Neil R. Jones is little remembered today, although he should be. He is credited with coining words and coming up with ideas that are in general use today. He was one of the first writers to use cybernetic and robotic characters (Isaac Asimov coined the word “robotics”), as well as the “future history” concept later used by Robert Heinlein and Cordwainer Smith.
Writing was not Jones’ primary source of income; he was a bureaucrat for the state of New York, working as an unemployment insurance claims investigator. That certainly explains the small number of his works, since it’s hard to concentrate on writing when one has to work for a living. But his influence on the twenty first century’s lexicon can’t be denied.
He was born on May 29, 1909 in Fulton, New York and served in the military from 1940 to 1942. He retired from service to New York in 1973, and died a month away from his seventy fifth birthday in 1988.
Jones was best known for his “Professor Jameson” series of stories, the “future history”. It is claimed that the Jameson stories were Gene Roddenberry’s inspiration for many of the technologies and alien characters in the Star Trek TV shows and movies.
Syracuse University houses a collection of his manuscripts, diaries, scrapbooks, correspondence, photo albums, and memorabilia. The collection includes 250 volumes of Jones’ personal diary spanning more than fifty years, as well as the typewriter he wrote them on.
Claimed by many sources to not have been very prolific, he wrote at least fifty stories in his twenty one years of writing. In his book Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s, Isaac Asimov notes that he was profoundly influenced by Jones’ work.
His first story is next, The Death’s Head Meteor. It has the first known use of the word “astronaut”. This particular story is exactly as published in January 1930, with images scanned from the original Air Wonder Stories magazine in the printed copies of this book.
The Death's Head Meteor
Niel R. Jones
— · —
SLOWLY the human race is emerging from its earthbound traditions and is casting its eyes towards the heavens. It was not so many years ago that weather changes were little understood, and there was much misinformation connected with them during the past twenty five years. We have just begun investigating the atmospheric ocean, and we are slowly arriving at a point where long range forecasting becomes possible.
As soon as our activities are extended beyond our earth it will become necessary to send space flyers to chart the open spaces for scientific research. It is already known that the space between the earth and the sun contains a good deal of foreign matter, such as meteors, and even immense meteoric dust clouds. These, in cutting off the radiation of the sun, exert a tremendous influence upon our weather conditions. Furthermore, such meteors may contain strange and valuable elements. It is the exploration for such things that our author has used as a basis for his aviation story of outer space. And, incidentally, it is a story which will keep you on the jump right through.
Off Into Space
HIGH up, on the top floor of a hundred-story building sat a man at a desk. Before him was an array of dials, a system of switches and intricate electrical appliances. Several hundred glass bulbs of various sizes flashed on and off intermittently in the wall over his desk. Fitting over the top of his head and around his ears was a shining, silver cap with a wire leading from the top to the apparatus before him. He was one of the world's interplanetary radio operators of the twenty-sixth century, sending and receiving daily messages between Mars and the Earth.
One of the largest glass bulbs suddenly shot into brilliance, and with a fierce crackling, an electric spark closed the gap between two metal cylinders, which paralle1ed one another about a foot apart. At the same time, the operator leaned forward, and with practiced hand, quickly manipulated several of the dials to various points, after which he threw one of the switches into place. A low droning sound filled the room, and a large cylinder upon which was rolled a continuous sheet of thin aluminum began to slowly revolve. As the brilliant blue-white flare in the glass bulb died away, the droning noise turned to a high keyed whine which broke off abruptly. The cylinder stopped while the multitude of tiny glass bulbs again glowed separately at intervals, as they had been doing just before the message had come in.
The operator shoved a lever at his side, and a small roller cut across the large cylinder, releasing a sheet of the thin aluminum which fell on to the desk before him. Cut through its thin metal texture was the message from Mars in the three universal languages of the Earth. The radio operator now turned his attention to a smooth plate which rested in the shape of a semi-circle about two feet long and half as wide. On the flat side of the thick composition plate, a black screen arose several feet in a vertical plane at a right ang1e to the plate, so that the screen faced the operator. Placing the aluminum sheet upon the plate, the operator threw another switch, simultaneously pressing a button marked “Meteorological Bureau.” The screen suddenly glowed, throwing a series of orange-hued rays on a slant down upon the plate bearing the narrow sheet of aluminum which grew indistinct, finally fading, until it disappeared from sight. The radio man threw back the switch once more and the screen grew black again. The plate was now as empty and bare as before he had laid the message upon its surface.
In the Meteorological Bureau, two thousand miles away, the officials read the message from the aluminum sheet which had been transmitted by radio. One of them, an elderly man, walked over to the end of the room, the wall of which was bordered into a squared shape by panels. The color of the wall inside the dark panelling was a dun gray. He advanced to a round, metal, inlaid section of the floor. As soon as his feet came in contact with the metal, a picture suddenly flashed upon the surface of the wall, and the sounds of exclamations and loud laughter broke in upon his ears. The elderly scientist was looking into a comfortable room fitted up with lounges and easy chairs. Four young men were the sole occupants, being engaged in a game at one of the tables in the room.
The game ceased as the four came to sudden attention, facing their superior who now spoke.
“Get your ship ready for instant duty. I have a message from the Martian observatory at Fomar which states that several large meteors are approaching from the region of Jupiter and the asteroid group. It states that they will pass close to Mars to-night at 23:43, Earth time, two hundred thousand miles above its South Pole. From past experience you know what is required of you. Bring back samples for the Bureau to analyze as well as any precious stones or metals you may discover.”
The scientist turned towards his companions once more, and as his feet left the metal section of the floor, the picture immediately disappeared and the television screen was once more replaced by the somber, gray color.
At the space ship base, in the same huge city which held the Meteorological Bureau, Jan Trenton prepared for his trip. Getting into a private elevator, he propelled himself at a dizzy speed up through the interior of the tall building to the roof. The last five stories were open air landing bases for the aircraft and space flyers. The first level was for the air flyers which plied among the ports of the Earth; the second was reserved for space ship freight carriers going to and from Mars; the third housed the freight ships which worked between Venus and the Earth; while the fourth was left to passenger service between the Earth and the two planets. The top landing level was used for miscellaneous purposes, the Meteorological Bureau contro1ling a section of it for their use.
The Meteor Train
As Jan gained the roof, he found everything hustle and bustle, with space flyers and terrestrial aircraft coming and going. He went to the hangar of the Meteorological Bureau and entered. A long line of small space flyers stood side by side. Like the larger space ships, they used the same means of power, that supplied by atomic energy. A terrific speed could be obtained in outer space, and the fantastic speed of the Earth and the other cosmic wanderers of space might well be likened to the space flyers as the speed of a turtle is compared to that of a jackrabbit.
The young astronaut approached his tiny space flyer. It was shaped like an egg, except that it was more elongated, and the two ends tapered down to brunt points instead of being rounded. It was mounted upon four revolving metal spheres set into its keel instead of wheels as landing gear. It was especially adapted for the use of exploring meteors, for all sides were studded with grapples and jointed arms as well as claw-like iron rods. These latter, which were also jointed, were capable of acting in the capacity of fingers in grasping materia1 and placing it into the receptacles which lined the sides of the little space car. All of the exterior apparatus was manipulated by mechanical control from within.
Jan inspected his oxygen tanks and fuel supply, and tested out the mechanism of the craft which he found to be working perfectly. He called an attendant, and together they wheeled the craft out upon the roof level which was bathed in the warm sunshine of a June morning. The young astronaut entered the space flyer, closed the door, and was alone in the air-tight compartment just large enough to accommodate him. On the instrument board before him were dials, levers, gauges, buttons and queer apparatus which controlled and operated the various features of the craft. He turned on his oxygen supply and his air rejuvenator so that the air could be used more than once, after which he shoved his starting lever forward. The craft raced suddenly off the roof and into the cloudless sky above the vast city of the twenty-sixth century.
Up and up he arose, until those upon the roof lost sight of his flyer as it disappeared, a minute speck against the deep blue of the sky. Below him, the city could be seen as an indistinct, white blur upon a background of green. Farther and farther he rose until he was in the rarefied atmosphere of the upper air currents. It grew intensely cold, and the young astronaut found it necessary to turn on the heating system. He now increased his speed from an even 300 miles an hour gradually to 1,000 miles an hour until he should find himself beyond the friction of the Earth’s atmosphere. At this speed, it was but a short time before the tiny space flyer found itself in the vacuum of outer space. The little craft had six windows of a thick glass-like substance which was colored a deep transparent brown to nullify the blinding glare of the sun. The windows pointed in six different directions, and it was from these that Jan noticed the daylight ebbing, to be replaced by the utter blackness of night, except where the blazing ball of the sun shone through the brown glass windows. Through one window, he could see the curved contour of the Earth which he was so rapidly leaving, while from each of the other five windows the dazzling brilliance of the clustered stars shone with an iridescent gleam never seen upon Earth.
Jan did not notice the beauties and wonders of outer space, for he had seen them many times before, and so he watched his instrument board, increasing his speed until he hurtled through space in the direction of Mars at the rate of two thousand miles per second, eating up the distance at more than seven million miles per hour. While he was in the vicinity of the Earth, a steady stream of small meteorites beat a tattoo upon the space ship, but as he left the Earth farther behind, the meteorites with which he came in contact were few. Many of them were large, and traveling at the rate of ten to twenty miles per second could have damaged his flyer. But an instrument recorded the approach of the large ones, and when one came within a distance of ten thousand miles, a small bell inside the craft started ringing, while a small arrow in a glass case pointed out its direction.
The young astronaut sped on through the ether void for the equivalent of an Earth day. Through space it was eternal night, with a sun shining from out of the blackness. Immeasurable distances off in all directions were millions of suns and worlds. On ahead of him Mars was growing from a dull red point of fire to a Rose-colored sphere, appearing as large as the moon does from the Earth. The rotating sphere grew larger, in proportion to the speed of his approach, its two twinkling satellites becoming visible, one just below, and the other to one side, of the planet. Behind him, he saw the Earth as a large, green star of the first magnitude, and on looking sharper, he saw an accompanying point of light beside it.
Jan would have liked very much to have landed on Mars so that he could have stretched his limbs, but he dared not, for the chronometer at his side told him that if he were to intercept the meteor train the other side of Mars, he would need all of his time. He rapidly neared the red planet which now appeared as a huge ball, filling all three of the nearest windows. Jan made a circuit around the planet, passing by the darkened half which lay sleeping under the repose of a Martian night, and continued on towards Jupiter. He sighted the South Pole on Mars, and kept his ship some two hundred thousand miles above it on a direct line towards the great planet Jupiter. He watched a dial which recorded the approach of giant meteors within a distance of a hundred thousand miles, for soon he expected the group of cosmic wanderers to come sweeping along on their aimless journey. If he missed them, it would be necessary to land on Mars and get new bearings at the observatory before he continued the chase, but he disliked doing this for it would take more time and be a reflection upon his efficiency. And Jan was working for a promotion to the passenger limited between Venus and Mars.
THE bell tinkled! He looked at the dial and saw that the needle pointed straight ahead of him upon the course he was pursuing. The company of meteors were rushing toward him head on. He turned his flyer on a slant, and slackened his speed continuously for hours until finally it was down to twenty miles per second. He was rushing off at an acute angle so that he would avoid a possible collision. He watched the needle and saw that the train of meteors would soon be opposite him. He was careful to place himself on the sunward side of their approach, for had he been on the opposite side, they would have passed within a few feet of his flyer and he would have been unaware of it, except that his dials would have announced their proximity. He now watched the dial which recorded the smaller number of miles, and saw that the meteors were a thousand miles distant. Turning his flyer back in the direction from which he had come, he ran parallel to the course the celestial bodies would pursue, slackening his speed down to ten miles per second. The distance, as his dial informed him, was rapidly being decreased by the oncoming meteor train. It was now within five hundred miles of him, uncomfortably close, considering the fact that he was not entirety certain of its speed. The astronaut was traveling ten miles per second in the same direction as the meteors' course, and the cluster comprising the meteor train was bearing down upon him, so he figured that it must be traveling at approximately fifteen miles per second. He tested it by speeding up his space flyer to the same rate; it gained on him slightly. The young astronaut decided to allow it to pass him, and then come up from behind; so continuing at fifteen miles per second, he awaited its passing, five miles from its course.
He saw it only as a sudden indistinct flicker, for it passed at a speed greater by three thousand miles per hour than his own. Increasing his speed, he began to creep up behind the meteor cluster, preparing for his hazardous work of running alongside one of the meteors at the same exact speed, and hooking on with his grapples. It required nerve, precision and dexterity, and many an astronaut had met his death trying to ride a meteor in the seas of space.
He soon came within sight of the cosmic wanderers and whisked by them. It was hard work attuning his speed exactly to that of the meteor group, and as he slackened his speed, the meteors flashed past him once more, reflecting the sunlight which struck them. It was the delicate control of the little space craft which finally enabled the astronaut to ride even with the meteor train only a hundred yards away. From this distance he surveyed it. The head was composed of three huge meteors better than two hundred feet thick with rough, jagged sides, resembling miniature mountains careening through space. In the wake of the first three, came smaller ones with fragments intermingled with dust.
The young astronaut singled out the nearest of the large meteors and sent his space ship in on a narrow slant which would gradually converge with the course of the meteor, bringing the two together. One hand was ready on the switch operating the grapples, while his other hand rested on the steering controls. All immediate danger would be over when he grappled on to the celestial body, but it was perilous work, requiring experience, skill and steady nerves in order to close successfully upon the giant meteor.
The sun beat its blinding light upon the rugged, uneven side of the huge meteor, throwing into sharp relief every detail. The sunlit portions lay scattered over its face, relieved by numerous shadows due to the fact that the irregular surface did not allow the sunlight to strike all of the meteor’s side which faced the sun. These shadows, because the great rock lacked a surrounding atmosphere, lay etched in bold relief, so that the sunlit side of the meteor presented a series of shadows and illuminated crags to the young astronaut.
Probably the remains of an old comet, thought Jan, gazing thoughtfully at the meteor he was nearing slowly but surely. It was odd how queer it was shaped, bulging at the top, and narrowing at the bottom. Somehow, it was an unpleasant reminder of something he had seen but could not place at the moment. He was within a hundred feet of the great piece of rock and gradually the distance narrowed as they raced along through space together at the rate of sixteen miles a second.
Suddenly, an uncomfortable discovery forced itself upon the mind of the young astronaut. As he neared the meteor, he recognized what it resembled, and why it had stirred his memory so strangely. From a short distance away, it bore the perfect likeness of a death’s head! There was the white, bulging forehead, the sloping jaws, and two huge, round shadows, with a third midway below it, for the sunken eyeholes and the nose. Most horrible of all was the mouth, bearing the fixed grin of death! The death’s head glared at him malevolently, as if issuing an ominous warning!
Jan Trenton was not superstitious. Superstition had died out completely from the Earth hundreds of years ago. But the abruptness of the discovery, and its gruesome appearance startled the young astronaut and, for the first time in his career as a lone space flyer, he felt himself weighed down with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Out in this vast depth of endless space he was millions of miles from friends and all manifestations of life with this grinning effigy, one of the freakish coincidences of the Universe, as a solitary companion. From whence had this meteor come? Probably from the region of the asteroids adjacent to Jupiter, possibly from outside the solar system, from some other system of worlds, having traveled to this destiny perhaps for the last billion years or more.
He had half a mind to swerve off from his prospective landing on the huge meteor, and couple on to one of the other two, but he laughed at himself and his unreasonable timidity. He dispelled by ridiculing himself the morbid imaginings, which had been stimulated through sight of the death’s head. He prepared to go through with his original plans, despite the fact that the task was strangely distasteful.
The young astronaut was now very close, so close that the meteor towered above the 1ittle space ship. Jan stood ready at the grapple controls, waiting for the supreme moment of contact. It came with a terrific jar which threw him out of his seat against the side of the flyer, bruising him severely, just as he shoved over the grappling controls. He must have made a slight mistake in his calculations of angles, thought Jan, for he had not been prepared for the shock of the contact which greeted him. The grapples had taken hold, anyway, and he was safe for the present, at least. He feared, however, that part of his outside apparatus had been damaged in the contact, but if there was enough of it left with which to work on the meteor, he did not care, for he could have it repaired when he got back to Earth, or he might even stop at one of the Martian stations, for that matter.
A Desperate Hope
HE tested the grapple controls, the rock drills and the iron fingers, finding that over half the number on the flyer next to the meteor were either broken or jammed out of shape. With the remaining exterior apparatus, he took samples of the meteor’s substance, drilling out small chunks and depositing them into the receptacles along the side. The next procedure was to ascertain whether or not the meteor contained valuable metals, unknown substances or precious stones.
Before him, at the top of his instrument board were three dials ranged in a row. The central dial was a huge affair, while its two companions, one on each side, were a great deal smaller. Each of the two small dials was equipped with a small manipulator which moved the needle around the face. The dial on the left represented the means by which the young astronaut discovered whether or not a meteor held diamonds, sapphires or other valuable stones. At various intervals around the face of the dial, the names of all precious stones known to science were marked off. By slowly moving the arrow around the dial, and pointing to the name of each individual jewel, it was possible to find out the presence of one or more of the stones. Above the dial was a small light which flashed on whenever the arrow pointed at a type of stone which was present in the meteor’s mass.
The small dial on the extreme right operated on the same principle except that it was for finding various metals. Around the rim of the large dial in the middle, was listed all of the elements composing the Universe. Opposite the name of each element was a small indicator which swung away from it, pointing towards the center of the dial; outside, rested a series of small buttons, each button communicating with one of the elements listed within the dial. A button depressed would cause the indicator to swing out of neutral and point to the element, providing that element was present in the meteor’s composition. In this manner, a great many combinations not listed on the two smaller dials could be formed to ascertain their possible existence within the meteor.
Jan tested the meteor for the various stones. It was entirely devoid of gems. Had he discovered a supply within the wanderer of space, the astronaut would have drilled them out, providing they were near the surface, for the little space flyer was equipped with the facility for pointing out the definite location of the stones as well as recording their proximity. In case of their being too deep for the surface drills, he would chart the course of the meteor, and if the deposit of jewels or metals proved valuable enough, a wrecking crew would be sent out a few days later to overtake the meteor and extract its treasures.
He now turned his attention to the right hand dial, his hand upon the manipulator which sent the arrow around the face in short, periodic jerks. As he expected, the light above the dial flashed on when the arrow pointed to “iron.” He found that the bulky mass also contained nickel, and a small amount of platinum whose scarcity did not warrant the trouble of its extraction. The central dial proved the fact that the meteor’s main constituents consisted of iron and aside from the nickel and platinum deposits was entirely devoid of all other minerals.
Having finished with the death’s head meteor, Jan decided to cast loose and explore the other two celestial wanderers which comprised the meteor train. The astronaut loosened the grapples, and threw in his controls which would send him away from the meteor. To his surprise, the space flyer refused to move. He turned on more power, and still his flyer did not budge, though he knew that his atomic energy machine was functioning perfectly, for his instrument board told him that. Evidently the force of his contact with the meteor had been so great that the little space car had become wedged in the side of the meteor, or else the twisted parts of the broken grapples and the other exterior apparatus which had been damaged in the collision, had become jammed into the meteor when the two came together. It was certain that he was stuck fast, and that he must search for some means which would effect his release from the predicament in which he found himself. He wished now that he had heeded the grave premonitions the sight of the gruesome meteor had awakened in his mind, and avoided contact with it. But then, it was likely to happen to any space flyer engaged in the same hazardous pursuit as his.
He worked vainly at the controls of the damaged grapples and the jointed, exterior appliances, but the attempt was useless for they remained as immovable as if cast in a mold of steel. He was a prisoner, a prey to the death’s head meteor which carried him farther away with it every moment, traveling at sixteen miles a second. They would soon pass by Mars, continue upon a route midway between the Earth and that planet, and eventually on out of the solar system towards the distant stars. What would be his fate? Would he starve, or his oxygen supply give out? Jan did not for a moment contemplate such thoughts. The Meteorological Bureau, seeing that he did not return within a reasonable time, would radio Mars, and the observatories of both worlds would train their giant telescopes upon the meteor train and discover his plight. No doubt, they were watching him now, the largest telescopes revealing his space ship as a small bright speck upon one of the three larger spots. It would be only a question of time, then, before help would be sent him, and his release obtained.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a crashing jolt which once more threw him out of his seat at the instrument board just as it had done when his car had landed upon the meteor. What had happened? The meteor must have struck something, and it could be nothing more than one of its two companions, for there was nothing close in this vast void for it to strike. It might have been another flock of meteors, and had it been so, his instrument board would have announced their approach long before this.
Jan's logical reasoning, and his cool headedness in the face of the alarming situation, led him to the following solution. When his space ship had landed upon the meteor, the force of the contact had been great enough to push the celestial wanderer off its course slightly, and all of the time it had slowly but surely converged its plane of direction with that of its nearer companion, so that they had come together at an acute angle, producing the shock he had just felt.
If this was so, thought the young astronaut, then the course of the meteor upon which his space ship was imprisoned must have veered again, following the second contact, slight1y changing its course once more. He examined his instrument board and peered out of the brown glass window into the black, cosmic void. The sight which greeted his eyes appalled him with its terrifying significance fraught with sinister menace! Below him was the planet Mars, and the meteor on its changed course was rushing at it full speed! The red planet appeared as a half circle of light, new contours apparent upon its face from out of the darkened half.
The face of the young astronaut was drawn into tense lines, as he turned about towards his instrument board to find that the distance between himself and the planet Mars was a little better than a hundred thousand miles. He rapidly figured that unless he could release the space flyer from the giant meteor, he had but two hours in which to live! The death’s head meteor, which was originally charted to pass by the planet Mars was now, through two slight collisions with the space flyer and the other meteor, plunging head on towards Mars! Jan visualized his end. The wanderer of space with its prisoner, traveling sixteen miles a second, would hurl itself into the Martian atmosphere which, though thinner than that of the Earth, would offer a great enough friction to create out of the meteor a blazing ball of fire, screaming through the air like a juggernaut to bury itself beneath the surface of Mars with a terrible detonation!
WHILE the meteor was miles above Mars in the upper reaches of the rarefied atmosphere, the young astronaut would die of the intense heat from the friction of the air. Under the terrific heat, the space flyer would explode and burn up to a cinder within the space of a fleet second, to leave the death’s head meteor mass continuing on its wild flight to destruction!
Jan Trenton quickly snapped himself out of the channel of gloomy, terrorizing thoughts which assailed his mind, holding it paralyzed for a brief moment. He had nearly two hours by Earth time before the meteor reached Mars, and he would die like a man, fighting for his life to the very last minute. He gazed out of the window on the side towards the meteor to note his position, and find out in what manner he was caught. A chill crept over him at the irony of fate! The little space car was jammed up against that dark rim of shadow which was likened to the mouth of the death’s head! From a short distance, it would appear as if the grinning skull held the space flyer in its teeth, carrying it rapidly to oblivion!
If he could only have torn the imprisoned grapples free. But this was impossible in view of the fact that they were on the outside where he could not gain access to them. He released his atomic energy in all directions, trying to work his way loose, but the flyer was as immovable as a part of the meteor itself. He placed a terrific power behind him, capable of sending him racing through space at top speed had he been free. It was well that the staunch little craft had no weak spot or it would have torn itself to pieces. But the space car was strongly made and the effect of its great, atomic energy release was not to free the space ship or divert the course of the meteor, but to cause a surprising resu1t. The meteor began to rotate on its axis, slow1y turning in the direction opposite to that of the power release.
The planet Mars flashed past the window at short intervals, its semi-circle of light glowing a dull red. As Jan peered from the window during several complete rotations of the big meteor, he saw that the rest of the meteor train had vanished, no doubt pursuing their original, aimless course past Mars.
The young astronaut had one last plan, and he lost no time in proceeding to put it into operation. He would attempt to drill his way out with the exterior drills on the little craft towards the side which was held by the meteor. It was a question whether or not the drills could free him before the meteor crashed into Mars. He reached quickly for the controls which operated the drills to find that there were only three drills on that side of the flyer towards the meteor which had not been damaged. The others had either been broken off or else lay twisted amid the wreckage of the exterior apparatus which imbedded itself in the meteor. Jan set them going, directing their sharp ends into the rock around the point at which the little space craft clung to the meteor. Tiny showers of dust rattled against the sides of the flyer as the drills bit into the huge meteor rotating s1owly, as it ate up the distance to the great world upon which it was destined to crash. The young astronaut watched the three drills work, operating them from inside the flyer, while at frequent intervals he would steal g1ances at his chronometer, and then at the Martian planet which was gradually filling his field of vision. A feeling of sickly despair tugged at his heart, and hope grew dim as he saw that he had less than three quarters of an hour left. He had drilled a series of holes in the meteor all the way around the imprisoned grapples, at a distance of several inches apart. With the steel fingers on the jointed rods outside his car, he had torn away what rock had been loosened, and still the flyer clung to the face of the whirling meteor rushing towards Mars at a frightful speed, diminishing the distance at nearly a thousand miles a minute.
Still he worked doggedly at his controls, and a co1d sweat broke out upon him as he watched the minute hand crawl slowly around the chronometer. Glancing at his three drills, he saw that one of them needed changing, and proceeded to p1ace it in a new position. His spirits were at low ebb, but as long as life existed in his body, the young astronaut would continue the attempt to free his imprisoned flyer, and extricate himself. Jan felt that in his perilous calling he had cheated death too long, and that this time the grim reaper held the winning cards. The hands on the chronometer had now stolen to a position which indicated that less than fifteen minutes were left him. The vibration of the drills could still be felt within the space flyer, and a steady swish of meteoric debris against the side of the craft made itself heard.
Jan gazed dully out of the window away from the meteor whose rotation gave him a round-trip view of the entire sky. He was now so close to Mars that he could clearly discern some of the mountain ranges and flat, red deserts as the planet swung past his eyes. He gazed longingly at the brilliant green star, his home, which turned upon its orbit far off in space. He had left it for the last time. The scintillating stars gleamed brilliantly in the blackness and from the incandescent mass of the sun leaped great co1umns of flame. Once more the meteor had completed its day of little more than a minute, and the certainty of doom grew more ominous.
As the last minute crept around on the chronometer, Jan Trenton prepared for his end. Setting the three drills working at their maximum speed, he turned on the entire power or the craft as it sailed down into the Martian atmosphere with the meteor on its terrific flight. A glare of light flitted quickly through the windows, and a weird whistling arose to a wailing scream. Just before he lost consciousness, the young astronaut was aware of a great wave of heat which swept over him like a blast from a furnace.
The meteor struck upon the darkened side of Mars at an hour closely preceding dawn. Martians who saw it, afterward described it as a great ball of fire which rushed out of the sky like a comet, setting the heavens aglow with its glare. While still in in the air, it exploded with a loud concussion which was heard for hundreds of miles, the masses of scattered fragments catapulting themselves into the quivering ground, throwing up a cascade of dirt and rocks, flattening trees, and leaving great craters. It appeared to burst into two large central nucleii with smaller pieces surrounding them. Those near its landing p1ace reported a tremendous wave of suffocating heat which swept the vicinity when the meteor landed.
As Jan came to himself, his first sensation was a dizzy feeling in his head, and the oppressive warmth within the space flyer. He gathered his scattered wits together. Hadn’t the crash come yet? It couldn't be possible that the meteor had missed the great planet for which it had been headed so square1y. He looked about him in a confused manner, not quite brought to his entire senses. His brain was still hazy, and he felt greatly exhausted as his wandering eye fell upon the dial board. It was registering top speed!
With great effort, he painfully drew himself towards the brown glass window and looked out—into the intense darkness of space in which were set myriads of scintillating stars. He looked on the other side for the death’s head meteor, but it was gone. All that remained of it was a chunk about three feet thick and as long, around which the wreckage of the twisted grapples lay entwined. Above the meteoric fragment, the three drills still churned, one of them broken in half. Jan looked behind him, and out of the window he could discern a small red blot, Mars, far to the rear, and growing smaller.
For a moment he could not understand the miracle which had occurred. Then gradually it dawned upon him that he had been grasped from the jaws of death just in time. The presence of the meteor’s chunk and the oppressive heat within the space car gave testimony of his deliverance before entering the atmosphere of Mars.
The space car containing the unconscious young astronaut had whirled off through the outer layer of Martian atmosphere and into the coldness of space once more. This accounted for the suffocating heat inside the flyer where the intense friction from the thin, rarefied air had heated the spaceship. He must have penetrated it at a terrible speed on his outward flight. He had been unconscious for a bare five minutes, and already he was nearly fifty thousand miles from Mars. He started the air rejuvenator to clear the hot, stuffy interior of the craft, after which he turned the flyer and headed back for Mars.
In the radio receiving station on the Earth, the big glass bulb set in the wall above the operator's head suddenly flashed, and an electric spark snapped and crackled as it closed the gap between two metal cylinders. The operator mechanically adjusted the dials and switches, and the cylinder containing the aluminum sheet began turning, filling the room with its droning noise. As the bulb grew dark once more, and the roller came to a stop, the aluminum sheet cleaved from off the roller and fell to the desk before the operator. Before placing it upon the transmitter plate and pressing the button marked “Meteorological Bureau,” the silver-capped operator reviewed the message curiously. It was the report of one of the astronauts employed by the government Bureau of Meteorology, Jan Trenton by name. It seemed that he was stopping over at Mars while his ship underwent certain repairs, and that he would report for further duty the next day.
Such is the life of an astronaut.