He tried to convince himself he had no right to gripe. It was a pleasant place to live; he had privacy and a bath of his own. And the Schermerhorns were reasonably broadminded people. They never objected to his smoking or an occasional glass of beer. Last year at the Neuhavens’--Gary Elvin cringed inwardly at the recollection.
Just the same, this was going too far. It was enough to endure their kids all day long, five days of the week, without the addition of these juvenile parties. This one had started an hour after dinner and it was still going strong when Elvin returned from the late show at the Fox.
Naturally the Schermerhorn twins were popular tenth graders--husky, blond Greek Gods who had everything, including a red Convertible and a swimming pool Pop Schermerhorn had built for them at the ranch. Gary Elvin had expected a certain number of parties when he decided to board and room with the Schermerhorns, but hardly one every weekend.
He fled through the cluttered hall where a buxom lass was organizing something called a bubble gum contest and took refuge on the damp and deserted patio. He flung himself on a wet, canvas lounge, and looked up at the bright night sky.
Bitterly he counted off the weeks. It was still early in November. He had eight more months to endure before June came with its temporary illusion of escape. As he always did, Elvin resolved to find a better job next year. He had been teaching for five years now. He knew all the tricks of classroom control and smooth community relations. Surely if he started looking early enough, he ought to be able to get something at a small college...
Suddenly he was jerked back to reality by a curious spot of red that appeared in the sky. It moved closer and he saw that it was a falling object followed by a long plume of red flame. It flashed momentarily overhead and Elvin heard a dull thud as it fell into a field beyond the ranch house.
He sprang up from the couch and moved off in the darkness. It had been a meteorite, of course; if it had survived the friction of the atmosphere it would make an interesting exhibit for the science classroom. Miss Gerken would be glassy-eyed with pleasure.
There was no moon. As soon as he crossed the driveway, Elvin stumbled over the damp furrows of a newly ploughed field. He was sweating when he reached the row of palms that lined the irrigation ditch. He paused to wipe his face.
And he heard a weird, shrill, rhythmic sound. It might have been called music, but there was no definable melody or beat. It was faint at first, but as he moved to the right, paralleling the ditch, the sound came louder.
[Illustration: As he cautiously approached the alien object, it seemed as if a soft melody were being wafted on the night breeze. The sound made him nervous and instilled fear... ]
Then, beyond the trees, in a glow of blue light emanating from the thing itself, he saw the rocket. It was not quite five feet long, a slim projectile of glowing metal nosed deeply into the soft earth. The four fins were rotating slowly.
Gary Elvin might, quite properly, have been frightened, but he was totally unacquainted with modern fiction dealing with the probable potentials of science and the universes beyond the earth. Such material he classified, along with comic books and television, as the pap of mediocre minds.
Now, when he first saw the rocket, he came to the somewhat prosaic conclusion that it had strayed from the government experimental site at Muroc. He walked closer. The glow of the metal brightened; the slow rotation of the fins and the weird music became hypnotic. For a moment Elvin felt a surge of fear. He tried to turn away, but he could not.
Instead, moving against his will, he took two of the fins in his hands and pulled on them. The rotation and the music stopped as the tailpiece of the rocket fell open. Elvin’s mind cleared as he looked into a tiny chamber capped by a small rectangular sheet of metal which was dotted with tiny globes of a translucent material. Gingerly he picked up the seal.
As he touched the metal, a strange sensation, like a flood of jumbled words, tumbled through his mind. The feeling was neither unpleasant nor frightening. He was tempted to relax and enjoy it; and he would have, if he had not been distracted by a second object in the chamber. He thrust the strip of metal into the pocket of his coat.
Elvin’s second find was a small, transparent cylinder, filled with tiny, multi-colored spheres, exactly like a jar of hard candy. There was nothing else in the rocket, except for the motor built into the tailpiece. The blue glow of the rocket began to fade.
Vaguely Elvin became aware that something was amiss. He began to suspect that he had stumbled upon something more than a stray rocket from Muroc. He wanted to tell somebody about it. Clutching the cylinder of colored balls he ran back to the house.
The party had reached one of its numerous climaxes. The hall was jammed with chattering high school students. They swirled in a flood around Mrs. Schermerhorn, who seemed to be enjoying herself as much as they were.
Gary Elvin grabbed her arm. “I’ve found a rocket!” he cried.
“Rocket?” she frowned for a moment, and then smiled brightly. “Oh, the racket. Yes, but they do have so much energy, don’t they?”
He held up the cylinder. “This was in it!”
“Oh, you found it, Mr. Elvin. We looked high and low; now we--”
“It was in the rocket.”
“ ... now we can have our contest.”
Desperately a new idea occurred to him. “Can you get these kids quiet? I want to ‘phone.”
“But it’s so early, Mr. Elvin. We can’t expect them to go home yet.”
“No, Mrs. Schermerhorn. ‘Phone. I want to telephone!”
“Oh. Yes; of course. We’ll have our contest in the living room.”
Gary Elvin wormed his way toward the closet under the stairway. It was a very small telephone alcove, not designed for utility. Yet he found he could shut out some of the din if he jackknifed himself against the slanting wall and held the door partly shut.
But it required the use of both his hands. He set the cylinder on a bookcase in the hall and squeezed into the closet. With the telephone in his hand, he hesitated. It had seemed a good idea a moment ago--to call in the Authorities. But, to bring the generalization down to specifics, just who would that be?
In a big city he would have telephoned the police. But San Benedicto was a California valley town, small, sleepy, and contented. The four-man police force was more or less capable of handling minor traffic violations, but certainly nothing else. The State Police? Elvin doubted they would have jurisdiction. His last, feeble resort seemed to be the San Benedicto News, a daily, four-page advertising circular that passed, locally, for a newspaper. Elvin called the editor-reporter at his home.
After he had told his story, Elvin had to suffer a certain standardized banter concerning the advisability of changing his brand of bourbon. It was entirely meaningless, a form of humor enjoyed by the valley people. Matt Henderson eventually agreed that the strange rocket might bear investigation.
“I’ll be out first thing in the morning,” he promised.
“In the morning! Listen, Matt, this thing may be--it might--” He was unable to crystalize his reasons for urgency. He finished lamely, “It’s important, I think.”
“It ain’t going to run away, is it?”
“Then we can both get a good night’s sleep.”
Gary Elvin turned away from the telephone, vaguely dissatisfied. He felt that something ought to be done immediately. What, he didn’t know, or why. He went to get his cylinder of colored spheres from the bookcase where he had left it. The jar was gone.
He heard a burst of talk in the living room and he was suddenly frightened. From the archway he looked in on the guests, some thirty youngsters, all of the tenth grade of San Benedicto High School. They sprawled over chairs and couches, or they sat, Indian fashion, on the floor. Mrs. Schermerhorn stood in the center of the room, like a judge, smiling patiently. All thirty of the guests were chewing industriously. On the floor stood Elvin’s jar of colored spheres, open and more than half-empty.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Schermerhorn protested, turning to Elvin. “Something seems wrong with their gum. They’ve tried and tried, but I haven’t seen a single bubble. And it did seem such a clever game! I suppose if the gum were stale--” Her voice trailed off when she saw the horror on Elvin’s face.
Wordlessly he pointed at the open jar. The room fell silent. All thirty of the youngsters looked at him. Their chomping jaws became motionless.
“Is--is that mine?” he whispered hoarsely.
“The jar you brought in?” Mrs. Schermerhorn asked. “I don’t know, Mr. Elvin, I’m sure. Mabel Travis was supposed to bring the gum for the contest, and she forgot where--”
“But mine wasn’t gum.” He licked his lips, uncomfortable in the focus of so many staring eyes. “A--a rocket of some sort fell in the field, just beyond the irrigation ditch. I found the cylinder inside. It might be--it could be--anything.”
Elvin had the strange sensation, for almost ten seconds, of looking at a motion picture film that had stopped at a single frame. Then, as if the projector had started to run again, all thirty of the youngsters broke into activity. For another second the analogy of the film persisted; Elvin had the elusive impression that each of the youngsters was carefully playing a part.
They clamored to go out and see the rocket. Mrs. Schermerhorn protested that they would ruin their clothes trailing over the fields after dark. The guests allowed themselves to be talked into putting off their curiosity until morning. As their excited talk faded, Mabel Travis looked up at Elvin.
“Was your jar the one on the bookcase, Mr. Elvin?” she asked, eyeing him with her enormous, blue eyes.
“Yes. Is that where you got--”
“No.” The room was still again, and all the youngsters were looking at her with a peculiar anxiety. “I thought that was one of the prizes. You know, when we played forfeits earlier in the--”
“Of course,” Mrs. Schermerhorn put in. “Bill Blake did win a jar of candy, didn’t he?”
“And that’s what I thought the jar was when I saw it on the bookcase,” Mary Travis continued. “So I took it upstairs and put it with our coats in the bedroom. I’ll get it for you, Mr. Elvin.” Slowly she picked up the nearly empty jar on the floor and recapped it. “I’m going to take this back to the drugstore tomorrow morning and demand my money back. I certainly don’t like being cheated!”
When she returned to the living room, she handed Elvin his cylinder of colored balls and slowly his fear dissipated. Until a competent authority analyzed the contents, the jar represented unknown danger. It might be harmless; but it could also be an explosive, a form of fuel for the rocket, perhaps even germ colonies used in biological warfare. If Bill Blake had taken it home with him as an innocent jar of candy--Elvin shuddered.
The party broke up and Elvin went to his room. He hung his suit carefully at the back of his closet to preserve the creases and thereby cut down on his cleaning bill. After five years of living on a teacher’s salary, such economies had become second nature with him. He brought out his blue serge and hung it on the door; it was the suit he would wear next week to school.
Saturday dawned crisply sunny. Elvin shaved and dressed leisurely. Through the dormer windows of his room he saw the rich, black fields that surrounded the ranch house and the distant ridge of misty mountains beyond the desert, one or two of them crested with snow.
The Schermerhorns, of course, were already awake and busy. Elvin heard the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. He saw the twins, David and Donald, tall and muscular in their tight jeans and brilliant plaid shirts, working in their shop back of the garage. Pop Schermerhorn was in conference with a score of day laborers clustered around the half-dozen tractors in the drive. Through the open garage door Elvin could see the Schermerhorn Cadillac, the station wagon, and the red Convertible that belonged to the twins.
The scene could be duplicated, with minor variations, on any day of the week. Elvin always resented the Schermerhorn prosperity, even though Pop Schermerhorn had been kind enough to offer him board and room when it was obvious the family did not need the additional income.
Elvin never allowed himself to forget that the Schermerhorns owned one of the largest ranches in the valley as well as the feed store in San Benedicto and a half-interest in the bank. Yet Pop Schermerhorn actually boasted that he had never gone past the eighth grade in school, and his kids were fortunate to be considered mentally normal. Elvin had the twins in class; he knew the limits of their ability. Donald had an I.Q. of 89, David of 85.
Yet such a family literally rolled in money, while Elvin was like a slum-dweller staring emptily into a crowded shop window.
Matt Henderson turned in from the main highway as Elvin finished breakfast. He joined the reporter and they walked out to the field beyond the irrigation ditch. In daylight the terrain was very different. Elvin backtracked over the same ground several times before it dawned on him that he could not locate the rocket.
Perspiration beaded his face. That was impossible! The rocket was large enough to be seen from any point in the field. Even if some part of the mechanism had caused it to rise again during the night, Elvin would have found the gaping hole the point of the projectile had torn in the earth. But there was nothing. Not a furrow in the ploughed field was disturbed.
Visibly amused, Matt Henderson departed, repeating his formula about brands of liquor. This time, Elvin thought, the reporter actually believed it. Elvin walked back to the ranch. He was very angry; but, more than that, he was coldly afraid--and he had no idea what he was afraid of.
The Schermerhorn twins stopped him as he crossed the driveway.
“You sure made us bite on that one, Mr. Elvin,” Donald said good naturedly.
“Yeah,” David added. “All the kids came over early this morning to see your rocket.”
“I guest we deserve it, though,” Donald went on philosophically, “for pulling that deal on you in class last week.”
Gary Elvin went up to his room in a daze and sat staring at the bottle of colored spheres. It seemed entirely clear what had happened last night; yet, conceivably, the rocket could have been an hallucination. If so, it was because of the grinding frustrations of his job. But Elvin had a good mind; he did not have to let a bunch of discourteous rattle-brained kids get him down. David and Donald had given him the clue: the rocket was simply a practical joke he had played on his class of tenth graders.
The second step in driving out the “dream” was an appeal to authority. He must understand the limits of scientific possibility in the use of rockets. That meant a trip to the library. Although it was four miles to San Benedicto, Elvin decided to walk; the exercise would help clear his head.
He entered the library at eleven-thirty, half an hour before the building was closed for the weekend. It was a good library. The assessment rate in prosperous San Benedicto was high, and books had been purchased wisely. In the card catalogue Elvin found listed a number of up-to-date references that he could use; but there was nothing on the shelves. Five minutes before closing time, he asked the librarian for help.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything in,” she answered. “We’ve had a perfect run on books all morning.”
“You mean everything in the library is out?”
“Everything worthwhile.” She beamed. “And most of the borrowers were your tenth graders, too, Mr. Elvin. You’ve certainly done a wonderful job of inspiring that class to do serious reading. Why, do you know Mabel Travis has been in here three times today? She took out seven books as soon as the library opened, and she had them back by nine-thirty. Said she’d read them all, too.”
“Seven books in less than two hours?” Elvin laughed.
“I suppose she thought she had. Poor little Mabel! She hasn’t much to work with, you know. But it was her new attitude I liked--so intense, so serious. And she was doing such heavy reading, too.”
Elvin walked back to the Schermerhorn ranch, enjoying the noon-day warmth. San Benedicto was crowded with Saturday shoppers. He met his students everywhere, and always they commented on the practical joke he had played on them. By the time he was back in his room, the fiction of the joke was thoroughly established in his own mind. He almost believed it himself.
He glanced again at the transparent cylinder of spheres. A chemist might be able to analyze the contents and say where the jar had originated. Perhaps Miss Gerkin could do it. She had taught science for more than twenty years at San Benedicto High. Yet Elvin knew he couldn’t ask her for help. If the colored balls turned out to be nothing more than hard candy, then by inescapable logic he would have to accept the fact that he was suffering from a major hallucination. It was more comfortable not to know the truth.
The idea of candy, however, brought up another association. Mrs. Schermerhorn had said that earlier in the evening Bill Blake had won a jar of candy as a prize. Bill Blake was the prize joker of the tenth grade. Elvin had what seemed to be an intuitive flash of understanding. The rocket had been a joke, all right, but it had been aimed at Elvin. The kids had rigged it up before he came home from the show. During the night they had come back and taken the stage setting away.
Elvin spent the rest of the weekend planning his revenge. He didn’t think of it as that, but rather disciplinary action. Yet he knew the class would get the point and possibly even heed the implied warning. In five years Elvin had reduced the complex process of teaching to one workable rule: break the class, or the kids will break you.
Now he chose the classical cat-whip of a surprise test to crack them back into line. He spent Sunday planning it and duplicating the pages. He was scrupulously careful to be fair--at least as he defined the term. The examination covered nothing that had not been discussed in class. But Elvin taught grammar, and no field of the abstract allows such devious application of the flimsy nonsense passing for rules.
On Monday morning, with a thin smile, Elvin was ready for them. He had tenth grade English first period. As he passed out the mimeographed pages, he waited for waves of groaning to sweep the room. Nothing happened. He felt an annoying pang of anger. A hand shot up.
“Yes, Charles?” he snapped.
“If we finish before the end of the period, can we have free reading?”
“I doubt you’ll finish, Charles. This test is ten pages long.”
“But if we do--”
“By all means, yes.”
Gary Elvin leaned back in his chair and surveyed, with satisfaction, the thirty heads bent studiously over their desks. For perhaps five minutes the idyll lasted, until Donald Schermerhorn brought his test up to the desk and asked permission to go to the library. Elvin was both amazed and disappointed; but at once he reassured himself. The test had been simply too hard for Donald.
Nonetheless, as soon as Donald was out of the room, Elvin checked his examination against the key. As he turned through the pages, his fingers began to tremble. Donald had answered everything--and answered it correctly. Before Elvin had finished checking Donald’s test, ten more students had left theirs on the desk and headed for the school library.
Within ten minutes Elvin was fighting a disorganizing bewilderment far worse than the rocket-hallucination. Every examination was completed, and none that he checked had as much as one mistake. Elvin wished he could believe that whole-sale cheating had taken place, but he knew that was impossible because of the precautions he always took.
All of the tenth graders were back from the library by that time. They had each brought two or more books. Elvin’s body went rigid with anger when he saw what was currently passing among them for the skill of reading. They were methodically turning pages almost as quickly as they could move their hands from one side of the books to the other, all with the appearance of engrossed attention.
Elvin banged a ruler on his desk. One or two faces looked up. “This has gone far enough!” he cried. “You asked for the privilege of free reading, but I do not intend you to make a farce of it.” A hand went up. “Yes, Marilyn?”
“But we are reading, Mr. Elvin. Honestly.”
“Oh, I see.” His voice was thickly sarcastic. “And what’s the title of your book?”
“Toynbee’s Study of History.”
“You’ve given up Grace Livingston Hill? Could you summarize Toynbee for us, Marilyn?”
“In another ten minutes, Mr. Elvin. I still have sixty pages to read.”
Elvin turned savagely to another girl. “Mabel Travis! What are you reading?”
The buxom girl looked up languidly. For a split second her big eyes seemed focused on a distant prospective. “Why--why this, Mr. Elvin.” She held up her book so he could see the title.
“Hypnotism in Theory and Practice,” he snorted. And Mabel’s I/Q was 71! “You’ve outgrown the comics, Mabel?”
“In a sense, yes, Mr. Elvin.”
Elvin was saved from further disorientation by the interruption of an office messenger with a special bulletin announcing a second period assembly. By the time he had read it, his anger was under control. He let the reading go on and spent the rest of the period plodding through the examinations. There was not an error in any of the papers. From the prospective of the day’s events, Elvin later realized that, however personally unnerving, his own particular crisis had been a minor one.
The first full scale public disaster came during the assembly, when the entire student body--nearly one hundred and fifty youngsters--was gathered in the auditorium. The principal, as always, rose to lead them in the Alma Mater. He was a huge, hatchet-faced, white-haired man, the terror of evil-doer and faculty members alike. He had a tendency to give a solemn importance to trivial things and to overlook the great ones; and there was no mistaking the awed, almost religious fervor with which he sang the school song--which was, perhaps, only natural, since he had written it himself.
On that disastrous morning he suddenly burst into a dance as the student body barrelled into the first chorus. He snatched up the startled girls’ counselor and improvised a little rumba. Slowly the students’ voices fell silent as they watched. Under the sweating leadership of the music teacher, the school orchestra held the pace for another bar or two, until one of the players stood up and rendered a discordant hot lick on his trumpet.
A trio of caretakers carried the struggling principal off the platform and shouting teachers herded the students on to their next classes. Thirty minutes later the word-of-mouth information was carefully spread through the school that the principal had been taken to the hospital for observation and he was doing nicely. But by that time his fate seemed unimportant, for the girls’ tenth grade gym teacher was having hysterics on the front lawn, convinced that all her students had turned into fish; and the boys’ glee club teacher had abruptly announced that the nation was being invaded by Martians. He, too, had been carried off to the hospital in haste.
The rest of the faculty was badly shaken. When they met at lunch, they unanimously wanted the school closed for the rest of the day. But the principal had been too small a man to delegate any of his authority; as long as he was hospitalized, the teachers could do nothing.
After the ominous activity of the morning, however, most of the afternoon passed in relative order. True, the counselor gave pick-up tests to three tenth graders whose earlier I.Q. scores had been so low the validity had been questioned; and this time the same three outdid an Einstein. And the tenth grade math teacher was almost driven to distraction by a classroom discussion of the algebraic symbology equating matter and time--all of which was entirely over his head.
Nothing really happened until five minutes before the end of the school day, when Miss Gerkin knocked weakly on Gary Elvin’s door. As soon as he saw her face, he gave his class free reading and joined her in the hall. Fearfully she showed him a yellow Bunsen burner, which glowed softly in the afternoon sunlight.
“Do you know what it is, Gary?”
“It’s one of those gas burners you have on the lab tables in--”
“The metal, I mean.”
“Looks like gold. Aren’t these rather expensive for a high school classroom?”
She sagged against the wall, running her trembling fingers over her thin lips. “It’s that tenth grade, Gary. I have them last period for general science. Bill Blake and the Schermerhorn twins got to fooling around with the electro-magnet. They rewired it somehow and added a few--well, frankly, I don’t understand at all! But now when anything--metal, glass, granite--when anything is put in the magnetic field, it’s changed to gold.”
“Transmutation of atomic structure? You know it can’t be done!”
“Yes, I know it. But I saw it happen.” She began to laugh, but checked herself quickly.
“It’s a trick. I know that bunch better than you do. It’s time one of us had it out with them.”
He strode along the hall toward the science room, Miss Gerkin following meekly behind him. “I’m sure you’re right, Gary, because the rest of the class hardly showed any interest in what the boys were doing. I actually asked Marilyn if she didn’t want her necklace turned to gold, and she said she was too busy to bother. Imagine that, from a high school kid!”
“Busy doing what?”
“Working out the application of the Law of Degravitation, she said.”
“The Law of Degravitation? I never heard of it.”
Miss Gerkin sniffed righteously. “Neither have I, and I’ve taught science all my life.”
Gary Elvin flung open the door of the science room. It was one minute before the end of the period. For a moment he looked in on a peacefully ideal classroom. Every student was at his bench working industriously. Then, row by row, they began to float upward toward the ceiling, each of them holding a tiny coil of thin wires twisted intricately around two pieces of metal and an electronic tube. The breeze from the open window gathered them languidly into a kind of huddle above the door.
The bell rang as Miss Gerkin began to scream. Elvin fought to hold on to his own sanity as he tried to help her, but a degree of her hysteria transferred itself to him. His mind became a patchwork of yawning blank spaces interspersed with uncoordinated episodes of reality.
He remembered hearing the bell and the rush of the class out of the room. He remembered the piercing screams of Miss Gerkin’s terror echoing through the suddenly crowded halls. Beyond one of his black gulfs of no-memory, he was in the nurse’s office helping to hold Miss Gerkin on the lounge while the school doctor administered a sedative.
Slowly the integrated pattern of his thinking returned when he was driving back toward the Schermerhorn ranch. It was late in the afternoon; the sun was setting redly beyond the ridge of mountains. As Elvin’s fear receded, he was able to think with a kind of hazy clarity. He had seen a metal Bunsen burner that had been turned into gold; he had seen the crusty principal of the school break into a rumba, and three of his colleagues driven to hysteria; he had seen a tenth grade class floating unsupported in the air. All of it manifestly absurd and impossible.
But it had happened. Elvin could visualize only two plausible explanations: mass insanity or mass hypnosis. Hypnosis! A sluggish relay clicked in his mind. He remembered a book. One of the tenth graders had been reading it--Hypnotism in Theory and Practice.
Everything seemed clear after that. The tenth grade was an obstreperous bunch of unsocial adolescents. Somehow they had stumbled upon hypnotism and learned how to use it.
The time for an accounting had come. Because of where Elvin lived, he was admirably situated to break the Schermerhorn twins first; and they were, perhaps, the weakest members of the group. He would have them alone, without the support of their peers. It would be easy. After all, he was a mature adult; they were still children. Once he had a confession from them, it would only be a minor operation to clear up the whole mess.
When he reached the Schermerhorn ranch, dinner was on the table. He had no time to talk to the twins until afterward. Both David and Donald bolted the meal and rushed back to their workshop behind the garage. Their usual bad manners, Elvin realized, but what else could be expected?
Elvin finished a leisurely pipe in the living room, and then sauntered out to the boys’ workshop. Surprisingly, the door was locked, the windows thickly curtained; they had never taken such precautions before. He knocked and, after a long wait, both David and Donald came outside to talk to him. They were naked to the waist and their husky, tanned bodies gleamed with sweat. A smudge of grease was smeared over David’s unkempt blond hair.