Read CHAPTER II - The Ghostly Columns of Lords of the Stratosphere , free online book, by Arthur J. Burks, on ReadCentral.com.

Franz Kress had been gone a week, when all the world knew that he couldn’t possibly have stayed aloft that length of time. Yet no word was received from him, no report received from any part of the world that he had returned. Various islands which he might have reached were scoured for traces of him. The lighter vessels of most of the navies of the world joined in the search to no avail. Kress had merely mounted into the sky and vanished.

The world’s last word from him had been a few words on the radio-telephone:

“Have reached sixty thousand feet and ”

There the message had ended, as though the speaker, eleven miles above the earth, had been strangled. Yet he didn’t drop, as far as anybody in the world knew.

Lucian Jeter and Tema Eyer worked harder than ever, remembering the promise they had made Kress at his take-off. Whatever had happened to him, he seemingly in part had anticipated. And now the partners would go up, too, seeking information perhaps to vanish as Kress had vanished. They were not afraid. They shared the world’s feeling of dread, but they were not afraid. Of course death would end their labors, but there were many scientists in the world to take up where they might leave off.

There were, for example, Sitsumi of Japan, rumored discoverer of a substance capable of bending light rays about itself to render itself invisible; Wang Li, Liao Wu, Yung Chan, of China three who had degrees from the world’s greatest universities and had added miraculously to the store of knowledge by their own inspired research. These three were patriotically eager to bring China back to her rightful place as the leader in scientific research a place she had not held for a thousand years. It was generally agreed among scientists that the three would shortly outstrip all their contemporaries.

As Jeter thought of these four men, Orientals all, it suddenly occurred to him to communicate with them. He talked it over with Eyer and decided to send carefully worded cables to all four.

In a few hours he received answers to them:

From Japan: “Sitsumi does not care to communicate.” There was a world of cold hostility in the words, Jeter thought, and Eyer agreed with him.

From China came the strangest message of all:

“Wang, Liao and Yung have been cut off from world for past four months, conducting confidential research in Gobi laboratories. Impossible to communicate because area in which laboratories situated in Japanese hands and surrounded by cordon of guards.”

Jeter and Eyer stared at each other when the cable had been read and digested.

“Queer, isn’t it?” said Eyer.

Jeter didn’t answer. That preoccupied expression was on his face, that distant look which no man could erase from his face by any interruption until Jeter had finished his train of thought.

“Queer,” thought Jeter, “that Sitsumi should be so snooty and the three Chinese totally unavailable.”

There were many strange things happening lately, too, and the queer things kept on happening, and in ever-increasing numbers, during the second week of Kress’ impossible absence in the stratosphere. Or was he there? Had he ever reached it? Had he Jeter and Eyer had noticed his utter gloom at the take-off merely, climbed out of sight of the Earth and then slanted down to a dive into the ocean? Maybe he was a suicide. But some bits of wreckage of his plane had many unsinkable parts about it the parachute ball for instance.

No, the solemn fact remained that Kress had simply flown up and hadn’t come down again. It would have sounded silly and absurd if it hadn’t been so serious.

And strange stories were seeping into the press of the world.

Out in Wyoming a cattleman had driven a herd of prime steers into the round-up corral at night. Next morning not one of the steers could be found. No tracks led away from the corral. The gates were closed, exactly as they had been left the night before. There had been no cowboys watching the steers, for the corral had always been strong enough to hold the most rambunctious.

The tale of the missing steers hit the headlines, but so far nobody had thought of this disappearance in connection with Kress’. How could any one? Steers and scientists didn’t go together. But it still was strange.

At least so Jeter thought. His mind worked with this and other strange happenings even as he and Eyer worked at top speed.

A young fellow in Arizona told a yarn of wandering about the crater of a meteor which had fallen on the desert thousands of years before. The place wasn’t important nor did it seem to have anything to do with the crater or meteors but the young fellow reported that he had seen a faded white column of light, like the beam of a great searchlight, reaching up into the sky from somewhere on the desert.

When people became amazed at his story he added to it. There had been five columns of light instead of one. The one he had first mentioned had touched the Earth, or had shot up from the Earth, within several miles of his point of vantage. A second glowed off to the northwest, a third to the southwest, a fourth to the southeast, the fifth to the northeast. The first one seemed to “center” the other four they might have been the five legs of a table, according to their arrangement....

Arrangement! Jeter wondered how that word had happened to come to him.

The story of the fellow who had seen the columns of light might have been believed if he had stuck to his first yarn of seeing but one. But when he mentioned five ... well, he didn’t have any too good a reputation for veracity and wasn’t regarded as being overly bright. Besides, he had stated that the thickness of the columns of light seemed to be the same from the ground as far as his eyes could follow them upward. Everybody knew that a searchlight’s beams spread out a bit.

“I wonder,” thought Jeter, “why the kid didn’t say he saw those five columns move like a five-legged animal, walking.”

Silly, of course, but behind the silliness of the thought Jeter thought there might be something of interest, something on which to work.

The Jeter-Eyer space ship still was not finished though almost when the world moved into the third week since the disappearance of Franz Kress.

An Indian in the Southwest had reported seeing one of those columns of light. However, this merited just a line on about page sixteen, even of the newspaper closest to the spot where the redskin had seen the column.

“Eyer,” said Jeter at last, “we’ve got to start digging into newspaper stories, especially into stories which deal with unusually queer happenings throughout the world. I’ve a hunch that the keys to Kress’ disappearance may be found in some of them, or a combination of a great many of them.”

“How do you mean, Lucian?”

“Don’t you notice that all this queer stuff has been happening since Kress left? It sounds silly, perhaps, but I feel sure that the disappearance of those steers in Wyoming, the story the boy told about the columns of light yes, all five of them! and the Indian’s partial confirmation of it, are all tied up together with the disappearance of Kress.”

Eyer started to grin his disbelief, but a look at his partner’s tense face stopped him.

“What could want all those steers, Lucian?” said Eyer softly. “I can’t think of anything or anybody disposing of such a bunch on such short notice, except a marching army, a marching column of soldier ants, or all the world’s buzzards gathered together at one place. In any case the animals themselves would have created a fuss, would have kicked up so much noise that somebody would have heard. But this story of the steers seems to suggest, or say right out loud though I know you can’t believe everything in the newspapers that the steers vanished in utter silence.”

“Doesn’t it also seem funny to you,” went on Jeter, “that the vanishing of the herd wasn’t discovered until next morning? I’ve read enough Western stuff to know that a herd always makes noise. Yes, even at night. The cowhands wouldn’t have lost a wink of sleep over that. But, listen, Tema, suppose you lived in New York City near some busy intersection which was always noisy, even after midnight and all the noise suddenly stopped. Would you sleep right on through it?”

“No, I’d wake up unless I were drunk or doped.”

“Yet nobody seems to have wakened at that ranch when and it must have happened the herd stopped making any noise whatever. The utter silence should have wakened seasoned cowhands. It didn’t. Why? What happened to them that they slept so soundly they heard nothing?”

Eyer did not answer. It wasn’t the first time he had been called upon to hear Jeter think out loud.

“It all ties up somehow,” repeated Jeter, “and I intend to find out how.”

But he didn’t find out. Strange stories kept appearing. The three Chinese scientists still had not communicated with the outside world. The chap out in Arizona had now so elaborated on his yarn that nobody believed him and the public lost interest all save Jeter, who was on the trail of a queer idea.

Nothing happened however until near the end of the third week after Kress’ disappearance.

Then, out of a clear sky almost, Kress came back.

He came down by parachute, without the ball in which he should have sealed himself. His return caused plenty of comment. There was good reason. He had been gone the impossibly long period of three weeks.

He was dead but had been for less than seventy-two hours!

His body was frozen solid.

It landed on the roof of the Jeter-Eyer laboratory; had he been alive he couldn’t possibly have maneuvered his chute to land him on such a small place.

The partners stared at each other. It seemed strange to them indeed that Kress should have come back to land on the roof of the two who had promised to follow him into the stratosphere if he didn’t return.

Very strange indeed.

He had returned, though, releasing Jeter and Eyer from their promise. Strangely enough that fact made them all the more determined to go. And while the newspaper reporters went wild over Kress’ return, the partners started making additional plans.