By ROBERT MOORE WILLIAMS
Out of a future too dimly discerned
to be comprehensible one was chosen.
Why—no one knew or could know.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Comet March 41.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Slowly, wearily, the yellow sun went down the sky. From the east the night came on, as dark and as deep as the night that has no ending.
The last rays of the sun washed down over the planet, over the low rounded hills and the trees that grew on them, through the shallow valleys where the grass grew rank and luxurious. The last songs of the birds came undisturbed through the dusk. A deer snorted. From somewhere came the bark of another animal, a bark that ended in a howl, long-drawn and mournful.
Dawn world or dusk world?
The night flowed into the valleys, filled them with a mystic darkness. The darkness crept to the tops of the low hills. Slowly it crept around a huge ball that rested on top of the nearer hill. The ball, perhaps fifty feet in diameter, lifted a foot from the ground. It quivered, lifted two feet, then slowly settled back to earth.
The darkness came in around it, touched it, hid it from sight.
Lee Garth twisted in his chair. Wearily he laid the pencil down. The equations wouldn’t work right. They kept trying to run off into impossible combinations. There was an erratic but persistent gadfly of thought buzzing in his mind, a vague shadowy movement in his brain. Like a ghost from shadow-land it twisted through his brain, twisting through the dark convolutions where his memory lay testing the open synapses, seeking a place where a short circuit would result in action.
Fretfully, Lee Garth picked up the pencil. But there was a thinking in his mind, a formless thinking that was somehow purposeful. He sensed the import of that purpose. Tiny chills ran over his body, tiny rivers of icy cold. His fingers trembled. The pencil moved over the page. Garth was first puzzled, then perturbed, then lost in a vast unease.
Here and there upon this earth are fields where men, looking backward, see how the stream of history shifted.
There is a field in Greece.
Xerxes gave his orders to his captains. He waited while his host was led forth. Footmen, archers, men with slings. The cavalry would not be of value, for the barbarians, up there, were in a narrow mountain pass. It did not matter. The light-armed troops were more than capable of dispelling these wild tribesmen. By noon, or the middle of the afternoon, the way would be clear to the peninsula beyond. Thus reasoned Xerxes.
When the night came the barbarians were still holding. Tomorrow, Xerxes thought, his troops would be victorious.
Tomorrow came and fresh troops went forth. And eventually the news came back to where Xerxes waited that his army had been routed and was fleeing in disorder.
It was fate, Xerxes perhaps decided. Fate was a chancy thing. No man could know for certain what the morrow would bring. Tomorrow was a dark reality and the paths to the future were uncertain and tortuous.
But if Xerxes had ravaged the peninsula of Greece in 480 B.C. in all probability Plato would not have been born in 427, and he would not have had as his pupil a youth named Aristotle, and the thinking of the scientists of twenty-five coming centuries would have lacked the guidance of these two men. Into the dark reality of the future the human race would have followed other paths and the man-world of 1940 would not have come into being.
There is a pass in Greece called Thermopylae.
Lee Garth watched, his eyes following the pencil. Cold winds seemed to blow on him. They blew colder each time he realized he was not dictating what the pencil was writing. He watched the factors appear on the paper. There was a meaning in those symbols, a meaning and a purpose stretching across the long, long gulfs of time, reaching from the amoeba, in the protoplasmic slime of steaming seas that are long gone, forward to the creature that shall emerge in some other era, in some century of the far future.
Through him the meaning ran, through Lee Garth, who was 37 years old in 1940.
There is a field in France.
The far-flung southern horn of the Saracen crescent, sweeping northward in its history changing flight, found the field in France where Charles Martel—Charles the Hammer—waited. With keen sword, and long lance, and hissing arrow, all day long the armies battled, and when the night came on, the Saracen host, smashed and bleeding under the blows of the Hammer, reeled backward, fled back out of France. To the Saracens, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, was the backward turning road. The glowing sun of Islam flickered, and never again burned so brightly. There was a shift in history, and another world evolved because of Charles Martel.
There is a field in France called Tours.
Lee Garth mopped the perspiration from his forehead. He stopped writing for a moment, pushed back his thinning hair, pulled a cigarette from the package on his desk, struck a match. The smoke was blue and indistinct in that shadowed room. Far off, from another world it seemed, there came the raucous hoot of an automobile horn. Somebody going home, or going to work, or going somewhere but probably going home, since the hour was so late. Didn’t matter.
There was a gadfly buzzing in his brain.
Again the pencil raced over the paper.
Jan Lippershey’s children played in his yard, and now and again, when he would let them, they played in the shop where he worked. They liked to play with the things he made. Lenses, convex and concave. The children played with the lenses, and the telescope was born. Now men could see farther.
That happened in Holland, early in the 1600s.
Perhaps it was more important than Thermopylae or Tours.
Men looked at the stars. World on world on world—world without end—as far as the first telescope showed, the dance of the suns went on. Men made bigger lenses. Beyond those limits the suns were to be found. Did space go on forever? Bigger lenses, bigger lenses.
But still men could not see into tomorrow. It was a formless void of unreality and no instrument could penetrate it. Men had to go blindly into tomorrow, fearing, hesitating, drawing back, until they were kicked there by relentless time.
In 1940 men worked on a lens 200 inches in diameter.
In 1940, all through a sleepless night, Lee Garth watched his racing pencil write factor after factor, watched the equations grow from page to page. Still the pencil raced. He watched it.
He did not think of Leonidas, who had withstood Xerxes, or of Charles Martel, or of Jan Lippershey, or any of the thousands of others who have warped the course of human destiny—Kepler, Newton, Watt, Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus, the little corporal who went down to Saint Helena. He did not even think of Lee Garth. For that night Lee Garth did not matter to himself. Nor ever again.
The dawn came in through the windows of the old house where he worked. Softly, quietly, silently, the night went and the day came. Another tomorrow became today, another dark reality lifted out of the formless void of the future.
George McNeil, Scot production foreman in charge of the cable manufacturing department on United Electric’s vast plant, stared at the order that had come down to him. His face a wrinkled frown, he studied the blue prints.
“Those domned monkeys with their domned slip-sticks,” he grunted, referring to the drafting department, “have made another mistake.”
Specification sheets in hands, he stalked out of his cubby-hole and headed for the office of the production manager.
The production manager examined the specifications. He called the head of the drafting department on the office phone and got a short answer for his trouble.
“The specifications are right,” he said testily to McNeil. “Go ahead and fabricate them.”
“I can build the domned things,” McNeil retorted. “But I’ll sweat in hell if I see any use for them. Solid copper bus-bars twenty-four inches in diameter! We don’t build a generator—and neither does anybody else in the world—that needs such cables to carry the current it produces.”
“They’re just part of a big order that came down from the front office marked ‘Rush’,” the production manager answered. “But they do seem out of reason—” His forehead wrinkled into a frown. He hesitated. “But an order is an order. Build them. What the customer wants with them is his business.”
When McNeil left the office the production manager was still frowning. Twenty-four inch cables—. He scratched his head, as if to stir to life a sluggish idea. Then he got up, walked through the plant, up to the general offices, and the girl in the beautifully finished reception room said Mr. Tompkins would see him in a minute.
“The point I make is this,” the production manager said to Mr. Tompkins, “if anybody is building a generator that requires cables of that size, we had better know about that generator.”
Tompkins didn’t show any emotion. He was a heavy man, not from fat but from muscle. Strength. He had to have strength to hold down his job as general manager. His eyes narrowed slightly and a tiny glow appeared in them.
“A fellow by the name of Garth placed that order,” Tompkins said. “Garth? Garth? Where have I heard that name before? Umph!” He remembered the presence of his subordinate. “Thank you. You may go.”
The production manager went.
Tompkins flicked a switch on his desk. “Call Railton.”
He went on thinking. His eyes narrowed to slits and the glow deepened.
Railton came. “You called me?” he asked. He was a slickie, a front man. College, teck school. Knew all about electricity, and what made the wheels go round. Knew how to talk it. Well dressed, smart.
“Go call on Lee Garth,” Tompkins said. “You will find his address in the files. Ask him if he will accept a ten day extension on the delivery date of certain items of his order. That is your excuse for getting in to see him.”
“Lee Garth? He’s a big shot theoretical physicist,” Railton said. “Worth a mint. Made his money on a bunch of inventions. The papers call him another Einstein, but I personally think they over-rate him. What has he been ordering from us and what am I to find out?”
“Find out why he needs solid copper bus-bars twenty-four inches in diameter, but don’t let him find out that’s what you want to know.”
“What?” Railton recovered his composure. “Yes sir.”
Railton left. When the chief used that tone, he wanted results, and to hell with expense and everything else that stood in the road of what was wanted.
Dawn or dusk? And which roads lead to the future? Or is there no future? Is there only the present and the past, and is the present only the husk of dying life?
Again and yet again and yet again the ancient yellow sun went down the sky, and night, ever growing bolder, came each evening out of the east. Again and yet again the darkness crept around the huge ball that rested on the nearer hill.
The ball did not lift again, did not move, did not stir or struggle. Like a huge stratosphere balloon made out of some strange metal, it rested there, unmoving.
Animals ranged through the night. In the darkness lonely dogs howled for lost masters. There was never an answer to the howling of the dogs.
Scoop Martin’s index fingers moved so rapidly they almost blurred. He only used two fingers on the keyboard. Two were all he needed. The typewriter carriage almost ran over itself getting across the paper. It stopped abruptly and Martin read his lead.
“Secrecy shrouds new scientific development at Valley Park, where Lee Garth, the world’s outstanding physicist, has a large crew at work on the construction of a large steel and concrete—”
Martin swore at himself, ripped the paper out of the typewriter. What a hell of a lead for a story. It didn’t tell anything. Vague, ambiguous.
But where in the hell could he start this story?
He remembered that steam shovel, ripping the earth down to bed rock. Gangs of men, drilling into the rock and driving reinforcing steel into it. Other gangs setting up forms for the concrete that was to come. A concrete tower going up, a huge mixer being blocked into position, lines of trucks dumping gravel and cement.
Floodlights overhead so when night came the work could go on. Twenty-four hour a day schedule. Over the whole job the sense of desperate urgency.
Martin tried to think what that urgency might be. That would be his lead. A darned good one too. But he couldn’t figure it out. All he could say was that out at Valley Park men were tumbling over each other getting done a job of work. They didn’t walk. They ran. If a worker gave out, he stepped back out of place, and a fresh man took over his job while he rested.
It was costing a fortune. That didn’t matter much. Lee Garth had a fortune. He was spending it.
Martin thought of Lee Garth. In getting in he had practically forced himself past an overworked secretary. Once in, he had found Garth in front of a desk covered with papers.
Garth was not a big man, not an impressive-looking man. You had to think twice to realize the reputation he had won for himself. Pale blue eyes and thin black hair. He looked like a dreamer, or a poet. Not very efficient. Or so he looked.
“Mr. Garth, I’m Martin of the Globe. We would like to have a story about you and about the construction work going on out here. What are you building? A new observatory, a laboratory, a workshop, or what?”
Scoop had smiled in his most winning manner. He had a nose for news and a way of getting it.
Garth blinked at him. He seemed to withdraw his mind from a vast distance to meet the problem presented by the newspaper man. He hesitated.
When he spoke, he gave a hint of the man he was. “Sorry, but I am not interested in publicity.”
“Not interested in publicity!” Martin found that hard to believe, even from Lee Garth.
“But why all this construction work? What are you building?”
“There is a need for it. I am not quite certain I know everything about that need, that I really know anything about it, except that it exists.”
“What is this need?” Martin insisted. “You’ve got twice as many men as you can really use. You’re working your crews twenty-four hours a day. What is it you need? What are you doing?”
Fretfully, Garth answered. “I can’t tell you about it. It wouldn’t make sense because it doesn’t exist now. It exists two million years from now.”
Two millions years! What the hell? Garth was cracked, he was bugs, he was off his nut.
Garth punched a button. To that plain secretary he said, “Stella, show Mr. Martin out. And see that no one else without business here gets in. Hire guards.”
“Yes, Mr. Garth.”
There had been a sleek, prosperous-looking chap waiting in the outer office when Martin went out. He had heard the secretary say, “Mr. Garth will see you now, Mr. Railton.”
Two million years. Scoop Martin twisted at his desk, ran another sheet of paper into his typewriter. Two million years. Why, recorded history didn’t run back over five thousand years. That guy Garth was nuts. Or was he? Those scientists talked damned funny at times. What would the earth look like in two million years? A baked, waterless plain, broken by jagged mountains? Dead, deserted, lifeless? Man and all of man’s achievements gone?
This was 1940. If you added two million to that, what would the number be? It would be darned hard to remember that it was 2,001,940.
Two million years. It was a gag, it had to be a gag. Two million years didn’t mean anything, didn’t make sense. Yea, it was a gag. Well, he’d just make it a good one. There was his lead. He’d fix Garth for tossing him out on his ear.
His index fingers raced over the keyboard, his thin face writhed into a wolfish grin.
“Prominent Scientist forecast doom of earth in two million years—” Scoop let his imagination go. It would be a good yarn at that. Might even make the front pages. No, not likely. Hitler was holding down the front pages.
Railton came through the front office at a dead run.
Mr. Tompkins swallowed his annoyance at the sight of the young man leaning against his desk. Mr. Railton was no longer sleek and capable. He was panting and sweating, actually sweating.
“Chief,” he panted, holding his side and gasping for air. “That guy Garth, he’s got—he’s got atomic power.”
It was the first time Railton or anyone else had ever seen Tompkins show surprise.
“What?” he snapped.
“Atomic power,” Railton parroted. “That’s why he needed those bus-bars!”
Tompkins settled back into his chair. His face turned faintly purple. His eyes bored into the disheveled Railton.
“You got a lot of guts,” he rasped, “coming back to me with a cock and bull story like that.”
Railton whitened. Doggedly, he persisted in his story. “I’m telling you just what he told me.”
“All right,” Tompkins said heavily. “Tell me what happened.”
“I went out to see him, and just as you suggested, I asked him if he would accept a ten day extension on the delivery date of part of his order. Chief, as sure as we don’t make delivery as per contract, that fellow will sue us for the last dollar in the treasury. He says he has to have delivery on August 21, without fail. He means it. What the hell he is working on, I don’t know, but that man is in a hurry and he means business.”
“We will make delivery as scheduled unless it is to our interest to do otherwise,” Tompkins interrupted. “Get to the point.”
“In order to pacify him, I told him we would guarantee delivery. Then I went over his whole order with him, to make certain that everything was right. When we got to those bus-bars, I suggested there must have been some mistake.”
“He said, ‘No. No mistake. The specifications are right.'”
“I protested that there wasn’t a generator made that needed bars of that size to carry its load.”
“He said, ‘No, but there is going to be one. Those cables aren’t any too heavy to carry the power of the bursting atom.’ Those are his exact words. ‘The power of the bursting atom.'”
Tompkins leaned back in his chair. Viciously he bit the end off of a cigar.
“Then Garth is crazy, instead of you!” he said.
Railton’s face turned white. “Well—” He made futile noises deep in his throat. “Well, you may be right. Because, well—if Garth has discovered atomic power—it—it doesn’t mean much to him. He isn’t interested in it. He isn’t working on it. He’s working on something else, something bigger, and atomic power is just one of the little things he needs to reach the goal he wants….”
Railton’s voice trailed off. He was a slickie, a smoothie. He knew all about electricity, and the power industry. He knew all about uranium 235, and why it wouldn’t work. He knew what atomic power would do to the power industry. He was wondering if Garth was crazy. Or what was Garth trying to do? What purpose was so vast that atomic power was only incidental to it?
There was silence in the room. The clamor of traffic outside did not penetrate here. The only sound was the soft whisper of a fan pushing cool air through the conditioning apparatus.
Tompkins cleared his throat. “Thank you. You may go.”
“You mean—that’s all?”
“But what do you think?”
Tompkins stirred restlessly. “I don’t know what to think.”
Tompkins sat without moving. Garth, Lee Garth. Atomic power. He didn’t dare take a chance. Too much was at stake. He had to know. He picked up the phone. His secretary got the connection for him.
“Sullivan? This is Tompkins. There’s a fellow out at Valley Park by the name of Lee Garth. I don’t know but I suspect that somewhere in his house you would find blueprints, if you look. If I were you, I would have one of your boys do a little looking. Yes, the financial arrangements will be taken care of to your satisfaction.”
Tompkins hung up the phone. He turned his mind to other matter.
Sullivan ran a detective agency. If you didn’t like your wife, he would make it easy for you to get a divorce. If your employees were demanding a higher wage rate, he could handle that too. Divorces, strikes, anything.
Dawn world or dusk world?
Overhead the sun slanted westward, and the night, black and ominous, came out of the east. The birds sang their songs as the day closed, and the animals that moved in the night awakened, and ranged abroad. And on the hills there was the sound of mournful howling, like the baying of lost and lonely dogs seeking their masters; but not finding them, not ever.
Scoop Martin twisted in his sleep. Or was he asleep? It was hard to know, when you were sleeping. You might be awake. Or you might be dreaming. But how would you know for certain?
He sat up in bed, stared at the window. The moon was shining through the window, casting a thin, ambiguous light into the room.
“Two million years,” he whispered.
Hell, yes, he was asleep, he was having a nightmare. He laid down and rolled over. Suddenly he was wide awake.
The house was dark, Mike Ritter saw. Good. The boss wanted some blueprints, or plans, out of that house. Fifty bucks for them. They must be important if the boss was willing to pay that much for them. Well, his job was to get them.
He slipped through the darkness toward the house. Over to the right, at a distance of about three hundred yards, there was a lot of lights. He stopped to stare. A building of some kind was going up. Trucks were coming up a lane, dumping gravel and cement. Under the lights men were pouring concrete until hell wouldn’t have it.
“What’s the hurry?” Mike wondered.
Well, it wasn’t his affair. His job was to get into that house. He turned. The beam from a flashlight struck him in the face.
“Buddy,” a voice growled at him. “You better get out of here a damned sight faster than you got in.”
Mike blinked. The boss hadn’t said anything about guards. What the hell….
“Get going. And don’t come back. Or is it a poke in the snoot you’ll be wanting now?”
Mike got going. This would require some careful planning.
Tompkins picked up the morning Globe. The war was still going on. Raids on Britain. The blitz was coming. He read the accounts through.
What was this?
“Prominent scientist forecasts doom of earth in two million years. Lee Garth….”
He read the article through. He thought heavily for a few moments. Then he spoke into the box on his desk.
“Get me Sullivan on the phone.”
The bell of an invisible alarm clock was ringing in Lee Garth’s mind. He turned over, tried to go back to sleep. Sleep was such a wonderful sensation, especially when you were so tired. He wanted to sleep forever, and forever. There wasn’t enough time left for him to get rested. Days and yet more days the driving pressure of screaming energy had run through him. It had burned out his muscles, put a flutter in his heart. His whole body screamed for rest. He had to rest. He tried to go back to sleep.
The invisible alarm clock rang again.
Abruptly, Garth rolled over and sat up. Yawning, he flexed his arms. Every nerve ending in his body told him to lie down again, called to him to lie down, begged him. He was going to lie down.
The alarm bell in his mind rang again.
What did it mean, he wondered.
Oh, yes, now he knew. It was August 21.
Today United Electric began making deliveries. The construction work was already finished, the concrete dry, the forms already off.
Suddenly he was wide awake. Suddenly he was out of bed, and dressing frantically.
Jimmie Blake excused himself from dinner. His dad and mother smiled wistfully as he dashed upstairs.
Jimmie whistled as he shaved. Shaving was really not necessary, but he imagined it was, and in consequence it was a ritual not to be neglected. For he was a man now. Next week he was going off to college again. He would be a sophomore this year. No more green caps, no more hazing. The whistle swelled in prideful strength.
He looked out of the bathroom window. The sun, already at the edge of the horizon, flung its rays over the suburb of Valley Park. The grass was dry and the leaves were beginning to change color. It was September, September 8, 1940. Jimmie burst into song. One more week and he would be off to college.
Over there, perhaps half a mile away, he could see the sunlight shining on fresh concrete. Garth’s Folly, they were calling it already. Garth had spent a fortune building a house that would stand to the end of the world. Two million years, that newspaper article had said.
Too bad. Garth had gone off the deep end, of course. Just when he was really becoming distinguished, he had cracked. Why didn’t they have him in an asylum, Jimmie wondered, staring from the window.
Oddly, the landscape shifted. It blurred and twisted, just like it did when you looked through a pane of bad glass. But he wasn’t looking through glass.
The air was tinged with a deep violet color. From somewhere, from nowhere and from everywhere, came a shrill whining note, a screaming frequency that lifted rapidly up the scale. It went quickly out of hearing.
The violet deepened to black and the light was gone. Suddenly knives were tearing at his flesh. His body was racked by a thousand pains.
Jimmie Blake screamed. The scream was choked off into horrible silence.
His father came to the foot of the stairs.
“What’s wrong, son?” he called.
There was no answer.
His father went upstairs. Mystified, perplexed, he began to search.
“Jimmie!” he called. “Jimmie!”
There was no answer.
Jimmie’s mother came up the stairs. Her face was suddenly white. One hand was pressed over her heart.
“What—” she began.
Her husband was standing in their son’s room. She had not known he was so old, so haggard, and so tired looking.
“Jimmie’s gone,” he whispered.
He barely managed to catch her as she fell.
Lee Garth’s face was white, drawn, pinched. Bloodless. His hair was twisted and tangled, there was a stubble on his face.
He lifted blood-clotted eyes from the screen in front of him, the screen that had suddenly gone blank as he flipped a dial set in the control-studded table on which his hands rested.
Deep in the heart of the tower of steel and concrete a lion-roar went into silence.
“God,” Garth whispered. “Dear God.”
His voice was cracked and chipped and lined with pain.
His head slumped forward, rested on the table.
Behind him there was a tiny creak as a door opened. He lifted his head to stare dully at the person who stood there.
“Stella? I thought I told you I didn’t need a secretary any longer, to write yourself a check and go away?”
“Yes, Mr. Garth.”
She came forward holding a tray.
“But I think you need me now more than ever. And so I stayed. I will leave if you order it.”
He stared at her. She wasn’t pretty, or he had never thought she was. But on her face at this moment was something that made her beautiful. Her eyes were filled with a deep glowing.
He remembered the years she had been his secretary, the years of hard work perfectly performed. If they worked until midnight, she had never complained. Summer, winter, spring, and autumn. Why she had never had a vacation! But then Lee Garth had never had a vacation. He didn’t know what the word meant.
He stared at her, at the radiant glowing that was transforming her.
“But—but you must not stay here. You must not. Don’t you understand? This is the end.”
She set the tray in front of him.
“You must eat something. You haven’t had a good meal in weeks. Here is a sandwich and a glass of milk.”
He was vaguely aware of a gnawing in his stomach, a persistent ache.
“Why—thanks—Yes, I am hungry!” He looked at the tray.
The door creaked as she left the room.
He wolfed the food. He turned again to the table in front of him. He pressed buttons.
Under him, in the belly of the squat tower of concrete and steel, a lion began to roar. The roar increased until the whole structure was shaking with the pressure of inconceivable energies seeking release. It became a whirling, roaring, thundering torrent of sound, a screaming pulse of incalculable force.
Madeline Brown went out into the garden. Her mother watched her go. Not much longer, her mother thought, would she have a daughter. The girl was blooming into womanhood. Within a year or two some young fellow would claim her. The boys were already becoming a bother with their phone calls. Madeline Brown’s mother wondered how it would feel to be a grandmother. Lord, she was getting old.
As from a great distance, she heard her daughter call. She rushed into the garden, recognizing the panic in that call.
Madeline was gone. There wasn’t a sign of her anywhere. There was only the night coming down.
The mother’s scream ripped through the gathering darkness.
There was no answer.
A winding river ran through Valley Park, and beside the winding river, in the star-sprinkled September night, John Bruce walked with Jennie West. The browning leaves were beginning to fall. Soon it would be autumn, soon it would be October, and after October, there would not be any Jennie West. There would be Mrs. John Bruce. John hoped that a clerk’s salary would support her, but if it wouldn’t, he’d darned well get another job.
They stopped beside the river wherein the stars up in the sky were reflected, and it was in his mind to kiss her, but she was in a mood for teasing and she slipped away from him into the soft night. Laughing, he started after her.
Suddenly she screamed in fright.
“Jennie! What is it? Where are you?” John Bruce shouted.
She didn’t answer. He started running in the direction from which her scream had come.
He couldn’t find her.
The stars shifted, the trees bent, the earth twisted, heaved, and rolled. His body was cut with a million knives. There was a whistle in the air.
Then there was silence.
Scoop Martin almost jumped out of bed. He could have sworn the telephone was ringing. But it wasn’t. Or was it?
Just another of those nightmares, he decided. He hadn’t been sleeping well for over a month. It was hell not to be able to sleep.
He laid down again.
The telephone lifted him out of bed like a jumping-jack coming out of its box.
“Who is it? Oh, I’m sorry, chief, I didn’t know it was you. What do you want? Working for you, hasn’t a man got any rights at all?—Huh?—I’m sorry. Huh!—Thirty-eight people gone, just like they had walked off the face of the earth? And more reports coming in all the time? All right, all right; I’m on my way to Valley Park right now.”
Outside the police station, the street was jammed by a silent crowd, a tense, straining, shifting mass of people. Scoop fought his way through them.
Inside, the station was alive with reporters, A.P. men, specials, U.P. men, a leg man from every sheet in the city. They were all asking questions. A brawny man, with his uniform coat flung open, was trying to answer them. The phone kept interrupting him. Every time it rang, the room dived into silence.
“Madam, I’m sorry. Yes—yes—We’ll send a detail right away. You look around the neighborhood yourself. Perhaps she has just gone to the drug store. Yes…. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll do the best we can.”
“Another one?” a reporter queried as the phone went back on the hook. The chief of police nodded.
The strained silence was broken by the harsh breathing of frightened men.
“Lord!” a reporter whispered. “That’s seventy-three now. And nobody knows how many may have vanished without being reported!”
The phone rang again. The chief of police grabbed it.
“Hello … Oh … Governor. You’re right we want the guard. We want them as fast as we can get them.”
Martin found a reporter he knew, plugged questions at him.
“They just go out of sight, that’s all,” the reporter told him. “How it happens, why it happens, nobody knows, least of all the police. When the first two reports came in, they thought it was a couple of snatches, but they’ve been scared out of that idea now. There’s no rime or reason to it. Youngsters, nineteen, twenty years old; boys, girls, couples. Somebody hears them scream, but by the time anybody gets there, they’re gone. God knows where they’ve gone or what has happened to them. Jack Lecroy, heir to the biggest fortune in this town, is gone. Two Polish factory workers, brothers, were in their room. Their old man went in to ask them something. They weren’t there. College girls, shirt factory girls. It doesn’t discriminate. Talk about the Pied Piper!—What’s that?”
Outside the building a voice had begun to screech.
“It’s the end of the world. The angel Gabriel is blowing his horn and the goats are being separated from the sheep. I’m ready, Lord, I’m ready. Come and take me—”
The reporter’s face went a shade whiter. “That’s another one gone off his nut. But he may be right, for all I know. Where you going?”
Scoop Martin was shoving his way toward the desk of the chief of police. In his mind a phrase had clicked.
“Chief, I’m Martin, of the Globe. Listen to me…. I know you don’t want to answer any more questions, but I’ve got an idea. About a month ago I interviewed a scientist living here in Valley Park, Lee Garth. Did you read the story I wrote? He prophesied the end of the world. Then he got busy and built himself a castle that a regiment of artillery couldn’t blast down…. Listen, maybe he knows more about this than he told.”
The harassed officer stared at Martin, then grabbed his phone. Eventually he laid the receiver back on its hook.
“Garth doesn’t answer,” he said.
He bit off the end of a cigar. “I’ll send a squad.”
Two brawny young cops forced their way through the massed throng. The crowd caught the news that they were headed out to Garth’s Folly.
They didn’t come back.
Another squad, with orders to make a careful investigation, reported that the car of the first squad had run into a tree beside the drive inside the grounds of Garth’s place, that the two men were missing, and that Garth was not in his house but was probably inside his concrete tower.
“Maybe,” Scoop whispered, as the report came through. “Maybe Garth is doing this. Or maybe—he talked about the end of the world two million years from now—maybe he was lying. Maybe the end of the world is coming right now. Maybe Garth can help us.”
“If there is a chance that Garth is either responsible or can help us,” the chief of police shouted. “By God, I’ll get him out of that place if I have to blast.”
The phone rang again. He grabbed it, listened. “We’ll do all we can,” he said.
He hung up, looked at his own men, at the reporters. “Another one gone.”
His fist came down on the desk.
“I’m going to see Lee Garth. Come on, men.”
He led the way. Scoop piled into the car. Those who couldn’t get into the car, hung on the sides.
They came in sight of the tower of concrete. It was a squat fortress in the starlight. There wasn’t a light in it.
“There it is, men,” the chief of police said. “Drive up to it. We’ll find out if Garth knows anything about this.”
Suddenly, to the occupants of the car, the tower seemed to lean toward them. The trees seemed to shiver in a blast of passing air.
But there was no wind. The air was very quiet.
How could trees dance in a wind when there was no wind?
The ground seemed to writhe. It seemed to twitch.
The car left the drive, plunged forward into a tree. The motor sputtered, coughed indignantly, died. Then the night was silent, except for the deep, bull-throated roar pounding from the tower which Lee Garth had constructed.
There wasn’t a man in the car.
Scoop Martin never wrote his story that night. Nor any night thereafter.
Garth had slumped forward, his head on his arms. He awakened to the touch on his shoulder, turned tired eyes up to the girl who had entered.
“You?” his voice was dull and low. “You still here?”
“Yes, Mr. Garth. Here, I have some breakfast for you.” Her face was pinched and drawn and only her eyes were beautiful.
He gulped at the food. While he ate, she went to a small opening and looked out. She returned to him, and when he had finished eating, she spoke.
“The militia, or perhaps they are national guardsmen, are here. They have surrounded us.”
For a moment, he did not understand. “Oh. So soon? No! You must be mistaken.”
He went quickly to the opening, stared through it. Minutes passed. To the woman who watched him, he seemed to grow older with each passing moment.
He turned. She was still there. He faced her.
“You—you haven’t asked why the militia are here?” It was a question and not a statement.
Her answer left him momentarily at a loss for words.
“You don’t know—what happened last night?”
“No. I do not need to know. I doubt if I could understand. It would make no difference.” She spoke quickly, the words blurring into each other.
There was suddenly hunger in Lee Garth’s eyes, the hunger that grows in lonely men.
The flat smash of an explosion coming from outside jerked him back to the opening. A deep, angry drone sliced through the morning air. Another explosion slapped the earth.
“Bombers! A squadron of planes! The fools! What are they saying about me out there, I wonder? No matter. I did what I had to do. Or tried. There is only one thing left to do.”
There was no anger in his voice. There was only resignation.
“Stella,” he said, “if you ran from the door, I think they would let you escape. They want me instead of you. You could say I had held you prisoner.”
Her voice was level.
“But what about you?”
“I will stay,” Lee Garth answered.
“I really didn’t mean I will stay here,” he amended. “I will go there. I am needed, I think.”
She did not understand. No one else would have understood. But she had no need for understanding. She knew the secret that surpasses understanding.
She shook her head. “If you stay, I stay.”
His eyes met hers.
“There are numerous things,” he whispered, “that I would like to do over, if I had the chance. You understand?”
The smile that lifted out of her eyes was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He choked. There was an obstruction in his throat.
“Yes, Mr. Garth.”
The morning rocked with the explosion of another bomb.
“Quickly!” he gasped. “Stand here beside me. This tower won’t stand a direct hit. There isn’t a second to lose.”
Another explosion! Another! The tower seemed to lean forward—the steel was melting—running away in little streams—
She moved to his side.
He put his arm around her. His free hand moved among the controls on the table.
Below them, in the heart of the tower of concrete and steel, a bull-throated roar started building up, started howling as energies beyond computation were set in motion.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “I think it won’t hurt very long.”
She was still smiling.
Goggling, Tompkins read the description.
“Perhaps as the result of a direct bomb hit, but more likely as the result of the release by Garth himself of some super-powerful explosive that burned but did not explode, the tower vanished in flame. The concrete glowed red, then appeared to run, then quivered for a moment like jelly. There was a blast of furious heat which forced back the attackers. The tower puffed into dust.
“There is now no question but that Garth was responsible for the people who vanished. They stopped disappearing when the tower dissolved. What Garth was attempting no one knows, but he escaped the stern justice that would have been meted out to him by committing suicide.”
“By the great Godfrey!” Tompkins muttered. “That fellow had discovered atomic power. What he was using it for, I don’t know. But he had it. Nothing else could produce a result like that. He had it. And I let it get away! I called Sullivan off, because that story in the paper about Garth predicting the end of the earth made me think he was a cracked fool. But he had atomic power. And I could have had it, if I hadn’t called Sullivan off. He had it. And I let it get away.”
Back and forth across the private office, he paced, muttering.
“He had it. He had atomic power. I could have had it. But I let it get away.”
For an infinitesimal fraction of a second, as inconceivable energies were somehow released, the low hills and the trees growing on the low hills seemed to writhe and twist as if the light rays were being bent by some refracting medium.
Then the translating force collapsed.
Lee Garth fell. Not far, not over a few feet. His legs buckled under him as he landed. He rolled. He stopped rolling. The ground was soft, and to his weary body it was a perfect haven for rest. Earth, soft earth, and rest. His senses reeled. As he lost consciousness, he felt someone tugging at him.
For a long time there was only the consciousness of complete relaxation, rest, surcease from striving. Rest! How he needed it.
But a confused babble of voices kept intruding. And someone was rubbing his head.
As he opened his eyes, he saw that his head was in a woman’s lap. Who was she? And why should she have his head in her lap? He had never had anything to do with women. Oh. Stella. Oh….
“Mr. Garth,” Stella whispered. “You had better stand up, if you can. There is going to be—trouble.”
Oh, yes, trouble. There had always been trouble, but somehow he had not thought to find it here. But he got to his feet slowly.
He found himself in the center of a circle of people. Men and women. Several of the men wore blue, police uniforms. The men in blue had guns. The others had clubs. Some had rocks. Even some of the girls had rocks.
“It’s Garth,” he heard a voice say.
“Yeah, it’s Garth all right,” another voice answered.
“Gentlemen,” Lee Garth said.
“Shut up!” a voice answered.
“What have you done to us, Garth?
“Yeah, that’s what we want to know: what have you done to us, Garth?
“Don’t try to deny it! We know you did it.
“Where are we, Garth?
“You and your experiments!”
Lee Garth ran his eyes around the circle. A small, wolfish-faced chap caught his attention. He recognized the man. Martin. A newspaper man.
“Hello, Martin,” Garth said.
“What the hell have you done to us, Garth?” Martin said, scowling. He was truculent. He was also scared. He had a rock in his hand.
“I—” Garth began.
A man with a club stepped forward. “Whatever you’ve done, I want you to un-do it, see? You brought me here. You damned well better be ready to take me back, see! And be fast about it.”
“But that is impossible,” Garth answered.
“I can’t take you back. I can’t return you. You’re here, and here you will have to stay.”
Anger ran through the group like a hurricane through a forest.
“Damn you, Garth!” a voice growled.
“What do you think we are—guinea pigs?”
“You’re going to take us home, or else!”
“If you think you can move us into this damned country, where there ain’t a house in sight and no sign there ever was one, you’ve got another think coming.”
“Darn you, Garth.”
In all the tumult Garth heard only one voice on his side, a girl’s voice.
“John Bruce,” the girl said. “You give Mr. Garth a chance to explain. He didn’t do this without a reason.”
“Aw, Jennie,” the tall youth beside her answered. “You keep out of this. Garth brought us here without asking us, and he’s darned well going to take us back.”
“But I can’t,” Lee Garth said firmly.
In the silence Stella whispered. “Mr. Garth, we had better run, if we can. They won’t listen, they don’t want to listen. They’re scared, and dangerous.”
The difference between a crowd and a mob is an angry voice expressing the thoughts lurking in the minds of all.
“You can’t return us, eh?” the angry voice said. “Well, we’ll just fix your clock. Come on, boys!”
Lee Garth would have stayed, but Stella pushed him, got him started. He fought his way through the circle of men. Then the two were running.
The mob gave chase.
The crack of a pistol shuddered behind them. A slug tore into a tree near Garth. The gun boomed again. Angry men screamed.
Run, Garth thought. It wouldn’t do much good, but the instinct was to run, to preserve life as long as possible. Run! Through the trees, up the hillside. Men were coming. Run. Was this the right turning? It was. Up the hill, up the nearer hill.
Only he couldn’t run much farther. His heart was beginning to hurt. Didn’t matter. Death came to everything eventually, to Xerxes, to Leonidas, to Charles Martel, to Copernicus, and Galileo. Death was coming to him at the hands of those angry, frightened men, coming quickly, unless he found what he sought, what he knew was here, somewhere.
Where was the thing he sought? He had to find it, quickly. He couldn’t run much farther.
They were at the top of the nearer hill.
Then Garth saw what he was seeking.
A huge sphere. A ball made out of some strange, silvery metal. It rested on top of the nearer hill.
Garth and the girl staggered toward it.
Out from it reached twin fingers of light. The streamers touched Garth, they touched the girl.
“We’re there,” Garth sighed. “We’ve found the place. We’ve won. We’re safe.”
Yelping with the lust to kill, the men came through the woods, came up the hill.
Fingers of light reached out from the sphere. A glowing streamer touched another man. He dropped the rock he was carrying. Another man. He laid down his club.
Something rode the streamers of light. A message. It whispered to the men the light touched. Their cries ran into quick silence. They looked at each other, they looked at Garth and the girl with him. Both were leaning against the sphere. They seemed to be drawing strength from it. They were smiling.
An awed whisper ran through the men who had so recently been a mob.
“What is that thing, that ball?”
“Look at the light coming from it!”
“Say, I think we were wrong about this fellow, Garth.”
“When that light touched me, I changed my mind about him.”
“Let’s go see what this is all about.”
“Come on. Nothing is going to hurt us. I feel it.”
Slowly, they approached. Anger had already left them. Now fear left them. Only awe remained.
Then a voice began to speak.
Here and there upon this earth are fields where men, looking backward, say, “Here history was made. Because of what happened here, a new world came into being.”
There is a pass in Greece, a field in France, a backyard in Holland. There are fields in America too.
There is a field two million years in the future!
Dawn world or dusk world?
The sun went down the western sky. Its rays were flung over the group clustered around the globe, over the listening men, who stared quickly at each other, then away, then stole a glance at Garth, leaning against that globe. Over the frightened, clinging, awed girls, who listened too.
In the air was a voice. It came from the sphere. It went directly to the minds of the listeners, whispered as a thought current in their brains, whispered as a ghost moving among the nerve endings. The voice said:
“Thus the human race reached its goal. There were not many of us left, a few hundred only. We had reached the point where mental activity alone interested us…. Then our last genius invented what we can only describe to you as a perfect brain. It was a substance that would absorb and retain mental impulses. It would absorb and retain our mental impulses. In effect, then, it would become us.
“That substance is housed in the heart of this sphere.
“We built the sphere, set forces in it that made it, to the best of our knowledge, all powerful. We armed it with incredible weapons. We built into it the apparatus to warp space—an adaptation of the drive we once used on our space ships. Then, on the brain substance housed in the heart of this sphere, we impressed the individual consciousness of each living person, and the knowledge that each person had in his own mind, which included all the knowledge that the human race has gained in more than two million years. We blended into one mind the minds of the two hundred humans who remained alive. Housed in a substance that was eternal, sheltered in a sphere that could not be destroyed, it became an almost perfect mind. We thought it was perfect. We discarded our bodies, as outworn tools. Physically, the human race died. Mentally, it would live forever.
“One thing we had never done—flown to the stars. We had reached the planets and had almost forgotten them. But the stars in the sky we had not reached. It was the last great voyage of discovery.
“We set out for the stars. And we reached them!”
The twinkling points of light that Jan Lippershey had shown to be suns lost in the immensity of space!
The voice died into silence, seemed to rest, then whispered again.
“And near Antares a meteor swarm struck us. Inconceivable powers were housed within this sphere. We tried to escape but the swarm was moving almost as fast as light. We tried to blast the meteors into nothingness, and we succeeded in this. But we could not succeed forever. Eventually even the powers of this sphere were near exhaustion. Thousands of pea-size meteors struck us. The force of those collisions cracked the sphere itself. In time we limped back to earth, limped back to a place where we could lie up and lick our wounds.
“We discovered that the wounds would not heal, that the damage was irreparable. Energy was leaking from the sphere, a little by a little. Somehow we had erred in its construction.
“Somehow we had gone down the wrong road, had taken the wrong turning.
“We could not anticipate that this would happen, we could not see what would happen tomorrow. But we knew that our race, and your race, was dying here, that you, back in the mists of time, were moving down a road with death as your destiny.
“The drive that carries a race is not lightly ended.
“But the human race ended in us, in our error.
“It was our mistake. It was our task to correct it, if we could.
“We could not go back through time, but we could force our thoughts back to certain cyclic periods. We could reach only a few periods, most of them too early or too late to meet our needs. Eventually we found a time that was right and a mind that could understand. To that mind we gave instructions, to Lee Garth….”
The voice paused, sought for energy, slowly gathered it, then went on.
“That is why you were brought here—to repopulate a world, to take up where we left off, to correct an error made two million years after your time.
“We have taken the living from the remote past and used them to bridge the chasm of death. Yours to carry on.”
There was silence. Men moved awkwardly, staring at each other, at that sphere, at Lee Garth. The girls, somehow, seemed to understand.
It was Scoop Martin who came out of the crowd, stood apologetically before Lee Garth.
“Mr. Garth, sir, is that right, what we heard?”
Scoop’s wolfish face was a mask of fear, doubt, and hesitation.
Garth swallowed. He nodded.
“But—” the reporter gestured toward the globe. “How can men be in that?”
Garth answered slowly. “A lot can be learned in two million years. It is not impossible. You, the you that really exists, your mind, your consciousness, is a movement of thought within a suitable medium. Evolution provided a chemical medium, a mass of tissue, your brain. That is all you really are, the movement of current within your brain cells…. The men who came two million years after us found a better medium than the brain. Upon that better medium, they impressed their thinking.”
Garth hesitated, and when he spoke, it was not to Martin, but to someone else.
“Is that not right?”
There was a rustle in the air. A voice whispered.
“In essence, that is correct. It was not so simple as that, but you have the underlying thought. In the year that we have yet to live, we will teach you the process. Perhaps you may discover our error. Perhaps you will want to use other methods. We cannot advise on that point. The only thing that matters is that the race must go on to whatever is its ultimate destiny.”
Sighing with the pulse of failing energy, the whisper ceased.
The group stirred again, moving restlessly.
“I’m sorry,” Garth spoke, “that I did not ask your permission to bring you here. But I had no choice. If I had asked for volunteers to repopulate the world of two million years from our time, you would have concluded I was crazy. So I had to bring you here without consulting you.”
They didn’t seem to hear him. They stirred uneasily. All malice was gone out of them. Only unease and trembling wonder were left.
Martin twisted. He spoke.
“We have to rebuild—to repopulate—a world. That’s why we’re here?”
Garth swallowed, fighting the lump in his throat. He nodded.
“It seems hard to understand, sir,” Martin said. “But what can I do to help?”
The lump in Garth’s throat rose so high he could not swallow it.
A bulky figure in uniform came out of the crowd. “What can I do, Mr. Garth, to help?”
There was a confused babble of voice. “What can we do, Mr. Garth, to help?”
In that babble he heard only one voice, that of the girl at his side, asking what she might do.
“You might remember,” he answered, “that—that my name is Lee.”
And when, during the shadow night that followed, the descendents of the dogs the race had left behind them howled on the hills for their lost masters, now there came an answer. Men whistled to them. Slowly, hesitantly, fearfully, but gaining confidence as the whistles of men roused half lost memories, the dogs came down from the hills to their new masters.
Here and there, upon this earth, are fields.