Return Home

Fiction Excerpt: “The Fifth-Dimension Catapult”

By Murray Leinster

from Black Gate 9, first published in Astounding Stories of Super-Science, January 1931.

He came to a stop in a cloud of dust that swirled up to and all about the big roadster and surveyed the gate of the private road. The gate was rather impressive. At its top was a sign, “Keep Out!” Halfway down was another sign, “Private Property. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.” On one gate-post was another notice, “Live Wires Within, and on the other a defiant placard, “Savage Dogs At Large Within This Fence.”

The fence itself was all of seven feet high and made of the heaviest of woven-wire construction. It was topped with barbed wire and went all the way down both sides of a narrow right of way until it vanished in the distance.

Tommy got out of the car and opened the gate. This fitted the description of his destination, as given him by a brawny, red-headed filling-station attendant in the village some two miles back. He drove the roadster through the gate, got out and closed it piously, got back in the car and shot it ahead.

He went humming down the narrow private road at forty-five miles an hour. That was Tommy Reame’s way. He looked totally unlike the conventional description of a scientist of any sort — as much unlike a scientist as his sport roadster looked unlike a scientist’s customary means of transit — and ordinarily he acted quite unlike one. As a matter of fact, most of the people Tommy associated with hadn’t the faintest inkling of his taste for science as an avocation. There was Peter Dalzell, for instance, who would have held up his hands in holy horror at the idea of Tommy Reames’s being the author of that article in the Philosophical Journal, “On the Mass and Inertia of the Tesseract,” which had caused such a controversy.

And there was one Mildred Holmes — of no importance in the matter of the Fifth-Dimension Catapult — who would have lifted beautifully arched eyebrows in bored unbelief if anybody had suggested that Tommy Reames was that Thomas Reames whose “Additions to Herglotz’s Mechanics of Continua” produced such diversities of opinion in scientific circles. She intended to make Tommy propose to her some day, and thought she knew all about him. And everybody, everywhere, would have been incredulous of his present errand.

Gliding down the narrow, fenced-in road, Tommy was a trifle dubious about this errand himself. A yellow telegraph-form in his pocket read rather like a hoax, but was just plausible enough to have brought him away from a rather important tennis match. The telegram read:

PROFESSOR DENHAM IN EXTREME DANGER THROUGH EXPERIMENT BASED ON YOUR ARTICLE ON DOMINANT COORDINATES YOU ALONE CAN HELP HIM IN THE NAME OF HUMANITY COME AT ONCE.
A. VON HOLTZ.

The fence went on past the car. A mile, a mile and a half of narrow lane, fenced in and made as nearly intruder-proof as possible.

“Wonder what I’d do,” said Tommy Reames, “if another car came along from the other end?”

He deliberately tried not to think about the telegram any more. He didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. But he couldn’t ignore it, either. Nobody could; few scientists, and no human being with a normal amount of curiosity. Because the article on dominant coordinates had appeared in the Journal of Physics and had dealt with a state of things in which the normal coordinates of everyday existence were assumed to have changed their functions; when the coordinates of time, the vertical, the horizontal and the lateral changed places and a man went east to go up and west to go down and ran his street numbers in a fourth dimension. It was mathematical foolery, from one standpoint, but it lead to some fascinating if abstruse conclusions.

But his brain would not remain away from the subject of the telegram, even though a chicken appeared in the fenced-in lane ahead of him and went flapping wildly on before the car. It rose in midair, the car overtook it as it rose above the level of the hood, and there was a rolling, squawking bundle of shedding feathers tumbling over and over along the hood until it reached the slanting windshield. There it spun wildly upward, left a cloud of feathers fluttering about Tommy’s head, and fell still squawking into the road behind. By the back-view mirror, Tommy could see it picking itself up and staggering dizzily back to the side of the road.

“My point was,” said Tommy vexedly to himself, speaking of the article the telegram referred to, “that a man can only recognize three dimensions of space and one of time. So that if he got shot out of this cosmos altogether he wouldn’t know the difference. He’d still seem to be in a three-dimensioned universe. And what is there in that stuff to get Denham in trouble?”

A house appeared ahead. A low, rambling sort of bungalow with a huge brick barn behind it. The house of Professor Denham, very certainly, and that barn was the laboratory in which he made his experiments.

Instinctively, Tommy stepped on the gas. The car leaped ahead. And then he was breaking frantically. A pipe-framed gate with thinner, unpainted wire mesh filling its surface loomed before him, much too late for him to stop. There was a minor shock, a crashing and squeaking, and then a crash and shattering of glass. Tommy bent low as the top bar of the gate hit his windshield. The double glass cracked and crumpled and bent, but did not fly to bits. And the car came to a halt with its wheels intricately entangled in torn-away fence wire. The gate had been torn from its hinges and was draped rakishly over the roadster. A tire went flat with a loud hissing noise, and Tommy Reames swore softly under his breath and got out to inspect the damage.

He was deciding that nothing irreparable was wrong when a man came bursting out of the brick building behind the house. A tall, lean, youngish man who waved his arms emphatically and approached shouting, “You had no right to come in here! You must go away at once! You have damaged property! I will tell the Professor! You must pay for the damage! You must — ”

“Damn!” said Tommy Reames. He had just seen that his radiator was punctured. A spout of ruddy, rusty water was pouring out on the grass.

The youngish man came up furiously. A pale young man, Tommy noticed. A young man with bristling, close-cropped hair and horn rimmed spectacles before weak-looking eyes. His mouth was very full and very red, in marked contrast to the pallor of his cheeks.

“Did you not see the sign upon the gate?” he demanded angrily, in curiously stilted English. “Did you not see that trespassers are forbidden? You must go away at once! You will be prosecuted! You will be imprisoned! You — ”

Tommy said irritably, “Are you Von Holtz? You telegraphed me.”

The waving, lanky arms stopped in the middle of an excited gesture. The weak-looking eyes behind the lenses widened. A pink tongue licked the too-full, too-red lips.

“Reames? The Herr Reames?” Von Holtz stammered. Then he said suspiciously, “But you are not — you cannot be the Herr Reames of the article on dominant coordinates!”

“I don’t know why not,” said Tommy annoyedly. “I’m also the Herr Reames of several other articles, such as on the mechanics of continua and the mass and inertia of the tesseract. And I believe the current Philosophical Journal — ”

He surveyed the spouting red stream from the radiator and shrugged ruefully.

“I wish you’d telephone the village to have somebody come out and fix my car,” he said shortly, “and then tell me if this telegram is a joke or not.”

He pulled out a yellow form and offered it. He had taken an instinctive dislike to the lean figure before him, but suppressed the feeling.

Von Holtz took the telegram and read it, and smoothed it out, and said agitatedly, “But I thought the Herr Reames would be — would be a venerable gentleman! I thought — ”

“You sent that wire,” said Tommy. “It puzzled me just enough to make me rush out here. And I feel like a fool for having done it. What’s the matter? Is it a joke?”

Von Holtz shook his head violently, even as he bit his lips.

“No! No!” he protested. “The Herr Professor Denham is in the most terrible, most deadly danger! I – I have been very nearly mad, Herr Reames. The Ragged Men may seize him! … I telegraphed to you. I have not slept for four nights. I have worked! I have racked my brains! I have gone nearly insane, trying to rescue the Herr Professor! And I — ”

Tommy stared. “Four days?” he said. “The thing, whatever it is, has been going on for four days?”

“Five,” said Von Holtz nervously. “It was only today that I thought of you, Herr Reames. The Herr Professor Denham had praised your articles highly. He said that you were the only man who would be able to understand his work. Five days ago — ”

Tommy grunted. “If he’s been in danger for five days,” he said skeptically, “he’s not in such a bad fix or it’d have been over. Will you phone for a repairman? Then we’ll see what it’s all about.”

The lean arms began to wave again as Von Holtz said desperately, “But Herr Reames, it is urgent! The Herr Professor is in deadly danger!”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“He is marooned,” said Von Holtz. Again he licked his lips. “He is marooned, Herr Reames, and you alone -”

“Marooned?” said Tommy more skeptically still. “In the middle of New York State? And I alone can help him? You sound more and more as if you were playing a rather elaborate and not very funny practical joke. I’ve driven sixty miles to get here. What is the joke, anyhow?”

Von Holtz said despairingly, “But it is true, Herr Reames! He is marooned. He has changed his coordinates. It was an experiment. He is marooned in the fifth dimension!”

There was dead silence. Tommy Reames stared blankly. Then his gorge rose. He had taken an instinctive dislike to this lean young man, anyhow. So he stared at him, and grew very angry, and would undoubtedly have gotten into his car and turned it about and driven it away again if it had been in any shape to run. But it wasn’t. One tire was flat, and the last ruddy drops from the radiator were dripping slowly on the grass. So he pulled out a cigarette case and lighted a cigarette and said sardonically, “The fifth dimension? That seems rather extreme. Most of us get along very well with three dimensions. Four seems luxurious. Why pick on the fifth?”

Von Holtz grew pale with anger in his turn. He waved his arms, stopped, and said with stiff formality, “If the Herr Reames will follow me into the laboratory I will show him Professor Denham and convince him of the Herr Professor’s extreme danger.”

Tommy had a sudden startling conviction that Von Holtz was in earnest. He might be mad, but he was in earnest. And there was undoubtedly a Professor Denham, and this was undoubtedly his home and laboratory.

“I’ll look, anyway,” said Tommy less skeptically. “But it is rather incredible, you know.”

“It is impossible,” said Von Holtz stiffly. “You are right, Herr Reames. It is quite impossible. But it is a fact.”

He turned and stalked toward the big brick barn behind the house. Tommy went with him, wholly unbelieving and yet beginning to wonder if, just possibly, there was actually an emergency of a more normal and ghastly nature in being. Von Holtz might be a madman. He might …

Gruesome, grisly thoughts ran through Tommy’s head. A madman dabbling in science might do incredible things, horrible things, and then demand assistance to undo an unimaginable murder….

Tommy was tense and alert as Von Holtz opened the door of the barnlike laboratory. He waved the lean young man on ahead.

“After you,” he said curtly.

He felt almost a shiver as he entered. But the interior of the laboratory displayed no gruesome scene. It was a huge, high-ceilinged room with a concrete floor. A monster dynamo stood in one corner, coupled to a matter-of-fact four-cylinder crude-oil engine, to which was also coupled by a clutch an inexplicable windlass-drum with several hundred feet of chain wrapped around it. There were ammeters and voltmeters on a control panel, and one of the most delicate of dynamometers on its own stand, and there were workbenches and a motor-driven lathe and very complete equipment for the working of metals. And there was an electric furnace, with splashes of solidified metal on the floor beside it, and there was a miniature casting-floor, and at the far end of the monster room was a gigantic solenoid which evidently had once swung upon gimbals and just as evidently was now broken, because it lay toppled askew upon its supports.

The only totally unidentifiable piece of apparatus in the place was one queer contrivance at one side. It looked partly like a machine gun because of a long brass barrel projecting from it. But the brass tube came out of a bulging casing of cast aluminum, and there was no opening through which shells could be fed.

Von Holtz moved to that contrivance, removed a cap from the end of the brass tube, looked carefully into the opening, and waved stiffly for Tommy to look in.

Again Tommy was suspicious, watching until Von Holtz was some distance away. But the instant he put his eye to the end of the brass tube he forgot all caution, all suspicion, all his doubts. He forgot everything in his amazement.

There was a lens in the end of the brass tube. It was, in fact, nothing more or less than a telescope, apparently looking at something in a closed box. But Tommy was not able to believe that he looked at an illuminated miniature for even the fraction of a second. He looked into the telescope, and he was seeing out-of-doors. Through the aluminum casting that enclosed the end of the tube. Through the thick brick walls of the laboratory. He was gazing upon a landscape such as should not — such as could not — exist upon the earth.

There were monstrous, feathery tree-ferns waving languid fronds in a breeze that came from beyond them. The telescope seemed to be pointing at a gentle slope, and those tree-ferns cut off a farther view, but there was an impenetrable tangle of breast-high foliage between the instrument and that slope, and halfway up the incline there rested a huge steel globe.

Tommy’s eyes fixed themselves upon the globe. It was man-made, of course. He could see where it had been bolted together. There were glassed-in windows in its sides, and there was a door.

As Tommy looked, that door opened partway, stopped as if someone within had hesitated, and then opened fully. A man came out. And Tommy said dazedly, “My God!”

Because the man was a perfectly commonplace sort of individual, dressed in a perfectly commonplace fashion, and he carried a perfectly commonplace briar pipe in his hand. Moreover, Tommy recognized him. He had seen pictures of him often enough, and he was Professor Edward Denham, entitled to put practically all the letters of the alphabet after his name, the author of “Polymerization of the Pseudo-Metallic Nitrides” and the proper owner of this building and its contents. But Tommy saw him against a background of tree-ferns such as should have been extinct upon this earth since the Carboniferous Period, some millions of years ago.

He was looking hungrily at his briar pipe. Presently he began to hunt carefully about on the ground. He picked together half a handful of brownish things which had to be dried leaves. He stuffed them into the pipe, struck a match, and lighted it. He puffed away gloomily, surrounded by wholly monstrous vegetation. A butterfly fluttered over the top of the steel globe. Its wings were fully a yard across. It flittered lightly to a plant and seemed to wait, and abruptly a vivid carmine blossom opened wide; wide enough to admit it.

Denham watched curiously enough, smoking the rank and plainly unsatisfying dried leaves. He turned his head and spoke over his shoulder. The door opened again. Again Tommy Reames was dazed. Because a girl came out of the huge steel sphere — and she was a girl of the most modern and most normal sort. A trim sport frock, slim silken legs, bobbed hair …

Tommy did not see her face until she turned, smiling, to make some comment to Denham. Then he saw that she was breathtakingly pretty. He swore softly under his breath.

The butterfly backed clumsily out of the gigantic flower. It flew lightly away, its many-colored wings brilliant in the sunshine. And the huge crimson blossom closed slowly.

Denham watched the butterfly go away. His eyes returned to the girl, who was smiling at the flying thing, now out of the field of vision of the telescope. And there was utter discouragement visible in every line of Denham’s figure. Tommy saw the girl suddenly reach out her hand and put it on Denham’s shoulder. She patted it, speaking in an evident attempt to encourage him. She smiled, and talked coaxingly, and presently Denham made a queer, arrested gesture and went heavily back into the steel globe. She followed him, though she looked wearily all about before the door closed behind her, and when Denham could not see her face, her expression was tired and anxious indeed.

Tommy had forgotten Von Holtz, had forgotten the laboratory, had forgotten absolutely everything. If his original suspicions of Von Holtz had been justified, he could have been killed half a dozen times over. He was oblivious to everything but the sight before his eyes.

Now he felt a touch on his shoulder and drew his head away with a jerk. Von Holtz was looking down at him, very pale, with his weak-looking eyes anxious.

“They are still all right?” he demanded.

“Yes,” said Tommy dazedly. “Surely. Who is that girl?”

“That is the Herr Professor’s daughter, Evelyn,” said Von Holtz uneasily. “I suggest, Herr Reames, that you swing the dimensoscope about.”

“The – what?” asked Tommy, still dazed by what he had seen.

“The dimensoscope. This.” Von Holtz shifted the brass tube. The whole thing was mounted so that it could be swung in any direction. The mounting was exactly like that of a normal telescope. Tommy instantly put his eye to the eyepiece again.

He saw more tree-ferns, practically the duplicates of the background beyond the globe. Nothing moved save small, fugitive creatures among their fronds. He swung the telescope still farther. The landscape swept by before his eyes. The tree-fern forest drew back. He saw the beginning of a vast and noisome morass, over which lay a thick haze as of a stream raised by the sun. He saw something move in that morass; something huge and horrible with a long and snakelike neck and the tiniest of heads at the end of it. But he could not see the thing clearly.

He swung the telescope yet again. And he looked over miles and miles of level, haze-blanketed marsh. Here and there were clumps of taller vegetation. Here and there were steaming, desolate pools. And three or four times he saw monstrous objects moving about clumsily in the marsh-land.

But then a glitter at the skyline caught his eye. He tilted the telescope to see more clearly, and suddenly he caught his breath. There, far away at the very horizon, was a city. It was tall and gleaming and very strange. No earthly city ever flung its towers so splendidly high and soaring. No city ever built by man gave off the fiery gleam of gold from all its walls and pinnacles. It looked like an artist’s dream, hammered out in precious metal, with its outlines softened by the haze of distance.

And something was moving in the air near the city. Staring, tense, again incredulous, Tommy Reames strained his eyes and saw that it was a machine. An aircraft; a flying machine of a type wholly unlike anything ever built on the planet Earth. It swept steadily and swiftly toward the city, dwindling as it went. It swooped downward toward one of the mighty spires of the city of golden gleams, and vanished.

It was with a sense of shock, of almost physical shock, that Tommy came back to realization of his surroundings to feel Von Holtz’s hand upon his shoulder and to hear the lean young man saying harshly, “Well, Herr Reames? Are you convinced that I did not lie to you? Are you convinced that the Herr Professor Denham is in need of help?”

Tommy blinked dazedly as he looked around the laboratory again.

Brick walls, an oil-spattered crude-oil engine in one corner, a concrete floor and an electric furnace and a casting-box…

“Why — yes…” said Tommy dazedly. “Yes. Of course!” Clarity came to his brain with a jerk. He did not understand at all, but he believed what he had seen. Denham and his daughter were somewhere in some other dimension, yet within range of the extraordinary device he had looked through. And they were in trouble. So much was evident from their poses and their manner. “Of course,” he repeated. “They’re — there, wherever it is, and they can’t get back. They don’t seem to be in any imminent danger….”

Von Holtz licked his lips. “The Ragged Men have not found them yet,” he said in a hushed, harsh voice. “Before they went into the globe we saw the Ragged Men. We watched them. If they do find the Herr Professor and his daughter, they will kill them very slowly, so that they will take days of screaming agony to die. It is that that I am afraid of, Herr Reames. The Ragged Men roam the tree-fern forests. If they find the Herr Professor, they will trace each nerve to its root of agony until he dies. And we will be able only to watch…”


The complete version of “The Fifth-Dimension Catapult” appears in Black Gate 9.
Black Gate Home
This site © 2018 by New Epoch Press. All rights reserved.