Into swift formation they swept, and with these planes—all planes in use were required by franchise of operating companies to be equipped for the emergencies of war—swung into an echelon formation, the youthful pilot leading by mutual consent.
They swept at full speed toward the warships, four of which had by this time been sent to destruction—one of which had appeared to vanish utterly in the space of a single heartbeat, so quickly that for a second or two the shape of its bilge, the bulge of its keel, was visible in the face of the deep—and openly challenged the aero-subs.
* * * * *
Muzzles of compressed air guns projected from the wing-tips of the planes. Buttons were pressed which elevated the muzzles of guns arranged to fire upward from either side the fighting pits, twin guns that were fired downward from the same central magazine—the only guns in use in the Americas which fired in opposite directions at the same time.
But for a few moments the aero-subs refused combat. Their speed was terrific, dazzling. They eluded the thrusts, the dives and plunges of the American ships as easily as a swallow eludes the dive of a buzzard.
It came to Prester Kleig, however, that the aero-subs were merely playing with the Americans; that when they elected to move, the planes would be blasted from the sky as easily as the warships were being erased from the surface of the Atlantic.
One by one, as methodically as machines, the aero-sub pilots blasted the warships into nothingness. They had their orders, and they went about their performance with a rigidity of discipline which astounded the Secret Agents. They had been ordered to destroy the warships, and they were doing that first—would go on to completion of this task, no matter how many American planes buzzed about their ears.
But one by one as the warships sank, the aero-subs which had either sunk or erased them made the surface and leaped into space with a snapping back of wings that was horribly businesslike as to sound, and climbed up to take part in the fight against the American planes, which must inevitably come.
* * * * *
The last warship, cut squarely in two from stem to stern along her center, as though split thus by a bolt of lightning, fell apart like pieces of cake, and splashed down, sinking away while the spume of her disintegration rolled back from her fallen sides in white-crested waves.
"It exemplifies the policies of Moyen," said Prester Kleig, "for his conquest of the world is a conquest of destruction."
The last aero-sub took to the sky, and the Americans rushed into battle with fine disregard for what they knew must be certain death. They were not fools, exactly, and they had seen, but not understood, the manner in which those gallant old hounds of the sea had been erased from existence.
But in they went, plunging squarely into the heart of the aero-subs' leading formation, which formation consisted of three aero-subs, flying a wing and wing formation.
The young American signaled with upraised hand, and the American pilots made their first move. Every plane started rolling, at dazzling speed, on the axis of its fuselage, while bullets spewed from the guns that fired through the propellers.
Bullets smashed into the leading aero-subs, with no apparent effect, though for a second it seemed that the central aero-sub of the leading formation hesitated for a moment in flight.
Then, swift as had that black streak flashed from the nose of aero-subs submerged, a streak darted from the nose of the central aero-sub, and glistened in the sun like molten gold!
* * * * *
It touched the youngster who had called for volunteers for his attack against this strange enemy. It touched his plane—and the plane vanished instantly, while for a fraction of a second the pilot was visible in his place, in the posture of sitting, hand on a row of buttons which did not exist, head forward slightly as he aimed guns that had vanished.
Then the pilot, still living, apparently unhurt, plunged down eight thousand feet to the sea. The water geysered up as he struck, then closed over the spot, and the gallant American youngster had become the first victim in battle of the monsters of Moyen.
Victim of a slender lancet of what seemed to be golden lightning.
"He could have killed the pilot aloft there," came quietly from Munson, "but he chose to pull his plane away from around him! Their control of the ray is miraculous!"
As though to confirm the statement of Munson, the leading aero-sub struck again, a second plane. The plane vanished, but from the spot where it had flown, not even a bit of metal or of man sufficiently large to be seen by the delicate recording instruments of Maniel dropped out of the sky.
The ray of gold was a ray of oblivion if the minions of Moyen willed.
"Prester Kleig," came suddenly into the Secret Room the voice of far distant Moyen, "you will at once make a change in your rules regarding the admission of other than Secret Agents to the Secret Room. You will at once see that Charmion Kane, sister of your friend, is allowed to enter!"
"God Almighty!" A cry of agony from the lips of Prester Kleig. He had not forgotten Charmion, but simply had had to move so swiftly that he had put her out of his mind. For a year he had not seen her, and an hour or two more could not matter greatly.
"And her brother Carlos," went on the voice, "see that he, too, is admitted. I wish, for certain reasons, that Charmion come unharmed through the direct attack I am about to make against your country. I confess that, save for this ability to speak to you, I am unable to work any damage to the Secret Room, which is therefore the safest place for Charmion Kane! Carlos Kane is being spared because he is her brother!"
There was no mistaking the import of this sinister command from Moyen. He had singled out Charmion, the best beloved of Prester Kleig, for his attentions, and that he was sure of the success of his attack against the United Americas was proved by the calm assurance of his voice, and the fact that, concentrating on the attack as he must be, he still found time for a thought of Charmion Kane.
* * * * *
The hand of ice which had seldom been absent from the heart of Kleig since he had first seen and heard the voice of Moyen gripped him anew. Blood pounded maddeningly in his temples. Cold sweat bathed his body.
But the rest of the Secret Agents, save to freeze into immobility when the hated voice spoke, gave no sign. They had worries of their own, for no instructions had been given that they bring their own loved ones into the sanctuary of the Secret Room.
As though answering the thoughts of the others, the hated voice spoke again.
"I regret that I cannot arrange for sanctuary for the loved ones of all of you, for you are gallant antagonists; why save the few, when the many must perish? For I know you will not surrender, however much I have proved to you that I am invincible. But Charmion Kane must be saved."
"God!" whispered Kleig. "God!"
Then spoke General Munson.
"I think this ray which the Moyenites use is a variation of the principle used in the intricate machinery of Professor Maniel, though how they render it visible I do not know. But it doesn't matter, and may be only a blind! You'll note that when the black streak, or the golden ray, strikes anything that thing instantly disintegrates. A certain pitch of resonance will break a pane of glass. It's a matter of vibration, solely, wherein the molecules composing any object animate or inanimate, are hurled in all directions instantaneously.
"Professor Maniel's apparatus, the Vibration-Retarder, is able to recapture the vibrations, speeding outward endlessly through space, and to reconstruct, and draw back to visibility the objects destroyed by this visible vibratory ray, whatever it is. This problem, then, falls into the province of Professor Maniel!"
* * * * *
Through the heart and soul of Prester Kleig there suddenly flowed a great surge of hope.
"General Munson, if you will operate the machinery of the Vibration-Retarder, I wish to talk with Professor Maniel!"
Instantly, efficiently, without a word in reply to the eager command of Prester Kleig, General Munson relieved Professor Maniel at the apparatus which Maniel called the Vibration-Retarder, his invention which he had combined with audible teleview to complete this visual miracle of the Secret Room. Professor Maniel stepped to where Prester Kleig was sitting.
Prester Kleig put fingers to his lips for silence, and an expression of surprise crossed the wrinkled dead-white face of the Professor.
Before Kleig could speak, however, there came a signal from somewhere outside the Secret Room, a signal which said that the doors were being opened and that a personage was coming. The Secret Agents looked at one another in surprise, for every man who had a right to be inside the Secret Room was already present.
"I know," said Kleig, his face a mask of terror. "It is Charmion and Carlos Kane! Moyen, the devil, has managed to make sure of obedience to his orders!"
The Secret Agents turned back to the screen, upon which the view of the first aerial brush of the American flyers with the minions of Moyen, in their aero-subs, was drawing to a terrible close.
For, as the aero-sub commanders had played with the warships, which had no human beings aboard them, so now did they play with the planes of the Americas.
* * * * *
One American flyer, startled into a frenzy by the fate of his fellows, put his helicopter into action, and leaped madly out of the midst of the battle. Instantly an aero-sub zoomed, skyward after him. Again that golden streak of light from the nose of an aero-sub, and the helicopter vanes and the slender staff upon whose tip they whirled vanished, shorn short off above the vane-grooves in the top of the wing!
The plane dropped away, fluttering like a falling leaf for a moment, before the aviator started his three propellers again.
A cheer broke from the lips of Prester Kleig as he watched. The commander of that particular aero-sub, apparently contemptuous of this flyer who had tried to cut out of the fight, allowed him to fall away unmolested—and the American, driven berserk by the casual, contemptuous treatment accorded him by this strange enemy, zoomed the second his propellers whirred into top-speed action, and raced up the sky toward the belly of the aero-sub.
"If only the aero-sub has a blind spot!" cried Prester Kleig.
* * * * *
In that instant a roaring crash sounded in the Secret Room as the American plane, going full speed, crashed, propellers foremost, into the belly of the aero-sub.
And the aero-sub, whose brothers had seemed until this moment invincible, did not escape the wrath of the American—though the American went into oblivion with it!
For, welded together, American plane and aero-sub started the eight thousand feet plunge downward to the sea!
"Watch!" shrieked Munson. "Watch!"
As the aero-sub and the plane plunged down through the formation of fighters, the aero-sub pilots saw it, and they fled in wild dismay and at top speed from their falling compatriot. Why? For a moment it was not apparent. And then it was.
For out of the body of the doomed aero-subs came sheets of golden flame! Not the flames of fire, but the golden sheen of that streak which the aero-subs had used against the American planes already out of the fight! The American flyer had crashed into the container, whatever it was, that harnessed the agency through which the minions of Moyen had destroyed the Stellar, and the battleships raped from Hampton Roads!
"It is liquid, then!" shrieked Munson.
And it seemed to be. For a second the golden mantle, strange, awe-inspiring, bathed and rendered invisible the aero-sub and the plane which had slain her. Then the golden flame vanished utterly, instantly—and in the air where it had been there was nothing! The aero-sub was gone, and the plane whose mad charge had erased her.
"Her own death dealing agency destroyed her!" shrieked Munson. "And the other aero-subs cut away from the fight to save themselves, because they too carry death and destruction within them!"
* * * * *
Then the inner door of the Secret Room opened and two people entered. One of them, a dazzling beauty with glorious black hair and the tread of a princess, a picture of perfection from jeweled sandals to coiffured hair, was Charmion Kane. Behind her came her brother, whose face was chalky white. But Charmion, as she crossed to Kleig and kissed him, while her eyes were luminous with love, held her head proudly high, imperious.
"I know," she said softly to Kleig, "and I am not afraid! I know you will prevent it!"
Kleig waved the two to chairs and turned again to Professor Maniel.
On a piece of paper he wrote swiftly, using a mode of shorthand known only to the Secret Agents.
"Professor," he wrote feverishly, "can you reverse the process used in your Vibration-Retarder? Tell me with your eyes, for Moyen may even know this writing, and I am sure he hears what we say here, may even be able to see us?"
Professor Maniel started and stared deeply into the eyes of Prester Kleig. His face grew thoughtful. He brushed his slender hand over the massive dome of his brow. Hope burned high in the heart of Prester Kleig.
* * * * *
Then, despite Kleig's instructions to answer merely by the expression in his eyes, Professor Maniel leaned forward and wrote quickly on the piece of paper Kleig had used.
Nothing else, no explanations; but Prester Kleig knew. Maniel believed he could do it, but he needed two hours in which to perfect his theory and make it workable. Kleig knew that had he been able to do it in two years, or two decades, it still would have been in the nature of a miracle.
But two hours....
And Moyen had said that he was preparing to attack at once.
In two hours Moyen, unless the Americas fought against him with every resource at their command, could depopulate half the Western World. Kleig looked back to the screen.
There was not a single American plane in the sky above the graveyard of those vanished warships. And the aero-subs, swift flying as the wind, were racing back to the mother ship, scores of miles away.
Munson worked with the Vibration-Retarder, the Sound-and-Vision devices, ranging the sea off the coast to either side of that huge, suspended fortress which was the mother submarine of the aero-subs.
Gasps of terror, though the sight was not unexpected, broke from the lips of every person in the Secret Room.
For super-monsters of Moyen were moving to the attack.
Flowers of Martyrdom
For a minute the Secret Agents were appalled by the air of might of the deep-sea monsters of Moyen, brought bodily, almost into the Secret Room by the activities of General Munson at the Sound-and-Vision apparatus.
Off the coast, miles away, yet looming moment by moment larger, indicating the deceptively swift speed of the monsters, were scores of the great under-water fortresses, traveling toward the coast of the United Americas in a far-flung formation, each submarine separated from its neighbor to right and left by something like a hundred miles, easy cruising radius for the little aero-subs carried inside the monsters.
That each submarine did carry such spawn of Satan was plainly seen, for as the great submarines moved landward, scores of aero-subs sported gleefully about the mother ships. There was no counting the number of them.
Two hours Maniel needed for his labors, which meant that for two hours the flower of the country's manhood must try to hold in check the mighty hordes of Moyen.
"Somewhere there," stated Prester Kleig, "in one or the other of those monsters, is Moyen himself. I know that since he wished Charmion saved for his attentions! Do your work with your apparatus, Munson, while I go out to the radio tower to broadcast an appeal for volunteers. Charmion—Carlos...."
But Prester Kleig found that he could not continue. Not that it was necessary, for Charmion and Carlos knew what was in his mind. Charmion was a lady of vast intelligence, from whom life's little ironies had not been hidden—and Kane and Kleig had already discussed the activities of Moyen where women were concerned.
* * * * *
Prester Kleig hurried to the Central Radio Tower, and as he passed through each of the many doors leading out to the roof of the new Capitol Building the guards at the doors left to form a guard for him, at this moment the most precious man in the country, because he knew best the terrible trials which faced her.
The country was in turmoil. It seemed almost impossible that a whole day had passed since Prester Kleig had returned and entered the Secret Room. In the meantime a fleet of battleships had been drawn by some mysterious agency out to sea from Hampton Roads, and a fleet of fighting planes which had followed the ghost column outward had not returned.
News-gatherers had spread the stories, distorted and garbled, across the western continents, and throughout the western confederacy men, women and children lived in the throes of the greatest fear that had ever gripped them. Fear held them most because they could not give the cause of their fear a name—save one....
Moyen.... And the name was on the lips of everyone, and frenzied woman stilled their squalling babes with its mention.
No word yet from the Secret Room, but Prester Kleig had scarcely appeared from it than someone started the radio signal which informed the frenzied, waiting world of the west that information, exact if startling, would now be forthcoming.
In millions of homes, in thousands of high-flying planes, listeners tuned in at the clear-all hum.
* * * * *
Prester Kleig wasted no time in preliminaries.
"Prester Kleig speaking. We are threatened by Moyen, with scores of monster submarines, each a mother ship for scores of aero-subs, combinations of airplanes and miniature submarines. They are moving up on our eastern coast, from some secret base which we have not yet located. They are equipped with death dealing instruments of which we have but the most fragmentary knowledge, and for two hours I must call upon all flyers to combat the menace; until the Secret Agents, especially Professor Maniel, have had opportunity to counteract the minions of Moyen.
"Flyers of the United Americas! In the name of our country I ask that volunteers gather on the eastern coast, each flyer proceeding at once to the nearest coast-landing, after dropping all passengers. Your commanders have already been named by your various organizations, as required by franchise, and orders for the movement of the entire winged armada will come from this station. However, the orders will simply be this: Hold Moyen's forces at bay for a period of two hours! And know that many of you go to certain death, and make your own decisions as to whether you shall volunteer!"
This ended, Prester Kleig, excitement mounting high, hurried back to the Secret Room.
Now the public knew, and as the American public is given to doing, it steadied down when it knew the worst. Fear of the unknown had changed the public into a myriad-souled beast gone berserk. Now that knowledge was exact men grew calm of face, determined, and women assumed the supporting role which down the ages has been that of brave women, mothers of men.
* * * * *
A period of silence for a time after Prester Kleig's pronouncement.
As he entered the first door leading into the Secret Room, Carlos Kane met and passed him with a smile.
"You called for winged volunteers, did you not, Kleig?" he asked quietly.
Kleig nodded. "You are going?" he said.
"Yes. It is my duty."
No other words were necessary, as the men shook hands. Prester Kleig going on to the Secret Room, Carlos Kane going out to join the mighty armada which must fight against the minions of Moyen.
The words of Prester Kleig were heard by the pilots of the sky-lanes. The passenger pits, equipped with self-opening parachutes which dropped jumpers in series of long falls in order to acquire swift but accurate and safe landing—they opened at intervals in long falls of two thousand feet, stayed the fall, then closed again, so that drops were almost continuous until the last four hundred feet—and pilots, swiftly making up their minds, dropped their passengers, banked their planes, and raced into the east.
* * * * *
All over the Americas pilots dropped their passengers and their loads if their franchises called for the carrying of freight, and banked about to take part in the first skirmish with the Moyenites.
Dropping figures almost darkened the sky as passengers plunged downward after the startling signal from Washington. Flowers, which were the umbrellas of chutes, opened and closed like breathing winged orchids, letting their burdens safely to earth.
And clouds and fleets of airplanes came in from all directions to land, in rows and rows which were endless, wing and wing, along the eastern coast.
Prester Kleig had scarcely entered the Secret Room than the hated voice of Moyen again broke upon the ears of the machinelike Secret Agents.
"This is madness, gentlemen! My people will annihilate yours!"
But, since time for speech had passed, not one of the Secret Agents made answer or paid the slightest heed to the warning, though deep in the heart of each and every one was the belief that Moyen spoke no more than the truth.
Too, there was a growing respect for the half-god of Asia, in that he was good enough to warn them of the holocaust which faced their country.
By hundreds and thousands, wing and wing, airplanes dropped to the Atlantic coast at the closest point of contact, when the signal reached them. At high altitudes, planes crossing the Atlantic turned back and returned at top speed, dropping their passengers as soon as over land. That Moyen made no move to prevent the return of flyers out over the ocean, and now coming back, was an ominous circumstance.
It seemed to show that he held the American flyers, all of them, in utter contempt.
* * * * *
Prester Kleig regarded the time. It had been half an hour since Moyen had spoken of attack, half an hour since the monsters of the deep had started the inexorable move toward land. On the screen the submarines were bulking larger and larger as the moments fled, until it seemed to the Secret Agents that the great composite shadow of them already was sweeping inland from the coast.
As the coast came close ahead of the monster subs the little aero-subs, to the surprise of the Secret Agents, all vanished into their respective mother ships.
"But they have to use them," groaned Munson. "For their submarines are useless in frontal attack against our shores!"
"I am not so sure of that," said Prester Kleig. "For I have a suspicion that those submarines have tractors under their keels, and that they can come out on land! If this is so the monsters can, guarded by armour-plate, penetrate to the very heart of our most populated areas before their aero-subs are released."
None of the Secret Agents as yet had stopped to ponder how the monsters had reached their positions, and why Moyen was attacking from the east, when the Pacific side of the continents would have appeared to be the obvious point of attack, and would have obviated the necessity of long, secret under-sea journeys wherein discovery prematurely must have been one of the many worries of the submarine commanders.
The mere fact of the presence of the monsters was enough. What had preceded their presence was unimportant, save that their presence, and their near approach to the shore undetected, further proved the executive and planning genius of Moyen.
Two miles, on an average, off the eastern coast the submarines laid their eggs—the aero-subs, which darted from the sides of the mother ships in flights and squadrons, made the surface, and leaped into the sky.
Five minutes later and the signal went forth to the phalanx of the volunteers.
"Take off! Fly east and engage the enemy, and hold him in check, and the God of our fathers go with you!"
One hour had passed since Moyen's ultimatum when the first vanguard of the American flyers, obeying the peremptory signal, took the air and darted eastward to meet the winged death-harbingers of Moyen.
"They Shall Not Pass!"
Prester Kleig's heartfelt desire, as the American flyers closed with the first of the aero-subs, was to go out with them and aid them in the attack against the Moyenites. But he knew, and it was a tacit thing, that he best served his country from the safe haven of the Secret Room.
As he watched the scenes unfold on the screen of Maniel's genius, with occasional glances at the somewhat mysterious but profound and concentrated labors of Maniel, Charmion Kane rose from her place and came to his side.
Wide-eyed as she watched the joining of battle, she stood there, her tiny hand encased in the tense one of Prester Kleig.
"You would like to be out there," she murmured. "I know it! But your country needs you here—and I have already given Carlos!"
Prester Kleig tightened his grip on her hand.
* * * * *
There was deep, silent understanding between these two, and Prester Kleig, in fighting against the Moyenites, realized, even above his realization that his labors were primarily for the benefit of his country, that he really matched wits with Moyen for the sake of Charmion. Had anyone asked him whether he would have sacrificed her for the benefit of his country, it would have been a difficult question to answer.
He was glad that the question was never asked.
"Yes, beloved," he whispered, "I would like to be out there, but the greatest need for me is here."
But even so he felt as though he was betraying those intrepid flyers he was sending to sure death. Yet they had volunteered, and it was the only way.
Maniel, a gnomelike little man with a Titan's brain, labored with his calculations, made swiftly concrete his theories, while at the Sound-and-Vision apparatus excitable General Munson ranged the aerial battlefield to see how the tide of battle ebbed and flowed.
That neither side would either ask or give quarter was instantly apparent, for they rushed head-on to meet each other, those vast opposing winged armadas, at top speed, and not a single individual swerved from his course, though at least the Americans knew that death rode the skyways ahead.
The battle was joined. Moyen's forces were superior in armament. Their sky-steeds were faster, more readily maneuverable, though the flying forces of the Americas in the last five years had made vast strides in aviation. But what the Americans lacked in power they made up for in fearless courage.
* * * * *
The plan of battle seemed automatically to work itself out.
The first vanguard of American planes came into contact with the forces of Moyen, and from the noses of countless aero-subs spurted that golden streak which the Secret Agents knew and dreaded.
The first flight of planes, stretching from horizon to horizon, vanished from the sky with that dreadful surety which had marked the passing of the Stellar, and such of those warships as had felt the full force of the visible ray.
From General Munson rose a groan of anguish. These convertible fighting planes had been the pride of the heart of the old warrior. To do him credit, however, it was the wanton, so terribly inevitable destruction of the flyers themselves which affected him. It was so final, so absolute—and so utterly impossible to combat.
"Wait!" snapped Prester Kleig.
For the intrepid flyers behind that vanguard which had vanished had witnessed the wholesale disintegration of the leading element of the vast armada, and the pilots realized on the instant that no headlong rush into the very noses of the aero-subs would avail anything.
The vast American formation broke into a mad maelstrom of whirling, darting, diving planes. Every third plane plummeted downward, every second one climbed, and the remaining ships, even in the face of what had happened to the vanished first flight, held steadily to the front.
In this mad, seemingly meaningless formation, they closed on the aero-subs. Without having seen the fight, the Americans were aping the action of that one nameless flyer who had charged the aero-sub that had been destroyed.
* * * * *
Kleig remembered. A score of ships had been destroyed utterly above the graveyard of dreadnoughts, yet only one aero-sub, and that quite by chance, had been marked off in the casualty column.
Death rode the heavens as the American flyers went into action. For head-on fights, flyers went in at top speed, their planes whirling on the axes of fuselages, all guns going. Planes were armored against their own bullets, and they were not under the necessity of watching to see that they did not slay their own friends.
Even so, bullets were rather ineffective against the aero-subs, whose apparently flimsy, almost transparent outer covering diverted the bullets with amazing ease.
A whirling maelstrom of ships. The monsters of Moyen had drawn first blood, if the expression may be used in an action where no blood at all was drawn, but machines and men simply erased from existence.
Hundreds of planes already gone when the second flight of ships closed with the aero-subs. Yellow streaks of death flashed from aero-sub nostrils, but even as aero-sub operators set their rays into motion the American flyers in head-on charge rolled, dived or zoomed, and kept their guns going.
High above the first flight of aero-subs, behind which another flight was winging swiftly into action, American flyers tilted the noses of their planes over and dived under full power—to sure death by suicide, though none knew it there at the moment.
* * * * *
These aero-subs could not be driven from the sky by usual means, and could destroy American ships even before those planes could come to handgrips; but they, the flyers plainly believed, could be crashed out of the sky and so, never guessing what besides death in resulting crashes they faced, the flyers above the aero-subs, even as aero-subs in rear flashed in to prevent, dived down straight at the backs of the aero-subs.
In a hundred places the dives of the Americans worked successfully, and American planes crashed full and true, full power on, into the backs of the "flying fish." In some aero-subs the container of the Moyen-dealing agency apparently remained untouched, and airplanes and aero-subs, welded together, plunged down the invisible skylanes into the sea.
Under water, some of the aero-subs were seen to keep in motion, limping toward the nearest mother submarines.
"I hope," said Prester Kleig, "the American flyers in such cases are already dead, for Moyen will be a maniac in his tortures. Munson, do you hurriedly examine the mother-subs and see if you can locate Moyen."
* * * * *
However, only a scattered aero-sub here and there went down without the strange substance of the yellow ray being released. In most cases, upon the contact of plane with aero-sub, the aero-subs and planes were instantly blotted from view by the yellow, golden flames from the heart of the winged harbingers of Moyen.
Golden flames, blinding in their brightness, dropping down, mere shapeless blotches, then fading out to nothingness in a matter of seconds—with aero-sub and airplane totally erased from action and from existence.
The American flyers saw and knew now the manner of death they faced. Yet all along the battle front not an American tried to evade the issue and draw out of the fight. A sublime, inspiring exhibition of mass courage which had not been witnessed down the years since that general engagement which men of the time had called the Great War.
Prester Kleig turned to look at Maniel. Drops of perspiration bathed the cheeks of the master scientist, but his eyes were glowing like coals of fire. His face was set in a white mask of concentration, and Prester Kleig knew that Maniel would find the answer to the thing he sought if such answer could be found.
Would the American flyers be able to hold off the minions of Moyen until Maniel was ready? The fight out there above the waters was a terrible thing, and the Americans fought and died like men inspired, yet inexorably the winged armada of Moyen, preceded by those licking golden tongues, was moving landward.
"Great God!" cried Munson. "Look!"
* * * * *
There was really no need for the order, for every Secret Agent saw as soon as did Munson. Under the sea, just off the coast, the mother-subs had touched their blunt nose against the upward shelving of the sea bottom—had touched bottom, and were slowly but surely following the underwater curve of the land, up toward the surface, like unbelievable antediluvian monsters out of some nightmare.
"Yes," said Kleig quietly, "those monsters of Moyen can move on land, and the aero-subs can operate from them as easily on land as under water."
Kleig regarded the time, whirled to look at Professor Maniel.
One hour and forty minutes had passed since Maniel had begged for two hours in which to prepare some mode of effectively combatting the might of Moyen. Twenty minutes to go; yet the mother-subs would be ashore, dragging their sweating, monstrous sides out of the deep, within ten minutes!
Ten minutes ashore and there was no guessing the havoc they could cause to the United Americas!
"Hurry, Maniel! Hurry! Hurry!" said Prester Kleig.
But he spoke the words to himself, though even had he spoken them aloud Maniel would not have heard. For Maniel, for two hours, had closed his mind to everything that transpired outside his own thoughts, devoted to foiling the power of Moyen.
"I've found him!" snapped Munson.
* * * * *
He pointed with a shaking forefinger to one of the mother-subs crawling up the slant of the ocean bed, twisted one of the little nubs of the Sound-and-Vision apparatus, and the angelic face and Satanic eyes, the twisted body, of Moyen came into view.
The face was calm with dreadful purpose, and Moyen stood in the heart of one of his monsters, his eyes turned toward the land. With a gasp of terror, dreadfully afraid for the first time, Prester Kleig turned and looked into the eyes of Charmion....
"No," she said. "It will never happen. I have faith in you!"
There were still ten minutes of the two hours left when the mother-subs broke water and started crawling inland, swiftly, surely, without faltering in the slightest as they changed their element from water to land.
As though their appearance had been the signal, the aero-subs in action against the first line of American planes broke out of the one-sided fight and dived for their mother ships, while a mere handful of the American planes started back for home to prepare anew to continue the struggle.
Prester Kleig gave the signal to the second monster armada which had remained in reserve.
"Do everything in your power to halt the march of Moyen's amphibians!"
Ten minutes to go, and Professor Maniel still labored like a Titan.
Caucasia Falls Silent
As the scores of amphibian monsters came lumbering forth upon dry land it became instantly apparent why the aero-subs had returned to the mother ships. For a few moments, out of the water, the amphibians were almost helpless, with practically no way of attack or defense—as helpless as huge turtles turned legs up.
But as each aero-sub entered its proper slot in the side of the mother amphibian, it was turned about and the nose thrust back into the opening, which closed down to fit tightly about the nose of the aero-sub, so that those flame-breathing monsters protruded from the sides of the amphibians in many places—transforming the amphibians into monsters with hundreds of golden, licking tongues!
As, with each and every aero-sub in place, the amphibians started moving inland, Professor Maniel made his first move. With the tiny apparatus upon which he had been working, he stepped to the table before the Sound-and-Vision apparatus and spoke softly to his compatriots.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I have finished, and it will work effectively!"
Though Maniel spoke softly, it was plain to be seen that he was proud of his accomplishment, which remained only to be attached to start performance.
A matter of seconds....
Yet during those seconds was the real might, the real power for utter devastation, of Moyen fully exposed!
* * * * *
The amphibians got under way as the airplanes of the Americas swept into the fight.
From the sides of the monsters licked out those golden tongues of flame—and from the front.
Half a dozen amphibians slipped into New York from the harbor side and started into the heart of the city. And between the time when Maniel had said he was ready and the moment when he made his first active move against Moyen, a half-dozen skyscrapers vanished into nothingness, the spots where they had stood swept as clear of debris as though the land had never been reclaimed from Nature!
None was ever destined to know how many lives were lost in that first attack of the monsters of the golden, myriad tongues; but the monsters struck in the midst of a working day when the skyscrapers were filled with office workers.
And resolve struck deep into the hearts of the Secret Agents: if Moyen were turned back, he must be made to pay for the slaughter.
A matter of seconds....
* * * * *
Then a moment of deathly silence as Munson gave way at the screen for the gnomelike little Professor Maniel.
"Now, gentlemen!" snapped Maniel. "If my theory is correct," manipulating instruments with lightning speed as he talked, "the reversion of the principle of my Vibration-Retarder—which captures vibrations speeding outward from the earth and transforms them once again into sound and pictures audible and visible to the human ear—this apparatus will disintegrate the monsters as our boats and planes were disintegrated!
"In this I have even been compelled to manipulate in the matter of time! I must not only defeat and annihilate the minions of Moyen, but must work from a mathematical absurdity, so that at the moment of impact that moment itself must become part of the past, sufficiently remote to remove the monsters at such distance from the earth that not even the mighty genius of Moyen can return them!"
The whirring, gentle as the whirring of doves' wings. In the center of the picture on the screen were those half-dozen amphibians laying waste Manhattan. Maniel set his intricate, delicate machinery into motion.
Instantly the amphibians there seemed to become misty, shadowy, and to lift out of Manhattan up above the roof-tops of skyscrapers still remaining, nebulous and wraithlike as ghost-shrouds—yet swinging outward from the earth with speed almost too swift for the eye to detect.
But where the amphibians had rested there stood, reclined—in all sorts of postures, surprising and even a bit ridiculous—the men of Moyen who had operated the monsters of Moyen!
* * * * *
From the Central Radio tower went forth a mighty voice of command to the planes which had been engaging the aero-subs off the coast.
Down flashed the planes of the Americas, and their guns were blazing, inaudibly, but none the less deadly of aim and of purpose, straight into the midst of the men of Moyen who had thus been left marooned and almost helpless with the vanishing of their amphibians.
And, noting how they fell in strangled, huddled heaps before the vengeful fire of the American planes, the Secret Agents sighed, and Maniel, his face alight with the pride of accomplishment, switched to another point along the coast.
And as a new group of the monsters of Moyen came into view, and Maniel bent to his labors afresh, the hated voice of the master mobster broke once more in the Secret Room.
"Enough, Kleig! Enough! We will surrender to save lives! I stipulate only that my own life be spared!"
To which Prester Kleig made instant reply.
"Did you offer us choice of surrender? Did you spare the lives of our people which, with your control of your golden rays, you could easily have done? No! Nor will we spare lives, least of all the life of Moyen!"
The whirring again, as of the whirring of doves' wings. More metal monsters, even as golden tongues spewed forth from their many sides, vanished from view, leaping skyward, while the operators of them were left to the mercies of the remaining airmen of the Americans.
* * * * *
Voicelessly the word went forth:
It was Charmion who begged for mercy for the vanquished as, one by one, as surely as fate, the monsters with their contained aero-subs were blotted out, leaving pilots and operators behind them. Down upon these dropped the airmen of the West, slaying without mercy....
"Please, lover!" Charmion whispered. "Spare them!"
"Even...?" he began, thinking of Moyen, who would have taken Charmion. He felt her shudder as she read his mind, understood what he would have asked.
"There he is!" came softly from Munson.
An amphibian had just been disintegrated, had just climbed mistily, swiftly, into invisibility in the skies. And there in the midst of the conquerors left behind, his angel's face set in a moody mask, his pale eyes awful with fear, his misshapen body sagging, terrible in its realization of failure, was Moyen!
Even as Kleig prepared to give the mercy signal, a plane dived down on the group about Moyen, and the Secret Agents could see the hand of the pilot, lifted high, as though he signaled.
The plane was a Mayther! The pilot was Carlos Kane!
* * * * *
Just as Kane went into action, and the noiseless bullets from his ship crashed into that twisted body, causing it to jump and twitch with the might of them, Prester Kleig gave the signal.
Even as the figure of Moyen crashed to the soil and the man's soul quitted its mortal casement, Kleig commanded:
"Spare all who surrender! Make them prisoners, to be used to repair the damage they have done to our country! Guards will be instantly placed over the amphibians and the aero-subs—for the day may come when we shall need to know their secrets!"
And, as men, hands lifted high in token of surrender, quitted the now motionless amphibians, and flyers dropped down to make them prisoners, Maniel sighed, pressed various buttons on his apparatus, and the mad scene of carnage they had witnessed for hours faded slowly out, and darkness and silence filled the Secret Room.
But darkness is the joy of lovers, and in the midst of silence that was almost appalling by contrast, Kleig and Charmion were received into each other's arms.
- Everyone Is Invited To "Come Over in 'THE READERS' CORNER'"! -
Vampires of Venus
By Anthony Pelcher
Leslie Larner, an entomologist borrowed from the Earth, pits himself against the night-flying vampires that are ravaging the inhabitants of Venus.
It was as if someone had thrown a bomb into a Quaker meeting, when adventure suddenly began to crowd itself into the life of the studious and methodical Leslie Larner, professor of entomology.
Fame had been his since early manhood, when he began to distinguish himself in several sciences, but the adventure and thrills he had longed for had always fallen to the lot of others.
His father, a college professor, had left him a good working brain and nothing else. Later his mother died and he was left with no relatives in the world, so far as he knew. So he gave his life over to study and hard work.
Still youthful at twenty-five, he was hoping that fate would "give him a break." It did.
He was in charge of a Government department having to do with Oriental beetles, Hessian flies, boll weevils and such, and it seemed his life had been just one bug after another. He took creeping, crawling things seriously and believed that, unless curbed, insects would some day crowd man off the earth. He sounded an alarm, but humanity was not disturbed. So Leslie Larner fell back on his microscope and concerned himself with saving cotton, wheat and other crops. His only diversion was fishing for the elusive rainbow trout.
He managed to spend a month each year in the Colorado Rockies angling for speckled beauties.
Larner was anything but a clock-watcher, but on a certain bright day in June he was seated in his laboratory doing just that.
"Just five minutes to go," he mused.
It was just 4:25 P. M. He had finished his work, put his affairs in order, and in five minutes would be free to leave on a much needed and well earned vacation. His bags were packed and at the station. His fishing tackle, the pride of his young life, was neatly rolled in oiled silk and stood near at hand.
"I'll just fill my calabash, take one more quiet smoke, and then for the mountains and freedom," he told himself. He settled back with his feet on his desk. He half closed his eyes in solid comfort. Then the bomb fell and exploded.
* * * * *
The buzzer on his desk buzzed and his feet came off the desk and hit the floor with a thud. His eyes popped open and the calabash was immediately laid aside.
That buzzer usually meant business, and it would be his usual luck to have trouble crash in on him just as he was on the edge of a rainbow trout paradise.
A messenger was ushered into the room by an assistant. The boy handed him an envelope, said, "No answer," and departed.
Larner tore open the envelope lazily. He read and then re-read its contents, while a look of puzzled surprise disturbed his usually placid countenance. He spread the sheet of paper out on his desk, and for the tenth time he read:
Memorize this address and destroy this paper:
Tula Bela, 1726 88th Street, West, City of Hesper, Republic of Pana, Planet Venus.
Will meet you in the Frying Pan.
That was all. It was enough. Larner lost his temper. He crumpled the paper and tossed it in the waste basket. He was not given to profanity, but he could say "Judas Priest" in a way that sizzled.
"Judas Priest!" he spluttered. "Anyone who would send a man a crazy bunch of nonsense like that, at a time like this, ought to be snuffed out like a beetle!
"'Meet you in the Frying Pan,'" he quoted. Then he happened to recall something. "By golly, there is a fishing district in Colorado known as the Frying Pan. That's not so crazy, but the planet Venus part surely is cuckoo."
He fished the paper out of the waste basket, found the envelope, placed the strange message within and put it in his inside coat pocket. Then he seized his suitcase and fishing tackle, and, rushing out, hailed a taxi. Not long after he was on his way west by plane.
* * * * *
As the country unrolled under him he retrieved the strange note from his pocket. He read it again and again. Then he examined the envelope. It was an ordinary one of good quality, designed for business rather than social usage. The note paper appeared quite different. It was unruled, pure white, and of a texture which might be described as pebbly. It was strongly made, and of a nature unlike any paper Larner had ever seen before. It appeared to have been made from a fiber rather than a pulp.
"Wonder who wrote it?" Larner asked himself. "It is beautiful handwriting, masculine yet artistic. Wonder where he got the Frying Pan idea? At any rate, I'm not going to the Frying Pan this year—I'm camping on Tennessee Creek, in Lake County, Colorado. The country there is more beautiful and restful.
"But this street address on the planet Venus. Seems to me I read somewhere that Marconi had received mysterious signals that he believed came from the planet Venus. Hesper, Hesper ... it sounds familiar, somehow. Wonder if there could be anything to it?"
Something impelled him to follow out the instructions in the note. He spent the next few hours repeating the address over and over again. When he was satisfied that he had memorized it thoroughly, he tore the strange paper into bits and sent it fluttering earthward like a tiny snowstorm.
Larner was not a gullible individual, but neither was he unimaginative. He was scientist enough to know that "the impossibilities of to-day are the accomplishments of to-morrow." So while not convinced that the note was a serious communication, still his mind was open.
The weird address insisted on creeping into his mind and driving out other thoughts, even those of his speckled playfellows, the rainbow trout.
"I've a notion to change my plans and go from Denver to the Frying Pan," he cogitated. Then he thought, "No, I won't take it that seriously."
* * * * *
Anyone who knows the Colorado Rockies knows paradise. There is no more beautiful country on the globe. Lake County, where Larner had chosen his fishing grounds, has as its seat the old mining camp of Leadville. It has been visited and settled more for its gold mines than the golden glow of its sunsets above the clouds, but the gold of the sunsets is eternal, while the gold of the mines is fading quickly away.
Leadville, with its 5,000 inhabitants, nestles above the clouds, at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. Mount Massive with its three peaks lies back of the town in panorama and rises to a height of some 14,400 feet. In the rugged mountains thereabouts are hundreds of lakes fed by wild streams and bubbling crystal springs. All these lakes are above the clouds.
Winter sees the whole picture decorated with bizarre snowdrifts from twenty to forty feet deep, but spring comes early. The beautiful columbines and crocuses bloom before the snow is all off the ground in the valleys. The lands up to 12,000 feet altitude are carpeted with a light green grass and moss. Giant pines and dainty aspens, with their silvery bark and pinkish leaves blossom forth and whisper, while the eternal snows still linger in the higher rocky cliffs and peaks above.
Indian-paint blooms its blood red in contrast to the milder colorings. Blackbirds and bluebirds chatter and chipmunks chirp. The gold so hard to find in the mines glares from the skies. The hills cuddle in banks of snowy clouds, and above all a pure clear blue sky sweeps. The lakes and streams abound with rainbow trout, the gamest of any fresh water fish. It is indeed a paradise for either poet or sportsman.
In any direction near to Leadville a man can find Heaven and recreation and rest.
Finding himself on Harrison Avenue, the main street of the county seat, Larner, after renewing some old acquaintanceships, started west in a flivver for Tennessee Creek. The flivver is a modern adjustment. Until a few years ago the only means of traversing these same hills was by patient, sure-footed donkeys, which carried the pack while the wayfarer walked along beside.
* * * * *
The first day's fishing was good. Trout seemed to greet him cheerily and sprang eagerly to the fray. They bit at any sort of silken fly he cast.
The site chosen by Larner for his camp was in a mossy clearing separated from the stream by a fringe of willows along the creek. Then came a border of aspens backed by a forest of silver-tipped firs.
It was ideal and his eyes swept the scene with satisfaction. Then he began whittling bacon to grease his pan for frying trout over the open fire.
Suddenly he heard a rustle in the aspens, and, looking up, beheld a picture which made his eyes bulge. A man and a woman, garbed seemingly in the costumes of another world, walked toward him. Neither were more than five feet tall but were physically perfect, and marvelously pleasing to the eye. There was little difference in their dress.
Both wore helmets studded with what Larner believed to be sapphires. He learned later they were diamonds. Their clothing consisted of tight trouserlike garments surmounted by tunics of some white pelt resembling chamois save for color. A belt studded with precious stones encircled their waists. Artistic laced sandals graced their small firm feet.
Their skin was a pinkish white. Their every feature was perfection plus, and their bodies curved just enough wherever a curve should be. The woman was daintier and more fully developed, and her features were even more finely chiseled than the man. Otherwise it would have been difficult to distinguish their sex.
Larner took in these details subconsciously, for he was awed beyond expression. All he could do was to stand seemingly frozen, half bent over the campfire with his frying pan in his hand.
* * * * *
The man spoke.
"I hope we did not startle you," he said. "I thought my note would partly prepare you for this meeting. We expected to find you in the Frying Pan district. When you did not appear there we tuned our radio locator to your heart beats and in that way located you here. It was hardly a second's space-flying time from where we were."
Larner said nothing. He could only stand and gape.
"I do not wonder that you are surprised," said the strange little man. "I will explain that I am Nern Bela, of the City of Hesper, on the planet Venus. This is my sister Tula. We greet you in the interest of the Republic of Pana, which embraces all of the planet you know as Venus."
When Larner recovered his breath, he lost his temper.
"I don't know what circus you escaped from, but I crave solitude and I have no time to be bothered with fairy tales," he said with brutal bruskness.
Expressions of hurt surprise swept the countenances of his visitors.
The man spoke again:
"We are just what we assert we are, and our finding you was made necessary by a condition which grieves the souls of all the 900,000,000 inhabitants of Venus. We have come to plead with you to come with us and use your scientific knowledge to thwart a scourge which threatens the lives of millions of people."
There was a quiet dignity about the man and an air of pride about the woman which made Larner stop and think, or try to. He rubbed his hand over his brow and looked questioningly at the pair.
"If you are what you say you are, how did you get here?" he asked.
"We came in a targo, a space-flying ship, capable of doing 426,000 miles an hour. This is just 1200 times as fast as 355 miles an hour, the highest speed known on earth. Come with us and we will show you our ship." They looked at him appealingly, and both smiled a smile of wistful friendliness.
Larner, without a word, threw down his frying pan and followed them through the aspens. The brother and sister walking ahead of him gave his eyes a treat. He surveyed the perfect form of the girl. Her perfection was beyond his ken.
"They certainly are not of this world," he mused.
* * * * *
A few hundred yards farther on there was a beach of pebbles, where the stream had changed its course. On this plot sat a gigantic spherical machine of a glasslike material. It was about 300 feet in diameter and it was tapered on two sides into tees which Larner rightly took to be lights.
"This is a targo, our type of space-flyer," said Nern Bela. "It is capable of making two trips a year between Venus and the earth. We have visited this planet often, always landing in some mountain or jungle fastness as heretofore we did not desire earth-dwellers to know of our presence."
"Why not?" asked Larner, his mouth agape and his eyes protruding. His mind was so full of questions that he fairly blurted his first one.
"Because," said Bela, slowly and frankly, "because our race knows no sickness and we feared contagion, as your race has not yet learned to control its being."
"Oh," said Lamer thoughtfully. He realized that humans of the earth, whom he had always regarded as God's most perfect beings, were not so perfect after all.
"How do you people control your being, as you express it?" he asked.
"It is simple," was the reply. "For ninety centuries we have ceased to breed imperfection, crime and disease. We deprived no one of the pleasures of life, but only the most perfect mental and physical specimens of our people cared to have children. In other words, while we make no claim to controlling our sex habits, we do control results."
"Oh," said Larner again.
Nern Bela led the way to a door which opened into the side of the space-flyer near its base. "We have a crew of four men and four women," he said. "They handle the entire ship, with my sister and I in command, making six souls aboard in all."
"Why men and women?" thought Larner.
As if in answer to his thought Bela said:
"On the earth the two sexes have struggled for sex supremacy. This has thrown your civilization out of balance. On Venus we have struggled for sex equality and have accomplished it. This is a perfect balance. Man and women engage in all endeavor and share all favors and rewards alike."
"In war, too?" asked Larner.
"There has not been war on Venus for 600,000 years," said Bela. "There is only the one nation, and the people all live in perfect accord. Our only trouble in centuries is a dire peril which now threatens our people, and it is of this that I wish to talk to you more at length."
* * * * *
They were standing close to the targo. Larner was struck by the peculiar material of which it was constructed. There was a question in his eyes, and Nern Bela answered it:
"The metal is duranium; it is metalized quartz. It is frictionless, conducts no current or ray except repulsion and attraction ray NTR69X6 by which it is propelled. It is practically transparent, lighter than air and harder than a diamond. It is cast in moulds after being melted or, rather, fused.
"We use cold light which we produce by forcing oxygen through air tubes into a vat filled with the fat of a deep sea fish resembling your whale. You are aware, of course, that that is exactly how cold light is produced by the firefly, except for the fact that the firefly uses his own fat."
Larner was positively fascinated. He smoothed the metal of the targo in appreciation of its marvelous construction, but he longed most to see the curious light giving mechanism, for this was closer to his own line of entomology. He had always believed that the light giving organs of fireflys and deep-sea fishes could be reproduced mechanically.
The interior of the ship resembled in a vague way that of an ocean liner. It was controlled by an instrument board at which a man and a girl sat. They did not raise their heads as the three people entered.
When called by Bela and his sister, who seemed to give commands in unison, the crew assembled and were presented to the visitor.
"Earth-dwellers are not the curiosity to us that we seem to be to you," said Tula Bela, speaking for the first time and smiling sweetly.
Larner was too engrossed to note the remark further than to nod his head. He was lost in contemplation of these strange people, all garbed exactly alike and all surpassingly lovely to look upon.
* * * * *
An odor of food wafted from the galley, and Larner remembered he was hungry, with the hunger of health. He had swung his basket of fish over his shoulder when he left his campfire, and Tula took it from him.
"Would you like to have our chef prepare them for you?" she said, as she caught his hungry glance at his day's catch. This time Larner answered her.
"If you will pardon me," he said awkwardly. "Really I am famished."
"You will not miss your fish dinner," said the girl.
"I believe there is enough for all of us," said Larner. "I caught twenty beauties. I never knew fish to bite like that. Why, they—" and he was off on a voluminous discourse on a favorite subject.
Those assembled listened sympathetically. Then Tula took the fish, and soon the aroma of broiling trout mingled with the other entrancing galley odors.
After a dinner at which some weird yet satisfying viands were served and much unusual conversation indulged in, Nern Bela led the way to what appeared to be the captain's quarters. The crew and their visitor sat down to discuss a subject which proved to be of such a terrifying nature as to scar human souls.
"People on Venus," said Nern, as his eyes took on a worried expression, "are unable to leave their homes after nightfall due to some strange nocturnal beast which attacks them and vampirishly drains all blood from their veins, leaving the dead bodies limp and empty."
"What? How?" questioned Larner leaning far forward over the conference table.
The others nodded their heads, and in the eyes of the women there was terror. Larner could not but believe this.
"The beasts, or should I say insects, are as large as your horses and they fly, actually fly, by night, striking down humans, domestic animals and all creatures of warm blood. How many there are we have no means of knowing, and we cannot find their hiding and breeding places. They are not native to our planet, and where they come from we cannot imagine. They are actually monstrous flys, or bugs, or some form of insects."
* * * * *
Larner was overcome by incredulity and showed it. "Insects as big as horses?" he questioned and he could hardly suppress a smile.
"Believe us, in the name of the God of us all," insisted Nern. "They have a mouth which consists of a large suction disk, in the center of which is a lancelike tongue. The lance is forced into the body at any convenient point, and the suction disk drains out the blood. If we only knew their source! They attack young children and the aged, up to five hundred years, alike."
"What! Five hundred years?" exploded Larner again.
"I should have explained," said Nern, simply, "that Venus dwellers, due to our advanced knowledge of sanitation and health conversation, live about 800 years and then die invariably of old age. The only unnatural cause of death encountered is this giant insect. Accidents do occur, but they are rare. There are no deliberate killings on Venus."
Larner did not answer. He only pondered. The more he ran over the strange happenings of the last week in his mind the more he believed he was dreaming. His thoughts took a strange turn: "Why do these vain people go around dressed in jeweled ornaments?"
Nern again anticipated a question. "Diamonds, gold and many of what you call precious stones are common on Venus," he volunteered. "Talc and many other things are more valuable."
"Yes, we use an immense quantity of it. We have a wood that is harder than your steel. We build machinery with it. We cannot use oil to lubricate these wooden shafts and bearings as it softens the wood, so all parts exposed to friction are sprayed constantly by a gust of talc from a blower.
"You use talc mostly for toilet purposes. We use it for various purposes. There is little left on Venus, and it is more valuable to us than either gold or diamonds. We draw on your planet now for talc. You dump immense quantities. We just shipped one hundred 1,000-ton globes of it from the Cripple Creek district, and the district never missed it. We drew most of it from your mine dumps."
* * * * *
Nern tried not to look bored as he explained more in detail: "We brought 100 hollow spheres constructed of duranium. We suspended these over the Cripple Creek district at an altitude of 10,000 feet above the earth's surface. Because of the crystal glint of duranium they were invisible to earth dwellers at that height. Then we used a suction draft at night, drawing the talc from the earth, filling one drum after another. This is done by tuning in a certain selective attraction that attracts only talc. It draws it right out of your ground in tiny particles and assembles it in the transportation drums as pure talc. On the earth, if noticed at all, it would have been called a dust storm.
"The drums, when loaded with talc, are set to attract the proper planetary force and they go speeding toward Venus at the rate of 426,000 miles an hour. They are prevented from colliding with meteors by an automatic magnetic device. This is controlled by magnetic force alone, and when the targo gets too close to a meteor it changes its course instantly. The passenger targo we ride in acts similarly. And now may I return to the subject of the vampires of Venus?"
"Pardon my ignorance," said Larner, and for the first time in his life he felt very ignorant indeed.
"I know little more than I have told you," said Nern, rather hopelessly. "Our knowledge of your world, your people and your language comes from our listening in on you and observing you without being observed or heard. This might seem like taking an advantage of you, were it not for the fact that we respect confidences, and subjugate all else to science. We have helped you at times, by telepathically suggesting ideas to your thinkers.
"We would have given you all our inventions in this way, gladly, but in many instances we were unable to find minds attuned to accept such advanced ideas. We have had the advantage of you because our planet is so many millions of years older than your own." There was a plaintive note in Nern's voice as he talked.
* * * * *
"But now we are on our knees to you, so to speak. We do not know everything and, desperately, we need the aid of a man of your caliber. In behalf of the distraught people of Venus, I am asking you bluntly to make a great sacrifice. Will you face the dangers of a trip to Venus and use your knowledge to aid us in exterminating these creatures of hell?" There was positive pleading in his voice, and in the eyes of his beautiful sister there were tears.
"But what would my superiors in the Government Bureau think?" feebly protested Larner, "I could not explain...."
"You have no superiors in your line. Our Government needs you at this time more than any earthly government. Your place here is a fixture. You can always return to it, should you live. We are asking you to face a horrible death with us. You can name your own compensation, but I know you are not interested so much in reward.
"Now, honestly, my good professor, there is no advantage to be gained by explanation. Just disappear. In the name of God and in the interests of science and the salvation of a people who are at your mercy, just drop out of sight. Drop out of life on this planet. Come with us. The cause is worthy of the man I believe you to be."
"I will go," said Larner, and his hosts waited for no more. An instant later the targo shot out into interstellar space.
"How do you know what course to follow?" asked Larner after a reasonable time, when he had recovered from his surprise at the sudden take-off.
"We do not need to know. Our machine is tuned to be attracted by the planetary force of Venus alone. We could not go elsewhere. A repulsion ray finds us as we near Venus and protects us against too violent a landing. We will land on Venus like a feather about three months from to-night."
The time of the journey through outer space was of little moment save for one incident. Larner and the other travelers were suddenly and rather rudely jostled about the rapidly flying craft.
Larner lost his breath but not his speech. "What happened?" he inquired.
"We just automatically dodged a meteor," explained Nern.
* * * * *
Most of the time of the trip was spent by Larner in listening to explanations of customs and traditions of the people of the brightest planet in the universe.
There was a question Larner had desired to ask Nern Bela, yet he hesitated to do so. Finally one evening during the journey to Venus, when the travelers had been occupying themselves in a scientific discussion of comparative evolution on the two planets, Larner saw his opportunity.
"Why," he asked rather hesitatingly, "did the people of Venus always remain so small? Why did you not strive more for height? The Japanese, who are the shortest in stature of earth people, always wanted to be tall."
"Without meaning any offense," replied Nern, "I must say that it is characteristic of earth dwellers to want something without knowing any good reason why they want it. It is perfectly all right for you people to be tall, but for us it is not so fitting. You see, Venus is smaller than the earth. Size is comparative. You think we are not tall because you are used to taller people. Comparatively we are tall enough. In proportion to the size of our planet we are exactly the right size. We keep our population at 900,000,000, and that is the perfectly exact number of people who can live comfortably on our planet."
* * * * *
Arriving on Venus, Larner was assigned a laboratory and office in one of the Government buildings. It was a world seemingly made of glass. Quartz, of rose, white and crystal coloring, Larner found, was the commonest country rock of the planet. In many cases it was shot full of splinters of gold which the natives had not taken the trouble to recover. This quartz was of a terrific hardness and was used in building, paving, and public works generally. The effect was bewildering. It was a world of shimmering crystal.
The atmosphere of Venus had long puzzled Larner. While not an astronomer in the largest sense of the word, yet he had a keen interest in the heavens as a giant puzzle picture, and he had given some spare time to the study.
He knew that from all indications Venus had a most unusual atmosphere. He had read that the atmosphere was considerably denser than that of the earth, and that its presence made observation difficult. The actual surface of the planet he knew could hardly be seen due, either to this atmosphere, or seemingly perpetual cloud banks.
He had read that the presence of atmosphere surrounding Venus is indicated to earthly astronomers, during the planet's transit, by rings of light due to the reflection and scattering of collected sunlight by its atmosphere.
Astronomers on earth, he knew, had long been satisfied of the presence of great cloud banks, as rocks and soils could not have such high reflecting power. He knew that like the moon, Venus, when viewed from the earth, presents different phases from the crescent to the full or total stage.
Looking up at the sky from the quartz streets of Venus, Larner beheld, in sweeping grandeur, massed cloud banks, many of them apparently rain clouds.
Nern noted his skyward gaze, and said:
"We have accomplished meteorological control. Those clouds were brought under control when we conquered interplanetary force, and what you call gravity. We form them and move them at will. They are our rain factory. We make rain when and where we will. This insures our crops and makes for health and contentment.
"The air, you will note, is about the same or a little more moist than the earth air at sea level. This is due to the planet's position nearer the sun.
"We have been striving for centuries to make the air a little drier and more rare, but we have not succeeded yet. The heavy content of disintegrated quartz in our soil makes moisture very necessary for our crops, so our moist atmosphere is evidently a provision of providence. We are used to breathing this moist air, and when I first visited the earth I was made uncomfortable by your rarified atmosphere. Now I can adjust myself to breathing the air of either planet. However, I find myself drinking a great deal more water on earth than on Venus."
* * * * *
In this fairyland which had enjoyed centuries of peace, health and accord, stark terror now reigned. In some instances the finely-bred, marvellously intelligent people were in a mental condition bordering on madness.
This was especially true in the farming districts, where whole herds of lats had been wiped out. Lats, Larner gleaned, were a common farm animal similar to the bovine species on earth, only more wooly. On these creatures the Venus dwellers depended for their milk and dairy supplies, and for their warmer clothing, which was made from the skin. The hair was used for brushes, in the building trades, and a thousand ways in manufacturing.
Besides the domestic animals hundreds of people continued to meet death, and only a few of the flying vampires had been hunted down. The giant insects were believed to breed slowly as compared to earth insects, their females producing not more than ten eggs, by estimate, after which death overtook the adult. In spite of this they were reported to be increasing.
In the Government building Larner was placed in touch with all the Government scientists of Venus. His nearest collaborator was one Zorn Zada, most profound scientist of the planet. The two men, with a score of assistants, worked elbow to elbow on the most gigantic scientific mystery in the history of two planets.
A specimen of the dread invader was mounted and studied by the scientists, who were so engrossed in their work that they hardly took time to eat. As for sleep, there was little of it. Days were spent in research and nights in hunting the monsters. This hunting was done by newly recruited soldiers and scientists. The weapons used were a short ray-gun of high destructive power which disintegrated the bodies of the enemies by atomic energy blasts. The quarry was wary, however, and struck at isolated individuals rather than massed fighting lines.
* * * * *
Seated at his work-bench Larner asked Zorn Zada what had become of Nern Bela. In his heart he had a horrible lurking fear that the beautiful Tula Bela might fall before a swarm of the strange vampires, but he did not voice this anxiety.
"Nern and his sister are explorers and navigators," was the reply. "They have been assigned to carry you anywhere on this or any other planet where your work may engage you. They await your orders. They are too valuable as space-navigators to be placed in harm's way."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Larner bent to his labors.
"What other wild animals or harmful insects have you on this planet?" he asked Zorn.
"I get your thought," replied the first scientist of Venus. "You are seeking a natural enemy to this deadly flying menace, are you not?"
"Yes," admitted Larner.
"All insects left on Venus with this one exception are beneficial," said Zorn. "There are no wild animals, and no harmful insects. All animals, insects and birds have been domesticated and are fed by their keepers. We get fabrics from forms of what you call spiders and other web-builders and cocoon spinners. All forms of birds, beasts and crawling and flying things have been brought under the dominion of man. We will have to seek another way out than by finding an enemy parasite."
"Where do you think these insect invaders came from?" asked Larner.
"You have noticed they are unlike anything you have on earth in anatomical construction," said the savant. "They partake of the general features of Coleoptera (beetles), in that they wear a sheath of armor, yet their mouth parts are more on the order of the Diptera (flys). I regard them more as a fly than a beetle, because most Coleoptera are helpful to humanity while practically all, if not all, Diptera are malignant.
"As to their original habitat, I believe they migrated here from some other planet."
"They could not fly through space," said Larner.
"No, that is the mystery of it," agreed Zorn. "How they got here and where they breed are the questions that we have to answer."
* * * * *
Long days passed on Venus. Long days and sleepless nights. The big insects were hunted nightly by men armed with ray-guns, and nightly the blood-sucking monsters took their toll of humanity and animals.
Finally Larner and Zorn determined to capture one of the insects alive, muzzle its lance and suction pad, and give it sufficient freedom to find its way back to its hiding place. By following the shackled monster the scientists hoped to find the breeding grounds.
All the provinces of the planet joined in the drive. Men turned out in automatic vehicles, propelled by energy gathered from the atmosphere. They came on foot and in aircraft. Mobilization was at given points and, leading the van, were Zorn and Larner and their confreres in the targo of Nern and Tula Bela. The great army of Venus carried giant searchlights and was armed with deadly ray-guns.
* * * * *
Headquarters of the vast Army of Offense was in the targo of the Belas. Larner was in supreme command. Just before the big army set out to scour the planet to seek the breeding place of the monsters Larner issued a bulletin that set all Venus by the ears.
Addressed to President Vole Vesta of the Republic of Pana and the good people of Venus, it read:
As is generally known, it has been the habit of the nation's space-flying merchantmen to visit the sunlit side of the planet Mercury to obtain certain rare woods and other materials not found on this planet.
One side of Mercury, as is known, is always turned from the sun and is in a condition of perpetual night. In this perpetual darkness and dampness, where many rivers flow into warm black swamps, the vampires have bred for centuries. Conditions were ideal for their growth, and so through the ages they evolved into the monsters we have encountered lately on Venus.
During some comparatively recent visit to Mercury the grubs of these insects have found their way abroad a vegetation-laden targo left standing near the edge of the black swamps of Mercury. These grubs were thus transported to Venus and underwent their natural metamorphosis here. Reaching adult stage, they have found some place to hide and breed, and thus is explained the origin of the vampires of Venus.
This was widely read and discussed and was finally accepted as the means of the invasion of peaceful, beautiful Venus by a horror that might well have originated in hell.
However, this did not reveal the breeding grounds, or remove the nation-wide scourge of the horrible winged vampires, so the mobilization of all the forces of the planet continued.
* * * * *
As day followed day the hordes of fighting Venus dwellers grew in the concentration camps. In the targo of the Belas, Larner, brain-weary and body-racked as he was with overwork, found a grain of happiness in being in the presence of Nern and his beautiful, petite sister.
With Zorn, Larner was supervising the construction of a big net of strongly woven wire mesh, in which it was hoped to catch one of the vampires. It was decided to bait the trap with a fat female lat.
Zorn, Larner and the Belas fared forth from the concentration camp followed by a company of soldiers carrying the big net. Tula with her own hand led the fat lat heifer. His eyes were filled with commiseration for the poor animal.
Thousands of soldiers and citizenry, in fighting array, watched the departure of the little group.
In a glade the trap was set and the net arranged to fall over the monster once it attacked the calf. From a thicket, in utter darkness, Zorn and Larner and the two Belas waited for the possible catch. The whole nation stood awaiting the order to advance.
On the fourth night the vigil was rewarded in a manner frightful to relate.
A clumsy flutter of giant wings broke the stillness.
The four waiting forms in the thicket rejoiced, believing the fat lat was about to be attacked.
Onward came the approaching horror. The measured flap, flap of its armored wings drawing nearer and nearer. Then, horror—horrors!
A feminine scream rent the air. Cries loud and shrill arose above a hysterical feminine cry for help.
The monster had chosen Tula Bela for its prey!
* * * * *
Zorn exploded an alarm bomb. A compressed air siren brought the army forward on the run. Giant floodlights began to light up the scene. The blood of Larner and Nern froze.
The monster had borne the girl to the ground. Its frightful lance and cupper was upraised to strike. Larner was the nearest and the quickest to act. He grabbed for his ray-gun, swung at his belt. It was gone! In horror he remembered he had left it at the base. He seized a short knife and threw himself forward, rolling his body between that of the girl and the descending lance and cupper.
As the lance pierced his shoulder Larner, in one wild gesture of frenzy, drove his knife through the soft, yielding flesh of the vampire's organ of suction.
Protected by no bony structure the snout of the monster was amputated.
The terrible creature had been disarmed of his most formidable weapon, but he continued to fight. Larner felt the spikes on the monster's legs tear at his flesh.
"Don't kill the thing," he shouted. "Bring on the net. For the love of God bring on the net!" Then he lost consciousness.
It was daylight when Larner, somewhat weakened from loss of blood, regained consciousness.
The beautiful Tula Bela was leaning over him.
She whispered comforting words to him in a language he did not fully understand. She whispered happy exclamations in words he did not know the meaning of, but the tone was unmistakably those of a sweetheart towards her lover.
Finally, in answer to a true scientist's question in his eyes, she said in English:
"They caught the thing alive. They await your order to advance."
"Let us be on our way," said Larner, and he started to arise.
"You are hardly strong enough," said Tula.
"Believe me, I am all right," insisted Larner, and after several trials he got to his feet. His constitution was naturally strong and his will was stronger, so he fought back all feelings of weakness and soon announced himself ready to go ahead with the project at hand. For speed was all important, and the young professor found himself unable to remain inactive.
* * * * *
He rejoiced when Zorn told him that the big insect that had attacked Tula Bela had been captured alive and had been kept well nourished by lat's blood injected into its stomach.
With Zorn Larner went to inspect the hideous monstrosity and found it in leash and straining. It was ready to be used to lead the way back to its breeding place.
Its wings shackled, the lumbering insect floundered on its way straight north. Ponderously and half blindly it crawled as the searchlights' glare was kept far enough in advance to keep from blinding the monster.
True to instinct it finally brought up at early dawn under a high cliff of smoky quartz. Here, in the great crevices, the drove of diabolical vampires were hiding.
As the light struck their dens, they attempted clumsily to take wing, but a interlacing network of devastating disintegrating rays from the ray-guns shattered their bodies to dust, which was borne away by the wind.
The next few months were spent in combing the quartz crags of Venus for similar infested areas, but only the one breeding nest was found. The scourge had been conquered in its first and only stronghold.
* * * * *
So ended the greatest reign of terror in the history of Venus.
Leslie Larner was given a vote of thanks, and riches were showered upon him by the good people of the sky's brightest star.
His modesty was characteristic, and he insisted that his part in saving humanity on the planet had been small.
Passage back to earth was offered him, but Nern and Tula Bela urged him to say and live his life on Venus. This he finally agreed to do.
"If I returned," he said, "I would always be tempted to tell my experiences while away, and there is not a jury in the world which would account me sane after I had once spoken."