"Light up!" ordered Stanley, setting an example by touching his hose nozzle to the nearest wall jet. A spurt of fire belched from his hose, streaming out for four or five feet in a solid red cone. The Professor and I touched off our torches; and we moved slowly out the door toward the ranks of Quabos.
"Don't try to save yourselves from their tentacles," advised Stanley. "Walk right up to them, direct the fire against their helmets, and damn the consequences. If they grip too hard you can always play the torch on their tentacles till they think better of it."
The Quabos' front line humped grimly toward us, unblinking eyes glaring, tentacles writhing warily, little spurts of used water trickling from their helmets.
"Keep together," warned Stanley, "so that if any one of us loses his light he can get it from the hose of one of the other two. And—Here they come!"
There was no more time for commands. The Quabos in front, supplied with slack in their hoses by those behind, leaped at us with incredible agility. We fell back a step so that none should get at our backs.
The last stand was begun.
* * * * *
It was not a battle so much as a series of fierce duels. The Quabos realized their new danger instantly, and devoted all their efforts to extinguishing our torches. We parried and thrust with the flaming hoses in an equally desperate effort to prevent it.
One of them scuttled toward me like a great crab. A tentacle darted toward my right arm. Another was pressed against the nozzle. There was a sickening smell—and the tentacle was jerked spasmodically away.
I caught the hose in my left hand and turned the fiery jet against the water-filled helmet.
A shout of savage exultation broke from my lips. Hardly, had the flame touched the glass before it cracked! There was a report like a pistol shot—and a miniature Niagara of water and splintered glass poured at my feet!
The tentacle around my arm tightened, then relaxed. The monster shuddered in a convulsive heap on the ground.
I went toward the next one, swinging the flaring hose in a slow arc as I advanced. The creature lunged at me and threshed at the burning jet with all four of its feelers. But it had been exposed to the air for a long time now. The ghastly tentacles were dry; withered and soft. A touch of the fire seared them unmercifully.
Nevertheless with a swift move it slapped a tentacle squarely down over the hose nozzle. The flame was extinguished as the flame of a candle is pinched out between thumb and forefinger. I retreated.
"Catch!" came a voice behind me.
* * * * *
The Professor swung his four-foot jet my way. I held my hose to it, and the flame burst out again. A touch at my grisly antagonist's helmet—a sharp crack—the welcome rush of water over the cream-colored grass—and another monster was writhing in the death throes!
Keeping close together, the three of us faced the massed Quabos in the palace grounds. Again and again the fiery weapon of one or the other of us was dashed out—to be re-lighted from the nearest hose. Again and again loud detonations heralded the collapse of more of the invaders.
But it seemed as though their flailing tentacles were as myriad as the stars they had never seen. It seemed as though their numbers would never appreciably diminish. We thrust and parried till our arms grew numb. And still there appeared to be hundreds of the Quabos left.
By order of the Queen three stout Zyobites stepped up to us and relieved us of our exhausting labor. Gladly we handed the hoses to them and went to the palace for a much needed rest.
* * * * *
Two more shifts of fighters took the flaming jets before the monsters began the retreat slowly back toward their tunnel. And here the Professor took command again.
"We mustn't let them get away to try some new scheme!" he snapped. "Martin, take fifty men and beat them back to the break in the wall. Go around a side street. They move so slowly that you can easily cut off their retreat."
"There isn't any more hose—" began Stanley.
"There's plenty of it. The Quabos brought it with them." The Professor turned to me again. "Take metal-saws with you. Cut sections of the Quabos water-hose and connect them to the nearest wall jets. Run!"
I ran, with fifty of the men of Zyobor close behind me. We dodged out the side of the palace grounds least guarded by the Quabos, ducking between their ranks like infantry men threading through an opposition of powerful but slow-moving tanks. Four of our number were caught, but the rest got through unscathed.
Down a side street we raced, and along a parallel avenue toward the tunnel. As we went I prayed that all the Quabos had centered their attention on the palace and left their vulnerable water-hoses unguarded.
They had! When we stole up the last block toward the break we found the nearest Quabo was a hundred yards down the street—and working further away with every move.
At once we set to work on the scores of hoses that quivered over the floor with each move of the distant monsters.
* * * * *
A Zyobite with the muscles of a Hercules swung his ax mightily down on a hose. The metal was soft enough to be sheered through by the stroke. The cut ends were smashed so that they could not be crammed down over the tapering jets; but we could use our metal-saws for cleaner severances at the other ends.
The giant with the ax stepped from hose to hose. Lengths were completed with the saws. A man was placed at each jet to hold the connections in position. Before the Quabos had reached us we had rigged six fire-hoses and had cut through forty or fifty more water-lines.
The end was certain and not long in coming.
We sprayed the monsters with fire as workmen spray fruit trees with insect poison. Stanley, the Professor and a Zyobite came up in the rear with their three hoses.
Caught between the two forces, the beaten fish milled in hopeless confusion and indecision.
In half an hour they were all reduced to huddles of slimy wet flesh that dotted the pavement from the break back to the palace grounds. The invaders were completely annihilated—and the city of Zyobor was saved!
"Now," said the Professor triumphantly, "we have only to knock out the bottom half of the tunnel wall, empty the tunnel and make sure there are no more Quabos lurking there. After that we can fill it in with solid cement. The Queen can order her fish-servants to guard the outer cave and see that no food gets in to the starving monsters there. The war is over, gentlemen. The Quabos are as good as exterminated at this moment. And I can get back to my zoological work...."
Stanley and I looked at each other. We knew each others thoughts well enough.
He could resume his companionship with the beautiful Mayis. And I—I had Aga....
* * * * *
With the menace of the Quabos banished forever, the city of Zyobor resumed its normal way.
The citizens lowered their dead into the great well we had cut, with appropriate rites performed by the Queen. The daily tasks and pleasures were picked up where they had been dropped. The haunting fear died from the eyes of the people.
Shortly afterward, with great ceremony and celebration, I was made King of Zyobor, to rule by Aga's side. Stanley took Mayis for his wife. He is second to me in power. The Professor is the official wise man of the city.
Life flows smoothly for us in this pink lighted community. We are more than content with our lot here. Our only concern has been the grief that must have been occasioned our relatives and friends when the Rosa sailed home without us.
Now we have thought of a way in which, with luck, we may communicate with the upper world. By relays of my Queen's fish-servants we believe we can send up the Professor's invaluable notes[A] and this informal account of what has happened since we left San Francisco that....
(Editor's note: There was no trace of any "notes." The yacht, Rosa, was reported lost with all hands in a hurricane off New Zealand. Aboard her were a Professor George Berry and the owner, Stanley Browne. There is no record, however, of any passenger by the name of Martin Grey. To date no one has taken this document seriously enough to consider financing an expedition of investigation to Penguin Deep.)
The Murder Machine
By Hugh B. Cave
[Sidenote: Four lives lay helpless before the murder machine, the uncanny device by which hypnotic thought-waves are filtered through men's minds to mold them into murdering tools!]
It was dusk, on the evening of December 7, 1906, when I first encountered Sir John Harmon. At the moment of his entrance I was standing over the table in my study, a lighted match in my cupped hands and a pipe between my teeth. The pipe was never lit.
I heard the lower door slam shut with a violent clatter. The stairs resounded to a series of unsteady footbeats, and the door of my study was flung back. In the opening, staring at me with quiet dignity, stood a young, careless fellow, about five feet ten in height and decidedly dark of complexion. The swagger of his entrance branded him as an adventurer. The ghastly pallor of his face, which was almost colorless, branded him as a man who has found something more than mere adventure.
"Doctor Dale?" he demanded.
"I am Doctor Dale."
He closed the door of the room deliberately, advancing toward me with slow steps.
"My name is John Harmon—Sir John Harmon. It is unusual, I suppose," he said quietly, with a slight shrug, "coming at this late hour. I won't keep you long."
He faced me silently. A single glance at those strained features convinced me of the reason for his coming. Only one thing can bring such a furtive, restless stare to a man's eyes. Only one thing—fear.
"I've come to you. Dale, because—" Sir John's fingers closed heavily over the edge of the table—"because I am on the verge of going mad."
"From fear, yes. I suppose it is easy to discover. A single look at me...."
"A single look at you," I said simply, "would convince any man that you are deadly afraid of something. Do you mind telling me just what it is?"
* * * * *
He shook his head slowly. The swagger of the poise was gone; he stood upright now with a positive effort, as if the realization of his position had suddenly surged over him.
"I do not know," he said quietly. "It is a childish fear—fear of the dark, you may call it. The cause does not matter; but if something does not take this unholy terror away, the effect will be madness."
I watched him in silence for a moment, studying the shrunken outline of his face and the unsteady gleam of his narrowed eyes. I had seen this man before. All London had seen him. His face was constantly appearing in the sporting pages, a swaggering member of the upper set—a man who had been engaged to nearly every beautiful woman in the country—who sought adventure in sport and in night life, merely for the sake of living at top speed. And here he stood before me, whitened by fear, the very thing he had so deliberately laughed at!
"Dale," he said slowly, "for the past week I have been thinking things that I do not want to think and doing things completely against my will. Some outside power—God knows what it is—is controlling my very existence."
He stared it me, and leaned closer across the table.
"Last night, some time before midnight," he told me, "I was sitting alone in my den. Alone, mind you—not a soul was in the house with me. I was reading a novel; and suddenly, as if a living presence had stood in the room and commanded me, I was forced to put the book down. I fought against it, fought to remain in that room and go on reading. And I failed."
"Failed?" My reply was a single word of wonder.
* * * * *
"I left my home: because I could not help myself. Have you ever been under hypnotism, Dale? Yes? Well, the thing that gripped me was something similar—except that no living person came near me in order to work his hypnotic spell. I went alone, the whole way. Through back streets, alleys, filthy dooryards—never once striking a main thoroughfare—until I had crossed the entire city and reached the west side of the square. And there, before a big gray town-house, I was allowed to stop my mad wandering. The power, whatever it was, broke. I—well, I went home."
Sir John got to his feet with an effort, and stood over me.
"Dale," he whispered hoarsely, "what was it?"
"You were conscious of every detail?" I asked. "Conscious of the time, of the locality you went to? You are sure it was not some fantastic dream?"
"Dream! Is it a dream to have some damnable force move me about like a mechanical robot?"
"But.... You can think of no explanation?" I was a bit skeptical of his story.
He turned on me savagely.
"I have no explanation. Doctor," he said curtly. "I came to you for the explanation. And while you are thinking over my case during the next few hours, perhaps you can explain this: when I stood before that gray mansion on After Street, alone in the dark, there was murder in my heart. I should have killed the man who lived in that house, had I not been suddenly released from the force that was driving me forward!"
Sir John turned from me in bitterness. Without offering any word of departure, he pulled open the door and stepped across the sill. The door closed, and I was alone.
* * * * *
That was my introduction to Sir John Harmon. I offer it in detail because it was the first of a startling series of events that led to the most terrible case of my career. In my records I have labeled the entire case "The Affair of the Death Machine."
Twelve hours after Sir John's departure—which will bring the time, to the morning of December 8—the headlines of the Daily Mail stared up at me from the table. They were black and heavy: those headlines, and horribly significant. They were:
FRANKLIN WHITE Jr. FOUND MURDERED
Midnight Marauder Strangles Young Society Man in West-End Mansion
I turned the paper hurriedly, and read:
Between the hours of one and two o'clock this morning, an unknown murderer entered the home of Franklin White, Jr., well known West-End sportsman, and escaped, leaving behind his strangled victim.
Young White, who is a favorite in London upper circles, was discovered in his bed this morning, where he had evidently lain dead for many hours. Police are seeking a motive for the crime, which may have its origin in the fact that White only recently announced his engagement to Margot Vernee, young and exceedingly pretty French debutante.
Police say that the murderer was evidently an amateur, and that he made no attempt to cover his crime. Inspector Thomas Drake of Scotland Yard has the case.
There was more, much more. Young White had evidently been a decided favorite, and the murder had been so unexpected, so deliberate, that the Mail reporter had made the most of his opportunity for a story. But aside from what I have reprinted, there was only a single short paragraph which claimed my attention. It was this:
The White home is not a difficult one to enter. It is a huge gray town-house, situated just off the square, in After Street. The murderer entered by a low French window, leaving it open.
I have copied the words exactly as they were printed. The item does not call for any comment.
* * * * *
But I had hardly dropped the paper before she stood before me. I say "she"—it was Margot Vernee, of course—because for some peculiar reason I had expected her. She stood quietly before me, her cameo face, set in the black of mourning, staring straight into mine.
"You know why I have come?" she said quickly.
I glanced at the paper on the table before me, and nodded. Her eyes followed my glance.
"That is only part of it, Doctor," she said. "I was in love with Franklin—very much—but I have come to you for something more. Because you are a famous psychologist, and can help me."
She sat down quietly, leaning forward so that her arms rested on the table. Her face was white, almost as white as the face of that young adventurer who had come to me on the previous evening. And when she spoke, her voice was hardly more than a whisper.
"Doctor, for many days now I have been under some strange power. Something frightful, that compels me to think and act against my will."
She glanced at me suddenly, as if to note the effect of her words. Then:
"I was engaged to Franklin for more than a month, Doctor: yet for a week now I have been commanded—commanded—by some awful force, to return to—to a man who knew me more than two years ago. I can't explain it. I did not love this man; I hated him bitterly. Now comes this mad desire, this hungering, to go to him. And last night—"
* * * * *
Margot Vernee hesitated suddenly. She stared at me searchingly. Then, with renewed courage, she continued.
"Last night, Doctor, I was alone. I had retired for the night, and it was late, nearly three o'clock. And then I was strangely commanded, by this awful power that has suddenly taken possession, of my soul, to go out. I tried to restrain myself, and in the end I found myself walking through the square. I went straight to Franklin White's home. When I reached there, it was half past three—I could hear Big Ben. I went in—through the wide French window at the side of the house. I went straight to Franklin's room—because I could not prevent myself from going."
A sob came from Margot's lips. She had half risen from her chair, and was holding herself together with a brave effort. I went to her side and stood over her. And she, with a half crazed laugh, stared up at me.
"He was dead when I saw him!" she cried. "Dead! Murdered! That infernal force, what ever it was, had made me go straight to my lover's side, to see him lying there, with those cruel finger marks on his throat—dead, I tell you, I—oh, it is horrible!"
She turned suddenly.
"When I saw him," she said bitterly, "the sight of him—and the sight of those marks—broke the spell that held me. I crept from the house as if I had killed him. They—they will probably find out that I was there, and they will accuse me of the murder. If does not matter. But this power—this awful thing that has been controlling me—is there no way to fight it?"
I nodded heavily. The memory, of that unfortunate fellow who had come to me with the same complaint was still holding me. I was prepared to wash my hands of the whole horrible affair. It was clearly not a medical case, clearly out of my realm.
"There is a way to fight it," I said quietly. "I am a doctor, not a master of hypnotism, or a man who can discover the reasons behind that hypnotism. But London has its Scotland Yard, and Scotland Yard has a man who is one of my greatest comrades...."
She nodded her surrender. As I stepped to the telephone, I heard her murmur, in a weary, troubled voice:
"Hypnotism? It is not that. God knows what it is. But it has always happened when I have been alone. One cannot hypnotise through distance...."
* * * * *
And so, with Margot Vernee's consent, I sought the aid of Inspector Thomas Drake, of Scotland Yard. In half an hour Drake stood beside me, the quiet of my study. When he had heard Margot's story, he asked a single significant question. It was this:
"You say you have a desire to go back to a man who was once intimate with you. Who is he?"
Margot looked at him dully.
"It is Michael Strange," she said slowly. "Michael Strange, of Paris. A student of science."
Drake nodded. Without further questioning he dismissed my patient; and when she had gone, he turned to me.
"She did not murder her sweetheart, Dale" he said. "That is evident. Have you any idea who did?"
And so I told him of that other young man. Sir John Harmon, who had come to me the night before. When I had finished. Drake stared at me—stared through me—and suddenly turned on his heel.
"I shall be back, Dale," he said curtly. "Wait for me!"
* * * * *
Wait for him! Well, that was Drake's peculiar way of going about things. Impetuous, sudden—until he faced some crisis. Then, in the face of danger, he became a cold, indifferent officer of Scotland Yard.
And so I waited. During the twenty-four hours that elapsed before Drake returned to my study, I did my best to diagnose the case before me. First, Sir John Harmon—his visit to the home of Franklin White. Then—the deliberate murder. And, finally, young Margot Vernee, and her confession. It was like the revolving whirl of a pinwheel, this series of events: continuous and mystifying, but without beginning or end. Surely, somewhere in the procession of horrors, there would be a loose end to cling to. Some loose end that would eventually unravel the pinwheel!
It was plainly not a medical affair, or at least only remotely so. The thing was in proper hands, then, with Drake following it through. And I had only to wait for his return.
He came at last, and closed the door of the room behind him. He stood over me with something of a swagger.
"Dale, I have been looking into the records of this Michael Strange," he said quietly. "They are interesting, those records. They go back some ten years, when this fellow Strange was beginning his study of science. And now Michael Strange is one of the greatest authorities in Paris on the subject of mental telegraphy. He has gone into the study of human thought with the same thoroughness that other scientists go into the subject of radio telegraphy. He has written several books on the subject."
Drake pulled a tiny black volume from the pocket of his coat and dropped it on the table before me. With one hand he opened it to a place which he had previously marked in pencil.
"Read it," he said significantly.
* * * * *
I looked at him in wonder, and then did as he ordered. What I read was this:
"Mental telegraphy is a science, not a myth. It is a very real fact, a very real power which can be developed only by careful research. To most people it is merely a curiosity. They sit, for instance, in a crowded room at some uninteresting lecture, and stare continually at the back of some unsuspecting companion until that companion, by the power of suggestion, turns suddenly around. Or they think heavily of a certain person nearby, perhaps commanding him mentally to hum a certain popular tune, until the victim, by the power of their will, suddenly fulfills the order. To such persons, the science of mental telegraphy is merely an amusement.
"And so it will be, until science has brought it to such a perfection that these waves of thought can be broadcast—that they can be transmitted through the ether precisely as radio waves are transmitted. In other words, mental telegraphy is at present merely a mild form of hypnotism. Until it has been developed so that those hypnotic powers can be directed through space, and directed accurately to those individuals to whom they are intended, this science will have no significance. It remains for scientists of to-day to bring about that development."
I closed the book. When I looked up, Drake was watching me intently, as if expecting me to say something.
"Drake," I said slowly, more to myself than to him, "the pinwheel is beginning to unravel. We have found the beginning thread. Perhaps, if we follow that thread...."
"If you'll pick up your hat and coat, Dale," he interrupted, "I think we have an appointment. This Michael Strange, whose book you have just enjoyed so immensely, is now residing on a certain quiet little side street about three miles from the square, in London!"
* * * * *
I followed Drake in silence, until we had left Cheney Lane in the gloom behind us. At the entrance to the square my companion called a cab; and from there on we rode slowly, through a heavy darkness which was blanketed by a wet, penetrating fog. The cabby, evidently one who knew my companion by sight (and what London cabby does not know his Scotland Yard men!) chose a route that twisted through gloomy, uninhabited side streets, seldom winding into the main route of traffic.
As for Drake, he sank back in the uncomfortable seat and made no attempt at conversation. For the entire first part of our journey he said nothing. Not until we had reached a black, unlighted section of the city did he turn to me.
"Dale," he said at length, "have you ever hunted tiger?"
I looked at him and laughed.
"Why?" I replied. "Do you expect this hunt of ours will be something of a blind chase?"
"It will be a blind chase, no doubt of it," he said. "And when we have followed the trail to its end, I imagine we shall find something very like a tiger to deal with. I have looked rather deeply into Michael Strange's life, and unearthed a bit of the man's character. He has twice been accused of murder—murder by hypnotism—and has twice cleared himself by throwing scientific explanations at the police. That is the nature of his entire history for the past ten years."
* * * * *
I nodded, without replying. As Drake turned away from me again, our cab poked its laboring nose into a narrowing, gloomy street. I had a glimpse of a single unsteady street lamp on the corner, and a dim sign, "Mate Lane." And then we were dragging along the curb. The cab stopped with a groan.
I had stepped down and was standing by the cab door when suddenly, from the darkness in front of me, a strange figure advanced to my side. He glanced at me intently; then, seeing that I was evidently not the man he sought, he turned to Drake. I heard a whispered greeting and an undertone of conversation. Then, quietly, Drake stepped toward me.
"Dale," he said. "I thought it best that I should not show myself here to-night. No, there is no time for explanation now; you will understand later. Perhaps"—significantly—"sooner than you anticipate. Inspector Hartnett will go through the rest of this pantomime with you."
I shook hands with Drake's man, still rather bewildered at the sudden substitution. Then, before I was aware of it, Drake had vanished and the cab was gone. We were alone, Hartnett and I, in Mate Lane.
The home of Michael Strange—number seven—was hardly inviting. No light was in evidence. The big house stood like a huge, unadorned vault set back from the street, some distance from its adjoining buildings. The heavy steps echoed to our footbeats as we mounted them in the darkness; and the sound of the bell, as Hartnett pressed it came sharply to us from the silence of the interior.
* * * * *
We stood there, waiting. In the short interval before the door opened, Hartnett glanced at his watch (it was nearly ten o'clock), and said to me:
"I imagine, Doctor, we shall meet a blank wall. Let me do the talking, please."
That was all. In another moment the big door was pulled slowly open from the inside, and in the entrance, glaring out at us, stood the man we had come to see. It is not hard to remember that first impression of Michael Strange. He was a huge man, gaunt and haggard, moulded with the hunched shoulders and heavy arms of a gorilla. His face seemed to be unconsciously twisted into a snarl. His greeting, which came only after he had stared at us intently, for nearly a minute, was curt and rasping.
"Well, gentlemen? What is it?"
"I should like a word with Dr. Michael Strange," said my companion quietly.
"I am Michael Strange."
"And I," replied Hartnett, with a suggestion of a smile, "am Raoul Hartnett, from Scotland Yard."
I did not see any sign of emotion on Strange's face. He stepped back in silence to allow us to enter. Then closing the big door after us, he led the way along a carpeted hall to a small, ill-lighted room just beyond. Here he motioned us to be seated, he himself standing upright beside the table, facing us.
"From Scotland Yard," he said, and the tone was heavy with dull sarcasm. "I am at your service, Mr. Hartnett."
* * * * *
And now, for the first time, I wondered just why Drake had insisted on my coming here to this gloomy house in Mate Lane. Why he had so deliberately arranged a substitute so that Michael Strange should not come face to face with him directly. Evidently Hartnett had been carefully instructed as to his course of action—but why this seemingly unnecessary caution on Drake's part? And now, after we had gained admission, what excuse would Hartnett offer for the intrusion? Surely he would not follow the bull-headed role of a common policeman!
There was no anger, no attempt at dramatics, in Hartnett's voice. He looked quietly up at our host.
"Dr. Strange," he said at length, "I have come to you for your assistance. Last night, some time after midnight, Franklin White was strangled to death. He was murdered, according to substantial evidence, by the girl he was going to marry—Margot Vernee. I come to you because you know this girl rather well, and can perhaps help Scotland Yard in finding her motive for killing White."
Michael Strange said nothing. He stood there, scowling down at my companion in silence. And I, too, I must admit, turned upon Hartnett with a stare of bewilderment. His accusation of Margot had brought a sense of horror to me. I had expected almost anything from him, even to a mad accusation of Strange himself. But I had hardly foreseen this cold blooded declaration.
"You understand, Doctor," Hartnett went on, in that same ironical drawl, "that we do not believe Margot Vernee did this thing herself. She had a companion, undoubtedly, one who accompanied her to the house on After Street, and assisted her in the crime. Who that companion was, we are not sure; but there is decidedly a case of suspicion against a certain young London sportsman. This fellow is known to have prowled about the White mansion both on the night of the murder and the night before."
* * * * *
Hartnett glanced up casually. Strange's face was a total mask. When he nodded, the nod was the most even and mechanical thing I have ever seen. Certainly this man could control his emotions!
"Naturally, Doctor," Hartnett said, "we have gone rather deeply into the past life of the lady in question. Your name appears, of course, in a rather unimportant interval when Margot Vernee resided in Paris. And so we come to you in the hope that you can perhaps give us some slight bit of information—something that seems insignificant, perhaps, to you, but which may put us on the right track."
It was a careful speech. Even as Hartnett spoke it, I could have sworn that the words were Drake's, and had been memorized. But Michael Strange merely stepped back to the table and faced us without a word. He was probably, during that brief interlude, attempting to realize his position, and to discover just how much Raoul Hartnett actually knew.
And then, after his interim of silence, he came forward sullenly and stood over my comrade.
"I will tell you this much, Mr. Hartnett of Scotland Yard," he said bitterly: "My relations with Margot Vernee are not an open book to be passed through the clumsy fingers of ignorant police officers. As to this murder, I know nothing. At the time of it, I was seated in this room in company with a distinguished group of scientific friends. I will tell you, on authority, that Margot did not murder her lover. Why? Because she loved him!"
* * * * *
The last words were heavy with bitterness. Before they had died into silence, Michael Strange had opened the door of his study.
"If you please, gentlemen," he said quietly.
Hartnett got to his feet. For an instant he stood facing the gorilla-like form of our host; then he stepped over the sill, without a word. We passed down the unlighted corridor in silence, while Strange stood in the door of his study, watching us. I could not help but feel, as we left that gloomy house, that Strange had suddenly focused his entire attention upon me, and had ignored my companion. I could feel those eyes upon me, and feel the force of the will behind them. A decided feeling of uneasiness crept over me, and I shuddered.
A moment later the big outer door had closed shut after us, and we were alone in Mate Lane. Alone, that is, until a third figure joined us in the shadows, and Drake's hand closed over my arm.
"Capital, Dale," he said triumphantly. "For half an hour you entertained him, you and Hartnett. And for half an hour I've had the unlimited freedom of his inner rooms, with the aid of an unlocked window on the lower floor. Those inner rooms, gentlemen, are significant—very!"
As we walked the length of Mate Lane, the gaunt, sinister home of Michael Strange became an indistinct outline in the pitch behind us. Drake said nothing more on the return trip, until we had nearly reached my rooms. Then he turned to me with a smile.
"We are one up on our friend, Dale," he said. "He does not know, just now, which is the bigger fool—you or Hartnett here. However, I imagine Hartnett will be the victim of some very unusual events before many hours have passed!"
That was all. At least, all of significance. I left the two Scotland Yard men at the opening of Cheney Lane, and continued alone to my rooms. I opened the door and let myself in quietly. And there some few hours later, began the last and most horrible phase of the case of the murder machine.
* * * * *
It begin—or to be more accurate, I began to react to it—at three o'clock in the morning. I was alone, and the rooms were dark. For hours I had sat quietly by the table, considering the significant events of the past few days. Sleep was impossible with so many unanswered questions staring into me, and so I sat there wondering.
Did Drake actually believe that Margot Vernee's simple story had been a ruse—that she had in truth killed her lover on that midnight intrusion of his home? Did he believe that Michael Strange knew of that intrusion—that he had possibly planned it himself, and aided her, in order that Margot might be free to return to him? Did Strange know of that other intrusion, and of the uncanny power which had driven Sir John Harmon, and supposedly driven Margot to that house on After Street?
Those were the questions that still remained without answers: and it was over those questions that I pondered, while my surroundings became darker and more silent as the hour became more advanced. I heard the clock strike three, and heard the answering drone of Big Ben from the square.
* * * * *
And then it began. At first it was little more than a sense of nervousness. Before I had been content to sit in my chair and doze. Now, in spite of myself, I found myself pacing the floor, back and forth like a caged animal. I could have sworn, at the time, that some sinister presence had found entrance to my room. Yet the room was empty. And I could have sworn, too, that some silent power of will was commanding me, with undeniable force, to go out—out into the darkness of Cheney Lane.
I fought it bitterly. I laughed at it, yet even through my laugh came the memory of Sir John Harmon and Margot, and what they had told me. And then, unable to resist that unspoken demand, I seized my hat and coat and went out.
Cheney Lane was deserted, utterly still. At the end of it, the street lamp glowed dully, throwing a patch of ghastly light over the side of the adjoining building. I hurried through the shadows, and as I walked, a single idea had possession of me. I must hurry, I thought, with all possible speed, to that grim house in Mate Lane—number seven.
Where that deliberate desire came from I did not know. I did not stop to reason. Something had commanded me to go at once to Michael Strange's home. And though I stopped more than once, deliberately turning in my tracks, inevitably I was forced to retrace my steps and continue.
* * * * *
I remember passing through the square, and prowling through the unlightened side streets that lay beyond. Three miles separated Cheney Lane from Mate Lane, and I had been over the route only once before, in a cab. Yet I followed that route without a single false turn, followed it instinctively. At every intersecting street I was dragged in a certain direction and not once was I allowed to hesitate. It was as though some unseen demon perched on my shoulders, as the demon of the sea rode Sinbad, and pointed out the way.
Only one disturbing thing occurred on that night journey through London. I had turned into a narrow street hardly more than a quarter mile from my destination; and before me, in the shadows, I made out the form of a shuffling old man. And here, as I watched him, I was conscious of a new, mad desire. I crept upon him stealthily, without a sound. My hands were outstretched, clutching, for his throat. At that moment I should have killed him!
I cannot explain it. During that brief interval I was a murderer at heart. I wanted to kill. And now that I remember it, the desire had been pregnant in me ever since the lights of Cheney Lane had died behind me. All the time that I prowled through those black streets, murder lurked in my heart. I should have killed the first man who crossed my path.
But I did not kill him. Thank God, as my fingers twisted toward the back of his throat, that mad desire suddenly left me. I stood still, while the old fellow, still unsuspecting, shuffled, away into the darkness. Then, dropping my hands with a sob of helplessness, I went forward again.
* * * * *
And so I reached Mate Lane, and the huge gray house that awaited me. This time, as I mounted the stone steps, the old house seemed even more repulsive and horrible. I dreaded to see that door open, but I could not retreat.
I dropped the knocker heavily. A moment passed: and then, precisely as before, the huge door swung inward. Michael Strange stood before me.
He did not speak. Perhaps, if he had spoken, that fiendish spell would have been broken, and I should have returned, even then, to my own peaceful little rooms in Cheney Lane. No—he merely held the door for me to enter, and as I passed him he stood there, watching me with a significant smile.
Straight to that familiar room at the end of the hall I went, with Strange behind me. When we had entered, he closed the door cautiously. For a moment he faced me without speaking.
"You came very close to committing a murder on your way here, did you not, Dale?"
I stared at him. How, in God's name, could this man read my thoughts so completely?
"You would have completed the murder," he said softly, "had I wished it. I did not wish it!"
I did not answer. There was no reply to such a mad declaration. As for my companion, he watched me for an instant and then laughed. He was not mad. I am doctor enough to know that.
But the laugh was not long in duration. He stepped forward suddenly and took my arm in a steel grip, dragging me toward the half hidden door at the farther end of the room.
"I shall not keep you long, Dale," he said harshly. "I could have killed you—could have made you kill yourself, and in fact, I intended to do so—but after all, you are merely a poor stumbling fool who has meddled in things too deep for you."
* * * * *
He pulled open the door and pushed me forward. The room was dark, and not until he had closed the door again and switched on a dim light, could I see its contents.
Even then I saw nothing. At least, nothing of importance to an unscientific mind. There was a low table against the wall, with a profusion of tiny wires emanating from it. I was aware that a cup shaped microphone—or something very similar—hung over the table, about on a level with my eyes, had I been sitting in the chair. Beyond that I saw nothing, until Strange had moved forward and drawn aside a curtain that hung beside the table.
"I made you come here to-night, Dale," he murmured, "because I was a bit afraid of you. Your comrade, Hartnett, was an ignorant police officer. He has not the intellect to connect the series of events of the past day or two, and so I did not trouble myself with him. But you are an educated man. You have made no demonstrations of your ability in the field of science, but—"
He stopped speaking abruptly. From the room behind us came the sound of a warning bell. Strange turned quickly and went to the door.
"You will wait here, Doctor," he said. "I have another caller to-night. Another one who came the same way as you!"
He vanished. For a short interlude I was alone, with that peculiar radio-like apparatus before me. It was, for all the world, like a miniature control room in some small broadcasting station. Except for the odd shape of the microphone, if it was such I could detect no radical difference in equipment.
* * * * *
However, I had little time for conjecture. A patter of footsteps interrupted me from the next room, and a frightened, feminine voice broke the stillness of the outer study. Even before the owner of that voice stepped in to my presence, I knew her.
And when she came, with white, fearful face and trembling body, I could not withhold a shudder of apprehension. It was the young woman who had come to my office—Margot Vernee. Evidently, at last, she had yielded to the horrible impulse that had drawn her back to Michael Strange, an impulse which, I now understood, had originated from the man himself.
He pressed her forward. There was nothing tender in his touch: it was cruel and triumphant.
"So you have succeeded—at last," I said bitterly.
He turned to me with a sneer.
"I have brought her here, yes," he replied. "And now that she has come, she shall hear what I have to tell you. It will perhaps give her a respect for me, and this time she will not have the power to turn me away."
He pointed to the table, to the apparatus that lay there.
"I'm telling you this, Dale," he said, "because it gives me pleasure to do so. You are enough of a scientist to appreciate and understand it. And if, when I have finished, I have told you too much, there is a very easy way to keep your tongue silent. You have heard of hypnotism, Dale? You have heard also of radio? Have you ever thought of combining the two?"
* * * * *
He faced me directly. I made no effort to reply.
"Radio," he said quietly, "is broadcast by means of sound waves. That much you know. But hypnotism too, can be transmitted through distance, if an instrument delicate enough to transmit thought waves can be invented. For twenty years I have worked on that instrument, and for twenty years I have studied hypnotism. You understand, of course, that this instrument is worthless unless it is operated by a master mind. Thought waves are useless; they will not control the actions of even a cat. But hypnotic waves or concentrated thought waves—will control the world."
There was no denying him. He faced me with the savage triumph of a wild beast. He was glorying in his power, and in my amazement.
"I wanted Franklin White to die!" he cried. "It was I who murdered him. Why? Because he was about to take the girl I desired. Is that not reason enough for murder? And so I killed him. It was not Margot Vernee who strangled her lover: it was a complete stranger, a London sportsman, who had no reason for committing the murder, except that I wished him to!
"He died on the night of December seventh, murdered by Sir John Harmon, the sportsman. Why? Because, of all London, Sir John would be the last man to be suspected. I have a keen appreciation for the irony of fate! White would have died the night before, Dale, except that I lacked the courage to kill him. His murderer was standing, under my power, outside his very house—and then I suddenly thought it best that I should have an alibi. Your Scotland Yard is clever, and it was best that I have protection. And so, on the following night, I sent Sir John to the house once again. This time, while I sat here and controlled the actions of my puppet, a group of men sat here with me. They believed that I was experimenting with a new type of radio receiver!"
* * * * *
Michael Strange laughed, laughed harshly, in utter triumph, as a cat laughs at the antics of his mouse victims.
"When that murder was done," he said, "I sent Margot to the scene, so that she might see her lover strangled, dead. I repeat, Dale, that I enjoy the irony of fate, especially when I can control it. And as for you—I brought you here to-night merely so that you would realize the intensity of the powers that control you. When you leave here, you will be unharmed—but after the exhibition I shall give you, I am sure that you will make no further attempt to interfere with things out of your realm of understanding."
I heard a sob from Margot. She had retreated to the door, and clung there. For myself, I did not move. Strange's recital had revealed to me the horrible lust that gripped him, and now I watched him in fascination. He would not harm the girl; that much I was sure of. In his distorted fashion he loved her. In his crazed, murderous way he would attempt to win her love, even though she had once scorned him.
* * * * *
I saw him step toward the table. Saw him drop heavily into the chair, and stare directly into that microphonic thing that hung before his eyes. As he stared, he spoke to me.
"Science, in its intricate forms, is probably above the mind of a common medical man, Dale," he said. "It would be useless to explain to you how my thoughts—and my will—can be transmitted through space. Perhaps you have sat in a theater and stared at a certain person until that person turned to face you. You have? Then you will perhaps understand how I can control the minds of any human creature within the radius of my power. You see, Dale, this intricate little machine gives me the power to transform London into a city of stark murder. I could bring about such a horrible wave of crime that Scotland Yard would be scorned from one end of the world to the other. I could make every man murder his neighbor, until the streets of the city were running with blood!"
Strange turned quietly to look at me. He spoke deliberately.
"And now for the little exhibition of which I spoke, Dale," he murmured. "Your detective friend, Hartnett, has been under my power for the past three hours. You see, it was safer to control his movements, and be sure of him. And now, to be doubly sure of him, perhaps you would like to see him kill himself!"
I stepped forward with a sudden cry. Strange said nothing: his eyes merely burned into mine. Once again I felt that strange, all-powerful control forcing me back. I retreated, step by step, until the wall stopped me. Yet even as I retreated, a childish hope filled me. How could Strange, working his terrible murder machine, concentrate his power on any individual, when the whole of London lay before him?
* * * * *
He answered my question. He must have read it as it came over me.
"Have you ever been in a crowd, Dale, and watched a certain individual intently, until that particular individual turned to look at you? The rest of the crowd pays no attention, of course, but that one man. And now we shall make that one man murder himself!"
Strange turned slowly. I saw his fingers creep along the rim of the table, touching certain wires that came together there. I heard a dull, droning hum fill the room, and, over it, Strange's penetrating voice.
"When I am finished, Dale, I shall probably kill you. I brought you here merely to frighten you, but I believe I have told you too much."
With that new horror upon me, I saw my captor's lips move slowly....
And then, from the shadows at the other end of the small room, came a low, unemotional voice.
"Before you begin, Strange—"
Michael Strange whipped about in his chair like a tiger. His hand dropped to his pocket, so swiftly that my eyes did not follow it. And as it dropped, a single staccato shot split the darkness of the room. The scientist slumped forward in his chair.
The dull, whirring sound of that hellish machine had stopped abruptly, cut short by the sudden weight of Strange's lunging body as he fell upon it. I saw the livid, fiery snake of white light twist suddenly upward through that coil of wires: and in another moment the entire apparatus shattered by a blinding crash of flame.
* * * * *
After that I turned away. Whether the bullet killed Strange or not, I do not know: but the sight of his charred face, hanging over that table of destruction, told its own story.
It was Inspector Drake who came across the room toward me, and took my arm. The smoking revolver still lay in his hand, and as he led me into the adjoining room, I saw that Margot had already found refuge there.
"You see now, Dale," Drake said quietly, "why I let Hartnett go with you before? If Strange had suspected me, I should have been merely another victim. As for Hartnett, he has been under constant guard down at headquarters. He's safe. They've kept him there, at my instructions, in spite of all his terrific efforts to leave them."
I was listening to my companion in admiration. Even then I did not quite understand.
"I was wrong in just one thing, Dale. I left you alone, without protection. I believed Strange would ignore you, because, after all, you are not a Scotland Yard man. Thank God I had the sense to follow Margot—to trail her here—and get here soon enough."
* * * * *
And so ended the horrible series of events that began with Sir John Harmon's chance visit to my study. As for Harmon, he was later cleared of all guilt, upon the charred evidence in Michael Strange's house in Mate Lane. The girl, I believe, has left London, where she can be as far as possible from memories that are all too terrible.
As for me, I am back once again in my quiet rooms in Cheney Lane, where the routine of common medical practice has wiped out many of those vivid horrors. In time, I believe, I shall forget, unless Inspector Drake, of Scotland Yard, insists upon bringing the affair up again!
IN THE NEXT ISSUE
THE INVISIBLE DEATH
A Thrilling Novelet of an Invisible Empire Within the United States
By Victor Rousseau
Another Absorbing Dr. Bird Story
By Capt. S. P. Meek
PRISONERS ON THE ELECTRON
An Exciting Story of a Young Man Marooned on an Electron
By Robert H. Leitfred
JETTA OF THE LOWLANDS
Part Two of the Current Novel
By Ray Cummings
The Attack from Space
A SEQUEL TO "BEYOND THE HEAVISIDE LAYER"
By Captain S. P. Meek
"No one knows what unrevealed horrors space holds and the world will never rest entirely easy until the slow process of time again heals the protective layer."—From "Beyond the Heaviside Layer."
Over a year has passed since I wrote those lines. When they were written the hole which Jim Carpenter had burned with his battery of infra-red lamps through the heaviside layer, that hollow sphere of invisible semi-plastic organic matter which encloses the world as a nutshell does a kernel, was gradually filling in as he had predicted it would: every one thought that in another ten years the world would be safely enclosed again in its protective layer as it had been since the dawn of time. There were some adventurous spirits who deplored this fact, as it would effectually bar interplanetary travel, for Hadley had proved with his life that no space flyer could force its way through the fifty miles of almost solid material which barred the road to space, but they were in the minority. Most of humanity felt that it would rather be protected against the denizens of space than to have a road open for them to travel to the moon if they felt inclined.
[Sidenote: From a far world came monstrous invaders who were all the more terrifying because invisible.]
To be sure, during the five years that the hole had been open, nothing more dangerous to the peace and well-being of the world had appeared from space than a few hundreds of the purple amoeba which we had found so numerous on the outer side of the layer, when we had traveled in a Hadley space ship up through the hole into the outer realms of space, and one lone specimen of the green dragons which we had also encountered. The amoeba had been readily destroyed by the disintegrating rays of the guarding space-ships which were stationed inside the layer at the edge of the hole and the lone dragon had fallen a ready victim to the machine-gun bullets which had been poured into it. At first the press had damned Jim Carpenter for opening the road for these horrors, but once their harmlessness had been clearly established, the row had died down and the appearance of an amoeba did not merit over a squib on the inside pages of the daily papers.
* * * * *
While the hole in the heaviside layer was no longer news for the daily press, a bitter controversy still waged in the scientific journals as to the reason why no observer on earth, even when using the most powerful telescopes, could see the amoeba before they entered the hole, and then only when their telescopes were set up directly under the hole. When a telescope of even small power was mounted in the grounds back of Carpenter's laboratory, the amoeba could be detected as soon as they entered the hole, or when they passed above it through space; but, aside from that point of vantage, they were entirely invisible.
Carpenter's theory of the absorptive powers of the material of which the heaviside layer was composed was laughed to scorn by most scientists, who pointed out the fact that the sun, moon and stars could be readily seen through it. Carpenter replied that the rays of colored or visible light could only pass through the layer when superimposed upon a carrier wave of ultra-violet or invisible light. He stated dogmatically that the amoeba and the other denizens of space absorbed all the ultra-violet light which fell on them and reflected only the visible rays which could not pass through the heaviside layer because of the lack of a synchronized carrier wave of shorter wave-length.
Despetier replied at great length and showed by apparently unimpeachable mathematics that Carpenter was entirely wrong and that his statements showed an absolute lack of knowledge of the most elementary and fundamental laws of light transmission. Carpenter replied briefly that he could prove by mathematics that two was equal to one and he challenged Despetier or anyone else to satisfactorily explain the observed facts in any other way. While they vainly tried to do so, Carpenter lapsed into silence in his Los Angeles laboratory and delved ever deeper into the problems of science. Such was the situation when the attack came from space.
My first knowledge of the attack came when McQuarrie, the city editor of the San Francisco Clarion, sent for me. When I entered his office he tossed a Los Angeles dispatch on the desk before me and with a growl ordered me to read it. It told of the unexplained disappearance of an eleven year old boy the night before. It looked like a common kidnapping.
"Well?" I asked as I handed him back the dispatch.
With another growl he tossed down a second telegram. I read it with astonishment, for it told of a second disappearance which had happened about an hour after the first. The similarity of the two cases was at once apparent.
"Coincidence or connection?" I asked as I returned it.
"Find out!" he replied. "If I knew which it was I wouldn't be wasting the paper's money by sending you to Los Angeles. I don't doubt that I am wasting it anyway, but as long as I am forced to keep you on as a reporter, I might as well try to make you earn the money the owner wastes on paying you a salary, even although I know it to be a hopeless task. Go on down there and see what you can find out, if anything."
I jotted down in my notebook the names and addresses of the missing children and turned to leave. A boy entered and handed McQuarrie a yellow slip. He glanced at it and called me back.
"Wait a minute, Bond," he said as he handed me the dispatch. "I doubt but you'd better fly down to Los Angeles. Another case has just been reported."
I hastily copied down the dispatch he handed me, which was almost a duplicate of the first two with the exception of the time and the name. Three unexplained disappearances in one day was enough to warrant speed; I drew some expense money and was on my way south in a chartered plane within an hour.
On my arrival I went to the Associated Press office and found a message waiting for me, directing me to call McQuarrie on the telephone at once.
"Hello, Bond," came his voice over the wire, "have you just arrived? Well, forget all about that disappearance case. Prince is on his way to Los Angeles to cover it. You hadn't been gone an hour before a wire came in from Jim Carpenter. He says, 'Send Bond to me at once by fastest conveyance. Chance for a scoop on the biggest story of the century.' I don't know what it's about, but Jim Carpenter is always front page news. Get in touch with him at once and stay with him until you have the story. Don't risk trying to telegraph it when you get it—telephone. Get moving!"
I lost no time in getting Carpenter on the wire.
"Hello, First Mortgage," he greeted me. "You made good time getting down here. Where are you?"
"At the A. P. Office."
"Grab a taxi and come out to the laboratory. Bring your grip with you: you may have to stay over night."
"I'll be right out, Jim. What's the story?"
His voice suddenly grew grave.
"It's the biggest thing you ever handled," he replied. "The fate of the whole world may hang on it. I don't want to talk over the phone; come on out and I'll give you the whole thing."
* * * * *
An hour later I shook hands with Tim, the guard at the gate of the Carpenter laboratory, and passed through the grounds to enter Jim's private office. He greeted me warmly and for a few minutes we chatted of old times when I worked with him as an assistant in his atomic disintegration laboratory and of the stirring events we had passed through together when we had ventured outside the heaviside layer in his space ship.
"Those were stirring times," he said, "but I have an idea, First Mortgage, that they were merely a Sunday school picnic compared to what we are about to tackle."
"I guessed that you had something pretty big up your sleeve from your message." I replied. "What's up now? Are we going to make a trip to the moon and interview the inhabitants?"
"We may interview them without going that far," he said. "Have you seen a morning paper?"
"Look at this."
He handed me a copy of the Gazette. Streamer headlines told of the three disappearances which I had come to Los Angeles to cover, but they had grown to five during the time I had been flying down. I looked at Jim in surprise.
"We got word of that in San Francisco," I told him, "and I came down here to cover the story. When I got here, McQuarrie telephoned me your message and told me to come and see you instead. Has your message anything to do with this?"
"It has everything to do with it, First Mortgage; in fact, it is it. Have you any preconceived ideas on the disappearance epidemic?"
"None at all."
"All the better—you'll be able to approach the matter with an unbiased viewpoint. Don't read that hooey put out by an inspired reporter who blames the laxness of the city government; I'll give you the facts without embellishment. Nothing beyond the bare fact of the disappearance is known about the first case. Robert Prosser, aged eleven, was sent to the grocery store by his mother about six-thirty last night and failed to return. That's all we know about it, except that it happened in Eagle Rock. The second case we have a little more data on. William Hill, aged twelve, was playing in Glendale last night with some companions. They were playing 'hide and go seek' and William hid. He could not be found by the boy who was searching and has not been found since. His companions became frightened and reported it about eight o'clock. They saw nothing, but mark this! Four of them agree that they heard a sound in the air like a motor humming."
"That proves nothing."
"Taken alone it does not, but in view of the third case, it is quite significant. The third case happened about nine-thirty last night. This time the victim was a girl, aged ten. She was returning home from a moving picture with some companions and she disappeared. This time the other children saw her go. They say she was suddenly taken straight up into the air and then disappeared from sight. They, also claim to have heard a sound like a big electric fan in the air at the time, although they could see nothing."
"Had they heard the details of the second disappearance?"
"They had not. I can see what you are thinking; that they were unconsciously influenced by the account given of the other case."
"Consciously or unconsciously."
"I doubt it, for the fourth case was almost a duplicate of the third. The fourth and fifth cases happened this morning. In the fourth case the child, for it was a nine year old girl this time, was lifted into the air in broad daylight and disappeared. This disappearance was witnessed, not only by children, but also by two adults, and their testimony agrees completely with that of the children. The fifth case is similar to the first: a ten year old boy disappeared without trace. The whole city is in a reign of terror."
* * * * *
The telephone at Carpenter's elbow rang and he answered it. A short conversation took place and he turned to me with a grim face as he hung up the receiver.
"Another case has just been reported to police headquarters from Beverly Hills," he said. "Again the child was seen to be lifted into the air by some invisible means and disappeared. The sound of a motor was plainly heard by five witnesses, who all agree that it was just, above their heads, but that nothing could be seen."
"Was it in broad daylight?"
"Less than an hour ago."
"But, Jim, that's impossible!"
"Why is it impossible?"
"It would imply the invisibility of a tangible substance; of a solid."
"What of it?"
"Why, there isn't any such substance. Nothing of the sort exists."
Carpenter pointed to one of the windows of his laboratory.
"Does that window frame contain glass or not?" he asked.
I strained my eyes. Certainly nothing was visible.
"Yes," I said at a venture.
He rose and thrust his hand through the space where the glass should have been.
"Has this frame glass in it?" he asked, pointing to another.
He struck the glass with his knuckle.
"I'll give up," I replied. "I am used to thinking of glass as being transparent but not invisible; yet I can see that under certain light conditions it may be invisible. Granted that such is the case, do you believe that living organisms can be invisible?"
"Under the right conditions, yes. Has any observer been able to see any of the purple amoeba which we know are so numerous on the outer side of the heaviside layer?"
"Not until they have entered the hole through the layer."
"And yet those amoeba are both solid and opaque, as you know. Why is it not possible that men, or intelligences of some sort, are in the air about us and yet are invisible to our eyes!"
"If they are, why haven't we received evidence of it years ago?"
"Because there has only been a hole through the heaviside layer for six years. Before that time they could not penetrate it any more than poor Hadley could with his space ship. They have not entered the hole earlier because it is a very small one, at present only some two hundred and fifty yards in diameter in a sphere of over eight thousand miles diameter. The invaders have just found the entrance."
"The invaders? Do you think that the world has been invaded?"
"I do. How else can you explain the very fact which you have just quoted, that no evidence of the presence on these invisible entities has previously been recorded?"
"Where did they come from?"
"They may have come from anywhere in the solar system, or even from outside it but I fancy, that they are from Mars or Venus."
"Because they are the two planets nearest to the earth and are the ones where conditions are the most like they are on the earth. Venus, for example, has an atmosphere and a gravity about .83 of earthly gravity, and life of a sort similar to that of the earth might well live there. Further, it seems more probable that the invaders have come from one of the nearby planets than from the realms of space beyond the solar system."
"What about the moon?"
"We can dismiss that because of the lack of an atmosphere."
"It sounds logical, Jim, but the idea of living organisms of sufficient size to lift a child into the air who are invisible seems a little absurd."
"I never said they were invisible. I don't think they are."
"But they must be, else why weren't they seen?"
"Use your head, First Mortgage. Those purple amoeba we encountered were quite visible to us, yet they are invisible to observers on the earth."
"Yes, but that is because the heaviside layer is between them and the earth. As soon as they come below it they can be seen."
* * * * *
"Exactly. Why is it not possible that the Venetians, or Martians, or whoever our invaders are, have encased themselves and their space flyer in a layer of some substance similar to the heaviside layer, a substance which is permeable to light rays only when a large proportion of ultra-violet rays accompany the visible rays? If they did this and then constructed the walls of their ship of some substance which absorbed all the ultra-violet rays which fell on it; not only would the ship itself be invisible, but also everything contained in it—and yet they could see the outside world easily. That such is the case is proved by the disappearance of those children in mid-air. They were taken into a space ship behind an ultra-violet absorbing wall and so became invisible."
"If the walls absorbed all the ultra-violet and were impermeable to light without ultra-violet, the ship would appear as a black opaque substance and could be seen."
"That would be true except for one thing which you are forgetting. The heaviside layer, as I have repeatedly proved, is a splendid conductor of ultra-violet. The rays falling on it are probably bent along the line of the covering layer so that they open up and bend around the ship in the same manner as flowing water will open up and flow around a stone and then come together again. The light must flow around the solid ship and then join again in such a manner that the eye can detect no interruption."
"Jim, all that sounds reasonable, but have you any proof of it?"
"No, First Mortgage, I haven't—yet; but if the Lord is good to us we'll have definite proof this afternoon and be in a position to successfully combat this new menace to the world."
"Do you expect me to go on another one of your crack-brained expeditions into the unknown with you?"
* * * * *
"Certainly I do, but this time we won't go out of the known. I have our old space flyer which we took beyond the heaviside layer six years ago ready for action and we're going to look for the invaders this afternoon."
"How will we see them if they are invisible?"
"They are invisible to ordinary light but not to ultra-violet light. While most of the ultra-violet is deflected and flows around the ship of else is absorbed, I have an idea that, if we bathe it in a sufficient concentration of ultra-violet, some would be reflected. We are going to look for the reflected portion."
"Ultra-violet light is invisible."
"It is to the eye, but it can be detected. You know that radium is activated and glows under ultra-violet?"
"Mounted on our flyer are six ultra-violet searchlights. By the side of each one is a wide angle telescopic concentrator which will focus any reflected ultra-violet onto a radium coated screen and thus make it visible to us. In effect the apparatus is a camera obscura with all lens made of rock crystal or fused quartz, both of which allow free passage to ultra-violet."
"What will we do if we find them?"
"Mounted beneath the telescope is a one-pounder gun with radite shells. If we locate them, we will use our best efforts to shoot them down."
"Suppose they are armed too?"
* * * * *
"In that case I hope that you shoot faster and straighter than they do. If you don't—well, old man, it'll just be too damned bad."
"I don't know that the Clarion hires me to go out and shoot at invisible invaders from another planet, but if I don't go with you, I expect you'd just about call up the Echo or the Gazette and ask them for a gunner."
"In that case, I may as well be sacrificed as anyone else. When do we start?"
"You old faker!" cried Jim, pounding me on the back. "You wouldn't miss the trip for anything. If you're ready we'll start right now. Everything is ready."
"Including the sacrifice," I replied, rising. "All right, Jim, let's go and get it over with. If we live, I'll have to get back in time to telephone the story to McQuarrie for the first edition."
I followed Jim out of the laboratory and to a large open space behind the main building where the infra-red generators with which he had pierced the hole through the heaviside layer had been located. The reflectors were still in place, but the bank of generators had been removed. A gang of men were hard at work erecting a huge parabolic reflector in the center of the circle, about the periphery of which the infra-red reflectors were placed. In an open space near the center stood a Hadley space ship, toward which Jim led the way.
* * * * *
I wondered at the activity and meant to ask what it portended, but in the excitement of boarding the flyer forgot it. I followed Jim in; he closed the door and started the air conditioner.
"Here, First Mortgage," he said as he turned from the control board and faced me, "here are the fluoroscopic screens. They are arranged in a bank, so that you can keep an eye on all of them readily. Beneath each telescope is an automatic one-pounder gun with its mount geared to the telescope and the light, so that the gun bears continually on the point in space represented by the center of the fluoroscopic screen which belongs to that light. If we locate anything, turn your beam until the object is in the exact center of the screen where these two cross-hairs are. When you have it lined up, push this button and the gun will fire."
"What about reloading?"
"The guns are self-loading. Each one has twenty shells in its magazine and will fire one shot each time the button is pushed until it is empty. If you empty one magazine, I can turn the ship so that another gun will bear. This gives you a total of one hundred and twenty shots quickly available; there are sixty extra pounds, which we can break out and load into the magazines in a few seconds. Do you understand everything?"
"I guess so. Everything seems clear enough."
"All right; sit down and we'll start."
* * * * *
I took my seat, and Jim pulled the starting lever. I was glued to the seat and the heavy springs in the cushion were compressed almost to their limit by the sudden acceleration. As soon as we were well clear of the ground Jim reduced his power, and in a few moments we were floating motionless in the air, a thousand feet up. He left the control board and came to my side.
"Start your ultra lights," he said as he joined me. "We may be able to spot something from here."
I started the lights and we stared at the screens before us. Nothing appeared on any of them except the one pointing directly down, and only an image of the ground, appeared on it. Under Jim's tutelage I swung the beams in wide circles, covering the space around us, but nothing appeared.
"Those beams won't project over five miles in this atmosphere," he said, "and the ship we are looking for may be so small that we would have trouble locating it at any great distance. I am going to move over near the scene of the last disappearance. Keep your lights swinging and sing out if you see anything on the screens."
I could feel the ship start to move slowly under the force of a side discharge from the rocket motor, and I swung the beams of the six lights around, trying to cover the entire area about us. Nothing appeared on the screens for an hour, and my head began to ache from the strain of unremitting close observation of the glowing screens. A buzz sounding over the hum of the rocket motor attracted my attention; Jim pulled his levers to neutral with the exception of the one which maintained our elevation and stepped to an instrument on the wall of the flyer.
"Hello," he called. "What? Where did it happen? All right, thanks, we'll move over that way at once."
* * * * *
He turned from the radio telephone and spoke.
"Another disappearance has just been reported," he said. "It happened on the outskirts of Pasadena. Keep your eyes open: I'm going to head in that direction."
A few minutes later we were floating over Pasadena. Jim stopped the flyer and joined me at the screens. We swung our beams in wide circles to cover the entire area around us, but no image on the screens rewarded us.
"Doggone it, they must have left here in a hurry," grumbled Jim.
Even as he spoke the flyer gave a lurch which nearly threw me off my seat and which sent Jim sprawling on the floor. With a white face he leaped to the control board and pulled the lever controlling our one working stern motor to full power. For a moment the ship moved upward and then came to a dead stop, although the motor still roared at full speed.
"Can't you see anything, Pete?" cried Jim as he threw our second stern motor into gear.
Again the ship moved upward for a few feet and then stopped. I swung the searchlights frantically in all directions, but five of the screens remained blank and the sixth showed only the ground below us.
"Not a thing," I replied.
"Something ought to show," he muttered, and suddenly shut off both motors. The flyer gave a sickening lurch toward the ground, but we fell only a hundred yards before our motion stopped. We hung suspended in the air with no motors working. Jim joined me at the screens and we swung the lights rapidly without success.
"Look, Pete!" Jim cried hoarsely.
* * * * *
My gaze followed his pointing finger and I saw the door of our flyer springing out as though some force from the outside were trying to wrench it open. The pull ceased for an instant, then came again; the sturdy latches burst and the door was torn from its hinges. Jim swung one of the searchlights until the beam was at right angles to the hull of the flyer and pressed the gun button. A crash filled the confined space of the flyer as a one-pounder radite shell tore out into space.
"They're there but still invisible," he exclaimed as he shifted the direction of the gun and fired again. "I am shooting by guess-work, but I might score a hit."
He changed the direction of the gun again, but before he could press the button he was lifted into the air and drawn rapidly toward the open door.
"Shoot, Pete!" he shouted. "Shoot and keep on shooting—it's your only chance!"
I turned to the knobs controlling the guns and lights, but, before I could make a move, something hard and cold grasped me about the middle and I was lifted into the air and drawn toward the open door after Jim. I tore at the thing holding me with my hands, but it was a smooth round thing like a two-inch thick wire, and I could get no grip on it to loosen it. Out through the door I went and was drawn through the air a few feet behind Jim. He moved ahead of me for fifteen or twenty feet and then vanished in mid-air. I dared not struggle in mid-air and I was drawn through a door into a large space flyer which became visible as I entered it. The flexible wire or rod which had held me uncoiled and I was free on the floor beside Jim Carpenter. This much was clear and understandable, but when I looked at the crew of that space ship, I was sure that I had lost my mind or was seeing visions. I had naturally expected men, or at least something in semi-human form, but instead of anything of the sort, before me stood a dozen gigantic beetles!
* * * * *
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. There was no mistaking the fact that we had been captured by a race of gigantic beetles flying an invisible space ship. When I had time later to examine them critically, I could see marked differences between our captors and the beetles we were accustomed to see on the earth besides the mere matter of size. To begin with, their bodies were relatively much smaller, the length of shell of the largest specimen not being over four feet, while the head of the same insect, exclusive of the horns or pinchers, was a good eighteen inches in length. The pinchers, which by all beetle proportions should have been a couple of feet long at the least, did not extend over the head a distance greater than eight inches, although they were sturdy and powerful.
Instead of traveling with their shells horizontal as do earthly beetles, these insects stood erect on their two lower pairs of legs, which were of different lengths so that all four feet touched the ground when the shell was vertical. The two upper pairs of legs were used as arms, the topmost pair[A] being quite short and splitting out at the end into four flexible claws about five inches long, which they used as fingers. These upper arms, which sprouted from a point near the top of the head, were peculiar in that they apparently had no joints like the other three pairs but were flexible like an elephant's trunk. The second pair of arms were armed with long, vicious-looking hooks. The backplates concealed only very rudimentary wings, not large enough to enable the insects to fly, although Jim told me later that they could fly on their own planet, where the lessened gravity made such extensive wing supports as would be needed on earth unnecessary.
[Footnote A: Mr. Bond has made a laughable error in his description. Like all of the coleoptera, the Mercurians were hexapoda (six legged). What Mr. Bond continually refers to in his narrative as "upper arms" were really the antenna of the insects which split at the end into four flexible appendages resembling fingers. His mistake is a natural one, for the Mercurians used their antenna as extra arms.—James S. Carpenter.]
The backplates were a brilliant green in color, with six-inch stripes of chrome yellow running lengthwise and crimson spots three inches in diameter arranged in rows between the stripes. Their huge-faceted eyes sparkled like crystal when the light fell on them, and from time to time waves of various colors passed over them, evidently reflecting the insect's emotions. Although they gave the impression of great muscular power, their movements were slow and sluggish, and they seemed to have difficulty in getting around.
* * * * *
As my horrified gaze took in these monstrosities I turned with a shudder to Jim Carpenter.
"Am I crazy, Jim," I asked, "or do you see these things too?"
"I see them all right, Pete," he replied. "It isn't as surprising as it seems at first glance. You expected to find human beings; so did I, but what reason had we for doing so? It is highly improbable, when you come to consider the matter, that evolution should take the same course elsewhere as it did on earth. Why not beetles, or fish, or horned toads, for that matter?"
"No reason, I guess," I answered; "I just hadn't expected anything of the sort. What do you suppose they mean to do with us?"
"I haven't any idea, old man. We'll just have to wait and see. I'll try to talk to them, although I don't expect much luck at it."
He turned to the nearest beetle and slowly and clearly spoke a few words. The insect gave no signs of comprehension, although it watched the movement of Jim's lips carefully. It is my opinion, and Jim agrees with me, that the insects were both deaf and dumb, for during the entire time we were associated with them, we never heard them give forth a sound under any circumstances, nor saw them react to any sound that we made. Either they had some telepathic means of communication or else they made and heard sounds beyond the range of the human ear, for it was evident from their actions that they frequently communicated with one another.
* * * * *
When Jim failed in his first attempt to communicate he looked around for another method. He noticed my notebook, which had fallen on the floor when I was set down; he picked it up and drew a pencil from his pocket. The insects watched his movements carefully, and when he had made a sketch in the book, the nearest one took it from him and examined it carefully and then passed it to another one, who also examined it. The sketch which Jim had drawn showed the outline of the Hadley space flyer from which he had been taken. When the beetles had examined the sketch, one of them stepped to an instrument board in the center of the ship and made an adjustment. Then he pointed with one of his lower arms.
We looked in the direction in which he pointed; to our astonishment, the walls of the flyer seemed to dissolve, or at least to become perfectly transparent. The floor of the space ship was composed of some silvery metal, and from it had risen walls of the same material, but now the effect was as though we were suspended in mid-air, with nothing either around us or under us. I gasped and grabbed at the instrument board for support. Then I felt foolish as I realized that there was no change in the feel of the floor for all its transparency and that we were not falling.
* * * * *
A short distance away we could see our flyer suspended in the air, held up by two long flexible rods or wires similar to those which had lifted us from our ship into our prison. I saw a dozen more of these rods coiled up, hanging in the air, evidently, but really on the floor near the edge of the flyer, ready for use. Jim suddenly grasped me by the arm.
"Look behind you in a moment," he said, "but don't start!"
He took the notebook in his hand and started to draw a sketch. I looked behind as he had told me to. Hanging in the air in a position which told me that they must have been in a different compartment of the flyer, were five children. They were white as marble, and lay perfectly motionless.
"Are they dead, Jim?" I asked in a low voice without looking at him.
"I don't know," he replied, "but we'll find out a little later. I am relieved to find them here, and I doubt if they are harmed."
The sketch which he was making was one of the solar system, and, when he had finished, he marked the earth with a cross and handed the notebook to one of the beetles. The insect took it and showed it to his companions; so far as I was able to judge expressions, they were amazed to find that we had knowledge of the heavenly bodies. The beetle took Jim's pencil in one of its hands and, after examining it carefully, made a cross on the circle which Jim had drawn to represent the planet Mercury.
* * * * *
"They come from Mercury," exclaimed Jim in surprise as he showed me the sketch. "That accounts for a good many things; why they are so lethargic, for one thing. Mercury is much smaller than the earth and the gravity is much less. According to Mercurian standards, they must weigh a ton each. It is quite a tribute to their muscular development that they can move and support their weight against our gravity. They can understand a drawing all right, so we have a means of communicating with them, although a pretty slow one and dependent entirely on my limited skill as a cartoonist. I wonder if we are free to move about?"
"The only way to find out is to try," I replied and stood erect. The beetles offered no objection and Jim stood up beside me. We walked, or rather edged, our way toward the side of the ship. The insects watched us when we started to move and then evidently decided that we were harmless. They turned from us to the working of the ship. One of them manipulated some dials on the instrument board. One of the rods which held our flyer released its grip, came in toward the Mercurian ship and coiled itself up on the floor, or the place where the floor should have been. The insect touched another dial. Jim threw caution to the winds, raced across the floor and grasped the beetle by the arm.
The insect looked at him questioningly; Jim produced the notebook and drew a sketch representing our flyer falling. On the level be had used to represent the ground he made another sketch of it lying in ruins. The beetle nodded comprehendingly and turned to another dial; the ship sank slowly toward the ground.
* * * * *
We sank until we hung only a few feet from the ground when our flyer was gently lowered down. When it rested on the ground, the wire which had held it uncoiled, came aboard and coiled itself up beside the others. As the Mercurian ship rose I noticed idly that the door which had been torn from our ship and dropped lay within a few yards of the ship itself. The Mercurian ship rose to an elevation of a hundred feet, drifting gently over the city.
As we rose I determined to try the effect of my personality on the beetles. I approached the one who seemed to be the leader and, putting on the most woeful expression I could muster, I looked at the floor. He did not understand me and I pretended that I was falling and grasped at him. This time he nodded and stepped to the instrument board. In a moment the floor became visible. I thanked him as best I could in pantomime and approached the walls. They were so transparent that I felt an involuntary shrinking as I approached them. I edged my way cautiously forward until my outstretched hand encountered a solid substance. I looked out.