The Year When Stardust Fell
Chapter 10: Victory of the Dust
By the time Ken was through with the ordeal in court, Art Matthews had succeeded in building an engine from entirely new parts. He had it installed in an airtight room into which only filtered air could pass.
This room, and another air filter, had been major projects in themselves. The science club members had done most of the work after their daily stint at the laboratory, while Art had scoured the town for parts that would fit together.
At the end of the hearing Ken went to the garage. The engine had been running for 5 hours then. Art was grinning like a schoolboy who had just won a spelling bee. “She sure sounds sweet,” he said. “I’ll bet we can keep her going as long as we have gasoline.”
“I hope so,” Ken said. “It’s just a waste of power to let it run that way, though.”
Art scratched his head. “Yeah. It’s funny, power is what we’ve been wanting, and now we’ve got a little we don’t know what to do with it.”
“Let’s see if we can find a generator,” said Ken. “Charge some batteries with it. Do you think there’s one in town?”
“The best deal I can think of would be to scrounge a big motor, say an elevator motor, and convert it. The one belonging to the 5-story elevator in the Norton Building is our best bet. I don’t imagine it froze up before the power went out.”
“Let’s get it then,” said Ken. “Shut this off until we’re ready to use it. To be on the safe side, could you cast some new bearings for the generator?”
“I don’t see why not.”
When he returned home Ken told his father for the first time about the project Art was working on.
“It sounds interesting,” Professor Maddox said. “I’m not sure exactly what it will prove.”
Ken slumped in the large chair in the living room, weak after his exertions of the day. “It would mean that if we could find enough unfrozen engines, or could assemble them from spare parts, we could get some power equipment in operation again.
“However, as Art said about this one engine, what good is it? Dad--even if we lick this problem, how are things ever going to get started up again?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve got one automobile engine going. Pretty soon we’ll run out of gas here in Mayfield. Where do we get more? We can’t until the railroad can haul it, or the pipelines can pump it. What happens when the stock at the refineries is all used up? How can they get into operation again? They need power for their own plant, electricity for their pumps and engines. All of their frozen equipment has to be replaced. Maybe some of it will have to be manufactured. How do the factories and plants get started again?”
“I don’t know the answers to all that,” Ken’s father said. “Licking the comet dust is only half the problem--and perhaps the smallest half, at that. Our economy and industry will have to start almost from scratch in getting underway. How that will come about, if it ever does, I do not know.”
To conserve their ration of firewood, only a small blaze burned in the fireplace. The kitchen and living room were being heated by it alone. The rest of the house was closed off.
“We ought to rig up something else,” Ken said tiredly. “That wastes too much heat. What’s Mom cooking on?”
“Mayor Hilliard found a little wood burner and gave it to me. I haven’t had time to try converting our oil furnace.”
Ken felt unable to stay awake longer. He went upstairs to bed for a few hours. Later, his mother brought a dinner tray. “Do you want it here, or would you rather come down where it’s warm?” she asked.
“I’ll come down. I want to get up for a while.”
“Maria is out in the shack. She has a scheduled contact with Berkeley, but she says the transmitter won’t function. It looks like a burned-out tube to her. She wanted to call Joe.”
Ken scrambled out of bed and grabbed for his clothes. “I’ll take care of it. Save dinner for me. We’ve got to keep the station on the air, no matter what happens!”
He found Maria seated by the desk, listening to the Berkeley operator’s repeated call, to which she could not reply. The girl wore a heavy cardigan sweater, which was scarcely sufficient for the cold in the room. The small, tin-can heater was hardly noticeable.
Maria looked up as Ken burst through the doorway. “I didn’t want you to come,” she said. “They could have called Joe.”
“We can’t risk disturbing our schedule. They might think we’ve gone under and we’d lose our contact completely.”
Hastily he examined the tube layout and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it was merely one of the 801’s that had burned a filament. They had a good stock of spares. He replaced the tube and closed the transmitter cage. After the tubes had warmed up, and the Berkeley operator paused to listen for their call, Ken picked up the microphone and threw in the antenna switch.
“Mayfield calling Berkeley.” He repeated this several times. “Our transmitter’s been out with a bum bottle. Let us know if you read us now.” He repeated again and switched back to the receiver.
The Berkeley operator’s voice indicated his relief. “I read you, Mayfield. I hoped you hadn’t gone out of commission. The eggheads here seem to think your Maddox-Larsen combination is coming up with more dope on comet dust than anybody else in the country.”
Ken grinned and patted himself and Maria on the back. “That’s us,” he said. She grimaced at him.
“Hush!” she said.
“I’ve got a big report here from Dr. French. Confirm if you’re ready to tape it, and I’ll let it roll.”
Maria cut in to confirm that they were receiving and ready to record. The Berkeley operator chuckled as he came back. “That’s the one I like to hear,” he said. “That ‘Scandahoovian’ accent is real cute. Just as soon as things get rolling again I’m coming out there to see what else goes with it.”
“He’s an idiot,” Maria said.
“But probably a pretty nice guy,” Ken said.
They listened carefully as the Berkeley operator read a number of pages of reports by Dr. French and his associates, concerning experiments run in the university laboratories. These gave Ken a picture of the present stage of the work on the comet dust. He felt disheartened. Although the material had been identified as a colloidal compound of a new, transuranic metal, no one had yet been able to determine its exact chemical structure nor involve it in any reaction that would break it down.
It seemed to Ken that one of the biggest drawbacks was lack of sufficient sample material to work with. Everything they were doing was by micromethods. He supposed it was his own lack of experience and his clumsiness in the techniques that made him feel he was always working in the dark when trying to analyze chemical specimens that were barely visible.
When the contact was completed and the stations signed off, Maria told Ken what she had heard over the air during the time he was in the hospital. Several other amateur operators in various parts of the country had heard them with their own battery-powered sets. They had asked to join in an expanded news net.
Joe and Al had agreed to this, and Ken approved as he heard of it. “It’s a good idea. I was hoping to reach some other areas. Maybe we can add some industrial laboratories to our net if any are still operating.”
“We’ve got three,” said Maria. “General Electric in Schenectady, General Motors in Detroit, and Hughes in California. Amateurs working for these companies called in. They’re all working on the dust.”
Through these new amateur contacts Maria had learned that Chicago had been completely leveled by fire. Thousands had died in the fire and in the rioting that preceded it.
New York City had suffered almost as much, although no general fire had broken out. Mob riots over the existing, scanty food supplies had taken thousands of lives. Other thousands had been lost in a panicky exodus from the city. The highways leading into the farming areas in upstate New York and New England areas were clogged with starving refugees. Thousands of huddled bodies lay under the snow.
Westward into Pennsylvania and south into Delaware it was the same. Here the refugees were met with other streams of desperate humanity moving out of the thickly populated cities. Epidemics of disease had broken out where the starving population was thickest and the sanitary facilities poorest.