"Your statement bears out their report," said the G.C. speaker harshly. "The barrier seems to be hemispherical. No such barrier is known on Earth. These must be Martians, as the Com-Pubs said. You will wait until morning and try to make peaceful contact with them. This barrier may be merely a precaution on their part. You will try to convince them that we wish to be friendly."
"I don't believe they're Martians, sir--"
Sylva came racing to the door of the plane.
"Thorn! Something's coming! I hear it droning!"
Thorn himself heard a dull droning noise in the air, coming toward him.
"Occupants of the rocket-ship, sir," he said grimly, "seem to be approaching. Orders?"
"Evacuate the ship," snapped the G.C. phone. "Let them examine it. They will understand how we communicate and prepare to receive and exchange messages. If they seem friendly, make contact at once."
Thorn made swift certain movements and dived for the door. He seized Sylva and fled for the darkness below the plane. He was taking a desperate risk of falling down the mountain-slopes. The droning drew near. It passed directly overhead. Then there was a flash and a deafening report. A beam of light appeared aloft. It searched for and found Thorn's plane, now a wreck. Flash after flash and explosion after explosion followed....
They stopped. Their echoes rolled and reverberated among the hills. There was a hollow, tremendous intensification of the echoes aloft as if a dome of some solid substance had reflected back the sound. Slowly the rollings died away. Then a voice boomed through a speaker overhead, and despite his suspicions Thorn felt a queer surprise. It was a human voice, a man's voice, full of a horrible amusement.
"Thorn Hardt! Thorn Hardt! Where are you?" Thorn did not move or reply. "If I haff not killed you, you hear me," the voice chuckled. "Come to see me, Thorn Hardt. Der dome of force iss big, yes, but you can no more get out than your friends can get in. And now I haff destroyed your phones so you can no longer chat with them. Come and see me, Thorn Hardt, so I will not be bored. We will discuss der Com-Pubs. And bring der lady friend. You may play der chaperon!"
The voice laughed. It was not pleasant laughter. And the humming drone in the air rose and dwindled. It moved away from the mountain-top. It lessened and lessened until it was inaudible. Then there was dead silence again.
"By his accent, he's a Baltic Russian," said Thorn very grimly in the darkness. "Which means Com-Pubs, not Martians, though we're the only people who realize it; and they're starting a war! And we, Sylva, must warn our people. How are we going to do it?"
She pressed his hand confidently, but it did not look promising. Thorn Hard was on foot, without a transmitter, armed only with his belt-weapons and with a girl to look after, and moreover imprisoned in a colossal dome of force which hexynitrate had failed to crack....
It was August 20, 2037. There was a triple murder in Paris which was rumored to be the work of a Com-Pub spy, though the murderer's unquestionably Gallic touches made the rumor dubious. Newspaper vendor-units were screaming raucously, "Martians land in Colorado!" and the newspapers themselves printed colored-photos of hastily improvised models in their accounts of the landing of a blood-red rocket-ship in the widest part of the Rockies. The inter-continental tennis matches reached their semi-finals in Havana, Cuba. Thorn Hard had not reported to Watch headquarters in twelve hours. Quadruplets were born in Des Moines, Iowa. Krassin, Commissar of Commissars of the Com-Pubs, made a diplomatic inquiry about the rumors that a Martian space-ship had landed in North America. He asked that Com-Pub scientists be permitted to join in the questioning and examination of the Martian visitors. The most famous European screen actress landed from the morning Trans-Atlantic plane with her hair dyed a light lavender, and beauty-shops throughout the country placed rush orders for dye to take care of the demand for lavender hair which would begin by mid-afternoon. The heavy-weight champion of the United Nations was warned that his title would be forfeited if he further dodged a fight with his most promising contender. And ... Thorn Hard had not reported to Watch headquarters in twelve hours.
He was, as a matter of fact, cautiously parting some bushes to peer past a mountain-flank at the red rocket-ship. Sylva West lay on the ground behind him. Both of them weary to the point of exhaustion. They had started their descent from Mount Wendel at the first gray streak of dawn in the east. They had toiled painfully across the broken country between, to this point of vantage. Now Thorn looked down upon the rocket-ship.
It lay a little askew upon the ground, seeming to be partly buried in the earth. A hundred feet and more in length, it was even more obviously a monstrosity as he looked at it in the bright light of day. But now it was not alone. Beside it a white tower reared upward. Pure white and glistening in the sunshine, a bulging, uneven shaft rose a hundred feet sheer. It looked as solid as marble. Its purpose was unguessable. There was a huge, fan-shaped space where the vegetation about the rocket-ship was colored a vivid red. In air-photos, the rocket-ship would look remarkably like something from another planet. But nearby, Thorn could see a lazy trickle of fuel-fumes from a port-pipe on one side of the monster....
"That tower is nothing but cellate foam, which hardens. And Sylva! See?"
She came cautiously through the brushwood and looked down. She shivered a little. From here they could see beneath the bows of the rocket-ship. And there was a name there, in the Cyrillic alphabet which was the official written language of the Com-Pubs. Here, on United Nations soil, it was insolent. It boasted that the red ship came, not from an alien planet, but from a nation more alien still to all the United Nations stood for. The Com-Pubs--the Union of Communist Republics--were neither communistic nor republics, but they were much more dangerous to the United Nations than any mere Martians would have been.
"We'll have some heavy ships here to investigate, soon," said Thorn grimly. "Then I'll signal!"
He flung back his head. High up and far away, beyond that invisible barrier against which Watch-planes had flung themselves in vain, there were tiny motes in mid-air. These were Watch planes too, hovering outside the obstacle they could not see, but which even hexynitrate bombs could not break through. And very far away indeed there was a swiftly-moving small dark cloud. As Thorn watched, that cloud drew close. As his eyes glowed, it resolved itself into its component specks. Small, two-man patrol-scouts. Larger, ten-man cruisers of the air. Huge, massive dreadnaughts of the blue. A complete combat-squadron of the United Nations Fighting Forces was sweeping to position about the dome of force above the rocket-ship.
The scouts swept forward in a tiny, whirling cloud. They sheered away from something invisible. One of them dropped a smoking object. It emitted a vast cloud of paper, which the wind caught and swept away, and suddenly wrapped about a definite section of an arc. More and more of the tiny smoke-bombs released their masses of cloudlike stuff. In mid-air a dome began to take form, outlined by the trailing streaks of gray. It began to be more definitely traced by interlinings. An aerial lattice spread about a portion of a six-mile hemisphere. The top was fifteen thousand feet above the rocket-ship, twenty-five thousand feet from sea-level, as high as Mount Everest itself.
Tiny motes hovered even there, where the smallest of visible specks was a ten-man cruiser. And one of the biggest of the aircraft came gingerly up to the very inner edge of the lattice-work of fog and hung motionless, holding itself aloft by powerful helicopter screws. Men were working from a trailing stage--scientists examining the barrier even hexynitrate would not break down.
Thorn set to work. He had come toilsomely to the neighborhood of the rocket-ship because he would have to do visual signaling, and there was no time to lose. The dome of force was transparent. The air fleet would be trying to communicate through it with the Martians they believed were in the rocket-ship. Sunlight reflected from a polished canteen would attract attention instantly from a spot near the red monster, while elsewhere it might not be observed for a long time. But, trying every radio wave-band, and every system of visual signaling, and watching and testing for a reply, Thorn's signal ought to be picked up instantly.
He handed his pocket speech-light receptor to Sylva. It is standard equipment for all flying personnel, so they may receive non-broadcast orders from flight leaders. He pointed to a ten-man cruiser from which shone the queer electric-blue glow of a speech-light.
"Listen in on that," he commanded. "I'm going to call them. Tell me when they answer."
He began to flash dots and dashes in that quaintly archaic telegraph alphabet Watch fliers are still required to learn. It was the Watch code call, sent over and over again.
"They're trying to make the Martians understand," said Sylva unsteadily with the speech-light receiver at her ear.
Flash--flash--flash.... Thorn kept on grimly. The canteen top was slightly convex, so the sunlight-beam would spread. Accuracy was not needed, therefore. He covered and uncovered it, and covered and uncovered it....
"They answered!" said Sylva eagerly. "They said 'Thorn Hard report at once!'"
There was a hissing, roaring noise over the hillside, where the red rocket-ship lay. Thorn paid no attention. He began to spell out, in grim satisfaction: "R-o-c-k-e-t s-h-i-p i-s--"
"Look out!" gasped Sylva. "They say look out, Thorn!"
Then she screamed. As Thorn swung his head around, he saw a dense mass of white vapor rushing over the hillside toward them. He picked Sylva up in his arms and ran madly....
The white vapor tugged at his knees. It was a variation of a vortex-stream. He fought his way savagely toward higher ground. The white vapor reached his waist.... It reached his shoulders.... He slung Sylva upon his shoulder and fought more madly still to get out of the wide white current.... It submerged him in its stinging, bitter flood.... As he felt himself collapsing his last conscious thought was the bitter realization that the bulbous white tower had upheld television lenses at its top, which had watched his approach and inspection of the rocket-ship, and had enabled those in the red monster to accurately direct their spurt of gas.
His next sensation was that of pain in his lungs. Something that smarted intolerably was being forced into his nostrils, and he battled against the agony it produced. And then he heard someone chuckle amusedly and felt the curious furry sensation of electric anesthesia beginning....
When he came to himself again a machine was clicking erratically and there was the soft whine of machinery going somewhere. He opened his eyes and saw red all about him. He stirred, and he was free. Painfully, he sat up and blinked about him with streaming, gas-irritated eyes. He had been lying on a couch. He was in a room perhaps fifteen feet by twenty, of which the floor was slightly off-level. And everything in the room was red. Floor and walls and ceiling, the couch he had lain on and the furniture itself. There was a monstrous bulk of a man sitting comfortably in a chair on the other side of the room, pecking at a device resembling a writing-machine.
Thorn sat still for an instant, gaining strength. Then he flung himself desperately across the room, his fingers curved into talons.
Five feet, ten, with the slant of the floor giving him added impetus.... Then his muscles tightened convulsively. A wave of pure agony went through his body. He dropped and lay writhing on the floor, while the high-frequency currents of an induction-screen had their way with him. He was doubled into a knot by his muscles responding to the electric stimulus instead of his will. Sheer anguish twisted him. And the room filled with a hearty bellow of laughter. The monstrous whiskered man had turned about and was shaking with merriment.
He picked up a pocket-gun from beside him and turned off a switch at his elbow. Thorn's muscles were freed.
"Go back, my friendt," boomed the same voice that had come from a speaker the night before. "Go to der couch. You amuse me and you haff already been useful, but I shall haff no hesitation in killing you. You are Thorn Hardt. My name is Kreynborg. How do you do?"
"Where's my friend?" demanded Thorn savagely. "Where is she?"
"Der lady friendt? There!" The whiskered man pointed negligently with the pocket-gun. "I gafe her a bunk to slumber in."
There was a niche in the wall, which Thorn had not seen. Sylva was there, sleeping the same heavy, dreamless sleep from which Thorn himself had just awakened. He went to her swiftly. She was breathing naturally, though tears from the irritating gas still streaked her face and her skin seemed to be pinkened a little from the same cause.
Thorn swung around. His weapons were gone, of course. The huge man snapped on the induction-screen switch again and put down his weapon. With that screen separating the room into two halves, no living thing could cross it without either such muscular paralysis as Thorn had just experienced, or death. Coils in the floor induced alternating currents in the flesh itself, very like those currents used for supposed medical effects in "medical batteries," and "shockers."
"Be calm!" said Kreynborg, chuckling. "I am pleased to haff company. This is der loneliest spot in der Rockies. It was chosen for that reason. But I shall be here for maybe months, and now I shall not be lonely. We of der Com-Pubs haff scientific resources such as your fools haff nefer dreamed of, but there is no scientific substitute for a pretty woman."
He turned again to the writing device. It clicked half a dozen times more, and he stopped. A strip of paper came out of it. He inserted it into the slot of another mechanism and switched on a standard G.C. phone as the paper began to feed. In seconds the room was filled with unearthly hoots and wails and whistles. They came from the device into which the paper was feeding, and they poured into the G.C. transmitter. They went on for nearly a minute, and ceased. Kreynborg shut off the transmitter.
"My code," he observed comfortably, "gifing der good news to Stalingrad. Everything is going along beautifully. I roused der fair Sylva and kissed her a few times to make her scream into a record, and I interpolated her screamings into der last code transmission. Your wise men think der Martians haff vivisected her. They are concentrating der entire fighting force of der United Nations outside der dome of force. And all for a few kisses!"
Thorn was white with rage. His eyes burned with a terrible fury. His hands shook. Kreynborg chuckled again.
"Oh, she is unharmed--so far. I haff not much time now. Presently der two of you will while away der time. But not now."
He switched on the G.C. receiver and the room filled with a multitude of messages. Thorn sat beside Sylva, watching, watching, watching, while invisible machinery whined softly and Kreynborg listened intently to the crisp, curt official reports that came through on the Fighting Force band. Three combat-squadrons were on the spot now; One, Three and Eight. Four more were coming at fast cruising speed--four hundred miles an hour. One combat-squadron of the whole fleet alone would be left to cope with all other emergencies that might arise.... A television screen lighted up and Thorn could see where the lenses on the bulbous tower showed the air all about filled with fighting-planes, hovering about the dome of force like moths beating their wings against a screen. The strongest fighting-force in the world, helpless against a field of electric energy!
"It is amusing," chuckled Kreynborg, looking at the screen complacently. "Der dome of force is a new infention. It is a heterodyning of one frequency upon another at a predetermined distance. It has all der properties of matter except mass and a limit of strength. There is no limit to its strength! But it cannot be made except in a sphere, so at first it seemed only a defensif weapon. With it, we could defy der United Nations to attack us. But we wished to do more. So I proposed a plan, and I haff der honor of carrying it out. If I fail, Krassin disavows me. But I shall not fail, and I shall end as Commissar for der continent of North America!"
He looked wisely at Thorn, who sat motionless.
"You keep quiet, eh, and wait for me to say something indiscreet? Ferry well, I tell you. We are in a sort of gold-fish globe of electric force. Your air fleet cannot break in. You know that! Also, if they were in they could not break out again. So I wait, fery patiently pretending to be a Martian until all your Fighting Force has gathered around in readiness to fight me. But I shall not fight. I shall simply make a new and larger gold-fish globe, outside of this one. And then I go out and make faces at der Fighting Force of der United Nations imprisoned between der two of them--and then der Com-Pub fleet comes ofer!"
He stood up and put his hand on a door-knob.
"Is it not pretty?" he asked blandly. "In two weeks der air fleet will begin to starfe. In three, there will be cannibalism, unless der Com-Pubs accept der surrender. Imagine...." He laughed. "But do not fear, my friendt! I haff profisions for a year. If you are amusing, I feed you. In any case I exchange food for kisses with der charming Sylva. It will be amusing to change her from a woman who screams as I kiss her, to one who weeps for joy. If I do not haff to kill you, you shall witness it!"
He vanished through a doorway on the farther side of the room. Instantly Thorn was on his feet. The dead slumber in which Sylva was sunk was wholly familiar. Electric anesthesia, used not only for surgery, but to enforce complete rest at any chosen moment. He dragged her from that couch to his own. He saw her stir, and her eyes were instantly wide with terror. But Thorn was tearing the couch to pieces. Cover, pneumatic mattress.... He ripped out a loosely-fitting frame-piece of steel.
"Quick, now," he said in a low tone, "I'm going to short the induction-screen. We'll get across it. Then--out the door!"
She struggled to her feet, terrified, but instantly game. Thorn slid the rod of metal across the stretch of flooring he had previously been unable to cross. The induced currents in the rod amounted to a short-circuit of the field. The rod grew hot and its paint blistered smokily. Thorn leaped across with Sylva in his wake. He pointed to the door, and she fled through it. He seized a chair, crashed it frenziedly into the television screen, and had switched on the G.C. phone when there was a roar of fury from Kreynborg. Instantly there was the spitting sound of a pocket-gun and in the red room the racking crash of a hexynitrate pellet. Nothing can stand the instant crash of hexynitrate. Its concussion-wave is a single pulsation of the air. The cellate diaphragm of the G.C. transmitter tore across from its violence and Thorn cursed bitterly. There was no way, now, of signaling....
A second racking crash as a second pellet flashed its tiny green flame. Kreynborg was using a pocket-gun, one of those small terrible weapons which shoot a projectile barely larger than the graphite of a lead pencil, but loaded with a fraction of a milligram of hexynitrate. Two hundred charges would feed automatically into the bore as the trigger was pressed.
Thorn gazed desperately about for weapons. There was nothing in sight. To gain the outside world he had to pass before the doorway through which the bullets had come.... And suddenly Thorn seized the code-writer and the device which transmitted that code as a series of unearthly noises which the world was taking for Martian speech. He swung the two machines before the door in a temporary barrier. Whatever else Kreynborg might be willing to destroy, he would not shoot into them!
Thorn leaped madly past the door as Kreynborg roared with rage again. He paused only to hurl a chair at the two essential machines, and as they dented and toppled, he fled through the door and away.
Sylva peered anxiously at him from behind a huge boulder. He raced toward her, expecting every second to hear the spitting of Kreynborg's pocket-gun. With the continuous-fire stud down, the little gun would shoot itself empty in forty-five seconds, during which time Kreynborg could play it upon him like a hose that spouted death. But Thorn had done the hundred yards in eleven seconds, years before. He bettered his record now. The first of the little green flashes came when he was no more than ten yards from the boulder which sheltered Sylva. The tiny pellet had missed him by inches. Three more, and he was safe from pursuit.
"But we've got to get away!" he panted. "He can shoot gas here and get us again! He can cover four hundred yards with gas, and more than that with guns."
They fled down a tiny water-course, midget figures in an infinity of earth and sky, scurrying frenziedly from a red slug-like thing that lay askew in a mountain valley. Far away and high above hung the war-planes of the United Nations. Big ones and little ones, hovering in hundreds about the outside of the dome of force they could neither penetrate nor understand.
A quarter of a mile. Half a mile. There was no sign from Kreynborg or the rocket-ship. Thorn panted.
"He can't reach us with gas, now, and it looks like he doesn't dare use a gun. They'd know he wasn't a Martian. At night he'll use that helicopter, though. If we can only make those ships see us...."
They toiled on. The sun was already slanting down toward the western sky. At four--by the sun--Thorn could point to a huge air-dreadnaught hanging by lazily revolving gyros barely two miles away. He waved wildly, frantically, but the big ship drifted on, unseeing. The Fighting Force was no longer looking for Thorn and Sylva. They had been carried into the rocket-ship fourteen hours and more before. Sylva's screaming had been broadcast with the weird hoots and whistles the United Nations believed to be the language of inter-planetary invaders. The United Nations believed them dead. Now a watch was being kept on the rocket-ship, to be sure, but it was becoming a matter-of-fact sort of vigilance, pending the arrival of the rest of the Fighting Force and the cracking of the dome of force by the scientists who worked on it night and day.
On level ground, Thorn and Sylva would have reached the edge of the dome in an hour. Here they had to climb up steep hillsides and down precipitous slopes. Four times they halted to make frantic efforts to attract the attention of some nearby ship.
It was six when they came upon the rim. There was no indication of its existence save that three hundred yards from them boughs waved and leaves quivered in a breeze. Inside the dome the air was utterly still.
"There it is!" panted Thorn.
Wearied and worn out as they were, they hurried forward, and abruptly there was something which impeded their movements. They could reach their hands into the impalpable barrier. For one foot, two, or even three. But an intolerable pressure thrust them back. Thorn seized a sapling and ran at the barrier as if with a spear. It went five feet into the invisible resistance and stopped, shot back out as if flung back by a jet of compressed air.
"He told the truth," groaned Thorn. "We can't get out!"
Long shadows were already reaching out from the mountains. Darkness began to creep upward among the valleys. Far, far away a compact dark cloud appeared, a combat-squadron. It swept toward the dome and dissociated into a myriad specks which were aircraft. The fliers already swirling about the invisible dome drew aside to leave a quadrant clear, and Combat-Squadron Seven merged with the rest, making the pattern of dancing specks markedly denser.
"With a fire," said Thorn desperately, "they'll come! Of course! But Kreynborg took my lighter!"
Sylva said hopefully: "Don't you know some way? Rubbing sticks together?"
"I don't," admitted Thorn grimly, "but I've got to try to invent one. While I'm at it, you watch for fliers."
He searched for dry wood. He rubbed sticks together. They grew warm, but not enough to smoke, much less to catch. He muttered, "A drill, that's the idea. All the friction in one spot." He tugged at the ring under his lapel and the parachute fastened into his uniform collar shot out in a billowing mass of gossamer silk, flung out by the powerful elastics designed to make its opening certain. Savagely, he tore at the shrouds and had a stout cord. He made a drill and revolved it as fast as he could with the cord....
A second dark cloud swept forward in the gathering dusk and merged into the mass of fliers about the dome. Five minutes later, a third. Dense as the air-traffic was, riding-lights were necessary. They began to appear in the deepening twilight. It seemed as if all the sky were alight with fireflies, whirling and swirling and fluttering here and there. But then the fire-drill began to emit a tiny wisp of smoke. Thorn worked furiously. Then a tiny flickering flame appeared, which he nursed with a desperate solicitude. Then a larger flame. Then a roaring blaze! It could not be missed! A fire within the dome could not fail to be noted and examined instantly!
A searchlight beam fell upon them, illuminating him in a pitiless glare. Thorn waved his arms frantically. He had nothing with which to signal save his body. He flung his arms wide, and up, and wide again, in an improvised adaption of the telegraphic alphabet to gesticulation. He sent the watch call over and over again....
A little cloud of riding-lights swept toward the dome from an infinite distance away. Darkness was falling so swiftly that they were still merely specks of light as they swept up to and seemed to melt into the swirling, swooping mass of fliers about the dome....
Cold sweat was standing out on Thorn's face, despite the violence of his exertions. He was even praying a little.... And suddenly the searchlight beam flickered a welcome answer: "W-e u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d. R-e-p-o-r-t."
Thorn flung his arms about madly, sending: "G-e-t a-w-a-y q-u-i-c-k. C-o-m P-u-b-s h-e-r-e. W-i-l-l m-a-k-e o-t-h-e-r d-o-m-e o-u-t-s-i-d-e t-o t-r-a-p y-o-u."
The searchlight beam upon him flickered an acknowledgment. He knew what was happening after that. The G.C. phones would flash the warning to every ship, and every ship would dash madly for safety.... A sudden, concerted quiver seemed to go over the whirling maze of lights aloft. A swift, simultaneous movement of every ship in flight. Thorn breathed an agonized prayer....
There was a flash of blue light. For one fractional part of a second the stars and skies were blotted out. There was a dome of flame above him and all about the world, of bright blue flame which instantly was--and instantly was not!
Then there was a ghastly blast of green. Hexynitrate going off. In this glare were silhouetted a myriad motes in flight. But there was no noise. A second flare.... And then Thorn Hard, groaning, saw flash after flash after flash of green. Monster explosions. Colossal explosions. Terrific detonations which were utterly soundless, as the ships of the Fighting Force, in flight from the menace of which Thorn had warned them, crashed into an invisible barrier and exploded without cracking it.