Men were clambering over both vessels' hulls, tugging at the hatchway fastenings. The black one flew open. I leaped to the deck. Bradley after me, and jumped down into the hold.
In the little cubby-hole that was all the machinery left space for, a pale-faced form in green-gray crouched against the wall. His eyes stared in fear. A Russian, praise be. And not far from my size and build.
"Off with his clothes, quick!" I yelled, stripping mine as I spoke. Bradley looked at me queerly, and shrugged his shoulders. "Quick, man! Everything depends on speed!"
He shook his head, as one who listens to the vaporings of an imbecile, but turned to obey. I was standing there—naked, studying the Easterner's face, his body. No scars. Good.
* * * * *
Jim turned to me, the prisoner's clothing in his hands. An exclamation burst from him. He looked back at the trembling Russ, then at me. "My God, Eric, how did you do it?" he asked.
I smiled. "All right, is it?"
"You're his twin; no, you're himself! If I'd had a drink to-day I'd be sure I was seeing double. How on earth—you had no make-up, no time—"
I was sliding into the Red's gear as I talked! "I've trained all the little muscles in my face—muscles you others don't even know you have. Started when I was a kid, then made a good living at it, acting. Comes in handy now, damn handy. I can make anything of my face, and hold it forever if I have to. Chink, Russ—anything. Distort my limbs too, and change my voice. That won't be necessary now. Simple, but it takes a lot of practice."
I was dressed by then, a counterpart of the enemy officer—I hoped. If I wasn't—well, I wouldn't live much longer.
"Now, out with the Russ and my clothes. Don't leave a bit, if you value my life."
A light of comprehension illumined Jim's face. "You're going to pass yourself off as this man? You've got your nerve with you!" he exclaimed.
"Exactly." The cubby-hole was clear now. "Now take that spanner, and bang me over the head. Not too hard; I don't want a cracked skull, only a splashed scalp. Then pile me where it will seem I crashed against a projection of some kind when the grapples took hold. That bunk edge will do. Batten the hatch, and cast off the grapples. I hope their automatic control is still working, otherwise my scheme's gaflooey."
Jim stuck out his great paw. "Good luck, Eric," he said, simply. Then he clutched the spanner. I saw it go over my head....
* * * * *
Voices around me, harsh, guttural voices. Russian! By the Nine Dogs of War, I had pulled it off! But what were they saying? I was inside the lines, but was my deception successful? Or had my face relaxed with the shock of the blow? I thanked my Russian grandmother then for all the time she had spent teaching me her mother tongue.
"Boszhe moi, the poor fellow must have had an awful smash. He hasn't come to yet."
"The doctor will be here in a minute. He'll revive him."
I breathed a prayer of gratitude. They didn't suspect! But I didn't like this doctor business. Well, I'd have to stall through that as best I could.
I seemed to be lying on hard rock. I opened my eyes, staring blankly, straight up. A bearded face was bending over me, the captain's crossed sickles on the shoulder straps just within my vision. Behind, and above him, towering straight up—my God!—what was it? A green wall, a vertical green wall, going up and up! It looked like—but no: how could water stand straight up like that, for hundreds of feet?
I almost betrayed myself with a gasp! A dim bulk showed in the translucent depths of the wall. It rushed toward me, took form. A fish, a huge, blind fish, its cavernous mouth stretched wide. It came straight for me, just above. In a second it would leap through. A scream of terror trembled in my throat. Then it hit the edge of the translucent green wall—and vanished! Was I dreaming? Had Jim hit me too hard?
Something stirred in the back of my mind. I sensed dimly that here lay the explanation of the disappearance of the New York, the very mystery that I had come to solve. Almost I had it; then it slipped away.
* * * * *
"Here's the doctor!" someone said. There was a little stir of activity about me. I allowed my eyes to close, as if in utter weariness.
"What's all this? What have you got here?" A gruff voice, intolerant.
"One of our sub-sea scouts, sir. Just come back, after some delay. Her eye was smashed, and there are grapple marks on her. Must have been caught, and then slipped away. She was leaking badly. We got her through the lock just in time." Jim had evidently added a few touches of his own. "Comrade Pauloff seems to have been seriously injured. He's got a bad cut on his scalp, and was unconscious till a moment ago. Opened his eyes just as you came along."
"Hm. Let's see." I felt a none too gentle hand finger my wound. It throbbed maddeningly. The doctor spoke again. "A nasty crack, but no fracture. Here, you—wake up." I made no move. "Come on, wake up!" I heard the plop of a cork being drawn from a bottle; a pungent odor assailed my nostrils, choked me. I writhed, pulled at the hand holding the bottle to my nose and opened my eyes.
"That's better. How do you feel now?"
I raised a hand to my injury and muttered, in Russian. "Hurts, papashka." I kept my expression as blank, as uncomprehending, as I could.
The doctor flashed an understanding glance at the captain, then turned back to me. "What's your name?"
Memories of my grandmother's tales of her youth came flooding back to me. "Pavel, son of Pauloff."
It was the formula of the Russian student, in his teens.
"Second year. Petrovski Gymnasium."
The physician turned away. "No use bothering him now. A clear case of amnesia.
"He's been thrown back to his high school days. I've had a number of cases like that among your scouts lately." Blessed inspiration! "Only cure is rest. Get him over to the infirmary. We'll evacuate him to a base hospital to-morrow."
* * * * *
I was in a cool white bed, in a low ceilinged room, white painted. There were other beds, vacant. A uniformed male nurse puttered around. There was an elusive green tinge to the light that poured in through the one window.
The door opened and a sergeant came in. "Comrade Alexis!"
"Well, what is it now? Have they found another gold-bricking officer to mess up my clean beds?"
"A party from corps headquarters will be here in fifteen minutes for inspection."
"Let them come. They won't find any specks of rust on my instruments, like they did on Comrade Borisoff's."
"They'd better not. You know what happened to him."
"Yeah. Chucked into the ray. Well, he didn't give the burial squad any work." And the two laughed, a laugh that had more than a hint of sadistic cruelty in it. "If I had my way," the nurse went on, "I'd do the same with all these nuts that come back from the scout ships raving of home and mother. It's my idea that they're all bluffing. It's a good way to be shipped to the rear, where the captured dames are. Say, did I tell you about the last time I was on leave—"
The two whispered, their heads close together. My brain was working frantically. Things had gone well so far, but I had to get out of here before the morning, or I'd be sent to the base and lose all that I had gained by my daring.
The door snapped open. "Smirnow!" (Atten-shun!)
* * * * *
I was on my side, facing away from the wall. I remained so, staring blankly across the room. I hoped the inspection would be over quickly. The fewer the enemy officers I had looking me over, the better. Someone back there was snapping questions. That voice—where had I heard it before?
"Your patient. What's his trouble?"
"Amnesia, sir. One of the scouts."
"Oh, yes. Let's look at him."
Someone was walking across the room, then standing above me. His hand was just at the level of my eyes—a hand with the little finger twisted queerly into the palm. I knew that hand: it was the Ferret's! A cold shiver ran up my back. I almost stopped breathing.
Of all the infernal luck in the world, to have the Ferret walk in here! He was chief of the Red's Intelligence Service, the shrewdest, sharpest, cruelest of them all. Many of our best men had gone west because of his uncanny instinct for piercing disguise. They said he could smell an American. And many of our most strictly guarded plans had been smashed through his infernally clever spying. Only a month before I had him in my clutches; saw the very rope around his neck. But he had slipped away, and left me empty-handed and kicking myself for an ass.
I held my breath as I felt those gimlet eyes of his boring into me. Would he sense who I was? Surely he could hear the pounding of my heart. How long he stood there I don't know. It seemed like hours. I tautened, waiting for him to call out, determined to sell my life as dearly as I could.
But for once the Ferret was fooled. He turned away. "Take us into your kitchen," he snapped at the nurse, then there was the tramping of feet and the slamming of a door.
* * * * *
The breath whistled from me in relief. I turned cautiously. I was alone. Now was my chance. I jumped from the bed and started toward the window. Once out, I'd find some place to hide. I let my face relax; there was no use for that particular disguise any longer. The window was up. I was on the sill. Another second and I'd be out in the open.
"Just where do you think you're going?" came the Ferret's silky, cruel voice. I whirled. There he was, just inside the door. His little black eyes glinted dangerously over his hooked nose and sharp chin.
"Oh—Bolton! Something made me turn back. Glad to see you."
His hand flashed to the ray-tube in his belt. At the same moment I left the window sill in a desperate leap. Clear across the room I sprang, and before he had time to pull his weapon I had one hand clamped around his wrist, the other clutching his throat. We crashed to the ground.
I was in pyjamas, barefooted, he fully clothed. His leather shoes drove into me viciously, even as his face turned purple. The pain was excruciating, but I dared not cry out. His left thumb found my eye, was digging in.
The crash of our fall must have been heard outside; another moment and all would be lost. I was momentarily on top as we rolled across the floor. With a supreme effort I pulled his head away from the floor, then crashed it down. He slumped; lay still.
The door knob was turning as I jumped frantically through the window. I heard a cry behind me. Rough, uneven ground. No one about. To my right was a rocky cliff, and at its base what looked like the mouth of a cave. Any port in a storm: I dived into it.
It was a cave, all right, or rather a narrow tunnel winding some distance into the cliff. I ran back at top speed, till I crashed into the end of the passage.
* * * * *
I crouched there, panting. It was beastly cold, and the dampness struck into my bones. I shivered, then laughed grimly. I wouldn't shiver long. When the Ferret came to and revealed that Eric Bolton was around, there wouldn't be a stone left unturned till I was found. Those birds had good cause to want me rubbed out.
Already I could hear faint shouts from without. The chase was on. I was caught, right enough. Trapped like any rat.
I felt around me in the darkness and my hand lighted on a round stone. It just fitted my fist. Well, I'd get one of them, anyway, when they found me. Cold comfort in that, but I didn't feel like giving in tamely.
Footsteps sounded out at the tunnel end. So soon! I gripped my rock tightly, and waited.
But—it sounded like only one man. I drew myself together. Maybe I had a chance. A dim glow showed where the passage curved, then a disk of light flashed on the wall and flitted about. The fool!
The steps came on, slowly, stumblingly. The disk of light grew smaller as its source drew nearer. Then he was around the corner, bulked for a moment against his own light as it was reflected from the wet wall. That moment was enough! The stone left my hand with all the force I possessed. It went straight to its mark: a sickening thud told me that. The form dropped, and the flashlight clinked on the rocks.
I listened. Still the shouts from without, but no steps inside. I was safe for a time. But the searcher would surely be missed, and others would come looking for him. I had only one chance. I shrugged my shoulders. I couldn't lose anything. If I stayed here my goose was cooked.
By the light of the flashlight I examined my quarry. A renegade Frenchman, apparently. A private. In a trice I had his uniform on me and had twisted my features to match his. Little did I think when I acted under the Klieg lights that the fate of two continents would some day depend on this gift of mine.
He stirred; groaned. I hesitated. Then—well, I couldn't chance his crawling out. His ray-tube was newly charged. I left a heap of ashes there as I walked away....
* * * * *
I was outside the cave. I darted a glance around. My refuge was not the only hole in sheer rock; it was literally honeycombed. From one, then another of the cavern mouths a soldier emerged. Each strode across the uneven, rocky plain to where an officer stood with what was apparently a map in his hand. As each searcher saluted and reported, the officer made a mark on the map. Someone came out from the cave-mouth next to mine. I fell in behind him.
"No one in cave twenty-one, sir."
"To your post."
The private turned on his heel and marched off to take his place in a company formation that was rapidly taking shape near by. My turn was next. What was the number of my cave? A mistake now, and I was through.
I saluted. "No one in cave twenty, sir."
"To your post."
Had I hit it? When the final check-up came would there be two reports for one cave, none for another?
A front rank man moved aside. Good: that meant my place was just behind him. My luck was holding. And never did a man need luck more!
Now was my first chance to look about, to discover what sort of place this was. It was an oval plain, roughly a mile wide by five miles long. Buildings, squat structures of corrugated iron, were scattered here and there. In the distance, to my left, what seemed a great hole in the ground glowed; a huge disk of light.
Dry land, here, where there should be nothing but a waste of waters!
* * * * *
Puzzled, I strained to see what bordered the plain. It was a tall cliff, running all around, and towering high in the air. But it wasn't rock, for it glowed strangely green in the flood of light that illumined the place. And it was clean cut, rising sheer from the unevenness of the ground.
Then I remembered. The vertical green wall that soared above me as I lay dazed from Jim's blow. The translucent green wall in whose depths I had seen the blind fish rushing toward me. Water! The sea! Impossible! There were scientific miracle-workers in the enemy's ranks, but they couldn't have hollowed out a pit such as this in mid-ocean; forced back the very ocean to create this amphitheatre, this dry plain on the Atlantic's very bottom: held back the unthinkable weight of Earth's waters by a nothingness. Incredible!
Yet the accomplished fact stared me in the face.
My eyes traveled up that impossible wall. It must have been at least six hundred feet high. At its summit, in a murky haze that heaved and billowed, I made out strange, dim bulks that hung, unsupported. A long line of them, a long ellipse following closely the curving of the cliff. Underneath the nearest, barely perceptible, I could make out a lens-shaped cage of wire. I began to understand.
Overarching everything was a great dome of heaving cloud.
The long line snapped into immobility.
"By the left flank, march!"
We were moving, marching. Then my ruse had succeeded. I had chosen the right cave number. I breathed a sigh of relief.
* * * * *
The command for route order was given, and at once a buzz of talk broke out around me. "Damn them, they're sending us right off to work! We missed our mess, hunting for that damned spy. But that don't mean anything. It's back to the tunnel for ours."
"Oh, quit your bellyaching, Andreyeff. Another week, and we'll be in New York. Just think of it, the richest city in the world to loot! And women! Why, they tell me the American women are to the Frenchies and the cold English-women as the sun is to the stars. What's a meal more or less when you think of that?"
An obscene laugh swept through the ranks. Guttural voices boasted of past exploits—black deeds and sadistic cruelties that had marked the trail of the hordes sweeping over Europe from the windy Asiatic steppes.
As we marched, I noticed a peculiarity of the rocky floor. There were no sharp edges, no sudden cleavages in the uneven terrain. It looked, for all the world, as though the stone had been melted, then frozen again in a moment. An unbelievable pattern was forming itself in my mind. If what I thought were true—!
The command came to halt.
We had reached the blazing disk I had seen from afar. It was a tremendous shaft, dropping straight into the very bowels of the earth. Two hundred feet across, a blinding glare streamed up from the pit. From far beneath came shoutings, the clank of machinery, a growling roar.
Other companies marched up and halted at the pit edge. My outfit were whites—Russians, French, Germans. But the others were black, brown, yellow—all the motley aggregation of races that formed the Red cohorts, the backbone of the Great Uprising. As the "At ease" order snapped out a babel of tongues rose on the air. Every language of Earth was there save English. The Anglo-Saxons had chosen tortured death rather than submission to the commands of their conquerors.
A huge platform rose slowly up in the shaft and came to a stop at the ground level. It was solidly packed with another throng of soldiers in the gray-green of the enemy. They marched off and we took their place.
* * * * *
Down, down, we went, till it seemed that our destination was the center of the earth. Louder and louder grew the growling roar, the ponderous thud and clank of huge machines.
We were in a huge chamber, hollowed out of the solid rock. Thousands of men bustled out among great piles of lumber and steel rails. Huge cranes rolled here and there, swinging their ponderous loads. Officers shouted crisp orders. Green-uniformed privates sprang to obey.
But no time was given me to get more than a glimpse of all this activity. From out the gaping mouth of a hundred-foot-wide tunnel a long train of flat cars came gliding. It halted and swayed on the single rail, and the whir of the gyroscopic balancers filled the cavern. A sharp order, and my companions leaped for the cars, lay prone on the steel car-beds, and passed their belts through projecting loops. I wondered, but imitated them. I buried my face in my arms, as the others were doing.
There came the eery shriek of a siren: the train was moving. Swiftly it gathered speed till it seemed as though my protesting body was being forced through a wall of air grown suddenly solid. Myriad fingers pulled at me, seeking to hurl me to destruction. Even through my protecting arms my breath was forced back into my lungs, choking me. The wind howled past with the wail of a thousand souls in torment.
Just as the limit of endurance was reached the terrific speed slackened, and the long train ground to a halt. "All off! Lively now!" came the command.
* * * * *
We were at the rail-head, and before me was the face of the tunnel. Queer, hooded figures were there bending over wheeled tripods, manipulating what appeared to be searchlights. But no shafts of light leaped from the lenses. The tripods were rolling steadily forward.
I looked at the tunnel face again, then, startled, back to the hooded men. I rubbed my eyes. Was I seeing things? No, by all that was holy, it was so! The distance between the machines and the end wall of the passage had not changed, but men and rock were ten—fifteen—twenty feet away! They were boring; boring into the solid rock at tremendous speed. And the rock was melting, vanishing, disappearing into nothingness in the awful blast projected from those machines!
I gaped—my pose, my danger, forgotten. Almost as fast as a man could run, the tunnel extended itself. It was phantasmal, incredible!
A rough hand seized me from behind. I whirled, my heart in my mouth. It was the burly sergeant. "What the hell are you dreaming about, Renaud? Hop to it. Over there, on that shoring job. Get busy now, or—" The threat in that unfinished sentence chilled me by its very vagueness.
My squad was hauling heavy timbers, setting them up where a fault showed in the rocky roof of the tunnel. I joined them but my thoughts were a madly whirling chaos.
The pattern was complete now. The long, curving under-water ridge on Jim's chart—this tunnel was boring through it. Whatever it was that those tripods projected—a new ray it must be—it was melting a passage six hundred miles long. Under our rafts, under our fleets, under our coast defenses—to come up far behind our lines. The ridge joined the coast just south of New York. Some night, while our generals slept in smug complacency, all that gray green horde of wolves would belch forth—from the very earth.
And the Americans would follow Europe into hell!
* * * * *
Five minutes passed. I looked again at the face of the tunnel, drawn by an irresistible fascination. It had advanced a full quarter of a mile. Like fog before a cloud-piercing searchlight, the age-old rock was dissolving before the ray. At this rate America's doom would be sealed in a week. And I, alone among these thousands, was helpless to avert the climaxing menace.
A howl of rage came from the sergeant. I turned. A diminutive German, his face pale green with fatigue, had stumbled and fallen under the weight of a heavy timber.
The swarthy non-com was kicking him with a cruel boot. "Get up, you; get up before I brain you!"
The sprawling man looked up, fear staring from his deep-sunk eyes. "Aber, ich bin krank."—"I am sick; I can't stand the work; it is too schwer, too heavy," he faltered.
"Sick?" the Russian roared. "Sick? I'll sick you! You're lazy, too damned lazy to do a little work. I'm tired of this gold-bricking around here. I'm going to make an example of you that the rest of you dogs won't forget in a hurry." His face was purple with rage. He bent, seized the fallen man and dragged him out from under the crushing bulk. Then, raising the struggling wretch over his head as lightly as though he were an infant, he ran forward, toward the ray projectors.
Shriek after shriek pierced the hot air, such howls of utter fear and agony, as I hope never to hear again. The little figure, held high in the huge paws, writhed and tossed, to no avail.
The sergeant reached the nearest tripod. His brawny arms flexed; straightened. The German swept up and over the head of the operator, and dropped in front of the machine. Then—he vanished. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was there between projector and rapidly retreating wall!
A horrible retching tore my stomach; I swayed dizzily. The utter brutality, the finality of the thing! "And any more of you carrion that I catch slacking will get the same thing," the Russian said. "You, Renaud, I've got my eye on you. Watch out!" The sergeant's voice rasped through the mist about me. I shoved my shoulder under one end of an eight by eight and plunged into the back breaking labor. But one thought hammered at my reeling brain: "The New York! That's what happened to her!"
* * * * *
The long hours of toil at last ended. We were again in the entrance cavern, waiting for the elevator platform. It was unaccountably delayed: the last batch had gone up fifteen minutes before. The men about me chafed and swore. They were impatient for mess and bed.
Bit by bit I had reconstructed all the elements of this unprecedented operation. The ray, the blasting ray that whiffed into non-existence all that it touched, was the keynote. The great plain had been cleared by the ray. The dim shapes floating high in that far-circling ellipse were pouring down the dreadful vibrations, thus holding back the sea in a marvelous green wall. I remembered the sea-monster that had dashed at me and vanished. That proved it. The dome of cloud was camouflage, or the product of the processes of destruction going on underneath: it didn't matter. What mattered was that it was interlaced by a network of ray beams. It was an impenetrable wall, a perfect defense. Boxed in on all sides by such a barrier, how was I to get out word of the menace? How was it to be combatted even if our forces knew of the danger? A hundred plans flooded my wearied brain, to be rejected one by one.
A mocking, ribald cheer arose from the men around me. The platform was ascending. Why the long delay? A premonition of disaster chilled me. I shrugged it aside.
We were at the top. A long line of soldiers curved about the mouth of the pit. The next shift waiting to go down? No—they made no move to approach. And each one was holding his ray-tube at the ready. This was the guard. At a table nearby a knot of officers was gathered. Papers of some sort were piled high on it. Again the icy finger of dread touched me. One of the officers moved aside, revealing the profile of his companion. The Ferret. Then I knew I was done for!
My eyes darted here and there, seeking escape. No hope—the heavily armed guard was all around; the platform blocked the shaft mouth. A dash would be self-betrayal—suicide.
* * * * *
Mechanically I obeyed the sergeant's barked commands. We were in single file. We were moving toward that ominous table where the Ferret stood, a sardonic smile on his sharp-featured face. I could make out a livid weal across his throat. I had left my mark on him. That was some satisfaction.
The head of the line reached the table. They were fingerprinting the leader! A lieutenant extracted a paper from the pile and handed it to the Ferret. He made momentary comparison of something on the paper with the mark the soldier had just made. Then the next man stepped up, while the first made off across the plain.
Of course! Simple: how very simple! And yet it had caught me! The service records of the men had their fingerprints, just as in our own forces. And each man in the area was being checked up. Trust the Ferret to think of that. He knew that I'd be somewhere in their ranks, impersonating one of their men. Well, I was in for it. The last trick in our long game was his.
My turn. No use going through the motions. I bent down a moment, then straightened. "Oh, hello, Bolton," the Ferret said, thrusting out his hand, the one with the twisted finger. I had resumed my own visage. "Didn't think you could get away with it, did you?"
Chagrined as I was, I put a good face on it. The Ferret and I had run up against each other many many times. Cheerfully, either of us would have cut the other's throat. But—we played the game.
"Hello, Rubinoff," I responded. "You seem to have me, just now. But try and hold me."
The Ferret threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, I think you'll find it a little difficult to get away this time." I thought so, too, but did not voice my thought.
The smile left Rubinoff's face. He snapped an order. A squad advanced from the guard. Handcuffs clicked around my wrists, the mates of each were fastened to the arms of two guardsmen. I was securely chained. They were taking no chances.
"Take him to the special cell in the guard-house." The lieutenant saluted. I was marched off. Then I was not to be summarily executed. I was not as much relieved as you might think. You see, I knew the Ferret. We had raided one of his hangouts once; just missed him. But we found an M.I.S. man there whom Rubinoff had been—questioning. We thanked God when he died.
* * * * *
We tramped across the plain. My eyes kept roving about: there wasn't much hope for me, but miracles have happened. Most of the scattered structures were hastily thrown together sheds of sheet iron. Barracks, they looked like. But, every so often I spied spheres of concrete, the wide open doors revealing yard-thick walls. What could be their purpose?
Something bothered me. Something about the ray projectors and the other machinery I had seen. I glanced up at one of the balloons floating high above. All these needed a power supply; tremendous power to accomplish what the ray was doing. And there were no cables running to them. How did the power get to them?
There was only one answer. Radio transmission. The required energy, perhaps the very ray vibrations themselves, were being broadcast to the points of projection. That meant a power-house and a control room somewhere in the area. The vulnerable points! Where were they?
I stumbled, and was jerked roughly to my feet. The lieutenant slapped me. "Scared, Americansky? You well may be. We'll have rare sport when they throw what the Ferret leaves of you into the ray." I shuddered. To go out that way! I'll be honest—I was horribly afraid. The men to whom I was shackled laughed.
A dull throbbing beat at my ears, a vibration just too low to be sound. I looked about for its source. It came from my left—a concrete building, low lying, about a hundred yards long by as many feet wide. At the further end a squat smokestack broke the flat line of the roof. Guards, many guards, were pacing their slow patrol about it. From the center of the side nearest me, cables thick as a man's trunk issued forth. I followed them with my eye. They ended in a marble slab on which rested a concrete sphere, somewhat larger than the others. The door of this one was closed. On the roof of the queer edifice was a peculiar arrangement of wires, gleaming in the artificial daylight. This building, too, was heavily guarded.
I had found what I sought—the power-house and the transmitting station. Much good it did me—now.
* * * * *
My warders turned sharply to the right. I glimpsed another concrete structure. A heavy steel door opened, then clanged shut, behind us. The fetid odor that means only one thing the world over, folded round me.
I sprawled on the steel floor of the cell into which I was thrust. A wave of utter fatigue engulfed me. I felt great weariness of body and despair of soul. I had failed in my mission. The fate of my country had been entrusted to me—and here I was in a steel-floored, steel-walled prison cell. And that tunnel was rushing toward New York at three miles an hour; over seventy miles a day.
I think I slept from sheer exhaustion. But something startled me into awaking. The dim light filtering in from the tiny air-hole high up on one wall showed me that I was still alone. I lay, listening. There it was again, a wailing scream of agony that rose and fell and died away.
I heard a grating sound at the door, and it opened and shut. Rubinoff, the Ferret, had entered. "Comfortable, Captain Bolton?" he asked, and there was more than a hint of mockery in the velvety voice. In the hand with the twisted finger was his ray-tube. It pointed steadily at me.
I got to my feet. I was in no mood for trifling, for that scream had shaken me. "Cut the comedy, Rubinoff." I growled. "Kill me, and let's have done with it."
He raised a deprecating hand. "Oh, come now. There's really no absolute necessity for that. You can save yourself, very easily."
"What do you mean?"
"I can use you, if you're amenable to reason."
"I don't understand."
"You're the cleverest of the American Intelligence men. The rabble they give me are well-nigh useless. Cast your lot in with us, and in a week you'll have the riches of your greatest city to dip your hands in. It's easy. There is certain information we need. Give it to us. Then I'll get you back into your lines: we'll cook up a good tale for Sommers. You can resume your post and send us information only when it is of extreme importance. Come, now, be sensible."
* * * * *
At first blush this was an astounding proposal. But I knew my man. He needed to know something. Once he had extracted the knowledge he sought from me, I should be disposed of. He'd never let me get back into our lines with what I had found out. It might have been policy to play him—but what was the use?
"No, Rubinoff. You know I won't do it."
He sighed. "Just as I thought. Honor, country, and so on. Well, it's too bad. We should have made a wonderful team. However, you'll tell me what I want to know. What are the defenses within fifty miles of New York?"
I laughed derisively.
"You'll save yourself a lot of trouble if you tell me, Bolton. After all, death in the ray isn't so bad. Whiff—and you're gone. Don't force me to other measures." There was a grim threat in his voice. But I simply shook my head.
"Stubborn, like all the other Anglo-Saxons. Well, I've got something to show you." He raised his weapon and glanced at it. "Pretty little thing, this. Not the ordinary ray-tube. Only field officers have these. Look."
He pointed it at the wall from behind which that scream had come and pressed the trigger button. A tiny round hole appeared in the steel.
"Neat, isn't it? Utilizes the same ray you saw at work in the tunnel. The Zeta-ray we call it. Just think what that would do to human flesh." I said nothing.
"But that isn't what I had in mind. Just look through that hole."
* * * * *
I wanted to see what was on the other side, so I obeyed. The Thing that lay on the floor within—could it ever have been a man? I whirled back to the Ferret in a fury, my fists clenched.
His infernal weapon was pointing straight at me. "Softly, Bolton, softly. You'd never get to me." I checked my spring, for he was right. "How'd you like that?" he purred.
"Some of your work, I suppose," I growled.
"The poor fool was fomenting a mutiny. We wanted to know the other plotters. He was stubborn. What would you? Necessity knows no law.... What are the defenses around New York?" He advanced menacingly.
"Why be a fool? This ray hurts, I tell you, when it's properly applied. How would you like to be melted away, piece by little piece, till you're like that in there?"
I shrugged my shoulders, but kept silent.
"I tell you it hurts. You don't believe me? That in there is unconscious, seven-eighths dead. Listen."
He bored another hole in the steel, keeping his finger pressed on the trigger. Again that heart-rending scream of agony rang out, tearing its way through me. My brain exploded in red rage. I leaped for the fiend, reckless of consequences. My fist drove into the leering face with all the force of my spring, with all the insane fury that his heartless cruelty had roused in me. Smack!—he catapulted across the floor and crashed into the wall! I was on him, my hand clutching for his tube. But there was no need. He was out—dead to the world. So sudden, so unexpected was my mad attack that even he had not had time to meet it.
I worked fast. In a minute I was in Rubinoff's uniform and had assumed his face. I was a little taller; no matter. But the finger—that would be noticed immediately. There was only one thing to do. I stuck my little finger through one of the holes he had made in the wall and twisted. Crack! Beads of agony stood out on my forehead, but the break was just right. By bending the other fingers slightly I could hold that one in just the position of his.
I picked up the ray-tube with my left hand. If I went out through the guard-house entrance I might meet other officers and be engaged in conversation. That might lead to discovery. My cell was on the side of the prison away from the road; I had noticed no buildings behind it: I'd chance it. Luck had been with me so far.
* * * * *
I carved out a hole in the wall pierced by the air-hole. It was like cutting through butter with a red hot knife. I stepped out.
There was no one about. I walked carelessly around the corner of the building, my hand, holding the tube, buried deep in my pocket. Not far away was the spherical structure I had spotted as the control room. I returned salutes. No one stopped to talk to me. Would the guard before that building require a pass-word?
I heard a shout behind me. My escape was discovered! At once I broke into a run and dashed past the guard, shouting: "Prisoner escaped! Came this way!" The man gaped. The shouting behind me grew louder. I heard the thud of many feet, running. I flung open the door, slammed it shut behind me, and turned the key.
A long row of giant electrode bulbs, as tall as a man, stretched before me—the source of the Zeta-ray. From here came the power that held back the waters, that bored the tunnel. A thunderous knocking shook the door. Someone at a huge switchboard turned toward me. Instantly my hand was out of my pocket, and the ray-tube leveled at the nearest bulb. I pressed the trigger. The bulb crashed. I swept down the line. Crash, crash, crash—they were all gone.
I whirled to meet the expected attack. It was wholly instinctive, for in a second we'd all be dead anyway. The waters would be down on us.
But the switchboard operator wasn't springing at me. Instead, he was tugging frantically, at a long lever that came down from above. There was a clang, and a steel shutter dropped across the door.
* * * * *
Then came a sound of crashing thunder that split my eardrums with its unbearable clamor. Then a mightier roar, as the mountain-high sea, held back so long by the invisible ray, poured its countless millions of tons of deep green water down into the man-made hole.
The impact was terrific. The yards-thick concrete shuddered and strained. The tremendous pressure forced trickles of water into the concrete shell: the roaring of the elements was indescribably deafening.
I was in pitch darkness, expecting every moment to be crushed under miles of ocean, when suddenly I was thrown from my feet. The floor was heaving drunkenly beneath me. In a moment I was slammed breathlessly against the shattered remnants of a huge vacuum tube. The jagged glass slashed my arms and face. I grabbed with my hand to steady myself; came in contact with in iron bar: clung like grim death.
For a huge concrete sphere was whirling, tossing, gyrating in a welter of waters. The din was terrific. I rolled over and over, my arms almost pulled out of their sockets. Then, like a ton of brick, something collided with my head. There was a blinding flare in the black void, and I knew no more.
* * * * *
Slowly I came out of a hideous nightmare.
My head ached frightfully, and my wounds smarted and stung. It was dark, but a faint luminescence from somewhere enabled me to faintly discern my surroundings. I was wedged between a steel cable-bracket and the curving wall. Across the glass strewn floor a body lay, sprawling queerly.
The room was swaying in long undulations, or was it my head? I lay helpless, unable to move. A leg dangled uselessly. There was a bump, the sound of scraping. I heard confused sounds penetrating the walls, and the jar of steady impacts.
A half an hour passed so; maybe an hour: I had no means of telling. I was weak from pain and loss of blood, and slightly delirious.
A faint whirring noise, a sudden intensity in the illumination caused me to turn my head. The steel shutter was glowing red, then a shower of white sparks broke through. The heavy steel was melting away into incandescence. It crashed.
A group of men stumbled cautiously in. Now I was sure I was delirious. For the men wore khaki uniforms! Americans! Then, in my fever, I thought I heard a familiar voice cry out my name. It was Jim's voice. A roaring curtain of blackness shut down on me.
* * * * *
When I awoke again I was lying in a clean-sheeted hospital bed. Jim was sitting at the side, staring at me with gloomy eyes.
"Hello, Jim," I gasped weakly. "How did I get here?"
It was touching to see the instantaneous delight on his weathered countenance.
"So you came to at last, you old son-of-a-gun! Thought you were cashing in on us for a while. How did you get here? That's just what I want to know. How in hell did you get here?"
I was still pretty weak. "You pulled me out. What happened?"
"We're still trying to puzzle it out. Wouldn't be surprised if you had a hand in it, you blighter. We were watching that damned cloud, worrying ourselves to death. What with the New York going out like a light, and not hearing anything from you, we were pretty low.
"Then, suddenly, there was a tremendous detonation. The whole cloud mass collapsed like a pricked bubble, and a bottomless pit yawned underneath the ocean—and, next thing we knew, our raft was yanked from under our feet, plunging and bucking in a swirl of waters.
"I just had time to grab hold of a stanchion, when we were sucked down into a whirlpool such as I never hope to see again. Round and round we spun, the tumbling waters mountain high above us. I was buried most of the time in crashing billows; my arms were almost pulled out of their sockets.
* * * * *
"I never expected to see daylight again," Jim went on. "My hold was being broken when at last we were spewed out somehow onto a sea that looked as if a thousand hurricanes were blowing down.
"I managed to get my men together—what was left of them. There were pitifully few. Later, I heard that our losses were enormous. Over seventy-five per cent of our rafts on a 50-mile front were lost, and the enemies' were almost totally wiped out.
"When the mile-high seas had toned down a bit, we saw a huge concrete ball tossing about like a cork. Couldn't make out what the devil it was. Then someone noticed a door. We got that open, but there was a steel one inside. We had to slice it with an oxy-hydrogen flame. Inside, snug as a bug in a rug, were you.
"Now come on, tell me how in blazes you got in there. If you don't spill it quick, I'll bust."
I sat up in my excitement. "Don't you see, they were afraid the ray might fail. They had those concrete balls stuck all around so that the officers at least could escape, if it did. Their best technical men must have been running the control room. They made sure to have that specially strong. And the wave caused by the water pouring into the hole swept me right over here, just where I started from."
Jim had both hands on my shoulders, was pushing me down. "Whoa, baby, whoa. That's just as clear as a darkness-rayed area. Count up to ten, and start all over again."
The general himself strode into the room. And then I had to tell my story straight.
A BEE'S BREADTH
The breath of a bee, important because of its indication of the health of the insect in winter and of the efficiency of the sweet-producing hive in summer, was recently measured by Prof. G. H. Vansell of the University of California. To do this he conducted the air coming from the hive trough a tube into bulbs containing absorbent chemicals. Allowing for the natural carbon dioxide and water of the outside air, he weighed these bulbs, getting an analysis of the breath of the hive by the amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide the chemicals in the bulbs had picked up.
He found that in winter when the bees were inactive the average hourly water loss from the entire hive was thirty six millionths of an ounce. In summer when the insects were hard at work making honey and gathering nectar the water loss was twenty five times as great. The carbon dioxide output, however, did not even double in summer.
A Meeting Place for Readers of Astounding Stories
And That's That
May I have just a little room in "The Readers' Corner" to answer Mr. Meek's argument and defend myself from the charge of hasty reading? You will remember that I did not write my letter immediately after the publication of the first Heaviside Layer story, but waited until the appearance of the second, a "cooling-off" period of three months. In that time I re-read the story and considered it at length. I don't call that hasty reading. Besides, the flaw in the story is so obvious that even a "hasty" reading should suffice to find it.
I can't argue about the matter of meteors because Mr. Meek has not given any figures concerning the density or viscosity of his medium. But I can say that to my way of thinking any astronomer could detect the effect of such friction on the action of meteors. They should certainly be consumed much more rapidly than if they merely struck thin air.
That, however, is a minor point and I wouldn't even mind conceding it to Mr. Meek. The point I now wish to make is much more important and in my mind establishes the falsity of Mr. Meek's premises. In the July issue of Astounding Stories, page seven, paragraph four, sentences fourteen and fifteen, he states that the Heaviside Layer is composed of a liquid of high viscosity. By definition a liquid is more dense than a gas. Therefore the Heaviside Layer, according to Mr. Meek, is denser than the atmosphere of the earth since the former is a liquid and the latter is a gas. The increased refraction of light as it entered our atmosphere would then be noticeable. Astronomers can even now detect refraction due to the air. The sun remains visible for some time after it has actually descended below the horizon, due to refraction. If there was a denser substance than air surrounding the earth the refraction would be much greater. Finally, how could the atmosphere support a denser substance like the Heaviside Layer? I'd sure make for cover if I really believed that such a menace existed right over my head.
Sorry to take up your space so much by an argument, but your comments on my letter really called for a defense. Hope you can find room for this.—Philip Waite, 3400 Wayne Ave, New Your, N. Y.
Since Mr. Waite has so generously admitted the validity of my answer to his criticism as regards meteors, I can do no less than admit that he scored one against me in his second argument. I used the word liquid. It was careless diction. Had I used the phrase "composed of a SUBSTANCE of high viscosity, of low specific gravity and with a coefficient of refraction identical with that of air," there would have been no argument. I am sure that Mr. Waite will admit after reflection that such a substance could be held in position, if its specific gravity were low enough, by a combination of gravity and centrifugal force, somewhat in the same manner as the ring of Saturn is held in place. Of course, any idea that the layer rested on the air and was supported in place by it, would be untenable. As I said in my previous letter, I don't believe such a layer exists. If it does, I hope that no one proves it before I get some characters off on a space flyer for an interplanetary adventure or two.—S. P. Meek, Capt., Ord. Dept., U. S. A.
Right from the Shoulder
I know for a fact that Astounding Stories is the best Science Fiction magazine on the stands. I have read it every issue except the first three, and have not yet found a bad story. The characters in other Science Fiction magazines seem like machines, but Astounding Stories' characters seem like intimate friends. Why do —— [censored] like some write in and start bellyaching about the cover, pages, the size, the edges and many other things that no one but —— [censored] would notice? If they know so much why don't they start a magazine and put all other publications out of business? If they liked the stories they would not care if the color of the cover was black or red, white and blue. I get so interested in the stories that the edges of the paper do not amount to anything; and people that bellyache about such minor things prove that they do not care for the stories, and furthermore they prove that they are —— [censored] and —— [censored] ready for the booby hatch.
There is only one thing wrong with the perfect magazine: it does not come out twice a month. I have never known a bunch of Editors that have the intelligence of the Staff of Astounding Stories [uncensored—Ed.]. They have never published a single story that any intelligent Reader could kick about.
About reprints: whether the Editors think that they should publish some or not, it is all the same to me, as they know what they are doing. I should like very much to see some stories by Burroughs, though.
If I were to name your best authors, I would have to name every one that ever wrote a story for your wonderful magazine.—H. N. Sager, R. F. D. 6, Box 419, Bessemer, Ala.
Disposing of Old Stories
I have observed that numerous readers request reprints. I have a collection that goes back to 1900! Since I have no more use for them, I have decided to dispense with them. Here is an infinitesimal list:
A. Merritt: "Thru the Dragon Glass," "The Moon Pool," "The Metal Monster" and "The Ship of Ishtar."
Homer Eon Flint: "Out of the Moon," "The Planeteer," "The King of Conserve Island," "The Blind Spot" and "Flint and Hall."
Jules Black: "Beyond the Earth Atom" and "Marooned in Space."
John Louis Hill: "The Dimension Wizard" and "The Challenge from Beyond."
Davidson Mortimer: "Lost in Time" and "The Amazing Empire Lost in Time" (sequel to story previously mentioned).
Booth Langell: "The Moons of Lanisar."
As I said before, this is but a small part of the Science Fiction stories I have. Anyone desiring stories mentioned above, or any others, please write to me.—George Zambock, 459 E. 155th St., New York, N. Y.
A Kind Offer
I'm sure you will sympathize with me for reading your magazine in study hall.
It is so very dull—I have three S.H.'s in a row—that I have to do something to relieve the monotony, so, seeing the latest copy of A. S. at my newsdealer's, I brought it back to school after dinner. I am speaking of the February number. I very much enjoyed the Dr. Bird story. Capt. Meek is always good. "Phalanxes of Atlans" promises to be an excellent story, also.
What I want to know is, why are so many mossbacks throwing brickbats? What does it matter if some of the stories are not on the scientific chalk line? A very wise man once said that "Variety is the spice of life," so why not take a hint, some of you would-be brickbat pitchers, and pipe down?
I have read every issue of Astounding Stories published so far, and have not a brickbat to report as yet. I notice in one letter to "The Readers' Corner" a request for a department on rocket propulsion. I presume the writer meant on propelling rocket planes. I have experimented on rocket ships for the past three years and can give some data on these as to the construction of models (for when I say ships I really mean model airplanes). I have had this as my hobby for the past four and a half years, and can give extensive information on model building. I specialize in models powered by power other than rubber; and I took second place at the Atlantic City Tournament held in October by the National Play-ground Association, in the Annual National Championships.
Anyone desiring information on the rocket ship or any other type of model plane will be promptly answered by addressing their letter to me.
I hope you will find room to publish this, as I like nothing better than helping someone get started on my favorite hobby, aviation. I have, however, several hobbies, including football, basket-ball, tennis, swimming, boating and hiking. I live within ten miles of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and can see from the study hall window, which I now am seated near to, three ranges of the mountains all covered with more than ten inches of snow.—Richard M. Evans, Box 305, Maryville, Tenn.
To the Defense
Some of the letters you have printed in "The Readers' Corner" almost burn me up. Edwin C. Magnuson asks you what you print there: only letters praising your magazine to the skies? or occasional brickbats? Well, I might say one thing, and that is: if you did print all brickbats, as he seems to want you to, the Readers would think that your magazine wasn't of much account if that was the kind of letters you got all the time, and would probably quit reading it.
He also said he felt like quitting several times because the stories weren't scientific. Well, if he can show me anywhere on your magazine where it says it is a scientific magazine, I'll certainly beg his most humble pardon on bended knee. He also crabbed about your artists. If he can do better, I advise you to hire him. He also says that the paper is rotten, and that after a few handlings goes to pieces. I still have all my magazines, and have lent them several times, and the paper is still there. On his fifth statement I agree with him: you should have an editorial. Also I would certainly like to have reprints, as there are about six issues I didn't get, and I imagine there are several other Readers in the same boat.
Hume V. Stephani makes a very good suggestion about a quarterly. I certainly think it would be appreciated and would go over big. And Robert J. Hyatt, I most certainly agree with you in your letter printed in the February issue; and if this letter is printed (which I hope it is) I hope you will see it, and know that at least one person has the same views on the magazine that you do.—Buel Godwin, 101—3rd Avenue, S. E. Le Mars, Iowa.
"Now a Real Pest"
I have recently been initiated into the reading of Science Fiction, and as a result I am now a real pest to the magazine vendor, from asking for the next copy of Astounding Stories. I have just finished your February copy and words can't express my enjoyment.
"The Tentacles from Below" is indeed a Science Fiction masterpiece. I devour eagerly Captain S. P. Meek's stories about Dr. Bird. As long as you keep Meek you can be assured that I will purchase this magazine. "The Pirate Planet" proved to be a story worthy to be kept as a reprint for future issues. In fact, many of your stories are so good that it is a shame that others can't enjoy them in future issues of Astounding Stories.
Wesso is a great artist and I appreciate to the fullest extent his remarkable pictures.
Yours for a continuation of your present success in editing and publishing remarkable stories—Lester P. Lieber, 542 Dalzell St., Shreveport, La.
Although this is my first letter to "The Readers' Corner" of your publication, I have nevertheless been a consistent Reader of the magazine since its inception. Contrary to many of your correspondents I have nothing to say against your magazine or policy. I like its size, its artists and most of its stories. I shall not bother to name those I do not like because I do not believe that there is a magazine to be found that can publish stories to suit all its Readers.
I enjoy the serials and your two-part novelettes since it gives one something to look forward to each month. I enjoyed "The Pirate Planet" by Charles W. Diffin so much I was sorry to see it end, and I hope there will be more of his work in the future. I am particularly glad to see such writers as Captain S. P. Meek, Ray Cummings, Miles J. Breuer, Victor Rousseau and Harl Vincent as regular contributors to your pages, but there are also a number of other writers whom I miss seeing in "our" mag. Of these are A. Hyatt-Verrill who writes so well of the Incas, Otis Adelbert Kline who also gives us excellent stories and Leslie F. Stone whose "Men with Wings" and "Women with Wings" appeared in another magazine and which I enjoyed exceedingly. I believe that to have these writers as regular contributors would add much to the interest of the publication.
With the compliments of an avid reader of Science Fiction. I salute you.—Theodore Morris, 1412 S. W. 13th St., Miami, Fla.
"Under My Collar"
I have been reading Astounding Stories for a good while and I like it fine. I noticed in your last issue that a fellow by the name of Edwin C. Magnuson was kicking about "The Readers' Corner." Some of his reasons, I think, for not liking this magazine are as follows: first, the illustrations are poor. I believe they are good. Second, he says that he doesn't like stories such as those written by Charles W. Diffin, Jackson Gee, Murray Leinster and Victor Rousseau. He also has in his letter a list of authors whose works he likes. I do not think they are so hot, with the exception of Capt. S. P. Meek. Mr. Magnuson also says he is disgusted with Astounding Stories and would like to quit reading it. Well, why doesn't he?
I want to say it is a fine mag. I don't like to be a critic, but that fellow got under my collar. The only thing that could be done is to publish at least twice a month.
Well, reckon I will sign off. Here is to Astounding Stories. A better mag can't be found!—Boyd H. Goodman, 2008 McKinney Ave., Dallas, Texas.
From Franklin to Poe
As a Reader of Astounding Stories from the first number I would like to comment on your magazine regarding your stories and the subject of reprints.
First, you are publishing one of the best Science Fiction magazines on the market, and I read three of them. And although I agree with Mr. Magnuson and others on the subject of reprints, I do not agree with the former that the paper is rotten and falls to pieces. I have a complete file of Astounding Stories to date and I have not noticed any signs of disintegration amongst them as yet.
You could easily follow the suggestion of Mr. Stephani, and have a space for good reprints and charge a nickel more. I believe most of your Readers would approve of it.
The story, "The Sunken Empire," was fine, and it is to the credit of Science Fiction that in addition to interesting Readers in other worlds it has also created an interest in the fate of lands from which the Atlantic Ocean received its name. This story is reminiscent of a story which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post about three years ago called "Maracot Deep." In this story a party of men (three, I believe) descended to the bottom of the Atlantic and found a surviving colony from Atlantis, and saw reproduced on a screen events leading up to the sinking of Atlantis. It was written by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the only weak spot was that Sir Arthur had to change the submergence of Atlantis from a natural catastrophe into a "judgment" of the gods, whose sense of propriety was outraged by the "wickedness" of the Atlanteans. If you reprinted this story your Readers would eat it up.
I hope that you publish this letter because I want to reply through your "Readers' Corner" to Mr. Richard Lewis of Knoxville, Iowa, on the subject of reprints.
Mr. Lewis says he has read most of the classic scientific stories referred to. Well, so have I, but I should like to read many of them again as would many of your Readers. I have for the last twenty years been reading literary classics but when I receive my copies of Good Literature or The Golden Book I do not consider myself cheated because I find some stories in them that I have read before. The best are always worth reading at least twice.
As an illustration, has Mr. Lewis ever read the following: the "Kasidah," by Sir Richard Burton, who gave the world its best literal translation of "The Arabian Nights," which differs as daylight from dark in comparison with the Lane and Payne translations which are only edited for children to read? Or has he read the chapter which Benjamin Franklin added to the Bible? If Mr. Lewis read these for the first time in any magazine he takes he would no doubt consider them well worth the price of the magazine or more, yet they would be reprints, the last one about as old as the United States.
The "Kasidah" is a long poem on philosophic aspects of evolution in which almost all Science Fiction Readers are interested. In contains lines like the following:
"Conscience was bred When man had shed His fur, his tail And pointed ears."
And as a dissertation on our caveman ancestors:
"They fought for women as for food. When 'Mays' awoke to warm desire; And this the lust that changed to love When fancy lent a purer fire."
Regarding the Franklin chapter, it is stated that "Wise Old Ben" used to insert it between the pages of the Bible and read it to his friends in the City of Brotherly Love, and great was the consternation of many who thought they knew the Scriptures from "cover to cover."
Any new readers of Science Fiction would be glad to read "The Girl in the Golden Atom," "The Fire People" and "The Man Who Mastered Time," by Ray Cummings. I like to read this author's work, but I believe when he wrote this trilogy of Matter, Space and Time that he reached the heights of his writing. I have never read any subsequent writings of his that I thought exceeded them.
Speaking of the necessity of authors eating, Mr. Lewis states that good stories have never been written on an empty stomach.
Edgar Allan Poe who wrote "Shades" was one of the most brilliant of American writers, and his stomach was empty most of the time. And when this master of ratiocination had on rare occasions a full stomach it was invariably full of "hooch."
As Mr. Lewis speaks as a pedagogue, is it not a physiological fact that an empty stomach clears the mind by diverting the blood stream from the necessity of digesting food? And while I am not advocating any fast cures for authors, some of them (although few in Astounding Stories) would be greatly benefited by trying it.
In conclusion I should like to say to Mr. Lewis and others who take the same slant on reprints, that there are many of the finest writings in Science Fiction and the classics which you and I have never even heard of, much less read.
I will close with best wishes for your continued success—Joseph R. Barnes, Cache Junction, Utah.
Now Feeling Better
Well, I guess I've just about gotten you exasperated with all the brickbats I've been cannoning into your office. However, I believe this letter will make you feel a little better.
The latest issue was fine. There wasn't a story in it that I didn't enjoy. "The Tentacles from Below" was a surprisingly good story, especially when you consider that I don't like sea stories. I liked this one very much.
Another extremely great surprise was "Werewolves of War." From the few notes about it I surmised that it was another one of those hero-dying-and-saving-his-country stories; and it was—but not the kind I expected it to be. The author's narrative and descriptive abilities were such that I forgot all about the plot running throughout the story. Hang on to that fellow.
The other complete story was also good. The conclusion of the "The Pirate Planet" was also good, as were its preceding instalments. The first instalment of "Phalanxes of Atlans" was unusual. That's gonna turn out to be one of the best stories you've yet published, or I miss my bet.—G. Kirschner, Box 301, Temple, Texas.
"Paper Is Durable"
While reading "The Readers' Corner" in your January issue I noticed a bit of criticism by Edwin Magnuson of Duluth, Minn. In it he said that you have printed some stories containing little or no science. But, first, most of your Readers like a little change in a subject and I advise one or two of these about two or three months apart. Second, the paper is of durable material, for I pass my magazine to my friends who read it and then return it with very few pages torn. Third, I agree that reprints would be a blessing, for most of your readers have not read stories by Cummings, Breuer, Wells and Vincent. Fourth, the fact that some stories have not a sound scientific basis is quite all right because every fair reader likes his stories fired with some imagination.—Walter Witte, 960 Duchess St., St. Paul, Minn.
Although I have read every issue of A. S. since it came out, I have never written about it, and this is what I have to say:
First, it is just as good or better than two other Science Fiction magazines that I can name.
Second, in my opinion you have some of the best modern authors, such as Cummings, Meek, Rousseau, Diffin, Vincent and Hamilton. Also others.
The stories have been A-1 with the exception of "Murder Madness," which, in my opinion, does not belong in a magazine of this type, but in a detective story magazine, because that is all it was—a detective story. And when are you going to have a sequel to "The Gray Plague," by L. A. Eshbach which appeared in the November issue? It deserves one.
The best author on your staff is Captain S. P. Meek, whose Dr. Bird stories cannot be equalled. They are science stories plus.
A few suggestions: an occasional reprint. It would not affect the living conditions of our present day authors and would give us all a chance to read a classic of yesterday.
Do not change the size (i. e. width and length); but as for enlarging it in the thickness direction, you have my heartiest encouragement. I notice that one of the other magazines has changed its size, so now you are not alone. Evening up the edges of the sheets would improve the looks, however. And now that you have had your first birthday, when are you going to start a quarterly? In it you could publish a complete book length novel and seven novelettes. By novel, I mean a story of about one hundred pages or more of your present size, and novelettes fifty pages or more. You could double the price because a quarterly is worth double what a monthly is worth.
Your artists are great, but you could still improve by having them make a full page illustration at the start and one more exciting one as the story progresses.
Well, I think I've said enough good things about you and enough suggestions, so until January 1932, adios, au revoir, etc.—Henry Benner, Cowithe, Wash.
Personally I would rather read a good short story than the ten pages of instructions by Readers published in the March issue. Two pages are plenty, especially when half the criticisms concern paper, size, edges of paper, etc. A. S. is O. K!
How about that other short?—Don Ward, 6 Ketchel St., Auburn, N. Y.
I have just finished the February issue of Astounding Stories. All of the stories were so good I couldn't tell you which one is the best. "The Phalanxes of Atlans" and "The Tentacles from Below" were very good. I liked "The Black Lamp," too. It is up to the standard of the rest of the Dr. Bird stories. "The Pirate Planet" ended very beautifully. However, I did not like that about Sykes getting killed. "Werewolves of War" was good. It ended differently from most of the other stories. Most of them end with the hero escaping, but in this the hero was killed. It had a very good plot.
I got my first copy of Astounding Stories last July and I haven't missed a copy since. Why not put out Astounding Stories twice a month, or make it a weekly? I hate to have to wait a whole month before I get another copy.
I believe that the best story I have ever read in this magazine was "The Invisible Death," by Victor Rousseau.
The reason I like Astounding Stories better than any other Science Fiction magazine is that most of the other magazines have too much science and not enough action.—Dale Griffith, 437 Carson St., San Antonio, Texas.
"To Satisfy Myself"
It has been long since I read the February issue of your magazine and I'm waiting anxiously for the March issue.
The February issue had some very good stories, and I just must say that the story entitled "Werewolves of War," is the best story of its type I have ever read. Unlike most of these stories there is more future truth than fiction.
Perhaps you didn't expect to hear from me so soon again, but I am interested in this type of story as I used to write this kind in my English class back in high school. My stories were of this type, but always different from any that the rest of the class wrote. Another thing, I love to be writing, so I take this way to satisfy myself. I do hope you will excuse me.
I have one more thing to say and that is: I only wish your magazine was put out every two weeks instead of every four; or print more stories and raise the price to twenty five cents. I'm sure people will pay if they are as interested as I.—Ken F. Haley, 36 Mechanic St., Lebanon, N.H.
"Easier to Turn"
I have just read "The Readers' Corner" of the March issue and noticed that bright remark about that super-rotten story, "Skylark Three." Anyone who liked that story is certainly not hard to please. It does not compare with the worst story ever published. I also read that "other magazine" and I say that it has disgraced itself by "Skylark Three."
Everything is perfect about your magazine except that there are not enough stories in each issue. The uneven edges are just fine, for it makes the pages easier to turn. The covers are not too gaudy. The covers should depict a thrilling incident in a story; they do.
"Phalanxes of Atlans" offered a good theory as to the whereabouts of the descendants of the Atlanteans and the Lost Tribes of Israel. It was keen.
I conclude my letter with a warning: do not change your type. Also do not change your order of issue; I mean, do not make your magazine into a bi-monthly as I see some magazines of this type have done.—Robert Leonard Russell, 825 Casey Ave., Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
You Tell 'Em!
I have always considered the drawings of H. W. Wesso far superior to those of all other Science Fiction artists, and, indeed, much better than the work of most pulp magazine illustrators. But his cover for the March issue of Astounding Stories was remarkable even for him; it was a veritable masterpiece.
So enthralled was I by the first sight of this eye-arresting picture that I stared at it for minutes on end. This snarling titan with his mighty arm outstretched toward the tiny figures just beyond his reach—what a gripping tableau!
Free from the superfluous, uninteresting machinery and apparatus that clutter up most illustrations in other Science Fiction magazines, your March cover remained fantastic, but human—a picture that expressed the very essence of super-scientific fiction as presented in Astounding Stories. Vivid in color, striking in subject, dramatic in treatment and drawn with consummate skill, that cover must have attracted many new Readers to this magazine.
And the promise held out by the cover was more than fulfilled by the contents of that issue—one of your best to date. The only discordant note in the entire magazine was the yapping and ranting of certain dissatisfied —— [censored] too —— [censored] to appreciate the finest, most worthy publication in its field to-day.—Booth Cody, Bronx, New York.
"Nothing Is Automatic"
First, I wish to congratulate you on the increasing quality of your magazine since its first issue. It surpasses all other Science Fiction magazines, and I haven't missed a single issue and don't intend to!
What prompted me to write this letter was an article, "A Robot Chemist," published in your March, 1931, issue. In the article it states that a mechanical robot performed several experiments without human supervision. But, I am sorry to say, I disagree. Nothing is automatic. Foolishly, after perfecting anything that performs its work afterwards by itself, man calls it an automaton. But it is not! Did he not have to work and slave hour after hour, day after day and month after month to perfect it? He did! Ever since man became civilized he has deceived himself by calling, for instance, machinery in a factory, automatons. The quest for automatic machinery is as hopeless as the quest for perpetual motion!
What is my idea of an automaton? Well, take a robot for instance. Man calls it an automaton in spite of the fact that he had to slave to put it together before it did its work.
My idea is this: the iron ore would come out itself, smelt itself, form itself in the various shapes and parts needed to construct a robot, then take its correct place and rivet itself. Then the radio brain, electrical eyes and magnet hands take their place; and when it has constructed itself it will conduct the experiments—if a chemical robot—without human supervision. Thus, the latter clause would be true! That's my conception of an automatic robot! Otherwise, its just some metal doing the bidding of a master's brain.
Another thing: the novelette "Beyond the Vanishing Point," by Ray Cummings, is preposterous. The flesh might shrink or grow, but the bone would not! If one shrunk as did George Randolph, one's bones would burst through the flesh.
But in spite of all that, I like the stories that way. Science, in the years to come might discover how to shrink or grow both flesh and bones. I guess I'm taking too much of your time, so adios!—Jay Zee, Chicago, Illinois.
Hot Times in the Fire-House
The first Thursday in each month I make a bee-line for the newsstand—and Astounding Stories. It may interest you to know that I have every issue on file that you have put out.
There have been some mighty good yarns in those issues, but the one just at hand contains the best story you have ever published—"Terrors Unseen," by Harl Vincent. There's an author for you; but evidently I don't have to tell you so, as you have given us quite a number of his splendid stories. "Vagabonds of Space" was a wow. Like some of the others who have written in, I would like to see a sequel to this. Harl Vincent is my favorite of all your authors.
A close second is Charles W. Diffin. He is good, too. As your authors appeal to me, in order, I mean. I would line them up in this way: Harl Vincent, Charles W. Diffin, R. F. Starzl, Ray Cummings, Capt. S. P. Meek, Jack Williamson and Murray Leinster.
I agree with Jim Nicholson of San Francisco that you should give us some stories by Francis Flagg. Here is an author you never have published, and, to my way of looking at things, he has more fresh material than most of the authors put together. Many of the things that have been copied widely and used extensively (I don't mean that whole stories have been stolen, or anything like that) were originated by this fine writer. By all means get Francis Flagg. [We have just bought a story—a good one—from him!—Ed]. He would stand about third in my list if you had used his work before. I made it up from those whose work has been used.
Two or three things I notice, that I would have you correct. All your stories seem to be of standardized length, either around 10,000 words or 25,000 words. Eliminate all restrictions as to word length but make your writers boil down their work. Most stories are too long, and could be told better if cut down quite a bit. The paper and the page size of the magazine are okay, but why not smooth edges? And it is hard to keep the covers on. I wouldn't object to more pages or an extra nickel in price. Or if not that, how about publishing "our" magazine twice a month?
After fighting a fire, there's nothing like Astounding Stories with which to "unlax." You're doing a fine job, and I only make these suggestions because I want a "perfect" magazine instead of one that bats 97% all the time. Hope you'll have room for all this. And, oh yes, keep on with your program of "No reprints." Your new yarns are better than the old ones. Let's have the new ones, and encourage our fine string of authors to do even better work.—Gayl Whitman, Fireman, Co. No. 11, Main at 22nd, Columbus, Ohio.
Another critic is going to take his pen in hand and give you a bouquet. I have just finished reading the March issue of A. S. and think it was fine.
Of all the stories you have published I liked "The Gray Plague" the best. I don't care much for reprints because I like new stories the best.
I would like to correspond with some of the Readers of A. S. I will answer any or all letters I receive.—L. B. Knutson, 629—3rd Ave., So, Minneapolis, Minn.
A Heroine a la Mode
I'm with J. H. Nicholson, who advises those who are indifferent to the scientifically possible in order to give the author a broader field in which to lay his plot. As he says, they should feel right at home with their noses stuck into a volume of Anderson's Fairy Tales. However, this letter is more to express the science lovers' viewpoint than to sling mud at the authors. For us, the plot loses much of its kick if the science is not reasonable.
Suppose for once that one of these Readers who waives scientific possibility aside as secondary should pick up a plot-distorted story in which the heroine should be described something as follows:
"Hers was a tall superbly built figure combining the strength of a horse with the gentle curves of a hippo. When she spoke, her sweetly modulated voice was as pleasant to the ear as the bray of a Spanish jackass. Her hair hung to her waist and was the convenient nesting place for several English sparrows. She was slightly cockeyed from birth and had had her nose squashed in a saloon brawl. She carried herself with the graceful dignity of an African orang-utan and was always much sought after, having a quaint habit of slapping every new male she met a resounding whack on the back that loosened their bridge work. Being a veteran tobacco chewer and having high blood pressure she could spit one hundred feet against a fifty-mile wind. When she ate in company, she had an amusing way of gargling her soup in G-flat. Her—"
It's unnecessary to go further. Such a character would be every bit as reasonably possible as some of the science these science-conniving Readers are willing to sanction.
Here are some of the seemingly impossible feats of a recent story: 1—a diver in an ordinary diving dress is able to stand the pressure at three miles down; 2—(granting the above is possible) a diver shoots up three miles without stopping and still does not become a victim of the bends; 3—(granting the above two possible) a diver after shooting from such a great depth and pressure to a depth of comparatively low pressure would not be able to lower the pressure inside his dress, since it would be held so rigid that he would not be able to bend his arms; 4—a man or animal suddenly released from the enormous pressure of about three hundred tons to the square inch to atmospheric pressure, it seems, would most certainly burst before the internal pressure could equalize itself.
Please notice that I said seemingly wrong. I'm for A. S. just one hundred per cent and would prefer to have it as right as possible. I don't like crank letter writing and would never have written this now if it hadn't been for several of the letters in the March issue that gave me a touch of hades under the collar. S'long. Maybe I'll write again sometime when I get some more "ham science" ideas.—William S. Lotsch, 1 Morrison Ave., Troy, N. Y.
You Make Them Adequate
Thanks. Of course I accept your invitation to "The Readers' Corner." I have been a constant Reader of your magazine since its appearance on the Science Fiction horizon, and I have yet to meet a story that I failed to read in its entirety or that I didn't like.
To merely write a letter and say that this story was good, the other story was fair, and oh my! how poor the third story was, is futile. But as it is the usual custom to do so here goes:
Excellent stories—all of the first five volumes; good stories—who's interested?; poor stories—where are they?; good authors—takes up too much room and time; poor authors—got tired looking for them.
All I want to say is, Astounding Stories is the best or one of the best magazines on the market. Gee, but aren't words futile when you describe something great and wonderful!—Herbert Goodket, 707 Jackson Avenue, New York, N. Y.
Ain't It Too Awful!
I knew it. It was bound to come. At last my efforts have been rewarded. Fame has sought me out—even in Brooklyn. It was suggested in the March issue of Astounding Stories that I, Louis Wentzler, as one of the active contributors to "The Readers' Corner," regale your Readers with a description of myself, my interest in Science Fiction and how I got that way. A picture was also requested, but this had better be omitted. As for my personal history, bend an ear:
At the tender age of four, while making mud pies on the doorstep of my home, I was beaned by a brick hurled by an uncouth ruffian across the street. The results were not fatal—who said "unfortunately?"—but from that moment I developed a taste for Science Fiction. Had it not been for that incident I might have grown up a normal lad; but the caress of that brick on my cranium did things to me, and I have been a Science Fiction addict since.
Of course, I do not contend that all Science Fiction fans were hit by bricks, though a lot of them should be. I do believe, however, that a slight concussion of the brain helps one appreciate Science Fiction the more. Anyway, once imbued with the urge I took to Science Fiction like a Hindu to hashish. Such stories were rare in those days, but I started to collect all I could find.
Then came the war. I was too young to fight, but I did my bit making canteens out of old sieves. That was how my mind worked, you see. Well, the war ended—I forgot who won—and I went back to my beloved Science Fiction. Years have passed since then, and I have a fine collection of stories now. Should any of you care to see them, come around to the local booby-hatch some time: you'll find me in Padded Cell No. 17.—Louis Wentzler, 1935 Woodbine St., Brooklyn, N. Y.
Except for a brief letter of criticism in the August, 1930, number of Astounding Stories, I have been a silent but loyal follower of the magazine since its first issue. My silence was that of profound satisfaction. Almost all the stories suited me to perfection; and the few I did not like were hardly worth commenting on. Since the magazine has grown better with every issue I would probably have kept my peace; but there is one disturbing factor which impels me to write again.
I refer to the irresponsible outbursts of certain —— [censored] who squeeze into "The Readers' Corner" and sputter out senseless denunciations of the magazine, its appearance, its policies, and so on. I do not object to logical, well-founded criticism, but I most decidedly do object to the —— [censored] remarks and invidious comparisons indulged in by various —— [censored] Readers. It's about time someone told them where to head in, and, by your leave, I'll do it.
The most recent offender is J. Vernon Shea, Jr., a Pittsburgh lad of eighteen who, in the March issue, ventures to criticize the grammar of Ray Cummings, call the Editor harsh names, and demand that the magazine conform to his own dizzy notions. He concedes that Astounding Stories prints consistently interesting tales, but charges that the Editor is indifferent to "the advancement of Science Fiction." Mr. Shea, can't you see that the publication of first-class stories, as in this magazine, is the best possible way to popularize Science Fiction? Or do you simply prefer inferior stuff?
Then there's D. R. Guthrie, from way back in Idaho, who liked a yarn in another magazine so much he had to tell us all about it—as if we didn't have the best Science Fiction ever written right here in Astounding Stories. Guthrie's another who seems to prefer brass to gold.
Going back an issue or two, we note a letter from Edwin Magnuson, a deluded denizen of Duluth, who says he's plumb disgusted because Astounding Stories receives far more bouquets than brickbats, when according to him the mag deserves to be panned plenty. Get in step, Edwin, you're falling way behind!
And I mustn't forget M. Clifford Johnston of the Newark Johnstons, who calls Astounding Stories trash and its Readers morons. Well, there are various degrees of mental incompetence, and the moron is far above the idiot, Mr. Johnston!
Now that I've taken a few hasty pokes at those who most deserved them, I'll give my own comments on some of your latest stories—and anyone who feels like telling me where I get off is welcome to do so.
First, let me take my hat off to Jack Williamson. I never thought much of his stuff in other mags, but his "The Meteor Girl" was a mighty fine piece of work. Evidently you've got to be good to crash Astounding Stories. Interesting as it was, though, Williamson's yarn contained a noticeable error. In the story, the narrator and his friend witness an event occurring twelve hours in the future at a distant place. They then travel to that place, reaching it at a time exactly corresponding to the time of the event witnessed. Therefore, they should have seen themselves in the future scene—an obvious fact which the author either failed to consider or conveniently ignored. [But—by the story, they did not arrive at the rock until just AFTER the events they witnessed by means of the fourth dimension. Thus, everything is O. K. Take another look.—Ed.] Despite this flaw the story embodied several original ideas, had plenty of action, and was well told. We can stand more of Williamson.