Sergeant Walpole made his daily report at 2:15. He used a dinky telephone that should have been in a museum, and a rural Central put him on the Area Officer's tight beam. The Area Officer listened drearily as the Sergeant said in a military manner: "Sergeant Walpole, sir, Post Fourteen, reports that he has nothing of importance to report."
The Area Officer's acknowledgment was curt; embittered. For he was an energetic young man, and he loathed his job. He wanted to be in the west, where fighting of a highly unconventional nature was taking place daily. He did not enjoy this business of watching an unthreatened coast-line simply for the maintenance of civilian confidence and morale. He preferred fighting.
Sergeant Walpole, though, exhaled a lungful of smoke at the telephone transmitter and waited. Presently the rural Central said: "All through?"
"Sure, sweetie," said Sergeant Walpole. "How about the talkies tonight?"
That was at 2:20 P. M. There was coy conversation, while the civilian telephone-service suffered. Then Sergeant Walpole went back to his post of duty with a date for the evening. He never kept that date, as it turned out. The rural Central was dead an hour after the first and only Wabbly landed, and as everybody knows, that happened at 2:45.
But Sergeant Walpole had no premonitions as he went back to his hammock on the porch. This was Post Number Fourteen, Sixth Area, Eastern Coast Observation Force. There was a war on, to be sure. There had been a war on since the fall of 1941, but it was two thousand miles away. Even lone-wolf bombing planes, flying forty thousand feet up, never came this far to drop their eggs upon inviting targets or upon those utterly blank, innocent-seeming places where munitions of war were now manufactured underground.
Here was peace and quiet and good rations and a paradise for gold-brickers. Here was a summer bungalow taken over for military purposes, quartering six men who watched a certain section of coast-line for a quite impossible enemy. Three miles to the south there was another post. Three miles to the north another one still. They stretched all along the Atlantic Coast, those observation-posts, and the men in them watched the sea, languidly observed the television broadcasts, and slept in the sun. That was all they were supposed to do. In doing it they helped to maintain civilian morale. And therefore the Eastern Coast Observation Force was enviously said to be "just attached to the Army for rations," by the other services, and its members rated with M. P.'s and other low forms of animal life.
Sergeant Walpole reclined in his hammock, inhaling comfortably. The ocean glittered blue before him in the sun. There was a plume of smoke out at sea indicating an old-style coal-burner, its hull down below the horizon. Anything that would float was being used since the war began, though a coal-burning ship was almost a museum piece. A trim Diesel tramp was lazing northward well inshore. A pack of gulls were squabbling noisily over some unpleasantness floating a hundred yards from the beach. The Diesel tramp edged closer inshore still. It was all very peaceful and placid. There are few softer jobs on earth than being a member of a "force in being" for the sake of civilian morale.
But at 2:32 P. M. the softness of that job departed, as far as Sergeant Walpole was concerned. At that moment he heard a thin wailing sound high aloft. It was well enough known nearer the front, but the Eastern Coast Observation Force had had no need to become unduly familiar with it. With incredible swiftness the wailing rose to the shrillest of shrieks, descending as lightning might be imagined to descend. Then there was a shattering concussion. It was monstrous. It was ear-splitting. Windows crashed in the cottage and tinkled to the sandy earth outside. There was a pause of seconds' duration only, during which Sergeant Walpole stared blankly and gasped, "What the hell?" Then there was a second thin wailing which rose to a scream....
Sergeant Walpole was in motion before the second explosion came. He was diving off the veranda of Post Number Fourteen. He saw someone else coming through a window. He had a photographic glimpse of one of his men emerging through a doorway. Then he struck earth and began to run. Like everybody else in America, he knew what the explosions and the screamings meant.
But he had covered no more than fifty yards when the third bomb fell from that plane so far aloft that it was not even a mote in the sky. Up there the sky was not even blue, but a dull leaden gray because of the thinness of the atmosphere yet above it. The men in that high-flight bomber could see the ground only as a mass of vaguely blending colors. They were aiming their bombs by filtered light, through telescopes which used infra-red rays only, as aerial cameras did back in the 1920's. And they were sighting their eggs with beautifully exact knowledge of their velocity and height. By the time the bombs had dropped eight miles they were traveling faster than the sound of their coming. The first two had wiped out Posts Thirteen and Fifteen. The third made no sound before it landed, except to an observer at a distance. Sergeant Walpole heard neither the scream of fall nor the sound of its explosion.
He was running madly, and suddenly the earth bucked violently beneath his feet, and he had a momentary sensation of things flying madly by over his head, and then he knew nothing at all for a very long time. Then his head ached horribly and someone was popping at something valorously with a rifle, and he heard the nasty sharp explosions of the hexynitrate bullets which have remodeled older ideas of warfare, and Sergeant Walpole was aware of an urgent necessity to do something, but he could not at all imagine what it was. Then a shell went off, the earth-concussion banged his nose against the sand, and the rifle-fire stopped.
"For Gawd's sake!" said Sergeant Walpole dizzily.
He staggered to his feet and looked behind him. Where the cottage had been there was a hole. Quite a large hole. It was probably a hundred yards across and all of twenty deep, but sea-water was seeping in to fill it through the sand. Its edge was forty or fifty feet from where he stood. He had been knocked down by the heaving earth, and the sand and mud blown out of the crater had gone clean over him. Twenty feet back, the top part of his body would have been cut neatly off by the blast. As it was....
He found his nose bleeding and plugged it with his handkerchief. He was still rather dazed, and he still had the feeling that there was something extremely important that he must do. He stood rocking on his feet, trying to clear his head, when two men came along the sand-dunes behind the beach. One of them carried two automatic rifles. The other was trying to bandage a limp and flapping arm as he ran. They saw the Sergeant and ran to him.
"Hell, Sarge, I thought y'were blown to little egg-shells."
"I ain't," said Sergeant Walpole. He looked again at the hole in the ground and swore painedly.
"Look at that," said the man with the flapping arm. "Hell's goin' to pop around here, Sarge."
The sergeant swung around. Then his mouth dropped open. Just half a mile away and hardly more than two hundred yards from the shore-line, the Diesel tramp was ramming the beach. A wake still foamed behind it. A monstrous bow-wave spread out on either hand, over-topping even the combers that came rolling in. It was being deliberately run ashore. It struck, and its fore-mast crumpled up and fell forward, carrying its derrick-booms with it. There was the squeal of crumpled metal plates.
"Flyin' a yeller flag just now," panted one of the two privates. "We started poppin' hexynitrate bullets at her an' she flung a shell at us. She's a enemy ship. But what the hell?"
Smoke spurted up from the beached ship. Her stern broke off and settled in the deeper water out from the shore. More smoke spurted out. Her bow split wide. There were the deep rumbles of black-powder explosions. Sergeant Walpole and his two followers stared blankly. More explosions, and the ship was hidden in smoke, and when it blew away her funnel was down and half or more of her upper works was sliding into the sea, and she had listed suddenly.
Sergeant Walpole gazed upward. Futilely, of course; there was nothing in sight overhead. But these explosions did look like the hexynitrate stuff they put in small-arm bullets nowadays. A thirty-caliber bullet had the explosive effect of an old-style six-pound T.N.T. shell. Only, hexynitrate goes off with a crack instead of a boom. It wasn't an American plane opening up with a machine-gun.
Then the beached ship seemed to blow up. A mass of thick smoke covered her from stem to stern, and bits of plating flew heavily through the air, and there were a few lurid bursts of flame. Sergeant Walpole suddenly remembered that there ought to be survivors, only he hadn't seen anybody diving overboard to try to get ashore. He half-started forward....
Then the sea-breeze blew this smoke, too, away from the wreckage. And the tramp was gone, but there was something else left in its place--so that Sergeant Walpole took one look, and swallowed a non-existent something that came up instantly into his throat again, and remembered the urgent thing he had to do.
"Pete," he said calmly, "you hunt up the Area Officer an' tell him what you seen. Here! I'll give you a report that'll keep 'em from slammin' you in clink for bein' drunk. Grab a monocycle somewheres. It's faster than a car, the way you'll be travelin'. First telephone you come to that's workin', make Central put you in the tight beam to head-quarters. Then go on an' report, y'self. See?"
Pete started, and automatically fumbled with his limp and useless arm. Then he carefully tucked the unmanageable hand in the pocket of his uniform blouse.
"That don't matter now," he said absurdly.
He was looking at the thing left in place of the tramp, as Sergeant Walpole scribbled on one of the regulation report-forms of the Eastern Coast Observation Force. And the thing he saw was enough to upset anybody.
Where the tramp had been there was a single bit of bow-plating sticking up out of the surf, and a bunch of miscellaneous floating wreckage drifting sluggishly toward the beach. And there was a solid, rounded, metallic shape apparently quite as long as the original tramp had been. There was a huge armored tube across its upper part, with vision-slits in two bulbous sections at its end. There were gun-ports visible here and there, and already a monstrous protuberance was coming into view midway along its back, as if forced into position from within. Where the bow of the tramp had been there were colossal treads now visible. There was a sort of conning-tower, armored and grim. There was a ghastly steel beak. The thing was a war-machine of monstrous size. It emitted a sudden roaring sound, as of internal-combustion engines operating at full power, and lurched heavily. The steel plates of the tramp still visible above water, crumpled up like paper and were trodden under. The thing came toward the shore. It slithered through the shallow sea, with waves breaking against its bulging sides. It came out upon the beach, its wet sides glittering. It was two hundred feet long, and it looked somehow like a gigantic centipede.
It was a tank, of sorts, but like no tank ever seen on earth before. It was the great-grandfather of all tanks. It was so monstrous that for its conveyance a ship's hull and superstructure had been built about it, and its own engines had been the engines of that ship. It was so huge that it could only be landed by blasting away a beached ship from about itself, so it could run under its own power over the fragments to the shore.
Now it stopped smoothly on the sandy beach, in which its eight-foot-wide steel treads sank almost a yard. Men dropped down from ports in its swelling sides. They made swift, careful inspections of predetermined points. They darted back up the ladders again. The thing roared once more. Then it swung about, headed for the sand-dunes, and with an extraordinary smoothness and celerity disappeared inland.
"... The Wabbly was meant for one purpose, the undermining of civilian morale. To accomplish that purpose it set systematically about the establishment of a reign of terror; and so complete was its success that half the population of a state was in headlong flight within two hours. It was, first, mysterious; secondly, deadly, and within a very few hours it had built up a reputation for invincibility. Judged on the basis of its first twelve hours' work alone, it was the most successful experiment of the war. Its effect on civilian morale was incalculable." (Strategic Lessons of the War of 1941-43.--U. S. War College. Pp. 80-81.) Two of the members of Observation-Post Fourteen gaped after the retreating monster. Sergeant Walpole scribbled on the official form. Just as the monstrous thing dipped down out of sight there was a vicious, crashing report from its hinder part. Something shrieked....
Sergeant Walpole got up, spitting sand. There was blood on the report-form in his hand. He folded it painstakingly. Of the two men who had been with him, one was struggling out of the sand as Sergeant Walpole had had to do. The other was scattered over a good many square yards of sandy beach.
"Um. They seen us," said Sergeant Walpole, "an' they got Pete. You'll have to take this report. I'm goin' after the damn thing."
"What for?" asked the other man blankly.
"To keep it in sight," said Sergeant Walpole. "That's tactics. If somebody springs somethin' you ain't able to fight, run away but keep it in sight an' report to the nearest commissioned officer. Remember that. Now get on. There's monocycles in the village. Get there an' beat that damn Wabbly thing with the news."
He saw his follower start off, sprinting. That particular soldier, by the way, was identified by his dog-tag some days later. As nearly as could be discovered, he had died of gas. But Sergeant Walpole picked up one of the two rifles, blew sand out of the breech-mechanism, and started off after the metal monster. He walked in the eight-foot track of one of its treads. As he went, he continued the cleaning of sand from the rifle in his hands. The rifle was useless against such a monster, of course, but it is quaint to reflect that in that automatic rifle, firing hexynitrate bullets, each equivalent to a six-pounder T.N.T. shell in destructiveness, Sergeant Walpole carried greater "fire-power" than Napoleon ever disposed in battle.
The tread of the Wabbly made a perfect roadway. Presently Sergeant Walpole looked up to find himself scrutinizing somebody's dining-room table, set for lunch. The Wabbly had crossed a house in its path without swerving. Walls, chimneys, timbers and planks, all had gone beneath its treads. But they had been pressed so smoothly flat that until Sergeant Walpole looked down at his footing, he would not have known he was walking on the wreckage of a building.
It was half an hour before he reached the village. The Wabbly had gone from end to end, backed up, and gone over the rest of it again. There was the taint of gas in the air. Sergeant Walpole halted outside the debris. His gas-mask had been blown to atoms with Observation-Post Fourteen.
"They're tryin' to beat the news o' their comin'," he reflected aloud, "which is why they smashed up the village. The telephone exchange was there.... Tillie's under there somewheres...."
He fumbled with the rifle, suddenly swearing queerly hate-distorted oaths. Tillie had not been the great love of Sergeant Walpole's life. She was merely a country telephone operator, reasonably pretty, and flattered by his uniform. But she was under a mass of splintered wood and crushed brick-work, killed while trying to connect with the tight beam to Area Headquarters to report the monster rushing upon the village. That monster had destroyed the little settlement. There was nothing left at all but wreckage and the eight-foot tracks of monster treads. Sometimes those tracks crossed each other. Between them wreckage survived to a height of as much as four feet, which was the clearance of the Wabbly's body.
Something roared low overhead. Sergeant Walpole swore bitterly, looked upward, and waited to die. But the small plane was American, and old. It was a training-plane, useless for front-line work. It dived to earth, the pilot waved impatiently, and Walpole plunged to a place beside him. Instantly thereafter the plane took off.
"What was it?" shouted the pilot, sliding off at panic-stricken speed across the tree-tops. "They heard the bombs go off all the way to Philly. Sent me. What in hell was it?"
A thin, high, wailing sound coming down as lightning might be imagined to descend.... The pilot dived madly and got behind a pine forest before the explosion and the concussion that followed it. Sergeant Walpole saw the pine-trees shiver. The sheer explosion-wave of that egg, if it hit an old ship like this in mid-air, would have stripped the fabric from its wings.
"Set me down," said Sergeant Walpole. "They're watchin' us from aloft. I sent a man on a monocycle to report." But he told luridly of the thing that had come ashore, and of its destructiveness. "Now set me down. Gimme a gas-mask an' clear out. You ain't got a burglar's chance of gettin' back."
The pilot set him down, and began ticking away on a code sender even as he landed. Then he climbed swiftly away from the Sergeant, headed in a weaving, crazy line to westward. Then things screamed downward and the Sergeant clapped hands over his ears once more. The ground quivered underfoot, though the eggs landed a good three-quarters of a mile away. The training-plane dropped like a plummet. The sharpness of a hexynitrate explosion carries its effect to quite incredible distances. The fabric of its wings split to ribbons. The ship landed somewhere and smoke rose from it.
"He shouldn't ha' gone up so high," said Sergeant Walpole.
He struck across country for the treads of the Wabbly once more. He saw a school-house. The Wabbly had passed within a hundred yards of it. The school-house seemed deserted. Then the Sergeant saw the hole in its roof. Then he caught the infinitely faint taint of gas.
"Mighty anxious," said Sergeant Walpole woodenly, "not to let news get ahead of 'em. Yeah.... If it busts on places without warnin', it'll have that much easier work. I hope I'm in on the party when we get this damn thing."
There was no use in approaching the school-house, though he had a gas-mask now. Sergeant Walpole went on.
"... The Wabbly made no attempt to do purely military damage. The Enemy command realized that the destruction of civilian morale was even more important than the destruction of munitions factories. In this, the Enemy displayed the same acumen that makes the war a fruitful subject of study to the strategic student." (Strategic Lessons of the War of 1941-43.--U. S. War College. Pp. 81-82.) At nightfall the monster swerved suddenly and moved with greater speed. It showed no lights. It did not even make very much noise. Then the second flight of home-defense planes made their attack. Sergeant Walpole heard them droning overhead. He lit a fire instantly. A little helicopter dropped from the blackness above him and he began to heap dirt desperately on the blaze.
"Who's there?" demanded a voice.
"Sergeant Walpole, Post Fourteen, Eastern Coast Observation," said the Sergeant in a military manner. "Beg to report, sir, that the dinkus that brought down the other ships is housed in that big bulge on top of the Wabbly."
"Get in," said the voice.
The Sergeant obeyed. With a purring noise the helicopter shot upward. Then something went off in mid-sky, miles ahead, where a faint humming noise had announced the flight of attack-planes. A lurid, crackling detonation lit up the sky. One of the ships of the night-flying squadron. From the helicopter they could see the rest of the flight limned clearly in the flash of the explosion. Instantly thereafter there was another such flash. Then another.
"Three," said the voice beside Sergeant Walpole. Another flash. "Four...." The invisible operator of the screw-lifted ship was very calm about it. "Five. Six." The explosions lit the sky. Presently he said grimly. "That's all of them. I'd better report it."
He was silent for a while. Sergeant Walpole saw his hand flicking a key up and down in the faint light of radio bulbs.
"Now shoot the works," said the helicopter man evenly. "All the ships that attacked this afternoon went down. One of them started to report, but didn't get but two words through. What did that damned thing use on them?"
"A dinkus on top, sir," said Sergeant Walpole formally. "I'd found a monocycle, sir, and was trailing the thing. I'd come to the top of a hill and seen it moving through a pine-wood, crashing down the trees in front of it like they wasn't there. Then a egg came down from Gawd-knows-where up aloft. I stopped up my ears, thinkin' it was aimin' for me. Then I seen the ships. Two of 'em were fallin'. They landed, an' I heard a coupla other explosions. Little ones, they sounded like."
The helicopter man's wrist was flicking up and down.
"Little ones!" he said sardonically. "Those ships were carrying five-hundred-pound bombs! It was those you heard going off!"
"Maybe," conceded Sergeant Walpole. "There was twenty or thirty ships flyin' in formation, goin' hell-for-leather for the Wabbly. They were trailin' it from the air. They were comin', natural, for me, because I was between them an' it. Then my pants caught on fire--"
"My pants caught on fire," said Sergeant Walpole, woodenly. "I was sittin' on the monocycle, tryin' to figure out which way to duck. An' my pants caught on fire. The bike was gettin' hot. I climbed off it an' it blew up. My rifle was hot, too, an' I chucked it away. Then I saw a ship go down, on fire. The Wabbly'd stopped still an' it didn't fire a shot. I'll swear to that. Just my monocycle got hot an' caught on fire, an' then a ship busted out in flames an' went down. A couple more eggs come down an' three ships dropped. Didn't hit 'em. The concussion blew the fabric off 'em. Another one caught fire an' crashed. Then another one. I looked, an' saw the next one catch. Then the next. It was like a searchlight beam hittin' 'em. They flamed up, blew up, an' that was that. The last two tried to get away, but they lit up an' crashed."
The pilot's hand flicked up and down, interminably. There was the steady fierce down-beat of the slip-stream from the vertical propellers. The helicopter swept forward in a swooping dash.
"The whole east coast's gone crazy," said the 'copter man drily. "Crazy fools trying to run away. Roads jammed. Work stopped. It leaked out about the planes being wiped out to-day, and everybody in three states has heard those eggs going off. You're the only living man who's seen that crawling thing and lived to tell about it. I've sent your stuff back. What's that about the thing on top?"
"I hid," said Sergeant Walpole, woodenly. "The Wabbly sent over gas-shells where the ships landed. Then it went on. Headin' west. It's got a crazy-lookin' dinkus on top like a searchlight. That moved, while the ships were catchin' fire an' crashin'. Just like a searchlight, it moved an' the ships went down. But the Wabbly didn't fire a shot."
The helicopter man's wrist flexed swiftly....
"Gawd!" said Sergeant Walpole in sudden agony. "Drop! Quick!"
The helicopter went down like a stone. A propeller shrieked away into space. Metalwork up aloft glowed dully red. Then there were whipping, lashing branches closing swiftly all around the helicopter. A jerk. A crash. Stillness. The smell of growing things all about.
"Well?" said the 'copter pilot.
"They turned it on us--whatever it is," said Sergeant Walpole. "They near got us, too."
A match scratched. A cigarette glowed. The Sergeant fumbled for a smoke for himself.
"I'm waiting for that metal to cool off," said the helicopter pilot. "Maybe we can take off again. They located us with a loop while I was sending your stuff. Damn! I see what they've got!"
"A way of transmitting real power in a radio beam," said the 'copter man. "You've seen eddy-current stoves. Everybody cooks with 'em nowadays. A coil with a high-frequency current. You can stick your hand in it and nothing happens. But you stick an iron pan down in the coil and it gets hot and cooks things. Hysteresis. The same thing that used to make transformer-cores get hot. The same thing happens near any beam transmitter, only you have to measure the heating effect with a thermo-couple. The iron absorbs the radio waves and gets hot. The chaps in the Wabbly can probably put ten thousand horsepower in a damned beam. We can't. But any iron in the way will get hot. It blows up a ship at once. Your monocycle and your rifle too. Damn!"
He knocked the ash off his cigarette.
"Scientific, those chaps. I'll see if that metal's cool."
Something whined overhead, rising swiftly to a shriek as it descended. Sergeant Walpole cowered, with his hands to his ears. But it was not an earth-shaking concussion. It was an explosion, yes, but subtly different from the rending snap of hexynitrate.
"Gas," said the Sergeant dully, and fumbled for his mask.
"No good," said the 'copter man briefly. "Vesicatory. Smell it? I guess they've got us. No sag-suits. Not even sag-paste."
The Sergeant lit a match. The flame bent a little from the vertical.
"There's a wind. We got a chance."
"Get going, then," said the 'copter man. "Run upwind."
Sergeant Walpole slid over the side and ran. A hundred yards. Two hundred. Pine-woods have little undergrowth. He heard the helicopter's engines start. The ship tried to lift. He redoubled his speed. Presently he broke out into open ploughed land.
In the starlight he saw a barn, and he raced toward that. Someone else plunged out of the woods toward him. The helicopter-engine was still roaring faintly in the distance. Then a thin whine came down from aloft....