Read an Excerpt
A man in Des Moines kicked his wife when her back was turned. She was taken to the hospital, suffering from a broken coccyx.
So was he.
In Kansas City, Kansas, a youth armed with a .22 killed a schoolmate with one shot through the chest, and instantly dropped dead of heart-failure.
In Decatur two middleweights named Packy Morris and Leo Oshinsky simultaneously knocked each other out.
In St. Louis, a policeman shot down a fleeing bank robber and collapsed. The bank robber died; the policeman's condition was described as critical.
I read those items in the afternoon editions of the Washington papers, and although I noted the pattern, I wasn't much impressed. Every newspaperman knows that runs of coincidence are a dime a dozen; everything happens that way--plane crashes, hotel fires, suicide pacts, people running amok with rifles, people giving away all their money; name it and I can show you an epidemic of it in the files.
What I was actually looking for were stories originating in two places: my home town and Chillicothe, Missouri. Stories with those datelines had been carefully cut out of the papers before I got them, so, for lack of anything better, I read everything datelined near either place. And that was how I happened to catch the Des Moines, Kansas City, Decatur and St. Louis items--all of those places will fit into a two-hundred-mile circle drawn with Chillicothe as its center.
I had asked for, but hadn't got, a copy of my own paper. That made it a little tough, because I had to sit there, in a Washington hotel room at night --and if you know a lonelier place and time, tell me--and wonder if they had really shut usdown.
I knew it was unlikely. I knew things hadn't got that bad in America yet, by a long way. I knew they wanted me to sit there and worry about it, but I couldn't help it.
Ever since La Prensa, every newspaper publisher on this continent has felt a cold wind blowing down his back.
That's foolishness, I told myself. Not to wave the flag too much or anything, but the free speech tradition in this country is too strong; we haven't forgotten Peter Zenger.
And then it occurred to me that a lot of editors must have felt the same way, just before their papers were suppressed on the orders of an American President named Abraham Lincoln.
So I took one more turn around the room and got back into bed, and although I had already read all the papers from bannerlines to box scores, I started leafing through them again, just to make a little noise. Nothing to do.
I had asked for a book, and hadn't got it. That made sense, too; there was nothing to do in that room, nothing to distract me, nothing to read except newspapers--and how could I look at a newspaper without thinking of the Herald-Star?
My father founded the Herald-Star--the Herald part, that is, the Star came later--ten years before I was born. I inherited it from him, but I want to add that I'm not one of those publishers by right of primogeniture whose only function consists in supplying sophomoric by-lined copy for the front page; I started on the paper as a copy boy and I can still handle any job in a city room.
It was a good newspaper. It wasn't the biggest paper in the Middle West, or the fastest growing, or the loudest; but we'd had two Pulitzer prizes in the last fifteen years, we kept our political bias on the editorial page, and up to now we had never knuckled under to anybody.
But this was the first time we had picked a fight with the U. S. Department of Defense.
Ten miles outside Chillicothe, Missouri, the Department had a little hundred-acre installation with three laboratory buildings, a small airfield living quarters for a staff of two hundred and a one-story barracks. It was closed down in 1958 when the Phoenix-bomb program was officially abandoned.
Two years and ten months later, it was opened up again. A new and much bigger barracks went up in place of the old one; a two-company garrison moved in. Who else or what else went into the area, nobody knew for certain; but rumors came out.
We checked the rumors. We found confirmation. We published it, and we followed it up. Within a week we had a full-sized crusade started; we were asking for a congressional investigation, and it looked as if we might get it.
Then the President invited me and the publishers of twenty-odd other anti-administration dailies to Washington. Each of us got a personal interview with The Man; the Secretary of Defense was also present, to evade questions.
They asked me, as a personal favor and in the interests of national security, to kill the Chillicothe series.
After asking a few questions, to which I got the answers I expected, I politely declined.
And here I was.
The door opened. The guard outside looked in, saw me on the bed, and stepped back out of sight. Another man walked in: stocky build, straight black hair turning gray; about fifty. Confident eyes behind. rimless bifocals.
"Mr. Dahl, My name is Carlton Frisbee."
"I've seen your picture," I told him. Frisbee was the Under Secretary of Defense, a career man, very able; he was said to be the brains of the Department.
He sat down facing me. He didn't ask permission, and he didn't offer to shake hands, which was intelligent of him.
"How do you feel about it now?" he asked.
"Just the same."
He nodded. After a moment he said, "I'm going to try to explain our position to you, Mr. Dahl."
I grinned at him. "The word you're groping for is 'awkward.'"
"No. It's true that we can't let you go in your present state of mind, but we can keep you. If necessary, you will be killed, Mr. Dahl. That's how important Chillicothe is."
"Nothing," I said, "is that important."
He cocked his head at me. "If you and your family lived in a community surrounded by hostile savages, who were kept at bay only because you had rifles --and if someone proposed to give them rifles--well?"
"Look," I said, "let's get down to cases. 'You claim that a new weapon is being developed at Chillicothe, is that right? It's something revolutionary, and if the Russians got it first we would be sunk, and so on. In other words, the Manhattan Project all over again."
"Okay. Then why has Chillicothe got twice the military guard it had when it was an atomic research center, and a third of the civilian staff?"
He started to speak.
"Wait a minute, let me finish. Why, of the fifty-one scientists we have been able to trace to Chillicothe, are seventeen linguists and philologists, three organic chemists, five physiologists, twenty-six psychologists, and not one single physicist?"
"In the first place--were you about to say something?"
"All right, go ahead."
"You know I can't answer those questions factually, Mr. Dahl, but speaking conjecturally, can't you conceive of a psychological weapon?"
"You can't answer them at all. My third question is, why have you got a wall around that place--not just a stockade, a wall, with guard towers on it? Never mind speaking conjecturally. Now I'll answer your question. Yes, I can conceive of psychological experimentation that you might call weapons research, I can think of several possibilities, and there isn't a damn one of them that wouldn't have to be used on American citizens before you could get anywhere near the Russians with it."
His eyes were steady behind the bright lenses. He didn't say, "We seem to have reached a deadlock," or "Evidently it would be useless to discuss this any further"; he simply changed the subject.
"There are two things we can do with you, Mr. Dahl; the choice will be up to you. First, we can indict you for treason and transfer you to a Federal prison to await trial. Under the revised Alien and Sedition Act, we can hold you incommunicado for at least twelve months, and, of course, no bail will be set. I feel bound to point out to you that in this case, it would be impossible to let you come to trial until after the danger of breaching security at Chillicothe is past. If necessary, as I told you, you would die in prison.
"Second, we can admit you to Chillicothe itself as a press representative. We would, in this case, allow you full access to all non-technical information about the Chillicothe project as it develops, with permission to publish as soon as security is lifted. You would be confined to the project until that time, and I can't offer you any estimate of how long it might be. In return, you would be asked to write letters plausibly explaining your absence to your staff and to close friends and relatives, and--providing that you find Chillicothe to be what we say it is and not what you suspect--to work out a series of stories for your newspaper which will divert attention from the project."
He seemed to be finished. I said, "Frisbee, I hate to tell you this, but you're overlooking a point. Let's just suppose for a minute that Chillicothe is what I think it is. How do I know that once I got inside I might not somehow or other find myself writing that kind of copy whether I felt like it or not?"
He nodded. "What guarantees would you consider sufficient?"
I thought about that. It was a nice point. I was angry enough, and scared enough, to feel like pasting Frisbee a good one and then seeing how far I could get; but one thing I couldn't figure out, and that was why, if Frisbee wasn't at least partly on the level, he should be here at all.
If they wanted me in Chillicothe, they could drag me there.
After awhile I said, "Let me call my managing editor and tell him where I'm going. Let me tell him that I'll call him again--on a video circuit--within three days after I get there, when I've had time to inspect the whole area. And that if I don't call, or if I look funny or sound funny, he can start worrying."
He nodded again. "Fair enough." He stood up. "I won't ask you to shake hands with me now, Mr. Dahl; later on I hope you will." He turned and walked to the door, unhurried, calm, imperturbable, the way he had come in.
Six hours later I was on a westbound plane.
That was the first day.
The second day, an inexplicable epidemic broke out in the slaughterhouses of Chicago and surrounding areas. The symptoms were a sudden collapse followed by nausea, incontinence, anemia, shock, and in some cases, severe pain in the occipital and cervical regions. Or: as one victim, an A. F. of L. knacker with twenty-five years' experience in the nation's abattoirs, succinctly put it: "It felt just like I was hit in the head."
Local and Federal health authorities immediately closed down the affected slaughterhouses, impounded or banned the sale of all supplies of fresh meat in the area, and launched a sweeping investigation. Retail food stores sold out their stocks of canned, frozen and processed meats early in the day; seafood markets reported their largest volume of sales in two decades. Eggs and cheese were in short supply.
Fifty-seven guards, assistant wardens and other minor officials of the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, submitted a group resignation to Warden Hermann R. Longo. Their explanation of the move was that all had experienced a religious conversion, and that assisting in the forcible confinement of other human beings was inconsonant with their new beliefs.
Near Louisville, Kentucky, neighbors attracted by cries for help found a forty-year-old woman and her twelve-year-old daughter both severely burned. The woman, whose clothing was not even scorched although her upper body was covered with first and second degree burns, admitted pushing the child into a bonfire, but in her hysterical condition was unable to give a rational account of her own injuries.
There was also a follow-up on the Des Moines story about the man who kicked his wife. Remember that I didn't say he had a broken coccyx; I said he was suffering from one. A few hours after he was admitted to the hospital he stopped doing so, and he was released into police custody when X-rays showed no fracture.
Straws in the wind.
At five-thirty that morning, I was waking up my managing editor, Eli Freeman, with a monitored long-distance call--one of Frisbee's bright young men waiting to cut me off if I said anything I shouldn't. The temptation was strong, just the same, but I didn't.
From six to eight-thirty I was on a plane with three taciturn guards. I spent most of the time going over the last thirty years of my life, and wondering how many people would remember me two days after they wrapped my obituary around their garbage.
We landed at the airfield about a mile from the Project proper, and after one of my hitherto silent friends had finished a twenty-minute phone call, a limousine took us over to a long, temporary-looking frame building just outside the wall. It took me only until noon to get out again; I had been fingerprinted, photographed, stripped, examined, X-rayed, urinanalyzed, blood-tested, showered, disinfected, and given a set of pinks to wear until my own clothes had been cleaned and fumigated. I also got a numbered badge which I was instructed to wear on the left chest at all times, and an identity card to keep in my wallet when I got my wallet back.
Then they let me through the gate, and I saw Chillicothe.
I was in a short cul-de-sac formed by the gate and two walls of masonry, blank except for firing slits. Facing away from the gate I could see one of the three laboratory buildings a good half-mile away. Between me and it was a geometrical forest of poles with down-pointing reflectors on their crossbars. Floodlights.
I didn't like that. What I saw a few minutes later I liked even less. I was bouncing across the flat in a jeep driven by a stocky, moon-faced corporal; we passed the first building, and I saw the second.
There was a ring of low pillboxes around it. And their guns pointed inward, toward the building.
Major General Parst was a big, bald man in his fifties, whose figure would have been more military if the Prussian corset had not gone out of fashion. I took him for a Pentagon soldier; he had the Pentagon smoothness of manner, but there seemed to be a good deal more under it than the usual well-oiled vacancy. He was also, I judged, a very worried man.
"There's just one thing I'd like to make clear to you at the beginning, Mr. Dahl. I'm not a grudge-holding man, and I hope you're not either, because there's a good chance that you and I will be seeing a lot of each other during the next three or four years. But I thought it might make it a little easier for you to know that you're not the only one with a grievance. You see this isn't an easy job, it never has been. I'm just stating the fact: it's been considerably harder since your newspaper took an interest in us." He spread his hands and smiled wryly.
"Just what is your job, General?"
"You mean, what is Chillicothe." He snorted. "I'm not going to waste my breath telling you."
My expression must have changed.
"Don't misunderstand me--I mean that if I told you, you wouldn't believe me. I didn't, myself. I'm going to have to show you." He stood up, looking at his wristwatch. "I have a little more than an hour. That's more than enough for the demonstration, but you're going to have a lot of questions afterward. We'd better start."
He thumbed his intercom. "I'll be in Section One for the next fifteen minutes."
When we were in the corridor outside he said, "Tell me something, Mr. Dahl: I suppose it occurred to you that if you were right in your suspicions of Chillicothe, you might be running a certain personal risk in coming here, in spite of any precautions you might take?"
"I considered the possibility. I haven't seen anything to rule it out yet."
"And still, I gather that you chose this alternative almost without hesitation. Why was that, if you don't mind telling me?"
It was a fair question. There's nothing very attractive about a Federal prison, but at least they don't saw your skull open there, or turn your mind inside out with drugs. I said, "Call it curiosity."
He nodded. "Yes. A very potent force, Mr. Dahl. More mountains have been moved by it than by faith."
We passed a guard with a T44, then a second, and a third. Finally Parst stopped at the first of three metal doors. There was a small pane of thick glass set into it at eye-level, and what looked like a microphone grill under that. Parst spoke into the grill: "Open up Three, sergeant."
I followed Parst to the second door. It slid open as we reached it and we walked into a large, empty room. The door closed behind us with a thud and a solid click. Both sounds rattled back startlingly; the room was solid metal, I realized--floor, walls and ceiling.
In the opposite wall was another heavy door. To my left was a huge metal hemisphere, painted the same gray as the walls, with a machine-gun's snout projecting through a horizontal slit in a deadly and impressive manner.
Echoes blurred the General's voice: "This is Section One. We're rather proud of it. The only entrance to the central room is here, but each of the three others that adjoin it is covered from a gun-turret like that one. The gun rooms are accessible only from the corridors outside.".
He motioned me over to the other door. "This door is double," he said. "It's going to be an airlock eventually, we hope. All right, sergeant."
The door slid back, exposing another one a yard farther in; like the others, it had a thick inset panel of glass.
Parst stepped in and waited for me. "Get ready for a shock," he said.
I loosened the muscles in my back and shoulders; my wind isn't what it used to be, but I can still hit. Get ready for one yourself, I thought, if this is what I think it is.
I walked into the tiny room, and heard the door thump behind me. Parst motioned to the glass pane.
I saw a room the size of the one behind me. There was a washbasin in it, and a toilet, and what looked like a hammock slung across one corner, and a wooden table with papers and a couple of pencils or crayons on it.
And against the far wall, propped upright on an ordinary lunch-counter stool, was something I couldn't recognize at all; I saw it and I didn't see it. If I had looked away then, I couldn't possibly have told anyone what it looked like.
Then it stirred slightly, and I realized that it was alive. I saw that it had eyes.
I saw that it had arms.
I saw that it had legs.
Very gradually the rest of it came into focus, The top about four feet off the floor, a small truncated cone about the size and shape of one of those cones of string that some merchants keep to tie packages. Under that came the eyes, three of them. They were round and oyster-gray, with round black pupils, and they faced in different directions. They were set into a flattened bulb of flesh that just fitted under the base of the cone; there was no nose, no ears, no mouth, and no room on the flesh for any.
The cone was black; the rest of the thing was a very dark, shiny blue-gray.
The head, if that is the word, was supported by a thin neck from which a sparse growth of fuzzy spines curved down and outward, like a botched attempt at feathers. The neck thickened gradually until it became the torso. The torso was shaped something like a bottle gourd, except that the upper lobe was almost as large as the lower. The upper lobe expanded and contracted evenly, all around, as the thing breathed.
Between each arm and the next, the torso curved inward to form a deep vertical gash.
There were three arms and three legs, spaced evenly around the body so that you couldn't tell front from back. The arms sprouted just below the top of the torso, the legs from its base. The legs were bent only slightly to reach the floor; each hand, with five slender, shapeless fingers, rested on the opposite-number thigh. The feet were a little like a chicken's....
I turned away and saw Parst; I had forgotten he was there, and where I was, and who I was. I don't recall planning to say, anything, but I heard my own voice, faint and hoarse:
"Did you make that?"