THE FATE OF THE POSEIDONIA
By Clare Winger Harris
Amazing Stories June 1927)
INTRODUCTION by JM Stine
Due to its preeminent position as the pioneer of science fiction magazines, Amazing Stories has accumulated an enviable record of “firsts” of all kinds over the years. “The Fate of the Poseidonia” is a story whose publication embodied not one but three firsts. It is simultaneously, the first publication of a story by its author in an sf magazine, the first story by a woman published in such a magazine, and a co-winner in the first contest ever held by a science fiction magazine.
Seven issues earlier in December 1926, Paul’s cover for Amazing had shown a globular spaceship holding an ocean liner suspended in mid-air by what appear to be giant magnets while nude, partially-feathered and wholly-naked humanoid aliens looked on. Smack in the middle of the page, Amazing’s publisher Hugo Gernsback (a man with more than a pinch of P.T. Barnum in his soul), had planted a bright yellow box filled with red letters that blazoned: “$500 for the Most Amazing Story Written around this Picture. See Page 866.” It was a cover promise carefully calculated to generate sales, and put prospective writers on notice that Gernsback’s hither-to all-reprint magazine was now actively seeking new material.
Though the prize money might seem generous coming from the reputedly parsimonious (at least with his authors) Gernsback, what he got for his $500 (whose payment he doubtless delayed and stretched out over as long a period as possible) was more than worth it. First, in the three prize winning stories he picked, he got fifty thousand words of new fiction by writers who had never appeared in Amazing Stories before (which at 1 cent per word is what he would have paid them anyway). In addition, he received a boost in circulation for his fledgling publication that could only have been a welcome addition to his bottom line. Finally, he immediately received such a flood of new writers and submissions that three months later, in the March issue, the double header of Verne and Wells that had dominated Amazing throughout 1926, was a thing of the past, and rarely did the twain appear in the same issue again; They had been replaced by a burgeoning wealth of new “scientifiction” authors and stories. As the old saying goes, Cheap at twice the price!
“The Fate of the Poseidonia” took third prize in Gernsback’s contest. But on the face of its polish and subtlety should have earned second or even first place. It is likely that Gernsback wanted to curry favor and secure further work from the author to whom he awarded first prize, Cyril G. Wates, a chapter president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, who wrote for such prestigious scientific journals as Scientific American and the RASC Journal. Or, it may be that Gernsback simply didn’t think his predominantly young male readership (young women were discouraged from developing any interest in scientific matters by the educational and social institutions of the time) weren’t ready to see the first place prize in the first contest in “our magazine”, as they called Amazing in the letter column, go to an interloper.
It was likely this group Gernsback was addressing when he prefaced “The Fate of the Poseidonia” with,
“That the third place winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest.”
It certainly can’t have been a surprise to Gernsback who, from a reading of his later publication, Sexology, did not seem to view women as an intellectually inferior species. All the less so, since Gernsback was widely read in the science fiction of his time, possessing a vast sf library, which was particularly complete in Austrian and German sf writers, among whom numbered several dozen women authors.
Yet that is exactly how he began his introduction to “The Fate of the Poseidonia” in the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories.
“That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest,” he wrote, tongue doubtless firmly planted in his cheek, “for, as a rule, women do not make good scientifiction writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited. But the exception, as usual, proves the rule, the exception in this case being extraordinarily impressive. The story has a great deal of charm, chiefly because it is not overburdened with science, but whatever science is contained therein is not only quite palatable, but highly desirable, due to its plausibility. Not only this, but you will find that the author is a facile writer who keeps your interest unto the last line. We hope to see more of Mrs. Harris’s scientifiction in Amazing Stories.”
His hopes were to be realized. Over the next three years Clare Winger Harris would produce 11 stories for Gernsback (collected as Away from the Here and Now) and a historical novel, with weird overtones, Persephone of Eleusis: A Romance of Ancient Greece. Then she stopped writing to educate her children. Undoubtedly, seeing a woman’s name on the contents page inspired at least some of the women – like Leslie F. Stone and L. Taylor Hansen, who followed in Harris’ footsteps as Amazing Stories authors in the Gernsback years – to write and submit their own first stories.
It is almost certain that Harris herself was inspired to begin writing science fiction because her father, Frank Stover Winger, had written the lively, and clearly Jules Verne influenced early science fiction novel, Wizard of the Island (1917). Although some credit is doubtless due the inspiration of her husband, Frank Clyde Harris, a visionary architect and engineer, who following his service in WWI, was one of the organizers of the American Monorail Company. Unlike most women of her time, she had lived a life surrounded by futurism and science fictional ideas.
Of course, if being the first story in an sf magazine by a woman was all “The Fate of the Poseidonia” had going for it, the story would hardly be worth reprinting except as a historical curiosity. Many stories that have been “firsts” in the science fiction world turn out to be undistinguished and unreadable when in retrospect. Fortunately, that is not the case here. Instead, “The Fate of the Poseidonia” introduces a clear, refreshing note of feminism, plus a somewhat jaundiced view of several of the magazine’s patented masculinist tropes from the outset,
For one thing, the hero rather than being the dispassionate, rational scientific type (traits then almost exclusively associated with men) is emotional and intuitive (characteristics then primarily associated with women). Since his emotions and intuitions turn out to be right in the face of reason, it is hard not to posit this story as a feminist “one for the home team.” Then there is the romance in the story, it hardly turns out the syrupy kind of thing it did in the stories of the men writing science fiction at the time. Instead, it has the kind of steely-eyed clarity of the small town women of the era, who birthed the men and buried them without the mediation of hospitals. And there are a hundred other delights to be found in this story, which it would give away too much and take too long to detail here. For as science fiction author and critic Richard Lupoff has written, even today the works of Clare Winger Harris “positively team with still fresh and provocative ideas.”
(Amazing Stories Classic Reprints are selected and introduced by FuturesPast Editions.)
(For more history concerning Ms. Harris’ breaking of the “Cosmic Ceiling“)
THE FATE OF THE POSEIDONIA
Clare Winger Harris
THE first moment I laid eyes on Martell I took a great dislike to the man. There sprang up between us an antagonism that as far as he was concerned might have remained passive, but which circumstances forced into activity on my side.
How distinctly I recall the occasion of our meeting at the home of Professor Stearns, head of the Astronomy department of Austin College. The address which the professor proposed giving before the Mentor Club of which I was a member, was to be on the subject of the planet, Mars. The spacious front rooms of the Stearns home were crowded for the occasion with rows of chairs, and at the end of the double parlors a screen was erected for the purpose of presenting telescopic views of the ruddy planet in its various aspects.
As I entered the parlor after shaking hands with my hostess, I felt, rather than saw, an unfamiliar presence, and the impression I received involuntarily was that of antipathy. What I saw was the professor himself engaged in earnest conversation with a stranger. Intuitively I knew that from the latter emanated the hostility of which I was definitely conscious.
He was a man of slightly less than average height. At once I noticed that he did not appear exactly normal physically and yet I could not ascertain in what way he was deficient. It was not until I had passed the entire evening in his company that I was fully aware of his bodily peculiarities. Perhaps the most striking characteristic was the swarthy, coppery hue of his flesh that was not unlike that of an American Indian. His chest and shoulders seemed abnormally developed, his limbs and features extremely slender in proportion. Another peculiar individuality was the wearing of a skull-cap pulled well down over his forehead.
Professor Stearns caught my eye, and with a friendly nod indicated his desire that I meet the new arrival.
“Glad to see you, Mr. Gregory,” he said warmly as he clasped my hand. “I want you to meet Mr. Martell, a stranger in our town, but a kindred spirit, in that he is interested in Astronomy and particularly in the subject of my lecture this evening.”
I extended my hand to Mr. Martell and imagined that he responded to my salutation somewhat reluctantly. Immediately I knew why. The texture of the skin was most unusual. For want of a better simile, I shall say that it felt not unlike a fine dry sponge. I do not believe that I betrayed any visible surprise, though inwardly my whole being revolted. The deep, close-set eyes of the stranger seemed searching me for any manifestation of antipathy, but I congratulate myself that my outward poise was undisturbed by the strange encounter.
The guests assembled, and I discovered to my chagrin that I was seated next to the stranger, Martell. Suddenly the lights were extinguished preparatory to the presentation of the lantern-slides. The darkness that enveloped us was intense. Supreme horror gripped me when I presently became conscious of two faint phosphorescent lights to my right. There could be no mistaking their origin. They were the eyes of Martell and they were regarding me with an enigmatical stare. Fascinated, I gazed back into those diabolical orbs with an emotion akin to terror. I felt that I should shriek and then attack their owner. But at the precise moment when my usually steady nerves threatened to betray me, the twin lights vanished. A second later the lantern light flashed on the screen. I stole a furtive glance in the direction of Martell. He was sitting with his eyes closed.
“The planet Mars should be of particular interest to us,” began Professor Stearns, “not only because of its relative proximity to us, but because of the fact that there are visible upon its surface undeniable evidences of the handiwork of man, and I am inclined to believe in the existence of mankind there not unlike the humanity of the earth.”
The discourse proceeded uninterruptedly. The audience remained quiet and attentive, for Professor Stearns possessed the faculty of holding his listeners spell-bound. A large map of one hemisphere of Mars was thrown on the screen, and simultaneously the stranger Martell drew in his breath sharply with a faint whistling sound.
The professor continued, “Friends, do you observe that the outstanding physical difference between Mars and Terra appears to be in the relative distribution of land and water? On our own globe the terrestrial parts lie as distinct entities surrounded by the vast aqueous portions, whereas, on Mars the land and water are so intermingled by gulfs, bays, capes and peninsulas that it requires careful study to ascertain for a certainty which is which. It is my opinion, and I do not hold it alone, for much discussion with my worthy colleagues has made it obvious, that the peculiar land contours are due to the fact that water is becoming a very scarce commodity on our neighboring planet. Much of what is now land is merely the exposed portions of the one-time ocean bed; the precious life-giving fluid now occupying only the lowest depressions. We may conclude that the telescopic eye, when turned on Mars, sees a waning world; the habitat of a people struggling desperately and vainly for existence, with inevitable extermination facing them in the not far distant future. What will they do? If they are no farther advanced in the evolutionary stage than a carrot or a jelly-fish, they will ultimately succumb to fate, but if they are men and women such as you and I, they will fight for the continuity of their race. I am inclined to the opinion that the Martians will not die without putting up a brave struggle, which will result in the prolongation of their existence, but not in their complete salvation.”
Professor Stearns paused. “Are there any questions?” he asked.
I was about to speak when the voice of Martell boomed in my ear, startling me.
“In regard to the map, professor,” he said, “I believe that gulf which lies farthest south is not a gulf at all but is a part of the land portion surrounding it. I think you credit the poor dying planet with even more water than it actually has!”
“It is possible and even probable that I have erred,” replied the learned man, “and I am sorry indeed if that gulf is to be withdrawn from the credit of the Martians, for their future must look very black.”
“Just suppose,” resumed Martell, leaning toward the lecturer with interested mien, “that the Martians were the possessors of an intelligence equal to that of terrestrials, what might they do to save themselves from total extinction? In other words to bring it home to us more realistically, what would we do were we threatened with a like disaster?”
“That is a very difficult question to answer, and one upon which merely an opinion could be ventured,” smiled Professor Stearns. ” ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, and in our case without the likelihood of the existence of the mother, we can hardly hazard a guess as to the nature of the offspring. But always, as Terra’s resources have diminished, the mind of man has discovered substitutes. There has always been a way out, and let us hope our brave planetary neighbors will succeed in solving their problem.”
“Let us hope so indeed,” echoed the voice of Martell.
AT the time of my story in the winter of 1894- 1895, I was still unmarried and was living in a private hotel on E. Ferguson Ave., where I enjoyed the comforts of well furnished bachelor quarters. To my neighbors I paid little or no attention, absorbed in my work during the day and paying court to Margaret Landon in the evenings.
I was not a little surprised upon one occasion, as I stepped into the corridor, to see a strange yet familiar figure in the hotel locking the door of the apartment adjoining my own. Almost instantly I recognized Martell, on whom I had not laid eyes since the meeting some weeks previous at the home of Professor Stearns. He evinced no more pleasure at our meeting than I did, and after the exchange of a few cursory remarks from which I learned that he was my new neighbor, we went our respective ways.
I thought no more of the meeting, and as I am not blessed or cursed (as the case may be) with a natural curiosity concerning the affairs of those about me, I seldom met Martell, and upon the rare occasions when I did, we confined our remarks to that ever convenient topic, the weather.
Between Margaret and myself there seemed to be growing an inexplicable estrangement that increased as time went on, but it was not until after five repeated futile efforts to spend an evening in her company that I suspected the presence of a rival. Imagine my surprise and chagrin to discover that rival in the person of my neighbor Martell! I saw them together at the theatre and wondered, even with all due modesty, what there was in the ungainly figure and peculiar character of Martell to attract a beautiful and refined girl of Margaret Landon’s type. But attract her he did, for it was plainly evident, as I watched them with the eyes of a jealous lover, that Margaret was fascinated by the personality of her escort.
In sullen rage I went to Margaret a few days later, expressing my opinion of her new admirer in derogatory epithets. She gave me calm and dignified attention until I had exhausted my vocabulary, voicing my ideas of Martell, then she made reply in Martell’s defense.
“Aside from personal appearance, Mr. Martell is a forceful and interesting character, and I refuse to allow you to dictate to me who my associates are to be. There is no reason why we three can not all be friends.”
“Martell hates me as I hate him,” I replied with smoldering resentment. “That is sufficient reason why we three can not all be friends.”
“I think you must be mistaken,” she replied curtly. “Mr. Martell praises your qualities as a neighbor and comments not infrequently on your excellent virtue of attending strictly to your own business.”
I left Margaret’s presence in a down-hearted mood.
“So Martell appreciates my lack of inquisitiveness, does he?” I mused as later I reviewed mentally the closing words of Margaret, and right then and there doubts and suspicions arose in my mind. If self-absorption was an appreciable quality as far as Martell was concerned, there was reason for his esteem of that phase of my character. I had discovered the presence of a mystery; Martell had something to conceal!
It was New Year’s Day, not January 1st as they had it in the old days, but the extra New Year’s Day that was sandwiched as a separate entity between two years. This new chronological reckoning had been put into use in 1938. The calendar had previously contained twelve months varying in length from twenty-eight to thirty-one days, but with the addition of a new month and the adoption of a uniformity of twenty-eight days for all months and the interpolation of an isolated New Year’s Day, the world’s system of chronology was greatly simplified. It was, as I say, on New Year’s Day that I arose later than usual and dressed myself. The buzzing monotone of a voice from Martell’s room annoyed me. Could he be talking over the telephone to Margaret? Right then and there I stooped to the performance of a deed of which I did not think myself capable. Ineffable curiosity converted me into a spy and an eavesdropper.
I dropped to my knees and peered through the keyhole. I was rewarded with an unobstructed profile view of Martell seated at a low desk on which stood a peculiar cubical mechanism measuring on each edge six or seven inches. Above it hovered a tenuous vapor and from it issued strange sounds, occasionally interrupted by remarks from Martell uttered in an unknown tongue. Good heavens! Was this a new-fangled radio that communicated with the spirit-world? For only in such a way could I explain the peculiar vapor that enveloped the tiny machine. Television had been perfected and in use for a generation, but as yet no instrument had been invented which delivered messages from the “unknown bourne!”
I crouched in my undignified position until it was with difficulty that I arose, at the same time that Martell shut off the mysterious contrivance. Could Margaret be involved in any diabolical schemes? The very suggestion caused me to break out in a cold sweat. Surely Margaret, the very personification of innocence and purity, could be no partner in any nefarious undertakings! I resolved to call her up. She answered the phone and I thought her voice showed agitation.
“Margaret, this is George,” I said. “Are you all right?”
She answered faintly in the affirmative.
“May I come over at once ?” I pled. “I have something important to tell you.”
To my surprise she consented, and I lost no time in speeding my volplane to her home. With no introductory remarks, I plunged right into a narrative of the peculiar and suspicious actions of Martell, and ended by begging her to discontinue her association with him. Ever well-poised and with a girlish dignity that was irresistibly charming, Margaret quietly thanked me for my solicitude for her well-being but assured me that there was nothing to fear from Martell. It was like beating against a brick wall to obtain any satisfaction from her, so I returned to my lonely rooms, there to brood in solitude over the unhappy change that Martell had brought into my life.
Once again I gazed through the tiny aperture. My neighbor was nowhere to be seen, but on the desk stood that which I mentally termed the devil-machine. The subtle mist that had previously hovered above it was wanting.
The next day upon arising I was drawn as by a magnet toward the keyhole, but my amazement knew no bounds when I discovered that it had been plugged from the other side, and my vision completely barred!
“Well I guess it serves me right,” I muttered in my chagrin. “I ought to keep out of other people’s private affairs. But,” I added as an afterthought in feeble defense of my actions, “my motive is to save Margaret from that scoundrel.” And such I wanted to prove him to be before it was too late!
THE sixth of April, 1945, was a memorable day in the annals of history, especially to the inhabitants of Pacific coast cities throughout the world. Radios buzzed with the alarming and mystifying news that just over night the ocean line had receded several feet. What cataclysm of nature could have caused the disappearance of thousands of tons of water inside of twenty-four hours? Scientists ventured the explanation that internal disturbances must have resulted in the opening of vast submarine fissures into which the seas had poured.
This explanation, stupendous as it was, sounded plausible, enough and was accepted by the world at large, which was too busy accumulating gold and silver to worry over the loss of nearly a million tons of water. How little we then realized that the relative importance of gold and water was destined to be reversed, and that man was to have forced upon him a new conception of values which would bring to him a complete realization of his former erroneous ideas.
May and June passed marking little change in the drab monotony that had settled into my life since Margaret Landon had ceased to care for me. One afternoon early in July I received a telephone call from Margaret. Her voice betrayed an agitated state of mind, and sorry though I was that she was troubled, it pleased me that she had turned to me in her despair. Hope sprang anew in my breast, and I told her I would be over at once.
I was admitted by the taciturn housekeeper and ushered into the library where Margaret rose to greet me as I entered. There were traces of tears in her lovely eyes. She extended both hands to me in a gesture of spontaneity that had been wholly lacking in her attitude toward me ever since the advent of Martell. In the role of protector and advisor, I felt that I was about to be reinstated in her regard.
But my joy was short-lived as I beheld a recumbent figure on the great davenport and recognized it instantly as that of Martell. So he was in the game after all ! Margaret had summoned me because her lover was in danger! I turned to go but felt a restraining hand.
“Wait, George,” the girl pled. “The doctor will be here any minute.”
“Then let the doctor attend to him,” I replied coldly. “I know nothing of the art of healing.”
“I know, George,” Margaret persisted, “but he mentioned you before he lost consciousness and I think he wants to speak to you. Won’t you wait please?”
I paused, hesitant at the supplicating tones of her whom I loved, but at that moment the maid announced the doctor, and I made a hasty exit.
Needless to say I experienced a sense of guilt as I returned to my rooms.
“But,” I argued as I seated myself comfortably before my radio, “a rejected lover would have to be a very magnanimous specimen of humanity to go running about doing favors for a rival. What do the pair of them take me for anyway — a fool?”
I rather enjoyed a consciousness of righteous indignation, but disturbing visions of Margaret gave me an uncomfortable feeling that there was much about the affair that was incomprehensible to me.
“The transatlantic passenger-plane, Pegasus, has mysteriously disappeared,” said the voice of the news announcer. “One member of her crew has been picked up who tells such a weird, fantastic tale that it has not received much credence. According to his story the Pegasus was winging its way across mid-ocean last night keeping an even elevation of three thousand feet, when, without any warning, the machine started straight up. Some force outside of itself was drawing it up, but whither? The rescued mechanic, the only one of all the fated ship’s passengers, possessed the presence of mind to manipulate his parachute, and thus descended in safety before the air became too rare to breathe, and before he and the parachute could be attracted upwards. He stoutly maintains that the plane could not have fallen later without his knowledge. Scouting planes, boats and submarines sent out this morning verify his seemingly mad narration. Not a vestige of the Pegasus is to be found above, on the surface or below the water. Is this tragedy in any way connected with the lowering of the ocean level? Has some one a theory? In the face of such an inexplicable enigma the government will listen to the advancement of any theories, in the hope of solving the mystery. Too many times in the past have the so-called level-headed people failed to give ear to the warnings of theorists and dreamers, but now we know that the latter are often the possessors of a sixth sense that enables them to see that to which the bulk of mankind is blind.”
I was awed by the fate of the Pegasus. I had had two flights in the wonderful machine myself three years ago, and I knew that it was the last word in luxuriant air-travel.
How long I sat listening to brief news bulletins and witnessing scenic flashes of worldly affairs I do not know, but there suddenly came to my mind and persisted in staying there, a very disquieting thought. Several times I dismissed it as unworthy of any consideration, but it continued with unmitigating tenacity.
After an hour of mental pros and cons I called up the’ hotel office.
“This is Mr. Gregory in suite 307,” I strove to keep my voice steady. “Mr. Martell of 309 is ill at the house of a friend. He wishes me to have some of his belongings taken to him. May I have the key to his rooms?”
There was a pause that to me seemed interminable, then the voice of the clerk. “Certainly, Mr. Gregory, I’ll send a boy up with it at once.”
I felt like a culprit of the deepest dye as I entered Martell’s suite a few moments later and gazed about me. I knew I might expect interference from any quarter at any moment so I wasted no time in a general survey of the apartment but proceeded at once to the object of my visit. The tiny machine which I now perceived was more intricate than I had supposed from my previous observations through the keyhole, stood in its accustomed place upon the desk. It had four levers and a dial, and I decided to manipulate each of these in turn. I commenced with the one at my extreme left. For a moment apparently nothing happened, then I realized that above the machine a mist was forming.
At first it was faint and cloudy but the haziness quickly cleared, and before my startled vision a scene presented itself. I seemed to be inside a bamboo hut looking toward an opening which afforded a glimpse of a wave-washed sandy beach and a few palm trees silhouetted against the horizon. I could imagine myself on a desert isle. I gasped in astonishment, but it was nothing to the shock which was to follow. While my fascinated gaze dwelt on the scene before me, a shadow fell athwart the hut’s entrance and the figure of a man came toward me. I uttered a hoarse cry. For a moment I thought I had been transplanted chronologically to the discovery of America, for the being who approached me bore a general resemblance to an Indian chief. From his forehead tall, white feathers stood erect. He was without clothing and his skin had a reddish cast that glistened with a coppery sheen in the sunlight. Where had I seen those features or similar ones, recently? I had it! Martell! The Indian savage was a natural replica of the suave and civilized Martell, and yet was this man before me a savage? On the contrary, I noted that his features displayed a remarkably keen intelligence.
The stranger approached a table upon which I seemed to be, and raised his arms. A muffled cry escaped my lips! The feathers that I had supposed constituted his headdress were attached permanently along the upper portion of his arms to a point a little below each elbow. They grew there. This strange being had feathers instead of hair.
I do not know by what presence of mind I managed to return the lever to its original position, but I did, and sat weakly gazing vacantly at the air, where but a few seconds before a vivid tropic scene had been visible. Suddenly a low buzzing sound was heard. Only for an instant was I mystified, then I knew that the stranger of the desert-isle was endeavoring to summon Martell.
Weak and dazed I waited until the buzzing had ceased and then I resolutely pulled the second of the four levers. At the inception of the experiment the same phenomena were repeated, but when a correct perspective was effected a very different scene was presented before my startled vision. This time I seemed to be in a luxuriant room filled with costly furnishings, but I had time only for a most fleeting glance, for a section of newspaper that had intercepted part of my view, moved, and from behind its printed expanse emerged a being who bore a resemblance to Martell and the Indian of the desert island. It required but a second to turn off the mysterious connection, but that short time had been of sufficient duration to enable me to read the heading of the paper in the hands of a copper-hued man. It was Die Miinchener Zeitung.
Still stupefied by the turn of events, it was with a certain degree of enjoyment that I continued to experiment with the devil-machine. I was startled when the same buzzing sound followed the disconnecting of the instrument.
I was about to manipulate the third lever when I became conscious of pacing footsteps in the outer hall. Was I arousing the suspicion of the hotel officials? Leaving my seat before the desk, I began to move about the room in semblance of gathering together Martell’s required articles. Apparently satisfied, the footsteps’ retreated down the corridor and were soon inaudible.
Feverishly now I fumbled with the third lever. There was no time to lose and I was madly desirous of investigating all the possibilities of this new kind of television-set. I had no doubt that I was on the track of a nefarious organization of spies, and I worked on in the self-termed capacity of a Sherlock Holmes.
The third lever revealed an apartment no less sumptuous than the German one had been. It appeared to be unoccupied for the present, and I had ample time to survey its expensive furnishings which had an oriental appearance. Through an open window at the far end of the room I glimpsed a mosque with domes and minarets. I could not as- certain for a certainty whether this was Turkey or India. It might have been any one of many eastern lands, I could not know. The fact that the occupant of this oriental apartment was temporarily absent made me desirous of learning more about it, but time was precious to me now, and I disconnected. No buzzing followed upon this occasion, which strengthened my belief that my lever manipulation sounded a similar buzzing that was audible in the various stations connected for the purpose of accomplishing some wicked scheme. The fourth handle invited me to further investigation. I determined to go through with my secret research though I died in the effort. Just before my hand dropped, the buzzing commenced, and I perceived for the first time a faint glow near the lever of No. 4. I dared not investigate it at this time, for I did not wish it known that another than Martell was at this station. I thought of going on to dial 5, but an innate love of system forced me to risk a loss of time rather than to take them out of order. The buzzing continued for the usual duration of time, but I waited until it had apparently ceased entirely before I moved No. 4.
My soul rebelled at that which took form from the emanating mist. A face, another duplicate of Martell’s, but if possible more cruel, confronted me, completely filling up the vaporous space, and two phosphorescent eyes seared a warning into my own. A nauseating sensation crept over me as my hand crept to the connecting part of No. 4. When every vestige of the menacing face had vanished, I arose weakly and took a few faltering steps around the room. A bell was ringing with great persistence from some other room. It was mine! It would be wise to answer it. I fairly flew back to my room and was rewarded by the sound of Margaret’s voice with a note of petulance in it.
“Why didn’t you answer, George? The phone rang several times.”
‘Couldn’t. Was taking a bath,” I lied.
‘Mr. Martell is better,” continued Margaret. “The doctor says there’s no immediate danger.”
There was a pause and the sound of a rasping voice a little away from the vicinity of the phone, and then Margaret’s voice came again.
“Mr. Martell wants you to come over, George. He wants to see you.”
“Tell him I have to dress after my bath, then I’ll come,” I answered.
THERE was not a moment to spare. I rushed back into Martell’s room determined to see this thing through. I had never been subject to heart attacks, but certainly the suffocating sensation that possessed me could be attributed to no other cause.
A loud buzzing greeted my ears as soon as I had closed the door of Martell’s suite. I looked toward the devil-machine. The four stations were buzzing at once! What was I to do? There was no light near dial 5, and that alone remained uninvestigated. My course of action was clear; try out No. 5 to my satisfaction, leave Martell’s rooms and go to Margaret Landon’s home as I had told her I would. They must not know what I had done. But it was inevitable that Martell would know when he got back to his infernal television and radio. He must not get back! Well, time enough to plan that later; now to the work of seeing No. 5.
When I turned the dial of No. 5 (for, as I have stated before, this was a dial instead of a lever) I was conscious of a peculiar sensation of distance. It fairly took my breath away. What remote part of the earth’s surface would the last position reveal to me?
A sharp hissing sound accompanied the manipulation of No. 5 and the vaporous shroud was very slow in taking definite shape. When it was finally at rest, and it was apparent that it would not change further, the scene depicted was at first incomprehensible to me. I stared with bulging eyes and bated breath trying to read any meaning into the combinations of form and color that had taken shape before me.
In the light of what has since occurred, the facts of which are known throughout the world, I can lend my description a little intelligence borrowed, as it were, from the future. At the time of which I write, however, no such enlightenment was mine, and it must have been a matter of minutes before the slightest knowledge of the significance of the scene entered my uncomprehending brain.
My vantage-point seemed to be slightly aerial, for I was looking down upon a scene possibly fifty feet below me. Arid red cliffs and promontories jutted over dry ravines and crevices. In the immediate foreground and also across a deep gully, extended a comparatively level area which was the scene of some sort of activity. There was about it a vague suggestion of a shipyard, yet I saw no lumber, only great mountainous piles of dull metal, among which moved thousands of agile figures. They were men and women, but how strange they appeared! Their red bodies were minus clothing of any description and their heads and shoulders were covered with long white feathers that when folded, draped the upper portions of their bodies like shawls. They were unquestionably of the same race as the desert-island stranger — and Martell! At times the feathers of these strange people stood erect and spread out like a peacock’s tail. I noticed that when spread in this fan-like fashion they facilitated locomotion. I glanced toward the sun, far to my right and wondered if I had gone crazy. I rubbed my hands across my eyes and peered again. Yes, it was our luminary, but it was little more than half its customary size! I watched it sinking with fascinated gaze. It vanished quickly beyond the red horizon and darkness descended with scarcely a moment of intervening twilight. It was only by the closest observation that I could perceive that I was still in communication with No. 5.
Presently the gloom was dissipated by a shaft of light from the opposite horizon whither the sun had disappeared. So rapidly that I could follow its movement across the sky, the moon hove into view. But wait, was it the moon? Its surface looked strangely unfamiliar, and it too seemed to have shrunk in size.
Spellbound, I watched the tiny moon glide across the heavens the while I listened to the clang of metal tools from the workers below. Again a bright light appeared on the horizon beyond the great metal bulks below me. The scene was rapidly being rendered visible by an orb that exceeded the sun in diameter. Then I knew. Great God ! There were two moons traversing the welkin! My heart was pounding so loudly that it drowned out the sound of the metal-workers. I watched on, unconscious of the passage of time.
Voices shouted from below in great excitement. Events were evidently working up to some important climax while the little satellite passed from my line of vision and only the second large moon occupied the sky. Straight before me and low on the horizon it hung with its lower margin touching the cliffs. It was low enough now so that a few of the larger stars were becoming visible. One in particular attracted my gaze and held it. It was a great bluish-green star and I noticed that the workers paused seemingly to gaze in silent admiration at its transcendent beauty. Then shout after shout arose from below and I gazed in bewilderment at the spectacle of the next few minutes, or was it hours?
A great spherical bulk hove in view from the right of my line of vision. It made me think of nothing so much as a gyroscope of gigantic proportions. It seemed to be made of the metal with which the workers were employed below, and as it gleamed in the deep blue of the sky it looked like a huge satellite. A band of red metal encircled it with points of the same at top and bottom. Numerous openings that resembled the port-holes of an ocean-liner appeared in the broad central band, from which extended metal points. I judged these were the “eyes” of the machine. But that which riveted my attention was an object that hung poised in the air below the mighty gyroscope, held in suspension by some mysterious force, probably magnetic in nature, evidently controlled in such a manner that at a certain point it was exactly counter-balanced by the gravitational pull. The lines of force apparently traveled from the poles of the mammoth sphere. But the object that depended in mid-air, as firm and rigid as though resting on terra-firma, was the missing Pegasus, the epitome of earthly scientific skill, but in the clutches of this unearthly looking marauder it looked like a fragile toy. Its wings were bent and twisted, giving it an uncanny resemblance to a bird in the claws of a cat.
In my spellbound contemplation of this new phenomenon I had temporarily forgotten the scene below, but suddenly a great cloud momentarily blotted out the moon, then another and another and another, in rapid succession. Huge bulks of air-craft were eclipsing the moon. Soon the scene was all but obliterated by the machines whose speed accelerated as they reached the upper air. On and on they sped in endless procession while the green star gazed serenely on! The green star, most sublime of the starry host! I loved its pale beauty though I knew not why. Darkness. The moon had set, but I knew that still those frightfully gigantic and ominous shapes still sped upward and onward. Whither?
The tiny moon again made its appearance, serving to reveal once more that endless aerial migration. Was it hours or days? I had lost all sense of the passage of time. The sound of rushing feet, succeeded by a pounding at the door brought me back to my immediate surroundings. I had the presence of mind to shut off the machine, then I arose and assumed a defensive attitude as the door opened and many figures confronted me. Foremost among them was Martell, his face white with rage, or was it fear!
“Officers, seize that man,” he cried furiously. “I did not give him permission to spy in my room. He lied when he said that.” Here Martell turned to the desk clerk who stood behind two policemen.
“Speaking of spying,” I flung back at him, “Martell, you ought to know the meaning of that word. He’s a spy himself,” I cried to the two apparently unmoved officers, “why he — he — ”
From their unsympathetic attitudes, I knew the odds were against me. I had lied, and I had been found in a man’s private rooms without his permission. It would be a matter of time and patience before I could persuade the law that I had any justice on my side.
I was handcuffed and led toward the door just as a sharp pain like an icy clutch at my heart overcame me. I sank into oblivion.
WHEN I regained consciousness two days later I discovered that I was the sole occupant of a cell in the State hospital for the insane. Mortified to the extreme, I pled with the keeper to bring about my release, assuring him that I was unimpaired mentally.
“Sure, that’s what they all say,” the fellow remarked with a wry smile.
“But ‘I must be freed,” I reiterated impatiently, “I have a message of importance for the world. I must get into immediate communication with the Secretary of War.”
“Yes, yes,” agreed the keeper affably. “We’ll let you see the Secretary of War when that fellow over there,” he jerked his thumb in the direction of the cell opposite mine, “dies from drinking hemlock. He says he’s Socrates, and every time he drinks a cup of milk he flops over, but he always revives.”
I looked across the narrow hall into a pair of eyes that mirrored a deranged mind, then my gaze turned to the guard who was watching me narrowly. I turned away with a shrug of despair.
Later in the day the man appeared again but I sat in sullen silence in a comer of my cell. Days passed in this manner until at last a plausible means of communication with the outside world occurred to me. I asked if my good friend Professor Stearns might be permitted to visit me. The guard replied that he believed it could be arranged for some time the following week. It is a wonder I did not become demented, imprisoned as I was, in solitude, with the thoughts of the mysterious revelations haunting me continually.
One afternoon the keeper, passing by on one of his customary rounds, thrust a newspaper between the bars of my cell. I grabbed it eagerly and retired to read it.
The headlines smote my vision with an almost tactile force.
“Second Mysterious Recession of Ocean. The Poseidonia is lost!”
I continued to read the entire article, the letters of which blazed before my eyes like so many pin- points of light.
“Ocean waters have again receded, this time in the Atlantic. Seismologists are at a loss to explain the mysterious cataclysm as no earth tremors have been registered. It is a little over three months since the supposed submarine fissures lowered the level of the Pacific ocean several feet, and now the same calamity, only to a greater extent, has visited the Atlantic.
“The island of Madeira reports stranded fish upon her shores by the thousands, the decay of which threatens the health of the island’s population. Two merchant vessels off the Azores, and one fifty miles out from Gibraltar, were found total wrecks. An- other, the Transatlantic, reported a fearful agitation of the ocean depths, but seemed at a loss for a plausible explanation, as the sky was cloudless and no wind was blowing.
“‘But despite this fact,’ wired the Transatlantic, ‘great waves all but capsized us. This marine disturbance lasted throughout the night.’
“The following wireless from the great ocean liner, Poseidonia, brings home to us the realization that Earth has been visited with a stupendous calamity. The Poseidonia was making her weekly transatlantic trip between Europe and America, and was in mid-ocean at the time her message was flashed to the world.
“‘A great cloud of flying objects of enormous proportions has just appeared in the sky blotting out the light of the stars. No sound accompanies the approach of this strange fleet. In appearance the individual craft resemble mammoth balloons. The sky is black with them and in their vicinity the air is humid and oppressive as though the atmosphere were saturated to the point of condensation. Everything is orderly. There are no collisions. Our captain has given orders for us to turn back toward Europe— we have turned, but the dark dirigibles are pursuing us. Their speed is unthinkable. Can the Poseidonia, doing a mere hundred miles an hour, escape? A huge craft is bearing down upon us from above and behind. There is no escape. Pandemonium reigns. The enemy—’
“Thus ends the tragic message from the brave wireless operator of the Poseidonia.”
I threw down the paper and called loudly for the keeper. Socrates across the hall eyed me suspiciously. I was beginning to feel that perhaps the poor demented fellow had nothing on me; that I should soon be in actuality a raving maniac.
The keeper came in response to my call, entered my cell and patted my shoulders reassuringly.
“Never mind, old top,” he said, “it isn’t so bad as it seems.”
“Now look here,” I burst forth angrily, “I tell you I am not insane!” How futile my words sounded! “If you will send Professor Mortimer Stearns, teacher of Astronomy at Austin, to me at once for an hour’s talk, I’ll prove to the world that I have not been demented,”
“Professor Stearns is a very highly esteemed friend of mine,” I continued, noting the suspicion depicted on his countenance. “If you wish, go to him first and find out his true opinion of me. I’ll wager it will not be an uncomplimentary one!”
The man twisted his keys thoughtfully, and I uttered not a word, believing a silent demeanor most effective in the present crisis. After what seemed an eternity:
“All right,” he said, “I’ll see what can be done toward arranging a visit from Professor Mortimer Stearns as soon as possible.”
I restrained my impulse toward a too effusive expression of gratitude as I realized that a quiet dignity prospered my cause more effectually.
The next morning at ten, after a constant vigil, I was rewarded with the most welcome sight of Professor Stearns striding down the hall in earnest conversation with the guard. He was the straw and I the drowning man, but would he prove a more substantial help than the proverbial straw? I surely hoped so.
A chair was brought for the professor and placed just outside my cell. I hastily drew my own near it.
“Well, this is indeed unfortunate,” said Mortimer Steams with some embarrassment, “and I sincerely hope you will soon be released.”
“Unfortunate!” I echoed. “It is nothing short of a calamity.”
My indignation voiced so vociferously startled the good professor and he shoved his chair almost imperceptibly away from the intervening bars. At the far end of the hall the keeper eyed me suspiciously. Hang it all, was my last resort going to fail me?
“Professor Stearns,” I said earnestly, “will you try to give me an unbiased hearing? My situation is a desperate one, and it is necessary for some one to believe in me before I can render humanity the service it needs.”
He responded to my appeal with something of his old sincerity, that always endeared him to his associates.
“I shall be glad to hear your story, Gregory, and if I can render any service, I’ll not hesitate—”
“That’s splendid of you,” I interrupted with emotion, “and now to my weird tale.”
I related from the beginning, omitting no details, however trivial they may have seemed, the series of events that had brought me to my present predicament.
“And your conclusion?” queried the professor in strange, hollow tones.
“That Martian spies, one of whom is Martell, are superintending by radio and television, an unbelievably well-planned theft of Earth’s water in order to replenish their own dry ocean beds!”
“Stupendous!” gasped Professor Stearns. “Something must be done to prevent another raid. Let’s see,” he mused, “the interval was three months before, was it not? Three months we shall have for bringing again into use the instruments of war that praise God! have lain idle for many generations. It is the only way to deal with a formidable foe from outside.
PROFESSOR STEARNS was gone, but there was hope in my heart in place of the former grim despair. When the guard handed the evening paper to me I amazed him with a grateful “thank you.” But my joy was short-lived. Staring up at me from the printed passenger-list of the ill-fated Poseidonia were the names of Mr. and Mrs. T. M. Landon and daughter Margaret!
I know the guard classed me as one of the worst cases on record, but I felt that surely Fate had been unkind.
“A package for Mr. George Gregory,” bawled a voice in the corridor.
Thanks to the influence of Professor Stearns, I was permitted to receive mail. When the guard saw that I preferred unwrapping it myself, he discreetly left me to the mystery of the missive.
A card just inside bore the few but insignificant words, “For Gregory in remembrance of Martell.”
I suppressed an impulse to dash the accursed thing to the floor when I saw that it was Martell’s radio and television instrument. Placing it upon the table I drew a chair up to it and turned each of the levers, but not one functioned. I manipulated the dial No. 5. The action was accompanied by the same hissing sound that had so startled my over-wrought nerves upon the previous occasion. Slowly the wraithlike mist commenced the process of adjustment. Spellbound I watched the scene before my eyes.
Again I had the sensation of a lofty viewpoint. It was identical with the one I had previously held, but the scene — was it the same? It must be — and yet ! The barren red soil was but faintly visible through a verdure. The towering rocky palisades that bordered the chasm were crowned with golden-roofed dwellings, or were they temples, for they were like the pure marble fanes of the ancient Greeks except in color. Down the steep slopes flowed streams of sparkling water that dashed with a merry sound to a canal below.
Gone were the thousands of beings and their metal aircraft, but seated on a grassy plot in the left foreground of the picture was a small group of the white-feathered, red-skinned inhabitants of this strange land. In the distance rose the temple- crowned crags. One figure alone stood, and with a magnificent gesture held arms aloft. The great corona of feathers spread following the line of the arms like the open wings of a great eagle. The superb figure stood and gazed into the deep velvety blue of the sky, the others following the direction of their leader’s gaze.
Involuntarily I too watched the welkin where now not even a moon was visible. Then within the range of my vision there moved a great object — the huge aerial gyroscope — and beneath it, dwarfed by its far greater bulk, hung a modern ocean-liner, like a jewel from the neck of some gigantic ogre.
Great God — it was the Poseidonia! I knew now, in spite of the earthly appearance of the great ship, that it was no terrestrial scene upon which I gazed. I was beholding the victory of Martell, the Martian, who had filled his world’s canals with water of Earth, and even borne away trophies of our civilization to exhibit to his fellow-beings.
I closed my eyes to shut out the awful scene, and thought of Margaret, dead and yet aboard the liner, frozen in the absolute cold of outer space!
How long I sat stunned and horrified I do not know, but when I looked back for another last glimpse of the Martian landscape, I uttered a gasp of incredulity. A face filled the entire vaporous screen, the beloved features of Margaret Landon. She was speaking and her voice came over the distance like the memory of a sound that is not quite audible and yet very real to the person in whose mind it exists. It was more as if time divided us instead of space, yet I knew it was the latter, for while a few minutes of time came between us, millions of miles of space intervened!
“George,” came the sweet, far-away voice, “I loved you, but you were so suspicious and jealous that I accepted the companionship of Martell, hoping to bring you to your senses. I did not know what an agency for evil he had established upon the earth. Forgive me, dear.”
She smiled wistfully. “My parents perished with hundreds of others in the transportation of the Poseidonia, but Martell took me from the ship to the ether-craft for the journey, so that I alone was saved.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Do not mourn for me, George, for I shall take up the thread of life anew among these strange but beautiful surroundings. Mars is indeed lovely, but I will tell you of it later for I cannot talk long now.”
“I only want to say,” she added hastily, “that Terra need fear Mars no more. There is a sufficiency of water now—and I will prevent any—”
She was gone, and in her stead was the leering, malevolent face of Martell. He was minus his skull-cap, and his clipped feathers stood up like the ruff of an angry turkey-gobbler.
I reached instinctively for the dial, but before my hand touched it there came a sound, not unlike that of escaping steam, and instantaneously the picture vanished. I did not object to the disappearance of the Martian, but another fact did cause me regret; from that moment, I was never able to view the ruddy planet through the agency of the little machine. All communication had been forever shut off by Martell.
Although many doubt the truth of my solution to the mystery of the disappearance of the Pegasus and of the Poseidonia, and are still searching beneath the ocean waves, I know that never will either of them be seen again on Earth.
Introduction Copyright © JM Stine. All Rights Reserved.
Cover Art Copyright © Derek Benson. All Rights Reserved.