Read Chapter 9. Judgment of The Year When Stardust Fell, free online book, by Raymond F. Jones, on ReadCentral.com.

There was snow. It covered the whole world beyond the hospital window. Its depth was frightening, and the walls seemed no barrier. It was as much inside as out, filling the room to the ceiling with a fluffy white that swirled and pulsed in waves before his eyes.

Much later, when the pain softened and his vision cleared, he saw the only real snow was that piled outside almost to the level of the first-story windows. Within the room, the outline of familiar objects showed clearly.

In half-recovered consciousness he wondered impersonally about the dying pain in his head and how he came to be where he was. He could remember only about a strange thing in the sky, and a great fear.

Then it burst upon him in full recollection the comet, the dust, the laboratory. They had proved the dust that was in the comet’s tail had accumulated in the metal surfaces of the failed engines. What more did they need to prove the comet’s responsibility?

He slept, and when he awoke his father was there. “Hi, Son,” Professor Maddox said.

Ken smiled weakly. “Hi, Dad.”

Dr. Adams wouldn’t let them talk much, and he didn’t want Ken’s father to tell him why he was there. He wanted Ken to dredge out of his own memories the circumstances of the attack.

Ken said, “I’ve got to get out of here. Things must be getting behind at the lab. Have you found anything new?”

“Take it easy,” his father said. “We’ve got a little better picture of what we’re up against. The dust is quite definitely from the comet’s tail. It has a very large molecule, and is suspended in our atmosphere in colloidal form. Its basis is a transuranic element, which is, however, only slightly radioactive. By volume, it is present in the amount of about one part in ten million, which is fairly heavy concentration for an alien substance of that kind.

“Perhaps the most important thing we’ve found is that it has a strong affinity for metals, so that its accumulation on metallic surfaces is much higher than in the general atmosphere.”

“It would!” Ken said, with a vague attempt at humor. “Why couldn’t it have had an affinity for old rubber tires, or secondhand galoshes?

“How late is it? Can I get up to the lab this afternoon?” Ken struggled to a sitting position. A gigantic pain shot through his head and down his spinal column. He felt as if his head were encased in a cement block. He fell back with a groan.

“Don’t try that again for a few days!” his father said severely. “You’re not going anywhere for quite a while. I have to go now, but your mother will be in tonight. Maria will come, too. You do what the doctors and nurses tell you to!”

“Dad why am I here?” He moaned in agony of both spirit and body.

“You had an accident,” said Dr. Adams smoothly. “It will all come back to you and you’ll soon be fine.”

Ken watched his father disappear through the doorway. He felt the sting of a needle in his arm and was aware the nurse was standing near. He wanted to talk some more, but suddenly he was too tired to do anything.

It came to him in the middle of the night, like a dark, wild dream that could be only the utmost fantasy. He remembered the silent, shapeless figures against the black wall of the old skating rink, and then he knew it wasn’t a dream because he could remember clearly the words of Jed Tucker and his father. He could also remember Mr. Allen saying, “We can’t let him go. Whoever he is, we’ve got to get him out of the way.”

He remembered the instant of crashing pain. Mr. Allen had struck with the intent to kill him. Again, he wondered for a moment if it were not just a nightmare. Mr. Allen, the town’s leading attorney, and Mr. Tucker, the banker what would they be doing, plotting robbery and killing?

In the morning he told his father about it. Professor Maddox could not believe it, either. “You must be mistaken, Ken,” he protested. “These men are two of our leading citizens. They’re both on the Mayor’s food committee. You suffered a pretty terrible shock, and you’ll have to realize the effects of it may be with you, and may upset your thinking, for quite a while.”

“Not about this! I know who it was. I recognized their voices in the dark. Jed Tucker admitted his identity when I called his name. If there’s anything gone from the warehouse, Sheriff Johnson will find it in their possession.”

The Sheriff had to wait for permission from Dr. Adams, but he came around that afternoon, and was equally unbelieving. He advanced the same arguments Professor Maddox had used about the character of those Ken accused.

“These men will do something far worse, if you don’t stop them,” said Ken.

“He’s right, there,” said Professor Maddox. “Those who did this, menace the whole community. They’ve got to be found.”

“We’ll make fools of ourselves,” said the Sheriff, “if we go to Tucker’s and Allen’s, and demand to search the premises. We’ve got to have more than your word, Ken; some evidence of their positive connection with the crime.”

“I just know I saw and heard them. That’s all.”

“Listen,” the Sheriff said suddenly, “there’s one man in this town that’s really out to get you: Frank Meggs. Don’t you think it could be Meggs and some of his friends?”

“No. It wasn’t Frank Meggs.”

Art Matthews came around later that same day. “You look worse than one of these engines that’s got itself full of stardust,” he said. “You must have been off your rocker, prowling around back alleys in the middle of the night!”

Ken grinned. “Hi, Art. I knew you’d be full of sympathy. What’s going on outside while I’ve been laid up? Say I don’t even know how long I’ve been here! What day is it?”

“Tuesday. Not that it makes any difference any more.”

“Tuesday and it was Saturday when I was working with the spectroscope. I’ve been here three days!”

“A week and three days,” said Art Matthews. “You were out cold for three days straight, and they wondered if your bearings were ever going to turn again.”

Ken lay back in astonishment. “Nobody’s told me anything. What’s happening outside?”

“It’s going to be a rough winter,” Art Matthews said, grimly. “Snow’s started heavy, two weeks earlier than usual. I understand Professor Douglas thinks it’s got something to do with the comet dust in the air.”

“That figures. What about the fuel supply?”

“In pretty sad shape, too. So far, the stockpile is big enough for about a week and a half of real cold. They laid off woodcutting for three days to spend all the time converting oil burners, and making new heaters out of 50-gallon barrels and anything else they could find. It’s going to be a mighty cold winter and a hungry one.”

Ken nodded, but he seemed to be thinking of something else.

“I’ve had an idea,” he said. “How’s your stock of spare parts in the garage?”

“Good. I always was a fool about stocking up on things I could never sell.”

“Any blocks?”

“About a dozen, why?”

“Could you make a brand-new engine out of spare parts?”

The mechanic considered, then nodded. “I think I could put together a Ford or Chevy engine. What good would that do? It would run down in a few days, just like all the rest.”

“Do you think it would, if you put it in a sealed room, and supplied only filtered air to it?”

Art’s eyes lighted. “Why the dickens didn’t we think of that before? If we could keep the stardust from getting to the engine, there’s no reason at all why it shouldn’t run as long as we wanted it to, is there?”

“If a generator could be assembled in the same way, we could stir up a little power on an experimental basis, enough to charge our radio batteries. I wonder how much power could be generated in the whole country by such means?”

“I know we could get a couple of dozen engines going here in Mayfield, at least!” said Art.

“Why don’t you get started right away? Get some of the club guys to help. If that filter idea works there may be a lot of things we can do.”

Art started for the door. “Sheer genius,” he said admiringly. “That’s sheer genius, Boy!”

Ken smiled to himself. He wondered why they hadn’t tried that when they first had the hunch that comet dust could be responsible. Maybe they could have saved some of the cars if they had rigged more efficient filters on the air intakes.

His thoughts went back to the attack. He was still thinking about it when his father and Sheriff Johnson returned.

“We took your word, Son,” the Sheriff said, chagrined. “We got a warrant and searched the Tucker and Allen premises from top to bottom. We went out to Tucker’s farm and went through the barns and the house. They’ve got a 2-day supply of rations just like everybody else.

“They screamed their heads off and threatened suit for slander and false arrest and everything else in the books.”

“I’ll get hold of Jed Tucker when I get out of here,” said Ken. “He’ll talk when I get through with him!”

“Don’t get yourself in a worse jam than you’ve stirred up already. Unless you can prove what you say, you’ll just have to forget it and keep quiet.”

Ken smiled suddenly. “It just occurred to me when a banker wants to keep something safe, where does he put it?”

“In the bank, of course,” said the Sheriff. “Wait a minute, you don’t think....”

“Why not? The bank isn’t doing business any more. Tucker is the only one, probably, who has any excuse to go down there. As long as things are the way they are, nobody else is going to get inside the vault or even inside the building.”

Professor Maddox and the Sheriff looked at each other. “It’s a logical idea,” said Ken’s father.

“It’s as crazy as the rest of it! We’ve made fools of ourselves already so we might as well finish the job!”

When breakfast was served the next morning, Ken found out his hunch had been right. He heard it from Miss Haskins the nurse and knew, therefore, that it must be all over town.

The nurse was wide-eyed. “What do you think?” she said, as she set out the bowl of oatmeal. “The Sheriff found that Mr. Tucker had filled his bank vault with food. He’d stolen it from the warehouse. The Sheriff’s men obtained a warrant and forced Tucker to open the vault, and there were cases of canned goods stacked clear to the ceiling!”

“He must have been afraid of getting hungry,” said Ken.

“To think a man like Mr. Tucker would do something like that!” She went out, clucking her tongue in exaggerated dismay.

Ken leaned back with satisfaction. He quite agreed with Miss Haskins. It was a pretty awful thing for a man like Mr. Tucker to have done.

How many others would do far worse before the winter was over?

The sun came out bright and clear after the series of heavy snowstorms. The comet added its overwhelming, golden light and tinted the world of snow. Some of the snow was melted by the tantalizing warmth, but water that had melted in the daytime froze immediately at night, and the unequal contest between the elements could have only one outcome in a prematurely cold and miserable winter.

As the pain in his head dwindled, and he was able to get about in the hospital, Ken grew more and more impatient to be released. He wondered about the heating and other facilities in the hospital and learned the Mayor’s committee had ordered one wing kept open at all times, with heat and food available to care for any emergency cases.

Three days after he was allowed on his feet, Ken was told by Dr. Adams that he could be released for the hearing of the Tuckers and Mr. Allen.

Ken stared at him. “I don’t want to go to any hearing! I’m going back to the laboratory!”

“You can go home,” said Dr. Adams. “I want you to rest a few more days, and then I would prefer seeing you get out in the open, working with the wood crew, instead of going right back to the lab.

“As for the trial and hearing, I’m afraid you have no choice. Judge Rankin has postponed the hearing so that you could appear, and he’ll issue a subpoena if necessary to insure your presence.”

“They caught Tucker redhanded with his bank vault stuffed to the ceiling with stolen goods. They don’t need me!”

“They tried to kill you,” Dr. Adams reminded him. “That’s quite different from robbing a warehouse.”

“I’m not interested in their punishment. It’s more important to work on the analysis of the comet dust.”

But there was no way out of it. Judge Rankin ordered Ken to appear. In spite of the fact that the building was unheated, and mushy snow was falling from a heavy sky once more, the courtroom was jammed on the day of the hearing.

Ken raged inwardly at the enormous waste of human resources. Men who should have been in the hills gathering wood, women who should have been at work on clothing and food projects were there to feed on the carcasses of the reputations presently to be destroyed.

Ken had little difficulty feeling sorry for Jed. His former teammate had been a good sport in all Ken’s experience of playing with him. He could almost feel pity for Jed’s father, too. On the stand, the banker looked steadfastly at the floor as he answered questions in a dull, monotone voice. He admitted the theft of the warehouse goods.

Judge Rankin asked severely, “Why, Mr. Tucker? Why did you think you had any more right to hoard supplies than the rest of us?”

For the first time the banker looked up, and he met the judge’s eyes. “We were scared,” he said simply. “We were scared of what is going to happen this winter.”

The judge’s eyes flashed. “So you were scared?” he cried. “Don’t you think we’re all scared?”

The banker shook his head and looked at the floor. “I don’t know,” he said, as if in a daze. “We were just scared.”

The lawyer, Allen, was more belligerent when he took the stand. “We merely did what anyone else in this courtroom would do if he had the chance, and thought of it first,” he said. “Do with me what you like, but before this winter is over, I’ll see you self-righteous citizens of Mayfield at each other’s throats for a scrap of food.”

He admitted the attack on Ken, but denied the intent to kill.

When Ken’s turn came, he told his story as simply and as quickly as possible, and when he had finished he said, “I’d like to add one more word, if I may.”

The judge nodded. “Go ahead, Ken.”

He looked over the faces of the audience. “We’ve got troubles enough,” he said slowly. “As much as we hate to admit it, the picture Mr. Allen gives us may be right unless we do what we can to stop it.

“We’re wasting time and resources today. My father and I should be at the laboratory. Every man and woman here is neglecting a job. We waste time, deliberating about punishment for some of our neighbors who are perhaps weaker, but certainly no more frightened than the rest of us. If we lock them up in prison somebody has to watch out for them, and the whole community is deprived of their useful labor.

“Why don’t we just let them go?”

A gasp of surprise came from the spectators, but a slow illumination seemed to light the face of Judge Rankin. His eyes moved from Ken to the accused men and then to the audience.

“This court has just heard what it considers some very sound advice,” he said. “Jed, Mr. Tucker, Mr. Allen....”

The three stood before him.

“I am taking it upon myself, because of the emergency conditions that confront us, to declare that the penalty for your crime is continued and incessant labor at any task the community may see fit to assign you. You are marked men. Your crime is known to every member of this community. There will be no escape from the surveillance of your neighbors and friends. I sentence you to so conduct yourselves in the eyes of these people that, if we do come through this time of crisis, you may stand redeemed for all time of the crime which you have committed.

“If you fail to do this, the punishment which will be automatically imposed is banishment from this community for the duration of the emergency.

“Court stands adjourned!”

A burst of cheers broke out in the room. The Tuckers and Mr. Allen looked as if they could not believe what they had heard. Then Jed turned suddenly and rushed toward Ken.

“It’s no good saying I’ve been a fool, but let me say thanks for your help.”

Mr. Tucker took Ken’s other hand. “You’ll never regret it, young man. I’ll see to it that you never regret it.”

“It’s okay,” said Ken, almost gruffly. “We’ve all got a lot of work to do.”

He turned as a figure brushed by them. Mr. Allen pushed through the crowd to the doorway. He looked at no one.

“We were fools,” said Mr. Tucker bitterly. “Brainless, scared fools.”

When they were gone, Dr. Aylesworth put his hand on Ken’s shoulder. “That was a mighty fine thing you did. I hope it sets a pattern for all of us in times to come.”

“I didn’t do it for them,” said Ken. “I did it for myself.”

The minister smiled and clapped the boy’s shoulder again. “Nevertheless, you did it. That’s what counts.”