When the echoes of the explosion died away the pilot was grinning queerly. The helicopter's engine was still.
"I said it could be done! Pack of fat-heads at Headquarters!"
"Picking up a ship by its spark-plugs, with a loop. They're doing that up aloft. There's a ship up there, forty thousand feet or so. Maybe half a dozen ships. Refueling in air, I guess, and working with the thing you call a Wabbly. When I started the 'copter's engine they got the spark-impulses and sighted on them. We'd better get away from here."
"Horses in here," said Sergeant Walpole. "The Wabbly came by. No people left."
They brought the animals out. The horses reared and plunged as there were other infinitely sharp, deadly explosions of the eggs coming down eight miles through darkness.
"Let's go. After the Wabbly?" said the 'copter man.
"O' course," said Sergeant Walpole. "Somebody's got to find out how to lick it."
They went clattering through darkness. It was extraordinary what desolation, what utter lack of human life they moved through. They came to a town, and there was a taint of gas in the air. No lights burned in that town. It was dead. The Wabbly had killed it.
"... which panic was enhanced by the destruction of a second flight of fighting planes. However, the destruction of Bendsboro completed civilian demoralization.... A newscasting company re-broadcast a private television contact with the town at the moment the Wabbly entered it. Practically all the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast heard and saw the annihilation of the town--hearing the cries of 'Gas!' and the screams of the people, and hearing the crashings as the Wabbly crushed its way inexorably across the city, spreading terror everywhere.... Frenzied demands were made upon the Government for the recall of troops from the front to offer battle to the Wabbly.... It is considered that at that time the one Wabbly had a military effect equal to at least half a million men." (Strategic Lessons of the War of 1941-43.--U. S. War College. Pp. 83-84.) They did not enter the town. There was just enough of starlight to show that the Wabbly had gone through it, and then crashed back and forth ruthlessly. There was a great gash through the center of the buildings nearest the edge, and there were other gashes visible here and there. Everything was crushed down utterly flat in two eight-foot paths; and there was a mass of crumbled debris four feet high at its highest in between the tread-marks.
They looked, silently, and went on. They reached a railroad track, the quadruple track of a branch-line from New York to Philadelphia. The Wabbly was going along that right-of-way. There was no right-of-way left where it had been. Rails were crushed flat. Culverts were broken through. But the horses raced along the smoothed tread-trails. Once a broken, twisted rail tore at Sergeant Walpole's sleeve. Somehow the last great plate of a tread had bent it upward. Presently they saw a mass of something dark off to the left. Flames were licking meditatively at one of the wrecked cars.
Then they heard explosions far ahead. Flames lighted the sky.
"Our men in action!" said Sergeant Walpole hungrily.
He flogged his mount mercilessly. Then the sky became bright in the distance. The horses, going down the crushed-smooth trail of the treads, gained upon the din. Then they saw the cause of it, miles distant. A train was burning luridly. Its forepart was wreckage, pure and simple. The rest was going up in flames and detonations. Munitions, of course. The Wabbly was off at one side, flame-lit and monstrous, sliding smoothly out of sight.
"Ten miles of railroad," said the 'copter pilot calmly, "mashed out of existence. That's going to scare our people into fits. They can drop eggs till the cows come home, and every egg'll smash up a hundred yards of right-of-way, and we can build it back up again in four hours with mobile track-layers. But ten miles to be regraded and laid is different. Half of America will be imagining all our railroads smashed and starvation ahead."
A piercing light fell upon them.
"Shut it off!" roared Sergeant Walpole. "D'y'want to get us killed?"
He and the 'copter pilot swerved. There was a car there, a huge two-wheeled car, whose gyroscopes hummed softly while its driver tried to extract it from something it was tangled in.
"I commandeer this car," said the 'copter pilot. "Military necessity. We have to trail that Wabbly."
Someone grunted. Lights flashed on within. The 'copter pilot and Sergeant Walpole stiffened to attention. The stars of a major-general shone on the collar of the stout man within.
"Beg pardon, sir," said the pilot, and was still.
"Umph," said the major-general. "There seem to be just four of us alive, who've seen the thing clearly. I hit on it by accident, I'll admit. What do you know about it?"
"It come on a tramp-steamer--" began Sergeant Walpole.
"Hm. You're Sergeant Walpole. Mentioned in dispatches to-morrow, Sergeant. You, sir?"
"Its weapon against our planes, sir," said the 'copter man precisely, "is a radio beam carrying several thousand horsepower of energy. When it hits iron, sir, the energy is absorbed and the iron heats up and blows up the ship. The Wabbly's working with a bomber well aloft, sir, which spots planes from below by picking up their spark-plug flashes in a directional loop. The bomber aloft, sir, drops eggs when the Wabbly's attacked. Sergeant Walpole reports several planes disabled by their fabric being blown off their wings."
"I know," said the major-general. "Dammit, the front takes every ship that's fit to go aloft. We have only wrecks back here. You're sure about that spark-plug affair?"
"Yes, sir," said the 'copter pilot. "My ship crashed, sir. I started the motors again, trying to take off. Eggs began to drop about me instantly."
"Nasty!" said the major-general. "I was going to join my men. We've flung a line of artillery ahead of the thing. Motor-driven, of course. But if they can pick up motors by the spark-waves, the bomber knows all about it. Nasty!"
He lit a cigar, calmly. The gyrocar shifted suddenly and backed away from the thing it had been tangled in.
"Why ain't the bombers been shot down?" demanded Sergeant Walpole angrily. "Dammit, sir, if it wasn't for them bombers--"
"Up to an hour ago," said the major-general, "we had lost sixty-eight planes trying to get those bombers. You see, it works both ways. The bombers drop eggs to help the Wabbly defend itself. And the Wabbly uses that power-beam you spoke of to wipe the sky clean about the bombers. I wondered how it was done, before you explained, sir. Do you men want to come with me? Get on the running-board if you like. We shall probably be killed."
The gyrocar purred softly away, with two horses left wandering and two men clinging fast in a sweep of wind. They found a ribbon of concrete road and the wind sang as the car picked up speed. Then, suddenly, it bucked madly and went out of control, and, as suddenly, was passing along the road again. The Wabbly had passed over the roadway here.
And then they heard gunfire ahead. Honest, malevolent gunfire. Flashes lit the horizon. The gyrocar speeded up until it fairly hummed, and the wind rushed into the nostrils and mouths of the men on the running-boards. The cannonade increased. It reached really respectable proportions, until it became a titanic din. As the road rose up a long incline, a shell burst in mid-air in plain view, and the driver of the gyrocar jammed on the brakes and looked down upon the strangest of sights below.
There were other hills yet ahead, and from behind them came that faint, indefinite glow which is the glow of the lights of a city. At the bottom of a valley, a mile and a half distant, there was the Wabbly. Star-shells flared near it, casting it into intolerable brightness and clear relief. And other shells were breaking upon it and all about it. From beyond the rim of hills came the flashes of guns. The air was full of screamings and many crashes.
The Wabbly was motionless. It looked more than ever like a monstrous, deadly centipede. It was under a rain of fire that would have shattered a dreadnaught of the 1920's. Its monstrous treads were motionless. It seemed queerly quiescent, abstracted; it seemed less defiant of the shell-fire that broke upon it like the hail of hell, than indifferent to it. Yes, it seemed indifferent!
Only the queer excrescence on its top moved, and that stirred vaguely. Star-shells floated overhead and bathed it in pitiless light. And it remained motionless.... Sergeant Walpole had a vague impression of colossal detonations taking place miles above his head, but the sound was lost in the drumfire of artillery nearer at hand.
Then a gun on the Wabbly moved. It spouted a flash of bluish flame, and then another and another. It seemed to fire gas-shells into the town, at this moment, ignoring the batteries playing upon it. It was still again, while the queer excrescence on its back moved vaguely and shells burst about it in a very inferno.
Then the treads moved, and with a swift celerity the Wabbly moved smoothly forward and up the incline toward the cannonading guns. It went over the top of the incline, and those in the gyrocar saw its reception. Guns opened on it at point-blank range. Now the Wabbly itself went into action. In the light of star-shells and explosions they saw its guns begin to bellow. It went swiftly and malevolently forward, moving with centipedean smoothness.
It dipped out of sight. The cannonade lessened. Two guns stopped. Three.... Half a dozen guns were out of action. A dozen guns ceased to fire.... One last weapon boomed desperately at its maximum rate of fire....
That stopped. The night became strangely, terribly still. The major-general put aside his radivision receiver. Though neither the helicopter pilot nor Sergeant Walpole had noticed it, he had opened communication the instant the gyrocar came to a stop. Now the major-general was desperately, terribly white.
"The artillery is wiped out," he observed detachedly. "The Wabbly, it seems, is going on into the town."
They did not want to listen, those men who waited futilely by the gyrocar which had witnessed the invulnerability of the Wabbly to all attack. They did not want to listen at all. But they heard the noises as the Wabbly crashed across the town, and back and forth.
"Morale effect," said the major-general, through stiff lips. "That's what it's for. To break down the morale behind the lines. Good God! What hellish things mere words can mean!"
"... The only weak spot in the Wabbly's design, apparently, was the necessity of using its entire engine-power in the power-beam with which it protected itself and its attendant bombers from aerial attack. For a time, before New Brunswick, it was forced to remain still, under fire, while it fought off and destroyed an attacking fleet eight miles above it. With sufficiently powerful artillery, it might have been destroyed at that moment. But it was invulnerable to the artillery available.... Deliberately false statements were broadcast to reassure the public, but the public was already skeptical, as it later became incredulous, of official reports of victories. The destruction of New Brunswick became known despite official denials, and colossal riots broke out among the inhabitants of the larger cities, intent upon escape from defenseless towns.... Orders were actually issued withdrawing a quarter of a million men from the front-line reserve, with artillery in proportion to their force." (Strategic Lessons of the War of 1941-43.--U. S. War College. P. 92.) The major-general left them at the town, now quite still and silent. Sergeant Walpole said detachedly: "We'll prob'ly find a portable sender, sir, an' trail the Wabbly. That's about all we can do, sir."
"It looks," said the major-general rather desperately, "as if that is all anybody can do. I'm going on to take command ahead."
The 'copter pilot said politely: "Sir, if you're going to sow mines for the Wabbly--"
"That power-beam can explode them, sir, before the Wabbly gets to them. May I suggest, sir, that mine-cases with no metal in them at all would be worth trying?"
"Thank you," said the major-general grimly. "I'll have concrete ones made."
Sergeant Walpole grunted suddenly.
"Look here, sir! The Wabbly stops when it uses that dinkus on top. This guy here says it uses a lotta power--four or five thousan' horsepower."
"More likely ten or twenty," said the 'copter pilot.
"Maybe," said Sergeant Walpole profoundly, "it takes all the power they got to work that dinkus. They were workin' it just now when the artillery was slammin' 'em. So next time you want to tackle it, stick a flock o' bombs around an' attack the bombers too. If they're kept busy down below, maybe the planes can get the bombers, or otherwise they'll get a chance to use a big gun on the Wabbly."
The major-general nodded.
"We four," he observed, "are the only living men who've actually seen the Wabbly and gotten away. I shall use both your suggestions. And I shall not send those orders by radio--not even tight beam radio. I'll carry them myself. Good luck!"
A non-commissioned officer of the Eastern Coast Observation Force and a yet uncommissioned flying cadet waved a cheerful good-by to the major-general in charge of home defense in three states. Then they went on into the town.
"Monocycles first," said Sergeant Walpole. "An' a sender."
The 'copter man nodded. The street-lights of the town dimmed and brightened. The Wabbly had paused only to create havoc, not to produce utter chaos. It had gone back and forth over the town two or three times, spewing out gas as it went. But most of the town was still standing, and the power-house had not been touched. Only its untended Diesels had checked before a fuel-pump cleared.
They found a cycle-shop, its back wall bulged in by wreckage against it. Sergeant Walpole inspected its wares expertly. A voice began to speak suddenly. A television set had somehow been turned on by the crash that bulged the back wall.
"The monster tank has been held in check," said a smug voice encouragingly. "Encountered by home-defense troops and artillery, it proved unable to face shell-fire...."
"Liars!" said the 'copter man calmly. He picked up the nearest loose object and flung it into the bland face of the official news-announcer. The television set went dead, but there were hissings and sputterings in its interior. He had flung a Bissel battery at it, one of a display-group, and its high-tension terminals hissed and sparked among the stray wires in the cabinet.
"That makes me mad," said the 'copter man grimly. "Lying for morale! The other side murders our civilians to break down morale, and our side lies about it to build morale back up again. To hell with morale!"
Sergeant Walpole reached in and pulled out the battery. Bissel batteries turn out six hundred volts these days, and they make a fat spark when short-circuited.
"For Gawd's sake!" said Sergeant Walpole. "If they can pick up sparks from a motor, can't they pick 'em up from this? What the hell y'doin'? Y'want 'em droppin' eggs on us? Say!"
He stopped short, his eyes burning. He began to talk, suddenly groping for words while he waved the high-powered small battery in his hand. The helicopter man listened, at first skeptically and then with an equally hungry enthusiasm.
"Sergeant," he said evenly, "that's an idea! A whale of an idea! A hell of a fine idea! Let's get some rockets!"
"Why rockets?" demanded Sergeant Walpole in his turn. "Whatcha want to do? Celebrate the Fourth o' July?"
The 'copter man explained, this time, and Sergeant Walpole seized upon the addition. Then they began a hunt. They roved the town over, and it was not pleasant. When the Wabbly had gone into that town there had still been very many living human beings in it. Some of them had believed in the ability of the artillery to defend the town against a single monster. Some had had no means of getting away. But all of them had tried to get away when the Wabbly went lurching in among the houses.
For them, the Wabbly had spewed out deadly gases. Also it had simply forged ahead. And the two living men in their gas-masks paid as little attention as possible to the bodies in the streets, most of them in flimsy night-clothing, struck down in frenzied flight, but they could not help seeing too much....
In the end they went back to the artillery-positions and found signal-rockets there. Two full cases of them, marvelously unexploded. A little later two monocycles purred madly in the beaten-down paths of the monstrous treads. Sergeant Walpole bore very many Bissel batteries, which will deliver six hundred volts even on short-circuit for half an hour at a time. The 'copter man carried some of them, too, and both men were loaded down.
When dawn came they were hollow-eyed and gaunt and weary. It had started to rain, too, and both of them were drenched. They could see no more than a couple of hundred yards in every direction, and they were hungry, and they had seen things no man should have to look upon, in the way of destruction. They came upon a wrecked artillery-train just as the world lightened to a pallid gray. Guns twisted and burst. Caissons, no more than shattered scraps of metal, because of the explosion of the shells within them. And the tread-tracks of the Wabbly led across the mess. Steam still rose, hissing softly, from the bent and twisted guns which had burst when they were heated to redness by the power-beam. And there was a staff gyrocar crumpled against a tree where it had been flung by some explosion or other. There were neither sound nor wounded men about; only dead ones. The Wabbly had been here.
"Hullo," said the helicopter man in a dreary levity, "there's a portable vision set in this car. Let's call up the general and see how he is?"
Sergeant Walpole spat. Then he held up his hand. He was listening. Far off in the drumming downpour of the rain there was a rumbling sound. He had heard it before. It was partly made up of the noise of internal-combustion engines of unthinkable power, and partly of grumbling treads forcing a way through reluctant trees. It was a long way off, now, but it was coming nearer.
"The Wabbly," said Sergeant Walpole. "Comin' back. Why? Hell's bells! Why's it comin' back?"
"I don't know," said the 'copter man, "but let's get some rockets fixed up."
The two of them worked almost lackadaisically. They were tired out. But they took the tiny Bissel batteries and twisted the attached wires about the rocket-heads. They had twenty or thirty of them fixed by the time the noise of the Wabbly was very near. There was the noise of felled trees, pushed down by the Wabbly in its progress. Great, crackling crashes, and then crunching sounds, and above them the thunderous smooth purring rumble of the monster. The 'copter man climbed into the upside-down staff car. He turned the vision set on and fiddled absurdly with the controls.
"I'm getting something," he announced suddenly. "The bomber up aloft is sending its stuff down a beam, a tight beam to the Wabbly. Listen to it!"
The uncouth, clacking syllables of the enemy tongue came from the vision set. Someone was speaking crisply and precisely somewhere. Blurred, indistinct flashes appeared on the vision set screen.
"They ought to be worried," the 'copter man said wearily. "Even an infra-red telescope can't pick up a damned thing through clouds like this. And the Wabbly's in a mess without a bomber to help...."
Sergeant Walpole did not reply. He was exhausted. He sat looking tiredly off through the rain in the direction of the approaching noise. Somehow it did not occur to him to run away. He sat quite still, smoking a soggy cigarette.
Something beaked and huge appeared behind a monstrous oak-tree. It came on. The oak-tree crackled, crashed, and went down. It was ground under by the monstrous war-engine that went over it. The Wabbly was unbelievably impersonal and horrible in its progress. There had been a filling-station for gyrocars close by the place where the artillery-train had been wrecked. One of the eight-foot treads loomed over that station, descended upon it--and the filling-station was no more. The Wabbly was then not more than a hundred yards from Sergeant Walpole, less than a city block. He looked at it in a weary detachment. It was as high as a four-story house, and it was two hundred feet long, and forty feet wide at the treads with the monstrous gun-bulges reaching out an extra ten or fifteen feet on either side above. And it came grumbling on toward him.
"... Considered as a strategic move, the Wabbly was a triumph. Eighteen hours after its landing, the orders for troops called for half a million men to be withdrawn from the forces at the front and in reserve, and munitions-factories were being diverted from the supply of the front to the manufacture of devices designed to cope with it. This, in turn, entailed changes in the front-line activities of the Command.... Altogether, it may be said that the Wabbly, eighteen hours after its landing, was exerting the military pressure of an army of not less than half a million men upon the most vulnerable spot in our defenses--the rear.... And when its effect upon civilian morale is considered, the Wabbly, as a force in being, constituted the most formidable military unit in history." (Strategic Lessons of the War of 1941-43.--U. S. War College. P. 93.) As Sergeant Walpole saw the Wabbly, there was no sign of humanity anywhere about the thing. It was a monstrous mass of metal, powder-stained now where shells had burst against it, and it seemed metallically alive, impersonally living. The armored tube with vision-slits at its ends must have been the counterpart of a ship's bridge, but it looked like the eye-ridge of an insect's face. The bulbous control-rooms at the ends looked like a gigantic insect's multi-faceted eyes. And the huge treads, so thick as to constitute armor for their own protection, were so cunningly joined and sprung that they, too, seemed like part of a living thing.
It came within twenty yards of the staff-car with the 'copter man in it and Sergeant Walpole smoking outside. It ignored them. It had destroyed all life at this place. And Sergeant Walpole alone was visible, and he sat motionless and detached, unemotionally waiting to be killed. The Wabbly clanked and rumbled and roared obliviously past them. Sergeant Walpole saw the flexing springs in the tread-joints, and there were hundreds of them, of a size to support a freight-car. He saw a refuse-tube casually ejecting a gush of malodorous stuff, in which the garbage of a mess-table was plainly identifiable. A drop or two of the stuff splashed on him, and he smelled coffee.
And then the treads lifted, and he saw the monstrous gas-spreading tubes at the stern, and the exhaust-pipes into which he could have ridden, monocycle and all. Then he saw a man in the Wabbly. There were ventilation-ports open at the pointed stern and a man was looking out, some fifteen feet above the ground, smoking placidly and looking out at the terrain the Wabbly left behind it. He was wearing an enemy uniform cap.
The monster went on. The roar of its passing diminished a little. And the 'copter man came suddenly out of the staff-car, struggling with the portable vision set.
"I think we can do it," he said shortly. "It's in constant beam communication with a bomber up aloft, and I think they're worried up there because they can't see a damned thing. But it's a good team. With the Wabbly's beam, which takes so much power no bomber could possibly carry it, the bombers are safe, and the bombers can locate any motor-driven thing that might attack the Wabbly and blow it to hell. But right now they can't see it. So I think we can do it. Coming?"
Sergeant Walpole threw away his cigarette and rose stiffly. Even those few moments of rest had intensified his weariness. He flung a leg over the monocycle's seat and pointed tiredly to the trail of the Wabbly. It nearly paralleled, here, a ribbon of concrete road which once had been a reasonably important feeder-highway.