The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 55

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"Yes, Dr. Baker," said Sam Atkins.

"If you hear me, wave your hands. I will observe you through the field gla.s.ses."

"The field gla.s.ses won't be necessary."

Both the image before them, and the distant figure on the knoll were seen to wave arms and gyrate simultaneously. For good measure, Sam Atkins turned a cartwheel.

Baker seemed to have partly recovered. "There seems to be a very remarkable effect present here," he said cautiously.



"Dr. Baker," Jim Ellerbee spoke earnestly, "I know you're skeptical. You don't think the crystals do what I say they do. Even though you see it with your own eyes you doubt that it is happening. I will do anything possible to test this device to your satisfaction. Name the test that will dispel your doubts and we will perform it!"

"It's not entirely a question of demonstration, Mr. Ellerbee," said Baker. "There are the theoretical considerations as well. The mathematics you have submitted in support of your claim are not, to put it mildly, sound."

"I know. Sam keeps telling me that. He says we need an entirely new math to handle it. Maybe we'll get around to that. But the important thing is that we've got a working device."

"Your mathematical basis must be sound!" Baker's fervor returned. Fenwick felt a sudden surge of pity for the director.

The demonstration was repeated a dozen times more. Fenwick went over on Sam Atkins' hill. He and Baker conversed privately.

"Do you see it yet?" Fenwick asked.

"No, I'm afraid I don't!" Baker was snappish. "This is one of the most devilish things I've ever come across!"

"You don't think it's working the way Jim and Sam say it is?"

"Of course not. The thing is utterly impossible! I am convinced a hypnotic condition is involved, but I must admit I don't see how."

"You may figure it out when you go through Ellerbee's lab."

Baker was obviously shaken. He spoke in subdued tones as Ellerbee started the tour of the crystal lab again. Baker's eyes took in everything. As the tour progressed he seemed to devour each new item with frenzied intensity. He inspected the crystals through a microscope. He checked the measurements of the thickness of the growing crystal layers.

The rain began while they were in the crystal lab. It beat furiously on the roof of the laboratory building, but Baker seemed scarcely aware that it was taking place. His eyes sought out every minute feature of the building. Fenwick was sure he was finding nothing to confirm his belief that the communicator crystals were a hoax.

Fenwick hadn't realized it before, but he recognized now that it would be a terrific blow to Baker if he couldn't prove the existence of a hoax.

Proof that the communicator crystals were all they were supposed to be would be a direct frontal attack on the sacred Index. It would blast a hole in Baker's conviction that nothing of value could come from the crackpot fringe. And, not least of all, it would require Baker to issue a research grant to Clearwater College.

What else it might do to Baker, Fenwick could only guess, but he felt certain Bill Baker would never be the same man again.

As it grew darker, Baker looked up from the microscope through which he had been peering. He glanced at the windows and the drenched countryside beyond. "It's been raining," he said.

Mary Ellerbee had already antic.i.p.ated that the visitors would be staying the night. She had the spare room ready for Baker and Fenwick before dinner. While they ate in the big farmhouse kitchen, Ellerbee explained. "It would be crazy to try to get down to the highway tonight. The county's been promising us a new road for five years, but you see what we've got. Even the oldest citizen wouldn't tackle it in weather like this, unless it was an emergency. You put up for the night with us. You'll get home just as fast by leaving in the morning, after the storm clears. And it will be a lot more pleasant than spending the night stuck in the mud somewhere--or worse."

Baker seemed to accept the invitation as he ate without comment. To Fenwick he appeared stunned by the events of the day, by his inability to find a hoax in connection with the communicator crystals.

It was only when Baker and Fenwick were alone in the upstairs bedroom that Baker seemed to stir out of his state of shock.

"This is ridiculous, Fenwick!" he said. "I don't know what I'm doing here. I can't possibly stay in this place tonight. I've got people to see this evening, and appointments early in the morning."

"It's coming down like cats and dogs again," said Fenwick. "You saw the road coming in. It's a hog wallow by now. Your chance of getting through would be almost zero."

"It's a chance I have to take," Baker insisted. He started for the door. "You don't have to take it, of course."

"I'm not going to!" said Fenwick.

"But I must!"

Fenwick followed him downstairs, still trying to persuade him of the foolishness of driving back tonight. When Ellerbee heard of it he seemed appalled.

"It's impossible, Dr. Baker! I wouldn't have suggested your not returning if there were any chance of getting through. I a.s.sure you there isn't."

"Nevertheless I must try. Dr. Fenwick will remain, and I will come back tomorrow afternoon to complete our investigation. There are important things I must attend to before then, however."

Fenwick had the sudden feeling that Baker was in a flight of panic. His words had an aimless stream-of-consciousness quality that contrasted sharply with his usually precise speech. Fenwick was certain there was nothing sufficiently important that it demanded his attention on a night like this. He could have telephoned his family and had his wife cancel any appointments.

No, Fenwick thought, there was nothing Baker had to go to; rather, he was running from. He was running in panicky fear from his failure to pin down the hoax in the crystals. He was running, Fenwick thought, from the fear that there might be no hoax.

It seemed incredible that such an experience could trigger so strong a reaction. Yet Fenwick was aware that Baker's att.i.tude toward Ellerbee and his device was not merely one aspect of Baker's character. His att.i.tude in these things was his character.

Fenwick dared not challenge Baker with these thoughts. He knew it would be like probing Baker's flesh with a hot wire. There was nothing at all that he could do to stop Baker's flight.

Ellerbee insisted on loaning him a powerful flashlight and a hand lantern, which Baker ridiculed but accepted. It was only after Baker's tail-light had disappeared in the thick mist that Fenwick remembered he still had the crystal cube in his coat pocket.

"He's bound to get stuck and spend the night on the road," said Ellerbee. "He'll be so upset he'll never come back to finish his investigation."

Fenwick suspected this was true. Baker would seal off every a.s.sociation and reminder of the communicator crystals as if they were some infection that would not heal. "There's no use beating your brains out trying to get the NBSD to pay attention," Fenwick told Ellerbee. "You've got a patent. Figure out some gadgety use and start selling the things. You'll get all the attention you want."

"I wanted to do it in a dignified way," said Ellerbee regretfully.

You, too, Fenwick thought as he moved back up the stairs to the spare bedroom.

Fenwick undressed and got into bed. He tried to read a book he had borrowed from Ellerbee, but it held no interest for him. He kept thinking about Baker. What produced a man like Baker? What made him tick, anyway?

Fenwick had practically abandoned his earlier determination that something had to be done about Baker. There was really nothing that could be done about Baker, Bill Baker in particular--and the host of a.s.sorted Bakers scattered throughout the world in positions of power and importance, in general.

They stretched on and on, back through the pages of history and time. Jim Ellerbee understood the breed. He had quite rightly tagged Baker in addressing him as "Dear Urban." Pope Urban, who persecuted the great Galileo, had certainly been one of them.

It wasn't that Baker was ignorant or stupid. He was neither. Fenwick gave reluctant respect to his intelligence and his education. Baker was quick-witted. His head was stuffed full of accurate scientific information from diversified fields.

But he refused to be jarred loose from his fixed position that scientific breakthroughs could come from any source but the Established Authority. The possibility that the crackpot fringe could produce such a break-through panicked him. It had panicked him. He was fleeing dangerously now through the night, driven by a fear he did not know was in him.

Inflexibility. This seemed to be the characteristic that marked Baker and his kind. Defender of the Fixed Position might well have been his t.i.tle. With all his might and power, Bill Baker defended the Fixed Position he had chosen, the Fixed Position behind the wall of Established Authority.

A blind spot, perhaps? But it seemed more than mere blindness that kept Baker so hotly defending his Fixed Position. It seemed as if, somehow, he was aware of its vulnerability and was determined to fight off any and all attacks, regardless of consequences.

Fenwick didn't know. He felt as if it was less than hopeless, however, to attempt to change Bill Baker. Any change would have to be brought about by Baker himself. And that, at the moment, seemed far less likely than the well-known s...o...b..ll in Hades.

Fenwick knew he must have dozed off to sleep with the light still on in the room and Ellerbee's unread book opened over his chest. He did not know what time it was when he awoke. He was aware only of a suffocating sensation as if some ghostly aura were within the room, filling it, pressing down upon him. A wailing of agony and despair seemed to scratch at his senses although he was certain there was no audible sound. And a depression clutched at his soul as if death itself had suddenly walked unseen through the closed door.

Fenwick sat up, s.h.i.+vering in the sudden coolness of the room, but clammy with sweat over his whole body. He had never experienced such sensations before in his life. His stomach turned to a hard ball under the flow of panic that surged through all his nerves.

He forced himself to sit quietly for a moment, trying to release his fear-tightened muscles. He relaxed the panic in his stomach and looked slowly about the room. He could recall no stimulus in his sleep that had produced such a reaction. He hadn't even been dreaming, as far as he could tell. There was no recollection of any sound or movement within the house or outside.

He was calmer after a moment, but that sensation of death close at hand would not go away. He would have been unable to describe it if asked, but it was there. It filled the atmosphere of the room. It seemed to emanate from-- Fenwick turned his head about. It was almost as if there was some definite source from which the ghastly sensation was pouring over him. The walls--the air of the room-- His eyes caught the crystal on the table by the bed.

He could feel the force of death pouring from it.

His first impulse was to pick up the thing and hurl it as far as he could. Then in saner desperation he leaped from the bed and threw on his clothes. He grabbed the crystal in his hand and ran out through the door and down the stairs.

Jim Ellerbee was already there in the living room. He was seated by the old-fas.h.i.+oned library table, his hand outstretched upon it. In his hand lay the counterpart of the crystal Fenwick carried.

"Ellerbee!" Fenwick cried. "What's going on? What in Heaven's name is coming out of these things?"

"Baker," said Ellerbee. "He smashed up on the road somewhere. He's out there dying."

"Can you be sure? Then don't sit there, man! Let's get on our way!"

Ellerbee shook his head. "He'll be dead before we can get there."

"How do you know he cracked up, anyway? Can you read that out of the crystal?"

Ellerbee nodded. "He kept it in his pocket. It's close enough to him to transmit the frantic messages of his dying mind."

"Then we've got to go! No matter if we get there in time or not."

Ellerbee shook his head again. "Sam is on his way over here. He's in touch with Baker. He says he thinks he can talk Baker back."

"Talk him back? What do you mean by that?"

Ellerbee hesitated. "I'm not sure. In some ways Sam understands a lot more about these things than I do. He can do things with the crystals that I don't understand. If he says he can talk Dr. Baker back, I think maybe he can."

"But we can't depend on that!" Fenwick said frantically. "Can't we get on our way in the car and let Sam do what he thinks he can while we drive? Maybe he can get Baker to hold on until we get him to a doctor."

"You don't understand," said Ellerbee. "Dr. Baker has gone over the edge. He's dying. I know what it's like. I looked into a dying mind once before. There is nothing whatever that a doctor can do after an organism starts dying. It's a definite process. Once started, it's irreversible."

"Then what does Sam--?"

"Sam thinks he knows how to reverse it."

There wasn't much pain. Not as much as he would have supposed. He felt sure there was terrible damage inside. He could feel the warmth of blood welling up inside his throat. But the pain was not there. That was good.

In place of pain, there was a kind of infinite satisfaction and a growing peace. The ultimate magnitude of this peace, which he could sense, was so great that it loomed like some blinding glory.

This was death. The commitment and the decision had been made. But this was better than any alternative. He could not see how there could have been any question about it.

He was lying on his back in the wet clay of a bank below the road. It was raining, softly now, and he rather liked the gentle drop of it on his face. Somewhere below him the hulk of his wrecked car lay on its side. He could smell the unpleasant odor of gasoline. But all of this was less than nothing in importance to him now. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a remnant of memory of what he had been doing this day. He remembered the name of John Fenwick, and the memory brought a faint amus.e.m.e.nt to his b.l.o.o.d.y lips. There had been some differences between him and John Fenwick. Those differences were also less than nothing, now. All differences were wiped out. He gave himself up to the pleasure of being borne along on that great current that seemed to be carrying him swiftly to a quiet place.

After a time, he remembered two other names, also. James Ellerbee and Sam Atkins. He remembered a crystal, and it meant nothing. He remembered that it was in his pocket and that for some time he had felt a warmth from it, that was both pleasant and unpleasant. It was of no importance. He might have reached for it and thrown it farther from him, but his arm on that side was broken.

He was glad that there was nothing--nothing whatever--that had any magnitude of importance. Even his family--they were like fragments of a long-ago dream.

He lay waiting quietly and patiently for the swiftly approaching destination of ultimate peace. He did not know how long it would take, but he knew it could not be long, and even the journey was sweet.

It was while he waited, letting his mind drift, that he became aware of the intruder. In that moment, the pain boiled up in shrieking agony.

He had thought himself alone. He wanted above all else to be alone. But there was someone with him. He wasn't sure how he knew. He could simply feel the unwanted presence. He strained to see in the wet darkness. He listened for muted sounds. There was nothing. Only the presence.

"Go away!" he whispered hoa.r.s.ely. "Go away, and leave me alone--whoever you are."

"No. Let me take you by the hand, William Baker. I have come to show you the way back. I have come to lead you back."

"Leave me alone! Whoever you are, leave me alone!" Baker was conscious of his own voice screaming in the black night. And it was not only terror of the unknown presence that made him scream, but the physical pain of crushed bones and torn flesh was sweeping like a torrent through him.

"Don't be afraid of me. You know me. You remember, we met this afternoon. Sam Atkins. You remember, Dr. Baker?"

"I remember." Baker's voice was a painful gasp. "I remember. Now go away and leave me alone. You can do nothing for me. I don't want you to do anything for me."

Sam Atkins. The crystal. Baker wished he could reach the cursed thing and hurl it away from him. That must be how Atkins was communicating with him. Yes, somehow it was possible. He had found no trick, no gimmick. Somehow, the miserable things worked.

But what did Sam Atkins want? He had broken in on a moment that was as private as a dream. There was nothing he could do. Baker was dying. He knew he was dying. There was no medicine that could heal the battering his body had taken. He had been slipping away into peace and release of pain. He had no desire to have it interrupted.

There was no more evidence of Sam Atkins' presence. It was there--and Baker wished furiously that Atkins would let his death be a private thing--but he was not interfering now.

There was the faint suggestion of other presences, too. Baker thought he could pick them out, Fenwick and Ellerbee. They were all gathered to watch him die through the crystals. It was unkind of them to so intrude--but it didn't really matter very much. He began drifting pleasantly again.

"William Baker." The soft voice of Sam Atkins shattered the peaceable realm once more. "We must do some healing before we start back, Dr. Baker. Give me your hand, and come with me, Dr. Baker, while we touch these tissues and heal their breaks. Stay close to me and the pain will not be more than you can endure."

The night remained dark and there was no sound, but Baker's body arched and twisted in panic as he fought against invisible hands that seemed to touch with fleeting, exploratory pa.s.ses over him.

"I don't want to be healed," he whispered. "There is nothing that can be done. I'm dying. I want to die! Can't you understand that? I want to die! I don't want your help!"

He had said it. And the shock of it jolted even him in the depths of his half-conscious mind. Could a man really want to die?

Yes.

He had forgotten what terror he had left so far behind. He knew only that he wanted to move forever in the direction of the flowing peace.

Like probing fingers, Sam Atkins' mind continued to touch him. It scanned the broken organs of his body, and, in some kind of detached way, Baker felt that he was accompanying Atkins on that journey of exploration, even as Sam had asked.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 55

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