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Authors: Fred Hoyle

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Element 79 (4 page)

BOOK: Element 79
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“But millions do the same. I did, everybody does!”
“Yes, but they know not what they do.
I
knew what I was doing. For twenty years now I’ve been clear in my mind about it. Yet I’ve gone on taking the line of least resistance. I made minor adjustments, like eating more fish and less meat, but I never faced the real problem. I knew what I was doing.”
The weeks passed, then the months. Long ago, Mary and I had begun to share the same cell for sleeping. We had no trouble with the sickness, even when we shared my rucksack for a pillow. The same favor was not immediately extended to the others. The favor perhaps was granted because I had kept my small scrap of knowledge about the zoomen strictly to myself.
The day did come, however, when the others were allowed into physical contact. There was no mistaking the day, for Bill Bailey appeared in the cathedral clad only in his now tattered underpants, shouting, “Bloody miracle. We got on last night, real good and proper.” Then he was off, high-stepping, knees up, like a boxer trotting along the road. Round and round the cathedral he went chanting, “Raw eggs, raw eggs, mother. Oh, for a bloody basin of raw eggs.”
Giselda Horne was standing nearby. “What does it mean?” she asked rather shyly.
“It means, my dear, that we’re only nine months away from our destination,” I answered.

 

This narrative was discovered in curious circumstances many many years after it was written, indeed long long after it had become impossible to identify the particular mountain mentioned by its author, Meall Ghaordie.
Landing on a distant planetary system, the crew of the fifth deep interstellar mission were astonished to discover what seemed like a remarkable new species of humanoid. The language spoken by the creatures was quite unintelligible in its details, but in the broad pattern of its sounds it was strikingly similar to an archaic human language.
The creatures lived a wild, nomadic existence. Yet they were imbued with a strong religious sense, a religion apparently centering around a “covenant,” guarded day and night in a remote stronghold. It was there, in a remote mountain valley, that the creatures assembled for their most solemn religious ceremonies. By a technologically advanced subterfuge, access to the “covenant” was at length obtained. It turned out to be the story of the “Professor,” reproduced above without emendations or omissions. It was written in a small book of the pattern of an ancient diary. This it was the creatures guarded with such abandoned ferocity, although not a word of it did they understand.
The manuscript has undoubtedly created many more problems than it has solved. What meaning can be attached to the fanciful anatomical references? What was “Munro-bagging”? These questions are still the subject of bitter debate among savants. Who were the sinister zoomen? Could it be that the Professor and his party turned out to be too hot to handle, in a biological sense, of course, and that the zoomen were forced to dump them on the first vacant planet? The pity is that the “Professor” did not continue his narrative. His writing materials must soon have become exhausted, for the above narrative almost fills his small diary.
It was the appearance of the creatures which misled the fifth expedition into thinking they were dealing with humanoids, not humans. It was the unique combination of flaming red hair with intense green, Mongoloid eyes. Did these characteristics become dominant in the mixed gene pool of the Professor’s party, or was the true explanation more direct and elementary?
Pym Makes His Point
“Geordie” Jones mopped his brow. He had been so nicknamed by Welsh relatives, scornful of his residence in one of the new T.V.-aerial-decked housing estates of Newcastle-on-Tyne. He finished his cup of tea and told his mate, Barney O’Connor—the only honest Irishman, according to himself—it was time she was moving. “She” was the Royal Scotsman. They walked the long platform of Waverley Street Station, Edinburgh, saying little except that it was bloody hot. Which was true, it was 95° F. or 35° C. It was exactly the same whichever way you looked at it, bloody hot. Come to think of it, why did the bloody newspapers and the bloody T.V. always go on about 35° C. or 95° F.? Geordie Jones had worked with steam engines all his life. He knew perfectly well about C. and F. Why did the bloody newspapers give themselves such airs, as if they were the only ones who knew anything at all?
In truth, it was both hot and humid. It was the sort of summer spell which few people outside the British Isles believe possible as far north as 55° latitude. It wasn’t quite as hot or as unpleasant as the East Coast of the United States can be in summer, ex-air-conditioning. But it was more than hot enough for the cabin of a big Diesel locomotive to be avoided by those in a position to avoid it. The sooner they were moving and picking up speed the better it would be, grunted Geordie.
They drove the old tub as hard as she would go east into Lothian. The miles flew by. In less than an hour they had turned southeast for Berwick. Quite suddenly, there was an enormous fall of temperature. Not ten degrees, not twenty, either F. or C., but right down as if they were running into-winter. Incredibly, snow flakes appeared on the windscreen and they had to start the wipers. Within ten minutes, Geordie Jones brought the train to a grinding, shrieking halt. Ahead of them was an enormous snowdrift. Looking out, Barney reported a blizzard to be raging. Fifteen minutes later, the train was entirely snowed in. To Geordie Jones, to Barney O’Connor, to every passenger on the train, it seemed as if the world had gone daft. It was bloody insane, but then neither Geordie Jones nor Barney O’Connor knew anything of the dealings of Professor Pym.
Pym was retired now from one of the smaller universities in the north of England. For twenty-five years he had worked hard to organize the department of physics for the benefit of his staff and for the sake of the apparently unending stream of undergraduates. He had struggled to do what research he could in spare moments, in the depths of vacations mostly. He had managed several useful pieces of work, although nothing at all distinguished had fallen into his lap.
Professor Pym and his wife lived economically in a small house in a not very attractive suburb of the town—economically, in part so they could give help to a married daughter with a young family, in part for them to afford the cottage they had bought in Hartsop Village, Patterdale, in the Lake District. Time passes, with results more tragic to the old than the young. The daughter had gone with her husband to Australia because there were better opportunities in the vibrant young Commonwealth. When Pym’s wife died in her seventieth year he was left, still with many friends and acquaintances, but without anyone of close attachment. In many ways, life had become a memory.
It was natural for Pym to give up his suburban home, to retire to Patterdale, to the hills he loved, his last love really. Now approaching the middle seventies, he was still to be seen out walking on a fine afternoon. Given time, he could still manage the broad grassy tracks leading up from the valley to the higher slopes. His weather-beaten face, white hair, and shy, diffident smile were well known to the locals. Although he wasn’t one of them, they made him feel welcome in the village.
Lately, Pym hadn’t been any too well. It could be just the hot spell, of course, quite exceptionally hot it was. Yet a bit of heat shouldn’t bother him this much, or cause him active pain. He should see a doctor—but then why? Either he was seriously ill or he wasn’t. If it was bad they’d only rush him into hospital, to a little cubicle of a room. The doctors might drag out his life for a month or two, but what were a few extra months worth, spent looking at walls and a ceiling, compared to a last walk along the valley? Besides, there was a piece of work he ought to finish.
Pym did in fact finish his work. It put quite a drain on his failing strength, but he finished it. Then he sat himself out in the garden, relaxing. A stranger came down the hill path from the direction of “The Knott.” In a few minutes he was at the cottage. Then he paused for a moment, nodded, and opened the garden gate. Pym saw a man of about thirty, handsome in a slightly repellent way, coming up the garden path. “Do you think you could make me a pot of tea?”
Pym rose slowly from his wicker chair. “Of course, if you wouldn’t mind having it inside. You see, it’s a bit awkward to carry the things out here.”
Pym showed the stranger into the tiny sitting room and then went to put on the kettle. When he came back with the tea he found the fellow reading his latest paper. It seemed a bit impudent, but Pym didn’t like to be too impolite. “Are you a scientist, might I ask?”
“You could call me that, Professor Pym.”
“So you know my name?”
“You are well known around here.”
“Not really.”
“Oh, yes. There aren’t many scientists in these parts, real scientists. Let me ask you a question, Professor Pym. Do you consider yourself a real scientist?”
Pym flopped into a chair. “That hardly seems very civil.” The stranger threw back his head and laughed. His teeth were evenly spaced, very white, and apparently without blemishes. Pym liked him less and less, particularly as he went on, “You are a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. I know that. It doesn’t answer my question. Take this paper here, for instance. It is no better, no worse, than the fifty-three other papers you have written. In it you make six assumptions each reasonably plausible in itself. But have you ever paused to reflect that a chain of six assumptions gives only a poor chance of the whole argument being right? In fact, your paper is wrong. It is utterly worthless.”
Pym went very white, his legs trembled badly. “You can’t know that! Even if you’ve worked on the subject yourself, it’s impossible to be sure.”
For answer, the stranger took three sheets of paper from his rucksack. He flicked them down in front of the old man. “Read these and you will see.”
The writing was small and neat and the pages were well-filled. Pym put on his reading glasses. Ten lines of poetry and the hand of a master is obvious, the same for ten bars of music. So it was here. Pym read on and on in growing astonishment. The logic was concise, crystal dear. It not only solved the problem along quite unexpected lines, it showed how the problem had half a dozen new connections which nobody had noticed before.
Pym was under no illusion now, no illusion that he was dealing with an ordinary walker coming down off the hills into the valley. With more calm than he felt, he came instantly to the point. “So what might be the purpose of this visit? Not a pot of tea, I see, for you haven’t touched it.”
“Not a pot of tea, Professor Pym.”
“You still have the advantage of me.”
“More than you realize. If it is a name you are seeking, some call me Death. To a scientist this might seem unduly melodramatic. Yet there is a component of truth in it. See.”
The stranger walked to the window. The sunshine vanished outside. Pym felt his mouth bone dry. He could see the gaunt hills of winter, his hills, with the grass and bracken and flowers gone, with the sky overcast. An instant later the Sun flashed out and it was summer again. The stranger resumed his seat. “I have other names. Some call me the Devil, also rather melodramatic, I am afraid. Yet there is a component of the truth in this, too. To be blunt, Professor Pym, I am here to bargain with you.”
To his own surprise, Pym was amused. “Mephistopheles— Dr. Faustus! You don’t expect me to take that old stuff seriously.”
The stranger smiled in return. “How times change. Ah, well, new men, new methods. No, I am not going to offer any fair Marguerite. On a simple calculation, you have earned sufficient over the past thirty years to have bought yourself quite enough in that direction, if you had been so inclined. Say an average of twenty-five hundred pounds per annum, giving a total of seventy-five thousand pounds. Fair Marguerites don’t come as expensive as that, Professor. Give me credit for a little intelligence.”
“Suppose you tell me what you have to offer.”
“Not so fast. Before I make any offer, I intend to touch on a few sensitive points. Take the manner of your election to the Institute of Physics, for instance. Aha, I see we have a reaction there. Let me remind you of the things you have tried so hard to forget. Shall I recite the names of the committee that recommended your election, the names of your friends? Of course they did nothing grossly improper. They didn’t push you ahead of any much better man. What they did—your friends—was to push you ahead of ten other men of equal ability.”
“Stop it! For God’s sake, can’t you spare me anything? I’m old now, and tired.”
“Yet you are ambitious. You have written still another worthless paper, even though the writing of it has consumed many of the last days of your life. Why did you write this rubbish? Don’t insult me with nonsense about your duty as a scientist. You know standards as well as I do. You wrote this paper in a last vain hope of pulling something off. You wrote it in the spirit of a gambler who must have one last fling.”
Pym was trembling again. “In pity’s name, come to the point.”
“I have no pity. I have already told you who I am. How far are you willing to gamble, Professor Pym?”
“What must I offer?”
“Should I say your soul? No, no, we don’t believe in souls nowadays. Your life, the remainder of your life. The disease that will kill you is even now at work. You already know it. If you send me away from here you will live until winter descends on the hills, until the precise moment I showed to you a while ago. The last days of the summer will be clear and beautiful. These you will have, without too much pain. You will walk the valley and you will climb the lower hills once again.”
“The alternative?”
“Immediate death. These last days, Professor, the beauty and pathos of these last days. That is what I bargain for.”
“And the offer?”
“The paper, the three sheets which you have just read. You will copy them and seal them in an envelope addressed to the Institute of Physics. You may trust me to see it reaches its destination. I am no defaulter on a bargain.”
BOOK: Element 79
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