The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 96
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"Mounted on our flyer are six ultra-violet searchlights. By the side of each one is a wide angle telescopic concentrator which will focus any reflected ultra-violet onto a radium coated screen and thus make it visible to us. In effect the apparatus is a camera obscura with all lens made of rock crystal or fused quartz, both of which allow free pa.s.sage to ultra-violet."
"What will we do if we find them?"
"Mounted beneath the telescope is a one-pounder gun with radite sh.e.l.ls. If we locate them, we will use our best efforts to shoot them down."
"Suppose they are armed too?"
"In that case I hope that you shoot faster and straighter than they do. If you don't--well, old man, it'll just be too d.a.m.ned bad."
"I don't know that the Clarion hires me to go out and shoot at invisible invaders from another planet, but if I don't go with you, I expect you'd just about call up the Echo or the Gazette and ask them for a gunner."
"In that case, I may as well be sacrificed as anyone else. When do we start?"
"You old faker!" cried Jim, pounding me on the back. "You wouldn't miss the trip for anything. If you're ready we'll start right now. Everything is ready."
"Including the sacrifice," I replied, rising. "All right, Jim, let's go and get it over with. If we live, I'll have to get back in time to telephone the story to McQuarrie for the first edition."
I followed Jim out of the laboratory and to a large open s.p.a.ce behind the main building where the infra-red generators with which he had pierced the hole through the heaviside layer had been located. The reflectors were still in place, but the bank of generators had been removed. A gang of men were hard at work erecting a huge parabolic reflector in the center of the circle, about the periphery of which the infra-red reflectors were placed. In an open s.p.a.ce near the center stood a Hadley s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p, toward which Jim led the way.
I wondered at the activity and meant to ask what it portended, but in the excitement of boarding the flyer forgot it. I followed Jim in; he closed the door and started the air conditioner.
"Here, First Mortgage," he said as he turned from the control board and faced me, "here are the fluoroscopic screens. They are arranged in a bank, so that you can keep an eye on all of them readily. Beneath each telescope is an automatic one-pounder gun with its mount geared to the telescope and the light, so that the gun bears continually on the point in s.p.a.ce represented by the center of the fluoroscopic screen which belongs to that light. If we locate anything, turn your beam until the object is in the exact center of the screen where these two cross-hairs are. When you have it lined up, push this b.u.t.ton and the gun will fire."
"What about reloading?"
"The guns are self-loading. Each one has twenty sh.e.l.ls in its magazine and will fire one shot each time the b.u.t.ton is pushed until it is empty. If you empty one magazine, I can turn the s.h.i.+p so that another gun will bear. This gives you a total of one hundred and twenty shots quickly available; there are sixty extra pounds, which we can break out and load into the magazines in a few seconds. Do you understand everything?"
"I guess so. Everything seems clear enough."
"All right; sit down and we'll start."
I took my seat, and Jim pulled the starting lever. I was glued to the seat and the heavy springs in the cus.h.i.+on were compressed almost to their limit by the sudden acceleration. As soon as we were well clear of the ground Jim reduced his power, and in a few moments we were floating motionless in the air, a thousand feet up. He left the control board and came to my side.
"Start your ultra lights," he said as he joined me. "We may be able to spot something from here."
I started the lights and we stared at the screens before us. Nothing appeared on any of them except the one pointing directly down, and only an image of the ground, appeared on it. Under Jim's tutelage I swung the beams in wide circles, covering the s.p.a.ce around us, but nothing appeared.
"Those beams won't project over five miles in this atmosphere," he said, "and the s.h.i.+p we are looking for may be so small that we would have trouble locating it at any great distance. I am going to move over near the scene of the last disappearance. Keep your lights swinging and sing out if you see anything on the screens."
I could feel the s.h.i.+p start to move slowly under the force of a side discharge from the rocket motor, and I swung the beams of the six lights around, trying to cover the entire area about us. Nothing appeared on the screens for an hour, and my head began to ache from the strain of unremitting close observation of the glowing screens. A buzz sounding over the hum of the rocket motor attracted my attention; Jim pulled his levers to neutral with the exception of the one which maintained our elevation and stepped to an instrument on the wall of the flyer.
"h.e.l.lo," he called. "What? Where did it happen? All right, thanks, we'll move over that way at once."
He turned from the radio telephone and spoke.
"Another disappearance has just been reported," he said. "It happened on the outskirts of Pasadena. Keep your eyes open: I'm going to head in that direction."
A few minutes later we were floating over Pasadena. Jim stopped the flyer and joined me at the screens. We swung our beams in wide circles to cover the entire area around us, but no image on the screens rewarded us.
"Doggone it, they must have left here in a hurry," grumbled Jim.
Even as he spoke the flyer gave a lurch which nearly threw me off my seat and which sent Jim sprawling on the floor. With a white face he leaped to the control board and pulled the lever controlling our one working stern motor to full power. For a moment the s.h.i.+p moved upward and then came to a dead stop, although the motor still roared at full speed.
"Can't you see anything, Pete?" cried Jim as he threw our second stern motor into gear.
Again the s.h.i.+p moved upward for a few feet and then stopped. I swung the searchlights frantically in all directions, but five of the screens remained blank and the sixth showed only the ground below us.
"Not a thing," I replied.
"Something ought to show," he muttered, and suddenly shut off both motors. The flyer gave a sickening lurch toward the ground, but we fell only a hundred yards before our motion stopped. We hung suspended in the air with no motors working. Jim joined me at the screens and we swung the lights rapidly without success.
"Look, Pete!" Jim cried hoa.r.s.ely.
My gaze followed his pointing finger and I saw the door of our flyer springing out as though some force from the outside were trying to wrench it open. The pull ceased for an instant, then came again; the st.u.r.dy latches burst and the door was torn from its hinges. Jim swung one of the searchlights until the beam was at right angles to the hull of the flyer and pressed the gun b.u.t.ton. A crash filled the confined s.p.a.ce of the flyer as a one-pounder radite sh.e.l.l tore out into s.p.a.ce.
"They're there but still invisible," he exclaimed as he s.h.i.+fted the direction of the gun and fired again. "I am shooting by guess-work, but I might score a hit."
He changed the direction of the gun again, but before he could press the b.u.t.ton he was lifted into the air and drawn rapidly toward the open door.
"Shoot, Pete!" he shouted. "Shoot and keep on shooting--it's your only chance!"
I turned to the k.n.o.bs controlling the guns and lights, but, before I could make a move, something hard and cold grasped me about the middle and I was lifted into the air and drawn toward the open door after Jim. I tore at the thing holding me with my hands, but it was a smooth round thing like a two-inch thick wire, and I could get no grip on it to loosen it. Out through the door I went and was drawn through the air a few feet behind Jim. He moved ahead of me for fifteen or twenty feet and then vanished in mid-air. I dared not struggle in mid-air and I was drawn through a door into a large s.p.a.ce flyer which became visible as I entered it. The flexible wire or rod which had held me uncoiled and I was free on the floor beside Jim Carpenter. This much was clear and understandable, but when I looked at the crew of that s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p, I was sure that I had lost my mind or was seeing visions. I had naturally expected men, or at least something in semi-human form, but instead of anything of the sort, before me stood a dozen gigantic beetles!
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. There was no mistaking the fact that we had been captured by a race of gigantic beetles flying an invisible s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p. When I had time later to examine them critically, I could see marked differences between our captors and the beetles we were accustomed to see on the earth besides the mere matter of size. To begin with, their bodies were relatively much smaller, the length of sh.e.l.l of the largest specimen not being over four feet, while the head of the same insect, exclusive of the horns or pinchers, was a good eighteen inches in length. The pinchers, which by all beetle proportions should have been a couple of feet long at the least, did not extend over the head a distance greater than eight inches, although they were st.u.r.dy and powerful.
Instead of traveling with their sh.e.l.ls horizontal as do earthly beetles, these insects stood erect on their two lower pairs of legs, which were of different lengths so that all four feet touched the ground when the sh.e.l.l was vertical. The two upper pairs of legs were used as arms, the topmost pair[A] being quite short and splitting out at the end into four flexible claws about five inches long, which they used as fingers. These upper arms, which sprouted from a point near the top of the head, were peculiar in that they apparently had no joints like the other three pairs but were flexible like an elephant's trunk. The second pair of arms were armed with long, vicious-looking hooks. The backplates concealed only very rudimentary wings, not large enough to enable the insects to fly, although Jim told me later that they could fly on their own planet, where the lessened gravity made such extensive wing supports as would be needed on earth unnecessary.
[Footnote A: Mr. Bond has made a laughable error in his description. Like all of the coleoptera, the Mercurians were hexapoda (six legged). What Mr. Bond continually refers to in his narrative as "upper arms" were really the antenna of the insects which split at the end into four flexible appendages resembling fingers. His mistake is a natural one, for the Mercurians used their antenna as extra arms.--James S. Carpenter.]
The backplates were a brilliant green in color, with six-inch stripes of chrome yellow running lengthwise and crimson spots three inches in diameter arranged in rows between the stripes. Their huge-faceted eyes sparkled like crystal when the light fell on them, and from time to time waves of various colors pa.s.sed over them, evidently reflecting the insect's emotions. Although they gave the impression of great muscular power, their movements were slow and sluggish, and they seemed to have difficulty in getting around.
As my horrified gaze took in these monstrosities I turned with a shudder to Jim Carpenter.
"Am I crazy, Jim," I asked, "or do you see these things too?"
"I see them all right, Pete," he replied. "It isn't as surprising as it seems at first glance. You expected to find human beings; so did I, but what reason had we for doing so? It is highly improbable, when you come to consider the matter, that evolution should take the same course elsewhere as it did on earth. Why not beetles, or fish, or horned toads, for that matter?"
"No reason, I guess," I answered; "I just hadn't expected anything of the sort. What do you suppose they mean to do with us?"
"I haven't any idea, old man. We'll just have to wait and see. I'll try to talk to them, although I don't expect much luck at it."
He turned to the nearest beetle and slowly and clearly spoke a few words. The insect gave no signs of comprehension, although it watched the movement of Jim's lips carefully. It is my opinion, and Jim agrees with me, that the insects were both deaf and dumb, for during the entire time we were a.s.sociated with them, we never heard them give forth a sound under any circ.u.mstances, nor saw them react to any sound that we made. Either they had some telepathic means of communication or else they made and heard sounds beyond the range of the human ear, for it was evident from their actions that they frequently communicated with one another.
When Jim failed in his first attempt to communicate he looked around for another method. He noticed my notebook, which had fallen on the floor when I was set down; he picked it up and drew a pencil from his pocket. The insects watched his movements carefully, and when he had made a sketch in the book, the nearest one took it from him and examined it carefully and then pa.s.sed it to another one, who also examined it. The sketch which Jim had drawn showed the outline of the Hadley s.p.a.ce flyer from which he had been taken. When the beetles had examined the sketch, one of them stepped to an instrument board in the center of the s.h.i.+p and made an adjustment. Then he pointed with one of his lower arms.
We looked in the direction in which he pointed; to our astonishment, the walls of the flyer seemed to dissolve, or at least to become perfectly transparent. The floor of the s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p was composed of some silvery metal, and from it had risen walls of the same material, but now the effect was as though we were suspended in mid-air, with nothing either around us or under us. I gasped and grabbed at the instrument board for support. Then I felt foolish as I realized that there was no change in the feel of the floor for all its transparency and that we were not falling.
A short distance away we could see our flyer suspended in the air, held up by two long flexible rods or wires similar to those which had lifted us from our s.h.i.+p into our prison. I saw a dozen more of these rods coiled up, hanging in the air, evidently, but really on the floor near the edge of the flyer, ready for use. Jim suddenly grasped me by the arm.
"Look behind you in a moment," he said, "but don't start!"
He took the notebook in his hand and started to draw a sketch. I looked behind as he had told me to. Hanging in the air in a position which told me that they must have been in a different compartment of the flyer, were five children. They were white as marble, and lay perfectly motionless.
"Are they dead, Jim?" I asked in a low voice without looking at him.
"I don't know," he replied, "but we'll find out a little later. I am relieved to find them here, and I doubt if they are harmed."
The sketch which he was making was one of the solar system, and, when he had finished, he marked the earth with a cross and handed the notebook to one of the beetles. The insect took it and showed it to his companions; so far as I was able to judge expressions, they were amazed to find that we had knowledge of the heavenly bodies. The beetle took Jim's pencil in one of its hands and, after examining it carefully, made a cross on the circle which Jim had drawn to represent the planet Mercury.
"They come from Mercury," exclaimed Jim in surprise as he showed me the sketch. "That accounts for a good many things; why they are so lethargic, for one thing. Mercury is much smaller than the earth and the gravity is much less. According to Mercurian standards, they must weigh a ton each. It is quite a tribute to their muscular development that they can move and support their weight against our gravity. They can understand a drawing all right, so we have a means of communicating with them, although a pretty slow one and dependent entirely on my limited skill as a cartoonist. I wonder if we are free to move about?"
"The only way to find out is to try," I replied and stood erect. The beetles offered no objection and Jim stood up beside me. We walked, or rather edged, our way toward the side of the s.h.i.+p. The insects watched us when we started to move and then evidently decided that we were harmless. They turned from us to the working of the s.h.i.+p. One of them manipulated some dials on the instrument board. One of the rods which held our flyer released its grip, came in toward the Mercurian s.h.i.+p and coiled itself up on the floor, or the place where the floor should have been. The insect touched another dial. Jim threw caution to the winds, raced across the floor and grasped the beetle by the arm.
The insect looked at him questioningly; Jim produced the notebook and drew a sketch representing our flyer falling. On the level be had used to represent the ground he made another sketch of it lying in ruins. The beetle nodded comprehendingly and turned to another dial; the s.h.i.+p sank slowly toward the ground.
We sank until we hung only a few feet from the ground when our flyer was gently lowered down. When it rested on the ground, the wire which had held it uncoiled, came aboard and coiled itself up beside the others. As the Mercurian s.h.i.+p rose I noticed idly that the door which had been torn from our s.h.i.+p and dropped lay within a few yards of the s.h.i.+p itself. The Mercurian s.h.i.+p rose to an elevation of a hundred feet, drifting gently over the city.
As we rose I determined to try the effect of my personality on the beetles. I approached the one who seemed to be the leader and, putting on the most woeful expression I could muster, I looked at the floor. He did not understand me and I pretended that I was falling and grasped at him. This time he nodded and stepped to the instrument board. In a moment the floor became visible. I thanked him as best I could in pantomime and approached the walls. They were so transparent that I felt an involuntary shrinking as I approached them. I edged my way cautiously forward until my outstretched hand encountered a solid substance. I looked out.
At the slow speed we were traveling the drone of our motors was hardly audible to us, and I felt sure that it could not be heard on the ground. Once their curiosity was satisfied, our captors paid little or no attention to me and left me free to come and go as I wished. I made my way cautiously toward the children, but ran into a solid wall. Remembering Jim's words, I made my way back toward him without displaying any interest.
Jim could probably have wandered around as I did had he wished, but he chose to occupy his time differently. With his notebook and pencil he carried on an extensive conversation, if that term can be applied to a crudely executed set of drawings, with the leader of the beetles. I was not especially familiar with the methods of control of s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+ps and I could make nothing of the maze of dials and switches on the instrument board.
For half an hour we drifted slowly along. Presently one of the beetles approached, seized my arm and turned me about. With one of his arms he pointed ahead. A mile away I could see another s.p.a.ce flyer similar to the one we were on.
"Here comes another one, Jim." I called.
"Yes, I saw it some time ago. I don't know where the third one is."
"Are there three of them?"
"Yes. Three of them came here yesterday and are exploring the country round about here. They are scouts sent out from the fleet of our brother planet to see if the road was clear and what the world was like. They spotted the hole through the layer with their telescope and sent their fleet out to pay us a visit. He tells me that the scouts have reported favorably and that the whole fleet, several thousand s.h.i.+ps, as near as I can make out, are expected here this evening."
"Have you solved the secret of their invisibility?"
"Partly. It is as I expected. The walls of the s.h.i.+p are double, the inner one of metal and the outer one of vitrolene or some similar perfectly transparent substance. The s.p.a.ce between the walls is filled with some substance which will bend both visible and ultra-violet rays along a path around the s.h.i.+p and then lets them go in their original direction. The reason why we can see through the walls and see the protective coating of that s.h.i.+p coming is that they are generating some sort of a ray here which acts as a carrier for the visible light rays. I don't know what sort of a ray it is, but when I get a good look at their generators, I may be able to tell. Are you beginning to itch and burn?"
"Yes, I believe that I am, although I hadn't noticed it until you spoke."
"I have been noticing it for some time. From its effects on the skin, I am inclined to believe it to be a ray of very short wave-length, possibly something like our X-ray, or even shorter."
"Have you found out what they intend to do with us?"
"I don't think they have decided yet. Possibly they are going to take us up to the leader of their fleet and let him decide. The cuss that is in command of this s.h.i.+p seems surprised to death to find out that I can comprehend the principles of his s.h.i.+p. He seems to think that I am a sort of a rara avis, a freak of nature. He intimated that he would recommend that we be used for vivisection."
"It's not much more worse than the fate they design for the rest of their captives, at that."
"What is that?"
"It's a long story that I'll have to tell you later. I want to watch this meeting."
The other s.h.i.+p had approached to within a few yards and floated stationary, while some sort of communication was exchanged between the two. I could not fathom the method used, but the commander of our craft clamped what looked like a pair of headphones against his body and plugged the end of a wire leading from them into his instrument board. From time to time various colored lights glowed on the board before him. After a time he uncoupled his device from the board, and one of the long rods shot out from our s.h.i.+p to the other. It returned in a moment clamped around the body of a young girl. As the came on board, she was lowered onto the deck beside the other children. Like them, she was stiff and motionless. I gave an exclamation and sprang forward.
Jim's voice recalled me to myself, and I watched the child laid with the others with as disinterested an expression as I could muster. I had never made a mistake in following Jim Carpenter's lead and I knew that somewhere in his head a plan was maturing which might offer us some chance of escape.
Our s.h.i.+p moved ahead down a long slant, gradually dropping nearer to the ground. I watched the maneuver with interest while Jim, with his friend the beetle commander, went over the s.h.i.+p. The insect was evidently amused at Jim and was determined to find out the limits of his intelligence, for he pointed out various controls and motors of the s.h.i.+p and made elaborate sketches which Jim seemed to comprehend fairly well.
One of the beetles approached the control board and motioned me back. I stepped away from the board; evidently a port in the side of the vessel opened, for I felt a breath of air and could hear the hum of the city. I walked to the side and glanced down, and found that we were floating about twenty feet off the ground over a street on the edge of the city. On the street a short distance ahead of us two children, evidently returning from school, to judge by the books under their arms, were walking unsuspectingly along. A turn of the dial sped up our motors, and as the hum rang out in a louder key the children looked upward. Two of the long flexible wires shot out and wrapped themselves about the children; screaming, they were lifted into the s.p.a.ce flyer. The port through which they came in shut with a clang and the s.h.i.+p rose rapidly into the air. The children were released from the wires which coiled themselves up on deck and the beetle who had operated them stepped forward and grasped the nearer of the children, a boy of about eleven, by the arm. He raised the boy, who was paralyzed with terror, up toward his head and gazed steadily into his eyes. Slowly the boy ceased struggling and became white and rigid. The beetle laid him on the deck and turned to the girl. Involuntarily I gave a shout and sprang forward, but Jim grasped me by the arm.
"Keep quiet, you darned fool!" he cried. "We can do nothing now. Wait for a chance!"
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 96
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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 96 summary
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