The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 97

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"We can't stand here and see murder done!" I protested.

"It's not murder. Pete, those children aren't being hurt. They are being hypnotized so that they can be transported to Mercury."

"Why are they taking them to Mercury?" I demanded.

"As nearly as I can make out, there is a race of men up there who are subject to these beetles. This s.h.i.+p is radium propelled, and the men and women are the slaves who work in the radium mines. Of course the workers soon become s.e.xless, but others are kept for breeding purposes to keep the race alive. Through generations of in-breeding, the stock is about played out and are getting too weak to be of much value.

"The Mercurians have been studying the whole universe to find a race which will serve their purpose and they have chosen us to be the victims. When their fleet gets here, they plan to capture thousands of selected children and carry them to Mercury in order to infuse their blood into the decadent race of slaves they have. Those who are not suitable for breeding when they grow up will die as slaves in the radium mines."



"Horrible!" I gasped. "Why are they taking children, Jim? Wouldn't adults suit their purpose better?"

"They are afraid to take adults. On Mercury an earthman would have muscles of unheard of power and adults would constantly strive to rise against their masters. By getting children, they hope to raise them to know nothing else than a life of slavery and get the advantage of their strength without risk. It is a clever scheme."

"And are we to stand here and let them do it?"

"Not on your life, but we had better hold easy for a while. If I can get a few minutes more with that brute I'll know enough about running this s.h.i.+p that we can afford to do away with them. You have a pistol, haven't you?"

"No."

"The devil! I thought you had. I have an automatic, but it only carries eight sh.e.l.ls. There are eleven of these insects and unless we can get the jump on them, they'll do us. I saw what looks like a knife lying near the instrument board; get over near it and get ready to grab it as soon as you hear my pistol. These things are deaf and if I work it right I may be able to do several of them in before they know what's happening. When you attack, don't try to ram them in the back; their backplates are an inch thick and will be proof against a knife thrust. Aim at their eyes; if you can blind them, they'll be helpless. Do you understand?"

"I'll do my best, Jim," I replied. "Since you have told me their plans I am itching to get at them."

I edged over toward the knife, but as I did so I saw a better weapon. On the floor lay a bar of silvery metal about thirty inches long and an inch in diameter. I picked it up and toyed with it idly, meanwhile edging around to get behind the insect which I had marked for my first attentions. Jim was talking again by means of the notebook with his beetle friend. They walked around the s.h.i.+p, examining everything in it.

"Are you ready, Pete?" came Jim's voice at last.

"All set," I replied, getting a firmer grasp on my bar and edging toward one of the insects.

"Well, don't start until I fire. You notice the bug I am talking to? Don't kill him unless you have to. This s.h.i.+p is a little too complicated for me to fathom, so I want this fellow taken prisoner. We'll use him as our engineer when we take control."

"I understand."

"All right, get ready."

I kept my eye on Jim. He had drawn the beetle with whom he was talking to a position where they were behind the rest. Jim pointed at something behind the insect's back and the beetle turned. As it did so, Jim whipped out his pistol and, taking careful aim, fired at one of the insects.

As the sound of the shot rang out I raised my bar and leaped forward. I brought it down with crus.h.i.+ng force on the head of the nearest beetle. My victim fell forward, and I heard Jim's pistol bark again; but I had no time to watch him. As the beetle I struck fell the others turned and I had two of them coming at me with outstretched arms, ready to grasp me. I swung my bar, and the arm of one of them fell limp; but the other seized me with both its hands, and I felt the cruel hooks of its lower arms against the small of my back.

One of my arms was still free; I swung my bar again, and it struck my captor on the back of the head. It was stunned by the blow and fell. I seized the knife from the floor, and threw myself down beside it and struck at its eyes, trying to roll it over so as to protect me from the other who was trying to grasp me.

I felt hands clutch me from behind; I was wrenched loose from the body of my victim and lifted into the air. I was turned about and stared hard into the implacable crystalline eyes of one of the insects. For a moment my senses reeled and then, without volition, I dropped my bar. I remembered the children and realized that I was being hypnotized. I fought against the feeling, but my senses reeled and I almost went limp, when the sound of a pistol shot, almost in my ear, roused me. The spell of the beetle was momentarily broken. I thrust the knife which I still grasped at the eyes before me. My blow went home, but the insect raised me and bent me toward him until my head lay on top of his and the huge horns which adorned his head began to close. Another pistol shot sounded, and I was suddenly dropped.

I grasped my bar as I fell and leaped up. The flyer was a shambles. Dead insects lay on all sides while Jim, smoking pistol in hand, was staring as though fascinated into the eyes of one of the surviving beetles. I ran forward and brought my bar down on the insect's head, but as I did so I was grasped from behind.

"Jim, help!" I cried as I was swung into the air. The insect whirled me around and then threw me to the floor. I had an impression of falling; then everything dissolved in a flash of light. I was unconscious only for a moment, and I came to to find Jim Carpenter standing over me, menacing my a.s.sailant with his gun.

"Thanks, Jim," I said faintly.

"If you're conscious again, get up and get your bar," he replied. "My pistol is empty and I don't know how long I can run a bluff on this fellow."

I scrambled to my feet and grasped the bar. Jim stepped behind me and reloaded his pistol.

"All right," he said when he had finished. "I'll take charge of this fellow. Go around and see if the rest are dead. If they aren't when you find them, see that they are when you leave them. We're taking no prisoners."

I went the rounds of the prostrate insects. None of them were beyond moving except two whose heads had been crushed by my bar, but I obeyed Jim's orders. When I rejoined him with my b.l.o.o.d.y bar, the only beetle left alive was the commander, whom Jim was covering with his pistol.

"Take the gun," he said when I reported my actions, "and give me the bar."

We exchanged weapons and Jim turned to the captive.

"Now, old fellow," he said grimly, "either you run this s.h.i.+p as I want you to, or you're a dead Indian. Savvy?"

He took his pencil and notebook from his pocket and drew a sketch of our Hadley s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p. On the other end of the sheet he drew a picture of the Mercurian s.h.i.+p, and then drew a line connecting the two. The insect looked at the sketch but made no movement.

"All right, if that's the way you feel about it," said Jim. He raised the bar and brought it down with crus.h.i.+ng force on one of the insect's lower arms. The arm fell as though paralyzed and a blue light played across the beetle's eyes. Jim extended the sketch again and raised the bar threateningly. The beetle moved over to the control board, Jim following closely, and set the s.h.i.+p in motion. Ten minutes later it rested on the ground beside the s.h.i.+p in which we had first taken the air.

Following Jim's pictured orders the beetle opened the door of the Mercurian s.h.i.+p and followed Jim into the Hadley. As we emerged from the Mercurian s.h.i.+p I looked back. It had vanished completely.

"The children, Jim!" I gasped.

"I haven't forgotten them," he replied, "but they are all right for the present. If we turned them loose now, we'd have ninety reporters around us in ten minutes. I want to get our generators modified first."

He pointed toward the spot where the Mercurian s.h.i.+p had stood and then toward our generators. The beetle hesitated, but Jim swung his bar against the insect's side in a vicious blow. Again came the play of blue light over the eyes; the beetle bent over our generaters and set to work. Jim handed me the bar and bent over to help. They were both mechanics of a high order and they worked well together; in an hour the beetle started the generators and swung one of the searchlights toward his old s.h.i.+p. It leaped into view on the radium coated screen.

"Good business!" e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.ed Jim. "We'll repair this door; then we'll be ready to release the children and start out."

We followed the beetle into the Mercurian s.h.i.+p, which it seemed to be able to see. It opened a door leading into another compartment of the flyer, and before us lay the bodies of eight children. The beetle lifted the first one, a little girl, up until his many-faceted eyes looked full into the closed ones of the child. There was a flicker of an eyelash, a trace of returning color, and then a scream of terror from the child. The beetle set the girl down and Jim bent over her.

"It's all right now, little lady," he said, clumsily smoothing her hair.

"You're safe now. Run along to your mother. First Mortgage, take charge of her and take her outside. It isn't well for children to see these things."

The child clung to my hand: I led her out of the s.h.i.+p, which promptly vanished as we left it. One by one, seven other children joined us, the last one, a miss of not over eight, in Jim's arms. The beetle followed behind him.

"Do any of you know where you are?" asked Jim as he came out.

"I do, sir," said one of the boys. "I live close to here."

"All right, take these youngsters to your house and tell your mother to telephone their parents to come and get them. If anyone asks you what happened, tell them to see Jim Carpenter to-morrow. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right, run along then. Now, First Mortgage, let's go hunting."

We wired our captive up so securely that I felt that there was no possible chance of his escape; then, with Jim at the controls and me at the guns, we fared forth in search of the invaders. Back and forth over the city we flew without sighting another s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p in the air. Jim gave an exclamation of impatience and swung on a wider circle, which took us out over the water. I kept the searchlights working. Presently, far ahead over the water, a dark spot came into view. I called to Jim and we approached it at top speed.

"Don't shoot until we are within four hundred yards," cautioned Jim.

I held my fire until we were within the specified distance. The newcomer was another of the Mercurian s.p.a.ce-s.h.i.+ps; with a feeling of joy I swung my beam until the cross-hairs of the screen rested full on the invader.

"All ready!" I sung out.

"If you are ready, Gridley, you may fire!" replied Jim. I pressed the gun b.u.t.ton. The crash of the gun was followed by another report from outside as the radite sh.e.l.l burst against the Mercurian flyer. The deadly explosive did its work, and the shattered remains of the wreck fell, to be engulfed in the sea below.

"That's one!" cried Jim. "I'm afraid we won't have time to hunt up the other right now. This bug told me that the other Mercurians are due here to-day, and I think we had better form ourselves into a reception committee and go up to the hole to meet them."

He sent the s.h.i.+p at high speed over the city until we hovered over the laboratory. We stopped for a moment, and Jim stepped to the radio telephone.

"h.e.l.lo, Williams," he said, "how are things going? That's fine. In an hour, you say? Well, speed it up as much as you can; we may call for it soon."

He turned both stern motors to full power, and we shot up like a rocket toward the hole in the protective layer through which the invaders had entered. In ten minutes we were at the alt.i.tude of the guard s.h.i.+ps and Jim asked if anything had been seen. The report was negative; Jim left them below the layer and sent our flyer up through the hole into s.p.a.ce. We reached the outer surface in another ten minutes and we were none too soon. Hardly had we debouched from the hole than ahead of us we saw another Mercurian flyer. It was a lone one, and Jim bent over the captive and held a hastily made sketch before him. The sketch showed three Mercurian flyers, one on the ground, one wrecked and the third one in the air. He touched the drawing of the one in the air and pointed toward our port hole and looked questioningly at the beetle. The insect inspected the flyer in s.p.a.ce and nodded.

"Good!" cried Jim. "That's the third of the trio who came ahead as scouts. Get your gun ready, First Mortgage: we're going to pick him off."

Our s.h.i.+p approached the doomed Mercurian. Again I waited until we were within four hundred yards; then I pressed the b.u.t.ton which hurled it, a crumpled wreck, onto the outer surface of the heaviside layer.

"Two!" cried Jim as we backed away.

"Here come plenty more," I cried as I swung the searchlight. Jim left his controls, glanced at the screen and whistled softly. Dropping toward us from s.p.a.ce were hundreds of the Mercurian s.h.i.+ps.

"We got here just in time," he said. "Break out your extra ammunition while I take to the hole. We can't hope to do that bunch alone, so we'll fight a rearguard action."

Since our bow gun would be the only one in action, I hastily moved the spare boxes of ammunition nearer to it while Jim maneuvered the Hadley over the hole. As the Mercurian fleet came nearer he started a slow retreat toward the earth. The Mercurians overtook us rapidly; Jim locked his controls at slow speed down and hurried to the bow gun.

"Start shooting as soon as you can," he said. "I'll keep the magazine filled."

I swung the gun until the cross-hairs of the screen rested full on the leading s.h.i.+p and pressed the b.u.t.ton. My aim was true, and the shattered fragments of the s.h.i.+p fell toward me. The balance of the fleet slowed down for an instant; I covered another one and pressed my b.u.t.ton. The s.h.i.+p at which I had aimed was in motion and I missed it, but I had the satisfaction of seeing another one fall in fragments. Jim was loading the magazine as fast as I fired. I covered another s.h.i.+p and fired again. A third one of our enemies fell in ruins. The rest paused and drew off.

"They're retreating, Jim!" I cried.

"Cease firing until they come on again," he replied is he took the sh.e.l.ls from the magazines of the other guns and piled them near the bow gun.

I held my fire for a few minutes. The Mercurians retreated a short distance and then came on again with a rush. Twenty times my gun went off as fast as I could align it and press the trigger, and eighteen of the enemy s.h.i.+ps were in ruins. Again the Mercurians retreated. I held my fire. We were falling more rapidly now and far below we could see the black spots which were the guard s.h.i.+ps. I told Jim that they were in sight; he stepped to the radio telephone and ordered them to keep well away from the hole.

Again the Mercurian s.h.i.+ps came on with a rush, this time with beams of orange light stabbing a way before them. When I told Jim of this he jumped to the controls and shot our s.h.i.+p down at breakneck speed.

"I don't know what sort of fighting apparatus they have, but I don't care to face it," he said to me. "Fire if they get close; but I hope to get out of the hole before they are in range."

Fast as we fell, the Mercurians were coming faster, and they were not over eight hundred yards from us when he reached the level of the guard s.h.i.+ps. Jim checked our speed; I managed to pick off three more of the invaders before we moved away from the hole. Jim stopped the side motion and jumped to the radio telephone.

"h.e.l.lo, Williams!" he shouted into the instrument. "Are you ready down there? Thank G.o.d! Full power at once, please!

"Watch what happens," he said to me, as he turned from the instrument.

Some fifty of the Mercurian flyers had reached our level and had started to move toward us before anything happened. Then from below came a beam of intolerable light. Upward it struck, and the Mercurian s.h.i.+ps on which it impinged disappeared in a flash of light.

"A disintegrating ray," explained Jim. "I suspected that it might be needed and I started Williams to rigging it up early this morning. I hated to use it because it may easily undo the work that six years have done in healing the break in the layer, but it was necessary. That ends the invasion, except for those ten or twelve s.h.i.+ps ahead of us. How is your marksmans.h.i.+p? Can you pick off ten in ten shots?"

"Watch me," I said grimly as the s.h.i.+p started to move.

Pride goeth ever before a fall: it took me sixteen shots to demolish the eleven s.h.i.+ps which had escaped destruction from the ray. As the last one fell in ruins, Jim ordered the ray shut off. We fell toward the ground.

"What are we going to do with our prisoner?" I asked.

Jim looked at the beetle meditatively.

"He would make a fine museum piece if he were stuffed," he said, "but on the whole, I think we'll let him go. He is an intelligent creature and will probably be happier on Mercury than anywhere else. What do you say that we put him on his s.h.i.+p and turn him loose?"

"To lead another invasion?" I asked.

"I think not. He has seen what has happened to this one and is more likely to warn them to keep away. In any event, if we equip the guard s.h.i.+ps with a ray that will show the Mercurian s.h.i.+ps up and keep the disintegrating ray ready for action, we needn't fear another invasion. Let's let him go."

"It suits me all right, Jim, but I hold out for one thing. I will never dare to face McQuarrie again if I fail to get a picture of him. I insist on taking his photograph before we turn him loose."

"All right, go ahead," laughed Jim. "He ought to be able to stand that, if you'll spare him an interview."

An hour later we watched the Mercurian flyer disappear into s.p.a.ce.

"I hope I've seen the last of those bugs," I said as the flyer faded from view.

"I don't know," said Jim thoughtfully. "If I have interpreted correctly the drawings that creature made, there is a race of manlike bipeds on Mercury who are slaves to those beetles and who live and die in the horrible atmosphere of a radium mine. Some of these days I may lead an expedition to our sister planet and look into that matter."

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 97

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