IN presenting this new author to our readers, all we can say is that we hope that this story will not be the last one by Mr. Hamilton to appear in Amazing Stories. For sheer audacity of imagination and for the presentation of good scientifiction, we believe that Mr. Hamilton will soon find a place of his own in the minds of every reader. There is so much that is novel, so much that is interesting in this story, that we are sure that it will be widely acclaimed by every one.
We know, now. Destiny, from the first. Out in the depths of space the colossal conspiracy came into being. Across the miles and years, it sped toward its climax. Flashed toward our earth, toward that last supreme moment when a world stood at the edge of doom. Then—fate spoke.
Circling planet, blazing sun, far flung star, these things but the turning wheels of fate’s machinery. And that other thing, that supernally beautiful, supernally dreadful thing that flamed across the heavens in a glory of living light, that too but a part of the master-mechanism. Destiny, all of it, from the beginning. And that beginning——
The story, as we know it, is Marlin’s story, and the beginning, to him, was always that June evening when he first came to the Ohio village of Garnton, just at sunset. He had trudged up over the ridge of a long hill, when the place burst suddenly upon his vision.
Before him, sweeping away to the misty horizon, lay the steel-blue expanse of Lake Erie, smoke- plumes far out on its surface marking the passage of steamers. In the west the setting sun glowed redly, its level rays tipping the drifting clouds with flame. And just below him, stretched along the lake shore, lay Garnton, a straggling assemblage of neat, white-painted buildings.
The sight was a grateful one to Marlin’s eyes, and he contemplated it for a few moments from the ridge, inhaling great breaths of the sweet, cold air, A plump little man of middle age, dressed in stained khaki clothes and crush hat, rucksack on back, his blue eyes surveying the scene below with evident pleasure. A large white building beside the lake caught his eye, and he gazed at it with sudden intentness.
“Hotel,” he muttered to himself, with conviction. And then, in a tone rich with anticipation—“Supper!”
The thought spurred him to renewed action, and hitching his knapsack higher on his shoulders, he began to tramp down toward the village. For though Marlin had so far yielded to the gypsy lure of the open road as to spend his vacation in a walking- tour, he was as yet not at all insensible to the civilized comforts that might be obtained at hotels. It was with quickened speed that he trudged on toward the village, over a rutted dirt road. Even so, twilight was darkening by the time he entered the dim. quiet hotel in quest of room and supper.
Complete darkness had descended on the world, and complete contentment on Marlin, by the time he sauntered out of the big dining-room and looked about in inspection of his surroundings. He wandered into the lobby but found it uninviting. The few magazines there were of the type associated with dentists’ waiting-rooms, and the only newspaper in sight was in the joint possession of three oldsters who were fiercely arguing a question of local politics. When Marlin ventured to interject a remark, they regarded him with cold suspicion, and somewhat abashed he retreated to the wide veranda.
It was quite dark on the veranda, but he managed to stumble into a chair. Then, a moment later, he discovered that the chair beside him was occupied by the proprietor of the hotel, a very fat man who sat in silence like a contemplative Buddha, hands clasped across his stomach, chewing tobacco and gazing out into the darkness. His attitude was of such calm dignity that Marlin hesitated to disturb him with foolish speech, but, unexpectedly, the Buddha spoke.
“Tourist?” he asked, without turning, speaking in a deep, rumbling voice, like that of a questioning judge.
“Hiking,” Marlin answered; “I’ve walked halfway around the lake, from my home-town over in Ontario. I guess I’ll rest here for a day or two, and then get a boat back.”
The fat man spat over the veranda-rail, accurately, and then uttered a grunt of acquiescence. He offered no further remark, and the two sat on in silence.
Looking out over the lake, Marlin absorbed with quickening interest all the beauty of the scene. There was no moon, but stars powdered the heavens like diamond-dust on black velvet, shedding a thin white light on the dark, tossing surface of the lake. Gazing into that vista of cool, limitless night, the whole world seemed shrouded in quiet peace.
Abruptly, at the eastern horizon, a ghostly green radiance began to pour up from behind the distant waters. It pulsated, gathered, grew stronger and stronger. Then, seeming to clear the horizon with a single bound, there leaped up into the sky a disk of brilliant green light, as large as the absent moon. Like a huge, glowing emerald of fire it was, and from it there streamed a great green trail of light, stretching gigantically across the heavens.
The fat man, too, was regarding it.
“It gets bigger each night,” he commented.
Marlin agreed. “It certainly does. You can see the difference from one night to the next. It says in the papers that it’s coming millions of miles closer each night.”
“They say it ain’t going to hit us, though,” remarked the other.
“No danger of that,” Marlin assured him; “on the 14th—that’s three nights from now—it will pass closest to earth, they say. But even then it’ll be millions of miles away, and after that it’ll be going further away all the time.”
The fat man became oracular. “A comet’s a queer thing,” he stated, his eyes on that green splendor of light.
Marlin nodded assent.
“This one’s queer enough, I guess. What with its green color, and all. They say no one knows where it came from or where it’s going. Just comes out of space, rushes down toward the sun and around it, and then rushes back into space, like it’s doing now. Like a big tramp, wandering around among the stars.”
The hotel-proprietor regarded him with new respect. “You must know a good bit about them,” he said.
Flattered, Marlin yet deprecated the compliment. “Oh, I just read the papers a good bit. And there’s been a lot in them about the comet since they first discovered its presence in the sky,” he answered.
“But what’s it made of?” asked the other. “Is it solid, like the earth?”
The smaller man shook his head. “I don’t know. Some say it’s solid at the nucleus—that’s the bright spot in its head—and some say that the whole comet’s nothing but light and gas. Nobody knows for sure, I guess.”
Together they stared up at the shining thing. The fat one shook his head in slow doubt.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” he asserted. “It’s too big—and bright.”
“No harm in it,” Marlin assured him; “it won’t come near enough to hurt us any.
They’ve got it all calculated, you know, all worked out. These professors——”
Unconvinced, the other continued to stare up at the brilliant comet. And Marlin too regarded it, chin in hand, fantastic thoughts passing through his brain.
Many another chance watcher was gazing up toward the comet that night. The thief prowling in the shadows looked over his shoulder at it, muttering curses against its green, revealing light. The hospital-patient, lying unsleeping in his dim-lit chamber, watched it through his window with sick eyes. The policeman, sauntering through darkened streets, spared it a casual glance.
And in the darkened observatories, others, hurrying, excited men, worked unceasingly with lens and spectroscope and photographic plate. With a myriad delicate instruments they sought for data on the nearing comet, for this great green wanderer from outer space, known to be the largest and speediest comet ever to enter the solar system, was swinging out again from the sun on its outward journey into space. There remained but a few nights more before it would have attained its nearest position to earth, and after that it would flash out into the void, perhaps to reappear thousands of years hence, perhaps never to return. From its first appearance as a far, tiny speck of light, their telescopes had watched it, and would watch it until it had receded again into the infinity of inter-stellar space. Data!—that was their cry. Later all could be examined, marshalled, correlated; but now, if ever, data must be obtained and recorded.
Yet they had found time, from the first, to send out reassuring messages to the world. The comet would not come within millions of miles of earth, for all its size and brilliance, and it was impossible for it to collide with or bring any harm to the earth. Though no man could know what lay hidden at the nucleus, the comet’s heart, it was known that the great, awesome coma and tail were nothing but light and electrical force and tenuous gases, with hardly more mass than the aurora borealis, and as harmless. There was nothing to be feared from its passing.
With that calm reassurement, few indeed felt any anxiety concerning the thing. And with that reassurement in mind, Marlin could repeat to the doubting man beside him—“It won’t affect us any. The thing’s been all worked out.”
But to that his host made no answer, and for a time they sat in thoughtful silence.
Abruptly there drifted across their vision, some distance out on the lake, but seeming quite near, a great, high-built boat, its four decks ablaze with yellow light. Very clearly, over the water, they could hear the sound of its paddles, and could hear, too, a faint, far sound of singing, and a ghostly thrumming of ukeleles and guitars.
The fat man nodded toward it. “Excursion-boat from Cleveland,” he pronounced.
As it came nearer, the sounds from it came more distinctly to their ears, borne on a little breeze. Clear young voices, singing a popular melody of the day. Tuneful young voices and throbbing music, drifting across the summer night. Fascinated, Marlin watched it. And over in the eastern sky, the flaming orb seemed to be watching also, like a great malignant eye, green, baleful, immense. . . .
IT was on the next morning that there appeared in the newspapers the first dispatch from the Buell Observatory. It has sometimes been stated that that first dispatch “aroused widespread interest,” but such an assertion is quite untrue, as even a casual inspection of the newspapers for that date will disclose. Only a few of them printed the item at all, and those who did so, assigned it inconspicuous positions.
The message itself was signed by Lorrow, the head of the Buell institution, and stated simply that a slight increase in the earth’s orbital speed had been detected during the last twenty-four hours. It added that while this apparent increase might be due to erratic instruments, it was being given further attention. A few hours later a second message announced that the increase had been definitely confirmed, and that it was somewhat greater than had been at first believed.
To astronomers, the news was startling enough, for to them this sudden acceleration of the earth’s speed seemed quite inexplicable. Their calculations assured them that it could not be due to the influence of any known heavenly body, but what, then, was its cause? They attacked the problem with exasperated interest.
Outside of astronomical circles, though, it is doubtful if there were a thousand people who gave any serious attention to those first two statements. In science, as in all else, the public’s attention is centred always upon the spectacular, and it took but little interest in this matter of fractional differences in speed. The only reference to it in the newspapers that evening was a short message from the Washington Observatory, which confirmed Lorrow’s discovery and stated the exact amount of speed-increase, with a staggering array of fractions, decimals and symbols. It also stated that this acceleration was only momentary, and would disappear within the next twenty-four hours.
So the few puzzled over the matter and the many shrugged their shoulders at mention of it, while the sun sank down into the west and darkness stole across the world. And then the night was split by the rising comet, driving up above the horizon and soaring toward the zenith. It flashed across the heavens in green glory and then it too rocketed down toward the west, while in the east there crept up the gray light of dawn. It was then that there came to the world Lorrow’s third message.
It sped along a thousand humming wires, roared from the presses in a thousand cities, was carried shouting through ten thousand sleeping streets. Men woke, and read, and wondered, and stared at each other in strange, dawning fear. For instead of returning to its normal speed, they learned the earth was moving faster and faster through the heavens, and already, as a consequence of this increased speed, was beginning to veer outward a little from its accustomed orbit.
“If this inexplicable acceleration continues,” Lorrow wrote, “and the earth veers still further outward, it will be brought uncomfortably close to the head of the passing comet.”
A sudden doubt, a moment of chilling fear, oppressed the world as those first words of warning were flashed around it. Had Lorrow’s message been allowed to stand uncontradicted, it might well have precipitated a panic then and there. But it was not allowed to do so, for before many minutes had passed, there came from a score of observatories indignant denials of Lorrow’s statements.
They admitted that the unexplained acceleration of the earth’s speed was apparently continuing, but they denied that the planet had swerved from its orbit, and poured scorn upon the idea that it might collide with the nearing comet. Such a thing was impossible, they asserted, and quoted innumerable authorities to prove that the earth would not come within millions of miles of the comet. Lorrow they denounced as a cheap alarmist who sought to gain publicity for himself at the expense of the world’s fear. There was no danger. They repeated it, they insisted upon it. There was no danger.
Such statements were effective, and by means of them the first fears of the public were soon calmed. Here and there one might read with knitted brow and look up in sudden apprehension, and here and there in observatories men might glance at each other with startled eyes, but in the main, the currents of life pulsed through their accustomed channels, and through that long June day men walked their ways as always.
It is with a stilled, incredulous wonder that we now look back upon that day. Knowing what was to happen, what was happening even then, we see that day as the last of an era, the final hour of the world’s doom. But at the time, it must have seemed like any other day in early June.
Children released from long months of school would be running and shouting, no doubt. There would be men gazing out of office-windows, their thoughts on green links and winding roads. And women chatting in the markets. And sleepy cats, on porches, sprawling in the sunshine. . . .
The newspapers that evening announced that the comet would be larger when it rose that night, and explained that this increase in size was due to the fact that the great green wanderer was still steadily nearing earth, on its way out of the solar system. On the next night it would reach its closest position to earth, they stated, and thereafter would soon grow smaller until it vanished from sight entirely. It was believed that when the comet departed from the solar system, the mysterious acceleration of the earth’s speed would disappear also. In any case, they repeated, there was no danger. . . .
Night came, and almost at once the eastern heavens flamed ghastly green. Across the sky streamed brilliant trails of emerald light, obscuring the familiar stars, tarnishing their glory. The radiance in the east condensed, dazzled, and then there flamed up above the horizon—the comet.
It rose that night like a great green sun, immeasurably increased in size and splendor, flooding the earth with its throbbing radiance. The tremendous coma, the brilliant nucleus, the vast tail—they flared in the heavens like a new green Milky Way. And across the millions who watched, there sped whispers of awe.
For millions there were who watched the comet rise that night. From the roofs and windows and streets and parks of great cities, they watched it. Savages in deep jungles prostrated themselves before it, uttering weird cries of fear. Sailors far out at sea looked up toward it and spoke of ancient superstitions and old beliefs. Men in prison gazed up at it through barred windows, with dim wonder. Fearful men pointed toward it and spoke of the wrath of God.
Yet even then, for all the millions who watched in awe, there were tens of millions who merely glanced at it as one might at an interesting spectacle, who discussed it weightily, or gibed at the fears of the timid, or who paid it no attention at all, going about their good or evil business unheeding. And as the hours marched on, fearful and indifferent alike sought sleep, while over forests and fields and seas and steepled cities, the giant meteor soared across the heavens. Almost it seemed to grow greater with the passing of each hour, and the whole west flared with livid light as it sank down toward the horizon there.
From a window perched high above the canyoned streets of New York city, a single man watched the setting of the comet. Through the night the news of Amsterdam and Hong-Kong and Valparaiso had passed through his ears and brain and fingers, from clicking telegraph to clicking typewriter, to be scattered broadcast by the presses in the building beneath him. Now, as he leaned beside the open window, the cigarette in his hand drooped listlessly, and beneath the green eye-shade his eyes were very tired.
A sudden metallic chattering at the other side of the room aroused him, and instantly he turned and hastened toward the operating table. With a swift, automatic movement he slid fresh paper into his typewriter and began tapping out a copy of the message. As the instrument beside him clicked on, however, his body tensed in the chair, and he struck the typewriter-keys with a sudden clumsiness. When the sounder’s chattering had ceased he sat motionless, staring at the words he had written, then rose, trembling, and walked with dragging steps toward the window.
Around and beneath him lay the sleeping city, silent beneath the first gray light of dawn. Westward, the Jersey heights loomed darkly against the sky, and low above them spun the gigantic comet, its splendor dulling a little in the pallid light of dawn. It was the comet that the man at the window was watching, his face white, his lips working.
“It is doom!” he whispered.
From far below came a sudden whistling of tugboats, clamorous, strident. It ceased, and a faint echo of his words murmured mockingly in his ears.
He turned suddenly and reached for a telephone, pressing a button at its base. When he spoke into the instrument, his voice was dry and level.
“Collins?” he asked. “This is Brent, first night-operator. Take a bulletin that just came through. Ready?”
That night, when the giant comet again rose in the east, it blazed in the sky like a great sea of green fire, its whirling coma filling half the heavens, its brilliant nucleus shining with an intolerable radiance. And its light fell down across a world gone mad with fear.
The shouts of men, the sobbing of women, the crying of children; the ringing of bells and screaming of whistles that heralded the terror across the earth; the chanting voices of crowds that kneeled in tearful prayer, the hoarse voices that called for them to repent; the roar of automobiles that fled north and south and east and west, in a blind effort to find escape where there was no escape; all of these sounds and ten thousand others combined to form one vast cry of utter terror that leaped from the world as from a single voice.
But as the inexorable hours marched on, and the sea of fire above grew greater and greater, nearer and nearer, a strange stillness seized the world. The mad shouting and the mumbled prayers died away, the fear-crazed figures in the streets sank down and sprawled in an apathy of hopeless terror. It was the end. For earth, and for man, and for all the works of man, the end. Thus sunken in a lassitude of dull despair, silent as a planet peopled by the dead, the world drove on toward its doom.
AT the very moment when the Washington Observatory’s fateful message was being flashed around the earth, Marlin was leaving Garnton, heading north across the lake toward the Ontario shore. And while the world writhed beneath the panic caused by that message, he remained entirely ignorant of it. During the two days which he had spent at Garnton, he had read Lorrow’s first dispatches regarding the earth’s sudden speeding- up, but in common with most of the world, had paid them but little attention. When he left the village that morning, nothing was further from his mind.
It was in a small fishing-cruiser that he left, a dilapidated, noisy-motored little boat whose aroma strongly proclaimed its calling. By chance Marlin had discovered that the boat’s owner, a tall, silent and weather-beaten fisherman, intended to cross the lake at dawn that morning, and had prevailed upon him to take a passenger. So when the little craft headed out from shore at sunrise, Marlin sat at its bow, gazing into the gray banks of fog that spread over the surface of the lake.
Steadily the cruiser chugged onward, through lifting veils of mist. By the time the fog cleared, the land behind had dwindled to a thin, purple line. Then that too had vanished, so that they seemed to move upon a boundless waste of waters.
The sun, lifting higher in the east, flooded the world with its golden light, and as they forged onward, Marlin whistled cheerfully. The world seemed to him just then an extravagantly bright and friendly place.
For two hours the little boat crept north across the sunlit waters, and must have traversed at least half of the lake’s width, Marlin estimated, when an island swung up above the horizon ahead, a black spot that grew swiftly into a low, dark mass as they moved on toward it. Marlin eyed it with lively curiosity, and then turned toward his tactiturn companion at the helm.
“What island’s that?” he asked, jerking a thumb toward it.
The steersman peered ahead for a moment with keen eyes, and then turned back to Marlin.
“That’ll be Logan Island,” he told him. “Don’t pass it very often.”
“Wild-lookin’ place,” commented his passenger. “Anybody live there?”
The other pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not that I ever heard of. There’s lots of little islands like that scattered around this end of the lake, with nobody on ’em.”
They were swinging closer to the island by then, passing it at a distance of a quarter-mile. It was a long, low mass of land, a rough oblong in shape, and some three miles in length; its greater dimension. Thick forests appeared to cover it completely, extending to the water’s edge, but broken here and there along the shore-line by expanses of sandy beach. Marlin could detect no sign or sound of human presence.
It was while he stared at the place, there in the brilliant morning sunlight, that there rushed upon them—the inexplicable.
A high, thin buzzing sound struck his ears, and at the same moment a flexible, swaying rod of gray-gleaming metal thrust itself up above the trees at the island’s center, rearing swiftly into the air like an uncoiling snake. At it’s top was a round gray ball which appeared to be slowly revolving.
Marlin’s jaw dropped in sheer surprise, and he heard a startled exclamation from his companion. The rod has ceased its upward climb, and abruptly, from the ball at its top, there flashed forth a narrow, dazzling ray of white light, brilliant even in the morning sunshine. It cut slantwise down across the waters and struck the little cruiser’s stern.
The next few seconds remained in Marlin’s memory always as a confused moment of blind, instinctive action. As the ray struck the boat, he saw the figure of his companion outlined for a second in living light, and then the whole rear end of the cruiser had vanished, steersman, deck and cabin being whiffed out of existence in a single instant. Immediately the deck beneath Marlin’s feet tilted sharply, and he felt himself catapulted into the lake. The cold waters swirled around him, over him, as he sank beneath the surface. He struggled frantically for a moment, and then was shooting up again, his head popping up into the open air.
A few pieces of floating wreckage were all that remained of the cruiser. Hiding his head as much as possible behind one of these, he peered toward the island. The ray had ceased, and he glimpsed the high, swaying rod sinking down again behind the tree-tops. In a moment the buzzing sound ceased also.
Marlin swallowed hard, and his pounding heart quieted a little. He listened tensely but could hear no further sound from the island. There was only the washing of the waters around him, and the continual whisper of the wind. Then, slowly and fearfully, he began to paddle toward the island, still clinging to his piece of wreckage, and hiding as much as possible behind it.
For a time that seemed hours to his dazed brain, he crept across the waters toward the island, heading for its northern end. The sun blazed down upon him with ever-increasing heat as he struggled on, and the mass of land ahead seemed remote and miragelike. Twice he heard sounds from the island’s center, sharp, rattling sounds, and each time he cowered down in sudden fear and then crept on again. When at last he pulled himself from the water, he stumbled across a narrow beach and into the forest, flinging himself into a thicket of underbrush and lying there in a stupor of exhaustion.
For minutes he lay thus, breathing in great sobs, and then was abruptly roused by the realization that something was tugging at his shoulder. He sat quickly up, and instantly felt himself gripped from behind, while a strong hand clamped across his mouth and smothered the instinctive exclamation which he had been on the point of uttering. A voice sounded in his ear, low and tense.
“Quiet!” it rasped.
For a space of seconds he lay motionless, held by his unseen companion. He heard the distant rattling sounds again, murmuring faintly through the forest from the south, suddenly ceasing. Then the grip around him relaxed, and he turned to face the one who had held him.
Crouched beside him was a hatless and coatless young man of twenty-five or twenty-six, his clothing stained and torn, his hair dishevelled. He gazed into Marlin’s face with quick, bright eyes, and when he spoke it was in a whisper.
“You were one of the men in the boat,” he said, gesturing toward the lake. “I saw—from the shore.”
“What was it?” whispered Marlin. “My God, man, what’s on this island? That ray——”
The other raised a hand in quick warning, and for a moment they were tensely silent. Again came that far rattling and clanging, hardly to be heard, dying away in a few seconds. Marlin’s companion was speaking again.
‘Have you any weapon?” he asked. “A pistol—” but Marlin shook his head. Abruptly the other agonized.
“No weapons!” he whispered hoarsely; “only our bare hands. And they——”
Marlin caught his arm. “For God’s sake, what’s going on here?” he asked. “Who are they?”
The other gripped himself, and then spoke in level tones. “I will explain,” he said dully, passing his hands wearily over his eyes. “I need your help— God knows I need more help than yours! — but first——”
He gazed somberly into the forest for minutes before speaking again.
“Coburn’s my name, Walter Coburn. I’m an entomologist—a bug-chaser—working out of the Ferson Museum, in New York. You’ve heard of it? Well, I’ve been there three years, ever since I got my degree. Not much salary to it, but the work is interesting enough. It was with that work partly in mind that I came to this island.
“You know, or you may not know, that some of these little islands have an extraordinary profusion of insect-life. I was on the track of an hitherto unclassified wood-tick, and had an idea that it might be found on some such island as this. So when Hanley suggested that we spend our vacation camping here, I jumped at the chance.
“Hanley was the closest friend I had. We were about the same age, and had got acquainted at the university, where we took many of the same courses. We shared a small apartment in New York, where he had been grubbing along teaching biology in a preparatory-school, and as we couldn’t spend much on our vacation, he had conceived the idea of camping on one of these islands for a couple of months. He knew about them from having cruised over the lake with a friend, some years before, and as lots of the islets were uninhabited, they would make ideal camping-places. It would be a little lonely, but far better than a hot little apartment in New York, so he put it up to me and we decided to try it.
“IT was this particular island—Logan Island, they call it—which he had in mind. We came to Cleveland, bought some second-hand camping equipment and some supplies, and loaded the whole outfit into a leaky old tub of a motor-boat which we had rented for the next few months. Then we headed out to the island.
“We got here all right, and spent a day exploring the place. Back from the shore, at the island’s center, we found a little green plateau, slightly raised above the rest of the island, which was quite bare and treeless and on the edge of which stood an old log-cabin. The cabin was in pretty good shape, except for a leaky roof, so we decided to stay in it, and spread our tent over the roof as an additional protection. It took us only a day to clean the place up and install our simple outfit, and then we were all fixed. That was just three weeks ago.
“In the days that followed, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, fishing, swimming or just loafing. Now and then I beat around the island in search of the elusive wood-tick, and every few days we went over to the mainland, so it wasn’t as lonely as we’d expected. After three years of New York, the quietness of the place was soothing. And then, twelve days after our first coming to the island, the lightning struck.
“The thing was like a bolt from a clear sky. On that particular night Hanley and I were sitting up late, smoking and discussing the new green comet, which was getting nearer and was beginning to fill the newspapers with astronomical articles. Sprawled out in front of the cabin, and looking up into the star-scattered heavens, we were talking of the comet when Hanley suddenly stopped short in the middle of a sentence and jumped to his feet. He turned to me with a queer expression on his face. ‘Do you hear it?’ he asked.
“I listened, but could hear no unusual sounds, and then, in a moment, I got it too. It was a deep, powerful droning sound, something like the whirring of a great machine, and it seemed to come from directly over our heads. Every moment it was getting louder, nearer.
“1 turned to Hanley. ‘A plane?’ I suggested, but he shook his head, listening with frowning interest.
I knew that he was right, for the sound was unlike that of any airplane-motor, but what it was I could not guess. Then I saw, almost directly above us, a little circle of blackness, a round black circle that hid the stars behind it, and that was growing.
“It was growing very swiftly, expanding out and obscuring star after star, and the droning sound was becoming terrific. Had it not been for that sound, I would have thought the thing a balloon or parachute coming down toward us, but it was clearly not that. Whatever it was, it was descending toward us with very great speed, and as it continued to do so, a vague, instinctive fear shot through me. I stepped back, hastily, toward the cabin. Then I heard an exclamation from Hanley, and turned around again, just in time to see the thing itself descending upon the plateau.
“It was a cone, a gigantic cone of smooth metal, which shot swiftly down and came to rest on its great base without a jar, its apex still pointing skyward. It must have been fifty feet in height, from base to apex, and its sides were smooth and unbroken by any opening. The great droning sound had suddenly ceased.
“Hanley took a quick step toward the thing, his face alight with interest. I shouted to him to come back, and ran toward him. Then the whole scene was cut short in a fraction of a second. There was a click from the side of the great cone, and a flash of intense white light leapt toward us. It struck me with stunning force, like a blow from a great club, and all went black before me.
“When I came back to consciousness, my head was still aching from that blow, and bright morning sunlight was falling on my face. My first glance around showed me that I was lying on the floor of the cabin, and Hanley lay beside me, still unconscious. And in a moment I discovered that we were both shackled to the cabin-wall, by means of short metal chains and metal anklets that were fitted around our right legs.
“From the plateau outside, there came to my ears sounds of prolonged activity, hammering and tapping and clanging, with now and then a loud hissing as of some escaping force. For the moment, though, I paid no attention to them, bending my energies toward reviving my friend. After a few crude restorative measures on my part, he opened his eyes, and with my help, sat up. His eyes widened as they took in the chains that bound us to the wall, and as the enigmatic sounds from outside came to his ears. He turned back to me and for a moment we crouched there and stared at each other, a little wildly, I think. Then, before we could speak, the cabin-door swung suddenly open, admitting a single figure.
“We turned our eyes toward that figure, and then gasped. For the thing that stood framed in the open doorway was so grotesque, so incredible, that for a moment I felt myself in the depths of some hideous nightmare. I heard Hanley whisper, ‘God!’
“Imagine a man whose body, or trunk, is of smooth black metal instead of flesh, just a round, thick cylinder of glossy metal, whose two legs have been replaced by four spider-like metal limbs, and whose two arms have been supplanted by four twisting metal tentacles, like those of an octopus. This creature was like that, not much exceeding the average man’s height, and instead of a head there was set on top of its cylindrical body, a small square box, or cube, which it could turn at will in any direction. Inset on each of this cube’s four sides was a single circle of soft glowing white light.
“My first thought was that the thing was an intricate machine of some sort, but its quick, intelligent movements soon disproved that theory. A swift tentacle whipped up from it as it stood there, and closed the door behind it. It poised for a moment, seeming to contemplate us, and then came closer, gliding smoothly toward us on its spider-like limbs. It halted a few feet away; seemed to be examining us.
“I shrank back in utter fear, yet I could not take my eyes from the thing. It was, I saw then, entirely metallic. A vague notion that this was some living creature armored in metal was driven from my mind when I saw that there was no trace of flesh, or even clothing, about it. I noted, too, that one tentacle held a dagger-like object which I guessed to be a weapon of some sort.
“For only a moment the thing stood there, but in that moment I sensed that the strange glowing circles in the head were eyes of some sort, and that they were regarding us intently. Then, silent as ever, the thing glided back and out of the cabin, closing the door behind it. And again we faced each other in the silent little room.
“It was Hanley who broke the silence first. ‘They’ve got us,’ he said dully. ‘That thing ’
“ ‘But what was it?’ I asked him desperately. ‘Metal—and yet moving—like that.’
“ ‘God knows,’ he answered. ‘It was alive, and intelligent, I think. A high order of intelligence, too. That cone—the ray that stunned us——’ He seemed to be talking more to himself than to me. Suddenly he jumped to his feet and stepped over to the window, dragging the short chain with him. He gazed out of the dirty, cracked glass in the opening, and watching, I saw something of astonishment and fear fall upon his face.
“In a moment I was by his side, peering out also. Before me lay the sunlit, green plateau, a scene of incredible activity. The first thing which I glimpsed was a row of four metal cones, similar to the one we had already seen, which rested on their bases at the further edge of the clearing. Wide sections in their sides had swung aside, however, and in and out of the cones and across the plateau were swarming dozens of grotesque, metallic figures like the one which had already visited us in the cabin. All seemed the same, in appearance, and except for a few who appeared to direct and watch the efforts, of the others, all were busy at some task or another.
“Some were removing masses of tools and small machines from the cones, while others were busy assembling and testing other mechanisms, in the open clearing. We glimpsed machines and tools, the purposes of which we could not guess. What struck me most was that all of these hundred or more figures in the clearing worked in utter silence. There was no speech of any sort between them, and except for an occasional clanging of tools, or a buzzing and hissing of machines, their work was quite noiseless. Yet each went about his particular task without the slightest confusion.
“For perhaps a half-hour we watched the things, whose activities never ceased, and only left the window when we saw three of their number approaching the cabin. We stepped away from the wall at once; and in a moment the door swung open and the three entered.
“They were of the same appearance as the one who had first visited us; indeed, he may have been of these three, for there was no distinguishing one from another. They came toward us, and I saw that one was holding a small, square tablet of smooth white material like stone, and a long metal pencil in a tentacle. The other two carried the dagger-like weapons which we had already seen.
“The one with the tablet came closer to us and held the tablet up to our view, then began to sketch swiftly upon it with the pencil. ‘Evidently trying to communicate with us,’ muttered Hanley, and I nodded. In a moment the sketching ceased, and the creature held up the tablet for us to see. On it he had drawn a number of circles, one very large circle being at the center, while around it and at various distances from it were placed other circles of differing size, but all much smaller than the central one. With the pencil, the sketcher pointed to the central circle and then up through the open door. We stared at him blankly, and he repeated the gesture. Suddenly Hanley understood.
“ ‘The sun!’ he exclaimed. ‘He means the sun, Coburn. He’s drawn a diagram of the solar system.’
“To show our comprehension, Hanley pointed also to the central circle on the tablet, and then up toward the sun. Satisfied that we understood, the creature then pointed to one of the smaller circles, the third in distance from the central one, and then pointed to us. This time his meaning was clear enough. He was indicating earth on the diagram, and pointing to us as if to say that we were earth-men, and that this was earth. Again Hanley repeated his gesture, to show our understanding, and then the thing began to draw again on the tablet. In a moment he held it up for us to see.
“He had drawn a curious little design on the white surface, some distance away from the central sun-circle. It was a large circle, from which there streamed backward a number of long, straight lines. He held it for us to see, then pointed first to the new design and then to himself and his two companions. For a moment we did not understand, and then an exclamation broke from Hanley.
“ ‘The comet!’ he cried. ‘He’s drawn the comet— he means that they are from the comet!’
“Something of awe fell upon us as we looked at the creature. He pointed again to the comet-sign on the tablet, then toward the four cones on the plateau, and then to himself again. With that, the three turned from us and glided out of the cabin, again fastening the door behind them. The meaning of that last gesture had been clear enough to us. The things had come from the comet to earth, in those four great cones. But why?
“FOR hours we discussed the thing, while from outside came the clanking and hissing of the invaders’ enigmatic machines. Why had they come to earth? It was plain that this was no invading party for however advanced their science, a hundred of them could not conquer and hold a world. Yet why, then, had they come? We knew that the comet was at that time racing around the sun, and that it would come close to the earth on its way out of the solar system. Could it be that they were establishing a base on the island, so that when the comet came closer, the others on it could pour down on earth? It was possible. But why had they spared us, and kept us prisoned, instead of killing us? And above all, what were these comet-people? Living, intelligent, yet with bodies and limbs of metal?
“For all the rest of that day we lay in the cabin, discussing those questions in awed whispers, returning now and then to the window for further glimpses of the activities outside. We saw that escape was impossible, for the shackles and chains that bound us were strong and tightly fastened to the wall-logs, while every weapon and tool of any sort had been removed from the cabin before we regained consciousness. Even if we had been unfettered, there would have been no chance for escape, for all around the cabin there swarmed the metal figures, their activity never ceasing.
“The day waned, and when night came, the invaders set into action great flood-lights from the cones, which lit up the whole plateau like day. And beneath this light they went on working. I could not see a single one who stopped to rest. Always they labored, and beneath their swift tentacle-arms there grew up a great, half-formed machine of some sort, the foundation of which was already finished. Dully, I wondered what its purpose might be.
“A day passed—another—while we remained prisoned in the cabin. We had been left our own food, and water was brought to us, but we were not permitted to leave the cabin. Gradually we lost interest in the activities of the creatures outside, who went on with their building and testing and assembling almost unobserved by us. Then, on the afternoon of the second day, there came to us again one with a tablet and pencil, who gave us to understand, by various signs, that he wished to learn our written language. We agreed to teach him, and within an incredibly short time, he had mastered the reading and writing of English. We would point to an object and write down its name, and so on until his vocabulary was complete. His memory must have been almost perfect, for he could look at a word once and use it thereafter without hesitation. Within two days he could converse with us at ease, through the writing tablet. And it was then that we learned, from him, the purpose of their invasion.
“As we had guessed, they came from the great comet which was sweeping through the solar system. At the nucleus of that comet, we learned, there was a solid core formed eons ago by long accumulations of meteoric material. There was air and water upon that core, though little of either, and it was lighted by the intrinsic light of the surrounding coma, and heated more or less by electrical radiation also from the coma. The vast clouds of deadly gases in the comet’s tail and head did not touch the solid core, and on that core life had sprung up. That was but natural, given a setting fit for the propagation of life. The theory of Arrhenius, according to which life-spores constantly traverse the universe and evolve into living creatures on whatever planet they strike, applies equally well to the comet’s solid core. The life-spores had fallen there, also, and had grown through ages of evolutionary change into a race of intelligent, active creatures. They were not men, not human in form, but their science was more than human.
“They devoted this superhuman scientific knowledge of theirs to the task of making life easier on their own comet-world. Every living thing must have food in order to live, and it was hard to produce food of any kind on the barren core of the comet. And this set their scientists to thinking. For a long time these comet-people had depended more and more on machines to do their work, and less and less on their own bodily strength. It is the same with the races of man today, who are beginning to forsake manual labor for machine labor. On the comet that process was very far advanced. Machines performed every needed action for its people and they rarely made use of their own strength. It is not hard to understand what finally happened.
“They began to say to themselves in effect—‘It is our brain, our intelligence, that is the vital part of us, we would be rid of this handicap of the body forever.’
“With this idea in mind, their scientists worked together and finally produced a body of metal, a body-machine which was driven by atomic force, like all of their machines, and which needed only the slight, occasional care which is given to any machine. Inside that body had been arranged an electrical nerve-system, the controls of which led up into the square metal head. In that head, also, had been placed a small super-radio by which silent, constant communication could be had from metal body to metal body. Nerves, sense-organs, muscles, they were all there, and all were artificial, inorganic. The metal body lacked only a brain.
“It was then that one of their scientists performed his greatest achievement, and brought success to their plan. From the living body of one of their number he removed the living brain, as their consummate art in super-surgery enabled him to do. This living brain was then placed within a specially-prepared brain chamber of a metal body, inside its cubical head.
“Of course you know that the human brain is fed from the blood stream of the human body. To replace this, they placed the brain in a special solution, having all the properties of nourishing the brain cells. This solution is usually renewed once a week, so it is always fresh, and therefore the brain never really ages.
“Elaborate precautions are taken that no germs shall ever enter the brain chamber, as it was soon found that results were disastrous, wherever sufficient care had not been exercised.
“The brain chamber is formed of a platinum-like metal, which never oxidizes, and lasts practically forever, unless damaged by blows or other unusual accidents.
“When the brain is finally placed in its platinum chamber, the surgeon carefully connects the nerve ends of the brains with the electrical nerve connections of the metal body. Then an apparent miracle is accomplished. The body lives, can move, and can walk. The brain or intelligence of the one who had gone under the knife is now actuating the lifeless metal frame, directing it and controlling it. And that intelligence is now forever free from the demands of its former body of flesh, residing as it does now in the untiring metal body which requires neither food nor sleep.
“The experiment was thus a complete success, and at once it was duplicated on a big scale. Within a short time every living being on the comet-world had been treated likewise, so that his brain reposed in a similar body of metal. And so, for ages, the comet-people lived, undying brains cased in bodies of metal. When a body was worn out it was a simple matter to remove the brain from it and place it in a new body. Thus they had achieved immortality. Ages rolled on while their strange world drove across the heavens, and flashed from star to star.
“At last, though, there came a time when the world of the comet-people seemed threatened with downfall. Their metal bodies, like all of their machines, were actuated by atomic force, force produced through the accelerated disintegration of certain radio-active elements. As time went on, however, their supply of these elements became smaller and smaller. It became plain that within a short time, as they measured time, they were doomed to extinction, for without the force to run their machines and bodies, those bodies must become inert and useless, and the brain inside of each must die. It would take long, but it would be sure, and in the end they would all be gone. They must find new sources of such elements, or die.
“In this extremity, their astronomers came forward with an announcement of importance. They had charted the course which their comet-world was following, and had discovered that soon it would pass through a star-system with eight planets. On its way through this system, they stated, the comet would pass close to one of these planets, the one which is our earth. Their spectroscopic instruments assured them that this planet, earth, held great stores of the radio-active elements they needed, so they conceived the gigantic plan of stealing earth from the solar system, of drawing it into the comet and carrying it out into space with them. If they could do this, it would furnish them an endless supply of the materials they needed, and would also give them new lands inside the comet. So they set to work and formulated their great conspiracy. A conspiracy to steal a world!
“WHEN the comet had entered the solar system, a hundred of the comet-people set out in four great cones, or space-ships, to establish themselves upon earth and carry out their plan. These cones were driven through space by light-pressure, the possibilities of which force they had long utilized. Even on earth, we know that this force exists and understand a few of its manifestations; though only a few. We know that it is the pressure of the sun’s light that causes a comet’s tail to swing always away from the sun. It drove their cones through space at will and they used the principle of it in their destroying white ray. In that ray, light-pressure could be used of such power as to disintegrate the molecules of any object, or it could be used merely to strike a powerful blow, as when Hanley and I had been stunned by it. It was by means of this force that the cones of the comet-people rose from their world and drove headlong out through the great coma, across the solar system to the earth.
“They knew that earth was inhabited, and it was their plan on reaching the planet to find some secluded spot where they could work without fear of interruption. For this reason they had approached earth at night, finally landing upon the dark, silent island. Surprised there by the presence of Hanley and myself, they had instantly stunned us with the light-ray, but had refrained from killing us for their own reasons. They wished to learn as much as possible about our world, and for that reason had spared us and had taken the trouble to get into communication with us.
“It was thus that we learned the method which they intended to use in pulling our planet into the passing comet. You know that the earth, whirling around the sun, is exactly like a hand swinging a ball around and around at the end of a long cord. The sun is the hand, the earth is the ball, and the power of the sun’s gravitation is the cord. If it were not for the earth’s motion, its centrifugal force, it would fall into the sun, pulled there by the latter’s gravitational power. And similarly, if it were not for the pull of the sun’s gravity, the earth’s centrifugal force would cause it to fly off into space at a tangent, just as the swinging ball would fly off if someone suddenly cut the cord.
“It was just that that the comet-people meant to do. They meant to cut the cord. They were setting up an apparatus that would neutralize the sun’s gravitational power on the earth. They had learned that the emanations of gravitational force from any body have a measurable wave-length, and that this wavelength is different in the case of each different body. The vibrations of gravitational force from the sun are thus different in wave-length from those of earth, and it is the same always; the wave-length of no two emanations are the same. Thus the invaders could neutralize the sun’s gravitational power on earth without affecting the power of the earth itself, or of any other body. They would set up a wave-plant, or vibration machine, which would send out vibrations equal in wave-length to the sun’s gravitational emanations; these would meet and oppose and neutralize the gravitational force of the sun. In that way, the sun would no longer pull earth, and the earth, therefore, would fly off into space at a tangent.
“It was the plan of the invaders to do this at a time when the comet was nearing the earth, so that when the planet did fly off from its orbit, it would do so just as the comet was passing, and would thus be brought inside the gravitational grip of the great comet itself. That done, the rest would be easy. The grip of the comet would pull the earth down through the coma to the nucleus, where it would be received so as to cause it to revolve about the nucleus. Of course the earth’s moon would accompany its mother-planet when it left its orbit, and would be carried into the comet likewise. All life on earth would be annihilated when it passed through the coma by the dense and deadly gases there, and thus earth and moon would be at the disposal of the comet- people. And thus the earth would be carried out of the solar system inside the great comet for all time, and its riches of minerals and materials would form a great supply-base for the comet-people, and another world for their inhabitation.
“This much Hanley and I learned in our written conversations with the leader of the invaders, for it was the leader, we learned, who was communicating with us. And we were dazed with horror. Soon the invaders would have finished that great machine by which they meant to cut off the sun’s pull, and when the comet drew near earth, the planet would go hurtling out toward its doom. We alone knew the peril that hung over earth, and we could do nothing, fettered and prisoned as we were. Nor was there chance of outside help, for the invaders kept a close watch on the waters around the island, and twice used the light-ray to annihilate small boats that came too near. There was no chance for escape or for help from outside, and we must remain helpless witnesses of the world’s doom.
“It was then that the leader revealed to us the purpose for which we had been saved, and made to us an amazing proposal, which filled me with horror. He proposed that we cast in our lot with the comet- people, that we become of their number and help them in their plans. He had learned that we were both scientists, and knew that after the earth had been drawn into the comet, we would be of invaluable aid to them in helping them in the exploitation of its resources. So he informed us that if we would do so, if we would agree to help them, he would confer immortality on us by removing our brains from our own bodies and placing them in metal bodies like their own. If we refused—death.
“The thought filled me with loathing—the idea of our living brains enduring through centuries in metal bodies. We had been given a few days in which to decide, and as I knew that I would never accept, I saw death ahead. But to my horror and dismay, Hanley began to lean toward the idea. As a biologist, I think, he had long been interested in the idea of achieving immortality, of preserving the intelligence beyond the death of the body, and now that he saw the thing within his grasp, he was disposed to accept it. I argued with him for hours, trying to make him feel the utter horror of the whole business, invoking every argument I could think of to shake him, but all to no purpose, for he was sullen and unyielding to all my words. He pointed out that we would die in any case, and that the peoples of earth were doomed, so that our refusal would in no way help us or anyone else. So to all of my entreaties he turned a deaf ear, and when the time came, he informed the leader of the invaders that he was willing to accept their proposition and become one of them.
“That afternoon they did the thing. God, what a sight that was! Through the window I watched them. They set up a folding metal table on the plateau nearby, and stretched Hanley upon it, then they applied their anaesthetics. Nearby lay the metal body which they had prepared for him. It was the same as their own, except for one feature. Instead of having four tentacle-arms and four legs, it had but two of each. That puzzled me for a time, but it occurred to me that the reason for this difference was that there were no nerve-ends in Hanley’s brain with which to control an extra pair of arms and legs. Therefore, his metal body had been provided with but two of each.
“I saw their instruments, then, flashing in the sunlight, and when the moment came, they lifted Hanley’s living brain from his skull and placed it in that metal frame, inside the cubical head. A flash of the light-ray, and his own dead body vanished, while the invaders clustered around the metal body, twisting, turning, connecting. At last they stepped back, and a sick horror came over me as I saw that metal body standing erect, moving, walking, obeying the commands of Hanley’s brain, inside it.
“From that time on, Hanley was one of the comet-people. Like them, he worked unceasingly on the great machine, directed by the leader, no doubt, and like them, he never seemed to rest, his brain ever driving that tireless metal body. He paid no attention whatever to me, never came near the cabin. He may have been ordered to stay away from it, of course. But I could always distinguish him from the other metal figures, even at a distance, because of the difference in the number of his limbs.
“I had expected death when they finished with Hanley, but I soon learned that a fate far worse lay ahead. The leader visited me once more, and told me, out of sheer cruelty, I think, that when their work on earth was finished, they would take me back with them. Living creatures were very rare on their own world, except for themselves, and I would be a valuable subject for experimentation. Even that news hardly altered the dull despair that filled me.
“The days dragged by slowly, and the great machine outside neared completion. It looked much like a battery of great turbines, a long row of dark, squat cylindrical mechanisms which were joined to each other by an intricate web of connections. Over all of them had been placed a great cover of shining metal, protecting the mechanisms beneath from rain and dew, and inset on the front of this cover was the switchboard which controlled the great machine. It was a square tablet of black metal, covered by a mass of intricate adjustments and controls, switches, knobs and levers. At the center was a single shining lever much larger than the others, which swung around a graduated dial.
“At the very edge of the plateau, not far from the cabin, the invaders had erected another mechanism, which puzzled me for a time. It was a large upright screen of ground-glass, or a similar material, behind which was attached some smaller mechanisms, which I only glimpsed. This screen was, in fact, a great chart, a chart of the heavens, on which was represented the comet and the earth. The comet was a great disk of green light, and around this central disk was a thin green circle, which represented the limits of the comet’s gravitational grip. Any object inside that thin green line was inside the comet’s grasp, and would inevitably be drawn down into the coma, while so long as it lay outside of that line, it was in the power of the sun’s gravity. In other words, that line was the “neutral” between the two zones of gravitational force.
“The earth was represented on the chart by a small disk of white light. Both the tiny white disk and the great green one moved on the screen in exact proportions to the movements of the earth and comet in the heavens. How this was accomplished I could not conjecture, but supposed that the mechanism behind the screen caught a moving picture of the actual movements of comet and earth, by means of light- rays or electrical radiations, and reproduced it in miniature on the screen. The purpose of the chart was clear enough. It would enable them to time their operations with accuracy, so that the earth would leave its orbit at the exact moment when its outward flight would bring it inside of that thin green line, and within the comet’s gravitational power. Tensely I watched that chart, and each day I saw the comet and the earth drawing nearer, nearer, as the green wanderer sped out of the solar system.
“BY then the work of the invaders was slackening, for the great machine appeared to be finished. At last came the time, just four nights ago, when they finally put it into operation. I saw them gathered around the switchboard, Hanley among them. The leader stood ready, a tentacle grasping the large central lever. Others were watching the great chart, calculating the positions of earth and comet. I knew that the whole operation must be timed to an incredible nicety, if it were to succeed at all, and I waited, as anxiously as they. At last, there was a sudden stir among those at the chart, and I divined that the signal had been given, speeding silently and swiftly from brain to brain. And I was right, for at the same moment the leader, at the switchboard, swung the big lever around the dial, slowly and carefully. He had reason to be careful. The difference in wave-length of the different gravitational emanations must be extremely minute, and if he were to accidentally neutralize the earth’s gravity instead of the sun’s, if only for an instant, there is no telling what tremendous cataclysm might not occur. But that did not happen, for when he had swung the lever to a certain position on the dial, there rose from the great machine a low humming, a sound so deep as to be scarcely audible. Instantly the leader stepped back.
“The machine had been started. I knew that at that moment it was sending forth its own powerful vibrations to meet and oppose and neutralize those of the sun’s gravitational force. The cord had been cut!
“For a time, though, nothing seemed changed. Like the metal figures on the plateau, I watched the great chart for all the rest of that night, but it was only toward morning that any change became apparent. Even that change was so small that it could hardly be noted. It was only that the little white earth-circle on the chart was moving a little faster, was leaping toward the green comet a little more quickly.
“And as the hours went by, it moved faster and faster, until by that night I could see plainly that the earth was already a little out of its orbit, veering out a little bit toward the nearing comet. Gathered around the chart and the great vibration-mechanism, the invaders watched the result of their work. And fettered there in the little cabin I, too, watched and waited.
“But that night, when I had all but reached the blackest depths of despair, I stumbled on something that gave me a ray of hope. Much of the time I spent in the cabin I occupied myself in searching endlessly for some sort of tool or weapon, but always without avail, for as I have said, every object that would serve for either had been taken away. But at last, that night, I came across a tiny point of metal that projected a bit from the dirt floor of the cabin, in one of the dark corners. In a moment I was digging away at the thing, and inside a minute had unearthed a long, rusty file, which had been buried beneath the floor, with only the tip projecting through the dirt. It was so badly rusted that it appeared almost useless, but the very possession of the thing gave me new life, and after cleaning it as well as I could, I set to work on the shackle around my leg, muffling the grate of the file by wrapping it with cloths when I worked.
“Through all that night I sawed away at the shackle, and when morning came I was disheartened by the little I had accomplished. The rusty file had made only a shallow notch in the hard metal of the shackle. Yet, I knew that it was my only chance, and kept steadily at it, now and then glancing out of the window to make sure that I was unobserved.
“Weariness overcame me, and I slept for several hours, waking shortly after noon. That was yesterday. And when I glanced out of the window at the great chart, I saw that earth had leaped half the gap between itself and the comet, and was approaching perilously near to the thin green line that marked the limits of the comet’s grip. I knew that once it passed inside that line it was the end, for no power in the universe could then release it from the comet. The machine must be smashed or turned off before that happened. Frantically I worked at the shackle, through all of that long, hot afternoon.
“Night came, and the comet flared overhead in awful splendor, waxing tremendously in size and brilliance, its green light falling through my window and clashing with the white brilliance of the floodlights on the plateau. Out on that plateau, the invaders were still gathered in motionless groups, still watching the tiny earth-circle on the chart, which hurtled toward the comet now with terrifying speed. From its rate of progress I estimated that it would have passed inside the comet’s grip by the next night, and knew that after it had done so, the invaders would enter their cones and leave for their own world at the comet’s center, while earth passed to its doom in the deadly coma. I must escape that night, if ever.
“At last, shortly before midnight, I had sawn the shackle half through, and with a muffled blow, managed to break it. I crept to the window, then, and cautiously looked out.
“Under the dazzling lights, the metal figures outside were gathered together in two masses, around the chart and the machine, sprawled on the ground. None of them seemed to be watching the cabin at the moment, but the little building had but two windows, and both of them faced toward the plateau. The forest lay but a few yards behind the cabin, and once inside it I would be comparatively safe, but to get there I must creep from the building in full view of the invaders on the plateau, and beneath the dazzling glare of their flood-lights.
“There was no other course for me to follow, though, so without hesitating further, I gently pried the window open and as quietly as possible slid through it, dropping at once to the ground and lying still for a tense moment. There were no sudden sounds or movements from the metal figures around the two mechanisms, so as stealthily as possible I began to crawl around the base of the cabin, and in a few moments had reached the welcome shadows behind it. I then rose to my feet, and took a swift step toward the forest, a few yards away. And I stopped short. Fifty feet to the right of me a single metal figure had suddenly stepped into view, confronting me, a light-ray tube held in its tentacle and pointing toward me. And it was Hanley!
“Hanley, or that which had once been Hanley’s brain and soul, cased in that body of metal. I recognized him at once, by reason of his two tentacles and limbs, and the bitterness of death came over me, for I had failed. Instinctively, though, even at that moment, I staggered toward the trees ahead, waiting for the death from behind. In a moment would come the flashing ray, and death.
“But it did not come! With a sudden thrill of hope I began to run, and within a few seconds had passed into the dense darkness of the forest. I had escaped, though for the moment I could hardly credit my escape. I glanced back toward the plateau, and saw the figure of Hanley still standing there, silent, unmoving, the deadly ray-tube still held in his grasp. He had let me go!
“BEFORE I could understand what had happened, there came a sudden flurry of movement across the plateau, a little stir of excitement there, and over my shoulder, I saw a dozen or so dark shapes gliding smoothly across the clearing on my track. They had discovered my escape, and were after me.
“Frantic as some hunted creature of the wild, I raced on through the forest, stumbling on projecting roots, hurling myself through patches of briars with mad haste. And swift on my trail came that inexorable pursuit, drawing nearer and nearer toward me, turn and twist as I might. I was rapidly getting out of breath and knew that I could not long compete in speed or endurance with the tireless metal bodies behind me. At last I saw the ripple of water ahead, and a plan, a last expedient, flashed into my mind.
"I stumbled on until I had reached the water’s edge, where the thick forest extended right down to the island’s shore. Swiftly I searched the ground around me, and in a moment had found what I sought—a large, thick section of deadwood. Grasping this, I threw myself behind a clump of bushes a few yards away, and waited for my pursuers.
“In a few seconds they came, crashing through the underbrush on my track. I waited a moment longer, until they had almost reached me, then hurled my section of wood out into the water, and at once flattened myself again behind my screen of bushes.
“The piece of wood splashed into the water at the exact moment when my pursuers, some five or six in number, reached the water’s edge, not ten feet away from me. At the sound of the splash, the brilliant light-ray instantly flashed forth from their weapons, churning the waters of the lake with its disintegrating force. For perhaps a minute this continued, and then they snapped off the ray and waited. There was silence, except for the washing of the troubled waters of the lake.
“I crouched lower behind my flimsy shelter, holding my breath, but after a long moment the metal figures turned away, and I heard them retracing their way through the forest. My trick had worked.
“For half an hour I lay there, a little dazed by the swift action I had just passed through. Then I rose and began to make my way stealthily along the shore. It was my thought to get to our little motorboat, which we had kept in a tiny cove, and to make for the mainland in it. If I could do that, I might be able to obtain help and return to the island, make an effort to destroy these invaders and smash their machine. But when I got to the cove I found only a few fragments of the boat. It had been destroyed by the invaders!
“To me, that seemed the end—the end, to all our earth. There was no chance left to give warning now, for I knew that by the next night earth would have passed inside the comet's grip forever, and it would all be over. Through the rest of the night, our last night, I wandered over the island, a little mad, I think, and when this morning finally came it found me at the island’s northern end. I lay there, trying to plan out some last course of action, when the chugging of a boat roused me. I hurried to the shore, just in time to see your boat destroyed by the light-ray from the plateau, and your companion killed. I saw that you had escaped—though the watchers did not—and waited until you got to shore. And that is all.
“And that is all. Over there on the plateau stands the great machine which is sending earth hurtling into the comet, while the invaders there watch and wait. A little longer, a little nearer, and earth will have passed inside the comet’s grip, and then it will be hours only until the end. The comet overhead growing larger and larger, nearer and nearer, and then the deadly gases of the coma, bringing swift death to all on earth. And at the last, the comet racing out of the solar system with the earth inside it, flashing out into space, never to return, plunging across the universe for all time with its stolen, captive world!”
THE hoarse whisper of Coburn’s voice ceased, and for minutes the two men sat in silence. The whole island seemed unutterably silent, at that moment, except for the wind gently rustling the leaves around them, and the drowsy hum of insects. Through the foliage above, the sunlight slanted down in bars of bright gold.
Marlin was the first to speak.
“The earth!” he whispered chokingly; “the whole earth! What can we do—we two—”
Coburn was staring into the forest, scarcely listening. When he spoke, his voice was deadened, toneless.
“Nothing, now,” he said. “We must wait—until tonight——” A little flame of hope leaped into his eyes, and he turned quickly to Marlin.
“Tonight there is a chance,” he whispered. “A chance in ten million, but—a chance. If we could get to that machine——”
“Smash it?” asked Marlin. “Turn it off?” Coburn nodded slowly. “We’ll try,” he said. “Tonight, when it’s darker. If I had a single moment at that switchboard——”
He broke off suddenly as once more there came through the forest the clanging rattle of metal against metal. His eyes held Marlin’s.
“Getting ready,” he whispered. “Getting ready to leave, tonight. They’ll wait till earth has passed that neutral line, until it’s in the comet’s grip, and then they’ll destroy the machine and leave in the cones.” Crouched there, they listened, silent, white-faced, tense. . . .
Always afterward the remaining hours of that day were to Marlin a vague, half-remembered time. Hot, and hungry, and very thirsty, he lay beside Coburn, speaking little and that in whispers, listening fearfully to the sounds that drifted to their ears from the south. As the day waned, the events through which he had just passed, the things which he had just been told, became blurred and confused in his brain. Once or twice he caught himself wondering why he lay thus in hiding, and brought himself back to reality only with a sharp effort.
A few hours more, and the sunset flamed low in the west, painting the sky there with a riot of brilliant colors. Marlin strove to remember a sunset which he had once seen, with a great blue lake and a neat white village in the foreground. How long ago had that been? Days, months, years?
While he struggled with that thought, the gold and orange and crimson were fading from the sky above, and they awaited only the darkening of the long June twilight. Its gray deepened to a darker gray, and then to black. Then, up from the eastern horizon, there soared colossal bars and banners of iridescent light, sweeping across the heavens like an aurora of blinding green. Prepared as he had been for the sight, Marlin gasped when the comet wheeled into the heavens, a single vast ocean of green fire, that crept smoothly westward across the firmament, and that dripped down a ghastly, throbbing radiance upon the world. It was as if the whole sky were boiling with emerald flame.
Coburn stood up, his burning eyes fixed upon the comet, his face death-like beneath its green unearthly light. He turned to Marlin, who had risen beside him.
“I am going ahead to reconnoiter first,” he explained swiftly, “and I want you to stay here while I’m gone. We have a few hours at least, I think, and before we can plan any course of action I must know what is happening on the plateau.”
“You won’t be long?” whispered Marlin, and the other shook his head. “Not more than a half-hour. But don’t leave this spot until I come back.”
Marlin whispered his assent, sinking to the ground again, while Coburn glanced quickly around, then moved stealthily into the forest, toward the south. In a moment he had been swallowed up by the shadows.
Left alone, Marlin resumed his prone position on the ground, not venturing any movement. Except for the steady chirping of crickets, and the deep croaking of distant frogs, the forest around him was very silent. He turned, after a moment, and gazed up into the flaming heavens, until his eyes were dazzled by the splendor of the waxing comet. There came to him, dimly, some realization of what that flaming thing above must be doing to the world of men, of the pit of fear into which it must have precipitated all earth. The thought steadied him a little, and his jaw tightened.
Abruptly Marlin realized that Coburn had been gone for a longer time than he had mentioned, and swift anxiety and fear chilled him. Where was Coburn? Had he been captured? Killed? He tried to reassure himself, to force down his misgivings, but with the passing of every minute his fear deepened. When an hour had passed he rose at last to his feet, looking anxiously around. He hesitated for a moment, then uttered a low call.
No answer came back to him, except a rustling echo of his own voice. A ray of green light from the wheeling comet above struck down through the canopy of leaves and fell upon his white, anxious face.
Again he had called, and louder, but again his cry went unanswered. Marlin could endure the suspense no longer, and suddenly crept from his hiding place and began to make his way southward through the forest, as silently as possible.
Slowly he moved forward through the dark forest, a forest pillared here and there by shafts of green radiance from the comet overhead. He stumbled across green-lit clearings, and over tiny, gurgling brooks, and through dense thickets of brush and briars. Twice he crossed steep little ridges, and once he blundered across a soggy patch of swamp, where his feet sank deeply into the treacherous ground, and where snakes rustled away from him through the grass on either side. Still he stumbled on, breath almost gone, heart near to bursting. It seemed to him now that he must be very near to the plateau at the island’s center.
But as he emerged from a dense little tangle of brush, and took in the sight ahead of him, something like a sob came from him, and he slumped to the ground in sheer exhaustion. He was standing at the edge of a narrow, sandy beach, and beyond it there stretched away the rippling, green-lit lake. Instead of heading toward the island's center, he had lost his way, and had lost more than an hour blundering across the island in the wrong direction. He dropped to the ground, half-dazed by his efforts, striving to get his bearings.
He thought of calling to Coburn again, but dared not do so, for he could not know how close he might be to the plateau. Nor could he know where the plateau lay, there on the strange dark island. If he were to return to where Coburn had left him, then he might be able—
It rang across the island, loud and clear, a single short, metallic note. Marlin started to his feet. He stood motionless, listening intently. In a moment came another sound, a deep, powerful droning, that waxed in intensity for a moment, then continued without change. At once Marlin moved off again into the forest, heading unhesitatingly to the left. The sound, which could come only from the plateau, had given him his bearings.
Hastily he pushed on, his weariness forgotten for the moment, his throat tight with excitement. Far ahead he made out a thin white light that filtered feebly through the forest, a pale light very different from the green radiance of the comet overhead. And as Marlin pressed on toward it, the droning sound came to his ears louder and louder, nearer and nearer. He slackened his pace a little, moving more stealthily.
Again it came, that single ringing note, sounding louder in his ears than the first, as he drew nearer to the plateau. And again, following it, there rose the deep droning sound, combining with the first to fill the air with a terrific humming, as of ten thousand dynamos.
The white light ahead grew stronger and stronger, until at last there rose before Marlin a steep little slope, at the top of which the forest ended, and from beyond which came the white radiance. He flattened himself on the ground, crawled stealthily up the slope, and paused at its edge, behind a slight thicket of bushes. Cautiously he parted the bushes and peered forward.
Before him lay the plateau, a broad, grassy surface perhaps a quarter-mile across. Some fifty feet above its center there hung in the air two great shapes from which came the droning sound, two gigantic cones of metal. Attached to these were flood-lights that drenched all on the plateau with their white light, which even there was pale in comparison with the throbbing radiance from the comet overhead.
At the center of the plateau two similar cones rested on the ground, in the side of each of which was an oval opening. Even as Marlin first glimpsed these, the opening in one of them closed, with the loud clanging note he had twice heard, and then, with a powerful droning roar, the cone rose smoothly into the air to hang beside the two others there.
On the plateau was left the single great cone. Beside it there stood a long, low structure, shining brilliantly beneath the double illumination from cones and comet, and bearing on its face a black tablet covered with knobs and levers, with a single large lever and dial at its center. It was the neutralizing- machine, Marlin knew, the machine that was cutting off the sun’s pull, that was sending the earth hurtling out toward its doom in the comet. Around this machine were grouped a score of grotesque, metallic figures, figures strangely spider-like with their multiple tentacles and limbs, and with square, unhuman heads of metal on which were set the glowing circles that were their eyes. A deep, shuddering loathing shook Marlin as he saw them for the first time.
He turned his gaze to the right and saw, at the edge of the plateau there, the low, rough cabin, and beyond it the great chart which Coburn had described to him, a large ground-glass screen on which moved the small white disk that was earth and the great green disk that was the comet, the latter encircled by the thin green line that marked the limits of its gravitational grip. And as Marlin’s eyes fell upon it, his heart leaped uncontrollably. For the earth-disk on the chart was only a few inches from the thin green line around the comet, the neutral between its gravitation and the sun’s. And swiftly that tiny gap was closing.
For the first time the significance of the hovering cones above struck Marlin. The invaders were leaving, their work accomplished. In a few moments earth would have passed forever inside the comet’s grasp, and they could destroy the great machine with a flash of the light-ray, and speed off in their cones, leaving earth to its doom. It was the end.
Marlin’s brain was whirling, his hands trembling, but he hesitated for only a second, then crawled slowly forward from behind his flimsy shelter. Out over the plateau, beneath the glaring light from above, he crawled on toward the machine, half-hidden by the tall grasses that covered the plateau. For ten yards he crept forward, then stopped, and ventured to raise his head a little and look ahead.
The last of the metal figures on the plateau were trooping into the remaining cone, through the opening in its side. There remained only four or five who were standing beside the great machine, beside the switchboard. And in the moment that Marlin saw these, they discovered him. He saw them turning and evidently gazing straight toward him. A moment Marlin crouched there, petrified, and then he rose to his feet with a mad shout and raced straight across the plateau toward the switchboard of the great machine.
Even as he rose to his feet two of the little group at the machine flashed toward him, with incredible speed, and before he had covered a dozen paces they were upon him. He felt himself gripped by cold, coiling tentacles, grasped and thrown to the ground.
For a moment he struggled frantically, then heard a hoarse cry, and wrenched his head up to see a dark shape speeding across the plateau from the opposite edge. It was Coburn!
Twisting in the remorseless grip of the two with whom he battled, he had a flashing glimpse of Coburn racing toward the machine, and then he uttered a cry of agony. From one of the hovering cones above, a shaft of the light-ray had flashed down and it struck Coburn squarely. A moment he was visible, aureoled in a halo of blinding light, and then he had vanished. Marlin closed his eyes, ceased his struggles. He felt himself jerked to his feet by his two captors.
He opened his eyes, then, and stared dazedly over toward the great chart. The earth-disk there was less than an inch from the green neutral-line. It was all over. He and Coburn had shot their feeble bolt and failed. He felt himself being jerked forward toward the last cone, sagging between his captors in dull despair.
BUT what was that sudden crash of metal at the machine, that rush of movement there? Marlin’s head snapped up with sudden hope. A single metal figure had sprung out of the group beside the machine, a figure oddly manlike, with but two tentacles and two limbs, that leaped toward the switchboard of the great machine.
He screamed aloud, and at the same moment was released, thrown to the ground, by his two guards, who also raced toward the switchboard. From the cone on the ground there poured forth a stream of metal figures, and the droning giants above dropped swiftly down toward the machine. Hanley was beside the switchboard, had reached up with a swift tentacle and grasped the great lever at its center. From cones above and metal figures below, a dozen shafts of the brilliant light-ray flashed toward him. But in the fraction of a second before they reached him, he had wrenched the great lever far around the dial, and the next moment a titanic explosion rocked the island to its foundation. Marlin was knocked backward by a terrific gust of force, and had but a single flashing glimpse of all at the center of the plateau, machine and metal figures and hovering cones, shooting skyward at lightning speed.
He staggered to his feet, dazed, half-blind, reeled drunkenly forward and then stopped short. For at the center of the plateau there yawned a terrific gulf, a vast pit torn from the earth in a single instant. Cones and machine and invaders had vanished utterly in that tremendous cataclysm, blown off into space when Hanley had swung the lever, and had neutralized earth’s gravity, for that single moment and at that single spot, instead of the gravity of the sun.
Marlin staggered along the edge of that mighty abyss, toward the great chart-screen at the plateau’s edge. It had been twisted and bent by that tremendous detonation, but it still functioned, and on it there moved still the two disks, the earth and comet symbols. Marlin stumbled closer, his whole soul fixed upon the screen. The tiny earth-disk there was still creeping forward toward the green neutral-line around the comet, moving slower and slower, but still moving. Slower, slower, it moved. Now it was but a half-inch from the line, a quarter, an eighth. By then it was hardly moving. It had touched the line, now, hovered at its edge. Hovered as the earth was hovering, at that moment, on the neutral between sun and comet, hesitating, tottering— And then Marlin cried aloud.
For the white disk was moving back!
Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, the earth-disk was falling back from that thin line, swinging back into its usual orbit, pulled back again by the sun’s far-reaching power, pulled back from the very edge of doom.
Marlin raised his tear-stained face toward the great comet above, a single vast sea of green flame, immense, titanic. It was passing, now, passing out of the solar system for all time, its one chance of stealing our earth gone forever. He shook his fist toward it in mad defiance.
“You lost!” he screamed, in insane rage and triumph. “Damn you, you lost!”
IT was twilight of the next day when Marlin left the island, paddling slowly out from it on the crude little log-raft which he had fashioned. Shadows of dusk were falling upon the world, deepening into darkness. In the west there trembled forth a star. Still he crept on.
Night, and up from the east there rose again the comet. Marlin lapsed in his progress at that, gazing toward it. Small and shrunken and harmless, it seemed now, its evil glory fast waning as it thundered out into space on its appointed course. He wondered, momentarily, what frenzies of thanksgiving were shaking the peoples of earth to see it thus receding, to see themselves thus snatched back from the very gates of death.
He turned, for a moment, looking back toward the island. It seemed dark and small, now, a low, black mass of land that stood out indistinctly against the pale-lit waters. Only a tiny speck of land, there in the great lake, and yet on it had been decided the fate of a planet. On it the comet-people had played their great game, with a world as the stake, and on it they had lost, their vast conspiracy smashed, in the end, by Hanley. Hanley, whose human brain, human intelligence, human soul, had lived on in a body of metal, to shatter the invaders’ colossal plan at the last, remorseful moment.
Marlin paddled on, a dull ache filling his heart. Coburn, Hanley—they had died for the world, for him, while he still lived on. Yet even now, he could give them something, however little, in return. The homage and the gratitude of a world, when that world learned who had saved it. He could give them that, at least. . . .
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