We tramped across the plain. My eyes kept roving about: there wasn't much hope for me, but miracles have happened. Most of the scattered structures were hastily thrown together sheds of sheet iron. Barracks, they looked like. But, every so often I spied spheres of concrete, the wide open doors revealing yard-thick walls. What could be their purpose?
Something bothered me. Something about the ray projectors and the other machinery I had seen. I glanced up at one of the balloons floating high above. All these needed a power supply; tremendous power to accomplish what the ray was doing. And there were no cables running to them. How did the power get to them?
There was only one answer. Radio transmission. The required energy, perhaps the very ray vibrations themselves, were being broadcast to the points of projection. That meant a power-house and a control room somewhere in the area. The vulnerable points! Where were they?
I stumbled, and was jerked roughly to my feet. The lieutenant slapped me. "Scared, Americansky? You well may be. We'll have rare sport when they throw what the Ferret leaves of you into the ray." I shuddered. To go out that way! I'll be honest--I was horribly afraid. The men to whom I was shackled laughed.
A dull throbbing beat at my ears, a vibration just too low to be sound. I looked about for its source. It came from my left--a concrete building, low lying, about a hundred yards long by as many feet wide. At the further end a squat smokestack broke the flat line of the roof. Guards, many guards, were pacing their slow patrol about it. From the center of the side nearest me, cables thick as a man's trunk issued forth. I followed them with my eye. They ended in a marble slab on which rested a concrete sphere, somewhat larger than the others. The door of this one was closed. On the roof of the queer edifice was a peculiar arrangement of wires, gleaming in the artificial daylight. This building, too, was heavily guarded.
I had found what I sought--the power-house and the transmitting station. Much good it did me--now.
My warders turned sharply to the right. I glimpsed another concrete structure. A heavy steel door opened, then clanged shut, behind us. The fetid odor that means only one thing the world over, folded round me.
I sprawled on the steel floor of the cell into which I was thrust. A wave of utter fatigue engulfed me. I felt great weariness of body and despair of soul. I had failed in my mission. The fate of my country had been entrusted to me--and here I was in a steel-floored, steel-walled prison cell. And that tunnel was rushing toward New York at three miles an hour; over seventy miles a day.
I think I slept from sheer exhaustion. But something startled me into awaking. The dim light filtering in from the tiny air-hole high up on one wall showed me that I was still alone. I lay, listening. There it was again, a wailing scream of agony that rose and fell and died away.
I heard a grating sound at the door, and it opened and shut. Rubinoff, the Ferret, had entered. "Comfortable, Captain Bolton?" he asked, and there was more than a hint of mockery in the velvety voice. In the hand with the twisted finger was his ray-tube. It pointed steadily at me.
I got to my feet. I was in no mood for trifling, for that scream had shaken me. "Cut the comedy, Rubinoff." I growled. "Kill me, and let's have done with it."
He raised a deprecating hand. "Oh, come now. There's really no absolute necessity for that. You can save yourself, very easily."
"What do you mean?"
"I can use you, if you're amenable to reason."
"I don't understand."
"You're the cleverest of the American Intelligence men. The rabble they give me are well-nigh useless. Cast your lot in with us, and in a week you'll have the riches of your greatest city to dip your hands in. It's easy. There is certain information we need. Give it to us. Then I'll get you back into your lines: we'll cook up a good tale for Sommers. You can resume your post and send us information only when it is of extreme importance. Come, now, be sensible."
At first blush this was an astounding proposal. But I knew my man. He needed to know something. Once he had extracted the knowledge he sought from me, I should be disposed of. He'd never let me get back into our lines with what I had found out. It might have been policy to play him--but what was the use?
"No, Rubinoff. You know I won't do it."
He sighed. "Just as I thought. Honor, country, and so on. Well, it's too bad. We should have made a wonderful team. However, you'll tell me what I want to know. What are the defenses within fifty miles of New York?"
I laughed derisively.
"You'll save yourself a lot of trouble if you tell me, Bolton. After all, death in the ray isn't so bad. Whiff--and you're gone. Don't force me to other measures." There was a grim threat in his voice. But I simply shook my head.
"Stubborn, like all the other Anglo-Saxons. Well, I've got something to show you." He raised his weapon and glanced at it. "Pretty little thing, this. Not the ordinary ray-tube. Only field officers have these. Look."
He pointed it at the wall from behind which that scream had come and pressed the trigger button. A tiny round hole appeared in the steel.
"Neat, isn't it? Utilizes the same ray you saw at work in the tunnel. The Zeta-ray we call it. Just think what that would do to human flesh." I said nothing.
"But that isn't what I had in mind. Just look through that hole."
I wanted to see what was on the other side, so I obeyed. The Thing that lay on the floor within--could it ever have been a man? I whirled back to the Ferret in a fury, my fists clenched.
His infernal weapon was pointing straight at me. "Softly, Bolton, softly. You'd never get to me." I checked my spring, for he was right. "How'd you like that?" he purred.
"Some of your work, I suppose," I growled.
"The poor fool was fomenting a mutiny. We wanted to know the other plotters. He was stubborn. What would you? Necessity knows no law.... What are the defenses around New York?" He advanced menacingly.
"Why be a fool? This ray hurts, I tell you, when it's properly applied. How would you like to be melted away, piece by little piece, till you're like that in there?"
I shrugged my shoulders, but kept silent.
"I tell you it hurts. You don't believe me? That in there is unconscious, seven-eighths dead. Listen."
He bored another hole in the steel, keeping his finger pressed on the trigger. Again that heart-rending scream of agony rang out, tearing its way through me. My brain exploded in red rage. I leaped for the fiend, reckless of consequences. My fist drove into the leering face with all the force of my spring, with all the insane fury that his heartless cruelty had roused in me. Smack!--he catapulted across the floor and crashed into the wall! I was on him, my hand clutching for his tube. But there was no need. He was out--dead to the world. So sudden, so unexpected was my mad attack that even he had not had time to meet it.
I worked fast. In a minute I was in Rubinoff's uniform and had assumed his face. I was a little taller; no matter. But the finger--that would be noticed immediately. There was only one thing to do. I stuck my little finger through one of the holes he had made in the wall and twisted. Crack! Beads of agony stood out on my forehead, but the break was just right. By bending the other fingers slightly I could hold that one in just the position of his.
I picked up the ray-tube with my left hand. If I went out through the guard-house entrance I might meet other officers and be engaged in conversation. That might lead to discovery. My cell was on the side of the prison away from the road; I had noticed no buildings behind it: I'd chance it. Luck had been with me so far.
I carved out a hole in the wall pierced by the air-hole. It was like cutting through butter with a red hot knife. I stepped out.
There was no one about. I walked carelessly around the corner of the building, my hand, holding the tube, buried deep in my pocket. Not far away was the spherical structure I had spotted as the control room. I returned salutes. No one stopped to talk to me. Would the guard before that building require a pass-word?
I heard a shout behind me. My escape was discovered! At once I broke into a run and dashed past the guard, shouting: "Prisoner escaped! Came this way!" The man gaped. The shouting behind me grew louder. I heard the thud of many feet, running. I flung open the door, slammed it shut behind me, and turned the key.
A long row of giant electrode bulbs, as tall as a man, stretched before me--the source of the Zeta-ray. From here came the power that held back the waters, that bored the tunnel. A thunderous knocking shook the door. Someone at a huge switchboard turned toward me. Instantly my hand was out of my pocket, and the ray-tube leveled at the nearest bulb. I pressed the trigger. The bulb crashed. I swept down the line. Crash, crash, crash--they were all gone.
I whirled to meet the expected attack. It was wholly instinctive, for in a second we'd all be dead anyway. The waters would be down on us.
But the switchboard operator wasn't springing at me. Instead, he was tugging frantically, at a long lever that came down from above. There was a clang, and a steel shutter dropped across the door.
Then came a sound of crashing thunder that split my eardrums with its unbearable clamor. Then a mightier roar, as the mountain-high sea, held back so long by the invisible ray, poured its countless millions of tons of deep green water down into the man-made hole.
The impact was terrific. The yards-thick concrete shuddered and strained. The tremendous pressure forced trickles of water into the concrete shell: the roaring of the elements was indescribably deafening.
I was in pitch darkness, expecting every moment to be crushed under miles of ocean, when suddenly I was thrown from my feet. The floor was heaving drunkenly beneath me. In a moment I was slammed breathlessly against the shattered remnants of a huge vacuum tube. The jagged glass slashed my arms and face. I grabbed with my hand to steady myself; came in contact with in iron bar: clung like grim death.
For a huge concrete sphere was whirling, tossing, gyrating in a welter of waters. The din was terrific. I rolled over and over, my arms almost pulled out of their sockets. Then, like a ton of brick, something collided with my head. There was a blinding flare in the black void, and I knew no more.
Slowly I came out of a hideous nightmare.
My head ached frightfully, and my wounds smarted and stung. It was dark, but a faint luminescence from somewhere enabled me to faintly discern my surroundings. I was wedged between a steel cable-bracket and the curving wall. Across the glass strewn floor a body lay, sprawling queerly.
The room was swaying in long undulations, or was it my head? I lay helpless, unable to move. A leg dangled uselessly. There was a bump, the sound of scraping. I heard confused sounds penetrating the walls, and the jar of steady impacts.
A half an hour passed so; maybe an hour: I had no means of telling. I was weak from pain and loss of blood, and slightly delirious.
A faint whirring noise, a sudden intensity in the illumination caused me to turn my head. The steel shutter was glowing red, then a shower of white sparks broke through. The heavy steel was melting away into incandescence. It crashed.
A group of men stumbled cautiously in. Now I was sure I was delirious. For the men wore khaki uniforms! Americans! Then, in my fever, I thought I heard a familiar voice cry out my name. It was Jim's voice. A roaring curtain of blackness shut down on me.
When I awoke again I was lying in a clean-sheeted hospital bed. Jim was sitting at the side, staring at me with gloomy eyes.
"Hello, Jim," I gasped weakly. "How did I get here?"
It was touching to see the instantaneous delight on his weathered countenance.
"So you came to at last, you old son-of-a-gun! Thought you were cashing in on us for a while. How did you get here? That's just what I want to know. How in hell did you get here?"
I was still pretty weak. "You pulled me out. What happened?"
"We're still trying to puzzle it out. Wouldn't be surprised if you had a hand in it, you blighter. We were watching that damned cloud, worrying ourselves to death. What with the New York going out like a light, and not hearing anything from you, we were pretty low.
"Then, suddenly, there was a tremendous detonation. The whole cloud mass collapsed like a pricked bubble, and a bottomless pit yawned underneath the ocean--and, next thing we knew, our raft was yanked from under our feet, plunging and bucking in a swirl of waters.
"I just had time to grab hold of a stanchion, when we were sucked down into a whirlpool such as I never hope to see again. Round and round we spun, the tumbling waters mountain high above us. I was buried most of the time in crashing billows; my arms were almost pulled out of their sockets.
"I never expected to see daylight again," Jim went on. "My hold was being broken when at last we were spewed out somehow onto a sea that looked as if a thousand hurricanes were blowing down.
"I managed to get my men together--what was left of them. There were pitifully few. Later, I heard that our losses were enormous. Over seventy-five per cent of our rafts on a 50-mile front were lost, and the enemies' were almost totally wiped out.
"When the mile-high seas had toned down a bit, we saw a huge concrete ball tossing about like a cork. Couldn't make out what the devil it was. Then someone noticed a door. We got that open, but there was a steel one inside. We had to slice it with an oxy-hydrogen flame. Inside, snug as a bug in a rug, were you.
"Now come on, tell me how in blazes you got in there. If you don't spill it quick, I'll bust."
I sat up in my excitement. "Don't you see, they were afraid the ray might fail. They had those concrete balls stuck all around so that the officers at least could escape, if it did. Their best technical men must have been running the control room. They made sure to have that specially strong. And the wave caused by the water pouring into the hole swept me right over here, just where I started from."
Jim had both hands on my shoulders, was pushing me down. "Whoa, baby, whoa. That's just as clear as a darkness-rayed area. Count up to ten, and start all over again."
The general himself strode into the room. And then I had to tell my story straight.
WATCH THE SKY.
by James H. Schmitz
Uncle William Boles' war-battered old Geest gun gave the impression that at some stage of its construction it had been pulled out of shape and then hardened in that form. What remained of it was all of one piece. The scarred and pitted twin barrels were stubby and thick, and the vacant oblong in the frame behind them might have contained standard energy magazines. It was the stock which gave the alien weapon its curious appearance. Almost eighteen inches long, it curved abruptly to the right and was too thin, knobbed and indented to fit comfortably at any point in a human hand. Over half a century had passed since, with the webbed, boneless fingers of its original owner closed about it, it last spat deadly radiation at human foemen. Now it hung among Uncle William's other collected oddities on the wall above the living room fireplace.
And today, Phil Boles thought, squinting at the gun with reflectively narrowed eyes, some eight years after Uncle William's death, the old war souvenir would quietly become a key factor in the solution of a colonial planet's problems. He ran a finger over the dull, roughened frame, bent closer to study the neatly lettered inscription: GUNDERLAND BATTLE TROPHY, ANNO 2172, SGT. WILLIAM G. BOLES. Then, catching a familiar series of clicking noises from the hall, he straightened quickly and turned away. When Aunt Beulah's go-chair came rolling back into the room, Phil was sitting at the low tea table, his back to the fireplace.
The go-chair's wide flexible treads carried it smoothly down the three steps to the sunken section of the living room, Beulah sitting jauntily erect in it, for all the ninety-six years which had left her the last survivor of the original group of Earth settlers on the world of Roye. She tapped her fingers here and there on the chair's armrests, swinging it deftly about, and brought it to a stop beside the tea table.
"That was Susan Feeney calling," she reported. "And there is somebody else for you who thinks I have to be taken care of! Go ahead and finish the pie, Phil. Can't hurt a husky man like you. Got a couple more baking for you to take along."
Phil grinned. "That'd be worth the trip up from Fort Roye all by itself."
Beulah looked pleased. "Not much else I can do for my great-grand nephew nowadays, is there?"
Phil said, after a moment, "Have you given any further thought to--"
"Moving down to Fort Roye?" Beulah pursed her thin lips. "Goodness, Phil, I do hate to disappoint you again, but I'd be completely out of place in a town apartment."
"Dr. Fitzsimmons would be pleased," Phil remarked.
"Oh, him! Fitz is another old worry wart. What he wants is to get me into the hospital. Nothing doing!"
Phil shook his head helplessly, laughed. "After all, working a tupa ranch--"
"Nonsense. The ranch is just enough bother to be interesting. The appliances do everything anyway, and Susan is down here every morning for a chat and to make sure I'm still all right. She won't admit that, of course, but if she thinks something should be taken care of, the whole Feeney family shows up an hour later to do it. There's really no reason for you to be sending a dozen men up from Fort Roye every two months to harvest the tupa."
Phil shrugged. "No one's ever yet invented an easy way to dig up those roots. And the CLU's glad to furnish the men."
"Because you're its president?"