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THE SCOURGE BELOW

CHAPTER I

A City Vanishes

HENRY ALLEN swore softly as the energy-fed motor of his heloplane stuttered, then died away in a series of futile gasps. He knew well enough what was the matter. In his annoyance at drawing this absurd midnight assignment, he had forgotten that the atomic integrator in its light, compact motor beneath his seat was in need of a new vitalizing capsule.

Already the steady beam of the New York-Buenos Aires longitudinal route lay far behind him, close to the horizon, the steady rush of sky traffic brilliantly illuminating its north and south levels. And the Philadelphia-Chicago route had not yet flashed into view ahead to his left. Nowhere within the gliding reach of his heloplane was there a capsule station.

As he looked down at the neon-lit tracery of super highways beneath him, seeking a safe spot on which to swoop down in his battered runabout ship, he expanded his profanity to include Carlin Roberts, the editor of the New York Television Service. Roberts had sent him out this late to interview Professor Marvin Manning, the eccentric scientist who chose secluded retreats in the wilds of northwestern New Jersey far from the beaten paths of civilization. Allen, forgetful, had allowed his supply of reserve capsules to dwindle away unreplenished.

Allen, a lean, rather studious young man whose heavy shoulders and lean ?anks belied the scholarly east of his face, glanced quickly at the sky to check his directions by the unsmiling stars that thickly dotted the heavens. The professor had promised to put out a direction beam from the landing roof above his laboratory home. But so far the tuned indicator on the dashboard had not glowed with any indication that he had entered the zone of Manning's personal control.

Far above him a great express lane roared through the heavens, speeding its way toward Chicago. But the region immediately beneath was perilously dark and thinly settled. Allen slid his control forward and eased the heloplane comfortably down, jockeying for position with the aid of the horizontal propellor.

He'd dispose of Manning quickly. Manning was just another old crackpot who, through some mental twist or a desire for publicity, was prophesying the end of the world. They'd been doing it every year, ever since man had learned the art of lingual communication.

Allen hit the ground with a hard jolt, and heard one of the short side wings buckle as a jagged outcrop tore its way through the thin aeroluminum. Well, he was all right, he told himself as he hopped out of the plane, but it looked as if the science expert of the New York Television Service was going to spend the night on this deserted hilltop, waiting until dawn to hail a day patrolman on his rounds for rescue. And old Professor Manning and his end-of-the-world theories would have to wait. Allen inspected the damage to his machine rather ruefully, then Allen climbed back and went to sleep.

WHEN the explosion came, Allen was jolted out of a dreamless rest with frightening speed. It was a strange, tugging sensation, that jerked at his head and made his scalp tingle unpleasantly.

There seemed at first to be no sound, only a sensation of being sucked dry by a force that rocked his little ship like a feather.

Then, from the east, came the crashes. They seemed to be taking place miles behind him, But even at a distance their sound and concussion were audible, like a gigantic rumble of thunder, becoming at its climax a splitting detonation.

Five minutes later, the sky had overcast, and rain was pouring down upon the roof of the little cockpit in torrents, driving, cloudburst rain.

Allen's first thought was that the great energy-producing atomic storehouse in New York City had blown up. Such a disaster would be beyond computation as a horror. Every resident of the great city would be annihilated instantly. He felt cold and clammy all over at the mere thought. Unable to get clear from is precarious perch, or even to effect wing repairs, he dozed fitfully through the remaining hours of the turbulent night.

Shortly after dawn, a dawn which rose sluggish and brooding beneath a strangely metallic sky, a patrolman flew overhead. Allen called him by radio telephone. Fifteen minutes later, his wing cleared an engine refueled, he sped on to the interview with Professor Manning. The officer, it seemed, had heard rumdrs of some disaster, but the television press-radio censorhip board had evidently kept the news under its capacious belt.

Professor Manning greeted him anxiously where he landed on the trim white roof of the laboratory. He was a vast amount of man, full-bearded, deep-voiced, and thicker fore-and-aft through his shoulders than the average athlete is wide.

"You were late, Allen," he snapped. "Too late. It has already begun, and Lord knows how we can stop it. It's horrible, horrible." He passed a gnarled chemical-stained set of fingers across his face. Allen noticed then that the great man of science was tired to the point of exhaustion. His snapping brown eyes were sunk deep into his skull, and fatigue had etched its lines around his mouth.

The reporter explained the accident which had delayed him, feeling rather foolish for his careless omission of extra energy capsules before taking off. The scientist merely shrugged his shoulders helplessly and led the way down into his laboratory home.

"Do you know what happened last night?" the reporter asked. For answer, Manning nodded as they strode through a magnificently equipped work room containing several devices with which Allen, for all his knowledge of science, was totally unfamiliar. The professor then led the way on into a television chamber. The plate was empty.

"You see?" Manning asked eloquently. Allen looked curiously at the older man. There was nothing to see on the plate.

"The set is turned on Newark," he went on. "What do you see?"

"Nothing," said Allen, puzzled.

"Exactly!" snapped the professor. "Because there is nothing there!"

"The commission has undoubtedly been forced to disconnect Newark from the service temporarily," said the reporter, though for the first time he felt uneasy.

MANNING laughed, a trifle scornfully. "I know there is nothing there." he said emphatically. "I and I alone have been expecting this unthinkable calamity. I did not know where it was to fall, so I could issue no warning." And I was not ready, still am not ready."

"What do you mean, Professor Manning?" Allen asked. Something about the wild intensity of the scientific man was convincing him despite himself.

"I mean," said Manning, "that Newark has vanished from the face of the globeā€”or very nearly so. As a matter of fact, I suspect it still exists, but in such a form that it defies all human credibility. And no one save the authors of the calamity know the next point of attack. It may be Philadelphia, Trenton, Scranton, even New York itself."

"It sounds incredible," said Allen, feeling that Manning must be mad.

"Incredible?" the professor asked, a curious expression on his bearded face. "Listen." He turned on the switch, tuning in the flight directions for the day in a constant stream of facts.

"Pilot Curtin of the Orient express will drop to level three at once. Beam repairs make this imperative. All traffic over routes one and seventeen has been suspended. Violators will meet with instant arrest. . . ." Manning and the reporter exchanged significant glances. One and seventeen were the Newark routes. Suspending both of them was unheard of. Something very definitely was wrong. "Tell me," Allen said simply to Professor Manning. "What do you think has happened?"

"Come with me," said the scientist grimly, leading the way hack to the laboratory work room. There he bent over a small, but expertly made fluoromicroscope, adjusting the screws.

"Look for yourself," he said finally, stepping back to give room to Allen. The reporter peered into the lens. At first he was puzzled. Lying beneath hi...

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