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Jupiter–the magnificent planet with a diameter of 86,500 miles, having 119 times the surface and 1,300 times the volume of the earth–lay beneath them.
They had often seen it in the terrestrial sky, emitting its strong, steady ray, and had thought of that far-away planet, about which till recently so little had been known, and a burning desire had possessed them to go to it and explore its mysteries. Now, thanks to APERGY, the force whose existence the ancients suspected, but of which they knew so little, all things were possible.
Ayrault manipulated the silk-covered glass handles, and the Callisto moved on slowly in comparison with its recent speed, and all remained glued to their telescopes as they peered through the rushing clouds, now forming and now dissolving before their eyes. What transports of delight, what ecstatic bliss, was theirs! Men had discovered and mastered the secret of apergy, and now, “little lower than the angels,” they could soar through space, leaving even planets and comets behind.
“Round trip,” Mrs. Bellowes had thought. “But who would come back after seeing Him?”
And so she had bought a ticket and flown off to Mars and spent seven mild days at Mr. Thirkell’s Restorium, the building with the sign on it which flashed: THIRKELL’S ROCKET TO HEAVEN! She had spent the week bathing in limpid waters and erasing the care from her tiny bones, and now she was fidgeting, ready to be loaded into Mr. Thirkell’s own special private rocket, like a bullet, to be fired on out into space beyond Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto. And thus—who could deny it?—you would be getting nearer and nearer to the Lord. How wonderful! Couldn’t you just feel Him drawing near? Couldn’t you just sense His breath, His scrutiny, His Presence?
The sleek transcontinental airliner settled onto one of the maze of runways that was Stevenson Airport. With its turbojets fading into a dense roar, it taxied across the field toward the central building. Inside the plane a red light went off.
Senator Vance Duran unhooked the seat belt, reached for his briefcase, and stepped into the crowded aisle. The other passengers were all strangers, which had meant that for nearly an hour he had been able to give his full attention to the several hundred pages of proposed legislation and reports presented to the Committee on Extraterrestrial Development, of which he was chairman. But now there would be reporters, local political pleaders, the dinner at the Governor’s, and the inevitable unexpected interruptions which were a part of every trip home.
As he strode through the door and onto the mobile escalator, he donned his smile of tempered confidence in the economic future of the nation. A television camera went into action at once and news-men formed a small circle at the bottom of the ramp.
“That was a great little debate you put on with Ben Wickolm last week,” one of the reporters said. “You really tied him up.”
“You can thank Senator Wickolm for arousing me,” Duran answered, observing to himself that perhaps all of his efforts on the Hill did not go unnoticed in his home state, if most of them seemed to.
But this time, Lance swore, they’d not get away without paying dearly for it!The story of the “Torpedo Plan” and of Capt. Lance’s heroic part in America’s last mighty battle with the United Slavs.
Under the mesh of his gas-mask the lean lines of his jaw went taut. Tense, steely fingers flipped to the knobbed control instruments; the gleaming single-seater scout plane catapulted in a screaming somersault. Lance’s ever-wary sixth sense told him the tongues of disintegrating flame had licked the plane’s protected belly, and for the fact that it was protected he thanked again his stupendous luck. He pulled savagely at the squat control stick; the four Rahl-Diesels unleashed a torrent of power; and the slim scout rose like a comet, and hurtled, the altitude dial’s nervous finger proclaimed, to ten thousand feet. Lance eased off the power, relaxed slightly, and glanced below.
They’d started off a squadron of fifteen planes. Thirteen had crumpled beneath that treacherous, stabbing curtain of disintegrating flame. Only two of them were left—he and Praed.
Out of the south the biplane came winging back toward the camp, a black speck against the dazzling white of the vast ice-fields that extended unbroken to the horizon on every side.
It came out of the south, and yet, a hundred miles further back along the course on which it flew, it could not have proceeded in any direction except northward. For a hundred miles south lay the south pole, the goal toward which the Travers Expeditions had been pressing for the better part of that year.
Not that they could not have reached it sooner. As a matter of fact, the pole had been crossed and re-crossed, according to the estimate of Tommy Travers, aviator, and nephew of the old millionaire who stood fairy uncle to the expedition. But one of the things that was being sought was the exact site of the pole. Not within a couple of miles or so, but within the fraction of an inch.
JAMES BARON was not pleased to hear that he had had a visitor when he reached the Red Lion that evening. He had no stomach for mysteries, vast or trifling, and there were pressing things to think about at this time. Yet the doorman had flagged him as he came in from the street: “A thousand pardons, Mr. Baron. The gentleman—he would leave no name. He said you’d want to see him. He will be back by eight.”
Now Baron drummed his fingers on the table top, staring about the quiet lounge. Street trade was discouraged at the Red Lion, gently but persuasively; the patrons were few in number. Across to the right was a group that Baron knew vaguely—Andean climbers, or at least two of them were. Over near the door he recognized old Balmer, who had mapped the first passage to the core of Vulcan Crater on Venus. Baron returned his smile with a nod. Then he settled back and waited impatiently for the intruder who demanded his time without justifying it.
Steadying his elbow on the kitchen table serving as desk, Brigadier General Straut leveled his binoculars and stared out through the second-floor window of the farmhouse at the bulky object lying canted at the edge of the wood lot. He watched the figures moving over and around the gray mass, then flipped the lever on the field telephone at his elbow.
“How are your boys doing, Major?”
“General, since that box this morning—”
“I know all about the box, Bill. So does Washington by now. What have you got that’s new?”
“Sir, I haven’t got anything to report yet. I have four crews on it, and she still looks impervious as hell.”
“Still getting the sounds from inside?”
“I’m giving you one more hour, Major. I want that thing cracked.”
The general dropped the phone back on its cradle and peeled the cellophane from a cigar absently. He had moved fast, he reflected, after the State Police notified him at nine forty-one last night. He had his men on the spot, the area evacuated of civilians, and a preliminary report on its way to Washington by midnight. At two thirty-six, they had discovered the four-inch cube lying on the ground fifteen feet from the huge object—missile, capsule, bomb—whatever it was. But now—several hours later—nothing new.
The field phone jangled. Straut grabbed it up.
“General, we’ve discovered a thin spot up on the top side. All we can tell so far is that the wall thickness falls off there….”
In the dream I was swimming in a river of white fire and the dream went on and on. And then I was awake—and the fire was still there, fiercely burning at me.
I tried to move to get away from the flames, and then the real pain hit me. I tried to go back to sleep and the relative comfort of the river of fire, but it was no go. For better or worse, I was alive and conscious.
I opened my eyes and took a look around. I was on the floor next to an unpadded acceleration couch—the kind the Terrestrial Space Arm installs in seldom-used lifeboats. There were three more couches, but no one in them. I tried to sit up. It wasn’t easy but, by applying a lot more will-power than should be required of a sick man, I made it. I took a look at my left arm. Baked. The hand was only medium rare, but the forearm was black, with deep red showing at the bottom of the cracks where the crisped upper layers had burst….
During the War of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland. It is well known with what energy the taste for military matters became developed among that nation of ship-owners, shopkeepers, and mechanics. Simple tradesmen jumped their counters to become extemporized captains, colonels, and generals, without having ever passed the School of Instruction at West Point; nevertheless; they quickly rivaled their compeers of the old continent, and, like them, carried off victories by dint of lavish expenditure in ammunition, money, and men.
Three men sat around a table which was littered with graphs, sketches of mathematical functions, and books of tensor formulae. Beside the table stood a Munson-Bradley integraph calculator which one of the men was using to check some of the equations he had already derived. The results they were getting seemed to indicate something well above and beyond what they had expected.
And anything that surprised the team of Arcot, Wade, and Morey was surprising indeed.
The intercom buzzed, interrupting their work.
Dr. Richard Arcot reached over and lifted the switch. “Arcot speaking.”
The sandcar moved smoothly over the rolling dunes, its six fat wheels rising and falling like the ponderous rumps of tandem elephants. The hidden sun beat down from a dead-white sky, pouring heat into the canvas top, reflecting heat back from the parched sand.
“Stay awake,” Morrison told himself, pulling the sandcar back to its compass course.
It was his twenty-first day on Venus’s Scorpion Desert, his twenty-first day of fighting sleep while the sandcar rocked across the dunes, forging over humpbacked little waves. Night travel would have been easier, but there were too many steep ravines to avoid, too many house-sized boulders to dodge. Now he knew why men went into the desert in teams; one man drove while the other kept shaking him awake.
“But it’s better alone,” Morrison reminded himself. “Half the supplies and no accidental murders.”
Ross stood on the traders’ ramp, overlooking the Yards, and the word kept bobbing to the top of his mind.
About all of Halsey’s Planet there was the imperceptible reek of decay. The clean, big, bustling, efficient spaceport only made the sensation stronger. From where he stood on the height of the Ramp, he could see the Yards, the spires of Halsey City ten kilometers away—and the tumble-down gray acres of Ghost Town between.
Ross wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t a man given to brooding, but the scent of decay had saturated his nostrils that morning. He had tossed and turned all the night, wrestling with a decision. And he had got up early, so early that the only thing that made sense was to walk to work.
And that meant walking through Ghost Town. He hadn’t done that in a long time, not since childhood. Ghost Town was a wonderful place to play. “Tag,” “Follow My Fuehrer,” “Senators and President”—all the ancient games took on new life when you could dodge and turn among crumbling ruins, dart down unmarked lanes, gallop through sagging shacks where you might stir out a screeching, unexpected recluse.
The Russian soldier made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready. He glanced around him, licking his dry lips, his face set. From time to time he reached up a gloved hand and wiped perspiration from his neck, pushing down his coat collar.
Eric turned to Corporal Leone. “Want him? Or can I have him?” He adjusted the view sight so the Russian’s features squarely filled the glass, the lines cutting across his hard, somber features.
Leone considered. The Russian was close, moving rapidly, almost running. “Don’t fire. Wait.” Leone tensed. “I don’t think we’re needed.”
The Russian increased his pace, kicking ash and piles of debris out of his way. He reached the top of the hill and stopped, panting, staring around him. The sky was overcast, drifting clouds of gray particles. Bare trunks of trees jutted up occasionally; the ground was level and bare, rubble-strewn, with the ruins of buildings standing out here and there like yellowing skulls.
The Russian was uneasy. He knew something was wrong. He started down the hill. Now he was only a few paces from the bunker. Eric was getting fidgety. He played with his pistol, glancing at Leone.
“Don’t worry,” Leone said. “He won’t get here. They’ll take care of him.”
“Are you sure? He’s got damn far.”
“They hang around close to the bunker. He’s getting into the bad part. Get set!”
The Russian began to hurry, sliding down the hill, his boots sinking into the heaps of gray ash, trying to keep his gun up. He stopped for a moment, lifting his fieldglasses to his face.
“He’s looking right at us,” Eric said.
In the innermost private office of Steel, Brookings and DuQuesne stared at each other across the massive desk. DuQuesne’s voice was cold, his black brows were drawn together.
“Get this, Brookings, and get it straight. I’m shoving off at twelve o’clock tonight. My advice to you is to lay off Richard Seaton, absolutely. Don’t do a thing. Nothing, hold everything. Keep on holding it until I get back, no matter how long that may be,” DuQuesne shot out in an icy tone.
“I am very much surprised at your change of front, Doctor. You are the last man I would have expected to be scared off after one engagement.”
For seven weeks the Constellation had been plunging through hyperspace with her eight thousand colonists; fleeing like a hunted thing with her communicators silenced and her drives moaning and thundering. Up in the control room, Irene had been told, the needles of the dials danced against the red danger lines day and night.
She lay in bed and listened to the muffled, ceaseless roar of the drives and felt the singing vibration of the hull. We should be almost safe by now, she thought. Athena is only forty days away.
Thinking of the new life awaiting them all made her too restless to lie still any longer. She got up, to sit on the edge of the bed and switch on the light. Dale was gone—he had been summoned to adjust one of the machines in the ship’s X-ray room—and Billy was asleep, nothing showing of him above the covers but a crop of brown hair and the furry nose of his ragged teddy bear.
She reached out to straighten the covers, gently, so as not to awaken him. It happened then, the thing they had all feared.
From the stern of the ship came a jarring, deafening explosion. The ship lurched violently, girders screamed, and the light flicked out.
Thirty minutes to Litchfield.
Conn Maxwell, at the armor-glass front of the observation deck, watched the landscape rush out of the horizon and vanish beneath the ship, ten thousand feet down. He thought he knew how an hourglass must feel with the sand slowly draining out.
It had been six months to Litchfield when the Mizar lifted out of La Plata Spaceport and he watched Terra dwindle away. It had been two months to Litchfield when he boarded the City of Asgard at the port of the same name on Odin. It had been two hours to Litchfield when the Countess Dorothy rose from the airship dock at Storisende. He had had all that time, and now it was gone, and he was still unprepared for what he must face at home.
Thirty minutes to Litchfield.
The words echoed in his mind as though he had spoken them aloud, and then, realizing that he never addressed himself as sir, he turned. It was the first mate.
As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows of vine-leaves under the blue sky of southern Italy, it comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident. It might have been any one. I fell into these things at a time when I thought myself removed from the slightest possibility of disturbing experiences. I had gone to Lympne because I had imagined it the most uneventful place in the world. “Here, at any rate,” said I, “I shall find peace and a chance to work!”
I had been asleep when a terrific noise awoke me. I rose up on my couch in the cabin and gazed wildly around, dazed with the feeling that something extraordinary had happened. By degrees becoming conscious of my surroundings, I saw Captain Wallace, Dr. Merryferry, Astronomer Starbottle, and Master-at-Arms Flathootly beside me.
“Commander White,” said the captain, “did you hear that roar?”
“What roar?” I replied. “Where are we?”
“Why, you must have been asleep,” said he, “and yet the roar was enough to raise the dead. It seemed as if both earth and heaven were split open.”
“What is that hissing sound I hear?” I inquired.
“That, sir,” said the doctor, “is the sound of millions of flying sea-fowl frightened by the awful noise. The midnight sun is darkened with the flight of so many birds. Surely, sir, you must have heard that dreadful shriek. It froze the blood in our veins with horror.”
I began to understand that the Polar King was safe, and that we were all still alive and well. But what could my officers mean by the terrible noise they talked about?