Fred Trent pulled his coupe into the curb and leaned his head out the open window beside him.
“Hi, Joan, need any help?”
He called to a trim-looking girl in a nurse’s uniform. Joan Drake was holding on to a leash with both hands, and her slender body was tugging against the leash as she strained against the pull of a Great Dane on the other end.
She looked over her shoulder as Trent called out, her blonde hair glinting in the warm afternoon sunlight. Blue eyes smiled an impish greeting at him.
“Hello, Fred. No thanks. Brutus and I get along famously.”
Trent opened the car door and got out. He walked up the sidewalk and stood beside the girl.
[Illustration: They watched as white-hot flames shot from the base of the cradled rocket. There was a tremendous roaring, and then the rocket slowly lifted upward.]
“Business must be mighty slack for the great gland specialist, Stanley Fenwick. Is this all he can find for his pretty nurse to do?”
The girl sniffed. “Walking Brutus around has its compensations. At least he doesn’t get fresh--like some people I know.”
Fred grinned as he saw the huge dog suddenly turn on its leash and raise itself off the ground to stick out a long rapier-like tongue and lick the girl’s cheek before she could move her head away.
“Down, Brutus! Down!” she called out, half-laughing.
Trent stepped in and pulled the big animal away from the girl, patting the dog’s head as he did so.
“What was that you said about getting fresh?” Trent asked her. “Looks to me like the dog’s life is the best around the Fenwick offices.”
“Just don’t get any ideas!” Joan Drake shot back.
“I’ve already got them,” he replied. “Which reminds me, am I seeing you tonight?”
The girl held a tight grip on the leash and looked at him coyly.
“Let’s see. We’ll take in a movie, stop for a bite to eat at Joe’s Hamburger Palace, and then drive out to North Butte. You’ll park the car and then you’ll ask me when I’m going to quit my job and settle down raising a family for you, and I’ll say--”
“You’ll say not until I get the biggest scoop in Arizona, a big raise, and a bonus as a down payment on a house,” he completed her sentence.
“There! You see? We might just as well not have our date. In effect, we’ve had it already.”
He looked at her for a long moment, and when he spoke again his voice had lost its humorous note.
“You forgot one very important item. When I ask you that usual question, and after you give your usual answer, I’ll take you in my arms and tell you how much you mean to me, and--”
“You win,” she interrupted him. “I had forgotten about that.”
The dog started to pull against the leash again and Fred reached out to help her hold the big animal in check. Then she looked at him again.
“What brings you to the outskirts of Tucson? Don’t tell me there’s a big story breaking on the edge of town.”
He shook his head. “Not exactly. I’m on my way to the Rocket Research Proving Grounds. Just a routine story on the experiment they’re going to pull off this evening. I’ve got to interview Mathieson, Gaddon, and a few other scientists on the project.”
The girl laughed. “That’s something of a coincidence. Dr. Blair Gaddon is in Dr. Fenwick’s office right now.”
Fred Trent’s eyebrows raised in surprise.
“That so? Something wrong with him?”
“No. He’s just having a physical checkup. Seems to be worried about his heart. Dr. Fenwick didn’t need me since it’s a routine job, so I took Brutus for a walk.”
Trent nodded. “That’s a bit of luck. I think I’ll stick around and give Gaddon a lift out to the Proving Grounds. I wanted to talk to him anyway.”
“In that case,” the girl replied, “you can give me a hand putting Brutus back in his kennel. Once he gets out he’s something of a problem.”
Fred nodded, taking the leash from her hands and feeling the big dog tug against him.
“Never could figure out why Fenwick wanted a big hound like this. Seems to me a terrier would be more practical.”
“That’s a matter of taste,” Joan answered. “Dr. Fenwick is very fond of Brutus--and so am I for that matter. But tell me something about this experiment you’re covering.”
They had turned in at a large Spanish type house that Trent knew served as a combination living quarters and office for the famous gland specialist. He shrugged.
“Don’t know much about it myself. They’re shooting off this new type rocket, a really big affair, loaded with all sorts of instruments. Some sort of experiment with cosmic rays. The rocket will go up to the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, where a clocked mechanism will release a parachute-attached section containing the instruments. This will float back to the surface of the Earth.
“There is one interesting thing about it though. They’re also including a live animal with the instruments. A cat I believe. They want to see what effect the cosmic rays will have on a living creature.”
The girl turned a shocked face toward him as they walked up the steps to the front door of the house. Trent could see a panel in the center of the door that opened from the inside, and over it, the sign, _Doctor is in, please ring_.
“But I think that’s positively cruel!” Joan Drake said earnestly. “Subjecting an innocent animal to what may be certain death!”
Fred laughed at her concern. “Hold on, now. You should be the last one to take such an attitude. Doesn’t medical science experiment on animals to find out about human ailments?”
“That’s different,” the girl insisted, opening the door and leading the way into a long hall. “Doctors know what they are doing--but this is a sheer waste of life...”
Trent let the dog pull him down the hall toward a door at the end which he knew opened on the backyard where the Great Dane was kept.
“Seems to me it’s much the same thing,” he answered her. “Scientists want to explore the mysteries of space, and the only way to do it is with an animal. Or would you like to make the trip--maybe I can arrange it? Would make a big story, just the one I’ve been waiting for.”
“I believe you would at that!” she mocked, opening the rear door. “Here, give me the leash.”
Trent handed over the leash to her and watched as she released the huge dog. Brutus flicked out a long tongue once again and caught the girl’s cheek in a wet caress before she straightened.
“Brutus! Now get along with you!”
The dog took a leisurely bound through the door and into the backyard. Trent glanced through the door at the tall fenced-in yard with the large kennel that might well have served as a small garage. He stood beside the girl watching the big animal romp for a few moments, then she shut the door and they turned back down the hall.
“I’ll have to go inside now, Fred,” she said. “If you want to wait for Gaddon, have a seat. It shouldn’t be long.”
She started to turn in at a door marked private, when Fred pulled her gently around and before she could stop him, had kissed her.
“I was getting mighty jealous of Brutus. Now I feel better.”
“I don’t know which of you I prefer,” she shot back, then smiled and pulled away from him.
He watched her open the office door and close it after her.
He had lit his second cigarette and gotten halfway through his third magazine on the rack beside the chair when the office door opened again. He heard the pleasant voice of Dr. Stanley Fenwick.
“If every man had a heart as strong as yours, Blair, we wouldn’t need half the doctors we have.”
Then he heard the deep, gruff voice of Dr. Blair Gaddon half laugh.
“Thanks a lot, Fenwick. You’ve taken a load off my mind. Goodbye, Miss Drake.”
He heard Joan reply and then saw Dr. Fenwick usher the physicist out into the hall.
Trent rose as the two men approached.
“Why, hello, Trent,” Dr. Fenwick said.
Trent nodded at the tall, white-coated figure of the famous gland specialist.
Fenwick smiled at him. “Don’t tell me you’re waiting to see me?”
Fred shook his head. “Not exactly. I was waiting to see Dr. Gaddon though. I was on my way out to the Proving Grounds and I happened to stop by and talk to Miss Drake.” He turned to the physicist, a bulky man with firm, hard features, who moved his large body with an almost cat-like grace.
“I hope you don’t mind, Dr. Gaddon. Possibly I can give you a lift back out to the Base. I’m covering the launching for my paper.”
Gaddon smiled at him. “But of course I don’t mind. And I’ll take you up on that offer. It’ll save me a trip back to town to take one of the staff cars.”
The words had a friendly note to them, as did the smile on Gaddon’s face. And yet, somehow, Fred Trent found that he did not like this man. It was nothing he could put his finger on, nothing he could rationalize, unless it was the coldly calculating look in the scientist’s eyes.
“That’s fine, doctor,” Trent replied. “Shall we go?”
He turned and said good-bye to Fenwick and passed a smiling glance at the girl. He could see her blush slightly as Fenwick caught the glance and laughed. Then they were out of the house and Trent led the way to his car.
Inside, he started the motor and drove away. Beside him, Gaddon lit a cigar and blew a long plume of smoke through the open window.
“You said you wanted to talk to me, Trent?”
Fred nodded. “That’s right, doctor. I’m writing up the rocket experiment for my paper, and I thought maybe you could give me a few details of interest.” He paused for a moment, then asked: “Would it be too personal to ask if your visit to Dr. Fenwick had anything to do with the coming experiment?”
Gaddon shot a quick glance at him.
“Why do you ask that?”
Fred Trent shrugged. “It was just a thought. I heard Dr. Fenwick talking about your heart, but you look pretty healthy to me, so I thought maybe it was because Fenwick is a gland specialist and you might be talking to him about examining the cat after the rocket returns...”
Gaddon laughed roughly. “A mighty clever reasoning, Trent, but not quite correct. The fact is, I was seeing the doctor for personal reasons. Just a physical checkup. It had nothing to do with the rocket experiment or the effect of the cosmic rays on the animal we’re including in the experiment.”
“It was just a thought, doctor,” Trent replied, as he moved the coupe out on the open highway away from Tucson and toward the Rocket Proving Grounds on the desert flats in the distance.
“So now that we’ve disposed of that, what else would you like to know?” Gaddon asked him, a peculiar edge to his voice that Trent did not miss.
“Well, I would like to get a first hand bit of information on just exactly what you plan to prove with this experiment. If I’m correct, Dr. Mathieson, the head of the project, contends that cosmic rays may be lethal, and this experiment is to prove his point.”
The physicist snorted. “It is no secret that Mathieson and myself disagree violently on that subject.”
Trent’s eyebrows raised. “Is that so? I wasn’t aware of it?”
Gaddon paused, seeing that his words had slipped out too freely. Finally he said, “What I meant to say, Trent, is that up until now it has not been a public issue of disagreement. And I would prefer to have it remain a private matter until after the experiment.”
“I see,” Trent mused. “You have my word that I won’t print anything you say without your permission. But just what is the difference of opinion between you and Mathieson?”
Gaddon took a long pull at his cigar and waited a few moments before replying. It was apparent to Trent that he was debating continuing the subject with a newspaperman. But Trent had gauged the man correctly. There was a flair of vanity in Gaddon that dated back to his English ancestry. Trent remembered that Gaddon, quite a figure in English scientific circles, had created a stir when he had come over to the United States to assist in rocket research at the Arizona proving grounds. It seemed that Gaddon had not wanted to take a back seat to the famed American scientist, Mathieson. It had made a few gossip columns in the newspapers before Washington put an official clamp on the matter.
Now, as Trent waited for the Englishman to reply, he could almost sense the thoughts that were going through Gaddon’s mind. The Englishman was debating whether to take an open stand against the viewpoints of his American colleague. But Trent felt that the British stubbornness in the man would make him reveal his own theories. Especially since Trent had already promised not to print anything without Gaddon’s permission. That would give him an opportunity to gloat safely, should his own ideas be proven correct.
“Very well, Trent, I’ll take you at your professional word to keep this matter confidential. But if what I contend is correct, you’ll have a big story to tell.”
Trent waited expectantly, not wanting to break the Englishman’s train of thought.
“The fact is, Trent, that Mathieson is all wrong. To go even further, most of your American scientists don’t have the haziest idea of exactly what the cosmic rays are. We in Britain have made quite exhaustive studies of the phenomena.”
Trent didn’t bother to argue with him. He only nodded his head. It would have been silly, he knew, to contradict Gaddon, to tell him that the English didn’t know a thing more about the cosmic rays than the American scientists, that American science had made, and was continually making, exhaustive research into that scientific field of study on as great if not more so a scale than Britain could possibly achieve. It was only Gaddon’s vanity talking, Trent knew, so he let him put in the barb of ridicule, waiting.
“I was sent over here, as you may know, to aid in the current experiment. To formulate it as a matter of fact. This test is being conducted to determine just what effect cosmic rays will have on a living organism. As I said, Mathieson, and your other scientists are of the opinion that the rays are lethal. That they will destroy life. In effect, that they are death rays.
“But I contend that they are wrong. What would you say if I told you that cosmic rays are the very source of life and energy in the universe?”
Trent whistled judiciously, and noted that Gaddon’s face smiled at the apparent surprise Trent evinced.
“You find that a startling statement?”
Trent nodded. “I’d say that it sounded like the beginning of a very interesting theory.”
“And you would be right,” Gaddon replied, warming to his subject. “It is my contention that the cosmic rays will prove to be the fountain of youth that men have sought through the ages. That they will react on the glands of a living creature and produce immortality.
“Now take your choice. Whose theory would you rather believe? Mathieson’s idiotic claims of a death ray, or mine as a source of the utmost benefit to science?”
Trent took a moment before replying. When he did so, he spoke with tact, and also with the feeling that his trip to Fenwick’s office had proven very valuable. For there was a story here. A big story.
“I’d say, doctor, that I’d like to believe your theory was correct. But isn’t it a little premature to be so definite about it?”
Gaddon snorted. “No more premature than Mathieson’s. And I’ll tell you something else, Trent. You may not realize it, but you’re about to take part in what may be the biggest story of the century. And when it breaks, you’ll remember our conversation here. I intend to prove that your American scientists are wrong.”
Trent noticed the personal emphasis that Gaddon put in his last statement, but he was drawn away from the conversation as he turned the coupe into the guarded entrance to the proving grounds.
There was a moment of credential flashing to the guards, and a respectful salute to the scientist in the car beside Trent. Then Trent moved his coupe through the entrance and up the cement roadway to the Administration building.
As Gaddon got out of the car he turned to Trent.
“I’ll leave you here. The members of the Press will be conducted to the launching site at dusk. I’ll see you then. In the meantime, don’t forget that you’ve given your word not to release any of the information I’ve given you.”
Trent nodded and watched him walk away. He followed the Englishman with his eyes, a frown crossing his face. There was something too cocksure about the man. His ridicule of American scientists could be ignored, but the way he spoke about his theory, as if it had already been a proven fact against the ideas of Mathieson...
A faint chill ran up Fred Trent’s back. He couldn’t explain it. But it was there. An ominous note of foreboding.
He shrugged it off and left his car to walk toward the Administration building.
The remaining hours of the afternoon dragged by in a monotony of idle speculation. Trent listened to the gathered newspapermen discussing the coming experiment at dusk, accompanied them as Dr. Mathieson, the head of the project, conducted them on a tour of the project, to the launching site, and then back to the central building.
The launching site itself had been an impressive sight. The huge rockets, much in appearance like the famed V2 of World War II, but on a much larger scale, were cradled in their launching platforms like some huge monsters about to be unleashed into the unsuspecting heavens.
They had listened as Mathieson explained the various number of instruments that were being included in the first rocket, to record its hurtling trip through the atmosphere to the outermost layers of the Earth’s surface.
And they had been told of the other, and to the gathered newspapermen, the most interesting part, the inclusion of a cat in the rocket, in a large oxygen-fed chamber, to study the effects of the cosmic rays on a living creature.
Then back to the central building. Back to wait. And the tension began to mount. For the shadows were lengthening, the sun sinking behind the horizon to the west. The moment was now close at hand.
A stocky figure detached itself from the shadows beside the huge bulk of the laboratory building and slowly edged out into the dusk.
It paused momentarily, to survey the scene. Sharp eyes scanned the looming rockets and their launching platforms, watchful, alert. They finally settled upon the armed guard who walked a measured distance back and forth in front of the rockets. Then the figure moved forward again, cautiously, purposefully.
The distance from the giant rockets shortened gradually, and then the guard, turning to retrace his steps, saw the approaching figure.
There was a snapping sound as a rifle was brought into position, and a rapping command barked out.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
The shadowy figure halted abruptly a short distance away from the guard. And a voice answered.
“Dr. Blair Gaddon.”
The guard’s rifle snapped into present arms and then back to the soldier’s right shoulder.
“Oh, it’s you, sir. Is there anything wrong? The launching is set for fifteen minutes from now, isn’t it?”
Gaddon walked slowly up to the soldier and the guard could then see his face in the thickening shadows.
“That’s right,” Gaddon replied. “I’m making a last minute inspection.”
The guard nodded. “Dr. Mathieson and the newspapermen will be along any minute, sir?”
Gaddon moved closer to the soldier, and then suddenly his hand came out of his coat pocket and there was a gun in it.
“Drop your rifle, soldier. Quick!”
The guard stared at the scientist in shocked astonishment.
“What is this, sir? A gag?”
Gaddon motioned with his gun.
“It is no gag! Do as I say--or must I shoot?”
There was an ominous note in Gaddon’s voice. And a strained quality to it that told the guard the man meant what he said. Very slowly the soldier removed the rifle from his shoulder and dropped it to the ground.
Gaddon motioned with his gun.
“Now step back! Move!”
The guard moved slowly back a pace, and then the Englishman stepped forward and kicked the rifle away from the man. Then he motioned around the rocket.
“Now move over around the side of the number one rocket to the far side of number two.”
He watched as the guard turned and began to walk slowly around the huge base of the waiting rocket. He followed the soldier.
“I don’t know what this is all about, Dr. Gaddon,” the guard protested. “But I can tell you one thing, you’re playing with the United States Government right now. When Dr. Mathieson hears about this--”
“When Dr. Mathieson hears about this, soldier, I’ll be a long way from here--out at the edge of space itself!”
Gaddon could hear the guard draw in his breath sharply, but the man kept walking around to the far side of the second rocket cradle.
“You can’t mean that you’re going to go up--”
The soldier’s voice broke off uncertainly and Gaddon laughed shortly.
“You are a discerning man, soldier. That is exactly what I intend to do. And I warn you, don’t make a false move or I’ll shoot. My plans are made and I intend to carry them out!”
They had reached the far side of the second rocket now, away from view of the rest of the buildings, out of sight. Away in the distance the faint outlines of the great wire fence circling the testing grounds could be seen, and beyond that, the twinkling lights of Tucson, already visible in the dusk.
“This is far enough,” Gaddon said suddenly.
He watched as the soldier halted. Then Gaddon moved up quickly behind the man. Before the soldier sensed what was about to occur, Gaddon’s hand raised over his head and the butt of the weapon in his hand crashed against the back of the man’s head.
There was a soft groan in the shadows as the soldier crumpled limply to the ground. In the silence that followed, Gaddon’s tense breathing was the only sound. He looked down at the still body of the unconscious man, then he quickly turned and retraced his footsteps back the way he had come.
When he had reached the far side of the first rocket, he stopped before the metal steps of the cradle leading up to the closed door of the rocket. He looked quickly about him, making sure that nobody was in close proximity, then he threw his gun under the rocket beside the rifle of the soldier, and ran up the steps.
A cool breeze sprang up in the western night and whispered softly around Gaddon as he fumbled for a moment with a switch set in the smooth side of the rocket beside the sealed door.
There was a click, finally, and the door slid open.
Gaddon took a last look about him and then quietly slipped through the opening. A moment later there was the sound of the door sliding shut.
Inside the rocket, Gaddon lit a small pocket flash and looked around him. A soft sound struck his ears. The mewing sound of a cat. He turned the flash on the startled animal and a low laughter crept from his throat.
He moved through the large instrument chamber then and sat on the floor beside the cat.
Then the flash went out and his laughter came again...
“All right, gentlemen, the time has come. In a few minutes an automatic control, synchronized with controls in the rocket will be set off in the main laboratory building. If we want to watch the launching we’ll have to hurry.”
Fred Trent listened to the voice of Mathieson, and saw the famed American scientist start out of the central lobby toward the launching site. The gathered newspapermen followed, their voices filled with excitement now that the moment had come.
Trent followed along with them, but felt a peculiar tenseness within him. He had been watching for Gaddon to make his appearance. But as yet the Englishman had not showed up. Was it possible that he wasn’t going to watch the rocket launching? As Trent followed the others out into the gathering night, he frowned to himself. It was certainly strange. And entirely unlike the blustering manner Gaddon had displayed on the drive back from Tucson. Or had the man suddenly realized that he had made a fool of himself and was taking this easy way out?
But that too didn’t seem natural. And Trent found himself edging forward through the ranks of the newsmen, until he had reached the side of Mathieson.
The scientist was talking to one of the journalists as they rounded the corner of the Administration building. Now the rockets were in sight, standing tall and immense in the shadows.
Mathieson held his hand up in a gesture of halt, and the men behind him drew into a compact circle.
Fred turned to Mathieson.
“Dr. Mathieson, isn’t Dr. Gaddon going to be here for the launching?”
The head of the rocket project turned to Trent. Fred could see a suddenly puzzled look in his eyes.
“Yes, that is strange...” Then he laughed. “I suppose Gaddon is in the laboratory supervising the firing controls. Well, if he wants to miss the show, that’s his fault. He knows the schedule.”
Trent accepted the scientist’s words without replying. But he still wasn’t satisfied. What was it that Gaddon had said in the car about the biggest story of the year? What had the man meant? Question after question arose in Trent’s mind as he stood there, and always the queer feeling inside him grew in intensity. He could not place his finger on it, but somehow, he knew that something was wrong.
But then his suspicions were put aside for the moment as he heard Mathieson say:
“All right, gentlemen, the time is nearly here. In precisely one minute the rocket will be fired.”
The statement was made with a quiet eagerness, and then suddenly the gathered witnesses grew silent.
Trent’s eyes, along with the others, fastened on the looming bulk of the waiting rocket.
And the seconds ticked off in Fred’s mind.
As he counted them, he thought that it seemed impossible that within a very few moments that gigantic hulk of smooth, tapered metal would dislodge itself from the cradle it rested in with a burst of roaring flame. That in another few seconds it would shoot into the blackened sky, and in a few short minutes would reach unbelievable heights in the heavens, to the edge of space itself before the automatic controls released the instrument section to be returned safely to earth.
And the seconds passed.
Trent heard the voice of Mathieson rap the word out sharply.
And then there was a roar of sound from the cradled rocket.
A spear of flame shot from its base, exploding the night into a brilliant display of pyrotechnics.
The roaring grew louder as the tremendous power of the now unleashed rockets took hold of the night air. Fred watched as the flames grew white-hot bright, and then he saw the gigantic rocket shudder in its cradle.
The shudder grew into a spasm of movement, and then slowly, but steadily growing faster, the rocket lifted from its cradle.
Fred’s eyes were fastened on the rocket now, a feeling of awe sweeping through him. He suddenly realized how puny man was against the forces man could unleash. Forces that here were being utilized to scientific ends, but forces that upon a moment’s notice, could in turn be unleashed upon the rest of humanity in a burning, devastating terror of death.
And as the thought flitted across his mind, he saw the rocket gather speed as it left its cradle. It was now rising in a swift, sure arc, lashing into the dark sky like a fury.
And then the terrible speed of the rocket took hold against the forces of gravity and it shot into the heavens, its roaring becoming a fading hiss of sound, the brilliant flash of flame from its exploding tubes, a receding beacon of light that gradually faded to a pinpoint far over their heads.
After the terrific thunder of sound that had accompanied the launching of the rocket, the sudden silence now was almost palpable. The gathered witnesses stood mutely, awe still in their eyes, their ears still ringing with the sound of the takeoff.
Finally the voice of Mathieson broke the quiet night air.
“Well, gentlemen, that’s it. Tomorrow morning we’ll scout the returned section. It should land somewhere in the open country to the south. We’ve computed that pretty carefully. I guess that’s about all for--”
His voice broke off suddenly and Fred Trent heard what must have distracted the scientist.
A man was shouting from the vicinity of the second rocket, and as they looked, a dim figure could be seen staggering away from the side of the other rocket, coming slowly toward them.
“Good Lord!” Mathieson breathed. “What’s that man doing out there? He could have been killed!”
Then suddenly they saw the staggering figure stumble on the ground.
And then Trent and the others were racing across the ground to the side of the fallen man.
When they reached him, Mathieson came forward and knelt beside the figure.
“Why, it’s one of the guards!” he said in shocked surprise.
And it was then that the strange feeling of foreboding hit Fred again. As he knelt beside the groaning guard, it swept over him in a chilling wave. He lifted the man’s head from the ground and the guard opened his eyes. He recognized the face of Mathieson as the scientist looked anxiously in his direction.
“Good heavens, man, what happened? You were ordered to leave five minutes before launching time!”
The guard’s mouth opened as he struggled to a sitting position. The man’s hand reached up and touched the back of his head painfully.
“Sir--Gaddon--Dr. Gaddon attacked me...”
There was a momentary stunned silence as the soldier’s words sunk in on the gathered men.
“What?“ Mathieson’s voice was incredulous.
And as Trent watched the soldier nod his head, the suspicion he had felt suddenly overwhelmed him in a grim realization. Even as the soldier blurted out pain-filled words, Trent knew somehow what he was going to say.
“Gaddon--he pulled a gun on me ... He forced me to the far side of number two--he said he was going up in the rocket--he said he had plans--then he hit me with the gun ... I came to when the rocket went off--I was away from the blasts, luckily...”
Then the soldier was standing on his feet again, swaying as he fought to clear his fogged senses.
But Trent was no longer aware of the soldier. And he saw that Mathieson was no longer looking at the guard. For a brief instant their eyes met, and Trent saw a stunned look in the scientist’s, then Fred’s gaze swept up into the night. Up into the darkened sky where, miles above them, the hurtling rocket was even now reaching the apex of its flight.
Up where a man rode on a perilous trip into the unknown.
Gaddon hunched in the darkness of the rocket, waiting. He had counted the remaining minutes off, one by one. And he knew that finally the moment was at hand.
It would be too late now to stop him. They had not noticed his absence, and if they had, they would not delay the launching for him. He had taken that fact into consideration.
And now that the moment was close to completion, he felt a glowing sense of triumph within him. He would now show those fools, and especially Mathieson. He would prove conclusively that cosmic rays were what he had said they were--a source of the energy of life, a fountain from which youth and vitality would pour, making his body immortal. He would go down in history as one of the greats of science. A man who had risked his life to prove his theory. A man who would be the first to achieve the goal of the ages, the dream of the philosophers, eternal life.
The triumph would be his. All his!
And the rocket tubes exploded into sound.
Gaddon tensed in the darkness, gripping the safety straps he had attached to himself. Beside him he felt the cat let out a frightened mewing sound as the roar of the exploding rocket power grew. He felt the furry body rubbing against his side, seeking sanctuary against this dread sound.
And then the rocket trembled with sudden movement.
It was slow at first, but then it grew faster, and Gaddon felt a faint intensity of fear in his temples at the shuddering power of that movement.
And then he felt the blood draining from his head, making him faint with dizziness as the rocket accelerated suddenly into a terrible burst of speed.
He could feel it moving swiftly through the atmosphere now, feel the tortured rush of air that whipped against the sides of the projectile in a moaning dirge that mingled with the roar of the exploding rocket fuel.
And as the seconds passed, he became accustomed somewhat to the increasing velocity of the projectile, and the dizziness passed from his head. Then he became aware of the trembling body of the cat beside him and a soft laughter rose in his throat.
But it died stillborn as the roar of the rockets grew to a thundering hiss now in his ears.
And he felt the cool sweetness of the automatically released oxygen fill the chamber about him and he drank it into his lungs hungrily.
With each second now, he knew the projectile was racing higher into the rarefied atmosphere, heading steadily out to where the air of earth would be almost non-existent.
And a grim smile crossed his face in the darkness, for he knew that shortly the rocket would enter the outermost layers and the cosmic rays would play with all their energies upon the projectile.
And he tensed suddenly.
There was a glow that sprang into being in the chamber about him.
It was dim at first. But it grew steadily in intensity around him, revealing the interior of the chamber in its weird light.
An exultation swept through him then. He knew they had entered the field of the cosmic rays, and that the manifestation of light he saw was a result of those forces of nature.
Beside him the cat mewed plaintively in fear and huddled closer against Gaddon’s body. His eyes watched the tiny creature for a moment and then swept around the large chamber at the massed instrument panels that were recording every minute fraction of a second of the flight.
And the glow grew.
And suddenly the hissing of the exploding rocket fuel began to diminish in volume. The apex of the flight was nearly at hand then.
And the glow around Gaddon began to color. From a weird phosphorescent whiteness it changed to a dull but intense yellow. And with the change, a strange feeling crept through his body.
It tugged at him with invisible hands. It played upon his every nerve, his every fiber, the innermost feelings of his sensibility. It grew stronger, this alien probing within him, grew as the glow pulsed in the chamber around him.
And suddenly, instead of a fierce feeling of triumph, a sense of dread swept through him. He fought at the gripping sensations within him, tried to dispel them, to no avail. They grew stronger, like invisible hands that were changing the very essence of life inside him.
And as the thought passed through his suddenly tortured mind, he realized that was exactly what was taking place. A change. A change beyond his comprehension, beyond the understanding of any man. Beyond--
And the whining fearful mew of the cat beside him changed. It tensed against his body, and the whine in its animal throat became an irate hiss. He looked down and saw the hackles rising on the back of the cat, saw the creature looking up at him now, not with wide frightened eyes of appeal, but with a ferocity of wildness that brought a chill to his inner being.
And the glow grew around him, brilliant yellow in texture now. And with the increasing brilliance of the light, the feeling of change grew within him.
It was stronger than he now. It held his every heartbeat in its pulsing grip. It throbbed in his temples, ached to the ends of his toes, set his body aflame with it.
And the cat suddenly lunged against him, its sharpened claws biting through his garments and into his flesh.
His hands reached down in a quick movement and gripped the body of the cat. He tore the raking claws away from his body and held the cat in the air beside him.
The creature writhed in his grasp, fighting madly to escape. And as his grip tightened on the animal, the eyes of the cat suddenly locked with his.
He felt the forces within him reach a crescendo at that moment. And his body was frozen immobile, his eyes locked on the cat’s eyes, burning into the animal, the animal burning into him. Burning and burning...
It could only have been a matter of seconds, he knew. But they were seconds that stretched into the farthermost reaches of eternity. Seconds that lived a million years and passed in another fleeting instant.
And then he could move again.
And he felt strange as he moved. It was as if he was another person, as if the body he moved was alien to him, as if it had never belonged to him, to any man, to any thing.
And his eyes tore away from the now dulled expression in the cat’s eyes. He did not find it strange that this was so. He knew in some inner sense that the mighty life force in him had quelled the cat. Had stilled the fighting in its feline eyes.
And he saw his hands clutching the body of the cat.
He stared at them for a long disbelieving moment. For they were not the hands he had known. They were not the hands of Blair Gaddon. They were not the hands of any man. They were long and tapered and claw-like. There was dark fuzzy fur around them, fur that was cat-like.
Deep within him a fear struggled upward through his mind. A cold dread that forced his lips to move, to utter a gasp of the terror he felt.
And the sound left his lips.
It left his lips and echoed terribly in his ears. A harsh sound. A mewing sound. A cat sound...