He lay between white sheets, and the
stench of burning things was everywhere, in the air
that he breathed, in the clean white covers that were
over him. His own flesh seemed to smell of it.
He was not quite sure if he were still
in a world of dreams or if this were real. It
was a golden world; the snow-covered ground beyond
the window was gilded with rich, yellow light.
He remembered something about such light that was
not pleasant. He had forgotten just what it was.
Maria Larsen stood at the foot of
his bed. She smiled as his eyes opened.
“Hello, Ken,” she said. “I’ve
been waiting so long. I’ve been afraid
you’d never wake up.”
“Tom Doyle,” he said. “Did
you find Tom Doyle?”
Maria frowned. “I don’t know who
“You haven’t found his
family yet?” Ken cried, struggling to rise in
the bed. “Go and find them right now.
I promised Tom Doyle I’d do it.”
Maria approached and pushed him gently
back upon the pillow, drawing the covers over him
once more. “Tell me about Tom Doyle,”
she said. “You’ve never told me who
It seemed utterly stupid for her not
to know, but Ken patiently told her about Doyle’s
Service, the best little station in the world, at the
corner of First and Green. “I told Tom I’d
take care of them,” he said. “Now
go and bring them here!”
“Ken,” Maria said, “all
the nomads who escaped, and there weren’t many,
retreated around the south end of town and picked up
the women and children they’d left there.
They moved on south. That was 3 days ago.
We’ve no idea where they’ve gone.”
Ken tried to rise again against her
struggles to hold him down. “They couldn’t
have gone so far that a man on horseback couldn’t
find them! Why won’t you help me?
I promised I’d see to it!”
He lay back weakly, covering his face
with his arm. “Go and find Tom Doyle,”
he said. In detail he described where he had left
the man. “You don’t believe what
I’m saying. Get Tom Doyle and he’ll
tell you it’s the truth.”
“He wouldn’t be there
now. All the wounded, including the nomads, have
been moved to homes where they are being cared for.
The dead, both theirs and ours, have been burned and
their ashes buried.”
“Do what I tell you!” Ken implored.
With bewilderment and fear on her
face, Maria stood back from the bed and looked at
Ken’s troubled face. Then quietly she stole
from the room and shut the door behind her.
He had been overworking himself for
weeks, Dr. Adams was saying, and had been living on
a poor diet that would scarcely keep a medium-sized
“Then you had a shock, the kind
of shock that shakes a man to his very roots.
Now you’re on your way up again.”
Ken glanced about the room. It
seemed normal now and there was only a great emptiness
within him to replace the frantic urgency he remembered.
“What you’re trying to
say, Doc, is that I went off my rocker for a while.”
Dr. Adams smiled. “If you
want to put it that way. However, you’re
Ken stared at the ceiling for a few
moments. “Will you still say so if I ask
again about Tom Doyle?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Was he found?”
“No. Maria actually tried
to find him for you. I’m afraid your Tom
Doyle was among the dead.”
“I killed him.”
“We killed a lot of them and they
killed a lot of our people.”
“How did it end?” asked
Ken. “I remember the darkness and just wandering
around the streets shooting, but I don’t know
what I hit or where I went.”
“That’s the way it ended,”
said Dr. Adams. “House-to-house street
fighting, and we won. Don’t ask me how.
You were in a sector that was cut off almost as soon
as you entered it. Even where communication was
maintained things were nearly as chaotic.
“Johnson says it was just plain,
dumb luck. Hilliard says he doesn’t think
it really happened. Dr. Aylesworth calls it a
miracle, a gift and a blessing that shows we’re
meant to survive. Most of the rest of us are
willing to look at it his way.”
“I could do something for Tom
Doyle,” Ken said finally. “He was
a decent guy. They all were, once. I could
find his wife and children.”
The doctor shook his head. “All
who are left of that group of nomads are going to
die. We’ve got to let them die, just as
we let the people in Chicago and Berkeley and ten
thousand other towns die. We have no more power
to save Tom Doyle’s family than we had to save
“We’re taking care of
the nomad wounded! We could do as much for just
one woman and two kids!”
“We’re helping the wounded
until they get on their feet,” Dr. Adams said
quietly. “Then they’ll be sent on to
wherever they came from.”
Ken stared at him.
“There is only one thing we
could never forgive ourselves for,” the doctor
continued. “That one thing would be letting
the Earth itself die. As long as there are people
alive who can fight the comet, we still have a chance.
Nothing else in the whole world matters now. Don’t
you see there is no other purpose in keeping Mayfield
alive except to support the few people who understand
the dust and can fight it? Beyond that, Mayfield
has no more right to live than any other town that
has already died. But Mayfield has to stay alive
to keep you and your father and the others like you
fighting the dust.”
Dr. Adams gave permission for Ken
to be out of bed for a short time. He tried,
after the doctor had left, and almost fell on his face.
The whole world seemed to spin in enormous cart wheels.
He persisted though, and 2 hours later he was making
his way slowly up College Hill with the help of Maria
who walked beside him and lent her arm for support.
At the top of the hill they stopped
and turned for a look at the valley below them.
The ruin was plain to see in spite of the snow cover.
A third of the town had been completely burned.
At the old skating rink, workmen were clawing through
the debris for usable remains of food. A miserably
small pile of items showed the extent of their success.
Curls of smoke still rose from the
ashes, and the nauseating smell of death and burning
floated over the whole valley.
Of his own experience Ken felt only
a numbing confusion as yet. He thought he should
feel like a fool for his collapse at the height of
the battle, but he did not. He felt as if he
had marched to the absolute edge of human endurance
and had looked to the dark pit below.
He turned to Maria. “I’ll
be okay now. It’s time for you to get back
to the radio station. Tell them what has happened
and get their reports. I’ll see you tonight.”
It seemed a long time since he had
last been in the laboratory. The workers were
once more in the midst of their thousands of trials
and failures to produce a colloidal, non-poisonous
form of the decontaminant, which could be infused
in the atmosphere of the world to destroy the comet
He stayed until his father left at
7 o’clock, and they went home together.
He still had to depend on someone else for assistance
on the steep and slippery hill.
When they reached home Maria had a
lengthy report ready from the Pasadena people, and
one from Schenectady.
Professor Maddox read the reports
at the dinner table. He passed the sheets to
Professor Larsen as he finished them. Ken saw
he was not reading with his usual thorough analysis.
When he had finished he returned to his eating with
“Anything new?” Ken asked.
“The same old story. A
thousand hours of experiments, and no success.
I feel we’re all on the wrong track, trying
to perfect a chemical colloid, based on the decontaminant,
which will destroy the dust. I feel that nothing’s
going to come of it.”
Ken said, “I had a crazy dream
the other day while Dr. Adams had me under drugs.
I had almost forgotten it. I dreamed I was walking
along the street and had a special kind of flashlight
in my hand. When I came to a car that wouldn’t
run, standing by the curb, I turned the beam of the
flashlight on it. Then whoever owned it could
step in and drive away. After I had done that
to all the cars in Mayfield I turned it on the sky
and just kept flashing it back and forth and the comet
dust fell down like ashes and the air was clean.”
Professor Maddox smiled. “A
nice dream! I wish we could make it come true.
I’m afraid that idea will have to go back to
the pages of your science fiction, where it probably
came from in the first place.”
“Dad, I’m serious!” Ken said earnestly.
“About making a magic flashlight?”
His father was almost sarcastic, which revealed the
extent of his exhaustion, Ken thought. He was
never like that.
“What I’m trying to say
is that there are other ways to precipitate colloids.
We haven’t even given any thought to them.
Colloids can be precipitated by heat, by pressure,
by vibration. Maybe a dozen other ways that I
don’t know anything about.
“Maybe some kind of physical
means, rather than chemical, is the answer to our
problem. Why don’t we let Pasadena and the
other labs go on with the chemical approach but let
us do some work on possible physical means?”
Professor Maddox sat very still.
His glance passed from Ken to Professor Larsen.
The latter nodded. “I think we have indeed
been foolish in ignoring this possibility up to now.
I wonder if Ken hasn’t got a very good thought
“Have you anything specific
to suggest?” Ken’s father asked.
“Well, I’ve been wondering
about supersonic methods. I know that a supersonic
beam can be used for coagulation and precipitation.”
“It would depend on the size
of the colloidal particles, and on the frequency of
the wave, wouldn’t it? Perhaps we could
find a frequency that would precipitate the dust,
but I wonder if we wouldn’t have the same problem
as with mechanical treatment of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Even if we succeeded on a laboratory scale, how could
it be applied on a practical, worldwide scale?”
“I don’t know,”
said Ken. “It may not work out, but I think
it’s worth trying.”
“Yes, I agree. I don’t
think we’ll give up the chemical research, but
a group of you can begin work on this supersonic approach
The losses of food at the warehouse
were enormous. Less than 5 percent of the contents
could be removed in usable form. Most of the canned
goods had burst from internal pressure. Grain
and other dried products were burned, for the most
part. The food supply of the community was now
reduced to six-tenths of what it had been.
The population had been reduced by
one-tenth, in men killed by the nomads.
Mayor Hilliard and his councilmen
struggled to work out a reasonable ration plan, based
upon the ratio of supplies to number of consumers.
There was no arithmetical magic by which they could
stretch the food supply to satisfy minimum needs until
There was going to be death by starvation
in Mayfield before spring.
Hilliard fought through an agreement
in the Council that the researchers on College Hill,
and all their families, were to have first priority,
and that they were to get full rations at all times
in order to keep on with their work.
There were grumblings among the councilmen,
but they finally agreed to the wisdom of this.
They agreed there were babies and small children who
needed a somewhat normal ration, at least. There
were over four hundred wounded who had to be cared
for as a result of the battle. There were also
the aged, like Granny Wicks, and her companions.
“Well try to give the little
ones a chance,” said Mayor Hilliard, “but
the old ones don’t need it. Perhaps we can
spare a little extra for the wounded who have a chance
of survival, but not much. We’re going to
see that College Hill survives.”
Before spring, however, a choice would
still have to be made who was to have the
remaining share of food, and who was not?
Privately, Hilliard wondered if any
of them had a chance to see another spring.
The decision to support the scientists
at the expense of the other inhabitants of Mayfield
could not be kept secret. When it became known,
a tide of fury swept the community. The general
public no longer had any capacity to accept the larger
view in preference to relief of their own suffering.
One of the college students who worked in the laboratory
was beaten by a crowd as he walked through town.
He died the same evening.
Suddenly, the scientists felt themselves
standing apart, pariahs among their own people.
They debated whether to take the allotment. They
asked themselves over and over if they were tempted
to take it because they shared the same animal greed
that gripped the whole town, or if genuine altruism
prodded them to accept.
Dr. Adams met their arguments.
“You accept,” he said, “or everything
we fought for is worthless. You can stand the
hate of the townspeople. Scientists have done
it before, and it’s a small sacrifice so long
as you can continue your work. Those of us who
are supporting you believe in that work. Now
get on with it, and let’s not have any more of
these ridiculous arguments!”
The suggestion of physical means of
precipitating the dust came like a burst of light
to the entire group as they began to examine the possibilities.
Within a week, they had determined there was indeed
a broad range of supersonic frequencies capable of
precipitating the dust.
The night Professor Maddox and his
companions came home to announce their success they
were met with the news that Mrs. Larsen was ill.
During the day, she had developed a high temperature
with severe pains in her body.
Professor Larsen was deeply worried.
“She’s never been ill like this before.”
Ken was sent for Dr. Adams, but the
latter did not come for almost 2 hours. When
he did arrive, they were shocked by his appearance.
His face was lined and hollow with exhaustion, beyond
anything they had seen as long as they had known him.
He looked as if he were on the verge of illness himself.
He brushed away their personal questions
and examined Mrs. Larsen, rather perfunctorily, they
thought. However there was no hesitation as he
announced his diagnosis. “It’s the
sixteenth case I’ve seen today. Over a
hundred and fifty this week. We’ve got an
epidemic of flu on our hands. It’s no mild,
patty-caking kind, either. It’s as virulent
as any that’s ever been experienced!”
Mrs. Maddox uttered a low cry of despair.
“How much more must we be called upon to endure?”
No one answered. Dr. Adams rummaged
in his bag. “I have vaccine for all of
you. I don’t know how much good it will
do against this brand of bug that’s loose now,
but we can give it a chance.”
“Is everyone in town getting it?” Professor
Dr. Adams snorted. “Do
you think we keep supplies of everything in emergency
proportions? College Hill gets it. Nobody
“We can’t go on taking
from everyone else like this!” protested Mrs.
Maddox. “They have as much right to it as
we. There should be a lottery or something to
determine who gets the vaccine.”
said Dr. Adams. “Besides, we’ve settled
all this. You first, Ken.”
For a few days after the battle with
the nomads, it had seemed as if the common terror
had welded all of Mayfield into an impregnable unit.
There was a sense of having stood against all that
man and nature could offer, and of having won out
against it. However, the penetrating reality
of impending competition among themselves for the necessities
of life, for the very right to live, had begun to
shatter the bonds that held the townspeople as one.
The killing of the college student
in protest against the partiality to College Hill
was the first blast that ripped their unity. Some
protested openly against the viciousness of it, but
most seemed beyond caring.
There were two events of note in the
days following. The first was a spontaneous,
almost valley-wide resurgence of memory of Granny Wicks
and her warnings. Everything she had said had
come true. The feeling swept Mayfield that here
in their very midst was an oracle of truth who had
been almost wholly ignored. There was nothing
they needed to know so much as the outcome of events
with respect to themselves and to the town as a whole.
Almost overnight, streams of visitors
began to pour toward the home for the aged where Granny
lived. When they came, she smiled knowingly and
contentedly, as if she had been expecting them, waiting
for them. Obligingly, and with the peaceful aura
of omniscience, she took them into her parlor and
told them of things to come.
At the same time, Frank Meggs felt
new stirrings within him. He sensed that he had
been utterly and completely right in all his years
of criticism of those who managed the affairs of Mayfield.
The present condition of things proved it. The
town was in utter chaos, its means of survival all
but destroyed. Incompetently, its leaders bumbled
along, not caring for the mass of the people, bestowing
the people’s goods on the leaders’ favorites.
He began saying these things on the streets. He
got a box, and used it for a platform, and he shouted
from the street corners that the leaders were corrupt,
and none of them were safe unless College Hill and
City Hall were wiped out. He said that he would
be a better mayor than anyone else in Mayfield.
He had listeners. They gathered
on the corners in the daytime, and they listened at
night by the light of flaming torches. Many people
began to believe that he was right.
A week after Mrs. Larsen’s illness,
it was evident beyond all doubt that Mayfield was
the victim of a killer epidemic. Mayor Hilliard
himself was stricken, and he sent word that he wanted
Professor Maddox, Ken, and Dr. Larsen to come to his
He was like a feeble old man when
they arrived. All the fire and the life had gone
from his eyes, but he brightened a little as they came
into the room.
“At least you are still alive,”
he said gruffly. “I just wanted to make
sure of that fact, and I wanted to have a final understanding
that it’s soaked into your thick heads that
nothing is to interfere with your own survival.”
“We hope you’re not overestimating
our worth,” said Professor Maddox.
“I don’t know whether
I am or not! All I know is that if you’re
not worth saving then nobody is. So, if this
town is going to die, you are going to be the last
ones left alive, and if you don’t give me your
word on this right now I’ll come back and haunt
you every minute you do survive!”
“In order to haunt, you have
to be in the proper realm,” said Professor Maddox,
attempting a joke.
Mayor Hilliard sighed. “I
think I can take care of that, too. I’m
beat. You’re close to it, but you’ve
got to hang on. Carry on with your work on the
hill. One thing more: This fellow Meggs has
got to be crushed like a worm. When I go, there
won’t be any election. Johnson is taking
over and he’ll look out for you, the same as
I have done.”
“You’re going to be all
right!” said Professor Maddox. “You’ll
be up on your feet in another week!”
The Mayor seemed not to have heard
him. He was staring at the ceiling, and there
was an amused smile at the corners of his lips.
“Ain’t Mother Nature a funny old gal,
though?” he said. “She’s planned
this to work out just right, and I think it’s
another of old Doc Aylesworth’s signs that Mayfield
and College Hill are going to live, so that the rest
of the world will, too. It may get knocked pretty
flat, but it’s going to get up again.”
“What are you talking about?” said Ken.
“The invasion of the nomads,
and then this flu. Don’t you see it?
First we get our food supply knocked out, and now
old Mamma Nature is going to cut the population down
to match it. We tried to figure out who was going
to eat and who was going to starve, and now it’s
going to be all figured out for us.
“Balance of nature, or something,
you scientists call it, don’t you?” He
glanced up at the professors and Ken. “It’s
a wonderful thing,” he said, “just absolutely