"Yet nobody seems to have wakened at that ranch when--and it must have happened--the herd stopped making any noise whatever. The utter silence should have wakened seasoned cowhands. It didn't. Why? What happened to them that they slept so soundly they heard nothing?"
Eyer did not answer. It wasn't the first time he had been called upon to hear Jeter think out loud.
"It all ties up somehow," repeated Jeter, "and I intend to find out how."
But he didn't find out. Strange stories kept appearing. The three Chinese scientists still had not communicated with the outside world. The chap out in Arizona had now so elaborated on his yarn that nobody believed him and the public lost interest--all save Jeter, who was on the trail of a queer idea.
Nothing happened however until near the end of the third week after Kress' disappearance.
Then, out of a clear sky almost, Kress came back.
He came down by parachute, without the ball in which he should have sealed himself. His return caused plenty of comment. There was good reason. He had been gone the impossibly long period of three weeks.
He was dead--but had been for less than seventy-two hours!
His body was frozen solid.
It landed on the roof of the Jeter-Eyer laboratory; had he been alive he couldn't possibly have maneuvered his chute to land him on such a small place.
The partners stared at each other. It seemed strange to them indeed that Kress should have come back to land on the roof of the two who had promised to follow him into the stratosphere if he didn't return.
Very strange indeed.
He had returned, though, releasing Jeter and Eyer from their promise. Strangely enough that fact made them all the more determined to go. And while the newspaper reporters went wild over Kress' return, the partners started making additional plans.
Strange Levitation "In two days we'll be ready, Tema," said Lucian Jeter quietly. "And make no mistake about it; when we take off for the stratosphere we're going to encounter strange things. Nobody can tell me that Kress' plane actually flew three weeks! And where did it come down? Why didn't Kress use the parachute ball? Where is it? I'll wager we'll find answers to plenty of those questions--if we live!"
"If we live?" repeated Eyer. "You mean--?"
"You know what happened to Kress? Or rather you know the result of what happened to him?"
"Why should we be immune? I tell you, Eyer, we're on the eve of something colossal, awe-inspiring--perhaps catastrophic."
Eyer grinned. Jeter grinned back at him. If they knew they flew inescapably to death they still would have grinned. They had plenty of courage.
"We'd better go into town for a meeting with newspaper people," went on Jeter. "You know how things go in the news; there are probably plenty of stories which for one reason or another have not been published. Maybe the law has clamped down on some of them. I've a feeling that if everything were told, the whole world would be frightened stiff. And you notice how quickly the papers finished with the Kress' thing."
Eyer knew, all right. The papers had broken the story of the return in flaming scareheads. Then the thing had come to a full stop. It was significant that no real satisfactory explanation had been offered by any one. The papers had, on their own initiative, tried to communicate with Sitsumi, and the three Chinese scientists, and had failed all around. Sitsumi did not answer, denied himself to representatives of the American press in Japan, and crawled into an impenetrable Oriental shell. The three Chinese could not answer, according to advices from Peking, because they could not be located.
Jeter called the publisher of the leading newspaper for a conference.
"Strange that you should have called just now," said the publisher, "for I was on the point of calling you and Eyer and inviting you to a conference to be held this evening at my office in Manhattan."
"What's the purpose of your conference? Who will attend?"
"I--I--well, let us say I had hoped to make you and Eyer available to all interviewers on the eve of your flight into the stratosphere."
Jeter hesitated, realizing that the publisher did not wish to tell everything over the telephone.
"We'll be right along, sir," he said.
It took an hour for them to reach the publisher's office. Wires had plainly been pulled, too, for a motorcycle escort joined them at the Queensboro Bridge and led them, sirens screaming, to their meeting with George Hadley, the publisher.
They looked at each other in surprise when they were admitted to the meeting.
Hadley's huge offices were packed. The mayor was there, the police commissioner, the assistant to the head of Federal Secret Service. The State Governor had sent a representative. All the newspapers had their most famous men sitting in. Right in this one big room was represented almost the entire public opinion of the United States. American representatives of foreign newspapers were there. And there wasn't a smile on a single face.
It was beginning to be borne in upon everybody that the Western Hemisphere was in the grip of a strange unearthly malady--almost an other-earthly malady, but what was it?
Hadley nodded to the two scientists and they took the seats he indicated.
Hadley cleared his throat and spoke.
"We have here people who represent the press of the world," he said. "We have men who control billions in money. I don't know how many of you have thought along the same lines as I have, but I feel that after I have finished speaking most of you will. First, there are certain news stories which, for reasons of policy, never reach the pages of our papers. I shall now tell you some of them...."
The whole crowd shifted slightly in its chairs. There was a strained leaning forward. Grave faces went whiter as they anticipated gripping announcements.
"All the strange things have not been happening in the United States, gentlemen," said Hadley. "That young fellow who reported seeing the columns of light in Arizona--you remember?--"
There was a chorus of nods.
"He probably told the exact truth, as far as he knew it. But it isn't only in Arizona that it has been seen--those columns I mean. Only there is just one column--not five. It has since been reported in Nepal and Bhutan, in Egypt and Morocco and a dozen other places. But in the cases of such stories emanating from foreign countries, a congress of publishers has withheld the facts, not because of their strangeness but because of the effect they might have on the public sanity. In Nepal, for example, the column of light rested for a moment on an ancient temple, and when the light vanished the temple also had vanished, with everybody in it at the time for worship! Rumor had it that some of the worshipers were later found and identified. They appear to have been scattered over half of Nepal--and every last one was smashed almost to a pulp, as though the body had been dropped from an enormous height."
A concerted gasp raced around the assemblage. Then silence again, while the pale-faced Hadley went on with his unbelievable story.
"A mad story comes from the heart of the terai, in India. I don't know what importance to give this story since the only witnesses to the phenomenon were ignorant natives. But the column of light played into the terai--and tigers, huge snakes, buffalo and even elephants rose bodily over the treetops and vanished. They started up slowly--then disappeared with the speed of light."
"Were crushed animals later found in the jungle?" asked Jeter quietly.
Hadley turned his somber eyes on the questioner. Every white face, every fearful eye, also turned toward Jeter.
And Hadley nodded.
"It's too much to be coincidence," he said. "The crushed and broken bodies in Nepal and India--of course they aren't so far apart but that natives in either place might have heard the story from the other--but I am inclined to believe in the inner truth of the stories in each case."
Hadley turned to the two scientists. There were other scientists present, but the fact that Jeter and Eyer, who were so soon to follow Kress into the stratosphere--and eternity?--held the places of honor near the desk of the spokesman, was significant.
"What do you gentlemen think?" asked Hadley quietly.
"There is undoubtedly some connection between the two happenings," said Jeter. "I think Eyer and myself will be able to make some report on the matter soon. We will, take off for the stratosphere day after to-morrow."
"Then you think the same thing I do?" said Hadley. "If that is so, can't you start to-morrow? God knows what may happen if we delay longer--though what two of you can do against something which appears to blanket the earth, and strikes from the heavens, I don't know. And yet, the fate of your country may be in your hands."
"We realize that," said Jeter, while Eyer nodded.
Hadley opened his mouth to make some other observation, then closed it again, tightly, as a horrible thing happened.
The conference was being held on the tenth floor of the Hadley building. And just as Hadley started to speak the whole building began to shake, to tremble as with the ague. Jeter turned his eyes on the others, to see their faces blurred by the vibration of the entire building.
Swiftly then he looked toward the windows of the big room.
Outside the south windows he witnessed an unbelievable thing. Out there was a twelve-story building, and its lighted windows were moving--not to right or left, but straight up! The movement gave the same impression which passing windows give to one in an elevator. Either that other building was rising straight into the air, or the Hadley building was sinking into the Earth.
"Quick, Hadley!" yelled Jeter. "To the roof the fastest way possible!"
Even as Jeter spoke every last light in the building across the way went out. Jeter knew then that it was the other building that was moving--and that electrical connection with the earth had been severed.
Hadley led the way to the roof, four stories above. Fortunately this was an old building and they didn't have to wait to travel a hundred floors or so. The whole conference followed at the heels of Hadley, Jeter and Eyer.
They reached the roof at top speed.
They were first conscious of the cries of despair, of disbelief, of horror which rose from the street canyons below them. But they forgot these the next instant at what they saw.
The Vandercook building, the twelve-story building whose lights Jeter had seen moving, was rising bodily, straight out of the well which had been built around it. From the building came shrieks and cries of mortal terror. Even as the conference froze to horrified immobility, many men and women stepped to the ledges of those darkened windows and plunged out in their fear.
"God!" said Hadley.
"It's just as well," said Jeter in a far-away voice, "they haven't a chance anyway!"
"I know," replied Hadley. "God, Jeter, isn't there something we can do?"
"I hope to find something," said Jeter. "But just now I'm afraid we are helpless."
The Vandercook building continued to rise. It did not totter; it simply rose in its entirety, leaving the gaping hole into which, decades ago, it had been built. It rose straight into the sky, apparently of its own volition. No rays of light, no supernatural agencies could be seen or fancied. The utterly impossible was happening. A building was a-wing.
Jeter and Eyer looked at each other with protruding eyes.
Then they looked back at the Vandercook, whose base now was on a level with the roof of the Hadley building.
"See?" said Hadley. "Not so much as a brick falls from the foundation. It's--it's--ghastly."
Jeter would never forget the screams of mortal terror which came from the lips of the doomed who had been working late in the Vandercook building--for, horror piled upon horror, those who had sought to escape calamity did not fall to Earth at all, but, at the same speed of the rising building, traveled skyward with it, human flies outside those leering dark windows.
Then, free of New York's skyline, the flying building was gone with a rush. A thousand feet above New York's tallest building, the Vandercook changed direction and moved directly into the west.
The conference watched it go....
"Commissioner," Jeter yelled at the police chief of Manhattan, "get word out at once for all lights to be put out in the city! Hurry! Radio would be fastest."
In ten minutes Manhattan was a darkened, silent city ... and now the conference could see why Jeter had asked for all lights to be extinguished.
Five thousand feet aloft, directly over the Hudson River, the Vandercook building now hung motionless--and all eyes saw the thin column of light. It came down from the dark skies from a vast distance, widening to encompass the top of the Vandercook building.
The Vandercook building might almost have been a mouse caught in the talons of some unbelievable night-hawk.
As though some intellect had just realized the significance of New York's sudden darkness; as though that intellect had realized that the column was ordinarily invisible because of Manhattan's brilliant incandescents, and now was visible in the darkness--the column of light snapped out....
"God Almighty! May the Lord of Hosts save the world from destruction!"
From New York's canyons, from the roof of the Hadley building, came the great composite prayer.
A whistling shriek, growing second by second into enormous proportions, came out of the west, above the Hudson.
Frantic Scheming There was no mistaking the meaning of that whistling shriek. Whatever agency had held the Vandercook building aloft had now released its uncanny grip on the building, and thousands of tons of brick and mortar, of stone and steel, were plunging down in a mass from five thousand feet above the Hudson. The same force had also released the ill-fated men and women who had been carried aloft with the building. And there must have been hundreds of people inside side the building.
It fell as one piece, that great building. It didn't topple until it had almost reached the river and its shrieking plunge became meteor-like, the sound of its fall monstrous beyond imagining. The conference above the Hadley building fancied they could feel the outward rush of air displaced by the falling monster--and drew back in fear from the edge of the roof.
The Vandercook struck the surface of the Hudson and an uprush of geysering water for a few seconds blotted the great building from view. Then all Manhattan seemed to shudder. Most of it was perhaps fancy, but thousands of frightened Manhattanites saw that fall, heard the whistling, and felt the trembling of immovable Manhattan.
The great columns of water fell back into the turbulent Hudson which had received the plunging building. Not so much as a wooden desk showed above the surface as far as any one could see from shore. Not a soul had been saved. Shrieks of the doomed had never stopped from the moment the Vandercook building had started its mad journey aloft.
Jeter whirled on Hadley.
"Will you see that all my suggestions are carried out, Hadley?" he demanded.
Hadley, face gray as ashes, nodded.
From Manhattan rose the long abysmal wailing of a populace just finding its voice of fear after a stunning, numbing catastrophe.
"I'll do whatever you say, Jeter," said Hadley. "We all agreed before the arrival of Eyer and yourself that your advice would be followed if you chose to give any."
"Then listen," said Jeter, while Eyer stood quietly at his elbow, missing nothing. "Advise the people of New York to quit the city as quietly and in as orderly a manner as possible. Let the police commissioner look after that. Then get word to the leading aviation authorities, promoters, and fliers and have them get to our Mineola laboratory as fast as possible. We've kept much of the detail of construction of our space-ship secret, for obvious reasons. But the time has come to forget personal aggrandizement and the world must know all we have learned by our labor and research. Then see that every manufacturing agency, capable of even a little of what it will take for the program, is drafted to the work--by Federal statute if necessary--and turn out copies of our plane as quickly as God will let you."