"Find out." Jack connected a loading coil with deft fingers. "Then go down to a sporting goods store and get some ammunition. If there are any shotguns in the place bring two back with plenty of buckshot shells. I don't think we're being watched yet, but if you're attacked, run for it."
Noting she looked hurt at his abruptness, he kissed her quickly.
"Sorry, darling. Every second counts. Run along, like a good girl."
She smiled for the first time in a long while and patted his hand.
When she returned, two shotguns and several boxes of shells held like wood in her bent arms, the generator was sparkling merrily. The gasoline engine barked steadily and the vacuum tubes glowed green.
Manthis came in at that moment and injected all the remaining drug as Jack gave crisp orders. Automatically the engineer had taken command.
"I'll get things going and handle the dials until Solinski sends his rats down on us. June, you watch the street door. Run up at the first sign of an attack. After that you'll take my place and hold it, no matter what happens, until we succeed or are killed. The doctor and I will go downstairs when you come up, and hold them off or retreat slowly. Thank heaven we can command both the front and rear stairways from the halls. Now doctor, watch the circuit breaker. I'm going to throw on full power."
As he advanced the rheostat the tubes glowed brighter, bathing the room in unearthly light. Jack adjusted his headset, and smiled up at June. She kissed him bravely before hurrying to her dangerous post.
Once more he sat listening to that whining, fluctuating wave. The engineer's thoughts wavered between speculations on the future, fond memories of June and impatience with the dragging hours. Would nothing ever happen? Through the earphones now came a jangling, agonized whine, as if the two antagonistic waves were endowed with life and actually struggling in the ether.
From time to time his glance wandered to the child, who, having obtained a head start through her preliminary treatment, now was stirring fretfully.
Slowly the time plodded by. Jack smoked cigarette after cigarette in an effort to fight off the drowsiness which loaded his eyelids with lead.
It must have been three o'clock when a whimper from the divan apprised them that the child at last had awakened.
"Where's mama?" She blinked into the glare. "I've lost my mama."
"There, there, honey," soothed the doctor, stopping his pacing up and down the room and picking her up. "Your mama had to go away for awhile. She'll be back any minute. Let's go find a drink of water. And I've something for you to play with too." Gently he carried her into June's bedroom.
Soon he reappeared and patted Jack on the shoulder.
"Our first victory," he said in a broken voice. "She's in perfect condition and sleeping naturally now. I gave her one of June's old dolls to play with." He sighed and collapsed into the nearest chair. "I'm almost dead with the strain of it. Do you think there's a chance?"
"Three more hours should turn the trick. I don't understand why Solinski--"
The crash of a shotgun, coming faint but clear from the street below, brought him up short. The shot was answered by a volley of rifle fire.
Jack almost lost the wave in his excitement, but regained it with a desperate twist of the wrist. No time for nerves now. He must be calm!
"Go down and hold them until June can get back to relieve me," he ordered. "Hurry. They may rush her any moment."
The doctor seemed ten years younger as he thrust a revolver into his pocket, snatched a shotgun from behind the door and ran out.
The commotion had awakened the child, who started whimpering, adding further to Jack's distractions. Yet he managed, in spite of ghastly mental pictures of June being torn to pieces by her attackers, to keep his hands steady.
A few minutes later she slipped into the room and laid her cold cheek against his before taking her place at the instruments.
"It's all right," she added. "I don't think they'll attack in the dark. There are five of them. I'm sure I wounded or killed one. They weren't expecting a guard. I left the gun with father. He's behind the cashier's desk." Then, all her courage evaporating, she turned an appealing, little girl face toward her lover. "Don't let yourself be killed, Jack. I'd die too."
"June, you're wonderful," he whispered. "I didn't know there was a girl alive as brave as you. Good-by. No matter what happens, keep the wave in tune." He kissed her tenderly, trying not to think he had done so for the last time, and hurried out.
The stairs were black as the inside of a tomb. Once he stumbled over the body of a charwoman and came near falling headlong.
"Nothing's happened since that first volley," whispered Manthis when Jack slipped into the cage. "They're holding off for dawn. Look!" his voice wavered. "Was that a face at the window?" He fired wildly. Glass tinkled.
"Easy," warned Baron. "Don't waste ammunition. Besides, if you get this place full of smoke they'll jump us."
Dawn was painting the windows gray when the assault began. Their first warning came when a small object was tossed into the lobby. It exploded in a cloud of white vapor.
"Tear gas," yelled Jack. "Back to the stairs." They ran for cover, weeping and choking.
Then began a slow retreat up the stairways, Jack guarding the front and Manthis the back passages. At first it was a simple matter for their enemies to toss tear bombs through the fire doors, then, protected by respirators, capture another floor. But as the light increased this became more and more hazardous. Twice a spray of buckshot laid a Solinski man low.
"He hasn't many men available," called Jack as the attack slackened. "But watch out. His time's about up. Hey, look at that woman!" A white-uniformed maid, whom he remembered having seen lying in the same spot every time he climbed the stairs, had stirred weakly, as though about to wake.
It was their glance at the sleeping form which undid them. When they looked up both fire doors were open and helmeted figures were emerging from them.
The shotguns roared. Two of their attackers collapsed, but the others came on. Before there was time for another shot they were at close quarters. Standing back to back, Manthis and Jack clubbed their guns and held their ground.
The fact that Solinski and his men wore respirators handicapped them immensely, so that the two defenders kept a cleared circle about them.
One of the attackers, more daring than the rest, leaped forward to engage the engineer. He collapsed with a crushed skull.
Then, when victory seemed in their grasp, luck turned. At Jack's next blow the stock of his weapon parted from the barrel, leaving him almost defenseless. At the same time Manthis slipped and collapsed from a knife thrust.
Jack was left alone to face three enemies and would have been killed within the minute had not Solinski, recalling the little time he had left to stop the interfering wave, deserted his comrades and sprinted for the laboratory.
The seeming defection of their chief threw the other two attackers into momentary confusion. Before they could recover, Jack knocked one out with the gun barrel, then came a flying tackle at the other.
But he had caught a tartar. His remaining enemy was a gigantic Negro. Recovering from his surprise the latter lifted high a glittering knife to finish his disarmed foe. Jack snatched at the uplifted arm--missed!
A revolver cracked. The hooded Negro staggered, then crashed forward.
"Remembered my pistol just in time," gasped the doctor from the floor. "Don't bother about me. I'm all right. Stop Solinski, for God's sake."
Although his lungs seemed bursting Baron turned and flew up the stairs. Being familiar with every turn, he gained on the Russian and caught sight of the dreadful black coat-tails as his enemy burst through to the twentieth floor. The locked door of the apartment baffled him only a moment. Stepping back, Solinski hurled his giant frame against the panels. They splintered and crashed inward. But the delay allowed Jack to catch up.
He leaped on the Russian's back. Locked together they reeled into the living room. For a fleeting moment Jack saw June sitting rigidly at the instruments. Her eyes were starting from their sockets but her hands were steady.
"I warned you to kill yourself," Solinski's voice rose in a screaming whisper through the respirator. "Now I will do it." Displaying the strength of madness he hurled Jack from him. Losing all control of his limbs, the younger man flew across the room and demolished the divan in his fall. But the thought of what Solinski would do to June brought him back to the attack.
The fury of their struggle wrecked the living room. Both bled from numerous wounds. One of the Russian's bleak eyes closed under a well-directed blow, but otherwise he seemed unaffected. Jack grappled again and realized his mistake as he was caught in a bone-cracking grip and forced into the laboratory.
Baron felt a rib snap. A sweat of agony broke out over his body. Holding his enemy helpless the invader worked his way toward the work table. They bumped against it, making the equipment totter perilously. Solinski released his grip, snatched a bottle of distilled water and swung.
Jack felt his head explode. The room went dark. But in his semi-consciousness he remembered he must not let the Russian reach that switch. As he slid slowly to the floor, he grasped the other's legs.
The drug fiend tried to kick free, stumbled, struck the table with his hips. Throwing out his arms to regain his balance he plunged one hand among the naked cables which led from the generator to the transformers and tubes.
A blinding flash of light and the scream of a soul in torment followed. As a nauseating odor of burning flesh filled the room, the Russian was hurled backward like a rubber ball. He struck the window which overlooked the park, crashed through the large panel and fell!
June sat as though hypnotised, forcing herself to manipulate those dials.
Jack crawled to the window and watched the black body swoop downward like a wounded bird, the coat flapping like crippled wings. After what seemed an eon it struck the edge of the subway kiosk, bounced like a rag doll and sprawled across the pavement.
Still Jack did not move. Through a haze of his own blood he stared, the fate of his enemy forgotten. All about the kiosk bodies which had laid so still for the past week were moving. The little figures, not much larger than ants from that height, yawned, sat up and stretched as though it was the commonest thing in the world to take a nap in the midst of Fifth Avenue. It was as if the last swoop of that batlike figure had returned them to consciousness.
"The world is alive! The world is alive!" Baron croaked wildly as he felt his senses slipping from him. "We have won, June! We have won!"
PLANET OF THE GODS.
By Robert Moore Williams
Two planets circling Vega! But a more amazing discovery waited the explorers when they landed!
"What do you make of it?" Commander Jed Hargraves asked huskily.
Ron Val, busy at the telescope, was too excited to look up from the eye-piece. "There are at least two planets circling Vega!" he said quickly. "There may be other planets farther out, but I can see two plainly. And Jed, the nearest planet, the one we are approaching, has an atmosphere. The telescope reveals a blur that could only be caused by an atmosphere. And--Jed, this may seem so impossible you won't believe it--but I can see several large spots on the surface that are almost certainly lakes. They are not big enough to be called oceans or seas. But I am almost positive they are lakes!"
According to the preconceptions of astronomers, formed before they had a chance to go see for themselves, solar systems were supposed to be rare birds. Not every sun had a chance to give birth to planets. Not one sun in a thousand, maybe not one in a million; maybe, with the exception of Sol, not another one in the whole universe.
And here the first sun approached by the Third Interstellar Expedition was circled by planets!
The sight was enough to drive an astronomer insane.
Ron Val tore his eyes away from the telescope long enough to stare at Captain Hargraves. "Air and water on this planet!" he gasped. "Jed, do you realize what this may mean?"
Jed Hargraves grinned. His face was lean and brown, and the grin, spreading over it, relaxed a little from the tension that had been present for months.
"Easy, old man," he said, clapping Ron Val on the shoulder. "There is nothing to get so excited about."
"But a solar system--"
"We came from one."
"I know we did. But just the same, finding another will put our names in all the books on astronomy. They aren't the commonest things in the universe, you know. And to find one of the planets of this new system with air and water--Jed, where there is air and water there may be life!"
"There probably is. Life, in some form, seems to be everywhere. Remember we found spores being kicked around by light waves in the deepest depths of space. And Pluto, in our own system, has mosses and lichens that the biologists insist are alive. It won't be surprising if we find life out there." He gestured through the port at the world swimming through space toward them.
"I mean intelligent life," Ron Val corrected.
"Don't bet on it. The old boys had the idea they would find intelligent life on Mars, until they got there. Then they discovered that intelligent creatures had once lived on the Red Planet. Cities, canals, and stuff. But the people who had built the cities and canals had died of starvation long before humans got to Mars. So it isn't a good bet that we shall find intelligence here."
The astronomer's face drooped a little. But not for long. "That was true of Mars," he said. "But it isn't necessarily true here. And even if Mars was dead, Venus wasn't. Nor is Earth. If there is life on two of the planets of our own solar system, there may be life on one of the planets of Vega. Why not?" he challenged.
"Hey, wait a minute," Hargraves answered. "I'm not trying to start an argument."
"If you mean why not an argument--"
"I mean, why not life here?"
"I don't know why not," Hargraves shrugged. "For that matter, I don't know why, either." He looked closely at Ron Val. "You ape! I believe you're hoping we will find life here."
"Of course that's what I'm hoping," Ron Val answered quickly. "It would mean a lot to find people here. We could exchange experiences, learn a lot. I know it's probably too much to hope for." He broke off. "Jed, are we going to land here?"
"Certainly we're going to land here!" Jed Hargraves said emphatically. "Why in the hell do you think we've crossed thirty light years if we don't land on a world when we find one? This is an exploring expedition--"
Hargraves saw that he had no listener. Ron Val had listened only long enough to learn what he wanted to know, then had dived back to his beloved telescope to watch the world spiraling up through space toward them. That world meant a lot to Ron Val, the thrill of discovery, of exploring where a human foot had never trod in all the history of the universe.
New lands in the sky! The Third Interstellar Expedition--third because two others were winging out across space, one toward Sirius, the other toward Cygnus--was approaching land! The fact also meant something to Jed Hargraves, possibly a little less than it did to Ron Val because Hargraves had more responsibilities. He was captain of the ship, commander of the expedition. It was his duty to take the ship to Vega, and to bring it safely home.
Half of his task was done. Vega was bright in the sky ahead and the tough bubble of steel and quartz that was the ship was dropping down to rest on one of Vega's planets. Hargraves started to leave the nook that housed Ron Val and his telescope.
The ship's loudspeaker system shouted with sudden sound.
"Jed! Jed Hargraves! Come to the bridge at once."
That was Red Nielson's voice. He was speaking from the control room in the nose of the ship. Nielson sounded excited.