It came suddenly, without warning, and it brought consternation to the people of the world.
A filament of flame darted down the dark skies one moonless night and those who saw it believed, at first, that it was a meteor. Instead of streaking away into oblivion, however, it became larger and larger, until it seemed as though some vagrant, blazing star was about to plunge into the earth and annihilate the planet and every vestige of life upon it. But then it drew slowly to a stop high up in the atmosphere, where it remained motionless, glowing white and incandescent against the Stygian background of the overcast skies.
In shape it resembled a Zeppelin, but its dimensions very apparently exceeded by far those of any flying craft that ever had been fabricated by the hand of man.
As it hung poised high up in the air it gradually lost its dazzling glow and became scarlet instead of white. Then, as it continued to cool, the color swiftly drained from it and, in a few minutes, it shone only with the dull and ugly crimson of an expiring ember. In a half-hour after it first had appeared its effulgence had vanished completely and it was barely visible to the millions who were staring up toward it from the earth.
It seemed to be suspended directly above Manhattan, and the inhabitants of New York were thrown into a feverish excitement by the strange and unprecedented phenomenon.
For it scarcely had come to a stop, and certainly it had not been poised aloft for more than a few minutes, when most of those who had not actually witnessed its sensational appearance were apprised of the inexplicable occurrence by the radiovision, which were scattered throughout the vast metropolis. In theaters and restaurants and other gathering places, as well as in millions of homes, a voice from the Worldwide Broadcasting Tower announced the weird visitant. And its image, as it glowed in the night, was everywhere transmitted to the public.
Only a short time after it first had been observed people were thronging roof-tops, terraces, and streets, and gazing with awe and wonder at the great luminous object that was floating high above them.
There were those who thought that the world was coming to an end, and they either were dumb with fright or strident with hysteria. People with more judgment, and a smattering of scientific knowledge, dismissed the thing as some harmless meteorological manifestation that, while interesting, was not necessarily dangerous. And there were many, inclined to incredulity and skepticism, who believed that they were witnessing a hoax or an advertising scheme of some new sort.
But as the moments went by the world commenced to become stirred and alarmed by the reports which came over the radiovisors.
For powerful planes and metal-shelled Zeppelins had climbed swiftly aloft to investigate the incomprehensible Thing that was poised high above Manhattan, and almost unbelievable reports were being sent earthward.
Dirk Vanderpool had been sitting alone on the broad terrace of his apartment that occupied the upper stories of the great Gotham Gardens Building when he saw that streak of fire slip down against the darkness of the night.
For a moment he, too, had believed that he was watching a meteor, but, when he saw it come to a slow stop and hang stationary in the heavens, he rose to his feet with an exclamation of surprise.
For a while he gazed upward with an expression of astonishment on his face and then he turned as he heard someone walking softly in his direction. It was Barstowe, his valet, and the eyes of the man were alive with fear.
“What is that thing, Mr. Vanderpool?” he asked in a voice that trembled with alarm. Barstowe was a man of middle age, diminutive in size, and he had the appearance of being nearly petrified with terror. “They are saying over the televisor that--”
“What are they saying about it?” asked Dirk somewhat impatiently.
“That no one can explain what it is,” continued Barstowe. “It must be something terrible, Mr. Vanderpool.”
“Wheel out the luciscope,” ordered Dirk.
Barstowe disappeared into the apartment and returned with a cabinet that was mounted on small, rubber-tired wheels. The top of it was formed of a metallic frame in which a heavy, circular, concave glass was fitted. The frame was hinged in front so that it could be raised from the rear and adjusted to any angle necessary to catch the light rays from any distant object. Within the cabinet the rays passed through an electrical device that amplified them millions of times, thus giving a clear, telescopic vision of the object on which the luciscope was focused.
This instrument, years before, had supplanted entirely the old-fashioned telescopes which not only had been immense and unwieldly but which also had a very limited range of vision.
Dirk adjusted the light-converger so that it caught the rays that were being emanated by the weird and shimmering mass that was suspended almost directly above the lofty terrace on which he was standing.
Then he switched on the current and glanced into the eye-piece of the apparatus. For several moments he remained silent, studying the image that was etched so vividly on the ground-glass within the luciscope.
“It is a queer thing, there is no doubt about that,” he confessed when finally he raised his head. “It resembles a gigantic Zeppelin in shape but it does not seem to have any undercarriage or, as far as I can see, any indication of propellers or portholes. I would say, though, Barstowe, that it might be a ship from some other planet if it wasn’t for the fact that it seems to be in an almost molten state.”
Dirk again looked into the luciscope and then he made a few adjustments with a thumb-screw that projected from the side of the apparatus.
“It is up about forty thousand feet,” he told Barstowe, “and it must be more than a half-mile in length. Probably,” he added, “it is a planetary fragment of some odd composition that is less responsive to gravitation than the materials with which we are familiar. You will find, Barstowe, that there is nothing about it that science will not be able to explain.
That will be all now,” he concluded.
Barstowe walked over the terrace and disappeared into the apartment.
Dirk, left alone, wheeled the luciscope over by the chair in which he had been sitting and near which a radiovisor was standing.
He switched on the latter and listened to the low but very distinct voice of the news-dispatcher.
“--and planes and Zeppelins now are starting up to investigate the strange phenomenon--”
Again Dirk placed an eye to the lens of the luciscope and once more the Thing leaped into his vision. The powerful machine brought it so close to him that he could see the heat waves quiver up from it.
The light that it radiated illuminated the night for thousands of feet and Dirk could see, by means of that crimson glare, that many planes and Zeppelins were circling around the mysterious visitant. None of them, however, approached the alien freak, the heat apparently being too intense to permit close inspection.
Dirk himself was tempted for a moment to jump into a plane and go up and take a look at the fiery mass.
But, after a moment’s consideration, he decided, that it would be far more interesting and comfortable to remain right where he was and listen to the reports which were being sent down from above.
“--thus far there seems to be no cause for alarm, and people are advised to remain calm--careful observations of the luminous monster are being made and further reports concerning it will be broadcast--”
Dirk Vanderpool rose to his feet, walked to the coping of the terrace and peered into the magnascope that was set into the wall.
He saw that the street, far below him, was jammed with struggling people and the device through which he was looking brought their faces before him in strong relief. Dirk was deeply interested and, at the same time, gravely concerned as he studied the upturned countenances in the mob.
Fear, despair, reckless abandon, mirth, doubt, religious ecstasy and all the other nuances in the gamut of human emotions and passions were reflected in those distorted visages which were gazing skyward.
The silvery humming of a bell diverted his attention from the scene of congestion below him and, turning away, he walked across the terrace and into the great living room of his luxurious abode.
Stepping to the televisor, he turned a tiny switch, and the face of a girl appeared in the glass panel that was framed above the sound-box. He smiled as he lifted the receiver and placed it to his ear.
“What is the matter, Inga?” he asked. “You look as if you were expecting--well, almost anything disastrous.”
“Oh, Dirk, what is that thing?” the girl asked. “I really am frightened!”
He could see by the expression in her blue eyes that she, too, was becoming a victim of the hysteria that was taking possession of many people.
“I wouldn’t be alarmed, Inga,” he replied reassuringly. “I don’t know what it is, and no one else seems to be able to explain it.”
“But it is frightful and uncanny, Dirk,” the girl insisted, “and I am sure that something terrible is going to happen. I wish,” she pleaded,
“that you would come over and stay with me for a little while. I am all alone and--”
“All right, Inga,” he told her. “I will be with you in a few minutes.”
He hung up the receiver of the televisor and clicked off the switch. The image of the golden-haired girl to whom he had been speaking slowly faded from the glass.
Attiring himself for a short sixty-mile hop down Long Island, Dirk passed out to the landing stage and, stepping into the cabin of his plane, he threw in the helicopter lever. The machine rose straight into the air for a couple of hundred feet and then Dirk headed it westward to where the nearest ascension beam sent its red light towering toward the stars. It marked a vertical air-lane that led upward to the horizontal lanes of flight.
Northbound ships flew between two and four thousand feet; southbound planes between five and seven thousand feet; those eastbound confined themselves to the level between nine and eleven thousand feet, while the westbound flyers monopolized the air between twelve and fourteen thousand feet.
All planes flying parallel to the earth were careful to avoid those red beacons which marked ascension routes, and the shafts of green light down which descending planes dropped to the earth or into lower levels of travel.
When Dirk’s altimeter indicated seventy-five hundred feet he turned the nose of his ship eastward and adjusted his rheostat until his motors, fed by wireless current, were revolving at top speed.
The great canyons of Manhattan, linked by arches and highways which joined and passed through various levels of the stupendous structures of steelite and quartzite, passed swiftly beneath him; and, after passing for a few minutes over the deserted surface of Long Island, he completed his sixty-mile flight and brought his ship to a rest on a landing stage that was far up on the side of a vast pile that rose up close to the shore of the Sound.
As soon as he stepped from the door of the cabin he was joined by a girl who, apparently, had been lingering there, awaiting his arrival.
She was perhaps twenty years old, and she had the golden hair, the light complexion, and the blue eyes which still were characteristic of the women of northern Europe.
The slender lines of her exquisite figure and the supple grace which she displayed when she moved toward Dirk were evidence, however, of the Latin blood which was in her veins.
For Inga Fragoni, the daughter and heiress of Orlando Fragoni, seemed to be a culmination of all of the desirable qualities of the women of the south and those of the north.
The terrace on which Dirk had landed was illuminated by lights which simulated sunshine, and their soft bright glow revealed the violet hue of her eyes and the shimmering gloss of her silken hair. She wore a sleeveless, light blue tunic which was gathered around her waist with a bejeweled girdle.
On her tiny feet she wore sandals which were spun of webby filaments of gold and platinum.
“Dirk, I am so glad that you are here!” she exclaimed. “I felt so much alone when I called you up. Dad is locked in the observatory with Professor Nachbaren and three or four other men and the servants--well, they all are so terrified that it simply alarms me to have them around.”
“But that is Stanton’s plane there, isn’t it?” asked Dirk, indicating a powerful looking machine that stood on the terrace.
“Yes, Dirk,” the girl replied. “He arrived here three or four minutes before you did. I thought, at first, that it was you coming. And Dirk,” she continued, with a note of excitement in her voice, “he flew up to look at that thing, and I know that he is as frightened about it as I am.”
Dirk grunted, but he gave no expression of the dislike and distrust that Stanton aroused in him. The latter, he knew, was very much inclined to look with favor on Inga, and his presumption annoyed Dirk because, while he and the girl had not declared their intention of living together, they were very much in love with each other.
“You will want to hear him tell about it, I know, Dirk,” the girl said.
“I left Stanton up on the garden terrace when I saw you coming down.
Come; we will go and join him.”
Dirk and Inga strolled slowly along paths which were lined with exotic shrubbery and plants. Here and there a fountain tossed its glittering spray high into the air while birds, invisible in the feathery foliage, warbled and thrilled entrancingly. Soft music, transmitted from the auditoriums below, blended so harmoniously with the atmosphere of the terraces that it seemed to mingle with and be a part of the drifting, subtle scents of the abundant flowers which bloomed on every side.
For these upper terraces of Fragoni’s palace were enclosed, during inclement weather, with great glass plates which, at the touch of a button, automatically appeared or disappeared.
Winding their way easily upward, Dirk and Inga came finally to a secluded terrace which overlooked the Sound. Here they saw Stanton, who was unaware of their approach, looking skyward at the dim and sinister shape which was outlined against the sky. Stanton’s brow was contracted and his expression was filled with apprehension. He started suddenly when he became conscious of the presence of Dirk and the lovely daughter of Fragoni.
He rose to his feet, a short man in his forties, stocky in build and somewhat swarthy in complexion. He contrasted very unfavorably with Dirk, who was tall and well-built and who had abundant blond hair and steady steel-blue eyes.
“What do you make of that thing, Vanderpool?” he asked, almost ignoring the presence of Inga.
“I don’t know enough about it yet to be able to express an opinion,”
Dirk replied. “We will find out about it soon enough,” he added, “so why worry about it in the meantime?”
“It is well enough to affect such an attitude,” said Stanton, with a touch of sarcasm in his voice, “but let me tell you, Vanderpool, that there is good reason to worry about it.”
Dirk frowned at the statement as he saw a shadow pass over the fair face of Inga.
“That thing up there,” continued Stanton, with conviction in his voice,
“is not a natural phenomenon. I flew fairly close to it in my plane and I know what I am speaking about. That thing is some sort of a monster, Vanderpool, that is made of metal or of some composition that is an unearthly equivalent of metal. It is a diabolical creation of some sort that has come from out of the fathomless depths of the universe.” He shuddered at the fantasy that his feverish imagination was creating. “It is metal, I tell you,” he continued, “but it is metal that is endowed with some sort of intelligence. I was up there,” he breathed swiftly,
“and I saw it hanging there in the sky, quivering with heat and life.”
“You are nervous, Stanton,” said Vanderpool coolly. “Get a grip on yourself, man, and look at the thing reasonably. If that thing has intelligence,” he added, “we will find some way to slay it.”
“Slay it!” exclaimed Stanton. “How can you expect to slay a mad creation that can leap through space, from world to world, like a wasp goes darting from flower to flower? How can you kill a thing which not only defies absolute zero but also the immeasurable heat which its friction with the atmosphere generated when it plunged toward the earth? How can you kill a thing that seems to have brains and nerves and bones and flesh of some strange substance that is harder and tougher than any earthly compound we have discovered?”
He stopped speaking for a moment. They listened to the voice that was broadcasting from the Worldwide Tower.
“--our planes have approached to within a few thousand feet of it and are playing their searchlights over the surface of the leviathan.
It is not a meteorite of any kind that scientists have heretofore examined--its surface is smooth and unpitted and shows no apparent effect of the tremendous heat to which it was subjected during its drop through the atmosphere. It seems to be immune to gravity--its weight must be tremendous, and it is fully three-quarters of a mile long and between seven and eight hundred feet in diameter at its widest part, but it lies motionless--motionless--at about forty thousand feet.”
“It doesn’t appear now as if it would prove very dangerous,” remarked Dirk.
“--and people are warned again to maintain their composure and to go to their homes and remain there for their own protection and the protection of others. Riots and serious disturbances are reported from cities in all parts of the world--mobs are swarming the streets of Manhattan and the other boroughs of New York, and the police are finding it difficult to restrain the frenzied populations in other centers...”
There was a pause, then, of some moments, and then the voice of the broadcaster, vibrant with excitement, was heard again.
“--a plane has made a landing on the surface of the monstrosity, which, it seems, has not only lost its heat but is becoming decidedly cold--”
A servant appeared from among the shrubbery and paused before Dirk.
“There is a call for you, Mr. Vanderpool,” he said respectfully.
Dirk excused himself and, entering the sumptuous apartment that opened from the terrace, went to the televisor. He saw the face of Sears, the chief secretary of Fragoni, in the glass panel.
“There will be a meeting of the council at nine o’clock in the morning, Mr. Vanderpool,” came the voice over the wire.
“Thank you, Sears,” replied Dirk. “It happens that Stanton is here at the present time. Shall I notify him of the conclave?”
“If you will, please,” Sears responded. “By the way, Mr. Vanderpool, is there anything wrong at your apartment? I tried to call you there before I located you here and I failed to get any response.”
“I guess that all of my servants have run out from under cover because of their fear of that thing in the sky,” Dirk responded. “Do you know anything about it, Sears?” he asked.
“It will be discussed at the meeting to-morrow morning,” replied Sears shortly. “Good night, Mr. Vanderpool.”
Dirk, upon returning to the terrace, saw that both Stanton and Inga were silently and fearfully looking up into the night.
“A meeting of the council at nine o’clock in the morning, Stanton,” Dirk said abruptly. “I told Sears I would notify you.”
“I thought that we would be called together very soon,” said Stanton.
“It’s concerning that damn thing up there.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Dirk carelessly. “Well,” he added, “I believe that I will hop home and get some sleep.”
“Sleep!” exclaimed Stanton. “Sleep? On a night like this?”
“Oh, Dirk,” pleaded Inga, “stay here with me, won’t you? I am not going to bed because I just know that I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes.”
“Let him go, Inga, if he wants to sleep,” urged Stanton. “I will stay here and keep watch with you.”
“--and if order is not restored in the streets of Manhattan within the course of a short time, the authorities will resort to morphite gas to quell the turbulence and rioting--”
“The streets must be frightfully congested,” said Inga. “It is the first occasion in a long time that the police have had to threaten the use of morphite.”
“--we do not want to alarm people unnecessarily but we have to report,” came the hurried voice of the broadcaster, “that the monstrous mass that has been hanging above the city just made a sudden drop of five thousand feet and again came to a stop. It is now a little more than six miles over Manhattan and--again it has dropped. This time it fell like a plummet for twelve thousand feet. It is now about twenty thousand feet, some four miles, above Manhattan and--”
A cry of alarm came from the lips of Inga as she gazed upward and saw that gigantic, ominous-appearing object loom dim and vast in the darkness above them.
She went to Dirk and threw her arms around him, as if she were clinging to him for protection.
“Don’t leave me, Dirk,” she whispered. “I can just feel that something terrible is going to happen, and I want you with me!”
“I’ll stay with you, of course,” whispered Dirk. Something of that feeling of dread and apprehension which so fully possessed his two companions entered into his mind. “Don’t tremble so, Inga,” he pleaded.
“It is a strange thing, but we will know more about it in the morning.
Be calm until then, my dear, if you can.”
He looked over the shoulder of the girl, whose face was buried against his breast, and he saw a hundred great red and green shafts of light shooting up into the air. Fleeting shadows seemed to pass swiftly up and down them, and he knew that thousands of planes were abroad, some of them seeking the heights and others dropping down.
The great towers of Long Island were all aglow, and it was apparent that few people were sleeping that night. The scarlet sky over Manhattan indicated that the center of the metropolis, too, was alive to the menace of the weird visitant that now was so plainly visible.
All night long they remained on the terrace. Dirk and Inga seated close together and Stanton, at a distance, brooding alone over the disaster which he felt was impending.
The illuminated dial of the great clock that was a part of the beacon-tower on the Metropole Landing Field told of the slow passing of the hours.
All night long they listened to the reports that came through the radiovisor and watched that immobile, threatening monster of metal.
But it remained static during the rest of the night. And, with the coming of a gray and sunless dawn, it still hung there, motionless, silent and sinister.
The next morning the President of the United States of the World, from the capitol at The Hague, issued a proclamation of martial law, to become effective at once in all parts of the world.
The edict forbade people to leave their homes, and it was vigorously executed, wherever the police themselves were not in a state of demoralization.
At about the same time a special meeting of the Supreme Congress was called, the body to remain in session until some solution of the mystery had been arrived at.
At the same time that martial law was declared, however, and the special assemblage of lawmakers convened, a statement was issued in which an attempt was made to eliminate from the minds of the people the idea that the undefinable object above the metropolis was at all dangerous.
It was, indeed, suggested that it very probably was some sort of new device which had been constructed on the earth and which was being introduced to the people of the world in a somewhat sensational manner by the person or persons who were responsible for it.
The fears of the populace were, to some extent, allayed by this means, and some degree of order restored.
At nine o’clock Dirk Vanderpool was shown into the council chamber in the palace of Orlando Fragoni, and he was closely followed by Stanton.
Fragoni was already there, and he greeted the two men with a countenance that was serene but that, nevertheless, revealed indications of concern.
He was a man past middle age, tall and strikingly handsome in appearance. His eyes were dark and penetrating and his forehead, high and wide, was crowned by an abundance of snow-white hair. His voice, while pleasing to the ear, was vibrant with life and energy, and he spoke with the incisive directness of one accustomed to command.
For Orlando Fragoni, as nearly as any one man might be, was the ruler of the world.
It was in the early part of the twentieth century that wealth had commenced to concentrate into a relatively few hands. This was followed by a period in which vast mergers and consolidations had been effected as a result of the financial power and genius for organization which a few men possessed. A confederation of the countries of the world was brought about by industrial kings who had learned, in one devastating war, that militarism, while it might bring riches to a few, was, in the final analysis, destructive and wasteful.
Mankind the world over, relieved of the menace of war, made more progress in a decade than they had made in any previous century, but all the time the invisible concentration of power and money continued.
And, in 1975, the affairs of the world were controlled by five men, of whom Orlando Fragoni was the most powerful and most important.
His grandfather had been a small banker, and out of his obscure transactions the great House of Fragoni had arisen. The money power of the world was now controlled by Orlando Fragoni. Dirk Vanderpool, partly as a result of a vast inheritance and partly through his own ability and untiring industry, dominated the transportation facilities of the world.
Planes and Zeppelins, railroad equipment and ships, were built in his plants and operated by the many organizations which he controlled.
Stanton had inherited the agricultural activities of the world and, in addition to this, he was the sovereign of distribution. He owned immense acreages in all of the continents; he not only cultivated every known variety of produce, but also handled the sale of his products through his own great chains of stores. His father had been one of the great geniuses of the preceding generation, but Stanton, while inheriting the commercial empire which he had ruled, had not inherited much of the ability which had gone into the establishment of it.
There were two other members of that invisible council of Five, the very existence of which was not even suspected by the general populace of the world.
Sigmund Lazarre was the world’s mightiest builder, and millions of great structures, which were built of material from his own mines, were under his control. It was Lazarre, too, who owned the theaters and other amusement centers in which millions upon millions of people sought relaxation every day. The creation and application of electrical power made up the domain of Wilhelm Steinholt, who also owned the factories that made the machinery of the world.
Absolute control of all of the necessities and luxuries of life, in fact, were in the hands of the five men, who used their vast power wisely and beneficently.
Ostensibly the peoples of the world ruled themselves by means of a democratic form of government.
In reality their lives were directed by a few men whose power and wealth were entirely unsuspected by any but those who were close to them.
The council room in which Fragoni had received Dirk and Stanton was lofty and sumptuously appointed.
The rugs which covered the floor were soft to the tread, and the walls and ceiling were adorned with a series of murals which represented the various heavenly constellations.
At the far end of the chamber there was a staircase, and Dirk was among those who knew that it led up to the great observatory in which Fragoni and certain of his scientific associates spent so much of their time at night.
For men had commenced to talk about the conquest of the stars, and it was generally believed that it would not be many years more before a way would be found to traverse the interplanetary spaces.
“We are rather fortunate, my friends,” Fragoni said to his two associates, “to have been the witnesses of the event that transpired last night.”
“Fortunate!” exclaimed Stanton. “Then you know that the thing is harmless?”
A little smile lit the benign and scholarly countenance of Fragoni as he calmly regarded Stanton.
“We know very little about it,” he replied after a brief pause, “and, if our surmises are correct, it may be very far from harmless. It is intensely interesting, nevertheless,” he continued, “because that thing, as you term it, unquestionably is directed by intelligence. Without the slightest doubt the people of the earth are about to behold a form of life from some far-away planet. What that form will be,” he added, with an almost imperceptible shrug of his shoulders, “it is impossible to forecast.”