"I'm not telling you," I replied, startled at the fierce fire that flashed from his eyes.
"I know. I'm just trying to think aloud and I'm liable to say anything. But this sort of business is the work of humans as sure as you're born. Still I believe that what Simler says is true. I can't believe that any country on earth is back of the thing. It must be an attack from beings of another planet, but I think they have as a leader a man who is of our own earth."
Marie's eyes opened wide at this. "But how could that be?" she asked. "Surely no one from our earth has made the trip to one of the other planets?"
"It may be that someone has," replied Hart. "Do you remember Professor Oradel? Remember, about ten years ago, I think it was, when he and a half dozen or more of extremely radical scientists built a rocket they claimed would reach the moon? They were ridiculed and hissed and relegated to the position of half-baked, crazy inventors. But Oradel had a large private fortune, and he and his crowd built themselves a workshop and laboratory in a secluded region in the Ozarks. Here they labored and experimented and eventually the rocket ship was constructed. No person was in their confidence, but when the machine was completed they issued a statement to the press to the effect that they were ready for the voyage to the moon, and that, when they returned, a reckoning with the world was to be made for its disbelief and total lack of sympathy. Again the press subjected Oradel to a series of scathing denunciations, and the scientific publications refused to take cognizance of his claims in any way, shape or form."
"Then, one night, a great rocket roared into the heavens, leaving a terror-stricken countryside in the wake of its brilliantly visible tail. Several observatories whose telescopes picked up and followed the trail of the contraption reported that it described a huge parabola, mounting high into the stratosphere and falling back to earth, where it was lost in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. There the thing ended and it was soon forgotten. But I believe that this rocket ship of Oradel's reached Mars or Venus and that the peoples of whichever planet they reached have been prevailed upon and prepared to war upon the world."
"That would explain their knowledge of our languages and codes." I ventured, "and would likewise account for the fact that the first of our ships to be attacked were those carrying large shipments of currency. Though if these were destroyed by the fire columns, I can not see what good the money would do them."
"Don't believe the first three were destroyed," grunted Hart. "You'll remember that in these cases the pillars of fire, or whatever you want to call them, were of a cold light, whereas now they are viciously hot and leave behind them the terrible destructive fires that spread and spread and seemingly never are extinguished. No, I think that the force used is something of the nature of an atom-disrupting triad of beams and that these set up the column as a veritable tornado, a whirling column of roaring wind rushing skyward with tremendous velocity. The first ships, I believe, were carried into the stratosphere and captured intact by the enemy.
"Since the declaration of war the nature of the column has altered. The three beams, instead of meeting at or near the surface of the earth, now join high in the heavens and the column strikes downward instead of expending its force upward. An added energy is used which produces the terribly destructive force below. And now we are able to locate fragments of the ships destroyed above, whereas previously there were no traces."
"Sounds reasonable," commented George. "But why have they not landed and waged their war right here without warning, if that is what they now intend to do?"
"A natural question, George. But I have a hunch that the space flier or fliers of the enemy are conserving fuel by remaining beyond gravity. You know, in space flying, the greatest expenditures of energy are in leaving or landing on a body and, once landed, they might not have sufficient fuel for a getaway. They know we are not exactly helpless, once they are in our midst, and are taking this means of reducing us to the point of complete subjection before risking their precious selves among us."
The telephone startled us by its insistent ring. It was a call from the hangar for Hart. The news broadcast announcer was in the midst of a long dissertation regarding the discovery only this morning that there were certain apparent discrepancies in the movements of the tides and unwonted perturbations of the moon's orbit. There flashed on the screen a view of the great observatory at Mount Wilson, and Professor Laughlin of that institution stepped into the foreground of the scene to take up the discussion so mechanically repeated by the announcer.
"Must leave for the hangar at once," declared Hart, returning from the telephone. "Simler and his staff are there and we are wanted immediately."
"Oh, Jack!" Marie begged with her eyes.
"Got to be done, Honey," I responded, "and, believe me, I am going to do what little I can to help. Suppose we surrendered!"
I shuddered anew at the very thought and took hurried leave of my family, Hart and George awaiting me in the hall. Had I known what was to transpire before the end of the war, I am certain I would have been in much less of a hurry.
We rushed to the hangar, where Secretary Simler and his party awaited us in the office. Rather, I should say, they waited for Hart Jones.
"Mr. Jones," said the Secretary of War, when the introductions were over, "it is up to you to get the Pioneer in shape to go out after these terrible creatures before the forty-eight hours have expired. We have replied to their ultimatum and have told them we will have our answer ready within the appointed time, but it is already agreed between the nations of the World Alliance that our reply is to be negative. Better far that we submit to the utter destruction of our civilization than agree to their terms."
"I believe I can do it, Mr. Secretary," was Hart Jones' simple comment. "At least I will try. But you must let me have an experienced astronomer at once with whom to consult."
"Yes--immediately. I have a theory, but am not enough of a student of astronomy myself to work it out."
"You shall have the best man in the Air Naval Observatory at once." Secretary Simler chewed his cigar savagely. "And anything else you might need," he concluded.
"There is nothing else, sir." Hart turned from the great men who regarded him solemnly, some with expressions of hope, others with plain distrust written large on their countenances.
They left in silence and we returned to our work with renewed vigor. Within an hour there arrived by fast plane an undersized, thick-spectacled man can who presented himself as Professor Linquist from the government observatory. He was immediately taken into the office by Hart and the two remained behind closed doors for the best part of four hours.
Meanwhile the hangar hummed with activity as usual. We in the chemical laboratory were engaged in compounding the high explosive used as fuel in the Pioneer. This was being compressed to its absolute limit and was stored in long steel cylinders in the form of a liquid of extremely low temperature. These cylinders were at once transferred to a special steel vault where the temperature was kept at a low enough point to prevent expansion and consequent loss of the explosive, not to speak of the danger of destroying the entire lot of us in its escape.
The generating apparatus of the Pioneer was to be dispensed with for this trip, since it was of no value outside the atmosphere where there was no air from which to extract the elements necessary for the production of the explosive. Instead, the entire supply of fuel for the trip was to be carried aboard the vessel in the cylinders we were engaged in filling. Hart had calculated that there was just sufficient room to store fuel for a trip of about two hundred thousand miles from the earth and a safe return. We hoped this would be enough.
On the scaffolding around the Pioneer there were now so many workers that it seemed they must forever be in one another's way. But the work was progressing with extreme rapidity. Already there projected from her blunt nose a slender rod of shining metal which was the projector of one of the destructive rays whose generator and auxiliaries were being installed under the supervision of the government experts. The force had been trebled and was now working in shifts of two hours each, the pace being so exhausting that highest efficiency was obtained by using these short periods.
Additional rocket rubes were being installed, and the steel framework of a bulge now showed on the hull, this bulge being an additional fuel storage compartment that would provide a slight additional resistance and consequently lower speed in the lower levels, but would prove little hindrance in level six and none at all in outer space.
When Hart emerged from his office he appeared to be very tired, indeed, but his face bore an expression of triumph that could not be mistaken. He and this little scientist from Washington had evidently arrived at some momentous conclusion regarding the enemy.
"Jack," he said, when he reached my bench during his first round of the hanger, "celestial mechanics is a wonderful thing. I had a hunch, and this astronomer chap has proved it correct with his mathematics. Our friend the enemy is out there in space at a point where his own mass and velocity are exactly counteracted by those of the earth and its satellite, the moon. He is just floating around in space, doing no work whatsoever to maintain his own position. He has temporarily assumed the role of a second satellite to us and is revolving around us at a definite period that was calculated by Lindquist. The gravitational pull of the moon keeps him from falling to the earth and that of the earth keeps him from approaching the moon. The resultant of the set of forces is what determines his orbit and the disturbance in the normal balance is what has been observed by the astronomers who reported changes in the tides and in the moon's orbit."
"But Lindquist's figures prove that the vessel or fleet of the enemy must be of tremendous size to produce such discrepancies, infinitesimally small though they might seem. We have a big fellow with whom to deal, but we know where to find him now."
"How can he work from a fixed position to make his attacks on the earth at such widely separated points?" I asked.
"It isn't a fixed position in the first place, and besides the earth rotates once in twenty-four hours, while the moon travels around the earth once in about twenty-eight days. But, even so, the widespread destruction could not be accounted for. He must send out scouting parties or something of that sort. That is one of the things we are to learn when we get out there. We'll have some fun, Jack."
"Will the Pioneer be ready?" I asked. Evidently I was to go.
"She will, with the exception of the acceleration neutralizers. But I'm having some heavily-cushioned and elastic supports made that will, I believe, save us from injury. And I guess we can stand the discomfort for once."
"Yes," I agreed, "in such a cause, I, for one, am willing to go through anything to help keep this overwhelming disaster from our good old world."
"Jack," he whispered, "we must prevent it. We've got to!"
Then he was gone, and I watched him for a moment as he dashed headlong from one task to another. He was a whirlwind of energy once more.
Forty-three hours and twenty minutes had passed since the receipt of the enemy's ultimatum. The last bolt was being tightened in the remodeled Pioneer, and Secretary Simler and his staff were on hand to witness the take-off of the vessel on which the hopes of the world were pinned. The news of our attempt had been spread by cable and printed news only, for there was fear that the enemy might be able to pick up the broadcasts of the news service and thus be able to anticipate us. As usual, there were many scoffers, but the concensus of opinion was in favor of the project. At any rate, what better expedient was there to offer?
The huge airport, now unused on account of the complete cessation of air traffic, was closed to the public. But there was quite a crowd to witness the take-off, the visitors from Washington, the officials of the field, and the two hundred workers who had enabled us to make ready for the adventure in time. There were four to enter the Pioneer: Hart, George, Professor Lindquist, and myself. And when the entrance manhole was bolted home behind us, the watchers stood in silence, waiting for the roar of the Pioneer's motor. As the starter took hold, Hart waved his hand at one of the ports and every man of those two hundred and some watchers stood at attention and saluted is if he were a born soldier and Hart a born commander-in-chief.
We taxied heavily across the field, for the Pioneer was much overloaded for a quick take-off. She bumped and bounced for a quarter-mile before taking to the air and then climbed very slowly indeed, for several minutes. Our speed was a scant two hundred miles an hour when we swung out over New York and headed for the Atlantic. And then Hart made first use of the rocket tubes, not daring to discharge the hot gases below while over populated land at so low an altitude. He touched one button, maintaining the pressure for but a fraction of a second. The ocean slipped more rapidly away from beneath our feet and he touched the button once more. Our speed was now nearly seven hundred miles an hour and we made haste to buckle ourselves into the padded, hammocklike contrivances which had been substituted for the former seats. In a very few minutes we entered level six and the motor was cut off entirely.
A blast from a number of the tail rockets drove me into my supporting hammock so heavily that I found difficulty in breathing, and could scarcely move a muscle to change position. The rate of acceleration was terrific, and I am still unable to understand how Hart was able to manipulate the controls. For myself, I could not even turn my head from its position in the padding and I felt as if I were being crushed by thousands of tons of pressure. Then, the pressure was somewhat relieved and I glanced to the instruments. We were more than a thousand miles from our starting point and the speed indicator read seven thousand miles an hour. We were traveling at the rate of nearly two miles a second!
Another blast from the rockets, this one of interminable length, and I must have lost consciousness. For when I next took note of things I found that we had been out for nearly two hours and that the tremendous pressure of acceleration was relieved. I moved my head, experimentally and found that my senses were normal, though there was a strange and alarming sensation of being wrong side up. Then I remembered that I had experienced the same thing when we first searched the upper levels of the atmosphere for the origin of the destructive rays of the enemy.
But this was different! I gazed through a nearby port and saw that the sky was entirely black, the stars shining magnificently brilliant against their velvet background. Streamers of brilliant sunlight from the floor ports struck across the cabin and patterned the ceiling. Looking between my feet I saw the sun as a flaming orb with streamers of incandescence that spread in every direction with such blinding luminosity that I could not bear the sight for more than a few seconds. Off to what I was pleased to think of as our left side, there was a huge globe that I quickly made out as our own earth. Eerily green it shone, and, though a considerable portion of the surface was obscured by patches of white that I recognized as clouds, I could clearly make out the continents of the eastern hemisphere. It was a marvelous sight and I lost several minutes in awed contemplation of the wonder. Then I heard Hart laugh.
"Just coming out of it, Jack?" he asked.
I stared at him foolishly. It had seemed to me that I was alone in this vast universe, and the sound of his voice startled me. "Guess I'm not fully out of it yet," I said. "Where are we?"
"Oh, about sixty thousand miles out," he replied carelessly; "and we are traveling at our maximum speed--that is, the maximum we need for this little voyage."
"Little voyage!" I gasped. And then I looked at George and the professor and saw that they, too, were grinning at my discomfiture. I laughed crazily, I suppose, for they all sobered at once.
Traveling through space at more than forty thousand miles an hour, it seemed that we were stationary. Movement was now easy--too easy, in fact, for we were practically weightless. The professor was having a time of it manipulating a pencil and a pad of paper on which he had a mass of small figures that were absolutely meaningless to me. He was calculating and plotting our course and, without him, we should never have reached the object we sought.
Time passed rapidly, for the wonders of the naked universe were a never-ending source of fascination. Occasionally a series of rocket charges was fired to keep our direction and velocity, but these were light, and the acceleration so insignificant that we were put to no discomfort whatever. But it was necessary that we keep our straps buckled, for, in the weightless condition, even the slightest increase or decrease in speed or change in direction was sufficient to throw us the length of the cabin, from which painful bruises might be received.
The supports to which we were strapped and which saved us from being crushed by the acceleration and deceleration, were similar to hammocks, being hooked to the floor and ceiling of the cabin rather than suspended horizontally in the conventional manner. This was for the reason that the energy of the rockets was expended fore and aft, except for steering, and the forces were therefore along the horizontal axis of the vessel. The supports were elastic and the padding deep and soft. Being swiveled at top and bottom, they could swing around so that deceleration as well as acceleration was relieved. For this reason the controls had been altered so that the flexible support in which Hart was suspended could rotate about their pedestal, thus allowing for their operation by the pilot either when accelerating or decelerating. How he could control the muscles of his arms and hands under the extreme conditions is still a mystery to me, however, and George agrees with me in this. We found ourselves to be utterly helpless.
My next impression of the trip is that of swinging rapidly around and finding myself facing the rear wall of the cabin. Then the tremendous pressure once more at a burst from the forward tubes. We had commenced deceleration. For me there were alternate periods of full and semi-consciousness and, to this day, I can remember no more than the high spots of that historical expedition.
Then we were free to move once more, and I turned to face the instrument board. Our relative velocity had become practically zero; that is, we were traveling through space at about the same speed and in the same direction as the earth. The professor and Hart were consulting a pencil chart and excitedly looking first through the forward ports and then into the screen of the periscope.
"This is the approximate location," averred the professor.
"But they are not here," replied Hart.
George and I peered in all directions and could see nothing excepting the marvels of the universe we had been viewing. The moon now seemed very close and its craters and so-called seas were as plainly visible as in a four-inch telescope on earth. But we saw nothing of the enemy.
The earth was a huge ball still, but much smaller than when I had first observed it from the heavens. The sun's corona--the flaming streamers which the professor declared extended as much as five million miles into space--was partly hidden behind the rim of the earth and the effect was blinding. A thin crescent of brilliant light marked the rim of our planet and the rest was in shadow, but a shadow that was lighted awesomely in cold green by reflected light from her satellite.
"I have it!" suddenly shouted the professor. "We are all in very nearly the same line with reference to the sun, and the enemy is between the blazing body and ourselves. We must shift our position, move into the shadow of the earth. We have missed our calculation by a few hundred miles, that is all."
All! I thought. These astronomers, so accustomed to dealing in tremendous distances that must be measured in light-years, thought nothing of an error of several hundred miles. But I suppose it was really an inconsiderable amount, at that.
At any rate, we shifted position and looked around a bit more. We saw nothing at first. Then Hart consulted the chronometer.
"Time is up!" he shouted.
On the instant there was a flash of dazzling green light from a point not a hundred miles from our position, a flash that was followed by a streaking pencil of the same light shooting earthward with terrific velocity. Breathlessly we followed its length, saw it burst like a bomb and hurl three green balls from itself which sped at equally spaced angles to form a perfect triangle. They hovered a moment at about two thousand miles above the surface of the earth, according to the professor, who was using the telescope at the time, and shot their deadly rays toward our world. We were too late to prevent the renewal of hostilities!
Another and another streak of green light followed and we knew that great havoc was being wrought back home. But these served to locate the enemy's position definitely and we immediately set about to draw nearer. We were still somewhat on the dark side of the object, which had prevented our seeing it. Now we swung about so that it was plainly visible. And, what a strange appearance it presented, out here in space!
Fully fifteen miles in diameter, it was a huge doughnut, a great ring of tubing with a center-opening that was at least eighty per cent of its maximum diameter. There it hovered, sending out those deadly missiles in a continuous stream toward our poor world. As we approached the weird space flier, we saw that a number of objects floated about within the great circle of its inner circumference. The NY-18, the SF-61 and the SF-22, without doubt! The theory of Hart's was correct in every detail.
We were still at about ten miles distance from the great ring and the streaking light pencils were speeding earthward at the rate of one a minute now. There was no time to lose. Already there was more destruction on its way than had been previously wrought--several times over.
Hart was sighting along a tiny tube that projected into the forward partition and he maneuvered the Pioneer until she was nose on to the great ring. He pulled a switch and there came a purring that was entirely new. A row of huge vacuum tubes along the wall lighted to vivid brilliancy and a throbbing vibration filled the artificial air of the cabin.
He pulled a small lever at the side of the tube and the vessel rocked to the energy that was released from those vacuum tubes. The thin rod which had been installed at the Pioneer's nose burst into brilliant flame--orange tinted luminescence that grew to a sphere of probably ten feet in diameter. Then there was a heavy shock and the ball of fire left its position and, with inconceivable velocity, sprang straight for the side of the great ring. It was a fair hit and, when the weird missile found its mark, it simply vanished--swallowed up in the metal walls of the monster vessel. For a moment we thought nothing was to result. Then we burst into shouts of joy, for a great section of the ring fused into nothingness and was gone! Fully a quarter of the circumference of the ring had disappeared into the vacuum of space. Truly, the governments of Earth had developed some terrible weapons of their own!
We watched, breathless.
The green light pencils no longer streaked their paths of death in the direction of our world, which now seemed so remote. The great ring with the vacant space in its rim wabbled uncertainly for a moment as though some terrific upheaval from within was tearing it asunder. Then it lurched directly for the Pioneer. We had been observed!
But Hart was equal to the occasion and he shot the Pioneer in the direction of the earth with such acceleration that we all were flattened into our supports with the same old violence. Then, with equal violence, we decelerated. The ring was following so closely that it actually rushed many hundreds of miles past us before it was brought to rest. From it there sprang one of the light pencils, and the Pioneer was rocked as by a heavy gale when it rushed past on its harmless way into infinity. The enemy had missed.
Meanwhile, Hart was operating another mechanism that was new to the Pioneer and again he sighted along the tiny tube. This time there was no sound within, no ball of fire without, no visible ray. But, when he had pressed the release of this second energy, the ring seemed to shrivel and twist as if gripped by a giant's hand. It reeled and spun. Then, no longer in a balance of forces, it commenced its long drop earthward.
His job finished and finished well, Hart Jones collapsed.
Following his more than three days and four nights of superhuman endeavor, it seemed strange to see Hart slumped white and still over the control pedestal. He who had energy far in excess of that of any of the rest of us had worn himself out. Having had no rest or sleep in nearly a hundred hours, the body that housed so wonderful a spirit simply refused to carry on. Tenderly we stretched him on the cabin floor, the Pioneer drifting in space the while. The professor, who was likewise something of a physician, listened to his heart, drew back his eyelids, and pronounced him in no danger whatever.
We slapped his wrists, sprinkled his face and neck with cold water from the drinking supply, and were soon rewarded by his return to consciousness. He smiled weakly and fell sound asleep. No war in the universe could have wakened him then, so we lifted him to his feet--rather I should say, we guided his practically floating body--and strapped him in George's hammock, preparing for the homeward journey. Though dangling from the straps in a position that would be vertical were we on earth, he slept like a baby. George took the controls in Hart's place and the professor and I returned to our accustomed supports.
The return trip was considerably slower, as George did not wish to push the Pioneer to its limit as had been necessary when coming out to meet the enemy, nor was he able to keep control of the ship against a too-rapid acceleration. Consequently, the rate of acceleration was much lower and we were not nearly as uncomfortable as on the outgoing trip. Thus, nearly ten hours were required for the return. And Hart slept through it all.
In order to make best use of the small amount of fuel still in the cylinders, George circled the earth five times before we entered the upper limits of the atmosphere, the circles becoming of smaller diameter at each revolution and the speed of the ship proportionately reduced. An occasional discharge from one of the forward rocket tubes assisted materially in the deceleration, yet, when we slipped into level five, our speed was so great that the temperature of the cabin rose alarmingly, due to the friction of the air against the hull of the vessel. It was necessary to use the last remaining ounce of fuel to reduce the velocity to a safe value. A long glide to earth was then our only means of landing and, since we were over the Gulf of Mexico at the time, we had no recourse other than landing in the State of Texas.
Passing over Galveston in level three, we found that the Humble oil fields and a great section of the surrounding country had been the center of one of the enemy bombardments. All was blackness and ruin for many miles between this point and Houston. At Houston Airport we landed, unheralded but welcome.
The lower levels were once more filled with traffic, and one of the southern route transcontinental liners had just made its stop at this point. The arrival of the Pioneer was thus witnessed by an unusually large crowd, and, when the news was spread to the city, their numbers increased with all the rapidity made possible by the various means of transportation from the city.
So it was that Hart Jones, after we finally succeeded in awakening him and getting him to his feet, was hailed by a veritable multitude as the greatest hero of all time. The demonstrations become so enthusiastic that police reserves, hastily summoned from the city, were helpless in their attempts to keep the crowd in order.
It was with greatest difficulty that Hart was finally extricated from the clutches of the mob and conveyed to the new Rice Hotel in Houston, where it was necessary to obtain medical attention for him immediately. He was in no condition at the time to receive the richly deserved plaudits of the multitude, and, truth to tell, we others from the Pioneer were in much the same shape.
To me that night will always be the most terrible of nightmares. My first thought was of my family and, when I had been assigned to a room, I immediately asked the switchboard operator for a long-distance connection to my home in Rutherford. There was complete silence for a minute and I jangled the hook impatiently, my head throbbing with a thousand aches and pains. Then, to my surprise, the voice of the hotel manager greeted me.
"Mr. Makely," he said softly, and I thought there was a peculiar ring in his voice, "I think you had better not try to get Rutherford this evening. We are sending the house physician to your room at once and--there are orders from Washington, you know--you are to think of nothing at the present but sleep and a long rest."
"Why--why--" I stammered, "can't you see? I must communicate with my family. They must know of my return. I must know if they're safe and well."