Brand nodded, wordlessly, walking on the balls of his feet like a boxer, holding himself ready to swerve the thing should it charge them. Which--next instant--it did!
With a whistling bellow it gathered its tons of weight and thundered with incredible quickness at the gnats that were stinging its flanks and tail.
Desperately Brand played the tube across the vast chest, scoring a smouldering gash in the scale-covered flesh just above the gash Dex had seared a few moments before.
"Sorry, old fellow," Brand muttered to the screaming beast. "We hate to bait you like this, but it has to be done. Come on, now, through that wall behind you, and give us a chance at the lever."
But through the wall behind it the vast creature, not unnaturally, refused to go! It darted from side to side. Backward and forward. Up to the wall, only to back bewilderedly away from it. And constantly the tubes flicked their blistering, maddening rays along its monstrous sides and tail, as the Earthmen tried to guide it into the wall.
"Hope there's enough left of it to do the trick," said Brand, white-lipped. The monster was smoking in a dozen spots now, and several of the hump-like scales on its back had been burned away till the vast spine looked like a giant saw that was missing a third of its teeth. "God, I'm thinking we'll kill it before we can drive it through that wall!"
Greca nodded soberly, keeping her eyes on the distant door to their rear. Twice that door had been opened, and twice she had directed the death rays into its opening to mow down the gangling figures behind it. But she had said nothing of this to her man. He was busy enough with his own task!
"The door to the dome--" Dex shouted suddenly.
But Brand merely nodded, even as a discharge from his tube annihilated the Rogan that had appeared in the doorway before them. He had seen that door stealthily opening even before Dex had.
"It had better be soon, Dex!" he called. "Rogans in front of us--Rogans behind us--and--look out! On your side of the fence, there!"
Dex whirled in time to pick off a grotesque, pipe-like figure that had suddenly appeared on the broad wall of the enclosure. Then he turned to the frenzied problem of driving the monster through the building wall.
"The thing's going mad, Brand!" he cried, his voice high-pitched and brittle. "Watch out!"
It was only too evident that his statement was true. The baited monster, harried blindly this way and that, hounded against the blank wall behind it by something that bit chunks of living flesh out of its legs and sides, was losing whatever instinctive mental balance it had ever had. Its dimly functioning brain, probably no larger than a walnut in that gigantic skull, ceased more and more to guide it.
With a rasping scream that set the Earthmen's teeth on edge, it charged for the wall on Dex's side. Dex just managed to swerve it with a blast from the tube so prolonged that half its great lower jaw fell away.
At this the titanic thing went wholly, colossally mad! It whirled toward Brand, jerking around again as a searing on that side jarred its dull sensory nerves, then headed at last straight toward the stone wall of the dome building.
With the rays from both tubes flicking it like monstrous spurs, it charged insanely toward the bulge of the circular wall. With all its tons and tons of weight it crashed against the stonework. There was a thunderous crackling noise, and the wall sagged in perceptibly, while the metal roof bent to accommodate the new curvature of its supporting beams.
The monstrous lizard, jerked off its huge legs by the impact, staggered up and retreated toward the two men. But again the maddening pain in its hindquarters sent it careening toward the building wall. This time it raised high up on its hind legs in a blind effort to climb over it. "God, it must be five stories tall!" ejaculated Brand. Thunderingly its forelegs came down on the edge of the roof.
There was another deafening crash of stone and shrieking of torn metal. Just under the cornice, the wall sagged away from the roof and the top rows of heavy stone blocks slithered inward.
"Again!" shouted Brand.
His tube was pointing almost continuously now at the metal door leading from the dome building. The Rogans inside, at the shocks that were battering down a section of their great building, were all trying to get out to the yard at once. In a stream they rushed for the doorway. And in loathsome heaps they fell at the impact of the ray and shriveled to nothingness on the bombarded threshold.
"Once more--" Brand repeated, his voice hoarse and tense.
And as though the monster heard and understood, it rushed again with all its vast weight and force against the wall in a mad effort to escape the things that were blasting the living flesh from its colossal framework.
This charge was the last. With a roaring crash a section of the building thirty yards across went back and down, leaving the massive roof to sag threateningly on its battered truss-work.
It was as though the side of an ant-heap had been ripped away. Inside the domed building hundreds of Rogans ran this way and that on their elongated legs, squealing in their staccato, high-pitched tongue.
With blind fury the mad monster charged in through the gaping hole it had battered for itself. In all directions the Rogans scattered. Then an authoritative tall figure with a tube in each of its four sucker-disks, whipped out a command and pointed to the great coils which lay immediately in the berserk monster's path.
The command restored some sort of order. Losing their fear of the beast in their greater fear of the damage it might do, the Rogans massed to stop it before it could demolish the Rogan heart of power.
At this point Brand saw an opening of the kind he had been praying for. The Rogans had retreated before the terrific charge of the monster in such a way that the space between its vast bulk and the control board was clear.
"After me!" he shouted to Dex. "One of us has got to reach that lever while the creature's still there to shield us!"
The two Earthmen dashed through the jagged hole in the wall and raced to the control board just as the huge lizard, a smoking mass, sank to the floor. Brand gazed almost fearfully at the lever-slot.
Was there a reverse to the gravity-control action? There was room in the slot for the lever to be pulled down below the neutral point, if that meant anything....
Behind them the great bulk of the dead lizard was disappearing with incredible quickness under the rays of the tubes directed on it. Now the pumpkin-shaped heads on the opposite side were visible through a fleeting glimpse of a skeleton that was like the framework of a skyscraper. And now the colossal bones themselves were melting, while over everything hung a pall of greasy black smoke.
"Hurry, for God's sake!" gasped Dex.
Brand threw down the lever till it stuck. At once that invisible ocean poured crushingly over them, throwing them to their knees and sweeping the Rogans flat on their hideous faces just as half a hundred tubes were flashing down to point at the Earthmen.
"More--if you can!" grated Dex, whirling this way and that and spraying the massed Rogans with his death-dealing tube. Dozens went up in smoke under that discharge; but other dozens remained to raise themselves laboriously and slowly level their suddenly ponderous weapons at the Earthmen.
Brand set his jaw and threw all his weight on the lever. It bent a little, caught at the neutral point--and then jammed down an appreciable distance beyond it.
Instantly the blue streamers, that had stopped their humming progress from coil to coil with the movement of the switch to neutral, started again in reversed direction. And instantly the invisible ocean pressed down with appalling, devastating force.
Greca and Brand and Dex were flattened to the floor as if by blankets of lead. And the scattered Rogans about them ceased all movement whatever.
"Oh," sobbed Greca, fighting for breath. "Oh!"
"We can't stand this," panted Dex. "We've fixed the Rogans, all right. But we've fixed ourselves, too! That lever has to go up a bit."
Brand nodded, finding his head almost too heavy for his neck to move. Sweat beaded his forehead--sweat that trickled heavily off his face like drops of liquid metal.
With a tremendous struggle he got to his knees beneath the master-switch. There he found it impossible to raise his arms; but, leaning back against the control board and so getting a little support, he contrived to lift his body up enough to touch the down-slanting lever with his head and move it back along its slot a fraction of an inch. The giant coils hummed a note lower; and some of the smashing weight was relieved.
"That does it, I think," Brand panted, his voice husky with exhaustion and triumph.
He began to crawl laboriously toward the nearest street exit. "On our way!" he said vibrantly. "To the space ship! We leave for Earth at once!"
Slowly, fighting the sagging weight of their bodies, the two Earthmen inched their way to the street, helping Greca as they went. Among the sprawled forms of the Rogans they crept, with great dull eyes rolling helplessly to observe their progress, and with feeble squeals of rage and fear and malediction following their slow path.
On the street a strange and terrible sight met their eyes.
Strewn over the metal paving like wheat stalks crushed flat by a hurricane, were thousands of Rogans. Not a muscle of their pipe-like arms or legs could they move. But the gravity that crushed them rigidly to the ground did not quite hold motionless the shorter and more sturdily built slaves.
Among the thousands of squealing, panting Rogans that lay as though paralyzed on the metal paving, crawled equal thousands of Greca's enslaved people. Their eyes flamed with fanatic hate. And methodically--not knowing what had caused their loathed masters to be stricken helpless, and not caring as long as they were helpless--the slaves were seeking out the shock-tubes that here and there had fallen from the clutch of Rogan guards. Already many had found them; and everywhere gangling, slimy bodies were melting in oily black smoke that almost instantly vanished in thin air.
As it was in these streets and in the great square in the center of which rested the Earthmen's ship, just so, they knew, was it being repeated all over the red empire. Slowly crawling, fiercely exulting slaves were exterminating the tyrannous things that had held them so long in dreadful bondage! Before the sun should set on another flashing Jovian day there would be no Rogan left in the red spot.
"And so it ends," said Brand with a great sigh. He moved over beside Greca, and touched her lovely bare shoulders. They were shaking convulsively, those shoulders; and she had buried her face in her hands to keep from gazing at the ghastly carnage.
Brand pressed her to him. "It's terrible--yes. But think what it means! The knell of all the Rogans been sounded to-day. As soon as the secret of these death-tubes has been analyzed by our science and provided against, my friend and I will return from Earth with a force that shall clear the universe of the slimy devils. Meanwhile, your people are safe here; with the gravity what it is, no Rogan attacking hordes can land."
They crawled tortuously over the square to the space ship. Brand turned again to Greca; and now in his eyes was a look that needed no language of mind or tongue for its complete expression.
"Will you come to Earth with me, Greca, and stay by my side till we return to set your people in power again?"
Greca shook her head, slowly, reluctantly. "My people need leaders now. I must stay and help direct them in their new freedom. But you--you'll come back with the others from Earth?"
"Try and stop him!" grinned Dex. "And try and stop me, too! From what I know now of the way they grow 'em on your satellite"--his eyes rested on Greca's beauty with an admiration that turned her to rosy confusion--"I'd say I'd found the ideal spot to settle down in!"
Brand laughed. "He's answered for me too. And now, a salute that is used on Earth to express a promise...." He kissed her--to her utter astonishment and perplexity, but to her dawning pleasure. "Good-by for a little while."
The two Earthmen hoisted themselves heavily over the sill of the control room of their ship, and crawled inside.
They secured the trap-door, and turned on the air-rectifiers. Brand moved to the controls, waved to Greca, who was smiling at him through the glass panel, and pointed the ship on its triumphant, four hundred million mile journey home.
THE OUTBREAK OF PEACE.
By H. B. FYFE
When properly conducted, a diplomatic mission can turn the most smashing of battle-successes into a fabulous Pyrrhic victory.
It was a great pity, Space Marshal Wilbur Hennings reflected, as he gazed through the one-way glass of the balcony door, that the local citizens had insisted upon decorating the square before their capitol with the hulk of the first spaceship ever to have landed on Pollux V.
A hundred and fifty years probably seemed impressive to them, amid the explosive spread of Terran colonies and federations. Actually, in the marshal's opinion, it was merely long enough to reveal such symbols as more than antiquated but less than historically precious.
"I presume you plan to have me march past that heap!" he complained, tugging at the extremely "historical" sword that completed the effect of his dazzling white and gold uniform.
Commodore Miller, his aide, stiffened nervously.
"Around to the right of it, sir," he gestured. "As you see, the local military are already keeping the route clear of onlookers. We thought it would be most impressive if your party were to descend the outer stairway from the palace balcony here ... to heighten the importance of--"
"To draw out the pomp and circumstance of opening the conference?"
"Well, sir ... and then across the square to the conference hall of the capitol, outside which you will pause for a few gracious words to the crowd--"
"And that will probably be my last opportunity to enjoy the morning sunlight. Oh, well, it seems much too bright here in any case."
The commodore absently reached out to adjust a fold of his chief's sky-blue sash, and the marshal as absently parried the gesture.
"I shall be hardly less than half an hour crossing the square," he predicted sourly. "With the cheering throngs they have undoubtedly arranged, and the sunlight reflecting from all that imitation marble, it will be no place to collect one's thoughts."
He turned back to the huge chamber constituting the "office" of the suite supplied by his Polluxian hosts. The skeleton staff of men and women remaining occupied chairs and benches along only one wall, since the bulk of the delegation had been sent out to make themselves popular with the local populace.
Hennings presumed the bulk of the local populace to consist of Polluxians assigned to making themselves popular with his Ursan Federation delegation. His people would be listening politely to myriad reasons why the Polluxians had a natural right to occupy all the star systems from here to Castor, a dozen light-years farther from Terra. No one would mention the true motive--their illogical choice in naming themselves the Twin Empire.
"Well, now!" he said crisply. "Once more over the main points of the situation! No, commodore, not the schedule of experts that will accompany me to the table; I rely upon you to have perfected that. But have there been any unforeseen developments in the actual fighting?"
A cluster of aides, mostly in uniform but including a few in discreetly elegant civilian attire, moved forward. Each was somehow followed within arm's reach by an aide of his own, so that the advance presented overtones of a small sortie.
Hennings first nodded to the first, a youngish man whose air suggested technical competence more than the assurance of great authority. The officer placed his brief case upon the glistening surface of a large table and touched a switch on the flap.
"It's as well to be sure, sir," the commodore approved. "Our men have been unable to detect any devices, but the walls may have ears."
"They won't scan through this scrambler, sir," asserted the young officer.
Hennings accepted a seat at the table and looked up to one of the others.
"Mirelli's Star," an older officer reported briskly. "The same situation prevails, with both sides having landed surface troops in force on Mirelli II, Mirelli III, and Mirelli V, the fourth planet being inhabited by a partly civilized, nonhuman race protected under the Terran Convention."
"No, sir. Maneuvering continues, but actual encounters have declined in frequency. Casualties are modest and evenly matched. General Nilssen on Mirelli III continues to receive Polluxian agents seeking his defection."
"I never thought to ask," murmured Hennings. "Is he really a distant connection of the Polluxian Nilssen family?"
"It is improbable, sir, but they are polite enough to accept the pretense. Of course, he rejects every offer in a very high-minded manner, and seems to be making an adequate impression of chivalry."
He stepped back at Henning's nod, to be replaced by another officer.
"One minor space skirmish in the Agohki system to report, sir. The admiral in command appears to have recouped after the error of two days ago, when that Polluxian detachment was so badly mauled. He arranged the capture of three of our cruisers."