Dr. Kometevsky's Day

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Before science, there was superstition. After science, there will be. what? The biggest, most staggering, MOST FINAL fact of them all!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“But it’s all predicted here! It even names this century for the next reshuffling of the planets.”

Celeste Wolver looked up unwillingly at the book her friend Madge Carnap held aloft like a torch. She made out the ill-stamped title, The Dance of the Planets. There was no mistaking the time of its origin; only paper from the Twentieth Century aged to that particularly nasty shade of brown. Indeed, the book seemed to Celeste a brown old witch resurrected from the Last Age of Madness to confound a world growing sane, and she couldn’t help shrinking back a trifle toward her husband Theodor.

He tried to come to her rescue. “Only predicted in the vaguest way. As I understand it, Kometevsky claimed, on the basis of a lot of evidence drawn from folklore, that the planets and their moons trade positions every so often.”

“As if they were playing Going to Jerusalem, or musical chairs,” Celeste chimed in, but she couldn’t make it sound funny.

“Jupiter was supposed to have started as the outermost planet, and is to end up in the orbit of Mercury,” Theodor continued. “Well, nothing at all like that has happened.”

“But it’s begun,” Madge said with conviction. “Phobos and Deimos have disappeared. You can’t argue away that stubborn little fact.”

That was the trouble; you couldn’t. Mars’ two tiny moons had simply vanished during a period when, as was generally the case, the eyes of astronomy weren’t on them. Just some hundred-odd cubic miles of rock--the merest cosmic flyspecks--yet they had carried away with them the security of a whole world.

Looking at the lovely garden landscape around her, Celeste Wolver felt that in a moment the shrubby hills would begin to roll like waves, the charmingly aimless paths twist like snakes and sink in the green sea, the sparsely placed skyscrapers dissolve into the misty clouds they pierced.

People must have felt like this, she thought, when Aristarches first hinted and Copernicus told them that the solid Earth under their feet was falling dizzily through space. Only it’s worse for us, because they couldn’t see that anything had changed. We can.

“You need something to cling to,” she heard Madge say. “Dr. Kometevsky was the only person who ever had an inkling that anything like this might happen. I was never a Kometevskyite before. Hadn’t even heard of the man.”

She said it almost apologetically. In fact, standing there so frank and anxious-eyed, Madge looked anything but a fanatic, which made it much worse.

“Of course, there are several more convincing alternate explanations...” Theodor began hesitantly, knowing very well that there weren’t. If Phobos and Deimos had suddenly disintegrated, surely Mars Base would have noticed something. Of course there was the Disordered Space Hypothesis, even if it was little more than the chance phrase of a prominent physicist pounded upon by an eager journalist. And in any case, what sense of security were you left with if you admitted that moons and planets might explode, or drop through unseen holes in space? So he ended up by taking a different tack: “Besides, if Phobos and Deimos simply shot off somewhere, surely they’d have been picked up by now by ‘scope or radar.”

“Two balls of rock just a few miles in diameter?” Madge questioned. “Aren’t they smaller than many of the asteroids? I’m no astronomer, but I think’ I’m right.”

And of course she was.

She swung the book under her arm. “Whew, it’s heavy,” she observed, adding in slightly scandalized tones, “Never been microfilmed.” She smiled nervously and looked them up and down. “Going to a party?” she asked.

Theodor’s scarlet cloak and Celeste’s green culottes and silver jacket justified the question, but they shook their heads.

“Just the normally flamboyant garb of the family,” Celeste said, while Theodor explained, “As it happens, we’re bound on business connected with the disappearance. We Wolvers practically constitute a sub-committee of the Congress for the Discovery of New Purposes. And since a lot of varied material comes to our attention, we’re going to see if any of it correlates with this bit of astronomical sleight-of-hand.”

Madge nodded. “Give you something to do, at any rate. Well, I must be off. The Buddhist temple has lent us their place for a meeting.” She gave them a woeful grin. “See you when the Earth jumps.”

Theodor said to Celeste, “Come on, dear. We’ll be late.”

But Celeste didn’t want to move too fast. “You know, Teddy,” she said uncomfortably, “all this reminds me of those old myths where too much good fortune is a sure sign of coming disaster. It was just too much luck, our great-grandparents missing World III and getting the World Government started a thousand years ahead of schedule. Luck like that couldn’t last, evidently. Maybe we’ve gone too fast with a lot of things, like space-flight and the Deep Shaft and--” she hesitated a bit--”complex marriages. I’m a woman. I want complete security. Where am I to find it?”

“In me,” Theodor said promptly.

“In you?” Celeste questioned, walking slowly. “But you’re just one-third of my husband. Perhaps I should look for it in Edmund or Ivan.”

“You angry with me about something?”

“Of course not. But a woman wants her source of security whole. In a crisis like this, it’s disturbing to have it divided.”

“Well, we are a whole and, I believe, indivisible family,” Theodor told her warmly. “You’re not suggesting, are you, that we’re going to be punished for our polygamous sins by a cosmic catastrophe? Fire from Heaven and all that?”

“Don’t be silly. I just wanted to give you a picture of my feeling.” Celeste smiled. “I guess none of us realized how much we’ve come to depend on the idea of unchanging scientific law. Knocks the props from under you.”

Theodor nodded emphatically. “All the more reason to get a line on what’s happening as quickly as possible. You know, it’s fantastically far-fetched, but I think the experience of persons with Extra-Sensory Perception may give us a clue. During the past three or four days there’s been a remarkable similarity in the dreams of ESPs all over the planet. I’m going to present the evidence at the meeting.”

Celeste looked up at him. “So that’s why Rosalind’s bringing Frieda’s daughter?”

“Dotty is your daughter, too, and Rosalind’s,” Theodor reminded her.

“No, just Frieda’s,” Celeste said bitterly. “Of course you may be the father. One-third of a chance.”

Theodor looked at her sharply, but didn’t comment. “Anyway, Dotty will be there,” he said. “Probably asleep by now. All the ESPs have suddenly seemed to need more sleep.”

As they talked, it had been growing darker, though the luminescence of the path kept it from being bothersome. And now the cloud rack parted to the east, showing a single red planet low on the horizon.

“Did you know,” Theodor said suddenly, “that in Gulliver’s Travels Dean Swift predicted that better telescopes would show Mars to have two moons? He got the sizes and distances and periods damned accurately, too. One of the few really startling coincidences of reality and literature.”

“Stop being eerie,” Celeste said sharply. But then she went on, “Those names Phobos and Deimos--they’re Greek, aren’t they? What do they mean?”

Theodor lost a step. “Fear and Terror,” he said unwillingly. “Now don’t go taking that for an omen. Most of the mythological names of major and minor ancient gods had been taken--the bodies in the Solar System are named that way, of course--and these were about all that were available.”

It was true, but it didn’t comfort him much.

I am a God, Dotty was dreaming, and I want to be by myself and think. I and my god-friends like to keep some of our thoughts secret, but the other gods have forbidden us to.

A little smile flickered across the lips of the sleeping girl, and the woman in gold tights and gold-spangled jacket leaned forward thoughtfully. In her dignity and simplicity and straight-spined grace, she was rather like a circus mother watching her sick child before she went out for the trapeze act.

I and my god-friends sail off in our great round silver boats, Dotty went on dreaming. The other gods are angry and scared. They are frightened of the thoughts we may think in secret. They follow us to hunt us down. There are many more of them than of us.

As Celeste and Theodor entered the committee room, Rosalind Wolver--a glitter of platinum against darkness--came in through the opposite door and softly shut it behind her. Frieda, a fair woman in blue robes, got up from the round table.

Celeste turned away with outward casualness as Theodor kissed his two other wives. She was pleased to note that Edmund seemed impatient too. A figure in close-fitting black, unrelieved except for two red arrows at the collar, he struck her as embodying very properly the serious, fateful temper of the moment.

He took two briefcases from his vest pocket and tossed them down on the table beside one of the microfilm projectors.

“I suggest we get started without waiting for Ivan,” he said.

Frieda frowned anxiously. “It’s ten minutes since he phoned from the Deep Space Bar to say he was starting right away. And that’s hardly a two minutes walk.”

Rosalind instantly started toward the outside door.

“I’ll check,” she explained. “Oh, Frieda, I’ve set the mike so you’ll hear if Dotty calls.”

Edmund threw up his hands. “Very well, then,” he said and walked over, switched on the picture and stared out moodily.

Theodor and Frieda got out their briefcases, switched on projectors, and began silently checking through their material.

Celeste fiddled with the TV and got a newscast. But she found her eyes didn’t want to absorb the blocks of print that rather swiftly succeeded each other, so, after a few moments, she shrugged impatiently and switched to audio.

At the noise, the others looked around at her with surprise and some irritation, but in a few moments they were also listening.

“The two rocket ships sent out from Mars Base to explore the orbital positions of Phobos and Deimos--that is, the volume of space they’d be occupying if their positions had remained normal--report finding masses of dust and larger debris. The two masses of fine debris are moving in the same orbits and at the same velocities as the two vanished moons, and occupy roughly the same volumes of space, though the mass of material is hardly a hundredth that of the moons. Physicists have ventured no statements as to whether this constitutes a confirmation of the Disintegration Hypothesis.

“However, we’re mighty pleased at this news here. There’s a marked lessening of tension. The finding of the debris--solid, tangible stuff--seems to lift the whole affair out of the supernatural miasma in which some of us have been tempted to plunge it. One-hundredth of the moons has been found.

“The rest will also be!”

Edmund had turned his back on the window. Frieda and Theodor had switched off their projectors.

“Meanwhile, Earthlings are going about their business with a minimum of commotion, meeting with considerable calm the strange threat to the fabric of their Solar System. Many, of course, are assembled in churches and humanist temples. Kometevskyites have staged helicopter processions at Washington, Peking, Pretoria, and Christiana, demanding that instant preparations be made for--and I quote--’Earth’s coming leap through space.’ They have also formally challenged all astronomers to produce an explanation other than the one contained in that strange book so recently conjured from oblivion, The Dance of the Planets.

“That about winds up the story for the present. There are no new reports from Interplanetary Radar, Astronomy, or the other rocket ships searching in the extended Mars volume. Nor have any statements been issued by the various groups working on the problem in Astrophysics, Cosmic Ecology, the Congress for the Discovery of New Purposes, and so forth. Meanwhile, however, we can take courage from the words of a poem written even before Dr. Kometevsky’s book:

“This Earth is not the steadfast place
We landsmen build upon;
From deep to deep she varies pace,
And while she comes is gone.
Beneath my feet I feel
Her smooth bulk heave and dip;
With velvet plunge and soft upreel
She swings and steadies to her keel
Like a gallant, gallant ship.”

While the TV voice intoned the poem, growing richer as emotion caught it up, Celeste looked around her at the others. Frieda, with her touch of feminine helplessness showing more than ever through her business-like poise. Theodor leaning forward from his scarlet cloak thrown back, smiling the half-smile with which he seemed to face even the unknown. Black Edmund, masking a deep uncertainty with a strong show of decisiveness.

In short, her family. She knew their every quirk and foible. And yet now they seemed to her a million miles away, figures seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

Were they really a family? Strong sources of mutual strength and security to each other? Or had they merely been playing family, experimenting with their notions of complex marriage like a bunch of silly adolescents? Butterflies taking advantage of good weather to wing together in a glamorous, artificial dance--until outraged Nature decided to wipe them out?

As the poem was ending, Celeste saw the door open and Rosalind come slowly in. The Golden Woman’s face was white as the paths she had been treading.

Just then the TV voice quickened with shock. “News! Lunar Observatory One reports that, although Jupiter is just about to pass behind the Sun, a good coronagraph of the planet has been obtained. Checked and rechecked, it admits of only one interpretation, which Lunar One feels duty-bound to release. Jupiter’s fourteen moons are no longer visible!

The chorus of remarks with which the Wolvers would otherwise have received this was checked by one thing: the fact that Rosalind seemed not to hear it. Whatever was on her mind prevented even that incredible statement from penetrating.

She walked shakily to the table and put down a briefcase, one end of which was smudged with dirt.

Without looking at them, she said, “Ivan left the Deep Space Bar twenty minutes ago, said he was coming straight here. On my way back I searched the path. Midway I found this half-buried in the dirt. I had to tug to get it out--almost as if it had been cemented into the ground. Do you feel how the dirt seems to be in the leather, as if it had lain for years in the grave?”

By now the others were fingering the small case of microfilms they had seen so many times in Ivan’s competent hands. What Rosalind said was true. It had a gritty, unwholesome feel to it. Also, it felt strangely heavy.

“And see what’s written on it,” she added.

They turned it over. Scrawled with white pencil in big, hasty, frantic letters were two words:

“Going down!”

The other gods, Dotty dreamt, are combing the whole Universe for us. We have escaped them many times, but now our tricks are almost used up. There are no doors going out of the Universe and our boats are silver beacons to the hunters. So we decide to disguise them in the only way they can be disguised. It is our last chance.

Edmund rapped the table to gain the family’s attention. “I’d say we’ve done everything we can for the moment to find Ivan. We’ve made a thorough local search. A wider one, which we can’t conduct personally, is in progress. All helpful agencies have been alerted and descriptions are being broadcast. I suggest we get on with the business of the evening--which may very well be connected with Ivan’s disappearance.”

One by one the others nodded and took their places at the round table. Celeste made a great effort to throw off the feeling of unreality that had engulfed her and focus attention on her microfilms.

“I’ll take over Ivan’s notes,” she heard Edmund say. “They’re mainly about the Deep Shaft.”

“How far have they got with that?” Frieda asked idly. “Twenty-five miles?”

“Nearer thirty, I believe,” Edmund answered, “and still going down.”

At those last two words they all looked up quickly. Then their eyes went toward Ivan’s briefcase.

Our trick has succeeded, Dotty dreamt. The other gods have passed our hiding place a dozen times without noticing. They search the Universe for us many times in vain. They finally decide that we have found a door going out of the Universe. Yet they fear us all the more. They think of us as devils who will some day return through the door to destroy them. So they watch everywhere. We lie quietly smiling in our camouflaged boats, yet hardly daring to move or think, for fear that the faintest echoes of our doings will give them a clue. Hundreds of millions of years pass by. They seem to us no more than drugged hours in a prison.

Theodor rubbed his eyes and pushed his chair back from the table. “We need a break.”

Frieda agreed wearily. “We’ve gone through everything.”

“Good idea,” Edmund said briskly. “I think we’ve hit on several crucial points along the way and half disentangled them from the great mass of inconsequential material. I’ll finish up that part of the job right now and present my case when we’re all a bit fresher. Say half an hour?”

Theodor nodded heavily, pushing up from his chair and hitching his cloak over a shoulder.

“I’m going out for a drink,” he informed them.

After several hesitant seconds, Rosalind quietly followed him. Frieda stretched out on a couch and closed her eyes. Edmund scanned microfilms tirelessly, every now and then setting one aside.

Celeste watched him for a minute, then sprang up and started toward the room where Dotty was asleep. But midway she stopped.

Not my child, she thought bitterly. Frieda’s her mother, Rosalind her nurse. I’m nothing at all. Just one of the husband’s girl friends. A lady of uneasy virtue in a dissolving world.

But then she straightened her shoulders and went on.

Rosalind didn’t catch up with Theodor. Her footsteps were silent and he never looked back along the path whose feeble white glow rose only knee-high, lighting a low strip of shrub and mossy tree trunk to either side, no more.

It was a little chilly. She drew on her gloves, but she didn’t hurry. In fact, she fell farther and farther behind the dipping tail of his scarlet cloak and his plodding red shoes, which seemed to move disembodied, like those in the fairy tale.

When she reached the point where she had found Ivan’s briefcase, she stopped altogether.

A breeze rustled the leaves, and, moistly brushing her cheek, brought forest scents of rot and mold. After a bit she began to hear the furtive scurryings and scuttlings of forest creatures.

She looked around her half-heartedly, suddenly realizing the futility of her quest. What clues could she hope to find in this knee-high twilight? And they’d thoroughly combed the place earlier in the night.

Without warning, an eerie tingling went through her and she was seized by a horror of the cold, grainy Earth underfoot--an ancestral terror from the days when men shivered at ghost stories about graves and tombs.

A tiny detail persisted in bulking larger and larger in her mind--the unnaturalness of the way the Earth had impregnated the corner of Ivan’s briefcase, almost as if dirt and leather co-existed in the same space. She remembered the queer way the partly buried briefcase had resisted her first tug, like a rooted plant.

She felt cowed by the mysterious night about her, and literally dwarfed, as if she had grown several inches shorter. She roused herself and started forward.

Something held her feet.

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