Read Chapter 6. The Scientist of The Year When Stardust Fell, free online book, by Raymond F. Jones, on ReadCentral.com.

Ken spent an almost sleepless night. He tossed for long hours and dozed finally, but he awoke again before there was even a trace of dawn in the sky. Although the night was cool he was sweating as if it were mid-summer.

There was a queasiness in his stomach, too, a slow undefinable pressure on some hidden nerve he had never known he possessed. The feeling pulsed and throbbed slowly and painfully. He sat up and looked out at the dark landscape, and he knew what was the matter.

Scared, he thought, I’m scared sick.

He’d never known anything like it before in his life, except maybe the time when he was 6 years old and he had climbed to the top of a very high tree when the wind was blowing, and he had been afraid to come down.

It was hitting him, he thought. He was just beginning to understand what this stoppage of machinery really meant, and he wondered if there was something wrong with him that he had not felt it earlier. Was he alone? Had everyone else understood it before he had? Or would it hit them, one by one, just as it was hitting him now, bringing him face to face with what lay ahead.

He knew what had done it. It was his father’s expression and his words in the laboratory the night before.

Ken recognized that he had never doubted for an instant that scientists and their tools were wholly adequate to solve this problem in a reasonable time. He had been aware there would be great hardships, but he had never doubted there would be an end to that time. He had believed his father, as a scientist, had the same faith.

It was a staggering shock to learn that his father had no faith in science; a shock to be told that science was not a thing that warranted a man’s faith. Ken had planned his whole life around an avid faith in science.

He tried to imagine what the world would be like if no engine should ever run again. The standards of civilized existence would be shattered. Only those areas of the world, where people had never learned to depend on motor transportation or electric power, would be unaffected; those areas of China, India and Africa, where men still scratched the ground with a forked stick and asked only for a cup of rice or grain each day.

This would become the level of the whole world. Until last night, Ken had never believed it remotely possible. Now, his father’s words had shaken him out of the certainty that science would avert such consequences. It could happen.

He thought of his own plans and ambitions. There would be no need for scientists, nor the opportunity to become one, in a world of men who grubbed the land with forked sticks. He felt a sudden blind and bitter anger. Even if the disaster were overcome in a matter of years, his opportunity would be gone.

He knew at once that such anger was selfish and futile. His own personal calamities would be the least of the troubles ahead, but, for the moment, he could not help it. In a way, it felt good because it overshadowed the dark fear that still throbbed in his body.

But something else was gone, too. The opportunity for him and his science club friends to investigate the properties of the altered metal was over. His father and the other scientists had taken over those studies, and there would be no place for high-school boys who did not know even enough to prepare a slide for an electron microscope.

It had always been that way, as long as he could remember. He had always been too young and too ignorant to be intrusted with work that mattered.

He supposed they would turn the operation of the air filter over to one of the teaching fellows, even though that was something the club could handle.

The bitterness and the fear seemed more than he could endure. He dressed quietly and went downstairs. Without lighting a lamp, he found something to eat. The first light of dawn was showing when he left the house.

For an hour he walked the silent streets without meeting anyone. Normally, there would have been the sound of milk trucks, and the cars of early-rising workers. Now there was nothing. The comet had risen just above the eastern hills, and in its light the city was like some fabulous, golden ruin that belonged in an ancient fairytale.

Ken didn’t know where he was going or what he was going to do. There ought to be something useful he could do, he thought fiercely.

As he looked down the street, he saw a half-dozen wagons with two teams each, stopped in front of Sims Hardware and Lumber. In the wagons were several dozen men. Ken recognized Andrew Norton, of the Mayor’s Council, and Henry Atkins, the Sheriff’s chief deputy.

Several of the men were emerging from the hardware store with new axes and saws. Then Ken understood. This was the first wood detail headed for the mountains to begin gathering and stockpiling fuel for the winter. He broke into a run.

Deputy Atkins appeared to be in charge of the group. Ken hailed him. “I want to go along, Mr. Atkins. May I go?”

The deputy glanced down at him and frowned. He consulted a sheet of paper he drew from his pocket. “Your name isn’t on the list for this morning, Ken. Were you assigned?”

“I guess not, but I haven’t got anything else to do today. Is there any objection to my going?”

“I don’t suppose so,” said Atkins dubiously. “It’s just that your name may be on some other list. We don’t want to get these things fouled up right off the bat. There’s enough trouble as it is.”

“I’m sure my name’s not on any other list. I’d have been told about it.”

“All right. Climb on.”

As Ken climbed into the nearest wagon he was startled to find himself staring into the face of Frank Meggs. The storekeeper grinned unpleasantly as he nodded his head in Ken’s direction and spoke to his neighbor. “Now what do you know about that? Old Man Maddox, letting his own little boy out alone this early in the morning. I’ll bet he didn’t let you, did he? I’ll bet you had to run away to try to prove you’re a big boy now.”

“Cut it out, Meggs,” said Atkins sharply. “We heard all about what went on in your store yesterday.”

The man next to Meggs drew away, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He continued to grin crookedly at Ken. “Aren’t you afraid you might get hurt trying to do a man’s work?”

Ken ignored the jibes and faced away from the storekeeper. The slow, rhythmic jogging of the wagon, and the frosty air as they came into the mountains took some of the bitterness out of Ken. It made him feel freshly alive. He had come often to hunt here and felt a familiarity with every tree and rock around him.

The wagon train came to a halt in a grove of 10-year-old saplings that needed thinning.

“No use taking our best timber until we have to,” said Atkins. “We’ll start here. I’ll take a crew and go on ahead and mark the ones to be cut. You drivers unhitch your teams and drag the logs out to the wagons after they’re cut.”

There was none of the kidding and horseplay that would have been normal in such a group. Each man seemed intent on the purpose for which he had come, and was absorbed with his own thoughts. Ken took a double-bitted ax and followed Atkins along the trail. He moved away from the others and began cutting one of the young trees Atkins had marked.

By noon he was bathed in sweat, and his arms and back ached. He had thought he was in good condition from his football and track work, but he seemed to have found new muscles that had never come into play before.

Atkins noticed the amount he had cut and complimented him. “Better take it easy. You’re way ahead of everybody else, and we don’t have to get it all out today.”

Ken grinned, enjoying the aches of his muscles. “If it has to be done we might as well do it.”

He was not surprised to find that Frank Meggs had cut almost nothing but had spent his time complaining to his companions about the unnecessary work they were doing.

After lunch, which Ken had reluctantly accepted from the others, there was a stir at the arrival of a newcomer on horseback. Ken recognized him as Mike Travis, one of the carpenters and caretakers at the college.

Mike tied his horse to the tailboard of a wagon and approached the woodcutters. “There you are, Ken Maddox,” he said accusingly. “Why didn’t you let somebody know where you were going? Your father’s been chewing up everyone in sight, trying to find out where you’d gone. He finally decided you might be up here, and sent me after you. Take the horse on back. I’ll finish up the day on the wood detail.”

Ken felt suddenly awkward and uncomfortable. “I didn’t mean to worry him, but I guess I did forget to say where I was going. Don’t you think it would be okay if I stayed and you told Dad you had found me?”

“Not on your life! He’d chew me down to the ankles if I went back without you!”

“Okay, I’ll go,” Ken said. Although he knew he should have left word it still seemed strange that his father should be so concerned as to send a man up here looking for him. It seemed like more of the unfamiliar facets of his father’s personality that Ken had glimpsed last night.

Frank Meggs was watching from across the clearing. “I guess Papa Maddox couldn’t stand the thought of his little boy doing a man’s work for a whole day,” he said loudly and maliciously. No one paid any attention to him.

Ken tied the mare to a tree on the campus where she could graze. He glanced over the valley below. Not a single car was in sight on the roads. Somehow, it was beginning to seem that this was the way it had always been. His own car seemed like something he had possessed a thousand years ago.

He found his father in the laboratory working with the electron microscope. Professor Maddox looked up and gestured toward the office. As Ken sat down, he shut the door behind them and took a seat behind his old oak desk that was still cluttered with unmarked examination papers.

“You didn’t say anything about where you were going this morning,” he said.

“I’m sorry about that,” Ken answered. “I got up early and took a walk through town. All of a sudden well, I guess I got panicky when it finally hit me as to what all this really means. I saw the wood detail going out and joined them. It felt good out there, with nothing to think about except getting a tree to fall right.”

“You ran away. You were needed here.”

Ken stammered. “I didn’t think you wanted any of us kids around since you and the other men had taken over what we had started to do.”

“You were angry that it wasn’t your own show any longer, weren’t you?”

“I guess that’s part of it,” Ken admitted, his face reddening. He didn’t know what was happening. His father had never spoken to him like this before. He seemed suddenly critical and disapproving of everything about Ken.

After a long time his father spoke again, more gently this time. “It’s been your ambition for a long time to be a scientist, hasn’t it?”

“You know it has.”

“I’ve been very pleased, too. I’ve watched you and encouraged your interests and, as far as I can see, you’ve been developing in the right direction.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Ken said.

“But you’ve wanted to be a great scientist. You’ve had an ambition to emulate men like Newton, Faraday, Davy, and the modern giants such as Einstein, Planck, de Broglie, Oppenheimer.”

“Maybe I haven’t got the brains, but I can try.”

His father snorted impatiently. “Do you think any one of them tried deliberately to be great, or to copy anyone else?”

Ken understood his meaning now. “I guess they didn’t. You can’t really do a thing like that.”

“No, you can’t. You take the brains God has given you and apply them to the universe as you see it. The results take care of themselves.

“Some of us have enough insight to achieve greatness. Most of us lack the cleverness to cope effectively with such a wily opponent as the natural universe. Greatness and mediocrity have no meaning to a man who is absorbed in his study. You do what you have to do. You do what the best and highest impulses of your brain tell you to do. Expect nothing more than this of yourself. Nothing more is possible.”

“I think I see what you mean,” Ken said.

“I doubt it. Most of the men I know have never learned it. They struggle to write more papers, to get their names in more journals than their colleagues. They go out of their way to be patted on the back.

“They are the failures as scientists. For an example of success I recommend that you observe Dr. Larsen closely. He is a man who has done a great deal to advance our knowledge of physical chemistry.”

Professor Maddox paused. Then he said finally, “There is just one other thing.”

“What’s that?” Ken asked.

“Up to now, you and all your friends have only played at science.”

“Played!” Ken cried. “We’ve built our observatory, a 1000-watt radio transmitter ”

“Play; these things are toys. Educational toys, it is true, but toys, nevertheless.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Toys are fine for children. You and your friends, however, are no longer children. You haven’t got a chance now to grow up and gain an education in a normal manner. You can’t finish your childhood, playing with your toys. You can’t take all the time you need to find out what your capacities and aptitudes are. You will never know a world that will allow you that luxury.

“Every available brain is needed on this problem. You’ve got to make a decision today, this very minute, whether you want to give a hand to its solution.”

“You know I want to be in on it!”

“Do you? Then you’ve got to decide that you are no longer concerned about being a scientist. Forget the word. What you are does not matter. You are simply a man with a problem to solve.

“You have to decide whether or not you can abandon your compassion for the millions who are going to die; whether you can reject all pressure from personal danger, and from the threat to everything and everyone that is of any importance to you.

“You’ve got to decide whether or not this problem of the destruction of surface tension of metals is the most absorbing thing in the whole world. It needs solving, not because the fate of the world hinges on it, but because it’s a problem that consumes you utterly. This is what drives you, not fear, not danger, not the opinion of anyone else.

“When he can function this way, the scientist is capable of solving important problems. By outward heartlessness he can achieve works of compassion greater than any of his critics. He knows that the greatest pleasure a man can know lies in taking a stand against those forces that bend ordinary men.”

For the first time in his life Ken suddenly felt that he knew his father. “I wish you had talked to me like this a long time ago,” he said.

Professor Maddox shook his head. “It would have been far better for you to find out these things for yourself. My telling you does not convince you they are true. That conviction must still come from within.”

“Do you want me to become a scientist?” Ken asked.

“It doesn’t make any difference what I want,” his father answered almost roughly. He was looking away from Ken and then his eyes found his son’s and his glance softened. He reached across the desk and grasped Ken’s hand.

“Yes, I want it more than anything else in the world,” he said earnestly. “But it’s got to be what you want, too, or it’s no good at all. Don’t try to be anything for my sake. Determine your own goals clearly, and take as straight a path as you can to reach them. Just remember, if you do choose science the standards are severe.”

“It’s what I want,” said Ken evenly. “You said you needed me here. What do you want me to do?”

“Empty trash cans if we ask it,” Professor Maddox said. “Forget about whose show it is. Professor Larsen and I will be directing the research, and we’ll need every pair of hands and every brain that’s got an ounce of intelligence in this field. You do whatever you are asked to do and think of every possible answer to the questions that come before you. Is that good enough?”

“More than enough.” Ken felt a sudden stinging sensation behind his eyes and turned to rub their corners roughly. “What about the other fellows in the club? Can you use them, too?”

“As many as have the ounce of intelligence I spoke of. The rest of them don’t need to know the things I have told you, but with you it was different. I had to know you understood just a little of what it means to be a scientist.”

“I’ll be one. I’ll show you I can be one!”