SPAWN OF THE COMET
H. Thompson Rich
Tokyo, June 10 (Ap) -- A
number of the meteors that pelted Japan last night,
as the earth passed through the tail of the Mystery
Comet have been found and are puzzling astronomers
everywhere. About the size of baseballs,
orange in color, they appear to
be of some unknown metal.
So far, due to their extreme
hardness, all attempts to
analyze them have failed. Their uniformity of size and marking
gives rise to the popular belief that they are
seeds, and, fantastic though this conception is,
it finds support in certain scientific quarters here.
Jim Carter read the news dispatch
thoughtfully and handed it back to his chief without
“Well, what do you make of it?”
Miles Overton, city editor of The
New York Press, shoved his green eye-shade far
back on his bald head and glanced up irritably from
his littered desk.
“I don’t know,” said Jim.
“You don’t know!”
Overton snorted, biting his dead cigar impatiently.
“And I suppose you don’t know they’re
finding the damn things right here in New York, not
to mention Chicago, London, Rio and a few other places,”
“Yes, I know about New York. It’s
a regular egg hunt.”
“Egg hunt is right! But
why tell me all this now? I didn’t see any
mention of ’em in your report of last night’s
proceedings. Did you see any?”
“No, but I saw a lot of shooting
stars!” said Jim, recalling that weird experience
he and the rest of humanity had passed through so
“Yeah, I’ll say!”
Overton lit his wrecked cigar and dragged on it soothingly.
“Now then, getting back to cases what
are these damn things, anyway? That’s what
I’d like to know.”
“So would I,” said Jim. “Maybe
they are seeds?”
Overton frowned. He was a solid
man, not given to fancies. He had a paper to
get out every day and that taxed his imagination to
the limit. There was no gray matter left for
any such idle musings as Jim suggested. What
he wanted was facts, and he wanted them right away.
“Eggs will do!” he said.
“Go out and get one and find out what’s
“Okay, Chief,” said Jim,
but he knew it was a large order. “I’ll
have one on your desk for breakfast!”
Then, with a grave face that denied
his light words, he stepped from the city room on
that fantastic assignment.
It was the television broadcast hour
and crowds thronged the upper level of Radio Plaza,
gazing, intently at the bulletin screen, as Jim Carter
emerged from the Press tower.
News from the ends of the earth, in
audio-picture form, flashed before their view; but
only the reports on the strange meteors from the tail
of 1947, IV so designated by astronomers
because it was the fourth comet discovered that year held
their interest. Nothing since the great Antarctic
gold rush of ’33 had so gripped the public as
the dramatic arrival and startling behavior of this
mysterious visitant from outer space.
Jim paused a moment, halfway across
the Plaza, to take a look at the screen himself.
The substance of the Tokyo dispatch,
supplemented by pictures of Japanese scientists working
over the baffling orange spheres, had just gone off.
Now came a flash from Berlin, in which a celebrated
German chemist was seen directing an effort to cut
into one of them with an acid drill. It failed
and the scientist turned to declare to the world that
the substance seemed more like crystal than metal and
was harder than diamond.
Jim tarried no longer. He knew
where he was going. It was still early and Joan
would be up Joan Wentworth, daughter of
Professor Stephen Wentworth, who held the chair of
astro-lithology at Hartford University.
It was as their guest at the observatory last night
that he had seen 1947, IV at close range, as the earth
passed through her golden train with that awesome,
unparalleled display of fireworks.
Now he’d have the pleasure of
seeing Joan again, and at the same time get the low-down
from her father on those confounded seeds or
eggs, rather. If anyone could crack one of them,
he’d bet Professor Wentworth could.
So, hastening toward the base of Plaza
Airport, he took an elevator to ramp-level 118, where
his auto-plane was parked, and five minutes later
was winging his way to Hartford.
Throttle wide, Jim did the eighty
miles to the Connecticut capital in a quarter of an
Then, banking down through the warm
June night onto the University landing field, he retracted
the wings of his swift little bus and motored to the
foot of Observatory Hill.
Parking outside the Wentworth home,
he mounted the steps and rang the bell.
It was answered by a slim, appealing
girl of perhaps twenty-two. Hers was a wistful,
oval face, with a small, upturned nose; and her clear
hazel eyes were the sort that always seem to be enjoying
some amusing secret of their own. Her hair was
a soft brown, worn loose to the shoulders, after the
style then in vogue.
“Joan!” blurted Jim.
“What brings you here at such
an hour, Jimmy Carter?” she asked with mock
“I don’t believe you.”
“What then have I come for?”
“You’ve come to interview father about
purely incidental a mere by-product, you
“Yes, you might but I wouldn’t
advise you to say it to father.”
“All right, I won’t,” he promised,
as she led him into the library.
Professor Wentworth rose as they entered
and laid aside some scientific book he had been reading.
A man of medium height and build,
he had the same twinkling hazel eyes as his daughter,
though somewhat dimmed from peering at too many stars
for too many years.
“Good evening, Jim,” he
said. “I’ve rather been expecting
you. What is on your mind?”
“Seeds! Eggs! Baseballs!”
was the reply, “I don’t know what.
You’ve seen the latest television reports, I
suppose?” said Jim, noting that the panel on
the receiving cabinet across the room was still lit.
“I’ve seen some of them.
Joan has been keeping an eye on the screen mostly,
however, while I refreshed my mind on the known chemistry
of meteorites. You see, I have a few of those
eggs myself, up at the observatory.”
“You have?” cried Jim.
He was certainly on the right track!
“Yes. One of my assistants
brought them in this afternoon. Would you like
to see them?”
“I’ll say I would!”
“I rather thought you might,”
the professor smiled. “Come along, then.”
And as Jim turned, he shot a look at Joan, and added:
“You may come too, my dear, if you want.”
They went out and up the hill to where
the great white dome glistened under the stars, and
once inside, Jim Carter of The New York Press
was privileged to see two of those strange objects
that had turned the world topsy-turvy.
As the Tokyo dispatch and the Berlin
television flash had indicated, they were orange in
color, about the size of baseballs.
“Weird looking eggs, all right!”
said Jim. “What are they made of, anyway?”
“Some element unknown on earth,”
replied Professor Wentworth.
“But I thought there were only
ninety-two elements in the universe and we’d
discovered them all.”
“So we have. But don’t
forget this. We are still trying to split the
atom, which nature has done many times and will doubtless
do many times again. It is merely a matter of
altering the valence of the atoms in an old element;
whereupon it shifts its position in the periodic scale
and becomes a new element. Nature accomplishes
this alchemy by means of great heat, which is certainly
to be found in a meteor.”
“Particularly when it hits the earth’s
“Yes. And now then, I’d
like to have you examine more closely this pair I
Jim lifted one and noted its peculiar
smoothness, its remarkable weight for its size; he
noted, too, that it was veined with concentric markings,
like a series of arabesques or fleurs-de-lis.
The professor lifted the other, calling
attention to the fact that the size and marking of
both were identical, as hitherto reported.
“Also, you’ll observe
that they are slightly warm. In fact, they are
appreciably warmer than when they were first brought
in. Curious behavior, this, for new-laid cometary
eggs! More like seeds germinating than meteorites
cooling, wouldn’t you say?”
“But good Lord!” Jim was
somewhat taken aback to hear this celebrated scientist
apparently commit himself to that wild view. “You
don’t really think they’re seeds, do you?”
“But surely no seeds could survive
the temperature they hit getting here.”
“No seeds such as we know, true.
But what, after all, do we know of the types of life
to be found on other planets?”
“Nothing, of course. Only
these didn’t come from a planet. They came
from a comet.”
“And who can say a comet is
not a disintegrated planet? Or suppose we take
the other theory, that it is an eruption from some
sun, ours or another. In any event, who can say
no life can survive intense heat? Certainly these
seeds or call them meteorites, if you choose came
through the ordeal curiously unscathed.”
“Yes, that’s true. Funny, too!”
“And another thing is true,
Jim. If by chance they should be seeds,
and should germinate, the life they would produce
would be something quite alien to our experience,
possibly quite inimical to
Professor Wentworth broke off abruptly
as a startled cry came from Joan, and, turning, they
saw her standing with eyes fixed in fascinated horror
on the laboratory table.
Following her gaze, Jim saw something
that caused his own eyes to bulge. The color
of those mysterious orange spheres had suddenly, ominously
heightened. They lay glowing there like balls
“Good God!” he gasped.
“Look, Professor! Do you see that?”
Professor Wentworth did not answer
but himself stood gazing spellbound at the astounding
Even as they looked, the metal table
smoldered under the fiery meteorites and melted, and
in a little while the meteorites themselves sizzled
from view. Flames licked up from the floor; dense,
suffocating fumes rose and swirled through the laboratory.
“Quick!” cried Jim, seizing
Joan’s arm. “Come on, Professor!
Never mind trying to save anything. Let’s
get out of here!”
They staggered from the laboratory
and once outside, plunged down the hill. It was
none too soon.
Behind them, as they fled, came suddenly
two deafening explosions. Looking back, they
saw the roof of the observatory tilt crazily; saw
the whole building shatter, and erupt like a volcano.
But that, startling though it was,
was not all they saw. For now, as they stood
there speechless, two incredible forms rose phoenix-like
from the flames two weird monsters, orange
against the red, hideous, nightmarish. They saw
them hover a moment above that fiery hell, then rise
on batlike wings to swoop off into the night.
Nor was that all. As the awed
trio stood there halfway down Observatory Hill, following
the flight of that pair of demons, other explosions
reached their ears, and, turning to the city below,
they saw vivid jets of red leap up here and there,
saw other orange wings against the night.
While off across the southeast sky,
receding fast, spread the Mystery Comet whose tail
had sowed the seeds of this strange life.
Still silent, the trio stood gazing
upon that appalling scene for some minutes, while
the ruddy shadows of the flaming observatory lit their
“Well, the seeds have hatched,”
said Professor Wentworth at length, in a strained
voice. “I am afraid some of the curious
who have been gathering those meteorites so eagerly
have paid a dear price for them.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,”
echoed Jim. “We were lucky. If Joan
hadn’t happened to spot those things just when
she did ” He broke off and pressed
her hand fondly. “But somehow I can’t
believe it, even yet. What do you think the things
“God knows! As I told you,
those seeds, should they germinate, would produce
something quite alien to our experience; and as I feared,
it is a form of life that will not blend well with
“But look, father!” exclaimed
Joan. “They’re flying away! They
seem to be way up among the stars. Maybe they’ve
left the earth altogether.”
Professor Wentworth following his
daughter’s gaze, saw that many of the monsters
were now mere orange pinpoints against the night.
“Let us hope so!” he said fervently.
But in his heart there was no conviction, nor in Jim’s,
On the way back to New York, Jim had
plenty to heighten his uneasiness. The scene
below him everywhere was red with conflagrations,
the sky everywhere orange with the wings of those
More than one swept perilously close,
as he pushed his auto-plane on at top speed; but they
showed no inclination to attack, for which he was
Over the metropolitan area, the scene
was one beggaring description. All the five boroughs
were a blazing checker-board. New Jersey, Connecticut,
Westchester all were raging. Hundreds
of those deadly bombs must have burst in Manhattan
But the fire department there seemed
to have the situation in hand, he noticed as he swept
down onto the Plaza landing platform.
Leaving his plane with an attendant,
he took the first elevator to the street level, and
crossing hastily to the Press tower, mounted to the
There absolute pandemonium raged.
Typewriters were sputtering, telegraph keys clicking,
phones buzzing, reporters coming and going in a steady
stream, mingled with the frantic orders of editors,
sub-editors, copy readers, composing-room men and others.
Carter fought through the bedlam to
the city editor’s desk.
“Sorry I couldn’t bring
you that egg, Chief,” he said, with a grim smile.
“I had one right in my hand, but it hatched out
Overton looked up wearily. He
was a man who had seen a miracle, a godless miracle
that restored his faith in the devil.
“Don’t talk just
write!” he growled. “I’ve seen
and heard too much to-night. We’re all
going to hell, I guess unless we’re
But Jim wasn’t ready to write yet.
“What’s the dope elsewhere? The same?”
“All over the map! We’re frying,
from coast to coast.”
“Cooked, everywhere!” He paused, and turned
an imploring face to Jim.
“Tell me, Carter what’s happening?
You’ve seen Wentworth, I suppose.
What’s he make of it?”
“He doesn’t know.”
“God help us! Well, go
write your story. If we’ve got a plant by
press time, we’ll have something on page one
to-morrow if there’s anyone to read
By morning the fires in the metropolitan
area had been brought under control and it was found
that neither the loss of life nor the damage was as
great as had at first been feared. Mainly it was
the older types of buildings that had suffered the
The same thing was true in other parts
of the country and elsewhere in the world; and elsewhere,
as in New York, people pulled themselves together,
cleared up the debris, and went ahead with their occupations.
Business was resumed, and rebuilding operations were
Meanwhile, where were those fiery
moths that had sprung so devastatingly from their
For a while no one knew and it was
believed they had indeed winged off into interstellar
space, as Joan had suggested that night on Observatory
Then came rumors that damped these
hopes, followed by eye-witness reports that altogether
dashed them. The bat-like monsters had flown,
not off into space, but to the world’s waste-lands.
Strange, it was, the instinct that
had led them unerringly to the remotest point of each
continent. In North America it was the great
Arizona desert, in South America the pampas of Argentina,
in Europe the steppes of Russia, in Asia the Desert
of Gobi, in Africa the Sahara, in Australia the Victoria;
while in the British Isles, Philippines, New Zealand,
Madagascar, Iceland, the East Indies, West Indies,
South Seas and other islands of the world, the interiors
were taken over by the demons, the populace fleeing
for their lives.
As for the oceans, no one knew exactly
what had happened there, though it was obvious they,
too, had received their share of the bombardment on
that fateful night; but, while temperatures were found
to be somewhat above normal, scientists were of the
opinion that the deadly spawn that had fallen there
had failed to incubate.
Immediately the presence of the monsters
in the Arizona desert was verified, Overton called
Jim Carter to his desk.
“Well, I’ve got a big
assignment for you, boy,” he said, rather more
gently than was his fashion. “Maybe you
know what, huh?”
“You want me to buzz out and interview those
“You guessed it. And photograph ’em!”
“Okay, Chief,” said Carter,
though he knew this would be the toughest job yet.
Overton knew it, too.
“It won’t be easy,”
he said. “And it may be dangerous.
You don’t have to take the assignment unless
“But I want.”
“Good! I thought you would.”
He regarded the younger man admiringly, almost enviously.
“Now, about those photos. The Television
News people haven’t been able to get a thing,
nor the War Department not so much as a
still. So those photos will be valuable.”
Overton paused, to let that sink in.
“They’ll be worth a million,
in fact, in addition to what the War Department offers.
And to you they’ll be worth ten thousand dollars.”
“Because that’s what the Old Man said.”
“Well, I can use it!” said Jim, thinking
“All right. Then go to it!”
Leaving New York late that night,
Carter timed his flight to arrive over the eastern
edge of the desert just before dawn.
The trip was uneventful till he crossed
the Rockies over New Mexico and eased down into Arizona.
Then, flying low and fast, he suddenly caught a glow
of color off ahead.
For an instant Jim thought it was
the dawn, then called himself a fool. For one
thing, the glow was in the west, not the east.
And for another, altogether more significant, it was
Pulling his stick back hard, he shot
like a rocket to ten thousand feet, figuring that
a higher altitude, besides giving him a better view
of the lay of the land, would be considerably safer.
Winging on now at that height, he
saw the orange tide rise higher in the west by seconds,
as he rushed toward God knew what eery lair. He
suddenly gasped in amazement, as he saw now something
so incredible it left him numb.
Below, looming above the on-rushing
horizon was a city! But such a city as the brain
of man could scarcely conceive, much less execute a
city of some fluorescent orange material, rising tier
on tier, level on level, spreading out over the sandy
floor of the desert for miles.
And, as Jim draw nearer, he saw, too,
that this weird city was teeming with life terrible
life! Thousands of those hideous monsters were
working there like an army of ants in a sand-hill a
sand-hill of glistening, molten glass, it seemed from
Were they building their city from
the sand of the desert, these hellish glaciers?
Carter decided to find out.
“Well, here goes!” he
muttered, diving straight for that dazzling citadel,
one hand on the stick, the other gripping the trigger
of his automatic camera. “This’ll
make a picture for the Old Man, all right!”
Off to the east the dawn was breaking,
and he saw, as he swept down, its pearly pastel shades
blending weirdly with that blinding orange glare.
Pressing the trigger now, he drove
his screaming plane on with throttle wide and
yes, it was glass! glass of some sort, that
crazy nightmare down there.
“Whew!” gasped Carter
as waves of dazing heat rose about him. “Boy,
but it’s hot! I can’t stand much of
this. Better get out while the getting’s
But he clenched his teeth, and dove
on down to see what those fiery demons looked like.
Funny they didn’t make any effort to attack.
Surely they must see him now.
“Take that, my beauties! and
that!” he gasped, pressing the trigger of his
Then, at a scant two thousand feet,
he levelled off, his wings blistering with the heat,
and zoomed up again when to his horror,
his engine faltered; died.
In that agonizing moment it came to
Jim that this perhaps was why neither the Television
News nor the War Department pilots had been able to
get pictures of the hell below.
Had something about that daring heat
killed their motors, too, as it had his? Had
they plunged like fluttering, sizzling moths into that
inferno of orange flame?
“Well, I guess it’s curtains!” he
A glance at his altimeter showed a
scant eighteen hundred now. Another glance showed
the western boundary of the city, agonizing miles ahead.
Could he make it? He’d try, anyway!
So, nursing his plane along in a shallow
glide, Jim slipped down through that dazing heat.
“Got to keep her speed up!”
he told himself, half deliriously, as he steadily
lost altitude. “Can’t pancake here,
or I’ll be a flapjack!”
At an altitude of less than a thousand
he levelled off again, eased on down, fully expecting
to feel his plane burst into flames. But though
his eyebrows crisped and the gas must have boiled,
the sturdy little plane made it.
On a long last glide, he put her wheels
down on the sandy desert floor, a bare half mile beyond
that searing hell.
The heat was still terrific but endurable
now. He dared breathe deeper; he found his head
clearing. But what was the good of it? It
was only a respite. The monsters had seen him,
all right no doubt about that! Already
they were swooping out of their weird citadel like
a pack of furious hornets.
On they came, incredibly fast, moving
in a wide half-circle that obviously was planned to
Tense with horror, like a doomed man
at the stake, Jim watched the flaming phalanx advance.
And now he saw what they really were; saw that his
first, fantastic guess had been right.
They were ants or
at least more like ants than anything on earth great
fiery termites ten feet long, hideous mandibles snapping
like steel, hot from the forge, their huge compound
eyes burning like greenish electric fire in their
livid orange sockets.
And another thing Jim saw, something
that explained why the fearful insects had not flown
up to attack him in the air. Their wings were
They had molted, were earthbound now.
There was much food for thought in
this, but no time to think. Already the creatures
were almost on him.
Jim turned his gaze from them and
bent over his dials in a last frantic effort to get
his motor started. The instinct of self-preservation
was dominant now and to his joy, suddenly
the powerful little engine began to hum with life.
He drew one deep breath of infinite
relief, then gave her the gun and whirled off down
the desert floor, the enraged horde after him.
For agonizing instants it was a nip-and-tuck
race. Then as he felt his wheels lift, he pulled
hard back on his stick, and swept up and away from
the deadly claws that clutched after him in vain.
Climbing swiftly, Jim banked once,
swept back, put the bead full on that scattering half-circle
of fiery termites, and pressed the trigger of his
“There, babies!” he laughed
grimly. “You’re in the Rogues’
Then, swinging off to the northeast,
he continued to climb, giving that weird ant-hill
a wide berth.
Funny, about those things losing their
wings, he was thinking now. Would they grow them
again, or were they on the ground for good? And
what was their game out there in the desert, anyway?
Questions Jim couldn’t answer,
of course. Only time would tell. Meanwhile,
he had some pictures that would make the Old Man sit
up and take notice, not to mention the War Department.
“They’d better get the
Army on the job before those babies get air-minded
again!” he told himself, as he winged on into
the rising sun. “Otherwise the show they’ve
already staged may be only a little curtain-raiser.”
Jim’s arrival in the city room
of The New York Press that afternoon was a
triumphant one, for he had radio-phoned the story ahead
and extras were out all over the metropolitan area,
with relays flashing from the front pages of papers
No sooner had he turned over his precious
pictures to the photographic department for development
than Overton rushed him to a microphone, and made
him repeat his experience for the television screen.
But the city editor’s enthusiasm
died when the negatives came out of the developer.
“There are your pictures!”
he said, handing over a bunch of them.
Carter looked at them in dismay.
They were all blank just so much plain
Overton. “A hell of a photographer you are!”
“I sure am!” Jim agreed,
still gazing ruefully at the ruined negatives.
“Funny, though. The camera was checked before
I started. I had the range before I pulled the
trigger, every shot.” He paused, then added,
as though reluctant to excuse himself: “It
must have been the heat.”
“Yeah. I suppose so!
Well, that was damn expensive heat for you, my lad.
It cost you ten thousand bucks.”
Jim had been going to say it had nearly
cost him his life but thought better of it. Besides,
an idea had come.
“Give me those negatives!”
he said, “I’m going to find out what’s
wrong with ’em.”
And since they were of no use to Overton,
he gave them to Jim.
That night again, Jim Carter presented
himself at the Wentworth home in Hartford, and again
it was Joan who admitted him.
“Oh, Jimmy!” she murmured,
as he took her in his arms. “We’re
all so proud of you!”
“I’m glad someone is,” he said.
“But what a fearful risk you
ran! If you hadn’t been able to get your
“Why think of unpleasant things?” he said
with a smile.
Then they went into the library, where
Professor Wentworth added his congratulations.
“But I’m afraid I didn’t
accomplish much,” said Jim, explaining about
“Let me see them,” said the professor.
Jim handed them over.
For a moment or two Professor Wentworth
examined them intently, holding them this way and
“They indeed appear to be extremely
over-exposed,” he admitted at length. “Your
Fire Ants are doubtless radio-active to a high degree.
The results could not have been much worse had you
tried to photograph the sun direct.”
“I thought as much,” said Carter, gloomily.
“But possibly the damage isn’t
irreparable. Suppose we try re-developing a few
of these negatives.”
He led the way to his study, which
since the destruction of the observatory had been
converted into a temporary laboratory.
Ten minutes later, Professor Wentworth
had his re-developing bath ready in a porcelain basin
and had plunged some of the negatives into it.
“This process is what photographers
call intensification,” he explained. “It
consists chemically in the oxidation of a part of the
silver of which the image is composed. I have
here in solution uranium nitrate, plus potassium ferricyanide
acidified with acetic acid. The latter salt,
in the presence of the acid, is an oxidizing agent,
and, when applied to the image, produces silver oxide,
which with the excess of acetic acid forms silver
“Which is all so much Greek to me!” said
“At the same time, the ferricyanide
is reduced to ferrocyanide,” the professor went
on, with a smile at Joan, “whereupon insoluble
red uranium ferrocyanide is produced, and, while some
of the silver, in being oxidized by this process,
is rendered soluble and removed from the negative
into the solution, it is replaced by the highly non-actinic
and insoluble uranium compound.”
The process was one quite familiar
to photographers experienced in astronomical work,
he explained. In fifteen minutes they should know
what results they were getting.
But when fifteen minutes passed and
the negatives were still as black as ever, Jim’s
Not so Professor Wentworth’s, however.
“There is a definite but slow
reaction taking place,” he said after a careful
examination. “Either the over-exposure is
even greater than I had suspected, or the actinic
rays from your interesting subjects have formed a
stubborn chemical union with the silver of the image.
In the latter event, which is the theory I am going
to work on, we must speed up the reaction and tear
some of that excess silver off, if we’re ever
to see what is underneath.”
“But how are you going to speed
up the reaction?” asked Jim. “I thought
that uranium was pretty strong stuff by itself.”
“It is, but not as strong as
this new substance we have in combination with the
silver here. So I think I’ll try a little
electrolysis or, in plain English, electro-plating.”
As he spoke, the professor clipped
a couple of platinum electrodes to the basin, one
at each end. To the anode he attached one of the
negatives, to the cathode a small piece of iron.
“Now then, we’ll soon see.”
He passed a low current into the wires,
through a rheostat, with startling results. There
was a sudden foaming of the solution and a weird vapor
rose from it, luminous, milky, faintly orange.
For a moment, all they could do was stare.
Then Professor Wentworth switched
off the current and stepped toward the tank.
Waving away that orange gas, he reached for the cathode
and held it up. It was no longer iron, but silver,
“Plated, you see!” he exclaimed in triumph.
“Yes, but those fumes!”
cried Jim. “Why, they were the same color
as the the Fire Ants, as you call them.”
“I know.” The professor
was not as calm as he pretended. “We have
released some of their actinic rays captured by the
negative, in prying loose our excess silver.
Later I shall repeat the process and capture some
of that vapor for analysis. At present, let us
have a look at the negative already treated.”
He lifted the anode from the solution
now, removed the negative, and held it up. A
smile of satisfaction broke over his face, followed
by a shudder.
“There you are, Jim! Have a look!”
Jim looked, with Joan peering over
his shoulder, and his pulses tingled. It was
a clear shot of that scattering half-circle of fiery
termites, taken after he got away and swept back over
“Say, that’s wonderful!” he exclaimed.
“Wonderful but horrible!” echoed
“I’ll admit they’re
not much on looks,” laughed Carter. “But
their homely maps are worth a lot to me ten
thousand dollars, in fact!”
He told her why, and what he proposed
to do with the money, and Joan thought it a very good
While this was taking place, Professor
Wentworth was re-developing the rest of the negatives.
At last all had been salvaged, even
those taken in the terrific heat over that weird glass
city out there, and Jim was preparing to bear them
back to Overton in triumph.
He had thanked the kindly professor
from the bottom of his heart, had even told him something
of what he had been telling Joan. There remained
but to put one last question, then go.
“Summing it all up, what do
you make of those nightmares?” he asked.
“Do you think they can be destroyed?”
Professor Wentworth did not reply at once.
“I can perhaps answer your question
better when I have analyzed this specimen of gas,”
he said at length, holding up a test-tube in which
swirled a quantity of that luminous, milky orange vapor.
“But if you wish to quote me for publication,
you may say that when I have learned the nature of
it, I shall devote all my energies to combating the
menace it constitutes.”
And that was the message Jim took
back with him, but it was the pictures that interested
the practical Overton most.
Before many days, however, Overton,
with the rest of the world, was turning anxiously
to Professor Wentworth, watching his every move, awaiting
his every word. For before many days terrible
reports started coming in, not only from the Arizona
desert but from the assembly grounds of the Fire Ants
Those deadly termites were on the
move! They were spreading from their central
citadels in ominous, expanding circles circles
that engulfed villages, towns and cities in a swift,
relentless ring of annihilation that was fairly stupefying.
In North America, the cities of Phoenix,
Tucson and Prescott, with all that lay between, were
already gone, their frantic populaces fleeing
to the four points of the compass before that fateful
orange tide. In South America, Rosario and Cordoba
were within the flaming ring and Buenos Aires was
threatened. In Europe, Moscow and its vast tributary
plain had fallen before the invaders. In Asia,
a veritable inland empire was theirs, reaching from
Urga to the Khingan Mountains. In Africa, Southern
Algeria and French Sudan, with their innumerable small
villages and oases, were overrun. In Australia,
Coolgardie had succumbed and Perth was in a panic.
But fearful though the destruction
was on the continents, it was the islands of the world
that suffered most. First the smallest, those
picturesque green gems of the South Seas, crisped and
perished. Then came reports of the doom of the
Hawaiian group, the Philippines, the East and West
Indies, New Zealand, Tasmania and a score of others,
their populations perishing by the thousands, as shipping
proved unavailable to transport them to safety.
By far the most tragic fate, however,
was that suffered by the British Isles. What
happened there stunned the world, and brought realization
to humanity that unless some miracle intervened, it
was but a mirror of the doom that awaited all.
For England, Ireland and Scotland were habitable no
more. London, Dublin, Glasgow all their
proud cities, all their peaceful hamlets, centuries
old, were flaming ruins.
Out of a population, of some sixty
millions, it was estimated that at least eight millions
must have perished. The rest, by prodigious feats
of transportation, managed to reach the mainland, where
they spread as refugees throughout an apprehensive,
As for the armies and navies of the
world, they were powerless before this fiendish invader.
Hammered with high explosives, drenched with chemicals,
sprayed with machine-gun ballets, the fiery termites
surged on unchecked, in ever-widening circles of death.
Lead and steel passed through them
harmlessly. Gas wafted off them like air.
Despite the frantic efforts of scientists and military
men, nothing could be devised to stem that all-devouring
It was quite obvious by now, even
to the most conservative minds, that the end of human
life on earth was not far off. It could only be
a few more weeks before the last stronghold fell.
Daily, hourly, those deadly Fire Ants were everywhere
expanding their fields of operations. Presently
all humanity would be driven to the seacoasts, there
to perish by fire or water, as they chose.
There were some optimists, of course,
who believed that the miracle would happen that
Professor Wentworth or some other scientist would
devise some means of repelling the invader before it
was too late.
Young Jim Carter of The York Press
was not among them, however, though he would have
gambled it would be Professor Wentworth if anyone.
For what hope was there that any mere man could figure
out a weapon that would be effective against such
a deadly, such a superhuman foe?
Very little, it seemed, and he grew
less and less sanguine, as he continued his frenzied,
sleepless work of reporting the unending catastrophes
for his paper.
He often thought bitterly of that
ten thousand dollars. A lot of good that would
do him now!
As for Joan, she faced her fate with
fortitude fortitude and a supreme faith
that her father would succeed in analyzing that sinister
orange vapor and find the weapon the world waited for.
But agonizing days passed and he did not find it.
Then at last, on the night of August
14th, when Los Angeles and San Francisco were smoldering
infernos, along with Reno, Denver, Omaha, El Paso
and a score of other great American cities; when Buenos
Aires and Santiago were gone, Berlin and Peking and
Cairo; when Australia was all one fiery hell then
it was that Professor Wentworth summoned Jim Carter
Hoping against hope, he hurried over.
Once again, Joan ushered him into
the house. She was very pale and did not speak.
At her side stood her father. It was he who spoke.
“Good evening, Jim. You have come promptly.”
His voice was strained, his face grave.
He had aged greatly in the past few weeks.
“Well I’ll admit I clipped along.
You’ve found something?”
Professor Wentworth smiled wanly.
“Suppose you step into my study and see what
I have found.”
He led the way toward the little makeshift
laboratory that for many days and nights had been
the scene of his efforts.
It was littered with strange devices
now, strangest of all perhaps a huge glass tube like
a cannon, mounted on some sort of swivel base.
Ignoring this for the moment, he turned
to a smaller tube set upright on a table at the far
end of the room. In it, glowed a sinister orange
lump that made the whole tube fluorescent.
“Behold one of your monsters
in captivity!” said the professor, again with
a wan smile. “In miniature, of course.
What I have done is to condense some of that vapor
into a solid.”
The process, he explained, was similar
to that employed by Madame Curie in obtaining metallic
radium electrolyzing a radium chloride
solution with mercury as a cathode, then driving off
the mercury by heat in a current of hydrogen only
he had used the new element instead of radium.
“Incidentally, I have learned
that this new element is far more radioactive than
radium and possesses many curious properties.
Among them, it decomposes violently in water particularly
salt water producing harmless hydrogen
and chloride compounds. So we have nothing to
fear from those seeds that fell in our oceans, lakes
“Well, that’s something,
anyway,” said Jim. “But have you found
any way to combat the ones that have already hatched?”
“Before I answer that question,”
Professor Wentworth replied, “I shall let you
witness a little demonstration.”
He advanced to the cannon-like device
at the other end of the room, swung it on its swivel
till it was pointing directly at that fluorescent
orange tube on the table.
“Watch closely!” he said, throwing a switch.
There was a sudden, whining hum in
the air and the nib of the big tube glowed a soft,
velvety green. Jim gazed at the scene with rapt
“Don’t look at that one!”
whispered Joan. “Look at the other!”
Jim did so, and saw that its fluorescence was waning.
A moment more the professor held the
current on, while the tube grew white. Then he
threw off the switch.
“Now let us have a look at our
captive,” he said, striding over.
They followed, and one glance told
Jim what had happened. That sinister lump of
orange metal had vanished.
But where was it? That was what he wanted to
“A natural question, but not
one easy to answer,” was Professor Wentworth’s
reply. “I shall tell you what I have done;
then you may judge for yourself.”
The cannon-like device which had accompanied
the seeming miracle was an adaptation of the cathode
tube, whose rays are identical with the beta rays
of the atom and consist of a stream of negatively charged
particles moving at the velocity of light 186,000
miles a second. These rays, in theory, have the
power to combine with the positively charged alpha
rays of the atom and drag them from their electrons,
causing them to discharge their full quanta of energy
at once, in the form of complete disintegration and
it was this theory the professor had acted on.
“But, good Lord that’s
splitting the atom!” exclaimed Jim. “You
don’t mean to say you’ve done that?”
“I apparently have,” was
the grave admission. “But do not let it
seem such a miracle. Bear in mind, as I have
pointed out before, that nature has accomplished this
alchemy many times. All radio-active elements
are evidences of it. The feat consists merely
in altering the valence of the atom, changing its
electric charge, in other words. What I have
done in the present instance is merely to speed up
a process nature already had under way, inasmuch as
we are dealing with a radio-active substance.”
“But what has happened to the
by-product of the reaction?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.
I have not had time to study that phase of it.
Heat, mainly, was produced. Possibly a few atoms
of helium. But the substance is gone. That
is our chief concern just now.”
It was only after abandoning chemical
means and turning to physics that he had met with
success, he said. Cathode rays had finally proved
the key to the riddle.
“But do you think this thing
will work on a big scale?” asked Jim regarding
that fragile tube doubtfully.
Professor Wentworth hesitated before replying.
“I do not know,” he admitted, “but
I intend to find out to-night.”
Jim looked at him in amazement. “To-night?”
“Yes. Or rather, the experiment
will be at dawn. If successful, this continent
at least will be rid of the menace.”
Jim’s amazement turned to incredulity
and a sudden fear gripped him. Had the strain
of the past few weeks unbalanced the professor’s
“But surely you can’t
hope to wipe them out with one tube. Why, it
would take hundreds.”
“No, only one. You see,
I am going to place the tube in the center of the
circle and direct its rays outward toward the circumference
in a swinging radius.”
Whereupon, for a moment, Jim’s fear seemed confirmed.
“But, good God!” he exclaimed.
“It couldn’t possibly be that powerful,
“I think it can be made to be,”
was Professor Wentworth’s grave assurance.
“The greatest power we know in the universe is
radiant energy, which reaches us from the sun and
the stars, traveling at the speed of light.”
“Like light rays, these heat
rays can be focused, directed; and the beta rays of
the cathode, traveling at the same velocity, can be
made to ride these rays of radiant heat much as electric
power rides radio waves. The giant, in short,
can be made, to carry the dwarf, with his deadly little
weapon. That, at least, is the theory I am acting
This somewhat allayed Jim’s
fears fears that vanished when the professor
went on to explain somewhat the working of his mechanism.
“But how are you going to get
the thing out there?” he asked, picturing with
a shudder the center of the flaming hell.
“I imagine the War Department
will provide me with a volunteer plane and pilot for
the purpose,” was the calm reply.
“And you will go?”
“Yes, I will go.”
Jim debated, but not for long.
“Well, you needn’t trouble
the War Department. Here’s your volunteer
pilot! The plane’s outside. When do
“But, my dear young man!”
objected the professor. “I cannot permit
you to make this sacrifice. It is suicide, sheer
“Is my life any more precious
than yours, or that of some volunteer Army pilot?”
Jim asked him.
“But there is Joan. If I fail she
must depend on you.”
“If you fail, Professor, Joan
won’t need me or anyone, for long. No, I
go. So let’s chuck the argument and get
“Oh, Jimmy!” sobbed Joan. “Jimmy!”
But her eyes, as they met his mistily, were lit with
a proud splendor.
Two hours later, Jim Carter’s
little auto-plane lifted into the night, and, with
that precious tube mounted above the cabin, winged
As on his former foray into that fiery
realm, Jimmy timed his flight to arrive over the eastern
edge of the Arizona desert just before dawn.
Somewhere in that great sandy waste, they felt, there
would be a place to set the plane down and get the
Professor Wentworth had broadcast
the particulars of his tube to his scientific colleagues
wherever humanity still remained, and the eyes of
the world were on this flight. If successful,
swift planes would bear similar tubes to the centers
of the devastated regions elsewhere, and sweep outward
with their deadly rays. The earth would be rid
of this fiery invader. If it were not successful....
Jim preferred not to think of that,
as he drove on into the night.
Crossing the Missouri River at dark
and deserted Kansas City, they soon saw the eastern
arc of that deadly orange circle loom on the horizon.
To get over it safely, Jim rose to twenty thousand
feet, but even there the heat, as they sped across
the frontier into enemy territory, was terrific.
Anxiously he watched his revs and
prayed for his motor to hold up. If it stopped
now, they were cooked!
The sturdy engine purred on with scarcely
a flutter, however, and soon they were behind the
lines, in a region pitted with the smoldering fires
of towns and cities.
It made them shudder, it presented
such an appalling panorama of ruin. But at the
same time, it strengthened their hope. For very
few flares of orange gleamed now among the red.
The main forces of the invader were at the front.
That meant there should be a safe place to land somewhere.
An hour later, some miles beyond that
weird glass citadel that had been their objective,
they found a wide stretch of empty desert, and there
Jim brought the little plane down to a faultless landing,
just as dawn was lightening the east.
Stepping out, he drew a deep breath
of relief. For had he crashed, or smashed that
fragile tube, all would have been in vain.
“Well, here we are!” he
exclaimed, grimly cheerful, as Professor Wentworth
stepped out after him. “Now let’s
Then he broke off, horrified, as he
saw another figure follow the professor from the cabin.
“Joan!” he gasped.
“Present!” she replied.
“But, my daughter!” the
professor’s voice broke in. “My dear
child!” A sob shook him. “Why, why,
“Please don’t let’s
talk about it!” she begged, giving his arm a
little pat. “I’m here and it can’t
be helped now. I was only afraid you’d
find me before it was too late and take me back.”
Then, edging over to Jim and slipping
her arm in his, she murmured:
“Oh, my dear! Don’t
you see I couldn’t stay behind? I had to
be with you at the end, Jimmy, if
“It won’t be!” he
cried, pressing her cold hand. “It can’t
Then he turned to give his attention
to her father, who had already mounted to the cockpit
and was working absorbedly over his mechanism in the
pale light of the coming day.
Any moment, Jim knew, those flaming
termites might discover them, and come swooping down.
With keen eyes he scanned the horizon. No sign
of them yet.
“How are you up there?” he called.
“About ready,” was the
reply. “But I shall want more light than
this for my mirrors.”
Tensely, counting the seconds, they
waited for the sunrise....
And now, as they waited, suddenly
a sinister tinge of orange suffused the rosy hues
of the east.
“The Fire Ants!” cried
Joan, shrinking. “They’ve seen us!
It was true, Jim saw with a heavy heart.
Turning to Professor Wentworth, he gasped out:
“Quick! We’ve got to do something!
You’ve no idea how fast they move!”
“Very well.” The
professor’s voice was strangely calm. “You
may start your motor. I shall do what I can.
Though if we only had the sun
Jim leaped for the cabin.
A touch of the starter and the powerful
engine came in. Braking his wheels hard, to hold
the plane on the ground, he advanced the throttle
as much as he dared, and sent a high-tension current
surging through the wires the professor had connected
with his tube above.
Soon came that high, whining hum they
had heard in the laboratory a thousand
times magnified now and the nib of the big
tube glowed a livid, eery green in the lemon dawn.
“Joan!” called her father
sharply. “Get in the cabin with Jim!”
She did so, her eyes still fixed in
horrified fascination on the eastern horizon; and
in that tense instant, she saw two things. First,
a great orange arc of fiery termites, bearing down
on them; and second, another arc, far greater the
vast saffron rim of the rising sun.
Those two things Joan saw and
so did Jim as their eardrums almost burst
with the stupendous vibration that came from the gun
in the cockpit. Then they saw a third, something
that left them mute with awe.
As Professor Wentworth swung his cannon
ray upon that advancing horde, it melted, vanished,
leaving only the clear yellow of the morning sunlight
before their bewildered eyes.
But the professor did not cease.
For five minutes ten, fifteen he
swung that mighty ray around, stepping up its power,
lengthening its range, as it reached its invisible,
annihilating arm farther and farther out....
Meanwhile Jim was radio-phoning frantically.
The air seemed strangely full of static.
At last he got Overton of The New York Press.
“Carter speaking, out in Arizona,”
he said. “Getting any reports on the ray?”
And back came the tremendous news:
“Results! Man, the world’s
crazy! They’re gone everywhere!
Tell the professor to lay off, before he sends us
“Right!” said Jim, cutting his motor.
And to Professor Wentworth he called:
“All right, that’s enough! That ray
was stronger than you knew!”
But there came no answer, and mounting
to the wing-tip, Joan following, Jim saw a sight that
froze him with horror. They beheld the professor,
slumped against the tube, his whole body glowing a
pale, fluorescent green.
“Father!” screamed Joan, rushing to his
side. “Oh, Father!”
The man stirred, motioned her away, gasped weakly:
“Do not touch me, child until
the luminosity goes. I am highly radio-active.
I had no time to insulate the tube.
No time to find out how. Had to hurry
His voice waned off and they knew
he was dead. The two stood there stunned by the
realization of his great sacrifice.
He and Joan had set forth on this
venture knowing they stood at least a chance, thought
Jim, but Professor Wentworth had known from the start
that it was sure death for him.
The sun stood out above the eastern
horizon like a huge gold coin, bright with the promise
of life to spend, when Jim and Joan took off at last
for the return home; but the radiance of the morning
was dimmed by the knowledge of the tragic burden they
For some moments, as they winged on, both were silent.
“Look!” said Jim at length. “Look
She looked, brightened somewhat.
“Yes, I see.”
And after a moment, lifting her hazel
eyes to his, she said. “Oh,
Jimmy, I’m sure it means happiness for us.”
“Yes, I’m sure!”
She stirred, moved closer.
“Jimmy, you you’re all I have
He made no reply, save to press her trembling hand.
But it was enough.
Silently, understandingly, they winged onward into
the morning light.