* * * * *
Professor Sykes was bewildered. "That sky—the stars—they are not real?" he asked incredulously. "But the grass—the flowers—"
Her laugh rippled like music. "Oh, they are real," she told him, and her brother gave added explanation.
"The lights," he said: "we supply the actinic rays that the clouds cut off above. We have sunlight here, made by our own hands; that is why we are as we are and not like the red ones with their bleached skins. We had our lights everywhere through the world when we lived above, but those red beasts are ignorant; they do not know how to operate them; they do not know that they live in darkness even in the light."
"Then we are below ground?" asked the flyer. "You live here?"
"It is all we have now. At that time of which I tell, it was the red ones who lived out of sight; they were a race of rodents in human form. They lived in the subterranean caves with which this planet is pierced. We could have exterminated them at any time, but, in our ignorance, we permitted them to live, for we, of Venus—I use your name for the planet—do not willingly take life."
"They have no such compunctions!" Professor Sykes' voice was harsh; he was remembering the sacrifice to the hungry plants.
A flash as of pain crossed the sensitive features of the girl, and the man beside her seemed speaking to her in soundless words.
"Your mind-picture was not pleasant," he told the scientist; then continued:
"Remember, we were upon the world, and these others were within it. There came a comet. Oh, our astronomers plotted its course; they told us we were safe. But at the last some unknown influence diverted it; its gaseous projection swept our world with flame. Only an instant; but when it had passed there was left only death...."
* * * * *
He was lost in recollection for a time; the girl beside him reached over to touch his hand.
"Those within—the red ones—escaped," he went on. "They poured forth when they found that catastrophe had overwhelmed us. And we, the handful that were left, were forced to take shelter here. We have lived here since, waiting for the day when the Master of Destinies shall give us freedom and a world in which to live."
"You speak," suggested the scientist, "as if this had happened to you. Surely you refer to your ancestors; you are the descendants of those who were saved."
"We are the people," said the other. "We lived then; we live now; we shall live for a future of endless years.
"Have you not searched for the means to control the life principle—you people of Earth?" he asked. "We have it here. You see"—and he waved a hand toward the standing throng—"we are young to your eyes and the others who greeted you were the same."
McGuire and the scientist exchanged glances of corroboration.
"But your age," asked Sykes, "measured in years?"
"We hardly measure life in years."
Professor Sykes nodded slowly; his mind found difficulty in accepting so astounding a fact. "But our language?" he queried. "How is it that you can speak our tongue?"
The tall man smiled and leaned forward to place a hand on a knee of each of the men beside him. "Why not," he asked, "when there doubtless is relationship between us.
"You called the continent Atlantis. Perhaps its very existence is but a fable now: it has been many centuries since we have had instruments to record thought force from Earth, and we have lost touch. But, my friends, even then we of Venus had conquered space, and it was we who visited Atlantis to find a race more nearly like ourselves than were the barbarians who held the other parts of Earth.
"I was there, but I returned. There were some who stayed and they were lost with the others in the terrible cataclysm that sank a whole continent beneath the waters. But some, we have believed, escaped."
"Why have you not been back?" the flyer asked. "You could have helped us so much."
"It was then that our own destruction came upon us. The same comet, perhaps, may have caused a change of stresses in your Earth and sunk the lost Atlantis. Ah! That was a beautiful land, but we have never seen it since. We have been—here.
"But you will understand, now," he added, "that, with our insight into your minds, we have little difficulty in mastering your language."
This talk of science and incredible history left Lieutenant McGuire cold. His mind could not wander long from its greatest concern.
"But the earth!" he exclaimed. "What about the earth? This attack! Those devils mean real mischief!"
"More than you know; more than you can realize, friend Mack Guire!"
"Why?" demanded the flyer. "Why?"
"Have your countries not reached out for other countries when land was needed?" asked the man, Djorn. "Land—land! Space in which to breed—that is the reason for the invasion.
"This world has no such continents as yours. Here the globe is covered by the oceans; we have perhaps one hundredth of the land areas of your Earth And the red ones breed like flies. Life means nothing to them; they die like flies, too. But they need more room; they intend to find it on your world."
* * * * *
"A strange race," mused Professor Sykes. "They puzzled me. But—'less than human,' I think you said. Then how about their ships? How could they invent them?"
"Ours—all ours! They found a world ready and waiting for them. Through the centuries they have learned to master some few of our inventions. The ships!—the ethereal vibrations! Oh, they have been cleverer than we dreamed possible."
"Well, how can we stop them?" demanded McGuire. "We must. You have the submarines—"
"One only," the other interrupted. "We saved that, and we brought some machinery. We have made this place habitable; we have not been idle. But there are limitations."
"But your ray that you projected—it brought down their ship!"
"We were protecting you, and we protect ourselves; that is enough. There is One will deliver us in His own good time; we may not go forth and slaughter."
There was a note of resignation and patience in the voice that filled McGuire with hopeless forebodings. Plainly this was not an aggressive race. They had evolved beyond the stage of wanton slaughter, and, even now, they waited patiently for the day when some greater force should come to their aid.
The man beside them spoke quickly. "One moment—you will pardon me—someone is calling—" He listened intently to some soundless call, and he sent a silent message in reply.
"I have instructed them," he said. "Come and you shall see how impregnable is our position. The red ones have resented our destruction of their ship."
The face of the girl, Althora, was perturbed. "More killings?" she asked.
"Only as they force themselves to their own death," her brother told her. "Be not disturbed."
* * * * *
The throng in the vast space drew apart as the figure of their leader strode quickly through with the two men following close. There were many rooms and passages; the men had glimpses of living quarters, of places where machinery made soft whirring sounds; more sights than their eyes could see or their minds comprehend. They came at last to an open chamber.
The men looked up to see above them a tremendous inverted-cone, and there was the gold of cloudland glowing through an opening at the top. It was the inside of a volcano where they stood, and McGuire remembered the island and its volcanic peak where the ship had swerved aside. He felt that he knew now where they were.
Above them, a flash of light marked the passage of a ship over the crater's mouth, and he realized that the ships of the reds were not avoiding the island now. Did it mean an attack? And how could these new friends meet it?
Before them on the level volcanic floor were great machines that came suddenly to life, and their roar rose to a thunder of violence, while, in the center, a cluster of electric sparks like whirling stars formed a cloud of blue fire. It grew, and its hissing, crackling length reached upward to a fine-drawn point that touched the opening above.
"Follow!" commanded their leader and went rapidly before them where a passage wound and twisted to bring them at last to the light of day.
The flame of the golden clouds was above them in the midday sky, and beneath it were scores of ships that swept in formations through the air.
"Attacking?" asked the lieutenant with ill-concealed excitement.
"I fear so. They tried to gas us some centuries ago; it may be they have forgotten what we taught them then."
* * * * *
One squadron came downward and swept with inconceivable speed over a portion of the island that stretched below. The men were a short distance up on the mountain's side, and the scene that lay before them was crystal clear. There were billowing clouds of gas that spread over the land where the ships had passed. Other ships followed; they would blanket the island in gas.
The man beside them gave a sigh of regret. "They have struck the first blow," he said. He stood silent with half-closed eyes; then: "I have ordered resistance." And there was genuine sorrow and regret in his eyes as he looked toward the mountain top.
McGuire's eyes followed the other's gaze to find nothing at first save the volcanic peak in hard outline upon the background of gold; then only a shimmer as of heat about the lofty cone. The air above him quivered, formed to ripples that spread in great circles where the enemy ships were flashing away.
Swifter than swift aircraft, with a speed that shattered space, they reached out and touched—and the ships, at that touch, fell helplessly down from the heights. They turned awkwardly as they fell or dropped like huge pointed projectiles. And the waters below took them silently and buried in their depths all trace of what an instant sooner had been an argosy of the air.
The ripples ceased, again the air was clear and untroubled, but beneath the golden clouds was no single sign of life.
* * * * *
The flyer's breathless suspense ended in an explosive gasp. "What a washout!" he exclaimed, and again he thought only of this as a weapon to be used for his own ends. "Can we use that on their fleets?" he asked. "Why, man—they will never conquer the earth; they will never even make a start."
The tall figure of Djorn turned and looked at him. "The lust to kill!" he said sadly. "You still have it—though you are fighting for your own, which is some excuse.
"No, this will not destroy their fleets, for their fleets will not come here to be destroyed. It will be many centuries before ever again the aircraft of the reds dare venture near."
"We will build another one and take it where they are—" The voice of the fighting man was vibrant with sudden hope.
"We were two hundred years building and perfecting this," the other told him. "Can you wait that long?"
And Lieutenant McGuire, as he followed dejectedly behind the leader, heard nothing of Professor Sykes' eager questions as to how this miracle was done.
"Can you wait that long?" this man, Djorn, had asked. And the flyer saw plainly the answer that spelled death and destruction to the world.
The mountains of Nevada are not noted for their safe and easy landing places. But the motor of the plane that Captain Blake was piloting roared smoothly in the cool air while the man's eyes went searching, searching, for something, and he hardly knew what that something might be.
He went over again, as he had done a score of times, the remarks of Lieutenant McGuire. Mac had laughed that day when he told Blake of his experience.
"I was flying that transport," he had said, "and, boy! when one motor began to throw oil I knew I was out of luck. Nothing but rocky peaks and valleys full of trees as thick and as pointed as a porcupine's quills. Flying pretty high to maintain altitude with one motor out, so I just naturally had to find a place to set her down. I found it, too, though it seemed too good to be true off in that wilderness.
"A fine level spot, all smooth rock, except for a few clumps of grass, and just bumpy enough to make the landing interesting. But, say, Captain! I almost cracked up at that, I was so darn busy staring at something else.
"Off in some trees was a dirigible—Sure; go ahead and laugh; I didn't believe it either, and I was looking at it. But there had been a whale of a storm through there the day before, and it had knocked over some trees that had been screening the thing, and there it was!
"Well, I came to in time to pull up her nose and miss a rock or two, and then I started pronto for that valley of trees and the thing that was buried among them."
* * * * *
Captain Blake recalled the conversation word for word, though he had treated it jokingly at the time. McGuire had found the ship and a man—a half-crazed nut, so it seemed—living there all alone. And he wasn't a bit keen about Mac's learning of the ship. But leave it to Mac to get the facts—or what the old bird claimed were facts.
There was the body of a youngster there, a man of about Mac's age. He had fallen and been killed the day before, and the old man was half crazy with grief. Mac had dug a grave and helped bury the body, and after that the old fellow's story had come out.
He had been to the moon, he said. And this was a space ship. Wouldn't tell how it operated, and shut up like a clam when Mac asked if he had gone alone. The young chap had gone with him, it seemed, and the man wouldn't talk—just sat and stared out at the yellow mound where the youngster was buried.
Mac had told Blake how he argued with the man to prove up on his claims and make a fortune for himself. But no—fortunes didn't interest him. And there were some this-and-that and be-damned-to-'em people who would never get this invention—the dirty, thieving rats!
And Mac, while he laughed, had seemed half to believe it. Said the old cuss was so sincere, and he had nothing to sell. And—there was the ship! It never got there without being flown in, that was a cinch. And there wasn't a propellor on it nor a place for one—just open ports where a blast came out, or so the inventor said.
Captain Blake swung his ship on another slanting line and continued to comb the country for such marks as McGuire had seen. And one moment he told himself he was a fool to be on any such hunt, while the next thought would remind him that Mac had believed. And Mac had a level head, and he had radioed from Venus!
There was the thing that made anything seem possible. Mac had got a message through, across that space, and the enemy had ships that could do it. Why not this one?
And always his eyes were searching, searching, for a level rocky expanse and a tree-filled valley beyond, with something, it might be, shining there, unless the inventor had camouflaged it more carefully now.
* * * * *
It was later on the same day when Captain Blake's blocky figure climbed over the side of the cockpit. Tired? Yes! But who could think of cramped limbs and weary muscles when his plane was resting on a broad, level expanse of rock in the high Sierras and a sharp-cut valley showed thick with pines beyond. He could see the corner only of a rough log shack that protruded.
Blake scrambled over a natural rampart of broken stone and went swiftly toward the cabin. But he stopped abruptly at the sound of a harsh voice.
"Stop where you are," the voice ordered, "and stick up your hands! Then turn around and get back as fast as you can to that plane of yours." There was a glint of sunlight on a rifle barrel in the window of the cabin.
Captain Blake stopped, but he did not turn. "Are you Mr. Winslow?" he asked.
"That's nothing to you! Get out! Quick!"
Blake was thinking fast. Here was the man, without doubt—and he was hostile as an Apache; the man behind that harsh voice meant business. How could he reach him? The inspiration came at once. McGuire was the key.
"If you're Winslow," he called in a steady voice, "you don't want me to go away; you want to talk with me. There's a young friend of yours in a bad jam. You are the only one who can help."
"I haven't any friends," said the rasping voice: "I don't want any! Get out!"
"You had one," said the captain, "whether you wanted him or not. He believed in you—like the other young chap who went with you to the moon."
* * * * *
There was an audible gasp of dismay from the window beyond, and the barrel of the rifle made trembling flickerings in the sun.
"You mean the flyer?" asked the voice, and it seemed to have lost its harsher note. "The pleasant young fellow?"
"I mean McGuire, who helped give decent burial to your friend. And now he has been carried off—out into space—and you can help him. If you've a spark of decency in you, you will hear what I have to say."
The rifle vanished within the cabin; a door opened to frame a picture of a tall man. He was stooped; the years, or solitude, perhaps, had borne heavily upon him; his face was a mat of gray beard that was a continuation of the unkempt hair above. The rifle was still in his hand.
But he motioned to the waiting man, and "Come in!" he commanded. "I'll soon know if you're telling the truth. God help you if you're not.... Come in."
An hour was needed while the bearded man learned the truth. And Blake, too, picked up some facts. He learned to his great surprise that he was talking with an educated man, one who had spent a lifetime in scientific pursuits. And now, as the figure before him seemed more the scientist and less the crazed fabricator of wild fancies, the truth of his claims seemed not so remote.
Half demented now, beyond a doubt! A lifetime of disappointments and one invention after another stolen from him by those who knew more of law than of science. And now he held fortune in the secret of his ship—a secret which he swore should never be given to the world.
"Damn the world!" he snarled. "Did the world ever give anything to me? And what would they do with this? They would prostitute it to their own selfish ends; it would be just one more means to conquer and kill; and the capitalists would have it in their own dirty hands so that new lines of transportation beyond anything they dared dream would be theirs to exploit."
* * * * *
Blake, remembering the history of a commercial age, found no ready reply to that. But he told the man of McGuire and the things that had made him captive; he related what he, himself, had seen in the dark night on Mount Lawson, and he told of the fragmentary message that showed McGuire was still alive.
"There's only one way to save him," he urged. "If your ship is what you claim it is—and I believe you one hundred per cent—it is all that can save him from what will undoubtedly be a horrible death. Those things were monsters—inhuman!—and they have bombarded the earth. They will come back in less than a year and a half to destroy us."
Captain Blake would have said he was no debater, but the argument and persuasion that he used that night would have done credit to a Socrates. His opponent was difficult to convince, and not till the next day did the inventor show Blake his ship.
"Small," he said as he led the flyer toward it. "Designed just for the moon trip, and I had meant to go alone. But it served; it took us there and back again."
He threw open a door in the side of the metal cylinder. Blake stood back for only a moment to size up the machine, to observe its smooth duralumin shell and the rounded ends where portholes opened for the expelling of its driving blast. The door opening showed a thick wall that gave insulation. Blake followed the inventor to the interior of the ship.
* * * * *
The man had seen Winslow examining the thick walls. "It's cold out there, you know," he said, and smiled in recollection, "but the generator kept us warm." He pointed to a simple cylindrical casting aft of the ship's center part. It was massive, and braced to the framework of the ship to distribute a thrust that Blake knew must be tremendous. Heavy conduits took the blast that it produced and poured it from ports at bow and stern. There were other outlets, too, above and below and on the sides, and electric controls that were manipulated from a central board.
"You've got a ship," Blake admitted, "and it's a beauty. I know construction, and you've got it here. But what is the power? How do you drive it? What throws it out through space?"
"Aside from one other, you will be the only man ever to know." The bearded man was quiet now and earnest. The wild light had faded from his eyes, and he pondered gravely in making the last and final decision.
"Yes, you shall have it. It may be I have been mistaken. I have known people—some few—who were kindly and decent; I have let the others prejudice me. But there was one who was my companion—and there was McGuire, who was kind and who believed. And now you, who will give your life for a friend and to save humanity!... You shall have it. You shall have the ship! But I will not go with you. I want nothing of glory or fame, and I am too old to fight. My remaining years I choose to spend out here." He pointed where a window of heavy glass showed the outer world and a grave on a sloping hill.
* * * * *
"But you shall have full instructions. And, for the present, you may know that it is a continuous explosion that drives the ship. I have learned to decompose water into its components and split them into subatomic form. They reunite to give something other than matter. It is a liquid—liquid energy, though the term is inaccurate—that separates out in two forms, and a fluid ounce of each is the product of thousands of tons of water. The potential energy is all there. A current releases it; the energy components reunite to give matter again—hydrogen and oxygen gas. Combustion adds to their volume through heat.
"It is like firing a cannon in there,"—he pointed now to the massive generator—"a super-cannon of tremendous force and a cannon that fires continuously. The endless pressure of expansion gives the thrust that means a constant acceleration of motion out there where gravity is lost.
"You will note," he added, "that I said 'constant acceleration.' It means building up to speeds that are enormous."
Blake nodded in half-understanding.
"We will want bigger ships," he mused. "They must mount guns and be heavy enough to take the recoil. This is only a sample; we must design, experiment, build them! Can it be done? ... It must be done!" he concluded and turned to the inventor.
"We don't know much about those devils of the stars, and they may have means of attack beyond anything we can conceive, but there is just one way to learn: go up there and find out, and take a licking if we have to. Now, how about taking me up a mile or so in the air?"
* * * * *
The other smiled in self-deprecation. "I like a good fighter," he said; "I was never one myself. If I had been I would have accomplished more. Yes, you shall go up a mile or so in the air—and a thousand miles beyond." He turned to close the door and seal it fast.
Beside the instrument board he seated himself, and at his touch the generator of the ship came startlingly to life. It grumbled softly at first, then the hoarse sound swelled to a thunderous roar, while the metal grating surged up irresistibly beneath the captain's feet. His weight was intolerable. He sank helplessly to the floor....
Blake was white and shaken when he alighted from the ship an hour later, but his eyes were ablaze with excitement. He stopped to seize the tall man by the shoulders.
"I am only a poor devil of a flying man," he said, "but I am speaking for the whole world right now. You have saved us; you've furnished the means. It is up to us now. You've given us the right to hope that humanity can save itself, if humanity will do it. That's my next job—to convince them. We have less than a year and a half...."
* * * * *
There was one precious week wasted while Captain Blake chafed and waited for a conference to be arranged at Washington. A spirit of hopelessness had swept over the world—hopelessness and a mental sloth that killed every hope with the unanswerable argument: "What is the use? It is the end." But a meeting was arranged at Colonel Boynton's insistence, though his superiors scoffed at what he dared suggest.
Blake appeared before the meeting, and he told them what he knew—told it to the last detail, while he saw the looks of amusement or commiseration that passed from man to man.
There were scientists there who asked him coldly a question or two and shrugged a supercilious shoulder; ranking officers of both army and navy who openly excoriated Colonel Boynton for bringing them to hear the wild tale of a half-demented man. It was this that drove Blake to a cold frenzy.
The weeks of hopeless despair had worn his nerves to the breaking point, and now, with so much to be done, and so little time in which to do it, all requirements of official etiquette were swept aside as he leaped to his feet to face the unbelieving men.
"Damn it!" he shouted, "will you sit here now and quibble over what you think in your wisdom is possible or not. Get outside those doors—there's an open park beyond—and I'll knock your technicalities all to hell!"
The door slammed behind him before the words could be spoken to place him under arrest, and he tore across a velvet lawn to leap into a taxi.
There was a rising storm of indignant protest within the room that he had left. There were admirals, purple of face, who made heated remarks about the lack of discipline in the army, and generals who turned accusingly where the big figure of Colonel Boynton was still seated.
It was the Secretary of War who stilled the tumult and claimed the privilege of administering the rebuke which was so plainly needed. "Colonel Boynton," he said, and there was no effort to soften the cutting edge of sarcasm in his voice, "it was at your request and suggestion that this outrageous meeting was held. Have you any more requests or suggestions?"
The colonel rose slowly to his feet.
"Yes, Mr. Secretary," he said coldly, "I have. I know Captain Blake. He seldom makes promises; when he does he makes good. My suggestion is that you do what the gentleman said—step outside and see your technicalities knocked to hell." He moved unhurriedly toward the door.
* * * * *
It was a half-hour's wait, and one or two of the more openly skeptical had left when the first roar came faintly from above. Colonel Boynton led the others to the open ground before the building. "I have always found Blake a man of his word," he said quietly, and pointed upward where a tiny speck was falling from a cloud-flecked sky.
Captain Blake had had little training in the operation of the ship, but he had flown it across the land and had concealed it where fellow officers were sworn to secrecy. And he felt that he knew how to handle the controls.
But the drop from those terrible heights was a fearful thing, and it ended only a hundred feet above the heads of the cowering, shouting humans who crouched under the thunderous blast, where a great shell checked its vertical flight and rebounded to the skies.
Again and again the gleaming cylinder drove at them like a projectile from the mortars of the gods, and it roared and thundered through the air or turned to vanish with incredible speed straight up into the heights, to return and fall again ... until finally it hung motionless a foot above the grass from which the uniformed figures had fled. Only Colonel Boynton was there to greet the flyer as he laid his strange craft gently down.
"Nice little show, Captain," he said, while his broad face broke into the widest of grins. "A damn nice little show! But take that look off of your face. They'll listen to you now; they'll eat right out of your hand."
If Lieutenant McGuire could have erased from his mind the thought of the threat that hung over the earth he would have found nothing but intensest pleasure in the experiences that were his.
But night after night they had heard the reverberating echoes of the giant gun speeding its messenger of death toward the earth, and he saw as plainly as if he were there the terrible destruction that must come where the missiles struck. Gas, of course; that seemed the chief and only weapon of these monsters, and Djorn, the elected leader of the Venus folk, confirmed him in this surmise.
"We had many gases," he told McGuire, "but we used them for good ends. You people of Earth—or these invaders, if they conquer Earth—must some day engage in a war more terrible than wars between men. The insects are your greatest foe. With a developing civilization goes the multiplication of insect and bacterial life. We used the gases for that war, and we made this world a heaven." He sighed regretfully for his lost world.
"These red ones found them, and our factories for making them. But they have no gift for working out or mastering the other means we had for our defense—the electronic projectors, the creation of tremendous magnetic fields: you saw one when we destroyed the attacking ships. Our scientists had gone far—"
"I wish to Heaven you had some of them to use now," said the lieutenant savagely, and the girl, Althora, standing near, smiled in sympathy for the flyer's distress. But her brother, Djorn, only murmured: "The lust to kill: that is something to be overcome."
The fatalistic resignation of these folk was disturbing to a man of action like McGuire. His eyes narrowed, and his lips were set for an abrupt retort when Althora intervened.
"Come," she said, and took the flyer's hand. "It is time for food."
* * * * *
She took him to the living quarters occupied by her brother and herself, where opal walls and jewelled inlays were made lovely by the soft light that flooded the rooms.
"Just one tablet," she said, and brought him a thin white disc, "then plenty of water. You must take this compressed food often and in small quantities till your system is accustomed."
"You make this?" he asked.
"But certainly. Our chemists are learned men. We should lack for food, otherwise, here in our underground home."
He let the tablet dissolve in his mouth. Althora leaned forward to touch his hand gently.
"I am sorry," she said, "that you and Djorn fail to understand one another. He is good—so good! But you—you, too, are good, and you fear for the safety of your own people."
"They will be killed to the last woman and child," he replied, "or they will be captured, which will be worse."
"I understand," she told him, and pressed his hand; "and if I can help, Lieutenant Mack Guire, I shall be so glad."
He smiled at her stilted pronunciation of his name. He had had the girl for an almost constant companion since his arrival; the sexes, he found, were on a level of mutual freedom, and the girl's companionship was offered and her friendship expressed as openly as might have been that of a youth. Of Sykes he saw little; Professor Sykes was deep in astronomical discussions with the scientists of this world.
But she was charming, this girl of a strange race so like his own. A skin from the velvet heart of a rose and eyes that looked deep into his and into his mind when he permitted; eyes, too, that could crinkle to ready laughter or grow misty when she sang those weird melodies of such thrilling sweetness.
Only for the remembrance of Earth and the horrible feeling of impotent fury, Lieutenant McGuire would have found much to occupy his thoughts in this loveliest of companions.
* * * * *
He laughed now at the sounding of his name, and the girl laughed with him.
"But it is your name, is it not?" she asked.
"Lieutenant Thomas McGuire," he repeated, "and those who like me call me 'Mac.'"
"Mac," she repeated. "But that is so short and hard sounding. And what do those who love you say?"
The flyer grinned cheerfully. "There aren't many who could qualify in that respect, but if there were they would call me Tommy."
"That is better," said Althora with engaging directness; "that is much better—Tommy." Then she sprang to her feet and hurried him out where some further wonders must be seen and exclaimed over without delay. But Lieutenant McGuire saw the pink flush that crept into her face, and his own heart responded to the telltale betrayal of her feeling for him. For never in his young and eventful life had the man found anyone who seemed so entirely one with himself as did this lovely girl from a distant star.
He followed where she went dancing on her way, but not for long could his mind be led away from the menace he could not forget. And on this day, as on many days to come, he struggled and racked his brain to find some way in which he could thwart the enemy and avert or delay their stroke.
* * * * *
It was another day, and they were some months on their long journey away from the earth when an inspiration came. Althora had offered to help, and he knew well how gladly she would aid him; the feeling between them had flowered into open, if unspoken love. Not that he would subject her to any danger—he himself would take all of that when it came—but meanwhile—
"Althora," he asked her, "can you project your mind into that of one of the reds?"
"I could, easily," she replied, "but it would not be pleasant. Their minds are horrible; they reek of evil things." She shuddered at the thought, but the man persisted.
"But if you could help, would you be willing? I can do so little; I can never stop them; but I may save my people from some suffering at least. Here is my idea:
"Djorn tells me that I had it figured right: they plan an invasion of the earth when next the two planets approach. He has told me of their armies and their fleets of ships that will set off into space. I can't prevent it; I am helpless! But if I knew what their leader was thinking—"
"Torg!" she exclaimed. "You want to know the mind of that beast of beasts!"
"Yes," said the man. "It might be of value. Particularly if I could know something of their great gun—where it is and what it is—well, I might do something about that."
The girl averted her eyes from the savage determination on his face. "No—no!" she exclaimed; "I could not. Not Torg!"
McGuire's own face fell at the realization of the enormity of this favor he had demanded. "That's all right," he said and held her soft hand in his; "just forget it. I shouldn't have asked."
But she whispered as she turned to walk away: "I must think, I must think. You ask much of me, Tommy; but oh, Tommy, I would do much for you!" She was sobbing softly as she ran swiftly away.
And the man in khaki—this flyer of a distant air-service—strode blindly off to rage and fume at his helplessness and his inability to strike one blow at those beings who lived in that world above.
* * * * *
There were countless rooms and passages where the work of the world below went on. There were men and women whose artistic ability found outlet in carvings and sculpture, chemists and others whose work was the making of foods and endless experimentation, some thousand of men and women in the strength of their endless youth, who worked for the love of the doing and lived contentedly and happily while they waited for the day of their liberation. But of fighters there were none, and for this Lieutenant McGuire grieved wholeheartedly.
He was striding swiftly along where a corridor ended in blackness ahead. There was a gleaming machine on the floor beside him when a hand clutched at his arm and a warning voice exclaimed: "No further, Lieutenant McGuire; you must not go!"
"Why?" questioned the lieutenant. "I've got to walk—do something to keep from this damnable futile thinking."
"But not there," said the other; "it is a place of death. Ten paces more and you would have vanished in a flicker of flame. The projector"—he touched the mechanism beside them—"is always on. Our caves extend in an endless succession; they join with the labyrinth where the red ones used to live. They could attack us but for this. Nothing can live in its invisible ray; they are placed at all such entrances."
"Yet Djorn," McGuire told himself slowly, "said they had no weapons. He knows nothing of war. But, great heavens! what wouldn't I give for a regiment of scrappers—good husky boys with their faces tanned and a spark in their eyes and their gas masks on their chests. With a regiment, and equipment like this—"
And again he realized the futility of armament with none to serve and direct it.
* * * * *
It was a month or more before Althora consented to the tests. Djorn advised against it and made his protest emphatic, but here, as in all things, Althora was a free agent. It was her right to do as she saw fit, and there was none to prevent in this small world where individual liberty was unquestioned.
And it was still longer before she could get anything of importance. The experiments were racking to her nerves, and McGuire, seeing the terrible strain upon her, begged her to stop. But Althora had gained the vision that was always before her loved one's eyes—a world of death and disaster—and he, here where the bolt would be launched, and powerless to prevent. She could not be dissuaded now.
It was a proud day for Althora when she sent for McGuire, and he found her lying at rest, eyes closed in her young face that was lined and tortured with the mental horror she was contacting. She silenced his protests with a word.
"The gun," she whispered; "they are talking about the gun ... and the bombardment ... planning...."
More silent concentration. Then:
"The inland of Bergo," she said, "—remember that! The gun is there ... a great bore in the earth ... solid rock ... but the casing of titanite must be reinforced ... and bands shrunk about the muzzle that projects ... heavy bands ... it shows signs of distortion—the heat!..."
She was listening to the thoughts, and selecting those that bore upon gun.
"... Only fifty days ... the bombardment must begin ... Tahnor has provided a hundred shells; two thousand tals of the green gas-powder in each one ... the explosive charges ready ... yes—yes!..."
"Oh!" she exclaimed and opened her troubled eyes. "The beast is so complacent, so sure! And the bombardment will begin in fifty days! Will it really cause them anguish on your Earth, Tommy?"
"Just plain hell; that's all!"
McGuire's voice was low; his mind was reaching out to find and reject one plan after another. The gun!... He must disable it; he could do that much at least. For himself—well, what of it?—he would die, of course.
The guard he had been taught to place about his own thoughts must have relaxed, for Althora cried out in distress.
"No—no!" she protested; "you shall not! I have tried to help you, Tommy dear—say that I have helped you!—but, oh, my beloved, do not go. Do not risk your life to silence this one weapon. They would still have their ships. Remember what Djorn has told of their mighty fleets, their thousands of fighting men. You cannot stop them; you can hardly hinder them. And you would throw away your life! Oh, please do not go!"
McGuire was seated beside her. His face was hidden in one hand while the other was held tight between the white palms of Althora's tense hands. He said nothing, and he shielded his eyes and locked his mind against her thought force.
"Tommy," said Althora, and now her voice was all love and softness, "Tommy, my dear one! You will not go, for what can you do? And if you stay—oh, my dear!—you can have what you will—the secret of life shall be yours—to live forever in perpetual youth. You may have that. And me, Tommy.... Would you throw your life away in a hopeless attempt, when life might hold so much? Am I offering so little, Tommy?"
And still the silence and the hand that kept the eyes from meeting hers; then a long-drawn breath and a slim figure in khaki that stood unconsciously erect to look, not at the girl, but out beyond the solid walls, through millions of miles of space, to the helpless speck called Earth.
"You offer me heaven, my dear," he spoke softly. "But sometimes"—and his lips twisted into a ghost of a smile—"sometimes, to earn our heaven, we have to fight like hell. And, if we fail to make the fight, what heaven worth having is left?
"And the people," he said softly; "the homes in the cities and towns and villages. My dear, that's part of loving a soldier: you can never own him altogether; his allegiance is divided. And if I failed my own folk what right would I have to you?"
* * * * *
He dared to look at the girl who lay before him. That other vision was gone but he had seen a clear course charted, and now, with his mind at rest, he could smile happily at the girl who was looking up at him through her tears.
She rose slowly to her feet and stood before him to lay firm hands upon his shoulders. She was almost as tall as he, and her eyes, that had shaken off their tears but for a dewy fringe, looked deep and straight into his.
"We have thought," she said slowly, "we people of this world, that we were superior to you and yours; we have accepted you as someone a shade below our plane of advancement. Yes, we have dared to believe that. But I know better. We have gone far, Tommy, we people of this star; we have lived long. Yet I am wondering if we have lost some virtues that are the heritage of a sterner race.
"But I am learning, Tommy; I am so thankful that I can learn and that I have had you to teach me. We will go together, you and I. We will fight our fight, and, the Great One willing, we will earn our heaven or find it elsewhere—together."
She leaned forward to kiss the tall man squarely upon the lips with her own soft rose-petal lips that clung and clung ... and the reply of Lieutenant McGuire, while it was entirely wordless, seemed eminently satisfactory.
* * * * *
Althora, the beautiful daughter of Venus, had the charm and allure of her planet's fabled namesake. But she thought like a man and she planned like a man. And there was no dissuading her from her course. She was to fight beside McGuire—that was her intention—and beyond that there was no value in argument. McGuire was forced to accept the insistent aid, and he needed help.
Sykes dropped his delving into astronomical lore and answered to the call, but there was no other assistance. Only the three, McGuire, Althora and Sykes. There were some who would agree to pilot the submarine that was being outfitted, but they would have no part in the venture beyond transporting the participants.
More than once McGuire paused to curse silently at the complaisance of this people. What could he not do if they would help. Ten companies of trained men, armed with their deadly electronic projectors that disintegrated any living thing they reached—and he would clutch at his tousled hair and realize that they were only three, and go grimly back to work.
"I don't know what we can do till we get there," he told Sykes. "Here we are, and there is the gun: that is all we know, except that the thing must be tremendous and our only hope is that there is some firing mechanism that we can destroy. The gun itself is a great drilling in the solid rock, lined with one of their steel alloys, and with a big barrel extending up into the air: Althora has learned that.
"They went deep into the rock and set the firing chamber there; it's heavy enough to stand the stress. They use a gas-powder, as Althora calls it, for the charge, and the same stuff but deadlier is in the shell. But they must have underground workings for loading and firing. Is there a chance for us to get in there, I wonder! There's the big barrel that projects. We might ... but no!—that's too big for us to tackle, I'm afraid."
"How about that electronic projector on the submarine?" Sykes suggested. "Remember how it melted out the heart of that big ship? We could do a lot with that."
"Not a chance! Djorn and the others have strictly forbidden the men to turn it on the enemy since they have given no offense.
"No offense!" he repeated, and added a few explosive remarks.
"No, it looks like a case of get there and do what dirty work we can to their mechanism before they pot us—and that's that!"
* * * * *
But Sykes was directing his thoughts along another path.
"I wonder ..." he mused; "it might be done: they have laboratories."
"What are you talking about? For the love of heaven, man, if you're got an idea, let's have it. I'm desperate."
"Nitrators!" said the scientist. "I have been getting on pretty good terms with the scientific crowd here, and I've seen some mighty pretty manufacturing laboratories. And they have equipment that was never meant for the manufacture of nitro-explosives, but, with a few modifications—yes, I think it could be done."
"You mean nitro-glycerine? TNT?"
"Something like that. Depends upon what materials we can get to start with."
The lieutenant was pounding his companion upon the back and shouting his joy at this faintest echo of encouragement.
"We'll plant it alongside the gun—No, we'll get into their working underground. We'll blow their equipment into scrap-iron, and perhaps we can even damage the gun itself!" He was almost beside himself with excitement at thought of a weapon being placed in his straining helpless hands.
* * * * *
It was the earth-shaking thunder of the big gun that hastened their final preparations and made McGuire tremble with suppressed excitement where he helped Sykes to draw off a syrupy liquid into heavy crystal flasks.
There were many of these, and the two men would allow no others to touch them, but stored them themselves and nested each one in a soft bed within the submarine. Then one last repetition of their half-formed plans to Djorn and his followers and a rush toward the wharf where the submarine was waiting.
Althora was waiting, too, and McGuire wasted minutes in a petition that he knew was futile.
"Wait here, Althora," he begged. "I will come back; this is no venture for you to undertake. I can take my chances with them, but you—! It is no place for you," he concluded lamely.
"There is no other place for me," she said; "only where you are." And she led the way while the others followed into the lighted control room of the big under-water craft.
McGuire's eyes were misty with a blurring of tears that were partly from excitement, but more from a feeling of helpless remonstrance that was mingled with pure pride. And his lips were set in a straight line.
The magnetic pull that held them to their anchorage was reversed; the ship beneath them was slipping smoothly beneath the surface and out to sea, guided through its tortuous windings of water-worn caves and rocky chambers under the sea by the invisible electric cords that drew it where they would.
And ahead on some mysterious island was a gun, a thing of size and power beyond anything of Earth. He was going to spike that gun if it was the last act of his life; and Althora was going with him. He drew her slim body to him, while his eyes stared blindly, hopefully, toward what the future held.
Throughout the night they drove hour after hour at terrific speed. The ship was running submerged, for McGuire was taking no slightest chance of their being observed from the air. He and the others slept at times, for the crew that handled the craft very evidently knew the exact course, and there were mechanical devices that insured their safety. A ray was projected continuously ahead of them; it would reflect back and give on an indicator instant warning of any derelict or obstruction. Another row of quivering needles gave by the same method the soundings from far ahead.
But the uncertainty of what their tomorrow might hold and the worry and dread lest he find himself unable to damage the big gun made real rest impossible for McGuire.
But he was happy and buoyant with hope when, at last, the green light from the ports showed that the sun was shining up above, and the slackening drive of the submarine's powerful motors told that their objective was in sight.
They lay quietly at last while a periscope of super-sensitiveness was thrust cautiously above the water. It brought in a panoramic view of the shoreline ahead, amplified it and projected the picture in clear-cut detail upon a screen. If Lieutenant McGuire had stood on the wet deck above and looked directly at the island the sight could have been no clearer. The colors of torn and blasted tree-growths showed in all their pale shades, and there was stereoscopic depth to the picture that gave no misleading illusions as to distance.
The shore was there with the white spray of breakers on a rocky shoal, and a beach beyond. And beyond that, in hard outline against a golden sky, was a gigantic tube that stood vertically in air to reach beyond the upper limits of the periscope's vision.
* * * * *
McGuire tingled at the sight. To be within reach of this weapon that had sent those blasting, devastating missiles upon the earth! He paced back and forth in the small room to stop and stare again, and resume his pacing that helped to while away the hours they must wait. For there were man-shapes swarming over the land, and the dull, blood-red of their loose uniforms marked them as members of the fighting force spawned by this prolific breed.
"Not a chance until they're out of the picture," said the impatient man; "they would snow us under. It's just as I thought: we must wait until the gun is ready to fire; then they will beat it. They won't want to be around when that big boy cuts loose."
"And then?" asked Althora.
"Then Sykes and I will take our collection of gallon flasks ashore, and I sure hope we don't stumble." He grinned cheerfully at the girl.
"That reinforced concrete dome seems to be where they get down into the ground; it is close to the base of the gun. We will go there—blow it open if we have to—but manage in some way to get down below. Then a time-fuse on the charge, and the boat will take me off, and we will leave as fast as these motors can drive us."
He omitted to mention any possible danger to Sykes and himself in the handling of their own explosive, and he added casually, "You will stay here and see that there is no slip-up on the getaway."
He had to translate the last remark into language the girl could understand. But Althora shook her head.
"You do try so hard to get rid of me, Tommy," the laughed, "but it is no use. I am going with you—do not argue—and I will help you with the attack. Three will work faster than two—and I am going."
McGuire was silent, then nodded his assent. He was learning, this Earth-man, what individual freedom really meant.
* * * * *
Only the western sky showed golden masses on the shining screen when McGuire spoke softly to the captain:
"Your men will put us ashore; you may ask them to stand by now." And to Professor Sykes, "Better get that 'soup' of yours ready to load."
The red-clad figures were growing dim on the screen, and the blotches of colors that showed where they were grouped were few. Some there were who left such groups to flee precipitately toward a waiting airship.
This was something the lieutenant had not foreseen. He had expected that the force that served the gun would have some shock-proof shelter; he had not anticipated a fighting ship to take them away.
"That's good," he exulted; "that is a lucky break. If they just get out of sight we will have the place to ourselves."
There were no red patches on the screen now, and the picture thrown before them showed the big ship, its markings of red and white distinct even in the shadow-light of late afternoon, rising slowly into the air. It gathered speed marvelously and vanished to a speck beyond the land.
"We're getting the breaks," said McGuire crisply. "All right—let's go!"
The submarine rose smoothly, and the sealed doors in the superstructure were opened while yet there was water to come trickling in. Men came with a roll of cloth that spread open to the shape of a small boat, while a metal frame expanded within it to hold it taut.
McGuire gasped with dismay as a seaman launched it and leaped heavily into the frail shell to attach a motor to one end.
"Metal!" the captain reassured him; "woven metal, and water-tight! You could not pierce it with anything less than a projector."
* * * * *
Sykes was ready with one of the crystal flasks as the boat was brought alongside, and McGuire followed with another. They took ten of the harmless-looking containers, and both men held their breaths as the boat grounded roughly on the boulder-strewn shore.
They lifted them out and bedded them in the sand, then returned to the submarine. This time Althora, too, stepped into the boat. They loaded in the balance of the containers; the motor purred. Another landing, and they stood at last on the island, where a mammoth tube towered into the sky and the means for its destruction was at their feet.
But there was little time; already the light was dimming, and the time for the firing of the big weapon was drawing near. The men worked like mad to carry the flasks to the base of the gun, where a dome of concrete marked the entrance to the rooms below.
Each man held a flask of the deadly fluid when Althora led the way where stairs went deep down into the earth under the domed roof. This part of the work had been foreseen, and the girl held a slender cylinder that threw a beam of light, intensely bright.
They found a surprising simplicity in the arrangements underground. Two rooms only had been carved from the solid rock, and one of these ended in a wall of gray metal that could be only the great base of the gun. But nowhere was a complication of mechanism that might be damaged or destroyed, nor any wiring or firing device.
A round door showed sharp edges in the gray metal, but only the strength of many men could have removed its huge bolts, and these two knew there must be other doors to seal in the mighty charge.
"Not a wire!" the scientist exclaimed. "How do they fire it?" The answer came to him with the question.
"Radio, of course; and the receiving set is in the charge itself; the barrel of the gun is its own antenna. They must fire it from a distance—back on the island where we were, perhaps. It would need to be accurately timed."
"Come on!" shouted McGuire, and raised the flask of explosive to his shoulder.
* * * * *
Each one knew the need for haste; each waited every moment for the terrible blast of gun-fire that would jar their bodies to a lifeless pulp or, by detonating their own explosive, destroy them utterly. But they carried the flasks again to the top, and the three of them worked breathlessly to place their whole supply where McGuire directed.
The massive barrel of the gun was beside them; it was held in tremendous castings of metal that bolted to anchorage in the ground. One great brace had an overhanging flange; the explosive was placed beneath it.
Professor Sykes had come prepared. He attached a detonator to one of the flasks, and while the other two were placing the explosive in position he fastened two wires to the apparatus with steady but hurrying fingers; then at full speed he ran with the spool from which the wires unwound.
McGuire and Althora were behind him, running for the questionable safety of the sand-hills. Sykes stopped in the shelter of a tiny valley where winds had heaped the sand.
"Down!" he shouted. "Get down—behind that sand dune, there!"
He dropped beside them, the bared ends of the wires in his hands. There was a battery, too, a case no larger than his hands. Professor Sykes, it appeared, had gained some few concessions from his friends, who had learned to respect him in the field of science.
One breathless moment he waited; then—
"Now!" he whispered, and touched the battery's terminals with the bare wires.
* * * * *
To McGuire it seemed, in that instant of shattering chaos, that the great gun itself must have fired. He had known the jar of heavy artillery at close range; he had had experience with explosives. He had even been near when a government arsenal had thrown the countryside into a hell of jarring, ear-splitting pandemonium. But the concussion that shook the earth under him now was like nothing he had known.
The hill of sand that sheltered them vanished to sweep in a sheet above their heads. And the air struck down with terrific weight, then left them in an airless void that seemed to make their bodies swell and explode. It rushed back in a whirling gale to sweep showers of sand and pebbles over the helpless forms of the three who lay battered and stunned.
An instant that was like an age; then the scientist pointed with a weak and trembling hand where a towering spire of metallic gray leaned slowly in the air. So slowly it moved, to the eyes of the watchers—a great arc of gathering force and speed that shattered the ground where it struck.
"The gun!" was all that the still-dazed lieutenant could say. "The—the gun!" And he fell to shivering uncontrollably, while tears of pure happiness streamed down his face.
The mammoth siege gun—the only weapon for bombardment of the helpless Earth—was a mass of useless metal, a futile thing that lay twisted and battered on the sands of the sea.
* * * * *
The submarine now showed at a distance; it had withdrawn, by prearrangement, to the shelter of the deeper water. McGuire looked carefully at the watch on his wrist, and listened to make certain that the explosion had not stopped it. Sykes had told him the length of the Venusian day—twenty hours and nineteen minutes of Earth time, and he had made his calculations from the day of the Venusians. And, morning and night, McGuire had set his watch back and had learned to make a rough approximation of the time of that world.
The watch now said five-thirteen, and the sun was almost gone; a line of gold in the western sky; and McGuire knew that it was a matter only of minutes till the blast of the big gun would rock the island. One heavy section of the great barrel was resting upon the shattered base, and McGuire realized that this blocking of the monster's throat must mean it would tear itself and the island around it to fragments when it fired. He ran toward the beach and waved his arms wildly in air to urge on the speeding craft that showed dim and vague across the heaving sea.
It drove swiftly toward them and stopped for the launching of the little boat. There was a delay, and McGuire stood quivering with impatience where the others, too, watched the huddle of figures on the submarine's deck.
It was Althora who first sensed their danger. Her voice was shrill with terror as she seized McGuire's arm and pointed landward.
"Tommy—Tommy!" she said. "They are coming! I saw them!"
* * * * *
A swarming of red figures over the nearby dunes gave quick confirmation of her words. McGuire looked about him for a weapon—anything to add efficiency to his bare hands—and the swarm was upon them as he looked.
He leaped quickly between Althora and the nearest figures that stretched out grasping hands, and a red face went white under the smashing impact of the flyer's fist.
They poured over the sand-hills now—-scores of leaping man-shapes—and McGuire knew in an instant of self-accusation that there had been a shelter after all, where a portion of the enemy force had stayed. The explosion had brought them, and now—
He struck in a raging frenzy at the grotesque things that came racing upon them. He knew Sykes was fighting too. He tore wildly at the lean arms that bound him and kept him from those a step or two away who were throwing the figure of a girl across the shoulders of one of their men, while her eyes turned hopelessly toward McGuire.
They threw the two men upon the sand and crowded to kneel on the prostrate bodies and strike and tear with their long hands, then tied them at ankles and wrists with metal cords, and raised them helpless and bound in the air.
One of the red creatures pointed a long arm toward the demolished gun and shrieked something in a terror-filled tone. The others, at the sound, raced off through the sand, while those with the burden of the three captives followed as best they could.
"The gun!" said Professor Sykes in a thick voice: the words were jolted out of him as the two who carried him staggered and ran. "They know—that it—hasn't—gone off—"
* * * * *
The straggling troop that strung out across the dim-lit dunes was approaching another domed shelter of heavy concrete. They crowded inside, and the bodies of the three were thrown roughly to the floor, while the red creatures made desperate haste to close the heavy door. Then down they went into the deeper safety of a subterranean room, where the massive walls about them quivered to a nerve-deadening jar. It shook those standing to the floor, and the silence that followed was changed to a bedlam by the inhuman shrieking of the creatures who were gloating over their safety and the capture they had achieved. They leaped and capered in a maniacal outburst and ceased only at the shrill order of one who was in command.
At his direction the three were carried out of doors and thrown upon the ground. McGuire turned his head to see the face of Althora. There was blood trickling from a cut on her temple, and her eyes were dazed and blurred, but she managed a trembling smile for the anxious eyes of the man who could only struggle hopelessly against the thin wires that held him.
Althora hurt! Bound with those cutting metal cords! Althora—in such beastly hands! He groaned aloud at the thought.
"You should never have come; I should never have let you. I have got you into this!" He groaned again in an agony of self-reproach, then lay silent and waited for what must come. And the answer to his speculations came from the night above, where the lights of a ship marked the approach of an enemy craft.
* * * * *
The ships of the red race could travel fast, as McGuire knew, but the air monster whose shining, pointed beak hung above them where they lay helpless in the torturing bonds of fine wire, was to give him a new conception of speed.
It shot to the five thousand-foot level, when the captives were safe aboard, and the dark air shrieked like a tortured animal where the steel shell tore it to tatters. And the radio, in an adjoining room, never ceased in its sputtering, changing song.
The destruction of the Earth-bombarding gun! The capture of the two Earth-men who had dared to fight back! And a captive woman of the dreaded race of true Venusians! There was excitement and news enough for one world. And the discordant singing of the radio was sounding in the ears of the leaders of that world.
They were waiting on the platform in the great hall where Sykes and McGuire had stood, and their basilisk eyes glared unwinkingly down at the three who were thrown at their feet.
The leader of them all, Torg himself, arose from his ornate throne and strode forward for a closer view of the trophies his huntsmen had brought in. A whistled word from him and the wires that had bound Althora's slim ankles were cut, while a red-robed warrior dragged her roughly to her feet to stand trembling and swaying as the blood shot cruelly through her cramped limbs.
Torg's eyes to McGuire were those of a devil feasting on human flesh, as he stared appraisingly and gloatingly at the girl who tried vainly to return the look without flinching. He spoke for a moment in a harsh tone, and the seated councilors echoed his weird notes approvingly.
"What does he say?" McGuire implored, though he knew there could be nothing of good in that abominable voice. "What does he say, Althora?"
* * * * *
The face that turned slowly to him was drained of the last vestige of color. "I—do not—know," she said in a whisper scarcely audible; "but he thinks—terrible things!"
She seemed speaking of some nightmare vision as she added haltingly, "There is a fleet of many ships, and Torg is in command. He has thousands of men, and he goes forth to conquer your Earth. He goes there to rule." She had to struggle to bring the words to her lips now. "And—he takes me—with—him!"
"No—no!" the flyer protested, and he struggled insanely to free his hands from the wires that cut the deeper into his flesh. The voice of Althora, clear and strong now, brought him back.
"I shall never go, Tommy; never! The gift of eternal life is mine, but it is mine to keep only if I will. But, for you and your friend—" She tried to raise her hands to her trembling lips.
"Yes," said Lieutenant McGuire quietly, "for us—?"
But there were some things the soft lips of Althora refused to say. Again she tried vainly to raise her hands, then turned her white, stricken face that a loved one might not see the tears that were mingling with the blood-stains on her cheeks, nor read in her eyes the horror they beheld.
But she found one crumb of comfort for the two doomed men.
"You will live till the sailing of the ships, Tommy," she choked, "and then—we will go together, Tommy—you and I."
Her head was bowed and her shoulders shaking, but she raised her head proudly erect as she was seized by a guard whose blood-red hands forced her from the room.
And the dry, straining eyes of Lieutenant McGuire, that watched her going, saw the passing to an unknown fate of all he held dear, and the end of his unspoken dreams.
He scarcely felt the grip of the hands that seized him, nor knew when he and Sykes were carried from the room where Torg, the Emperor, held his savage court. The stone walls of the room where they were thrown could not hold his eyes; they looked through and beyond to see only the white and piteous face of a girl whose lips were whispering: "We will go together, Tommy—you and I."
(Concluded in the next issue)
MYSTERIOUS CARLSBAD CAVERN
The largest cavern ever discovered, at Carlsbad Cavern, N. M., is soon going to be explored.
Carlsbad Cavern is so large that that three sky-scrapers a half-mile apart could be built in the largest of its innumerable "rooms," according to Mr. Nicholson, who was there once before, about a year ago. Only 22 miles of the cavern's apparently limitless tunnels have been explored, revealing such natural beauties that President Coolidge established it as a national monument.
The stalagmites in the cavern tower 100 feet high. The age of the cavern was put at 60,000,000 years by Dr. Willis T. Lee of the National Geographic Society, after his survey three years ago.
The caverns were discovered fifteen years ago by a New Mexican cowboy named Jim White, according to Mr. Nicholson. White was riding across a desert waste one day when he saw what appeared to be smoke from a volcano. After riding three hours in the direction of the smoke he discovered that it was an enormous cloud of bats issuing from the mouth of a gigantic cavern. He decided the cavern deserved exploration, and a few years later he and a Mexican boy were lowered in a barrel over the 750-foot cliff which overhangs the cavern.
The stalagmites of the cavern, according to Mr. Nicholson, are very vibrant and resonant. One can play a "xylophone solo" on them with practice, he said, but it is dangerous, since a certain pitch would crack them.
The temperature of the cavern is 56 degrees Fahrenheit, never varies, day and night, winter and summer. The air is purified every twenty-four hours in some mysterious fashion, though there are no air currents. This is explained by the theory that there exists a great subterranean stream at a lower level, probably 1,200 feet down.
Specimens of stalagmites will be collected and reconstructed for the American Museum of Natural History. The explorers expect to find also flying fish, flying salamanders, rare insects and thousands of bats. A Government representative will go along, and drawings and motion pictures will be made.
The Readers' Corner
A Meeting Place for Readers of ASTOUNDING STORIES
A Letter and Comment
Three or four times in the year we have been issuing Astounding Stories the Editor has received letters calling attention to fancied scientific errors in our stories. All these letters were published, but until now we have not cut in on the space of "The Readers' Corner" to answer such objections because they were very obviously the result of hasty or inaccurate readings.
The other week one more such letter reached us—from Mr. Philip Waite, this time—claiming that there was "an atrocious flaw" in two stories of Captain S. P. Meek's. This we could not let go unanswered, first because of the strong terms used, and second because the objection would sound to many like a true criticism; so we turned the letter over to Captain Meek, and his answer follows Mr. Waite's letter below.
We welcome criticism of stories in our "The Readers' Corner." Never yet have we withheld from it any criticism or brickbats of importance—and we never intend to. But space is limited; there's not room now for all the good letters that come in; and we do not want to intrude too much with editorial comment. Therefore when we do not stop and answer all criticisms we are not necessarily admitting they are valid. In most cases everyone will quickly see their lack of logic or accuracy, and in the rest we will ask you to remember that our Staff is meticulously careful about the scientific facts and laws and possibilities that enter our stories, so it's extremely unlikely that anything very "atrocious" will get by.
Well, we'd better cut short now, before we take up too much "Corner" room. But first, thanks to Captain Meek for going to the trouble of defending two stories that needed no defense. And thanks, too, to Mr. Waite, for his kindness in writing in to inform us of what he thought—unquestionably because of hasty reading—were errors.—The Editor.
P. S. (Now we'll have to be super careful of our science, for if Mr. Waite ever gets anything on us—!!)
Just a note to tell you to keep up the good work. There was an atrocious flaw, however, in the two stories by Capt. S. P. Meek about the Heaviside Layer. How, may I ask, do meteors penetrate through that imaginary substance which is too much for a powerful space flyer? Also, how about refraction? A substance denser than air would produce refraction that would have been noticed long ago. I don't mind minor errors, but an author has no right to ignore the facts so outrageously. Fiction goes too far when an author can invent such false conditions.
In the latest issue "Stolen Brains" was fine, up to the Dr. Bird standard. "The Invisible Death" was good enough, but too much like the general run to be noteworthy. "Prisoners on the Electron"—couldn't stomach it. Too hackneyed. "Jetta of the Lowlands," by Ray Cummings; nuff said. "An Extra Man"—original idea and perfectly written. One of the reasons I hang on to Science Fiction. A perfect gem.—Philip Waite, 3400 Wayne Ave., New York, N. Y.
May I use enough space in your discussion columns to reply briefly to the objections raised to the science in my two stories, "Beyond the Heaviside Layer" and "The Attack from Space"? Understand that I am not arguing that there actually is a thick wall of semi-plastic material surrounding the earth through which a space flyer could not pass. If I did, I would automatically bar myself from writing interplanetary stories, a thing that is far from my desires. I do wish to point out, however, that such a layer might exist, so far as we at present know. The objections to which I wish to reply are two: first, "How do meteors pass through that imaginary substance which is too much for a powerful space flyer?" and second, "How about refraction?"
To reply to the first we must consider two things, kinetic energy and resistance to the passage of a body. The kinetic energy of a moving body is represented by the formula 1/2 mv^2 where m is the mass of the body and v the velocity. The resistance of a substance to penetration of a body is expressed by the formula A fc where A is the area of the body in contact with the resisting medium and fc is the coefficient of sliding friction between the penetrating body and the resisting medium. Consider first the space flyer. To hold personnel the flyer must be hollow. In other words, m must be small as compared to A. A meteor, on the other hand, is solid and dense with a relatively large m and small A. Given a meteor and a space flyer of the same weight, the volume of the meteor would be much smaller, and as the area in contact with the resisting medium is a function of volume, the total resistance to be overcome by the space flyer would be much greater than that to be overcome by the meteor. Again, consider the relative velocities of a meteor and a space flyer coming from the earth toward the heaviside layer. The meteor from space would have an enormous velocity, so great that if it got into even very rare air, it would become incandescent. As it must go through dense air, the space flyer could attain only a relatively low velocity before it reached the layer. Remember that the velocity is squared. A one thousand pound meteor flying with a velocity 100 times that of the space ship would have 100^2 or 10,000 times the kinetic energy of the space ship while it would also have less friction to overcome due to its smaller size.
If my critic wishes to test this out for himself, I can suggest a very simple experiment. Take a plank of sound pine wood, two inches thick by twelve inches wide and four feet long. Support it on both ends and then pile lead slabs onto it, covering the whole area of the board. If the wood be sound the board will support a thousand pounds readily. Now remove the lead slabs and fire a 200 grain lead bullet at the board with a muzzle or initial velocity of 1,600 feet per second. The bullet will penetrate the board very readily. Consider the heaviside layer as the board, the space ship as the lead slabs and the bullet as the meteor and you have the answer.
Consider one more thing. According to the stories, the layer grew thicker and harder to penetrate as the flyer reached the outer surface. The meteor would strike the most viscous part of the layer with its maximum energy. As its velocity dropped and its kinetic energy grew less, it would meet material easier to penetrate. On the other hand the flyer, coming from the earth, would meet material easy to penetrate and gradually lose its velocity and consequently its kinetic energy. When it reached the very viscous portion of the layer, it would have almost no energy left with which to force its way through. Remember, the Mercurians made no attempt to penetrate the layer until a portion of it had been destroyed by Carpenter's genius.
As for the matter of refraction. If you will place a glass cube or other form in the air, you will have no difficulty in measuring the refraction of the light passing through it. If, however, the observer would place himself inside a hollow sphere of glass so perfectly transparent as to be invisible, would not the refraction he would observe be taken by him to be the refraction of air when in reality it would be the combined refraction of the glass sphere and the air around him?
I have taken glass as the medium to illustrate this because my critic made the statement that "a substance denser than air would produce refraction that would have been noticed long ago." However nowhere in either story is the statement made that the material of the heaviside layer was denser than air. The statement was that it was more viscous. Viscosity is not necessarily a function of density. A heavy oil such as you use in the winter to lubricate your automobile has a much higher viscosity than water, yet it will float on water, i. e. it is less dense. There is nothing in the story that would prevent the heaviside layer from having a coefficient of refraction identical with that of air.
To close, let me repeat that I am not arguing that such a layer exists. I do not believe that it does and I do believe that my generation will probably see the first interplanetary expedition start and possibly see the first interplanetary trip succeed. I do, however, contend that the science in my stories is accurate until it transcends the boundaries of present day knowledge and ceases to be science and becomes "super-science," and that my super-science is developed in a logical manner from science and that nothing in present knowledge makes the existence of such a layer impossible—S. P. Meek. Capt. Ord. Dept., U. S. A.
Likes Long Novelettes
I have just finished reading the August issue of your magazine. I am going to rate the different stories in per cents. 100% means excellent; 75% fairly good; 50% passable; 25% just an ordinary story.
I give "Marooned Under The Sea," by Paul Ernst, 100%; 75% for "The Attack From Space," by Captain S. P. Meek. "The Problem in Communication," by Miles J. Breuer, M. D. and "Jetta of the Lowlands," by Ray Cummings; 50% for "The Murder Machine," by Hugh B. Cave and "Earth, The Marauder," by Arthur J. Burks; 25% for "The Terrible Tentacles of L-472," by Sewell Peaslee Wright.
I am happy to say that since I have been reading your magazine, I have induced at least ten of my friends to be constant readers of this magazine.
I like the long novelettes much better than continued novels, and hope that in the future we will get bigger and better novelettes.—Leonard Estrin, 1145 Morrison Ave., Bronx, N. Y.
Move over, you old-timers, and let a newcomer say something.
A few months ago I didn't read any Science Fiction. Now I read it all. I haven't decided yet which magazine I like best.
I was a little disappointed when you didn't have another story in the September copy by R. P. Starzl, who wrote "Planet of Dread." I thought you would hold on to a good author when you find one.
I would also like another story by the fellow who wrote the serial "Murder Madness."
I like short stories best.
That idea of a mechanical nirvana in Miles J. Breuer's story was good.
"Jetta of the Lowlands?" Opinion reserved. I like the action of the story, but I hate a hero who is always bragging about himself.
Don't think I'm complaining, but nothing is perfect.
Why not try to get a story of A. Merritt's, or Ralph Milne Farley's?—A. Dougherty, 327 North Prairie Ave., Sioux Falls, So. Dak.
May I enter "The Readers' Corner" to announce that a branch of The Scienceers has recently been formed in Clearwater, Florida, by a group of Science Fiction enthusiasts?
We have a library of 175 Science Fiction magazines, including a complete file of Astounding Stories to date. We hold weekly meetings at which scientific topics are discussed, and current Science Fiction stories commented upon.
As the first branch of The Scienceers, we are striving to achieve a success that will be a mark for other branches to aim at.—Carlton Abernathy, P. O. Box 584, Clearwater, Fla.
From Merrie England
I came across your May publication of Astounding Stories the other day, and I cannot resist writing to you to congratulate you on the most interesting magazine I have ever read. I am now determined to take it every month. Re "The Atom Smasher," it is A-1. I have read several interplanetary stories over here but none to touch those of your magazine.
Best wishes for the success of your book and its authors.—J. C. Atkinson, 17 Balaclava Rd., Sheffield, England.
You'll excuse my writing, for it is the end of vacation.
I like your book very much, which many other readers approve of. Some dislikes, of course, everyone has, and I have three which many readers have, too. First, I wish the magazine were bigger and the paper better. Second, have more stories and raise the price to 25c. Third, have stories of the future such as "Earth, the Marauder," and stories of lost Atlantis, the fourth dimension, other planets, atoms and electrons.—Jack Farber, Payette, Idaho.
P. S. I am 11 years old and interested in science.
Doesn't Like Serials
I am a recent reader of the Astounding Stories magazine. I am going to keep getting the magazine, as I like it very much.
I did not like "Murder Madness," or Burks' "Earth, the Marauder" very much. I do not think "Murder Madness" is the type of story that belongs in this magazine. I do not like continued stories very much as I hate to break off at an interesting point and wait a whole month before I can read the next installment or conclusion of the story. The front piece of the magazine is very good, and except for the criticisms mentioned above the magazine is excellent.—Kempt Mitchell.
A Staunch Defender
At one time a friend introduced your excellent little publication to me. I read it and enjoyed every paragraph of it. This issue starred "The Monsters of Moyen," which I consider a real super-science story. I have followed "The Readers' Corner" quite a time.
In the September issue I saw where someone made a commentary on the magazine. One of the things they said was that the paper should be of a better grade. It is true that this would help, but "our" magazine is not half full of advertisements to pay for this expense. Dear friends, this is no Saturday Evening Post. Don't ask too much. Then, you may take in consideration that other magazines of Science Fiction have no better grade of paper than this, for I have purchased several.
I have but one thing to say as an improvement for it. That is, why shouldn't there be a Quarterly? Other Science Fiction magazines have them. They have complete stories and are double in size and price. Dear Editor, please, for the public's sake, put out a Quarterly. I'm sure others would like one.—H. C. Kaufman, Jr., 1730 N. Monroe St., Baltimore, Maryland.
We would appreciate it very much if you would print this in your "Readers' Corner" department.
We wish to inform the readers of Astounding Stories of an organization lately formed, called The Boys' Scientifiction Club. Its purpose is to promote scientific interest among boys between the ages of 10 and 15, to encourage the reading of Science Fiction and scientific works, and to create a bond of friendship among them.
A circulating library, composed of Science Fiction books, magazines, articles, etc., is being constructed to circulate among members who desire to read any of the contents.
Officers are: President-Librarian, Forrest J. Ackerman, 530 Staples Ave., San Francisco, Cal.; Secretary-Treasurer, Frank Sipos, 174 Staples Ave., San Francisco, California.
Address all letters concerning membership to the President. He will be glad to answer all letters and explain particulars of the club. Thank you for your kindness.—Linus Hogenmiller, Vice-President B. S. C., 502 N. Washington St., Farmington, Missouri.
But—Ray Cummings Writes Us Only Brand New Stories!
I want to commend Astounding Stories on carrying out an idea which I have had in mind for some time; that is, some scientific articles. "A Star That Breathes," in the July number, was very interesting, as were the two articles in the August copy. However, I hope that this is only the start of a valuable new addition to Astounding Stories. There should be at least five or six in each magazine, and I think most of the readers would prefer them at the end of the stories instead of in the back of the magazine. Another thing that is absolutely essential if Astounding Stories would hold its own as a high-class Science Fiction magazine is a scientific editorial in the front of the book. The way it starts off abruptly onto a story gives the impression of a cheap publication.
A lot of your readers have been setting up a clamor for stories by Ray Cummings. While it is true that he has written a few good stories, you will find that his antiquated stuff is not being printed in any of the other Science Fiction magazine, but only in ones devoted to adventure-stories. For the sake of your many readers who would like to see "our magazine" keep abreast of the times, Cummings should be dropped and some of the peerless authors of to-day employed. As an advance along this line you already have Capt. S. P. Meek, Harl Vincent, Lilith Lorraine, Edmond Hamilton, and, in the latest copy, R. F. Starzl. "The Planet of Dread," by R. F. Starzl was the best story in the August issue. A wealth of ideas was contained in that treatise of life on a young, warm planet, and the idea of fooling the liquid intelligence by thought-suggestion is quite novel but entirely reasonable. Mr. Starzl is an author of the highest type and ability, and you will do well to secure more stories from his typewriter.
I was glad to see that the cover has finally been changed from the conventional blue background, and I hope we will have a little variation from now on. Concerning illustrations, Wesso is a great artist, and aside from a few scientific errors his covers are excellent. The inside drawings could be improved, however.
I hope for your continued success—Wayne D. Bray, Campbell, Mo.
Are We All "Morons?"
Having perused three issues of your magazine, I must agree that its title is well chosen. The stories are nearly all "astounding"; astounding in that they utterly ignore every scientific fact and discovery of the past ten centuries.
The cold of inter-stellar space; its lack of oxygen; the interplanetary effects of gravitation—all are passed over as if non-existent.
An "anti-gravity ovoid"—of which no description is given—if worn in a man's hat, makes his whole body weightless.
Men, buildings and cities float through the air or become invisible, yet not the least semi-scientific explanation is made as to the how of it all.
In other words, the pattern of your stories appears to have been taken from the Arabian Nights and from Grimm's Fairy Tales—but with not a millionth part of the interest.
How anyone, save a young child or a moron, can read and enjoy such futile nonsense is incredible.
If your writers would (like Jules Verne) only invent some pseudo-scientific explanation for their marvels, your publication might then be read with pleasure—but why do so when trash is acceptable without thought behind it!—M. Clifford Johnston, 451 Central Avenue, Newark, N. J.
A Wesso Fan
Let me congratulate you on the September issue of Astounding Stories. It is the best issue you have published yet. I noticed in this issue that you had four illustrations by Wesso. Though that is the most you have ever had, I think it would be much better if all the illustrations were by him.
However, getting down to brass tacks, the reason I'm typing this letter is to ask you to publish an Astounding Stories Quarterly. You could have it contain twice as much reading material as in the monthly and charge forty cents a copy for it. It would be much better than a semi-monthly and I am quite sure it would "go over" big.—Thomas L. Kratzer, 3593 Tullamore Rd., University Heights, Ohio.
I have read the August Astounding Stories and greatly enjoyed the fiction, but "The Readers' Corner" gave me a good deal of amusement. Some of your readers take their fiction so seriously!
Take the "Brick or Two" from George L. Williams and Harry Heillisan, for instance. They want Astounding Stories filled with material from authors that appear in other magazines—because your readers "are used to the standards set by those publications," etc. And again, "you should have some one who is well qualified to pass upon the science in the stories." For the love of Pete, if people want scientific treatises, why don't they buy books and magazines dealing with the subject? There are many on the market—serious and dull enough for anyone. But for our fiction magazines, let's have it pure and unadulterated, the more improbably the better.