The Wall of Death

by Victor Rousseau

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Out of the Antarctic it came--a wall of viscid, grey, half-human jelly, absorbing and destroying all life that it encountered.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“This news,” said Cliff Hynes, pointing to the newspaper, “means the end of homo Americanus.”

The newspaper in question was the hour-sheet of the International Broadcast Association, just delivered by pneumatic tube at the laboratory. It was stamped 1961, Month 13, Day 7, Horometer 3, and the headlines on the front page confirmed the news of the decisive defeat of the American military and naval forces at the hands of the Chinese Republic.

A gallant fight for days against hopeless odds; failure of the army dynamos; airships cut off from ground guidance; battleships ripped to pieces by the Chinese disintegrators; and, finally, the great wave of black death that had wiped out two hundred thousand men.

Kay Bevan--to use the old-fashioned names which still persisted, despite the official numerical nomenclature--glanced through the account. He threw the sheet away. “We deserved it, Cliff,” he said.

Cliff nodded. “You saw that bit about the new Chinese disintegrator? If the Government had seriously considered our Crumbler--”

Kay glanced at the huge, humming top that filled the center of the laboratory. It spun so fast that it appeared as nothing but a spherical shadow, through which one could see the sparse furnishings, the table, the apparatus ranged upon it, and the window over-looking the upper streets of New York.

“Yes--if!” he answered bitterly. “And I’m willing to bet the Chinese have an inferior machine, built upon the plans that Chinese servant stole from us last year.”

“We deserved it, Cliff,” said Kay again. “For ten years we’ve harried and enslaved the yellow man, and taken a hundred thousand of his men and women to sacrifice to the Earth Giants. What would we have done, if conditions had been reversed?”

“Self-preservation,” Cliff suggested.

“Exactly. The law of the survival of the fittest. They thought that they were fitter to survive. I tell you they had right on their side, Cliff, and that’s what’s beaten us. Now--a hundred thousand of our own boys and girls must be fed into the maw of these monsters every year. God, suppose it were Ruth!”

“Or you or I,” said Cliff. “If only we could perfect the Crumbler!”

“What use would that be against the Earth Giants? There’s nothing organic about them, not even bones. Pure protoplasm!”

“We could have used it against the Chinese,” said Cliff. “Now--” He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly.

And if explorers had been content to leave the vast unknown Antarctic Continent alone, they would never have taught the imprisoned Giants to cross the great ice barrier. But that crossing had taken place fifteen years ago, and already the mind of man had become accustomed to the grim facts.

Who could have dreamed that the supposed table-land was merely a rim of ice-mountains, surrounding a valley twice the size of Europe, so far below sea-level that it was warmed to tropic heat by Earth’s interior fires? Or that this valley was peopled with what could best be described as organized protoplasm?

Enormous, half-transparent, gelatinous organism, attaining a height of about a hundred feet, and crudely organized into forms not unlike those of men?

Half the members of the Rawlins Expedition, which had first entered this valley, had fallen victims to the monsters. Most of the rest had gone raving mad. And the stories of the two who returned, sane, to Buenos Aires, were discredited and scoffed at as those of madmen.

But of a second expedition none had survived, and it was the solitary survivor of the third who had confirmed the amazing story. The giant monsters, actuated by some flickering human intelligence, had found their way out of the central valley, where they had subsisted by enfolding their vegetable and small animal prey with pseudopods, that it to say, temporary projections of arms from the gelatinous bulk of their substance.

They had floated across the shallow seas between the tip of the Antarctic Continent and Cape Horn, as toy balloons float on water. Then they had spread northward, extending in a wall that reached from the Atlantic to the Andes. And, as they moved, they had devoured all vegetables and animal life in their path. Behind them lay one great bare, absolutely lifeless area.

How many of them were there? That was the hideous fact that had to be faced. Their numbers could not be counted because, after attaining a height of about a hundred feet, they reproduced by budding!

And within a few weeks these buds, in turn, attained their full development.

The Argentine Government had sent a force of twenty thousand men against them, armed with cannon, machine-guns, tanks, airplanes, poison gas, and the new death-ray. And in the night, when it was bivouacking, after what it had thought was glorious victory, it had been overwhelmed and eaten!

Proof against the poison gas, the hideous monsters were, and invulnerable to shot and shell. Divided and sub-divided, slashed into ribbons, blown to fragments by bombs, each of the pieces simply became the nucleus of a new organism, able, within a few hours, to assume the outlines of a dwarf man, and to seize and devour its prey.

But the Argentine expedition had done worse than it at first dreamed of. It had given the monsters a taste for human flesh!

After that, the wave of devastation had obliterated life in every city clear up to the Amazonian forests. And then it had been discovered that, by feeding these devils human flesh, they could be rendered torpid and their advance stayed--so long as the periodical meals continued!

At first criminals had been supplied them, then natives, then Chinese, obtained by periodical war raids. What would you have? The savage regions of the earth had already been depopulated, and a frenzy of fear had taken possession of the whole world.

Now the Chinese had defeated the annual American invasion, and the Earth Giants were budding and swarming through the heart of Brazil.

“Man,” said the Theosophists, “is the fifth of the great root-races that have inhabited this planet. The fourth were the Atlanteans. The third were the Lemurians, half-human beings of whom the Australian aborigines are the survivors. The second race was not fully organized into human form. Of the first, nothing is known.

“These are the second race, surviving in the Antarctic valleys. Half-human objects, groping toward that perfection of humanity of which we ourselves fall very far short. As the Kabbala says, man, before Adam, reached from heaven to earth.”

Kay Bevan and Cliff Hynes had been working feverishly to perfect their Crumbler for use in the Chinese wars. Convinced, as were all fair-minded men, that these annual raids were unjustified, they yielded to the logic of the facts. Should America sacrifice a hundred thousand of her boys and girls each year, when human life was cheap in China? Boys and girls!

It had been discovered that the Earth Giants required the flesh of women as well as of men. Some subtle chemical constituent then produced the state of torpidity during which the advance and the budding of the monsters was stayed. During the ten past years their northward advance had been almost inappreciable. Brazil had even sent another army against them.

But the deadliest gases had failed to destroy the tenacious life of these protoplasmic creatures, and the tanks, which had driven through and through them, had become entangled and blocked in the gelatinous exudations, and their occupants eaten.

All over the world scientists were striving to invent some way of removing this menace to the world. Moreover, airplanes sent to the polar continent had reported fresh masses mobilizing for the advance northward. A second wave would probably burst through the Amazon forest barrier and sweep over the Isthmus and overrun North America.

Five days after the news of the Chinese disaster was confirmed, Cliff Hynes came back from the capital of the American Confederation, Washington.

“It’s no use, Kay,” he said. “The Government won’t even look at the Crumbler. I told them it would disintegrate every inorganic substance to powder, and they laughed at me. And it’s true, Kay: they’ve given up the attempt to enslave China. Henceforward a hundred thousand of our own citizens are to be sacrificed each year. Eaten alive, Kay! God, if only the Crumbler would destroy organic forms as well!”

The first year’s quota of fifty thousand boys and fifty thousand girls, thrown to the maw of the monsters to save humanity, nearly disrupted the Confederation. Despite the utmost secrecy, despite the penalty of death for publishing news of the sacrifice, despite the fact that those who drew the fatal lots were snatched from their homes at dead of night, everything became known.

On the vast pampas in the extreme north of the Argentine Republic, where Bolivia, the Argentine, Paraguay and Brazil unite, was the place of sacrifice. Thousands of acres, white with the bones of those whom the monsters had engulfed. Brainless, devoid of intelligence, sightless, because even the sense had not become differentiated in them, yet by some infernal instinct the Earth Giants had become aware that this was their feasting ground.

By some tacit compact, the guards who had annually brought their victims to be devoured had been unmolested, the vast wall of semi-human shapes withdrawing into the shelter of the surrounding forests while the Chinese were staked out in rows. Death, which would have been a mercy, had been denied them. It was living flesh that the Earth Giants craved. And here, on the spot known as Golgotha, the hideous sacrifice had been annually repeated.

That first year, when the chosen victims were transported to the fatal spot, all America went mad. Frenzied parents attacked the offices of the Federation in every city. The cry was raised that Spanish Americans had been selected in preference to those of more northern blood. Civil war loomed imminent.

And year after year these scenes must be repeated. Boys and girls, from fifteen to twenty years of age, the flower of the Federation, a hundred thousand of them, must die a hideous death to save humanity. Now the choice of the second year’s victims was at hand.

In their laboratory, removed to the heart of the Adirondacks wilderness, Cliff and Kay were working frantically.

“It’s the last chance, Kay,” said Cliff. “If I’ve not solved the secret this time, it means another year’s delay. The secret of dissolving organic forms as well as inorganic ones! What is this mysterious power that enables organic forms to withstand the terrific bombardment of the W-ray?”

The W-ray was the Millikan cosmic ray, imprisoned and adapted for human use. It was a million times more powerful than the highest known voltage of electricity. Beneath it, even the diamond, the hardest substance known, dissolved into a puff of dust; and yet the most fragile plant growth remained unaffected.

The laboratory in the Adirondacks was open at one end. Here, against a background of big forest trees, a curious medley of substances had been assembled: old chairs, a couple of broken-down airplanes, a large disused dynamo, a heap of discarded clothing, a miscellany of kitchen utensils on a table, a gas stove, and a heap of metal junk of all kinds. The place looked, in fact, like a junk heap.

The great top was set in a socket in a heavy bar of craolite, the new metal that combined the utmost tensile strength with complete infusibility, even in the electric furnace. About six feet in height, it looked like nothing but what it was, a gyroscope in gimbals, with a long and extremely narrow slit extending all around the central bulge, but closed on the operator’s side by a sliding cover of the same craolite.

Within this top, which, by its motion, generated a field of electrical force between the arms of an interior magnet, the W-rays were generated in accordance with a secret formula; the speed of gyration, exceeding anything known on earth, multiplied their force a billionfold, converting them to wave-lengths shorter than the shortest known to physical science. Like all great inventions, the top was of the simplest construction.

“Well,” said Cliff, “you’d better bring out Susie.”

Kay left the laboratory and went to the cabin beside the lake that the two men occupied. From her box in front of the stove a lady porcupine looked up lazily and grunted. Kay raised the porcupine; in the box, of course. Susie was constitutionally indolent, but one does not handle porcupines, however smooth their quills may lie.

Kay brought her to the heap of junk and placed the box on top of it. He went inside the laboratory. “I may as well tell you, Cliff. I wouldn’t have brought Susie if I’d thought the experiment had the least chance of success,” he said.

Cliff said nothing. He was bending over the wheel, adjusting a micrometer. “All ready, Kay?” he asked.

Kay nodded and stepped back. He swallowed hard. He hated sacrificing Susie to the cause of science; he almost hoped the experiment would fail.

Cliff pressed a lever, and slowly the ponderous top began to revolve upon its axis. Faster, faster, till it was nothing but a blur. Faster yet, until only its outlines were visible. Cliff pressed a lever on the other side.

Nothing happened apparently, except for a cloudy appearance of the air at the open end of the laboratory. Cliff touched a foot lever. The top began to grow visible, its rotations could be seen; it ran slower, began to come to a stop.

The cloud was gone. Where the airplanes and other junk had been, was nothing but a heap of grayish dust. It was this that had made the cloud.

Nothing remained, except that impalpable powder against the background of the trees.

Kay caught Cliff’s arm. “Look out!” he shouted, pointing to the heap. “Something’s moving in there!”

Something was. A very angry lady porcupine was scrambling out, a quillless porcupine, with a white skin, looking like nothing so much as a large, hairless rat. Cliff turned to Kay.

“We’ve failed,” he said briefly. “Too late for this year now.”

“But--the quills?”

“Inorganic material. But even the bones remain intact because there’s circulation in the marrow, you see. And the Earth Giants haven’t even bones. They’re safe--this year!”

He flung himself down under a tree, staring up at the sky in abject despair.

“Look, Kay, I’ve got my number!” Ruth Meade smiled as she handed Kay the ticket issued by the Government announcing the lottery number provided for each citizen.

One hundred thousand young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty would be drawn for the sacrifice, and Ruth, being nineteen, had come within the limits, but this would be her last year. In a few weeks the Government would announce the numbers--drawn by a second lottery--of those who were condemned.

Then, before these had been made public, the victims would already have been seized and hurried to the airship depots in a hundred places, for conveyance to the hideous Golgotha of the pampas.

The chance that any individual would be among the fated ones was reasonably small. It was the fashion to make a jest of the whole business. Ruth smiled as she showed her ticket.

Kay stared at it. “Ruth, if--if anything happened to you I’d go insane. I’d--”

“Why this sudden ardor, Kay?”

Kay took Ruth’s small hand in his. “Ruth, you mustn’t play with me any more. You know I love you. And the sight of that thing makes me almost insane. You do care, don’t you?” And, as Ruth remained silent, “Ruth, it isn’t Cliff Hymes, is it? I know you two are old friends. I’d rather it were Cliff than anybody else, if it had to be some one, but--tell me, Ruth!”

“It isn’t Cliff,” said Ruth slowly.

“Is it--some one else?”

“It’s you, dear,” answered Ruth. “It’s always been you. It might have been Cliff if you hadn’t come along. But he knows now it can never be he.”

“Does he know it’s me?” asked Kay, greatly relieved.

Ruth inclined her head. “He took it very finely,” she said. “He said just what you’ve said about him. Oh, Kay, if only your experiment had succeeded, and the world could be free of this nightmare! What happened? Why couldn’t you and Cliff make it destroy life?”

“I don’t know, dear,” answered Kay. “Iron and steel melt into powder at the least impact of the rays. They are so powerful that there was even a leakage through the rubber and anelektron container. Even the craolite socket was partly fused, and that is supposed to be an impossibility. And there was a hole in the ground seven feet deep where the very mineral water in the earth had been dissolved. But against organic substances the W-ray is powerless.

“Next year, dear--next year we’ll have solved our problem, and then we’ll free the world of this menace, this nightmare. Ruth--don’t let’s talk about that now. I love you!”

They kissed. The Earth Giants faded out of their consciousness even while Ruth held that ominous ticket in her hand.

Kay said nothing to Cliff about it, but Cliff knew. Perhaps he had put his fate to the test with Ruth and learned the truth from her. Ruth made no reference to the matter when she saw Kay. But between the two men, friends for years, a coolness was inexorably developing.

They had gone to work on the new machine. They were hopeful. When they were working, they forgot their rivalry.

“You see, Kay,” said Cliff, “we mustn’t forget that the Millikan rays have been bombarding Earth since Earth became a planet, out of the depths of space. It is their very nature not to injure organic life, otherwise all life on Earth would have been destroyed long ago. Now, our process is only an adaptation of these cosmic rays. We haven’t changed their nature.”

“No,” agreed Kay. “What we want is a death-ray strong enough to obliterate these monsters, without simply disintegrating them and creating new fragments to bud into the complete being. Why do you suppose they are so tenacious of life, Cliff?”

“They represent primeval man, life itself, striving to organize itself, and nothing is more tenacious than the life principle,” answered Cliff.

Meanwhile the fatal weeks were passing. A few days after the tickets had been distributed, a Government notice was broadcasted and published, ordaining that, in view of former dissensions, no substitutes for the condemned persons would be permitted. Rich or poor, each of the victims chosen by lot must meet his fate.

And the monsters were growing active. There had been an extension of their activities. Tongues had been creeping up the rivers that ran into the Amazon. Suddenly a dense mass of the devils had appeared on the north coast, near Georgetown. They had overleaped the Amazon; they were overrunning British Guiana, eating up everything on their way. Georgetown was abandoned; the monsters were in complete control.

“They will be cut off from the main herd,” the optimistic reports announced. “We shall deal with the main herd first. This year the sacrifice will have to be made, but it will be the last. Scientists have at last hit upon an infallible toxin which will utterly destroy this menace within a few months.”

Nobody believed that story, for everything had been tried and failed. In their laboratory Cliff and Kay were working frantically. And now the coldness that had developed between them was affecting their collaboration too. Cliff was keeping something back from Kay.

Kay knew it. Cliff had made some discovery that he was not sharing with his partner. Often Kay, entering the laboratory, would find Cliff furtively attempting to conceal some operation that he was in the midst of. Kay said nothing, but a brooding anger began to fill his heart. So Cliff was trying to get all the credit for the result of their years of work together!

And always, in the back of his mind, there was a vision of the little Government ticket in Ruth’s hand, with the numbers in staring black type. They had burned into his brain. He could never forget them. Often at night, after a hard day’s work, he would suddenly awaken out of a hideous nightmare, in which he saw Ruth taken away by the agents of the Government, to be thrown as a sacrifice to the monsters.

And Cliff was hiding something! That made the situation unbearable.

The coolness between the two men was rapidly changing into open animosity. And then one day, quite by chance, in Cliff’s absence, Kay came upon evidence of Cliff’s activities.

Cliff was no longer experimenting with the W-ray! He was using a new type of ray altogether, the next series, the psenium electron emanation discovered only a few years before, which had the peculiar property of non-alternation, even when the psenium electron changed its orbit around the central nucleus of the psenium atom.

Instead of discontinuity, the psenium electron had been found to emit radiation steadily, and this had upset the classic theories of matter for the ninth time in the past fifteen years.

And Kay’s wrath broke loose in a storm of reproaches when Cliff came into the laboratory.

“You’ve been deliberately keeping me in the dark!” he shouted. “You’re a nice sort of partner to have! Here’s where we split up the combination, Hynes!”

“I’ve been thinking that for a long time,” sneered Cliff. “The fact is, Kay, you’re a little too elementary in your ideas to suit me. It’s due to you that I kept hammering away on the wrong tack for years. The sooner we part, the better.”

“No time like now,” said Kay. “Keep your laboratory. You put most of the money into it, anyway. I’ll build me another--where I can work without being hampered by a partner who’s out for himself all the time. Good luck to you in your researches, and I hope you’ll get all the credit when you find a way of annihilating the Earth Giants.”

And he stormed out of the laboratory, jumped into his plane, and winged his way southward toward his apartment in New York.

Crowds in the streets of every town on the way. In villages and hamlets, swarming like ants, and hurrying along the highways! Kay, who flew one of the slow, old-fashioned planes, averaging little more than a hundred miles an hour, winged his way methodically overhead, too much absorbed in his anger against Cliff to pay much attention to this phenomenon at first. But gradually it was borne in upon him that something was wrong.

He flew lower, and now he was passing over a substantial town, and he could hear the shouts of anger that came up to him. The whole town was in a ferment, gathered in the town square.

Suddenly the reason came home to Kay. He saw the adjoining airport, and dropped like a plummet, hovering down until his wheels touched the ground. Without waiting to taxi into one of the public hangars, he leaped out and ran through the deserted grounds into the square.

Groans, yells, shrieks of derision rent the air. The whole crowd had gone maniacal. And it was as Kay had thought. Upon a white background high up on the town ball building, the numbers of the local boys and girls who had been picked for sacrifices were being shown.

Eight boys and fifteen girls, already on their way into the wastes of South America, to meet a hideous death.

“They took my Sally,” screamed a wizened woman, the tears raining down her checks. “Kidnapped her at the street corner after dark. I didn’t know why she hadn’t come home last night. God, my Sally, my little girl, gone--gone--”

“People, you must be patient,” boomed the Government announcer. “The President feels with you in your affliction. But by next year a means will have been devised of destroying these monsters. Your children will have their sacrifice recorded in the Hall of Fame. They are true soldiers who--”

“To hell with the Government!” roared a man. “Stop that damn talk machine! Break her, fellows! Then we’ll hang President Bogart from the top of the Capitol!”

Yells answered him, and the crowd surged forward toward the building.

“Stand back!” shrieked the announcer. “It’s death to set foot on the step. We are now electrified. Last warning!”

The first ranks of the mob recoiled as a charge of electricity at a voltage just short of that required to take life coursed through their bodies. Shrieks of agony rang out. Files of writhing forms covered the ground.

Kay rushed to the automatic clerk at the window beside the metal steps, taking care to avoid contact with them. Within six feet, the temperature of his body brought the thermostatic control into action; the window slid upward and the dummy appeared. He turned the dial to Albany.

“I want New York Division, Sub-station F, Loyalist Registration,” he called. “Give me Z numbers of the lottery, please.”

“No numbers will be given out until Horometer 13,” the dummy boomed.

“But I tell you I must know immediately!” Kay pleaded frantically.

“Stand away, please!”

“I’ve got to know, I tell you!”

“We are now electrified. Last warning!”

“Listen to me. My name’s Kay Bevan. I--”

A mighty buffet in the chest hurled Kay ten feet backward upon the ground. He rose, came within the electric zone, felt his arms twisted in a giant’s grasp, staggered back again and sat down gasping. The window went down noiselessly, the dummy swung back into place. Kay got upon his feet again, choking with impotent rage.

All about him men and women were milling in a frantic mob. He broke through them, went back to where his plane was standing. A minute later he was driving madly toward the district airport in New York within three blocks of Ruth’s apartment.

He dropped into a vacant landing place, checked hastily, and rushed into the elevator. Once in the upper street, he bounded to the middle platform, and, not satisfied to let it convey him at eight miles an hour, strode on through the indignant throng until he reached his destination. Hurling the crowds right and left he gained the exit, and a half-minute later was on the upper level of the apartment block.

He pushed past the janitor and raced along the corridor to Ruth’s apartment. She would be in if all was well; she worked for the Broadcast Association, correcting the proofs that came from the district headquarters by pneumatic tube. He stopped outside the door. The little dial of white light showed him that the apartment was unoccupied.

As he stood there in a daze, hoping against hope, he saw a thread hanging from the crevice between door and frame. He pulled at it, and drew out a tiny strip of scandium, the new compressible metal that had become fashionable for engagement rings. Plastic, all but invisible, it could be compressed to the thickness of a sheet of paper: it was the token of secret lovers, and Kay had given Ruth a ring of it.

It was the signal, the dreaded signal that Ruth had been on the lottery list--the only signal that she had been able to convey, since stringent precautions were taken to prevent the victims becoming known until all possibility of rescue was removed.

No chance of rescuing her! From a hundred airports the great Government airships had long since sailed into the skies, carrying those selected by the wheel at Washington for sacrifice to the Earth Giants. Only one chance remained. If Cliff had discovered the secret that had so long eluded them, surely he would reveal it to him now!

Their quarrel was forgotten. Kay only knew that the woman he loved was even then speeding southward to be thrown to the maw of the vile monsters that held the world in terror. Surely Cliff would bend every effort to save her!

Only a few hours had passed since Kay had stormed out of the laboratory in the Adirondacks in a rage when he was back on their little private landing field. He leaped from the plane and ran up the trail beside the lake between the trees. The cabin was dark; and, when Kay reached the laboratory he found it dark too.

“Cliff! Cliff!” he shouted.

No answer came, and with a sinking heart he snapped the button at the door. It failed to throw the expected flood of light through the interior. With shaking hand Kay pulled the little electron torch from his pocket, and its bright beam showed that the door was padlocked. He moved round to the window. The glass was unbreakable, but the ray from the torch showed that the interior of the laboratory had been dismantled, and the great top was gone.

In those few hours Cliff, for reasons best known to himself, had removed the top, Kay’s one hope of saving Ruth. And he was gone.

In that moment Kay went insane. He raved and cursed, calling down vengeance upon Cliff’s head. Cliff’s very motive was incredible. That he had deliberately removed the top in order that Ruth should die was not, of course, conceivable. But in that first outburst of fury Kay did not consider that.

Presently Kay’s madness burned itself out. There was still one thing that he could do. His plane, slow though it was, would carry him to the pampas. He could get fresh fuel at numerous bootleg petrol stations, even though the regulations against intersectional flight were rigid. With luck he could reach the pampas, perhaps before the sluggish monsters had fallen upon their prey. It was said that the victims sometimes waited for days!

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