The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 95
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The specified two minutes pa.s.sed. He cut off the power. The great ring lost speed, stopped whirling. And on the plate was--nothing.
At least it seemed there was nothing. But a moment later a deep voice sounded out: "I guess I'm invisible, all right, according to the expression on your face."
"You are," said the Secretary, mopping his forehead, "except when you speak. Then I have the bizarre experience of seeing glimpses of teeth, tongue and throat hanging in mid-air. I'd never have believed it if I hadn't witnessed it myself! That paint of yours is miraculous!"
"A little complicated, but hardly miraculous. It has a cellulose base, and there is in it a small per cent of powdered crystal--but the rest I'll keep locked in my brain alone till my country has need of it."
The glimpses of teeth and tongue and throat ceased. In spite of himself, the Secretary started as an unseen hand touched his shoulder.
"Now,"--there was ringing resolution in the deep voice--"for the Arvanian Emba.s.sy. Please drive me there--and be as quick as you can about it. I can't last very long with this film sealing most of the pores of my body."
The Secretary started for the laboratory door. Beside him sounded the patter of bare feet. He opened the door and walked into the hallway. Behind him, apparently of itself, the door clicked shut; and the footsteps again sounded beside him.
The Secretary walked to the curb where his limousine waited. His chauffeur jumped out and opened the door. The Secretary paused a moment, one foot on the running board, to draw a cigar from his pocket and light it. During that moment the car pressed down on that side, and as suddenly rocked back up again.
The chauffeur stared wide-eyed at his employer.
"Did you do that, sir?" he asked.
"Do what?" said the Secretary.
"Push down on the running board with your foot."
"Of course not," said the Secretary, his eyebrows raising. "You could have seen my leg move if I had. But why do you ask?"
"It felt like somebody got into this car," mumbled the man.
"Did you see anybody get in?" said the Secretary with a shrug. And, shaking his head, with a fuddled look in his eyes, the chauffeur turned away and got into the driver's seat.
The Secretary glanced at the rear seat. On the far side, the cus.h.i.+on was heavily depressed. He sat on the near side, feeling his knee strike another, unseen knee.
"Drive to the Bulgarian Emba.s.sy," he told his man.
Up Sixteenth Street the car swung, past the various emba.s.sies which looked more like palatial private villas than offices of foreign nations. Toward the end of the line, a smaller building than most of the others, was the Arvanian Emba.s.sy. Next to it was the Bulgarian.
The car stopped in front of the Bulgarian Emba.s.sy, and the Secretary got out. Again he paused, while the chauffeur held the door open, to hold a match to his cigar. Again the car sagged down on that side, and slowly swayed up again.
"Hey--" said the chauffeur. But meeting the Secretary's calmly inquiring gaze, he stopped. Scratching his head, he went back to the wheel, while the Secretary walked toward the building entrance.
Behind him, moving on soundless bare feet along the sidewalk, Thorn Winter hastened, cloaked in invisibility, toward the Arvanian Emba.s.sy--and the plans that spelled America's destruction if they remained in Arvanian hands.
The emba.s.sy building was a three-storied oblong house of white stone topping a terrace that started its climb from the sidewalk of Sixteenth Street. The doors at the head of the wide stone staircase were of bronze; and they were closed, and, Thorn surmised, efficiently barred. The windows at front and sides were also closed, in spite of the warmth of the sunny spring afternoon.
Beside the building, leading up in a short steep hill, was the driveway. Up this Thorn started. The front of the house was hopelessly barred; but at the rear entrance there might be a chance.
Up the driveway, then, he walked, a little startled at the fact that he cast no shadow--feeling as a ghost might feel. The pavement was hot to his thinly filmed feet. A little dubious as to the effect of heat on the vital sh.e.l.l that hid him, he stepped off into the cool gra.s.s beside the drive; and came soon to the rear of the emba.s.sy.
There was no porch or veranda, simply two stone steps leading up to a stout oak door which opened onto the emba.s.sy kitchens. From behind this door came the sound of crockery and the hum of voices. The Arvanian chef evidently was preparing afternoon tea.
Walking boldly to the very steps, Thorn began the vigil that should end when someone came in or out of that door, allowing him to slip inside the building before the portal was barred shut again.
For nearly half an hour Thorn stood there before something happened that at once helped him, and, at the same time, nearly proved his undoing.
A light delivery van sped up the driveway. The wheels stirred up a cloud of dust. It was a very small cloud of very fine dust. Thorn at first thought nothing of it, because he was so engrossed in the conviction that here ought to be provided an entrance into the house.
The truck driver got out, took a crate from the body of the van, and went with it to the back door. After a moment of waiting, the door opened. Thorn noticed that it was opened very cautiously, only an inch or so. He caught a glimpse of a heavy chain stretched across the inch opening, and saw a strip of bearded, resolute face.
The door was unchained. The driver walked in, while the door stood open. Thorn started to glide in after him....
Mere chance made him glance at a window near the door. This window framed another bearded, resolute face. And the eyes in that face were like saucers as they stared full at Thorn!
For an instant Thorn knew icy fear. His invisibility! Had something happened to strip him of that concealing mantle? But what could have happened?
He glanced down at himself and saw the reason for the guard's saucer-eyed expression.
A little of the light cloud of dust stirred up by the truck wheels had settled over him and clung to the encasing sh.e.l.l. As he moved, these dust specks moved. The effect to the staring guard, Thorn realized, must be that of seeing a queer, fine dust column moving eccentrically over a gra.s.sy lawn where no dust column had any business to be.
Quickly Thorn moved toward the garage, with the eyes of the amazed guard following him. The scientist was savage at the delay; but it was vital that he rid himself of that clinging dust.
Behind the garage he broke off a feathery spray from a vine, and stroked it lightly over himself. That, too, presented a curious spectacle: a leafy branch suddenly detaching itself from the parent vine and dancing here and there in mid-air.
When the all-important task was done, Thorn raced back to the rear doorway. By great good luck it was still open. He stole in, just making it as the truck driver, staggering under a load of empty crates, came up the cellar stairs and went out to his truck.
Thorn drew a deep breath. He was inside the Arvanian Emba.s.sy. The place was a three-storied stone trap in which, if the slightest slip revealed him to its tenants, he would surely meet his death. But, anyway, he was inside! And the threatening Ziegler plans waited somewhere near at hand for him to find and take!
Even had Thorn not known in advance that trouble was brewing, he could have surmised that something sinister was being hatched in the Arvanian Emba.s.sy. For, in this big sunny kitchen five men lounged about in addition to the white-coated chef and his beardless stripling of an a.s.sistant. And each of the five had a holster strapped openly over his coat with the b.u.t.t of an automatic protruding in plain sight.
Thorn looked about. Across from the great range, beside which he was standing and holding his breath for fear some one of the seven men should become aware of his presence, was the door leading to the front part of the house. He started toward that door, walking on tiptoe. A shudder crept up his spine as he tiptoed across the floor directly in front of the armed guards who would have shot him down without compunction could they have seen him. He was not yet used to his invisibility; knowing himself to be substantial, feeling his feet descend solidly on the floor, he still could hardly credit the fact that human eyes could not observe him.
He got to the door. He put out his hand to open it, then realized just in time that he could not do that. A door stealthily opening and closing again, with no apparent hand to manipulate it? Such a spectacle would start a riot!
In a frenzy of impatience, he stood beside the door, waiting till someone else should swing it open. And in a moment it chanced that the stripling a.s.sistant chef came toward him with a tray. The boy pushed the swinging door with his foot, and walked into the butler's pantry. After him, treading almost on the lad's heels, came Thorn.
The boy sat the tray down, and turned to reach into an upper shelf. The s.p.a.ce in the pantry was constricted, and he turned abruptly. The result was that he suddenly drew back as though a hot iron had seared him, and went white as chalk. Then he dashed back into the kitchen.
"A hand!" Thorn heard him gibbering in Arvanian. "A hand! I touched it with mine! Something horrible is in there!"
With his heart pounding in his throat, Thorn leaned close to the swing-door to hear what happened next. Would there be a rush for the butler's pantry? An investigation? He eyed the farther door--the dining room door. But he dared not flee through that save as a last resort. In the dining room sounded voices; and again the sight of a door opening and closing of itself would lead to uproar.
"A hand?" he heard one of the guards say in the kitchen. "An unseen hand? Thou art empty in the head, young Gova."
There followed some jeering sentences in colloquial Arvanian that were too idiomatic for Thorn's knowledge of the language to let him understand. A general guffaw came from the rest; and, as no move was made toward the pantry, Thorn decided he was saved for another few moments.
Gasping, he raised his hand to wipe the perspiration off his forehead, then realized there was no perspiration there. His film-clogged pores could exude nothing; he had only the sensation of perspiring.
Now the problem was to get through the next door. Thoughtfully, Thorn gazed at it. He saw that this, too, was a swing-door. Further, he saw that now and then it creaked open a few inches, and swung sluggishly back. Beyond it somewhere a window was open, and spasmodic gusts moved the swinging slab of wood.
The next time the door moved with the wind, Thorn caught it and augmented the movement a bit. Twice he did that, each time swinging it back a trifle further. Next time, he figured, he could open it enough to slide into the room.
Two glimpses he had had, with the openings of the door, into the room beyond. These glimpses had showed him a great oval table on which was set the debris of afternoon tea, and around which were grouped tense, eager men. Dark of hair and complexion were these men, with the arrogant hawk noses and ruthless small eyes of the typical Arvanian. Several of them were garbed in military uniforms and armed with swords. They were talking in tones too low for Thorn to distinguish words through the film over his ears. He would have to get in there to hear them.
For the third time the wind pushed at the door. For the third time Thorn caught its edge and swung it--six inches, eight, almost enough to slip through....
"Shut thou the window!" crackled a voice suddenly. "Fool! What if some of these doc.u.ments blew away?"
There was a slam, and the breeze was cut off. Thorn quickly let go of the door, and watched it fall back in place again.
He was cursing his luck when he heard the same commanding voice say: "Kori, see if there be one who listens in the butler's pantry. It seemed the door opened wider than the wind would warrant."
There was the sc.r.a.pe of a chair. Then the door was abruptly thrust open and coldly alert eyes in a hostile, wary face, swept over the pantry.
"No one here, Excellency," said Kori; and he returned to his place at the table.
But with him came another, unseen, to stand against the wall beside a great mahogany buffet, and to listen and watch. Kori had, not unnaturally, held the door open while he glanced around the pantry. And under Kori's outstretched arm, so close as almost to brush against his uniformed legs, had stolen Thorn.
"Then, gentlemen, it is all arranged?" said the man at the head of the oval table--a spare, elderly individual with bristling gray mustachios and smoldering dark eyes. "The plans leave for Arvania to-morrow night, to arrive in our capital city in ten days. Then day and night manufacture of the Ziegler projectors--and declaration of war. Following that, this great city of Was.h.i.+ngton, and the even greater cities of New York and Chicago, and all, this fine land from Atlantic to Pacific, shall become an Arvanian possession to exploit as we like!"
There was an audible "Ah!" from the score of men around the table--broken by a voice in the main double doorway of the dining room: "Gentlemen, your pardon, I am late."
Thorn looked at the speaker. He was a young fellow with an especially elaborate uniform and a face that appeared weak and dissipated in spite of the arrogant Arvanian nose. Then a bark came to Thorn's ears--and a cold feeling to the pit of Thorn's stomach. The newcomer had brought a dog with him!
Even as he gazed apprehensively at the dog--a rangy wolfhound--the brute growled deep in its throat and stared at the corner by the buffet where Thorn was instinctively trying to make himself smaller.
The dog growled again, and stalked warily toward the buffet.
"Grego, down," said his master absently. Then, to the spare man at the head of the table: "I have been next door, talking to the American Secretary of War. A dull fellow. Convinced, is he, that Arvania harbors only kind thoughts for this great stupid nation. They shall be utterly unprepared for our attack--Grego! What ails the brute?"
The wolfhound had evaded several outstretched hands and got to the buffet. There it crouched and cowered, fangs showing in a snarl, eyes reddening wickedly, while the growl rattled louder in its s.h.a.ggy throat.
"Perhaps the heat has affected him," said one.
All were looking at the dog now, marveling at its odd behavior. But of all the eyes that observed it a pair of unseen eyes watched with the utmost agitation.
Thorn stared, almost hypnotized, at the creature. A dog! What rotten luck! Men might be fooled by the masking invisibility, but there was no deceiving a dog's keen nose!
The wolfhound started forward as though to leap, then settled back. Plainly it longed to spring. Equally plainly it was afraid of the being that so impossibly was revealed to its nostrils but not to its eyes. Meanwhile, one tearing sweep of blunt claws or sharp fangs--and a fatal rent would appear in Thorn's encasing sh.e.l.l!
The dog snapped tentatively. Thorn flattened still harder against the wall, with discovery and death hovering very closely about him. Then the beast's master intervened.
"Grego! Here, sir! A council room is no place, for thee, anyway. Here, I say! So, then--"
He hastened to the dog and caught its collar. Twisting the leather cruelly, he dragged the protesting, snarling brute to the doors and slid them shut with the wolfhound barking and growling on the outside. "Someone put him in his kennel," he said through the panels. A scuffling in the hall told of the execution of the order. The council room became quiet again, and Thorn leaned against the wall and closed his eyes for an instant.
"We were saying, Soyo," the leader addressed the dog's owner, "that the Ziegler plans start for Arvania to-morrow night. All is arranged. These innocent looking bits of paper"--he thumped a small packet of doc.u.ments lying before him--"shall deliver mighty America to us!"
A subdued cheer answered the man's words--while Thorn stared at the packet of papers with unbelieving eyes. It had never occurred to him that the Ziegler plans might be in that very room, on the table with the rest of the welter of letters, thumbed doc.u.ments, and cups and saucers. And there they were--the vital projector plans--not in a safe or hidden in some fantastic place, but right before his eyes!
Involuntarily his hand extended eagerly toward the packet, then was withdrawn. Not now. He was invisible--but the papers, if he grasped them, would not be. Clenched in his unseen hand, they would be perfectly visible, moving in jerks and starts as he raced for the door.
Like lightning his mind turned over one plan after another for making away with that precious packet. Each scheme seemed impossible of fulfilment.
"The biggest difficulty is in getting them out of the country," the spare, elderly man was saying. "But we have solved that. Solved it simply. I myself shall bear them, sewn in my clothes, to our native land. The American authorities could search, on some pretext, any other of our number who tried to smuggle them out. But me they dare not lay a finger on. That would be an overt act."
Thorn's thoughts whirled desperately on. Wait till later and follow whoever left the room with the plans? But he hated to let them get out of his sight.
And at this point he became suddenly aware that the man named Kori was gazing fixedly at him.
Thorn was between the section of the table where Kori sat, and the angular buffet-end. Kori could not possibly see anything but the s.h.i.+ning mahogany, thought Thorn. And yet the man's eyes were narrowing to ominous slits as he started in his direction.
Thorn held his breath. Was the s.h.i.+elding film changing in structure? Were the repolarized atoms slowly losing their straight-line arrangement, allowing light rays to penetrate through to his body instead of diverting them to form a pocket of invisibility around him? The film had never acted like that before--but never before had Thorn applied it to living flesh with its disintegrating heat and moisture.
"Excellency," said Kori at last, a hard edge to his voice, "look thou at that buffet. No, no--the end nearest my chair."
"Well?" said the elderly man. "I see nothing."
Thorn breathed a sigh of relief. But the relief was to be of short duration.
"Come to my place, if thou wilt, and see from here," said Kori.
The leader got up and came to Kori's place. Kori pointed straight at Thorn.
"There--seest thou anything out of the ordinary?"
"I see nothing," said the leader, after a moment. "Thine eyes, Kori, are not good."
"They are the eyes of a hawk," said Kori stubbornly. "And they see this--the vertical line of the end of that buffet does not continue straightly up and down. At its middle, the line is broken, then continues up--a fraction of an inch to the side! Like an object seen under water, distorted by the sun-rays that strike the surface!"
Thorn fairly jumped away from the buffet and stood against bare wall. Fool! Of course the light refraction would not be perfect! Why hadn't he thought of that--thought to stand clear of revealing vertical lines!
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 95
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