Even the man was as much like a machine as possible, Dr. Groszinger thought with satisfaction. He was quick, strong, unemotional. Psychiatrists had picked Major Rice from a hundred volunteers, and predicted that he would function as perfectly as the rocket motors, the metal hull, and the electronic controls. His specifications: Husky, twenty-nine years of age, fifty-five missions over Europe during the Second World War without a sign of fatigue, a childless widower, melancholy and solitary, a career soldier, a demon for work.
The Major's mission? Simple: To report weather conditions over enemy territory, and to observe the accuracy of guided atomic missiles in the event of war.
Major Rice was fixed in the solar system, two thousand miles above the earth now---close by, really---the distance from New York to Salt Lake City, not far enough away to see much of the polar icecaps, even. With a telescope, Rice could pick out small towns and the wakes of ships without much trouble. It would be breathtaking to watch the enormous blue-and-green ball, to see night creeping around it, and clouds and storms growing and swirling over its face.
Dr. Groszinger tamped out his cigarette, absently lit another almost at once, and strode down the corridor to the small laboratory where the radio equipment had been set up.
Lieutenant General Franklin Dane, head of Project Cyclops, sat next to the radio operator, his uniform rumpled, his collar open. The General stared expectantly at the loudspeaker before him. The floor was littered with sandwich wrappings and cigarette butts. Coffee-filled paper cups stood before the General and the radio operator, and beside the canvas chair where Groszinger had spent the night waiting.
General Dane nodded to Groszinger and motioned with his hand for silence.
"Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley. Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley..."droned the radio operator wearily, using the code names. "Can you hear me, Able Baker Fox? Can you---"
The loudspeaker crackled, then, tuned to its peak volume, boomed: "This is Able Baker Fox. Come in, Dog Easy Charley. Over."
General Dane jumped to his feet and embraced Groszinger. They laughed idiotically and pounded each other on the back. The General snatched the microphone from the radio operator. "You made it. Able Baker Fox! Right on course! What's it like, boy? What's it feel like? Over."Groszinger, his arm draped around the General's shoulders, leaned forward eagerly, his ear a few inches from the speaker. The radio operator turned the volume down, so that they could hear something of the quality of Major Rice's voice.
The voice came through again, soft, hesitant. The tone disturbed Groszinger---he had wanted it to be crisp, sharp, efficient.
"This side of the earth's dark, very dark just now. And I feel like I'm falling---the way you said I would. Over."
"Is anything the matter?" asked the General anxiously. "You sound as though something---"
The Major cut in before he could finish: "There! Did you hear that?"
"Able Baker Fox, we can't hear anything," said the General, looking perplexed at Groszinger. "What is it---some kind of noise in your receiver? Over."
"A child," said the Major. "I hear a child crying. Don't you hear it? And now---listen!---now an old man is trying to comfort it." His voice seemed farther away, as though he were no longer speaking directly into his microphone.
"That's impossible, ridiculous!" said Groszinger. "Check your set, Able Baker Fox, check your set. Over."
"They're getting louder now. The voices are louder. I can't hear you very well above them. It's like standing in the middle of a crowd, with everybody trying to get my attention at once. It's like..."The message trailed off. They could hear a shushing sound in the speaker. The Major's transmitter was still on.
Reprinted from Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Kurt Vonnegut. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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