Fantastic Universe/Volume 08/Number 3/The Second Sphere
by . . . Eric North
- They didn't know how much they'd need someone who could tune in with the infinite itself. . . .
Professor Hilde Graut, Director of Observatory—Earth Space Platform Seven, sat at his desk in the Research Cupola, observing with a whimsical expression the interested faces of the three men opposite him across the high polish of the atomized granite top. The room was shaped something like the three-quarters part of an eggshell, the lower circumference supported on short fluted pillars of green synthetic jade. The rounded arc of the continuous wall was completely bare, save for a large oblong cosmar screen set in part relief immediately in front of the desk. To one side of the screen, was the thin metal arm of the pantagraph that plotted a continuous graph of the activities passing over the glowing inter-stellar background, on an adjacent inwinding belt of white parchment. The belt was automatically fed into a slot in the wall immediately below a red desk marked; Visual Records—I.S.O.7.
"What is gravity?" Graut repeated. "Is it terra pull or cosmic push? Actually, we don't know. As with the electric fluid, we know the effects, but of the thing itself we know nothing."
Graut was thin and spare. He had a high nose and deeply recessed eyes under ragged white brows. A clever face, seamed with the tiny ruts of a half century of scientific thinking, yet retaining its lines of human philosophy. There was humor in the twist of his taut lips, and a gleam of irony in the caverned blue eyes. One might very well say, meeting his direct look for the first time; that here was a man who had resolved in his own understanding, and in perfect personal conformity, the alleged differences between religion and science. He raised a hand now to tug gently the neat little bunch of white hair on his chin.
He said, answering the silence: "So many things we do not know. Truth is not alone at the bottom of the well. She has knowledge for company. Eh, Walstab? What has the metaphysician to say?" Doctor Walstab—short and thickset, with the eyes and brow of the born dreamer—said bluntly, "It is not my province. I will, however, go so far as to say that everything so far goes to show that the mental and physical worlds are complementary. Gravity plays a part even in the supernatural, that unknown essence at the back of the mind which we speak of as the arcana, or secret place."
"Conscience?" the man on his left queried. He was young and spruce, and spoke in a clipped but friendly voice. He wore the etheric-silver uniform of Ace Commander attached to the Flash Squadron of the Terra Cosmarctic Exploration Division, and bore the gold-lettered insignia C.E.D. on his right cuff.
"If you like, Peters. I was thinking of it under the text-book name of Impulse of the Psyche—that flow-in behind the conscious which impinges from outside the normally understood."
"I don't get you."
Professor Graut put in gently: "What Walstab means, I think—and I agree with him—is that there is a larger consciousness which can only be comprehended in the life to come, but which in moments of stress in human affairs does occasionally attempt to influence personal decisions."
The Commander laughed.
"I'm afraid. Professor, I have no belief in human survival. Religion! Heaven and hell, and all the rest of it! You'd think, if there were any real clues we'd have found at least one of them by this time, now that we're free to explore Space. Life everywhere . . . Life, even though it's in quite different forms to ourselves, oh, yes; in cases, intelligent, highly intelligent life forms, but still in the same old three-dimensional pattern. It seems like the mould on a cheese, merely a phase of cosmic evolution. And when that phase is left behind in the evolutionary race, life will go with it into the discard."
"A bleak philosophy," Graut said.
Dr. Walstab corrected: "A quite erroneous philosophy."
"Short of proof, either way," Peters smiled, "a matter of opinion."
He turned to the fourth man. "Jaguers, you were with me in that crash on the dark star belt last fall. We came out by a miracle. As a Class A. Spectrology Expert—in fact, so good that Professor Graut had you seconded to operate the screenings here on E.S.P." Seven—did you, in those moments of expected dissolution, touch anything—anything at all—outside the envelope of normal existence?"
"Can't I say I did, sir," Jaguers said. His round but keen face wore a slight bewilderment. "All I did was to wonder how long my pressurizer would hold out, and what they'd be having for supper in the mess I'd be missing that night."
"Well, there you are," The Ace Commander said triumphantly.
"One man's reactions," Graut said.
Dr. Walstab was frowning.
"You know, Graut, it's rather peculiar. I never noticed it before. E.S.P. Seven."
The Ace Commander stared at him.
"What's wrong with it?"
Graut, aware of the doctor's sudden concentration, spoke for him. "Nothing at all. As a matter of fact, I noticed it for myself as soon as you spoke. E.S.P. . . . Earth Space Platform. But the initials also stand for Extra Sensory Perception, Dr. Walstab's particular study."
"Coincidence, of course."
"Doubtless," Dr. Walstab said, coming out of his abstraction. "It touched a trigger in my mind somewhere, all the same. Well, no matter."
Professor Graut said evenly: "On the contrary. You're new here, Walstab, and I know you've been wondering just how you fit in a practical setup like Platform Seven. I'm not sure myself, but for a long time I've been considering the chances of a mental link-up with the work here. Screen searching, space exploration . . . we need something to go with them, something that might be able to tune in with the Infinite itself. I express myself awkwardly, since I'm Still groping. But I think you know what I'd be at. So I got you along . . ."
"I see," Walstab said thoughtfully. "You think E.S.P.—my E.S.P. can touch more deeply than even the cosmic rays?"
"Because, impinging from without our cosmic pattern, instead of from within, as I have said, they are not subject to three dimensional restrictions. Exactly. I'm afraid you don't look very sympathetic, Jaguers?"
"Not in my line of country, sir. I believe in things I can see, hear and touch. Results . . . I mean, of course, proved results. I don't see how it's possible to prove telepathy."
"Can you define that?" Graut challenged.
"Not yet. We're still waiting for the real break through. But you could say that telepathy rests on brain frequencies while E.S.P. is concerned with soul frequencies. The one is rooted in the physical, the other is of the very essence of the psyche itself.
"Too subtle for me."
"Well, gentlemen," Professor Graut broke in, "interesting as all this is, we must get down to business. As you know, this conference is called to discuss the progress of the expedition Exploration Jupiter, now in the vicinity of the small satellite Jupiter VIII."
He touched a thin hand lightly over the air to his right, breaking required ray contacts. Several things followed in sequence. The Time Robot announced smoothly. "At the third stroke it will be 5.45 Greenwich Mean Time, and 18 arcs of Solar Space Time. Cosmic Compass shows the pericope of Earth's swing to be 5 degrees variable, west of Saturn line." As the voice died, a section of the wall opened smoothly to extend a gleaming white-metal-arm which deposited a number of files on the desk at Grant's elbow, withdrawing itself immediately into the recess, which closed with a subdued click. Simultaneously, the Sound Gatherer of the Cosmar Screen came into action, and the room was filled with the myriad murmurings of space acoustics.
As Graut unfolded a map of Jupiter Quadrant, Ace Peters made a face and said; "Jupiter VIII. Wasn't that the sector the Vibrant cruised for hours, but we couldn't find him?"
"Wasn't there something else?" The Ace frowned. "Something pretty queer . . ."
The Spectrology Expert gulped. "Yes, sir. I don't know though if I can explain it. Something about it . . . not so nice. We were holding him all the time right in the spot of the ether ramp . . . the new Z type, that's fitted with the telescopic lens. So it brought the whole thing right up close. Chris began to go at the feet . . . I mean that part of him just went out like a light. The rest of his body followed, until there was only his head left. Then that went too. Nothing."
"Just a blank, sir."
"Disintegrated, you mean?"
Jaguers shook his head.
"No. I've seen a man disintegrate. He fell to bits, as you might say, all in one piece. But with Chris it was a piece at a time. We were nowhere near the gravity tug- line, either, so it wasn't that."
"I'm only learning on your side of the fence," Dr. Walstab said. "When you say gravity tug-line, Jaguers . . ."
The Ace Commander interrupted. "We don't know much about it. In theory, it's the dividing line between solar pull and galactic pull. If you don't take it at the right speed and inclination, you're for it. I've seen a ship pulled in half that way. Torn across like a piece of paper by the opposing gravities. You can imagine what it would do to flesh and blood."
"In a sense," Jaguers added, "it's like cracking the sound barrier . . . with the air pushed ahead into a solid wall. Until we learnt how to do it."
Professor Graut's voice broke the speculative silence.
"You've got that gadget of yours with you, Walstab?"
"Yes. It's had a local testing, as you know. I can't claim anything for it really, until there's a chance for long range."
Dr. Walstab drew from a plastic case a circular object about the size of a small dinner plate, and placed it gently on the granite desk. Its depth of some four inches appeared to be made up of an intricate pattern of spirals, laced with small silver-shining bulbs. From a slightly raised boss at its center a number of filaments radiated like the main cables of a spider-web, each, terminating in a tiny red sucker-disc.
"Perhaps you had better explain to the others," Grant smiled. "In broad terms only, of course. I might say, gentlemen, that this invention of Dr. Walstab's, which he called an I.G.—short for Ideagraphometer—is likely to be of the greatest assistance in maintaining our contacts in outer space, if it functions as the doctor hopes. Over to you, Walstab."
"Putting it briefly then," Walstab told them, "I.G. is a machine for picking up mind pictures. It is compounded—I am speaking quite roughly—of ores ranging from uranium, kasolite, curite, and so on, to the black Australian davidite. All ores give out rays. If you like, wavelengths. By compounding certain such rays, after some years of careful experiment, I have—I hope and believe—found a wavelength that is not, frankly speaking, of tiie physical and three-dimensional, but enters into the economy of the mind itself. Possibly, even of the soul. It remains to be proved."
"You plug it in?" the Ace Commander said, in an unbelieving voice. "Or has the thing a battery inside it?"
"Neither the one nor the other. I've already explained that I.G. is—to put it simply—other dimensional. It is a matter, Ace, of vibrations, operating on their own inherent source of power. Dr. Walstab looked around him with suddenly dreaming eyes. "The creative power, gentlemen."
Again fell a little silence, broken only by the sibilant orchestration coming from the cosmar screen. It seemed to Professor Graut that a new and strange note had joined them—a note uncomfortably suggestive of urgency, even disaster, in some cosmic pocket of space, and he frowned and stared at the pulsing visual background.
The Spectrology Expert had also noticed the subtle addition and he rose quietly and began a rapid test of the control board. He switched from micro-sfellar wave to solarwave, and the hissing died, and the screen cleared to a transparent blue, on which showed a formation of speeding red dots. Ordinary static crackled, as he tuned the solar band; but immediately he returned to the micro-stellar wave, the screen was obscured by its earlier glowing confusion, and the myriad tongues of the galaxies flooded in. The new note persisted. It seemed, if anything, to have gained in isolating itself from the surrounding medley of star chord and discord.
"I can't find anything wrong with it," Jaguers said, in response to Professor Grant's raised eyebrows. "Definitely, I'd say, sir, the interference is not a mechanical fault. Just a minute, though . . ."
He touched the Odor Switch, and the air of the cupola was faintly impregnated with the indefinable scents of the Universe—the perfume of incredibly distant Elysian Fields; the sharp, acrid flavours of laboring creative tissues; the reek of cosmic chemicals, and the warmth and balminess of life budding under far-off suns. They were familiar with such cosmic blendings—on the whole, pleasant and exciting. But every man now recognized a slight and sinister taint.
Jaguers shrugged and turned the switch off.
He said, as he took his place at the granite desk: "It's not in the machine, whatever it is, sir. All the same. I'll make a check-up later. That new smell . . ."
"Stink," the Ace Commander said. "Maybe a dead planet some place."
Professor Graut said soberly: "I don't like it. Jaguers, make the check as soon as you can. No, leave the screen alive. That new sound may link with the odor. Well, now . . . time's getting on. First, I'd like to run over the position of D.S.S. Challenge Queen, now cruising off Jupiter VIII. Follow me on the chart here . . .
"Right. Jupiter VIII, I don't need to remind you, is the eighth satellite of the Planet Jupiter. Now, the peculiar thing about this satellite—the problem with which the Challenge Queen expedition is in fact, primarily concerned—is that whereas the seven inner satellites revolve around the parent planet in the same direction as it rotates on its axis, the eighth—Jupiter VIII—has a retrograde motion; it goes round the other way. Its average distance from Jupiter—I'm sorry to inflict this elemental stuff on you, gentlemen, but it is necessary we should bold all our data clearly in mind—is some fourteen and a half million miles, and it revolves in a little over two years. Jupiter VIII was, of course, discovered by Melotte in 1908."
Dr. Walstab was only half listening. This was, as he had bluntly reminded Professor Graut, a practical aspect of Terra Research which belonged solely to practical men. His absorbing interest—you could almost call it an obsession—lay with the abstract. In his classes at Solar University, before he had been specially applied for by Research, E.S.P. Seven, this unyielding attitude has earned him the class soubriquet of "Old Mind Stuff Walstab". He did not resent it. Rather, he took pride in rooting intelligent life in the soil of the mental, as opposed to the material, plane. One of his favorite illustrations was the irrefutable fact that before a thing could make its appearance on the physical plane, it had first to come into existence on the mental plane. All creation had its origins in preceding thought. Practical accomplishment could only have origin in the foetus of Mind.
So, now, he gave his attention more and more to the singular note intermingling with the familiar tension of the cosmar screen. It came in ever increasing systole and dyastoje; now and then, the whole fading to a mere murmur, but finding every minute a renewed vigor, and—Dr. Walstab recognized in astonishment—something very like purpose. There were, indeed, moments when he thought to recognize the pattern of the human voice. Utterly impossible, of course; yet he felt a crawling sensation at his spine. The visual turmoil was, he told himself, also gaining momentum. The glowing background was perceptibly darker. There was a ragged core of shadow at its center.
He dragged his mind back to reality.
"The problem immediately confronting the crew of D.S.S. Challenge Queen," Professor Graut was saying, "is to proceed by stages from Jupiter VIII, via Jupiter VII, Jupiter VI. Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io, to Jupiter V.—which finds them a mere 112,600 miles from the planet itself. Ace Vice-Marshall Benhurion, in command, has full instructions. He will, if possible, reach Jupiter V. and there establish a base. The region of the seven inner satellites being as yet quite unknown to us—I remind you that the video screens can be misleading as to practical details, very often—we are not hopeful that he will, in fact, get further in than, say, Callisto. Until we receive his next report, due midnight, Earth time, we cannot really assess the chances. Meantime, our present purpose is to plot in preparation for any and every eventuality."
"Where is Challenge Queen now, sir?" Ace Peters asked.
"Approximately in the same sector as Vibrant was, two years ago. You laid the base on Jupiter VIII, then, Jaguers."
"Yes, sir. That was after Chris was . . . was lost"
Dr. Walstab, deciding he ought to show more interest in the conversation, muttered: "But you're guessing a lot, aren't you?"
"How come, guessing?" the Ace Commander said, a little offendedly. Galactic navigation was rather a pet of his. "I say, there's a lot of noise coming off the cosmar, isn't there? Do we need it to function here? If anything turns up, there's the Watch Shift in the Laboratory Block?"
Without quite knowing why he said it, Jageurs explained: "They've no Odour Switch, sir."
"What's that got to do with it?"
The Spectrology Expert was confused.
"Sorry, Ace. It just flashed into my mind."
The Ace Commander repeated his question.
"Where's the guessing, doctor? You and Jaguers here seem to be a pair."
Dr. Walstab said calmly: "You know very well, Peters, we're still muddled over the Cosmic Cardinal points. Where is your northernmost in Space?"
"Got you there, Ace," Professor Graut smiled. "Still, we're approximately very nearly, Walstab, on the whole. We . . ."
His voice was lost in a sudden enormous upsurge from the Cosmar Screen. Cutting it like a knife came a single cry that instantly fell back, as it were, into a crevasse of Time and Space of such unendurable depths as to chill their very imagination. There are experiences so delicately balanced on the line dividing the physical and mental worlds, that there is no distinguishing between the reality and the dream. This nightmare impact hurled them to their feet in a clammy horror.
Not yet, however, the full of the Incredible. The cry, high-pitched by its emotional charge, had found its vibrational color complement in a stab of blinding white light; but now, as it faltered, the immeasurably lower vibrations of the threedimensional drew it into a pattern of recognizable human speech.
"Terra! . . . Terra! . . . Can you hear me. Terra? Can you hear me?"
The ragged patch that Dr. Walstab had seen at the center of the visual, had returned. It opened mo-_ mentarily to picture a distorted face, that formed and re-formed as in the focussing lense of a camera, and then spread like a fluid, to vanish thinly.
"My God!" Jaguers yelled. "It's Chris Sommers! . . . Chris, we can hear you. Where are you? . . . Chris!"
The fury on the Cosmar Screen threw up a kind of visual blister, as if to the thrust of some monstrous impulse. It struggled and broke into blurred outlines, and was gone. Down the funnel of the asons, the cry wailed, swelling and fading by turns.
"Terra! . . . Can you hear me, Terra?"
"Chris!" Panting, the Spectrology Expert manipulated the Sound Thrower Switch. "Chris! Come in. Chris. It's Ben here . . . Ben Jaguers."
At his back, the Ace Commander stammered: "This is madness. Chris Sommers is dead . . ."
"Chris! Chris!" Jaguers called, in a kind of frenzy.
"Easy," Professor Graut croaked. He touched Ace Peters with his tenuous fingers. "Easy, Ace. If this thing is true . . . Let Jaguers handle things. Those two were bosom friends. They're in tune . . . don't you see?"
"Chris! It's Ben here . . . Ah!"
"Yes, yes. We can hear you Chris. Where are you?"
"I . . . don't know. Ben, for God's sake . . ."
"Some place, Chris. You must be some place."
"Good old Ben . . . Not . . . any place . . . we knew. A sphere, they call it. The Second Sphere . . ."
"I don't think so, no. Ben, can you hear me?"
"Yes. Go on. Only tell us where, Chris. We'll have you out of it. Tell us where? WHERE?"
"I can't." Sommers' voice faded out. It came back on a desperate note. "Are you there, Ben?"
"Yes. Never mind what happened to you. Where ARE you?"
"Some . . . of laboratory . . . I got away from them . . . Look, I'm using one of their . . . No, it's no good . . . Can't get enough power . . . my voice."
"Chris! Keep going, old boy."
Suddenly, a white-lipped Dr. Walstab was at Jaguers' side. They saw now that he had unwound the filaments from his Ideagraphometer, holding them bunched dn his hand. He motioned them to take their seats at the granite desk.
He said, "Quickly. See these red suckers at the ends? Clamp them on the medulla oblongata . . . base of the skull. Here, let me show you, Ace. That's right . . . Jaguers, tell him . . . tell Chris, to quit trying to make himself heard. Tell him to relax and just think. Tell him to let his mind go back and to concentrate on a mental picture of what happened. Tell him we'll be following that picture in qur own minds. Got it?"
He turned shining eyes on Professor Graut.
"The acid test, Graut. God grant it works . . . Keep your minds blank. Don't think. It will be Sommers' mind, not yours . . ."
They heard Jaguers final words, ere he joined them.
"All right, Chris . . . Do just that. I'll call you again . . . wherever you are, whatever it is, we'll get you out. See? Hang to that . . ."
He was in the Space Lock of the Vibrant. A part of the gear above seemed to have jammed, and the chief, Ace Torquil, who never took any risk, had sent him down to track the fault. In that tightly boxed compartment, purposely without its own lighting—since any real light intensity tended to injure the effectiveness of the etheric vacuum—it was difficult to see, and he could only go over the tightly packed becquerelite cables piecemeal, an inch at a time, with the aid of his solar pencil flash. It was a full hour before he came on the small unraveled strand responsible for the missing circuit. He worked in a new wire, called up the tube for a testing, and stepped down on the floor of the lock.
Exactly what happened, he did not know. A loose spring on the Space Shute possibly, he later decided. At any rate, a foot skidded and the next moment he was down the shute and clear of the ship. He had enough presence of mind to draw down the visor of his helmet, before the valves admitted the radio-active poisons. The chemicals stored in the container of his space suit began at once to feed the oxygen tubes. In that immense void of outer space he was not conscious of any motion, but he could see Vibrant slowly lifting, although she herself was more or less anchored by her vanes. She was hovering for the immediate purpose of tabulating the depth of the layer of aerial ocean off the shores of Jupiter VIII; and charting any dark stars in the Vicinity, to pass on to the Cartography Section.
His first thought was that unless someone on the ship saw him in time to send out a rescue minnow, he had no chance of survival at all. For gravity he was dependent upon his own mass, which was just enough above zero to hold his body together for some fifteen minutes, before it inevitably began to disintegrate. Moreover, his suit was leaded only sufficiently to withstand lethal cosmic radiation for an equivalent time. Vibrant herself, and the three minnows she carried, were protected by a fifty-feet-thick envelope of vaporized lead, held by powerful magnets; but it had not been found possible to make use of this sheathing in the space suits. He had, therefore, only a few minutes to live.
He was some fifty feet below the ship, when he felt something brush his drawn-up knees. Startled, he looked down, but could see nothing. The feeling persisted, and he twisted on his face and reached out his hands. His whole body seemed to settle on an invisible bulk, that gave back a barely recognizable sensation of sponginess. Almost immediately, he had an impression of being touched here and there, as if being explored by fingers as hesitant and mystified as his own. Vibrant was still overhead and the gap had widened, and even in his stress of mind it struck him as odd that their relative vertical positions were unchanged; when, by his reckoning of the ether tides, he should have been drifting to approximate cosmic west.
A sudden stab of pain in his right foot, made him gasp. His pulses began to hammer and there came an extraordinary feeling of unsubstantiality in his blood. It rose like a tide along his veins, and his nerve ends pricked and jerked. The bulk beneath him became more real. His fingers met with increasingly greater resistance as he fumbled about him. Looking toward his feet, he was seized with horror. He still had the feel of them, but he could not see them. As he stared, the incredible annulment of his visible being flowed over his knees and along his thighs. His down-flung hands met only space, until they were bruised on the steadily manifesting hard surface supporting him. He felt himself being slowly dismembered, dissolved, in a whirlpool of new screaming cells and fibres. The pit of his stomach seemed to float into his head. Before he lapsed into unconsciousness, he was aware of noise and confusion, and strange odors, and hands that were like talons taking hold of him and lifting him . . .
"Fight it! Fight it!" Dr. Walstab said hoarsely. "We must keep our own consciousness, whatever happens. Sit quiet. Sommers will come out of it . . . At the moment, the whole thing is being re-enacted . . . I don't doubt he's working with some sort of mind machine there . . . wherever it is, whatever it is. Easy, now. This faintness will pass."
Jaguers wiped the sweat from his face. He said nothing, but his eyes were tormented.
"A thing like that . . ." the Ace Commander was muttering. "Chris Sommers has been dead for two years . . . two years."
"Obviously not dead," Dr. Walstab said sharply.
"Then . . . where is he?"
Jaguers turned on him.
"You heard, didn't you? He's . . . some place. Professor Graut . . . sir, isn't there anything we can do? Anything at all?"
"One thing, perhaps—yes," Graut said, rousing himself from his stupor. He did something with his right hand, and a tiny bell rang, and a man's voice said clearly: "Cartography."
"Sidbee? Graut. First, on no account am I to be disturbed. Leave contacts to me. Find out exactly what arc of sector Vibrant researched off Jupiter VIII. Roughly two years ago. Turn up her log and note the times readings for the disappearance from her of Leading Spacelectrician Christopher Sommers. Got that?"
"Challenge Queen is in the same sector now, or closely thereabouts. Check the two positions. Hold one Spaceline clear of all traffic until you hear from me again. This is top priority. Cancel any bookings on that line and let the Director of Spacelines know what you've done, and the authority."
"Very good, sir."
Graut said presently, with a little gesture of helplessness, "But until we know where he is . . ."
Jaguers groaned. "He doesn't know himself."
"He told us it wasn't any place we know," the Ace Commander backed up.
"Easy," Dr. Walstab said again. A thought came to him. "Jaguers, I suggest you try the Odour Switch. Might be a clue there. A bare chance."
"But . . . would it work . . . I mean, if Chris isn't anywhere in our own galaxy . . ." the Spectrology Expert stammered.
"I said, try it. Doesn't it occur to you that nothing of all this is possible at all, unless worked from both ends. Not even the LG. . . . the Ideagraphometer, we're using. Sommers must have got hold of something similar . . ." Dr. Walstab' s voice was quietly triumphant. "I don't want to boast, Grant . . ."
"Boast all you like," the Professor smiled weakly. "I'm not sure, speaking for myself, that I can even boast of my own sanity. Do you suppose . . ." He broke off, to say, "Good God! that . . . smell frightens me. Jaguers . . .!"
Although the throw of the Odour Switch had been instantly cut again, the dull, musty odor that had crept into the room sickened them. There was about it something tomb-like and cankerous. Ace Peters said, in a strangled voice: "It's a dead world . . . dead. This is insane. I'm with you there. Professor."
The Cosmar Screen knew a sudden agitation and Dr. Walstab cried urgently: "Blank your minds . . . throttle back your own thinking . . . Sommers is coming back to consciousness."
He was lying on a couch in a room walled about with glass, or what seemed to be glass. It was transparent, anyhow, and through it he could make out a number of rounded domes, like beehives, and beyond them an immense aerodrome sprouting tall masts and parallel lines of narrow buildings, topped with gleaming antennae. He saw the yawning mouth of an enormous hangar, from which was slowly emerging a ship of greater proportions than he had ever seen, and of a design so fantastic that he could hardly believe his eyes. She was like an immense wheel on a horizontal plane, with eight or more spokes resembling elongated hutments, that ran in from the circumference of the wheels to join a great domed hub. She glowed with unnatural colors and brilliance, and now he made out several figures climbing over her, and on the ground about her. They were human figures, but with a difference. What the difference was, he could not determine, until a sound at his back made him turn.
Two men were in the room with him. Recognizably men, but men deformed and physically distorted to nightmarish proportions. Their thin, hairless faces were paper-white and ageless, and their bodies were sunk into long tunics of an indeterminate green. Ape-like arms hung almost to the floor . . .
It was then he remembered . . . and looked at his own body, and was almost hysterically relieved to discover that it was all in place, and that he could see it as well as feel its reality; and that, apart from a sensation. of extraordinary lightness and unsubstantiality, there was nothing wrong with him physically, anyhow. He had been stripped of -his space suit—suddenly he saw it thrown over the back of another couch— but was otherwise as he would normally have expected, except that his right foot still tingled slightly.
One of the men said, in a flat voice: "That is something you will have to get used to . . . You were right, Azard. An entirely successful experiment. The first of its kind. I congratulate you on obtaining a living specimen. It was the one thing needed. Nothing now stands in the path of our progress."
This was so much Greek to him.
"Who are you? How did I come here? What is this place?"
The second man, ignoring him, said, in a voice as emotionless as that of his companion: "I agree, Swat. Hitherto we have had to work on the dead' structure of the machines, and, although we have progressed over the infinities, countless more infinities would have been required before we could have effectively metamorphosed. The Sphere they call Earth and the Universe, the First Sphere, is at our mercy."
He told" himself: "I can be dead . . . if that's what it is . . . but I'm still Chris Sommers. I'm still myself. These guys . . ."
"So your name is Chris Sommers," Swat said. For the first time, they gave him their attention, and the stony and deadly apathy of their gaze brought him a chill of fear. He realized that what approach to his kind they had, was on the surface only. They were as unfeeling and heartless as machines. "A creature from the First Sphere. What else do you tell us?"
A second discovery took him by surprise. These men . . . he didn't know yet what else to call them . . . were not speaking in the literal sense, had never actually reached his ears at all. They were merely sending him their thoughts, and were reading his. It was not what he had said, but the images prompting his words, that they were understanding. So he had no need to be vocal. He let his thoughts run now, but—because he was both afraid and angry—stubbornly held them from anything that he believed they wanted to know. So far, he made no sense of anything at all. Why, they were speaking—thinking, that was—in English, in his own language. That made it crazier than ever.
He had scarcely thought this, than he was answered. Swab's coldblooded tones came: "You are now in the Sphere of the Elemental. The elemental understands all languages, since the so-called differences in language are merely phonetic delusions . . . So you have decided to obstruct us? That will avail you nothing, Chris Sommers."
"Maybe. What is this place?"
"I have told you. This is the Second Sphere."
"You mean . . . another dimension? I've heard about that."
"Another vibration. Another plane. We are not concerned with what you call dimension."
He said, drawing what comfort he could from his natural cheekiness: "Just as you like, Mister. You still haven't told me how I got here, or where you come into things? Or maybe you don't know, any more than I do?"
The other man, Azard, answered him this time.
"You fell on the platform of one of Elemental's ships. Doubtless from some ship of your own. No matter. As I assume, gamma particles from Sphere 1, sufficiently impregnated your substance to raise your vibrations to the point where we were each of us en rapport with each other's spheres. You were accordingly given an injection of an elemental drug which immediately raised your vibrations to the point of entry into the Second Sphere."
"That was the pain in my foot?"
"Pain! I do not know the word, pain. The injection was given in one of your feet—yes. It is a temporary treatment. It will be repeated when seven eons have gone. Your vibrations will then be fixed permanently to those of this sphere."
He thought over this, staring at the twin and ghastly faces.
"I see. And . . . if I don't get this other dose?"
"There is no escape, Chris Sommers. We have a definite need of your Sphere 1 body. It is your great fortune to give yourself to the science of Sphere 2—the Second sphere . . . whose Great and Glorious God and Ruler is Elemental Pan."
"I daresay you know. Still . . . supposing what you call my vibrations did run down to . . . to what they were before? I can be curious, can't I?"
Zwat, who, with Azard, had bowed his head deeply to the sounding of the name of the God Pan, straightened again.
"In the event of such impossibility, you would find yourself in whatever position we found you. Assuming that you had, indeed, fallen from your ship, you would perish in your own surroundings, in circumstances of which I have no doubt you are fully aware. You would merely exchange one disintegration for another."
"What does that mean?" he asked, with a constriction of his heart. For a single wild instant, he wondered what his chances would be if he made a dash for the open. "What's your game? This could be some place in the solar system."
Zwat looked at him with suddenly cruel eyes.
"Your coming here, Chris Sommers, was what you in the First Sphere would call a miracle . . . oh, yes, we are closer to your stupid minds than your sphere dreams of. Miracles of a like kind, do not happen twice."
"So what?" he demanded.
Even now, he could not quite bring himself to believe he was not dreaming all this. It was too utterly fantastic. Some corner of interstellar space, perhaps—maybe one of the many unchartered dark stars known to be in the Jupiter satellite belt. Yes, he could understand that. But all this talk of spheres and vibrations . . . where did that get him? He managed a grin, as he recalled how hotted-up most of them had been at the bit of a party held in the Vibrant's Spacelectricians' Mess the evening before. Some party. He had a faint memory of Ben Jaguers helping him into his bunk . . . this could be a sort of hangover . . . probably Ace Torquil, and the space lock jam, and all the rest of it, had got mixed up in his head. He came from his musings to find he was once more alone. The two Elementals . . . he decided to call them that . . . had somehow just faded out. Well, he was rid of that part of it, anyhow. Maybe, the rest of it would fade out too, and he'd wake up in his bunk to hear old Ben yelling at him the duty bell had gone.
Suddenly he felt very tired. He went over to the couch and stretched himself on it. Supposing he was asleep, could he go to sleep again inside the first sleep? Sort of dreaming you went to sleep, when you were asleep? He grinned and closed his eyes . . .
The four men in the Cupola on E. S. P. Seven roused themselves One by one. They were more composed now, more used to the amaze of the thing; they were better able to think and plan and come to grips with the enormity of the problem. Each, in his own way, showed his determination to do all that was humanly possible to reduce the incredible to terms of the credible, so that it could be handled with some approach to the sane and practical.
Dr. Walstab said: "While we are waiting, it will help if I try to put together what we have so far learnt of the conditions now holding Chris Sommers."
"The province of the mind, yes," Grant said. "To begin with, what do you understand by spheres? Ideas . . . elementals . . .?"
"That's it," the Ace Commander put in. "Where is Sommers? How can we get to him, if we don't rightly know where he is? Elemental? The Elementals? Where is Elemental? The navigating charts don't list the name. Maybe some asteroid . . ."
Walstab shook his head.
"We'll begin there, Ace. If you know anything of what we call occultism, you'll know that there is a great body of evidence to prove the intrusion into our system of a class of beings of a low state of spiritual development, but not necessarily of intellectual development, known to us as elementals."
"Poltergeists?" Jaguers said.
"Including Poltergeists," Walstab agreed. "They are supposed to come from a plane of existence apart from, but contiguous to, our own three-dimensional. If the account given by Chris is correct, this plane is called the Second Sphere, or Elemental; a sphere next to, and larger than our own Solar or First Sphere, and corresponding to its space surface in location though not in substance. There are thought to be a number of such spheres, each one wrapped successively about its fellow, and rising in outward order and development. There is also some evidence suggesting that it is to Elemental, or the Second Sphere, that certain patently undeveloped souls in Earth life are sent after death; but this is an aspect with which we are not now concerned. The immediate problem is how to reach Chris."
Graut said: "Spheres not of dimensions but vibrations. Exactly. The thing begins to shape itself a little."
"Chris Sommers by some extraordinary cosmic transmutation—you heard the reference to gamma particles—entered, or, rather, pierced the envelope of concentric hollow or Elemental, because his vibrations were raised correspondingly. Apparently, in his case, these rapidly increased vibrations can be fixed."
"In seven aeons," the Ace Commander quoted. "What time measure is an aeon?"
"I don't know," Walstab said. "Possibly some division of what we term an aeon—as we say, meaning eternity. And who can measure eternity?"
Ben Jaguers broke the brooding silence. He said restlessly: "Where does all this talk get us? Say we know the name of the place Chris is, that still doesn't tell us where it is, or how we can get Chris out of it."
"He'll tell us himself," Dr. Walstab said quietly. He added, in reply to their looks of astonishment: "Not in so many words, of course, for he is quite unarmed, unless we can help him; but by inference. He has already given us some valuable hints." "What I can't understand," Ace Felers said, "is how we're getting all this within minutes, if you know what I mean. Chris has been . . . has been missing for two years. Two years!"
"I think I can explain that. In Elemental, this Second Sphere, all vibrations are enormously speeded up. I say, ALL . . . which includes even Time itself. Two years of our own time could conceivably be matched by only two days of Elemental time; possibly as little as two hours. Since Chris has, by our reckoning, been in the Second Sphere for two years already, and has not—so far as we can yet gather—received his second and final vibrational inoculation, it follows that the seven aeons are not yet up."
"It's beyond me," the Ace Commander said hopelessly.
Professor Grant was speaking to Cartography.
"Jupiter VIII, second arc of sector. Thank you, Sidbee. Flash Challenge Queen telling her to proceed there at once and to clear all space stations, pending further instructions. Note for Operation Elemental: all minnows to be overhauled and in readiness for instant launching. Good."
He turned to Dr. Walstab. He said: "I'm doing what I can, but I say frankly I don't see how we're to get Sommers, so to speak, into the open. I'll say this, too—win or lose, this I.G. of yours, "Walstab, has at least made it possible for us to contact and perhaps comfort the poor fellow. He'll know our thoughts are with him . . ."
"I'm not without hope, even so, Graut. I glimpse a way out . . . a bare glimpse. No, I can't go into details—yet. Everything depends on what next the I.G. brings us."
"God bless you," Jaguers stammered. "I can—hold on . . . The screen's moving . . ."
"He's waking," Dr. Walstab warned.
When he opened his eyes he found nothing changed. Oddly, he was not in the least thirsty or hungry. He tried to reckon up how long it was since he had fallen through the Vibrant's shute, but there was no means of telling. The watch on his wrist had not only stopped, but the hands seemed to have fused, and when he shook it they just crumbled into dust. The half light beyond the window was unaltered. What he could make out of the sky had a smooth waxy shine to it. There was no sun, or hint of any natural luminary, that he could see. It was like a perpetual twilight. Perhaps, in Elemental, there was no night or day. Perhaps the Elementals didn't need any sleep . . .
Yet, maybe they did. Maybe, although the light remained the same, there were intervals in which they rested. At any rate, there was no sign of any life on the great landing field. The queer-looking ship had vanished. The hangar door was closed. There were a few small craft resting on speedways, whose design he couldn't make out, but otherwise the place was deserted. Asleep. The idea persisted. And with it came a second idea, an exciting idea. Now was his chance to get out of this place—this building, anyhow. Maybe, if he could get hold of one of those parked m.ichines, he could fly it out . . . But he gavo-that up at once. He was convinced now that all this was no dream. So long as his vibrations held up, he was imprisoned in Elemental.
But the thought led on. He was beginning to find the answer to some things at least. The talk between those two ghastly Elementals . . . what were their names? Swat and Azard. That was it. Something about the progress of experiments in penetrating the curtain between their two spheres, to the point of partial manifestation in the three-dimensional. Working on what they called dead machines; and, now, exulting in the capture of himself, a living machine, with which to work out, guinea-pig fashion, a complete and fixed mastery of First Sphere vibrations, particularly—as he understood the sinister implications—those of Earth's atmosphere.
Penetrating the curtain! . . . His mind went back to the lectures of his graduation days at Solar University, and the post course in astral photism; how each vibrational light world co-existed with those immediately below and above it, so that although they were fused each had its independent practical world. In three-dimensional Terra, for example, you could thrust out an arm into apparent space, yet that arm could actually be penetrating a solidity—say, a battleship sailing on an ocean—in a four dimensional set up. Everything was a matter of vibrations; and the known vibrations on Earth were, to the unknown, as an inch to a mile.
He was not very well up in this sort of thing, but he thought he now knew the answer to some, at least, of the problems surrounding the fantastic stories of flying saucers, unidentified space ships, and so on, which suddenly appeared over Terra and as inexplicably disappeared. Sometimes only fragments of such a machine were seen . . . like an arm thrust through the dividing curtain and then withdrawn. Machines from the Second Sphere, only partly successful in the attempts to manifest in the First Sphere. They were already there, of course; had always been there; but intangible and invisible. Now, by lowering their vibrations, they were becoming both tangible and visible.
He began a feverish examination of the room. Smooth as glass, the walls ran in an unbroken surface. Common sense told him there must be an opening, a door, somewhere, for how, otherwise, had he entered it? How had Zwat and Azard come and gone? He found it by pure accident, when on the verge of despair. His fingernail caught in a depression so cunningly masked that it could have passed for a small flaw in the composition, but was in reality a release contact. An oblong opened. He had no sooner passed through it than, like the automatic door of an elevator, it closed again. He had picked up his space suit on an impulse. The fabric still held, as did that of his clothing; but in both were manifest signs of crumbling. When the struggle between the opposing vibrations was resolved, as it must be, in favor of those of the Second Sphere, the whole substance would probably disappear.
Before him stretched a long corridor, lined with blank, shining walls. He turned right, at a venture. He went up a short flight of steps and across a landing, to a cross corridor, and turned right once more. All at once he heard voices. That is to say, his mind heard them, for sound as he knew it simply did not exist. He realized then that Elemental had no atmosphere, in its three-dimensional sense; and, without atmosphere mere can be no sound. He was in a world of the mind, of the elemental. Another thought came. Rather, it was a sensation. His body was becoming heavier. His sight was a trifle blurred. He seemed to be subtly balancing between real and unreal. With understanding, sweat started on his forehead. The effect of the vibrational inoculation was evidently passing. The seven aeons were coming to an end. He must hurry . . . hurry.
He rounded a corner and halted abruptly. Before him was a wide foyer spaced with cones of gleaming metal. Beyond them showed, at the head of a short ramp, a narrow door slightly ajar. There came to him the hum of hidden dynamos.
In a space to the left, between a group of cones, three Elementals were crouched. They appeared to be playing some kind of game. Their backs were to him, yet somehow he knew an awareness of something alien had touched them. Against a wall leaned a curiously shaped tube, obviously some kind of stungun, with a push-button trigger midway along its shining length. He snatched at it just as discovery came. They were turning, when he fired—twice, thrice. The soundless discharge took them point blank and they collapsed into a state of mindless inertia. For how long? He did not know.
He was more concerned to know the whereabouts of the fourth guard, the one whose gun he held. The open door suggested that the elemental had left his comrades to inspect or service some kind of machinery.
He stepped quickly inside. Evidently for greater security, bolts were fitted on either side of the door. He shot them fast and turned to look about him.
He was confronted by an enormous instrument panel, rising in tiers, polished and gleaming. At its center, floor level, was an arrangement resembling the console of an organ, its keyboard set in horizontal rows of colored discs. Over it bent an Elemental. The fourth guard! There was no evidence that this humanoid was armed. As he slowly turned, as if sensing another and hostile presence, his face showed dead-white and ageless, loose-lipped, eyes fixed in an expressionless stare.
He had picked up a bar of some kind of metal, and now he confronted the simian creature with desperate threat.
"Stop! I suppose an elemental can die, like any other form of life. Call for help . . . make a move of any sort . . . and, by God, you'll go wherever it is your sort of horror goes when it dies."
"Who are you?"
"Never mind, who I am. What's your name?"
"Okay. Do what I tell you, Jared, and you won't be hurt. I don't know how you communicate in this place, but don't try it. If I die, you go with me. Got it?"
"What do you want?"
"Tell me about this . . ." He pointed to the rows of discs. He saw that each bore an embossed hieroglyphic symbol. None of it made any sense. "What do these mean?"
Jared said nothing.
"You heard me. Look . . . I'm getting out of this place—see? And you're helping me. I'm not arguing. What are these discs?"
"Call signs for the other vibrations."
He waved a hand at the great instrument board.
"What's that? What does it do? Quick now . . ."
Hatred leaped from the sunken eyes, but was gone again.
"It's a mind-mirror. Whoever you are, you're a fool."
"Okay, I'm a fool. But I'm still alive. I can still deal with you, if I have to. A mind mirror. How does it work?"
"It tunes in other planes. That is, sometimes. It's out of order"
He thought; this won't do. I'm getting no place. Seven aeons! it's wearing fast. Any second they'll be coming for me . . . missing me . . .
He took Jared by the throat, shaking him. The touch nauseated him. No flesh, like his own. His fingers slipped on it, felt numb. But the elemental's eyes bulged at the pressure. He gasped: "I lied—yes. I'll tell you anything you want to know . . . I'll tell you, I say . . ."
He released him.
"Earth. Terra. You call it the First Sphere? What disc is for Terra?"
Jared touched one.
"If that's not the right one . . . if you're fooling me!"
"It's the right one. You press twice . . . then to the left. It's what we call First Plane Wave . . ."
"I don't know what you mean. It carries the Terra vibrations. It sends mind pictures."
He thought: I'll have to chance it. It was a thought within a thought. His mind said: "You'd better be right." He spun Jared around and let his fist smash hard down on the hollow between the shoulder blades, and the elemental fell on the floor, momentarily paralyzed.
He found a sort of silver string and tied the elemental's limbs, and straightened up, panting. His hand went out to the Terra disc, but a thought checked him.
"I must make some sort of preparation. Hopeless, of course, but you never know. Seven aeons! I wonder how much of it I've got left. I'm . . . changing, sort of."
He caught up the metal bar and drove it through the glass-like substance of the outerwall. It did not splinter as glass splinters. It ripped like a cloth. Something flowed in. Maybe it was Elemental air.
His body, it seemed, was becoming heavier every moment . . . getting more substance into it. He couldn't see very well.
He found the Terra disc again. He pressed twice down, then to the left.
He began to shout—not now with his mind, but with his lungs.
"Terra! Terra! Can you hear me, Terra.?"
Professor Graut knew what he had to do, for his part, and gave all his immediate attention to it.
"Sidbee . . . We know where he is . . . Chris Sommers. No, never mind about that. Tell Challenge Queen to alert. No, we don't know yet. We can only hope. No, she's too far out to show clearly on the screen here . . . tell Air Vice Marshall Benhurion to report progress, if any, direct on the beam. We'll pick it up on the inter-com . . . I've opened the switch. You've given Benhurion the story? Good. Tell him to launch his minnows as soon as you flash him."
Dr. Walstab had joined Jaguers at tire cosmar screen. He was talking, eyes burning with urgency.
"Can you hear me, Sommers? Now, listen . . . your vibrations are automatically lowering themselves, but you've got somehow to help them. Can you get over to the window . . . the space you burst in the wall? Good. Do that. Lie flat. Breathe as slowly as you can. Keep drawing in your diaphragm and then releasing it. That will help to slow up your heart and lower the vibrations. Stop thinking. Do that, and leave the rest to us."
They had to strain their ears to catch that faint reply.
"I'll . . . do that. I think . . . coming after me . . . seems like something's rousing . . ."
"Chris!" Jaguers shouted.
Ace Peters said: "He's gone." He looked like a man in a dream.
"Well," Dr. Walstab said, in an exhausted voice, "we've done all that it's possible to do. Now we can only wait. Whatever comes will be in seconds . . . Wait . . ."
Report from Challenge Queen was coming in. They listened greedily.
"Have checked our position with that of Vibrant and correct within one point of arc. Ether clear. Very little star swell. Ship now hovering with launching flaps down. Nothing sighted."
"Port visual reports slight disturbance approximately east and below . . . Flash received. Am launching two minnows . . . Something seems to be breaking ether surface . . . Both minnows breaking for dive . . ."
Jaguers muttered, in an agony of impatience: "Go on . . . go on. What's holding them?"
It came with a rush, "Head and one arm sighted . . . minnows have spotted and are racing for place . . . trunk now in view . . . it's a man all right . . . not clear yet . . . yes, it's Sommers . . . someone here recognizes . . . tossed right up now as if released from an ether packet . . . leading minnow has reached him . . . they've got him . . . hold on! . . . something's breaking just to the right of them . . . it's the nose of a big ship . . . the minnows are turning . . . no, it's not a ship, it's like a big wheel spinning on its flat . . . it seems to be trying to push through something . . ."
The voice broke away. It came again; but faintly, as if the speaker's head was turned aside: "The thing's attacking. Can't see anything, but both minnows seem to be flung up as if something exploded under them. Turret Z has sent a tracer . . . just missed . . . They've got the range . . . Come on, minnows, come ON. The wheel's gone. I don't know if we hit it, but it's gone. But the ether is all tossing, and there's a queer kind of hum, as if something I can't see was passing us . . . We're landing the minnows; yes, it's Sommers all right. He doesn't seem alive though . . . everything ripped off him . . ."
The voice halted again. They heard. "Yes, sir . . . Well, thank God for that, sir . . ."
A new voice spoke; the calm, precise tones contrasting with the previous speaker's excitement.
"E.S.P. Seven. Benhurion speaking. Is that you. Grant? Come through all right?"
"Yes, yes." Grant could hardly speak. He was thinking: These Service Chiefs! They don't seem to have any emotions at all. I daresay it's just as well, though. He cleared his throat and said: "It's true then? Is he . . . all right?"
"Out to it, but not in too bad shape. I'd say. The doctors are working on him now. Came in naked as the day he was born . . . Look here, Grant, I've only got half the story . . . Eh! Oh, well. I'll just have to wait then, I suppose. We'll be sending Sommers in on one of the flotilla ships. Yes, about a week, I'd say. Hear the static starting up?"
Ben Jaguers sat with his head on his crossed arms. His shoulders were heaving.
Dr. Walstab rose quietly and stood in front of the now featureless screen. "There are more things . . . Lord!"
Almost automatically, he moved the Odour Switch.
And suddenly the light on the cosmar screen grew tender. A sweet breath as of flowers crept into their nostrils, and all sound was folded like the passing of an angel host. It was so still, they could hear the clamor of their own hearts.