A RUNAWAY WORLD (3)
November 20, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize “A Runaway World,” by Clare Winger Harris. This story, her first, appeared in the July 1926 issue of Weird Tales; it entered the public domain in 2022.
It was five months to the day after the radios had first broadcast the startling news that Mars was no longer revolving around the sun, that I, James Griffin, sat at breakfast with my wife and two children, Eleanor and Jimmy, Jr. I am not and never have been an astronomical man. Mundane affairs have always kept me too busy for star-gazing, so it is not to be wondered at that the news of Mars’ departure did not deeply concern me. But the whole affair was, much to my chagrin, indirectly the cause of a dreadful blunder at the office.
“Mars was closer to the sun than we are,” I had remarked one day to Zutell, my assistant at the office, “but I’ll bet the old war-planet is getting pretty well cooled off by now.”
Zutell looked at me with a peculiar expression which I haven’t forgotten to this day.
“More remote from the sun than Earth?” he ejaculated. “Why, man alive, didn’t you know Mars’ orbit is more remote from the sun than ours?”
His manner was extraordinarily convincing, and inwardly I was mortified at my ignorance.
“It is not!” I declared stubbornly, then added weakly, “Anyhow, what difference does it make?”
His glance of amused condescension stung my pride, and from that time on his already too sufficient self-confidence increased. In his presence I seemed to be suffering from an inferiority complex. I laid the entire blame for my loss of self-confidence upon the truant Mars, and secretly wished the ruddy planet all kinds of bad luck.
But to return to the breakfast table. My wife, Vera, poured me a second cup of coffee and remarked sweetly, “The Zutells are coming over this morning, since it is a holiday, dear, to listen to the radio and see in the new televisio. You know President Bedford is to address the nation from the newly completed capitol building, which will be seen for the first time in the televisio. If you like, I’ll ask the Mardens, too. You seem to like them so much.”
“Hang it all,” I said irritably, “can’t you leave the Zutells out of it! Ed’s forever rubbing in something about Jupiter or Venus, now that Mars is gone. He’s an insufferable bore!”
“Why, Jim,” cried Vera, half laughing, “as sure as fate I do believe you’re jealous, just because —”
“Jealous!” I burst out. “Jealous of him? Why, I can show him cards and spades —”
“I know yon can. That’s just it,” laughed Vera; “that’s just why it’s so funny to have you care because you didn’t know about Mars. It’s much more important that you know more about cost-accounting than Ed does.”
Vera was right, as usual, and I rewarded her with a kiss just as Junior screamed that Archie Zutell was coming across the lawn to play with him and Eleanor.
“Well, you kids clear out of here,” I said, “and play outside if we grownups are expected to see anything of the president and hear his address, and Jimmy, don’t let Archie put anything over on you. Stick up for your rights.”
I imagined Vera smiled a little indulgently and I didn’t like it.
“Well, at any rate,” I said, “I do like young Marden and his bride. There’s a fellow that really is an astronomer, bnt he never shoots off his mouth about it in inappropriate places.”
Truth was, Marden held a high college degree in astronomy and taught the subject in our local college. Just across the street from our residence, which faced the beautiful campus, stood the observatory on a picturesque elevation. Many summer evenings since my deplorable error in regard to Mars I had visited the observatory with Oscar Marden and learned mnch that was interesting about the starry host.
The breakfast dishes cleared away, Vera and I seated ourselves at our new televisio that worked in combination with the radio. It was the envy of the neighborhood, there being but three others in the entire town that could compare with it. There was yet half an hour before the president’s address was scheduled to commence. We turned on the electricity. Vice-president Ellsworth was speaking. We gazed into the great oval mirror and saw that he was in the private office of his own residence. A door opened behind him and a tall man entered the room, lifted his hand in dignified salutation, and smiled at his unseen spectators. Then in clear resonant tones he began addressing this invisible audience in preliminary talk preceding the one to be delivered from the new capitol steps.
At this point the Mardens and Zutells arrived, and after the exchange of a few pleasantries, were comfortably seated pending the main address of the morning.
“Citizens of the Republic of the United Americas,” began President Bedford.
I reached for the dials, and with a slight manipulation the man’s voice was as clear as if he talked with us in the room. I turned another dial, and the hazy outlines were cleared, bringing the tall, manly form into correct perspective. Behind him rose the massive columns of the new capitol building in Central America.
The address, an exceptionally inspiring one, continued while the six of us in our Midwestern town were seeing and hearing with millions of others throughout the country, a man thousands of miles away. The day had commenced cloudy, but ere long the sun was shining with dazzling splendor. Meanwhile the president continued to speak in simple but eloquent style of the future of our great republic. So engrossed were we six, and undoubtedly millions of others upon two continents, to say nothing of the scattered radio audience throughout the world, that for some time we had failed to notice the decreasing light. Mrs. Zutell had been the first to make the casual remark that it was clouding up again, but a rather curt acknowledgment of her comment on the part of the rest of us had discouraged further attempts at conversation.
Not long afterward the front door burst open and the three children rushed in, making all attempts of the elders to listen to the address futile.
“Mamma, it is getting darker and colder,” exclaimed Eleanor. “We want our wraps on.”
“Put on the lights!” cried Jimmy, suiting the action to the word.
With the flood of light any growing apprehension that we may have felt diminished, but as we looked through the windows we noticed that outside it was dusk though the time was but 10 a.m.
Our faces looked strangely drawn and haggard, but it was the expression on young Harden’s face that caught and held my attention. I believe as I review those dreadful times in my mind, that Oscar Marden knew then what ailed this old world of ours, but he said not a word at that time.
We turned our faces to the televisio again and were amazed at the scene which was there presented. President Bedford had ceased speaking and was engaged in earnest conversation with other men who had joined him. The growing darkness outside the capitol made it difficult to distinguish our leader’s figure among the others, who in ever-growing numbers thronged the steps of the great edifice. Presently the president again turned to the invisible millions seated behind their radios and televisios, and spoke. His voice was calm, as befitted the leader of so great a nation, but it was fraught with an emotion that did not escape observing watchers and listeners.
“Tune in your instruments to Paris,” said the great man. “The noted astronomer, La Rue, has something of importance to tell us. Do this at once, ” he added, and his voice took on a somewhat sterner quality.
I arose somewhat shakily, and fumbled futilely with the dials.
“Put on more speed there, Griffin,” said Marden.
It was the first time I had ever heard him speak in any other than a courteous manner, and I realized he was greatly perturbed. I fumbled awhile longer until Ed Zutell spoke up.
“Can I help, Jim?” he asked.
“Only by shutting up and staying that way,” I growled, at the same time giving a vicious twist to the stubborn long-distance dial.
In a little while I had it: Paris, France, observatory of Leon La Rue. We all instantly recognized the bearded Frenchman of astronomical fame; he who with Henry Shipley had informed the world of the fate of Mars. He was speaking in his quick decisive way with many gesticulations. “I repeat for the benefit of any tardy listeners that Earth is about to suffer the fate of Mars. I will take no time for any scientific explanations. You have had those in the past and many of you have scoffed at them. It is enough to tell you positively that we are leaving the sun at a terrific rate of speed and are plunging into the void of the great Unknown. What will be the end no man knows. Our fate rests in the hands of God.
“Now hear, my friends, and I hope the whole world is listening to what I say: Choose wisely for quarters where you will have a large supply of food, water and fuel (whether you use atomic energy, electricity, oil, or even the old-fashioned coal). I advise all electrical power stations to be used as stations of supply, and the men working there will be the real heroes who will save the members of their respective communities. Those who possess atomic heat machines are indeed fortunate. There is no time for detailed directions. Go and may your conduct be such that it will be for the future salvation of the human race in this crisis.”
The picture faded, leaving us staring with white faces at each other.
“I’ll get the children,” screamed Vera, but I caught her arm.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind. We must not any of us be separated. The children will return when they are thoroughly cold.”
My prediction was correct. The words had scarcely left my lips when the three ran into the hall crying. It was growing insufferably cold. We all realized that. We rushed about in addle-pated fashion, all talking at once, grabbing up this and that until we were acting like so many demented creatures.
Suddenly a voice, loud and stern, brought us to our senses. It was young Marden who was speaking.
“We are all acting like fools,” he cried. “With your permission I will tell you what to do if you want to live awhile longer.”
His self-control had a quieting effect upon the rest of us. He continued in lower tones, but with an undeniable air of mastery, “My obseryatory across the street is the place for our hibernation. It is heated by atomic energy, so there will be no danger of a fuel shortage. Ed, will you and Mrs. Zutell bring from your home in your car all the provisions you have available at once? Jim ——” (I rather winced at being addressed in so familiar a manner by a man younger in years than myself, but upon this occasion my superior), “you and Mrs. Griffin load your car with all your available food. I was going to add that you buy more, but an inevitable stampede at the groceries might make that inadvisable at present. My wife and I will bring all the concentrated food we have on hand — enough for two or three years, I think, if carefully used. Kiddies,” he said to the three who stood looking from one to the other of us in uncomprehending terror, “gather together all the coats and wraps you find here in the Griffin house!”
A new respect for this man possessed me as we all set about carrying out his orders.
“You watch the children and gather together provisions,” I called to Vera. “I am going to see if I can’t get more from the store. We must have more concentrated and condensed foods than we are in the habit of keeping on hand for daily use. Such foods will furnish a maximum amount of nourishment with a minimum bulk.”
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master” | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” | Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fifth Dimension” | Francis Stevens’s “Behind the Curtain” | more to come.