Pi in the Sky
by Fredric Brown
Roger Jerome Phlutter, for whose absurd surname I offer no defense other than it is genuine, was, at the time of the events of this story, a hard-working clerk in the office of the Cole Observatory.
He was a young man of no particular brilliance, although he performed his daily tasks assiduously and efficiently, studied the calculus at home for one hour every evening, and hoped some day to become a chief astronomer of some important observatory.
Nevertheless, our narration of the events of late March in the year 1999 must begin with Roger Phlutter for the good and sufficient reason that he, of all men on earth, was the first observer of the stellar aberration.
Meet Roger Phlutter.
Tall, rather pale from spending too much time indoors, thickish, shell-rimmed glasses, dark hair close-cropped in the style of the nineteen nineties, dressed neither particularly well nor badly, smokes cigarettes rather excessively…
At a quarter to five that afternoon, Roger was engaged in two simultaneous operations. One was examining, in a blink-microscope, a photographic plate taken late the previous night of a section in Gemini. The other was considering whether or not, on the three dollars remaining of his pay from last week, he dared phone Elsie and ask her to go somewhere with him.
Every normal young man has undoubtedly, at some time or other, shared with Roger Phlutter his second occupation, but not everyone has operated or understands the operation of a blink-microscope. So let us raise our eyes from Elsie to Gemini.
A blink-mike provides accommodation for two photographic plates taken of the same section of sky hut at different times. These plates are carefully juxtaposed and the operator may alternately focus his vision, through the eyepiece, first upon one and then upon the other, by means of a shutter. If the plates arc identical, the operation of the shutter reveals nothing, but if one of the dots on the second plate differs from the position it occupied on the first, it will call attention to itself by seeming to jump back and forth as the shutter is manipulated.
Roger manipulated the shutter, and one of the dots jumped. So did Roger. He tried it again, forgetting—as we have—all about Elsie for the moment, and the dot jumped again. It jumped almost a tenth of a second. Roger straightened up and scratched his head. He lighted a cigarette, put it down on the ash tray, and looked into the blink-mike again. The dot jumped again when he used the shutter.
Harry Wesson, who worked the evening shift, had just come into the office and was hanging up his topcoat. “Hey, Harry!” Roger said. “There’s something wrong with this blinking blinker.”
“Yeah?” said I Harry.
“Yeah. Pollux moved a tenth of a second.”
“Yeah?” said harry. “Well, that’s about right for parallax. Thirty-two light years—parallax of Pollux is point one o one. Little over a tenth of a second, so if your comparison plate was taken about six months ago, when the earth was on the other side of her orbit, that’s about right.”
“But, Harry, the comparison plate was taken night before last. They’re twenty-four hours apart.”
“Look for yourself.”
It wasn’t quite five o’clock yet, but Harry Wesson magnanimously overlooked that and sat down in front of the blink-mike. He manipulated the shutter, and Pollux obligingly jumped.
There wasn’t any doubt about its being Pollux, for it was far and away the brightest dot on the plate. Pollux is a star of 1.2 magnitude, one of the twelve brightest in the sky and by far the brightest in Gemini. And none of the faint stars around it had moved at all.
“Um,” said Harry Wesson. He frowned and looked again. “One of those plates is misdated, that’s all. I’ll check into it first thing.”
“Those plates aren’t misdated,” Roger said doggedly. “I dated them myself.”
“That proves it,” Harry told him. “Go on home. It’s five o’clock. If Pollux moved a tenth of a second last night, I’ll move it back for you.”
So Roger left.
He felt uneasy somehow, as though he shouldn’t have. He couldn’t put his finger on just what worried him, but something did. He decided to walk home instead of taking the bus.
Pollux was a fixed star. It couldn’t have moved a tenth of a second in twenty-four hours.
“Let’s see—thirty-two light years.” Roger said to himself. “Tenth of a second. Why, that would be movement several times faster than the speed of light. Which is positively silly!”
He didn’t feel much like studying or reading tonight. Was three dollars enough to take out Elsie?
The three balls of a pawnshop loomed ahead, and Roger succumbed to temptation. He pawned his watch and then phoned Elsie. “Dinner and a show?”
“Why certainly, Roger.”
So until he took her home at one-thirty, he managed to forget astronomy. Nothing odd about that. It would have been strange if he had managed to remember it.
But his feeling of restlessness came back as soon as he left her. At first, he didn’t remember why. He knew merely that he didn’t feel quite like going home yet.
The corner tavern was still open, and he dropped in for a drink. He was having his second one when he remembered. He ordered a third.
“Hank,” he said to the bartender. “You know Pollux?”
“Pollux who?” asked Hank.
“Skip it,” said Roger. He had another drink and thought it over. Yes, he’d made a mistake somewhere. Pollux couldn’t have moved.
He went outside and started to walk home. He was almost there when it occurred to him look up at Pollux. Not that, with the naked eye, he could detect a displacement of a tenth of a second, but he felt curious.
He looked up, allocated himself by the sickle of Leo, and then found Gemini—Castor and Pollux were the only stars in Gemini visible, for it wasn’t a particularly good night for seeing. They were there, all right, but he thought they looked a little farther apart than usual. Absurd, because that would be a matter of degrees, not minutes or seconds.
He stared at them for a while and then looked across at the Dipper. Then he stopped walking and stood there. He closed his eyes and opened them again, carefully.
The Dipper just didn’t look right. It was distorted. There seemed to be more space between Alioth and Mizar, in the handle than between Mizar and Alkaid. Phecda and Merak, in the bottom of the Dipper, were closer together, making the angle between the bottom and the lip steeper. Quite a bit steeper.
Unbelievingly, he ran an imaginary line from the pointers, Merak and Dubhe, to the North Star. The line curved. It had to. If he ran it straight, it missed Polaris by maybe five degrees.
Breathing a bit hard, Roger took off his glasses and polished them very carefully with his handkerchief. He put them back on again, and the Dipper was still crooked. So was Leo when he looked back to it. At any rate, Regulus wasn’t where it should be by a degree or two. A degree or two! At the distance of Regulus. Was it sixty-five light years? Something like that.
Then, in time to save his sanity, Roger remembered that he’d been drinking. He went home without daring to look upward again. He went to bed but he couldn’t sleep.
He didn’t feel drunk. He grew more excited, wide awake.
Roger wondered if he dared phone the observatory. Would he sound drunk over the phone? The devil with whether he sounded drunk or not, he finally decided. He went to the telephone in his pajamas.
“Sorry,” said the operator.
“What d’ya mean, sorry?”
“I cannot give you that number,” said the operator in dulcet tones. And then, “I am sorry. We do not have that information.”
He got the chief operator and the information. Cole Observatory had been so deluged with calls from amateur astronomers that they had found it necessary to request the telephone company to discontinue all incoming calls save long distance ones from other observatories.
“Thanks,” said Roger. “Will you get me a cab?”
It was an unusual request but the chief operator obliged and got him a cab.
He found the Cole Observatory in a state resembling a madhouse.
The following morning most newspapers carried the news. Most of them gave it two or three inches on an inside page but the facts were there.
The facts were that a number of stars, in general the brightest ones, within the past forty-eight hours had developed noticeable proper motions.
“This does not imply,” quipped the New York Spotlight, “that their motions have been in any way improper in the “past. ‘Proper motion’ to an astronomer means the movement of a star across the face of the sky with relation to other stars. Hitherto, a star named ‘Barnard’s Star’ in the constellation Ophiuchus has exhibited the greatest proper motion of any known star, moving at the rate of ten and a quarter seconds a year. ‘Barnard’s Star’ is not visible to the naked eye.”
Probably no astronomer on earth slept that day.
The observatories locked their doors, with their full staffs on the inside, and admitted no one, except occasional newspaper reporters who stayed a while and went away with puzzled faces, convinced at last that something strange was happening.
Blink-microscopes blinked, and so did astronomers. Coffee was consumed in prodigious quantities. Police riot squads were called to six United States observatories. Two of these calls were occasioned by attempts to break in on the part of frantic amateurs without. The other four were summoned to quell fist-fights developing out of arguments within the observatories themselves. The office of Lick Observatory was a shambles, and James Truwell, Astronomer Royal of England, was sent to London Hospital with a mild concussion, the result of having a heavy photographic plate smashed over his head by an irate subordinate.
But these incidents were exceptions. The observatories, in general, were well-ordered madhouses.
The center of attention in the more enterprising ones was the loudspeaker in which reports from the Eastern Hemisphere could be relayed to the inmates. Practically all observatories kept open wires to the night side of earth, where the phenomena were still under scrutiny.
Astronomers under the night skies of Singapore, Shanghai, and Sydney did their observing, as it were, directly into the business end of a long-distance telephone hook-up.
Particularly of interest were reports from Sydney and Melbourne, whence came reports on the southern skies not visible—even at night—from Europe or the United States. The Southern Cross was, by these reports, a cross no longer, its Alpha and Beta being shifted northward. Alpha and Beta Centauri, Canopus and Achernar, allshowed considerable proper motion—all, generally speaking, northward. Triangulum Amtrak and the Magellanic Clouds-were undisturbed. Sigma Octanis, the weak pole star, had not moved.
Disturbance of the southern sky, then, was much less than in the northern one, in point of the number of stars displaced. However, relative proper motion of the stars which were disturbed was greater. While the general direction of movement of the few stars which did move was northward, their paths were not directly north, nor did they converge upon any exact point in space.
United States and European astronomers digested these facts and drank more coffee.
Evening papers, particularly in America, showed greater awareness that something indeed unusual was happening in the skies. Most of them moved the story to the front page—but not the banner headlines—giving it a half-column with a runover that was long or short, depending upon the editor’s luck in obtaining quotable statements from astronomers.
The statements, when obtained, were invariably statements of fact and not of opinion. The facts themselves, said these gentlemen, were sufficiently startling, and opinions would be premature. Wait and see. Whatever was happening was happening fast.
“How fast?” asked an editor.
“Faster than possible,” was the reply.
Perhaps it is unfair to say that no editor procured expressions of opinion thus early. Charles Wangren, enterprising editor of The Chicago Blade, spent a small fortune in long-distance telephone calls. Out of possibly sixty attempts, he finally reached the chief astronomers at five observatories. He asked each of them the same question.
“What, in your opinion, is a possible cause, any possible cause, of the stellar movements of the last night or two?”
He tabulated the results.
“I wish I knew.”
“Somebody or something is crazy, and I hope it’s me—I mean I.”
“What’s happening is impossible. There can’t be any cause.”
“I’m looking for an expert on astrology. Know one?”
Sadly studying this tabulation, which had cost him $187.35, including tax, to obtain, Editor Wangren signed a voucher to cover the long distance calls and then dropped his tabulation into the wastebasket. He telephoned his regular space-rates writer on scientific subjects.
“Can you give me a series of articles—two-three thousand words each—on all this astronomical excitement?”
“Sure,” said the writer. “But what excitement?” It transpired that he’d just got back from a fishing trip and had neither read a newspaper nor happened to look up at the sky. But he wrote the articles. He even got sex appeal into them through illustrations, by using ancient star-charts, showing the constellations in deshabille, by reproducing certain famous paintings, such as “The Origin of the Milky Way,” and by using a photograph of a girl in a bathing suit sighting a hand telescope, presumably at one of the errant stars. Circulation of The Chicago Blade increased by 21.7 percent.
It was five o’clock again in the office of the Cole Observatory, just twenty-four and a quarter hours after the beginning of all the commotion. Roger Phlutter—yes, we’re back to him again—woke up suddenly when a hand was placed on his shoulder.
“Go on home, Roger,” said Mervin Armbruster, his boss, in a kindly tone.
Roger sat up suddenly.
“But, Mr. Armbruster,” he said, “I’m sorry I fell asleep.”
“Bosh,” said Armbruster. “You can’t stay here forever, none of us can. Go on home.”
Roger Phlutter went home. But when he’d taken a bath, he felt more restless than sleepy. It was only six-fifteen. He phoned Elsie.
“I’m awfully sorry, Roger, but I have another date. What’s going on, Roger? The stars, I mean.”
“Gosh, Elsie—they’re moving. Nobody knows.”
“But I thought all the stars moved,” Elsie protested. “The sun’s a star, isn’t it? Once you told me the sun was moving toward a point in Samson.”
“Hercules, then. Since you said all the stars were moving, what is everybody getting excited about?”
“This is different,” said Roger. “Take Canopus. It’s started moving at the rate of seven light years a day. It can’t do that.”
“Because,” said Roger patiently, “nothing can move faster than light.”
“But if it is moving that fast, then it can,” said Elsie. “Or else maybe your telescope is wrong or something. Anyway, it’s pretty far off, isn’t it?”
“A hundred and sixty light years. So far away that we see it a hundred and sixty years ago.”
“Then maybe it isn’t moving at all,” said Elsie. “I mean, maybe it quit moving a hundred and fifty years ago and you’re getting all excited about something that doesn’t matter any more because it’s all over with. Still love me?”
“I sure do, honey. Can’t you break that date?”
“’Fraid not, Roger. But I wish I could.”
He had to be content with that. He decided to walk uptown to eat.
It was early evening, and too early to see stars overhead, although the clear blue sky was darkening. When the stars did come out tonight, Roger knew few of the constellations would be recognizable.
As he walked, he thought over Elsie’s comments and decided that they were as intelligent as anything he’d heard at the Cole Observatory. In one way, they’d brought out one angle he’d never thought of before, and that made it more incomprehensible.
All these movements had started the same evening—yet they hadn’t. Centauri must have started moving four years or so ago, and Rigel five hundred and forty years ago when Christopher Columbus was still in short pants, if any, and Vega must have started acting up the year he—Roger, not Vega—was born, twenty-six years ago. Each star out of the hundreds must have started on a date in exact relation to its distance from Earth. Exact relation, to a light-second, for check-ups of all the photographic plates taken night before last indicated that all the new stellar movements had started at four-ten a.m., Greenwich time. What a mess!
Unless this meant that light, after all, had infinite velocity.
If it didn’t have—and it is symptomatic of Roger’s perplexity that he could postulate that incredible “if “—then -then what? Things were just as puzzling as before.
Mostly he felt outraged that such events should be happening.
He went into a restaurant and sat down. A radio was blaring out the latest composition in dissarythm, the new quarter-tone dance music in which chorded woodwinds provided background patterns for the mad melodies pounded on tuned tomtoms. Between each number and the next a frenetic announcer extolled the virtues of a product.
Munching a sandwich, Roger listened appreciatively to the dissarhythm and managed not to hear the commercials. Most intelligent people of the nineties had developed a type of radio deafness which enabled them not to hear a human voice coming from a loudspeaker, although they could hear and enjoy the then infrequent intervals of music between announcements. In an age when advertising competition was so keen that there was scarcely a bare wall or an unbillboarded lot within miles of a population center, discriminating people could retain normal outlooks on life only by carefully-cultivated partial blindness and partial deafness which enabled them to ignore the bulk of that concerted assault upon their senses.
For that reason a good part of the newscast which followed the dissarhythm program went, as it were, into one of Roger’s ears and out the other before it occurred to him that he was not listening to a panegyric on patent breakfast foods.
He thought he recognized the voice, and after a sentence or two he was sure that it was that of Milton Hale, the eminent physicist whose new theory on the principle of indeterminancy had recently occasioned so much scientific controversy. Apparently, Dr. Hale was being interviewed by a radio announcer.
“…a heavenly body, therefore, may have position or velocity, but it may not be said to have both at the same time, with relation to any given space-time frame.”
“Dr. Hale, can you put that into common everyday language?” said the syrupy-smooth voice of the interviewer.
“That is common language, sir. Scientifically expressed, in terms of the Heisenberg contraction principle, then n to the seventh power in parentheses, representing the pseudo-position of a Diedrich quantum-integer in relation to the seventh coefficient of curvature of mass—”
“Thank you, Dr. Hale, but I fear you are just a bit over the heads of our listeners.”
And your own head, thought Roger Phlutter.
“I am sure, Dr. Hale, that the question of greatest interest to our audience is whether these unprecedented stellar movements are real or illusory.”
“Both. They are real with reference to the frame of space but not with reference to the frame of space-time.” “Can you clarify that, Doctor?”
“I believe I can. The difficulty is purely epistemological. In strict causality, the impact of the macroscopic—The slithy roves did gyre and gimble in the wabe, thought Roger Phlutter.
“—upon the parallelism of the entropy-gradient.”
“Bah!” said Roger aloud.
“Did you say something, sir?” asked the waitress. Roger noticed her for the first time. She was small and blonde and cuddly. Roger smiled at her.
“That depends upon the space-time frame from which one regards it,” he said judicially. “The difficulty is epistemological.”
To make up for that, he tipped her more than he should and left.
The world’s most eminent physicist, he realized, knew less of what was happening than did the general public. The public knew that the fixed stars were moving or that they weren’t. Obviously, Dr. Hale didn’t even know that. Under a smoke-screen of qualifications, Hale had hinted that they were doing both.
Roger looked upward but only a few stars, faint in the early evening, were visible through the halation of the myriad neon and spiegel-light signs. Too early yet, he decided.
He had one drink at a nearby bar, hut it didn’t taste quite right to him so he didn’t finish it. He hadn’t realized what was wrong but he was punch-drunk from lack of sleep. He merely knew that he wasn’t sleepy any more and intended to keep on walking until he felt like going to bed. Anyone hitting him over the head with a well-padded blackjack would have been doing him a signal service, but no one took the trouble.
He kept on walking and, after a while, turned into the brilliantly lighted lobby of a cineplus theater. He bought a ticket and took his seat just in time to sec the sticky end of one of the three feature pictures. Followed several advertisements which he managed to look at without seeing.
“We bring you next,” said the screen, “a special visi-cast of the night sky of London, where it is now three o’clock in the morning.”
The screen went black, with hundreds of tiny dots that were stars. Roger leaned forward to watch and listen carefully—this would be a broadcast and visicast of facts, not of verbose nothingness.
“The arrow,” said the screen, as an arrow appeared upon it, “is now pointing to Polaris, the pole star, which is now ten degrees from the celestial pole in the direction of Ursa Major. Ursa Major itself, the Big Dipper, is no longer recognizable as a dipper, but the arrow will now point to the stars that formerly composed it.”
Roger breathlessly followed the arrow and the voice.
“Alkaid and Dubhe,” said the voice. “The fixed stars are no longer fixed, but—” the picture changed abruptly to a scene in a modern kitchen—“the qualities and excellences of Stellar’s Stoves do not change. Foods cooked by the superinduced vibratory method taste as good as ever. Stellar Stoves are unexcelled.”
Leisurely, Roger Phlutter stood up and made his way out into the aisle. He took his pen-knife from his pocket as he walked toward the screen. One easy jump took him up onto the low stage. His slashes into the fabric were not angry ones. They were careful, methodical cuts and intelligently designed to accomplish a maximum of damage with a minimum of expenditure of effort.
The damage was done, and thoroughly, by the time three strong ushers gathered him in. He offered no resistance either to them or to the police to whom they gave him. In night court, an hour later, he listened quietly to the charges against him.
“Guilty or not guilty?” asked the presiding magistrate.
“Your Honor, that is purely a question of epistemology,” said Roger earnestly. “The fixed stars move, but Corny Toastys, the world’s greatest breakfast food, still represents the peudo-position of a Diedrich quantum- integer in relation to the seventh coefficient of curvature!” Ten minutes later, he was sleeping soundly. In a cell, it is true, but soundly nonetheless. Soundlessly, too, for the cell was padded. The police left him there because they realized he needed sleep…
Among other minor tragedies of that night can be included the case of the schooner Ransagansett, off the coast of California. Well off the coast of California! A sudden squall had blown her miles off course, how many miles the skipper could only guess.
The Ransagansett was an American vessel, with a German crew, under Venezuelan registry, engaged in running booze from Ensenada, Baja California, up the coast to Canada, then in the throes of a prohibition experiment. The Ransagansett was an ancient craft with foul engines and an untrustworthy compass. During the two days of the storm, her outdated radio receiver—vintage of 1975—had gone haywire beyond the ability of Gross, the first mate, to repair.
But now only a mist remained of the storm, and the remaining shreds of wind were blowing it away. Hans Gross, holding an ancient astrolabe, stood on the dock, waiting. About him was utter darkness, for the ship was running without lights to avoid the coastal patrols.
“She clearing, Mister Gross?” called the voice of the captain from below.
“Aye, sir. Idt iss Blearing rabbidly.”
In the cabin, Captain Randall went back to his game of blackjack with the second mate and the engineer. The crew—an elderly German named Weiss, with a wooden leg—was asleep abaft the scuttlebutt—wherever that may have been.
A half hour went by. An hour, and the captain was losing heavily to the engineer.
“Mister Gross!” he called out.
There wasn’t any answer, and he called again and still obtained no response.
“Just a minute, mein fine feathered friends,” he said to the second mate and engineer and went up the companionway to the deck.
Gross was standing there, staring upward with his mouth open. The mists were gone.
“Mister Gross,” said Captain Randall.
The first mate didn’t answer. The captain saw that his first mate was revolving slowly where he stood.
“Hans!” said Captain Randall. “What the devil’s wrong with you?” Then he, too, looked up.
Superficially the sky looked perfectly normal. No angels flying around, no sound of airplane motors. The Dipper—Captain Randall turned around slowly, but more rapidly than Hans Gross. Where was the Big Dipper?
For that matter, where was anything? There wasn’t a constellation anywhere that he could recognize. No sickle of Leo. No belt of Orion. No horns of Taurus.
Worse, there was a group of eight bright stars that ought to have been a constellation, for they were shaped roughly like an octagon. Yet if such a constellation had ever existed, he’d never seen it, for he’d been around the Horn and Good Hope. Maybe at that—but no, there wasn’t any Southern Cross!
Dazedly, Captain Randall walked to the companionway. “Mistress Weisskopf,” he called. “Mister Helmstadt. Come on deck.”
They came and looked. Nobody said anything for quite a while.
“Shut off the engines, Mister Helmstadt,” said the captain. Helmstadt saluted—the first time he ever had—and went below.
“Captain, shall I wake opp Feiss?” asked Weisskopf.
“I don’t know.”
The captain considered. “Wake him up,” he said.
“I think ve are on der blanet Mars,” said Gross.
But the captain had thought of that and had rejected it.
“No,” he said firmly. “From any planet in the solar system the constellations would look approximately the same.”
“You mean ve are oudt of de cosmos?”
The throb of the engines suddenly ceased, and there was only the soft familiar lapping of the waves against the hull and the gentle familiar rocking of the boat.
Weisskopf returned with Weiss, and Helmstadt came on deck and saluted again.
Captain Randall waved a hand to the after deck, piled high with cases of liquor under a canvas tarpaulin. “Break out the cargo,” he ordered.
The blackjack game was not resumed. At dawn, under a sun they had never expected to see again—and, for that matter, certainly were not seeing at the moment—the five unconscious men were moved from the ship to the Port of San Francisco Jail by members of the coast patrol. During the night the Rarnsagansett had drifted through the Golden Gate and bumped gently into the dock of the Berkeley ferry.
In tow at the stern of the schooner was a big canvas tarpaulin. It was transfixed by a harpoon whose rope was firmly tied to the aftermast. Its presence there was never explained officially, although days later Captain Randall had vague recollection of having harpooned a sperm whale during the night. But the elderly able-bodied seaman named Weiss never did find out what happened to his wooden leg, which is perhaps just as well.
Milton Hale, PH.D., eminent physicist, had finished broadcasting and the program was off the air.
“Thank you very much, Dr. Hale,” said the radio announcer. The yellow light went on and stayed. The mike was dead. “Uh—your check will be waiting for you at the window. You—uh—know where.”
“I know where,” said the physicist. He was a rotund, jolly-looking little man. With his busy white beard he resembled a pocket edition of Santa Claus. His eyes winkled, and he smoked a short stubby pipe.
He left the sound-proof studio and walked briskly Sown the hall to the cashier’s window. “Hello, sweet-heart,” he said to the girl on duty there. “I think you have two checks for Dr. Hale.”
“You are Dr. Hale?”
“I sometimes wonder,” said the little man. “But I carry identification that seems to prove it.”
“Two checks. Both for the same broadcast, by special arrangement. By the wav, there is an excellent revue at the Mabry Theater this evening.”
“Is there? Yes, here are your checks, Dr. Hale. One for seventy-five and one for twenty-five. Is that correct?”
“Gratifyingly correct. Now about that revue at the Mabry?”
“If you wish, I’ll call my husband and ask him about it,” said the girl. “He’s the doorman over there.”
Dr. Hale sighed deeply, but his eyes still twinkled. “I think he’ll agree,” he said. “Here are the tickets, my dear, and you can take him. I find that I have work to do this evening.”
The girl’s eyes widened, but she took the rickets.
Dr. Hale went into the phone booth and called this home. His home, and Dr. Hale, were both run by his elder sister. “Agatha, I must remain at the office this evening,” he said.
“Milton, you know that you can work just as well in your study here at home. I heard your broadcast, Milton. It was wonderful.”
“It was sheer balderdash, Agatha. Utter rot. What did I say?”
“Why, you said that—uh—that the stars were—I mean, you were not—”
“Exactly, Agatha. My idea was to avert panic on the part of the populace. If I’d told them the truth, they’d have worried. But by being smug and scientific, I let them get the idea that everything was—uh—under control. Do you know, Agatha, what I mean by the parallelism of an entropy-gradient?”
“Neither did I.”
“Milton, tell me, have you been drinking?”
“Not y— No, I haven’t. I really can’t come home to work this evening, Agatha, I’m using my study at the university, because I must have access to the library there, for reference. And the starcharts.”
“But, Milton, how about that money for your broadcast? You know it isn’t safe for you to have money in your pocket, especially when you’re feeling like this.”
“It isn’t money, Agatha: It’s a check, and I’ll mail it to you before I go to the office. I won’t cash it myself. How’s that?”
“Well—if you must have access to the library, I suppose you must. Good-by, Milton.”
Dr. Hale went across the street to the drug store. There he bought a stamp and envelope and cashed the twenty-five dollar check. The seventy-five dollar one he put into the envelope and mailed.
Standing beside the mailbox, he glanced up at the early evening sky—shuddered, and hastily lowered his eyes. He took the straightest possible line for the nearest double Scotch.
“Y’ain’t been in for a long time, Dr. Hale,” said Mike, the bartender.
“That I haven’t, Mike. Pour me another.”
“Sure. On the house, this time. We had your broadcast tuned in on the radio just now. It was swell.”
“It sure was. I was kind of worried what was happening up there, with my son an aviator and all. But as long as you scientific guys know what it’s all about, I guess it’s all right. That was sure a good speech, Doc. But there’s one question I’d like to ask you.”
“Iwas afraid of that,” said Dr. Hale.
“These stars. They’re moving, going somewhere. But where are they going? I mean, like you said, if they are.”
“There’s no way of telling that, exactly, Mike.”
“Aren’t they moving in a straight line, each one of them?”
For just a moment the celebrated scientist hesitated.
“Well—yes and no, Mike. According to spectroscopic analysis, they’re maintaining the same distance from us, each one of them. So they’re really moving—if they’re moving—in circles around us. But the circles are straight, as it were. I mean, it seems that we’re in the center of those circles, so the stars that are moving aren’t coming closer to us or receding.”
“You could draw lines for those circles?”
“On a star-globe, yes. It’s been done. They all seem to be heading for a certain area of the sky, but not for a given point. They don’t intersect.”
“What part of the sky they going to?”
“Approximately between Ursa Major and Leo, Mike. The ones farthest from there are moving fastest, the ones nearest are moving slower. But darn you, Mike, I came in here to forget about stars, not to talk about them. Give me another.”
“In a minute, Doc. When they get there, are they going to stop or keep on going?”
“How the devil do I know, Mike? They started suddenly, all at the some time, and with full original velocity-I mean, they started out at the same speed they’re going now—without warming up, so to speak—so I suppose they could stop as unexpectedly.”
He stopped just as suddenly as the stars might. He stared at his reflection in the mirror back of the bar as though he’d never seen it before.
“What’s the matter Doc?”
“Mike you’re a genius.”
“Me? You’re kidding.”
Dr. Hale groaned. “Mike, I’m going to have to go to the university to work this out. So I can have access to the library and the star-globe there. You’re making an honest man out of me, Mike. Whatever kind of Scotch this is, wrap me up a bottle.”
“It’s Tartan Plaid. A quart?”
“A quart, and make it snappy. I’ve got to see a man about a dog-star.”
Dr. Hale sighed audibly. ”
You brought that on yourself, Mike, Yes, the dog-star is Sirius. I wish I’d never come in here, Mike. My first night out in weeks, and you ruin it.”
He took a cab to the university, let himself in, and turned on the lights in his private study and in the library. Then he took a good stiff slug of Tartan Plaid and went to work.
First, by telling the chief operator who he was and arguing a bit, he got a telephone connection with the chief astronomer of Cole Observatory.
“This is Hale, Armbruster,” he said. “I’ve got an idea, but I want to check my facts before I start to work on it. Last information I had, there were four hundred and sixty-eight stars exhibiting new proper motion. Is that still correct?”
“Yes, Milton. The same ones are still at it, and no others.”
“Good. I have a list, then. Has there been any change in speed of motion of any of them?”
“No. Impossible as it seems, it’s constant. What is your idea?”
“I want to check my theory first. If it works out into anything, I’ll call you.” But he forgot to.
It was a long, painful job. First, he made a chart of the heavens in the area between Ursa Major and Leo. Across that chart he drew four hundred and sixty-eight lines representing the projected path of each of the aberrant stars. At the border of the chart, where each line entered, he made a notation of the apparent velocity of the star—not in light years per hour—but in degrees per hour, to the fifth decimal.
Then he did some reasoning.
“Postulate that the motion which began simultaneously will end simultaneously,” he told himself. “Try a guess at the time. Let’s try ten o’clock tomorrow evening.”
He tried it and looked at the series of positions indicated upon the chart. No.
Try one o’clock in the morning. It looked almost like—sense!
That did it. At any rate, it was close enough. The calculation could be only a few minutes off one way or the other, and there was no point now in working out the exact time. Now that he knew the incredible fact.
He took another drink and stared at the chart grimly.
A trip into the library gave Dr. Hale the further information he needed. The address!
Thus began the saga of Dr. Hale’s journey. A useless journey, it is true, but one that should rank with the trip of the message to Garcia.
He started it with a drink. Then, knowing the combination, he rifled the Safe in the office of the president of the university. the note he left in the safe was a master-piece of brevity. it read:
Taking Money. Explain Later
Then he took another drink and put the bottle in his pocket. He went outside and hailed a taxicab. He got in. “Where to, sir?” asked the cabby.
Dr. Hale gave an address.
“Fremont Street?” said the cabby. “Sorry, sir, but I don’t know where that is.”
“In Boston,” said Dr. Hale. “I should have told you, in Boston.”
“Boston? You mean Boston, Massachusetts? That’s a long way from here.”
“Therefore, we better start right away,” said Dr. Hale reasonably. A brief financial discussion and the passing of money, borrowed from the university safe, set the driver’s mind at rest, and they started.
It was a bitter cold night, for March, and the heater in the cab didn’t work any too well. But the Tartan Plaid worked superlatively for both Dr. Hale and the cabby, and by the time they reached New Haven, they were singing old-time songs lustily.
“Off we go, into the wide, wild yonder …” their voices roared.
It is regrettably reported, but possibly untrue that, in Hartford, Dr. Hale leered out of the window at a young woman waiting for a late streetcar and asked her if she wanted to go to Boston. Apparently, however, she didn’t, for at five o’clock in the morning, when the cab drew up in front of 614 Fremont Street, Boston, only Dr. Hale and the driver were in the cab.
Dr. Hale got out and looked at the house. It was a millionaire’s mansion, and it was surrounded by a high iron fence with barbed wire on top of it. The gate in the fence was locked, and there was no bell button to push.
But the house was only a stone’s throw from the sidewalk, and Dr. Hale was not to be deterred. He threw a stone. Then another. Finally he succeeded in smashing a window.
After a brief interval, a man appeared in the window. A butler, Dr. Hale decided.
“I’m Dr. Milton Hale,” he called out. “I want to see Rutherford R. Sniveley, right away. It’s important.”
“Mr. Sniveley is not at home, sir,” said the butler. “And about that window—”
“The devil with the window,” shouted Dr. Hale. “Where is Sniveley?”
“On a fishing trip.”
“I have orders not to give that information.”
Dr. Hale was just a little drunk, perhaps. “You l give it just the same,” he roared. “By orders of the President of the United States!”
The butler laughed. “I don’t see him.”
“You will,” said Hale.
He got back in the cab. The driver had fallen asleep, but Hale shook him awake.
“The White House,” said Dr. Hale.
“The White House, in Washington,” said Dr. Hale. “And hurry!” He pulled a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket. The cabby looked at it, and groaned. Then he put the bill into his pocket and started the cab.
A light snow was beginning to fall.
As the cab drove off, Rutherford R. Sniveley, grinning, stepped back from the window. Mr. Sniveley had no butler.
If Dr. Hale had been more familiar with the peculiarities of the eccentric Mr. Sniveley, he would have known Sniveley kept no servants in the place overnight but lived alone in the big house at 614 Fremont Street. Each morning at ten o’clock, a small army of servants descended upon the house, did their work as rapidly as possible, and were required to depart before the witching hour of noon. Aside from these two hours of every day, Mr. Sniveley lived in solitary splendor. He had few, if any, social contacts.
Aside from the few hours a day he spent administering his vast interests as one of the country’s leading manufacturers, Mr. Sniveley’s time was his own, and he spent practically all of it in his workshop, making gadgets.
Sniveley had an ashtray which would hand him a lighted cigar any time he spoke sharply to it, and a radio receiver so delicately adjusted that it would cut in automatically on Sniveley-sponsored programs and shut off again when they were finished. He had a bathtub that provided a full orchestral accompaniment to his singing therein, and he had a machine which would read aloud to him from any book which he placed in its hopper.
His life may have been a lonely one, but it was not without such material comforts. Eccentric, yes, but Mr. Sniveley could afford to be eccentric with a net income of four million dollars a year. Not had for a man who’d started life as the son of a shipping clerk.
Mr. Sniveley chuckled as he watched the taxi drive away, and then he went back to bed and to the sleep of the just.
“So somebody has figured things out nineteen hours ahead of time,” he thought. “Well, a lot of good it will do them!”
There wasn’t any law to punish him for what he’d done.
Bookstores did a land-office business that day in books on astronomy. The public, apathetic at first, was deeply interested now. Even ancient and musty volumes Newton’s Principia sold at premium prices.
The ether blared with comment upon the new wonder of the skies. Little of the comment was professional, or even intelligent, for most astronomers were asleep that day. They’d managed to stay awake for the first forty-eight hours from the start of the phenomena, but the third day found them worn out mentally and physically and inclined to let the stars take care of themselves while they—the astronomers, not the stars—caught up on sleep.
Staggering offers from the telecast and broadcast studios enticed a few of them to attempt lectures, but their efforts were dreary things, better forgotten. Dr. Carver Blake, broadcasting from KNB, fell soundly asleep between a perigee and an apogee.
Physicists were also greatly in demand. The most eminent of them all, however, was sought in vain. The solitary clue to Dr. Milton Hale’s disappearance, the brief note, “Taking money. Explain later, Hale,” wasn’t much of a help. His sister Agatha feared the worst.
For the first time in history, astronomical news made banner headlines in the newspapers.
Snow had started early that morning along the northern Atlantic seaboard and now it was growing steadily worse. Just outside Waterbury, Connecticult, the driver of Dr. Hale’s cab began to weaken.
It wasn’t human, he thought, for a man to be expected to drive to Boston and then, without stopping, from Boston to Washington. Not even for a hundred dollars.
Not in a storm like this. Why, he could see only a dozen yards ahead through the driving snow, even when he could manage to keep his eyes open. His fare was slumbering soundly in the back seat. Maybe he could get away with stopping here along the road, for an hour, to catch some sleep. Just an hour. His fare wouldn’t ever know the difference. The guy must be loony, he thought, or why hadn’t he taken a plane or a train?
Dr. Hale would have, of course, if he’d thought of it. But he wasn’t used to traveling and besides, there’d been the Tartan Plaid. A taxi had seemed the easiest way to get anywhere—no worrying about tickets and connections and stations. Money was no object, and the plaid condition of his mind had caused him to overlook the human factor involved in an extended journey by taxi.
When he awoke, almost frozen, in the parked taxi, that human factor dawned upon him. The driver was so sound asleep that no amount of shaking could arouse him. Dr. Hale’s watch had stopped, so he had no idea where he was or what time it was.
Unfortunately, too, he didn’t know how to drive a car. He took a quick drink to keep from freezing and then got out of the cab, and as he did so, a car stopped.
It was a policeman—what is more it was a policeman in a million.
Yelling over the roar of the storm, Hale hailed him. “I’m Dr. Hale,” he shouted. “We’re lost, where am I?”
“Get in here before you freeze,” ordered the policeman. “Do you mean Dr. Milton Hale, by any chance?”
“I’ve read all your books, Dr. Hale,” said the policeman. “Physics is my hobby, and I’ve always wanted to meet you. I want to ask you about the revised value of the quantum.”
“This is life or death,” said Dr. Hale. “Can you take me to the nearest airport, quick:”
“Of course, Dr. Hale.”
“And look—there’s a driver in that cab, and he’ll freeze to death unless we send aid.”
“Il put him in the back seat of my car and then run the cab off the road. We’ll take care of details later.”
The obliging policeman hurried. He got in and started the car.
“About the revised quantum value, Dr. Hale,” he began, then stopped talking.
Dr. Hale was sound asleep. The policeman drove to Waterbury Airport, one of the largest in the world since the population shift from New York City in the 1960s and 70s had given it a central position. In front of the ticket office, he gently awakened Dr. Hale.
“This is the airport, sir,” he said.
Even as he spoke, Dr. Hale was leaping out of the car and stumbling into the building, yelling, “Thanks,” over his shoulder and nearly falling down in doing so.
The warm-up roaring of the motors of a superstrato-liner out on the field lent wings to his heels as he dashed for the ticket window.
“What plane’s that?” he yelled.
“Washington Special, due out in one minute. But I don’t think you can make it.
Dr. Hale slapped a hundred-dollar bill on the ledge. “Ticket,” he gasped. “Keep change.”
He grabbed the ticket and ran, getting into the plane just as the doors were being closed. Panting, he fell into a seat, the ticket still clutched in his hand. He was sound asleep before the hostess strapped him in for the blind take-off.
An hour later, the hostess awakened him. The passengers were disembarking.
Dr. Hale rushed out of the plane and ran across the field to the airport building. A big clock told him that it was nine o’clock, and he felt elated as he ran for the door marked “Taxis.” He got into the nearest one.
“White House,” he told the driver. “How long’ll it take?”
Dr. Hale gave a sigh of relief and sank back against the cushions. He didn’t go back to sleep this time. He was wide awake now. But he closed his eyes to think out the words he’d use in explaining matters…
“Here you are, sir.”
Dr. Hale gave a sigh of relief and sank back against the cab into the building. It didn’t look as he had expected it to look. But there was a desk, and he ran up to it.
“Ive got to see the President, quick. It’s vital.”
The clerk frowned. “The President of what?”
Dr. Hale’s eyes went wide. “The President of wh—say, what building is this? And what town?”
The clerk’s frown deepened. “This is the White House Hotel,” he said. “Seattle, Washington.”
Dr. Hale fainted. He woke up in a hospital three hours later. It was then midnight, Pacific Time, which meant it was three o’clock in the morning on the Eastern seaboard. It had, in fact, been midnight already in Washington, D.C., and in Boston, when he had been leaving the Washington Special in Seattle.
Dr. Hale rushed to the window and shook his fists, both of them, at the sky. A futile gesture.
Back in the East, however, the storm had stopped by twilight, leaving a light mist in the air. The star-conscious public had thereupon deluged the weather bureaus with telephoned requests about the persistence of the mist.
“A breeze off the ocean is expected,” they were told. “It is blowing now, in fact, and within an hour or two will have cleared off the light fog.”
By eleven-fifteen the skies of Boston were clear.
Untold thousands braved the bitter cold and stood staring upward at the unfolding pageant of the no -longer-eternal stars. It almost looked as though—an incredible development had occurred.
And then, gradually, the murmur grew. By a quarter to twelve, the thing was certain, and the murmur hushed and then grew louder than ever, waxing toward midnight. Different people reacted differently, of course, as might be expected. There was laughter as well as indignation, cynical amusement as well as shocked horror. There was even admiration.
Soon, in certain parts of the city, a concerted movement on the part of those who knew an address on Fremont Street began to take place. Movement afoot and in cars and public vehicles, converging.
At five minutes of twelve, Rutherford R. Sniveley sat waiting within his house. He was denying himself the pleasure of looking until, at the last moment, the thing was complete.
It was going well. The gathering murmur of voices, mostly angry voices, outside his house told him that. He heard his name shouted.
Just the same, he waited until the twelfth stroke of the clock before he stepped out upon the balcony. Much as he wanted to look upward, he forced himself to look down at the street first. The milling crowd was there and it was angry. But he had only contempt for the milling crowd.
Police cars were pulling up, too, and he recognized the mayor of Boston getting out of one of them, and the chief of police was with him. But so what? There wasn’t any law covering this.
Then having denied himself the supreme pleasure long enough, he turned his eyes up to the silent sky, and there it was. The four hundred and sixty-eight brightest stars, spelling out: USE SNIVELY’S SOAP.
For just a second did his satisfaction last. Then his face began to turn an apoplectic purple.
“My heavens!” said Mr. Sniveley. “It’s spelled wrong!” His face grew more purple still, and then, as a tree falls, he fell backward through the window.
An ambulance rushed the fallen magnate to the nearest hospital, but he was pronounced dead—of apoplexy—upon entrance.
But misspelled or not, the eternal stars held their positions as of that midnight. The aberrant motion had stopped, and again the stars were fixed. Fixed to spell—SNIVELY’S SOAP.
Of the many explanations offered by all and sundry who professed some physical and astronomical knowl-edge, none was more lucid—or closer to the actual truth—than that put forth by Wendell Mehan, president emeritus of the New York Astronomical Society.
“Obviously, the phenomenon is a trick of refraction,” said Dr. Mehan. “It is manifestly impossible for any force contrived by man to move a star. The stars, therefore, still occupy their old places in the firmament.
“I suggest that Sniveley must have contrived a method of refracting the light of the stars, somewhere in or just above the atmospheric layer of the earth, so that they appear to have changed their positions. This is done, probably, by radio waves or similar waves, sent on some fixed frequency from a set—or possibly a series of four hundred and sixty-eight sets—somewhere upon the surface of the earth. Although we do not understand just how it is done, it is no more unthinkable that light rays should be bent by a field of waves than by a prism or by gravitational force.
“Since Sniveley was not a great scientist, I imagine that his discovery was empiric rather than logical—an accidental find. It is quite possible that even the discovery of his projector will not enable present-day scientists to understand its secret, any more than an aboriginal savage could understand the operation of a simple radio receiver by taking one apart.
“My principal reason for this assertion is the fact that the refraction obviously is a fourth-dimensional phenomenon, or its effect would be purely local to one portion of the globe. Only in the fourth dimension could light be so refracted…”
There was more but it is better to skip to his final paragraph:
“This effect cannot possibly be permanent—more permanent, that is, than the wave-projector which causes it. Sooner or later, Sniveley’s machine will be found and shut off or will break down or wear out of its own volition. Undoubtedly it includes vacuum tubes which will some day blow out, as do the tubes in our radios…”
The excellence of Dr. Mehan’s analysis was shown two months and eight days later, when the Boston Electric Co. shut off, for non-payment of bills, service to a house situated at 901 West Rogers Street, ten blocks from the Sniveley mansion. At the instant of the shut-off, excited reports from the night side of Earth brought the news that the stars had flashed back to their former positions instantaneously.
Investigation brought out that the description of one Elmer Smith, who had purchased that house six months before, corresponded with the description of Rutherford R. Sniveler, and undoubtedly Elmer Smith and Rutherford R. Sniveler were one and the same person.
In the attic was found a complicated network of four hundred and sixty-eight radio-type antennae, each antenna of different length and running in a different direction. The machine to which they were connected was not larger, strangely, than the average ham’s radio projector, nor did it draw appreciably more current, according to the electric company’s record.
By special order of the President of the United States, the projector was destroyed without examination of its internal arrangement. Clamorous protests against this high-handed executive order arose from many sides. But inasmuch as the projector had already been broken up, the protests were to no avail.
Serious repercussions were, on the whole, amazingly few.
Persons in general appreciated the stars more but trusted them less.
Roger Phlutter got out of jail and married Elsie.
Dr. Milton Hale found he liked Seattle and stayed there. Two thousand miles away from his sister, Agatha, he found it possible for the first time to defy her openly. He enjoys life more but, it is feared, will write fewer hooks.
There is one fact remaining which is painful to consider, since it casts a deep reflection upon the basic intelligence of the human race. It is proof, though, that the president’s executive order was justified, despite scientific protest.
That fact is as humiliating as it is enlightening. During the two months and eight days during which the Sniveler machine was in operation, sales of Sniveley Soap increased nine-hundred-twenty per cent.