The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 57

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"The first intimation we had of trouble was when Lieutenant Burroughs telephoned from the water impact range where they were doing night firing last night at about four A.M. Two ambulances went down and brought him and his four men back, all of them stricken with what I take to be an extremely rapidly developing form of lobar pneumonia. All of the men who went down were stricken with the same disease, two of them as soon as they got back. So far we have had eight deaths among these men and all of the rest, except Lieutenant Burroughs, are apt to go at any moment.

"The trouble seemed to come from a cloud of some dense heavy gas which rolled in from the marsh. On the advice of Major Martin, every door and window in the post was kept closed until morning. The gas never reached the upper part of the post but it reached the stables. Eleven horses and mules are dead and all of the rest are stricken. The stable detachment either failed to close their barracks tightly or else the gas went in through cracks for seven out of the nine are here in the hospital, although none of them are very seriously ill. As soon as the sun came up, the gas seemed to disappear."

"Let me see the men who are sick."

Captain Murdock led the way into the ward. Dr. Bird went from man to man, examining charts and asking questions of the nurses and medical corps men on duty. When he had gone the rounds of the ward he entered the morgue and carefully examined the bodies of the men who lay there.

"Have you performed any autopsies?" he asked.



"Not yet."

"Have you the authority?"

"On the approval of the commanding officer."

"Please secure that approval at once. Have all lights taken out of the operating room and the windows shaded. I want to work under red light. We must examine the lungs of these men at once. With all due respect to your medical knowledge, Captain, I am not convinced that these men died of pneumonia."

"Neither am I, Doctor, but that is the best guess I could make. I'll have things fixed up for you right away."

Dr. Bird stepped to the telephone and called the laboratory. When, in half an hour, Captain Murdock announced that he was ready to proceed, Davis had arrived with an ultra-microscope and other apparatus which the doctor had telephoned for.

"Did you arrange about the horses, Davis?" asked Dr. Bird.

"Yes, sir. They will be up here as soon as the trucks can bring them."

"Good enough. We'll start operating."

An hour later, Dr. Bird straightened up and faced the puzzled medical officer.

"Captain," he said, "your diagnosis is faulty. With one possible exception, the lungs of these men are free from pneumonicocci. On the other hand there is a peculiar aspect of the tissues as though a very powerful antiseptic solution had been applied to them."

"Hardly an antiseptic, Doctor; wouldn't you say, rather, a cauterizing agent."

Dr. Bird bent again over the ultra-microscope.

"Are you familiar with the work done by Bancroft and Richter at Cornell University last November and December?" he asked.

"No, I can't say that I am."

"They were working under a Heckscher Foundation grant studying just how antiseptic solutions destroy bacteria. It has always been held that some chemical change went on, but this theory they disproved. It is a process of absorption. If enough of the chemical adheres to the living bacterium, the living protoplasm thickens and irreversibly coagulates. It resembles a boiling without heat. I have seen some of their slides and the appearance is exactly what I see in this tissue."

Captain Murdock bent over the microscope with a new respect for Dr. Bird in his face.

"I agree with you, Doctor," he said. "This tissue certainly looks as though it had been boiled. It is certainly coagulated, as I can plainly see now that you point it out to me. You believe, then, that it is a simple case of ga.s.sing?"

"If so, it was done by no known gas. I have studied at Edgewood a.r.s.enal, and I am familiar with all of the work done by the Chemical Warfare Service in gases. No known gas will produce exactly this appearance. It is something new. Carnes, have those horses been brought up yet?"

"I'll see, Doctor."

"If they are, bring one here."

In a few moments the body of a dead horse was dragged into the operating room and Dr. Bird attacked it with a rib saw. He soon laid the lungs open and dragged them from the body. He cut down the middle of one of the organs and shaved off a thin slice which he placed under the lens of a powerful binocular microscope.

"h.e.l.lo, what the d.i.c.kens is this?" he exclaimed.

With a scalpel and a delicate pair of tweezers he carefully separated from the lung tissue a tiny speck of crystalline substance which glittered under the red light in the operating room. He carefully transferred it to a gla.s.s slide and put it under a microscope with a higher magnification.

"Rhombohedral regular," he mused as he examined it. "Colorless, friable, and cleaving in irregular planes. What in thunder can it be? Have you ever seen anything like this in a lung, Murdock?"

The medical officer bent over the microscope for a long time before he shook his head with a puzzled air.

"I never have," he admitted.

"Then that's probably what we're looking for. Start slicing every lung in this place and look for those crystals. Save them and put them in this watch gla.s.s. If we can get enough of them, we may be able to learn something. Carnes, get the rest of those horses in here and open them up."

Two hours of careful work netted them a tiny pile of the peculiar crystals. Some had come from the lungs of the dead animals and some few from the lungs of the dead soldiers. Dr. Bird placed the crystals in a gla.s.s bottle which he covered with layer after layer of black paper.

"Get me more of those crystals if you can find them, Captain Murdock," he said, "and in any case, leave the bodies here for further study. Davis and I will go to the laboratory and try to find out what they are. Carnes, hasn't Miss Andrews showed up yet?"

"No, Doctor."

"Locate her on the telephone if you can and tell her not to bother about anything except the autopsy reports and to get them here as quickly as possible. Let me know when you have that done."

In a dark room of the photographic laboratory, Dr. Bird removed the black wrappings from the bottle. He dropped a few of the crystals in a test tube and added distilled water. The water a.s.sumed a pink tinge as the blood with which the crystals were covered dissolved, but the crystals themselves did not change. They rose and floated on the surface of the water.

"Insoluble in water, Davis," commented the doctor. "Better wash the lot and then we'll get after the ultimate a.n.a.lysis. Whether we'll be able to make a proximate is doubtful in view of the small amount of sample we have. It's dollars to doughnuts that it's some carbon compound."

He heated a few of the washed crystals in a watch gla.s.s. Suddenly there was a sharp crack and the material disappeared. Dr. Bird thrust his nose toward the gla.s.s and sniffed carefully.

"The d.i.c.kens!" he muttered. "Davis, have I got a cold or do you smell garlic?"

"Faintly, Doctor."

"I have a hunch. Fill a gasometer with purified argon and we'll introduce a few of these crystals and explode them. If I'm right--"

Half an hour later he straightened up and examined the tube of the gas a.n.a.lysis apparatus with which he was working. The level of the gas showed it to be of the original volume but the liquid under the argon was stained a light brown.

"It's impossible, Davis," cried the doctor, "but nevertheless, it's true. Expose some of those crystals to strong sunlight and see what happens."

The crystals rapidly disappeared as the light from a sun-ray arc fell on them.

"It's true, Davis," cried the doctor, positive awe in his voice. "Keep this strictly under your hat for the present. Now that you know what we're up against, fix up a couple of masks and air-collecting apparatus. That stuff will show up again in the swamp to-night and I am going down there to collect some samples. I'll telephone the hospital now."

As Dr. Bird emerged from the dark room, Carnes hurried up with a worried expression.

"The devil's to pay, Doctor," was his greeting.

"All right, stall him off for a minute while I telephone the hospital. I think I can save some of those poor fellows up there."

Carnes paced the floor in anxiety while Dr. Bird got Captain Murdock on the telephone.

"Bird talking, Murdock," he said crisply. "How much deep therapy X-ray apparatus have you got up there?... Too bad.... Well, at least you can give every patient a four-minute dose of maximum intensity and repeat in an hour or so. Keep them under sun-ray arcs as much as you can. Be ready for a fresh attack of the same epidemic to-night. As fast as the patients come in, give them a five-minute dose of X-rays and then sun-rays. Do you understand?... All right, then."

"Just a moment more, Carnes," he went on as he called the office of the commanding officer. "Colonel Wesley, this is Dr. Bird. I think that I have some light on your problem. You must antic.i.p.ate another more virulent attack than you had last night, probably as soon as the sun goes down. Will you arrange to have everyone removed from the swamp area before that time? Never mind trying to guard the place; you'll just lose more lives if you do. Warn everyone to keep inside the buildings with all doors and windows closed tight. Get all the women and children and everyone else who isn't needed here off the post before dark. Send them to Aberdeen or Baltimore or anywhere.... No, sir, the sick had better not be moved. I think they will be safer in the hospital than they would be elsewhere.... Yes, sir, that's all. Thank you."

Dr. Bird turned to the waiting Carnes.

"Did you locate Miss Andrews?" he asked.

"No, I didn't and that is what I want to talk to you about. I just started to telephone when a hurry call came through from Was.h.i.+ngton for me and I took it. It was Haggerty on the wire. He followed your precious secretary from the Bureau of Standards over to the Public Health Office and waited for her to come out. She stayed in the building for about an hour and brought a bundle of papers with her when she returned. She walked toward the State, War and Navy Building and Haggerty followed.

"On Pennsylvania Avenue, she was stopped by two men whom Haggerty describes as dark, swarthy, bearded Europeans of some sort. He tried to overhear their conversation but it was in a language which he did not recognize. He got only one word. The girl called one of them 'Denberg.'"

"Denberg!" cried the doctor, "Why, he's one of the Young Labor crowd, but he's in Atlanta."

"He was, Doctor, but I telephoned Atlanta, and found that he had been released last month. After several minutes of talk the two men and your secretary went off together in perfect amity with Haggerty following. The trio got into a waiting car and Haggerty trailed them in a taxi. They drove around town rather aimlessly for some time and then left the car and walked. Haggerty was afraid he would lose them in the crowd so he closed in on them. He doesn't know what happened except that he felt a sudden stab in his arm and everything went black. He recovered in the police station twenty minutes later but the birds had flown."

"The devil!" cried Dr. Bird, consternation in his voice. "Of course, it's easy to see what happened. They spotted him and a confederate slipped a hypo into his arm. What worries me is the fact that they've got Thelma."

"I hope they kill her," snapped Carnes vindictively. "She was never kidnapped in broad daylight. Haggerty says she went with them quite willingly and talked and laughed with them. She has deserted, if she wasn't simply acting as a spy from the first. I didn't trust her at all."

"I hate to admit that my judgment is that rotten, Carnes, but the evidence certainly points that way. At that, I think I'll reserve final judgment until later. Now, in view of what you have learned, I have a job for you."

"It's about time, Doctor. I have been rather useless with all the high-powered science that has been flying around here."

"Well, you'll be in your element now. We know that Denberg is loose and their capture of Thelma is no coincidence. I was pretty sure that Saranoff and his gang were at the bottom of this; now I am certain. They must have introduced something onto the marshes last night which caused the trouble. They could not have come overland very well, for the place is too well patrolled. Had they come by air, they would have attracted attention, even had they used a Bird silencer on their motor, for they couldn't m.u.f.fle their propeller, especially on a takeoff, and there are plenty of men here who would have recognized it. You might check up on that, but I am confident that they came by water. Launches and boats are continually pa.s.sing up and down the Chesapeake and its tributaries and one more could easily have escaped notice. The Bush River is at the far end of the Michaelville range and it is navigable for craft of light draft at high tide. Find out whether any strange craft were seen in the vicinity of the proving ground last night. If you draw a blank, go to Perryville and Havre de Grace and see what you can find out there. I have a hunch that their base is more likely to be up the Susquehanna than down toward the coast. Above all, Carnes, don't approach the proving ground by water to-night and don't get near the mouth of the Bush River."

"All right, Doctor. What are you going to do?"

"I'm going down on the swamp and collect samples. Oh, don't look so worried. I know just what I am up against and I will have adequate protection. I'll be in no danger and you would just be in the way. Toddle along, old dear, and report to me by telephone as soon as you have learned anything."

"As you say, Doctor. You'll hear from me the minute I do."

When Carnes had left, Dr. Bird climbed into the waiting car and was driven back to the hospital. Captain Murdock greeted him with a smiling face.

"I don't know how you got on to that treatment, Dr. Bird," he said, "but it is doing the men good. The worst cases haven't been affected much, one way or the other, but the progress of the malady in the mild cases from the stables has been completely checked. I think they have a chance now."

"They'll be all right if the destruction and coagulation of tissue hadn't progressed too far before you checked it, Captain. Treat them now for simple lung cauterization and they ought to get well."

"I have some more of those crystals dissected out, Doctor."

"Keep them in the dark until Mr. Davis comes after them. I want to take a few of them back to Was.h.i.+ngton for study."

"You expect another attack to-night, Doctor?"

"Yes, sometime after sundown."

"What, in heaven's name, is it?"

"Heaven has nothing to do with it, Captain; the stuff comes from the devil's regions and it is the product of a Russian chemist, who I sometimes believe is verily the devil himself. How it's done and what it is, I haven't found out yet, but I am going to investigate a little to-night. The effect is what you have seen. Are you familiar with the various forms of oxygen?"

"The forms of oxygen? Why, there is only one, oxygen gas. Wait a minute though, there is another form, ozone. Are there any more?"

"None that have been previously listed and studied, but at least one other form exists. Those crystals are pure oxygen."

"Impossible! Oxygen is a gas at all ordinary temperatures."

"Yes, a gas, but one whose density varies. Oxygen, to which we chemists a.s.sign the formula O{2}, meaning that its molecule consists of two atoms of oxygen, has a weight of 32 grams per gram molecule. Ozone, to which we a.s.sign the formula O{3}, meaning that its molecule contains three atoms of oxygen, weighs fifty per cent more or 48 grams per gram molecule. This new form has a density less than water, but tremendously greater than any known gas. I have not yet been able to determine its structure, so I will have to a.s.sign to it the formula, O_{x}, meaning an indefinite number of atoms per molecule. The only name which suggests itself is oxyzone, a combination of oxygen and ozone.

"The stuff is a polymerization, or condensation, to speak roughly, of the oxygen of the air. The oxygen takes this form which the lungs cannot a.s.similate except with great difficulty and with great damage to the tissues. The oxyzone will break down rapidly under the influence of sunlight or of any ray whose wave-length is shorter than indigo. As a result, it disappears as soon as the sun is up and it will reappear after dark. That is why I suggested X-rays as a treatment. They have a very short wave-length and will penetrate tissues and affect the particles in the lungs themselves. Once the material is removed from the lungs, the cauterization of the tissue ceases and it is merely a matter of slow recovery."

"It is a marvelous discovery, Doctor. I can foresee great uses for it in medical science if a way can be found to produce it."

"Just now we are much more interested in stopping its production than in producing it. Carry on with the line of treatment I have prescribed and be ready for a busy time to-night."

From the hospital, Dr. Bird made his way to the headquarters building where he conferred with Colonel Wesley on the measures being taken to clear the proving ground of all persons not strictly necessary for its guarding. The commanding officer, when he learned Dr. Bird's plans, wished to send guards with him, but the doctor promptly vetoed the scheme.

"My a.s.sistant, Mr. Davis, won't be able to fix up more than two masks before dark, Colonel," he said, "and you would just be condemning men to death to send them with me into that fog without proper protection. I can see that you are anxious to know what is causing it, but I'm not ready to tell just yet. I had given your medical officer enough information to enable him to treat the hospital cases scientifically, and to-morrow or the next day I hope to be able to tell you all about it. Now, if you'll pardon me, I'm going to the laboratory to see how Mr. Davis is getting along. It will be dark in three-quarters of an hour and I hope that everyone will stay under cover as much as possible."

Davis looked up as Dr. Bird entered the laboratory.

"I'll have the masks completed in an hour, Doctor," he said, "but I don't know how much value they will be. If the oxygen polymerizes before it enters the body, these masks ought to stop it, but if it polymerizes under the influence of heat and moisture in the lungs, they will be useless."

"I'll have to take a chance on that, Davis. From the description of the fog, I strongly suspect that the process takes place outside the body. Have you had your supper?"

"No, Doctor."

"Neither have I. I'll go over to the officers' mess and get a bite to eat. As soon as you have those masks done, get your supper and then telephone me at the club. If Carnes isn't back, I may have to ask you to drive me down toward Michaelville."

"I'll be very glad to, Doctor."

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 57

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