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Chapter 3

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« on: April 02, 2023, 11:29:38 am »

WHEN morning came the professor proceeded upon his unexpected challenge with those exact and scientific methods to have been predicted. First he photographed the scene of nocturnal action from every angle and made copious notes and measurements to verify or correct the impressions of the night. Then he donned a gas mask and descended into the pit by a long ladder. He found the air normal, but was able to add some feet to the suspected depth of the great hole. Applewood stood upon the area of a prehistoric river and the soil was alluvial, being composed, at a slight distance beneath the subsoil, almost entirely of fine, red sand. One might excavate in this ceaselessly without reaching any rocky stratum or unearthing anything but widely scattered and water-worn pebbles. Unopposed therefore the bolt had fallen and penetrated to regions as yet to be explored. The chasm was thirty feet deep and its sides smoothly bored and rounded. Felix stood on the sand at the bottom, accustomed his eyes to the twilight about him and made his notes. From above came the voice of Norah urging him to ascend again. Presently he did so, and his next action was to direct Saul Medland and two assistants to set stakes at a distance of five-and-twenty yards from the pit, connect the posts with ropes and make fifty yards square of the paddock sacred ground.

The business of excavation began after lunch, when arrived the Ford brothers and listened to an exhortation from the professor. They had already been trained in similar toil and presently set about their task beneath him, while Felix sat in a garden chair at the mouth of the pit and watched them. The soil was brought up in buckets and sifted, but revealed no unusual objects. Its amount, however, proved considerable, and nearly a day's work had been completed before anything defied the spade. Then the perspiring diggers reported that they had reached a flat surface which apparently filled the circumference of the hole and would not yield.

Thereupon Felix himself descended with his gloves, a brush and a trowel. Carefully he worked over the bottom of the excavation and found it floored with a hard and circular mass of metal. What lay below could not be determined without further attack and for this purpose certain elaborate preparations would be necessary.

"Sufficient for the day," declared the professor. "To-morrow we must procure pit-props and render the place secure for our next operations. You will then dig down along one side of this object, that you may ascertain its total length and the extent to which it has penetrated the earth. We have here no aerolite, or 'thunderbolt', as you would call it, fallen from space, but a fabricated mass of metal—a projectile manufactured by conscious intelligence of a high order and despatched upon its tremendous journey for reasons we may or may not be able to determine. The future will show.

"You will have remarked," concluded Felix, "that the diameter of that circular disk of metal beneath is not much above five feet. Assuming it to be the base of a huge bullet, those familiar with ballistics would doubtless be able to form some idea of its probable size and the nature of the cannon, or mortar, that despatched it into space; but to-morrow you will be able to get to the bottom of it and ascertain its dimensions. That done, we shall consider what tackle will be needful to bring the thing out to the surface and convey it under cover of the large outhouse for examination."

So ended the first day's work, and on the following afternoon arrived pit-props and an old miner skilled in the handling of them. The third day was advanced before he had seen the pit made safe, and meantime news of the incident got afoot and journalists arrived for information. Felix himself spoke with them, permitted them to inspect the scene and informed them that, in the course of a few days, he proposed to prepare a statement for the Press.

"All in good time," he said. "An event of this nature, lying as it does wholly outside experience, must be approached with utmost caution and reserve. Theories and explanations are alike vain until we glean all that the object itself is capable of telling us. Rest assured that science will approach it from every possible angle, and until that has been done and experts competent to judge are in a position to report, the less idle gossip and futile surmise devoted to the subject, the better."

Sensational announcements none the less appeared, and the passion of the British public for free entertainment became a cause of much vexation at Applewood. Norah suggested charging an entrance fee and pointed out that deserving charities might thus become substantially the gainers; but Felix withstood her and declined to make a show of the serious business in hand.

Upon the third day the brothers Ford sank a hole at the side of the great metal bolt and in the alluvial soil were able to make good progress. When a space of four feet was cleared the rotund nature of the projectile became clear, but a surprise awaited the explorers, for, at six feet down, the object began to slope inward to its buried apex and they were presently able to announce that they had reached the point of it.

Tom Ford emerged and reported.

"We've got to the nose of the thing, Professor," he said, "and you can now figure out its size, though not its weight. I'd say it wasn't much above seven feet long, and it's rounded off very suent and regular. Stream-lined, you might almost say: but the surface of the metal is rough. There ain't no polish to it."

Felix explained this fact before he himself descended to learn what he might.

"However tough the metal and however polished at the start," he said, "the surface was likely to be disturbed by its terrific journey. That it has reached us from some other planet of the solar system may be assumed, since no arrival from the outer abysses of space can be imagined; but even so those terrific transitions of intense heat and cold the object has encountered might well serve to corrugate its outer shell. The amazing thing appears to be that it is constructed of material capable of resisting those transitions and not disintegrating beneath them."

But he found no evidence of any injury to the mass, and such was its solidity that once again Felix wondered whether, after all, it must be man-made and its mystery soon to be discovered.

A day later came the business of dragging the projectile from the earth, for which purpose tackle was rigged and a small crane secured. Chains were fastened round the object and when once suspended, its weight proved to be considerably less than its mass had promised. At last the monster emerged, was swung clear of earth and lowered upon a stout garden trolley waiting to receive it. Norah watched with the rest and provided a very accurate simile.

"It is exactly the shape of a huge filbert," she said, and Felix agreed with her.

"In every respect it conforms to the nut we know as a Kentish cob," he admitted. "Broad at the shoulder, somewhat blunt at the apex and tapering slightly towards the base. Obviously a projectile shot from some prodigious weapon; and one would have imagined metal destined to withstand the impact of that tremendous discharge must have been compounded of something stronger than any steel of which we have knowledge. Yet the crane records that the mass weighs no considerable amount. Metallurgists must examine it and remove a portion for spectroscopic analysis."

"It has a very earthly look," declared Norah, but the professor declared that, in his opinion, evidence already existed to the contrary.

"We cannot judge by appearances," he said, "and a resemblance to a familiar, natural object must not mislead you. Science of an advanced order has sent this bolt to earth, and as for its shape, no doubt science also determined that. Its comparative lightness interests me most."

Time threw light upon this problem; but for a while Felix avoided publicity until further facts were definitely learned, and then he contributed them to the Press.

'Examination', he wrote, 'reveals significant peculiarities in the visitant from a region as yet uncertain. Greenwich is making the necessary calculations which may throw light upon its possible and most probable point of departure with the importance attaching thereto; but for the moment science is concerned upon the object itself. The photograph published herewith indicates its shape and the subjoined measurements record its size. A portion, weighing one pound and three ounces, was cut from the surface with very considerable difficulty, for I would not permit any application of heat in the process, for reasons concerned with future research, and the fragment was cut with cold chisels from the mass. Experts attest that they have never been called to deal with metal of such adamant formation; but it proves not quite so light as it first appeared to be—a fact that immediately confirms my first suspicion and points to one conclusion alone. To this I will return.

'Examination of the metal reveals only familiar substances and the spectroscopic bands usually recorded in stellar research. No unknown material can be proclaimed; but the nature of the amalgam or synthesis responsible for this inflexible mass has not as yet been determined. It is but little heavier than our steel, yet of much greater density and rigidity, and if its secret can be discovered we are presented with an armour superior to any as yet in use.

'Before proceeding to the obvious conclusion presented by these facts, I will describe a circumstance that supports it and leaves me and my present coadjutors in little doubt. Round the projectile and apparently welded into the body of it just below its widest girth, there runs a hoop of metal encircling the whole. This cannot have been designed for strength since nothing stronger than the body itself is within our knowledge; but this girdle—composed of some metal differing apparently from the rest—is imposed for a separate purpose. It is sunk level with the bolt and can have offered no drag upon the discharge when the projectile was fired. If we, then, consider the conclusion I am about to report, the probable purpose of it becomes apparent.

'In a word we are dealing, not with a solid object, but a shell. A gifted observer on first seeing the bolt after it was raised to the surface, remarked that it looked exactly like a huge filbert nut; and it is now almost certain that the nut contains a kernel. The disproportion between its weight and bulk prove that the interior must be hollow, and the surrounding band is therefore much what we might have expected as a source of safety and protection. More data to confirm these convictions are available. Though not the result of my personal observation, a gifted and acute young scientist from the Museum of Redchester submitting the surface of the great object to careful survey under strong magnification, proves the existence of hair-like lines extending from each side of the base and meeting at the point or apex of the shell. These exactly divide it into two equal parts, and there can be no doubt that they represent the region of juncture between the two sides. Mathematical calculations as to weight deduce the extent of the cavity within; but size has clearly been sacrificed to safety and the extent of the receptacle buried within the walls of the shell cannot, after all, prove very considerable. Its shape we have yet to learn when the tremendous business of cutting the object open has been completed; but we have reason to hope that, once the encircling hoop of metal is removed, subsequent operations may prove less arduous.

'Meantime it is asked that the public will abstain from intruding upon our privacy, and rest content with the knowledge that everything is in skilled hands and our procedure approved by the highest scientific authorities. All further information will be immediately despatched to the Press and the British Broadcasting and Columbian Corporations.'

"Nothing could be better," said Norah, "and I hope now we shall have a little peace. The glare of the limelight is most unpleasant."

"I share your misery," replied her brother; "but we must endure as best we can. Far greater events may lie in store; and should that be so, I am hopeful that the whole business will prove outside my province and be taken out of my hands. There can be no shadow of doubt that the shell contains material destined to become historic, but what is its nature and what domain of science it will directly challenge none can say until we know."

"It certainly is not likely to have much to do with lizards," declared Norah. "And, in that case, I hope you will soon be at peace. Our little world is convulsed and nothing could be more unpleasant. Do you know what Mrs. Midgley-Masters said to me yesterday?"

He shook his head.

"Nothing of consequence, I should imagine."

"She is a crime 'fan' and reads modern novels without ceasing in order to find the perfect murder. Her quest has so far failed, but she still struggles on, paying a double subscription to The Times Library in hope some day to reach her goal. She is greatly interested in the projectile and suspects that we may yet find it embalms a horrible but perfect murder."

Felix sighed.

"Why do we enter into terms of friendship with this sort of people?" he asked. "It is bad for our morale, my love, and provokes that unconscious contempt for our fellow creatures which undermines faith and leads to pessimism."

"No doubt distance lends enchantment to Mrs. Midgley-Masters and plenty of others," admitted his sister. "We owe her a lunch, as a matter of fact; but everybody will understand that you are far too occupied just now for any social functions."

"I do no entertaining of any sort or kind and accept no hospitality for an indefinite period," he assured her.

"Be at peace and let nothing divert your energies from your task," begged Norah. "I have let it be thoroughly understood that, for the present, we are practically out of bounds and untouchable. Everybody understands the importance of your task and most of our acquaintances are quite sensible about it. Colonel Pegram and Brigadier Rook both feel perfectly positive that it came from Germany, or else Russia, or perhaps Italy. They regard it rather like the magic bottle in the Arabian Nights, and much doubt whether any attempt to open it ought to be made."

"There is nobody like a retired military man to voice the prevalent distrust and international animosity afflicting every civilized nation," answered Felix.
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