The hospital bed was uncomfortably hard, with a lump that poked into his lower back no matter how much he squirmed. Not that he could squirm far, of course; the straps across his chest and legs were quite adequate to their task. Staring at the ceiling, tracing imaginary patterns among the holes in the acoustic tile there, he tried to shut out the gurgling sounds from the next bed. The gurgling he hated even more than the crying and laughing.
"Mr. Charles Bissey?"
New voices weren't common here. Lowering his gaze, he focused on the two men at the foot of his bed. One was Dr. Housman, who often appeared in his nightmares these days. The other, standing rather stiffly, was a stranger in a military-type uniform. "Yes," he acknowledged. "Who are you?"
"My name is Colonel Lee, Charles," the stranger said. "We need your help."
Charles glanced at Dr. Housman and sighed. "Sure you do. What is this, Doctor, another of your tests?" "It's no test, Charles," Housman shook his head. "Please listen to the colonel. This is deadly serious."
"Charles," Lee said, "have you ever heard of the San Bernadino Dome?"
"I'm allowed to read newspapers," Charles told him mildly. "It showed up one night a week ago in a shopping center parking lot. The newspapers think it may be the start of a space invasion."
"Right, although the invasion angle is pure speculation at this point." Lee seemed to be relaxing a bit now. Doubtless he was relieved to find Charles wasn't a raving madman. "But we believe the dome to be a threat in other ways. We'd like you to help us destroy it."
"Suicide mission?" Charles asked. Not that it really mattered.
Lee shook his head. "We hope not. But it will be dangerous."
"Why should I help you? What do I get out of this?"
He was prepared for a lecture on patriotism, and Housman's words were therefore a surprise. "Perhaps," the doctor said quietly, "you'll have your dream."
Charles stared hard at him. So many times he'd hoped... so many times had watched it all crumble. But he had little else to live for. "I accept," he said.
The preliminary psychomedical work took two days. Charles was in hypnotic sleep a good portion of that time, but it was a strangely exhausting sleep, and he hoped he'd have a chance to rest after it was over. But Colonel Lee was apparently in a hurry, and within an hour he had called a mission orientation meeting.
"Good day to you all," Lee nodded as he strode into the room. "I know you're tired, so I'll make this brief." He touched a switch on the console next to his chair and a picture of a huge gray hemisphere appeared on the room's screen. Behind it could be seen a long building with several different business signs, as well as a section of a city street, all looking like it had been in a war. No people were in sight anywhere.
"The San Bernadino Dome," Lee said. "Thirty meters high at the center, ninety meters across at the base. Completely impervious to everything we've tried against it. Even the best antitank missiles don't do so much as scratch the surface."
"How about atomic weapons?" Arthur asked.
"We haven't tried anything that drastic yet, but all the extrapolations indicate that even that wouldn't do any good from the outside. From the inside, though... possibly." "Wait a minute," Frank growled. "You're not gonna send us into that thing, are ya?"
"We could get hurt!" Dennis piped up.
"Hold it, hold it," Lee said, raising a hand for order. "Getting into the dome shouldn't be physically dangerous. There are already nearly a hundred people inside, by our estimates."
"What do you mean, not physically dangerous?" Susan asked in her prim alto. "What kind of dangerous is it?"
Lee took a deep breath. "Well... it seems that the dome is surrounded by a sort of... effect, I guess you could call it. Everyone who's gone inside a certain distance drops whatever else he's doing and heads straight for this door." He indicated a black triangle on the dome. "We've tried sending people just over the edge of the effect and then hauling them back with ropes, and once they're back outside they're okay again. They report a tremendous compulsion to get into the dome, but no idea why they were wanted. Our experts say the effect resembles a strong hypnosis, but they have no idea how the order was implanted. What happens inside is anyone's guess; all we know is that the agents we sent in with bombs apparently never triggered them. Yes, Charles?"
Charles spoke up hesitantly, still shy in the presence of the others. He'd met them barely three hours earlier, and his natural bashfulness with strangers made his tongue feel awkward. "I take it, Colonel, that you think we can get past this conditioning?"
"Of course he thinks that, dummy," Arthur snapped. "Why else would we be here?"
"Actually, we don't expect all of you to get through untouched," Lee said quickly, perhaps seeing Charles's blush. "Frankly, we'll be happy if any one of you can get in with enough control left to carry out the mission. We really don't know what will happen to you since—well—"
"Since everyone else who's gone in has been perfectly sane?" Charles suggested.
"Now, Charles, don't pick on the colonel," Susan admonished.
Lee spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I know it sounds cruel and manipulative, but yes, that's precisely why we recruited you. The hypnosis isn't perfect; it has limitations—"
"How do you know?" Arthur spoke up quickly.
"Because on that first morning people were dribbling into the dome in ones and twos until we set off the sirens; after that there was a general rush. From that we gather the hypnosis wasn't strong enough to wake people up or make them walk in their sleep. People like you, we hope, will also be outside the thing's capabilities. The experimental technique that set you up with your new pseudotelepathic intercommunication may help, too—spread the effect around or something."
"Or maybe it won't," Frank said. "If y'ask me, this is a whole lotta work for nothin'. The door to the thing's open, right? So toss in a nuke and get it over with."
"Frank!" Susan was aghast. "There are a hundred people in there. Not to mention whoever was there to begin with."
"Actually," Lee said, "we couldn't do that even if the dome were empty. There's an airlock sort of arrangement that seems to be made of the same material as the dome. As an absolute last resort, we might try sending in a volunteer with an activated time bomb. But even if that worked—which isn't at all certain—it would mean sacrificing anybody who may still be alive in there." He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "Anyway, the high-level decision was made to give you a chance first."
"That's all well and good, Colonel," Susan said, "but I, for one, want to know why you want so badly to destroy this artifact. It doesn't seem to be doing anything threatening, so as long as you keep people away from it, what's the trouble? Death and destruction are easy, I suppose, but they're so final."
"The trouble," Lee answered, "is that, whatever the owners of the dome want with the people they've grabbed, they've decided they want more... and since we've evacuated the whole area they can't get them. So they're expanding their compulsion-effect field. The thing's pushed another hundred meters out in the past four days and shows no signs of stopping."
There was a long moment of silence. "Well," Lee said at last, "if there are no more questions or comments, I'll let you get some rest. You'll start a couple of days of saboteur training tomorrow morning. Good-bye for now."
The next two days were frantic, filled with intensive studies. Charles had always envied people who could assimilate knowledge quickly, and was more than a little surprised that he was actually able to keep up. He became adept at putting together the tiny nuclear bomb the team would be taking into the dome, and discovered that he had a distinct aptitude for solving logic problems. Though little time had been specifically set aside for the members of the team to get to know each other, Charles found himself becoming more relaxed in their company as they worked and learned together. He didn't consider them friends, of course—true friendships had been few and far between for him—but he no longer feared them as enemies, either. On the whole, that was already more than he'd hoped for.
All too soon, it was time. A midnight plane ride—with Dennis gurgling excitedly at the stars overhead—and a short drive brought the team to a line of grim-faced soldiers patrolling the deserted San Bernadino streets. A major pointed the way and offered good luck.
The first twenty steps were the hardest, at least for Charles. He felt as if he were walking through a mine field: never knowing when it would happen; wondering if it would hurt or not; almost hurrying so as to get it over with. Compulsively, he found himself counting the steps: nineteen, twenty, twenty- one—
And with the suddenness of a light switch a red haze seemed to drop over his vision, and all thoughts fled before the overpowering desire to get into the dome. He broke into a run, dimly aware of the others but incapable of taking the slightest interest in them. The buildings around him were gray fog; but as he rounded one last corner a burst of color assaulted his senses. It was the dome, as bright and eye- catching as the finest sunset he'd ever seen and utterly irresistible. The triangular entrance beckoned; lowering his head he increased his speed. Ninety seconds later, he was inside.
"Well," Arthur said aloud, his words coming in short bursts as his wind slowly returned, "that was... quite a race. Everyone... okay?"
"Yeah," Frank said.
"I feel fine," Susan replied. "Dennis?"
"Wow! These roofs are really high," Dennis chirped, oblivious to the others' conversation. "Can we go up there?"
"Ceilings, kid, not roofs," Frank growled. "Let's get movin' before someone comes along, huh?"
"Can we go up there?" Dennis repeated, more insistent this time.
"Not just now," Arthur said. The catwalks twenty feet above them were far too high for his taste. "Maybe later." He looked back down quickly and glanced around the room they'd wound up in. The walls were lined with pipes and strangely shaped machinery, but he could see what looked like a pair of doors in the far wall. "Looks like that's the way deeper in," he said.
"Wait a minute," Susan cut in. "Charles? Charles, are you okay?"
"I... I think they got me," Charles murmured. "I'm sorry."
"Damn!" Frank growled.
"Okay, relax," Arthur said, trying to keep his excitement from showing. He could be leader now! "Are you going to be fighting us, Charles, or are you just going to be deadweight from now on?" "I don't know. I don't feel like shouting out the truth or anything. I just feel like doing what... I guess it's what they told me to do when we came in."
"Well, that'll do for now, I suppose. If it changes, let me know fast and we'll either sit on you or try to work around your conditioning. Now, what exactly—"
"Wait a second," Frank cut in. "Who died and left you in charge?"
"This is the pecking order Lee gave us, remember?" Arthur said. "Charles first, then me. Then you."
"Then it's settled. Dennis, stop that whimpering."
"Is Charles sick?" Dennis asked anxiously, his voice trembling.
"Oh, for—Susan, explain it to him, will you? We've got to get moving. Charles, what exactly did they tell you to do?"
"I'm supposed to go through the left door up there, down a corridor, right at the second cross-corridor—"
"Hold it," Arthur interrupted. "Does all this take us further in or just around the edge of the dome?"
"Uh... I think all the way to the center."
"Then let's just go. What happens when we get to the center?"
"I'll be helping to put together some kind of machine."
The door opened into a narrow corridor. Glancing up, Arthur noted that the catwalks from the room extended over the corridor as well, passing through the six-foot gap between the tops of the walls and the arched ceiling. Would there be guards posted up there?
"This doesn't make any sense at all," Susan complained as they started down the corridor. "Why should the creatures who live in here need people to help build their machines?"
"Maybe they don't know how," Dennis suggested.
"Then how's Charles supposed to figure it out?" Frank snorted. "More likely
they're all dead."
"Dead?" Susan sounded appalled.
"Or else never here," Arthur mused. "I didn't notice any effort to filter the air at the entrance. What kind of alien would be stupid enough to risk breathing our germs?"
"Then who's running this thing?" Frank argued. "Some kind of computer?"
"Because whoever built it should have made sure it could repair itself," Susan said.
"Damn it, Susan, lemme handle my own fights," Frank snapped.
"Don't you swear at me" she returned icily.
"All right, everyone, take it easy," Arthur put in, desperately trying to hold things together. "Looks like we're coming into a main room up here. Everybody stay alert and look for a good place to plant the bomb."
The final door opened, and the sight behind it silenced even Frank. The room was huge—covering perhaps a quarter of the dome's floor area—and stocked with a bewildering collection of machines and what could only be the aliens' equivalent of electronic equipment. The other trapped humans were there, too, working at various tasks with a diligence uncomfortably reminiscent of ants. There was no talking or other obvious communication; it wasn't even clear whether the laborers were aware of each other's presence. And in the center of the room—
A miniature version of the dome itself.
Dennis was the first to say anything. "Wow! This is neat!"
"What the hell is this?" Frank asked, bewilderment in his voice. "Some kinda Chinese puzzle box?"
"You're thinking of Russian dolls, I think," Arthur corrected absently. "I don't think there are more than just these two, though—that little one's barely twenty feet tall; I'd guess."
"They're certainly paying a lot of attention to it," Susan pointed out.
Even as she spoke, a group of five people left one of the machines carrying a small device they had apparently been building there. Maneuvering it carefully, they worked it through the outsized triangular door of the smaller dome and disappeared inside.
"Wonder what that was," Arthur muttered.
"One of those," Dennis piped up, pointing to one of the machines lining the room's walk.
"Shut up," Frank growled. "No, wait—he's right," Susan said. "See? It was a smaller version of that machine; same shape and color pattern." Abruptly, she caught her breath. "They're making a baby dome."
"Uh, excuse me," Charles spoke up into the silence, "but I'm supposed to help with something over across the room."
"Okay," Arthur said, making a quick decision. "Let's do it. You just go ahead and take the lead."
"What?" Frank snapped. "The hell with this. Let's just drop the bomb someplace and get outta here."
"What about the other people?" Susan asked.
"Hell with 'em."
"Absolutely not." Susan's voice left no room for argument. "They're not here of their own free will. We aren't just going to leave them to die."
"Besides which," Arthur said, overriding Frank's comeback, "we've got another little problem here. If that dome's made of the same stuff as the big one, we're going to have to put a bomb inside it if we want to be sure of knocking it out."
"Don't be stupider than you have to, Frank," Arthur snapped, suddenly tired of him. "We also need a bomb out here... and we only have one. So until we come up with an idea, we've got to stay as inconspicuous as possible."
They reached the target machine a minute later, and their first close look at the human workers elicited gasps from Susan and Dennis and a curse from Frank. Two of the four people working over the machine looked like refugees of the Nazi starvation camps: gaunt and pallid, with thin arms and sunken cheeks. The other two weren't in much better shape.
"Colonel Lee said some of the people had been in here since the dome appeared," Susan said in a choked voice. "That's nearly twelve days ago."
"Maybe the dome doesn't know enough to feed them," Arthur suggested, feeling slightly sickened. "Still... I suppose that's good, in a way. It means the dome can't read minds."
"Arthur, we've got to get this over with as soon as possible," Susan said. "These people need medical attention right away."
"If you can suggest a way to make one bomb into two," Arthur grunted, "I'd be happy to do so." "Well, why don't you just find one of the agents Colonel Lee said had come in and take his bomb?"
There was a short pause. "That's easy to say," Frank grumbled, sounding impressed in spite of himself. "But how are we gonna find any of 'em in this crowd?"
"Hell be wearing street clothing, for one thing," Susan pointed out. "At least half these people are in pajamas and nightgowns. We could just... well, frisk all the possibilities."
"Let's try just looking at their clothing to start with," Arthur suggested. "Everyone here's lost a lot of weight, and their clothes are hanging unnaturally. Check for any extra bulges or the kind of wrinkle lines you get with something heavy in your pocket."
The casual stroll around the room took several minutes, and it was Dennis who spotted it first. "Over there!" he bubbled excitedly. "Under his arm—see? I found him!"
"Looks like it, awright," Frank said. "Lemme get it—he might put up a fight."
"Frank!" Susan snapped. "Don't you dare—"
"He'll do what he has to, Susan," Arthur cut in brusquely. "Frank has a job to do here, just like the rest of us. Let's do it." Without waiting for comments he headed toward the other man, pleased with his last speech. All good leaders, he knew, should know how to be eloquent when necessary.
As it turned out, both his speech and Susan's fears were for nothing. The agent kept at his job, offering no resistance as Frank lifted his coat and relieved him of the innocent-looking black box.
"Half-hour delay," Frank muttered, peering at the lettering by the uncrimped metal tube that held the bomb's chemical fuse. "Not any better than ours."
"Yeah," Arthur agreed. "Well... let's get ours put together. Then we'll figure out how to get one into the little dome—yes, Charles, what is it?"
"I've got to get back," Charles said, a hint of desperation sounding clearly in his voice. "I've got work to do—back at my machine—"
"Hey, hey, hey—don't go nuts on us now." Arthur thought quickly. "Frank, give me a hand here—we've got to hang onto him. Susan, get that bomb assembled, pronto. Charles, you just try to relax—or struggle, if that makes you feel any better."
"I'm... trying... to fight it," Charles whispered. "It's... strong...." "Susan!" Arthur snapped. "Hurry up."
"Almost done," Susan said, an island of calm in the tension. "We still haven't figured out how we're going to get these people out of here, though."
"Forget... 'em," Frank managed.
"Is Charles sick again?" Dennis spoke up timidly.
"He'll be all right," Susan soothed. "The machines in the dome are trying to make him do something he doesn't want to do."
"Can't you make them stop?"
"I'm afraid—Dennis, that's it!" Susan interrupted herself abruptly. "Arthur— all we have to do is to find and shut off whatever machine's doing this to Charles and the others. In fact, we don't really have to destroy anything else."
"The hell we don't." Without warning, Frank snatched a nutcrackerlike tool from a man at a nearby machine. Before any of the others could act, he'd crimped the fuses on both bombs.
"Frank!" Arthur all but bellowed. "Why did you do that?"
" 'Cause we can't hold onto Charles forever," the other snarled. "What if he gets loose and gets all of us killed? I sure as hell wanna take this damn dome with me when I go."
"Frank, when are you going to stop thinking with your fists?" Susan groaned, her anger already turned to resignation. "Why must you always put things in terms of fighting?"
"Are we gonna plant these or not?" Frank asked impatiently, ignoring her.
"Of course we are," Arthur said. "There—that group heading toward the little dome. We'll put one of the bombs on top of that console they're carrying and make sure none of them tosses it off. The other one can be put down anywhere out here."
If the group of workers so much as noticed Frank adding the flat box to their burden, they gave no sign. Disappearing into the small dome, they emerged a few minutes later empty-handed. Frank didn't wait for further instructions, but simply shoved the second bomb under the nearest machine.
"Now," Arthur said, trying not to show his tension, "we've got just twenty- five minutes to find that hypnosis machine and get out of here." He took a long, sweeping look around the room, and for the first time the enormity of that task hit him. There were literally hundreds of instruments lining the walls, not even counting the freestanding ones scattered around. How were they going to find the right one?
"This is ridiculous," Frank said. "What're we supposed to do, smash everything in sight?"
"No," Charles gasped. "It's easier than that."
"What is it, Charles?" Arthur asked, suddenly alert. Charles, after all, had a sort of inside track here. "You know which one it is?"
"No. But—" He halted, as if having to fight out the words. "The people here... building and... and fixing things. We're not... working like we're... supposed to."
And suddenly Arthur understood. "Aha! Got it!" He scanned the room again, and this time he saw it. "Over there, on the wall—that gadget with eight people working on it. Let's go."
"But how do you know that's the right one?" Susan asked.
"Because no one was working over there when we first came in."
"Huh?" Frank asked.
"It's really very simple." Arthur grinned tightly. "We're not doing what we're supposed to; therefore, the hypnosis gadget must have developed a fault—and therefore, the dome's started getting people over there to try and fix it."
The workers had the instrument's cover off by the time Frank began shoving through the group. For the first time there was resistance to his advance, as if the dome had belatedly recognized the magnitude of the threat and was trying to counter it. But long starvation had left far too little strength to the men, and Frank brushed them aside as if they were children. Seizing the heaviest tool within reach, he began flailing about at the exposed circuitry. His first three blows seemed to have no effect; but at the fourth—
"That's it!" Charles shouted.
And all around the room activity suddenly ceased, replaced by an equally abrupt babble as all the frustration and terror of the past days found release in newly loosened tongues. But Charles was ready, and before the noise had time to reach panic levels, he filled his lungs and bellowed, "Everybody get out of here now! This dome will blow up in less than twenty minutes. The door's in that direction; move!"
Perhaps the time under hypnosis had left a residual susceptibility to orders, or perhaps getting out simply struck them all as the smart thing to do. But whatever the reason, they obeyed without question or complaint. It wasn't easy—in the absence of artificial compulsion, the physical drain of their ordeal abruptly appeared. But with a lot of mutual support, they kept moving. "I don't suppose there's any way to disarm the bombs," Susan said wistfully. "I mean, now that there's no reason to destroy all of this..."
"No reason, my eye," Charles snorted. "You never felt how strong that hypnosis machine was. If anyone got ahold of it and figured out how to make it work again—"
"Would it hurt people?" Dennis asked.
"Very much," Susan sighed. "You're probably right, Charles. Let's just get out of here, then."
There was less than a minute to go on the fuses when they reached the first row of buildings, the point at which Charles had earlier gotten his first glimpse of the dome. "It was a lot more colorful before," he commented to no one in particular as he turned for one final look. "Must have been part of the hypnosis."
"Can we stay here and watch the bang?" Dennis asked eagerly.
"Probably won't be much to see," Charles told him. "The dome will contain most of the explosion, and anything that leaks out the door probably won't be very bright."
"Aw, what the hell," Frank said, to everyone's surprise. "Let's let the kid have a look."
"I thought you didn't like Dennis, Frank," Susan said.
"Naw, he's okay. And—look, he did his share, right?"
"Sure," Charles said. "Okay, we'll stay."
The seconds ticked by. "Even if we don't see anything, we ought to feel the ground shake when they go off," Arthur remarked, talking to cover up his nervousness. He had led them through the critical part of the mission; he alone was responsible for success or failure. And if—somehow—this didn't work, no one would ever let him be a leader again.
"Oh, I'm sure we'll see something," Susan assured him.
As it turned out, she and Charles had both rather underestimated things.
This hospital, he decided early on, was much nicer than the other one. Not only was the bed more comfortable, with no lumps or straps, but the nurses were friendlier and more attentive. His eyes still hurt a little beneath their bandages and the perpetual darkness was sometimes scary, but Dr. Housman and the others assured him he would be all right. Best of all, there were none of the horrible sounds of the other hospital here; no one laughed or cried or gurgled. He slept a great deal now, and nightmares were no longer commonplace.
"Charles?" a familiar voice asked softly. "Are you awake?"
"Hello, Colonel Lee," he said. "I didn't hear you come in."
There was the sound of a chair being pulled over to his bed. "I thought I'd drop by and let you know that all of the people you got out of the dome are off the critical list now, though most are still pretty weak."
"Glad to hear it. You ever figure out what went wrong that the dome needed them?"
"Only indirectly—you didn't leave us a whole lot to study, you know. But a couple of the others told us they saw a bunch of things that looked like robots lying around one of the outer corridors. Best guess is that the dome had an accident and lost control of its automated workers. Whether recruitment of native help was already programmed in or whether the dome was smart enough to develop the hypnosis field from scratch we'll probably never know."
"So it really wasn't a threat, after all."
Lee must have heard the regret in his voice. "We don't know that. It's quite possible that it intended to cover the whole globe with copies of itself. And even if it wasn't deliberately threatening us, the people inside would have started dying very soon. Who knows how big the field would have become, or how many people would have been sucked in to die? No, Charles, you did the right thing. Now, I'm going to leave and let you rest, but I want you to hurry up and get well. The president is anxious to meet you—" he paused dramatically—"at the White House ceremony where you'll be getting the Medal of Freedom."
Charles tried to find the right words; finally gave up. "Thank you," he said.
"You earned it. All of you did." A hand briefly gripped his shoulder. "I'll drop back in next week, after the bandages are off your eyes. Good-bye for now."
Charles heard him walk to the door and open it. Another voice greeted Colonel Lee as he stepped into the corridor: Dr. Housman's, Charles recognized it. For a moment the two men talked by the open door; and while the conversation was obviously meant to be private, Charles had always had exceptional hearing.
"How's he doing?" Lee asked.
"Better than our best predictions, I'm delighted to say. That new hypnotic technique for intrapsyche communication was very helpful, but I personally think the success of his mission played a bigger role. Low self-esteem, you see, is often at the root of these really chronic cases. Eliminate that problem and you're halfway home."
"So who did I just talk to? I mean, who's where now?" "The Susan and Dennis fragments have been completely integrated into the main Charles personality. Arthur and Frank are still separate—especially Frank; Charles still has a great deal of suppressed anger within him—but both are moving toward integration. I give them a month, maybe less. If you've got a few minutes I can show you the progress charts."
The voices faded as the two men moved away down the hall. "A month," Charles whispered to himself, savoring the sound of the words. One month... and he would have his dream.
He would be whole.
This was another story whose original (unsalable) version refused to stay banished in my reject files—not for any particular philosophical reasons, but because it was such a neat little sinking curve ball to throw at the unsuspecting reader. The nicest thing about it was that every bit of dialogue was perfectly fair and legal, owing entirely to the often annoying fact that in English "you" can be either singular or plural.
And yet, even in what's essentially a gimmick story, I find myself growing to like my characters. I hope Charles made it; he certainly deserved to.