The Year When Stardust Fell
Chapter 4: Disaster Spreads
While he stood, shocked by his mother’s statement, Ken heard the phone ringing in the next room. On battery power at the telephone central office, he thought.
His mother answered, and there was a pause. “Professor Maddox is at the college,” she said. “You can probably reach him there, or I can give him your message when he comes home.”
She returned to the doorway. “That was the power company. They want your father and Dr. Douglas to have a look at their generators.
“Ken, what do you think this means?” she asked worriedly. “What will happen if all our power goes off and doesn’t come back on? Do you think your father has any idea what’s causing the trouble?”
Ken shook his head. “I don’t know, Mom. So far, nobody seems to know anything.”
In less than 15 minutes, Professor Maddox hurried into the house. “Couldn’t get my car going,” he said. “It’s stalled on the campus parking lot. The power company wants me to go to Collin’s Dam.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Maddox. “They called here.”
He paused a moment, staring out the window, a look of bewilderment on his face. “This thing seems to be more serious than I would have believed possible. There’s just no explanation for it, none at all!”
“Any chance of my going along, Dad?” Ken said.
“I’m afraid not. We’re going in Dr. Larsen’s car, and it’s half loaded with instruments. I hope we make it there and back without breaking down.
“I’ll probably be back early this evening, but don’t hold dinner on my account.”
“There will be only sandwiches,” said Ken’s mother. “I can’t cook anything.”
“Of course. Just leave me some of whatever you have.”
From the doorway Ken watched his father and the other two scientists. He thought he detected a loginess in the engine as Professor Larsen drove away from the curb.
What they hoped to accomplish, Ken didn’t know, but he felt certain they would find the same thing in the generators that had been found in the automobile engines. The bearings were probably frozen so tight that they and the shaft had become one solid piece of metal. He hoped the scientists would bring back some samples of the metal.
By 4 o’clock all the members of the science club had arrived. They met in what Ken called his “science shack,” a small building next to the observatory. Here he kept the amateur radio equipment belonging to the club, and his own personal collections in the several different fields in which he had been interested since his Boy Scout days.
In each of his companions, Ken could see the effect of the feeling that now pervaded the town. Their usual horseplay was almost forgotten, and their faces were sober to the point of fear.
“We aren’t going to be able to run our blower by electricity,” said Joe Walton. “We can’t even get power for the precipitating filters.”
“Let’s scrounge anything we can find that runs on gasoline or coal oil,” said Al Miner. “If we act fast we ought to be able to pick up some old motorcycle engines or some power lawn mowers from the dump. Thompson’s have probably got some. We can try people’s basements, too. Let’s get as many as possible, because we don’t know how long any one will last, and we may have to run the blower for weeks, in order to get any kind of sample.”
“Good idea,” said Ken. “Here’s something else: Who’s got a car left to gather this stuff in?”
The boys looked at each other.
“Ours was still running this morning,” Frank Abrams said, “but I won’t guarantee how long we can count on it.”
“Pretty soon there won’t be any we can count on. We’ve got to get a horse and wagon before they start selling for as much as a new Cadillac used to.”
“My uncle’s got one on his farm,” said Dave Whitaker. “He would probably loan it to me, but he’s five miles out of town.”
“Take my bike,” said Ken. “See if he’ll let you borrow it and a wagon for at least a couple of weeks or longer. Bring some bales of hay, too.”
When Dave had gone, Al said, “What about the blower? Anybody know where we can get one of those?”
“I think there’s one at Thompson’s,” said Ted. “They pulled it out of Pete and Mary’s restaurant when they remodeled.”
“That would be just a little kitchen blower. Not big enough--we need a man-sized one.”
Ken said, after a long pause, “There isn’t one in town. The chances of getting one from somewhere else are practically zero. Frederick is 50 miles away and by tomorrow there may not be a car in town that would go that far.”
“Look,” said Al, “how about the air-conditioning systems in town? There isn’t one that’s any good where it is, now. Both the high school and the college have big ones. I’ll bet we could get permission at either place to revamp the intake and outlet ducts so we could put in our filters and precipitators. Your father and his friends could swing it for us at the college.”
“You might be right! It’s worth trying. For precipitators we can rig a battery-powered system that will put a few thousand volts on the screens. Art will let us have enough car batteries for that. I think we’re set!”
Dave Whitaker did not return until dusk, but he had succeeded in getting the horse and wagon, and a load of hay. He deposited this in his own yard before driving back to Ken’s place.
During the next two or three hours the boys found two old motorcycle engines, a power lawn-mower motor, and one old gasoline-powered washing machine. All of these they took down to Art Matthews’ place and begged him for space and tools to overhaul the equipment.
“You can have the whole joint,” Art said dejectedly. “This pile of junk will never move!” He waved a hand at the cars lined up and down both sides of the streets near his place.
By 9 o’clock they had succeeded in getting all of the small engines running, but they dared not test them too long, hoping to conserve all possible life that might be left. When they were through, they returned to Ken’s house. Mrs. Maddox had sandwiches ready for them.
No word had been heard from the three scientists who had gone to the power plant. Maria called, anxious about her father.
“I’m worried, Ken,” she said. “What would happen to them out there if the car breaks down and they have no place to go?”
“They’ll be all right,” Ken reassured her. “They probably found something bigger than they expected at the dam. If they should have trouble with the car they can find a phone along the road at some farmhouse and let us know.”
“I can’t help worrying,” said Maria. “Everything feels so strange tonight, just the way it does before a big thunderstorm, as if something terrible were going to happen!”
Ken sensed the way she felt. It was all he could do to hold back the same reaction within himself, but he knew it must be far more difficult for Maria, being in a foreign country among strangers with customs she didn’t understand.
“Why don’t you and your mother come over here until they get back?” he asked.
“Suppose they don’t come back at all? Tonight, I mean.”
“Then you can sleep here. Mom’s got plenty of room.”
“I’ll ask Mamma. If it’s all right with her, we’ll be right over.”
Ken hoped they would come. He found himself concerned beyond all reason that Maria and her mother should be made comfortable and relieved of their worries.
He went out to the backyard again, where all the other members of the club were still lounging on the grass, watching the sky. The comet was twenty degrees above the horizon, although the sun had long since set below the western mountains. No one seemed to feel this was a night for sleeping.
“Let’s try your battery portable for a few minutes,” said Joe Walton. “I’d like to know what’s going on in the rest of the world.”
Ken brought it out and turned it on. The local station was off the air, of course, and so was the one in Frederick. Half the power there came from the Collin’s Dam. More than one-third of the usual stations were missing, but Ken finally picked up one coming in clearly from the northern tip of the state.
The announcer didn’t sound like an announcer. He sounded like an ordinary man in the midst of a great and personal tragedy.
“Over three-fourths of the cars in the United States,” he was saying, “are now estimated to be out of commission. The truck transportation system of the country has all but broken down. The railroads have likewise suffered from this unbelievable phenomenon.
“All machinery which involves rolling or sliding contact between metal parts has been more or less affected. Those equipped with roller bearings are holding up longer than those equipped with bushings, but all are gradually failing.
“In New York City half the power capacity has gone out of commission. Some emergency units have been thrown into operation, but these cannot carry the load, and even some of them have failed. Elsewhere, across the nation, the story is similar. In Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Washington, San Francisco--the power systems are breaking down along with motor and rail transportation.
“For some hours now, the President and his Cabinet have been in session with dozens of scientific leaders trying to find an explanation and a cure for this disastrous failure of machinery. Rumors which were broadcast widely this morning concerning possible effects of the comet have been thoroughly discredited by these scientists, who call them superstitions belonging back in the Middle Ages.
“One final report has just come over the air by shortwave. In the Atlantic Ocean the Italian steamer White Bird has radioed frantically that her engines are dead. Over eight hundred passengers and crew are aboard.
“All ship sailings have been canceled since noon today. Vessels at sea are returning to nearest port. There is no ship available which can take off the stranded passengers and crew of the White Bird. She floats helpless and alone tonight in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“As a power-conservation measure, broadcasting on this network will cease until midnight, eastern standard time. Turn your radios off. Keep all unnecessary lights off. Avoid consumption of power in every possible way. Be with us again at midnight for the latest news and information.”