THE BIG EYE
Ehrlich, Max Simon, 1909-
To Doris, Amy, and Jane
THE BIG EYE
It was eleven o'clock at night, in the month of November, in the year 1960.
The great stratocruiser, eastbound from California, slowly began to lose
altitude. David Hughes shivered a little as he stared at the empty seats
yawning ahead of him along the lower deck. His shiver was one of relief
as much as anything else. Outside of the stewardess, he was the only
passenger in the huge, luxurious belly of the plane, built to accommodate
seventy. It had been an eerie experience to ride alone that way for
almost three thousand miles.
In a few minutes the plane would dip and settle into a long glide for
Idlewild Airport. And then he would be in New York -- and with Carol again.
People spoke of the city in hushed tones these days. David remembered
the startled look on the reservation clerk's face, back at Lindbergh
Field in San Diego, some five hours ago.
The man had echoed the word, as if in a dream, as though he couldn't
believe what he heard. When David turned toward the ramp leading through
the gate, he had felt the man's curious eyes on his back. And when
he had entered the plane, even the stewardess, a pert little redhead,
had stared at him as though he were a little mad.
She had not expected any passengers. Not on the non-stop flight to New
York. Not these days.
He had almost felt impelled to explain: "Look, I'm not out of my mind.
I didn't expect to be on this plane myself a few hours ago. No one in
his right mind would. But it's orders. Something big."
He clutched the bulging brief case close to him and thought of Carol.
This was his chance. This was his chance to get her out of New York
before it was too late.
The trouble was that it might be too late almost any hour now.
But all that was back on the Coast, five hours ago. Now he pressed his
face against the window and looked down at the earth sliding by below.
It was drowned in darkness, but this time it wasn't an ordinary kind of
darkness. It was blacker, more suffocating. It was a darkness of Fear,
of agonizing suspense, of anxious waiting for God knew what.
This was November, in the year 1960.
The stratocruiser's motors changed pitch, became a little louder. David
glanced at his wrist watch -- the watch his father had given him just
before he had entered Harvard University for his Ph.D. in astronomy.
That would be eight-three, Coast time. And just about now, back home on
the flat top of isolated Palomar Mountain, six thousand feet above the
Pacific, things would be humming. The curved observatory dome would be
down, and the great electric driving clock motors would be droning as they
set the Big Eye and pointed it up into the thin, clear California air.
The Big Eye was the 200-inch reflector telescope, the biggest in the
world, a gigantic marvel of steel and glass, encased in a building fifteen
stories high. Working with it was part of David's nightly routine, and he
was the envy of every other young research astronomer in the country. Yet
he could never get used to the Big Eye; he could never get over his awe
of it. Its great mirror alone weighed twenty tons. It could trap and
hold the light of a candle sixteen thousand miles away in space. It was
a million times sharper than the human eye, and ten thousand times more
powerful that the little lens with which Galileo Galilei discovered the
moons of Jupiter back in the seventeenth century. It reached twice as
far into the hungry vault of the universe as its nearest competitor, far
beyond the sun and the planets, into the outer boundaries of space itself.
This was the Big Eye, and it took a big man to run it.
David could almost see Dr. Dawson now, standing on the aerial platform,
a pygmy on a dizzy flight, moving upward and outward on curving rails
toward the mouth of the giant telescope.
Or perhaps he had already gone down the pipe-rail ladder leading into
the top of the yawning tube and was not at his instrument desk in the
cistemlike observer's cage. Huddled in his fur coat, heavy gloves, and
pull-over wool hat, he would look like some futuristic gnome crouched
at the tiny revolving desk up in the top of the Big Eye. It was cold
up there in the dome when the roof was down, and the sharp night air
blasted downward and in.
David could almost hear the Old Man's gentle, detached voice over the
telephone coming to him as he stood at the control switchboards on the
"All right, David. All short settings tonight. Give me the first star."
This was his boss, the man who had taken him out of the Harvard
Observatory three years ago and brought him to Palomar. This was the
man they called the Wizard of Palomar, a world-famous celebrity in
his own right, whose personal arena stretched two billion light years
into the outer limits of the universe. This was Dr. Charles Dawson, the
astronomers' astronomer, who spoke the language of Einstein, Eddington,
Bohr, Thompson, Chadwick, Zwicky, and De Broglie; who did magic tricks
with the mathematics of quantum mechanics; whose contributions to the
theory of the expanding universe had won recognition and backing in the
great observatories of the world.
Most people thought the Old Man never took the trouble to step off his
airy eyrie at the top of the telescope and survey his own planet.
They believed that to him the earth was a kind of globular platform,
conveniently located so that, like an acrobat, he could plant his feet
upon it and swing in an arc through space and stare at the heavens. The
newspapers played him up as a cold fish, an ascetic with a special and
remote kingdom of his own, a kind of sky giant to whom the interplay of
earthy peoples seemed to be a disorderly and rather messy Lilliputian
But, reflected David, they didn't know the Old Man as he did.
In the past month something had happened to Dr. Dawson. He'd been
absorbed about something he had caught in the Big Eye, something big,
spending every night at the telescope and locking himself in his study
almost every day. He hadn't told David what his research line was, but
he would, all in good time. It was characteristic of the Old Man never
to break anything, no matter how important it was, till he had it all
down on photoplates and charts, signed, sealed, and delivered.
But there was no doubt about it. Something was in the wind back at
Palomar -- something big.
"Better fasten your safety belt, sir. We're coming in."
The voice of the stewardess, coming from the shadow in the rear of the
cabin, startled him, pulled him abruptly out of his reverie. As if in
response to her voice, the sign over the pilot's compartment flashed red:
"Fasten Safety Belts -- No Smoking." He fumbled with the clasp and felt
the belt draw tight just as the stratocruiser hung in space for a moment
and then dipped for the descent.
He looked down at the city of New York and drew in his breath at what
he saw. He suddenly felt cold; a kind of dread possessed him. No wonder
he hadn't been aware that they had reached their destination.
It was unbelievable, unbelievable. . . .
New York, at night, had always been a brilliant sight, man's best
imitation of the galaxy of stars. It had always been a be jeweled riot,
like a reclining dowager wearing a million diamond tiaras.
Now it was a great eerie blanket of darkness, with only a few illuminated
islands breaking through the forbidding expanse.
Mechanically David picked out the islands. The Telecast Building way
downtown, a hundred and twenty stories high and the biggest of them all,
was still a cluster of light. So was Radio City. But the Empire State
Building had only a red cylindrical glow on its topmast to identify
it. Some of the main thoroughfares were dimly lit, crisscrossing through
the darkness like chains of old gold. As for the rest of the city, there
was a solitary light here, another there, and the occasional flicker of
automobile headlights crawling along.
That was all.
The stewardess came down from the lounge on the upper deck and moved
forward up the aisle. She watched her only passenger covertly as she did
so, trying to figure him out. She was a woman, and curious, and she was
wondering why he was going to New York now, of all times. She had tried
to draw him out in the rather desultory conversation they had exchanged
on the way in, but he had been very vague. Perhaps it was something in
the brief case he guarded so jealously. She had offered to take it from
him when he had boarded the plane back in Dago. But he had refused to
let go of it, despite the fact that there were no other passengers.
Something Very Important, she decided.
Still, he didn't look important. The name on his baggage tag had read
simply: "David Hughes. Palomar Observatory." If he was an astronomer,
he certainly didn't look it, not the way she'd pictured the type. He was
young, for one thing, about thirty, and good-looking in a quiet sort of
way. There was nothing tweedy about him, he didn't wear a Vandyke beard,
he didn't need a haircut, and he didn't wear glasses, as you might expect
of a scientist. Or at least what you had been taught to expect from
the television screen or the movies. He was tall, with a pair of good,
broad shoulders, and his clothes were as well cut as those of any of the
young men of Hollywood-to-New-York-and-return, who used to ride her flight.
Now the stewardess leaned over and looked out of the window in front of
him and said: "The lights get fewer every trip."
"Many people left in the city, Stewardess?"
"Very few, outside of the soldiers. Most New Yorkers, especially those
with somewhere to go out in the country, have left. They really started to
evacuate about a month ago." She straightened, and now David Hughes saw
that there was a flicker of fear in her eyes. "We're canceling all New
York-bound flights in a couple of weeks. I hope nothing happens -- before
He stared back through the window again. "Funny. About the lights,
I mean. They used to warn you that you were coming into the city long
before you got there. Now -- it just jumps right up at you all of a
sudden. This is worse than the brownout."
"Oh." He glanced at the stewardess. "You wouldn't remember. It was
during the last war. I was just a kid then, and my dad and I flew to
Chicago from the old field -- La Guardia. They had the curtains drawn,
and we weren't supposed to look out, but, well -- being a youngster,
I peeked. They'd dimmed the lights -- afraid of air raids -- and the city
looked pretty dull. But this?"
Idlewild Airport came up suddenly, a huge white wash of light directly
ahead and below. A minute or two later, David, unable to find a porter,
was carrying his bag up the wind-swept ramp and into the terminal.
Coming out of the night and into the building was like walking into
a frightened beehive. The place was jammed with an excited, nervous
crowd. Nobody seemed to be sitting down; everyone was milling about.
People were crowded around the reservation counters, their faces strained
and eager, trying to get passage out of the city. And always the refrain
of the weary ticket clerks:
"I'm sorry. . . . We're sold out solid, . . . Every flight booked. . .
.All booked up. . . . I'm sorry, I know you've got a priority, but we
won't be able to accommodate you for weeks. . . . Yes, sir, if we get
a cancellation we'll try to call you. . . . I'm sorry, madam, we're all
booked up. . . ."
The voices of the crowd were taut and tense and shrill. They rose and
fell in a frightened, unnatural babel. They were urgent, they demanded,
they wouldn't take no for an answer.
But the answer was always no.
No one was in the terminal to meet a plane. The airliners coming in
from the North, the West, and South were all empty. Only those that were
leaving the city were gorged with human freight. The Fear was upon the
city and the people of the city. Every face in the terminal was stamped
with it, branded with it, so that each was a carbon copy of every other
face. The Fear was a kind of Personality, omnipotent, overshadowing all
other personalities, making them neutral. It was written in the eyes
of the people there, it quavered in their voices, it motivated their
restless and agitated movements. It walked with them, stood with them,
sat with them, like their own shadows.