The Cosmic Express - Cover

The Cosmic Express

by Jack Williamson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: "A new invention. Just perfected a few weeks ago..." Wireless transmission of matter

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Introduction by Sam Moskowitz

The year 1928 was a great year of discovery for AMAZING STORIES. They were uncovering new talent at such a great rate, (Harl Vincent, David H. Keller, E. E. Smith, Philip Francis Nowlan, Fletcher Pratt and Miles J. Breuer), that Jack Williamson barely managed to become one of a distinguished group of discoveries by stealing the cover of the December issue for his first story The Metal Man.

A disciple of A. Merritt, he attempted to imitate in style, mood and subject the magic of that late lamented master of fantasy. The imitation found great favor from the readership and almost instantly Jack Williamson became an important name on the contents page of AMAZING STORIES. He followed his initial success with two short novels, The Green Girl in AMAZING STORIES and The Alien Intelligence in SCIENCE WONDER STORIES, another Gernsback publication. Both of these stories were close copies of A. Merritt, whose style and method Jack Williamson parlayed into popularity for eight years.

Yet the strange thing about it was that Jack Williamson was one of the most versatile science fiction authors ever to sit down at the typewriter. When the vogue for science-fantasy altered to super science, he created the memorable super lock-picker Giles Habilula as the major attraction in a rousing trio of space operas, The Legion of Space, The Cometeers and One Against the Legion. When grim realism was the order of the day, he produced Crucible of Power and when they wanted extrapolated theory in present tense, he assumed the disguise of Will Stewart and popularized the concept of contra terrene matter in science fiction with Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock. Finally, when only psychological studies of the future would do, he produced “With Folded Hands...” “ ... And Searching Mind.”

The Cosmic Express is of special interest because it was written during Williamson’s A. Merritt “kick,” when he was writing little else but, and it gave the earliest indication of a more general capability. The lightness of the handling is especially modern, barely avoiding the farcical by the validity of the notion that wireless transmission of matter is the next big transportation frontier to be conquered. It is especially important because it stylistically forecast a later trend to accept the background for granted, regardless of the quantity of wonders, and proceed with the story. With only a few thousand scanning-disk television sets in existence at the time of the writing, the surmise that this media would be a natural for westerns was particularly astute.

Jack Williamson was born in 1908 in the Arizona territory when covered wagons were the primary form of transportation and apaches still raided the settlers. His father was a cattle man, but for young Jack, the ranch was anything but glamorous. “My days were filled,” he remembers, “with monotonous rounds of what seemed an endless, heart-breaking war with drought and frost and dust-storms, poison-weeds and hail, for the sake of survival on the Llano Estacado.” The discovery of AMAZING STORIES was the escape he sought and his goal was to be a science fiction writer. He labored to this end and the first he knew that a story of his had been accepted was when he bought the December, 1929 issue of AMAZING STORIES. Since then, he has written millions of words of science fiction and has gone on record as follows: “I feel that science-fiction is the folklore of the new world of science, and the expression of man’s reaction to a technological environment. By which I mean that it is the most interesting and stimulating form of literature today.”

Mr. Eric Stokes-Harding tumbled out of the rumpled bed-clothing, a striking slender figure in purple-striped pajamas. He smiled fondly across to the other of the twin beds, where Nada, his pretty bride, lay quiet beneath light silk covers. With a groan, he stood up and began a series of fantastic bending exercises. But after a few half-hearted movements, he gave it up, and walked through an open door into a small bright room, its walls covered with bookcases and also with scientific appliances that would have been strange to the man of four or five centuries before, when the Age of Aviation was beginning.

Yawning, Mr. Eric Stokes-Harding stood before the great open window, staring out. Below him was a wide, park-like space, green with emerald lawns, and bright with flowering plants. Two hundred yards across it rose an immense pyramidal building--an artistic structure, gleaming with white marble and bright metal, striped with the verdure of terraced roof-gardens, its slender peak rising to help support the gray, steel-ribbed glass roof above. Beyond, the park stretched away in illimitable vistas, broken with the graceful columned buildings that held up the great glass roof.

Above the glass, over this New York of 2432 A. D., a freezing blizzard was sweeping. But small concern was that to the lightly clad man at the window, who was inhaling deeply the fragrant air from the plants below--air kept, winter and summer, exactly at 20° C.

With another yawn, Mr. Eric Stokes-Harding turned back to the room, which was bright with the rich golden light that poured in from the suspended globes of the cold ato-light that illuminated the snow-covered city. With a distasteful grimace, he seated himself before a broad, paper-littered desk, sat a few minutes leaning back, with his hands clasped behind his head. At last he straightened reluctantly, slid a small typewriter out of its drawer, and began pecking at it impatiently.

For Mr. Eric Stokes-Harding was an author. There was a whole shelf of his books on the wall, in bright jackets, red and blue and green, that brought a thrill of pleasure to the young novelist’s heart when he looked up from his clattering machine.

He wrote “thrilling action romances,” as his enthusiastic publishers and television directors said, “of ages past, when men were men. Red-blooded heroes responding vigorously to the stirring passions of primordial life!”

He was impartial as to the source of his thrills--provided they were distant enough from modern civilization. His hero was likely to be an ape-man roaring through the jungle, with a bloody rock in one hand and a beautiful girl in the other. Or a cowboy, “hard-riding, hard-shooting,” the vanishing hero of the ancient ranches. Or a man marooned with a lovely woman on a desert South Sea island. His heroes were invariably strong, fearless, resourceful fellows, who could handle a club on equal terms with a cave-man, or call science to aid them in defending a beautiful mate from the terrors of a desolate wilderness.

And a hundred million read Eric’s novels, and watched the dramatization of them on the television screens. They thrilled at the simple, romantic lives his heroes led, paid him handsome royalties, and subconsciously shared his opinion that civilization had taken all the best from the life of man.

Eric had settled down to the artistic satisfaction of describing the sensuous delight of his hero in the roasted marrow-bones of a dead mammoth, when the pretty woman in the other room stirred, and presently came tripping into the study, gay and vivacious, and--as her husband of a few months most justly thought--altogether beautiful in a bright silk dressing gown.

Recklessly, he slammed the machine back into its place, and resolved to forget that his next “red-blooded action thriller” was due in the publisher’s office at the end of the month. He sprang up to kiss his wife, held her embraced for a long happy moment. And then they went hand in hand, to the side of the room and punched a series of buttons on a panel--a simple way of ordering breakfast sent up the automatic shaft from the kitchens below.

Nada Stokes-Harding was also an author. She wrote poems--”back to nature stuff”--simple lyrics of the sea, of sunsets, of bird songs, of bright flowers and warm winds, of thrilling communion with Nature, and growing things. Men read her poems and called her a genius. Even though the whole world had grown up into a city, the birds were extinct, there were no wild flowers, and no one had time to bother about sunsets.

“Eric, darling,” she said, “isn’t it terrible to be cooped up here in this little flat, away from the things we both love?”

“Yes, dear. Civilization has ruined the world. If we could only have lived a thousand years ago, when life was simple and natural, when men hunted and killed their meat, instead of drinking synthetic stuff, when men still had the joys of conflict, instead of living under glass, like hot-house flowers.”

“If we could only go somewhere--”

“There isn’t anywhere to go. I write about the West, Africa, South Sea Islands. But they were all filled up two hundred years ago. Pleasure resorts, sanatoriums, cities, factories.”

“If only we lived on Venus! I was listening to a lecture on the television, last night. The speaker said that the Planet Venus is younger than the Earth, that it has not cooled so much. It has a thick, cloudy atmosphere, and low, rainy forests. There’s simple, elemental life there--like Earth had before civilization ruined it.”

“Yes, Kinsley, with his new infra-red ray telescope, that penetrates the cloud layers of the planet, proved that Venus rotates in about the same period as Earth; and it must be much like Earth was a million years ago.”

“Eric, I wonder if we could go there! It would be so thrilling to begin life like the characters in your stories, to get away from this hateful civilization, and live natural lives. Maybe a rocket--”

The young author’s eyes were glowing. He skipped across the floor, seized Nada, kissed her ecstatically. “Splendid! Think of hunting in the virgin forest, and bringing the game home to you! But I’m afraid there is no way.--Wait! The Cosmic Express.”

“The Cosmic Express?”

“A new invention. Just perfected a few weeks ago, I understand. By Ludwig Von der Valls, the German physicist.”

“I’ve quit bothering about science. It has ruined nature, filled the world with silly, artificial people, doing silly, artificial things.”

“But this is quite remarkable, dear. A new way to travel--by ether!”

“By ether!”

“Yes. You know of course that energy and matter are interchangeable terms; both are simply etheric vibration, of different sorts.”

“Of course. That’s elementary.” She smiled proudly. “I can give you examples, even of the change. The disintegration of the radium atom, making helium and lead and energy. And Millikan’s old proof that his Cosmic Ray is generated when particles of electricity are united to form an atom.”

“Fine! I thought you said you weren’t a scientist.” He glowed with pride. “But the method, in the new Cosmic Express, is simply to convert the matter to be carried into power, send it out as a radiant beam and focus the beam to convert it back into atoms at the destination.”

“But the amount of energy must be terrific--”

“It is. You know short waves carry more energy than long ones. The Express Ray is an electromagnetic vibration of frequency far higher than that of even the Cosmic Ray, and correspondingly more powerful and more penetrating.”

The girl frowned, running slim fingers through golden-brown hair. “But I don’t see how they get any recognizable object, not even how they get the radiation turned back into matter.”

“The beam is focused, just like the light that passes through a camera lens. The photographic lens, using light rays, picks up a picture and reproduces it again on the plate--just the same as the Express Ray picks up an object and sets it down on the other side of the world.

“An analogy from television might help. You know that by means of the scanning disc, the picture is transformed into mere rapid fluctuations in the brightness of a beam of light. In a parallel manner, the focal plane of the Express Ray moves slowly through the object, progressively, dissolving layers of the thickness of a single atom, which are accurately reproduced at the other focus of the instrument--which might be in Venus!

“But the analogy of the lens is the better of the two. For no receiving instrument is required, as in television. The object is built up of an infinite series of plane layers, at the focus of the ray, no matter where that may be. Such a thing would be impossible with radio apparatus because even with the best beam transmission, all but a tiny fraction of the power is lost, and power is required to rebuild the atoms. Do you understand, dear?”

“Not altogether. But I should worry! Here comes breakfast. Let me butter your toast.”

A bell had rung at the shaft. She ran to it, and returned with a great silver tray, laden with dainty dishes, which she set on a little side table. They sat down opposite each other, and ate, getting as much satisfaction from contemplation of each other’s faces as from the excellent food. When they had finished, she carried the tray to the shaft, slid it in a slot, and touched a button--thus disposing of the culinary cares of the morning.

She ran back to Eric, who was once more staring distastefully at his typewriter.

“Oh, darling! I’m thrilled to death about the Cosmic Express! If we could go to Venus, to a new life on a new world, and get away from all this hateful conventional society--”

“We can go to their office--it’s only five minutes. The chap that operates the machine for the company is a pal of mine. He’s not supposed to take passengers except between the offices they have scattered about the world. But I know his weak point--”

Eric laughed, fumbled with a hidden spring under his desk. A small polished object, gleaming silvery, slid down into his hand.

“Old friendship, plus this, would make him--like spinach.”

Five minutes later Mr. Eric Stokes-Harding and his pretty wife were in street clothes, light silk tunics of loose, flowing lines--little clothing being required in the artificially warmed city. They entered an elevator and dropped thirty stories to the ground floor of the great building.

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