Chapter I

Blue Lights

IT IS with a strange wonder that we remember the dark menace that rose upon us from the hidden world—and how it ended. Nor have I, Arnold Vance, any less of wonder than those about me, for all that I saw that they did not, for all that I stood where never men had stood before at the heart of that dread mystery and menace.

Four men only were there at the end, though a reeling world bore witness to it when it came. Four men—Dr. Howard Kelsall, Clifton Darrell, Richard Fenton and myself—dared down into horrors undreamed of by all earth’s generations, alone penetrated into that greater horror that was rising upon the unsuspecting earth.

The first and eldest, Dr. Howard Kelsall, held at that time the post of chief geologist of the great Manson Foundation in New York. It was a much coveted position but Kelsall was conceded by all to have merited it.

It is unnecessary for me to recapitulate here the achievements that had established his reputation—his great “double buckling” theory of the formation of the Rocky and Andes mountain-chains, his well-known calculations of the shift in primeval ocean levels and the others. Suffice it to say that he had won a very real fame and that his fame had been shared in late years by his chief assistant at the Foundation, young Clifton Darrell.

Kelsall and Darrell, though the one was of middle age and the other in his twenties, were strong friends, and their friendship had come to be shared also by Richard Fenton and myself, two of the Foundation’s younger physicists. An unusual quartet of friends we made, but one which was bound strongly together.

At the time when the manifestations from the hidden world began, the time of the appearance of the first light shaft at Kismaya, we four were sharing an apartment in the east Fifties, all of us chancing to be without immediate families. It was the custom of Dr. Kelsall and myself to walk from this apartment each morning to the Foundation building, the other two preferring the subway.

And it was at the end of one of these walks, on a morning late in March, that the first news of the appearance of the light-shafts was given to me by Dr. Kelsall himself. We were passing up the steps of the great gray Foundation building on that morning when he paused and pulled from his pocket a folded newspaper, which he tendered me.

“I forgot until now to show you this, Vance,” he remarked, directing my attention to a small article on the folded paper’s side. “A strange occurrence—strange, that is, if it isn’t the work of some reporter’s imagination.”

I took the paper and we paused there at the top of the steps as I read the little article. It was but a few inches in length, a cable dispatch dated from the little coast town of Kismaya, lying in British East Africa, just south of the equator. The dispatch stated that a strange manifestation of light or force of some kind had stricken with panic the entire population of a native village some miles to the north, on the preceding night.

In this village, which, incidentally, lay at most exactly upon the line of the equator, there had been on that night two white traders also, who vouched for the truth of the surprising though somewhat incomprehensible story which the terror stricken natives told.

According to that story it had been but a few hours before midnight, at the edge of the assemblage of huts that were their habitations. There had been no sound, no warning. A brilliant shaft of blinding blue light had abruptly stabbed upward from the earth at the village’s edge to a height of fifty feet.

This light shaft, they said, had been perhaps five feet in diameter and near the top had been set in its blinding blue light an equally dazzling spot or circular portion of pure white light. For perhaps two minutes the giant light shaft had towered there, the terror stunned natives near it frozen in fear.

In those moments they had been able to see from the circle of white light in its side, near the top, that the brilliant shaft was turning, slowly turning around and around. Then suddenly it had sunk and vanished, the ground where it had appeared seeming quite unchanged by its apparition, which sent all in the fear stricken village racing from it.

The thing was puzzling enough surely, and as I handed the paper back to Dr. Kelsall I shook my head. “It’s past me,” I told him. “Sounds like the work of the reportorial imagination you mentioned.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps so, Vance,” he said. “Though the story was corroborated by the white men and the evidence seems quite circumstantial.”

 

APPARENTLY the casual verdict which I rendered upon that first dispatch was the one given also by the world at large, for in the days that followed no further reference to the thing appeared in the newspapers. Such strange phenomena, indeed, are not unfamiliar among the dispatches of the great press services, the greater part of them being hoaxes of one kind or another, so it is not surprising that this particular incident evoked no further interest.

I know that I had completely forgotten it by the next day and Dr. Kelsall made no reference to it in the days that followed. It was not, indeed, until the appearance in the press of the dispatch from Moram Island, some twenty days later, that the first Kismaya affair was jerked back to my memory and to those of many others.

Moram Island, according to this new dispatch, was one of the innumerable islands lying off the western tip of Dutch New Guinea, a few miles to the north of the equator. Besides a number of Dutch planters and officials it was occupied by the brown-skinned islanders who had always lived there and it was from planters and islanders alike that this second report now came. The gist of the thing was that, a little before morning on the preceding day, a terrific beam of light had been seen on the sea south of the island.

It had seemed miles to the south indeed, so far that it must have been almost exactly over the equator itself. A great perpendicular shaft of intense blue brilliance, it had shot up from the waters southward like a great beacon through the night, had hovered a minute or two, and then had flashed down and out of sight.

The awed watchers on Moram Island had thought it at first the beam of some ship’s searchlight. But the coming of dawn a little later had disclosed no craft whatever to the southward, making the thing seem quite inexplicable.

In itself, no doubt, this second phenomenon would have aroused but little comment but the earlier and similar occurrence at Kismaya now made of this second incident something of more interest. Scientists, when questioned concerning it, agreed in attributing the two great light flashes to falling meteors.

They doubted whether the flashes had really lasted for minutes as reported and refused to take seriously the details concerning the turning shaft of blue light and the white circle of light upon it that had been reported from Kismaya. A meteor-flash, as they pointed out, is almost instantaneous though very brilliant.

The fact that no meteor had struck the ground at Kismaya they attributed to the burning up of the meteor and its total annihilation as it flashed downward. The second surprising fact that both flashes had taken place almost exactly upon the equator they explained by the assumption that the earth was entering a thin belt or region of meteors which happened to lie in the same plane with our planet’s equator.

This theory, as they pointed out, meant that more meteor flashes might be expected in the equatorial regions and though the theory had its defects it was certainly the most plausible advanced. It was true that the great steady shafts of brilliance that had been described by the witnesses at Kismaya and at Moram Island were very different from a meteor’s lightning flash downward.

But that could be accounted for by the excitement of the witnesses, so that the whole matter seemed satisfactorily explained. Dr. Kelsall, to whom I knew this second incident would be of interest, was on a short field trip to the Adirondacks, so that at that time I had no opportunities of discussing it with him and had forgotten it by the time that he returned.

Three weeks after that second phenomenon though, the matter was brought forcibly back to my mind and to the world’s by the Callarnia incident. The Callarnia was one of those giant cruise ships designed to transport a thousand passengers in utmost luxury about the world and at the time of the incident was heading homeward over the central Pacific from such a globe circling cruise.

It had ventured in the past months through the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, through the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. As that day closed it was heading east northeastward toward Panama on the last lap of its trip, its position some five hundred miles north of the Marquesas with the equator a little north of the ship.

As the sunset of that day flared westward the great ship’s passengers had gathered upon its boat deck, where a group of queerly garbed sailors were preparing to perform the ancient nautical ceremonies that were considered proper to “crossing the line.”

By the time twilight had come, the ceremonies, were already going on amid the shouts and laughter of passengers and crew alike, the exact line of the equator lying at that time a little toward the north, the ship forging slowly and obliquely toward it.

It happened, therefore, as the dim dusk thickened, intent upon the clowning of the group before them, passengers and sailors alike had no thought of the thing that was to come. No thought until, in another moment, the thing was upon them.

A half mile ahead of the ship there stabbed suddenly upward through the deepening twilight a shaft of dazzling blue radiance that seemed to spring up from the sea itself, that hung at a height of fifty feet, slowly turning. Near its top was a circle of pure white light by which that turning could be marked.

In that first stunned instant as the passengers and sailors, in answer to a wild cry, gazed toward the blinding shaft, it seemed to them that that shaft extended down to depths inconceivable in the waters themselves, glimmering faintly through them.

For a minute, a minute that seemed an eternity to them, the giant beam slowly turned there. Then as abruptly as it had appeared, it snapped down and out of existence, leaving those on the great ship staring at each other, white faced in the darkening dusk.

 

SUCH was the tale the great cruise-liner’s radio sent sputtering forth. It appeared within hours in the New York journals. This, the third of these strange incidents, aroused for a short time at least an interest which the first two had failed to evoke.

Again the thing had happened, and upon earth’s equator as in the first two instances! The matter seemed to many startling for that reason but the scientific authorities questioned concerning it only boredly referred their questioners to their earlier statements.

The thing, they said, was but another instance of meteor fall as had been the first two. Happening at the equator it confirmed their theory that the earth’s equatorial regions were in the plane of a thin meteor-belt through which the earth was passing.

The statements of those on the Callarnia to the effect that the great blue shaft of light had remained for a full minute or two, and had slowly turned with its white circle of light upon it, the scientists discredited.

For, as they explained, a meteor’s brilliant flash, caused by its burning up before it can reach earth’s surface, often is so intense as to impress the visual nerves with a sense of duration for longer than is really the case.

This explanation, reasonable enough, was concurred in by those newspapers which made independent comment on the strange triple incident. Desirous as they were of a sensation, they were aware that the flashing out of three brilliant light shafts on three far regions of earth’s surface was of but little intrinsic interest to their readers, save for a few of the more scientifically inclined.

For a day or so they published what comments they could gather on the Callarnia incident but the very lack of further developments made it soon of no more interest to them. And so, quickly enough, this third strange phenomenon was forgotten by newspapers and readers as had been the first and second.

My own interest had been definitely caught by the strange recurrence of the phenomenon and I resolved to discuss it with Dr. Kelsall, who had shown such interest in its first happening. When I reached our apartment that evening, I found that Dr. Kelsall had not yet arrived from the Foundation, nor was he there when Darrell and Fenton and I returned home after dinner.

It was natural enough, however, that this subject uppermost in my mind just then should have entered our conversation and we were engaged in a discussion of it when Dr. Kelsall finally entered. I apprised him, briefly, of the subject of our talk. To my surprise, when I had done so, he ventured no suggestion on the thing, but sat beside us in silence.

Gazing out beyond us, as we watched him in silence for the moment, his strong face and keen steel gray eyes brooding upon something, he sat there for moments unspeaking before turning finally toward us.

“Darrell—Fenton—Vance,” he said, his eyes moving over us. “It’s about this thing that I wanted to talk to you tonight.”

“These three light shafts?” asked Darrell and Kelsall nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “these three great lightshafts that have flashed into being, one after another, at three different spots around earth’s equator. And what in your opinion caused the light shafts to appear? Meteors?”

Darrell shook his head. “No, that’s what we were discussing when you came in, Kelsall, and we decided that they couldn’t be meteor flashes. For all who saw them say that they were great beams or shafts of light instead of flashes and no meteors were seen or heard. Yet what could have caused them?”

“I do not know,” Kelsall said quietly. “But one thing I do know, a thing that none other on earth has guessed. I know where and when the next of these enigmatic light shafts will come and I propose that we four go there and solve the mystery when it does appear!”

 

ASTOUNDED, we stared toward him. But before we could ask him a question of the many that whirled in our brains he had turned and taken the small globe from the table beside him, had turned back to us and was speaking quietly on.

“Before you can understand the thing I have discovered,” he said, “you must understand the locations in which these three strange light shafts have appeared on earth. As you know the first light shaft appeared just north of Kismaya in British East Africa, just on the equator, on the night of March 22nd, two and one half hours before midnight.

“The second—” he spun the globe a little—“appeared here on the equator, just south of Moram Island off New Guinea. Both light shafts, as you know, appeared almost exactly upon earth’s equator. But there is a stranger thing that no one else noticed—and that is that the second light shaft appeared just one fourth around earth’s equator from the first!”

“Strange, is it not? Yet here is something as strange. At this dot I mark on the blue of the Pacific is the latitude and longitude reported by the Callarnia on the evening that the third light shaft appeared before it. That dot, the position of the third light shaft, is exactly another fourth round earth’s equator from the position of the second light shaft, exactly a half around earth’s equator from the first!

“In other words these mysterious shafts of brilliant blue light have flashed into being in a regular progression around earth’s equator, each appearing exactly upon that equator, each appearing exactly a fourth around earth’s circumference from the last!

“That being so, can it be doubted that when the fourth light shaft appears it will occur in the same regular progression, at a spot another fourth around earth’s equator from the third? Thus one has only to measure with accurate maps from the position of the third light shaft, a fourth around earth’s equator, to find the spot where the next light shaft will show!

“And that is what I have done today. Doing so I found that spot. It lies in the Brazilian jungle just north of the Amazon River’s mouth, lying between two little-known rivers, the Malgre and the Tauraurua, which join each other exactly at the equator. It is upon the ground between those two joining rivers there in the Brazilian jungle that the next of these strange light shafts will undoubtedly appear!

“But, you will say, when will it appear? Well, if you will reread the accounts of the three light shafts you will discover that they were separated by as regular intervals of time as of space. Exactly twenty days, six and a half hours elapsed between the appearance of the first light shaft at Kismaya and the second at Moram Island.

“The same exact interval of twenty days, six and a half hours elapsed between the Moram Island appearance and the sighting of the third light shaft by the Callarnia. With this regular progression in mind therefore, it cannot be doubted that the same interval will separate the appearance of the third and fourth light shafts if a fourth appears.

“So that we can say almost positively that if a fourth shaft does appear it will do so twenty days, six and a half hours from the last, which sets as the time of its appearance a half hour before midnight on the night of May twenty first, more than two weeks from now. And I propose that we four be there when it does.

“We alone of all men know where and when it will appear, if it does appear, and we shall endeavor to penetrate the mystery. And mystery it is. For whence come these shafts of brilliance, which could not have been made by any known device of men, yet have appeared around earth’s equator with human and more than human exactness and regularity of time and place? What is their cause, their purpose?

“To us four is given the chance to solve these questions. In their solution we may penetrate mysteries and forces as yet undreamed of by any on earth. You, Darrell and Fenton and Vance—will you not go?”

There was a moment’s silence at his final question, silence in which, with minds awhirl, we gazed at him and at each other. Then suddenly, as our eyes met, we knew without words each other’s thought and Darrell turned to Kelsall, speaking for all of us.

“We’re with you, Kelsall,” he said quietly. “Whatever mystery ties behind these light-shafts, we’re going with you to solve it.”


Original publication: Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall 1929  Copyright © 1929 Stellar Publishing, Inc. Revised version originally published in Fantastic Story Quarterly, Spring 1950  Copyright © 1950 Better Publications, Inc. Electronic version Copyright © 2009 Haffner Press. All Rights Reserved.