They fell silent. The only sound in the room was the muted jamming signal in the loudspeaker.
"He don't want to live, you know that?" said the radio operator suddenly. "Would you want to?"
"Guess that's something you don't know until you come up against it," said Groszinger. He was trying to imagine the world of the future---a world in constant touch with the spirits, the living inseparable from the dead. It was bound to come. Other men, probing into space, were certain to find out. Would it make life heaven or hell? Every bum and genius, criminal and hero, average man and madman, now and forever part of humanity---advising, squabbling, conniving, placating...
The radio operator looked furtively toward the door. "Want to hear him again?"
Groszinger shook his head. "Everybody's listening to that frequency now. We'd all be in a nice mess if you stopped jamming." He didn't want to hear more. He was baffled, miserable. Would Death unmasked drive men to suicide, or bring new hope? he was asking himself. Would the living desert their leaders and turn to the dead for guidance? To Caesar...Charlemagne...Peter the Great...Napoleon...Bismarck...Lincoln...Roosevelt? To Jesus Christ? Were the dead wiser than---
Before Groszinger could stop him, the sergeant switched off the oscillator that was jamming the frequency.
Major Rice's voice came through instantly, high and giddy. "...thousands of them, thousands of them, all around me, standing on nothing, shimmering like northern lights---beautiful, curving off in space, all around the earth like a glowing fog. I can see them, do you hear? I can see them now. I can see Margaret. She's waving and smiling, misty, heavenly, beautiful. If only you could see it, if---"
The radio operator flicked on the jamming signal. There was a footfall in the hallway.
General Dane stalked into the radio room, studying his watch. "In five minutes they'll start him down," he said. He plunged his hands deep into his pockets and slouched dejectedly. "We failed this time. Next time, by God, we'll make it. The next man who goes up will know what he's up against---he'll be ready to take it."
He put his hand on Groszinger's shoulder. "The most important job you'll ever have to do, my friend, is to keep your mouth shut about those spirits out there, do you understand? We don't want the enemy to know we've had a ship out there, and we don't want them to know what they'll come across if they try it. The security of this country depends on that being our secret. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," said Groszinger, grateful to have no choice but to be quiet. He didn't want to be the one to tell the world. He wished he had had nothing to do with sending Rice out into space. What discovery of the dead would do to humanity he didn't know, but the impact would be terrific. Now, like the rest, he would have to wait for the next wild twist of history.
The General looked at his watch again. "They're bringing him down," he said.
At 1:39 p.m., on Friday, July 28th, the British liner Capricorn, two hundred eighty miles out of New York City, bound for Liverpool, radioed that an unidentified object had crashed into the sea, sending up a towering geyser on the horizon to starboard of the ship. Several passengers were said to have seen something glinting as the thing fell from the sky. Upon reaching the scene of the crash, the Capricorn reported finding dead and stunned fish on the surface, and turbulent water, but no wreckage.
Newspapers suggested that the Capricorn had seen the crash of an experimental rocket fired out to sea in a test of range. The Secretary of Defense promptly denied that any such tests were being conducted over the Atlantic.
In Boston, Dr. Bernard Groszinger, young rocket consultant for the Air Force, told newsmen that what the Capricorn had observed might well have been a meteor.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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