The news broadcasts the following
morning were less hysterical than previously.
Because the news itself was far more serious, the announcers
found it unnecessary to inject artificial notes of
Ken listened to his bedside radio
as he watched the first tint of dawn above the hills
east of the valley. “The flurry of mechanical
failures, which was reported yesterday, has reached
alarming proportions,” the announcer said.
“During the past 24 hours garages in every section
of the nation have been flooded with calls. From
the other side of the Atlantic reports indicate the
existence of a similar situation in Europe and in
the British Isles.
“Automobile breakdowns are not
the most serious accidents that are taking place.
Other forms of machinery are also being affected.
A crack train of the Southern Pacific came to a halt
last night in the Arizona desert. All efforts
of the crew to repair the stalled engine were fruitless.
A new one had to be brought up in order for the passengers
to continue on their way early this morning.
“From Las Vegas comes word that
one of the huge generators at Hoover Dam has been
taken out of service because of mechanical failure.
Three other large municipalities have had similar
service interruptions. These are Rochester, New
York, Clinton, Missouri, and Bakersfield, California.
“Attempts have been made to
find some authoritative comment on the situation from
scientists and Government officials. So far, no
one has been willing to commit himself to an opinion
as to the cause of this unexplained and dangerously
“Yesterday it was jokingly whispered
that the comet was responsible. Today, although
no authority can be found to verify it, the rumor
persists that leading scientists are seriously considering
the possibility that the comet may actually have something
to do with the breakdowns.”
Ken turned off the radio and lay back
with his hands beneath his head, staring at the ceiling.
His first impulse was to ridicule again this fantastic
idea about the comet. Yet, there had to be some
He had seen enough of the engines
in Art’s garage last night to know they had
suffered no ordinary mechanical disorder. Something
had happened to them that had never happened to engines
before, as far as he knew. The crankshafts were
immovable in their bearings. The pistons had
been frozen tight in the cylinders when they tried
to remove some of them. Every moving part was
welded to its mating piece as solidly as if the whole
engine had been heated to the very edge of melting
and then allowed to cool.
Apparently something similar was happening
to engines in every part of the world. It could
only mean that some common factor was at work in London,
and Paris, and Cairo, and Mayfield. The only such
factor newly invading the environment of every city
on the globe was the comet.
It would almost require a belief in
witchcraft to admit the comet might be responsible!
Ken arose and dressed slowly.
By the time he was finished he heard his father’s
call to breakfast from downstairs.
Professor Maddox was already seated
when Ken entered the dining room. He was a tall,
spare man with an appearance of intense absorption
in everything about him.
He glanced up and nodded a pleasant
good morning as Ken approached. “I hear
you worked overtime as an auto mechanic last night,”
he said. “Isn’t that a bit rough,
along with the load you’re carrying at school?”
“Art asked us to do him a favor.
Haven’t you seen what’s been happening
“I noticed an unusual number
of cars around the garage, and I wondered about it.
Has everyone decided to take care of their winter repairs
at the same time?”
“Haven’t you heard the radio, either,
“No. I’ve been working
on my new paper for the Chemical Journal until
midnight for the last week. What has the radio
got to do with your work as a mechanic?”
Quickly, Ken outlined to his father
the events he had heard reported the past two days.
“It’s not only automobiles, but trains,
power plants, ships, everything ”
Professor Maddox looked as if he could
scarcely believe Ken was not joking. “That
would certainly be a strange set of coincidences,”
he said finally, “provided the reports are true,
“It’s true, all right,”
said Ken. “It’s not a matter of coincidence.
Something is causing it to happen!”
“What could that possibly be?”
“There’s talk about the comet having something
to do with it.”
Professor Maddox almost choked on
his spoonful of cereal. “Ken,” he
laughed finally, “I thought you were such a stickler
for rigid, scientific methods and hypotheses!
What’s happened to all your rigor?”
Ken looked down at the tablecloth.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, like something
out of the dim past, when they blamed comets for corns,
and broken legs, and lost battles. Maybe this
time it isn’t so crazy when you stop to think
about it, and it’s absolutely the only new factor
which could have some worldwide effect.”
“How could it have any effect
at all worldwide or otherwise?” Professor
“The whole world is immersed in its tail.”
“And that tail is so tenuous
that our senses do not even detect the fact!”
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have
some kind of effect.”
“Such as stopping engines?
Well, you’re a pretty good mechanic. Just
what did the comet do to all these stalled pieces of
Ken felt his father was being unfair,
yet he could scarcely blame him for not taking the
hypothesis seriously. “I don’t know
what the comet did or could do ”
he said in a low voice. “I just know I’ve
never seen any engines like those we took apart last
In detail, he described to his father
the appearance of the engine parts they had dismantled.
“I brought home some samples of metal we cut
from the engine blocks with a torch. Would you
take them up to the laboratory at the college and
have them examined under the electron microscope?”
“I wouldn’t have time
to run any such tests for several days. If you
are intent on pursuing this thing, however, I’ll
tell you what I’ll do. You and your science
club friends can come up and use the equipment yourselves.”
“We don’t know how!”
“I’ll arrange for one
of the teaching fellows to show you how to prepare
metallic samples and operate the electron microscope.”
Ken’s eyes lighted. “Gee,
that would be great if you would do that, Dad!
Will you, really?”
“Come around after school today.
I’ll see that someone is there to help you.”
Art Matthews was disappointed when
Ken called and said none of the science club members
would be around that afternoon. He couldn’t
keep from showing in his voice that he felt they were
letting him down.
“It’s not any use trying
to get those engines running,” Ken said.
“The pistons would never come out of most of
them without being drilled out. We’re not
equipped for that. Even if we got things loosened
up and running again, what would keep the same thing
from happening again? That’s what we’ve
got to find out.”
Art was unable to accept this point
of view. He held a bewildered but insistent belief
that something ought to be done about the mounting
pile of disabled cars outside his garage. “We
can get some of them going, Ken. You fellows
have got to lend a hand. I can’t tackle
it without help.”
“I’m sorry,” Ken
said. “We’re convinced there’s
got to be another way to get at the problem.”
“All right. You guys do
whatever you figure you’ve got to do. I
can probably round up some other help.”
Ken hung up, wishing he had been able
to make Art understand, but the mechanic would probably
be the last person in Mayfield to accept that the
comet could have any possible connection with the frozen
As Ken walked to school that morning
he estimated that at least 25 percent of the cars
in Mayfield must be out of commission. Some of
the men in his neighborhood were in their driveways
futilely punching their starters while their engines
moaned protestingly or refused to turn over at all.
Others were peering under the hoods, shaking their
heads, and calling across the yards to their neighbors.
In the street, some cars were lugging
with great difficulty, but others moved swiftly along
without any evidence of trouble. Ken wondered
how there could be such a difference, and if some
might prove immune, so to speak, to the effect.
He had called a meeting of the club
in the chemistry laboratory for an hour before the
first class. All of the members were there when
Ken called the meeting to order at
once. “I guess you’ve all heard the
news broadcasts, and you know what’s happening
here in town,” he said. “Yesterday
you talked about the possibility of collecting samples
and analyzing the material of the comet’s tail.
I don’t know what you decided. You can
fill me in later on that. The problem is a lot
more important now than it was yesterday.
“It’s beginning to seem
as if the presence of the comet may actually be responsible
for the wave of mechanical failures. Finding out
how and why is just about the biggest problem in the
whole world right now.”
A babble of exclamations and protests
arose immediately from the other members of the group.
Al Miner and Dave Whitaker were on their feet.
Ted Watkins waved a hand and shouted, “Don’t
tell us you’re swallowing that superstitious
Ken held up a hand. “One
at a time. We haven’t got all day, and there’s
a lot of ground to cover. Ted, what’s your
“My comment is that anybody’s
got a screw loose if he believes the comet’s
got anything to do with all those cars being in Art’s
garage. That stuff went out of fashion after
the days of old Salem.”
Several of the others nodded vigorously as Ted spoke.
“I guess we do need to bring
some of you up to date on the background material,”
said Ken. “Joe, tell them what we found
Briefly, Joe Walton described the
engines they had dismantled. “Something
had happened to them,” he said, “which
had never happened to an engine since Ford drove his
first horseless carriage down Main Street.”
“It doesn’t mean anything!”
exclaimed Ted. “No matter what it is, we
haven’t any basis for tying it to the comet.”
“Can you name any other universal
factor that could account for it?” Ken asked.
“We have an effect that appears suddenly in Mayfield,
Chicago, Paris, and Cairo. Some people say it’s
the additives in gasoline, but you don’t get
them showing up simultaneously in all parts of the
world. There is no other factor common to every
locality where the mechanical failures have occurred,
except the comet.
“So I called this meeting to
suggest that we expand our project beyond anything
we previously had in mind. I suggest we try to
determine the exact relationship between the breakdowns
and the appearance of the comet.”
Big Dave Whitaker, sitting at the
edge of the room, rose slowly in his seat. “You’ve
got the cart before the horse,” he said.
“You’ve got a nice theory all set up and
you want us to beat our brains out trying to prove
it. Now, take me. I’ve got a theory
that little green men from Mars have landed and are
being sucked into the air intake of the engines.
Prove my theory first, why don’t you?”
Ken grinned good-naturedly. “I
stand corrected, but I won’t back down very
far. I won’t suggest we try to prove the
connection with the comet, but I do propose to set
up some experiments to discover if there is any relationship.
If there is, then what it is. Does that suit you?”
“I’ll go along with that.
How do you propose to go about it?”
“Let’s find out where
the rest stand,” said Ken. “How about
it, you guys?”
“I’ll go for it,”
said Ted, “as long as we aren’t out to
prove a medieval superstition.”
One by one, the others nodded agreement.
Joe Walton said intensely, “We’ll find
out whether it’s superstition or not! There’s
no other possible cause, and we’ll prove it
before we’re through.”
Ken smiled and waved him down.
“We’re working on a hypothesis only.
Anyway, here’s what I have to suggest by way
of procedure: Since the tail of the comet is
so rarefied, there aren’t many molecules of it
in the atmosphere of this entire valley. I don’t
know just what the mathematical chances of getting
a measurable sample are. Maybe you can work out
some figures on it, Dave. We’ll have to
handle an enormous volume of air, so let’s get
a blower as large as we can get our hands on and funnel
the air through some electrically charged filters.
We can wash down these filters with a solvent of some
kind periodically and distill whatever has collected
“You won’t get enough
to fill the left eye of a virus suffering from arrested
development,” said Ted.
“We’ll find out when we
get set up,” said Ken. “My father
has agreed to give us access to the electron microscope
at the college. Maybe we can use their new mass
spectrograph to help analyze whatever we collect.”
“If we knew how to use a mass spectrograph,”
“He’s offered to let one of the teaching
fellows help us.”
“What will all this prove, even
if we do find something?” Dave asked. “You’ll
get all kinds of lines from a spectrogram of atmospheric
dust. So what?”
“If we should get some lines
that we can’t identify, and if we should get
those same lines from metallic specimens taken from
the disabled engines, we would have evidence of the
presence of a new factor. Then we could proceed
with a determination of what effect, if any, this factor
has on the engines.”
Ken looked around the group once more.
“Any comments, suggestions, arguments?
There being none, we’ll consider the project
approved, and get to work this afternoon.”
As they left to go to their first
classes, Ted shook his head gloomily. “Man,
you don’t know what you’re biting off!
All we’ve done so far is build a few ham radios,
a telescope, and some Geiger counters. You’re
talking about precision work now, and I mean pree-cisión!”
Throughout the day Ken, too, felt
increasing doubts about their ability to carry off
the project. It would be a task of tremendous
delicacy to analyze such microscopic samples as they
might succeed in obtaining. Microchemical methods
would be necessary, and none of them had had any experience
in that field. His father was an expert with these
methods and though he might scold them for tackling
such a difficult project, he’d help them, Ken
thought. He always had.
This was no ordinary project, however.
Ken had no idea how seriously scientists in general
were considering the comet as the offender, but certainly
they must be working frantically on the problem of
the mechanical disorder. Unless they found another
cause very soon, they were certain to turn to an analysis
of the comet’s tail. It would be very satisfying
if Ken’s group could actually be in the vanguard
of such a development.
He tried to ridicule his own conviction
that the comet held the key. He had no reason
whatever for such a belief, except the fact of the
comet’s universal presence. How it could
stop an automobile engine or a railroad train was
beyond his wildest imaginings.
But there was nothing else. Nothing at all.
On the way home after school, there
seemed to Ken to be a subtle change that had come
over the valley since morning. Along the streets,
cars were parked in front of houses to which they
did not belong. Little knots of people were standing
about, talking in hushed tones. The comet was
aflame in the sky.
There seemed to be not merely an awe
and an uneasiness in the people, but a genuine fear
that Ken could not help absorbing as he moved past
them on the sidewalks. Their faces were yellow
and flat under the glare of the comet, and they looked
at him and at each other as if they were strangers
in an alien land.
Almost without being aware of it,
Ken found himself running the last half-block before
he reached his own home. He burst in the door
and called out with forced cheeriness, “Hi,
Mom, what’s cooking? I’m starved.
The whole gang’s coming over in a few minutes.
I hope you’ve got something for them.”
His mother came out of the kitchen,
her face gray with uncertainty. “You’ll
have to do with sandwiches this afternoon,” she
said. “I haven’t been able to use
the electric stove since noon.”
Ken stared at her.
“There’s something about
the power,” she went on. “We haven’t
any lights, either. They say the power station
at Collin’s Dam went out of commission this
morning. They don’t know when they’ll
be able to get it back on.”