COMPLETE BOOK-LENGTH NOVEL
LONG AGO, FAR AWAY
By MURRAY LEINSTER
The sky was black, with myriads of stars. The ground was white. But it was not really ground at all, it was ice that covered everything—twenty miles north to the Barrier, and southward to the Pole itself, past towering mountains and howling emptiness and cold beyond imagining.
The base was almost buried in snow. Off to one side of the main building a faint yellowish glow was the plastic dome of the meteor-watch radar instrument. Inside Brad Soames displayed his special equipment to a girl reporter flown down to the Antarctic to do human-interest articles for not-too-much-interested women readers.
All was quiet. This seemed the most unlikely of all possible places for anything of importance to happen.
There was one man awake, on stand-by watch. A radio glowed beside him—a short-wave unit, tuned to the frequency used by all the bases of all the nations on Antarctica—English, French, Belgian, Danish, Russian. The stand-by man yawned. There was nothing to do.
* * * * *
"There's no story in my work," said Soames politely. "I work with this wave-guide radar. It's set to explore the sky instead of the horizon. It spots meteors coming in from space, records their height and course and speed, and follows them down until they burn up in the air. From its record we can figure out the orbits they followed before Earth's gravity pulled them down."
The girl reporter was Gail Haynes. She nodded, but she looked at Soames instead of the complex instrument. She wore the multi-layer cold-weather garments issued for Antarctica, but somehow she did not look grotesque in them. Now her expression was faintly vexed. The third person in the dome was Captain Estelle Moggs, W. A. C., in charge of Gail's journey and the public-relations angle generally.
"I just chart the courses of meteors," repeated Soames. "That's all. There is nothing else to it."
Gail shook her head, watching him.
"Can't you give me a human angle?" she asked. "I'm a woman. I'd like to be interested."
He shrugged, and she said somehow disconsolately:
"What will knowing the orbits of meteors lead to?"
"Finding out some special meteor-orbits," he said drily, "might lead to finding out when the Fifth Planet blew itself up.—According to Bode's Law there ought to be a planet like ours between Mars and Jupiter. If there was, it blew itself to pieces, or maybe the people on it had an atomic war."
Gail cocked her head to one side.
"Now, that promises!" she said. "Keep on!"
"There ought to be a planet between Mars and Jupiter, in a certain orbit," he told her. "There isn't. Instead, there's a lot of debris floating around. Some is as far out as Jupiter. Some is as far in as Earth. It's mostly between Mars and Jupiter, though, and it's hunks of rock and metal of all shapes and sizes. We call the big ones asteroids. There's no proof so far, but it's respectable to believe that there used to be a Fifth Planet, and that it blew itself up or was blown up by its inhabitants. I'm checking meteor-orbits to see if some meteors are really tiny asteroids."
"Hmmm," said Gail. She displayed one of those surprising, unconnected bits of information a person in the newspaper business picks up. "Don't they say that the mountains on the moon were made by asteroids falling on it?"
"It's at least possible that the moon was smashed up by fragments of the Fifth Planet," agreed Soames. "In fact, that's a more or less accepted explanation."
She looked at him expectantly. "I have to think of my readers," insisted Gail. "It's interesting enough, but how can I make it something they'll be concerned about? When the moon was smashed, why wasn't Earth?"
"It's assumed that it was," Soames told her. "But on Earth we have weather, and it happened a long, long time ago, back in the days of three-toed horses and ganoid fish. Undoubtedly once the Earth was devastated like the moon. But the ring-mountains were worn away by rain and snow. New mountain-ranges rose up. Continents changed. Now there's no way to find even the traces of a disaster so long past. But the moon has no weather. Nothing ever changes on it. Its wounds have never healed."
Gail frowned in concentration.
"A bombardment like that would be something to live through," she said vexedly. "An atomic war would be trivial by comparison. But it happened millions and millions of years ago. We women want to know about things that are happening now!"
Soames opened his mouth to speak. But he didn't.
The flickering, wavering, silver-plated wave-guide tube of the radar suddenly steadied. It ceased to hunt restlessly among all places overhead for a tiny object headed for Earth. It stopped dead. It pointed, trembling a little as if with eagerness. It pointed somewhere east of due south, and above the horizon.
"Here's a meteor. It's falling now," said Soames.
Then he looked again. The radar's twin screens should have shown two dots of light, one to register the detected object's height, and another its angle and distance. But both screens were empty. They showed nothing at all. There was nothing where the radar had stopped itself and where it aimed. But all of the two screens glowed faintly. The graph-pens wrote wholly meaningless indications on their tape. A radar, and especially a meteor-tracking radar, is an instrument of high precision. It either detects something and pin-points its place, or it doesn't, because an object either reflects radar-pulses or not. Usually it does.
* * * * *
The radar here, then, gave an impossible reading. It was as if it did not receive the reflections of the pulses it sent out, but only parts of them. It was as if something were intermittently in existence, or was partly real and partly not. Or as if the radar had encountered an almost-something which was on the verge of becoming real, and didn't quite make it.
The inter-base radio screamed. At the same instant the twin radar-screens flashed bright all over. The twin pens of the tape-writing machine scrambled crazy lines on the paper. The noise was monstrous. A screaming, shrieking uproar such as no radio ever gave out. There was horror in it. And what Soames could not know now was that at this same instant the same sound came out of every radio and television set in use in all the world.
* * * * *
The noise stopped. Now a bright spot showed on each of the meteor-watch radar's twin screens. The screen indicating height said that the source of the dot was four miles high. The screen indicating line and distance said that it bore 167 deg. true, and was eighty miles distant. The radar said that some object had come into being from nothingness, out of nowhere. It had not arrived. It had become. It was twenty thousand feet high, eighty miles 167 deg. from the base, and its appearance had been accompanied by such a burst of radio-noise as neither storm nor lightning nor atomic explosion had ever made before.
And the thing which came from nowhere and therefore was quite impossible, now moved toward the east at roughly three times the speed of sound.
All manner of foreign voices came startledly out of the inter-base radio speaker, asking what could it be? A Russian voice snapped suspiciously that the Americans should be queried.
And the wave-guide radar followed a large object which had come out of nowhere at all.
The sheer impossibility of the thing was only part of the problem it presented. The radar followed it. Moving eastward, far away in the frigid night, it seemed suddenly to put on brakes. According to the radar, its original speed was close to mach 3, thirty-nine miles a minute. Then it checked swiftly. It came to a complete stop. Then it hurtled backward along the line it had followed. It wabbled momentarily as if it had done a flip-flop four miles above the ground. It dived. It stopped dead in mid-air for a full second and abruptly began to rise once more in an insane, corkscrew course which ended abruptly in a headlong fall toward the ground.
It dropped like a stone. It fell for long, long seconds. Once it wavered, as if it made a final effort to continue its frenzy in the air. But again it fell like a stone. It reached the horizon. It dropped behind it.
Seconds later the ground trembled very, very slightly. Soames hit the graph-machine case. The pens jiggled. He'd made a time-recording of an earth-shock somewhere.
Now he read off the interval between the burst of screaming static and the jog he'd made by striking the instrument. Earth-shock surface waves travel at four miles per second. The radar had said the thing which appeared in mid-air did so eighty miles away. The static-burst was simultaneous. There was a twenty-second interval between the static and the arrival of the earth-tremor waves. The static and the appearance of something from nowhere and the point of origin of the earth-shock matched up. They were one event. The event was timed with the outburst of radio noise, not the impact of the falling object, which was a minute later.
* * * * *
Soames struggled to imagine what that event could be. The inter-base radio babbled. Somebody discovered that the static had been on all wave-lengths at the same time. Voices argued about it.
In the radar-dome Captain Moggs said indignantly:
"This is monstrous! I shall report this to Washington! What was that thing, Mr. Soames?"
"There isn't anything it could be," he told her. "It was impossible. There couldn't be anything like that."
Gail cocked her head on one side.
"D'you mean it's something new to science?"
Soames realized how much he liked Gail. Too much. So he spoke with great formality. The radar had tried to detect and range on something that wasn't there. The nearest accurate statement would be that the radar had detected something just before it became something the radar could detect, which did not begin to make sense.
Planes didn't appear in mid-sky without previously having been somewhere else; it wasn't a plane. There could be meteors, but it wasn't a meteor because it went too slowly and changed course and stood still in the air and went upward. Nor was it a missile. A ballistic missile couldn't change course, a rocket-missile would show on the radar.
He looked at his watch.
"Six minutes and a half from the static," he said grimly. "Eighty miles. Sound travels a mile every five seconds. Let's listen. Ten seconds—eight—six—four—"
Now the wave-guide radar had gone back to normal operation. Its silver-plated square tube flickered and quivered and spun quickly in this direction and that, searching all the sky.
There was a booming sound. It was infinitely low-pitched. It was long-continued. It was so low in frequency that it seemed more a vibration of the air than a sound.
It died away.
"It's a concussion-wave," said Soames soberly. "It arrived four hundred odd seconds after the static. Eighty miles.... A noise has to be pretty loud to travel so far! A ground-shock has to be rather sharp to be felt as an earth-tremor at eighty miles. Even a spark has to be very, very fierce to mess up radio and radar reception at eighty miles.... Something very remarkable happened down yonder tonight—something somebody ought to look into."
Gail said quickly, "How about a spaceship from another world?"
"It would have come in from outer space," said Soames. "It didn't."
"A secret weapon," said Captain Moggs firmly. "I shall report to Washington and ask orders to investigate."
"I wouldn't," said Soames. "If you ask orders you promise to wait for them. If you wait for orders, whatever fell will be covered by snow past discovery by the time your orders come."
Gail looked at him interestedly, confidently.
"What will you do, then?"
"I think," said Soames, "we'll find it and then report.
"You were planning a cosey little article on Housewives of the Antarctic; The Care and Feeding of One's Penguin Husband. Right?"
Gail grinned suddenly.
"I see. Yes."
"We take off in the 'copter," said Soames. "We start out ostensibly to gather material for an article on Can This Penguin Marriage Be Saved. But we'll be blown off course. We'll find ourselves quite accidentally where the radar said there was the great-grandfather of static bursts, with a ground-shock and a concussion-wave to boot. We may even be blown farther, to where something dived downward for four or five miles and vanished below the horizon."
Captain Moggs said uneasily:
"Most irregular. But it might be wise."
"Of course," said Soames. "It's always safer to report something you've found than not find something you've reported."
"We start at sunrise," said Captain Moggs authoritatively.
* * * * *
Soames went back to the radar. As he looked at it, it picked out something rather smaller than a marble at a height of seventy-nine miles and followed that unthinkably ancient small wanderer of space down to its spectacular suicide by fire at a height of thirty-four miles.
He went painstakingly over the radar. It worked perfectly. The taped record of its observations carried the story of all that Gail and Captain Moggs had seen when he saw it. Machinery may err, but it does not have delusions. It would have to be subject to systematic hallucination to have reported and recorded what this radar insisted was the truth.
When dawn came, he went out to the helicopter's hangar. There was a supply-plane on the runway, but the helicopter belonged at the base. He found himself excessively conscientious in his check-over. Though he hated to admit it, he knew it was because Gail would be in the plane.
When he headed back toward the main building one of the geophysics gang beckoned to him. He followed to the small, far-spaced hut—now snow-buried to its eaves—in which the seismograph ticked away to itself.
"I think I'm going crazy," said the geophysics man. "Did you ever hear of a ground-shock starting inside out?"
He pointed to the graph-paper that fed very, very slowly past the seismograph's pens. The recording did look odd.
"If you put your hand just under the surface of the water in a bathtub," said the geophysics man harassedly, "and jerk it downward, you get a hollow that spreads out with a wave behind it. It's the exact opposite of dropping a pebble into water, which makes a wave that spreads out with a hollow—a trough—behind it. But except for that one way of making it, all waves—absolutely all wave-systems—start out with a crest and a trough behind it. Everywhere, all the time, unless you do what I said in a bathtub."
"I'm a shower man, myself," observed Soames. "But go on."
"This," said the geophysics man bitterly, "is like a bathtub wave. See? The ground was jerked away, and then pushed back. Normal shock-waves push away and then spring back! An ice-crack, a rock-slide, an explosion of any sort, all of them make the same kind of waves! All have compression phases, then rarefaction phases, then compression phases, and so on. What—" his voice was plaintive—"what in hell is this?"
"Are you saying," Soames asked after a moment, "that ordinary earth-tremors record like explosion-waves, but that you'd have to have an implosion to make a record like this?"
"Sure!" said the geophysics man. "But how can you have an implosion that will make an earth-shock? I'm going to have to take this whole damned wabble-bucket apart to find out what's the matter with it! But there's nothing the matter! It registered what it got! But what did it get?"
"An implosion," said Soames. "And if you have trouble imagining that, I'm right there with you."
He went back to the main building to get Gail and Captain Moggs. They went out to the 'copter hangar together.
"I've talked to the radar and loran operator," said Soames. "I explained that you wanted to see some crevasses from the air, and I'd be wandering around looking for them on the way to the rookery. He will check on us every fifteen minutes, anyhow."
* * * * *
The 'copter went up the long, sloping, bulldozed snow-ramp. Soames checked his radio contact. He nodded. The engines hummed and roared and bellowed, and the ship lifted deliberately and floated away over the icy waste.
The little helicopter was very much alone above a landscape which had never known a growing thing.
Soames kept in radar contact and when he was ready he told the base, "I'm going down now, hunting crevasses."
He let the 'copter descend. The waste was featureless, then and for a seemingly interminable time afterward. Then his estimated position matched the site of the static-earth-shock-concussion-wave-occurrence. There seemed nothing about this part of the snow-desert which was different from any other part. No. Over to the left. A wind-pattern showed in the snow. It was already being blown away; its edges dulled. But it was rather far from a probable thing. There were lines—hollows—where gusts had blown at the snow's surface. They were spiral lines, tending toward a center. They had not the faintest resemblance to the crater of an explosion which might have made an earth-shock.
Soames took a camera out of its place in the 'copter. Gail stared down.
"I've seen something like that," she said puzzledly. "Not a picture. Certainly not a snow-field. I think it looks like a diagram of some sort."
"Try a storm-wind diagram," said Soames drily. "The way a cyclone ought to look from directly overhead. The meteorology boys will break down and cry when they see this picture!"
He took pictures. The shadows of the wind-made indentations would come out clearly in the film.
"Unless," said Soames, "unless somebody got a snap of a whirlwind touching a snow-field and bouncing up again, this will be a photographic first. It's not an explosion-pattern, you'll notice. Wind and snow weren't thrown away from the center. They were drawn toward it. Momentarily. It's an explosion inside out, an implosion-pattern to be more exact."
"I don't understand," said Gail.
"An explosion," said Soames grimly, "is a bursting-out of a suddenly present mass of gas. An implosion is a bursting-in of a suddenly present vacuum. Set off a firecracker and you have an explosion. Break an electric bulb and you have an implosion. That pattern behind us is an implosion-pattern."
"But how could such a thing be?"
"If we knew," said Soames wrily, "maybe we'd be running away. Maybe we should."
The 'copter droned on and on and on. The ice-sheet continued unbroken.
* * * * *
"There!" cried Gail, suddenly.
She pointed. Blowing snow hid everything. Then there was a hole in the whiteness, a shadow. The shadow stirred and an object too dark to be snow appeared. It vanished again.
"There's a sheltered place!" said Gail, "and there's something dark in it!"
Soames pulled the microphone to his lips.
"Calling base," he said briefly. "Calling base.... Hello! I'm well beyond the last radar-fix. I think I'm bearing about one seven oh degrees from base. Get a loran fix on me. Make it quick. I may have to land."
He listened, pressing a button to activate the loran-relay which would transmit a signal on signal from the base, so the bearing and distance could be computed back at base. It was wiser to have such computations done aground. He readied the camera again.
Gail looked through the 'copter's binoculars. The peculiar shadow—hole—opening in the blowing snow reappeared. Something in it looked like a missile, only it was bright metal and much too large. It lay askew on the ice. A part of it—a large part—was smashed.
"Spaceship?" asked Gail, "do you think that's it?"
"Heaven forbid!" said Soames.
There was movement. One—two—three figures stared up from beside the metal shape. A fourth appeared. Soames grimly took pictures. Gail gasped suddenly:
"They're not men!" she said shakily. "Brad, they're children! Queerly dressed children, with bare arms and legs! They're out there on the snow! They'll freeze! We've got to help them!"
"Calling base," said Soames into the microphone. "I'm landing. I have to. If I don't report in twenty minutes come with caution—repeat with caution—to see what's happened. I repeat. If I do not report in twenty minutes come with caution, caution, caution to see what is the matter."
The 'copter made a loud, loud noise as it went skittering down toward the object—and the children—on the ice.
The snow-mist blew aside and there was plainly a ship lying partly crushed upon the snow. Half its length was smashed, but he could see that it had never flown with wings. There weren't any.
"It looks like a spaceship," said Gail breathlessly.
Soames spoke between set teeth.
"That would finish things for all of us!"
And it would, without any qualifications. On a world already squabbling and divided into two main power-groups and embittered neutrals; on a world armed with weapons so deadly that only the fear of retaliation kept the peace.... Contact with a farther-advanced race would not unite humanity, either for defense or for the advantages such a contact might reasonably bring. Instead, it would detonate hatred and suspicion into madness.
A higher civilization could very well tip the scales, if it gave one side weapons. The world outside the Iron Curtain could not risk that the Iron Curtain nations become best friends of possible invaders. The communist leaders could not risk letting the free nations make alliance with a higher technology and a greater science. So actual contact with a more-advanced race would be the most deadly happening that could take place on the world as it was today.
* * * * *
Soames jumped out. He looked at the ship and felt sick. But he snapped a quick photograph. It had no wings and had never owned any. It had been probably a hundred feet long, all bright metal. Now nearly half of it was crushed or crumpled by its fall. It must have been brought partly under control before the impact, though, enough to keep it from total destruction. And Soames, regarding it, saw that there had been no propellers to support it or pull it through the air. There were no air-ducts for jet-motors. It wasn't a jet.
There were no rockets, either. The drive was of a kind so far unimagined by men of here and now.
Gail stood beside Soames, her eyes bright. She exclaimed, "Brad! It isn't cold here!"
The children looked at her interestedly. One of the girls spoke politely, in wholly unintelligible syllables. The girls might be thirteen or thereabouts. The boys were possibly a year older, sturdier and perhaps more muscular than most boys of that age. All four were wholly composed. They looked curious but not in the least alarmed, and not in the least upset, as they'd have been had older companions been injured or killed in the ship's landing. They wore brief garments that would have been quite suitable for a children's beach-party in mid-summer, but did not belong on the Antarctic ice-cap at any time. Each wore a belt with moderately large metal insets placed on either side of its fastening.
"Brad!" repeated Gail. "It's warm here! Do you realize it? And there's no wind!"
Soames swallowed. The camera hung from his hand. It either was or it could be a spaceship that lay partly smashed upon the ice. He looked about him with a sort of total grimness. There was a metal girder, quite separate from the ship, which had apparently been set up slantingly in the ice since the landing. It had no apparent purpose.
Captain Moggs said peremptorily:
"Children! We insist on speaking to your parents! At once!"
Gail moved forward. Soames saw, now, a small tripod near the ship. Something spun swiftly at its top. It had plainly been brought out from inside the strange vessel. For a hundred yards in every direction there was no wind or snow. More than that, the calm air was also warm. It was unbelievable.
"Do you hear me?" demanded Captain Moggs. "Children!"
Gail said in a friendly fashion, smiling at the girls:
"I'm sure you don't understand a word I say, but won't you invite us to visit?"
Her tone and manner were plainly familiar to the children. One of the two girls smiled and stood aside for Gail to enter the ship. Soames and Captain Moggs followed.
* * * * *
It was quite as bright inside the ship as out-of-doors. There were no lights. It was simply bright. A part of the floor had buckled upward, and the rest was not level, but the first impression was of brilliance and the second was of a kind of simplicity which was bewildering. And there was a third. It was of haste. The ship seemed to have been put together with such urgent haste that nothing had been done for mere finish or decoration.
"I want to speak to the parents of these children!" said Captain Moggs firmly. "I insist upon it!"
"I suspect," said Soames grimly, "that in the culture these children came from, the proper place for parents is the home. This is a child-size spaceship, you'll notice."
The size of the door and chairs proved it. He saw through a crumpled, open doorway into the crushed part of the ship. There was machinery in view, but no shafts or gears or power-leads. He guessed it to be machinery because it could not be anything else. He saw a dented case of metal, with an opened top. The boys had apparently dragged it into the relatively undamaged part of the ship to work upon its contents. He could see coils of bare metal, and arrangements which might have been inductances. He took a sort of forlorn pride in guessing that the thing was some sort of communication-device.
There was a board with buttons on it. It might be a control-board, but it didn't look like it. There was a metal box with a transparent plastic front. One could see cryptic shapes of metal inside. Two bright-metal balls mounted on a side-wall. They had holes in them, about the right size for the hands of children like these to enter. There was a two-foot, carefully machined spiral of metal, intruding into and lessening the living-space of the ship. These things had functions he could not even guess at. He found himself resentful of things which were obviously the developments of science, and he could not even guess what they were for.
But alien? He looked at the boys. They were human children. They had absolutely nothing of strangeness about them. Their hair, their eyes and eyelashes were normal. Their noses. Their lips. Their teeth. In every respect they were as human as he was, or Gail.
He looked to the most urgent problem of the moment. He snapped pictures, before anything else.
One of the boys turned to the dented metal case. He began to arrange its contents in a somehow final fashion. Soames guessed that it had been damaged in the landing, and they'd made a repair.
The second boy touched Soames' elbow and showed him the box with the clear plastic front. He touched it, and an image appeared in the plastic. It was an image of the landscape outside. He shifted the box, and the landscape image flashed sidewise. He touched another control. The landscape flowed swiftly toward the viewer. It raced. Presently the ground seemed to drop away and Soames found himself staring at a picture which showed the ice-sheet and the sky and—very far away—the dark blue line which was the sea, now a hundred miles distant.
The boy nodded and made delicate adjustments. Then Soames looked at an image of the Gissell Bay base from which he and the others had set out an hour before. It was a remarkably clear image. Soames could even see the supply-plane waiting on the runway until it was time for take-off. He knew unhappily that the box was something which was not a radar, but performed all the functions of one and so many others that it was a different thing entirely.
Then Gail said:
"Brad! Look at this!"
She held out two necklaces that the girls had given her. She showed him the ornaments at their ends. One was a very tiny horse. It was beautifully done, and obviously from life. The head was larger than an ordinary horse's head would be. The body was lightly built. Each of its tiny feet had three toes.
Gail watched Soames' face.
"You see? How about this?"
The ornament of the other necklace was a tiny metal fish. It had fins and a tail, but no scales. Instead, its body was protected by bony armor. It was a ganoid fish, like a sturgeon. But it was not a sturgeon, though sturgeons are now the main representatives of what once were innumerable ganoid species.
Soames shook his head, then spoke to Gail and Captain Moggs. "The ship was built for children to operate, I can't imagine why. But there's nothing like a weapon in view. I'm going to call Base before they get alarmed."
* * * * *
He made a report which sounded as if there were some minor trouble with the 'copter and he'd landed. It did not check with his last call speaking insistently of caution, but he couldn't help it. Other bases were on the same wave-length. He said he'd call back. He intended to call for help—in handling the matter of the children—as soon as it would seem plausible that he needed help to get off the ground again.
But he felt shaky, inside. The radar-report and the static and earth-shock and concussion-wave of the night before had been improbable enough. But this was more incredible still. The children's ship must have appeared in the middle of all those unlikely phenomena. It was reasonable for it to have crashed amid such violence. But where had it come from, and why?
They were human and they were members of a culture beside which the current culture on Earth was barbaric. It could not be an Earth civilization. On a world where for thousands of years men had killed each other untidily in wars, and where they now prepared to destroy themselves wholly in a final one, there was no possibility of such a civilization existing in secret. But where was it?
Soames stood by the 'copter, staring bemusedly at the ship. The two boys came out. They went briskly to the shattered part of the ship and picked up a metal girder neatly matching the one that leaned absurdly where it was fixed in the icy surface. By the ease of their movements, it could not be heavy. It would have to be aluminum or magnesium to be so light. Magnesium alloy, at a guess.
One boy held it upright by the slanting beam. The other produced a small object Soames could not see. He bent over the ice and moved his hand to and fro. The new girder sank into the ice. They slanted it to meet the one already fixed. They held it fast for a moment. They went back to the wrecked ship. The second girder remained fixed, like the first one.
Soames went to look. The metal beam was deeply imbedded in the ice which somehow did not chill the air above it.
He heard a small sound. One of the boys, the one in the brown, tunic-like shirt, swept something across the plating of the crumpled vessel. The plating parted like wet paper. Soames watched in a sort of neither believing nor unbelieving detachment. A whole section of plating came away. The boy in the brown tunic very briskly trimmed plating away from a strength-member and had a third metal beam. Whatever instrument he used, it cut metal as if it were butter.
Both boys brought the third beam to where the others leaned to form a tripod. But this third bit of metal was curved. They lowered it, and the boy in the brown tunic matter-of-factly sliced through the metal, took out a V-shaped piece, and obviously made the rest of the metal whole once more. They raised it again, the boy moved his hand over the ice, it sank into it, they held it a moment only, and went off to the ship.
Soames went numbly to see what had happened. He picked up scraps of the trimmed-away metal.
Soames puzzled over the metal scraps. They did not look cut. They had mirror-bright surfaces, as if melted apart. But there'd been no flame....
The boys reappeared with the dented case that Soames guessed was a communication device of some sort. They carried it to the new tripod. One of them carried, also, a complicated structure of small rods which could be an antenna-system to transmit radiation of a type that Soames could not conceive of.
Captain Moggs came towards him from the 'copter.
"I called Base," she said. "Two snow-weasels will start here within the hour. Another 'copter is due in from an advanced observation post at any moment. It will be sent here as soon as it arrives."
Soames wondered numbly just how indiscreet she'd been, in a short-wave conversation that could be picked up by any of the other-nation bases that cared to listen in. But, just then, Gail came out of the ship.
"Brad," she said anxiously, "what are the boys doing?"
Soames knew only too well. If the dented case contained a communicator, which would use so complicated an antenna as lay ready for use, there could only be one answer. And there could be only one thing for him to do, considering everything.
"They're shipwrecked. They're setting up something to signal for help with. They've landed on a world of rather primitive savages and they want somebody to come and take them away."
"It mustn't be permitted!" said Captain Moggs firmly. "The ship must be examined! In our modern world, with the military situation what it is...."
Soames looked at her ironically.
* * * * *
He had metal scraps in his hand, those he'd picked up to examine as a savage might examine sawdust. There was a threadlike extension of metal from one scrap. He twisted it off and put it on his sleeve. He struck a light with his cigarette lighter. He touched it to the fibre of metal. There was a burst of flame. His sleeve was singed.
"Mostly magnesium," he said detachedly. "It's possible that they don't think of fire as a danger. They may not use fire any more. We don't light our houses with open flames any longer. They may not use flames at all. But I'm a savage. I do."
He sorted through the bits of silvery metal. Another morsel had a wire-like projection. He saw the boy with the green tunic laying something on the snow, from the ship to the tripod.
"A power-line," he said appalled. "They've got to signal nobody knows how far, with nobody can guess how much power in the signal. And they use power-leads the size of sewing-thread! But of course the people who built this ship would have superconductors!" Then he said, "I may be committing suicide, but I think I ought to, rather than let ..."
He moved forward. His throat was dry. He struck his lighter and touched the flame to the thread of metal on the second scrap. It flared. He threw the whole piece just as all the flammable alloy caught fire. In mid-air it became a ball of savage white incandescence that grew larger and fiercer as it flew. It was a full yard in diameter when it fell upon the dented case the boys had brought here.
That burst into flame. The new-made tripod caught. Flame leaped thirty feet into the air. Soames was scorched and blinded by the glare. Then the fire died swiftly and snow-white ash-particles drifted down on every hand.
The boy in the brown tunic cried out fiercely. He held out his hand with the thing that had cut metal glittering in it.
Soames faced the fourteen-year-old grimly. The boy's face was contorted. There was more than anger in it. The boy in the green tunic clenched and unclenched his hands. His expression was purest horror. One of the girls sobbed. The other spoke in a tone of despair so great and grief so acute that Soames was almost ashamed.
Then the boy in the brown tunic spoke very, very bitterly to the girl who'd evidently said something to restrain him. He turned his eyes from Soames. He went into the ship, stumbling a little.
The whole air of the three remaining children changed utterly. They had been composed and confident and even zestful. They'd acted as if the wrecking of their ship were an adventure rather than a catastrophe. But now they were dazed by disaster. First one of the girls, and then the second boy, and then the other girl went despairingly into the ship.
* * * * *
Soames looked at Gail. The boy in the brown tunic had pointed at him with the object that cut metal plates in half. He'd been stopped, most likely, by the girl's grief-stricken words. Soames had a profound conviction that the boy could easily have killed him. He had an equally strong conviction that it could have been a low price to pay for preventing the rest of these children's race from finding Earth.
"I suppose," said Gail, "that you feel pretty badly."
"I'm a savage. I've destroyed their signalling device. I may have kept their civilization from destroying ours. I feel like a murderer," he told her grimly. "And of children, at that. With luck, I may have kept them from ever seeing their families again."
After a long time Gail said with a curiously mirthless attempt at humor:
"Do you know, this is the biggest news story that's ever happened? And do you know that nobody would believe it?"
"But this," said Captain Moggs firmly, "is a matter of such military importance that nothing must be said about it at all! Nothing!"
Soames made no comment, but he didn't think the matter could be kept secret.
They waited. The children stayed in the ship.
After a very long time the children appeared again. The girls' faces were tear-streaked. They brought small possessions and placed them neatly in the snow. They went back for more.
"At a guess," said Soames, "that super-radar of theirs has shown them a 'copter on the way. They know they can't stay here. I've made it impossible for them to hope to be found. They've got to let themselves be taken away and they want to keep these things."
The bringing-out of small objects ended. The boy in the brown tunic went back in the ship.
When he re-emerged, he said something in the bitterest of bitter voices. The girls turned their backs to the ship. The girl with brown eyes began to weep. The boy in the green tunic shifted the small tripod to a new position. As he carried it, the calmness and the warmth of the air changed remarkably. There was a monstrous gust of icy wind, and warm calm, and another gust. But when he put the tripod down again there was only calm once more.
Soames heard the droning of another 'copter, far away.
The boy in the green tunic held out his hand. It had the glittering tiny object in it. From a fifty-foot distance, he swept his hand from one end to the other of the wrecked ship. Flame leaped up. The magnesium-alloy vessel burned with a brightness that stung and dazzled the eyes. A monstrous, a colossal flaming flare leaped and soared ... and died. Too late, Soames fumbled for his camera. There was no longer a wrecked ship on the ice. There were only a few, smoking, steaming fragments.
When the second 'copter landed beside the first, the four children were waiting composedly to be taken away.
The world's affairs went on as usual. There were the customary number of international crises. The current diplomacy preferred blackmail by threat of atomic war.
Naturally, even Antarctica could be used to create turmoil. The population of the continent was confined to the staffs of research-bases established during the International Geophysical Year. In theory the bases were an object-lesson in co-operation for a constructive purpose, which splendid spirit of mutual trust and confidence must spread through the world and some day lead to an era of blissful and unsuspicious peacefulness.
But that time was not yet.
There'd been an outburst of static of an unprecedented kind.
It had covered the globe on all wave-lengths, everywhere of absolute maximum volume. It had used millions of times as much power as any signal ever heard before. No atom bomb could have made it. Science and governments, together, raised three very urgent questions. Who did it? How did they do it? And, why did they do it?
Each major nation suspected the others. Scientific progress had become the most urgent need of every nation, and was expected to be the end of all of them.
At Gissell Bay, however, the two 'copters came droning in, and settled down, and Gail and Soames and Captain Moggs got out, and instantly picked up a boy or a girl and hurried to get them out of the bitter cold.
The staff reacted immediately to the children. They tried to be reassuring. They tried to find a language the children could understand. They failed. Then when the children spoke slowly and carefully, they searched at least for familiar root-sounds. They found nothing. But certainly the children felt themselves surrounded by people who wished them well.
* * * * *
The base photographer developed and printed Soames' pictures. The design of the ship was clear and the children before it gave it scale. The interior pictures were not so good, wrongly focused. Still, there was plenty to substantiate Soames' report.
Aside from the pictures there were the things the children had selected to be brought. There was a cooking-pot. Its substance conducted heat in one direction only. Heat could enter its outside surface, but not leave it. Heat could leave its inside surface, but not enter it. Consequently, when the lid was on, the outer surface absorbed heat from the air around it and the inner surface released it, and the contents of the pot boiled merrily without fuel, while the outside became coated with frost.
Some of the physicists went about in a state of shock, trying to figure out how it happened. Others, starry-eyed, pointed out that if the cooking-pot had been a pipe, it could be submerged under a running river, yield live steam by cooling off the water that flowed past it, and that water would regain normal river temperature in the course of a few miles of sunlit flow. In such a case, what price coal and petroleum? In fact, what price atomic power?
The small tripod went up outside the base's main building. Instantly the spinner began to turn, the wind ceased. In minutes the air ceased to be biting. In tens of minutes it was warm. Meteorologists, refusing to believe their senses, explored the boundaries of the calm area. They came back, frost-bitten, swearing that there was a drop of eighty degrees beyond the calm area, and a rise of temperature beyond the cold belt. The tripod-spinner was a different application of the principle of the cooking-pot. Somehow the spinning thing made an area that heat could enter but not leave, and wind could not blow through. If the device could be reversed, deserts would become temperate zones. As it was, the Arctic and Antarctic could be made to bloom. The gadget was an out-of-doors heat-pump.
There was the box with the plastic sheet in it. One of the boys, very composed, operated it. On request, he opened it up. There was nothing in the case but a few curiously shaped bits of metal. The thing was too simple to be comprehensible when one did not know the principle by which it worked.
The same trouble showed up with every device examined.
These were important matters. Captain Moggs visibly grew in her own estimation. She commandeered a supply plane and took off immediately for Washington with the news of the event she'd witnessed, prints of Soames' photographs, and samples of the children's possessions which could be carried on her person.
* * * * *
Back at the base the most urgent problem was communication with the children. So Gail began gently to teach the taller girl some few English words. Very shortly she greeted Soames anxiously when he came to see how the process went.
"Her name," said Gail, "is Zani. The other girl—the one with blue eyes—is Mal, and the boy in the brown tunic is Fran and the one in the green is Hod. She understands that there's a language to be learned. She's writing down words in some sort of writing of her own. She was bewildered when I handed her a ball-point pen, but she understood as soon as I demonstrated. They must write with something else.
"But—what happens next? What's going to happen to the children? They've no friends, no family, nobody to care what happens to them! They're in a terrible fix, Brad!"
"For which I'm responsible," said Soames grimly, "and about which I'm already jittering."
"I'm responsible too!" said Gail quickly. "I helped! What are you worrying about?"
"They burned up their ship," said Soames more grimly still. "Why?"
She shook her head, watching his expression.
"They treated us like harmless savages in the beginning," he said. "Then I destroyed their only hope of getting in touch with their families and friends. So one of the boys destroyed their ship. But the others knew, and got ready for it by bringing some possessions out of it. Why?"
"I'm not sure ..." said Gail.
"If we'd captured their ship intact," Soames told her, "we'd have studied it. Either we'd have come to understand it, so we could build one too, or if we couldn't—being savages—we'd have given up entirely. In either case the children wouldn't matter to us. They'd simply have been castaways. As it is, they've got us where they want us. I suspect they've got some trinkets to trade with us, as we might offer beads to bushmen. Let them or help them signal to their families, they'll say, and their parents will make us all rich."
Gail considered. Then she shook her head.
"It won't work. We've got newspapers and news broadcasts. People will be too scared to allow it."
"Scared of four children?" demanded Soames.
"You don't realize what newspapers are," Gail said with a trace of wryness. "They don't live by printing news. They print 'true' stories, serials. 'True' crime stories, to be continued tomorrow. 'True' international-crisis suspense stories, for the next thrilling chapter read tomorrow's paper or tune in to this station! That's what's printed and broadcast, Brad. It's what people want and insist on. Don't you realize how the children will be served up in the news? 'Creatures From Space in Antarctica! Earth Helpless!'" She grimaced. "There won't be any demand for human-interest stories by Gail Haynes, telling about four nicely-raised children who need to be helped to get back to their parents. The public wouldn't like that so much.
"You'll see," Gail continued, "I'm very much afraid, Brad, that presently you and I will be the only people in the world who don't think the children had better be killed, for safety. You did the right thing for us, in not letting them signal to their families. But you don't need to worry about too much sympathy for the children!"
"And I got them into it," said Soames, morosely.
"We did," insisted Gail. "And we did right. But I'm going to do what I can to keep it from being worse for them than I can help. If you'll join me—"
"Naturally!" said Soames.
* * * * *
He went moodily away. He was unaware of Gail's expression as she looked after him. She turned slowly to the girl with her.
He found the other three children. They were the center of an agitated group of staff-members, trying to communicate by words and gestures, while the children tried not to show disturbance at their vehemence. A cosmic-particle specialist told Soames the trouble. Among the children's possessions there was a coil of thread-fine copper wire. Somebody had snipped off a bit of it for test, and discovered that the wire was superconductive. A superconductor is a material which has no electrical resistance whatever. In current Earth science tin and mercury and a few alloys could be made into superconductors by being cooled below 18 deg. Kelvin, or four hundred odd degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Above that temperature, superconductivity did not exist. But the children's wire was a superconductor at room temperature. A thread the size of a cobweb could carry all the current turned out by Niagara without heating up. A heavy-duty dynamo could be replaced by a superconductive dynamo that would almost fit in one's pocket. A thousand-horse-power motor would need to be hardly larger than the shaft it would turn. It would mean ...
"Let 'em alone!" snapped Soames. "They couldn't tell you how it was made, even if they could talk English! Give them a chance to learn how to talk! They've had a bad time anyhow."
He took the boys and the other girl away. He led them to his own quarters. He whistled for his dog, Rex, and showed the children how to play with him. They began to relax and enjoy the fun heretofore unknown to them.
* * * * *
Soames left his quarters and held his head. There was much to worry about. For example, Captain Moggs in Washington, there to pass on information perfectly calculated to bring about confusion. And at the base itself a completely natural routine event took place to make the confusion twice confounded.
The director of the Gissell Bay base made his normal, regular, short-wave report to the scientific organization which controlled and co-ordinated the base's activities and kept it supplied and equipped. The Gissell Bay director was an eminent scientist. He talked comfortably to an even more eminent scientist in the capital of the United States. Naturally, the static scream was mentioned in Washington. As naturally, the discovery of a crashed spaceship came up. It was important. It should be reported. It was. The Gissell Bay director went into details about the children and about the gadgets they'd selected to be salvaged when they destroyed their ship. A complete account preceded Captain Moggs to Washington, but not to the military. She was in charge of that angle.
The eminent scientist in Washington naturally discussed the report with other scientists who would naturally be as much concerned as himself. Later in the morning, one of those scientists received a reporter. The reporter asked various routine questions. In all innocence, the scientist who had been told by the scientist who had been told by the director at Gissell Bay, told the reporter.
And therefore, as Captain Moggs rode toward the Pentagon she did not notice the headlines, but they had already been seen in the Pentagon.
"SPACESHIP LANDS IN ANTARCTICA! Alien Life Forms Aboard Scientists Alarmed."
No newspaper would spoil a good story by underplaying it. Wire services wasted no time. There were other similar headlines all over the United States.
It should be added that the first editions of the first newspapers to print the story did mention that the invaders were in appearance like human children, but somehow it did not sound plausible. Also, other sorts of descriptions were more exciting. The description of children as invaders was classed as a guess. Then as a bad guess. Then as something so preposterous that it wasn't worth relating. Anyhow the point of the story was that a ship from off the Earth had landed, with intelligent beings in it, equipped with marvellous devices. And marvellous devices would naturally—in the state of the world at that time—be weapons. So rewrite men expanded the news service dispatches by the sound business-like rule that the public is entitled to get what it wants. The public likes to be scared.
A lieutenant-general greeted Captain Moggs at the Pentagon.
"This business is true?" he demanded. "A spaceship from off Earth has landed? It had a crew? The crew's still alive? Hell and damnation! What weapons have they got?"
* * * * *
Captain Moggs stammered but managed to give answers. They did not give an impression of a properly complete investigation of the landing of an alien spaceship. In particular, her statement that the crew of the ship was human children simply did not register.
"Hah!" said the lieutenant-general, bitterly. "Nothing to go on! You, Captain whatever-your-name-is, you were there when the ship was found, you say. Very well. Keep your mouth shut. Get a plane and go back."
He addressed his men, "Bring up all their stuff, the stuff they brought from their ship. Get the stray unburned parts of their ship. Get our guided missile men set to work on them and find out how the drive worked. They ought to come up with something! Round up some special-weapons men to investigate those fragments too. See what they've got! Work from these pictures until we've got the samples." He swung back to Captain Moggs. "You go back and bring those aliens and everything that can be brought! Bring everything! And in the meantime," he looked around his office, "a lid goes on this! Top secret—top-top secret! The newspapers have to be choked off. Deny everything!"
He waved his hand. She left the office.
Her plane was barely south of Virginia when a spokesman for the Pentagon assured a news conference that the Defense Department had no information about an alleged non-terrestrial spaceship landing in Antarctica. The newspaper reporters pulled newspapers from their pockets. The Pentagon had been denying things right and left, in obedience to orders. Now the newspapers printed reproductions of United Nations records, showing that at the request of the Defense Department four United Nations passports had been issued. The records said that the passports were for Jane and John Doe, and Ruth and Richard Roe, who obviously could not enter the United States without proper documents. The UN information on those persons was: birthplace, unknown; nationality, unknown; age, unknown; description, not given; race, unknown; occupation, unknown. And all the newspapers carried headlines about "SPACESHIP CREW US-BOUND." Or:
"TAKE US TO YOUR PRESIDENT"—ALIENS
Spaceship Crew Demands Top-Level Conference. Ultimatum Hinted At
It was not, of course, exclusively an American affair. The London Times pointed out the remarkable amount of detailed speculation in the air, as compared with the minute amount of admitted facts. But elsewhere: Pravda insisted that the aliens had refused to enter into discussions with America after learning of its capitalistic social system and tyrannical government. Ce Soir claimed exclusive private information that the crew of the spaceship—which was twelve hundred metres long—were winged monsters of repellant aspect. The official newspaper in Bucharest, to the contrary, said that they were intelligent reptiles. In Cairo it was believed and printed that the spacecraft was manned by creatures of protean structure, remarkably resembling legendary djinns.
There were other descriptions, all attributing monstrous qualities and brutally aggressive actions to the aliens.
And at Gissell Bay the staff became rather fond of four young people whose names were Zani, Fran, Hod and Mal, because they had been very well brought up by their parents and were thoroughly nice children.
* * * * *
They were tense, and they were desperately anxious and uneasy. But they displayed a resolute courage that made moderately decent people like them very much. Most of the research-staff wanted very badly to ask them questions, but that was impossible, so they studied the rather fuzzy photographs of the inside of the ship—the base photographer had run off several sets of extra prints—and poked helplessly at the things the children had brought with them, and racked their brains to imagine how such things work. The spinning thing atop the tripod made it quite pleasant to be out-of-doors around the Gissell Bay base, though there were forty-mile winds and thermometers read ten below zero two hundred yards from the thing Hod had set up. The cooking-pot boiled merrily without fuel, with an increasingly thick layer of frost on its outside. The thing Soames had called a super-radar allowed a penguin rookery to be watched in detail without disturbing the penguins, and Fran obligingly loaned his pocket instrument—the one that cut metal like butter—to the physicists of the staff.
He had to show them how to use it, though. It was a flat metal case about the size of a pocket cigarette lighter. It had two very simple controls, and a highly ingenious gimmick which kept it from turning itself on by accident.
In an oblique fashion, it was a heat-pump. One control turned it on and intensified or diminished its effect. The other controlled the area it worked on. In any material but iron, it made heat flow together toward the center of its projected field. Pointed at a metal bar, the heat from both ends flowed to the center, where the pocket device was aimed. The center became intensely hot. The rest went intensely cold. In seconds a bronze bar turned red-hot along a line a hundredth of an inch thick. Then it melted, a layer the thickness of tissue-paper turned liquid and one could pull the bar apart or slide it sidewise to separate it. But one needed to hold the bar in thick gloves, because liquid air could drip off if one were not careful. And it did not work on iron or steel.
Soames took Fran with Mal and Hod, to the improvised schoolroom where Gail labored to give Zani a minimum vocabulary of English words. Rex went happily along with the others.
Zani greeted the dog rapturously. She got down on the floor with him and tussled with him, her face beaming.
Soames' mouth dropped open. The other children hadn't known there was such a thing as a dog. They'd had to learn to play with Rex. But Zani knew about dogs and how to play with them on sight.
"I suppose," said Gail, not knowing of Soames' astonishment, "Zani will help me teach the other children some words."
But the boy Hod had picked up the ball-point pen Gail had needed to show Zani the use of. He didn't need to be shown. Without a glance at it, he began to write. A moment later he read off, slowly and clumsily and from the completely cryptic marks he'd made, the English words that Gail had taught Zani. Fran and Mal joined him. They painstakingly practiced the pronunciation of words Gail had taught Zani but not them.
It was another development that did not make sense.
Captain Moggs landed and went directly to the main building of the base. The children were playing with Rex.
"Children," she said with authority, "go inside and pack up. We are going back to the United States."
The girl Mal seemed to understand and went to tell the others.
Captain Moggs came upon Soames, feverishly making up bundles of objects the children had brought out of their ship before Fran—in the brown tunic—had burned it. Captain Moggs said approvingly:
"You must have anticipated my orders! But I thought it unwise to tell you by radio on the inter-base wave-length."
Soames said curtly:
"I don't know anything about your orders. They're refuelling your ship now. We need to get it aloft with Gail and the kids inside of fifteen minutes.
"We were clearing away a snow-weasel to take to the woods," he growled. "Not the woods, but the wilds. We've got company coming."
"Impossible!" said Captain Moggs. "I have top-level orders for this whole affair to be hushed up. The existence of the children is to be denied. Everybody is to deny everything. Visitors cannot be permitted! It's absolutely unthinkable!"
Soames grinned mirthlessly.
"It's six hours since the French asked if they might come over for a social call. We stalled them. The English suggested a conference about the extrawd'n'ry burst of static the other night. They were stalled off too. But just about an hour ago the Russians pulled their stunt. Emergency S.O.S. One of their planes with engine trouble. Can't get home. It's heading this way for an emergency landing, convoyed by another plane. Can you imagine us refusing permission for a ship in trouble to land?"
"I don't believe it's in trouble!" said Captain Moggs angrily.
"Neither do I," said Soames.
He passed a wrapped parcel to one side.
"They must be acting on orders," he said coldly. "And we don't know what their orders are. Until we realized you'd get here first, we were making ready to take the kids off in a snow-weasel. If we kept to soft snow, no plane could land near them. It's just possible somebody could claim the kids asked protection from us decadent, warmongering Americans, and they might be equipped to shoot it out. We aren't."
Some of the base specialists appeared to help Soames carry the parcels to the transport.
Gail appeared, muffled up for travel. Fran and Zani were with her, similarly clothed. They carried garments for the others.
Captain Moggs fled to the communications room to demand radio contact to Washington. But the radio was busy. The French, having been stalled off when they suggested a visit, were now urged to call immediately. The English, similarly put off, were now invited to drop in for tea. As Captain Moggs sputtered, the radio went on to organize a full-scale conference on common observational problems, plus a seminar on Antarctic scientific research in general. It would be a beautiful example of whole-hearted co-operation among scientific groups of different nationalities. It should set a charming example for the rest of the world. But members of the staff, arranging this swift block of possible trouble-making by unwelcome visitors, wore the unpleasant expression of people who are preparing to be very polite to people attempting to put something over on them. It was notable that the few sporting weapons at the base were passed out to those who could use them most effectively if the need arose.
The transport's fuel-tanks were topped. The remaining two children struggled into flying garments. The boy Hod took down the small tripod with its spinning thing on top. Instantly the area about the base main building became bitter cold. The children climbed into the transport after Gail.
Soames, swearing, climbed in after a still expostulating Captain Moggs. He did not like the idea of leaving while any chance of trouble stayed behind. But as a matter of fact, his leaving with the others removed nearly the last chance of it.
* * * * *
It was, though, the rational thing to do.
Representatives of the other nations would land at the American base, and assure themselves that there were no extraterrestrials in hiding nor any signs of a spaceship anywhere about. And there would result a scientific conference that would do some good. The extraordinary burst of static would be discussed, with no conclusion whatever. But the Americans would be able to make an agreement on methods of observation with the other bases so that observations in the future would yield a little more information than had been secured before.
Gail kept a quasi-maternal eye on the children until they dozed off. But she watched Soames' expression, too. She and Soames and Captain Moggs rode in the passenger section of the transport a few seats behind the children.
"I wish I could understand," said Gail, in a low tone to Soames. "The other children know everything I've taught Zani, and there's been no way for them to know! They know things they weren't in the room to learn, and Zani didn't have time to tell them! Yet it doesn't seem like telepathy. If they were telepaths they could exchange thoughts without speaking. But they chatter all the time!"
"If they'd been telepaths," said Soames, "they'd have known I was going to burn their signalling apparatus. They could have stopped me, or tried to, anyhow."
* * * * *
Captain Moggs had paid no attention. Now she asked, "Why does the public insist on details of matters the military think should be kept secret?"
"Because," said Gail briefly, "it's the public that gets drowned by a tidal wave or killed by a cyclone. If strangers from space discover Earth, it's the public that will suffer."
"But," said Captain Moggs querulously, "it is necessary for this to be kept secret!"
"Unfortunately," said Soames. "The story broke before that decision was made."
He thought how inevitable it was that everybody should see the situation from their own viewpoint only. Captain Moggs from the military; Gail had a newspaper-woman's angle tempered with feminine compassion. And he was fascinated by the innumerable possibilities the technology of the children's race suggested. He yearned for a few days alone with some low-temperature apparatus. The hand-tool of Fran's bothered him.
He told Gail.
"What has low temperature to do?" she asked.
"They've got some wire that's a superconductor at room temperature. We can't have superconductors above 18 deg. Kelvin, which is colder than liquid hydrogen. But a superconductor acts like a magnetic shield, no, not exactly. But you can't touch a magnet to one. Induced currents in the superconductor fight its approach. I'd like to know what happens to the magnetic field. Does it cancel, or bounce, or what? Could it, for instance, be focussed?"
"I don't see ..."
"Neither do I," said Soames. "But I've got a hunch that the little pocket gadget Fran carries has some superconductor in it. I think I could make something that wouldn't be his instrument, at all—it would do different things—but that gadget does suggest some possibilities I fairly ache to try out."
"And I," said Gail, with a faint smile, "I want to try to write something that nobody would print. I'd like to write the real story as I see it, the children from a viewpoint nobody will want to see."
He looked at her, puzzled.
"My syndicate wants a story about the children that nobody will have to think about. No recognition of a problem in plain decency with the children considered as human as they are, but just a story that everybody could read without thinking anything but what they wanted to. They're nice children. Somebody raised them very well. But with most people nowadays thinking that if children aren't ill-bred they're frustrated...."
She made a helpless gesture as the plane bellowed onward.
* * * * *
Presently the moon shone on Fran's face. He moved in his sleep. After a little he opened his eyes and gasped a little. He looked startledly around, an instinct of anyone waking in a strange place. Then he turned back. He saw the moon.
He uttered a little cry. His face worked. He stared at the misshapen, incompletely round companion of Earth as if its appearance had some extraordinary, horrifying meaning for him. His hands clenched.
Behind him, Gail whispered:
"Brad! He's—horrified! Does that mean that he and the other children need to signal to someone ..."
"I doubt it very much," said Soames. "If his parents and companions had landed on the moon, and I stopped him from signalling to them, he might look hopefully at it, or longingly, but not the way he does."
Fran touched the other boy, Hod. Hod waked, and Fran spoke to him in an urgent whisper. Hod jerked his head about and stared at the moon as Fran had done. He made a little whimpering noise. Then Mal made a bubbling sound, as from a bad dream. She waked. Then Zani roused and began to ask what was obviously a question, and stopped short. They spoke to each other in hushed voices in that unintelligible language of theirs.
"I've got an idea," said Soames in a flat, unbelieving tone. "Let's see."
Soames went forward and into the pilot's compartment. He came back with binoculars. He touched Fran on the shoulder and offered them. Fran stared up at him with dazed eyes, not really attending to Soames at all. He looked back at the moon.
He focussed the binoculars. They were excellent glasses. The ring-mountains at the edge of sunshine on the moon were very, very distinct. He could see those tiny speckles of light on the dark side of the terminator which were mountain-tops rising out of darkness into the sunshine. There was Aristarchus and Copernicus and Tycho. There were the vast, featureless "mares,"—those plains of once-liquid lava which had welled out when monstrous missiles the size of counties buried themselves deep in the moon's substance. The moon could be seen as battered; shattered, devastated; destroyed.
Soames touched Fran's shoulder again and showed him how one looked through the binoculars. Fran's hand shook as he took them. He put them to his eyes.
Zani put her hands over her eyes with a little cry. It was as if she tried to shut out the sight that Fran saw. Mal began to cry quietly. Hod made little gasping noises.
Fran lowered the binoculars. He looked at Soames with a terrible hatred in his eyes.
Soames went back to Gail, leaving the binoculars with the children. He found himself sweating.
"When," asked Soames harshly, "were the mountains on the moon made? It's an interesting question. I just got an answer. They were made when there were three-toed horses and many ganoid fishes on the earth."
* * * * *
"The children knew the moon when it—wasn't the way it is now," he said with some difficulty. "You know what that is! Ring-mountains sometimes hundreds of miles across, splashings of stone from the impact of asteroids and moonlets and islands of rock and metal falling from the sky. The mares are where the moon's crust was punctured and lava poured out. The streaks are where up-flung stuff was thrown hundreds of miles!
"It was a guess," said Soames. "But it's not a guess any longer. There was a Fifth Planet, and it either exploded or was blown to bits, heaven knows how! But the moon was bombarded by the wreckage, and so was Earth! Mountain-ranges fell from the sky right here on this world, too. There was destruction on Earth to match that on the moon. Perhaps here and there some place remained undestroyed, an acre here, perhaps a square mile a thousand miles away. Some life survived, and now it's all forgotten. There are rains and winds and frost. Earth's scars wore away through millions of years. We don't even know where the wounds were! But there were people in those days!
"And they were civilized," continued Soames. "They had superconductors and one-way conductors of heat. They had reached the point where they didn't need fire any more, and they built ships of magnesium alloy. They saw the Fifth Planet when it flew apart. They knew what must happen to Earth with the whole solar system filled with a planet's debris. Earth would be smashed; wrecked; depopulated, made like the moon is now! Maybe they had ships that went to other planets, but not enough to carry all the race. And the only other planets they could use were the inner ones, and they'd be smashed like the Earth and moon? What could they do? There might be one or two survivors here and there, bound to lapse into savagery because they were so few. But where could the civilized race go?"
Gail made an inarticulate sound.
"They might," said Soames in a flat voice, "they might try to go into the future; into the time beyond the catastrophe, when Earth would have healed its wounds. They might send someone ahead to see if it were possible. Yet if they sent one ship first—with everyone left behind doomed to die—if they sent one ship first, it's reasonable that they'd give children the chance of survival. It's even reasonable that they'd send two boys and two girls...."
"They—had a transmitter," Gail said, as if breathing hurt her. "You destroyed it. They meant to signal, not for help as we thought, but for their people to join them. M-maybe now they're hoping to get the material and the power to build another transmitter. Since everything they use is so simple, the boys might have been taught how. They were taught to repair the one they had! They did repair it! Maybe they can make one, and hope we'll help them! They'd have been especially trained...."
"Nice, isn't it?" asked Soames. "They were sent here in some fashion to make a beachhead for the landing of their people. A civilization that's starkly, simply doomed unless it can migrate. No mere conquest, with tribute to be paid to it. It has to take over a whole planet! It has to take over Earth, or die!" He winced. "And the kids, now, think of their parents as waiting for mountains to fall upon them from the sky, and I've doomed them to keep on waiting. Now the kids must be hoping desperately that they can get us to give them the means to save everything and everybody they care about, even though we're destroyed in the process! Isn't it pretty?
"If anybody else finds out what we know, the children will be hated as nobody was ever hated before. They'll be known for the deadly danger they are. We're primitives, beside their civilization! We'll have to fight, because there's no room for the population of another whole world, here! There's no food for more people! We can't let them come, and they must die if they don't come, and the children must be here to open the way for them to come in hordes.
"The children mustn't be allowed to build anything we don't understand or that might let them open communication with their people. If they try, they'll be trying to serve their own race by destroying this. And they'd have to destroy us and—" his voice was fierce—"I'm not going to let anything happen to you!"
Gail's cheeks were white, but a trace of color came into them then. Yet she looked remorseful as she glanced forward to where the children murmured hopelessly together.
The jet transport got new flight orders while it was in the air over South Carolina. There was a new attitude toward their ship and its occupants among the military men and the political heads of governments. The new attitude was the result of mathematics.
It was the burst of static screaming, three whole seconds long, which made the matter something much more than a thing to maneuver with and make public pronouncements about. In every nation it eventually occurred to somebody to compute the power in that meaningless signal. It was linked with the appearance of the children's ship—which nobody really believed had contained children—and therefore it was artificial. But the power, the energy involved was incredible. The computations went to defense departments and heads of state. They reacted. And in consequence the jet-plane was ordered to change course and head west.
After many hours the transport landed. A hillside rose before it. A vast, grass-covered area lifted up. It was a great door. The transport rolled deliberately into a monstrous, windowless, artificial cavern, and the hillside closed behind it.
This was a base, too, but not like the one at Gissell Bay. The existence of this one would be denied. It was hoped that it would be forever unused for its designed purpose. Soames never saw any part of it that he was not supposed to see. Nobody ever mentioned to him any function it could perform except the hiding of children from a spaceship that happened to have crashed on Antarctica. But he guessed that if atomic war should ever burst on Earth, that rockets rising from this place and others like it would avenge the destruction done to America.
* * * * *
Presently Gail and the children were installed in a remarkably ordinary small cottage, and Soames frowned. They'd arrived at the village by elevator from a tunnel hundreds of feet underground, but the village in which the cottage stood looked exactly like any other remote and sleepy settlement. Soames began a protest against Gail being so isolated and so much alone. But, unsmilingly, he was shown that there was an electrified fence, with guards, and another a mile beyond, and a third still farther, with watch-posts beyond that. Nobody would intrude upon the village. But from the air it would look perfectly commonplace. There was no indication at all of shafts from deep underground to what appeared an ordinary country general store. There was no sign of tunnels from the different houses to that merchandising mart.
Soames went off to be assigned other quarters. He wanted to work on some items that had come into his mind during the last hours of the flight. He'd guessed, to Gail, that the children came out of remotest time. There was evidence for it, but it need not be true. So he'd made a test.
When the children had breakfasted he drew on a sketch-pad a diagram of part of the solar system. A dot for the sun, and a circle with a dot on it for Mercury, the innermost planet. Another dot on a circle for Venus, the second world out. A third circle and a dot for Earth and its orbit, and beside the dot indicating Earth he drew a crescent, for the moon. Alongside the dot standing for Mars he drew two crescents, because Mars has two tiny moons.
The children discussed the diagram. Zani ended it with a decisive remark in the language they used. Fran drew a fifth circle, placed a dot to indicate a fifth planet, and put four crescents beside it, then drew a sixth circle with a large dot and drew twelve crescents beside that.
Soames drew a deep breath. The twelve-moon planet was certainly Jupiter, which is now next out from the sun after Mars. The number of moons made it unmistakable. But Fran put a Fifth Planet, with four moons, where now there is only planetary debris, the asteroids.
The diagram quite distinctly proved, to Soames' satisfaction, that the hypothetical Fifth Planet had existed, with four moons, and that the children had come out of time rather than across space. And he was now grimly sure about the reason for the children's coming to Earth of here and now.
Bombardment from space is not unknown. In 1914 there was a meteoric fall in Siberia which knocked down every tree for fifty miles around. A few thousand years earlier, eight or ten, Canon Diablo crater was formed in Colorado by a missile from the heavens which wiped out all life within a thousand-mile radius. Earlier still a much larger crater was formed in Canada, and there are yet traces of an even more remote monster-missile landing in South Africa. The ring-mountain there is largely worn away, but it was many miles across.
* * * * *
The situation of the children's race amounted to an infinitely speeded-up bombardment instead of a millennial sniping from the sky. The Fifth Planet was newly shattered into bits. Its fragments plunged upon Earth and moon as they had weeks earlier battered Mars, and as fortnights later they would devastate Venus and plunge upon Mercury. Jagged portions of the detonated planet filled the sky of Earth with flames.
The ground shook continuously. With a mad imprecision of timing, mountain-ranges plummeted out of the sky at utterly unpredictable times and places. Anywhere on Earth, at night-time, living creatures might look upward and see the stars blotted out in irregularly-shaped, swiftly enlarging areas which would grow until there was only blackness overhead. But that could not last. It turned abruptly to white-hot incandescence as the falling enormity touched atmosphere, and crashed down upon them.
No living thing which saw the sky all turned to flame lived to remember it. Not one survived. Obviously! They were turned to wisps of incandescent gas, exploding past the normal limits of Earth's air. Some may have seen such plungings from many miles away and died of the concussion. The ground heaved in great waves which ran terribly in all directions. Vast chasms opened in the soil, and flames as of hell flowed out of them. Seashores were overwhelmed by mountainous tidal waves, caused by cubic miles of seawater turned to steam when islands fell into the ocean at tens of miles per second.
This was what happened to Earth in the time from which the children came. Perhaps their elders had foreseen it in time to take some measures, which would be the children's ship. But that ship had been built very hastily. It could have been begun before the bombardment started, or it could have been completed only near the end, when asteroids already plunged into defenseless Earth and it heaved and writhed in agony.
Humans caught in such a cosmic trap would be in no mood to negotiate or make promises, if any sort of beachhead to the future could be set up. They would pour through and the world of the present must simply dissolve into incoherence. There could be no peace. It was unthinkable.
* * * * *
The investigation-team from the East arrived to learn from Soames all about the landing of the ship.
He told them, giving them the tape from the wave-guide radar and speaking with strict precision of every event up to the moment of his arrival at Gissell Bay with the children and their artifacts. He did not mention telepathy or time-travel because they seemed so impossible.
When the military men wanted information about instantly available super-weapons, he told them that he knew nothing of weapons. They'd have to judge from the gadgets the children had brought. When the public-relations men asked briskly from what other planet or solar system the spaceship had come, and when a search-ship might be expected, looking for the children, he was ironic. He suggested that the children might give that information if asked in the proper language. He didn't know it. But the two physicists were men whose names he knew and respected. They listened to what he said. They'd look at the devices from the ship and then come back and talk to him.
He went back to his brooding. The children had travelled through time. Everything pointed to it, from the meteor-watch radar to the children's reaction at sight of the pock-marked moon and their knowledge that there should have been a Fifth Planet, to which they assigned four moons. It had happened. Positively. But there was one small difficulty. If time-travel were possible, a man travelling about in the past might by some accident kill his grandfather, or his father, in which case he could not be born, and hence could not possibly go back in time. But if he did not go back in time he would be born and could face the possibility of preventing his own existence—if time-travel was possible. But this was impossible, so time-travel was impossible.
On a higher technical level, there is just one law of nature which seems infallibly true, since its latest modification to allow for nuclear energy. It is the law of the conservation of mass and energy. The total of energy and matter taken together in the universe as a whole, cannot change. Matter can be converted to energy and doubtless energy to matter, but the total is fixed for all time and for each instant of time. So, if a ship could move from one time-period to another, it would lessen the total of matter and energy in the time-period it left, and increase the total when—where—where-when it arrived. And this would mean that the law of the conservation of mass and energy was wrong. But it wasn't. It was right.
Soames tried to reconcile what he had to accept with what he knew. He failed. He provisionally conceded that the children's civilization did something which in his frame of reference was impossible. They had other frames of reference than his. He tried to find their frame of reference in something simpler than time-travel. He picked one impossible accomplishment and tried to duplicate it, then to approach it, then to parallel it. He scribbled and diagrammed and scowled and sweated. He had no real hope, of course. But presently he swore abruptly and stared at what he had drawn.
* * * * *
He'd begun a second set of diagrams when the two physicists of the investigation-team came back. There was a short man and a thin one. They looked dazed.
"They are children," said the thin man in a very thin voice, "and they are human children, and their science makes us ridiculous. They are centuries ahead of us. I could not understand any device they had. I could not imagine how any of them worked."
"It is impossible to talk at a distance," said Soames.
"What do you mean?" asked the thin man, still numb from what he'd seen.
"Sound diminishes as the square of the distance," Soames explained. "You can't make a sound—unless you use a cannon—that can be heard ten miles away. It's impossible to talk at a distance."
"I feel crazy too," said the short man, "but there are telephones."
"It's not talking at a distance. You talk to a microphone at a few inches. Someone listens to a receiver held against his ear. You don't talk to the man, but the microphone. He doesn't listen to you, but a receiver. The effect is the same as talking at a distance, so you ignore the fact that it isn't. I've played a game with the things the children brought. I won it, one game."
Both men listened intently.
"I've been pretending," said Soames, "that I'm a member of the kids' race, cast away like they are on Earth. As a castaway I know that things can be done that the local savages—us—consider impossible. But I need special materials to do them with. My civilization has provided them. They don't exist here. But I refuse to sink to barbarism. Yet I can't reconstruct my civilization. What can I do?"
* * * * *
The thin physicist suddenly raised his head. The short man looked up.
"I'll take what materials the savages of Earth can supply," said Soames. "I'll settle for an approximation. And in practice, as a castaway in a savage environment, I'll wind up with a civilization which isn't that of the savages, and isn't of my own race, but in some ways is better than either because it's tailored to fit the materials at hand and the environment I'm in."
The short physicist said slowly:
"I think I see what you're driving at. But it's just an idea...."
"I tried it on that one-way heat conductor," said Soames. "I can't duplicate it. But I've designed something that will mean nearly but not quite what their cooking-pot does. Take a look at this."
He spread out the completed diagram of the first thing he'd worked on. It was quite clear. He'd helped design the meteor-watch radar at Gissell Bay, and his use of electronic symbols was normal. There was only one part of the device that he'd needed to sketch in some detail. The thin physicist traced the diagram.
"You've designed a coil with extremely low self-induction—"
"Not low," corrected Soames. "Negative. This has less than no self-induction. It feeds back to instead of fighting an applied current. Put any current in it, and it feeds back to increase the magnetism until it reaches saturation. Then it starts to lose its magnetism and that feeds back a counter-emf which increases the demagnetizing current until it's saturated with opposite polarity. You get an alternating magnet, which doesn't evolve heat because of its magnetic instability, but absorbs heat trying to maintain its stability. This thing will absorb heat from anywhere—the air, water, sunlight or what have you—and give out electric current."
The two scientists stared, and traced the diagram again, and stared at each other.
"It—should!" said the thin man. "It—it has to! This is magnificent! It's more important than one-way heat conduction! This is ..."
"This is not nearly as convenient as a pot that gets cold on the outside so it can get hot on the inside," observed Soames. "From a castaway's standpoint it's crude. But this is what can happen from two civilizations affecting each other without immediately resorting to murder. You might try it."
The two physicists blinked. Then the short man said uneasily:
"Can we do it?"
The thin man said more feverishly than before:
"Of course! Look at that weather-making thing! We can't duplicate it exactly, but when you think— There's no Hall effect in liquids. Nobody ever tried to find one in ionized gases. But when you think—"
The short man gulped. Then he said:
"You won't change the temperature, and to make an equation—"
They talked to each other, feverishly. They scribbled. They almost babbled in their haste. When the other members of the investigating-team arrived, they had the look of men who walk on clouds.
The military men were not happy. They were empty-handed. They could not even get statistical information from the children.
They had no useful information. Fran's pocket instrument was cryptic, and held no promise as a weapon. They could not hope to duplicate what Soames had called a super-radar. The cooking-pot, if duplicated, might by modification supply power for ships and submarines, or even planes. But there were no weapons. None.
* * * * *
The public-relations men were frightened. The children's coming must produce a financial panic. All of Earth's civilization was demonstrably out of date. Earth technology was so old-fashioned that instantly its obsolescence was realized, our economic system must fall apart.
Only the two physicists beamed at each other. They'd learned no scientific facts from the children or their equipment, but they'd picked up a trick of thinking from Soames.
By that time it was night. Soames went again to the surprisingly ordinary cottage that Gail occupied with the four children.
"I've had quite a day," said Gail tiredly. "And I'm worried; for the children. For you. For myself. I'm—I'm terrified, Brad!"
He put out his hands. He steadied her. Then, without intending it, he held her close. She did not resist. She cried heart-brokenly on his shoulder from pure nervous strain.
Suddenly Captain Moggs appeared. Gail was immediately composed and remote. But one hand, holding Soames' sleeve, still quivered a little.
"It's dreadful!" said Captain Moggs. "You'll never be able to believe what's happened! The Russians have pictures of the spaceship! The pictures Mr. Soames took! They know everything! They must have gotten the pictures when their planes landed at Gissell Bay! But how?"
* * * * *
Soames could have answered, and quite accurately. Some enterprising member of the Russian scientific team had been left alone in the developing-room at the base.
"They gave copies of the pictures to the UN assembly," wailed Captain Moggs. "All of them! They say they are pictures of the alien ship which landed—and they are—and they say that we Americans took the crew to the United States—which we did—but they say we're now making a treaty with the non-human monsters who came in the ship! They say that we're selling out the rest of humanity! That we're making a bargain to betray the world to horrors out of space, in return for safety for ourselves! They demand that the United Nations take over the ship and its crew."
Soames whistled softly. The charge was just insane enough to be credited. There was no longer a ship, too, and the children were far from monsters. So there was no way to convince anyone that America even made an honest attempt to satisfy or answer the complaint. The matter of the children and their ship had been badly handled. But there was no way to handle it well. The coming of the children was a catastrophe any way you looked at it.
"There was nothing to be done," mourned Captain Moggs, "but state the facts. Our delegation said the ship crashed on landing, and its occupants needed time to recover from the shock and to develop some way to communicate with us. Our delegation said a complete report hadn't even been made to our government, but that one will be prepared and made public immediately."
Gail looked up at Soames in the darkness. He nodded.
"That report," said Soames. "That's us. Particularly you."
"Yes," said Gail confidently. "You write the technical side, and I'll do a human-interest story for the UN that will make everybody love them!"
Soames felt more than usually a scoundrel.
"Hold it," he said unhappily. "It's all right to make the kids attractive, but not too much. Do you remember why?"
Gail stopped short.
"They don't come from a comfortably distant solar system," said Soames, more unhappily still. "They come from Earth, from another time, where there are mountains falling from the sky. And the children's families have to stay right where they are until flaming islands turn their sky to flame and crash down on them to destroy them. Because we can't let them come here."
Gail stared up at him, and all the life went out of her face.
"Oh, surely!" she said with bitterness. "Surely! That's right! We can't afford it! I don't know about you or the rest of the world, but I'm going to hate myself all the rest of my life!"
Soames, remembering Rex, got two puppies for the children next morning. He was inside the cottage when Captain Moggs turned up. He watched Mal and Hod, outside on the lawn, playing with the two small dogs. Zani sat at a table indoors, drawing. Gail had shown her pictures of cities and provided her with paper and soft pencils. Zani grasped the idea immediately. She drew, without remarkable skill but with a certain pleasing directness. Now she drew a city while Gail hovered near.
"I reported to Washington of your willingness to work on the report, Mr. Soames," said Captain Moggs with gratification. "Your status has been clarified. The papers are on the way here now."
Soames started a little. From where he stood, he could watch Mal and Hod out of a window, and by turning his eyes he could see Zani. She could see nothing that went on where Mal cuddled one puppy, girl-fashion, while Hod played in quite another fashion with the other. The window was behind Zani.
Soames had not been too attentive. He realized it.
"What's that, Captain?"
"Your status is clarified," said Captain Moggs, authoritatively. "You have been appointed a civilian consultant. You had no official status before. The bookkeeping problem was serious. Now you have a civil service status, a rating, an assimilated rank and a security classification."
Soames turned again to watch the children out-of-doors. Fran came around from the back of the cottage. He carried something in his hands. It was a white rabbit. He'd brought it to show Mal and Hod. They put down the puppies and gazed at it in amazement, stroking its fur and talking inaudibly.
Soames looked swiftly at Zani. Her pencil had ceased to make strokes upon the paper. She had the expression of someone watching absorbedly, though her eyes were on the paper before her.
Gail stirred, and Soames made a gesture to her. Puzzled, she came to his side. He said quietly:
"Watch the kids outside and Zani at the same time."
Fran retrieved the rabbit and went away with it, to give it back to its owners. Zani returned to her drawing. The two children outside went back to the puppies. One small dog sprawled triumphantly over the other with an expression of bland amiability on his face. For no reason at all, he began to chew meditatively on the other puppy's ear. His victim protested with no indignation at all.
* * * * *
Zani, with her back to the scene, giggled to herself. The two children outdoors separated the puppies to play with them again, individually.
"Zani knew," said Soames under his breath. "She knew what the others saw."
"It happens all the time," said Gail in a similar low tone. "I've noticed, since you pointed it out. But they aren't telepaths! They talk to each other constantly. If they were telepaths they wouldn't need to."
Captain Moggs exclaimed. She'd gone to look at Zani's drawing:
"Really, Gail, the child draws very nicely! But do you think she should waste time on pictures like this, when it's so important that she and the others learn English?"
Gail said quietly:
"She's drawing pictures of her own world. That's a city like her people build. I thought it would be a good idea to get such pictures from her."
Gail went to look at the drawing, at which Zani labored with a young girl's complacent absorption in something she knows will be approved by a grown-up when it's done. With a gesture, Gail invited Soames to look. He did.
Zani had drawn the sky-line of a city, but it was an odd one. There were tall buildings, but their walls were draping, catenary curves. There were splendid towers and soaring highways, which leaped across emptiness to magnificent landings. There were groups of structures with no straight line visible anywhere.
"Interesting," said Soames. "That kind of building has been suggested as ultra-modern architecture. They don't have an external steel frame. There's a central mast from which all the floors are hung. They have to be braced by cables, which make catenary curves like suspension-bridges on end."
Zani went on with her drawing. Gail said:
"It isn't fantasy, then. Look at this. It's a—maybe you'll call it a car. Only it looks like a sled. Or maybe a motorcycle."
She showed him a finished sketch. With a childish directness, yet a singular effect of direct observation, Zani had drawn a vehicle. It did not have wheels. It rested on what looked like two short, thick runners like skids.
"This isn't fantasy, either," said Soames. "There've been wheelless vehicles built lately. They're held an inch or so above the ground by columns of air pouring out. They ride on cushions of air. But they have to have perfect highways. It isn't likely that a child would draw them if she hadn't seen them."