From Frederick to Baltimore, the rolling Maryland countryside lay under a fresh blanket of green. Wholly unaware of the summer glory, Dr. Curtis Johnson drove swiftly on the undulating highway, stirring clouds of dust and dried grasses.
Beside him, his wife, Louise, held her blowing hair away from her face and laughed into the warm air. “Dr. Dell isn’t going to run away. Besides, you said we could call this a weekend vacation as well as a business trip.”
Curt glanced at the speedometer and eased the pressure on the pedal. He grinned. “Wool-gathering again.”
“I was just wondering who said it first--one of the fellows at Detrick, or that lieutenant at Bikini, or--”
“Said what? What are you talking about?”
“That crack about the weapons after the next war. He--whoever it was--said there may be some doubt about what the weapons of the next war will be like, but there is absolutely no doubt about the weapons of World War IV. It will be fought with stones and spears. I guess any one of us could have said it.”
Louise’s smile grew tight and thin. “Don’t any of you ever think of anything but the next war--any of you?”
“How can we? We’re fighting it right now.”
“You make it sound so hopeless.”
“That’s what Dell said in the days just before he quit. He said we didn’t have to stay at Detrick producing the toxins and aerosols that will destroy millions of lives. But he never showed us how we could quit--and be sure of staying alive. His own walking out was no more than a futile gesture.”
“I just can’t understand him, Curt. I think he’s right in a way, but what brought him to that viewpoint?”
“Hard to tell,” Curt said, unconsciously speeding up again. “After the war, when the atomic scientists were publicly examining their consciences, Dell told them to examine their own guts first. That was typical of him then, but soon after, he swung just as strongly pacifist and walked out of Detrick.”
“It still seems strange that he abandoned his whole career. The world’s foremost biochemist giving up the laboratory for a truck farm!” Louise glanced down at the lunch basket between them. In it were tomatoes that Dr. Hamon Dell had sent along with his invitation to visit him.
For nearly a year Dr. Dell had been sending packages of choice fruit and vegetables to his former colleagues, not only at the biological warfare center at Camp Detrick but at the universities and other research centers throughout the country.
“I wish we knew exactly why he asked us to come out,” said Louise.
“Nobody claims to have figured him out. They laugh a little at him now. They eat his gifts willingly enough, but consider him slightly off his rocker. He still has all his biological talents, though. I’ve never seen or tasted vegetables like the ones he grows.”
“And the brass at Detrick doesn’t think he’s gone soft in the head, either,” she added much too innocently. “So they ordered you to take advantage of his invitation and try to persuade him to come back.”
Curt turned his head so sharply that Louise laughed.
“No, I didn’t read any secret, hush-hush papers,” she said. “But it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, the way you rushed right over to General Hansen after you got the invitation?”
“It is hush-hush, top-secret stuff,” said Curt, his eyes once more on the road. “The Army doesn’t want it to leak, but they need Dell, need him badly. Anyone knowing bio-war developments would understand. They wanted to send me before. Dell’s invitation was the break we needed. I may be the one with sufficient influence to bring him back. I hope so. But keep it under your permanent and forget your guessing games. There’s more to it than you know.”
The car passed through a cool, wooded section and Louise leaned back and drank in the beauty of it.
“Hush-hush, top secret stuff,” she said. “Grown men playing children’s games.”
“Pretty deadly games for children, darling.”
In the late afternoon they by-passed the central part of Baltimore and headed north beyond the suburb of Towson toward Dell’s truck farm.
His sign was visible for a half mile:
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
Eat the Best
EAT DELL’S VEGETABLES
“Dr. Hamon Dell, world’s foremost biochemist--and truck farmer,” Curt muttered as he swung the car off the highway.
Louise stepped out when the tires ceased crunching on the gravel lane. She scanned the fields and old woods beyond the ancient but preserved farmhouse. “It’s so unearthly.”
Curt followed. The song of birds, which had been so noticeable before, seemed strangely muted. The land itself was an alien, faintly greenish hue, a color repulsive to more than just the eyes.
“It must be something in this particular soil,” said Curt, “something that gives it that color and produces such wonderful crops. I’ll have to remember to ask Dell about it.”
“You want Dr. Dell?”
They whirled at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. Louise uttered a startled cry.
The gaunt figure behind them coughed asthmatically and pointed with an arm that seemed composed only of bones and brownish skin, so thin as to be almost translucent.
“Yes,” said Curt shakenly. “We’re friends of his.”
“Dell’s in back. I’ll tell him you’re here.”
The figure shambled away and Louise shook herself as if to rid her mind of the vision. “If our grandchildren ever ask about zombies, I can tell them. Who in the world do you suppose he is?”
“Hired man, I suppose. Sounds as if he should be in a lung sanitarium. Funny that Dell would keep him around in that condition.”
From somewhere behind the house came the sound of a truck engine. Curt took Louise’s arm and led her around the trim, graveled path.
The old farmhouse had been very carefully renovated. Everywhere was evidence of exquisite care, yet the cumulative atmosphere remained uninviting, almost oppressive. Curt told himself it was the utter silence, made even more tense by the lonely chugging of the engine in back, and the incredible harsh color of the soil beneath their feet.
Rounding the corner, they came in sight of a massive tank truck. From it a hose led to an underground storage tank and pulsed slowly under the force of the liquid gushing through it. No one was in sight.
“What could that be for?” asked Louise.
“You’ve got me. Could be gasoline, but Dell hasn’t any reason for storing that much here.”
They advanced slowly and amazement crept over Curt as he comprehended the massiveness of the machine. The tank was of elliptical cross section, over ten feet on its major axis. Six double wheels supported the rear; even the front ones were double. In spite of such wide weight distribution, the tires were pressing down the utterly dry ground to a depth of an inch or more.
“They must haul liquid lead in that thing,” said Curt.
“It’s getting cool. I wish Dell would show up.” Louise glanced out over the twenty-acre expanse of truck farm. Thick rows of robust plants covered the area. Tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, and other vegetables--a hundred or so fruit trees were at the far end. Between them ran the road over which the massive truck had apparently entered the farm from the rear.
A heavy step sounded abruptly and Dell’s shaggy head appeared from around the end of the truck. His face lighted with pleasure.
“Curt, my boy! And Louise! I thought you weren’t going to show up at all.”
Curt’s hand was almost lost in Dell’s enormous grip, but it wasn’t because of that that his grip was passive. It was his shocked reaction to Dell’s haggard appearance. The fierce eyes looked merely old and tired now. The ageless, leathery hide of Dell’s face seemed to have collapsed before some overpowering decay, its bronze smoothness shattered by deep lines that were like tool marks of pain.
Curt spoke in a subdued voice. “It’s hard to get away from Detrick. Always one more experiment to try--”
“--And the brass riding you as if they expected you to win another war for them tomorrow afternoon,” said Dell. “I remember.”
“We wondered about this truck,” Louise commented brightly, trying to change the subject. “We finally gave up on it.”
“Oh, that. It brings liquid fertilizer to pump into my irrigation water, that’s all. No mystery. Let’s go on to the house. After you’re settled we can catch up on everything and I’ll tell you about the things I’m doing here.”
“Who’s the man we saw?” asked Curt. “He looks as if his health is pretty precarious.”
“That’s Brown. He came with the place--farmed it for years for my uncle before I inherited it. He could grow a garden on a granite slab. In spite of appearances, he’s well enough physically.”
“How has your own health been? You have--changed--since you were at Detrick.”
Dell raised a lock of steel-gray hair in his fingers and dismissed the question with a wan smile. “We all wear out sometime,” he said. “My turn had to come.”
Inside, some of the oppressiveness vanished as the evening passed. It was cool enough for lighting the fireplace, and they settled before it after dinner. While they watched the flickering light that whipped the beamed ceiling, Dell entertained them with stories of his neighbors, whose histories he knew clear back to Revolutionary times.
Early, however, Louise excused herself. She knew they would want privacy to thresh out the purposes behind Dell’s invitation--and Curt’s acceptance.
When she was gone, there was a moment’s silence. The logs crackled with shocking pistol shots in the fireplace. The scientist moved to stir the coals and then turned abruptly to Curt.
“When are you going to leave Detrick?”
“When are you coming back?” Curt demanded instead of answering.
“So they still want me, even after the things I said when I left.”
“You’re needed badly. When I told Hansen I was coming down, he said it would be worth five years of my own work to bring you back.”
“They want me to produce even deadlier toxins than those I gave them,” Dell said viciously. “They want some that can kill ten million people in four minutes instead of only one million--”
“Any man would go insane if he looked at it that way. It would be the same as gun-makers being tormented by the vision of torn men destroyed by their bullets, the sorrowing families--”
“And why shouldn’t the gun-makers be tormented?” Dell’s voice was low with controlled hate. “They are men like you and me who give the war-makers new tools for their trade.”
“Oh, Dell, it’s not as simple as that.” Curt raised a hand and let it fall wearily. They had been over this so many times before. “Weapon designers are no more responsible than any other agents of society. It’s pure neurosis to absorb the whole guilt of wars yet unfought merely because you happened to have developed a potential weapon.”
Dell touched the massive dome of his skull. “Here within this brain of mine has been conceived a thing which will probably destroy a billion human lives in the coming years. D. triconus toxin in a suitable aerosol requires only a countable number of molecules in the lungs of a man to kill him. My brain and mine alone is responsible for that vicious, murderous discovery.”
“Egotism! Any scientist’s work is built upon the pyramid of past knowledge.”
“The weapon I have described exists. If I had not created it, it would not exist. It is as simple as that. No one shares my guilt and my responsibility. And what more do they want of me now? What greater dream of mass slaughter and destruction have they dreamed?”
“They want you,” said Curt quietly, “because they believe we are not the only ones possessing the toxin. They need you to come back and help find the antitoxin for D. triconus.”
Dell shook his head. “That’s a blind hope. The action of D. triconus is like a match set to a powder train. The instant its molecules contact protoplasm, they start a chain reaction that rips apart the cell structure. It spreads like fire from one cell to the next, and nothing can stop it once it’s started operating within a given organism.”
“But doesn’t this sense of guilt--unwarranted as it is--make you want to find an antitoxin?”
“Suppose I succeeded? I would have canceled the weapon of an enemy. The military would know he could nullify ours in time. Then they would command me to work out still another toxin. It’s a vicious and insane circle, which must be broken somewhere. The purpose of the entire remainder of my life is to break it.”
“When you are fighting for your life and the enemy already has his hands about your throat,” Curt argued, “you reach for the biggest rock you can get your hands on and beat his brains in. You don’t try to persuade him that killing is unethical.”
For an instant it seemed to Curt that a flicker of humor touched the corners of Dell’s mouth. Then the lines tightened down again.
“Exactly,” he said. “You reach for a rock and beat his brains in. You don’t wipe human life off the face of the Earth in order to reach that enemy. I asked you to come down here to help me break this circle of which I spoke. There has to be someone here--after I’m gone--”
Dell’s eyes shifted to the depths of shadows beyond the firelight and remained fixed on unseen images.
“Me? Help you?” Curt asked incredulously. “What could I do? Give up science and become a truck gardener, too?”
“You might say that we would be in the rock business,” replied Dell. “Fighting is no longer on the level of one man with his hands about another’s throat, but it should be. Those who want power and domination should have to fight for it personally. But it has been a long time since they had to.
“Even in the old days, kings and emperors hired mercenaries to fight their wars. The militarists don’t buy swords now. They buy brains. We’re the mercenaries of the new day, Curt, you and I. Once there was honor in our profession. We searched for truth for its own sake, and because it was our way of life. Once we were the hope of the world because science was a universal language.
“What a horrible joke that turned out to be! Today we are the terror of the world. The war-makers built us fine laboratories, shining palaces, and granted every whim--for a price. They took us up to the hills and showed us the whole world and we sold our souls for it.
“Look what happened after the last war. Invading armies carried off prize Nazi brains like so much loot, set the scientists up in big new laboratories, and these new mercenaries keep right on pouring out knowledge for other kings and emperors.
“Their loyalty is only to their science. But they can’t experiment for knowledge any more, only weapons and counter-weapons. You’ll say I’m anti-war, even, perhaps, anti-American or pro-Russian. I am not against just wars, but I am against unjust slaughter. And I love America too much to let her destroy herself along with the enemy.”
“Then what are we to do?” Curt demanded fiercely. “What are we to do while enemy scientists prepare these same weapons to exterminate us? Sure, it’s one hell of a mess. Science is already dead. The kind you talk about has been dead for twenty years. All our fine ideals are worthless until the politicians find a solution to their quarrels.”
“Politicians? Since when did men of science have to wait upon politicians for solutions of human problems?” Dell passed a hand over his brow, and suddenly his face contorted in pain.
“What is it?” Curt exclaimed, rising.
“Nothing--nothing, my boy. Some minor trouble I’ve had lately. It will pass in a moment.”
With effort, he went on. “I wanted to say that already you have come to think of science being divided into armed camps by the artificial boundaries of the politicians. Has it been so long ago that it was not even in your lifetime, when scientists regarded themselves as one international brotherhood?”
“I can’t quarrel with your ideals,” said Curt softly. “But national boundary lines do, actually, divide the scientists of the world into armed camps.”
“Your premises are still incorrect. They do not deliberately war on each other. It is only that they have blindly sold themselves as mercenaries. And they can be called upon to redeem themselves. They can break their unholy contracts.”
“There would have to be simultaneous agreement among the scientists of all nations. And they are men, influenced by national ideals. They are not merely ivory-tower dabblers and searchers after truth.”
“Do you remember me five years ago?” Dell’s face became more haggard, as if the memory shamed him. “Do you remember when I told the atomic scientists to examine their guts instead of their consciences?”
“Yes. You certainly have changed.”
“And so can other men. There is a way. I need your help desperately, Curt--”
The face of the aging biochemist contorted again with unbearable pain. His forehead beaded with sweat as he clenched his skull between his vein-knotted hands.
“Dell! What is it?”
“It will pass,” Dr. Dell breathed through clenched teeth. “I have some medicine--in my bedroom. I’m afraid I’ll have to excuse myself tonight. There’s so much more I have to say to you, but we’ll continue our talk in the morning, Curt. I’m sorry--”
He stumbled out, refusing Curt’s offer of aid with a grim headshake. The fire crackled loudly within the otherwise silent room. Curt felt cold at the descending chill of the night, his mind bewildered at Dell’s barrage, some of it so reasonable, some of it so utterly confused. And there was no clue to the identity of the powerful force that had made so great a change in the once militant scientist.
Slowly Curt mounted the staircase of the old house and went to the room Dell had assigned them. Louise was in bed reading a murder mystery.
“Secret mission completed?” she asked.
Curt sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m afraid something terrible is wrong with Dell. Besides the neurotic guilt complex because of his war work, he showed signs of a terrific and apparently habitual pain in his head. If that should be brain tumor, it might explain his erratic notions, his abandonment of his career.”
“Oh, I hope it’s not that!”
It seemed to Curt that he had slept only minutes before he was roused by sounds in the night. He rolled over and switched on the light. His watch said two o’clock. Louise raised up in sharp alarm.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“I thought I heard something. There it is again!”
“It sounds like someone in pain. It must be Dell!”
Curt leaped from the bed and wrestled into his bathrobe. As he hurried toward Dell’s room, there was another deep groan that ended in a shuddering sob of unbearable agony.
He burst into the scientist’s room and switched on the light. Dell looked up, eyes glazed with pain.
“Curt--I thought I had time left, but this is as far as I can go--Just remember all I said tonight. Don’t forget a word of it.” He sat up rigidly, hardly breathing in the effort of control. “The responsibility for the coming destruction of civilization lies at the doors of the scientist mercenaries. Don’t allow it, Curt. Get them to abandon the laboratories of the warriors. Get them to reclaim their honor--”
He fell back upon the pillow, his face white with pain and shining with sweat. “Brown--see Brown. He can tell you the--the rest.”
“I’ll go for a doctor,” said Curt. “Who have you had? Louise will stay with you.”
“Don’t bring a doctor. There’s no escaping this. I’ve known it for months. Wait here with me, Curt. I’ll be gone soon.”
Curt stared with pity at the great scientist whose mind had so disintegrated. “You need a doctor. I’ll call a hospital, Johns Hopkins, if you want.”
“Wait, maybe you’re right. I have no phone here. Get Dr. Wilson--the Judge Building, Towson--find his home address in a phone book.”
“Fine. I’ll only be a little while.”
He stepped to the door.
“Curt! Take the lane down to the new road--behind the farm. Quicker--it cuts off a mile or so--go down through the orchard--”
“All right. Take it easy now. I’ll be right back.”
Curt frantically got dressed, ran down the stairs and out to the car. He wondered absently what had become of the cadaverous Brown, who seemed to have vanished from the premises.
The wheels spun gravel as he started the car and whipped it out of the driveway. Then he was on the stretch of lane leading through the grove. The moonless night was utterly dark, and the stream of light ahead of the car seemed the only living thing upon the whole landscape. He almost wished he had taken the more familiar road. To get lost now might mean death for Dell.
No traffic flowed past him in either direction. There were no buildings showing lights. Overwhelming desolation seemed to possess the countryside and seep into his soul. It seemed impossible that this lay close to the other highway with which he was familiar.
He strained his eyes into the darkness for signs of an all-night gas station or store from which he could phone. Finally, he resigned himself to going all the way to Towson. At that moment he glimpsed a spark of light far ahead.
Encouraged, Curt stepped on the gas. In less than ten minutes he was at the spot. He braked the car to a stop, and surveyed the building as he got out. It seemed more like a power substation than anything else. But there should be a telephone, at least.
He knocked on the door. Almost instantly, footsteps sounded within.
The door swung wide.
“I wonder if I could use your--” Curt began. He gasped. “Brown! Dell’s dying--we’ve got to get a doctor for him--”
As if unable to comprehend, the hired man stared dumbly for a long moment. His hollow-cheeked face was almost skeletal in the light that flooded out from behind him.
Then from somewhere within the building came a voice, sharp with tension. “Brown! What the devil are you doing? Shut that door!”
That brought the figure to life. He whipped out a gun and motioned Curt inward. “Step inside. We’ll have to decide what to do with you when Carlson finds you’re here.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Curt asked, stupefied. “Dell’s dying. He needs help.”
“Get in here!”
Curt moved slowly forward. Brown closed the door behind him and motioned toward a closed door at the other end of a short hall. They opened it and stepped into a dimly lighted room.
Curt’s eyes slowly adjusted and he saw what seemed to be a laboratory. It was so packed with equipment that there was scarcely room for the group of twelve or fifteen men jammed closely about some object with their backs to Curt and Brown.
Brown shambled forward like an agitated skeleton, breaking the circle. Then Curt saw that the object of the men’s attention was a large cathode ray screen occupied by a single green line. There was a pip on it rising sharply near one side of the two-foot tube. The pip moved almost imperceptibly toward a vertical red marker over the face of the screen. The men stared as if hypnotized by it.
The newcomers’ arrival, however, disturbed their attention. One man turned with an irritable growl. “Brown, for heaven’s sake--”
He was a bony creature, even more cadaverous than Brown. He caught sight of Curt’s almost indecently robust face. He gasped and swore.
“Who is this? What’s he doing here?”
The entire montage of skull faces turned upon Curt. He heard a sharp collective intake of breath, as if his presence were some unforeseen calamity that had shaken the course of their incomprehensible lives.
“This is Curtis Johnson,” said Brown. “He got lost looking for a doctor for Dell.”
A mummylike figure rose from a seat before the instrument. “Your coming is tremendously unfortunate, but for the moment we can do nothing about it. Sit here beside me. My name is Tarron Sark.”
The man indicated a chair.
“My friend, Dr. Dell, is dying,” Curt snapped out, refusing to sit down. “I’ve got to get help. I saw your light and hoped you’d allow me to use your phone. I don’t know who you are nor what Dell’s hired man is doing here with you. But you’ve got to let me go for help!”
“No.” The man, Sark, shook his head. “Dell is reconciled. He has to go. We are awaiting precisely the event you would halt--his death.”
He had known it, Curt thought, from the moment he entered that room. Like vultures sitting on cliffs waiting for the death of their prey, these fantastic men let their glance slip back to the screen. The green line was a third of the way toward the red marker now, and moving more rapidly.
It was nightmare--meaningless--
“I’m not staying,” Curt insisted. “You can’t prevent me from helping Dell without assuming responsibility for his death. I demand you let me call.”
“You’re not going to call,” said Sark wearily. “And we assumed responsibility for Dell’s death long ago. Sit down!”
Slowly Curt sank down upon the chair beside the stranger. There was nothing else to do. He was powerless against Brown’s gun. But he’d bring them to justice somehow, he swore.
He didn’t understand the meaning of the slowly moving pattern on the ‘scope face, yet, as his eyes followed that pip, he sensed tension in the watching men that seemed sinister, almost murderous. How?
What did the inexorably advancing pip signify?
No one spoke. The room was stifling hot and the breathing of the circle of men was a dull, rattling sound in Curt’s ears.
Quickly then, gathering sudden momentum, the pip accelerated. The circle of men grew taut.
The pip crossed the red line--and vanished.
Only the smooth green trace remained, motionless and without meaning.
With hesitant shuffling of feet, the circle expanded. The men glanced uncertainly at one another.
One said, “Well, that’s the end of Dell. We’ll soon know now if we’re on the right track, or if we’ve botched it. Carlson will call when he’s computed it.”
“The end of Dell?” Curt repeated slowly, as if trying to convince himself of what he knew had happened. “The pip on the screen--that showed his life leaving him?”
“Yes,” said Sark. “He knew he had to go. And there are perhaps hundreds more like him. But Dell couldn’t have told you of that--”
“What will we do with him?” Brown asked abruptly.
“If Dell is dead, you murdered him!” Curt shouted.