Read PIRACY PREFERRED: CHAPTER I of The Black Star Passes , free online book, by John Wood Campbell, on ReadCentral.com.

On the thirty-ninth floor of a large New York apartment two young men were lounging about after a strenuous game of tennis. The blue tendrils of smoke from their pipes rose slowly, to be drawn away by the efficient ventilating system. The taller of the two seemed to be doing most of the talking. In the positions they had assumed it would have been rather difficult to be sure of which was the taller, but Robert Morey was a good four inches taller than Richard Arcot. Arcot had to suffer under the stigma of “runt” with Morey around he was only six feet tall.

The chosen occupation of each was physical research, and in that field Arcot could well have called Morey “runt”, for Arcot had only one competitor his father. In this case it had been “like father, like son”. For many years Robert Arcot had been known as the greatest American physicist, and probably the world’s greatest. More recently he had been known as the father of the world’s greatest physicist. Arcot junior was probably one of the most brilliant men the world had ever seen, and he was aided in all his work by two men who could help him in a way that amplified his powers a thousand fold. His father and his best friend, Morey, were the complimentary and balancing minds to his great intelligence. His father had learned through years of work the easiest and best ways of performing the many difficult feats of laboratory experimentation. Morey could develop the mathematical theory of a hypothesis far more readily than Arcot could. Morey’s mind was more methodical and exact than Arcot’s, but Arcot could grasp the broad details of a problem and get the general method of solution developed with a speed that made it utterly impossible for his friend even to follow the steps he suggested.

Since Arcot junior’s invention of the multiple calculus, many new ramifications of old theories had been attained, and many developments had become possible.

But the factor that made Arcot so amazingly successful in his line of work was his ability to see practical uses for things, an ability that is unfortunately lacking in so many great physicists. Had he collected the royalties his inventions merited, he would have been a billionaire twice or thrice over. Instead he had made contracts on the basis that the laboratories he owned be kept in condition, and that he be paid a salary that should be whatever he happened to need. Since he had sold all his inventions to Transcontinental Airways, he had been able to devote all his time to science, leaving them to manage his finances. Perhaps it was the fact that he did sell these inventions to Transcontinental that made these lines so successful; but at any rate, President Arthur Morey was duly grateful, and when his son was able to enter the laboratories he was as delighted as Arcot.

The two had become boon companions. They worked, played, lived, and thought together.

Just now they were talking about the Pirate. This was the seventh day of his discovery, and he had been growing steadily more menacing. It was the great Transcontinental Airways that had suffered most repeatedly. Sometimes it was the San Francisco Flyer that went on without a pilot, sometimes the New York-St. Louis expresses that would come over the field broadcasting the emergency signal. But always the people were revived with little difficulty, and each time more of the stock of “Piracy, Inc.” was accumulated. The Air Guard seemed helpless. Time and time again the Pirate slipped in undetected. Each time he convinced them that it was an outside job, for the door was always sealed from the outside.

“Dick, how do you suppose he gets away with the things he does right under the eyes of those Air Guardsmen? He must have some system; he does it every time.”

“I have a vague idea,” Arcot answered. “I was going to ask you today, if your father would let us take passage on the next liner carrying any money. I understand the insurance rates have been boosted so high that they don’t dare to send any cash by air any more. They’ve resorted to the slow land routes. Is there any money shipment in sight?”

Morey shook his head. “No, but I have something that’s just as good, if not better, for our purpose. The other day several men came into Dad’s office, to charter a plane to San Francisco, and Dad naturally wondered why they had been referred to the president of the company. It seems the difficulty was that they wanted to hire the ship so they could be robbed! A large group of medical men and cancer victims were going for the ‘treatment’. Each one of the twenty-five hundred going was to bring along one hundred dollars. That meant a total of a quarter of a million dollars, which is to be left on the table. They hoped the Pirate would gas them and thus cure them! Dad couldn’t officially do this, but told them that if there were too many people for the San Francisco express, two sections would be necessary. I believe they are going on that second section. Only one hundred dollars! A low price for cancer cure!

“Another thing: Dad asked me to tell you that he’d appreciate your help in stopping this ultra-modern pirate. If you go down to see him in the morning, you’ll doubtless be able to make the necessary arrangements.”

“I’ll do so gladly. I wonder, though, if you know more about this than I do. Did they try that C-32L mask on an animal?”

“The Pirate was telling the truth. They tried it on a dog and he went to sleep forever. But do you have any idea how that gas does all it does?”

Now Arcot shook his head. “I don’t know what the gas is, but have a lead on how it works. You may know that carbon monoxide will seep through a solid plate of red-hot steel. That has been known for some three hundred years now, and I have to hand it to this Pirate for making use of it. Even in the war of 2075 they didn’t find any practical application for the principle. He has just found some gas that induces sleep in very low concentrations, and at the same time is able to penetrate to an even greater extent than carbon monoxide.”

“I was wondering how he stores that stuff,” Morey commented. “But I suppose he makes it as fast as he uses it, by allowing two or more constituents to react. It might well be simple enough to store them separately, and the air-stream blowing past him would carry the gas behind him, permitting him to lay a stream of it in front of the big plane. Is that about it?”

“That was about what I had figured. One of the things I want to do when I go with that Invalid Special tomorrow is to get some samples for analysis.”

“That’s a pretty big order, isn’t it, Dick? How are you going to handle it, or even get it into your apparatus?”

“Easily enough as far as getting the sample goes. I have already had some sample bottles made. I have one of them in the lab excuse me a moment.” Arcot left the room, to return a few minutes later with a large aluminum bottle, tightly closed. “This bottle has been pumped out to a very good vacuum. I then swept it out with helium gas. Then it was pumped out again. I hope to take this into some gas-filled region, where the gas will be able to leak in, but the air won’t. When it comes to going out again, the gas will have to fight air pressure, and will probably stay in.”

“Hope it works. It would help if we knew what we were bucking.”

The next morning Arcot had a long conference with President Morey. At the end of it, he left the office, ascended to the roof, and climbed into his small helicopter. He rose to the local traffic level, and waiting his chance, broke into the stream of planes bound for the great airfields over in the Jersey district. A few minutes later he landed on the roof of the Transcontinental Airways shops, entered them, and went to the office of the Designing Engineer, John Fuller, an old schoolmate. They had been able to help each other before, for Fuller had not paid as much attention to theoretical physics as he might have, and though he was probably one of the outstanding aeronautical designers, he often consulted Arcot on the few theoretical details that he needed. Probably it was Arcot who derived the greatest benefit from this association, for the ability of the designer had many times brought his theoretical successes to practical commercial production. Now, however, he was consulting Fuller, because the plane he was to take that afternoon for San Francisco was to be slightly changed for him.

He stayed in Fuller’s office for the better part of an hour, then returned to the roof and thence to his own roof, where Morey junior was waiting for him.

“Hello, Dick! I heard from Dad that you were going this afternoon, and came over here. I got your note and I have the things fixed up here. The plane leaves at one, and it’s ten-thirty now. Let’s eat lunch and then start.”

It was half-past eleven when they reached the flying field. They went directly to the private office which had been assigned to them aboard the huge plane. It was right next to the mail-room, and through the wall between the two a small hole had been cut. Directly beneath this hole was a table, on which the two men now set up a small moving picture camera they had brought with them.

“How many of the gas sample bottles did you bring, Bob?” asked Arcot.

“Jackson had only four ready, so I brought those. I think that will be enough. Have we got that camera properly placed?”

“Everything’s O.K., I believe. Nothing to do now but wait.”

Time passed then they heard a faint whir; the ventilator machinery had started. This drew air in from outside, and pumped it up to the necessary pressure for breathing in the ship, no matter what the external pressure might be. There was a larger pump attached similarly to each of the engines to supply it with the necessary oxygen. Any loss in power by pumping the air in was made up by the lower back pressure on the exhaust. Now the engines were starting they could feel the momentary vibration vibration that would cease as they got under way. They could visualize the airtight door being closed; the portable elevator backing off, returning to the field house.

Arcot glanced at his watch. “One o’clock. The starting signal is due.”

Morey sank back into a comfortable chair. “Well, now we have a nice long wait till we get to San Francisco and back, Dick, but you’ll have something to talk about then!”

“I hope so, Bob, and I hope we can return on the midnight plane from San Francisco, which will get us in at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, New York time. I wish you’d go right to your father’s office and ask him over to our place for supper, and see if Fuller can come too. I think we’ll be able to use that molecular controller on this job; it’s almost finished, and with it we’ll need a good designing engineer. Then our little movie show will no doubt be of interest!”

There was a low rumble that quickly mounted to a staccato roar as the great propellers began whirling and the engines took up the load. The ground began to flash behind them; then suddenly, as flying speed was reached, there was a slight start, the roaring bark of the engine took on a deeper tone, the rocking stopped and the ground dropped away. Like some mighty wild bird, the plane was in the air, a graceful, sentient thing, wheeling in a great circle as it headed for San Francisco. Now the plane climbed steadily in a long bank; up, up, up she went, and gradually the terrific roar of the engine died to a low throbbing hum as the low pressure of the air silenced the noise.

Below them the giant city contracted as the great ship rode higher. The tiny private helicops were darting about below them like streams of nigh invisible individuals, creeping black lines among the buildings of the city. The towering buildings shone in the noon sun in riotous hues as the colored tile facing reflected the brilliant sunlight with glowing warmth of color.

It was a city of indescribable beauty now. It was one of the things that made this trip worthwhile.

Now the shining city dropped behind them, and only the soft green of the Jersey hills, and the deep purple-black of the sky above were visible. The sun blazed high in the nigh-black heavens, and in the rarefied air, there was so little diffusion that the corona was readily visible with the aid of a smoked glass. Around the sun, long banners in space, the Zodiacal light gleamed dimly. Here and there some of the brighter stars winked in the dark sky.

Below them the landscape swung slowly by. Even to these men who had made the trip dozens of times, the sight was fascinating, inspiring. It was a spectacle which had never been visible before the development of these super-planes. Whole flying observatories had been made that had taken photographs at heights of fifteen miles, where the air was so rarefied that the plane had to travel close to eight hundred miles an hour to remain aloft.

Already ahead of them Arcot and Morey could see the great splotch of color that was Chicago, the mightiest city of Earth. Situated as it was in the heart of the North American continent, with great water and ground landing facilities and broad plains about it, it made a perfect airport. The sea no longer meant much, for it was now only a source of power, recreation and food. Ships were no longer needed. Planes were faster and more economical; hence seacoast cities had declined in importance. With its already great start toward ascendancy, Chicago had rapidly forged ahead, as the air lines developed with the great super-planes. The European planes docked here, and it was the starting point of the South American lines. But now, as they swung high above it, the glistening walls of soft-colored tiles made it a great mass of changing, flashing color beneath them. Now they could see a great air liner, twice the size of their plane, taking off for Japan, its six giant propellers visible only as flashing blurs as it climbed up toward them. Then it was out of sight.

It was over the green plains of Nebraska that the Pirate usually worked, so there the men became more and more alert, waiting for the first sign of abnormal drowsiness. They sat quietly, not talking, listening intently for some new note, but knowing all the while that any sound the Pirate might make would be concealed by the whirring roar of the air sweeping past the giant airfoils of the plane.

Suddenly Arcot realized he was unbearably sleepy. He glanced drowsily toward Morey who was already lying down. He found it a tremendous effort of the will to make himself reach up and close the switch that started the little camera whirring almost noiselessly. It seemed he never pulled his arm back he just lay there and

A white uniformed man was bending over him as he opened his eyes. To one side of him he saw Morey smiling down at him.

“You’re a fine guard, Arcot. I thought you were going to stay awake and watch them!”

“Oh, no, I left a much more efficient watchman! It didn’t go to sleep I’m willing to bet!”

“No, it may not have gone to sleep, but the doctor here tells me it has gone somewhere else. It wasn’t found in our room when we woke up. I think the Pirate found it and confiscated it. All our luggage, including the gas sample bottles, is gone.”

“That’s all right. I arranged for that. The ship was brought down by an emergency pilot and he had instructions from father. He took care of the luggage so that no member of the pirate’s gang could steal it. There might have been some of them in the ground crew. They’ll be turned over to us as soon as we see the emergency man. I don’t have to lie here any longer, do I, doctor?”

“No, Dr. Arcot, you’re all right now. I would suggest that for the next hour or so you take it easy to let your heart get used to beating again. It stopped for some two hours, you know. You’ll be all right, however.”