It was a beautifully machined container, shaped like a two pound chocolate candy box, the color and texture of lead. The cover fitted so accurately that it was difficult to see where it met the lip on the base.
Yet when Forster lifted the container from the desk in the security guards’ office, he almost hit himself in the face with it, so light was it.
He read the words clumsily etched by hand into the top surface with some sharp instrument:
TO BE OPENED ONLY BY:
Dr. Richard Forster,
Air Force Special Research Center,
CAUTION: Open not later than
24 hours after receipt.
DO NOT OPEN in atmosphere less
than equivalent of 65,000 feet
He turned the container over and over. It bore no other markings--no express label or stamps, no file or reference number, no return address.
It was superbly machined, he saw.
Tentatively he pulled at the container cover, it was as firm as if it had been welded on. But then, if the cover had been closed in the thin atmosphere of 65,000 feet, it would be held on by the terrific pressure of a column of air twelve miles high.
Forster looked up at the burly guard.
“Who left this here?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, sir.” The man’s voice was as close to insolence as the difference in status would allow, and Forster bristled.
“I just clocked in an hour ago. There was a thick fog came on all of a sudden, and there was a bit of confusion when we were changing over. They didn’t say anything about the box when I relieved.”
“Fog?” Forster queried. “How could fog form on a warm morning like this?”
“You’re the scientist, sir. You tell me. Went as fast as it came.”
“Well--it looks like very sloppy security. The contents of this thing must almost certainly be classified. Give me the book and I’ll sign for it. I’ll phone you the file number when I find the covering instructions.”
Forster was a nervous, over-conscientious little man, and his day was already ruined, because any departure from strict administrative routine worried and upset him. Only in his field of aviation medicine did he feel competent, secure.
He knew that around the center they contemptuously called him “Lilliput.” The younger researchers were constantly trying to think up new ways to play jokes on him, and annoy him.
Crawley Preston, the research center’s director and his chief, had been summoned to Washington the night before. Forster wished fervently that he was around to deal with this matter. Now that relations between East and West had reached the snapping point, the slightest deviation from security regulations usually meant a full-scale inquiry.
He signed for the container, and carried it out to the car, still seething impotently over the guard’s insolence.
He placed it beside him on the front seat of his car and drove up to the building which housed part of the labs and also his office.
He climbed out, then as he slammed the door he happened to glance into the car again.
The seat covers were made of plastic in a maroon and blue plaid pattern. But where the box had rested there was a dirty grey rectangular patch that hadn’t been there before.
Forster stared, then opened the door again. He rubbed his fingers over the discolored spot; it felt no different than the rest of the fabric. Then he placed the box over the area--it fitted perfectly.
He flopped down on the seat, his legs dangling out of the car, fighting down a sudden irrational wave of panic. He pushed the container to the other end of the seat.
After all, he rationalized, _plastics are notoriously unstable under certain conditions. This is probably a new alloy Washington wants tested for behavior under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure. What’s gotten into you?_
He took a deep breath, picked up the box again. Where it had rested there was another discolored patch on the car seat covers.
Holding it away from him, Forster hurried into the office, then dumped the box into a metal wastebasket. Then he went to a cabinet and pulled out a Geiger counter, carried it over to the wastebasket. As he pointed the probe at the box the familiar slow clicking reassured him, and feeling a little foolish he put the instrument back on its shelf.
[Illustration: In his pressurized chamber, Forster read the startling message.]
Hurriedly, he went through his mail; there was nothing in it referring to the package. Then he called the classified filing section; nobody there knew anything about it either.
For some reason he couldn’t explain to himself, he wasn’t even surprised.
He stared into the wastebasket. The clumsily etched instructions glinted up at him: “To be opened as soon as possible... “
He picked up the phone and called the decompression chamber building.
There was no valid reason why he should have been self-conscious as he talked to the lab attendant in charge of the decompression tank. He used it a dozen times a month for tests and experiments, yet when he gave his instructions his voice was labored and strained.
“Some genius in Washington sent this thing down without any covering instructions, but it has to be opened in a hurry in a thin atmosphere. Er--I’d like you to stay on the intercom for a while in case it blows up in my face or something.” He tried to laugh, but all that came out was a croak.
The attendant nodded indifferently, then helped Forster into the helmet of his pressure suit. He climbed up the steps into the chamber, pulling the airtight door shut behind him. He placed the box on the desk in front of the instrument panel, then turned back to push the door clamps into place.
For the first time in the hundreds of hours he’d spent in the tank, he knew the meaning of claustrophobia.
Mechanically, he plugged in his intercom and air lines, went through the other routine checks before ascent, tested communications with the lab attendant, then flicked the exhaust motor switch.
Now there was little to do except wait. He stared at the box; in the artificial light it seemed full of hidden menace, a knowing aliveness of its own...
Forster shrugged his shoulders impatiently, as though to throw off the vague blanket of uneasiness that was settling around him. So somebody had forgotten to send a covering message with the container, or else it had been mislaid--that could happen, although with security routine as strict as it was, the possibility was remote. All the same, it could happen. After all, what other explanation was there? What was it he was afraid of? There was something about it--
He glanced at the altimeter. The needle showed only 10,000 feet, and seemed to be crawling around the dial. He resolved not to look at it for three minutes by the clock on the panel.
When he checked the altimeter again, it registered just over 30,000 feet. Not even half way yet.
As the pressure in the tank decreased, he began to be conscious of the need for “reverse breathing”--and he concentrated on using his tongue to check the flow of air into his lungs, then using the thoracic muscles to exhale against the higher pressure inside the suit.
Time seemed to be passing in micro-seconds... 25,000 feet... 30,000... 40,000... 50,000.
At 62,500 feet he gently tested the cover of the container again; it lifted.
As the altimeter needle flickered on the 65,000-foot mark, he cut the exhaust motor and picked up the box. The cover slipped off easily.
His feeling of anticlimax was almost ludicrous. As he looked in, all the box contained was a flattened roll of some greyish material.
He took it out; despite its comparative bulk, it was feather-light. It had the appearance of metal, but was as porous and pliable as a good grade of bond paper. He could not feel its texture through his heavy gloves. He took a good look.
It was new all right--no doubt Washington wanted some tests run on it, although without covering instructions and data this trip was wasted. But some heads would roll when he reported back on the way the container had been shipped in.
He started to unroll the material to get a better look at it, then he saw that it was covered with cramped, closely spaced handwriting in a purplish ink--handwriting that was elusively familiar.
Then he read the words written in neat capitals at the top, the name of the man with the familiar handwriting, and fear came back, clamped cold fingers around his throat:
James Rawdon Bentley
Dear Dick, the writing went on, Take a large economy-size grip on yourself. I know this is going to sound like a voice from the dead, but I’m very much alive and kicking--in the best of health in fact...
The writing blurred, and instinctively Forster put his fist up to rub his eyes, only to meet the hard plastic of his helmet visor. James Rawdon Bentley...
It was January 18, 1951, three years ago, and the jagged line of the Australian coast stretched like a small-scale map to the black curve of the horizon.
From the converted bomber that was his flying lab, Forster could see the other American observation plane cruising on a parallel course, about half a mile away, and beyond it downwind the fringe of the billowing cloud dome of the super-secret British thermonuclear shot.
Then suddenly Bentley’s voice from the other plane was crackling over the earphones, sharp and urgent:
“Our Geigers and scintillometers are going crazy! We’re getting out of here! There’s something coming inside ... a light...”
Silence. Forster had watched in helpless horror as the other ship dipped a silver wing, then nosed down ever so slowly, it seemed ... down ... down ... in a dive that seemed to take hours as Forster’s plane tracked it, ending in a tiny splash like a pebble being thrown into a pond; then the grimly beautiful iridescence of oil and gasoline spreading across the glassy waters of the Timor Sea.
No parachutes had opened on the long journey down. An Australian air sea rescue launch and helicopter were at the scene of the crash in minutes, but neither bodies nor survivors had been found, then or later...
“Everything okay, Doctor Forster?”
“Yes,” he said hoarsely. “Yes ... everything’s okay ... just routine.”
Forster focussed his eyes on the writing again. There was no doubt at all that it was Bentley’s. They had roomed and studied together for four years at MIT, and then there had been a couple of years’ post-graduate work after that. During all that time they had used each other’s notes constantly.
But Bentley was dead.
Forster read on, stunned:
First, you’ll want to know what happened over the Timor Sea after the shot. Put very simply, I, the rest of the technicians, and the crew of the B-29 were transhipped to another vehicle--without any damage to ourselves. How, I’m not allowed to explain at this stage. Actually, they only wanted me, but it wasn’t feasible to collect me and leave the rest behind, so they’re all here, safe and well.
Who are “they,” and where am I? The second question I can’t answer--not allowed to. “They,” roughly translated, are “The Shining Ones,” which doesn’t tell you anything, of course. Briefly, they’re a couple of light-years ahead of Earth in evolution--mentally, morally, and physically, although I use the last word loosely. Too bad that English is a commercial language, it’s so hard to discuss really abstract ideas.
Why am I here? The whole reason for this message is wrapped up in the answer to that.
As you probably know, Project Longfall, which I was heading up was delayed about a year due to my removal. That was the sole purpose, although I and the rest of us are getting special instruction to keep us occupied.
About the same time, they also took several other key people from Britain, Russia, and the United States. Others were already here.
The idea then was delay--to delay more test shots of atomic weapons, in the hope that East and West would come to some agreement. Now, because of the growing volume of tests, and the critical tension which prevails, delay will no longer suffice, and far more drastic steps are to be taken.
I wish you could be here for only a few minutes to see what happens after a multi-megaton thermonuclear test shot is set off on Earth.
I can’t describe it in terms which would have any relation to your present knowledge of physics. All I can say is that life here is intimately bound up with the higher laws of electro-magnetism which at present are only being guessed at on your level. It’s not the radioactivity which you know as such which causes the trouble--there are neutralizing devices throughout the planetary system to take care of that. The damage is caused by an ultra-ultra-short wave radiation which not even the most sensitive scintillometer you have can pick up, a very subtle by-product of every chain reaction.
It doesn’t have too much immediate effect on the lower forms of life--including human beings, if you’ll pardon the expression. But here, it causes a ghastly carnage, so ghastly it sickens me even to think about it for a second.
The incredible thing is that the people here could stop Earth from firing another shot if they wished to, and at 24 hours’ notice, but their philosophy is totally opposed to force, even when it means their own destruction. That will give you an idea of the kind of people they are.
(Here they say that Einstein was on the fringe of discovering the theory involved when he died, but was having trouble with the mathematics. Remember how Einstein always complained that he was really a poor mathematician?)
But with atomic warfare threatening to break out on Earth at any minute, they have got to do something.
This is what they plan to do--this is what they are going to do.
Starting within a few hours after you receive this message, a mass removal of key scientists will begin. They will take 20, 30, or 40--roughly equal numbers from both sides--every few hours as technical conditions allow. That will go on until East and West agree to drop this whole mad weapons race. It will be done quietly, peacefully. Nobody will be hurt except by a fluke. But if needs be, they will lift every major scientific brain off the face of Earth to stop the present drift to disaster for everybody. There are no weapons, no devices that you have at present, which can stop this plan going into effect. There it is--it’s as simple as that.
If you knew what you were really headed for, it would need no steps from here to make both sides on Earth stop this horrible foolishness in a moment.
The lesson of Mars is part of the orientation course here. (I’m not on Mars). I’m using up space, so I’ll go into note form for a bit. Martians had an atomic war--forgot they had to breathe ... destroyed 60 per cent of their atmosphere ... canals on Mars aren’t ... they’re closely-spaced line of shafts leading to underground cities ... view from Earth telescopes, shaft mouths appear as dots which run together into lines due to eye-fatigue ... British Royal Astronomical Society figured that out 30 years ago at least ... see papers on their proceedings ... photographs here show monsters created by wholesale mutations ... lasted about four generations before reproduction failed ... now only vegetation on Mars ... saw pictures of last survivors ... horrible ... I was ill for days after ... imagine having to take 40 separate breaths after making a single step!
Getting back to the others here ... a regular U. N. Remember O’Connor and Walters in our class? They’re here. Check, you’ll find that O’Connor is “detached” from Oak Ridge and Walters from Aiken for “special duty.” That’s Central Intelligence’s story for their disappearance.
Remember those top German boys the Russians were supposed to have gotten to before the Allies could reach them after the Nazi collapse? _They’re here too!_ And Kamalnikov, and Pretchkin of the Russian Academy.
Believe me (the style and the writing was a little less urgent again now), I’ve had all the intellectual stuffing knocked out of me here.
We all have had, for that matter. We’re supposed to be the cream of the crop, but imagine sitting down to instruction from people whose I.Q.s start where yours leaves off!
But what has really made most of us here feel pretty humble is the way they have demolished Earth’s so-called “scientific method”--and used the method itself to prove that it doesn’t stand up!
You know how we’ve always been taught to observe, collect data, then erect a theory to fit the data, a theory which has to be modified when other data came along which don’t fit into it.
Here they work the opposite way--they say: “Know the fundamental principles governing the operation of the universe and then all the pieces fit together inside this final Truth.”
I understand now why so many of the Oak Ridge boys turned to religion after they had been exposed to the electron microscope for a while--they realized they had gone as far as their “scientific” training would ever take them.
Time and space are running out. I know all this must sound confused and incredible, Dick; I’m still confused myself. But I want you to think about what I’ve written, then take the action you think best. I know it won’t be easy for you.
If you think this is some maniac’s idea of a joke, you’ll have proof very soon that it isn’t, because _one of the people at your Center is due to leave for here any time now_.
You’re wondering why I used this weird and wonderful means of communication. The problem was to find a writing material which would stand up in Earth’s atmosphere--oddly enough, it’s not the oxygen which causes the trouble, but the so-called “inert” nitrogen. The container will probably not disintegrate for a couple of days at sea level atmospheric pressure, but this material I’m writing on would not last more than a few seconds. That’s one reason they picked you--most people just don’t have a spare decompression chamber up in the attic! The other reason was that with your photographic memory, you’ll know this is my handwriting, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I hope.
I’m sure you’ve sat in that pressure suit long enough. But remember, if you want to take another look at this, you’ll have to put it back in the container before you go “down.”
Wishing you all you would wish for yourself,
Forster examined the signature. That was the way Bentley made the capital J--it looked almost like a T, with just a faint hook on the bottom of the down-stroke. Then the way it joined the--
“Hey, Doc--are you going to tie up the tank all day? I’ve got work to do.”
Forster recognized the voice on the intercom as Tom Summerford’s. Summerford was one of the crop of recent graduates to join the Center--brash, noisy, irresponsible like the rest of them. He knew Forster hated being called “Doc,” so he never lost an opportunity to use the word. True, he was gifted and well-trained, but he was a ringleader in playing the practical jokes on Forster which might have been funny in college, but which only wasted a research team’s time in these critical days.
Anger flooded over him.
Yes, this was all a macabre game cooked up by Summerford, with the help of some of his pals. Probably they were all out there now, snickering among themselves, waiting to see his face when he came out of the decompression chamber ... waiting to gloat...
“Hey Doc! You still with us?”
“I’ll be out very shortly,” Forster said grimly. “Just wait right there.”
He spun the air inlet controls; impatiently, he watched as the altimeter needle began its anti-clockwise movement.
He’d call a staff meeting right away, find the culprits and suspend them from duty. Preston would have to back him up. If Summerford proved to be the ringleader, he would insist on his dismissal, Forster decided. And he would see to it that the young punk had trouble getting another post.
The fantastic waste of time involved in such an elaborate forgery ... Forster trembled with indignation. And using the name of a dead man, above all a scientist who had died in the interests of research, leaving behind him a mystery which still troubled the Atomic Energy Commission, because nobody had ever been able to explain that sudden dive in a plane which was apparently functioning perfectly, and flown by a veteran crew...
He glanced down at the roll.
Was it his imagination, or had the purplish ink begun to fade? He ran a length of it through his fingers, and then he saw that in places there were gaps where the writing had disappeared altogether. He glanced up at the altimeter needle, which was sliding by the 24,000-foot mark.
He looked back at his hands again, just in time to see the roll part in two places, leaving only the narrow strip he held between his gloved fingers.
He put the strip on the desk, and bent clumsily in his suit to retrieve the other pieces from the floor. But wherever he grabbed it, it fell apart. Now it seemed to be melting before his eyes. In a few seconds there was nothing.
He straightened up. The strip he had left on the desk had disappeared, too. No ash, no residue. Nothing.
His thought processes seemed to freeze. He glanced mechanically at the altimeter. It read 2,500 feet.
He grabbed at the two pieces of the container. They still felt as rigid as ever. He fitted them together carefully, gaining a crumb of security from the act.