The Terror of Air-Level Six
by Harl Vincent
The SF-22 and her convoy were surrounded by these
It was a sweltering evening in mid-August, during that unprecedented
heat wave which broke Weather Bureau records in 2011. New York City had
simmered under a blazing sun for more than three weeks, and all who were
able had deserted the city for spots of lesser torridity. But I was one
of those unfortunates who could not leave on account of the pressing
urgency of business matters and, there being nothing else to do, kept
doggedly at my work until it seemed that nerves and body must soon give
way under the strain. To-night, as I boarded the pneumatic tube, I
dropped into the nearest seat and could not even summon the energy to
open my newspaper.
For some minutes I sat as in a daze, wishing merely that the journey was
over, and that I was on my own front porch out in Rutherford. After
awhile I stirred and looked around. Seeing none of my acquaintances in
the car, I finally opened the newspaper and was considerably startled by
the screaming headlines that confronted me from its usually conservative
SECOND COAST TRANSPORT
Disaster Like First in Air-Level
No wonder the newsboys had been crying an extra on Broadway! I had given
no heed to the import of their shoutings, but this was real news and
well worthy of an extra edition. Since the mysterious loss of the SP-61,
only four days previously, the facilities of the several air
transportation systems were seriously handicapped on account of the
shaken confidence of the general public. It was not surprising that
there was widespread reluctance at trusting human lives and valuable
merchandise to the mercies of the inexplicable power which had
apparently wiped out of existence the SP-61, together with its
twenty-eight passengers and the consignment of one-half million dollars
in gold. And now the NY-18 had gone the way of the other!
Details were meager. Both ships had failed to reply to the regular
ten-minute radio calls from headquarters and had not since been seen or
heard from. In both cases the last call had been answered when the ship
was proceeding at full speed on its regular course in air-level six. The
SF-61 last reported from a position over Mora in New Mexico, and four
days of intensive search by thousands of planes had failed to locate
ship or passengers. To-day, in the early hours of the morning, the NY-18
reported over Colorado Springs, on the northern route, and then, like
the SF-61, dropped out of existence insofar as any attempts at
communicating with or locating her were concerned. She, too, carried a
heavy consignment of specie, though only eleven passengers had risked
the westward journey.
Someone had dropped into a seat at my side, and I looked up from my
reading to meet the solemn eyes of Hartley Jones, a young friend whom I
had not seen for several months.
"Why, hello, Hart," I greeted him. "Glad to see you, old man. Where in
Sam Hill have you been keeping yourself?"
"Glad to see you, too, Jack," he returned warmly. "Been spending most of
my time out at the hangar."
"Oh, that's right. You fellows built a new one at Newark Airport, didn't
"Yeah. Got a great outfit there now, too. Why don't you drop around and
see us one of these days?"
"I will, Hart, and I want you to take me up some time. You know I have
never been in one of these new ships of yours. But what do you think of
this mess?" I pointed to the black headlines.
He grinned joyously and flipped back the lapel of his coat, displaying a
nickeled badge. "George and I are starting out to-night to look around a
little," he gloated. "Just been appointed deputy air commissioners; and
we got a couple of guns on our newest plane. Air Traffic Bureau thinks
there's dirty work afoot. Twelve-motored planes don't disappear without
leaving a trace. Anyhow, we've got a job, and we're going to try and
find out what's wrong. How'd you like to come along?"
"What?" I replied. "You know darn well I'm too busy. Besides, I'd be no
good to you. Just extra load, and not pay load at that. And then, I'm
Hartley Jones grinned in his engaging way. "You'd be good company," he
parried; "and, what's more, I think the trip would do you a lot of good.
You look all shot to pieces."
"Forget it," I laughed. "It's just the heat. And I'll have to leave you
here, Hart. Drop in and see us, will you? The wife was asking for you
"Jack, dear," my wife greeted me at the door of my modest suburban home,
"Mr. Preston just called, and he wants you to call him right back."
"Oh, Lord," I groaned, "can't I forget the office for one evening?"
Preston was manager of the concern for which I worked.
Nevertheless, though our two fine youngsters were clamoring for their
dinner, I made the telephone call at once.
"Makely," came the voice of the boss, when the connection was completed,
"I want you to take the night plane for Frisco. Hate to ask you, but it
must be done. Townley is sick and someone has to take those Canadian Ex.
bonds out to Farnsworth. You're the only one to do it, and after you get
there, you can start on that vacation you need. Take a month if you
The thought of Hartley Jones' offer flashed through my mind. "But have
you read of the loss of the NY-18?" I asked Preston.
"I have, Makely. There'll be another hundred a month in your check, too,
to make up for the worry of your family. But the government is sending
thirty Secret Service men along on the SF-22, which leaves to-night. In
addition, there will be a convoy of seven fighting planes, so there is
not likely to be a repetition of the previous disasters."
That hundred a month sounded mighty good, for expenses had been mounting
rapidly of late. "All right, Mr. Preston," I agreed. "I will be at the
airport before midnight. But how about the bonds?"
"I'll drive around after dinner and deliver them to you. And thanks for
your willingness, Makely. You'll not be sorry."
My wife had listened intently and, from my words, she knew what to
expect. Her face was a tragic mask when I replaced the receiver on its
hook, and my heart sank at her expression.
Then there came the ring of the telephone and, for some reason, my pulse
raced as I went to the hall to answer it. Hartley Jones' cheerful voice
greeted me and he was positively gleeful when I told him of my
"Hooray!" he shouted. "But you'll not take the SF-22. You'll take the
trip with me as I wanted. I tell you what: You be out at Newark Airport
at eleven-thirty, but come to my hangar instead of to that of the
transportation company. We'll leave at the same time as the regular
liner, and we'll get your old bonds to Frisco, regardless of what might
happen to the big ship. Also we might learn something mighty
I argued with him, but to no avail. And the more I argued, the greater
appeal was presented by his proposition. Finally there was nothing to do
Preston arrived with the bonds shortly after the children were tucked in
their beds. I did not tell him of my change in plans. He did not stay
long, and I could see that he was uncomfortable under the accusing eyes
of Marie, for all his own confidence in the safety of the trip in the
At precisely eleven-thirty I reached the great steel and glass hangar
where Hart Jones and George Boehm carried on their experiments with
super-modern types of aircraft. Hart Jones had inherited more than two
million dollars, and was in a fair way to spend it all on his favorite
hobby, though those who knew him best vowed that he would make many
times that amount through royalties on his ever-growing number of
The immense doors were open, and I gazed for the first time into the
hangar whose spacious interior provided storage and manufacturing
facilities for a dozen or more planes of Hart Jones' design. A curiously
constructed example of his handiwork stood directly before me, and
several mechanics were engaged in making it ready for flight. My friend
advanced from their midst to meet me, a broad smile on his grease
"Greetings, Jack," he said, taking my small bag from my hands. "Right on
time, I see. And I can't tell you how glad I am that you are coming with
us. So is George."
"Well, I didn't expect to," I admitted; "but there is no need of telling
you that I had far rather be in your ship than in the big one."
George Boehm, the same jolly chap I had several times met in Hart's
company, but fatter than ever, crawled from beneath the shiny metal body
of the plane and scrambled to his feet at my side.
"Going in for a bit of adventuring, Mr. Makely?" he asked, wiping his
hand with a piece of cotton waste before extending it.
"Yes," I replied, as I squeezed his chubby fingers. "Can't stick in the
mud all my life, George. And I wouldn't want to be in better company for
my first attempt either."
"Nor we," he returned, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "Rather have a
greenhorn on the Pioneer than some government agent, who'd be butting in
and trying to run everything. Think you'll be scared?"
"Probably," I admitted; "but I guess I can stand it."
"Hear the latest news broadcast?" interrupted Hart Jones.
"No. What was it?" I asked.
"There has been a report from out near Cripple Creek," said Hart
solemnly, "that a pillar of fire was observed in the mountains shortly
after the time the NY-18 last reported. The time and the location
coincide with her probable position and the report was confirmed by no
less than three of the natives of that locality. Of course the
statements are probably extravagant, but they claim this pillar of fire
extended for miles into the heavens and was accompanied by a tremendous
roaring sound that ceased abruptly as the light of the flame
disappeared, leaving nothing but blackness and awe-inspiring silence
Lot of bunk!" grunted George, who was vigorously scrubbing the back of
"Sounds like a fairy tale," I commented.
"Nevertheless, there may be something in it. In fact, there must be.
Three of these mountaineers observed practically the same phenomenon
from quite widely separated points, though one of them said there were
three pillars of fire and that these looked more like the beams of
powerful search-lights. All agreed on the terrific roar. And, after all,
these two liners did disappear. There must be something quite out of the
ordinary about the way in which they were captured or destroyed, and
this occurrence may well be supposed to have a bearing on the matter."
"Possibly they were destroyed by some freak electrical storm," I
"Where then are the wrecked vessels?" asked Hart. "No, Jack, electrical
storms do not destroy huge air liners and then suck them out into space
beyond our vision. These two ships are no longer on the surface of the
earth, else they would have been long since located. The magnetic
direction finders of the transportation people have covered every inch
of the United States, as well as Mexico and Canada."
"Of course they might have been carried halfway around the world by a
wind of unprecedented velocity." I commenced a silly argument in favor
of the theory that the elements had accounted for the two vessels, but
was interrupted by the mounting roar of great engines throbbing
"Hurry up there, George!" shouted Hart. "It's the SF-22 coming in. We
have to be ready for the take-off in five minutes!"
He hastened to take George's place at the washbowl and all was activity
within the confines of our hangar. George and I left the office and went
out to the landing field, which was now brilliant with the glare of
floodlights. The Pioneer had been trundled into the open and stood
ready for the flight. Not a hundred feet above the field, the huge
silver moth that was the SF-22 swept by in a wide circle that would
bring her into the wind. The roar of her engines died as she swung out
of the circle of light into the surrounding darkness.
The crowds which had gathered to witness her landing buzzed with excited
comment and speculation. Her nose brought slightly up, she dropped to a
perfect three-point landing, the brakes screeching as she was brought to
a standstill at the hangar of the transportation company.
"Come on now, you fellows," came the voice of Hart Jones from the hangar
entrance, "there's no time to lose. The Pioneer takes off immediately
after the big fellow."
We hurried to the waiting ship, which seemed like a tiny toy when
compared with the giant SF-22. I had observed very little of the
construction of the Pioneer, but I could now see that she was quite
different in design from the ordinary plane. A monoplane she was, but
the wing structure was abnormally short and of great thickness, and
there were a number of tubes projecting from the leading edge that gave
the appearance of a battery of small cannon. The body, like all planes
designed for travel in air-level six, was cigar-shaped, and had
hermetically sealed ports and entrance manholes. A cluster of the
cannon-shaped tubes enclosed the tail just back of the fins and rudder
and, behind the wing structure atop the curved upper surface of the
body, there was a sphere of gleaming metal that was probably three feet
Before I could formulate questions regarding the unusual features of the
design, we were within the Pioneer's cabin and Hart Jones was engaged
in clamping the entrance manhole cover to its rubber seat. A throbbing
roar that penetrated our double hull attracted my attention and, looking
through a nearby porthole, I saw that the convoy of army planes had
taken off and was circling over the SF-22 in anticipation of her start.
Trim, speedy fighting ships these were, with heavy caliber machine-guns
in turrets fore and aft and normally manned by crews of twelve each. The
under surfaces of their bodies glistened smooth and sleek in the light
from the field, for the landing gears had been drawn within and the
openings sealed by the close-fitted armor plate that protected these
ordinarily vulnerable portions when in flight.
The SF-22 was ready to take off and the crowds were drawing back into
the obscurity beyond the huge circle of blinding light. One after
another her twelve engines sputtered into life, and ponderously she
moved over the field, gathering speed as the staccato barking of the
exhausts gradually blended into a smooth though deafening purr. The tail
of the great vessel came up, then the wheels, and she was off into the
Hart Jones sat at a bewildering array of instruments that covered almost
the entire forward partition of the cabin. He pressed a button and the
starting motor whined for a moment. Then the single engine of the
Pioneer coughed and roared. Slowly we taxied in the direction taken by
the SF-22, whose lights were now vanishing in the darkness. I saw George
open a valve on the wall and Hart stretched the fingers of his left hand
to what appeared to be the keyboard of a typewriter set into the
instrument board. He pressed several of the keys and pulled back his
stick. There was a whistling scream from astern and I was thrown back in
my seat with painful force. With that, the motor roared into full speed
and we had left the airport far behind.
"What on earth?" I gasped.
"Rocket propulsion," laughed Hart. "I should have warned you. Those
tubes you saw outside at the tail and along the leading edge of the
wings. Only used three of them, but that was sufficient for the
"But I thought this rocket business was not feasible on account of the
wastage of fuel due to its low efficiency," I objected.
"We should worry about fuel," said Hart.
I looked about me and saw that there was very little space for the
storage of this essential commodity. "Why?" I inquired. "What fuel do
"Make our own," he replied shortly. He was busy at the moment,
maneuvering the Pioneer into a position above and behind the SF-22 and
"You make your own fuel enroute?" I asked in astonishment.
"Yes. That sphere you saw on top. It is the collecting end of an
electrical system for extracting nitrogen and other elements, from the
air. This extraction goes on constantly while we are in the atmosphere
and my fuel is an extremely powerful explosive of which nitrates are the
base. The supply is replenished continuously, so we have no fear of
running short even in the upper levels."
George had crawled through a small opening into some inaccessible region
in the stern of the vessel. I pondered over what Hart had just told me,
still keeping my eyes glued to the port, through which could be seen the
fleet we were following. The altimeter registered thirty-five thousand
feet. We were entering air-level six—the stratosphere! Below us the
troposphere, divided into five levels, each of seven thousand feet,
teemed with the life of the air. The regular lanes were filled with
traffic, the lights of the speeding thousands of freight and pleasure
craft moving in orderly procession along their prescribed routes.
Up here in the sixth level, which was entirely for high-speed traffic of
commercial and government vessels making transcontinental or
transoceanic voyages, we were the only adventurers in sight—we and the
convoyed liner we were following. The speed indicator showed six hundred
miles an hour, and the tiny spot of light that traveled over the chart
to indicate our position showed that we were nearing Buffalo.
Glancing through one of the lower ports, I saw the lights of the city
shining dimly through a light mist that fringed the shore of Lake Erie
and extended northward along the Niagara. Then we were out over the
lake, and the luminous hue was slipping rapidly behind. I looked ahead
and saw that the distance to the SF-22 and her convoy had somewhat
increased. We were a mile behind and some two thousand feet above them.
Evidently Hart was figuring on keeping at a safe distance for
observation of anything that might happen.
Our motor was running smoothly and the angle of the propeller blades had
been altered to take care of the change in air density from the lower
altitudes. It flashed across my mind that this was an ideal location for
an attack, if such was to be made on the SF-22.
Then, far ahead, I saw a beam of light stab through the darkness and
strike the tossing surface of the lake. Another and another followed,
and I could see that the SF-22 and her convoy were surrounded by these
unearthly rays. They converged from high above to outline a brilliant
circle where they met on the surface of the waters, and in the midst of
the cone formed by the beams, the liner and its seven tiny followers
could be seen to falter, and huddle more closely together.
It all happened in the twinkling of an eye—so quickly, in fact, that
Hart and I had not the time to exchange remarks over the strange
occurrence. For a moment the eight vessels hovered, halted suddenly by
this inexplicable force from out the heavens. Then there rose from the
apex of the inverted cone of light a blinding column of blue-white
radiance that poured skyward an instant and was gone. To our ears came a
terrific roaring that could be likened to nothing we had heard on earth.
The Pioneer was tossed and buffeted as by a cyclone, and George came
tumbling from the opening he had entered, his round face grown solemn.
Then came eery silence, for the Pioneer's motor had gone dead. Ahead
there was utter darkness. The liner and her convoy had completely
vanished and the Pioneer was slipping into a spin!
What's up?" asked George of Hart, who was tugging frantically at the
"The liner has gone the way of the first two," he replied: "and the yarn
about the pillar of fire was not so far wrong after all."
"You saw the same thing?" asked George incredulously.
"Yes, and so did Jack. There came some beams of light from the sky; then
the pillar of fire and the roaring you heard, after which the vessels
were gone and our electrical system paralyzed."
"Holy smoke!" ejaculated George. "What to do now?"
As he spoke, the Pioneer came out of the spin, and we were able to
resume our positions in the seats. None of us was strapped in, and we
had been clinging to whatever was handiest to keep from being tossed
about in the cabin. Hart wiped his forehead and growled out an oath. The
instrument board was still illuminated, for its tiny lamps were supplied
with current from the storage battery. But the main lights of the cabin
and the ignition system refused to function. We were gliding now, but
losing altitude rapidly, having already dropped to the lower limits of
"Can't you use the rocket tubes?" I inquired hesitatingly.
"They are fired in the same manner as the motor," replied Hart; "but we
might try an emergency connection from the storage battery, which is
ordinarily used only in starting and for the panel lights."
George was already fussing with the connections in a small junction box
from which he had removed the cover. Meanwhile, the black waters of Lake
Erie were rushing upward to meet us, and the needle of the altimeter
registered twelve thousand feet.
"Here's the trouble!" shouted George, triumphantly holding up a small
object he had removed from the junction box. "Ignition fuse is blown."
"Probably by some radiations from the cone of light and the column that
destroyed the liner. Lucky we were no closer," were Hart's muttered
George produced a spare fuse and inserted it in its proper place. The
cabin lights glowed instantly and the motor started at once.
"Well, I'm going up after the generators of this mysterious force that
is destroying our cross-country ships and killing our people," asserted
Hart. "The rays came from high above, but the Pioneer can go as high
as anything that ever flew—higher."
He snapped a switch and a beam of light that rivalled the so-called
pillar of fire bored far into the night, dimming the stars by its
brilliance. Again his fingers strayed to the rows of white keys and the
rocket tubes shrieked in response to his pressure. This time I was
prepared for the shock of acceleration, but the action was maintained
for several seconds and I found the pressure against my back growing
painful. Then it was relieved, and I glanced at the altimeter. Its
needle had reached the end of the scale, which was graduated to eighty
"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me that we are more than
sixteen miles in the air?"
"Nearly thirty," replied Hart, pointing to another dial which I had not
seen. This one was graduated in miles above sea-level, and its needle
wavered between the twenty-nine and thirty mark!
Again Hart pressed the rocket buttons, and we shot still higher into the
heavens. Thirty, forty, fifty miles registered the meter, and still we
"Great Scott!" blurted a voice I knew was my own, though I had no
consciousness of willing the speech. "At this rate we'll reach the
"We could, if we wished," was Hart's astounding reply; "I wish you
wouldn't say too much about it when we return. We have oxygen to breathe
and an air-tight vessel to retain it. With the fuel we are using, we
could easily do it, provided a sufficient supply were available.
However, the Pioneer does not have large enough storage tanks as yet,
and, of course, we cannot now replenish our supply with sufficient
rapidity, for the atmosphere has become very rare indeed—where we are.
My ultimate object, though, in building the Pioneer, was to construct
a vessel that is capable of a trip to the moon."
"You think you could reach a great enough velocity to escape the
gravitational pull of the earth?" I asked, marveling more and more at
the temerity and resourcefulness of my science-minded friend.
"Absolutely," he replied. "The speed required is less than seven miles a
second, and I have calculated that the Pioneer can do no less than
Mentally I multiplied by sixty. I could hardly credit the result. Twelve
hundred miles a minute!
"But, how about the acceleration?" I ventured. "Could the human body
stand up under the strain?"
"That is the one problem remaining," he replied; "and I am now working
on a method of neutralizing it. From the latest results of our
experiments, George and I are certain of its feasibility."
The Pioneer was now losing altitude once more, and Hart played the
beam of the searchlight in all directions as we descended. He and George
watched through one of the floor ports and I followed suit. We were
falling, unhampered by air resistance, and our bodies were practically
weightless with reference to the Pioneer. It was a strange sensation:
there was the feeling of exhilaration one experiences when inhaling the
first whiff of nitrous oxide in the dentist's chair—a feeling of
absolute detachment and care-free confidence in the ultimate result of
our precipitous descent.
I found considerable amusement in pushing myself from side to side of
the cabin with a mere touch of a finger. There was no up nor down, and
sometimes it seemed to me that we were drifting sideways, sometimes that
we fell upward rather than downward. Hart and George were unconcerned.
Evidently they were quite accustomed to the sensations. They bent their
every energy toward discovering what had caused the disaster to the
SF-22 and its convoy.
For several hours we cruised about on the strangest search ever made in
the air. Alternately shooting skyward to unconscionable altitudes and
dropping to levels five and six to replenish our fuel supply, we covered
the greater portion of the United States before the night was over. But
the powerful searchlight of the Pioneer failed to disclose anything
that might be remotely connected with the disappearance of the SF-22.
For me it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Lightning dashes from
coast to coast which required but a few minutes of time—circling many
miles above New York or Washington or Savannah in broad daylight with
the sun low on the up-curved horizon; then shooting westward into the
darkness and skirting the Pacific coast less than fifteen minutes later,
but with four hours' actual time difference. Space and time were almost
Hart had not provided the Pioneer with a radio or television
transmitter, but there was an excellent receiver, and, through its
agency we learned that the world was in a veritable uproar over the
latest visitation of the mysterious terror of the sixth air level. All
commercial traffic in levels four, five and six was ordered
discontinued, and the government air control stations were flashing long
messages in code, the import of which could but be guessed. Vision
flashes showed immense gatherings at the large airports and in the
public squares of the great cities, where the general populace become
more and more excited and terrified by the awful possibilities pictured
by various prominent speakers.
The governments of all foreign powers made haste to disclaim
responsibility for the air attacks or for any attempt at making war on
the United States. News broadcasts failed to mention Hart Jones or the
Pioneer, since the mission had been kept secret. The phenomenon of the
rays and the roaring column of light had been observed from many points
on this occasion and there was no longer any doubt as to the nature of
the terror as visible to the eye, though theories as to the action and
source of the rays conflicted greatly and formed the basis of much
Eventually the advancing dawn reached San Francisco, and with its advent
Hart decided to make a landing in that city so that my bonds could be
Jones was apparently a very much mystified and discouraged man. "Jack,"
he said, "it seems to me that this thing is but the beginning of some
tremendous campaign that is being waged against our country by a clever
and powerful enemy. And I feel that our work in connection with the
unraveling of the mystery and overcoming the enemy or enemies is but
begun. It's a cinch that the thing is organized by human minds and is
not any sort of a freak of the elements. Our work is cut out for us, all
right, and I wish you would stick to George and me through the mess.
"Sure," I agreed, readily enough. "After these bonds are delivered I am
free for a month."
"Ha! Ha!" cackled George, without mirth. "A month! We're doggoned lucky
if we get to the bottom of this in a year."
"Nonsense!" snapped Hart, who was considerably upset by the failure to
locate the source of the disastrous rays. "There is nothing supernatural
about this, and anything that can be explained on a scientific basis can
be run to earth in short order. These rays are man-made and, as such,
can be accounted for by man. Our greatest scientists must be put to work
on the problem at once—in fact, they have quite probably been called in
by the government already."
He was maneuvering the Pioneer to a landing on the broad field of the
San Francisco airport. Hundreds of idle planes of all sizes lined the
field, and, unmindful of the earliness the hour, a great crowd was
collected in expectation of sensational reports from the occupants of
arriving ships. The unusual construction of the Pioneer attracted
considerable attention and it was with difficulty that the police kept
back the crowd when she rolled to a stop near the office of the local
government supervisor. We hustled inside and were greeted by that
official with open arms.
"Glory be!" he exclaimed. "Hart Jones and the Pioneer. Every airport
in the land has been on the lookout for you all night. It was feared you
had been lost with the SF-22 and the others. Code messages to the
supervisors of all districts advised of your mission, though it has been
kept out of the general news, as has the message from the enemy."
"Message from the enemy!" gasped Hart, George and I, echoing the words
"Yes. A demand that the United States surrender, and a threat to descend
into the lower levels if the demand is not complied with in twenty-four
"Who is this enemy?" asked Hart, "and where?"
"Who they are is not known," replied the official gravely; "and as to
the location, the War Department is puzzled. Direction finders
throughout the country took readings on the position of their radio
transmitter and these readings differed widely in result. But the
consensus of opinion is that the messages originate somewhere out in
space, probably between fifty and one hundred thousand miles from our
"Great guns!" Hart glanced at George and me, where we stood with
stupidly hanging jaws. "And what does the government want of me now?"
"You are considered to be the one man who might be able to cope with the
problem, and are ordered to report to the Secretary of War, in person,
Hart was electrified into instant activity. "Here," he said in a voice
of authority that commanded the official's attention and respect, "see
that this package of bonds is delivered at once to the addressee and
that the addressor is advised of its safe arrival. We're off at once."
Suiting action to the words, he thrust my packet into the hands of the
astonished supervisor. Then, turning sharply on his heel, he flung back,
"Advise the Secretary of War that I shall report to him in person in
less than one hour."
As we stepped through the entrance of the Pioneer, he shot a final
look at the official and laughed heartily at his sudden accession of
energy. We had not the slightest doubt that Hart's orders would be
immediately and efficiently carried out.
In precisely forty-five minutes, we stood before the desk of Lawrence
Simler, then Secretary of War, in Washington.
"You are Mr. Hartley Jones?" inquired the stern-visaged little man.
"I am, Mr. Secretary, and these are my friends and co-workers, George
Boehm and John Makely."
The Secretary acknowledged the introduction gravely, then plunged into
the heart of the matter at hand with the quick energy for which he was
"It may or may not be a serious situation," he said, "but certainly it
has thus far been quite alarming. In any event, we have taken the matter
out of the hands of the Air Traffic Bureau. We are prepared to defy the
ultimatum of the enemy, whoever he may be. But we want your help, Mr.
Jones. Every ship of the Air Navy will be in the upper levels within the
prescribed twenty-four hours, and we will endeavor to stave off their
attacks until such time as you can fit the Pioneer for a journey to
"How can your antiquated war vessels, capable of hurling a high
explosive shell no more than fifty miles, fight off an enemy that is
thousands of miles distant?" asked Hart.
"It is believed by the research engineers of the government that, though
their headquarters may be located at a great distance, the raiders drop
to a comparatively low altitude at the time of one of their attacks,
returning immediately thereafter to their base."
Hart Jones shook his head. "The engineers may be correct," he stated;
"but how on earth can you expect a little vessel like the Pioneer to
battle an enemy who is possessed of these terribly destructive weapons
and who has sufficient confidence in his own invulnerability to declare
war on the greatest country on earth?"
Secretary Simler dropped his voice to a confidential tone, and his keen
gray eyes flashed excitement as he unfolded the details of the
discoveries and plans of the War Department. We three listened in
undisguised amazement to a tale of the unceasing labors of our Secret
Service agents in foreign countries, of elaborate experiments with
deadly weapons and the chemicals of warfare.
We heard of marvelous new rays that could be projected for many miles
and destroy whole armies at a single blast; rays that would, in less
time than that required to tell of the feat, reduce to a mass of fused
metal the greatest firstline battleships of the old days of ocean
warfare. We heard of preparations for defensive warfare throughout the
civilized world, preparedness that insured so terrible and final a war
that it was literally impossible for a great world conflagration to
again break out. We learned that the present mysterious signs of a
coming war could not possibly have originated in any country on earth,
else they would have been known of long in advance, due to the network
of the Secret Service system. This war, so unexpectedly thrust upon us,
was undoubtedly a war of planets!
"But," objected Hart, "the messages were in English, were they not?"
"They were," continued Secretary Simler, "and that puzzled our experts
in the beginning. But, it may well be that our enemy from out the skies
has had spies among us for many years and could thus have learned our
languages and radio codes. In any event, we are to meet destructive rays
with others equally destructive, and you, Hartley Jones, are the man who
can make our effectiveness certain."
"Yes. How long a time will be required in fitting out the Pioneer for
reliable space flying?"
Hart Jones pondered the matter and I could see that he was overjoyed at
the prospect of getting into the thing in earnest. "About one week," he
replied, "providing you can send a force of fifty expert mechanics to my
hangar at once and supply all material as fast as I shall require it."
"Excellent," said the Secretary. "We'll have the men there in a few
hours and will obtain whatever you need, regardless of cost, for
immediate delivery. Incidentally, there will be several scientists as
well, who will supervise the installation of two types of ray generators
and their projecting mechanisms on the Pioneer. You will need them
"I don't doubt we shall," said Hart. "And now, with your permission, we
shall leave for the hangar. I'm ready to start work."
"Capital!" Secretary Simler pressed every one of a row of buttons set in
his desk top. We were dismissed.
"Well," said I, when we reached the outside, "he has given you quite a
"You said something," he replied. "But, if this threat from the skies
proves as real and as calamitous as I think it will, we all have our
work cut out for us."
"Do you really believe this enemy comes from another planet?" asked
George as we entered the Pioneer for the trip home.
"Where else can they be from?" countered Hart. "But, really it makes no
difference to us now. We have to go after them in earnest. Don't want to
quit, do you, George?"
"Wha-a-at?" shouted George, as he jerked savagely at the main switch of
the Pioneer. "You know me better than that, Hart. Did I ever let you
down in anything?"
"No," admitted the smiling Hart, "you never did, bless your heart. But
Jack here is another matter. He has a wife and two kids to look after.
That lets him out automatically."
My heart sank at the words, for I knew that he meant what he said. And,
truth to tell, I saw the justice in his remarks.
"But, Hart," I faltered, "I'd like to be in on this thing."
"I know you would, old man. But I think it's out of the question, for
the present at least. You can help with the reconstruction of the
And meekly I accepted his dictum, though with secretly conflicting
emotions. Little did I realize at the time that Hart knew far more than
he pretended and that he had merely attempted to salve his own
conscience in this manner.
I was very anxious to return to my family, and, as I sped homeward in a
taxicab after the Pioneer landed at her own hangar, my mind was filled
with doubts and fears. Secretary Simler had been very brief in his talk,
but his every word carried home the gravity of the situation. What if
these invaders carried the war to the surface? Suppose they seared the
countryside and the cities and suburbs with rays of horrible nature that
would shrivel and blast all that lay in their path? My heart chilled at
the thought and it was a distinct relief when I gazed on my little home
and saw that it was safe—so far. I paid the driver with a much too
large bank note and dashed up my own front steps two at a time.
A few hours later I tore myself away and returned to the hangar, where
the Pioneer now reposed in a scaffolded cradle. The sight which met my
eyes was astonishing in the extreme, for the hangar had been transformed
into a huge workshop with seemingly hundreds of men already at work. It
was a scene of furious activity, and, to my utter amazement, I observed
that the Pioneer was already in an advanced stage of disassembly.
I had no difficulty in locating Hart Jones, for he was striding from
lathe to workbench to boring mill, issuing his orders with the sureness
and decision of a born leader of men. He welcomed me in his most brisk
manner and immediately assigned me to a portion of the work in the
chemical laboratory—something I was at least partly fitted for.
We labored far into the night, when a siren called us to rest and food.
This was to be a night and day job, and not a man of those on duty gave
thought to the intense nervous and physical strain. Sixty-five of us I
learned there were, though it had seemed there were several times that
During the rest period, Hart switched on the large television and sound
mechanism of the public news broadcasts. Great excitement prevailed
throughout the United States, for there had been a leak and the news had
gone abroad regarding the message from the enemy. There was widespread
panic and disorder and the government was besieged with demands for
authentic news. The twenty-four hours of grace had nearly expired.
Finally the public was told of what actually was happening. Our entire
fleet of one thousand air cruisers was in air-level six, waiting for the
enemy. America was going to fight in earnest!
Flashes of our air cruisers in construction and in action came over the
screen; voice-vision records of the popular officers of the fleet
followed in quick succession. Then came the blow—the first of the
Two vessels of the air fleet had been destroyed by the triple rays and
pillar of fire! Fifty cruisers rushing to the scene had been unable to
find any traces of the source of the deadly rays. And, this time, there
was an alarming added element. The pillar of fire had risen from a point
near Gadsden in Alabama and, in its wake, there spread a sulphurous,
smoldering fire that crept along the ground and destroyed all in its
path. Farms, factories, and even the steel rails of the railroads were
consumed and burned into the ground as if by the breath of some
tremendous blast furnace. Hundreds of inhabitants of the section
perished, and it was reported that the fumes from the strange fires were
drifting in the direction of Birmingham, terrifyingly visible in
blue-green clouds of searing vapor.
With the first news of the disaster came a wave of fear that spread over
the country with the rapidity of the ether waves that carried the news.
Then came stern determination. This enemy must be swept from the skies!
Gatherings in public places volunteered en masse for whatever service
the government might ask of them. The entire world was in an uproar, and
from Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia, came immediate offers of
their air fleets to assist in fighting off the Terror.
In less than an hour there were nearly five thousand cruisers in
air-level six, patroling its entire depth from thirty-five thousand to
one hundred thousand feet altitude.
We resumed work in the hangar, but the news service was kept in
operation as far as the amplifiers were concerned, though the television
screen was switched off on account of the likelihood of its distracting
Again came the report of a major disaster, this time over Butte in
Montana. Four American vessels and one British were the victims in level
six. And the city of Butte was in flames; blue, horrible flames that
literally melted the city into the ground. Again there was no trace of
How puny were the efforts of the five thousand air cruisers! Marvels of
engineering and mechanical skill, these vessels were. Deadly as were the
weapons they carried—weapons so terrible that war on earth was
considered impossible since their development—they were helpless
against an enemy who could not be located. Though our vessels were
capable of boring high into the stratosphere, the enemy worked from
"Holy smoke!" gasped Hart Jones, who had stopped at my side. "What a
contract I have on my hands!"
He looked in the direction of the partly dismantled Pioneer, and I
could see by the fixedness of his stare that he was thinking of her
insignificant size in comparison with the job she was to undertake.
Above the din of the machines in the hangar rang the startled voice of a
news announcer. Panic-stricken he seemed, and we stopped to listen.
Another blow of the terror of the skies—and now close by! Over
Westchester County in New York State there was a repetition of the
previous attacks. Only two of the cruisers had vanished this time; but
several towns, including Larchmont and Scarsdale, were pools of molten
Sick at heart, I thought of my little home in Rutherford and of the dear
ones it contained. I thought of telephoning, but, what was the use?
There was no warding off of this terrible thing that had so suddenly
come to our portion of the world. It was the blowing of the last
trumpet, the way things looked.
The announcer had calmed himself. His voice droned tonelessly now, as
was the custom. Another raid, on the Mexican Border now. We were
stupefied by the rapidity of the enemy's attacks; then electrified once
more by the most astounding news of all. Alexandria, in Egypt, was the
base of a pillar of fire! Fully half of the city was wiped out, and the
remainder in a mortal funk, terrorized and riotous. The United States
was not alone in the war!
The foreign fleets which reinforced our own were ordered home
immediately. But to what avail? The world was doomed!
In the morning, after nine fearful attacks during the night, there came
another message from the enemy and this was repeated in five languages
and addressed to the entire world:
"People of Earth," it read, "this is our final warning. One chance has
been given and you have proved stubborn. Consider well that your
civilization be not entirely destroyed, and answer as the expiration of
forty-eight hours, using our transmitting frequency. Our hand is to be
withheld for that period only, when, unless our demands are met, all of
your large cities and towns will be destroyed. Our terms for peace are
that we be permitted to land without resistance on your part; that you
surrender farm and forest lands, cities and towns, able-bodied men of
twenty to forty, selected women of seventeen to thirty, and tribute in
the form of such supplies and precious metals as we may specify, all to
the extent of forty per cent of your resources. No compromise will be
That was all. It was during a rest period at the Jones hangar and I had
brought Hart and George to my home for breakfast. We sat at the table
when the news instrument brought the message. Marie was pouring the
coffee, and my two small boys, Jim and Jack, had gone to the playroom,
from whence their joyous voices could be heard. We four were struck dumb
at the announcement, and Marie looked at me with so awful an expression
of dread that my coffee turned bitter in my mouth. Marie was just
"What beasts!" cried Hart. "Allow them to land without resistance? I
should say not! Rather we should fight them off until all of us perish."
He had risen from his chair in his anger. Now he sat down suddenly and
shook a forefinger in my face.
"Say!" he exploded. "You can't tell me that some master mind of our own
world is not back of this!"
"I'm not telling you," I replied, startled at the fierce fire that
flashed from his eyes.
"I know. I'm just trying to think aloud and I'm liable to say anything.
But this sort of business is the work of humans as sure as you're born.
Still I believe that what Simler says is true. I can't believe that any
country on earth is back of the thing. It must be an attack from beings
of another planet, but I think they have as a leader a man who is of
our own earth."
Marie's eyes opened wide at this. "But how could that be?" she asked.
"Surely no one from our earth has made the trip to one of the other
"It may be that someone has," replied Hart. "Do you remember Professor
Oradel? Remember, about ten years ago, I think it was, when he and a
half dozen or more of extremely radical scientists built a rocket they
claimed would reach the moon? They were ridiculed and hissed and
relegated to the position of half-baked, crazy inventors. But Oradel had
a large private fortune, and he and his crowd built themselves a
workshop and laboratory in a secluded region in the Ozarks. Here they
labored and experimented and eventually the rocket ship was constructed.
No person was in their confidence, but when the machine was completed
they issued a statement to the press to the effect that they were ready
for the voyage to the moon, and that, when they returned, a reckoning
with the world was to be made for its disbelief and total lack of
sympathy. Again the press subjected Oradel to a series of scathing
denunciations, and the scientific publications refused to take
cognizance of his claims in any way, shape or form."
Then, one night, a great rocket roared into the heavens, leaving a
terror-stricken countryside in the wake of its brilliantly visible tail.
Several observatories whose telescopes picked up and followed the trail
of the contraption reported that it described a huge parabola, mounting
high into the stratosphere and falling back to earth, where it was lost
in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. There the thing ended and it was
soon forgotten. But I believe that this rocket ship of Oradel's reached
Mars or Venus and that the peoples of whichever planet they reached have
been prevailed upon and prepared to war upon the world."
"That would explain their knowledge of our languages and codes." I
ventured, "and would likewise account for the fact that the first of our
ships to be attacked were those carrying large shipments of currency.
Though if these were destroyed by the fire columns, I can not see what
good the money would do them."
"Don't believe the first three were destroyed," grunted Hart. "You'll
remember that in these cases the pillars of fire, or whatever you want
to call them, were of a cold light, whereas now they are viciously hot
and leave behind them the terrible destructive fires that spread and
spread and seemingly never are extinguished. No, I think that the force
used is something of the nature of an atom-disrupting triad of beams and
that these set up the column as a veritable tornado, a whirling column
of roaring wind rushing skyward with tremendous velocity. The first
ships, I believe, were carried into the stratosphere and captured intact
by the enemy.
"Since the declaration of war the nature of the column has altered. The
three beams, instead of meeting at or near the surface of the earth, now
join high in the heavens and the column strikes downward instead of
expending its force upward. An added energy is used which produces the
terribly destructive force below. And now we are able to locate
fragments of the ships destroyed above, whereas previously there were no
Sounds reasonable," commented George. "But why have they not landed and
waged their war right here without warning, if that is what they now
intend to do?"
"A natural question, George. But I have a hunch that the space flier or
fliers of the enemy are conserving fuel by remaining beyond gravity. You
know, in space flying, the greatest expenditures of energy are in
leaving or landing on a body and, once landed, they might not have
sufficient fuel for a getaway. They know we are not exactly helpless,
once they are in our midst, and are taking this means of reducing us to
the point of complete subjection before risking their precious selves
The telephone startled us by its insistent ring. It was a call from the
hangar for Hart. The news broadcast announcer was in the midst of a long
dissertation regarding the discovery only this morning that there were
certain apparent discrepancies in the movements of the tides and
unwonted perturbations of the moon's orbit. There flashed on the screen
a view of the great observatory at Mount Wilson, and Professor Laughlin
of that institution stepped into the foreground of the scene to take up
the discussion so mechanically repeated by the announcer.
"Must leave for the hangar at once," declared Hart, returning from the
telephone. "Simler and his staff are there and we are wanted
"Oh, Jack!" Marie begged with her eyes.
"Got to be done, Honey," I responded, "and, believe me, I am going to do
what little I can to help. Suppose we surrendered!"
I shuddered anew at the very thought and took hurried leave of my
family, Hart and George awaiting me in the hall. Had I known what was to
transpire before the end of the war, I am certain I would have been in
much less of a hurry.
We rushed to the hangar, where Secretary Simler and his party awaited us
in the office. Rather, I should say, they waited for Hart Jones.
"Mr. Jones," said the Secretary of War, when the introductions were
over, "it is up to you to get the Pioneer in shape to go out after
these terrible creatures before the forty-eight hours have expired. We
have replied to their ultimatum and have told them we will have our
answer ready within the appointed time, but it is already agreed between
the nations of the World Alliance that our reply is to be negative.
Better far that we submit to the utter destruction of our civilization
than agree to their terms."
"I believe I can do it, Mr. Secretary," was Hart Jones' simple comment.
"At least I will try. But you must let me have an experienced astronomer
at once with whom to consult."
"Yes—immediately. I have a theory, but am not enough of a student of
astronomy myself to work it out."
"You shall have the best man in the Air Naval Observatory at once."
Secretary Simler chewed his cigar savagely. "And anything else you might
need," he concluded.
"There is nothing else, sir." Hart turned from the great men who
regarded him solemnly, some with expressions of hope, others with plain
distrust written large on their countenances.
They left in silence and we returned to our work with renewed vigor.
Within an hour there arrived by fast plane an undersized,
thick-spectacled man who presented himself as Professor Linquist
from the government observatory. He was immediately taken into the
office by Hart and the two remained behind closed doors for the best
part of four hours.
Meanwhile the hangar hummed with activity as usual. We in the chemical
laboratory were engaged in compounding the high explosive used as fuel
in the Pioneer. This was being compressed to its absolute limit and
was stored in long steel cylinders in the form of a liquid of extremely
low temperature. These cylinders were at once transferred to a special
steel vault where the temperature was kept at a low enough point to
prevent expansion and consequent loss of the explosive, not to speak of
the danger of destroying the entire lot of us in its escape.
The generating apparatus of the Pioneer was to be dispensed with for
this trip, since it was of no value outside the atmosphere where there
was no air from which to extract the elements necessary for the
production of the explosive. Instead, the entire supply of fuel for the
trip was to be carried aboard the vessel in the cylinders we were
engaged in filling. Hart had calculated that there was just sufficient
room to store fuel for a trip of about two hundred thousand miles from
the earth and a safe return. We hoped this would be enough.
On the scaffolding around the Pioneer there were now so many workers
that it seemed they must forever be in one another's way. But the work
was progressing with extreme rapidity. Already there projected from her
blunt nose a slender rod of shining metal which was the projector of one
of the destructive rays whose generator and auxiliaries were being
installed under the supervision of the government experts. The force had
been trebled and was now working in shifts of two hours each, the pace
being so exhausting that highest efficiency was obtained by using these
Additional rocket tubes were being installed, and the steel framework of
a bulge now showed on the hull, this bulge being an additional fuel
storage compartment that would provide a slight additional resistance
and consequently lower speed in the lower levels, but would prove little
hindrance in level six and none at all in outer space.
When Hart emerged from his office he appeared to be very tired, indeed,
but his face bore an expression of triumph that could not be mistaken.
He and this little scientist from Washington had evidently arrived at
some momentous conclusion regarding the enemy.
"Jack," he said, when he reached my bench during his first round of the
hanger, "celestial mechanics is a wonderful thing. I had a hunch, and
this astronomer chap has proved it correct with his mathematics. Our
friend the enemy is out there in space at a point where his own mass and
velocity are exactly counteracted by those of the earth and its
satellite, the moon. He is just floating around in space, doing no work
whatsoever to maintain his own position. He has temporarily assumed the
rôle of a second satellite to us and is revolving around us at a
definite period that was calculated by Lindquist. The gravitational pull
of the moon keeps him from falling to the earth and that of the earth
keeps him from approaching the moon. The resultant of the set of forces
is what determines his orbit and the disturbance in the normal balance
is what has been observed by the astronomers who reported changes in the
tides and in the moon's orbit."
But Lindquist's figures prove that the vessel or fleet of the enemy
must be of tremendous size to produce such discrepancies,
infinitesimally small though they might seem. We have a big fellow with
whom to deal, but we know where to find him now."
"How can he work from a fixed position to make his attacks on the earth
at such widely separated points?" I asked.
"It isn't a fixed position in the first place, and besides the earth
rotates once in twenty-four hours, while the moon travels around the
earth once in about twenty-eight days. But, even so, the widespread
destruction could not be accounted for. He must send out scouting
parties or something of that sort. That is one of the things we are to
learn when we get out there. We'll have some fun, Jack."
"Will the Pioneer be ready?" I asked. Evidently I was to go.
"She will, with the exception of the acceleration neutralizers. But I'm
having some heavily-cushioned and elastic supports made that will, I
believe, save us from injury. And I guess we can stand the discomfort
"Yes," I agreed, "in such a cause, I, for one, am willing to go through
anything to help keep this overwhelming disaster from our good old
"Jack," he whispered, "we must prevent it. We've got to!"
Then he was gone, and I watched him for a moment as he dashed headlong
from one task to another. He was a whirlwind of energy once more.
Forty-three hours and twenty minutes had passed since the receipt of the
enemy's ultimatum. The last bolt was being tightened in the remodeled
Pioneer, and Secretary Simler and his staff were on hand to witness
the take-off of the vessel on which the hopes of the world were pinned.
The news of our attempt had been spread by cable and printed news only,
for there was fear that the enemy might be able to pick up the
broadcasts of the news service and thus be able to anticipate us. As
usual, there were many scoffers, but the consensus of opinion was in
favor of the project. At any rate, what better expedient was there to
The huge airport, now unused on account of the complete cessation of air
traffic, was closed to the public. But there was quite a crowd to
witness the take-off, the visitors from Washington, the officials of the
field, and the two hundred workers who had enabled us to make ready for
the adventure in time. There were four to enter the Pioneer: Hart,
George, Professor Lindquist, and myself. And when the entrance manhole
was bolted home behind us, the watchers stood in silence, waiting for
the roar of the Pioneer's motor. As the starter took hold, Hart waved
his hand at one of the ports and every man of those two hundred and some
watchers stood at attention and saluted is if he were a born soldier and
Hart a born commander-in-chief.
We taxied heavily across the field, for the Pioneer was much
overloaded for a quick take-off. She bumped and bounced for a
quarter-mile before taking to the air and then climbed very slowly
indeed, for several minutes. Our speed was a scant two hundred miles an
hour when we swung out over New York and headed for the Atlantic. And
then Hart made first use of the rocket tubes, not daring to discharge
the hot gases below while over populated land at so low an altitude. He
touched one button, maintaining the pressure for but a fraction of a
second. The ocean slipped more rapidly away from beneath our feet and he
touched the button once more. Our speed was now nearly seven hundred
miles an hour and we made haste to buckle ourselves into the padded,
hammocklike contrivances which had been substituted for the former
seats. In a very few minutes we entered level six and the motor was cut
A blast from a number of the tail rockets drove me into my supporting
hammock so heavily that I found difficulty in breathing, and could
scarcely move a muscle to change position. The rate of acceleration was
terrific, and I am still unable to understand how Hart was able to
manipulate the controls. For myself, I could not even turn my head from
its position in the padding and I felt as if I were being crushed by
thousands of tons of pressure. Then, the pressure was somewhat relieved
and I glanced to the instruments. We were more than a thousand miles
from our starting point and the speed indicator read seven thousand
miles an hour. We were traveling at the rate of nearly two miles a
Another blast from the rockets, this one of interminable length, and I
must have lost consciousness. For when I next took note of things I
found that we had been out for nearly two hours and that the tremendous
pressure of acceleration was relieved. I moved my head, experimentally
and found that my senses were normal, though there was a strange and
alarming sensation of being wrong side up. Then I remembered that I had
experienced the same thing when we first searched the upper levels of
the atmosphere for the origin of the destructive rays of the enemy.
But this was different! I gazed through a nearby port and saw that the
sky was entirely black, the stars shining magnificently brilliant
against their velvet background. Streamers of brilliant sunlight from
the floor ports struck across the cabin and patterned the ceiling.
Looking between my feet I saw the sun as a flaming orb with streamers of
incandescence that spread in every direction with such blinding
luminosity that I could not bear the sight for more than a few seconds.
Off to what I was pleased to think of as our left side, there was a huge
globe that I quickly made out as our own earth. Eerily green it shone,
and, though a considerable portion of the surface was obscured by
patches of white that I recognized as clouds, I could clearly make out
the continents of the eastern hemisphere. It was a marvelous sight and I
lost several minutes in awed contemplation of the wonder. Then I heard
"Just coming out of it, Jack?" he asked.
I stared at him foolishly. It had seemed to me that I was alone in this
vast universe, and the sound of his voice startled me. "Guess I'm not
fully out of it yet," I said. "Where are we?"
"Oh, about sixty thousand miles out," he replied carelessly; "and we are
traveling at our maximum speed—that is, the maximum we need for this
"Little voyage!" I gasped. And then I looked at George and the professor
and saw that they, too, were grinning at my discomfiture. I laughed
crazily, I suppose, for they all sobered at once.
Traveling through space at more than forty thousand miles an hour, it
seemed that we were stationary. Movement was now easy—too easy, in
fact, for we were practically weightless. The professor was having a
time of it manipulating a pencil and a pad of paper on which he had a
mass of small figures that were absolutely meaningless to me. He was
calculating and plotting our course and, without him, we should never
have reached the object we sought.
Time passed rapidly, for the wonders of the naked universe were a
never-ending source of fascination. Occasionally a series of rocket
charges was fired to keep our direction and velocity, but these were
light, and the acceleration so insignificant that we were put to no
discomfort whatever. But it was necessary that we keep our straps
buckled, for, in the weightless condition, even the slightest increase
or decrease in speed or change in direction was sufficient to throw us
the length of the cabin, from which painful bruises might be received.
The supports to which we were strapped and which saved us from being
crushed by the acceleration and deceleration, were similar to hammocks,
being hooked to the floor and ceiling of the cabin rather than suspended
horizontally in the conventional manner. This was for the reason that
the energy of the rockets was expended fore and aft, except for
steering, and the forces were therefore along the horizontal axis of the
vessel. The supports were elastic and the padding deep and soft. Being
swiveled at top and bottom, they could swing around so that deceleration
as well as acceleration was relieved. For this reason the controls had
been altered so that the flexible support in which Hart was suspended
could rotate about their pedestal, thus allowing for their operation by
the pilot either when accelerating or decelerating. How he could control
the muscles of his arms and hands under the extreme conditions is still
a mystery to me, however, and George agrees with me in this. We found
ourselves to be utterly helpless.
My next impression of the trip is that of swinging rapidly around and
finding myself facing the rear wall of the cabin. Then the tremendous
pressure once more at a burst from the forward tubes. We had commenced
deceleration. For me there were alternate periods of full and
semi-consciousness and, to this day, I can remember no more than the
high spots of that historical expedition.
Then we were free to move once more, and I turned to face the instrument
board. Our relative velocity had become practically zero; that is, we
were traveling through space at about the same speed and in the same
direction as the earth. The professor and Hart were consulting a pencil
chart and excitedly looking first through the forward ports and then
into the screen of the periscope.
"This is the approximate location," averred the professor.
"But they are not here," replied Hart.
George and I peered in all directions and could see nothing excepting
the marvels of the universe we had been viewing. The moon now seemed
very close and its craters and so-called seas were as plainly visible as
in a four-inch telescope on earth. But we saw nothing of the enemy.
The earth was a huge ball still, but much smaller than when I had first
observed it from the heavens. The sun's corona—the flaming streamers
which the professor declared extended as much as five million miles into
space—was partly hidden behind the rim of the earth and the effect was
blinding. A thin crescent of brilliant light marked the rim of our
planet and the rest was in shadow, but a shadow that was lighted
awesomely in cold green by reflected light from her satellite.
"I have it!" suddenly shouted the professor. "We are all in very nearly
the same line with reference to the sun, and the enemy is between the
blazing body and ourselves. We must shift our position, move into the
shadow of the earth. We have missed our calculation by a few hundred
miles, that is all."
All! I thought. These astronomers, so accustomed to dealing in
tremendous distances that must be measured in light-years, thought
nothing of an error of several hundred miles. But I suppose it was
really an inconsiderable amount, at that.
At any rate, we shifted position and looked around a bit more. We saw
nothing at first. Then Hart consulted the chronometer.
"Time is up!" he shouted.
On the instant there was a flash of dazzling green light from a point
not a hundred miles from our position, a flash that was followed by a
streaking pencil of the same light shooting earthward with terrific
velocity. Breathlessly we followed its length, saw it burst like a bomb
and hurl three green balls from itself which sped at equally spaced
angles to form a perfect triangle. They hovered a moment at about two
thousand miles above the surface of the earth, according to the
professor, who was using the telescope at the time, and shot their
deadly rays toward our world. We were too late to prevent the renewal of
Another and another streak of green light followed and we knew that
great havoc was being wrought back home. But these served to locate the
enemy's position definitely and we immediately set about to draw nearer.
We were still somewhat on the dark side of the object, which had
prevented our seeing it. Now we swung about so that it was plainly
visible. And, what a strange appearance it presented, out here in space!
Fully fifteen miles in diameter, it was a huge doughnut, a great ring of
tubing with a center-opening that was at least eighty per cent of its
maximum diameter. There it hovered, sending out those deadly missiles in
a continuous stream toward our poor world. As we approached the weird
space flier, we saw that a number of objects floated about within the
great circle of its inner circumference. The NY-18, the SF-61 and the
SF-22, without doubt! The theory of Hart's was correct in every detail.
We were still at about ten miles distance from the great ring and the
streaking light pencils were speeding earthward at the rate of one a
minute now. There was no time to lose. Already there was more
destruction on its way than had been previously wrought—several times
Hart was sighting along a tiny tube that projected into the forward
partition and he maneuvered the Pioneer until she was nose on to the
great ring. He pulled a switch and there came a purring that was
entirely new. A row of huge vacuum tubes along the wall lighted to vivid
brilliancy and a throbbing vibration filled the artificial air of the
He pulled a small lever at the side of the tube and the vessel rocked to
the energy that was released from those vacuum tubes. The thin rod which
had been installed at the Pioneer's nose burst into brilliant
flame—orange tinted luminescence that grew to a sphere of probably ten
feet in diameter. Then there was a heavy shock and the ball of fire left
its position and, with inconceivable velocity, sprang straight for the
side of the great ring. It was a fair hit and, when the weird missile
found its mark, it simply vanished—swallowed up in the metal walls of
the monster vessel. For a moment we thought nothing was to result. Then
we burst into shouts of joy, for a great section of the ring fused into
nothingness and was gone! Fully a quarter of the circumference of the
ring had disappeared into the vacuum of space. Truly, the governments of
Earth had developed some terrible weapons of their own!
We watched, breathless.
The green light pencils no longer streaked their paths of death in the
direction of our world, which now seemed so remote. The great ring with
the vacant space in its rim wabbled uncertainly for a moment as though
some terrific upheaval from within was tearing it asunder. Then it
lurched directly for the Pioneer. We had been observed!
But Hart was equal to the occasion and he shot the Pioneer in the
direction of the earth with such acceleration that we all were flattened
into our supports with the same old violence. Then, with equal violence,
we decelerated. The ring was following so closely that it actually
rushed many hundreds of miles past us before it was brought to rest.
From it there sprang one of the light pencils, and the Pioneer was
rocked as by a heavy gale when it rushed past on its harmless way into
infinity. The enemy had missed.
Meanwhile, Hart was operating another mechanism that was new to the
Pioneer and again he sighted along the tiny tube. This time there was
no sound within, no ball of fire without, no visible ray. But, when he
had pressed the release of this second energy, the ring seemed to
shrivel and twist as if gripped by a giant's hand. It reeled and spun.
Then, no longer in a balance of forces, it commenced its long drop
His job finished and finished well, Hart Jones collapsed.
Following his more than three days and four nights of superhuman
endeavor, it seemed strange to see Hart slumped white and still over the
control pedestal. He who had energy far in excess of that of any of the
rest of us had worn himself out. Having had no rest or sleep in nearly a
hundred hours, the body that housed so wonderful a spirit simply refused
to carry on. Tenderly we stretched him on the cabin floor, the Pioneer
drifting in space the while. The professor, who was likewise something
of a physician, listened to his heart, drew back his eyelids, and
pronounced him in no danger whatever.
We slapped his wrists, sprinkled his face and neck with cold water from
the drinking supply, and were soon rewarded by his return to
consciousness. He smiled weakly and fell sound asleep. No war in the
universe could have wakened him then, so we lifted him to his
feet—rather I should say, we guided his practically floating body—and
strapped him in George's hammock, preparing for the homeward journey.
Though dangling from the straps in a position that would be vertical
were we on earth, he slept like a baby. George took the controls in
Hart's place and the professor and I returned to our accustomed
The return trip was considerably slower, as George did not wish to push
the Pioneer to its limit as had been necessary when coming out to meet
the enemy, nor was he able to keep control of the ship against a
too-rapid acceleration. Consequently, the rate of acceleration was much
lower and we were not nearly as uncomfortable as on the outgoing trip.
Thus, nearly ten hours were required for the return. And Hart slept
through it all.
In order to make best use of the small amount of fuel still in the
cylinders, George circled the earth five times before we entered the
upper limits of the atmosphere, the circles becoming of smaller diameter
at each revolution and the speed of the ship proportionately reduced. An
occasional discharge from one of the forward rocket tubes assisted
materially in the deceleration, yet, when we slipped into level five,
our speed was so great that the temperature of the cabin rose
alarmingly, due to the friction of the air against the hull of the
vessel. It was necessary to use the last remaining ounce of fuel to
reduce the velocity to a safe value. A long glide to earth was then our
only means of landing and, since we were over the Gulf of Mexico at the
time, we had no recourse other than landing in the State of Texas.
Passing over Galveston in level three, we found that the Humble oil
fields and a great section of the surrounding country had been the
center of one of the enemy bombardments. All was blackness and ruin for
many miles between this point and Houston. At Houston Airport we landed,
unheralded but welcome.
The lower levels were once more filled with traffic, and one of the
southern route transcontinental liners had just made its stop at this
point. The arrival of the Pioneer was thus witnessed by an unusually
large crowd, and, when the news was spread to the city, their numbers
increased with all the rapidity made possible by the various means of
transportation from the city.
So it was that Hart Jones, after we finally succeeded in awakening him
and getting him to his feet, was hailed by a veritable multitude as the
greatest hero of all time. The demonstrations become so enthusiastic
that police reserves, hastily summoned from the city, were helpless in
their attempts to keep the crowd in order.
It was with greatest difficulty that Hart was finally extricated from
the clutches of the mob and conveyed to the new Rice Hotel in Houston,
where it was necessary to obtain medical attention for him immediately.
He was in no condition at the time to receive the richly deserved
plaudits of the multitude, and, truth to tell, we others from the
Pioneer were in much the same shape.
To me that night will always be the most terrible of nightmares. My
first thought was of my family and, when I had been assigned to a room,
I immediately asked the switchboard operator for a long-distance
connection to my home in Rutherford. There was complete silence for a
minute and I jangled the hook impatiently, my head throbbing with a
thousand aches and pains. Then, to my surprise, the voice of the hotel
manager greeted me.
"Mr. Makely," he said softly, and I thought there was a peculiar ring in
his voice, "I think you had better not try to get Rutherford this
evening. We are sending the house physician to your room at once
and—there are orders from Washington, you know—you are to think of
nothing at the present but sleep and a long rest."
"Why—why—" I stammered, "can't you see? I must communicate with my
family. They must know of my return. I must know if they're safe and
"I'm sorry, sir," apologized the manager, "Government orders, you know."
And he hung up.
Something in that soft voice brought to me an inkling of the truth. An
icy hand gripped my heart as I heard a knock at the door. With palsied
fingers I turned the key and admitted the professor and a kindly-faced
elderly gentleman with a small black bag. One look at the professor told
me the truth. I seized his two arms in a grip that made him wince.
"Tell me! Tell me!" I demanded, "Has anything happened to my family?"
"Jack," said the professor slowly, "while we were out there watching
Hart destroy the enemy vessel, Rutherford was destroyed!"
It must be that I frightened him by my answering stare, for he backed
away from me in apparent fear. I noticed that the doctor was rummaging
in his bag. I know I did not speak, did not cry out, for my tongue clove
to the roof of my mouth. It seemed I must go mad. The professor still
backed away from me; then, wiry little athlete that he was, he sprang
directly for my knees in a beautiful football tackle. I remember that
point clearly and how I admired his agility at the time. I remember the
glint of a small instrument in the doctor's hand. Then all was
Eight days later, they tell me it was, I returned to painful
consciousness in a hospital bed. But let me skip the agony of mind I
experienced then. Suffice it to say that, when I was able, I set forth
for Washington. Hart Jones was there and he had sent for me. But I took
little interest in the going; did not even bother to speculate as to the
reason for his summons. I had devoured the news during my convalescence
and now, more than two weeks after the destruction of the Terror, I knew
the extent of the damage wrought upon our earth by those deadly green
light pencils we had seen issuing from the huge ring up there in the
skies. The horror of it all was fresh in my mind, but my own private
horror overshadowed all.
I was glad that Hart had been so signally honored by the World Peace
Board, that he was now the most famous and popular man in the entire
world. He deserved it all and more. But what cared I—I who had done
least of all to help in his great work—that the Terror had been found
where it buried itself in the sand of the Sahara when falling to earth?
What cared I that the discoveries made in the excavating of the huge
metal ring were of inestimable value to science?
It gave me passing satisfaction to note that all of Hart Jones' theories
were borne out by the discoveries; that Oradel and his minions were
responsible for this terrible war; that the planet they aligned against
us was Venus and that more than a hundred thousand of the Venerians had
been carried in that weird engine of destruction which had been brought
down by Hart.
It was interesting to read of the fall of that huge ring; how it was
heated to incandescence when it entered our atmosphere at such
tremendous velocity; of the tidal waves of concentric billows in the
sand that led to its discovery by Egyptian Government planes. The
broadcast descriptions and the television views of the stunted and
twisted Venerians whose bodies were recovered from the partly consumed
wreckage were interesting. But it all left me cold. I had no further
interest in life. That the world had escaped an overwhelming disaster
was clear, and it gave me a certain pleasure. But for me it might as
well have been completely destroyed.
Nevertheless, I went to Washington. I felt somehow that I owed it to
Hart Jones, the greatest world hero since Lindbergh. I would at least
listen to what he had to say.
A fast plane carried me, a plane chartered by the government. To me it
seemed that it crawled, though it was a sixth-level ship, and made the
trip in record time. Why I was impatient to reach Washington I do not
know, for I was absolutely disinterested in anything that might occur
there. It was merely that my nerves were on edge, I suppose, and
everything annoyed me.
Hart met me at the airport and greeted me like a long-lost brother. He
talked incessantly and jumped from one subject to the other with the
obvious intention of trying to get my mind off my troubles until we
reached his office in the Air Traffic building.
On his door there was the legend, "Director of Research," and, when we
had entered, I observed that the office was furnished with all the
luxury that suited his new position. I dropped into a deeply upholstered
chair at the side of his mahogany desk, and, for the space of several
minutes, Hart regarded me with concern, speaking not a word.
"Jack, old man," he finally ventured. "I can't talk to you of this
thing. But it makes me feel very badly to see you take it so hard. There
are many things you have to live for, old top, and it is to talk about
these that I sent for you."
"You mean work?" I asked.
"Yes. That is the best thing for us all, in any emergency or under any
circumstances whatever. Preston wants you back for one thing, and he
authorized me to tell you that the job of office manager is waiting for
you at double your former salary."
My eyes misted at this. Preston was a good old scout! But I could never
bear it to return to the old surroundings, even in the city. "No, Hart,"
I said, "I'd rather be away from New York and from that part of the
country. Associations, you know."
"I understand," he replied, "and that is just what I had hoped you would
decide. Because I have a job for you in the Air Service. A good one,
"You know there is much reconstruction work to be done on earth. More
than forty cities and towns have been wiped out of existence and these
must be rebuilt. That will occupy the minds and energies of thousands
who have been bereaved as you have. But, in the Air Service, we have a
program that I believe will be more to your liking. The log of the
Terror, in Oradel's handwriting, was found intact, as were a number of
manuscripts pertaining to plans of the Venerians.
"These misshapen creatures were quite evidently educated by Oradel to a
hatred of our world. We have reason to believe that other attacks may
follow, for they were obviously intending to migrate here in millions.
And, according to records found aboard the Terror, they are of
advanced scientific accomplishment. We may expect them to construct
other vessels similar to the Terror and to come here again. We must be
prepared to fight them off, to carry the war to their own planet if
necessary. My work is to organize a world fleet of space ships for this
purpose, and I'd like you to help me in this. The work will take you all
over the world and will keep you too busy to think about—things."
It was just like Hart, and I thanked him wordlessly, but from the bottom
of my heart. Yes, I would accept his generous offer. Though I was no
engineer, I had a knowledge of scientific subjects a little above the
average, and I could follow instructions. By George, it was the very
thing! Suddenly I grew enthusiastic.
There was the sound of voices in the outer office, and Hart's secretary
entered to announce the arrival of George Boehm and Professor Lindquist.
This was great!
Chubby George, red-faced and smiling as ever, embraced me with one short
arm and pounded me on the back with his other fist in his jovial, joking
manner. It was good to have friends like these! The professor held forth
his hand timidly. He was thinking of that tackle and the half-Nelson he
had used on me while the doctor slipped that needle into my arm back
there in Houston.
"Don't remove your glasses, Professor," I laughed; "I'm not going to hit
you. That was a swell tackle of yours, and you did me a big service down
there in the Rice Hotel."
He beamed with pleasure and gripped my hand—mightily, for such a little
fellow. George was whispering to Hart, and I could see that they were
greatly excited over something.
"Jack," said Hart, when the professor and I finished talking things
over, "George here wants you to take a little trip over to Philly with
him. He has something there he wants to show you."
I looked from one to the other for signs of a hoax. These two, under
normal circumstances, were always up to something. But what I saw in
their expressions convinced me that I had better go, and somehow, there
rose in my breast a forlorn hope.
"All right," I agreed. "Let's go!"
Once more we four took off together, this time in a speedy little
first-level cabin plane of Hart's design, piloted by the irrepressible
George. I was brimming with questions, but George kept up such a
running fire of small talk that I was unable to get in a single word
throughout the short trip to the Quaker City. It was quite evident that
something was in the wind.
Instead of landing at the airport, George swung across the city and
dropped to the roof landing space of a large building which I recognized
as the Germantown Hospital. We had no sooner landed when I was rushed
from the plane to the penthouse over the elevator shafts. We were soon
on the main floor and George went immediately to the desk at the
receiving office, where he engaged in earnest conversation with the
nurse in charge.
"What are you doing—committing me?" I asked, half joking only. For,
from the mysterious expression of my friends' faces, I was not sure what
"No," laughed Hart. "George learned of the existence of a patient here
who may turn out to be a very good friend of yours."
I turned this over in my mind, which did not yet function quite
normally. A friend? Why, I had very few that could really be termed good
friends outside of those that accompanied me. It could mean but one
thing. Possibly one of my children—or even my dear wife—might have
escaped somehow. I followed in a daze as a white-capped and gowned nurse
led us along the corridor and into a ward where there were dozens of
high, white beds.
Some of the patients were swathed in bandages; some sat up in their
beds, reading or just staring; others lay inert and pale. The reek of
iodoform pervaded the large room.
We stopped at the bedside of one of the staring patients, a young woman
who looked unseeingly at our party. Great heavens, it was Marie!
A physician stood at the other side of her bed, finger on her pulse. The
others drew back as I approached her side, raised her free hand to my
lips and spoke to her.
"Marie, dear," I asked gently, forcing the lump from my throat as best I
could, "don't you know me? It's Jack, Honey."
The fixed stare of the great blue eyes shifted in my direction. It
seemed that they looked through and past me into some terrible realm
where only horror held sway. She drew her hand from my grasp and passed
it before those staring, unnatural eyes. There was an audible gulp from
George. But the doctor smiled encouragement to me. I tried once more.
"Marie," I said, "where are Jim and Jackie?"
The hand fluttered to her lap, where it lay, blue-veined and pitifully
thin. The stare focussed on me, seemed to concentrate. Then the film was
gone from the eyes and she saw—she knew me!
"Oh, Jack!" she wailed, "I have been away. Don't you know where they
My heart nearly stopped at this, but I sat on the edge of the bed and
took her in my arms, looking at the doctor for approval. He nodded his
head brightly and beckoned to the nurse.
"Bring the children," I heard him whisper.
My cup was full. But I must be calm for Marie's sake. She had closed her
eyes now and great tears coursed down her waxen cheeks. Her body shook
"She'll recover?" I asked the doctor.
"You bet. Just an aggravated case of amnesia. Hasn't eaten. Didn't even
know her children. Cured now, but she'll need a few weeks to build up."
He snapped shut the lid of his watch.
Those succinct sentences were the finest I had ever heard.
Marie clung to me like an infant to its mother. Her sobs gradually
ceased and she looked into my eyes. Little Jim and Jack had come in and
were clamoring for recognition.
"Oh, Jack," Marie whispered, "I'm so happy."
She relinquished me and turned her attention to the children. I saw that
my friends had left and that an orderly was placing screens about us. So
I'll close the screen on the remainder of this most happy reunion.
It was several days before I had the complete story. Being lonesome
during my absence when we were preparing for the voyage into space, and
not knowing just when I would return, Marie had packed a grip and taken
the train for Philadelphia, deciding to spend a few days with her Aunt
Margaret, or at least to remain there with the children until I
She had boarded the train at Manhattan Transfer at about the time we
reached the location of the Terror and the train was just pulling out
of the station when there came the first of the new attacks of the
enemy. She thought that the pillar of fire rose from the approximate
location of Rutherford, but was not sure until they reached Newark, when
the news was spread throughout the train by passengers who boarded it
there. She worried and cried over the loss of our little home and had
worked herself into a state of extreme nervousness and near-hysteria by
the time they reached New Brunswick.
Then, as the long train left New Brunswick, there was another attack,
this one on the town they had just left. The last two cars of the train
were blown from the track by the initial concussion, and the remainder
of the train brought to a grinding, jerking stop that threw the
passengers into a panic.
Already hysterical, Marie was in no condition to bear up under the
shock, and the loss of memory followed. Jack and Jim clung to her, of
course, and were taken to the Germantown Hospital with her when the
wreck victims were transferred to that point. She had no identification
on her person, and it was by sheerest luck that George, who was visiting
a friend in the same hospital, chanced to see her and thought he
That was all of it, but to me it was more than enough. From the depths
of despondency, I rose to the peaks of elation. It was true that we
would have to establish a new home, but this would be a joy as never
before. Those I had given up as lost were restored to me and I was
content. Hart would have to make some changes in the duties of that new
job—the world travel was out of the picture. I had had my fill of
Besides, the hot spell was over.