportation.

Yes, it had been worth it. Ralph took Judy’s hand. “ Sorry you had such a scare, old girl ! Let’s go home to that tea. There’s a lot to tell you.”

He looked back at Macgregor once, understanding.

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.