Ken Maddox could not remember a time
when he had not wanted to become a scientist.
Maybe it started when his father first invited him
to look through a microscope. That was when he
was a very small boy, but he could still remember
the revelation of that experience. He remembered
how it had seemed, on looking away from the lens, that
the whole world of normal vision was only a fragment
of that which was hidden behind curtains and shrouds
and locked doors. Only men, like his father, with
special instruments and wisdom and knowledge, could
ever hope to understand the world of the unknown,
which the ordinary person did not even suspect.
Now, at sixteen, Ken was tall, with
black hair that had an annoying curl to it. He
was husky enough to be the main asset of the football
squad of Mayfield High School in his senior year.
He knew exactly where he was going and what he was
going to do. He would be one of those men who
lived beyond the mere surface of the world, and who
would seek to understand its deep and hidden meanings.
Ken thought of this as he watched
Maria at the telescope. What a difference between
knowing the comet as this instrument showed it, and
with the knowledge revealed by modern astronomy, and
knowing it as the average person in Mayfield did.
Ken and Maria stayed in the observatory
until the comet had almost disappeared below the horizon.
Mrs. Maddox brought a snack of sandwiches and punch.
“I always do this when I see
the observatory dome open,” she said, smiling.
“I never know when Ken’s going to quit
his stargazing and come in for the night.”
“We’re about through,
Mom. I’ll drive Maria over to her place
and be back in a little while.”
“I’m going to loan him the stamps,”
Mrs. Maddox looked at Ken in mock
severity. “You mean you forgot again?”
“No I remembered,”
Ken said lamely. “After the post office
closed, that is. Anyhow, Maria has plenty.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Maddox,
“I know who’s going to have to mail my
invitations if they’re ever to get out in time
for the party!”
After he and Maria had finished the
snack, Ken started his car again. The engine
had cooled to normal temperature, but he watched the
indicator closely as he drove. Nothing seemed
right about the action of the car. The engine
had turned over sluggishly when he pressed the starter
button, as if the battery were almost dead. Now
it lugged heavily, even when going downhill.
“The whole thing’s haywire,”
Ken said irritably. “It acts like the crankcase
is full of sand or something.”
“Let me walk the rest of the
way,” said Maria. “You take the car
back, and I’ll bring the stamps over on my way
to school in the morning.”
“No, we’re almost there.
Nothing much more could go wrong than already has.”
When they reached Maria’s place
they found Professor and Mrs. Larsen sitting on the
“We’ve been watching the
comet,” Maria said excitedly. “Ken
let me look at it through his telescope.”
“A remarkable event,”
said Professor Larsen. “I feel very fortunate
to be alive to witness it. My generation hasn’t
had this kind of privilege before. I was a child
when Halley’s comet appeared.”
“I’ve been trying to tell
Maria what a lucky break this is, but she agrees with
Granny Wicks,” said Ken.
“Oh, I do not!” Maria snapped.
“Granny Wicks?” Professor Larsen inquired.
“No.” Ken tried to
cover the professor’s lack of familiarity with
American idioms. “She’s just the town’s
oldest citizen. Everybody likes her and calls
her Granny, but her mind belongs to the Middle Ages.”
“You hear that, Papa?”
cried Maria. “Her mind belongs to the Middle
Ages, and he says I’m like Granny Wicks!”
Maria’s mother laughed gently.
“I’m sure Ken didn’t mean your mind
is of the Middle Ages, too, dear.”
Ken flushed. “Of course
not. What I mean is that Granny Wicks thinks the
comet is something mysterious and full of omens, and
Maria says she sort of thinks the same about it.”
“I didn’t say anything about omens and
“Well, except for that....”
“Except for that, I suppose
we are all in agreement,” said Professor Larsen
slowly. He drew on his pipe and it glowed brightly
in the darkness. “The whole universe is
a terrible place that barely tolerates living organisms.
Almost without exception it is filled with great suns
that are flaming, atomic furnaces, or dead cinders
of planets to which a scrap of poisonous atmosphere
may cling. Yes, it is indeed a great miracle
that here in this corner of the universe conditions
exist where living things have found a foothold.
We may be glad that this is so, but it does not pay
man to ever forget the fierceness of the home in which
he lives. Earth is merely one room of that home,
on the pleasant, sunny side of the house. But
the whole universe is his home.”
“That’s the thing I’ve
been trying to say,” Ken answered. “We
can know this without being afraid.”
Maria’s father nodded.
“Yes. Fear is of no use to anyone.
Awe, respect, admiration, wonder, humility these
are all necessary. But not fear.”
Maria turned from the group.
“I’ll bring the stamps, Ken,” she
“Won’t you come in and
have some cake?” Mrs. Larsen asked.
“No, thanks. Mother fed
us before we left my place. I’m afraid I
couldn’t eat any more.”
In a moment Maria was back. “Here
are two whole sheets,” she said. “I
hope that will be enough.”
“Plenty. I’ll see
you get repaid tomorrow. Good night, everybody.”
“Good night, Ken.”
He moved down the walk toward his
car and got in. When he pressed die starter button
the engine groaned for a few seconds and came to a
complete stop. He tried again; there was only
a momentary, protesting grind.
Ken got out and raised the hood and
leaned over the engine in disgusted contemplation.
There was no visible clue to the cause of the trouble.
“Is your battery dead?” Professor Larsen
“No. It’s something
else.” Ken slammed the hood harder than
he had intended. “I’ll have to leave
it here overnight and pick it up in the morning.”
“I can push you home with my
car, or at least give you a ride.”
“No, please don’t bother,”
Ken said. “I’ll tow it home with Dad’s
car tomorrow. I’d just as soon walk, now.
It’s only a few blocks.”
“As you wish. Good night, Ken.”
“Good night, Professor.”
Ken’s clock radio woke him the
next morning. He reached over to shut off the
newscast it carried. There was only one item any
commentator talked about now, the comet. Ken
wondered how they could get away with a repetition
of the same thing, over and over, but they seemed able
to get an audience as long as they kept the proper
tone of semi-hysteria in their voices.
As his hand touched the dial to switch
it off, something new caught Ken’s attention.
“A curious story is coming in from all parts
of the country this morning,” the announcer
said. “Auto mechanics are reporting a sudden,
unusually brisk business. No one knows the reason,
but there seems to be a virtual epidemic of car breakdowns.
Some garagemen are said to be blaming new additives
in gasoline and lubricating oil. It is reported
that one major oil company is undertaking an investigation
of these charges, but, in the meantime, no one really
seems to have a good answer.
“In connection with the comet,
however, from widely scattered areas comes the report
that people are even blaming these engine failures
on our poor, old comet. In the Middle Ages they
blamed comets for everything from soured cream to
fallen kingdoms. Maybe this modern age isn’t
so different, after all. At any rate, this comet
will no doubt be happy to get back into open space,
where there are no Earthmen to blame it for all their
accidents and shortcomings!”
Ken switched off the radio and lay
back on the pillow. That was a real choice one blaming
the comet for car breakdowns! Page Granny Wicks!
The breakdowns were curious, however.
There was no good reason why there should be a sudden
rash of them. He wondered if they had actually
occurred, or if the story was just the work of some
reporter trying to make something out of his own inability
to get into a couple of garages that were swamped
by the usual weekend rush. This was most likely
However it didn’t explain why
his own car had suddenly conked out, Ken thought irritably.
He’d have to get it over to Art Matthews’
garage as soon as school was out.
At school that morning there was little
talk of anything but the comet. After physics
class, Ken was met by Joe Walton and three other members
of the science club, of which Ken was president.
“We want a special meeting,”
said Joe. “We’ve just had the most
brilliant brainstorm of our brief careers.”
“It had better be more brilliant
than the last one,” said Ken. “That
drained the club treasury of its last peso.”
“I was watching the comet last
night, and I began to smell the dust of its tail as
the Earth moved into it....”
“You must have been smelling
something a lot more powerful than comet dust.”
“I said to myself why
don’t we collect some of that stuff and bottle
it and see what it’s made of? What do you
think?” Joe asked eagerly.
Ken scowled. “Just how
many molecules of material from the comet’s tail
do you think there are in the atmosphere over Mayfield
“How do I know? Six maybe eight.”
Ken laughed. “You’re crazy, anyway.
What have you got in mind?”
“I’m not sure,”
Joe answered seriously. “We know the comet’s
tail is so rarefied that it resembles a pretty fair
vacuum, but it is composed of something.
As it mixes with the atmosphere we ought to be able
to determine the changing makeup of the air and get
a pretty good idea of the composition of the comet’s
tail. This is a chance nobody’s ever had
before and maybe never will again, until
we go right out there in spaceships being
right inside a comet’s tail long enough to analyze
“It sounds like a terrific project,”
Ken admitted. “The universities will all
be doing it, of course, but it would still be a neat
trick if we could bring it off. Maybe Dad and
Professor Larsen will have ideas on how we could do
“We ought to be able to make
most of the equipment,” said Joe, “so it
shouldn’t be too expensive. Anyway, we’ll
have a meeting then, right after school?”
“Yes no, wait.
The engine in my car conked out. I’ve got
to go over to Art’s with it this afternoon.
You go ahead without me. Kick the idea around
and let me know what’s decided. I’ll
go along with anything short of mortgaging the football
“Okay,” said Joe.
“I don’t see why you don’t just sell
that hunk of junk and get a real automobile.
You’ve got a good excuse now. This breakdown
is a good omen!”
“Don’t talk to me about omens!”
Art Matthews had the best equipped
garage in town, and was a sort of unofficial godfather
to all the hot-rodders in the county. He helped
them plane the heads of their cars. He got their
special cams and carburetor and manifold assemblies
wholesale, and he gave them fatherly advice about
using their heads when they were behind the wheel.
Ken called him at noon. “I’ve
got troubles, Art,” he said. “Can
I bring the car over after school?”
“I’m afraid I can’t
do a thing for you today,” Art Matthews said.
“I don’t know what’s happened, but
I’ve had tow calls all day. Right now the
shop is full and they’re stacked four-high outside.
I’m going to do a couple of highway patrol cars
and Doc Adams’. I figured they ought to
Ken felt a sudden, uneasy sense of
recognition. This was the same kind of thing
he had heard about on the radio that morning!
A rash of car breakdowns all over the country.
Now, the same thing in Mayfield!
“What’s wrong with them?”
he asked the mechanic. “Why is everybody
coming in with trouble at the same time?”
“They’re not coming in,”
said Art. “I’m having to go out after
them. I don’t know yet what’s wrong.
They heat up and stall. It’s the craziest
thing I’ve run into in 30 years of garage work.”
“Mine acted the same way,” Ken said.
“Yeah? Well, you’re
in good company. Listen, why don’t you and
maybe Joe and Al come down and give me a hand after
school? I’ll never get on top here without
some help. After we get these police and other
priority cars out of the way, maybe we can get a quick
look at what’s wrong with yours.”
“It’s a deal.”
Joe Walton wasn’t much in favor
of spending that afternoon and an unknown number of
others in Art’s garage; he was too overwhelmed
by the idea of analyzing the material of the comet’s
tail. However Art had done all of them too many
favors in the past to ignore his call for help.
“The trouble with this town,”
Joe said, “is that three-fourths of the so-called
automobiles running around the streets belong down
at Thompson’s Auto Wrecking.”
Al Miner agreed to come, too.
When they reached the garage after school they saw
Art had not been exaggerating. His place was surrounded
by stalled cars, and the street outside was lined
with them in both directions. Ken borrowed the
tow truck and brought his own car back from the Larsens’.
By that time the other two boys were at work.
“Batteries are all okay,”
Art told him. “Some of these engines will
turn over, but most of them won’t budge.
I’ve jerked a couple of heads, but I can’t
see anything. I want you to take the pans off
and take down the bearings to see if they’re
frozen. That’s what they act like.
When that’s done, we’ll take it from there.”
Ken hoisted the front end of one of
the police cars and slid under it on a creeper.
Art’s electric impact wrenches were all in use,
so he began the laborious removal of the pan bolts
by hand. He had scarcely started when he heard
a yell from Joe who was beneath the other police car.
“What’s the matter?” Art called.
“Come here! Look at this!”
The others crowded around, peering
under the car. Joe banged and pried at one of
the bearings, still clinging to the crankshaft after
the cap had been removed.
“Don’t do that!” Art shouted at
him. “You’ll jimmy up the crankshaft!”
“Mr. Matthews,” Joe said
solemnly, “this here crankshaft has been jimmied
up just as much as it’s ever going to get jimmied.
These bearings are welded solid. They’ll
have to be machined off!”
“Nothing could freeze them to the shaft that
hard,” Art exclaimed.
Joe moved out of the way. Art
crawled under and tapped the bearing. He pried
at it with a chisel. Then he applied a cold chisel
and pounded. The bearing metal came away chip
by chip, but the bulk of it clung to the shaft as
“I’ve never seen anything
like that before in my life!” Art came out from
beneath the car.
“What do you think could cause it?” Joe
“Gas!” said Art vehemently.
“The awful gas they’re putting out these
days. They put everything into it except sulphur
and molasses, and they expect an engine to run.
Additives, they call ’em! Detergents!
Why can’t they sell us plain old gasoline?”
Ken watched from a distance behind
the group. He looked at the silent, motionless
cars in uneasy speculation. He recalled again
the radio announcement of that morning. Maybe
it could be something they were adding to the
gas or oil, as Art said. It couldn’t, however,
happen so suddenly not all over the country.
Not in New York, Montgomery, Alabama, San Francisco,
and Mayfield. Not all at the same time.
Art turned up the shop lights.
Outside, as the sun lowered in the sky, the glow of
the comet began turning the landscape a copper-yellow
hue. Its light came through the broad doors of
the garage and spread over the half-dismantled cars.
“All right, let’s go,”
said Art. His voice held a kind of false cheeriness,
as if something far beyond his comprehension had passed
before him and he was at a loss to meet it or even
“Let’s go,” he said
again. “Loosen all those connecting rods
and get the shafts out. We’ll see what
happens when we try to pull the pistons.”