Monday, September 5, 2011

"The Menace from Andromeda" by Schachner and Zagat, part 7

This is the seventh installment of "The Menace from Andromeda", the third published story by Nat Schachner and Arthur Leo Zagat. It originally appeared in the April 1931 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, and has never been republished.

As we join our story, the brilliant young astronomer Donald Standish has discovered that a planet in the Andromeda nebula he named Alcoreth is actually composed of living matter. However, since Alcoreth has disappeared, he is unable to prove it to the scientific community. He decides instead to discuss the matter with his fiancée Mary Cameron and her brother Douglas, a cancer researcher in Colorado.

Meanwhile, in the Andromeda nebula, Alcoreth is a self-aware mass of undifferentiated protoplasm occupying the entire surface of a planet. Facing starvation, she decides to convert her mass into countless spores and launch them into space to seed other planets. After millions of years, a cloud of spores from Alcoreth reaches Earth and comes to rest on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Eight months later, ships begin disappearing from the Atlantic and the world's trade is paralyzed. Then Alcoreth invades the East Coast of North America, consuming everything in her path.

Standish learns that Mary is in New York City, and he flies off to rescue her. Mary becomes trapped at the top of Columbia University's new 100-story skyscraper campus building, with Alcoreth eating away at its foundations. In a daring exhibition of stunt-flying and wing-walking, Standish rescues Mary, and they all fly west to Doug's laboratory in the Colorado Rockies . . .

* * *

Physically exhausted as they were by the long journey, there was yet no thought of sleep. They were still shaking with the horror of those frightful scenes they had so recently witnessed.

Mary was tottering with weariness, but held herself bravely. Not for worlds would she permit her lover to see how near the verge of hysteria she was, now that the danger was past. She looked around the long comfortable room -- cheery fireplace and all -- with a shudder. How peaceful and quiet everything was -- and over there -- nameless horrors out of hell -- the indescribable stampede of maddened humanity -- the hideous screech of some poor devil engulfed by the advancing monster -- no, no! -- that way lay madness -- she must stop.

Donald was watching her anxiously. "Mary, you must get some sleep at once."

"I'm all right -- just a little attack of nerves," she smiled wanly. "Don't trouble yourself about me; I want to help, too."

"We'll puzzle this out ourselves, and when you wake, if we've evolved any ideas, we'll let you in on it. Now, be a good girl and go to bed. Haven't you something soothing in your lab?" he turned to Douglas.

"Certainly; just the thing for you, Mary. Douglas went to the cupboard and poured out a small tumbler full of a pale liquid. "Just drink this down, and you'll slide so smoothly into the arms of Morpheus, the next thing you know the birds will be twittering in the trees. Here you are; take it."

Mary looked at them both for a moment -- saw the worry in their eyes, and capitulated. "All right, boys, if you insist; though I'm sure I can be of help." She drank the potion, and retired to her bedroom.

The two men filled their pipes, and settled back in their chairs. Their bodies were poisoned with fatigue, but their brains were racing keenly. For a while they smoked in silence, gratefully inhaling the fragrant fumes.

Standish was the first to break the silence.

"As you know, Doug, I have a theory that accounts for this demoniac visitation, but when I sprang it on the conference, I was laughed at for my pains."

Douglas looked at him keenly. He knew his chum, and knew that he was not given to hazarding wild hypotheses unless they contained a solid substratum of truth.

"Go over it again," he said quietly. "I promise to listen with an open mind."

Donald launched again into his tale -- the strange living star in the island universe -- its explosive disintegration into space -- the queer dust cloud of tiny globules reported by the fishing smack -- followed by the appearance of this horrible amorphous life-mass that was threatening to engulf the earth.

Cameron listened intently. Thoughtfully he drummed with his fingers on the arm of his chair. He, too, was familiar with the hypotheses of Clerk-Maxwell and Arrhenius.

"There is a good deal of plausibility about your theory," he acknowledged thoughtfully, "and it accounts also for the vast proliferating powers of this monstrous mass -- no life as we know it on this planet could even approximate the uncanny speed of its growth, nor have our primitive life-forms the ability to subsist on inorganic matter to quite the extent that it has," again absently drumming on his chair.

He relapsed into brooding thought. Standish looked at his friend, but forebore to say anything. When Cameron was on the verge of something brilliant, he always drummed. So the astronomer waited.

The break was not long in coming. Douglas' brow suddenly cleared -- a look of triumph in his eye.

"By George, I have it!" he almost shouted. "I believe your fantastic story, old man, and I'm going to rid the world of this menace. Listen to me for a moment."

"You have my closest attention."

"Suppose we assume the truth of your hypothesis. Then this living world, moving in the Andromeda universe, shining by its own luminosity, separated by unthinkable distances from any hot gaseous star, would naturally be accustomed only to the faint starlight of the heavens. No such blaze of light as even our ordinary sunlight ever came within its ken. Now you've heard of phototropism?"

Standish nodded his head, but his friend went on heedlessly, absorbed in the plan maturing in his mind.

"It's the reaction of protoplasm to light," he explained. "If you take any unicellular animal like the amoeba, and expose it to a strong light, it will shrink away from the source of the light, and try to get out of its path. If you use a powerful ray of concentrated ultraviolet light -- the reaction will be much more apparent -- the amoeba will literally run for its life -- and if exposed long enough to the rays, will die.

"Now if we can obtain such drastic results with life forms inured and habituated by constant exposure to the sun's rays continually beating on our planet, what about this alien protoplasmic mass, unaccustomed to strong light of any kind, and no doubt feeling irritable even during our normal sunshine?"

Standish sat up excitedly. He was beginning to catch the drift of Cameron's reasoning.

Douglas went on. "My plan is this. Have the nations of the world concentrate their technicians and engineers in the power plants and factories most remote from the menace. Construct huge searchlights of the utmost candle power; and machines for casting enormous beams of ultra-violet light. In the meantime have the people of the areas endangered by the billowing march of the monster retreat to the mountain fastnesses. That can be done fairly easily -- its progress from all reports is approximately ten to fifteen miles a day. When all is in readiness, mount our machines on tractors, and drive them in front of the encroaching fiend. When it comes within striking distance, turn on the juice full blast. The power will come by tuned radio waves from the power plants operating in the hinterland. If our theories are correct, on the impact of our rays, the viscid mass will react much more violently than an amoeba or paramecium would. Retreat would be all it would think of, and the more exposed masses would be killed off. In that way, we could get rid of the menace, or at least drive it back into the ocean, by following it steadily all the way."

Standish got up in enthusiasm, and wrung Cameron's hand. "Boy, you're a wizard! That's a marvelous scheme! You'll be the savior of the world!"

"Hold on a moment," Douglas smiled protestingly, "it may work and it may not. Remember, I'm basing my scheme on your hypothesis."

"It'll work all right," retorned Donald confidently, "and now I know I'm right, too."

"Don't run away so fast," warned the bacteriologist. "Remember, at the best, we shall only have managed to drive it back into the ocean. Once there, we can do no more. There, in the vast depths of the sea, with what we know of the rapidity of its procreation, it will once more overwhelm the world."

Donald groaned. "There you go -- get me all excited, and then you let me down. I forgot that part. So what's the good of your swell scheme?"

"Ah! but I have something else up my sleeve," grinned his companion. "You know, of course, that I've been working my head off trying to find a cure for cancer. I haven't succeeded as yet -- though the outlook is promising. But in the course of my researches, I've invented a technique for excising cancer growths from the living organism, and growing them independently in special culture media. I have also discovered a method of activating them so that when replaced in living tissues they will multiply with unbelievable rapidity. At present, I have on hand here in the laboratory about fifty pounds of activated cancer cultures, and that is sufficient for my purpose.

"Now to get back to your theory again. If this visitation is in truth from an alien world, it is highly improbable that it was ever exposed to the disease of cancer. If that is so, then it lacks whatever immunity our life has obtained through constant exposure, and the cancer cells will spread like wildfire through the whole vast organism -- and this malign influence will be eradicated from the face of the earth."

"Man, I repeat -- you're a wizard!" The astronomer pumped his hand violently. Then an idea struck him. "But why not spray it with cancer immediately -- why bother with ultra-violet light to drive it into the depths of the sea."

"Because," explained Douglas patiently, "cancer is no respecter of persons, and once let loose on land, it is liable to spread to all forms of earth life, and we shall only have succeeded in destroying ourselves too. In the ocean, however, the range is sharply limited -- we shall instruct the people of the earth to remain inland until the danger is passed. Once killed, the whole mass will descend to the floors of the seas and there the cold and pressure will destroy the cancerous tissues."

"You've thought of everything," was the admiring retort.

"Now to get into immediate communication with the conference chairman and unfold our plan."

"Right -- there's not a moment to lose. The fate of the world is in the balance."

In a few minutes, the radio transmitter was sputtering out the code call signal of the conference. A lapse of five minutes and word came back. "Radio Emergency Conference talking -- what is it?"

"Standish sending from the laboratory of Cameron in Colorado. Plan for combating menace has been evolved. Please connect me with the chairman." Then, for a solid hour across the ether vibrated the saving word.

Back came the answer. "Sounds all right. Our last hope anyway. Broadcasting immediately to all the nations to mobilize tractor, searchlights, ultra-violet apparatus. United States will mobilize on eastern length of Appalachian within twenty-four hours. Both of you report for service immediately at Allentown, Pa. Last reports show inundation extended as far as Scranton. Signing off."

"We need some sleep -- let's snatch a few hours -- and start," suggested Standish.

"Righto, we can get there in fifteen hours. We'll need only an hour or two for assembling our material here. That gives us plenty of time for a snooze."

Almost instantaneously, both were sleeping -- drugged.

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