The Director General of District Three, Ural Division of the Russian States, was a fool. Danny O’Rourke had reached that conclusion some time before--a conclusion, however, that he was most careful to keep unexpressed.
And then Danny not only thought it; he knew the Director was a fool; and the amazing incident that proved it took place in Stobolsk, the Governmental Headquarters of District Three. Although Danny’s regular station was on a lonely peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the United States, the occurrence was nevertheless observed by him; and this happened for two reasons.
The New Soviet Government that took over control of all the Russias in 1943 wanted, among other things, to install the most modern fire-fighting system, the equal of anything in the world. They turned, quite naturally, to the United States of America for their instruction; and this was reason number one why Danny O’Rourke, pilot of the Air Fire Force, was where he was on the morning of June 13th.
The second reason was the tremendous timber wealth in the Ural Division and the threat to destroy it by fire.
Perhaps there might be mentioned a third reason: that this same Danny O’Rourke, red-haired, smiling, and debonair was listed on the Air Fire Force of the United States with the highest rating that the A. F. F. has to give its pilots. But Danny would have grinned at such a suggestion and would have countered with a denial that he was better qualified than “the rest of the boys.”
But Danny was there; he had been talking at length with the Director General on the technical differences of the hot and cold nitrogen blasts for controlling fires on a wide front when suddenly the big man was brought in.
The great figure stooped almost double to enter the room, and Danny ran a hand through his shock of red hair and stared open-mouthed at the giant when he straightened again and towered above the guard of Red soldiers who had brought him into the high-ceiled room.
He was clothed in a single garment of glinting blue that wrapped him about and fell in heavy folds to the floor. Danny felt the resemblance to the shimmering blue of steel that has passed through fire, and his eyes held to that garment in fascination until his gaze went on and up to the face.
The man’s face was red, as if the flesh had been burned; here was one man Danny could not classify. He had met the people of many lands but never had he seen one like this.
In one quick staring glance, Danny caught a picture of heavy jaws--a flashing of yellow teeth when the mouth opened to emit guttural, unrecognizable words--nostrils that ran crosswise of the face in a nose broad and flat! The forehead above was low and sloping. From the straggling yellow hair it slanted down to brows that overhung deep-sunk and cavernous eyes ... And when Danny O’Rourke’s own curious eyes met those of the stranger, they were held in a grip that was almost hypnotic.
“Like a dirty, crawlin’ snake’s!” he was telling himself over and over. “Heaven help us if that boy ever gets rough. Who he is or what he is, I don’t know, but if I was the Director, I’d treat him nice till I found out.”
Danny and the Director were standing side by side. The giant figure fixed a cold stare on Danny and barked short sentences that seemed to the listener to be an explanation.
But Danny motioned helplessly to the official at his side. “Maybe you can savvy that,” he suggested; “it’s new talk to me.”
The newcomer repeated the guttural sounds. Upon the Director’s face was a frown of suspicion and puzzled wonder; the Director General did not like to encounter either happenings or persons he could not readily understand; it was disturbing to one’s official dignity. The giant must have read some of this, for he tried to make himself clear.
He repeated the sentences slowly. Then he waved one huge hand in air and pointed upward, and the hand moved up and up as if to indicate some tremendous distance. He pointed to himself; then brought one aiming finger down as if he were coming from that far-off place. And Danny got the significance.
“It’s happened!” he told the Director explosively. “I knew it would come some day--I knew they’d get here! And us monkeyin’ with our stratosphere ships and thinkin’ we were beatin’ the rest of the Universe!”
The Director regarded the young American with about the same degree of disfavor as he had shown the giant. “What is it you say?” he questioned. “You mean--what? I do not understand.”
And, in careful words, Danny explained. He told the Director of District Three something of his dreams that space might not be an insurmountable bar; he told him, with enthusiasm driving his words out faster and faster, that here was a man--or if not a man, a living creature of some sort--that had come out of space.
“Where did they find him?” he demanded. “Where is his ship?”
But he ceased to ask questions as he noticed the Director’s mirth. For that official was rocking with roaring laughter that had a distinctly uncomplimentary sound. And he added some words in Russian that were as incomprehensible to Danny as the growling talk of the giant man, but the O’Rourke temper flamed as he saw the other Russians in the room smiling appreciatively.
Then: “Take him away!” the Director thundered. “We’ll see where he comes from. Search him! And if he hasn’t any passports--” The unended sentence was suggestive.
But an hour later, Danny saw the giant furnish his own ending to the incompleted order. He had left the Director’s room. Across the street was the gray stone building where prisoners were held for disposition by the courts. And once more Danny O’Rourke’s jaw dropped in open-mouthed, unbelieving amazement as he saw a section of gray stone wall fall outward where the edge of it was sharply outlined in white-hot, dripping stone.
A great figure stepped forth. In his hand was a rod like an elongated pencil attached to a heavy butt. And though nothing visible came from the rod, Danny saw it pointed back at the building where iron bars softened till they sent rivulets of molten steel splashing upon the pavement.
A squad of soldiers in the blood-red color of their service stood nearby. One gave an order, and a dozen rifles were swung toward their shoulders. But the rifles never came to rest.
Danny saw the quick swing of the slender rod. And he saw the men’s mouths opened in screams that were never uttered. For, quicker than nerves could send their message to human brain and muscles, some unseen force had slashed their bodies in two as if a fiery sword had been swung by invisible hands.
The pointing rod lingered upon the huddled bodies for an instant, while that which had been human flesh vanished in a bursting cloud of smoke; while the stones beneath turned to a seething pool of molten rock ... Then the rod moved slowly toward the frozen figure of Danny O’Rourke.
Did the strange being sense that Danny had not been disbelieving like the rest? Danny could never know. He knew only that he stood rigid with horror, entirely unable to move, while that rod swung upon him; he knew that the hand that held it released something that clicked, wherefore his life had been spared; and he knew that the savage face above wrinkled into something resembling a snarling, triumphant smile, as the rod was returned to its hiding place under the garment of shimmering blue, and the mysterious figure turned and strode savagely down the Avenue Stalin in the city of Stobolsk.
Danny O’Rourke was to carry that picture clearly in his mind--the figure that moved unhurriedly on, towering above the others, men and women, who scurried fearfully from his path. But he was to retain yet more vividly the recollection of a group of red-clad bodies that were severed at their waists as a slim tube swung--then a bursting cloud of oily smoke, and a pool of molten rock where they had been.
Something of this, perhaps, was clouding the eyes of Danny O’Rourke, Pilot of the A.F.F. a month and more later, as he sat at lookout duty in a gleaming white tower on a high peak of the Sierras. Not that the job of lookout was part of O’Rourke’s duty, now that he was back in the U. S. A., but a cylinder of scarlet rested on a great rack at the base of the tower, and Danny had no wish to hear the roar of that cylinder’s stern exhaust for a time.
Even the novelty of flying the newest rocket-ship in the service had worn off. Besides, he had patrolled his route, and he told himself that the “Infant” needed a rest.
The “Infant,” better known on the records of the A. F. F. as Morgan, David E., Lookout, Station 39-G, was sleeping soundly on the elevating table where a map of the district was mounted under glass. His cherubic face was pink and white, more suggestive of the age of three than of twenty-three. And O’Rourke, glancing at him protectingly, hung up a paper to keep the sunlight from striking the young man’s face.
The Infant had been Danny’s special charge from the day he entered the service, and now, except for the Chief and some other officials, only Danny knew that the Infant was there to teach and not to learn. For behind those eyes that might have been taken from one of Rafael’s cherubim lay a brain that Danny had learned to respect.
“Fifteen minutes more. I’m givin’ you,” he said inaudibly; “then I’ll be on my way, and you’ll do your own squintin’ and peekin’.” But the Infant’s fifteen minutes were cut to that many seconds--
Danny had been looking toward the south before he had turned to gaze at the Infant: his eyes came back to the same point to take up their reconnaissance. But now, where clear sky had made a blue back-drop for rugged peaks, was a line of black. And the line, while Danny watched in disbelief, moved like a smoky serpent: its head stretched out and out while from behind it there came the ominous line of black.
All this happened in a matter of seconds, and the moving head ceased at last to move; the line no longer grew. But, where it had been at first a thin mark of black, it changed now to billowing gray.
It was fifty miles away at least; but it showed clear and sharp. And the first gray had hardly bloomed from its black beginning before the long arm of Danny O’Rourke had swept the sleeping Infant to the floor, while, with the other hand, he swung an instrument of telescopic sights upon distant smoke.
He set it in careful focus--took a reading for distance--another for direction--and while he was doing it he was vaguely conscious of one single sharp flash in the sky above that far-off cloud. In his range-finder it showed once, like a glittering star; then it vanished, but the trained eye of O’Rourke observed its passage like a ray of light overhead.
The pink-faced youngster on the floor was still protesting sleepily when O’Rourke slammed down a switch and heard a voice answer promptly from an instrument on the wall. Danny shouted out his bearings on the fire:
“Thirty-nine-G! O’Rourke speaking for Morgan. Reporting fire on a wide front--bearing Two-O-Seven to Two-Four-Nine! And for God’s sake, Chief, get a line on this quick. The whole thing shot up in a second--fifty miles of fire!”
Another voice broke in excitedly. “Station Fourteen-Fourteen-Fourteen!” The voice was stammering in evident confusion. “The whole earth has exploded--it’s on fire now! I--I--”
The Chief’s voice broke in with a quiet, “Bearing, please! Report your bearing, Fourteen!”
And the stammering voice steadied to give a figure.
“Headquarters speaking,” said the quiet voice. “Orders for O’Rourke. For the love of Pete, get on that fire, Danny. Every instrument in the office is chattering. Every patrol ship has spotted that blaze. You can’t all be crazy. It’s in Section Eight--never mind the exact bearings--you’ll find it without any trouble I imagine. Now beat it! And let me know what kind of a fire this is that starts on a fifty-mile front! You’re in charge till I come.”
Ten seconds later, had the Infant been watching, which he had not--for his eyes were all on the distant smoke--he would have seen the beautiful curving sweep of a scarlet projectile, whose screaming propeller swept her off and up; he would then have seen it lie back flat as the great stern exhaust made a rocket of the ship to send it roaring into the heights.
And in the air-tight cabin of the newest fire-fighting machine of the A. F. F., Danny O’Rourke pulled his body out of the slumped position into which his quick acceleration had forced him; then set his ship on her course to where a distant smoke made puffballs of gray against a cloudless sky. And, like his Chief, he was wondering with a wonderment that bordered upon disbelief what manner of fire this was that shot like a fifty-mile serpent across mountains and valleys.
He was over it in less than ten minutes, flying high to clear the tiny dots slipping swiftly across his view-finder. They were other firecraft; he saw them darting in and down from all sides. For himself, he took the line of smoke at its western end where it had begun. Here it would be at its worst, perhaps, although no reports were in as yet.
The radio had been bringing in messages unceasingly as patrols and firecraft answered the call. Some nearer than himself were reporting themselves “on the fire”; he saw them grouped in the usual echelon formation up to windward of the blaze. They darted down and in as he looked, and Danny thrilled at the sight which had never yet failed to reach the core of his emotional Irish nature.
The smoke and fire swallowed them up; their red bodies and short black wings drove unswervingly into the holocaust of flame.
“Like a bunch o’ bats out o’ hell!” said Danny admiringly. “And ‘tis hell they’re goin’ into!” Which fact there was none to dispute with Danny O’Rourke who knew, if any man did, the full truth of the remark.
He saw them as they struck the fire; saw the whirling blast of snow that drove under them as they went into the fight with the wildest enemy of man; and he knew that a smothering blanket of carbon dioxide was driving with hurricane force upon the flames.
On the instrument at his side flashed the “Ascend!” order of the squadron commander, and an instant later the flight reappeared a half mile away.
The commander must have sighted O’Rourke’s ship. “Shall we repeat over same course?” the instrument spelled out, while Danny, circling above, watched the effects of the drive.
It had checked the flames, that first blast of the CO_2 squadron; he saw blackened, jagged trees where a roaring furnace had been. But the flames were building up again. “Repeat!” O’Rourke answered; then watched them drive in again.
From a wooded valley beyond a low range came a call for help. A lone ship in the red and black of the service had driven down into that valley that was like a cauldron of seething flame.
“I can’t touch it!” a thin voice said. “The up-draft kills my blast.”
Danny O’Rourke was sending out another call. The answer came from powerful sending instruments.
“Nitro squadron Hundred and One, on the fire!” it said, and gave a position in quick figures. Danny’s own voice transmitter was on. He snapped out the position of the lone fighter. “Get in there!” he ordered; “Show your stuff! No--wait! Follow me; I’ll lead you in!”
And to himself he added: “Now we’ll see what pure nitrogen will do in a real scrap.”
He closed a switch, and from a compartment at his back a low whine rose and grew to a scream. It was echoed in a shriek more shrill from the bow where a port had opened to take in the air. And Danny knew that that air, of which eighty percent was nitrogen, was being rid of its oxygen in the retort at his back, and the nitrogen alone was pouring out beneath him in a tremendous and ceaseless blast.
The squadron had appeared--a row of dots that came in on a long slanting drive from the ten thousand level. They swung into faultless formation to “ride his tail” into whatever flaming breath he might lead. And Danny O’Rourke threw his red ship down and into the valley that seethed with a brew from the Pit itself.
There had been pines in that valley, and firs towering hundreds of feet in the air. They were living torches now, half seen through a whirling chaos of flame. It billowed as if the very gases that burned were tortured in the burning. The black-red of smoke-choked flames parted at times to show a deadlier white light below--a white, glaring heat in the heart of this gigantic, furnace--a scintillant, quivering horror on which Danny fixed the cross hairs of his sights as he rode his screaming meteor down into the pit.
“Bats out o’ hell!” And now the brood was returning, it must have seemed. But beneath them, as they passed, that vivid whiteness went dead. Yet before it changed Danny saw unbelievable things--pools of molten rock, glaring white through the smoke.
Up and out at the end of the valley! And Danny gasped for breath even in the shelter of his cabin’s insulated walls. And, used as he was to the red menace that they fought, he went sick at sight of a message that spelled itself beside his controls.
“Ship number six down. Failed to come out.” It was signed with the name of the squadron commander who had followed where he led.
And the valley! For five miles they had laid a blanket of non-combustible gases. For five minutes, perhaps, their course could be seen. And at the end of that time it was as it had been before, and the flames raged on unchecked.
His own Chief’s number flashed before him; then a message that clicked across his scanning plate:
“O’Rourke! Get out of that hole! Nitrogen won’t touch it; we can’t pour in enough. It’s the same all along the line. We’ll have to break it up--smother it one part at a time. Have you tried your sound dampener?”
And Danny O’Rourke had the grace to blush even through the flush that the fire’s breath had given his face. “Forgot it!” he shouted into his voice sender. “Forgot the ship had the little doodad on it!”
The Chief responded audibly. “You didn’t forget to go first into that doorway to hell,” he said drily. “You fool Irishman, go back down and try the thing; give the ‘little doodad’ a chance!”
Once more the red ship fell swiftly under Danny’s hand. As before, the valley yawned like the living threat of a volcano in eruption. But this time, instead of the whining nitro-producers, there came from beneath the ship a discordant shriek like nothing that the quiet mountains had ever heard. And Danny’s fingers played over a strange keyboard whose three keys were rheostats, and the crashing discord below rose to a horror of sound that tore and battered at the ship’s thick walls to set the nerves of the crouching man a-jangle. But his eyes, watching through a lookout below, saw strange disturbances of the flames; he saw the masses of flame shiver as if stricken--fall apart--vanish!
And he held the sound controls at that same horrendous shriek while his ship swept on and the thunder of her passing was lost in the pandemonium that went before. But the valley, when the red ship had passed, was a place of charred skeleton trees--of gray, swirling ashes, and of embers, here and there, that blew back to life only to be smothered by the gases of the ships that followed in his wake.
And the voice that spoke from the instrument beside him still spoke drily. “There’s fifty miles more of that ahead,” said the voice. “Just keep moving along; we’ll mop up behind you ... Oh, and by the way, O’Rourke, give my congratulations to the Infant on the success of his invention. His sound-dampener is some little doodad; we’ll be needing more of them, I should say.”
It was an hour or more later at the Headquarters of the Mountain Division that the Chief amplified that remark in a way he himself could not have foreseen. He had been talking to Danny, and now on the wall of an adjoining room, where men sat at strange instruments, a red light flashed.
“We still don’t know what started it all,” the Chief was saying. “But it made a fine tryout for Morgan’s invention. If I thought you and he could do it, I would believe you had started that fire yourselves for a”--his voice rose abruptly to a shout--”Man! There’s the red on the board--a general alarm!”
“Throw the big switch!” he roared. “Cut us in, quick! Cut us in!”
Danny O’Rourke, under any ordinary circumstances would have been hugely amused at the extraordinary sight of the Chief of the Mountain Division in a ferment of excitement that was near hysteria. But the flashing of the red that swept like a finger of flame across every station number of the big board did not mean that ordinary matters were at hand. A voice was speaking; its high-pitched shrillness showed that the excitement of the moment was not confined to the office of the Mountain Division alone.
“A. F. F. Headquarters, Washington,” it shrilled. “General Alarm. Chicago destroyed by fire. Flames sweeping in well defined paths across the country. Originated in Mountain Division. Cause undetermined. Three lines of fire reported; coming east fast--unbelievable speed ... There! Cleveland has got it; reports a path of fire has cut across city melting steel and even stone ... Now Buffalo! ... God knows what it is.” The voice broke with excitement for an instant; Danny could almost see the distant man fighting for control of himself as a maze of instruments about him wrote incredible things.
“Orders!” said the voice now. “All A. F. F. ships report to your Division Headquarters. Division officers keep in communication with Washington. Mountain Division send all equipment east. Flying orders will be given you en route. The country--the whole world--is in flames!”
Beside him, Danny O’Rourke heard the voice of his Chief. “Unbelievable--impossible--preposterous!” His voice like that other was growing shrill. “The country--world--in flames!”
But he found voice to snap out a command to a waiting officer in the doorway of the adjoining room. “Repeat general order. Send all craft east!”
To Danny he whispered. “Your ‘little doodad’--I wish to heaven we had a thousand of them now! But what does it mean? Lanes of fire across the country--whole cities destroyed! What devil’s work is this? ... There’s nobody who knows.”
But Danny was staring as if he saw through the high, instrument-covered walls. Back to a valley of flame that was like a doorway to hell, where rocks, gray with the frosty years, had been melted to pools ... back to a glinting light where something swift and scintillant had flashed once in a cloudless sky ... back--far back ... back to a street in a town half across the world, and a figure of a giant who strode away with a smile of triumph on his ill-formed face ... but first that giant had melted his way through walls of stone; and, like the stone, steel bars and human flesh were as nothing before the invisible heat that come from a slender rod!
His own voice, when he moved his dry tongue to speak, came huskily; it was as if another person were speaking far off:
“I think you’re wrong ... yes, I thing you’re wrong, Chief. There’s one man who knows and ‘tis myself is that one ... One man--and the other is a beast like no livin’ man on the face of the earth! He knows--he and the devils he’s brought with him!”
It was an unsatisfactory interview that Danny had with the Chief. “You’re crazy!” was the verdict of that A. F. F. official when Danny had finished. “You’re crazy, or else--or else--” His voice trailed off; his eyes were on the moving letters that flashed their message of disaster in an ever changing procession across the scanning screen on the wall.
“ ... outbreaks have ceased ... tremendous destruction ... no rational explanation ... meteors, perhaps ... thousands of lives ... no estimate...”
There seemed no end to the tale of disaster, and the Chief’s voice died away into silence. If Danny was right he had no words to fit the unbelievable truth.
“Get into your new ship,” the Chief ordered brusquely, “and take the Infant with you. I’ll send a relief man to his station. Go east--lay your course for Washington; you’ll get other orders on the way!”
And a half hour later the first rocket ship of the A. F. F. was blasting its way through the thin gases of the stratosphere eastward bound. But by now Danny O’Rourke had a more sympathetic listener than before.
“In big puddles it was, and lakes! ‘Twas still melted, some of it, in that valley.”
“Why not?” asked the Infant casually. “Radiant heat moves with the speed of light. We wouldn’t think anything of focusing ten million candle power of light energy into a spot like that. Why not heat? Just because we haven’t learned to generate it--focus it--shoot it out in a stream like water from a hose--there’s no use in denying that someone else has beat us to the punch.”
The Infant’s calm blue eyes were upon the luminous plates of the ship’s microscope where the swift moving terrain beneath them was pictured clearly. The mountains were behind them now; endless miles of ripening grain made the land a sea of yellow and brown and, across that ocean, like the lines of foam that mark the wake of ships, lay three straight lines of black.
“Meteors!” sneered the Infant. “Yet if you’d tell your story to some of these wise men they would die of laughing--and maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea, either; they will be dying in a way that’s a damned sight more unpleasant unless someone finds how to catch these birds.”
Ahead of them the lookouts framed blue emptiness. Below, on direct sight, was but the vaguest blur that meant earth and clouds far beneath. Only the magnification of the microscope brought out the details, and on its screen the unrolling picture showed those three lines broadening and merging to widespread desolation; then the smoke clouds came between to shut off a world reeking with the fumes of destruction. An occasional flash of red wings showed where the units of the A. F. F. were at work.
They beheld a city, below them--and smoking ruins where three great gashes had been torn with torches of flame. To Danny there came a thought that was sickening: it was as if some great three-toed beast had drawn one paw, red with the blood of helpless humans, ripping across the bosom of the land.
His number was flashing on the call board that had been registering incessant orders to other craft. He cut in on the Headquarters wave.
“O’Rourke--Mountain Division--Unit Five!” he reported. “Do you get my voice or shall I send by key?”
The man at Headquarters did not trouble to reply to the question. His voice came faint but clear:
“Number Five--O’Rourke--Orders! If that new ship of yours has any speed, show it now! Bear on Washington! Get here as quick as the good Lord will let you! Mountain Division says you’ve got something good in that sound-dampener; if you have, we need it now!”
O’Rourke shot back a crisp acknowledgment; took a reading from two radio beacons; projected them on the map; and pricked a point at their intersection. He had his own ship on a line with the Capitol in a matter of seconds.
“And there’s hell poppin’ there, I’m bettin’! That Headquarters lad didn’t tell much--he wouldn’t be worth a dime on a newscast--but I gathered there was somethin’ doin’.”
He had spoken more to himself than to his companion who had been a silent listener to the incoming orders. But the Infant replied in his own peculiar way.
“The one you saw,” he said inquiringly: “he did his dirty work with a little rod or tube, you said?”
With an effort, O’Rourke brought his thoughts in line with the question. “Oh, you mean the man-thing I saw in Stobolsk? Yes, that’s right; he had a thing like a gun.”
“And he held it in his hand?”
“In the big paw that passed for a hand, yes!”
“All right! Now think carefully, Danny, and tell me: was there anything fastened to it--a wire, perhaps--a connection of some kind with the ground?”
O’Rourke stared at the pink and white face of the cherub who sat with him in the control room of a rocket-ship that threw itself like a red meteor across the high skies. “You’re a bit of a devil, yourself,” he said wonderingly at last. “How in the names of the Saints did you know? Yes, there was a wire, and I had forgotten it myself. It hung down, I remember, from the butt of the thing. But not to the ground. Infant--you missed it there; ‘twas looped back like into the folds of the damn blue nightie he wore.”
“And then went to the ground,” said the Infant imperturbably, “--through his shoes most likely; or, if the robe was metal, that may have dragged on the ground instead.”
He smiled seraphically at the bewildered pilot as he added: “That’s all, Danny, for the present. Fly your little tin ship. I’ve got some heavy thinking to do.”
Danny heard him ask one cryptic question, but he asked it as one who knows that only from his own brain can come the answer.
“How do they get rid of it?” the Infant was demanding. “If they stay in the air, how do they get rid of the load?”
And Pilot O’Rourke was glad enough to leave the answer to that one to the Infant. For had not the Infant alone seen the only reasonable answer to the puzzle of the mysterious man? And Danny had learned that it takes a real man and a real mind to track truth to her hiding place and accept the absurd improbabilities on which truth rests.
They were approaching their destination when the Infant opened his Cupid’s-bow mouth to pronounce one additional question. “How high,” he asked, “will your little tin ship fly? I know they’ve reached just under a hundred thousand experimentally, but how high will this one go?”
“And that’s a question neither you nor I can answer, Infant.” Danny was working with careful fingers at tiny levers; their control room was filled with whining whispers and thin shrieks. “We’re goin’ down now,” he continued, and again flipped over the switch that would put him in communication with the Washington office of the A. F. F.
“O’Rourke--Mountain Division--Unit Five,” he said quietly. “Approaching Washington at altitude sixty-five thousand. Descending. Orders, please!”
Within the control room, where the voice of a Washington operator should have answered on the instant, there was silence. The rocket motor had been stilled. The two men were suddenly breathless with listening--listening!--where was heard only the whispering shrillness from without. The whispering grew as the red ship slanted down into denser air; it built up in volume; it varied its pitch and timber till it sounded like echoing voices ... ghostly voices and phantom words ... like orders from the dead...
And Danny O’Rourke found his eyes staring into those of the Infant, where he read only the confirmation of his own fears.
It was the Infant who first found words with which to break the dreadful silence.
“Headquarters is gone,” he said in a strange, dry voice, “wiped out! They must have got it! It looks as if we were on our own.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “It’s your ship.”
And Danny answered with a single word, though he added other for emphasis under his breath:
“Down!” he said quietly. “And be damned to them!”
Rolling smoke clouds came to meet them. Danny O’Rourke was watching his altimeter sharply as he neared the ground. But he glanced more than once at the smoke. It was shot through with tongues of flame as they settled down; that was only what might be expected. But Danny was puzzled by the gray-white whirls that rose through the billowing smoke, until he knew it for the dust of powdered masonry, and realized that below him, where great buildings had been, were tumbled ruins.
Beside his control board a radio warning was telling of approaching ships. Danny cut in on then on emergency wave-length, and found that two full squadrons of nitro-ships were at hand with others coming.
“Let them tend to it!” the pale-faced youngster beside him choked--one does not see his country’s capital destroyed without a tightening of the throat. “They can cool it with CO_2 and put down a rescue squad, though what they can do in that furnace is more than I can see.”
Danny nodded mutely; he opened the exhaust to the full, and the rocket-plane swept out on whirlwinds of raging fire, and smoke, whose flames reached up even where they flew and licked hungrily at their ship.
Jarring explosions sent shudders through their craft. Ahead of them bright flashes illumined the swirling fumes where bursting shells marked the destruction of some ammunition stores outside the city.
And Danny, as he drove his red meteor into the clear air of the upper levels, was searching the heavens above for the enemy he had expected to sight down below. He knew now that his mad plunge into the seething flames was only a blind impulse--an effort to satisfy that demand within him for a foe upon whom to wreak revenge.
Beside him, his companion spun the dial of a receiving set for the Airnews Service; a voice was shouting excitedly into their cabin: “ ... physicists unable to find cause ... no meteoric material seen ... new rays ... enormous temperatures ... some new and unknown conditions encountered in space--”
“Hell!” said the Infant wearily, and snapped off the instrument. “Meteors! New conditions in space! But, come to think of it, we can’t blame them for being off the trail. You know that the bird that’s doing this flies high and fast ... and when he stops there’s nobody left alive to tell of it! ... And don’t look for him here.”
“Why not?” Danny demanded aggressively. “This ship isn’t armed, but if I get my sights on that flyin’ devil--”
“You won’t,” said the Infant darkly. “He’s off somewhere discharging the load he’s accumulated.”
He reached for a map, stuck his finger on a point in eastern New York State. “Let’s go there, Danny--and I’d like to get there right now!”
And Danny O’Rourke, who, ordinarily was a bit particular about who gave him orders, looked at the Infant’s blue eyes that had gone hard and cold, and he swung his roaring ship toward the north and a place that was marked by a steady finger on the map.
New York was a place of flashing reflections far beneath them as they passed. Danny pointed downward toward the miniature city, where a silvery river met the sea; where a maze of flaming lights in all of the colors of the spectrum gave indication of activity at the great Navy Field.
“How did he miss it, the murderin’ devil?” he asked. “How come that he hit Washington first? Did he have some way of knowin’ that it was the heart of the whole country?”
“And why pick on us here in this country? Or are we just the first, and will he spit his rage over the rest of the world before he’s through? It it the end of the world that’s come?”
To all of which there was no answer. And at last, when New York had vanished, they came to a smaller city and a broad expanse of roof that took their wheels.
Danny followed where his companion led into great buildings and a place of offices where excited officials stood in knots about news-casting cones; then they were in a quiet room, in the presence of a lean-bodied man whose hawklike face turned flinty at some request the Infant made.
“What the lad wants, I don’t know,” said Danny to himself, “but whatever it is he won’t be gettin’ it from old Gimlet-eyes.”
But he saw the Infant write something on a card and he heard him say, as he handed it to the official: “Send that to the President--_at once_!” And though the words were hardly audible they had a quality that brought an instant response; while the written words brought a portly man who shook the Infant’s hand fervently and inquired what service a great electric company could render.
Danny heard Gimlet-eyes protesting; heard broken bits of sentences: “ ... the great Sorenson tube ... he knows of our disintegrator ... insists upon our furnishing ... preposterous...”
The portly man cut him short. “You will give Mr. Morgan whatever he wishes,” he ordered crisply. Then Danny saw him clutch at a desk for support as still another man appeared at the open door to shout:
“New York! My God! New York’s gone! Burning! The Empire State Building melted! Crashed! ... The whole city is being destroyed!”
And in the moment of numbness that seized Danny O’Rourke he heard the Infant say: “How soon can we have it? I want it in our ship--up above--an hour? We’ll be there.” But Danny had no further interest in the Infant’s arrangements for obtaining some unknown equipment; he was plunging through the doorway and running at full speed toward the ramp where they had descended.
He knew dimly that the younger man had followed and was crowding into the cabin after him. Danny, as he locked the port and lifted his red ship off her guides, was fully conscious of only one fact: that a hundred miles south a city was being destroyed and that somewhere in the vast heights above the city he would find the destroyer.
The Hudson that had been a thread of silver was no longer bright as they approached the city at its mouth; burnished now with its reflection of black smoke clouds and red tongues of flame, it vanished at last under a mountain of black that heaped itself in turbulent piles and whirling masses until the winds swept the smoke out over the sea.
And high above it all--so high that all clouds were below it--there hung in a lucent sky one tiny, silvery speck. There was a delicate steering sight on Danny’s ship; he could direct the red craft as if it were in very fact a projectile that could be controlled in flight. And under the cross hairs of that sight swung a silvery speck, while the man who looked along the telescopic tube cursed steadily and methodically as if in some way his hate might span the gap and reach that distant foe.