High in the deep blue of the afternoon sky rode a tiny speck of glistening metal, scarcely visible in the glare of the sun. The workers on the machines below glanced up for a moment, then back to their work, though little enough it was on these automatic cultivators. Even this minor diversion was of interest in the dull monotony of green. These endless fields of castor bean plants had to be cultivated, but with the great machines that did the work it required but a few dozen men to cultivate an entire county.
The passengers in the huge plane high above them gave little thought to what passed below, engrossed with their papers or books, or engaged in casual conversation. This monotonous trip was boring to most of them. It seemed a waste of time to spend six good hours in a short 3,500 mile trip. There was nothing to do, nothing to see, except a slowly passing landscape ten miles below. No details could be distinguished, and the steady low throb of the engines, the whirring of the giant propellers, the muffled roar of the air, as it rushed by, combined to form a soothing lullaby of power. It was all right for pleasure seekers and vacationists, but business men were in a hurry.
The pilot of the machine glanced briefly at the instruments, wondered vaguely why he had to be there at all, then turned, and leaving the pilot room in charge of his assistant, went down to talk with the chief engineer.
His vacation began the first of July, and as this was the last of June, he wondered what would have happened if he had done as he had been half inclined to do—quit the trip and let the assistant take her through. It would have been simple—just a few levers to manipulate, a few controls to set, and the instruments would have taken her up to ten or eleven miles, swung her into the great westward air current, and leveled her off at five hundred and sixty or so an hour toward 'Frisco.' They would hold her on the radio beam better than he ever could. Even the landing would have been easy. The assistant had never landed a big plane, but he knew the routine, and the instruments would have done the work. Even if he hadn't been there, ten minutes after they had reached destination, it would land automatically—if an emergency pilot didn't come up by that time in answer to an automatic signal.
He yawned and sauntered down the hall. He yawned again, wondering what made him so sleepy.
He slumped limply to the floor and lay there breathing ever more and more slowly.
The officials of the San Francisco terminus of the Transcontinental Airways company were worried. The great Transcontinental express had come to the field, following the radio beam, and now it was circling the field with its instruments set on the automatic signal for an emergency pilot. They were worried and with good reason, for this flight carried over 900,000 dollars worth of negotiable securities. But what could attack one of those giant ships? It would take a small army to overcome the crew of seventy and the three thousand passengers!
The great ship was landing gently now, brought in by the emergency pilot. The small field car sped over to the plane rapidly. Already the elevator was in place beside it, and as the officials in the car drew up under the giant wing, they could see the tiny figure of the emergency pilot beckoning to them. Swiftly the portable elevator carried them up to the fourth level of the ship.
What a sight met their eyes as they entered the main salon! At first glance it appeared that all the passengers lay sleeping in their chairs. On closer examination it became evident that they were not breathing! The ear could detect no heartbeat. The members of the crew lay at their posts, as inert as the passengers! The assistant pilot sprawled on the floor beside the instrument panel—apparently he had been watching the record of the flight. There was no one conscious—or apparently living—on board!
"Dead! Over three thousand people!" The field manager's voice was hoarse, incredulous. "It's impossible—how could they have done it? Gas, maybe, drawn in through the ventilator pumps and circulated through the ship. But I can't conceive of any man being willing to kill three thousand people for a mere million! Did you call a doctor by radio, Pilot?"
"Yes, sir. He is on his way. There's his car now."
"Of course they will have opened the safe—but let's check anyway. I can only think some madman has done this—no sane man would be willing to take so many lives for so little." Wearily the men descended the stairs to the mail room in the hold.
The door was closed, but the lock of the door was gone, the magnesium-beryllium alloy burned away. They opened the door and entered. The room seemed in perfect order. The guard lay motionless in the steel guard chamber at one side; the thick, bulletproof glass made his outlines a little blurred, and the color of his face was green—but they knew there too must be that same pallor they had seen on the other faces. The delicate instruments had brought in the great ship perfectly, but it was freighted with a cargo of dead!
They entered the room and proceeded to the safe, but it was opened as they had expected. The six-inch tungsto-iridium wall had been melted through. Even this unbelievable fact no longer surprised them. They only glanced at the metal, still too hot to touch, and looked about the room. The bonds had been taken. But now they noticed that over the mail-clerk's desk there had been fastened a small envelope. On it was printed:
To the Officials of the San Francisco Airport
Inside was a short message, printed in the same sharp, black letters:
This plane should land safely. If it doesn't, it is your fault, not mine, for the instruments that it carries should permit it. The passengers are not dead! They have been put in a temporary state of suspended animation. Any doctor can readily revive them by the injection of seven cc of decinormal potassium iodide solution for every 100 pounds of weight. Do not use higher concentrations. Lower concentrations will act more slowly.
You will find that any tendency toward leprosy or cancer will have been destroyed. It will kill any existing cancer, and cure it in about one week. I have not experimented with leprosy beyond knowing that it is cured very quickly.
This is an outside job. Don't annoy the passengers with questions.
The gas used cannot be stopped by any material I know of. You can try it with any mask—but don't use the C-32L. It will react with the gas to kill. I would advise that you try it on an animal to convince yourselves.
I have left stock in my new company to replace the bonds I have taken.
Piracy Incorporated is incorporated under my own laws.
On the desk beneath the note was a small package which contained a number of stock certificates. They totalled $900,000 face value of "Piracy Preferred," the preferred stock of a corporation, "Piracy, Inc."
"Piracy! Pirates in the air!" The field manager forced an unnatural laugh. "In 2126 we have pirates attacking our air lines. Piracy Preferred! I think I'd prefer the bonds myself. But thank God he did not kill all those people. Doctor, you look worried! Cheer up. If what this pirate says is true, we can resuscitate them, and they'll be better off for the experience!"
The doctor shook his head. "I've been examining your passengers. I'm afraid that you'll never be able to bring these people back to life again, sir. I can't detect any heart action even with the amplifier. Ordinary heart action sounds like a cataract through this instrument. I can see nothing wrong with the blood; it has not coagulated as I expected, nor is there any pronounced hydrolysis as yet. But I'm afraid I'll have to write out the death warrants for all these men and women. One of the people on that ship was coming to see me. That's how I happened to be on the field. For her, at least, it may be better so. The poor woman was suffering from an incurable cancer."
"In this case, Doctor, I hope and believe you are wrong. Read this note!"
It was two hours before the work of reviving the passengers could be started. Despite all the laws of physics, their body temperature had remained constant after it had reached seventy-four, showing that some form of very slow metabolism was going on. One by one they were put into large electric blankets, and each was given the correct dose of the salt. The men waited anxiously for results—and within ten minutes of the injection the first had regained consciousness!
The work went forward steadily and successfully. Every one of the passengers and crew was revived. And the Pirate had spoken the truth. The woman who had been suffering from cancer was free from pain for the first time in many months. Later, careful examination proved she was cured!
The papers were issuing extras within five minutes of the time the great plane had landed, and the radio news service was broadcasting the first "break" in a particularly dead month. During all of June the news had been dead, and now July had begun with a bang!
With time to think and investigate, the airport officials went over the ship with the Air Guard, using a fine-tooth comb. It was soon evident that the job had been done from the outside, as the Pirate had said. The emergency pilot testified that when he entered the ship, he found a small piece of wire securing the air lock from the outside. This had certainly been put on while the ship was in flight, and that meant that whoever had done this, had landed on the great ship with a small plane, had somehow anchored it, then had entered the plane through the air lock at the ten mile height. He had probably flown across the path of the plane, leaving a trail of gas in its way to be drawn in through the ventilator pumps. It had been washed out by the incoming good air later, for the emergency pilot had not been affected.
Now the investigation led them to the mail-room. Despite the refractory nature of the metal, the door had been opened by melting or burning out the lock. And an opening had been burned into the safe itself! Opened by melting it through!
A bond shipment was due the next day, and the airline officials planned to be on the watch for it. It would get through safely, they were sure, for men were put on board in steel chambers hermetically welded behind them, with oxygen tanks and automatic apparatus sealed within to supply them with clean air. The front of the tanks were equipped with bulletproof glass windows, and by means of electrically operated controls the men inside could fire machine guns. Thus they were protected from the Pirate's gas and able to use their weapons.
The ship was accompanied by a patrol of Air Guardsmen. Yet, despite, this, cancer cases were aboard with the hope of being gassed.
When the plane reached the neighborhood of San Francisco, there had been no sign of an attack. The Pirate might well retire permanently on a million, if he were alone, as the singular signature indicated; but it seemed much more probable that he would attempt another attack in any case. Well, that just meant watching all the planes from now on, a tremendous job for the Air Guard to handle.
The leader of the patrol turned in an easy bank to descend the ten miles to Earth, and his planes followed him. Then suddenly through the communicator came an unmistakable sound. The plane automatically signaling for an emergency pilot! That could only mean that the plane had been gassed under the very eyes of his men!
The bonds were gone and the passengers gassed, and incredibly, the men in the steel tanks were as thoroughly gassed as the rest.
The note was brief, and as much to the point as was the absence of the bonds.
To the Officials of the Airport:
Restore as usual. The men in the tanks are asleep also—I said the gas would penetrate any material. It does. A mask obviously won't do any good. Don't try that C-32L mask. I warn you it will be fatal. My gas reacts to produce a virulent poison when in contact with the chemicals in the C-32L.