The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 104

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"Zircorundum," said Bennie, groping around in a drawer of his work table. "It's an absolute nonconductor of heat. Look here, just stick your finger in that." He held out to Thornton what appeared to be a small test tube of black gla.s.s. Thornton, with a slight moral hesitation, did as he was told, and Bennie, whistling, picked up the oxyacetylene blowpipe, regarding it somewhat as a dog fancier might gaze at an exceptionally fine pup. "Hold up your finger," said he to the astronomer. "That's right--like that!"

Thrusting the blowpipe forward, he allowed the hissing blue-white flame to wrap itself round the outer wall of the tube--a flame which Thornton knew could melt its way through a block of steel--but the astronomer felt no sensation of heat, although he not unnaturally expected the member to be incinerated.

"Queer, eh?" said Bennie. "Absolute insulation! Beats the thermos bottle, and requires no vacuum. It isn't quite what I want though, because the disintegrating rays which the ring discharge gives out break down the zirconium, which isn't an end-product of radioactivity. The pressure in the capsule rises, due to the liberation of helium, and it blows up, and the landlady or the police come up and bother me."

Thornton was scrutinizing Bennie's rough diagram. "This ring discharge," he meditated; "I wonder if it isn't something like a sunspot. You know the spots are electron vortices with strong magnetic fields. I'll bet you the Savaroff disintegrating rays come from the spots and not from the whole surface of the sun!"

"My word," said Bennie, with a grin of delight, "you occasionally have an illuminating idea, even if you are a musty astronomer. I always thought you were a sort of calculating machine, who slept on a logarithm table. I owe you two drinks for that suggestion, and to scare a thirst into you I'll show you an experiment that no living human being has ever seen before. I can't make very powerful disintegrating rays yet, but I can break down uranium, which is the easiest of all. Later on I'll be able to disintegrate anything, if I have luck--that is, anything except end-products. Then you'll see things fly. But, for the present, just this." He picked up a thin plate of white metal. "This is the metal we're going to attack, uranium--the parent of radium--and the whole radioactive series, ending with the end-product lead."



He hung the plate by two fine wires fastened to its corners, and adjusted a coil of wire opposite its centre, while within the coil he slipped a small black capsule.

"This is the best we can do now," he said. "The capsule is made of zircorundum, and we shall get only a trace of the disintegrating rays before it blows up. But you'll see 'em, or, rather, you'll see the lavender phosph.o.r.escence of the air through which they pa.s.s."

He arranged a thick slab of plate gla.s.s between Thornton and the thermic transformer, and stepping to the wall closed a switch. An oscillatory spark discharge started off with a roar in a closed box, and the coil of wire became white hot.

"Watch the plate!" shouted Bennie.

And Thornton watched.

For ten or fifteen seconds nothing happened, and then a faint beam of pale lavender light shot out from the capsule, and the metal plate swung away from the incandescent coil as if blown by a gentle breeze.

Almost instantly there was a loud report and a blinding flash of yellow light so brilliant that for the next instant or two to Thornton's eyes the room seemed dark. Slowly the afternoon light regained its normal quality. Bennie relit his pipe unconcernedly.

"That's the germ of the idea," he said between puffs. "That capsule contains a mixture of vapours that give out disintegrating rays when the temperature is raised by thermic induction above six thousand. Most of 'em are stopped by the zirconium atoms in the capsule, which break down and liberate helium; and the temperature rises in the capsule until it explodes, as you saw just now, with a flash of yellow helium light. The rays that get out strike the uranium plate and cause the surface layer of molecules to disintegrate, their products being driven off by the atomic explosions with a velocity about equal to that of light, and it's the recoil that deflects and swings the plate. The amount of uranium decomposed in this experiment couldn't be detected by the most delicate balance--small ma.s.s, but enormous velocity. See?"

"Yes, I understand," answered Thornton. "It's the old, 'momentum equals ma.s.s times velocity,' business we had in mechanics."

"Of course this is only a toy experiment," Bennie continued. "It is what the dancing pithb.a.l.l.s of Franklin's time were to the multipolar, high-frequency dynamo. But if we could control this force and handle it on a large scale we could do anything with it--destroy the world, drive a car against gravity off into s.p.a.ce, s.h.i.+ft the axis of the earth perhaps!"

It came to Thornton as he sat there, cigarette in hand, that poor Bennie Hooker was going to receive the disappointment of his life. Within the next five minutes his dreams would be dashed to earth, for he would learn that another had stepped down to the pool of discovery before him. For how many years, he wondered, had Bennie toiled to produce his mysterious ray that should break down the atom and release the store of energy that the genii of Nature had concealed there. And now Thornton must tell him that all his efforts had gone for nothing!

"And you believe that any one who could generate a ray such as you describe could control the motion of the earth?" he asked.

"Of course, certainly," answered Hooker. "He could either disintegrate such huge quant.i.ties of matter that the ma.s.s of the earth would be s.h.i.+fted and its polar axis be changed, or if radioactive substances--pitchblende, for example--lay exposed upon the earth's surface he could cause them to discharge their helium and other products at such an enormous velocity that the recoil or reaction would accelerate or r.e.t.a.r.d the motion of the globe. It would be quite feasible, quite simple--all one would need would be the disintegrating ray."

And then Thornton told Hooker of the flight of the giant Ring machine from the north and the destruction of the Mountains of Atlas through the apparent instrumentality of a ray of lavender light. Hooker's face turned slightly pale and his unshaven mouth tightened. Then a smile of exaltation illuminated his features.

"He's done it!" he cried joyously. "He's done it on an engineering scale. We pure-science dreamers turn up our noses at the engineers, but I tell you the improvements in the apparatus part of the game come when there is a big commercial demand for a thing and the engineering chaps take hold of it. But who is he and where is he? I must get to him. I don't suppose I can teach him much, but I've got a magnificent experiment that we can try together."

He turned to a littered writing-table and poked among the papers that lay there.

"You see," he explained excitedly, "if there is anything in the quantum theory----Oh! but you don't care about that. The point is where is the chap?"

And so Thornton had to begin at the beginning and tell Hooker all about the mysterious messages and the phenomena that accompanied them. He enlarged upon Pax's benignant intentions and the great problems presented by the proposed interference of the United States Government in Continental affairs, but Bennie swept them aside. The great thing, to his mind, was to find and get into communication with Pax.

"Ah! How he must feel! The greatest achievement of all time!" cried Hooker radiantly. "How ecstatically happy! Earth blossoming like the rose! Well-watered valleys where deserts were before. War abolished, poverty, disease! Who can it be? Curie? No; she's bottled in Paris. Posky, Langham, Varanelli--it can't be any one of those fellows. It beats me! Some Hindoo or j.a.p maybe, but never Hiros.h.i.+to! Now we must get to him right away. So much to talk over." He walked round the room, blundering into things, dizzy with the thought that his great dream had come true. Suddenly he swept everything off the table on to the floor and kicked his heels in the air.

"Hooray!" he shouted, dancing round the room like a freshman. "Hooray! Now I can take a holiday. And come to think of it, I'm as hungry as a brontosaurus!"

That night Thornton returned to Was.h.i.+ngton and was at the White House by nine o'clock the following day.

"It's all straight," he told the President. "The honestest man in the United States has said so."

XI.

The moon rose over sleeping Paris, silvering the silent reaches of the Seine, flooding the deserted streets with mellow light, yet gently retouching all the disfigurements of the siege. No lights illuminated the cafes, no taxis dashed along the boulevards, no crowds loitered in the Place de l'Opera or the Place Vendome. Yet save for these facts it might have been the Paris of old time, unvisited by hunger, misery, or death. The curfew had sounded. Every citizen had long since gone within, extinguished his lights, and locked his door. Safe in the knowledge that the Germans' second advance had been finally met and effectually blocked sixty miles outside the walls, and that an armistice had been declared to go into effect at midnight, Paris slumbered peacefully.

Beyond the pellet-strewn fields and glacis of the second line of defence the invader, after a series of terrific onslaughts, had paused, retreated a few miles and intrenched himself, there to wait until the starving city should capitulate. For four months he had waited, yet Paris gave no sign of surrendering. On the contrary, it seemed to have some mysterious means of self-support, and the war office, in daily communication with London, reported that it could withstand the investment for an indefinite period. Meantime the Germans reintrenched themselves, built forts of their own upon which they mounted the siege guns intended for the walls, and constructed an impregnable line of entanglements, redoubts, and defences, which rendered it impossible for any army outside the city to come to its relief.

So rose the moon, turning white the millions of slate roofs, gilding the traceries of the towers of Notre Dame, dimming the searchlights which, like the antennae of gigantic fireflies, constantly played round the city from the summit of the Eiffel Tower. So slept Paris, confident that no crash of descending bombs would shatter the blue vault of the starlit sky or rend the habitations in which lay two millions of human beings, a.s.sured that the sun would rise through the gray mists of the Seine upon the ancient beauties of the Tuilleries and the Louvre unmarred by the enemy's projectiles, and that its citizens could pa.s.s freely along its boulevards without menace of death from flying missiles. For no sh.e.l.l could be hurled a distance of sixty miles, and an armistice had been declared.

Behind a small hill within the German fortifications a group of officers stood in the moonlight, examining what looked superficially like the hangar of a small dirigible. Nestling behind the hill it cast a black rectangular shadow upon the trampled sand of the redoubt. A score of artisans were busy filling a deep trench through which a huge pipe led off somewhere--a sort of deadly plumbing, for the house sheltered a monster cannon reenforced by jackets of lead and steel, the whole encased in a cooling apparatus of intricate manufacture. From the open end of the house the cylindrical barrel of the gigantic engine of war raised itself into the air at an angle of forty degrees, and from the muzzle to the ground below it was a drop of over eighty feet. On a track running off to the north rested the projectiles side by side, resembling in the dim light a row of steam boilers in the yard of a locomotive factory.

"Well," remarked one of the officers, turning to the only one of his companions not in uniform. "'Thanatos' is ready."

The man addressed was Von Heckmann, the most famous inventor of military ordnance in the world, already four times decorated for his services to the Emperor.

"The labour of nine years!" he answered with emotion. "Nine long years of self-denial and unremitting study! But to-night I shall be repaid, repaid a thousand times."

The officers shook hands with him one after the other, and the group broke up; the men who were filling the trench completed their labours and departed; and Von Heckmann and the major-general of artillery alone remained, except for the sentries beside the gun. The night was balmy and the moon rode in a cloudless sky high above the hill. They crossed the enclosure, followed by the two sentinels, and entering a pa.s.sage reached the outer wall of the redoubt, which was in turn closed and locked. Here the sentries remained, but Von Heckmann and the general continued on behind the fortifications for some distance.

"Well, shall we start the ball?" asked the general, laying his hand on Von Heckmann's shoulder. But the inventor found it so hard to master his emotion that he could only nod his head. Yet the ball to which the general alluded was the discharging of a fiendish war machine toward an unsuspecting and harmless city alive with sleeping people, and the emotion of the inventor was due to the fact that he had devised and completed the most atrocious engine of death ever conceived by the mind of man--the Relay Gun. Horrible as is the thought, this otherwise normal man had devoted nine whole years to the problem of how to destroy human life at a distance of a hundred kilometres, and at last he had been successful, and an emperor had placed with his own divinely appointed hands a ribbon over the spot beneath which his heart should have been.

The projectile of this diabolical invention was ninety-five centimetres in diameter, and was itself a rifled mortar, which in full flight, twenty miles from the gun and at the top of its trajectory, exploded in mid-air, hurling forward its contained projectile with an additional velocity of three thousand feet per second. This process repeated itself, the final or core bomb, weighing over three hundred pounds and filled with lyddite, reaching its mark one minute and thirty-five seconds after the firing of the gun. This crowning example of the human mind's destructive ingenuity had cost the German Government five million marks and had required three years for its construction, and by no means the least of its devilish capacities was that of automatically reloading and firing itself at the interval of every ten seconds, its muzzle rising, falling, or veering slightly from side to side with each discharge, thus causing the sh.e.l.ls to fall at wide distances. The poisonous nature of the immense volumes of gas poured out by the mastodon when in action necessitated the withdrawal of its crew to a safe distance. But once set in motion it needed no attendant. It had been tested by a preliminary shot the day before, which had been directed to a point several miles outside the walls of Paris, the effect of which had been observed and reported by high-flying German aeroplanes equipped with wireless. Everything was ready for the holocaust.

Von Heckmann and the general of artillery continued to make their way through the intrenchments and other fortifications, until at a distance of about a quarter of a mile from the redoubt where they had left the Relay Gun they arrived at a small whitewashed cottage.

"I have invited a few of my staff to join us," said the general to the inventor, "in order that they may in years to come describe to their children and their grandchildren this, the most momentous occasion in the history of warfare."

They turned the corner of the cottage and came upon a group of officers standing by the wooden gate of the cottage, all of whom saluted at their approach.

"Good evening, gentlemen," said the general. "I beg to present the members of my staff," turning to Von Heckmann.

The officers stood back while the general led the way into the cottage, the lower floor of which consisted of but a single room, used by the recent tenants as a kitchen, dining-room, and living-room. At one end of a long table, constructed by the regimental carpenter, supper had been laid, and a tub filled with ice contained a dozen or more quarts of champagne. Two orderlies stood behind the table, at the other end of which was affixed a small bra.s.s switch connected with the redoubt and controlled by a spring and b.u.t.ton. The windows of the cottage were open, and through them poured the light of the full moon, dimming the flickering light of the candles upon the table.

In spite of the champagne, the supper, and the boxes of cigars and cigarettes, an atmosphere of solemnity was distinctly perceptible. It was as if each one of these officers, hardened to human suffering by a lifetime of discipline and active service, to say nothing of the years of horror through which they had just pa.s.sed, could not but feel that in the last a.n.a.lysis the hurling upon an unsuspecting city of a rain of projectiles containing the highest explosive known to warfare, at a distance three times greater than that heretofore supposed to be possible to science, and the ensuing annihilation of its inhabitants, was something less for congratulation and applause than for sorrow and regret. The officers, who had joked each other outside the gate, became singularly quiet as they entered the cottage and gathered round the table where Von Heckmann and the general had taken their stand by the instrument. Utter silence fell upon the group. The mercury of their spirits dropped from summer heat to below freezing. What was this thing which they were about to do?

Through the windows, at a distance of four hundred yards, the pounding of the machinery which flooded the water jacket of the Relay Gun was distinctly audible in the stillness of the night. The pressure of a finger--a little finger--upon that electric b.u.t.ton was all that was necessary to start the torrent of iron and high explosives toward Paris. By the time the first sh.e.l.l would reach its mark nine more would be on their way, stretched across the midnight sky at intervals of less than eight miles. And once started the stream would continue uninterrupted for two hours. The fascinated eyes of all the officers fastened themselves upon the key. None spoke.

"Well, well, gentlemen!" exclaimed the general brusquely, "what is the matter with you? You act as if you were at a funeral! Hans," turning to the orderly, "open the champagne there. Fill the gla.s.ses. b.u.mpers all, gentlemen, for the greatest inventor of all times, Herr von Heckmann, the inventor of the Relay Gun!"

The orderly sprang forward and hastily commenced uncorking bottles, while Von Heckmann turned away to the window.

"Here, this won't do, Sch.e.l.ling! You must liven things up a bit!" continued the general to one of the officers. "This is a great occasion for all of us! Give me that bottle." He seized a magnum of champagne from the orderly and commenced pouring out the foaming liquid into the gla.s.ses beside the plates. Sch.e.l.ling made a feeble attempt at a joke at which the officers laughed loudly, for the general was a martinet and had to be humoured.

"Now, then," called out the general as he glanced toward the window, "Herr von Heckmann, we are going to drink your health! Officers of the First Artillery, I give you a toast--a toast which you will all remember to your dying day! b.u.mpers, gentlemen! No heel taps! I give you the health of 'Thanatos'--the leviathan of artillery, the winged bearer of death and destruction--and of its inventor, Herr von Heckmann. b.u.mpers, gentlemen!" The general slapped Von Heckmann upon the shoulder and drained his gla.s.s.

"'Thanatos!' Von Heckmann!" shouted the officers. And with one accord they dashed their goblets to the stone flagging upon which they stood.

"And now, my dear inventor," said the general, "to you belongs the honour of arousing 'Thanatos' into activity. Are you ready, gentlemen? I warn you that when 'Thanatos' snores the rafters will ring."

Von Heckmann had stood with bowed head while the officers had drunk his health, and he now hesitatingly turned toward the little bra.s.s switch with its b.u.t.ton of black rubber that glistened so innocently in the candlelight. His right hand trembled. He dashed the back of his left across his eyes. The general took out a large silver watch from his pocket. "Fifty-nine minutes past eleven," he announced. "At one minute past twelve Paris will be disembowelled. Put your finger on the b.u.t.ton, my friend. Let us start the ball rolling."

Von Heckmann cast a glance almost of disquietude upon the faces of the officers who were leaning over the table in the intensity of their excitement. His elation, his exaltation, had pa.s.sed from him. He seemed overwhelmed at the momentousness of the act which he was about to perform. Slowly his index finger crept toward the b.u.t.ton and hovered half suspended over it. He pressed his lips together and was about to exert the pressure required to transmit the current of electricity to the discharging apparatus when unexpectedly there echoed through the night the sharp click of a horse's hoofs coming at a gallop down the village street. The group turned expectantly to the doorway.

An officer dressed in the uniform of an aide-de-camp of artillery entered abruptly, saluted, and produced from the inside pocket of his jacket a sealed envelope which he handed to the general. The interest of the officers suddenly centred upon the contents of the envelope. The general grumbled an oath at the interruption, tore open the missive, and held the single sheet which it contained to the candlelight.

"An armistice!" he cried disgustedly. His eye glanced rapidly over the page.

"To the Major-General commanding the First Division of Artillery, Army of the Meuse: "An armistice has been declared, to commence at midnight, pending negotiations for peace. You will see that no acts of hostility occur until you receive notice that war is to be resumed.

"VON HELMUTH, "Imperial Commissioner for War."

The officers broke into exclamations of impatience as the general crumpled the missive in his hand and cast it upon the floor.

"Donnerwetter!" he shouted. "Why were we so slow? Curse the armistice!" He glanced at his watch. It already pointed to after midnight. His face turned red and the veins in his forehead swelled.

"To h.e.l.l with peace!" he bellowed, turning back his watch until the minute hand pointed to five minutes to twelve. "To h.e.l.l with peace, I say! Press the b.u.t.ton, Von Heckmann!"

But in spite of the agony of disappointment which he now acutely experienced, Von Heckmann did not fire. Sixty years of German respect for orders held him in a viselike grip and paralyzed his arm.

"I can't," he muttered. "I can't."

The general seemed to have gone mad. Thrusting Von Heckmann out of the way, he threw himself into a chair at the end of the table and with a snarl pressed the black handle of the key.

The officers gasped. Hardened as they were to the necessities of war, no act of insubordination like the present had ever occurred within their experience. Yet they must all uphold the general; they must all swear that the gun was fired before midnight. The key clicked and a blue bead snapped at the switch. They held their breaths, looking through the window to the west.

At first the night remained still. Only the chirp of the crickets and the fretting of the aide-de-camp's horse outside the cottage could be heard. Then, like the grating of a coffee mill in a distant kitchen when one is just waking out of a sound sleep, they heard the faint, smothered whir of machinery, a sharper metallic ring of steel against steel followed by a gigantic detonation which shook the ground upon which the cottage stood and overthrew every gla.s.s upon the table. With a roar like the fall of a skysc.r.a.per the first sh.e.l.l hurled itself into the night. Half terrified the officers gripped their chairs, waiting for the second discharge. The reverberation was still echoing among the hills when the second detonation occurred, shortly followed by the third and fourth. Then, in intervals between the cras.h.i.+ng explosions, a distant rumbling growl, followed by a shuddering of the air, as if the night were frightened, came up out of the west toward Paris, showing that the projectiles were at the top of their flight and going into action. A lake of yellow smoke formed in the pocket behind the hill where lay the redoubt in which "Thanatos" was snoring.

On the great race track of Longchamps, in the Bois de Boulogne, the vast herd of cows, sheep, horses, and goats, collected together by the city government of Paris and attended by fifty or sixty shepherds especially imported from les Landes, had long since ceased to browse and had settled themselves down into the profound slumber of the animal world, broken only by an occasional bleating or the restless whinnying of a stallion. On the race course proper, in front of the grandstand and between it and the judge's box, four of these shepherds had built a small fire and by its light were throwing dice for coppers. They were having an easy time of it, these shepherds, for their flocks did not wander, and all that they had to do was to see that the animals were properly driven to such parts of the Bois as would afford proper nourishment.

"Well, mes enfants," exclaimed old Adrian Bannalec, pulling a turnip-shaped watch from beneath his blouse and holding it up to the firelight, "it's twelve o'clock and time to turn in. But what do you say to a cup of chocolate first?"

The others greeted the suggestion with approval, and going somewhere underneath the grandstand, Bannalec produced a pot filled with water, which he suspended with much dexterity over the fire upon the end of a pointed stick. The water began to boil almost immediately, and they were on the point of breaking their chocolate into it when, from what appeared to be an immense distance, through the air there came a curious rumble.

"What was that?" muttered Bannalec. The sound was followed within a few seconds by another, and after a similar interval by a third and fourth.

"There was going to be an armistice," suggested one of the younger herdsmen. He had hardly spoken before a much louder and apparently nearer detonation occurred.

"That must be one of our guns," said old Adrian proudly. "Do you hear how much louder it speaks than those of the Germans?"

Other discharges now followed in rapid succession, some fainter, some much louder. And then somewhere in the sky they saw a flash of flame, followed by a thunderous concussion which rattled the grandstand, and a great fiery serpent came soaring through the heavens toward Paris. Each moment it grew larger, until it seemed to be dropping straight toward them out of the sky, leaving a trail of sparks behind it.

"It's coming our way," chattered Adrian.

"G.o.d have mercy upon us!" murmured the others.

Rigid with fear, they stood staring with open mouths at the sh.e.l.l that seemed to have selected them for the object of its flight.

"G.o.d have mercy on our souls!" repeated Adrian after the others.

Then there came a light like that of a million suns....

Alas for the wives and children of the herdsmen! And alas for the herds! But better that the eight core bombs projected by "Thanatos" through the midnight sky toward Paris should have torn the foliage of the Bois, destroyed the grandstands of Auteuil and Longchamps, with sixteen hundred innocent sheep and cattle, than that they should have sought their victims among the crowded streets of the inner city. Lucky for Paris that the Relay Gun had been sighted so as to sweep the metropolis from the west to the east, and that though each sh.e.l.l approached nearer to the walls than its preceding brother, none reached the ramparts. For with the discharge of the eighth sh.e.l.l and the explosion of the first core bomb filled with lyddite among the sleeping animals huddled on the turf in front of the grandstands, something happened which the poor shepherds did not see.

The watchers in the Eiffel Tower, seeing the heavens with their searchlights for German planes and German dirigibles, saw the first core bomb bore through the sky from the direction of Verdun, followed by its seven comrades, and saw each bomb explode in the Bois below. But as the first sh.e.l.l shattered the stillness of the night and spread its sulphureous and death-dealing fumes among the helpless cattle, the watchers on the Tower saw a vast light burst skyward in the far-distant east.

Two miles up the road from the village of Champaubert, Karl Biedenkopf, a native of Hesse-Na.s.sau and a private of artillery, was doing picket duty. The moonlight turned the broad highroad toward epernay into a gleaming white boulevard down which he could see, it seemed to him, for miles. The air was soft and balmy, and filled with the odour of hay which the troopers had harvested "on behalf of the Kaiser." Across the road "Gretchen," Karl's mare, grazed ruminatively, while the picket himself sat on the stone wall by the roadside, smoking the Bremen cigar which his corporal had given him after dinner.

The night was thick with stars. They were all so bright that at first he did not notice the comet which sailed slowly toward him from the northwest, seemingly following the line of the German intrenchments from Amiens, St.-Quentin, and Laon toward Rheims and epernay. But the comet was there, dropping a long yellow beam of light upon the sleeping hosts that were beleaguering the outer ring of the French fortifications. Suddenly the repose of Biedenkopf's retrospections was abruptly disconcerted by the distant pounding of hoofs far down the road from Verdun. He sprang off the wall, took up his rifle, crossed the road, hastily adjusted "Gretchen's" bridle, leaped into the saddle, and awaited the night rider, whoever he might be. At a distance of three hundred feet he cried: "Halt!" The rider drew rein, hastily gave the countersign, and Biedenkopf, recognizing the aide-de-camp, saluted and drew aside.

"There goes a lucky fellow," he said aloud. "Nothing to do but ride up and down the roads, stopping wherever he sees a pleasant inn or a pretty face, spending money like water, and never risking a hair of his head."

It never occurred to him that maybe his was the luck. And while the aide-de-camp galloped on and the sound of his horse's hoofs grew fainter and fainter down the road toward the village, the comet came sailing swiftly on overhead, deluging the fortifications with a blinding orange-yellow light. It could not have been more than a mile away when Biedenkopf saw it. Instantly his trained eye recognized the fact that this strange round object shooting through the air was no wandering celestial body.

"Ein Flieger!" he cried hoa.r.s.ely, staring at it in astonishment, knowing full well that no dirigible or aeroplane of German manufacture bore any resemblance to this extraordinary voyager of the air.

A hundred yards down the road his field telephone was attached to a poplar, and casting one furtive look at the Flying Ring he galloped to the tree and rang up the corporal of the guard. But at the very instant that his call was answered a series of terrific detonations shook the earth and set the wires roaring in the receiver, so that he could hear nothing. One--two--three--four of them, followed by a distant answering boom in the west.

And then the whole sky seemed full of fire. He was hurled backward upon the road and lay half-stunned, while the earth discharged itself into the air with a roar like that of ten thousand sh.e.l.ls exploding all together. The ground shook, groaned, grumbled, grated, and showers of boards, earth, branches, rocks, vegetables, tiles, and all sorts of unrecognizable and grotesque objects fell from the sky all about him. It was like a gigantic and never-ending mine, or series of mines, in continuous explosion, a volcano pouring itself upward out of the bowels of an incandescent earth. Above the earsplitting thunder of the eruption he heard shrill cries and raucous shoutings. Mounted men dashed past him down the road, singly and in squadrons. A molten globe dropped through the branches of the poplar, and striking the hard surface of the road at a distance of fifty yards scattered itself like a huge ingot dropped from a blast furnace. Great clouds of dust descended and choked him. A withering heat enveloped him....

It was noon next day when Karl Biedenkopf raised his head and looked about him. He thought first there had been a battle. But the sight that met his eyes bore no resemblance to a field of carnage. Over his head he noticed that the uppermost branches of the poplar had been seared as by fire. The road looked as if the countryside had been traversed by a hurricane. All sorts of debris filled the fields and everywhere there seemed to be a thick deposit of blackened earth. Vaguely realizing that he must report for duty, he crawled, in spite of his bursting head and aching limbs, on all fours down the road toward the village.

But he could not find the village. There was no village there; and soon he came to what seemed to be the edge of a gigantic crater, where the earth had been uprooted and tossed aside as if by some huge convulsion of nature. Here and there ma.s.ses of inflammable material smoked and flickered with red flames. His eyes sought the familiar outlines of the redoubts and fortifications, but found them not. And where the village had been there was a great cavern in the earth, and the deepest part of the cavern, or so it seemed to his half-blinded sight, was at about the point where the cottage had stood which his general had used as his headquarters, the spot where the night before that general had raised his gla.s.s of bubbling wine and toasted "Thanatos," the personification of death, and called his officers to witness that this was the greatest moment in the history of warfare, a moment that they would all remember to their dying day.

XII.

The shabby-genteel little houses of the Appian Way, in Cambridge, whose window-eyes with their blue-green lids had watched Bennie Hooker come and go, trudging back and forth to lectures and recitations, first as boy and then as man, for thirty years, must have blinked with amazement at the sight of the little professor as he started on the afterward famous Hooker Expedition to Labrador in search of the Flying Ring.

For the five days following Thornton's unexpected visit Bennie, existing without sleep and almost without food save for his staple of ready-to-serve chocolate, was the centre of a whirl of books, logarithms, and calculations in the University Library, and const.i.tuted himself an unmitigated, if respected, pest at the Cambridge Observatory. Moreover--and this was the most iconoclastic spectacle of all to his conservative pedagogical neighbours in the Appian Way--telegraph boys on bicycles kept rus.h.i.+ng to and fro in a stream between the Hooker boarding-house and Harvard Square at all hours of the day and night.

For Bennie had lost no time and had instantly started in upon the same series of experiments to locate the origin of the phenomena which had shaken the globe as had been made use of by Professor von Schwenitz at the direction of General von Helmuth, the Imperial German Commissioner for War, at Mainz. The result had been approximately identical, and Hooker had satisfied himself that somewhere in the centre of Labrador his fellow-scientist--the discoverer of the Lavender Ray--was conducting the operations that had resulted in the dislocation of the earth's axis and r.e.t.a.r.dation of its motion. Filled with a pure and unselfish scientific joy, it became his sole and immediate ambition to find the man who had done these things, to shake him by the hand, and to compare notes with him upon the now solved problems of thermic induction and of atomic disintegration.

But how to get there? How to reach him? For Prof. Bennie Hooker had never been a hundred miles from Cambridge in his life, and a journey to Labrador seemed almost as difficult as an attempt to reach the pole. Off again then to the University Library, with pale but polite young ladies hastening to fetch him atlases, charts, guidebooks, and works dealing with sport and travel, until at last the great scheme unfolded itself to his mind--the scheme that was to result in the perpetuation of atomic disintegration for the uses of mankind and the subsequent alteration of civilization, both political and economic. Innocently, ingeniously, ingenuously, he mapped it all out. No one must know what he was about. Oh, no! He must steal away, in disguise if need be, and reach Pax alone. Three would be a crowd in that communion of scientific thought! He must take with him the notes of his own experiments, the diagrams of his apparatus, and his precious zirconium; and he must return with the great secret of atomic disintegration in his breast, ready, with the discoverer's permission, to give it to the dry and thirsty world. And then, indeed, the earth would blossom like the rose!

A strange sight, the start of the Hooker Expedition!

Doctor Jelly's coloured housemaid had just thrown a pail of blue-gray suds over his front steps--it was 6:30 A.M.--and was on the point of resignedly kneeling and swabbing up the doctor's porch, when she saw the door of the professor's residence open cautiously and a curious human exhibit, the like of which had ne'er before been seen on sea or land, surrept.i.tiously emerge. It was Prof. Bennie Hooker--disguised as a salmon fisherman!

Over a brand-new sportsman's knickerbocker suit of screaming yellow check he had donned an English mackintosh. On his legs were gaiters, and on his head a helmetlike affair of cloth with a visor in front and another behind, with eartabs fastened at the crown with a piece of black ribbon--in other words a "Glengarry." The suit had been manufactured in Harvard Square, and was a triumph of sartorial art on the part of one who had never been nearer to a real fisherman than a coloured fas.h.i.+on plate. However, it did suggest a sportsman of the variety usually portrayed in the comic supplements, and, to complete the picture, in Professor Hooker's hands and under his arms were yellow pigskin bags and rod cases, so that he looked like the show window of a harness store.

"Fo' de land sakes!" exclaimed the Jellys' coloured maid, oblivious of her suds. "Fo' de Lawd! Am dat Perfesser Hookey?"

It was! But a new and glorified professor, with a soul thrilling to the joy of discovery and romance, with a flash in his eyes, and the savings of ten years in a large roll in his left-hand knickerbocker pocket.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 104

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