He turned on the electric lamp which hung over the desk, for in the fast-gathering dusk the interior of the Ring was in almost total darkness. How should his message read? It must be brief: it must tell the story, and, above all, it must be compelling.
He was joined by the electrician.
"I think--we are all--ready now," stammered the latter. "What will you send, sir?"
Bennie handed him a scrap of yellow paper, and Atterbury put on a pair of dark amber glasses, to protect his eyes from the light of the spark.
"Thornton, Naval Observatory, Washington: "Stranded fifty-four thirty-eight north, seventy-four eighteen west. Have the Ring machine. Ask Burke come immediately. Life and death matter.
Atterbury read the message and then gazed blankly at Hooker.
"I--don't--understand," he said.
"Never mind, send it. I'll explain later." Together they went into the condenser room.
Atterbury mechanically pushed the brass balls in contact, shoved a bundle of iron wires halfway through the core of a great coil, and closed a switch. A humming sound filled the air, and a few seconds later a glow of yellow light came in through the window. A cone of luminous vapour was shooting downward through the centre of the Ring from the tractor. At first it was soft and nebulous, but it increased rapidly in brilliancy, and a dull roar, like that of a waterfall, added itself to the hum of the alternating current in the wires. And now a third sound came to his ears, the note of the turbine, low at first, but gradually rising like the scream of a siren, and the floor of the Ring beneath his feet throbbed with the vibration.
Bennie forgot the dynamometer, forgot his message to Burke, was conscious only that he had wakened a sleeping volcano. Then came the crack of the sparks, and the room seemed filled with the glare of the blue lightning, for Atterbury, with his telephones at his ears, staring through his yellow glasses, was sending out the call for the Naval Observatory.
Over and over again he sent the call, while in the meantime the condenser built up its charge from the overflow of current from the turbine generator. Then the electrician opened a switch, and the roar outside diminished and finally ceased.
"We can't listen--with the tractor running," he fretted. "The static--from the discharge--would tear--our detector--to pieces." He threw in the receiving instrument. For a few moments the telephones spoke only the whisperings of the arctic aurora, and then suddenly the faint cry of the answering spark was heard. Bennie watched the words as the electrician's pencil scrawled along on the paper.
"Waiting for you. Why don't you send? N.A.A."
"They must have--called us before--while the discharge--was running down," muttered Atterbury. "I think we can send--with the condenser--now."
He picked up the scrap of yellow paper, read it over, and threw out into space the message which he did not understand.
"O. K. Wait. Thornton," came in reply.
Two hours later came a second message: "P--A--X. Burke starts at daybreak. Expects reach you by nine P. M. Asks you to show large beacon fire if possible.
"THORNTON, N. A. A.".
"Hurrah!" cried Bennie. "Good for Burke! Atterbury, we're saved--saved, do you hear! Go to bed now and don't ask any questions. And say, before you go see if you can find me a glass of brandy."
It was decided that Burke must land on the plateau above the cliff, and here the material for the fire was collected. There was little enough of it and it was hard work carrying the oil up the steep trail. At times Bennie was almost in despair.
"It won't burn half an hour," said he, surveying the pile. "And we ought to be able to keep it going all night. There's plenty of stuff in the valley, but we can't have him come down there, with the tower, the antennae, and all the rest of the mess."
"We might--show him--the big Ray," ventured Atterbury. "The thing--can be pointed up--and I can--keep the turbine running. You can start--the fire--as soon as you--hear his motors--and I'll shut down--as soon as I see your fire."
"Good idea!" agreed Bennie. "Only don't run continuously. Show the Ray for a minute every quarter of an hour, and on no account start up after you see the fire. If he thought the vertical beam was a searchlight and flew through it----" Bennie shuddered at the thought of Burke driving his aeroplane through the Ray that had shattered the Atlas Mountains.
So it was arranged. Half an hour after sunset Atterbury shut himself up in the Ring, and while Bennie climbed the trail leading to his post on the plateau, he heard the creaking of the great inductor as it slowly turned on its trunions.
It was pitch dark by the time he reached the pitifully small pile of brush which they had collected, and he poured some of the oil over it and sat down, drawing a blanket around his shoulders. He felt very much alone. Suppose the inductor failed to work? Suppose Atterbury turned the Ray on him? Suppose.... But his musings were shattered by a noise from the valley, a sound like that of escaping steam, and a moment later the Lavender Ray shot up toward the zenith. Bennie lay on his back and watched it, mindful of the night before the last when he had watched the Ray from the tower descending upon the cliff. He wondered if he should see any meteorites kindle in its path, but nothing appeared and the Ray died down, leaving everything in darkness again. Fifteen minutes passed and again the ghostly beam shot up into the night sky. Bennie looked at his watch. It was nearly half-past eight. The cold made him sleepy. He drew the blanket about him....
Two hours later through his half-dreams he caught the faint sound for which he had been listening. At first he was not sure. It might be the turbine alternator of the Ring running by its own inertia for some time after the discharge had ceased. But no, it was growing louder momentarily, and appeared to come from high up in the air. Now it died away to nothingness, and now it swelled in volume, and again died away. But at each subsequent recurrence it was louder than before. There was no longer any doubt. Burke was coming! It was time to start the brush pile. He lit match after match, only for the wind to blow them out. Yet all the time the machine in the air was coming nearer, the roar of its twin engines beating on the stillness of the Labrador night. In despair Bennie threw himself flat on his face by the brush pile and made a tent of the blanket, under which he at last succeeded in starting a blaze among the oil-soaked twigs. Then he pushed the half-empty keg into the fire, arose and stared up at the sky.
The machine was somewhere directly above him--just where he could not say. Presently the motors stopped. He shouted feebly, running up and down with his eyes turned skyward, and several times nearly fell into the fire. He wondered why it didn't appear. It seemed hours since the motors stopped! Then unexpectedly against the black background of the sky the great wings of the machine appeared, illuminated on their underside by the light of the fire. Silently it swung around on its descending spiral, instantly to be swallowed up in the darkness again, a moment later reappearing from the opposite direction, this time low down and headed straight for him. He jumped hastily to one side and fell flat. The machine grounded, rose once or twice as it ran along the ground, and came to a stop twenty yards from the fire. A man climbed out, slowly removed his goggles, and shook himself. Bennie scrambled to his feet and ran forward waving his hat.
"Well, Hooker!" remarked the man. "What th' hell are you doing here? You sure have some searchlight!"
How Hooker and Burke, under the guidance of Atterbury, who gradually regained his normal mental status, explored and charted the valley of the Ring is strictly no part of this tale which deals solely with the end of War upon the Earth. But next day, after several hours of excavation among the debris of the smelter, where Pax had extracted his uranium from the pitch blend mined at the cliff, they uncovered eight cylinders of the precious metal weighing about one hundred pounds apiece--the fuel of the Flying Ring. Now they were safe. Nay, more: universal space was theirs to traffic in.
Curious as to the reason why Pax had isolated himself in this frozen wilderness, they next examined the high cliffs which shut in the valley on the west and against the almost perpendicular walls of which he had played the Lavender Ray. These cliffs proved, as Bennie had already suspected, to be a gigantic outcrop of pitchblende or black oxide of uranium. He estimated that nature had stored more uranium in but one of the abutments of this cliff than in all the known mines of the entire world. This radioactive mountain was the fulcrum by which this modern Archimedes had moved the earth. The vast amount of matter disintegrated by the Ray and thrown off into space with a velocity a thousandfold greater than the blast of a siege gun produced a back pressure or recoil against the face of the cliff, which thus became the "thrust block" of the force which had slowed down the period of the earth's rotation.
The day of the start dawned with a blazing sun. From the landing stage of the Ring Bennie could see stretching away to the east, west, and south, the interminable plains, dotted with firs, which had formed the natural barrier to the previous discovery of Pax's secret. Overhead the dome of the sky fitted the horizon like an enormous shell--a shell which, with a thrill, he realized that he could crack and escape from, like a fledgling ready for its first flight. And yet in this moment of triumph little Bennie Hooker felt the qualm which must inevitably come to those who take their lives in their hands. An hour and he would be either soaring Phoebus-like toward the south, or lying crushed and mangled within a tangled mass of wreckage. Even here in this desolate waste life seemed sweet, and he had much, so much to do. Wasn't it, after all, a crazy thing to try to navigate the complicated mechanism back to civilization? Yet something told him that unless he put his fate to the test now he would never return. He had the utmost confidence in Burke--he might never be able to secure his services again--no, it was now or never. He entered the air-lock, closing and bolting the door, and passed on into the chart room.
At all events, he thought, they were no worse off than Pax when he had made his first trial flight, and they were working with a proven machine, tuned to its fullest efficiency, and one which apparently possessed automatic stability. Atterbury had gone to the condenser room and was waiting for the order to start, while Burke was making the final adjustment of the gyroscopes which would put the Ring on its predetermined course. He came through the door and joined Bennie.
"Hooker," he said, "we're sure going to have some experience. If I can keep her from turning over, I think I can manage her. The trouble will come when we slant the tractor. I'm not sure how much depends on the atmospheric valve, and how much on me. Things may happen quickly. If we turn over we're done for."
He held out his hand to Bennie, who gripped it tremulously.
"Well," remarked the aviator, tossing away his cigarette, "we might as well die now as any time!"
He walked swiftly over to the speaking-tube which communicated with the condenser room and blew sharply into it.
"Let her go, Gallagher!" he directed.
"My God!" ejaculated Bennie. "Wait a second, can't you?"
But it was too late. He grabbed the rail, trembling. A humming sound filled the air, and the gyroscopes slowly began to revolve. He looked up through the window at the tractor, from which shot streaks of pale vapour with a noise like escaping steam. Somehow it seemed alive.
The Ring was throbbing as if it, too, was impregnated with life. The discharge of the tractor had risen to a muffled roar. Shaking all over, Bennie crossed to the inside window and looked across the inner space of the Ring. As yet the yellow glow of the discharge was scarcely visible, but the steel sides of the Ring danced and quivered, undulating in waves, and, as the intensity of the blast increased and the turbine commenced to revolve, everything outside went suddenly blurred and indistinct.
Dropping to his knees, Bennie looked down through the observation window in the floor. A blinding cloud of yellow dust was driving out and away from the base of the landing stage in the form of a gigantic ring. The earth at their feet was hidden in whirls of vapour; and ripples of light and shade chased each other outward in all directions, like shadows on the bottom of a sandy pond rippled by a breeze. It made him dizzy to look down there, and he arose from the window. Burke stood grimly at the control, unmindful of his associate. Bennie crossed to the other side, and as he passed the gyroscopes, the air from the swiftly spinning discs blew back his hair. He could see nothing through the tumult that roared down through the centre of the Ring, like a Niagara of hot steam shot through with a pale yellow phosphorescent light. The floor quivered under his feet, and ominous creaking and snapping sounds reverberated through the outer shell, as the steel girders of the landing stage were gradually relieved of its weight. Just as it seemed to him that everything was going to pieces, suddenly there was silence, save for the purr of the machinery, and Bennie felt his knees sink under him.
"We're off!" cried Burke. "Watch out!"
The floor swayed as the Ring, lifted by the tractor, swung to and fro like a pendulum. Bennie threw himself upon his stomach. The earth was dropping away from them like a stone. He felt a sickening sensation.
"Two thousand feet already," gasped Burke. "The atmospheric valve is set for five thousand. I'll make it ten! It will give us more room to recover in--if anything--goes wrong!"
He gave the knob another half turn and laid his hand lightly on the lever which controlled the movements of the tractor. Bennie, flattened against the window, gazed below. The great dust ring showed indistinctly through a blue haze no longer directly beneath them, but a quarter of a mile to the north. Evidently they were not rising vertically.
The valley of the Ring looked like a black crack in a greenish-gray desert of rock and moss, the landing stage like a tiny bird's nest. The floor of the car moved slightly from side to side. Burke's face had gone gray, and he crouched unsteadily, one hand gripping a steel bracket on the wall.
"My Lord!" he mumbled with dry lips. "My Lord!"
Bennie, momentarily expecting annihilation, crawled on all fours to Burke's side.
The needle of the manometer indicated nine thousand five hundred feet, and was rapidly nearing the next division. Suddenly Burke felt the lever move slowly under his hand as though operated by some outside intelligence, and at the same moment the axis of one gyroscope swung slowly in a horizontal plane through an angle of nearly ninety degrees, while that of the other dipped slightly from the vertical. Both men had a ghastly feeling that the ghost of Pax had somehow returned and assumed control of the car. Bennie rotated the map under the gyroscope until the fine black line on the dial again lay across their destination. Then he crept back to his window again. The earth, far below and dimly visible, was sliding slowly northward, and the dust ring which marked their starting-point now lay as a flattened ellipse on the distant horizon. Beneath and behind them in their flight trailed a thin streak of pale bluish fog--the wake of the Flying Ring.
They were now searing the atmosphere at a height of nearly two miles, and the car was flying on a firm and even keel. There was no sound save the dull roar of the tractor and a slight humming from the vibration of the light steel cables. Bennie no longer felt any disagreeable sensation. A strange detachment possessed him. Dark forests, lakes, and a mighty river appeared to the south--the Moisie--and they followed it as a fishhawk might have done, until the wilderness broke away before them and they saw the broad reach of the St. Lawrence streaked with the smoke of ocean liners.
And then he lost control of himself for the first time and sobbed like a woman--not from fear, nor weariness, nor excitement, but for joy--the joy of the true scientist who has sought the truth and found it, has achieved that for mankind which but for him it would have lacked, perchance, forever. And he looked up at Burke and smiled.
The latter nodded.
"Yes," he remarked prosaically, "this is sure a little bit of all right! All to the good!"
Meanwhile, during the weeks that Hooker had been engaged in finding the valley of the Ring, unbelievable things had happened in world politics. In spite of the fact that Pax, having decreed the shifting of the Pole and the transformation of Central Europe into the Arctic zone, had refused further communication with mankind, all the nations--and none more zealously than the German Republic--had proceeded immediately to withdraw their armies within their own borders, and under the personal supervision of a General Commission to destroy all their armaments and munitions of war. The lyddite bombs, manufactured in vast quantities by the Krupps for the Relay Gun and all other high explosives, were used to demolish the fortresses upon every frontier of Europe. The contents of every arsenal was loaded upon barges and sunk in mid-Atlantic. And every form of military organization, rank, service, and even uniform, was abolished throughout the world.
A coalition of nations was formed under a single general government, known as the United States of Europe, which in cooperation with the United States of North and South America, of Asia, and of Africa, arranged for an annual world congress at The Hague, and which enforced its decrees by means of an International Police. In effect all the inhabitants of the globe came under a single control, as far as language and geographical boundaries would permit. Each state enforced local laws, but all were obedient to the higher law--the Law of Humanity--which was uniform through the earth. If an individual offended against the law of one nation, he was held to have offended against all, and was dealt with as such. The international police needed no treaties of extradition. The New York embezzler who fled to Nairobi was sent back as a matter of course without delay.
Any man was free to go and live where he chose, to manufacture, buy, and sell as he saw fit. And, because the fear and shadow of war were removed, the nations grew rich beyond the imagination of men; great hospitals and research laboratories, universities, schools, and kindergartens, opera houses, theatres, and gardens of every sort sprang up everywhere, paid for no one quite knew how. The nations ceased to build dreadnoughts, and instead used the money to send great troops of children with the teachers travelling over the world. It was against the law to own or manufacture any weapon that could be used to take human life. And because the nations had nothing to fear from one another, and because there were no scheming diplomatists and bureaucrats to make a living out of imaginary antagonisms, people forgot that they were French or German or Russian or English, just as the people of the United States of America had long before practically disregarded the fact that they came from Ohio or Oregon or Connecticut or Nevada. Russians with weak throats went to live in Italy as a matter of course, and Spaniards who liked German cooking settled in Munich.
All this, of course, did not happen at once, but came about quite naturally after the abolition of war. And after it had been done, everybody wondered why it had not been done ten centuries before; and people became so interested in destroying all the relics of that despicable employment, warfare, that they almost forgot that the Man Who Rocked the Earth had threatened that he would shift the axis of the globe. So that when the day fixed by him came and everything remained just as it always had been--and everybody still wore linen-mesh underwear in Strassburg and flannels in Archangel--nobody thought very much about it, or commented on the fact that the Flying Ring was no longer to be seen. And the only real difference was that you could take a P. & O. steamer at Marseilles and buy a through ticket to Tasili Ahaggar--if you wanted to go there--and that the shores of the Sahara became the Riviera of the world, crowded with health resorts and watering-places--so that Pax had not lived in vain, nor Thornton, nor Bill Hood, nor Bennie Hooker, nor any of them.
The whole thing is a matter of record, as it should be. The deliberations of Conference No. 2 broke up in a hubbub, just as Von Helmuth and Von Koenitz had intended, and the transcripts of their discussions proved to be not of the slightest scientific value. But in the files of the old War Department--now called the Department for the Alleviation of Poverty and Human Suffering--can be read the messages interchanged between The Dictator of Human Destiny and the President of the United States, together with all the reports and observations relating thereto, including Professor Hooker's Report to the Smithsonian Institute of his journey to the valley of the Ring and what he found there. Only the secret of the Ring--of thermic induction and atomic disintegration--in short, of the Lavender Ray, is his by right of discovery, or treasure trove, or what you will, and so is his patent on Hooker's Space-Navigating Car, in which he afterward explored the solar system and the uttermost regions of the sidereal ether. But that shall be told hereafter.
By Jack Vance
Howard Frayberg, Production Director of Know Your Universe!, was a man of sudden unpredictable moods; and Sam Catlin, the show's Continuity Editor, had learned to expect the worst.
"Sam," said Frayberg, "regarding the show last night...." He paused to seek the proper words, and Catlin relaxed. Frayberg's frame of mind was merely critical. "Sam, we're in a rut. What's worse, the show's dull!"
Sam Catlin shrugged, not committing himself.
"Seaweed Processors of Alphard IX--who cares about seaweed?"
"It's factual stuff," said Sam, defensive but not wanting to go too far out on a limb. "We bring 'em everything--color, fact, romance, sight, sound, smell.... Next week, it's the Ball Expedition to the Mixtup Mountains on Gropus."
Frayberg leaned forward. "Sam, we're working the wrong slant on this stuff.... We've got to loosen up, sock 'em! Shift our ground! Give 'em the old human angle--glamor, mystery, thrills!"
Sam Catlin curled his lips. "I got just what you want."
"Yeah? Show me."
Catlin reached into his waste basket. "I filed this just ten minutes ago...." He smoothed out the pages. "'Sequence idea, by Wilbur Murphy. Investigate "Horseman of Space," the man who rides up to meet incoming space-ships.'"
Frayberg tilted his head to the side. "Rides up on a horse?"
"That's what Wilbur Murphy says."
"How far up?"
"Does it make any difference?"
"No--I guess not."
"Well, for your information, it's up ten thousand, twenty thousand miles. He waves to the pilot, takes off his hat to the passengers, then rides back down."
"And where does all this take place?"
"On--on--" Catlin frowned. "I can write it, but I can't pronounce it." He printed on his scratch-screen: CIRGAMESc.
"Sirgamesk," read Frayberg.
Catlin shook his head. "That's what it looks like--but those consonants are all aspirated gutturals. It's more like 'Hrrghameshgrrh'."
"Where did Murphy get this tip?"
"I didn't bother to ask."
"Well," mused Frayberg, "we could always do a show on strange superstitions. Is Murphy around?"
"He's explaining his expense account to Shifkin."
"Get him in here; let's talk to him."