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Astounding Stories of Super-Science January 1931: The Fifth-Dimension Catapult - Chapter III

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Astounding Stories

Dare to dream. Dare to go where no other has gone before.

Astounding Stories of Super-Science January 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. The Fifth-Dimension Catapult: Chapter III

CHAPTER III

A BATTERED and antiquated flivver came chugging down the wire-fenced lane to the laboratory, an hour later. It made a prodigious din, and Tommy Reames went out to meet it. He was still a little pale. He had watched the steel globe turned practically inside out by the Ragged Men. He had seen them bringing out cameras, cushions, and even the padding of the walls, to be torn to bits in a truly maniacal fury. But he had not seen one sign of a human being killed. Denham and his daughter had not been in the globe when it was found and ransacked. So far, then, they were probably safe. Tommy had seen them vanish into the tree-fern forest. They had been afraid, and with good reason. What dangers they might encounter in the fern forest he could not guess. How long they would escape the search of the Ragged Men, he could not know. How he could ever hope to find them if he succeeded in duplicating Denham’s dimension-traveling apparatus  he could not even think of, just now. But the Ragged Men were not searching the fern forest. So much was sure. They were encamped by the steel sphere, and a scurvy-looking lot they were.

Coming out of the brick laboratory, Tommy saw a brawny figure getting out of the antiquated flivver whose arrival had been so thunderous. That brawny figure nodded to him and grinned. Tommy recognized him. The red-headed, broad-shouldered filling station attendant in the last village, who had given him specific directions for reaching this place.

“You hit that gate a lick, didn’t you?” asked the erstwhile filling station attendant amiably. “Mr. Von Holtz said you had a flat and a busted radiator. That right?”

TOMMY nodded. The red-headed man walked around the car, scratched his chin, and drew out certain assorted tools. He put them on the grass with great precision, pumped a gasoline blow-torch to pressure and touched a match to its priming-basin, and while the gasoline flamed smokily he made a half dozen casual movements with a file, and the broken radiator tube was exposed for repair.

He went back to the torch and observed placidly:

“The Professor ain’t around, is he?”

Tommy shook his head.

“Thought not,” said the red-headed one. “He gen’rally comes out and talks a while. I helped him build some of them dinkuses in the barn yonder.”

Tommy said eagerly:

“Say, which of those things did you help him build? That big thing with the solenoid—the coil?”

“Yeah. How’d it work?” The red-headed one set a soldering iron in place and began to jack up the rear wheel to get at the tire. “Crazy idea, if you ask me. I told Miss Evelyn so. She laughed and said she’d be in the ball when it was tried. Did it work?”

“Too damn well,” said Tommy briefly. “I’ve got to repair that solenoid. How about a job helping?”

The red-headed man unfastened the lugs of the rim, kicked the tire speculatively, and said, “Gone to hell.” He put on the spare tire with ease and dispatch.

“Um,” he said. “How about that Mr. Von Holtz? Is he goin’ to boss the job?”

“He is not,” said Tommy, with a shade of grimness in his tone.

THE red-headed man nodded and took the soldering iron in hand. He unwound a strip of wire solder, mended the radiator tube with placid ease, and seemed to bang the cooling-flanges with a total lack of care. They went magically back into place, and it took close inspection to see that the radiator had been damaged.

“She’s all right,” he observed. He regarded Tommy impersonally. “Suppose you tell me how come you horn in on this,” he suggested, “an’ maybe I’ll play. That guy Von Holtz is a crook, if you ask me about him.”

Tommy ran his hand across his forehead, and told him.

“Um,” said the red-headed man calmly. “I think I’ll go break Mr. Von Holtz’s neck. I got me a hunch.”

He took two deliberate steps forward. But Tommy said:

“I saw Denham not an hour ago. So far, he’s all right. How long he’ll be all right is a question. But I’m going after him.”

The red-headed man scrutinized him exhaustively.

“Um. I might try that myself. I kinda like the Professor. An’ Miss Evelyn. My name’s Smithers. Let’s go look through the dinkus the Professor made.”

They went together into the laboratory. Von Holtz was looking through the dimensoscope. He started back as they entered, and looked acutely uneasy when he saw the red-headed man.

“How do you do,” he said nervously. “They—the Ragged Men—have just  brought in a dead man. But it is not the Herr Professor.”

Without a word, Tommy took the brass tube in his hand. Von Holtz moved away, biting his lips. Tommy stared into that strange other world.

THE steel sphere lay as before, slightly askew upon a bank of glossy ferns. But its glass windows were shattered, and fragments of everything it had contained were scattered about. The Ragged Men had made a camp and built a fire. Some of them were roasting meat—the huge limb of a monstrous animal with a scaly, reptilian hide. Others were engaged in vehement argument over the body of one of their number, lying sprawled out upon the ground.

Tommy spoke without moving his eyes from the eyepiece.

“I saw Denham with a club just now. This man was killed by a club.”

The Ragged Men in the other world debated acrimoniously. One of them pointed to the dead man’s belt, and spread out his hands. Something was missing from the body. Tommy saw, now, three or four other men with objects that looked rather like policemen’s truncheons, save that they were made of glittering metal. They were plainly weapons. Denham, then, was armed—if he could understand how the weapon was used.

The Ragged Men debated, and presently their dispute attracted the attention of a man with a huge black beard. He rose from where he sat gnawing at a piece of meat and moved grandly toward the disputatious group. They parted at his approach, but a single member continued the debate against even the bearded giant. The bearded one plucked the glittering truncheon from his belt. The disputatious one gasped in fear and flung himself desperately forward. But the bearded man kept the truncheon pointed steadily…. The man who assailed him staggered, reached close enough to strike a single blow, and collapsed. The bearded man pointed the metal truncheon at him as he lay upon the ground. He heaved convulsively, and was still.

The bearded man went back to his seat and picked up the gnawed bit of meat again. The dispute had ceased. The chattering group of men dispersed.

TOMMY was about to leave the eyepiece of the instrument when a movement nearby caught his eye. A head peered cautiously toward the encampment. A second rose beside it. Denham and his daughter Evelyn. They were apparently no more than thirty feet from the dimensoscope. Tommy could see them talking cautiously, saw Denham lift and examine a metal truncheon like the bearded man’s, and force his daughter to accept it. He clutched a club, himself, with a grim satisfaction.

Moments later they vanished quietly in the thick fern foliage, and though Tommy swung the dimensoscope around in every direction, he could see nothing of their retreat.

He rose from that instrument with something approaching hopefulness. He’d seen Evelyn very near and very closely. She did not look happy, but she did look alert rather than worn. And Denham was displaying a form of competence in the face of danger which was really more than would have been expected in a Ph.D., a M.A., and other academic distinctions running to most of the letters of the alphabet.

“I’ve just seen Denham and Evelyn again,” said Tommy crisply. “They’re safe so far. And I’ve seen one of the weapons of the Ragged Men in use. If we can get a couple of automatics and some cartridges to Denham, he’ll be safe until we can repair the big solenoid.”

“There was the small catapult,” said Von Holtz bitterly, “but it was dismantled. The Herr Professor saw me examining it, and he dismantled it. So that I did not learn how to calculate the way of changing the position—”

 

TOMMY’S eyes rested queerly on Von Holtz for a moment.

“You know how to make the metal required,” he said suddenly. “You’d better get busy making it. Plenty of it. We’ll need it.”

Von Holtz stared at him, his weak eyes almost frightened.

“You know? You know how to combine the right angles?”

“I think so,” said Tommy. “I’ve got to find out if I’m right. Will you make the metal?”

Von Holtz bit at his too-red lips.

“But Herr Reames!” he said stridently, “I wish to know the equation! Tell me the method of pointing a body in a fourth or a fifth direction. It is only fair—”

“Denham didn’t tell you,” said Tommy.

Von Holtz’s arms jerked wildly.

“But I will not make the metal! I insist upon being told the equation! I insist upon it! I will not make the metal if you do not tell me!”

Smithers was in the laboratory, of course. He had been surveying the big solenoid-catapult and scratching his chin reflectively. Now he turned.

BUT Tommy took Von Holtz by the shoulders. And Tommy’s hands were the firm and sinewy hands of a sportsman, if his brain did happen to be the brain of a scientist. Von Holtz writhed in his grip.

“There is only one substance which could be the metal I need, Von Holtz,” he said gently. “Only one substance is nearly three-dimensional. Metallic ammonium! It’s known to exist, because it makes a mercury amalgam, but nobody has been able to isolate it because nobody has been able to give it a fourth dimension—duration in time. Denham did it. You can do it. And I need it, and you’d better set to work at the job. You’ll be very sorry if you don’t, Von Holtz!”

Smithers said with a vast calmness.

“I got me a hunch. So if y’want his neck broke….”

Tommy released Von Holtz and the lean young man gasped and sputtered and gesticulated wildly in a frenzy of rage.

“He’ll make it,” said Tommy coldly. “Because he doesn’t dare not to!”

Von Holtz went out of the laboratory, his weak-looking eyes staring and wild, and his mouth working.

“He’ll be back,” said Tommy briefly. “You’ve got to make a small model of that big catapult, Smithers. Can you do it?”

“Sure,” said Smithers. “The ring’ll be copper tubing, with pin-bearings. Wind a coil on the lathe. It’ll be kinda rough, but it’ll do. But gears, now….”

“I’ll attend to them. You know how to work that metallic ammonium?”

“If that’s what it was,” agreed Smithers. “I worked it for the Professor.”

Tommy leaned close and whispered:

“You never made any gears of that. But did you make some springs?”

“Uh-huh!”

Tommy grinned joyously.

“Then we’re set and I’m right! Von Holtz wants a mathematical formula, and no one on earth could write one, but we don’t need it!”

SMITHERS rummaged around the laboratory with a casual air, acquired this and that and the other thing, and set to work with an astounding absence of waste motions. From time to time he inspected the great catapult thoughtfully, verified some impression, and went about the construction of another part.

And when Von Holtz did not return, Tommy hunted for him. He suddenly remembered hearing his car motor start. He found his car missing. He swore, then, and grimly began to hunt for a telephone in the house. But before he had raised central he heard the deep-toned purring of the motor again. His car was coming swiftly back to the house. And he saw, through a window, that Von Holtz was driving it.

 The lean young man got out of it, his face white with passion. He started for the laboratory. Tommy intercepted him.

“I—went to get materials for making the metal,” said Von Holtz hoarsely, repressing his rage with a great effort. “I shall begin at once, Herr Reames.”

Tommy said nothing whatever. Von Holtz was lying. Of course. He carried nothing in the way of materials. But he had gone away from the house, and Tommy knew as definitely as if Von Holtz had told him, that Von Holtz had gone off to communicate in safety with someone who signed his correspondence with a J.

Von Holtz went into the laboratory. The four-cylinder motor began to throb at once. The whine of the dynamo arose almost immediately after. Von Holtz came out of the laboratory and dived into a shed that adjoined the brick building. He remained in there.

Tommy looked at the trip register on his speedometer. Like most people with methodical minds, he had noted the reading on arriving at a new destination. Now he knew how far Von Holtz had gone. He had been to the village and back.

“Meaning,” said Tommy grimly to himself, “that the J who wants plans and calculations is either in the village or at the end of a long-distance wire. And Von Holtz said he was on the way. He’ll probably turn up and try to bribe me.”

HE went back into the laboratory and put his eye to the eyepiece of the dimensoscope. Smithers had his blow-torch going and was busily accumulating an apparently unrelated series of discordant bits of queerly-shaped metal. Tommy looked through at the strange mad world he could see through the eyepiece.

The tree-fern forest was still. The encampment of the Ragged Men was nearly quiet. Sunset seemed to be approaching in this other world, though it was still bright outside the laboratory. The hours of day and night were obviously not the same in the two worlds, so close together that a man could be flung from one to the other by a mechanical contrivance.

The sun seemed larger, too, than the orb which lights our normal earth. When Tommy swung the vision instrument about to search for it, he found a great red ball quite four times the diameter of our own sun, neatly bisected by the horizon. Tommy watched, waiting for it to sink. But it did not sink straight downward as the sun seems to do in all temperate latitudes. It descended, yes, but it moved along the horizon as it sank. Instead of a direct and forthright dip downward, the sun seemed to progress along the horizon, dipping more deeply as it swam. And Tommy watched it blankly.

“It’s not our sun…. But it’s not our world. Yet it revolves, and there are men on it. And a sun that size would bake the earth…. And it’s sinking at an angle that would only come at a latitude of—”

That was the clue. He understood at once. The instrument through which he regarded the strange world looked out upon the polar regions of that world. Here, where the sun descended slantwise, were the high latitudes, the coldest spaces upon all the whole planet. And if here there were the gigantic growths of a carboniferous era, the tropic regions of this planet must be literal infernos.

And then he saw in its gradual descent the monster sun was going along behind the golden city, and the outlines of its buildings, the magnificence of its spires, were limned clearly for him against the dully glowing disk.

Nowhere upon earth had such a city ever been dreamed of. No man had ever envisioned such a place, where far-flung arches interconnected soaring, towering columns, where curves of perfect grace were united in forms of utterly perfect proportion….

 

THE sunlight died, and dusk began and deepened, and vividly brilliant stars began to come out overhead, and Tommy suddenly searched the heavens eagerly for familiar constellations. And found not one. All the stars were strange. These stars seemed larger and much more near than the tiny pinpoints that blink down upon our earth.

And then he swung the instrument again and saw great fires roaring and the Ragged Men crouched about them. Within them, rather, because they had built fires about themselves as if to make a wall of flame. And once Tommy saw twin, monstrous eyes, gazing from the blackness of the tree-fern forest. They were huge eyes, and they were far apart, so that the head of the creature who used them must have been enormous. And they were all of fifteen feet above the ground when they speculatively looked over the ring of fires and the ragged, degraded men within them. Then that creature, whatever it was, turned away and vanished.

But Tommy felt a curious shivering horror of the thing. It had moved soundlessly, without a doubt, because not one of the Ragged Men had noted its presence. It had been kept away by the fires. But Denham and Evelyn were somewhere in the tree-fern forest, and they would not dare to make fires….

Tommy drew away from the dimensoscope, shivering. He had been looking only, but the place into which he looked was real, and the dangers that lay hidden there were very genuine, and there was a man and a girl of his own race and time struggling desperately, without arms or hope, to survive.

SMITHERS was casually fitting together an intricate array of little rings made of copper tubing. There were three of them, and each was fitted into the next largest by pins which enabled them to spin noiselessly and swiftly at the touch of Smithers’ finger. He had them spinning now, each in a separate direction, and the effect was bewildering.

As Tommy watched, Smithers stopped them, oiled the pins carefully, and painstakingly inserted a fourth ring. Only this ring was of a white metal that looked somehow more pallid than silver. It had a whiteness like that of ivory beneath its metallic gleam.

Tommy blinked.

“Did Von Holtz give you that metal?” he asked suddenly.

Smithers looked up and puffed at a short brown pipe.

“Nope. There was some splashes of it by the castin’ box. I melted ’em together an’ run a ring. Pressed it to shape; y’ can’t hammer this stuff. It goes to water and dries up quicker’n lightning—an’ you hold y’nose an’ run. I used it before for the Professor.”

Tommy went over to him excitedly. He picked up the little contrivance of many concentric rings. The big motor was throbbing rhythmically, and the generator was humming at the back of the laboratory. Von Holtz was out of sight.

WITH painstaking care Tommy went over the little device. He looked up.

“A coil?”

“I wound one,” said Smithers calmly. “On the lathe. Not so hot, but it’ll do, I guess. But I can’t fix these rings like the Professor did.”

“I think I can,” said Tommy crisply. “Did you make some wire for springs?”

“Yeah!”

Tommy fingered the wire. Stout, stiff, and surprisingly springy wire of the same peculiar metal. It was that metallic ammonium which chemists have deduced must exist because of the chemical behavior of the compound NH3, but which Denham alone had managed to procure. Tommy deduced that it was an allotropic modification of the substance which forms an amalgam with mercury, as metallic tin is an allotrope of the amorphous gray  powder which is tin in its normal, stable state.

He set to work with feverish excitement. For one hour, for two he worked. At the end of that time he was explaining the matter curtly to Smithers, so intent on his work that he wholly failed to hear a motor car outside or to realize that it had also grown dark in this world of ours.

“You see, Smithers, if a two-dimensioned creature wanted to adjust two right angles at right angles to each other, he’d have them laid flat, of course. And if he put a spring at the far ends of those right angles—they’d look like a T, put together—so that the cross-bar of that T was under tension, he’d have the equivalent of what I’m doing. To make a three-dimensioned figure, that imaginary man would have to bend one side of the cross-bar up. As if the two ends of it were under tension by a spring, and the spring would only be relieved of tension when that cross-bar was bent. But the vertical would be his time dimension, so he’d have to have something thin, or it couldn’t be bent. He’d need something ‘thin in time.’

“We have the same problem. But metallic ammonium is ‘thin in time.’ It’s so fugitive a substance that Denham is the only man ever to secure it. So we use these rings and adjust these springs to them so they’re under tension which will only be released when they’re all at right angles to each other. In our three dimensions that’s impossible, but we have a metal that can revolve in a fourth, and we reinforce their tendency to adjust themselves by starting them off with a jerk. We’ve got ’em flat. They’ll make a good stiff jerk when they try to adjust themselves. And the solenoid’s a bit eccentric—”

“Shut up!” snapped Smithers suddenly.

HE was facing the door, bristling. Von Holtz was in the act of coming in, with a beefy, broad-shouldered man with blue jowls. Tommy straightened up, thought swiftly, and then smiled grimly.

“Hullo, Von Holtz,” he said pleasantly. “We’ve just completed a model catapult. We’re all set to try it out. Watch!”

He set a little tin can beneath the peculiar device of copper-tubing rings. The can was wholly ordinary, made of thin sheet-iron plated with tin as are all the tin cans of commerce.

“You have the catapult remade?” gasped Von Holtz. “Wait! Wait! Let me look at it!”

For one instant, and one instant only, Tommy let him see. The massed set of concentric rings, each one of them parallel to all the others. It looked rather like a flat coil of tubing; certainly like no particularly obscure form of projector. But as Von Holtz’s weak eyes fastened avidly upon it, Tommy pressed the improvised electric switch. At once that would energize the solenoid and release all the tensed springs from their greater tension, for an attempt to reach a permanent equilibrium.

As Von Holtz and the blue-jowled man stared, the little tin can leaped upward into the tiny coil. The small copper rings twinkled one within the other as the springs operated. The tin can was wrenched this way and that, then for the fraction of a second hurt the eyes that gazed upon it—and it was gone! And then the little coil came spinning down to the work bench top from its broken bearings and the remaining copper rings spun aimlessly for a moment. But the third ring of whitish metal had vanished utterly, and so had the coiled-wire springs which Von Holtz had been unable to distinguish. And there was an overpowering smell of ammonia in the room.

VON HOLTZ flung himself upon the still-moving little instrument. He inspected it savagely, desperately. His full red lips drew back in a snarl.

 “How did you do it?” he cried shrilly. “You must tell me! I—I—I will kill you if you do not tell me!”

The blue-jowled man was watching Von Holtz. Now his lips twisted disgustedly. He turned to Tommy and narrowed his eyes.

“Look here,” he rumbled. “This fool’s no good! I want the secret of that trick you did. What’s your price?”

“I’m not for sale,” said Tommy, smiling faintly.

The blue-jowled man regarded him with level eyes.

“My name’s Jacaro,” he said after an instant. “Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m from Chicago.”

Tommy smiled more widely.

“To be sure,” he admitted. “You were the man who introduced machine-guns into gang warfare, weren’t you? Your gunmen lined up half a dozen of the Buddy Haines gang against a wall and wiped them out, I believe. What do you want this secret for?”

The level eyes narrowed. They looked suddenly deadly.

“That’s my business,” said Jacaro briefly. “You know who I am. And I want that trick y’did. I got my own reasons. I’ll pay for it. Plenty. You know I got plenty to pay, too. Or else—”

“What?”

“Something’ll happen to you,” said Jacaro briefly. “I ain’t sayin” what. But it’s damn likely you’ll tell what I want to know before it’s finished. Name your price and be damn quick!”

Tommy took his hand out of his pocket. He had a gun in it.

“The only possible answer to that,” he said suavely, “is to tell you to go to hell. Get out! But Von Holtz stays here. He’d better!”

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Various. 2009. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, January 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30177/30177-h/30177-h.htm#catapult

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