When Cyrus R. Thurston bought himself a single-motored Stoughton job he was looking for new thrills. Flying around the east coast had lost its zest: he wanted to join that jaunty group who spoke so easily of hopping off for Los Angeles.
And what Cyrus Thurston wanted he usually obtained. But if that young millionaire-sportsman had been told that on his first flight this blocky, bulletlike ship was to pitch him headlong into the exact center of the wildest, strangest war this earth had ever seen--well, it is still probable that the Stoughton company would not have lost the sale.
They were roaring through the starlit, calm night, three thousand feet above a sage sprinkled desert, when the trip ended. Slim Riley had the stick when the first blast of hot oil ripped slashingly across the pilot’s window. “There goes your old trip!” he yelled. “Why don’t they try putting engines in these ships?”
He jammed over the throttle and, with motor idling, swept down toward the endless miles of moonlit waste. Wind? They had been boring into it. Through the opened window he spotted a likely stretch of ground. Setting down the ship on a nice piece of Arizona desert was a mere detail for Slim.
“Let off a flare,” he ordered, “when I give the word.”
The white glare of it faded the stars as he sideslipped, then straightened out on his hand-picked field. The plane rolled down a clear space and stopped. The bright glare persisted while he stared curiously from the quiet cabin. Cutting the motor he opened both windows, then grabbed Thurston by the shoulder.
“‘Tis a curious thing, that,” he said unsteadily. His hand pointed straight ahead. The flare died, but the bright stars of the desert country still shone on a glistening, shining bulb.
It was some two hundred feet away. The lower part was lost in shadow, but its upper surfaces shone rounded and silvery like a giant bubble. It towered in the air, scores of feet above the chaparral beside it. There was a round spot of black on its side, which looked absurdly like a door...
“I saw something moving,” said Thurston slowly. “On the ground I saw ... Oh, good Lord, Slim, it isn’t real!”
Slim Riley made no reply. His eyes were riveted to an undulating, ghastly something that oozed and crawled in the pale light not far from the bulb. His hand was reaching, reaching ... It found what he sought; he leaned toward the window. In his hand was the Very pistol for discharging the flares. He aimed forward and up.
The second flare hung close before it settled on the sandy floor. Its blinding whiteness made the more loathsome the sickening yellow of the flabby flowing thing that writhed frantically in the glare. It was formless, shapeless, a heaving mound of nauseous matter. Yet even in its agonized writhing distortions they sensed the beating pulsations that marked it a living thing.
There were unending ripplings crossing and recrossing through the convolutions. To Thurston there was suddenly a sickening likeness: the thing was a brain from a gigantic skull--it was naked--was suffering...
The thing poured itself across the sand. Before the staring gaze of the speechless men an excrescence appeared--a thick bulb on the mass--that protruded itself into a tentacle. At the end there grew instantly a hooked hand. It reached for the black opening in the great shell, found it, and the whole loathsome shapelessness poured itself up and through the hole.
Only at the last was it still. In the dark opening the last slippery mass held quiet for endless seconds. It formed, as they watched, to a head--frightful--menacing. Eyes appeared in the head; eyes flat and round and black save for a cross slit in each; eyes that stared horribly and unchangingly into theirs. Below them a gaping mouth opened and closed ... The head melted--was gone...
And with its going came a rushing roar of sound.
From under the metallic mass shrieked a vaporous cloud. It drove at them, a swirling blast of snow and sand. Some buried memory of gas attacks woke Riley from his stupor. He slammed shut the windows an instant before the cloud struck, but not before they had seen, in the moonlight, a gleaming, gigantic, elongated bulb rise swiftly--screamingly--into the upper air.
The blast tore at their plane. And the cold in their tight compartment was like the cold of outer space. The men stared, speechless, panting. Their breath froze in that frigid room into steam clouds.
“It--it...” Thurston gasped--and slumped helpless upon the floor.
It was an hour before they dared open the door of their cabin. An hour of biting, numbing cold. Zero--on a warm summer night on the desert! Snow in the hurricane that had struck them!
“‘Twas the blast from the thing,” guessed the pilot; “though never did I see an engine with an exhaust like that.” He was pounding himself with his arms to force up the chilled circulation.
“But the beast--the--the thing!” exclaimed Thurston. “It’s monstrous; indecent! It thought--no question of that--but no body! Horrible! Just a raw, naked, thinking protoplasm!”
It was here that he flung open the door. They sniffed cautiously of the air. It was warm again--clean--save for a hint of some nauseous odor. They walked forward; Riley carried a flash.
The odor grew to a stench as they came where the great mass had lain. On the ground was a fleshy mound. There were bones showing, and horns on a skull. Riley held the light close to show the body of a steer. A body of raw bleeding meat. Half of it had been absorbed...
“The damned thing,” said Riley, and paused vainly for adequate words. “The damned thing was eating ... Like a jelly-fish, it was!”
“Exactly,” Thurston agreed. He pointed about. There were other heaps scattered among the low sage.
“Smothered,” guessed Thurston, “with that frozen exhaust. Then the filthy thing landed and came out to eat.”
“Hold the light for me,” the pilot commanded. “I’m goin’ to fix that busted oil line. And I’m goin’ to do it right now. Maybe the creature’s still hungry.”
They sat in their room. About them was the luxury of a modern hotel. Cyrus Thurston stared vacantly at the breakfast he was forgetting to eat. He wiped his hands mechanically on a snowy napkin. He looked from the window. There were palm trees in the park, and autos in a ceaseless stream. And people! Sane, sober people, living in a sane world. Newsboys were shouting; the life of the city was flowing.
“Riley!” Thurston turned to the man across the table. His voice was curiously toneless, and his face haggard. “Riley, I haven’t slept for three nights. Neither have you. We’ve got to get this thing straight. We didn’t both become absolute maniacs at the same instant, but--it was not there, it was never there--not that...” He was lost in unpleasant recollections. “There are other records of hallucinations.”
“Hallucinations--hell!” said Slim Riley. He was looking at a Los Angeles newspaper. He passed one hand wearily across his eyes, but his face was happier than it had been in days.
“We didn’t imagine it, we aren’t crazy--it’s real! Would you read that now!” He passed the paper across to Thurston. The headlines were startling.
“Pilot Killed by Mysterious Airship. Silvery Bubble Hangs Over New York. Downs Army Plane in Burst of Flame. Vanishes at Terrific Speed.”
“It’s our little friend,” said Thurston. And on his face, too, the lines were vanishing; to find this horror a reality was positive relief. “Here’s the same cloud of vapor--drifted slowly across the city, the accounts says, blowing this stuff like steam from underneath. Airplanes investigated--an army plane drove into the vapor--terrific explosion--plane down in flames--others wrecked. The machine ascended with meteor speed, trailing blue flame. Come on, boy, where’s that old bus? Thought I never wanted to fly a plane again. Now I don’t want to do anything but.”
“Where to?” Slim inquired.
“Headquarters,” Thurston told him. “Washington--let’s go!”
From Los Angeles to Washington is not far, as the plane flies. There was a stop or two for gasoline, but it was only a day later that they were seated in the War Office. Thurston’s card had gained immediate admittance. “Got the low-down,” he had written on the back of his card, “on the mystery airship.”
“What you have told me is incredible,” the Secretary was saying, “or would be if General Lozier here had not reported personally on the occurrence at New York. But the monster, the thing you have described ... Cy, if I didn’t know you as I do I would have you locked up.”
“It’s true,” said Thurston, simply. “It’s damnable, but it’s true. Now what does it mean?”
“Heaven knows,” was the response. “That’s where it came from--out of the heavens.”
“Not what we saw,” Slim Riley broke in. “That thing came straight out of Hell.” And in his voice was no suggestion of levity.
“You left Los Angeles early yesterday; have you seen the papers?”
Thurston shook his head.
“They are back,” said the Secretary. “Reported over London--Paris--the West Coast. Even China has seen them. Shanghai cabled an hour ago.”
“Them? How many are there?”
“Nobody knows. There were five seen at one time. There are more--unless the same ones go around the world in a matter of minutes.”
Thurston remembered that whirlwind of vapor and a vanishing speck in the Arizona sky. “They could,” he asserted. “They’re faster than anything on earth. Though what drives them ... that gas--steam--whatever it is...”
“Hydrogen,” stated General Lozier. “I saw the New York show when poor Davis got his. He flew into the exhaust; it went off like a million bombs. Characteristic hydrogen flame trailed the damn thing up out of sight--a tail of blue fire.”
“And cold,” stated Thurston.
“Hot as a Bunsen burner,” the General contradicted. “Davis’ plane almost melted.”
“Before it ignited,” said the other. He told of the cold in their plane.
“Ha!” The General spoke explosively. “That’s expansion. That’s a tip on their motive power. Expansion of gas. That accounts for the cold and the vapor. Suddenly expanded it would be intensely cold. The moisture of the air would condense, freeze. But how could they carry it? Or”--he frowned for a moment, brows drawn over deep-set gray eyes--”or generate it? But that’s crazy--that’s impossible!”
“So is the whole matter,” the Secretary reminded him. “With the information Mr. Thurston and Mr. Riley have given us, the whole affair is beyond any gage our past experience might supply. We start from the impossible, and we go--where? What is to be done?”
“With your permission, sir, a number of things shall be done. It would be interesting to see what a squadron of planes might accomplish, diving on them from above. Or anti-aircraft fire.”
“No,” said the Secretary of War, “not yet. They have looked us over, but they have not attacked. For the present we do not know what they are. All of us have our suspicions--thoughts of interplanetary travel--thoughts too wild for serious utterance--but we know nothing.
“Say nothing to the papers of what you have told me,” he directed Thurston. “Lord knows their surmises are wild enough now. And for you, General, in the event of any hostile move, you will resist.”
“Your order was anticipated, sir.” The General permitted himself a slight smile. “The air force is ready.”
“Of course,” the Secretary of War nodded. “Meet me here to-night--nine o’clock.” He included Thurston and Riley in the command. “We need to think ... to think ... and perhaps their mission is friendly.”
“Friendly!” The two flyers exchanged glances as they went to the door. And each knew what the other was seeing--a viscous ocherous mass that formed into a head where eyes devilish in their hate stared coldly into theirs...
“Think, we need to think,” repeated Thurston later. “A creature that is just one big hideous brain, that can think an arm into existence--think a head where it wishes! What does a thing like that think of? What beastly thoughts could that--that thing conceive?”
“If I got the sights of a Lewis gun on it,” said Riley vindictively, “I’d make it think.”
“And my guess is that is all you would accomplish,” Thurston told him. “I am forming a few theories about our visitors. One is that it would be quite impossible to find a vital spot in that big homogeneous mass.”
The pilot dispensed with theories: his was a more literal mind. “Where on earth did they come from, do you suppose, Mr. Thurston?”
They were walking to their hotel. Thurston raised his eyes to the summer heavens. Faint stars were beginning to twinkle; there was one that glowed steadily.
“Nowhere on earth,” Thurston stated softly, “nowhere on earth.”
“Maybe so,” said the pilot, “maybe so. We’ve thought about it and talked about it ... and they’ve gone ahead and done it.” He called to a newsboy; they took the latest editions to their room.
The papers were ablaze with speculation. There were dispatches from all corners of the earth, interviews with scientists and near scientists. The machines were a Soviet invention--they were beyond anything human--they were harmless--they would wipe out civilization--poison gas--blasts of fire like that which had enveloped the army flyer...
And through it all Thurston read an ill-concealed fear, a reflection of panic that was gripping the nation--the whole world. These great machines were sinister. Wherever they appeared came the sense of being watched, of a menace being calmly withheld. And at thought of the obscene monsters inside those spheres, Thurston’s lips were compressed and his eyes hardened. He threw the papers aside.
“They are here,” he said, “and that’s all that we know. I hope the Secretary of War gets some good men together. And I hope someone is inspired with an answer.”
“An answer is it?” said Riley. “I’m thinkin’ that the answer will come, but not from these swivel-chair fighters. ‘Tis the boys in the cockpits with one hand on the stick and one on the guns that will have the answer.”
But Thurston shook his head. “Their speed,” he said, “and the gas! Remember that cold. How much of it can they lay over a city?”
The question was unanswered, unless the quick ringing of the phone was a reply.
“War Department,” said a voice. “Hold the wire.” The voice of the Secretary of War came on immediately.
“Thurston?” he asked. “Come over at once on the jump, old man. Hell’s popping.”
The windows of the War Department Building were all alight as they approached. Cars were coming and going; men in uniform, as the Secretary had said, “on the jump.” Soldiers with bayonets stopped them, then passed Thurston and his companion on. Bells were ringing from all sides. But in the Secretary’s office was perfect quiet.
General Lozier was there, Thurston saw, and an imposing array of gold-braided men with a sprinkling of those in civilian clothes. One he recognized: MacGregor from the Bureau of Standards. The Secretary handed Thurston some papers.
“Radio,” he explained. “They are over the Pacific coast. Hit near Vancouver; Associated Press says city destroyed. They are working down the coast. Same story--blast of hydrogen from their funnel shaped base. Colder than Greenland below them; snow fell in Seattle. No real attack since Vancouver and little damage done--” A message was laid before him.
“Portland,” he said. “Five mystery ships over city. Dart repeatedly toward earth, deliver blast of gas and then retreat. Doing no damage. Apparently inviting attack. All commercial planes ordered grounded. Awaiting instructions.
“Gentlemen,” said the Secretary, “I believe I speak for all present when I say that, in the absence of first hand information, we are utterly unable to arrive at any definite conclusion or make a definite plan. There is a menace in this, undeniably. Mr. Thurston and Mr. Riley have been good enough to report to me. They have seen one machine at close range. It was occupied by a monster so incredible that the report would receive no attention from me did I not know Mr. Thurston personally.
“Where have they come from? What does it mean--what is their mission? Only God knows.
“Gentlemen, I feel that I must see them. I want General Lozier to accompany me, also Doctor MacGregor, to advise me from the scientific angle. I am going to the Pacific Coast. They may not wait--that is true--but they appear to be going slowly south. I will leave to-night for San Diego. I hope to intercept them. We have strong air-forces there; the Navy Department is cooperating.”
He waited for no comment. “General,” he ordered, “will you kindly arrange for a plane? Take an escort or not as you think best.
“Mr. Thurston and Mr. Riley will also accompany us. We want all the authoritative data we can get. This on my return will be placed before you, gentlemen, for your consideration.” He rose from his chair. “I hope they wait for us,” he said.
Time was when a commander called loudly for a horse, but in this day a Secretary of War is not kept waiting for transportation. Sirening motorcycles preceded them from the city. Within an hour, motors roaring wide open, propellers ripping into the summer night, lights slipping eastward three thousand feet below, the Secretary of War for the United States was on his way. And on either side from their plane stretched the arms of a V. Like a flight of gigantic wild geese, fast fighting planes of the Army air service bored steadily into the night, guarantors of safe convoy.
“The Air Service is ready,” General Lozier had said. And Thurston and his pilot knew that from East coast to West, swift scout planes, whose idling engines could roar into action at a moment’s notice, stood waiting; battle planes hidden in hangars would roll forth at the word--the Navy was cooperating--and at San Diego there were strong naval units, Army units, and Marine Corps.
“They don’t know what we can do, what we have up our sleeve: they are feeling us out,” said the Secretary. They had stopped more than once for gas and for wireless reports. He held a sheaf of typewritten briefs.
“Going slowly south. They have taken their time. Hours over San Francisco and the bay district. Repeating same tactics; fall with terrific speed to cushion against their blast of gas. Trying to draw us out, provoke an attack, make us show our strength. Well, we shall beat them to San Diego at this rate. We’ll be there in a few hours.”
The afternoon sun was dropping ahead of them when they sighted the water. “Eckener Pass,” the pilot told them, “where the Graf Zeppelin came through. Wonder what these birds would think of a Zepp!
“There’s the ocean,” he added after a time. San Diego glistened against the bare hills. “There’s North Island--the Army field.” He stared intently ahead, then shouted: “And there they are! Look there!”
Over the city a cluster of meteors was falling. Dark underneath, their tops shone like pure silver in the sun’s slanting glare. They fell toward the city, then buried themselves in a dense cloud of steam, rebounding at once to the upper air, vapor trailing behind them.
The cloud billowed slowly. It struck the hills of the city, then lifted and vanished.
“Land at once,” requested the Secretary. A flash of silver countermanded the order.
It hung there before them, a great gleaming globe, keeping always its distance ahead. It was elongated at the base, Thurston observed. From that base shot the familiar blast that turned steamy a hundred feet below as it chilled the warm air. There were round orifices, like ports, ranged around the top, where an occasional jet of vapor showed this to be a method of control. Other spots shone dark and glassy. Were they windows? He hardly realized their peril, so interested was he in the strange machine ahead.
Then: “Dodge that vapor,” ordered General Lozier. The plane wavered in signal to the others and swung sharply to the left. Each man knew the flaming death that was theirs if the fire of their exhaust touched that explosive mixture of hydrogen and air. The great bubble turned with them and paralleled their course.
“He’s watching us,” said Riley, “giving us the once over, the slimy devil. Ain’t there a gun on this ship?”
The General addressed his superior. Even above the roar of the motors his voice seemed quiet, assured. “We must not land now,” he said. “We can’t land at North Island. It would focus their attention upon our defenses. That thing--whatever it is--is looking for a vulnerable spot. We must ... Hold on--there he goes!”
The big bulb shot upward. It slanted above them, and hovered there.
“I think he is about to attack,” said the General quietly. And, to the commander of their squadron: “It’s in your hands now, Captain. It’s your fight.”
The Captain nodded and squinted above. “He’s got to throw heavier stuff than that,” he remarked. A small object was falling from the cloud. It passed close to their ship.
“Half-pint size,” said Cyrus Thurston, and laughed in derision. There was something ludicrous in the futility of the attack. He stuck his head from a window into the gale they created. He sheltered his eyes to try to follow the missile in its fall.
They were over the city. The criss-cross of streets made a grill-work of lines; tall buildings were dwarfed from this three thousand foot altitude. The sun slanted across a projecting promontory to make golden ripples on a blue sea and the city sparkled back in the clear air. Tiny white faces were massed in the streets, huddled in clusters where the futile black missile had vanished.
And then--then the city was gone...
A white cloud-bank billowed and mushroomed. Slowly, it seemed to the watcher--so slowly.
It was done in the fraction of a second. Yet in that brief time his eyes registered the chaotic sweep in advance of the cloud. There came a crashing of buildings in some monster whirlwind, a white cloud engulfing it all ... It was rising--was on them.
“God,” thought Thurston, “why can’t I move!” The plane lifted and lurched. A thunder of sound crashed against them, an intolerable force. They were crushed to the floor as the plane was hurled over and upward.
Out of the mad whirling tangle of flying bodies, Thurston glimpsed one clear picture. The face of the pilot hung battered and blood-covered before him, and over the limp body the hand of Slim Riley clutched at the switch.
“Bully boy,” he said dazedly, “he’s cutting the motors...” The thought ended in blackness.
There was no sound of engines or beating propellers when he came to his senses. Something lay heavy upon him. He pushed it to one side. It was the body of General Lozier.
He drew himself to his knees to look slowly about, rubbed stupidly at his eyes to quiet the whirl, then stared at the blood on his hand. It was so quiet--the motors--what was it that happened? Slim had reached for the switch...
The whirling subsided. Before him he saw Slim Riley at the controls. He got to his feet and went unsteadily forward. It was a battered face that was lifted to his.
“She was spinning,” the puffed lips were muttering slowly. “I brought her out ... there’s the field...” His voice was thick; he formed the words slowly, painfully. “Got to land ... can you take it? I’m--I’m--” He slumped limply in his seat.
Thurston’s arms were uninjured. He dragged the pilot to the floor and got back of the wheel. The field was below them. There were planes taxiing out; he heard the roar of their motors. He tried the controls. The plane answered stiffly, but he managed to level off as the brown field approached.
Thurston never remembered that landing. He was trying to drag Riley from the battered plane when the first man got to him.
“Secretary of War?” he gasped. “In there ... Take Riley; I can walk.”
“We’ll get them,” an officer assured him. “Knew you were coming. They sure gave you hell! But look at the city!”
Arms carried him stumbling from the field. Above the low hangars he saw smoke clouds over the bay. These and red rolling flames marked what had been an American city. Far in the heavens moved five glinting specks.
His head reeled with the thunder of engines. There were planes standing in lines and more erupting from hangars, where khaki-clad men, faces tense under leather helmets, rushed swiftly about.
“General Lozier is dead,” said a voice. Thurston turned to the man. They were bringing the others. “The rest are smashed up some,” the officer told him, “but I think they’ll pull through.”
The Secretary of War for the United States lay beside him. Men with red on their sleeves were slitting his coat. Through one good eye he squinted at Thurston. He even managed a smile.
“Well, I wanted to see them up close,” he said. “They say you saved us, old man.”
Thurston waved that aside. “Thank Riley--” he began, but the words ended in the roar of an exhaust. A plane darted swiftly away to shoot vertically a hundred feet in the air. Another followed and another. In a cloud of brown dust they streamed endlessly out, zooming up like angry hornets, eager to get into the fight.
“Fast little devils!” the ambulance man observed. “Here come the big boys.”
A leviathan went deafeningly past. And again others came on in quick succession. Farther up the field, silvery gray planes with rudders flaunting their red, white and blue rose circling to the heights.
“That’s the Navy,” was the explanation. The surgeon straightened the Secretary’s arm. “See them come off the big airplane carriers!”
If his remarks were part of his professional training in removing a patient’s thoughts from his pain, they were effective. The Secretary stared out to sea, where two great flat-decked craft were shooting planes with the regularity of a rapid fire gun. They stood out sharply against a bank of gray fog. Cyrus Thurston forgot his bruised body, forgot his own peril--even the inferno that raged back across the bay: he was lost in the sheer thrill of the spectacle.
Above them the sky was alive with winged shapes. And from all the disorder there was order appearing. Squadron after squadron swept to battle formation. Like flights of wild ducks the true sharp-pointed Vs soared off into the sky. Far above and beyond, rows of dots marked the race of swift scouts for the upper levels. And high in the clear air shone the glittering menace trailing their five plumes of gas.
A deeper detonation was merging into the uproar. It came from the ships, Thurston knew, where anti-aircraft guns poured a rain of shells into the sky. About the invaders they bloomed into clusters of smoke balls. The globes shot a thousand feet into the air. Again the shells found them, and again they retreated.
“Look!” said Thurston. “They got one!”
He groaned as a long curving arc of speed showed that the big bulb was under control. Over the ships it paused, to balance and swing, then shot to the zenith as one of the great boats exploded in a cloud of vapor.
The following blast swept the airdrome. Planes yet on the ground went like dry autumn leaves. The hangars were flattened.
Thurston cowered in awe. They were sheltered, he saw, by a slope of the ground. No ridicule now for the bombs!
A second blast marked when the gas-cloud ignited. The billowing flames were blue. They writhed in tortured convulsions through the air. Endless explosions merged into one rumbling roar.
MacGregor had roused from his stupor; he raised to a sitting position.
“Hydrogen,” he stated positively, and pointed where great volumes of flame were sent whirling aloft. “It burns as it mixes with air.” The scientist was studying intently the mammoth reaction. “But the volume,” he marveled, “the volume! From that small container! Impossible!”
“Impossible,” the Secretary agreed, “but...” He pointed with his one good arm toward the Pacific. Two great ships of steel, blackened and battered in that fiery breath, tossed helplessly upon the pitching, heaving sea. They furnished to the scientist’s exclamation the only adequate reply.
Each man stared aghast into the pallid faces of his companions. “I think we have underestimated the opposition,” said the Secretary of War quietly. “Look--the fog is coming in, but it’s too late to save them.”
The big ships were vanishing in the oncoming fog. Whirls of vapor were eddying toward them in the flame-blaster air. Above them the watchers saw dimly the five gleaming bulbs. There were airplanes attacking: the tapping of machine-gun fire came to them faintly.
Fast planes circled and swooped toward the enemy. An armada of big planes drove in from beyond. Formations were blocking space above ... Every branch of the service was there, Thurston exulted, the army, Marine Corps, the Navy. He gripped hard at the dry ground in a paralysis of taut nerves. The battle was on, and in the balance hung the fate of the world.