"Yup. My dad owns a patch by the river. Want some?" He proffered the basket.
"No, thank you," Hall answered. He resumed his walk up the highway with the boy at his side.
"D-do you live around here," he asked.
"Just up the road a ways." The lad studied his companion for a minute. "You stutter, don't you?"
"There was a boy in my class who used to stutter. The teacher said it was because he thought so far ahead of what he said he got all tangled up." The boy reached in his basket for a handful of berries and chewed them thoughtfully. "She was always after him to talk slower, but I guess it didn't do any good. He still stutters."
"Is there a p-power plant around here?" Hall asked. "You know, where the electricity comes from."
"You mean the place where they have the nu-nuclear fission"--the boy stumbled on the unfamiliar word, but got it out--"and they don't let you in because you get poisoned or something?"
"Yes, I think that's it."
"There are two places. There's one over at Red Mountain and another over at Ballarat."
"Where are they?"
"Well--" The boy stopped to think. "Red Mountain's straight ahead, maybe ten miles, and Ballarat's over there"--he pointed west across the orange groves--"maybe fifteen miles."
"Good," Hall said. "Good." And he felt glad inside of himself. Maybe it could be done, he thought.
They walked along together. Hall sometimes listening to the chattering of the boy beside him, sometimes listening to and answering the distant voices of the seventeen. Abruptly, a few hundred yards before the house that the boy had pointed out as his father's, a small sports car whipped down the highway, coming on them almost without warning. The lad jumped sideways, and Hall, to avoid touching him, stepped off the concrete road. His leg sank into the earth up to the mid-calf. He pulled it out as quickly as he could.
The boy was looking at the fast retreating rear of the sports car.
"Gee," he said. "I sure didn't see them coming." Then he caught sight of the deep hole alongside the road, and he stared at it. "Gosh, you sure made a footprint there," he said wonderingly.
"The ground was soft," Hall said. "C-come along."
But instead of following, the boy walked over to the edge of the road and stared into the hole. He tentatively stamped on the earth around it. "This ground isn't soft," he said. "It's hard as a rock." He turned and looked at Hall with big eyes.
Hall came close to the boy and took hold of his jacket. "D-don't pay any attention to it, son. I just stepped into a soft spot."
The boy tried to pull away. "I know who you are," he said. "I heard about you on the teledepth."
Suddenly, in the way of children, panic engulfed him and he flung his basket away and threw himself back and forth, trying to tear free. "Let me go," he screamed. "Let me go. Let me go."
"Just l-listen to me, son," Hall pleaded. "Just listen to me. I won't hurt you."
But the boy was beyond reasoning. Terror stricken, he screamed at the top of his voice, using all his little strength to escape.
"If you p-promise to l-listen to me, I'll let you go," Hall said.
"I promise," the boy sobbed, still struggling.
But the moment Hall let go of his coat, he tore away and ran as fast as he could over the adjacent field.
"W-wait--don't run away," Hall shouted. "I won't hurt you. Stay where you are. I couldn't follow you anyway. I'd sink to my hips."
The logic of the last sentence appealed to the frightened lad. He hesitated and then stopped and turned around, a hundred feet or so from the highway.
"L-listen," said Hall earnestly. "The teledepths are wr-wrong. They d-didn't tell you the t-truth about us. I d-don't want to hurt anyone. All I n-need is a few hours. D-don't tell anyone for j-just a few hours and it'll be all right." He paused because he didn't know what to say next.
The boy, now that he seemed secure from danger had recovered his wits. He plucked a blade of grass from the ground and chewed on an end of it, looking for all the world like a grownup farmer thoughtfully considering his fields. "Well, I guess you could have hurt me plenty, but you didn't," he said. "That's something."
"Just a few hours," Hall said. "It won't take long. Y-you can tell your father tonight."
The boy suddenly remembered his raspberries when he saw his basket and its spilled contents on the highway.
"Why don't you go along a bit," he said. "I would like to pick up those berries I dropped."
"Remember," Hall said, "just a few hours." He turned and started walking again toward Red Mountain. Inside his mind, the seventeen asked anxiously, "Do you think he'll give the alarm? Will he report your presence?"
Back on the highway, the boy was gathering the berries back into his basket while he tried to make his mind up.
Jordan reached Earth atmosphere about two o'clock in the afternoon. He immediately reported in to the Terrestrial police force, and via the teledepth screen spoke with a bored lieutenant. The lieutenant, after listening to Jordan's account of his mission, assured him without any particular enthusiasm of the willingness of the Terrestrial forces to cooperate, and of more value, gave him the location of all licensed sources of radiation in the western hemisphere.
The galactic agent set eagerly to work, and in the next several hours uncovered two unlisted radiation sources, both of which he promptly investigated. In one case, north of Eugene, he found in the backyard of a metal die company a small atomic pile. The owner was using it as an illegal generator of electricity, and when he saw Jordan snooping about with his detection instruments, he immediately offered the agent a sizable bribe. It was a grave mistake since Jordan filed charges against him, via teledepth, not only for evading taxes, but also for attempted bribery.
The second strike seemed more hopeful. He picked up strong radiation in a rather barren area of Montana; however when he landed, he found that it was arising from the earth itself. From a short conversation with the local authorities, he learned that the phenomenon was well known: an atomic fission plant had been destroyed at that site during the Third World War.
He was flying over the lovely blue water of Lake Bonneville, when his teledepth screen flickered. He flipped the switch on and the lieutenant's picture flooded in.
"I have a call I think you ought to take," the Earth official said. "It seems as though it might be in your line. It's from a sheriff in a small town in California. I'll have the operator plug him in."
Abruptly the picture switched to that of a stout red-faced man wearing the brown uniform of a county peace officer.
"You're the galactic man?" the sheriff asked.
"Yes. My name is Tom Jordan," Jordan said.
"Mine's Berkhammer." It must have been warm in California because the sheriff pulled out a large handkerchief and mopped his brow. When he was done with that he blew his nose loudly. "Hay fever," he announced.
"Want to see my credentials?"
"Oh sure, sure," the sheriff hastily replied. He scrutinized the card and badge that Jordan displayed. After a moment, he said, "I don't know why I'm looking at those. They might be fakes for all I know. Never saw them before and I'll probably never see them again."
"The deuce with formality," the sheriff said heavily. "There's some kid around here who thinks he saw that ... that machine you're supposed to be looking for."
"When was that?" Jordan asked.
"About four hours ago. Here, I'll let you talk to him yourself." He pulled his big bulk to one side, and a boy and his father walked into the picture. The boy was red-eyed, as though he had been crying. The father was a tall, stoop-shouldered farmer, dressed like his son in plastic overalls.
The sheriff patted the boy on the back. "Come on, Jimmy. Tell the man what you saw."
"I saw him," the boy said sullenly. "I walked up the highway with him."
Jordan leaned forward toward the screen.
"How did you know who he was?"
"I knew because when he stepped on the ground, he sank into it up to his knee. He tried to say the ground was soft, but it was hard. I know it was hard."
"Why did you wait so long to tell anybody?" Jordan asked softly.
The boy looked at him with defiance and dislike in his eyes and kept his small mouth clamped shut.
His father nudged him roughly in the ribs.
"Answer the man," he commanded.
Jimmy looked down at his shoes.
"Because he asked me not to tell for a while," he said curtly.
"Stubborn as nails," the father said not without pride in his voice. "Got more loyalty to a lousy machine than to the whole human race."
"Which way did he go, Jimmy?"
"Toward Red Mountain. I think maybe to the power house. He asked me where it was."
"What do you think he wants with that?" the sheriff asked of Jordan.
Jordan shrugged and shook his head.
"Maybe it's all in the kid's head," the sheriff suggested. "These wild teledepth programs they look at give them all kinds of ideas."
"It isn't in my head," Jimmy said violently. "I saw him. He stepped on the ground and stuck his foot into it. I talked to him. And I know something else. He stutters."
"What?" said the sheriff. "Now I know you're lying."
The father started dragging the boy by the arm. "Come on home, Jimmy. You got one more licking coming."
Jordan, however, was sure the boy was not lying. "Leave him alone," he said. "He's right. He did see him." He took a fast look at the timepiece on his panel board. "I'll be down in an hour and a half. Wait for me."
He flicked the switch off, and kicked up the motors. The ship shot southward almost as rapidly as a projectile.
He had topped the Sierras and had just turned into the great central valley of California when, with the impact of a blow, a frightening thought occurred to him.
He flicked the screen on again, and he caught the sheriff sitting behind his desk industriously scratching himself in one armpit.
"Listen," Jordan said, speaking very fast. "You've got to send out a national alarm. You must get every man you can down to the power plant. You've got to stop him from getting in."
The sheriff stopped scratching himself and stared at Jordan.
"What are you so het up about, young man?"
"Do it, and do it now," Jordan almost shouted. "He'll tear the pile apart and let the hafnium go off. It'll blow half the state off the planet."
The sheriff was unperturbed. "Mr. Star boy," he said sarcastically, "any grammar school kid knows that if someone came within a hundred yards of one of those power-house piles, he'd burn like a match stick. And besides why would he want to blow himself to pieces?"
"He's made out of permallium." Jordan was shouting now.
The sheriff suddenly grew pale. "Get off my screen. I'm calling Sacramento."
Jordan set the ship for maximum speed, well beyond the safety limit. He kept peering ahead into the dusk, momentarily fearful that the whole countryside would light up in one brilliant flash. In a few minutes he was sweating and trembling with the tension.
Over Walnut Grove, he recognized the series of dams, reservoirs and water-lifts where the Sacramento was raised up out of its bed and turned south. For greater speed, he came close to Earth, flying at emergency height, reserved ordinarily for police, firemen, doctors and ambulances. He set his course by sight following the silver road of the river, losing it for ten or fifteen miles at a time where it passed through subterranean tunnels, picking it up again at the surface, always shooting south as fast as the atmosphere permitted.
At seven thirty, when the sun had finally set, he sighted the lights of Red Mountain, and he cut his speed and swung in to land. There was no trouble picking out the power plant; it was a big dome-shaped building surrounded by a high wall. It was so brilliantly lit up, that it stood out like a beacon, and there were several hundred men milling about before it.
He settled down on the lawn inside the walls, and the sheriff came bustling up, a little more red in the face than usual.
"I've been trying to figure for the last hour what the devil I would do to stop him if he decided to come here," Berkhammer said.
"He's not here then?"
The sheriff shook his head. "Not a sign of him. We've gone over the place three times."
Jordan settled back in relief, sitting down in the open doorway of his ship. "Good," he said wearily.
"Good!" the sheriff exploded. "I don't know whether I'd rather have him show up or not. If this whole business is nothing more than the crazy imagination of some kid who ought to get tanned and a star-cop with milk behind his ears, I'm really in the soup. I've sent out an alarm and I've got the whole state jumping. There's a full mechanized battalion of state troops waiting in there." He pointed toward the power plant. "They've got artillery and tanks all around the place."
Jordan jumped down out of the ship. "Let's see what you've got set up here. In the meantime, stop fretting. I'd rather see you fired than vaporized along with fifty million other people."
"I guess you're right there," Berkhammer conceded, "but I don't like to have anyone make a fool out of me."
At Ballarat, an old man, Eddie Yudovich, was the watchman and general caretaker of the electrical generation plant. Actually, his job was a completely unnecessary one, since the plant ran itself. In its very center, buried in a mine of graphite were the tubes of hafnium, from whose nuclear explosions flowed a river of electricity without the need of human thought or direction.
He had worked for the company for a long time and when he became crippled with arthritis, the directors gave him the job so that he might have security in his latter years.