Read Chapter 5. Thief of The Year When Stardust Fell, free online book, by Raymond F. Jones, on ReadCentral.com.

The hall was already filled. Several scores of chairs had been placed in the corridors, and these were occupied also. People were being ushered to nearby classrooms where they would hear the proceedings over the school’s public-address system.

“It looks as if we’ll have to get it by remote pickup,” said Ken. At that moment Sally Teasdale, the Mayor’s secretary, spotted their group and hurried over.

“Mayor Hilliard told me to watch for you,” she said. “He wants you to sit on the platform, Professor Maddox, and also Dr. Douglas and Dr. Larsen. The others of your party can sit in the wings.”

Professor Maddox agreed and they followed Sally to the stage entrance. The platform was already occupied by the Mayor and the town councilmen, the college department heads, and leading citizens of Mayfield. The professors took their places, while Ken and the others found chairs in the wings. It was the best seat in the house, Ken decided. They could see both the platform and the audience below.

It was undoubtedly the largest group that had ever gathered in one place in Mayfield. In spite of the enormous number present it was a solemn group. There was almost no talking or jostling. To Ken, it seemed the faces about him had a uniform appearance of bewildered searching for reassurance that nothing could really destroy the way of life they had always known.

Mayor Hilliard arose and called the meeting to order. “I think everyone knows why we’ve been called here,” he said. “Because of the nature of the circumstances I think it appropriate that we ask Dr. Aylesworth, pastor of the Community Church, to offer prayer.”

Heads were bowed in reverent silence as Dr. Aylesworth stood before the assembly and offered a solemn invocation that their deliberations might receive divine guidance, and their minds be filled with wisdom to combat the evil that had come upon them.

The minister was a big, ruddy-faced man with a lion’s mane of white hair. The unwavering authority of his voice filled the audience with the conviction that they were better prepared to face their problems when he had resumed his seat.

Mayor Hilliard outlined the worldwide situation as he had obtained it through news reports up to an hour ago. He described the desperate situation of the nation’s larger cities. Their food supplies were sufficient for only a few days without any replenishment by rail and truck transportation. Ninety percent of automobile traffic had ceased. The railroads were attempting to conserve their rolling stock, but 70 percent of it was out of commission, and the remainder could not be expected to operate longer than a few days. Air traffic had stopped entirely. On the oceans, only sailing vessels continued to move.

“Mayfield is already cut off,” the Mayor went on. “Our last train went through here 30 hours ago. The trucking companies out of Frederick have suspended operations. We have no cars or trucks of our own here in town, on which we can depend. We’re on our own.

“So far, the scientists have found no solution. Tomorrow, they may find one. Or it may be 10 years before they do. In the meantime, we have to figure out how we, here in Mayfield, are going to carry on.

“Our first consideration is, of course, food supplies. The Council met this morning, and we have appointed a committee to take immediate possession of all foodstuffs and every facility for food production within the entire valley. Beginning tomorrow morning, this committee will begin to accumulate all food supplies into one or more central warehouses where they will be inventoried for rationing.

“All stocks of fresh meat will be salted and cured. Home supplies will be limited to no more than a week’s needs of any one item. Hoarders who persist in their unfair activities will be ordered to leave the community.

“My fellow citizens, these are stringent and severe regulations, but we are not facing a time of mild inconvenience. It may well be that in this coming winter we shall be literally fighting for our very lives. We, as your leaders, would like a vote of confidence from you, the citizens of Mayfield, as an assurance that you will co-operate with our efforts to the best of your ability.”

Instantly, nearly everyone in the auditorium was on his feet shouting his approval of the Mayor’s program.

Mayor Hilliard had known he was taking a long chance in presenting so bluntly such a severe program, but long experience had taught him the best way into a tough situation was a headlong plunge that ignored consequences. The ovation surprised him. He had expected substantial opposition. Visibly moved, he held up his hand for quiet once more.

“Our farms and our livestock will be our only means of salvation after present food stocks are gone,” he said. “A separate subcommittee will inventory all farmland and cattle and dairy herds and plan for their most efficient use in the coming season. Crops will be assigned as the committee sees fit. Farm labor will be taken care of by all of us, on a community basis.

“A third program that must begin immediately is the stockpiling of fuel for the coming winter. Wood will be our only means of heating and cooking because the nearest mines are too far away for us to haul coal from them by teams. The same is true of fuel oil stocks.

“Heating will be at a minimum. Most of you do not have wood stoves. What you have must be converted to use of wood. An additional committee will be appointed to supervise this conversion and the construction, where necessary, of makeshift stoves out of sheet metal, old oil barrels, and anything else of which we can make use.”

Item by item, he continued down the list of problems the Council had considered that day. He mentioned Ken’s suggestion for conservation of batteries. He spoke of the problems of medical care without adequate hospital facilities, of police activities that might be required in a period of stress such as they could expect that winter.

When he had finished, members of the Council detailed plans of the separate programs over which they had charge. President Lewis spoke to pledge support of the college staff. He pointed out the fortunate fact that they had some of the best minds in the entire country in their scientific departments, and also had Professor Larsen visiting with them.

The floor was turned over then to members of the audience for comment and questions. Most of them were favorable, but Sam Cluff, who owned a hundred and sixty of the best acres in the valley, stood up red-faced and belligerent.

“It’s all a pack of nonsense!” he declared. “This is just an excuse for certain people in this town to get their hands in somebody else’s pockets, and to tell other people what to do and how to live.

“I’m not going to have anything to do with it. Anybody who sets foot on my land to tell me what to raise or to take my goods away is going to have to reckon with a double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun.

“If there is any real problem, which I doubt, them Government scientists will be on the job and get things straightened out so that trains and automobiles will be running by next week. My advice is for everybody to go home and let them take care of it.”

Mayor Hilliard smiled tolerantly. “I shouldn’t have to remind you, Sam, that some of the best scientists in the world are right here in our own town, and they say the situation is serious enough for emergency measures. I hope you won’t be foolish with that shotgun, but we’re coming out to see you, tomorrow, Sam.”

Granny Wicks seemed to erupt from her place to which she had crowded in the center of the hall. All eyes turned at the sound of her scratchy, birdlike voice. “I told you,” she shrieked. “I told you what was coming, and now maybe you’ll believe me. There’s nothing you can do about it, Bill Hilliard. Nothing at all. There’s death in the air. The stars have spoken it. The signs are in the sky.”

Mayor Hilliard interrupted her. “Perhaps you’re right, Granny,” he said gently. “I don’t think any of us are going to argue with you tonight. We’re here to do what we can, and to make plans to stay alive just as long as possible.”

At the close, Dr. Aylesworth took the stand. His commanding presence seemed to draw an aura of peace once more around the troubled group. “We are civilized men and women,” he said. “Let us see that we act as such during the months that are ahead of us. Let us remember that we may see a time very soon when there will not be enough food, fuel and clothing for all of us. When and if that time comes, let us prove that we are able to be our brother’s keeper, that we are able to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Above all, may we be able to continue to call on divine assistance to bring a speedy end to this disaster, so that when it is over we can look back and be proud that we conducted ourselves as men and women worthy to be called civilized, and worthy of the divine approval and aid which we now seek.”

It was decided to keep classes going in the various schools as long as possible, releasing those students who were needed to take assignments in the emergency program. Ken and the rest of the science club members obtained immediate permission to devote their full time to the research program.

On the morning after the town meeting, Ken dressed early and rode his bicycle toward Art’s garage to arrange with the mechanic the details of the gathering and storage of automobile batteries. On the way he passed by Frank Meggs Independent Grocery Market, the largest in Mayfield.

Although it was only a little after 7 o’clock, an enormous crowd had collected outside and inside the store. Curious and half-alarmed, Ken parked his bicycle and made his way through the crowd. Inside, he found Frank Meggs ringing up sales of large lots of food.

A red-faced woman was arguing with him at the check-out stand. “A dollar a pound for white beans! That’s ridiculous, Frank Meggs, and you know it!”

“Sure I know it,” the storekeeper said calmly. “Next winter you’ll be glad I let you have them for even that price. If you don’t want them, Mrs. Watkins, please move along. Others will be glad to have them.”

The woman hesitated, then angrily flung two bills on the counter and stalked out with her groceries. Ken shoved his way up to the stand. “Mr. Meggs,” he exclaimed. “You can’t do this! All foodstuffs are being called in by the Mayor’s committee.”

He turned to the people. “Private hoards of food will be confiscated and placed in the community warehouse. This isn’t going to do you any good!”

Most of the shoppers looked shamefaced, at his challenge, but Meggs bristled angrily. “You keep out of this, Maddox! Nobody asked you to come in here! These people know what they’re doing, and so do I. How much do you think any of us will eat if townhall gets its hands on every scrap of food in the valley? If you aren’t buying, get moving!”

“I will, and I’ll be back just as soon as I can find the Sheriff!”

With telephone service now cut off to conserve battery power, Ken hesitated between seeking Sheriff Johnson at his office or at home. He checked his watch again and decided on the Sheriff’s home.

He was fortunate in arriving just before the Sheriff left. He explained quickly what was happening at Meggs’ store. Johnson had been assigned one of the few remaining cars that would run. With Ken, he drove immediately to the store. They strode in, the shoppers fanning out before the Sheriff’s approach.

“Okay, that’s all,” he said. “You folks leave your groceries right where they are. Tell the others they had better bring theirs back and get their money while Meggs still has it. Not that anybody is going to have much use for money, anyway.”

“You’ve no right to do this!” Meggs cried. “This is my private property and I’m entitled to do with it as I choose!”

“Not any longer it isn’t,” said Sheriff Johnson. “There isn’t such a thing as private property in Mayfield, any more. Except maybe the shirt on your back, and I’m not sure of that. At any rate, you’re not selling these groceries. Accounts will be kept, and when and if we get back to normal you’ll be reimbursed, but for now we’re all one, big, happy family!”

Most of the crowd had dispersed. The armloads and pushcarts full of groceries had been abandoned. Ken and the Sheriff moved toward the door.

“Another trick like that and you’ll spend the time of the emergency as a guest of the city. Incidentally, we don’t intend to heat the jail this winter!”

Meggs turned the blaze of his anger upon Ken. “This is your fault!” he snarled. “You and that bunch of politicians know there’s not going to be any shortage this winter just as well as I do. In a week this whole thing will be straightened out. I had a chance to make a good thing of it. I’m going to get even with you if it’s the last thing I ever do!”

“That’s enough of that!” said Sheriff Johnson sharply. “Come along, Ken.”

Ken was not disturbed by Meggs’ threat of personal retaliation, but he was frightened by the realization that Meggs wasn’t the only one of his kind in Mayfield. His patrons were only a shade less unstable. What would such people do when things really got tough? How much could they be depended on to pull their own weight?

After he had seen Art Matthews about collecting and storing the batteries, Ken went up to Science Hall where the rest of the club members were already at work. Under the direction of Al Miner, who was the best qualified to plan the alterations of the ventilation ducts, they made the necessary changes and installed one of the motorcycle engines to drive the blower. At the same time, three of them built up a high-voltage, battery-operated power supply to charge the filter elements.

By evening the assembly was operating. The motorcycle engine chugged pleasantly. “I wonder how long before that one freezes up,” Al said pessimistically.

“We ought to get more,” said Joe. “The way the cars have gone we’ll be lucky to get more than 2 days out of each one of these.”

During the day, Ken’s father had directed the preparation of metallic specimens from samples the boys had brought from Art’s garage and from those the men brought back from the power plant. With the high-powered electron microscope, photographs were taken.

As they finished their work the boys went with Ken to the laboratory. Professor Maddox looked up. “Hello, Fellows,” he said. “Have you got your piece of machinery running?”

“Purring like a top,” said Ken.

“Expected to run about as long,” said Al.

“Have you finished any photomicrographs?” Ken asked. “Do they show anything?”

His father passed over a wet print. The boys gathered around it.

“It doesn’t mean much to me,” said Dave Whitaker. “Can you tell us what it shows?”

Ken’s father took a pencil from his pocket and touched it lightly to a barely perceptible line across the center of the picture. “That is the boundary,” he said, “between the cylinder wall and the piston taken from one of the samples you brought in.”

“I can’t see anything that looks like a line between two pieces of metal,” said Ted Watkins. “It looks like one solid chunk to me.”

“That is substantially what it is,” said Professor Maddox. “There is no longer any real boundary as there would be between two ordinary pieces of metal. Molecules from each piece have flowed into the other, mixing just as two very viscous liquids would do. They have actually become one piece of metal.”

He took up another photograph. “Here you can see that the same thing has happened in the case of the shaft and bearing samples we obtained from the Collin’s Dam power plant. Molecules of the two separate pieces of metal have intermingled, becoming one single piece.”

“How could they do that?” Ken exclaimed. “Metals can’t flow like liquids.”

“They can if the conditions are right. When steel is heated to a sufficiently high temperature, it flows like water.”

“But that’s not the case here!”

“No, it isn’t, of course. At lower temperatures the molecules of a solid do not possess the energy of motion which they have in a liquid state. The metallic surface of a piece of cold steel has a certain surface tension which prevents the escape of the relatively low-energy molecules; thus it has the characteristics we ascribe to a solid.”

“Then what has happened in this case?” Joe asked. “Are you able to tell?”

Professor Maddox nodded. “The photographs show us what has happened, but they reveal nothing about how or why. We can see the surface tension of the two pieces of metal has obviously broken down so that the small energy of motion possessed by the molecules has permitted them to move toward each other, with a consequent mixing of the two metals. It has turned them quite literally into a single piece, the most effective kind of weld you can imagine.”

“What would cause the surface tension to break down like that?” Ken asked.

“That is what remains for us to find out. We don’t have the faintest idea what has caused it. It becomes especially baffling when we recall that it has happened, not in a single isolated instance, but all over the world.”

“You would think the metals would have become soft, like putty, or something, for a thing like that to happen to them,” said Joe.

“It would be expected that the hardness would be affected. This is not true, however. The metals seem just as hard as before. The effect of mixing seems to take place only when the metals are in sliding motion against one another, as in the case of a piston and cylinder, or a shaft and a bearing. The effect is comparatively slow, taking place over a number of days. The two surfaces must break down gradually, increasing the friction to a point where motion must cease. Then the mixing continues until they are welded solidly to each other.”

Ordinarily, the dusk of evening would have fallen over the landscape, but the blaze of the comet now lit the countryside with an unnatural gold that reflected like a flame through the windows and onto the faces of the men and boys in the laboratory.

“As to the cause of this phenomenon,” Professor Maddox said with an obviously weary deliberation in his voice, “we can only hope to find an explanation and a cure before it is too late to do the world any good.”

“There can’t be any question of that!” said Ken intensely. “The resources of the whole scientific world will be turned on this one problem. Every industrial, university, and governmental laboratory will be working on it. Modern science can certainly lick a thing like this!”

Professor Maddox turned from the window, which he had been facing. A faint, grim smile touched the corners of his lips and died as he regarded the boys, especially Ken. His face took on a depth of soberness Ken seldom saw in his father.

“You think nothing is immune to an attack by so-called modern science?” he said.

“Sure!” Ken went on enthusiastically, not understanding the expression on his father’s face. “Look at the problems that have been licked as soon as people were determined enough and willing to pay the cost. Giant computers, radar eyes, atomic energy. Everybody knows we could have made it to Mars by now if governments had been willing to put up the necessary money.”

“You still have to learn, all of you do,” Professor Maddox said slowly, “that the thing we call science is only a myth. The only reality consists of human beings trying to solve difficult problems. Their results, which seem to be solutions to some of those problems, we call science. Science has no life of its own. It does not deserve to be spoken of as an entity in its own right. There are only people, whom we call scientists, and their accomplishments are severely limited by their quite meager abilities. Meager, when viewed in comparison with the magnitude of the problems they attack.”

Ken felt bewildered. He had never heard his father speak this way before. “Don’t you believe there are scientists enough scientists who know enough to lick a thing like this in time?”

“I don’t know. I’m quite sure no one knows. We became conscious long ago of the fallacy of assuming that the concentration of men enough and unlimited funds would solve any problem in the world. For every great accomplishment like atomic energy, to which we point with pride, there are a thousand other problems, equally important, that remain unsolved. Who knows whether or not this problem of weakened surface tension in metals is one of the insoluble ones?”

“We have to find an answer,” said Ken doggedly. He could not understand his father’s words. “There’s nothing science can’t accomplish if it sets about it with enough determination. Nothing!”