Spawn of the Comet

by H. Thompson Rich

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: A swarm of huge, fiery ants, brood of a mystery comet, burst from their shells to threaten the unsuspecting world.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Tokyo, June 10 (AP).--A number of the meteors that pelted

Japan last night, as the earth passed through the tail of the

Mystery Comet have been found and are puzzling astronomers everywhere.

About the size of baseballs, orange in color, they appear to be of some unknown metal. So far, due to their extreme hardness, all attempts to analyze them have failed.

Their uniformity of size and marking gives rise to the popular belief that they are seeds, and, fantastic though this conception is, it finds support in certain scientific quarters here.

Jim Carter read the news dispatch thoughtfully and handed it back to his chief without comment.

“Well, what do you make of it?”

Miles Overton, city editor of The New York Press, shoved his green eye-shade far back on his bald head and glanced up irritably from his littered desk.

“I don’t know,” said Jim.

“You don’t know!” Overton snorted, biting his dead cigar impatiently. “And I suppose you don’t know they’re finding the damn things right here in New York, not to mention Chicago, London, Rio and a few other places,” he added.

“Yes, I know about New York. It’s a regular egg hunt.”

“Egg hunt is right! But why tell me all this now? I didn’t see any mention of ‘em in your report of last night’s proceedings. Did you see any?”

“No, but I saw a lot of shooting stars!” said Jim, recalling that weird experience he and the rest of humanity had passed through so recently.

“Yeah, I’ll say!” Overton lit his wrecked cigar and dragged on it soothingly. “Now then, getting back to cases--what are these damn things, anyway? That’s what I’d like to know.”

“So would I,” said Jim. “Maybe they are seeds?”

Overton frowned. He was a solid man, not given to fancies. He had a paper to get out every day and that taxed his imagination to the limit. There was no gray matter left for any such idle musings as Jim suggested. What he wanted was facts, and he wanted them right away.

“Eggs will do!” he said. “Go out and get one--and find out what’s inside it.”

“Okay, Chief,” said Jim, but he knew it was a large order. “I’ll have one on your desk for breakfast!”

Then, with a grave face that denied his light words, he stepped from the city room on that fantastic assignment.

It was the television broadcast hour and crowds thronged the upper level of Radio Plaza, gazing, intently at the bulletin screen, as Jim Carter emerged from the Press tower.

News from the ends of the earth, in audio-picture form, flashed before their view; but only the reports on the strange meteors from the tail of 1947, IV--so designated by astronomers because it was the fourth comet discovered that year--held their interest. Nothing since the great Antarctic gold rush of ‘33 had so gripped the public as the dramatic arrival and startling behavior of this mysterious visitant from outer space.

Jim paused a moment, halfway across the Plaza, to take a look at the screen himself.

The substance of the Tokyo dispatch, supplemented by pictures of Japanese scientists working over the baffling orange spheres, had just gone off. Now came a flash from Berlin, in which a celebrated German chemist was seen directing an effort to cut into one of them with an acid drill. It failed and the scientist turned to declare to the world that the substance seemed more like crystal than metal and was harder than diamond.

Jim tarried no longer. He knew where he was going. It was still early and Joan would be up--Joan Wentworth, daughter of Professor Stephen Wentworth, who held the chair of astro-lithology at Hartford University. It was as their guest at the observatory last night that he had seen 1947, IV at close range, as the earth passed through her golden train with that awesome, unparalleled display of fireworks.

Now he’d have the pleasure of seeing Joan again, and at the same time get the low-down from her father on those confounded seeds--or eggs, rather. If anyone could crack one of them, he’d bet Professor Wentworth could.

So, hastening toward the base of Plaza Airport, he took an elevator to ramp-level 118, where his auto-plane was parked, and five minutes later was winging his way to Hartford.

Throttle wide, Jim did the eighty miles to the Connecticut capital in a quarter of an hour.

Then, banking down through the warm June night onto the University landing field, he retracted the wings of his swift little bus and motored to the foot of Observatory Hill.

Parking outside the Wentworth home, he mounted the steps and rang the bell.

It was answered by a slim, appealing girl of perhaps twenty-two. Hers was a wistful, oval face, with a small, upturned nose; and her clear hazel eyes were the sort that always seem to be enjoying some amusing secret of their own. Her hair was a soft brown, worn loose to the shoulders, after the style then in vogue.

“Joan!” blurted Jim.

“What brings you here at such an hour, Jimmy Carter?” she asked with mock severity.


“I don’t believe you.”

“What then have I come for?”

“You’ve come to interview father about those meteorites.”

“Nonsense! That’s purely incidental--a mere by-product, you might say.”

“Yes, you might--but I wouldn’t advise you to say it to father.”

“All right, I won’t,” he promised, as she led him into the library.

Professor Wentworth rose as they entered and laid aside some scientific book he had been reading.

A man of medium height and build, he had the same twinkling hazel eyes as his daughter, though somewhat dimmed from peering at too many stars for too many years.

“Good evening, Jim,” he said. “I’ve rather been expecting you. What is on your mind?”

“Seeds! Eggs! Baseballs!” was the reply, “I don’t know what. You’ve seen the latest television reports, I suppose?” said Jim, noting that the panel on the receiving cabinet across the room was still lit.

“I’ve seen some of them. Joan has been keeping an eye on the screen mostly, however, while I refreshed my mind on the known chemistry of meteorites. You see, I have a few of those eggs myself, up at the observatory.”

“You have?” cried Jim.

He was certainly on the right track!

“Yes. One of my assistants brought them in this afternoon. Would you like to see them?”

“I’ll say I would!”

“I rather thought you might,” the professor smiled. “Come along, then.”

And as Jim turned, he shot a look at Joan, and added:

“You may come too, my dear, if you want.”

They went out and up the hill to where the great white dome glistened under the stars, and once inside, Jim Carter of The New York Press was privileged to see two of those strange objects that had turned the world topsy-turvy.

As the Tokyo dispatch and the Berlin television flash had indicated, they were orange in color, about the size of baseballs.

“Weird looking eggs, all right!” said Jim. “What are they made of, anyway?”

“Some element unknown on earth,” replied Professor Wentworth.

“But I thought there were only ninety-two elements in the universe and we’d discovered them all.”

“So we have. But don’t forget this. We are still trying to split the atom, which nature has done many times and will doubtless do many times again. It is merely a matter of altering the valence of the atoms in an old element; whereupon it shifts its position in the periodic scale and becomes a new element. Nature accomplishes this alchemy by means of great heat, which is certainly to be found in a meteor.”

“Particularly when it hits the earth’s atmosphere!”

“Yes. And now then, I’d like to have you examine more closely this pair I have here.”

Jim lifted one and noted its peculiar smoothness, its remarkable weight for its size; he noted, too, that it was veined with concentric markings, like a series of arabesques or fleurs-de-lis.

The professor lifted the other, calling attention to the fact that the size and marking of both were identical, as hitherto reported.

“Also, you’ll observe that they are slightly warm. In fact, they are appreciably warmer than when they were first brought in. Curious behavior, this, for new-laid cometary eggs! More like seeds germinating than meteorites cooling, wouldn’t you say?”

“But good Lord!” Jim was somewhat taken aback to hear this celebrated scientist apparently commit himself to that wild view. “You don’t really think they’re seeds, do you?”

“Why not?”

“But surely no seeds could survive the temperature they hit getting here.”

“No seeds such as we know, true. But what, after all, do we know of the types of life to be found on other planets?”

“Nothing, of course. Only these didn’t come from a planet. They came from a comet.”

“And who can say a comet is not a disintegrated planet? Or suppose we take the other theory, that it is an eruption from some sun, ours or another. In any event, who can say no life can survive intense heat? Certainly these seeds--or call them meteorites, if you choose--came through the ordeal curiously unscathed.”

“Yes, that’s true. Funny, too!”

“And another thing is true, Jim. If by chance they should be seeds, and should germinate, the life they would produce would be something quite alien to our experience, possibly quite inimical to--”

Professor Wentworth broke off abruptly as a startled cry came from Joan, and, turning, they saw her standing with eyes fixed in fascinated horror on the laboratory table.

Following her gaze, Jim saw something that caused his own eyes to bulge. The color of those mysterious orange spheres had suddenly, ominously heightened. They lay glowing there like balls of fire.

“Good God!” he gasped. “Look, Professor! Do you see that?”

Professor Wentworth did not answer but himself stood gazing spellbound at the astounding scene.

Even as they looked, the metal table smoldered under the fiery meteorites and melted, and in a little while the meteorites themselves sizzled from view. Flames licked up from the floor; dense, suffocating fumes rose and swirled through the laboratory.

“Quick!” cried Jim, seizing Joan’s arm. “Come on, Professor! Never mind trying to save anything. Let’s get out of here!”

They staggered from the laboratory and once outside, plunged down the hill. It was none too soon.

Behind them, as they fled, came suddenly two deafening explosions. Looking back, they saw the roof of the observatory tilt crazily; saw the whole building shatter, and erupt like a volcano.

But that, startling though it was, was not all they saw. For now, as they stood there speechless, two incredible forms rose phoenix-like from the flames--two weird monsters, orange against the red, hideous, nightmarish. They saw them hover a moment above that fiery hell, then rise on batlike wings to swoop off into the night.

Nor was that all. As the awed trio stood there halfway down Observatory Hill, following the flight of that pair of demons, other explosions reached their ears, and, turning to the city below, they saw vivid jets of red leap up here and there, saw other orange wings against the night.

While off across the southeast sky, receding fast, spread the Mystery Comet whose tail had sowed the seeds of this strange life.

Still silent, the trio stood gazing upon that appalling scene for some minutes, while the ruddy shadows of the flaming observatory lit their tense faces.

“Well, the seeds have hatched,” said Professor Wentworth at length, in a strained voice. “I am afraid some of the curious who have been gathering those meteorites so eagerly have paid a dear price for them.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” echoed Jim. “We were lucky. If Joan hadn’t happened to spot those things just when she did--” He broke off and pressed her hand fondly. “But somehow I can’t believe it, even yet. What do you think the things are, Professor?”

“God knows! As I told you, those seeds, should they germinate, would produce something quite alien to our experience; and as I feared, it is a form of life that will not blend well with humanity.”

Jim shuddered.

“But look, father!” exclaimed Joan. “They’re flying away! They seem to be way up among the stars. Maybe they’ve left the earth altogether.”

Professor Wentworth following his daughter’s gaze, saw that many of the monsters were now mere orange pinpoints against the night.

“Let us hope so!” he said fervently.

But in his heart there was no conviction, nor in Jim’s, strangely.

On the way back to New York, Jim had plenty to heighten his uneasiness. The scene below him everywhere was red with conflagrations, the sky everywhere orange with the wings of those fiery moths.

More than one swept perilously close, as he pushed his auto-plane on at top speed; but they showed no inclination to attack, for which he was devoutly thankful.

Over the metropolitan area, the scene was one beggaring description. All the five boroughs were a blazing checker-board. New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester--all were raging. Hundreds of those deadly bombs must have burst in Manhattan alone.

But the fire department there seemed to have the situation in hand, he noticed as he swept down onto the Plaza landing platform.

Leaving his plane with an attendant, he took the first elevator to the street level, and crossing hastily to the Press tower, mounted to the city room.

There absolute pandemonium raged. Typewriters were sputtering, telegraph keys clicking, phones buzzing, reporters coming and going in a steady stream, mingled with the frantic orders of editors, sub-editors, copy readers, composing-room men and others.

Carter fought through the bedlam to the city editor’s desk.

“Sorry I couldn’t bring you that egg, Chief,” he said, with a grim smile. “I had one right in my hand, but it hatched out on me.”

Overton looked up wearily. He was a man who had seen a miracle, a godless miracle that restored his faith in the devil.

“Don’t talk--just write!” he growled. “I’ve seen and heard too much to-night. We’re all going to hell, I guess--unless we’re already there.”

But Jim wasn’t ready to write yet.

“What’s the dope elsewhere? The same?”

“All over the map! We’re frying, from coast to coast.”

“And abroad?”

“Cooked, everywhere!” He paused, and turned an imploring face to Jim. “Tell me, Carter--what’s happening? You’ve seen Wentworth, I suppose. What’s he make of it?”

“He--doesn’t know.”

“God help us! Well, go write your story. If we’ve got a plant by press time, we’ll have something on page one to-morrow--if there’s anyone to read it.”

By morning the fires in the metropolitan area had been brought under control and it was found that neither the loss of life nor the damage was as great as had at first been feared. Mainly it was the older types of buildings that had suffered the most.

The same thing was true in other parts of the country and elsewhere in the world; and elsewhere, as in New York, people pulled themselves together, cleared up the debris, and went ahead with their occupations. Business was resumed, and rebuilding operations were begun.

Meanwhile, where were those fiery moths that had sprung so devastatingly from their strange cocoons?

For a while no one knew and it was believed they had indeed winged off into interstellar space, as Joan had suggested that night on Observatory Hill.

Then came rumors that damped these hopes, followed by eye-witness reports that altogether dashed them. The bat-like monsters had flown, not off into space, but to the world’s waste-lands.

Strange, it was, the instinct that had led them unerringly to the remotest point of each continent. In North America it was the great Arizona desert, in South America the pampas of Argentina, in Europe the steppes of Russia, in Asia the Desert of Gobi, in Africa the Sahara, in Australia the Victoria; while in the British Isles, Philippines, New Zealand, Madagascar, Iceland, the East Indies, West Indies, South Seas and other islands of the world, the interiors were taken over by the demons, the populace fleeing for their lives.

As for the oceans, no one knew exactly what had happened there, though it was obvious they, too, had received their share of the bombardment on that fateful night; but, while temperatures were found to be somewhat above normal, scientists were of the opinion that the deadly spawn that had fallen there had failed to incubate.

Immediately the presence of the monsters in the Arizona desert was verified, Overton called Jim Carter to his desk.

“Well, I’ve got a big assignment for you, boy,” he said, rather more gently than was his fashion. “Maybe you know what, huh?”

“You want me to buzz out and interview those birds?”

“You guessed it. And photograph ‘em!”

“Okay, Chief,” said Carter, though he knew this would be the toughest job yet.

Overton knew it, too.

“It won’t be easy,” he said. “And it may be dangerous. You don’t have to take the assignment unless you want.”

“But I want.”

“Good! I thought you would.” He regarded the younger man admiringly, almost enviously. “Now, about those photos. The Television News people haven’t been able to get a thing, nor the War Department--not so much as a still. So those photos will be valuable.”

Overton paused, to let that sink in.

“They’ll be worth a million, in fact, in addition to what the War Department offers. And to you they’ll be worth ten thousand dollars.”

“How come?”

“Because that’s what the Old Man said.”

“Well, I can use it!” said Jim, thinking of Joan.

“All right. Then go to it!”

Leaving New York late that night, Carter timed his flight to arrive over the eastern edge of the desert just before dawn.

The trip was uneventful till he crossed the Rockies over New Mexico and eased down into Arizona. Then, flying low and fast, he suddenly caught a glow of color off ahead.

For an instant Jim thought it was the dawn, then called himself a fool. For one thing, the glow was in the west, not the east. And for another, altogether more significant, it was orange.

His quarry!

Pulling his stick back hard, he shot like a rocket to ten thousand feet, figuring that a higher altitude, besides giving him a better view of the lay of the land, would be considerably safer.

Winging on now at that height, he saw the orange tide rise higher in the west by seconds, as he rushed toward God knew what eery lair. He suddenly gasped in amazement, as he saw now something so incredible it left him numb.

Below, looming above the on-rushing horizon was a city! But such a city as the brain of man could scarcely conceive, much less execute--a city of some fluorescent orange material, rising tier on tier, level on level, spreading out over the sandy floor of the desert for miles.

And, as Jim draw nearer, he saw, too, that this weird city was teeming with life--terrible life! Thousands of those hideous monsters were working there like an army of ants in a sand-hill--a sand-hill of glistening, molten glass, it seemed from the air.

Were they building their city from the sand of the desert, these hellish glaciers?

Carter decided to find out.

“Well, here goes!” he muttered, diving straight for that dazzling citadel, one hand on the stick, the other gripping the trigger of his automatic camera. “This’ll make a picture for the Old Man, all right!”

Off to the east the dawn was breaking, and he saw, as he swept down, its pearly pastel shades blending weirdly with that blinding orange glare.

Pressing the trigger now, he drove his screaming plane on with throttle wide--and yes, it was glass!--glass of some sort, that crazy nightmare down there.

“Whew!” gasped Carter as waves of dazing heat rose about him. “Boy, but it’s hot! I can’t stand much of this. Better get out while the getting’s good.”

But he clenched his teeth, and dove on down to see what those fiery demons looked like. Funny they didn’t make any effort to attack. Surely they must see him now.

“Take that, my beauties!--and that!” he gasped, pressing the trigger of his camera furiously.

Then, at a scant two thousand feet, he levelled off, his wings blistering with the heat, and zoomed up again--when to his horror, his engine faltered; died.

In that agonizing moment it came to Jim that this perhaps was why neither the Television News nor the War Department pilots had been able to get pictures of the hell below.

Had something about that daring heat killed their motors, too, as it had his? Had they plunged like fluttering, sizzling moths into that inferno of orange flame?

“Well, I guess it’s curtains!” he muttered.

A glance at his altimeter showed a scant eighteen hundred now. Another glance showed the western boundary of the city, agonizing miles ahead. Could he make it? He’d try, anyway!

So, nursing his plane along in a shallow glide, Jim slipped down through that dazing heat.

“Got to keep her speed up!” he told himself, half deliriously, as he steadily lost altitude. “Can’t pancake here, or I’ll be a flapjack!”

At an altitude of less than a thousand he levelled off again, eased on down, fully expecting to feel his plane burst into flames. But though his eyebrows crisped and the gas must have boiled, the sturdy little plane made it.

On a long last glide, he put her wheels down on the sandy desert floor, a bare half mile beyond that searing hell.

The heat was still terrific but endurable now. He dared breathe deeper; he found his head clearing. But what was the good of it? It was only a respite. The monsters had seen him, all right--no doubt about that! Already they were swooping out of their weird citadel like a pack of furious hornets.

On they came, incredibly fast, moving in a wide half-circle that obviously was planned to envelop him.

Tense with horror, like a doomed man at the stake, Jim watched the flaming phalanx advance. And now he saw what they really were; saw that his first, fantastic guess had been right.

They were ants--or at least more like ants than anything on earth--great fiery termites ten feet long, hideous mandibles snapping like steel, hot from the forge, their huge compound eyes burning like greenish electric fire in their livid orange sockets.

And another thing Jim saw, something that explained why the fearful insects had not flown up to attack him in the air. Their wings were gone!

They had molted, were earthbound now.

There was much food for thought in this, but no time to think. Already the creatures were almost on him.

Jim turned his gaze from them and bent over his dials in a last frantic effort to get his motor started. The instinct of self-preservation was dominant now--and to his joy, suddenly the powerful little engine began to hum with life.

He drew one deep breath of infinite relief, then gave her the gun and whirled off down the desert floor, the enraged horde after him.

For agonizing instants it was a nip-and-tuck race. Then as he felt his wheels lift, he pulled hard back on his stick, and swept up and away from the deadly claws that clutched after him in vain.

Climbing swiftly, Jim banked once, swept back, put the bead full on that scattering half-circle of fiery termites, and pressed the trigger of his automatic camera.

“There, babies!” he laughed grimly. “You’re in the Rogues’ Gallery now!”

Then, swinging off to the northeast, he continued to climb, giving that weird ant-hill a wide berth.

Funny, about those things losing their wings, he was thinking now. Would they grow them again, or were they on the ground for good? And what was their game out there in the desert, anyway?

Questions Jim couldn’t answer, of course. Only time would tell. Meanwhile, he had some pictures that would make the Old Man sit up and take notice, not to mention the War Department.

“They’d better get the Army on the job before those babies get air-minded again!” he told himself, as he winged on into the rising sun. “Otherwise the show they’ve already staged may be only a little curtain-raiser.”

Jim’s arrival in the city room of The New York Press that afternoon was a triumphant one, for he had radio-phoned the story ahead and extras were out all over the metropolitan area, with relays flashing from the front pages of papers everywhere.

No sooner had he turned over his precious pictures to the photographic department for development than Overton rushed him to a microphone, and made him repeat his experience for the television screen.

But the city editor’s enthusiasm died when the negatives came out of the developer.

“There are your pictures!” he said, handing over a bunch of them.

Carter looked at them in dismay. They were all blank--just so much plain black celluloid.

“Over-exposed!” rasped Overton. “A hell of a photographer you are!”

“I sure am!” Jim agreed, still gazing ruefully at the ruined negatives. “Funny, though. The camera was checked before I started. I had the range before I pulled the trigger, every shot.” He paused, then added, as though reluctant to excuse himself: “It must have been the heat.”

“Yeah. I suppose so! Well, that was damn expensive heat for you, my lad. It cost you ten thousand bucks.”

“Yes, but--”

Jim had been going to say it had nearly cost him his life but thought better of it. Besides, an idea had come.

“Give me those negatives!” he said, “I’m going to find out what’s wrong with ‘em.”

And since they were of no use to Overton, he gave them to Jim.

That night again, Jim Carter presented himself at the Wentworth home in Hartford, and again it was Joan who admitted him.

“Oh, Jimmy!” she murmured, as he took her in his arms. “We’re all so proud of you!”

“I’m glad someone is,” he said.

“But what a fearful risk you ran! If you hadn’t been able to get your motor started--”

“Why think of unpleasant things?” he said with a smile.

Then they went into the library, where Professor Wentworth added his congratulations.

“But I’m afraid I didn’t accomplish much,” said Jim, explaining about the pictures.

“Let me see them,” said the professor.

Jim handed them over.

For a moment or two Professor Wentworth examined them intently, holding them this way and that.

“They indeed appear to be extremely over-exposed,” he admitted at length. “Your Fire Ants are doubtless radio-active to a high degree. The results could not have been much worse had you tried to photograph the sun direct.”

“I thought as much,” said Carter, gloomily.

“But possibly the damage isn’t irreparable. Suppose we try re-developing a few of these negatives.”

He led the way to his study, which since the destruction of the observatory had been converted into a temporary laboratory.

Ten minutes later, Professor Wentworth had his re-developing bath ready in a porcelain basin and had plunged some of the negatives into it.

“This process is what photographers call intensification,” he explained. “It consists chemically in the oxidation of a part of the silver of which the image is composed. I have here in solution uranium nitrate, plus potassium ferricyanide acidified with acetic acid. The latter salt, in the presence of the acid, is an oxidizing agent, and, when applied to the image, produces silver oxide, which with the excess of acetic acid forms silver acetate.”

“Which is all so much Greek to me!” said Carter.

“At the same time, the ferricyanide is reduced to ferrocyanide,” the professor went on, with a smile at Joan, “whereupon insoluble red uranium ferrocyanide is produced, and, while some of the silver, in being oxidized by this process, is rendered soluble and removed from the negative into the solution, it is replaced by the highly non-actinic and insoluble uranium compound.”

The process was one quite familiar to photographers experienced in astronomical work, he explained. In fifteen minutes they should know what results they were getting.

But when fifteen minutes passed and the negatives were still as black as ever, Jim’s hope waned.

Not so Professor Wentworth’s, however.

“There is a definite but slow reaction taking place,” he said after a careful examination. “Either the over-exposure is even greater than I had suspected, or the actinic rays from your interesting subjects have formed a stubborn chemical union with the silver of the image. In the latter event, which is the theory I am going to work on, we must speed up the reaction and tear some of that excess silver off, if we’re ever to see what is underneath.”

“But how are you going to speed up the reaction?” asked Jim. “I thought that uranium was pretty strong stuff by itself.”

“It is, but not as strong as this new substance we have in combination with the silver here. So I think I’ll try a little electrolysis--or, in plain English, electro-plating.”

As he spoke, the professor clipped a couple of platinum electrodes to the basin, one at each end. To the anode he attached one of the negatives, to the cathode a small piece of iron.

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