The Winged Men of Orcon
Chapter 1: The Wrecked Space-Ship
When I came to, it was dark; so dark that the night seemed all but fluid with black pigment. Breathing was difficult, but in spite of that, however, I felt exhilarated mentally. Also I felt strong, stronger than I ever had in my life before. I tried to raise my hands, and found that I was handcuffed.
I lay sprawled out on a sharply canted floor of metal, and from outside the house, or whatever it was I was in, I could hear the screeching and howling of the wind. I touched my face with my fettered hands, and the act gave me a feeling of comfort, for the scar on my cheek was still there and I knew that I was myself.
[Illustration: A flash of blue light played about our ship.]
Twisting around, I sat up, and with great difficulty drew a lighter from my trousers pocket. The flame glimmered up. I knew then that I was lying in the control room of a great flying machine!
All about me I saw crumpled human forms clad in glistening gray flying jumpers. It was very, very hot. I thought I caught the sound of waves crashing on a shore. Through a broken port blustered a hot wind laden with an odd odor suggestive of garlic and kelp. It was just as dark outside as in. I stirred about a bit, and found that I was in good shape except for the handcuffs.
A low moan came from behind a bulkhead door at one end of the control room. I listened, and again the sound was repeated. With the lighter still flickering in my hands, I got to my feet. The bulkhead door was jammed, but I found a heavy telargeium spanner-wrench on the floor, and with a strength which frightened me--a strength which could have come only by some upset condition of gravitation--I soon crashed the door open. I had no sooner done it, however, than I forgot about the moan which had fetched me.
What I saw first, hanging on a hook on one wall, was a bunch of keys, one of which readily opened the lock of my handcuffs. Then there was a long-barrelled, gleaming atomic gun, undamaged, and a couple of the new cold-ray flashlights. Free, I caught up one of the flashlights, and placed back on their hook the keys which had opened the cuffs. Then I stooped over each corpse, and confirmed my first impression that two of the dead men were strangers to me, but that I half recognized one.
The vaguely familiar man was clad, under his gray jumper, in the uniform of a rear admiral of the U. S. W. Upper Zone Patrol Division. He wore a medal of high honor, the Calypsus medal. I knew that he was Wellington Forbes, the man who had defeated the planet Calypsus three years before.
Wellington Forbes! And I with him!
I think I may be excused my temporary forgetfulness of the moan which had brought me to Forbes’ death chamber. Uppermost in my mind was the manner in which I had been brought here. For it was he, approaching me through the medium of letters and messengers, who had begged, implored me to help him against Orcon, the eccentric planet of my own discovery, the planet which belonged to a solar system at the other end of the Universe from ours. Because of my knowledge of Orcon, with its bubbling seas, its brooding nightmares, and lastly, its queer conduct toward Earth, he had wanted to take me away from my telescopes to fight. And I had refused.
Now I understood how I came to be here.
I knew that this dead man had kidnapped me after drugging me with one of the new amnesiacs. Yorildiside, I reckoned it. And just because I knew that Admiral Forbes had seized me by force, I knew almost to a certainty that I was shipwrecked on that very Orcon which I had discovered two years before.
I was enraged at this high-handed treatment. For if danger was indeed threatening Earth from Orcon, my place of all places was at my telescopes. I could do with them, for the civilizations about me, what no one else could. Too, I was actuated by selfish motives. I loved my telescopes and my isodermic super-spectroscopes. And there was still much work I had to do! Already I had discovered three new elements, and that had showed me I was but at the beginning of a knowledge of cosmological chemistry. Forbes! He had brought me by force out here on this beastly little planet whose orbit was like that of a snake with the Saint Vitus’ dance! He had taken me to this wretched planet which lay at such a remote end of the Universe that not even explorers had been tempted to visit it!
“Oh, damn the whole business!” I groaned aloud. I was thoroughly angry and bitter.
In a little while I experienced a sudden change of mood. I’d no sooner spoken than a moan came from directly behind me, and I remembered why I’d got going in the beginning, and was ashamed. I entered a small compartment which opened from Forbes’ cabin, and discovered immediately three more people.
The strides I had taken made me realize that I had to be careful, for I was indeed endowed with a terrific strength--an extraordinary strength and lightness. One of these three new people was obviously dead, for his neck was broken. The other two still breathed. The first of the two was a short man, a Japanese by the look of him. His arm was broken. The other person was, to my surprise, a woman. She, like the dead Forbes, wore the insignia of the U. S. W. Upper Zone Patrol. Her insignia was that of a navigating officer.
So it was she who had caused the crash!
It was also she who had moaned. My feelings as I lifted her to a bunk were mixed. Being a reactionary, I still felt that woman’s place was not in the Army or Navy. Yet I confess that the woman--or girl, rather--was ornamental. She was of the Iberian type. She was beautiful, and looked helpless. Some atavistic trait of the protective instinct in man made me take a little more pains in caring for her than I might have taken with a man.
“Doctor Weeks,” were the first surprised words she murmured when I had bandaged a cut in her head and she came to.
Weeks being my name--Frederick Weeks--I grunted and wondered just how much she’d had to do with my being here. I noted that the eyes were gray with violet lights.
“You were handcuffed and drugged,” she announced wonderingly.
“I was,” I answered, “but I’m not any more. Thanks to my own efforts.”
She dropped that subject.
“Take me to Admiral Forbes, Doctor Weeks. I am Captain Virginia Crane.”
I acknowledged curtly her introduction of herself and told her the admiral was dead. Her cheeks, already pale, grew white. I asked her the number of the space flyer’s crew. She said ten. So far, four were dead, three alive, including myself, and the rest unaccounted for, I told her. She winced. In a moment, though, she pulled herself together with a grit which I could not deny, despite my disapproval of her being here.
“I suppose you wonder why you’re here,” she said suddenly, “and where we are.”
“I don’t need to be told where I am,” I said coldly, “but a little information as to who was responsible for my coming to Orcon wouldn’t be amiss. I suppose it was Forbes.”
She cut me off with a look.
“It wasn’t the admiral.” Her really beautiful eyes narrowed. “It was I who planned your abduction and got him to execute it.”
I drew back. My manner was formal and cold.
And after that I guess I pretty well boiled over. But did it gain me anything? Before I had said half enough to soothe my lacerated feelings, the girl simply shrugged and looked bored.
“Don’t be a fool,” she ordered curtly. “We needed you, and I, for one, was not going to see your egotistical ideas about an unimportant piece of work--your cosmological chemistry--jeopardize the safety of the world. Oh, I know the government wanted you in your laboratory. But with Ludwig Leider loose on Orcon, and you the only one in our Zone who knew much of anything about the planet, what could you expect?”
I hardly know what might have happened between us if she had not mentioned Leider’s name when she did. The insults with which she had begun had hardly been atoned for by her half understanding of my refusal to join Forbes, and I was still in a rage. Yet, as it was, at the mention of Leider I snapped to attention.
“Ludwig Leider! Here?”
“Yes,” she replied significantly.
“But that makes a difference! Why wasn’t I told? Why this silly kidnapping?”
She moved a little on the couch and looked at me.
“There was not time to tell you and to chance putting up with further silly arguments on your part. When the secret service detail which had been handling the Leider case brought in word of his whereabouts, there was time only to get a ship specially outfitted for such a tremendous journey and start. We had to kidnap you.”
I hardly heard her last words. Ludwig Leider--scientist extraordinary, renegade, terrorist. Everyone of our latter day century knew that he was the greatest example of the megalomaniac--the power-seeking genius--which the human race had produced for decades. Everyone knew that he--furious because he had been denied the high position he craved as ruler for life of the united peoples of Earth--had been the leader of the interplanetary struggle which had resulted in Forbes’ brilliantly successful attack on Calypsus. And everyone knew that he had escaped from Calypsus. And that, while he was free, there could be no real safety anywhere, either for Earth, which he hated, or any of its allied planets. Leider, here! No wonder I had been observing queer goings on in Orcon!
Somehow I forgot to be angry with poor dead Forbes. Almost I forgot to disapprove of the woman.
“See here!” I broke out. “If your secret service detail was right, and Leider is on Orcon, we’ve got to stop talking and get going. Tell me more about your expedition.”
“Do you know,” she said presently, “I rather thought you would make quite a leader--and fighter--if you could ever be aroused. As for the expedition, we have only this one ship. It’s that kind of a job.”
“Oh, suicide party, eh?”
I ignored her remark about my ability as a fighter. I had never aspired to any sort of naval or military leadership.
“Yes,” she answered; “suicide party. And I suppose, with our ship wrecked, our admiral dead, and contact with Leider not even made as yet, it’s become doubly so. But we’ve got to do something.”
She leaned forward on the couch.
“Our primary objective,” she went on, “was to reach Orcon and scout, and then radio information back to Earth. But we also have two tons of the new explosive, kotomite, aboard and are to do damage if we can. What are you going to do, Doctor? The command is yours now.”
I was well enough versed in the upper space tactics of our modern navy to appreciate the wisdom which had been used in sending the one ship alone on the expedition, and I could well understand the reasonable hope of success which had been promised. I confess I was staggered to know what could be done, however, now that the admiral was dead and the ship wrecked. As for my having inherited the command, I was even more disconcerted.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” I said in answer to Captain Crane’s question. “I doubt if Forbes would know, if he were alive, and I’m by no means the commander he was. But, as you say, we have to do something. So, since it’s a little early in the game to explode the kotomite and call it a day’s work, we better declare a truce between ourselves, and then check up on the ship. Come on, if you’re able.”
She was able.
In the next twenty minutes we found that it was the forward end of the great flier which was damaged, and that while she was in fair shape amidships and astern, she would never fly again. We discovered that the three unaccounted-for men of the crew were lying forward, and found that two were dead and one lived--a radio man named LeConte. He had two ribs broken. Half a dozen atomic guns remained to us, and we found intact one dynamo capable of generating the new cold light in considerable quantities. It was not an encouraging check-up, though. Out of a crew of ten, only the four of us were alive; Captain Crane, the Jap, LeConte, and myself. And all of us were more or less battered. The ship was still habitable, but smashed beyond hope of repair. Around us stretched Orcon--in the control of Ludwig Leider.
I got LeConte, the radio man with the broken ribs, into the small cabin where the Jap still lay and made him comfortable. Then I set the Jap’s broken arm. I gave both him and LeConte an injection of penopalatrin in order that their shattered bones might be decently knitted in two or three hours. The Jap presently came to, and I found that he was a civilian like myself, but one who had long been employed on the U. S. W. research staff as a ray and explosive expert. I realized at once that he was the inventor of the kotomite with which the ship was loaded.
All of them, including Captain Crane, told me the story of the crash. Captain Crane hadn’t been responsible, after all. Their magnogravitos system had failed in some mysterious manner as they approached Orcon. In spite of the checking effect of their helium pontoons, which had expanded properly when they had come into Orcon’s atmosphere, they had slammed into a sea of light and crashed. That was all anyone knew. But everyone suspected that Leider had been somehow responsible.
“I do not enjoy the prospect,” Koto said after a glance at his temporarily helpless left arm. “If Leider is able to wreck a space ship before she ever reaches his planet, he has more power than he ever had during the Calypsus war.”
I said nothing, but simply looked at LeConte, and nodded approval when he muttered something about getting his sending set in shape, if that were possible. We were sitting in the small cabin and Captain Crane was searching my face with those discomforting, violet-lighted gray eyes. I knew she was asking me once more what I was going to do, and I knew that, except that we might fire the kotomite, I could tell her nothing.
We sat on in silence. Then, however, before I spoke about the kotomite, a change came.
All at once I felt the space flier tremble under me. It rocked gently over on one side and began to move. Slowly, but definitely.
Koto and I were on our feet in a flash. Captain Crane stiffened and faced me, waiting.
“What is it?” Koto gasped.
“We’ll find out what it is,” I flung back. “Miss Crane--Captain--on deck with you. Here, Koto, a hand with one of the guns. We’ll take it up out of the hatchway and through the main cabin.”
LeConte, I knew, was the one we must be careful of, with his cracked ribs.
“Get to your apparatus,” I ordered him, “and stay with it until you get through to Earth.”
With that I jumped into the main cabin, stepped over Forbes’ lifeless body, and caught hold of the nearest of the atomic guns. I was to be a leader, after all.