Dick sat down hard. Not a man in the crowd was able to answer. Success had left them speechless. Barrow was the first to recover his voice.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Dick! We took three separate observations, and each showed the same result--almost double normal speed! Does it mean what you wanted? Can we reach the domes?"
"I hope so, Morquil. If the steam has made that much difference, we'll get there without trouble. The water must be conserved as much as possible--and hope that it lasts. Whether it increases the power of the fuel, or simply creates an additional body to drive against, is not important. We're getting there!"
Jupiter and Trouble!
The huge ship circled the planet twice, with the instruments adjusted to detect the metal of the domes. They spread over many miles of the surface, yet were like grains of sand on the enormous globe. When the gauges quivered over a section, hidden beneath the mists, every one breathed a sigh of relief.
It would be many hours before the ship was within the cities, but they were home! Every earthman had the same feeling. Jupiter was almost as much of a home to them as to the natives, even before they had seen it. They eagerly looked forward to sight of the domes that would be under their care.
John McCarthy entered the control room with a big tray of containers. "Here! It's not liquor, but I'll bet you enjoy it more. There's enough in each of these to really quench your thirst. I for one, will enjoy drinking all of the water I want, after five weeks on short rations."
It seemed impossible that the clouds outside could be deadly. They were beautiful in the reflected light of the sun, yet those vapors contained poison that no man could live in. The domes were the only place that life could exist on the strange planet.
As they dropped through the heavy mists, it created a feeling of dense fog. They could see nothing of the surroundings, trusting entirely on the instruments. It was like groping in the dark, yet the earthmen knew it had been done before, and the dome men showed no fear.
When a slight jar shook the ship, they breathed easier. It had touched the ground! They could feel some effect of the heavy gravity, even within the insulated hull. The ship slanted down at a steep angle, sliding forward with its own weight.
The earthmen didn't understand what was happening, but watched the actions of the dome men. They were using a different control board now, beneath the other panel. McCarthy was down in the hold, watching the action of machines that had been idle until now.
When they stopped, the mists disappeared from around them. Lights above outlined a huge metal passage. The ship started forward again and heavy doors slid back at the approach with bright light appearing beyond.
They were looking across sun-lit country; the most perfect scene they had ever witnessed. Strange trees, and growth of every description, spread in every direction. When the ship slid into the open, they were beneath one of the domes--enormous beyond their greatest imagination, and exquisitely beautiful.
While they watched spellbound, people started across the fields to greet the expedition. The women were well proportioned, and far different from the men of the race. Not as tall as the women of earth, or quite as well built, but their heads were much smaller than the men's.
All men were dressed in flowing robes, the women in much less clothing. They wore tight-fitting garments, like bathing suits of metallic cloth. They were happy and carefree, seemingly without a worry in their lives. Children came romping across the fields beside their parents.
Minutes, slipped by, and the people from earth hadn't moved. Sight of their new home was too wonderful to grasp at once. Instead of the gloomy metal covering they had expected, the curved surface above was finished in blue that resembled clear sky at home--as if they had reached the land of their dreams.
When their minds snapped back to reality, the dome men were being welcomed by friends and relatives. The babble of voices came faintly to the control room, from the power hull.
John McCarthy joined them. When the machines stopped, he came up to find the reason. Now the others watched as he gazed at the beautiful scene for the first time. Their own amazement was reflected in his eyes. When he looked up at the curved dome, his wife slipped her arm around him.
They were disturbed by the crew, returning with their friends to welcome the engineers. The dome people seemed completely happy. They were like children greeting their parents, holding the hands of the earth people and gazing into their faces with adoration. In their minds, the future was secure, and they no longer had a care in the world. Eileen McCarthy was so overwhelmed at the reception that she hugged two of the little women.
It was like a dream to walk across the heavy carpet of moss. There was no grass, but the velvet coat of green was quite similar. The trees were shaped like an inverted bowl, their branches conforming to the curve of the dome above. They were smaller than the trees of earth, with very large leaves.
The eyes of the earth people kept returning to the dome. It was hard to believe that it was not blue sky, except for giant supports that reached from the ground to the metal ceiling, hundreds of feet above.
When Peter Yarbro learned that he was in charge of this agricultural dome, his pleasure knew no bounds. His wife couldn't wait to see the home that had been prepared for them--and waiting almost twenty years.
A circle of buildings formed the foundation of the immense metal ceiling, as well as housing thousands of inhabitants. The back walls of the structures were always blank, toward the vapor beyond the miniature civilization. Each city was a world of its own, with a curved horizon at the top of the buildings.
In Yarbro's dome there were few means of travel, as every inch of soil was cultivated. The dome dwellers were past masters at farming, and loved this work more than any other type of labor. To them, it was a pleasure that vied with amusement machines of other cities.
When Mrs. Yarbro entered her new apartment, thirty stories above the ground, and stepped to one of the balconies, the view was superb. She was not interested in the next dome, but wanted to settle her own domain as soon as possible; completely happy.
The rest of the party entered an open car, mounted on a single track, and started for the next city. Every object that moved was operated by the control of gravity, and could develop enormous speed and power. It rolled swiftly across the open ground, to enter a tunnel three hundred feet wide, which carried all of the commerce between the cities. When it emerged in the next dome, the imitation sky was the same, but only a small portion of the ground surface was cultivated.
Small buildings dotted the level floor, which Morquil explained were the entrances of the mines, unworked for many years. Jerold Brown and his wife remained in this city, in an apartment as well situated as that of the Yarbro's, in the first dome.
Hours passed as they moved from city to city. When they reached the capitol, only the Barrows, McCarthys and Martins remained of the original fourteen. The others were in their own domes, settling down to the new existence.
Every occupation seemed to have been forgotten by the childish people, to come and welcome the beings from another planet. They lined every inch of the way, many deep.
The main dome was three times the size of the others. Supporting pillars, one hundred feet in diameter, seemed vague where they touched the ceiling above. Parks covered most of the ground, dotted here and there by amusement buildings and theaters.
Cars whizzed back and forth, as people gathered to see the strangers. For the first time in generations the amusement buildings were deserted. Since their arrival, Dick had seen no sign of work, and finally questioned Morquil.
"The people work one mig out of each lix, Dick. It is enough to carry on cultivation of the crops, and keep the amusement buildings running properly and efficiently."
Barrow was stunned. The working period would have to be increased to three immediately, then four and five. They seemed to think that bringing men from another world would do the work, and were apt to be disappointed when he started issuing orders.
When Dick and his wife were installed in their new home, and the McCarthys settled in a nearby apartment, Morquil hesitated. The Martins were anxious to see their own habitation, and looked at the dome man questioningly.
He finally spoke with hesitation. "I have bad news for you. The Martins will have to occupy an apartment in this city for a while. Their dome is out of order. Trouble developed soon after the ship left here, on this trip, and over a thousand people were killed. Every other city is overcrowded with refugees.
"It started with a strange banging on top of the dome, which kept increasing. No one knew what the trouble was or how to stop it, so they waited to see what happened. It didn't sound as if the ceiling was going to fall--but as if the banging came from outside! It was several migs before they knew the cause.
"When a large section crashed to the ground, it was a complete surprise, and caught the inhabitants unprepared. Soon the air was mixing with the poison gases from outside. People tried to escape, and most of them did. All except those that fell unconscious from the gas.
"Before the last of them reached the tunnel, green things dropped to the ground, and started after those who remained. They had to close the doors between the cities to keep the creatures from entering this dome. It is the first time that anything has happened to my people, and we don't know what it could be."
For a long time the earthmen remained silent. The troubles of this civilization had been dumped into their laps already--in the form of a terrible calamity. It sounded almost as if some kind of life forms had broken through the domes from the outside! Perhaps there was more danger than could be imagined. One dome had been injured, if not destroyed, and others might follow!
A meeting of the earthmen was called immediately, much to their surprise. Dick dared not let conditions stay as they were, for fear of future trouble. Action must be taken at once.
"We don't know what we're facing, but the fate of the race as well as our own lives, seem to be in danger. The break in the dome might have been accident, and the moving forms the imagination of fear. But we know that over a thousand people were killed--whatever caused the trouble!"
The men went back to their domes to rest, and plan some means of entering the deserted city, but were disturbed before they had time for sleep.
The agricultural dome had been attacked! The pounding had begun within a short time of their arrival.
One thing was certain, the injured dome had been attacked! It was not accident that the metal ceiling fell. There were living beings in the gases outside their civilization!
The first dome had been attacked just after the space ship left for the earth, and this attack came just after its return to the domes. There was little doubt that movement of the ship had disturbed the serenity of existence. Perhaps the gas creatures hadn't known what was beneath the metal hives until the ship appeared.
The banging on the agricultural dome, had to be stopped! A hole would let in the gas! Rifles, that had been brought back on the ship as curiosities, were given to each earthman. They loaded them carefully while they searched for some means of reaching the trouble.
When the leader of the dome heard what they were planning, he showed them sealed openings to a space between the sections of metal, which hadn't been used since the city was built. The dome was constructed in three layers, for insulation, and to give added protection. It was like a maze, to work their way toward the pounding through the network of struts. At times they had to crawl on their hands and knees, at others there were clearly defined passages.
They were afraid, and not ashamed to show it. They were hunting creatures which they knew nothing about--didn't even know whether bullets would affect them! They might face thinking beings, or forms of life that only wanted to search in the domes for food. It was not a pleasant thought.
Every rifle was cocked as they neared the source of the pounding. Every nerve drawn to the finest point.
Suddenly Dick stopped. He was ahead of the others and first to glimpse what they faced. He motioned to use the oxygen masks, as he fastened his own in place.
As they crept closer, light glinted on the giant pointed hammer, operated from beyond the outer layer of metal. It rose and fell at even intervals, through the rent in the upper surface. The ram had already crushed through two thicknesses of metal, and was battering at the inner layer.
The inside section was more like glass than metal and dim light passed through, but the outer layers were opaque. When the huge ram disappeared from the glow of light it left a gaping hole where it had been. It was of material they had never seen and glistened with a brownish hue. It appeared to shorten and expand in diameter, each time it struck the surface.
For a moment they hesitated, trying to decide the best means of attack. Whatever animated the ram was above their vision, and they had to be close to the opening to see it.
Each time the shiny object descended, the dome vibrated beneath their feet. As long as the vibration remained they were safe, but when it felt like a thud--the metal would be cracking!
Thousands of helpless people were depending on the action of earthmen, for their future existence. They seemed to think that it was only necessary to tell their troubles to these amazing strangers, to have them solved. Stories about the use of water to drive the space ship, had circulated throughout the cities, crediting the newcomers with superhuman powers.
As the little party crept nearer, they separated, to approach the opening from every direction. Dick was to fire first--if he saw anything to shoot at! It might be a powerful machine, clamped to the outer surface, instead of a being that could be injured. The glass globes of the masks were clouding with moisture, and it was hard to see.
A thud came, that didn't vibrate quite as much, and the men could feel the hair on their necks stiffen. It was now or never, and Dick fired although he was still several feet from the opening. He fired at the topmost section of the ram, hoping it might stop the hammering for a moment even if it didn't injure the equipment. Two more shots rang out, before the object could deliver another blow.
It was alive! The heavy ram jumped from the shock of the bullets, curving convulsively to one side of the opening. Then it drew back out of sight.
Battle with a Monster Minutes passed, while the earthmen hardly dared breathe. Their ebbing heartbeat seemed to almost echo in their breasts. Then the object appeared at the opening, hesitated, and was thrust in!
The hammer was a head!!! It swayed back and forth, like the head of a huge caterpillar, and every gun fired in unison. Shot after shot pumped into the head with rapid and unerring accuracy.
The giant head moved from one side to the other, while two gigantic eyes peered around. It didn't know enough to draw back from the danger zone, but muscular reaction finally moved it out of sight.
Dick crept forward, motioning for the others to wait until he investigated. There was no need for all of them to enter the danger zone.
He turned the flashlight on, that had been strapped to his waist, and played it around the jagged opening, then climbed to the next level and searched again.
When he crawled to the outer surface, the creature was writhing a few feet away. He motioned, and the other men soon joined him, where they could watch the creature.
They were standing almost on the direct center of the dome, where it was almost flat. The flashlights penetrated the mists enough to mark out the shape of the attacker, when they were all centered.
Suddenly they felt sick to their stomachs.
It was a caterpillar! As loathsome a creature as they could have imagined with its curled body, and the farthest possible thing from a human being. A form of life that existed in the poison gases, where men would die within minutes. The muscles of the creature had to be terrifically strong, to move against the gravity of the huge globe.
Even at the center of the dome, they felt less effect of the neutralized gravity of the interior. It required effort to stand on their feet. Some effect of the neutralizers in the giant pillars, which eliminated most of the weight of the dome, enabled them to handle their bodies.
The creature before them was accustomed to normal gravity of the heavy planet, and even the metal of the dome was not beyond the pounding of its hammer. What they had mistaken for a battering ram, was the brown tip of the mammoth insect. From end to end it measured over sixty feet. The men finally turned away in disgust, as it writhed in muscular reaction.
John McCarthy was climbing into the opening behind the other men, when he happened to glance back. His flashlight dimly lighted the spot where the monster had been, and it was gone!
He hesitated with one foot in the air, then realized what had happened. The movement of the body had moved it farther and farther from the center of the dome. It had reached a place where the curve was sufficient to let it slide on the smooth metal. A moment later, a slight jar was felt through the entire structure--it had slid from the man-made mound, to crash on the ground below. Memory of that sight made a sober return to the interior.
Before they dared rest, metal sheets were carried to the opening and blocked in place. Then dome men welded them to the solid metal. They didn't want to see any of those creatures in the cities!
Twelve hours had passed by the time the opening was sealed, and the earthmen dragged their tired forms through the maze of supports for the last time.
They were almost asleep before they could reach their own apartments, and tumble onto comfortable beds. They had conquered the first problem.
Dick was awakened by an excited man, talking faster than he could understand the new language. When he grasped what the other was saying, he leaped from bed wide awake.
Every dome had been attacked!!! The caterpillars were pounding many spots on each one. They seemed to be trying to get at the creatures that had destroyed one of their number.
In that moment Dick felt like an old man. He thought of the space ship; the only way of attacking from the outside, and gave that up. There wasn't enough fuel to handle it, and the blasts might injure the metal domes. His mind searched frantically for some way of fighting all of the creatures--and knew it couldn't be done.
He was racing across the open ground, while thousands of people gazed at the banging overhead. Suddenly he stopped, then turned back toward his apartment, running just as hard. There was a system of communication between the domes--that sometimes worked! It was not efficient, but if he could get in touch with the others immediately, there was one chance!
He tried frantically to get a connection, but it wasn't until one of the natives helped with the intricate system of signals, that he heard the voice of Andrew Smith. A few moments later Philip Jones answered, then Jerold Brown and Peter Yarbro. Each man was given quick, yet explicit, instruction.
When Dick turned away from the phone, John McCarthy entered the room, followed by George Martin. The noise in the city had finally aroused them from their slumber.
John started to smile, but the expression on Barrow's face drove all thought of greeting away.
"What is it? I thought the people were doing a day's work--but you----!!!" His face turned ashen as he ran to the balcony, George Martin only a step behind. After gazing up for a moment, McCarthy turned slowly to face Dick.
"The worms? It sounds like hundreds of them! We better work fast, or they'll have the whole roof down around our ears."
"No, John. We can't fight them with guns. They have attacked every dome on the planet!"
When full realization came to the big Irishman, he sank slowly into a chair. "Then what? Have you got any plan--or are we helpless?"
"We've got work to do and plenty of it. There's a slight chance of saving the cities. I've already instructed the others."
As the three men raced toward the power plant, Dick explained. John and George were to do the work, while he traveled from dome to dome to make sure the people were prepared, and see that the power plants were used as he intended.
By the time they reached the entrance of the building, John nodded, and Barrow turned back as the other men entered the door. The first dome people that Dick saw were told to remove everyone from the buildings, and gather them in the open spaces of the parks. Leaving no one within any structure!