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Title: Spawn of the Comet
Author: Rich, H. Thompson (Harold Thompson), 1893-1974
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 "Spawn of the Comet" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.

This etext was produced from “Astounding Stories” November 1931.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
on this publication was renewed.

[Illustration: Professor Wentworth swung his cannon ray upon that
advancing horde.]

    A swarm of huge, fiery ants, brood of a mystery comet, burst
    from their shells to threaten the unsuspecting world.

Spawn of the Comet

By H. Thompson Rich

    Tokyo, June 10 (AP).--A number of the meteors that pelted
    Japan last night, as the earth passed through the tail of the
    Mystery Comet have been found and are puzzling astronomers

    About the size of baseballs, orange in color, they appear to
    be of some unknown metal. So far, due to their extreme
    hardness, all attempts to analyze them have failed.

    Their uniformity of size and marking gives rise to the popular
    belief that they are seeds, and, fantastic though this
    conception is, it finds support in certain scientific quarters

Jim Carter read the news dispatch thoughtfully and handed it back to
his chief without comment.

"Well, what do you make of it?"

Miles Overton, city editor of _The New York Press_, shoved his green
eye-shade far back on his bald head and glanced up irritably from his
littered desk.

"I don't know," said Jim.

"You don't know!" Overton snorted, biting his dead cigar impatiently.
"And I suppose you don't know they're finding the damn things right
here in New York, not to mention Chicago, London, Rio and a few other
places," he added.

"Yes, I know about New York. It's a regular egg hunt."

"Egg hunt is right! But why tell me all this now? I didn't see any
mention of 'em in your report of last night's proceedings. Did you see

"No, but I saw a lot of shooting stars!" said Jim, recalling that
weird experience he and the rest of humanity had passed through so

"Yeah, I'll say!" Overton lit his wrecked cigar and dragged on it
soothingly. "Now then, getting back to cases--what are these damn
things, anyway? That's what I'd like to know."

"So would I," said Jim. "Maybe they _are_ seeds?"

Overton frowned. He was a solid man, not given to fancies. He had a
paper to get out every day and that taxed his imagination to the
limit. There was no gray matter left for any such idle musings as Jim
suggested. What he wanted was facts, and he wanted them right away.

"Eggs will do!" he said. "Go out and get one--and find out what's
inside it."

"Okay, Chief," said Jim, but he knew it was a large order. "I'll have
one on your desk for breakfast!"

Then, with a grave face that denied his light words, he stepped from
the city room on that fantastic assignment.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was the television broadcast hour and crowds thronged the upper
level of Radio Plaza, gazing, intently at the bulletin screen, as Jim
Carter emerged from the Press tower.

News from the ends of the earth, in audio-picture form, flashed before
their view; but only the reports on the strange meteors from the tail
of 1947, IV--so designated by astronomers because it was the fourth
comet discovered that year--held their interest. Nothing since the
great Antarctic gold rush of '33 had so gripped the public as the
dramatic arrival and startling behavior of this mysterious visitant
from outer space.

Jim paused a moment, halfway across the Plaza, to take a look at the
screen himself.

The substance of the Tokyo dispatch, supplemented by pictures of
Japanese scientists working over the baffling orange spheres, had just
gone off. Now came a flash from Berlin, in which a celebrated German
chemist was seen directing an effort to cut into one of them with an
acid drill. It failed and the scientist turned to declare to the world
that the substance seemed more like crystal than metal and was harder
than diamond.

Jim tarried no longer. He knew where he was going. It was still early
and Joan would be up--Joan Wentworth, daughter of Professor Stephen
Wentworth, who held the chair of astro-lithology at Hartford
University. It was as their guest at the observatory last night that
he had seen 1947, IV at close range, as the earth passed through her
golden train with that awesome, unparalleled display of fireworks.

Now he'd have the pleasure of seeing Joan again, and at the same time
get the low-down from her father on those confounded seeds--or eggs,
rather. If anyone could crack one of them, he'd bet Professor
Wentworth could.

So, hastening toward the base of Plaza Airport, he took an elevator to
ramp-level 118, where his auto-plane was parked, and five minutes
later was winging his way to Hartford.

       *       *       *       *       *

Throttle wide, Jim did the eighty miles to the Connecticut capital in
a quarter of an hour.

Then, banking down through the warm June night onto the University
landing field, he retracted the wings of his swift little bus and
motored to the foot of Observatory Hill.

Parking outside the Wentworth home, he mounted the steps and rang the

It was answered by a slim, appealing girl of perhaps twenty-two. Hers
was a wistful, oval face, with a small, upturned nose; and her clear
hazel eyes were the sort that always seem to be enjoying some amusing
secret of their own. Her hair was a soft brown, worn loose to the
shoulders, after the style then in vogue.

"Joan!" blurted Jim.

"What brings you here at such an hour, Jimmy Carter?" she asked with
mock severity.


"I don't believe you."

"What then have I come for?"

"You've come to interview father about those meteorites."

"Nonsense! That's purely incidental--a mere by-product, you might

"Yes, you might--but I wouldn't advise you to say it to father."

"All right, I won't," he promised, as she led him into the library.

Professor Wentworth rose as they entered and laid aside some
scientific book he had been reading.

A man of medium height and build, he had the same twinkling hazel eyes
as his daughter, though somewhat dimmed from peering at too many stars
for too many years.

"Good evening, Jim," he said. "I've rather been expecting you. What is
on your mind?"

"Seeds! Eggs! Baseballs!" was the reply, "I don't know what. You've
seen the latest television reports, I suppose?" said Jim, noting that
the panel on the receiving cabinet across the room was still lit.

"I've seen some of them. Joan has been keeping an eye on the screen
mostly, however, while I refreshed my mind on the known chemistry of
meteorites. You see, I have a few of those eggs myself, up at the

"You have?" cried Jim.

He was certainly on the right track!

"Yes. One of my assistants brought them in this afternoon. Would you
like to see them?"

"I'll say I would!"

"I rather thought you might," the professor smiled. "Come along,

And as Jim turned, he shot a look at Joan, and added:

"You may come too, my dear, if you want."

       *       *       *       *       *

They went out and up the hill to where the great white dome glistened
under the stars, and once inside, Jim Carter of _The New York Press_
was privileged to see two of those strange objects that had turned the
world topsy-turvy.

As the Tokyo dispatch and the Berlin television flash had indicated,
they were orange in color, about the size of baseballs.

"Weird looking eggs, all right!" said Jim. "What are they made of,

"Some element unknown on earth," replied Professor Wentworth.

"But I thought there were only ninety-two elements in the universe and
we'd discovered them all."

"So we have. But don't forget this. We are still trying to split the
atom, which nature has done many times and will doubtless do many
times again. It is merely a matter of altering the valence of the
atoms in an old element; whereupon it shifts its position in the
periodic scale and becomes a new element. Nature accomplishes this
alchemy by means of great heat, which is certainly to be found in a

"Particularly when it hits the earth's atmosphere!"

"Yes. And now then, I'd like to have you examine more closely this
pair I have here."

Jim lifted one and noted its peculiar smoothness, its remarkable
weight for its size; he noted, too, that it was veined with concentric
markings, like a series of arabesques or fleurs-de-lis.

The professor lifted the other, calling attention to the fact that the
size and marking of both were identical, as hitherto reported.

"Also, you'll observe that they are slightly warm. In fact, they are
appreciably warmer than when they were first brought in. Curious
behavior, this, for new-laid cometary eggs! More like seeds
germinating than meteorites cooling, wouldn't you say?"

"But good Lord!" Jim was somewhat taken aback to hear this celebrated
scientist apparently commit himself to that wild view. "You don't
really think they're seeds, do you?"

"Why not?"

"But surely no seeds could survive the temperature they hit getting

"No seeds such as we know, true. But what, after all, do we know of
the types of life to be found on other planets?"

"Nothing, of course. Only these didn't come from a planet. They came
from a comet."

"And who can say a comet is not a disintegrated planet? Or suppose we
take the other theory, that it is an eruption from some sun, ours or
another. In any event, who can say no life can survive intense heat?
Certainly these seeds--or call them meteorites, if you choose--came
through the ordeal curiously unscathed."

"Yes, that's true. Funny, too!"

"And another thing is true, Jim. If by chance they _should_ be seeds,
and _should_ germinate, the life they would produce would be something
quite alien to our experience, possibly quite inimical to--"

Professor Wentworth broke off abruptly as a startled cry came from
Joan, and, turning, they saw her standing with eyes fixed in
fascinated horror on the laboratory table.

       *       *       *       *       *

Following her gaze, Jim saw something that caused his own eyes to
bulge. The color of those mysterious orange spheres had suddenly,
ominously heightened. They lay glowing there like balls of fire.

"Good God!" he gasped. "Look, Professor! Do you see that?"

Professor Wentworth did not answer but himself stood gazing spellbound
at the astounding scene.

Even as they looked, the metal table smoldered under the fiery
meteorites and melted, and in a little while the meteorites themselves
sizzled from view. Flames licked up from the floor; dense, suffocating
fumes rose and swirled through the laboratory.

"Quick!" cried Jim, seizing Joan's arm. "Come on, Professor! Never
mind trying to save anything. Let's get out of here!"

They staggered from the laboratory and once outside, plunged down the
hill. It was none too soon.

Behind them, as they fled, came suddenly two deafening explosions.
Looking back, they saw the roof of the observatory tilt crazily; saw
the whole building shatter, and erupt like a volcano.

But that, startling though it was, was not all they saw. For now, as
they stood there speechless, two incredible forms rose phoenix-like
from the flames--two weird monsters, orange against the red, hideous,
nightmarish. They saw them hover a moment above that fiery hell, then
rise on batlike wings to swoop off into the night.

Nor was that all. As the awed trio stood there halfway down
Observatory Hill, following the flight of that pair of demons, other
explosions reached their ears, and, turning to the city below, they
saw vivid jets of red leap up here and there, saw other orange wings
against the night.

While off across the southeast sky, receding fast, spread the Mystery
Comet whose tail had sowed the seeds of this strange life.

       *       *       *       *       *

Still silent, the trio stood gazing upon that appalling scene for some
minutes, while the ruddy shadows of the flaming observatory lit their
tense faces.

"Well, the seeds have hatched," said Professor Wentworth at length, in
a strained voice. "I am afraid some of the curious who have been
gathering those meteorites so eagerly have paid a dear price for

"Yes, I'm afraid so," echoed Jim. "We were lucky. If Joan hadn't
happened to spot those things just when she did--" He broke off and
pressed her hand fondly. "But somehow I can't believe it, even yet.
What do you think the things are, Professor?"

"God knows! As I told you, those seeds, should they germinate, would
produce something quite alien to our experience; and as I feared, it
is a form of life that will not blend well with humanity."

Jim shuddered.

"But look, father!" exclaimed Joan. "They're flying away! They seem to
be way up among the stars. Maybe they've left the earth altogether."

Professor Wentworth following his daughter's gaze, saw that many of
the monsters were now mere orange pinpoints against the night.

"Let us hope so!" he said fervently.

But in his heart there was no conviction, nor in Jim's, strangely.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the way back to New York, Jim had plenty to heighten his
uneasiness. The scene below him everywhere was red with
conflagrations, the sky everywhere orange with the wings of those
fiery moths.

More than one swept perilously close, as he pushed his auto-plane on
at top speed; but they showed no inclination to attack, for which he
was devoutly thankful.

Over the metropolitan area, the scene was one beggaring description.
All the five boroughs were a blazing checker-board. New Jersey,
Connecticut, Westchester--all were raging. Hundreds of those deadly
bombs must have burst in Manhattan alone.

But the fire department there seemed to have the situation in hand, he
noticed as he swept down onto the Plaza landing platform.

Leaving his plane with an attendant, he took the first elevator to the
street level, and crossing hastily to the Press tower, mounted to the
city room.

There absolute pandemonium raged. Typewriters were sputtering,
telegraph keys clicking, phones buzzing, reporters coming and going in
a steady stream, mingled with the frantic orders of editors,
sub-editors, copy readers, composing-room men and others.

Carter fought through the bedlam to the city editor's desk.

"Sorry I couldn't bring you that egg, Chief," he said, with a grim
smile. "I had one right in my hand, but it hatched out on me."

Overton looked up wearily. He was a man who had seen a miracle, a
godless miracle that restored his faith in the devil.

"Don't talk--just write!" he growled. "I've seen and heard too much
to-night. We're all going to hell, I guess--unless we're already

But Jim wasn't ready to write yet.

"What's the dope elsewhere? The same?"

"All over the map! We're frying, from coast to coast."

"And abroad?"

"Cooked, everywhere!" He paused, and turned an imploring face to Jim.
"Tell me, Carter--what's happening? You've seen Wentworth, I suppose.
What's he make of it?"

"He--doesn't know."

"God help us! Well, go write your story. If we've got a plant by press
time, we'll have something on page one to-morrow--if there's anyone to
read it."

       *       *       *       *       *

By morning the fires in the metropolitan area had been brought under
control and it was found that neither the loss of life nor the damage
was as great as had at first been feared. Mainly it was the older
types of buildings that had suffered the most.

The same thing was true in other parts of the country and elsewhere in
the world; and elsewhere, as in New York, people pulled themselves
together, cleared up the debris, and went ahead with their
occupations. Business was resumed, and rebuilding operations were

Meanwhile, where were those fiery moths that had sprung so
devastatingly from their strange cocoons?

For a while no one knew and it was believed they had indeed winged off
into interstellar space, as Joan had suggested that night on
Observatory Hill.

Then came rumors that damped these hopes, followed by eye-witness
reports that altogether dashed them. The bat-like monsters had flown,
not off into space, but to the world's waste-lands.

Strange, it was, the instinct that had led them unerringly to the
remotest point of each continent. In North America it was the great
Arizona desert, in South America the pampas of Argentina, in Europe
the steppes of Russia, in Asia the Desert of Gobi, in Africa the
Sahara, in Australia the Victoria; while in the British Isles,
Philippines, New Zealand, Madagascar, Iceland, the East Indies, West
Indies, South Seas and other islands of the world, the interiors were
taken over by the demons, the populace fleeing for their lives.

As for the oceans, no one knew exactly what had happened there, though
it was obvious they, too, had received their share of the bombardment
on that fateful night; but, while temperatures were found to be
somewhat above normal, scientists were of the opinion that the deadly
spawn that had fallen there had failed to incubate.

       *       *       *       *       *

Immediately the presence of the monsters in the Arizona desert was
verified, Overton called Jim Carter to his desk.

"Well, I've got a big assignment for you, boy," he said, rather more
gently than was his fashion. "Maybe you know what, huh?"

"You want me to buzz out and interview those birds?"

"You guessed it. And photograph 'em!"

"Okay, Chief," said Carter, though he knew this would be the toughest
job yet.

Overton knew it, too.

"It won't be easy," he said. "And it may be dangerous. You don't have
to take the assignment unless you want."

"But I want."

"Good! I thought you would." He regarded the younger man admiringly,
almost enviously. "Now, about those photos. The Television News people
haven't been able to get a thing, nor the War Department--not so much
as a still. So those photos will be valuable."

Overton paused, to let that sink in.

"They'll be worth a million, in fact, in addition to what the War
Department offers. And to you they'll be worth ten thousand dollars."

"How come?"

"Because that's what the Old Man said."

"Well, I can use it!" said Jim, thinking of Joan.

"All right. Then go to it!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Leaving New York late that night, Carter timed his flight to arrive
over the eastern edge of the desert just before dawn.

The trip was uneventful till he crossed the Rockies over New Mexico
and eased down into Arizona. Then, flying low and fast, he suddenly
caught a glow of color off ahead.

For an instant Jim thought it was the dawn, then called himself a
fool. For one thing, the glow was in the west, not the east. And for
another, altogether more significant, it was orange.

His quarry!

Pulling his stick back hard, he shot like a rocket to ten thousand
feet, figuring that a higher altitude, besides giving him a better
view of the lay of the land, would be considerably safer.

Winging on now at that height, he saw the orange tide rise higher in
the west by seconds, as he rushed toward God knew what eery lair. He
suddenly gasped in amazement, as he saw now something so incredible it
left him numb.

Below, looming above the on-rushing horizon was a city! But such a
city as the brain of man could scarcely conceive, much less execute--a
city of some fluorescent orange material, rising tier on tier, level
on level, spreading out over the sandy floor of the desert for miles.

And, as Jim draw nearer, he saw, too, that this weird city was teeming
with life--terrible life! Thousands of those hideous monsters were
working there like an army of ants in a sand-hill--a sand-hill of
glistening, molten glass, it seemed from the air.

Were they building their city from the sand of the desert, these
hellish glaciers?

Carter decided to find out.

"Well, here goes!" he muttered, diving straight for that dazzling
citadel, one hand on the stick, the other gripping the trigger of his
automatic camera. "This'll make a picture for the Old Man, all right!"

Off to the east the dawn was breaking, and he saw, as he swept down,
its pearly pastel shades blending weirdly with that blinding orange

Pressing the trigger now, he drove his screaming plane on with
throttle wide--and yes, it was glass!--glass of some sort, that crazy
nightmare down there.

"Whew!" gasped Carter as waves of dazing heat rose about him. "Boy,
but it's hot! I can't stand much of this. Better get out while the
getting's good."

But he clenched his teeth, and dove on down to see what those fiery
demons looked like. Funny they didn't make any effort to attack.
Surely they must see him now.

"Take that, my beauties!--and that!" he gasped, pressing the trigger
of his camera furiously.

Then, at a scant two thousand feet, he levelled off, his wings
blistering with the heat, and zoomed up again--when to his horror, his
engine faltered; died.

       *       *       *       *       *

In that agonizing moment it came to Jim that this perhaps was why
neither the Television News nor the War Department pilots had been
able to get pictures of the hell below.

Had something about that daring heat killed their motors, too, as it
had his? Had they plunged like fluttering, sizzling moths into that
inferno of orange flame?

"Well, I guess it's curtains!" he muttered.

A glance at his altimeter showed a scant eighteen hundred now. Another
glance showed the western boundary of the city, agonizing miles ahead.
Could he make it? He'd try, anyway!

So, nursing his plane along in a shallow glide, Jim slipped down
through that dazing heat.

"Got to keep her speed up!" he told himself, half deliriously, as he
steadily lost altitude. "Can't pancake here, or I'll be a flapjack!"

At an altitude of less than a thousand he levelled off again, eased on
down, fully expecting to feel his plane burst into flames. But though
his eyebrows crisped and the gas must have boiled, the sturdy little
plane made it.

On a long last glide, he put her wheels down on the sandy desert
floor, a bare half mile beyond that searing hell.

The heat was still terrific but endurable now. He dared breathe
deeper; he found his head clearing. But what was the good of it? It
was only a respite. The monsters had seen him, all right--no doubt
about that! Already they were swooping out of their weird citadel like
a pack of furious hornets.

On they came, incredibly fast, moving in a wide half-circle that
obviously was planned to envelop him.

Tense with horror, like a doomed man at the stake, Jim watched the
flaming phalanx advance. And now he saw what they really were; saw
that his first, fantastic guess had been right.

They were _ants_--or at least more like ants than anything on
earth--great fiery termites ten feet long, hideous mandibles snapping
like steel, hot from the forge, their huge compound eyes burning like
greenish electric fire in their livid orange sockets.

And another thing Jim saw, something that explained why the fearful
insects had not flown up to attack him in the air. Their wings were

They had molted, were earthbound now.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was much food for thought in this, but no time to think. Already
the creatures were almost on him.

Jim turned his gaze from them and bent over his dials in a last
frantic effort to get his motor started. The instinct of
self-preservation was dominant now--and to his joy, suddenly the
powerful little engine began to hum with life.

He drew one deep breath of infinite relief, then gave her the gun and
whirled off down the desert floor, the enraged horde after him.

For agonizing instants it was a nip-and-tuck race. Then as he felt his
wheels lift, he pulled hard back on his stick, and swept up and away
from the deadly claws that clutched after him in vain.

Climbing swiftly, Jim banked once, swept back, put the bead full on
that scattering half-circle of fiery termites, and pressed the trigger
of his automatic camera.

"There, babies!" he laughed grimly. "You're in the Rogues' Gallery

Then, swinging off to the northeast, he continued to climb, giving
that weird ant-hill a wide berth.

Funny, about those things losing their wings, he was thinking now.
Would they grow them again, or were they on the ground for good? And
what was their game out there in the desert, anyway?

Questions Jim couldn't answer, of course. Only time would tell.
Meanwhile, he had some pictures that would make the Old Man sit up and
take notice, not to mention the War Department.

"They'd better get the Army on the job before those babies get
air-minded again!" he told himself, as he winged on into the rising
sun. "Otherwise the show they've already staged may be only a little

       *       *       *       *       *

Jim's arrival in the city room of _The New York Press_ that afternoon
was a triumphant one, for he had radio-phoned the story ahead and
extras were out all over the metropolitan area, with relays flashing
from the front pages of papers everywhere.

No sooner had he turned over his precious pictures to the photographic
department for development than Overton rushed him to a microphone,
and made him repeat his experience for the television screen.

But the city editor's enthusiasm died when the negatives came out of
the developer.

"There are your pictures!" he said, handing over a bunch of them.

Carter looked at them in dismay. They were all blank--just so much
plain black celluloid.

"Over-exposed!" rasped Overton. "A hell of a photographer you are!"

"I sure am!" Jim agreed, still gazing ruefully at the ruined
negatives. "Funny, though. The camera was checked before I started. I
had the range before I pulled the trigger, every shot." He paused,
then added, as though reluctant to excuse himself: "It must have been
the heat."

"Yeah. I suppose so! Well, that was damn expensive heat for you, my
lad. It cost you ten thousand bucks."

"Yes, but--"

Jim had been going to say it had nearly cost him his life but thought
better of it. Besides, an idea had come.

"Give me those negatives!" he said, "I'm going to find out what's
wrong with 'em."

And since they were of no use to Overton, he gave them to Jim.

       *       *       *       *       *

That night again, Jim Carter presented himself at the Wentworth home
in Hartford, and again it was Joan who admitted him.

"Oh, Jimmy!" she murmured, as he took her in his arms. "We're all so
proud of you!"

"I'm glad someone is," he said.

"But what a fearful risk you ran! If you hadn't been able to get your
motor started--"

"Why think of unpleasant things?" he said with a smile.

Then they went into the library, where Professor Wentworth added his

"But I'm afraid I didn't accomplish much," said Jim, explaining about
the pictures.

"Let me see them," said the professor.

Jim handed them over.

For a moment or two Professor Wentworth examined them intently,
holding them this way and that.

"They indeed appear to be extremely over-exposed," he admitted at
length. "Your Fire Ants are doubtless radio-active to a high degree.
The results could not have been much worse had you tried to photograph
the sun direct."

"I thought as much," said Carter, gloomily.

"But possibly the damage isn't irreparable. Suppose we try
re-developing a few of these negatives."

He led the way to his study, which since the destruction of the
observatory had been converted into a temporary laboratory.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ten minutes later, Professor Wentworth had his re-developing bath
ready in a porcelain basin and had plunged some of the negatives into

"This process is what photographers call intensification," he
explained. "It consists chemically in the oxidation of a part of the
silver of which the image is composed. I have here in solution uranium
nitrate, plus potassium ferricyanide acidified with acetic acid. The
latter salt, in the presence of the acid, is an oxidizing agent, and,
when applied to the image, produces silver oxide, which with the
excess of acetic acid forms silver acetate."

"Which is all so much Greek to me!" said Carter.

"At the same time, the ferricyanide is reduced to ferrocyanide," the
professor went on, with a smile at Joan, "whereupon insoluble red
uranium ferrocyanide is produced, and, while some of the silver, in
being oxidized by this process, is rendered soluble and removed from
the negative into the solution, it is replaced by the highly
non-actinic and insoluble uranium compound."

The process was one quite familiar to photographers experienced in
astronomical work, he explained. In fifteen minutes they should know
what results they were getting.

But when fifteen minutes passed and the negatives were still as black
as ever, Jim's hope waned.

Not so Professor Wentworth's, however.

"There is a definite but slow reaction taking place," he said after a
careful examination. "Either the over-exposure is even greater than I
had suspected, or the actinic rays from your interesting subjects have
formed a stubborn chemical union with the silver of the image. In the
latter event, which is the theory I am going to work on, we must speed
up the reaction and tear some of that excess silver off, if we're ever
to see what is underneath."

"But how are you going to speed up the reaction?" asked Jim. "I
thought that uranium was pretty strong stuff by itself."

"It is, but not as strong as this new substance we have in combination
with the silver here. So I think I'll try a little electrolysis--or,
in plain English, electro-plating."

As he spoke, the professor clipped a couple of platinum electrodes to
the basin, one at each end. To the anode he attached one of the
negatives, to the cathode a small piece of iron.

"Now then, we'll soon see."

He passed a low current into the wires, through a rheostat, with
startling results. There was a sudden foaming of the solution and a
weird vapor rose from it, luminous, milky, faintly orange.

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment, all they could do was stare.

Then Professor Wentworth switched off the current and stepped toward
the tank. Waving away that orange gas, he reached for the cathode and
held it up. It was no longer iron, but silver, now.

"Plated, you see!" he exclaimed in triumph.

"Yes, but those fumes!" cried Jim. "Why, they were the same color as
the--the Fire Ants, as you call them."

"I know." The professor was not as calm as he pretended. "We have
released some of their actinic rays captured by the negative, in
prying loose our excess silver. Later I shall repeat the process and
capture some of that vapor for analysis. At present, let us have a
look at the negative already treated."

He lifted the anode from the solution now, removed the negative, and
held it up. A smile of satisfaction broke over his face, followed by a

"There you are, Jim! Have a look!"

Jim looked, with Joan peering over his shoulder, and his pulses
tingled. It was a clear shot of that scattering half-circle of fiery
termites, taken after he got away and swept back over them.

"Say, that's wonderful!" he exclaimed.

"Wonderful--but horrible!" echoed Joan.

"I'll admit they're not much on looks," laughed Carter. "But their
homely maps are worth a lot to me--ten thousand dollars, in fact!"

He told her why, and what he proposed to do with the money, and Joan
thought it a very good idea.

While this was taking place, Professor Wentworth was re-developing the
rest of the negatives.

At last all had been salvaged, even those taken in the terrific heat
over that weird glass city out there, and Jim was preparing to bear
them back to Overton in triumph.

He had thanked the kindly professor from the bottom of his heart, had
even told him something of what he had been telling Joan. There
remained but to put one last question, then go.

"Summing it all up, what do you make of those nightmares?" he asked.
"Do you think they can be destroyed?"

Professor Wentworth did not reply at once.

"I can perhaps answer your question better when I have analyzed this
specimen of gas," he said at length, holding up a test-tube in which
swirled a quantity of that luminous, milky orange vapor. "But if you
wish to quote me for publication, you may say that when I have learned
the nature of it, I shall devote all my energies to combating the
menace it constitutes."

And that was the message Jim took back with him, but it was the
pictures that interested the practical Overton most.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before many days, however, Overton, with the rest of the world, was
turning anxiously to Professor Wentworth, watching his every move,
awaiting his every word. For before many days terrible reports started
coming in, not only from the Arizona desert but from the assembly
grounds of the Fire Ants everywhere.

Those deadly termites were on the move! They were spreading from their
central citadels in ominous, expanding circles--circles that engulfed
villages, towns and cities in a swift, relentless ring of annihilation
that was fairly stupefying.

In North America, the cities of Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott, with all
that lay between, were already gone, their frantic populaces fleeing
to the four points of the compass before that fateful orange tide. In
South America, Rosario and Cordoba were within the flaming ring and
Buenos Aires was threatened. In Europe, Moscow and its vast tributary
plain had fallen before the invaders. In Asia, a veritable inland
empire was theirs, reaching from Urga to the Khingan Mountains. In
Africa, Southern Algeria and French Sudan, with their innumerable
small villages and oases, were overrun. In Australia, Coolgardie had
succumbed and Perth was in a panic.

But fearful though the destruction was on the continents, it was the
islands of the world that suffered most. First the smallest, those
picturesque green gems of the South Seas, crisped and perished. Then
came reports of the doom of the Hawaiian group, the Philippines, the
East and West Indies, New Zealand, Tasmania and a score of others,
their populations perishing by the thousands, as shipping proved
unavailable to transport them to safety.

By far the most tragic fate, however, was that suffered by the British
Isles. What happened there stunned the world, and brought realization
to humanity that unless some miracle intervened, it was but a mirror
of the doom that awaited all. For England, Ireland and Scotland were
habitable no more. London, Dublin, Glasgow--all their proud cities,
all their peaceful hamlets, centuries old, were flaming ruins.

Out of a population, of some sixty millions, it was estimated that at
least eight millions must have perished. The rest, by prodigious feats
of transportation, managed to reach the mainland, where they spread as
refugees throughout an apprehensive, demoralized Europe.

       *       *       *       *       *

As for the armies and navies of the world, they were powerless before
this fiendish invader. Hammered with high explosives, drenched with
chemicals, sprayed with machine-gun ballets, the fiery termites surged
on unchecked, in ever-widening circles of death.

Lead and steel passed through them harmlessly. Gas wafted off them
like air. Despite the frantic efforts of scientists and military men,
nothing could be devised to stem that all-devouring orange tide.

It was quite obvious by now, even to the most conservative minds, that
the end of human life on earth was not far off. It could only be a few
more weeks before the last stronghold fell. Daily, hourly, those
deadly Fire Ants were everywhere expanding their fields of operations.
Presently all humanity would be driven to the seacoasts, there to
perish by fire or water, as they chose.

There were some optimists, of course, who believed that the miracle
would happen--that Professor Wentworth or some other scientist would
devise some means of repelling the invader before it was too late.

Young Jim Carter of _The York Press_ was not among them, however,
though he would have gambled it would be Professor Wentworth if
anyone. For what hope was there that any mere man could figure out a
weapon that would be effective against such a deadly, such a
superhuman foe?

Very little, it seemed, and he grew less and less sanguine, as he
continued his frenzied, sleepless work of reporting the unending
catastrophes for his paper.

He often thought bitterly of that ten thousand dollars. A lot of good
that would do him now!

As for Joan, she faced her fate with fortitude--fortitude and a
supreme faith that her father would succeed in analyzing that sinister
orange vapor and find the weapon the world waited for.

But agonizing days passed and he did not find it.

Then at last, on the night of August 14th, when Los Angeles and San
Francisco were smoldering infernos, along with Reno, Denver, Omaha, El
Paso and a score of other great American cities; when Buenos Aires and
Santiago were gone, Berlin and Peking and Cairo; when Australia was
all one fiery hell--then it was that Professor Wentworth summoned Jim
Carter to Hartford.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hoping against hope, he hurried over.

Once again, Joan ushered him into the house. She was very pale and did
not speak.

At her side stood her father. It was he who spoke.

"Good evening, Jim. You have come promptly."

His voice was strained, his face grave. He had aged greatly in the
past few weeks.

"Well I'll admit I clipped along. You've--found something?"

Professor Wentworth smiled wanly.

"Suppose you step into my study and see what I have found."

He led the way toward the little makeshift laboratory that for many
days and nights had been the scene of his efforts.

It was littered with strange devices now, strangest of all perhaps a
huge glass tube like a cannon, mounted on some sort of swivel base.

Ignoring this for the moment, he turned to a smaller tube set upright
on a table at the far end of the room. In it, glowed a sinister orange
lump that made the whole tube fluorescent.

"Behold one of your monsters in captivity!" said the professor, again
with a wan smile. "In miniature, of course. What I have done is to
condense some of that vapor into a solid."

The process, he explained, was similar to that employed by Madame
Curie in obtaining metallic radium--electrolyzing a radium chloride
solution with mercury as a cathode, then driving off the mercury by
heat in a current of hydrogen--only he had used the new element
instead of radium.

"Incidentally, I have learned that this new element is far more
radioactive than radium and possesses many curious properties. Among
them, it decomposes violently in water--particularly salt
water--producing harmless hydrogen and chloride compounds. So we have
nothing to fear from those seeds that fell in our oceans, lakes and

"Well, that's something, anyway," said Jim. "But have you found any
way to combat the ones that have already hatched?"

"Before I answer that question," Professor Wentworth replied, "I shall
let you witness a little demonstration."

He advanced to the cannon-like device at the other end of the room,
swung it on its swivel till it was pointing directly at that
fluorescent orange tube on the table.

"Watch closely!" he said, throwing a switch.

There was a sudden, whining hum in the air and the nib of the big tube
glowed a soft, velvety green. Jim gazed at the scene with rapt

"Don't look at that one!" whispered Joan. "Look at the other!"

Jim did so, and saw that its fluorescence was waning.

A moment more the professor held the current on, while the tube grew
white. Then he threw off the switch.

"Now let us have a look at our captive," he said, striding over.

They followed, and one glance told Jim what had happened. That
sinister lump of orange metal had vanished.

       *       *       *       *       *

But where was it? That was what he wanted to know.

"A natural question, but not one easy to answer," was Professor
Wentworth's reply. "I shall tell you what I have done; then you may
judge for yourself."

The cannon-like device which had accompanied the seeming miracle was
an adaptation of the cathode tube, whose rays are identical with the
beta rays of the atom and consist of a stream of negatively charged
particles moving at the velocity of light--186,000 miles a second.
These rays, in theory, have the power to combine with the positively
charged alpha rays of the atom and drag them from their electrons,
causing them to discharge their full quanta of energy at once, in the
form of complete disintegration--and it was this theory the professor
had acted on.

"But, good Lord--that's splitting the atom!" exclaimed Jim. "You don't
mean to say you've done that?"

"I apparently have," was the grave admission. "But do not let it seem
such a miracle. Bear in mind, as I have pointed out before, that
nature has accomplished this alchemy many times. All radio-active
elements are evidences of it. The feat consists merely in altering the
valence of the atom, changing its electric charge, in other words.
What I have done in the present instance is merely to speed up a
process nature already had under way, inasmuch as we are dealing with
a radio-active substance."

"But what has happened to the by-product of the reaction?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. I have not had time to study that
phase of it. Heat, mainly, was produced. Possibly a few atoms of
helium. But the substance is gone. That is our chief concern just

It was only after abandoning chemical means and turning to physics
that he had met with success, he said. Cathode rays had finally proved
the key to the riddle.

"But do you think this thing will work on a big scale?" asked Jim
regarding that fragile tube doubtfully.

Professor Wentworth hesitated before replying.

"I do not know," he admitted, "but I intend to find out--to-night."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jim looked at him in amazement. "To-night?"

"Yes. Or rather, the experiment will be at dawn. If successful, this
continent at least will be rid of the menace."

Jim's amazement turned to incredulity and a sudden fear gripped him.
Had the strain of the past few weeks unbalanced the professor's mind?

"But surely you can't hope to wipe them out with one tube. Why, it
would take hundreds."

"No, only one. You see, I am going to place the tube in the center of
the circle and direct its rays outward toward the circumference in a
swinging radius."

Whereupon, for a moment, Jim's fear seemed confirmed.

"But, good God!" he exclaimed. "It couldn't possibly be that powerful,
could it?"

"I think it can be made to be," was Professor Wentworth's grave
assurance. "The greatest power we know in the universe is radiant
energy, which reaches us from the sun and the stars, traveling at the
speed of light."

"Like light rays, these heat rays can be focused, directed; and the
beta rays of the cathode, traveling at the same velocity, can be made
to ride these rays of radiant heat much as electric power rides radio
waves. The giant, in short, can be made, to carry the dwarf, with his
deadly little weapon. That, at least, is the theory I am acting on."

This somewhat allayed Jim's fears--fears that vanished when the
professor went on to explain somewhat the working of his mechanism.

"But how are you going to get the thing out there?" he asked,
picturing with a shudder the center of the flaming hell.

"I imagine the War Department will provide me with a volunteer plane
and pilot for the purpose," was the calm reply.

"And you will go?"

"Yes, I will go."

Jim debated, but not for long.

"Well, you needn't trouble the War Department. Here's your volunteer
pilot! The plane's outside. When do we start?"

"But, my dear young man!" objected the professor. "I cannot permit you
to make this sacrifice. It is suicide, sheer suicide."

"Is my life any more precious than yours, or that of some volunteer
Army pilot?" Jim asked him.

"But there is Joan. If I fail--she must depend on you."

"If you fail, Professor, Joan won't need me or anyone, for long. No, I
go. So let's chuck the argument and get ready."

"Oh, Jimmy!" sobbed Joan. "Jimmy!"

But her eyes, as they met his mistily, were lit with a proud splendor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two hours later, Jim Carter's little auto-plane lifted into the night,
and, with that precious tube mounted above the cabin, winged swiftly

As on his former foray into that fiery realm, Jimmy timed his flight
to arrive over the eastern edge of the Arizona desert just before
dawn. Somewhere in that great sandy waste, they felt, there would be a
place to set the plane down and get the ray going.

Professor Wentworth had broadcast the particulars of his tube to his
scientific colleagues wherever humanity still remained, and the eyes
of the world were on this flight. If successful, swift planes would
bear similar tubes to the centers of the devastated regions elsewhere,
and sweep outward with their deadly rays. The earth would be rid of
this fiery invader. If it were not successful....

Jim preferred not to think of that, as he drove on into the night.

Crossing the Missouri River at dark and deserted Kansas City, they
soon saw the eastern arc of that deadly orange circle loom on the
horizon. To get over it safely, Jim rose to twenty thousand feet, but
even there the heat, as they sped across the frontier into enemy
territory, was terrific.

Anxiously he watched his revs and prayed for his motor to hold up. If
it stopped now, they were cooked!

The sturdy engine purred on with scarcely a flutter, however, and soon
they were behind the lines, in a region pitted with the smoldering
fires of towns and cities.

It made them shudder, it presented such an appalling panorama of ruin.
But at the same time, it strengthened their hope. For very few flares
of orange gleamed now among the red. The main forces of the invader
were at the front. That meant there should be a safe place to land

       *       *       *       *       *

An hour later, some miles beyond that weird glass citadel that had
been their objective, they found a wide stretch of empty desert, and
there Jim brought the little plane down to a faultless landing, just
as dawn was lightening the east.

Stepping out, he drew a deep breath of relief. For had he crashed, or
smashed that fragile tube, all would have been in vain.

"Well, here we are!" he exclaimed, grimly cheerful, as Professor
Wentworth stepped out after him. "Now let's--"

Then he broke off, horrified, as he saw another figure follow the
professor from the cabin.

"Joan!" he gasped.

"Present!" she replied.

"But, my daughter!" the professor's voice broke in. "My dear child!" A
sob shook him. "Why, why, this is--"

"Please don't let's talk about it!" she begged, giving his arm a
little pat. "I'm here and it can't be helped now. I was only afraid
you'd find me before it was too late and take me back."

Then, edging over to Jim and slipping her arm in his, she murmured:

"Oh, my dear! Don't you see I couldn't stay behind? I had to be with
you at the end, Jimmy, if--"

"It won't be!" he cried, pressing her cold hand. "It can't be!"

Then he turned to give his attention to her father, who had already
mounted to the cockpit and was working absorbedly over his mechanism
in the pale light of the coming day.

Any moment, Jim knew, those flaming termites might discover them, and
come swooping down. With keen eyes he scanned the horizon. No sign of
them yet.

"How are you up there?" he called.

"About ready," was the reply. "But I shall want more light than this
for my mirrors."

Tensely, counting the seconds, they waited for the sunrise....

       *       *       *       *       *

And now, as they waited, suddenly a sinister tinge of orange suffused
the rosy hues of the east.

"The Fire Ants!" cried Joan, shrinking. "They've seen us! They're

It was true, Jim saw with a heavy heart.

Turning to Professor Wentworth, he gasped out:

"Quick! We've got to do something! You've no idea how fast they move!"

"Very well." The professor's voice was strangely calm. "You may start
your motor. I shall do what I can. Though if we only had the sun--"

Jim leaped for the cabin.

A touch of the starter and the powerful engine came in. Braking his
wheels hard, to hold the plane on the ground, he advanced the throttle
as much as he dared, and sent a high-tension current surging through
the wires the professor had connected with his tube above.

Soon came that high, whining hum they had heard in the laboratory--a
thousand times magnified now--and the nib of the big tube glowed a
livid, eery green in the lemon dawn.

"Joan!" called her father sharply. "Get in the cabin with Jim!"

She did so, her eyes still fixed in horrified fascination on the
eastern horizon; and in that tense instant, she saw two things. First,
a great orange arc of fiery termites, bearing down on them; and
second, another arc, far greater--the vast saffron rim of the rising

Those two things Joan saw--and so did Jim--as their eardrums almost
burst with the stupendous vibration that came from the gun in the
cockpit. Then they saw a third, something that left them mute with

As Professor Wentworth swung his cannon ray upon that advancing horde,
it melted, vanished, leaving only the clear yellow of the morning
sunlight before their bewildered eyes.

       *       *       *       *       *

But the professor did not cease. For five minutes--ten, fifteen--he
swung that mighty ray around, stepping up its power, lengthening its
range, as it reached its invisible, annihilating arm farther and
farther out....

Meanwhile Jim was radio-phoning frantically. The air seemed strangely
full of static.

At last he got Overton of _The New York Press_.

"Carter speaking, out in Arizona," he said. "Getting any reports on
the ray?"

And back came the tremendous news:

"Results! Man, the world's crazy! They're gone--everywhere! Tell the
professor to lay off, before he sends us scooting too."

"Right!" said Jim, cutting his motor. "More later!"

And to Professor Wentworth he called:

"All right, that's enough! That ray was stronger than you knew!"

But there came no answer, and mounting to the wing-tip, Joan
following, Jim saw a sight that froze him with horror. They beheld the
professor, slumped against the tube, his whole body glowing a pale,
fluorescent green.

"Father!" screamed Joan, rushing to his side. "Oh, Father!"

The man stirred, motioned her away, gasped weakly:

"Do not touch me, child--until the luminosity goes. I am highly
radio-active. I had no time to--insulate the tube. No time to find out
how. Had to--hurry--"

His voice waned off and they knew he was dead. The two stood there
stunned by the realization of his great sacrifice.

He and Joan had set forth on this venture knowing they stood at least
a chance, thought Jim, but Professor Wentworth had known from the
start that it was sure death for him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The sun stood out above the eastern horizon like a huge gold coin,
bright with the promise of life to spend, when Jim and Joan took off
at last for the return home; but the radiance of the morning was
dimmed by the knowledge of the tragic burden they bore.

For some moments, as they winged on, both were silent.

"Look!" said Jim at length. "Look ahead, Joan!"

She looked, brightened somewhat.

"Yes, I see."

And after a moment, lifting her hazel eyes to his, she said. "Oh,
Jimmy, I'm sure it means happiness for us."

"Yes, I'm sure!"

She stirred, moved closer.

"Jimmy, you--you're all I have now."

He made no reply, save to press her trembling hand. But it was enough.

Silently, understandingly, they winged onward into the morning light.

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