This is the second half of "Cosmic Fever", a story by pioneering science fiction writer Amelia Reynolds Long that was first published in the February 1937 issue of Astounding Stories magazine (the first half is here). This is the first time the story has seen the light of day since its original magazine appearance 73 years ago, and its publication on this blog will represent the first complete story by Miss Long to appear online.
UPDATE: Richard Simms informs me that he once had Miss Long's story "Bride of the Antarctic" on his tribute page, but has since taken it down.
The story so far:
Pat Marsh, a young scientist, has overseen the construction of a manned research balloon in New Mexico that he intends to fly above the turbopause, sixty miles above the ground, in order to study cosmic rays. He also hopes to learn the fate of two previous unmanned balloons that returned to earth after suffering intense heat damage. The launch is successful, and Marsh finds himself rising above the New Mexico plateau . . .
* * *
From the observation window of the gondola, Pat Marsh saw the earth drop from beneath him, saw the panorama of plateaus, valleys, and mountain peaks spread out like a giant relief map. A moment or so he watched it, with a sort of half fascination; then he turned away from it to his instruments.
The altimeter was climbing steadily. One mile, two miles, two and a half -- Presently the light began to take on a grayish, silvery luminescence, and he knew that he was entering the earth's ragged cloud blanket. This lasted for only a few minutes. Then, suddenly, it was gone, and vivid sunshine, almost dazzling in its brilliance, took its place.
Again he looked out of the window. Beneath him spread a billowing, nebulous sea, flecked with turquoise and amethyst shadows. A feeling of tremendous loneliness swept over him. Although he had often flown above the clouds in an ordinary airplane, it had never been quite like this. It was now as though a door had been closed upon him, blotting out a familiar face.
For the next half hour or so he busied himself with his instruments. The air in the gondola was beginning to grow stale, and he turned on his oxygen tank to replenish it. The balloon was now nine miles up, almost into the stratosphere. Already the sky had begun to grow dark, but not quite dark enough for the stars to be visible. Pat looked at his electroscope, and saw that it indicated a noticeable increase in the presence of cosmic rays.
Another half hour, and he was well into the stratosphere. Glancing downward, he could discern the curvature of the earth, its edges faintly shining in the reflected light of the sun. The balloon was still rising rapidly; for, although the atmosphere was much thinner, the gravitational pull of the earth was decreasing as the distance between it and the balloon increased. The gondola had now attained an altitude of twenty-one and a half miles -- higher than man had ever ventured before.
The sky was taking on the familiar blue-black of night, with the stars breaking through in clustered brilliance. To the north, the Great and Little Dippers swung in their eternal march around the polestar, while against the zenith was set the mighty constellation of Orion, with the orange glory of Betelgeuse, giant of the heavens, flashing from his right shoulder. In front of him, the beautiful cluster of the Hyades marked the head of Taurus, whose red eye, the fiery Aldebaran, glowed balefully. And between and beyond these and all the other familiar sky marks, a hundred thousand lesser stars, ordinarily invisible to the naked eye, gleamed in lambent splendor.
Pat peered through the observation window on his left, and beheld the awesome phenomenon of the sun blazing in a black sky, the angry red of its chromosphere pulsating like the inflamed rim of a bloodshot eye, from which the fiery tentacles of its protuberances writhed and darted into the roseate pearl of its corona. The dazzling spectacle of that unveiled majesty was endurable only for an instant; then he pressed his hands over his face in fear of blindness.
* * *
When the brilliant afterimage, caused by that brief glance into the sun's dazzling face, had vanished from before his eyes, he returned once more to his instruments. The leaves of the electroscope were wide apart, while the inked line on the automatically revolving drum rose steadily, indicating the continued increase of cosmic rays. The balloon had now attained an altitude of twenty-six miles.
Outside, the temperature registered minus 134 degrees Fahrenheit -- almost fifty degrees colder than the lowest temperature ever recorded on earth. Yet, oddly enough, Pat experienced no discomfort. On the contrary, he was growing too warm, heavy beads of persperation were forming upon his forehead and the back of his neck.
He unbuttoned his coat and removed it. For some time he had been vaguely conscious of the rising temperature inside the gondola, but he had been so engrossed by the panorama of the heavens unrolling before him that he had paid it scant attention. Now he glanced at the thermometer on the wall in front of him. It registered ninety-six degrees, Fahrenheit, the temperature of an exceedingly hot summer day on earth!
"That's funny," he muttered half aloud. "It isn't possible that the absorption from the sun's rays could be so great through these heavily insulated walls."
He examined the little electric heater that had been installed in case of emergency, to ascertain whether it could have been turned on by accident. But no; it was not even connected. The only heat being generated inside the sphere was the practically negligible amount incidental to the running of the electric drums.
He looked again from one of the observation windows, this time almost fearfully, half expecting to see some flaming, giant meteor that was responsible for the condition. Yet, as he looked, his scientist's reason told him that this was out of the question. Even had it been possible for such a body to become more than faintly incandescent in this highly rarified atmosphere, his instruments would have warned him of its approach long ago. Moreover, the meteor belt was down in the tropopause, now almost twenty miles below him.
The balloon was now over twenty-nine miles up, in the very outer fringes of the stratosphere. In another minute it would have entered the nitrogen layer beyond. Then would come the real test of his experiment, for it was doubtful whether even the great hydrogen balloon could carry his weight and that of the gondola much farther; since, although the atomic weight of nitrogen is 14.008, while that of hydrogen is only 1.0077, the atmospheric pressure at that great height was dropping rapidly.
Pat was bending tensely over his instruments. Already the degree of ascent was slowing perceptibly. The altimeter now registered thirty and a quarter miles, while the pressure gage indicated a swift drop from 1.84 to nearly .403 millimeters. He turned to the electroscope and its revolving drum; one of the most important pieces of apparatus on board, so far as the purpose of the expedition was concerned. If his calculations and those of other scientists were correct, the number of cosmic rays should now begin to increase with even greater rapidity than it had done in the stratosphere.
With a feeling of exultation, he saw the line being traced on the drum scud higher and higher. Then, with a suddenness that was startling, the stylus shot almost vertically toward the top of the slowly moving graph paper! The next instant Pat beheld drum, electroscope, everything within his range of vision, swim before his eyes in a distorting heat haze, while at the same time the air about him became like the stifling breath of a furnace. With trembling hands, he fumbled for the rip cord that opened the outer balloon, while the sweat ran in rivers into his eyes, totally blinding him --
* * *
* * *
"Tell me, lad," Professor Anthony entreated, as he sat opposite Pat Marsh twenty-four hours later in the young man's hotel room, "why did you decide to come down when you had reached only one half of your intended altitude? You say nothing went wrong with the apparatus; then what happened? Was the balloon unable to rise higher in the nitrogen layer?"
Pat shook his head slowly. He was still weak and a trifle shaky, having been found unconscious inside the gondola when the balloon had drifted back to earth.
"Oh, it would have continued to go up, all right," he replied. "That is," he added with a grim smile, "if it hadn't exploded on the way."
"Exploded?" Professor Anthony repeated. "You mean that the outer balloon was in danger of bursting through the lessening of the atmospheric pressure? But I thought that possibility had been taken into account in the construction of the bag."
"It was," Pat answered. "I didn't mean that." An expression of apprehension came into his tired eyes. "My records!" he exclaimed abruptly. "Were they all right?"
"They were," the little professor assured him. "And even from my brief examination of them, I am confident that they are going to add materially to our knowledge of cosmic rays. But there was one thing about them that puzzled me: part of the paper was slightly discolored, as if it had been exposed to heat or intense sunlight. I can't account for it."
"I can." Little, grim lines appeared at the corners of Pat Marsh's mouth. "It was heat, sir, heat that was increasing so rapidly that, if I had gone on, it would have caused spontaneous combustion in the gondola, and exploded the hydrogen in both the inner and outer balloons, just as it did the two other times."
"What!" The professor stared incredulously through the thick lenses of his spectacles. "Heat in what is practically outer space? But that is impossible, Pat. Why, your own temperature records showed --"
"Yes, I know," Pat interrupted. "It sounds impossible, but it's true, nevertheless. We should have suspected it long ago. Why, the clue was in our hands as early as 1931, when Piccard made his first ascent into the stratosphere."
"But I -- I don't understand." Professor Anthony passed a thin hand through his silvery hair in a gesture of bewilderment.
"You'll remember," Pat explained, "how, when Piccard made that ascent, the temperature of the gondola rose so high that he had to lick drops of moisture from the inner walls to assuage his thirst. I believe this rise in temperature was explained as absorption of the sun's rays; but that was only a very small part of the real story. The true explanation lay in the very phenomenon that he was attempting to study."
"You mean," the professor began, "that the cosmic rays themselves --"
"Exactly," Pat nodded. "Cosmic rays are pure cosmic energy, bombarding our earth from outer space. And energy, as we both learned in our very first course in elementary physics, is anything which, under the proper conditions, can be converted into heat. The dense atmosphere of the earth serves to refract most of these rays, just as it does ordinary heat and light rays from the sun. But up there at a height of over thirty miles, where there is no protective atmosphere, they struck the gondola with their full intensity, and, with their almost incalculable powers of penetration, passed straight through its walls. The almost pure oxygen within furnished the proper conditions for converting them into heat."
"Amazing!" Professor Anthony exclaimed. "And yet, as you say, Pat, we should have suspected the truth long ago." Then his face fell. "I suppose," he said with a sigh, "that puts an end to man's explorations in the earth's upper atmosphere, and an end to his dreams of future space flight as well."
"Looks that way," Pat agreed; then he added with a grin, "Unless he can figure out some way to insure himself against the hazard of fire from beyond."
(continue to review)