DEATH from the SKIES
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Amazing Stories October 1929, digital capture November 2007 by Doug Frizzle
Author of: "The Astounding Discoveries of Dr. Mentiroso” "Into the Green Prism," etc.
A Complete Interplanetary Novelette
Illustrated by Bob Dean
FALLING meteorites are nothing new. Even heavy showers of these falling things from the skies occur at certain stages of cosmic periodicity and can even be predicted approximately. But in the story the continuous falling of meteorites in concentrated sections of the world for definite periods and the attendant destruction of life and property puzzle scientist and layman alike. Even if the world were passing through a zone of aerolites of unprecedented density, how explain the attendant amazing phenomena? Mr. Verrill is an archeologist and ethnologist of note. In this story he digresses somewhat from his usual subjects, but with such gratifying results that we rather feel we ought to encourage him to do so again. We are sure you will agree that "Death from the Skies" is an interplanetary story of the first water.
A SHORT time ago I was one of the guests at a dinner given by one of my
"Let's see," remarked Gilmore of the Illustrated London News. "If I am not mistaken, you were well acquainted with Sir Paul Henderson, were you not?''
I nodded. "Yes, I was a very close friend—in fact, probably his closest friend. Why do you ask?"
"Because” he replied, "the fifteenth of next month is the anniversary of his death. We British revere him as the greatest of Americans. It occurred to me that, as the only man living who did know him personally, you might be willing to contribute an article to the 'News’ something with some personal anecdotes, you know."
"I'd be glad to," I assured him, "but I doubt if I can write very much that is not already well known."
He smiled. "It's amazing," he said thoughtfully, "how soon a great man's personality, the details of the most important events, are forgotten. The man's deeds may live after him, the aftermath of the events may remain, but the details, the human side, the actualities, soon pass into oblivion. I'll wager ten bob to half a crown that not five out of the eleven men here have any clear, definite knowledge of Sir Paul's life and those critical years of 1932 to 1934."
"Nonsense!" I exclaimed. "Why, that was barely forty years ago. I remember every detail as clearly as though it were last month. I'll take that bet, Gilmore, if you'll make it five quid."
"Righto!" he laughed. "It's a sure bet."
He won. But I should have known it.
Forty years back doesn't seem long to one who has passed the seventieth milestone, but it seems ancient history to a man of fifty, and I doubt if any of the five had reached even that age. For that matter, Gilmore safely could have offered odds and included eight out of the eleven present. Only he, Fawcett and myself had more than a very sketchy and cursory knowledge of those terrible two years, or of the man who, as Gilmore had said, should rightfully be considered the greatest of all Americans.
In fact, my experience that evening aroused my interest, and I began to make some enquiries and investigations among some others whom I knew. The results were truly surprising. I found that very few persons knew any of the details or inside facts of the greatest crisis through which the civilized world has ever passed.
So, having supplied Gilmore with the article he solicited, I have put myself to the task—a very pleasant and easy one—of relating the true and complete story of
I WAS in
I could hardly guess how close to my camp it had fallen, but from the brilliancy of its light, from the rush of air following its passage, from the concussion of its explosion, I judged it must be very near. I was, of course, curious to have a look at the thing.
Having at last calmed my men, I interrogated them, asking if any had seen it strike, if any had noted the direction in which it fell. Most of them had been far too terrified to take note of anything, but two of the more intelligent declared they had been facing the southeast, and had seen "the whole desert blaze into fire," as they put it, an instant before the report thundered in their ears. I determined to ride over and examine it in the cool of the late afternoon and, if it proved to be as large as I imagined, to radio to my friend, Professor Bixby, who was then in
But I had no need to send the message. Half an hour after the phenomenon had occurred, Professor Bixby was sending me a message. Brilliant light from a meteor had been seen in
I could and did, adding that I had intended to have a look at it that same day. But, as so often happens, plans go astray. That afternoon we uncovered a cluster of remarkable graves. I was fully occupied until dark, examining and carefully removing the contents of the tombs and the mummies, and the next day found me still busy with the find which, to me, was far more interesting and important than all the meteorites that had ever fallen. And, on the second day, another visitor dropped unexpectedly from the skies. This time it was a big military bombing plane, and from it stepped Professor Bixby and three assistants. He had lost no time in reaching the scene; he had come prepared to make an exhaustive investigation and study of the largest aerolite that had struck the earth in many years—centuries probably. He had already located it—from the plane—but explained that owing to the broken character of the surrounding desert—the meteorite had fallen about forty miles from my camp—a landing in its vicinity was impossible. Hence he had come to me as the nearest inhabitant of the desert. Of course I welcomed him, offered him the limited hospitality and resources of my camp as long as he wished to remain, and assured him he was welcome to the use of spare horses and pack-mules, for transporting himself and his equipment to the meteorite, where he planned to remain for some time.
The plane, having disgorged its cargo, taxied across the desert sands, rose slowly and regretfully, like a vulture disturbed at a meal, circled and roared off towards
I gave little thought to the Professor in the days that followed, but when a fortnight had passed and I had heard nothing from him, I began to feel troubled. He had carried water and provisions for ten days and had arranged to send back a peon for additional supplies before his stock was exhausted. But two weeks had gone and no peon had shown up. Very likely, I thought— laughing at my own fears—the supplies had lasted longer than he had expected; he had probably found that he would be through with his work in a few days, and he had decided he would not require more supplies for the short time remaining before he returned to join me. Yet I could not help worrying. Bixby, I knew, was no amateur at desert work. He had made expeditions into the Gobi, the
The response was prompt. Soon after daybreak, the big bomber swept down as before. Anxious and troubled, I climbed in; a moment later we were off and rushing into the sunrise. It was the same pilot who had accompanied Professor Bixby before, and he knew very nearly where the meteorite lay.
He had no difficulty in locating it, but there was no sign of life, no moving figures in the vicinity. What had happened? Dropping down, he circled over the spot as low as he dared. I stared, could scarcely believe my eyes. My worst fears were realized. Stretched upon the sand, scarcely distinguishable from the rocks and surroundings, as we circled over them, were the motionless bodies of men, horses and mules! It was horrible, ghastly. As if in a dream, a nightmare, I counted them; three, five, six, seven men dead—corpses under the blazing sun! I was glad we could not land. I shuddered to think of what we would find—of the horrors that would greet us now that the vultures had finished, for the loathsome black birds, like specks of coal upon the brown sand, were motionless, apparently gorged to repletion. Strange, I thought, that they did not move, did not flap their broad wings, showed no fright at our roaring motors and passing shadow! And then I gasped. Seizing the powerful glasses beside me, I focused them on the ghastly scene below. I was right. The vultures, too, were dead! There was not a living thing upon the desert beneath us! What did it mean? What had destroyed those ominous black birds? I was filled with a vague dread, a horror of the place, and I was more than ever thankful that it was impossible for us to land.
There seemed to be nothing that we could do except return to camp, travel across the desert and bury the bodies. But all other thoughts were temporarily driven from my mind by the news that awaited me at my camp. From various quarters of the world word had been flashed about the falling of huge meteors. Several had dropped in
Intently I perused the bundle of papers that had arrived with my mail from the mining camp at Chuqui-camata, during my absence. I studied the dates of the falling stars. They had not come all together. Several days—a week in fact—had elapsed between the time the meteorite fell so unpleasantly close to my camp and that which struck the earth somewhere in Arizona. The others had come, sometimes two or three on one day, at other times at intervals of several days. Evidently the earth was passing through an area of meteorites, but unlike such showers in the past, all these appeared to be of unusual size, and their appearance had not been forecast by astronomers. The papers were rilled with fanciful conjectures as to what might happen if one of the huge masses should fall in a large city or in a crowd. Imagine the loss of life, wrote some scare-head reporter, if such a mass of white-hot metal, projected with greater force than if hurled from any cannon, should strike a huge ocean liner. Imagine the death and destruction it would cause should it sweep down upon Times Square,
Scarcely had he vanished to the south when I received a radio message. It was from
The matter was getting serious. A meteorite had by chance struck where it had taken a toll of human lives. I radioed back: "Bixby and companions dead. Probably thirst. Recovering bodies tomorrow. Seen only from plane."
Yet, as I sat pondering on the matter, I could not understand how it was possible that the Professor and his men had all died of thirst. Why hadn't he sent to me for water and supplies? He must have realized that he was getting short. And even if, by some accident, the last of the water had been lost, he could have reached my camp. A day's riding would have done it, and he had horses and mules. The more I thought of it the more puzzled I became. Death by thirst doesn't come suddenly, doesn't strike down seven men at one time. And the horses and mules? They would have found their way to water or to my camp. The first vague, unreasonable dread that had possessed me in the circling plane returned to me. The dead men, the dead animals, the dead vultures! It was as if they had been struck down, suddenly destroyed by some malignant, invisible thing. What could it have been? Could it have had any connection with the meteor? Of course not, I decided. How could an aerolite affect men, at least after it had struck the earth and had cooled? Impossible! Tomorrow—I was interrupted by another message. This time it was from
Nothing startling in that at any rate. But as I continued with my excavations, I began to have a most unaccountable distaste for visiting the vicinity of the meteorite and recovering the bodies. There was no reason for my feelings, no sense in them. I was not squeamish, not sentimental, not afraid, not superstitious regarding human cadavers. I, an ethnologist, had violated far too many graves, had disinterred far too many dead, had handled far too many bodies in all stages of preservation to have any squeamish ideas left regarding them. To me a corpse was no more than so much animal matter devoid of life—usually a specimen.
But that does not mean that I had no sentiment for Professor Bixby's remains, that I was callous. Although, as far as I was concerned, my own body—once life had left it—might remain to wither and dry upon a desert, or might sink to the depths of the sea, yet I realized and appreciated the fact that other persons did not feel the same; that Professor Bixby's friends and relatives would no doubt feel easier if his remains were, to use the accepted term, given Christian burial, and that it was my duty, as the only white man near, to attend to the matter. Still, for some inexplicable reason, I tried to find an excuse for not doing so. It was a long, hard journey. I had a great deal to do. The bodies were safe there, why should I be in a hurry to attend to them? I would put the disagreeable duty off for a day or two. That night the second meteorite fell. I was awakened from a sound sleep by the fearful green glare; the ground seemed to spring up beneath my cot with the concussion of the explosion; I was thrown to the earth, and half-stunned, I heard the terrified shouts, yells and prayers of my men. Where the thing struck I never knew, but that it was either nearer than the first, or was far larger, was obvious. I admit I was frightened. There was no more sleep for anyone that night, and at daybreak my peons delivered their ultimatum. The place was cursed, they declared. I had brought down the vengeance of the gods by digging up the dead; they were leaving the unholy spot right away. I cannot say I blamed them, even though it meant the end of my work, the practical failure of my expedition. And I could not remain there alone even if I had wanted to do so. There was nothing for me to do, but to pack up and go. The men would not even wait to attend to the burial of Professor Bixby and his dead comrades, and by mid-afternoon our pack-train was winding its way across the desert towards Itchicama, the nearest railway station to the north.
One Chance in Millions
I FIRST learned of the developments that were taking place when, arriving at
"The above message from Dr. Merritt, engaged in archeological work in the Atacama desert is the first definite news received of Professor Bixby and his assistants who left
"Reports of other meteorites having fallen in various parts of the world are still being received. Up to the present time, however, the only direct loss of life or property reported is that of the Cape to
"The unprecedented fall of many meteorites of unusual size has created a widespread interest, especially among scientists. No reports have yet been received from the several expeditions that have set out to investigate these strange celestial visitors."
I picked up the Commercio of the 21st. "Meteor Causes Loss of 300 Lives Near
And astounding it was. According to the official reports, the train had not been destroyed by a meteorite as first reported. A rescue and relief train sent out from
Evidently no new meteors had been seen for the next few days, for the papers reported none. Instead,, they devoted their columns to speculations and the theories and the opinions of eminent scientists and astronomers on the subject. For once there appeared to be little dissent among scientific men. All agreed that the immense size of the meteorites was unprecedented, but declared that otherwise the shower had not been unusual or remarkable. They pointed out that meteorites fell almost nightly, that many reached the earth each year, and that many meteoric showers of much longer duration and of many more aerolites had repeatedly been witnessed and recorded in the past. Had the recent meteorites been of usual size the shower would have caused no comment. Scientifically it was extremely interesting and very fortunate, for there would now be an adequate supply of meteoric material to enable a complete and exhaustive analysis and examination to be made. New elements and minerals might be discovered; the results might throw a new light upon the composition of the planets, stars and comets. Indeed, the total mass of meteoric material might be sufficient to be of commercial value. Whether they were stony or metallic could not be stated as none of the expeditions had yet reported their findings. And they unanimously agreed that the danger to human life or to property—even if the fall continued—was almost negligible. They pointed out that all the cities and settlements on the globe, if placed together, would cover only a very minute portion of the earth's surface; that scattered as they were, there was not one chance in millions of a meteorite falling in a town, and they triumphantly pointed to the fact that, as far as known, no city had ever yet been destroyed by a falling meteorite during the world's history. The chances of human beings being struck was even smaller. There were only two records of such casualties known. That hundreds of persons had been killed on the African express was indisputable. The only logical hypothesis to account for it was that the meteor had passed close to the train, that its tremendous heat had generated noxious gases that had destroyed the crew and passengers. But, the scientists declared, such a disaster might never happen again; it was mere chance—one chance in millions.
The effect of the unprecedented descent of the meteors upon the public as a whole was, however, quite different. Many people of a religious nature saw in the phenomena the approaching end of the world. Fanatical orators stood on street corners calling on the people to repent and prepare for death. They recalled the Biblical story of
Soothsayers, mind-readers, spiritualists and other charlatans did a rushing business. In several localities, too, serious revolts and riots had occurred. The natives of
Even intelligent, thinking people had let their imaginations get the better of their brains. They had promulgated and published the most far-fetched and ridiculous theories to explain a perfectly natural, if unusual, event. The editor of one widely-read and influential weekly devoted several pages of his publication to an editorial in which he sought to convince the world that the meteors were not fragments of celestial bodies attracted to the earth by its gravity, but actually were projectiles hurled at us from some other planet—presumably Mars. He quoted portions of Wells' "War of the Worlds." He pointed out that Mars was at the nearest point to the earth for many years, and offered data to prove it; that every meteor that had fallen had struck the earth at a spot exactly where it might be expected to strike if it had been projected from Mars, and he confidently prophesied that the bombardment would be continued until the inhabitants of earth had been destroyed, or until the planet had passed out of range of its neighbor.
This fantastic article brought down a storm of protesting and a deluge of assenting complimentary replies. Indeed, the intellectual public had, almost overnight, become divided into two parties: those who adhered to the Martian theory and those who did not. Politics, prohibition—all other issues—had been forgotten in the controversy over the meteors. There were cartoons, jokes, even comic pages devoted to the subject. Skits on the vaudeville stage touched upon it, and Life contained a humorous article scoffing at the poor marksmanship of the "Martian gunners" and calling attention to the fact that out of more than one hundred "shots," they had made no direct "bull's-eye." And as the bombardment or shower had apparently ceased, and as no great damage had been done, interest and discussion had begun to wane. Murders, holdups, and scandal had again taken their accustomed prominent places in the press, and the whole affair promised to be relegated to the limbo of the past and forgotten in a few weeks. Still, however, the matter was kept more or less alive. The latest papers published brief paragraphs and editorials quoting interviews with prominent scientists, and endeavoring to arouse interest by calling attention to the fact that no word had been received from any of the parties that had gone in search of the fallen meteorites. I even came in for sharp criticism for not having recovered the bodies of Professor Bixby and his comrades; but on the following day the Mercurio retracted and explained my reasons for having made no real effort to do so.
THUS matters stood when I sailed from,
"Close shave that!" exclaimed the officer as he rushed forward to ascertain what damage had been done. "I'll say it was!" cried a passenger. "What was it? Did you see it?"
"Another meteor," I replied, "must have struck the sea near us. It—" A terrified scream from a lady interrupted me. "Look! Look!" she shrieked. "Another!"
We rushed to the rails. Across the sky another flashing, blazing, fiery mass was rushing. For an instant we held our breaths, speechless, terrified. With a roar that was like a distant railway train the meteorite swept overhead; the sea, the ship was bathed in a green light as bright as midday. The thing receded, the light faded, and we breathed a sigh of relief. A moment later a brilliant light, like a flash of distant lightning, illuminated the southern horizon and, muffled by distance, we heard a faint detonation.
"Struck somewhere," commented a passenger. "Wonder where."
"Looks as if the blamed things had started again," said another. "Well, thank God, they missed us!"
The rest of the evening was spent in talking of the event. Again discussions waxed warm, and voices rose high in the smoking-room as the men argued, theorized, contradicted and speculated. But as no more meteorites fell, we rose one by one and retired.
The next morning, as I stepped from the alleyway on my way to the dining saloon, I found an excited group before the wireless bulletin. "My God!" I heard some one exclaim.
"Awful!" cried another.
"Heard the news, Doc?" shouted a young engineer, as he caught sight of me. "That meteor fast night hit
I pushed my way through the throng and gasped as I read the terrible, almost incredible news that had been radioed from
At last one of the meteors had hit a bull's-eye. The one chance in millions had occurred. Stunned, awed by the terrible catastrophe, brought so near because we had actually seen the meteor fall; realizing how close we had come to annihilation ourselves, we said little and ate little. Speaking in low tones, wondering what later messages would reveal, striving to convince ourselves that the ultimate investigations would reduce the losses reported, we gathered in knots and groups. But when the next radio message was received, the news was even more terrible than the first. The city was still blazing, no one had been able to enter it or approach it, but as far as known not a single inhabitant remained alive! More than this, human life had been snuffed out on every vessel in the harbor, hundreds of the inhabitants of suburbs within several miles of
Every effort was being made to rush aid, doctors and supplies to the stricken district, but the electric power of the railway had been cut off, several bridges were down, and airplanes were the only means of reaching the locality.
It was terrible, ghastly, a worse disaster than the eruption of Mont Pelée in
Meteorites Continue to Fall
LATER news was more reassuring, however. The meteorite had done comparatively little damage to the city proper. It had struck on the outskirts, had destroyed several mills, lumber yards and hundreds of cattle, and, as in the case of
But the worst effect, perhaps even more regrettable than the actual loss to life and property, had been the destruction of the morale of the public. Now that two cities had been bit, that hundreds or thousands of lives had been taken by the visitants, deadly fear had gripped the people. In every city and town throughout the civilized world, the inhabitants were living in momentary dread of being the next victims. It was even worse than in
Then another mystery was added to the matter which had again become the absorbing topic of the world. Planes had been sent in search of the various scientific expeditions, and several had disappeared. Others had returned bringing word that they had been unable to land, but had seen the bodies of men lying about their camps, exactly as I had seen Bixby's party. And when planes had been sent to search for the missing planes, which—presumably—had crashed, they had returned with white-faced, wide-eyed men who told strange tales of seeing the missing machines standing unhurt near corpses, and with no living men on board. The question in everyone's mind was this—what had caused these deaths? Why had everyone died who had approached a meteorite? Scores of scientists replied over the radio, through the medium of the press, by word of mouth. Gases, they declared. Unquestionably gases were given off by the molten masses. Such immense amounts of metal would require days, weeks, to cool off. The scientists had been too impatient to investigate the things and had not taken into consideration the danger of heavy poisonous gases that might surround them. No doubt, they added, the deaths of so many apparently uninjured persons, near where meteorites had struck the towns, and the deaths of those on the
This was the news that came to us as we steamed northward, after the destruction of
That it had some inexplicable and as yet undetermined connection with the meteorites was the natural assumption, and the most prominent medical authorities openly expressed their conviction of this relation. They demanded rigid quarantines, called for volunteers to combat the rapidly-spreading disease, and warned everyone to immediately move from districts where meteorites might fall. But the public—fickle as always and with that strange unaccountable antagonism for all things scientific—refused to listen. They refused to believe the aerolites had any connection with the new and malignant disease. The papers poked fun at the doctors, they ridiculed them, declared it was merely their excuse, an attempt to cover up their own ignorance, and offered rewards for anyone who could advance a tenable theory as to how a mass of meteoric iron could spread any malady. The whole thing, they announced in bold headlines, was refuted by the truths of medical science. Diseases were the result of germs, of microbes. Germs could not exist when exposed even to moderate temperatures, such as that of boiling water, yet if the physicians were to be credited, masses of metal, heated to incandescence, had been germ-carriers. It was preposterous, an insult to the intelligence.
Avidly we bought copies of the Star and Herald, the Panama American and the various
No longer was the public divided into factions adhering to the Martian or non-Martian theories of the meteors' origin. Now it was the meteoric or non-meteoric origin of the epidemic, and while scientists, authorities, officials, the army and the public bickered and quarreled and argued, hundreds of people were dying each day, the doctors and nurses were being decimated, and the world was in an uproar. The controversy had even spread to the
Both were on the way to the States, and, someone having informed them that I was the man who had reported seeing Professor Bixby and his comrades dead upon the desert, they turned to me.
"What did you think?" demanded the Colonel. "What was your opinion of meteorites carrying some strange disease?”
"I don't pretend to think," I assured him. "I know Professor Bixby and his men, as well as his animals, are dead. I know that they were near the meteorite.
"At the time I thought it strange that they should have died of thirst. But I don't pretend to know what killed them—whether it was gas, bandits, or disease. But I'm intensely interested. The matter may solve the problem of what caused the disappearance of prehistoric American races—the Mayas, pre-Incas and others. Such a fall—or the fall of a few such meteorites with similar accompanying phenomena might—"
The Colonel haw-hawed. '''Dammit!" he exclaimed, "according to this sawbones here your blasted Mayas might have come down hangin' onto the damn things. If doodle-bugs can come down on a meteor, why not men? Answer that if you can, Major Waite?"
"First let me ask you a question," replied the Major. "If—"
But his question was never asked. One of the passengers came hurrying up.
At Cristobal we had confirmation of this latest and most terrible disaster. An enormous mass of incandescent matter had fallen in the heart of the ancient city. The concussion had been so terrific that glasses and windows had been shattered in
Doctors, nurses and others, who had gone to the assistance of stricken districts had, it is true, fallen victims to the fatal sickness, but the medical authorities pointed out that, if the malady was the result of some localized effect of the meteorites, this was to be expected. And they proved beyond question that if people within the affected areas were quickly removed to other localities— even a few miles from the scene—they usually recovered and many showed no ill effects. A few died, but, as a rule, lassitude, exhaustion, sometimes delirium and at times a comatose state for a few days were followed by complete recovery. Even the public became convinced at last that the affliction was the result of some germ or gas from the meteorites, that in case one fell their safety lay in hurrying from the scene instead of remaining to save their effects or the injured. Organizations were formed to see that this was done, and every city was in the condition of a town threatened with bombardment by an enemy.
Almost immediately all interests, all news, all efforts were centered on this phase of the terrible affair. No one knew when a meteorite might fall, no one could forecast where it might strike; there was no way of averting them, it was a matter of chance, but the epidemic, the deaths that followed could be checked, could be fought. Near every great city and even near the more important towns, bodies of soldiers, as well as volunteers, were stationed, equipped with ambulances, motor transport and every modem device for life-saving and rapid transportation, ready to hurry all survivors from the scene in case a meteorite should fall. And every spot, where one had struck anywhere in or near an inhabited district was surrounded by armed troops or police to prevent anyone from approaching the danger zone. Had it been possible to secure portions of the aerolites, scientists might have been able to discover the source of the deadly effects, and devise some means of counteracting them. But so far every attempt to secure a fragment had been futile. Several daring men had tried to approach the fallen masses, using the latest forms of gas-masks, clad in germ-proof clothes, but in every case they had been struck down and almost instantly killed before they could reach their goal. Various devices and suggestions had been made to render the horrible death-dealing masses of metal innocuous. They had been drenched with the most powerful antiseptics and germicides, but without result. Planes, flying above them, had dropped immense numbers of bombs whose explosions had hurled hundreds of tons of earth upon the meteors, burying them completely, and still without in the least affecting that invisible death area that extended for a mile or more in every direction.
And daily, nightly, the meteorites continued to fall, sometimes singly, sometimes several at a time. Several were seen from our ship, some far distant, some uncomfortably near. The sea was fairly covered with dead fish, whales and gigantic sea-monsters from the unfathomed depths of the ocean. There were stupendous giant squids or cuttlefish, enormous octopi, and weird, horrible fishes with immense jaws. The supposed myth of the sea-serpents had long since been proved the unvarnished truth. Their dead bodies had been seen floating by scores of ships, and there was not one but many species. Some were like huge overgrown eels, others were veritable serpents related to the venomous sea-snakes of the Pacific and Indian oceans, others were left-overs from prehistoric times—plesiosaurus- and icthyosaurus-like creatures, while a few were more like gigantic turtles with small leathery shells and immensely long necks. At any other time they would have excited the wonder and interest of the world, but now, in the excitement, the panic and the mad helplessness of the people, no one gave them a passing thought. But the dead denizens of the oceans' depths were not to be lightly ignored. They formed windrows upon the shores, and presently pestilence resulted from the decomposition of the thousands of tons of rotting fish. Armies of men were detailed to destroy them, countless millions of gallons of disinfectants were sprayed upon them. They were gathered by trainloads and burned in huge pyres. A few ships also had been struck or destroyed by meteorites falling close to them. No one could say how many or what 'vessels. There was no time to send an S. O. S. if one swept down and annihilated a vessel with all on board. If the meteorite hit the water within a mile of the doomed ship, .every soul on board perished from the gases or germs or whatever it was that surrounded the aerolites like an aura of death, and only when a vessel failed to arrive at its destined port and was posted as missing, did the world assume that it had fallen a victim to the meteoric projectiles.
By the time we reached
And then, on the 18th of September, the expected blow fell. Throughout the length and breadth of our country the sunlight was dimmed by the blinding, dazzling flashes of terrible light. People went mad with the thundering reverberations of falling aerolites, the terrifying concussions as they struck the earth. On every side flames and dense clouds of smoke arose, the earth was torn up, forests were leveled by dozens of the gigantic meteorites, and when at last the bombardment ceased, more than one hundred thousand lives had sped, and San Francisco, Richmond, Detroit, Springfield, Buffalo, New Haven, Concord, Saratoga, Dayton, Trenton, Atlanta, Biloxi, Tucson, Dallas, Denver and Seattle were in ruins. So terrific, so overwhelming, so indescribable was the loss of life and property, that only a brief paragraph in the papers reported the fact that the Panama Canal had been completely destroyed, that Gatun Lake had been transformed to a vast, muddy, pestilential plain, that thousands of men, women and children had been killed upon the Isthmus.
Everyone—even the most conservative—now believed the end of the world had come. All hope was abandoned; in the face of such a catastrophe, human beings were helpless. All who had means sought to escape from the accursed land. Every available ship in every remaining port was filled to overflowing with refugees, fleeing they knew not where, seeking wildly, hopelessly to reach some spot where the blazing destroyers would not strike. But they were no better off than those who resigning themselves to fate or unable to flee, remained at home. Dozens of the ships vanished with all their human freight, A few were sighted, derelict, floating aimlessly with their decks littered with dead. Only a few ever reached port. Even the bravest, the stoutest-hearted began to abandon all hope. Even the most optimistic were overwhelmed. Could it be that the end was really near?
An Astounding Discovery
IT was at this crisis, at this time when the world seemed a chaos, when civilization seemed doomed to be wiped from the face of the earth, when everyone was aghast, numbed and helpless in the face of such a stupendous, overwhelming catastrophe, that Paul Henderson appeared upon the scene. One day he was an inconspicuous citizen, a man scarcely known outside his own circle of family, friends and business associates. The next he was the most famed, most widely known, most discussed man in the entire world. In every country every newspaper blazoned his name, hundreds of millions of people were familiar with his face and features. From an obscure author who wrote imaginative fiction based on fact, "sugar-coated pills of science," one reviewer called his stories, and an amateur scientist, he rose overnight to world-wide prominence, to be hailed as the savior of the earth.
An article in the New York Times had accomplished the miracle. Quietly, unobtrusively he had been working for weeks along unique and original lines. He had formulated a theory, had experimented, tested, investigated, until he had convinced himself that his theory was correct, and then and not until then he had called on the editor of the paper, had expounded his theory, had related the story of his activities, and had given a summary of the results. A special edition of the paper had published the astounding news and, so important did the editor consider it, of such public benefit that, instead of making a "killing" with the scoop, he had transmitted it to every paper, every news syndicate, every press organization throughout the world, and had made immediate arrangements to have it broadcast from every radio, station that still remained in operation.
He had felt no ill effects, and, a few days later, had approached even nearer the thing. This time he had felt ill, he had experienced a roaring in his ears, partial blindness, and other alarming symptoms. He had, however, quickly recovered, and realizing that his costume was not proof against the discharge from the meteor, he had devoted several weeks to improving it. Then he had once more approached the mass. This time he had felt no effects, he had actually reached the meteorite, and with the greatest difficulty, had chiseled off a small portion. For several days thereafter he had been prostrated, but no sooner had he recovered than he had buried himself in his laboratory studying, testing, experimenting with the only known specimen of the aerolites that had worked such havoc and destruction with the world.
His results confirmed his theory. The bit of meteorite emitted a new ray, a terrific discharge of waves. Placing it near a live rabbit he had seen the creature die, had dissected it, had spent days and nights making a microscopic examination of its vital organs and tissues. He had determined conclusively that the brain was affected, that the discharge from the piece of meteorite completely altered the molecular structure of the brain, that it upset or disintegrated the arrangement of the molecules, perhaps of the atoms and their electrons.
"But," to quote the article in the Times, "Mr. Henderson was not yet satisfied. He had risked his life to secure the sample by means of which he had established the validity of his theory; he had convinced himself of the cause of death, the action of the fatal ray; but could he be sure that all the meteors possessed the same characters and emitted the same rays? Once more this daring young man took his life in his hands and entered the dread area of death surrounding another meteor. If his hypothesis was correct, if all of them were alike, he was safe, for he had perfected his ray-proof costume until tests with the fragment he had secured had proved it one-hundred per cent resistant. But if he was wrong, if the ray or the vibratory waves from this second meteor varied in the slightest from the first, he would have sacrificed his life for the cause of humanity. The world may be thankful that he was right. He secured more specimens, continued his tests and experiments, and now is positive that his theory is the correct one; that, equipped with his devices, human beings will be immune to the deadly rays. Moreover, he has discovered that animals, even when apparently dead from the effects of the ray, may be revived and show no indications of ill-effects. This, Mr. Henderson accomplishes by means of a powerful electric current so designed as to create a vibratory wave of incredibly high periodicity, which appears to have the property of reorganizing the disarranged brain-cells. We believe, and we are confident that the public will believe, that Mr. Henderson has made the most important discovery of modern times. And like every epochal discovery, it is extremely simple. It is in fact astounding that among all our so-called scientists, our medical men, our technical experts, nobody had thought of a deadly ray or emanation of ions as the basis of the fatal area about the meteorites, and the more so as the death-dealing discharge from radioactive minerals is so well-known. So many unfortunate deaths have, in the past, occurred from so-called radium poisoning—the destructive action on tissues and bones of radium discharges, that the public is thoroughly familiar with the deadly character of radioactive minerals. We are indeed surprised—now that Mr. Henderson has announced his truly remarkable discovery—that some scientist did not suggest that the celestial destroyers might contain radium in sufficient quantities to cause death to human beings. That no such theory was advanced was doubtless due to the fact that this new ray, discovered by Mr. Henderson, acts only upon the brain and leaves no trace that is discernible to the naked eye. Although Mr. Henderson's discovery does not relieve the world of the constant fear of descending meteorites, though it does not aid us in combating these irresistible agents of destruction, though it does not throw any light upon their origin or cause. Yet it will be the means of saving hundreds of thousands of lives. As is generally known, the loss of life through the immediate and direct contact of the meteorites is comparatively small as compared to the loss of life resulting from the hitherto mysterious emanations from them after they have fallen. Not only will Mr. Henderson's discoveries enable us to entirely counteract and overcome this deplorable sacrifice of lives, but it will enable us to save those who are struck down by the rays. Mr. Henderson is the greatest benefactor of the human race in countless centuries; he has most providentially come forward, when every effort, every attempt to mitigate these world-wide disasters have failed; he has been the direct means of saving millions of human lives, and gratitude, thanks and honor to Mr. Henderson should fill every human heart throughout the entire world. We call upon our officials and our governments immediately to provide every citizen with the ray-proof equipment designed by Mr. Henderson. We demand it; the public, humanity, demands it. Every hour, every moment of delay means loss of life, the loss of perhaps thousands of lives. Nothing, no human power can control the descending meteors. Tonight, tomorrow, one may destroy
FOR once, wonder of wonders, the governments acted. For once in the world's history there was no arguing, no conferring, no slow unwinding of red tape. Politics, diplomacy, budgets, authority everything that would hinder immediate action was scrapped. For once the officials and the executives realized that whatever was done must be done at once. Every resource was, as the Times had demanded, as the public now demanded, devoted to turning out the
He had found how to protect human beings from the deadly rays of the meteorites, could he not find a means of protecting the world from the meteorites themselves?
It seemed, on the face of it, an impossible task, a dream, something far beyond human possibility. But he was not the type of man to whom anything appeared impossible. No one was more appreciative of the marvels of science, no one was a greater believer in its future developments and wonders. For years he had been accustomed to dream of that future, to imagine accomplishments beyond the dreams of ordinary men, to visualize seemingly miraculous and impossible events, and then to explain them, to produce them along scientific lines in his stories. Here, ready-made, an actuality, he had a theme, a plot, a situation more dramatic, more intense, more terrible and far more mysterious and insoluble than anything he had ever imagined in his wildest fancies. Could he not, he asked himself, treat it like one of those fancies? Could he not work out, little by little, the details, logically correlate the facts, as he would the ideas in a story, and reason from effect to cause? And, once he placed his finger—or his mind rather—upon the cause, would it not be possible to find a remedy? He believed it would.
He had followed the same method in his successful explanation of the fatal effect of the meteorites. If it worked in one case, why shouldn't it in another? He shut himself up, concentrated his mind, cudgelled his brain. He covered hundreds of sheets of paper with notes, data, possibilities, the wildest of fancies and suppositions. And slowly, gradually, out of the mass of thoughts, conjectures, reasoning, facts, data and theories, certain undeniable truths emerged.
Coincidences—the ever handy and useful accessories of fiction writers, had, he knew, their limits. Coincidences did not repeat themselves over and over again. They were the exception rather than the rule. Could it be that a coincidence could account for so many cities being struck when there was so much more unoccupied territory where they might have fallen? He mentally decided no. Admitting this, could the laws of chance or coincidence explain the indisputable fact, that there were well marked cycles of meteor-falls, that each of these bombardments, so to say, was largely centered upon a definite and rather restricted area of the earth's surface? Again he shook his head. Granted that it was not chance, not coincidence, then what was it? If the earth were passing through an enormous meteoric area, if it were passing through the tail of a comet, if it were passing through a dark nebula, as the scientists claimed, it might account for the periodic showers, but it could not account for the other facts that he had decided were not explicable by laws of chance. Meteorites, striking the earth during such a passage, would of necessity strike here, there and everywhere. The earth was whirling about on its axis, it was rushing along on its orbit. Falling meteorites, if left to chance, would pepper its surface indiscriminately. There was not one chance in millions —he recalled the confident words of the astronomers— that they would strike buildings or towns, there were still more remote chances that they would strike several towns the same day or night, and there were still more slender chances of their striking several towns in one portion of the earth's surface. And yet—he referred to his carefully tabulated data—of all the thousands of meteorites that had been reported, fully twenty per cent had made hits on towns, cities or thickly inhabited districts. Still more remarkable was the fact that many had struck ships at sea. What, he wondered, were the mathematical chances of a falling meteorite striking a moving vessel? For a few moments he worked rapidly, covering a sheet of paper with figures. At the result he dropped his pencil and whistled. He had taken the area of Long Island Sound, had added up the combined areas of the decks of all the vessels that, normally, should be upon the Sound at one time, and the result astounded him. Even in such a small congested body of water the area of water compared with the deck area of shipping was almost infinite. What must it be on the vast expanse of the mighty oceans? The human brain could scarcely conceive it. It would be one chance in billions that a vessel would be hit!
"No!" he exclaimed jumping from his chair, lighting his pipe and pacing the room excitedly. "It is not chance. It cannot be. And if the meteorites are not guided by chance, then of a certainty, they must be guided by something, by some power, some purpose, some intelligence! I am sure of it. But who will believe it? And whence do they come? Who, what, is the power that is hurling these terrific, awful projectiles at the earth?"
Professor Henderson's Conclusions
ALTHOUGH Mr. Henderson (he disliked intensely being referred to as Chevalier Sir Don Paul Henderson, Marquis de Givanni, Duque de Zaragon, etc., etc.) possessed a far from superficial knowledge of most sciences, there was one of which he knew very little. This was astronomy, and it was astronomy upon which he must depend largely in his present needs. But if he was not a practical astronomer himself, still he had at his disposal all the astronomical notes, observations and data that had been written or published upon the meteorite, from the time of the first one that had fallen in
It was at this time that I first became acquainted with him. We met at the home of a mutual friend, and were soon conversing earnestly. Perhaps it was the fact that I had reported the first of the meteors, or it may have been my interest in the phenomena, or the fact that I was something of a theorist and a scientific iconoclast myself, that attracted him. But at all events he evidently took an immediate liking to me, a feeling which I reciprocated, and from that moment we were fast friends. I spent a great deal of time with him, and, so I flatter myself, my suggestions and ideas helped him considerably in his work. But I do not wish to take any of the credit that rightfully and wholly belongs to him. He was, also, greatly interested in and considerably impressed with my theory that the mysterious and abrupt termination of prehistoric American cultures might have been caused by a similar meteoric visitation in past ages. "But," he objected when I first mentioned and explained this to him, "if the civilizations had been wiped out by meteorites, why have no traces of such meteors ever been found? They would be as enduring as the stone sculptures." "That," I replied, "has always been one of the strongest arguments against the theory, but your own discovery has done away with it. Ordinary meteorites are, we know, practically indestructible and will remain practically unaltered for immeasurable periods of time. But these aerolites are not of the ordinary type. You have proved that they are continuously emitting showers of radiant energy, perhaps of ions, and this discharge must of necessity result either in the decomposition or in the diminution of the original mass. This is an unalterable law of nature, and while the loss to radium, for example, is so slight as scarcely to be detectable, the loss in the case of these meteoric masses may be extremely rapid. In that case, is it not probable that any meteors—similar or identical with these—which may have fallen in past ages, would have completely disintegrated and disappeared in a few thousand years?"
"Well, I hadn't thought of that!" he exclaimed. "It will be interesting to find out. I’ll weigh the pieces I have and we'll soon see."
The result of the tests was to prove conclusively that the shrinkage of the material was, comparatively speaking, very rapid. The fragments in
"I guess you're right," he declared. "At that rate the decrease would be approximately one thousandth a year, and a one-thousand-ton meteor would disappear completely in ten centuries. Now I wonder—but of course there is no way to prove it—I was wondering if there haven't been regularly recurring cycles of these falls. You see, if there have been such, it would explain a lot of mysterious things in the past—all those old prophecies and legends—Sodom and Gomorrah, the earth being destroyed by fire, the end of civilizations, the inexplicable exodus and migration of entire races, even perhaps the glacial period. And it might explain where these things originate, where they come from. It's a darned pity—" he sighed regretfully, "that there weren't scientists and astronomers in those days, so we could look up the records."
I laughed. "You're not very complimentary to the astronomers, I said. "I notice you draw a distinction between them and scientists."
"He also reported the time he observed them and gives the position of one, but he doesn't state whether the time and position were when he first saw them or after they had been rushing through space for some time. The old fellow in
I shook my head. Then a brilliant idea came to me. "I take it," I said, "that your effort is to prove whether these meteorites are natural falls—the chance visitors from some dark cosmic space of meteoric character through which we are passing—or are being projected at us from some other planet with malice aforethought. In order to do this you are trying to get some sort of tabulated, comparative data from astronomical observations; but you find that—despite the fact that the meteorites were the most important things in the universe—the star-gazers were far more interested in working out their own fads and foibles than in checking up on the meteorites."
"Righto!" he assented.
"In that case," I continued, "isn't it possible that you might get results by finding out exactly what these self-centered astronomers were so intently watching on the nights when the meteors fell? If, for example, you found that half a dozen men all had their telescopes focused on the moon, and that all or the majority of these six men reported—even casually—that seven meteors had fallen on the night of August 31st, and if you found that six other astronomers had been watching other planets or constellations and that a majority of these men had failed to record the full number, wouldn't it prove that the things come from some point in the direction of the moon? And if you found that, night after night, the same held true, wouldn't it tend to prove that all had a common origin? On the other hand, if on different days they came from different points, wouldn't it tend to prove the reverse? And you could check up on your conclusions by finding exactly where the seven hit, whether, taking into consideration the earth's angle, its rotation, and the reported position of the meteors, they struck where they might have been expected, if they had come from the assumed direction."
He sprang to his feet and clapped me on the back enthusiastically. "Who says two heads are not better than one!" he cried. "That's a bully idea. Now we can get somewhere!"
"And there's another matter that has occurred to me," I reminded him. "A lot of the meteorites have fallen in the daytime. You can find out if any of these were mentioned by astronomers, just where they had their telescopes focused, and thus prove fairly conclusively from what direction the daytime meteors fell. And if that checks up with the altered position of the earth in its rotation, and if the things struck where they might have been expected in relation to the altered position of the earth's surface, you can be positive that you are on the right track."
"Merritt!" he exclaimed, "I never would have believed an archeologist had so much—"
"Common sense—" I suggested with a laugh.
"No-o, not that," he grinned. "But such a grasp of matters entirely outside his own particular—well, science."
"An archeologist," I informed him, "finds logical reasoning and roundabout methods the shortest road to reaching desired goals. We, you must remember, seldom have any real facts or data to work on. Instead of unraveling puzzles by deciphering inscriptions, we must, in nine cases out of ten, decipher the inscriptions by first unraveling the puzzles. And you must also remember that archeology is hardly a science. It is a combination of many sciences—to be a good archeologist one must be a geographer, a geologist, a botanist, a naturalist, an engineer, an anatomist, a philologist, a zoologist, an ethnologist, a paleontologist, and several other ologists. And, preeminently, one must be a theorist and must possess a vivid imagination. You, my friend, would make a most excellent and eminent archeologist."
"And if I, or someone, don't get at the bottom of this mystery and find how to get the better of these meteors, there won't be any need of anyone but archeologists in a short time," he declared. "Do you know," he continued, "that at the present rate, if this destruction continues, every town and city on earth will have been utterly destroyed within the next fifty years?"
I gasped. "No, I didn't," I admitted. "But," I said, "is it possible that these meteors can continue to fall at the present rate for the next fifty, even for the next two years?"
"I don't see why not," he replied. "If they are natural, and we are passing through a vast aggregation of them— through a disrupted star as Professor Dutcher claims—they might continue for fifty or one hundred or more years; they may fill hundreds of thousands of miles of space. And if they are being hurled at us from some other planet, if we are being bombarded by the damnable things with the intention of destroying us, they'll continue to come until our enemies on the planet have exhausted their ammunition or have succeeded in their devilish design."
"Do you honestly believe that is the solution?" I asked.
He nodded. "Yes," he declared. "And why not?" he continued. "All thinking people are convinced that the planets are inhabited by rational beings of some sort. In all probability—considering the age and the environments and the conditions of those planets—their inhabitants are immeasurably ahead of us poor humans in every way. It seems like the wildest sort of fiction to think of the denizens of one planet bombarding a neighbor, hundreds of thousands—even millions of miles distant. But it would have seemed fully as much like impossible fiction had I or anyone else, previous to 1914, suggested that human beings could hurl explosive shells at an enemy fifty miles distant. It would have seemed just as preposterous to have suggested, twenty years ago, that not only human speech but moving life-like images of human beings could be transmitted through the air across the
"No," I admitted, "they would not. It doesn't seem possible to me yet. In fact, I think it is that feeling of unreality—that feeling that it can't last—that has made the people as a whole act in the way they do and have done. If it hadn't been for you, Henderson, half the population of the earth would have been annihilated before now. And even now you're the only man in the world who is really working along lines that may result in any real benefit or may bring a cessation of this horror."
"What!" I cried. "Why, I thought that was precisely what you did believe—what you had proved. Why, your entire life-saving and protective apparatus was based on that belief!"
"Not exactly," he replied. "I did at first think so, I admit. But if you read the first article on my findings, you'll see that I said that I believed and had proved that death resulted from some unknown ray, discharge or waves. And I've pretty well proved, to my own satisfaction, that it's waves—some sort of electro-magnetic waves. And what's more"—he became very earnest— "I'm convinced that the waves do not originate in the meteorites!"
"Then for heaven's sake where do they originate?" I demanded. "You say they emanate from the things, but don't originate there. You're talking in contradictions,
"No, I'm not," he declared. "When you listen in on a receiving set and hear sounds brought to you by radio waves, do those waves originate in the set?"
"Of course not," t replied, "they originate in the transmitting apparatus."
"My God!" I ejaculated, "you mean that you think these horrible things are not only hurled at us as projectiles, but are capable of receiving and then transmitting waves that destroy human life?"
"That's precisely what I do believe," he replied.
"But why?" I asked. "Why shouldn't the inhabitants of whatever planet it is (if it is any) turn their rays on us directly? Why go to all that roundabout method?"
"For the same reason that we humans do not transmit our sound waves and power waves directly, without going through the roundabout method of transforming sound waves to electro-magnetic waves, transmitting the latter, and then, in a receiving apparatus, transforming them back to sound waves again. In other words my theory is that the death waves cannot be transmitted through space—at least for any great distance— but that they can be superimposed upon, or transformed into, some other type of waves, and that these transmitted through space, are received, transformed to death rays and are discharged—perhaps tremendously amplified —by the meteorites.”
"But," I objected, loth to admit such a revolutionary and terrible hypothesis could be true. "To accomplish anything of that sort would require a complicated, delicate piece of mechanism, while these meteors are masses of solid metal—molten, incandescent, almost fluid, when they pass through our atmosphere and strike the earth. How can any mass of metal do any of the things you suggest?"
"That's a question no one can answer," admitted
"I'm afraid I won't be of much use," I said, "but I'll be only too glad to help all I can. Why can't we organize a corps—an army, a multitude of men, to work together on this problem? If two heads are better than one, two hundred or two thousand or two million should be just so many more times better."
"No use," he declared with finality. "I've tried it, the papers have tried it. What's the result? Discussions, controversies, ill-feelings among the scientists. They won't work together. Each has his pet hobby, each is jealous of the others or ridicules him. And they all go off on tangents. Get so damned interested in their own particular line of research that they forget everything else. I tell you, Merritt, that the average professional scientist is the most impractical, pig-headed, narrow-minded, self-centered, unimaginative man on earth. And when it comes to an emergency, he gets as rattled, as confused and as nervous as an old woman. And he's so darned absent-minded. Take old Professor McCurdy. When
"I admit a lot you say is true," I interrupted, "but how about the practical men, the imaginative men like yourself; the hundreds, thousands of men who must exist, who have a knowledge of scientific matters, who are broad-minded and willing to work on a theory, no matter how extravagant, and who could work in conjunction with you?"
"They're all too busy with other matters," declared
“How long ago?” demanded the hunter. “Where did he go?”
"My dear fellow,” exclaimed the artist irritably, “How do you imagine I can concentrate my brain on the shadow tones of that canyon and be cognizant of the exact hour and minute of an event which was a confounded nuisance? And I hope he's gone to the devil and that you'll follow him.”
Hurled from Mars
I LEFT Henderson deep in his researches and calculations. He was, I thought to myself, a most remarkable man, an undoubted genius, a man whose brain was not only a veritable storehouse of the widest, most diversified general knowledge, but capable of drawing upon that vast accumulated store when needed, and yet, in addition, quite capable of ignoring all the facts it contained and soaring, unimpeded, into the greatest heights of fancy and imagination. I chuckled to myself as I recalled his tirade against scientists. If ever there was a true scientist he was one himself. But I realized there was only too much truth in what he had said. And I could not blame him, could not blame anyone for being rather disgusted with the behavior of scientists—or I might better say scientific specialists, in the terrible crisis through which the world had been passing for the last eleven weeks. They had fallen down completely. Not a single statement or promise they had made had been borne out. They had by their own disagreements and contradictions, tacitly admitted they were at an entire loss, and yet they had refused to listen to or to consider any suggestions or theories of others. Even when
A few weeks earlier, the news of a meteorite striking a town was announced by glaring headlines in special editions of the papers, crowds gathered and in frightened excited tones discussed the disaster, and people lived in constant dread. But now, unless the town was a most important city, a column or less would be devoted to it; it scarcely aroused comment on the streets, and people lived, went about their business and slept as soundly as though the world were quite normal.
And towns and cities were constantly being rebuilt with a sublime confidence that—like lightning—meteorites would not strike twice in the same spot. But if Henderson was right—and I felt confident he was—the destruction was exceeding the construction and, if they continued to fall, it would be only a question of time before—as he had said—the world would be in ruins. It was an appalling thought, the more so perhaps because the devastation was proceeding so gradually that it was not obvious. It was like some terrible, incurable disease; like slow paralysis, and, like paralysis, there would come a day when, with a start and a shock, the world would come to a sudden realization that it was doomed. Perhaps it was largely realization of this inexorably slow but sure fate, that convinced me that
Just below Mars a tiny point of light appeared in the sky. Like a distant airplane it moved slowly across the heavens. Swiftly it increased in size. The heavens seemed to pale. In a brilliant, dazzling flash it vanished beyond the distant horizon.
I laughed hoarsely. "All right, you damnable beasts!" I exclaimed. "Send them down! Do your worst! But our turn will come."
The only answer was a dull, far-distant detonation, the muffled explosion of the falling missile, as we believed it to be.
By the next morning more than twenty meteorites had fallen upon the harrassed world—more than during any previous twenty-four hours. And nine had struck cities and towns. The average of hits was still being sustained. Fortunately, however, no really important nor very large cities had been destroyed, but northwestern
Needless to say I lost little time in reaching his home, a remodelled farm in
"I suppose you've read the papers," he exclaimed, as he greeted me. "Twenty-three of 'em in the last twenty-four hours, and nine bull's eyes! But it's an ill wind, etc., you know. I'll bet you couldn't guess where I spent the night. After you left I did a lot of figuring along the lines you suggested—I'm glad you were here and thought of it—and then I went over to see old Fothergill. He's an astronomer you know, not a scientist"—with a laugh—"just an amateur. Astronomy's his pet hobby; rich as the devil and spends fortunes on his fad. He's the fellow who writes on 'Housetop Astronomy’ you know, and runs that column in the News —'Stars of the Month'—signs himself 'Aries.' He's a sensible chap, and I told him my idea and that I wanted to use his telescope—with his help of course, and we spent the whole night watching for meteors. We spotted seventeen, and watched eleven—couldn't follow all at once, you see—and, Merritt, every one of the eleven came from the same spot and followed exactly the same course! And the place where they first came into sight, and the course they followed tallied exactly with all my calculations!"
"Fine!" I ejaculated. "Did you come to any conclusions as to where they originated? Was there any planet at the place where they appeared?"
"We didn't expect there would be. We—"
"Great Scott, man, I thought you did expect they came from some planet." I cried.
"Sure," he declared, "but the things don't come straight any more than a bullet; that doesn't travel in a straight line. They come from the devil of a distance and have to be aimed away ahead of our old world in order to hit it. And of course they're not visible until they're pretty close to us — within our atmosphere. Even a thousand-ton meteor is a mighty small thing to see a few miles away. So you see, old man, when we catch sight of 'em, they're on the last lap of their journey and the final curve of their trajectory, and the place they come from would be way off to one side—might be out of sight on the other side of the world in fact."
"Then how on earth are you going to find out where they come from or if they come from anywhere?" I demanded.
"I'm afraid I couldn't," admitted
"By Jove!" I exclaimed. "Then you think—it's certain they are hurled at us from Mars!"
"I'm sure of it," he declared. "But to make assurance doubly sure, I've given Fothergill all my figures and data on the past falls. He's going to go over them, check them up, and try to work out the curves and see if they agree with last night's. Then we'll be dead certain."
When, soon after noon, Fothergill’s results arrived, there was no doubt of it. Even with the casual observations of the astronomers, who had recorded meteors, and the meager statistics regarding them to go by, the millionaire amateur astronomer had proved conclusively that in every case, the meteorites had come from practically the same location in the heavens, and that, in every case, that point coincided almost precisely with the position of Mars. But Fothergill had gone even farther. He assured
"That," I declared, "is the most important thing yet,
"But none will believe it," he replied. "Even if the public has faith in such prophecies, the scientists and officials will pooh-pooh them."
"The only way to be sure of that is to try it and see," I said. "I admit that in the beginning no one would have listened to such theories, but after making your other discoveries and proving them to everybody's satisfaction, I think they'll have faith in you now. Besides, you've got Fothergill to back you up. Even if he's an amateur, as you call it, his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics is acknowledged by the most eminent scientists. They can't scoff at him or his hard and fast facts."
The next day
"The one would be as sensible as the other," the writer concluded. "If it were not so serious it would be farcical," declared another paper. "Even in these days there are limits to human credulity. We do not desire to belittle Lord Henderson's—or is it Professor Henderson's—intelligence and attainments, nor do we overlook or underestimate what he has given to the world already; but this time we feel sure his imagination has got the better of his common sense. All astronomers and scientists, to whom we have submitted the matter, agree that it would be utterly impossible for inhabitants (admitting there are inhabitants) of Mars or any other planet to project meteoric or other masses of metal through space so that they would strike the earth. It would be, they state, like" attempting to hit a six-inch shell with a rifle at a distance of several thousand yards from the projectile. Even assuming that, if countless hundreds of thousands of objects were discharged from Mars in the hopes that a few might by chance strike the earth, it would be still more impossible to direct any of these so accurately as to intentionally strike a city. It would be beyond the capabilities of any intelligence to compute the frictional resistance of our atmosphere, the wind currents and the thousand and one other local factors that would affect the passage of a meteor falling through our atmospheric envelope. Regarding the mathematical data that have been submitted in proof of the theory, we have been assured by several of the most eminent mathematicians that almost any theory may be mathematically proved if the mathematician assumes a certain factor and works backward from that factor. The whole thing is interesting, entertaining and would form a most excellent plot for a work of fiction. It outdoes Jules Verne and Wells, but as fact we cannot accept it. If Doctor, or is it Chevalier, Henderson, and his associate, Mr. Richard Fothergill, fee! so confident of their 'discovery,' we would suggest that they go a step farther and prove their claims by giving a forecast of the coming meteors—a prophecy as to the cities that are doomed —by the Martians—to be destroyed during the next few days."
To my surprise such scurrilous articles, and the downright insulting comments, the criticisms and accusations—not to mention the disbelief and ridicule—that
"Fools! Idiots! Consummate asses!" he cried, his gray hair and beard fairly bristling. "Anything they cannot understand is impossible. Impossible, faugh!* The only impossible thing in the universe is to find common sense in the average human being! Intelligence, fiddlesticks! They haven't any. They're still running about, as purposeless as ants in a dunghill. I'm not sure —no, I'm not by any means sure that they deserve being saved from their own stupidity. I'm not by any means certain that the world would not be better off without them. I'm not positive that I'm not in thorough sympathy with the Martians. If they can observe us—as they probably can—I can scarcely blame them for endeavoring to annihilate us."
(* Editor – in almost every story there are new words and grammar that are strange to me. This example is interesting for the pronunciation and meaning.)
"I won't put it quite as strong as that," said
"And how, may I ask, are you going to stop them?” demanded Fothergill.
"How would you stop the bum from jumping into the river as soon as your back was turned?" laughed
"I'm afraid you'll have a hard time doing it," I observed. "And even with your knowledge—even though you, Fothergill, myself, and thousands of others are convinced that these damnable things are being shot us from Mars, I cannot see that, as yet, you have evolved any scheme for stopping them."
"No, I admit I haven't—yet," he replied. "But if I could convince the disbelievers that we can foretell the danger areas on certain dates, we could save a lot of lives as you yourself said."
"Then for Heaven's sake why haven't you done it?” I asked. "If you had published a warning and it had been borne out, the public would be forced to believe.”
"For two reasons," replied
''But no longer," he continued rather savagely. "We’ve convinced ourselves we can prophesy pretty accurately—we both agreed that last night's fall would concentrate on northeastern Canada and it did—Quebec, Halifax and part of Montreal went; and it's better to frighten a few hundred people to death or to drive them insane than to have thousands killed. We've worked out the probabilities of tomorrow's bombardment, and I'm going to publish it today."
I gasped. "Then you really can—you, you think—.
For God's sake,
He smiled. "You see how excited you get over it," he replied. "And you're not a nervous man. You can imagine what the effect will be upon others—particularly women. But I'm convinced we've got to use the homeopathic principle. If our calculations are not at fault, you'll see by the Thursday papers that several of
When the papers appeared containing Henderson's statement that the meteorites falling on Wednesday would be concentrated on the British Isles, and that Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Carlisle or other Midland and northern cities would probably be hit, the effect was manifold.
Some scoffed at the prophecy, made fun of it, regarded it as a joke or a hoax. Sporting people laid wagers on it. One paper, in an editorial, sarcastically thanked Henderson for being so considerate as to divert his Martian projectiles from the United States to England, and remarked that it was a great pity he had not made his "discovery" at the time of the World War, as in that case he might have induced his Martian friends to devote their attentions to Germany. Many were loud in their denunciations, declaring that
I do not, of course, know how the public at large felt, as the time drew near for the fulfillment of
The World Is Saved
BEING the most prominent and popular man in the world has its drawbacks.
By far the greater portion of the cables and radiograms came from
Many of these offered
But Fothergill was not yet appeased by any means. The way in which the public had received his and
"That's human nature for you; one minute denying the possibility of the real, the next asking for the impossible. But I'm willing to do all we can. I'm ready and willing —only too glad—to collaborate with
I smiled. "But, my dear Mr. Fothergill," I expostulated, "your money—even your millions, are limited. Suppose—just suppose—that you or Henderson should evolve a theory as to how to prevent the attacks, or if not to prevent them, how to mitigate them. It would cost an enormous amount to provide the world with devices or apparatus or whatever it might be to carry your discovery into effect. No single fortune could pay for it. Why, think what it must have cost to provide the public with
"Humph, that's a different matter," he declared, a twinkle in his eyes. "Yes, once we make a discovery— and prove it—I'm willing that the public or individuals should finance it to completion."
"Bother the financial end of it," burst in
Fothergill sniffed. "The first portion of your remarks I concur with fully," he said. "But even your master-mind, Paul, your marvelous imagination, and your almost uncanny abilities will never, I am sure, be able to cope successfully with the super-intellects that are directing these projectiles from Mars. So I suggest that we eliminate any such ideas from our minds for the present, and leave our brains free to work out the involved calculations that are of paramount importance."
As the result of the calculations, the papers throughout the world on the following day published a forecast for the succeeding week. And as the world read, it stood aghast. Never before had the public fully realized what the bombardment from the heavens really meant. But now, as they read the prophecies, as they saw city after city doomed to swift destruction, as they read the cold print telling them that their own homes would almost certainly come tumbling to ruins on a certain day, the horror, the awfulness of the relentless destruction was brought home to them.
People opened their papers with fear and trembling, dreading to see the name of their own city in the list, hoping against hope that it would not appear, and yet realizing that, in its very appearance, they were being saved from probable death. And, aside from saving countless lives, the forecasts saved millions, billions of dollars worth of property. The governments took charge and whenever a city's probable destruction was forecast, every effort was made to remove everything of great or irreplacable value from the city. All records, archives, art treasures and public property were kept in constant readiness to be moved at a moment's notice, and every citizen was warned to be in readiness to move, bag and baggage, the instant his city was included in the prophecy. At first, of course, little was salvaged in this way. The forecasts covered only a few days, or a week at most, in advance. But as Henderson and Fothergill labored incessantly, and grudgingly, employed a large corps of trained scientists and mathematicians as assistants, they were able to extend their forecasts, and within a few weeks the papers were publishing the names of cities and the districts to be devastated two or three months in advance. Hence there was ample time to move all the most important valuables to areas beyond the spheres of destruction. When
His announcement met with the heartiest response and universal approval. The whole world had completely altered in its attitude towards
And then came his greatest, most epochal discovery. The meteorites—projectiles I should say—still lay wherever they had fallen. The earlier ones had, of course, dwindled in size through their loss by the constantly emanating death-waves. But every one was a constant source of danger. To venture within the area of their waves without being equipped with the wave-proof outfits meant death, and it was neither practical nor possible for human beings to constantly wear these cumbersome suits. Moreover, since Henderson's and Fothergill's forecasts had become universally accepted and proved, there had been no occasion to wear the garments. And while the public had learned to give the things a wide berth, and barriers had been erected carrying warnings about every projectile, still they were a danger and a great nuisance. There were so many of them, and in some districts they were so near together, that the arable lands and available city sites were greatly restricted. And as time went on there would be more and more of them accumulating. Hence
He was convinced that this was possible, and with his samples of the projectiles, he set patiently, doggedly to work along these lines of reasoning.
So when my phone rang one afternoon, and I heard
"Come over as soon as you can!" he cried. "It's wonderful! Absolutely astounding! I want you to be the first to see it."
"What's astounding?" I asked. "Have you found what you were looking for?"
"No," he yelled, "but something a lot better. Come on!"
I found him even more excited and enthusiastic than I had judged from his voice. He was fairly aglow with enthusiasm.
"Now put on this wave-proof suit," he cried. "I'm going to show you something that'll make your eyes pop out."
As he spoke he was donning another of his suits, and wondering what on earth it was all about, I obeyed his instructions. Then he led me to his laboratory.
"See that?" he cried, pointing to a lump of black mineral that I recognized as a fragment of one of the meteorites—projectiles rather.
"Well just watch it," he cried.
As he spoke, he began arranging a complicated-looking device of wires, magnets and small vacuum tubes upon the bench.
"Now!" he exclaimed. "Keep your eyes on it—ready; one, two, three!" As he uttered the word "three" he pressed a switch, and as if shot from a gun, the fragment of mineral leaped from the table and struck with a resounding thud against the ceiling where it remained. I stared, mouth gaping, at the thing. What the devil had shot it into the air! Why did it stay there as if fastened to the ceiling?
I heard a click as he moved the switch and instantly the bit of metal tumbled back to the table."
"Well I'll be—" I began
"No you won't," he chuckled, interrupting me. "But I don't blame you for being flabbergasted. I was myself."
"But, what does it mean? How's it done?" I demanded.
"It means the salvation of the world," said
"If you can explain how you think it's saved, I can judge better," I told him. "I may be awfully dense, but I fail to see how this trick of popping the bit of mineral up and down—remarkable as it is—can save the world."
"Yes, I must admit it. You are dense," laughed
"There are two hypothetical explanations for that. There may be some intrinsic property of the stuff that causes it to be repelled. But I doubt that. On the other hand, we know—at least I feel sure—that the death-waves are actuated by some other form of waves coming from Mars. In other words there is a direct radio connection or communication established between Mars and these projectiles here on earth.
"We know—everyone familiar with electricity and radio knows—that certain waves may be nullified or obliterated or even completely altered by the impingement of other waves. Very well; assuming that there are waves connecting Mars with every one of these masses— with every fragment, and assuming that the combined wave and current I have here strikes that Martian wave, what happens? Why, up flies the bit of Martian metal until it plunks into the ceiling and has to stop. But does it fall back? Not a bit of it. There it sticks despite all the laws of gravity, until I shut off my magic and back it comes.
"In other words, and to relieve the strain on your mentality, old man, I've nullified or altered or annihilated the wave that connects Mars and this precious little lump of cussedness, and so there's nothing for the dear thing to do, but run home and tell mother up in Mars. But as there's a ceiling in the way, it can't go home and just sticks as far up as it can go."
"You mean," I exclaimed, trying my best to understand just what he did mean and overlooking his flippancy, "You mean that the only thing that holds the meteorites—or whatever they are—on earth, is the wave or ray or whatever it is that connects them with Mars, and that when it is shut off they fly back to the place they came from?"
"I can't say that is exactly my theory," he replied. "I'm not quite prepared as yet to scrap the idea of gravity, or that solid metal will not remain on earth without outside help. No, what I believe is, that the waves connecting these things with Mars are the same waves, or a portion of the same waves, that were used to send them here and to direct them. And I believe—in fact I am sure—that my little dinkus here produces a combination that reverses the Martian waves and causes them to attract just as powerfully as they repelled. If that—"
"Lord!" I shouted in my excitement. "Then you think that with proper devices you can cause these—these projectiles, to leave the earth and hurl themselves back to Mars?"
"Precisely." he declared. "Now you see, Merritt, what I meant when I said the world was as good as saved."
I got up and paced the floor, my mind in a turmoil, striving to think the thing out, to find flaws in what seemed an incredible and yet such a reasonable theory. It was too big to be grasped at once. The idea of an electric current and a radio wave being able to lift those enormous masses and project them through space was beyond belief. I turned to Henderson, who was amusing himself by shooting the bit of mineral into the air and letting it drop back.
"But, Paul," I demanded, "how do you know it will work on a big mass of the stuff? Don't a lot of experiments work on a small scale and fail in a big test? And —well, somehow I can't believe a wave, electricity, can have the power to move such things. Why, man, it would take more gunpowder than there is in existence even to fire one of the darned things a few hundred yards."
"No, I don't suppose there is," I admitted. "But," I added, "I'm still a bit of a doubting Thomas, and I'd like to see one of those thousand—or even hundred-ton meteorites go skyshooting off into space, just because you turn a switch near it."
"That, my dear friend, is just what you shall see," he assured me. "As soon as I can rig up a large enough apparatus, I'm going to make the test. Now don't say a thing about this. Keep it mum until we know. I'm not going to be laughed at again, and I'm not going to get the whole world in a state of expectation and then disappoint it. I haven't even told Fothergill yet, but just as soon as I'm ready, I'll invite you both to the test, and if I'm not terribly mistaken, we'll have the supreme satisfaction of seeing; some of these unwelcome visitors go tearing back to their senders."
I chuckled. "In that case," I said, "I wonder what the Martians will think when the things come shooting back to them."
"Yes, I wonder," he said. "But I'll guarantee that if it works out as I expect and hope it will, the Martians won't enjoy it. They'll be getting a taste of their own medicine. I wonder if they've got any big cities to be knocked to pieces. Too bad we can't watch the results."
I could hardly contain myself for the next few days. I dreamed of
"I've another item that will interest you,"
"If they hit—" I reminded him.
"Oh, I'm confident they will," he replied. "If we can start 'em off they'll go home to roost all right."
Our first objective was a meteorite—no, projectile— about fifty miles from town. It was one that had fallen several months previously, one of the same shower that had destroyed
"Besides, there are two or three others not far away," he said, as we raced along the
Reaching the vicinity of the projectile,
"Too bad we couldn't get nearer the thing," he grunted as he lifted some instrument from the car. "And too bad we couldn't bring along some husky lads to carry these things. But we'll manage somehow. There's plenty of time and we can take one at a time if necessary."
I admit that it was hard work getting the things up to the meteorite, but we accomplished it at last. I had never been so near one of the things before, and I looked at it curiously. It was three-quarters buried in the earth, a harmless-looking, blackish, slightly rusty mass that might have been a huge boulder. But, for several hundred yards about it, every vestige of vegetation had been completely wiped out Remains of charred trees and piles of ashes covered the upthrown earth that was burned a vivid brick-red, and for nearly a mile in every direction the trees had died, and stood gaunt, pathetic testimonials to the heat of the thing when it fell.
"How close to the darned thing shall I put this box?" I asked
He scratched his head and grinned. "Hanged if I know," he admitted. "We don't want to get too near. When that baby wakes up and starts for home, he's going to kick up a lot of dust and dirt and raise the devil about here. I've tried out the things in my laboratory, and if the big ones work on the same principle and in the same ratio, then we ought to be able to give it a kick from about fifty yards off. But I'll make it surer and say thirty yards. That's safe enough. Don't you think so, Fothergill?"
"H-m-m, I should imagine so," he assented. "Aside from the dust and dirt it throws off, I cannot sec that there is any danger to be apprehended. If your theory is correct—as I have no doubt it is—it will be drawn, not projected from here. In that case there should be no concussion, no recoil. It should leave its bed smoothly and silently. I think even ten yards would be quite safe."
"We'll split the difference and say twenty, then," grinned
Very quickly the boxes were unpacked, the various instruments assembled, and the innumerable connections and wires properly arranged by
"All O. K.!"
There was a sharp click, a deafening roar. I was lifted from my feet, whirled about, spun like a top and thrown flat on my face. Confused, gasping, scared, the breath knocked from my lungs, I sat up and stared about. A few feet away Fothergill was blinking his eyes, spitting dirt from his mouth, rubbing his shoulder. Off to the other side
The next instant I leaped to my feet and let out a yell like a Comanche. The thing had vanished! Where it had rested a moment before was only a shallow pit into which dirt and pebbles were slowly sliding. I could not believe my eyes. Then, as I gazed at the spot, I was aware of a peculiar greenish light that seemed to flood everything.
"Hurrah!" he yelled, "it worked! Number one's off on its way!"
"But what the deuce happened?" I asked, still confused and a bit breathless.
"I hadn't thought of that," replied
He stepped towards his instruments and bent forward, Fothergill leaped upon him with a sharp cry and flung him back.
"For God's sake, don't touch it!" he yelled. "Do you want that blazing thing to come hurtling back here?"
What Happened to Mars
"What's it all about?” I queried. "What did you come near putting your foot in,
The others laughed heartily. "Don't you understand?" cried
"And, possibly, even then it might return," put in Fothergill, "that's a matter we—or rather you, Paul—hadn't thought of."
"Hold on," I warned him. "I don't want to be here when it comes back."
"No danger to us," declared Fothergill. "If it returned now, it wouldn't strike here. The earth has moved a good many miles since it left. But you could not feel certain one way or the other if you did switch off the current, Paul. Even if it returned you could not distinguish it from a new body."
"H-m-m, that's so," admitted
"I think," said Fothergill judicially, "that by operating at night we may be able to determine if it is essential to keep your apparatus in action in order to prevent their return. We could then watch the—er—objects until they were barely visible. Then, if you switched off your device and they continued to recede, we could be quite sure at they would not return."
I confess that, as Henderson shut off the current, I had a feeling of apprehension and, ridiculous as it was, I couldn't help glancing up, half-expecting to see the huge mass of incandescent metal come hurtling back at us. But nothing happened. I might have realized that nothing would, for at the tremendous speed at which it was traveling, it would be far on its journey and some time would be necessary for it to overcome its momentum and drop back to earth even if it did return. Packing up the instruments, we carried them to the car, doffed our cumbersome outfits, and drove away. There was no sense in going back to town, for there was another of the Martian projectiles a few miles distant, and evening was not far off. We dined at a little country inn, and then turned west as the afterglow bathed the world in soft rosy light.
Twilight was fading into night when we reached our destination, and by the time the instruments were set up it was pitch dark. This time we were careful not to get too close to it, and, to avoid being blown one way and sucked another by the blast of air and the following inrush, as the projectile left the earth, we lay flat upon our faces, as
"Now we'll see!" cried
With fast-beating hearts and tensed nerves, we kept our eyes fixed upon that remote speck of light. For an instant it seemed to waver, to remain fixed, and our hearts fell. The next second it flickered and vanished.
"I really can't see that it makes much difference as long as they go," I said, "and," I added, "I don't see how you're going to find out anyway."
"I don't, either," admitted
"Possibly," remarked Fothergill as we packed up the instruments, "by observing the trajectories followed by the departing objects, we might be able to ascertain which theory is the correct one. If it is the Martian wave that operates them, I should assume that the masses would return to Mars. But if it is merely an anti-gravitational effect, or is due to a reversal of a magnetic property, there is no logical reason why they should return to that particular planet. They would more probably head for the moon."
HALF an hour later we watched another of the projectiles hurtling like a gigantic blazing cannon-ball into the sky.
"Gosh almighty!" cried
When we at last turned towards the city, the eastern sky was paling with approaching dawn, and we had seen four of the Martian projectiles vanish into space.
"I wonder," remarked
When, towards noon the following day, I reluctantly arose and glanced at the morning paper, I chuckled. "AMAZING PHENOMENA OBSERVED!" I read in glaring headlines. "Incredible as it may seem," began the article, "several of the Martian projectiles, or masses of incandescent material resembling them, were reported last night. This would of course excite no comment were it not for the fact that instead of approaching the earth these were moving away from us! Residents of the Catskills declare that they were very brilliant and illuminated the district as brightly as searchlights, but that there were no explosions such as have invariably accompanied the appearances of the projectiles. Moreover, the observers declare that they distinctly saw the projectiles rushing upwards and away from the earth and that they gradually dwindled and disappeared. It has long been rumored that moonshining is a thriving industry in the Catskills, and were the reports of departing projectiles confined to the scene of Rip Van Winkle's amazing experiences, we would be inclined to attribute them to the potency of local "mountain dew." But the reports from there are substantiated by innumerable trustworthy and well-known citizens who observed the same phenomena from various widely separated points. Inquiry also elicited the fact that at least four of our most eminent astronomers observed the receding projectiles. What does it mean? Are our unwelcome celestial visitors about to retreat and leave us in peace, or is our harassed world ridding itself of its tormentors by some unknown and mysterious power? Undoubtedly Professor Sir Paul Henderson can answer the question, but he is at present absent from the city."
"For the first time
"Didn't I say we'd have folks guessing?" he chuckled! "But what do you know about the darned things quitting and leaving me flat? If this keeps on, my stock will be down to zero. A prophet who can't prophesy nearer than that is out of luck. All joking aside, though, it’s got me guessing. Come on over and let's see what we can make of it."
I found him busy writing an account of his astounding discovery and the night's activities for publication in the afternoon papers.
"No use delaying it," he remarked without looking up from his work. "I've had about a thousand calls already this morning—all wanting to know what I think about the reports of the things reversing their ordinary procedure, and I've agreed to give my explanation to the press today. There!" he ejaculated in a tone of relief. "That's finished. I wonder how the world will take it! But honestly, I can't understand why the blamed things quit coming. I can't believe it has anything to do with our shooting those five into space—it must be just a coincidence, or perhaps the Martians have exhausted their supply. But it's mighty strange that last night should have been the first night none have fallen in—let's see—nineteen months."
We were still discussing this phase of the matter when Fothergill put in an appearance.
"I think," he announced, "that there is no doubt that the projectile you dispatched returned to Mars. I have been in communication with several astronomers and have secured all possible data as to their observations of the receding projectiles—the sight was sufficiently unusual to attract and concentrate their attentions—and while my data are, I confess, meager, I have worked out the trajectories and am convinced they followed a direct course towards Mars."
"Bully for them!" cried
"That is a matter to which I have already devoted no little thought," replied Fothergill. "Of course I am not very familiar with the science of electricity or the laws of vibratory action, but speaking from the layman's viewpoint, is it beyond the bounds of possibility or probability that your currents or waves or both, if powerful enough to repel the masses of Martian matter, might not have so disturbed or affected the Martian waves or apparatus, that it was impossible for projectiles to be hurled at us ?"
"Gosh, Fothergill, I don't know but that might be the explanation," said
"Isn't it possible," I suggested, "that they only drop back when they are within a certain distance of the earth. But once they get well started, traveling at full speed, their momentum is sufficient to carry them beyond the gravitational pull of the earth and within the attraction of Mars."
Needless to say,
Henderson had promised that he would demonstrate his discovery again that night and would send several more of the projectiles into the heavens, and tens of thousands of people waited and watched the darkening skies as night approached,
They were not disappointed. Three of the projectiles hurled skyward from the Litchfield Hills that night, their dazzling green light illuminating the country for miles around, and in their flight they were visible to watchers more than two hundred miles distant.
And not a single falling projectile had been reported from any portion of the world since our first successful test of
Whatever the reason, whatever the explanation, we— and the public as well—were convinced that the sudden and complete cessation of destructive Martian projectiles was a direct result of
And nightly, daily, steadily, the great masses of metal from another planet were being projected into space. Thousands of the
From sundown to sunrise the skies were ablaze with the flaring, speeding, ever-vanishing things. They had fallen to earth singly, by twos and threes, by dozens. But they were leaving, rushing back to their source, by hundreds, thousands, at a time. Never in the world's history had there been such a wondrous, fascinating, awe-inspiring sight as the countless streaming, fiery objects presented. It was like an incessant display of innumerable sky-rockets multiplied ten thousand fold. No more projectiles fell, no more were seen. The papers ceased publishing
Then one day Fothergill burst into the room where I was talking with
"I've seen it!" he yelled. "It's marvelous, absolutely astounding! There's no doubt about it!"
"Hold on, old man!" cried
Fothergill mopped his brow and grinned. "Not quite that," he said, more calmly. "But it does have to do with the new telescope. I used it last night for the first time— it's the most powerful of its type in the world, as you know. And the first object I viewed was Mars. I— "
"Quite natural," commented
"It's what I didn't see, that surprised me," declared Fothergill. "I have frequently observed Mars through my own as well as other instruments; I am thoroughly familiar with its various features and I have, of course, been more than usually interested in the planet since you promulgated your theory of the Martian origin of the projectiles. I may, I think, without exaggeration, state that I am as conversant with the superficial aspects of Mars as with those of the earth itself, perhaps even more so, as I have never had the opportunity of viewing the earth's surface from a distance from which it was observable as an entity. I have, as I have said, devoted a great deal of study to Mars, and it was largely due to my interest in that planet and my desire to see more of its details, that I ordered this new and extremely powerful telescope. In fact— "
"For Heaven's sake, Fothergill, tell us what it's all about!" demanded
"No, indeed!" Fothergill exclaimed. "Mars is—or was when I last observed it, still in its accustomed position and is, as you would flippantly express it, 'going strong.' But the astonishing thing, the matter that amazed me, is that the face of Mars is completely altered. Several of the larger equatorial canals have completely vanished; others have entirely altered their size and position, and where formerly there were level illuminated areas there are now shadows indicating irregularities of immense dimensions. In fact, through my superior telescope I could clearly discern the existence of huge craters, quite similar to the lunar craters. There can be but one explanation, Paul. The projectiles hurled back at Mars have created stupendous disturbances upon that planet."
"Three cheers for us!" shouted
"Jumping Jupiter! What's going to happen on jolly old Mars when they begin to arrive in full force?"
"That I cannot say," declared Fothergill, controlling his excitement with an obvious effort. "But if, as you say, and as calculations indicate, only the vanguard of the projectiles has wrought so much havoc on the planet, I should assume that, by the time they have all descended upon its surface, the greater portion of its visible area would be in much the same condition as the battlefields of
"You must bear in mind," remarked Fothergill, "that an object that weighs one thousand tons here will not weigh much more than one hundred tons there. Moreover, the projectiles must of necessity lose a large portion of their weight during their flight through our atmosphere and through that of Mars, due to the frictional heat and the consequent combustion of their gaseous contents."
"I should think," I ventured, that, if they are actually the cause of the changes Fothergill reports, we should be able to see them strike or at least should be able to see their immediate effect, if we watched carefully through the telescope."
Fothergill shook his head. "No, even my telescope is not sufficiently powerful for that," he declared. "Although it might be possible to note the changes of the surface as they occur. I am going to communicate with Lick, Harvard and other observatories and inquire if any unusual changes have been noticed on Mars. I'll communicate with you as soon as I know. And I hope you will both come to my observatory tonight and have a look at the planet."
Within an hour after his departure he called us up.
"I was not mistaken," he announced triumphantly. "Several astronomers noticed the same disturbances, but they did not associate them with the projectiles. I shall write a monograph upon the subject."
When we entered his palatial home that evening, he was jubilant. And when, after he had adjusted the enormous and complicated telescope that had cost him several fortunes, and I peered into the eye-piece, I did not wonder at his enthusiasm and excitement. There, appearing nearer than the moon shows through an ordinary telescope, was Mars, glowing ruddily, its gleaming ice caps sharp and clear, its surface streaked with the dark lines of its mysterious and puzzling canals. Even I, unfamiliar with the ordinary aspects of the planet, had no difficulty in seeing the circular and semi-circular shadows that marked immense depressions or craters exactly like those upon the surface of the moon. I noticed, moreover, that several of the canals were broken and interrupted, that several of the craters were in the canals themselves. I was convinced that Fothergill was right, that the planet was being scarred, blasted, altered; was suffering terrific damage from the projectiles with which the Martians had attempted to destroy the earth.
And as the days and weeks passed it began to look as if his words would be borne out. The surface of the planet was speckled with craters; one by one the canals vanished, the ice-caps crept farther and farther from the Martian poles towards the equator, and there were no signs of life, no new canals visible.
Meanwhile the work of ridding our earth of the few remaining projectiles was proceeding steadily. But it was now slower work. Those that remained were buried in the ruins of the cities and buildings they had destroyed, and vast quantities of debris had to be removed before they could be reached.
In many cases, where they were not deeply buried, they could be projected despite their covering. It was a marvelous sight to see a great pile of broken stone, bricks, masonry and twisted structural steel suddenly erupt like a volcano, to see the stones and beams hurled to every side, and to see a great gleaming, roaring mass burst forth and go screaming upwards into the sky. But it was dangerous work, the apparatus had to be operated from a distance, and even then one could never feel certain that all of the death-dealing mass had been eliminated. Very frequently the projectiles had been shattered when they struck buildings and other structures; in other cases two or more had fallen side by side, and although one might force its way upward others of smaller size or more deeply buried might still remain among the ruins. Quite a number of serious accidents and several deaths had already been caused by these conditions during the earlier part of the work. The men, thinking they had eliminated the things, removed their wave-proof coverings in order to work more freely, and were struck down by the waves emanating from masses still hidden in the debris. To obviate all such perils and casualties, and to speed up the reconstructive work,
"The trouble is," he declared, "that none of these are affected unless close to within a few inches of the stuff, and the color change is permanent. What I'm looking for is some material that will alter in color when a long distance from a projectile or even a fragment of a projectile. It must be extremely sensitive to the waves—as sensitive to them as is the human brain, and it must change back to its natural color as soon as it is free from the action of the waves. Of course," he continued, "that is not essential, for I can probably restore the normal tint by using my resuscitating waves. If I can find such a salt or oxide, we can then locate a mass of the material, get rid of it, and be sure there are no bits remaining to raise hades later on. You see, Merritt," he added, speaking very earnestly, "it wouldn't do to have a mite of the damnable stuff hanging about. Even after a city was rebuilt and all had been going on as usual for years, someone might be digging a hole or some kid might be playing in a sand pile and a piece of the stuff would bob up and kill God knows how many people." "I see your point," I replied. "But I'm afraid you've got a mighty hard job to be absolutely dead certain that not an atom of the stuff remains on earth. A lot of it must be under water, in ponds, lakes or rivers—and may be dredged or fished up at any time. A lot of it must be in deserts and forests and among mountains where no one suspects it. It's like the dud shells and the floating mines after the World War. Even now they're still turning up at times and causing accidents."
"Yes, but that's different," persisted
"Yes, I had thought of that," I replied. "But about this new device of yours. Instead of hunting about for the finding material, why don't you make the thing so that you can set it going and be sure that every speck of material within a certain area has been blown into space?"
"Because," he laughed, "there are certain things that are impossible. We can't entirely defy the laws of nature, you know. No matter how powerful my apparatus might be, it couldn't make a five-pound piece of the stuff force its way through a fifty-ton block of granite, a ten-ton I-beam, or two or three hundred tons of dust, dirt and broken stone."
"No, I suppose not," I admitted, "but do you think you'll ever find the material you need for your indicator? There are such an unlimited number of salts and oxides, sulphides, chlorides, sulphates, chlorates, carbonates and all, that you could spend years experimenting with them. Even then you might overlook the very one you needed. It might be right under your eyes, so obvious that it never occurred to you. It might be any common thing—even common salt. It— "
Now in any story, any fiction, by all the rules of the game,
Now that he had the required finder, Henderson very quickly completed his new apparatus. It was very compact and easily portable, and he demonstrated its efficiency in locating the material to Fothergill and myself by a laboratory test. Burying one of his specimens of the stuff under a pile of sand in one end of the room, he placed his apparatus on a movable table at the other end. Telling us to watch the tiny sodium plate in its glass-covered recess, he pushed the table forward. Before he had gone ten feet the plate became pink, it deepened rapidly to red as he advanced, and it was a deep carmine by the time the table was within six feet of the concealed fragment of the Martian projectile.
"I don't know how far away it would detect a large lump," said
Naturally, both Fothergill and I were interested and glad of the chance, but I had to decline. I had an important engagement that could not be broken and, as it turned out, that engagement unquestionably saved my life.
THE terrible crushing news reached me the next afternoon. Henderson and Fothergill, with several officials and assistants, all equipped with their wave-proof garments, had pushed their way through the tumbled ruins of Scranton's once fine buildings, clambered over piles of shattered masonry, and reached the spot where the projectile had been found. Then
No one will ever know exactly what happened. Onlookers, who were watching from a distance, saw a cloud of dust and debris fly into the air. They saw a dark mass, like a huge cannon ball, hurled, screaming, into the sky. There was a terrific explosion; stones, timbers, bricks were flung in every direction, and then—silence.
Realizing something was wrong, several brave fellows —not stopping to consider their peril—dashed to the scene to find Henderson, Fothergill and their companions lying dead among the ruins. Within a few yards of where they had stood was a yawning hole that was found to open into a long-abandoned mine shaft. Whether explosives had been stored in the old shaft and had been ignited, or whether the explosion had been caused by powder or ammunition in the wrecked armory, has never been determined.