The Death-cloud

by Nathan Schachner & Arthur L. Zagat

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The epic exploit of one who worked in the dark and alone, behind the enemy lines, in the great Last War.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

We sat, Eric Bolton and I, at a parapet table atop the 200-story General Aviation Building. The efficient robot waiter of the Sky Club had cleared away the remnants of an epicurean meal. Only a bowl of golden fruit remained--globes of nectar picked in the citrus groves of California that morning.

My eye wandered over the scene spread before us, the vast piling of masonry that is New York. The dying beams of the setting sun glinted golden from the roofs of the pleasure palaces topping the soaring structures. Lower, amid interlacing archings of the mid-air thoroughfares, darkness had already piled its blackness. Two thousand feet below, in the region of perpetual night, the green-blue factory lights flared.

On three sides, the unbroken serration of the Empire City’s beehives stretched in a semicircle of twenty miles radius. Long since, the rivers that had made old Manhattan an island had been roofed over. But, to the east, the heaving sea still stretched its green expanse. On the horizon a vast cloud mountain billowed upward from the watery surface, white, and pink and many shades of violet.

“That’s just the way it looked,” Bolton muttered, as he drew my attention to the cloud mass. “See that air-liner just diving into it? Just so I saw the New York--five thousand men--pride of the Air Service--dive into that mountain of smoke. And she never came out! Gone--like that!” And he snapped his fingers.

He fell silent again, gazing dreamily at the drifting rings of pipe smoke. He smiled, the twisted smile which was the sole indication that one side of his face was the master work of a great surgeon-sculptor. A marvelous piece of work, that, but no less marvelous than the protean changes that Bolton himself could make in his appearance. It was this genius at impersonation that had won Bolton his commission in the Intelligence Service, when, in 1992, the world burst into flame.

“Would you like to hear about it?” The obtuseness of the man!

“If you’d care to tell me.” I spoke off-handedly. This was like hunting birds on the wing: too abrupt a movement of the glider, and the game was lost.

This is the story he told me, in the low, modulated voice of the trained actor. He told it simply, with no dramatic tricks, no stressing, no climatic crescendos. But I saw the scenes he described, dodged with him through black caverns of dread, felt an icy hand clutch my heart as the Ferret stared at me with his baleful glance; was deafened, and stunned, and crushed by that final tremendous down pouring of the waters.


I was standing--he began--on one of our rafts, watching the installation of a new ray machine. A storm was raging, but the great raft, a thousand feet long, and five hundred wide, was as steady as a rock. We were 700 miles out; the great push of ‘92, that drove us back to within 150 miles of our coast and almost ended the war, was still eleven weeks off.

Suddenly the buzzer of my radio-receiver whirred against my chest. “2--6--4”--my personal call. “2--2”--”Go to nearest communications booth.” “A--4”--”Use Intelligence Service intermitter 4.” The secret of that was known only to a half-dozen men in the field. Headquarters wanted to talk to me on a supremely important matter.

There was a booth only a short distance away. I stepped to it and identified myself to the guard. In a moment I was within and had swung shut and sealed the sound-proof door. I set the intermitter switches to the A--4 combination. Not even our own control officers could eavesdrop now. Then I switched off the light, and waited.

A green glow grew out of the darkness. I was being inspected. Headquarters was taking no chances. Out of the green haze before me the general himself materialized. I could count every hair in his grizzled beard. The little scar at the corner of his left eye fascinated me with its distinctness.

I saluted. “Captain Bolton reporting, sir.”

“At ease!” General Sommers’ voice snapped with military precision. The general was standing in his private office in Washington. I could see his desk in the corner, and the great operations map on the wall. There were new lines of worry in the general’s grim face.


He went straight to the point. “Captain Bolton, we are confronted with a problem that must be solved at once. While our information is meagre, the Staff is convinced that a great danger menaces us. Of its precise nature, or how it is to be combatted, we are unaware. I am assigning you to secure the answer to these two questions.

“A week ago there appeared, ten miles east of the enemies’ first line, and directly opposite our raft 1264, what seemed at first to be merely a peculiar cloud formation. It rose directly from the surface of the water, and was shaped roughly like half an egg. The greatest dimension, lying along the water, parallel to the battle line, was about 5 miles; the height approximately a mile.

“When two or three days had passed, and no change in the shape or dimensions of the strange mass had taken place, although wind and weather conditions had been varied, we determined to investigate. This was undoubtedly an artificial, not a natural, phenomenon. It was then that we discovered that there was a concentration of defenses along this portion of the front. Our scouts were unable to find any of the usual gaps in either the ray network in the upper air, or the gyro-knife barrier beneath the surface. At the same time, from scouting parties and deserters at other points we learned that rumors are rife throughout the enemy forces of some scheme now on foot that will overwhelm us within a very short time. No details have been given, but so widespread is the gossip, and so consistent, that we have been forced to the conclusion that it cannot be reasonably dismissed as mere morale-supporting propaganda.

“We have secretly developed a method of so equipping aircraft as to render them immune to the enemy death ray. The device is complicated and requires time to manufacture and install. After careful consideration, we decided that the situation was sufficiently grave to warrant revealing to the enemy our possession of this new device.

“The battle-airship New York has been equipped with the new protective equipment. To-morrow at sunrise she will make an attack in force on whatever lies behind that screen.

“Your orders are these. You will proceed at once to raft 1264. You will observe the attack made by the New York. If she fails, you will then find some way to enter that area, discover what is going on behind the screen, hamper or destroy the enemy plans if possible and report back to me personally.”


The general’s face suddenly softened. His tones lost their military precision. “I am afraid, Captain, that I am sending you to your death. But--we must know what is going on. If the New York fails, the task will appear impossible, but you have already done the impossible.”

The grim mask dropped again over the chief’s features; again he became the perfect military machine. “You will call on any officer of our forces for whatever you may need. Here is your authority.” He stepped aside, and I heard the low burr of the tel-autograph at the side of the screen before me. A moment, and the general was again visible.

“That will be all.” Once more the momentary softening. “Good luck, my boy.” A final exchange of salutes, and the screen went blank.

I switched on the light. There in the little machine was a slip of paper. I extracted it. The lines of type, the scrawled signature, burned into my brain like letters of fire.

“To: All Officers of the Military Forces of the Americas.

Subject: Military Assistance. Eric Bolton, Captain M.I.S.,

M.F.A. is authorized to call upon you for any assistance.

You will comply with his requests.

Alton Sommers, Lieut. General Commanding M.I.S., M.F.A.

By authority of the Commander in Chief.”

In the corner appeared my thumb-print.

I stood there for a long time, mulling the thing over. The Staff was laying tremendous stress on the enemy’s strange cloud formation, even to the extent of disclosing the secret of the new defensive device. The Easterners, too, had something novel, something that would cut off absolutely the transmission of ether waves. Nothing either side had yet produced would do that. What was happening behind that screen? Would they break through our defenses at last?

A vision arose before me. Hordes of yellow men, of black, of white renegades from the nations where the red flag waved dominant, pouring over the Americas. The horrors that Britain had undergone, the last European nation to hold out against the Red horde, flashed into my mind. I shuddered. Never. It must not be.


I was hurled from my feet by an electric shock. A great flood of sunlight burst in on me. A corner of the booth, three-foot concrete, had been sheared away, whiffed into nothingness! I arose and dashed into the open. A raid was in progress. The air was electric with the clashing of opposing barrages. The terrible silence of the pitched battles of that war oppressed me. I saw a squad, caught in the beam of an Eastern ray-projector, destroyed. The end man must have been just on the edge of the beams--half his right side lay twitching on the ground. The rest of him, and the seven others, were smoking heaps of blackened cinders.

High over No Man’s Land--queer how those old phrases last--a covey of enemy helicopters hung, waiting for the barrage to lift. A black hulk broke the surface of the water, split open: then another. Enemy sub-surface craft. The fight was being waged under water, too. A green mass spilled its contents as it leaped over the waves and fell back. One of ours.

A huge buzzing came from behind me. A cloud of wasplike forms flew high overhead. It was reserve aircraft, hurrying up from the second line raft, ten miles west.

But this was no affair of mine. I had my orders. I must be in the North Atlantic by daybreak. I looked around. There at the further edge my little Zephyr rested, intact. I hurried to her and sprang into the cockpit. I was off the coast of Chile. Twelve thousand feet would clear the highest range between. I set the height control. Today you don’t have to do that, but Mason hadn’t perfected his automatic elevator then. The starting indicator was already set for my position. I adjusted the direction disk. The little green light showed that the power broadcast was in operation. I snapped over the starting switch and the whir of the helicopter vanes overhead told me all was well. The machine leaped into the air. Nothing to do now till the warning bell told me I was within a hundred miles of my destination. The battle shot away from me, far below.

Darkness came swiftly. I was shooting into the eye of the sun at three hundred miles an hour. I swallowed a few pellets of concentrated food, then curled up in my bunk. There was no knowing how many hours would pass till I slept again.

I fell asleep at once.


The strident clamor of the alarm bell woke me. Dawn was just breaking. Far below me I could make out the heaving Atlantic, calm and peaceful. A long line of the huge second-line rafts just underneath, stretching north and south till it curved over the horizon. A bugle’s clear notes came drifting up to me, reveille. Then I was hovering over my goal, raft 1264. The black rectangle was alive with activity unwonted at this early hour. I took over the controls from the mechanical pilot, sent my recognition signal and drifted downward.

The Zephyr settled on the raft with a soft hiss of the compressed air shock absorbers. A guard came hurrying up. My credentials passed upon, I alighted. Momentarily, it was getting brighter. I was just in time.

I looked eastward, toward the enemy rafts. Beyond them, there it was, just as General Sommers had described it--a mountain of vapor, gleaming white in the gathering light. Not at all disquieting; merely a shifting, billowing cloud mass. Rather pretty. The rest of the sky was clear, unspecked.

As I gazed a line of red fire ran around the edge of the cloud. A violet glow suffused the whole, faded swiftly into pink. The sun was rising. Behind me I heard a huge whirring. Turning, I saw her, just rising, all the beautiful trim length of her. The New York! Pride of our air fleet!

Fifty paces to my right a little knot of officers caught my attention. I recognized Jim Bradley. I remembered, someone had told me he was a major, and was commanding a raft. Good. Jim would work with me as he had in the old days at Stanford U., when I coached the air polo team that he captained. I walked over.

Time for only a hurried handclasp. The signal corps sergeant, earphones clamped to his head, was intoning the airship’s messages. “We have reached the thousand-foot level. Will now head for the objective. All well.”

We watched her. She was through our barrage-line. A snapped order from Jim restored the barrier, momentarily lifted to let her pass. A curious shimmering blurred the ship’s outlines. I called Jim’s attention to it. “That’s the new device, a network of fine wires, charged with neutralising vibrations. Worked like a charm in the tests. But there’s no telling how effective it is in actual service.”


A cold shiver ran up my spine. Many a fine ship I had seen strike that invisible network of rays, and puff into smoke. Was that to be the New York’s fate?

“We are about to pass through the enemy barrage. All well,” came the sergeant’s unemotional monotone, repeating the voice in his ears. I knew that voice was being listened to in Washington by a little group whose every shoulder bore the stars of high command. My thoughts flashed to them, gazing breathless at the screen that imaged the very scene before us.

My breath stopped. Now! She must be in it now. The next second would tell the tale. A faint coruscation of sparks ran along the network, but the craft kept steadily onward. Thank God!

“We have passed through the enemy first-line barrage. All well.”

A faint whistling of released breath came from all about me. I was not the only one who had agonised at that moment. The first test had been passed; would the other be as successful?

“We are increasing our speed to the maximum. Objective dead ahead. All well.”

I saw the ship fairly leap through the sky. Five hundred miles an hour was her greatest speed. Another moment--

“We are entering the cloud. Bow is invisible. All--”

She was in it. She lurched. Plunged forward. She was hidden. I turned to the sergeant. Tremendous concentration was on his bronzed face. He reached out, twirled a dial in the set before him, and shook his head slightly. Twirled again. We were knotted around him, our faces bloodless. He looked up. “The last sentence was cut off sharp, sir. I can hear nothing more. Even the carrier wave is dead.”

Jim ripped out an oath, snatched the phones, and clamped them over his own ears. Dead silence.

At last he looked up. “Nothing, gentlemen.”


We looked at each other, appalled.

Bradley handed the apparatus back to the sergeant. “Remain here, listening carefully. Let me know at once if you hear anything.” The sergeant saluted.

Out there the white cloud billowed and gleamed in the sunlight. But there was something ominous in its calm beauty now.

A thought struck me. I spoke, and my voice sounded flat, dead. “Perhaps it’s only the radio waves that are cut off. Maybe she’s all right, fighting there inside, smashing them.” But I knew that it was all over.

“God, I hope you’re right. Five thousand men aboard her.” Bradley’s lips were white, his hands trembling. “Come to my office, Eric; we’ll wait there. To your posts, gentlemen. Each of you will detail a man to watch that cloud bank, and report to me any change in its appearance, even the slightest.”

We walked back to the concrete command-post. We didn’t talk, though it had been years since we had seen each other. My brain was numbed, I know. I had seen plenty of fighting, watched many a man go to his death in the seven months since the war began. But this, somehow, was different.

An hour passed. Jim busied himself with routine paper work. At least he had that relief. I paced about his tiny office. Already I was making plans. Force had failed. Strategy must take its place. I must get in there. But how?

Bradley looked up from his work, his face grim. “No news, Eric. If you were right we should have heard something from the New York by this time. They’re gone, all right.”

“Yes, they’re gone,” I answered. “It’s up to me, then.”


He stared in surprise. “Up to you? What do you mean?”

“Just that. I’m going in there, God helping.” I made sure the room was shut tight against eavesdroppers. Then, briefly as I could, I told him of my orders, showing him the document I had received the day before. He shook his head.

“But it’s impossible. Their ray network, and the undersea barrier, are absolutely solid here. I don’t think even a mouse could get through. And even if you did get behind their lines, how on earth are you going to get into the area underneath that devilish cloud. You saw what happened to the New York, protected as she was.”

“Yes. I know all that. Nevertheless it’s got to be done.” Just then I got the glimmering of an idea. “Tell me, Jim, are they doing much scouting here. Undersea, I mean.”

“The usual one-man shell, radio-propelled. We get one once in a while. Most of them, however, even if we do smash them, are pulled back on the wave before we can grab them. It’s a bit easier than most places, though: our depth’s only about six hundred feet.”

“What! Why, I thought the bottom averaged three thousand all along the line.”

“It does. But what would be a mountain ridge, if this were dry land, runs out from the mainland. We’re over a big plateau here. It goes on east another twenty-five miles, or so. See, here’s the chart.”

A warning bell seemed to ring somewhere within me. Had this peculiar formation of the ocean bed anything to do with the problem at hand? But I kept to the immediate step. My plan was rapidly taking shape in my mind.

“What are the scouts--black, yellow, or--”

“Russians, mostly.”

“Good. Now listen, Jim. Send down word that the next scout-sub that is caught is not to be ripped, but simply held against the attraction of the return wave. The television eye is to be smashed at once, and radio communication jammed. Can you do it as if something had happened to the shell?”

“Sure thing, but what’s the big idea?”

“You’ll see. I’ve worked the thing out now.”

Just then a red light on Bradley’s desk winked three times. “There’s one between the lines now!” he exclaimed.

“Quick, man, shoot my orders down.”

He pressed a yellow button and spoke quietly but emphatically into a mouth piece. “O.K. They understand.”

“Now take me down.”

He looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses, but complied.


The door of the elevator that lowered us from the surface clanged open. We stepped out on a balcony that ran around a large, steel-lined room. The walls were dripping, and on the floor, twenty feet beneath, a black pool sloshed about with the heaving of the raft, in whose interior we were. Rubber-clad soldiers moved about in the blue glow of the globes sending down their heatless light from the ceiling. One sat at a desk near the elevator. As I spied him a green light glowed in front of him twice.

“They’ve got him, sir, bringing him in.”

A low-toned order. The soldiers sprang to their post. A whirring signal. At the other end of the room the steel wall began to move upward, and water rushed in. A tremendous vibration shook the chamber: a ponderous thudding. The water rose to the level of the balcony and stopped. I looked at Bradley.

“We’re beneath the surface, aren’t we?” I asked. “How is it that the water doesn’t fill the room?”

“Pumps,” he replied. “Tremendous pumps that draw the water out just as fast as it comes in, and shoot it out again into the sea. We can maintain any desired level in here.”

Then I noticed that the black flood was rushing by beneath me at a terrific rate.

Something bulked in the opening. Two tiny subs drew in, a black and a green. The steel wall rushed down again, and the vibration ceased. From the green craft heavy grapples extended, clutching the black, enemy scout. I saw a gaping hole in the black boat’s nose, where its eye had been smashed.

Men were clambering over both vessels’ hulls, tugging at the hatchway fastenings. The black one flew open. I leaped to the deck. Bradley after me, and jumped down into the hold.

In the little cubby-hole that was all the machinery left space for, a pale-faced form in green-gray crouched against the wall. His eyes stared in fear. A Russian, praise be. And not far from my size and build.

“Off with his clothes, quick!” I yelled, stripping mine as I spoke. Bradley looked at me queerly, and shrugged his shoulders. “Quick, man! Everything depends on speed!”

He shook his head, as one who listens to the vaporings of an imbecile, but turned to obey. I was standing there--naked, studying the Easterner’s face, his body. No scars. Good.


Jim turned to me, the prisoner’s clothing in his hands. An exclamation burst from him. He looked back at the trembling Russ, then at me. “My God, Eric, how did you do it?” he asked.

I smiled. “All right, is it?”

“You’re his twin; no, you’re himself! If I’d had a drink to-day I’d be sure I was seeing double. How on earth--you had no make-up, no time--”

I was sliding into the Red’s gear as I talked! “I’ve trained all the little muscles in my face--muscles you others don’t even know you have. Started when I was a kid, then made a good living at it, acting. Comes in handy now, damn handy. I can make anything of my face, and hold it forever if I have to. Chink, Russ--anything. Distort my limbs too, and change my voice. That won’t be necessary now. Simple, but it takes a lot of practice.”

I was dressed by then, a counterpart of the enemy officer--I hoped. If I wasn’t--well, I wouldn’t live much longer.

“Now, out with the Russ and my clothes. Don’t leave a bit, if you value my life.”

A light of comprehension illumined Jim’s face. “You’re going to pass yourself off as this man? You’ve got your nerve with you!” he exclaimed.

“Exactly.” The cubby-hole was clear now. “Now take that spanner, and bang me over the head. Not too hard; I don’t want a cracked skull, only a splashed scalp. Then pile me where it will seem I crashed against a projection of some kind when the grapples took hold. That bunk edge will do. Batten the hatch, and cast off the grapples. I hope their automatic control is still working, otherwise my scheme’s gaflooey.”

Jim stuck out his great paw. “Good luck, Eric,” he said, simply. Then he clutched the spanner. I saw it go over my head...


Voices around me, harsh, guttural voices. Russian! By the Nine Dogs of War, I had pulled it off! But what were they saying? I was inside the lines, but was my deception successful? Or had my face relaxed with the shock of the blow? I thanked my Russian grandmother then for all the time she had spent teaching me her mother tongue.

Boszhe moi, the poor fellow must have had an awful smash. He hasn’t come to yet.”

“The doctor will be here in a minute. He’ll revive him.”

I breathed a prayer of gratitude. They didn’t suspect! But I didn’t like this doctor business. Well, I’d have to stall through that as best I could.

I seemed to be lying on hard rock. I opened my eyes, staring blankly, straight up. A bearded face was bending over me, the captain’s crossed sickles on the shoulder straps just within my vision. Behind, and above him, towering straight up--my God!--what was it? A green wall, a vertical green wall, going up and up! It looked like--but no: how could water stand straight up like that, for hundreds of feet?

I almost betrayed myself with a gasp! A dim bulk showed in the translucent depths of the wall. It rushed toward me, took form. A fish, a huge, blind fish, its cavernous mouth stretched wide. It came straight for me, just above. In a second it would leap through. A scream of terror trembled in my throat. Then it hit the edge of the translucent green wall--and vanished! Was I dreaming? Had Jim hit me too hard?

Something stirred in the back of my mind. I sensed dimly that here lay the explanation of the disappearance of the New York, the very mystery that I had come to solve. Almost I had it; then it slipped away.


“Here’s the doctor!” someone said. There was a little stir of activity about me. I allowed my eyes to close, as if in utter weariness.

“What’s all this? What have you got here?” A gruff voice, intolerant.

“One of our sub-sea scouts, sir. Just come back, after some delay. Her eye was smashed, and there are grapple marks on her. Must have been caught, and then slipped away. She was leaking badly. We got her through the lock just in time.” Jim had evidently added a few touches of his own. “Comrade Pauloff seems to have been seriously injured. He’s got a bad cut on his scalp, and was unconscious till a moment ago. Opened his eyes just as you came along.”

“Hm. Let’s see.” I felt a none too gentle hand finger my wound. It throbbed maddeningly. The doctor spoke again. “A nasty crack, but no fracture. Here, you--wake up.” I made no move. “Come on, wake up!” I heard the plop of a cork being drawn from a bottle; a pungent odor assailed my nostrils, choked me. I writhed, pulled at the hand holding the bottle to my nose and opened my eyes.

“That’s better. How do you feel now?”

I raised a hand to my injury and muttered, in Russian. “Hurts, papashka.” I kept my expression as blank, as uncomprehending, as I could.

The doctor flashed an understanding glance at the captain, then turned back to me. “What’s your name?”

Memories of my grandmother’s tales of her youth came flooding back to me. “Pavel, son of Pauloff.”

It was the formula of the Russian student, in his teens.

“Your rank?”

“Second year. Petrovski Gymnasium.”

The physician turned away. “No use bothering him now. A clear case of amnesia.

“He’s been thrown back to his high school days. I’ve had a number of cases like that among your scouts lately.” Blessed inspiration! “Only cure is rest. Get him over to the infirmary. We’ll evacuate him to a base hospital to-morrow.”


I was in a cool white bed, in a low ceilinged room, white painted. There were other beds, vacant. A uniformed male nurse puttered around. There was an elusive green tinge to the light that poured in through the one window.

The door opened and a sergeant came in. “Comrade Alexis!”

“Well, what is it now? Have they found another gold-bricking officer to mess up my clean beds?”

“A party from corps headquarters will be here in fifteen minutes for inspection.”

“Let them come. They won’t find any specks of rust on my instruments, like they did on Comrade Borisoff’s.”

“They’d better not. You know what happened to him.”

“Yeah. Chucked into the ray. Well, he didn’t give the burial squad any work.” And the two laughed, a laugh that had more than a hint of sadistic cruelty in it. “If I had my way,” the nurse went on, “I’d do the same with all these nuts that come back from the scout ships raving of home and mother. It’s my idea that they’re all bluffing. It’s a good way to be shipped to the rear, where the captured dames are. Say, did I tell you about the last time I was on leave--”

The two whispered, their heads close together. My brain was working frantically. Things had gone well so far, but I had to get out of here before the morning, or I’d be sent to the base and lose all that I had gained by my daring.

The door snapped open. “Smirnow!“ (Atten-shun!)


I was on my side, facing away from the wall. I remained so, staring blankly across the room. I hoped the inspection would be over quickly. The fewer the enemy officers I had looking me over, the better. Someone back there was snapping questions. That voice--where had I heard it before?

“Your patient. What’s his trouble?”

“Amnesia, sir. One of the scouts.”

“Oh, yes. Let’s look at him.”

Someone was walking across the room, then standing above me. His hand was just at the level of my eyes--a hand with the little finger twisted queerly into the palm. I knew that hand: it was the Ferret’s! A cold shiver ran up my back. I almost stopped breathing.

Of all the infernal luck in the world, to have the Ferret walk in here! He was chief of the Red’s Intelligence Service, the shrewdest, sharpest, cruelest of them all. Many of our best men had gone west because of his uncanny instinct for piercing disguise. They said he could smell an American. And many of our most strictly guarded plans had been smashed through his infernally clever spying. Only a month before I had him in my clutches; saw the very rope around his neck. But he had slipped away, and left me empty-handed and kicking myself for an ass.

 
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