On the other side of the sun, opposite our earth, is a world we never see Counterearth. In every way it's identical to ours...almost! Albert Einstein, Juan (and Eva) Peron, Babe Didrickson and Sir Oswald Mosley are off on a wild race to Counterearth. It's all action and excitement against a historical background - in fact against two historical backgrounds - detailed enough to intrigue any history buff. It's January 1942; Cordell Hull is President of the United States; and the good guys take off in their spaceship, Manta, from the deck of the SS Titanic, steaming back from Liverpool to New York with thousands of New Year's revellers on board.
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 320
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Richard A. Lupoff
The soft sound of the sleet against the leading edge of the transatlantic skyliner was shut out of the combination ballroom and dining salon, as was the whine of the Santa Barbara’s four gargantuan, magnetic-powered pusher props, by the flying wing’s insulated skin. The City of Santa Barbara, headed eastward from New York’s Roosevelt Field to the Harriet Quimby Aerodrome near London, was by far the most luxurious craft on the transatlantic service.
With a rated speed in excess of 200 miles per hour, it was also the fastest. Leaving Roosevelt on the evening of December 31, 1941, the skyliner would meet the New Year 1942 a thousand miles at sea, shortly before passing over the old steamer Titanic, once the unsinkable pride of the transatlantic fleet and still the favorite of tradition-minded travelers unwilling to accept the coming obsolescence of surface liners in this bright morning of the age of aviation.
It was arranged that the Santa Barbara and the westbound Titanic would exchange a salute of flashing lights as their paths crossed.
Aboard the Santa Barbara the Glenn Miller orchestra was performing a selection of popular tunes. As the musicians swung into “Tuxedo Junction,” the band’s female vocalist, a dazzling honey-blond, stepped to the microphone. Her daringly cut black gown set off her creamy skin. A glittering bracelet worn over one of her long black gloves caught the glare of the spotlight and sent a rainbow of colors flashing over the diners as the singer gestured.
Although the sumptuous dinner had been completed and its remnants long since cleared from the salon, every table remained full. The sole exception was the captain’s own table, where a seat had been left free.
The captain himself was decked out in his formal dinner jacket, replete with brass and braid of the airline’s insignia, a gracefully stylized swallow silhouetted in black against a chrome-yellow disk. The City of Santa Barbara itself bore out the motif. Its 172-foot wingspan was constructed of a light, strong alloy tinctured yellow and marked with black swallow silhouettes.
Every male in the dining salon was attired in dinner clothes, most in civilian garb, some in the attire of their nation’s military or naval services.
The women were comparably gowned. Bare shoulders, elbow-length gloves, upswept hairdos. Glittering necklaces drew the eye (unnecessarily) to hardly concealed bosoms.
As the empty seat to Captain Irwin Jarrold’s right was the sole vacancy in the great room, so the occupant of the chair beyond the empty one provided unique contrast to the formal dress otherwise universal. He was a slight man, his deeply lined face showing every one of his sixty-two years. His white hair, worn unfashionably long, stood like a halo around his head. An unkempt white moustache held a few stray crumbs from the evening’s meal. His gray sweater showed several holes, and one cuff was unraveled, yet the gnarled hands with which he gestured as he spoke were clean.
The man to whom he was speaking listened carefully, drinking in every word. He was younger, a vigorous, muscular man with sandy-colored hair, sun-bronzed skin, and the squint lines around his eyes that showed his years working in the California desert, building and testing his brilliant, revolutionary all-wing aircraft. The City of Santa Barbara was the triumph of Jack Northrop’s career and the vindication of his theories.
Yet he hung on every word spoken by his seatmate. Northrop knew that Albert Einstein was not a garrulous man; when the greatest thinker since Newton spoke, one did not interrupt.
The other two seats of Captain Jarrold’s table were occupied by a man and woman whose conversation held the captain’s attention. A retired naval officer with a long-held interest in aviation, Captain Jarrold had built the Black Swallow Line into the world’s leading airline.
While the company’s president, Eugene Bullard, sat in his San Diego office suite setting policy, Jarrold traveled tirelessly, supervising training, evaluating aircraft, grilling flight crews, and occasionally piloting a skyliner himself.
But this was New Year’s Eve, the great flying wing was performing magnificently, the occasion was gala.
Jarrold’s immediate seatmate was a tall, thin dark-haired woman. She wore evening attire, but her bare shoulders and arms showed sinews like steel cables. The set of her jaw marked her as one who could set the highest goal for herself and, having done so, would let nothing stop her from attaining her goal.
The captain and the woman were engrossed in a three-way conversation with the man seated to her left. He was immaculate in white jacket, wing collar, and bow tie, his rounded, balding head and black skin contrasting with their snowy surroundings.
“It’s a thrill to have you aboard,” Jarrold was saying. “What a wonderful gift for my grandchildren—baseballs autographed for them by Babe Didrikson and Josh Gibson, the greatest battery in baseball!”
Babe’s eyes flashed at the captain. “Do they know they’re getting them?”
Jarrold shook his head. “Their birthday is next week. We’ll make our return flight after we debark our passengers and unload the Manta at Quimby Aerodrome, then board a new complement of passengers. I want to surprise them.”
“I didn’t know you carried freight on this wing, Captain,” Josh Gibson put in.
“We don’t normally. But you know the flying wing was developed to be a military bomber should we ever need one again. There are bay doors and we loaded the Manta through them. It’s—”
He was interrupted by the arrival of the honey-blond singer. The captain sprang to his feet, followed by Gibson and Jack Northrop. Einstein, puzzled, followed suit. His expression was abstracted until he saw who it was whose hand the captain was taking. A steward held the beautiful vocalist’s chair for her. The captain introduced her: “Miss Beejay Diamond.” He named each of the others at the table.
The singer shook the hand of each person at the table, starting with Babe Didrikson’s. Einstein was the last, and held her velvet-gloved hand in his two. “Your singing was lovely, Miss Beejay,” he said. “As you are yourself, if I may make such a boldness.”
The vocalist reddened. “Why, thank you, Dr. Einstein.”
“I love music,” Einstein said. “I think in it God reveals himself to us most clearly. The beauty of all creation, the beauty and simplicity of all truth, he shows us in music. Perhaps someday you would let me play for you my violin.”
“I would be honored.” She noticed a shadow behind her, turned to see another steward place a silvered ice bucket near the table. He lifted a champagne bottle and presented its label for inspection by Captain Jarrold.
Jarrold nodded his approval, then checked his watch. “You’ll be due back on the bandstand in a few minutes?”
“Oh, yes! Glenn is a real stickler, you know. Some of the fellows call him a slave driver, but that’s why we’re the best in the business.”
“I understand entirely. That’s how Jack Northrop became the greatest aircraft designer in the business, and I’m sure that’s how Babe Didrikson and Josh Gibson rose to the top of their field. It’s the only way!”
“You’d be surprised, Cap!” Didrikson’s southeast Texas drawl was a surprising contrast to her rapid, powerful movements and her determined manner.
“I thought you were a perfectionist, Miss Didrikson.”
“Well, I am. I’m just sayin’ it isn’t the only way. It’s my way, but it isn’t the only way.”
To Didrikson’s left, Josh Gibson had lifted one hand to cover his mouth and was chuckling softly.
Didrikson gave him an elbow in the ribs and his laughter doubled.
“What are you so happy about?” Didrikson demanded. “What’s so golly-whanged funny?”
“You’re right, Babe,” Gibson said. “I was just laughing because you made me think of the ’riginal Babe.”
“You played against him, didn’t you?” Captain Jarrold put in. “The greatest pitcher of all time. Some say he could have been as great a hitter, too, but pitching was his true love.”
“It wasn’t his true love, Cap’n! He’d rather pitch ’cause then he only had to work twice a week, ’stead of every day! George Ruth was the laziest man the Lord ever put on this disk. He trained on hot dogs and whiskey. And he did, he surely did like the ladies. Pardon me, Miss Beejay. But he surely did. So he could just smoke cigars and drink whiskey and eat hot dogs and sleep in the mornings and pitch twice a week.
“I asked Babe once—we were barnstorming together in the off-season, playing in Cuba—what he could do if he cut out cigars and booze and floozies and ate proper ’stead of hot dogs. I remember that night like it was yesterday, sitting in a nightclub in Havana, living like kings. Babe looked around the table. It was me and the Babe, Cool Papa Bell was there, Bobo Newsom was there, and we were surrounded by some gorgeous Cuban women—you wouldn’t believe it. Pardon, Miss Beejay.
“And Babe just downed a Cuba libre and puffed on his stogie and he looked me straight in the eye and he said, ‘Josh, if I cut out cigars and quit the booze and left the fast women alone, I couldn’t play baseball at all, because if I did that, it would have to mean I’d be dead!’ ”
Beejay Diamond lifted a crystal champagne glass. “I won’t be here at midnight so I’ll wish you all a happy 1942!” She took a small sip, put her glass on the white linen tablecloth, smudged Captain Jarrold’s cheek with her crimson lipstick, and headed back for the bandstand.
Albert Einstein turned toward Jack Northrop. “You truly built this wonderful skyliner, eh? I so admire those who can do things practical. Ach!” He shook his head slowly, a faraway look in the deep blue eyes. “When I was a patent clerk in Bern, ach, my dear friend Grossmann got for me the job. Poor Marcel, dead now—he died the same year as my poor wife. Oh, but the things they try to patent, you could laugh or cry. You could laugh or cry. Practical genius, Mr. Northrop, practical genius. I so admire that. And what next, if I may ask? What will you build for us to exceed this magnificent craft?”
Glowing, Northrop said, “Another generation, sir. You know there was government backing for the development of the flying wing. It’s been such a success, we wish to move on. You know, we built a series of mock-ups before we built the full-scale wings. First wind-tunnel models, then radio-controlled miniatures, then a quarter-scale crew-carrying mock-up. That is the Manta.
“The new generation of skyliners will be built to fly through the highest stratosphere. We’ve built experimental engines that will apply magnetic power directly to the movement of the aircraft. No propellers. No need for atmosphere. They will be fully sealed, fully self-contained, capable of flying anywhere. And at speeds that will make these flying wings look like sailboats!”
Einstein had reached into the sagging pockets of his loose trousers and extracted a long-stemmed, slim pipe. He packed the bowl and sent a small cloud of smoke rising above the table. “So, magnetic propulsion.” He rubbed his chin with a gnarled thumb and finger. “In 1902 Grossmann got me that job. Technical expert, third class. Three years I worked there. Promoted to technical expert, second class. Above that I never rose, until I left the job, above second class I never rose.”
“We’re taking the Manta to England for evaluation by His Majesty’s government. Then on for tests in North Africa. When we unload at Quimby, I would be happy to show you the Manta.” Northrop had the eagerness of a schoolboy mechanic showing off his car to Barney Oldfield. “If you could spare the time to look at the craft, that is.”
Einstein had drawn a puff of smoke through his long pipe and released it. Where the first had disappeared into the air, this new cloudlet floated above their table. A faraway look was in those eyes again. The white-maned head was cocked to one side as the scientist studied the movement of the cloud.
The gnarled hands dug through baggy pockets, reemerged. Einstein picked up a swizzle stick and began drawing mathematical symbols on the linen tablecloth.
Northrop watched for a few seconds, then found a pen inside his dinner jacket: one of the new solid-ink type necessitated for high-altitude use. He pried the swizzle stick from Einstein’s fingers and substituted the pen; he unfolded a clean linen napkin and spread it beneath Einstein’s hand.
A huge clock mounted behind the bandstand pointed its hands straight up. Glenn Miller, spotlight glinting off his rimless glasses, polished trombone in hand, wished the audience a happy New Year.
At the captain’s table, Babe Didrikson planted a brief kiss first on Captain Jarrold’s cheek, then on Josh Gibson’s.
A subdued cheer swept the room—the passengers on the City of Santa Barbara were not a boisterous lot.
On the bandstand Glenn Miller turned to face his musicians. “Happy New Year, boys and girls.” He raised his trombone, used it to signal a beat to the orchestra, then led them into his theme song, “Moonlight Serenade.”
The City of Santa Barbara continued to slice effortlessly through the thinning sleet. The sky was no less black, but the swirling flakes were more sparsely scattered; a few breaks were appearing in the storm.
At Captain Jarrold’s table, Albert Einstein blinked. He closed the pen he had been using and shoved it into a trousers pocket. He turned toward Jack Northrop and said, “I am going to play some Mozart with my friends Menuhin and Joseph Szigeti. And then a little trip I take to Vienna. Some medal I am supposed to accept I think. From the Emperor Karl at Schönbrunn.”
He laughed and shrugged his gray-clad shoulders. “Emperors! Palaces! Medals!” He laid his hand on Northrop’s white sleeve. “Silly! So silly! But I will tell you a secret. I go really to walk the streets where Mozart walked. To stand before his house in homage. On one trip I will visit the house of Isaac Newton and that of Mozart! Only I wish my wife could also come.”
He stood up, muttered, “I have a little to think,” and walked absently away from the table.
Jack Northrop leaned over and studied the napkin on which Einstein had made his notes. He folded it carefully and slipped it into his jacket, the writing side concealed.
“That old man made off with your pen,” Josh Gibson said to Northrop.
“And he left me this.” Northrop tapped his jacket with a tanned thumb. He smiled. “I think I got the best of the bargain.”
“I think you did,” Gibson said.
A heavyset officer came huffing between tables, headed toward Captain Jarrold. His uniform bore the insignia of chief signal officer, blazoned beneath the Black Swallow Line crest. His sparse faded hair lay flat on his head, and a neatly trimmed moustache could have been borrowed from a much older Adolphe Menjou.
He slid between two dowagers, barely avoided colliding with a steward, waving his hands toward the captain. When he reached the captain’s table, he leaned over and whispered in Captain Jarrold’s ear.
Jarrold turned to him, asked, “Are you sure?”
The signal officer nodded vigorously.
Jarrold slid his chair from the table. “Jack, can you come with Mr. Sterling and me? To the bridge….” He stood up. “Miss Didrikson, Mr. Gibson. I’m very sorry.”
The three men hustled away from the table.
Jarrold said, “Jack, you haven’t met our signal officer. Mr. Sterling knows more about radio than anyone I know. Morris, this is Jack Northrop.”
“I recognized you, sir. A pleasure.” They exchanged a hasty handclasp.
“All right, what happened?” Jarrold asked.
“We were monitoring the bands, Cap. Routine stuff, you know. Looking out for distress cries. We’ve been holding an open link with Titanic. She’s right on course; we should cross in just under forty minutes.”
“Yes, yes. And …?”
They had reached a bulkhead, entered a short companionway that would lead them to the signal bridge.
Sterling halted, out of breath. He wiped perspiration from his forehead, took a deep breath. “You know the transmissions that have been coming in. Uh, Mr. Northrop, I understand your work, sir. But, Captain, uh, how much information does Mr. Northrop—there is a security aspect.”
Northrop said, “I’ve been cleared by the secretary of the navy personally. Your captain knows my credentials.”
“That’s right, Morris. Mr. Northrop is to have full access to all information that we have. Anything you can tell me, you can tell him also.”
Sterling nodded. “Let’s go on to the signal bridge, then. Everything is recorded there.”
They clustered around the radio signal clerk’s desk. They kept their voices low. The signal clerk had of course been investigated and cleared as well. Although the Santa Barbara was a civil craft, she carried government signal gear and was on standby for conversion to military use in case of emergency. Crew members with access to advanced equipment or sensitive information were all sworn reservists, subject to navy discipline.
Sterling seated himself at the operator’s station. He shuffled among papers on the desk. “Here it is. We’ve been getting these fragmentary transmissions, sir. I’ve kept you posted, Captain Jarrold, but Mr. Northrop—”
“The secretary has kept me up to date,” Northrop said.
“Yes, sir. You know, then, that the transmissions seem to be coming straight from the sun itself. But of course that’s impossible.”
“Certainly. The only other explanation is that the source is directly in line with the sun. Either between us and the sun, or directly beyond it. And it must be moving at a speed to keep it in that straight line or the source would seem to move. It would move, relative to us.”
“Very well,” Captain Jarrold snapped. “We can have a full review later on, complete with history. What is this newest transmission, Mr. Sterling?”
The signal officer read from the gray sheet that the clerk had prepared. “ ‘Situation growing desperate. Cannot last more than a few days. No replies received to prior transmission. Please reply. Anyone. Please reply.’ ” He dropped the gray sheet onto the desk. “That’s it, sir.”
“And we can’t reply, eh?”
“I don’t know of any transmitter powerful enough to penetrate the distance and all the electrical activity going on inside the sun. And we’ve eliminated every source between us and the sun. It isn’t the planet Venus or Mercury. There’s no sign of a stray asteroid or other source. So it has to be something opposite us, beyond the sun and directly opposite us. The other transmissions have all been fragmentary, but they were all consistent with this latest. A couple of times they’ve identified themselves as planet earth calling. How can that be?”
Jarrold exchanged a glance with Jack Northrop. The two men had known each other, had worked together on advance projects for years, going back to Jarrold’s days in the navy and Northrop’s early efforts as an aircraft designer for Lockheed before moving out to start his own company.
They had sat up many nights over coffee and brandy, discussing their work and speculating on the challenges that might lie ahead for scientists and engineers, aviators and astronomers.
As if they had rehearsed the answer to Sterling’s question, they nodded and spoke in unison: “Counter-Earth!”
Sterling looked around as if uncertain of his reaction. “Counter-Earth?”
“But I thought that was a myth. A fancy they wrote about in cheap magazines. I even saw a movie about it once, but nobody really believes in that!”
Northrop said, “We’ve considered every possible explanation. Nothing else will suffice. The only answer is another planet like our own, circling the sun in the same orbit as our own. Don’t know if you ever heard of Charlie Avison, a brilliant worker. Developed a whole theory of Counter-Earth. He says if the other planet started with the identical composition of our own, then everything would have evolved there just as it did here on earth.”
He let out a gust of breath, as if his excitement were simply too much to contain.
Sterling asked, “Even to the development of the English language? And of Morse code? And even their name for their planet?”
Sterling still seemed unconvinced.
Captain Jarrold said, “The evidence is before you, man! Trust your own eyes!” He reached for the gray sheet, rapped it against the deck with hard knuckles.
“But—what can we do about it?”
Captain Jarrold and Jack Northrop had been standing all through the conversation. Now Jarrold drew a swivel chair toward Sterling’s and sat down. Northrop followed suit.
Once again they exchanged glances; Jarrold nodded almost imperceptibly.
“The N-M1,” Jack said softly. “The Northrop Magnetic-drive, model One. Manta.”
“I thought that was just a flying test bed for the new engines, Mr. Northrop.”
“It’s intended for that. But it’s our prototype. It’s fitted with high-altitude suits. It can glide or fly in atmosphere, but it should function in a vacuum as well. Without propellers, we don’t need air for thrust. We can direct our power with the engines. The cabin is sealed and we have air and supplies.”
Sterling blanched. “You seriously intend to undertake a flight to this so-called Counter-Earth?”
“I intend exactly that.”
“You’ll fly out from Quimby, then? We’ll off-load Manta and you’ll take on a crew then, and fly out of England? You never really intended to test the N-Ml in Africa?”
Northrop said, “We intended all of that. But this is a new circumstance.”
Captain Jarrold put his hand on Northrop’s arm to stop him. “Let me tell him this, Jack. Mr. Sterling is absolutely reliable. There’s no need to hold anything back from him.”
He leaned forward earnestly. “Mr. Sterling, we have reason to believe that others may be receiving these signals as well. Just so long as they were fragmentary—so long as the whole enterprise was subject to question—we could afford to take a cautious, orderly approach to this situation. But now, we have to move fast.
“Jack, I have sealed orders for you from the secretary of the navy, approved by President Cordell Hull himself. They’re locked in the safe on the command bridge. I haven’t read them myself, but the secretary told me that they authorize you, in case of an emergency, to select a special crew and launch at the earliest opportunity. I am authorized to declare that emergency, and in Mr. Sterling’s presence, I so declare. Whom do you want to take? How soon can you launch?”
Northrop put his hand to his chest. Feeling the folded linen napkin in his inside pocket, he opened it on the message desk. He studied it briefly, then looked up at Jarrold. “Do you know what this is, Irwin? Dr. Einstein was plotting a course to Counter-Earth.”
Jarrold nodded. “He has been apprised of the situation throughout. The President personally appealed to him, and Dr. Einstein has agreed to participate as the President’s personal representative and observer. Who else is on your list?”
“Manta will carry four comfortably. Two more. We know that Dr. Einstein is a great scientist. I can handle more practical engineering jobs on board, and I’ll be chief pilot. I want two people who are young and strong, quick and smart. I’m going to ask Didrikson and Gibson, Irwin. I know that will seem strange, but they’re my choice.”
An hour later the bomb bay doors—or main cargo hatch—of the City of Santa Barbara slid majestically open. A miniature flying wing, a perfect replica of the giant skyliner, was lowered gingerly.
A midair launch had never been intended. The attempt was an unexpected contingency. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson and Josh Gibson, attired in unfamiliar aviators’ high-altitude suits, sat tensely in their assigned places. The request to serve on Manta had been a surprise to both of them, but the urgings of Jack Northrop and Captain Irwin Jarrold had quickly convinced them to go along.
Albert Einstein, rapt in thoughts of his own, sat calmly beside Northrop.
Jack Northrop clutched the control yoke in both hands. Through the crew bubble he watched the operations of the launch crew.
The sleet storm was blowing out its last energies.
Before Northrop could feel the miniature flying wing’s control surfaces take hold, a sudden gust in the slipstream lifted Manta a few feet too high.
She cleared the ventral surface of the parent craft with inches to spare, but Santa Barbara’s right outboard pusher prop crashed into Manta’s wingtip. The smaller craft was impaled on the propeller blade, swung horizontally, then thrown behind the Santa Barbara.
Spinning wildly, Manta plunged headlong through the black night, toward the black Atlantic waves.
The early-morning sky was a sparkling blue marked with tiny white puffs of cumulus. Although the midsummer heat that had prostrated much of Buenos Aires was expected to return later in the day, January 1, 1942, began with a cool and invigorating feel.
A brisk breeze was even blowing off the Rio de la Plata’s estuary, carrying a marine tang into the heart of the city . . .
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