Beyond the Heaviside Layer

by Captain S.P. Meek

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: For eighty vertical miles Carpenter and Bond blasted their way--only to be trapped by the extraordinary monsters of the heaviside layer.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

McQuarrie, the City Editor, looked up as I entered his office.

“Bond,” he asked, “do you know Jim Carpenter?”

“I know him slightly,” I replied cautiously. “I have met him several times and I interviewed him some years ago when he improved the Hadley rocket motor. I can’t claim a very extensive acquaintance with him.”

“I thought you knew him well. It is a surprise to me to find that there is any prominent man who is not an especial friend of yours. At any rate you know him as well as anyone of the staff, so I’ll give you the assignment.”

“What’s he up to now?” I asked.

“He’s going to try to punch a hole in the heaviside layer.”

“But that’s impossible,” I cried. “How can anyone...”

My voice died away in silence. True enough, the idea of trying to make a permanent hole in a field of magnetic force was absurd, but even as I spoke I remembered that Jim Carpenter had never agreed to the opinion almost unanimously held by our scientists as to the true nature of the heaviside layer.

“It may be impossible,” replied McQuarrie dryly, “but you are not hired by this paper as a scientific consultant. For some reason, God alone knows why, the owner thinks that you are a reporter. Get down there and try to prove he is right by digging up a few facts about Carpenter’s attempt. Wire your stuff in and Peavey will write it up. On this one occasion, please try to conceal your erudition and send in your story in simple words of one syllable which uneducated men like Peavey and me can comprehend. That’s all.”


He turned again to his desk and I left the room. At one time I would have come from such an interview with my face burning, but McQuarrie’s vitriol slid off me like water off a duck’s back. He didn’t really mean half of what he said, and he knew as well as I did that his crack about my holding my job with the Clarion as a matter of pull was grossly unjust. It is true that I knew Trimble, the owner of the Clarion, fairly well, but I got my job without any aid from him. McQuarrie himself hired me and I held my job because he hadn’t fired me, despite the caustic remarks which he addressed to me. I had made the mistake when I first got on the paper of letting McQuarrie know that I was a graduate electrical engineer from Leland University, and he had held it against me from that day on. I don’t know whether he really held it seriously against me or not, but what I have written above is a fair sample of his usual manner toward me.

In point of fact I had greatly minimized the extent of my acquaintance with Jim Carpenter. I had been in Leland at the same time that he was and had known him quite well. When I graduated, which was two years after he did, I worked for about a year in his laboratory, and my knowledge of the improvement which had made the Hadley rocket motor a practicability came from first hand knowledge and not from an interview. That was several years before but I knew that he never forgot an acquaintance, let alone a friend, and while I had left him to take up other work our parting had been pleasant, and I looked forward with real pleasure to seeing him again.


Jim Carpenter, the stormy petrel of modern science! The eternal iconoclast: the perpetual opponent! He was probably as deeply versed in the theory of electricity and physical chemistry as any man alive, but it pleased him to pose as a “practical” man who knew next to nothing of theory and who despised the little he did know. His great delight was to experimentally smash the most beautifully constructed theories which were advanced and taught in the colleges and universities of the world, and when he couldn’t smash them by experimental evidence, to attack them from the standpoint of philosophical reasoning and to twist around the data on which they were built and make it prove, or seem to prove, the exact opposite of what was generally accepted.

No one questioned his ability. When the ill-fated Hadley had first constructed the rocket motor which bears his name it was Jim Carpenter who made it practical. Hadley had tried to disintegrate lead in order to get his back thrust from the atomic energy which it contained and proved by apparently unimpeachable mathematics that lead was the only substance which could be used. Jim Carpenter had snorted through the pages of the electrical journals and had turned out a modification of Hadley’s invention which disintegrated aluminum. The main difference in performance was that, while Hadley’s original motor would not develop enough power to lift itself from the ground, Carpenter’s modification produced twenty times the horsepower per pound of weight of any previously known generator of power and changed the rocket ship from a wild dream to an everyday commonplace.


When Hadley later constructed his space flyer and proposed to visit the moon, it was Jim Carpenter who ridiculed the idea of the attempt being successful. He proposed the novel and weird idea that the path to space was not open, but that the earth and the atmosphere were enclosed in a hollow sphere of impenetrable substance through which Hadley’s space flyer could not pass. How accurate were his prognostications was soon known to everyone. Hadley built and equipped his flyer and started off on what he hoped would be an epoch making flight. It was one, but not in the way which he had hoped. His ship took off readily enough, being powered with four rocket motors working on Carpenter’s principle, and rose to a height of about fifty miles, gaining velocity rapidly. At that point his velocity suddenly began to drop.

He was in constant radio communication with the earth and he reported his difficulty. Carpenter advised him to turn back while he could, but Hadley kept on. Slower and slower became his progress, and after he had penetrated ten miles into the substance which hindered him, his ship stuck fast. Instead of using his bow motors and trying to back out, he had moved them to the rear, and with the combined force of his four motors he had penetrated for another two miles. There he insanely tried to force his motors to drive him on until his fuel was exhausted.

He had lived for over a year in his space flyer, but all of his efforts did not serve to materially change his position. He had tried, of course, to go out through his air locks and explore space, but his strength, even although aided by powerful levers, could not open the outer doors of the locks against the force which was holding them shut. Careful observations were continuously made of the position of his flyer and it was found that it was gradually returning toward the earth. Its motion was very slight, not enough to give any hope for the occupant. Starting from a motion so slow that it could hardly be detected, the velocity of return gradually accelerated; and three years after Hadley’s death, the flyer was suddenly released from the force which held it, and it plunged to the earth, to be reduced by the force of its fall to a twisted, pitiful mass of unrecognizable junk.


The remains were examined, and the iron steel parts were found to be highly magnetized. This fact was seized upon by the scientists of the world and a theory was built up of a magnetic field of force surrounding the earth through which nothing of a magnetic nature could pass. This theory received almost universal acceptance, Jim Carpenter alone of the more prominent men of learning refusing to admit the validity of it. He gravely stated it as his belief that no magnetic field existed, but that the heaviside layer was composed of some liquid of high viscosity whose density and consequent resistance to the passage of a body through it increased in the ratio of the square of the distance to which one penetrated into it.

There was a moment of stunned surprise when he announced his radical idea, and then a burst of Jovian laughter shook the scientific press. Carpenter was in his glory. For months he waged a bitter controversy in the scientific journals and when he failed to win converts by this method, he announced that he would prove it by blasting a way into space through the heaviside layer, a thing which would be patently impossible were it a field of force. He had lapsed into silence for two years and his curt note to the Associated Press to the effect that he was now ready to demonstrate his experiment was the first intimation the world had received of his progress.


I drew expense money from the cashier and boarded the Lark for Los Angeles. When I arrived I went to a hotel and at once called Carpenter on the telephone.

“Jim Carpenter speaking,” came his voice presently.

“Good evening, Mr. Carpenter,” I replied, “this is Bond of the San Francisco Clarion.”

I would be ashamed to repeat the language which came over that telephone. I was informed that all reporters were pests and that I was a doubly obnoxious specimen and that were I within reach I would be promptly assaulted and that reporters would be received at nine the next morning and no earlier or later.

“Just a minute, Mr. Carpenter,” I cried as he neared the end of his peroration and was, I fancied, about to slam up the receiver. “Don’t you remember me? I was at Leland with you and used to work in your laboratory in the atomic disintegration section.”

“What’s your name?” he demanded.

“Bond, Mr. Carpenter.”

“Oh, First Mortgage! Certainly I remember you. Mighty glad to hear your voice. How are you?”

“Fine, thank you, Mr. Carpenter. I would not have ventured to call you had I not known you. I didn’t mean to impose and I’ll be glad to see you in the morning at nine.”

“Not by a long shot,” he cried. “You’ll come up right away. Where are you staying?”

“At the El Rey.”

“Well, check out and come right up here. There’s lots of room for you here at the plant and I’ll be glad to have you. I want at least one intelligent report of this experiment and you should be able to write it. I’ll look for you in an hour.”

“I don’t want to impose--” I began; but he interrupted.

“Nonsense, glad to have you. I needed someone like you badly and you have come just in the nick of time. I’ll expect you in an hour.”


The receiver clicked and I hastened to follow his instructions. A ringside seat was just what I was looking for. It took my taxi a little over an hour to get to the Carpenter laboratory and I chuckled when I thought of how McQuarrie’s face would look when he saw my expense account. Presently we reached the edge of the grounds which surrounded the Carpenter laboratory and were stopped at the high gate I remembered so well.

“Are you sure you’ll get in, buddy?” asked my driver.

“Certainly,” I replied. “What made you ask?”

“I’ve brought three chaps out here to-day and none of them got in,” he answered with a grin. “I’m glad you’re so sure, but I’ll just wait around until you are inside before I drive away.”

I laughed and advanced to the gate. Tim, the old guard, was still there, and he remembered and welcomed me.

“Me ordhers wuz t’ let yez roight in, sor,” he said as he greeted me. “Jist lave ye’er bag here and Oi’ll have ut sint roight up.”

I dropped my bag and trudged up the well remembered path to the laboratory. It had been enlarged somewhat since I saw it last and, late though the hour was, there was a bustle in the air and I could see a number of men working in the building. From an area in the rear, which was lighted by huge flood lights, came the staccato tattoo of a riveter. I walked up to the front of the laboratory and entered. I knew the way to Carpenter’s office and I went directly there and knocked.

“Hello, First Mortgage!” cried Jim Carpenter as I entered in response to his call. “I’m glad to see you. Excuse the bruskness of my first greeting to you over the telephone, but the press have been deviling me all day, every man jack of them trying to steal a march on the rest. I am going to open the whole shebang at nine to-morrow and give them all an equal chance to look things over before I turn the current on at noon. As soon as we have a little chat, I’ll show you over the works.”


After half an hour’s chat he rose. “Come along, First Mortgage,” he said, “we’ll go out and look the place over and I’ll explain everything. If my ideas work out, you’ll have no chance to go over it to-morrow, so I want you to see it now.”

I had no chance to ask him what he meant by this remark, for he walked rapidly from the laboratory and I perforce followed him. He led the way to the patch of lighted ground behind the building where the riveting machine was still beating out its monotonous cacaphony and paused by the first of a series of huge reflectors, which were arranged in a circle.

“Here is the start of the thing,” he said. “There are two hundred and fifty of these reflectors arranged in a circle four hundred yards in diameter. Each of them is an opened parabola of such spread that their beams will cover an area ten yards in diameter at fifty miles above the earth. If my calculations are correct they should penetrate through the layer at an average speed of fifteen miles per hour per unit, and by two o’clock to-morrow afternoon, the road to space should be open.”

“What is your power?” I asked.

“Nothing but a concentration of infra-red rays. The heaviside layer, as you doubtless know, is a liquid and, I think, an organic liquid. If I am right in that thought, the infra-red will cut through it like a knife through cheese.”

“If it is a liquid, how will you prevent it from flowing back into the hole you have opened?” I asked.

“When the current is first turned on, each reflector will bear on the same point. Notice that they are moveable. They are arranged so that they move together. As soon as the first hole is bored through, they will move by clockwork, extending the opening until each points vertically upward and the hole is four hundred yards in diameter. I am positive that there will be no rapid flow even after the current is turned off, for I believe that the liquid is about as mobile as petroleum jelley. Should it close, however, it would take only a couple of hours to open it again to allow the space flyer to return.”

“What space flyer?” I demanded quickly.

“The one we are going to be on, First Mortgage,” he replied with a slight chuckle.


“We?” I cried, aghast.

“Certainly. We. You and I. You didn’t think I was going to send you alone, did you?”

“I didn’t know that anyone was going.”

“Of course. Someone has to go; otherwise, how could I prove my point? I might cut through a hundred holes and yet these stiff-necked old fossils, seeing nothing, would not believe. No, First Mortgage, when those arcs start working to-morrow, you and I will be in a Hadley space ship up at the bottom of the layer, and as soon as the road has been opened, two of the lamps will cut off to allow us through. Then the battery will hold the road open while we pass out into space and return.”

“Suppose we meet with Hadley’s fate?” I demanded.

“We won’t. Even if I am wrong--which is very unlikely--we won’t meet with any such fate. We have two stern motors and four bow motors. As soon as we meet with the slightest resistance to our forward progress we will stop and have twice the power plus gravity to send us earthwards. There is no danger connected with the trip.”

“All the same--” I began.

“All the same, you’re going,” he replied. “Man alive, think of the chance to make a world scoop for your paper! No other press man has the slightest inkling of my plan and even if they had, there isn’t another space flyer in the world that I know of. If you don’t want to go, I’ll give some one else the chance, but I prefer you, for you know something of my work.”


I thought rapidly for a moment. The chance was a unique one and one that half the press men in San Francisco would have given their shirts to get. I had had my doubts of the accuracy of Jim Carpenter’s reasoning while I was away from him, but there was no resisting the dynamic personality of the man when in his presence.

“You win,” I said with a laugh. “Your threat of offering some of my hated rivals a chance settled it.”

“Good boy!” he exclaimed, pounding me on the back. “I knew you’d come. I had intended to take one of my assistants with me, but as soon as I knew you were here I decided that you were the man. There really ought to be a press representative along. Come with me and I’ll show you our flyer.”

The flyer proved to be of the same general type as had been used by Hadley. It was equipped with six rocket motors, four discharging to the bow and two to the stern. Any one of them, Carpenter said, was ample for motive power. Equilibrium was maintained by means of a heavy gyroscope which would prevent any turning of the axis of its rotation. The entire flyer shell could be revolved about the axis so that oblique motion with our bow and stern motors was readily possible. Direct lateral movement was provided for by valves which would divert a portion of the discharge of either a bow or stern motor out through side vents in any direction. The motive power, of course, was furnished by the atomic disintegration of powdered aluminum. The whole interior, except for the portion of the walls, roof and floor, which was taken up by vitriolene windows, was heavily padded.


At nine the next morning the gates to the enclosure were thrown open and the representatives of the press admitted. Jim Carpenter mounted a platform and explained briefly what he proposed to do and then broke the crowd up into small groups and sent them over the works with guides. When all had been taken around they were reassembled and Carpenter announced to them his intention of going up in a space flyer and prove, by going through the heaviside layer, that he had actually destroyed a portion of it. There was an immediate clamor of applications to go with him. He laughingly announced that one reporter was all that he could stand on the ship and that he was taking one of his former associates with him. I could tell by the envious looks with which I was favored that any popularity I had ever had among my associates was gone forever. There was little time to think of such things, however, for the hour for our departure was approaching, and the photographers were clamoring for pictures of us and the flyer.

We satisfied them at last, and I entered the flyer after Carpenter. We sealed the car up, started the air conditioner, and were ready for departure.

“Scared, Pete?” asked Carpenter, his hand on the starting lever.

I gulped a little as I looked at him. He was perfectly calm to a casual inspection, but I knew him well enough to interpret the small spots of red which appeared on his high cheekbones and the glitter in his eye. He may not have been as frightened as I was but he was laboring under an enormous nervous strain. The mere fact that he called me “Pete” instead of his usual “First Mortgage” showed that he was feeling pretty serious.

“Not exactly scared,” I replied, “but rather uneasy, so to speak.”


He laughed nervously.

“Cheer up, old man! If anything goes wrong, we won’t know it. Sit down and get comfortable; this thing will start with a jerk.”

He pulled the starting lever forward suddenly and I felt as though an intolerable weight were pressed against me, glueing me to my seat. The feeling lasted only for a moment, for he quickly eased up on the motor, and in a few moments I felt quite normal.

“How fast are we going?” I asked.

“Only two hundred miles an hour,” he replied. “We will reach the layer in plenty of time at this rate and I don’t want to jam into it. You can get up now.”

I rose, moved over to the observation glass in the floor, and looked down. We were already five or ten miles above the earth and were ascending rapidly. I could still detect the great circle of reflectors with which our way was to be opened.

“How can you tell where these heat beams are when they are turned on?” I asked. “Infra-red rays are not visible, and we will soon be out of sight of the reflectors.”

“I forgot to mention that I am having a small portion of visible red rays mixed with the infra-red so that we can spot them. I have a radio telephone here, working on my private wavelength, so that I can direct operations from here as well as from the ground--in fact, better. If you’re cold, turn on the heater.”


The friction of the flyer against the air had so far made up for the decreasing temperature of the air surrounding us, but a glance at the outside thermometer warned me that his suggestion was a wise one. I turned a valve which diverted a small portion of our exhaust through a heating coil in the flyer. It was hard to realize that I was actually in a rocket space ship, the second one to be flown and that, with the exception of the ill-fated Hadley, farther from the earth than any man had been before. There was no sensation of movement in that hermetically sealed flyer, and, after the first few moments, the steady drone of the rocket motor failed to register on my senses. I was surprised to see that there was no trail of detritus behind us.

“You can see our trail at night,” replied Carpenter when I asked him about it, “but in daylight, there is nothing to see. The slight luminosity of the gasses is hidden by the sun’s rays. We may be able to see it when we get out in space beyond the layer, but I don’t know. We have arrived at the bottom of the layer now, I believe. At any rate, we are losing velocity.”


I moved over to the instrument board and looked. Our speed had dropped to one hundred and ten miles an hour and was steadily falling off. Carpenter pulled the control lever and reduced our power. Gradually the flyer came to a stop and hung poised in space. He shut off the power an instant and at once our indicator showed that we were falling, although very slowly. He promptly reapplied the power, and by careful adjustment brought us again to a dead stop.

“Ready to go,” he remarked looking at his watch, “and just on time, too. Take a glass and watch the ground. I am going to have the heat turned on.”

I took the binoculars he indicated and turned them toward the ground while he gave a few crisp orders into his telephone. Presently from the ground beneath us burst out a circle of red dots from which long beams stabbed up into the heavens. The beams converged as they mounted until at a point slightly below us, and a half-mile away they became one solid beam of red. One peculiarity I noticed was that, while they were plainly visible near the ground, they faded out, and it was not until they were a few miles below us that they again became apparent. I followed their path upward into the heavens.

“Look here, Jim!” I cried as I did so. “Something’s happening!”

He sprang to my side and glanced at the beam.

“Hurrah!” he shouted, pounding me on the back. “I was right! Look! And the fools called it a magnetic field!”

Upward the beam was boring its way, but it was almost concealed by a rain of fine particles of black which were falling around it.

“It’s even more spectacular than I had hoped,” he chortled. “I had expected to reduce the layer to such fluidity that we could penetrate it or even to vaporize it, but we are actually destroying it! That stuff is soot and is proof, if proof be needed, that the layer is an organic liquid.”


He turned to his telephone and communicated the momentous news to the earth and then rejoined me at the window. For ten minutes we watched and a slight diminution of the black cloud became apparent.

“They’re through the layer,” exclaimed Carpenter. “Now watch, and you’ll see something. I’m going to start spreading the beam.”

He turned again to his telephone, and presently the beam began to widen and spread out. As it did so the dark cloud became more dense than it had been before. The earth below us was hidden and we could see the red only as a dim murky glow through the falling soot. Carpenter inquired of the laboratory and found that we were completely invisible to the ground, half the heavens being hidden by the black pall. For an hour the beam worked its way toward us.

“The hole is about four hundred yards in diameter right now,” said Carpenter as he turned from the telephone. “I have told them to stop the movement of the reflectors, and as soon as the air clears a little, we’ll start through.”

It took another hour for the soot to clear enough that we could plainly detect the ring of red light before us. Carpenter gave some orders to the ground, and a gap thirty yards wide opened in the wall before us. Toward this gap the flyer moved slowly under the side thrust of the diverted motor discharge. The temperature rose rapidly as we neared the wall of red light before us. Nearer we drew until the light was on both sides of us. Another few feet and the flyer shot forward with a jerk that threw me sprawling on the floor. Carpenter fell too, but he maintained his hold on the controls and tore at them desperately to check us.


I scrambled to my feet and watched. The red wall was alarmingly close. Nearer we drove and then came another jerk which threw me sprawling again. The wall retreated. In another moment we were standing still, with the red all around us at a distance of about two hundred yards.

“We had a narrow escape from being cremated,” said Carpenter with a shaky laugh. “I knew that our speed would increase as soon as we got clear of the layer but it caught me by surprise just the same. I had no idea how great the holding effect of the stuff was. Well, First Mortgage, the road to space is open for us. May I invite you to be my guest on a little week-end jaunt to the Moon?”

“No thanks, Jim,” I said with a wry smile. “I think a little trip to the edge of the layer will quite satisfy me.”

“Quitter,” he laughed. “Well, say good-by to familiar things. Here we go!”

He turned to the controls of the flyer, and presently we were moving again, this time directly away from the earth. There was no jerk at starting this time, merely a feeling as though the floor were pressing against my feet, a great deal like the feeling a person gets when they rise rapidly in an express elevator. The indicator showed that we were traveling only sixty miles an hour. For half an hour we continued monotonously on our way with nothing to divert us. Carpenter yawned.

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