The Meteor Girl
By Jack Williamson,7721 words
What's the good in Einstein, anyhow?"
I shot the question at lean young Charlie King. In a moment he looked up at me; I thought there was pain in the back of his clear brown eyes. Lips closed in a thin white line across his wind-tanned face; nervously he tapped his pipe on the metal cowling of the Golden Gull's cockpit.
Through the complicated space-time of the fourth dimension goes Charlie King in an attempt to rescue the Meteor Girl.
"I know that space is curved, that there is really no space or time, but only space-time, that electricity and gravitation and magnetism are all the same. But how is that going to pay my grocery bill—or yours?"
"That's what Virginia wants to know."
"Virginia Randall!" I was astonished. "Why, I thought—"
"I know. We've been engaged a year. But she's called it off."
Charlie looked into my eyes for a long minute, his lips still compressed. We were leaning on the freshly painted, streamline fuselage of the Golden Gull, as neat a little amphibian monoplane as ever made three hundred miles an hour. She stood on the glistening white sand of our private landing field on the eastern Florida coast. Below us the green Atlantic was running in white foam on the rocks.
In the year that Charlie King and I had been out of the Institute of Technology, we had built the nucleus of a commercial airplane business. We had designed and built here in our own shops several very successful seaplanes and amphibians. Charlie's brilliant mathematical mind was of the greatest aid, except when he was too far lost in his abstruse speculations to descend to things commercial. Mathematics is painful enough to me when it is used in calculating the camber of an airplane wing. And pure mathematics, such as the theories of relativity and equivalence, I simply abhor.
I was amazed. Virginia Randall was a girl trim and beautiful as our shining Golden Gull. I had thought them devotedly in love, and had been looking forward to the wedding.
"But it isn't two weeks, since Virginia was out here! You took her up in our Western Gull IV!"
Nervously Charlie lit his pipe, drew quickly on it. His face, lean and drawn beneath the flying goggles pushed up on his forehead, sought mine anxiously.
"I know. I drove her back to the station. That was when—when we quarreled."
"But why? About Einstein? That's silly."
"She wanted me to give it up here, and go in with her father in his Wall Street brokerage business. The old gent is willing to take me, and make a business man of me."
"Why, I couldn't run the business without you, Charlie!"
"We talked about that, Hammond. I don't really do much of the work. Just play around with the mathematics, and leave the models and blueprints to you."
"Oh, Charlie, that's not quite—"
"It's the truth, right enough," he said, bitterly. "You design aircraft, and I play with Einstein. And as you say, a fellow can't eat equations."
"I'd hate to see you go."
"And I'd hate to give up you, and our business, and the math. Really no need of it. My tastes are simple enough. And old 'Iron-clad' Randall has made all one family needs. Virginia's not exactly a pauper, herself. Two or three millions, I think."
"And where did Virginia go?"
"She took the Valhalla yesterday at San Francisco. Going to join her father at Panama. He cruises about the world in his steam yacht, you know, and runs Wall Street by radio. I was to telegraph her if I'd changed my mind. I decided to stick to you, Hammond. I telegraphed a corsage of orchids, and sent her the message, 'Einstein forever!'"
"If I know Virginia, those were not very politic words."
"Well, a man—"
His words were cut short by a very unusual incident.
A thin, high scream came suddenly from above our neat stuccoed hangars at the edge of the white field. I looked up quickly, to catch a glimpse of a bright object hurtling through the air above our heads. The bellowing scream ended abruptly in a thunderous crash. I felt a tremor of the ground underfoot.
"What—" I ejaculated.
"Look!" cried Charlie.
He pointed. I looked over the gleaming metal wing of the Golden Gull, to see a huge cloud of white sand rising like a fountain at the farther side of the level field. Deliberately the column of debris rose, spread, rained down, leaving a gaping crater in the earth.
"It sounded like a shell from a big gun, except that it didn't explode. Let's get over and see!"
We ran to where the thing had struck, three hundred yards across the field. We found a great funnel-shaped pit torn in the naked earth. It was a dozen yards across, fifteen feet deep, and surrounded with a powdery ring of white sand and pulverized rock.
"Something like a shell-hole," I observed.
"I've got it!" Charlie cried. "It was a meteor!"
"A meteor? So big?"
"Yes. Lucky for us it was no bigger. If it had been like the one that fell in Siberia a few years ago, or the one that made the Winslow crater in Arizona—we wouldn't have been talking about it. Probably we have a chunk of nickel-iron alloy here."
"I'll get some of the men out here with digging tools, and we'll see what we can find."
Our mechanics were already hurrying across the field. I shouted at them to bring picks and shovels. In a few minutes five of us were at work throwing sand and shattered rock out of the pit.
Suddenly I noticed a curious thing. A pale bluish mist hung in the bottom of the pit. It was easily transparent, no denser than tobacco smoke. Passing my spade through it did not seem to disturb it in the least.
I rubbed my eyes doubtfully, said to Charlie, "Do you see a sort of blue haze in the pit?"
He peered. "No. No.... Yes. Yes, I do! Funny thing. Kind of a blue fog. And the tools cut right through it without moving it! Queer! Must have something to do with the meteor!" He was very excited.
We dug more eagerly. An hour later we had opened the hole to a depth of twenty feet. Our shovels were clanging on the gray iron of the rock from space. The mist had grown thicker as the excavation deepened; we looked at the stone through a screen of motionless blue fog.
We had found the meteor. There were several queer things about it. The first man who touched it—a big Swede mechanic named Olson—was knocked cold as if by a nasty jolt of electricity. It took half an hour to bring him to consciousness.
As fast as the rugged iron side of the meteorite was uncovered, a white crust of frost formed over it.
"It was as cold as outer space, nearly at the absolute zero," Charlie explained. "And it was heated only superficially during its quick passage through the air. But how it comes to be charged with electricity—I can't say."
He hurried up to his laboratory behind the hangars, where he had equipment ranging from an astronomical telescope to a delicate seismograph. He brought back as much electrical equipment as he could carry. He had me touch an insulated wire to the frost-covered stone from space, while he put the other end to one post of a galvanometer.
I think he got a current that wrecked the instrument. At any rate, he grew very much excited.
"Something queer about that stone!" he cried. "This is the chance of a lifetime! I don't know that a meteor has ever been scientifically examined so soon after falling."
He hurried us all across to the laboratory. We came back with a truck load of coils and tubes and batteries and potentiometers and other assorted equipment. He had men with heavy rubber gloves lift the frost-covered stone to a packing box on a bench. The thing was irregular in shape, about a foot long; it must have weighed two hundred pounds. He sent a man racing on a motorcycle to the drug store to get dry ice (solidified carbon dioxide) to keep the iron stone at its low temperature.
In a few hours he had a complete laboratory set up around the meteorite. He worked feverishly in the hot sunshine, reading the various instruments he had set up, and arranging more. He contrived to keep the stone cold by packing it in a box of dry ice.
The mechanics stopped for dinner, and I tried to get him to take time to eat.
"No, Hammond," he said. "This is something big! We were talking about Einstein. This rock seems energized with a new kind of force: all meteors are probably the same way, when they first plunge out of space. I think this will be to relativity what the falling apple is to gravity. This is a big thing."
He looked up at me, brown eyes flashing.
"This is my chance to make a name, Hammond. If I do something big enough—Virginia might reconsider her opinion."
Charlie worked steadily through the long hot afternoon. I spent most of the time helping him, or gazing in fascination at the curious haze of luminous blue mist that clung like a sphere of azure fog about the meteoric stone. I did not completely understand what he did; the reader who wants the details may consult the monograph he is preparing for the scientific press.
He had the men string up a line from our direct current generator in the shops, to supply power for his electrical instruments. He mounted a powerful electromagnet just below the meteorite, and set up an X-ray tube to bombard it with rays.
Night came, and the fire of the white sun faded from the sky. In the darkness, the curious haze about the stone became luminescent, distinct, a dim, motionless sphere of blue light. I fancied that I saw grotesque shapes flashing through it. A ball of blue fire, shimmering and ghost-like, shrouded the instruments.
Charlie's induction coil buzzed wickedly, with purple fire playing about the terminals. The X-ray tube flickered with a greenish glow. He manipulated the rheostat that controlled the current through the electromagnet, and continued to read his instruments.
"Look at that!" he cried.
The bluish haze about the stone grew brighter; it became a ball of sapphire flame, five feet thick, bright and motionless. A great sphere of shimmering azure fire! Wisps of pale, sparkling bluish mist ringed it. The stone in its box, the X-ray bulb and other apparatus were hidden. The end of the table stuck oddly from the ball of light.
I heard Charlie move a switch. The hum of the coils changed a note.
The ball of blue fire vanished abruptly. It became a hole, a window in space!
Through it, we saw another world!
The darkness of the night hung about us. Where the ball had been was a circle of misty blue flame, five feet across. Through that circle I could see a vast expanse of blue ocean, running in high, white-capped rollers, beneath a sky overcast with low gray clouds.
It was no flat picture like a movie screen. The scene had vast depth; I knew that we were really looking over an infinite expanse of stormy ocean. It was all perfectly clear, distinct, real!
Astounded, I turned to find Charlie standing back and looking into the ring of blue fire, with a curious mixture of surprise and delighted satisfaction.
"What—what—" I gasped.
"It's amazing! Wonderful! More than I had dared hope for! The complete vindication of my theory! If Virginia cares for scientific reputation—"
"But what is it?"
"It's hard to explain without mathematical language. You might say that we are looking through a hole in space. The new force in the meteorite, amplified by the X-rays and the magnetic field, is causing a distortion of space-time coordinates. You know that a gravitational field bends light; the light of a star is deflected in passing the sun. The field of this meteorite bends light through space-time, through the four-dimensional continuum. That scrap of ocean we can see may be on the other side of the earth."
I walked around the circle of luminous smoke with the marvelous picture in the center. It seemed that the window swung with me. I surveyed the whole angry surface of that slate-gray, storm-beaten sea, to the misty horizon. Nowhere was it broken by land or ship.
Charlie fell to adjusting his rheostat and switches.
It seemed that the gray ocean moved swiftly beyond the window. Vast stretches of it raced below our eyes. Faint black stains of steamer smoke appeared against the blue-gray horizon and swept past. Then land appeared—a long, green-gray line. We had a flash of a long coast that unreeled in endless panorama before us. It was such a view as one might get from a swift airplane—a plane flying thousands of miles per hour.
The Golden Gate flashed before us, with the familiar skyline of San Francisco rising on the hills behind it.
"San Francisco!" Charlie cried. "This is the Pacific we've been seeing. Let's find the Valhalla. We might be able to see Virginia!"
The coast-line vanished as he manipulated his instruments. Staring into the circle of shining blue mist, I saw the endless ocean racing below us again. We picked up a pleasure yacht, running under bare poles.
"I didn't know there was such a storm on," Charlie murmured.
Other vessels swam past below us, laboring against heavy seas.
Then we looked upon an ocean whipped into mighty white-crowned waves. Rain beat down in sheets from low dense clouds; vivid violet lightnings flashed before us. It seemed very strange to see such lightning and hear not the faintest whisper of thunder—but no sound came from anything we saw through the blue-rimmed window in space.
"I hope the Valhalla isn't in weather like this!" cried Charlie.
In a few minutes a dark form loomed through the wind-riven mist. Swiftly it swam nearer; became a black ship.
"Only a tramp," Charlie said, breathing a sigh of relief.
It was a dingy tramp steamer, her superstructure wrecked. Her fires seemed dead. She lay across the wind, rolling sluggishly, threatening to sink with every monstrous wave. We saw no living person aboard her; she seemed a sinking derelict. We made out the name Roma on her side.
Charlie moved his dials again.
In a few minutes the slender prow of another great steamer came through the sheets of rain. It was evidently a passenger vessel. She seemed limping along, half wrecked, with mighty waves breaking over her rail.
Charlie grew white with alarm. "The Valhalla!" he gasped. "And she's headed straight for that wreck!"
In a moment, as he brought the liner closer below our blue-rimmed window, I, too, made out the name. The wet, glistening decks were almost deserted. Here and there a man struggled futilely against the force of the storm.
In a few minutes the drifting wreck of the Roma came into our view, dead ahead of the limping liner. Through the mist and falling rain, the derelict could not have been in sight of the lookout of the passenger vessel until she was almost upon it.
We saw the white burst of steam as the siren was blown. We watched the desperate effort of the liner to check her way, to come about. But it was too much for the already crippled ship. Charlie cried out as a mighty wave drove the Valhalla down upon the sluggishly drifting wreck.
All the mad scene that ensued was strangely silent. We heard no crash when the collision occurred; heard no screams or shouts while the mob of desperate, white-faced passengers were fighting their way to the deck. The vain struggle to launch the boats was like a silent movie.
One boat was splintered while being lowered. Another, already filled with passengers, was lifted by a great ware and crushed against the side of the ship. Only shivered wood and red foam were left. The ship listed so rapidly that the boats on the lee side were useless. It was impossible to launch the others in that terrible, lashing sea.
"Virginia can swim." Charlie said hopefully. "You know she tried the Channel last year, and nearly made it, too."
He stopped to watch that terrible scene in white-faced, anxious silence.
The tramp went down before the steamer, drawing fragments of wrecked boats after it. The liner was evidently sinking rapidly. We saw dozens of hopeless, panic-stricken passengers diving off the lee side, trying to swim off far enough to avoid the tremendous suction.
Then, with a curious deliberation, the bow of the Valhalla dipped under green water; her stern rose in the air until the ship stood almost perpendicular. She slipped quickly down, out of sight.
Only a few swimming humans, and the wrecks of a few boats, were left on the rough gray sea. Charlie fumbled nervously with his dials, trying to get the scene near enough so that we could see the identity of the struggling swimmers.
A long boat, which must have been swept below by the suction of the ship, came plunging above the surface, upside down. It drifted swiftly among the swimmers, who struggled to reach it. I saw one person, evidently a girl, grasp it and drag herself upon it. It swept on past the few others still struggling.
The wrecked boat with the girl upon it seemed coming swiftly toward our blue-rimmed window. In a few minutes I saw something familiar about her.
"It's Virginia!" Charlie cried. "God! We've got to save her, somehow!"
The long rollers drove the over-turned boat swiftly along. Virginia Randall clung desperately to it, deluged in foam, whipped with flying spray, the wild wind tearing at her.
About us, the clear still night was deepening. The air was warm and still; the hot stars shone steadily. Quiet lighted houses were in sight above the beach. It was very strange to look through the fire-rimmed circle, to see a girl struggling for life, clinging to a wrecked boat in a stormy sea.
Charlie watched in an apathy of grief and horror, trembling and speechless doing nothing except move the controls to keep the floating girl in our sight.
Hours went by as we watched. Then Charlie cried out in sudden hope. "There's a chance! I might do it! I might be able to save her!"
"Might do what?"
"We are able to see what we do because the field of the meteor bends light through the four-dimensional continuum. The world line of a ray of light is a geodesic in the continuum. The field I have built distorts the continuum, so we see rays that originated at a distant point. Is that clear?"
"Clear as mud!"
"Well, anyhow, if the field were strong enough, we could bring physical objects through space-time, instead of mere visual images. We could pick Virginia up and bring her right here to the crater! I'm sure of it!"
"You mean you could move a girl through some four or five thousand miles of space!"
"You don't understand. She wouldn't come through space at all, but through space-time, through the continuum, which is a very different thing. She is four thousand miles away in our three-dimensional space, but in space-time, as you see, she is only a few yards away. She is only a few yards from us in the fourth dimension. If I can increase the field a little, she will be drawn right through!"
"You're a wizard if you can do it!"
"I've got to do it! She's a fine swimmer—that's the only reason she's still alive—but she'll never live to reach the shore. Not in a sea like that!"
Charlie fell to work at once, mounting another electromagnet beside the one he had set up, and rigging up two more X-ray bulbs beside the packing box which held the meteor. The motion of the boat in the fire-rimmed window kept drawing it swiftly away from us, and Charlie showed me how to move the dial of his rheostat to keep the girl in view.
Before he had completed his arrangements, a patch of white foam came into view just ahead of the drifting boat. In a moment I made out a cruel black rock, with the angry sea breaking into fleecy spray upon it. The boat was almost upon it, driving straight for it. Charlie saw it, and cried out in horror.
The long black hull of the splintered boat, floating keel upward, was only a few yards away. A great white-capped breaker lifted it and hurled it forward, with the girl clinging to it. She drew herself up and stared in terror at the black rock, while another long surging roller picked up the boat and swept it forward again.
I stood, paralyzed in horror, while the shattered boat was driven full upon the great rock. I could imagine the crash of it, but it was all as still as a silent picture. The boat, riding high on a crest of white foam, smashed against the rock and was shivered to splinters. Virginia was hurled forward against the slick wet stone. Desperately she scrambled to reach the top of the boulder. Her hands slipped on the polished rock; the wild sea dragged at her. At last she got out of reach of the angry gray water, though spume still deluged her.
I breathed a sigh of relief, though her position was still far from enviable.
"Virginia! Virginia! Why did I let you go?" Charlie cried.
Desperately he fell to work again, mounting the magnet and tubes. Another hour went by, while I watched the shivering girl on the rock. Bobbed hair, wet and glistening, was plastered close against her head, and her clothing was torn half off. She looked utterly exhausted; it seemed to take all her ebbing energy to cling to the rock against the force of the wind and the waves that dashed against her. She looked cold, blue and trembling.
The water stood higher.
"The tide is rising!" Charlie exclaimed. "It will cover the rock pretty soon. If I don't get her off in time—she's lost!"
He finished twisting his wires together.
"I've got it all ready," he said. "Now, I've got to find out exactly where she is, to know how to set it. Even then it's fearfully uncertain. I hate to try it, but it's the only chance.
"You can find out?"
"Yes. From the spectral shift and other factors. I'll have to get some other apparatus." He ran up to the laboratory, across the level field that lay black beneath the stars. He came back, panting, with spectrometer, terrestrial globe, and other articles.
"The tide is higher!" he cried as he looked through the blue-rimmed circle at the girl on the rock. "She'll be swept off before long!"
He mounted the spectrometer and fell to work with a will, taking observations through the telescope, adjusting prisms and diffraction gratings, reading electrometers and other apparatus, and stopping to make intricate calculations.
I helped him when I could, or stared through the ring of shining blue mist, where I could see the waves breaking higher about the exhausted girl who clung to the rock. Clouds of wind-whipped spray often hid her from sight. I knew that she would not have the strength to hold on much longer against the force of the rising sea.
Although driven almost to distraction by the horror of her predicament, he worked with a cool, swift efficiency. Only the pale, anxiety-drawn expression on his face showed how great was the strain. He finished the last spectrometer observation, snatched out a pad and fell to figuring furiously.
"Something queer here," he said presently, frowning. "A shift of the spectrum that I can't explain by distortion through three-dimensional space alone. I don't understand it."
We stared at the chilled and trembling girl on the rock.
"I'm almost afraid to try it. What if something went wrong?"
He turned to the terrestrial globe he had brought down and traced a line over it. He made a quick calculation on his pad, then made a fine dot on the globe with the pencil point.
"Here she is. On a rock some miles off Point Eugenia, on the coast of the Mexican State of Lower California. Most lonely spot in the world. No chance for a rescue. We must—
"My god!" he screamed in sudden horror. "Look!"
I looked through the blue-ringed window and saw the girl. Green water was surging about her waist. It seemed that each wave almost tore her off. Then I saw that she was struggling with something. A great coiling tentacle, black and leathery and glistening, was thrust up out of the green water. It wavered deliberately through the air and grasped at the girl. She seemed to scream, though we could hear nothing. She beat at the monster, weakly, vainly.
"She's gone!" cried Charlie.
"An octopus!" I said. "A giant cuttlefish!"
Virginia made a sudden fierce effort. With a strength that I had not thought her chilled limbs possessed, she tore away from the dreadful creature and clambered higher on the rock. But still a hideous black tentacle clung about her ankle, tugging at her, drawing her back despite her desperate struggle to break free.
"I've got to try it!" Charlie said, determination flashing in his eyes. "It's a chance!"
He closed a switch. His new coils sung out above the old one. X-ray tubes flickered beside the blue fire that ringed the window. He adjusted his rheostats and closed the circuit through the new magnet.
A curtain of blue flame was drawn quickly between us and the round, fire-rimmed window. A huge ball of blue fire hung, about the meteorite and the instruments. For minutes it hung there, while Charlie, perspiring, worked desperately with the apparatus. Then it expanded; became huge. It exploded noiselessly, in a great flash of sapphire flame, then vanished completely.
Meteor, bench, and apparatus were gone!
In the light of the stars we could make out the huge crater the meteorite had torn, with a few odds and ends of equipment scattered about it. But all the apparatus Charlie had set up, connected with the meteoric stone, had disappeared.
He was dumbfounded, staggered with disappointment.
"Virginia! Virginia!" he called out, in a hopeless tone. "No, she isn't here. It didn't draw her through. I've failed. And we can't even see her any more!"
Desperately I searched for consolation for him.
"Maybe the octopus won't hurt her," I offered. "They say that most of the stories of their ferocity are somewhat exaggerated."
"If the monster doesn't get her, the tide will!" he said bitterly. "I made a miserable failure of it! And I don't know why! I can't understand it!"
Apathetically, he picked up his pad and held it in the light of his electric lantern.
"Something funny about this equation. The shift of the spectrum lines can't be accounted for by distortion through space alone."
With wrinkled brow, he stared for many minutes at the bit of paper he held in the white circle of light. Suddenly he seized a pencil and figured rapidly.
"I have it! The light was bent through time! I should have recognized these space-time coordinates."
He calculated again.
"Yes. The scene we saw in that circle of light was distant from us not only in space but in time. The Valhalla probably hasn't sunk yet at all. We were looking into the future!"
"But how can that be? Seeing things before they happen!"
I have the profoundest respect for Charlie King's mathematical genius. But when he said that I was frankly incredulous.
"Space and time are only relative terms. Our material universe is merely the intersection of tangled world lines of geodesics in a four-dimensional continuum. Space and time have no meaning independently of each other. Jeans says. 'A terrestrial astronomer may reckon that the outburst on Nova Persei occurred a century before the great fire of London, but an astronomer on the Nova may reckon with equal accuracy that the great fire occurred a century before the outburst on the Nova.' The field of this meteorite deflected light waves so that we saw them earlier, according to our conventional ideas of time, than they originated. We saw several hours into the future.
"And the amplified field of the magnet, though strong enough to move Virginia through space, was not sufficiently powerful to draw her back to us across time. Yet she must have felt the pull. Some dreadful thing may have happened. The problem is rather complicated."
He lifted his pencil again. In the glow of the little electric lantern I saw his lean young face tense with the fierce effort of his thought. His pencil raced across the little pad, setting down symbols that I could make nothing of.
My own thoughts were racing. Seeing into the future was a rather revolutionary idea to me. My mind is conservative; I have always been sceptical of the more fantastic ideas suggested by science. But Charlie seemed to know what he was talking about. In view of the marvelous things he had done that night, it seemed hardly fair to doubt him now. I decided to accept his astounding statement at face value and to follow the adventure through.
He lifted his pencil and consulted the luminous dial of his wrist watch.
"We saw that last scene some twelve hours and forty minutes before it happened—to put it in conventional language. The distortion of the time coordinates amounted to that."
In the light of dawn—for we had been all night at the meteor pit, and silver was coming in the east—he looked at me with fierce resolve in his eyes.
"Hammond, that gives us over twelve hours to get to Virginia!"
"You mean to go? But just twelve hours! That's better than the transcontinental record—to say nothing of the time it would take to find a little rock in the Pacific!"
"We have the Golden Gull! She's as fast as any ship we've ever flown."
"But we can't take the Gull! Those alterations haven't been made. And that new engine! A bear-cat for power, but it may go dead any second. The Gull can fly, but she isn't safe!"
"Safety be damned! I've got to get to Virginia, and get there in the next twelve hours!"
"The Gull will fly, but—"
"All right. Please help me get off!"
"Help you off? It's a fool thing to do! But if you go, I do!"
"Thanks, Hammond. Awfully!" He gripped my hand. "We've got to make it!"
With a last glance into the gaping pit from which we had dug the marvelous stone, we turned and ran across to the hangars. As we ran the sun came above the sea in the east: its first rays struck us like a fiery lance. The mechanics had not yet appeared. Charlie pushed the doors back, and we ran out the trim little Golden Gull, beautiful with her slender wing and her graceful, tapering lines.
I seized the starting crank and Charlie sprang into the cockpit. I cranked until the mechanism was droning dismally, and pulled the lever that engaged it with the engine. I had been in too much haste to get up the proper speed, and the powerful new engine failed to fire. Charlie almost cried with vexation while I was cranking again.
This time the motor coughed and fell into a steady, vibrant roar. With the wind from the propeller screaming about me, I disengaged the crank and stood waiting while the motor warmed. Charlie gave it scant time to do so before he motioned me to kick out the blocks. I tumbled into the enclosed cockpit beside him, he gave the ship the gun, and we roared across the field.
In five minutes we were flying west, at a speed just under three hundred miles per hour. Charlie was crouched over the stick, scanning the instrument board, and flying the Gull almost at her top speed. Again and again his eyes went to the little clock on the panel.
"Twelve hours and forty minutes," he said. "And an hour gone already! We're got to be there by five minutes after six."
We were flying over Louisiana when the oil line clogged. The engine heated dangerously. Reluctantly, Charlie cut off the ignition, and fell in a swift spiral to an open field.
"We're got to fix it!" he said. "Another hour gone! And we needed every minute!"
"This new engine! It's powerful enough, but we should have had time to overhaul it, and make those changes."
Charlie landed with his usual skill, and we fell to work in desperate haste. A grizzled farmer, a wad of tobacco in his cheek and three ragged urchins at his heels, stopped to watch us. He had just been to his mailbox, and had a morning paper in his hand. Charlie questioned him about the storm.
"Storm-center nears the American coast," he read in a nasal drawl. "Greatest storm of year drives shipping upon west coast. Six vessels reported lost. S. S. Valhalla, disabled, sends S. O. S.
"A thousand lives are the estimated toll to-night of the most terrific storm of the year, which is sweeping toward the Pacific coast, driving all shipping before it. Radiograms from the Valhalla at 5 P. M. report that she is disabled and in danger. It is doubtful that rescue vessels can reach her through the storm."
We got the engine repaired, took off again. Charlie looked at the little clock.
"Five minutes to ten. Eight hours and ten minutes left, and we've got a darn long ways to go."
We had to stop at San Antonio, Texas, to replenish gasoline and oil.
"Ten minutes lost!" Charlie complained as we took off. "And that monster—waiting in the future to drag Virginia to a hideous death!"
Two hours later the plane developed trouble in the ignition system. The motor was new, with several radical changes that we had introduced to increase power and lessen weight. As I had objected to Charlie, we had not done enough experimental work on it to perfect it.
We limped into the field at El Paso and spent another priceless half-hour at work. I got some sandwiches at a luncheon counter beside the field, and listened a moment to a radio loudspeaker there.
"Many thousands are dead," came the crisp, metallic voice of the announcer, "as a result of the storm now raging on the Pacific coast, the worst in several years. The storm-center is spending its force on the coastal regions to-day. Millions of dollars in damage are reported in cities from San Francisco to Manzanillo, Mexico.
"The greatest disaster of the storm is the loss of the passenger liner Valhalla, of the Red Star Line. It is believed to have collided with the abandoned hulk of an Italian-owned tramp freighter, the Roma, which was left by its crew yesterday in a sinking condition. Radiograms from the liner ceased three hours ago, when she was said to be sinking. The officers doubted that her boats could be launched in such a sea—"
I waited to hear no more. Charlie checked our route while we were stopped. And we took off; we crossed the Rio Grande and flew across the rocky, brush-scattered hills of Mexico, in a direct line for the rock in the sea.
"If anything happens so we have to land again—well, it's just too bad," Charlie said grimly. "But we've got to go this way. It's something over six hundred miles in a straight line. Fifteen minutes to four, now. We have to average nearly three hundred miles an hour to get there."
He was silent and intent over his maps and instruments as we flew on over the lofty Sierra Madre Range, and over a long slope down to the Gulf of California. Head-winds beset us as we were over the stretch of blue water, and we flew on into a storm.
"We had hardly time to make it, without the wind against us," Charlie said. "If it holds us back many miles—well, it just mustn't!"
Purple lightning flickered ominously in the mass of blue storm-clouds that hung above the mountainous peninsula of Lower California. I had a qualm about flying into it in our untested machine. But Charlie leaned tensely forward and sent the Golden Gull on at the limit of her speed. Gray vapor swirled about us, rent with livid streaks of lightning. Thunder crashed and rumbled above the roar of our racing engine. Wild winds screeched in the struts; rain and hail beat against us. The plane rose and fell; she was swirled about like a falling leaf. The stick struggled in Charlie's hands like a living thing. With lips tightened to a thin line, he fought silently, fiercely, desperately.
Suddenly we were sucked down until I had an uneasy feeling at the pit of my stomach. I saw the grim outline of a bare mountain peak dangerously close below us, shrouded in wind-whipped mist.
In sudden alarm I shouted, "We'd better get out of this, Charlie! We can't live in it long!"
In the roar of the storm he did not hear me, and I shouted again.
He turned to face me, after a glance at the clock. "We've less than an hour, Hammond. We've got to go on!"
I sank back in my seat. The plane rolled and tossed until I thanked my lucky stars for the safety strap. In nervous anxiety I watched Charlie bring the ship up again, and fight his way on through the storm. For an eternity, it seemed, we battled through a chaos of wind-driven mist, bright with purple lightning and shaken with crashing thunder.
Charlie struggled with the controls until he was dripping with perspiration. He must have been utterly worn out, after thirty-six hours of exhausting effort. A dozen times I despaired of life. The compass had gone to spinning crazily; we dived through the rain until we could pick up landmarks below. Three times a great bare peak loomed suddenly up ahead of us, and Charlie averted collision only by zooming suddenly upward.
Then slate-gray water was beneath us, running in white-crested mountains. I knew that we were at last out over the Pacific.
"We've passed Point Eugenia," Charlie said. "It can't be far, now. But we have only fifteen minutes left. Fifteen minutes to get to her—before the attraction of the meteor jerks her away, perhaps to a horrible fate."
We flew low and fast over the racing waves. Charlie looked over his charts and made a swift calculation. He changed our course a bit and we flew on at top speed. We scanned the vast, mad expanse of sea below the blue-gray clouds. Here and there were lines of white breakers, but nowhere did we see a rock with a girl upon it. Presently the green outline of an island appeared out of the wild water on our right.
"That's Del Tiburon," Charlie said. "We missed the rock."
He swung the plane about and we flew south over the hastening waves. I looked at the little clock. It showed two minutes to six. I turned to Charlie.
"Seven minutes!" he whispered grimly.
On and on we flew, in a wide circle. The motor roared loud. An endless expanse of racing waves unreeled below us. The little hand crawled around the dial. One minute past six. Only four minutes to go.
We saw a speck of white foam on the mad gray water. It was miles away, almost on the horizon. We plunged toward it, motor bellowing loud. Five miles a minute we flew. The white fleck became a black rock smothered in snowy foam. On we swept, and over the rock, with bullet-like speed.
As we plunged by, I saw Virginia's slender form, tattered, brine-soaked, straggling in the hideous tentacles of the monster octopus. It was the same terrible scene that we had viewed, through the amazing phenomenon of distortion of light through space-time, four thousand miles away and twelve hours before.
In a few minutes the time would come when Charlie had ended our view of the scene by his attempt to draw the girl through the fourth dimension to our apparatus in Florida. What terrible thing might happen then?
Charlie brought the ship about so quickly that we were flung against the sides. Down we came toward the mad waves in a swift glide. In sudden apprehension, I dropped my hand on his shoulder.
"Man, you can't land in a sea like that! It's suicide!"
Without a word, he shook off my hand and continued our steep glide toward the rock. I drew my breath in apprehension of a crash.
I do not blame Charlie for what happened. He is as skilful a pilot as I know. It was a mad freak of the sea that did the thing.
The gray waste of mountainous, white-crested waves rose swiftly up to meet us, with the rock with the girl clinging to it just to our right. The Golden Gull struck the crest of a wave, buried herself in the foam, and plunged down the long slope to the trough. We rose safely to the crest of the oncoming roller, and I saw the black outline of the rock not a dozen yards away.
Charlie had landed with all his skill. It was not his fault that the blustering wind caught the ship as she reached the crest of the wave and flung her sidewise toward the rock. It is no fault of his that the white-capped mountain of racing green water completed what the wind had begun and hurled the frail plane crashing on the rock.
I have a confused memory of the wild plunge at the mercy of the wave, of my despair as I realized that we were being wrecked. I must have been knocked unconscious when we struck. The next I remember I was opening my eyes to find myself on the rock, Charlie's strong arm on my shoulder. I was soaked with icy brine and my head was aching from a heavy blow.
Virginia, shivering and blue, was perched beside us. I could see no sign of the plane: the mighty sea had swept away what was left of it. Clinging to the lee side of the rock I saw the black tentacles of the giant octopus—waiting for a wave to dash us to its mercy.
"All right, Hammond?" Charlie inquired anxiously. "I'm afraid you got a pretty nasty bump on the head. About all I could do to fish you out before the Gull was swept away."
He helped me to a better position to withstand the force of the great roller that came plunging down upon us like a moving mountain. Virginia was in his arms, too exhausted to do more than cling to him.
"What can we do?" I sputtered, shaking water from my head.
"Not a thing! We're in a pretty bad fix, I imagine. In a few seconds we will feel the attraction of the meteor's field—the force with which I tried to draw Virginia to the crater through the fourth dimension. I don't know what will happen; we may be jerked out of space altogether. And if that doesn't get us, the tide and the octopus will!"
His voice was drowned in the roar of the coming wave. A mountain of water deluged us. Half drowned, I clung to the rock against the mad water.
Then blinding blue light flashed about me. A sharp crash rang in my ears, like splintering glass. I reeled, and felt myself falling headlong.
I brought up on soft sand.
I sat up, dumbfounded, and opened my eyes. I was sitting on the steep sandy side of a conical pit. Charlie and Virginia were sprawled beside me, looking as astonished as I felt. Charlie got to his knees and lifted the limp form of the girl in his arms.
Something snapped in my brain. The sand-walled pit was suddenly familiar. I got to my feet and clambered out of it. I saw that we were on our own landing field.
Astonishingly, we were back in the meteor crater. Charlie's vanished apparatus was scattered about us. I saw the gray side of the rough iron meteorite itself, half-buried in the sand at the bottom of the pit.
"What—what happened?" I demanded of Charlie.
"Don't you see? Simple enough. I should have thought of it before. The field of the meteorite brought Virginia—and us—through to this point in space. But it could not bring us back through time; instead, the apparatus itself was jerked forward through time. That is why it vanished. We got here just twelve hours and forty minutes after I closed the switch, since we had been looking that far into the future. The mathematical explanation—"
"That's enough for me!" I said hastily. "We better see about a warm, dry bed for Virginia, and some hot soup or something."
Now the rough gray meteorite, in a neat glass case, rests above the mantel in the library of a beautiful home where I am a frequent guest. I was there one evening, a few days ago, when Charlie King fell silent in one of his fits of mathematical speculation.
"Einstein again?" I chaffingly inquired.
He raised his brown eyes and looked at me. "Hammond, since relativity enabled us to find the Meteor Girl, you ought to be convinced!"
Virginia—whom her husband calls the Meteor Girl—came laughingly to the rescue.
"Yes, Mr. Hammond, what do you think of Einstein now?"