But would they have been lowered back to safety as the Hueber and her crew had been?
Believing as he did that the enemy knew everything that transpired within its sphere of influence, Jeter doubted that Eyer and himself would have been so humanely treated.
He had but to remember Kress to feel sure of this.
The altimeter said fifty thousand feet.
Stratosphere Currents Now the partner-scientists concentrated on the tremendous task of climbing higher than man had ever flown before. Nobody knew how high Kress had gone, for the only information which had come back had been the corpse of the sky pioneer. Jeter and Eyer hoped to land, too, but to be able to tell others, when they did, what had happened to them.
Somehow, away up here, the affairs of the Earth seemed trivial, unreal. What was the raising of an entire skyscraper--in reality so small that from this height it was difficult to pick out the biggest one through the telescope? What mattered a bridge across the Hudson that was really less than the footprint of an ant at this height?
Still, looking at each other, they were able to attain the old perspectives. Down there people like Jeter and Eyer were dying because of something that struck at them from somewhere up here in the blue darkness.
Their faces set grimly. The plane kept up its constant spiraling. Jeter and Eyer flew the ship in relays. Occasionally they secured the controls and allowed the plane to fly on, untended.
"But maybe we'd better not do too much of that," said Jeter dubiously. "I'm sure we are being observed, every foot of altitude we make. I don't care to run into something up here that will wreck us. Right now, Eyer, if we happened to be outside this sealed cabin instead of inside it, we'd die in less time than it takes to tell about it."
All known records for altitude--the only unknown one being Kress'--had now been broken by Jeter and Eyer. They informed Hadley of this fact.
"A week ago you'd have had headlines," came back Hadley. "To-day nobody cares, except that the world looks to you for information about this horror. The enemy is systematically destroying every building in Manhattan which dates back over eight years. Fortunately, save for the occasional die-hard who never believes anything, there are few deaths at the moment. But we're all waiting, holding our breaths, wondering what the next five minutes will bring forth. Is there any news there?"
How strange it seemed--as the altimeter said sixty-one thousand feet--to hear that voice out of the void. For under the plane there was no world at all, save through the telescope. Perhaps when morning came they would be able to see a little. Picard had reported the world to look flat from a little over fifty thousand-feet.
"No news, Hadley," said Jeter. "Except, that our plane behaves perfectly and we are at sixty-one thousand feet. Were it not for our turn and bank indicators, our altimeter and air speed instruments, and our navigational instruments, it would be impossible to tell--by looking at least, though we could tell by our shifting weight--whether we were upside down or right side up, on one wing or on an even keel. It's eery. We wouldn't be able to tell whether we were moving were it not for our air speed indicator. There are no clouds. The motor hum seems to be the only thing here--except ourselves of course--to remind us that we really belong down there with you."
The connection was broken again as Jeter ceased speaking. Things seemed to be marking time on the ground, save for the strange demolitions of the unseen and apparently unknowable enemy. Would they ever really encounter him, or it?
When the sun came out of the east they leveled off at ninety thousand feet. By their reckoning they had scarcely moved in any direction from the spot where they had taken off. Jeter was satisfied that they were almost directly above Mineola. But the world had vanished. The plane rode easily on. Now and again it dipped one wing or the other--and even the veteran aviators felt a thrill of uneasiness. From somewhere up here in this immensity, Franz Kress had dropped to his death. Of course, if it had happened at this height he hadn't lived to suffer.
Or had he? What had been done to him by the--the denizens of the stratosphere?
Jeter sat down beside Eyer. It seemed strange to eat breakfast here, but the sandwiches and hot coffee in a thermos bottle were extremely welcome. They ate in silence, their thoughts busy. When they had made an end, Jeter squared his shoulders. Eyer grinned.
"Well, Lucian," he said, "are we in enemy territory by your calculations? And if so how do you arrive at your conclusions?"
"I'm still guessing, Tema," said Jeter, "but I've a feeling I'm not guessing badly, and.... Yes, we're somewhere within striking distance of the enemy, whatever the enemy is."
"What's the next move?
"We'll systematically cover the sky over an area which blankets New York, Long Island, Jersey City and surrounding territory for a distance of twenty miles. If we're above the enemy, perhaps we can look down upon him. We know he can't be seen from below, perhaps not even from above. If we are below him we'll try to fly into that column of his. What they'll do to us I.... You're not afraid to find out, are you?"
Eyer grinned. Jeter grinned back at him.
"What they'll do to us if we fly into them I'm sure I don't know. I don't think they'll kill our motor. If whoever or whatever controls the light column decides to us prisoners.... Well, we'll hope to have better luck combating them than Kress had."
And so begin that hours-long vigil of quartering the stratosphere over the unmarked area which Jeter had set as a limit. Now and again Hadley spoke to Jeter. Yes, the demolitions were still continuing in Manhattan. Could all telescopes on the ground pick out their space ship? Yes, said Hadley, and a young scientist in New Jersey was constantly watching them. Were they, since sunrise, ever out of his sight? Only when clouds at comparatively low altitudes intervened. However, the sky was unusually clear and it was hoped to keep their plane in sight during the entire day.
"Hadley," Jeter almost whispered, "I'm satisfied we're above the area of force, else we'd have flown into the anti-gravitation field. Get in touch with that Jersey chap by direct personal wire or radiophone if he is equipped with it. See that his watch is set with yours, which is synchronised with ours. Got that?"
"When you've done that give him these instructions: He is never to take his eyes of us for more than a split second at a time--unless someone else takes his place. I doubt if, at this distance, this will work, but it may help us a little. If we become invisible for even the briefest of moments, he is to look at his watch and observe the exact time, even to split seconds. We shall try to follow a certain plan hereafter in quartering the stratosphere, and I shall mark our location on the navigational charts every minute until we hear from this chap, or until we decide nothing is to be accomplished by this trick. Understand?"
"You're hoping that the enemy, while invisible to all eyes, yet has substance...."
"Shut up!" snapped Jeter, but he was glad that Hadley had grasped the idea. It was a slim chance, but such as it was it was worth trying. If the plane were invisible for a time, then it would be proof of some opaque obstruction between the plane and the eye of the beholder on the surface of the Earth. Refraction had to be figured, perhaps. Oh, there were many arguments against it.
The fliers followed the very outer edge of the area above the world they had mapped out as their limit of exploration. This circuit completed, they banked inward, shortening their circuit by about a mile of space. A mile, seen at a distance of ninety thousand feet, would be little indeed.
It was almost midday when they had their first stroke of luck.
The buzzer sounded at the very moment Eyer uttered an ejaculation.
"The Jersey fellow says there is nothing between his lens and your plane to obstruct the view."
"O.K.," retorted Jeter. "At the moment your buzzer sounded our plane suddenly jumped upward. That means an upcurrent of air indicating an obstruction under us. It must however, be invisible."
He severed the connection. His brow was furrowed thoughtfully. He was remembering Sitsumi and his rumored discovery.
They circled back warily. The eyes of both were fixed downward, staring into space. Their jaws were firmly set. Their eyes were narrowed.
There was that uprush of air again! It appeared to rise from an angle of about sixty degrees. They got the wind against their nose and started a humming dive, feeling in the alien updraft for the obstruction which caused it.
Invisible Globe The buzzer of their radiophone was sounding, but so intent were they on this phenomenon they were facing, they paid it no heed. Their eyes were alight, their lips in firm straight lines of resolve, as they dived down upon the invisible obstruction--whatever it was--from whose surface the telltale updraft came.
It was Eyer who made the suggestion: "Let's measure it to see what its plane extent is."
"How?" asked Jeter.
"Measure it by following the wind disturbance. We travel in one direction until we lose it. There is one extremity. In a few minutes we can discover exactly how big the thing is. What do you think it is?"
Jeter shook his head. There was no way of telling.
Jeter nodded agreement to Eyer. Then he spoke into the radiophone, telling Hadley what they had found, to which he could give no name.
"The world awaits in fear and trembling what you will have to report, Jeter," said Hadley. "What if you become unable to report, as Kress did?"
"Don't worry. We will or we won't. If we succeed we'll be back. If we fail, send up the other.... No, perhaps you hadn't better send up the new planes. But I think Eyer and I have a chance to discover the nature of this strange--whatever-it-is. If you can't contact us, delay twenty-four hours before doing anything. I--well, I scarcely know what to tell you to do. We'll just be shooting in the dark until we know what we're in for. You'll have to contain yourself in patience. What did you want with me?"
"Only to tell you of another strange news dispatch. It gives no details. It merely tells of strange activity around Lake Baikal, beyond the Gobi Desert. Queer noises at night, mysterious cordons of Eurasians to keep all investigators back, strange losses of livestock, foodstuffs...."
Jeter severed connection. There was little need to listen further to something which he couldn't explain yet, in any case.
Eyer, at the controls, banked the plane at right angles and flew on. In shortly less than a minute he banked again.
In five minutes he turned to Jeter with a queer expression on his face.
"Well," he said, "what's to do about it? What is it? It seems to be some solid substance approximately a quarter mile square. But it can't be true! A solid substance just hanging in the air at ninety thousand feet! It's beyond all imagining!"
"What man can imagine, man can do," replied Jeter. "A great newspaper editor said that, and we're going to discover now just how true it is."
"What's our next move?"
For a long time the partners, stared into each other's eyes. Each knew exactly what the other thought, exactly what he would propose as a course of action. Jeter heaved a sigh and nodded his head.
"We're as much in the power of the enemy here as we would be there, or anywhere else. We can't discover anything from here. Set the wheels down!"
"We can't tell anything about the condition of the surface of that stuff. We may crack up."
Jeter had to grin.
"Sounds strange, cracking up at ninety thousand feet, doesn't it? Well, hoist your helicopter vanes and drift down as straight as you can--but be sure and keep your motor idling."
Again they exchanged long looks.
"O.K.," said Eyer, as quietly as he would have answered the same order at Roosevelt Field. "Here we go!"
He pressed a button and the helicopters, set into the surface of the single sturdy wing, snapped up their shafts and began to spin, effectually slowing the forward motion of the plane. Eyer fish-tailed her with his rudder to help cut down speed.
"We can't see the surface of the thing at all, Lucian," said Eyer. "I'll simply have to feel for it."
"Well, you've done that before, too. We can manage all right."
Down they dropped. The updraft was now a cushion directly under them. And then their wheels struck something solid. The plane moved forward a few feet--with a strange sickening motion. It was as though the surface of this substance were globular. First one wheel rose, then dipped as the other rose. The plane came to rest on fairly even keel, and the partners, while the motor idled, stared at each other.
"Well?" said Eyer, a trace of a grin on his face.
"If it'll hold the plane it will hold us. Let's slide into our stratosphere suits and climb out. We have to get close to this thing to see what it is."
"Parachutes?" said Eyer.
"It would simplify matters if the thing happened to tilt over and spill us off, I think," said Jeter, matching Eyer's grin with one of his own. "I can't think with any degree of equanimity of plunging ninety thousand feet without a parachute."
"I'm not sure I'd care for it with one," said Eyer.
They were soon in the tight-fitting suits which were customarily used by fliers who climbed above the air levels at which it was impossible for a human being to breathe without a supply of oxygen in a container. Their suits were sealed against cold. Set in their backs were oxygen tanks capable of holding enough oxygen for several hours. Over all this they fastened their parachutes.
Then, using a series of doors in order to conserve the warmth and oxygen inside their cabin, they let themselves out, closing each successive door behind them, until at last they faced the last door--and the grim unknown. They glanced at each other briefly, and Jeter's hand went forth to grasp the mechanism of the last door. Eyer stood at his side. Their eyes met. The door swung open.
They stepped down. The surface of this stratosphere substance was slippery smooth. Now that they stood on its surface they could sense something of its profile. Movement in any direction suggested walking on a huge ball. The queer thing was that they could feel but could not see. It was like walking on air. Their plane appeared to be suspended in midair.
For a moment Jeter had an overpowering desire to grab Eyer, jerk him back to the plane, and take off at top speed. But they couldn't do that, not when the world depended upon them. Had Kress encountered this thing? Perhaps. How must he have felt? He had been alone. These two were moral support for each other. But both were acutely remembering how Kress had come back.
And his plane? They'd perhaps discover what had happened to that too.
Eyer suddenly slipped and fell, as though he had been walking on a carpet which had been jerked from under his feet. From his almost prone position he looked up at Jeter. Jeter dropped to his knees beside him. Their covered hands played over the surface of their discovery, to find it smooth as glass. As though with one thought they placed their heads against it, right ears down, to listen. But the whole vast field seemed to be dead, lifeless. And yet--a solid it was, floating here in space--or just hanging. It seemed to be utterly motionless.
"There should be a way of discovering what this is, and why, and how it is controlled if an intelligence is behind it." Jeter spelled out the words in the sign language they had both learned as boys.
They walked more warily when they had, traveling slowly and hesitantly, gone more than a hundred feet from their plane. They kept it in sight by constantly turning to look back. It was now several feet above them. No telling what might happen to them at any moment, and the plane was an avenue of escape.
They didn't wish to take a chance on stepping off into the stratosphere--and eternity.
"It's like an iceberg of space," said the fingers of Jeter. "But let's go back and look it over to the other side of the plane. We have to keep the plane in sight and work from it as a base. And say, what sort of sensations have you had about this surface we're standing on?"
Jeter could see Eyer's shudder as he asked the question. Slowly the fingers of his partner spelled out the answer.
"I've a feeling of eyes boring into my back. I sense that the substance under us is malignant, inimical. I have the same feeling with every step I take, as though the unseen surface were endowed with arms capable of reaching out and grabbing me."
"I feel it, too," said Jeter's fingers. "But I'm not afraid of fingers in the usual sense. I don't think of hands strangling us, or ripping us to shreds, but of questing--well, call them tentacles, which may clasp us with gentleness even, and absorb us, and annihilate us!"
Now the two faced each other squarely. Now they did not try to hide that their fear was an abysmal feeling, horrible and devastating.
"Let's get back to the plane and take off. We haven't a chance."
They clasped hands again and started running back, their plane their goal. Before they reached it they would change their minds, for they were not ordinarily lacking in courage--but so long as they ran both had the feeling of being pursued by malignant entities which were always just a step behind, but gaining.