The Planetara was so equipped, against the explosive tendency of its inner air-pressures when flying in the near-vacuum of space. In the case of Grantline's glassite shelters, the latent energy of his room interior air pressure went largely into a kinetic energy which in practical effect resulted only in the slight acceleration of the vacuum current, and thus never reached the outer wall. The Erentz engineers claimed for their system a pressure absorption of 97.4%, leaving, in Grantline's case, only 2.6% of room pressure to be held by the building's aluminite bracers.
It may be interesting to note in this connection that without the Erentz system as a basis, the great sub-sea developments on Earth and Mars of the twenty-first century would also have been impossible. Equipped with a fluid circulation device of the Erentz principle within its double hull, the first submarine was able to penetrate the great ocean deeps, withstanding the tremendous ocean pressures at depths of four thousand fathoms.
* * * * *
The work was over now. The borers had been dismantled and packed away. At one end of the cliff the mining equipment lay piled in a litter. There was a heap of discarded ore where Grantline had carted and dumped it after his first crude refining process had yielded it as waste. The ore-slag lay like gray powder-flakes strewn down the cliff. Tracks and ore-carts along the ledge stood discarded, mute evidence of the weeks and months of work these helmeted miners had undergone, struggling upon this airless, frowning world.
But now all that was finished. The radio-active ore was sufficiently concentrated. It lay—this treasure—in a seventy-foot pile behind the glassite lean-to, with a cage of wires over it and an insulation barrage guarding its Gamma rays from escaping to mark its presence.
The ore-shelter was dark; the other two buildings were lighted. And there were small lights mounted at intervals about the camp and along the edge of the ledge. A spider ladder, with tiny platforms some twenty feet one above the other, hung precariously to the cliff-face. It descended the five hundred feet to the crater floor; and, behind the camp, it mounted the jagged cliff-face to the upper rim-height, where a small observatory platform was placed.
* * * * *
Such was the outer aspect of the Grantline Treasure Camp near the beginning of this Lunar night, when, unbeknown to Grantline and his score of men, the Planetara with its brigands was approaching. The night was perhaps a sixth advanced. Full night. No breath of cloud to mar the brilliant starry heavens. The quadrant Earth hung poised like a giant mellow moon over Grantline's crater. A bright Earth, yet no air was here on this Lunar surface to spread its light. Only a glow, mingling with the spots of blue tube-light on the poles along the cliff, and the radiance from the lighted buildings.
The crater floor was dimly purple. Beyond the opposite upper rim, from the camp-height, the towering top of distant Archimedes was visible.
No evidence of movement showed about the silent camp. Then a pressure door in an end of the main building opened its tiny series of locks. A bent figure came out. The lock closed. The figure straightened and gazed about the camp. Grotesque, bloated semblance of a man! Helmeted, with rounded dome-hood suggestion of an ancient sea diver, yet goggled and trunked like a gas-masked fighter of the twentieth century war.
He stooped presently and disconnected metal weights which were upon his shoes.[E]
Then he stood erect again, and with giant strides bounded along the cliff. Fantastic figure in the blue-lit gloom! A child's dream of crags and rocks and strange lights with a single monstrous figure in seven-league boots.
He went the length of the ledge with his twenty-foot strides, inspected the lights, and made adjustments. Came back, and climbed with agile, bounding leaps up the spider ladder to the dome on the crater top. A light flashed on up there. Then it was extinguished.
The goggled, bloated figure came leaping down after a moment. Grantline's exterior watchman making his rounds. He came back to the main building. Fastened the weights on his shoes. Signaled within.
The lock opened. The figure went inside.
It was early evening, after the dinner hour and before the time of sleep, according to the camp routine Grantline was maintaining. Nine P. M. of Earth Eastern-American time, recorded now upon his Earth chronometer. In the living room of the main building Johnny Grantline sat with a dozen of his men dispersed about the room, whiling away as best they could the lonesome hours.
[E] Within the Grantline buildings it was found more convenient to use a gravity normal to Earth. This was maintained by the wearing of metal-weighted shoes and metal-loaded belt. The Moon-gravity is normally approximately one-sixth the gravity of Earth.
* * * * *
"All as usual. This cursed Moon! When I get home—if ever I do get home—"
"Say your say, Wilks. But you'll spend your share of the gold-leaf and thank your constellations that you had your chance!"
"Let him alone! Come on, Wilks, take a hand here. This game is no good with three."
The man who had been outside flung his hissing helmet recklessly to the floor and unsealed his suit. "Here, get me out of this. No, I won't play. I can't play your cursed game with nothing at stake!"
A laugh went up at the sharp look Johnny Grantline flung from where he sat reading in a corner of the room.
"Commander's orders. No gambling gold-leafers tolerated here."
"Play the game, Wilks." Grantline said quietly. "We all know it's infernal doing nothing."
"He's been struck by Earth-light," another man laughed. "Commander, I told you not to let that guy Wilks out at night."
* * * * *
A rough but good-natured lot of men. Jolly and raucous by nature in their leisure hours. But there was too much leisure here now. Their mirth had a hollow sound. In older times, explorers of the frozen polar zones had to cope with inactivity, loneliness and despair. But at least they were on their native world. The grimness of the Moon was eating into the courage of Grantline's men. An unreality here. A weirdness. These fantastic crags. The deadly silence. The nights, almost two weeks of Earth-time in length, congealed by the deadly frigidity of Space. The days of black sky, blaring stars and flaming Sun, with no atmosphere to diffuse the daylight. Days of weird blending sheen of illumination with most of the Sun's heat radiating so swiftly from the naked Lunar surface that the outer temperature still was cold. And day and night, always the familiar beloved Earth-disc hanging poised up near the zenith. From thinnest crescent to full Earth, and then steadily back again to crescent.
All so abnormal, irrational, disturbing to human senses. With the mining work over, an irritability grew upon Grantline's men. And perhaps since the human mind is so wonderful, elusive a thing, there lay upon these men an indefinable sense of impending disaster. Johnny Grantline felt it. He thought about it now as he sat in the room corner watching Wilks being forced into the plaget-game, and he found it strong within him. Unreasonable, ominous depression! Barring the accident which had disabled his little space-ship when they reached this small crater hole, his expedition had gone well. His instruments, and the information he had from the former explorers, had picked up the ore-vein with a scant month of search.
* * * * *
The vein had now been exhausted; but the treasure was here. Nothing was left but to wait for the Planetara. The men were talking of that now.
"She ought to be well mid-way from here to Ferrok-Shahn by now. When do you figure she'll be back here, and signal us?"
"Twenty days. Give her another five now to Mars, and five in port. That's ten. We'll pick her signals in three weeks, mark me."
"Three weeks! Just give me three weeks of reasonable sunrise and sunset! This cursed Moon! You mean, Williams, next daylight."
"Hah! He's inventing a Lunar language. You'll be a Moon-man yet, if you live here long enough."
Olaf Swenson, the big blond fellow from the Scandia fiords, came and flung himself down by Grantline.
"Ay tank they bane without not enough to do, Commander. If the ore yust would not give out—"
"Three weeks—it isn't very long, Ollie."
"No. Maybe not."
From across the room somebody was saying, "If the Comet hadn't smashed on us, damn me but I'd ask the Commander to let some of us take her back. The discarded equipment could go."
"Shut up, Billy. She is smashed."
The little Comet, cruising in search of the ore, had come to grief just as the ore was found. It lay now on the crater floor with its nose bashed into an upflung spire of rock. Wrecked beyond repair. Save for the pre-arrangement with the Planetara, the Grantline party would have been helpless here on the Moon. Knowledge of that—although no one ever suspected but that the Planetara would come safely—served to add to the men's depression. They were cut off, virtually helpless on a strange world. Their signalling devices were inadequate even to reach Earth. Grantline's power batteries were running low.[F] He could not attempt wide-flung signals without jeopardizing the power necessary for the routine of his camp in the event of the Planetara being delayed. Nor was his electro-telescope adequate to pick small objects at any great distance.[G]
All of Grantline's effort, in truth, had gone into equipment for the finding and gathering of the treasure. The safety of the expedition had to that extent been neglected.
Swenson was mentioning that now.
"You all agreed to it," Johnny said shortly. "Every man here voted that, above everything, what we wanted was to get the radium."
[F] The Gravely storage tanks—the power used by the Grantline expedition—were heavy and bulky affairs. Economy of space on the Comet allowed but few of them.
[G] Electro-telescopes of most modern use and power were too large and used too much power to be available to Grantline.
* * * * *
A dynamic little fellow, this Johnny Grantline. Short of temper sometimes, but always just, and a perfect leader of men. In stature he was almost as small as Snap. But he was thick-set, with a smooth shaven, keen-eyed, square-jawed face, and a shock of brown tousled hair. A man of thirty-five, though the decision of his manner, the quiet dominance of his voice, mode him seem older. He stood up now, surveying the blue-lit glassite room with its low ceiling close overhead. He was bowlegged; in movement he seemed to roll with a stiff-legged gait like some sea captain of former days on the deck of his swaying ship. Queer-looking figure! Heavy flannel shirt and trousers, boots heavily weighted, and bulky metal-loaded belt strapped about his waist.
He grinned at Swenson. "When we divide this treasure, everyone will be happy, Ollie."
The treasure was estimated by Grantline to be the equivalent of ninety millions in gold-leaf. A hundred and ten millions in the gross as it now stood, with twenty millions to be deducted by the Federated Refiners for reducing it to the standard purity of commercial radium. Ninety millions, with only a million and a half to come off for expedition expenses, and the Planetara Company's share another million. A nice little stake.
Grantline strode across the room with his rolling gait.
"Cheer up, boys. Who's winning there? I say, you fellows—"
An audiphone buzzer interrupted him, a call from the duty man in the instrument room of the nearby building.
Grantline clicked the receiver. The room fell into silence. Any call was unusual—nothing ever happened here in the camp.
The duty man's voice sounded over the room.
"Signals coming! Not clear. Will you come over, Commander?"
* * * * *
It was never Grantline's way to enforce needless discipline. He offered no objection when every man in the camp rushed through the connecting passages. They crowded the instrument room where the tense duty man sat bending over his helio receivers. The mirrors were swaying.
The duty man looked up and met Grantline's gaze.
"I ran it up to the highest intensity. Commander. We ought to get it—not let it pass."
"Low scale, Peter?"
"Yes. Weakest infra-red. I'm bringing it up, even though it uses too much of our power." The duty man was apologetic.
"Get it," said Grantline shortly.
"I had a swing a minute ago. I think it's the Planetara."
"Planetara!" The crowding group of men chorused it. How could it be the Planetara?
But it was. The call presently came in clear. Unmistakably the Planetara, turned back now from her course to Ferrok-Shahn.
"How far away, Peter?"
The duty man consulted the needles of his dial scale. "Close! Very weak infra-red. But close. Around thirty thousand miles, maybe. It's Snap Dean calling."
The Planetara here within thirty thousand miles! Excitement and pleasure swept the room. The Planetara's coming had for so long been awaited so eagerly!
The excitement communicated to Grantline. It was unlike him to be incautious; yet now with no thought save that some unforeseen and pleasing circumstance had brought the Planetara ahead of time; incautious Grantline certainly was.
"Raise the ore-barrage."
"I'll go! My suit is here."
* * * * *
A willing volunteer rushed out to the ore-shed. The Gamma rays, which in the helio-room of the Planetara came so unwelcome to Snap and me, were loosed.
"Can you send, Peter?" Grantline demanded.
"Yes, with more power."
Johnny dictated the message of his location which we received. In his incautious excitement he ignored the secret code.
An interval passed. The ore was occulted again. No message had come from us—just Snap's routine signal in the weak infra-red, which we hoped Grantline would not get.
The men crowding Grantline's instrument room waited in tense silence. Then Grantline tried the telescope. Its current weakened the lights with the drain upon the distributors, and cooled the room with a sudden deadly chill as the Erentz insulating system slowed down.
The duty man looked suddenly frightened. "You'll bulge out our walls, Commander. The internal pressure—"
"We'll chance it."
They picked up the image of the Planetara! It came from the telescope and shone clear on the grid—the segment of star-field with a tiny, cigar-shaped blob. Clear enough to be unmistakable. The Planetara! Here now over the Moon, almost directly overhead, poised at what the altimeter scale showed to be a fraction under thirty thousand miles.
The men gazed in awed silence. The Planetara coming....
But the altimeter needle was motionless. The Planetara was hanging poised.
A sudden gasp went about the room. The men stood with whitening faces, gazing at the Planetara's image. And at the altimeter needle. It was moving. The Planetara was descending. But not with an orderly swoop.
The image showed the ship clearly. The bow tilted up, then dipped down. But then in a moment it swung up again. The ship turned partly over. Righted itself. Then swayed again, drunkenly.
The watching men were stricken into horrified silence. The Planetara's image momentarily, horribly, grew larger. Swaying. Then turning completely over, rotating slowly end over end.
The Planetara, out of control, was falling!
The Wreck of the Planetara
On the Planetara, in the helio-room, Snap and I stood with Moa's weapon upon us. Miko held Anita. Triumphant. Possessive. Then as she struggled, a gentleness came to this strange Martian giant. Perhaps he really loved her. Looking back on it, I sometimes think so.
"Anita, do not fear me." He held her away from him. "I would not harm you. I want your love." Irony came to him. "And I thought I had killed you! But it was only your brother."
He partly turned. I was aware of how alert was his attention. He grinned. "Hold them, Moa—don't let them do anything foolish. So, Anita, you were masquerading to spy upon me? That was wrong of you." He was again ironic.
Anita had not spoken. She held herself tensely away from Miko; she had flashed me a look—just one. What horrible mischance to have brought this catastrophe!
The completion of Grantline's message had come unnoticed by us all.
"Look! Grantline again!" Snap said abruptly.
But the mirrors were steadying. We had no recording-tape apparatus; the rest of the message was lost. The mirrors pulsed and then steadied.
No further message came. There was an interval while Miko waited. He held Anita in the hollow of his great arm.
"Quiet, little bird. Do not fear me. I have work to do, Anita—this is our great adventure. We will be rich, you and I. All the luxuries three worlds can offer, all for us when this is over. Careful, Moa! This Haljan has no wit."
Well could he say it! I, who had been so witless to let this come upon us! Moa's weapon prodded me. Her voice hissed at me with all the venom of a reptile enraged. "So that was your game, Gregg Haljan! And I was so graceless to admit love for you!"
* * * * *
Snap murmured in my ear, "Don't move, Gregg! She's reckless."
She heard it. She whirled on him. "We have lost George Prince, it seems. Well, we will survive without his ore knowledge. And you, Dean—and this Haljan—mark me, I will kill you both if you cause trouble!"
Miko was gloating. "Don't kill them yet, Moa. What was it Grantline said? Near the crater of Archimedes? Ring us down, Haljan! We'll land."
He signaled the turret. Gave Coniston the Grantline message, and audiphoned it below to Hahn. The news spread about the ship. The bandits were jubilant.
"We'll land now, Haljan. Ring us down. Come, Anita and I will go with you to the turret."
I found my voice. "To what destination?"
"Near Archimedes. The Apennine side. Keep well away from the Grantline camp. We will probably sight it as we descend."
There was no trajectory needed. We were almost over Archimedes now. I could drop us with a visible, instrumental course. My mind was whirling with a confusion of thoughts. What could we do? What could we dare attempt to do? I met Snap's gaze.
"Ring us down, Gregg," he said quietly.
I nodded. I pushed Moa's weapon away. "You don't need that. I obey orders."
* * * * *
We went to the turret. Moa watched me and Snap, a grim, cold Amazon. She avoided looking at Anita, whom Miko helped down the ladders with a strange mixture of courtierlike grace and amused irony. Coniston gazed at Anita with falling jaw.
"I say! Not George Prince? The girl—"
"No time for argument now," Miko commanded. "It's the girl, masquerading as her brother. Get below, Coniston. Haljan takes us down."
The astounded Englishman continued gazing at Anita. "I mean to say, where to on the Moon? Not to encounter Grantline at once, Miko? Our equipment is not ready."
"Of course not. We will land well away. He won't be suspicious—we can signal him again after we land. We will have time to plan, to assemble the equipment. Get below, I told you."
The reluctant Coniston left us. I took the controls. Miko, still holding Anita as though she were a child, sat beside me. "We will watch him, little Anita. A skilled fellow at this sort of work."
I rang my signals for the shifting of the gravity plates. The answer should have come from below within a second or two. But it did not. Miko regarded me with his great bushy eyebrows upraised.
"Ring again, Haljan."
I duplicated. No answer. The silence was frightening. Ominous.
Miko muttered, "That accursed Hahn. Ring again!"
I sent the imperative emergency demand.
* * * * *
No answer. A second or two. Then all of us in the turret were startled. Transfixed. From below came a sudden hiss. It sounded in the turret: it came from shifting-room call-grid. The hissing of the pneumatic valves of the plate-shifters in the lower control room. The valves were opening; the plates automatically shifting into neutral, and disconnecting!
An instant of startled silence. Miko may have realized the significance of what had happened. Certainly Snap and I did. The hissing ceased. I gripped the emergency plate-shifter switch which hung over my head. Its disc was dead! The plates were dead in neutral. In the positions they were only placed while in port! And their shifting mechanisms were imperative!
I was on my feet. "Snap! Good God, we're in neutral!"
Miko, if he had not realized it before, was aware if it now. The Moon-disc moved visibly as the Planetara lurched. The vault of the heavens was slowly swinging.
Miko ripped out a heavy oath. "Haljan! What is this?"
He stood up, still holding Anita. But there was nothing that he could do in this emergency. "Haljan—what—"
The heavens turned with a giant swoop. The Moon was over us. It swung in dizzying arc. Overhead, then back past our stern; under us, then appearing over our bow.
The Planetara had turned over. Upending. Rotating, end over end.
For a moment or two I think all of us in that turret stood and clung. The Moon-disc, the Earth, Sun and all the stars were swinging past our windows. So horribly dizzying. The Planetara seemed lurching and tumbling. But it was an optical effect only. I stared with grim determination at my feet. The turret seemed to steady.
Then I looked again. That horrible swoop of all the heavens! And the Moon, as it went past, seemed expanded. We were falling! Out of control, with the Moon-gravity pulling us inexorably down!
"That accursed Hahn—" Miko, stricken with his lack of knowledge of these controls, was wholly confused.
* * * * *
A moment only had passed. My fancy that the Moon-disc was enlarged was merely the horror of my imagination. We had not fallen far enough yet for that.
But we were falling. Unless I could do something, we would crash upon the Lunar surface.
Anita, killed in this Planetara turret. The end of everything for us.
Action came to me. I gasped, "Miko, you stay here! The controls are dead! You stay here—hold Anita."
I ignored Moa's weapon which she was still clutching mechanically. Snap thrust her away.
"Sit back! Let us alone! We're falling! Don't you understand?"
This deadly danger, to level us all! No longer were we captors and captured. Not brigands for this moment. No thought of Grantline's treasure! Trapped humans only! Leveled by the common, instinct of self-preservation. Trapped here together, fighting for our lives.
Miko gasped. "Can you—check us? What happened?"
"I don't know. I'll try."
I stood clinging. This dizzying whirl! From the audiphone grid Coniston's voice sounded.
"I say, Haljan, something's wrong! Hahn doesn't signal."
The look-out in the forward tower was clinging to his window. On the deck below our turret a member of the crew appeared, stood lurching for a moment, then shouted, and turned and ran, swaying, aimless. From the lower hull-corridors our grids sounded with the tramping of running steps. Panic among the crew was spreading over the ship. A chaos below decks.
* * * * *
I pulled at the emergency switch again. Dead....
But down below there was the manual controls.
"Snap, we must get down. The signals."
Coniston's voice came like a scream from the grid. "Hahn is dead—the controls are broken! Hahn is dead!"
We barely heard him. I shouted, "Miko—hold Anita! Come on, Snap!"
We clung to the ladders. Snap was behind me. "Careful, Gregg! Good God!"
This dizzying whirl. I tried not to look. The deck under me was now a blurred kaleidoscope of swinging patches of moonlight and shadow.
We reached the deck. Ran, swaying, lurching.
It seemed that from the turret Anita's voice followed us. "Be careful!"
Within the ship our senses steadied. With the rotating, reeling, heavens shut out, there were only the shouts and tramping steps of the panic-stricken crew to mark that anything was amiss. That, and a pseudo-sensation of lurching caused by the pulsing of gravity—a pull when the Moon was beneath our hull to combine its force with our magnetizers; a lightening when it was overhead. A throbbing, pendulum lurch—that was all.
We ran down to the corridor incline. A white-faced member of the crew, came running up.
"What's happened? Haljan, what's happened?"
"We're falling!" I gripped him. "Get below. Come on with us!"
But he jerked away from me. "Falling?"
A steward came running. "Falling? My God!"
Snap swung at them. "Get ahead of us! The manual controls—our only chance—we need all you men at the compressor pumps!"
But it was an instinct to try and get on deck, as though here below we were rats caught in a trap. The men tore away from me and ran. Their shouts of panic resounded through the dim, blue-lit corridors.
* * * * *
Coniston came lurching from the control room. "I say—falling! Haljan, my God, look at him!"
Hahn was sprawled at the gravity-plate switchboard. Sprawled, head-down. Dead. Killed by something? Or a suicide?
I bent over him. His hands gripped the main switch. He had ripped it loose. And his left hand had reached and broken the fragile line of tubes that intensified the current of the pneumatic plate-shifters. A suicide? With his last frenzy determined to kill us all?
Then I saw that Hahn had been killed! Not a suicide! In his hand he gripped a small segment of black fabric, a piece torn from an invisible cloak? Was it?
The questions were swept away by the necessity for action. Snap was rigging the hand-compressors. If he could get the pressure back in the tanks....
I swung on Coniston. "You armed?"
"Yes." He was white-faced and confused, but not in a panic. He showed me his heat-ray cylinder. "What do you want me to do?"
"Round up the crew. Get all you can. Bring them here to man these pumps."
He dashed away. Snap shouted after him. "Kill them down if they argue!"
Miko's voice sounded from the turret call grid: "Falling! Haljan, you can see it now! Check us!"
I did not answer that. I pumped with Snap.
Desperate moments. Or was it an hour? Coniston brought the men. He stood over them with menacing weapon.
We had all the pumps going. The pressure rose a little in the tanks. Enough to shift a bow-plate. I tried it. The plate slowly clicked into a new combination. A gravity repulsion just in the bow-tip.
* * * * *
I signaled Miko. "Have we stopped swinging?"
"No. But slower."
I could feel it, that lurch of the gravity. But not steady now. A limp. The tendency of our bow was to stay up.
"More pressure, Snap."
One of the crew rebelled, tried to bolt from the room. "God, we'll crash, caught in here!"
Coniston shot him down.
I shifted another bow-plate. Then two in the stern. The stern-plates seemed to move more readily than the others.
"Run all the stern-plates," Snap advised.
I tried it. The lurching stopped. Miko called. "We're bow down. Falling!"
But not falling free. The Moon-gravity pull upon us was more than half neutralized.
"I'll go up, Snap, and try the engines. You don't mind staying down? Executing my signals?"
"You idiot!" He gripped my shoulders. His eyes were gleaming, his face haggard, but his pale lips twitched with a smile.
"Maybe it's good-by, Gregg. We'll fall—fighting."
"Yes. Fighting. Coniston, you keep the pressure up."
With the broken set-tubes it took nearly all the pressure to maintain the few plates I had shifted. One slipped back to neutral. Then the pumps gained on it, and it shifted again.
I dashed up to the deck. Ah, the Moon was so close now! So horribly close! The deck shadows were still. Through the forward bow windows the Moon surface glared up at us.
* * * * *
I reached the turret. The Planetara was steady. Pitched bow-down, half falling, half sliding like a rocket downward. The scarred surface of the Moon spread wide under us.
These last horrible minutes were a blur. And there was always Anita's face. She left Miko. Faced with death, he sat clinging. Ignoring her, Moa, too, sat apart. Staring—
And Anita crept to me. "Gregg, dear one. The end...."
I tried the electronic engines from the stern, setting them in the reverse. The streams of their light glowed from the stern, forward along our hull, and flared down from our bow toward the Lunar surface. But no atmosphere was here to give resistance. Perhaps the electronic streams checked our fall a little. The pumps gave us pressure, just in the last minutes, to slide a few of the hull-plates. But our bow stayed down. We slid, like a spent rocket falling.
I recall the horror of that expanding Lunar surface. The maw of Archimedes yawning. A blob. Widening to a great pit. Then I saw it was to one side. Rushing upward.
A phantasmagoria of uprushing crags. Black and gray. Spires tinged with Earth-light.
"Gregg, dear one—good-by."
Her gentle arms around me. The end of everything for us. I recall murmuring, "Not falling free, Anita. Some hull-plates are set."
My dials showed another plate shifting, checking us a little further. Good old Snap.
I calculated the next best plate to shift. I tried it. Slid it over. Good old Snap....
Then everything faded but the feeling of Anita's arms around me.
"Gregg, dear one—"
The end of everything for us....
There was an up-rush of gray-black rock.
The Hiss of Death
I opened my eyes to a dark blur of confusion. My shoulder hurt—a pain shooting through it. Something lay like a weight on me. I could not seem to move my left arm. Very queer! Then I moved it, and it hurt. I was lying twisted: I sat up. And with a rush, memory came. The crash was over. I am not dead. Anita—
She was lying beside me. There was a little light here in this silent blur—a soft, mellow Earth-light filtering in the window. The weight on me was Anita. She lay sprawled, her head and shoulders half way across my lap.
Not dead! Thank God, not dead! She moved. Her arms went around me, and I lifted her. The Earth-light glowed on her pale face; but her eyes opened and she faintly smiled.
"It's past, Anita! We've struck, and we're still alive."
I held her as though all life's turgid danger were powerless to touch us.
But in the silence my floating senses were brought back to reality by a faint sound forcing itself upon me. A little hiss. The faintest murmuring breath like a hiss. Escaping air!
I cast off her clinging arms. "Anita, this is madness!"
* * * * *
For minutes we must have been lying there in the heaven of our embrace. But air was escaping! The Planetara's dome was broken—or cracked—and our precious air was hissing out.
Full reality came to me at last. I was not seriously injured. I found that I could move freely. I could stand. A twisted shoulder, a limp left arm, but they were better in a moment.
And Anita did not seem to be hurt. Blood was upon her. But not her blood.
Beside Anita, stretched face down on the turret grid, was the giant figure of Miko. The blood lay in a small pool against his face. A widening pool.
Moa was here. I thought her body twitched; then was still. This soundless wreckage! In the dim glow of the wrecked turret with its two motionless, broken human figures, it seemed as though Anita and I were ghouls prowling. I saw that the turret had fallen over to the Planetara's deck. It lay dashed against the dome-side.
The deck was aslant. A litter of wreckage. A broken human figure showed—one of the crew, who at the last must have come running up. The forward observation tower was down on the chart-room roof: in its metal tangle I thought I could see the legs of the tower look-out.
So this was the end of the brigands' adventure! The Planetara's last voyage! How small and futile are human struggles! Miko's daring enterprise—so villainous, inhuman—brought all in a few moments to this silent tragedy. The Planetara had fallen thirty thousand miles. But why? What had happened to Hahn? And where was Coniston, down in this broken hull?
And Snap. I thought suddenly of Snap.
* * * * *
I clutched at my wandering wits. This inactivity was death. The escaping air hissed in my ears. Our precious air, escaping away into the vacant desolation of the Lunar emptiness. Through one of the twisted, slanting dome-windows a rocky spire was visible. The Planetara lay bow-down, wedged in a jagged cradle of Lunar rock. A miracle that the hull and dome had held together.
"Anita, we must get out of here!"
I thought I was fully alert now. I recalled that the brigands had spoken of having partly assembled their Moon equipment. If only we could find suits and helmets!
"We must get out," I repeated. "Get to Grantline's camp."
"Their helmets are in the forward storage room, Gregg. I saw them there."
She was staring at the fallen Miko and Moa. She shuddered and turned away and gripped me. "In the forward storage room, by the port of the emergency lock-exit."
If only the exit locks would operate! We must get out of here, but find Snap first. Good old Snap! Would we find him lying dead?
We climbed from the slanting, fallen turret, over the wreckage of the littered deck. It was not difficult, a lightness was upon us. The Planetara's gravity-magnetizers were dead: this was only the light Moon-gravity pulling us.
"Careful, Anita. Don't jump too freely."
We leaped along the deck. The hiss of the escaping pressure was like a clanging gong of warning to tell us to hurry. The hiss of death so close!
"Snap—" I murmured.
"Oh, Gregg. I pray we may find him alive—!"
"And get out. We've got to rush it. Get out and find the Grantline camp."
* * * * *
But how far? Which way? I must remember to take food and water. If the helmets were equipped with admission ports. If we could find Snap. If the exit locks would work to let us out.
With a fifteen foot leap we cleared a pile of broken deck chairs. A man lay groaning near them. I went back with a rush. Not Snap! A steward. He had been a brigand, but he was a steward to me now.
"Get up! This is Haljan. Hurry, we must get out of here. The air is escaping!"
But he sank back and lay still. No time to find if I could help him: there were Anita and Snap to save.
We found a broken entrance to one of the descending passages. I flung the debris aside and cleared it. Like a giant of strength with only this Moon-gravity holding me, I raised a broken segment of the superstructure and heaved it back.
Anita and I dropped ourselves down the sloping passage. The interior of the wrecked ship was silent and dim. An occasional passage light was still burning. The passage and all the rooms lay askew. Wreckage everywhere: but the double-dome and hull-shell had withstood the shock. Then I realized that the Erentz system was slowing down. Our heat, like our air, was escaping, radiating away, a deadly chill settling upon everything. And our walls were bulging. The silence and the deadly chill of death would soon be here in these wrecked corridors. The end of the Planetara. I wondered vaguely if the walls would explode.
We prowled like ghouls. We did not see Coniston. Snap had been by the shifter-pumps. We found him in the oval doorway. He lay sprawled. Dead? No, he moved. He sat up before we could get to him. He seemed confused, but his senses clarified with the movement of our figures over him.
"Gregg! Why, Anita!"
"Snap! You're all right? We struck—the air is escaping."
* * * * *
He pushed me away. He tried to stand. "I'm all right. I was up a minute ago. Gregg, it's getting cold. Where is she? I had her here—she wasn't killed. I spoke to her."
"Snap!" I held him, shook him. "Snap, old fellow!"
He said, normally. "Easy, Gregg. I'm all right now."
Anita gripped him. "Who, Snap?"
"She! There she is."
Another figure was here! On the grid-floor by the door oval. A figure partly shrouded in a broken invisible cloak and hood. An invisible cloak! I saw a white face with opened eyes regarding me. The face of a girl.
I bent down. "You!"
Anita cried, "Venza!"
Venza here? Why—how—my thoughts swept away. Venza here, dying? Her eyes closed. But she murmured to Anita. "Where is he? I want him."
Dying? I murmured impulsively, "Here I am, Venza dear." Gently, as one would speak with gentle sympathy to humor the dying. "Here I am, Venza."
But it was only the confusion of the shock upon her. And it was upon us all. She pushed at Anita. "I want him." She saw me. This whimsical Venus girl! Even here as we gathered, all of us blurred by the shock, confused in the dim, wrecked ship with the chill of death coming—even here she could make a jest. Her pale lips smiled.
"You, Gregg. I'm not hurt—I don't think I'm hurt." She managed to get herself up on one elbow. "Did you think I wanted you with my dying breath? Why, what conceit! Not you, Handsome Haljan! I was calling Snap."
* * * * *
He was down to her. "We're all right, Venza. It's over. We must get out of the ship—the air is escaping."
We gathered in the oval doorway. We fought the confusion of panic.
"The exit port is this way."
Or was it? I answered Snap, "Yes, I think so."
The ship suddenly seemed a stranger to me. So cold. So vibrationless. Broken lights. These slanting, wrecked corridors. With the ventilating fans stilled, the air was turning fetid. Chilling. And thinning, with escaping pressure, rarifying so that I could feel the grasp of it in my lungs and the pin-pricks of my burning cheeks.
We started off. Four of us, still alive in this silent ship of death. My blurred thoughts tried to cope with it all. Venza here. I recalled how she had bade me create a diversion when the women passengers were landing on the asteroid. She had carried out her purpose! In the confusion she had not gone ashore. A stowaway here. She had secured the cloak. Prowling, to try and help us, she had come upon Hahn. Had seized his ray-cylinder and struck him down, and been herself knocked unconscious by his dying lunge, which also had broken the tubes and wrecked the Planetara. And Venza, unconscious, had been lying here with the mechanism of her cloak still operating, so that we did not see her when we came and found why Hahn did not answer my signals.
"It's here, Gregg."
Snap and I lifted the pile of Moon equipment. We located four suits and helmets and the mechanisms to operate them.
"More are in the chart-room," Anita said.
But we needed no others. I robed Anita, and showed her the mechanisms.
"Yes. I understand."
* * * * *
Snap was helping Venza. We were all stiff from the cold; but within the suits and their pulsing currents, the blessed warmth came again.
The helmets had admission ports through which food and drink could be taken. I stood with my helmet ready. Anita, Venza and Snap were bloated and grotesque beside me. We had found food and water here, assembled in portable cases which the brigands had prepared. Snap lifted them, and signed to me he was ready.
My helmet shut out all sounds save my own breathing, my pounding heart, and the murmur of the mechanism. The blessed warmth and pure air were good.
We reached the hull port-locks. They operated! We went through in the light of the head-lamps over our foreheads.
I closed the locks after us. An instinct to keep the air in the ship for the other trapped humans lying there.
We slid down the sloping side of the Planetara. We were unweighted, irrationally agile with the slight gravity. I fell a dozen feet and landed with barely a jar.
We were out on the Lunar surface. A great sloping ramp of crags stretched down before us. Gray-black rock tinged with Earth-light. The Earth hung amid the stars in the blackness overhead like a huge section of glowing yellow ball.
* * * * *
This grim, desolate, silent landscape! Beyond the ramp, fifty feet below us, a tumbled naked plain stretched away into blurred distance. But I could see mountains off there. Behind us the towering, frowning rampart-wall of Archimedes loomed against the sky.
I had turned to look back at the Planetara. She lay broken, wedged between spires of upstanding rock. A few of her lights still gleamed. The end of the Planetara!
The three grotesque figures of Anita, Venza and Snap had started off. Hunchback figures with the tanks mounted on their shoulders. I bounded and caught them. I touched Snap. We made audiphone contact.
"Which way do you think?" I demanded.
"I think this way, down the ramp. Away from Archimedes, toward the mountains. It shouldn't be too far."
"You run with Venza. I'll hold Anita."
He nodded. "But we must keep together, Gregg."
We could soon run freely. Down the ramp, out over the tumbled plain. Bounding, grotesque leaping strides. The girls were more agile, more skilful. They were soon leading us. The Earth-shadows of their figures leaped beside them. The Planetara faded into the distance behind us. Archimedes stood back there. Ahead, the mountains came closer.
An hour perhaps. I lost count of time. Occasionally we stopped to rest. Were we going toward the Grantline camp? Would they see our tiny waving headlights?
Another interval. Then far ahead of us on the ragged plain, lights showed! Moving tiny spots of light! Headlights on helmeted figures!
We ran, monstrously leaping. A group of figures were off there. Grantline's party? Snap gripped me.
"Grantline! We're safe, Gregg! Safe!"
* * * * *
He took his bulb-light from his helmet: we stood in a group while he waved it. A semaphore signal.
And the answer came. "Yes. You, Dean?"
Their personal code. No doubt of this—it was Grantline, who had seen the Planetara fall and had come to help us.
I stood then with my hand holding Anita. And I whispered, "It's Grantline! We're safe, Anita, my darling!"
Death had been so close! Those horrible last minutes on the Planetara had shocked us, marked us.
We stood trembling. And Grantline and his men came bounding up.
A helmeted figure touched me. I saw through the helmet-pane the visage of a stern-faced, square-jawed, youngish man.
"Grantline? Johnny Grantline?"
"Yes," said his voice at my ear-grid. "I'm Grantline. You're Haljan? Gregg Haljan?"
They crowded around us. Gripped us to hear our explanations.
Brigands! It was amazing to Johnny Grantline. But the menace was over now, over as soon as Grantline had realized its existence. As though the wreck of the Planetara were foreordained by an all-wise Providence, the brigands' adventure had come to tragedy.
We stood for a time discussing it. Then I drew apart, leaving Snap with Grantline. And Anita joined me. I held her arm so that we had audiphone contact.
"Gregg, dear one."
Murmured nothings which mean so much to lovers!
* * * * *
As we stood in the fantastic gloom of the Lunar desolation, with the blessed Earth-light on us, I sent up a prayer of thankfulness. Not that a hundred millions of treasure were saved. Not that the attack upon Grantline had been averted. But only that Anita was given back to me. In moments of greatest emotion the human mind individualizes. To me, there was only Anita.
Life is very strange! The gate to the shining garden of our love seemed swinging wide to let us in. Yet I recall that a vague fear still lay on me. A premonition?
I felt a touch on my arm. A bloated helmet visor was thrust near my own. I saw Snap's face peering at me.
"Grantline thinks we should return to the Planetara. Might find some of them alive."
Grantline touched me. "It's only humanity."
"Yes," I said.
We went back. Some ten of us—a line of grotesque figures bounding with slow, easy strides over the jagged, rock-strewn plain. Our lights danced before us.
The Planetara came at last into view. My ship. Again that pang swept me as I saw her. This, her last resting place. She lay here in her open tomb, shattered, broken, unbreathing. The lights on her were extinguished. The Erentz system had ceased to pulse—the heart of the dying ship, for a while beating faintly, but now at rest.
We left the two girls with some of Grantline's men at the admission port. Snap, Grantline and I, with three others, went inside. There still seemed to be air, but not enough so that we dared remove our helmets.
It was dark inside the wrecked ship. The corridors were black; the hull control-rooms were dimly illumined with Earth-light straggling through the windows.
This littered tomb! Already cold and silent with death. We stumbled over a fallen figure. A member of the crew.
* * * * *
Grantline straightened from examining him.
Earth-light fell on the horrible face. Puffed flesh, bloated red from the blood which had oozed from its pores in the thinning air. I looked away.
We prowled further. Hahn lay dead in the pump-room.
The body of Coniston should have been near here. We did not see it.
We climbed up to the slanting littered deck. The dome had not exploded, but the air up here had almost all hissed away.
Again Grantline touched me. "That the turret?"
No wonder he asked! The wreckage was all so formless.
We climbed after Snap into the broken turret room. We passed the body of that steward who just at the end had appealed to me and I had left dying. The legs of the forward look-out still poked grotesquely up from the wreckage of the observatory tower where it lay smashed down against the roof of the chart-room.
We shoved ourselves into the turret. What was this? No bodies here! The giant Miko was gone! The pool of his blood lay congealed into a frozen dark splotch on the metal grid.
And Moa was gone! They had not been dead. Had dragged themselves out of here, fighting desperately for life. We would find them somewhere around here.
But we did not. Nor Coniston. I recalled what Anita had said: other suits and helmets had been here in the nearby chart-room. The brigands had taken them, and food and water doubtless, and escaped from the ship, following us through the lower admission ports only a few minutes after we had gone out.
* * * * *
We made careful search of the entire ship. Eight of the bodies which should have been here were missing: Miko, Moa, Coniston, and five of the steward-crew.
We did not find them outside. They were hiding near here, no doubt, more willing to take their chances than to yield now to us. But how, in all this Lunar desolation, could we hope to locate them?
"No use," said Grantline. "Let them go. If they want death—well, they deserve it."
But we were saved. Then, as I stood there, realization leaped at me. Saved? Were we not indeed fatuous fools?
In all these emotion-swept moments since we had encountered Grantline, memory of that brigand ship coming from Mars had never once occurred to Snap or me!
I told Grantline now. His eyes through the visor stared at me blankly.
I told him again. It would be here in eight days. Fully manned and armed.
"But Haljan, we have almost no weapons! All my Comet's space was taken with mining equipment and the mechanisms for my camp. I can't signal Earth! I was depending on the Planetara!"
It surged upon us. The brigand menace past? We were blindly congratulating ourselves on our safety! But it would be eight days or more before in distant Ferrok-Shahn the non-arrival of the Planetara would cause any real comment. No one was searching for us—no one was worried over us.
No wonder the crafty Miko was willing to take his chances out here in the Lunar wilds! His ship, his reinforcements, his weapons were coming rapidly!
And we were helpless. Almost unarmed. Marooned here on the Moon with our treasure!
(To be continued.)
- ASTOUNDING STORIES Appears on Newsstands THE FIRST THURSDAY IN EACH MONTH. -
By Tom Curry
From twenty miles away stabbed the "atom-filtering" rays to Allen Baker in his cell in the death house.
The shrill voice of a woman stabbed the steady hum of the many machines in the great, semi-darkened laboratory. It was the onslaught of weak femininity against the ebony shadow of Jared, the silent negro servant of Professor Ramsey Burr. Not many people were able to get to the famous man against his wishes; Jared obeyed orders implicitly and was generally an efficient barrier.
"I will see him, I will," screamed the middle-aged woman. "I'm Mrs. Mary Baker, and he—he—it's his fault my son is going to die. His fault. Professor! Professor Burr!"
Jared was unable to keep her quiet.
Coming in from the sunlight, her eyes were not yet accustomed to the strange, subdued haze of the laboratory, an immense chamber crammed full of equipment, the vista of which seemed like an apartment in hell. Bizarre shapes stood out from the mass of impedimenta, great stills which rose full two stories in height, dynamos, immense tubes of colored liquids, a hundred puzzles to the inexpert eye.
The small, plump figure of Mrs. Baker was very out of place in this setting. Her voice was poignant, reedy. A look at her made it evident that she was a conventional, good woman. She had soft, cloudy golden eyes and a pathetic mouth, and she seemed on the point of tears.
"Madam, madam, de doctor is busy," whispered Jared, endeavoring to shoo her out of the laboratory with his polite hands. He was respectful, but firm.
She refused to obey. She stopped when she was within a few feet of the activity in the laboratory, and stared with fear and horror at the center of the room, and at its occupant, Professor Burr, whom she had addressed during her flurried entrance.
The professor's face, as he peered at her, seemed like a disembodied stare, for she could see only eyes behind a mask of lavender gray glass eyeholes, with its flapping ends of dirty, gray-white cloth.
She drew in a deep breath—and gasped, for the pungent fumes, acrid and penetrating, of sulphuric and nitric acids, stabbed her lungs. It was like the breath of hell, to fit the simile, and aptly Professor Burr seemed the devil himself, manipulating the infernal machines.
* * * * *
Acting swiftly, the tall figure stepped over and threw two switches in a single, sweeping movement. The vermillion light which had lived in a long row of tubes on a nearby bench abruptly ceased to writhe like so many tongues of flame, and the embers of hell died out.
Then the professor flooded the room in harsh gray-green light, and stopped the high-pitched, humming whine of his dynamos. A shadow picture writhing on the wall, projected from a lead-glass barrel, disappeared suddenly, the great color filters and other machines lost their semblance of horrible life, and a regretful sigh seemed to come from the metal creatures as they gave up the ghost.
To the woman, it had been entering the abode of fear. She could not restrain her shudders. But she bravely confronted the tall figure of Professor Burr, as he came forth to greet her.
He was extremely tall and attenuated, with a red, bony mask of a face pointed at the chin by a sharp little goatee. Feathery blond hair, silvered and awry, covered his great head.
"Madam," said Burr in a gentle, disarmingly quiet voice, "your manner of entrance might have cost you your life. Luckily I was able to deflect the rays from your person, else you might not now be able to voice your complaint—for such seems to be your purpose in coming here." He turned to Jared, who was standing close by. "Very well, Jared. You may go. After this, it will be as well to throw the bolts, though in this case I am quite willing to see the visitor."
Jared slid away, leaving the plump little woman to confront the famous scientist.
For a moment, Mrs. Baker stared into the pale gray eyes, the pupils of which seemed black as coal by contrast. Some, his bitter enemies, claimed that Professor Ramsey Burr looked cold and bleak as an iceberg, others that he had a baleful glare. His mouth was grim and determined.
* * * * *
Yet, with her woman's eyes, Mrs. Baker, looking at the professor's bony mask of a face, with the high-bridged, intrepid nose, the passionless gray eyes, thought that Ramsey Burr would be handsome, if a little less cadaverous and more human.
"The experiment which you ruined by your untimely entrance," continued the professor, "was not a safe one."
His long white hand waved toward the bunched apparatus, but to her to the room seemed all glittering metal coils of snakelike wire, ruddy copper, dull lead, and tubes of all shapes. Hell cauldrons of unknown chemicals seethed and slowly bubbled, beetle-black bakelite fixtures reflected the hideous light.
"Oh," she cried, clasping her hands as though she addressed him in prayer, "forget your science, Professor Burr, and be a man. Help me. Three days from now my boy, my son, whom I love above all the world, is to die."
"Three days is a long time," said Professor Burr calmly. "Do not lose hope: I have no intention of allowing your son, Allen Baker, to pay the price for a deed of mine. I freely confess it was I who was responsible for the death of—what was the person's name?—Smith, I believe."
"It was you who made Allen get poor Mr. Smith to agree to the experiments which killed him, and which the world blamed on my son," she said. "They called it the deed of a scientific fiend, Professor Burr, and perhaps they are right. But Allen is innocent."
"Be quiet," ordered Burr, raising his hand. "Remember, madam, your son Allen is only a commonplace medical man, and while I taught him a little from my vast store of knowledge, he was ignorant and of much less value to science and humanity than myself. Do you not understand, can you not comprehend, also, that the man Smith was a martyr to science? He was no loss to mankind, and only sentimentalists could have blamed anyone for his death. I should have succeeded in the interchange of atoms which we were working on, and Smith would at this moment be hailed as the first man to travel through space in invisible form, projected on radio waves, had it not been for the fact that the alloy which conducts the three types of sinusoidal failed me and burned out. Yes, it was an error in calculation, and Smith would now be called the Lindbergh of the Atom but for that. Yet Smith has not died in vain, for I have finally corrected this error—science is but trial and correction of error—and all will be well."
"But Allen—Allen must not die at all!" she cried. "For weeks he has been in the death house: it is killing me. The Governor refuses him a pardon, nor will he commute my son's sentence. In three days he is to die in the electric chair, for a crime which you admit you alone are responsible for. Yet you remain in your laboratory, immersed in your experiments, and do nothing, nothing!"
* * * * *
The tears came now, and she sobbed hysterically. It seemed that she was making an appeal to someone in whom she had only a forlorn hope.
"Nothing?" repeated Burr, pursing his thin lips. "Nothing? Madam, I have done everything. I have, as I have told you, perfected the experiment. It is successful. Your son has not suffered in vain, and Smith's name will go down with the rest of science's martyrs as one who died for the sake of humanity. But if you wish to save your son, you must be calm. You must listen to what I have to say, and you must not fail to carry out my instructions to the letter. I am ready now."
Light, the light of hope, sprang in the mother's eyes. She grasped his arm and stared at him with shining face, through tear-dipped eyelashes.
"Do—do you mean it? Can you save him? After the Governor has refused me? What can you do? No influence will snatch Allen from the jaws of the law: the public is greatly excited and very hostile toward him."
A quiet smile played at the corners of Burr's thin lips.
"Come," he said. "Place this cloak about you. Allen wore it when he assisted me."
The professor replaced his own mask and conducted the woman into the interior of the laboratory.
"I will show you," said Professor Burr.
She saw before her now, on long metal shelves which appeared to be delicately poised on fine scales whose balance was registered by hair-line indicators, two small metal cages.
Professor Burr stepped over to a row of common cages set along the wall. There was a small menagerie there, guinea pigs—the martyrs of the animal kingdom—rabbits, monkeys, and some cats.
* * * * *
The man of science reached in and dragged out a mewing cat, placing it in the right-hand cage on the strange table. He then obtained a small monkey and put this animal in the left-hand cage, beside the cat. The cat, on the right, squatted on its haunches, mewing in pique and looking up at its tormentor. The monkey, after a quick look around, began to investigate the upper reaches of its new cage.
Over each of the animals was suspended a fine, curious metallic armament. For several minutes, while the woman, puzzled at how this demonstration was to affect the rescue of her condemned son, waited impatiently, the professor deftly worked at the apparatus, connecting wires here and there.
"I am ready now," said Burr. "Watch the two animals carefully."
"Yes, yes," she replied, faintly, for she was half afraid.
The great scientist was stooping over, looking at the balances of the indicators through microscopes.
She saw him reach for his switches, and then a brusk order caused her to turn her eyes back to the animals, the cat in the right-hand cage, the monkey at the left.
Both animals screamed in fear, and a sympathetic chorus sounded from the menagerie, as a long purple spark danced from one gray metal pole to the other, over the cages on the table.
At first, Mrs. Baker noticed no change. The spark had died, the professor's voice, unhurried, grave, broke the silence.
"The first part of the experiment is over," he said. "The ego—"
"Oh, heavens!" cried the woman. "You've driven the poor creatures mad!"
* * * * *
She indicated the cat. That animal was clawing at the top bars of its cage, uttering a bizarre, chattering sound, somewhat like a monkey. The cat hung from the bars, swinging itself back and forth as on a trapeze, then reached up and hung by its hind claws.
As for the monkey, it was squatting on the floor of its cage, and it made a strange sound in its throat, almost a mew, and it hissed several times at the professor.
"They are not mad," said Burr. "As I was explaining to you, I have finished the first portion of the experiment. The ego, or personality of one animal has been taken out and put into the other."
She was unable to speak. He had mentioned madness: was he, Professor Ramsey Burr, crazy? It was likely enough. Yet—yet the whole thing, in these surroundings, seemed plausible. As she hesitated about speaking, watching with fascinated eyes the out-of-character behavior of the two beasts, Burr went on.
"The second part follows at once. Now that the two egos have interchanged, I will shift the bodies. When it is completed, the monkey will have taken the place of the cat, and vice versa. Watch."
He was busy for some time with his levers, and the smell of ozone reached Mrs. Baker's nostrils as she stared with horrified eyes at the animals.
She blinked. The sparks crackled madly, the monkey mewed, the cat chattered.
Were her eyes going back on her? She could see neither animal distinctly: they seemed to be shaking in some cosmic disturbance, and were but blurs. This illusion—for to her, it seemed it must be optical—persisted, grew worse, until the quaking forms of the two unfortunate creatures were like so much ectoplasm in swift motion, ghosts whirling about in a dark room.
Yet she could see the cages quite distinctly, and the table and even the indicators of the scales. She closed her eyes for a moment. The acrid odors penetrated to her lungs, and she coughed, opening her eyes.
* * * * *
Now she could see clearly again. Yes, she could see a monkey, and it was climbing, quite naturally about its cage; it was excited, but a monkey. And the cat, while protesting mightily, acted like a cat.
Then she gasped. Had her mind, in the excitement, betrayed her? She looked at Professor Burr. On his lean face there was a smile of triumph, and he seemed to be awaiting her applause.
She looked again at the two cages. Surely, at first the cat had been in the right-hand cage, and the monkey in the left! And now, the monkey was in the place where the cat had been and the cat had been shifted to the left-hand cage.
"So it was with Smith, when the alloys burned out," said Burr. "It is impossible to extract the ego or dissolve the atoms and translate them into radio waves unless there is a connection with some other ego and body, for in such a case the translated soul and body would have no place to go. Luckily, for you, madam, it was the man Smith who was killed when the alloys failed me. It might have been Allen, for he was the second pole of the connection."
"But," she began faintly, "how can this mad experiment have anything to do with saving my boy?"
He waved impatiently at her evident denseness. "Do you not understand? It is so I will save Allen, your son. I shall first switch our egos, or souls, as you say. Then switch the bodies. It must always take this sequence; why, I have not ascertained. But it always works thus."
Mrs. Baker was terrified. What she had just seen, smacked of the blackest magic—yet a woman in her position must grasp at straws. The world blamed her son for the murder of Smith, a man Professor Burr had made use of as he might a guinea pig, and Allen must be snatched from the death house.
"Do—do you mean you can bring Allen from the prison here—just by throwing those switches?" she asked.
"That is it. But there is more to it than that, for it is not magic, madam; it is science, you understand, and there must be some physical connection. But with your help, that can easily be made."
* * * * *
Professor Ramsey Burr, she knew, was the greatest electrical engineer the world had ever known. And he stood high as a physicist. Nothing hindered him in the pursuit of knowledge, they said. He knew no fear, and he lived on an intellectual promontory. He was so great that he almost lost sight of himself. To such a man, nothing was impossible. Hope, wild hope, sprang in Mary Baker's heart, and she grasped the bony hand of the professor and kissed it.
"Oh, I believe, I believe," she cried. "You can do it. You can save Allen. I will do anything, anything you tell me to."
"Very well. You visit your son daily at the death house, do you not?"
She nodded; a shiver of remembrance of that dread spot passed through her.
"Then you will tell him the plan and let him agree to see me the night preceding the electrocution. I will give him final instructions as to the exchange of bodies. When my life spirit, or ego, is confined in your son's body in the death house, Allen will be able to perform the feat of changing the bodies, and your son's flesh will join his soul, which will have been temporarily inhabiting my own shell. Do you see? When they find me in the cell where they suppose your son to be, they will be unable to explain the phenomenon; they can do nothing but release me. Your son will go here, and can be whisked away to a safe place of concealment."
"Yes, yes. What am I to do besides this?"
Professor Burr pulled out a drawer near at hand, and from it extracted a folded garment of thin, shiny material.
"This is metal cloth coated with the new alloy," he said, in a matter of fact tone. He rummaged further, saying as he did so, "I expected you would be here to see me, and I have been getting ready for your visit. All is prepared, save a few odds and ends which I can easily clean up in the next two days. Here are four cups which Allen must place under each leg of his bed, and this delicate little director coil you must take especial pains with. It is to be slipped under your son's tongue at the time appointed."
* * * * *
She was staring at him still, half in fear, half in wonder, yet she could not feel any doubt of the man's miraculous powers. Somehow, while he talked to her and rested those cold eyes upon her, she was under the spell of the great scientist. Her son, before the trouble into which he had been dragged by the professor, had often hinted at the abilities of Ramsey Burr, given her the idea that his employer was practically a necromancer, yet a magician whose advanced scientific knowledge was correct and explainable in the light of reason.
Yes, Allen had talked to her often when he was at home, resting from his labors with Professor Burr. He had spoken of the new electricity discovered by the famous man, and also told his mother that Burr had found a method of separating atoms and then transforming them into a form of radio-electricity so that they could be sent in radio waves, to designated points. And she now remembered—the swift trial and conviction of Allen on the charge of murder had occupied her so deeply that she had forgotten all else for the time being—that her son had informed her quite seriously that Professor Ramsey Burr would soon be able to transport human beings by radio.
"Neither of us will be injured in any way by the change," said Burr calmly. "It is possible for me now to break up human flesh, send the atoms by radio-electricity, and reassemble them in their proper form by these special transformers and atom filters."
Mrs. Baker took all the apparatus presented her by the professor. She ventured the thought that it might be better to perform the experiment at once, instead of waiting until the last minute, but this Professor Burr waved aside as impossible. He needed the extra time, he said, and there was no hurry.
She glanced about the room, and her eye took in the giant switches of copper with their black handles; there were others of a gray-green metal she did not recognize. Many dials and meters, strange to her, confronted the little woman. These things, she felt with a rush of gratitude toward the inanimate objects, would help to save her son, so they interested her and she began to feel kindly toward the great machines.
* * * * *
Would Professor Burr be able to save Allen as he claimed? Yes, she thought, he could. She would make Allen consent to the trial of it, even though her son had cursed the scientist and cried he would never speak to Ramsey Burr again.
She was escorted from the home of the professor by Jared, and going out into the bright, sunlit street, blinked as her eyes adjusted themselves to the daylight after the queer light of the laboratory. In a bundle she had a strange suit and the cups; her purse held the tiny coil, wrapped in cotton.
How could she get the authorities to consent to her son having the suit? The cups and the coil she might slip to him herself. She decided that a mother would be allowed to give her son new underwear. Yes, she would say it was that.
She started at once for the prison. Professor Burr's laboratory was but twenty miles from the cell where her son was incarcerated.
As she rode on the train, seeing people in everyday attire, commonplace occurrences going on about her, the spell of Professor Burr faded, and cold reason stared her in the face. Was it nonsense, this idea of transporting bodies through the air, in invisible waves? Yet, she was old-fashioned; the age of miracles had not passed for her. Radio, in which pictures and voices could be sent on wireless waves, was unexplainable to her. Perhaps—
She sighed, and shook her head. It was hard to believe. It was also hard to believe that her son was in deadly peril, condemned to death as a "scientific fiend."
Here was her station. A taxi took her to the prison, and after a talk with the warden, finally she stood there, before the screen through which she could talk to Allen, her son.
Her heart lifted, melted within her. It was always thus when he spoke. "Allen," she whispered softly.
They were allowed to talk undisturbed.
"Professor Burr wishes to help you," she said, in a low voice.
* * * * *
Her son, Allen Baker, M. D., turned eyes of misery upon her. His ruddy hair was awry. This young man was imaginative and could therefore suffer deeply. He had the gift of turning platitudes into puzzles, and his hazel eyes were lit with an elfin quality, which, if possible, endeared him the more to his mother. All his life he had been the greatest thing in the world to this woman. To see him in such straits tore her very heart. When he had been a little boy, she had been able to make joy appear in those eyes by a word and a pat; now that he was a man, the matter was more difficult, but she had always done her best.
"I cannot allow Professor Burr to do anything for me," he said dully. "It is his fault that I am here."
"But Allen, you must listen, listen carefully. Professor Burr can save you. He says it was all a mistake, the alloy was wrong. He has not come forward before, because he knew he would be able to iron out the trouble if he had time, and thus snatch you from this terrible place."
She put as much confidence into her voice as she could. She must, to enhearten her son. Anything to replace that look of suffering with one of hope. She would believe, she did believe. The bars, the great masses of stone which enclosed her son would be as nothing. He would pass through them, unseen, unheard.
For a time, Allen spoke bitterly of Ramsey Burr, but his mother pleaded with him, telling him it was his only chance, and that the deviltry Allen suspected was imaginary.
"He—he killed Smith in such an experiment," said Allen. "I took the blame, as you know, though I only followed his instructions. But you say he claims to have found the correct alloys?"
"Yes. And this suit, you must put it on. But Professor Burr himself will be here to see you day after to-morrow, the day preceding the—the—" She bit her lip, and got out the dreaded word, "the electrocution. But there won't be any electrocution, Allen; no, there cannot be. You will be safe, safe in my arms." She had to fight now to hold her belief in the miracle which Burr had promised. The solid steel and stone dismayed her brain.
* * * * *
The new alloy seemed to interest Allen Baker. His mother told him of the exchange of the monkey and the cat, and he nodded excitedly, growing more and more restive, and his eyes began to shine with hope and curiosity.
"I have told the warden about the suit, saying it was something I made for you myself," she said, in a low voice. "You must pretend the coil and the cups are things you desire for your own amusement. You know, they have allowed you a great deal of latitude, since you are educated and need diversion."
"Yes, yes. There may be some difficulty, but I will overcome that. Tell Burr to come. I'll talk with him and he can instruct me in the final details. It is better than waiting here like a rat in a trap. I have been afraid of going mad, mother, but this buoys me up."
He smiled at her, and her heart sang in the joy of relief.
How did the intervening days pass? Mrs. Baker could not sleep, could scarcely eat, she could do nothing but wait, wait, wait. She watched the meeting of her son and Ramsey Burr, on the day preceding the date set for the execution.
"Well, Baker," said Burr nonchalantly, nodding to his former assistant. "How are you?"
"You see how I am," said Allen, coldly.
"Yes, yes. Well, listen to what I have to say and note it carefully. There must be no slip. You have the suit, the cups and the director coil? You must keep the suit on, the cups go under the legs of the cot you lie on. The director under your tongue."
The professor spoke further with Allen, instructing him in scientific terms which the woman scarcely comprehended.
"To-night, then at eleven-thirty," said Burr, finally. "Be ready."
* * * * *
Allen nodded. Mrs. Baker accompanied Burr from the prison.
"You—you will let me be with you?" she begged.
"It is hardly necessary," said the professor.
"But I must. I must see Allen the moment he is free, to make sure he is all right. Then, I want to be able to take him away. I have a place in which we can hide, and as soon as he is rescued he must be taken out of sight."
"Very well," said Burr, shrugging. "It is immaterial to me, so long as you do not interfere with the course of the experiment. You must sit perfectly still, you must not speak until Allen stands before you and addresses you."
"Yes, I will obey you," she promised.
Mrs. Baker watched Professor Ramsey Burr eat his supper. Burr himself was not in the least perturbed; it was wonderful, she thought, that he could be so calm. To her, it was the great moment, the moment when her son would be saved from the jaws of death.
Jared carried a comfortable chair into the laboratory and she sat in it, quiet as a mouse, in one corner of the room.
It was nine o'clock, and Professor Burr was busy with his preparations. She knew he had been working steadily for the past few days. She gripped the arms of her chair, and her heart burned within her.
The professor was making sure of his apparatus. He tested this bulb and that, and carefully inspected the curious oscillating platform, over which was suspended a thickly bunched group of gray-green wire, which was seemingly an antenna. The numerous indicators and implements seemed to be satisfactory, for at quarter after eleven Burr gave an exclamation of pleasure and nodded to himself.
Burr seemed to have forgotten the woman. He spoke aloud occasionally, but not to her, as he drew forth a suit made of the same metal cloth as Allen must have on at this moment.
* * * * *
The tension was terrific, terrific for the mother, who was awaiting the culmination of the experiment which would rescue her son from the electric chair—or would it fail? She shuddered. What if Burr were mad?
But look at him, she was sure he was sane, as sane as she was.
"He will succeed," she murmured, digging her nails into the palms of her hands. "I know he will."
She pushed aside the picture of what would happen on the morrow, but a few hours distant, when Allen, her son, was due to be led to a legal death in the electric chair.
Professor Burr placed the shiny suit upon his lank form, and she saw him put a duplicate coil, the same sort of small machine which Allen possessed, under his tongue.
The Mephistophelian figure consulted a matter-of-fact watch; at that moment, Mrs. Baker heard, above the hum of the myriad machines in the laboratory, the slow chiming of a clock. It was the moment set for the deed.
Then, she feared the professor was insane, for he suddenly leaped to the high bench of the table on which stood one of the oscillating platforms.
Wires led out from this, and Burr sat gently upon it, a strange figure in the subdued light.
Professor Burr, however, she soon saw, was not insane. No, this was part of it. He was reaching for switches near at hand, and bulbs began to glow with unpleasant light, needles on indicators swung madly, and at last, Professor Burr kicked over a giant switch, which seemed to be the final movement.
For several seconds the professor did not move. Then his body grew rigid, and he twisted a few times. His face, though not drawn in pain, yet twitched galvanically, as though actuated by slight jabs of electricity.
* * * * *
The many tubes fluoresced, flared up in pulsing waves of violet and pink: there were gray bars of invisibility or areas of air in which nothing visible showed. There came the faint, crackling hum of machinery rather like a swarm of wasps in anger. Blue and gray thread of fire spat across the antenna. The odor of ozone came to Mrs. Baker's nostrils, and the acid odors burned her lungs.
She was staring at him, staring at the professor's face. She half rose from her chair, and uttered a little cry.
The eyes had changed, no longer were they cold, impersonal, the eyes of a man who prided himself on the fact that he kept his arteries soft and his heart hard; they were loving, soft eyes.
"Allen," she cried.
Yes, without doubt, the eyes of her son were looking at her out of the body of Professor Ramsey Burr.
"Mother," he said gently. "Don't be alarmed. It is successful. I am here, in Professor Burr's body."
"Yes," she cried, hysterically. It was too weird to believe. It seemed dim to her, unearthly.
"Are you all right, darling?" she asked timidly.
"Yes. I felt nothing beyond a momentary giddy spell, a bit of nausea and mental stiffness. It was strange, and I have a slight headache. However, all is well."
He grinned at her, laughed with the voice which was not his, yet which she recognized as directed by her son's spirit. The laugh was cracked and unlike Allen's whole-hearted mirth, yet she smiled in sympathy.
"Yes, the first part is a success," said the man. "Our egos have interchanged. Soon, our bodies will undergo the transformation, and then I must keep under cover. I dislike Burr—yet he is a great man. He has saved me. I suppose the slight headache which I feel is one bequeathed me by Burr. I hope he inherits my shivers and terrors and the neuralgia for the time being, so he will get some idea of what I have undergone."
He had got down from the oscillating platform, the spirit of her son in Ramsey's body.
"What—what are you doing now?" she asked.
"I must carry out the rest of it myself," he said. "Burr directed me when we talked yesterday. It is more difficult when one subject is out of the laboratory, and the tubes must be checked."
* * * * *
He went carefully about his work, and she saw him replacing four of the tubes with others, new ones, which were ready at hand. Though it was the body of Ramsey Burr, the movements were different from the slow, precise work of the professor, and more and more, she realized that her son inhabited the shell before her.
For a moment, the mother thought of attempting to dissuade her son from making the final change; was it not better thus, than to chance the disintegration of the bodies? Suppose something went wrong, and the exchange did not take place, and her son, that is, his spirit, went back to the death house?
Midnight struck as he worked feverishly at the apparatus, the long face corrugated as he checked the dials and tubes. He worked swiftly, but evidently was following a procedure which he had committed to memory, for he was forced to pause often to make sure of himself.
"Everything is O. K.," said the strange voice at last. He consulted his watch. "Twelve-thirty," he said.
She bit her lip in terror, as he cried, "Now!" and sprang to the table to take his place on the metallic platform, which oscillated to and fro under his weight. The delicate grayish metal antenna, which, she knew, would form a glittering halo of blue and gray threads of fire, rested quiescent above his head.
"This is the last thing," he said calmly, as he reached for the big ebony handled switch. "I'll be myself in a few minutes, mother."
"Yes, son, yes."
The switch connected, and Allen Baker, in the form of Ramsey Burr, suddenly cried out in pain. His mother leaped up to run to his side, but he waved her away. She stood, wringing her hands, as he began to twist and turn, as though torn by some invisible force. Eery screams came from the throat of the man on the platform, and Mrs. Baker's cries of sympathy mingled with them.
* * * * *
The mighty motors hummed in a high-pitched, unnatural whine, and suddenly Mrs. Baker saw the tortured face before her grow dim. The countenance of the professor seemed to melt, and then there came a dull, muffled thud, a burst of white-blue flame, the odor of burning rubber and the tinkle of broken glass.
Back to the face came the clarity of outline, and still it was Professor Ramsey Burr's body she stared at.
Her son, in the professor's shape, climbed from the platform, and looked about him as though dazed. An acrid smoke filled the room, and burning insulation assailed the nostrils.
Desperately, without looking at her, his lips set in a determined line, the man went hurriedly over the apparatus again.
"Have I forgotten, did I do anything wrong?" she heard his anguished cry.
Two tubes were burned out, and these he replaced as swiftly as possible. But he was forced to go all over the wiring, and cut out whatever had been short-circuited so that it could be hooked up anew with uninjured wire.
Before he was ready to resume his seat on the platform, after half an hour of feverish haste, a knock came on the door.
The person outside was imperative, and Mrs. Baker ran over and opened the portal. Jared, the whites of his eyes shining in the dim light, stood there. "De professah—tell him dat de wahden wishes to talk with him. It is very important, ma'am."
The body of Burr, inhabited by Allen's soul, pushed by her, and she followed falteringly, wringing her hands. She saw the tall figure snatch at the receiver and listen.
"Oh, God," he cried.
At last, he put the receiver back on the hook, automatically, and sank down in a chair, his face in his hands.
* * * * *
Mrs. Baker went to him quickly. "What is it, Allen?" she cried.
"Mother," he said hoarsely, "it was the warden of the prison. He told me that Allen Baker had gone temporarily insane, and claimed to be Professor Ramsey Burr in my body."
"But—but what is the matter?" she asked. "Cannot you finish the experiment, Allen? Can't you change the two bodies now?"
He shook his head. "Mother—they electrocuted Ramsey Burr in my body at twelve forty-five to-night!"
She screamed. She was faint, but she controlled herself with a great effort.
"But the electrocution was not to be until morning," she said.
Allen shook his head. "They are allowed a certain latitude, about twelve hours," he said. "Burr protested up to the last moment, and begged for time."
"Then—then they must have come for him and dragged him forth to die in the electric chair while you were attempting the second part of the change," she said.
"Yes. That was why it failed. That's why the tubes and wires burned out and why we couldn't exchange bodies. It began to succeed, then I could feel something terrible had happened. It was impossible to complete the Beta circuit, which short-circuited. They took him from the cell, do you see, while I was starting the exchange of the atoms."
* * * * *
For a time, the mother and her boy sat staring at one another. She saw the tall, eccentric figure of Ramsey Burr before her, yet she saw also the soul of her son within that form. The eyes were Allen's, the voice was soft and loving, and his spirit was with her.
"Come, Allen, my son," she said softly.
"Burr paid the price," said Allen, shaking his head. "He became a martyr to science."
The world has wondered why Professor Ramsey Burr, so much in the headlines as a great scientist, suddenly gave up all his experiments and took up the practice of medicine.
Now that the public furor and indignation over the death of the man Smith has died down, sentimentalists believe that Ramsey Burr has reformed and changed his icy nature, for he manifests great affection and care for Mrs. Mary Baker, the mother of the electrocuted man who had been his assistant.
BY NO MEANS Miss the Opening Installment of the Extraordinary Four-Part Novel MURDER MADNESS By Murray Leinster Starting In Our Next Issue
The Ray of Madness
By Captain S. P. Meek
Dr. Bird discovers a dastardly plot, amazing in its mechanical ingenuity, behind the apparently trivial eye trouble of the President.
A knock sounded at the door of Dr. Bird's private laboratory in the Bureau of Standards. The famous scientist paid no attention to the interruption but bent his head lower over the spectroscope with which he was working. The knock was repeated with a quality of quiet insistence upon recognition. The Doctor smothered an exclamation of impatience and strode over to the door and threw it open to the knocker.
"Oh, hello, Carnes," he exclaimed as he recognized his visitor. "Come in and sit down and keep your mouth shut for a few minutes. I am busy just now but I'll be at liberty in a little while."
"There's no hurry, Doctor," replied Operative Carnes of the United States Secret Service as he entered the room and sat on the edge of the Doctor's desk. "I haven't got a case up my sleeve this time; I just came in for a little chat."
"All right, glad to see you. Read that latest volume of the Zeitschrift for a while. That article of Von Beyer's has got me guessing, all right."
Carnes picked up the indicated volume and settled himself to read. The Doctor bent over his apparatus. Time and again he made minute adjustments and gave vent to muttered exclamations of annoyance at the results he obtained. Half an hour later he rose from his chair with a sigh and turned to his visitor.
"What do you think of Von Beyer's alleged discovery?" he asked the operative.
* * * * *
"It's too deep for me, Doctor," replied the operative. "All that I can make out of it is that he claims to have discovered a new element named 'lunium,' but hasn't been able to isolate it yet. Is there anything remarkable about that? It seems to me that I have read of other new elements being discovered from time to time."
"There is nothing remarkable about the discovery of a new element by the spectroscopic method," replied Dr. Bird. "We know from Mendeleff's table that there are a number of elements which we have not discovered as yet, and several of the ones we know were first detected by the spectroscope. The thing which puzzles me is that so brilliant a man as Von Beyer claims to have discovered it in the spectra of the moon. His name, lunium, is taken from Luna, the moon."
"Why not the moon? Haven't several elements been first discovered in the spectra of stars?"
"Certainly. The classic example is Lockyer's discovery of an orange line in the spectra of the sun in 1868. No known terrestrial element gave such a line and he named the new element which he deduced helium, from Helos, the sun. The element helium was first isolated by Ramsey some twenty-seven years later. Other elements have been found in the spectra of stars, but the point I am making is that the sun and the stars are incandescent bodies and could be logically expected to show the characteristic lines of their constituent elements in their spectra. But the moon is a cold body without an atmosphere and is visible only by reflected light. The element, lunium, may exist in the moon, but the manifestations which Von Beyer has observed must be, not from the moon, but from the source of the reflected light which he spectro-analyzed."
* * * * *
"You are over my depth, Doctor."
"I'm over my own. I have tried to follow Von Beyer's reasoning and I have tried to check his findings. Twice this evening I thought that I caught a momentary glimpse on the screen of my fluoroscope of the ultra-violet line which he reports as characteristic of lunium, but I am not certain. I haven't been able to photograph it yet. He notes in his article that the line seems to be quite impermanent and fades so rapidly that an accurate measurement of its wave-length is almost impossible. However, let's drop the subject. How do you like your new assignment?"
"Oh, it's all right. I would rather be back on my old work."
"I haven't seen you since you were assigned to the Presidential detail. I suppose that you fellows are pretty busy getting ready for Premier McDougal's visit?"
"I doubt if he will come," replied Carnes soberly. "Things are not exactly propitious for a visit of that sort just now."
* * * * *
Dr. Bird sat back in his chair in surprise.
"I thought that the whole thing is arranged. The press seems to think so, at any rate."
"Everything is arranged, but arrangements may be cancelled. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that they were."
"Carnes," replied Dr. Bird gravely, "you have either said too much or too little. There is something more to this than appears on the surface. If it is none of my business, don't hesitate to tell me so and I'll forget what you have said, but if I can help you any, speak up."
Carnes puffed meditatively at his pipe for a few minutes before replying.
"It's really none of your business. Doctor," he said at length, "and yet I know that a corpse is a chatterbox compared to you when you are told anything in confidence, and I really need to unload my mind. It has been kept from the press so far; but I don't know how long it can be kept muzzled. In strict confidence, the President of the United State acts as though he were crazy."
"Quite a section of the press has claimed that for a long time," replied Dr. Bird, with a twinkle in his eye.
"I don't mean crazy in that way, Doctor, I mean really crazy. Bugs! Nuts! Bats in his belfry!"
* * * * *
Dr. Bird whistled softly.
"Are you sure, Carnes?" he asked.
"As sure as may be. Both of his physicians think so. They were non-committal for a while, especially as the first attack waned and he seemed to recover, but when his second attack came on more violently than the first and the President began to act queerly, they had to take the Presidential detail into their confidence. He has been quietly examined by some of the greatest psychiatrists in the country, but none of them have ventured on a positive verdict as to the nature of the malady. They admit, of course, that it exists, but they won't classify it. The fact that it is intermittent seems to have them stopped. He was bad a month ago but he recovered and became, to all appearances, normal for a time. About a week ago he began to show queer symptoms again and now he is getting worse daily. If he goes on getting worse for another week, it will have to be announced so that the Vice-President can take over the duties of the head of the government."
* * * * *
"What are the symptoms?"
"The first we noticed was a failing of his memory. Coupled with this was a restlessness and a habit of nocturnal prowling. He tosses continually on his bed and mutters and at times leaps up and rages back and forth in his bedchamber, howling and raging. Then he will calm down and compose himself and go to sleep, only to wake in half an hour and go through the same performance. It is pretty ghastly for the men on night guard."
"How does he act in the daytime?"
"Heavy and lethargic. His memory becomes a complete blank at times and he talks wildly. Those are the times we must guard against."
"Overwork?" queried the Doctor.
"Not according to his physicians. His physical health is splendid and his appetite unusually keen. He takes his exercise regularly and suffers no ill health except for a little eye trouble."
Dr. Bird leaped to his feet.
"Tell me more about this eye trouble, Carnes," he demanded.
"Why, I don't know much about it, Doctor. Admiral Clay told me that it was nothing but a mild opthalmia which should yield readily to treatment. That was when he told me to see that the shades of the President's study were partially drawn to keep the direct sunlight out."
* * * * *
"Opthalmia be sugared! What do his eyes look like?"
"They are rather red and swollen and a little bloodshot. He has a tendency to shut them while he is talking and he avoids light as much as possible. I hadn't noticed anything peculiar about it."
"Carnes, did you ever see a case of snow blindness?"
The operative looked up in surprise.
"Yes, I have. I had it myself once in Maine. Now that you mention it, his case does look like snow blindness, but such a thing is absurd in Washington in August."
Dr. Bird rummaged in his desk and drew out a book, which he consulted for a moment.
"Now, Carnes," he said, "I want some dates from you and I want them accurately. Don't guess, for a great deal may depend on the accuracy of your answers. When was this mental disability on the part of the President first noticed?"
Carnes drew a pocket diary from his coat and consulted it.
"The seventeenth of July," he replied. "That is, we are sure, in view of later developments, that that was the date it first came on. We didn't realize that anything was wrong until the twentieth. On the night of the nineteenth the President slept very poorly, getting up and creating a disturbance twice, and on the twentieth he acted so queerly that it was necessary to cancel three conferences."
* * * * *
Dr. Bird checked off the dates on the book before him and nodded.
"Go on," he said, "and describe the progress of the malady by days."
"It got progressively worse until the night of the twenty-third. The twenty-fourth he was no worse, and on the twenty-fifth a slight improvement was noticed. He got steadily better until, by the third or fourth of August, he was apparently normal. About the twelfth he began to show signs of restlessness which have increased daily during the past week. Last night, the nineteenth, he slept only a few minutes and Brady, who was on guard, says that his howls were terrible. His memory has been almost a total blank today and all of his appointments were cancelled, ostensibly because of his eye trouble. If he gets any worse, it probably will be necessary to inform the country as to his true condition."