The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 16

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Eleven-thirty by the watch on Robert Delamater's wrist found him seated in the bow of a speed-boat the following morning. They patrolled slowly up and down the sh.o.r.e. There were fellow operatives, he knew, scores of them, posted at all points of vantage along the docks.

Eleven forty-five--and the roar of seaplanes came from above where air patrols were-guarding the skies. Small boats drove back and forth on set courses; no curious sight-seeing craft could approach the _Maryland_ that day. On board the battles.h.i.+p, too, there was activity apparent. A bugle sounded, and the warning of bellowing Klaxons echoed across the water. Here, in the peace and safety of the big port, the great man-of-war was sounding general quarters, and a scurry of running men showed for an instant on her decks. Anti-aircraft guns swung silently upon imaginary targets-- The watcher smiled at the absurdity of it all--this preparation to repel the attack of a wild-eyed writer of insane threats. And yet--and yet-- He knew, too, there was apprehension in his frequent glances at his watch.

One minute to go! Delamater should have watched the sh.o.r.e. And, instead, he could not keep his eyes from the big fighting-s.h.i.+p silhouetted so clearly less than a mile away, motionless and waiting--waiting--for what? He saw the great turreted guns, useless against this puny, invisible opponent. Above them the fighting tops were gleaming. And above them-- Delamater shaded his eyes with a quick, tense hand: the tip of the mast was sparkling. There was a blue flash that glinted along the steel. It was gone to reappear on the fighting top itself--then lower.

What was it? the watching man was asking himself. What did it bring to mind? A street-car? A defective trolley? The zipping flash of a contact made and broken? That last!

Like the touch of a invisible wire, tremendously charged, a wire that touched and retreated, that made and lost its contact, the flas.h.i.+ng arc was working toward the deck. It felt its way to the body of the s.h.i.+p; the arc was plain, starting from mid-air to hiss against the armored side; the arc shortened--went to nothing--vanished.... A puff of smoke from an open port proved its presence inside. Delamater had the conviction that a deadly something had gone through the s.h.i.+p's side--was insulated from it--was searching with its blazing, arcing end for the ammunition rooms....



The realization of that creeping menace came to Delamater with a gripping, numbing horror. The seconds were almost endless as he waited. Slowly, before his terrified eyes, the deck of the great s.h.i.+p bulged upward ... slowly it rolled and tore apart ... a mammoth turret with sixteen-inch guns was lifting unhurriedly into the air ... there were bodies of men rocketing skyward....

The mind of the man was racing at lightning speed, and the havoc before him seemed more horrible in its slow, leisurely progress. If he could only move--do something!

The shock of the blasted air struck him sprawling into the bottom of the boat; the listener was hammered almost to numbness by the deafening thunder that battered and tore through the still air. At top speed the helmsman drove for the shelter of a hidden cove. They made it an instant before the great waves struck high upon the sand spit. Over the bay hung a ballooning cloud of black and gray--lifting for an instant to show in stark ghastliness the wreckage, broken and twisted, that marked where the battles.h.i.+p _Maryland_ rested in the mud in the harbor of New York.

The eyes of the Secret-Service men were filled with the indelible impress of what they had seen. Again and again, before him, came the vision of a s.h.i.+p full of men in horrible, slow disintegration; his mind was numbed and his actions and reactions were largely automatic. But somehow he found himself in the roar of the subway, and later he sat in a chair and knew he was in a Pullman of a Was.h.i.+ngton train.

He rode for hours in preoccupied silence, his gaze fixed unseeingly, striving to reach out and out to some distant, unknown something which he was trying to visualize. But he looked at intervals at his hand that held three metal pellets.

He was groping for the mental sequence which would bring the few known facts together and indicate their cause. A threat--a seeming spying within a closed and secret room--the murder on the ninth floor, a murder without trace of wound or weapon. Weapon! He stared again at the tangible evidence he held; then shook his head in perplexed abstraction. No--the man was killed by unknown means.

And now--the _Maryland_! And a visible finger of death--touching, flas.h.i.+ng, feeling its way to the deadly cargo of powder sacks.

Not till he sat alone with his chief did he put into words his thoughts.

"A time bomb did it," the Chief was saying. "The officials deny it, but what other answer is there? No one approached that s.h.i.+p--you know that, Del--no torpedo nor aerial bomb! Nothing as fanciful as that!"

Robert Delamater's lips formed a wry smile. "Nothing at fanciful as that"--and he was thinking, thinking--of what he hardly dared express.

"We will start with the s.h.i.+p's personnel," the other continued; "find every man who was not on board when the explosion occurred--"

"No use," the operative interrupted; "this was no inside job, Chief." He paused to choose his words while the other watched him curiously.

"Someone _did_ reach that s.h.i.+p--reached it from a distance--reached it in the same way they reached that poor devil I left at room nine forty-seven. Listen--"

He told his superior of his vigil on the speed-boat--of the almost invisible flash against the s.h.i.+p's mast. "He reached it, Chief," he concluded; "he felt or saw his way down and through the side of that s.h.i.+p. And he fired their ammunition from G.o.d knows where."

"I wonder," said the big man slowly; "I wonder if you know just what you are trying to tell me--just how absurd your idea is. Are you seriously hinting at long-distance vision through solid armor-plate--through these walls of stone and steel? And wireless power-transmission through the same wall--!"

"Exactly!" said the operative.

"Why, Del, you must be as crazy as this Eye of Allah individual. It's impossible."

"That word," said Delamater, quietly, "has been crossed out of scientific books in the past few years."

"What do you mean?"

"You have studied some physical science, of course?" Delamater asked. The Chief nodded.

"Then you know what I mean. I mean that up to recent years science had all the possibilities and impossibilities neatly divided and catalogued. Ignorance, as always, was the best basis for positive a.s.surance. Then they got inside the atom. And since then your real scientist has been a very humble man. He has seen the impossibility of yesterday become the established fact of to-day."

The Chief of the United States Secret Service was tapping with nervous irritation on the desk before him.

"Yes, yes!" he agreed, and again he looked oddly at his operative. "Perhaps there is something to that; you work along that line, Del: you can have a free hand. Take a few days off, a little vacation if you wish. Yes--and ask Sprague to step in from the other office; he has the personnel list."

Robert Delamater felt the other's eyes follow him as he left the room. "And that about lets me out," he told himself; "he thinks I've gone cuckoo, now."

He stopped in a corridor; his fingers, fumbling in a vest pocket, had touched the little metal spheres. Again his mind flashed back to the chain of events he had linked together. He turned toward an inner office.

"I would like to see Doctor Brooks," he said. And when the physician appeared: "About that man who was murdered at the hotel, Doctor--"

"Who died," the doctor corrected; "we found no evidence of murder."

"Who was murdered," the operative insisted. "Have you his clothing where I can examine it?"

"Sure," agreed the physician. He led Delamater to another room and brought out a box of the dead man's effects.

"But if it's murder you expect to prove you'll find no help in this."

The Secret Service man nodded. "I'll look them over, just the same," he said. "Thanks."

Alone in the room, he went over the clothing piece by piece. Again he examined each garment, each pocket, the lining, as he had done before when first he took the case. Metal, he thought, he must find metal.

But only when a heavy shoe was in his hands did the anxious frown relax from about his eyes.

"Of course," he whispered, half aloud. "What a fool I was! I should have thought of that."

The soles of the shoes were sewed, but, beside the st.i.tches were metal specks, where cobbler's nails were driven. And in the sole of one shoe were three tiny holes.

"Melted!" he said exultantly. "Crazy, am I, Chief? This man was standing on a wet floor; he made a perfect ground. And he got a jolt that melted these nails when it flashed out of him."

He wrapped the clothing carefully and replaced it in the box. And he fingered the metal pellets in his pocket as he slipped quietly from the room.

He did not stop to talk with Doctor Brooks; he wanted to think, to ponder upon the incredible proof of the theory he had hardly dared believe. The Eye of Allah--the maniac--was real; and his power for evil! There was work to be done, and the point of beginning was not plain.

How far did the invisible arm reach? How far could the Eye of Allah see? Where was the generator--the origin of this wireless power; along what channel did it flow? A ray of lightless light--an unseen ethereal vibration.... Delamater could only guess at the answers.

The current to kill a man or to flash a spark into silken powder bags need not be heavy, he knew. Five hundred--a thousand volts--if the mysterious conductor carried it without resistance and without loss. People had been killed by house-lighting currents--a mere 110 volts--when conditions were right. There would be no peculiar or unusual demand upon the power company to point him toward the hidden maniac.

He tossed restlessly throughout the night, and morning brought no answer to his repeated questions. But it brought a hurry call from his Chief.

"Right away," was the instruction; "don't lose a minute. Come to the office."

He found the big man at his desk. He was quiet, unhurried, but the operative knew at a glance the tense repression that was being exercised--the iron control of nerves that demanded action and found incompetence and helplessness instead.

"I don't believe your fantastic theories," he told Delamater. "Impractical--impossible! But--" He handed the waiting man a paper. "We must not leave a stone unturned."

Delamater said nothing; he looked at the paper in his hand. "To the President of the United States," he read. "Prepare to meet your G.o.d. Friday. The eighth. Twelve o'clock."

The signature he hardly saw; the staring, open eye was all too familiar.

"That is to-morrow," said Delamater softly. "The President dies to-morrow."

"No!" exploded the Chief. "Do you realize what that means? The President murdered--more killings to follow--and the killer unknown! Why the country will be in a panic: the whole structure of the Government is threatened!"

He paused, then added as he struck his open hand upon the desk: "I will have every available man at the White House."

"For witnesses?" asked Delamater coldly.

The big man stared at his operative; the lines of his face were sagging.

"Do you believe--really--he can strike him down--at his desk--from a distance?"

"I know it." Delamater's fingers played for a moment with three bits of metal in his pocket. Unconsciously he voiced his thoughts: "Does the President have nails in his shoes, I wonder?"

"What--what's that?" the Chief demanded.

But Delamater made no reply. He was picturing the President. He would be seated at his desk, waiting, waiting ... and the bells would be ringing and whistles blowing from distant shops when the bolt would strike.... It would flash from his feet ... through the thick rug ... through the rug.... It would have to ground.

He paid no heed to his Chief's repeated question. He was seeing, not the rug in the Presidential office, but below it--underneath it--a heavy pad of rubber.

"If he can be insulated--" he said aloud, and stared unseeingly at his eagerly listening superiors--"even the telephone cut--no possible connection with the ground--"

"For G.o.d's sake, Del, if you've got an idea--any hope at all! I'm--I'm up against it, Del."

The operative brought his distant gaze back to the room and the man across from him. "Yes," he said slowly, thoughtfully, "I've got the beginning of an idea; I don't see the end of it yet.

"We can cut him off from the ground--the President, I mean--make an insulated island where he sits. But this devil will get him the instant he leaves ... unless ... unless...."

"Yes--yes?" The Chief's voice was high-pitched with anxious impatience; for the first time he was admitting to himself his complete helplessness in this emergency.

"Unless," said Delamater, as the idea grew and took shape, "unless that wireless channel works both ways. If it does ... if it does...."

The big man made a gesture of complete incomprehension.

"Wait!" said Robert Delamater, sharply. If ever his sleepy indolence had misled his Chief, there was none to do so now in the voice that rang like cold steel. His eyes were slits under the deep-drawn brows, and his mouth was one straight line.

To the hunter there is no greater game than man. And Robert Delamater, man-hunter, had his treacherous quarry in sight. He fired staccato questions at his Chief.

"Is the President at his desk at twelve?"

"Yes."

"Does he know--about this?"

"Yes."

"Does he know it means death?"

The Chief nodded.

"I see a way--a chance," said the operative. "Do I get a free hand?"

"Yes--Good Lord, yes! If there's any chance of--"

Delamater silenced him. "I'll be the one to take the chance," he said grimly. "Chief, I intend to impersonate the President."

"Now listen-- The President and I are about the same build. I know a man who can take care of the make-up; he will get me by anything but a close inspection. This Eye of Allah, up to now, has worked only in the light. We'll have to gamble on that and work our change in the dark.

"The President must go to bed as usual--impress upon him that he may be under constant surveillance. Then, in the night, he leaves-- "Oh, I know he won't want to hide himself, but he must. That's up to you.

"Arrange for me to go to his room before daylight. From that minute on I am the President. Get me his routine for that morning; I must follow it so as to arouse no least suspicion."

"But I don't see--" began the Chief. "You will impersonate him--yes--but what then? You will be killed if this maniac makes good. Is the President of the United States to be a fugitive? Is--"

"Hold on, hold on!" said Delamater. He leaned back in his chair; his face relaxed to a smile, then a laugh.

"I've got it all now. Perhaps it will work. If not--" A shrug of the shoulders completed the thought. "And I have been shooting it to you pretty fast haven't I! Now here is the idea-- "I must be in the President's chair at noon. This Allah person will be watching in, so I must be acting the part all morning. I will have the heaviest insulation I can get under the rug, and I'll have something to take the shot instead of myself. And perhaps, perhaps I will send a message back to the Eye of Allah that will be a surprise.

"Is it a bet?" he asked. "Remember, I'm taking the chance--unless you know some better way--"

The Chief's chair came down with a bang. "We'll gamble on it, Del," he said; "we've got to--there is no other way.... And now what do you want?"

"A note to the White House electrician," said Robert Delamater, "and full authority to ask for anything I may need, from the U. S. Treasury down to a pair of wire-cutters."

His smile had become contagious; the Chief's anxious look relaxed. "If you pull this off, Del, they may give you the Treasury or the Mint at that. But remember, republics are notoriously ungenerous."

"We'll have to gamble on that, too," said Robert Delamater.

The heart of the Nation is Was.h.i.+ngton. Some, there are, who would have us feel that New York rules our lives. Chicago--San Francisco--these and other great cities sometimes forget that they are mere ganglia on the financial and commercial nervous system. The heart is Was.h.i.+ngton, and, Congress to the contrary notwithstanding, the heart of that heart is not the domed building at the head of Pennsylvania Avenue, but an American home. A simple, gracious mansion, standing in quiet dignity and whiteness above its velvet lawns.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 16

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