Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Johnny Rober, discredited physicist, stages a desperate
sky venture when destruction is rushing toward the Earth!
IF the Earth's surface were not three parts sea to one part land it would be futile even to hope that Johnny Rober still lives. On the other hand, it is virtually certain that no one at all would be alive today had not Johnny been three parts incorrigible scamp to one part scientific genius—and wholly in love with the black-haired, black-eyed minx from whom I have most of this story.
To set the tale down as it came to me, in bits and pieces, would be confusing. I shall tell it therefore as though I had been invisibly present at each event as it occurred, and I shall tell it as objectively as I can.
It began on a Sunday morning with the two of them alone in Midwest University's Electronics Buildings. Kitty Gardlane, of course, had no right to be there. Neither in fact had Johnny, for all that he was 90% responsible for the advanced design of the radar installation before which he sat. He was only a probational instructor in physics and he had not obtained the Director's permission to use the apparatus for private research.
That worried Kitty. "Why didn't you, Johnny? Why didn't you get his okay?"
"Oh, you know how Gardey is." Johnny didn't look up as he mumbled his answer but she was well worth looking at; slim, long- legged, her tan sweater molding curves definitely more entrancing than those on the pages of the astronomical tome over which his carrot-topped head was bent. "I'd have had to tell him what I plan and he'd still be spoiling good paper with figures and formulae demonstrating that it's impossible."
That Johnny himself was not hard to look at is attested by the heavy registration in his classes of co-eds one hardly would suppose to be interested in Nuclear Physics or the Theory of Microwaves. He wasn't handsome, not with his pug nose and too-wide mouth, but the corners of his blue eyes crinkled with puckish humor and he possessed a slow, chuckling grin that endeared him even to his own sex.
"What's that, Johnny?" Kitty had to raise her voice to be heard over the deepening whine of the radar's generator. "What are you up to?"
He moved a dial a fraction of a mil, jotted down the new setting in his notebook.
"Whether Professor Charles D. Gardlane thinks it can be done or not, I'm going to bounce an echo off the planet Venus."
"Why should Gardey think you can't? The Army reached the moon, didn't they? And they're talking about trying for Mars."
"Why Mars, when Venus is several million miles nearer Earth just now? Because Mars has no atmosphere, they say, while Venus is surrounded by a thick layer of clouds. I intend to prove it can be done and that they're wrong."
"Oh, Johnny! Why must you always be trying to prove someone wrong? I thought you'd learned your lesson when you gave that talk disputing Gardey's pet hypothesis about the—the—"
"Orbital patterns of protons."
"Yes. And he shot your paper so full of holes the Society laughed you off the platform. If he hadn't pleaded for you, the Faculty would have fired you right then and there, and not another university in the country would have given you a job."
Johnny made another careful adjustment. "Yeah. I'll be a long time living that down. But—"
"But now you're repeating the same kind of nonsense." Kitty was perilously near tears. "You're letting Gardey down and you're letting me down. I love you, Johnny. I'd be happy to work with you and starve with you while you're rebuilding your reputation. But I can't face being afraid all my life that everything we've worked for will blow up in our faces because you have to show that you're smarter than anyone else. I can't and won't marry you if you keep on this way."
"Whoa, baby." Johnny was up off his stool but Kitty evaded his embrace and faced him, head high, eyes blazing. Johnny grinned at her, a bit crookedly.
"You're right, honey. You're dead right." He looked like a small boy contritely admitting some childish naughtiness. "I'll be good from now on. I solemnly promise you I won't say anything about this test, work or fail, and I won't ever try another that isn't approved by higher authority. Satisfied?"
"That's settled then. Five minutes more and we'll go out and celebrate."
"Five minutes." Kitty wasn't quite sure what was settled. "Why five minutes?"
"Because that's all I need to finish. See that scope." He pointed to a porthole-like lens in the radar's vertical instrument board. Across the otherwise darkened glass a line of green light vibrated like a plucked string. "Two pips—jags in that line—precisely four minutes, fifty-two and three tenths seconds apart and I'll know my signal has traveled more than twenty-seven million miles to Venus and another twenty-seven millions miles back. Even if I can't tell anyone I'll know... Wait! I've got a wonderful idea. A veritable flash of genius. You, my beloved, shall have the honor of being the first Earth dweller ever to make contact with another planet. How do you like that?"
"I'm thrilled." Kitty meant to say it ironically, sensing the Machiavellian design behind the gesture. If she were the one to make that contact, he figured, she could not resist his telling the world about it. She'd spike that. In the meantime—
"What do I do?"
"Sit down here."
"Now put your hand on this." He guided her fingers to a heavy telegraph key. "When you press it, you'll start a VHF—very high frequency—pulse across space, beamed for Venus. We'll see the pip when it returns but the exact time will be recorded by that chronograph." This was a black box in whose side a stopwatch was embedded. "Ready?"
"Watch the scope. Now!" As Johnny pressed her fingers down on the key she heard a shrill peep and saw a bit of the scope's green line jump angularly almost to its rim. Then the line was straight again.
"Is that all?"
"That's all till we see the second pip. How about a kiss in the meantime?"
"You don't deserve one." But she turned her face up for it. His lips were cold. "You really are worked up over this, aren't you?"
"A little," he admitted. "Look, Kitty. I haven't a class till eleven tomorrow. What say you meet me at City Hall at nine and we'll get a license?"
"Uh-uh. You know I won't marry you till your appointment is made permanent."
"Oh, honey, that's not fair!" Johnny's fingers rumpled his already tousled hair. "It would be permanent by now if the Army hadn't pulled me out to work on that atomic fission thing."
"And if you hadn't kicked over the apple cart last year, which cancels that out." Kitty wanted very much to give in to him but she knew she must not. She explained why, all over again—broke off.
"There it is!" she exclaimed. "There's the pip.
"Huh!" Startled, he glanced at the stopwatch. "No. Only a little more than a minute and a half. The signal hasn't even reached Venus yet."
"But I saw the line jump, Johnny. I'm sure I did."
"You couldn't have." He snapped open the chronograph's lid, peered in at the tape moving slowly under an inked point. "By Jove, you did see something. There was a pip at eighty-four point seventy-nine seconds. That would mean the radar pulse was reflected from something at—Let me see..." He snatched up a slide rule, deftly manipulated the sliding scale. "It would mean the pulse hit something seven million, eight hundred thousand miles out toward the Sun. But there just isn't anything at that distance."
Kitty was sorry for him, he looked so crestfallen, but she was glad his experiment had misfired. This would take him down a badly-needed peg.
"So you were wrong, Venus' atmosphere does make a difference."
"Nonsense. The clouds would damp out or slow the echo if they had any effect at all. I told you that the pulse didn't reach—I've got it!" Johnny was grinning again. "That pip wasn't made by the echoed pulse, it was static on the same frequency. We'll wait out the calculated time and there will be another. The real one."
But there wasn't.
"Okay," Johnny muttered, his face a mask. "We'll try it again. Get up and let me at that key."
They didn't talk this time. Johnny watched the scope, his fingers drumming on the edge of the control desk, and Kitty watched him. The echo returned—in exactly eighty-four and seventy-nine hundredths seconds, the same as before.
"That does it." An astronomer might have questioned the radar's evidence but Johnny Rober had complete faith in his instrument. "Something's gotten in between Earth and Venus. I'll have to try again tomorrow."
Kitty said nothing, not even when he explained that they couldn't spend the day together as they'd planned. If Professor Gardlane still was to be kept in ignorance of his experiment, Johnny would have to be in the lab before the first Monday morning class arrived. He'd have to recalculate all his settings for Venus' new position in the dawn sky and even working through the night he'd be lucky if he finished in time.
No, Kitty didn't say anything, not even goodbye. She just turned and walked out of the building and it wasn't until she was out of Johnny's sight and hearing that she let the tears come.
THE first students were not due in the lab until nine the next day but Johnny was at the radar at six. He made the necessary adjustments, pressed the key. The echo returned precisely two and four-hundredths seconds more quickly than it had on Sunday.
The interfering object was still there in space, where nothing should be, but it was a hundred and ninety-one thousand miles nearer than it had been nineteen hours ago. Whatever it was, it was speeding towards Earth at the rate of more than ten thousand miles an hour.
Johnny was not alarmed. Not yet. Overnight he had realized that the space-wanderer probably was a meteor. Even if it were fairly large as meteors go and even if it should reach the Earth, air friction would burn it up before it could strike the surface. It was hardly more than curiosity that prompted him to switch in the Plan Position Indicator, that ingenious device which paints on a screen a luminous representation of any object its radar beam scans.
The PPI he used was far more efficient than those that during the war enabled observers on the British coast to spot enemy planes over Germany's borders and direct Allied night fighters to them. Nevertheless Johnny expected to see on its screen no more than a microscopic fleck, if anything at all. What he saw was a spot of light almost as large as the ball of his thumb.
His skin tightened but his hands were steady as he measured the spot. When he'd finished his intricate computations, his lips puckered to a long, low whistle. The mass that hurtled across the void towards our planet was too huge to burn up in its atmosphere. If it struck, disaster would ensue.
Deep within Johnny Rober there jittered the beginnings of panic.
Then he grinned sheepishly, ashamed that he for an instant had forgotten his logic. All he knew was that the object existed and that it was traveling through space. To calculate whether there was any danger of collision it was necessary to determine its path with relation to Earth's orbit and its relative speed. This he could not do until, twenty-four hours from now, he made a third reading.
He managed that day to keep his mind on his teaching well enough to get by, but he completely forgot his intention to phone Kitty at noon and make his peace with her.
As soon as he was free, he immersed himself in the new set of calculations now necessary. For Kitty's part, she waited near the phone all Monday, cried herself to sleep that night. When at seven-thirty Tuesday morning her father called up to her that Johnny was on the phone her anger flared up.
"Tell him I don't want to speak to him now or ever again," she called back.
"If you want him told that, you can do it yourself."
"I certainly will." By chance she'd scrambled out of bed and was out in the upstairs hall, barefooted and in her pajamas. She snatched off the receiver of the extension there.
"You look here, Johnny Rober. If you think I'm going to stand for—"
"I want to talk to you, honey," he broke in. "Meet me at Hare's Campus Lunchroom in ten minutes."
"I won't meet you anywhere. And besides I'm not dressed."
"Fifteen minutes then."
SHE was at Hare's in thirteen. The room was crowded with breakfasting students but Johnny had taken possession of a booth in the rear and had held it against all comers. He was haggard, his eyes underlined with sooty crescents. The hot words Kitty'd planned died on her lips.
"What's wrong, Johnny? What's happened?"
His reply was cryptic. "Nothing yet. Maybe nothing will. Sit down here alongside me and I'll tell you about it as soon as Bill brings our orders."
What Bill put on their table was two portions each of orange juice, griddle cakes, country sausage, doughnuts and coffee. By the time he'd ambled off, Kitty had pulled herself together.
"All right, now give," she demanded. "How bad a jam are you in this time?"
"None. At least I won't be if you release me from my promise not to say anything about my try for Venus."
"Oh, no. Nothing doing."
"Wait. Let me explain." He drained his orange juice, spilled half a pitcher of syrup on his wheat cakes and went to work on them while he told her about yesterday's discovery.
"This morning," he continued, "I had a little trouble locating the thing again but I did find it after some pretty delicate scanning. It's still speeding along at ten thousand miles an hour and—get this, Kitty—if it sticks to the curve I've now been able to plot, approximately thirty-one days from now it will arrive at the same spot in space where we're due to be."
"I see what you mean." Kitty sensed he was not taking it as lightly as his tone and manner implied. "Are you sure, Johnny?"
"I'm sure of my observations and calculations. What's got me winging is what Bob Hasseltine told me just before I phoned you. I remembered he was on night shift at the Observatory so I called him there and asked him if there was anything in that particular region of space that might explain some unusual electrical phenomena I'd noted. No, he said. Because of Venus' closeness to Earth most astronomers are concentrating on that section of the sky and nothing out of the ordinary has been reported. You know, don't you, that those star-gazers flash each other all over the world the instant anything unexpected appears. If Bob says nothing has been seen, it means that no one, anywhere, has seen anything."
"But it's so small and so far away. Could they see it?"
"It's one hundred and fifty miles in diameter. Even in the early part of this century Percival Lowell saw on Mars markings he called canals. They were only about twenty miles wide, and modern telescopes are far more efficient than those of his day."
Kitty's fork scraped her empty plate. She'd disposed of her sausages without consciously tasting them.
"Look, Johnny. If there was something there, the astronomers would have seen it. They haven't seen anything. So there's nothing there and what are you all in a tizzy about?"
"My radar tells me something is there," Johnny said doggedly. "The astronomers are all wet."
"And you want me to let you tell them so. I see." Kitty put down her coffee cup very carefully. Her voice was low, even, but two white spots had appeared beside either wing of her nose and her eyes were black fire. "All right. I release you from your promise. For all I care, you can go up to the top of Carillon Tower and proclaim to the high heavens that John Rober, probationary instructor in physics, knows more about science than all the world's astronomers. You can dress yourself in a white robe and announce the end of the world in thirty days. But just remember that the instant you let out your first peep about this, I'm through with you, absolutely and forever."
She meant it. Johnny knew that this time she meant it and that neither argument nor all his cute tricks would sway her.
WE cannot, of course, know what passed through his mind as he stared expressionlessly at the cluttered table but it must have run something like this: To say publicly what he'd just told Kitty not only would be pitting his opinion against scientific authority in a sphere to which he was a stranger but, as she had pungently pointed out, would smack strongly of charlatanism. He had once been discredited in his own field, he could not expect the support of other physicists. If against these odds, he somehow gained a hearing and were proven wrong, his career would be ruined irretrievably and he would have lost the girl he profoundly loved.
Suppose he proved himself right. What, other than the inflation of his ego, would he have gained? The collision he anticipated could not be averted nor could any conceivable precautions be taken against it. Was it, after all, so greatly to be dreaded? The chances were that the meteor would plunge harmlessly into an ocean or strike some unpopulated spot. At the very worst, it could only destroy one city with a cost in lives and property still paltry against that of a single, avoidable World War.
He lifted his head and turned to Kitty. "Okay, honey," he said. "We'll skip it." The few students who'd not hurried out to eight o'clock classes chortled as they saw the black-haired girl throw her arms around the man in the booth and kiss him.
"I'm so glad, Johnny."
"I'm glad you're glad, baby. I'm sort of relieved myself."
Which was true only in part. Marring Johnny's relief at his decision was a vague feeling that despite its logic there was something wrong with it, some element of the problem that he had missed. This feeling grew until it became almost an obsession. It sent him to the radar morning after morning to dispatch another microwave pulse out into the ether. It drove him to the University's Observatory every afternoon to pore over the daily summary of reports from the world's telescopes.
DAY by day his radar told him that the mysterious mass still hurtled along the same ominous path, closer each day by nearly a quarter-million miles to its meeting with Earth. Never did the astronomers report any hint of the interloper.
Curiously enough, the first intimation from anyone else that all was not as it should be in the interstellar void appeared in the literature of Johnny's own field, physics. A small item in the bulletin of a famous Eastern University's laboratory, it noted a puzzling increase in the number of gamma rays impinging on our atmosphere. The phenomenon was being investigated and other physical laboratories were requested to cooperate.
Johnny asked that he be assigned Midwest's part of the project. He had no real interest in it but the apparatus was housed in the Electronics Building and so it would give him an excuse for his early morning visits there. He turned the actual work over to three graduate students, assuming merely general supervision. Not even when detailed reports from around the globe made it evident that the phenomenon occurred only during daylight hours did he suspect any connection with the problem by which he was hag-ridden.
THUS matters stood on the second Monday after Johnny Rober's first attempt to make contact with Venus by radar. That evening he received a bulky special delivery communication from the institution which had initiated the gamma ray study. A worker there had been inspired to check medical records and had made a startling discovery.
All over the world there was manifest an increase of degenerative diseases, more marked in the northern regions where the day was lengthening with summer's approach. In Norway, Land of the Midnight Sun, the maladies already had reached epidemic proportions and here the symptoms closely resembled those by which immediate survivors of the atomic bomb explosions over Japan later had died slowly and horribly.
Gamma rays are one of the products of atomic fission and had been found mainly responsible for those deaths. Was there any relation, the memorandum posed as a question for further study, between the present rise in their atmospheric concentration and the medical phenomena noted?
Enclosed with the message were curves, plotted against time, of the increase in gamma ray concentration at Oslo and the incidence there of the obscure maladies. Pondering the graphs, Johnny's mind leaped to one of those sudden revelations that mark the born researcher. If he inverted a curve representing the diminishing distance between Earth and the sky-wanderer of which only he was aware, it would match these two graphs almost exactly. The invisible meteor was the source of the rays that from across millions of miles of space already were blasting human life. When it came nearer, when it finally kept its grim rendezvous with our planet, all life on Earth would end.
And he knew now the nature of the thing he had been tracking across the sky. That night he wrote in the notebook in which he kept a meticulous record of his experiments and the speculations involved:
It is a swirl of radioactive gases transparent to light (therefore invisible in the astronomers' telescopes) but somehow capable of reflecting the microwaves upon which radar depends. I should like to examine the reason for this but that would require more than the twenty-four days or so that are all the time left to any of us.
The gases may have been spewed out by the Sun or by some star beyond our Sun. More likely, I think, they were whirled out into space by one of the atomic bombs we exploded above Japan. We know that the main force of these explosions was expended upwards. They may have fed upon the pure energy of the interstellar void and now somehow have been turned back to destroy us who created them. This would be the ultimate irony.
It occurs to me that whatever the materialistic explanation, the fundamental one well may be that God, finally disgusted with the human race, has decided to wipe it out and start all over again.
To publish his results now would not be challenging the scientific hierarchy but simply offering one more piece of data fitting in with and completing a structure already established. Kitty now was certain to release him from his promise if he explained. If he explained, he would tell her that she had only a little more than three weeks to live. To publish his results would be to tell the people of the world that inevitably, helplessly, they were doomed to die before another month had passed.
"Perhaps I am wrong," Johnny Rober wrote, "but I see no point in pronouncing this sentence of death to all my kind. If there was any possibility of avoiding it—and there is none—I shall keep silent."
One would expect that, in the days that followed, the burden of his dreadful secret would have brought him near to madness. Nothing could be further from the event. He'd never lectured as brilliantly, never had been as penetrating as in that time. The youngsters in his courses came from his room walking on clouds, their faces aglow as though they'd been listening to great music.
DURING his afternoons and evenings with Kitty—he spent all possible free time with her—he'd never been as exuberant, as gay or as tender. He made her very happy. So happy that she paid no attention to the newspaper items, small at first and on the back pages then lengthening, working their way toward the front, that told of a strange new malady decimating the Scandinavian Peninsula, the northern reaches of Russia and Siberia, and Alaska.
But there are more ways than one to skin a cat. A physicist in the University of Moscow got the notion of determining by photochemical means the direction from which the gamma rays were arriving in our stratosphere. His results were so significant that he requested colleagues in Oslo University, Edinburgh, McGill, to check them. Somewhere, someone talked out of turn.
A reporter for one of the world-wide news services started digging. Some scientists are anxious for the limelight, others more circumspect are naive. And so Johnny Rober, calling for Kitty early the morning of the Sunday two weeks after that on which this narrative began, found her dressed for their all-day picnic but staring white-faced at the front page of the newspapers she'd just picked up from her porch.
In huge black type, a headline screamed across it:
SCIENTISTS FIND DEATH RAY SOURCE IN SKY
INVISIBLE COMET NEARING EARTH
PREDICT ALL LIFE EXTINCT IN TWO WEEKS
"No-o-o," she moaned. "It's a hoax, Johnny. It's cruel!" She checked herself. "Johnny! Your meteor. The one your radar found. This is it."
He nodded mutely. The bubble-shell of protection he'd blown around her was pricked. What was there for him to say?
"It's my fault." Kitty's pupils were great black pits within which horror crawled. "If I'd let you talk, something could have been done to stop this."
"No, darling," Johnny said gently. "Nothing could have been done to stop it. Nothing at all."
The paper dropped from her hand.
"Two weeks," she whispered. And suddenly she was smiling. "Let's get married, Johnny. Right away."
"It's Sunday, dear. We can't get a license until tomorrow morning. We'll have to wait."
"Must we?" Twenty-four hours out of a lifetime which has only two weeks to run is a terribly long time. "Must we wait, Johnny?"
"Yes." Had he been able to look twenty-four hours into the future, would he have replied so? "Yes, my very dear, we must wait."
IN a thousand languages and dialects that same terrible announcement blackened newspaper fronts all across the world. In as many tongues it filled the broadcast channels. By mid-morning—four p.m. in London, two o'clock Monday morning in Melbourne—it had been carried by word of mouth to the headwaters of the Amazon, by booming drums to the remotest jungles of Africa. The furred nomads of the Arctic wastes had heard it and the Touregs of the Sahara knew now how low had run the sands in the hour-glass of human life.
At eleven, denials of the "rumor" met with disbelief everywhere. At noon there were "explanations" that did not explain. At four in the afternoon scientists whose names were household words were admitting the "basic facts" but were assuring that "there is no cause for alarm. We have already devised methods by which the threatened disaster will be averted. Further announcements will be made as soon as our plans have crystallized." And on a hill near Los Angeles a bearded man in a white robe preached the Day of Judgment while his fifty thousand dupes roared welcome to the Messiah.
In a Paris garret, Aristide Jouin worked furiously to complete his masterpiece of painting. In a hut high on a Bavarian Alp, Martin Bohrs—only intimate of Hitler to escape capture—cut his own throat. Big Ben tolled over BBC's microphones and then the Prime Minister was speaking:
"We shall weather this trial as we have weathered all others. Even though the heavens themselves fall, there will always be an England."
The President of the United States issued an order that the Stock Exchange remain closed Monday. Advices had reached him that a tidal wave of short-selling was in prospect.
At one a.m. Johnny Rober was in his room, listening with half an ear to the radio while he packed his few belongings.
"We take you now to Verndon, Vermont," he heard, "for an interview with Professor Giles Foster, Director of the Cunningham Institute for Physical Research."
"So Giles Foster is shooting off his mouth too," Johnny muttered. "I thought more of him than that."
He went to the bathroom to collect his shaving kit. On his way back he wondered if there would be plenty of hot water in Kitty's house. When he opened the door, Foster's somewhat unctuous voice greeted him. "The only way to confirm or disprove all this wild speculation is to make our observations out in space, beyond the interference of terrestrial conditions."
"In a space ship, professor?" the interviewer asked. "Even if that were feasible, could one be built in time?"
"The Institute has very nearly completed one. Oh, not a space-ship that could transport passengers but an instrument-carrying rocket we're sure can attain the acceleration of seven miles a second per second that will free it from Earth's gravitational attraction."
The radio station interviewer still seemed doubtful about several points.
"Will not atmospheric friction at that speed burn up your rocket before it gets out of the atmosphere?"
"No. We've solved that problem." Johnny was motionless in the center of the room, the shaving kit still clutched in his hand. "We've synthesized a new substance. Refractite, which can withstand higher temperatures than any natural material known and is so non-conductive of heat that the delicate instruments within the rocket will not be affected. Incidentally, Refractite presented us with an unexpected problem to solve when it proved to be well-nigh impervious to radio-active emanations, including the gamma rays."
"What's that?" the network man barked. "Impervious to—Good heavens! Don't you realize what you've got? It's the stuff that will save the race. This is terrific!"
And then the savant's imperturbable voice chilled the blaze of excitement that had caused the radio man to forget his impersonal role.
"I'm sorry if I've misled you. Only enough of the substance exists to construct this one rocket. It would take six months to turn out any more, a year to put it into mass production."
"Please permit me to continue." Foster might be chiding a too-voluble student. "I was trying to say that because this unexpected property of Refractite would have shuttered the gamma rays from the instrument designed to record them, we were compelled to devise a detachable false nose of the synthetic to house the recorder in a separate compartment, and a means for discarding this shell when the rocket has passed out of the atmosphere. I mention this merely as a single example of the difficulties with which we have had to contend."
The interview continued. It had originally been planned to steer the rocket by remote radio control but, Foster explained, the necessary apparatus could not be completed in time for the launching, which would be at dawn on Tuesday. The instruments composing its cargo would send their data back to Earth by means of automatic microwave transmitters similar to those used by meteorologists in their sounding balloons but the rocket itself would be lost. Yes, in response to a question, yes it was quite large. It had to be to carry the fuel that was required in addition to all the apparatus. The compartment containing the apparatus would comfortably accommodate a man if it were not otherwise filled.
"Thank you, professor," the broadcaster ended the talk. "Ladies and gentlemen. You have been listening to an interview with Professor Giles Foster of the Cunningham Institute for Physical Research. I return you now to New York, where Ben Grauer is waiting to tell you more of what is going on in the metropolis.
The radio rasped and then another voice was speaking. A mob looted Broadway's liquor stores and Times Square was a scene of Saturnalia. Two blocks away, on Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the St. Nicholas Collegiate Church were packed to the doors with praying multitudes, as was Temple Emanu-El farther north. Marty Tanville, much-married heir to an unearned fortune, had appeared at the Children's Society Shelter with a truckload of toys and another of candy and ice cream, and had given these things away.
It is doubtful that Johnny Rober heard any of this, or the later reports, of the howling horde of Untouchables that hunted high-caste Brahmins through the twisted alleys of Calcutta, of the twenty virgins sacrificed in the depths of Yucatan to the Feathered Serpent, god of the ancient Mayans.
AT seven Monday morning Kitty looked up the street to see if Johnny was yet in sight. There was no sign of him, but on the porch lay a paper-wrapped package and atop it a letter addressed to her in his handwriting. She tore open the envelope, unfolded the sheet of paper it contained. She read:
My keeping silent about what the radar told me did make a difference. It cost two weeks of valuable time. I'm going to try and make that up.
The package contains my notebook. Keep it for me, unopened, until noon on Tuesday. After that, take it to Gardey.
If my idea doesn't work out, we'll be together again very soon. If it does, always remember that I loved you more deeply than language can tell.
JOHNNY ROBER appeared in Washington later that morning. Here a certain Army General consented to talk to him privately because he recalled Johnny as one of the more brilliant of the young scientists who'd worked under him on the development of the atomic bomb. About noon, Johnny and the General left Bolling Field in the General's personal plane, for some destination unknown. One of the men assisting at the takeoff overheard the officer's comment.
"I'll be court-martialed for this but I certainly can take that if you can take what you're facing," the General said.
With this, John Rober vanishes from the face of the Earth.
It is comprehensible that the General, a layman who had supervised the working of a scientific miracle and was now the custodian of its secrets, should have been carried away by the starkly simple daring of Johnny's plan. Giles Foster's part in it is still obscure. Was he also in on the thing, or was he merely too much the unworldly pundit to realize that after his broadcast he should have placed guards about the rocket? Probably the latter. From all reports he was thunderstruck when, some two hours after its dispatch, all the instruments that were to have formed its cargo were found hidden in a nearby thicket.
By that time the rocket was some sixty-seven thousand miles out in space and within it, in the compartment he'd emptied of its instruments, was Johnny Rober. In his notebook he had written as follows:
There is only one way to be certain that it arrives at the right point at the right time. I shall have to guide it there. Since it was originally designed to be steered by remote control, there must be some means of maneuvering it. I shall take along food concentrates, water, and three or four oxygen flasks such as bombers carried for emergencies during the war. These should keep me alive and conscious long enough to do what I plan. The only question is whether, after the flight through the stratosphere, there will be sufficient fuel left for what navigation will be required.
It did not enter in his calculations, you see, whether consciousness or fuel would last long enough to bring him back to Earth.
I must be certain to locate and disconnect the automatic control designed to cast off the false nose Foster mentioned. This is the most fortunate part of the whole affair. Had it not been for this feature of the rocket's construction, I should have had no way to unloose the atomic bomb.
There was the crux of his plan. He would carry an atomic bomb out across space to the death-bearing meteor. When the bomb exploded, its tremendous blast of energy would dissipate or at least divert the whirlpool of gases that by now was a scant four and a half million miles from its grim rendezvous with the Earth.
It would be nearer before Johnny could intercept it.
"As nearly as I can calculate, I'll know the answer some time Saturday afternoon," he wrote in the diary.
ON Saturday Johnny knew he would lock himself into the rocket on Tuesday, before dawn. He would have nearly five days to go. Five days not only of darkness and discomfort but of such loneliness as no man yet has been called on to contemplate. Even a prisoner in solitary confinement knows that somewhere near him are other human beings. Even a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in mid-Pacific knows that somewhere on the same sea are ships and, within the ships, men. During those five days Johnny Rober would be keenly aware that second by second, minute by minute, eight miles every second, four hundred and eighty every minute, he was leaving behind him forever the world of his own kind.
Monday morning Johnny wrote a last poignant line in his notebook.
"Today was to have been my wedding day."
"A HERO is speeding to blast the meteor menace from the sky," was the announcement that went out on the radio at eleven minutes after noon on Tuesday—6 p.m. in London, 4 a.m. Wednesday in Melbourne. Good news, it is said, does not spread as swiftly as bad, but in this case the old saying proved to be wrong. As quickly as the shadow of an eclipse passes from the globe, so quickly did the terror pass. Before the result could possibly have been known, desperate hope became reality in the minds of man.
FIVE days went by.
At three-fifty-seven p.m. watchers in Midwest University's Observatory saw a new star flash out in the daylight sky, bright even against the brightness of the sun. The nova faded at once but the location plotted for it corresponded precisely to the point in space which Johnny Rober's figures predicted would be occupied by the gaseous meteor at that instant in time. By four-thirty reports already were coming in to the Director of the Electronics Laboratory that the gamma ray concentration in Earth's atmosphere was dwindling.
WHEN I took the first of these reports to Kitty, she smiled for the first time in six days, a wan and heartrending smile.
"Aren't you proud of Johnny?" I asked her, offering such clumsy consolation as a father might give. "Aren't you proud to have known and been loved by him?"
"To be loved by him," she flared back at me with a bit of her old fiery spirit. "He's alive, Gardey. He's alive and he'll come back to us. You know what he wrote."
She referred to the letter he'd written to me and enclosed with his notebook. After some personal remarks which I hardly deserve, there was this:
After I've loosed the bomb, I shall try to reverse the rocket. I doubt whether I shall have enough fuel left to do more than cancel its outward momentum but if I can do that Earth's gravity should bring me back in free fall. After that—well, the surface of the globe is three parts water to one part land.
I'm sure that among Foster's radio set-ups there will be one that can be fixed to emit a continuous signal. If there is, and if—if all the thousand "ifs" sum up to my getting back to Earth alive, I shall try to get it going. Be listening.
"Yes," I answered my black-eyed daughter. "I haven't forgotten what he wrote. The Navy Department has arranged to have all the oceans patrolled either by our planes or those of all the other grateful nations. All we can do now is wait."
THAT is what we are doing now. Waiting. I've written this narrative while I waited and I hope I have succeeded in writing it as objectively as I set out to do. It is six days and five hours now since that nova flared out and faded. I've given up hope. Kitty has not. I've just received the following telegram from the General who thought court-martial after a lifetime of honored service a small risk against what Johnny faced:
PROFESSOR CHARLES DARWIN GARDLANE, MID-WEST UNIVERSITY.
SEARCH PLANE OVER PACIFIC HAS HEARD WEAK VHF RADIO SIGNAL STOP CAN BE ONLY ROBER STOP INSIST ON INVITATION TO WEDDING.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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