Ken felt he had grown 3 inches taller
after his father’s discussion. As if he
had passed some ancient ritual, he could be admitted
to the company of adults and his opinions would be
This proved to be true. His father
rapidly organized the facilities of the college laboratories
and recruited every possible science student in the
chemistry and physics departments, as well as many
from the high school. As these plans were outlined,
Ken made a proposal of his own.
“I believe our first move,”
he said, “should be to set up a network of amateur
radio stations operating in cities where there are
other laboratories. If you could be in touch
with them, ideas could be exchanged and duplication
of work avoided.”
“An excellent idea,” said
Professor Maddox. “You can work it out as
we go along.”
“No. It ought to be done
immediately,” Ken said. “If not, it
may be almost impossible to find anyone on the air
later. There may not be many amateurs who will
bother to convert their rigs to battery operation.
There may not be many who can get the batteries together.”
“Good enough!” his father
said. “Let that have priority over everything
else until you get it organized. Probably you
should find at least two contacts in each of the university
centers. Put at the top of your list Berkeley,
Pasadena, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.
“See if you can get relay contacts
that will put us in touch with Stockholm, Paris, London,
Berlin, and Tokyo. If so, we can have contact
with the majority of the workers capable of contributing
most to this problem.”
“I’ll do my best,” Ken promised.
Someone would be needed to operate
the station and spend a good many hours a week listening
and recording. He didn’t want to spend the
time necessary doing that, and he knew none of the
other club members would, either. At once he
thought of Maria Larsen. She would undoubtedly
be happy to take over the job and feel she was doing
something useful. On the way home he stopped
at her house and told her what he had in mind.
She readily agreed.
“I don’t know anything
about radio,” she said. “You’ll
have to show me what to do.”
“We won’t expect you to
learn code, of course,” he said. “When
we do handle anything coming in by code one of us
will have to take it. We’ll try to contact
phone stations wherever possible for this program we
have in mind. Most of the stuff will be put on
tape, and Dad will probably want you to prepare typed
copies, too. You can do enough to take a big
load off the rest of us.”
“I’ll be happy to try.”
They spent the rest of the day in
the radio room of the science shack. Ken taught
Maria the simple operations of turning on the transmitter
and receiver, of handling the tuning controls, and
the proper procedure for making and receiving calls.
He supposed there would be some technical objection
to her operation of the station without an operator’s
license, but he was quite sure that such things were
not important right now.
It was a new kind of experience for
Maria. Her face was alive with excitement as
Ken checked several bands to see where amateurs were
still operating. The babble of high-frequency
code whistles alternated in the room with faint, sometimes
muffled voices on the phone band.
“There are more stations than
I expected,” Ken said. “With luck,
we may be able to establish a few of the contacts
we need, tonight.”
After many tries, he succeeded in
raising an operator, W6YRE, in San Francisco.
They traded news, and it sounded as if the west coast
city was crumbling swiftly. Ken explained what
he wanted. W6YRE promised to try to raise someone
with a high-powered phone rig in Berkeley, near the
They listened to him calling, but
could not hear the station he finally raised.
“What good will that do?”
Maria asked. “If we can’t hear the
station in Berkeley....”
“He may be working on a relay
deal through the small rig. It’s better
than nothing, but I’d prefer a station we can
In a few minutes, the San Francisco
operator called them back. “W6WGU knows
a ham with a 1000-watt phone near the university,”
he said. “He thinks he’ll go for
your deal, but he’s not set up for battery.
In fact, he’s about ready to evacuate.
Maybe he can be persuaded to stay. I’m
told he’s a guy who will do the noble thing if
he sees a reason for it.”
“There’s plenty of reason for this,”
“Let’s set a schedule for 9 p.m.
I ought to have word on it by then.”
They agreed and cut off. In another
hour they had managed a contact with a Chicago operator,
and explained what they wanted.
“You’re out of luck here,”
the ham replied. “This town is falling apart
at the seams right now. The whole Loop area has
been burned out. There’s been rioting for
18 hours straight. The militia have been trying
to hold things together, but I don’t think they
even know whether anybody is still on top giving the
“I’ll try to find out
what the eggheads at the university are doing, but
if they’ve got any kind of research running in
this mess, it’ll surprise me. If they are
still there, I’ll hang on and report to you.
Otherwise, I’m heading north. There’s
not much sense to it, but when something like this
happens a guy’s got to run or have a good reason
for staying put. If he doesn’t he’ll
The Chicago operator agreed to a schedule
for the following morning.
Maria and Ken sat in silence, not
looking at each other, after they cut off.
“It will be that way in all
the big cities, won’t it?” Maria asked.
“I’m afraid so. We’re
luckier than they are,” Ken said, “but
I wonder how long we’ll stay lucky.”
He was thinking of Frank Meggs, and the people who
had swamped his store.
At 9 p.m., W6YRE came back on.
The Berkeley 1000-watt phone was enthusiastic about
being a contact post with the university people.
He had promised to make arrangements with them and
to round up enough batteries to convert his transmitter
They had no further success that night.
Ken’s father shook his head
sadly when told of the situation in Chicago.
“I had counted on them,” he said.
“Their people are among the best in the world,
and they have the finest equipment. I hope things
are not like that everywhere.”
Members of the science club took turns
at the transmitter the following days for 20-hour
stretches, until everything possible had been done
to establish the contacts requested by Professor Maddox.
In Chicago there appeared to have
been a complete collapse. The operator there
reported he was unable to reach any of the scientific
personnel at the university. He promised a further
contact, but when the time came he could not be reached.
There was no voice at all in the Chicago area.
Ken wondered what had become of the man whose voice
they had heard briefly. He was certain he would
Although there was much disorder on
the west coast, the situation was in somewhat better
control. The rioting had not yet threatened the
universities, and both Berkeley and Pasadena were working
frantically on the problem with round-the-clock shifts
in their laboratories. They had welcomed wholeheartedly
the communication network initiated by the Mayfield
In Washington, D.C. tight military
control was keeping things somewhat in order.
In Stockholm, where contact had been established through
a Washington relay after 2 days of steady effort,
there was no rioting whatever. Paris and London
had suffered, but their leading universities were
at work on the problem. Tokyo reported similar
Ken grinned at Maria as they received
the Stockholm report. “Those Swedes,”
he said. “They’re pretty good at keeping
Maria answered with a faint smile
of her own. “Everybody should be Swedes.
The fall winds and the black frost
came early that year, as if in fair warning that the
winter intended a brutal assault upon the stricken
world. The pile of logs in the community woodlot
grew steadily. A large crew of men worked to
reduce the logs to stove lengths.
They had made a crude attempt to set
up a circular saw, using animal power to drive it.
The shaft was mounted in hardwood blocks, driven by
a complicated arrangement of wooden pulleys and leather
belts. The horses worked it through a treadmill.
The apparatus worked part of the time,
but it scarcely paid for itself when measured against
the efforts of the men who had to keep it in repair.
The food storage program was well
underway. Two central warehouses had been prepared
from the converted Empire Movie Theater, and the Rainbow
Ken wished their efforts at the college
laboratory were going half as well. As the days
passed, it seemed they were getting nowhere. The
first effort to identify any foreign substance in
the atmospheric dust was a failure. Calculations
showed they had probably not allowed sufficient time
to sample a large enough volume of air.
It was getting increasingly difficult
to keep the blower system going. All of their
original supply of small engines had broken down.
The town had been scoured for replacements. These,
too, were failing.
In the metallurgical department hundreds
of tests had been run on samples taken from frozen
engines. The photomicrographs all showed a uniform
peculiarity, which the scientists could not explain.
Embedded in the crystalline structure of the metal
were what appeared to be some kind of foreign, amorphous
particles which were concentrated near the line of
union of the two parts.
Berkeley and Pasadena confirmed these
results with their own tests. There was almost
unanimous belief that it was in no way connected with
the comet. Ken stood almost alone in his dogged
conviction that the Earth’s presence in the
tail of the comet could be responsible for the catastrophe.
Another theory that was gaining increasing
acceptance was that this foreign substance was an
unexpected by-product of the hydrogen and atomic bomb
testing that had been going on for so many years.
Ken was forced to admit the possibility of this, inasmuch
as radiation products were scattered heavily now throughout
the Earth’s atmosphere. Both Russia and
Britain had conducted extensive tests just before the
breakdowns began occurring.
The members of the science club had
been allowed to retain complete control of the air-sampling
program. They washed the filters carefully at
intervals and distilled the solvent to recover the
precious residue of dust.
As the small quantity of this grew
after another week of collecting, it was treated to
remove the ordinary carbon particles and accumulated
pollens. When this was done there was very
little remaining, but that little something might
be ordinary dust carried into the atmosphere from
the surface of the Earth. Or it might be out of
the tail of the comet. Dust from the stars.
By now, Ken and his companions had
learned the use of the electron microscope and how
to prepare specimens for it. When their samples
of dust had become sufficient they prepared a dozen
slides for photographing with the instrument.
As these were at last developed in
the darkroom, Ken scanned them eagerly. Actually,
he did not know what he was looking for. None
of them did. The prints seemed to show little
more than shapeless patches. In the light of
the laboratory he called Joe Walton’s attention
to one picture. “Look,” he said.
“Ever see anything like that before?”
Joe started to shake his head.
Then he gave an exclamation. “Hey, they
look like the same particles found in the metals, which
nobody has been able to identify yet!”
Ken nodded. “It could be.
Maybe this will get us only a horselaugh for our trouble,
but let’s see what they think.”
They went into the next laboratory
and laid the prints before Ken’s father and
his associates. Ken knew at once, from the expressions
on the men’s faces, that they were not going
to be laughed at.
“I think there may be something
here,” said Professor Maddox, trying to suppress
his excitement. “It is very difficult to
tell in a picture like this whether one particle is
similar to any other, but their size and configuration
are very much alike.”
Professor Douglas grunted disdainfully.
“Impossible!” With that dismissal, he
Professor Larsen looked more carefully.
“You could scrape dust from a thousand different
sources and get pictures like this from half of them
perhaps. Only the chemical tests will show us
the nature of this material. I am certain it
is very worthwhile following up.”
“I feel certain that whatever
contaminating agent we are dealing with is airborne,”
said Professor Maddox. “If this is the same
substance it will not tell us its origin, of course,
nor will it even prove it is responsible for these
effects. However it is a step in the right direction.
We can certainly stand that!”
“Couldn’t we tell by spectroscopic analysis?”
“That would be difficult to
say. The commonness of the elements involved
might mask what you are looking for. Get John
Vickers to help you set up equipment for making some
Vickers was the teaching fellow in
the chemistry department whom Professor Maddox had
planned to assign to help the boys when they first
suggested atmospheric analysis. He had become
indispensable in the research since then. But
he liked helping the boys; it was not too long since
he had been at the same stage in his own career.
He understood their longing to do something worthwhile,
and their embarrassment at their ineptness.
“Sure, Guys,” he said,
when Professor Maddox called him in. “Let’s
see if we can find out what this stuff is. Who
knows? Maybe we’ve got a bear by the tail.”
It was delicate precision work, preparing
specimens and obtaining spectrographs of the lines
that represented the elements contained in them.
Time after time, their efforts failed. Something
went wrong either with their sample preparation, or
with their manipulation of the instruments. Ken
began to feel as if their hands possessed nothing but
“That’s the way it goes,”
John Vickers consoled them. “Half of this
business of being a scientist is knowing how to screw
a nut on a left-handed bolt in the dark. Unless
you’re one of these guys who do it all in their
heads, like Einstein.”
“We’re wasting our samples,”
Ken said. “It’s taken two weeks to
collect this much.”
“Then this is the one that does
it,” said Vickers. “Try it now.”
Ken turned the switch that illuminated
the spectrum and exposed the photographic plate.
After a moment, he cut it off. “That had
better do it!” he said.
After the plates were developed, they
had two successful spectrographs for comparison.
One was taken from the metal of a failed-engine part.
The other was from the atmospheric dust. In the
comparator Vickers brought the corresponding standard
comparison lines together. For a long time he
peered through the eyepiece.
“A lot of lines match up,”
he said. “I can throw out most of them,
though carbon, oxygen, a faint sodium.”
“The stuff that’s giving
us trouble might be a compound of one of these,”
“That’s right. If
so, we ought to find matching lines of other possible
elements in the compounds concerned. I don’t
see any reasonable combination at all.”
He paused. “Hey, here’s something
I hadn’t noticed.”
He shifted the picture to the heavy
end of the spectrum. There, a very sharp line
matched on both pictures. The boys took a look
at it through the viewer. “What is that
one?” Ken asked.
“I don’t know. I
used a carbon standard. I should have used one
farther toward the heavy end. This one looks
like it would have to be a transuranic element, something
entirely new, like plutonium.”
“Then it could be from the hydrogen
bomb tests,” said Joe.
“It could be,” said Vickers,
“but somehow I’ve got a feeling it isn’t.”
“Isn’t there a quick way to find out?”
“If we took a spectrograph of
the comet and found this same line strongly present,
we would have a good case for proving the comet was
the source of this substance.”
“Let’s have a try,”
said Vickers. “I don’t know how successfully
we can get a spectrograph of the comet, but it’s
worth an attempt.”
Their time was short, before the comet
vanished below the horizon for the night. They
called for help from the other boys and moved the
equipment to the roof, using the small, portable 6-inch
telescope belonging to the physics department.
There was time for only one exposure.
After the sun had set, and the comet had dropped below
the horizon, they came out of the darkroom and placed
the prints in the viewing instrument.
Vickers moved the adjustments gently.
After a time he looked up at the circle of boys.
“You were right, Ken,” he said. “Your
hunch was right. The comet is responsible.
Our engines have been stopped by dust from the stars.”