This e-text was produced from Argosy All-Story Weekly, October 21 and 28 and November, 4, 11, and 18, 1922.
THE FIRE PEOPLE
Author of "The Golden Atom," etc.
CHAPTER I. THE COMING OF THE LIGHT. CHAPTER II. THE UNKNOWN ENEMY. CHAPTER III. THE LANDING OF THE INVADERS. CHAPTER IV. THE MEETING. CHAPTER V. CAPTURED! CHAPTER VI. MIELA. CHAPTER VII. THE MERCUTIAN CAMP. CHAPTER VIII. THE ESCAPE. CHAPTER IX. FUTILE ATTACKS. CHAPTER X. MIELA'S STORY. CHAPTER XI. TO SAVE THE WORLD. CHAPTER XII. THE LANDING ON MERCURY. CHAPTER XIII. THE CAPTIVE EARTH-MAN. CHAPTER XIV. THE RULER OF THE LIGHT COUNTRY. CHAPTER XV. THE MOUNTAIN CONCLAVE. CHAPTER XVI. THE FIRE PLANET. CHAPTER XVII. THE FIGHT AT THE BAYOU. CHAPTER XVIII. REVOLUTION. CHAPTER XIX. THE NEW RULER. CHAPTER XX. IN THE TWILIGHT COUNTRY. CHAPTER XXI. ANOTHER LIGHT-RAY! CHAPTER XXII. THE THEFT OF THE LIGHT-RAY. CHAPTER XXIII. THE STROM. CHAPTER XXIV. THE WATER CITY. CHAPTER XXV. PREPARATIONS FOR WAR. CHAPTER XXVI. THE BATTLE. CHAPTER XXVII. THE SIEGE OF THE LONE CITY. CHAPTER XXVIII. THE END OF TAO. CHAPTER XXIX. THE RETURN.
THE COMING OF THE LIGHT.
The first of the new meteors landed on the earth in November, 1940. It was discovered by a farmer in his field near Brookline, Massachusetts, shortly after daybreak on the morning of the 11th. Astronomically, the event was recorded by the observatory at Harvard as the sudden appearance of what apparently was a new star, increasing in the short space of a few hours from invisibility to a power beyond that of the first magnitude, and then as rapidly fading again to invisibility. This star was recorded by two of the other great North American observatories, and by one in the Argentine Republic. That it was comparatively small in mass and exceedingly close to the earth, even when first discovered, was obvious. All observers agreed that it was a heavenly body of an entirely new order.
The observatory at Harvard supplemented its account by recording the falling, just before dawn of the 11th, of an extraordinarily brilliant meteor that flamed with a curious red and green light as it entered the earth's atmosphere. This meteor did not burn itself out, but fell, still retaining its luminosity, from a point near the zenith, to the horizon.
What the farmer saw was a huge fire burning near the center of his field. It was circular in form and about thirty feet in diameter. He was astonished to see it there, but what surprised him more was its peculiar aspect.
It was still the twilight of dawn when he reached the field. He beheld the fire first from a point several hundred yards away. As he explained it, the light—for it was more aptly described as a light than a fire—extended in parallel rays from the ground directly upward into the sky. He could see no line of demarkation where it ended at the top. It seemed to extend into the sky an infinite distance. It was, in fact, as though an enormous searchlight were buried in his field, casting its beam of light directly upward.
But more than all this, the farmer was struck by the extraordinary color of the light. At the base it was a deep, solid green. This green color extended upward for perhaps fifty feet, then it shaded into red. The farmer noticed, too, that the fire did not leap and dance with flames, but seemed rather to glow—a steady light like the burning of colored powder. In the morning half-light it threw a weird, unearthly reddish-green glow over the field.
The farmer approached to within twenty feet of the light. He looked to see what was burning, but could not determine, for the greenish base extended directly down into the ground. He noticed also that it gave out extraordinarily little heat. The morning was not exceptionally cold, yet he stood within twenty feet of the fire without discomfort.
I was on the staff of the Boston Observer at this time. I reached Brookline about noon of the 11th of November, and went directly to the field where the fire was burning. Nearly a thousand people were there, watching.
By daylight the fire still held its green and red color, although its light was much less intense. It held its characteristic shape. Though clearly definable, under the rays of the sun it became quite transparent. Looking through it, I could see plainly the crowd of people on the farther side of the field. The effect was similar to looking through a faintly tinted glass, except that now I noticed that the light had a sort of crawling motion, like the particles of a heavy fog. The fire came from a hole in the ground; by daylight now the hole could be seen plainly.
For some moments I stood silent, awestruck by this extraordinary spectacle. Then a man standing beside me remarked that there was no smoke. I had not thought of that before, but it was true—indeed, the fire appeared phosphorescent.
"Let's get up closer," said the man beside me.
Together we walked to within ten feet of the outer edge of the fire. We could feel its heat now, although it was not uncomfortable except when it beat directly on our faces. Standing so close, we could see down into the hole from which the light emanated.
Lying at the bottom of the hole, perhaps ten feet below the surface, I saw the jagged top of an enormous gray sphere, burned and pitted. This was the meteor—nearly thirty feet in diameter—that in its fall had buried itself deep in the loam of the field.
As we stood there looking down into the hole some one across from us tossed in a ball of paper. It seemed to hang poised a moment, then it shriveled up, turned black, and floated slowly down until it rested on top of the sphere.
Some one else threw a block of wood about a foot long into the hole. I could see it as it struck the top of the sphere. It lay there an instant; then it, too, turned black and charred, but it did not burst into flame.
The man beside me plucked at my sleeve. "Why don't it burn?" he asked.
I shook myself loose.
"How should I know?" I answered impatiently.
I found myself trembling all over with an unreasoning fear, for there was something uncanny about the whole affair. I went back to Brookline soon after that to send in the story and do some telephoning. When I got back to the field I saw a man in front of me carrying a pail of water. I fell into step beside him.
"What do you suppose it'll do?" he asked as we walked along.
"God knows," I answered. "Try it."
But when we got down into the field we found the police authorities in charge. The crowd was held back now in a circle, a hundred yards away from the light. After some argument we got past the officials, and, followed by two camera men and a motion-picture man who bobbed up from nowhere, walked out across the cleared space toward the light. We stopped about six or eight feet from the edge of the hole; the heat was uncomfortably intense.
"I'll make a dash for it," said the man with the pail.
He ran forward a few steps, splashed the water into the light, and hastily retreated. As the water struck the edge of the light there came a roar like steam escaping under tremendous pressure; a great cloud of vapor rolled back over us and dissolved. When the air cleared I saw that the light, or the fire of this mysterious agency, was unchanged. The water dashed against it had had absolutely no effect.
It was just after this incident that the first real tragedy happened. One of the many quadruplanes that had been circling over the field during the afternoon passed directly over the light at an altitude of perhaps three thousand feet. We saw it sail away erratically, as though its pilot no longer had it under control. Then it suddenly burst into flame and came quivering down in a long, lengthening spiral of smoke.
That night the second of the meteors landed on the earth. It fell near Juneau, Alaska, and was accompanied by the same phenomena as the one we were watching. The reports showed it to be slightly smaller in size than the Brookline meteor. It burned brightly during the day of November 12. On the morning of the 13th wireless reports from Alaska stated that it had burned out during the previous night.
Meanwhile the light at Brookline was under constant surveillance. It remained unchanged in all respects.
The next night it rained—a heavy, pelting downpour. For a mile or more around the field the hissing of steam could be heard as the rain struck the light. The next morning was clear, and still we saw no change in the light.
Then, a week later, came the cold spell of 1940. Surpassing in severity the winters of 1888 and 1918, it broke all existing records of the Weather Bureau. The temperature during the night of November 20, at Brookline, fell to thirty degrees below zero. During this night the fire was seen to dwindle gradually in size, and by morning it was entirely extinguished.
No other meteors fell that winter; and, as their significance remained unexplained, public interest in them soon died out. The observatories at Harvard, Flagstaff, Cordoba, and the newer one on Table Mountain, near Cape Town, all reported the appearance of several new stars, flaring into prominence for a few hours and visible just after sunset and before dawn, on several nights during November. But these published statements were casually received and aroused only slight general comment.
Then, in February, 1941, came the publication of Professor Newland's famous theory of the Mercutian Light—as the fire was afterward known. Professor Newland was at this time the foremost astronomer in America, and his extraordinary theory and the predictions he made, coming from so authoritative a source, amazed and startled the world.
His paper, couched in the language of science, was rewritten to the public understanding and published in the newspapers of nearly every country. It was an exhaustive scientific deduction, explaining in theory the origin of the two meteors that had fallen to earth two months before.
In effect Professor Newland declared that the curious astronomical phenomena of the previous November—the new "stars" observed, the two meteors that had fallen with their red and green light-fire—were all evidence of the existence of intelligent life on the planet Mercury.
I give you here only the more important parts of the paper as it was rewritten for the public prints:
... I am therefore strongly inclined to accept the theory advanced by Schiaparelli in 1882, in which he concluded that Mercury rotates on its axis once in eighty-eight days. Now, since the sidereal revolution of Mercury, i.e., its complete revolution around the sun, occupies only slightly under eighty-eight days, the planet always presents the same face to the sun. On that side reigns perpetual day; on the other—the side presented to the earth as Mercury passes us—perpetual night.
The existence of an atmospheric envelope on Mercury, to temper the extremes of heat and cold that would otherwise exist on its light and dark hemispheres, seems fairly certain. If there were no atmosphere on the planet, temperatures on that face toward the sun would be extraordinarily high—many hundred degrees hotter than the boiling point of water.
Quite the other extreme would be the conditions on the dark side, for without the sheltering blanket of an atmosphere, this surface must be exposed to the intense cold of interplanetary space.
I have reason to believe, however, particularly from my deductions made in connection with the photographs taken during the transit of Mercury over the face of the sun on November 11 last, that there does exist an atmosphere on this planet—an atmosphere that appears to be denser and more cloudy than our own. I am led to this conclusion by other evidence that has long been fairly generally accepted as fact. The terminating edge of the phases of Mercury is not sharp, but diffuse and shaded—there is here an atmospheric penumbra. The spectroscope also shows lines of absorption, which proves that Mercury has a gaseous envelope thicker than ours.
This atmosphere, whatever may be its nature I do not assume, tempers the heat and cold on Mercury to a degree comparable to the earth. But I do believe that it makes the planet—on its dark face particularly—capable of supporting intelligent life of some form.
Mercury was in transit over the face of the sun on November 11, of last year, within a few hours of the time the first meteor fell to earth. The planet was therefore at one of her closest points to the earth, and—this is significant—was presenting her dark face toward us.
At this time several new "stars" were reported, flashing into brilliancy and then fading again into obscurity. All were observed in the vicinity of Mercury; none appeared elsewhere. I believe these so-called "stars" to be some form of interplanetary vehicle—probably navigated in space by beings from Mercury. And from them were launched the two meteors that struck our planet. How many others were dispatched that may have missed their mark we have no means of determining.
The days around November 11 last, owing to the proximity of Mercury to the earth, were most favorable for such a bombardment. A similar time is now once more almost upon us!
Because of the difference in the velocities of Mercury and the earth in their revolutions around the sun, one synodic revolution of Mercury, i.e., from one inferior conjunction to the next, requires nearly one hundred and sixteen days. In eighty-eight days Mercury has completed her sidereal revolution, but during that time the earth has moved ahead a distance requiring twenty-eight days more before she can be overtaken.
After the first week in March of this year therefore Mercury will again be approaching inferior conjunction, and again will pass at her closest point to the earth.
We may expect at this time another bombardment of a severity that may cause tremendous destruction, or destroy entirely life on this planet!
THE UNKNOWN ENEMY.
When, in February, 1941, Professor James Newland issued this remarkable statement, my paper sent me at once to interview him. He was at this time at the head of the Harvard observatory staff. He lived with his son and daughter in Cambridge. His wife was dead. I had been acquainted with the professor and his family for some time. I first met his son, Alan, during our university days at Harvard. We liked each other at once, and became firm friends—possibly because we were such opposite physical types, as sometimes happens.
Alan was tall, lean and muscular—an inch or so over six feet—with the perfect build of an athlete. I am dark; Alan was blond, with short, curly hair, and blue eyes. His features were strong and regular. He was, in fact, one of the handsomest men I have ever seen. And yet he acted as though he didn't know it—or if he did, as though he considered it a handicap. I think what saved him was his ingenious, ready smile, and his retiring, unassuming—almost diffident—manner.
At the time of the events I am describing Alan was twenty-two—about two years younger than I. It was his first year out of college. He had taken a scientific course and intended to join his father's staff.
Beth and Alan were twins. I was tremendously interested in Beth even then. She seemed one of the most worth-while girls I had ever met. She was a little wisp of femininity, slender and delicate, hardly more than five feet one or two. She had beautiful golden hair and an animated, pretty face, with a pert little snub nose. She was a graduate of Vassar, and planned to take up chemistry as a profession, for she had the same scientific bent as her father and brother.
I called upon Professor Newland the evening of the day his statement was published, and found all three discussing it.
"You want me to talk for publication, don't you, Bob Trevor?" the professor asked suddenly, after we had exchanged a few pleasantries.
He was a wiry little man, about sixty, smooth-shaven, with sparse gray hair, a rugged face of strong character, and a restless air of energy about him. He was an indefatigable worker; indeed, I am confident that, for any single continuous period of work without sleep, he could have run Alan and me into the ground and still have been comparatively fresh.
"You want an exclusive follow-up story from me to-night, don't you?" he repeated.
I admitted that I did.
"What you'll get won't be just what you expect. Look at this."
He pulled one of the evening papers toward him vigorously. "They think it is humorous. There—read that."
The item to which he pointed was a sprightly account of the weird beings that might shortly arrive from Mercury.
"They think it's a joke—some of them. There's another—read that."
The attitude of the press was distinctly an inclination to treat the affair from the humorous side. I had seen indications of that during the day at the office.
"Look here, Bob"—the professor swept all the papers aside with his hand. "You put it to them this way. Make them see this is not a prediction of the end of the world. We've had those before—nobody pays any attention to them, and rightly so. But this Mercutian Light is more than a theory—it's a fact. We fought it last November, and we'll have to fight it again next month. That's what I want to make them realize."
"They'll think it is worth being serious about," Alan put in, "if one of those lights drop into Boston or New York—especially if it happens to play in a horizontal direction instead of vertical."
We went into the whole subject thoroughly, and the professor gave me a second signed statement in which he called upon the nations of the world to prepare for the coming peril.
The actual characteristics of the Mercutian Light we had discussed before several times. A good deal had been printed about it during the previous December—without, as I have said, attracting much public attention. The two meteors had been examined. They were found to be of a mineral that could have originated on Mercury. They were burned and pitted like other meteorites by their passage through the earth's atmosphere.
Of the light itself Professor Newland had already given his opinion. It was, he said, some unknown form of etheric vibration. It radiated heat very slightly, but it had the peculiarity of generating intense heat in anything it touched directly.
"You'd better explain that, father," said Beth, when we reached this point in our summary that evening.
"Heat is the vibration of molecules of matter," the professor began.
"Make it clear when you write it up, Bob," Alan put in. "It's like this. All molecules are in motion—the faster the motion, the hotter the substance, and vice versa."
"And this Mercutian Light," Beth added, "has the power of enormously increasing the molecular vibration of anything it comes in contact with—"
"But it doesn't radiate much heat itself," Alan finished.
Professor Newland smiled. "The old man doesn't have much of a show, does he?"
Alan sat down somewhat abashed, but Beth remained standing beside her father, listening intently to everything he said.
"This light I conceive to be the chief weapon of warfare of the Mercutians," the professor went on. "There has been some talk of those two meteors being signals. That's all nonsense. They were not signals—they were missiles. It was an act of aggression."
I tried to get him to give some idea of what the inhabitants of Mercury might be like, for that was what my editor chiefly desired.
At first he would say nothing along those lines.
"That is pure speculation," he explained. "And very easy speculation, too. Any one can allow his imagination to run wild and picture strange beings of another world. I don't predict they will actually land on the earth—and I have no idea what they will look like if they do land. As a matter of fact, they will probably look very much like ourselves. I see no reason to doubt it."
"Like us?" I ejaculated.
"Why not?" said Alan. "Conditions on Mercury are not fundamentally different from here. We don't have to conceive any very extraordinary sort of being to fill them."
"Here's what you can tell your paper," said the professor abruptly. "Take it down."
I took out my notebook, and he dictated briskly.
"Regarding the possible characteristics of inhabitants of Mercury, it is my conception that intelligent life—let us say, human life—wherever it exists in our universe does not greatly differ in character from that of our own planet. Mars, Venus, Mercury, even Neptune, are relatively close. I believe the Creator has constructed all human life on the same general plan.
"I believe that, being neighbors—if I may be permitted the expression—it is intended that intercourse between the planets should take place. That we have been isolated up to the present time is only because of our ignorance—our inability to bridge the gap. I believe that migration, friendship, commerce, even war, between the inhabitants of different planets of our solar system was intended by Almighty God—and, in good time, will come to pass.
"This is not science; and yet science does not contradict it, in my opinion. Human life on Mercury, Venus or Mars may need bodies taller, shorter, heavier, lighter, more fragile or more solid than ours. The organs will differ from ours, perhaps, but not materially so. The senses will be the same.
"In a word, I believe that nearly all the range of diversity of human life existing on any of the planets exists now on this earth, or has existed in the past, or will exist in the future through our own development, or at most the differences would not be greater than a descent into our animal kingdom would give us.
"Mercutians may have the sense of smell developed to the point of a dog; the instinct of direction of the homing pigeon; the eyes of a cat in the dark, or an owl in the light; but I cannot conceive of them being so different that similar illustrations would not apply.
"I believe the Creator intends intercourse of some kind, friendly or unfriendly, to take place between the worlds. As China was for centuries, so for eons we of this earth have been isolated. That time is past. The first act was one of aggression. Let us wait for the next calmly but soberly, with full realization of the danger. For we may be—indeed, I think we are—approaching the time of greatest peril that human life on this earth has ever had to face!"
THE LANDING OF THE INVADERS.
March 8, 1941, was the date at which Mercury was again to be in inferior conjunction—at her closest point to the earth since her transit over the face of the sun on November 11 of the previous year. During February—after Professor Newland's statements—the subject received a tremendous amount of publicity. Some scientific men rallied to Professor Newland's support; others scouted the idea as absurd.
Officially, the governments of the world ignored the matter entirely. In general, the press, editorially, wrote in a humorous vein, conjuring up many ridiculous possibilities of what was about to happen. The public followed this lead. It was amused, interested to a degree; but, as a mass, neither apprehensive nor serious—only curious.
In some parts of the earth—among the smaller Latin nations particularly—some apprehension was felt. But even so, no one knew what to do about it—where to go to avoid the danger—for the attack, if it came at all, was as likely to strike one country as another.
The first week in March arrived with public interest steadily increasing. Mercury, always difficult of observation, presented no spectacle for the public gaze and imagination to feed upon. But, all over the world, there were probably more eyes turned toward the setting and rising sun during that week than ever had been turned there before.
Professor Newland issued no more statements after that evening I have described. He was taken with a severe cold in the latter part of February, and as Beth was in delicate health and did not stand the Northern winters well, the whole family left for a few months' stay at their bungalow home in Florida. They were quite close to the little village of Bay Head, on the Gulf coast. I kept in communication with them there.
The 8th of March came and passed without a report from any part of the earth of the falling of the Mercutian meteors. Satirical comment in the press doubled. There was, indeed, no scientific report of any unusual astronomical phenomena, except from the Harvard observatory the following morning. There Professor Newland's assistant, Professor Brighton, stated he had again observed a new "star"—an interplanetary vehicle, as Professor Newland described it. Only a single one had been observed this time. It was seen just before dawn of the 9th.
Then, about 4 P.M., Atlantic time, on the afternoon of the 9th, the world was electrified by the report of the landing of invaders in the United States. The news came by wireless from Billings, Montana. An interplanetary vehicle of huge size had landed on the desert in the Shoshone River district of northern Wyoming, west of the Big Horn Mountains.
This strange visitor—it was described as a gleaming, silvery object perhaps a hundred feet in diameter—had landed near the little Mormon settlement of Byron. The hope that its mission might be friendly was dispelled even in the first report from Billings. The characteristic red and green light-fire had swept the country near by—a horizontal beam this time—and the town of Byron was reported destroyed, and in all likelihood with the loss of its entire population.
The Boston Observer sent me to Billings almost immediately by quadruplane. I arrived there about eight o'clock on the evening of the 10th. The city was in a turmoil. Ranchers from the neighboring cattle country thronged its streets. A perfect exodus of people—Mormons and oil men from Shoshone country, almost the entire populations of Cody, Powell, Garland, and other towns near the threatened section, the Indians from the Crow Reservation at Frannie—all were streaming through Billings.
The Wyoming State Airplane Patrol, gathered in a squadron by orders from Cheyenne, occasionally passed overhead, flashing huge white searchlights. I went immediately to the office of the Billings Dispatch. It was so crowded I could not get in. From what I could pick up among the excited, frightened people of Billings, and the various bulletins that the Dispatch had sent out during the day, the developments of the first twenty-four hours of Mercutian invasion were these:
Only a single "vehicle"—we called it that for want of a better name—had landed. Airplane observation placed its exact position on the west bank of the Shoshone River, about four miles southwest of Byron and the same distance southeast of Garland. The country here is typically that of the Wyoming desert—sand and sagebrush—slightly rolling in some places, with occasional hills and buttes.
The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad runs down its spur from the Northern Pacific near Billings, passes through the towns of Frannie—near the border of Montana and Wyoming—and Garland, and terminates at Cody. This line, running special trains throughout the day, had brought up a large number of people. During the afternoon a bomb of some kind—it was vaguely described as a variation of the red and green light-rays—had destroyed one of the trains near Garland. The road was now open only down to Frannie.
The town of Byron, I learned, was completely annihilated. It had been swept by the Mercutian Light and destroyed by fire. Garland was as yet unharmed. There was broken country between it and the Mercutian invaders, and the rays of the single light which they were using could not reach it directly.
Such, briefly, was the situation as I found it that evening of the 10th. In Billings we were sixty-five miles north of the Mercutian landing place. What power for attack and destruction the enemy had, we had no means of determining. How many of them there were; how they could travel over the country; what the effective radius of their light-fire was; the nature of the "bomb" that had destroyed the train on the C., B. and Q. near the town of Garland—all those were questions that no one could answer.
Billings was, during those next few days, principally a gathering place and point of departure for refugees. Yet, so curiously is the human mind constituted, underneath all this turmoil the affairs of Billings went on as before. The stores did not close; the Billings Dispatch sent out its reports; the Northern Pacific trains from east and west daily brought their quota of reporters, picture men and curiosity seekers, and took away all who had sense enough to go. The C., B. and Q. continued running trains to Frannie—which was about fifteen miles from the Mercutian landing place—and many of the newspaper men, most of those, in fact, who did not have airplanes, went there.
That first evening in Billings, Rolland Mercer—a chap about my own age, who had brought me from the East in one of the Boston Observer's planes—and I, decided on a short flight about the neighboring country to look the situation over. We started about midnight, a crisp, cloudless night with no moon. We had been warned against venturing into the danger zone; several of the Wyoming patrol and numbers of private planes had been seen to fall in flames when the light struck them.
We had no idea what the danger zone was—how close we dared go—but decided to chance it. To fly sufficiently high for safety directly over the Mercutians appeared difficult, since the light-fire already had proven effective at a distance of several miles at least. We decided not to attempt that, but merely to follow the course of the C., B. and Q. southwest to Cody, then to circle around to the east, and thence back north to Billings, passing well to the east of the Mercutians.
We started, as I have said, about midnight, rising from the rolling prairie back of Billings. We climbed five hundred feet and, with our searchlight playing upon the ground beneath, started directly for Frannie. We passed over Frannie at about eight hundred feet, and continued on the C., B. and Q. line toward Garland. We had decided to pass to a considerable extent to the west of Garland, to be farther away from the danger, and then to strike down to Cody.
We were flying now at a speed close to a hundred and forty miles an hour. Off to the left I could see the red and green beam of the single light of the Mercutians; it was pointing vertically up into the air, motionless. Something—I do not know what—made me decide to turn off our searchlight.
I looked behind us. Some miles away, and considerably nearer the Mercutians than we were, I saw the light of another plane. I was watching it when suddenly the red and green beam swung toward it, and a moment later picked it up. I caught a fleeting glimpse of what I took to be a little biplane. It remained for an instant illuminated by the weird red and green flare; then the Mercutian Light swung back to its vertical position. A second later the biplane burst into flames and fell.
The thing left me shuddering. I turned our searchlight permanently off and sat staring down at the shadowy country scurrying away beneath us.
Mercer had evidently not seen this tragedy. He did not look at me, but kept facing the front. We were now somewhat to the west of Garland, with it between us and the Mercutians. The few lights of the town could be seen plainly. The country beneath us seemed fairly level. To the west, half a mile away, perhaps, I could make out a sheer, perpendicular wall of rock. We seemed to be flying parallel with it and about level with its top.
We were rising a little, I think, when suddenly our engines stopped. I remember it flashed through my mind to wonder how Mercer would dare shut them off when we were flying so low. The sudden silence confused me a little. I started to ask him if he had seen the biplane fall, when he swung back abruptly and gripped me by the arm.
"Turn on the light—you fool—we've got to land!"
I fumbled with the searchlight. Then, just as I turned the switch, I saw, rising from a point near the base of the Mercutian Light, what appeared to be a skyrocket.
It rose in a long, graceful arc, reached the top of its ascent, and came down, still flaming. I remember deciding it would fall in or near Garland.
It seemed to go out just before it landed—at least I did not follow it all the way down. Then there came a flash as though a huge quantity of red and green smokeless powder had gone off in a puff; a brief instant of darkness, and then flames rose from a hundred points in the little town. The next second our wheels ground in the sand.
I heard a splintering crash; something struck me violently on the shoulder; then—blackness.
Professor Newland and his family were living in seclusion in their Florida home at the time the Mercutian invaders landed in Wyoming. The curious events in Florida, which connected them so directly with the invasion and caused Alan later to play so vital a part in it, are so important that I am impelled to relate them chronologically, rather than as they were told me afterward by Alan and Beth.
When, on March 9, the news that the Mercutians had landed in Wyoming reached Professor Newland, he immediately established telegraphic communication with Harvard. Thus he was kept fully informed on the situation—indeed, he saw it as a whole far better than I did.
On March 12, three days after the landing, orders from Washington were given out, regulating all passenger transportation in the direction of the danger zone. One hundred miles was the limit set. State troops were placed on all trains, State roads were likewise guarded, and the State airplane patrols united in a vigilant effort to keep outside planes from getting in. On the 13th the President of the United States issued an appeal to all persons living within the hundred-mile limit, asking them to leave.
On March 14 the Canadian government offered its assistance in any way possible—its Saskatchewan airplane patrol was already helping Montana maintain the hundred-mile limit. Similar offers were immediately made by nearly every government in the world.
Such were the first main steps taken to safeguard the people.
By March 14 the actual conditions of affairs in the threatened section of Wyoming was fairly well known. The town of Garland was destroyed by fire on the night of the 10th, and the towns of Mantua and Powell—north and south of Garland respectively—the following morning. On the evening of the 11th a government plane, flying without lights, sacrificed itself in an attempt to drop a bomb into the Mercutian camp. It was caught by the light when almost directly over the Mercutians, and was seen to fall in flames.
It was estimated that the single light was controlling an area with a radius of about ten miles. To the south and west there was practically nothing but desert. To the west Garland, Mantua and Powell were burned. To the north Deaver and Crowley—on another branch of the C., B. and Q., about ten miles from the Mercutians—were as yet unharmed. They were, however, entirely deserted by the 15th.
During these days the Mercutians did not move from their first landing place. Newspaper speculation regarding their capabilities for offensive action ran rife. Perhaps they could not move. They appeared to possess but one ray of light-fire; this had an effective radius of ten miles. The only other offensive weapon shown was the rocket, or bomb, that had destroyed the C., B. and Q. train near Garland and the town itself. Reports differed as to what had set fire to the town of Powell.
All these points were less than ten miles away from the Mercutian base. Obviously, then, the danger was grossly exaggerated. The unknown invaders could safely and easily be shelled by artillery from a much greater distance. Mercury had passed inferior conjunction; no other Mercutian vehicles had been reported as landing anywhere on the earth. A few days, and the danger would be over. Thus the newspapers of the country settled the affair.
On March 14th it was announced that General Price would conduct the military operations against the Mercutians. Press dispatches simultaneously announced that troops, machine guns and artillery were being rushed to Billings. This provoked a caustic comment from the Preparedness League of America, to the effect that no military operations of any offensive value could be conducted by the United States against anybody or anything.
This statement was to some extent true. During the twenty years that had elapsed since the World War armament of all kinds had fallen into disuse. Few improvements in offensive weapons had been made. The military organization and equipment of the United States, and, indeed, that of many of the other great powers, was admittedly inadequate to cope with any very powerful enemy.
Professor Newland telegraphed to the War Department at Washington on the 14th, stating that in his opinion new scientific measures would have to be devised to deal with this enemy, and that whatever scientific knowledge he had on the subject was at their disposal at their request. To this telegram the government never replied.
It was a day or two after that—on the morning of the 16th, to be exact—that the next most important development in this strange affair took place. Alan Newland rose that morning at dawn and took his launch for a trip up one of the neighboring bayous. He was alone, and intended to fish for an hour or so and return home in time for breakfast.
He went, perhaps, three miles up the winding little stream. Then, just after sunrise, he shut off the motor and drifted silently along. The bayou split into two streams here, coming together again a quarter of a mile farther on, and thus forming a little island. It was just past the point of this island that Alan shut off his motor.
He had been sitting quiet several minutes preparing his tackle, when his eye caught something moving behind the dark green of the magnolia trees hanging over the low banks of the island. It seemed to be a flicker of red and white some five feet above the ground. Instinctively he reached for the little rifle he had brought with him to shoot at it, thinking it might be a bird, although he had never seen one before of such a color.
A moment later, in the silence, he heard a rustling of the palmettos near the bank of the bayou. He waited, quiet, with the rifle across his knees. His launch was still moving forward slowly from the impetus of the motor. And then, quite suddenly, he came into sight of the figure of a girl standing motionless beside a tree on the island a few feet back from the water and evidently watching him.
Alan was startled. He knew there was no one living on the island. There were, in fact, few people at all in the vicinity—only an occasional negro shack or the similar shack of the "poor white trash," and a turpentine camp, several miles back in the pines.
But it was not the presence of the girl here on the island at daybreak that surprised him most, but the appearance of the girl herself. He sat staring at her dumbly, wondering if he were awake or dreaming. For the girl—who otherwise might have appeared nothing more than an extraordinarily beautiful young female of this earth, somewhat fantastically dressed—the girl had wings!
He rubbed his eyes and looked again. There was no doubt about it—they were huge, deep-red feathered wings, reaching from her shoulder blades nearly to the ground. She took a step away from the tree and flapped them once or twice idly. Alan could see they would measure nearly ten feet from tip to tip when outstretched. His launch had lost its forward motion now, and for the moment was lying motionless in the sluggish bayou. Hardly fifty feet separated him from the girl.
Her eyes stared into his for a time—a quiet, curious stare, with no hint of fear in it. Then she smiled. Her lips moved, but the soft words that reached him across the water were in a language he could not understand. But he comprehended her gesture; it distinctly bade him come ashore. Alan took a new grip on himself, gathered his scattered wits, and tried to think connectedly.
He laid his rifle in the bottom of the launch; then, just as he was reaching for an oar, he saw back among the tall cabbage palms on the island in an open space, a glowing, silvery object, like a house painted silver and shining under the rays of a brilliant sun.
Then the whole thing came to him. He remembered the press descriptions from Wyoming of the Mercutian vehicle. He saw this white rectangle on the little Florida island as a miniature of that which had brought the invaders of Wyoming from space. And then this girl—
Fear for an instant supplanted amazement in Alan Newland's heart. He looked around. He could see back into the trees plainly, almost across the island. He stood up in the boat. There seemed no one else in sight.
Alan sat down and, taking up the oar, sculled the launch toward the spot where the girl was standing. His mind still refused to think clearly. The vague thought came to him that he might be struck dead by some unknown power the instant he landed. Then, as he again met the girl's eyes—a clear, direct, honest gaze with something of a compelling dignity in it—his fear suddenly left him.
A moment later the bow of the launch pushed its way through the wire grass and touched the bank. Alan laid aside his oar, tied the boat to a half-submerged log, and stepped ashore.
When I recovered consciousness I found myself lying in the sand with Mercer sitting beside me. It was still night. The tangled wreckage of our airplane lay near by; evidently Mercer had carried me out of it.
I sat up.
"I'm all right," I said. "What happened?"
He grinned at me with relief.
"The damned engine stopped. I don't know what was the matter. You had the light off. I couldn't see anything when we got down close."
He waved his hand toward the wrecked plane.
"It's done for," he added; "but I'm not hurt much. Are you?"
"No," I said. "I'm all right."
I climbed to my feet unsteadily; my head seemed about to split open.
"Garland's burning," he added.
Over the desert, some two or three miles away, the burning town could be seen plainly.
"What are we going to do?" Mercer asked after a moment.
I was pretty weak and badly bruised all over. Mercer seemed to have fared better than I. We talked over our situation at length. Finally we decided to rest where we were until daybreak. I would feel better then, and we could start back on foot for Mantua and Frannie.
I lay down again—my head was going round like a top—and Mercer sat beside me. It was pretty cold, but we were warmly dressed and not uncomfortable. The fact that we were so close to the Mercutians—not much over seven or eight miles—worried us a little. But we reasoned that we were in no great danger. We could still see their light-ray standing vertically in the air.
Occasionally it would swing slowly to one side or the other. Once it swung toward us, but as its base was in a hollow, it was cut off by the higher ground between as it swung down, and we knew it could not reach us from that position.
After a while I fell asleep. When Mercer woke me up it was dawn.
"Let's get started," he said. "I'm hungry as the devil."
I felt much better now. I was hungry myself, and stiff, and chilled.
"You'll feel better walking," he added. "Come on. It'll take us a deuce of a while over this sand."
We decided to strike for the railroad at its closest point to us. The State automobile road to Cody ran along near the railroad, and we planned to follow that up to Mantua.
After a last look at our plane, which was hopelessly demolished, we started off, heading north of Garland. We had been walking along a few minutes when Mercer suddenly gripped me by the arm. I followed the direction of his glance. Another rocket was rising from the Mercutian base. It was still dark enough for us to see its flare as it rose and curved in a long, graceful arc. We stopped stock still and stood watching. The rocket arched over to the north. As it came down we lost sight of it.
"That went into Mantua," said Mercer in a horrified whisper.
A moment later we saw, in the direction of Mantua, that brief, silent, smokeless red and green flash. Then the sky lighted up a lurid red, and we knew Mantua was burning.
We stood looking at each other for a time, too frightened and horrified for words. The thing was not like modern warfare. It was uncanny in its silent deadliness, and there seemed a surety about it that was appalling.
"We're cut off," said Mercer finally.
His face was white and his voice trembled.
We were both pretty much unnerved, but after a moment we got ourselves together and talked calmly about what was best for us to do.
We concluded finally to go ahead to the road. We calculated we were not over two miles from the nearest part of it. We would strike it about halfway between Garland and Mantua, and we thought it just possible we would find passing along it some refugees from the two towns. I couldn't quite see how meeting them could help us any, unless we encountered some vehicle that would give us a lift. However, the walking would be easier, and when we got to the road we could decide which way to go—north to Frannie, or south around Garland to Powell.
The sun was just rising when we started again. It took us nearly an hour to reach the road. As far as we could see it was deserted. We stopped here and held another consultation.
"It's easily twelve miles up to Frannie," I said, "and I don't believe more than eight to Powell. Let's go that way. We can get down to Cody from there. I guess there are still people left in Powell."
We started down the road toward Garland. It seemed the sensible thing to do. We were both famished by now and thirsty also. I had an idea that, since the fires in Garland were about burned out, there might be an isolated house unharmed, where we could find food and water.
I sometimes wonder now at our temerity in venturing so calmly to face this unknown danger. We were in the enemy's country—an enemy whose methods of attacking us might at any moment prove a hundred times more efficacious than they had so far. But we did not consider that then.
There was, indeed, nothing else we could have done advantageously. This road we were on was the only one within twenty or thirty miles. To have struck west from our wrecked plane—away from the Mercutians—would have brought us to face a hundred miles or more of desert over to the Yellowstone.
It was now broad daylight—and almost cloudless, as is usual in this locality. Half an hour of walking brought us nearly to the outskirts of Garland. There was less smoke all the time. We judged the fire must be pretty well burned out by now. Behind us the smoke of Mantua, a much larger town than Garland, rose in a great rolling cloud.
We were walking along, wondering what we should find ahead, when suddenly behind Garland and off to the right we saw another huge cloud of smoke rising.
"Powell!" ejaculated Mercer, coming to a dead stop in the road. "Good God, they've got Powell, too!"
There was no doubt about it—the town of Powell was also in flames. We sat down together then at the side of the road. We didn't quite know what else to do. We were both faint. Our situation seemed every moment to be getting worse; we appeared further from even comparative safety now than when we left our plane at dawn.
There seemed nothing else to do now but go ahead into Garland, a distance of only half a mile. There we might find food and water; and, thus refreshed, we could start back north to cover the fifteen miles to Frannie.
Garland, a few days before, was a town of about five hundred inhabitants; but I do not suppose that, at the time of its destruction, there were more than a score or two of people remaining in it.
We started off again, and within twenty minutes were among the smoldering houses of the town. It consisted practically of only one street—the road we were on—with the houses strung along it. The houses had been, most of them, small frame structures. They were nothing now but smoldering heaps of ashes with the chimneys left standing, like gaunt, silent sentinels. As we passed on down the road we saw several twisted forms that we took for the remains of human beings. It is unnecessary for me to describe them. We hurried on, shuddering.
Our objective was the lower end of the town, for there, perhaps a quarter of a mile off to one side with a branch road leading to it, we saw a single house and out-buildings left standing. We turned down this road and approached the house. It was a rather good-looking building of the bungalow type with a wide-spreading porch. Beside it stood a long, low, rectangular building we took to be a garage. There was an automobile standing in the doorway, and behind it we caught the white gleam of an airplane wing.
"We're all right now," cried Mercer. "There's a car, and there's a plane inside. One of them ought to run."
At this unexpected good fortune we were jubilant. We could get back to Billings now in short order.
We climbed up the porch steps and entered the house. We did not call out, for it seemed obvious that no one would be there after what had occurred in Garland so near by.
"There must be something to eat here," I said. "Let's find out—and then get back to Billings."
The big living room was empty, but there was no sign of disorder. A closed door stood near at hand.
"That might be the way to the kitchen," I suggested. "Come on."
I pushed open the door and entered, with Mercer close behind me. It was a bedroom. The bed stood over by a window. I stopped in horror, for on the bed, hunched forward in a sitting position, was the body of a man!
With the first sudden shock of surprise over, we stopped to note details. The man's hand, lying on the blanket, clutched a revolver. A mirror directly across from him was shattered as though by a bullet. A small bedroom chair was overturned near the center of the room.
"He—he isn't burned." Mercer spoke the words hardly above a whisper. "Something else killed him—there's been a fight. They—"
A sudden panic seized me. I wanted to run—to do something—anything—that would get me away from the nameless, silent terror that seemed all about.
"Come on," I whispered back. "God! Let's get out of here."
As we got out into the living room we heard slow, dragging footsteps on the porch outside. We stopped again, shrinking back against the wall.
"They—they—it's—" Mercer's whispered words died away. We were both terrified beyond the power of reasoning. The dragging footsteps came closer—a sound that had in it nothing of human tread. Then we heard soft voices—words that were unintelligible.
"It's the Mercutians," I found voice to whisper. "They—"
A figure appeared in the porch doorway, outlined against the light behind—the figure of a short, squat man. He seemed to have on some sort of white, furry garment. He was bareheaded, with hair falling to his shoulders.
At the sight of him my terror suddenly left me. Here was an enemy I could cope with. The dread fear of supernatural beings that had possessed me evaporated.
With a shout to Mercer I dashed forward directly at the doorway. I think the Mercutian had not yet seen us; he stood quite still, his body blocking the full width of the doorway.
I let fly with my fist as I came up and hit him full in the face. At the same instant my body struck his. He toppled backward and I went through the doorway. I tripped over him on the porch outside and fell sprawling. Before I could rise three other Mercutians fell upon me and pinned me down.
Mercer was right behind me in the doorway. I saw him pause an instant to see what was happening. There seemed to be five Mercutians altogether. The one I had hit lay quite still. Three others were holding me.
The fifth stood to one side, watching Mercer, but apparently inactive.
I saw Mercer hesitate. An expression of surprise came over his face. His body swayed; he took a single step forward, half turned, and then fell in a crumpled heap.
The girl stood quiet beside the tree, watching Alan as he tied up his boat. She continued smiling. Alan stood up and faced her. He wondered what he should say—whether she could understand him any better than he could her.
"You speak English?" he began hesitantly.
The girl did not answer at once; she seemed to be trying to divine his meaning. Then she waved her hand—a curious movement, which he took to be a gesture of negation—her broadening smile disclosing teeth that were small, even, and very white.
At this closer view Alan could see she was apparently about twenty years old, as time is reckoned on earth. Her body was very slender, gracefully rounded, yet with an appearance of extreme fragility. Her slenderness, and the long, sleek wings behind, made her appear taller than she really was; actually she was about the height of a normal woman of our own race.
Her legs were covered by a pair of trousers of some silky fabric, grayish blue in color. Her bare feet were incased in sandals, the golden cords of which crossed her insteps and wound about her ankles, fastening down the lower hems of the trousers. A silken, gray-blue scarf was wound about her waist; crossing in front, it passed up over her breast and shoulders, crossing again between the wings behind and descending to the waist.
Her hair was a smooth, glossy black. It was parted in the middle, covered her ears, and came forward over each shoulder. The plaits were bound tightly around with silken cords; each was fastened to her body in two places, at the waist and, where the plait ended, the outside of the trouser leg just above the knee.
Her skin was cream colored, smooth in texture, and with a delicate flush of red beneath the surface. Her eyes were black, her face small and oval, with a delicately pointed chin. There was nothing remarkable about her features except that they were extraordinarily beautiful. But—and this point Alan noticed at once—there was in her expression, in the delicacy of her face, a spiritual look that he had never seen in a woman before. It made him trust her; and—even then, I think—love her, too.
Such was the strange girl as Alan saw her that morning standing beside the tree on the bank of the little Florida bayou.
"I can't talk your language," said Alan. He realized it was a silly thing to say. But his smile answered hers, and he went forward until he was standing close beside her. She did not appear so tall now, for he towered over her, the strength and bigness of his frame making hers seem all the frailer by contrast.
He held out his hand. The girl looked at it, puzzled.
"Won't you shake hands?" he said; and then he realized that, too, was a silly remark.
She wrinkled up her forehead in thought; then, with a sudden comprehension, she laughed—a soft little ripple of laughter—and placed her hand awkwardly in his.
As he released her hand she reached hers forward and brushed it lightly against his cheek. Alan understood that was her form of greeting. Then she spread her wings and curtsied low—making as charming a picture, he thought, as he had ever seen in his life.
As she straightened up her eyes laughed into his, and again she spoke a few soft words—wholly unintelligible. Then she pointed toward the sun, which was still low over the horizon, and then to the silver object lying back near the center of the island.
"I know," said Alan. "Mercury."
The girl repeated his last word immediately, enunciating it almost perfectly. Then she laid her hand upon her breast, saying: "Miela."
"Alan," he answered, indicating himself.
The girl laughed delightedly, repeating the word several times. Then she took him by the hand and made him understand that she wished to lead him back into the island.
They started off, and then Alan noticed a curious thing. She walked as though weighted to the ground by some invisible load. She did not raise her feet normally, but dragged them, like a diver who walks on land in his heavily weighted iron shoes. After a few steps she spread her wings, and, flapping them slowly, was able to get along better, although it was obvious that she could not lift her body off the ground to fly.
For a moment Alan was puzzled, then he understood. The force of gravity on earth was too great for the power of her muscles, which were developed only to meet the pull of Mercury—a very much smaller planet.
The girl was so exceedingly frail Alan judged she did not weigh, here on earth, much over a hundred pounds. But even that he could see was too much for her. She could not fly, and it was only by the aid of her wings that she was able to walk with anything like his own freedom of movement.
He made her understand, somehow, that he comprehended her plight. Then, after a time, he put his left arm about her waist. She spread the great red wings out behind him, the right one passing over his shoulder; and in this fashion they went forward more easily.
The girl kept constantly talking and gesturing. She seemed remarkably intelligent; and even then, at the very beginning of their acquaintanceship, she made Alan understand that she intended to learn his language. Indeed, she seemed concerned about little else; and she went about her task systematically and with an ability that amazed him.
As they walked forward she kept continually stooping to touch objects on the ground—a stick, a handful of sand, a woodland flower, or a palmetto leaf. Or, again, she would indicate articles of his clothing, or his features. In each case Alan gave her the English word; and in each case she repeated it after him.
Once she stopped stock still, and with astonishing rapidity and accuracy rattled off the whole list—some fifteen or twenty words altogether—pointing out each object as she enunciated the word.
Alan understood then—and he found out afterward it was the case—that the girl's memory was extraordinarily retentive, far more retentive than is the case with any normal earth person. He discovered also, a little later, that her intuitive sense was highly developed. She seemed, in many instances, to divine his meaning, quite apart from his words or the gestures—which often were unintelligible to her—with which he accompanied them.
After a time they reached the Mercutian vehicle. It was a cubical box, with a pyramid-shaped top, some thirty feet square at the base, and evidently constructed of metal, a gleaming white nearer like silver than anything else Alan could think of. He saw that it had a door on the side facing him, and several little slitlike windows, covered by a thick, transparent substance which might have been glass.
As they got up close to it Alan expected the girl's companions to come out. His heart beat faster. Suddenly he raised his voice and shouted: "Hello, inside!"
The girl looked startled. Then she smiled and made the negative gesture with her hand.
Alan understood then that she was alone. They went inside the vehicle. It was dark in there. Alan could make out little, but after a moment his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness.
He noticed first that the thing was very solidly constructed. He expected to see some complicated mechanism, but there was little or nothing of the kind so far as he could make out in the darkness in this first hurried inspection.
Fastened to one wall was an apparatus which he judged was for the making of oxygen. He looked around for batteries, and for electric lights, but could see nothing of the kind.
All this time Alan's mind had been busily trying to puzzle out the mystery of the girl's presence here alone. Evidently she came in the most friendly spirit; and thus, quite evidently, her mission, whatever it was, must be very different from that of the invaders who had landed almost simultaneously in Wyoming.
Whatever it was that had brought her—whatever her purpose—he realized it must be important. The girl, even now, seemed making no effort to show or explain anything to him, but continued plying him with questions that gave her the English words of everything about them that she could readily indicate.
Alan knew then that she must have something important to communicate—something that she wanted to say as quickly as possible. And he knew that she realized the only way was for her to learn his language, which she was doing with the least possible loss of time, and with an utter disregard of everything else that might have obtruded.
Alan decided then to take the girl back home with him—indeed, it had never been in his mind to do anything else—and let Beth care for her. Meanwhile he would do everything he could to help her get the knowledge necessary to make known what it was that had brought her from Mercury. That she had some direct connection with the Wyoming invaders he did not doubt.
Alan had just reached this decision when the girl made him realize that she had the same thought in mind. She pointed around the room and then to herself, and he knew that she was insisting upon a general word to include all her surroundings.
Finally Alan answered: "House."
After pointing to him, she waved her hand vaguely toward the country outside the open doorway, and he understood she was asking where his house was.
Alan's decision was given promptly. "We'll go there," he said.
He put his arm about her and started out. By the way she immediately responded he knew she understood, and that it was what she wished to do.
They got back to Alan's launch in a few moments. He seated her in the stern of the boat, where she half reclined with her wings spread out a little behind her. So assiduous was she—and so facile—in her task of learning English, that before she would let him start the motor she had learned the names of many of the new objects in sight, and several verbs connected with his actions of the moment.
There was a large tarpaulin in the launch, and this Alan wrapped about the girl's shoulders. He did not want her vivid red wings to be seen by any one as they passed down the bayou.
Finally they started off.
Professor Newland's home was some three miles from the village of Bay Head, on the shore of a large bay which opened into the Gulf of Mexico. The bayou down which they were heading flowed into this bay near where the house stood. Their home was quite isolated, Alan thought with satisfaction. There was no other habitation nearer than Bay Head except a few negro shacks. With the girl's wings covered he could take her home and keep her there, in absolute seclusion, without causing any comment that might complicate things.
On the way down the bayou the girl showed extreme interest in everything about her. She seemed to have no fear, trusting Alan implicitly in his guidance and protection of her in this strange world. She continued her questions; she laughed frequently, with almost a childlike freedom from care. Only once or twice, he noticed, as some thought occurred to her, the laughter died away, her face suddenly sobered, and a far-away, misty look came into her beautiful eyes.
Alan sat close beside her in the stern, steering the launch and occasionally pulling the tarpaulin back onto her shoulders when it threatened to slip off because of her impetuous gestures.
They saw only a few negroes as they passed down the bayou, and these paid no particular attention to them. Within an hour Alan had the girl safely inside the bungalow, and was introducing her, with excited explanations, to his astonished father and sister, who were just at that moment sitting down to breakfast.
THE MERCUTIAN CAMP.
As I saw Mercer fall to the floor of the porch a sudden rage swept over me. I struggled violently with the three men pinning me down. They appeared very much weaker than I, but even though I could break their holds the three of them were more than a match for me.
The man who was standing inactive, and who I realized had struck down Mercer in some unknown, deadly way, appeared to be the leader. Once, as one of my assailants made some move, the import of which the leader evidently understood, but which I did not, I heard him give a sharp command. It occurred to me then that if I offered too much resistance—if it seemed I was likely to get away from them—I might possibly be struck as swiftly as Mercer had been. So I gave up abruptly and lay still.
They must have understood my motive—or perhaps they felt that I was not worth the trouble of taking alive—for immediately I stopped struggling they unhanded me and rose to their feet.
I stood up also, deciding to appear quite docile, for the time being at any rate, until I could comprehend better with what I had to contend.
The man who appeared to be their leader issued another command. One of the men with whom I had been struggling immediately stepped a few feet away, out of my reach. I knew he had been told to guard me. He kept just that distance away thereafter, following my movements closely and seeming never to take his eyes off me for a moment.
I had opportunity now to inspect these strange enemies more closely. The leader was the tallest. He was about five and a half feet in height, I judged, and fairly stocky. The others were all considerably shorter—not much over five feet, perhaps. All were broad-framed, although not stout to any degree approaching fatness.
From their appearance, they might all have been fairly powerful men, the leader especially. But even the short struggle I had had with them showed me they were not. Their bodies, too, had seemed under my grip to have a flimsy quality, a lack of firmness, of solidity, entirely belied by their appearance.
They were all dressed in a single rude garment of short white fur, made all in one piece, trousers and shirt, and leaving only their arms bare. Their feet were incased in buskins that seemed to be made of leather. Their hair was a reddish-brown color, and fell scraggling a little below the shoulder line.
Their skin was a curious, dead white—like the pallor of a man long in prison. Their faces, which had no sign of hair on them, were broad, with broad flat noses, and with abnormally large eyes that seemed to blink stolidly with an owl-like stare.
Their leader was of somewhat different type. He was, as I have said, nearly six inches taller than the others, and leaner and more powerful looking. His hair was black, and his skin was not so dead white. His eyes were not so abnormally large as those of his companions. His nose was straight, with a high bridge. His face was hairless. It was a strong face, with an expression of dignity about it, a consciousness of power, and a certain sense of cruelty expressed in the firmness of his lips and the set of his chin.
None of them was armed—or, at least, their weapons were not visible to me.
I was much concerned about Mercer. He and the man I had hit were both lying motionless where they had fallen. I stooped over Mercer. No one offered to stop me, although when I moved I saw my guard make a swift movement with his hand to his belt. My heart leaped to my throat, but nothing happened to me, and I made a hasty examination of Mercer.
Quite evidently he was dead.
Meanwhile the Mercutians were examining their fallen comrade. He also was dead, I judged from their actions. They left him where he was lying, and their leader impatiently signed me toward the steps that led down from the porch to the roadway. We started off, my guard keeping close behind me. I noticed then how curiously hampered the Mercutians seemed to be in their movements.
I have explained how Alan observed the effect of our earth's gravity on Miela. It was even more marked with the Mercutians here, for she had the assistance of wings, while they did not. The realization of this encouraged me tremendously. I knew now that physically these enemies were no match for me; that I could break away from them whenever I wished.
But the way in which Mercer had been killed—that I could not understand. It was that I had to guard against. I was afraid to do anything that would expose me to this unknown attack.
I tried to guess over how great a distance this weapon, whatever it was, would prove effective. I assumed only a limited number of feet, although my only reason for thinking so was my guard's evident determination to keep close to me.
All this flashed through my mind while we were descending the steps to the roadway. When we reached the ground we turned back toward the garage, and with slow, plodding steps the leader of the Mercutians preceded me to its entrance, his companions following close behind me. They had evidently been here before, I could tell from their actions. I realized that probably they had all been inside the garage when Mercer and I first approached the house.
It was quite apparent now that the Mercutians did not understand the use of either automobiles or airplanes; they poked around these as though they were some strange, silent animals. Inside the garage I was ordered to stand quiet, with my guard near by, while the rest of them continued what appeared to be a search about the building.
We passed by the house, and I realized that we were starting for the Mercutian base some four miles away. I remembered then that I was extremely hungry and thirsty. I stopped suddenly and endeavored to explain my wants, indicating the house as a place where I could get food.
The leader smiled. His name was Tao, I had learned from hearing his men address him. I do not know why that smile reassured me, but it did. It seemed somehow to make these enemies less inhuman—less supernatural—in my mind. Indeed, I was fast losing my first fear of them, although I still had a great respect for the way in which they had killed Mercer.
Tao told his men to wait, and motioned me toward the house. The bodies of Mercer and the man I had struck down were still lying where they had fallen on the porch. We found food and water in the kitchen, and I sat down and made a meal, while Tao stood watching me. When I had finished I put several slices of bread and meat in my coat. He signified that it was unnecessary, but I insisted, and he smiled again and let me have my way.
Again we started off. This walk of four miles of desert that lay between Garland and the point on the Shoshone River where the invaders were established was about all I could manage, for I was almost exhausted. I realized then how great an exertion the Mercutians were put to, for they seemed nearly as tired as I. We stopped frequently to rest, and it was well after noon when we approached the hollow through which the Shoshone River ran.
Several times I noticed where the Mercutian Light had burned off the scrubby desert vegetation. As we got closer I could see it now in the sunlight, standing vertically up in the air, motionless. There were signs all about now where the light had burned. We were passing along a little gully—the country here was somewhat rough and broken up—when something came abruptly from behind a rock. Its extraordinary appearance startled me so I stared at it in amazement and fear. It came closer, and I saw it was one of the Mercutians.
He was completely incased in a suit of dull black cloth, or rubber, or something of the kind. On his head was a helmet of the same material, with a mask over his face having two huge circular openings covered with a flexible, transparent substance. On his back was a sort of tank with a pipe leading to his mouth. He looked, indeed, something like a man in a diving suit, and still more like the pictures I had seen of soldiers in the World War with gas masks on. He pulled off his helmet as he came up to us, and I saw he was similar in appearance to the red-haired Mercutians who had captured me.
After a short conversation with Tao he went back to his station by the rock, and we proceeded onward down the gully to the river bank. I saw a number of Mercutians dressed this way during the afternoon. They seemed to be guarding the approaches to the camp, and I decided later this costume was for protection against the effects of the light-ray.
The Shoshone River was at this point about two hundred feet wide, and at this season of the year a swift-moving, icy stream some two or three feet deep. There were small trees at intervals along its banks. All about me now I could see where they had been burned by the action of the light.
The vehicle in which the invaders had arrived lay on the near side of the river, some five hundred feet below where we came out of the gully. It was similar in appearance to the one Alan had found in Florida, only many times larger. It lay there now, with its pyramid-shaped top pointing up into the air, close beside the river, and gleaming a dazzling white under the rays of the afternoon sun.
There were perhaps a hundred Mercutians in sight altogether. Most of them were down by the vehicle; all of them were on this side of the river. In fact, as I soon realized, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for them to have crossed. The desert on the opposite side of the Shoshone was level and unbroken. It was swept clear of everything, apparently, by the light-ray.
We turned down the river bank, and soon were close to the shining vehicle that had brought these strange invaders from space. What would I see in this camp of the first beings to reach earth from another planet? What fate awaited me there? These questions hammered at my brain as we approached the point where so much death and destruction had been dealt out to the surrounding country.
The Mercutians all regarded me curiously as we came among them. By the respect they accorded Tao, and his attitude toward them, I decided he was the leader of the entire party. I stopped, wondering what would happen next. The man guarding me was still close at hand. Tao spoke a few words to him and then moved away. My guard immediately sat down. I saw nothing was required of me at the moment, and sat down also.
I had opportunity now to examine the strange things and people about me more in detail. The Mercutians all seemed to be of the same short, squat, red-haired type. Tao was, indeed, the only one I saw who had black hair; and he was the tallest, and by far the most commanding looking figure of them all.
They wore several different costumes, although the garment of white fur was the most common. A few were dressed in the black costume of the guard in the gully. Still others were garbed only in short, wide trousers and shirts of a soft leather, with legs bare from the knee down, and with leather buskins on their feet.
The light-ray was set up near the river, on a metallic structure supporting a small platform some thirty feet above the ground. A ladder up one side gave access to this platform from below. The light itself came from a cubical metallic box, perhaps six feet square, suspended above the platform in a balancing mechanism that allowed it to swing in all directions.
All the metal of this apparatus, the projector, the platform and its framework, was apparently of the same kind; it had the appearance of burnished copper. The whole seemed fairly complicated, but not unlike a huge searchlight would appear if mounted that way.
Coming out of the projector and running down to the ground were black wires, which led to a metallic box a few feet away. This box was rectangular in shape; six feet long, perhaps, two feet broad, and the same in depth. I judged it to be the dynamo or battery from which the projector was supplied with the light-ray.
A short distance back from the river I saw what appeared to be a small mortar, which I assumed was for the sending of the light-rockets, or bombs. Several other light-ray projectors, sections of their supporting structures, and the unassembled parts of other apparatus, were lying scattered about the ground. A considerable number of the Mercutians were laboriously bringing out of the vehicle still more apparatus.
It was obvious to me then that they were only just getting started in their offensive and defensive preparations. This I could easily understand when I had watched for a moment the activities going on. All of the apparatus which they were engaged in bringing out and assembling was of metal, and it was so extremely heavy here on earth that they could hardly handle it.
Standing on the platform beside the light-ray projector were two men evidently in charge of it at the moment. They were dressed in black, with black gloves, although without helmets. I noticed that they had little pads over their ears, with wires running from them down to a small box at the waist.
Once I saw one of them look up sharply, as though he had heard something; and, following the wave of his hand, I saw the tiny black-garbed figure of a man on the higher ground behind the gully through which we had come. I reasoned then that this was a lookout stationed there, and that he was directing the action of the light by some form of wireless telephony.
For perhaps an hour I sat there, with my guard near by watching me. I was sorry, now that I found myself in the midst of these enemies, that I had not made a determined effort to escape earlier in the day, when there would have been only four of them to cope with.
I realized that I didn't know any more now about the power this guard had over me than I had at the beginning. He certainly looked inoffensive, sitting there, but the very calmness with which he watched me made me feel I would be taking a desperate chance in attempting to escape. I decided then to wait until nightfall and to watch a favorable opportunity to break away.
Under cover of darkness, if once I could get out of their sight, I was satisfied they would never catch me. It was my plan to strike back to Garland. I had noticed carefully the lay of the land coming over, and believed I could find my way back. Then, with the car or the plane that was there in the garage, I could get back to Billings.
These thoughts were running through my mind when Tao abruptly presented himself before me and ordered me to get up. I did so, smiling in as friendly a fashion as I could manage. He then made me assist in the work of carrying the heavy pieces of apparatus. Apparently he was determined that I, as an earth man, should work hard, since the Mercutians were so heavily handicapped by the gravity of my planet. I concluded that it would be my best policy to help them all I could—that by so doing they might relax a little in their watchfulness, and thus enable me to get away that night.
I signified to Tao my understanding of what he was after, and made them all see my entire readiness and ability to help. For the rest of the afternoon I was dragging about from place to place, carrying the projectors to the various positions where they had decided to put them up. It seemed to be their plan to establish some twenty or thirty projectors around the vehicle; they were setting them all at points about a hundred yards away from it. These projectors differed in size and shape. Some were cubical, others pyramid-shaped, open at the base as though to send out the light in a spreading ray.
I saw now, when I had a chance to inspect the projectors closer, that they were black outside and like burnished copper inside, to reflect the light. I judged that this black covering must have been like the black suits worn by some of the men, and that it was impervious to the light-ray. Near the center of each projector was a coil of wire. The wires from outside ran to it, and across the open face of the projector a large number of fine lateral wires ran parallel, very close together.
These were about all the details I noticed. I wanted to remember them, although they conveyed very little to me, because I realized all this I was seeing might prove of immense help to the authorities when I got back to Billings.
Night came, and I was still at work. Tao seemed tremendously pleased at what I was doing, and I noticed with satisfaction that his attitude toward me seemed gradually changing. My guard still followed me about, but he did not watch me quite so closely now, I thought.
My help, that afternoon, was considerable. I was by far the strongest man in the camp; and, more than that, I was able to move about so much faster than they that I could do things in a few moments that would have taken them many times as long.
Tao personally directed most of my efforts. He told me where to take the things, and I took them, smilingly, and always coming back to him for new orders. I moved so fast, indeed, that my guard had difficulty in keeping close to me. Several times I experimented and found that I could get away from him quite a little distance without a protest, either from him or from Tao.
As it began to grow dark, they lighted up the camp. This was accomplished by little metallic posts that had been set around at intervals. Each had a tiny coil of wire suspended at its top, which became incandescent and threw out a reddish-green light. Around each light was a square black wire cage some three feet in diameter. I conjectured that these lights used the same ray as the projectors, only in a different form, and that the cage was to protect any one from going too close. The light from these illuminators was much the same in aspect as the ray, except that it seemed to diffuse itself readily and carried only a comparatively short distance.
The scene now, under this red-green glare, was weird in the extreme. The work all about me went on steadily. The Mercutians were all dressed in white furry garments now—I concluded because of the cold—with the exception of those who had on the suits and helmets of black.
The reddish-green light made them all appear like little gnomes at work. Indeed, the whole scene, with its points of color in the darkness, and the huge monstrous shadows all about, was more like some fantastic picture out of a fairy book than a scene on this earth.
Soon after nightfall Tao stopped me, and one of his men brought me something to eat. I still had the slices of bread and meat in my pocket, but, thinking I might need them later on, I kept them there. Tao and I sat down near one of the lights and ate together. We were served by one of the men. My guard still kept close at hand.
The food was nothing more than hard pieces of baked dough and a form of sweet something like chocolate. For drink there was a hot liquid quite comparable to tea. This was served us in small metal cups with handles that seemed to be insulated from the heat.
This meal was brought to us from inside the vehicle. While we were eating I could see many of the Mercutians going inside and coming out with pieces of this food in their hands, eating as they worked. Quite obviously the business of assembling their apparatus was uppermost in the minds of all of them.
The whole atmosphere about the place, I realized now, in spite of the opposite effect their dragging footsteps gave, was one of feverish activity. When we had eaten Tao seemed willing to sit quiet for a while. My efforts to talk to him amused us both greatly, and I noticed with satisfaction that he seemed to trust me more and more.
Finally my guard spoke, asking permission, I judged, to leave us and go have his dinner. My heart leaped into my throat as I saw him go, leaving me alone with Tao. I concluded that now, if ever, was my opportunity. Tao trusted me—seemed to like me, in fact. No one else in the camp was paying the least attention to us. If only I could, on some pretext, get myself a reasonable distance away from him I would make a run for it.
I was turning this problem over in my mind when it was unexpectedly solved for me. A low throbbing, growing momentarily louder, sounded from the air—the hum of an airplane motor. I think Tao noticed it first—I saw him cock his head to one side, listening.
After a moment, as the sound increased, he climbed to his feet and shouted an order to the man nearest us.
The night had clouded over; it was unusually dark. I knew that a plane without lights was approaching. Work about the camp stopped; every one stood listening. I looked up at the light-ray platform. The two men there were swinging the light back and forth, sweeping the sky.
Suddenly the sound ceased; the plane's motor had been shut off. Almost at the same instant the light-ray picked up the plane. It was several thousand feet in the air and almost over our heads, coming down in a spiral. A moment more and the light-ray swung away.
The plane burst into flame, and I knew it was falling. An explosion sounded near at hand. The camp was in chaos immediately. I faced about to look at Tao; he had disappeared.
I waited no longer. Turning back from the river, I ran at full speed.
There seemed to be no pursuit. In a few moments I was clear of the camp and hidden in the darkness of the desert. I ran perhaps half a mile, then I slowed down to a walk, completely winded. Turning, I could see behind me the lights of the camp. I doubted if even now they had missed me. The bomb dropped by the airplane and the plane itself falling almost, in their midst must have plunged them for the time into confusion.
I kept on walking rapidly. The desert here was almost pathless; occasionally I would cross a wandering wagon track, but none of them seemed going in my direction. After a time I was not sure what my direction was; all about me was a luminous darkness—and silence.
I found myself now almost exhausted from my exertions of the day. I decided to go possibly a mile farther—to be well away from the Mercutians—and then to lie down and sleep until daylight.
In about fifteen minutes more I concluded I had gone far enough, and, lying down on the sand, was soon fast asleep. When I awoke it was daylight, with the sun just rising.
With returning consciousness I looked about me in sudden fear, but there was no one in sight. I ate the bread and meat I had in my pocket, and, feeling much refreshed, but thirsty, I started again for Garland.
I made the town soon after noon that day. The little automobile was still standing in the garage, and I started it without trouble. Before I left I went up to the porch of the house.
The bodies of Mercer and the Mercutian were still lying there. I dragged Mercer's body down the steps and put it into the back seat of the car Then I started off. I stuck to the main road, and went through Mantua at top speed, apprehensive that some of the Mercutians might be there. This town, like Garland, was completely burned. Only the chimneys were left standing amid piles of ashes.
At Frannie I took on two passengers. There was much curiosity on the part of those I met along here, but I was unwilling to explain, deciding it best to wait and tell my whole story to the military authorities at Billings.
It was early afternoon when I got back to Billings. This was March 12. I turned Mercer's body over to the police, who promptly took me in charge. I gave them a brief outline of what had occurred. General Price, whose command of the United States military operations against the Mercutians was announced to the country two days later, had arrived that morning in Billings by airplane. I demanded to see him, and when my business was explained to him he granted me an immediate interview.
General Price was a man about fifty, a kindly gentleman of the old Southern type, yet of thoroughly military demeanor. I told him everything that had happened to me in detail as complete as I possibly could. Mercer's body was examined that same afternoon. It was found to have been drilled completely through the chest by a hole about the diameter of a lead pencil. This hole did not seem to have been made by the passage of any foreign object, but had more the aspect of a burn. I understood then—Mercer had been killed by a tiny light-ray projector, with a short, effective radius, aimed probably like a revolver.
What I was able to tell General Price about the Mercutians naturally was invaluable to him. He asked me then to remain close to him during the forthcoming operations. We arranged that I was on honor to give nothing out to my paper without his approval.
The situation, as it appeared during the next few days, was not one of grave danger. We were able to gage now with fair probability of correctness the offensive strength of our enemies. They had no means of transportation—could only move from their present position slowly and with extreme difficulty. The possibility of the vehicle itself moving occurred to us; but, as I pointed out, the task of replacing their heavy apparatus in it, and then reassembling the apparatus in a new position, made such a step impractical.
The only weapon the Mercutians had displayed so far was the light-ray in its several forms. This seemed effective for ten miles at most. That the Mercutians could be attacked by our artillery and destroyed seemed certain.
By the 20th General Price had mobilized some ten thousand men. They encamped on the prairie near Billings. The artillery was moved down to a point near the Wyoming State line, about fifteen miles directly north of the Mercutian camp.
Six days before this, forty-eight hours after I had returned to Billings, observation planes had reported the establishment of two more light-rays, similar in appearance to the first. During the succeeding days others rapidly appeared. By the 20th there were probably thirty of them altogether.
The reports stated that all were set up within a space seemingly of a few hundred yards. They were of different diameters; some projected in parallel rays, others spread out fan-shaped. These latter appeared not to carry so far. The first one that had appeared, it was judged, had the longest effective radius of them all.
During these days and nights preceding the 20th the light-rockets had been fired with increasing frequency, but none was observed to carry over six or eight miles. By this time the burned area for a circle of ten miles all around the Mercutian camp was entirely depopulated, and no additional destruction was reported.
On the night of the 20th, firing by directions from captive balloons, the United States artillery began its bombardment from the Montana-Wyoming line. After sending over some twenty shells, the firing ceased. It was learned then that they had proven utterly ineffective. The diverging rays of the Mercutian light had thrown a barrage around their position. The shells striking the light had all exploded harmlessly in the air.
Subsequent bombardments made that night met with no better success. The fact became obvious then that to artillery fire the Mercutians were impregnable. For several days no further military operations were attempted, with the exception of an occasional shell futilely thrown against the light-rays.
The newspapers during these days were full of discussions—scientific and otherwise—as to how this strange enemy of mankind could be destroyed or dislodged. This was like no other warfare in history. The newspaper statements gave the inference that General Price was entirely at a loss how to proceed.
As a matter of fact, the press was quite correct in that assumption; and, since the Mercutians were making no offensive moves, General Price decided to do nothing until he was better informed.
I was fortunate enough to be present the next day at a conference the general had with several scientific men who had come to Billings to meet him. It was the opinion of these men of science that no artillery fire could penetrate the light-barrage the Mercutians had thrown about them. No airplane attack was practical, and to attack them from the ground with infantry would be absurd.