C1 VOLTAGE—FROM NOWHERE!
~ Somewhere on the crags above us I heard a big bird scream.
I turned to Andy, knee-deep in the icy stream beside me. “There’s your eagle. Probably smells that cougar I shot yesterday.” I started to reel in my line, knowing what my brother’s next move would be. “Get the camera, and we’ll try for a picture.”
We crouched together in the underbrush, watching, as the big bird of prey wheeled down in a slow spiral toward the dead cougar. Andy was trembling with excitement, the camera poised against his chest, his eyes glued in the image-finder. “Golly—” he whispered, almost prayerfully, “six foot wing spread—maybe more—”
The bird screamed again, warily, head cocked into the wind. We were to leeward; the scent of the carrion masked our enemy smell from him. The eagle failed to scent or to see us, swooping down and dropping on the cougar’s head. Andy’s camera clicked twice. The eagle thrust in its beak—
A red-hot wire flared in my brain. The bird—the bird—I leaped out of cover, running swiftly across the ten-foot clearing that separated us from the attacking eagle, my hand tugging automatically at the hunting knife in my belt. Andy’s shout of surprised anger was a faraway noise in my ears as the eagle started away with flapping, angry wings—then, in fury, swept down at me, pinions beating around my head. I heard and felt the wicked beak dart in, and thrust blindly upward with the knife, ripped, slashing, hearing the bird’s scream of pain and the flapping of wide wings. A red haze spun around me—
Then the screaming eagle was gone and Andy’s angry grip was on my shoulder, shaking me roughly. His voice, furious and frightened, was hardly recognizable. “Mike! Mike, you darned idiot, are you all right? You must be crazy!”
I blinked, rubbing my hand across my eyes. The hand came away wet. I was standing in the clearing, the knife in my hand red with blood. Bird blood. I heard myself ask, stupidly, “What happened?”
My brother’s face came clear out of the thickness in my mind, scowling wrathfully. “You tell me
what happened! Mike, what in the devil were you thinking about? You told me yourself that an eagle will attack a man if he’s bothered. I had him square in the camera when you jumped out of there like a bat out of a belfry and went for the eagle with your knife! You must be clean crazy!”
I let the knife drop out of my hand. “Yeah—” I said heavily, “Yeah, I guess I spoiled your picture, Andy. I’m sorry—I didn’t—” my voice trailed off, helpless. The boy’s hand was still on my shoulder; he let it drop and knelt in the grass, groping there for his camera. “That’s all right, Mike,” he said in a dead voice, “you scared the daylights out of me, that’s all.” He stood up swiftly, looking straight into my face. “Darn it, Mike, you’ve been acting crazy for a week! I don’t mind the blamed camera, but when you start going for eagles with your bare hands—” abruptly he flung the camera away, turned and began to run down the slope in the direction of the cabin.
I took a step to follow, then stopped, bending to retrieve the broken pieces of Andy’s cherished camera. The kid must have hit the eagle with it. Lucky thing for me; an eagle can be a mean bird. But why, why in the living hell had I done a thing like that? I’d warned Andy time and time again to stay clear of the big birds. Now that the urgency of action had deserted me, I felt stupid and a little lightheaded. I didn’t wonder Andy thought I was crazy. I thought so myself more than half the time. I stowed the broken camera in my tackle box, mentally promising Andy a better one; hunted up the abandoned lines and poles, carefully stowed them, cleaned our day’s catch. It was dark before I started for the cabin; I could hear the hum of the electric dynamo I’d rigged up and see the electric light across the dusk of the Sierras. A smell of bacon greeted me as I crossed into the glare of the unshielded bulb. Andy was standing at the cookstove, his back stubbornly to me. He did not turn.
“Andy—” I said.
“It’s okay, Mike. Sit down and eat your supper. I didn’t wait for the fish.”
“Andy—I’ll get you another camera—”
“I said, it’s okay. Now, damn it, eat.”
He didn’t speak again for a long time; but as I stretched back for a second mug of coffee, he got up and began to walk around the room, restlessly. “Mike—” he said entreatingly, “you came here for a rest! Why can’t you lay off your everlasting work for a while and relax?” He looked disgustedly over his shoulder at the work table where the light spilled over a confused litter of wires and magnets and coils. “You’ve turned this place into a branch office of General Electric!”
“I can’t stop now!” I said violently. “I’m on the track of something—and if I stop I’ll never find it!”
“Must be real important,” Andy said sourly, “if it makes you act like bughouse bait.”
I shrugged without answering. We’d been over that before. I’d known it when they threw me out of the government lab, just after the big blowup. I thought, angrily. I’m heading for another one, but I don’t care.
“Sit down, Andy,” I told him. “You don’t know what happened down there. Now that the war’s over, it’s no military secret, and I’ll tell you what happened.”
I paused, swallowing down the coffee, not knowing that it scalded my mouth. “That is—I will if I can.”
Six months before they settled the war in Korea, I was working in a government radio lab, on some new communications equipment. Since I never finished it, there’s no point in going into details; it’s enough to say it would have made radar as obsolete as the stagecoach. I’d built a special supersonic condenser, and had had trouble with a set of magnetic coils that wouldn’t wind properly. When the thing blew up I hadn’t had any sleep for three nights, but that wasn’t the reason. I was normal then; just another communications man, intent on radio and this new equipment and without any of the crazy impractical notions that had lost me my job later. They called it overwork, but I knew they thought the explosion had disturbed my brain. I didn’t blame them. I would have liked to think so.
It started one day in the lab with a shadow on the sun and an elusive short circuit that gave me shock after shock until I was jittery. By the time I had it fixed, the oscillator had gone out of control. I got a series of low-frequency waves that were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Then there was something like a voice speaking out of a very old, jerry-built amateur radio set. Except that there wasn’t a receiver in the lab, and no one else had heard it. I wasn’t sure myself, because right then every instrument in the place went haywire and five minutes later, part of the ceiling hit the floor and the floor went up through the roof. They found me, they say, lying half-crushed under a beam, and I woke up eighteen hours later in a hospital with four cracked ribs, and a feeling as if I’d had a lot of voltage poured into me. It went in the report that I’d been struck by lightning.
It took me a long time to get well. The ribs healed fast—faster than the doctor liked. I didn’t mind the hospital part, except that I couldn’t walk without shaking, or light a cigarette without burning myself, for months. The thing I minded was what I remembered before
I woke up. Delirium; that was what they told me. But the kind
of scars on my body didn’t ring true. Electricity—even freak lightning—doesn’t make that kind of burns. And my corner of the world doesn’t make a habit of branding people.
But before I could show the scars to anybody outside the hospital, they were gone. Not healed; just gone. I remembered the look on the medic’s face when I showed him the place where the scars had been. He didn’t think I was crazy; he thought he
I knew the lab hadn’t been struck by lightning. The Major knew it too; I found that out the day I reported back to work. All the time we talked, his big pen moved in stubby circles across the page of his log-book, and he talked without raising his head to look at me.
“I know all that, Kenscott. No electrical storms reported in the vicinity; no radio disturbance within a thousand miles. But—” his jaw grew stubborn, “the lab was wrecked and you were hurt. We’ve got to have something for the record.”
I could understand all that. What I resented was the way they treated me after I went back to work. They transferred me to another division and another line of work. They turned down my request to follow up those nontypical waves. My private notes were ripped out of my notebook while I was at lunch and I never saw them again. And as soon as they could, they shipped me to Fairbanks, Alaska, and that was the end of that.
The Major told me all I needed to know, the day before I took the plane to Alaska. His scowl said more than his words, and they said plenty. “I’d let it alone, Kenscott. No sense stirring up more trouble. We can’t bother with side alleys, anyhow. Next time you monkey with it, you might get your head blown off, not just a dose of stray voltage out of the blue. We’ve done everything but stand on our heads trying to find out where that spare energy came from—and where it went. But we’ve marked that whole line of research closed
, Kenscott. If I were you, I’d keep my mouth shut about it.”
“It wasn’t a message from Mars,” I suggested unsmiling, and he didn’t think that was funny either. But there was relief on his face as I left the office and went to clean out my drawer.
I got along all right in Alaska, for a while. But I wasn’t the same. The armistice had hardly been signed when they sent me back to the States with a recommendation of overwork. I tried to explain it to Andy. “They said I needed a rest. Maybe so. The shock did something funny to me ... tore me open ... like the electric shock treatments they give catatonic patients. I know a lot of things I never learned. Ordinary radio work doesn’t mean anything to me any more. It doesn’t make sense. When people out west were talking about flying saucers or whatever they were—and when they talked about weather disturbances after the atomic tests, things did make sense for a while. And when we came down here—” I paused, trying to fit confused impressions together. He wasn’t going to believe me, anyhow, but I wanted him to. A tree slapped against the cabin window; I jumped. “It started up again the day we came up in the mountains. Energy out of nowhere, following me around. It can’t knock me out. Have you noticed I let you turn the lights on and off? The day we came up, I shorted my electric razor and blew out five fuses trying to change one.”
“Yeah, I remember, you had to drive to town for them—” My brother’s eyes watched me, uneasy. “Mike, you’re kidding—”
“I wish I were,” I said. “That energy just drains into me, and nothing happens. I’m immune.” I shrugged, rose and walked across to the radio I’d put in here, so carefully, before the war. I picked up the disconnected plug; thrust it into the socket. I snapped the dial on. “I’ll show you,” I told him.
The panel flashed and darkened; confused static came cracking from the speaker, erratic. I took my hand away.
“Turn it up—” Andy said uneasily.
My hand twiddled the dial. “It’s already up.”
“Try another station;” the kid insisted stubbornly. I pushed all the buttons in succession; the static crackled and buzzed, the panel light flickered on and off in little cryptic flashes. I sighed. “And reception was perfect at noon,” I told him, “You were listening to the news.” I took my hand away again. “I don’t want to blow the thing up.”
Andy came over and switched the button back on. The little panel light glowed steadily, and the mellow voice of Milton Cross filled the room ... “now conduct the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in the Fifth or ‘Fate’ symphony of Ludwig von Beethoven ...” the noise of mixed applause, and then the majestic chords of the symphony, thundering through the rooms of the cabin.
My brother stared at me as racing woodwinds caught up with the brasses. There was nothing wrong with the radio. “Mike. What did you do to it?”
“I wish I knew,” I told him. Reaching, I touched the volume button again.
Beethoven died in a muttering static like a thousand drums.
I swore and Andy sucked in his breath between his teeth, edging warily backward. He touched the dials again; once more the smoothness of the “Fate” symphony rolled out and swallowed us. I shivered.
“You’d better let it alone!” Andy said shakily.
The kid turned in early, but I stayed in the main room, smoking restlessly and wishing I could get a drink without driving eighty miles over bad mountain roads. Neither of us had thought to turn off the radio; it was moaning out some interminable throbbing jazz. I turned over my notes, restlessly, not really seeing them. Once Andy’s voice came sleepily from the alcove.
“Going to read all night, Mike?”
“If I feel like it,” I said tersely and began walking up and down again.
“Michael! For the luvvagod stop it and let me get some sleep!” Andy exploded, and I sank down in the chair again. “Sorry, Andy.”
Where had the intangible part of me been, those eighteen hours when I first lay crushed under a fallen beam, then under morphine in the hospital? Where had those scars come from? More important, what had made a radio lab blow up in the first place? Electricity sets fires; it shocks men into insensibility or death. It doesn’t explode. Radio waves are in themselves harmless. Most important of all, what maniac freak of lightning was I carrying in my body that made me immune to electrical current? I hadn’t told Andy about the time I’d deliberately grounded the electric dynamo in the cellar and taken the whole voltage in my body. I was still alive. It would have been a hell of a way to commit suicide—but I hadn’t.
I swore, slamming down the window. I was going to bed. Andy was right. Either I was crazy or there was something wrong; in any case, sitting here wouldn’t help. If it didn’t let up, I’d take the first train home and see a good electrician—or a psychiatrist. But right now, I was going to hit the sack.
My hand went out automatically and switched the light off.
“Damn!” I thought incredulously. I’d shorted the dynamo again. The radio stopped as if the whole orchestra had dropped dead; every light in the cabin winked swiftly out, but my hand on the switch crackled with a phosphorescent glow as the entire house current poured into my body. I tingled with weird shock; I heard my own teeth chattering.
And something snapped wide open in my brain. I heard, suddenly, an excited voice, shouting.
That is the man!”