The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 75
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When they returned to the cabin some time later, McAllen was in a pensive mood. He started a pot of coffee in the small kitchen, then quickly cleaned the tackle and put it away. Barney sat at the table, smoking and watching him, but made no attempt at conversation.
McAllen poured the coffee, produced sugar and powdered milk, and settled down opposite Barney. He said abruptly, "Have you had any suspicions about the reason for the secretive mumbo jumbo?"
"Yes," Barney said, "I've had suspicions. But it wasn't until that happened"--he waved his hand at the wall out of which they appeared to have stepped--"that I came to a definite conclusion."
"Eh?" McAllen's eyes narrowed suddenly. "What was the conclusion?"
"That you've invented something that's really a little too good."
"Too good?" said McAllen. "Hm-m-m. Go on."
"It doesn't take much power to operate the thing, does it?"
"Not," said McAllen dryly, "if you're talking about the kind of power one pays for."
"I am. Can the McAllen Tube be extended to any point on Earth?"
"I should think so."
"And you financed the building of this model yourself. Not very expensive. If the secret leaked out, I'd never know who was going to materialize in my home at any time, would I? Or with what intentions."
"That," McAllen nodded, "is about the size of it."
Barney crushed out his cigarette, lit a fresh one, blew out a thin streamer of smoke. "Under the circ.u.mstances," he remarked, "it's unfortunate you can't get the thing shut off again, isn't it?"
McAllen was silent for some seconds. "So you've guessed that, too," he said finally. "What mistake did I make?"
"None that I know of," Barney said. "But you're doing everything you can to keep the world from learning about the McAllen Tube. At the same time you've kept it in operation--which made it just a question of time before somebody else noticed something was going on, as I did. Your plans for the thing appear to have gone wrong."
McAllen was nodding glumly. "They have," he said. "They have, Mr. Chard. Not irreparably wrong, but still--" He paused. "The first time I activated the apparatus," he said, "I directed it only at two points. Both of them within structures which were and are my property. It was fortunate I did so."
"That was this cabin and the place on Mallorca?"
"Yes. The main operational sections of the Tube are concealed about my California home. But certain controls have to be installed at any exit point to make it possible to return. It wouldn't be easy to keep those hidden in any public place.
"It wasn't until I compared the actual performance of the Tube with my theoretical calculations that I discovered there was an unforeseen factor involved. To make it short, I could not--to use your phrasing--shut the Tube off again. But that would certainly involve some extremely disastrous phenomena at three different points of our globe."
"Explosions?" Barney asked.
"Weee-ll," McAllen said judiciously, "implosions might come a little closer to describing the effect. The exact term isn't contained in our vocabulary, and I'd prefer it not to show up there, at least in my lifetime. But you see my dilemma, don't you? If I asked for help, I revealed the existence of the Tube. Once its existence was known, the research that produced it could be duplicated. As you concluded, it isn't really too difficult a device to construct. And even with the present problem solved, the McAllen Tube is just a little too dangerous a thing to be at large in our world today."
"You feel the problem can be solved?"
"Oh, yes." McAllen took off his gla.s.ses and rubbed his eyes. "That part of it's only a matter of time. At first I thought I'd have everything worked out within three or four years. Unfortunately I badly underestimated the expense of some of the required experimentation. That's what's delayed everything."
"I see. I had been wondering," Barney admitted, "why a man with something like this on his mind would be putting in quite so much time fis.h.i.+ng."
McAllen grinned. "Enforced idleness. It's been very irritating really, Mr. Chard. I've been obliged to proceed in the most inexpensive manner possible, and that meant--very slowly."
Barney said, "If it weren't for that question of funds, how long would it take to wind up the operation?"
"A year--perhaps two years." McAllen shrugged. "It's difficult to be too exact, but it certainly wouldn't be longer than two."
"And what would be the financial tab?"
McAllen hesitated. "A million is the bottom figure, I'm afraid. It should run closer to a million and a half."
"Doctor," Barney said, "let me make you a proposition."
McAllen looked at him. "Are you thinking of financing the experiments, Mr. Chard?"
"In return," Barney said, "for a consideration."
"What's that?" McAllen's expression grew wary.
"When you retired," Barney told him, "I dropped a nice piece of money as a consequence. It was the first beating I'd taken, and it hurt. I'd like to pick that money up again. All right. We're agreed it can't be done on the McAllen Tube. The Tube wouldn't help make the world a safer place for Barney Chard. But the Tube isn't any more remarkable than the mind that created it. Now I know a company which could be top of the heap in electronics precision work--one-shot specialties is what they go in for--if it had your mind as technical advisor. I can buy a controlling interest in that company tomorrow, doctor. And you can have the million and a half paid off in not much more time than you expect to take to get your monster back under control and shut down. Three years of your technical a.s.sistance, and we're clear."
McAllen's face reddened slowly. "I've considered hiring out, of course," he said. "Many times. I need the money very badly. But aren't you overlooking something?"
"I went to considerable pains," said McAllen, "to establish myself as a lunatic. It was distasteful, but it seemed necessary to discourage anyone from making too close an investigation of some of my more recent lines of research. If it became known now that I was again in charge of a responsible project--"
Barney shook his head. "No problem, doctor. We'd be drawing on outside talent for help in specific matters--very easy to cover up any leads to you personally. I've handled that general sort of thing before."
McAllen frowned thoughtfully. "I see. But I'd have--There wouldn't be so much work that--"
"No," Barney said. "I guarantee that you'll have all the time you want for your own problem." He smiled. "Considering what you told me, I'd like to hear that one's been solved myself!"
McAllen grinned briefly. "I can imagine. Very well. Ah ... when can you let me have the money, Mr. Chard?"
The sun was setting beyond the little lake as Barney drew the shades over the cabin window again. Dr. McAllen was half inside the built-in closet at the moment, fitting a pair of toggle switches to the concealed return device in there.
"Here we go," he said suddenly.
Three feet from the wall of the room the shadowy suggestion of another wall, and of an open door, became visible.
Barney said dubiously, "We came out of that?"
McAllen looked at him, sad, "The appearance is different on the exit side. But the Tube's open now--Here, I'll show you."
He went up to the apparition of a door, abruptly seemed to melt into it. Barney held his breath, and followed. Again there was no sensory reaction to pa.s.sing through the Tube. As his foot came down on something solid in the shadowiness into which he stepped, the living room in Sweet.w.a.ter Beach sprang into sudden existence about him.
"Seems a little odd from that end, the first time through, doesn't it?" McAllen remarked.
Barney let out his breath.
"If I'd been the one who invented the Tube," he said honestly, "I'd never have had the nerve to try it."
McAllen grinned. "Tell you the truth, I did need a drink or two the first time. But it's dead-safe if you know just what you're doing."
Which was not, Barney felt, too rea.s.suring. He looked back. The door through which they had come was the one by which they had left. But beyond it now lay a section of the entrance hall of the Sweet.w.a.ter Beach house.
"Don't let that fool you," said McAllen, following his gaze. "If you tried to go out into the hall at the moment, you'd find yourself right back in the cabin. Light rays pa.s.sing through the Tube can be shunted off and on." He went over to the door, closed and locked it, dropping the key in his pocket. "I keep it locked. I don't often have visitors, but if I had one while the door was open it could be embarra.s.sing."
"What about the other end?" Barney asked. "The door appeared in the cabin when you turned those switches. What happens now? Suppose someone breaks into the cabin and starts prowling around--is the door still there?"
McAllen shook his head. "Not unless that someone happened to break in within the next half-minute." He considered. "Let's put it this way. The Tube's permanently centered on its two exit points, but the effect ordinarily is dissipated over half a mile of the neighborhood at the other end. For practical purposes there is no useful effect. When I'm going to go through, I bring the exit end down to a focus point ... does that make sense? Very well. It remains focused for around sixty or ninety seconds, depending on how I set it; then it expands again." He nodded at the locked door. "In the cabin, that's disappeared by now. Walk through the s.p.a.ce where it's been, and you'll notice nothing unusual. Clear?"
Barney hesitated. "And if that door were still open here, and somebody attempted to step through after the exit end had expanded--"
"Well," McAllen said, moving over to a wall buzzer and pressing it, "that's what I meant when I said it could be embarra.s.sing. He'd get expanded too--disastrously. Could you use a drink, Mr. Chard? I know I want one."
The drinks, served by Fredericks, were based on a rather rough grade of bourbon, but Barney welcomed them. There was an almost sick fascination in what was a certainty now: he was going to get the Tube. That tremendous device was his for the taking. He was well inside McAllen's guard; only carelessness could arouse the old man's suspicions again, and Barney was not going to be careless. No need to hurry anything. He would play the reserved role he had selected for himself, leave developments up to the fact that McAllen had carried the burden of his secret for twelve years, with no more satisfactory confidant than Fredericks to trust with it. Having told Barney so much, McAllen wanted to tell more. He would have needed very little encouragement to go on talking about it now.
Barney offered no encouragement. Instead, he gave McAllen a cautiously worded reminder that it was not inconceivable they had an audience here, at which McAllen reluctantly subsided. There was, however, one fairly important question Barney still wanted answered today. The nature of the answer would tell him the manner in which McAllen should now be handled.
He waited until he was on his feet and ready to leave before presenting it. McAllen's plump cheeks were flushed from the two highb.a.l.l.s he had put away; in somewhat awkward phrases he had been expressing his grat.i.tude for Barney's generous help, and his relief that because of it the work on the Tube now could be brought to an end.
"Just one thing about that still bothers me a little, doctor," Barney said candidly.
McAllen looked concerned. "What's that, Mr. Chard?"
"Well ... you're in good health, I'd say." Barney smiled. "But suppose something did happen to you before you succeeded in shutting the McAllen Tube down." He inclined his head toward the locked door.
"That thing would still be around waiting for somebody to open it and step through...."
McAllen's expression of concern vanished. He dug a forefinger cheerfully into Barney's ribs. "Young man, you needn't worry. I've been aware of the possibility, of course, and believe me I'm keeping very careful notes and instructions. Safe deposit boxes ... we'll talk about that tomorrow, eh? Somewhere else? Had a man in mind, as a matter of fact, but we can make better arrangements now. You see, it's really so ridiculously easy at this stage."
Barney cleared his throat. "Some other physicist--?"
"Any capable physicist," McAllen said decidedly. "Just a matter, you see of how reliable he is." He winked at Barney. "Talk about that tomorrow too--or one of these days."
Barney stood looking down, with a kind of detached surprise, at a man who had just p.r.o.nounced sentence of death casually on himself, and on an old friend. For the first time in Barney's career, the question of deliberate murder not only entered an operation, but had become in an instant an unavoidable part of it. Frank Elby, ambitious and money-hungry, could take over where McAllen left off. Elby was highly capable, and Elby could be controlled. McAllen could not. He could only be tricked; and, if necessary, killed.
It was necessary, of course. If McAllen lived until he knew how to shut the Tube down safely, he simply would shut it down, destroy the device and his notes on it. A man who had gone to such extreme lengths to safeguard the secret was not going to be talked out of his conviction that the McAllen Tube was a menace to the world. Fredericks, the morose eavesdropper, had to be silenced with his employer to a.s.sure Barney of his undisputed possession of the Tube.
Could he still let the thing go, let McAllen live? He couldn't, Barney decided. He'd dealt himself a hand in a new game, and a big one--a fantastic, staggering game when one considered the possibilities in the Tube. It meant new interest, it meant life for him. It wasn't in his nature to pull out. The part about McAllen was cold necessity. A very ugly necessity, but McAllen--pleasantly burbling something as they walked down the short hall to the front door--already seemed a little unreal, a roly-poly, muttering, fading small ghost.
In the doorway Barney exchanged a few words--he couldn't have repeated them an instant later--with the ghost, became briefly aware of a remarkably firm hand clasp, and started down the cement walk to the street. Evening had come to California at last; a few houses across the street made dim silhouettes against the hills, some of the windows lit. He felt, Barney realized, curiously tired and depressed. A few steps behind him, he heard McAllen quietly closing the door to his home.
The walk, the garden, the street, the houses and hills beyond, vanished in a soundlessly violent explosion of white light around Barney Chard.
His eyes might have been open for several seconds before he became entirely aware of the fact. He was on his back looking up at the low raftered ceiling of a room. The light was artificial, subdued; it gave the impression of nighttime outdoors.
Memory suddenly blazed up. "Tricked!" came the first thought. Outsmarted. Outfoxed. And by--Then that went lost in a brief, intense burst of relief at the realization he was still alive, apparently unhurt. Barney turned sharply over on his side--bed underneath, he discovered--and stared around.
The room was low, wide. Something undefinably odd--He catalogued it quickly. Redwood walls, Navaho rugs on the floor, bookcases, unlit fireplace, chairs, table, desk with a typewriter and reading lamp. Across the room a tall dark grandfather clock with a bright metal disk instead of a clock-face stood against the wall. From it came a soft, low thudding as deliberate as the heart-beat of some big animal. It was the twin of one of the clocks he had seen in McAllen's living room.
The room was McAllen's, of course. Almost luxurious by comparison with his home, but wholly typical of the man. And now Barney became aware of its unusual feature; there were no windows. There was one door, so far to his right he had to twist his head around to see it. It stood half open; beyond it a few feet of a narrow pa.s.sage lay within his range of vision, lighted in the same soft manner as the room. No sound came from there.
Had he been left alone? And what had happened? He wasn't in McAllen's home or in that fis.h.i.+ng shack at the lake. The Tube might have picked him up--somehow--in front of McAllen's house, transported him to the Mallorca place. Or he might be in a locked hideaway McAllen had built beneath the Sweet.w.a.ter Beach house.
Two things were unpleasantly obvious. His investigations hadn't revealed all of McAllen's secrets. And the old man hadn't really been fooled by Barney Chard's smooth approach. Not, at any rate, to the extent of deciding to trust him.
Hot chagrin at the manner in which McAllen had handed the role of dupe back to him flooded Barney for a moment. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. His coat had been hung neatly over the back of a chair a few feet away; his shoes stood next to the bed. Otherwise he was fully clothed. Nothing in the pockets of the coat appeared to have been touched; billfold, cigarette case, lighter, even the gun, were in place; the gun, almost startingly, was still loaded. Barney thrust the revolver thoughtfully into his trousers pocket. His wrist watch seemed to be the only item missing.
He glanced about the room again, then at the half-open door and the stretch of narrow hallway beyond. McAllen must have noticed the gun. The fact that he hadn't bothered to take it away, of at least to unload it, might have been rea.s.suring under different circ.u.mstances. Here, it could have a very disagreeable meaning. Barney went quietly to the door, stood listening a few seconds, became convinced there was no one within hearing range, and moved on down the hall.
In less than two minutes he returned to the room, with the first slow welling of panic inside him. He had found a bathroom, a small kitchen and pantry, a storage room twice as wide and long as the rest of the place combined, crammed with packaged and crated articles, and with an attached freezer. If it was mainly stored food, as Barney thought, and if there was adequate ventilation and independent power, as seemed to be the case, then McAllen had constructed a superbly self-sufficient hideout. A man might live comfortably enough for years without emerging from it.
There was only one thing wrong with the setup from Barney's point of view. The thing he'd been afraid of. Nowhere was there an indication of a window or of an exit door.
The McAllen Tube, of course, might make such ordinary conveniences unnecessary. And if the Tube was the only way in or out, then McAllen incidentally had provided himself with an escape-proof jail for anyone he preferred to keep confined. The place might very well have been built several hundred feet underground. A rather expensive proposition but, aside from that, quite feasible.
Barney felt his breath begin to quicken, and told himself to relax. Wherever he was, he shouldn't be here long. McAllen presently would be getting in contact with him. And then-- His glance touched the desk across the room, and now he noticed his missing wrist watch on it. He went over, picked it up, and discovered that the long white envelope on which the watch had been placed was addressed to him.
For a moment he stared at the envelope. Then, his fingers shaking a little, he tore open the envelope and pulled out the typewritten sheets within.
The letterhead, he saw without surprise, was OLIVER B. MCALLEN.
The letter read: Dear Mr. Chard: An unfortunate series of circ.u.mstances, combined with certain character traits in yourself, make it necessary to inconvenience you in a rather serious manner.
To explain: The information I gave you regarding the McAllen Tube and my own position was not entirely correct. It is not the intractable instrument I presented it as being--it can be "shut off" again quite readily and without any attendant difficulties. Further, the decision to conceal its existence was not reached by myself alone. For years we--that is, Mr. Fredericks, who holds a degree in engineering and was largely responsible for the actual construction of the Tube--and I, have been members of an a.s.sociation of which I cannot tell you too much. But I may say that it acts, among other things, as the present custodian of some of the more dangerous products of human science, and will continue to do so until a more stable period permits their safe release.
To keep developments such as the McAllen Tube out of irresponsible hands is no easy task these days, but a variety of effective devices are employed to that end. In this instance, you happened upon a "rigged" situation, which had been designed to draw action from another man, an intelligent and unscrupulous individual who lately had indicated a disturbing interest in events connected with the semipublic fiasco of my "matter transmitter" some years ago. The chances of another person becoming aware of the temporal incongruities which were being brought to this man's attention were regarded as so remote that they need be given no practical consideration. Nevertheless, the unexpected happened: you became interested. The promptness with which you acted on your chance observations shows a bold and imaginative manner of thinking on which you may be genuinely congratulated.
However, a perhaps less commendable motivation was also indicated. While I appeared to stall on coming to decisions you may have regarded as inevitable, your background was being investigated by the a.s.sociation. The investigation confirmed that you fall within a personality category of which we have the greatest reason to be wary.
Considering the extent of what you had surmised and learned, falsified though the picture was, this presented a serious problem. It was made more acute by the fact that the a.s.sociation is embarking on a "five-year-plan" of some importance. Publicity during this period would be more than ordinarily undesirable. It will therefore be necessary to see to it that you have no opportunity to tell what you know before the plan is concluded. I am sure you can see it would be most unwise to accept your simple word on the matter. Your freedom of movement and of communication must remain drastically restricted until this five-year period is over.
Within the next two weeks, as shown by the clock in your quarters, it will have become impossible for me or for any member of the a.s.sociation to contact you again before the day of your release. I tell you this so that you will not nourish vain hopes of changing the situation in your favor, but will adjust as rapidly as you can to the fact that you must spend the next five years by yourself. What ameliorations of this basic condition appeared possible have been provided.
It is likely that you will already have tried to find a way out of the cabin in which you were left. The manner of doing this will become apparent to you exactly twenty-four hours after I conclude and seal this letter. It seemed best to advise you of some details of your confinement before letting you discover that you have been given as much limited freedom as circ.u.mstances allowed.
Sincerely yours, OLIVER B. MCALLEN.
Barney dropped the letter on the desk, stared down at it, his mouth open. His face had flushed red. "Why, he's crazy!" he said aloud at last. "He's crazier than--" He straightened, looked uneasily about the room again.
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 75
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