The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 93

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The day pa.s.sed, and the next. He made another search of the bubble's interior with the same results as before. He felt almost sure, then, that there was nothing in the bubble with him. He established a routine of work, pastime and sleep that made the first week pa.s.s fairly comfortably but for the gnawing worry in his mind that something invisible was lurking just outside the windows.

Then one day he accidentally kicked the wall with his metal shoe tip.

It made a sound like that from kicking a tight-stretched section of tin and it seemed to him it gave a little from the impact, as tin would do. He realized for the first time how thin it was--how deadly, dangerously thin.

According to the specifications he had read it was only one-sixteenth of an inch thick. It was as thin as cardboard.

He sat down with pencil and paper and began calculating. The bubble had a surface area of 146,500 square inches and the internal air pressure was fourteen pounds to the square inch. Which meant that the thin metal skin contained a total pressure of 2,051,000 pounds.

Two million pounds.

The bubble in which he sat was a bomb, waiting to explode the instant any section of the thin metal weakened.

It was supposed to be an alloy so extremely strong that it had a high safety factor but he could not believe that any metal so thin could be so strong. It was all right for engineers sitting safely on Earth to speak of high safety factors but his life depended upon the fragile wall not cracking. It made a lot of difference.

The next day he thought he felt the hook to which the exerciser spring was attached crack loose from where it was welded to the wall. He inspected the base of the hook closely and there seemed to be a fine, hairline fracture appearing around it.

He held his ear to it, listening for any sound of a leak. It was not leaking yet but it could commence doing so at any time. He looked out the windows at the illimitable void that was waiting to absorb his pitiful little supply of air and he thought of the days he had hauled and jerked at the springs with all his strength, not realizing the damage he was doing.

There was a sick feeling in his stomach for the rest of the day and he returned again and again to examine the hairline around the hook.

The next day he discovered an even more serious threat: the thin skin of the bubble had been spot-welded to the outside reinforcing girders.

Such welding often created hard, brittle spots that would soon crystallize from continued movement--and there was a slight temperature difference in the bubble between his working and sleeping hours that would daily produce a contraction and expansion of the skin. Especially when he used the little cooking burner.

He quit using the burner for any purpose and began a daily inspection of every square inch of the bubble's walls, marking with white chalk all the welding spots that appeared to be definitely weakened. Each day he found more to mark and soon the little white circles were scattered across the walls wherever he looked.

When he was not working at examining the walls he could feel the windows watching him, like staring eyes. Out of self defense he would have to go to them and stare back at the emptiness.

s.p.a.ce was alien; coldly, deadly, alien. He was a tiny spark of life in a hostile sea of Nothing and there was no one to help him. The Nothing outside was waiting day and night for the most infinitesimal leak or crack in the walls; the Nothing that had been waiting out there since time without beginning and would wait for time without end.

Sometimes he would touch his finger to the wall and think, Death is out there, only one-sixteenth of an inch away. His first fears became a black and terrible conviction: the bubble could not continue to resist the attack for long. It had already lasted longer than it should have. Two million pounds of pressure wanted out and all the sucking Nothing of intergalactic s.p.a.ce wanted in. And only a thin skin of metal, rotten with brittle welding spots, stood between them.

It wanted in--the Nothing wanted in. He knew, then, that Horne and Silverman had not been insane. It wanted in and someday it would get in. When it did it would explode him and jerk out his guts and lungs. Not until that happened, not until the Nothing filled the bubble and enclosed his hideous, turned-inside-out body would it ever be content ...

He had long since quit wearing the magnetized shoes, afraid the vibration of them would weaken the bubble still more. And he began noticing sections where the bubble did not seem to be perfectly concave, as though the rolling mill had pressed the metal too thin in places and it was swelling out like an over-inflated balloon.

He could not remember when he had last attended to the instruments. Nothing was important but the danger that surrounded him. He knew the danger was rapidly increasing because whenever he pressed his ear to the wall he could hear the almost inaudible tickings and vibrations as the bubble's skin contracted or expanded and the Nothing tapped and searched with its empty fingers for a flaw or crack that it could tear into a leak.

But the windows were far the worst, with the Nothing staring in at him day and night. There was no escape from it. He could feel it watching him, malignant and gloating, even when he hid his eyes in his hands.

The time came when he could stand it no longer. The cot had a blanket and he used that together with all his spare clothes to make a tent stretching from the table to the first instrument panel. When he crawled under it he found that the lower half of one window could still see him. He used the clothes he was wearing to finish the job and it was much better then, hiding there in the concealing darkness where the Nothing could not see him.

He did not mind going naked--the temperature regulators in the bubble never let it get too cold.

He had no conception of time from then on. He emerged only when necessary to bring more food into his tent. He could still hear the Nothing tapping and sucking in its ceaseless search for a flaw and he made such emergences as brief as possible, wis.h.i.+ng that he did not have to come out at all. Maybe if he could hide in his tent for a long time and never make a sound it would get tired and go away ...

Sometimes he thought of the cruiser and wished they would come for him but most of the time he thought of the thing that was outside, trying to get in to kill him. When the strain became too great he would draw himself up in the position he had once occupied in his mother's womb and pretend he had never left Earth. It was easier there.

But always, before very long, the bubble would tick or whisper and he would freeze in terror, thinking, This time it's coming in ...

Then one day, suddenly, two men were peering under his tent at him.

One of them said, "My G.o.d--again!" and he wondered what he meant. But they were very nice to him and helped him put on his clothes. Later, in the cruiser, everything was hazy and they kept asking him what he was afraid of.

"What was it--what did you find?"

He tried hard to think so he could explain it. "It was--it was Nothing."

"What were you and Horne and Silverman afraid of--what was it?" the voice demanded insistently.

"I told you," he said. "Nothing."

They stared at him and the haziness cleared a little as he saw they did not understand. He wanted them to believe him because what he told them was so very true.

"It wanted to kill us. Please--can't you believe me? It was waiting outside the bubble to kill us."

But they kept staring and he knew they didn't believe him. They didn't want to believe him ...

Everything turned hazy again and he started to cry. He was glad when the doctor took his hand to lead him away ...

The bubble was carefully inspected, inside and out, and nothing was found. When it was time for Green's replacement to be transferred to it Larkin reported to Captain McDowell.

"Everything is ready, Larkin," McDowell said. "You're the next one. I wish we knew what the danger is." He scowled. "I still think one of my roustabouts from the engine room might give us a sane report six months from now instead of the babblings we'll get from you."

He felt his face flush and he said stiffly, "I suggest, sir, that you not jump to conclusions until that time comes."

The cruiser vanished back into hypers.p.a.ce and he was alone inside the observation bubble, ten thousand light-years beyond the galaxy's outermost sun. He looked out the windows at the gigantic sea of emptiness around him and wondered again what the danger had been that had so terrified the men before him.

Of one thing he was already certain; he would find that nothing was waiting outside the bubble to kill him THE END.



By Charles W. Diffin

There were papers on the desk, a litter of papers scrawled over, in the careless writing of indifferent students, with the symbols of chemistry and long mathematical computations. The man at the desk pushed them aside to rest his lean, lined face on one thin hand. The other arm, ending at the wrist, was on the desk before him.

Students of a great university had long since ceased to speculate about the missing hand. The result of an experiment, they knew--a hand that was a miss of lifeless cells, amputated quickly that the living arm might be saved--but that was some several years ago, ancient history to those who came and went through Professor Eddinger's cla.s.s room.

And now Professor Eddinger was weary--weary and old, he told himself--as he closed his eyes to shut out the sight of the interminable papers and the stubby wrist that had ended forever his experiments and the delicate manipulations which only he could do.

He reached slowly for a buzzing phone, but his eyes brightened at the voice that came to him.

"I've got it--I've got it!" The words were almost incoherent. "This is Avery, Professor--Avery! You must come at once. You will share in it; I owe it all to you ... you will be the first to see ... I am sending a taxi for you--"

Professor Eddinger's tired eyes crinkled to a smile. Enthusiasm like this was rare among his youngsters. But Avery--with the face of a poet, a dreamer's eyes and the mind of a scientist--good boy, Avery!--a long time since he had seen him--had him in his own laboratory for two years....

"What's this all about?" he asked.

"No--no!" said a voice; "I can't tell you--it is too big--greater than the induction motor--greater than the electric light--it is the greatest thing in the world. The taxi should be there now--you must come--"

A knock at the office door where a voice said, "Car for Professor Eddinger," confirmed the excited words.

"I'll come," said the Professor, "right away."

He pondered, as the car whirled him across the city, on what this greatest thing in the world might be. And he hoped with gentle skepticism that the enthusiasm was warranted. A young man opened the car door as they stopped. His face was flushed, Eddinger noted, hair pushed back in disarray, his s.h.i.+rt torn open at the throat.

"Wait here," he told the driver and took the Professor by the arm to hurry him into a dilapidated building.

"Not much of a laboratory," he said, "but we'll have better, you and I; we'll have better--"

The room seemed bare with its meager equipment, but it was neat, as became the best student of Professor Eddinger. Rows of reagent bottles stood on the shelves, but the tables were a litter of misplaced instruments and broken gla.s.sware where trembling hands had fumbled in heedless excitement.

"Glad to see you again, Avery." The gentle voice of Professor Eddinger had lost its tired tone. "It's been two years you've been working, I judge. Now what is this great discovery, boy? What have you found?"

The younger man, in whose face the color came and went, and whose eyes were s.h.i.+ning from dark hollows that marked long days and sleepless nights, still clung to the other's arm.

"It's real," he said; "it's great! It means fortune and fame, and you're in on that, Professor. The old master," he said and clapped a hand affectionately upon a thin shoulder; "I owe it all to you. And now I have--I have learned.... No, you shall see for yourself. Wait--"

He crossed quickly to a table. On it was an apparatus; the eyes of the older man widened as he saw it. It was intricate--a maze of tubing. There was a gla.s.s bulb above--the generator of a cathode ray, obviously--and electro-magnets below and on each side. Beneath was a crude sphere of heavy lead--a retort, it might be--and from this there pa.s.sed two ma.s.sive, insulated cables. The understanding eyes of the Professor followed them, one to a terminal on a great insulating block upon the floor, the other to a similarly protected terminal of carbon some feet above it in the air.

The trembling fingers of the young man made some few adjustments, then he left the instrument to take his place by an electric switch. "Stand back," he warned, and closed the switch.

There was a gentle hissing from within gla.s.s tubes, the faint glow of a blue-green light. And that was all, until--with a crash like the ripping crackle of lightning, a white flame arced between the terminals of the heavy cables. It hissed ceaselessly through the air where now the tang of ozone was apparent. The carbon blocks glowed with a brilliant incandescence when the flame ceased with the motion of a hand where Avery pulled a switch.

The man's voice was quiet now. "You do not know, yet, what you have seen, but there was a tremendous potential there--an amperage I can't measure with my limited facilities." He waved a deprecating hand about the ill-furnished laboratory. "But you have seen--" His voice trembled and failed at the forming of the words.

"--The disintegration of the atom," said Professor Eddinger quietly, "and the release of power unlimited. Did you use thorium?" he inquired.

The other looked at him in amazement. Then: "I should have known you would understand," he said humbly. "And you know what it means"--again his voice rose--"power without end to do the work of the world--great vessels driven a lifetime on a mere ounce of matter--a revolution in transportation--in living...." He paused. "The liberation of mankind," he added, and his voice was reverent. "This will do the work of the world: it will make a new heaven and a new earth! Oh, I have dreamed dreams," he exclaimed, "I have seen visions. And it has been given to me--me!--to liberate man from the curse of Adam ... the sweat of his brow.... I can't realize it even yet. I--I am not worthy...."

He raised his eyes slowly in the silence to gaze in wondering astonishment at the older man. There was no answering light, no exaltation on the lined face. Only sadness in the tired eyes that looked at him and through him as if focused upon something in a dim future--or past.

"Don't you see?" asked the wondering man. "The freedom of men--the liberation of a race. No more poverty, no endless, grinding labor." His young eyes, too, were looking into the future, a future of blinding light. "Culture," he said, "instead of heart-breaking toil, a chance to grow mentally, spiritually; it is another world, a new life--" And again he asked: "Surely, you see?"

"I see," said the other; "I see--plainly."

"The new world," said Avery. "It--it dazzles me; it rings like music in my ears."

"I see no new world," was the slow response.

The young face was plainly perplexed. "Don't you believe?" he stammered. "After you have seen ... I thought you would have the vision, would help me emanc.i.p.ate the world, save it--" His voice failed.

"Men have a way of crucifying their saviors," said the tired voice.

The inventor was suddenly indignant. "You are blind," he said harshly; "it is too big for you. And I would have had you stand beside me in the great work.... I shall announce it alone.... There will be laboratories--enormous!--and factories. My invention will be perfected, simplified, compressed. A generator will be made--thousands of horsepower to do the work of a city, free thousands of men--made so small you can hold it in one hand."

The sensitive face was proudly alight, proud and a trifle arrogant. The exaltation of his coming power was strong upon him.

"Yes," said Professor Eddinger, "in one hand." And he raised his right arm that he might see where the end of a sleeve was empty.

"I am sorry," said the inventor abruptly; "I didn't mean ... but you will excuse me now; there is so much to be done--" But the thin figure of Professor Eddinger had crossed to the far table to examine the apparatus there.

"Crude," he said beneath his breath, "crude--but efficient!"

In the silence a rat had appeared in the distant corner. The Professor nodded as he saw it. The animal stopped as the man's eyes came upon it; then sat squirrellike on one of the shelves as it ate a crumb of food. Some morsel from a hurried lunch of Avery's, the Professor reflected--poor Avery! Yes, there was much to be done.

He spoke as much to himself as to the man who was now beside him. "It enters here," he said and peered downward toward the lead bulb. He placed a finger on the side of the metal. "About here, I should think.... Have you a drill? And a bit of quartz?"

The inventor's eyes were puzzled, but the a.s.surance of his old instructor claimed obedience. He produced a small drill and a fragment like broken gla.s.s. And he started visibly as the one hand worked awkwardly to make a small hole in the side of the lead. But he withdrew his own restraining hand, and he watched in mystified silence while the quartz was fitted to make a tiny window and the thin figure stooped to sight as if aiming the opening toward a far corner where a brown rat sat upright in earnest munching of a dry crust.

The Professor drew Avery with him as he retreated noiselessly from the instrument. "Will you close the switch," he whispered.

The young man hesitated, bewildered, at this unexpected demonstration, and the Professor himself reached with his one hand for the black lever. Again the arc crashed into life, to hold for a brief instant until Professor Eddinger opened the switch.

"Well," demanded Avery, "what's all the show? Do you think you are teaching me anything--about my own instrument?" There was hurt pride and jealous resentment in his voice.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 93

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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 93 summary

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