The weather above the mighty, gentle swells of the Pacific Ocean was gorgeous: brilliant sun, light, cool easterly wind, clouds like balls of cotton scudding smoothly as they simmered into ever-new shapes. It was a seaman’s day, a fisherman’s day, a day that suggested eternal peace.
But the topside weather was of no immediate concern or interest to those aboard the strange, four-sphered submarine cruising several hundred meters under the surface. A typhoon wouldn’t have disturbed their work in the deep. Naturally they’d noticed the fine weather that morning before they departed the Oceanic Research Directorate. That splendid old Victorian mansion on Petal Point afforded clear views of the weather in all directions, especially over the bluffs and across the Pacific. If one cared to see further, one need only climb the stairs from the laboratories to the widow’s walk on the roof. Or for longer views still, one could mount the spiral staircase all the way up into the no-longer used lighthouse that rose from the middle of the building.
But this was an undersea workday, and having glimpsed and acknowledged the fine weather through the picture windows at O.R.D., Dr. Harriman Nelson, the director, and Dr. John Robinson, is associate, and Penny Robinson had taken the elevator down two-hundred feet to the submarine pen, boarded the submarine, and put to sea.
Now they were some three-hundred miles off the California coast, some four-hundred meters deep, gliding along among the schools of darting fish, the swirling squid, and the floating gardens of plankton and seaweed. Their mission for the day called for cruising along the eastern fringes of the broad, cool, southbound California Current, sampling the water for temperature variations and the drift of minute sea life.
John Robinson sat at the laboratory table, his blue eyes focused into a microscope. Across the table from him, wearing a white lab coat just like his, sat Harry Nelson, hunched, also peering into a microscope. While John sat quite still, Nelson, as usual, fidgeted, tapping his fingers on the table and his feet on the deck. Even his unruly reddish-brown hair seemed charged with excess energy. These two scientists formed, in their dissimilar personalities, a smooth-functioning team, balancing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, moods and styles. John was the more reserved, cautious and disciplined of the two; Nelson was the more blithe-spirited, gay, seemingly carefree partner. But both were extremely diligent and precise in their work.
Penny emerged from a nap in her bathtub-tank, where she restored her respiratory needs by breathing for an hour underwater, and entered the laboratory sphere to take a chair at the end of the lab table and watch silently while John and Nelson poured over their sides. She was wearing her usual outfit of tight, form-fitting one-piece swimsuit and O.R.D. windbreaker. On her left leg a symbol whose meaning had puzzled them all ever since Penny had been found unconscious on the beach---a surrealistic design of a spiral conch shell over a row of tiny peaks of waves----was tattooed.
Nelson removed one slide from the microscope and replaced it with another, hunching his stocky body forward to look down into the lens.
A few moments later, John changed slides too, angling his much leaner body forward, shoulders squared into a more proper position. “We’re picking up some junk on these shrimp, Harry,” he said, “or maybe I should say the shrimp are picking up some junk.” He was staring at the highly magnified form of nearly microscopic shrimp culled from near the ocean floor one hour earlier. “Damned if I don’t think they’re getting hit with some oil.”
“What a shame,” Nelson said. “It used to be so clean out here.”
“Take a look, Penny,” he said.
Penny slid over to a seat beside him and looked into the lens. “Yes, it is oil. But not crude. It is refined, as if leaked from an engine.”
“Well, that’s hopeful,” he said, as she pushed the microscope back in front of him. “At least we’re not dealing with some tanker flushing its tanks, or a spill from a drilling rig.”
“No,” Penny said, “not this time.”
In the forward communications compartment, the chief radio operator, boyish and curly-haired Roy Olson, nicknamed “Shelly” by the crew for his habit of jotting down bits of poetry during slow periods at his console, sat searching for a word that rhymed with “hayseed.”
His creative reverie was broken by a call from the Directorate headquarters back at Petal Point.
“Hello, Roy?” Are you there?”
The voice and style of Al Calavicci were unmistakable. Several people had tried to instruct Calavicci in the proper manner of ship-to-shore address, but he always fell back on his own style, which was to use the radio like a private telephone at Scotland Yard: “Roy? Are you there?”
Roy hastily scribbled “nosebleed” to end his poem, and punched up the “talk” button. “Yes, sir. I read you. Go ahead, sir.”
“Yes.” Calavicci took a deep, audible breath. “This is priority. Patch me through to Dr. Robinson at once!”
“Yes, sir,” Roy drawled. He pushed two buttons on his console, then leaned over to the intercom, “Dr. Robinson? There’s an urgent call from Mr. Calavicci at the Directorate. The line’s open.”
Looking up form his microscope in the lab sphere, Nelson said, “Tell him we’re out to lunch, John. Even over the radio the breeze from his mouth fogs my slides.”
“As it happens, Harry,” came Al’s stiff voice over the radio, “I’m already patched in. I have an urgent call for you from NASA, John.”
Before John could answer, Nelson beckoned to him excitedly. “Look at this, John,” he said, shoving his microscope across the table to him. “I’ve never known this stuff to drift so far south.”
John looked, oblivious to Al’s heavy breathing over the radio. “I see. Isn’t that something? That certainly confirms your theory about the current drift down from....”
“Listen!” Al’s command plea burst through the speakers. “You people aren’t listening to me! I said NASA wants to talk to you! NASA! That’s big time! It’s urgent!”
John sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Why don’t you talk to them for us, Al?” he called toward the squawk box. “You’re the administrator.”
Al Calavicci was, in fact, the administrator of O.R.D., and his value lay in the fact that he had good connections and apparently some influence in fund-raising circles. He was--rather mysteriously in the two scientists’ e4yes----good at supplying the Directorate with ample budgets for their research. Other than that he was simply tolerated. A well-meaning man, Al affected a Brooklyn accent and carried a cane.
“They don’t want to talk to me,” Al said in a lowered voice, the tone of which caused John to imagine the pout that accompanied it. “They want to talk to you. It’s important enough for them to require that you use the scrambler.”
The scrambler, a device that garbled the transmitted voice until it was fed through a special descrambler to straighten it out---a procedure to prevent unwanted ears from listening in---was located in the communications compartment up forward.
John stretched and put his hands behind his head. “Well, Harry, the day could come when we’ll need NASA cooperation---as they continually remind us. So why don’t you go talk to them?”
“Me? Why me?” Nelson scratched his head and gave him a mock frown. “You, John, are an intelligent and clever scientist. Besides which, you’re so sensitive to governmental politics and methods that I stand in awe of you. You put me to shame in that regard. In fact, I rather hate that quality in you, John.”
“Aw, take the call, Harry. Be a sport.”
“A sport? A sport? Methinks I’m too weak for such a game.”
“Come on, you two!” rasped Al over the speaker.
“Oh well, then....” Nelson rose slowly from his chair and started for the communications compartment, blasting a Bronx cheer and thumbing his nose at the speaker as he passed it.
John smiled as he watched him leave. He noticed that Penny had narrowed her almond eyes in confusion. “Something wrong, Penny?”
“He says he hates you. Then you smile. I do not understand.”
“He was just being ironic, Penny, which means he didn’t really mean it. What he meant was, he doesn’t like being interrupted when we’re working.”
“Then if it didn’t mean what he meant, why didn’t he say what he meant?”
“To me, he did.” He reached over and patted her arm. “Don’t take our words so seriously. We understand each other. He was making a joke.”
“But he did not laugh.”
“We were both laughing inside.”
The submarine was, to the best of their knowledge, unlike any other in the world. Originally designed by a brilliant scientist who went insane with his plans to take over the world from an undersea laboratory, it was composed of four large spheres, like bathyscaphs, suspended in a row from bow to stern under a narrow deck. Above the first sphere rose the conning tower with its entry hatch.
Portholes ringed each of the spheres, along with a series of floodlights, cameras, monitors, and sensing devices with which the scientists probed the deeps. The ship was nuclear powered and could cruise long distances, and its design allowed it to dive to the deepest parts of the ocean. The exterior was black---the apparent choice of the mad scientist who built it. Color was not of consequence in any case, since deep in the sea, everything appears gray-black anyway---so black it remained.
Each sphere housed different functions. The forward sphere was the command module, where the helmsman and navigator and assistants guided the ship. The second sphere housed the airlock and decompression chamber. The airlock was a compartment seal with inner and outer doors from which divers could enter and leave the sea. The lock was filled with water when a diver was leaving---allowing him to enter the sea easily---or pumped dry and filled with air for a returning diver.
The decompression chamber housed returning divers and let their bodies gradually reaccustom themselves to normal pressures. Penny, naturally, didn’t need the chamber.
The third sphere, where John and Nelson had been working over their microscopes, was the main laboratory section, stocked with all manner of fine scientific gear, monitors, and computers----giving them a mobile facility almost as complete as their lab at the Directorate.
The aft sphere held more scientific equipment, along with an emergency airlock, a sickbay room, and a small galley.
The communications compartment was a niche in the rear of the first sphere, the command module. That was where Nelson was headed, but first he stopped in the second sphere.
He confronted Oscar Carr, the airlock engineer and a man gifted in the art of mimicry. Having heard the intercom and suspecting what was coming, Oscar briefly covered his ears. Then he dropped his ears. Then he dropped his hands and looked at Nelson with resignation. “Okay, Doc. Why do I always get stuck with these things?”
“Because, my dear golden Carr, you are so good at it. A marvel of impression and poise. And because I, a man who’s essentially not the verbal kind, am inadequate at this kind of communication. And also, Oscar baby, because I outrank you by ten to one, which gives me certain privileges. One of them being that I can direct you to speak in the name of others.”
Carr rolled his eyes slowly and with his fingers pushed back the shock of prematurely gray hair that dangled over his brow. “Okay, who am I supposed to be?”
“Me!” Nelson beamed. “And listen, be sour but not too sour, blunt but not too blunt. And if they want something, don’t make any commitment without talking to Dr. Robinson first.”
“I may fool NASA, Doc, but I won’t fool him. He’ll know it’s not you when he hears the conversation piped in.”
“I have a news flash for you, Oscar. He always knows. See? So as far as we’re concerned, it’s on the up-and-up. Go ahead now, do your stuff!”
Carr sighed and headed with a reluctant step to the control mod. He stooped through the bulkhead and pushed aside the curtain to Roy’s compartment. He beckoned for the microphone.
Roy pushed it toward him. “Who you gonna be this time?”
“Nelson.” Carr took a deep breath, clicked the mike on, and said crisply, “This is Harriman Nelson. Who are you?”
The voice that responded was authoritative and businesslike. “This is Michael Luna, mission control chief on the Alpha Nae Space Probe Project, Doctor. From Cape Kennedy.”
“Ah, yes, Cape Kennedy. Know it well. Lot like Canaveral. But then, I’m sure we’ve both got more important things to do than talk about who we are, and where. What do you want, Michael?”
“We’ve got a problem, Doctor...”
“I suspected as much.”
“....Our bird is coming home after four years in space. Four long years of perfect performance....”
“...And ten minutes ago, just before it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, it picked up six and a half of---something.”
“Could you be more---specific?”
“Our sensors say there’s nothing there to account for the added weight. The on-board computers went haywire.”
“Well, into each life----That’s an interesting astrophysical problem, Michael, but I don’t know what we can do to help you solve it from here.”
“The added weight isn’t what I’m talking about, Doctor. It’s the second problem.”
“Ah, yes, a duet of....”
“With the computer foul-up and the added weight, the probe won’t land where we’re waiting for it---which happens to be, by the way, in the Atlantic. In fact, it’ll land about twenty miles southwest of you. You’ve got the only ship in that area that can handle the retrieval---because it’s going to slam into the Pacific and sink.”
“Gee, I don’t know....”
“We’re about twenty minutes from splashdown, Doctor. If you don’t make the pickup, our government---all of ours, may I remind you---stands to lose three years of deep-space exploration and six-hundred billion dollars’ worth of hardware! What do you say, Doctor?”
“Ummmm, hmmmm, hold on, Michael.” Carr put his hand over the mike and gestured feverishly to Roy to hook in the intercom to Dr. Robinson. Roy flicked two switches on the console, then nodded. “Dr. Robinson,” Carr said in his best Harriman Nelson voice, “NASA wants us to pick up a wayward space probe. We’re the only ship in the area to do it.”
“Did Dr. Nelson stick you with it again, Carr?” came his voice back.
“Yes, sir, ’fraid so.”
“Well, it sounds like we don’t have any choice. Tell them okay, Carr. Tell them to plug their machines into our machines for the particulars.”
“Yes, sir.” He motioned to Roy, and Roy reconnected him with Cape Kennedy. “Okay, Michael, we’ll get your probe. I assume it’s not too big.”
“Okay. Have your computer tell our computer all the pertinent details.”
“You’ve only got eighteen minutes, Doctor.”
“No sweat, Michael.” And he couldn’t resist adding, “Maybe you’ll get things straightened out before you launch another one.”
A grunt came over the speaker as Carr handed the mike back to Roy.
Carr turned sharply to the captain, Chip Morton, a tall, strong, blond man, dressed, as was all the crew, casually in dungarees. “Pick up our course from the computer, Captain,” he said stiffly. Then immediately he flushed. “Unh, I mean, hey, Cap, sorry, guess I got carried away.”
“Don’t let it get to you, Carr,” Chip said, showing his dimpled smile. “Dr. Nelson marches to the beat of his own drummer.”
Carr nodded and started out.
Roy reached out a hand to stop him. “Hey, give this a glance, will you?” He held out his newly finished poem.
Carr scanned it quickly. “I don’t know if I like ‘nosebleed’ with ‘hayseed.’ How about something like ‘top speed?’”
“Top speed’s got nothing to do with a hayseed getting punched in the face.”
“Might help avoid it, if you know what I mean.” He handed the poem back, tapped Roy on the shoulder, and went back to his station.
Chip announced the mission to the crew, and all hands moved to their stations, enjoying the prospect of the work, and becoming more serious in anticipation of it.
In the laboratory sphere, the computers hummed and the spools whirled, as information was received from Cape Kennedy and translated into instructions for the submarine.
Checking the readouts, Chip barked, “Change course to one niner zero!”
“Coming about to one niner zero,” called the helmsman.
“All ahead full!”
Bells rang as the helmsman confirmed. “Ahead full.”
The sub turned smoothly toward the southwest, and the hum of the engines increased. The twin propellers throbbed, and the ship picked up speed quickly, tripling its earlier easy pace. The powerful headlights burned a path before them.
Despite the more urgent mood of the well-trained crew, the scientists relaxed at their microscopes. Picking up a small probe was a technical matter, not one in which they anticipated much involvement. The crew knew all about hauling things in from the sea, and they were superbly professional.
John continued to look into his microscope at the bit of green matter to which Nelson had called his attention some time before. He picked at it with a tiny pair of tweezers, turning it over on the slide.
Nelson held up two vials of cloudy liquid, shook them, peered at them, then shook them some more.
“Nelson,” he said, “why did you do that to Carr?”
“I don’t consider it to be ‘doing’ something to him. I tend to get tongue-tied in the face of authority. It’s a simple matter; you don’t have to say anything brilliant. Besides, Carr plays the government game very well. Smooth as silk. Natural gift of gab. He’s better at being me in those situations than I am. I tend to laugh or freeze up.”
“You’re hopeless, Harry.”
He chuckled. “Hopeless I am not. My whole being is streaked with hope. My talents, whatever they are, are quite limited to science. But my imagination is boundless. Carr comes under the domain of my imagination.”
John smiled and leaned back, rubbing his eyes.
Penny stood at a porthole, looking out into the floodlit sea through which the ship slid, exterior lights on and cameras ready. “Why would man wish to search beyond this planet? He doesn’t understand Earth yet, certainly not the sea.”
“I can’t argue that,” Nelson said, sniffing at his two vials of liquid. “You wouldn’t catch me slinging stuff at the Moon or Mars.”
“It’s just the way scientists are, Penny,” John said. “They’re curious about space, as well as the Earth and sea. And when they have questions, it’s their nature to go after the answers---regardless of whether it’s practical or not to do so, or whether these are still unanswered questions about other, closer matters. Does that answer your question?”
Nelson smiled. “Good. That’s evidence that you’re learning to be a true scientist, Penny. Because scientists have trouble defending or explaining, or often even understanding, their research, until it leads to something practical---like a cure for disease or a way to make a cheaper product. And while these spinoffs may be valuable, we cannot truthfully claim to be solving the problems, or answering the questions about our universe. On this small orb spinning in this vast space we discover that the more we learn, the less we really know. Because every time we discover something, we also discover that we’ve uncovered more questions.”
Penny glanced at Nelson thoughtfully, then turned to John. “Is that true?”
“Then why bother to learn at all?”
“Good question,” Nelson said. “I’ve long since stopped trying to answer that except to say that for me, learning’s fun.”
“And also Penny,” John said, “because ignorance destroys.”
Penny looked back and forth from John’s face to Nelson’s, pondering their words.
The captain’s voice came over the intercom. “We’re approaching splashdown point of the space probe. We’re monitoring the probe on NASA frequency. Expected splash time is two minutes, fifteen seconds.”
John leaned to the squawk box. “We’ll come up to the command mod and watch it on the main monitor.”
They walked forward and ducked slightly to pass through the connecting bulkhead. Nelson, though an inch shorter than John and half a foot shorter than Penny, bumped his head lightly, as usual. John perceived that as part of his bumbling-scientist act.
The sub, in the interval after the NASA call, had surfaced, and the main monitors were focused up on the bright, clear sky.
“We’re about ten seconds from eyeball contact,” Chip said.
They stared at the sky in the monitors.
“Five, four, three, two...”
Suddenly in the center of the picture, there erupted a small blossom of intense light, like a shooting star. It raced rapidly down toward the ocean ahead of them.
For a few seconds, they watched raptly as the probe flashed downward.
All at once Penny groaned in pain, and clamped his hands over hers ears. She stumbled back away from the monitor. John sprang to her side and wrapped his arms around her. He writhed and groaned. Nelson stepped in to help, trying to look into Penny’s eyes.
“What in blazes is the matter with you?” he asked Penny urgently.
Penny’s eyes were glazed, and she continued to groan, her hands squeezing her ears.
“Sound monitor!” John ordered.
Roy threw the switch that brought in the sound that accompanied the pictures on the screens, and a shrill scream filled the compartment. It was as if a thousand high, small, mechanical voices were screaming in the same tone and pitch, an anguished chorus of screeches.
All in the compartment stared open-mouthed at the speakers from which came this eerie, piercing noise, but not seemed so affected as Penny.
Then the sound faded, thinned, and was gone. Penny, shaken by those moments of pain, straightened slowly, her eyes still glassy.
“Get her into sickbay!” John ordered.
Two crewmen looped Penny’s arms over their shoulders and helped her aft to the stern sphere, followed by John and Nelson.
“Don’t lose contact with the probe!” he called back over his shoulders.
On the monitor now could be seen a glistening, metallic object hurtling toward the sea, with no parachute deployed behind it. It smashed into the water and vanished amid the giant plume of spray cast up from its collision with the water.
“NASA reports parachutes failed to deploy,” Roy announced from his position at the console, adding to himself, “as if we didn’t know.”
“We have splashdown,” came the sonar operator’s voice over the intercom. “We’re in contact, sir.”
“Roger,” Chip said.
“Target’s sinking rapidly, sir. We have it all the way.”
“Good,” Chip said. “We’re moving in.” He stepped over to Roy’s side. “That sound we heard mean anything to you, Shelly?”
“No, sir,” Roy shook his head slowly. “Never heard anything like it before. Maybe if it I could have held it a little longer...”
“Don’t sweat it. Our job is only to pick it up.”
Penny lay on the examination table, her breathing subsiding to normal. John checked her over with the stethoscope. Nelson watched closely.
Finally Penny looked up at them. “I’m all right, Father. That sound---sharp, tearing---it’s gone now. I’m all right. I am sorry to have caused you concern. I hope I didn’t get in the way of your work....”
“Shhh,” John hushed her, “just relax. You didn’t get in anyone’s way.”
“Can you describe the sound, Penny?” Nelson asked.
John snapped his head around. “Harry, I can’t examine her if she’s talking to you. I’m trying to hear her chest.”
“I understand that, John,” Nelson said calmly, “but sounds are remembered best immediately after they’re heard.”
“We heard it ourselves.”
“Not the way Penny did. What we heard came through a speaker. It was bound to be distorted. Penny heard the pure sound, even before the monitor picked it up.”
“You’re right.” He pulled the stethoscope plugs out of his ears. “What was the sound like, Penny?”
“Nothing. It was like nothing else.” She narrowed her almond-shaped eyes and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t know how to describe it. Sharp. Tearing. Maybe like when you scrape a chalk over a blackboard. Like many of those at once. Tearing at my eardrums, into my head. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Is this the first time you’ve heard sounds in a way we don’t hear them?”
“I do not know. I do not know what you hear.”
“Of course she wouldn’t,” Nelson said, nodding to John.
“Did it come from the space probe?” John asked.
“I do not know for sure. But I do remember that the sound monitor was directed at the probe. Would that not signify that the sound came from the probe?”
“Or someplace right around it,” John said, returning to his examination of her.
The intercom rasped on. “We’re watching the probe vehicle down,” came Chip’s voice. “It doesn’t appear to have sustained any damage on impact with the ocean surface.”
“Don’t tell us,” John snapped irritably at the squawk box, “tell NASA. It’s their hardware!”
“Sorry,” Chip said.
“Pardon me, Chip. It’s just that this favor we’re doing for them has already caused us a problem here. You’re doing it just right. Keep us posted.”
Penny turned to John, rolling onto her side and lifting her head to lean it on her hand. “Do space probes always scream, Father?”
“Not that I know of. It might’ve been the sound of the metal of the probe expanding with the heat during its unusually fast reentry.”
“No. It was not that, Father. It was voices that I heard. Many voices.”
“Yes. But not like human voices. Or even like animal voices.”
“Then why do you say it was voices, Penny?” Nelson asked.
“Because I felt they were transmitting a message of some kind. They were saying something.”
“I do not know. It was all very strange to me. And painful.”
John and Nelson exchanged puzzled, concerned looks.
“Harry, you’d better go forward and have a good like at that thing before we go near it.”
Nelson nodded and left for the monitors in the control sphere.
Penny sat up. “I want to see, Father.”
“Okay. Just let me check your ears once more first, then we’ll both go have a look.”