The Solar Magnet

by Sterner St. Paul Meek

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Another episode in Dr. Bird's long scientific duel with his country's arch-enemy, Saranoff.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The milling crowd in front of the Capitol suddenly grew quiet. A tall portly figure came out onto the porch of the building and stepped before a microphone erected on the steps. A battery of press cameras clicked. A newsreel photographer ground away on his machine. Wild cheers rent the air. The President held up his hand for silence. As the cheering died away he spoke into the microphone.

“My countrymen,” he said, “the Congress of the United States has met in extraordinary session and is ready to cope with the condition with which we are confronted. While they deliberate as to the steps to be taken, it is essential that you meet this danger, if it be a danger, with the bravery and the calm front which has always characterized the people of the United States in times of trial and danger. You may rest assured--”

A slightly built, inconspicuous man who had followed the President out onto the porch was surveying the crowd intently. He turned and spoke in an undertone to a second man who mysteriously appeared from nowhere as the first man spoke. He listened for a moment, nodded, and edged closer to the President. The first man slipped unobtrusively down the Capitol steps and mingled with the crowd.

“--that no steps will be neglected which may prove of value,” went on the President. “The greatest scientists of the country have gathered in this city in conference and they undoubtedly will soon find a simple and natural explanation for what is happening. In the meantime--”

The President paused. From the crowd in front of him came a sudden disturbance. A man sprang free of the crowd and broke through the restraining cordon of police. In his hand gleamed an ugly blue steel automatic pistol. Quickly he leveled it and fired. A puff of dust came from the Capitol. The bullet had landed a few inches from one of the lower windows, fifty feet from where the President stood. He raised his weapon for a second shot but it was never fired. The man who had come down the Capitol steps sprang forward like a cat and grasped the weapon. For a moment the two men struggled, but only for a moment. From the crowd, stunned for a moment by the sheer audacity of the attack, came a roar of rage. The police closed in about the struggling men but the crowd rolled over them like a wave. The captor shouted his identity and tried to display the gold badge of the secret service but the mob was in no state of mind to listen. The police were trampled underfoot and the would-be assassin torn from the hands of the secret service operative. Every man in reach tried to strike a blow. The secret service man was buffeted and thrown aside. Realizing that the affair had been taken out of his hands, he made his way to the rear of the Capitol where his badge gained him ready passage through the cordon of police. He entered the building and reappeared in a few moments by the side of the President.

Two hours later he leaned forward in his chair in Dr. Bird’s private laboratory in the Bureau of Standards and spoke earnestly.

“Dr. Bird,” he said, “that bullet was never meant for the President. That man was after bigger game.”

The famous scientist nodded thoughtfully.

“Even a very rotten pistol shot should have come closer to him,” he replied. “He must have missed by a good forty feet.”

“He missed by a matter of inches. Doctor, that bullet struck the Capitol only two inches from a window. In that window was standing a man. The bullet was intended for the occupant of that window. I was directly behind him when he raised his weapon for a second shot and I am sure of his aim. He deliberately ignored the President and aimed again at that window. That was when I tackled him.”

“Who was standing there, Carnes?”

You were, Doctor.”

Dr. Bird whistled.

“Then you think that bullet was intended for me?”

“I am sure of it, Doctor. That fact proves one thing to me. You are right in your idea that this whole affair is man-made and not an accident of nature. The guiding intelligence back of it fears you more than he fears anyone else and he took this means to get rid of you unobtrusively. Attention was focused on the President. Your death would have been laid to accident. It was a clever thought.”

“It does look that way, Carnes,” said the doctor slowly. “If you are right, this incident confirms my opinion. There is only one man in the world clever enough to have disturbed the orderly course of the seasons, and such a plan for my assassination would appeal to his love of the dramatic.”

“You mean--”

“Ivan Saranoff, of course.”

“We are pretty sure that he hasn’t got back to the United States, Doctor.”

“You may be right but I am sure of nothing where that man is concerned. However, that fact has no bearing. He may be operating from anywhere. His organization is still in the United States.”

A knock sounded at the door. In response to the doctor’s command a messenger entered and presented a letter. Dr. Bird read it and dropped it in a waste basket.

“Tell them that I am otherwise engaged just now,” he said curtly. The messenger withdrew. “It was just a summons to another meeting of the council of scientists,” he said to Carnes. “They’ll have to get along without me. All they’ll do anyway will be to read a lot of dispatches and wrangle about data and the relative accuracy of their observations. Herriott will lecture for hours on celestial mechanics and propound some fool theory about a hidden body, which doesn’t exist, and its possible influence, which would be nil, on the inclination of the earth’s axis. After wasting four hours without a single constructive idea being put forward, they will gravely conclude that the sun rose fifty-three seconds earlier at the fortieth north parallel than it did yesterday and correspondingly later at the fortieth south parallel. I know that without wasting time.”

“Was it fifty-three seconds to-day, Doctor?”

“Yes. This is the twentieth of July. The sun should have risen at 4:52, sixteen minutes later than it rose on June twentieth and fifty-three seconds later than it rose yesterday. Instead it rose at 4:20, sixteen minutes earlier than it did on June twentieth and fifty-three seconds earlier than yesterday.”

“I don’t understand what is causing it, Doctor. I have tried to follow your published explanations, but they are a little too deep for me.”

“As to the real underlying cause, I am in grave doubts, Carnes, although I can make a pretty shrewd guess. As to the reason for the unnatural lengthening of the day, the explanation is simplicity itself. As you doubtless know, the earth revolves daily on its axis. At the same time, it is moving in a great ellipse about the sun, an ellipse which it takes it a year to cover. If the axis of rotation of the earth were at right angles to the plane of its orbit; in other words, if the earth’s equator lay in the plane of the earth’s movement about the sun, each day would be of the same length and there would be no seasons. Instead of this being the case, the axis of rotation of the earth is tipped so that the angle between the equator and the elliptic is 23-1/2°.”

“I seem to remember something of the sort from my school days.”

“This angle of tilt may be assumed to be constant, for I won’t bother with the precessions, nutations and other minor movements considered in accurate computations. As the earth moves around the sun, this tilt gives rise to what we call the sun’s declination. You can readily see that at one time in the year, the north pole will be at its nearest point to the sun, speaking in terms of tilt and not in miles, while at another point on the elliptic, it will be farthest from the sun and the south pole nearest. There are two midway points when the two poles are practically equidistant.”

“Then the days and nights should be of equal length.”

“They are. These are the periods of the equinoxes. The point at which the sun is nearest to the south pole we call the winter solstice, and the opposite point, the summer solstice. The summer solstice is on June twenty-first. At that time the declination of the sun is 23-1/2° north of the equatorial line. It starts to decrease until, six months later, it reaches a minus declination of 23-1/2° and is that far south of the line. The longest day in the northern hemisphere is naturally June twenty-first.”

“And the shortest day when the sun has the greatest minus declination.”

“Precisely, at the winter solstice. Now to explain what is happening. The year went normally until June twenty-first. That day was of the correct length, about fourteen hours and fifty minutes long. The twenty-second should have been shorter. Instead, it was longer than the twenty-first. Each day, instead of getting shorter as it should at this time of year, is getting longer. We have already gained some thirty-two minutes of sunlight at this latitude. The explanation is that the angle between the equator and the elliptic is no longer 23-1/2° as it has been from time immemorial, but it is greater. If the continuing tilt keeps up long enough, the obliquity will be 90°. When that happens, there will be perpetual midday at the north pole and perpetual night at the south pole. The whole northern hemisphere will be bathed in a continuous flood of sunlight while the southern hemisphere will be a region of cold and dark. The condition of the earth will resemble that of Mercury where the same face of the planet is continually facing the sun.”

“I understand that all right, but I am still in the dark as to what is causing this increase of tilt.”

“No more than I am, old dear. Herriott keeps babbling about a hidden body which is drawing the earth from its normal axial rotation, but the fool ignores the fact that a body of a size sufficient to disturb the earth would throw every motion of the solar system into a state of chaos. Nothing of the sort has happened. Ergo, no external force is causing it. I am positive that the force which is doing the work is located on the earth itself. Furthermore, unless my calculations are badly off, this force is located on or very near the surface of the earth at approximately the sixty-fifth degree of north latitude.”

“How can you tell that, Doctor?”

“It would take me too long to explain, Carnes. I will, however, qualify my statement a little. Either a variable force is being used or else a constant force located where I have said. The sixty-fifth parallel is a long line. The exact location and the nature of that force, we have to find. If it be man-made, and I’ll bet my bottom dollar that it is, we will also have to destroy it. If we fail, we’ll see this world plunged into such a riot of war and bloodshed as has never before been known. It will be literally a fight of mankind for a place in the sun. Due to its favorable location in the new position of the earth, it is more than probable that Russia would emerge as the dominant power.”

“Undertaking to destroy a thing that you don’t know the location of and of whose existence you aren’t even sure is a pretty big contract.”

“We’ve tackled bigger ones, old dear. We have the President behind us. I haven’t made much headway selling my idea to that gang of old fossils who call themselves the council of scientists, but I did to his nibs. Just before that attempt at assassination, I had a chin-chin with him. The fastest battle cruiser in the Navy, the Denver, is to be placed at my service. It will carry a big amphibian plane, so be equipped to assemble and launch it. Bolton will relieve you from the Presidential guard to-day. We sail in the morning.”

“Where for, Doctor?”

“I feel sure that the force is caused and controlled by men and I know of but one man who has the genius and the will to do such a thing. That man is Saranoff. Because he must be concealed and work free from interruption, I fancy he is working in his own country. Does that answer your question?”

“It does. We sail for Russia.”

“Carnesy, old dear, at times you have flashes of such scintillating brilliance that I have hopes for the future of the secret service. In time they may even show human intelligence. Toddle along now and pay your fond farewells to the bright lights of Washington. Meet me at the Pennsy station at six. We’ll sail from New York in the morning.”

With the famous scientist and his assistant as passengers, the Denver steamed at her best speed across the Atlantic. As soon as New York harbor was cleared, Dr. Bird charted the course. Captain Evans raised his eyebrows when he saw the course laid out, but his orders had been positive. Had Dr. Bird ordered him to steam at full speed against the shore, he would have obeyed without question.

The Denver avoided the usual lanes of traffic and bore to the north of the summer lane. Not a vessel was sighted in the eight days which elapsed before the Faroe Islands came in sight on the starboard bow. The Denver bore still more to the north and skirted around North Cape five days later. At Cape Kanin she headed south into the White Sea. Surprisingly little ice was encountered. When Captain Evans mentioned this, Dr. Bird pointed out to him that it was August and that the days were still lengthening. Once in the White Sea, the Denver was made ready for instant action. A huge amphibian plane was hoisted in sections from the hold and mechanics started to assemble it. Dr. Bird spent most of his time working on some instruments he had assembled in the radio room.

“This is an ultra-short wave detector,” he explained to Carnes. “It will receive vibrations to the lowest limit of waves that we have ever been able to measure. The X-ray is high on the scale and even the cosmic ray is far above its lower limit of detection. We are hunting for an electro-magnet, the largest and strangest electro-magnet that has ever been constructed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are seeking for a generator of magnetic force. It does not generate the ordinary magnetism which attracts iron and steel, nor the special type of magnetism which we call gravity, but something between the two. It attracts the sun enough to disturb the tilt of the earth’s axis, but not enough to pull the earth out of its orbit. Such a device should give out a wave that can be detected, if we get a receiver delicate enough and operating on the right wave length.”

He spent hours improving and refining the apparatus, but in the end he confessed himself beaten.

“It’s no use, Carnes,” he said the day after Cape Kanin faded from view to the north. “Either the apparatus we are seeking gives out no wave that we can detect or my apparatus is faulty. Luckily we have other things to guide us.”

“What are they, Doctor?”

“The facts that Saranoff must have easy transportation and a source of power. The first precludes him from locating his station far from the sea-coast and the second indicates that it will be near a river or other source of power. The only Russian points on the sixty-fifth parallel that are open to water transport are the Gulf of Anadyr, north of Kamchatka, and the vicinity of Archangel. I passed up Kamchatka because it would mean too long a haul through unfriendly waters from Leningrad and because there is not much water power. Archangel is easy of access at this time of the year and it has the Dwina river for power. That will be our first line of search.”

“We will explore by plane, of course?”

“Certainly. We wouldn’t get far on foot, especially as neither of us speaks Russian. We’ll head south for another day and then-- What’s that?”

He paused and listened. From the distance came a dull drone of sound which brought him to his feet with a start. He raced out onto deck with Carnes at his heels. Far overhead in the blue, a tiny speck of black hovered.

“We’re on the right trail, Carnes,” he said grimly. The plane passed over them. In huge circles it sank toward the ground. Dr. Bird turned to Captain Evans. Orders flew from the bridge and a detail of marines rapidly stripped the covers from the two forward anti-aircraft rifles.

“I dislike to fire on that craft before it makes a hostile demonstration, Dr. Bird,” demurred Captain Evans. “We are at peace with Russia. My action in firing might precipitate a war, or in any event, serious diplomatic misunderstandings.”

“Allow me to correct you, Captain Evans, we are at war with Russia. The whole world is at war with the man who has pulled the earth out of her course. In any event, your orders are positive and the responsibility is mine. Wait until that plane gets within easy range and then shoot it down. Do not fail to get it; it must not get back to shore with word of our approach.”

Captain Evans bowed gravely. Shells came up from the magazines and were piled by the guns. From the fire control stations came a monotonous calling of firing data. The guns slowly changed direction as the plane descended. Nearer and nearer it came, intent on positive identification of the war vessel below it. It passed over the Denver less than five thousand feet up. As it passed it swung off to one side and began to climb sharply. Dr. Bird glanced at the fighting top of the cruiser and swore softly. From the top the stars and stripes had been broken to the breeze.

“Fire at once!” he cried, “and then court-martial the fool who broke out that flag!”

The two three-inch rifles barked their message of death into the sky. For agonizing seconds nothing happened. The guns roared again. Below and behind the fleeing plane, two puffs of white smoke appeared in the sky. The staccato calls of the observers came from the control station and the guns roared again and again. Now above and now below the Russian plane appeared the white puffs that told of bursting shells, but the plane droned on, unharmed.

“It’s away safely,” groaned the doctor. “Now the fat is in the fire. Saranoff will know in an hour that we are coming. If we had a pursuit plane ready to take off, we might catch him, but we haven’t. Oh, well, there’s no use in crying over spilt milk. How soon will that amphibian be ready to take off?”

“In twenty minutes. Doctor,” replied the Engineering Officer. “As soon as we finish filling the tanks and test the motor, she’ll be ready to ramble.”

“Hurry all you can. Hang a half dozen hundred-pound bombs and a few twenty-fives on the racks. Lower her over the side as soon as she’s ready. Where’s Lieutenant McCready?”

“Below, getting into his flying togs, Doctor.”

“Good enough. Come on, Carnes, we’ll go below and put on our fur-lined panties, too. We’ll probably need them.”

In half an hour the amphibian rose from the water. Lieutenant McCready was at the controls, with Carnes and the doctor at the bomb racks. The plane rose in huge spirals until the altimeter read four thousand feet. The pilot straightened it out toward the south. The plane was alone in the sky. For two hours it flew south and then veered to the east, following the line of the Gulf of Archangel. The town came in sight at last.

“Better drop down a couple of thousand, Lieutenant,” said Dr. Bird into the speaking tube. “We can’t see much from this altitude.”

The plane swung around in a wide circle, gradually losing altitude. Carnes and the doctor hung over the side watching the ground below them. As they watched a puff of smoke came from a low building a mile from the edge of the town. Dr. Bird grabbed the speaking tube.

“Bank, McCready!” he barked, “They’re firing at us.”

The plane lurched sharply to one side. From a point a few yards below them and almost directly along their former line of flight, a burst of flame appeared in the air. The plane lurched and reeled as the blast of the explosion reached it. From other points on the ground came other puffs.

“Get out of here,” shouted Dr. Bird. “There must be a dozen guns firing at us. One of them will have the range directly.”

From all around them came flashes and the roar of explosions. The plane lurched and yawed in a sickening fashion. Lieutenant McCready fought heroically with the controls, trying to prevent the sideslips which were costing him altitude. Gradually the plane came under control and started to climb. The shells burst nearer as the plane took a straighter course and strove to fly out of the danger zone. Dr. Bird looked at the air-speed meter.

“A hundred and eighty,” he shouted to Carnes. “We’ll be safely out of range in a minute.”

The bursts were mostly behind them now. Suddenly a blast of air struck them with terrific force. Half a dozen holes appeared in the fabric of the wings. A bit of high explosive shell plowed a way through the after compartment and wrecked the duplicate instrument board. In another moment they were out of range. Lieutenant McCready turned the nose of his plane toward the north.

“We came out of that well,” cried Carnes. Dr. Bird dropped the speaking tube which he had held pressed to his ear and smiled grimly at the detective.

“I wish we had,” he replied. “Our main gas tank is punctured.”

An expression of alarm crossed the detective’s face.

“Is it injured badly?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet. McCready says that the gauge is dropping pretty rapidly. I’m going to go out and see what I can do.”

“Can’t I go, Doctor? I’m a good deal lighter than you are.”

“You’re not as strong or as agile, Carnes, and you haven’t the mechanical ability to make the repair. Hand me that line.”

He fastened one end of a coil of manila rope which Carnes handed him to his waist, while the detective fastened the other end to one of the safety belt hooks. With a word of farewell, he climbed out of the cockpit and onto a wing. In the pocket of his flying suit he carried a tool kit and repair material. Carnes shuddered as the doctor’s figure disappeared under the plane. He snubbed the rope about a seat bracket and held it taut. For ten minutes the strain continued. It slackened at last, and the figure of the doctor reappeared on the wing. Slowly he climbed into the cockpit.

“I’ve made a temporary repair, Lieutenant,” he called into the speaking tube, “and the leakage has stopped. How much gas have we left?”

“Enough for about an hour of flying, including the emergency tank.”

“Thunder! No chance to get back to the Denver. Better head inland and follow the course of the Dwina. If we can locate the place we are looking for we may be able to drop a few eggs on it before we are washed out. In any event, it will be better to come down on land than on water.”

McCready headed the plane south and followed the winding ribbon below him which marked the channel of the Dwina. He kept his altitude well over eight thousand feet. For a few minutes the plane roared along. Without warning the motor sputtered once or twice and died.

“Gas finished?” asked Dr. Bird into the speaking tube.

“No, there is plenty of gas for another forty-five minutes. It acted like a short in the wiring. Maybe another fragment got us that we didn’t know about. I can glide to a safe landing, Doctor. Which direction shall I go?”

“It doesn’t matter,” replied Dr. Bird as he looked over the side. “Wait a minute, it does matter. See that long low building down there with the projection like a tower on top? I’ll bet a month’s pay that that is the very place we’re looking for. Glide over it and let’s have a look at it. If I am convinced of it, I’ll drop a few eggs on it.”


McCready glided on a long slope toward the suspected building. Dr. Bird kept his eye glued to the bomb sight.

“It’s suspicious enough for me to act,” he cried. “Drop one!”

Carnes pulled a lever and a hundred-pound high explosive bomb detached itself from the plane and fell toward the ground.

“Another!” cried the doctor.

A second messenger of death followed the first.

“Bank around and back over while we give them the rest.”


The plane swung around in a wide circle.

“Volley!” cried the doctor. Carnes pulled the master lever and the rest of the bombs fell earthward.

“Now glide to the east, McCready, until you are forced down.”

McCready banked the plane and started on a long glide toward the east. Carnes and the doctor watched the falling bombs. The doctor’s aim had been perfect. The first bomb released struck the building squarely while the other landed only a few feet away. Instead of the puffs of smoke which they had expected, the bombs had no effect. The volley which Carnes had discharged fell full on the building as harmlessly as had the two pilot shots.

“Were these bombs armed, Lieutenant?” demanded the doctor.

“Yes, sir. I inspected them myself before we took off and they were fused and armed. They had always fused and should have gone off, no matter in what position they landed.”

“Well, they didn’t. That building is our goal all right. Saranoff would naturally expect an air raid and he has perfected some device which renders a bomb impotent before it lands. How far from the building will you land?”

“A couple of miles, Doctor.”

“Get as far as you can. If you can make that line of thicket ahead, we’ll take to our heels and hope to hide in it.”

“I don’t think we’ll have much luck, Doctor,” said Carnes.

“Why not?”

“Look behind.”

Dr. Bird looked back toward the building they had tried to bomb. Across the country, a truck loaded with armed men followed the course of the plane. The plane was gaining slightly on the truck but it was evident that the plane’s occupants would have little chance of escaping on foot. Dr. Bird gave a grim laugh.

“We’re cornered all right,” he said. “If we did elude the men in that truck, we would have a plane after us in no time. You might as well turn back, McCready, and land fairly near the building. We are sure to be captured and our best chance is to have the plane near us. They’ll probably patch it up and if we get a chance to escape later, it may be a lifesaver. At any rate, we’ve lost for the present.”

McCready turned the plane again to the west. The truck halted at their new maneuver. As the plane passed over, it turned and again followed them. The ground was approaching rapidly. With a final dip, McCready leveled off and made a landing. The machine rolled to a stop about a mile from the building. The truck was less than three hundred yards away. It came up rapidly and disgorged a dozen men armed with rifles who hurried forward. In the lead was a tall, slight figure who carried no gun. Dr. Bird stepped forward to meet them.

“Do you understand English?” he asked.

An incomprehensible jargon of Russian answered him. The men raised their rifles threateningly. Dr. Bird turned back to his companions.

“Resistance is hopeless,” he said. “Surrender gracefully and we’ll see what comes of it.”

He faced the Russians and held one hand high above his head. The Russian leader stepped forward and confiscated the doctor’s pistol. He repeated the process with Carnes and McCready, frisking them thoroughly for concealed weapons. At his command, six of the Russians stepped forward. The Americans took their place in the midst of the guard and were marched to the truck. The balance of the Russians moved over to the American’s plane. The truck rolled forward and approached the low building. The projection which Dr. Bird had noticed from the air proved to be a metal tube projection from the roof, fully twenty feet in diameter and fifty feet long.

“A projection tube of some sort,” said the doctor, pointing. An excited command came from the Russian in command. A rifle was leveled threateningly at the doctor. He took the hint and maintained silence while they climbed down from the truck and approached the door of the building.

It swung open as they approached. As they entered a strong garlic-like smell was evident. The hum of heavy machinery smote their ears.

They were led down a corridor to a flight of steps. On the floor below they went along another corridor to a heavy iron-studded door. The guide unlocked it with a huge key and swung it open. With a shrug of his shoulders, Dr. Bird led the way into the cell. The door closed behind them and they were left alone. Dr. Bird turned to his companions.

“Be careful what you say,” he whispered. “I am not at all convinced that there is no one here who knows English and we are probably spied upon. There is almost sure to be a dictaphone somewhere in this room. We don’t want to give them any more information than we have to.”

Carnes and McCready nodded. Dr. Bird spoke aloud of inconsequential matters while they explored the cell. It was a room some twenty feet square, fitted with three bunks on one side, built into the wall like the berths on shipboard. The room was lighted by a single electric light overhead. A door opened into a lavatory equipped with running water.

“We’re comfortable here, at any rate,” said the doctor cheerfully. “They evidently don’t mean to make us suffer. I’d like to know why they took the trouble to capture us, anyway. It would seem to be more in line with their usual policy to have shot us on sight. It must be that they want some sort of information from us.”

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