They went off through the rain along the road, nearly parallel to the route the Wabbly was taking. Rain beat at them. Off in the woods to their right the Wabbly's noise grew louder as they overtook it. They passed it, and came abruptly out of the wooded area upon cultivated fields, rolling and beautifully cared-for. There had been a farm-headquarters off to one side, a huge central-station for all the agricultural work on what once would have been half a county, but there were jagged walls where buildings had been, and smoke still rose from the place.
Then the Wabbly came out of the woods, a dim gray monstrous shape in the rain.
The helicopter man pulled the ignition-cord and a rocket began to sputter. He made a single wipe with his knife-blade along the twisted insulated wires of the Bissel battery, and a wavering blue spark leaped into being. The rocket shot upward, curved down, and landed with enough force to bury its head in the muddy ploughed earth and conceal the signal-flare that must have ignited.
"That ought to do it," said the 'copter man. "Let's send some more."
Sergeant Walpole got exhaustedly off his monocycle and duplicated the 'copter man's efforts. A second rocket, a third.... A dozen or more rockets went off, each one bearing a wavering, uncertain blue spark at its tip. And that spark would continue for half an hour or more. In a loop aerial, eight miles up, it might sound like a spark-plug, or it might sound like something else. But it would not sound like the sort of thing that ought to spring up suddenly in front of the Wabbly, and it would sound like something that had better be bombed, for safety's sake.
The Wabbly was moving across the ploughed fields with a deceptive smoothness. It was drawing nearer and nearer to the spot where the rockets had plunged to earth.
Another rocket left the weary pair of men, its nearly flashless exhaust invisible in the daytime, anyway. The Wabbly backed slowly from the irregular line where the first rockets sparked invisibly. It was no more than a distinct gray shadow in the falling rain, but the queer bulk atop its body moved suddenly. Like a searchlight, the power-beam swept the earth before the Wabbly. But nothing happened.
The 'copter man turned on the vision set he had packed from the staff gyrocar. Voices, crisp and anxious, came out of it. He caressed the set affectionately.
"Listen to 'em, Sergeant," he said hungrily. "They're worried!"
The voice changed suddenly. There was a sudden musical buzzing in the set, as of two dozen spitting sparks, in as many tones, all going at once.
"Letting the guys in the Wabbly hear what they hear," said the 'copter man grimly. "If God's good to us, now...."
The voices changed again. They stopped.
The Wabbly itself was still, halted in its passage across a clear and rain-swept field by little sparking sounds which seemed to indicate the presence of something that had better be bombed for safety's sake.
A thin whining noise came down from aloft. It rose to a piercing shriek, and there was a gigantic crater a half mile from the Wabbly, from which smoke rose lazily. The Wabbly remained motionless. Another whining noise which turned to a shriek.... The explosion was terrific. It was a bit nearer the Wabbly.
"We'll send 'em some more rockets," said the 'copter man.
They went hissing invisibly through the rain. The Wabbly backed cautiously away from the spot where they landed, because they were wholly invisible and they made a sound which those in the Wabbly could not understand. Always, to a savage, the unexplained is dangerous. Modern warfare has reached the same high peak of wisdom. The Wabbly drew off from the sparks because it could not know what made them, and because it had used its power-beam and the bomber had dropped its bombs without stopping or destroying them. It was not conceivable to anybody on either the Wabbly or the bombers aloft that inexplicable things could be especially contrived to confront the Wabbly, unless they were contrived to destroy it.
"They don't know what in hell they're up against," said the 'copter man joyously. "Now lets give 'em fits!"
Rockets went off in swift succession. To the blinded men in the bomber above the clouds it seemed that unexplained mechanisms were springing into action by dozens, all about the Wabbly. They were mechanisms. They were electric mechanisms. They were obviously designed to have some effect on the Wabbly. And the Wabbly had no defense against the unguessed-at effects of unknown weapons except....
Bombs began to rain from the sky. The Wabbly crawled toward the last gap left in the ring of mysterious mechanisms. That closed. Triumphant, singing sparks sang viciously in the amplifiers. Nothing was visible. Nothing! Perhaps that was what precipitated panic. The bombers rained down their deadly missiles. And somebody forgot the exact length of time it takes a bomb to drop eight miles....
Sergeant Walpole and the 'copter man were flat on the ground with their hands to their ears. The ground bucked and smote them. The unthinkable violence of the hexynitrate explosions tore at their nerves, even at their sanity. And then there was an explosion with a subtle difference in its sound. Sergeant Walpole looked up, his head throbbing, his eyes watering, dizzy and dazed, and bleeding at the nose and ears.
Then he bumped into the 'copter man, shuddering on the ground. He did it deliberately. There was a last crashing sound, and some of the blasted earth spattered on them. But then the 'copter man looked where Sergeant Walpole pointed dizzily.
The Wabbly was careened crazily on one side. One of its treads was uncoiling slowly from its frame. Its stern was blown in. Someone had forgotten how long it takes a bomb to drop eight miles, and the Wabbly had crawled under one. More, from the racked-open stern of the Wabbly there was coming a roaring, spitting cloud of gas. The Wabbly's storage-tanks of gas had been set off. Inside, it would be a shambles. Its crew would be dead, killed by the gas the Wabbly itself had broadcast in its wake....
"... It is a point worth noticing, by any student of strategy, that while the Wabbly in working solely for effectiveness in lowering civilian morale worked upon sound principles, yet the destruction of the Wabbly by Sergeant Walpole and Flight Cadet Ryerson immediately repaired all the damage done. Had it worked toward more direct military aims, its work would have survived it. It remains a pretty question for the student, whether the Enemy Command, with the information it possessed, made the soundest strategic use of its unparalleled weapon.... But on the whole, the raid of the Wabbly remains the most startling single strategic operation of the war, if only because of its tremendous effect upon civilian morale...." (Strategic Lessons of the War of 1941-43.--U. S. War College. Pp. 94-96.) A major-general climbed out of a staff gyrocar and waded through mud for half a mile, after which he, in person, waked two sleeping men. They were sprawled out in the puddle of rain which had gathered in a torn-away tread from the Wabbly. They waked with extreme reluctance, and then yawned even in the act of saluting in a military manner.
"Yes, sir;" said Sergeant Walpole, yawning again. "Yes, sir; the bombers've gone. We heard 'em tryin' to raise the Wabbly for about half an hour after she'd blown up. Then they cut off. I think they went home, sir. Most likely, sir, they think we used some new dinkus on the Wabbly. It ain't likely they'll realize they blew it up themselves for us."
The major-general gave crisp orders. Men began to explore the Wabbly, cautiously. He turned back to the two sleepy and disreputable men who had caused its destruction. His aspect was one of perplexity and admiration.
"What did you men do?" he demanded warmly. "What in hell did you do?"
Sergeant Walpole grinned tiredly. The 'copter man spoke for him.
"I think, sir," said the helicopter man, "that we affected the morale of the Wabbly's and the bombers' crews."
by Murray Leinster
Bordman knew there was something wrong when the throbbing, acutely uncomfortable vibration of rocket blasts shook the ship. Rockets were strictly emergency devices, these days, so when they were used there was obviously an emergency.
He sat still. He had been reading, in the passenger lounge of the Warlock--a very small lounge indeed--but as a senior Colonial Survey officer he was well-traveled enough to know when things did not go right. He looked up from the bookscreen, waiting. Nobody came to explain the eccentricity of a spaceship using rockets. It would have been immediate, on a regular liner, but the Warlock was practically a tramp. This trip it carried just two passengers. Passenger service was not yet authorized to the planet ahead, and would not be until Bordman had made the report he was on his way to compile. At the moment, though, the rockets blasted, and stopped, and blasted again. There was something definitely wrong.
The Warlock's other passenger came out of her cabin. She looked surprised. She was Aletha Redfeather, an unusually lovely Amerind. It was extraordinary that a girl could be so self-sufficient on a tedious space-voyage, and Bordman approved of her. She was making the journey to Xosa II as a representative of the Amerind Historical Society, but she'd brought her own bookreels and some elaborate fancywork which--woman-fashion--she used to occupy her hands. She hadn't been at all a nuisance. Now she tilted her head on one side as she looked inquiringly at Bordman.
"I'm wondering, too," he told her, just as an especially sustained and violent shuddering of rocket-impulsion made his chair legs thutter on the floor.
There was a long period of stillness. Then another violent but much shorter blast. A shorter one still. Presently there was a half-second blast which must have been from a single rocket tube because of the mild shaking it produced. After that there was nothing at all.
Bordman frowned to himself. He'd been anticipating groundfall within a matter of hours, certainly. He'd just gone through his specbook carefully and re-familiarized himself with the work he was to survey on Xosa II. It was a perfectly commonplace minerals-planet development, and he'd expected to clear it FE--fully established--and probably TP and NQ ratings as well, indicating that tourists were permitted and no quarantine was necessary. Considering the aridity of the planet, no bacteriological dangers could be expected to exist, and if tourists wanted to view its monstrous deserts and infernolike wind sculptures--why they should be welcome.
But the ship had used rocket drive in the planet's near vicinity. Emergency. Which was ridiculous. This was a perfectly routine sort of voyage. Its purpose was the delivery of heavy equipment--specifically a smelter--and a senior Colonial Survey officer to report the completion of primary development.
Aletha waited, as if for more rocket blasts. Presently she smiled at some thought that had occurred to her.
"If this were an adventure tape," she said humorously, "the loudspeaker would now announce that the ship had established itself in an orbit around the strange, uncharted planet first sighted three days ago, and that volunteers were wanted for a boat landing."
Bordman demanded impatiently: "Do you bother with adventure tapes? They're nonsense! A pure waste of time!"
Aletha smiled again.
"My ancestors," she told him, "used to hold tribal dances and make medicine and boast about how many scalps they'd taken and how they did it. It was satisfying--and educational for the young. Adolescents became familiar with the idea of what we nowadays call adventure. They were partly ready for it when it came. I suspect your ancestors used to tell each other stories about hunting mammoths and such. So I think it would be fun to hear that we were in orbit and that a boat landing was in order."
Bordman grunted. There were no longer adventures. The universe was settled; civilized. Of course there were still frontier planets--Xosa II was one--but pioneers had only hardships. Not adventures.
The ship-phone speaker clicked. It said curtly: "Notice. We have arrived at Xosa II and have established an orbit about it. A landing will be made by boat."
Bordman's mouth dropped open.
"What the devil's this?" he demanded.
"Adventure, maybe," said Aletha. Her eyes crinkled very pleasantly when she smiled. She wore the modern Amerind dress--a sign of pride in the ancestry which now implied such diverse occupations as interstellar steel construction and animal husbandry and llano-planet colonization. "If it were adventure, as the only girl on this ship I'd have to be in the landing party, lest the tedium of orbital waiting make the"--her smile widened to a grin--"the pent-up restlessness of trouble-makers in the crew----"
The ship-phone clicked again.
"Mr. Bordman. Miss Redfeather. According to advices from the ground, the ship may have to stay in orbit for a considerable time. You will accordingly be landed by boat. Will you make yourselves ready, please, and report to the boat-blister?" The voice paused and added, "Hand luggage only, please."
Aletha's eyes brightened. Bordman felt the shocked incredulity of a man accustomed to routine when routine is impossibly broken. Of course survey ships made boat landings from orbit, and colony ships let down robot hulls by rocket when there was as yet no landing grid for the handling of a ship. But never before in his experience had an ordinary freighter, on a routine voyage to a colony ready for its final degree-of-completion survey, ever landed anybody by boat.
"This is ridiculous!" said Bordman, fuming.
"Maybe it's adventure," said Aletha. "I'll pack."
She disappeared into her cabin. Bordman hesitated. Then he went into his own. The colony on Xosa II had been established two years ago. Minimum comfort conditions had been realized within six months. A temporary landing grid for light supply ships was up within a year. It had permitted stock-piling, and it had been taken down to be rebuilt as a permanent grid with every possible contingency provided for. The eight months since the last ship landing was more than enough for the building of the gigantic, spidery, half-mile-high structure which would handle this planet's interstellar commerce. There was no excuse for an emergency! A boat landing was nonsensical!
But he surveyed the contents of his cabin. Most of the cargo of the Warlock was smelter equipment which was to complete the outfitting of the colony. It was to be unloaded first. By the time the ship's holds were wholly empty, the smelter would be operating. The ship would wait for a full cargo of pig metal. Bordman had expected to live in this cabin while he worked on the survey he'd come to make, and to leave again with the ship.
Now he was to go aground by boat. He fretted. The only emergency equipment he could possibly need was a heat-suit. He doubted the urgency of that. But he packed some clothing for indoors, and then defiantly included his specbook and the volumes of definitive data to which specifications for structures and colonial establishments always referred. He'd get to work on his report immediately he landed.
He went out of the passenger's lounge to the boat-blister. An engineer's legs projected from the boat port. The engineer withdrew, with a strip of tape from the boat's computer. He compared it dourly with a similar strip from the ship's figurebox. Bordman consciously acted according to the best traditions of passengers.
"What's the trouble?" he asked.
"We can't land," said the engineer shortly.
He went away--according to the tradition by which ships' crews are always scornful of passengers.
Bordman scowled. Then Aletha came, carrying a not-too-heavy bag. Bordman put it in the boat, disapproving of the crampedness of the craft. But this wasn't a lifeboat. It was a landing boat. A lifeboat had Lawlor drive and could travel light-years, but in the place of rockets and rocket fuel it had air-purifiers and water-recovery units and food-stores. It couldn't land without a landing grid aground, but it could get to a civilized planet. This landing boat could land without a grid, but its air wouldn't last long.
"Whatever's the matter," said Bordman darkly, "it's incompetence somewhere!"
But he couldn't figure it out. This was a cargo ship. Cargo ships neither took off nor landed under their own power. It was too costly of fuel they would have to carry. So landing grids used local power--which did not have to be lifted--to heave ships out into space, and again used local power to draw them to ground again. Therefore ships carried fuel only for actual space-flight, which was economy. Yet landing grids had no moving parts, and while they did have to be monstrous structures they actually drew power from planetary ionospheres. So with no moving parts to break down and no possibility of the failure of a power source--landing grids couldn't fail! So there couldn't be an emergency to make a ship ride orbit around a planet which had a landing grid!
The engineer came back. He carried a mail sack full of letter-reels. He waved his hand. Aletha crawled into the landing-boat port. Bordman followed. Four people, with a little crowding, could have gotten into the little ship. Three pretty well filled it. The engineer followed them and sealed the port.
"Sealed off," he said into the microphone before him.
The exterior-pressure needle moved halfway across the dial. The interior-pressure needle stayed steady.
"All tight," said the engineer.
The exterior-pressure needle flicked to zero. There were clanking sounds. The long halves of the boat-blister stirred and opened, and abruptly the landing boat was in an elongated cup in the hull-plating, and above them there were many, many stars. The enormous disk of a nearby planet floated into view around the hull. It was monstrous and blindingly bright. It was of a tawny color, with great, irregular areas of yellow and patches of bluishness. But most of it was the color of sand. And all its colors varied in shade--some places were lighter and some darker--and over at one edge there was blinding whiteness which could not be anything but an ice cap. But Bordman knew that there was no ocean or sea or lake on all this whole planet, and the ice cap was more nearly hoarfrost than such mile-deep glaciation as would be found at the poles of a maximum-comfort world.
"Strap in," said the engineer over his shoulder. "No-gravity coming, and then rocket-push. Settle your heads."
Bordman irritably strapped himself in. He saw Aletha busy at the same task, her eyes shining. Without warning, there came a sensation of acute discomfort. It was the landing boat detaching itself from the ship and the diminishment of the ship's closely-confined artificial-gravity field. That field suddenly dropped to nothingness, and Bordman had the momentary sickish dizziness that flicked-off gravity always produces. At the same time his heart pounded unbearably in the instinctive, racial-memory reaction to the feel of falling.
Then roarings. He was thrust savagely back against his seat. His tongue tried to slide back into his throat. There was an enormous oppression on his chest. He found himself thinking panicky profanity.
Simultaneously the vision ports went black, because they were out of the shadow of the ship. The landing boat turned--but there was no sensation of centrifugal force--and they were in a vast obscurity with merely a dim phantom of the planetary surface to be seen. But behind them a blue-white sun shone terribly. Its light was warm--hot--even though it came through the polarized shielding ports.
"Did ... did you say," panted Aletha happily--breathless because of the acceleration--"that there weren't any adventures?"
Bordman did not answer. But he did not count discomfort as an adventure.
The engineer did not look out the ports at all. He watched the screen before him. There was a vertical line across the side of the lighted disk. A blip moved downward across it, showing their height in thousands of miles. After a long time the blip reached the bottom, and the vertical line became double and another blip began to descend. It measured height in hundreds of miles. A bright spot--a square--appeared at one side of the screen. A voice muttered metallically, and suddenly seemed to shout, and then muttered again. Bordman looked out one of the black ports and saw the planet as if through smoked glass. It was a ghostly reddish thing which filled half the cosmos. It had mottlings. Its edge was curved. That would be the horizon.
The engineer moved controls and the white square moved. It went across the screen. He moved more controls. It came back to the center. The height-in-hundreds blip was at the bottom, now, and the vertical line tripled and a tens-of-miles-height blip crawled downward.
There were sudden, monstrous plungings of the landing boat. It had hit the outermost fringes of atmosphere. The engineer said words it was not appropriate for Aletha to hear. The plungings became more violent. Bordman held on--to keep from being shaken to pieces despite the straps--and stared at the murky surface of the planet. It seemed to be fleeing from them and they to be trying to overtake it. Gradually, very gradually, its flight appeared to slow. They were down to twenty miles, then.
Quite abruptly the landing boat steadied. The square spot bobbed about in the center of the astrogation screen. The engineer worked controls to steady it.
The ports cleared a little. Bordman could see the ground below more distinctly. There were patches of every tint that mineral coloring could produce. There were vast stretches of tawny sand. A little while more, and he could see the shadows of mountains. He made out mountain flanks which should have had valleys between them and other mountain flanks beyond, but they had tawny flatnesses between, instead. These, he knew, would be the sand plateaus which had been observed on this planet and which had only a still-disputed explanation. But he could see areas of glistening yellow and dirty white, and splashes of pink and streaks of ultramarine and gray and violet, and the incredible red of iron oxide covering square miles--too much to be believed.
The landing-boat's rockets cut off. It coasted. Presently the horizon tilted and all the dazzling ground below turned sedately beneath them. There came staccato instructions from a voice-speaker, which the engineer obeyed. The landing boat swung low--below the tips of giant mauve mountains with a sand plateau beyond them--and its nose went up. It stalled.
Then the rockets roared again--and now, with air about them and after a momentary pause, they were horribly loud--and the boat settled down and down upon its own tail of fire.
There was a completely blinding mass of dust and rocket fumes which cut off all sight of everything else. Then there was a crunching crash, and the engineer swore peevishly to himself. He cut the rockets again. Finally.
Bordman found himself staring straight up, still strapped in his chair. The boat had settled on its own tail fins, and his feet were higher than his head, and he felt ridiculous. He saw the engineer at work unstrapping himself. He duplicated the action, but it was absurdly difficult to get out of the chair.
Aletha managed more gracefully. She didn't need help.
"Wait," said the engineer ungraciously, "till somebody comes."
So they waited, using what had been chair backs for seats.
The engineer moved a control and the windows cleared further. They saw the surface of Xosa II. There was no living thing in sight. The ground itself was pebbles and small rocks and minor boulders--all apparently tumbled from the starkly magnificent mountains to one side. There were monstrous, many-colored cliffs and mesas, every one eaten at in the unmistakable fashion of wind-erosion. Through a notch in the mountain wall before them a strange, fan-shaped, frozen formation appeared. If such a thing had been credible, Bordman would have said that it was a flow of sand simulating a waterfall. And everywhere there was blinding brightness and the look and feel of blistering sunshine. But there was not one single leaf or twig or blade of grass. This was pure desert. This was Xosa II.