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Title: The Barrier
Author: Bryce Walton
Release Date: April 14, 2021 [eBook #65085]
Language: English
Character set encoding: UTF-8
Produced by: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at

The Barrier

By Bryce Walton

If Stevens could cross the high velocity
barrier at the edge of space he would receive a
pardon on Earth. But would he live to claim it?

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
February 1951
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

His features were twisted by the acceleration, and his sanity seemed to have gone.

There were maybe ten or fifteen people to see him off. They weren't cheering. They stood in the gray curtain of rain, hunched over with their hands in their storm-coat pockets. Behind them was the vague bulk of the Experimental Station. And beyond that, invisible in the night, were the mountains he would never see again.

"O.K., Stevens. This is it."

So what? Stevens clanked as he turned toward the "Coffin." He was encased in a bulging metal pressure suit and his head was a big alloy bubble. No one smiled. No one raised a hand to say goodbye.

Doris would, of course, say goodbye, if she were here. She wasn't here. She didn't even know about his volunteering.

Major Kanin nodded stiffly. His gray eyes wrinkled. "Good luck, Stevens," he said dutifully. It was meaningless. Kanin had sent too many poor guys out on a one-way trip. He knew Stevens wouldn't come down. Not in any recognizable form.

A couple of gray-suited mechanics moved around behind Stevens. Stevens leaned over and thrust his head into the tubular opening of the torpedo-like plane. The two mechanics lifted his legs, shoved him in headfirst like he was ammunition being crammed into an ancient cannon. The metal hatch slid down past his feet. He was bound tightly by the cockpit which was only an air-conditioned tube but slightly larger than his body. When the canopy over his head closed, he had only two inches between the plate in his helmet and the control and instrument panel.

For one agonizing moment, long and terrifying, Stevens felt an awful compressing suffocation and entrapment. The claustrophobia went away, in part, and left the plexglas plate in his helmet dewed with his sweat.

He tried to relax. He stared at the controls. He twisted his head carefully then so as not to bump his helmet against the side—the noise was numbing inside when he did bump anything—and looked through the tiny peep-hole in the tubular wall which would soon close too, leaving him completely sealed. He looked out and waited for the signal. Major Kanin had turned his back and was discussing something with a Doctor and a Lieutenant. The mechanics were around preparing the kick-off rockets.

The "Coffin" was light, and it was new. A slight improvement over the last one. But the so-called improvement was a farce, Stevens knew, because no one had any idea why none of the others had ever come back. None of them expected him to come back either, and they showed it plainly. Also, none of them cared particularly, from any human point of view. The Military cared of course, from another view-point.

This was another velocity test run. Once around the Earth to this take-off spot on the desert. The Military wanted to get to the Moon if they had to walk there over a suspension bridge of human dead. The first Sovereign State to get a military base on the Moon would, in theory, be the all-time victor in what certain kinds of humorists called the "game" of war. So far, no one had been able to stand the velocity.

Stevens felt his skin stretch in a dry, tight grin. He carefully and slowly moistened his lips and watched the light that would blink yellow. A minute after that the job would kick-off before rockets delivering a 3000-pound thrust for twelve seconds.

Stevens guessed that the brain-boys up in some hidden bureau had an idea that sooner or later they would find somebody who could stand it, then they could make tests, find out why. Stevens had no idea how many had already been sacrificed. The boys upstairs knew but they weren't giving out statistics these days. Stevens would increase the unknown number by one more.

So it meant nothing, he thought. He wasn't one of the superboys, the jet-jyrenes, the hero lads who never came back and had statues and plaques stuck all over the place for being permanently en absentia. Not anymore, he wasn't.

He was one of the new volunteers from the West Coast branch of the Military Prison. Big-hearted Kanin had even promised him a pardon if he brought the ship back. It was a new high in irony, but that was about all.

He wouldn't come back, and he knew it. But he would be free, and Doris would be free to live her own life. He had been stupid, hot-headed, once—and this was a preferable way, he had decided, to pay up the debt.

Doris had resigned herself to waiting for him. It was a manslaughter charge, and he would have gotten out maybe in fifteen years. They didn't parole anybody from a Military Prison, at least not on anything as heavy as manslaughter. It wasn't fair to Doris, nor to himself.

All right. He was in a shiny "Coffin" and he would soon be on his way to wherever the others had gone—into nowhere. Where was nowhere? That was a question. It was way up, higher than anyone had returned from to answer—still within the bounds of gravity but—high. A lot of guys had found it, but they weren't sending back any ESP messages from the Beyond.

It was up there where the Earth lost its face behind thick vapor veils and began to look like a fancy balloon, that was where you found out the location of nowhere. Inside a beautifully stream-lined "Coffin" you found out—hurtling way beyond the speed of sound, shattering the supersonic barriers, and faster and faster still....

What happened to them? Nobody had figured it out. All the best brains in the world working on it might figure it out. But the brains were split up, divided into little camps here and there, getting a lot of atomic spitballs ready to throw at one another, when teacher's back was turned.

So it wasn't figured out, what happened to them. They had come a long way since they first broke the barrier. Faster and faster and faster—but they'd hit a limit somewhere up there. And until they wiped out that limitation, the Moon was as far away as it had ever been back when man thought the canoe was a great discovery.

They just went faster and faster and faster—and then they disappeared. A curtain parted. A curtain closed. And wherever man wanted to get to so fast—he got there.

The yellow light blinked at Stevens like a jaundiced eye. Stevens winked back with a mock gesture that was hardly genuine. The world rocked, and his head seemed to drain suddenly as though by a suction pump.

His task was simple enough. The controls were automatic until the signal came for bringing the ship in, and then manual controls would be used. Until then, he served as only a slightly necessary human element. A voice. There was the radio, and his voice. He was to keep them informed down there. Keep talking right up to the point when whatever happened—happened.

Stevens talked. He reported the altitude, the velocity, the temperature. He kept reporting as the three of them increased. His eyes watched the light that might blink red. The "panic-light." When that blinked, it meant curtains. It meant fire in the "Coffin." It meant that if you were in a position to do it, you could use the automatic pilot ejector and get hurled into the screaming currents by a 37 mm cartridge that shot the pilot and cockpit straight up at 60 ft. per second.

At this altitude and this velocity, the ejector was useless.

He whispered, "Velocity—five thousand—" He spoke again. "Velocity—fifteen thousand—"

It was frightening. He flicked on the observation screen. It was a blur. He couldn't feel anything. He couldn't hear anything. If he could only lift his legs, bend his knees. If he could only turn over on his side—

He opened his mouth to scream, and somehow prevented the burst that frothed to soundless bubbles on his lips. His body seemed to swell, seeking to burst the Coffin's walls like a swelling mummy. The terror remained in him, icy and deep.

He watched the gauges creeping up and up. He was speaking. He knew he was reporting but he couldn't hear himself saying anything. He watched the "panic-light" that would glow red and that would be curtain time. There was no sound. No sound at all. There was no vision. No awareness of motion. At this incredible height, at this frightening velocity, there was no awareness of anything at all.

He was in a Coffin all right, and he was buried—as certainly as though he were six feet under and as stationary as only the dead can be when they are buried and forgotten down under the clean Earth where they belong when they're tired.

They didn't belong up here, not this way.

"The cooling system's clogging," he heard himself whisper. "Crystals of ice ... cockpit's like a miniature snow storm...."

He heard the unemotional voice come clearly to him. "The emergency trigger—"

He used it. He felt a freezing grin rip across his face as he reached out and used it. The icy spray died away and he heard himself saying something else.

"It's the velocity. I don't have any reason for saying it—I just feel it—you could feel it up here too—I can't explain it, but it's the velocity. I know it. Maybe they crashed on the Earth somewhere. There's lots of places on Earth a ship could crash and no one would know it, especially when it would be taken for a meteor. But this feels like it's the velocity that does it up here. Listen, what about this? Anyone thought of this—what if the velocity breaks a man through into another dimension?"

No one commented on that. It happened to him right then, and he felt it coming. Reflexes tried to move his body, and his head and feet drummed on the restricting tubular walls. There was a wrenching blur and a slipping spinning vertigo.

... there was darkness and he floated in it, but he was conscious. It wasn't any familiar kind of consciousness. Lights began glimmering here and there like fireflies. But it was no dream, he knew that. He didn't know what it was. The music that was something far and incomprehensively beyond music sounded, and he seemed to float on a broad tape of sound to float on a road, a path, a curvature that broadened into unlimited vistas.

It was brief. It was like peeking through a tiny hole and seeing something beautiful, unworldly, very nearly incomprehensible, drift by. He heard a voice that had no body, but he knew it was real, very real. More real than anything he had called real before.

"Another is coming through. Check the matrix."

He tried to understand. Vaporous curtains seemed to draw back one by one and a kind of clarity flowed over his mind like cool ocean up a white beach. A first faint tingling thrill moved in his blood, and became pleasure that mounted through ecstasy and then became something else for which he had no name.

He had called it—nowhere. This wasn't anything like that. This was really somewhere. Soft lights bathed him like water. Shadows seemed to shift and sway and there was silver in the light, dusted with golden motes.

He thought desperately. "Where is this? What has happened?"

"This is Death," the voice that had no face or form answered. "That is what you term it, in the lower stage reality from which you have come. There are other ways of going through the barrier, but death is the sure and the ordinary one. Many come through, in many ways—"

Stevens tried to understand, and he knew that he could not. He tried to see his present form, his present meaning. There was nothing tangible. He drifted. He was light and sound perhaps, movement perhaps. He was part of something greater and far more complex than his undeveloped powers of perception could absorb.

Stevens thought. "You mean—I'm—Dead. I mean—that I'm not living now?"

The thought answered him. It wasn't a sequence of words, phrases, forming meaning. The entire answer was a part of him, immediately. "You call it death. Actually you are more alive, you have come through the barrier into what you call the fourth dimension. It is really but a broader awareness of a higher reality—"

It didn't mean much to Stevens. The unknown, the intangible—it sent a chill through his consciousness. Pain hit him. He winced. Light roiled, irritation eddied like muddy streaks in a clear stream. A bluish haze spread like staining ink through the clouds of brilliance. Dark cracks spread like lines through colored glass.

Stevens felt an icy wind. He seemed to swirl inchoate through a forest of wildly irritated leaves and branches.

The thought came to him, weakly, through distance that was more than mere distance, through barriers of space and realms of time. It came to him weakly, and it began to fade.

"Everything that was, that is, or will be, we are conscious of here in this higher stage of reality. All must come through, and there is never again contact with the lower stage, the third dimension of perception. The matrix is universal, eternal, and it is set and unchanging."

Stevens' mind screamed. "But I'm returning—help me, I don't want to go back. I want to stay, to stay—"

"You are John Stevens—" the voice, the thought, drifted to him from what seemed infinite spaces.

"Yes, yes—"

"There is a distortion, you do not understand. Someday you will. You are premature. The pattern is rigid, and everything has its set moment of alteration. This distortion, I cannot explain. We are not perfect here. There is yet a higher reality, and a higher one still, and the stages are infinite. But you will be back, John Stevens. Soon. Very soon."


A column of sound arose and shattered in glittering spray. "The matrix has the answer. John Stevens—no this is not your time. You call it a week. Seven days. Such terms are meaningless here. To us, it is happening now. We can see it happening. We can see you coming through the barrier—to stay—to learn—to live as we live—"

"When?" he screamed at the fading thought.

"Soon. A week. Seven days. It is here. The Matrix has the answer...."

"Now. Let me stay," Stevens screamed. "I don't want to go back."

"You are not really here, or you could not go back. This is a glimpse. Many have had it. Someday you will understand. But in seven days—"

The radio voice was shrill. "Can you hear? Can you hear? There has been five seconds of unexplainable static! Can you hear?"

"Sure, I can hear," he said hoarsely. He blinked, stared at the blurred instruments against his eyes. Suddenly he shouted. "I'm still alive, you get that? I've passed the velocity apex, and I'm still alive!"

He heard Major Kanin's voice. Some of the fatuousness was lost in the emotion of triumph. "Great! Great, you've done it! Now you've got to bring her in! That pardon—"

All right. He would do that. He had been a super-boy, a jet-gyrene himself, once. A big-shot, a wonder boy jet-hero, before he got that jealous quirk that had turned out to be baseless. A feud that had gone on for years and culminated in a fight, and Bill Carson had died from concussion. There had been nothing between Doris and Carson, but it was too late to think about that now.

The Military had been harsh, and he'd known he couldn't bear the confinement. And he hadn't wanted Doris to suffer for his psychological blowup either. He had volunteered for what should have been suicide—but he still lived. He couldn't understand that. He should be Dead. He knew that. But he wasn't, and he knew he would bring her in. A pardon—

The world was small for Stevens. A coffin, a cannon-barrel. And he was stuffed in it. His hands alone could move over the simple controls, and his eyes could move over the gauges. A jet-pilot had to learn a special feel to bring in a jet-ship. And Stevens had learned that "feel" rapidly, years ago. It seemed a long time ago when he had taken that harsh training: a few hours in a conventional flyer, a few more in a Mustang 60. Then that rending day when he had "checked out" in a jet-trainer.

Stevens' eyes bulged in sudden terror. Sweat blurred his vision. The red light was glowing. The Panic-Light. It meant bad trouble at this speed. Fire—

"But I'll bring it in," he whispered. Smoke curled through the Coffin. The heat expanded around him rapidly. He thought of the ejector, but he was too low now, coming in. He tried to scream. The crackling wavering heat inside his helmet was intolerable. The controls were jammed. His hands fell away and he dropped his head helplessly and the world exploded....

This time there was a crowd, and they acted differently. They were enthusiastic. There were doctors and nurses. Their faces were twisted with admiration. Stronger than the admiration was a fearful kind of disbelief. The Doctor touched his lips with his tongue and coughed uneasily as he stared at Stevens.

Major Kanin was beaming. "Man," his voice boomed through the hospital room. "Man! You're alive. No one knows how you can be alive, but you are! We've licked it. It's a miracle!"

Voices agreed with that in a chorus of incredulous whispers. Miracle....

The Major said, "I've already got that pardon coming through, Stevens. It'll be probational of course, but that will all be forgotten now, Stevens. You're something special."

The doctors and nurses stared at him with unbelieving eyes.

"You've been examined thoroughly, Stevens, and you're all right, not a scratch! It's impossible, but it's true. Every doctor here, every mechanic, says it's impossible. Your ship's just a pile of melting metal, Stevens, but you crawled out of it absolutely uninjured. Nobody understands it, but everybody's glad!"

The Doctor whispered. "Miracles like this sometimes happen, but no one can explain them. His body should be torn to pieces, burned. Well, he certainly had to have had some unique physical quality to have gotten through the high velocity peak."

"Yes, you hear that, Stevens?" the Major boomed.

Stevens was staring at the ceiling. He was trying to think, to remember.

"Now listen to this, Stevens. You went up a convict, and now you're a hero. You're in perfect physical condition, so we're going right ahead with Project Ultimo. And you'll handle the rocket, Stevens! If anyone can get to the Moon, you can, from this exhibition today!"

"What's that," Stevens said. He looked at their faces.

"It'll take a week to get the rocket ready," the Major said. "It's the Moon now, Stevens! The Moon!"

"The Moon," Stevens repeated.

"This will be no secret, Stevens!" Major Kanin stood up, his chest out, his heavy-jowled face glowing with triumph. "The world will know about it when you take off, this time. This won't be secret. The Enemy will know then that they've lost! Lost, utterly and unquestionably. With military bases on the Moon, they'll be helpless and they'll know it when you make that successful flight! One week, Stevens!"

Stevens looked out the window at the gray curtain of rain. "What was that? One week—" Something stirred in his memory. He grappled for it, lost it. He closed his eyes.

"Seven days, Stevens, that's all!"

He didn't answer. For an instant, behind the bottomless darkness of his closed lids, he saw something—something intangible and shimmering, beyond the grayness and rain. And then it was gone.

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