Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Cosmic Fever" by Amelia Reynolds Long, part 1

Last month, we at the Johnny Pez blog, as part of our ongoing effort to revive interest in the Gernsback Era of science fiction, noted the existence of a website dedicated to Amelia Reynolds Long (1904 - 1978), pioneering science fiction writer, mystery novelist, and poet. We also pointed out that none of Miss Long's stories are available online except for the first half of a story called "The Dimension Drug" that appeared in the first two issues of the fanzine Spaceways in 1938.

Well, we can't have that, can we? Given this blog's history of posting public domain science fiction stories online, it seems only right and proper that we correct that oversight by posting one or two samples of Miss Long's work here. Thus, we now present, for the first time since its original appearance in the February 1937 issue of Astounding Stories magazine, "Cosmic Fever" by Amelia Reynolds Long (originally published under the byline A. R. Long). As with our previous science fiction posts, the story will be published in a blog-friendly multipart format. Take it away, Miss Long . . .

Cosmic Fever
by Amelia Reynolds Long

Pat Marsh turned at the foot of the short rope ladder that led to the opening of the gondola of the stratosphere balloon, and held out his hand to the little, silver-haired Professor Anthony.

"Well: I guess we're all set, professor," he said, with his boyish grin. "Wish me luck."

"With all my heart, lad." The older man gripped the young scientist's hand fervently. Then a shadow flitted across his scholarly features. "You're sure everything is all right, Pat?" he asked anxiously. "There's no danger this time of any -- accident?"

Pat Marsh nodded his fair head reassuringly, but there was an expression of grimness in his blue eyes. "I made another check-up just before you got here," he replied. "Everything is in perfect condition. What's more, I know definitely this time that there's nothing in the gondola except the instruments that I put there myself. If it's possible to be sure of anything in this world, I'm positive that there can be no repitition of what happened the other two times."

On two former occasions, Pat had attempted to send sounding balloons into the upper regions of the earth's atmosphere. Each of these had consisted of the usual two gas bags, a smaller inside a larger. It had been estimated that the outer bag would burst at an altitude of sixty miles, well into the nitrogen layer that exists above the stratosphere proper. When this occurred, the smaller, inner bag would act as a parachute, and descend gently, with its attached container, in which Pat had placed his newly improved set of instruments for the recording of cosmic-ray activity.

On the first occasion, the container had been recovered four days later in the prairie section of the Middle West; but when it had been opened, the records upon the drums were found charred beyond legibility, while some of the more delicate instruments were warped and twisted into uselessness.

Concluding that some unforeseen accident had taken place, the American Institute of Technology, which was financing the experiment, had backed Pat in the construction of a second set of instruments and the release of another sounding balloon. But when again a mysterious fire within the three-foot container had destroyed the records and wrecked hundreds of dollars' worth of instruments, the directors of the institute had lost patience. Such an accident could not occur twice in succession, they argued, unless the apparatus itself was at fault.

Pat had protested, in vain, that his instruments had been in no way responsible for the combustion. His inventions had been condemned as impractical by the institute's committee, while he himself had been pronounced a failure.

But there had been one man who had not been satisfied with the committee's findings. Professor Roy Anthony, Pat's old friend and teacher, now head of the institute's department of astrophysics, was convinced that there was more behind the mysterious fires than appeared upon superficial examination. And so, in order to prove his faith in his young protégé, he had offered to privately finance the building of a third balloon, for a final test.

At Pat's suggestion, this one was to be different from its two predecessors. Instead of the small sounding balloon, with its attached case of instruments, it was to be large enough to support a spherical gondola similar to those used by Piccard and other stratosphere explorers, in which Pat himself would accompany his instruments into the upper atmosphere.

This, he had pointed out, was the only possible way to discover the cause of the trouble -- whether it was, indeed, the fault of the mechanism or, as one of the more sensation-loving newspapers had begun to hint, the work of some inimical outside agency. There were, the paper had observed, certain foreign governments intensely interested in stratosphere flights, who might prefer to keep the field exclusively to themselves.

* * *

For the following six months, Pat and two trusted assistants had isolated themselves in the lonely plateau land of New Mexico, where the gondola was assembled and equipped. None of the three ever left the grounds, while the only person allowed to visit them was Professor Anthony. At last came the day when all preparations had been completed, and the ascent into the regions of the superstratosphere, a height never before dared by man, was about to be attempted.

With a wave of his hand to the assembled newspapermen, photographers, and news-reel cameramen at the edge of the field, Pat climbed into the gondola and drew the short ladder up after him. A kick of his foot threw over the lever that closed the heavy sliding door, sealing him in the hollow sphere. Casting a quick glance through one of the observation windows, to make sure that Professor Anthony and the two workmen had got clear, he stepped to the tiny table built against the wall, and, with a hand that trembled slightly, pressed the key of an electric switch box, touching off the detonation caps that were to cut loose all of the ground moorings at once, thus allowing the balloon to rise evenly into the air.

The dull boom that followed was inaudible to him in his soundproof compartment, but he felt the quick tug as the four great cables parted. Then all sensation of motion vanished, as the balloon shot upward into the resistless atmosphere.

From the little group on the edge of the field a lusty cheer went up, and cameras clicked madly as the great silver gas bag, with its bulging top and steeply sloping, still uninflated lower portion -- that gave it the appearance of an inverted, giant drop of mercury -- rose higher and higher, carrying the comparatively tiny gondola with it, until, with the increasing altitude, the two dwindled into one single, shining speck. For a moment that speck seemed to hover almost directly overhead, like a belated morning star; then it vanished completely into the fathomless blue.

(continue to part 2)

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