The Winged Men of Orcon
Chapter 3: In the Grip of Ludwig Leider
Once we were below, LeConte joined us from the radio room. After taking a swift look at our prisoner, and listening to our account of what had happened above, he reported that the radio had been put out of commission by the crash but could be repaired. All of us then held a hasty conference and decided that since no one was badly in need of rest, LeConte would return to his sending set, Koto would keep a deck watch, and Captain Crane and I would see what we could learn from the prisoner.
From the start it had been certain that the Orconite’s strength was not to be compared to our earthly powers. Therefore I made no attempt to bind him, but simply shoved him into a seat in the main cabin of the flier--the room in which Forbes’ body still lay--and began to try to make him talk.
I knew that Leider must have some way of communicating with his allies, and I was determined that if he could, I could. But it was uphill work. The creature closed his mouth, assumed a sullen look, and sat tight. He knew what I was after--that I could tell by the expression of his face--but he met with stolid silence all of my attempts to address him in such languages as I knew of Earth and our allied planets. I got nowhere, until, in a manner as sudden as it was unexpected, something happened which ended the deadlock.
The way it happened was this. As LeConte, working in the radio room close off the main saloon, completed a connection which had been broken, he called to us that he was making progress, and a moment later we heard the click of his sending key and the shrill squeal of a powerful electric arc breaking across the transmission points of his set. I realized at once that this did not mean that the set was wholly in order, for the pitch of the squealing arc was too high and too sharp, but I did know that there was hope of establishing communication with Earth soon. And, too, I realized another thing.
The moment that shrill, squealing sound impinged upon the Orconite’s ears, he jumped and uttered a cry of pain. There was something about his nervous organism that could not stand these sounds!
“LeConte,” I shouted, “close your key again!”
After that the battle was won. By the time I had explained to LeConte why I had given him the order, and he had filled the cabin two or three times with the screech, the Orconite was ready to speak. He trembled in his seat. His mouth twisted with pain, and a look of agony seared his eyes. He burst into fluent Orconese speech. Then he made a swift pass with one hand at the black box on his chest, touched a switch there, and began to rattle his Orconese into the mouthpiece.
The result--well, one might have known that Leider would have found some ingenious means of making the difficult speech of Orcon easy. Out of the small instrument into which our prisoner spoke his hard, rattling words, came a flood of pure German.
An instrument for translating spoken Orconese into spoken German. That was what the little box was.
“Shut the accursed transmission set off!” came from the box in a clear German which I understood readily. “I will talk. Ask what you want to know. I cannot stand this!”
His face still contorted, the Orconese touched a second switch on the box, and indicated that I was to speak at the instrument. I did so, in German. The result was an instant translation into the prisoner’s own tongue.
The rest was easy.
“What is your name?” was my first question.
“What were you and your people trying to do to us with the cable you hitched to our stern?” I asked next.
The whole story was this: In a power house on an island only a few hundred yards off the beach was kept a magnetic cable which Leider had been using in connection with some deep sea dredging apparatus he kept there. When our ship crashed, the order had come from headquarters that the cable be fastened to us and the ship drawn into the sea. I concluded that we had missed an unpleasant fate by a narrow margin.
Quickly Hargrib confirmed our belief that it was Leider who had wrecked our ship while it was still approaching Orcon through space. A ray which had crippled the magnogravitos had been used. So great was Leider’s power that, after disabling us, he had even been able to direct our course so that we had crashed on the beach close to the headquarters he had set up for himself deep in the wilderness, away from the cities of Orcon.
The Orconite’s free mention of Leider’s name and his open admission that the man was king and god in Orcon, made direct inquiry about him easy. Also it was plain that Hargrib, now he had been cornered, would hold nothing back because he believed we would never live long enough to make trouble, regardless of what information we gained.
To state the rest of it briefly, we learned that Leider had come to Orcon immediately after his defeat at Calypsus. He had found ready allies here, on the crazy, distant planet which had been too remote to tempt explorers from Earth until necessity had forced our voyage. The people of Orcon knew science and machinery, and were advanced in every respect. From communication which they had had with other peoples in their own zone of the Universe, they had even heard of Earth and its allied planets. They had lent themselves readily to Leider’s fierce plans to make trouble for Earth.
As to what Leider’s plan of war was, Hargrib could not tell us much, for his duties kept him absorbed in other work, not connected with the campaign. He stated definitely, however, that Leider had almost completed the development of apparatus which would enable him to strike his blow without ever leaving Orcon. The whole work was being carried forward in tremendous subterranean laboratories and power rooms which had been established in a series of natural caverns only a few miles distant from the desolate beach on which we were lying at that moment. Hargrib said that with the coming of daylight, we would be able to see the mountains in which the caverns were concealed, just as we would be able to sight the nearby island whence had been shot the cable which had so nearly done for us.
At this point my natural curiosity as a scientist made me desire greatly to ask a thousand questions about the planet itself, with its bubbling chemical seas and its erratic orbit, and I did ask a few things. The answers I received confirmed the theory I had already formed that Orcon did not revolve regularly, but had days and nights which might last anywhere from a few hours to a month. I was told--what I had already guessed--that the bubbling fluid which composed the seas changed the orbit of the planet as the nature of the fluid’s chemical elements changed.
Also I was told flatly and calmly, as though there were nothing at all remarkable about the fact, that Leider had penetrated so deeply into the chemical secrets of Orcon that he was able to control the coming of day and night. Finally I was told that the planet had a hot, moist climate instead of the frigid one to be expected when any sun was so remote, because of the continued warmth-giving chemical action of its seas.
I could have gone on seeking information for hours. Captain Crane, however, showed impatience at even the few questions I did ask, and I knew that she was justified. It was my duty to think about the position we were in and the task we had in hand.
I asked Hargrib sharply what was to be expected from Leider now that his cable party against us had failed. And he told me.
The sum of it was that Leider was working eagerly to complete his preparations for the attack on Earth. Although it was he who had sent word from headquarters that we were to be destroyed, he had not paused to attend to the matter himself. Hargrib thought, however, that the failure of the cable party might change this attitude, and expressed the belief that Leider would interview us now before he put us out of the way. He swore, and I believed, that he did not know when or how Leider would come to us or have us brought to him. Also he did not know when or how we would finally be exterminated.
I now asked a series of indirect questions which led me to believe that neither Hargrib nor his master knew of the thing I had been conscious of from the start--that we had aboard the ship an amount of high explosive sufficient to do ghastly damage not only to this section of the coast but to the whole planet of Orcon. I gathered, however, that Leider suspected we were armed against him in some way, and would watch us carefully.
By now daylight had begun to peer in through the ports, a greenish daylight which grew out of the north, and with its coming I resolved on a plan of action.
“I am done with Hargrib,” I said suddenly to Captain Crane. “We’ll lock him up in one of the staterooms, and after that we’ll see if we can’t get busy with something that will at least help Earth, even if it doesn’t help us.”