The hall was already filled.
Several scores of chairs had been placed in the corridors,
and these were occupied also. People were being
ushered to nearby classrooms where they would hear
the proceedings over the school’s public-address
“It looks as if we’ll
have to get it by remote pickup,” said Ken.
At that moment Sally Teasdale, the Mayor’s secretary,
spotted their group and hurried over.
“Mayor Hilliard told me to watch
for you,” she said. “He wants you
to sit on the platform, Professor Maddox, and also
Dr. Douglas and Dr. Larsen. The others of your
party can sit in the wings.”
Professor Maddox agreed and they followed
Sally to the stage entrance. The platform was
already occupied by the Mayor and the town councilmen,
the college department heads, and leading citizens
of Mayfield. The professors took their places,
while Ken and the others found chairs in the wings.
It was the best seat in the house, Ken decided.
They could see both the platform and the audience
It was undoubtedly the largest group
that had ever gathered in one place in Mayfield.
In spite of the enormous number present it was a solemn
group. There was almost no talking or jostling.
To Ken, it seemed the faces about him had a uniform
appearance of bewildered searching for reassurance
that nothing could really destroy the way of life they
had always known.
Mayor Hilliard arose and called the
meeting to order. “I think everyone knows
why we’ve been called here,” he said.
“Because of the nature of the circumstances
I think it appropriate that we ask Dr. Aylesworth,
pastor of the Community Church, to offer prayer.”
Heads were bowed in reverent silence
as Dr. Aylesworth stood before the assembly and offered
a solemn invocation that their deliberations might
receive divine guidance, and their minds be filled
with wisdom to combat the evil that had come upon
The minister was a big, ruddy-faced
man with a lion’s mane of white hair. The
unwavering authority of his voice filled the audience
with the conviction that they were better prepared
to face their problems when he had resumed his seat.
Mayor Hilliard outlined the worldwide
situation as he had obtained it through news reports
up to an hour ago. He described the desperate
situation of the nation’s larger cities.
Their food supplies were sufficient for only a few
days without any replenishment by rail and truck transportation.
Ninety percent of automobile traffic had ceased.
The railroads were attempting to conserve their rolling
stock, but 70 percent of it was out of commission,
and the remainder could not be expected to operate
longer than a few days. Air traffic had stopped
entirely. On the oceans, only sailing vessels
continued to move.
“Mayfield is already cut off,”
the Mayor went on. “Our last train went
through here 30 hours ago. The trucking companies
out of Frederick have suspended operations. We
have no cars or trucks of our own here in town, on
which we can depend. We’re on our own.
“So far, the scientists have
found no solution. Tomorrow, they may find one.
Or it may be 10 years before they do. In the meantime,
we have to figure out how we, here in Mayfield, are
going to carry on.
“Our first consideration is,
of course, food supplies. The Council met this
morning, and we have appointed a committee to take
immediate possession of all foodstuffs and every facility
for food production within the entire valley.
Beginning tomorrow morning, this committee will begin
to accumulate all food supplies into one or more central
warehouses where they will be inventoried for rationing.
“All stocks of fresh meat will
be salted and cured. Home supplies will be limited
to no more than a week’s needs of any one item.
Hoarders who persist in their unfair activities will
be ordered to leave the community.
“My fellow citizens, these are
stringent and severe regulations, but we are not facing
a time of mild inconvenience. It may well be that
in this coming winter we shall be literally fighting
for our very lives. We, as your leaders, would
like a vote of confidence from you, the citizens of
Mayfield, as an assurance that you will co-operate
with our efforts to the best of your ability.”
Instantly, nearly everyone in the
auditorium was on his feet shouting his approval of
the Mayor’s program.
Mayor Hilliard had known he was taking
a long chance in presenting so bluntly such a severe
program, but long experience had taught him the best
way into a tough situation was a headlong plunge that
ignored consequences. The ovation surprised him.
He had expected substantial opposition. Visibly
moved, he held up his hand for quiet once more.
“Our farms and our livestock
will be our only means of salvation after present
food stocks are gone,” he said. “A
separate subcommittee will inventory all farmland
and cattle and dairy herds and plan for their most
efficient use in the coming season. Crops will
be assigned as the committee sees fit. Farm labor
will be taken care of by all of us, on a community
“A third program that must begin
immediately is the stockpiling of fuel for the coming
winter. Wood will be our only means of heating
and cooking because the nearest mines are too far
away for us to haul coal from them by teams.
The same is true of fuel oil stocks.
“Heating will be at a minimum.
Most of you do not have wood stoves. What you
have must be converted to use of wood. An additional
committee will be appointed to supervise this conversion
and the construction, where necessary, of makeshift
stoves out of sheet metal, old oil barrels, and anything
else of which we can make use.”
Item by item, he continued down the
list of problems the Council had considered that day.
He mentioned Ken’s suggestion for conservation
of batteries. He spoke of the problems of medical
care without adequate hospital facilities, of police
activities that might be required in a period of stress
such as they could expect that winter.
When he had finished, members of the
Council detailed plans of the separate programs over
which they had charge. President Lewis spoke to
pledge support of the college staff. He pointed
out the fortunate fact that they had some of the best
minds in the entire country in their scientific departments,
and also had Professor Larsen visiting with them.
The floor was turned over then to
members of the audience for comment and questions.
Most of them were favorable, but Sam Cluff, who owned
a hundred and sixty of the best acres in the valley,
stood up red-faced and belligerent.
“It’s all a pack of nonsense!”
he declared. “This is just an excuse for
certain people in this town to get their hands in somebody
else’s pockets, and to tell other people what
to do and how to live.
“I’m not going to have
anything to do with it. Anybody who sets foot
on my land to tell me what to raise or to take my
goods away is going to have to reckon with a double-barreled,
“If there is any real problem,
which I doubt, them Government scientists will be
on the job and get things straightened out so that
trains and automobiles will be running by next week.
My advice is for everybody to go home and let them
take care of it.”
Mayor Hilliard smiled tolerantly.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you, Sam,
that some of the best scientists in the world are right
here in our own town, and they say the situation is
serious enough for emergency measures. I hope
you won’t be foolish with that shotgun, but we’re
coming out to see you, tomorrow, Sam.”
Granny Wicks seemed to erupt from
her place to which she had crowded in the center of
the hall. All eyes turned at the sound of her
scratchy, birdlike voice. “I told you,”
she shrieked. “I told you what was coming,
and now maybe you’ll believe me. There’s
nothing you can do about it, Bill Hilliard. Nothing
at all. There’s death in the air. The
stars have spoken it. The signs are in the sky.”
Mayor Hilliard interrupted her.
“Perhaps you’re right, Granny,” he
said gently. “I don’t think any of
us are going to argue with you tonight. We’re
here to do what we can, and to make plans to stay alive
just as long as possible.”
At the close, Dr. Aylesworth took
the stand. His commanding presence seemed to
draw an aura of peace once more around the troubled
group. “We are civilized men and women,”
he said. “Let us see that we act as such
during the months that are ahead of us. Let us
remember that we may see a time very soon when there
will not be enough food, fuel and clothing for all
of us. When and if that time comes, let us prove
that we are able to be our brother’s keeper,
that we are able to do unto others as we would have
others do unto us. Above all, may we be able to
continue to call on divine assistance to bring a speedy
end to this disaster, so that when it is over we can
look back and be proud that we conducted ourselves
as men and women worthy to be called civilized, and
worthy of the divine approval and aid which we now
It was decided to keep classes going
in the various schools as long as possible, releasing
those students who were needed to take assignments
in the emergency program. Ken and the rest of
the science club members obtained immediate permission
to devote their full time to the research program.
On the morning after the town meeting,
Ken dressed early and rode his bicycle toward Art’s
garage to arrange with the mechanic the details of
the gathering and storage of automobile batteries.
On the way he passed by Frank Meggs Independent Grocery
Market, the largest in Mayfield.
Although it was only a little after
7 o’clock, an enormous crowd had collected outside
and inside the store. Curious and half-alarmed,
Ken parked his bicycle and made his way through the
crowd. Inside, he found Frank Meggs ringing up
sales of large lots of food.
A red-faced woman was arguing with
him at the check-out stand. “A dollar a
pound for white beans! That’s ridiculous,
Frank Meggs, and you know it!”
“Sure I know it,” the
storekeeper said calmly. “Next winter you’ll
be glad I let you have them for even that price.
If you don’t want them, Mrs. Watkins, please
move along. Others will be glad to have them.”
The woman hesitated, then angrily
flung two bills on the counter and stalked out with
her groceries. Ken shoved his way up to the stand.
“Mr. Meggs,” he exclaimed. “You
can’t do this! All foodstuffs are being
called in by the Mayor’s committee.”
He turned to the people. “Private
hoards of food will be confiscated and placed in the
community warehouse. This isn’t going to
do you any good!”
Most of the shoppers looked shamefaced,
at his challenge, but Meggs bristled angrily.
“You keep out of this, Maddox! Nobody asked
you to come in here! These people know what they’re
doing, and so do I. How much do you think any of us
will eat if townhall gets its hands on every scrap
of food in the valley? If you aren’t buying,
“I will, and I’ll be back
just as soon as I can find the Sheriff!”
With telephone service now cut off
to conserve battery power, Ken hesitated between seeking
Sheriff Johnson at his office or at home. He
checked his watch again and decided on the Sheriff’s
He was fortunate in arriving just
before the Sheriff left. He explained quickly
what was happening at Meggs’ store. Johnson
had been assigned one of the few remaining cars that
would run. With Ken, he drove immediately to
the store. They strode in, the shoppers fanning
out before the Sheriff’s approach.
“Okay, that’s all,”
he said. “You folks leave your groceries
right where they are. Tell the others they had
better bring theirs back and get their money while
Meggs still has it. Not that anybody is going
to have much use for money, anyway.”
“You’ve no right to do
this!” Meggs cried. “This is my private
property and I’m entitled to do with it as I
“Not any longer it isn’t,”
said Sheriff Johnson. “There isn’t
such a thing as private property in Mayfield, any
more. Except maybe the shirt on your back, and
I’m not sure of that. At any rate, you’re
not selling these groceries. Accounts will be
kept, and when and if we get back to normal you’ll
be reimbursed, but for now we’re all one, big,
Most of the crowd had dispersed.
The armloads and pushcarts full of groceries had been
abandoned. Ken and the Sheriff moved toward the
“Another trick like that and
you’ll spend the time of the emergency as a
guest of the city. Incidentally, we don’t
intend to heat the jail this winter!”
Meggs turned the blaze of his anger
upon Ken. “This is your fault!” he
snarled. “You and that bunch of politicians
know there’s not going to be any shortage this
winter just as well as I do. In a week this whole
thing will be straightened out. I had a chance
to make a good thing of it. I’m going to
get even with you if it’s the last thing I ever
“That’s enough of that!”
said Sheriff Johnson sharply. “Come along,
Ken was not disturbed by Meggs’
threat of personal retaliation, but he was frightened
by the realization that Meggs wasn’t the only
one of his kind in Mayfield. His patrons were
only a shade less unstable. What would such people
do when things really got tough? How much could
they be depended on to pull their own weight?
After he had seen Art Matthews about
collecting and storing the batteries, Ken went up
to Science Hall where the rest of the club members
were already at work. Under the direction of Al
Miner, who was the best qualified to plan the alterations
of the ventilation ducts, they made the necessary
changes and installed one of the motorcycle engines
to drive the blower. At the same time, three of
them built up a high-voltage, battery-operated power
supply to charge the filter elements.
By evening the assembly was operating.
The motorcycle engine chugged pleasantly. “I
wonder how long before that one freezes up,”
Al said pessimistically.
“We ought to get more,”
said Joe. “The way the cars have gone we’ll
be lucky to get more than 2 days out of each one of
During the day, Ken’s father
had directed the preparation of metallic specimens
from samples the boys had brought from Art’s
garage and from those the men brought back from the
power plant. With the high-powered electron microscope,
photographs were taken.
As they finished their work the boys
went with Ken to the laboratory. Professor Maddox
looked up. “Hello, Fellows,” he said.
“Have you got your piece of machinery running?”
“Purring like a top,” said Ken.
“Expected to run about as long,” said
“Have you finished any photomicrographs?”
Ken asked. “Do they show anything?”
His father passed over a wet print. The boys
gathered around it.
“It doesn’t mean much
to me,” said Dave Whitaker. “Can you
tell us what it shows?”
Ken’s father took a pencil from
his pocket and touched it lightly to a barely perceptible
line across the center of the picture. “That
is the boundary,” he said, “between the
cylinder wall and the piston taken from one of the
samples you brought in.”
“I can’t see anything
that looks like a line between two pieces of metal,”
said Ted Watkins. “It looks like one solid
chunk to me.”
“That is substantially what
it is,” said Professor Maddox. “There
is no longer any real boundary as there would be between
two ordinary pieces of metal. Molecules from
each piece have flowed into the other, mixing just
as two very viscous liquids would do. They have
actually become one piece of metal.”
He took up another photograph.
“Here you can see that the same thing has happened
in the case of the shaft and bearing samples we obtained
from the Collin’s Dam power plant. Molecules
of the two separate pieces of metal have intermingled,
becoming one single piece.”
“How could they do that?”
Ken exclaimed. “Metals can’t flow
“They can if the conditions
are right. When steel is heated to a sufficiently
high temperature, it flows like water.”
“But that’s not the case here!”
“No, it isn’t, of course.
At lower temperatures the molecules of a solid do
not possess the energy of motion which they have in
a liquid state. The metallic surface of a piece
of cold steel has a certain surface tension which
prevents the escape of the relatively low-energy molecules;
thus it has the characteristics we ascribe to a solid.”
“Then what has happened in this
case?” Joe asked. “Are you able to
Professor Maddox nodded. “The
photographs show us what has happened, but they reveal
nothing about how or why. We can see the surface
tension of the two pieces of metal has obviously broken
down so that the small energy of motion possessed
by the molecules has permitted them to move toward
each other, with a consequent mixing of the two metals.
It has turned them quite literally into a single piece,
the most effective kind of weld you can imagine.”
“What would cause the surface
tension to break down like that?” Ken asked.
“That is what remains for us
to find out. We don’t have the faintest
idea what has caused it. It becomes especially
baffling when we recall that it has happened, not
in a single isolated instance, but all over the world.”
“You would think the metals
would have become soft, like putty, or something,
for a thing like that to happen to them,” said
“It would be expected that the
hardness would be affected. This is not true,
however. The metals seem just as hard as before.
The effect of mixing seems to take place only when
the metals are in sliding motion against one another,
as in the case of a piston and cylinder, or a shaft
and a bearing. The effect is comparatively slow,
taking place over a number of days. The two surfaces
must break down gradually, increasing the friction
to a point where motion must cease. Then the mixing
continues until they are welded solidly to each other.”
Ordinarily, the dusk of evening would
have fallen over the landscape, but the blaze of the
comet now lit the countryside with an unnatural gold
that reflected like a flame through the windows and
onto the faces of the men and boys in the laboratory.
“As to the cause of this phenomenon,”
Professor Maddox said with an obviously weary deliberation
in his voice, “we can only hope to find an explanation
and a cure before it is too late to do the world any
“There can’t be any question
of that!” said Ken intensely. “The
resources of the whole scientific world will be turned
on this one problem. Every industrial, university,
and governmental laboratory will be working on it.
Modern science can certainly lick a thing like this!”
Professor Maddox turned from the window,
which he had been facing. A faint, grim smile
touched the corners of his lips and died as he regarded
the boys, especially Ken. His face took on a depth
of soberness Ken seldom saw in his father.
“You think nothing is immune
to an attack by so-called modern science?” he
“Sure!” Ken went on enthusiastically,
not understanding the expression on his father’s
face. “Look at the problems that have been
licked as soon as people were determined enough and
willing to pay the cost. Giant computers, radar
eyes, atomic energy. Everybody knows we could
have made it to Mars by now if governments had been
willing to put up the necessary money.”
“You still have to learn, all
of you do,” Professor Maddox said slowly, “that
the thing we call science is only a myth. The
only reality consists of human beings trying to solve
difficult problems. Their results, which seem
to be solutions to some of those problems, we call
science. Science has no life of its own.
It does not deserve to be spoken of as an entity in
its own right. There are only people, whom we
call scientists, and their accomplishments are severely
limited by their quite meager abilities. Meager,
when viewed in comparison with the magnitude of the
problems they attack.”
Ken felt bewildered. He had never
heard his father speak this way before. “Don’t
you believe there are scientists enough scientists
who know enough to lick a thing like this
“I don’t know. I’m
quite sure no one knows. We became conscious long
ago of the fallacy of assuming that the concentration
of men enough and unlimited funds would solve any
problem in the world. For every great accomplishment
like atomic energy, to which we point with pride, there
are a thousand other problems, equally important, that
remain unsolved. Who knows whether or not this
problem of weakened surface tension in metals is one
of the insoluble ones?”
“We have to find an answer,”
said Ken doggedly. He could not understand his
father’s words. “There’s nothing
science can’t accomplish if it sets about it
with enough determination. Nothing!”