Read CHAPTER III - Strange Levitation of Lords of the Stratosphere , free online book, by Arthur J. Burks, on ReadCentral.com.

“In two days we’ll be ready, Tema,” said Lucian Jeter quietly. “And make no mistake about it; when we take off for the stratosphere we’re going to encounter strange things. Nobody can tell me that Kress’ plane actually flew three weeks! And where did it come down? Why didn’t Kress use the parachute ball? Where is it? I’ll wager we’ll find answers to plenty of those questions if we live!”

“If we live?” repeated Eyer. “You mean ?”

“You know what happened to Kress? Or rather you know the result of what happened to him?”

“Sure.”

“Why should we be immune? I tell you, Eyer, we’re on the eve of something colossal, awe-inspiring perhaps catastrophic.”

Eyer grinned. Jeter grinned back at him. If they knew they flew inescapably to death they still would have grinned. They had plenty of courage.

“We’d better go into town for a meeting with newspaper people,” went on Jeter. “You know how things go in the news; there are probably plenty of stories which for one reason or another have not been published. Maybe the law has clamped down on some of them. I’ve a feeling that if everything were told, the whole world would be frightened stiff. And you notice how quickly the papers finished with the Kress’ thing.”

Eyer knew, all right. The papers had broken the story of the return in flaming scareheads. Then the thing had come to a full stop. It was significant that no real satisfactory explanation had been offered by any one. The papers had, on their own initiative, tried to communicate with Sitsumi, and the three Chinese scientists, and had failed all around. Sitsumi did not answer, denied himself to representatives of the American press in Japan, and crawled into an impenetrable Oriental shell. The three Chinese could not answer, according to advices from Peking, because they could not be located.

Jeter called the publisher of the leading newspaper for a conference.

“Strange that you should have called just now,” said the publisher, “for I was on the point of calling you and Eyer and inviting you to a conference to be held this evening at my office in Manhattan.”

“What’s the purpose of your conference? Who will attend?”

“I I well, let us say I had hoped to make you and Eyer available to all interviewers on the eve of your flight into the stratosphere.”

Jeter hesitated, realizing that the publisher did not wish to tell everything over the telephone.

“We’ll be right along, sir,” he said.

It took an hour for them to reach the publisher’s office. Wires had plainly been pulled, too, for a motorcycle escort joined them at the Queensboro Bridge and led them, sirens screaming, to their meeting with George Hadley, the publisher.

They looked at each other in surprise when they were admitted to the meeting.

Hadley’s huge offices were packed. The mayor was there, the police commissioner, the assistant to the head of Federal Secret Service. The State Governor had sent a representative. All the newspapers had their most famous men sitting in. Right in this one big room was represented almost the entire public opinion of the United States. American representatives of foreign newspapers were there. And there wasn’t a smile on a single face.

It was beginning to be borne in upon everybody that the Western Hemisphere was in the grip of a strange unearthly malady almost an other-earthly malady, but what was it?

Hadley nodded to the two scientists and they took the seats he indicated.

Hadley cleared his throat and spoke.

“We have here people who represent the press of the world,” he said. “We have men who control billions in money. I don’t know how many of you have thought along the same lines as I have, but I feel that after I have finished speaking most of you will. First, there are certain news stories which, for reasons of policy, never reach the pages of our papers. I shall now tell you some of them....”

The whole crowd shifted slightly in its chairs. There was a strained leaning forward. Grave faces went whiter as they anticipated gripping announcements.

“All the strange things have not been happening in the United States, gentlemen,” said Hadley. “That young fellow who reported seeing the columns of light in Arizona you remember? ”

There was a chorus of nods.

“He probably told the exact truth, as far as he knew it. But it isn’t only in Arizona that it has been seen those columns I mean. Only there is just one column not five. It has since been reported in Népal and Bhutan, in Egypt and Morocco and a dozen other places. But in the cases of such stories emanating from foreign countries, a congress of publishers has withheld the facts, not because of their strangeness but because of the effect they might have on the public sanity. In Népal, for example, the column of light rested for a moment on an ancient temple, and when the light vanished the temple also had vanished, with everybody in it at the time for worship! Rumor had it that some of the worshipers were later found and identified. They appear to have been scattered over half of Népal and every last one was smashed almost to a pulp, as though the body had been dropped from an enormous height.”

A concerted gasp raced around the assemblage. Then silence again, while the pale-faced Hadley went on with his unbelievable story.

“A mad story comes from the heart of the terai, in India. I don’t know what importance to give this story since the only witnesses to the phenomenon were ignorant natives. But the column of light played into the terai and tigers, huge snakes, buffalo and even elephants rose bodily over the treetops and vanished. They started up slowly then disappeared with the speed of light.”

“Were crushed animals later found in the jungle?” asked Jeter quietly.

Hadley turned his somber eyes on the questioner. Every white face, every fearful eye, also turned toward Jeter.

And Hadley nodded.

“It’s too much to be coincidence,” he said. “The crushed and broken bodies in Népal and India of course they aren’t so far apart but that natives in either place might have heard the story from the other but I am inclined to believe in the inner truth of the stories in each case.”

Hadley turned to the two scientists. There were other scientists present, but the fact that Jeter and Eyer, who were so soon to follow Kress into the stratosphere and eternity? held the places of honor near the desk of the spokesman, was significant.

“What do you gentlemen think?” asked Hadley quietly.

“There is undoubtedly some connection between the two happenings,” said Jeter. “I think Eyer and myself will be able to make some report on the matter soon. We will, take off for the stratosphere day after to-morrow.”

“Then you think the same thing I do?” said Hadley. “If that is so, can’t you start to-morrow? God knows what may happen if we delay longer though what two of you can do against something which appears to blanket the earth, and strikes from the heavens, I don’t know. And yet, the fate of your country may be in your hands.”

“We realize that,” said Jeter, while Eyer nodded.

Hadley opened his mouth to make some other observation, then closed it again, tightly, as a horrible thing happened.

The conference was being held on the tenth floor of the Hadley building. And just as Hadley started to speak the whole building began to shake, to tremble as with the ague. Jeter turned his eyes on the others, to see their faces blurred by the vibration of the entire building.

Swiftly then he looked toward the windows of the big room.

Outside the south windows he witnessed an unbelievable thing. Out there was a twelve-story building, and its lighted windows were moving not to right or left, but straight up! The movement gave the same impression which passing windows give to one in an elevator. Either that other building was rising straight into the air, or the Hadley building was sinking into the Earth.

“Quick, Hadley!” yelled Jeter. “To the roof the fastest way possible!”

Even as Jeter spoke every last light in the building across the way went out. Jeter knew then that it was the other building that was moving and that electrical connection with the earth had been severed.

Hadley led the way to the roof, four stories above. Fortunately this was an old building and they didn’t have to wait to travel a hundred floors or so. The whole conference followed at the heels of Hadley, Jeter and Eyer.

They reached the roof at top speed.

They were first conscious of the cries of despair, of disbelief, of horror which rose from the street canyons below them. But they forgot these the next instant at what they saw.

The Vandercook building, the twelve-story building whose lights Jeter had seen moving, was rising bodily, straight out of the well which had been built around it. From the building came shrieks and cries of mortal terror. Even as the conference froze to horrified immobility, many men and women stepped to the ledges of those darkened windows and plunged out in their fear.

“God!” said Hadley.

“It’s just as well,” said Jeter in a far-away voice, “they haven’t a chance anyway!”

“I know,” replied Hadley. “God, Jeter, isn’t there something we can do?”

“I hope to find something,” said Jeter. “But just now I’m afraid we are helpless.”

The Vandercook building continued to rise. It did not totter; it simply rose in its entirety, leaving the gaping hole into which, decades ago, it had been built. It rose straight into the sky, apparently of its own volition. No rays of light, no supernatural agencies could be seen or fancied. The utterly impossible was happening. A building was a-wing.

Jeter and Eyer looked at each other with protruding eyes.

Then they looked back at the Vandercook, whose base now was on a level with the roof of the Hadley building.

“See?” said Hadley. “Not so much as a brick falls from the foundation. It’s it’s ghastly.”

Jeter would never forget the screams of mortal terror which came from the lips of the doomed who had been working late in the Vandercook building for, horror piled upon horror, those who had sought to escape calamity did not fall to Earth at all, but, at the same speed of the rising building, traveled skyward with it, human flies outside those leering dark windows.

Then, free of New York’s skyline, the flying building was gone with a rush. A thousand feet above New York’s tallest building, the Vandercook changed direction and moved directly into the west.

The conference watched it go....

“Commissioner,” Jeter yelled at the police chief of Manhattan, “get word out at once for all lights to be put out in the city! Hurry! Radio would be fastest.”

In ten minutes Manhattan was a darkened, silent city ... and now the conference could see why Jeter had asked for all lights to be extinguished.

Five thousand feet aloft, directly over the Hudson River, the Vandercook building now hung motionless and all eyes saw the thin column of light. It came down from the dark skies from a vast distance, widening to encompass the top of the Vandercook building.

The Vandercook building might almost have been a mouse caught in the talons of some unbelievable night-hawk.

As though some intellect had just realized the significance of New York’s sudden darkness; as though that intellect had realized that the column was ordinarily invisible because of Manhattan’s brilliant incandescents, and now was visible in the darkness the column of light snapped out....

“God Almighty! May the Lord of Hosts save the world from destruction!”

From New York’s canyons, from the roof of the Hadley building, came the great composite prayer.

A whistling shriek, growing second by second into enormous proportions, came out of the west, above the Hudson.