"He only goes ten mile maybe," announced Marc confidently. "Un petit bout de chemin. We get there to-night."
On they struggled beside the Rail, but now hope ran high. Bennie sang and whistled, unmindful of the mosquitoes and black flies that renewed their attacks with unremitting ferocity. The sun lowered itself into the pine trees, shooting dazzling shafts through the low branches, and then sank in a welter of crimson-yellow light. The sky turned gray in the east; faint stars twinkled through the quivering waves that still shook from the overheated rocks. It turned cold and the mosquitoes departed. Hugging the Rail, they staggered on, now over shaking muskeg, now through thickets of tangled brush, now on great ledges of barren rock, and then across caribou barrens knee-deep in dry and crackling moss. Darkness fell and prudence dictated that they should make camp. But in their excitement they trudged on, until presently a pale glow behind the dwarfed trees showed that the moon was rising. They boiled the water, made tea, and cooked some biscuits. Soon they could see to pursue their way.
"'Most there now," encouraged Marc.
Presently, instead of descending, they found the land was rising again, and forcing their way through the undergrowth they struggled up a rocky hillside, perhaps three hundred feet in height. Marc was in the lead, with Bennie a few feet behind him. As they reached the crest the Indian turned and pointed to something in front of him that Bennie was unable to distinguish.
"Nous sommes arrivees," he announced.
With his heart thumping from the exertion of the climb, Bennie crawled up beside his guide and found himself confronted by a strong barbed-wire entanglement affixed to iron stanchions firmly imbedded in the rocks. They were on the top of a ridge that dropped away abruptly at their feet into a valley, perhaps a mile in width, terminating on the other side in perpendicular cliffs, estimated by Bennie to be about eight hundred or a thousand feet in height. Although the entanglement was by no means impassable, it was a distinct obstacle and one they preferred to tackle by daylight. Moreover, it indicated that their company was undesired. They were in the presence of an unknown quantity, the master of the Flying Ring. Whether he was a malign or a benevolent influence, this Father of the Marionettes, they could not tell.
With his back propped against a small spruce Bennie focused his glasses upon dim shapes barely discernible in the midst of the valley. He was thrilled by a deep excitement, a strange fear. What would he see? What mysteries would those vague forms disclose? The shadows cast by the cliffs and a light mist gathering in the low ground made it difficult to see; and then, even as he looked, the moon rose higher and shone through something in the middle of the valley that looked like a tall, grisly skeleton. It seemed to have legs and arms, an odd mushroom-shaped head, and endless ribs. Below and at its feet were other and vaguer shapes--flat domes or cupolas, bombproofs perhaps, buildings of some sort--Pax's home beyond peradventure.
As he looked through the glasses at the skeleton-like tower Bennie had an extraordinary feeling of having seen it all before somewhere. As in a long-forgotten dream he remembered Tesla's tower near Smithtown, on Long Island. And this was Tesla's tower, naught else! It is a strange thing, how at great crises of our lives come feelings of anticipatory knowledge. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun; else had Bennie been more afraid. As it was, he saw only Tesla's Smithtown tower with its head like a young mushroom. And at the same time there flashed into his memory: "Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came." Over and over he repeated it mechanically, feeling that he might be one of those of whom the poet had sung. Yet he had not read the lines for years: Burningly it came on me all at once, This was the place!... What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
His eyes searched the shadows round the base of the tower, for his ears had already caught a faint, almost inaudible throbbing that seemed to grow from moment to moment. There certainly was a dull vibration in the air, a vibration like the distant hum of machinery. Suddenly old Edouard touched Bennie upon the shoulder.
"Regardez!" he whispered.
Some transformation was happening in the hood of the tower. From a black opaque object it began to turn a dull red and to diffuse a subdued glow, while the hum turned into a distinct whir.
Bennie became almost hysterical with excitement.
Soon the hood of the tower had turned white and the glow had increased until the whole valley was lit up with a suffused and gentle light. The Ring could be distinctly seen about half a mile away, resting upon a huge circular support.
"C'est le feu!" grunted Marc. "C'est ainsi que l'on fait danser les marionettes!"
There was no doubt that the hood of the tower was in fact white hot, for the perpendicular cliffs of the mountain across the valley sharply reflected the light that it disseminated. The humming whir of the great alternator rose gradually into a scream like the outcry of some angry thing. And then unexpectedly a shaft of pale lavender light shot out from the glowing hood and lost itself in the blackness of the midnight sky. Now appeared a wonderful and beautiful spectacle: immediately above the point where the rays disappeared into the ether hundreds of points of yellow fire suddenly sprang into being in the sky, darting hither and thither like fireflies, some moving slowly and others with such speed they appeared as even, luminous lines.
"Les marionettes! Les marionettes!" Marc cried trembling.
"Not at all! Not at all! They are meteorites!" answered Bennie, entirely engrossed in the scientific phase of the matter and forgetting that he did not speak the other's language. "Space is jammed full of meteoric dust. The larger particles, which strike our atmosphere and which ignite by friction, form shooting stars. The Ray--the Lavender Ray--reaching out into the most distant regions of space meets them in countless numbers and disintegrates them, surrounding them with glowing atmospheres. By George, though, if he starts in playing the Ray upon that cliff we've got to stand from under! Look here, boys," he shouted, "stuff something in your ears." He seized his handkerchief, tore it apart, and, making two plugs, thrust them into the openings of his ears as far as the drums. The others in wonderment followed his example.
"He's going to rock the earth!" cried Bennie Hooker. "He's going to rock the earth again!"
Slowly the Lavender Ray swung through the ether, followed by its millions of meteorites, dipping downward toward the northern side of the valley and sinking ever lower and lower toward the cliff. Bennie threw himself flat on his stomach upon the ridge, pressing his hands to his ears, and the others, feeling that something terrible was going to happen, followed his example. Nearer and nearer toward the ridge dropped the Ray. Bennie held his breath. Another instant and there came a blinding splash of yellow light, a crash like thunder, and a roar that seemed to tear the mountain from its base. The earth shook. Into the zenith sprang a flame of incandescent vapour a mile in height. The tumult increased. Vivid blue flashes of lightning shot out from the spot upon which the Ray played. The air was filled with thunderings, and the ground beneath them rose and fell and swung from side to side. Then came a mighty wind, nay, a cyclone, and gravel and broken branches fell upon them, and suffocating clouds of dust filled their eyes and shut out from time to time what was occurring in the valley. The face of the cliff glowed like the interior of a furnace, and the blazing yellow blast of glowing helium shot over their heads and off into space, making the night sky light as day.
For a moment they all lay stunned and sightless. Then the discharge appeared to diminish both in volume and in intensity. The air cleared somewhat and the ground no longer trembled. The burst of flame slowly subsided, like a fountain that is being gradually turned off. Either the Ring man wasn't going to rock the earth or he had lost control of his machinery.
Something was clearly going wrong. Showers of sparks fell from the hood and occasionally huge glowing masses of molten metal dropped from it. And now the Lavender Ray began slowly to sweep down the face of the cliff; and the yellow blast of helium gradually faded away until it was scarcely visible. The roar of the alternator died down, first to a hum and then to a purr.
"Something's busted," thought Bennie, "and he's shut it off."
The Ray had now reached the bottom of the cliff and was sweeping across the ground toward the base of the tower, its path being marked by a small travelling volcano that hurled its smoke and steam high into the air. It was evident to Bennie that the hood of the tower was slowly turning over, and that the now fast-fading Ray would presently play upon its base and the adjacent cupola in which the master of the Ring was probably attempting to control his recalcitrant machinery.
And then Bennie lost consciousness.
A splash of rain. He awoke, and found himself lying by the barbed-wire fence in the graying light of dawn. His muscles were stiff and sore, but he felt a strange sense of exhilaration. A mist was driving across the valley and enshrouding the scene of the night's debacle. Through the rain gusts he could see, still standing, the wreck of the tower, with a fragment of melted inductor drooping from its apex--and a long way off the Ring. The base of the tower and its surroundings were lost in mist. He crawled to his knees and looked about him for Marc and Edouard, but they had disappeared. His field glasses lay beside him, and he picked them up and raised himself to his feet. Like stout Cortes, silent upon his peak in Darien, he surveyed the Pacific of his dreams. For the Ring was still there! Pax might be annihilated, his machinery destroyed, but the secret remained--and it was his, Bennie Hooker's, of Appian Way, Cambridge, Massachusetts! In his excitement, in getting over the fence he tore a jagged hole in what was left of his sporting suit, but in a moment more he was scrambling down the ridge into the ravine.
He found it no easy task to climb down the jagged face of the cliff, but twenty minutes of stiff work landed him in the valley and within a thousand yards of the stark remains of the tower. Between where he stood and the devastation caused by the culminating explosion of the night before, the surface of the earth showed the customary ledges of barren rock, the scraggy scattering of firs, and stretches of moss with which he had become so familiar. Behind him the monorail, springing into space from the crest of the hill, ended in the dangling wreckage of a trestle which evidently had terminated in a station, now vanished, near the tower. From his point of observation little of the results of the upheaval was noticeable except the debris, which lay in a film of shattered rock and gravel over the surface of the ground, but as he ran toward the tower the damage caused by the Ray quickly became apparent.
At the distance of two hundred yards from the base he paused astounded. Why anything of the tower remained at all was a mystery, explicable only by reason of the skeleton-like character of its construction. All about it the surface had been rent as by an earthquake, and save for a fragment of the dome or bombproof all trace of buildings had disappeared. A glistening lake of leperous-like molten lead lay in the centre of the crater, strangely iridescent. A broad path of destruction, fifty yards or so in width, led from the scene of the disruption to the precipice against which the Ray had played. The face of the cliff itself seemed covered with a white coating or powder which gave it a ghostly sheen. Moreover, the rain had turned to snow and already the entire aspect of the valley had changed.
Bennie stood wonderingly on the edge of this inferno. He was cold, famished, horror-stricken. Like a flash in a pan the mechanism which had rocked the earth and dislocated its axis had blown out; and there was now nothing left to tell the story, for its inventor had flashed out with it into eternity. At his very feet a conscious human being, only twelve short hours before, had by virtue of his stupendous brain been able to generate and control a force capable of destroying the planet itself, and now----! He was gone! It was all gone! Unless somewhere hard by was hovering amid the whirling snowflakes that which might be his soul. But Pax would send no more messages! Bennie's journey had gone for naught. He had arrived just too late to talk it all over with his fellow-scientist, and discuss those little improvements on Hiroshito's theory. Pax was dead!
He sat down wearily, noticing for the first time that his ears pained him. In his depression and excitement he had totally forgotten the Ring. He wondered how he was ever going to get back to Cambridge. And then as he raised his hand to adjust his Glengarry he saw it awaiting him--unscathed. Far to the westward it rested snugly in its gigantic nest of crossbeams, like the head of some colossal decapitated Chinese mandarin. With an involuntary shout he started running down the valley, heedless of his steps. Nearer and higher loomed the steel trestlework upon which rested the giant engine. Panting, he blindly stumbled on, mindful only of the momentous fact that Pax's secret was not lost.
Fifty feet above the ground, supported upon a cylindrical trestle of steel girders, rested the body of the car, constructed of aluminum plates in the form of an anchor ring some seventy-five feet in diameter, while over the circular structure of the Ring itself rose a skeleton tower like a tripod, carrying at its summit a huge metal device shaped like a thimble, the open mouth of which pointed downward through the open centre of the machine. Obviously this must be the tractor or radiant engine. There, too, swung far out from the side of the ring on a framework of steel, was the thermic inductor which had played the disintegrating Ray upon the Atlas Mountains and the great cannon of Von Heckmann. The whole affair resembled nothing which he had ever conceived of either in the air, the earth, or the waters under the earth, the bizarre invention of a superhuman mind. It seemed as firmly anchored and as immovable as the Eiffel Tower, and yet Bennie knew that the thing could lift itself into the air and sail off like a ball of thistledown before a breeze. He knew that it could do it, for he had seen it with his own eyes.
A few steps more brought him into the centre of the circle of steel girders which supported the landing stage. Here the surface of the earth at his feet had been completely denuded and the underlying rock exposed, evidently by some artificial action, the downward blast of gas from the tractor. Even the rock itself had been seared by the discharge; little furrows worn smooth as if by a mountain torrent radiating in all directions from the central point. More than anything it reminded Bennie of the surface of a meteorite, polished and scarred by its rush through the atmosphere. He paused, filled with a kind of awe. The most wonderful engine of all time waited his inspection. The great secret was his alone. The inventor and his associates had been wiped out of existence in a flash, and the Flying Ring was his by every right of treasure trove. In the heart of the Labrador wilderness Prof. Benjamin Hooker of Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave an exultant shout, threw off his coat, and swarmed up the steel ladder leading to the landing stage.
He had ascended about halfway when a voice echoed among the girders. A red face was peering down at him over the edge of the platform.
"Hello!" said the face. "I'm all right, I guess."
Bennie gripped tight hold of the ladder, stiff with fear. He thought first of jumping down, changed his mind, and, shutting his eyes, continued automatically climbing up the ladder.
Then a hand gripped him under the arm and gave him a lift on to the level floor of the platform. He steadied himself and opened his eyes. Before him stood a man in blue overalls, under whose forehead, burned bright red by the Labrador sun, a pair of blue eyes looked out vaguely. The man appeared to be waiting for the visitor to make the next move. "Good morning," said Bennie, sparring for time. "Well"--he hesitated--"where were you when it happened?"
The man looked at him stupidly. "What?" he mumbled. "I--I don't seem to remember. You see--I was in--the condenser room building up the charge--for to-morrow--I mean to-day--sixty thousand volts at the terminals, and the fluid clearing up. I guess I looked out of the window a minute--to see--the fireworks--and then--somehow--I was out on the platform." He shaded his eyes and looked off down the valley at the half-shattered, wrecked tower. "The wind and the smoke!" he muttered. "The wind and the smoke--and the dust in my eyes--and now it's all gone to hell! But I guess everything's all right now, if you want to fly." He touched his cap automatically. "We can start whenever you are ready, sir. You see I thought you were gone, too! That would have been a mess! I'm sure you can handle the balancer without Perkins. Poor old Perk! And Hoskins--and the others. All gone, by God! All wiped out! Only me and you left, sir!" He laughed hysterically.
"Bats in his belfry!" thought Bennie. "Something hit him!"
Slowly it came over him that the half-stunned creature thought that he, Bennie Hooker, was Pax, the Master of the World!
He took the fellow by the arm. "Come on inside," he said. A plan had already formulated itself in his brain. Even as he was the man might be able to go through his customary duties in handling the Ring. It was not impossible. He had heard of such things, and the thought of the long marches over the frozen barrens and the perilous canoe trip down the coast, contrasted with a swift rush for an hour or two through the sunlit air, gave the professor the courage which might not have availed him otherwise. At the top of a short ladder a trapdoor opened inward, and Bennie found himself in a small compartment scarcely large enough to turn around in, from which a second door opened into the body of the Ring proper.
"It's all right--to-day," said the man hesitatingly. "I fixed--the air-lock--yesterday, sir. The leak--was here--at the hinge--but it's quite tight--now." He pointed at the door.
"Good," remarked Bennie. "I'll look around and see how things are."
This seemed to him to be eminently safe--and allowing for a program of investigation absolutely essential at the moment. Once he could master the secret of the Ring and be sure that the part of the fellow's brain which controlled the performance of his customary duties had not been injured by the shock of the night before, it might be possible to carry out the daring project which had suggested itself.
Passing through the inner door of the air-lock he entered the chart room of the Ring, followed stumblingly by his companion. It was warm and cozy; the first warmth Hooker had experienced for nearly a month. It made him feel faint, and he dropped into an armchair and pulled off his Glengarry. The survivor of the explosion, standing awkwardly at his side, fumbled with his cap. Ever and anon he rubbed his head.
Bennie sank back into the cushions and looked about him. On the opposite wall hung a map of the world on Mercator's Projection, and from a spot in Northern Labrador red lines radiated in all directions, which formed great curved loops, returning to the starting-point.
"The flights of the Ring," thought Bennie. "There's the one where they busted the Atlas Mountains," following with his eyes the crimson thread which ran diagonally across the Atlantic, traversed Spain and the Mediterranean, and circling in a narrow loop over the coast of Northern Africa turned back into its original track. Visions came to him of guiding the car for an afternoon jaunt across the Sahara, the gloomy forests of the Congo, into the Antarctic, and thence home in time for afternoon tea, via the Easter Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska. But why stop there? What was to prevent a trip to the moon? Or Mars? Or for that matter into the unknown realms outside the solar system--the fourth dimension, perhaps--or even the fifth dimension---- "Excuse me," said the machinist suddenly, "I just forgot--whether you take--cigars or cigarettes. You see I only acted as--table orderly--once--when Smith had that sprain." His hands moved uncertainly on the shelves, beyond the map. The heart of Professor Hooker leaped.
"Cigars!" he almost shouted.
The man found a box of Havanas and struck a match.
The bliss of it! And if there was tobacco there must be food and drink as well. He began to feel strangely exhilarated. But how to handle the man beside him? Pax would certainly never ask the questions that he wished to ask. He smoked rapidly, thinking hard. Of course he might pretend that he, too, had forgotten things. And at first this seemed to be the only way out of the difficulty. Then he had an inspiration.
"Look here," he remarked, rather severely. "Something's happened to you. You say you've forgotten what occurred yesterday? How do I know but you have forgotten everything you ever knew? You remember your name?"
"My name, sir?" The man laughed in a foolish fashion. "Why--of course I remember--my name. I wouldn't--be likely--to forget--that: Atterbury--I'm Atterbury--electrician of the Chimaera." And he drew himself up.
"That's all right," said Bennie, "but what were we doing yesterday? What is the very last thing that you can go back to?"
The man wrinkled his forehead. "The last thing? Why, sir, you told us you were going--to turn over the pole a bit--and freeze up Europe. I was up here--loading the condenser--when you cut me off from the alternator. I opened the switch--and put on the electrometer to see--if we had enough. Next--everything was clouded, and I went--over to the window to see--what was going on."
"Yes," commented Bennie approvingly, "all right so far. What happened then?"
"Why, after that, sir, after that, there was the Ray of course, and er--I don't seem to remember--oh, yes, a short circuit--and I ran--out on the platform--forgot all about the danger! After that, everything's confused. It's like a dream. Your coming up--the ladder--seemed--to wake me up." The machinist smiled sheepishly.
The plan was working well. Professor Hooker was learning things fast.
"Do you think that the two of us can fly the Chimaera south again?" he asked, inspecting the map.
"Why not?" answered Atterbury. "The balancer is working--better now--and--doesn't take--much attention--and you can lay the course--and manage--the landing. I was going to put a fresh uranium cylinder in the tractor this morning--but I--forgot."
"There you go, forgetting again!" growled Bennie, realizing that his only excuse for asking questions hung on this fiction. And there were many, many more questions that he must ask before he would be able to fly. "You don't seem quite right in your coco this morning, Atterbury," he said. "I think we'll look things over a bit--the condenser first."
"Very well, sir." Atterbury turned and groped his way through a doorway, and they passed first into what appeared to be a storage-battery room. Huge glass tanks filled with amber-coloured fluid, in which numerous parallel plates were supported, lined the walls from floor to ceiling.
An ammeter on the wall caught Bennie's attention. "Weston Direct Reading A. C. Ammeter," he read on the dial. Alternate current! What were they doing with an alternating current in the storage-battery room? His eyes followed the wires along the wall. Yes, they ran to the terminals of the battery. It dawned upon him that there might be something here undreamed of in electrical engineering--a storage battery for an alternating current!
The electrician closed a row of switches, brought the two polished brass spheres of the discharger within striking distance, and instantly a blinding current of sparks roared between the terminals. He had been right. This battery not only was charged by an alternating current, but delivered one of high potential. He peered into the cells, racking his brain for an explanation.
"Atterbury," said he meditatively, "did I ever tell you why they do that?"
"Yes," answered the man. "You--told me--once. The two metals--in the electrolyte--come down--on the plates--in alternate films--as--the current changes direction. But you never told me--what the electrolyte was--I don't suppose--you--would be willing to now, would you?"
"H'm," said Bennie, "some time, maybe."
But this cue was all that he required. A clever scheme! Pax had formed layers of molecular thickness of two different metals in alternation by the to-and-fro swing of his charging current. When the battery discharged the metals went into solution, each plate becoming alternately positive and negative. He wondered what Pax had used for an electrolyte that enabled him to get a metallic deposit at each electrode. And he wondered also why the metals did not alloy. But it would not do for him to linger too long over a mere detail of equipment. And he turned away to continue his tour of inspection, a tour which occupied most of the morning, and during which he found a well-stocked gallery and made himself a cup of coffee.
[Footnote 5: He even climbed with Atterbury to the very summit of the tractor, where he discovered that his original guess had been correct and that the car rose from the earth rocket fashion, due to the back pressure of the radiant discharge from a massive cylinder of uranium contained in the tractor. Against this block played a disintegrating ray from a small thermic inductor, the inner construction of which he was not able to determine, although it was obviously different from his own, and the coils were wound in a curious manner which he did not understand. There might be something in Hiroshito's theory after all. The cylinder of the tractor pointed directly downward so that the blast was discharged through the very centre of the Ring, but it could be swung through a small angle in any direction, and by means of this slight deflection the horizontal motion of the machine secured. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the mechanism was that the Ring appeared to have automatic stability, for the angle of the direction in which the tractor was pointed was controlled not only by a pair of gyroscopes which kept the Ring on an even keel, but also by a manometric valve causing it to fly at a fixed height above the earth's surface. Should it start to rise, the diminished pressure of the atmosphere operating on the valve swung the tractor more to one side, and the horizontal acceleration was thus increased at the expense of the vertical.]
But the more he learned about the mechanism of the Ring the greater became his misgivings about undertaking the return journey alone with Atterbury through the air. If they were to go, the start must be made within a few days, for the condenser held its charge but a comparatively short time, and its energy was necessary for starting the Ring. When freshly charged it supplied current for the thermic inductor for nearly three minutes, but the metallic films, deposited on the plates, dissolved slowly in the fluid, and after three or four days there remained only enough for a thirty-second run, hardly enough to lift the Ring from the earth. Once in the air, the downward blast from the tractor operated a turbine alternator mounted on a skeleton framework at the centre of the Ring, and the current supplied by this machine enabled the Ring to continue its flight indefinitely, or until the cylinder of uranium was completely disintegrated.
Yet to trek back over the route by which he had come appeared to be equally impossible. There was little likelihood that the two Indians would return; they were probably already thirty miles on their way back to the coast. If only he could get word to Thornton or some of those chaps at Washington they might send a relief expedition! But a ship would be weeks in getting to the coast, and how could he live in the meantime? There were provisions for only a few days in the Ring, and the storehouse in the valley had been wiped out of existence. Only an aeroplane could do the trick. And then he thought of Burke, his classmate--Burke who had devoted his life to heavier-than-air machines, and who, since his memorable flight across the Atlantic in the Stormy Petrol, had been a national hero. Burke could reach him in ten hours, but how could he reach Burke? In the heart of the frozen wilderness of Labrador he might as well be on another planet, as far as communication with the civilized world was concerned.
A burst of sunlight shot through the window and formed an oval patch on the floor at his feet. The weather was clearing. He went out upon the platform. Patches of blue sky appeared overhead. As he gazed disconsolately across the valley toward the tower, his eye caught the glisten of something high in the air. From the top of the wreckage five thin shining lines ran parallel across the sky and disappeared in a small cloud which hung low over the face of the cliff.
"The antennae!" exclaimed Bennie. "A wireless to Burke." Burke would come; he knew Burke. A thousand miles overland was nothing to him. Hadn't he wagered five thousand dollars at the club that he would fly to the pole and bring back Peary's flag--with no takers? Why, Burke would take him home with as little trouble as a taxicab. And then, aghast, he remembered the complete destruction in the valley. The wireless plant had gone with the rest. He ran back into the chart room and called Atterbury.
"Can we get off a message to Washington?" he demanded. "The wires are still up, and we have the condenser."
"We might, sir, if it's not--a long one, though you've always said there was danger in running the engine with the car bolted down. We did it the time the big machine burnt out a coil. I can throw--a wire--over the antennae with a rocket--and join up--with the turbine machine. It will increase--our wave length, but they ought to pick us up."
"We'll try it, anyway," announced Bennie.
He inspected the chart and measured the distance in an airline from Boston to the point where the red lines converged. It was a trifle less than the distance between Boston and Chicago. Burke had done that in nine hours on the trial trip of his trans-Atlantic monoplane. If the machine was in order and Burke started in the morning he would be with them by sunset, if he didn't get lost. But Bennie knew that Burke could drive his machine by dead reckoning and strike within a few leagues of a target a thousand miles away.
A muffled roar outside interrupted his musings, and running out on the platform again he found Atterbury attaching the cord of the aluminum ribbon, which the rocket had carried up and over the antennae, to one of the brush bars of the alternator.
"Nearly ready, sir," he said. "We'd best--lock the storm bolts--to hold her down--in case we have--to crowd on the power. We've got to use--pretty near the full lift--to get the alternator up--to the proper speed."
A chill ran down Bennie's spine. They were going to start the engine! In a moment he would be within twenty feet of a blast of disintegration products capable of lifting the whole machine into the air, and it was to be started at his command, after he had worked and pottered for two years with a thermic inductor the size of a thimble! He felt as he used to feel before taking a high dive, or as he imagined a soldier feels when about to go under fire for the first time. How would it turn out? Was he taking too much responsibility, and was Atterbury counting on him for the management of details? He felt singularly helpless as he reentered the chart room to compose his message.
He turned on the electric lamp which hung over the desk, for in the fast-gathering dusk the interior of the Ring was in almost total darkness. How should his message read? It must be brief: it must tell the story, and, above all, it must be compelling.
He was joined by the electrician.
"I think--we are all--ready now," stammered the latter. "What will you send, sir?"
Bennie handed him a scrap of yellow paper, and Atterbury put on a pair of dark amber glasses, to protect his eyes from the light of the spark.
"Thornton, Naval Observatory, Washington: "Stranded fifty-four thirty-eight north, seventy-four eighteen west. Have the Ring machine. Ask Burke come immediately. Life and death matter.
Atterbury read the message and then gazed blankly at Hooker.
"I--don't--understand," he said.
"Never mind, send it. I'll explain later." Together they went into the condenser room.
Atterbury mechanically pushed the brass balls in contact, shoved a bundle of iron wires halfway through the core of a great coil, and closed a switch. A humming sound filled the air, and a few seconds later a glow of yellow light came in through the window. A cone of luminous vapour was shooting downward through the centre of the Ring from the tractor. At first it was soft and nebulous, but it increased rapidly in brilliancy, and a dull roar, like that of a waterfall, added itself to the hum of the alternating current in the wires. And now a third sound came to his ears, the note of the turbine, low at first, but gradually rising like the scream of a siren, and the floor of the Ring beneath his feet throbbed with the vibration.
Bennie forgot the dynamometer, forgot his message to Burke, was conscious only that he had wakened a sleeping volcano. Then came the crack of the sparks, and the room seemed filled with the glare of the blue lightning, for Atterbury, with his telephones at his ears, staring through his yellow glasses, was sending out the call for the Naval Observatory.
Over and over again he sent the call, while in the meantime the condenser built up its charge from the overflow of current from the turbine generator. Then the electrician opened a switch, and the roar outside diminished and finally ceased.
"We can't listen--with the tractor running," he fretted. "The static--from the discharge--would tear--our detector--to pieces." He threw in the receiving instrument. For a few moments the telephones spoke only the whisperings of the arctic aurora, and then suddenly the faint cry of the answering spark was heard. Bennie watched the words as the electrician's pencil scrawled along on the paper.
"Waiting for you. Why don't you send? N.A.A."
"They must have--called us before--while the discharge--was running down," muttered Atterbury. "I think we can send--with the condenser--now."
He picked up the scrap of yellow paper, read it over, and threw out into space the message which he did not understand.
"O. K. Wait. Thornton," came in reply.
Two hours later came a second message: "P--A--X. Burke starts at daybreak. Expects reach you by nine P. M. Asks you to show large beacon fire if possible.
"THORNTON, N. A. A.".
"Hurrah!" cried Bennie. "Good for Burke! Atterbury, we're saved--saved, do you hear! Go to bed now and don't ask any questions. And say, before you go see if you can find me a glass of brandy."