The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 67

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Jim preferred not to think of that, as he drove on into the night.

Crossing the Missouri River at dark and deserted Kansas City, they soon saw the eastern arc of that deadly orange circle loom on the horizon. To get over it safely, Jim rose to twenty thousand feet, but even there the heat, as they sped across the frontier into enemy territory, was terrific.

Anxiously he watched his revs and prayed for his motor to hold up. If it stopped now, they were cooked!

The st.u.r.dy engine purred on with scarcely a flutter, however, and soon they were behind the lines, in a region pitted with the smoldering fires of towns and cities.

It made them shudder, it presented such an appalling panorama of ruin. But at the same time, it strengthened their hope. For very few flares of orange gleamed now among the red. The main forces of the invader were at the front. That meant there should be a safe place to land somewhere.



An hour later, some miles beyond that weird gla.s.s citadel that had been their objective, they found a wide stretch of empty desert, and there Jim brought the little plane down to a faultless landing, just as dawn was lightening the east.

Stepping out, he drew a deep breath of relief. For had he crashed, or smashed that fragile tube, all would have been in vain.

"Well, here we are!" he exclaimed, grimly cheerful, as Professor Wentworth stepped out after him. "Now let's--"

Then he broke off, horrified, as he saw another figure follow the professor from the cabin.

"Joan!" he gasped.

"Present!" she replied.

"But, my daughter!" the professor's voice broke in. "My dear child!" A sob shook him. "Why, why, this is--"

"Please don't let's talk about it!" she begged, giving his arm a little pat. "I'm here and it can't be helped now. I was only afraid you'd find me before it was too late and take me back."

Then, edging over to Jim and slipping her arm in his, she murmured: "Oh, my dear! Don't you see I couldn't stay behind? I had to be with you at the end, Jimmy, if--"

"It won't be!" he cried, pressing her cold hand. "It can't be!"

Then he turned to give his attention to her father, who had already mounted to the c.o.c.kpit and was working absorbedly over his mechanism in the pale light of the coming day.

Any moment, Jim knew, those flaming termites might discover them, and come swooping down. With keen eyes he scanned the horizon. No sign of them yet.

"How are you up there?" he called.

"About ready," was the reply. "But I shall want more light than this for my mirrors."

Tensely, counting the seconds, they waited for the sunrise....

And now, as they waited, suddenly a sinister tinge of orange suffused the rosy hues of the east.

"The Fire Ants!" cried Joan, shrinking. "They've seen us! They're coming!"

It was true, Jim saw with a heavy heart.

Turning to Professor Wentworth, he gasped out: "Quick! We've got to do something! You've no idea how fast they move!"

"Very well." The professor's voice was strangely calm. "You may start your motor. I shall do what I can. Though if we only had the sun--"

Jim leaped for the cabin.

A touch of the starter and the powerful engine came in. Braking his wheels hard, to hold the plane on the ground, he advanced the throttle as much as he dared, and sent a high-tension current surging through the wires the professor had connected with his tube above.

Soon came that high, whining hum they had heard in the laboratory--a thousand times magnified now--and the nib of the big tube glowed a livid, eery green in the lemon dawn.

"Joan!" called her father sharply. "Get in the cabin with Jim!"

She did so, her eyes still fixed in horrified fascination on the eastern horizon; and in that tense instant, she saw two things. First, a great orange arc of fiery termites, bearing down on them; and second, another arc, far greater--the vast saffron rim of the rising sun.

Those two things Joan saw--and so did Jim--as their eardrums almost burst with the stupendous vibration that came from the gun in the c.o.c.kpit. Then they saw a third, something that left them mute with awe.

As Professor Wentworth swung his cannon ray upon that advancing horde, it melted, vanished, leaving only the clear yellow of the morning sunlight before their bewildered eyes.

But the professor did not cease. For five minutes--ten, fifteen--he swung that mighty ray around, stepping up its power, lengthening its range, as it reached its invisible, annihilating arm farther and farther out....

Meanwhile Jim was radio-phoning frantically. The air seemed strangely full of static.

At last he got Overton of The New York Press.

"Carter speaking, out in Arizona," he said. "Getting any reports on the ray?"

And back came the tremendous news: "Results! Man, the world's crazy! They're gone--everywhere! Tell the professor to lay off, before he sends us scooting too."

"Right!" said Jim, cutting his motor. "More later!"

And to Professor Wentworth he called: "All right, that's enough! That ray was stronger than you knew!"

But there came no answer, and mounting to the wing-tip, Joan following, Jim saw a sight that froze him with horror. They beheld the professor, slumped against the tube, his whole body glowing a pale, fluorescent green.

"Father!" screamed Joan, rus.h.i.+ng to his side. "Oh, Father!"

The man stirred, motioned her away, gasped weakly: "Do not touch me, child--until the luminosity goes. I am highly radio-active. I had no time to--insulate the tube. No time to find out how. Had to--hurry--"

His voice waned off and they knew he was dead. The two stood there stunned by the realization of his great sacrifice.

He and Joan had set forth on this venture knowing they stood at least a chance, thought Jim, but Professor Wentworth had known from the start that it was sure death for him.

The sun stood out above the eastern horizon like a huge gold coin, bright with the promise of life to spend, when Jim and Joan took off at last for the return home; but the radiance of the morning was dimmed by the knowledge of the tragic burden they bore.

For some moments, as they winged on, both were silent.

"Look!" said Jim at length. "Look ahead, Joan!"

She looked, brightened somewhat.

"Yes, I see."

And after a moment, lifting her hazel eyes to his, she said. "Oh, Jimmy, I'm sure it means happiness for us."

"Yes, I'm sure!"

She stirred, moved closer.

"Jimmy, you--you're all I have now."

He made no reply, save to press her trembling hand. But it was enough.

Silently, understandingly, they winged onward into the morning light.

Contents

RUNAWAY.

By Joseph Samachson

Heroism is merely daring and ingenuity--at the age of ten--experience can come later!

A thin speck appeared in the visor plate and grew with sinister and terrifying speed. Bursts of flame began to play around the rocketing s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p, the explosions hurtling it from side to side as it twisted and turned in a frantic effort to escape. Rogue Rogan, his vicious lips compressed, his glittering evil eyes narrowed, heart pounding, knew that this was it.

This was the day of retribution, he had so long feared....

"Plato!"

Plato leaped to his feet and slid the book under the pillow. Then he seized a textbook at random, and opened it wide. His eyes fastened themselves to the print, seizing upon the meaningless words as if they would save him from a retribution that Rogue Rogan had never had to fear.

The dorm master frowned from the doorway. "Plato, didn't you hear the a.s.sembly bell?"

"a.s.sembly?" Plato's eyes looked up in mild astonishment. "No, sir, I didn't hear any bell. I was so absorbed in my studying, sir--" He shut the book and placed it back with the others. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm willing to accept my punishment."

The dorm master studied the little martyr's expression. "You'd better be, Plato. Now live up to your name and show some intelligence. Run along to a.s.sembly."

Plato ran, but he also winced. How he had suffered from that miserable name of his! Even before he had known that the original Plato had been a philosopher, even before he had been capable of understanding what a philosopher was, he had been able to see the amused expression in the eyes of those who heard his name, and had hated them for it. "Show a little intelligence, Plato." Why couldn't they have given him a name like the others? There were so many ordinary, commonplace, manly names from which they might have chosen. Jim, Jack, George, Tom, Bill--anything would have been better than Plato. And infinitely better than what he was sometimes called by his equals--"Plato, the dopy philosopher."

He slipped into his seat in the a.s.sembly quietly, so as not to interrupt the droning of the princ.i.p.al. So they thought his name was funny, did they? Let them laugh at him. He was only ten now, but some day he would really act like a man. Some day it would be he himself, and not a fictional hero like Comets Carter, who would be adventuring on strange planets of unknown suns, tracking down the Rogans and the other criminals who sought refuge in the wide reaches of galactic s.p.a.ce.

Some day--and then the thought burst on him like a nova exploding in his brain.

Why not now?

Why not indeed? He was smart; he could take care of himself. Even his masters admitted that, when they weren't carping at him for his daydreaming. Take that model of a s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p they had brought to school one day, with a retired astrogator to explain to the pupils how the thing was run, and how it avoided stray meteors. He had sat down at the controls, and even the astrogator had been surprised at how confidently he took over the role of pilot, how he got the idea at once.

He could do as well in real life. He was sure of it. Give him a really worthwhile problem to work on, instead of these silly questions about square roots and who discovered the third satellite of Mars, and he'd show them.

"Thus," declaimed the princ.i.p.al, "you will be prepared to take up your duties--"

"Norberts to you," thought Plato. "I'm going to run away."

Where to? There were so many stars to go to, such a bewildering number of planets and asteroids.

Plato sat lost in thought. A planet whose habitation required a s.p.a.cesuit was out of the question. s.p.a.cesuits his size were hard to get. The sensible thing would be to choose a place where the physical conditions, from gravity to atmospheric pressure and composition would tend to resemble those here on Venus or on Earth. But full of the most thrilling danger.

A boy's voice said, "Get up, you dopy philosopher. It's all over."

He raised his head and realized that the princ.i.p.al had stopped droning from the platform, that all the pupils were standing up to leave. He stood up and marched out.

When the signal for lights out came that night, Plato lay motionless for a time in the dark, his mind racing far too rapidly for him to think of sleep. He had plans to make. And after a time, when the dormitory quieted down, he went to the well of knowledge for inspiration. He slipped on his pair of goggles and threw the special switch he himself had made. The infra-red light flared on, invisible to any one in the room but himself, and he drew his book from its hiding place and resumed his reading.

The s.h.i.+p curvetted in s.p.a.ce like a prancing steed. Panic-stricken by the four-dimensional s.p.a.ce-warp in which he was trapped, Rogue Rogan stormed at his terrified followers. "By all the devils of the Coal Sack," he shouted, "the man doesn't live who can take me alive! You'll fight and die like men, you hen-hearted cowards...."

But they didn't die like men. In fact, they didn't die at all, and Plato permitted a slight sneer to play across his youthful features. Though he considered himself a pa.s.sionate admirer of Comets Carter, even he felt dissatisfied with the story. When they were trapped, they were never really trapped. Comets Carter, sterling hero that he usually was, always showed weakness of intellect at the last moment, giving his deadly enemy an incredibly simple way out, one that Comets had, in his own incredibly simple way, overlooked.

Plato would never be guilty of such stupidity. He himself--and now he was Comets Carter, a quicker-thinker, smarter Carter, dealing out to Rogue Rogan a retribution many eons overdue. He was whistling through s.p.a.ce at ten light-speeds. He was compressing light-centuries into a single second. He was-- He had just time to slip the goggles from his face before his eyes closed in sleep.

During the day, he continued to make his plans. There was a s.p.a.ceport a hundred and forty miles away. At night, if the students poked their heads out of the window, they could see the distant s.h.i.+ps as points of flame racing away into the darkness, like shooting stars in reverse. He would steal out of his room in the night, take a glider-train to the s.p.a.ceport, and stow away. It would be as simple as that.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 67

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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 67 summary

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