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Secret of the Ring

By THORNTON AYRE

Great storms and quakes threaten civilization. Science is baffled
until Terry Marsden uncovers an incredible mystery in the Sahara

CHAPTER I
Extreme Measures

BENEATH a sky darkened to twilight gloom with lowering, scudding clouds, battling into the teeth of blinding rain, Elsa Dallaway made her way across the broad, pool ridden expanse of tarmac to the Receiving Station of the Dallaway Stratosphere Corporation.

The whirling of the wind whipped her heavily mackintoshed figure along relentlessly, slammed her breathless against the door of the building. A shower of drops and a triumphant screech of wind, then she was inside, dripping water onto the spotless wooden floor.

"Whew!" she gasped, tearing off her sou'-wester and patting disturbed masses of black hair into place. "Another glorious day, Terry!"

Terry Marsden did not look round, or answer. Surprised, the girl glanced at his broad, gray shirted back and blond head. The sight of clamped earphones explained the reason. A brown hand was skillfully operating the radio apparatus.

The girl waited, pulled off her mackintosh and wandered across to the bench where he was working. Terry became aware of her presence as the solitary electric light caught the huge, queer stone of the ring on her right hand. Somehow one always became conscious of Elsa Dallaway by that ring before coming to look at the girl herself. It picked up light in startling chromatism.

"Oh, it's you!" Terry tugged off the phones and threw them down, smiled up at the girl. "I was just listening to the record of disasters coming through..." He paused, his deep blue eyes serious. "Elsa, do you realize that it has been raining now' for twelve days and nights without ceasing?" he asked ominously.

"It does seem a longtime since I had a sunshade out," the girl admitted, reflecting.

"It's getting darned serious! First the great Chinese earthquake which upset the atmosphere so badly that the weather fell to pieces. Then the eruption of Vesuvius; and on top of that the complete explosion of Stromboli's crater. Thousands of lives wiped out, oceans heaving up, land sliding down— Tempests and tornados... and the rain..."

Terry stared at the gloomy window as the screaming wind hurled the deluge against it.

"The Mississippi overflowing and the Hudson rising hourly," the girl finished with a sigh. "Yes, Terry, it is all very terrible— But it'll stop!" she added brightly. "It always does. Just a disturbed spell, that's all."

"Hope so...." Terry glanced up at her quickly. "Incidentally, what brought the wealthy owner of the Dallaway Corporation to see her ace pilot? Not the weather, surely?"

"No. I dropped in to tell you that you're liable to be without relief during the lunch hour and will have to hang on here. We just got the news that Carlton was involved in an auto accident this morning— So bang goes your chance of relief man."

"You could have phoned that news to me."

"Oh, sure—but I couldn't have phoned you your lunch." Elsa smiled naively. "Besides, this seemed as good an opportunity as any to have a few moments with you."

Terry chuckled, got to his feet and held the girl in his arms. Steadily he looked into her clear gray eyes.

"You know, you're the living proof of the fact that business and pleasure can mix," he said at Past. "Gosh, Elsa, if anything were to happen to you I'd go nuts!"

"Why wait for something to happen to me?" she smiled.

"Ouch! But on the level, I—"

Terry broke off, immediately businesslike again as the short wave radio, directly contacted with the Department of Public Safety at Washington, burst into life. Quickly he switched from headphones to loudspeaker.

"Attention all air pilots and stratosphere fliers! Orders from the President! All heavy type storm airplanes will prepare for take off in sixty minutes, will leave fully equipped with storm recording apparatus. You will travel from New York to Los Angeles and back again, determining as you go exactly what air currents and velocities are in force. Detailed analysis of abnormal weather conditions must begin immediately...

"Stratosphere Corporation pilots! You will ascend to the hundred mile limit and take a detailed survey of conditions, together with full recording of cosmic wave intensity in an endeavor to discover if cosmic waves are in any way responsible for the present conditions. Your findings, when made, will be immediately forwarded to the Science Analysis Department of Public Safety. That is all."

Elsa glanced at Terry in startled wonderment as the order ended.

"Say, things must be pretty bad to demand such measures!" she exclaimed. "And from the President himself, too!"

"Of course they're bad! If rain and tidal waves don't let up soon the whole of civilization is going to be inundated—believe me!" Terry paused, rubbed his chin worriedly. "This is going to be awkward. I'll have to go up, of course, but now Carlton's out of action I'm without a relief assistant.... Maybe Davies will do."

He moved to the headquarters telephone, then turned surprisedly as Elsa caught his arm.

"Reporting for duty, sir!" she said with mock stiffness, saluting.

"Huh? Hang it all, Elsa—"

"Oh, break down!" she expostulated. "Haven't I been told every thing there is to know about our stratosphere globes? Didn't dad drill it all into me before he died? I'll make a better flight assistant than anybody—and nobody can say anything when I'm the head of the entire Corporation."

Terry hesitated a moment, then nodded quickly and patted her arm.

"Good girl! Nobody I'd rather go with, of course. I'll have Davies come here to the radio instead. Hang on here while I tell the boys they'll be wanted."

He hurried into his flying kit, went out into the raging storm with a shower of raindrops and slamming door.

CHAPTER II
Tragedy

THE STRATOSPHERE CORPORATION, founded in 1950 by Douglas Dallaway, himself the creator of the first practicable stratosphere globe, had in its fifteen years of progress produced an army of scientific pilots whose motto was—progress and obedience.

The huge organization, maintaining a constant air service in the higher levels of the atmosphere, together with a perpetual Government contract for the carrying of express mails, entirely respected the orders of Elsa Dallaway as chief of the concern. Terry, for his part, as the ace pilot, was undisputed boss of the engineering and flying side of the business.

His orders to the pilots in the mess rooms were accepted without questions, even though the danger of flying in such weather was pretty considerable, Though it was mid-day, the gloom outside resembled that of late evening, clouds hanging low, rain sweeping down in torrents, into the midst of which gradually moved the huge globes of the stratosphere machines from their hangars.

Terry used his own machine, equipped with the new Hawkins-Wilson firing cylinders, and thereby able to ascend into the higher levels of the atmosphere at enormous speed.... By the time the sixty minutes were up he and the girl were seated in the small, circular control chamber, their scientific instruments grouped around them. At Terry's radio signal the other globes of the squadron began to rise into the midst of the howling storm.

Terry watched them critically for a moment, then turned to his own controls, released the electric circuit which fired the undertubes. Instantly the globe swept smoothly upward in a straight line, held firmly by a master hand on the controls amidst the buffetings of the tempest, increasing every foot of the way.

Rain swamped against the windows as Terry and the girl stared fixedly out on the approaching ceiling of angry nimbus. Wind screamed wildly in every tiny crevice of the globe... Then they went through the midst of the nimbus and the rain changed to dense, writhing mist.

Up and up.... The clouds seemed unending.

"Sure is plenty of upset in the atmosphere to make clouds this dense," Elsa said briefly, getting up from her chair and moving to the recording machinery.

"Umph," Terry acknowledged, his entire concentration devoted to the task of controlling the vessel.

The globe left the clouds at last, plunged up steadily through the troposphere into the stratosphere. Here at last the sun came into view, searingly brilliant in a purple sky, its prominences and corona plainly visible.

Terry slowed the vessel climbing, began to move forward with gathering speed in the rarefied heights. His floor reflectors gave a view of the earth below shrouded from end to end in whirling gray clouds. Somberly he studied them.

"Guess I never saw sky like that before," he sighed; then swinging round, "Anything queer registering in the instruments?"

Elsa. shrugged her slim shoulders. She was standing before the main window in the glare of the sunshine, fingering her apparatus and peering at their various recording meters. The ring on her right hand shone with a gleaming blood red fire in the savage brilliance. Unconsciously Terry found his gaze drawn to it.

"Say, you'd better keep your head away from the window," he warned her suddenly. "The globe's walls are insulated to cosmic rays and the sun's radiation, but the windows aren't. If cosmic rays strike through the glass onto the nerve centers of your brain anything might happen. I once saw a guy go raving mad through that."

Elsa smiled faintly. "Guess my brain won't be affected much, anyhow...." None the less she straightened up and sought the protection of the wall. Only her hands, slender and white, were in line with the window.

"Cosmic rays one hundred per cent," she observed at length. "That's normal for this height. Sunspots down to minimum. Wind velocity zero. No other radiations. So I guess the weather troubles are not connected with anything up here. The earth itself must be responsible."

"You're probably right. We'll finish the course anyway and see if there's anything else...."

Terry turned back to his indicator-map, guided the globe entirely by the automatic pointer connected by radio stations on the earth below. By its aid he knew exactly what part of the world he was over.... For two hours he drove steadily onwards, came over hidden Los Angeles at last, swung round and started to return home to New York. Below, the scudding mass of gray was unchanged.

Elsa relaxed from her instruments, sat in the padded chair before them and yawned.

"Most unexciting," she sighed. "I'd expected much more!"

Terry slipped the automatic pilot into position and came to her side, sat down. She looked at him in surprise as he raised her right hand gently and stared at the ring on her finger.

"Something wrong?" she questioned.

"Not a thing—But, ever since I first met you this ring of yours has fascinated me. Funnily enough, this is the first time I've really had time or opportunity to see it properly. The brilliant sunshine sets it off amazingly."

She regarded it critically, turned it slowly so that it flickered lambent, hidden fires.

"Yes, it is rather beautiful," she confessed. "Mother gave it to me just before she died six years ago. She had it from her own mother, and so on right down the scale of ancestors. Lord knows when it first came into being. No jeweler so far has even been able to tell what the stone is. Looks like a mixture of ruby, diamond and opal..."

She gave it a little tug and pulled it off her finger, handed it over. Terry studied it curiously and with a shrug finally handed it back.

"Makes the engagement ring I gave you look mighty sick by comparison," he sighed. "In fact I— Anything the matter?" he asked sharply, as he saw the girl was rubbing her finger rather vigorously.

"Nothing at all. Finger feels a bit cramped, that's all. Maybe I tugged too hard getting the ring off...." She forced it back over her knuckle. "Ah! That's better..." But she still scratched her finger lazily for quite a time afterwards, relapsed into thought as she did so. Quietness fell on the cabin save for the dull droning of engines.

"Terry," she said at length, slowly, "did you ever feel that the life you are living is just superfluous? That you're really intended for something else?"

He grinned a little. "Well, privately, I always wanted to be an engine driver—but since I ?nished as a pilot I suppose you might consider my flying superfluous. I missed my real calling—"

"No—no, I'm serious!" she insisted, her eyes earnest. "It's something so much deeper than that! I often feel that somehow I don't really belong to this..." She paused, shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, skip it! I'm going moody, or something."

She got to her feet, walked slowly round the little room as Terry returned to his controls. Presently she spoke again.

"Doesn't it strike you as rather stuffy in here?"

"Dunno; is it?" He glanced at the gauges: they registered normal. Puzzled, he turned just in time to see the girl sink slowly into her padded chair and pass a limp hand over her forehead. He could see it was glistening with a sudden dewy perspiration. Her face had gone curiously pale.

"Elsa! What's wrong?" He scrambled out of his chair, seized her arms tensely and stared into her drawn fac...

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