Prisoners on the Electron

by Robert H. Leitfred

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Fate throws two young Earthians into desperate conflict with the primeval monsters of an electron's savage jungles.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The blood-red glow of a slanting sun bathed the towers of New York’s serrated skyline, then dropped into a molten sea beyond the winter horizon. Friday, the last day of Jupiter, the thirteenth month of the earth’s new calendar, had drawn to a close. In a few hours the year of 1999 would end--at midnight, to be exact.

Far below the towers stretched well lighted canyons teeming with humanity. At an upper level where once the elevated trains had roared and rumbled in an antiquated period long past, an orderly mass of workers and shoppers was borne at an incredible speed from lower Manhattan to towering apartments that stretched northward to Peekskill. The northbound traffic was heaviest at this hour and the moving sidewalk bands were jammed to their capacity.

Street cars, now obsolete, had vanished from the streets under the new order of things as had also passenger cars, taxis and trucks. Speed predominated. Noise had practically been eliminated. Except for the gentle throb of giant motors far underground, the city was cloaked in silence.

At regular intervals along the four-speed moving bands that formed the transportation of the great metropolis, huge circular shafts of steel mounted upward beyond the roofs of the tallest buildings. Within these shafts, swift elevators carried passengers who lived in the outlying districts to the level of the station platforms of the interstate operating transport planes.

Close to the entrance of one of the steel shafts stood a young man a little above medium height. His deep-sunken eyes were those of a dreamer, a searcher. They were the eyes of a man who had seen strange and startling things. At present they were staring into the pulsing wave of humanity flowing northward on the endless steel bands beyond the platform.

Quite suddenly they lighted with pleasure as a man and a girl detached themselves from the swift moving river of people and hurried to the spot where he stood.

“Think we were never coming?” Karl Danzig’s eyes were much like those of Aaron Carruthers. Just now they sparkled with suppressed excitement.

Aaron Carruthers smiled in turn. “No, Karl. Any man but you. I couldn’t imagine you being late.” He turned his attention to the slim, dark haired girl. “Nanette,” he murmured, extending his hand, “I didn’t think you’d come.”

Dazzling white teeth caught the glow of the blue-white incandescents along the platform, and became under the bow of her red lips a string of priceless pearls.

“I had to come, Aaron. Karl has done nothing but talk of your amazing discovery. The experiment fairly frightens me at times especially when I recall the sad fate of your friend, the missing Professor Dahlgren. I wish you boys would give up the idea--”

“Nan, be still,” broke in Karl, with brotherly rudeness. Turning to Carruthers. “Everything all ready, Aaron?” he asked.

Carruthers nodded. “As far as humanly possible. The element of error is always present. I’ve checked and re-checked my calculations. I’ve augmented the vacuum tubes by installing three super-dimensional inverse power tubes.” He clasped the girl’s arm. “The street is no place to talk. Let’s go to the laboratory.”

They crossed the moving bands by an overhead bridge and cut down a narrow canyon to the entrance of a crosstown series of bands. They stepped onto the first band. The speed was moderate. From there they moved over to the second. Carruthers was in a hurry. He guided the girl and her brother across the third to the fourth band of moving steel.

Buildings slid past them like wraiths in the electric light. They felt no winter chill, for the streets and platforms were heated by a constant flow of warm air from slots ingeniously arranged in the band of swift moving metal upon which they stood. Within a few minutes they had arrived at their destination. Quickly they reversed their path across the moving bands until they reached the disembarking platform. A short distance from the station they came to the entrance of a huge tower building.

Carruthers nodded to the doorman and they were admitted into a marble hallway. A silent, unattended lift bore them swiftly to the seventy-fifth floor. Down a deep carpeted hallway they moved. Carruthers touched his door. It opened. He stood to one side as the other two entered.

Nanette cried with delight at the luxurious splendor of the place. “Why, Aaron, I never dreamed the night view could be quite so delightful! I do believe that if the horrid government had not taken down that little Statue of Liberty and substituted the Shaft Triumph in its place, that I could easily see her fingers clasping the torch she was reputed to hold.

“Progress, dear girl,” shrugged Carruthers, holding out his hands for her cape. “By the way, have you folks eaten?”

“Not in a week,” said Karl.

“Von Sternberger’s food tablets,” informed the girl.

Carruthers nodded. His deep-set eyes regarded them appraisingly. “Any ill effects?”

“None whatever,” spoke Danzig. “Neither of us have the slightest craving for food.”

“Good. Did you bring any with you?”

“A whole carton.”

“Then I guess we’re already to make the experiment. You’re sure. Nanette, that you’re not afraid of...”

“Don’t be silly, Aaron. I haven’t grown up with Karl for nothing. He’s always used me for the disagreeable end of his crazy experiments. And besides,” she smiled on both men. “I have a woman’s curiosity for the unknown.”

“Very well,” said Carruthers gravely. From his waistcoat pocket he took a ring of keys and inserted one of them into the lock of an immense steel door. “Our laboratory,” he announced, swinging the door wide.

Nanette’s eyes opened wide at the paneled whiteness of the room. Most of the far side was taken up with electrical machines, dynamos, generators and glass enclosed motors of an advanced type. Overhead, concealed lights made the room as light as day. A heavy glass railing shielded a square spot in the exact center of the room.

“What’s that for?” asked the girl.

Danzig and Carruthers both regarded it with troubled eyes. It was Carruthers who spoke.

“That railing marks the spot where Professor Dahlgren stood when the rays of our atomic machine struck him.”

“You mean,” breathed the girl, “that he never moved from that spot after the rays touched his body? What happened?”

Karl had already divested himself of his coat and was checking the copper cables leading into a strange machine.

“It was rather curious,” remarked Carruthers. “The moment the ray touched him his body began to dwindle. But evidently he suffered no pain. As a matter of fact his mind remained quite clear.”

“How did you know?”

“As he dwindled in size,” continued Carruthers, “he shouted warningly that the rays had become confused and for us to cut the switch. But the warning came a fraction of a second too late. Even as my fingers opened the contact, his body dwindled to a mere speck and disappeared entirely from sight.”

Nanette gazed with staring eyes at the ill-fated spot. Her face had grown steadily paler. “Oh, Aaron! It’s awful! What do you suppose happened?”

Carruthers eyes glowed strangely. “I didn’t exactly know at the time, Nanette. I’m not sure that I know even now. But I’ve got a theory and Karl has helped me to build a second machine to flash a restoring ray on the square spot. What will take place I cannot even conjecture.”

“Let’s get on with the experiment,” interrupted Karl. “Nanette can be shown later what she is to do.”

Carruthers turned to Danzig. “All right. Karl. Draw up a chair to your machine. And you, Nanette, sit close to this switch. It’s off now. To turn it on, simply push it forward until the copper plates slide into each other. To turn the current off, you pull sharply out. However, we aren’t quite ready.”

He shifted his position until he stood before a third machine slightly smaller than the other two. His fingers clicked a switch. The dial of the instrument glowed whitely.

“It’s important,” continued Carruthers, “that we first locate our interference. We have here, Nanette, a common television receiving apparatus capable of picking up news and pictures from any corner of the globe. Ready, Karl?”

Danzig clicked on the switch before his own machine and turned one of the many dials mounted on the panel in front of him. A faint hum filled the room as the generator settled to its task.

Carruthers reached up and dimmed the overhead lights. A screen of what looked like frosted glass set in the wall glowed luminously. The interior of a famous broadcasting studio became mirrored in the glass screen. Into it stepped the master of ceremonies. He spoke briefly of the New Year’s activities that would soon take place when the twenty-eighth day of Jupiter ended at midnight.

“Boston,” said Carruthers. “Too near.”

“Try Frisco,” suggested Karl. “The tubes ought to be sufficiently heated by this time.”

The dial whirled beneath Carruthers slender fingers. The pictures framed in the frosted panel faded. Another took its place. San Francisco--an afternoon concert. Carruthers saw and listened for a moment, then moved thousands of miles out to sea.

Shanghai drifted into the panel, announcing in sing-song accents the weather reports. Following this came reports of various uprisings along the Manchurian border.

While yet the three listeners and watchers bent their heads toward the panel in the wall, a strange thing occurred. The silver frostiness of the screen became violently agitated with what looked like tiny sparks darting in and about each other like miniature solar systems. Shanghai faded from the picture. All that remained visible now was the jumbled mass of needle-pointed sparks of luminosity.

“Careful,” warned Carruthers. “Slow up the speed of your reflector, Karl. There, that’s better. Watch the meter reading. I’m going to step up the power of the dimensional tubes. Steady!”

From an invisible reproducer came a sharp, metallic crackling like machine-gun bullets rattling on a tin roof. The sparks on the screen became violently agitated, pushing around in erratic circles and ellipses. They glowed constantly in shades of bright green through the blues into the deep violets of the color scale.

“What do you read?” asked Carruthers.

“Point seven six nine,” answered Karl.

“Shift it back towards the blue, about two points lower on the scale.”

Danzig twisted two dials at the same time with minute exactness. “Point seven six eleven,” he intoned.

“Hold it,” ordered Carruthers. “Blue should predominate.” He turned his eyes on the dancing sparks on the screen. They glowed now a deep indigo blue. “Lock your dials against accidental turning. We’re tuned to the vanishing point.”

Danzig rose to his feet. “What will we use?”

Carruthers looked hastily around the room. “Most anything will do.” His eyes rested on a glass test tube. Quickly he rose to his feet and removed it from the wall rack. Then bending over the glass railing that enclosed the mysterious square he placed it on the floor. He turned now to the girl.

“Quiet, now, Nanette, and don’t under any condition leave the chair. The path of the ray should pass within two feet of you, having a wide margin of safety. All right, Karl. Set the dials of the inverse dimensional tubes at point seven six eleven, and switch the power to the Roentgen tube.”

Through the dimly lighted laboratory came a spurt of bluish flame that twisted and squirmed with slow undulations around the cathode electrode.

“Fine,” enthused Carruthers, “The cathode emanations coincide exactly with the interference chart. Watch your meter gauges, Karl, while I switch to the atomic ray.”

His fingers closed over a switch. The indigo points of flame bathing the electrode gathered themselves into a ring and began to revolve around an invisible nucleus located near the electrode. Carruthers studied the revolving flame for a moment, then switched off the television machine. It was no longer needed.

Carefully, for the atomic ray was still a mysterious force to Carruthers, he opened a small door in the panel and drew out the focusing machine. It was shaped very much like a camera except that the lens protruded several inches beyond the machine proper.

With infinite patience he made the final adjustments and moved away from the front of the lens. “Ready?”

Danzig nodded and threw on the full power of the inverse dimensional tubes. A low clear hum filled the quiet room of the laboratory. From the lens of the focusing machine shot a pale, amber beam. It struck the glass test tube squarely in the center and glowed against its smooth sides.

Carruthers reached across his own machine and turned the final switch. The amber beam emanating from the lens increased in intensity. And as it increased it took on a deep violet color.

Nanette cried out in muffled alarm. But even as Vincent raised his voice to quiet her fears the test tube suddenly shrunk to nothingness and vanished into the ether.

“Aaron!” whispered the girl, awesomely. “It ... it’s gone!”

Carruthers nodded. Beads of sweat stood out upon his forehead. Would the returning ray work? He had made the test tube follow the same route as that taken by Professor Dahlgren. Both were gone. He clicked off the switch and the beam faded.

With a deliberate calmness that in no way matched the inner tumult brought on by the experiment, he turned the dials of the machine he and Danzig had worked out together. A second switch clicked under his fingers. From the lense of the focusing machine shot the reverse atomic beam. As it struck the center of the square it turned a bright vermilion. For several seconds it played upon empty space, then the miracle unfolded before their eyes.

Something like a glass sliver reflected the beam. It grew and enlarged under their startled eyes until it had achieved its former size, then the power that had brought it back switched itself off automatically.

Together both men examined the test tube. It appeared in no way harmed, nor did it feel either warm or cold from its trip through the elements.

“It works!” marveled Danzig. “Let’s try it again with something larger.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Carruthers, rising to his feet. He crossed the laboratory and went to another part of his rooms. Presently he returned holding a small pink rat in his hands. The rodent was young, having been born only a week before. “Now we’ll see what happens.”

“Oh, it’s torture to the poor thing,” burst out Nanette.

“It won’t hurt it,” growled Karl. “Aaron knows what he’s doing.”

Carruthers placed the little rat in the center of the square. It lay there, very quiet and unblinking. Again the switches clicked as the contacts were closed.

Came once more the beam of amber colored light followed closely by the violet. The rat dwindled to the size of an insect, then disappeared into space. The three watchers held their breaths. Carruthers’ hand trembled the least bit as he threw on the switch controlling the animal’s return to the world.

A vermilion shaft of light pierced the semi-darkened rooms. The animal had been gone from sight not more than a minute. Abruptly something grayish white unfolded in the reflector’s beam. It rapidly expanded under three pairs of bulging eyes--not the small, pinkish rat that had disappeared but sixty seconds previous, but a full grown rat, scarred and tailless as if from innumerable battles with other rats.

As the current clicked off Aaron Carruthers bent forward. Too late. The rat scurried from the laboratory with a squeal of alarm. Carruthers returned to his seat before the atomic machine and sat down. His face was worried. Dark thoughts stormed his reason. The rat he had placed within the atomic ray had aged nearly two years during the minute it was out of mortal sight. Two years!

He pulled a pad from his pocket and calculated the time that had elapsed since Professor Dahlgren had vanished from that same spot. Nearly forty hours. That would mean...

Nanette stirred in her chair. “What happened to the little rat, Aaron?”

Carruthers, busy making calculations, did not hear the question.

She turned to her brother. “Karl, what’s the meaning of this? The second experiment didn’t turn out like the first one. What became of that little rat?”

“I don’t know what happened, Nan,” spoke Karl. “Now don’t bother me with your silly questions. You saw the same thing I did.”

Carruthers raised his head and spoke quietly. “That rat you saw materialize under the atomic rays was the same rat you saw me place within the square.”

“But it couldn’t be,” protested the girl.

“Nevertheless,” shrugged Carruthers. “It was the same animal--only it had aged nearly two years during the brief time interval it was off from our planet.”

“It’s preposterous,” cried the girl.

“Nothing is preposterous nowadays, Nanette.”

“That’s the woman of it,” spoke Karl. “Always doubting.”

“You boys are playing tricks on me,” retorted the girl sharply. “I shouldn’t have come to your old laboratory. Just because I’m a girl...”

“Don’t,” pleaded Carruthers, looking up from his pad of figures. “We’re trying to solve the mystery underlying the forces which we have created.” He replaced the test tube within the center of the square and returned to the atomic machine.

Through the twilight shadows of the room glowed the strange new ray. Faintly the generator hummed. Lights sparkled and twisted around the cathode in serpentine swirls.

“You needn’t trouble to explain your silly experiment again,” finished Nanette, rising abruptly to her feet. “I’m going home and dress for the New Year’s party.”

“Watch your switch like I asked you to,” spoke Carruthers.

“Sit down,” added Karl. “Don’t put the rest of us in danger!”

“Oh-h-h!” gasped the girl as she inadvertently stepped squarely into the atomic ray of amber-colored light.

Carruthers leaped impatiently to his feet. An inarticulate cry of horror froze upon his lips. Forgetful that he himself was directly in line of the atomic ray he lunged forward, his mind centering on a single act--to drag the protesting and now thoroughly frightened girl out of the path of the penetrating ray.

But even as he started forward Nanette tripped over the glass railing around the square. Carruthers moved quickly. Yet his movements were slow and ungainly as compared to the speed of the light ray. He saw the figure of Nanette decrease in size before his eyes, heard the muffled expression of alarm and fear in Danzig’s voice; then the room suddenly began to extend itself upward with the speed of a meteor.

What once had been walls and bare furniture resolved themselves into a range of hills, then mountains. The twilight gloom of the room became a dark void of empty space that seemed to rush past his ears like a moaning wind.

He had the sensation of falling through infinite space as if he had been propelled from the world and hurled out into the vastness of interplanetary space. Something brushed against him--something soft and fluttering. He grasped it like a drowning man would clutch a straw. “Nanette!”

The name echoed and re-echoed through his mind yet never seemed to get beyond his tightly clenched lips. He felt something cool close over his hand. Instinctively he grasped it. Her hand. Together they clung to each other as they felt themselves being hurled through endless space.

The twilight changed swiftly to black night that rushed past the two clinging figures and enveloped them in a wall of silence. Then out of the mysterious fastness came the dull glow of what looked like a distant planet. It grew and enlarged till it reached the size of a silver dollar. Little pin-points of light soon began to appear on all sides of it, very much like stars.

Carruthers attempted to reassure Nanette that all was well, and they were out on the streets of the great metropolis. But even as he wrenched his tightly locked lips apart he saw that the shining disc far out into space was not what he had first thought it was--the earth’s moon.

He shook his head to clear it of the perplexing cobwebs. What was the matter with his mind? He couldn’t think or reason. All he knew was that he had erred. This strange planet looming in the sky held nothing familiar in markings nor in respect to its relations to the stars beyond it.

While yet he groped in the darkness for something tangible, his mind reverted to the girl at his side. She was clinging to him like a frightened child. He could feel the pressure of her body against his and it thrilled him immeasurably. No longer was he the cold, calculating young man of science.

How long they remained in state of suspension while strange worlds and planets flashed into a new sky before their startled eyes, Aaron Carruthers didn’t know. At times it seemed like hours, years, ages. And when he thought of the tender nearness of the girl he held so tightly within his arms, it seemed like a few minutes.

Gradually the sensation of speed and space falling began to wear off, as if they were nearing earth or some solid substance once more. The air about them grew heavier. Then all movement through space ceased.

Carruthers was surprised to find what felt like earth beneath his feet. For long minutes he stood there, unmoving, still holding possessively to the girl.

“Aaron!” The name came out of the void like a faint caress.


Reassured of each other’s presence they stood perfectly still, lost in the vast silence of their isolation.

Presently the girl spoke. “Oh, Aaron, I’m frightened!”

“There’s nothing to be alarmed at, dearest.” The endearing term came for the first time from the man’s lips. As long as he had known Nanette Danzig, love had never been mentioned between them. If it had ever existed, the feeling had not been expressed.

“You shouldn’t call me that, Aaron.”

His voice sounded curiously far-off when he answered. “I couldn’t help it, Nan. Our nearness, the strange darkness, and the fact that we are alone together brought strange emotions to my heart. At this moment you are the dearest--”

Bump, thump! Bump, thump!

“What’s that noise?” breathed Nanette.

Carruthers turned his head to listen. To his ears came the pound of some heavy object striking the ground at well-regulated intervals.

Nanette, who had started to free herself from Carruthers violent embrace, suddenly ceased to struggle. “Oh, what is it? What is it?” she whispered fearfully.

Carruthers sniffed the night air. A musky odor assailed his nostrils, strange and unfamiliar. “It’s beyond me, Nanette. Let’s move away from this spot. Perhaps we can find shelter for the rest of the night.”

But the Stygian blackness successfully hid any form of shelter. Tired from their search they sat down.

“We might build a fire,” suggested Carruthers, “only there doesn’t seem to be any wood around. Nothing but bare rock.”

“Perhaps it’s just as well,” spoke the girl. “The flames might attract prowlers.”

“Maybe you’re right,” agreed Carruthers.

A silence fell between them. After a long time Nanette spoke.

“I don’t suppose, Aaron, that anything I can do or say will help matters any. I know that our being where we are is my own fault. I’m sorry. Truly I am.”

“The harm is done,” said Carruthers. “Don’t say anything more about it.”

Nanette pointed at the disc of light shining high in the heavens. “These stars are as strange to me, Aaron, as if I had never seen them before. Saturn is the evening star at this time of year. It isn’t visible. Even the familiar craters and mountains of the moon look different. And it glows strangely.”

“I’d rather not talk about it, Nan.”

Nanette placed a hand upon his arm. “I’m not a child, Aaron. I’m a grown woman. Fear comes through not knowing. Tell me the truth.”

“Let’s sit down.”

They sat upon the ground and both stared out at the night heavens that arched into infinity above them. Presently Carruthers took the girl’s hand from his arm and held it gently between his own. “You’ve guessed rightly, Nan. The orb shining upon us is not our moon. I’ll try and make it clear.”

The girl smiled reassuringly in the darkness. “I’m waiting.”

“Strange as it must seem,” began Carruthers, “you and I are still within the room of my laboratory. But we might as well be a million miles away for all the good it does us. Karl sits in his chair in the same position as when we disappeared in the violet glow of the atomic ray. His eyes are bulging with fear and horror. For days and days he’ll continue to sit on that chair, his mind not yet attuned to what actually took place. What has happened? He doesn’t know yet, Nan.”

“Oh, it’s incredible,” sobbed Nanette.

“I know, but it’s so obviously true that I won’t even trouble to check my calculations.” He pointed at the silver disc hanging low in the strange sky. “That, Nan, is not our moon. It is nothing more than a planetary electron very much like the one we are on at the present moment. The firmament is filled with them. From where we sit we can see but the half nearest to us. The glowing portion is illuminated from distant light rays shot off from the nucleus of the atom itself. That atom is going to be our light and heat for weeks, months, perhaps years to come. We’re prisoners on an electron, and as such we are destined to rush through infinite space for the remainder of our lives unless...”

“Unless what?”

Aaron Carruthers hesitated for a bare fraction of a second. “Karl!” he whispered. “Our lives depend on him. Time flies fast for us, Nan. Already it is growing light. But not on our earth. Karl still sits upon his chair staring incredulously at the miracle of our disappearing bodies. It will take weeks of time, as it affects us, for the initial shock to travel along his nerves to the center of his brain.”

His voice shook with emotion quite contrary to his usual calm nature. “Oh, I know it’s hard to understand, Nan. I was a fool to meddle with laws of which I know so little compared to what there is yet to know.”

“Then it’s all true, Aaron. The little rat that came out from under the ray as an old rat was one and the same animal.”

Carruthers nodded. “Time has changed in proportion to our size. We’re moving so much faster than the earth that we must of necessity be bound to the universe of which we are now an integral part.”

For a long time they remained silent, each immersed in dark, troubled thoughts. Nanette broke the silence.

“You don’t suppose, Aaron, by any chance that Professor Dahlgren is still alive and on our planet?”

Carruthers shook his head negatively. “It’s beyond human reason, Nan. He was lost in the ray for over forty hours. Translated into minutes he’s been gone twenty-four hundred minutes. Since the mouse we placed within the light ray aged approximately two years in the space of one minute, Professor Dahlgren would, if he were alive, be about four thousand, eight hundred years old.”

Nanette rose abruptly to her feet. “Oh bother the figures. My head’s swimming with them. It’s getting light now, and I’m hungry.”

“Eat one of your food tablets,” suggested Carruthers.

“Please don’t get funny,” said Nanette. “Karl has them in his coat pocket.”

“Hum-m-m!” coughed Carruthers, following her example by rising to his feet. “Looks as though we’d have to rustle our food. I’ve got nothing on my person but a knife, a pencil, a fountain pen and some pieces of paper. Nothing very promising in any of them.”

At that moment the sky became fused with reddish light. Over the horizon appeared a shining orb. Far-away hills and valleys leaped into sight. Then for the first time Carruthers noted the high plateau upon which he had spent the night. Had they ventured a hundred yards farther during the night they would have plunged into the rocky floor of a canyon a thousand feet below.

“Let’s see if we can find a way down to the valley,” he suggested. “If we get anything to eat it will have to come from trees. This plateau is barren of any form of vegetable matter.”

They found a winding descent leading downward. It looked like a path that had been worn by the passage of many feet.

“Someone’s been here before us,” he exclaimed. “The ground is too well worn to be accidental.”

“Look! Look!” pointed Nanette. Her face had become pale from the excitement of her discovery. “What is it, Aaron?”

Carruthers bent forward to examine the strange footprint. It was nearly two feet across and divided in the center, as if the animal that made it had but two toes.

“From the size of the tracks and the length of the animal’s stride, I should say it was some form of an amphibious dinosaur long extinct in our own world.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“It all depends upon the species. Some of them are pure vegetarians; others are carnivorous. The heavy tramping we heard during the night evidently came from the beast who left these footprints.”

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