What if we could transfer objects, even people, across the galaxy in the blink of an eye? What hidden secrets would it reveal? What deadly dangers would it conceal? Will any part of human life be the same when the vastness of the Universe lies only ONE STEP FROM EARTH? At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
September 14, 1985
Number of Print Pages*
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from One Step from Earth by Harry Harrison
IN THE BEGINNING
THERE WAS A LIGHT KNOCK on the compartment door that Adam Ward heard, ignored. He had turned the lights off and now sat by the window of the train, looking out at the snow-covered, star-lit slopes of the Rockies as they moved silently past. A tunnel wall suddenly blotted out the view and he pursed his lips in annoyance, the rattling-roar of the wheels loud in his ears. The sound ended as suddenly as it had begun, the mountains reappeared. The knocking was louder now on the metal door
"Go away," he called out, the irritations of the last weeks harsh in his voice. All of the hurried arrangements, interviews, security clearances, annoyances. "Go away, I don't want any."
"Porter, sir. Got to fix up your bed."
"Come back later."
"Got to do it now, sir."
Annoyed at the interruption Adam shuffled his feet into his slippers and went to the door, unlocked it to send the man away--the bed would be made up when he wanted it--turned the knob.
Took the burst of gas from the spray can full in his face.
He gasped, coughed hoarsely, then fell to the floor.
The big man pushed the door wide, kicked the fallen man's legs out of the way, then slammed it shut as soon as the small man had hurried in behind him. It had taken only a few seconds; they had not been seen.
"You must move quickly," the big man said, squinting at his watch. "This fool was slow in opening the door. There are only four minutes left." He spoke with a note of admonition, as though it were the other's fault.
The small man ignored this and began to undress. Their relationship had been abrasive since they had met, when this operation had first begun. In response to a polite request for the other's name, he had received only gratuitous insult. "In the cell system we do not use names. You may call me Ivan if that pleases you." The tones had been as insulting as the words.
Under the small man's topcoat he wore a boiler suit with a single zipper. He pulled this down and stepped out of the garment, shivering as the cool air touched his skin.
"All of it," Ivan said as he pulled the jacket from the recumbent figure, bumping the man's head cruelly on the floor. "Right down to your sweet white skin."
The small man opened his mouth to protest, but did not speak. Watching instead as Ivan swiftly undressed Adam Ward. Listening to the instructions he had heard too often before.
"You are new to this business. Therefore you must listen, memorize--and obey without thinking. Fingerprints and dental charts have been taken care of. Yours have been substituted. But we have heard that the Yankees have been developing odor recognition, smell patterns not unlike speech patterns. You will wear Ward's hopefully reeking underwear as well as his shirt with stinking armpits just in case they want to try this little device on you."
"How tastefully you express it." He spoke, despite his determination not to.
"You are too delicate for this rough business. But better a brittle tool than no tool at all. Dress--quickly!"
He pulled on the other's still-warm clothing, disguising his feelings of revulsion, knowing any reaction would only please Ivan. As he was knotting the tie the big man looked at his watch and waved him to the far side of the compartment. As though on cue there was a sharp rap: Ivan unlocked the door and pulled it wide. The newcomer grunted as he entered, moving sideways to get through the door. Big, no fat, just bulging muscle. He carried a large suitcase effortlessly in one hand and filled the tiny compartment with his presence.
Ivan stepped up onto the seat to make room, snapping his fingers at the small man. "Get up here, you." Then added, almost as an afterthought, "Tell me your name?"
"Ward. Adam Ward."
"Very good, Adam." A pat on the head for a good dog. They swayed as the engine braked and slowed. "You, finish your work, we're coming into the station."
The giant newcomer allowed himself one brief look of contempt before he kneeled and opened the suitcase. It was empty. Then he reached out and seized the naked body upon the floor.
"No!" Adam said, the single word slipping out. He had known nothing of this.
"Yes," Ivan said, smiling with pleasure. "You would be surprised how small a human being is--when folded up. Particularly a man who weighs just fifty-four and a half kilos. Just what you weigh. See."
With precise motions and apparent ease--had he done this before?--the bearlike man tucked Ward's chin against his chest and slid the torso into the suitcase. Folded the arms neatly, bent the legs and knees back before slipping them into place as well. Adam had a last glimpse of the naked body, of himself, foetuslike inside the case, before the lid snapped shut.
"Ward--open the door and make sure the corridor is empty."
He obeyed the command without thinking. The platform lights of a small station moved into view when he looked through the corridor windows. The train slowed, then stopped.
Rough hands pulled him aside and the bearlike man slipped by, the heavy suitcase held lightly inone hand. Ivan went out behind him, turning briefly for one last command.
"I am in the adjoining compartment--but only to be disturbed in dire emergency. I don't want to ever see you again. You know what must be done."
Adam slammed the door harshly, letting it speak for him--at the same time knowing that the other man could not care in the slightest.
Alone for the first time he felt a great relief. His training was finished, all those boring sessions with the gray little men. The operations on his face, the dieting to get down to exactly fifty-four and a half kilos. All that finished and to be forgotten. He brushed the dusty footprints from the seat, then washed his hands in the tiny sink. Sat down in the same spot where Ward had been sitting not five minutes earlier. There was a distant whistle and a clanking as the train started forward. Snow was starting to fall again. He had a brief glimpse of a dark figure putting a large suitcase into a car, then the buildings cut off the sight.
He jumped when there was a knock on the door.
"Porter, sir, come to do up your bed."
Now the real work would begin.
"I assume that you know the very important reason why you have been brought here?" Bhattacharya asked. His twisted body rested at an odd angle in the wheelchair, his hands clawlike with ancient scars. Adam put aside any natural feelings of compassion and spoke the way Ward himself would have spoken.
"You assume, incorrectly, Professor Bhattacharya. I was bullied by Federal agents until I .agreed to come to this place, my students will take their examinations soon, my own research ..." He broke off as the fire-scarred hand rose in gentle admonition.
"I am very sorry for any inconvenience. But I assure you that the research you will so ably assist us with here will far surpass your wildest dream." His English was slightly accented, very old-fashioned. "You have met Dr. Levy already I believe. If you will kindly excuse me he will explain everything about the Epsilon experiments. I bid you welcome to our most interesting project."
Levy busied himself lighting an ancient and sulphurous pipe as the wheelchair whined down the corridor and out of sight. He was bald, skinny, relaxed, his face dominated by a nose of heroic proportions. He was one of the top mathematicians in the country--perhaps the world.
"You call me Hymie, I'll call you Adam, more friendly like. Okay?" Adam sniffed mild disapproval and was ignored. "First off we got some control problems and you may be just the guy we need to help. I read your paper on cmos gate arrays, good stuff. And fast, that's what we need. How many gates do you get into your six inch wafer?"
"About twenty thousand now. We use three levels of interconnects, two metal and one polysilicon, with 600ps minimum gate delays."
"Marvelous." He nodded happily and puffed out a cloud of noxious smoke. "We can use all that operational speed--and more. Let me tell you why. The Epsilon project is one that went wrong--or rather right--by accident. What it started outto be is no longer relevant. They were hitting samples with high-energy proton streams, different samples, more and more power. They got from alpha to beta and on up to delta with no results. Epsilon gave them more than they bargained for. With this experiment they punched a hole into something or somewhere and no one, not even the great Professor Bhattacharya, has the foggiest of what has been done."
"Are you being facetious, Dr. Levy?"
"Hymie to my friends, Adam. Be a friend. We are like one big happy family here. And to answer your question--no I'm not. I'm a very serious guy. Come along and I'll show you what I'm talking about."
There must have been six inches of glass between the control room and the experimental laboratory, yet Adam could feel his hair stir as the electrical charge built up, then discharged with a most impressive display of sparking activity.
"You could light up Detroit for a week with all that juice," Hymie said. "I'm glad the government's paying the electrical bill. And what, you might ask, do we get for all that effort? We get that." He pointed to the monitor screen where a spot of light blinked for a second then vanished, the sort of spark you see when your television set is turned off. "Not too impressive. But let me amplify the picture and slow it down."
This time the screen showed a jagged metal hole with what resembled a pool of mercury at the bottom.
"Plenty of magnification. The biggest one of these we've done so far has been less than twomillimeters wide and lasted all of five hundred milliseconds. That's when we made the temperature experiment. It worked too--though not in the way that we had expected." He searched through the video cassettes scattered on the table, found the right one and inserted it into the machine. "Very clear picture, very slowed down."
There were the rough metal walls again, the shining pool at the bottom. Suddenly a thick rod came into view, sliding down toward the surface. It came close, moving toward its mirrored image until they touched, kept moving downwards for an appreciable length of time. Then it stopped and withdrew--to show a truncated end. Most of the rod was missing.
"Melted--or burnt off," Adam said.
"Neither. No temperature rise. If anything a brief lowering of the temperature. No metallic particles emitted. It just went in--and never came out. And before you ask, it didn't come out the other side because, and I find this utterly fascinating, the silvery surface has no other side. Can you imagine a substance with only a single surface? It's like trying to think of the sound of one hand clapping."
The next morning Adam Ward arrived at the lab promptly at nine and quickly found himself immersed in the work. In another life--under another name that he never permitted himself to think about--he had done related research. Not on this scale, not with this sort of funding, but work that had been closely related to the control circuitry he was helping to design now. He had done this until his Country had Called--or rather the heavy-setmen, the dark coats, who had shown him why he had no choice but to help. All this was forgotten as he worked with the others to discover the secret of that silvery entity.
When his alarm watch pinged he at first could not remember why it had been set. The letters on the face of the watch simply read MESSAGE. Message? From whom? No, not from anyone but to someone; his spirits sank with the memory. He was now Adam Ward. But he was someone else as well--and the message was a grim reminder of that. It was time to report to those across the Atlantic who had sent him here. He was not at his best for the remainder of the day and left early, blaming a headache. In the security of his room he took out his programmable calculator and shook out the handful of magnetized strips that were various programs and formulae that he used; he found the one with the encoding program. He slowly typed his report into the calculator's memory, ran it through the encoding program then recorded it on another magnetic strip. Without the code it was just electronic hash. He went to bed troubled, but slept well, as he always did.
After work the next day he followed the routine that he had established on the previous three Fridays. He drove first to the car wash, paid, then watched until he saw the government Plymouth dragged into the watery tunnel. Then he crossed the road to Mom's Bar and Grill for a glass of beer. The bar was not what might be called exclusive; at least the beer was cold. He finished the glass quickly, as he always did, then went to the grimy toilet and locked the door behind him. Ittook only a few seconds to fix the tiny magnetic strip to one end of the bandaid, to reach up and stick it behind the cistern with the other adhesive end. He flushed, unlocked the door and went out. He showed no curiosity about the others in the bar, made no attempt to imagine which of them would retrieve the strip. He crossed back over the road just as they were finished wiping his car dry. It had certainly been easy enough to do. His watch was already set for the date of the next drop. This made it easy for him to put all memory of this from his mind, to think instead about the Epsilon field.
During the next week they worked hard and managed to increase the duration of the field's existence by a factor of ten. Prof. Bhattacharya dropped his bombshell at the weekly report meeting.
"You gentlemen, and lady of course, will I am sure be most interested in a theory about the Epsilon field that Dr. Levy has developed. We have had discussions of an exhaustive and continuous nature and the time has arrived to present you with some of our tentative conclusions. Dr. Levy."
For a change--and a relief--Levy's pipe was not working but lay instead reeking at his elbow. He shook a cautionary finger at Bhattacharya. "In all fairness, I must speak the truth about this discovery. Yes, I did the hack work on the computer to see if the math supported the supposition. But, no, I did not originate the idea. Our illustrious chairman did and all credit where credit is due. Now as to the theory ..." He took a deep breath and reached for his pipe--pulling his hand back when de Oliveira coughed politely. By mutualconsent he had been requested, ordered rather, not to ignite the foul object at these meetings. His fingers twitched and he sighed.
"Now nobody laugh. To put it as simply as I can--the silvery surface that we have been observing is ... the interface between our plane of existence and another. Or between our dimensions and a space of different dimensions. Or between here and there--only we don't know yet where there is. But we do have an idea how we can find out." There was an expectant silence and he went on.
"We have to construct a second field. In the relationship between the two fields we will find our explanation of this phenomenon."
This was not the end, or even the beginning of the end of the research. But it was the first step along the road to a fuller understanding of the Epsilon phenomenon. While they pursued this line of research Adam saw to it that he had his car washed every Friday, had his single beer at the same time--and had the opportunity to put three more bandaids into place, one month apart. Each time that this had been done he put the matter from his mind until the next time the alarm buzzed. He was as engrossed in the work as anyone else, just as excited as they all were when Bhattacharya elected to sum up what they had discovered and proposed a tentative explanation.
"You have all heard, and appreciated as I have, Dr. Levy's definition and description of Epsilon space. I hope he will excuse me if I attempt to rephrase his excellent work with strictly non-mathematical terms.
"There is another space behind the shining surface, lying in some relationship to our own three-dimensional space. At the present time we do not know the physical dimensions of this other space that we shall call Epsilon space, other than that they cannot be measured in any way by the instruments and techniques that we know. It may be infinitely bigger--or infinitely smaller--or may have no size at all from our point of view. Let us assume this last, for we have seen that if a particle of matter is passed through one screen it will emerge from the other in what appears to be no measurable time at all. We have separated the screens by fifty meters and are still unable to measure any time interval. So let us again assume, for the sake of argument, that there is no measurable time difference in this newly discovered universe. It follows then--and you will permit me this fantastic assumption--that if one screen were here and the other in India, it follows that something that enters one screen would emerge from the other at the same instant. If this be true then the impact of this discovery will certainly change everything, and I am not given to hyperbole as I am sure you all know--this discovery will change everything to do with transportation in our world. Which in turn will change every aspect of the world as we know it. I feel that we have a momentous discovery on our hands."
Levy started to speak--then was struck as silent as the rest. For at that moment they all shared the same vision of humanity and the future. Gone the highways and trains from the face of the Earth, gone the great airliners from the skies, the shipsfrom the sea. All of them gone--replaced by the simple and ubiquitous screens. Step through a screen and you were one step from anywhere else on the planet. The concept was too immense, too staggering to assimilate all at once.
There would be technical problems of course--but the history of mankind's technology had always been the history of refining and improving upon every invention. From the Wright Brothers to Concorde, sailing ships to atomic-powered carriers. The technical problems would be surmounted.
But what kind of a world would it be when all of the problems had been solved?
"I feel a great fear," Levy said. "I see us on the shore of unknown--and deadly--seas and I wish that we could turn back and not begin this voyage into the darkness. But I know that we cannot. But at least we can keep this discovery to ourselves for as long as is needed to do the required research and development in secrecy, keep it from the men of war for as long as we can. Keep it from those countries that will see it as a weapon not an economic blessing."
He continued and others spoke as well, but Adam Ward did not hear them. His thoughts were far away from this place, in a distant country, his native country. Not as rich as this one, with a different system of government. But still his country. He had never been much of a political thinker. Happy only that his masters permitted him to do the work he enjoyed. Happy now, despite all of the difficulties, that they had sent him on this mission. To have been here at this time, to haveactually taken part in this work--it was like having been present at the invention of the wheel.
He looked at his watch. Two days to go until the next car wash and beer. It was not his regular Friday to communicate but he had been told that a message could be left in an emergency. The code was a simple one to indicate that he had left a message. Instead of his usual miserly fifteen cent tip he was to leave a dollar bill on the bar.
On Thursday night he stopped at the delicatessen next to his apartment house and bought two sandwiches and a cold six-pack of beer. He had a long evening's work ahead of him and no time for cooking or a restaurant. When he entered the apartment he locked the door carefully behind him and turned on the portable radio as he always did. He carried this with him to the bedroom when he changed his shoes for his slippers, and even took it with him to the kitchen when he opened a beer and put the remaining bottles into the refrigerator. He had built the detector into the radio himself, had tested it often and knew that it was reliable. The apartment had not been bugged in his absence. He had been ordered to take this precaution and did so automatically. His attention was upon the report he had to make and how to compose it so that it would be both detailed and still short. It would be too complex to enter directly, a character at a time, into the hand calculator. He took out his typewriter and slowly and meticulously typed out his notes. It was after nine before he was done, past midnight before he had encoded it all to his satisfaction. After this his neck hurt and he was tired--but he had been trained well. In a largestone ashtray he burned the sheets of paper with his notes and draft--along with the used length of ribbon from the typewriter. He pounded the resultant black mess into dust with a ladle from the kitchen and did not retire until the last fragment had been flushed down the toilet. The work was done and he was satisfied.
He was usually able to put this clandestine part of his life from his mind while he worked, but not this Friday. Up until this moment it had all been part of a game to him. A complex and possibly dangerous game, but one without the importance of the real work that they were doing in the laboratory. But now this had all changed. The armed soldiers at the entrance to the lab, the manifold examinations of his pass, all held a different significance now. They were there to prevent precisely what he was doing. He felt what--pride?--in what he was accomplishing. Perhaps. But he was doing only what he had been trained to do. And until the report had been left his work was not at an end. When five o'clock came he tried not to hurry as he put on his coat and went out to the car.
There must have been an accident somewhere ahead, he could hear the sirens in the distance, while the normally heavy Friday traffic was now stopped dead. He crawled along with the others for five blocks before he could extricate the car and work his way around the jam. The carwash closed at six. If he was late it would be another week before the drop could be made. The thought of waiting for that amount of time was frightening and his hands were damp on the steering wheel and he fought his way through the crawling traffic.He need not have worried. It was a quarter to six when he pulled into the drive by the pumps, returning the smile of the black man at the till.
"Almost didn't make it," the man said, ringing up the sale. "The wife give you hell with a dirty car for the weekend." Adam Ward nodded and paid--then waited for the light before he crossed the road. They were getting to know him here as well and Mom nodded her well-dyed head and put his beer on the bar before him. He sipped it quickly, suddenly eager to have this matter done with. As he turned to the toilet one of the other customers shuffled in ahead of him and locked the door.
"Sure beat you that time," Mom cackled. "Another beer so you'll really have something to work with!"
He started to say no--then nodded. A second beer might help explain his sudden generosity with the dollar tip.
When he heard the gurgle of the ancient plumbing he gulped. the last of the beer, trying not to cough when he did so, and was standing outside when the door rattled open.
"We're just middlemen, Sonny," the old man said, glaring as he emerged from the toilet, and for one heart-stopping moment Adam thought that he had been discovered. But it was the classic remark. "Goes in one end then out the other."
Door locked behind him and tested. Good. Two lengths of magnetic tape this time; there was a lot to report. On tiptoe he reached up and slipped the bandaid into place--and experienced a feeling of intense relief. It was done. His part was finished. Others would process the information he had obtained.Relief, and two beers, gave him good excuse to use the facilities. To flush, to wash his hands in the grimy sink, dry them on his handkerchief then unlock the door. Two grim-faced men stood waiting for him outside.
"You are under arrest," the first man said, showing him a gold badge of some sort. "Just don't make any fuss and you won't get hurt."
Adam was too startled, too numb to react. He let them click the cold handcuffs to each wrist, to pull him firmly toward the front door. There was one glimpse of Mom's hanging jaw, then he was outside and being hustled toward the open door of the waiting limousine. He held back--but was pulled inexorably forward.
"My car," he said. "It's being washed ..." But when he looked up he saw that a stranger was driving it into the street. His captors said nothing, just pulled him forward and into the back seat. After that a numbness and despair washed over him as they sat in silence during the drive. It was over. All over.
The interrogation took place as soon as they were inside the Federal building. His two captors pushed him into a chair at the large conference table, then sat one to each side of him. They did not remove the handcuffs, perhaps to remind him of his perilous position. A tall man, obviously senior to them, entered and pulled up a chair on the other side of the table, then reached out and turned on the tape recorder.
"What is your name?"
"Adam Ward. What do you think you are doing ..."
"Answer my questions correctly and don't act stupid. Whoever you are, whatever your name is, we have been watching you since you came here. Who are you--and where is the real Adam Ward?"
"This is preposterous--I want a lawyer ..."
He went silent as his interrogator slid across very clear photographs of the magnetic bits of tape attached to their bandaids.
"You will talk and you will tell us everything. Now begin."
Adam took a deep breath and let it out with a tremulous sigh. It was over. There was some relief in that. "Take these cuffs off and I'll answer your questions. Isn't this what they call a fair cop in the cinema? In a way I'm glad that it's over. I've done what I had to do. What has been discovered here belongs to all mankind--it is not just the property of one country. If I have done that, why then I have done something important."
"You've done nothing--except probably get yourself shot," the interrogator said with malice-filled satisfaction. "We've monitored all of your drops and know all of the people involved. They'll be picked up tonight. It's all over and you have lost."
"Really," he said, irritated at the man's superior tones, then looked at his watch. "I wouldn't be so sure if I were you. The tapes were just backup. The typed originals are well on their way by now."
The sudden pain drove him to the table, gasping. Then the fist struck his face again, even harder. "Tell us what you mean--tell us!" The pain again. He had meant to keep this part secret until there was time for the contact to be long gone. He hadnot counted on the pain. He had to speak. It was almost seven. The papers would surely be safe by now.
"What papers?" the interrogator asked. He must have spoken the word aloud, although he had no memory of doing so.
"The notes I typed," he said through puffed lips. "I always typed the report out before encoding it. Then I left the sheets under the mat in the car when I brought it into the carwash. Each time when the car was returned the sheets were gone."
There was a silence and he sat up, shaking. But he had them, he could tell by the grim expressions on their faces. They had not known about the carwash.
"You are out of your mind, you commie bastard," the man who had struck him shouted. "Every guy in that carwash is black. You Russkies are good--but not that good. You don't have any black Russians yet."
"I beg your pardon," Adam said, speaking slowly through his bloodied lips. "Of course those chaps are black. Mostly from the West Indies. Good agents. And I resent the suggestion that I am Russian. I'm Canadian, Oxford graduate, Rutherford Laboratories. I believe my recruiters were MI5. British, you know."
Even though it hurt he found himself smiling at their shocked faces. "Nice of you to share your technical advances with your allies. Greatly appreciated."