[Taken from Arthur C. Clarke: The Collected Stories.]
'But this is terrible!' said the Supreme Scientist. 'Surely there is something we can do!'
'Yes, Your Cognisanse, but it will be extremely difficult. The planet is more than five hundred light-years away, and it is very hard to maintain contact. However, we believe we can establish a bridgehead. Unfortunately, that is not the only problem. So far, we have been quite unable to communicate with these beings. Their telepathic powers are exceedingly rudimentary — perhaps even nonexistent. And if we cannot talk to them, there is no way in which we can help.'
There was a long mental silence while the Supreme Scientist analysed the situation and arrived, as he always did, at the correct answer.
'Any intelligent race must have some telepathic individuals,' he mused. 'We must send our hundreds of observers, tuned to catch the first hint of stray thought. When you find a single responsive mind, concentrate all your efforts upon it. We must get our message through.'
'Very good, Your Cognisance. It shall be done.'
Across the abyss, across the gulf which light itself took half a thousand years to span, the questing intellects of the planet Thaar sent out their tendrils of thought, searching desperately for a single human being whose mind could perceive their presence. And as luck would have it, they encountered William Cross.
At least they thought it was luck at the time, thought later they were not so sure.In any case, they had little choice. The combination of circumstances that opened Bill's mind to them lasted only for seconds, and was not likely to occur again this side of eternity.
There were three ingredients in the miracle: it is hard to say if one was more important than another. The first was the accident of position. A flask of water, when sunlight falls upon it, can act as a crude lens, concentrating the light into a small area. On an immeasurably larger scale, the dense core of the Earth was converging the waves that came from Thaar. In the ordinary way, the radiations of thought are affected by matter — they pass through it as effortlessly as light through glass. But there is rather a lot of matter in a planet, and the whole Earth was acting as a gigantic lens. As it turned, it was carrying Bill through its focus, where the feeble thought impulses from Thaar were concentrated a hundredfold.
Yet millions of other men were equally well placed: they received no message. But they were not rocket engineers: they had not spent years thinking and dreaming of space until it had become part of their very being.
And they were not, as Bill was, blind drunk, teetering on the last knife-edge of consciousness, trying to escape from reality into the world of dreams, where there were no disappointments and setbacks.
Of course, he could see the Army's point of view. 'You are paid, Dr Cross,' General Porter had pointed out with unnecessary emphasis, 'to design missiles, not — ah — spaceships. What you do in your spare time is your own concern, but I must ask you not to use the facilities of the establishment for your hobby. From now on, all projects for the computing section will have to be cleared by me. That is all.'
They couldn't sack him, of course: he was too important. But he was not sure that he wanted to stay. He was not really sure of anything except that the job had backfired on him, and that Brenda had finally gone off with Johnny Gardner — putting events in their order of importance.
Wavering slightly, Bill cupped his chin in his hands and stared at the whitewashed brick wall on the other side of the table. The only attempt at ornamentation was a calendar from Lockheed and a glossy six-by-eight from Aerojet showing L'il Abner Mark I making a boosted take-off. Bill gazed morosely at the spot midway between the two pictures, and emptied his mind of thought. The barriers went down....
At that moment, the massed intellects of Thaar gave a soundless cry of triumph, and the wall in front of Bill slowly dissolved into a swirling mist. He appeared to be looking down a tunnel that stretched to infinity. As a matter of fact, he was.
Bill studied the phenomenon with mild interest. It had a certain novelty, but was not up to the standard of previous hallucinations. And when the voice started to speak in his mind, he let it ramble on for some time before he did anything about it. Even when drunk, he had an old-fashioned prejudice against starting conversations with himself.
'Bill,' the voice began, 'listen carefully. We have had great difficultty in contacting you, and this is extremely important.'
Bill doubted this on general principles. Nothing was important any more.
'We are speaking to you from a very distant planet,' continued the voice in a tone of urgent friendliness. 'You are the only human being we have been able to contact, so you must understand what we are saying.'
Bill felt mildly worried, though in an impersonal sort of way, since it was now rather hard to focus on his own problems. How serious was it, he wondered, when you started to hear voices? Well, it was best not to get excited. You can take it or leave it, Dr Cross, he told himself. Let's take it until it gets to be a nuisance.
'OK,' he answered with bored indifference. 'Go right ahead and talk to me. I won't mind as long as it's interesting.'
There was a pause. Then the voice continued, in a slightly worried fashion.
'We don't quite understand. Our message isn't merely interesting. It's ital to your entire race, and you must notify your government immediately.'
'I'm waiting,' said Bill. 'It helps to pass the time.'
Five hundred light-years away, the Thaarns conferred hastily among themselves. Something seemed to be wrong, but they could not decide precisely what. There was no doubt that they had established contact, yet this was not the sort of reaction they had expected. Well, they could only proceed and hope for the best.
'Listen, Bill,' they continued. 'Our scientists have just discovered that your sun is about to explode. It will happen three days from now — seventy-four hours, to be exact. Nothing can stop it. But there's no need to be alarmed. We can save you, if you'll do what we say.'
'Go on,' said BIll. This hallucination was ingenious.
'We can create what we call a bridge — it's a kind of tunnel through space, like the one you're looking into now. The theory is far too complicated to explain, even to one of your mathematicians.'
'Hold on a minute!' protested Bill. 'I am a mathematician, and a darn good one, even when I'm sober. And I've read all about this kind of thing in the science fiction magazines. I presume you're talking about some kind of short cut through a higher dimension of space. That's old stuff — pre-Einstein.'
A sensation of distinct surprise seeped into Bill's mind.
'We had no idea you were so advanced scientifically,' said the Thaarns. 'But we haven't time to talk about the theory. All that matters is this — if you were to step into that opening in front of you, you'd find yourself instantly on another planet. It's a short cut, as you said — in this case through the thirty-seventh dimension.'
'And it leads to your world?'
'Oh no — you couldn't live here. But there are plenty of planets like Earth in the universe, and we've found one that will suit you. We'll establish bridgeheads like this all over Earth, so your people will only have to walk through them to be saved. Of course, they'll have to start building up civilisation again when they reach their new homes, but it's their only hope. You have to pass on this message, and tell them what to do.'
'I can just see them listening to me,' said Bill. 'Why don't you go and talk to the president?'
'Because yours was the only mind we were able to contact. Others seemed closed to us: we don't understand why.'
'I could tell you,' said Bill, looking at the nearly empty bottle in front of him. He was certainly getting his money's worth. What a remarkable thing the human mind was! Of course, there was nothing at all original in this dialogue: it was easy to see where the ideas came from. Only last week he'd been reading a story about the end of the world, and all this wishful thinking about bridges and tunnels through space was pretty obvious compensation for anyone who'd spent five years wrestling with recalcitrant rockets.
'If the sun does blow up,' Bill asked abruptly — trying to catch his hallucination unawares — 'what would happen?'
'Why, your planet would be melted instantly. All the planets, in fact, right out to Jupiter.'
Bill had to admit that this was quite a grandiose conception. He let his mind play with the thought, and the more he considered it, the more he liked it.
'My dear hallucination,'he remarked pityingly, 'if I believed you, d'you know what I'd say?'
'But you must believe us!' came the despairing cry across the light-years.
Bill ignored it. He was warming to his theme.
'I'd tell you this It would be the best thing that could possibly happen. Yes, it would save a whole lot of misery. No one would have to worry about the Russians and the atom bomb and the high cost of living. Oh, it would be wonderful! It's just what everybody really wants. Nice of you to come along and tell us, but just you go back home and pull your old bridges after you.'
There was consternation on Thaar. The Supreme Scientist's brain, floating like a great mass of coral in its tank of nutrient solution, turned slightly yellow about the edges — something it had not done since the Xantil invasion, five thousand years ago. At least fifteen psychologists had nervous breakdowns and were never the same again. The main computer in the College of Cosmophysics started dividing every number in its memory circuits by zero, and promptly blew all its fuses.
And on Earth, Bill Cross was really hitting his stride.
'Look at me,' he said, pointing a wavering finger at his chest. 'I've spent years trying to make rockets do something useful, and they tell me I'm only allowed to biol guided missiles, so that was can all blow each other up. The sun will make a neater job of it, and if you did give us another planet we'd only start the whole damn thing all over again.'
He paused sadly, marshalling his morbid thoughts.
'And now Brenda heads out of town without even leaving a note. So you'll pardon my lack of enthusiasm for your Boy Scout act.'
He couldn't have said 'enthusiasm' aloud, Bill realised. But he could still think it, which was an interesting scientific discovery. As he got drunker and drunker, would his cogitation — whoops, that nearly threw him! — finally drop down to words of one syllable?
In a final despairing exertion, the Thaarns sent their thoughts along the tunnel between the stars.
'You can't really mean it, Bill! Are all human beings like you?'
Now that was an interesting philosophical question! Bill considered it carefully — or as carefully as he could in view of the warn, rosy glow that was now beginning to envelop him. After all, things might be worse. He could get another job, if only for the pleasure of telling General Porter what he could do with his three stars. And as for Brenda — well, women were like streetcars; there'd always be another along in a minute.
Best of all, there was a second bottle of whisky in the Top Secret file. Oh, frabjous day! He rose unsteadily to his feet and wavered across the room.
For the last time, Thaar spoke to Earth.
'Bill!' it repeated desperately. 'Surely all human beings can't be like you!'
Bill turned and looked into the swirling tunnel. Strange — it seemed to be lighted with flecks of starlight, and was really rather pretty. He felt proud of himself: not many people could imagine that.
'Like me?' he said. 'No, they're not.' He smiled smugly across the light-years, as the rising tide of euphoria lifted him out of his despondency.
'Come to think of it,' he added, 'there are a lot of people much worse off than me. Yes, I guess I must be one of the lucky ones, after all.'
He blinked in mild surprise, for the tunnel had suddenly collapsed upon itself and the whitewashed wall was there again, exactly as it had always been. Thaar knew when it was beaten.
'So much for that hallucination,' thought Bill. 'I was getting tired of it, anyway. Let's see what the next one's like.'
As it happened, there wasn't a next one, for five seconds later he passed out cold, just as he was getting the combination of the file cabinet.
The next two days were rather vague and bloodshot, and he forgot all about the interview.
On the third day something was nagging at the back of his mind: he might have remembered if Brenda hadn't turned up again and kept him busy being forgiving.
And there wasn't a fourth day, of course.