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First episode from The Rover issue 1262 September 3rd 1949.

Britain’s scientists are preparing to explore new worlds with the help of rockets,

but a strange and sinister peril threatens their project.


The boys of the strangest school in Britain had gathered in the main hall to hear an important announcement from their headmaster. They were ordinary healthy boys of all types, sixty in number, but the room in which they sat was unusual. It had no windows, and the ceiling was dome shaped. The walls were lined with lead sheeting, and were of immense thickness. The boys themselves wore a one piece suiting of stout material thickly speckled with lead dust. They wore rubber shoes and down their backs dangled hoods of the same lead flecked material, which could be pulled over their heads when necessary. Professor Peter Orr, a tall muscular young scientists, was similarly clad. As he looked from the elaborate charts on the wall to the rows of eager eyes that were fixed upon him, he knew they were wondering at this sudden assembly call. “I have a surprise for you,” he began. “You all know that here in Atom City we are conducting the most secret experiments made in this country in atomic research, and that here we are developing methods of protecting Britain against atomic missiles in the event of another war. You know that. You know that you yourselves are going to make atomic research your life’s work, and that your places in the workshops and laboratories. You know all this, but some of you may not know that other experiments are being carried out here, experiments of world importance.” He spoke clearly and in a friendly manner. “With the aid of atomic energy we have found it possible to shoot guided missiles far into space. The aim eventually is to send a rocket containing human beings to some of the distant planets and explore these places, but we have to work in stages. The first experiment was made in America, where they bounced radio waves off the surface of the moon. The next experiment will be to shoot a rocket to the moon with a quantity of explosives aboard to make a vivid flash when it strikes the planet. Preparations for this have been going for months, and tonight the attempt is going to be made. You boys are going to be allowed to watch the experiment. It is a great privilege, and I hope you appreciate it.”


The boys started chattering excitedly. Now they knew the reason for that special enclosure on the edge of Atom City. They had wondered what had been going on inside there. “That will be great, sir!” said Jim Barlow, one of the keenest boys in the school. “What will the third experiment be?” “To shoot a rocket filled with explosives to the planet Saturn. That is vastly farther away than the Moon, and if we can land a rocket on Saturn with any accuracy, we will be able to say we have mastered celestial navigation. But that will not be done for some time to come, and it will be a vastly bigger affair than tonight’s. A much greater explosion will have to be caused to enable us to see it from the Earth. I don’t think I am betraying a secret when I tell you that the preparations for the third experiment are well advanced, but much depends on what happens tonight. I want you all to assemble outside D. Block at eight o’clock. I will be there to conduct you inside. Now you may go.” They scampered from the hall and up the steps to the open, for the school was partially sunken in the ground. Only the dome showed above the surface. It was the same with all other buildings in Atom City. They were all more than three-quarters inset in the ground. This gave the city a fantastic appearance, for there were big domes and small one, interspersed with gigantic screens of concrete fully a hundred feet thick. Nearly 3000 people lived inside Atom City, which was situated in a remote part of Westmorland. The entire city was surrounded by a quarter mile depth of barbed wire, and inside that a solid concrete wall a hundred feet thick and equally as high. Most of the more dangerous was done underground, and the buildings were sunken to minimize the effects of any accidental explosion. The screens between the buildings were to localize any such explosions, and the protective dress worn by the boys was to guard them against the dangerous rays given off during atomic experiments. So far Atom City had been lucky and there had been no mishaps.



Well before eight o’clock, Jim Barlow and his pal Blinky Howell, met their school mates outside D. Block. Peter Orr soon joined them, and led the way to the enclosure, where armed men stood on guard. The enclosure covered about five acres, and in the centre was an enormous sloping ramp pointing towards the sky. On it rested the biggest rocket the boys had ever seen. It must have been a hundred feet long and ten feet in diameter. The boys hushed their chatter when they saw Neil Sherwood, the scientist in charge of Atom City, conversing with Miles Dixon, the American rocket research expert, and Professor Heinrich Bordman, who came from Central Europe. These three were the greatest living authorities on rockets and atomic energy. Alongside the ramp there was a monster telescope, and at the rear of this a large white screen had been erected. As only one person could follow the latter stages of the flight of the rocket through the telescope, means had been found to project the course of the flight on the screen for all to see. The boys were ushered down to seats facing the screen. In front of them were the scientists and astronomers. Neil Sherwood climbed on to the platform and briefly outlined the object of their experiment. Just as he was finishing his speech, there was a sudden muffled shout, followed by some excited talk amongst the members of the special police who surrounded the rocket. Neil Sherwood paused and looked across at them angrily. “Is anything the matter? I was trying to make an announcement.” Everyone had turned. A red faced Sergeant murmured: “Sorry, sir, but one of our men thought he saw someone duck underneath the ramp. I’ve looked, but there’s nobody there.” “I tell you, Sergeant, that I saw him as clearly as I see you, a tall, dark man in a strange type of suit. It fitted tightly about his ankles, and—” “There’s nobody there, I tell you, Smith!” snorted the Sergeant, angrily. “Sorry for the disturbance, sir.” “Huh, it’s perfectly certain that no stranger has got into this enclosure!” snapped Neil Sherwood. “The only people here have come by invitation. As I was saying—”


The boys listened intently, proud to think they had been chosen to witness the firing of the rocket. Jim Barlow, who had been congratulating himself upon a clear view of the screen, now leaned towards Blinky to see round a tall man who was standing immediately in front of him. He had not noticed the man’s arrival, but he was certainly blocking the view. “This chap is a nuisance!” he whispered to his friend. “I shall get a crick in my neck looking round him and—Gosh, look at his trousers! They fit closely round his ankles. Just like that bobby said just now about the man he saw ducking under the ramp. Do you think it could be the same man? I don’t remember seeing him before. He’s not in regulation dress. He looks like a stranger to Atom City.” “Well, he can’t have sneaked in, for it’s the most strongly guarded place in Britain. It’s absolutely spy-proof,” declared Blinky, in a whisper. “But I see Sergeant Carson, of the Special Branch over there. I’ll attract his attention, and—” “No need!” grunted Jim, suddenly. “The man’s gone.” The aisle was now empty. Blinky had only looked away for a second. “Where’d he go?” “Blowed if I know, but something’s going to happen. Turn round and watch them fire the rocket. Sherwood’s looking at his watch.”



Everyone’s attention was now concentrated on the giant rocket. There was dead silence, during which Neil Sherwood could be heard saying: “Ready! It is 8.20—and one second—two—three—four—five—fire!” There was a loud hissing sound, a muffled explosion, and the rocket shot upwards from the ramp at a speed no eye could follow. As it went it sucked air with it, so much so that the lighter boys were almost drawn from their seats. “Please turn to the screen,” came the calm voice of Neil Sherwood. Everybody obeyed and saw that it was illuminated. On it was depicted the stars and the great space around them. The Moon was the brightest and biggest object of all. A tiny pencil of light was speeding towards it. Jim Barlow’s attention was distracted, for his view was again blocked by the tall, dark clad man with the tight fitting trousers. He was certain he had not been there a moment before, but during the instant when Jim had looked at Blinky, he had reappeared. The boy leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, but there is a vacant seat along our row—” he began, but his voice died away when the man turned and revealed his face. It was long and narrow, and unusually pale in the moonlight. The eyes gleamed strangely, the nose was long and straight, and the mouth rather small. Just for a moment the eyes looked into his, and for some reason Jim shivered. He licked his lips and was about to offer to stand up to let the other pass, when an astonishing thing happened. The face grew hazy, misty, blurred. It wavered like a puff of smoke in the wind, and then vanished. Jim rubbed his eyes and looked again. The man had disappeared. Nobody else appeared to have noticed this amazing phenomenon. They were all staring at the screen, including Blinky. Jim prodded his friend, and hoarsely whispered: “Am I going crackers?” “You always were!” said Blinky rudely. “No, I mean there was someone standing here a moment ago. I tapped him on the shoulder and spoke to him, and he—he sort of turned to gas and drifted away.” “Don’t be an ass!” retorted his friend. “Watch that rocket.” Jim Barlow scarcely glanced at the screen. The moving pinpoint of light did not hold his interest at the moment. He was perfectly certain he had not imagined that man with the tight fitting trousers, yet where could he have gone?”



“Let’s go for a stroll!” suggested Jim, grabbing his friend by the arm, and dragging him out of his seat before he could object. “What’s the matter with you?” grumbled Blinky. “I tell you I saw a stranger who dissolved into gas when I spoke to him. I don’t believe in ghosts, but—” He paused and suddenly pointed to the other side of the enclosure, where someone was passing under an overhead light. “Do you see him, that tall man with the dark suit and tight fitting trousers?” “Of course I see him!” “That’s the man! Let’s follow him. He’s acting suspiciously. He might be a spy.” Blinky Howell pricked up his ears at that. Living as they did, amongst Britain’s most closely guarded secrets, it was natural that there should be frequent spy scares. Blinky Howell became excited at the suggestion. “Yes, let’s follow him,” he gasped, and they dodged into the shadow of the wall to do so. The tall man with the tight fitting trousers was heading towards another huge ramp which was surrounded by screens. He looked around carefully then dodged behind a screen. The boys ran forward on tiptoe, and saw the big, white painted notice that said: “Keep out. No unauthorized person is allowed behind this screen. Trespassers will be dealt with severely.” “I’m sure he’s a spy!” hissed Jim. “He’s got no business behind that screen. You stay here and watch out for him. I’ll get the police. We’ll have him cornered!” He raced away in the direction of the empty ramp from which the rocket had been fired. It was no longer being guarded, but some of the police were standing in a group and talking. Jim broke in upon them to gasp: “Someone ought to come over here. I believe there’s a spy in the place. He’s gone behind the screen where the new ramp is being built. My pal’s watching him.” “A spy,” exclaimed Sergeant Dunlop. “No spy  could get in here, but we’ll have a look. Nobody has a right to peep behind that screen.” Four of them hurried across with Jim Barlow, and Blinky rose from the grass where he had been crouching. “He hasn’t come out yet,” he whispered. “I heard sounds as though he’s moving things.” “Oh, he is—is he?” growled Dunlop, and signed for his men to divide, some going round one end of the screen, and the rest round the other end.


The boys followed behind Dunlop. They heard someone shout: “What are you doing here? Come out from there and explain yourself.” There was a moment’s silence, then the same policeman cried: “Blimey, but he-he’s not there any longer! Come and look here, Sergeant. I saw a man under there, and when I spoke to him he just sort of dissolved—” “Stand back there! Jump for it!” came a sharp bellow from the Sergeant, and he almost knocked the boys off their feet as he brushed them aside with his powerful arm. It was well he did so. It was well the other man jumped at the same time, for the great ramp, rising over a hundred feet into the air, toppled slowly sideways and collapsed. The crash could be heard all over the neighbourhood. The boys crouched half stunned by the impact. Neil Sherwood and others arrived on the scene. They ignored the boys. Sherwood was saying: “It’s inconceivable! How did it happen? Those girders look as though they’ve been twisted by heat. What’s been happening?” “Someone was behind here just now, sir,” put in Sergeant Dunlop. “Two boys saw him and fetched us. One of my men saw him too. He may have had something to do with it.” “Where is this person?” snapped Neil Sherwood. “My man—the constable—says he sort of dissolved and disappeared when he spoke to him!” faltered the Sergeant uncomfortably.



“What’s this? What goes on here? What are you raving about, Sergeant?” snapped a tall, lean man who had just come on the scene, and everyone turned to recognise Detective-Inspector Conroy, of the Special Branch, who was in charge of the police and security measures in Atom City. “That ramp has been sabotaged!” declared Neil Sherwood. “How it was done, I can’t imagine, but great heat has been used to melt and weaken the main uprights. There is some story of a lurking man.” “And he vanished!” put in the constable who had first challenged the mysterious figure. “I swear that’s what happened. He became misty, turned to gas, and—and drifted away.” “Is this man mad?” demanded the Detective-Inspector. “I saw the same thing, sir,” put in Jim Barlow. “He was in there looking at the screen. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he’d like a seat, and he—he sort of became thin and vanished.” “Who are you?” growled Conroy. “He’s one of the boys from the school, one of the best in the school,” replied Professor Orr, who had also arrived. “Huh!” The detective went forward and examined the twisted girders. “They’re blackened by heat. What was used?” “There is nothing to account for that, but heat was being given off when we arrived here,” said Sergeant Dunlop. “Then I saw the ramp coming down, and shouted for the others to jump. It looks like sabotage, sir.” Detective-Inspector Conroy raised his hands. “A saboteur—a spy—who can become invisible at will and who carries around with him the means of melting steel!” he exclaimed. “What sort of nightmare is this? I’ve seen some miracles since I’ve been in Atom City, but nothing to equal this. You need a magician—not a detective!” He turned to the Sergeant. “Dunlop, go and make sure that nobody is allowed out of the city before dawn—nobody—you understand? Tell the guards on the walls to be on their toes, and send out a general alarm to all police and military. If there is a stranger in the city, which I greatly doubt, we’ll get him.” Neil Sherwood and his leading assistants were drifting back to the screen. All the time the rocket was speeding towards the Moon. The boys went back to their seats. They would have liked to have remained with Conroy, but after he had taken Jim’s story again, he sent them away. Everyone tried to calm down after the excitement. They stared at the screen and once more became fascinated by the sight of that moving speck of light.



Outside the special enclosure there was an open playing field, one of the many in Atom City. Suddenly a small puff of white vapour appeared slightly above the level of the grass. It grew longer and taller, and took on the shape of a man. It began to thicken. The detail became clearer, the vapour more solid. Then abruptly there was a man standing there, a tall man clad in dark clothing, the trousers fitting closely at his ankles. He stood there gazing at the sky, then from a pocket drew a small tube which he raised to one eye. It proved to be an enormously powerful telescope. Far, far beyond the Moon and the planet Mars, he picked out a tiny ball of light round which ran three flat rings on the same plane. It was the planet Saturn, visible in detail only through the most powerful telescopes known to science. The stranger sighted on this, then sank in a squatting position. He adjusted himself so that he was facing the distant planet, then returned the tube to his pocket and drew out a small rubber skull cap with a number of flexible wires attached to it. When he put on the cap these wires stood erect. He put his chin in his hands, closed his eyes, and appeared to be thinking deeply. The wires projecting from his head slowly bent over until they were all pointing to the now invisible Saturn. Again they remained rigid. The man sat there motionless. Upon his pale face there was an expression of great strain. Sweat ran down his forehead. From the ends of the wires leapt faint sparks, which wavered in the air before darting off towards Saturn. For more than five minutes he sat there deep in thought, then he relaxed, the strain went from his face, and he sighed deeply. He took off the queer cap, rolled it up, and put it away in his pocket. He then drew a deep breath and rose to his feet. The enclosure from which the rocket had been fired was not far away. The stranger walked towards the entrance to the enclosure. The doorway had been closed. The Detective-Inspector had given orders that nobody should enter or leave. The man with the tight fitting trousers got to within ten feet of the closed entrance, then paused. He seemed to shrink within his clothes, and they became of gossamer thickness. Soon there was nothing left of him but a pillar of vapour the shape of a man, then this too disappeared. Three seconds later it reappeared on the inside of the enclosure, a few yards behind the two stalwart policemen who were guarding the door. The vapour thickened, became solid, and the mystery man was there again.


By now the rocket was flashing along the last lap of its journey to the moon, and very soon the scientists would know if their calculations had been correct. “Any moment now!” Neil Sherwood was saying. “If we are successful, there should be a burst of fire—a brilliant flash. Watch!” They watched, no one more intently than the man at the back. Seconds passed, and nothing happened. They were beginning to feel the reaction of disappointment when there came a vivid burst of flame. A shout went up. Grave scientists slapped one another on the back, and cheered. The boys yelled excitedly. The flash had died away as rapidly as it had appeared, but they knew it had signalled the arrival of the rocket. There had been no mistake in the rocket’s design or the navigation of the scientists. For the first time in the history of man, communication had been established between the Earth and the Moon. “Splendid!” boomed a voice in the background. “Everything Bordman prophesied has come true. Now there is nothing to prevent us shooting an even bigger rocket to Saturn. It will be on a vastly bigger scale, but the principle is the same. We must get another ramp built immediately! Saturn is the next objective!” There was a snort from the tall man at the back of the crowd, and his eyes glowed strangely as he turned away.

EXPERIMENT “X” 12 Episodes The Rover issues 1262 – 1273 (1949)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007