"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me that we are more than sixteen miles in the air?"
"Nearly thirty," replied Hart, pointing to another dial which I had not seen. This one was graduated in miles above sea-level, and its needle wavered between the twenty-nine and thirty mark!
Again Hart pressed the rocket buttons, and we shot still higher into the heavens. Thirty, forty, fifty miles registered the meter, and still we climbed.
"Great Scott!" blurted a voice I knew was my own, though I had no consciousness of willing the speech. "At this rate we'll reach the moon!"
"We could, if we wished," was Hart's astounding reply; "I wish you wouldn't say too much about it when we return. We have oxygen to breathe and an air-tight vessel to retain it. With the fuel we are using, we could easily do it, provided a sufficient supply were available. However, the Pioneer does not have large enough storage tanks as yet, and, of course, we cannot now replenish our supply with sufficient rapidity, for the atmosphere has become very rare indeed--where we are. My ultimate object, though, in building the Pioneer, was to construct a vessel that is capable of a trip to the moon."
"You think you could reach a great enough velocity to escape the gravitational pull of the earth?" I asked, marveling more and more at the temerity and resourcefulness of my science-minded friend.
"Absolutely," he replied. "The speed required is less than seven miles a second, and I have calculated that the Pioneer can do no less than twenty."
Mentally I multiplied by sixty. I could hardly credit the result. Twelve hundred miles a minute!
"But, how about the acceleration?" I ventured. "Could the human body stand up under the strain?"
"That is the one problem remaining," he replied; "and I am now working on a method of neutralizing it. From the latest results of our experiments, George and I are certain of its feasibility."
The Pioneer was now losing altitude once more, and Hart played the beam of the searchlight in all directions as we descended. He and George watched through one of the floor ports and I followed suit. We were falling, unhampered by air resistance, and our bodies were practically weightless with reference to the Pioneer. It was a strange sensation: there was the feeling of exhilaration one experiences when inhaling the first whiff of nitrous oxide in the dentist's chair--a feeling of absolute detachment and care-free confidence in the ultimate result of our precipitous descent.
I found considerable amusement in pushing myself from side to side of the cabin with a mere touch of a finger. There was no up nor down, and sometimes it seemed to me that we were drifting sideways, sometimes that we fell upward rather than downward. Hart and George were unconcerned. Evidently they were quite accustomed to the sensations. They bent their every energy toward discovering what had caused the disaster to the SF-22 and its convoy.
For several hours we cruised about on the strangest search ever made in the air. Alternately shooting skyward to unconscionable altitudes and dropping to levels five and six to replenish our fuel supply, we covered the greater portion of the United States before the night was over. But the powerful searchlight of the Pioneer failed to disclose anything that might be remotely connected with the disappearance of the SF-22.
For me it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Lightning dashes from coast to coast which required but a few minutes of time--circling many miles above New York or Washington or Savannah in broad daylight with the sun low on the up-curved horizon; then shooting westward into the darkness and skirting the Pacific coast less than fifteen minutes later, but with four hours' actual time difference. Space and time were almost one.
Hart had not provided the Pioneer with a radio or television transmitter, but there was an excellent receiver, and, through its agency we learned that the world was in a veritable uproar over the latest visitation of the mysterious terror of the sixth air level. All commercial traffic in levels four, five and six was ordered discontinued, and the government air control stations were flashing long messages in code, the import of which could but be guessed. Vision flashes showed immense gatherings at the large airports and in the public squares of the great cities, where the general populace become more and more excited and terrified by the awful possibilities pictured by various prominent speakers.
The governments of all foreign powers made haste to disclaim responsibility for the air attacks or for any attempt at making war on the United States. News broadcasts failed to mention Hart Jones or the Pioneer, since the mission had been kept secret. The phenomenon of the rays and the roaring column of light had been observed from many points on this occasion and there was no longer any doubt as to the nature of the terror as visible to the eye, though theories as to the action and source of the rays conflicted greatly and formed the basis of much heated discussion.
Eventually the advancing dawn reached San Francisco, and with its advent Hart decided to make a landing in that city so that my bonds could be delivered.
Jones was apparently a very much mystified and discouraged man. "Jack," he said, "it seems to me that this thing is but the beginning of some tremendous campaign that is being waged against our country by a clever and powerful enemy. And I feel that our work in connection with the unraveling of the mystery and overcoming the enemy or enemies is but begun. It's a cinch that the thing is organized by human minds and is not any sort of a freak of the elements. Our work is cut out for us, all right, and I wish you would stick to George and me through the mess. Will you?"
"Sure," I agreed, readily enough. "After these bonds are delivered I am free for a month."
"Ha! Ha!" cackled George, without mirth. "A month! We're doggoned lucky if we get to the bottom of this in a year."
"Nonsense!" snapped Hart, who was considerably upset by the failure to locate the source of the disastrous rays. "There is nothing supernatural about this, and anything that can be explained on a scientific basis can be run to earth in short order. These rays are man-made and, as such, can be accounted for by man. Our greatest scientists must be put to work on the problem at once--in fact, they have quite probably been called in by the government already."
He was maneuvering the Pioneer to a landing on the broad field of the San Francisco airport. Hundreds of idle planes of all sizes lined the field, and, unmindful of the earliness the hour, a great crowd was collected in expectation of sensational reports from the occupants of arriving ships. The unusual construction of the Pioneer attracted considerable attention and it was with difficulty that the police kept back the crowd when she rolled to a stop near the office of the local government supervisor. We hustled inside and were greeted by that official with open arms.
"Glory be!" he exclaimed. "Hart Jones and the Pioneer. Every airport in the land has been on the lookout for you all night. It was feared you had been lost with the SF-22 and the others. Code messages to the supervisors of all districts advised of your mission, though it has been kept out of the general news, as has the message from the enemy."
"Message from the enemy!" gasped Hart, George and I, echoing the words like parrots.
"Yes. A demand that the United States surrender, and a threat to descend into the lower levels if the demand is not complied with in twenty-four hours!"
"Who is this enemy?" asked Hart, "and where?"
"Who they are is not known," replied the official gravely; "and as to the location, the War Department is puzzled. Direction finders throughout the country took readings on the position of their radio transmitter and these readings differed widely in result. But the consensus of opinion is that the messages originate somewhere out in space, probably between fifty and one hundred thousand miles from our earth."
"Great guns!" Hart glanced at George and me, where we stood with stupidly hanging jaws. "And what does the government want of me now?"
"You are considered to be the one man who might be able to cope with the problem, and are ordered to report to the Secretary of War, in person, immediately."
Hart was electrified into instant activity. "Here," he said in a voice of authority that commanded the official's attention and respect, "see that this package of bonds is delivered at once to the addressee and that the addressor is advised of its safe arrival. We're off at once."
Suiting action to the words, he thrust my packet into the hands of the astonished supervisor. Then, turning sharply on his heel, he flung back, "Advise the Secretary of War that I shall report to him in person in less than one hour."
As we stepped through the entrance of the Pioneer, he shot a final look at the official and laughed heartily at his sudden accession of energy. We had not the slightest doubt that Hart's orders would be immediately and efficiently carried out.
In precisely forty-five minutes, we stood before the desk of Lawrence Simler, then Secretary of War, in Washington.
"You are Mr. Hartley Jones?" inquired the stern-visaged little man.
"I am, Mr. Secretary, and these are my friends and co-workers, George Boehm and John Makely."
The Secretary acknowledged the introduction gravely, then plunged into the heart of the matter at hand with the quick energy for which he was famed.
"It may or may not be a serious situation," he said, "but certainly it has thus far been quite alarming. In any event, we have taken the matter out of the hands of the Air Traffic Bureau. We are prepared to defy the ultimatum of the enemy, whoever he may be. But we want your help, Mr. Jones. Every ship of the Air Navy will be in the upper levels within the prescribed twenty-four hours, and we will endeavor to stave off their attacks until such time as you can fit the Pioneer for a journey to their headquarters."
"How can your antiquated war vessels, capable of hurling a high explosive shell no more than fifty miles, fight off an enemy that is thousands of miles distant?" asked Hart.
"It is believed by the research engineers of the government that, though their headquarters may be located at a great distance, the raiders drop to a comparatively low altitude at the time of one of their attacks, returning immediately thereafter to their base."
Hart Jones shook his head. "The engineers may be correct," he stated; "but how on earth can you expect a little vessel like the Pioneer to battle an enemy who is possessed of these terribly destructive weapons and who has sufficient confidence in his own invulnerability to declare war on the greatest country on earth?"
Secretary Simler dropped his voice to a confidential tone, and his keen gray eyes flashed excitement as he unfolded the details of the discoveries and plans of the War Department. We three listened in undisguised amazement to a tale of the unceasing labors of our Secret Service agents in foreign countries, of elaborate experiments with deadly weapons and the chemicals of warfare.
We heard of marvelous new rays that could be projected for many miles and destroy whole armies at a single blast; rays that would, in less time than that required to tell of the feat, reduce to a mass of fused metal the greatest firstline battleships of the old days of ocean warfare. We heard of preparations for defensive warfare throughout the civilized world, preparedness that insured so terrible and final a war that it was literally impossible for a great world conflagration to again break out. We learned that the present mysterious signs of a coming war could not possibly have originated in any country on earth, else they would have been known of long in advance, due to the network of the Secret Service system. This war, so unexpectedly thrust upon us, was undoubtedly a war of planets!
"But," objected Hart, "the messages were in English, were they not?"
"They were," continued Secretary Simler, "and that puzzled our experts in the beginning. But, it may well be that our enemy from out the skies has had spies among us for many years and could thus have learned our languages and radio codes. In any event, we are to meet destructive rays with others equally destructive, and you, Hartley Jones, are the man who can make our effectiveness certain."
"Yes. How long a time will be required in fitting out the Pioneer for reliable space flying?"
Hart Jones pondered the matter and I could see that he was overjoyed at the prospect of getting into the thing in earnest. "About one week," he replied, "providing you can send a force of fifty expert mechanics to my hangar at once and supply all material as fast as I shall require it."
"Excellent," said the Secretary. "We'll have the men there in a few hours and will obtain whatever you need, regardless of cost, for immediate delivery. Incidentally, there will be several scientists as well, who will supervise the installation of two types of ray generators and their projecting mechanisms on the Pioneer. You will need them later."
"I don't doubt we shall," said Hart. "And now, with your permission, we shall leave for the hangar. I'm ready to start work."
"Capital!" Secretary Simler pressed every one of a row of buttons set in his desk top. We were dismissed.
"Well," said I, when we reached the outside, "he has given you quite a job, Hart!"
"You said something," he replied. "But, if this threat from the skies proves as real and as calamitous as I think it will, we all have our work cut out for us."
"Do you really believe this enemy comes from another planet?" asked George as we entered the Pioneer for the trip home.
"Where else can they be from?" countered Hart. "But, really it makes no difference to us now. We have to go after them in earnest. Don't want to quit, do you, George?"
"Wha-a-at?" shouted George, as he jerked savagely at the main switch of the Pioneer. "You know me better than that, Hart. Did I ever let you down in anything?"
"No," admitted the smiling Hart, "you never did, bless your heart. But Jack here is another matter. He has a wife and two kids to look after. That lets him out automatically."
My heart sank at the words, for I knew that he meant what he said. And, truth to tell, I saw the justice in his remarks.
"But, Hart," I faltered, "I'd like to be in on this thing."
"I know you would, old man. But I think it's out of the question, for the present at least. You can help with the reconstruction of the Pioneer, however."
And meekly I accepted his dictum, though with secretly conflicting emotions. Little did I realize at the time that Hart knew far more than he pretended and that he had merely attempted to salve his own conscience in this manner.
I was very anxious to return to my family, and, as I sped homeward in a taxicab after the Pioneer landed at her own hangar, my mind was filled with doubts and fears. Secretary Simler had been very brief in his talk, but his every word carried home the gravity of the situation. What if these invaders carried the war to the surface? Suppose they seared the countryside and the cities and suburbs with rays of horrible nature that would shrivel and blast all that lay in their path? My heart chilled at the thought and it was a distinct relief when I gazed on my little home and saw that it was safe--so far. I paid the driver with a much too large bank note and dashed up my own front steps two at a time.
A few hours later I tore myself away and returned to the hangar, where the Pioneer now reposed in a scaffolded cradle. The sight which met my eyes was astonishing in the extreme, for the hangar had been transformed into a huge workshop with seemingly hundreds of men already at work. It was a scene of furious activity, and, to my utter amazement, I observed that the Pioneer was already in an advanced stage of disassembly.
I had no difficulty in locating Hart Jones, for he was striding from lathe to workbench to boring mill, issuing his orders with the sureness and decision of a born leader of men. He welcomed me in his most brisk manner and immediately assigned me to a portion of the work in the chemical laboratory--something I was at least partly fitted for.
We labored far into the night, when a siren called us to rest and food. This was to be a night and day job, and not a man of those on duty gave thought to the intense nervous and physical strain. Sixty-five of us I learned there were, though it had seemed there were several times that number.
During the rest period, Hart switched on the large television and sound mechanism of the public news broadcasts. Great excitement prevailed throughout the United States, for there had been a leak and the news had gone abroad regarding the message from the enemy. There was widespread panic and disorder and the government was besieged with demands for authentic news. The twenty-four hours of grace had nearly expired.
Finally the public was told of what actually was happening. Our entire fleet of one thousand air cruisers was in air-level six, waiting for the enemy. America was going to fight in earnest!
Flashes of our air cruisers in construction and in action came over the screen; voice-vision records of the popular officers of the fleet followed in quick succession. Then came the blow--the first of the strange war.
Two vessels of the air fleet had been destroyed by the triple rays and pillar of fire! Fifty cruisers rushing to the scene had been unable to find any traces of the source of the deadly rays. And, this time, there was an alarming added element. The pillar of fire had risen from a point near Gadsden in Alabama and, in its wake, there spread a sulphurous, smoldering fire that crept along the ground and destroyed all in its path. Farms, factories, and even the steel rails of the railroads were consumed and burned into the ground as if by the breath of some tremendous blast furnace. Hundreds of inhabitants of the section perished, and it was reported that the fumes from the strange fires were drifting in the direction of Birmingham, terrifyingly visible in blue-green clouds of searing vapor.
With the first news of the disaster came a wave of fear that spread over the country with the rapidity of the ether waves that carried the news. Then came stern determination. This enemy must be swept from the skies! Gatherings in public places volunteered en masse for whatever service the government might ask of them. The entire world was in an uproar, and from Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia, came immediate offers of their air fleets to assist in fighting off the Terror.
In less than an hour there were nearly five thousand cruisers in air-level six, patroling its entire depth from thirty-five thousand to one hundred thousand feet altitude.
We resumed work in the hangar, but the news service was kept in operation as far as the amplifiers were concerned, though the television screen was switched off on account of the likelihood of its distracting the workers.
Again came the report of a major disaster, this time over Butte in Montana. Four American vessels and one British were the victims in level six. And the city of Butte was in flames; blue, horrible flames that literally melted the city into the ground. Again there was no trace of the invaders.
How puny were the efforts of the five thousand air cruisers! Marvels of engineering and mechanical skill, these vessels were. Deadly as were the weapons they carried--weapons so terrible that war on earth was considered impossible since their development--they were helpless against an enemy who could not be located. Though our vessels were capable of boring high into the stratosphere, the enemy worked from still higher.
"Holy smoke!" gasped Hart Jones, who had stopped at my side. "What a contract I have on my hands!"
He looked in the direction of the partly dismantled Pioneer, and I could see by the fixedness of his stare that he was thinking of her insignificant size in comparison with the job she was to undertake.
Above the din of the machines in the hangar rang the startled voice of a news announcer. Panic-stricken he seemed, and we stopped to listen. Another blow of the terror of the skies--and now close by! Over Westchester County in New York State there was a repetition of the previous attacks. Only two of the cruisers had vanished this time; but several towns, including Larchmont and Scarsdale, were pools of molten fire!
Sick at heart, I thought of my little home in Rutherford and of the dear ones it contained. I thought of telephoning, but, what was the use? There was no warding off of this terrible thing that had so suddenly come to our portion of the world. It was the blowing of the last trumpet, the way things looked.
The announcer had calmed himself. His voice droned tonelessly now, as was the custom. Another raid, on the Mexican Border now. We were stupefied by the rapidity of the enemy's attacks; then electrified once more by the most astounding news of all. Alexandria, in Egypt, was the base of a pillar of fire! Fully half of the city was wiped out, and the remainder in a mortal funk, terrorized and riotous. The United States was not alone in the war!
The foreign fleets which reinforced our own were ordered home immediately. But to what avail? The world was doomed!
In the morning, after nine fearful attacks during the night, there came another message from the enemy and this was repeated in five languages and addressed to the entire world: "People of Earth," it read, "this is our final warning. One chance has been given and you have proved stubborn. Consider well that your civilization be not entirely destroyed, and answer as the expiration of forty-eight hours, using our transmitting frequency. Our hand is to be withheld for that period only, when, unless our demands are met, all of your large cities and towns will be destroyed. Our terms for peace are that we be permitted to land without resistance on your part; that you surrender farm and forest lands, cities and towns, able-bodied men of twenty to forty, selected women of seventeen to thirty, and tribute in the form of such supplies and precious metals as we may specify, all to the extent of forty per cent of your resources. No compromise will be accepted."
That was all. It was during a rest period at the Jones hangar and I had brought Hart and George to my home for breakfast. We sat at the table when the news instrument brought the message. Marie was pouring the coffee, and my two small boys, Jim and Jack, had gone to the playroom, from whence their joyous voices could be heard. We four were struck dumb at the announcement, and Marie looked at me with so awful an expression of dread that my coffee turned bitter in my mouth. Marie was just twenty-eight!
"What beasts!" cried Hart. "Allow them to land without resistance? I should say not! Rather we should fight them off until all of us perish."
He had risen from his chair in his anger. Now he sat down suddenly and shook a forefinger in my face.
"Say!" he exploded. "You can't tell me that some master mind of our own world is not back of this!"