Innumerable stories have been written concerning a cosmic disaster overtaking the Earth ; in fact, the theme has long been a favourite with novelists in the general fiction field. Few writers, however, have instituted an object approaching Earth at infinite speed and consequent infinite mass into their plot — but, let the author tell the story.
illustrated by HUTCHINGS
Frank Dickon wrote, "There is thus no proof that alien life forms exist anywhere in the cosmos" and put down his pen as the telephone rang. At thirty-four he had the philosophy to accept such interruptions without irritation.
“ Dickon here.” He wondered who was phoning.
“ I was afraid you’d be out, or not answer.” The voice was crisp, clipped, easily recognisable.
Frank smiled slightly. “ Might not have answered if I’d known it was you, Bob. You’re aware I fixed a clear month to complete this thesis — ”
Bob Willow seemed not to be listening. “ You’re free ?”
“ No writer is ever free.”
“ But this is something you should know !”
There was an urgency in the words which even the phone could not conceal. Frank sighed. If his day’s work was to be ended before properly begun, it would not be the first time. He regretfully eyed his manuscript.
“ Tell me, Bob.”
“ It’s not a thing I can tell — !”
Frank experienced a shock which brought his five foot ten bolt upright in the worn office chair. “ You’re not wanting to drag me all the way from London to Brecknock ?”
“ Just that.” There was a pause. “ What’s more — throw away all you've written , before you come.”
The line went dead and Frank cradled the silent phone. Bob knew how to gain his point with few words, he thought, and frowned. Throw away all you’ve written. An odd thing to say.
He debated the possibility of ignoring the whole thing, knew he could not, and locked away his papers. Bob would not phone from Wales unless the reason was important.
London was busy. Her population, at least, did not believe in extra-galactic life, Frank thought as he drove north to meet the main Bristol-Colchester arterial. There, he turned west for the Bristol tunnel, emerged at Newport, and struck up through the Welsh mountains for Brecknock. The summer sun was high when at last he wound up a narrow road in the Black Mountains and the sedan clock showed he had been a full four hours on the way.
The Brecknock Observatory emerged from behind trees as he negotiated the final bend. White, it was perched on an artificial plateau cut in the rock. The barrel of its 200 inch reflector telescope pointed at a spot in the heavens near the zenith. Frank garaged the sedan by the other vehicles in the covered park hewn from the mountain side and took the lift up through the rock to the observatory level.
The air was cool and clear, the view magnificent. A man on duty inside the door touched his forelock.
“ I’ll tell Mr. Willow you’re here, Mr. Dickon.”
Bob Willow was dark, thirty, and his blue eyes danced with enthusiasm. Frank followed him to the building lift.
“ Pretty sure I’d come, weren’t you!”
The other pressed the top button. “You know me better than to think I’d bring you out here for nothing.”
They emerged in a corridor circling the observatory dome. The 200 inch was running under synchroclock control and seemed to be maintaining its bearing against the rotation of the earth. Bob Willow gestured to the eyepiece couch on its ponderous adjustable mounting.
“ Take a look first.”
Trust his friend to come to the point, Frank thought as he mounted and relaxed against the padding. Seeing was not good. The field of view was near the sun, and the upper air unsteady.
“ I had it on the cross hairs,” Bob Willow stated from below.
It was there still— an object the like of which Frank had never before observed in the heavens. Slightly pink, it was a perfect, uninterrupted sphere. Its sunward side shone. It might have been a steel ballbearing planted in the field of view, without blemish or marking.
Frank watched it for several minutes, then slid his heels on to the ladder. Curiosity drew his brows close.
“ What is it ?”
“ That I can’t say.” Bob Willow’s upturned face seemed to have lost some of its youthfulness. “I first saw it nearly three hours ago, and gave a report. Every observatory in this hemisphere is watching it.”
Frank held the cool steel of the ladder rails. “ It is — approaching?”
“ I can’t say. Its appearance is the same as when I first saw it. There has been no angular deviation. The telescope clockwork is only correcting the earth’s rotation. If the object is moving, it’s either directly towards us, or directly away. The motion relative to us must be slight. That, and its distance, I can’t say until the directional cross and radiosonde figures come in, which I expect any moment.” That was all he knew, Frank saw. He peered again into the depths of the shimmering heavens. The sphere hung with apparent stillness in the centre of view. It might be a world, remote beyond the solar system, or very much smaller and nearer. Strange, it was poised against the backdrop of space. Something of its chill seemed to seep through and Frank straightened his shoulders against the cold finger that moved up his spine.
“ Have you no radar ?”
“ No. We’re not equipped for that kind of thing here. I asked Cardiff airport to try a range reading, but they got no result. However, that may only mean it’s beyond the range of craft-landing equipment.” Below, they waited for the other observatory bearings to come in. With declination crosses the distances of the object could soon be calculated. Frank wondered what the result would be. Unfathomable, remote, the pinky sphere lay beyond the sounding distance of the airport radar. That was all they knew.
Elizabeth Parrish struck a wrong note, said “ Damn !” and closed her eyes momentarily against the immortal arpeggios that had lived three hundred years. The stirrings and promptings came again into her mind, whispering, inarticulate, fading again to nothing. She rose abruptly, crossed the apartment, and pushbuttoned a number on the videophone. The screen lit with the words “ Telepathic Institute.”
“ Give me Mr. Folkes,” she said.
Moments passed and a kindly face of fifty-five appeared on the screen. The man smiled in recognition.
“ You wanted me ?”
Elizabeth nodded, conscious that there was a slight tension round her lips. “ I asked to be let off any further tests this month.”
Monty Folkes raised his brows, iron grey as his hair. “ What makes you think we may not have done that, Miss Parrish ?”
She hesitated. If the Telepathic Institute was making an unscheduled test to discover exactly how receptive its members were, he would have been expecting her to ring. Yet his surprise looked genuine.
“ I can’t play,” she said. “ Instead of Beethoven there are just — • voices — ”
“ So you thought it was us ?”
“ Of course.”
His eyes were intent on her face. “I’ll check and make sure.”
She waited, Folkes’s voice a mumble on his inter-office phone. When her conscious mind was actively engaged the voices ceased. Yet they had been very insistent.
He reappeared. “We have made no telepathic tests whatever in the last twenty-four hours.”
“ You’re sure ?”
“ Beyond doubt, Miss Parrish.” Folkes pursed his lips. “ Was there any articulate message ? Or anything we could go on ? You’ve always been among our best telepathic receivers. What did your contact say ?”
“ I— I don’t know.” She knew it seemed weak, especially from her. “ There was no real contact. It only seemed that something was trying to contact me — ”
“ Something ?”
The quick interruption jerked her to a halt. She felt confused. “ Someone, I mean.”
There was no more to say. The Institute was not trying some unscheduled test. Perhaps it had been imagination . . .
“ I see. You’ll ring me again if anything arises ?”
“ Yes, Mr. Folkes.”
Unsettled, she stood at the apartment window. Below opened one of London’s lesser parks, green as a patch of countryside under the sun. The mist sprinklers were playing, moistening the whole area so that rainbows played against the trees. The air was clear as that of a country village, devoid of dust and fumes by the advent of atomic power. Children ran on the grass, happy voices drifting up. She watched them, letting her mind lie open. Nothing came, now. No other thoughts tried to reach across to her subconscious.
Perhaps it was all imagination, she thought. She returned to her instrument and sat down to try to play.
Bob Willow tapped his notes with the slide rule. “ The figures all agree. If anything, they make the mystery deeper.”
Half seated on the desk, Frank nodded. Though the airfield radar could not reach the object, more powerful equipment had. Their findings agreed with directional distance crosses, and explained why no report had come in from any very distant observatory.
“ Only just over seven hundred miles away, near as I can calculate,” Bob Willow said for the fifth time. “I never imagined it to be so close.”
Frank looked up at the great telescope, motionless upon its celestial axis while the earth revolved. Within hours the pinky sphere would be below the horizon, because of the planet’s rotation, and observatories far away to the west would get their first glimpse. He calculated mentally. They had settled that the speed of approach was about twenty-two feet per second. That was fifteen miles per hour. At that velocity the sphere would reach earth in forty-eight hours.
“ Has it struck you its speed is less than that of an object in free fall ?” he asked.
“ It has.” Willow’s blue eyes were lowered upon his notes.
“ Which undoubtedly means — ”
“ That it is not in free fall, and thus influenced by other forces.” He rose jerkily, put away the notes, and went to the steel ladder. “ With a knowledge of its distance I can get its approximate diameter.”
He lay on the couch, adjusting micrometer hair-line gauges. Forty eight hours, Frank thought. Little enough time indeed. Staring up, he saw his friend stir on the couch.
“ I’d say it’s about five hundred feet across.”
He came down. Twice in the following hour Frank looked at the object. Each time it hung exactly as before in space. Its apparent increase in magnitude was so far too slight for the eye to detect. Later, two powerful cars drew up below and five high-ranking officers appeared in the observatory, stared in turn through the telescope eyepiece, and departed, conversing together.
Frank had a last look at the sphere. Nearing the horizon, it glinted redly. Seeing had deteriorated and sunset was coming.
“ It’s path is straight as a die,” Bob Willow said as he went into the garage. “ I’ll ring you if anything develops.”
The mountains dropping away behind, Frank wondered what the next forty-eight hours would bring. Little enough time indeed !
The drive was uneventful. He did not hurry and it was midnight before he let himself into his rooms. The city was growing quiet, her millions seeking sleep. He stood by his window a long time, watching the blink of the neons which never went out, and wondering what conceivable object could be five hundred feet in diameter and maintain a steady velocity of twenty-two feet per second against the gigantic pull of the earth’s gravity. Later, he turned over his manuscript ruefully, and went to bed.
When he awoke it was daylight and he realised a voice had disturbed him. An urchin voice, calling as it approached. There were still people who preferred to read at their own leisure, and he pushed up the window as he had a hundred times before. He dropped a coin. Neatly folded, the paper landed almost in his hands.
“ Thanks, mister !”
Frank opened the paper and his sandy brows rose. While he slept newsagencies and foreign correspondents had been busy. Some newsman had coined a neat word to cover his ignorance :
ELECTROIDS SIGHTED BY PEKING & SAN FRANCISCO.
News reports received late last night reveal that three unidentified objects have been observed at high altitude. Authorities in Washington, Moscow and London deny knowledge of their origin .
There was a lot in similar vein. In brief, Frank decided, the copy-writers knew little, but sensed a nine-days’ wonder. He wondered if Bob Willow knew more.
The line was busy. Only after a long delay did Willow’s voice come. Frank decided to waste no words.
“ I’ve just seen the paper. Are there three ?
“ There are.” The voice sounded tired. “ It’s as neat a Y formation as you ever saw.”
“ But there was only one yesterday !”
“ No — we only saw one,” Willow corrected. “ We were too busy keeping that in view. The others are roughly one hundred miles behind, and far enough apart to be outside the field of view. Anyone can see the three at once with the twenty five inch. I’ve been up almost all night listening to the reports. They’re travelling straight as a line, and haven’t changed speed by any amount we can detect.”
Frank looked at the wall clock. He had slept well. It had been forty eight hours — and was now forty.
“ I’ll probably be out to look,” he said.
Willow said something inaudible. “I’ll get you- in if I can — but the top brass has moved in !”
“ Bad as that ?”
“ Colonels, generals — the whole shoot.”
It did look like an emergency, Frank thought as he rung off. The streets below his window were busy, normal as on a hundred other mornings. He dressed, breakfasted, and was wondering what could be done when his videophone rang. A strong, lined face of about forty-five which he did not recognize came on the screen. Frank glimpsed a crown. and two stars at the shoulder.
“ You are Mr. Dickon ?” The voice had the clipped authority of a man accustomed to obedience.
“ Yes.” Frank thought the stern face could be kind.
“ I am Colonel Northwood. Your name has been given to me as a possible authority upon — upon — ”
“ Alien or extra-terrestrial life-forms,” Frank prompted. “ That is so. I have studied the possibilities of such, but of course my knowledge is of necessity theoretical — ”
Colonel Northwood silenced him with a gesture. “ Obviously, Mr. Dickon. Nevertheless, even theoretical knowledge may be helpful. I will send a staff car for you at once.”
The screen faded to mute silver. Frank bit a lip. The trip to Brecknock would have to wait. Northwood had assumed he would help without question. The assumption was justified.
The staff car drew up as he left the building. The driver saluted, closed the door upon him, and Frank watched the streets speed past. They turned in through grey stone portals, swept across a barrack square, and Frank was conducted through passages that rang to their quick footfalls. Colonel Northwood rose as he entered and gripped his hand momentarily.
“ Consider we are talking civilian to civilian,” he said, “ not soldier to soldier.”
An aide stood by the desk. Other officers were in a group by the window.
“ No' other man in the country appears to have made a study of alien life-forms,” Northwood stated, his gaze keen. “ It is, as you say, theoretical.”
Frank saw that an explanation was expected — required. “ Obser- vation gives an idea of possible conditions on our adjacent planets. From those it is possible to deduce what kind of life might exist there. Similarly, spectrum tests enable a star to be classified. From that classification it is possible to say what planets might exist. Assuming certain planetary conditions, it is then feasible to say what forms of life could be maintained.”
Northwood jerked a glance at the officers as if some opinion he had expressed had been justified. “You are aware of the three approaching objects ?”
“ The electroids ?”
“ We may call them that. They appear — artificial ?”
Frank nodded. “ Their speed is less than objects in free fall. They are symmetrical, and apparently in formation. Therefore I would classify them as vessels. If so, contact might be established with the life forms they contain,”
A silence grew in the room. Frank felt every eye upon him. These men were ill adapted to deal with such situations, he thought. Efficient, disciplined, their minds nevertheless moved in set patterns. Their expressions were those of men who played chess and abruptly found three new pieces of unknown purpose among their opponent’s set.
“ What else would you advise ?” Colonel Northwood asked quietly.
Frank considered. “ Every attempt at contact first. But preparation for defence simultaneously. Only possible attack if unavoidable . . .”
By mid-day the news had reached everyone in the city. Men hurrying home paused to stare heavenwards, striving to discern some glint in the sky. Others used binoculars, but fleecy cloud came on an east wind and the blue of space was obscured. A stir ran through the city, unseen but sensed. It was, Frank thought, as if the day were suddenly different. No longer was it a summer day like any other summer day. Instead, it was a milestone, a turning point.
It was mid afternoon when his tyres once more thrummed up the winding road and Brecknock Observatory, perched on sun-drenched slopes, came into view. A military picket guarded the road, The young officer apologised on seeing his pass.
“ We’re only stopping idle sightseers, sir.”
Bob Willow was not in the dome. Catching up on lost sleep, Frank guessed. Men were talking in groups, all seeming helpless. He mounted the steel ladder and lay under the eyepiece. The sphere was dead in the cross hairs, pinky, perfectly smooth and without marking. Its apparent diameter had swollen visibly. It was near the three hundred and fifty mile mark now, he supposed. Its two companions, spread in a V behind it, were outside the field of view. He watched it for a time . . . twenty two feet per second, fifteen miles per hour, always imperceptibly nearer with each passing moment.
At last he went down. Bob Willow came in from the elevator door. He had obviously slept little.
“ I won’t list the exact data,” he said. “ It’s all near enough our first figures. The three are travelling straight as a line ruled through the heavens. During the whole period of observation they’ve not changed speed or direction.”
Frank saw a twitch about his lips and guessed his thoughts. The earth would revolve once more, then ... “ Has anyone assumed their speed and direction might remain unchanged, and calculated the impact points ?” he asked.
“ I have. They would strike obliquely, because of the planet’s rotation — the first in London, with the others near Liverpool and Paris.”
An hour later Frank left the observatory and decided his next call must be at the military radio depot near Reading, from which attempts at communication were being made. The specialists gathered at Brecknock had told him all they knew. Little enough, he thought. None of the electroids had changed path or speed by the slightest extent. Earth might not have existed. Her gravity had not modified their progress. Observed through the two hundred inch reflector telescope, each exactly resembled its fellows. Perfect spheres, slightly pink and wholly without markings, they had no visible means of propulsion. Each five hundred feet in diameter, they defied gravity and speculation alike.
At the Bristol side of the deep Severn tunnel Frank halted, clicking down his window. Above a news-stall bulbs were spelling out head-lines. “FIRST ELECTROID WILL STRIKE GREATER LONDON ...” A crowd had already gathered and he drove on. apparently someone had heard Bob Willow’s remark, and talked.
The radio depot was a collection of concrete buildings and steel masts, at the hub of five acres of neat grass ringed by ten feet high netting. Directive parabolic reflectors pointed at the heavens. Inside, the technicians had the expressions of men faced with an unwelcomed puzzle. The officer in charge welcomed him.
“ We were instructed to expect you, Mr. Dickon.”
Frank guessed the result. “ You’ve had no success ?”
“ None.” The officer’s tone implied he was not surprised. “ We have used the highest power and beamed on them signals of every wavelength. Every possible form of modulation has been used. If they are keeping any kind of radio watch whatever it must be obvious to them we are trying to establish communication.”
“You have had no response whatever ?”
“ None, Mr. Dickon.”
Frank went with him into the operating rooms. He had anticipated difficulty in setting up intelligible communication, but not in establishing contact. An alien race would have no mutual basis for conveying intelligence, initially. But that could be slowly overcome. Lack of all contact was a different matter.
All available listening equipment in the building was in use. Except for static and identifiable earth transmitters, there was nothing. If the electroids had radio, it was not in use, or not operating upon any frequency tunable.
All three were sharp and clear on the radar screens. Their velocity of approach had not changed. Back in his office, the other looked grave.
“ If their course and speed is unchanged, one will strike London within the twenty-four hours, Mr. Dickon.”
“ I know.” Frank looked skywards from the window. Every directive aerial pointed mutely towards the electroids, invisible still to the unaided eye. Twenty four hours . . . He put his back to the window.
“ It is our duty to protect ourselves,” the officer stated. “ If communication fails, we must use other means.”
Frank nodded. Self preservation was a strong instinct. “ Such as force ?”
“ Yes. Authority has already been given for guided and automatic missiles to be launched. They will not be used until necessary — ”
His tone was significant. They would wait. If there were no signals, no change in course, the electroids would be blown to fragments in the stratosphere. Mankind must protect himself and his great cities. Regrettable but necessary.
The night passed without any signal or reply of any kind from the three objects sliding through space towards the earth. Somehow Frank had expected none. Yet the objects must surely contain living beings, who must in turn be aware of the planet directly in their path. He knew that a dozen governments were preparing rocket missiles.
He sought Northwood’s office. The Colonel had obviously not slept.
“ So today brings zero hour, Mr. Dickon,” he said.
Frank knew what he meant. Around noon the first electroid would be over London — or destroyed.
“ You’ll blast them to dust ?”
“ I fear so.” Northwood spread his fingers over a pile of scattered documents expressively. “ That’s the only plan everyone agrees upon. And it’s to be done while they’re still high enough to avoid danger to us. I’m not altogether happy — but the decision is not mine.”
Frank felt keen disappointment. The first alien life — to be destroyed utterly, unseen ... “ What altitude is deadline ?”
“ Twenty miles. If there are no signals or change of course by then, the first electroid is to be annihilated. The others are a hundred miles behind it. When they reach twenty miles they get the same, if there’s no sign that they’re friendly. The Paris government wanted to set the limit at forty miles, but twenty gives enough safety margin,” “ Not many hours left, then.”
“ Few enough,” Northwood agreed somberly.
Frank left him. The aerials were still trained on the same point in space. The radio silence was unbroken. If the three objects had radio, they were not using it. He was leaving the main building when a messenger came from the offices.
“ A Mr. Willow is asking to speak to you, sir.”
He led the way inside to a phone. Bob Willow’s voice was urgent, impatient.
“ I’ve been trying to get you this past hour !”
“ Sorry, Bob. What happens ?”
“ Have you communicated with the electroids ?”
“ No.” Frank wondered what was on his friend’s mind.
“ Then there’s something you should look into. A man called Monty Folkes has been here. He tried to phone me from London but there are so many officials here the lines are tied.”
“ Never heard the name.” Frank wondered if it was that of some quack. Quacks were apt to pop up on occasions like this.
“ Nor had I,” Bob Willow stated. “But he’d driven all the way here, and seems sincere.”
“ And what did he tell you ?”
“ It’s not himself he wanted to see me about, but a young woman he knows called Parrish. Seems they’re both members of a telepathic institute — ”
Frank felt his nerves tighten. Telepathy ! Contact of mind with mind— alien with earthling ?
“ Yes ?” Abruptly he knew that every moment counted.
“ Folkes says she came to him, worried. He came to me, because Brecknock Observatory was mentioned in all the papers. It’s not my pigeon, but yours.”
“ Where is this girl ?”
“ In London. I’ll give you the address.”
Frank bit his lips as he scrawled it down. Time was so short. Perhaps too short.
He left a note asking Colonel Northwood to stand by for a possible message from him, ran for the staff car which had brought him, and within minutes was on the London road. As he drove he repeated the name. Elizabeth Parrish. Certainly unknown, as was that of Folkes. Telepathy was an inexact science. That, and Northwood’s deadline, complicated a matter already difficult.
As he drove he realised that this day was not as others. Driving fast, he encountered no single vehicle travelling towards the metropolis. Yet the other half of the dual way was busy. Buses, turbocars and lorries flowed from London. Articulated coaches sped by, every seat occupied.
Near the city’s rim the traffic increased. Every vehicle was crammed, every road from the town congested. A lorry and trailer, both loaded with standing people, had overturned. The traffic had some to a halt, then flowed over into the opposite half of the dual way. Frank braked, crawling on with blaring police siren, his vehicle alone against the tide that flowed from London.
He cursed sensational news reports. On an overturned newsstand a banner poster still flapped. “FIRST ELECTROID WILL STRIKE LONDON.” Vehicles, overflowing from a road junction, were driving on the pavements. Panic had turned men into white faced maniacs. Fleeing, no one paused or looked at his neighbour. When heads turned it was skywards, eyes screwed against the summer sun.
A huge passenger vehicle emerged from the melee. Frank looked for space to turn aside, but found none. Inside, people were flattened against the windows, white faces peering out. Voices were screaming at the driver. High in his cab, the man slipped the vehicle into low gear. Like a squat-nosed land-ship, it burrowed against the police car’s side. The car slewed, tipping, and Frank sprang, a reflex action that carried him into a shop doorway as the huge coach moved on, clearing a way into the traffic stream by the force of its whining engines.
The shop was empty, unlocked. He went through it and found himself in a quiet back road. The road crossed a bridge which looked down on a railway yard. A passenger train was derailed. It appeared to have happened when someone had moved the points to divert the train from a mass of people who were clambering into goods truck beyond. The trucks jerked forward and someone screamed. Frank turned his back and began to jog towards the heart of the city. The majority of London’s millions could not hope to escape from the city. Time was too short.
Farther on, the rumble of many vehicles no longer echoed over the roofs. The streets were quiet, singularly free of conveyances of every kind. At some corners little groups stood. Others passed him, walking rapidly. From time to time every head turned skywards and anxious glances searched the heavens.
The address was comparatively near. A small cul-de-sac ended at a modest grey stone building with Telepathic Institute on the door.
Frank rang. Almost immediately the door opened. A girl looked down at him from the steps. Slight, golden haired with dark eyes, there was an arresting, quick mobility to her features.
“ I’m Elizabeth Parrish,” she said. “I’ve been waiting.”
He stepped in and she closed the door. A sparsely furnished room led off the hall. She closed that door too, as he entered, and stood with her back to it.
“ I didn’t think anyone would come, but waited,” she said.
He saw lines of strain about her eyes and her lips quivered. “ I came the instant I heard — I wasn’t at the observatory.” He wished time was not so short, and telepathy so inexact. “ You know something about — the electroids ?”
“ I’m not sure.” Her gaze was unwavering. “ I felt something was trying to reach my mind and suspected they were making an unscheduled test here. They weren’t. I tried to dismiss it, but the voices went on.”
She hesitated. Frank realised how critical he must appear, a scientist evaluating, perhaps scoffing.
“ Tell me everything,” he suggested. “ I am not a disbeliever.”
He turned to the window, looking down into an open alley, hoping her confidence would be restored the more quickly now his scrutiny was ended.
“ It’s not easy.” She sounded relieved. “ Something seemed to be striving to reach me, or the mind of anyone attuned to hear. It was odd, strange, unlike the contact of any ordinary person’s mind — or, indeed, the mind of any human — ”
She faltered into silence. “ Go on,” he said. A stockily built man had entered the alley and was looking up at the buildings.
“ I felt the voices wanted to know something — to learn something. When I heard alien craft were approaching earth, I felt it must be them. "
He looked at her. “ Alien craft ? We don’t know they’re that ! Craft have some means of propulsion — have means of changing course, and don’t maintain a straight line to destruction ! These things have none of the things a craft should have — ”
“ Yet you believe they are vessels.”
He did not deny it. “ What were they trying to learn ?”
Despair was in the depths of her eyes. “ I — I don’t know.”
It was a whisper. Frank’s hope died. As he had thought when first seeing her — time was so short, telepathy so inexact.
“ You’ve no idea ?”
“ Only that it was very important, very urgent. I feel there are minds in those three objects !” Conviction rang in her voice. “ I sensed it. I tried to let them know I was aware of them. I may have failed. When a person tries too hard the power goes. Telepathy is something in the unconscious.”
Listening, Frank knew this was too slender to stay Northwood’s hand. A radio signal, unintelligible, would. But this — never. The governments of Europe would need concrete fact.
Somewhere outside a blue flash blinked on and off. Very high, it glowed momentarily stronger than the sun itself. There was no sound.
He spun from the window. “ There’s a phone ?”
“ In the hall.”
The exchange was automatic. But it was a long time before Colonel Northwood’s voice sounded curtly, harassed, too. “ Military commander here.”
“ This is Dickon. You’ve sent up a projectile ! The flash was unmistakable ! You said twenty miles — ”
“ It was the French !” Northwood snapped. “ They decided to act independently.”
Frank saw the girl standing in the doorway, a hand at her throat. “ There were living beings in that sphere ! Heaven knows where from— but living !”
A delay, then: “ The responsibility is not mine.” Further silence, then a new voice: “ Please remain connected, Mr. Dickon.”
Elizabeth Parrish came through the door. “ Will they destroy them all— ?”
There seemed little he could say, less he could do. Even as he waited a second blue flash glinted momentarily through the open door behind her. Then another. He swore. Two more followed, and a chill ran from his brain through every nerve and muscle. Five flashes. Five guided rockets with atomic heads. And five hits, beyond doubt. Yet there had been only three spheres.
Northwood’s voice came with sudden shock. “ Still there ?”
“ Yes. The three have been blasted to bits, I saw the flashes — ”
“ None has been blasted to bits.” It was a quiet statement, as if from a man suddenly very tired. “ The first direct hit was ineffective. The French followed it with four others. Five direct hits — all on the first sphere. It remains unmarked, and has not deviated measurably from its course — ”
The line went silent and Frank stared at the reproducer. Five direct hits. Explosive power sufficient to erase five great cities.
What manner of object was the sphere that it could withstand such devastating concussion ? His cheeks twitched with the tension. Near the doorway, Elizabeth Parrish let her breath escape in a long sigh.
“ They haven’t destroyed even the first,” she said.
He nodded dumbly. No object built by men would have withstood one-tenth of one of those direct hits. Suddenly the panic which he had witnessed in the city seemed justified. That first irresistible object, now mere hours away, was bent on its unchangeable path towards London. His fingers closed over the girl’s arm.
“ We’re getting out of this — now!"
The streets had filled with people staring heavenwards, their faces pale with expectancy. High towards the sun a blue glow burned abruptly, unendurably brilliant. Seconds dragged. Frank counted, marvelling that any object, alien though it be, could withstand such an atomic blast. The sound came at last, a dull rumble filling all the sky and grumbling away in echoes. Ninety seconds. Roughly eighteen miles. The first electroid was that close !
He fancied he could see a tiny, reflective glint up near the sun. A tiny, irresistible steel ball, faintly pink, apparently motionless.
A siren wailed and a military car crawled into the road, followed by two police cars. The people looked, parted, then all heads turned heavenwards again. The car halted and an officer sprang out, He saluted.
“ I was sent to follow you, sir !”
Frank recognised him as being from the Reading depot. “ Good ! Get us out of this !”
They piled into the car, reversed down the alley, and turned for the city perimeter. Within fifteen minutes they were snaking past slower vehicles also bound out of the city, and the officer manipulated controls on the dash.
“ We are in touch with H.Q.,” he said.
A flash blinked in the heavens, and a second. Northwood’s familiar voice, clipped and urgent, came over the car radio.
“You have Mr. Dickon ?”
“Yes, sir. Here.”
“ Has he any further information ?”
Frank leaned over the seat from his position in the back. “ None. Things like this take time.”
“ You have little enough ! We are in radio contact with Brecknock. The sphere has not changed speed or direction — ”
“ Impossible !” Frank gripped the back of the front seat. “ There have been direct hits — ”
“ As you say.” Northwood sounded tired, even on the radio. “ Several direct hits. Despite these, its course is unchanged and its speed constant. There is no visible damage.”
The car bumped over a pavement to avoid two crashed lorries. No change in speed or course; no damage! And that despite direct atomic impacts. It was impossible. Yet was happening, Frank thought. He looked sideways at Elizabeth Parrish. She was watching him.
“ I still feel there are living things in it,” she breathed. “ These distractions prevent contact — but if I could be closer — ”
“ Being near helps ?” Frank realised his working knowledge of telepathy was small.
“ Often. It gives more chance for one thought to be found amid others.”
She gestured and he knew she was indicating the city behind, where millions of minds must be in turmoil. An idea came.
“ Colonel Northwood !”
A delay showed Northwood had been giving some of his attention elsewhere. "Yes?”
“ Can you have a plane take myself and Miss Parrish up to the electroid ?”
Brief delay again, then: “ It shall be done.”
Frank sat back, leaving the radio to the officer. The electroid must soon be within range of a powerful stratoplane.
The city lay below, map like and distant beyond the pressurised cabin window. On every road minute specks swarmed towards the country, unified by common terror. High ahead, the pink curving shape from outer space apparently hung majestically. Devoid of any visible means of propulsion, exit or entry, it was unharmed. Frank felt the girl’s fingers close on his arm.
“ Look !”
He followed her extended finger. Upon the edge of the sphere, coming into view as the plane rose, was a series of hieroglyphic characters. Contained within a circle of dots, dull on the pinky surface, they in no way resembled letters of earthly origin.
“ That is proof beyond doubt,” she said quietly.
He did not answer. At first glance through the two hundred inch reflector he had felt the object to be an artifact. No natural body could be so perfect in form. He saw Elizabeth’s cheeks were pale, her eyes intent.
“ You getting any message ?”
She shook her head quickly. “ Nothing definite. There are thinking living things in it. Of that I’m sure. I can sense them. But their thoughts can’t get through — and what does seems nonsense.”
Her voice sank, quivering. The plane climbed on, near its ceiling. A strata fighter, it was speedy but cramped. The pilot looked back momentarily over his bucket seat. His cheeks were white and his eyes those of a man who was afraid.
“ Circle it,” Frank ordered.
Earth and sky rolled and the immense globe slid underneath, seeming to rise on their flank as the plane banked into a turn. The surface away from earth was equally featureless.
“ The — the things inside seem to be saying their speed is infinite — "
The words were barely a whisper. Her eyes were closed. Her lips moved again.
“ Yes, infinite speed — ”
Frank’s breathing ceased momentarily. Infinite speed ! The speed of light. Mass increased with velocity. At infinite velocity it would be infinite mass. Abruptly it all fitted. Nothing on earth or in heaven could have withstood such atomic blasts — except an object of infinite mass ! Einstein had postulated such mass for an object at the speed of light. And, like everything else in the universe, that speed would be relative. The electroids were travelling at infinite speed relative to the universe of their origin, remote beyond calculation. That their speed relative to earth was only the scant twenty-two feet per second Bob Willow had calculated would affect matters not at all. Frank felt a shock run through his nerves. What would happen when three objects of infinite mass struck earth ? Having infinite mass, they would be wholly irresistible. Nothing could turn them aside — nothing . . .
He jerked awake to the realisation that the pilot was awaiting orders. “ The exact impact point must be calculated and the buildings evacu- ated—”
The plane banked again, beginning to descend. Looking back through the pressurised cabin top, they watched the globe recede.
Awesomely huge, the end product of five thousand centuries of scientific technology, the electroids swept on through space, entering the denser regions of planetary atmosphere. Devised by life-forms utterly alien to earth, propelled by forces having no parallel in human science, they had travelled incalculable distances. Originating in an infinitely remote nebula, unswerving in their trajectory through the voids between the stars, they had been built to withstand the ultimate stresses which might assail physical matter. Constructed from metals of collapsed atomic structure, they were impregnable from without and indestructible within. They had tunnelled space while civilisations rose and fell. Within, their builders waited, silent in the glowing radiances of the giant equipment, wondering if the time had at last come. . .
The swish of the copter blades above their heads increased as the open machine bounded into the sky. East of the city powerful anti-aircraft guns boomed repetitively, throwing shells that must inevitably reach their target. Below, people stared up at the sphere against which the shells burst, the whiteness of their faces showing the terror Frank knew to be in their hearts. Suddenly the guns ceased. Unnatural quiet filled the heavens.
He took the single seater craft, curving near towards the pinky surface. No mark showed where a projectile had struck. He hoped Elizabeth was safely out of the city.
The markings on the electroid’s exterior were undoubtedly letters, words, or numbers. He wondered what manner of being dwelt inside. A man might step into the mud at a pond side, giving no thought for the minute, milling life there.
He knew the sphere’s speed and path were unchanged. Never since first sighted had either been modified to any extent measurable by any instrument on earth. Minutes remained. It was coming in at an angle to the horizontal. Had its path been a few hundred miles higher, it would have skimmed the planet and passed on, Frank thought as he rose higher behind it.
A wild stampede began, grew and spread in the streets, from which all vehicles had vanished. Men and women distant from the looming object’s path ran, panic sweeping on with the wave of running people.
Lower every moment, huge, the electroid swept on. A church steeply collapsed, shorn into falling debris. People ran, screaming. Like an express train the electroid went through the tops of two huge buildings, felled three smaller ones into rubble, and struck the road amid running people. Frank saw the buildings opposite rise and crack, heaved from their foundations by pressure below. A rumbling groan shuddered through the air, and a wave rose in the Thames, ran obliquely to the opposite bank, and subsided. A long way beyond, a fragile building trembled and the bearer wall fell, then visible movement ceased.
Banking, he took the copter back over the hole. It was like a hole punched in brown paper with the finger. People were still running from its crumbling rim, edged by an upthrust, volcano-like mound. Beginning at the shorn spire, that same finger might have drawn a line through toy buildings of sand.
A huge plume of steam rose from the hole, rocking the copter. A grumbling roar began, very distant, ceased then recurred ending with an abrupt grating. Glass fell from a score of buildings and somewhere walls collapsed. A further grumbling began, more distant but heavier.
Frank took the machine skimming back to its landing field. Ambulances were speeding towards the ruined buildings, sirens clearing a way through the crowds who stood at every corner. He dropped lower, extending the hydraulic landings legs, wondering where the point of emergence would be . . . !”
The twenty-four hours following the disappearance of the electroid were busy ones. Reports from Paris told of similar scenes, and the disappearance into the earth of the second sphere. Near Liverpool, the third glided obliquely into the sea and the waters closed over it. Frank saw Bob Willow and left him calculating where the spheres would emerge if it were assumed they retained their course and speed. When Frank entered Northwood’s office Willow was already trying to contact him.
“ You really want that calculation done ?”
There was an odd note in Bob’s voice, Frank thought. He wondered what had happened. “ Of course.”
“ Allowing for the motion of the earth round the sun, and the electroids’ velocity, they’ll be under the surface about eleven days. I’ll get the exact figures later.”
Frank looked at the wall clock. Eleven days ! It was now about an hour and a half since he had seen the first strike London. He felt Willow’s tone meant this was not all.
“ Yes, Bob ?”
“ There’s a little matter of relative motion. Those things came on a straight line towards earth. Right ? They rose and set. They might have been making spirals round the planet — ”
There was a pause and Frank felt a shock. Spirals round the planet, due to the earth’s rotation !
“ You’ve guessed it !” Bob Willow said factually. “ For eleven days they’ll be cutting spirals round under the earth’s crust, due to our rotation. That’s all.”
The remainder of those twenty-four hours saw a world wide unease which Frank decided exceeded any that a global war might evoke. Seismograph indications confirmed the continued progress of the electroids. A little later, an earth tremor was felt in England. Soon after came news of an underwater explosion in the Atlantic, where sea water had infiltrated into deep, heated caverns in the earth’s crust. Volcanos awoke near Lima, and the whole of Chile rocked with earthquakes of unparalleled violence. Frank thought bleakly of the three objects, immovably pursuing their course while the earth turned. Every scientist on the planet had access to reports from every continent, and all agreed that the electroids had deviated by no measurable extent from their trajectory. A third of New Tokyo tottered into ruins. Stresses in the Mediterranean basin became too great. Rock strata snapped, shaking Europe. Momentary equilibrium came. Then water torrented into some unknown cavity deep in the earth’s crust, changed to steam, and Sicily ceased to exist. The dust and vapour of her passing dimmed the sun for many hours, bringing twilight to North Africa. The wave destroyed or cast upon dry land every ship in the Suez Canal. And yet, Frank thought, the electroids had not so far made one complete circuit under the earth’s crust.
At the twenty-third hour, rumblings could be heard in the rock strata under London. Many people swore they could hear the ominous noises passing westward, as if some huge underground train forced its own tunnel. But experts stated the noise was the movement of rock strata comparatively near the surface, caused by the displacement of even deeper layers.
Bob Willow phoned near the end of the first twenty-four hours. “ It’ll take ten years for the earth to settle down after this,” he said. “ We may have worse. A five hundred foot tunnel is no small space for water at ocean pressure. Luckily we can rely on some collapse of strata at that depth, which will block the holes.”
“ You’ve calculated where they’ll come out ?”
“ Not exactly. The rotation of the earth has been slowed by nearly a fiftieth of a second — some of those rocks down there are tough. So far the only danger seems to be that the first, which vanished in London, may emerge in Chicago. We’re working it out exactly.” He paused. “ Know something ? Seismograms show not one of the three has changed speed or course ! Infinite mass was the right phrase, though I doubted it when you first said so!”
The words were still in Frank’s mind when he returned to his apartment. Elizabeth Parrish was waiting.
“ I came a little early to see if you had news,” she said.
He let her in. “ Little enough. And you ?”
She stood at the window with the light striking through her hair. “ Nothing new. I want to do something — feel they want to — ”
“ They ?” He wondered at the intensity of her voice.
“ The- — things in the spheres.” She raised both hands to her forehead helplessly.
He wondered what the spheres contained. They. Mysterious, strange, now tunnelling the earth with the same ease as they had traversed space.
“ Will you fly with me to Chicago ?” he asked quietly.
“ Chicago ?” Comprehension came into her clear eyes. “ That’s where they’ll appear — ?”
“ Yes. I’d like Folkes too. We have several days. You’ll see him?”
She nodded. He noticed the haunted look in her eyes, the lines upon her smooth forehead, the tension about her lips. He wished he could help. Clearly she had slept little.
Somewhere very remote a rumbling began, then ceased. The floor shook slightly. Lucky England was based on solid strata, he thought. Even so, no one could be sure.
The videophone buzzed and he went to it. Power failures had put the vision circuits out of action but the voice was the one he had expected.
“ I’ve been into it and had the Brecknock calculator check the figures.”
“ Yes ?” He was glad Bob Willow always came to the point at once.
“ Chicago is the point of emergence of the first sphere. The others don’t matter. They’re in the clear. But this first is smack in the middle of a heavy industrial area. We’re already sending on a warning.”
“ Have their paths changed ?”
“ No.” Heavy finality was in the voice. “ Every seismogram agrees on that. I wouldn’t have believed it. The only explanation is the one you gave. Infinite mass— thus complete ability to maintain direction against any resistance.”
Frank let him finish. “ Assuming there are beings in them, would they know they’d struck something ?”
“ Maybe.” Willow sounded uncertain. “They’re analogous to bullets passing through the rim of a whirling pat of butter. The butter suffers. That’s all I can say.”
“ Hinting we may expect worse earthquakes ?”
“ We may.” There was a pause. “That’s all for now. It’ll be eleven days two hours between striking London and emergence at Chicago. Expect they’ll study the map and evacuate that area.
He rang off and Elizabeth released her pent breath. “ The voices,” she said.
Frank saw her face was pale. “ It’s that bad ?”
“ Pretty grim. They know something’s happening. They keep on and on, trying to tell me.” She groaned. “ Can we get that plane soon ?”
He knew the uncertainty and suspense was doubly hers. “ Northwood could arrange a military craft for tomorrow. Think Folkes could manage that ?”
She nodded. “ He’ll come.”
Lake Michigan was cold blue beyond the serrated line of New Michigan Avenue. Great centre of world commerce, Chicago hummed with the activity of its seven million souls. Frank followed the sky line with his gaze. In the hazy distance a gaunt block stood square against the horizon. From it branched great power lines, spanning the Michigan River, carried on high pylons into the remote dimness.
“ You’re certain that’s where the electroid will emerge ?” Monty Folkes asked.
Frank turned from the top-floor window. Folkes’s kindly face had a pinched expression. His iron grey hair was awry, his brows drawn down.
Frank nodded. “ Undoubtedly. Bob might be wrong, but the Brecknock calculator is infallible. It was designed for orbital data.”
“ And what happens when it passes through an atomic pile supplying power to nearly five million square miles ?”
His eyes on the map, Frank did not answer. Two days in Chicago had established that the plant could not be moved or made safe in time. Yards of concrete, steel and lead made the heart of the pile bomb-proof. That was no protection, now, but a hindrance. The pile could be damped down at once — but not rendered safe from the destructive passage of the object that would burst up from the earth itself. Experts said such safety could not be achieved in under three month’s work.
He met the other’s sombre eyes. “We’ll be told when the experts have conferred. There’s bound to be some release of by-products.”
His mind snapped back for the tenth time to a remark Folkes had made in the Trans-Atlantic plane. The electroids must surely be under the control of the beings riding in them. Communication with those beings was becoming very necessary indeed. He nibbled his lower lip. That, plus the fact that Elizabeth Parrish was absent, sleeping in her room below, plus something else Folkes had said, might give a pointer.
He straightened his back abruptly. “You think the drug you mentioned would work with anyone ?”
He was conscious of the hard note in his voice, and of his companion’s start. Folkes looked pensive, uneasy.
“ The dio-hyptane ? It is possible. I told you I had not made tests, because of its danger.”
“ Does danger to the individual matter so much at a time like this ?”
Monty Folkes sat on the edge of the table, his thin frame bent, suddenly much more than his fifty-five years. “ You haven’t seen the results dio-hyptane has. I have !” His gaze turned up suddenly. “ And that’s why I haven’t used it again, Dickon.”
The note in his voice told more than his words. Frank knew the cause of Folkes’s intranquility of the past days.
“ You thought of using it yourself ?”
“ I did,” Folkes said. “ One thing stopped me. It would be fatal. I haven’t the physique.”
Frank’s nerve drew tight. “ You established it did enormously increase telepathic ability ?”
“ I did,” Folkes agreed slowly. “ It relaxes deep levels of the mind — levels that suppress the inherent telepathic ability of normal men;”
Uneasily Frank returned his gaze to the Chicago skyline. The evacuation was orderly, in no way resembling London’s panic. But evacuation might not be enough. In the silence the videophone buzzed. He crossed, flipped the switch, and saw a man in the green uniform of Chi Atomics. Recognition came into the man’s eyes.
“ The commission has issued its report, Mr. Dickon. They state it will be public shortly.” His hand rose into view, holding a typed sheet. Frank saw strain about his eyes and a lean, drawn concavity to his cheeks. He nodded.
“ Please read it.”
“ Very well.” The hand holding the sheet might have trembled, or it might have been transmission flutter. “ Destruction of the industrial pile in the manner anticipated will result in the liberation of products probably endangering most of the continent. On the evidence given, the pile cannot be saved. Nor can the by-products be contained — ” His eyes rose from the sheet. He licked his lips.
“ Thanks,” Frank said thinly. “ That’ll do for now.”
He slid up the switch. The face faded. It was the salient fact that counted, not the commission’s recommendations that would follow, mere words that could save only one life in a thousand. In imagination he saw the distant, gaunt building ruined, pouring its deadly ash into the sky. An angel of death would wing on the wind.
“ You have dio-hyptane here ?” he asked quietly.
Folkes did not look up. “ Of course—”
“ It is administered intravenously ?” “ No, orally.” Folkes turned up eyes agonised with indecision. “ I am willing to try. If I die no useful purpose will be served, but — ”
“ A stronger man might not die,” Frank said.
Their glances met and he knew Folkes understood. “ Might not,” he said. His breath was held, then expelled. “ You’d like me to explain the technique ?”
“ If you will.”
“ It’s not difficult, but there are precautions. You’d be virtually unconscious at normal levels . . .”
Folkes’s voice grew concise, clipped. As Frank listened he knew it made sense. There must be communication. Yet even that was a thousandth chance. Why should the beings in the sphere care, even if they knew ? A man who trod living slime at a pond side knew — and did not care. He watched Folkes set a bottle of innocent-seeming powder on the table with lean fingers; heard him explain yet again that only one test had ever been made. The results had been too terrible. When Folkes had finished Frank raised his eyes to the window. A great ship was just gaining way from the pleasure jetty off the avenue. People thronged it from rail to rail.
“ You’ve heard the report of the commission ?” a voice asked.
He looked round and saw Elizabeth Parrish standing in the door. Her face was so pale under her light golden hair that she seemed drained of colour. Simultaneously he knew that no footfall had preceded the question.
She came into the room, walking with a curious tenseness. “ In a way it simplifies things,” she said. “ It makes our course clear. We must communicate — ” ,
He marvelled at the levelness of her voice. He knew she was averting her gaze from the dio-hyptane by sheer will. “To communicate might not necessarily solve the problem,” he pointed out.
“ It would be a good way of trying.”
He felt a shock pass through him. In two steps he was round the table and gripped her arm.
“ Let’s end the verbal sparring ! You’ve been listening !”
“ Why not ?” Her eyes were defiant. “If Monty can think of taking it, so can I ! I’m young — strong — ”
“ And a girl !” Frank snapped. “ You heard what he said — ”
“ That it’s dangerous ? Of course. I’d heard rumours back at the Institute.”
“ It was kept quiet because others might want to try,” Folkes stated harshly.
“ Well, and why shouldn’t I ?” She dragged free, a quiver to her lips, a bright spark in her eyes.
Frank placed his back to the table and his hand closed over the bottle. “ Others may think they would like to try too,” he said softly. The cap came away in his fingers. “ Be silly if two people chanced it together, wouldn’t it — ?” The powder in his palm tasted bitter. He replaced the cap and put the bottle in a pocket. “ Lie down I think you said, Folkes. No conscious control — ”
He lay on the couch. There were two tears on her cheeks, he noted. Folkes was pale. Frank felt a current run as from his solar plexus and the room vanished.
A thousand, incoherent thoughts of others filled his mind, secret and dim. For a long time his awareness sat as if amid a crowd of minds. Then slowly came a questioning, on and on, urgent, lacking the stamp of earthmen’s minds. Alien, strange, lacking human symbolism, it seemed to call repeatedly for contact. Immeasurably indistinct, it strove to capture his attention. How long the strange whisper lasted, he did not know. Once, there was a contact as of mind with mind, momentary and infinitely startling. It passed, and with it the alien sibilance on the borderland of inner consciousness. Complete silence came.
Frank awoke shivering, limbs like ice. Life returned slowly. A golden head bent over him, near, watching. His nerves felt dead, his heart slow. Dio-hyptane was undoubtedly a powerful neuro-depressant.
“ You have been unconscious four hours.”
He met the clear, worried eyes and closed his own, resting. He had learnt at first hand just about as much as Elizabeth Parrish had gathered telepathically without the aid of any drug, he thought miserably.
"You’ve failed,” she said quietly.
His strength was returning. “ Yes. Where’s Folkes ?”
“ He went an hour ago. Someone wanted you. He went instead.”
Frank opened his eyes, rising. “ Who?”
“ They didn’t say.”
“ I see. There’s something I wanted to discuss with him.”
Folkes did not return. Evening came; the night passed. Uneasy, Frank rose early and was greeted by the buzzing of the phone. The caller was in hospital uniform.
“We have a casualty in our accident ward we think you can identify.”
Frank felt dismay. “ Can identify ?”
“ He’s not dead. Unconscious. Beaten up. You’ll come ?”
“ At once.”
Within fifteen minutes he was walking quietly between the rows of beds. His first glance showed there was no error. Folkes was still as a dead man. A heavy bruise showed at the temple under his iron grey hair.
“ He only spoke for a few moments last night,” the orderly said. “ Just enough for us to trace you. Then he relapsed into a coma again.”
“ How did it happen ?”
“ We don’t really know. But apparently some fear-crazed person struck him down and then left him.”
Folkes was still unconscious when Frank went. Chicago was emptying fast. Ships stood off the many piers. Road, and rail transport worked methodically, carrying thousands hourly. Frank was conscious of a general tension more frightening than the London panic. None of the electroids had deviated from their course by a measurable extent. At the lowest point in their chord between London and Chicago, they remained immutable on their path while the earth turned about them. Seismograms showed they were deep in the planet’s semifluid strata. From there they would rise, for five and a half days, boring up through the turning world.
Frank doubted whether Folkes could help. Just how much dio-hyptane could a strong man take, and hope to live? Folkes would hesitate to answer.
Outside the hospital he entered a public phone booth. He explained what he had heard, hesitated, and Elizabeth Parrish’s eyes met his searchingly from the screen.
“ There’s something else, Frank.”
“ Yes,” he admitted. “ You sometimes worked in pairs at the Institute.”
“ Occasionally. It was a new technique.” She sounded guarded.
“ I’d like to try it — with myself under the drug and you aiding.” Folkes had talked of the method. One mind was little more than a guide through which the second acted.
She nibbled her lip. “ I’d like Mr. Folkes to help — ”
“ He’s unconscious !”
A pause, then she seemed to reach a quick decision. “ As you say, he can’t. I think it worth trying. Suppose you come here.”
“ I will.” His hand poised on the switch. “ Remember time grows short !”
The building was already nearly empty. Silent corridors and locked apartment doors testified to the slow approach of zero hour. The elevator still operated. He rode to the top floor and found Elizabeth Parrish waiting.
“ Frank, you wanted to try — now?”
“ Yes. Every passing hour may make it too late — ”
He dropped silent. There were so many uncertainties. Could contact be made ? What manner of being rode in the spheres, and what, if anything, would they do ? He wished Monty Folkes could advise them. Too much dio-hyptane would undoubtedly be fatal; too little, fruitless. He wondered what the slim, vividly alive girl standing with her back to the closed door thought. As if understanding his hesitation, she indicated the videophone.
“ Why not ring the hospital ?”
He did, waited. Waited again while someone checked. Rang off. No use. Folkes was in deep unconsciousness. They thought it probable he would live. Beyond that they would not commit them-selves.
He took the bottle from the cupboard where they had locked it. Its contents reminded him of powdery sugar as he poured them upon a sheet of paper, trying to gauge from the amount he had first taken.
“ No— more, Frank — ”
He met her eyes. Her features had the cold, pinched look of some-one gazing on death. He smiled. His lips felt stiff.
“ Perhaps you’re right. We’ll try that.”
He sat on the couch, folded the paper into a channel, and tipped the contents upon his tongue. The taste was not unpleasant, he thought swallowing. It acted rapidly, too.
“ I’ll sit here, Frank.”
Her voice was whispery thin. She drew a chair near the couch.
After a time into the darkness of mind crept a second source of thought, cool and sustaining. It fended away the inarticulate wonderings arising in numberless human minds. He felt their uneasy fear slip aside, leaving clear a questioning which was not human. Alien, wordless, it sprang from some centre of comprehension itself, drawing him beyond the barriers of time and space.
Abruptly, clear as a silver blade in sunlight, contact came into his mind. A living touch upon the core of his brain, it called to him, felt his answer, and expressed relief at the union of thought with thought.
He seemed to be riding in a sphere of immense size that was divided into many transparent cells. Intangible life-forms that moved and thought in unison swarmed their consciousness about him, questioning in the timelessness of pure thought. Inside, the sphere hummed and lights of many hues danced in the shimmering dimness, naked power that held together the shell of an object nine-tenths sheer energy.
The questioning ended and he strove to direct the common pool of thought upon the object’s course, living in his mind the result. Comprehension radiated through the minds nearest his, washed through all the cells of the sphere, and came back inarticulately. There was no desire to do harm, none to cause death. Death must be avoided. The sphere’s path must be modified. With that thought were complications he could not understand, an anticipation of pain . . . the anticipation became pain, and the pain agony. In each cell a living form quailed, flattening. Stresses sprang into being in the sphere, lancing through the shimmering dimness. From two other adjacent sources other alien minds reached out, sustaining their companions. Amid thunder and lightning the last spark of Frank’s mind slipped into unawareness.
He awoke cold, and somehow knowing a long time had passed. His lips were moving. Infinite velocity. Infinite mass. To turn — turn — His eyes opened. He was in bed. Monty Folkes stood near, pale but well. He smiled crookedly.
“ We thought you wouldn’t make it.”
Frank looked past him at Elizabeth. “The electroid — ”
“ It emerged two days ago — just far enough to one side to knock the wall down and do no other damage.”
Frank closed his eyes. The aliens had been brave. Flattened in their cells with a pressure near that of death, no pity or anger had mixed with their pain. Instead had come their last message. He licked his lips.
“ They’ve searched the cosmos for intelligent life to which to give their knowledge. They’re braking, will return . . . will be back in twenty years to join us . . .”
He closed his eyes again and slept.
Francis G. Rayer.
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