Lawton's face was dark with fury. "I was an experimental rat in the sky, eh?"
"Look, Dave, we're all in danger. Don't stand there glaring at me. Naturally I waited. I have my crew to think of."
"Well, think of them. Get those valves open before we all have convulsions."
A half hour later charcoal gas was mingling with oxygen outside the ship, and the crew was breathing it in again gratefully. Thinly dispersed, and mixed with oxygen it seemed all right. But Lawton had misgivings. No matter how attenuated a lethal gas is it is never entirely harmless. To make matters worse, they were over the Atlantic Ocean.
Far beneath them was an emerald turbulence, half obscured by eastward moving cloud masses. The bubble was holding, but the morale of the crew was beginning to sag.
Lawton paced the control room. Deep within him unsuspected energies surged. "We'll last until the oxygen is breathed up," he exclaimed. "We'll have four or five days, at most. But we seem to be traveling faster than an ocean liner. With luck, we'll be in Europe before we become carbon dioxide breathers."
"Will that help matters, Dave?" said the captain wearily.
"If we can blast our way out, it will."
The Captain's sagging body jackknifed erect. "Blast our way out? What do you mean, Dave?"
"I've clamped expulsor disks on the cosmic ray absorbers and trained them downward. A thin stream of accidental neutrons directed against the bottom of the bubble may disrupt its energies--wear it thin. It's a long gamble, but worth taking. We're staking nothing, remember?"
Forrester sputtered: "Nothing but our lives! If you blast a hole in the bubble you'll destroy its energy balance. Did that occur to you? Inside a lopsided bubble we may careen dangerously or fall into the sea before we can get the rotaries started."
"I thought of that. The pilots are standing by to start the rotaries the instant we lurch. If we succeed in making a rent in the bubble we'll break out the helicoptic vanes and descend vertically. The rotaries won't backfire again. I've had their burnt-out cylinder heads replaced."
An agitated voice came from the visiplate on the captain's desk: "Tuning in, sir."
Lawton stopped pacing abruptly. He swung about and grasped the desk edge with both hands, his head touching Forrester's as the two men stared down at the horizontal face of petty officer James Caldwell.
Caldwell wasn't more than twenty-two or three, but the screen's opalescence silvered his hair and misted the outlines of his jaw, giving him an aspect of senility.
"Well, young man," Forrester growled. "What is it? What do you want?"
The irritation in the captain's voice seemed to increase Caldwell's agitation. Lawton had to say: "All right, lad, let's have it," before the information which he had seemed bursting to impart could be wrenched out of him.
It came in erratic spurts. "The bubble is all blooming, sir. All around inside there are big yellow and purple growths. It started up above, and--and spread around. First there was just a clouding over of the sky, sir, and then--stalks shot out."
For a moment Lawton felt as though all sanity had been squeezed from his brain. Twice he started to ask a question and thought better of it.
Pumpings were superfluous when he could confirm Caldwell's statement in half a minute for himself. If Caldwell had cracked up-- Caldwell hadn't cracked. When Lawton walked to the quartz port and stared down all the blood drained from his face.
The vegetation was luxuriant, and unearthly. Floating in the sky were serpentine tendrils as thick as a man's wrist, purplish flowers and ropy fungus growths. They twisted and writhed and shot out in all directions, creating a tangle immediately beneath him and curving up toward the ship amidst a welter of seed pods.
He could see the seeds dropping--dropping from pods which reminded him of the darkly horned skate egg sheaths which he had collected in his boyhood from sea beaches at ebb tide.
It was the unwholesomeness of the vegetation which chiefly unnerved him. It looked dank, malarial. There were decaying patches on the fungus growths and a miasmal mist was descending from it toward the ship.
The control room was completely still when he turned from the quartz port to meet Forrester's startled gaze.
"Dave, what does it mean?" The question burst explosively from the captain's lips.
"It means--life has appeared and evolved and grown rotten ripe inside the bubble, sir. All in the space of an hour or so."
Lawton shook his head. "It isn't at all, sir. We've had it drummed into us that evolution proceeds at a snailish pace, but what proof have we that it can't mutate with lightning-like rapidity? I've told you there are gases outside we can't even make in a chemical laboratory, molecular arrangements that are alien to earth."
"But plants derive nourishment from the soil," interpolated Forrester.
"I know. But if there are alien gases in the air the surface of the bubble must be reeking with unheard of chemicals. There may be compounds inside the bubble which have so sped up organic processes that a hundred million year cycle of mutations has been telescoped into an hour."
Lawton was pacing the floor again. "It would be simpler to assume that seeds of existing plants became somehow caught up and imprisoned in the bubble. But the plants around us never existed on earth. I'm no botanist, but I know what the Congo has on tap, and the great rain forests of the Amazon."
"Dave, if the growth continues it will fill the bubble. It will choke off all our air."
"Don't you suppose I realize that? We've got to destroy that growth before it destroys us."
It was pitiful to watch the crew's morale sag. The miasmal taint of the ominously proliferating vegetation was soon pervading the ship, spreading demoralization everywhere.
It was particularly awful straight down. Above a ropy tangle of livid vines and creepers a kingly stench weed towered, purplish and bloated and weighted down with seed pods.
It seemed sentient, somehow. It was growing so fast that the evil odor which poured from it could be correlated with the increase of tension inside the ship. From that particular plant, minute by slow minute, there surged a continuously mounting offensiveness, like nothing Lawton had ever smelt before.
The bubble had become a blooming horror sailing slowly westward above the storm-tossed Atlantic. And all the chemical agents which Lawton sprayed through the ventilation valves failed to impede the growth or destroy a single seed pod.
It was difficult to kill plant life with chemicals which were not harmful to man. Lawton took dangerous risks, increasing the unwholesomeness of their rapidly dwindling air supply by spraying out a thin diffusion of problematically poisonous acids.
It was no sale. The growths increased by leaps and bounds, as though determined to show their resentment of the measures taken against them by marshalling all their forces in a demoralizing plantkrieg.
Thwarted, desperate, Lawton played his last card. He sent five members of the crew, equipped with blow guns. They returned screaming. Lawton had to fortify himself with a double whiskey soda before he could face the look of reproach in their eyes long enough to get all of the prickles out of them.
From then on pandemonium reigned. Blue funk seized the petty officers while some of the crew ran amuck. One member of the engine watch attacked four of his companions with a wrench; another went into the ship's kitchen and slashed himself with a paring knife. The assistant engineer leapt through a 'chute opening, after avowing that he preferred impalement to suffocation.
He was impaled. It was horrible. Looking down Lawton could see his twisted body dangling on a crimson-stippled thornlike growth forty feet in height.
Slashaway was standing at his elbow in that Waterloo moment, his rough-hewn features twitching. "I can't stand it, sir. It's driving me squirrelly."
"I know, Slashaway. There's something worse than marijuana weed down there."
Slashaway swallowed hard. "That poor guy down there did the wise thing."
Lawton husked: "Stamp on that idea, Slashaway--kill it. We're stronger than he was. There isn't an ounce of weakness in us. We've got what it takes."
"A guy can stand just so much."
"Bosh. There's no limit to what a man can stand."
From the visiplate behind them came an urgent voice: "Radio room tuning in, sir."
Lawton swung about. On the flickering screen the foggy outlines of a face appeared and coalesced into sharpness.
The Perseus radio operator was breathless with excitement. "Our reception is improving, sir. European short waves are coming in strong. The static is terrific, but we're getting every station on the continent, and most of the American stations."
Lawton's eyes narrowed to exultant slits. He spat on the deck, a slow tremor shaking him.
"Slashaway, did you hear that? We've done it. We've won against hell and high water."
"We done what, sir?"
"The bubble, you ape--it must be wearing thin. Hell's bells, do you have to stand there gaping like a moronic ninepin? I tell you, we've got it licked."
"I can't stand it, sir. I'm going nuts."
"No you're not. You're slugging the thing inside you that wants to quit. Slashaway, I'm going to give the crew a first-class pep talk. There'll be no stampeding while I'm in command here."
He turned to the radio operator. "Tune in the control room. Tell the captain I want every member of the crew lined up on this screen immediately."
The face in the visiplate paled. "I can't do that, sir. Ship's regulations--"
Lawton transfixed the operator with an irate stare. "The captain told you to report directly to me, didn't he?"
"Yes sir, but--"
"If you don't want to be cashiered, snap into it."
The captain's startled face preceded the duty-muster visiview by a full minute, seeming to project outward from the screen. The veins on his neck were thick blue cords.
"Dave," he croaked. "Are you out of your mind? What good will talking do now?"
"Are the men lined up?" Lawton rapped, impatiently.
Forrester nodded. "They're all in the engine room, Dave."
"Good. Block them in."
The captain's face receded, and a scene of tragic horror filled the opalescent visiplate. The men were not standing at attention at all. They were slumping against the Perseus' central charging plant in attitudes of abject despair.
Madness burned in the eyes of three or four of them. Others had torn open their shirts, and raked their flesh with their nails. Petty officer Caldwell was standing as straight as a totem pole, clenching and unclenching his hands. The second assistant engineer was sticking out his tongue. His face was deadpan, which made what was obviously a terror reflex look like an idiot's grimace.
Lawton moistened his lips. "Men, listen to me. There is some sort of plant outside that is giving off deliriant fumes. A few of us seem to be immune to it.
"I'm not immune, but I'm fighting it, and all of you boys can fight it too. I want you to fight it to the top of your courage. You can fight anything when you know that just around the corner is freedom from a beastliness that deserves to be licked--even if it's only a plant.
"Men, we're blasting our way free. The bubble's wearing thin. Any minute now the plants beneath us may fall with a soggy plop into the Atlantic Ocean.
"I want every man jack aboard this ship to stand at his post and obey orders. Right this minute you look like something the cat dragged in. But most men who cover themselves with glory start off looking even worse than you do."
He smiled wryly.
"I guess that's all. I've never had to make a speech in my life, and I'd hate like hell to start now."
It was petty officer Caldwell who started the chant. He started it, and the men took it up until it was coming from all of them in a full-throated roar.
I'm a tough, true-hearted skyman, Careless and all that, d'ye see? Never at fate a railer, What is time or tide to me?
All must die when fate shall will it, I can never die but once, I'm a tough, true-hearted skyman; He who fears death is a dunce.
Lawton squared his shoulders. With a crew like that nothing could stop him! Ah, his energies were surging high. The deliriant weed held no terrors for him now. They were stout-hearted lads and he'd go to hell with them cheerfully, if need be.
It wasn't easy to wait. The next half hour was filled with a steadily mounting tension as Lawton moved like a young tornado about the ship, issuing orders and seeing that each man was at his post.
"Steady, Jimmy. The way to fight a deliriant is to keep your mind on a set task. Keep sweating, lad."
"Harry, that winch needs tightening. We can't afford to miss a trick."
"Yeah, it will come suddenly. We've got to get the rotaries started the instant the bottom drops out."
He was with the captain and Slashaway in the control room when it came. There was a sudden, grinding jolt, and the captain's desk started moving toward the quartz port, carrying Lawton with it.
"Holy Jiminy cricket," exclaimed Slashaway.
The deck tilted sharply; then righted itself. A sudden gush of clear, cold air came through the ventilation valves as the triple rotaries started up with a roar.
Lawton and the captain reached the quartz port simultaneously. Shoulder to shoulder they stood staring down at the storm-tossed Atlantic, electrified by what they saw.
Floating on the waves far beneath them was an undulating mass of vegetation, its surface flecked with glinting foam. As it rose and fell in waning sunlight a tainted seepage spread about it, defiling the clean surface of the sea.
But it wasn't the floating mass which drew a gasp from Forrester, and caused Lawton's scalp to prickle. Crawling slowly across that Sargasso-like island of noxious vegetation was a huge, elongated shape which bore a nauseous resemblance to a mottled garden slug.
Forrester was trembling visibly when he turned from the quartz port.
"God, Dave, that would have been the last straw. Animal life. Dave, I--I can't realize we're actually out of it."
"We're out, all right," Lawton said, hoarsely. "Just in time, too. Skipper, you'd better issue grog all around. The men will be needing it. I'm taking mine straight. You've accused me of being primitive. Wait till you see me an hour from now."
Dr. Stephen Halday stood in the door of his Appalachian mountain laboratory staring out into the pine-scented dusk, a worried expression on his bland, small-featured face. It had happened again. A portion of his experiment had soared skyward, in a very loose group of highly energized wavicles. He wondered if it wouldn't form a sort of sub-electronic macrocosm high in the stratosphere, altering even the air and dust particles which had spurted up with it, its uncharged atomic particles combining with hydrogen and creating new molecular arrangements.
If such were the case there would be eight of them now. His bubbles, floating through the sky. They couldn't possibly harm anything--way up there in the stratosphere. But he felt a little uneasy about it all the same. He'd have to be more careful in the future, he told himself. Much more careful. He didn't want the Controllers to turn back the clock of civilization a century by stopping all atom-smashing experiments.