Astounding Stories, May, 1931 – various authors

The one hundred and fifty-ninth floor of the great Transportation Building allowed one standing at a window to look down upon the roofs of the countless buildings that were New York. Flat-decked, all of them; busy places of hangars and machine shops and strange aircraft, large and small, that rose vertically under the lift of flashing helicopters. The air was alive and vibrant with directed streams of stubby-winged shapes that drove swiftly on their way, with only a wisp of vapor from their funnel-shaped sterns to mark the continuous explosion that propelled them. Here and there were those that entered a shaft of pale-blue light that somehow outshone the sun. It marked an ascending area, and there ships canted swiftly, swung their blunt noses upward, and vanished, to the upper levels. A mile and more away, in a great shaft of green light from which all other craft kept clear, a tremendous shape was dropping. Her hull of silver was striped with a broad red band; her multiple helicopters were dazzling flashes in the sunlight. The countless dots that were portholes and the larger observation ports must have held numberless eager faces, for the Oriental Express served a cosmopolitan passenger list. But Walter Harkness, standing at the window, stared out from troubled, frowning eyes that saw nothing of the kaleidoscopic scene. His back was turned to the group of people in the room, and he had no thought of wonders that were prosaic, nor of passengers, eager or blase; his thoughts were only of freight and of the acres of flat roofs far in the distance where alternate flashes of color marked the descending area for fast freighters of the air. And in his mind he could see what his eyes could not discern—the markings on those roofs that were enormous landing fields: Harkness Terminals, New York. nly twenty-four, Walt Harkness—owner now of Harkness, Incorporated. Dark hair that curled slightly as it left his forehead; eyes that were taking on the intent, straightforward look that had been his father’s and that went straight to the heart of a business proposal with disconcerting directness. But the lips were not set in the hard lines that had marked Harkness Senior; they could still curve into boyish pleasure to mark the enthusiasm that was his. He was not typically the man of business in his dress.

His broad shoulders seemed slender in the loose blouse of blue silk; a narrow scarf of brilliant color was loosely tied; the close, full-length cream-colored trousers were supported by a belt of woven metal, while his shoes were of the coarsemesh fabric that the latest mode demanded. He turned now at the sound of Warrington’s voice. E. B. Warrington, Counsellor at Law, was the name that glowed softly on the door of this spacious office, and Warrington’s gray head was nodding as he dated and indexed a document. “June twentieth, nineteen seventy-three,” he repeated; “a lucky day for you, Walter. Inside of ten years this land will be worth double the fifty million you are paying—and it is worth more than that to you.” He turned and handed a document to a heavy-bodied man across from him. “Here is your copy, Herr Schwartzmann,” he said. The man pocketed the paper with a smile of satisfaction thinly concealed on his dark face.

arkness did not reply. He found little pleasure in the look on Schwartzmann’s face, and his glance passed on to a fourth man who sat quietly at one side of the room. Young, his tanned face made bronze by contrast with his close-curling blond hair, there was no need of the emblem on his blouse to mark him as of the flying service. Beside the spread wings was the triple star of a master pilot of the world; it carried Chet Bullard past all earth’s air patrols and gave him the freedom of every level. Beside him a girl was seated. She rose quickly now and came toward Harkness with outstretched hand. And Harkness found time in the instant of her coming to admire her grace of movement, and the carriage that was almost stately. The mannish attire of a woman of business seemed almost a discordant note; he did not realize that the hard simplicity of her costume had been saved by the soft warmth of its color, and by an indefinable, flowing line in the jacket above the rippling folds of an undergarment that gathered smoothly at her knees. He knew only that she made a lovely picture, surprisingly appealing, and that her smile was a compensation for the less pleasing visage of her companion, Schwartzmann. “Mademoiselle Vernier,” Herr Schwartzmann had introduced her when they came.

And he had used her given name as he added: “Mademoiselle Diane is somewhat interested in our projects.” She was echoing Warrington’s words as she took Harkness’ hand in a friendly grasp. “I hope, indeed, that it is the lucky day for you, Monsieur. Our modern transportation—it is so marvelous, and I know so little of it. But I am learning. I shall think of you as developing your so-splendid properties wonderfully.” nly when she and Schwartzmann were gone did Harkness answer his counsellor’s remark. The steady Harkness eyes were again wrinkled about with puckering lines; the shoulders seemed not so square as usual. “Lucky?” he said. “I hope you’re right.

You were Father’s attorney for twenty years—your judgment ought to be good; and mine is not entirely worthless. “Yes, it is a good deal we have made—of course it is!—it bears every analysis. We need that land if we are to expand as we must, and the banks will carry me for the twenty million I can’t swing. But, confound it, Warrington, I’ve had a hunch—and I’ve gone against it. Schwartzmann has tied me up for ready cash, and he represents the biggest competitors we have. They’re planning something—but we need the land…. Oh, well, I’ve signed up; the property is mine; but….” The counsellor laughed. “You need a change,” he said; “I never knew you to worry before. Why don’t you jump on the China Mail this afternoon; it connects with a good line out of Shanghai.

You can be tramping around the Himalayas to-morrow. A day or two there will fix you up.” “Too busy,” said Harkness. “Our experimental ship is about ready, so I’ll go and play with that. We’ll be shooting at the moon one of these days.” “The moon!” the other snorted. “Crazy dreams! McInness tried it, and you know what happened. He came back out of control—couldn’t check his speed against the repelling area—shot through and stripped his helicopters off against the heavy air. And that other fellow, Haldgren—” “Yes,” said Harkness quietly, “Haldgren—he didn’t fall back. He went on into space.

” mpossible!” the counsellor objected. “He must have fallen unobserved. No, no, Walter; be reasonable. I do not claim to know much about those things—I leave them to the Stratosphere Control Board—but I do know this much: that the lifting effect above the repelling area—what used to be known as the heaviside layer—counteracts gravity’s pull. That’s why our ships fly as they please when they have shot themselves through. But they have to fly close to it; its force is dissipated in another ten thousand feet, and the old earth’s pull is still at work. It can’t be done, my boy; the vast reaches of space—” “Are the next to be conquered,” Harkness broke in. “And Chet and I intend to be in on it.” He glanced toward the young flyer, and they exchanged a quiet smile. “Remember how my father was laughed at when he dared to vision the commerce of to-day? Crazy dreams, Warrington? That’s what they said when Dad built the first unit of our plant, the landing stages for the big freighters, the docks for ocean ships while they lasted, the berths for the big submarines that he knew were coming.

They jeered at him then. ‘Harkness’ Folly,’ the first plant was called. And now—well you know what we are doing.” He laughed softly. “Leave us our crazy dreams, Warrington,” he protested; “sometimes those dreams come true…. And I’ll try to forget my hunch. We’ve bought the property; now we’ll make it earn money for us. I’ll forget it now, and work on my new ship. Chet and I are about ready for a try-out.” he flyer had risen to join him, and the two turned together to the door where a private lift gave access to the roof.

They were halfway to it when the first shock came to throw the two men on the floor. The great framework of the Transportation Building was swaying wildly as they fell, and the groaning of its wrenched and straining members sounded through the echoing din as every movable object in the room came crashing down. Dazed for the moment, Harkness lay prone, while his eyes saw the nitron illuminator, like a great chandelier, swing widely from the ceiling where it was placed. Its crushing weight started toward him, but a last swing shot it past to the desk of the counsellor. Harkness got slowly to his feet. The flyer, too, was able to stand, though he felt tenderly of a bruised shoulder. But where Warrington had been was only the crumpled wreckage of a steeloid desk, the shattered bulk of the illuminator upon it, and, beneath, the mangled remains where flowing blood made a quick pool upon the polished floor. Warrington was dead—no help could be rendered there—and Harkness was reaching for the door. The shock had passed, and the building was quiet, but he shouted to the flyer and sprang into the lift. “The air is the place for us,” he said; “there may be more coming.

” He jammed over the control lever, and the little lift moved. “What was it?” gasped Bullard, “earthquake?—explosion? Lord, what a smash!” Harkness made no reply. He was stepping out upon the broad surface of the Transportation Building. He paid no attention to the hurrying figures about him, nor did he hear the loud shouting of the newscasting cone that was already bringing reports of the disaster. He had thought only for the speedy little ship that he used for his daily travel. he golden cylinder was still safe in the grip of its hold-down clutch, and its stubby wings and gleaming sextuple-bladed helicopter were intact. Harkness sprang for the control-board. He, too, wore an emblem: a silver circle that marked him a pilot of the second class; he could take his ship around the world below the forty level, though at forty thousand and above he must give over control to the younger man. The hiss of the releasing clutch came softly to him as the free-signal flashed, and he sank back with a great sigh of relief as the motors hummed and the blades above leaped into action. Then the stern blast roared, though its sound came faintly through the deadened walls, and he sent the little speedster for the pale blue light of an ascending area.

Nor did he level off until the gauge before him said twenty thousand. His first thought had been for their own safety in the air, but with it was a frantic desire to reach the great plant of the Harkness Terminals. What had happened there? Had there been any damage? Had they felt the shock? A few seconds in level twenty would tell him. He reached the place of alternate flashes where he could descend, and the little ship fell smoothly down. Below him the great expanse of buildings took form, and they seemed safe and intact. His intention was to land, till the slim hands of Chet Bullard thrust him roughly aside and reached for the controls. It was Bullard’s right—a master pilot could take control at any time—but Harkness stared in amazement as the other lifted the ship, then swung it out over the expanse of ocean beyond—stared until his own eyes followed those of Chet Bullard to see the wall of water that was sweeping toward the land. Chet, he knew, had held them in a free-space level, where they could maneuver as they pleased, but he knew, too, that the pilot’s hands were touching levers that swung them at a quite unlawful speed past other ships, and that swept them down in a great curve above the ocean’s broad expanse. arkness did not at once grasp the meaning of the thing. There was the water, sparkling clear, and a monstrous wave that lifted itself up to mountainous heights.

Behind it the ocean’s blue became a sea of mud; and only when he glanced at their ground-speed detector did he sense that the watery mountain was hurling itself upon the shore with the swiftness of a great super-liner. There were the out-thrusting capes that made a safe harbor for the commerce that came on and beneath the waters to the Harkness Terminals; the wave built itself up to still greater heights as it came between them. They were riding above it by a thousand feet, and Walter Harkness, in sudden knowledge of what this meant, stared with straining eyes at the wild thing that raced with them underneath. He must do something—anything!—to check the monster, to flatten out the onrushing mountain! The red bottom-plates of a submarine freighter came rolling up behind the surge to show how futile was the might of man. And the next moment marked the impact of the wall of water upon a widespread area of landing roofs, where giant letters stared mockingly at him to spell the words: Harkness Terminals, New York. He saw the silent crumbling of great buildings; he glimpsed in one wild second the whirling helicopters on giant freighters that took the air too late; he saw them vanish as the sea swept in and engulfed them. And then, after endless minutes, he knew that Chet had swung again above the site of his plant, and he saw the stumps of steel and twisted wreckage that remained…. he pilot hung the ship in air—a golden beetle, softly humming as it hovered above the desolate scene. Chet had switched on the steady buzz of the stationary-ship signal, and the wireless warning was swinging passing craft out and around their station. Within the quiet cabin a man stood to stare and stare, unspeaking, until his pilot laid a friendly hand upon the broad shoulders.

“You’re cleaned,” said Chet Bullard. “It’s a washout! But you’ll build it up again; they can’t stop you —” But the steady, appraising eyes of Walter Harkness had moved on and on to a rippling stretch of water where land had been before. “Cleaned,” he responded tonelessly; “and then some! And I could start again, but—” He paused to point to the stretch of new sea, and his lips moved that he might laugh long and harshly. “But right there is all I own—that is, the land I bought this morning. It is gone, and I owe twenty million to the hardest-hearted bunch of creditors in the world. That foreign crowd, who’ve been planning to invade our territory here. You know what chance I’ll have with them….” The disaster was complete, and Walter Harkness was facing it—facing it with steady gray eyes and a mind that was casting a true balance of accounts. He was through, he told himself; his other holdings would be seized to pay for this waste of water that an hour before had been dry land; they would strip him of his last dollar. His lips curved into a sardonic smile.

“June twentieth, nineteen seventy-three,” he repeated. “Poor old Warrington! He called this my lucky day!”

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