Hadley's eyes were bulging. So were those of the others who had crowded close to listen. They seemed to think Jeter had taken leave of his senses, and yet--all had seen the Vandercook building perform the utterly impossible.
"What do you want with the filers and others at your laboratory?"
"To listen to the details of construction of our space ship. Eyer will hold a couple of classes to explain everything. Then, when we've made things as clear as possible, Eyer and I will take off and get up to do our best to counteract the--whatever it is--that seems to be ruling the stratosphere. We'll do everything possible to hold the influences in check until you can send up other space ships to our assistance."
"You speak as though you expected to be up for a long time. Planes like yours aren't made overnight."
"Planes like ours must be made almost overnight--and have you forgotten that Kress was gone for three weeks, and yet had been dead but seventy-two hours when he landed on our roof? Incidentally, Hadley, that fall of his was guided by something or someone. He didn't fall on our roof by chance. He was dropped there, as a challenge to us!"
"That means?" said Hadley hoarsely.
"That everything we do is known to the intelligence of the stratosphere! That every move we make is watched!"
"God!" said Hadley.
Then Hadley straightened. His jaws became firm, his eyes lost their fear. He was like a good soldier receiving orders.
"All the power of the press will be massed to get the country to back your suggestions, Jeter. They seem good to me. Now get back to your ship and leave everything to me. Suppose you do encounter some intelligence in the stratosphere? How will you combat it, especially if it proves inimical--which to-night's horror would seem to prove?"
"We'll take such armament as we have. We have several drums of a deadly volatile gas. We have guns of great power, hurling projectiles of great velocity; but I feel all of that will be more or less useless. The intelligence up there--well, it knows everything we know and far more besides, for do any of us know how to strike at the earth from the stratosphere? Therefore our only weapons must be our own intelligence--at least that will be the program for Eyer and me. Later, when your planes which are yet to be built follow us up the sky, perhaps they will be better armed. I hope to be able to communicate information somehow, relative to whatever we find."
Hadley thrust out his hand.
"Good luck," he said simply.
Then he was gone and Jeter and Eyer were dropping swiftly down in the elevator to the street--to find that the streets of Manhattan had gone mad. The ban on electric lights had been lifted, and the faces of fear-ridden men and women were ghastly in the brilliance of thousands of lights. Traffic accidents were happening on every corner, at every intersection, and there were all too few police to manage traffic.
However, a motorcycle squad was ready to lead the way through the press for Eyer and Jeter--two grim-faced men now, who dared not look at each other, because each feared to show his abysmal fear to the other.
Automobiles raced past on either side of them driven by crazy men and hysterical women.
"Queensboro Bridge will be packed tight as a drum," said Eyer quietly.
Jeter didn't seem to hear. Eyer talked on softly, unbothered by Jeter's silence, knowing that Jeter wouldn't hear a word, that his partner had drawn into himself and was even now, perhaps, visualizing what they might encounter in the stratosphere. Eyer talked to give shape to his own thoughts.
A world gone mad, a world that fled from the menace which hung over Manhattan.... Jeter hoped that the calm brains of men like Hadley would at least be able to quiet the populace somewhat, else many of them would be self-destroyed, as men and women destroy one another in rushes for the exits during great theater fire alarms.
Fast as they traveled, some of the foremost airmen of the adjoining country had reached Mineola ahead of them. They understood that many of them had arrived by plane in obedience to word broadcast by Hadley. Hadley was doing his bit with a vengeance.
The partners reached their laboratory.
Their head servant met them at the door.
"A Mr. Hadley frantically telephoning, sir," he said to Jeter.
Jeter listened to Hadley's words--which were not so frantic now, as though Hadley had been numbed by the awful happenings.
"The new bridge between Manhattan and Jersey," said Hadley, "has just been lifted by whatever the unearthly force is. It was pulled up from its very foundations. It was crowded with cars as people fled from New York--and cars and people were lifted with the bridge. Awful irony was in the rest of the event. The great bridge was simply turned, along its entire length--which remained intact during the miracle--until it was parallel with the river and directly above midstream. Then it was dropped into the water."
"No telling how many lives were lost?" asked Jeter.
"No, and hundreds and thousands of lives are being lost every moment now. Frantic thousands are swamping boats of all sizes in their craze to get away. Dozens of overloaded vessels have capsized and the surface of the river is alive with doomed people, fighting the water and one another...."
Jeter clicked up the receiver on the horror, knowing there was nothing he could do. There would be no end to the loss of life until some measure of sanity had been argued into crazed humanity.
All the time he kept wondering.
What was doing all this awful business? He surmised that some anti-gravitational agency was responsible for the levitation of the Vandercook building, but what sort of intelligence was directing it? Was the intelligence human? Bestial? Maniacal? Or was it something from Outside? Jeter did not think the latter could be considered. He didn't believe that any planet, possibly inhabited, was close enough to make a visit possible. At any rate, he felt that there should be some sort of warning. He held to the belief that the whole thing was caused by human, and earthly, intelligence.
But why? The world was at peace. And yet....
Thousands of lives had been snuffed out, a twelve-story building had leaped five thousand feet into the air, and the world's biggest bridge had turned upstream as though turning its back against the mad traffic it had at last been called upon to bear.
Eyer was going over their plane with the visitors, men of intellect who were taking notes at top speed, men who knew planes and were quick to grasp new appliances.
"Have any of you got the whole story now?" Eyer asked.
A half dozen men nodded.
"Then pass your knowledge on to the others. Jeter and I must get ready to be off. Every minute we delay costs untold numbers of lives."
Willing hands rolled their ship out to their own private runway, while Jeter and Eyer made last minute preparations. There was the matter of food, of oxygen necessary so far above the Earth, of clothing. All had been provided for and their last duties were largely those of checking and rechecking, to make sure no fatal errors in judgment had been made.
Eyer was to fly the ship in the beginning.
A small crowd watched as the partners, white of face now in the last minutes of their stay on Earth--which they might never touch again in life--climbed into their cabin, which was capable of being sealed against the cold of the heights and the lack of breathable oxygen.
Nobody smiled at them, for the world had stopped smiling.
Nobody waved at them, for a wave would have been frivolous.
Nobody cheered or even shouted--but the two knew that the best wishes, the very hopes for life, of all the land, went with them into the ghastly unknown.
Into the Void Their watches and the clock in the plane were synchronized with Hadley's time, which was Eastern Standard, and as soon as the plane had reached eight thousand feet altitude, Jeter spoke into the radiophone and arranged for a connection with the office of Hadley.
Hadley himself soon spoke into Jeter's ear.
"See that someone is always at your radiophone to listen to us. I'll keep you informed of developments as long as possible. Everything is running like clockwork so far. How is it with you?"
"Two additional buildings, older buildings of the city, have been lifted some hundreds of feet above ground level, then dropped back upon their own foundations, to be broken apart. Many lives lost despite the fact that the city will be deserted within a matter of hours. It seems that the--shall we say enemy?--is concentrating only on old buildings."
"Perhaps they wish to preserve the new ones," said Jeter quietly.
"For their own use, perhaps; who knows? Keep me informed of every eventuality. If the center of force which seems to be causing all this havoc shifts in any direction, advise us at once."
"All right, Jeter."
Jeter broke the connection temporarily. Hadley could get him at any moment. A buzzer would sound inside the almost noiseless cabin when anyone wished to contact him over the radiophone.
Eyer was concentrating on the controls. The plane was climbing in great sweeping spirals. Its speed was a hundred and fifty miles an hour. Their air speed indicator was capable of registering eight hundred miles an hour. They hoped to attain that speed and more, flying on an even keel above ninety thousand feet.
Both Eyer and Jeter were perfect navigators. If, as they hoped, they could reach ninety thousand or more, they could cross the whole United States in four hours or less. They could quarter the country, winged bloodhounds of space, seeking their quarry.
Jeter studied the sky above them through their special telescopes, seeking some hint of the location of the point of departure of that devastating column of light. He could think of no ray that would nullify gravitation--yet that column of light had been the visual manifestation that the thing had somehow been brought about.
If this were true, was the enemy vulnerable? Was his base of attack capable of being destroyed or crippled if anything happened to the column of light? There was no way of knowing--yet. A search of the sky above Manhattan failed to disclose any visible substance from which the light beam might emanate. That seemed to indicate some unbelievable height. Yet, Kress must have reached that base. Else why had he been destroyed and sent back to Jeter and Eyer as a challenge?
Jeter's mind went back to Kress. Frozen solid ... but that could have been caused by his downward plunge through space. And what had happened to Kress' plane? No word had been received concerning it up to the time of the Jeter-Eyer departure. Had the "enemy" taken possession of it?
The whole thing seemed absurd. Nobody knew better than Jeter that he was working literally and figuratively in the dark. He was doing little better than guessing. He felt sure of but one thing, that the agency which was wreaking the havoc was a human one, and he was perfectly willing to match his wits and Eyer's against any human intelligence.
Jeter slipped into the cushioned seat beside Eyer.
The altimeter registered fifteen thousand feet. New York was just a blur against the abysmal darkness under their careening wings.
"You've never ventured an opinion, Tema," said Jeter softly, "even to me."
"Who knows?" he said. "It may all be just the very latest thing in aerial attack. If so, what country or coalition of countries harbor designs against our good Uncle Sam? Japan? China?"
"How do you explain the Vandercook incident? The bridge thing? The rise and fall of the other skyscrapers?"
"Some substance or ray capable of being controlled and directed. It creates a field, of any size desired, in which gravitation is--well, shall we say erased? Then any solid which is thus made weightless could be lifted by the two good hands of a strong man, or even of a weak one. How does that check with your guessing?"
Jeter shook his head ruefully.
"I've arrived at the same conclusions as yourself, Tema," he said. "I know we're all guessing. I know we're probably climbing off the Earth on a wild-goose chase from which we haven't a chance of returning alive. I know we're a pair of fools to think of matching a few drums of gas and a bunch of popguns against the equipment of an enemy capable of moving mountains--but what else is there to do?"
"Nothing," said Eyer cheerfully, "and I've got a feeling that you and I will manage to acquit ourselves with credit."
The radiophone buzzer sounded.
Hadley was speaking.
"One of the very latest types of battle-wagons," he said, "was steaming this way from the open sea outside the Narrows, ordered here to stand by in case of need, by the Navy Department. She was armed to the minute with the very latest ordnance. She carried a full crew...."
Hadley paused. Jeter could hear him take a deep breath, like a diver preparing to plunge into icy water. Jeter's spine tingled. He felt he guessed in advance what was to come.
Hadley went on.
The world seemed to spin dizzily as Jeter listened. Out of all the madness only one thing loomed which served for the moment to keep Jeter sane. That was the altimeter, which registered twenty-five thousand feet.
"The battle-wagon--the U.S.S. Hueber--was yanked bodily out of the water. It was taken aloft so quickly that it was just a blur. At least this was the way the skipper of a Norwegian steamer, a mile away from the Hueber, described it. The warship simply vanished into the night sky. The exact time was given by the Norwegian. Five minutes before midnight. At that moment nothing was happening in New York City--nothing new, that is."
Hadley paused again.
"Go on, man!" said Jeter hoarsely.
"Twenty minutes later the Hueber was lowered back into the water, practically unharmed. It had all happened so swiftly that the sailors aboard scarcely realized anything had happened. The skipper of the warship radios that the sensation was like a sudden attack of dizziness. One man died of heart failure. He was the only casualty."
Jeter's eyes began to blaze with excitement, as he spoke.
"Now you can tell the world that the thing which causes the havoc Manhattan is experiencing is not supernatural. It is human--and our people have no fear of human enemies."
"But why was not the warship dropped somewhere, as the buildings have been?" asked Hadley.
"Did you ever," replied Jeter, "hear what is described in the best fiction as a burst of ironic laughter? Well, that what the Hueber, as it now stands, or floats, is! But the enemy made a foolish move and will live to regret it bitterly."
"I wish I could share your sudden confidence," said Hadley. "Conditions here, where public morale is concerned, have become more frightful minute by minute since you left."
Jeter severed the connection.
The altimeter said thirty-five thousand feet. They were still spiraling upward. Again Jeter surveyed the sky aloft.
The earth below was a blur, save through the telescopes. The two had reached a height less than a third of what they hoped to attain.
Still they could see nothing up above them. They were almost over the "shaft" of atmosphere through which the Hueber must have been lifted and lowered. Suppose, Jeter thought, they had accidentally flown into that shaft at exactly the wrong moment? It brought a shudder. Still, Jeter's mind went on, if that had happened they would now, in all likelihood, have been right among the enemy--for gravity in that shaft would not have existed for them, either.