Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Terror in the Stars" by Ellen Lynn

Terror in the Stars
Ellen Lynn

The men in our observatory called us the "three musketeers." Karl Manley, Russ Fenway and I had been buddies since boyhood—but the bond between Karl and me was especially close. We had always been interested in the same things, and as we grew older our interest in astronomy became an enthusiasm. I was even in love with the same girl, Lucy Tremont, but I knew she loved Karl—and I kept my frustrated emotions to myself.

Our new research laboratory was in the middle west, Lucy lived in the East. Often I would hear the low-voiced love-making of Karl as he spoke to her over the telephone. Although he was a scientist—perhaps because of it—Karl had the soul of a poet and the sentiments of love he expressed to Lucy (which I couldn't help overhearing since I was usually seated right next to him) were worthy of a Browning.

The hardest thing for Karl and Lucy was their separation—he in the west, she in the east. "I can't stand her being so far away from me," Karl once blurted out after one of his long-distance phone calls. "It's getting so I can hardly concentrate on my work. And Lucy is unhappy, too. We've decided to get married after this next field trip; she'll have to give up her job and come to live here."

By a lucky chance, Karl, Russ and I had been assigned together to a field trip to our new laboratory on the top of Mt. Crenshaw. The largest, newest, most powerful telescope in the world based on nuclear theories had been recently completed there and we were to spend a month observing the heavens and writing papers on our findings. Russ rushed over to the both of us and boyishly placed an arm around each of our shoulders, bent over our desks. "We're going together, boys," he exclaimed happily. "That's really a break for us! We'll explore the heavens—far beyond what men have seen before. It's our big chance."

I grinned up at Russ, just as pleased as he was that the three of us were to be together on the job. But Karl seemed not to have heard. The pencil in his fingers was not writing, his eyes had a far-away look. Russ, in his jovial way, slapped Karl on the back. "Brace up, fella, Lucy'll be waiting for you—and you'll be back in four weeks." Without answering, Karl had gone to the telephone to speak to Lucy in the East.

The day before our departure, Karl had a wonderful surprise: Lucy had come out, just to say goodbye. The pang I felt at seeing the two dreamy-eyed lovers fall into each other's arms was equaled by the relief that at last Karl could ease up in his tension. The visit from Lucy was just what he needed, so that he could once again put his brilliant mind to work.

I drove Karl and Lucy to the airport to catch her plane back East. As though I weren't even there, they spoke endearing words of farewell before she got into the plane. "Really, kids," I tried to jest, "this isn't the last goodbye—only four weeks and you two will never be parted again. Remember?"

Lucy stared intently into Karl's eyes, and remained silent a moment. Then she said, rather solemnly, "You are right, Steve, Karl and I will never be parted. I swear it. No matter what happens, he and I will always be together."

"Spoken like a true lover," I declared, trying to break the spell of seriousness that had been cast.

Karl insisted on our waiting at the airfield till the plane disappeared like a bird into the heavens.

Back at the lab we put the finishing touches to our packing, and Russ's gay spirits somewhat lifted the cloud of gloom that had previously settled over Karl. He actually smiled a few times and by the time we started on our trip he was as good as his old self. He was even able to speak of Lucy without going into a spell. "Come to think of it," he said with a grin, "we'll be so busy the next few weeks, time ought to fly—and then Lucy and I will be married. I've been in a terrible mood lately, boys. It's been rough on you, I know, trying to get me to do my share of the work. But it'll all be different once Lucy and I are together for good."

Russ and I sighed with relief. It was good to have Karl act like a normal human being again. And when we reached the isolated hilltop, where the marvelous telescope was situated he set to his observations and notes with renewed enthusiasm and zest—perhaps even greater than the zeal Russ and I felt. The three of us looked through the powerful lens and felt an awesome thrill at the panorama of heavenly bodies sparkling brilliantly in the infinite space beyond. Karl worked tirelessly, long through the night—even after Russ and I had retired. For we were able to see far beyond the distances men's sight had traveled before.

One night I stirred uneasily in my sleep and woke up. I looked at the clock: it was three in the morning. Then I was startled by the sight of Karl standing in my room in the dim shadows. What on earth is he doing in here? I thought. Could he be walking in his sleep? His eyes were opened and he was staring at me with a strange expression. Then he whispered: "Steve—Steve—are you awake? I—I must talk to you."

I sat bolt upright. "What is it, Karl?" I asked, considerably disturbed by this apparition in the wee hours of the morning. "Is anything wrong?"

He came close to my bedside and I put on the lamp. His face looked ghastly and I was filled with a foreboding. Had he been working too hard? Was he suffering more from his separation from Lucy than we had realized?

Finally he spoke, in a queer voice. "Karl—I've seen Lucy! Now—don't say I'm mad! I've checked and double-checked."

"What do you mean?" I interrupted. "Is she here? Checked what?"

"I have been experimenting with the new mirror we developed and it's unbelievable. Then a few nights ago, Saturday, at 11:30 I saw her for the first time. It was so vague, I wasn't sure. I thought I was just imagining it. Last night I looked again—and there she was, plainly. My new nuclear sights were trained on Saturn. There she was—beckoning me. She wants me to come to her. She was beyond, even the stars."

I was flabbergasted. I didn't know how to handle this situation. My dear friend, my close buddy, had become deranged. Of that I was convinced. I did the best I could to reassure him, to humor him. "Tomorrow we'll telephone Lucy. That should ease your mind, Karl."

"No, no! I mustn't keep her waiting. She insists I join her at once," he declared.

"Well, get some sleep, Karl," I advised him. "And if you must, you can return after breakfast."

He left my room and I tried, not too successfully, to go back to sleep. A half hour later I was beginning to doze off when a sound outside made me leap from my bed and rush to the window. There was Karl, a knapsack on his shoulders, setting out to climb to the utmost peak of Mt. Crenshaw. I yelled after him. Russ came dashing in and together we called to Karl, but he continued his rapid ascent without looking back. We stood there helplessly watching. Knowing Karl, we both realized it would be useless to try to stop him, even if we could possibly reach him at the pace he was going.

"But what is he after?" Russ asked in bewilderment.

I told him the incident in my room and of Karl's hallucination that he saw Lucy beckoning him to come to her into space. In spite of our anxiety, I understood Russ's outburst of laughter. It was a nervous reaction, true, but it was also ludicrous to think of Karl marching off into space to find his lady-love.

There was no more sleep for either of us. We dressed and kept our eyes on the figure of Karl gradually growing smaller as he mounted higher and higher toward the peak hidden in clouds. Then, when our naked eyes could no longer see more than a dot we each picked up small telescopes and continued to follow our friend's fantastic climb.

Just before Karl disappeared into the mists, he turned around and we saw his face clearly in the lens. He was smiling joyously, and raised an arm to wave a friendly farewell. Somehow, this gesture depressed us and we gave up our vigil. That was the last we ever saw of Karl. He had gone, he said, to join his Lucy in space. How were we going to break the awful news to the real Lucy who would be waiting, waiting for Karl's return—expecting to be married the next day!

When we knew for certain that we saw the end of Karl, we returned to our headquarters. A telegram was waiting for him. We decided to open it. The message stunned us both. It was from Lucy's father. It read:

Mr. Karl Manley
Baldwin Observatory
Mt. Crenshaw

Shocking news. Just learned Lucy killed in accident Saturday 11:30 P.M.

Benjamin Troll.

"Saturday—11:30!" I exclaimed involuntarily. That was the exact date and time Karl first saw the vision of Lucy through the new nuclear telescope! They had sworn never to be apart. He had gone to join her! Can we believe that? We are scientists.

But what do you believe?

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