The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 64

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Jim tarried no longer. He knew where he was going. It was still early and Joan would be up--Joan Wentworth, daughter of Professor Stephen Wentworth, who held the chair of astro-lithology at Hartford University. It was as their guest at the observatory last night that he had seen 1947, IV at close range, as the earth pa.s.sed through her golden train with that awesome, unparalleled display of fireworks.

Now he'd have the pleasure of seeing Joan again, and at the same time get the low-down from her father on those confounded seeds--or eggs, rather. If anyone could crack one of them, he'd bet Professor Wentworth could.

So, hastening toward the base of Plaza Airport, he took an elevator to ramp-level 118, where his auto-plane was parked, and five minutes later was winging his way to Hartford.

Throttle wide, Jim did the eighty miles to the Connecticut capital in a quarter of an hour.

Then, banking down through the warm June night onto the University landing field, he retracted the wings of his swift little bus and motored to the foot of Observatory Hill.



Parking outside the Wentworth home, he mounted the steps and rang the bell.

It was answered by a slim, appealing girl of perhaps twenty-two. Hers was a wistful, oval face, with a small, upturned nose; and her clear hazel eyes were the sort that always seem to be enjoying some amusing secret of their own. Her hair was a soft brown, worn loose to the shoulders, after the style then in vogue.

"Joan!" blurted Jim.

"What brings you here at such an hour, Jimmy Carter?" she asked with mock severity.

"You!"

"I don't believe you."

"What then have I come for?"

"You've come to interview father about those meteorites."

"Nonsense! That's purely incidental--a mere by-product, you might say."

"Yes, you might--but I wouldn't advise you to say it to father."

"All right, I won't," he promised, as she led him into the library.

Professor Wentworth rose as they entered and laid aside some scientific book he had been reading.

A man of medium height and build, he had the same twinkling hazel eyes as his daughter, though somewhat dimmed from peering at too many stars for too many years.

"Good evening, Jim," he said. "I've rather been expecting you. What is on your mind?"

"Seeds! Eggs! Baseb.a.l.l.s!" was the reply, "I don't know what. You've seen the latest television reports, I suppose?" said Jim, noting that the panel on the receiving cabinet across the room was still lit.

"I've seen some of them. Joan has been keeping an eye on the screen mostly, however, while I refreshed my mind on the known chemistry of meteorites. You see, I have a few of those eggs myself, up at the observatory."

"You have?" cried Jim.

He was certainly on the right track!

"Yes. One of my a.s.sistants brought them in this afternoon. Would you like to see them?"

"I'll say I would!"

"I rather thought you might," the professor smiled. "Come along, then."

And as Jim turned, he shot a look at Joan, and added: "You may come too, my dear, if you want."

They went out and up the hill to where the great white dome glistened under the stars, and once inside, Jim Carter of The New York Press was privileged to see two of those strange objects that had turned the world topsy-turvy.

As the Tokyo dispatch and the Berlin television flash had indicated, they were orange in color, about the size of baseb.a.l.l.s.

"Weird looking eggs, all right!" said Jim. "What are they made of, anyway?"

"Some element unknown on earth," replied Professor Wentworth.

"But I thought there were only ninety-two elements in the universe and we'd discovered them all."

"So we have. But don't forget this. We are still trying to split the atom, which nature has done many times and will doubtless do many times again. It is merely a matter of altering the valence of the atoms in an old element; whereupon it s.h.i.+fts its position in the periodic scale and becomes a new element. Nature accomplishes this alchemy by means of great heat, which is certainly to be found in a meteor."

"Particularly when it hits the earth's atmosphere!"

"Yes. And now then, I'd like to have you examine more closely this pair I have here."

Jim lifted one and noted its peculiar smoothness, its remarkable weight for its size; he noted, too, that it was veined with concentric markings, like a series of arabesques or fleurs-de-lis.

The professor lifted the other, calling attention to the fact that the size and marking of both were identical, as. .h.i.therto reported.

"Also, you'll observe that they are slightly warm. In fact, they are appreciably warmer than when they were first brought in. Curious behavior, this, for new-laid cometary eggs! More like seeds germinating than meteorites cooling, wouldn't you say?"

"But good Lord!" Jim was somewhat taken aback to hear this celebrated scientist apparently commit himself to that wild view. "You don't really think they're seeds, do you?"

"Why not?"

"But surely no seeds could survive the temperature they hit getting here."

"No seeds such as we know, true. But what, after all, do we know of the types of life to be found on other planets?"

"Nothing, of course. Only these didn't come from a planet. They came from a comet."

"And who can say a comet is not a disintegrated planet? Or suppose we take the other theory, that it is an eruption from some sun, ours or another. In any event, who can say no life can survive intense heat? Certainly these seeds--or call them meteorites, if you choose--came through the ordeal curiously unscathed."

"Yes, that's true. Funny, too!"

"And another thing is true, Jim. If by chance they should be seeds, and should germinate, the life they would produce would be something quite alien to our experience, possibly quite inimical to--"

Professor Wentworth broke off abruptly as a startled cry came from Joan, and, turning, they saw her standing with eyes fixed in fascinated horror on the laboratory table.

Following her gaze, Jim saw something that caused his own eyes to bulge. The color of those mysterious orange spheres had suddenly, ominously heightened. They lay glowing there like b.a.l.l.s of fire.

"Good G.o.d!" he gasped. "Look, Professor! Do you see that?"

Professor Wentworth did not answer but himself stood gazing spellbound at the astounding scene.

Even as they looked, the metal table smoldered under the fiery meteorites and melted, and in a little while the meteorites themselves sizzled from view. Flames licked up from the floor; dense, suffocating fumes rose and swirled through the laboratory.

"Quick!" cried Jim, seizing Joan's arm. "Come on, Professor! Never mind trying to save anything. Let's get out of here!"

They staggered from the laboratory and once outside, plunged down the hill. It was none too soon.

Behind them, as they fled, came suddenly two deafening explosions. Looking back, they saw the roof of the observatory tilt crazily; saw the whole building shatter, and erupt like a volcano.

But that, startling though it was, was not all they saw. For now, as they stood there speechless, two incredible forms rose phoenix-like from the flames--two weird monsters, orange against the red, hideous, nightmarish. They saw them hover a moment above that fiery h.e.l.l, then rise on batlike wings to swoop off into the night.

Nor was that all. As the awed trio stood there halfway down Observatory Hill, following the flight of that pair of demons, other explosions reached their ears, and, turning to the city below, they saw vivid jets of red leap up here and there, saw other orange wings against the night.

While off across the southeast sky, receding fast, spread the Mystery Comet whose tail had sowed the seeds of this strange life.

Still silent, the trio stood gazing upon that appalling scene for some minutes, while the ruddy shadows of the flaming observatory lit their tense faces.

"Well, the seeds have hatched," said Professor Wentworth at length, in a strained voice. "I am afraid some of the curious who have been gathering those meteorites so eagerly have paid a dear price for them."

"Yes, I'm afraid so," echoed Jim. "We were lucky. If Joan hadn't happened to spot those things just when she did--" He broke off and pressed her hand fondly. "But somehow I can't believe it, even yet. What do you think the things are, Professor?"

"G.o.d knows! As I told you, those seeds, should they germinate, would produce something quite alien to our experience; and as I feared, it is a form of life that will not blend well with humanity."

Jim shuddered.

"But look, father!" exclaimed Joan. "They're flying away! They seem to be way up among the stars. Maybe they've left the earth altogether."

Professor Wentworth following his daughter's gaze, saw that many of the monsters were now mere orange pinpoints against the night.

"Let us hope so!" he said fervently.

But in his heart there was no conviction, nor in Jim's, strangely.

On the way back to New York, Jim had plenty to heighten his uneasiness. The scene below him everywhere was red with conflagrations, the sky everywhere orange with the wings of those fiery moths.

More than one swept perilously close, as he pushed his auto-plane on at top speed; but they showed no inclination to attack, for which he was devoutly thankful.

Over the metropolitan area, the scene was one beggaring description. All the five boroughs were a blazing checker-board. New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester--all were raging. Hundreds of those deadly bombs must have burst in Manhattan alone.

But the fire department there seemed to have the situation in hand, he noticed as he swept down onto the Plaza landing platform.

Leaving his plane with an attendant, he took the first elevator to the street level, and crossing hastily to the Press tower, mounted to the city room.

There absolute pandemonium raged. Typewriters were sputtering, telegraph keys clicking, phones buzzing, reporters coming and going in a steady stream, mingled with the frantic orders of editors, sub-editors, copy readers, composing-room men and others.

Carter fought through the bedlam to the city editor's desk.

"Sorry I couldn't bring you that egg, Chief," he said, with a grim smile. "I had one right in my hand, but it hatched out on me."

Overton looked up wearily. He was a man who had seen a miracle, a G.o.dless miracle that restored his faith in the devil.

"Don't talk--just write!" he growled. "I've seen and heard too much to-night. We're all going to h.e.l.l, I guess--unless we're already there."

But Jim wasn't ready to write yet.

"What's the dope elsewhere? The same?"

"All over the map! We're frying, from coast to coast."

"And abroad?"

"Cooked, everywhere!" He paused, and turned an imploring face to Jim. "Tell me, Carter--what's happening? You've seen Wentworth, I suppose. What's he make of it?"

"He--doesn't know."

"G.o.d help us! Well, go write your story. If we've got a plant by press time, we'll have something on page one to-morrow--if there's anyone to read it."

By morning the fires in the metropolitan area had been brought under control and it was found that neither the loss of life nor the damage was as great as had at first been feared. Mainly it was the older types of buildings that had suffered the most.

The same thing was true in other parts of the country and elsewhere in the world; and elsewhere, as in New York, people pulled themselves together, cleared up the debris, and went ahead with their occupations. Business was resumed, and rebuilding operations were begun.

Meanwhile, where were those fiery moths that had sprung so devastatingly from their strange coc.o.o.ns?

For a while no one knew and it was believed they had indeed winged off into interstellar s.p.a.ce, as Joan had suggested that night on Observatory Hill.

Then came rumors that damped these hopes, followed by eye-witness reports that altogether dashed them. The bat-like monsters had flown, not off into s.p.a.ce, but to the world's waste-lands.

Strange, it was, the instinct that had led them unerringly to the remotest point of each continent. In North America it was the great Arizona desert, in South America the pampas of Argentina, in Europe the steppes of Russia, in Asia the Desert of Gobi, in Africa the Sahara, in Australia the Victoria; while in the British Isles, Philippines, New Zealand, Madagascar, Iceland, the East Indies, West Indies, South Seas and other islands of the world, the interiors were taken over by the demons, the populace fleeing for their lives.

As for the oceans, no one knew exactly what had happened there, though it was obvious they, too, had received their share of the bombardment on that fateful night; but, while temperatures were found to be somewhat above normal, scientists were of the opinion that the deadly sp.a.w.n that had fallen there had failed to incubate.

Immediately the presence of the monsters in the Arizona desert was verified, Overton called Jim Carter to his desk.

"Well, I've got a big a.s.signment for you, boy," he said, rather more gently than was his fas.h.i.+on. "Maybe you know what, huh?"

"You want me to buzz out and interview those birds?"

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 64

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