Kenniston realized afterward that it was like death. You knew you were going to die someday, but you didn't believe it. He had known that there was danger of the long-dreaded atomic war beginning with a sneak punch, but he hadn't really believed it
Not until that June morning when the missile came down on Middletown. And then there was no time for realization. You don't hear or see a thing that comes faster than sound. One moment, he was striding down Mill Street toward the plant, getting ready to speak to the policeman coming toward him. The next moment, the sky split open.
It split wide open, and above the whole town there was a burn and blaze of light so swift, so violent, that it seemed the air itself had burst into instantaneous flame. In that fraction of a second, as the sky flared and the ground heaved wildly under his feet, Kenniston knew that the surprise attack had come, and that the first of the long-feared super-atomic bombs had exploded overhead....
* * * *
Shock, thought Kenniston, as his mouth crushed against the grimy sidewalk. The shock that keeps a dying man from feeling pain. He lay there, waiting for the ultimate destruction, and the first eye-blinding flare across the heavens faded and the shuddering world grew still. It was over, as quickly as that.
He ought to be dead. He thought it very probable that he was dying right now, which would explain the fading light and the ominous quiet. But in spite of that he raised his head, and then scrambled shakily to his feet, gasping over his own wild heartbeats, fighting an animal urge to run for the mere sake of running. He looked down Mill Street. He expected to see pulverized buildings, smoking craters, fire and steam and devastation. But what he saw was more stunning than that, and in a strange way, more awful.
He saw Middletown lying unchanged and peaceful in the sunlight.
The policeman he had been going to speak to was still there ahead of him. He was getting up slowly from his hands and knees, where the quake had thrown him. His mouth hung open and his cap had fallen off. His eyes were very wide and dazed and frightened. Beyond him was an old woman with a shawl over her head. She, too, had been there before. She was clinging now to a wall, the sack of groceries she had carried split open around her feet, spilling onions and cans of soup across the walk. Cars and street-cars were still moving along the street in the distance, beginning erratically to jerk to a halt. Apart from these small things, nothing was different, nothing at all.
The policeman came up to Kenniston. He looked like a young, efficient officer. Or he would have, if his face had not gone so slack and his eyes so stunned. He asked hoarsely:
Kenniston answered, and the words sounded queer and improbable as he said them. "We've been hit by a bomb--a super-atomic."
The policeman stared at him. "Are you crazy?"
"Yes," said Kenniston, "I think maybe I am. I think that's the only explanation."
His brain had begun to pound. The air felt suddenly cold and strange. The sunshine was duskier and redder and did not warm him now. The woman in the shawl was crying. Presently, still weeping, she got painfully down upon her thick old knees and Kenniston thought she was going to pray, but instead she began to gather up her onions, fumbling with them as a child does, trying to fit them into the broken paper bag.
"Look," said the policeman, "I've read stuff about those super-atomic bombs, in the papers. It said they were thousands of times more powerful than the atom-bombs they used to have. If one of them hit any place there wouldn't be anything left of it." His voice was getting stronger. He was convincing himself. "So no super-atomic bomb could have hit us. It couldn't have been that."
"You saw that terrific flash in the sky, didn't you?" said Kenniston.
"Sure I did, but?" And then the policeman's face cleared. "Say, it was a fizzle. That's what it was. This super-atomic bomb they've been scaring the world with--it turned out to be just a fizzle." He laughed noisily, in vast relief. "Isn't that rich? They tell for years what terrible things it's going to do, and then it just makes a big fizz and flash like a bad Fourth of July firecracker!"
It could be true, Kenniston thought with a wild surge of hope. It could be true.
And then he looked up and saw the Sun.
"It was maybe a bluff, all the time," the policeman's voice rattled on. "They maybe didn't really have any super-atomic bomb at all."
Kenniston, without lowering his gaze, spoke in a dry whisper. "They had them, all right. And they used one on us. And I think we're dead and don't know it yet We don't know yet that we're only ghosts and not living on Earth any more."
"Not on Earth?" said the policeman angrily. "Now, listen?"
And then his voice trailed away to silence as he followed Kenniston's staring gaze and looked up at the Sun.
It wasn't the Sun. Not the Sun they and all the generations of men had known as a golden, dazzling orb. They could look right at this Sun, without blinking. They could stare at it steadily, for it was no more than a very big, dull-glowing red ball with tiny flames writhing around its edges. It was higher in the sky now than it had been before. And the air was cold. "It's in the wrong place," said the policeman. "And it looks different." He groped in half-forgotten high-school science for an explanation. "Refraction. Dust that that fizzle-bomb stirred up?"
Kenniston didn't tell him. What was the use? What was the good of telling him what he, as a scientist, knew--that no conceivable refraction could make the Sun look like that. But he said, "Maybe you're right."
"Sure I'm right," said the policeman, loudly. He didn't look up at the sky and Sun, any more. He seemed to avoid looking at them.
Kenniston started on down Mill Street. He had been on his way to the Lab, when this happened. He kept on going now. He wanted to hear what Hubble and the others would say about this.
He laughed a little. "I am a ghost, going to talk with other ghosts about our sudden deaths." Then he told himself fiercely, "Stop that! You're a scientist. What good is your science if it cracks up in the face of an unexplained phenomenon?"
That, certainly, was an understatement. A super-atomic bomb went off over a quiet little Midwestern town of fifty thousand people, and it didn't change a thing except to put a new Sun into the sky. And you called that an unexplained phenomenon.
Kenniston walked on down the street. He walked fast, for the air was unseasonably cold. He didn't stop to talk to the bewildered-looking people he met. They were mostly men who had been on their way to work in Middletown's mills when it had happened. They stood now, discussing the sudden flash and shock. The word Kenniston heard most often was "earthquake." They didn't look too upset, these men. They looked excited and a little bit glad that something had happened to interrupt their drab daily routine. Some of them were staring up at that strange, dull-red Sun, but they seemed more perplexed than disturbed.
The air was cold and musty. And the red, dusky sunlight was queer. But that hadn't disturbed these men too much. It was, after all, not much stranger than the chill and the lurid light that often foreshadow a Midwestern thunderstorm.
Kenniston turned in at the gate of the smoke-grimed brick structure that bore the sign, "Industrial Research Laboratories." The watchman at the gate nodded to him unperturbedly as he let him through.
Neither the watchman nor any of Middletown's fifty thousand people, except a few city officials, knew that this supposed industrial laboratory actually housed one of the key nerve centers of America's atomic defense setup.
Clever, thought Kenniston. It had been clever of those in charge of dispersal to tuck this key atomic laboratory into a prosaic little Midwestern mill town.
"But not clever enough," he thought.
No, not quite clever enough. The unknown enemy had learned the secret, and had struck the first stunning blow of his surprise attack at the hidden nerve center of Middletown.
A super-atomic, to smash that nerve center before war even started. Only, the super-atomic had fizzled. Or had it? The Sun was a different Sun. And the air was strange and cold.
Crisci met Kenniston by the entrance of the big brick building. Crisci was the youngest of the staff, a tall, black-haired youngster--and because he was the youngest, he tried hard not to show emotion now.
"It looks like it's beginning," said Crisci, trying to smile. "Atomic Armageddon--the final fireworks." Then he quit trying to smile. "Why didn't it wipe us out, Kenniston? Why didn't it?"
Kenniston asked him, "Don't the Geigers show anything?"
"Nothing. Not a thing."
That, Kenniston thought numbly, fitted the crazy improbability of it all. He asked, "Where's Hubble?"
Crisci gestured vaguely. "Over there. He's had us trying to call Washington, but the wires are all dead and even the radio hasn't been able to get through yet."
Kenniston walked across the cluttered plant yard. Hubble, his chief, stood looking up at the dusky sky and at the red dull Sun you could stare at without blinking. He was only fifty but he looked older at the moment, his graying hair disordered and his thin face tightly drawn.
"There isn't any way yet to figure out where that missile came from," Kenniston said.
Then he realized that Hubble's thoughts weren't on that, for the other only nodded abstractedly.
"Look at those stars, Kenniston."
"Stars? Stars, in the daytime??"
And then, looking up, Kenniston realized that you could see the stars now. You could see them as faint, glimmering points all across the strangely dusky sky, even near the dull Sun.
"They're wrong," said Hubble. "They're very wrong."
Kenniston asked, "What happened? Did their super-atomic really fizzle?"
Hubble lowered his gaze and blinked at him. "No," he said softly. "It didn't fizzle. It went off."
"But Hubble, if that super-atomic went off, why?"
Hubble ignored the question. He went on into his own office in the Lab, and began to pull down reference volumes. To Kenniston's surprise, he opened them to pages of astronomical diagrams. Then Hubble took a pencil and began to scrawl quick calculations on a pad.
Kenniston grabbed him by the shoulder. "For Christ's sake, Hubble, this is no time for scientific theorizing! The town hasn't been hit, but something big has happened, and?"
"Get the hell away from me," said Hubble, without turning.
The sheer shock of hearing Hubble swear silenced Kenniston. Hubble went on with his figures, referring often to the books. The office was as silent as though nothing had happened at all. Finally, Hubble turned. His hand shook a little as he pointed to the figures on the pad.
"See those, Ken? They're proof--proof of something that cannot be. What does a scientist do when he faces that kind of a situation?"