It was August 24th, 2037. For three days, now, seven of the eight great combat-squadrons of the United Nations Fighting Forces had been prisoners inside a monstrous transparent dome of force. There was a financial panic of unprecedented proportions in the great financial districts of New York and London and Paris. Martial law was in force in Chicago, in Prague, in Madrid, and in Buenos Aires. The Com-Pubs were preparing an ultimatum to be delivered to the government of the United Nations. Thorn and Sylva were hunted fugitives within the inner dome of force, which protected the red rocket-ship from the seven combat squadrons it had imprisoned. Newspaper vendor-units were shrieking, "Air Fleet Still Trapped!" and a prominent American politician was promising his constituents that if a foreign nation dared invade the sacred territories of the United Nations, a million embattled private planes would take the air. And he seemed not even trying to be humorous! Scientists were wringing their hands in utter helplessness before the incredible resistance of the dome. It had been determined that the dome was a force-field which caused particles charged with positive electricity to attempt to move in a right-hand direction about the source of the field, and particles charged with negative electricity to attempt to move in a left-hand direction. The result was that any effort to thrust an external object into the field of force was an attempt to tear the negatively charged electrons of every atom of that substance, free from the positively charged protons of nuclei. An object could only be passed through the field of force if it ceased to exist as matter--which was not an especially helpful discovery. And--Thorn Hard and Sylva were still hunted fugitives inside the inner dome.
The sun was an hour high when the helicopter appeared to hunt for them by day. After the first time they had never dared light a fire, because Kreynborg in the helicopter searched the hills for a glow of light. But this day he came searching for them by day. Thorn had speared a fish for Sylva with a stick he had sharpened by rubbing it on a crumbling rock. He was working discouragedly on a little contrivance made out of a forked stick and the elastic from his parachute-pack. He was haggard and worn and desperate. Sylva was beginning to look like a hunted wild thing.
Two hundred yards from them the most formidable fighting force the world had ever seen littered the earth with gossamer-seeming cellate wings and streamlined bodies at all angles to each other. And it was completely useless. The least of the weapons of the air-fleet would have been a godsend to Thorn and Sylva. To have had one ship, even the smallest, where they were would have been a godsend to the fleet. But two hundred yards, with the dome of force between, made the fleet just exactly as much protection for Sylva as if it had been a million miles away.
The droning hum of the helicopter came across the broken ground. Now louder, now momentarily muted, its moments of loudness grew steadily more strong. It was coming nearer. Thorn gripped his spear in an instinctive, utterly futile gesture of defense. Sylva touched his hand.
"We'd better hide."
They hid. Thick brush concealed them utterly. The helicopter went slowly overhead, and they saw Kreynborg gazing down at the earth below him. Nearly overhead he paused. And suddenly Thorn groaned under his breath.
"It's the flagship!" he whispered hoarsely to Sylva. "Oh, what fools we were! The flagship! He knows the General would have brought it to earth opposite us, to question us!"
The flagship was nearly opposite. To find the flagship was more or less to find where Thorn and Sylva hid. But they had not realized it until now.
The speaker in the helicopter boomed above their heads.
"Ah, my friends! I think you hear me. Answer me. I haff an offer to make."
Shivering, Sylva pressed close to Thorn.
"Der Com-Pub fleet is on der way," said Kreynborg, chuckling. "Sefen-eights of der United Nations fleet is just outside. You haff observed it. In six hours der Com-Pub fleet begins der conquest of der country and der execution of persons most antagonistic to our regime. But I haff still weary weeks of keeping der air fleet prisoner, until its personnel iss too weak from starfation to offer resistance to our soldiers. So I make der offer. Come and while away der weary hours for me, and I except you both from der executions I shall findt it necessary to decree. Refuse, and I get you anyhow, and you will regret your refusal fery much."
Thorn's teeth ground together. Sylva pressed close to him.
"Don't let him get me, Thorn," she panted hysterically. "Don't let him get me...."
The droning, monotonous hum of the helicopter over their heads continued. The little flying-machine was motionless. The air was still. There was no other sound in the world.
Silence, save for the droning hum of the helicopter. Then something dropped. It went off with an inadequate sort of an explosion and a cloud of misty white vapor reared upward on a hillside and began to settle slowly, spreading out.... The helicopter moved and other things dropped, making a pattern....
"The air's still," said Thorn quite grimly. "That stuff seems to be heavier than air. It's flowing downhill, toward the dome-wall. It will be here in five minutes. We've got to move."
Sylva seemed to be stricken with terror. He helped her to her feet. They began to move toward higher ground. They moved with infinite caution. In the utter silence of this inner dome, even the rustling of a leaf might betray them.
It was the presence of the air fleet within clear view that made the thing so horrible. The defenders of a nation were watching the enemy of a nation, and they were helpless to offer battle. The helicopter hummed and droned, and Kreynborg grinned and searched the earth below him for a sign of the man and girl who had been the only danger to his plan and now were unarmed fugitives. And there were four air-dreadnaughts in plain sight and five thousand men watching, and Kreynborg hunted, for sport, a comrade of the five thousand men and a woman every one of them would have risked or sacrificed his life to protect.
He seemed certain that they were below him. Presently he dropped another gas-bomb, and another. And then Sylva stumbled and caught at something, and there was a crashing sound as a sapling wavered in her grasp.... And Thorn picked her up and fled madly. But billowing white vapor spouted upward before him. He dodged it, and the helicopter was just overhead and more smoke spouted, and more, and more.... They were hemmed in, and Sylva clung close to Thorn and sobbed....
Five thousand men, in a thousand grounded aircraft, shouted curses that made no sound. They waved weapons that were utterly futile. They were as impotent as so many ghosts. Their voices made not even the half-heard whisper one may attribute to a phantom.
The fog-vapor closed over Thorn and Sylva as Kreynborg grinned mockingly at the raging men without the dome of force. He swept the helicopter to a position above the last view of Thorn and Sylva, and the downward-beating screws swept away the foggy gas. Thorn and Sylva lay motionless, though Thorn had instinctively placed himself in a position of defense above her.
The Fighting Force of the United Nations watched, raging, while Kreynborg descended deliberately into the area the helicopter-screws kept clear. While he searched Thorn's pockets reflectively and found nothing more deadly than small pebbles which might strike sparks, and a small forked stick. While he grinned mockingly at the raging armed men and made triumphant gesticulations before carrying Sylva's limp figure to the helicopter. While the little ship rose and swept away toward the rocket-plane.
It descended and was lost to view. Thorn lay motionless on the earth. Seven-eighths of the fighting force of the United Nations was imprisoned within the space between two domes of force no matter could penetrate. A ring two miles across and ten miles in outer diameter held the whole fleet of the United Nations paralyzed.
There was sheer panic through the Americas and Europe and the few outlying possessions of the United Nations.... And it was at this time, with a great fleet already half-way across the Pacific, that the Com-Pubs declared war in a fine gesture of ironic politeness. It was within half an hour of this time that the Seventh Combat Squadron--the only one left unimprisoned--dived down from fifty thousand feet into the middle of the Com-Pub fleet and went out of existence in twenty minutes of such carnage as is still stuff for epics.
The Seventh Squadron died, but with it died not less than three times as many of the foe. And then the Com-Pub fleet came on. Most of the original force remained; surely enough to devastate an undefended nation, to shatter its cities and butcher its people; to slaughter its men and enslave its women and leave a shambles and smoking ash-heaps where the very backbone of resistance to the red flag had been.
It was twenty minutes before Thorn Hard stirred. His lungs seemed on fire. His limbs seemed lead. His head reeled and rocked. He staggered to his feet and stood there swaying dully. A vivid light, brighter than the sunshine, played upon him from the flagship of the fleet which now was helpless to defend its nation. Thorn's befogged brain stirred dazedly as the message came.
"Com-Pub fleet on way. Seventh Combat-Squadron wiped out. Nation defenseless. You are only hope. For God's sake try something. Anything."
Thorn roused himself by a terrific effort. He managed to ask a question by exhausted gestures in the Watch visual alphabet.
"Kreynborg took her to rocket-ship," came the answer. "She recovered consciousness before being carried inside."
And Thorn, reeling on his feet and unarmed and alone, turned and went staggering up a hillside toward the rocket-ship's position. He could only expect to be killed. He could not even hope for anything more than to ensure that Sylva, also, die mercifully. Behind him he left an unarmed nation awaiting devastation, with a mighty air fleet speeding toward it at six hundred miles an hour.
As he went, though, some strength came to him. The fury of his toil forced him to breathe deeply, cleansing his lungs of the stupefying gas which, because it was visible as a vapor, had been carried in the rocket-ship. A visible gas was, of course, more consistent with the early pretense that the rocket-ship bore invaders from another planet. And Thorn became drenched with sweat, which aided in the excretion of the poisonous stuff. His brain cleared, and he recognized despair and discounted it and began to plan grimly to make the most of an infinitesimal chance. The chance was simply that Kreynborg had ransacked his pockets and ignored a little forked stick.
Scrambling up a steep hillside with his face hardened into granite, Thorn drew that from his pocket again. Crossing a hill-top, he stripped off his coat.
He traveled at the highest speed he could maintain, though it seemed painfully deliberate. An hour after he had started, he was picking up small round pebbles wherever he saw them in his path. By the time the tall, bulbous tower was in sight he had picked up probably sixty such pebbles, but no more than ten of them remained in his pockets. They, though, were smooth and round and even, perhaps an inch in diameter, and all very nearly the same size. And he carried a club in his hand.
He went down the last slope openly. The television lenses on the tower would have picked him out in any case, if Kreynborg had repaired the screen. He went boldly up to the rocket-ship.
"Kreynborg!" he called. "Kreynborg!"
He felt himself being surveyed. A door came open. Kreynborg stood chuckling at him with a pocket-gun in his hand.
"Ha! Just in time, my friend! I haff been fery busy. Der Com-Pub fleet is just due to pass in refiew abofe der welcoming United Nations combat-squadrons. I haff been gifing them last-minute information and assurance that der domes of force are solid and can hold forefer. I haff a few minutes to spare, which I had intended to defote to der fair Sylva. But--what do you wish?"
"I'm offering you a bribe," said Thorn, his face a mask. "A billion dollars and immunity to cut off the outer dome of force."
Kreynborg grinned at him.
"It is too late. Besides being a traitor, I would be assassinated instantly. Also, I shall be Commissar for North America anyhow."
"Two billion," said Thorn without expression.
"No," said Kreynborg amusedly. "Throw away der club. I shall amuse myself with you, Thorn Hardt. You shall watch der progress of romance between me and Sylva. Throw away der club!"
The pocket-gun came up. Thorn threw away the club.
"What do you want, if two billion's not enough?"
"Amusement," said Kreynborg jovially. "I shall be bored in this inner dome, waiting for der air fleet to starfe. I wish amusement. And I shall get it. Come inside!"
He backed away from the door, his gun trained on Thorn. And Thorn saw that the continuous-fire stud was down. He walked composedly into the red room in which he had once awakened. Sylva gave a little choked cry at sight of him. She was standing, desperately defiant, on the other side of the induction-screen area on the floor. There was a scorched place on the floor where Thorn had shorted that screen and the bar of metal had grown red-hot. Kreynborg threw the switch and motioned Thorn to her.
"I do not bother to search you for weapons," he said dryly. "I did it so short a time ago. And you had only a club...."
Thorn walked stiffly beside Sylva. She put out a shaking hand and touched him. Kreynborg threw the switch back again.
"Der screen is on," he chuckled. "Console each other, children. I am glad you came, Thorn Hardt. We watch der grand refiew of der Com-Pub fleet. Then I turn a little infention of mine upon you. It is a heat-ray of fery limited range. It will be my method of wooing der fair Sylva. When she sees you in torment, she kisses me sweetly for der prifilege of stopping der heat-ray. I count upon you, my friend, to plead with her to grant me der most extrafagant of concessions, when der heat-ray is searing der flesh from your bones. I feel that she is soft-hearted enough to oblige you. Yes?"
He touched a button and the repaired television-screen lighted up. All the dome of mountains and sky was visible in it. There were dancing motes in sight, which were aircraft.
"I haff remofed all metal-work from that side of der room," added Kreynborg comfortably, "so I can dare to turn my back. You cannot short der induction-screen again. That was clefer. But you face a scientist, Thorn Hardt. You haff lost."
A sudden surge of flying craft appeared on the television screen. The grounded fleet of the United Nations was taking to the air again. In the narrow, two-mile strip between the two domes of force it swirled up and up.... Kreynborg frowned.
"Now, what is der idea of that?" he demanded. He moved closer to the screen. The pocket-gun was left behind, five feet from his finger-tips. "Thorn Hardt, you will explain it!"
"They hope," said Thorn grimly, "your fleet can make gaps in the dome to shoot through. If so, they'll go out through those gaps and fight."
"Foolish!" said Kreynborg blandly. "Der only weapon we haff to use is der normal metabolism of der human system. Hunger!"
Thorn reached into his pocket. Kreynborg was regarding the screen absorbedly. Through the haze of flying dots which was the United Nations fleet, a darkening spot to westward became visible. It drew nearer and grew larger. It was dense. It was huge. It was deadly. It was the Com-Pub battle-fleet, nearly equal to the imprisoned ships in number. It swept up to view its helpless enemy. It came close, so every man could see their only possible antagonists rendered impotent.
Such a maneuver was really necessary, when you think of it. The Com-Pub fleet had encountered one combat-squadron of the United Nations fleet, and that one squadron, dying, had carried down three times its number of enemies. It was necessary to show the Com-Pub personnel the rest of their enemies imprisoned, in order to hearten them for the butchery of civilians before them.
Kreynborg guffawed as the Com-Pub fleet made its mocking circuit of the invisible dome. And Thorn raised his head.
"Kreynborg!" he said grimly. "Look!"
There was something in his tone which made Kreynborg turn. And Thorn held a little forked stick in his hand.
"Turn off the induction-screen, or I kill you!"
Kreynborg looked at him and chuckled.
"It is bluff, my friend," he said dryly. "I haff seen many weapons. I am a scientist! You play der game of poker. You try a bluff! But I answer you with der heat-ray!"
He moved his great bulk, and Thorn released his left hand. There was a sudden crack on Kreynborg's side of the room. A pebble a little over an inch in diameter fell to the floor. Kreynborg wavered, and toppled and fell. Three times more, his face merciless, Thorn drew back his arm, and three times Kreynborg's head jerked slightly. Then Thorn faced the panel on which the induction-screen switch was placed. Several times he thrust his hand through the screen and abruptly drew it back with pain, in an attempt to throw the switch. At last he was successful, and now he walked calmly across the room and bent over the motionless Kreynborg.
"Skull fractured," he said grimly. "All right, Sylva."
He went through the narrow doorway beyond, picking up the pocket-gun as he went. There was a noise of whining machinery. Now Thorn was emptying pellets into the mechanism that controlled the dome of force. There was a crashing of glass. It stopped. There were blows and thumpings. That noise stopped too.
Thorn came back, his eyes glowing. He flung open the outer door of the rocket-ship, and Sylva went to him.
Far away, the Fighting Force of the United Nations was swirling upward. Like smoke from a campfire or winged ants from a tree-stump, they went up in a colossal, twisting spiral. Beyond the domes and above them. The domes existed no longer. Up and up, and up.... And then they swooped down upon the suddenly fleeing enemy. Vengefully, savagely, with all the fury of men avenging not only what they have suffered, but also what they have feared, the combat-squadrons of the United Nations fell upon the invaders. Green hexynitrate explosions lighted up the sky. Ear-cracking detonations reverberated among the mountains. There was battle there, and death and carnage and utter destruction. The roar of combat filled the universe.
Thorn closed the door and looked down at Kreynborg, who breathed stentorously, his mouth foolishly open.
"Our men will be back for us," he said shortly. "We needn't worry." Then he said, "Huh! He called himself a scientist, and he didn't know a sling-shot when he saw one!"
But then Thorn Hard dropped a weapon made of a forked stick and strong elastic from his chute-pack, and caught Sylva hungrily in his arms.
By Mike Lewis
The Oren were one and their strength was legion. They had it all figured out, in their own parasitical, cold-blooded way. But they'd neglected one she-cat of a girl....
He crossed the rickety bridge at sundown and saw the squat, fat fellow whipping the girl with a board. His mind leaped to a conclusion: an Orenian prowler, convincing his victim to hold still. He clubbed the fat fellow with a rock and toppled him over the seawall into the lagoon where he floated face-down.
"Are you stung?" he asked the girl.
She picked herself up weakly, and she was a gold-bronze beauty with a black mane of hair and long, narrow eyes. She shook her head to his question and whimpered slightly while she examined her bruises.
"He was my husband," she explained.
"Not an Orenian?" he gasped.
She shook her head. "But he was going to kill me."
Morgan shot a horrified glance at the body floating far out on the swift tide. Three sharks were circling lazily. He looked around for a boat, saw none. He swiftly estimated his chances of swimming out after the fat man and towing him in. The chances appeared to be nil. Nevertheless, he began stripping off his shirt.