Thursday, 11 April 2013
The Invisible Destroyer
The Black Menace swoops on its prey. New York City crumbles to dust. A million tons of dynamite could not have accomplished the ruin from which CAPTAIN JUSTICE, Gentleman Adventurer, rushes to save young Midge
Complete by MURRAY ROBERTS
From The Modern Boy magazine, 30 June 1934; No. 334, Vol. 13. Contributed by Kieth Hoyt, digitized by Doug Frizzle, April 2013. Part 6 of 6. Part 1 is here.
"The Airship's Haunted!"
THE mysterious cloud of dense, light-destroying gases, from outer Space—the Black Menace—held the Earth in thrall of total darkness, shrouding the sun and plunging all humanity into blind helplessness.
The progress of civilisation had been brought to a standstill, and approaching famine reared its ugly head amid the groping, terror-numbed peoples of the Earth.
But Marcus, the mysterious would-be Emperor of the World, chuckled contentedly in his black beard as he sat in the control-room of the Flying Cloud, the giant airship that was until recently the joint property of Professor Flaznagel, the famous inventor-scientist, and Captain Justice, the Gentleman Adventurer.
Marcus had good reason to feel satisfied. Fortune was favouring him and his ambitious scheme to gather riches and power by looting the treasure-houses of all the great cities of the world under cover of the Black Menace.
The darkness had no terrors for him. It was indispensable to his plans, and the longer it blotted out the sun, the moon, and all forms of light, the greater his chances of complete success.
It was by trickery that he had obtained possession of the Flying Cloud and stolen from Professor Flaznagel the secret of one of his latest inventions—the infra-orange ray, an invisible beam of light capable of penetrating even the Black Menace.
The giant dirigible would enable Marcus to travel to the four corners of the Earth in search of plunder, and he had only to rise to a certain altitude to emerge from the zone of darkness to where the sun still shone and the skies were clear and cloudless.
At the moment the airship was cruising at the height of seven thousand feet. The powerful motors, that could work continuously for months on end, droned smoothly. An indicator told Marcus that he was being carried through the air at the dizzy speed of three hundred and twenty miles per hour.
Below stretched the hidden, sullen waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead was the continent of North America, and far behind reared Titanic Tower, the amazing, mid-ocean headquarters of Captain Justice—a gigantic metal structure, designed and built by Professor Flaznagel, that lifted its head over a mile above sea-level.
"Titanic Tower!" Marcus spoke the words with a kind of greedy relish. As he now owned the Flying Cloud, so he hoped eventually to possess and establish himself in the colossal tower that was almost a city in itself, complete with every necessity and luxury that man could desire, besides being almost impregnable in its strength and superb isolation, far from all shipping routes.
"Yes, I'm afraid our friend Justice will have to find fresh quarters in the near future!" said Marcus boastfully. "He can either get out or be kicked out. It's high time the cocksure fire-eater had his comb clipped. I've taught him one lesson. Perhaps he and that doddering old fool Flaznagel will know better than to oppose me a second time!"
The big, black-bearded man with the steely eyes was something of a fanatic. Wealth and power were the gods he worshipped. He was confident that he was destined to become Emperor of the World. He had yet to learn that in crossing Captain Justice's path he had made an enemy of the one man he should have shunned and avoided.
Marcus lit a cigar and studied a luminous chart that showed the airship's exact position. He did not fear pursuit, but he was pleased to note that over eight hundred miles of sea now yawned between him and Titanic Tower. He turned his dark head, frowned at sight of an empty table, and punched one of many ivory buttons set in an ebony panel.
"You rang, chief?"
Marcus glared sourly at the man in uniform who had appeared in the narrow doorway leading to the interior of the great dirigible.
"I thought I told you to bring me some hot coffee and sandwiches. You're a long time about it!"
The man stared bewilderedly.
"Coffee—sandwiches! Why, I brought 'em along twenty minutes ago."
"You did, did you? Well, where are they?"
The man peered at the empty table and swept a glance around the control-room.
"Bust if I know," he growled defensively. "I stuck 'em down on the table. You must have eaten 'em and forgot all about it!"
"Don't talk like a confounded idiot!" roared Marcus. "Do you think I'm losing my memory? You're either a liar or a fool! Where's the plate and the cup and saucer? Are you suggesting I've eaten them as well?"
The steward's jaw dropped.
"Well, this is a knock-out!" he blurted. "I'll take my oath I brought a tray along and left it on that table. Sandwiches there were and a jug of coffee and—"
"Beat it!" snapped Marcus contemptuously. "You've either been dreaming or drinking! I want something to eat, and if it's not here in five minutes, by thunder, I'll want to know the reason why!"
The steward hurried from the cabin, shaking his head and muttering puzzledly under his breath. He knew beyond any shadow of doubt that he had already placed one tray of food on the table just behind the pilot's seat. What had happened to it was an utter mystery so far as he was concerned.
"Old Marcus has got a touch of the heeby-jeebies!" he decided disrespectfully. "He must have scoffed the grub and flung the crocks out of the window. And then he has the sauce to—Hallo, wot's biting you, Albert?"
Albert, the alleged, cook recently installed in the Flying Cloud's neat all-electric kitchen, waggled a greasy finger, and accusingly demanded:
"Where's that 'am?"
"Ham—what ham?" inquired the steward.
"A whole busted 'am!" raved the cook. "Just out of the refrigerator— 'adn't been cut. It was on that table not ten minutes ago. I turned me back, and the next thing I knew it was gone—clean vanished. Come on, no tricks! What about it?"
"What about what?" snarled the steward, still smarting from his recent interview with Marcus. "You accusing me? What d'you think I want with a whole perishing ham?"
"Well, where's it gone?" grumbled the cook. "It was right there on that table when you went to answer the chief's bell. And there's 'arf a pound of cheese done a disappearing trick as well. I ask you!"
The steward rubbed his nose and shrugged his sloping shoulders.
"If you ask me," he said solemnly. "I'm beginning to think this blessed airship must be swarming with starving mice. There's a dozen sandwiches evaporated from the chief's cabin, and now you've got a whole ham and a slab of cheese on the 'missing' list. Mice—that's what it is."
"Mice your grandmother's ear-trumpet!" scoffed the cook. "There's two tins of sardines and a pot of jam hopped it as well. If this goes on much longer, I shall begin to think the blessed airship's haunted!"
The Face in the Metal Plate!
BACK in the control-room, Marcus lit a fresh cigar, and cocked a watchful eye at the altimeter. It registered eight thousand feet, and the dirigible was still climbing.
The darkness through which the craft was streaking seemed less intense. The man switched off the lights. A cold, greyish luminosity filtered through the observation windows. It increased to a blinding, dazzling glare as the airship suddenly lifted herself above the black clouds, and emerged in a world of sunshine and clear blue skies.
Marcus craned forward in his seat, peering down at a sea of blackness that stretched as far as eye could see in all directions. He was now above the Black Menace. Beneath him was the belt of mysterious gases that only the beams of Professor Flaznagel's infra-orange ray could penetrate.
"And I," mused Marcus proudly, "am one of the few men who possess that ray. Unseen, but seeing, I shall be able to travel from country to country, and city to city, reaping a golden harvest of now unguarded treasures. The entire wealth of the world is mine to seize—to hoard and hold until this darkness is past, and the light of the sun is again visible on Earth."
It was the dream of a madman, yet a dream that might possibly come true. Marcus had everything in his favour. The longer the Black Menace endured, the greater his chances of success.
"First I shall visit New York—one of the richest cities in the world," he smiled. "And then on to London. What a city to sack! What a—"
He suddenly broke off, his hands gripping the arms of his seat, his dark head thrust forward from between his broad shoulders.
Straight in front of him was a bright metal plate, clamped to the main column of the automatic steering-gear. In this shining surface was reflected his face, strong, arrogant, sable-bearded.
Now, suddenly, there were two faces—his own countenance, and another face, visible over his shoulder, peering from some distance behind him.
It was a round face, smothered in freckles, adorned with a snub nose, twinkling blue eyes, and somewhat prominent ears. But its most conspicuous feature was a bristling shock of flaming red hair, that reacted on Marcus like a crimson cloak flaunted before a mad bull.
A succession of impressions flashed to his brain like Morse signals.
Midge! Captain Justice's young assistant; the impudent, carroty-headed boy he had kidnapped, exchanged for the Flying Cloud, and left locked in a cabin aboard his yacht when he had taken possession of the surrendered airship, and soared away into the black heavens!
Impossible! scoffed Marcus' common sense. It couldn't be the boy—not here in the same room where he was seated, or anywhere else aboard the dirigible.
Midge was hundreds of miles away, back at Titanic Tower in all probability, retailing his experiences to Captain Justice and the rest of his friends.
It must be an illusion, or a chance resemblance to a face caused by some, distorted reflection in the metal plate.
Marcus closed his eyes, and opened them again. The face was still there, peering mockingly over his shoulder. Even as he watched, the mouth extended itself from ear to ear, and a hand came into view. The thumb applied itself to the tip of the snub nose, and the fingers spread out, waggling in a derisive gesture.
The spell was broken. With a roar like an enraged tiger, Marcus bounded from his seat, spun round, and flung himself across the cabin.
There was another yell, a heavy thud, and a crash of broken crockery. The steward, who had entered the room with a fresh supply of sandwiches and coffee, was sprawled in the centre of the floor, plastered with the remnants of his burden.
But there was no sign of the owner of the face. Marcus glared furiously around, his teeth bared in a snarl of bewilderment.
"You—what the dickens do you mean by sneaking in here and staring-over my shoulder?" he blared, glowering at the unfortunate steward, ready to blame anyone for his own strange behaviour.
But he knew that this accusation presented no explanation to the incident. The steward bore no resemblance to the person he imagined he had seen.
"Did you meet anyone as you were coming along the passage?" demanded Marcus, grabbing the man by the shoulder and yanking him to his feet. "Anyone resembling that red-haired, freckle-faced cub we left aboard the yacht for Captain Justice to collect?"
The steward shook his head blankly. He hadn't met anyone. There was no one about save the cook and himself. The rest of the crew were at dinner. He hadn't seen anyone with red hair or any other colour hair.
Marcus thrust him out of the cabin and slammed the door. Shaking his head, the steward limped back to the kitchen to inform the cook that the chief had gone clean off his rocker.
For the moment, Marcus had faint doubts as to his own sanity. Locking the controls that enabled the Flying Cloud to keep her own course, he searched every square inch of the pilot-house. But he failed to find any possible explanation of the face that he had so clearly seen in the metal plate.
It was no longer visible. Only his own dark, bearded visage stared back at him from the square of polished tranzelonite, the metal of which the airship was constructed. Suspecting a trick, he made a second search, but discovered no trace of a cunningly concealed television screen in which Midge's face might have been projected by wireless from Titanic Tower.
Yet Marcus was not satisfied. His nerves were on edge. He had left Midge imprisoned in a cabin aboard his abandoned yacht. The door was locked, and Captain Justice had held the key. It seemed utterly impossible that the boy could have transferred himself to the Flying Cloud or would have done so, knowing that his friends were waiting to release him.
He was not to know that Midge had escaped from the cabin and, ignorant of the fact that his friends were aboard the yacht arranging his release, had climbed aboard the Flying Cloud, not realising until too late that the airship had exchanged hands! But Captain Justice had discovered that the youngster had exchanged one prison for another and was aboard the airship.
Crossing to the radio apparatus, Marcus called Titanic Tower on various wavelengths, until finally he got a reply. It was the curt voice of Professor Flaznagel that answered him across hundreds of miles of space.
“Marcus speaking from the Flying Cloud," announced the black-bearded man maliciously. "I thought you might be interested to know that the dirigible is behaving perfectly. She is a magnificent craft—a credit to you, professor. I trust you don't regret having parted with her?"
"Not in the circumstances," answered Flaznagel, referring to the fact that the great airship had been surrendered in order to secure Midge's release.
"It was a poor exchange, from your point of view?" suggested Marcus, cunningly angling for the information he sought. "I trust our own young friend is none the worse for the brief period he spent as my guest?”
"Bedad, I've had him washed and disinfected, and there's no fear of him having caught anything from a poisonous skunk like ye, Marcus!" boomed the great voice of Dr. O'Mally, Justice's Irish second-in-command. He didn't know what was behind Marcus' question, but he was certainly not telling the man that Midge was aboard the airship.
"And here's a message from Captain Justice," he added. "He'll be seeing ye soon! The world's a big place, and 'tis dark as the pit at present, but ye'll have to be travelling a long way to escape what's coming to ye, ye kidnapping spalpeen!"
Marcus laughed contemptuously and switched off. He had learned all he wished to know. Evidently Midge was back with his friends. They would not have spoken so lightly were he still missing after they had been forced to surrender the Flying Cloud. It was, he told himself, some trick of the eyesight that had led him to imagine he had seen the reflection of the red-haired youngster's face peering at him from a corner of the control-cabin.
He glanced at the luminous chart and the array of dials and indicators that registered the airship's position and progress.
"New York in another six hours!” chuckled Marcus, rubbing his big hairy hands together. "New York in utter darkness, with a fortune to be had for the mere trouble of carrying it away. And then on to London— Paris—Berlin—"
Cities he was never to see!
Heading for Disaster!
MIDGE consumed the last of the sandwiches originally intended for Marcus, and hewed himself a thick slice from the ham that had so mysteriously disappeared from the kitchen of the Flying Cloud.
"Good job I know the way about this blinkin' gasbag!" he muttered. "I wouldn't mind betting I could play hide-and-seek with Marcus and his bunch for a month of Pancake Days and they'd never nail me!"
Mechanically he helped himself to a second slice of ham and washed it down with a swig of cold coffee. It took a lot to damp Midge's spirit, especially if there was any food about. By rights he should have been so concerned with the awkward predicament he was in that eating would have been out of the question.
But Midge continued to eat, with the fierce hum of motors dinning in his ears and the hiss of the wind slapping and complaining against the sleek hull of the great dirigible.
Every second increased the distance between himself and his friends at Titanic Tower, which was only a name to Midge. He had yet to visit and explore the myriad marvels and mysteries of Captain Justice's new headquarters.
Marcus would have been interested and astounded to learn that he and the red-headed youngster were separated from one another by no more than five eighths of an inch of tranzelonite. That was the exact thickness of the ceiling and walls of the control-room where Marcus sat tracing the course of the Flying Cloud.
Midge knew every corner and cranny of the great airship as well as a skilled surgeon knows the veins and arteries of the human body. There were a hundred and one safe hiding-places where he could have concealed himself; but he preferred the cramped compartment right in the nose of the craft, and just beneath the shaft of the great turbine screw that enabled the Flying Cloud to develop such great speed.
It was filled with noise and vibration, but it had compensating advantages in the shape of an observation window just above the control-room, and numerous passages leading to all parts of the ship, into which he could dive like a rabbit into its hole at the first sign of danger.
It was from this refuge that Midge had sallied forth on his foraging expedition, to raid the ship's larder and collect such provender as might enable him to appease his appetite. He had been lucky in securing the ham, cheese, and sardines without being spotted by the cook, and the filching of the coffee and sandwiches was an even simpler matter.
But he had come dangerously near betraying his presence when he had ventured to apply the Q-ray, which rendered the airship's tranzelonite hull transparent, to a section of the wall, thus creating a transparent panel through which he had amused himself by watching Marcus operating the dirigible's intricate controls.
“Suffering weevils, that was a narrow squeak!" mused the redheaded youngster, watching a narrow beam of sunshine playing on the remains of the ham. It was the first sunlight he had seen for many days, and he had felt like standing on his head and cheering like a lunatic when the Flying Cloud had first thrust herself above the clinging darkness of the Black Menace. "I was forgetting old hogsbody might spot my reflection in that metal casing. Crumbs, it didn't half give him a shock!"
Midge grinned at thought of the manner in which the black-bearded despot had leaped from his seat and hurled himself across the room in search of the elusive, mocking face.
Then the snub-nosed youngster suddenly became serious. His lips tightened and his blue eyes clouded. He had a lot to think about. Clenching one fist he deliberately landed himself what he would have described as "a hefty sock on the jaw!”
"Take that, you blinking chump!" he muttered fiercely. "My hat, you're a bright youth, aren't you? A nice mess you've landed yourself in this time. 'Properly gummed up the works and put the tin hat on things!' It certainly was entirely Midge's own fault that he was now trapped aboard the Flying Cloud, instead of being back at Titanic Tower with Captain Justice and the rest of his friends.
But he was not to know, when he had been a prisoner in Marcus' yacht, that everything had been arranged for his release, and that Marcus had set the price of his freedom as the surrender of the Flying Cloud.
The youngster had been carrying out his own plan of escape, and had succeeded in leaving a locked cabin via an air-shaft in the ceiling. Spotting the Flying Cloud hovering directly overhead, and moored to the yacht, he had immediately swarmed up a dangling ladder and boarded the craft.
Too late he had discovered that he had jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire. The dirigible had already been handed over to Marcus and his men, and before Midge could rectify the ghastly blunder he had made, the mooring-hook was released, and the great craft had shot up like a rocket, leaving Justice and the rescue-party grouped on the yacht's deck, fondly imagining that Midge was still locked in the cabin beneath them.
It had been a bitter moment for the snub-nosed youngster, and he didn't like to think of it.
Four hours had elapsed since he had boarded the airship and thus delivered himself back into Marcus' hands. But the circumstances were now different. Actually he was still a prisoner, unless he chose to don one of Professor Flaznagel's aero-life-saving jackets and hurl himself into space.
But he was free to wander where he would within the confines of the huge dirigible, and, so far, his presence was completely unknown to the enemy.
Midge had not been idle. He knew that he would have to play a waiting game, and the element of surprise was in his favour. An opportunity might come when he would be able to spring a staggering surprise on Marcus and his crew.
In the meanwhile he had collected a modest store of provisions, a number of blankets from one of the cabins, and miscellaneous articles from Professor Flaznagel's private workshop. These included a small, portable wireless transmitter, that had run out of juice when the youngster was in the midst of broadcasting an S O S to Titanic Tower, informing his friends where he was, and how he came to have smuggled himself aboard the Flying Cloud, unbeknown to Marcus.
He doubted if the message had been received, for the transmitter was faulty. Later, he hoped to be able to sneak into the dirigible's wireless-cabin and make a more successful attempt at communicating with Captain Justice.
With a sigh, he crawled along the side of the droning turbine-shaft to the observation window in the nose of the airship. All he could see was the blue sky overhead, with, below, an illimitable ocean of inky-black clouds that stretched emptily in all directions.
"I could do with a spot of real fresh air," decided the red-headed youngster, emboldened by the hearty meal he had made. "Wonder if there's anyone knocking about up on the top deck. No harm in having a scout round."
THE interior of the great airship's envelope was honeycombed with a maze of shafts and tunnels, that afforded inspection of the numerous gas-containers in case of leakage. Midge knew every inch of them. Like a human mole he burrowed his way through the gloom, twisting, turning, and finally emerging on the promenade deck at the extreme top of the vessel's hull.
It was deserted—flooded with bright sunshine that was in striking contrast to the abysmal darkness below.
It was like emerging from the depths of a coal-mine. Midge sniffed hungrily, filling his lungs with cool, fresh air, and feasting his eyes on the clean light of day. The deck was screened. There was scarcely a breath of wind, despite the tremendous speed at which the Flying Cloud was cleaving her way through space.
But it was bitterly cold in the thin, rarefied atmosphere, and Midge had discarded most of his outer garments when he had made his unfortunate escape from Marcus' yacht.
"Suffering snowballs, I shall have to grab some more togs!" He shivered, and went sprinting along the deck in vest, shorts, and a pair of highly coloured fancy socks. “Never thought it was going to be as parky as this up here. Feels as if we're getting somewhere near the blinking North Pole."
In the look-out cabin, perched like a wart on the airship's nose, there was both comfort and warmth. He entered, closed the sliding door, switched on an electric radiator, and swaddled himself in a fur rug he found in one of the lockers.
"That's better!" he grunted, and sat down to think about things.
He wished he had some idea what Marcus' plans were, and where he was likely to find himself when the Flying Cloud reached her journey's end. Already the airship must have covered close on two thousand miles. His chances of rejoining his friends at Titanic Tower were growing more remote every minute.
"The odds are they don't even know where I am,” muttered the plucky youngster. "And if they do, they don't stand much chance of finding the Flying Cloud in this blinkin' black fog. No, this is a one-man job. I've got to handle it meself. It's up to me to dump Mr. Bloomin' Marcus and his gang a couple of hundred miles from nowhere, and fly the old Cloud back to where she belongs."
Midge knew the uses of most of the intricate electrical apparatus with which he was surrounded. He had spent many hours in the look-out cabin, getting the hang of Professor Flaznagel's weird and wonderful devices. Now he seated himself at a switchboard resembling a miniature telephone exchange, and confidently slapped a plug in one of the terminal sockets.
Instantly the loudspeaker just above his head was connected with a microphone in the control-room. Clearly he could hear the drone of motors, the click-click of the automatic steering-gear, and the sound of the two voices, one of which belonged to Marcus himself.
Evidently he was speaking with his wireless operator. Midge pricked up his ears and listened intently. He seemed to have plugged-in at an opportune moment.
"It's all nonsense!" snapped Marcus contemptuously. "I'd be a fool to pay any attention to a message like that. Why should that old fool, Flaznagel, study my interests? He has his own reasons for wanting me to alter my course. It's a trap of some kind."
"I'm only repeating the message exactly as I received it," answered the other man sullenly. "The professor fellow urged me to warn you that you'd be heading for disaster if you held to your present course, and went anywhere near New York. It's something to do with that infernal black fog down below. He was dead serious, chief."
"You bet he was!" scoffed Marcus. "But the old fox can't bluff me. If there was any danger knocking about he'd be glad to see me run smack into it. The Black Menace can't affect us. We can travel above it, as we're doing now. And I'm keeping straight on. We'll be over New York in another half-hour."
"Well, I don't like the sound of things," said the wireless operator uneasily. "That black fog gives me the creeps. It may not be the same in all parts of the world. We may be running into a belt of poisonous gases that'll wipe out the whole lot of us."
"And wouldn't that give Flaznagel and Justice a pain in the neck," chuckled Marcus derisively. "If there's any poisonous gas blowing about, can't you imagine him warning me to steer clear of it? Forget it, Cooney. Hop back to your radio, and if the professor gets through again, tell him I'm not biting. Tell him that as soon as I've cleaned up New York and London, and a few other cities, I'll be coming back to boot him out of Titanic Tower and put my name on the door!"
The conversation suddenly ceased. All Midge could hear was the scrape of a match as Marcus lit a cigar, and the click of the controls.
Tumbling to Pieces!
MIDGE had gleaned astonishing and interesting information, but it left him puzzled and bewildered.
As Marcus had remarked, why should the professor concern himself with his, Marcus', safety? If there was any real danger, why trouble to warn the man who had robbed him of the Flying Cloud in order that he could institute a reign of terror throughout the darkened world?
"My hat, it certainly doesn't sound reasonable," muttered Midge. "I can't imagine old Fitzwaggle going out of his way to stop Marcus from biting off a chunk of real trouble, unless— Suffering salamanders!"
An inkling of the truth suddenly flashed into the youngster's mind. It was his safety that the professor was concerned with. His warning was no vain one. He knew that Midge was aboard the Flying Cloud, and that the airship was threatened with disaster if she continued on her present course.
Only by warning Marcus could he safeguard the red-haired youngster, without actually betraying the fact that Midge was a stowaway in the great dirigible.
And Marcus, naturally enough, was ignoring the warning. He was continuing blindly on his way, contemptuous of an imaginary peril that really existed!
"Crumbs, this is a blinkin' fine fix to be in!" A shiver of uneasiness ran down Midge's spine as he jumped to his feet and stood rubbing his snub nose helplessly. He suddenly realised that he was utterly on his own. His friends were hundreds of miles away, and without the Flying Cloud they were powerless to come to his assistance.
The professor's desperate ruse had failed. There was nothing more he could do to detract Marcus from his purpose. It was only a matter of minutes before the airship would enter the danger zone mentioned in Flaznagel's message.
But what was the danger that lurked below in the Black Menace? What hideous, unmentionable fate lay in store for the Flying Cloud and her occupants?
Poisonous gases! That was the only thing Midge could think of— swift, sudden, life-destroying gases, peculiar only to that particular zone of the Black Menace that hung over certain parts of the United States.
There would be no escaping them once the dirigible reached her objective and dived into the sinister black depths below!
Midge came nearer to losing his head. It was the fear of the unknown that poked cold fingers into his shrinking ribs. Pluckily he conquered his panic, and peered down into the gulf of Space below.
It was different. There was a distinct change in the appearance of the Black Menace. It was no longer of a dense blackness.
The dark vista stretching beneath, the Flying Cloud's skimming keel was shot with streaks and patches of livid green, dull purple, and angry crimson, running and gleaming like oil spilled on a wet, black road.
"By gosh, I'm bust if I fancy diving into that!" gasped Midge uneasily. "Mebbe Marcus will have enough sense to remember the professor's warning and keep the old blimp above the clouds. Anyone can see there's something wrong down there, with all those different gases swirling about together like the fumes of a lot of smouldering chemicals. Great cats, what was that?"
The airship suddenly quivered and jumped, as if a great fist had thudded against her sleek, tapering hull. A moment later the muffled vibrations of a terrific crash of sound came echoing up from below, following the violent displacement of air that had tossed the Flying Cloud upwards like a feather.
Boom! Boom! Two thunderous detonations, coming from a great distance, set the drums of Midge's ears tingling painfully. It sounded as if the very world were tumbling to pieces thousands of feet below.
But Marcus held stubbornly to his set course. He had throttled down the motors. The dirigible was travelling at no more than a hundred miles an hour. Soon she swung round in a wide circle, dipping her nose as if preparing to plunge headlong into the darkness.
SHE sank lower, her gleaming length tilted at so steep an angle that the floor seemed to slide away beneath Midge's feet. Suddenly the airship's powerful searchlights were switched on, the invisible beams of the infra-orange rays stabbing downwards and boring twin tunnels in the dense, blackish fog.
"We've arrived!" boomed Marcus' voice, transmitted by the microphone in the control-house. "We're right over New York. Now we'll see what the greatest city in America looks like after thirteen days in total darkness!"
Midge had not the faintest desire to see what effect the Black Menace had had on New York, or any other city. He was thinking only of Professor Flaznagel's disregarded warning. A sense of impending danger and disaster burned in him like a bright flame as he skidded across the cabin, wrenched open one of the lockers, and dragged forth a queer-looking leather garment festooned with buckles, straps, rubber tubes, and metal cylinders.
"Good egg!" muttered Midge. "One of old Flashniggle's giddy life-saving overcoats. Going to come in blinking useful if I want to leave in a hurry!"
The professor's aero-life-saving jacket was a remarkable device. Once its rubber lining had been inflated with a certain gas a hundred times lighter than hydrogen, it could lift a weight of sixteen stone to a height of ten thousand feet, and keep it suspended there for forty-eight hours.
Each jacket was equipped with water-bottle; iron rations, first-aid kit, a knife, compass, and oxygen apparatus that was just as serviceable as a gas-mask.
The kit that Midge proceeded to don was several sizes too big for him. By the time he had fastened the numerous buckles and clips there was little of him to be seen save his feet and his tousled red head. To inflate the jacket all he had to do was to connect the valve to the nozzle of one of the gas-compressors which were distributed about the airship.
The operation of inflation took no longer than the blowing up of a toy balloon. The youngster would have been lifted clean off his feet and flattened against the ceiling had it not been for the lead ballast weights hooked to his belt.
Midge was glad he had thought of the life-saving jacket. It was warm, and it gave him a certain sense of security. He was not compelled to remain aboard the Flying Cloud when she plunged into the ocean of black fog below.
At the first suspicion of poison gases, all he had to do was to clip on the oxygen-feed, step out on deck, unhitch his ballast weights, and shoot back into upper Space. It might be only prolonging the agony; but if it came to the finish he would sooner face death in the sunshine above than wrapped in the clammy embrace of the Black Menace.
The Flying Cloud was now swooping like a hawk. Midge blinked uneasily as he watched the ugly, streaky blackness rushing up to meet the diving dirigible.
"I'm blinkin' windy!" he admitted candidly to himself. "But I'd certainly like to see what it's like down below, and find out what caused those awful crashes a while ago. Sounded as if a couple of skyscrapers had fallen to pieces!"
It was the truest guess Midge had ever made, but he did not know it at the time. Pluckily he stood his ground, knowing that he might be hurtling to certain death.
With droning motors and screaming screws, the great dirigible continued her mad plunge. One minute Midge was bathed in blazing sunshine, the next he found himself submerged in pitch darkness, that gradually gave way to an eerie, yellowish glow as the infra-orange rays cut wide, slashing swathes in the black vapours.
Down—down—down! Fascinated, Midge peered through the window, carefully testing each breath of air before he filled his lungs. The earth began to take shape beyond the veil of shifting gloom. He caught a glimpse of open sea, the winding River Hudson, and a checkerboard of lines and squares that was New York City. It limned clearer as the distance was reduced.
Boom! There was a tremor of sound below, and a grey splodge like the smoke of a bursting shell. Another—and another, followed by deep, sullen rumbles. Midge rubbed his eyes and snatched a pair of binoculars from the rack beside him.
"Suffering cats!'' he yelled an instant later. "The whole place is tumbling to pieces! There's no city left. It must be a blinkin’ earthquake!"
Never had he seen such a scene of ruin and devastation as was revealed to him in the cold, clear glare of the searching infra-orange rays. The proud city of New York, with its massive, imposing buildings, was almost levelled to the ground.
Of its numerous great skyscrapers, no more than half a dozen were still standing. The rest lay prone, shattered and broken, flinging great mounds of rubble and twisted girders across the smaller structures that they had crushed to dust beneath their fallen bulk.
It was an incredible spectacle, that increased in horror and clearness of detail as the Flying Cloud swept down and straightened out at a height of fifteen hundred feet.
Binoculars were no longer required. Midge could hear Marcus roaring in amazement and dismay as he viewed the cluttered ruins of the city he had hoped to sack and pillage. Its millions were beyond his reach; buried beneath hundreds of thousands of tons of wreckage.
NEW YORK no longer existed. Some mysterious, destructive force had wiped it off the map. All the familiar landmarks were gone. Of Brooklyn Bridge nothing remained save the piers that had supported the huge arches—protruding from the river like broken fangs.
Ruin—chaos—utter disintegration, that a million tons of dynamite could not have accomplished.
"Crumbs, it must be a dream!' gulped Midge. "A blinkin' nightmare!"
But he knew that it wasn't. He was only too wide-awake. Was this, he wondered, the grave danger of which Professor Flaznagel had warned Marcus, and urged him to avoid? But how could it affect the Flying Cloud, and in what manner could the mysterious elements of the Black Menace have caused the destruction of thousands of houses, scores of skyscrapers, and a gigantic metal structure like the mighty bridge across the River Hudson?
Even as he watched, another skyscraper crashed in ruins. It simply subsided as if its foundations had melted away beneath it. Great ships in the docks were crumpling and vanishing, in the same mysterious manner. Yet there was no indication of earth tremors; not a ripple on the smooth surface of the river.
"Blinkin' uncanny!" muttered Midge, and was almost flung off his feet as the airship gave a violent jerk and seemed to shudder from stem to stern. The motors had stopped. Somewhere below the startled youngster heard yells of alarm, and a hideous grinding and groaning of tortured, straining metalwork.
The Flying Cloud seemed to be writhing in agony like a stricken monster! Her sleek hull rippled and wrinkled, and before Midge's horrified eyes a section of the deck gaped open, to expose the bulging, quivering gas-bags beneath.
The great airship was falling apart—crumbling to fragments like a mummy suddenly exposed to the air! She commenced to sink, her lights snapping out, her gas containers exploding one by one!
Midge had never known such ghastly fear as he experienced in the next few seconds. Marcus was screaming and raving like a lunatic. With a dull roar, the lower part of the hull split open, sending motors, dynamos, and yelling men spinning into Space.
Relieved of their weight, the doomed dirigible lifted again, and slowly commenced to turn turtle. Face to face with death, Midge suddenly snapped into action. He flung open the door, fumbling to unhook the lead weights at his belt.
The darkness was closing down as the last infra-orange ray flickered and faded, and the Black Menace swooped on its prey, its mysterious, corrosive gases eating like acid into the crumbling metalwork of the Flying Cloud, in the same manner as they had destroyed the steel-framed skyscrapers of New York, the Brooklyn Bridge, and every metal with which they came in contact.
From an open hatch loomed the huge figure of Marcus, his eyes bulging, his black beard bristling in terror.
It was Midge's last recollection of the Flying Cloud, as he loosened his grip on the heavy lead weights, and felt himself soar into the air like a suddenly released balloon.
But the last thing of all that he actually remembered was a long period of darkness, a blinding burst of sunshine, and a sensation as if his brain had exploded into a thousand pieces!
Flying Cloud the Third!
“BEDAD, I think the young spalpeen's coming round, at last. 'Tis lucky he is to have a head like a chunk of teak!" said Dr. O'Mally.
"A remarkable escape,” agreed Professor Flaznagel, polishing his big horn-rimmed spectacles. "I wonder the boy didn't fracture his skull."
"It certainly was a nasty crack," said Len Connor. "I'll never forget seeing him shoot up out of the darkness and slam straight into us. Gosh, I thought he was going to drive a hole clean through our side!"
"You're sure he'll be none the worse for the blow, doctor?" asked Captain Justice anxiously.
"Not a bit of it, captain. He'll be as right as ninepence in a couple of days."
Midge peered cautiously from a corner of one eye. It was no dream. But it was all very puzzling. There was a bandage wrapped about his aching head, and a pleasant murmur of powerful motors. "What I want to know," said Midge, opening his eyes wide this time, "is, where am I, how did I get here, how are all you blokes, and who threw that brick?"
He lay on a divan in a bright room that was strangely like the main saloon of the Flying Cloud. Blue sky was visible through the windows.
“Hallo, Midge, old scout!" greeted Len Connor warmly. "How are you feeling?"
“Blinkin' hungry!" answered the red-haired youngster bluntly. "But where the dickens did you fellows spring from, and what ship's this?"
"Flying Cloud the Third—sister-airship to Flying Cloud the Second," explained Captain Justice. "And a nice dance you've led us! But it's all over now, and the Black Menace has gone—disappeared overnight, just as suddenly as it came! And Marcus has gone as well. You know that?"
Midge nodded soberly. He would never forget the manner in which the would-be Emperor of the World had plunged to his death amid the crumpled wreckage of the great airship.
"We were hot on his trail," continued Justice. "Only a couple of hours behind him all the way across the Atlantic from Titanic Tower to the States. We knew you'd made a hash of things and were travelling with Marcus, long before Connor picked up your wireless message. Flying Cloud the Third was actually on her way to headquarters when the professor surrendered her sister-airship to Marcus. That was the surprise-packet he had up his sleeve for the scoundrel—and for us as well.
"The professor knew that there was a cloud of corrosive gases hanging over New York that were gradually eating away every scrap of metal they came in contact with. The city was tumbling in ruins. He tried to warn Marcus—thinking of your safety—but the fool wouldn't listen."
"How did I get this conk on the dome?" asked Midge, tapping his bandaged head. "And how the dickens did I land here after I did a balloon ascent in the professor's jolly old life-saving jacket?"
"Sheer luck," smiled Justice. We had just arrived over New York when you shot up out of the clouds like a rocket and ran smack into our tail. You were knocked-out, but it was an easy matter to get you aboard. You've been unconscious for twelve hours. Good job we had a doctor aboard."
"Doctor! Huh!" Midge was himself again. He sniffed contemptuously. "That bald-head! What does he know about doctoring? He couldn't mend a wooden leg!"
“Or a wooden head, bedad!" agreed Dr. O'Mally placidly. "When the captain said ye'd been senseless for twelve hours, begorrah, he flattered ye! 'Tis senseless ye've been ever since the day ye were born, ye snub-nosed, insignificant, red-headed weevil!"
Justice smiled and switched on the Q-ray, flooding the whole airship with sunshine. There was blue sky above and blue sea below. Not a trace remained of the sinister black cloud that had recently wrapped the world in darkness. The Black Menace had fled!
Captain Justice and Co. start a New and even more Thrilling Series of Adventures Next Saturday—pitchforked neck-and-crop out of Space into the middle of an unknown African jungle; empty-handed and without food, weapons, or hope! .... Sounds promising, doesn’t it? AND IT IS!
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.