Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931: VOL. VI, No. 2 - When Caverns Yawned by@astoundingstories

Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931: VOL. VI, No. 2 - When Caverns Yawned

Bells jangled discordantly. A whistle split the air with a piercing note. A band blared away on the platform. With a growing rumble of sound, the Presidential special slowly gathered headway. The President waved a final farewell to the crowds at the platform and sat down. He chatted cheerily with his companions until the train was clear of Charleston, then rose, and with a word to the others stepped into the car. Operative Carnes of the United States Service slumped back in his chair with a sigh of relief.
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Astounding Stories

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Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. VOL. VI, No. 2 - When Caverns Yawned

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From the bump on the side of the submarine came a flash of red light.

When Caverns Yawned

By Captain S. P. Meek

Bells jangled discordantly. A whistle split the air with a piercing note. A band blared away on the platform. With a growing rumble of sound, the Presidential special slowly gathered headway. The President waved a final farewell to the crowds at the platform and sat down. He chatted cheerily with his companions until the train was clear of Charleston, then rose, and with a word to the others stepped into the car. Operative Carnes of the United States Service slumped back in his chair with a sigh of relief.

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"Thank Goodness, that's over," he said. "I was never so glad to get him safely away from a place in my life."

Haggerty of the secret service nodded in agreement. Colonel Holmes, the military aide, looked up inquiringly.

"Why so? Do you think Charleston an especially dangerous place for him to be?"

"Not ordinarily. Charleston is a very patriotic and loyal city, but I have been worried. There have been vague rumors going around. Nothing definite that we could pin down, but enough to make me pretty uneasy."

"I think you've worried needlessly. I have been in constant touch with the Military Intelligence Division and they have reported nothing alarming."

Haggerty chuckled at the look of disgust that spread over Carnes' face. Colonel Holmes bridled visibly.

"Now look here, Carnes," he began.

"Oh, horse-feathers!" interrupted Carnes. "The M.I.D. is all right in its place—Good Lord! What's that?"

The train gave a sudden sickening lurch. Colonel Holmes sprawled in an undignified heap in one corner of the observation platform. Carnes and Haggerty kept their feet by hanging on to the rails. From the interior of the car came cries of alarm. The train righted itself for a moment and then lurched worse than before. There was a scream of brakes as the engineer strove to halt the forward progress. The train swayed and lurched like a ship in a storm. Carnes sprang for the telephone connected with the engine cab and rang excitedly.

"Hello, Bemis," he cried when an answer came: "take off the brakes! Keep moving at full speed, no matter what happens. What? Use your gun on him, man! Keep moving even if the train tips over!"

The train swayed and rocked worse than ever as it began to gather momentum. Carnes looked back along the track and gasped. For three hundred yards behind them, the track was sinking out of sight. The train forged ahead, but it was evident that it also was sinking into the ground. The track behind them suddenly gave. With a roar like a hundred buildings collapsing, it sank out of sight in a cloud of dust. The rear car of the train hung partially over the yawning cavern in the earth for an instant before the laboring engine dragged it to solid ground. The swaying and lurching grew less. For a mile it persisted to a slight degree. With a face the color of a sheet, Carnes made his way into the train. The President met him at the door.

"What's the trouble, Carnes?" he demanded.

"I am not sure, Mr. President. It felt like an earthquake. A great cavern opened in the earth behind us. Our train was almost trapped in it."

"An earthquake! We must stop the train at once and take charge of the situation. An emergency of that sort demands immediate attention."

"I beg you to do nothing of the sort, sir. Your presence would add little to the rescue work and your life is too precious to risk."

"But my duty to the people—"

"Is to keep yourself alive, sir! Mr. President, this may well be an attempt on your life. There are persons who would give anything to do away with you, especially at present. You have not endeared yourself to a certain class in calling for a conference of the powers to curb Russia's anti-religious tactics."

The President hesitated. He knew Carnes well enough to know that he usually spoke from accurate knowledge and with good judgment.

"Mr. President," went on the operative earnestly, "I am responsible to the American people for your safety. I beg you to follow my advice."

"Very well, Carnes," replied the President, "I'll put myself in your hands for the present. What is your program?"

"Your route is well known. Other attempts may be planned since this one failed. Let me have you transferred incognito to another train and hurried through to Washington secretly. I am going to drop off and go back. That earthquake needs to be looked into."

Again the President hesitated.

"My desertion of the stricken area will not be favorably regarded. If I sneak away secretly as though in fear, it will be bad for the public morale."

"We'll let the special go through. No one need know that you have left it."

"Well—I guess you're right. What are you going to do about it?"

"My first move will be to summon Dr. Bird from Washington."

"That's a good move. You'd better have him bring Dr. Lassen with him. Lassen is a great volcano and earthquake specialist, you know."

"I will, sir. If you will get ready to drop off at the next connecting point, I'll send Haggerty and Bemis with you. The rest of the party can remain on the special."

"All right, Carnes, if you insist."

Carnes went forward to the operator of the train's radio set. In half an hour the special came to a stop at a junction point and four men got off. Ten minutes later three of them climbed aboard another train which stopped for them. Carnes, the fourth man, hurried to a telephone. Fifteen minutes later he was talking to Dr. Bird at the latter's private laboratory in the Bureau of Standards.

"An earthquake, Carnes?" exclaimed the doctor as the operative described the happenings. "Wait a few minutes, will you?"

In five minutes he was back on the telephone.

"It was no earthquake, old dear, whatever it may have been. I have examined the records of all three of the Bureau's seismographs. None of them record even a tremor. What are you going to do?"

"Whatever you say, Doctor. I'm out of my depth already."

"Let me think a moment. All right, listen. Go back to Charleston as quickly as you can and get in touch with the commanding officer at Fort Moultrie. I'll have the Secretary of War telephone him and give him orders. Get troops and go to the scene of the catastrophe. Allow no one near it. Proclaim martial law if necessary. Stop all road and rail traffic within a radius of two miles. Arrest anyone trying to pass your guard lines. I'll get a plane from Langley Field and come down on the run. Is that all clear?"

"Perfectly, Doctor. By the way, the President suggested that you bring Dr. Lassen with you."

"Since it wasn't an earthquake, he wouldn't be of much value. However, I'll bring him if I can get hold of him. Now start things moving down there. I'll get some apparatus together and join you in five hours; six at the outside. Have a car waiting for me at the Charleston airport."

Carnes commandeered a passing car and drove back to Charleston. He made a wide sweep to avoid the disturbed area and went direct to Fort Moultrie. Dr. Bird had been good at his word. The troops were assembled in heavy marching order when the detective arrived. A few words to the commanding officer was sufficient to set the trucks loaded with soldiers in motion. Carnes, accompanied by the colonel and his staff, went direct to the scene of the catastrophe.

He found a hole in the ground, a hundred feet wide and a quarter of a mile long, sunk to a depth of fifty feet. He shuddered as he thought of what would have happened had the Presidential train been in the center of the devastated area instead of at the edge. The edges of the hole were ragged and sloping as though the earth had caved in to fill a huge cavern underground.

State and local authorities were already on the ground, striving to hold back sightseers. They were very glad to deliver their responsibility to the representative of the federal government. Carnes added their force to that of the military. In an hour a cordon of guards were stationed about the cavern while every road was picketed two miles away. Fortunately there had been no loss of life and no rescue work was needed. The earth-shaking had been purely a local matter, centered along the line of the railroad track.

There was nothing to do but wait, Carnes thought furiously. He had worked with Dr. Bird long enough to have a fair idea of the scientist's usual lines of investigation.

"The first thing he'll want to do is to explore that hole," he mused. "Probably, that'll mean some excavating. I'd better get a wrecking train with a crane on it and a steam shovel here. A gang of men with picks and shovels might be useful, too."

He hurried to the railroad officials. The sight of his gold badge had the desired result. Telegraph keys began to click and telephones to ring. Carnes was sorely tempted to explore the hole himself, but he resisted the temptation. Dr. Bird was not always pleasant when his colleagues departed from the orders he had given.

The morning passed, and the first part of the afternoon. Two wrecking trains stood with steam up at the edge of the hole. Grouped by the trains were a hundred negroes with shovels and picks. Carnes sat at the edge of the hole and stared down into it. He was roused from his reverie by the sound of a motor.

From the north came an airplane. High over the hole it passed, and then swerved and descended. On the under side of the wings could be seen the insignia of the Air Corps. Carnes jumped to his feet and waved his hat. Lower came the plane until it roared across the cavern less than a hundred feet above the ground. Two figures leaned out and examined the terrain carefully. Carnes waved again. One of the figures waved a hand in reply. The plane rose in the air and straightened out toward Charleston.

"We'll have the doctor here in a few minutes now," said Carnes to the Colonel. "It might be a good plan to send a motorcycle out along the Charleston road to bring him in. We don't want the guards to delay him."

The colonel gave an order and a motorcycle shot off down the road. In half an hour it came sputtering back with a huge Cadillac roaring in its wake. The car drew up and stopped. From it descended two men. The first was a small, wizened figure with heavy glasses. What hair age had left to him was as white as snow. The second figure, which towered over the first, was one to merit attention anywhere.

Dr. Bird was as light on his feet and as quick and graceful as a cat, but there was nothing feline about his appearance. He stood well over six feet in his stockings and tipped the beam close to the two hundred mark. Not one ounce of fat was on his huge frame. So fine was he drawn that unless one looked closely he would never suspect the weight of bone and muscle that his unobtrusive tweed suit covered. Piercing black eyes looked out from under shaggy brows. His face was lean and browned, and it took a second glance to realize the tremendous height and breadth of his forehead. A craggy jutting chin spoke of stubbornness and the relentless following up of a line of action determined on. His head was topped with an unruly shock of black hair which he tossed back with a hand that commanded instant attention.

His hands were the most noteworthy thing about the famous Bureau scientist. Long slender hands, they were, with slim tapering fingers—the hands of an artist and a dreamer. The acid stains that marred them could not hide their slim beauty, yet Carnes knew that those hands had muscles like steel wire and that the doctor boasted a grip that could crush the hand of a professional wrestler. He had seen him tear a deck of playing cards in half and, after doubling, again in half, with as little effort as the ordinary man would use in tearing a bare dozen of the cards. As he climbed out of the car his keen black eyes swept around in a comprehensive glance. Carnes, trained observer that he was, knew that in that one glance every essential detail which it had taken him an hour to place had been accurately noted and stored away in the doctor's mind. He came forward to the detective.

"Has anything happened since you telephoned me?" was his first question.

"Nothing, Doctor. I followed your instructions and also assembled a crew of men with excavating tools."

"You're improving, Carnes. This is Dr. Lassen. This is a little out of your line. Doctor, but you may see something familiar. What does it look like to you?"

"Not like an earthquake, Bird, at all events. Offhand I would say that a huge cavern had been washed in the earth and the ground had caved in."

"It looks that way. If you are right, we should find running water if we dig deep enough. Have you been down in the hole, Carnes?"

"No, Doctor."

"Then that's the first thing to do. You have ropes, of course?"

Carnes called to the waiting gang of negroes and a dozen of these hurried up with ropes. Dr. Bird slung a rope around his body under his arms and was lowered into the hole. The rope slackened as he reached bottom. Carnes lay on his stomach and looked over the edge. Dr. Bird was gingerly picking his way across the ground. He turned and called up.

"Carnes, you and Lassen can come down if you care to."

In a few minutes the detective and the volcanologist joined him in the cavern. The top surface of the ground was rolled up into waves like the sea. The sides of the hole were almost sheer. The naked rock was exposed for thirty feet. Above the rock could be seen the subsoil, and then the layer of top soil and vegetation. Dr. Bird was carefully examining the rock wall.

"What do you make of these, Lassen?" he asked, pointing to a row of horizontal striations in the rock. The volcanologist studied them.

"They might be water marks but if so they are different from any that I have seen before," he said doubtfully. "It looks as though some force had cut the rock away in one sharp stroke."

"Exactly. Notice this yellow powder on the ridges. Water would have washed it away."

Dr. Bird stepped forward to the wall and idly attempted to pick up a pinch of the yellow powder he had referred to in his fingers. He gave an exclamation of surprise as he did so. The powder was evidently fast to the wall. He drew his knife from his pocket and pried at the stuff. It fell readily. He scraped again and caught a speck of the falling powder in his hand. He gave a cry of surprise, for his hand sank as though borne down by a heavy weight. With an effort he lifted his hand and examined the substance.

"Come here, Carnes," he said. "Hold your hand up to catch some of this powder as I scrape it off."

The detective held up his hand. Dr. Bird pried with his knife and a shower of dull yellow particles fell. Carnes' hand sank as though the bits of dust had been a lead bar. He placed his other hand under it and with an effort lifted both hands up a few inches.

"What on earth is this stuff, Doctor?" he cried. "It's as heavy as lead."

"It's a great deal heavier than lead, Carnesy, old dear. I don't know what it is. I am inclined to think you did a wise thing when you sent for me. Lassen, take a look at this stuff. Did you ever run into anything like it?"

The aged volcanologist shook his head. The yellow powder was something beyond his ken.

"I have been poking around volcanos all my life," he said, "and I have seen some queer things come out of the ground—but nothing like that."

Dr. Bird poked tentatively at the substance for a moment, his brow furrowed in lines of thought. He suddenly threw back his shoulders in a gesture of decision.

"Send a gang of excavators down here," he cried. "Never mind the power shovel at present."

Down the ropes swarmed the gang of negroes. Dr. Bird indicated an area at one end of the cavern and directed them to dig. The blacks flew to work with a will. The top soil and subsoil were rapidly tossed into buckets and hauled to the surface. When bare rock lay before them, the negroes ceased their efforts.

"What next, Doctuh, suh?" asked the foreman.

"Get dynamite!" cried the doctor. "If I'm right, this underground cavern is entered by a tunnel. We'll blast away this caved-in rock until we locate it."

Then occurred a strange thing.

"There is no need to go to that trouble, Dr. Bird," spoke a metallic voice, from nowhere, it seemed. The negroes looked at one another. Picks and shovels fell from nerveless hands.

"Your guess about a tunnel is correct, Doctor," went on the Voice. "There is a tunnel leading away from the spot where you are, but to find the end would be useless to you. I have prepared for that."

From the blacks came a low moan of fear.

"Ha'nts!" cried one of them. The cry was taken up and spread into a rolling chorus of fear. With one accord they dropped their tools and stampeded in a mad rush toward the dangling ropes. Carnes sprang forward to stop them.

"Let them go, Carnes!" cried the doctor. "Their work is done for the present. Let's locate that radio receiver."

"That also will be a useless search. Doctor," spoke up the Voice again. "I have perfected a transmitter which will send my voice through space and make it audible without the aid of the clumsy apparatus you depend on. I am also able to see you through the miles of intervening rock without the aid of any instruments at your end."

"I presume that you can hear me as well?"

"Certainly, Doctor. To save you trouble—and I dislike to see you waste the efforts of your really good brain on minor problems—I will tell you that your surmise is correct. A tunnel does lead both to and from the place where you stand. It twists and turns so that even you would be puzzled to plot a general direction. You would have to follow it inch by inch. If you tried that, naturally I would cause it to collapse before you, or on top of you, if you got too close. Be content with what you have seen and seek a better way to trace me."

"Who are you, anyway?" blurted out Carnes.

"Is it possible that you do not know? Such is fame. I thought that at least my friend Mr. Carnes would suspect that Ivan Saranoff had done this."

"But you're dead!" protested the detective. "We killed you when we destroyed your helicopter."

"You killed merely an assistant who had disobeyed my orders. Had I not decreed his death, he would be alive to-day. I could kill you as you stand there; resolve you into nothingness; but I do not choose to do so—yet. Other attempts I have made you have frustrated, but this time I shall succeed. I will institute a reign of terror which will bring your rich, foolish country to its knees. Listen, while I give you a taste of my power. The city of Charleston is about to be destroyed."

A thunderous roaring filled the air. Crash followed crash in rapid succession. It sounded as though all the noise of the universe had been concentrated in the cavern. The earth shook and rocked like a restless sea. From above came cries of terror.

The three men in the cavern were thrown to the ground. Shaken by the fall and deafened by the tumult, they hung onto irregularities of the rock on which they lay. Gradually the tumult and the shaking subsided. The cries from above became more apparent. Silence finally reigned in the cavern and the metallic Voice spoke again.

"Go back now and look at Charleston and you will see what to expect. The rest of your cities will soon share the same fate. Beware of trying to trace my movements, for your lives are in the hollow of my hand."

The voice died away in silence. From the edge of the hole came a cry. A Fort Moultrie officer was peering down at them.

"Are you all right down there?" he hailed.

"Right as hops," called Dr. Bird cheerfully. "What happened up above?"

"I don't know, Doctor. There seems to be a lot of smoke and fire over in the direction of the city. I expect the quake shook them up a little this time. What shall we do now?"

"We're ready to come up. First I'm going to send up a wheelbarrow full of yellow powder. Rig a crane to lift it, for it's too heavy to try to hoist with ropes."

With the aid of Carnes and Dr. Lassen, Dr. Bird collected a few cubic inches of the yellow powder from the ridges in the rock. He made the wheelbarrow containing it fast to the wire cables of the crane and gave the signal. Slowly it was raised to the surface. When it had safely reached there he turned to his companions.

"Grab a rope and let's go," he said.

In a few moments they were on the upper level. With the efforts of half a dozen men, the body of the wheelbarrow was lifted into the car. With a few final words of instruction to the colonel, Dr. Bird and his companions entered the car and were whisked away to the city.

A spectacle of destruction and ruin awaited them. Fully one-fourth of the city had sunk thirty feet into the ground. The sinking was not even nor uniform. The sunken ground was rolled into huge waves while buildings which had collapsed lay in confused heaps on all sides. From a dozen places in the area, columns of fire rose in the air.

Dr. Bird wasted little time on the scene before him. His car skirted the edge of the huge hole and took the road toward the Charleston airport, which was in a section which had suffered little. In half an hour the army transport roared into the air carrying Dr. Bird's precious load of yellow powder. Four hours later they dropped to a landing at Langley Field.

"Now, Carnes," said the doctor as they debarked from the plane, "there is work ahead. It may be too late to do much to-night, but we have no time to waste. Get Bolton on the wire and tell him that we have positive evidence that Saranoff is still alive and still up to his devil's tricks. Start every man of the secret service and every Department of Justice agent that can be spared on the trail. He can't live underground all the time, and you ought to get on his tracks somehow. I'm going up to the laboratory and see what I can do with this stuff. Report to me there to-morrow morning."

Carnes hurried away. Bolton, the chief of the United States Secret Service, had long ago recovered from any professional jealousy he had ever felt of Dr. Bird. The doctor's message that Ivan Saranoff, the arch-enemy of society, the head of the Young Labor party, the unofficial chief of the secret Soviet forces in the United States, was alive and again in the field against law and order was enough to set in motion every force that he controlled. Waving aside precedent and crashing his way past secretaries, he set in motion not only the agents of the Department of Justice but also the post-office forces and the specialized but highly efficient Military and Naval Intelligence Divisions. The telephone and telegraph wires from Washington were kept busy all night carrying orders and bringing in reports. But despite all this activity, it was with a disappointed face that Operative Carnes sought the doctor in the morning.

Dr. Bird was in his private laboratory on the third floor of the Bureau of Standards. When Carnes entered he was seated in a chair at his desk. His black eyes shone out from a chalky face like two burned holes in a blanket. Carnes started at the appearance of utter weariness presented by the famous scientist. Dr. Bird straightened up and squared his shoulders as the detective entered.

"Any luck, Carnes?" he asked eagerly.

"None at all, Doctor. We haven't been able to get a single trace of his corporeal existence since that submarine was destroyed off the Massachusetts coast. All we have is Karuska's word that he is still alive."

"We heard his voice yesterday."

"His or another's."

"True. Have you set in motion every agency that the government has?"

"Every one. Either Bolton or I have talked to the Chief of Police in every large city in the United States and Canada. Every known member of the Young Labor party who is above the mere rank and file is under close surveillance."

"Good enough. Keep at it and you'll trace him eventually. As soon as I get a few quarts of black coffee into my system, I'll start another line of search going."

"What did you find out last night?"

"I found that our seismograph recorded the Charleston disaster. It was merely a faint jog, about what should be caused by a severe landslide. The disaster did not affect the earth's crust, but was purely local. That gives me a clue to his method."

"I described the affair to Bolton and he suggested that it might be caused by a disintegrating ray."

Dr. Bird snorted. "When will people learn that there is not, and in the nature of things never can be, a disintegrating ray?" he exclaimed. "Of course a ray can be made which will tear things down to their constituent elements, but matter is indestructible, and the idea of wiping matter out of existence is absurd."

"But I have heard you say that matter and energy were interchangeable."

"That is a different proposition. I believe they are. In fact, if you remember, Carmichael proved it, although the proof was lost at his death. Nothing of the sort was done at Charleston, however. Do you know how much energy is contained in matter? Well, a cubic inch of copper would drive the largest ship afloat around the world twice, and across the Atlantic to boot. The energy contained in the cubic yards of rock that were removed under Charleston would have blown the world to fragments."

"Then what did happen?"

"Matter, as you know, is composed of atoms. These atoms are as far from one another, compared to their size, as the stars and planets of the universe. Each atom in turn is composed of electrons, negative particles of electrical energy, held in position about a fixed central nucleus of positive electricity known as a proton. I speak now of the simplest element. Most of them have many protons and electrons in their make-up. The space between these particles compared with their size is such that the universe would be crowded in comparison."

"What does that lead to?"

"I have described the composition of lead, the densest known element, over thirteen times as heavy as water, bulk for bulk. Conceive what it would mean if some force could compress together these widely separated particles until they touched. The resulting substance would be an element of almost inconceivable density. Such a condition is approached in the stars, some of which are as high as four thousand times as dense as the earth. What Saranoff has done is to find some way of compressing together the atoms into that yellow powder which we found in the cavern. He has not gone to the limit, for the stuff is only a little over four thousand times as dense as water. A cubic inch of it weighs one hundred and thirty-two pounds. With its density increased to that extent, the volume is reduced accordingly. That was what accounted for those caverns into which the earth tumbled."

"I'll believe you, Doctor," replied the detective; "but I'd believe you just as quickly if you swore that the moon was made of cream cheese made from the milk taken from the milky way. One would be just as understandable to me as the other."

They were interrupted by the entrance of a waiter who bore a huge pot of steaming coffee. Dr. Bird's eyes lighted up as a cup was poured. Carnes knew enough not to interrupt while the doctor poured and drank eight cups of the strong black fluid. As he drank, the lines of fatigue disappeared from the scientist's face. He sat up as fresh as though he had not been working at high pressure the entire night.

"Dr. Fisher tells me that the amount of caffeine I drink would kill a horse," he said with a chuckle; "but sometimes it is needed. I feel better now. Let's get to work."

"What shall we do?"

"Despite Saranoff's words, it must be possible to trace him. He is undoubtedly releasing his energy from some form of subterranean borer, and such a thing can be located. The energy he uses must set up electrical disturbances which instruments will detect. I have had work started on a number of ultra-sensitive wave detectors which will record any wave-length from zero to five millimeters. We'll send them to various points along the seacoast. They ought to pick up the stray waves from the energy he is using to blast a path through the earth. I'm not going to bother with the waves from his motor; they may be of any wave-length, and there would be constant false alarms. I have another idea."

"What is it?"

"I am judging Saranoff from his previous actions. You remember that he used a submarine in that alien-smuggling scheme the Coast Guard broke up, and also when he loosed that sea monster on the Atlantic shipping? He seems to be rather fond of submarines."

"Well?"

"The amount of energy he uses must be almost inconceivable," Dr. Bird went on. "He can hardly carry an amount of fuel which will enable him to bore underground for very many miles, Charleston is on the coast. I have an idea that he uses a submarine to transport his borer from point to point. After using the borer he must return to the submarine for recharging and transportation to the point where he plans to strike next. I already have two hundred planes scouring the sea looking for such a craft."

"Where do you expect him to strike next?"

"I have no idea. New York and Washington will undoubtedly be targets eventually, but neither of them may be next. Meanwhile, would you like to do a little more flying?"

"Surely."

"A plane is waiting for us at Langley Field. I want to look over the coast in the vicinity of Charleston Harbor and some of the sounds near there. If he is using a sub, he must have a base somewhere."

With a competent pilot at the stick, Carnes and the Doctor spent the day in exploring. The day yielded no results, and with the coming of dusk they landed at Savannah for the night. Carnes talked with Bolton over the telephone, but the secret service chief could report no favorable progress. Tired and disgusted, they retired early, but they were not destined to enjoy a night of uninterrupted sleep. At one o'clock a telegram was brought to their room. Dr. Bird tore it open and glanced sleepily at it.

"Get up, Carnes," he cried sharply. "Read this!"

The yawning detective glanced at the telegram. It contained only two words and a signature. It was signed "Ivan," and read simply, "Watch Wilmington."

"What the dickens?" he exclaimed as he studied the yellow slip. Dr. Bird was hurriedly pulling on his clothes.

"Saranoff has slipped a cog this time," said the doctor. "He sent that as a night message, but it was delivered as a straight message through error. He has got further north than I expected. We will turn out our pilot and take off. We should make Wilmington by daybreak. I'll telephone Washington and have a couple of destroyers started up Delaware Bay at once. We ought to give him a first class surprise party. I suppose that Philadelphia was meant to be his next stop."

In an hour the army plane took off into the night. At seven o'clock they were circling over Wilmington. The city had not been disturbed. For an hour they flew back and forth before they landed. Startling news awaited them. At six that morning an earthquake had struck Wilmington, North Carolina. Half the town had sunk into the earth. Dr. Bird struck his brow with his clenched fist.

"Score one for the enemy," he said grimly. "We were too sure of ourselves, Carnes. We should have realized that he would hardly be so far north yet. Well, I've got to use the telephone while we're refueling."

Within an hour after landing they were again in the air One o'clock found them over the stricken city. Dr. Bird wasted no time on Wilmington but headed north along the coast. For a hundred miles he skirted the shore, two miles out. With an exclamation of disappointment he ordered the pilot to turn the plane and retrace his route southward, keeping ten miles from the shore. Fifty miles south he ordered the plane further out and again turned north. From time to time they passed a ship of the air patrol which was steadily skirting the coast, but none of them had seen a submarine. Off Cape Hatteras the pilot asked for orders.

"The gas is running low. Doctor," he said. "I think we had better put in somewhere and refuel. If we are going to keep the air much longer, you had better get a relief pilot. I have been flying for thirty hours out of the last thirty-six and I'm about done."

"Head back for Washington," said the doctor with a sigh. "I seem to have gone off on a false scent."

At Cape Charles the pilot swung east over Chesapeake Bay. Hardly had he turned than Dr. Bird gave a cry. Excitedly he pointed toward the water. Carnes grasped a pair of binoculars and looked in the direction Dr. Bird was indicating. Sliding along under the water was a long cigar-shaped shadow.

"It's a submarine!" exclaimed Carnes. "Is it a navy ship or the one we're after?"

"It's no navy sub," said the doctor positively. "It's not the right shape. Look at that bump on the side!"

The symmetry of the craft was marred by a huge projection on one side that could not be explained by the pattern of any known type of under-water craft.

"He's towing the borer!" cried the doctor in exultation. He took up the speaking tube. "Turn back to sea!" he cried. "We passed four destroyers less than ten miles out. We want to get in touch with them."

The plane roared out to sea while Dr. Bird feverishly sounded the "Alnav" call on the radio sending set. In a few minutes an answer came. From their point of vantage they could see flags break out at the peak of the destroyer leader. The four ships turned into column formation and stormed at full speed into the bay. The plane raced ahead to guide them.

"We've got him this time, Doctor!" cried Carnes in exultation. He pointed to the bay below where the submarine was still making its way slowly forward. Dr. Bird shook his head.

"I hope so," he said, "but I have my doubts. Saranoff is no fool. He wouldn't walk into a trap like this unless he had some means of escape. Here comes the first destroyer. We'll soon know the truth."

With the radio set he directed the oncoming boat. The destroyer reduced to half speed and changed direction slightly. From side to side she maneuvered until she was less than half a mile behind the submarine and headed straight for it. Dr. Bird tapped a few words on his key. With a belch of smoke,the destroyer lurched forward. She cut the waters with her sharp bow, throwing up a wave higher than her decks. Dr. Bird watched anxiously.

The destroyer was almost over the submarine and Dr. Bird's fingers trembled on the key. One word from him would send a half dozen depth charges into the water. On came the destroyer until it was directly over the underseas craft. Dr. Bird pounded his key rapidly.

"Good Lord!" cried Carnes.

From the bump on the side of the submarine came a flash of red light. The destroyer staggered for a moment, and the entire central section of the ill-fated ship disappeared. The bow and stern came together with a rush and went down in a swirling maelstrom of water. The plane lurched in the air as a thundering crash rose from the sea.

The second destroyer, in no way daunted by the fate of her colleague, rushed to the attack. Dr. Bird pounded his key frantically in an attempt to turn her back. His message was too late or was misunderstood. Straight over the submarine went the second ship. Again came the red flash. The forward half of the destroyer disappeared and the stern slid down into a huge hole which had opened in the water.

"He's invulnerable!" cried the doctor. He pounded his key with feverish rapidity. The two remaining destroyers slackened speed and veered off. Slowly, as though loath to turn their backs on the enemy, they headed out for the broad Atlantic and comparative safety.

The submarine went slowly on her way. She did not turn west at the mouth of the Potomac but continued on up the bay. As long as there was light enough, the doctor's plane kept above her but the fading light soon made it impossible to see her. When she had disappeared from view, the doctor reluctantly gave the word to return to Washington.

"Where do you suppose he will attack next, Doctor?" asked Carnes when they sat again in the doctor's private laboratory.

"Washington, of course," said Dr. Bird absently as he looked up from a pile of telegrams he was running through.

"Why Washington?"

"Use your head. Representatives of every civilized power are in Washington now at the President's invitation to consider means of halting the anti-religious activities of the Soviets. The destruction of the city and the killing of these men would be a telling blow for Russia to strike."

"But, Doctor, you don't think—"

"Excuse me, Carnes; that will keep. Let me read these telegrams."

For half an hour silence reigned in the laboratory. Dr. Bird laid down the last message with a sigh.

"Carnes," he said, "I'm check-mated. I sent out a hundred ultra-sensitive short wave receivers yesterday. Four of them were located within fifty miles of Wilmington, North Carolina. One of these four was destroyed, but none of the others detected a sign of a wave during the attack. One of them was within a hundred feet of the edge of the hole. If he isn't using a ray of some sort, what on earth is he using?"

"It looked like a flash of red light when it came from the submarine."

"Yes, but it couldn't be light. Let me think."

The doctor sat for a few minutes with corrugated brows. Suddenly he sprang to his feet.

"I deserve to be beaten," he cried. "Why didn't I think of that possibility before?"

He hurried into his laboratory and brought out a small box with a glass front. From the top projected a spike topped with a ball. Through the glass, Carnes could see a thin sheet of metal hanging pendant from the spike.

"An electroscope," explained the doctor. "That sheet of metal is really two sheets of gold-leaf, at present stuck together. If I rub a piece of hard rubber with a woolen cloth, the rod will become charged with static electricity. If I then touch the ball with it, the charge is transferred to the electroscope and causes the two sheets of gold-leaf to stand apart at an angle. Watch me."

He took a hard rubber rod and rubbed it briskly on his coat sleeve. As he touched the ball of the electroscope the sheets of gold-leaf separated and stood apart at a right angle.

"As long as the air remains non-conducting, the two bits of gold-leaf will hold that position. The air, however, is not a perfect insulator and the charge will gradually leak off. If I bring a bit of radioactive substance, for instance, pitchblende, near the electroscope, the charge will leak rapidly. Do you understand?"

"Yes, but how is that going to help us?"

"Saranoff is accomplishing his result by artificially compressing the atoms. It is inevitable that he will do it imperfectly, and some electrons will be loosened and escape. These electrons, traveling up through the earth will make the air conducting. To-morrow we will have a means of locating the borer under ground."

"Once you locate it, how will you fight it?"

"That is the problem I must work out to-night."

"Could we bury a charge of explosive and blow it up?"

"Ordinary explosives would be useless," the doctor answered. "They would react in the same manner as other substances, and would be rendered harmless. Radite might do the work if it could be placed in the path, but it couldn't be. We may locate the position and depth of the borer, but long before we could dig and blast a hole deep enough to place a charge of radite before it, it would have passed on or changed direction. No, Carnes, old dear, the only solution that I can see is to turn his own guns on him. If I can, before morning, duplicate his device, we can train it on the spot where he is and reduce him and his machine to a pinch of yellow powder."

"Can you do it, Doctor?"

"What one man's brain can device, another man's brain can duplicate. The only question is that of time. I am confident that Saranoff will attack Washington to-morrow. If I can do the job to-night, we may save the city. If not—At any rate, Carnes, your job will be to see that the President and all of the heads of the government are out of the city by morning. The President may refuse to leave. Knowing him as I do, I rather expect he will."

"In that case, the issue is in the hands of the gods. Now get out of here. I want to work. Report back at daybreak with a car."

Dr. Bird turned back to his laboratory.

"He must be using a ray of some sort, possibly a radium emanation," he muttered to himself. "That would have no wave motion and might accomplish the result, although I would expect the exact opposite from it. The first thing to do is to examine that powder with a spectroscope and see if I can get a clue to the electronic arrangement."

When Carnes arrived at the Bureau of Standards at dawn be rubbed his eyes in astonishment. The buildings were lighted up and the grounds swarmed with workmen. Before the buildings were lined up a dozen trucks and twice that many touring cars. A cordon of police held back the curious. Carnes' gold badge won him an entrance and he hurried up the stairs to Dr. Bird's laboratory. The doctor's face was drawn and haggard, but his eyes glowed with a feverish light. Workmen were carrying down huge boxes.

"What's up, Doctor?" demanded the detective.

"Oh, you got here at last, did you? You're just in time. If you'd been fifteen minutes later, you would have found us gone."

"Gone where?"

"Out into Maryland in an attempt to stop Saranoff in his progress toward Washington."

"Have you found your means of combating him?"

"I hope so, although it is not what I started out to get. Did you bring a car as I told you?"

"It's waiting below."

"Good enough. I'll go in it. Williams, are those projectors all loaded?"

"Yes, Dr. Bird. The magnet will be ready to go in five minutes. The electroscopes and the other light stuff are all loaded and ready to move."

"You have done well. I'll let you bring the trucks and heavy equipment while I go ahead with the instruments. Take the road out toward Upper Marlboro. If I don't meet you before, stop there for orders."

"Very well, Doctor."

"Come on, Carnes, let's go."

He raced down the stairs with the detective at his heels. He went along the line of touring cars and spoke briefly to the drivers. He climbed into the car which Carnes had brought. As it started the other cars fell in behind it. At a speed of forty miles an hour, with a detachment of motorcycle police leading the van, the cavalcade rolled out through the deserted streets of Washington. Once clear of the city, the speed was increased.

"Did you persuade the President to leave?" asked the doctor.

"There wasn't a chance. The papers panned him so much for following my advice at Charleston that he has turned stubborn. He says that if all the forces of the government can't protect him against one man, he is willing to die."

"We've got to save him," said Dr. Bird grimly. "Hello, there's the Chesapeake ahead."

The doctor studied the country.

"We are about opposite the place where we left that sub last night. I fancy that Saranoff will operate from there, for it didn't move during the last half hour we watched it. We'll go back inland a mile or two and spread out. I have no idea how far his radiations will affect the electroscopes, but we'll try four hundred-yard intervals to start. That will enable us to cover a line twelve miles long."

He picked up a megaphone and spoke to the line of cars behind him.

"Take up four hundred yard intervals when we spread out," he said. "Every man keep his headphone on and listen for orders. Follow my car until it stops, then turn north and south and drop your men at intervals."

He reentered the car and led the way back for two miles. He halted his car at a crossroad. The cars following him turned and went to the north and south. Besides Carnes and the doctor, the car held two men from the Bureau. As they climbed out, Carnes saw that one of them carried a portable radio sending set, while the other bore an electroscope and a rubber rod. The radio operator set up his device, while the other man rubbed his coat sleeve briskly with the hard rubber and then touched the ball of the electroscope with it. The two bits of gold-leaf spread out.

"While we're waiting, I'll explain something of this to you, Carnes," said the doctor. "At four hundred-yard intervals are men with electroscopes like this one. My attempt to locate Saranoff by means of wave detectors was a failure. That proved that the ray he was using is not of the wave type. The other common ray is the cathode ray type which does not consist of vibrations but of a stream of electrons, negative particles of electricity, traveling in straight lines of high velocity. He must be knocking loose some of the electrons when he collapses the atoms. The rate of discharge of these electroscopes will give us a clue to the nearness of his device."

"Once you locate him, how do you propose to attack him?"

"The obvious method, that of using his own ray against him, fell down. However, in attempting to produce it, I stumbled on another weapon which may be equally effective. I am going to try to use an exact opposite of his ray. The cathode ray, when properly used, will bombard the atoms and knock electrons loose. I perfected last night a device on which I have been working for months. It is a super-cathode ray. I tested it on the yellow powder and find that I can successfully reverse Saranoff's process. He can contract matter together until it occupies less than one one-thousandth of its original volume. My ray will destroy this effect and restore matter to something like its original condition."

"And the effect will be?"

"Use your imagination. He blasts out a hole by condensing the rock to a pinch of yellow powder. He moves forward into the hole he has made. I come along and reverse his process. The yellow powder expands to its original volume and the hole he has made ceases to exist. What must happen to the foreign body which had been introduced into the hole that is no longer a hole?"

Carnes whistled.

"At any rate, I hope that I am never in a hole when that happens."

"And I devoutly hope that Saranoff is. I met with one difficulty. My ray will not penetrate the depth of solid rock which separates his borer from the surface."

"Then how will you reach him to crush him? You don't expect to drill down ahead of him?"

"That is my stroke of genius, Carnes. I am going to make him bore the hole down which my ray will travel to accomplish his destruction. The cathode ray and rays of that type—"

"Pardon me, Doctor," interrupted the radio operator. "I have just received a message from the squadron leader of the planes patrolling the bay. He states that every inch of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River have been examined and no submarine is visible."

"I expected that. He will have opened a cavern under the earth, in which his craft is safe from aerial observation. Once the borer has left it, it is invulnerable no longer."

"What reply shall I make?"

"Tell him to keep up a constant patrol. Three navy subs with radite-charged torpedos are on their way up the bay, together with half a dozen destroyers. The subs will scout for such a hole as I have described and will attack his sub if they find it. The destroyers will stand by and support them."

The operator turned to his instrument. The electroscope observer claimed the doctor's attention.

"There is a steady leak here, Doctor," he said. "I get a discharge in eleven minutes."

"Probably a result of his work in opening the hiding place for his submarine last night. Keep it charged, Jones."

"What did you say about the cathode ray, Doctor?" asked Carnes.

"The cathode ray? Oh, yes. I said that rays of that type were attracted by—Hello, look there!"

From a point a mile to the north a ball of red fire streaked up into the air. A moment later similar signals rose from other watchers in the line.

"It works, Carnes!" cried the doctor as he rushed for the car. "We've got him this time!"

The car raced along the road. At the first man who had signalled, it slackened speed. The doctor leaned out.

"What is your discharge rate?" he called.

"Eight minutes. Doctor."

The car rolled on. Dr. Bird repeated the question at the next post and was told that the electroscope there was losing its charge in seven minutes. The next man reported four minutes and the next man, one minute. The following station reported three minutes.

"It's right along here somewhere!" cried the doctor. "Summon everyone to this point and take up twenty-yard intervals."

From the north and south the cars came racing in. The instruments were spread out along a new line twenty yards apart. As the borer was located the intervals were decreased to fifteen feet. Dr. Bird thrust a long white rod into the ground.

"His path lies under here," he said. "Into the cars and go back a mile and test again."

The borer was making slow progress, and it was half an hour before Dr. Bird drove the second stake in the ground. With a transit he took the bearing of the path and laid it out on a large scale map.

"We'll stop him between Marr and Ritchie," he announced. "Jones, I am going back and set up my apparatus. Keep track of his movements. If he changes direction, let me know at once."

The doctor's car tore off to the west. Near Upper Marlboro, he met the convoy of trucks and led them to the selected spot. The trucks were unloaded and the apparatus laid out. Attached to a huge transformer were a dozen strange-looking projectors. What puzzled Carnes most was a huge built-up steel bar wound about with heavy cable. Dr. Bird had this bar erected on a truck and located it with great exactness. The projectors were set up in a battery just east of the bar.

"How about power?" asked the doctor.

"We'll have it in five minutes," replied one of the men. "A power transmission line carrying twenty-two thousand passes within two hundred yards of here. We are phoning now to have the power cut off. As soon as the line is dead we'll cut it and bring the ends here."

The electrician was good at his word. In five minutes the power line had been cut and cables spliced to the ends. The cables were brought to the doctor's apparatus and the main lines were rigged to the ends of the cable wound around the bar. In parallel on taps, the projectors were connected. Huge oil-switches were placed in both lines.

"All ready, Doctor," reported the electrician.

"Good work, Avent. He'll be here soon, I fancy."

A car whirled up and a man leaped out with a surveyor's rod. He set it up on the ground while a companion watched through binoculars. He moved it a hundred yards to the north and then back twenty. When he was satisfied he turned to Dr. Bird.

"The direction of movement has not changed," he said. "The path will pass under this stake."

Under the doctor's supervision, the truck carrying the bar moved forward until it stood over the surveyor's stake. The battery of projectors moved to a new location a few feet east of the rod. Other cars came racing up.

"He's less than half a mile away, Doctor!" cried Jones.

"Get your electroscopes out and spot him a hundred yards from this truck."

"Very well, Doctor."

The men with the instruments spread out along the path of the borer. Briskly they rubbed their sleeves with the rubber rods and charged their instruments. Almost as fast as they charged them, the tiny bits of gold-leaf collapsed together. Presently the man on the end of the line shouted.

"Maximum discharge!" he cried.

Dr. Bird looked around. Every man stood ready at his post. The next man signalled that the borer was under him. Carnes felt himself trembling. He did not know what the doctor was about to do, but he felt that the fate of America hung in the balance. Whether it remained free or became the slave of Soviet Russia would quickly be decided.

Slowly the borer made its way forward. With a pale face, Jones signalled the news that it had reached the point the doctor had indicated. Dr. Bird raised his hand.

"Power!" he cried.

The electrician closed a switch and power surged through the cables around the bar. The earth rocked and quivered. A hundred yards east of the bar a flash of intolerable red light sprang from the ground with a roar like that of Niagara. Toward the bar it moved with gathering momentum.

"Back, everyone!" roared Dr. Bird.

The men sprang back. The searing ray approached the bar. It touched it, and bar and truck disappeared into thin air. A splutter of sparks came from the severed ends of the wire. The ray disappeared. Carnes rubbed his eyes. Where the truck had rested on solid ground was now a gaping wound in the earth.

"Projector forward!" cried the doctor. "Hurry, men!"

The trucks bearing the battery of projectors moved forward until they were at the edge of the hole. Portable cranes swung the lamps out, and men swarmed over them. The projectors were pointed down the hole. Carnes joined the doctor in peering down. A hundred yards below them the terrible ray was blazing. As they watched, its end came in sight. The ray was being projected forward from the end of a black cigar-shaped machine which was slowly moving forward.

"That's your target, men!" cried the doctor. "Align on it and signal when you are ready!"

One by one the projector operators raised their hands in the signal of "ready." Still the doctor waited. Suddenly the forward movement of the black body ceased. The ray was stationary for a moment and then moved slowly upward. A terrific roaring came from the cavern.

"Projector switch!" roared the doctor, his heavy voice sounding over the tumult.

"Ready, sir!" a shrill voice answered.

"Power!"

From each of the projectors a dazzling green ray leaped forth as the switch was closed. There was a crash like all the thunder of the universe. Before the astonished eyes of the detective, the hole closed. Not only did it close but the earth piled up until the trucks were overturned and the green rays blazed in all directions.

"Power off!" roared the doctor.

The switch was opened and the ray died out. Before them was a huge mound where a moment before had been a hole.

"You see, Carnes," said Dr. Bird with a wan smile. "I made him bore his own hole, as I promised."

"I saw it, but I don't understand. How did you do it?"

"Magnetism. Rays of the cathode type are deflected from their course by a magnet. His ray proved unusually susceptible, and I drew it toward a huge electro-magnet which I improvised. When the magnet was destroyed, the ray dropped back ... to its original ... direction. That's the end ... of Saranoff. That is ... I hope ... it is."

Dr. Bird's voice had grown slower and less distinct as he talked. As he said the last words, he slumped gently to the ground. Carnes sprang forward with a cry of alarm and bent over him.

"What's the matter, Doctor?" he demanded anxiously, shaking the scientist. Dr. Bird rallied for a moment.

"Sleep, old dear," he murmured. "Four days—no sleep. Go 'way, I'm ... going ... to ... sleep...."

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Various. 2009. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, May 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30532/30532-h/30532-h.htm#Page_198

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