- Author: Murray Leinster
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TERROR Murray Leinster
On the morning the radar reported something odd out in space, Lockley awoke at about twenty minutes to eight. That was usual. He'd slept in a sleeping bag on a mountain-flank with other mountains all around. That was not unprecedented. He was there to make a base line measurement for a detailed map of the Boulder Lake National Park, whose facilities were now being built. Measuring a base line, even with the newest of electronic apparatus, was more or less a commonplace job for Lockley.
This morning, though, he woke and realized gloomily that he'd dreamed about Jill Holmes again, which was becoming a habit he ought to break. He'd only met her four times and she was going to marry somebody else. He had to stop.
He stirred, preparatory to getting up. At the same moment, certain things were happening in places far away from him. As yet, no unusual object in space had been observed. That would come later. But far away up at the Alaskan radar complex a man on duty watch was relieved by another. The relief man took over the monitoring of the giant, football-field-sized radar antenna that recorded its detections on magnetic tape. It happened that on this particular morning only one other radar watched the skies along a long stretch of the Pacific Coast. There was the Alaskan installation, and the other was in Oregon. It was extremely unusual for only those two to be operating. The people who knew about it, or most of them, thought that official orders had somehow gone astray. Where the orders were issued, nothing out of the ordinary appeared. All was normal, for example, in the Military Information Center in Denver. The Survey saw nothing unusual in Lockley's being at his post, and other men at places corresponding to his in the area which was to become Boulder Lake National Park. It also seemed perfectly natural that there should be bulldozer operators, surveyors, steelworkers, concrete men and so on, all comfortably at breakfast in the construction camp for the project. Everything seemed normal everywhere.
Up to the time the Alaskan installation reported something strange in space, the state of things generally was neither alarming nor consoling. But at 8:02 a.m. Pacific time, the situation changed. At that time Alaska reported an unscheduled celestial object of considerable size, high out of atmosphere and moving with surprising slowness for a body in space. Its course was parabolic and it would probably land somewhere in South Dakota. It might be a bolide—a large, slow-moving meteorite. It wasn't likely, but the entire report was improbable.
The message reached the Military Information Center in Denver at 8:05 a.m. By 8:06 it had been relayed to Washington and every plane on the Pacific Coast was ordered aloft. The Oregon radar unit reported the same object at 8:07 a.m. It said the object was seven hundred fifty miles high, four hundred miles out at sea, and was headed toward the Oregon coastline, moving northwest to southeast. There was no major city in its line of travel. The impact point computed by the Oregon station was nowhere near South Dakota. As other computations followed other observations, a second place of fall was calculated, then a third. Then the Oregon radar unbelievably reported that the object was decelerating. Allowing for deceleration, three successive predictions of its landing point agreed. The object, said these calculations, would come to earth somewhere near Boulder Lake, Colorado, in what was to become a national park. Impact time should be approximately 8:14 a.m.
These events followed Lockley's awakening in the wilds, but he knew nothing of any of them. He himself wasn't near the lake, which was to be the center of a vacation facility for people who liked the outdoors. The lake was almost circular and was a deep, rich blue. It occupied what had been the crater of a volcano millions of years ago. Already bulldozers had ploughed out roads to it through the forest. Men worked with graders and concrete mixers on highways and on bridges across small rushing streams. There was a camp for them. A lakeside hotel had been designed and stakes were driven in the ground where its foundation would eventually be poured. There were infant big-mouthed bass in the lake and fingerling trout in many of the streams. A huge Wild Life Control trailer-truck went grumbling about such trails as were practical, attending to these matters. Yesterday Lockley had seen it gleaming in bright sunshine as it moved toward Boulder Lake on the highway nearest to his station.
But that was yesterday. This morning he awoke under a pale gray sky. There was complete cloud cover overhead. He smelled conifers and woods-mould and mountain stone in the morning. He heard the faint sound of tree branches moving in the wind. He noted the cloud cover. The clouds were high, though. The air at ground level was perfectly transparent. He turned his head and saw a prospect that made being in the wilderness seem entirely reasonable and satisfying.
Mountains reared up in every direction. A valley lay some thousands of feet below him, and beyond it other valleys, and somewhere a stream rushed white water to an unknown destination. Not many wake to such a scene.
Lockley regarded it, but without full attention. He was preoccupied with thoughts of Jill Holmes, and unfortunately she was engaged to marry Vale, who was also working in the park some thirty miles to the northeast, near Boulder Lake itself. Lockley didn't know him well since he was new in the Survey. He was up there to the northeast with an electronic survey instrument like Lockley's and on the same job. Jill had an assignment from some magazine or other to write an article on how national parks are born, and she was staying at the construction camp to gather material. She'd learned something from Vale and much from the engineers while Lockley had tried to think of interesting facts himself. He'd failed. When he thought about her, he thought about the fact that she was engaged to Vale. That was an unhappy thought. Then he tried to stop thinking about her altogether. But his mind somehow lingered on the subject.
At ten minutes to eight Lockley began to dress, wilderness fashion. He began by putting on his hat. It had lain on the pile of garments by his bed. Then he donned the rest of his garments in the exact reverse of the order in which he'd removed them.
At 8:00 he had a small fire going. He had no premonition that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen that day. This was still before the first Alaskan report. At 8:10 he had bacon sizzling and a small coffeepot almost enveloped by the flames. Events occurred and he knew nothing at all about them. For example, the Military Information Center had been warned of what was later privately called Operation Terror while Lockley was still tranquilly cooking breakfast and thinking—frowning a little—about Jill.
Naturally he knew nothing of emergency orders sending all planes aloft. He wasn't informed about something reported in space and apparently headed for an impact point at Boulder Lake. As the computed impact time arrived, Lockley obliviously dumped coffee into his tin coffeepot and put it back on the flames.
At 8:13 instead of 8:14—this information is from the tape records—there was an extremely small earth shock recorded by the Berkeley, California, seismograph. It was a very minor shock, about the intensity of the explosion of a hundred tons of high explosive a very long distance away and barely strong enough to record its location, which was Boulder Lake. The cause of that explosion or shock was not observed visually. There'd been no time to alert observers, and in any case the object should have been out of atmosphere until the last few seconds of its fall, and where it was reported to fall the cloud cover was unbroken. So nobody reported seeing it. Not at once, anyhow, and then only one man.
Lockley did not feel the impact. He was drinking a cup of coffee and thinking about his own problems. But a delicately balanced rock a hundred yards below his camp site toppled over and slid downhill. It started a miniature avalanche of stones and rocks. The loose stuff did not travel far, but the original balanced rock bounced and rolled for some distance before it came to rest.
Echoes rolled between the hillsides, but they were not very loud and they soon ended. Lockley guessed automatically at half a dozen possible causes for the small rock-slide, but he did not think at all of an unperceived temblor from a shock like high explosives going off thirty miles away.
Eight minutes later he heard a deep-toned roaring noise to the northeast. It was unbelievably low-pitched. It rolled and reverberated beyond the horizon. The detonation of a hundred tons of high explosives or an equivalent impact can be heard for thirty miles, but at that distance it doesn't sound much like an explosion.
He finished his breakfast without enjoyment. By that time well over three-quarters of the Air Force on the Pacific Coast was airborne and more planes shot skyward instant after instant. Inevitably the multiplied air traffic was noted by civilians. Reporters began to telephone airbases to ask whether a practice alert was on, or something more serious.
Such questions were natural, these days. All the world had the jitters. To the ordinary observer, the prospects looked bad for everything but disaster. There was a crisis in the United Nations, which had been reorganized once and might need to be shuffled again. There was a dispute between the United States and Russia over satellites recently placed in orbit. They were suspected of carrying fusion bombs ready to dive at selected targets on signal. The Russians accused the Americans, and the Americans accused the Russians, and both may have been right.
The world had been so edgy for so long that there were fallout shelters from Chillicothe, Ohio, to Singapore, Malaya, and back again. There were permanent trouble spots at various places where practically anything was likely to happen at any instant. The people of every nation were jumpy. There was constant pressure on governments and on political parties so that all governments looked shaky and all parties helpless. Nobody could look forward to a peaceful old age, and most hardly hoped to reach middle age. The arrival of an object from outer space was nicely calculated to blow the emotional fuses of whole populations.
But Lockley ate his breakfast without premonitions. Breezes blew and from every airbase along the coast fighting planes shot into the air and into formations designed to intercept anything that flew on wings or to launch atom-headed rockets at anything their radars could detect that didn't.
At eight-twenty, Lockley went to the electronic base line instrument which he was to use this morning. It was a modification of the devices used to clock artificial satellites in their orbits and measure their distance within inches from hundreds of miles away. The purpose was to make a really accurate map of the park. There were other instruments in other line-of-sight positions, very far away. Lockley's schedule called for them to measure their distances from each other some time this morning. Two were carefully placed on bench marks of the continental grid. In twenty minutes or so of cooperation, the distances of six such instruments could be measured with astonishing precision and tied in to the bench marks already scattered over the continent. Presently photographing planes would fly overhead, taking overlapping pictures from thirty thousand feet. They would show the survey points and the measurements between them would be exact, the photos could be used as stereo-pairs to take off contour lines, and in a few days there would be a map—a veritable cartographer's dream for accuracy and detail.
That was the intention. But though Lockley hadn't heard of it yet, something was reported to have landed from space, and a shock like an impact was recorded, and all conditions would shortly be changed. It would be noted from the beginning, however, that an impact equal to a hundred-ton explosion was a very small shock for the landing of a bolide. It would add to the plausibility of reported deceleration, though, and would arouse acute suspicion. Justly so.
At 8:20, Lockley called Sattell who was southeast of him. The measuring instruments used microwaves and gave readings of distance by counting cycles and reading phase differences. As a matter of convenience the microwaves could be modulated by a microphone, so the same instrument could be used for communication while measurements went on. But the microwaves were directed in a very tight beam. The device had to