For the first time since the coming
of the comet, Ken sensed defeat in his father.
Professor Maddox seemed to believe at last that they
were powerless before the invader out of space.
He seemed like a runner who has used his last reserve
of strength to reach a goal on which his eye has been
fixed, only to discover the true goal is yet an immeasurable
Professor Maddox had believed with
all his heart and mind that they had hurdled the last
obstacle with the construction of the pilot projector.
With it gone, and all their tools and instruments and
notes, there was simply nothing.
As Ken considered the problem, it
seemed to him the situation was not as bad as first
appeared. The most important thing had not been
lost. This was the knowledge, locked in their
own minds, of what means could prevail against the
dust. Beyond this, the truly essential mechanical
elements for starting over again were also available.
Art Matthews had been very busy, and
he had parts enough for six more motor-generator sets.
These were decontaminated and sealed in protective
packing. It would be only a matter of hours to
assemble one of them, and that would power any supersonic
projector they might choose to build.
And they could still choose
to build one. In the radio supply stores of the
town, and in the junk boxes of the members of the science
club, there were surely enough components to build
several times over the necessary number of generator
elements. In the barns and chicken sheds of the
valley there was plenty of aluminum sheeting to build
The more he considered it, the more
possible it seemed to take up from where they had
left off the night before the fire. There was
one important question Ken asked himself, however:
Why stop with a replica of the small pilot model they
had built on the roof of Science Hall?
As long as they were committed to
building a projector to test for effectiveness, they
might as well build a full-scale instrument, one that
could take its place as an actual weapon against the
dust. If there were errors of design, these could
be changed during or after construction. He could
see no reason at all for building a mere 30-foot instrument
The greatest loss suffered in the
fire was that of the chemistry laboratory and its
supplies and reagents. Materials for running tests
on the dust could not be replaced, nor could much
of their microchemical apparatus. The electron
microscope, too, was gone. These losses would
have to be made up, where necessary, by having such
work done by Pasadena, Schenectady or Detroit.
If the projector were as successful as all preliminary
work indicated, there would be little need for further
testing except as a matter of routine check on the
concentration of dust in the atmosphere.
Before approaching his father, Ken
talked it over with his fellow members of the science
club. He wanted to be sure there was no loophole
he was overlooking.
“Labor to build the reflector
is what we haven’t got,” said Joe Walton.
“It would take months, maybe a whole year, for
us to set up only the framework for a 250-foot bowl!”
“Getting the lumber alone would
be a community project,” said Al.
“That’s what it’s
going to be,” Ken answered. “Johnson
is behind us. He’ll give us anything we
want, if he knows where to get it. I don’t
think there’s any question of his authorizing
the construction by the men here.”
There was nothing else they could
think of to stand in the way of the project.
It had been two days since the fire,
but Ken’s father still seemed stunned by it.
After dinner, he sat in his old chair where he used
to read, but he did not read now. He sat for
hours, staring at the opposite corner of the room.
Professor Larsen seemed locked in
a similar state of shock. In addition to his
wife’s death, this destruction of their entire
scientific facilities seemed a final blow from which
he could not recover.
Ken recognized, too, that there was
a burden these men had carried that no one else knew.
That was the burden of top-level responsibility for
a major portion of the world’s effort against
the “invader.” It was an Atlas-like
burden that men could not carry without suffering its
Ken approached them that evening,
after he and Maria had helped his mother with her
chores and had gathered snow to melt overnight for
their next day’s water supply.
“Dad,” Ken said, “I’ve
been wondering when we could get started on the project
again. The fellows in the club are all ready to
go. I guess most everyone else is, too.”
His father looked as if Ken had just
uttered something absolutely unintelligible.
“Start!” he cried. “Start what?
How can we start anything? There’s nothing
left to work with, absolutely nothing!”
Ken hesitated, an ache in his heart
at the defeat he saw in his father’s eyes.
He held out his hands. “We’ve got
these,” he said. He tapped the side of
his head. “And this.”
Professor Maddox’s face seemed
to relax a trifle. He looked at his son with
a faint suggestion of a smile on his lips. “Yes?
What do you propose to do with them?”
Carefully, then, Ken outlined the
results of his inventory. “Art can build
up to six engines, if we need them. We’ve
got plenty of electronic parts, and tubes big enough
to put 60 or 70 kilowatts of supersonic energy in
a beam. We don’t want to build a little
reflector again; we want to put up a full-scale instrument.
When that’s done, build another one, and still
another, until we’ve used every scrap of material
available in the valley. By that time maybe we’ll
have some cars running and can go to Frederick and
other towns for more parts.”
Ken’s father leaned back in
his chair, his eyes closed. “If enthusiasm
could do it, we could look forward to such a structure
the day after tomorrow.”
“Maybe enthusiasm can
do it,” said Professor Larsen quietly. “I
believe the boy is right. We’ve let ourselves
despair too much because of the fire. We still
have the necessary principles in our heads. If
Ken is right, we’ve got the materials.
The only problem is that you and I are a pair of old,
exhausted men, without the necessary enthusiasm and
energy. Perhaps we can borrow enough of that from
these boys. I’m in favor of undertaking
By the light of oil lamps they planned
and talked until far past midnight. There were
still no objections to be found outside the labor
problem. When they were through, rough drawings
and calculations for the first projector were finished.
“Such a projector could surely
reach well into the stratosphere,” said Professor
Larsen. “With the tremendous velocities
of the air masses at those heights, one projector
should be able to process hundreds of tons of atmosphere
“I am wondering,” said
Professor Maddox, “if we should not make the
reflector parabolic instead of hyperbolic. We
may disperse our energy too widely to be effective
at high levels.”
“I think not. The parabola
would narrow the beam to little more than its initial
diameter and would concentrate the energy more than
is required. With the power Ken speaks of, I
believe the hyperbolic form could carry an effective
wave into the stratosphere. We’ll make some
calculations for comparison tomorrow.”
They authorized Ken to speak with
the Sheriff the following day.
“I’ve been wondering when
I’d see some of you people,” Johnson said
bluntly. “What are you doing about the mess
on the hill?”
“My father thought maybe you’d drop in,”
The Sheriff shook his head. “It’s
your move. I just wondered if you had any ideas,
or if this fire had knocked the props out from under
“It did, but now we’re
ready to go, and we need help.” Briefly,
Ken gave a description of the projector they planned
to build. “Labor is the problem for us.
If we could have all the carpenters in town, and all
who could be spared from woodcutting and every other
activity for 2 or 3 weeks I think we could get it
“You know how many men are left,”
said Johnson. “Between the war with the
nomads and the epidemic of flu, one-third of those
we had when this started are dead. A third of
the ones left are sick, and quite a few of those on
their feet have to take care of the ones that aren’t.”
“I know,” said Ken.
“You know how the people feel about you scientists?”
The Sheriff stared at him a long time
before continuing. “It won’t be easy,
but we’ll do it. When do you want to start?”
“Tomorrow morning. In Jenkin’s pasture,
north of town.”
“How many men?”
“All the carpenters you can
get and a hundred others to rustle materials and tear
down old buildings.”
“I meet with the Council this
afternoon to go over work assignments. You’ll
have your men in the morning.”
The rest of the day, Ken and his fellow
club members chose the exact spot to erect the projector
and staked it out. They spotted the nearest buildings
that could be dismantled for materials, and made estimates
of how much they needed.
The following morning they met again
on the site, and there were ten men from town, in
addition to the college students and others who had
taken part in the research on College Hill.
“Are you all Johnson could spare?” Ken
asked the group.
The nearest man shook his head.
“They were assigned. No one else would
come. They think you are wasting your time; they
think you can’t do anything about the comet.
A lot of them are like Meggs and Granny Wicks:
they think you shouldn’t try to do anything
Ken felt a blaze of anger. “Sometimes,
I think they’re right!” he said bitterly.
“Maybe it would be better if we just let the
whole thing go!”
“Now don’t get me wrong,”
the man said. “We’re on your side.
We’re here, aren’t we? I’m
just telling you what they say and think in town.”
“I know and I’m sorry.
These other fellows will tell you what we need done.
I’m going to ride in to see Johnson.”
The Sheriff was not in his office.
Ken was told he had gone over to the food warehouse
where rations were being distributed. There was
some rumor of a disturbance.
Ken remounted his horse and rode to
the warehouse. As he approached, he saw the lineup
before the distribution counter was motionless.
In front of the counter, Sheriff Johnson stood with
a pair of revolvers in his hands, holding back the
He glanced at Ken and said, “Don’t
tell me! I know you haven’t any workers
out there today. They’re here in line, trying
to collect groceries without working!”
“We’re not going to work
so those scientists on the hill can have the fat of
everything!” a man near the head of the line
shouted. Others echoed him with cries of hysteria.
Ken felt his disgust and disappointment
vanish before a wave of genuine fear. These people
had ceased to be anything but frightened, hungry animals.
Their capacity for rational action had all but disappeared
under the strains they had suffered. They were
ready to lash out at anything that appeared a suitable
target for their own hysterical anger and panic.
It was useless to expect them to help
with the projector. The crew of scientists and
students would have to do it alone, no matter how many
weeks it took.
Sheriff Johnson, however, had no such
thought. He fired a bullet over the heads of
the crowd and brought them to silence. “Listen
to me,” he said. “I know you’re
sick and hungry and scared. There’s not
a man or woman in this valley who isn’t, and
that includes me and the members of the Council, and
those you tried to burn off College Hill.
“You don’t know how good
you’ve got it! You don’t deserve it
as good as you’ve got. You people should
have been with those in Chicago or in San Francisco.
You should have known what it was really like to be
suddenly cut off from every ounce of food beyond that
which was in your own cupboards. You should have
known what it was like to fight day after day in the
streets of a burning city without knowing why you were
fighting, or having any hope of victory.
“You’ve gone through your
battle, and you’ve won, and you’re still
here, and there’s food left. A lot of us
are still going to die before the epidemic is over.
We haven’t the medical means to save us all.
But some of us will come out of it, and every one
has just as good a chance as his neighbor.
“That’s not important.
It doesn’t make much difference whether any one
of us stays alive now, or dies in 50 years. What
is important is trying to keep the world alive, and
that’s what these scientists are doing.
“While you accuse them of every
crime in the book, they are the only chance the world
has got for survival!”
“They can’t do anything
about it!” a woman shouted. “They’re
just making it up to get more than the rest of us!”
The crowd started to take up its cry again.
“Shut up!” the Sheriff
thundered at them. “I repeat: you don’t
deserve to be as lucky as you are! But you aren’t
going to get out of taking your part in pulling things
back together again. Help is needed out there
north of town, and you’re going to help.
“You help or you don’t eat!”
A roar of rage thundered from the
group. One man stepped forward. “You
can’t pull a thing like this, Johnson. We’ve
got guns, too. We’ve used them before,
and we can use them again!”
“Then you had better go home
and get them right now,” said Johnson. “My
men and I will be waiting for you. I suppose there
could be a lot more of you than there are of us, so
you can probably shoot us down. Then you can
eat all you want for a month, and die. Go get
your gun, Hank, and come after your rations!”
The man turned to the crowd.
“Okay, you heard what he said! Let’s
go and get ’em!”
He strode away, then turned back to
beckon his followers. In the empty street before
the converted theater, he stood alone. “Come
on!” he cried. “Who’s coming
The crowd avoided his eyes. They
shifted uneasily and looked at Johnson again.
“What do you mean?” another man asked.
“About, we work or we don’t eat ”
“Come on, you guys!” Hank shouted.
“The assignments on the projector
will be rotated,” said Johnson. “We’ll
spare as many men as we can from everything else.
Those of you who have been given assignment slips
will get 3 days’ rations. When you bring
back the slips with a verification that you did your
job on the projector you’ll get an assignment
somewhere else until it’s your turn again.
The ones without verification on the slips don’t
get the next 3 days’ rations. That’s
the way it’s going to be. If there’s
no more argument, we’ll get on with the distribution.
“Hank, get down at the end of the line!”
By mid-afternoon, the scientists had
their full crew of sullen and unwilling helpers.
The Sheriff had sent along a half-dozen of his own
men, fully armed, to see there was no disturbance,
but the objectors seemed to have had their say.
With a gradual increase of co-operativeness,
they did the tasks they were assigned, bringing up
materials, laying out the first members of the great,
skeletal structure that would rise in the pasture.
Johnson came at the end of the day to see how it was
going. He breathed a sigh of relief at the lack
of disturbance. “It looks like we’ve
got it made,” he said.
“I think so,” Ken agreed.
“All we have to do now is see how many more of
these we can get built in other parts of the world.”
They spoke that night to all the stations
on the radio net, describing in detail what they had
begun, what they were confident it would do.
Professor Larsen’s words were relayed to his
colleagues in Stockholm. They estimated they
could begin work almost immediately on six projectors.
Others, elsewhere in the country, were quite probable.
In his conversation with Pasadena,
Professor Maddox warned, “We have not yet been
able to make tests with the big projector. Our
only work so far has been with the laboratory models,
but they were highly successful.”
“That’s good enough for
us,” said Dr. Whitehead, director of the Pasadena
work. “Everything we’ve done here
has failed so far. A direct chemical approach
seems out of the question. We’ll start with
one, but I think a dozen projectors, at least, are
possible for this area.”
Pasadena also reported a new radio
contact with Calcutta, and promised to pass the word
on to them and to Tokyo. When they closed down
the transmitter after midnight, Ken totaled the number
of projectors promised with reasonable certainty of
having the promises fulfilled. There were eighty.
“It may take a year,”
his father said, “or it may take 10 years, but
now we know, without a doubt, that we can someday
get our atmosphere back as it was before the comet.”