By the time Ken was through with the
ordeal in court, Art Matthews had succeeded in building
an engine from entirely new parts. He had it
installed in an airtight room into which only filtered
air could pass.
This room, and another air filter,
had been major projects in themselves. The science
club members had done most of the work after their
daily stint at the laboratory, while Art had scoured
the town for parts that would fit together.
At the end of the hearing Ken went
to the garage. The engine had been running for
5 hours then. Art was grinning like a schoolboy
who had just won a spelling bee. “She sure
sounds sweet,” he said. “I’ll
bet we can keep her going as long as we have gasoline.”
“I hope so,” Ken said.
“It’s just a waste of power to let it run
that way, though.”
Art scratched his head. “Yeah.
It’s funny, power is what we’ve been wanting,
and now we’ve got a little we don’t know
what to do with it.”
“Let’s see if we can find
a generator,” said Ken. “Charge some
batteries with it. Do you think there’s
one in town?”
“The best deal I can think of
would be to scrounge a big motor, say an elevator
motor, and convert it. The one belonging to the
5-story elevator in the Norton Building is our best
bet. I don’t imagine it froze up before
the power went out.”
“Let’s get it then,”
said Ken. “Shut this off until we’re
ready to use it. To be on the safe side, could
you cast some new bearings for the generator?”
“I don’t see why not.”
When he returned home Ken told his
father for the first time about the project Art was
“It sounds interesting,”
Professor Maddox said. “I’m not sure
exactly what it will prove.”
Ken slumped in the large chair in
the living room, weak after his exertions of the day.
“It would mean that if we could find enough
unfrozen engines, or could assemble them from spare
parts, we could get some power equipment in operation
“However, as Art said about
this one engine, what good is it? Dad even
if we lick this problem, how are things ever going
to get started up again?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve got one automobile
engine going. Pretty soon we’ll run out
of gas here in Mayfield. Where do we get more?
We can’t until the railroad can haul it, or
the pipelines can pump it. What happens when the
stock at the refineries is all used up? How can
they get into operation again? They need power
for their own plant, electricity for their pumps and
engines. All of their frozen equipment has to
be replaced. Maybe some of it will have to be
manufactured. How do the factories and plants
get started again?”
“I don’t know the answers
to all that,” Ken’s father said. “Licking
the comet dust is only half the problem and
perhaps the smallest half, at that. Our economy
and industry will have to start almost from scratch
in getting underway. How that will come about,
if it ever does, I do not know.”
To conserve their ration of firewood,
only a small blaze burned in the fireplace. The
kitchen and living room were being heated by it alone.
The rest of the house was closed off.
“We ought to rig up something
else,” Ken said tiredly. “That wastes
too much heat. What’s Mom cooking on?”
“Mayor Hilliard found a little
wood burner and gave it to me. I haven’t
had time to try converting our oil furnace.”
Ken felt unable to stay awake longer.
He went upstairs to bed for a few hours. Later,
his mother brought a dinner tray. “Do you
want it here, or would you rather come down where
it’s warm?” she asked.
“I’ll come down. I want to get up
for a while.”
“Maria is out in the shack.
She has a scheduled contact with Berkeley, but she
says the transmitter won’t function. It
looks like a burned-out tube to her. She wanted
to call Joe.”
Ken scrambled out of bed and grabbed
for his clothes. “I’ll take care of
it. Save dinner for me. We’ve got to
keep the station on the air, no matter what happens!”
He found Maria seated by the desk,
listening to the Berkeley operator’s repeated
call, to which she could not reply. The girl wore
a heavy cardigan sweater, which was scarcely sufficient
for the cold in the room. The small, tin-can
heater was hardly noticeable.
Maria looked up as Ken burst through
the doorway. “I didn’t want you to
come,” she said. “They could have
“We can’t risk disturbing
our schedule. They might think we’ve gone
under and we’d lose our contact completely.”
Hastily he examined the tube layout
and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it was merely
one of the 801’s that had burned a filament.
They had a good stock of spares. He replaced
the tube and closed the transmitter cage. After
the tubes had warmed up, and the Berkeley operator
paused to listen for their call, Ken picked up the
microphone and threw in the antenna switch.
“Mayfield calling Berkeley.”
He repeated this several times. “Our transmitter’s
been out with a bum bottle. Let us know if you
read us now.” He repeated again and switched
back to the receiver.
The Berkeley operator’s voice
indicated his relief. “I read you, Mayfield.
I hoped you hadn’t gone out of commission.
The eggheads here seem to think your Maddox-Larsen
combination is coming up with more dope on comet dust
than anybody else in the country.”
Ken grinned and patted himself and
Maria on the back. “That’s us,”
he said. She grimaced at him.
“Hush!” she said.
“I’ve got a big report
here from Dr. French. Confirm if you’re
ready to tape it, and I’ll let it roll.”
Maria cut in to confirm that they
were receiving and ready to record. The Berkeley
operator chuckled as he came back. “That’s
the one I like to hear,” he said. “That
‘Scandahoovian’ accent is real cute.
Just as soon as things get rolling again I’m
coming out there to see what else goes with it.”
“He’s an idiot,” Maria said.
“But probably a pretty nice guy,” Ken
They listened carefully as the Berkeley
operator read a number of pages of reports by Dr.
French and his associates, concerning experiments run
in the university laboratories. These gave Ken
a picture of the present stage of the work on the
comet dust. He felt disheartened. Although
the material had been identified as a colloidal compound
of a new, transuranic metal, no one had yet been able
to determine its exact chemical structure nor involve
it in any reaction that would break it down.
It seemed to Ken that one of the biggest
drawbacks was lack of sufficient sample material to
work with. Everything they were doing was by
micromethods. He supposed it was his own lack
of experience and his clumsiness in the techniques
that made him feel he was always working in the dark
when trying to analyze chemical specimens that were
When the contact was completed and
the stations signed off, Maria told Ken what she had
heard over the air during the time he was in the hospital.
Several other amateur operators in various parts of
the country had heard them with their own battery-powered
sets. They had asked to join in an expanded news
Joe and Al had agreed to this, and
Ken approved as he heard of it. “It’s
a good idea. I was hoping to reach some other
areas. Maybe we can add some industrial laboratories
to our net if any are still operating.”
“We’ve got three,”
said Maria. “General Electric in Schenectady,
General Motors in Detroit, and Hughes in California.
Amateurs working for these companies called in.
They’re all working on the dust.”
Through these new amateur contacts
Maria had learned that Chicago had been completely
leveled by fire. Thousands had died in the fire
and in the rioting that preceded it.
New York City had suffered almost
as much, although no general fire had broken out.
Mob riots over the existing, scanty food supplies had
taken thousands of lives. Other thousands had
been lost in a panicky exodus from the city.
The highways leading into the farming areas in upstate
New York and New England areas were clogged with starving
refugees. Thousands of huddled bodies lay under
Westward into Pennsylvania and south
into Delaware it was the same. Here the refugees
were met with other streams of desperate humanity moving
out of the thickly populated cities. Epidemics
of disease had broken out where the starving population
was thickest and the sanitary facilities poorest.
On the west coast the situation was
somewhat better. The population of the Bay Area
was streaming north and south toward Red Bluff and
Sacramento, and into the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys.
From southern California they were moving east to
the reclaimed desert farming areas. There were
suffering and death among them, but the rioting and
mob violence were less.
From all over the country there were
increasing reports of groups of wanderers moving like
nomadic tribesmen, looting, killing, and destroying.
There was no longer any evidence of a central government
capable of sufficient communication to control these
elements of the population on even a local basis.
Maria played the tapes of these reports
for Ken. She seemed stolid and beyond panic as
she heard them again. To Ken, hearing them for
the first time, it seemed utterly beyond belief.
It was simply some science-fiction horror story played
on the radio or television, and when it was over he
would find the world was completely normal.
He looked up and saw Maria watching
him. He saw the little tin-can stove with a few
sticks of green wood burning ineffectively. He
saw the large rack of batteries behind the transmitter.
Unexpectedly, for the first time in many days, he
thought of the Italian steamship alone in the middle
of the Atlantic.
“The White Bird,”
he said to Maria. “Did you hear anything
more of her?”
“One of the amateurs told me
he’d picked up a report from the ship about
a week ago. The radio operator said he was barricaded
in the radio room. Rioting had broken out all
over the ship. Dozens of passengers had been
killed; the ones who were left were turning cannibalistic.
That was the last report anyone has heard from the
Ken shuddered. He glanced through
the window and caught a vision of Science Hall on
College Hill. A fortress, he thought. There
were maybe a dozen other such fortresses scattered
throughout the world; in them lay the only hope against
the enemy that rampaged across the Earth.
In the sky, he could see the comet’s
light faintly, even through the lead-gray clouds from
which snow was falling.
“You should get back to bed,”
said Maria. “You look as if you had been
hit two hours ago instead of two weeks.”
“Yeah, I guess I’d better.”
Ken arose, feeling weak and dizzy. “Can
you get that report typed for Dad tonight? It
would be good for him to be able to take it to the
lab with him in the morning.”
“I’ll get it done,” said Maria.
“You get off to bed.”
As much as he rebelled against it,
Ken was forced to spend the next two days in bed.
Dr. Adams allowed him to be up no more than a few hours
on the third day. “I’m afraid you
took a worse beating than any of us thought,”
the doctor said. “You’ll just have
to coast for a while.”
It was as he was finally getting out
of bed again that he heard Art Matthews, when the
mechanic came to the door and spoke with Ken’s
“This is awfully important,”
Art said. “I wish you’d ask him if
he doesn’t feel like seeing me for just a minute.”
“He’s had a bad relapse,
and the doctor says he has to be kept very quiet for
a day or two longer.”
Dressed, except for his shoes, Ken
went to the hall and leaned over the stair railing.
“I’ll be down in just a minute, Art.
It’s okay, Mom. I’m feeling good
“Ken! You shouldn’t!” his mother
In a moment he had his shoes on and
was racing down the stairs. “What’s
happened, Art? Anything gone wrong?”
The mechanic looked downcast.
“Everything! We got the Norton elevator
motor and hooked it up with the gas engine. It
ran fine for a couple of days, and we got a lot of
batteries charged up.”
“Then it quit,” said Ken.
“Yeah how did you know?”
“I’ve been afraid we had
missed one bet. It just isn’t enough to
supply filtered air to the engines built of new parts.
The parts themselves are already contaminated with
the dust. As soon as they go into operation,
we have the same old business, all over again.
“Unless some means of decontamination
can be found these new parts are no better than the
“Some of these parts were wrapped
in tissue paper and sealed in cardboard boxes!”
Art protested. “How could enough dust get
to them to ruin them?”
“The dust has a way of getting
into almost any corner it wants to,” said Ken.
“Dad and the others have found it has a tremendous
affinity for metals, so it seeps through cracks and
sticks. It never moves off once it hits a piece
of metal. What parts of the engine froze?”
“Pistons, bearings just like all
“The generator shaft, too?”
Art nodded. “It might have
gone a few more revolutions. It seemed loose
when we started work, but as soon as we broke the bearings
apart they seemed to fasten onto the shaft like they
were alive. How do you account for that?
The bearings were new; I just cast them yesterday.”
“They were contaminated by dust
between casting and installation in the protected
room. We’ve got to dig a lot deeper before
we’ve got the right answer. It might be
worthwhile setting up another rig just like the one
we have in order to get some more juice in our batteries.
Do you think you could do it again, or even several
times? That engine lasted about 90 hours, didn’t
I suppose I could do it again if you think it’s
worth it. The trouble is getting generators.
Maybe we could machine the shaft of this one and cast
a new set of bearings to fit. I’ll try if
you think it’s worth it.”
“Get it ready to run,”
said Ken. “The battery power for our radio
isn’t going to last forever. We’ll
be in a real jam if we lose touch with the outside.”