It seemed only fitting and proper that the greatest of all leaps into space should start from Roosevelt Field, where so many great flights had begun and ended. Fliers whose names had rung--for a space--around the world, had landed here and been received by New York with all the pomp of visiting kings. Fliers had departed here for the lands of kings, to be received by them when their journeys were ended.
Of course Lucian Jeter and Tema Eyer were disappointed that Franz Kress had beaten them out in the race to be first into the stratosphere above fifty-five thousand feet. There was a chance that Kress would fail, when it would be the turn of Jeter and Eyer. They didn't wish for his failure, of course. They were sports-men as well as scientists; but they were just human enough to anticipate the plaudits of the world which would be showered without stint upon the fliers who succeeded.
"At least, Tema," said Jeter quietly, "we can look his ship over and see if there is anything about it that will suggest something to us. Of course, whether he succeeds or fails, we shall make the attempt as soon as we are ready."
"Indeed, yes," replied Eyer. "For no man will ever fly so high that another may not fly even higher. Once planes are constructed of unlimited flying radius ... well, the universe is large and there should be no end of space fights for a long time."
Eyer, the elder of the two partner scientists, was given sometimes to quiet biting sarcasm that almost took the hide off. Jeter never minded greatly, for he knew Eyer thoroughly and liked him immensely. Besides they were complements to each other. The brain of each received from the other exactly that which he needed to supplement his own knowledge of science.
They had one other thing in common. They had been "child prodigies," but contrary to the usual rule, they had both fulfilled their early promise. Their early precocious wisdom had not vanished with the passing of childhood. Each possessed a name with which to conjure in the world of science. And each possessed that name by right of having made it famous. And yet--they were under forty.
Jeter was a slender athletic chap with deep blue eyes and brown hair. His forehead was high and unnaturally white. There was always a still sort of tenseness about him when his mind was working with some idea that set him apart from the rest of the world. You felt then that you couldn't have broken his preoccupation in any manner at all--but that if by some miracle you did, he would wither you with his wrath.
Tema Eyer was the good nature of the partnership, with a brain no less agile and profound. He was a swart fellow, straight as an arrow, black of eyes--the sort which caused both men and women to turn and look after him on the street. Children took to both men on sight.
The crowd which had come out to watch the take-off of Franz Kress was a huge one--huge and restless. There had been much publicity attendant on this flight, none of it welcome to Kress. Oh, later, if he succeeded, he would welcome publicity, but publicity in advance rather nettled him.
Jeter and Eyer went across to him as he was saying his last words into the microphone before stepping into his sealed cabin for the flight. Kress saw them coming and his face lighted up.
"Lord," he said, "I'm glad to see you two. I've something I must ask you."
"Anything you ask will be answered," said Jeter, "if Tema and I can answer it. Or granted--if it's a favor you wish."
Kress motioned people back in order to speak more or less privately with his brother scientists. His face became unusually grave.
"You've probably wondered--everybody has--why I insist on making this flight alone," he said, speaking just loudly enough to be heard above the purring of the mighty, but almost silent motor behind him. "I'll tell you, partly. I've had a feeling for the last month that ... well, that things may not turn out exactly as everybody hopes. Of course I'll blaze the way to new discoveries; yes, and I'll climb to a height of around a hundred thousand feet ... and ... and...."
Jeter and Eyer looked at each other. It wasn't like Kress to be gloomy just before doing something that no man had ever done before. He should have been smiling and happy--at least for the movietone cameras--but he wasn't even that. Certainly it must be something unusual to so concern him.
"Tell us, Kress," said Eyer.
Kress looked at them both for several moments.
"Just this," he said at last: "work on your own high altitude plane with all possible speed. If I don't come back ... take off and follow me into the stratosphere at once."
Had Kress, possessor of one of the keenest scientific minds in the world, taken leave of his senses? "If I don't come back," he had said. What did he expect to do? Fly off the earth utterly? That was silly.
But when the partners looked again at Kress they both had the same feeling. It probably wasn't as silly as it sounded. Did Kress know something he wasn't telling them? Did he really think he might ... well, might fly off the earth entirely, away beyond her atmosphere, and never return? How utterly absurd! And yet....
"Of course we'll do it," said Jeter. "We'd do it anyway, without word from you. We haven't stopped our own work because of your swiftly approaching conquest of the greater heights. But why shouldn't you come back?"
For a moment there was a look of positive dread upon Kress' face.
Then he spoke again very quietly: "You know all the stuff that's been written about my flight," he said. "Most of it has been nonsense. How could laymen newspaper reporters have any conception of what I may encounter aloft? They've tried to make something of the recent passage of the Earth through an area of so-called shooting stars. They've speculated until they're black in the face as to the true nature of the recent bombardment of meteorites. They've pictured me as a hero in advance, doomed to death by direct attack from what they are pleased to call--after having invented them--denizens of the stratosphere."
"Yes?" said Jeter, when Kress paused.
Kress took a deep breath.
"They've come nearer than they hoped for in some guesses," he said. "Of course I don't know it, but I've had a feeling for some time. You know what sometimes happens when a man gets a sudden revolutionary idea? He concentrates on it like all get-out. Then somebody else bursts into the newspapers with the same identical idea, which in turn brings out hordes of claims to the same idea by countless other people. It's no new thing to writers and such-like gentry. They know that when they get such an idea they must act on it at once or somebody else will, because their thoughts on the subject have gone forth and impinged upon the mental receiving sets of others. Well, that's a rough idea, anyway. This idea of denizens of the stratosphere has attacked the popular imagination. You'll remember it broke in the papers simultaneously, in thirty countries of the world!"
A cold chill ran down the spine of Tema Eyer. He saw, in a flash, whither Kress' thoughts were tending--and when he saw that, it thrilled him, too, for it seemed to be proof of the very thing Kress was saying.
"You mean," he said hoarsely, "that you too think there may be something up there, something ... well, sensate? Some great composite thought which inspires the general dread of stratosphere denizens?"
Kress shrugged. He wouldn't commit himself, being too careful a scientist, but he hadn't hesitated to plant the idea. Jeter and Eyer both understood the thoughts which were teeming in Kress' brain.
"We'll do our part Kress," said Eyer. Lucian Jeter nodded agreement. Kress gripped their hands tightly--almost desperately, Jeter thought. Jeter was usually the leader where Eyer and himself were concerned and he thought already that he foresaw cataclysmic events.
Kress climbed into his plane. The vast crowd murmured. They knew he was adjusting everything inside for the days-long endurance test ahead of him. Kress had forgotten nothing. There was even a specially made cylinder, comparable to the globe which Picard had used in his historic balloon ascensions in Europe. This was attached to a parachute which, if the emergency arose, could be dropped. Kress, in the ball, could pass through the sub-arctic cold of the stratosphere if necessity demanded. The ball, if it struck the ocean, would preserve him for a great length of time. It was even equipped with rockets.
This plane was revolutionary. It was, to begin with, carrying a vast load. Kress was taking every conceivable kind of instrument he fancied he might need. There was food as for a long siege.
Jeter shuddered. Why had he thought of the word "siege"?
The great load would be carried without difficulty, however, for this plane was little short of a miracle. Among other things, Kress would be able, in case of fatigue, to set his controls--as at sea a pilot may sometimes lash his wheel--and sleep while his plane mounted on up, and up, in great spirals.
Up beyond fifty-five thousand he hoped to attain a thousand miles an hour velocity. That meant, say, breakfast in New York, lunch in London, tea in Novo-Sibirsk, dinner in Yokohama--as soon as the myriad planes which would follow this one in design and capabilities took off on the trail Kress was blazing.
Jeter sighed at the thought. For several years he had explored little-known sections of the world. He had visited every country. He had entered every port that could be reached from the ocean--and all the time he had felt the Earth shrinking before the gods of speed. The time would soon come when everything on Earth would be commonplace. Then man's urge to go places he hadn't seen before would take him away from the Earth entirely--when he would begin the task of making even the universe shrink to appease the gods of speed. Somehow the thought was a melancholy one.
Now the crowd gave back as Kress speeded up his motor, indicating that he would soon take off. Jeter and Eyer studied the outward outline of Kress' craft. It looked exactly like a black beetle which has just alighted after flight, but has not yet quite hidden its wings. It was black, probably because it was believed a black object could be followed easier from the Earth.
There would be many anxious eyes watching that spiraling ship as it grew smaller and smaller, climbing upward.
With a rush, and a spinning of dust in the slipstream, the ship was away. It lifted as easily as a bird and mounted with great speed. It was capable of climbing in wide spirals at a hundred and fifty miles an hour.
A great sigh burst from the thousands who had come to watch history made. For solid hours now they would watch the plane climb, growing smaller, becoming a speck, vanishing. Many curious ones would stay right here until Kress returned, fearful of being cheated of a great thrill. For Kress was to land right here when, and if, he had conquered the stratosphere.
Jeter and Eyer wormed their way through the crowd to the road and found their car in a jam of other cars. Without a word they climbed in and drove themselves to their dwelling--combined home and laboratory--in Mineola. There they fell to on their own ship, which was being built piece by piece in their laboratory.
Every half hour or so one or the other would go to the lawn and gaze aloft, seeking Kress.
"He's out of eyesight," said Eyer, the last to go. "Is the telescope set up?"
"Yes, and arranged to cover all the area of sky through which Kress is likely to climb."
At intervals through the night, long after they had ceased work, the partners rose from bed and sought their fellow scientist among the stars. They alternated at this task.
"According to my calculations," said Jeter, when the eastern sky was just paling into dawn, "Kress has now reached a point higher than man has ever flown before, higher than any living--"
Jeter stopped on the word. Both men remembered Kress' last words. Kress, upset or not, properly or improperly, had hinted of living things in the stratosphere--perhaps utterly malignant entities.
It was just here, in the dawning of the first day after Kress' departure, that the dread began to grow on Jeter and Eyer. And during the day they labored like Trojans at their work, as though to forget it.
The world had begun its grim wait for the return of Kress.
They waited all that day ... and the next ... and the next!
Then telegraph and radio, at the suggestion of Jeter, instructed the entire civilized world to turn its eyes skyward to watch for the return of Kress.
The world obeyed that day ... and the next ... and the next!
But Kress did not return; nor, so far as the world knew, did any or all of his great airplane.
The world itself began to have a feeling of dread--that grew.
The Ghostly Columns Franz Kress had been gone a week, when all the world knew that he couldn't possibly have stayed aloft that length of time. Yet no word was received from him, no report received from any part of the world that he had returned. Various islands which he might have reached were scoured for traces of him. The lighter vessels of most of the navies of the world joined in the search to no avail. Kress had merely mounted into the sky and vanished.
The world's last word from him had been a few words on the radio-telephone: "Have reached sixty thousand feet and--"
There the message had ended, as though the speaker, eleven miles above the earth, had been strangled. Yet he didn't drop, as far as anybody in the world knew.
Lucian Jeter and Tema Eyer worked harder than ever, remembering the promise they had made Kress at his take-off. Whatever had happened to him, he seemingly in part had anticipated. And now the partners would go up, too, seeking information--perhaps to vanish as Kress had vanished. They were not afraid. They shared the world's feeling of dread, but they were not afraid. Of course death would end their labors, but there were many scientists in the world to take up where they might leave off.
There were, for example, Sitsumi of Japan, rumored discoverer of a substance capable of bending light rays about itself to render itself invisible; Wang Li, Liao Wu, Yung Chan, of China--three who had degrees from the world's greatest universities and had added miraculously to the store of knowledge by their own inspired research. These three were patriotically eager to bring China back to her rightful place as the leader in scientific research--a place she had not held for a thousand years. It was generally agreed among scientists that the three would shortly outstrip all their contemporaries.
As Jeter thought of these four men, Orientals all, it suddenly occurred to him to communicate with them. He talked it over with Eyer and decided to send carefully worded cables to all four.
In a few hours he received answers to them: From Japan: "Sitsumi does not care to communicate." There was a world of cold hostility in the words, Jeter thought, and Eyer agreed with him.
From China came the strangest message of all: "Wang, Liao and Yung have been cut off from world for past four months, conducting confidential research in Gobi laboratories. Impossible to communicate because area in which laboratories situated in Japanese hands and surrounded by cordon of guards."
Jeter and Eyer stared at each other when the cable had been read and digested.
"Queer, isn't it?" said Eyer.
Jeter didn't answer. That preoccupied expression was on his face, that distant look which no man could erase from his face by any interruption until Jeter had finished his train of thought.
"Queer," thought Jeter, "that Sitsumi should be so snooty and the three Chinese totally unavailable."
There were many strange things happening lately, too, and the queer things kept on happening, and in ever-increasing numbers, during the second week of Kress' impossible absence in the stratosphere. Or was he there? Had he ever reached it? Had he--Jeter and Eyer had noticed his utter gloom at the take-off--merely, climbed out of sight of the Earth and then slanted down to a dive into the ocean? Maybe he was a suicide. But some bits of wreckage of his plane had many unsinkable parts about it--the parachute ball for instance.
No, the solemn fact remained that Kress had simply flown up and hadn't come down again. It would have sounded silly and absurd if it hadn't been so serious.
And strange stories were seeping into the press of the world.
Out in Wyoming a cattleman had driven a herd of prime steers into the round-up corral at night. Next morning not one of the steers could be found. No tracks led away from the corral. The gates were closed, exactly as they had been left the night before. There had been no cowboys watching the steers, for the corral had always been strong enough to hold the most rambunctious.
The tale of the missing steers hit the headlines, but so far nobody had thought of this disappearance in connection with Kress'. How could any one? Steers and scientists didn't go together. But it still was strange.
At least so Jeter thought. His mind worked with this and other strange happenings even as he and Eyer worked at top speed.
A young fellow in Arizona told a yarn of wandering about the crater of a meteor which had fallen on the desert thousands of years before. The place wasn't important nor did it seem to have anything to do with the crater or meteors--but the young fellow reported that he had seen a faded white column of light, like the beam of a great searchlight, reaching up into the sky from somewhere on the desert.
When people became amazed at his story he added to it. There had been five columns of light instead of one. The one he had first mentioned had touched the Earth, or had shot up from the Earth, within several miles of his point of vantage. A second glowed off to the northwest, a third to the southwest, a fourth to the southeast, the fifth to the northeast. The first one seemed to "center" the other four--they might have been the five legs of a table, according to their arrangement....
Arrangement! Jeter wondered how that word had happened to come to him.
The story of the fellow who had seen the columns of light might have been believed if he had stuck to his first yarn of seeing but one. But when he mentioned five ... well, he didn't have any too good a reputation for veracity and wasn't regarded as being overly bright. Besides, he had stated that the thickness of the columns of light seemed to be the same from the ground as far as his eyes could follow them upward. Everybody knew that a searchlight's beams spread out a bit.
"I wonder," thought Jeter, "why the kid didn't say he saw those five columns move--like a five-legged animal, walking."
Silly, of course, but behind the silliness of the thought Jeter thought there might be something of interest, something on which to work.
The Jeter-Eyer space ship still was not finished--though almost--when the world moved into the third week since the disappearance of Franz Kress.
An Indian in the Southwest had reported seeing one of those columns of light. However, this merited just a line on about page sixteen, even of the newspaper closest to the spot where the redskin had seen the column.
"Eyer," said Jeter at last, "we've got to start digging into newspaper stories, especially into stories which deal with unusually queer happenings throughout the world. I've a hunch that the keys to Kress' disappearance may be found in some of them, or a combination of a great many of them."
"How do you mean, Lucian?"
"Don't you notice that all this queer stuff has been happening since Kress left? It sounds silly, perhaps, but I feel sure that the disappearance of those steers in Wyoming, the story the boy told about the columns of light--yes, all five of them!--and the Indian's partial confirmation of it, are all tied up together with the disappearance of Kress."
Eyer started to grin his disbelief, but a look at his partner's tense face stopped him.
"What could want all those steers, Lucian?" said Eyer softly. "I can't think of anything or anybody disposing of such a bunch on such short notice, except a marching army, a marching column of soldier ants, or all the world's buzzards gathered together at one place. In any case the animals themselves would have created a fuss, would have kicked up so much noise that somebody would have heard. But this story of the steers seems to suggest, or say right out loud--though I know you can't believe everything in the newspapers--that the steers vanished in utter silence."
"Doesn't it also seem funny to you," went on Jeter, "that the vanishing of the herd wasn't discovered until next morning? I've read enough Western stuff to know that a herd always makes noise. Yes, even at night. The cowhands wouldn't have lost a wink of sleep over that. But, listen, Tema, suppose you lived in New York City near some busy intersection which was always noisy, even after midnight--and all the noise suddenly stopped. Would you sleep right on through it?"
"No, I'd wake up--unless I were drunk or doped."