Leon pressed the button on his digital watch and noted the time — 6:30 am. He slipped silently from the bed, grabbed the robe thrown over the foot of the bed, and headed down the dark hall for the bathroom. I wish I'd had more sleep, he thought; but how could he sleep, knowing what lay ahead this day? He switched on the bathroom light and looked at the image staring back [quoteright]from the mirror. His hair was now quite gray, but plentiful. It contrasted with his beard, which was snow white. I wish those circles weren't under my eyes, he thought, I don't want my friends to think I've been worrying.
His mind raced back to his youth, when he had read with awe the great science fiction classics of Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson, and so many more. That was what had decided him on a space career; and when his astigmatism and myopic eyes had precluded any actual journeys into space he had settled for the next best thing, the study of our only visitors from space — meteorites. He had been lucky. Accepted as a graduate student into the Institute for Meteoritics in New Mexico, he had gotten a grant to collect and study tektites in Australia and Indonesia. He recalled his excitement with each new specimen he had acquired; and then he thought how disappointed he had been when the Apollo missions to the moon had made it quite clear that whatever the source of the black and brown glass fragments he had picked up, they had not come from the moon.
He had then gone to join the science staff of NASA and had been sent to Antarctica soon after the startling news of the Japanese finds there, only 12 short years ago. Yes, he thought, I do deserve to be called "Lucky Leon." It was he who had found the first meteorite which could be said with near absolute certainty to have come from the moon, and later two more chrondrites that had a high probability of being blasted out of the surface of Mars. And his sixth annual trip to Antarctica, while not blessed by any discovery in quite that class, had yielded an even more remarkable find. This one would make him world-famous — that he knew.
Leon drove thru the rear gate of the NASA complex and headed for the rear entrance to the main building at the Ames Laboratory. He suspected there would be reporters at the main gate, and he did not want to face them. Once more he mentally reviewed the names of the scientists who would be waiting for him. Oldest would be Fydor Karpov, who had accompanied Academician Kulik when he had visited the great meteorite fall at Stony Tonguska in 1927 — and who had then fallen from favor for his outspoken views about Russian science and spent many years in a Siberian labor camp. The Canadian Walter Stillman would be there, his white beard gleaming like snow. Leon remembered the days they had spent camped on the rim of the New Quebec crater, arguing about its origin. His loyalty to the Institute had caused him to reject the extra-terrestrial origin of the crater at the time; now he smiled at his youthful obstinacy.
There would be Herr Doctor Professor Rupert Bujes, wearing his monocle and his saber scars with equal pride. The last time they had been together was when the Society had met in Frankfurt. He recalled standing beside Dr. Bujes while they looked into the water-filled craters at Oesel. Even though he despised Hitler, Rupert had worked in the Krupp plants as a metallurgist during World War II. His code of honor had not permitted him to desert the Fatherland, even when a madman ruled over it. Last, but surely not least, would be the French Jacques Fresnay. Leon recalled the thrill he had felt when he first heard Jacques tell the story of his midnight journey through the southern Sahara and his first view of the giant iron meteorite, "as big as a small house," from which the natives had been extracting iron fragments for many decades. But the war had come, and Jacques had entered the French resistance. When he was able to return many years later, the desert sands had covered the great iron lump and he found no natives willing to tell him where it was buried. Now he flew back over the area every year, hoping that once more the desert winds would uncover it.
By now, Leon had reached his office. His assistant, Richard, was waiting for him there, and although he was early — it was not yet 9 am — he sensed Richard's impatience. Well, he thought, I'm anxious too. We'll never have another opportunity like this in our lives; no one has that kind of luck.
"They are all here, waiting," said Richard. Leon could feel the tense- ness in the young man's voice as he spoke.
"I thought they would be," said Leon, smiling. "Well, I'm sure you have everything ready, so let's go."
He and Richard entered the large room, and walked around the huge cube of lead-lined steel until they came to the remote controls and the six quartz glass portholes, little larger than large grapefruit and somewhat thicker. Leon nodded to the assembled men. "I'm so glad that all of you could come. Did you have any trouble getting permission from your government, Dr. Karpov?"
Karpov smiled. "Not too much. Your message made it clear that the invitation was issued to me alone and they did not think they could afford not to be represented. Of course, my family was not allowed to accompany me, so I will return.
Leon smiled grimly. "Yes, I'm quite sure of that." He turned to the others. "My letter informed all of you of the details of this find. Since then we have determined only that the stainless steel shield on this object is like none on earth, so we are pretty certain it was either dropped or planted somewhere in Antartica, probably about a half-million years ago. As I said, it is hollow, X-Rays do not penetrate it, and my tests seem to indicate that the top half will come free quite easily. But I know you are all anxious, so let's begin."
Leon sat on a tall stool and grasped the two remote controls, thrusting his fingers quickly into the glove-like finger holders. He peered into the chamber and positioned the steel ring, about the size of a large barrel hoop, about the center of the gleaming sphere. He turned the screw which would tighten the hoop about the diameter of the sphere. When it would turn no further, he used his other hand to activate the pulley, which was attached to the hoop by four heavy steel chains positioned at 90 degree intervals about the steel band. The bottom of the sphere had been securely fastened by cable to the floor. The motor for the pulley whirred faintly, and all the men in the group leaned forward eagerly, except Dr Bujes, who sat as erect as though a ramrod were placed against his spine. Still the proper Prussian officer, thought Leon.
The top half of the sphere came loose. Leon devoted all his attention to lifting it clear, for it revealed another sphere inside, slightly smaller, which appeared to be lead. He swung the steel shell clear, and watched anxiously. Presently a small opening no larger than the palm of his hand appeared in the top of the lead sphere. A ray shot out and a beautiful color hologram appeared. The image, in full three dimensions, was of a solar system of five planets, circling about a sun much redder than our own. The second planet from the sun had a beautiful set of rings resembling those of Saturn. In a few seconds the ringed planet enlarged and the surface came closer so that the men could discern the surface features. Clouds crossed a reddish brown landscape and they could see high plateaus, with an active volcano in the distance. In quick succession came views of the surface covered with buildings in all sorts of geometric shapes, their openings shaped much like a figure eight.
The view dissolved and another appeared which was evidently an interior of the structure in the foreground of the last image. A creature somewhat like a huge ant stared out at them. Four multiple lens eyes were set at equal intervals about the top of the head. There was no visible nose, but a lower hinged jaw somewhat below the center of the otherwise blank, egg shaped head. Each of the six limbs ended in four slender digits; there was no palm on the "hand." The creature stood on the four back legs and waved its two forelimbs toward the viewer, as though it were gesticulating. It turned and moved away through one of the "doors" into another room. Now there were views of many different rooms in the structure, many filled with what appeared to be scientific instruments, whose purpose could only be guessed.
"It looks as though they are far ahead of us in their science and technology," muttered Jacques, seemingly to himself.
Now the view dissolved again, and the first image, the solar system, returned — but it was different. The tiny sun had grown larger and it was clear that it would soon engulf the innermost planet; then the picture switched to the ringed planet. The volcano was much more active; vast black clouds spread from it in all directions; the ground outside the settlement shook and great fissures appeared. Outside the buildings of the settlement, now crumbling into ruins, appeared a huge ovoid craft. Toward it hurried hundreds of the creatures, some with their forelimbs loaded with bundles.
The ship took off vertically, propelled by some force which was not apparent, and headed into space away from the sun. The ship in the animated image — for it was clearly that — grew larger and the surface of the planet receded. It was clear that what they witnessed was the destruction and evacuation of the planet. Now came a quick scan of the ship in space, with configurations of stars in the background unlike those seen from earth. The ship passed many suns and planets and on some they were afforded brief glimpses of the surfaces. Then a solar system with just nine planets came into view; the ship cruised past the outer ones and began to descend on the third planet — clearly the Earth. But it was not the present day Earth; huge ice caps covered most of the northern hemisphere and the shapes of the continents were subtly different. The ship landed, and now the animation was replaced once more by camera images. A woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros roamed about at the edge of an immense glacier, dwarfing the shrubs and stunted trees. Then the animated images returned and the ship left the surface and headed into space. The solar system was left behind and the ship vanished into the black sky. The beam was suddenly cut off and the image vanished.
"Looks like the show's over," said Leon. But Karpov, who had continued to fixedly at the sphere said, "NO! Look, something is coming out of another opening."
A rod the thickness of a thimble slowly pushed up from the surface. When it reached the height of a man's forearm above the surface, the top section opened like an umbrella and a dish antenna came into view; it tilted at a 45 degree angle to the main shaft and began to revolve.
"You must get a receiver in there at once!" exclaimed Bujes, with more animation than the group had ever seen him display. "Monitor it from this side, too; see if that signal is getting beyond this room!"
"Yes," said Stillman, slowly, "at this point we do not know where the spacecraft is — in a half-million years it is probably far away, but it may have circled and be quite near. We have seen no signs of hostility, but I don't think we dare count too much on that. We need time to at least try to decode the message — not that I think our chances are more than one in a billion."
"Not even that," said Karpov, "and I think you can all predict what the response of my government will be when this is reported to them," he added, with a sad smile.
"I'm quite sure we can," said Fresnay, "but this is not a decision that can reasonably made except by the assembled scientists of the world."
"I'm afraid that is a very naïve point of view," said Leon. "It will be the politicians who will make the decision for us — unless," he paused thoughtfully, "we are able to keep all the facts from them. And are any of us willing to risk that?"
A long silence followed; finally Leon said "No, I thought not. We must tell them. Would anyone care to predict the outcome?"
No one spoke. One by one, they rose and quietly left the room. Leon slumpled into his chair and gazed at the sphere and the slowly rotating shaft. Looking in through the porthole, he addressed the sphere: "Why couldn't you have stayed buried another thousand years? Maybe then, if men are still around, we'd have the wisdom to deal with you properly. But not now — definitely, not now."
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