Sphere Chapter 11

"They're delicious," Norman said. "Sauteed squid." As soon as he had sat at the table, he became aware of how hungry he was. And eating made him feel better; there was a reassuring normalcy about sitting at a table, with a knife and fork in his hands. It was almost possible to forget where he was.

"I especially like them fried," Tina said.

"Fried calamari," Barnes said. "Wonderful. My favorite."

"I like them fried, too," Edmunds, the archivist, said. She sat primly, very erect, eating her food precisely. Norman noticed that she put her knife down between bites.

"Why aren't these fried?" Norman said.

"We can't deep-fry down here," Barnes said. "The hot oil forms a suspension and gums up the air filters. But sauteed is fine."

"Well, I don't know about the squid but the shrimps are great," Ted said. "Aren't they, Harry?" Ted and Harry were eating shrimp.

"Great shrimp," Harry said. "Delicious."

"You know how I feel," Ted said, "I feel like Captain Nemo. Remember, living underwater off the bounty of the sea?"

"Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," Barnes said.

"James Mason," Ted said. "Remember how he played the organ? Duh-duh-duh, da da da daaaaah da! Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor."

"And Kirk Douglas."

"Kirk Douglas was great."

"Remember when he fought the giant squid?"

"That was great."

"Kirk Douglas had an ax, remember?"

"Yeah, and he cut off one of the squid arms."

"That movie," Harry said, "scared the hell out of me. I saw it when I was a kid and it scared the hell out of me."

"I didn't think it was scary," Ted said.

"You were older," Harry said.

"Not that much older."

"Yes, you were. For a kid it was terrifying. That's probably why I don't like squid now."

"You don't like squid," Ted said, "because they're rubbery and disgusting."

Barnes said, "That was the movie that made me want to join the Navy."

"I can imagine," Ted said. "So romantic and exciting. And a real vision of the wonders of applied science. Who played the professor in that?"

"The professor?"

"Yes, remember there was a professor?"

"I vaguely remember a professor. Old guy."

"Norman? You remember who was the professor?"

"No, I don't," Norman said.

Ted said, "Are you sitting over there keeping an eye on us, Norman?"

"How do you mean?" Norman said.

"Analyzing us. Seeing if we're cracking up."

"Yes," Norman said, smiling. "I am."

"How're we doing?" Ted said.

"I would say it is highly significant that a group of scientists can't remember who played the scientist in a movie they all loved."

"Well, Kirk Douglas was the hero, that's why. The scientist wasn't the hero."

"Franchot Tone?" Barnes said. "Claude Rains?"

"No, I don't think so. Fritz somebody?"

"Fritz Weaver?"

They heard a crackle and hiss, and then the sounds of an organ playing the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

"Great," Ted said. "I didn't know we had music down here."

Edmunds returned to the table. "There's a tape library, Ted."

"I don't know if this is right for dinner," Barnes said.

"I like it," Ted said. "Now, if we only had seaweed salad. Isn't that what Captain Nemo served?"

"Maybe something lighter?" Barnes said.

"Lighter than seaweed?"

"Lighter than Bach."

"What was the submarine called?" Ted said.

"The Nautilus," Edmunds said.

"Oh, right. Nautilus."

"It was the name of the first atomic submarine, too, launched in 1954," she said. And she gave Ted a bright smile.

"True," Ted said. "True."

Norman thought, He's met his match in irrelevant trivia. Edmunds went to the porthole and said, "Oh, more visitors."

"What now?" Harry said, looking up quickly.

Frightened? Norman thought. No, just quick, manic. Interested.

"They're beautiful," Edmunds was saying. "Some kind of little jellyfish. All around the habitat. We should really film them. What do you think, Dr. Fielding? Should we go film them?"

"I think I'll just eat now, Jane," Ted said, a bit severely. Edmunds looked stricken, rejected. Norman thought, I'll have to watch that. She turned to leave. The others glanced toward the porthole, but nobody left the table.

"Have you ever eaten jellyfish?" Ted said. "I hear they're a delicacy."

"Some of them are poisonous," Beth said. "Toxins in the tentacles."

"Don't the Chinese eat jellyfish?" Harry said.

"Yes," Tina said. "They make a soup, too. My grandmother used to make it in Honolulu."

"You're from Honolulu?"

"Mozart would be better for dining," Barnes said. "Or Beethoven. Something with strings. This organ music is gloomy."

"Dramatic," Ted said, playing imaginary keys in the air, in time to the music. Swaying his body like James Mason.

"Gloomy," Barnes said.

The intercom crackled. "Oh, you should see this," Edmunds said, over the intercom. "It's beautiful."

"Where is she?"

"She must be outside," Barnes said. He went to the porthole.

"It's like pink snow," Edmunds said. They all got up and went to the portholes.

Edmunds was outside with the video camera. They could hardly see her through the dense clouds of jellyfish. The jellyfish were small, the size of a thimble, and a delicate, glowing pink. It was indeed like a snowfall. Some of the jellyfish came quite close to the porthole; they could see them well.

"They have no tentacles," Harry said. "They're just little pulsating sacs."

"That's how they move," Beth said. "Muscular contractions expel the water."

"Like squid," Ted said.

"Not as developed, but the general idea."

"They're sticky," Edmunds said, over the intercom. "They're sticking to my suit."

"That pink color is fantastic," Ted said. "Like snow in a sunset."

"Very poetic."

"I thought so."

"You would."

"They're sticking to my faceplate, too," Edmunds said. "I have to pull them off. They leave a smeary streak - "

She broke off abruptly, but they could still hear her breathing.

"Can you see her?" Ted said.

"Not very well. She's there, to the left."

Over the intercom, Edmunds said, "They seem to be warm. I feel heat on my arms and legs."

"That's not right," Barnes said. He turned to Tina. "Tell her to get out of there."

Tina ran from the cylinder, toward the communications console.

Norman could hardly see Edmunds any more. He was vaguely aware of a dark shape, moving arms, agitated. ...

Over the intercom, she said, "The smear on the faceplate - it won't go away - they seem to be eroding the plastic - and my arms - the fabric is - "

Tina's voice said, "Jane. Jane, get out of there."

"On the double," Barnes shouted. "Tell her on the double!"

Edmunds's breathing was coming in ragged gasps. "The smears - can't see very well - I feel - hurts - my arms burning - hurts - they're eating through - "

"Jane. Come back. Jane. Are you reading? Jane."

"She's fallen down," Harry said. "Look, you can see her lying - "

" - We have to save her," Ted said, jumping to his feet.

"Nobody move, " Barnes said.

"But she's - "

" - Nobody else is going out there, mister."

Edmunds's breathing was rapid. She coughed, gasped. "I can't - I can't - oh God - "

Edmunds began to scream.

The scream was high-pitched and continuous except for ragged gasps for breath. They could no longer see her through the swarms of jellyfish. They looked at each other, at Barnes. Barnes's face was rigidly set, his jaw tight, listening to the screams.

And then, abruptly, there was silence.


An hour later, the jellyfish disappeared as mysteriously as they had come. They could see Edmunds's body outside the habitat, lying on the bottom, rocking back and forth gently in the current. There were small ragged holes in the fabric of the suit.

They watched through the portholes as Barnes and the chief petty officer, Teeny Fletcher, crossed the bottom into the harsh floodlights, carrying extra air tanks. They lifted Edmunds's body; the helmeted head flopped loosely back, revealing the scarred plastic faceplate, dull in the light.

Nobody spoke. Norman noticed that even Harry had dropped his manic effect; he sat unmoving, staring out the window.

Outside, Barnes and Fletcher still held the body. There was a great burst of silvery bubbles, which rose swiftly to the surface.

"What're they doing?"

"Inflating her suit."

"Why? Aren't they bringing her back?" Ted said.

"They can't," Tina said. "There's nowhere to put her here. The decomposition by-products would ruin our air."

"But there must be some kind of a sealed container - "

" - There isn't," Tina said. "There's no provision for keeping organic remains in the habitat."

"You mean they didn't plan on anyone dying."

"That's right. They didn't."

Now there were many thin streams of bubbles rising from the holes in the suit, toward the surface. Edmunds's suit was puffed, bloated. Barnes released it, and it floated slowly away, as if pulled upward by the streaming silver bubbles.

"It'll go to the surface?"

"Yes. The gas expands continuously as outside pressure diminishes."

"And what then?"

"Sharks," Beth said. "Probably."

In a few moments the body disappeared into blackness, beyond the reach of the lights. Barnes and Fletcher still watched the body, helmets tilted up toward the surface. Fletcher made the sign of the cross. Then they trudged back toward the habitat.

A bell rang from somewhere inside. Tina went into D Cyl. Moments later she shouted, "Dr. Adams! More numbers!"

Harry got up and went into the next cylinder. The others trailed after him. Nobody wanted to look out the porthole any longer.

Norman stared at the screen, entirely puzzled.

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But Harry clapped his hands in delight. "Excellent," Harry said. "This is extremely helpful."

"It is?"

"Of course. Now I have a fighting chance."

"You mean to break the code."

"Yes, of course."


"Remember the original number sequence? This is the same sequence."

"It is?"

"Of course," Harry said. "Except it's in binary."

"Binary," Ted said, nudging Norman. "Didn't I tell you binary was important?"

"What's important," Harry said, "is that this establishes the individual letter breaks from the original sequence." "Here's a copy of the original sequence," Tina said, handing them a sheet.

00032125252632 032629 301321 04261037 18 3016 06180821

32 29033005 1822 04261013 0830162137 1604 08301621 1822 0


"Good," Harry said. "Now you can see my problem at once. Look at the word: oh-oh-oh-three-two-one, and so on. The question is, how do I break that word up into individual letters? I couldn't decide, but now I know."


"Well, obviously, it goes three, twenty-one, twenty-five, twenty-five. ..."

Norman didn't understand. "But how do you know that?"

"Look," Harry said impatiently. "It's very simple, Norman. It's a spiral, reading from inside to outside. It's just giving us the numbers in - "

Abruptly, the screen changed again.

"There, is that clearer for you?"

Norman frowned.

"Look, it's exactly the same," Harry said. "See? Center outward? Oh-oh-oh-three-twenty-one-twenty-five-twentyfive ... It's made a spiral moving outward from the center."


"Maybe it's sorry about what happened to Edmunds," Harry said.

"Why do you say that?" Norman asked, staring curiously at Harry.

"Because it's obviously trying very hard to communicate with us," Harry said. "It's attempting different things."

"Who is it?"

"It," Harry said, "may not be a who."

The screen went blank, and another pattern appeared.

"All right," Harry said. "This is very good."

"Where is this coming from?"

"Obviously, from the ship."

"But we're not connected to the ship. How is it managing to turn on our computer and print this?"

"We don't know."

"Well, shouldn't we know?" Beth said.

"Not necessarily," Ted said.

"Shouldn't we try to know?"

"Not necessarily. You see, if the technology is advanced enough, it appears to the na?ve observer to be magic. There's no doubt about that. For example, you take a famous scientist from our past - Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, even Isaac Newton. Show him an ordinary Sony color-television set and he'd run screaming, claiming it was witchcraft. He wouldn't understand it at all.

"But the point," Ted said, "is that you couldn't explain it to him, either. At least not easily. Isaac Newton wouldn't be able to understand TV without first studying our physics for a couple of years. He'd have to learn all the underlying concepts: electromagnetism, waves, particle physics. These would all be new ideas to him, a new conception of nature. In the meantime, the TV would be magic as far as he was concerned. But to us it's ordinary. It's TV."

"You're saying we're like Isaac Newton?"

Ted shrugged. "We're getting a communication and we don't know how it's done."

"And we shouldn't bother to try and find out."

"I think we have to accept the possibility," Ted said, "that we may not be able to understand it."

Norman noticed the energy with which they threw themselves into this discussion, pushing aside the tragedy so recently witnessed. They're intellectuals, he thought, and their characteristic defense is intellectualization. Talk. Ideas. Abstractions. Concepts. It was a way of getting distance from the feelings of sadness and fear and being trapped. Norman understood the impulse: he wanted to get away from those feelings himself.

Harry frowned at the spiral image. "We may not understand how, but it's obvious what it's doing. It's trying to communicate by trying different presentations. The fact that it's trying spirals may be significant. Maybe it believes we think in spirals. Or write in spirals."

"Right," Beth said. "Who knows what kind of weird creatures we are?"

Ted said, "If it's trying to communicate with us, why aren't we trying to communicate back?"

Harry snapped his fingers. "Good idea!" He went to the keyboard.

"There's an obvious first step," Harry said. "We just send the original message back. We'll start with the first grouping, beginning with the double zeroes."

"I want it made clear," Ted said, "that the suggestion to attempt communication with the alien originated with me."

"It's clear, Ted," Barnes said.

"Harry?" Ted said.

"Yes, Ted," Harry said. "Don't worry, it's your idea."

Sitting at the keyboard, Harry typed:


The numbers appeared on the screen. There was a pause. They listened to the hum of the air fans, the distant thump of the diesel generator. They all watched the screen.

Nothing happened.

The screen went blank, and then printed out:


Norman felt the hair rise on the back of his neck.

It was just a series of numbers on a computer screen, but it still gave him a chill. Standing beside him, Tina shivered. "He answered us."

"Fabulous," Ted said.

"I'll try the second grouping now," Harry said. He seemed calm, but his fingers kept making mistakes at the keyboard. It took a few moments before he was able to type:


The reply immediately came back:


"Well," Harry said, "looks like we just opened our line of communication."

"Yes," Beth said. "Too bad we don't understand what we're saying to each other."

"Presumably it knows what it's saying," Ted said. "But we're still in the dark."

"Maybe we can get it to explain itself."

Impatiently, Barnes said, "What is this it you keep referring to?"

Harry sighed, and pushed his glasses up on his nose. "I think there's no doubt about that. It," Harry said, "is something that was previously inside the sphere, and that is now released, and is free to act. That's what it is."



Norman awoke to a shrieking alarm and flashing red lights. He rolled out of his bunk, pulled on his insulated shoes and his heated jacket, and ran for the door, where he collided with Beth. The alarm was screaming throughout the habitat.

"What's happening!" he shouted, over the alarm.

"I don't know!"

Her face was pale, frightened. Norman pushed past her. In the B Cylinder, among all the pipes and consoles, a flashing sign winked: "LIFE SUPPORT EMERGENCY." He looked for Teeny Fletcher, but the big engineer wasn't there.

He hurried back toward C Cylinder, passing Beth again.

"Do you know?" Beth shouted.

"It's life support! Where's Fletcher? Where's Barnes?"

"I don't know! I'm looking!"

"There's nobody in B!" he shouted, and scrambled up the steps into D Cylinder. Tina and Fletcher were there, working behind the computer consoles. The back panels were pulled off, exposing wires, banks of chips. The room lights were flashing red.

The screens all flashed "EMERGENCY - LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS."

"What's going on?" Norman shouted.

Fletcher waved a hand dismissingly.

"Tell me!"

He turned, saw Harry sitting in the corner near Edmunds's video section like a zombie, with a pencil and a pad of paper on his knee. He seemed completely indifferent to the sirens, the lights flashing on his face.


Harry didn't respond; Norman turned back to the two women.

"For God's sake, will you tell me what it is?" Norman shouted.

And then the sirens stopped. The screens went blank. There was silence, except for soft classical music.

"Sorry about that," Tina said.

"It was a false alarm," Fletcher said.

"Jesus Christ," Norman said, dropping into a chair. He took a deep breath.

"Were you asleep?" He nodded.

"Sorry. It just went off by itself."

"Jesus Christ."

"The next time it happens, you can check your badge," Fletcher said, pointing to the badge on her own chest. "That's the first thing to do. You see the badges are all normal now."

"Jesus Christ."

"Take it easy, Norman," Harry said. "When the psychiatrist goes crazy, it's a bad sign."

"I'm a psychologist."


Tina said, "Our computer alarm has a lot of peripheral sensors, Dr. Johnson. It goes off sometimes. There's not much we can do about it."

Norman nodded, went into E Cyl to the galley. Levy had made strawberry shortcake for lunch, and nobody had eaten it because of the accident with Edmunds. He was sure it would still be there, but when he couldn't find it, he felt frustrated. He opened cabinet doors, slammed them shut. He kicked the refrigerator door.

Take it easy, he thought. It was just a false alarm.

But he couldn't overcome the feeling that he was trapped, stuck in some damned oversized iron lung, while things slowly fell apart around him. The worst moment had been Barnes's briefing, when he came back from sending Edmunds's body to the surface.

Barnes had decided it was time to make a little speech. Deliver a little pep talk.

"I know you're all upset about Edmunds," he had said, "but what happened to her was an accident. Perhaps she made an error of judgment in going out among jellyfish. Perhaps not. The fact is, accidents happen under the best of circumstances, and the deep sea is a particularly unforgiving environment."

Listening, Norman thought, He's writing his report. Explaining it away to the brass.

"Right now," Barnes was saying, "I urge you all to remain calm. It's sixteen hours since the gale hit topside. We just sent up a sensor balloon to the surface. Before we could make readings, the cable snapped, which suggests that surface waves are still thirty feet or higher, and the gale is still in full force. The weather satellite estimates were for a sixty-hour storm on site, so we have two more full days down here. There's not much we can do about it. We just have to remain calm. Don't forget, even when you do go topside you can't throw open the hatch and start breathing. You have to spend four more days decompressing in a hyperbaric chamber on the surface."

That was the first Norman had heard of surface decompression. Even after they left this iron lung, they would have to sit in another iron lung for another four days?

"I thought you knew," Barnes had said. "That's SOP for saturated environments. You can stay down here as long as you like, but you have a four-day decompress when you go back. And believe me, this habitat's a lot nicer than the decompression chamber. So enjoy this while you can."

Enjoy this while you can, he thought. Jesus Christ. Strawberry shortcake would help. Where the hell was Levy, anyway?

He went back to D Cyl. "Where's Levy?"

"Dunno," Tina said. "Around here somewhere. Maybe sleeping."

"Nobody could sleep through that alarm," Norman said.

"Try the galley?"

"I just did. Where's Barnes?"

"He went back to the ship with Ted. They're putting more sensors around the sphere."

"I told them it was a waste of time," Harry said.

"So nobody knows where Levy is?" Norman said.

Fletcher finished screwing the computer panels back on. "Doctor," she said, "are you one of those people who need to keep track of where everyone is?"

"No," Norman said. "Of course not."

"Then what's the big deal about Levy, sir?"

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