But this time, Lance swore, they’d not get away without paying dearly for it!
Under the mesh of his gas-mask the lean lines of his jaw went taut. Tense, steely fingers flipped to the knobbed control instruments; the gleaming single-seater scout plane catapulted in a screaming somersault. Lance’s ever-wary sixth sense told him the tongues of disintegrating flame had licked the plane’s protected belly, and for the fact that it was protected he thanked again his stupendous luck. He pulled savagely at the squat control stick; the four Rahl-Diesels unleashed a torrent of power; and the slim scout rose like a comet, and hurtled, the altitude dial’s nervous finger proclaimed, to ten thousand feet. Lance eased off the power, relaxed slightly, and glanced below.
They’d started off a squadron of fifteen planes. Thirteen had crumpled beneath that treacherous, stabbing curtain of disintegrating flame. Only two of them were left--he and Praed.
Praed, of course!
The fellow’s plane was pirouetting nearby. Lance was the squadron leader. He jammed his thin-lipped mouth close to the “mike” and rasped:
“They trapped us again! There’s some damn spy at our base. Stand by, Praed! They’ll send up a few men to wipe us out, too ... and we’re goin’ to square the account!”
He listened for Praed’s answer. Presently it came.
“I can’t! They got two of my motors. I’m limping badly. We’d better beat it while we can.”
Lance’s mouth curled. He roared:
“Go on, then, beat it! But I’m goin’ to take a couple of ‘em, anyway.” Disgusted, filled with red anger, he flung the phones from his head, watched Praed’s plane whirl its stubby nose for home, settled himself alertly in the low, padded seat and concentrated his attention on the ground below.
He’d been right. Tiny, gray-clad figures were pouring from their barracks, rushing madly towards the dozen or so planes neatly drawn up on the field. Lance’s mouth twitched. They probably wondered, down there, why the devil he didn’t beat it--like Praed! He stroked the lever which controlled his five gas bombs, centered his battery of incendiary-bullet machine-guns and ruthlessly shoved the control stick full over.
The Rahl-Diesels pumped at full power; his plane plummetted downwards with the speed of light, a hurtling shell of steel. His unexpected move took the men below by surprise. Lance knew they needed at least ten minutes to prepare another salvo of disintegrating flame; he had about four minutes left.
There was a restless, thudding chatter, and his bullets began to mow them down.
Lance could see the horrified expressions of the men beneath, and chuckled grimly as they sought to escape the wrath of his hot guns. He flung bursts of spouting, acid-filled lead at the defenseless planes, and saw two of them collapse in shrouds of acrid white smoke. And still he dove.
At a bare one hundred feet he tugged the control stick back, and the tiny scout groaned under the pull of her motors. Then her snout jolted upwards. Lance pounded the gas bomb lever, and smiled a tight smile as he sensed the five pills sloping down from their compartment in the scout’s belly.
A second later came a rolling, ear-numbing crash. Lance, safe at a perch of a few thousand feet, grinned as his narrowed eyes beheld the sticky curtain of death-crammed gas hug over the enemy base.
“That’ll quiet ‘em for a few minutes!” he muttered savagely.
A few minutes--but not more. And he had no more bombs; his ammunition belts were nearly depleted. “I guess,” he murmured, “I’d better follow that quitter, Praed. I’ve paid ‘em for the boys they got, anyway!”
He levelled the plane out, threw a last glance at the carpet of gas he had laid, and spurred the purring Rahl-Diesels to their limit. His speed dial flashed round to five hundred, five-fifty--seventy--and finally rested, quivering, at the scout’s full six hundred miles per hour.
Under the streamlined plane’s speeding body the gnarled, bomb-torn terrain of Nevada hurtled by. A rather sad frown creased Lance’s prematurely old brow as he glimpsed it. Thousands of lives had been thrown into that ground; the hot, tumbled waste was doused with freely-sacrificed blood, the blood of whole regiments of America’s heroic First Home Army. Martyred men! Lance couldn’t help swearing to himself at the bitter thought of that terrible reckoning day. It was the price his country had paid for her continued ignoring of the festering peril overseas. Slaughtered like sheep, those glorious regiments had been! Helpless, almost, before the ultra-modern war weapons of the United Slav hordes, they’d stopped the numbingly quick advance merely by the weight of their bodies. Like little Belgium, in 1914. They’d held the Slavs to California, ravished, war-desolated California.
The thin front-line trenches far behind, Lance began a slanting dive that raised his speed well over six hundred. Through the front magnifying mirror he spied the squat khaki buildings of his base. Werewolves of War, the batch of planes he belonged to had been christened, and it was a richly deserved title. In front of the front they fought, detailed to desperate, harrying missions, losing an average of ten men a day. The ordeal of gas and fire and acid bullets added five years to a man’s brow overnight--if he served with the Werewolves of War.
Lance was only twenty-four, but his hair was splotched with dead gray strands; his eyes were hard and weary; his face lined with new wrinkles. Ah, well, it was war--and a losing war, he had to admit, that they fought. If a miracle didn’t come, America would crumble even as old Europe had, before the overwhelming Slavish troops.
Even now, as Lance knew through various rumors, the Slavs were massed for a grand attack. And with what could America hold them back?
His helicopter props spun, and the scout nestled down lightly on the tarmac. Lance switched off the faithful Rahl-Diesels, swung open the tiny door and leaped from the enclosed cockpit.
“Sir,” he rapped to thin, stern-browed Colonel Douglas, “there’s no longer any doubt in my mind. This is the fifth time we’ve been anticipated--trapped! The enemy is informed directly of the attacking plans of our scout details. There’s a spy at this base!” He lowered his eyes for a second and said in a queer tone of voice: “Thirteen of ‘em went down to-day.”
Colonel Douglas’ tired face showed the never-ceasing strain he was under. He clasped hands behind his back, took a few nervous turns up and down the small office and finally, with a somewhat hopeless sigh, muttered:
“I know, Lance, I know. The devils! They seem to be aware of everything we plan. Yet what can we do? Look at the territory our front lines cover! More than two thousand miles of loosely held ground. And we’re so damnably organized, man! Look here!”
He strode to the huge map which covered entirely one wall of the little room and ran his forefinger down the long red line, signifying the American front, which stretched crookedly from the Canadian border to the Gulf of California. Parallel to it was another line, of black--the United Slavs.
“It’s so damned easy,” Colonel Douglas said, “for a spy to slip over.” He sighed again. “I fought in the scrap of 1917 as a kid of twenty; it was different then. But this is 1938, and it’s a scientific war we’re trying to fight.” He sat down in his swivel chair. “How--how did they wipe you out to-day?”
“That blasted disintegrating flame again,” Lance told him swiftly. “It’s obvious, Colonel: how did the Slavs know we were going to raid that comparatively unimportant base of theirs at such and such a time? They had the flame shooters all ready for us--and at a place where they’ve never had them before! We came up at twenty-five thousand feet, dropped down in a full power dive, and”--he gestured widely--”biff! The flames caught us neatly at the regulation thousand feet. They got thirteen men. Only two got away, Praed and myself.” His keen eyes were inquiring, and the colonel interpreted their look correctly.
“Praed,” he murmured. “Yes, I saw him come back, by himself. He said you were following. Two of his motors were shot. He seems to bear a charmed life, doesn’t he?”
Lance nodded. He didn’t like to hint at the thought he had in mind. It seemed a cowardly, stab-in-the-back thing to do. Yet it was duty, and there was no questioning duty.
“I’ve never seen Praed shoot down an enemy plane,” he said slowly. “This is the fifth time we’ve been ambushed--and Praed’s never been caught. Somehow, he’s always seemed to be aware of what was coming.”
“You mean--?” the colonel questioned.
Lance shook his head. “I don’t want to commit myself, Colonel Douglas, but--I’m suggesting that we--well--keep our eyes peeled, and perhaps watch certain members of the outfit more closely.”
Douglas rose as his orderly, Ranth, came into the room. “Find Lieutenant Praed for me,” the colonel ordered crisply. Then, turning to Lance, he said: “You’d better knock off a few hours’ sleep. You are worn out.”
Lance watched the orderly, Ranth, salute and leave. Ranth was heavy, thick-built, with closely set eyes. The young squadron leader was suddenly conscious that he was, as the colonel said, worn out; his limbs seemed leaden, his eyelids heavy. “I think you’re right, sir,” he murmured, and walked out onto the field.
Seeing Praed’s machine drawn up with the overall-clad figure of a mechanic fussing at its motors, he wandered over to survey it. The scout was an exact replica of his, a model of the famous Goshawk type. It was all motor--everything being sacrificed to speed. On either side of the stubby brow of the fuselage, which held the death-dealing battery of three machine-guns, were set the four Rahl-Diesel motors, back to back. The pilot’s tiny enclosed cockpit was thus surrounded by engines. In the V-shaped, smooth-lined wings were the two helicopter props; further back, inside the steel-sheathed, bullet-like fuselage, the radio outfit and fuel tanks. The craft’s rounded belly covered the gas bomb compartment.
The mechanic was a little cockney Englishman, a fugitive, like all his countrymen, from the horror which had stricken England suddenly and left her wallowing in her life blood. He looked up at Lance, and a smile broke forth on his wizened, sharp little face.
“It’s got me beat, sir,” he said in his curious, twanging voice. “Lieutenant Praed, ‘e sez to me, ‘Somethin’ wrong with two of me motors, ‘ ‘e sez. ‘They quit on me quite sudden like. Look ‘em over, will you?’ ‘e sez. So I been lookin’ ‘em over. But they ain’t nothin’ wrong with the bloody things, sir--nothin’ at all!”
“It does seem funny, doesn’t it, Wells?” Lance said levelly. He’d known it all along. Praed was a quitter--a yellow-belly--besides being--But he stopped there. He had no definite proof. It was unjust to accuse a man of that without definite, positive proof.
The little mechanic muttered some mysterious cockney curse, and then said, in an admiring tone:
“‘Ow many of the swines’ planes ‘ave you shot down now, sir?”
“About twenty, I think,” Lance told him gruffly. The cockney shot his breath out with a whistle.
“Cripes! You’ll be up to that there Captain Hay soon if you keeps it up, sir!”
Lance laughed. Hay, the almost legendary hero of the American Air Force--who had shot down, so latest rumors said, fifty Slav planes--was far above him. “I’ll never reach Hay’s record, Wells. I’ll be doing pretty well if I bag half as many!” Then, seeing Ranth, the orderly, followed by Praed, he strode quickly away and came face to face with the latter.
For a moment the two men eyed each other, a taut silence between them. Praed’s thin, sun-blackened countenance was immovable, masklike. His blue-green eyes met Lance’s steadily. Finally Lance snorted and burst out:
“Why the hell did you run away, Praed? Scared stiff?”
Praed’s low voice, devoid of all trace of emotion, asked: “What makes you think I was scared, Lance?”
“You know damn well what makes me think it! That lousy crack about your motors being shot!”
“Two of my motors were limping.”
Lance gave a sarcastic chuckle. “Ask Wells about that, why don’t you? He’s got a few ideas on the subject.”
Praed repeated: “Two of my motors were limping,” and abruptly he turned away, leaving Lance fuming, and went into Colonel Douglas’ office.
What would Douglas say to him? Accuse him outright of his suspicions? Put him under arrest as a spy? But he couldn’t do that: there was, after all, no proof. Lance swore to himself; then, feeling a wave of weariness surge over him, went to the shack he was quartered in, kicked off his battered boots, stripped away his Sam Browne, and flung his lean body out on the hard, gray-sheeted cot. Seconds later he was lost in the sleep that comes to the physically exhausted. The desperate situation America was in, the whole savage war--everything, faded from his mind.
But to right and left of that cot stretched others--empty. The brave squadron Lance had led into the blue sky that morning now lay charred skeletons around the flame-throwers that had struck them down.
And in a dozen other aircraft bases behind the hard pressed lines were other empty cots. Time and time again the Slav planes shot down two to the Americans’ one; time and time again the treacherous disintegrating flames--the weapon which baffled America’s scientists--had struck down whole squadrons that had been lured into traps, even as Lance’s had been lured.
And even the Slav forces pushed forward...
“You’re wanted by Colonel Douglas, sir.”
Lance felt a hand jarring his shoulder; he turned sleepily over, yawned, and stared up into the dark, full-cheeked face of Ranth, the orderly.
“Colonel Douglas wants you,” repeated Ranth. “It’s five o’clock, sir.”
Wearily Lance pulled on his boots and adjusted the military belt. The night was hot and sticky; somewhere, miles to the rear of the base, the batteries of long-distance guns were beginning their nightly serenade. Lance followed the orderly’s broad, chunky back to the colonel’s office.
The colonel gazed up with tired eyes from the welter of maps on his desk.
“Lance,” he said, “I’m changing the routine of the night patrol. A fresh batch of youngsters came in this afternoon to fill the empty files; two dozen new planes arrived by transport, too. I’m sending ten of them over for the night patrol; Stephens will take your place. I’ve got another errand for you--and Praed.”
Lance was conscious that Ranth was standing quietly behind the colonel’s chair. Douglas ordered him to attend to some errand and the orderly left.
“I had an interview with Praed,” the colonel went on. “I didn’t exactly accuse him of anything definite, but I think I threw a bit of a scare into him. To-night we’ll give him the acid test.
“You and he will fly over to-night to investigate Hill 333. There have been rumors that the Slavs are massing there, and we want positive information. There’s sure to be a fight. Watch Praed carefully. If he steers clear of any scrapping, well have enough to court-martial him on. Understand?”
“Right. It’s a dangerous errand, Lance, but I’m confident you’ll come through, as always. There’s no one else who could handle the job. God, man, you’re getting close to Hay’s record! You’ll be the top-notcher of the service soon!”
The young man laughed briefly. “No danger of that. When do we take off, sir?”
Douglas consulted his watch. “Seven-fifteen. Come and get the dope from these maps. Hill 333’s rather difficult to find.”
“Anything been happening at the front, sir?”
The colonel passed both fine-fingered hands over his lined face. He said quietly: “Yes. The Slavs took twenty-five miles from us down in the lower sector. Just wiped our boys out. Those damnable flame-throwers and bullet-proof tanks, supported by God knows how many hundreds of planes. It’s hell, Lance! Headquarters thinks they’re going to unleash a general attack all along the line in the next few days. And our resources--well, our back’s against the wall. We’re coming to death grips, man.”
Lance pressed the starting button. His four motors choked, sputtered, then burst into a sweet, full-throated roar. He glanced over at Praed’s plane, spun the small helicopter props over and pushed down the accelerator. The plane quivered, stuck its snout up and leaped like an arrow into the clean, darkening air. Lance gunned it to ten thousand feet, Praed following him neatly. Praed was a good pilot, no doubt about that. The two fighting machines hung for a second side by side; Lance eased off his helicopters and streaked away into the gloom at a breath-taking five hundred.
“I hope,” muttered Colonel Douglas as the two tiny scouts sped from sight, “that everything goes smoothly. They’re the men to do it, anyway. No better pilots in the whole service.”
“Wot abaht that there Captain Hay, sir?” put in Wells, the mechanic, standing nearby. Colonel Douglas smiled.
“Oh, of course!” he amended. “I’d forgotten Hay!”
Once more they were anticipated! Lance, at thirty thousand feet--the Rahl-Diesels, with their perfected superchargers, were easily capable of a ceiling of sixty--had hovered above the position of Hill 333, pulled on his gas-mask and said through the microphone to Praed:
“Power dive to three thousand feet. Release your flares and take in all you can before they send up planes. We’ll take ‘em by surprise, but there’s bound to be a fight. Got it?”
The steady reply came back: “Okay.”
Whereat Lance set his teeth in his customary fighting grin, jockied up his ammunition belts, glanced at the flare-parachutes folded alongside the cabin and plunged the scout in a dive that tipped six hundred and fifty miles and threatened to crack the speed dial.
But surprise? Nothing doing! Like angry hornets five Slav planes pounced on them at ten thousand feet. They’d been waiting there! Lance cursed savagely. He flung off his flares, Immelmanned up, and in less than two seconds had sent one Slav shrieking to the ground in flames. For the moment forgetting Praed, Lance followed after his flares, three Slavs attempting to sight their guns on the twisting, writhing, corkscrewing body of his Goshawk. He knew there were disintegrating flame-throwers below, but gambled on their not shooting because of the enemy scouts diving with him.
Flattening out at perhaps a thousand feet, Lance threw a rapid stare at the bulk of Hill 333. He drew his breath in sharply.
Lit dazzlingly by the bleaching white of the slow-floating flares, huge rows of the dreaded Slav tanks were clustered all around the hill!
As he looked, ten more Slav planes came soaring up from the ground. This was too hot! The thought of Praed stabbed through Lance’s whirling brain; he pulled the scout around, doubled over the three closing in on his tail, and belched lead for an instant at one he’d caught off guard. It collapsed like a punctured paper bag. Lance grinned and bounded to the upper regions. The two other Slavs let the crazy Yank go for the instant, joining forces with the ten brothers coming to help them out.
Lance, again at ten thousand, looked for Praed. Far above, he glimpsed two planes, circling and diving. Praed seemed to be fighting, at any rate! As he watched, the two scouts catapulted still higher; became tiny, almost imperceptible dots, visible only in the reflected light of the flares. Then Lance felt a shaft of ice along his spine.
The two planes had practically hugged each other for a second. Then one of them fell away, somersaulted, tumbled down wildly--out of control.
It passed Lance like a falling rock.
And it was Praed’s scout!
“My God!” muttered Lance. “He’s been shot down!”
The next moment the twelve Slavs were on him like a hurricane. Motors roaring, Lance stood them off--flinging a burst of lead here, dropping out of range here, looping, catapulting, zooming--fazing them with every trick he knew. A dozen times he sensed the zinging wrath of storms of bullets, a dozen times he escaped death by the breadth of a hair. Not for nothing was he called one of the best pilots in the service, second only to Hay.
He bagged another of the Slavs, and began to think of getting away. Praed had proved himself, but had been killed in doing so. He’s got the dope on Hill 333. Now for the getaway.
As he whirled, another Slav plane--the one that had got Praed--dove down from above. And, in the last second of the ghostly light of the flares, Lance’s bewildered eyes saw the face of the man inside it.
That face was Praed’s!
Praed, inside an enemy scout! Praed firing at him! Praed, not dead!
Lance was dumbfounded. He almost died, just then, for he felt his senses stagger, and relaxed his maneuvering. Praed! What--how--He couldn’t begin to reckon it out.
If the flares hadn’t died at that instant, Lance must have been shot down. Luckily, they expired; pitch darkness washed over everything. The lights on the Slav planes switched on, their prying beams fingering the sky for Lance’s plane. But Lance was somewhat himself again. He jammed the accelerator down, dove headlong, flattened out and streaked for home. The speed of the Goshawk snatched him faithfully from the jaws of the Slavs. He left then milling behind. Left Praed with them!
Colonel Douglas was waiting for him. Lance’s face must have been a study, for the elder man laughed shortly. “You need a drink!” he decided, and poured out a stiff tot of rum. Lance downed it with a nervous gulp and sprawled in a chair, the glass held weakly in quivering fingers.
Dead silence brooded over the whole base. Even the muttering guns were still. One green-shaded light threw the maps on Douglas’ desk into glaring prominence; besides that, there was no illumination anywhere in the ‘drome. Lance knew he had a thumping headache and that his eyes were lumps of pain. The glass fell from his hand and crashed on the floor. It seemed to stir the young captain, for at last he looked up and met the colonel’s inquiring gaze.
“Well?” The colonel was terse.
“I saw Praed shot down,” Lance mumbled, as if to himself, “and then I saw him--”
“Wait!” Douglas strode rapidly to the door which led to the other rooms of the building. After glancing to right and left, with an explanatory “Walls sometimes have ears, you know!” he locked the door carefully again, came back, and said:
“Talk in a whisper! How about Hill 333?”
“Tanks massed there,” Lance said slowly. “Yeh, I saw that, all right. They must be intending an attack on that sector. But--but--Praed--”
Lance told him of the scrap, how Praed’s plane had apparently rubbed wings with a Slav and then tumbled down, out of control. He concluded: “I figured that Praed was all right, that he’d proved himself, that he wasn’t a spy, as we’d thought. _But the next moment I saw him in the Slav plane that had bagged his!”_
His wondering eyes sought the colonel’s lean face. Lance expected to see it express amazement, incredulity. It didn’t, though. He laughed!
While Lance gaped, the older man went to the delicate machinery of the radiophone in one corner of the trim office. He clasped the earphones over his head, and spoke into the mike: “Headquarters, Air Force, Washington, Douglas, Base 5, speaking.”
A tense moment passed while his radio call was put through. Presently a green light flashed on the board. Douglas said swiftly: “Headquarters? Base 5, Colonel Douglas. Tanks massed around Hill 333; enemy evidently contemplates full attack on corresponding sector of our line. They know a scout of ours observed it, however; perhaps that will induce them to change their plans. This next is extremely important: The first step of the Torpedo Plan has been successful!”
For awhile he listened intently, replying with short-clipped affirmatives. Then he hung the headphones up and turned to the bewildered Lance. Colonel Douglas laughed again and rubbed his hands exultantly.
“What the hell--” Lance began. The other pulled out a drawer of his desk and took from it a small placard.
“Do you recognize the photo?” he asked smilingly.
Lance looked at it. It was the picture of a man in the uniform of a captain of the Air Force, a row of battle ribbons on his straight, khaki-clad chest. But it was the figure’s face that Lance stared at.
“Sure,” he said finally. “It’s a picture of Praed. But what--”
“Not Praed,” corrected the colonel. “Not Praed. Captain Basil Hay.”
“Good Lord!” Lance exclaimed without knowing he did so. Praed--Hay! The same man! Then that was the secret; that explained things! Hay, the hero of the force!
“You’re entitled to a few explanations,” Douglas said. “I’ll give you the core of the whole scheme. There’s no need to tell you that it must be guarded with your life.” He drew his chair closer to Lance’s.
“Yes, it’s true. The man you knew as Praed in reality is Captain Hay. You see, Lance, headquarters was taking no chances with what I just called the Torpedo Plan. Every move had to be conducted with the utmost secrecy. Had to be! For the Torpedo Plan is, in some ways, America’s last hope.
“Our base, No. 5, was chosen as the center of activity, the base from which the steps paving the way for the plan would be taken. The two best pilots in the service were needed. You and Hay were chosen.
“It was decided it would be best to mask Hay’s real identity. So, officially, he was sent to the hospital; in reality he came here, under the name of Praed. Why? Because there’s a spy somewhere--we don’t seem to be able to track him; he’s infernally clever--and if the famous Captain Hay was switched to Base 5, putting the two best pilots in the service together, that spy’d know something was in the air. Understand?”
Lance nodded dumbly. A great light was beginning to shower him.
“To more completely mask our true purpose,” the colonel continued, “Hay was instructed to make it appear as if he were a spy. And it was a damned hard job! The real spy, whoever he is, and wherever he is, would thus be additionally fooled; for all he’d know, the Slavs might have sent another over to back him up. That’s why Hay never shot down an enemy plane. Says something about his skill as a pilot, doesn’t it? Never able to defend himself, save by maneuvering. He’s a great flyer!”
Lance could only nod dumbly again.
“After a couple of weeks at this base,” Douglas went on, “Hay was to cross the lines one night with you accompanying him. You, unintentionally, would thus occupy the enemy planes while Hay attended to the real business of the evening. And you did splendidly!”
“The real business?” Lance questioned. “What the devil was that? I thought the real business was to get the dope on Hill 333.”
“So it was--partially. But also to take the first step of the Torpedo Plan, which was for Hay to switch over to a Slav plane.”
The colonel repeated his statement, somewhat dryly. Lance’s square jaw dropped abruptly. “But--but--” he exclaimed, “how the devil could he do that?”
Colonel Douglas grinned.
“By a very neat contraption from the brain of one of our most valuable scientists,” he explained. “Hay’s scout was specially fitted up before you left; while you were sleeping, in fact. Two experts from Washington arrived with that batch of new recruits this afternoon. A tiny sliding door was cut in the fuselage of the scout and a sort of folding ladder put inside. It was motivated by some rather complex spring-work; but the really ingenious thing about it was the powerful electro-magnet at its base.
“It’s rather over my head,” he smiled. “I’m a plain fighting man, and sometimes it seems that scientists and not fighting men are going to win this war ... But, at any rate, it worked like this:
“Hay lures, or maneuvers, a Slav plane away from its fellows, and while you’re down below entertaining the others, flies wing to wing with it. He touches the spring of his ladder and it shoots out, powerfully magnetized, and clamps onto the steel fuselage of the Slav. The automatic control keeps Hay’s scout steady, and the ladder is so highly attractive that the Slav simply can’t get away. Hay crosses the gulf, taking with him the cord which controls the electro-magnet. He forces his way into the Slav, shoots down its pilot, releases the pull of the magnet, and--there you are! Our best pilot in possession of a Slav plane, and clad in a Slav officer’s uniform! Do you get the idea now?”
Lance strove for appropriate words. “Gee!” he spluttered. “It’s--it’s wonderful! And to think I tried to start a fight with Hay! I wish I’d known before. But I suppose,” he added, “it was best to let not even me in on it, to keep it absolutely secret.”
“And now what’s Hay’s mission?” Lance asked eagerly.
Colonel Douglas’ face became sober. “A damnably dangerous one, and a mighty desperate one. As I said, the Torpedo Plan, which Hay is striving to carry out, seems to be America’s last chance. We’re holding the United Slavs, but only just. We simply can’t break their line or make any headway against them; and when they do unleash their big push, there’s nothing to stop them! So we’re gambling everything on this slim hope.
“American science,” he continued, “has perfected a weapon which is called the ‘flying torpedo.’ It’s a ghastly thing, too. Damn it, I actually feel sorry for the poor devils it bursts on! It’s a sort of riposte to their disintegrating flame.
“Picture a huge tanklike affair of steel, one hundred feet long. Picture a few dozen of them! Picture them crammed to overflowing with tons of glyco-scarzite, the most destructive explosive the mind of man has yet conceived. An explosive that can’t be hurled in a shell and can’t be dropped in a bomb from a plane. A pound or so of it, man, lays waste a square mile of anything! Even our scientists are a bit afraid of it. They’ve been trying to think up a way of unleashing it at the Slavs. And these flying torpedoes seem to be the answer.
“The torpedoes are purely mechanical. Therefore, they can soar to any height whatsoever. Twenty, thirty, even forty miles. All right. Now, picture a dozen or so of these torpedoes soaring over the most important Slav bases and headquarters, thirty miles above the earth, at night, of course, and absolutely invisible to the most powerful search-rays. They fly without the slightest sounds. Get that? Well, when this squadron of awful death arrives at the exact point over the place to be demolished, the motive force switches off and down they crash. Imagine what will happen when they collide with the ground!” Douglas, with Lance’s tense eyes on him, struck a clenched fist into an open palm.
“Tons of glyco-scarzite, Lance! Unleashed, without warning, from miles above! Thirty of these torpedoes, each a hundred feet long, dropping down on the very heart of the Slav invasion! Killing, blowing to bits, rather, every living thing, every fortification, every tree, every tank, every gun, every flame thrower, every plane in a radius of hundreds of miles!”
“God!” came from Lance’s numb lips. “God!”
“But“--and the colonel held up a straight forefinger--”these torpedoes must be guided from the place they raid!”
Into the silence Lance whispered: “And that--that is Hay’s job?”
“That,” Douglas confirmed levelly, “is Hay’s job--and yours.”
Their eyes met; held. And then Lance’s clean young face smiled.
“Thank God, sir,” he cried, “that I’m to help strike the blow that’ll free our country!”
Colonel Douglas answered his smile with a smile. “Lance,” he said, “it’s because Washington has put this job into Hay’s and your hands that I know--I know--it will succeed.”
Douglas lowered his voice again. “This is why those flying torpedoes must be guided from the Slav’s innermost base.
“In the first place, they fly too high for an accompanying plane to guide them. In the second, the power that releases them to hurtle downwards must come from the enemy base itself, to permit of no possible error. This must not fail!”
“But,” put in Lance, “how do the torpedoes fly? What motivates them?”
“A closely guarded secret, of course,” he was told. “I merely possess a slight comprehension of it. I know that it is an adaptation of that discovery of Professor Singe, two years ago--cosmic attraction. Eventually, perhaps, it will permit interplanetary travel. This use of it is simply the beginning. But it is to America’s everlasting glory that a scientist of hers developed it.
“You know how a sliver of wood is propelled by the ripples of a pond? Vibrations of the water, really. Well, evidently there are somewhat similar vibrations in the ether, cosmic force. Each one of these flying torpedoes contains a highly expensive, intricate mechanism which transforms this invisible vibration-power into material propulsion. The mechanism is adjusted to propel the torpedo at such an altitude in such a direction. We possess no means of setting the machines to stop at a certain place and so tumble earthwards. That’s where you and Hay come in.
“Hay is now, with forged documents, passing himself off as a regular Slav pilot. He speaks the tongue. Two nights from now, you, Lance, keep a rendezvous with Hay at an isolated ranch in the Lake Tahoe country--the Sola Ranch, where we staged that big fight a few months back.”
“In your plane is an instrument which is the kernel of the scheme. It arrives here to-morrow. It’s a device which shoots an invisible beam fifty miles into the air, a negative beam, in sympathy with the machinery on the torpedoes. Hay sets this device near the Slav headquarters. The torpedo squadron takes off from a few hundred miles behind here, flying in the direction of the heart of the Slav forces. When they run into the beam, their motive power is nullified, and down they fall. Crash! The Slavs are wiped out. Our troops charge forward in a grand attack; the Slavs, with no armament, no reinforcing troops, no supply of tanks and flame throwers, crumple. The invasion of America is put to an end!”
Lance rose. His face was alight, his eyes burning with strong, unquenchable fire.
“It’s great, sir, great! It can’t fail! By God, if it takes every last drop of my blood, I’ll help Hay put this through!”
Colonel Douglas extended his right hand and Lance’s met it in a firm shake. In the thick silence they stood thus for some minutes. Then, without moving so much as a cheek muscle, the colonel whispered, his eyes tense:
“The door! Fling it open! I think someone’s been listening!“
Lance switched his alarmed gaze to it. His muscles went taut. The next moment he had leaped half across the room, jammed back the lock, and ripped the door wide.
At the other end of the dim passageway he glimpsed a scurrying figure!
Lance sprang after it with a shout to Douglas. Tearing out his automatic, he flung a burst of lead at the figure, but that instant it wheeled and sped from sight down another passage. And when Lance got there, no one was in sight.
For awhile he probed around, desperately, but could find no sign of anything. The base slept. Sorely troubled, he returned to find the colonel just coming back from an equally barren search:
“Don’t think he heard much,” said Douglas grimly. “It must have been that damned spy who’s been getting information of our movements. I’ll have the guards redoubled to prevent him from getting anything through.” He smiled at sight of Lance’s anxious face. “No need for too much worry, Lance! He couldn’t have heard much--the walls are sound-proof and the door fairly tight. Now, you go and rip off some sleep! You need it! No more work for you till Wednesday night--you’re too important!”
Sleep! Lance only wished he could. But the thrill of what he’d just heard was too fresh, too new; the blood pumped surgingly through his veins; his brain whirled with the thought of the glorious enterprise he and Hay were aiding so vitally.
Then, too, the night was humid and sweaty. For a while Lance lay on his cot, other sleeping figures to left and right of him, but his own eyes simply would not stay closed. Finally, after perhaps an hour of trying to doze off, he arose and, clad only in breeches and undershirt, wandered outside again with a cigarette glowing in his mouth.
The war might not have been, the night was so silent. Lance strolled lazily around the plane hangars, revelling in what little breeze there was. He seemed to be the only living thing abroad in the night.
Then, suddenly, he flung down his cigarette and ground the butt out quickly. For he saw he was not the only living thing abroad in the night. Sliding rapidly away from the end hangar was a dark form!
Lance crouched instinctively and crept forward. Who was the other wanderer? Not a sentry: they paced a regular beat closer to Douglas’ office. Not another, who, like himself, could not sleep and had sought the open. This figure was going somewhere! It had a definite object in mind!
Sheltering himself behind the hangars’ bulk, Lance advanced as stealthily as he could. Coming to the end one, he peered round its blunt corner. Fifty yards ahead, crossing a stubbly stretch of open ground, the mysterious prowler hurried onward.
The night was dark, the moon troubled by ragged bursts of listless, heavy clouds. Lance bent almost double and left the shelter of the black hangar. Feeling his way carefully, he followed the other.
Was this the unknown spy? The spy, going to transmit the news he had overheard?