The Magic Ball From Mars
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Living in a Washington hotel was fun, Johnny decided. This one was air-conditioned. The weather outside was hot, but it was almost chilly inside. Instead of opening the windows to cool the bedroom off at night, you kept them closed and let the hotel blow cold air around. What's more, there was ice water. It came from a special tap in the bathroom and you could get a drink any old time. At home, ice water was not supposed to be good for you. At home, ice water was a great shock to everyone's stomach except Dad's.
To get anything at all in the hotel, person just had to telephone for it. Dad had called the hotel's own store to get Johnny a new shirt and some fresh socks. Not that he wanted to particularly, but Mother hand suggested it when they telephoned her and told her all about the visit in the Pentagon Building. Johnny had started to tell her about the fingerprinting and going to the rocket place where Mr. Murphy was, but Dad didn't think it was a good idea to talk about those things-not from a hotel room.
This morning, breakfast had been sent up to their room. The eggs came with a tin lid over them kept hot by a little fire which burned in a tin can underneath the plate. Now Johnny and his father were almost ready to leave the hotel. When Dad finally patted all his pockets, took the room key from the bureau, and said, "Lets check out, son," Johnny was glad.
They rode down in the elevator to the lobby. Dad went over to a window and paid the bill. The man at the window said, " Come again, Mr. Jenks, and bring your brother." He winked at Johnny.
Their car was not in front of the hotel when they walked out, and that was odd, because the bellboy who met them in the lobby and seemed anxious to take the parking ticket and order it for them. Then there was a further wait until another man hurried off with the ticket. Finally the car came, and as it rolled in to the curb, another automobile eased in immediately behind it. Johnny noticed two things about this automobile: it had a bent fender an it seemed to be in a hurry to park right behind Daddy's car.
Dad paid the man with the keys and they drove off.
Washington was surprisingly cool that morning, and the buildings looked scrubbed and white. There was a lot to see, as Dad nudged the car through the traffic. The car that had been right behind them at the hotel-the one with the small dent in the fender-was still right behind them.
Dad turned a corner and they crossed a bridge. They were in the open countryside now. The road curved and dipped, down into hollows which seemed cool at the bottom, and up over hills which seemed hot at the top. They were going fast and one down-and-up swoop they took was like a roller coaster. Johnny turned around to see how far they had swooped and there, still behind them, was the car with the dented fender. He was about to mention it when Dad spoke.
"This is Civil War country, Johnny. A lot of big battles were fought around here. All the signs you see along the road say something about it. Why don't you read a few? Might cure the squirms."
Naturally, Johnny wasn't going to say anything about the car behind them if Dad thought it might be part of the squirms, so he just looked out of the window at a line of white fences going by.
They rode for quite a long time and then Dad turned off on a narrow crushed-rock driveway which wound around and around through trees and came out upon a big brown house with a fountain spouting water in the garden in front of it.
"This used to be somebody's home," said Dad. "Belongs to the government now, along with a lot of other land around here. Mr. Murphy does his work here."
"Oh," said Johnny.
A man came out of the house. He walked down the wide porch and waved to Dad. Then he opened the door on Johnny's side and smiled. "Hi," he said. "Mr. Murphy is waiting for you. He said for me to tell you that he would have visited you at the hotel last night except that he had to wrestle a gorilla." The man looked serious.
But when he walked around to slide into Dad's seat and drive the car away somewhere, Johnny thought about Mr. Murphy. He felt in his pocket and touched his magic ball. "Daddy," he said. Mr. Murphy is silly, isn't he.?"
Dad threw an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him. "Johnny," he said "Mr. Murphy is almost gooney. He thinks that he's going to the moon soon."
"I wish I could go too," Johnny said.
Instead of answering, Daddy opened the door. They walked in the house and down a long hall with a long red carpet. At the end of the hall was Mr. Murphy's office. It wasn't just a place with a desk and chairs. it was a huge room. It was an exciting room. Long, slim pencil-like objects hung from strings attached to the ceiling. A few of them looked like the jet airplane models you got by saving the tops of cereal boxes. Johnny knew what they were. They were models-rocket models.
On one wall at the end of Mr. Murphy's office was a big map with the whole earth wobbled out of shape, not flat like the maps in Johnny's geography book. there were curved lines running all over the wobbly map, most of them sort of melting together over the place where the North Pole would be if it were not off to the left on this map.
On the wall behind Mr. Murphy's desk was another map. This one was all black, with colored balls and pictures of stars on it.
Mr. Murphy was standing up behind his desk, and he looked bigger than he had looked yesterday in the ice-cream store. Johnny liked his brown crinkly face and his mouth that looked half smiling He had is coat off and his shoulders were wide like Dad's.
Johnny tried to look at Mr. Murphy and everything else at the same time. Mr. Murphy waited for him to finish. "Good morning, space cadet," he said. "Got your marble with you?"
"Yes," answered Johnny. "Did you win from the gorilla last night?"
Mr. Murphy wrinkled his eyebrows and sat down. "We decided to make friends instead," he said.
Daddy laughed and sat on the corner of Mr. Murphy's desk. "Johnny wants to know when you take off for the moon and can he go with you," said Dad.
Mr. Murphy was undisturbed. "He should, George. He was the one who talked with a Man from Out There. Not you or me. That reminds me. I had a call before you came. Johnny's little ball can stay where it is, but you are likely to have a lot of company." He swung his head toward Johnny and fiddled with a pencil from his desk top. "Johnny, he said, "can you keep a secret?"
Johnny nodded and wished that he could have the big rocket on the middle string for a toy. He paid attention to Mr. Murphy, because he knew he should.
"Well," said Mr. Murphy, "all over the world today there is sort of a fight going on. We're on one side and there are a lot of people against us. That's because they think one way and we think another. Well, any time we get a secret, the people we are fighting want it. They think we might hurt them with it, just as we think they might hurt us if they had something we didn't know about . Do you understand that?"
"Yes," said Johnny, because he did. "Does the big rocket tied to that middle string work like my jet airplane model?"
"I know what you mean," said Mr. Murphy. "But let me finish first. Is that all right?"
Johnny's ankle itched, and he scratched it. "Yes," he said.
"Well, you are a secret. The Man from Out There is a secret. The little ball is a secret. Especially the little ball. After I show you the rocket, I'll tell you why, just as I promised to try to tell you what it's like where the saucers come from. O.K.?"
Johnny was excited. "O.K.," he said, and got out of the chair and walked around Daddy to see better. He felt fine. He was a secret, and he felt bigger than usual.
"Anyhow," said Mr. Murphy, walking toward the rocket model, "I'm going to help your dad and the men you met yesterday keep an eye on you. Do you know why?" Mr. Murphy was very calm. "Because the people that are against us already know that there is a secret they have to find out."
Daddy stood erect. "Murph!" he said.
"Take my word for it." Said Mr. Murphy. He reached up and took down the rocket model. Then he walked over and handed it to Johnny. It was smooth to the touch and warm. It was light and silvery. Little rudders stuck out around an opening in the back.
"This one flies on alcohol," said Mr. Murphy. "It's just to test air resistance. Air is always pushing against something, you know."
Johnny knew what he meant. There were days at home, especially in March, when the wind whipping off the pasture stung his face and was strong enough to lean against and to make balloons out of his pants.
"Anyhow," said Mr. Murphy, "the back end comes off like this." He took the model from Johnny and unscrewed the end. "Then there's a little fuel tank just like the tank in the back of a car. I fill it with alcohol." He walked around to his desk and opened a drawer. He got out a little bottle and poured the contents into the rocket model. "Come on, " he said. "We're going outside."
They walked over to a big window which extended from the floor to the ceiling. It was the only place in the room not covered with a map.
"Are we going to fly it?" asked Johnny, just as they were ready to walk out of the window.
Mr. Murphy turned his head. His eyes fell upon the dark map behind his desk. "Yes," he said. " But wait a minute. See that map, Johnny?"
Johnny turned. He looked at the map with all the funny balls and the pictures of stars. "Sure, but let's fly the rocket. Please," he added.
"Right with you Johnny," said Mr. Murphy. "But I want to tell you about that map first. It's a picture of the solar system. That's another way of saying it's a picture of the sun and its family. There are nine planets in the sun's family, and there are thirty-one moons, thousands of tinier moons, hundreds of comets, and millions of meteors. The earth is one of the nice planets, and it's the only one in the whole family we know much of anything about. Our moon is nearer to us than any of the other members of the family. It's only about 238,000 miles away. Venus and Mars, our nearest planet neighbors, are millions of miles away." He smiled. "All of them are a part of what's out there, Johnny. We want to find out about them, but we have to get to the moon first before we can go any farther. That's why I play with rockets."
"Let's," said Johnny eagerly. Then he remembered something the Man from Out There had said. "Miles don't matter to us."
Mr. Murphy looked at Dad. Dad looked at Mr. Murphy. Mr. Murphy smoothed the rocket model with his hand. "That's right, Johnny. They can't matter when you deal with distances that make them meaningless. Let's go," he said, and they all stepped out of the window.
At the back of the big house was a lawn that stretched away as far as Johnny could see. It ran between two lines of trees and ended against a faint edge of buildings along the horizon. They walked down this expanse of grass to a pit which had been dug in the ground. Mr. Murphy put the rocket in a wooden slot at the edge of the pit. The he stepped back and grinned. "Ready, Johnny?" he asked.
Johnny nodded. He jiggled a little in excitement and he could feel the little ball in his pocket jiggle, too.
Mr. Murphy stepped down into the pip and twisted the back of the rocket. He lighted an ordinary match and held it to the twisted part. For a minute nothing happened. Then with a snort and low whine, followed by a hiss and whistle, the rocket shot out of the slot and streaked into the air. A faint wisp of white smoke came out of the back. The rocket was a blurry silver line rising against the blue sky. It rose and rose until it looked like a faint white tear, and just when it seemed that it could go on forever, it wavered a little, shook, and began to fall.
"Look, look, look," yelled Johnny. "Daddy, look! Mr. Murphy look. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!"
High above the height where the little model rocket had been were two objects, pale blue against the brighter blue of the sky, as if they had been lightly painted there. They looked like tops spinning in the air. Then each one looked like the edge of a dime when you hold it up to your eyes. They vanished and reappeared looking even more like tops. They hung in the sky a long minute and then they were gone.
"Flying saucers," shouted Johnny. "Flying saucers. I know it . I know it."
He reached frantically for the little ball. He held it in his hand and thought as hard as he could. Hello, he thought. Oh please, hello.
Faintly, very faintly, inside his head he could hear… Why, it was singing…funny singing. Johnny laughed. Dad looked at him as if he had seen a ghost, and suddenly Mr. Murphy was running as hard as he could back across the big lawn toward the house. The song went like this:
Out in the Coal Sack there's nothing but dust,
And nebulanic storms make instruments bust.
Patrols head through, but only on trust-
We'll be back in old Andromeda in the mor-r-rning!
Dad put a shaky arm around Johnny's shoulders and held him close. But still inside Johnny's head was the faint and funny song-very gay and cheerful.
This cybernetic pilot is only a hack,
The ship's on its course, but he's off his track.
A robot cannot care if we never get back-
Back to old Andromeda in the mor-r-ning!
Copyright 1953 by Carl L. Biemiller. Illustrated by Kathleen Voute.
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