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´╗┐Title: Lords of the Stratosphere
Author: Burks, Arthur J., 1898-1974
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Lords of the Stratosphere" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

     This etext was produced from Astounding Stories March 1933.
     Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
     U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

     The Table of Contents is not part of the original magazine.



                      Lords of the Stratosphere

                        _A Complete Novelette_


                          By Arthur J. Burks

       *       *       *       *       *



                        Contents

     I    The Take-off
    II    The Ghostly Columns
   III    Strange Levitation
    IV    Frantic Scheming
     V    Into the Void
    VI    Stratosphere Currents
   VII    Invisible Globe
  VIII    Cataclysmic Hunger
    IX    A Scheme Is Described
     X    How It Came About
    XI    To the Rescue

       *       *       *       *       *



[Sidenote: High into air are the great New York buildings lifted by a
ray whose source no telescope can find.]

CHAPTER I

_The Take-off_


It seemed only fitting and proper that the greatest of all leaps into
space should start from Roosevelt Field, where so many great flights had
begun and ended. Fliers whose names had rung--for a space--around the
world, had landed here and been received by New York with all the pomp
of visiting kings. Fliers had departed here for the lands of kings, to
be received by them when their journeys were ended.

Of course Lucian Jeter and Tema Eyer were disappointed that Franz Kress
had beaten them out in the race to be first into the stratosphere above
fifty-five thousand feet. There was a chance that Kress would fail, when
it would be the turn of Jeter and Eyer. They didn't wish for his
failure, of course. They were sports-men as well as scientists; but
they were just human enough to anticipate the plaudits of the world
which would be showered without stint upon the fliers who succeeded.

[Illustration: _The warship simply vanished into the night sky._]

"At least, Tema," said Jeter quietly, "we can look his ship over and see
if there is anything about it that will suggest something to us. Of
course, whether he succeeds or fails, we shall make the attempt as soon
as we are ready."

"Indeed, yes," replied Eyer. "For no man will ever fly so high that
another may not fly even higher. Once planes are constructed of
unlimited flying radius ... well, the universe is large and there should
be no end of space fights for a long time."

Eyer, the elder of the two partner scientists, was given sometimes to
quiet biting sarcasm that almost took the hide off. Jeter never minded
greatly, for he knew Eyer thoroughly and liked him immensely. Besides
they were complements to each other. The brain of each received from the
other exactly that which he needed to supplement his own knowledge of
science.

They had one other thing in common. They had been "child prodigies," but
contrary to the usual rule, they had both fulfilled their early promise.
Their early precocious wisdom had not vanished with the passing of
childhood. Each possessed a name with which to conjure in the world of
science. And each possessed that name by right of having made it famous.
And yet--they were under forty.

Jeter was a slender athletic chap with deep blue eyes and brown hair.
His forehead was high and unnaturally white. There was always a still
sort of tenseness about him when his mind was working with some idea
that set him apart from the rest of the world. You felt then that you
couldn't have broken his preoccupation in any manner at all--but that if
by some miracle you did, he would wither you with his wrath.

Tema Eyer was the good nature of the partnership, with a brain no less
agile and profound. He was a swart fellow, straight as an arrow, black
of eyes--the sort which caused both men and women to turn and look after
him on the street. Children took to both men on sight.

The crowd which had come out to watch the take-off of Franz Kress was a
huge one--huge and restless. There had been much publicity attendant on
this flight, none of it welcome to Kress. Oh, later, if he succeeded, he
would welcome publicity, but publicity in advance rather nettled him.

Jeter and Eyer went across to him as he was saying his last words into
the microphone before stepping into his sealed cabin for the flight.
Kress saw them coming and his face lighted up.

"Lord," he said, "I'm glad to see you two. I've something I must ask
you."

"Anything you ask will be answered," said Jeter, "if Tema and I can
answer it. Or granted--if it's a favor you wish."

Kress motioned people back in order to speak more or less privately with
his brother scientists. His face became unusually grave.

"You've probably wondered--everybody has--why I insist on making this
flight alone," he said, speaking just loudly enough to be heard above
the purring of the mighty, but almost silent motor behind him. "I'll
tell you, partly. I've had a feeling for the last month that ... well,
that things may not turn out exactly as everybody hopes. Of course I'll
blaze the way to new discoveries; yes, and I'll climb to a height of
around a hundred thousand feet ... and ... and...."

Jeter and Eyer looked at each other. It wasn't like Kress to be gloomy
just before doing something that no man had ever done before. He should
have been smiling and happy--at least for the movietone cameras--but he
wasn't even that. Certainly it must be something unusual to so concern
him.

"Tell us, Kress," said Eyer.

Kress looked at them both for several moments.

"Just this," he said at last: "work on your own high altitude plane with
all possible speed. If I don't come back ... take off and follow me into
the stratosphere at once."

Had Kress, possessor of one of the keenest scientific minds in the
world, taken leave of his senses? "If I don't come back," he had said.
What did he expect to do? Fly off the earth utterly? That was silly.

But when the partners looked again at Kress they both had the same
feeling. It probably wasn't as silly as it sounded. Did Kress know
something he wasn't telling them? Did he really think he might ... well,
might fly off the earth entirely, away beyond her atmosphere, and never
return? How utterly absurd! And yet....

"Of course we'll do it," said Jeter. "We'd do it anyway, without word
from you. We haven't stopped our own work because of your swiftly
approaching conquest of the greater heights. But why shouldn't you come
back?"

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment there was a look of positive dread upon Kress' face.

Then he spoke again very quietly:

"You know all the stuff that's been written about my flight," he said.
"Most of it has been nonsense. How could laymen newspaper reporters have
any conception of what I may encounter aloft? They've tried to make
something of the recent passage of the Earth through an area of
so-called shooting stars. They've speculated until they're black in the
face as to the true nature of the recent bombardment of meteorites.
They've pictured me as a hero in advance, doomed to death by direct
attack from what they are pleased to call--after having invented
them--denizens of the stratosphere."

"Yes?" said Jeter, when Kress paused.

Kress took a deep breath.

"They've come nearer than they hoped for in some guesses," he said. "Of
course I don't know it, but I've had a feeling for some time. You know
what sometimes happens when a man gets a sudden revolutionary idea? He
concentrates on it like all get-out. Then somebody else bursts into the
newspapers with the same identical idea, which in turn brings out hordes
of claims to the same idea by countless other people. It's no new thing
to writers and such-like gentry. They know that when they get such an
idea they must act on it at once or somebody else will, because their
thoughts on the subject have gone forth and impinged upon the mental
receiving sets of others. Well, that's a rough idea, anyway. This idea
of denizens of the stratosphere has attacked the popular imagination.
You'll remember it broke in the papers _simultaneously_, in thirty
countries of the world!"

A cold chill ran down the spine of Tema Eyer. He saw, in a flash,
whither Kress' thoughts were tending--and when he saw that, it thrilled
him, too, for it seemed to be proof of the very thing Kress was saying.

"You mean," he said hoarsely, "that you too think there may be something
up there, something ... well, sensate? Some great composite thought
which inspires the general dread of stratosphere denizens?"

Kress shrugged. He wouldn't commit himself, being too careful a
scientist, but he hadn't hesitated to plant the idea. Jeter and Eyer
both understood the thoughts which were teeming in Kress' brain.

"We'll do our part Kress," said Eyer. Lucian Jeter nodded agreement.
Kress gripped their hands tightly--almost desperately, Jeter thought.
Jeter was usually the leader where Eyer and himself were concerned and
he thought already that he foresaw cataclysmic events.

       *       *       *       *       *

Kress climbed into his plane. The vast crowd murmured. They knew he was
adjusting everything inside for the days-long endurance test ahead of
him. Kress had forgotten nothing. There was even a specially made
cylinder, comparable to the globe which Picard had used in his historic
balloon ascensions in Europe. This was attached to a parachute which, if
the emergency arose, could be dropped. Kress, in the ball, could pass
through the sub-arctic cold of the stratosphere if necessity demanded.
The ball, if it struck the ocean, would preserve him for a great length
of time. It was even equipped with rockets.

This plane was revolutionary. It was, to begin with, carrying a vast
load. Kress was taking every conceivable kind of instrument he fancied
he might need. There was food as for a long siege.

Jeter shuddered. Why had he thought of the word "siege"?

The great load would be carried without difficulty, however, for this
plane was little short of a miracle. Among other things, Kress would be
able, in case of fatigue, to set his controls--as at sea a pilot may
sometimes lash his wheel--and sleep while his plane mounted on up, and
up, in great spirals.

Up beyond fifty-five thousand he hoped to attain a thousand miles an
hour velocity. That meant, say, breakfast in New York, lunch in London,
tea in Novo-Sibirsk, dinner in Yokohama--as soon as the myriad planes
which would follow this one in design and capabilities took off on the
trail Kress was blazing.

Jeter sighed at the thought. For several years he had explored
little-known sections of the world. He had visited every country. He had
entered every port that could be reached from the ocean--and all the
time he had felt the Earth shrinking before the gods of speed. The time
would soon come when everything on Earth would be commonplace. Then
man's urge to go places he hadn't seen before would take him away from
the Earth entirely--when he would begin the task of making even the
universe shrink to appease the gods of speed. Somehow the thought was a
melancholy one.

Now the crowd gave back as Kress speeded up his motor, indicating that
he would soon take off. Jeter and Eyer studied the outward outline of
Kress' craft. It looked exactly like a black beetle which has just
alighted after flight, but has not yet quite hidden its wings. It was
black, probably because it was believed a black object could be followed
easier from the Earth.

There would be many anxious eyes watching that spiraling ship as it grew
smaller and smaller, climbing upward.

With a rush, and a spinning of dust in the slipstream, the ship was
away. It lifted as easily as a bird and mounted with great speed. It was
capable of climbing in wide spirals at a hundred and fifty miles an
hour.

A great sigh burst from the thousands who had come to watch history
made. For solid hours now they would watch the plane climb, growing
smaller, becoming a speck, vanishing. Many curious ones would stay right
here until Kress returned, fearful of being cheated of a great thrill.
For Kress was to land right here when, and if, he had conquered the
stratosphere.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jeter and Eyer wormed their way through the crowd to the road and found
their car in a jam of other cars. Without a word they climbed in and
drove themselves to their dwelling--combined home and laboratory--in
Mineola. There they fell to on their own ship, which was being built
piece by piece in their laboratory.

Every half hour or so one or the other would go to the lawn and gaze
aloft, seeking Kress.

"He's out of eyesight," said Eyer, the last to go. "Is the telescope set
up?"

"Yes, and arranged to cover all the area of sky through which Kress is
likely to climb."

At intervals through the night, long after they had ceased work, the
partners rose from bed and sought their fellow scientist among the
stars. They alternated at this task.

"According to my calculations," said Jeter, when the eastern sky was
just paling into dawn, "Kress has now reached a point higher than man
has ever flown before, higher than any living--"

Jeter stopped on the word. Both men remembered Kress' last words. Kress,
upset or not, properly or improperly, had hinted of living things in the
stratosphere--perhaps utterly malignant entities.

It was just here, in the dawning of the first day after Kress'
departure, that the dread began to grow on Jeter and Eyer. And during
the day they labored like Trojans at their work, as though to forget it.

The world had begun its grim wait for the return of Kress.

They waited all that day ... and the next ... and the next!

Then telegraph and radio, at the suggestion of Jeter, instructed the
entire civilized world to turn its eyes skyward to watch for the return
of Kress.

The world obeyed _that_ day ... and the next ... _and the next_!

But Kress did not return; nor, so far as the world knew, did any or all
of his great airplane.

The world itself began to have a feeling of dread--that grew.



CHAPTER II

_The Ghostly Columns_


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.



CHAPTER III

_Strange Levitation_


"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 Nepal 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 Nepal,
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 Nepal--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 Nepal 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.



CHAPTER IV

_Frantic Scheming_


There was no mistaking the meaning of that whistling shriek. Whatever
agency had held the Vandercook building aloft had now released its
uncanny grip on the building, and thousands of tons of brick and mortar,
of stone and steel, were plunging down in a mass from five thousand feet
above the Hudson. The same force had also released the ill-fated men and
women who had been carried aloft with the building. And there must have
been hundreds of people inside side the building.

It fell as one piece, that great building. It didn't topple until it had
almost reached the river and its shrieking plunge became meteor-like,
the sound of its fall monstrous beyond imagining. The conference above
the Hadley building fancied they could feel the outward rush of air
displaced by the falling monster--and drew back in fear from the edge of
the roof.

The Vandercook struck the surface of the Hudson and an uprush of
geysering water for a few seconds blotted the great building from view.
Then all Manhattan seemed to shudder. Most of it was perhaps fancy, but
thousands of frightened Manhattanites saw that fall, heard the
whistling, and felt the trembling of immovable Manhattan.

The great columns of water fell back into the turbulent Hudson which had
received the plunging building. Not so much as a wooden desk showed
above the surface as far as any one could see from shore. Not a soul had
been saved. Shrieks of the doomed had never stopped from the moment the
Vandercook building had started its mad journey aloft.

Jeter whirled on Hadley.

"Will you see that all my suggestions are carried out, Hadley?" he
demanded.

Hadley, face gray as ashes, nodded.

From Manhattan rose the long abysmal wailing of a populace just finding
its voice of fear after a stunning, numbing catastrophe.

"I'll do whatever you say, Jeter," said Hadley. "We all agreed before
the arrival of Eyer and yourself that your advice would be followed if
you chose to give any."

"Then listen," said Jeter, while Eyer stood quietly at his elbow,
missing nothing. "Advise the people of New York to quit the city as
quietly and in as orderly a manner as possible. Let the police
commissioner look after that. Then get word to the leading aviation
authorities, promoters, and fliers and have them get to our Mineola
laboratory as fast as possible. We've kept much of the detail of
construction of our space-ship secret, for obvious reasons. But the time
has come to forget personal aggrandizement and the world must know all
we have learned by our labor and research. Then see that every
manufacturing agency, capable of even a little of what it will take for
the program, is drafted to the work--by Federal statute if
necessary--and turn out copies of our plane as quickly as God will let
you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hadley's eyes were bulging. So were those of the others who had crowded
close to listen. They seemed to think Jeter had taken leave of his
senses, and yet--all had seen the Vandercook building perform the
utterly impossible.

Hadley nodded.

"What do you want with the filers and others at your laboratory?"

"To listen to the details of construction of our space ship. Eyer will
hold a couple of classes to explain everything. Then, when we've made
things as clear as possible, Eyer and I will take off and get up to do
our best to counteract the--whatever it is--that seems to be ruling the
stratosphere. We'll do everything possible to hold the influences in
check until you can send up other space ships to our assistance."

Hadley stared.

"You speak as though you expected to be up for a long time. Planes like
yours aren't made overnight."

"Planes like ours must be made almost overnight--and have you forgotten
that Kress was gone for three weeks, and yet had been dead but
seventy-two hours when he landed on our roof? Incidentally, Hadley, that
fall of his was guided by something or someone. He didn't fall on our
roof by chance. He was dropped there, as a challenge to us!"

"That means?" said Hadley hoarsely.

"That everything we do is known to the intelligence of the stratosphere!
That every move we make is watched!"

"God!" said Hadley.

Then Hadley straightened. His jaws became firm, his eyes lost their
fear. He was like a good soldier receiving orders.

"All the power of the press will be massed to get the country to back
your suggestions, Jeter. They seem good to me. Now get back to your ship
and leave everything to me. Suppose you do encounter some intelligence
in the stratosphere? How will you combat it, especially if it proves
inimical--which to-night's horror would seem to prove?"

Jeter shrugged.

"We'll take such armament as we have. We have several drums of a deadly
volatile gas. We have guns of great power, hurling projectiles of great
velocity; but I feel all of that will be more or less useless. The
intelligence up there--well, it knows everything we know and far more
besides, for do any of us know how to strike at the earth from the
stratosphere? Therefore our only weapons must be our own
intelligence--at least that will be the program for Eyer and me. Later,
when your planes which are yet to be built follow us up the sky, perhaps
they will be better armed. I hope to be able to communicate information
somehow, relative to whatever we find."

Hadley thrust out his hand.

"Good luck," he said simply.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then he was gone and Jeter and Eyer were dropping swiftly down in the
elevator to the street--to find that the streets of Manhattan had gone
mad. The ban on electric lights had been lifted, and the faces of
fear-ridden men and women were ghastly in the brilliance of thousands of
lights. Traffic accidents were happening on every corner, at every
intersection, and there were all too few police to manage traffic.

However, a motorcycle squad was ready to lead the way through the press
for Eyer and Jeter--two grim-faced men now, who dared not look at each
other, because each feared to show his abysmal fear to the other.

Automobiles raced past on either side of them driven by crazy men and
hysterical women.

"Queensboro Bridge will be packed tight as a drum," said Eyer quietly.

Jeter didn't seem to hear. Eyer talked on softly, unbothered by Jeter's
silence, knowing that Jeter wouldn't hear a word, that his partner had
drawn into himself and was even now, perhaps, visualizing what they
might encounter in the stratosphere. Eyer talked to give shape to his
own thoughts.

A world gone mad, a world that fled from the menace which hung over
Manhattan.... Jeter hoped that the calm brains of men like Hadley would
at least be able to quiet the populace somewhat, else many of them would
be self-destroyed, as men and women destroy one another in rushes for
the exits during great theater fire alarms.

Fast as they traveled, some of the foremost airmen of the adjoining
country had reached Mineola ahead of them. They understood that many of
them had arrived by plane in obedience to word broadcast by Hadley.
Hadley was doing his bit with a vengeance.

The partners reached their laboratory.

Their head servant met them at the door.

"A Mr. Hadley frantically telephoning, sir," he said to Jeter.

Jeter listened to Hadley's words--which were not so frantic now, as
though Hadley had been numbed by the awful happenings.

"The new bridge between Manhattan and Jersey," said Hadley, "has just
been lifted by whatever the unearthly force is. It was pulled up from
its very foundations. It was crowded with cars as people fled from New
York--and cars and people were lifted with the bridge. Awful irony was
in the rest of the event. The great bridge was simply turned, along its
entire length--which remained intact during the miracle--until it was
parallel with the river and directly above midstream. Then it was
dropped into the water."

"No telling how many lives were lost?" asked Jeter.

"No, and hundreds and thousands of lives are being lost every moment
now. Frantic thousands are swamping boats of all sizes in their craze to
get away. Dozens of overloaded vessels have capsized and the surface of
the river is alive with doomed people, fighting the water and one
another...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jeter clicked up the receiver on the horror, knowing there was nothing
he could do. There would be no end to the loss of life until some
measure of sanity had been argued into crazed humanity.

All the time he kept wondering.

What was doing all this awful business? He surmised that some
anti-gravitational agency was responsible for the levitation of the
Vandercook building, but what sort of intelligence was directing it? Was
the intelligence human? Bestial? Maniacal? Or was it something from
Outside? Jeter did not think the latter could be considered. He didn't
believe that any planet, possibly inhabited, was close enough to make a
visit possible. At any rate, he felt that there should be some sort of
warning. He held to the belief that the whole thing was caused by human,
and earthly, intelligence.

But why? The world was at peace. And yet....

Thousands of lives had been snuffed out, a twelve-story building had
leaped five thousand feet into the air, and the world's biggest bridge
had turned upstream as though turning its back against the mad traffic
it had at last been called upon to bear.

Eyer was going over their plane with the visitors, men of intellect who
were taking notes at top speed, men who knew planes and were quick to
grasp new appliances.

"Have any of you got the whole story now?" Eyer asked.

A half dozen men nodded.

"Then pass your knowledge on to the others. Jeter and I must get ready
to be off. Every minute we delay costs untold numbers of lives."

Willing hands rolled their ship out to their own private runway, while
Jeter and Eyer made last minute preparations. There was the matter of
food, of oxygen necessary so far above the Earth, of clothing. All had
been provided for and their last duties were largely those of checking
and rechecking, to make sure no fatal errors in judgment had been made.

Eyer was to fly the ship in the beginning.

A small crowd watched as the partners, white of face now in the last
minutes of their stay on Earth--which they might never touch again in
life--climbed into their cabin, which was capable of being sealed
against the cold of the heights and the lack of breathable oxygen.

Nobody smiled at them, for the world had stopped smiling.

Nobody waved at them, for a wave would have been frivolous.

Nobody cheered or even shouted--but the two knew that the best wishes,
the very hopes for life, of all the land, went with them into the
ghastly unknown.



CHAPTER V

_Into the Void_


Their watches and the clock in the plane were synchronized with Hadley's
time, which was Eastern Standard, and as soon as the plane had reached
eight thousand feet altitude, Jeter spoke into the radiophone and
arranged for a connection with the office of Hadley.

Hadley himself soon spoke into Jeter's ear.

"Yes, Jeter?"

"See that someone is always at your radiophone to listen to us. I'll
keep you informed of developments as long as possible. Everything is
running like clockwork so far. How is it with you?"

"Two additional buildings, older buildings of the city, have been lifted
some hundreds of feet above ground level, then dropped back upon their
own foundations, to be broken apart. Many lives lost despite the fact
that the city will be deserted within a matter of hours. It seems that
the--shall we say enemy?--is concentrating only on old buildings."

"Perhaps they wish to preserve the new ones," said Jeter quietly.

"What? Why?"

"For their own use, perhaps; who knows? Keep me informed of every
eventuality. If the center of force which seems to be causing all this
havoc shifts in any direction, advise us at once."

"All right, Jeter."

Jeter broke the connection temporarily. Hadley could get him at any
moment. A buzzer would sound inside the almost noiseless cabin when
anyone wished to contact him over the radiophone.

Eyer was concentrating on the controls. The plane was climbing in great
sweeping spirals. Its speed was a hundred and fifty miles an hour. Their
air speed indicator was capable of registering eight hundred miles an
hour. They hoped to attain that speed and more, flying on an even keel
above ninety thousand feet.

Both Eyer and Jeter were perfect navigators. If, as they hoped, they
could reach ninety thousand or more, they could cross the whole United
States in four hours or less. They could quarter the country, winged
bloodhounds of space, seeking their quarry.

Jeter studied the sky above them through their special telescopes,
seeking some hint of the location of the point of departure of that
devastating column of light. He could think of no ray that would nullify
gravitation--yet that column of light had been the visual manifestation
that the thing had somehow been brought about.

If this were true, was the enemy vulnerable? Was his base of attack
capable of being destroyed or crippled if anything happened to the
column of light? There was no way of knowing--yet. A search of the sky
above Manhattan failed to disclose any visible substance from which the
light beam might emanate. That seemed to indicate some unbelievable
height. Yet, Kress must have reached that base. Else why had he been
destroyed and sent back to Jeter and Eyer as a challenge?

       *       *       *       *       *

Jeter's mind went back to Kress. Frozen solid ... but that could have
been caused by his downward plunge through space. And what had happened
to Kress' plane? No word had been received concerning it up to the time
of the Jeter-Eyer departure. Had the "enemy" taken possession of it?

The whole thing seemed absurd. Nobody knew better than Jeter that he was
working literally and figuratively in the dark. He was doing little
better than guessing. He felt sure of but one thing, that the agency
which was wreaking the havoc was a human one, and he was perfectly
willing to match his wits and Eyer's against any human intelligence.

Jeter slipped into the cushioned seat beside Eyer.

The altimeter registered fifteen thousand feet. New York was just a blur
against the abysmal darkness under their careening wings.

"You've never ventured an opinion, Tema," said Jeter softly, "even to
me."

Eyer grinned.

"Who knows?" he said. "It may all be just the very latest thing in
aerial attack. If so, what country or coalition of countries harbor
designs against our good Uncle Sam? Japan? China?"

"How do you explain the Vandercook incident? The bridge thing? The rise
and fall of the other skyscrapers?"

"Some substance or ray capable of being controlled and directed. It
creates a field, of any size desired, in which gravitation is--well,
shall we say erased? Then any solid which is thus made weightless could
be lifted by the two good hands of a strong man, or even of a weak one.
How does that check with your guessing?"

Jeter shook his head ruefully.

"I've arrived at the same conclusions as yourself, Tema," he said. "I
know we're all guessing. I know we're probably climbing off the Earth on
a wild-goose chase from which we haven't a chance of returning alive. I
know we're a pair of fools to think of matching a few drums of gas and a
bunch of popguns against the equipment of an enemy capable of moving
mountains--but what else is there to do?"

"Nothing," said Eyer cheerfully, "and I've got a feeling that you and I
will manage to acquit ourselves with credit."

The radiophone buzzer sounded.

Hadley was speaking.

"One of the very latest types of battle-wagons," he said, "was steaming
this way from the open sea outside the Narrows, ordered here to stand by
in case of need, by the Navy Department. She was armed to the minute
with the very latest ordnance. She carried a full crew...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hadley paused. Jeter could hear him take a deep breath, like a diver
preparing to plunge into icy water. Jeter's spine tingled. He felt he
guessed in advance what was to come.

Hadley went on.

The world seemed to spin dizzily as Jeter listened. Out of all the
madness only one thing loomed which served for the moment to keep Jeter
sane. That was the altimeter, which registered twenty-five thousand
feet.

"The battle-wagon--the _U.S.S. Hueber_--was yanked bodily out of the
water. It was taken aloft so quickly that it was just a blur. At least
this was the way the skipper of a Norwegian steamer, a mile away from
the _Hueber_, described it. The warship simply vanished into the night
sky. The exact time was given by the Norwegian. Five minutes before
midnight. At that moment nothing was happening in New York City--nothing
new, that is."

Hadley paused again.

"Go on, man!" said Jeter hoarsely.

"Twenty minutes later the _Hueber_ was lowered back into the water,
practically unharmed. It had all happened so swiftly that the sailors
aboard scarcely realized anything had happened. The skipper of the
warship radios that the sensation was like a sudden attack of dizziness.
One man died of heart failure. He was the only casualty."

Jeter's eyes began to blaze with excitement, as he spoke.

"Now you can tell the world that the thing which causes the havoc
Manhattan is experiencing is not supernatural. It is human--and our
people have no fear of human enemies."

"But why was not the warship dropped somewhere, as the buildings have
been?" asked Hadley.

"Did you ever," replied Jeter, "hear what is described in the best
fiction as a burst of ironic laughter? Well, that what the _Hueber_, as
it now stands, or floats, is! But the enemy made a foolish move and
will live to regret it bitterly."

"I wish I could share your sudden confidence," said Hadley. "Conditions
here, where public morale is concerned, have become more frightful
minute by minute since you left."

Jeter severed the connection.

       *       *       *       *       *

The altimeter said thirty-five thousand feet. They were still spiraling
upward. Again Jeter surveyed the sky aloft.

The earth below was a blur, save through the telescopes. The two had
reached a height less than a third of what they hoped to attain.

Still they could see nothing up above them. They were almost over the
"shaft" of atmosphere through which the _Hueber_ must have been lifted
and lowered. Suppose, Jeter thought, they had accidentally flown into
that shaft at exactly the wrong moment? It brought a shudder. Still,
Jeter's mind went on, if that had happened they would now, in all
likelihood, have been right among the enemy--for gravity in that shaft
would not have existed for them, either.

But would they have been lowered back to safety as the _Hueber_ and her
crew had been?

Believing as he did that the enemy knew everything that transpired
within its sphere of influence, Jeter doubted that Eyer and himself
would have been so humanely treated.

He had but to remember Kress to feel sure of this.

The altimeter said fifty thousand feet.



CHAPTER VI

_Stratosphere Currents_


Now the partner-scientists concentrated on the tremendous task of
climbing higher than man had ever flown before. Nobody knew how high
Kress had gone, for the only information which had come back had been
the corpse of the sky pioneer. Jeter and Eyer hoped to land, too, but to
be able to tell others, when they did, what had happened to them.

Somehow, away up here, the affairs of the Earth seemed trivial, unreal.
What was the raising of an entire skyscraper--in reality so small that
from this height it was difficult to pick out the biggest one through
the telescope? What mattered a bridge across the Hudson that was really
less than the footprint of an ant at this height?

Still, looking at each other, they were able to attain the old
perspectives. Down there people like Jeter and Eyer were dying because
of something that struck at them from somewhere up here in the blue
darkness.

Their faces set grimly. The plane kept up its constant spiraling. Jeter
and Eyer flew the ship in relays. Occasionally they secured the controls
and allowed the plane to fly on, untended.

"But maybe we'd better not do too much of that," said Jeter dubiously.
"I'm sure we are being observed, every foot of altitude we make. I don't
care to run into something up here that will wreck us. Right now, Eyer,
if we happened to be outside this sealed cabin instead of inside it,
we'd die in less time than it takes to tell about it."

All known records for altitude--the only unknown one being Kress'--had
now been broken by Jeter and Eyer. They informed Hadley of this fact.

"A week ago you'd have had headlines," came back Hadley. "To-day nobody
cares, except that the world looks to you for information about this
horror. The enemy is systematically destroying every building in
Manhattan which dates back over eight years. Fortunately, save for the
occasional die-hard who never believes anything, there are few deaths at
the moment. But we're all waiting, holding our breaths, wondering what
the next five minutes will bring forth. Is there any news there?"

How strange it seemed--as the altimeter said sixty-one thousand feet--to
hear that voice out of the void. For under the plane there was no world
at all, save through the telescope. Perhaps when morning came they would
be able to see a little. Picard had reported the world to look flat from
a little over fifty thousand-feet.

"No news, Hadley," said Jeter. "Except, that our plane behaves perfectly
and we are at sixty-one thousand feet. Were it not for our turn and bank
indicators, our altimeter and air speed instruments, and our
navigational instruments, it would be impossible to tell--by looking at
least, though we could tell by our shifting weight--whether we were
upside down or right side up, on one wing or on an even keel. It's eery.
We wouldn't be able to tell whether we were moving were it not for our
air speed indicator. There are no clouds. The motor hum seems to be the
only thing here--except ourselves of course--to remind us that we really
belong down there with you."

       *       *       *       *       *

The connection was broken again as Jeter ceased speaking. Things seemed
to be marking time on the ground, save for the strange demolitions of
the unseen and apparently unknowable enemy. Would they ever really
encounter him, or it?

When the sun came out of the east they leveled off at ninety thousand
feet. By their reckoning they had scarcely moved in any direction from
the spot where they had taken off. Jeter was satisfied that they were
almost directly above Mineola. But the world had vanished. The plane
rode easily on. Now and again it dipped one wing or the other--and even
the veteran aviators felt a thrill of uneasiness. From somewhere up here
in this immensity, Franz Kress had dropped to his death. Of course, if
it had happened at this height he hadn't lived to suffer.

Or had he? What had been done to him by the--the denizens of the
stratosphere?

Jeter sat down beside Eyer. It seemed strange to eat breakfast here, but
the sandwiches and hot coffee in a thermos bottle were extremely
welcome. They ate in silence, their thoughts busy. When they had made an
end, Jeter squared his shoulders. Eyer grinned.

"Well, Lucian," he said, "are we in enemy territory by your
calculations? And if so how do you arrive at your conclusions?"

"I'm still guessing, Tema," said Jeter, "but I've a feeling I'm not
guessing badly, and.... Yes, we're somewhere within striking distance of
the enemy, whatever the enemy is."

"What's the next move?

"We'll systematically cover the sky over an area which blankets New
York, Long Island, Jersey City and surrounding territory for a distance
of twenty miles. If we're above the enemy, perhaps we can look down upon
him. We know he can't be seen from below, perhaps not even from above.
If we are below him we'll try to fly into that column of his. What
they'll do to us I.... You're not afraid to find out, are you?"

Eyer grinned. Jeter grinned back at him.

"What they'll do to us if we fly into them I'm sure I don't know. I
don't think they'll kill our motor. If whoever or whatever controls the
light column decides to us prisoners.... Well, we'll hope to have better
luck combating them than Kress had."

       *       *       *       *       *

And so begin that hours-long vigil of quartering the stratosphere over
the unmarked area which Jeter had set as a limit. Now and again Hadley
spoke to Jeter. Yes, the demolitions were still continuing in Manhattan.
Could all telescopes on the ground pick out their space ship? Yes, said
Hadley, and a young scientist in New Jersey was constantly watching
them. Were they, since sunrise, ever out of his sight? Only when clouds
at comparatively low altitudes intervened. However, the sky was
unusually clear and it was hoped to keep their plane in sight during the
entire day.

"Hadley," Jeter almost whispered, "I'm satisfied we're above the area of
force, else we'd have flown into the anti-gravitation field. Get in
touch with that Jersey chap by direct personal wire or radiophone if he
is equipped with it. See that his watch is set with yours, which is
synchronised with ours. Got that?"

"Yes."

"When you've done that give him these instructions: He is never to take
his eyes of us for more than a split second at a time--unless someone
else takes his place. I doubt if, at this distance, this will work, but
it may help us a little. If we become invisible for even the briefest of
moments, he is to look at his watch and observe the exact time, even to
split seconds. We shall try to follow a certain plan hereafter in
quartering the stratosphere, and I shall mark our location on the
navigational charts every minute until we hear from this chap, or until
we decide nothing is to be accomplished by this trick. Understand?"

"You're hoping that the enemy, while invisible to all eyes, yet has
substance...."

"Shut up!" snapped Jeter, but he was glad that Hadley had grasped the
idea. It was a slim chance, but such as it was it was worth trying. If
the plane were invisible for a time, then it would be proof of some
opaque obstruction between the plane and the eye of the beholder on the
surface of the Earth. Refraction had to be figured, perhaps. Oh, there
were many arguments against it.

The fliers followed the very outer edge of the area above the world they
had mapped out as their limit of exploration. This circuit completed,
they banked inward, shortening their circuit by about a mile of space. A
mile, seen at a distance of ninety thousand feet, would be little
indeed.

It was almost midday when they had their first stroke of luck.

The buzzer sounded at the very moment Eyer uttered an ejaculation.

"The Jersey fellow says there is nothing between his lens and your plane
to obstruct the view."

"O.K.," retorted Jeter. "At the moment your buzzer sounded our plane
suddenly jumped upward. That means an upcurrent of air indicating an
obstruction under us. It must however, be invisible."

He severed the connection. His brow was furrowed thoughtfully. He was
remembering Sitsumi and his rumored discovery.

They circled back warily. The eyes of both were fixed downward, staring
into space. Their jaws were firmly set. Their eyes were narrowed.

And then....

There was that uprush of air again! It appeared to rise from an angle of
about sixty degrees. They got the wind against their nose and started a
humming dive, feeling in the alien updraft for the obstruction which
caused it.



CHAPTER VII

_Invisible Globe_


The buzzer of their radiophone was sounding, but so intent were they on
this phenomenon they were facing, they paid it no heed. Their eyes were
alight, their lips in firm straight lines of resolve, as they dived down
upon the invisible obstruction--whatever it was--from whose surface the
telltale updraft came.

It was Eyer who made the suggestion:

"Let's measure it to see what its plane extent is."

"How?" asked Jeter.

"Measure it by following the wind disturbance. We travel in one
direction until we lose it. There is one extremity. In a few minutes we
can discover exactly how big the thing is. What do you think it is?"

Jeter shook his head. There was no way of telling.

Jeter nodded agreement to Eyer. Then he spoke into the radiophone,
telling Hadley what they had found, to which he could give no name.

"The world awaits in fear and trembling what you will have to report,
Jeter," said Hadley. "What if you become unable to report, as Kress
did?"

"Don't worry. We will or we won't. If we succeed we'll be back. If we
fail, send up the other.... No, perhaps you hadn't better send up the
new planes. But I think Eyer and I have a chance to discover the nature
of this strange--whatever-it-is. If you can't contact us, delay
twenty-four hours before doing anything. I--well, I scarcely know what
to tell you to do. We'll just be shooting in the dark until we know what
we're in for. You'll have to contain yourself in patience. What did you
want with me?"

"Only to tell you of another strange news dispatch. It gives no details.
It merely tells of strange activity around Lake Baikal, beyond the Gobi
Desert. Queer noises at night, mysterious cordons of Eurasians to keep
all investigators back, strange losses of livestock, foodstuffs...."

Jeter severed connection. There was little need to listen further to
something which he couldn't explain yet, in any case.

Eyer, at the controls, banked the plane at right angles and flew on. In
shortly less than a minute he banked again.

       *       *       *       *       *

In five minutes he turned to Jeter with a queer expression on his face.

"Well," he said, "what's to do about it? What is it? It seems to be some
solid substance approximately a quarter mile square. But it can't be
true! A solid substance just hanging in the air at ninety thousand feet!
It's beyond all imagining!"

"What man can imagine, man can do," replied Jeter. "A great newspaper
editor said that, and we're going to discover now just how true it is."

"What's our next move?"

For a long time the partners, stared into each other's eyes. Each knew
exactly what the other thought, exactly what he would propose as a
course of action. Jeter heaved a sigh and nodded his head.

"We're as much in the power of the enemy here as we would be there, or
anywhere else. We can't discover anything from here. Set the wheels
down!"

"We can't tell anything about the condition of the surface of that
stuff. We may crack up."

Jeter had to grin.

"Sounds strange, cracking up at ninety thousand feet, doesn't it? Well,
hoist your helicopter vanes and drift down as straight as you can--but
be sure and keep your motor idling."

Again they exchanged long looks.

"O.K.," said Eyer, as quietly as he would have answered the same order
at Roosevelt Field. "Here we go!"

He pressed a button and the helicopters, set into the surface of the
single sturdy wing, snapped up their shafts and began to spin,
effectually slowing the forward motion of the plane. Eyer fish-tailed
her with his rudder to help cut down speed.

"We can't see the surface of the thing at all, Lucian," said Eyer. "I'll
simply have to feel for it."

"Well, you've done that before, too. We can manage all right."

Down they dropped. The updraft was now a cushion directly under them.
And then their wheels struck something solid. The plane moved forward a
few feet--with a strange sickening motion. It was as though the surface
of this substance were globular. First one wheel rose, then dipped as
the other rose. The plane came to rest on fairly even keel, and the
partners, while the motor idled, stared at each other.

"Well?" said Eyer, a trace of a grin on his face.

"If it'll hold the plane it will hold us. Let's slide into our
stratosphere suits and climb out. We have to get close to this thing to
see what it is."

"Parachutes?" said Eyer.

Jeter nodded.

"It would simplify matters if the thing happened to tilt over and spill
us off, I think," said Jeter, matching Eyer's grin with one of his own.
"I can't think with any degree of equanimity of plunging ninety thousand
feet without a parachute."

"I'm not sure I'd care for it with one," said Eyer.

       *       *       *       *       *

They were soon in the tight-fitting suits which were customarily used by
fliers who climbed above the air levels at which it was impossible for a
human being to breathe without a supply of oxygen in a container. Their
suits were sealed against cold. Set in their backs were oxygen tanks
capable of holding enough oxygen for several hours. Over all this they
fastened their parachutes.

Then, using a series of doors in order to conserve the warmth and oxygen
inside their cabin, they let themselves out, closing each successive
door behind them, until at last they faced the last door--and the grim
unknown. They glanced at each other briefly, and Jeter's hand went forth
to grasp the mechanism of the last door. Eyer stood at his side. Their
eyes met. The door swung open.

They stepped down. The surface of this stratosphere substance was
slippery smooth. Now that they stood on its surface they could sense
something of its profile. Movement in any direction suggested walking on
a huge ball. The queer thing was that they could feel but could not see.
It was like walking on air. Their plane appeared to be suspended in
midair.

For a moment Jeter had an overpowering desire to grab Eyer, jerk him
back to the plane, and take off at top speed. But they couldn't do that,
not when the world depended upon them. Had Kress encountered this thing?
Perhaps. How must he have felt? He had been alone. These two were moral
support for each other. But both were acutely remembering how Kress had
come back.

And his plane? They'd perhaps discover what had happened to that too.

Eyer suddenly slipped and fell, as though he had been walking on a
carpet which had been jerked from under his feet. From his almost prone
position he looked up at Jeter. Jeter dropped to his knees beside him.
Their covered hands played over the surface of their discovery, to find
it smooth as glass. As though with one thought they placed their heads
against it, right ears down, to listen. But the whole vast field seemed
to be dead, lifeless. And yet--a solid it was, floating here in
space--or just hanging. It seemed to be utterly motionless.

"There should be a way of discovering what this is, and why, and how it
is controlled if an intelligence is behind it." Jeter spelled out the
words in the sign language they had both learned as boys.

Eyer nodded.

       *       *       *       *       *

They walked more warily when they had, traveling slowly and hesitantly,
gone more than a hundred feet from their plane. They kept it in sight by
constantly turning to look back. It was now several feet above them. No
telling what might happen to them at any moment, and the plane was an
avenue of escape.

They didn't wish to take a chance on stepping off into the
stratosphere--and eternity.

"It's like an iceberg of space," said the fingers of Jeter. "But let's
go back and look it over to the other side of the plane. We have to keep
the plane in sight and work from it as a base. And say, what sort of
sensations have you had about this surface we're standing on?"

Jeter could see Eyer's shudder as he asked the question. Slowly the
fingers of his partner spelled out the answer.

"I've a feeling of eyes boring into my back. I sense that the substance
under us is malignant, inimical. I have the same feeling with every step
I take, as though the unseen surface were endowed with arms capable of
reaching out and grabbing me."

"I feel it, too," said Jeter's fingers. "But I'm not afraid of fingers
in the usual sense. I don't think of hands strangling us, or ripping us
to shreds, but of questing--well, call them tentacles, which may clasp
us with gentleness even, and absorb us, and annihilate us!"

Now the two faced each other squarely. Now they did not try to hide that
their fear was an abysmal feeling, horrible and devastating.

"Let's get back to the plane and take off. We haven't a chance."

They clasped hands again and started running back, their plane their
goal. Before they reached it they would change their minds, for they
were not ordinarily lacking in courage--but so long as they ran both had
the feeling of being pursued by malignant entities which were always
just a step behind, but gaining.

They slipped on the smooth surface face and fell sprawling. Each felt,
when he fell, that he must rise at once, with all his speed, lest
something grasp him and hold him down forever. It was a horrible trapped
feeling, and yet....

They had but to look at each other to see that they were free. Nothing
gripped their feet to hold them back. Of course the way was slippery,
but no more so than an icy surface which one essays in ordinary shoes.
What then caused their fear?

       *       *       *       *       *

The plane, so plainly visible there ahead and above, was like a haven of
refuge to them. They panted inside their helmets and their breath misted
the glass of their masks. But they stumbled on, making the best speed
they could under the circumstances.

Perhaps if they took, off, and regained their courage, returned to
normal in surroundings they knew and understood, they could come back
and try again, after having heard each other's voices. The silence, the
sign manual, the odd, awesome sensations, all combined to rob them of
courage. They must get it back if they were to succeed. And they had
been away from the plane for almost an hour. Hadley would be waiting for
some news.

The plane was twenty yards away--and almost at the same time Eyer and
Jeter saw something queer about it. At first it was hard to say just
what it was.

They rushed on. They were within ten yards of the plane when a wail of
anguish was born--and died--in two soundproof helmets. There was no
questioning the fact that the plane had settled into the surface of the
field.

The plane was invisible below the tops of the landing wheels, as though
the plane were sinking into invisibility, slowly dissolving from the
bottom.

"Understand?" Jeter's fingers almost shouted. "Understand why we felt
the desire to keep moving? This field is alive, Eyer, and if we stand
still it will swallow us just as it is swallowing our plane! Let's get
in fast; maybe we can still pull free from the stuff and take off."

They were racing against time and in the heart of each was the feeling
that whatever they did, their efforts would be hopeless. Still, the
spinning propeller of their plane gave them strength to hope.

They went through the succession of doors as rapidly as they dared. Once
in the comfort of their cabin they doffed their stratosphere suits with
all possible speed. Jeter was the first free. He jumped to the controls
and speeded up the motor. In a matter of seconds it was revving up to a
speed which, had it been free, would have pulled the plane along at
seven hundred miles an hour at the height at which they were.

But the plane did not move!

       *       *       *       *       *

Jeter slowed the motor, then started racing it fast, trying to jerk the
fuselage free of the imbedded wheels, but they would not be released.
Both men realized that the wheels had sunk from sight while they had
been delayed coming through the succession of doors--that the plane had
sunk until the invisible surface gripped the floor of the fuselage.

Perspiration beaded the faces of both men. Eyer managed a ghastly grin.
Jeter's brow was furrowed with frantic thought as he tried to imagine a
way out.

"If we could somehow cut our landing gear free," began Jeter, "but--"

"But it's too late, Lucian," said Eyer quietly. "Look at the window."

They both looked.

Countless fingers of shadowy gray substance were undulating up the
surface of the window, like pale angleworms or white serpents of many
sizes, trying to climb up a pane of glass.

"Well," said Jeter, "here we are! You see? Outside we can see nothing.
Inside we begin to see a little, and what good will it do us?"

Eyer grinned. It was as though he lighted a cigarette and nonchalantly
blew smoke rings at the ceiling, save that they dared not use up any of
their precious oxygen by smoking.

Their fear had left them utterly when it would have been natural for
them to be stunned by it.



CHAPTER VIII

_Cataclysmic Hunger_


Eyer thrust out his hand to cut the motor. Jeter stayed it.

"I've an idea," he said softly; "let it run. We'll learn something more
about the sensitiveness of this material."

The motor was cut to idling. The plane scarcely trembled now in the pull
of the motor, so firmly was she held in the grip of the shadowy, vague
tentacles. A grim sort of silence had settled in the cabin. The faces of
the two partners were dead white, but their eyes were fearless. They had
come aloft to give their lives if need be. They wouldn't try to get them
back now. Besides, what use was there?

Jeter paused for a moment in thought.

Then he began to examine some of their weapons. The only one by which
they could fire outside the plane--due to the necessity of keeping the
cabin closed to retain oxygen--was the rapid firer on the wing. This
could be depressed enough to fire downward at an angle of forty-five
degrees. Jeter hesitated for a moment.

He looked at Eyer. Eyer grinned. "It can't bring death to us any
sooner," he said. "Let her go!"

Jeter tripped the rapid firer and held it for half a minute, during
which time three hundred projectiles, eight inches long by two inches in
diameter, were poured into the invisible surface. The bullets simply
accomplished nothing. It was almost as though the field had simply
opened its mouth to catch thrown food. There was no movement of the
field, no jarring, no vibration. Nor did the plane itself tremble or
shake. Jeter had to stop the rapid firer because its base, the plane,
was now so firmly fixed that the recoil might kick the gun out of its
mount.

Now the partners sat and looked out through the windows of unbreakable
glass, watching the work of those tentacular fingers.

"How does it feel, Tema, to be eaten alive?" asked Jeter.

"Have you radiophoned Hadley about what's happening to us?"

"No," replied Jeter. "It would frighten the world half out of its wits.
Besides, what can we say has caught us? We don't know."

"And what are we going to do about it?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"We're going to wait. I've a theory about some of this. We know blamed
well that, except for the most miraculous luck, you couldn't have set
the plane down on this field without it slipping off again. Well there's
only one answer to that: the rubbery resilience of the surface. It must
have given a little to hold the plane--and us when we walked on it. What
does that mean? Simply that we were seen and the field made usable for
us by some intelligence. That intelligence watches us now. It saved our
lives for some reason or other. It didn't destroy us when we were
afoot out there. It isn't destroying us now. It's swallowing us
whole--and for some reason. Why? That we'll have to discover. But I
think we can rest easy on one thing. We're not to be killed by this
swallowing act, else we'd have been dead before now."

"Have you any idea what this stuff is?"

"Yes, but the idea is so wild and improbable that I'm reluctant to tell
you what I guess until I know more. However, if it develops that we are
to die in this swallowing act, then I'll give you a tip--and it will
probably knock you off your pedestal. But the more I think of it the
more certain I am that the whole things is at least a variation of my
idea. And the brains behind it, if my guess proves even approximately
correct, will be too great for us to win mastery except by some
miraculous accident favoring us--and true miracles come but seldom in
these days."

"No? What do you call this?"

Jeter shrugged.

With many ports all around the cabin, all fitted with unbreakable glass,
it was possible for the partners to see out in all directions. The
tentacle fingers had now climbed up to a height sufficient to smother
both windows. The fuselage was about half swallowed.

"I can almost hear the stuff sigh inwardly with satisfaction as it takes
us in," said Eyer.

"I have the same feeling. There's a peculiar sound about it too; do you
hear it?"

They listened. The sound which came into the cabin was such a sound as
might have been heard by a man inside a cylinder lying on the bottom of
a still pond. A whisper that was less than a whisper--a _moving_
whisper. In it were life and death, and grim terror.

       *       *       *       *       *

And then--remembering that contact with the propeller would shatter it,
Tema cut the switch--the propeller stopped, the motor died, and utter
silence, in the midst of an utter absence of vibration, possessed the
comfortable little cabin. It was hard to believe. The cabin was a breath
of home. It was a home. And it was being swallowed by some substance
concerning which Eyer had no ideas at all and Jeter but a growing
suspicion.

The plane sank lower and lower. The surface of the field was now almost
to the top of the cabin doors. Most of the windows had been erased, but
it made no particular difference in the matter of light. Jeter had put
out his hand to snap on the lights, but stayed it when he saw that light
came through to them.

Moment by moment the mystery of the swallowing deepened. It was like
sinking into a snow bank. There was a sensation of smothering, though it
was not uncomfortable because the cabin itself was self-sufficient in
all respects to maintain life for a long period of time.

It was like sinking slowly into the depths of the sea.

The last port on the sides of the plane was erased. Now the two sat in
their chairs and stared up at the ceiling, and at the glass-protected
ports there. It was grim business. They almost held their breath as they
waited.

At last those blurred tentacles began to creep across the lowest of the
ceiling ports. Faster they came, and faster. In a few minutes every port
was covered with a film of the weird stuff.

"It may be a foot deep above us," said Jeter. "I don't think we'll be
able to tell how thick any bit of the stuff is. The surface of the field
may be ten feet above our heads right now. Well, Tema, old son, we're
prisoners as surely as though we were locked in a chrome steel vault a
thousand feet underground. We can't go anywhere, or come back if we go
there. We're prisoners, that's all--and all we can do is wait."

Eyer grinned.

Jeter began nonchalantly to slip off his helmet and goggles. He doffed
his flying coat. In a short time the two might have been sitting over
liquor and cigars in their own library at Mineola.

"Expecting company?" asked Eyer.

"Most emphatically," replied Jeter. "Company that is an unknown
quantity. Company that will be wholly and entirely interesting."

So they waited. They could now feel themselves sinking faster into the
substance. They settled on an even keel, however, but more rapidly than
before, as though the directing intelligence behind all these had tired
of showing them his wonders and was eager to get on with the business of
the day.

Eyer happened to look down at one of the ports in the floor of the
cabin.

"Good God!" he yelled, "Lucian!"

       *       *       *       *       *

He was pointing. His face had gone white again. His eyes were bulging.
Jeter stared down into the floor ports--and gasped.

"I expected it, but it's a shock just the same, Tema," he said softly.
"Get hold of yourself. You'll need all your faculties in a minute or
two."

Through the ports they found themselves staring down all of twenty feet
upon a milky white globe, set inside the greater, softer globe through
which they were passing, like a kernel in a shell.

The plane was oozing through the "rind" which protected the strange
globe below against the cold and discomfort of the stratosphere.

"They'd scarcely bring us this far to drop us, would they?" asked Eyer.

He was making a distinct effort to regain control of himself. His voice
was normal, his breathing regular--and he had spoken thus to show Jeter
that this was so.

"Whether we're to be dropped or lowered is all one to us," he said,
"since we can do nothing in either case. Twenty feet of fall wouldn't
smash us up much."

"Let's keep our eyes on the ceiling ports and see how this swallowing
job is really done."

They alternately looked through the floor ports and the ceiling ports.

Under them the gray mass was crawling backward off the floor ports,
leaving them clear. Now all of them were clear. Now the gray stuff began
to vanish from the lower ports on either side of the cabin.

"I feel as though we were being digested and cast forth," said Jeter.

The action of the stuff was something like that. It had swallowed them
in their entirety and now was disgorging them.

They watched the stuff move off the ports one by one, on either side.
The lower ones were free. Then those next above, the gray substance
retreating with what seemed to be pouting reluctance. Finally even the
topmost ports were clear.

"The drop comes soon," said Eyer.

"Wait, maybe not."

       *       *       *       *       *

They concentrated on the ceiling ports for a moment, but the clinging
stuff did not vanish from them. They turned back to look through the
floor ports. Right under them was the milky globe whose surface could
easily accommodate their plane. If they had needed further proof of some
guiding intelligence behind all this, that cleared space was it. They
were being deliberately lowered to a landing place through a portion of
the "rind" made soft in some mechanical way to allow the weight of their
plane to sink through it.

They looked up again. Great masses of the gray substance still clung to
the top of their cabin, like sticky tar. The substance was rubbery and
lifelike in its resiliency, its tenacious grasp upon the Jeter-Eyer
plane. By this means the plane was lowered to the "ground." Jeter and
Eyer watched, fascinated, as the stuff slipped and lost its grip, and
slowly retracted to become part of the dome above.

The plane had come through this white roof, bearing its two passengers,
and now above them there was no slightest mark to show where they had
come forth.

They rested on even keel atop the inner globe which they now could see
was attached to the outer globe in countless places.

"I wonder if we dare risk getting out," said Eyer.

"I think so," said Jeter. "Look there!"

A trapdoor, shaped something like the profile of an ordinary milk
bottle, was opening in the white globe just outside their plane. Framed
in the door was a face. It was a dark face, but it was a human one--and
the man's body below that face was dressed as simply, and in almost the
same fashion, as were Jeter and Eyer themselves. He wore no oxygen tanks
or clothing to keep out the cold.

The partners, lips firmly set, nodded to each other and began to open
their doors. Imperturbably the dark man came to meet them.

Still other dark faces emerged from the door.



CHAPTER IX

_A Scheme Is Described_


The hands of the two wayfarers into the stratosphere dropped to their
weapons as the men came through that door which masked the inner mystery
of the white globe.

One of the men grinned. There was a threat in his grin--and a promise.

"I wouldn't use my weapons if I were in your place, gentlemen," he said.
"Come this way, please. Sitsumi and The Three wish to see you at once."

Jeter and Eyer exchanged glances. Would it do any good to start a fight
with these people? They seemed to be unarmed, but there were many of
them. And probably there were many more beyond that door. Certainly this
strange globe was capable of holding a small army at least.

Jeter shrugged. Eyer answered it with an eloquent gesture--and the two
fell in with those who had come to meet them.

"How about our plane?" said Jeter.

"You need concern yourself with it no longer," replied one. "Its final
disposal is in the hands of Sitsumi and The Three."

A cold chill ran along Jeter's spine. There was something too final
about the guide's calm reply. Both adventurers remembered again, most
poignantly, the fate of Kress.

The leaders stepped through the door. A flight of steps led downward.

Several of the swarthy-skinned folk walked behind Jeter and Eyer. There
was no gainsaying the fact that they were prisoners.

Jeter and Eyer gasped a little as they looked into the interior of the
white globe. It was of unusual extent, Jeter estimated, a complete
globe; but this one was bisected by a floor at its center, of some
substance that might, for its apparent lightness, have been aluminum.
Plainly it was the dwelling place of these strange conquerors of the
stratosphere. It might have been a vast room designed as the dwelling
place of people accustomed to all sorts of personal comforts.

On the "floor" were several buildings, of the same material as the
floor. It remained to be seen what these buildings were for, but Jeter
could guess, he believed, with fair accuracy. The large building in the
center would be the central control room housing whatever apparatus of
any kind was needed in the working of this space ship. There were
smaller buildings, most of them conical, looking oddly like beehives,
which doubtless housed the denizens of the globe.

       *       *       *       *       *

The atmosphere was much like that of New York in early autumn. It was of
equable temperature. There was no discomfort in walking, no difficulty
in breathing. Jeter surmised that at least one of those buildings,
perhaps the central one, housed some sort of oxygen renewer. Such a
device at this height was naturally essential.

The stairs ended. The prisoners and their guards stopped at floor level.

Jeter paused to look about him. His scientific eyes were studying the
construction of the globe. The idea of escape from the predicament into
which he and Eyer were plunged would never be out of his head for
moment.

"Come along, you!"

Jeter started, stung by the savagery which suddenly edged the voice of
the man who had first greeted him. There was contempt in it--and an
assumption of personal superiority which galled the independent Jeter.

He grinned a little, looked at Eyer.

"I wonder if we have to take it," he said softly.

"It seems we might expect a little respect, at least," Eyer grinned in
answer.

The guard suddenly caught Jeter by the shoulder.

"I said to come along!"

If the man had been intending to provoke a fight he couldn't have gone
about it in any better way. Jeter suddenly, without a change of
expression, sent a right fist crashing to the fellow's jaw.

"Don't use your gat, Eyer," he called to his partner. "We may kill a
key man who may be necessary to our well-being later on. But black eyes
and broken noses should be no bar to efficiency."

Without any fuss or hullabaloo, the dozen or so denizens of the globe
who had met the partners closed on them. They came on with a rush. Jeter
and Eyer stood back to back and slugged. They were young, with youthful
joy in battle. They were trained to the minute. As fliers they took
pride in their physical condition. They were out-numbered, but it was
also a matter of pride with them to demand respect wherever they went.
It was also a matter of pride to down as many of the attackers as
possible before they themselves were downed.

       *       *       *       *       *

It became plain that, though the denizens of the globe were armed with
knives, they were not to be used. And it didn't seem they would be
needed. The fighters were all muscular, well-trained fighters. But for
the most part they fought in the manner of Chinese ta chaen, or Japanese
ju-jutsu men. They used holds that were bone-breaking and it taxed the
pair to the utmost to keep from being maimed by their killing strength.

The swarthy men were men of courage, no doubt about that. They fought
with silent ferocity. They blinked when struck, but came back to take
yet other blows with the tenacity of so many bulldogs. There was no
gainsaying them, it seemed. They were here for the purpose of subduing
their visitors and nothing short of death would stop them.

It wasn't courtesy, either, that failure to use knives, for Jeter saw
murder looking out of more than one pair of eyes as their two pairs of
fists landed on brown faces, smashed noses askew, and started eyes to
closing.

"Their leader has them under absolute control--and that's a point for
the enemy," Jeter panted to himself, as the strain of battle began to
tell on him. "They've been instructed, no matter what we do, to bring us
to their master or masters alive."

For a moment he toyed with the idea of drawing his weapon and firing
pointblank into the enemy. He knew they would be compelled to take lives
to escape--and that the lives of all these people were forfeit anyway
because of the havoc which had descended upon New York City.

But he didn't make a move for his weapon. It would be sure death if he
did, for the others were armed.

Brown men fell before the smashing of their fists. But the end of the
fight was a foregone conclusion. Jeter had a bruised jaw. Eyer's nose
was bleeding and one eye was closed when the reception committee finally
came to close quarters, smothered them by sheer weight of numbers, and
made them prisoners. Jeter's right wrist was manacled to Eyer's left
with a pair of ordinary steel handcuffs. Their weapons were taken away
from them now.

The leader of the committee, panting, but apparently unconcerned over
what had happened, motioned the two men to lead the way. He pointed to
the large building in the center of the "floor."

"That way," he said, "and I hope Sitsumi and The Three give us
permission to throw you out without parachutes or high altitude suits."

"Pleasant cuss, aren't you?" said Eyer. "I don't think you like us."

The man would have struck Eyer for his grinning levity; but at that
moment a door opened in the side of the large building and a man in
Oriental robes stood there.

"Bring then here at once, Naka!" he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

The man called Naka, the leader whom Jeter had first struck, bowed low,
with deep respect, to the man in the doorway.

"Yes, O Sitsumi!" he said. As he spoke he sucked in his breath with that
snakelike hissing sound which is the acme of politeness, in Japan--"that
my humble breath may not blow upon you"--and spread wide his hands.
"They are extremely low persons and dared lay hands upon your
emissaries."

Eyer grinned again.

"I think," he called, "there transpired what might be called a general
laying on of hands by all hands."

"I deeply deplore your inclination to levity, Tema Eyer," said the man
in the doorway. "It is not seemly in one whose intelligence entitles him
to a place in our counsels."

Eyer looked at Jeter. What was the meaning of Sitsumi's cryptic
utterance?

"Bring them in," snapped Sitsumi.

Jeter studied the man with interest. He knew instantly who he was and
understood why Sitsumi had refused to answer his radio messages to
Japan. He couldn't very well have done so in the circumstances. Here,
under the broad dome of Sitsumi was probably the greatest scientific
brain of the century. Jeter saw cruelty in his eyes too; ruthlessness,
and determination.

The prisoners were marched into the room behind Sitsumi, who stepped
aside, looking curiously at Jeter and Eyer as they passed him. Inside
the door, pausing only a moment to glance over the big room's
appointments, Jeter turned on Sitsumi.

"Just what do you intend doing with us, Sitsumi?" he asked. "I suppose
it's useless to ask you, also, what the meaning of all this is?"

"I shall answer both your questions, Jeter," said Sitsumi. "Step this
way, please. The Three should hear our conference."

They were conducted into a smaller room. Its floors were covered with
skins. There were easy chairs and divans. It might have been their own
luxuriously appointed rooms at Mineola. At a long table three men--all
Orientals--were deeply immersed in some activity which bent their heads
absorbedly over the very center of the table. It might have been a
three-sided chess game, by their attitudes.

"Gentlemen!" said Sitsumi.

The three men turned.

"My colleagues, Wang Li, Liao Wu and Yung Chan," Sitsumi introduced
them. "Without them our great work would have been impossible."

       *       *       *       *       *

Here were the three missing Chinese scientists. Jeter and Eyer had seen
many pictures of them. Jeter wondered whether their adherence to Sitsumi
were voluntary or forced. But it was voluntary, of course. The three
brains of these brilliant men could easily have outwitted Sitsumi had
they been unwilling to associate themselves with him. The three
Orientals bowed.

Jeter and Eyer were bidden to take chairs side by side. The guards drew
back a little but never took their eyes off the two. Sitsumi ranged
himself beside his colleagues at the table.

"I'll answer your questions now, gentlemen, in the presence of my
colleagues so that you shall know that we are together in what we
propose. We wish you to join us. The only alternative is ... well, you
recall what happened to your countryman, Kress? The same, or a similar
fate, will be yours if you don't ally yourselves with us."

Jeter and Eyer exchanged glances.

"Just what _are_ you doing?" asked Jeter. "I've seen some of the results
of your activities, but I can see no reason for them. I would pronounce
everything you have done so far to be the acts of madmen."

"We are not mad," said Sitsumi. "We are simply a group of people of
mixed blood who deplore the barriers of racial prejudice, for one thing.
We are advocates of a deliberately contrived super-race, produced by the
amalgamation of the best minds and the best bodies of all races. We
ourselves are what the world calls Eurasians. In our youth people
patronised us. In Asia we were shunned. We were shunned everywhere by
both races from which we trace our ancestry. We are not trying to be
avenged upon the world because we have been pariahs. We are not so
petty. But by striving until we have become the world's four greatest
scientists we have proved to our own satisfaction that a mixture of
blood is a wholesome thing. This expedition of ours, and its effect so
far on New York City, is the result of our years of planning."

"I see no need for wholesale murder. Lecture platforms are open to all
creeds, all races...."

Something suggestive of a sneer creased Sitsumi's lips. The Three did
not change expression in the least.

       *       *       *       *       *

"People do not listen to reason. They listen to force. We will use force
to make them listen, in the end, to reason--backed in turn by force, if
you like. We have settled on New York from which to begin our conquest
of the world because it is the world's largest, richest, most
representative city. If we control New York we control the wealth of the
North American continent, and therefore the continent itself. Our
destruction of buildings in New York City serves a twofold purpose. It
prepares the inhabitants to listen to us later because, seeing what we
are capable of doing, they will be afraid not to. Our efficiency is
further shown in our destruction of the old out-of-date buildings,
chosen for destruction simply because they are obsolete. The New York
City of our schemes will be a magic city...."

"But what is your purpose, in a few words?" insisted Jeter.

"The foundation of a world government; the destruction of the mentally
deficient; the scientific production of a mixed race of intellectuals,
comparable to, but greater than, that of ancient Greece, which was great
because it was a human melting pot."

"How are you going to do it--after you've finished your grandstand
plays?" said Eyer.

Sitsumi stared at Eyer, his eyes narrowing. Eyer was making his dislike
entirely too plain. Jeter nudged him, but the question had been asked.

"With this space ship--and others which are building," replied Sitsumi.
"Haven't you guessed at any of our methods?"

"Yes," said Jeter, "I know you are the rumored inventor of a substance
which is invisible because light rays are bent around it instead of
passing through, yet the result is as though they actually passed
through. I judge that the shell, or skin, of this stratosphere ship is
composed of this substance, whose formula of construction is your
secret. Light rays passing around it would render it invisible, yet
would make the beholding eye seem to see in a straight line as usual,
disregarding refraction."

Sitsumi nodded. The Three nodded with him, like puppets. But their eyes
were glowingly alive.

"You are right. Are you further interested? If you have no interest in
our theories there is little need to pursue our plans further, where you
are concerned."

"We are interested, of course," said Jeter. "We are interested in your
theories, without committing ourselves to acceptance of them; and we are
naturally interested in saving our lives. Let us say then, for the
moment, that we do not refuse to join you."



CHAPTER X

_How It Came About_


"You will have twenty-four hours in which to decide whether to join us,"
was Sitsumi's ultimatum. "We would not allow you five minutes were it
not that our cause would be benefited by the addition of your scientific
knowledge."

Sitsumi did not repeat the alternative. Remembering Kress, Jeter and
Eyer did not need to ask him. There was but one alternative--death--a
particularly horrible one. That Sitsumi and the Three would not hesitate
was amply proved. Already they were guilty of the death of thousands.
They were in deadly earnest with their scheme for a world government.

Jeter and Eyer were kept shackled together, and were, in addition,
chained to the floor of the main room of the white globe with leg irons.
Their keys were in the hands of Naka, whose hatred of Jeter for hitting
him on the jaw was so malevolent it fairly glowed from his eyes like
sparks shot forth.

Food was brought them when asked for. It wasn't easy to partake of it,
because their manacled hands had to be moved together, which made it
extremely awkward.

Jeter and Eyer set themselves the task of trying to figure some way out
in the twenty-four hours of life still left them if they failed. That
Hadley, down in New York City, and all the best minds who were
cooperating with Jeter and Eyer in their mad effort to avert world
catastrophe, would make every effort to come to their assistance by
sending up the planes which must even now be nearing completion, they
hadn't the slightest doubt.

Would they arrive in time? Even if they did, was there anything they
could possibly do to save themselves? Surely this space ship must be
vulnerable. Else why did it climb so high into the stratosphere? It was
far beyond the reach of ordinary planes. High trajectory projectiles had
slight chance of hitting it, even if it were visible. What then was its
vulnerability, which this hiding seemed to indicate? They must know
within twenty-four hours.

So they sat side by side, watching events unfold. The Three talked
mandarin. Eyer, for all his levity, was a man of unusual attainments. He
understood mandarin, for one thing--a fact which even Jeter did not know
at first. The Chinese never seemed even to consider that either of them
might know the tongue. Chinese seldom found foreigners who did
comprehend them. In only so much were The Three in the least bit
careless.

Eyer strained his ears to hear everything which passed between Sitsumi
and the Three. Both men listened to any chance words in English or
French on the part of all hands within the globe which might give them a
hint.

And in those twenty-four hours the sky-scientists learned much.

       *       *       *       *       *

They conversed together, when they spoke of important matters which they
wished hidden from their captors, out of the corners of their mouths
after the method of criminals. They used it with elaborate unconcern.
They might have seemed to be simply staring into space at such moments,
dreading approaching death perhaps, and simply twiddling their fingers.
But by each other every word was clearly heard.

"That last outburst of Sitsumi's explains a lot of the reported activity
in the Lake Baikal region, beyond the Gobi," swiftly dropped from
Jeter's lips. "The materials which Sitsumi uses in the preparation of
his light-ray-bending substance are found near there somehow. And that
means that the Japanese guards--which may be Eurasian guards, after what
Sitsumi told us--and employees of this unholy crowd, are easily engaged
in the preparation of other space ships."

"Does this thing seem to have any armament?" asked Eyer.

Jeter signified negation with a swift movement of his head.

"Their one weapon seems to be the apparatus which causes that ray. You
know, the ray which lifts buildings, pulling them up by the roots."

"Have you any idea what it is?"

"Yes. That last stuff of the Three which you translated for me gives me
a clue. At first I thought that they had perfected some substance,
perhaps with unknown electrical properties, which nullified gravity. But
that won't prove out. If the ray simply nullified gravity, the buildings
down there, while weightless, would not rise as they did. They might
sway if somebody breathed against them. A midget might lift one with his
finger; but they wouldn't fly skyward as they did--and do!"

For a moment the partners ceased their whispering and talked together
naturally to disarm suspicion. The fact that the space ship and its
ruthless denizens still engaged in the awful work of devastation was
amply being proved. In the main room it was possible, through the use of
telescopes and audiphones--set into the walls so that they were
invisible, yet enabled any one in the room to see everything, and hear
everything that transpired on the far earth below--to keep close watch
on the work of the destroyers. Anything close enough could be seen with
the naked eye through the walls of the globe.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now the space ship was systematically destroying buildings the length
and breadth of Manhattan Island. The river-front buildings were
destroyed in a single sweep, from north to south, of the ghastly ray.
Farther back from the Hudson, however, after the water-front buildings
had been reduced to mere piles of rubble, the most beautiful, most
modern buildings were left standing.

"Can't you just imagine those beautiful structures filled with the
monsters created by the genius of Sitsumi and the Three--and their as
yet unknown lieutenants back at Lake Baikal?"

Eyer gritted his teeth. His hands closed atop the table at which they
were seated. The knuckles went white with the strain. The lips of both
men were white. They realized to the full the dreadful responsibility
which they had assumed. They knew how abysmally hopeless was their
chance of accomplishing anything. And without some gigantic effort being
made, the world as they knew it would be destroyed. In its place would
be a race of strange beings, of vengeful hybrids endowed from birth
with the will to conquer, or destroy utterly.

"You were speaking of the levitating ray," prompted Eyer with swift
change to the sidewise whispering.

"From what you heard I'm sure it is something invented by Liao Wu, Yung
Chan and Wang Li. In so much they have an advantage over Sitsumi. I
doubt if there is any love lost among them, beyond the fact that they
need one another. Sitsumi is master of the substance which bends light
rays--and thus is rendered invisible, while the Three are masters of the
ray which not only propels this space ship, but is the agency by which
buildings are torn up, dropped and destroyed. It's plain to me that this
room is the control room of the space ship. The ray is--well, it's as
difficult to explain as electricity, and perhaps as simple in its
operation. The ray does more than nullify gravity--can be made to
reverse gravity! Let's call the ray the gravity inverter for want of a
better name. It makes anything it touches literally _fall away from the
Earth_, toward the point whence the ray emanates!"

"And if we were to obtain control of the apparatus which harnesses the
ray?"

"We lack the knowledge of the Three for its operation. No, we've got to
find some simpler solution in the brief time we have."

       *       *       *       *       *

At this point the partners had been within the white globe about ten
hours and they had learned much about it. The inner globe, for example,
maintained an even keel, no matter how the space ship as a whole moved
on its rays that seemed like table legs. The gyroscopic principle was
used. The inner globe was movable within the outer globe, or rind. If
for any reason the space ship listed in one direction or the other, the
inner globe, while it rose and fell naturally, remained upright, its
floor always level so that, the gyroscope controlling the whole, the
central, levitating, ray would always, must always, as it proved, point
downward.

Try as they might, the partners could not see how the Three manipulated
the ray. They guessed that there were many buttons on the table at which
they sat. The table itself was not an ordinary table. What might have
been called a fifth leg, squarely under the center of the table, was
about three feet square. Through this, Jeter guessed, ran the wires by
which they controlled all their activities, machinery to operate which
had been installed under the floor in the unseen lower half of the inner
globe.

They knew that must remain forever a secret from them.

There was a sudden stir among the Three. Jeter and Eyer turned aside for
a moment to peer down upon New York City. They held their breath with
horror as they saw the smoking devastation which must have buried
thousands of people. The wrecking had been all but complete. Only the
finest buildings still stood. Jeter wondered why the falling back of the
shattered buildings had not shaken down those which the Sitsumi crowd
had not wished to destroy. The repeated shocks must almost have shaken
Manhattan Island on its foundations.

They saw what had caused the sudden stiffening of the Three. Sitsumi,
busily engaged at something else nearby, quietly approached the Three.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Rescue planes," said Wang Li. "New York City sends six fliers to rescue
Jeter and Eyer. New planes. They'll reach us, Sitsumi. We should have
thought to destroy all dangerous air ports. A fatal oversight!"

Sitsumi's eyes were grave. He looked at each of the Three in turn.

"God!" said Jeter's whispering lips. "If we could read their minds! If
only we could guess what it is they fear, we'd have the secret by which
we might destroy them."

"They're vulnerable," said Eyer, "but how?"

"Watch!" said Jeter. "Listen! And here's to those six unknowns coming up
to, maybe, get the same dose we're due for! We were closely watched. New
York City knows exactly where we vanished in the sky. Those six planes
are aiming at us--at a spot in the stratosphere they can't see. And yet,
why should Sitsumi and the Three be so fearful? All they have to do is
move a half mile in any direction and they'll never find them."

"But to move will interfere with their plans," said Eyer. "Lucian, look
at the expressions on their faces! Something tells me they are
vulnerable in ways we haven't guessed at. If we knew the secret maybe we
could destroy them. We've got to discover their weak spot."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a long pause while Jeter and Eyer watched the rescue ships
come climbing up the endless stairways of the sky. Then Jeter whispered
again, guardedly as usual.

"There seems to be nothing we can do. If our friends are able, by some
miracle, to do something, you know what that means to us?"

"It means we're as good as dead no matter what happens," replied Eyer.
"But we're only two--and there must be a million buried under the debris
in New York City alone. If we can do anything at all...."

There he left it. The partners looked at each other. Each read the right
answer in the other's eyes. When the showdown came they'd die as
cheerfully as they knew how, hoping to the last to do something for the
people who must still hope that, somehow, they would cause this bitter
cup of catastrophe to pass from them. And there were thousands upon
thousands whose blood cried out for vengeance.

The hours sped as the six planes fled upward. To the ears of the
partners, through the audiphones, came the stern roaring of their
motors. In their eyes they bulked larger and larger as the time fled
away.

The sand in the hour glass was running out. When it was all gone, and
the time had come, what could the helpless Jeter and Eyer hope to
accomplish?

For an hour they studied the concerned faces of Sitsumi and the Three.

They were fearful of something.

What?



CHAPTER XI

_To the Rescue_


"Why should we run?" the voice of Sitsumi suddenly rang out in the
control room. "Must we admit in the very beginning of our revolution
that we are vulnerable? Must we confess the fears to which all humanity
is heir? We had not thought ourselves liable to attack, but there still
is a way to destroy these upstarts. To your places, everyone! We shall
fight these winged upstarts and destroy them!"

The denizens of the space ship were at their stations. Jeter and Eyer
could imagine the minions of Sitsumi and the Three, below the floor of
the white globe, standing-to on platforms about the unseen engines which
gave life and movability to this ship of the stratosphere. How many
there were of them there was no way of knowing. They had guessed two
hundred. There might have been a thousand. It scarcely mattered.

Sitsumi's face was set in a firm mask. He, of all the "lords of the
stratosphere," seemed to possess endless courage. His example fired the
three.

"What do you plan?" asked Wang Li.

Jeter and Eyer listened with all their ears.

"We have only one weapon in this unexpected emergency," said Sitsumi
quietly. "We cannot direct the ray upward or laterally: it is not so
constructed. But we can attack with the space ship itself! And remember
that so long as our outer rind remains intact and hard we are invisible
to attackers."

Jeter and Eyer exchanged glances.

"If only we could find the way to break or soften that outer rind," said
Jeter.

"What can we do?" asked Eyer. "If it is impervious to the cold of these
heights; if it is so strong that it is impervious to the tremendous
pressure inside the globe--which must be kept at a certain degree to
maintain human life--what can we do? We tried bullets. We might as well
have used peas and pea-shooters. If our friends try bombs they will
still be unsuccessful. If only we could somehow open up the outer rind
or soften it, so that our friends could see the inner globe and reach it
with their bombs!"

Jeter's face was now dead white. His eyes were aglow with excitement.

"Tema," he whispered, "Tema, that's their vulnerability! That's what
they fear! They're scared that the outer rind may be broken--which would
spell destruction to the space ship and everybody in it."

"Including us," replied Eyer, "but, anyway--well, what's the odds? We're
only two--and with this thing destroyed the nightmare will end. Of
course there should be some way to raid the Lake Baikal area and destroy
any other ships in the making, besides ferreting out the secret of the
invisible substance and the elements of the gravity inverter. If we
somehow survive, and this ship is destroyed, that's the next thing to
do."

Jeter nodded and signaled Eyer to cease whispering.

       *       *       *       *       *

They devoted their attention now to the six planes. They were coming up
in battle formation. They were in plain view and through the telescopes
it could be seen that each was armed with bombs of some kind. Useless
against the invisible space ship as matters now stood; but what would
those bombs do to the inner globe?

It still lacked several hours of the time allowed in the ultimatum to
Jeter and Eyer of Sitsumi and the Three, when the six planes leveled off
within a couple of miles of the space ship. They knew about where the
stratosphere had swallowed up Jeter and Eyer. Now they were casting
about for a sign, like bloodhounds seeking the spoor of an enemy.

Jeter and Eyer held their breaths as they watched. Now and again they
stole glances at Sitsumi and the Three, who were watching the six planes
with the intensity of eagles preparing to dive.

Naka stepped up close to Jeter.

"When the time comes," he said menacingly, "and it appears that we may
be in difficulties with the fools who think to thwart Sitsumi and the
Three and rescue you, it shall give me great pleasure to destroy you
with your own automatic."

"Pleasant fellow," said Eyer. "Shall I smash him, Lucian?"

Jeter shook his head.

"Our friends out there will look after that, Tema," he said in a natural
tone of voice. "I'll bet you two to one they get this ship within an
hour. Not that a bet will mean anything, as they'll get us, too!"

"Your friends," said Naka, "will be destroyed. They will not even be
given the opportunity you were given. Sitsumi and the Three will waste
but little time on them!"

"What," said Jeter calmly "is Sitsumi's hurry? Why is he scared?"

"Scared?" Naka seemed on the point of hitting Jeter for the blasphemy.
"Scared? He fears nothing. We'll down your friends long before their
motors--"

Sitsumi suddenly turned and looked at Naka. The look in Sitsumi's eyes
was murderous, Naka went dead white.

"I think your master believes you talk too much, Naka," said Jeter, but
Jeter's eyes were gleaming, too.

As soon as Sitsumi had turned back to his station Jeter's lips began to
move.

"See?" he said. "It isn't their machine guns these people fear. It isn't
their bombs--it's their motors! I wonder why...."

       *       *       *       *       *

By now the six planes were flying abreast, in battle formation, almost
above the space ship, at perhaps a thousand feet greater elevation. A
strange humming sound was traveling through the space ship. The whole
inner globe was vibrating, shaking--and vibration was a menace to glass
or crystal!

"We've got the answer!" said Jeter. "The outer rind, while capable of
being softened--in sections at least, with safety--for special reasons,
such as happened when we were 'swallowed,' can be hardened to the point
of disruption. It can be shattered, Tema, by vibration! That's why the
space ship keeps far above the roar of cities! The humming of countless
automobile engines might shatter the rind! God, I hope this is the
answer!"

In his mind's eye Eyer could picture it--the outer rind "freezing"
solid, and cracking with the thunderous report of snapping ice on a
forest lake. No wonder Sitsumi and the Three must destroy the six
planes.

"Now!" yelled Sitsumi. "Shift positions! The space ship will be hurled
directly at the formation of planes! Wang Li, to the beam controls!"

Wang Li sprang to the table, pressed a button. The humming sound in the
space ship grew to mighty proportions. The trembling increased.

Jeter and Eyer kept their eyes glued to the six planes above. Without
tilting their noses the six planes seemed to plunge straight down toward
the surface of the space ship. Thus the two knew that the space ship was
in motion--itself being bodily hurled, as its only present weapon of
offense, against the earthling attackers.

A split second--

One of the planes struck the surface solidly and crashed. Instantly its
wheels and its motor were caught in the outer rind.

The other five ships scattered wildly, escaping the collision by some
sixth sense, or through pure chance.

"Poor devil!" said Jeter. "But his buddies can see his plane and know
that it marks the spot where they could conveniently drop their bombs."

Eyer was on the point of nodding when Sitsumi shouted.

"Quickly, Wang Li! Spin the outer shell before the enemy uses the
wrecked plane as an aiming point!"

       *       *       *       *       *

A whirring sound. The plane whirled around as though it were twirled on
the end of a string. To the five other pilots it must have seemed that
the plane had struck some invisible obstruction, been smashed, and now
was whirling away to destruction after a strange, incomprehensible
hesitation in the heart of the stratosphere.

"Quickly, you fool!" shouted Sitsumi at Wang Li. "You're napping! You
should have got all those planes! And you should have spun the outer
globe instantly, before the remaining enemy had a chance to find out our
location."

"I can move away a half mile," suggested Wang Li.

"We've got to silence those motors, fool!" yelled Sitsumi. "You know
very well that we can't run. Charge them again, and take care this time
that you crash into the middle of their formation."

"They're scattered over too great an area. I should wait for them to
reform."

"Fool! Fool! Don't you think I know the weakness in my own invention?
The proper vibration will destroy us! If the rind is softened we become
visible. We dare not wait for them to reform! Attack each plane
separately if necessary, and at top speed!"

Jeter began to speak rapidly out of the corner of his mouth. Even Naka's
attention was fastened on the five planes and Wang Li's efforts to
destroy them.

"Gag Naka!" said Jeter. "The keys! In some way we've got to get to our
plane. It's barely possible. If we can start the motor.... Hurry! Now,
while the whole outfit is watching our friends out there!"

Eyer rose and reached for Naka with his right hand.

He dared not miss his lunge. He did not. His huge hand fastened in the
throat of their keeper. Nobody--neither Sitsumi nor the Three--turned as
Naka gasped and struggled. Eyer pulled the man back over the table and,
his neck thus within reach of both hands, snapped it as he would have
broken the neck of a chicken.

Jeter was already searching the body for the keys. He found them.

Their leg irons were just falling free when Sitsumi turned. Eyer was
feeling for the automatics in Naka's belt.

"We won't need them!" yelled Jeter. "There isn't time. Let's go!"

Jeter was away at top speed, almost pulling Eyer off his feet because
their hands were still fastened together with the handcuffs.

They were outside on the floor level.

And through many doors denizens of the lower control room, hurried out
by the commands of Sitsumi, were racing to head them off. But nothing
could stop them. One man got in their way and Eyer's right fist caved in
his face with one deadly, devastating blow. They had now reached the
stairs.

       *       *       *       *       *

The space ship was being hurled at the five remaining planes. Even as
the two men reached the stairs and started up, another of the dauntless
rescuers paid with his life for his courage. Several bombs exploded as
his plane struck the space ship, but they caused no damage whatever. The
hard outer rind seemed to be impervious to the explosions. Obviously no
explosive could destroy the space ship.

"Quickly, Tema," said Jeter. "The rind can be shattered by vibration,
and we've got to do it somehow."

"And after that?" panted Eyer.

"Our friends out there can then see the inner globe. They'll drop bombs.
They'll smash in the globe and--"

"I know," said Eyer. "Its inhabitants, including us, will start off in
all directions through the stratosphere, with great speed, and probably
in many pieces."

Jeter laughed. Eyer laughed with him. They didn't fear death, for now
they felt they were on the verge of destroying this monster of space.

Their pursuers were following them closely.

Jeter frantically tried to unfasten the handcuffs as they ran. He didn't
manage it until the door was almost reached. He left one cuff dangling
on his right wrist.

Then, they were through the door.

"Now, Tema," shouted Jeter, "if you believe in God--if you have
faith--pray for strength to move this plane!"

"Where?"

"So that its wheels and nose go through this open door! Then it won't
travel forward when we start the motor--and our pursuers won't be able
to get through to stop us."

"You think of everything, don't you?" There was a grin on Eyer's face.
But his eyes were stern. He wasn't belittling their deadly danger. And
there was also a chance that Jeter's vibration idea was wrong.

"Those four planes," panted Jeter, as the two tried to get their plane
in motion toward the door, "cause, from a distance, through thin air, a
slight vibration, varying with their distance from the globe; our plane
motor racing and actually in contact with the globe, can set up a
tremendous vibration by its great motor speed. If we can vibrate the
globe up to its shattering point there's a chance!"

"We can't pull her, Lucian," said Eyer. "I'll do a Horatius at the door.
You get in, start the motor, taxi her until the wheels go through. I'll
keep the crowd back."

"Right!"

Jeter went through the doors into the plane. In a few seconds the
propeller kicked over, hesitated, kicked again. Then the motor coughed,
coughed again, and broke into a steady roaring.



CHAPTER XII

_High Chaos_


The plane moved forward. Its tail swung around. Its wheels headed for
the door. They dropped through, into the faces of the foremost pursuers,
all of whom were thus effectually blocked off.

The plane was held as in a vise. The propeller vanished in a blur as
Jeter let the motor out. It was humming an even, steady note. The doors
came open again.

Jeter came out, his eyes glowing.

"We haven't the chance of the proverbial celluloid dog chasing the
asbestos cat," he shouted to be heard above the roar of the motor. "But
grab your high altitude suit, oxygen container, and parachute, and let's
get as far away from this plane as we can. Who knows? When the end comes
we may get a break at that!"

They ran until the bulge of the inner globe all but hid the plane from
them. They could see only the top wing. They did not go farther because
they wished to make sure that the enemy did not dislodge the plane and
nullify all their work.

"They won't be able to," said Jeter, "for that motor is pulling against
the wheels and holding them so tight against the side of that door that
a hundred men couldn't budge the plane. But we can't take chances."

Quickly the partners slipped into their suits, adjusted their oxygen
tanks and parachutes. Then Jeter slipped back the elastic sleeve of his
suit and motioned Eyer to do the same. The manacles were brought into
view again. They looked at each other. Eyer grinned and held out his
left hand. Jeter snapped the second cuff to Eyer's wrist.

The act was significant.

Whatever happened to them, would happen to both in equal measure. It was
a gesture which needed no words. If they were slain when their
friends--if their theory was correct--finally saw the space ship, they
would die together. If by some miracle they were hurled into outer space
and lived to use their parachutes--well, the discomfort was a small
price to pay to stay together.

Now they devoted all their attention to their own situation. Four planes
still spun warily above the space ship. Wang Li was patently trying with
all his might to get all four of them before the Jeter-Eyer plane, by
shattering the rind, disclosed the inner core to the bombs of the
remaining planes.

"Lucian!" said the fingers of Eyer. "Can you tell whether anything is
happening to the rind?"

Jeter hesitated for a long time. There was a distinct and almost
nauseating vibration throughout all the space ship. And was there not
something happening to the rind over a wide area, directly above the
Jeter-Eyer plane?

They could fancy the snapping of ice on a forest lake in mid-winter.

They couldn't hear, in their suits. They could only feel. But all at
once the outer rind, above their plane, vanished. At the same instant
the plane itself, propeller still spinning, rose swiftly up through the
hole in the rind. The air inside the globe was going out in a great
rush.

The partners looked at each other. At that moment the four planes
swooped over the space ship....

       *       *       *       *       *

Jeter and Eyer knew that the inner globe had at last become visible, for
from the bellies of the four planes dropped bomb after bomb. They fell
into the great aperture. Jeter and Eyer flung themselves flat. But the
bombs had worked sufficient havoc. They had removed all protection from
the low-pressure stratosphere. The air inside the space ship went out
with a rush. Jeter and Eyer, hearing nothing, though they knew that the
explosions must have been cataclysmic, were picked up and whirled toward
that opening, like chips spun toward the heart of a whirlpool.

But for their space suits they would have been destroyed in the outrush
of air. Out of the inner globe came men that flew, sprawled out,
somersaulting up and out of apertures made by the crashing bombs.
Ludicrous they looked. Blood streamed from their mouths. Their faces
were set in masks of agony. There were Sitsumi and, one after another,
the Three.

Then fastened together by the cuffs, the partners were being whirled
over and over, out into space. Their last signals to each other had
been:

"Even if you're already dead, pull the ripcord ring of your chute!"

Crushed, buffeted, they still retained consciousness. They sought
through the spinning stratosphere for their rescuers. Thousands of feet
below--or was it above?--they saw them. Yes, below, for they looked at
the tops of the planes. Their upward flight had been dizzying. They
waited until their upward flight ceased.

Then, as they started the long fall to Earth, they pulled their rings
and waited for their chutes to flower above them.

Soon they were floating downward. Side by side they rode. Above them
their parachutes were like two umbrellas, pressed almost too closely
together.

They looked about them, seeking the space ship.

The devastation of its outer rind had been complete, for they now could
see the inner globe, and it too was like--well, like merely part of an
eggshell.

The doomed space ship--gyroscope still keeping the ray pointed
Earthward--describing an erratic course, was shooting farther upward
into the stratosphere, propelled by the ghastly ray which, now no longer
controlled by Wang Li, drove the space ship madly through the outer
cold.

Far below the partners many things were falling: broken furnishings of
mad dreamers' stratosphere laboratories, parts of strange machines,
whirling, somersaulting things that had once been men.

The partners looked at each other.

The same thought was in the mind of each, as the four remaining planes
came in toward them to convoy them down--that when the lords of the
stratosphere finally reached the far Earth, only God would know which
was Sitsumi and who were the Three.

       *       *       *       *       *





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