The Magic Ball From Mars

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Chapter 3

Mother and Dad sat in Johnny's bedroom. Johnny was in bed. The room looked the same. The wallpaper was still blue with pale plaid squares except the place where Johnny had jabbed the plaster out with the end of a cap pistol. The room was the same, all right, but Johnny was not..

Dad, most likely, was going to take him to Washington so that some of Dad's friends could see the magic ball. Johnny was not sure he wanted anybody to see it, now that he knew what the ball could do. He was still wondering how to tell Dad what it could do without sounding silly. Consequently, he was glad about the trip and sorry at the same time. He was badly mixed up. Of course it showed all over his face.

"Come on, son," said Dad, "you've been upset ever since I told you about Washington. Any time you don't eat your dinner, Mother and I know you're bothered. In a way, I don't blame you. People who get gifts from men in flying saucers aren't usually comfortable about telling other people about them. But believe me, son, my friends-the men you'll see-understand such matters." Dad's jaw stuck out and his mouth turned into a thin line. "At least, they'd better."

Mother smiled and patted Johnny. "Daddy works for those people, sonny, and they've asked him to bring you down for a visit. So it's pretty important to us."

Johnny made up his mind all of a sudden. Before he could change it, he said, "Dad, the little ball is marsquartz, and he said to tell you it's a new element, and that you'd know what that meant."

"What?" yelled Dad.

"Oh George!" said Mother quietly.

"Not again, Johnny!" asked Dad. "You haven't seen the Man from Out There again?"

"I talked to him," said Johnny, "and the little ball helped me. It's sort of a think machine, the way the telephone and television are sound and picture machines.

Dad and Mother looked sort of sick for a moment.

"I can make that little ball do anything I think, and it's fun." Johnny had an idea. "The ball is in my pants pocket-oh, golly! I had on my dungarees and I put 'em in the laundry. But it doesn't matter. I can tell it to come up here to me. You watch." He closed his eyes. Dad and Mother sat on the edge of his bed and did not move. Johnny thought hard. Come on up, ball. Come here to me.

It did not come zing or boing or zowie. No whistles or bams. The little ball just floated into the bedroom and gently as a snowflake and nestled into Johnny's hand.

"Ulp!" said Dad. Mother said nothing at all. She reached out and patted Johnny on the hand, the same hand that was clutching the magic ball.

"Tell us about it, Johnny," said Dad. He grinned a bit and wrinkled his nose. That didn't stop his face from being pale, though.

Johnny told them. He told about playing in the oak-tree cave and making the little ball hang in mid-air. He told about hearing the voice of the Man from Out There right in his head as plain as day. He told about marsquartz. When he was all finished, Dad rumpled his hair with a big warm hand and said, "Fine, Johnny, fine. Do me a favor and don't mention this to anybody unless you ask me first. O. K.?"

"O.K.," said Johnny, and then he said his prayers and turned over to sleep. The little ball was under the pillow.

Sometimes parents work while children sleep. At least they stay busy for a long time after you would expect them to be in bed. Johnny had not quite drifted off into sleep before his father was using the telephone down in the library. Mother was in the kitchen, and for some reason her eyes were all wet and shiny as she made a pot of coffee.

Mr. Jenks called Washington. He talked for quite a while. Now and then he used the words security measures, and then he talked some more. Anybody listening to him would have imagined that he was talking about the biggest secret in the world-and would have been pretty nearly right. Not that anybody else would have believed it. Especially not the part about flying saucers.

It was six o'clock in the morning when Johnny awakened. Just the right time for a day in summer vacation. There was a squirrel stomping around on the tin roof outside his bedroom. There was a blue jay scolding the squirrel. There was a cardinal whistling. The breeze through the open window was sweet-not sugar sweet, but honey sweet, with wet grasses and a touch of pine trees and a hint of marsh from beyond the woods. Johnny stretched. He rubbed his hand over his flat stomach and felt hungry. He stretched again and then he remembered the night before and was wide awake.

Downstairs he could hear clumping. That was Daddy walking on his heels to keep his bedroom slippers from popping off. He could hear sliding. That was Mother dragging her feet to keep her bedroom slippers on, because they had no heels at all. And then he smelled breakfast and jumped right out of bed. This was the day he was going to Washington with Dad.

He ran down the hall and yelled downstairs. "I'm up and what do I wear? I'm hungry. Can we have pancakes?"

Dad's voice boomed up to him. "Wear school clothes and a white shirt and wash well. No pancakes. Ham and eggs, and pick your own cold cereal."

Johnny looked neat and tidy when he walked into the kitchen and sat down in the breakfast nook, except that his hair was parted crooked. Mother kissed him and brought him a glass of orange juice. Dad grinned. "Hiya, Mister Magic. It looks like a fine day, and we're driving down."

"Good," said Johnny, and felt around under the table just in case Minstrel was in the house. He was. He stuck his nose against Johnny's knee and waited for a piece of toast.

"Stop feeding the dog at the table," said Dad, and reached down to give Minstrel a piece of ham fat.

"Stop telling Johnny what to do," said Mother. She shoved her hand beneath the table to give Minstrel some cereal.

"I'm not feeding Minstrel at the table," said Johnny, passing down a bit of toast. "I'm doing it under the table."

Johnny and his father and mother lived on a farm in the northern part of New Jersey. It was near enough to the laboratories where Johnny's father was a physicist, and to New York where he frequently went for meetings. And it was far enough in the rolling Jersey hills to be real country. It was not too far from the Turnpike which slashes across New Jersey in one mighty concrete swoop, from New York City to the hump-backed bridge which leads into Delaware.

Johnny and his father started to roll down the Turnpike at about quarter of eight in the morning. They turned the miles behind them. Dad's car hummed beneath the bridges, around the curves, past the toll gates where uniformed men punched their toll ticket and smiled.

They were in Washington before noon. They rode across the white and shining city to Constitution Avenue, and then over a bridge past the Mall and the cherry trees and the famous Lincoln Memorial to the Virginia side of the Potomac River. They turned around and around in a maze of driveways, until Johnny wondered how Daddy knew where to go, and then they stopped in a big parking space and walked to a door.

"Where are we?" asked Johnny.

"A place called the Pentagon Building," said Dad. Johnny had heard of that building. "It's the place where the United States keeps all its military secrets," continued Dad. "It's full of maps and generals and Navy advisers. They say that people sometimes get lost in the Pentagon Building, it's so big. Maybe we'll get lost."

Johnny stuck a hand in his pocket. He felt the little ball. "You're kidding, aren't you?" he asked.

"Sure," said Dad, and he was.

A smiling man in a white suit came down the corridor to meet them. They got into an elevator and went up to another corridor, and then into a big office. There was a young man sitting behind a big desk. There were two other men in chairs at each side of the desk. One of them was in uniform.

"Hello George," said the man behind the desk.

"Hello, Chief," said Dad.

Hello, Johnny," said the man. "This is Colonel Wingate." He waved to the man in uniform. "And this is Mr. Murphy. He likes rockets. Do you?

"I don't know," answered Johnny. He felt a little bit shy, but not much. These men were friendly and nice.

Dad spoke to him. "Let's sit down, Johnny. That's Mr. Kimber behind the desk. He works with me. He's my boss."

Johnny sat down. The three men talked to Daddy about the trip down the Turnpike, and Johnny looked out of the windows. He could see the bridge and trees and the buildings across the river. He stole an exploring look at the men in the office. Colonel Wingate was very stiff and his face was stern. On his uniform were two bright little wings. The Colonel looked as if he wished he were somewhere else. He nodded to Johnny, but he didn't smile.

Mr. Murphy, on the other hand, looked right at Johnny, winked, and grinned. Mr. Murphy was slouched in his chair and he had one leg cocked up over his other knee. Johnny could see his bright green socks. Mr. Murphy's face was tanned and lean. He looked like one of those grownups who are fun without trying to be fun.

Mr. Kimber, the man behind the desk, seemed young until Johnny noticed that his hair was almost pure gray. His crooked eyebrows, which were black, made his hair seem much whiter. He was pleasant and at the same time businesslike.

Mr. Kimber spoke to Johnny. "Where's your marble, son? May I have a look at it? I've heard a lot about it."

Johnny reached into his pants pocket. He felt a penknife, a rubber band, the baseball-player card from the cereal box, and then the little round ball. He pulled it out and gave it to Mr. Kimber, who rolled it around between his fingers curiously. Mr. Kimber gave it to the Colonel. The Colonel looked at it as if he expected it to explode and then handed it to Mr. Murphy, who wrinkled up his nose and tasted it. The sight of Mr. Murphy tasting the little ball struck Johnny funny, and he giggled. Dad did not say a word, but his eyes wrinkled with laughter.

"George," said Mr. Kimber seriously to Johnny's father, "you're giving us a hard time, and you may be giving yourself one. We checked the laboratory again last night and a janitor is missing. The word is around that we've been testing a new metal. You know what that means." He turned to Johnny. "Young man," he said, "I know your father has told you this, but I want to tell you again. You saw a flying saucer, didn't you?" Johnny nodded soberly. "That's something nifty. But it makes you sort of a military secret, sort of soldier under orders. The man in the saucer gave you a gift-this ball. We don't know what it is-"

"Marsquartz," muttered Dad.

Mr. Kimber kept right on talking. "We don't want you to talk about the saucer or this ball to anyone. There are men in this world who would do almost anything to learn about this little ball. It's just possible they know you have such a thing right now."

Johnny was puzzled.

"Do you understand me?" asked Mr. Kimber.

"No," said Johnny.

The men laughed, except Mr. Murphy, who smiled. "We don't understand you, either, sonny," he said. "We talked to your father last night and he told us that you can make this ball do something special. Can you do it here?"

Johnny looked at Daddy, who nodded. "May I have my marble?" Johnny asked. Mr. Kimber handed it to him. Johnny wondered what the men expected. He felt funny. If Dad had not been with him, he might have scrunched back in his chair and tried to disappear. He couldn't think right. He knew he had to think something before he could make the little ball do anything.

Mr. Murphy chuckled. "I'll buy you an ice-cream cone later."

Dad leaned over and patted his shoulder. "It's all right, Johnny. It's not important. I just wanted them to see what you could do with this toy."

The Colonel sat back in his chair and snorted. "Hummff. Scientific nonsense."

Dad turned red. Mr. Kimber and Mr. Murphy looked uncomfortable.

Suddenly Johnny had a flash of temper. Then he closed his eyes and thought. The little ball flew out of his hand and went tap-tap-tap like a woodpecker, right on the Colonel's head. It flew around the room and came back. Tap-tap-tap, it went, on the Colonel's head.

"Ouch!" yelled the Colonel.

"Saints that be!" yelled Mr. Murphy.

The little ball came back and settled in Johnny's hand again.

Mr. Kimber said nothing at all. That was the kind of man that he was. And a man who says nothing at all, when he is surprised at something completely beyond his knowledge, is a man to reckon with.

Mr. Kimber leaned over and took the ball away from Johnny. He put it in a big round brass ash tray. "Johnny," he asked gently, "can you make it get real warm? Hot, even?" He put a piece of paper on the little ball. "Can you make it burn that paper?"

Johnny liked Mr. Kimber. He liked Mr. Murphy. He was beginning to like the Colonel, too. The Colonel was rubbing his head and looking very sheepish, the way Minstrel did when he was caught with a dead mouse and wished it were a deer or a bear or something else worthy of an Airedale.

Johnny thought very hard. There was a puff of smoke. The paper burst into flame.

"That does it," said Mr. Kimber. He looked at Johnny's father. "George, what do we do now? Put the boy in Fort Knox, where we keep all the gold? Or just make believe we never saw anything at all?"

The little ball rose from the ash tray and came back once more to Johnny's hand. He held it tightly. He could hear the men in the room clearly, but inside his head there was another voice.

It was the Man from Out There. "I once spanked my own son for tricks like that," it said. "And now I owe you a spanking, young man."

Johnny jumped in his chair. He looked at Dad, and from the strange way his father looked back at him he knew that Dad knew what had happened. He was not sure, but he thought that maybe Daddy had told the other men about his friend from the saucer and the way he talked to him.

"I'm gonna get spanked," said Johnny.

"So is the whole world," said Mr. Kimber. There was a thoughtful silence in the room; then Mr. Kimber put his hand out. "Let me have that ball again, will you son?"

Johnny handed it to him.

Mr. Kimber held it gently. He closed his eyes and tightened his lips. He screwed his face up until it looked like a prune. He blew out his cheeks, and tiny beads of sweat appeared on his brow. But nothing happened. Finally he handed the ball over to Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy never even looked at it. He handed it right to Johnny. "Apparently it's only in tune with you sonny, and that's a grand thing. Nobody else can make it do anything." He looked sad for a fleeting moment. "And," he continued, "I've got a notion that you can't make it do anything silly, like asking it for a new bicycle or a penknife or a fife and drum corps."

"Murphy," said Mr. Kimber, "take the boy out for an ice-cream cone."

They must have talked for a long time. Mr. Murphy drove Johnny to a place where they had milk shakes. They also had ice cream. Mr. Murphy told Johnny how he had personally won the war and how many gangsters he had captured when he worked for the F.B.I. Johnny told Mr. Murphy about Minstrel and the farm and then, the first thing he knew, he was telling Mr. Murphy about the saucer and how it looked like a big whirling top. He told him about the Man from Out There, who came in the flying saucer. Mr. Murphy told Johnny how he personally captured six enemy submarines when he was a frog man with the Navy. He asked Johnny if the little sort-of-a-marble was still in his pocket. When Johnny said that it was, Mr. Murphy suggested that he leave it there. Then Daddy and Mr. Kimber joined them.

"Let's go," said Mr. Kimber. He turned to Johnny. "We're going down to the firecracker factory and make pictures."

"Real firecrackers?" asked Johnny.

"Sort of," said Mr. Murphy. "folks around here call it the Atomic Energy Commission."

"Atom bombs and things," said Dad.

"Oh," said Johnny.

That was all he had a chance to say for the next two hours besides "How do you do, sir" and "Yes, sir." Dad's friend took his picture five times. They put his fingers in ink and smeared them on paper. The looked into his mouth and counted his teeth, including the one that had had to be filled because he ate too much candy. The measured his height and weighed him. They stuck him with a needle and looked at his blood. He got tired.

"Don't worry, Johnny," said Mr. Kimber. "You might not know it, but we're making sure we know all there is to know about you. Then, in cases you ever get lost in the woods, we'll know how to describe you so we can find you."

Johnny did not care. Dad was with him and he knew that Dad wanted all these things done. He also knew that Dad was worried about something. So was Mr. Kimber. In fact, the last thing that Mr. Kimber said to him when they went back to the Pentagon to get Dad's car was this: "Johnny, don't talk to strange men anywhere. If you see something you don't understand, tell your father or mother. Will you remember?"

"Yes sir," said Johnny.

Mr. Murphy just laughed. "Don't talk to strange men," he chuckled. "Just the chauffeur in the flying saucer."

Dad grinned. "Come on, sonny," he said. "Lets go back to Washington and phone Mother. We'll stay in a hotel tonight. Tomorrow, we'll go out to Mr. Murphy's office. He wants to show you some rockets and talk to you a little bit about."

"What's Out There," said Mr. Murphy, "where the saucers come from."

Copyright 1953 by Carl L. Biemiller. Illustrated by Kathleen Voute.

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