- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
"Four sixteen ... four fifteen ..."
"Would you stop counting and do something!"
Harry pressed his body against the side of the submarine, countering the rolling with his weight. Norman leaned forward and pressed Beth's knee straight; she slid easily into the open hatch. Norman climbed in after her. It was a one-man airlock, but Beth was unconscious, and could not work the controls.
He would have to do it for her.
"Attention, please. Four minutes and counting."
He was cramped in the airlock, his body pressed up against Beth, chest to chest, her helmet banging against his. With difficulty he pulled the hatch closed over his head. He blew out the water in a furious rush of compressed air; unsupported by the water, Beth's body now sagged heavily against him.
He reached around her for the handle to the inner hatch. Beth's body blocked his way. He tried to twist her around sideways. In the confined space, he couldn't get any leverage on the body. Beth was like a dead weight; he tried to shift her body around, to get to the hatch.
The whole submarine began to sway: Harry was climbing up the side.
"What the hell's going on in there?"
"Harry, will you shut up!"
"Well, what's the delay?"
Norman's hand closed on the inner latch handle. He shoved it down, but the door didn't move: the door was hinged to swing inward. He couldn't open it with Beth in the hatch with him. It was too crowded; her body blocked the movement of the door.
"Harry, we've got a problem."
"Jesus Christ ... Three minutes thirty."
Norman began to sweat. They were really in trouble now.
"Harry, I've got to pass her out to you, and go in alone."
"Jesus, Norman ..."
Norman flooded the airlock, opened the upper hatch once again. Harry's balance atop the submarine was precarious. He grabbed Beth by the air hose, dragged her up.
Norman reached up to close the hatch.
"Harry, can you get her feet out of the way?"
"I'm trying to keep my balance here."
"Can't you see her feet are blocking - " Irritably, Norman pushed Beth's feet aside. The hatch clanged down. The air blasted past him. The hatch pressurized.
"Attention, please. Two minutes and counting."
He was inside the submarine. The instruments glowed green.
He opened the inner hatch.
"Try and get her down," Norman said. "Do it as fast as you can."
But he was thinking they were in terrible trouble: at least thirty seconds to get Beth into the hatch, and thirty seconds more for Harry to come down. A minute all together -
"She's in. Vent it."
Norman jumped for the air vent, blew out the water.
"How'd you get her in so fast, Harry?"
"Nature's way," Harry said, "to get people through tight spaces." And before Norman could ask what that meant, he had opened the hatch and saw that Harry had pushed Beth into the airlock head first. He grabbed her shoulders and eased her onto the floor of the submarine, then slammed the hatch shut. Moments later, he heard the blast of air as Harry, too, vented the airlock.
The submarine hatch clanged. Harry came forward. "Christ, one minute forty," Harry said. "Do you know how to work this thing?"
Norman sat in the seat, placed his hands on the controls. They heard the whine of the props, felt the rumble. The sub lurched, moved off the bottom.
"One minute thirty seconds. How long did you say to the surface?"
"Two thirty," Norman said, cranking up the ascent rate. He pushed it past 6.6, to the far end of the dial.
They heard a high-pitched shriek of air as the ballast tanks blew. The sub nosed up sharply, began to rise swiftly.
"Is this as fast as it goes?"
"Take it easy, Harry."
Looking back down, they could see the habitat with its lights. And then the long lines of explosives set over the spaceship itself. They rose past the high fin of the spacecraft, leaving it behind, seeing only black water now.
"One minute twenty."
"Nine hundred feet," Norman said. There was very little sensation of movement, only the changing dials on the instrument panel to tell them they were moving.
"It's not fast enough," Harry said. "That's a hell of a lot of explosive down there."
It is fast enough, Norman thought, correcting him.
"The shock wave will crush us like a can of sardines," Harry said, shaking his head.
The shock wave will not harm us.
Eight hundred feet.
"Forty seconds," Harry said. "We'll never make it."
"We'll make it."
They were at seven hundred feet, rising fast. The water now had a faint blue color: sunlight filtering down.
"Thirty seconds," Harry said. "Where are we? Twenty-nine ... eight ..."
"Six hundred twenty feet," Norman said. "Six ten."
They looked back down the side of the sub. They could barely discern the habitat, faint pinpricks of light far beneath them.
Beth coughed. "It's too late now," Harry said. "I knew from the beginning we'd never make it."
"Yes we will," Norman said.
"Ten seconds," Harry said. "Nine ... eight ... Brace yourself!"
Norman pulled Beth to his chest as the explosion rocked the submarine, spinning it like a toy, upending it, then righting it again, and lifting it in a giant upward surge.
"Mama!" Harry shouted, but they were still rising, they were okay. "We did it!"
"Two hundred feet," Norman said. The water outside was now light blue. He pushed buttons, slowing the ascent. They were going up very fast.
Harry was screaming, pounding Norman on the back. "We did it! God damn it, you son of a bitch, we did it! We survived! I never thought we would! We survived!"
Norman was having trouble seeing the instruments for tears in his eyes.
And then he had to squint as bright sunlight streamed into the bubble canopy as they surfaced, and they saw calm seas, sky, and fluffy clouds.
"Do you see that?" Harry cried. He was screaming in Norman's ear. "Do you see that? It is a perfect goddamned day!"
Norman awoke to see a brilliant shaft of light, streaming through the single porthole, shining down on the chemical toilet in the corner of the decompression chamber. He lay on his bunk and looked around the chamber, a horizontal cylinder fifty feet long: bunks, a metal table and chairs in the center of the cylinder, toilet behind a small partition. Harry snored in the bunk above him. Across the chamber, Beth slept, one arm flung over her face. Faintly, from a distance, he heard men shouting.
Norman yawned, and swung off the bunk. His body was sore but he was otherwise all right. He walked to the shining porthole and looked out, squinting in the bright Pacific sun.
He saw the rear deck of the research ship John Hawes: the white helicopter pad, heavy coiled cables, the tubular metal frame of an underwater robot. A Navy crew was lowering a second robot over the side, with a lot of shouting and swearing and waving of hands; Norman had heard their voices faintly through the thick steel walls of the chamber.
Near the chamber itself, a muscular seaman rolled a large green tank marked "Oxygen" alongside a dozen other tanks on the deck. The three-man medical crew which supervised the decompression chamber played cards.
Looking through the inch-thick glass of the porthole, Norman felt as if he were peering into a miniature world to which he had little connection, a kind of terrarium populated by interesting and exotic specimens. This new world was as alien to him as the dark ocean world had once seemed from inside the habitat.
He watched the crew slap down their cards on a wooden packing crate, watched them laugh and gesture as the game proceeded. They never glanced in his direction, never looked at the decompression chamber. Norman didn't understand these young men. Were they supposed to be paying attention to the decompression? They looked young and inexperienced to Norman. Focused on their card game, they seemed indifferent to the huge metal chamber nearby, indifferent to the three survivors inside the chamber - and indifferent to the larger meaning of the mission, to the news the survivors had brought back to the surface. These cheerful Navy cardplayers didn't seem to give a damn about Norman's mission. But perhaps they didn't know.
He turned back to the chamber, sat down at the table. His knee throbbed, and the skin was swollen around the white bandage. He had been treated by a Navy physician during their transfer from the submarine to the decompression chamber. They had been taken off the minisub Deepstar III in a pressurized diving bell, and from there had been transferred to the large chamber on the deck of the ship - the SDC, the Navy called it, the surface decompression chamber. They were going to spend four days here. Norman wasn't sure how long he had been here so far. They had all immediately gone to sleep, and there was no clock in the chamber. The face of his own wristwatch was smashed, although he didn't remember it happening.
On the table in front of him, someone had scratched "U.S.N. SUCKS" into the surface. Norman ran his fingers over the grooves, and remembered the grooves in the silver sphere. But he and Harry and Beth were in the hands of the Navy now.
And he thought: What are we going to tell them?
"What are we going to tell them?" Beth said.
It was several hours later; Beth and Harry had awakened, and now they were all sitting around the scarred metal table. None of them had made any attempt to talk to the crew outside. It was, Norman thought, as if they shared an unspoken agreement to remain in isolation a while longer.
"I think we'll have to tell them everything," Harry said.
"I don't think we should," Norman said. He was surprised by the strength of his conviction, the firmness of his own voice.
"I agree," Beth said. "I'm not sure the world is ready for that sphere. I certainly wasn't."
She gave Norman a sheepish look. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"That's fine," Harry said. "But look at it from the standpoint of the Navy. The Navy has mounted a large and expensive operation; six people have died, and two habitats have been destroyed. They're going to want answers - and they're going to keep asking until they get them."
"We can refuse to talk," Beth said.
"That won't make any difference," Harry said. "Remember, the Navy has all the tapes."
"That's right, the tapes," Norman said. He had forgotten about the videotapes they had brought up in the submarine. Dozens of tapes, documenting everything that had happened in the habitat during their time underwater. Documenting the squid, the deaths, the sphere. Documenting everything.
"We should have destroyed those tapes," Beth said.
"Perhaps we should have," Harry said. "But it's too late now. We can't prevent the Navy from getting the answers they want."
Norman sighed. Harry was right. At this point there was no way to conceal what had happened, or to prevent the Navy from finding out about the sphere, and the power it conveyed. That power would represent a kind of ultimate weapon: the ability to overcome your enemies simply by imagining it had happened. It was frightening in its implications, and there was nothing they could do about it. Unless -
"I think we can prevent them from knowing," Norman said.
"How?" Harry said.
"We still have the power, don't we?"
"I guess so."
"And that power," Norman said, "consists of the ability to make anything happen, simply by thinking it."
"Then we can prevent the Navy from knowing. We can decide to forget the whole thing."
Harry frowned. "That's an interesting question: whether we have the power to forget the power."
"I think we should forget it," Beth said. "That sphere is too dangerous."
They fell silent, considering the implications of forgetting the sphere. Because forgetting would not merely prevent the Navy from knowing about the sphere - it would erase all knowledge of it, including their own. Make it vanish from human consciousness, as if it had never existed in the first place. Remove it from the awareness of the human species, forever.
"Big step," Harry said. "After all we've been through, just to forget about it ..."
"It's because of all we've been through, Harry," Beth said. "Let's face it - we didn't handle ourselves very well." Norman noticed that she spoke without rancor now, her previous combative edge gone.
"I'm afraid that's true," Norman said."The sphere was built to test whatever intelligent life might pick it up, and we simply failed that test."
"Is that what you think the sphere was made for?" H said. "I don't."
"Then what?" Norman said.
"Well," Harry said, "look at it this way: Suppose you were an intelligent bacterium floating in space, and you came upon one of our communication satellites, in orbit around the Earth. You would think, What a strange, alien object this is, let's explore it. Suppose you opened it up and crawled inside. You would find it very interesting in there, with lots of huge things to puzzle over. But eventually you might climb into one of the fuel cells, and the hydrogen would kill you. And your last thought would be: This alien device was obviously made to test bacterial intelligence and to kill us if we make a false step.
"Now, that would be correct from the standpoint of the dying bacterium. But that wouldn't be correct at all from the standpoint of the beings who made the satellite. From our point of view, the communications satellite has nothing to do with intelligent bacteria. We don't even know that there are intelligent bacteria out there. We're just trying to communicate, and we've made what we consider a quite ordinary device to do it."
"You mean the sphere might not be a message or a trophy or a trap at all?"
"That's right," Harry said. "The sphere may have nothing to do with the search for other life forms, or testing life, as we might imagine those activities to occur. It may be an accident that the sphere causes such profound changes in us."
"But why would someone build such a machine?" Norman said.
"That's the same question an intelligent bacterium would ask about a communications satellite: Why would anyone build such a thing?"
"For that matter," Beth said, "it may not be a machine. The sphere may be a life form. It may be alive."
"Possible," Harry said, nodding.
Beth said, "So, if the sphere is alive, do we have an obligation to keep it alive?"
"We don't know if it is alive."
Norman sat back in the chair. "All this speculation is interesting," he said, "but when you get down to it, we don't really know anything about the sphere. In fact, we shouldn't even be calling it the sphere. We probably should just call it 'sphere.' Because we don't know what it is. We don't know where it came from. We don't know whether it's living or dead. We don't know how it came to be inside that spaceship. We don't know anything about it except what we imagine - and what we imagine says more about us than it does about the sphere."
"Right," Harry said.
"Because it's literally a sort of mirror for us," Norman said.
"Speaking of which, there's another possibility," Harry said. "It may not be alien at all. It may be man-made." That took Norman completely by surprise. Harry explained.
"Consider," Harry said. "A ship from our own future went through a black hole, into another universe, or another part of our universe. We cannot imagine what would happen as a result of that. But suppose there were some major distortion of time. Suppose that ship, which left with a human crew in the year 2043, actually has been in transit for thousands and thousands of years. Couldn't the human crew have invented it during that time?"
"I don't think that's likely," Beth said.
"Well, let's consider for a moment, Beth," Harry said gently. Norman noticed that Harry wasn't arrogant any more. They were all in this together, Norman thought, and they were working together in a way they never had before. All the time underwater they had been at odds, but now they functioned smoothly together, coordinated. A team.
"There is a real problem about the future," Harry was saying, "and we don't admit it. We assume we can see into the future better than we really can. Leonardo da Vinci tried to make a helicopter five hundred years ago; and Jules Verne predicted a submarine a hundred years ago. From instances like that, we tend to believe that the future is predictable in a way that it really isn't. Because neither Leonardo nor Jules Verne could ever have imagined, say, a computer. The very concept of a computer implies too much knowledge that was simply inconceivable at the time those men were alive. It was, if you will, information that came out of nowhere, later on.
"And we're no wiser, sitting here now. We couldn't have guessed that men would send a ship through a black hole - we didn't even suspect the existence of black holes until a few years ago - and we certainly can't guess what men might accomplish thousands of years in the future." "Assuming the sphere was made by men."
"Yes. Assuming that."
"And if it wasn't? If it's really a sphere from an alien civilization? Are we justified in erasing all human knowledge of this alien life?"
"I don't know," Harry said, shaking his head. "If we decide to forget the sphere ..."
"Then it'll be gone," Norman said.
Beth stared at the table. "I wish we could ask someone," she said finally.
"There isn't anybody to ask," Norman said.
"But can we really forget it?" Beth said. "Will it work?"
There was a long silence.
"Yes," Harry said, finally. "There's no question about it. And I think we already have evidence that we will forget about it. That solves a logical problem that bothered me from the beginning, when we first explored the ship. Because something very important was missing from that ship."
"Any sign that the builders of the ship already knew travel through a black hole was possible."
"I don't follow you," Norman said.
"Well," Harry said, "the three of us have already seen a spaceship that has been through a black hole. We've walked through it. So we know that such travel is possible."
"Yet, fifty years from now, men are going to build that ship in a very tentative, experimental way, with apparently no knowledge that the ship has already been found, fifty years in their past. There is no sign on the ship that the builders already know of its existence in the past."
"Maybe it's one of those time paradoxes," Beth said. "You know, how you can't go back and meet yourself in the past. ..."
Harry shook his head. "I don't think it's a paradox," he said. "I think that all knowledge of that ship is going to be lost."
"You mean, we are going to forget it."
"Yes," Harry said. "And, frankly, I think it's a much better solution. For a long time while we were down there, I assumed none of us would ever get back alive. That was the only explanation I could think of. That's why I wanted to make out my will."
"But if we decide to forget ..."
"Exactly," Harry said. "If we decide to forget, that will produce the same result."
"The knowledge will be gone forever," Norman said quietly. He found himself hesitating. Now that they had arrived at this moment, he was strangely reluctant to proceed. He ran his fingertips over the scarred table, touching the surface, as if it might provide an answer.
In a sense, he thought, all we consist of is memories. Our personalities are constructed from memories, our lives are organized around memories, our cultures are built upon the foundation of shared memories that we call history and science. But now, to give up a memory, to give up knowledge, to give up the past ...
"It's not easy," Harry said, shaking his head.
"No," Norman said. "It's not." In fact he found it so difficult he wondered if he was experiencing a human characteristic as fundamental as sexual desire. He simply could not give up this knowledge. The information seemed so important to him, the implications so fascinating. ... His entire being rebelled against the idea of forgetting.
"Well," Harry said, "I think we have to do it, anyway."
"I was thinking of Ted," Beth said. "And Barnes, and the others. We're the only ones who know how they really died. What they gave their lives for. And if we forget ..."
"When we forget," Norman said firmly.
"She has a point," Harry said. "If we forget, how do we handle all the details? All the loose ends?"
"I don't think that's a problem," Norman said. "The unconscious has tremendous creative powers, as we've seen. The details will be taken care of unconsciously. It's like the way we get dressed in the morning. When we dress, we don't necessarily think of every detail, the belt and the socks and so on. We just make a basic overall decision about how we want to look, and then we get dressed."
"Even so," Harry said. "We still better make the overall decision, because we all have the power, and if we imagine different stories, we'll get confusion."
"All right," Norman said. "Let's agree on what happened. Why did we come here?"
"I thought it was going to be an airplane crash."
"Okay, suppose it was an airplane crash."
"Fine. And what happened?"
"The Navy sent some people down to investigate the crash, and a problem developed - "
" - Wait a minute, what problem?"
"No. Better a technical problem."
"Something to do with the storm?"
"Life-support systems failed during the storm?"
"Yes, good. Life-support systems failed during the storm."
"And several people died as a result?"
"Wait a minute. Let's not go so fast. What made the lifesupport systems fail?"
Beth said, "The habitat developed a leak, and sea water corrupted the scrubber canisters in B Cyl, releasing a toxic gas."
"Could that have happened?" Norman said.
"And several people died as a result of that accident."
"But we survived."
"Why?" Norman said.
"We were in the other habitat?"
Norman shook his head. "The other habitat was destroyed, too.
"Maybe it was destroyed later, with the explosives."
"Too complicated," Norman said. "Let's keep it simple. It was an accident which happened suddenly and unexpectedly. The habitat sprang a leak and the scrubbers failed, and as a result most of the people died, but we didn't because - "
"We were in the sub?"
"Okay," Norman said. "We were in the sub when the systems failed, so we survived and the others didn't."
"Why were we in the sub?"
"We were transferring the tapes according to the schedule."
"And what about the tapes?" Harry said. "What will they show?"
"The tapes will confirm our story," Norman said. "Everything will be consistent with the story, including the Navy people who sent us down in the first place, and including us, too - we won't remember anything but this story."
"And we won't have the power any more?" Beth said, frowning.
"No," Norman said. "Not any more."
"Okay," Harry said.
Beth seemed to think about it longer, biting her lip. But finally she nodded. "Okay."
Norman took a deep breath, and looked at Beth and Harry. "Are we ready to forget the sphere, and the fact that we once had the power to make things happen by thinking them?"
Beth became suddenly agitated, twisting in her chair. "But how do we do it, exactly?"
"We just do it," Norman said. "Close your eyes and tell yourself to forget it."
Beth said, "But are you sure we should do it? Really sure?" She was still agitated, moving nervously.
"Yes, Beth. You just ... give up the power."
"Then we have to do it all together," she said. "At the same time."
"Okay," Harry said. "On the count of three."
They closed their eyes.
With his eyes closed, Norman thought, People always forget that they have power, anyway.
"Two ..."Harry said.
And then Norman focused his mind. With a sudden intensity he saw the sphere again, shining like a star, perfect and polished, and he thought: I want to forget I ever saw the sphere.
And in his mind's eye, the sphere vanished.
"Three," Harry said.
"Three what?" Norman said. His eyes ached and burned. He rubbed them with his thumb and forefinger, then opened them. Beth and Harry were sitting around the table in the decompression chamber with him. They all looked tired and depressed. But that was to be expected, he thought, considering what they had all been through.
"Three what?" Norman said again.
"Oh," Harry said, "I was just thinking out loud. Only three of us left."
Beth sighed. Norman saw tears in her eyes. She fumbled in her pocket for a Kleenex, blew her nose.
"You can't blame yourselves," Norman said. "It was an accident. There was nothing we could do about it."
"I know," Harry said. "But those people suffocating, while we were in the submarine ... I keep hearing the screams. ... God, I wish it had never happened."
There was a silence. Beth blew her nose again.
Norman wished it had never happened, too. But wishing wasn't going to make a difference now.
"We can't change what happened," Norman said. "We can only learn to accept it."
"I know," Beth said.
"I've had a lot of experience with accident trauma," he said. "You simply have to keep telling yourself that you have no reason to be guilty. What happened happened - some people died, and you were spared. It isn't anybody's fault. It's just one of those things. It was an accident."
"I know that," Harry said, "but I still feel bad."
"Keep telling yourself it's just one of those things," Norman said. "Keep reminding yourself of that." He got up from the table. They ought to eat, he thought. They ought to have food. "I'm going to ask for food."
"I'm not hungry," Beth said.
"I know that, but we should eat anyway."
Norman walked to the porthole. The attentive Navy crew saw him at once, pressed the radio intercom. "Do anything for you, Dr. Johnson?"
"Yes," Norman said. "We need some food."
"Right away, sir."
Norman saw the sympathy on the faces of the Navy crew. These senior men understood what a shock it must be for the three survivors.
"Dr. Johnson? Are your people ready to talk to somebody now?"
"Yes, sir. The intelligence experts have been reviewing the videotapes from the submarine, and they have some questions for you."
"What about?" Norman asked, without much interest. "Well, when you were transferred to the SDC, Dr. Adams mentioned something about a squid."
"Yes, sir. Only there doesn't seem to be any squid recorded on the tapes."
"I don't remember any squid," Norman said, puzzled. He turned to Harry. "Did you say something about a squid, Harry?"
Harry frowned. "A squid? I don't think so."
Norman turned back to the Navy man. "What do the videotapes show, exactly?"
"Well, the tapes go right up to the time when the air in the habitat ... you know, the accident ..."
"Yes," Norman said. "I remember the accident."
"From the tapes, we think we know what happened. Apparently there was a leak in the habitat wall, and the scrubber cylinders got wet. They became inoperable, and the ambient atmosphere went bad."
"It must have happened very suddenly, sir."
"Yes," Johnson said. "Yes, it did."
"So, are you ready to talk to someone now?"
"I think so. Yes."
Norman turned away from the porthole. He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and felt a piece of paper. He pulled out a picture and stared at it curiously.
It was a photograph of a red Corvette. Norman wondered where the picture had come from. Probably a car that belonged to someone else, who had worn the jacket before Norman. Probably one of the Navy people who had died in the underwater disaster.
Norman shivered, crumpled the picture in his fist, and tossed it into the trash. He didn't need any mementos. He remembered that disaster only too well. He knew he would never forget it for the rest of his life.
He glanced back at Beth and Harry. They both looked tired. Beth stared into space, preoccupied with her own thoughts. But her face was serene; despite the hardships of their time underwater, Norman thought she looked almost beautiful.
"You know, Beth," he said, "you look lovely."
Beth did not seem to hear, but then she turned toward him slowly. "Why, thank you, Norman," she said.
And she smiled.