Nelson entered the control mod and sat down in front of a large TV monitor. The sub had submerged and was following the probe down. “Where is it now, Chip?”
“About to settle, Doctor. I’ll put it on the monitors.” Chip nodded to a technician who flipped some toggle switches.
The screen lit up. The probe was faintly visible as a glowing, blue object descending lazily in the black water some distance ahead of them.
“Let’s get some light on it,” Nelson said, “so we can see what we’ve got.”
The powerful headlights came on, along with several side-mounted floods. The lighting engineer focused their beams on the probe as it sank the last few feet and settled on the bottom, sending up a little swirl of mud.
When the water cleared, the probe could be seen planted on the ocean floor, nose up, as if it had grown there. It was approximately one meter tall and half a meter wide. It was shaped like a small, bulbous bomb, with struts reaching from its tail to a Teflon ring that surrounded its widest midpoint. The soft, blue glow now gone, and the gray metal was slightly scored, erasing bits of the letters on the side that read, “USA---NASA.”
John and Penny entered and stood beside Nelson, looking over his shoulder.
“Camera control,” John said, “let’s have a closer look.”
The screen went blank briefly as camera lenses were changed. Then the view was a close-up. Nothing unusual was revealed. The only new sights gained by the close-up were the tiny rivets that held the probe together, a few small burn marks around the nose, and the outlines of the small, sealed hatch through which the small computer and other electronic sensing devices had been installed inside.
Nelson drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Looks like your everyday, run-of-the-mill, intergalactic, half-billion-dollar space probe to me.”
“Want us to move in closer, Dr. Robinson?” Chip asked.
“No, not yet.” He studied the object on the monitor. “The question is, how did it scream? Are we sure those sounds came from the probe, Chip?”
“That’s affirmative, Doctor We double-checked our sound monitors. They triangulated directly on the probe. No doubt about it. It either came from on board the probe itself, or right around the skin.”
“It was voices,” Penny said firmly.
“Voices?” Chip picked up the computer readout and scanned it.
“But whose voices?” John asked.
“Voices,” Penny said.
“Which brings us to the ten-dollar question of the day,” Nelson said, striding back and forth with an index finger raised. “We’re supposed to bring the thing aboard, but should we?”
John checked the dials on the console, then leafed through the readouts. “According to our sensors, it’s not radioactive. Right, Chip?”
“And all the components inside it have shut down, which means it should be perfectly safe.”
“That’s affirmative, Doctor.”
“Innocent as a newborn babe,” Nelson said.
“But how did it scream?”
“How or what screamed,” Penny said, “is something your machines will not tell you.”
“Well,” Chip said, “under ordinary circumstances we should have a readout on just what....”
“In this circumstance your machines have not been able to tell you.”
“True,” Nelson said.
“Then I have to tell you.”
All heads turned towards Penny.
“I will have to go to the probe, and find out. There is no other way. I am the only one who hears the voices.” He turned abruptly and headed out toward the airlock sphere.
“Penny....” John trotted after her.
She quickly stepped past Carr, tossed of her jacket, entered the airlock, and motioned for Carr to close and seal it.
Carr glanced at John.
Aware that once Penny had determined to do something, there was little chance of stopping her, she said softly, “Okay. But watch yourself out there, Penny.”
“Why should I watch myself?”
Carr pushed the big door shut and spun the huge wheel to seal it.
Swimming in her smooth, undulant motion that propelled her as fast as any fish in the sea, Penny quickly reached the probe. She swam slowly around it, studying it from all sides and angles. It rested still and quiet on the muddy bottom.
She moved in closer to a distance of only two meters. And as he did, the sounds again erupted from the inanimate, silvery probe. Instantly she clapped her hands over her ears and dropped back a few yards.
Then she slowly lowered her hands. The sounds were there, but this time they were not painful. They were the same quality as before---shrill and mechanical, much as when a tape recording is played backwards at high speed---but their volume was moderated.
Penny slid in a bit closer and listened. Then she turned and said into the sea, “Can you hear them, Father? Nelson? Voices---talking?”
One of the inventions developed on the sub for deep-water contact with Penny was an adaptation of the regular communications gear to allow voice communications with Penny, without her having to carry a microphone. Her voice was picked up in the sub as if she were wired.
“Can you hear them?”
There was a pause, then she heard Nelson’s voice broadcast from the sub. “We’re not getting anything!”
There was another pause, then John’s voice. “You’d better come back aboard, Penny. We’ll try to find some listening frequency we can hear them on. I don’t think you should touch the probe while that’s going on.”
While she was in the water, John’s directions to her were not commands. She was never treated as a robot or a slave, but especially in the water they deferred to her judgment.
She swam slowly around the probe, inching closer, listening to the sounds.
Then he stopped and hovered. The sounds were thinning, growing faint. Then they stopped altogether.
“They’re not talking now, Father.” Knowing they would be watching her on the monitor, she put her hands to her ears, then flapped them away, palms up, to indicate that she was hearing no more sounds and that this time they had seemed harmless.
She heard some mumbled conversation near the open mike on the sub. What snippets she could discern suggested to her that Al had called again, asked about their progress in recovering the space probe, and had been told by either Nelson or John that NASA should keep their shirts on and quit interrupting their work.
Then John came back on. “Penny? I think we should approach this thing very carefully until we know what we’re dealing with. On our monitors, everything looks clean. And our sensors indicate no odd activity on the probe’s skin or inside. But still, before you get any closer, check all sides closely again. See if there’s anything that looks like it shouldn’t be there.”
“All right,” she said into the water. She edged in closer, circling the probe slowly. Just as he was about to drop down beside it, the water around it began to seethe and boil. Bubbles rose.
Penny darted back a few meters, watching the swirling, bubbling water. Then she swam back toward it, stopped, and dipped her hand into the agitated area. She withdrew it quickly, then plunged it back in and left it there. “The water seems to be boiling, Father, but it’s not even warm.”
“We can see the water’s stirred up, Penny. What do you make of it?”
“I do not know.” She moved in closer, a meter away, and peered at the probe. Her eyes widened. “I can see them!”
“See what, Penny?”
“Them! Where the voices come from. I can see them. Can’t you?”
There was a pause. John’s voice became tense. “No. We’re getting nothing on the probe. Don’t go any closer, Penny! Look them over for a minute, then come back aboard and describe them to us.”
Penny reached out toward the probe.
“Don’t touch it!′
She ignored him. “They’re all over the....No, now some of them are leaving, moving down into the mud.” She traced her hand over the skin of the probe.
“Please, Penny, don’t....”
“You can’t touch them, Father.” Penny flitted her hands about, as if trying to snare a fly. “They have no substance. They’re like, like ghosts!”
“Penny! There’s no hurry! I think you should come back and...”
Penny suddenly pushed away from the probe, holding one hand up and staring at the back of it. He rubbed it briskly and looked at it again.
“What is it, Penny?”
“One of them---it...”
“What? What is it?”
On the back of Penny’s hand was a faint, bluish thing, round and flat, about the size of a nickel but transparent. It moved slightly, then began to vanish into the skin, as if being absorbed. Penny rubbed the place where it had entered her skin. There was no sign of it.
“What is it, Penny?”
Penny’s eyes became wide and glazed, as if she were daydreaming or hypnotized. She stared blankly into the sea, holding her hand still out in front of her.
This mood lasted but a moment. The she tensed briefly, her eyes snapped back into focus, and she rubbed her hand. She blinked several times and looked around, as if trying to orient herself. Then she looked back at the probe, around which the water still boiled and bubbled. “There’s nothing on it now, Father. They are gone. I can bring it aboard.”
“But what happened to you? Why were you staring? What’s going on?”
“Nothing. They are gone.”
“What happened to the one that was on your hand?”
“On my hand?”
“Yes. We could see on the monitor. Something was on the back of your hand, some kind of color.”
Penny stared at her hand curiously, and rubbed it for a few seconds. “It’s gone. With all the rest.”
Aboard the submersible, the mood among the crew and scientists had becoming tenser. Technicians hunched over their consoles. Roy pressed the earphones to his ears, making sure he missed no sound transmitted from Penny. Chip prowled the control mod, looking over the shoulders of the helmsman, navigator, and sonar operator. Carr stood by his airlock controls, awaiting the signal to pump air into the lock so that Penny could return. The three-man sickbay crew of paramedics went through their precautionary checklist of preparations to be ready in case of injury or any other harm.
The crew of the sub was extraordinary. To the untrained eye, they would ordinarily appear to be casual in performance of their duties. But their seeming casualness was but the lighthearted attitude of the guerilla fighter between engagements. Though many of them were specialists, the whole fifteen-member crew was trained as professional scuba divers and paramedics, as well as seamen. The sub was often used to probe the frontiers of the sea and enter mysterious waters and dangerous situations in the course of scientific exploration. The broad training of the crew provided the missions with uniquely flexible capabilities.
In addition, these men had been picked for their supreme dedication to science. Though not specifically scientists themselves, they were fervent supporters of the cause of peaceful scientific research.
All of this made them a tightly knit, responsive, and responsible crew. They were fiercely loyal to John and Nelson and Penny.
And so, during this unexpected period of suspicious events that surrounded Penny out in the dark sea and absorbed the two scientists they were highly alert and ready for any action required---be it battle, rescue, recovery, or routine operation of the ship.
John and Nelson stared into the large monitor in the control mod, watching Penny circle the probe.
“We have to get her back aboard as soon as we can,” he said softly.
“I agree,” Nelson said. “But what do we do about the space probe?”
“We could leave it. It’s not really our problem.”
“John, I’m surprised at you. You know as well as I do that it’s become our problem. Plus the fact that these strange occurrences of noises Penny calls ‘voices’ have aroused my curiosity enormously---as it must have yours. We have to find out what’s going on. Additionally, there’s the fact that I wouldn’t like to have to tell NASA that we’re abandoning the mission because we’re afraid.”
He stared at him for a quiet, thoughtful moment. Then he leaned to the mike. “Penny, bring the probe aboard. Nelson will have the decontamination chamber in the airlock. Put the probe in it.”
Nelson nodded with satisfaction and left immediately for the airlock sphere to direct preparations of the decontamination chamber.
Penny didn’t answer John, but went directly to the probe and settled her feet into the mud beside it. She put her arms around it, locking her hands on the struts. The water continued to boil around the probe, still with no apparent effect.
John watched intently, looking for any signs of discomfort or disorientation in Penny. He listened just as intently for signs that the sounds were returning. He was pleased to hear nothing, and to see that Penny lifted the probe with her usual, easy strength.
For a moment, as Penny pulled the probe free from the ooze, the water boiled around her with increasing turbulence. But once she swam away from the spot, the boil, remaining where the probe had rested, decreased in intensity, like a pot of water under which the flame had been lowered.
The monitors followed her as she swam back to the ship, pushing the probe ahead of her.
While Penny was swimming back, Nelson entered the airlock sphere and found that Carr had anticipated him and had already pumped the water out and the air in, to allow her to enter.
Two crewmen brought the decontamination chamber forward from the stern sphere and lowered it to the floor beside the airlock door. The chamber, composed of a shiny metal frame and plexiglass walls, and a small electronic unit inside, was about the size of a kitchen stove. Carr spun the wheel and opened the interior airlock door. The two crewmen hoisted the chamber through the bulkhead and deposited it on the airlock floor, which was still wet from its recent contents of seawater.
They stepped out, and Carr quickly clanked the big door shut and sealed it. Then he stepped back to his console and pulled the levers that opened the tubes to allow the lock to refill with water.
Penny returned to the sub and pressed the button on the hull to signal her arrival. Carr pulled the levers that opened the exterior door, and in a moment Penny’s face appeared in the airlock porthole. The exterior door was sealed behind her, and air was pumped into the lock to force the water out.
When the lock was empty, Carr opened the interior door and Penny stepped into the sub. The probe could be seen behind her, neatly tucked into the decontamination chamber where she had put it.
John and Nelson came in to welcome Penny and see the probe. Once Penny was out of the lock, Carr started to push the door shut, but John motioned for him to stop.
They all stared for a few moments at the innocent-looking, small, expensive probe.
Penny seemed a bit agitated as she looked back at it. She lifted her feet. “What does the decontamination chamber do?”
It dawned on John that they had not used the chamber since Penny had been with O.R.D. “If that probe brought any diseases or infection back from space, this will kill them.”
Penny frowned questioningly. “How will it do this?”
“Electrically,” Nelson said, “and chemically. That little electronic device inside emits enough voltage to dispatch any germs susceptible to electricity, and it also sends out a mix of acid fumes that will dispose of any germs left.”
Penny’s face relaxed. “Then it’s all right.”
“I’ll check it out,” Nelson said, stepping into the lock. “Button it up, Carr.”
“Roger.” Carr sealed the door behind him and started the generators to circulate fresh air into the lock.
Nelson knelt immediately beside the decontamination chamber and began to closely examine the probe within it.
John took Penny’s arm and led her aft to sickbay. “You seem tense, Penny? Are you?”
“Were you hurt out there? Was there any pain at all?”
“But something happened.” They entered sickbay and he motioned for her to sit on the examination table. He waved the attendants out, and they left for other duties.
Penny hoisted herself onto the table and sat with her legs dangling over the side. ” There was the noise, but it was not painful. And I saw them. I saw them leave the probe and go into the mud.”
He took a small portable tape recorder down from a shelf, put it on the bed beside her and switched it on. “We should record your first impressions and descriptions for computer analysis.”
He pried up her eyelids with her thumbs and examined her green eyes closely. Then he took her hands in hers and studied the backs of them. “Was one of them on your hand, Penny?”
“I----do not know,” she said hesitantly. “It was, but yet---it wasn’t. It seemed to have no substance, as if it were just projected onto my hand like a picture slide on a screen. You can’t touch them. I did not feel anything.”
“No pressure? No irritation? No feeling of movement from it?”
“Was the one on your hand like the others?”
“Exactly the same. They were all alike.”
“And you saw many of them?”
“And they moved?”
“Yes. They just seemed to slide through the water, as if they were nothing. Or as if the water were nothing to them.”
“What did they look like?”
She paused for a moment, starting off into the distance. “Like blue coins. But not with marks on them. No marks at all. They were round and flat. Made of nothing. Like ghosts.”
“You mentioned that they were like ghosts. What did you mean exactly?”
“They seemed not to be ‘things’ in the sense that you could touch them and feel them. They seemed to be like spirits, as I have heard you describe such items.”
“How many did you see?”
Suddenly her eyes went blank, their sharp green color dulled. “How many?”
“Yes. How many of them did you see?”
She turned slowly to face him. “I don’t know what you’re asking me about, Father.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I’m asking you about the things that looked like blue coins made of nothing.”
“How could there be blue coins made of nothing? I know of no such things, Father. What are they?”
They stared at each other, both equally baffled.
“What’s the matter with you, Penny?”
“With me? Nothing, Father. Why?”
“You’re feeling all right?”
“Fine. Are you finished with me now?”
He reached over and switched off the tape recorder. “Yeah, just about. Wait here a minute, will you?”
“Yes.” She swung her legs up onto the bed and lay down, cradling her head in her clasped hands.
He entered the airlock room to see Nelson emerging from the lock. “I need you in sickbay, Harry.”
“Sure. Anything wrong?” Without waiting for a reply, he turned to Carr. “Run a full set of tests on what we’ve got in that decon unit, Carr. Electrical, magnetic, chemical, biochemical, X-ray, chromatic---everything.”
“What am I supposed to be looking for?” Carr asked.
“I don’t know. But something caused that probe to holler like a stuck pig. And something caused the water around it to boil like a coffeepot. If we knew what we were looking for, we wouldn’t need you. Right, Carr?” He smiled.
“I’ll see what I can find for you, Doc.”
“Splendid. And let me know right away. I don’t care if it’s nothing more than a crumb of bread. Now, John, you were saying?”
“I was saying I need you in sickbay. C’mon.” He started out and beckoned for him to follow, which he did.
“Penny is in some difficulty?”
“Well, not exactly. I don’t know.”
They walked into sickbay to see Penny lying peacefully on her back, as if asleep.
“You see,” he said softly, “we were just having this conversation. I was debriefing her. Well, she was.....Penny doesn’t remember anything about the things she told us she saw on the skin of the probe. We were talking about it, quite normally I thought. She started to describe them for me, and I asked her how many she saw. Then all at once she went blank.”
Penny sat up suddenly. “No I didn’t, Father,” she said evenly, her expression back to normal. “You asked me how many, didn’t you? I was about to tell you. And then....” She seemed to become confused abruptly, putting a hand to her forehead. “No---something---I don’t know.”
As they watched her, she just as quickly seemed to regain control. “I am not sure exactly how many there were. Perhaps a thousand. About a thousand. Of course I did not have a chance actually to count them. But estimating their numbers as one might estimate a crowd. I would say that a thousand would be an appropriate figure. That’s what you wanted to know, wasn’t it, Father? You left the room before I had a chance to tell you.”
Nelson looked sharply at John, eyebrows arched.
John shook his head inconspicuously. “We have to get Penny back to the Directorate for a complete physical.”
“Why, Father?” Penny asked, sliding down from the table. “I feel fine.”
“She seems fine to me, John,” Nelson said. “Are you sure you’re not just overwrought from the...”
“No! I know what I’m doing.” John modulated his tone, looking at Penny. “Just precautionary. You’ve been through a lot, with those noises tearing at your ears. I want to check you out thoroughly, that’s all.”
Penny shrugged and looked at Nelson.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Nelson said, smiling.
John pushed the intercom button. “Let’s head for home, Chip.” He released the button, then pushed it again. “No, hold it. First have photography get pictures of those bubbles, if they’re still there.”
“They are,” Penny said calmly. “They have to be.”
They both looked at her. She stared off.
“Affirmative on the bubbles,” came Chip’s voice. “They’re still there, all right. Not quite as many as before, but plenty.”
He switched off the intercom and exchanged a glance with Nelson. “Penny, you heard the screaming sounds before our hardware could pick it up. And then you had that memory lapse.....”
“No, I didn’t!” she snapped, with uncharacteristic bite. Then quickly the anger left her face, replaced again by strains of confusion. “I’m sorry. I heard what I just said. I didn’t know why I was saying it. It just came out. I don’t know why. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” John said soothingly. “Just try to tell us what you can.”
“What you said a minute ago. How did you know those bubbles would still be there?”
She hesitated. “They had to be.”
“Had to be?” Nelson raised his eyebrows.
“Because---because that was their place.”
The compartment was silent for a moment.
“So much of this is like riddles,” John mused. “Okay. What else can you tell us about the things you saw on the space probe? What are they?”
She paused again. “Beings. We are beings. They are beings.”
“Yes. But not as we know living beings. Not plants or animals. Beings.”
“How do you know that, Penny?”
Again she paused, as if in thought. “They make me know. I didn’t learn. I just know.”
“Because of what you saw?” Nelson asked.
“What I saw was no different from what you might have seen, with my eyes. No, it is not because of what I saw. They made me know.”
Nelson shook his head. “Go figure.”
Carr stepped through the bulkhead, a sheaf of readouts in his hand. “Doc, I ran every test the airlock’s rigged to make. All the ones you asked for, plus specific gravity and acid-pH. That space probe’s clean as a whistle.”
Before Nelson could respond, Penny began to laugh. A hearty, booming roar that none of them had heard from her before. Then she whistled, a flat, droning note. She stopped abruptly and looked at each of them, as though startled awake. “Why did I do that?”
They stared at her, open-mouthed.
“Why, Father?” she pleaded.
“I’ll be damned if I know.”
Penny nodded. “I know. I know why.” She stared off. “I had to.” She looked at Nelson. “You can bring the probe into the lab if you’d like. It can’t hold them in. Neither can the decontamination chamber nor the airlock nor the walls of the submersible. It’s perfectly safe.”
Nelson narrowed his eyes and cocked his head, peering at Penny. Carr, deeply puzzled, looked from one face to the other. John stared at the floor.
“You can bring it in here,” Penny repeated.
“I heard you,” Nelson said evenly. “I’m thinking about what you said.”
“I said it was all right.”
“You also said it was safe. What did you mean by that?”
“I meant that it was just as safe for the probe to be brought in here as to be left in there. It doesn’t matter where you put it. The probe is not dangerous. It is safe.”
John continued to stare at the floor, pondering the matter. Then slowly she turned to Carr. “Get some people to take the probe into the lab. But don’t take it out of the decon chamber. We’ll go one step at a time. Handle it like eggs.”
“Chop-chop, Doc.” He nodded and went out.
“Penny,” Nelson began softly, “it seems to me you’re not telling us all you...”
“Father, it does not matter how they handle it,” Penny said, ignoring Nelson. “They’re in here already.”
Nelson spun his head around. “Where?”
Nelson and John, with widened eyes, quickly scanned the room, around and up and down.
“Can you point one out to us, Penny?” John said, straining to see.
Penny pointed, jabbing her finger in every direction, all over the room. “There and there and there and there and there. Everywhere.”
“Then they’re invisible.”
“No. Turn the lights off, Father.”
“So you can see them.”
John glanced nervously at Nelson, who nodded gravely. He moved cautiously to the light console, looked again around the room, and then pressed a series of buttons.
The room darkened. But at the same time it became alive with hundreds of glowing, blue, round “things” like cells, floating freely in the room, alighting here and there, soaring off again in all directions, hovering, quivering, darting up and down and right and left.
And the noise began. Seemingly all at once they emitted that chattering, jangling, shrill, high-speed screeching that Penny called “voices.”
Penny didn’t cover her ears. She began laughing again, uproariously, tilting her head back and booming her laugh to fill the room.
John and Nelson looked on fearfully.
“You can’t see them in the light!” she bellowed between spasms of laughter. “And you can’t study them in the darkness! That’s a weakness they have discovered in you! Now they know! Now they know!”
She continued her demented laughter as John and Nelson stared with consternation at the soaring, screeching beings that zoomed around the room as if they’d taken it over.