Faster and faster rushed the podokos, forty, fifty miles an hour, a carnate thunderbolt hurled straight at the enemy center. Under a hot fire of grenades dozens of the lancers fell and once, when a fungus bomb broke near by, Nelson saw half a dozen Atlanteans tumble from their saddles, the hideous yellow growths already sprouting from nostrils, mouth and ears. The turmoil became deafening, indescribable—like the roar of a crowded subway.
The American had a brief glimpse of a mountainous diplodocus assailed by half a dozen hissing, shrieking allosauri who, employing jaws and claws, ripped great, shuddering chucks of flesh from the agonized and unwieldy monster on whose back the frantic Jarmuthians fought with terrible ferocity.
* * * * *
As agile as grasshoppers, those fierce war dogs ripped and worried their prey. One of them clung like a bulldog to the doomed diplodocus' head, though the twenty-foot neck writhed and whirled frantically in effort to shake it loose. Another allosaurus, whining with eagerness, actually clambered up the back of an assailed giant only to fall back under the blast of a retortii mounted in the howdah. Bathed in live steam, with bones showing through its melting, quivering flesh, the allosaurus collapsed backwards, but another instantly took its place and, gaining its goal with a terrific leap, made a shambles of the howdah, tearing the men in it apart as a lion does an antelope.
Nelson found himself very busy. The charging podokesos were now in the midst of the Jarmuthian heavy infantry, slashing down at a maze of yelling, black-bearded, Semitic faces. Once Nelson was nearly speared, shooting his assailant just as the lance glimmered over his heart. Again he saw the Atlantean hoplites beaten back amid a pestilential fog of fungus gas which stretched them in kicking, loathsome heaps on the dusty plain. The uproar became terrific, indescribable, as the whistling screams of the allosauri and the saurean bellows of the diplodoci rose above the shouts of the soldiery to fill the dust-laden air with a dreadful clamor. The battle now swayed critically; a feather's weight on either side and one army would roll back in red, irretrievable ruin. It was the psychological instant. Nelson sensed it unerringly.
"Look!" shouted Hero John, dashing a rivulet of blood from his eyes, "there fights the dog-begotten Jereboam himself! Halor van! Smite, ye soldiers of Atlans! Smite!"
Following the line of the outstretched hand. Nelson caught a glimpse of an enormous, eagle nosed warrior who, clad in gleaming, diamond studded harness, fought like a paladin of old. Powerful as a dark Ares the sable browed Jereboam raged among the dismayed Atlantean hoplites, beating them to earth with terrible ferocity.
* * * * *
It was a long shot, one he might readily have been forgiven in missing but with the speed of thought Victor Nelson sprang from his podoko, dropped on one knee behind a pile of corpses and, uttering a fervent prayer, fired full at Jereboam's black head.
The nearest combatants drew back momentarily at the unfamiliar thunder of the report and fell silent while the groans and shrieks of the wounded rose loud. As a man looking through many thickness of glass, so Nelson saw Jereboam reel on his splendidly caparisoned podoko, clasp both hands to his forehead and sink to earth.
Hero Giles, somewhere far in the Atlantean van, saw what transpired and capitalized it with the inspiration of a genius.
"Jereboam is dead!" he shouted in ringing tones, and flashed his red stained sword. "Woe to Jarmuth this day! Smite, ye sons of Atlans. Woe to Jarmuth—Jereboam is fallen!"
And smite hard the reinforced Atlanteans did. Filled with a new courage they advanced so determinedly that the disconcerted and dismayed Jarmuthians broke and fled in a disastrous, panic-stricken rout back over the plain of Poseidon towards the boiling river.
The ground was already carpeted with dead and with abandoned equipment, when fresh packs of allosauri were loosed on the fleeing Jarmuthians to wreak havoc indescribable and, ere long, only the triumphant, panting Atlanteans remained on the field.
There was music and high revelry in the fortress of Cierum that night, and Victor Nelson, embarrassed and flushed with the extravagant adoration of all Atlans, sat by the Emperor Altorius' side waiting, watching for the appearance of a humbled Jarmuthian delegation.
"Never since the world began has there been such a hero in Atlans!" cried Altorius, his face more Roman than ever. "Prithee tarry amongst us, Hero Nelson. Thou shalt be as my brother. A marble palace shalt thou have and twenty wives, each fair as those damsels which thou hast, by thy might, rescued from the profane altar of the fiend, Beelzebub!"
"Thanks," laughed Nelson, and drained a goblet of tawny wine. "I'd be delighted to stay, but the point is—He broke off short, for there came a sudden tramp of feet at the door of the great hall and there, just visible above the green crests of the royal guards, he recognized that pale, drawn face which had haunted him ever since he had returned to find the abandoned aeroplane.
"Dick!" he shouted. "Dick Alden!"
With that same irresistible form which had won a certain November classic for Harvard, Richard Alden bucked and plunged through a double rank of startled guards and came running across the marble floor, his eyes lit with an unspeakable gladness.
"Nelson! Nelson!" he panted. "What in hell are you doing up there?"
"Oh!" replied the aviator with a joyous grin, "just visiting with my friend, the Emperor."
* * * * *
Alden halted, on his handsome features a curious mixture of surprise and delight. "The Emperor?" he stammered. "You sitting beside an Emperor?"
"Would it not seem so?" inquired Altorius with a low laugh.
"It would," chuckled Alden. "Victor Nelson, as I remember, always was a good politician."
"And," thought Nelson, "I'll have to be a damn sight better one to get us out of Atlans without injuring Altorius' feelings. I don't suppose he'll ever be able to realize that all the desirable things in the world don't lie in this valley."
Throngs of brilliantly armored and plumed officers and courtiers, some of them nursing wounds and bandaged heads, came up to hail the mighty wanderer who had subdued the might of Jarmuth.
Flushed and pleased, as is any normal man under well-earned praise, Nelson shook one wiry fist after another, while Alden chatted with the Emperor. Nobles, officers and courtiers all pressed close to fawn upon the new hero—but, far back in the council chamber, a group of dark robed priests were crowded together. Haranguing the priests was a fierce, white bearded old man who seemed to be arguing violently.
"Hum!" thought the American. "That's at least one outfit that doesn't like the way I part my hair. Wonder what devilment the priests are cooking up?"
* * * * *
He was not long in finding out, for the black robed arch-priest suddenly left his group of underlings to boldly make his way forward, while princes, courtiers and warriors drew respectfully aside and bent their heads.
"Hail! All conquering Emperor!" The stern old man halted squarely before Altorius' gem encrusted throne, while Alden checked some remark to look curiously down upon the hawk-featured arch-priest.
Altorius flushed and the lines about his mouth tightened, from which Nelson guessed that there was more than a little bad blood between the spiritual and temporal heads of the empire.
"What wouldst thou, oh Heracles?"
"I would know why the all powerful Wanderer, of whom thou makest so much, did not rescue Princess Altara?"
The Emperor stiffened. "Her rescue, being impossible of accomplishment, was not nominated in the agreement," he said coldly. "The Wanderer has in full carried out his share—and so shall we. Honored and beloved of Atlans, these great warriors shall abide among us in peace."
Here Nelson thought it wise to dispel any illusions Altorius might entertain about their staying in Atlans. "No, oh Splendor: remember, our agreement was that, should I conquer the Jarmuthian champions, Alden and I were to be allowed to go free."
"Nay, oh Splendor," fiercely broke in the arch-priest, "permit them not to go. I tell thee the Princess Altara must be restored to Atlans! Else,"—a distinct note of threat crept into the old man's voice—"—else evil days shall fall upon this empire, and the line of Hudson will wither and fade."
Up sprang Altorius in a towering rage. "Sirrah! Dost dare make threats to thy liege lord?"
* * * * *
Fire flashed from the young Emperor's bright blue eyes, and under their fierce glare the old man quailed and stepped back with eyes lowered.
"Altorius keeps his word," the Emperor thundered. "The strangers shall go, though all the black-robed kites in the realm say me nay. The word of a Hudsonian prince is as sure as the fire of Pelion. Get thee gone, rash priest!"
A long moment, the two strangely contracting figures glared at each other, the young, splendid Emperor and the malevolent, withered old man.
"The Gods demand their daughter," cried Heracles in parting, "and woe to him who says them nay!"
With this parting shot, the arch-priest turned and, scarlet faced, stalked from the council room, while Altorius threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"Come, oh ye Heroes, ye princes and captains! Come, let us make festival before these mighty wanderers go their way!"
Roar upon roar of enthusiasm echoed through the marble throne room, and Nelson would have felt wholly at ease had not that little knot of priests remained gathered like ill-omened carrion crows about the door. Muttering among themselves, they were watching him with a curious intentness that aroused deep misgivings in the American's mind, and it was with something like a sigh that he joined the procession forming to proceed to the triumphal feast on which the wealth and luxury of the whole empire of Atlans had been lavished.
(To be continued.)
The Pirate Planet
By Charles W. Diffin
[Sidenote: From Earth and sub-Venus converge a titanic offensive of justice on the unspeakable man-things of Torg.]
The little ship that Captain Blake had thrown with reckless speed through the skies over Washington, D. C., made history that day in the records of the earth. None, now, could doubt that here, at last, was the answer that the world had hoped for until hope had died. Unbelievable in its field of action, incredible in its wild speed, but real, nevertheless!—the countries of the earth were frantic in their acclaim. Only the men who formed the International Board of Defense failed to join in the enthusiasm. They sat by day and night in earnest conference on ways and means.
This little ship—so wonderful, and so inadequate! It was only a promise of what might come. There must be new designs made; men must learn to dream in new terms and set down their dreams in cold lines and figures on drafting boards. A cruiser of space must be designed, to mount heavy guns, carry great loads, absorb the stresses that must come to such a structure in flight and in battle. And above all, it must take the thrust of this driving force—new and tremendous—of which men knew so little as yet. And then many like it must be built.
The fuel must be prepared, and this, alone, meant new and different machinery, which itself must be designed before the manufacturing process could begin.
There was work to be done—a world of work!—and so few months in which to do it. The attack from the distant gun had long since ceased and the instruments of the astronomers showed the enemy planet shrinking far off in space. But it would return; there was only a year for preparation.
* * * * *
Captain Blake was assigned to the direction of design. An entire office building in Washington was vacated for his use, and in a few hours he rallied a staff of assistants who demanded the entire use of a telephone system that spread countrywide. And the call went out that would bring the best brains of the land to the task before them.
The windows of the building shone brightly throughout the nights when the call was answered, and engineers and draftsmen worked at fever heat on thrusts and stresses and involved mathematical calculations. And, while owners of great manufacturing plants waited with unaccustomed patience for a moment's talk with Blake, the white sheets on the drafting boards showed growing pictures of braces and struts and curved plates, of castings for gun mounts, and ammunition hoists. And the manufacturers were told in no uncertain terms exactly what part of this experimental ship they would produce, and when it must be delivered.
"If only we dared go into production," said Blake; "but it is out of the question. This first ship must demonstrate its efficiency; we must get the 'bugs' out of our design; correct our errors and be ready with a production schedule that will work with precision."
Only one phase of this proposed production troubled him; the manufacture must be handled all over the world. He talked with men from England and France, from Germany and Italy and a host of other lands, and he raged inwardly while he tried to drive home to them the necessity for handling the work in just one way—his way—if results were to be achieved.
The men of business he could convince, but his chief disquiet came from those whose thoughts were of what they termed "statesmanship," and who seemed more apprehensive of the power that this new weapon would give the United States of America than they were of the threat from distant worlds.
From his friends in high quarters came hints of the same friction, but he knew that the one demand Winslow had laid down was being observed: the secret of the mysterious fuel would remain with us. Winslow had shown little confidence in the countries of the old world, and he had sworn Blake to an agreement that his strange liquids—that new form of matter and substance—should remain with this country.
* * * * *
And swiftly the paper ship grew. The parts were in manufacture, and arriving at the assembly plant in Ohio. Blake's time was spent there now, and he caught only snatches of sleep on a cot in his office, while he worked with the forces of men who succeeded each other to keep the assembly room going night and day.
There was an enormous hangar that was designed for the assembling of a giant dirigible; it housed another ship now. Hardly a ship, yet it began to take form where great girders held the keel that was laid, and duralumin plates and strong castings were bolted home.
A thousand new problems, and innumerable vexing errors—the "bugs" that inhere with a new, mechanical job—yet the day came when the ship was a thing of sleek beauty, and her thousand feet of length enclosed a maze of latticed struts where ammunition rooms and sleeping quarters, a chart room and control stations were cleverly interspaced. And above, where the great shape towered high in the big hangar, were the lean snouts of cannon, and recesses that held rapid-fire guns and whole batteries of machine guns for close range.
Rows of great storage batteries were installed, to furnish the first current for the starting of the ship, till her dynamos that were driven by the exhaust blast itself could go into action and carry on. And then—
An armored truck that ground slowly up under heavy guard to deliver two small flasks of liquid whose tremendous weight must be held in containers of thick steel, and be hoisted with cranes to their resting place within the ship. And Captain Blake, with his heart in his throat through fear of some failure, some slip in their plans—Captain Blake, of the gaunt, worn frame, and face haggard from sleepless nights—stood quietly at a control board while the great doors of the hangar swung open.
* * * * *
At the closing of a switch the current from the batteries flowed through the two liquids, to go on in conductors of heavy copper to a generator that was heavy and squat and devoid of moving parts. Within it were electrodes that were castings of copper, and between them the miracle of regenerated matter was taking place.
What came to them as energy from the cables was transformed to a tangible thing—a vast bulk of gas, of hydrogen and oxygen that had once been water, and the pressure of the gas made a roaring inferno of the exhausts. A spark plug ignited it, and the heat of combustion added pressure to pressure, while the quivering, invisible live steam poured forth to change to vaporous clouds that filled the hangar.
The man at the control board stood trembling with knowledge of the power he had unleashed. He moved a lever to crack open a valve, and the clouds poured now from beneath the ship, that raised slowly and smoothly in the air. It hung quietly poised, while the hands that directed it sent a roaring blast from the great stern exhaust, and the creation of many minds became a thing of life that moved slowly, gliding out into the sunlight of the world.
The cheers of crowding men, insane with hysterical emotion at sight of their work's fulfillment, were lost in the thunder of the ship. The blunt bow lifted where the sun made dazzling brilliance of her sweeping curves, and with a blast that thundered from her stern the first unit of the space forces of the Earth swept upward in an arc of speed that ended in invisibility. No enveloping air could hold her now; she was launched in the ocean of space that would be her home.
* * * * *
Captain Blake, the following day, sat in Washington before a desk piled high with telegrams of congratulation. His tired face was smiling as he replaced a telephone receiver that had spoken words of confidence and commendation from the President of the United States. But he pushed the mass of yellow papers aside to resume his examination of a well-thumbed folder marked: "Production Schedule." The real work was yet to be done.
It was only two short months later that he sat before the same desk, with a face that showed no mark of smiles in its haggard lines.
His ship was a success, and was flying continuously, while men of the air service were trained in its manipulation and gunners received practice in three-dimensioned range finding and cruiser practice in the air. Above, in the airless space, they learned to operate the guns that were controlled from within the air-tight rooms. They were learning, and the ship performed the miracles that were now taken as matters of fact.
Captain Blake rose wearily to attend a conference at the War Department. He had asked that it be called, and the entire service was represented when he reached there. He went without preamble or explanation to the point.
"Mr. Secretary," he said, and faced the Secretary of War, "I have to report, sir, that we have failed. It is utterly impossible, under present conditions, to produce a fleet of completed ships.
"You know the reason; I have conferred with you often. It was a mistake to depend on foreign aid; they have failed us. I do not criticize them: their ways are their own, and their own problems loom large to them. The English production of parts has come through, or is proceeding satisfactorily, but the rest is in hopeless confusion. The Red menace from Russia is the prime reason, of course. With the Reds mobilizing their forces, we cannot blame her neighbors for preparing to defend themselves. But our program!—and the sure invasion that will come in six short months!—to be fighting among ourselves—it is damnable!"
* * * * *
He paused to stare in wordless misery at the silent gathering before him. Then—
"I have failed," he blurted out. "I have fallen down on the job. It was my responsibility to get the cooperation that insured success. Let me step aside. Is there anyone now who can take up the work and bring order and results from this chaos of futility?"
He waited long for a reply. It was the Secretary of War who answered in a quiet voice.
"We must not be too harsh," he said, "in our criticism of our foreign friends, but neither should we be unfair to Captain Blake. You do yourself an injustice; there is no one who could have done more than you. The reason is here." He struck at a paper that he held in his hand. "Europe is at war. Russia has struck without warning; her troops are moving and her air force is engaged this minute in an attack upon Paris. It is a traitor country at home that has defeated us in our war with another world."
"I think," he added slowly, "there is nothing more that could have been done: you have made a brave effort. Let us thank you, Captain Blake, while we can. We will fight, when the time comes, as best we can; that goes without saying."
A blue and gold figure arose slowly to speak a word for the navy. "It is evident by Captain Blake's own admission, that the proposed venture must fail. It has been evident to some of us from the start." It was a fighter of the old school who was speaking; his voice was that of one whose vision has dimmed, who sees but the dreams of impractical visionaries in the newer inventions, and whose reliance for safety is placed only in the weapons he knows.
"The naval forces of the United States will be ready," he told them, "and I would ask you to remember that we can still place dependence upon the ships that float in the water, and the forces who have manned them since the history of this country began."
* * * * *
Captain Blake had sprung to his feet. Again he addressed the Secretary for War.
"Mr. Secretary," he said, and there was a fighting glint in his eyes, "I make no reply to this gentleman. His arm of the service will speak for itself as it has always done. But your own words have given me new hope and new energy. I ask you, Mr. Secretary, for another chance. The industrial forces of the United States are behind us to the last man and the last machine. I have talked with them. I know!
"We have only six months left for a prodigious effort. Shall we make it? For the safety of our country and the whole world let us attempt the impossible: go ahead on our own; turn the energy and the mind of this whole country to the problem.
"The great fleet of the world can never be. Shall we build and launch the Great Fleet of the United States, and take upon our own shoulders the burden and responsibility of defense?
"It cannot be done by reasonable standards, but the time is past for reason. Possible or otherwise, we must do it. We will—if you will back me in the effort!"
There was a rising discord of excited voices in the room. Men were leaping to their feet to shake vehement fists in the faces of those who wagged their heads in protest. The Secretary of War arose to still the storm. He turned to walk toward the waiting figure of Captain Blake.
"You can't do it," he said, and gripped the Captain by the hand; "you can't do it—but you may. This country has seen others who have done the impossible when the impossible had to be done. It's your job; the President will confirm my orders. Go to it, Blake!"
The wires that bound the two men were removed, and McGuire and Sykes worked in agony to bring life back to the hands and feet that were swollen and blue. Then—red guards who forced them to stumble on their numbed legs, where darting pains made them set their lips tight—a car that went swiftly through the darkness of a tube to stop finally in another building—a room with metal walls, one window with a balcony beyond, high above the ground—a door that clanged behind them; and the two men, looking one at the other with dismayed and swollen eyes, knew in their hearts that here, beyond a doubt, was their last earthly habitation.
They said nothing—there was nothing of hope or comfort to be said—and they dropped soddenly upon the hard floor, where finally the heavy breathing and nervous starts of Professor Sykes showed that to him at least had come the blessed oblivion of exhausted sleep. But there was no sleep for Lieutenant McGuire.
There was a face that shone too clearly in the dark, and his thoughts revolved endlessly in words of reproach for his folly in allowing Althora's love to lead her to share his risk. From the night outside their window came a ceaseless clatter and hubbub, but to this he was oblivious.
Only with the coming of morning's soft golden light did McGuire know the reason for the din and activity that echoed from outside—and the reason, too, for their being placed in this room.
* * * * *
Their lives should end with the sailing of the fleet, and there, outside their window, were the ships themselves. Ships everywhere, as far as he could see across the broad level expanse, and an army of men who scurried like ants—red ones, who worked or directed the others, and countless blues and yellows who were loading the craft with enormous cargoes.
"Squawk, damn you!" said Lieutenant McGuire to the distant shrieking throng; "and I hope they're ready for you when you reach the earth." But his savage voice carried no conviction. What was there that Earth could do to meet this overwhelming assault?
"What is it?" asked Sykes. He roused from his sleep to work gingerly at his aching muscles, then came and stood beside McGuire.
"They have put us here as a final taunt," McGuire told him. "There is the fleet that is going to make our world into a nice little hell, and Torg, the beast! has put us here to see it leave. Then we get ours, and they don't know that we know that."
"Your first way was the best," the scientist observed; "we should have done it then. We still can."
"What do you mean?" The flyer's voice was dull and lifeless.
Sykes pointed to the little balcony and the hard pavement below.
"Althora," he said, and McGuire winced at the name, "seemed to think that we were in for some exquisite torture. Here is the way out. It is a hundred-foot drop; they think we are safe; but they have been unintentionally kind."
"Yes," his companion agreed, "they don't know that we know of the torture. We will wait ... and when I am sure that—Althora—is—gone ... when there is nothing I can do to help—"
"Help?" queried the professor gently. "There is nothing now of help, nor anyone who can help us. We must face it, my boy; c'est fini. Our little journey is approaching its end."
* * * * *
There was no reply, and McGuire stood throughout the day to stare with eyes of smouldering hatred where the scurrying swarms of living things made ready to invade and infest the earth.
Food and water was pushed through the doorway, but he ate sparingly of the odd-colored fruits; the only thing that could hold his thoughts from the hopeless repetition of unanswerable "whys" was the sight of the fleet. And every bale and huge drum was tallied mentally as it passed before his eyes. The ships were being loaded, and with their sailing—But, no! He must not let himself think of that!
Throughout the day ships came and departed, and one leviathan, ablaze in scarlet color; sailed in to settle down where great steel arms enfolded it, not far from the watching men. Scarlet creatures in authority directed operations, and workmen swarmed about the great ship. Once McGuire swore softly and viciously under his breath, for he had seen a figure that could be only that of Torg, and the crowd saluted with upraised arms as the scarlet figure passed into the scarlet ship. This, McGuire knew, was the flagship that should carry Torg himself. Torg and ——. He paled at the thought of the other name.
The only break in the long day came with the arrival of a squad of guards, who hustled the two men out into a passageway and drove them to another room, where certain measurements were taken. The muscular figures of the two were different from these red ones, but it was a moment before McGuire realized the sinister significance of the proceedings. Their breadth of shoulders, the thickness of their chests—what had these figures to do with their captivity? And then the flyer saw the measures compared with the dimensions of a steel cage. Its latticed shape could be endlessly compressed, and within, he saw, were lancet points that lined the ghastly thing throughout. Long enough to torture, but not to kill; a thousand delicate blades to pierce the flesh; and the instrument, it seemed, was of a size that could enclose the writhing, helpless body of a man.
Other unnameable contrivances about the room took on new significance with the knowledge that here was the chamber of horrors whose workings had been seen by Althora in the mind of their captor—horrors of which she could not speak.
* * * * *
McGuire was sick and giddy as the guards led him roughly back to their prison room. And Professor Sykes, too, required no explanation of what they had seen.
The guards were many, and resistance was useless, but each man looked silently at the other's desperate eyes when the metal cords were twisted again about their wrists, and their hands were tied securely to metal rings anchored in the wall beside the window.
"And there," said the flyer, "goes our last chance of escape. They were not as dumb as we thought: they knew how good a leap to the pavement would look after we had been in there."
"Less than human!" Sykes was quoting the comment of Althora's brother. "I think Djorn was quite conservative in his statement."
McGuire examined carefully the cords that tied his hands to the wall beside him. The knots were secure, and the metal ring was smooth and round. "I didn't know," he said, as he worked and twisted, "but there might be a cutting edge, but we haven't a chance. No getting rid of these without a wire cutter or an acetylene torch—and we seem to be just out of both."
Professor Sykes tried to adopt the other's nonchalant tone. "Careless of us," he began—then stopped breathless to press his body against the wall.
"It's there!" he said. "Oh, my God, if I could only get it, it might work—it might!"
"The battery," he explained to the man beside him, whose assumed indifference vanished at this suggestion of hope; "—the little battery that I used on the gun, to fire the explosive. It has an astounding amperage, and a voltage around three hundred. It's in my pocket—and I can't reach it!"
"You can't keep a good man licked!" McGuire exulted. "You mean that the current might melt the wire?"
"Soften it, perhaps, depending upon the resistance." Sykes refused to share the other's excitement. "But we can't get at it."
"We've got to," was the answer. "Move over this way." The man in khaki twisted his arms awkwardly to permit him to bend his body to one side, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as the strain forced the thin bonds into his wrists. But he brought his agonized face against the other's body, and gripped the fabric of Sykes' coat between his teeth.
* * * * *
The twisting of his head raised the cloth an inch at a time, and despite Sykes' efforts to hold the garment with his elbow, it slipped back time and again. McGuire straightened at intervals to draw a choking breath and ease the strain upon his tortured wrists; then back again in his desperate contortions to worry at the cloth and pull and hold—and try again to raise the heavy pocket where a battery made sagging folds.
He was faint and gasping when finally the cloth was brought where the scientist's straining fingers could grasp it to writhe and twist in clumsy efforts that would force the battery's terminals within reach.
"I'll try it on mine," said Sykes. "It may be hot—and you've had your share." He was holding the flat black thing to bring the copper tips against the metal about his wrists. McGuire saw the man's lips go white as a wisp of smoke brought to his nostrils the sickening odor of burned flesh.
The metal glowed, and the man was writhing in silent self-torture when at last he threw his weight upon the strands and fell backward to the floor. He lay for a moment, trembling and quivering—but free. And the knowledge of that freedom and of the greater torture they would both escape, gave him strength to rise and work with crippled hands at his companion's bonds, till McGuire, too, was free—free to forget his own swollen, bleeding wrists in compassionate regard for the other.
Like an injured animal, Professor Sykes had licked with his tongue at his wrists, where hot wire had burned deep and white, and he was trying for forgetfulness an hour later, in examination of the door to their room.
"What is the idea?" McGuire inquired, when he turned from his ceaseless contemplation of the fleet. "Not trying to get out, are you?"
"I am trying to stay in," said Sykes, and looked again at the object that interested him. "These long bolts," he explained: "top and bottom; operated from outside, but exposed in here. They come together when unlocked; five inches apart now. If I had something to hold them apart—
"You haven't a piece of steel about five inches long, have you?—or anything to substitute for it? If you have, I can lock this door so the devils won't come in and surprise us before we can make the jump."
"The battery?" suggested McGuire.
* * * * *
Sykes shook his head. "I tried it. Too long, and besides it would crumble. They operate these with a lever; I saw it outside." He went on silently with his study of the door and the little gap between heavy bolts, which, if closed, would mean security from invasion.
"They're about through," McGuire spoke from his post at the window after some time. "The rush seems to be about over. I imagine they'll pull out in the morning."
He pointed as Sykes stood beside him. "Those big ones over beyond have not been touched all day; only some of the crew, I judge, working around them. And way over you see forty or fifty whaling big ones: they must have been ready before we came. They have finished on these nearer by. It looks like a big day for the brutes."
And Professor Sykes led him on to talk more of the preparations he had seen, and his deductions as to the morrow. It was all too evident what was really on the lieutenant's mind. It was not the thought of their own immediate death, but the terrible dread and horror of Althora's fate, that hammered and hammered in his brain. To speak of anything else meant a moment's relief.
Sykes pointed to a tall mast that was set in the plaza pavement, some hundred feet away. Wires swung from it to several points, one of them ending above their window and entering the building. "What is that?" he asked, "—some radio device? That ball of metal on the top might be an aerial." But McGuire had fallen silent again, and stared stonily at the deadly fighting ships he was powerless to combat.
* * * * *
On the morning that followed, there was no uncertainty. This was the day! And from a balconied window up high in the side of a tall stone building, two men stood wordless and waiting while they watched the preparations below.
The open space was a sea of motion like flowing blood, where thousands of figures in dull red marched in rank after rank to be swallowed in the mammoth ships that McGuire had noted in the distance. Then other colors, and swarms of what they took to be women-folk of this wild race—a medley of color that flowed on and on as if it would never cease, to fill one after another of the great ships.
"Transports, that's what they are," said McGuire. "I can see now why they have no steel beaks like the others. They don't need any rams, nor ports for firing that beastly gas. They are gray, too, while the fighting ships are striped with red, all except the scarlet one of Torg's. Those are colonists we are watching, and soldiers to conquer the Earth where the damned swarm settles."
He stopped to stare at a body of red-clad soldiers, drawn up at attention. They made a lane, and their arms were raised in the salute that seemed only for Torg. They stood rigid and motionless; then, from below the watching men, came one in the full splendor of his scarlet regalia. The air echoed with the din of his shouted name, but the bedlam of noise fell on deaf ears for McGuire. He could hear nothing, and in all the vast kaleidoscope of color he could see only one object—the white face of a girl who was half led and half carried by a guard of the red ones, where their Emperor led the way.
* * * * *
It was a strangled cry that was torn from the flyer's throat—the name of this girl who was going to the doom she had failed to avoid. Her life, she had said, was hers to keep only if she willed, but her plans had failed, and she went faltering and stumbling after a scarlet man beast.
"Althora!" called the flyer, and the figure of the girl was struggling with her guards in a frenzy that tore their hands free. She turned to look toward the sound of the voice, and her face was like that of one dead as her eyes found the man she loved.
"Tommy," she called: "oh, Tommy, my dear! Good-by!" The words were ended by the clutch of the scarlet Emperor who turned to seize her.
A clatter came from the door behind them, but Lieutenant McGuire gave no heed. Only Professor Sykes sprang back from the balcony to seize and struggle with the moving bolts.
The man on the balcony was hardly less than a maniac as he glared wildly about, but he was not too unreasoning to see the folly of a wild leap into the throng below. He could never reach her—never. And then his eyes fell upon the wire that led from above him to the great pole in the open plaza. There was shouting from behind where the executioners were wrestling with the bolts.
"Hold them," the flyer shouted, "just for a minute! For God's sake, Sykes, keep them back! There's a chance!"
He sprang to the balustrade of the balcony, but he saw as he leaped where Professor Sykes had raised his leg to force the thickness of his knee between the bolts whose levers outside were bringing them closer together.
"Go to it," was the answer. "I can hold them"—a stifled groan—"for a—minute!" Professor Sykes had found his substitute for five inches of steel, and the living flesh yielded but slowly to the pressure of the bolts.
* * * * *
McGuire was working frantically at the wire, then held himself in check while he carefully unwound it from its fastening. There was a splice, and he worked with bleeding fingers to unfasten the tight coils. And then the end was free and in his hands. He dropped to the balcony to pull in the slack, and he wrapped the end about beneath his arms and twisted it tight, then leaped out into space. No thought of himself nor of Sykes in this one wild moment, only of Althora in the grip of those beastly hands.
He was struggling to turn himself in the air as the colored masses of people seemed sweeping toward him, and he shot as a living pendulum, feet first, into the waiting heads.
He was on his feet in an instant and tearing at the twisted wire that held him. About him was clamor and confusion, but beyond the nearer figures he saw the one who waited, and beside her a thing in scarlet that shrieked orders to his men.
He flung off one who leaped toward him, and ducked another to dash through and reach his man. And he neither saw nor felt the creature's ripping talons as he drove a succession of rights and lefts to the blood-red face.
The scarlet one went backward under the fusillade of blows; he was down, a huddle of color upon the pavement, and a horde of paralyzed soldiers had recovered from their stupefaction and were rushing upon the flyer. He turned to meet them, but their rush ended as quickly as it began: only a step or two they came, then stopped, to add their wild voices to the confusion of ear-splitting shrieks that rose from all sides.
* * * * *
McGuire crouched rigid, tense and waiting, nor did he sense for an instant that the assault was checked and that the faces of all about him were turned to the sky. It was the voice of Althora that aroused him:
"Tommy! Tommy!" she was calling, and now she was at his side, her arms about him. "What is it, Tommy? Look! Look!" And she too was gazing aloft. And then, above all other sounds McGuire heard the roar—
The clouds were golden above with the brilliance of midday—and against them, hard and sharp of outline, was a shining shape. A cloud of vapor streamed behind it as it shot down from the clouds, and the thunder of its coming was like the roar of many cannon.
A ship of the red ones was in the air—a fighting ship, whose stripes showed red—and it drove at the roaring menace with its steel beak and a swirling cloud of gas. It seemed that they must crash, when to McGuire's eyes came the stabbing flash of heavy guns from the shining shape. A crashing explosion came down to them as the great beak parted and fell, and the body of the red-striped monster opened in bursting smoke and flame, tore slowly into fragments and fell swiftly to the earth.
It struck with a shattering crash some distance away, but one pair of eyes failed to follow it in its fall. For in the clear air above, with the golden light of distant clouds upon it, a roaring monster of silvery sheen had rolled and swept upward to the heights. And it showed, as it turned, a painted emblem on its bow, a design of clear-cut color, unbelievably familiar—a circle of blue, and within it a white star and a bull's eye of red—the mark of the flying service of the United States!
* * * * *
McGuire never knew how he got Althora and himself back to the building whence he had come. Nor did he see the struggling figures on a balcony, or the leap and fall of a maimed body, where Professor Sykes, when the door had yielded, found surcease and oblivion on the pavement below.
He was to learn that later, but now he had eyes only for a sight that could be but a dream, an unreal vision of a disordered brain. He held the slim form of Althora to him in a crushing grip, while he stared, dry-eyed, above, and his own voice seemed to shout from afar off: "They're ours!" that voice was screaming in a frenzy of exultation. "They're our ships! They've come across!"
The fighting fleet of the red man-things of Venus was taking to the air! The ships rose in a swarm of speeding, darting shapes, and the great one of Torg was in the lead, climbing in fury toward the heights.
Far above them the clouds of gold silhouetted a strange sight, and the air was shaking with the thunder from on high, where, straight and true, a line of silver ships in the sharp V of battle formation drove downward in a deadly, swift descent.
And even afar off, the straining eyes of a half-crazed man could see the markings on their bow—a circle and a star—and the colors of his own lost fighters of the air.
The Earth-fleet was a slanting line of swiftness that swept downward from the clouds. A swarm of craft was rising from below. The red-striped fighters met the attack first with a cloud of gas.
The scarlet monster—the flagship of Torg, the Emperor—was in the lead, and they shot with terrific speed across the bows of the oncoming fleet to leave a whirlwind of deadly vapor as they passed. McGuire held his breath in an agony of fear as the cloud enveloped the line of ships, but their bow guns roared staccato crashes in the thunder of their exhausts as they entered the cloud. And they were firing from the stern as they emerged, while two falling cylinders of red and white proved the effectiveness of their fire.
The formation held true as it swept upward and back where the swarming enemy was waiting. They were outnumbered three to one, McGuire saw, and his heart sang within him as he watched the sharp, speeding V that climbed upward to the enemy's level then swung to throw itself like a lance of light at the massed ships that awaited the attack.
Another cloud of gas!—and a shattered ship!—and again the line emerged to correct its broken formation and drive once more toward the circling swarm.
They came to meet them now, the clusters of red-striped fighting ships, and they tore in from all sides upon the American line, their hooked beaks gleaming in the sun.
* * * * *
And now, at an unseen signal, the formation broke. Each ship fought for its life, and the stabbing flashes of their guns made ceaseless jets of light against the smoke and gas clouds that were darkening the sky.
"A dog-fight!" breathed Lieutenant McGuire; "and what a dog-fight!" His words were lost in the terrific thunder from above: the roar of the ships and the dull thuds of the guns engulfed them in a maelstrom of noise that battered like physical blows on the watchers below. He swore unconsciously and called down curses upon the enemy as he saw two fighters meet while the shining beak of a ship of the reds crashed through the body of an opposing craft.
The red ship dipped at the bow; it backed off with terrific force; and from the curved beak a ship with the insignia of the red, white and blue slid downward in a swift fall to the death that waited.
They had fought themselves clear, and the Americans, by what must have been arrangement or wireless order, went roaring to the heights. There were some who followed, but the guns of the speeding ships drove them off. Red-and-white shapes fell swiftly from the clouds where the fighting had been, and McGuire knew that his fellows had given an account of themselves in the fighting at close range.
Again the thundering line was sharp and true, and another unswerving attack was launching itself from above. And again the deadly formation, with ever-increasing speed, drove into the enemy with flashing guns, then parted to close with the ones that drove crushingly upon them, while the sharper clatter of rapid-firing guns came to shatter the air.
The fighting craft had been rising from their level field in a succession that seemed endless. They were all in the air now, and only the great transports remained on the paved field.
* * * * *
A red-striped fighter swept downward in retreat, and, from the smoke clouds, a silvery shape followed in pursuit. It reached the red and white one with its shells, and the great mass crashed with terrific impact on the field. Its pursuer must have seen the monsters still on the ground, and it swung to rake them with a shower of small-caliber shells.
There were machine-guns rattling as it passed above the thronged reds—the troops who were huddled in terror in the open court. It tore on past them—past a figure in khaki who raced forward with the golden form of a girl within his arms, then released her to wave frantically as the silver ship shot by.
Unobserved, McGuire and Althora had been, where they stood beside the buildings: the eyes of their enemies, like their own, were on the monstrous battle above. But now they had called themselves to the attention of the reds, and there were some who rushed upon them with faces livid with rage.
McGuire reached for a weapon from a victim of the machine-gun fire and prepared to defend himself, but the weapon was never used. He saw the silvery shape reverse itself in the air; it turned sharply to throw itself back toward the solitary figure in uniform of their service and the golden-clad girl beside him.
The flyer raised his weapon, but the jostling swarm that rushed upon him melted: the ripping fire of machine guns was deafening in his ears. Their deadly tattoo continued while the great ship sank slowly to touch and rest its huge bulk upon the pavement. A door in the ship's curved side opened that the blocky figure of a man might leap forth.
He was grimy of face, and his uniform was streaked with the smoke and sweat of battle, but the face beneath the grime, and the hands that reached to embrace and pound the flyer upon the back, could be only those of one he had known as his captain—Captain Blake.
"You son-of-a-gun!" the shouting figure was repeating. "You damned Irish son-of-a-gun! A. W. O. L.—but you can't get away with it! Come on—get in here! I'm needed up above!"
* * * * *
McGuire was struggling to speak from a throat that was suddenly tight and voiceless. Then—
"Althora," he gasped; "take Althora!" and he motioned toward the girl. And then he remembered the companion he had left in the room above. The battle that had flashed so suddenly had blasted from his mind all other thoughts.
"My God!" he said. "—Sykes! I—must get Sykes!"
He turned to run back to the building, only to stop in consternation where a huddle of clothing lay beneath the balcony of their prison room.
It was Sykes—Sykes who had sacrificed himself to make possible the escape of his friend—and McGuire dropped to his knees to touch the body that he knew was shattered beyond any hope of life. He raised the limp burden in his arms and staggered back where more khaki-clad figures had gathered. Two came quickly out to meet him, and he let them take the body of his friend.
"C'est fini!"—he repeated the words that Sykes had said; "the end of our little journey!" The arms of Althora were about him as Blake hurried them into the waiting ship, and the roar of enormous power marked the rising of this space ship to throw itself again into the fray.
* * * * *
A small room with a dome of shatter-proof glass; a pilot who sat there to look in all directions, a control-board beneath his hands. Beside him on his elevated station was room for Captain Blake, and McGuire and Althora, too. The ship was climbing swiftly. McGuire saw where flashing shapes circled and roared in a swelling cloud of smoke and gas.
Blake spoke sharply to an aide: "General orders! All ships climb to resume formation!"
An enemy ship was before them: it flashed from nowhere to bear down with terrific speed. The floor beneath them shook with the jarring of heavy guns, and McGuire saw the advancing shape bursting with puffs of smoke, while their own ship shot upward with a sickening twist. A silver ship was falling!—and another!
"Two more of ours gone," said Captain Blake through set teeth. "How many of them are there, Mac? Tell me what you know: we've got a hell of a fight on our hands."
"They're all here," McGuire told him, in jerky, breathless speech. "These are transports on the ground. Their weapons are gas and speed, and the rams on their beaked ships. There are other weapons—deadlier ones!—but they haven't got them: they belong to another race. I'll tell you all that later!"
"Keep them at a distance, Blake," he said. "Make them come to you—then nail them as they come."
"Right!" was the answer; "that's good dope. We didn't know what they had; expected some devilish things that could down us before we got within effective range; had to mix it with them to find out what they could do, and get in a few solid cracks before they did it.
"How high are we?" He glanced quickly at an instrument. "Ten thousand. Order all ships to withdraw," he instructed his aide. "Rendezvous at fifty thousand feet for echelon formation."
* * * * *
Another brush with an enemy craft that slipped quickly to one side—then the smoke clouds were behind them, and a score, of silvery shapes were climbing in vertical flight for the level at fifty thousand.
They were fewer now than they had been, and the line that formed behind the flagship of Blake was shorter than the one that had made the V which shot down so bravely to engage with an unknown foe.
The enemy was below; an arrangement of mirrors showed this from the commander's station. They were emerging from the clouds of smoke to swarm in circling flight through the sky. And now the bow of their own craft was depressed at an order from Blake, and the others were behind them as they drove to renew the attack.
"They're ganging up on us again," said Blake. "We'll fool them this time; we'll just kid them a little."
The flagship swerved before reaching the enemy, and the others followed in what looked like frightened retreat. Again they were in the heights, and some few of the enemy were following. Blake led in another descent.
* * * * *
No waiting swarm to greet them now! Blake gave a quick order. The roaring column shifted position as it fell: the flagship was the apex of a great V whose arms flung out and backward on either side—a V formation that curved and twisted through space and thundered upon the smaller formations that scattered before the blasting guns.
"Our bow guns are the effective weapons," Blake observed; his casual tone was a sedative to McGuire's tense nerves. "We can use a broadside only of lighter weight; the kick of the big 'sights' has to be taken straight back. But we're working, back home, on recoil-absorbing guns: we'll make fighting ships of these things yet."
He spoke quietly to the pilot to direct their course toward a group that came sweeping upon them, and the massed fire of the squadron was squarely into the oncoming beaks that fell beneath them where the mirrors showed them crashing to the earth.
They were scattered now; the enemy was in wild disorder; and Blake spoke sharply to his aide.
"Break formation," he ordered; "every ship for itself. Engage the enemy where they find them; shoot down anything they see; prevent the enemy reforming!" He was taking quick advantage of the other's scattered forces, and he scattered his own that he knew could take care of themselves while they engaged the enemy only by ones or twos or threes.
"Clear the air of them!" he ordered. "Not one of them must escape!"
The skies were a maze of darting shapes that crossed and recrossed to make a spider's web of light. Ship drove at ship, to swerve off at the last, while the air quivered and beat upon them with the explosion of shells and guns.
"There's our meat!" Blake directed the pilot, and pointed ahead where a monster in scarlet was swelling into view.
It came swiftly upon them, darting down from above, and McGuire clutched at the arm of the man beside him to shout: "It's the leader; the flagship! It's the Emperor—Torg, himself! Give him hell, Blake, but look out—he's fast!"
* * * * *
The ship was upon them like a flash of fire; no time for anything but dodging, and the pilot threw his craft wildly aside with a swerve that sent the men sprawling against a stanchion. Then up and back, where the other had turned to come up from below.
"Fast!" McGuire had said, but the word was inadequate to describe the speed of the fiery shape.
Another leap in the air, as their pilot swung his controls, and the red shape brushed past them in a cloud of gas, while the quick-firers ripped futilely into space where the great ship had been.
"Get your bow guns on him!" Blake roared. The ship beneath them strained and shuddered with the incredible thunder of the generator that threw them bodily in the air. The pilot had opened in full force the ports that blasted their bows aside.
No time to gather new speed; they were motionless as the scarlet monster came upon them, but they were in position to receive him. The eight-inch rifles of the forward turret thundered again and again, to be answered by flashes of flame from the scarlet ship.
McGuire crouched over the bent form of the pilot, whose steady fingers held the ship's bow straight upon the flashing death that bore down upon them. Another salvo!—and another!—hits all of them.... Smoke bursting from ripping plates, and flaming fire more vivid than the scarlet shape itself!—and the floor beneath McGuire's feet drove crushingly upward as their pilot pulled a lever to the full.
The great beak flashed beneath—and the mirrors, where McGuire's eyes were fastened, showed the terrific drive continue down and down, where a brilliant cylinder that marked the power of Venus tore shriekingly on to carry an Emperor to his crashing death.
* * * * *
The skies were clear of the red-striped ships: only the survivors of the attacking force showed their silvery shapes as they gathered near their flagship. There were two that pursued a small group of the enemy, but they were being outdistanced in the race.
"We have won," said Blake in a tone of wonder that showed how only now had come a realization of what the victory meant. "We have won, and the earth—is saved!"
And the voice of McGuire echoed his fervent "Thank God!" while he gripped the soft hand that clung tightly to his, as if Althora, this radiant creature of Venus, were timid and abashed among the joyful, shouting men-folk from another world.
"And now what, Captain?" asked McGuire of his command. "Will you land? There is an army of reds down there asking for punishment."
Blake had turned away; his hand made grimy smears across his face where he wiped away the tears that marked a brave man's utter thankfulness. He covered his emotion with an affectation of disapproval as he swung back toward McGuire.
"Captain?" he inquired. "Captain? Where do you get that captain stuff?"
He pointed to an emblem on his uniform, a design that was unfamiliar to the eyes of McGuire.
"You're talking to an admiral now!—the first admiral of the newest branch of your country's fighting service—commanding the first fleet of the Space, ships of the United States of America!" He threw one arm about the other's shoulders. "We'll have to get busy, Mac," he added, "and think up a new rank for you.
"And, yes, we are going to land," he continued in his customary tones; "there may be survivors of our own crashes. But we'll have to count on you, Mac, to show us around this little new world of yours."
* * * * *
There was an army waiting, as McGuire had warned, but it was waiting to give punishment and not to take it. The vast expanse of the landing field was swarming with them, and the open country beyond showed columns of marching troops.
They had learned, too, to take shelter; barricades had been hastily erected, and the men had shields to protect them from the fire of small arms.
Their bodies were enclosed in their gas-tight uniforms whose ugly head-pieces served only to conceal the greater ugliness beneath. They met the ships as they landed with a showering rain of gas that was fired from huge projectors.
"Not so good!" Blake was speaking in the safety of his ship. "We have masks, but great heavens, Mac!—there must be a million of those brutes. We can spray them with machine-gun fire, but we haven't ammunition enough to make a dent in them. And we've got to get out and get to our crashed ships."
He waited for McGuire's suggestions, but it was Althora who replied.
"Wait!" she said imperatively. She seemed to be listening to some distant word. Then:
"Djorn is coming," she exclaimed, and her eyes were brilliantly alight. "He says to you"—she pointed to McGuire—"that you were right, that we must fight like hell sometimes to deserve our heaven—oh, I told him what you said—and now he is coming with all his men!"
"What the devil?" asked Blake in amazement. "How does she know?"
"Telepathy," McGuire explained: "she is talking with her brother, the leader of the real inhabitants of Venus."
He told the wondering man briefly of his experience and of the people themselves, the real owners of this world.
"But what can they do?" Blake demanded.
And McGuire assured him: "Plenty!"
* * * * *
He turned to Althora to ask, "How are they coming? How will they get here?"
"They are marching underground; they have been coming for two days. They knew of our being captured, but the people have been slow in deciding to fight. Djorn dared not tell me of their coming; he feared he might be too late.
"They will come out of that building," she said, and indicated the towering structure that had been their prison. "It has the old connection with the underground world."
"Well, they'd better be good!" said Blake incredulously.
He was still less optimistic when the building before them showed the coming of a file of men. They poured forth, in orderly fashion and ranged themselves in single file along the walls.
There must be a thousand, McGuire estimated, and he wondered if the women, too, were fighting for their own. Then, remembering Althora's brave insistence, he knew his surmise was correct.
Each one was masked against the gas; their faces were concealed; and each one held before him a tube of shining metal with a larger bulbous end that rested in their hands.
"Electronic projectors," the lieutenant whispered. "Keep your eye on the enemy, Blake; you are going to learn something about war."
The thin line was advancing now and the gas billowed about them as they came. There were some few who dropped, where masks were defective, but the line came on, and the slim tubes were before them in glittering menace.
* * * * *
At a distance of a hundred feet from the first of the entrenched enemy there was a movement along the line, as if the holders of the tubes had each set a mechanism in operation. And before the eyes of the Earth-men was a spectacle of horror like nothing in wars they had known.
The barricades were instantly a roaring furnace; the figures that leaped from behind them only added to the flames. From the steady rank of the attackers poured an invisible something before which the hosts of the enemy fell in huddles of flame. Those nearest were blasted from sight in a holocaust of horror, and where they had been was a scattering of embers that smoked and glowed; even the figures of distant ones stumbled and fell.
The myriad fighters of the army of the red ones, when the attackers shut off their invisible rays, was a screaming mob that raced wildly over the open lands beyond.
Althora's hands were covering her eyes, but McGuire and Blake, and the crowding men about them, stared in awe and utter astonishment at the devastation that was sweeping this world. An army annihilated before their eyes! Scores of thousands, there must be, of the dead!
The voice of Blake was husky with horror. "What a choice little bit out of hell!" he exclaimed. "Mac, did you say they were our friends? God help us if they're not!"
"They are," said McGuire grimly. "Those are Althora's people who had forgotten how to fight; they are recapturing something that they lost some centuries ago. But can they ever destroy the rest of that swarm? I don't think they have the heart to do it."
"They do not need." It was Althora speaking. "My people are sickened with the slaughter. But the red ones will go back into the earth, and we will seal them in!—it is Djorn who tells me—and the world will be ours forevermore."
* * * * *
A matter of two short days, crammed to the uttermost with the realization of the astounding turn of events—and McGuire and Althora stood with Blake and Djorn, the ruler, undisputed, of the beautiful world of Venus. A fleet of great ships was roaring high in air. One only, the flagship, was waiting where their little group stood.
The bodies of the fallen had been recovered; they were at rest now in the ships that waited above. McGuire looked about in final wonder at the sparkling city bathed in a flood of gold. A kindly city now—beautiful; the terrors it had held were fading from his mind. He turned to Althora.
"We are going home," he said softly, "you and I."
"Home?" Althora's voice was vibrant with dismay.
"We need you here, friend Mack Guire," the voice of Djorn broke in, in protest. "You have something that we lack—a force and vision—something we have lost."
"We will be back," the flyer assured him. "You befriended me: anything I can do in return—" The grip of his hand completed the sentence.
"But there is a grave to be made on the summit of Mount Lawson," he added quietly. "I think he would have preferred to lie there—at the end of his journey—and I must return to the service where I have not yet been mustered out."
"But you said—you were going home," faltered Althora. "Will that always be home to you, Tommy?"
"Home, my dear," he whispered in words that reached her only, "is just where you are." His arm went about her to draw her toward the waiting ship. "There or here—what matter? We will be content."
Her eyes were misty as they smiled an answer. Within the ship that was lifting them, they turned to watch a city of opal light grow faintly luminous in the distance ... an L-shaped continent shrunk to tiny size ... and the nebulous vapors of the cloudland that enclosed this world folded softly about.
"We will lead," the voice of Blake was saying to an aide: "same formation that we used coming over. Give the necessary orders. But," he added slowly to himself, "the line will be shorter; there are fewer of us now."
An astronomical officer laid a chart before the commander. "We are on the course, sir," he reported.
"Full speed," Blake gave the order, and the thundering generator answered from the stern. The Space Fleet of America was going home.
A meeting Place for Readers of Astounding Stories
"Absurd" to "Superb"
Unfortunately, I missed the January number of your very excellent magazine, which I consider superior to any of its type. I brought seven copies—February to August—with me on my vacation, and have so far read the first three from cover to cover.
The February and March numbers were almost above reproach, but the April number contained two stories so surprisingly poor that I can only conjecture the Editor was ill at that time. They were "The Man who was Dead," by Thomas H. Knight and "Monsters of Moyen," by Arthur J. Burks. For Mr. Knight there is no hope. To him I can only say "Stop trying to write and get a job." I am a rapid and omnivorous reader, but never have I read a story so utterly bad as his. He gets the booby prize.
Arthur J. Burks, although a master artist in comparison to Knight, is pretty poor—terrible, in fact. His style is dull, repetitious, and stilted. His melodrama is exaggerated to the point of nauseating absurdity. His characters are lifeless and unnatural puppets. So much for the faults.
Among the best Science Fiction stories I have read is "The Planet of Dread," by R. F. Starzl in the August number. I also very much enjoyed the "Dr. Bird" stories by Capt. Meek, and indeed all the others, barring the two I criticized in such a helpful, friendly spirit. Leinster and Cummings are old favorites of mine.
I prefer your present cover but disagree with your attitude towards reprinting the older works of such authors as George Allen England, Serviss and Cummings, which are now unobtainable and would, I believe, be received with pleasure and applause.
Congratulations—Joseph S. Stull, 291 Barrington St., Rochester, N. Y.
P.S. Since I wrote I have read the May and June numbers—both perfect. C. D. Willard is a superb storyteller.
Wrong Numbers Still!
I agree with the rest of your readers in the good things they say about your magazine in "The Readers' Corner." There is one story, however, "The Planet of Dread," in your August issue, that gives me a rather sickening feeling of disgust. The trouble was in the climax. After the hero has wandered over quite a portion of the planet Inra, he arrives at some mountains where, lo and behold! an unexpected space ship drops from the clouds to an unfrequented ledge of rock and makes a rescue. After this sensational climax comes an equally thrilling anti-climax—the hero is offered three years' salary for his story. To accuse the future world of doing such a thing is an open insult to our posterity. Ten per cent of my high school freshmen took just such an ending to their first themes.
As that story took up about one-seventh of your space and your magazine cost twenty cents. I figure you owe your readers three cents on that issue. But, due to the fineness of the rest of your stories, I am willing to forget your debt as far as I am concerned.
I am happy to see that you are beginning to print articles. I read with interest the one about Mechanical Voices for Telephone Numbers in your September issue. But can't something be done about wrong numbers? The article states that a person dialed the number 8561T. Two seconds later the loud-speaker spoke up, clearly, in an almost human voice, 8651T. Wrong number! Must this evil be with us always!
I am NOT in favor of reprints. You are printing stories every month just as good as any of those suggested to you. I have read most of those classic scientific stories referred to. The best stories along this line have not been written yet. Keep your space clear for them. Let us have young blood with new ideas. Let our authors eat. Good stories were never written on an empty stomach.
I believe yours is the highest type of the few magazines that lay a greater stress on the brains of the hero than on his good looks. But, for the sake of one of your ardent readers, let that hero use his brains to get himself out of whatever he has gotten into. Don't let a space ship swoop down from above to rescue him. That type of story reminds me a lot of the one where Jonah was rescued from the deep by the timely arrival of the friendly whale. By the way, there's a suggestion for a reprint. I will admit that it would be just about as new to me as some of the others that have been suggested in this "Corner."—Richard Lewis, 448 Marion St., Knoxville, Iowa.
Not So "Green" in Ireland
I suppose it's not often you get a letter from an Irish "Paddy," but here's one now. Here in Cork we don't get magazines like Astounding Stories regularly, but I got the May issue to-day and could not stop until I had devoured it from cover to cover. "The Atom Smasher" is a story which I have been hunting for for years. When I had finished it, I had to sit back and leave out all the breath which I was holding in in a prolonged "whew!" If ever I get the luck to find another Astounding Stories I'll burn up the pages looking for the name Victor Rousseau. Next in order I liked "Brigands of the Moon" and "The Jovian Jest." Thought the story "Into the Ocean's Depths" an awful fairy tale, but otherwise good reading. The painter of the cover design is a real artist and I wish to express my appreciation of his wonderful rendering of a difficult subject.—Fitz-Gerald Grattan, 11 Frankfield Terrace, Summerhill South, Cork, Irish Free State.
Worthy His Evening and Pipe
I have read my first copy of Astounding Stories, the September.
The first paragraph in the first part of "A Problem in Communication" assured me that I had found a book worthy of my evening and pipe.
Read that paragraph and you will find Dr. Miles Breuer is most brilliant in his philosophy and clever in the application of that philosophy in his masterpiece of the science of communication.—Don L. Schweitzer, 1402 Bancroft St., Omaha, Nebr.
"Taking a Claw Hold"
Was just reading the September issue of A. S. and find it ranging first among the Science Fiction magazines now printed. I'm certain your "Jetta of the Lowlands" is going to be a masterpiece of Ray Cummings. He is my favorite writer.
I did not like "Earth, the Marauder." It was too much drawn out and very dry. "Brigands of the Moon" was excellent.
I wish you would print my letter, as I'd like any one, male of female, interested in science to write to me. Would you kindly oblige me?
I'm glad to see girls taking interest in your magazine, as it shown science is taking a claw hold on everyone—Harold BegGell, 29 Stewart St., Washington, N. J.
This and That
In the October issue of Astounding Stories, Mr. Woodrow Gelman casts vote No. 1 for reprints. Well, here is vote No. 2. I intended to reply to all your arguments against reprint, but Mr. Gelman has done this very satisfactorily, indeed. I only wish to make a few additional comments.
You say that only one out of a hundred haven't read reprints [?]. Fifty out of a hundred would be more correct. Five years ago there wasn't a single magazine devoted exclusively to Science Fiction. Now there are six of them, more or less. These magazines have converted thousands of readers into Science Fiction fans. These readers ought to be given a chance to read the old masterpieces. Even those who have read them would be glad to reread them.
With the exception of the reprints you have pretty near carried out all the readers' wishes. You have put in a readers' department, increased Wesso's illustrations, given us many interplanetary stories, and given us the stories of the leading authors of the day. Surely you can give us reprints when the demand for them is so universal. The ones I want are those written by Cummings, Merritt, Rousseau and Serviss, and I am sure that the rest of the readers want them too. If you are still doubtful, the fairest thing to do is to conduct a vote among the readers. I hope that you will pardon me for being so persistent, but I am sure that you are working in the best interests of the readers and that you will accede to a great and growing popular demand.
Now about the latest issue of Astounding Stories. "The Invisible Death" is the best novelette you have printed up to now. With the exception of Ray Cummings, the best author you have is Victor Rousseau. I am glad to see that there is another story by Rousseau scheduled for next month. Murray Leinster is a close third, and I hope to see more of his stories soon. The second part of "Jetta of the Lowlands" was better than the first. "Stolen Brains" was also excellent. Keep on printing the Dr. Bird stories. I like them very much.
Although the stories were splendid, the cover illustration was poor. I believe that this is the worst cover that Wesso has ever drawn. The main fault with it is that there is no science in it. It would be more appropriate for one of those detective magazines. "The Invisible Death" has many other interesting scenes from which Wesso could have chosen a more fitting subject. However, Wesso is your best artist and you ought to keep him.—Michael Forgaris, 157 Fourth St., Passale, N. J.
"Not Spoiled by ... Editor"
There is one advantage that Astounding Stories has over all of the other Science Fiction magazines. It does not overburden one with an exposition of scientific facts. Too often a story is ruined by a lot of dry textbook stuff that turns an exciting story into a lecture.
In Astounding Stories we can soar away on the wings of imagination, escaping the humdrum everyday world to new and amazing adventures. The hours fly away like the speed of light, and upon finishing the book our only regret is that we have to wait a whole month before another issue takes us aloft again.
Having unburdened myself thus far, I think it is most fitting to comment upon your latest (October) issue. To my mind, the stories in order of merit are: "The Invisible Death," "Stolen Brains," "Jetta of the Lowlands," "Prisoners on the Electron," and "An Extra Man."
I certainly am glad to see Ray Cummings writing for your most excellent magazine. He is and A-1 author.
It does not make a particle of difference to me about the size of the magazine, but I wish you would have smooth edges like those of your Five-Novels Monthly.
Am glad to see that "The Readers' Corner" is enlarged. I always turn to this first, even before reading the stories. This is a most entertaining department, and I'm glad it is not spoiled by any perfunctory remarks from the editor.
How about publishing Astounding Stories twice a month?—E. Anderson, 1765 Southern Blvd., New York City, New York.
Roses, Daisies and Violets
In appreciation of an enjoyable evening of reading—which extended, by the way, into the wee, sma' hours of early morning—I thought to drop you a few lines, speaking of the high regards your magazine. Astounding Stories, has won from me through merit alone. Your October number particularly fitted into my reading mood last night.
After the daily grind of newspaper work, it might seem odd that relaxation is sought in "more reading"—but it has been my experience, and that of many of my co-workers. I find, that the relief from the high tension of our trade comes from the change in the character of what we read, rather than in "something else," such as physical recreation. Fiction relaxes where "news" has keyed up.
And in the Science Fiction of your magazine's stories of super-science, I find the keenest periods of mental enjoyment through the admirable selection of Astounding Stories' mixed adventure, unique travel and prophetic science. In this I am not alone—a number of my acquaintances have reveled likewise in your magazine at my suggestion.
I have not quite settled in my mind as to whether you have trained your writers to exploit this special field of magazine fiction, which you occupy so successfully, or, in your editorial capacity, have so well selected the stories that bear the hallmarks of this peculiar interest that appeals so strongly to my leisure hours.
By whichever road your success has been reached is immaterial—Astounding Stories has registered with me in a degree which should be flattering to your editorial supervision, if I represent, as I think I do, that large class of magazine readers who prefer and seek a science-coated outlet from the humdrum of every day living in mental adventure and travel-thrill reading.
Have I presented clearly why and how much I like your magazine of Astounding Stories!—E. P. Neill, 910 East Ave., Red Wing, Minn.
"Much Easier to Turn"
Once more I am impelled to give a roar. The last few issues have been filled with letters from readers who are evidently not satisfied with a "different" magazine. If they do not like to read "our" magazine then let them quit, but don't let a heckling minority spoil a real treat. My particular growl this time is directed towards Robert Baldwin and others of his ilk, who squawk about the size (i. e. length and width) of the mag and the uneven pages. The size is perfect (and just because the craze for standardization has hit some of the other Science Fiction mags and they have gone ga-ga over being an awkward shape, that is no reason for your going ahead and spoiling this one) and the uneven pages are a relief when reading because it is much easier to turn over a leaf when they are of a slightly different width.
However, to take some of the sting off, I must say some of the ideas of said Mr. Baldwin are O. K. Enlarge the mag—of course you will, as readers increase and sales go up. Larger, as he says, "It will be worth the other jitney." Put ads in the rear. Have full page illustrations when possible. But another thing he is absolutely wrong on. Please do not adopt the antique method of continuing a story on page umptyump.
Some of the readers are still yowling for reprints. Well, it is true that some reprints would be very acceptable. However, as most of the really good old-time tales of Science Fiction can be procured in any good sized library, why bother to print them and thus decrease the space allotted to our new authors, some of whom are even better than Wells, Verne, etc., much as I like the old masters.
By the way, my "enlarge" in the second paragraph means in thickness (amount of reading matter), not shape.
Wesso has always been good, and he seems to be improving, though he and others might be still better if they would carefully read the descriptions of persons and animals of other planets before picturing them. I don't wish to make this blurb too long, so will not be specific, but you and others probably have seen the same as I, where the illustration has not been true to the description.
It might interest you to know that I have been instrumental in getting several new readers for Astounding Stories. Long live "our" new mag.—Robert J Hyatt, 1353 Kenyon St., N. W., Washington, D. C.
Ow! Ow! Ow!
I have just looked at "The Reader's Corner" in the October issue of Astounding Stories. It disgusted me. What you print there—only letters praising your magazine to the skies?—or do you occasionally print a brickbat?
I've bought your magazine each time since it was first printed. And many times I've felt like quitting. Why? There are a number of reasons.
First, you print stories that have nothing to do with science, such as "The Soul Master." Second, your illustrations are poor. They would look better if they were full page ones. Wesso is the best artist you have. Gould and Sabo are just plain cartoonists, and mighty poor ones at that. Third, you print stories that give a weak and implausible scientific basis. Diffin, Gee, Leinster and several others err in this respect. Fourth, rotten paper—it goes to pieces after being handled. Fifth, no editorial or science questionnaire.
Your authors will not starve if you print reprints. Rousseau and a lot of others write for other magazines. And reprints would occupy such a measly space that they could hardly be called down for being printed.
Your magazine has some good features: a good cover; good authors like Breuer, Vincent, Meek, Ernst and Starzl; clear type; and handy size.
If anyone thinks I'm wrong—well my address is given. This challenge includes the editor. I sincerely hope you will improve your magazine—Edwin C. Magnuson, 1205 E. Ninth St., Duluth, Minn.
I have read your excellent magazine ever since it came out, and though it needs a few corrections like the others, A. S. is nearly perfect. Why not have your pages evened up, and add a department of science on subjects such as Rocket Propulsion etc., so the readers could become familiar with the mystifying problems stated in the stories? Have the advertisements in the back, and don't change your artists as their work is satisfactory.
Robert Baldwin of Illinois has an excellent list of suggestions. Why not have a page devoted to the pictures and biographies of your writers, and full page illustrations? Why not have a space for good reprints and charge a nickel more? I am sure it will be appreciated by readers. Why don't you put out a Quarterly, twice as thick or containing twice as many stories for fifty cents?—A satisfied reader—Hume V. Stephani, 37-1/2 Wood St., Auburn, New York.
"The Readers' Corner"
All readers are extended a sincere and cordial invitation to "come over in 'The Readers' Corner'" and join in our monthly discussion of stories, authors, scientific principles and possibilities—everything that's of common interest in connection with our Astounding Stories.
Although, from time to time the Editor may make a comment or so, this is a department primarily for Readers, and we want you to make full use of it. Likes, dislikes, criticisms, explanations roses, brickbats, suggestions—everything's welcome here; so "come over in 'The Readers' Corner'" and discuss it with all of us!
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