From Beyond the Stars
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by Murray Leinster
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Tommy Driscoll, ten-year-old scientist's son, emulates one of his favorite comic book heroes when the Earth is in peril! Originally published in "Thrilling Wonder Stories," June 1947.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1947 USA
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
12 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [26 KB]
Reading time: 12-17 min.
FROM BEYOND THE STARS
Tommy Driscoll lay on his stomach in the grass outside his father's laboratory and read his comic books. He was ten years old and wholly innocent of any idea that Fate or Chance or Destiny might make use of him to make the comic books come true.
He was clad in grubby shorts with sandals and no socks or shirt. Ants crawled on his legs as he lay on the ground, and he absently scratched them off. To the adult eye he was merely the son of that Professor Driscoll who taught advanced physics at Harwell College and in summer vacation puttered around with research. As such, Tommy was inconsiderable from any standpoint except that of Fate or Chance or Destiny. They had use for him.
He was, however, wholly and triumphantly a normal small boy. As he scratched thoughtfully and absorbed the pictures in his comic book, he was Space Captain McGee of the rocket-cruiser Omadhoum, gloriously defeating--for the fifteenth time since he had acquired the book--the dastardly scheme of the Dictator of Pluto to enslave the human race to the green-skinned, stalk-eyed denizens of that dark planet.
A little while before, he had been the Star Rover, crimson-cloaked and crimson-masked and mysteriously endowed with the power to survive unharmed the frigidity and airlessness of interstellar space. As the Star Rover, he had triumphantly smashed the attempt of some very unpleasant Mercurians to wipe out the human race so that they could emigrate to Earth.
As both splendid figures, at satisfyingly frequent intervals, Tommy had swung mighty blows at the jaws or midriffs of Mercurians, green-skinned Plutonians, renegade Earthmen, and others.
But he had just finished reading both comics three times in succession. He heaved a sigh of comfortable mental repletion and rolled over, imagining further splendid if formless adventures with spaceships and ray-guns.
Locusts whirred monotonously in the maple trees of Harwell College campus. His father's laboratory was a small stone structure off the Physics Building, and Tommy waited for his father and Professor Wardle to come out. When they did, he would walk home with them and possibly acquire an ice-cream cone on the way. With luck he might wangle another comic, too.
He heard his father's voice. Talking to Professor Wardle, who was spending the weekend with them.
"There's the set-up," said his father inside the laboratory. "Absurd, perhaps, but this Jansky radiation bothers me. I've found out one rather startling thing about it."
"My dear fellow," Professor Wardle said dryly, "if you publish anything about the Jansky radiation, the newspapers will accuse you of communicating with Mars!"
Tommy knew by his father's tone that he was grinning.
"I've not thought of anything so conservative. Everybody knows that the Jansky Radiation comes from the direction of the Milky Way and from beyond the Solar System. It makes a hissing noise in a sensitive shortwave receiver. No modulation has ever been detected. But no explanation's been offered, either."
Tommy heard Professor Wardle move inside the laboratory.
"What's the startling fact you've discovered?" he asked.
"It's got a point source," Tommy Driscoll's father said, and Tommy could tell he was still grinning. "It comes from one spot. There's a second-order effect in our atmosphere which has masked it up to now. I can prove it."
Tommy chewed on a grass stem. As the son of a professor of physics, he was disillusioned about scientists. They were not like the scientists of the comic books, who were mostly mad geniuses with plans to make themselves Emperors of Earth and had to be foiled by Captain McGee or the Star Rover. Tommy knew pessimistically that scientists just talk long words. Like his father now. But Professor Wardle seemed startled.
"A point source! But confound it, man! That would mean it's artificial! Not natural! That it was a signal from beyond the stars! What else could it mean?"
"I'd like to know myself," said Tommy's father ruefully. "I've checked for interruptions like dots and dashes, and for modulations, like our radio. I've made sure it isn't frequency modulated. The only thing left is television."
"Therefore the television screen," said Professor Wardle. "I see. You're trying to analyze it with a scanning system. Hmm. Possible. But if it is a signal from another Solar System--"
Tommy Driscoll sat up straight, his eyes wide and astonished. His mouth formed itself into a particularly round O. This, of course, was the natural occurrence if Fate or Chance or Destiny was to use him to make the comic books come true. He had been listening with only a fraction of his ears. To a ten-year-old boy, adults do not often seem intelligent. Few of them have any interest in Space Captain McGee or the Star Rover.
But Tommy's father was talking about interplanetary communication! Of signals from the planets of another sun! From creatures who might be super-intelligent vegetables like the Wangos the Star Rover had to fight, or immaterial entities like those misty things that almost defeated Captain McGee on the Ghost Planet because when he swung his mighty fist there wasn't anything solid for him to hit. Tommy's father was talking about things like that!
He got up and gazed in the open door of the small laboratory. He regarded the rather messy assemblage of equipment on the workbench with bright-eyed, respectful awe. His father nodded.
"H'llo, Captain," he said to his son. "No hot wires around. Come in. What's on your mind?"
Tommy's eyes shone.
"Uh--you were talkin' about signals from another planet."
"I see," said his father. "Right up your alley, eh? I hadn't realized the popular appeal. But if you'd like to listen--"
Tommy fairly quivered with eagerness. His father threw a switch. There was a tiny hum from a loudspeaker, then silence. Then, presently, there was a tiny hissing noise. Just a hissing sound. Nothing else.
"That's it, Captain," his father told Tommy. "That's the noise the Jansky radiation makes. When we turn this dial we tune it out this way"--he demonstrated--"and also when we turn the dial that way. Then we tune it back in." He proved it. "Nobody has ever explained it, but it comes from outer space. I think it comes from just one spot."
Professor Wardle, smoking a pipe and sprawled in a chair, nodded amiably at Tommy.
"Yes, sir," Tommy said, thrilled. His throat went dry from excitement.
His father threw a second switch. A television-screen glowed faintly.
"Now it's transferred to the screen," he told Tommy, "but it's still all scrambled. Nothing happens. It's quite a job to unscramble a television signal even when you know all about the transmitter. If there's a transmitter sending this, I don't know any of its constants." Over Tommy's head, he said to Professor Wardle, "The possible combinations run ten to the ninth."
Professor Wardle nodded.
"Lines per inch, size of screen, images per second, possible colors." He grunted. "Then the scanning pattern and possible three dimensions and so on. You've got several billion possible variations, all right!"
"Unscramble it, Dad!" said Tommy eagerly. "Please! I want to see what the people look like who're sending it! Do you think we can lick them if they get tough?"
"I'm telling you," his father explained, "that I can try several billion ways to unscramble this supposed signal. Even if it can be done, only one of them will be right. It's going to take time."
"But, Dad, please try!"
Tommy was filled with infinite excitement. Which, of course, was not only necessary if the comic books were to be made to come true, but was wholly for a normal small boy.
Here was an interstellar signal! He had heard it! Tune the set right, and he would see--maybe something like the giraffe-men who almost killed Captain McGee on the Planet of Sand! Or the frog men the Star Rover had to fight when a crippled space liner was forced to descend on the watery planet Alith!
"I've got to figure out a way to unscramble it, Tommy," his father said. "I've got to calculate the settings that are most likely to show some change on the screen. It's rather like breaking a code. It will take a couple of weeks to compute a series of settings to try one after the other."
Tommy was unconvinced. He argued. Space Captain McGee's friend Doc Blandy would simply have whipped out his trusty slide rule and made the computations in seconds. He would push the slide back and forth, set the television controls according to his computations, and say, "On the beam, McGee!" And Space Captain McGee would gaze into the television-screen and see the worm monsters of Blathok about to chloroform Jenny--Captain McGee's girlfriend--to transfer the brain of a worm-monster into her skull. Her body would thereafter house an inveterate enemy of the human race, with specific plans for annihilating it.
Tommy argued. Impassionedly. In the end his father had to resort to authority to stop his arguing. And then Tommy was tempted to revert to his former disillusionment about scientists.
But continued belief offered high reward in excitement. So he believed. Still, it was a rebellious small boy who accompanied his father and Professor Wardle home. Even the ice-cream cone did not console him. He consumed it in an avid gloom. His father tried to comfort him.
"After all, we're not sure," he told Tommy. "It might not be a signal at all. Or it might be a signal of a type that would seem simple enough to the creature who sent it, but hopelessly complicated to us. They might be so much farther advanced in science. In any case, it's not a thing to be solved off-hand."
"But you're going to try, aren't you, Dad?" asked Tommy desperately. "You said it wouldn't do any harm! You said we could lick them! They couldn't harm Earth!"
"I'll try," his father assured him. "It's simply useless to go at it blind. That's all. I'll have my calculations done in a couple of weeks, and you can watch while I try the whole business. All right?"
Tommy gulped. He was unable to speak for disappointment. When one is ten years old, odds of billions to one are negligible, but two weeks of waiting is eternity. It is exactly the same as never. And this, too, was not only in the necessary pattern of things if the comic books were to come true, but it was perfectly natural small boy.