It was a sweltering evening in mid-August, during that unprecedented heat wave which broke Weather Bureau records in 2011. New York City had simmered under a blazing sun for more than three weeks, and all who were able had deserted the city for spots of lesser torridity. But I was one of those unfortunates who could not leave on account of the pressing urgency of business matters and, there being nothing else to do, kept doggedly at my work until it seemed that nerves and body must soon give way under the strain. To-night, as I boarded the pneumatic tube, I dropped into the nearest seat and could not even summon the energy to open my newspaper.
For some minutes I sat as in a daze, wishing merely that the journey was over, and that I was on my own front porch out in Rutherford. After awhile I stirred and looked around. Seeing none of my acquaintances in the car, I finally opened the newspaper and was considerably startled by the screaming headlines that confronted me from its usually conservative first page:
SECOND COAST TRANSPORT PLANE LOST!
Disaster Like First in Air-Level Six!
No wonder the newsboys had been crying an extra on Broadway! I had given no heed to the import of their shoutings, but this was real news and well worthy of an extra edition. Since the mysterious loss of the SF-61, only four days previously, the facilities of the several air transportation systems were seriously handicapped on account of the shaken confidence of the general public. It was not surprising that there was widespread reluctance at trusting human lives and valuable merchandise to the mercies of the inexplicable power which had apparently wiped out of existence the SF-61, together with its twenty-eight passengers and the consignment of one-half million dollars in gold. And now the NY-18 had gone the way of the other!
Details were meager. Both ships had failed to reply to the regular ten-minute radio calls from headquarters and had not since been seen or heard from. In both cases the last call had been answered when the ship was proceeding at full speed on its regular course in air-level six. The SF-61 last reported from a position over Mora in New Mexico, and four days of intensive search by thousands of planes had failed to locate ship or passengers. To-day, in the early hours of the morning, the NY-18 reported over Colorado Springs, on the northern route, and then, like the SF-61, dropped out of existence insofar as any attempts at communicating with or locating her were concerned. She, too, carried a heavy consignment of specie, though only eleven passengers had risked the westward journey.
Someone had dropped into a seat at my side, and I looked up from my reading to meet the solemn eyes of Hartley Jones, a young friend whom I had not seen for several months.
“Why, hello, Hart,” I greeted him. “Glad to see you, old man. Where in Sam Hill have you been keeping yourself?”
“Glad to see you, too, Jack,” he returned warmly. “Been spending most of my time out at the hangar.”
“Oh, that’s right. You fellows built a new one at Newark Airport, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. Got a great outfit there now, too. Why don’t you drop around and see us one of these days?”
“I will, Hart, and I want you to take me up some time. You know I have never been in one of these new ships of yours. But what do you think of this mess?” I pointed to the black headlines.
He grinned joyously and flipped back the lapel of his coat, displaying a nickeled badge. “George and I are starting out to-night to look around a little,” he gloated. “Just been appointed deputy air commissioners; and we got a couple of guns on our newest plane. Air Traffic Bureau thinks there’s dirty work afoot. Twelve-motored planes don’t disappear without leaving a trace. Anyhow, we’ve got a job, and we’re going to try and find out what’s wrong. How’d you like to come along?”
“What?” I replied. “You know darn well I’m too busy. Besides, I’d be no good to you. Just extra load, and not pay load at that. And then, I’m broke--as usual.”
Hartley Jones grinned in his engaging way. “You’d be good company,” he parried; “and, what’s more, I think the trip would do you a lot of good.
You look all shot to pieces.”
“Forget it,” I laughed. “It’s just the heat. And I’ll have to leave you here, Hart. Drop in and see us, will you? The wife was asking for you only yesterday.”
“Jack, dear,” my wife greeted me at the door of my modest suburban home,
“Mr. Preston just called, and he wants you to call him right back.”
“Oh, Lord,” I groaned, “can’t I forget the office for one evening?”
Preston was manager of the concern for which I worked.
Nevertheless, though our two fine youngsters were clamoring for their dinner, I made the telephone call at once.
“Makely,” came the voice of the boss, when the connection was completed,
“I want you to take the night plane for Frisco. Hate to ask you, but it must be done. Townley is sick and someone has to take those Canadian Ex. bonds out to Farnsworth. You’re the only one to do it, and after you get there, you can start on that vacation you need. Take a month if you wish.”
The thought of Hartley Jones’ offer flashed through my mind. “But have you read of the loss of the NY-18?” I asked Preston.
“I have, Makely. There’ll be another hundred a month in your check, too, to make up for the worry of your family. But the government is sending thirty Secret Service men along on the SF-22, which leaves to-night. In addition, there will be a convoy of seven fighting planes, so there is not likely to be a repetition of the previous disasters.”
That hundred a month sounded mighty good, for expenses had been mounting rapidly of late. “All right, Mr. Preston,” I agreed. “I will be at the airport before midnight. But how about the bonds?”
“I’ll drive around after dinner and deliver them to you. And thanks for your willingness, Makely. You’ll not be sorry.”
My wife had listened intently and, from my words, she knew what to expect. Her face was a tragic mask when I replaced the receiver on its hook, and my heart sank at her expression.
Then there came the ring of the telephone and, for some reason, my pulse raced as I went to the hall to answer it. Hartley Jones’ cheerful voice greeted me and he was positively gleeful when I told him of my projected trip.
“Hooray!” he shouted. “But you’ll not take the SF-22. You’ll take the trip with me as I wanted. I tell you what: You be out at Newark Airport at eleven-thirty, but come to my hangar instead of to that of the transportation company. We’ll leave at the same time as the regular liner, and we’ll get your old bonds to Frisco, regardless of what might happen to the big ship. Also we might learn something mighty interesting.”
I argued with him, but to no avail. And the more I argued, the greater appeal was presented by his proposition. Finally there was nothing to do but agree.
Preston arrived with the bonds shortly after the children were tucked in their beds. I did not tell him of my change in plans. He did not stay long, and I could see that he was uncomfortable under the accusing eyes of Marie, for all his own confidence in the safety of the trip in the closely-guarded SF-22.
At precisely eleven-thirty I reached the great steel and glass hangar where Hart Jones and George Boehm carried on their experiments with super-modern types of aircraft. Hart Jones had inherited more than two million dollars, and was in a fair way to spend it all on his favorite hobby, though those who knew him best vowed that he would make many times that amount through royalties on his ever-growing number of valuable inventions.
The immense doors were open, and I gazed for the first time into the hangar whose spacious interior provided storage and manufacturing facilities for a dozen or more planes of Hart Jones’ design. A curiously constructed example of his handiwork stood directly before me, and several mechanics were engaged in making it ready for flight. My friend advanced from their midst to meet me, a broad smile on his grease smeared countenance.
“Greetings, Jack,” he said, taking my small bag from my hands. “Right on time, I see. And I can’t tell you how glad I am that you are coming with us. So is George.”
“Well, I didn’t expect to,” I admitted; “but there is no need of telling you that I had far rather be in your ship than in the big one.”
George Boehm, the same jolly chap I had several times met in Hart’s company, but fatter than ever, crawled from beneath the shiny metal body of the plane and scrambled to his feet at my side.
“Going in for a bit of adventuring, Mr. Makely?” he asked, wiping his hand with a piece of cotton waste before extending it.
“Yes,” I replied, as I squeezed his chubby fingers. “Can’t stick in the mud all my life, George. And I wouldn’t want to be in better company for my first attempt either.”
“Nor we,” he returned, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Rather have a greenhorn on the Pioneer than some government agent, who’d be butting in and trying to run everything. Think you’ll be scared?”
“Probably,” I admitted; “but I guess I can stand it.”
“Hear the latest news broadcast?” interrupted Hart Jones.
“No. What was it?” I asked.
“There has been a report from out near Cripple Creek,” said Hart solemnly, “that a pillar of fire was observed in the mountains shortly after the time the NY-18 last reported. The time and the location coincide with her probable position and the report was confirmed by no less than three of the natives of that locality. Of course the statements are probably extravagant, but they claim this pillar of fire extended for miles into the heavens and was accompanied by a tremendous roaring sound that ceased abruptly as the light of the flame disappeared, leaving nothing but blackness and awe-inspiring silence behind.”
“Lot of bunk!” grunted George, who was vigorously scrubbing the back of his neck.
“Sounds like a fairy tale,” I commented.
“Nevertheless, there may be something in it. In fact, there must be.
Three of these mountaineers observed practically the same phenomenon from quite widely separated points, though one of them said there were three pillars of fire and that these looked more like the beams of powerful search-lights. All agreed on the terrific roar. And, after all, these two liners did disappear. There must be something quite out of the ordinary about the way in which they were captured or destroyed, and this occurrence may well be supposed to have a bearing on the matter.”
“Possibly they were destroyed by some freak electrical storm,” I suggested.
“Where then are the wrecked vessels?” asked Hart. “No, Jack, electrical storms do not destroy huge air liners and then suck them out into space beyond our vision. These two ships are no longer on the surface of the earth, else they would have been long since located. The magnetic direction finders of the transportation people have covered every inch of the United States, as well as Mexico and Canada.”
“Of course they might have been carried halfway around the world by a wind of unprecedented velocity.” I commenced a silly argument in favor of the theory that the elements had accounted for the two vessels, but was interrupted by the mounting roar of great engines throbbing overhead.
“Hurry up there, George!” shouted Hart. “It’s the SF-22 coming in. We have to be ready for the take-off in five minutes!”
He hastened to take George’s place at the washbowl and all was activity within the confines of our hangar. George and I left the office and went out to the landing field, which was now brilliant with the glare of floodlights. The Pioneer had been trundled into the open and stood ready for the flight. Not a hundred feet above the field, the huge silver moth that was the SF-22 swept by in a wide circle that would bring her into the wind. The roar of her engines died as she swung out of the circle of light into the surrounding darkness.
The crowds which had gathered to witness her landing buzzed with excited comment and speculation. Her nose brought slightly up, she dropped to a perfect three-point landing, the brakes screeching as she was brought to a standstill at the hangar of the transportation company.
“Come on now, you fellows,” came the voice of Hart Jones from the hangar entrance, “there’s no time to lose. The Pioneer takes off immediately after the big fellow.”
We hurried to the waiting ship, which seemed like a tiny toy when compared with the giant SF-22. I had observed very little of the construction of the Pioneer, but I could now see that she was quite different in design from the ordinary plane. A monoplane she was, but the wing structure was abnormally short and of great thickness, and there were a number of tubes projecting from the leading edge that gave the appearance of a battery of small cannon. The body, like all planes designed for travel in air-level six, was cigar-shaped, and had hermetically sealed ports and entrance manholes. A cluster of the cannon-shaped tubes enclosed the tail just back of the fins and rudder and, behind the wing structure atop the curved upper surface of the body, there was a sphere of gleaming metal that was probably three feet in diameter.
Before I could formulate questions regarding the unusual features of the design, we were within the Pioneer’s cabin and Hart Jones was engaged in clamping the entrance manhole cover to its rubber seat. A throbbing roar that penetrated our double hull attracted my attention and, looking through a nearby porthole, I saw that the convoy of army planes had taken off and was circling over the SF-22 in anticipation of her start.
Trim, speedy fighting ships these were, with heavy caliber machine-guns in turrets fore and aft and normally manned by crews of twelve each. The under surfaces of their bodies glistened smooth and sleek in the light from the field, for the landing gears had been drawn within and the openings sealed by the close-fitted armor plate that protected these ordinarily vulnerable portions when in flight.
The SF-22 was ready to take off and the crowds were drawing back into the obscurity beyond the huge circle of blinding light. One after another her twelve engines sputtered into life, and ponderously she moved over the field, gathering speed as the staccato barking of the exhausts gradually blended into a smooth though deafening purr. The tail of the great vessel came up, then the wheels, and she was off into the night.
Hart Jones sat at a bewildering array of instruments that covered almost the entire forward partition of the cabin. He pressed a button and the starting motor whined for a moment. Then the single engine of the Pioneer coughed and roared. Slowly we taxied in the direction taken by the SF-22, whose lights were now vanishing in the darkness. I saw George open a valve on the wall and Hart stretched the fingers of his left hand to what appeared to be the keyboard of a typewriter set into the instrument board. He pressed several of the keys and pulled back his stick. There was a whistling scream from astern and I was thrown back in my seat with painful force. With that, the motor roared into full speed and we had left the airport far behind.
“What on earth?” I gasped.
“Rocket propulsion,” laughed Hart. “I should have warned you. Those tubes you saw outside at the tail and along the leading edge of the wings. Only used three of them, but that was sufficient for the take-off.”
“But I thought this rocket business was not feasible on account of the wastage of fuel due to its low efficiency,” I objected.
“We should worry about fuel,” said Hart.
I looked about me and saw that there was very little space for the storage of this essential commodity. “Why?” I inquired. “What fuel do you use?”
“Make our own,” he replied shortly. He was busy at the moment, maneuvering the Pioneer into a position above and behind the SF-22 and her convoy.
“You make your own fuel enroute?” I asked in astonishment.
“Yes. That sphere you saw on top. It is the collecting end of an electrical system for extracting nitrogen and other elements, from the air. This extraction goes on constantly while we are in the atmosphere and my fuel is an extremely powerful explosive of which nitrates are the base. The supply is replenished continuously, so we have no fear of running short even in the upper levels.”
George had crawled through a small opening into some inaccessible region in the stern of the vessel. I pondered over what Hart had just told me, still keeping my eyes glued to the port, through which could be seen the fleet we were following. The altimeter registered thirty-five thousand feet. We were entering air-level six--the stratosphere! Below us the troposphere, divided into five levels, each of seven thousand feet, teemed with the life of the air. The regular lanes were filled with traffic, the lights of the speeding thousands of freight and pleasure craft moving in orderly procession along their prescribed routes.
Up here in the sixth level, which was entirely for high-speed traffic of commercial and government vessels making transcontinental or transoceanic voyages, we were the only adventurers in sight--we and the convoyed liner we were following. The speed indicator showed six hundred miles an hour, and the tiny spot of light that traveled over the chart to indicate our position showed that we were nearing Buffalo.
Glancing through one of the lower ports, I saw the lights of the city shining dimly through a light mist that fringed the shore of Lake Erie and extended northward along the Niagara. Then we were out over the lake, and the luminous hue was slipping rapidly behind. I looked ahead and saw that the distance to the SF-22 and her convoy had somewhat increased. We were a mile behind and some two thousand feet above them.
Evidently Hart was figuring on keeping at a safe distance for observation of anything that might happen.
Our motor was running smoothly and the angle of the propeller blades had been altered to take care of the change in air density from the lower altitudes. It flashed across my mind that this was an ideal location for an attack, if such was to be made on the SF-22.
Then, far ahead, I saw a beam of light stab through the darkness and strike the tossing surface of the lake. Another and another followed, and I could see that the SF-22 and her convoy were surrounded by these unearthly rays. They converged from high above to outline a brilliant circle where they met on the surface of the waters, and in the midst of the cone formed by the beams, the liner and its seven tiny followers could be seen to falter, and huddle more closely together.
It all happened in the twinkling of an eye--so quickly, in fact, that Hart and I had not the time to exchange remarks over the strange occurrence. For a moment the eight vessels hovered, halted suddenly by this inexplicable force from out the heavens. Then there rose from the apex of the inverted cone of light a blinding column of blue-white radiance that poured skyward an instant and was gone. To our ears came a terrific roaring that could be likened to nothing we had heard on earth.
The Pioneer was tossed and buffeted as by a cyclone, and George came tumbling from the opening he had entered, his round face grown solemn.
Then came eery silence, for the Pioneer’s motor had gone dead. Ahead there was utter darkness. The liner and her convoy had completely vanished and the Pioneer was slipping into a spin!
“What’s up?” asked George of Hart, who was tugging frantically at the controls.
“The liner has gone the way of the first two,” he replied: “and the yarn about the pillar of fire was not so far wrong after all.”
“You saw the same thing?” asked George incredulously.
“Yes, and so did Jack. There came some beams of light from the sky; then the pillar of fire and the roaring you heard, after which the vessels were gone and our electrical system paralyzed.”
“Holy smoke!” ejaculated George. “What to do now?”
As he spoke, the Pioneer came out of the spin, and we were able to resume our positions in the seats. None of us was strapped in, and we had been clinging to whatever was handiest to keep from being tossed about in the cabin. Hart wiped his forehead and growled out an oath. The instrument board was still illuminated, for its tiny lamps were supplied with current from the storage battery. But the main lights of the cabin and the ignition system refused to function. We were gliding now, but losing altitude rapidly, having already dropped to the lower limits of level five.
“Can’t you use the rocket tubes?” I inquired hesitatingly.
“They are fired in the same manner as the motor,” replied Hart; “but we might try an emergency connection from the storage battery, which is ordinarily used only in starting and for the panel lights.”
George was already fussing with the connections in a small junction box from which he had removed the cover. Meanwhile, the black waters of Lake Erie were rushing upward to meet us, and the needle of the altimeter registered twelve thousand feet.
“Here’s the trouble!” shouted George, triumphantly holding up a small object he had removed from the junction box. “Ignition fuse is blown.”
“Probably by some radiations from the cone of light and the column that destroyed the liner. Lucky we were no closer,” were Hart’s muttered comments.
George produced a spare fuse and inserted it in its proper place. The cabin lights glowed instantly and the motor started at once.
“Well, I’m going up after the generators of this mysterious force that is destroying our cross-country ships and killing our people,” asserted Hart. “The rays came from high above, but the Pioneer can go as high as anything that ever flew--higher.”
He snapped a switch and a beam of light that rivalled the so-called pillar of fire bored far into the night, dimming the stars by its brilliance. Again his fingers strayed to the rows of white keys and the rocket tubes shrieked in response to his pressure. This time I was prepared for the shock of acceleration, but the action was maintained for several seconds and I found the pressure against my back growing painful. Then it was relieved, and I glanced at the altimeter. Its needle had reached the end of the scale, which was graduated to eighty thousand feet!
“Good Lord!” I exclaimed. “Do you mean to tell me that we are more than sixteen miles in the air?”
“Nearly thirty,” replied Hart, pointing to another dial which I had not seen. This one was graduated in miles above sea-level, and its needle wavered between the twenty-nine and thirty mark!
Again Hart pressed the rocket buttons, and we shot still higher into the heavens. Thirty, forty, fifty miles registered the meter, and still we climbed.
“Great Scott!” blurted a voice I knew was my own, though I had no consciousness of willing the speech. “At this rate we’ll reach the moon!”
“We could, if we wished,” was Hart’s astounding reply; “I wish you wouldn’t say too much about it when we return. We have oxygen to breathe and an air-tight vessel to retain it. With the fuel we are using, we could easily do it, provided a sufficient supply were available.
However, the Pioneer does not have large enough storage tanks as yet, and, of course, we cannot now replenish our supply with sufficient rapidity, for the atmosphere has become very rare indeed--where we are.
My ultimate object, though, in building the Pioneer, was to construct a vessel that is capable of a trip to the moon.”
“You think you could reach a great enough velocity to escape the gravitational pull of the earth?” I asked, marveling more and more at the temerity and resourcefulness of my science-minded friend.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “The speed required is less than seven miles a second, and I have calculated that the Pioneer can do no less than twenty.”
Mentally I multiplied by sixty. I could hardly credit the result. Twelve hundred miles a minute!
“But, how about the acceleration?” I ventured. “Could the human body stand up under the strain?”
“That is the one problem remaining,” he replied; “and I am now working on a method of neutralizing it. From the latest results of our experiments, George and I are certain of its feasibility.”
The Pioneer was now losing altitude once more, and Hart played the beam of the searchlight in all directions as we descended. He and George watched through one of the floor ports and I followed suit. We were falling, unhampered by air resistance, and our bodies were practically weightless with reference to the Pioneer. It was a strange sensation: there was the feeling of exhilaration one experiences when inhaling the first whiff of nitrous oxide in the dentist’s chair--a feeling of absolute detachment and care-free confidence in the ultimate result of our precipitous descent.
I found considerable amusement in pushing myself from side to side of the cabin with a mere touch of a finger. There was no up nor down, and sometimes it seemed to me that we were drifting sideways, sometimes that we fell upward rather than downward. Hart and George were unconcerned.
Evidently they were quite accustomed to the sensations. They bent their every energy toward discovering what had caused the disaster to the SF-22 and its convoy.
For several hours we cruised about on the strangest search ever made in the air. Alternately shooting skyward to unconscionable altitudes and dropping to levels five and six to replenish our fuel supply, we covered the greater portion of the United States before the night was over. But the powerful searchlight of the Pioneer failed to disclose anything that might be remotely connected with the disappearance of the SF-22.
For me it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Lightning dashes from coast to coast which required but a few minutes of time--circling many miles above New York or Washington or Savannah in broad daylight with the sun low on the up-curved horizon; then shooting westward into the darkness and skirting the Pacific coast less than fifteen minutes later, but with four hours’ actual time difference. Space and time were almost one.
Hart had not provided the Pioneer with a radio or television transmitter, but there was an excellent receiver, and, through its agency we learned that the world was in a veritable uproar over the latest visitation of the mysterious terror of the sixth air level. All commercial traffic in levels four, five and six was ordered discontinued, and the government air control stations were flashing long messages in code, the import of which could but be guessed. Vision flashes showed immense gatherings at the large airports and in the public squares of the great cities, where the general populace become more and more excited and terrified by the awful possibilities pictured by various prominent speakers.
The governments of all foreign powers made haste to disclaim responsibility for the air attacks or for any attempt at making war on the United States. News broadcasts failed to mention Hart Jones or the Pioneer, since the mission had been kept secret. The phenomenon of the rays and the roaring column of light had been observed from many points on this occasion and there was no longer any doubt as to the nature of the terror as visible to the eye, though theories as to the action and source of the rays conflicted greatly and formed the basis of much heated discussion.
Eventually the advancing dawn reached San Francisco, and with its advent Hart decided to make a landing in that city so that my bonds could be delivered.
Jones was apparently a very much mystified and discouraged man. “Jack,” he said, “it seems to me that this thing is but the beginning of some tremendous campaign that is being waged against our country by a clever and powerful enemy. And I feel that our work in connection with the unraveling of the mystery and overcoming the enemy or enemies is but begun. It’s a cinch that the thing is organized by human minds and is not any sort of a freak of the elements. Our work is cut out for us, all right, and I wish you would stick to George and me through the mess.
“Sure,” I agreed, readily enough. “After these bonds are delivered I am free for a month.”
“Ha! Ha!” cackled George, without mirth. “A month! We’re doggoned lucky if we get to the bottom of this in a year.”
“Nonsense!” snapped Hart, who was considerably upset by the failure to locate the source of the disastrous rays. “There is nothing supernatural about this, and anything that can be explained on a scientific basis can be run to earth in short order. These rays are man-made and, as such, can be accounted for by man. Our greatest scientists must be put to work on the problem at once--in fact, they have quite probably been called in by the government already.”