Astounding Stories of Super-Science June 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. VOL. VI, NO. 3: Holocaust
By Charles Willard Diffin
It passed beneath the planes, that were motionless by contrast.
I am more accustomed to the handling of steel ingots and the fabrication of ships than to building with words. But, if I cannot write history as history is written, perhaps I can write it the way it is lived, and that must suffice.
The extraordinary story of "Paul," who for thirty days was Dictator of the World.
This account of certain events must have a title, I am told. I have used, as you see: "Holocaust." Inadequate!—but what word can tell even faintly of that reign of terror that engulfed the world, of those terrible thirty days in America when dread and horror gripped the nation and the red menace, like a wall of fire, swept downward from the north? And, at last—the end!
It was given to me to know something of that conflict and of its ending and of the man who, in that last day, took command of Earth's events and gave battle to Mars, the God of War himself. It was against the background of war that he stood out; I must tell it in that way; and perhaps my own experience will be of interest. Yet it is of the man I would write more than the war—the most hated man in the whole world—that strange character, Paul Stravoinski.
You do not even recognize the name. But, if I were to say instead the one word, "Paul"—ah, now I can see some of you start abruptly in sudden, wide-eyed attention, while the breath catches in your throats and the memory of a strange dread clutches your hearts.
'Straki,' we called him at college. He was never "Paul," except to me alone; there was never the easy familiarity between him and the crowd at large, whose members were "Bill" and "Dick" and other nicknames unprintable.
But "Straki" he accepted. "Bien, mon cher ami," he told me—he was as apt to drop into French as Russian or any of a dozen other languages—"a name—what is it? A label by which we distinguish one package of goods from a thousand others just like it! I am unlike: for me one name is as good as another. It is what is here that counts,"—he tapped his broad forehead that rose high to the tangle of black hair—"and here,"—and this time he placed one hand above his heart.
"It is for what I give to the world of my head and my heart that I must be remembered. And, if I give nothing—then the name, it is less than nothing."
Dreamer—poet—scientist—there were many Paul Strakis in that one man. Brilliant in his work—he was majoring in chemistry—he was a mathematician who was never stopped. I've seen him pause, puzzled by some phase of a problem that, to me, was a blank wall. Only a moment's hesitation and he would go way down to the bed-rock of mathematics and come up with a brand new formula of his own devising. Then—"Voila! C'est fini! let us go for a walk, friend Bob; there is some poetry that I have remembered—" And we would head out of town, while he spouted poetry by the yard—and made me like it.
I wish you could see the Paul Straki of those days. I wish I could show him to you; you would understand so much better the "Paul" of these later times.
Tall, he seemed, though his eyes were only level with mine, for his real height was hidden beneath an habitual stoop. It let him conceal, to some extent, his lameness. He always walked with a noticeable limp, and here was the cause of the only bitterness that, in those days, was ever reflected in his face.
"Cossacks!" he explained when he surprised a questioning look upon my face. "They went through our village. I was two years old—and they rode me down!"
But the hard coldness went from his eyes, and again they crinkled about with the kindly, wise lines that seemed so strange in his young face. "It is only a reminder to me," he added, "that such things are all in the past; that we are entering a new world where savage brutality shall no longer rule, and the brotherhood of man will be the basis upon which men shall build."
And his face, so homely that it was distinctive, had a beauty all its own when he dared to voice his dreams.
It was this that brought about his expulsion from college. That was in 1935 when the Vornikoff faction brought off their coup d'etat and secured a strangle hold on Russia. We all remember the campaign of propaganda that was forced into the very fibre of every country, to weaken with its insidious dry-rot the safe foundations of our very civilization. Paul was blinded by his idealism, and he dared to speak.
He was conducting a brilliant research into the structure of the atom; it ended abruptly with his dismissal. And the accepted theories of science went unchallenged, while men worked along other lines than Paul's to attempt the release of the tremendous energy that is latent in all matter.
I saw him perhaps three times in the four years that followed. He had a laboratory out in a God-forsaken spot where he carried on his research. He did enough analytical work to keep him from actual starvation, though it seemed to me that he was uncomfortably close to that point.
"Come with me," I urged him; "I need you. You can have the run of our laboratories—work out the new alloys that are so much needed. You would be tremendously valuable."
He had mentioned Maida to me, so I added: "And you and Maida can be married, and can live like a king and queen on what my outfit can pay you."
He smiled at me as he might have done toward a child. "Like a king and queen," he said. "But, friend Bob, Maida and I do not approve of kings and queens, nor do we wish to follow them in their follies.
"It is hard waiting,"—I saw his eyes cloud for a moment—"but Maida is willing. She is working, too—she is up in Melford as you know—and she has faith in my work. She sees with me that it will mean the release of our fellow-men and women from the poverty that grinds out their souls. I am near to success; and when I give to the world the secret of power, then—" But I had to read in his far-seeing eyes the visions he could not compass in words.
That was the first time. I was flying a new ship when next I dropped in on him. A sweet little job I thought it then, not like the old busses that Paul and I had trained in at college, where the top speed was a hundred and twenty. This was an A. B. Clinton cruiser, and the "A.B.C.'s" in 1933 were good little wagons, the best there were.
I asked Paul to take a hop with me and fly the ship. He could fly beautifully; his lameness had been no hindrance to him. In his slender, artist hands a ship became a live thing.
"Are you doing any flying?" I asked, but the threadbare suit made his answer unnecessary.
"I'll do my flying later," he said, "and when I do,"—he waved contemptuously toward my shining, new ship—"you'll scrap that piece of junk."
The tone matched the new lines in his face—deep lines and bitter. This practical world has always been hard on the dreamers.
Poverty; and the grinding struggle that Maida was having; the expulsion from college when he was assured of a research scholarship that would have meant independence and the finest of equipment to work with—all this, I found, was having its effect. And he talked in a way I didn't like of the new Russia and of the time that was near at hand when her communistic government should sweep the world of its curse of capitalistic control. Their propaganda campaign was still going on, and I gathered that Paul had allied himself with them.
I tried to tell him what we all knew; that the old Russia was gone, that Vornikoff and his crowd were rapacious and bloodthirsty, that their real motives were as far removed from his idealism as one pole from the other. But it was no use. And I left when I saw the light in his eyes. It seemed to me then that Paul Stravoinski had driven his splendid brain a bit beyond its breaking point.
Another year—and Paris, in 1939, with the dreaded First of May drawing near. There had been rumors of demonstrations in every land, but the French were prepared to cope with them—or so they believed.... Who could have coped with the menace of the north that was gathering itself for a spring?
I saw Paul there. It lacked two days of the First of May, and he was seated with a group of industrious talkers at a secluded table in a cafe. He crossed over when he saw me, and drew me aside. And I noticed that a quiet man at a table nearby never let us out of his sight. Paul and his companions, I judged, were under observation.
"What are you doing here now?" he asked. His manner was casual enough to anyone watching, but the tense voice and the look in his eyes that bored into me were anything but casual.
My resentment was only natural. "And why shouldn't I be here attending to my own affairs? Do you realize that you are being rather absurd?"
He didn't bother to answer me directly. "I can't control them," he said. "If they would only wait—a few weeks—another month! God, how I prayed to them at—"
He broke off short. His eyes never moved, yet I sensed a furtiveness as marked as if he had peered suspiciously about.
Suddenly he laughed aloud, as if at some joking remark of mine; I knew it was for the benefit of those he had left and not for the quiet man from the Surete. And now his tone was quietly conversational.
"Smile!" he said. "Smile, Bob!—we're just having a friendly talk. I won't live another two hours if they think anything else. But, Bob, my friend—for God's sake, Bob, leave Paris to-night. I am taking the midnight plane on the Transatlantic Line. Come with me—"
One of the group at the table had risen; he was sauntering in our direction. I played up to Paul's lead.
"Glad I ran across you," I told him, and shook his extended hand that gripped mine in an agony of pleading. "I'll be seeing you in New York one of these days; I am going back soon."
But I didn't go soon enough. The unspoken pleading in Paul Stravoinski's eyes lost its hold on me by another day. I had work to do; why should I neglect it to go scuttling home because someone who feared these swarming rats had begged me to run for cover? And the French people were prepared. A little rioting, perhaps; a pistol shot or two, and a machine-gun that would spring from nowhere and sweep the street—!
We know now of the document that the Russian Ambassador delivered to the President of France, though no one knew of it then. He handed it to the portly, bearded President at ten o'clock on the morning of April thirtieth. And the building that had housed the Russian representatives was empty ten minutes later. Their disguises must have been ready, for if the sewers of Paris had swallowed them they could have vanished no more suddenly.
And the document? It was the same in substance as those delivered in like manner in every capital of Europe: twenty-four hours were given in which to assure the Central Council of Russia that the French Government would be dissolved, that communism would be established, and that its executive heads would be appointed by the Central Council.
And then the bulletins appeared, and the exodus began. Papers floated in the air; they blew in hundreds of whirling eddies through the streets. And they warned all true followers of the glorious Russian faith to leave Paris that day, for to-morrow would herald the dawn of a new heaven on earth—a Communistic heaven—and its birth would come with the destruction of Paris....
I give you the general meaning though not the exact words. And, like the rest, I smiled tolerantly as I saw the stream of men and women and frightened children that filtered from the city all that day and night; but I must admit that our smiles were strained as morning came on the First of May, and the hour of ten drew near.
Paris, the beautiful—that lovely blossom, flowering on the sturdy stalk that was La Belle France! Paris, laughing to cover its unspoken fears that morning in May, while the streets thudded to the feet of marching men in horizon blue, and the air above was vibrant with the endless roar of planes.
This meant war; and mobilization orders were out; yet still the deadly menace was blurred by a feeling of unreality. A hoax!—a huge joke!—it was absurd, the thought of a distant people imposing their will upon France! And yet ... and yet....
There were countless eyes turned skyward as a thousand bells rang out the hour of ten; and countless ears heard faintly the sound of gunfire from the north.
My work had brought me into contact with high officials of the French Government; I was privileged to stand with a group of them where a high-roofed building gave a vantage point for observation. With them I saw the menacing specks on the horizon; I saw them come on with deadly deliberation—come on and on in an ever-growing armada that filled the sky.
Wireless had brought the report of their flight high over Germany; it was bringing now the story of disaster from the northern front. A heavy air-force had been concentrated there; and now the steady stream of radio messages came on flimsy sheets to the group about me, while they clustered to read the incredible words. They cursed and glared at one another, those French officials, as if daring their fellows to believe the truth; then, silent and white of face, they reached numbly for each following sheet that messengers brought—until they knew at last that the air-force of France was no more....
The roar of the approaching host was deafening in our ears. Red—red as blood!—and each unit grew to enormous proportions. Armored cruisers of the air—dreadnaughts!—they came as a complete surprise.
"But the city is ringed with anti-aircraft batteries," a uniformed man was whispering. "They will bring the brutes down."
The northern edge of the city flamed to a roaring wall of fire; the batteries went into action in a single, crashing harmony that sang triumphantly in our ears. A few of the red shapes fell, but for each of these a hundred others swept down in deadly, directed flight.
A glass was in my hand; my eyes strained through it to see the silvery cylinders that fell from the speeding ships. I saw the red cruisers sweep upward before the inferno of exploding bombs raged toward them from below. And where the roar of batteries had been was only silence.
The fleet was over the city. We waited for the rain of bombs that must come; we saw the red cloud move swiftly to continue the annihilation of batteries that still could fire; we saw the armada pass on and lose itself among cloud-banks in the west.
Only a dozen planes remained, high-hung in the upper air. We stared in wonderment at one another. Was this mercy?—from such an enemy? It was inconceivable!
"Mercy!" I wonder that we dared to think the word. Only an instant till a whistling shriek marked the coming of death. It was a single plane—a giant shell—that rode on wings of steel. It came from the north, and I saw it pass close overhead. Its propeller screamed an insolent, inhuman challenge. Inhuman—for one glance told the story. Here was no man-flown plane: no cockpit or cabin, no gunmounts. Only a flying shell that swerved and swung as we watched. We knew that its course was directed from above; it was swung with terrible certainty by a wireless control that reached it from a ship overhead.
Slowly it sought its target: deliberately it poised above it. An instant, only, it hung, though the moment, it seemed, would never end—then down!—and the blunt nose crashed into the Government buildings where at that moment the Chamber of Deputies was in session ... and where those buildings had been was spouting masonry and fire.
A man had me by the arm; his fingers gripped into my flesh. With his other hand he was pointing toward the north. "Torpedoes!" he was saying. "Torpedoes of a size gigantic! Ah, mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Save us for we are lost!"
They came in an endless stream, those blood-red projectiles; they announced their coming with shrill cries of varying pitch; and they swung and swerved, as the ships above us picked them up, to rake the city with mathematical precision.
Incendiary, of course: flames followed every shattering burst. Between us and the Seine was a hell of fire—a hell that contained unnumbered thousands of what an instant before had been living folk—men and women clinging in a last terrified embrace—children whose white faces were hidden in their mothers' skirts or buried in bosoms no longer a refuge for childish fears. I saw it as plainly as if I had been given the far-reaching vision of a god ... and I turned and ran with stumbling feet where a stairway awaited....
Of that flight, only a blurred recollection has stayed with me. I pray God that I may never see it more clearly. There are sights that mortal eyes cannot behold with understanding and leave mortal brain intact. It is like an anaesthetic at such times, the numbness that blocks off the horrors the eyes are recording—like the hurt of the surgeon's scalpel that never reaches to the brain.
Dimly I see the fragmentary scenes: the crashing fall of buildings that come crumbling and thundering down, myself crawling like an insect across the wreckage—it is slippery and wet where the stones are red, and I stumble, then see the torn and mangled thing that has caused me to fall.... A face regards me from another mound. I see the dust of powdered masonry still settling upon it: the dark hair is hardly disturbed about the face, so peaceful, so girlishly serene: I am still wondering dully why there is only the head of that girl resting on the shattered stone, as I lie there exhausted and watch the next torpedo crash a block behind me.... The air is shrill with flying fragments. I wonder why my hands are stained and sticky as I run and crawl on my way. The red rocks are less slippery now, and the rats, from the sewers of Paris!—they have come out to feed!
Fragments of pictures—and the worst of them gone! I know that night came—red night, under a cloud of smoke—and I found myself on the following day descending from a fugitive peasant's cart and plodding onward toward the markings of a commercial aerodrome.
They could not be everywhere, those red vultures of the sky, and they had other devils'-work to do. I had money, and I paid well for the plane that carried me through that day and a night to the Municipal Airport of New York.
The Red Army of occupation was halfway across communist Germany, hailed as they went as the saviors of the world. London had gone the way of Paris; Rome had followed; the countries of France and England and Italy were beaten to their knees.
"We who rule the air rule the world!" boasted General Vornikoff. The Russian broadcasting station had the insolence to put on the air his message to the people of America. I heard his voice as plainly as if he stood in my office; and I was seeing again the coming of that endless stream of aerial torpedoes, and the red cruisers hanging in the heights to pick up control and dash the messengers of death upon a helpless city. But I was visioning it in New York.
"The masses of the American people are with us," said the complacently arrogant voice. "For our fellow-workers we have only brotherly affection; it is your capitalist-dominated Government that must submit. And if it does not—!" I heard him laugh before he went on:
"We are coming to the rescue of you, our brothers across the sea. Now we have work to do in Europe; our gains must be consolidated and the conquests of our glorious air-force made secure. And then—! We warn you in advance, and we laugh at your efforts to prepare for our coming. We even tell you the date: in thirty days the invasion begins. It will end only at Washington when the great country of America, its cruel shackles cast off from the laboring masses, joins the Brotherhood—the Workers of the World!"
There was a man from the War Department who sat across from me at my desk; my factories were being taken over; my electric furnaces must pour out molten metal for use in war. He cursed softly under his breath as the voice ceased.
"The dirty dog!" he exclaimed. "The lying hypocrite! He talks of brotherhood to us who know the damnable inquisition and reign of terror that he and his crowd have forced on Russia! Thirty days! Well, we have three thousand planes ready for battle to-day; there'll be more in thirty days! Now, about that vanadium steel—"
But I'll confess I hardly heard him; I was hearing the roar of an armada of red craft that ensanguined the sky, and I was seeing the curving flight of torpedoes, each an airplane in itself....
Thirty days!—and each minute of each hour must be used. In close touch with the War Department, I knew much that was going on, and all that I knew was the merest trifle in the vast preparations for defense. My earlier apprehensions were dulled; the sight I had of the whole force of a mighty nation welded into one driving power working to one definite end was exhilarating.
New York and Washington—these, it was felt, would be the points of first attack; they must be protected. And I saw the flights of planes that seemed endless as they converged at the concentration camps. Fighters, at first—bombers and swift scouts—they came in from all parts of the land. Then the passenger planes and the big mail-ships. Transcontinental runs were abandoned or cut to a skeleton service of a ship every hour for the transport of Government men. Even the slower craft of the feeder lines were commandeered; anything that could fly and could mount a gun.
And the three thousand fighting ships, as the man from Washington had said, grew to three times that number. Their roaring filled the skies with thunder, and beneath them were other camps of infantry and artillery.
The Atlantic front was an armed camp, where highways no longer carried thousands of cars on pleasure bent. By night and day I saw those familiar roads from the air; they were solid with a never-ending line of busses and vans and long processions of motorized artillery and tanks, whose clattering bedlam came to me a thousand feet above.
Yes, it was an inspiring sight, and I lost the deadly oppression and the sense of impending doom—until our intelligence service told us of the sailing of the enemy fleet.
They had seized every vessel in the waters of Europe. And—God pity the poor, traitorous devils who manned them—there were plenty to operate the ships. Two thousand vessels were in that convoy. Ringed in as they were by a guard of destroyers and fighting craft of many kinds, whose mast-heads carried the blood-red flag now instead of their former emblems, our submarines couldn't reach them.
But our own fleet went out to measure their strength, and a thousand Navy planes took the air on the following day.
Uppermost in my own mind, and in everyone's mind, I think, was the question of air-force.
Would they bring the red ships? What was their cruising range? Could they cross the Atlantic with their enormous load of armored hull, or must they be transported? Were the air-cruisers with the fleet, or would they come later?
How Vornikoff and his assassins must have laughed as they built the monsters, armored them, and mounted the heavy guns so much greater than anything they would meet! The rest of us—all the rest of the world!—had been kept in ignorance.... And now our own fliers were sweeping out over the gray waters to find the answer to our questions.
I've tried to picture that battle; I've tried to imagine the feelings of those men on the dreadnaughts and battle-cruisers and destroyers. There was no attempt on the enemy's part to conceal his position; his wireless was crackling through the air with messages that our intelligence department easily decoded. Our Navy fliers roared out over the sea, out and over the American fleet, whose every bow was a line of white that told of their haste to meet the oncoming horde.
The plane-carriers threw their fighters into the air to join the cavalcade above—and a trace of smoke over the horizon told that the giant fleet was coming into range.
And then, instead of positions and ranges flashed back from our own swift scouts, came messages of the enemy's attack. Our men must have seen them from the towers of our own fleet; they must have known what the red swarm meant, as it came like rolling, fire-lit smoke far out in the sky—and they must have read plainly their own helplessness as they saw our thousand planes go down. They were overwhelmed—obliterated!—and the red horde of air-cruisers was hardly checked in its sweep.
Carnage and destruction, those blue seas of the north Atlantic have seen; they could tell tales of brave men, bravely going to their death in storm and calm but never have they seen another such slaughter as that day's sun showed.
The anti-aircraft guns roared vainly; some few of our own planes that had escaped returned to add their futile, puny blows. The waters about the ships were torn to foam, while the ships themselves were changed to furnaces of bursting flame—until the seas in mercy closed above them and took their torn steel, and the shattered bodies that they held, to the silence of the deep....
We got it all at Washington. I sat in a room with a group of white-faced men who stared blindly at a radiocone where a quiet voice was telling of disaster. It was Admiral Graymont speaking to us from the bridge of the big dreadnaught, Lincoln, the flagship of the combined fleet. Good old Graymont! His best friend, Bill Schuler, Secretary of the Navy, was sitting wordless there beside me.
"It is the end," the quiet voice was saying; "the cruiser squadrons are gone.... Two more battleships have gone down: there are only five of us left.... A squadron of enemy planes is coming in above. Our men have fought bravely and with never a chance.... There!—they've got us!—the bombs! Good-by, Bill, old fellow—"
The radiocone was silent with a silence that roared deafeningly in our ears. And, beside me, I saw the Secretary of the Navy, a Navy now without ships or men, drop his tired, lined face into his hands, while his broad shoulders shook convulsively. The rest of us remained in our chairs, too stunned to do anything but look at one another in horror.
We expected them to strike at New York. I was sent up there, and it was there that I saw Paul again. I met him on lower Broadway, and I went up to him with my hand reaching for his. I didn't admire Paul's affiliations, but he had warned me—he had tried to save my life—and I wanted to thank him.
But his hand did not meet mine. There was a strange, wild look in his eyes—I couldn't define it—and he brought his gaze back from far off to stare at me as if I were a stranger.
Then: "Still got that A.B.C. ship?" he demanded.
"Yes," I answered wonderingly.
"Junk it!" he said. And his laugh was as wild and incomprehensible as his look had been. I stared after him as he walked away. I was puzzled, but there were other things to think of then.
A frenzy of preparation—and all in vain. The enemy fooled us; the radio brought the word from Quebec.
"They have entered the St. Lawrence," was the message it flashed. Then, later: "The Red fleet is passing toward Montreal. Enemy planes have spotted all radio towers. There is one above us now—" And that ended the message from Quebec.
But we got more information later. They landed near Montreal; they were preparing a great base for offensive operations; the country was overrun with a million men; the sky was full of planes by night and day; there was no artillery, no field guns of any sort, but there were torpedo-planes by tens of thousands, which made red fields of waiting death where trucks placed them as they took them from the ships.
And there were some of us who smiled sardonically in recollection of the mammoth plants the Vornikoff Reds had installed in Central Russia, and the plaudits that had greeted their plans for nitrogen fixation. They were to make fertilizers; the nitrates would be distributed without cost to the farms—this had pacified the Agrarians—and here were their "nitrates" that were to make fertile the fields of Russia: countless thousands of tons of nitro-explosives in these flying torpedoes!
But if we smiled mirthlessly at these recollections we worked while we chewed on our cud of bitterness. There came an order: "Evacuate New England," and the job was given to me.
With planes—a thousand of them—trucks, vans, the railroads, we gathered those terrified people into concentration camps, and took them over the ground, under the ground, and through the air to the distributing camp at Buffalo, where they were scattered to other points.
I saw the preparations for a battle-front below me as I skimmed over Connecticut. Trenches made a thin line that went farther than I could see! Here was the dam that was expected to stop the enemy columns from the north. I think no one then believed that our air-force could check the assault. The men of the fighting planes were marked for death; one read it in their eyes; but who of us was not?
How those giant cruisers would be downed no man could say, but we worked on in a blind desperation; we would hold that invading army as long as men could sight a gun; we would hold them back; and somehow, someway, we must find the means to repel the invasion from the air!
I saw the lines of track that made a network back to the trenches. Like the suburban lines around New York, they would carry thousands of single cars, each driven at terrific speed by the air plane propeller at its bow. With these, the commanders could shift their forces to whatever sector was hardest pressed. They would be bombed, of course, but the hundreds of tracks would not all be destroyed—and the line must be held!
The line! it brought a strangling lump to my throat as I saw those thin markings of trenches, the marching bodies of troops, the brave, hopeless, determined men who went singing to their places in that line. But my planes were winging past me; my job was ahead, where a multitude still waited and prayed for deliverance.
We never finished the job; in two days the red horde was upon us. Their swarming troops were convoyed by planes, but no effort was made to fly over our lines and launch an attack. Were they feeling their way? Did they think now that they would find us passive and unresisting? Did they want to take our cities undamaged? Oh, we asked ourselves a thousand questions with no answer to any—except the knowledge that a million men were marching from the north; that their fleet of planes would attack as soon as the troops encountered resistance; that our batteries of anti-aircraft guns would harry them as they came, and our air-fleet, held back in reserve, would take what the batteries left....
My last planes with their fugitive loads passed close to the lines of red troops. There were red planes overhead, but they let us pass unhindered. Fleeing, driving wildly toward the south, we were unworthy, it seemed, of even their contemptuous attention. But I was sick to actual nausea at sight of the villages and cities where only a part of the population had escaped. The roads, in front of the red columns, were jammed with motors and with men and women and children on foot: a hopeless tangle.
I was watching the pitiful flight below me, cursing my own impotence to be of help, when a shrill whistling froze me rigid to my controls. I had heard it before—there could be no mistaking the cry of that oncoming torpedo—and I saw the damnable thing pass close to my ship.
I was doing two hundred—my motor was throttled down—but this inhuman monster passed me as if my ship were frozen as unmoving as myself. It tore on ahead. I saw an enemy plane above it some five thousand feet. The torpedo was checked; I saw it poise; then it curved over and down. And the screaming motor took up its cry that was like a thousand devils until its sound was lost in the screams from below and the infernal blast of its own explosion.
Only a trial flight—an experiment to test their controls! No need for me to try to tell you of the thoughts that tore me through and through while I struggled to bring my ship to an even keel in the hurricane of explosion that drove up at me from below. But I spat out the one word: "Brotherhood!" and I prayed for a place in the front line where I might send one shot at least against so beastly a foe.
That was somewhere in Massachusetts. Their foremost columns were close behind. They came to a stop some fifty miles from our waiting line of battle: I learned this when I got to Washington. And the reason, too, was known; it was published in all the papers. There had been messages to the President, broadcast to the world from an unknown source:
"To the President of the United States—warning! This war must end. You, as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces can bring it to a close. I have prevailed upon the Red Army of the Brotherhood to halt. They have listened to me. You, also, must take heed.
"You will issue orders at once to withdraw all resistance. You will disband your army, ground all your planes; bring all your artillery into one place and prepare to turn the government of this country over to the representatives of the Central Council. You will act at once."
"This war is ended. All wars are ended forevermore. I have spoken."
And the strange message was signed "Paul."
The wild words of a maniac, it was thought at first. Yet the fact remained that the enemy's advance had ceased. Who was this "Paul" who had "prevailed upon the Red Army" to halt?
And then the obvious answer occurred; it was a ruse on the part of the Reds. They feared to attack; their strength was not as great as we had thought—officers and men of all branches of the service took new heart and plunged more frenziedly still into the work of preparation.
There were direction-finders that had taken the message from several stations; their pointers converged upon one definite location in southern Ohio. Over an area of twenty square miles, that place was combed for a sending radio where the message could have originated—combed in vain.
The next demand came at ten on the following morning.
"To the President of the United States: You have disregarded my warning. You will not do so again; I have power to enforce my demands. I had hoped that bloodshed and destruction might cease, but it is plain that only that will save you from your own headstrong folly. I must strike. At noon to-day the Capitol in Washington will be destroyed. See that it is emptied of human life. I have spoken. Paul."
A maniac, surely; yet a maniac with strange powers. For the graphs of the radio direction-finders showed a curve. And when they were assembled the reading could only mean that the instrument that had sent the threat had moved over fifty miles during the few minutes of its sending. This, I think, was what brought the order to vacate the big domed building in Washington.
Of course the Capitol Building had been searched; there was not a nook nor corner from roof to basement but had been gone over in search of an explosive machine. And now it was empty, and a guard of soldiers made a solid cordon surrounding it. No one could approach upon the ground; and, above, a series of circling patrol-planes, one squadron above another, guarded against approach by air. With such a defense the Capitol and its grounds seemed impregnable.
My watch said 11:59; I held it in my hand and watched the seconds tick slowly by. The city was hushed; it seemed that no man was so much as breathing ... 11:59 :60!—and an instant later I heard the shriek of something that tore the air to screaming fragments. I saw it as it came on a straight, level line from the east; a flash like a meteor of glistening white. It passed beneath the planes, that were motionless by contrast, drove straight for the gleaming Capitol dome, passed above it, and swept on in a long flattened curve that bent outward and up.
It was gone from my sight, though the shrieking air was still tearing at my ears, when I saw the great building unfold. Time meant nothing; my racing mind made slow and deliberate the explosion that lifted the roofs and threw the walls in dusty masses upon the ground. So slow it seemed!—and I had not even seen the shell that the white meteor-ship had fired. Yet there was the beautiful building, expanding, disintegrating. It was a cloud of dust when the concussion reached me to dash me breathless to the earth....
The white meteor was the vehicle of "Paul," the dictator. From it had come the radio message whose source had moved so swiftly. I saw this all plainly.
There was a conference of high officials at the War Department Building, and the Secretary summed up all that was said:
"A new form of air-flight, and a new weapon more destructive than any we have known! That charge of explosive that was fired at the Capitol was so small as to be unseen. We can't meet it; we can only fight. Fight on till the end."
A message came in as we sat there, a message to the Commander-in-Chief who had come over from the White House under military guard.
"Surrender!" it demanded; "I have shown you my power; it is inexhaustible, unconquerable. Surrender or be destroyed; it is the dawn of a new day, the day of the Brotherhood of Man. Let bloodshed cease. Surrender! I command it! Paul."
The President of the United States held the flimsy paper in his hand. He rose slowly to his feet, and he read it aloud to all of us assembled there; read it to the last hateful word. Then:
"Surrender?" he asked. He turned steady, quiet eyes upon the big flag whose red and white and blue made splendid the wall behind him—and I'll swear that I saw him smile.
We have had many presidents since '76; big men, some of them; tall, handsome men; men who looked as if nature had moulded them for a high place. This man was small of stature; the shortest man in all that room if he had stood, but he was big—big! Only one who is great can look deep through the whirling turmoil of the moment to find the eternal verities that are always underneath—and smile!
"Men must die,"—he spoke meditatively; in seeming communing with himself, as one who tries to face a problem squarely and honestly—"and nations must pass; time overwhelms us all. Yet there is that which never dies and never surrenders."
He looked about the room now, as if he saw us for the first time.
"Gentlemen," he said quietly, "we have here an ultimatum. It is backed by power which our Secretary of War says is invincible. We are faced by an enemy who would annihilate these United States, and this new power fights on the side of the enemy.
"Must we go the way of England, of France, of all Europe? It would seem so. The United States of America is doomed. Yet each one of us will meet what comes bravely, if, facing our own end, we know that the principles upon which this nation is founded must go on; if only the Stars and Stripes still floats before our closing eyes to assure us that some future day will see the resurrection of truth and of honor and kindness among men.
"We will fight, as our Secretary of War has said—fight on to the end. We will surrender—never! That is our answer to this one who calls himself 'Paul.'"
We could not speak; I do not know how long the silence lasted. But I know that I left that room a silent man among many silent men, in whose eyes I saw a reflection of the emotion that filled my own heart. It was the end—the end of America, of millions of American homes—but this was better than surrender to such a foe. Better death than slavery to that race of bloodthirsty oppressors.
But who was "Paul?" This question kept coming repeatedly to my mind. The press of the country echoed the President's words, then dipped their pens in vitriol to heap scorching invective upon the head of the tyrant. The power of the Reds we might have met—or so it was felt—but this new menace gave the invaders a weapon we could not combat. It was power!—a means of flight beyond anything known!—an explosive beside which our nitro compounds were playthings for a child.
"Who is Paul?" It was not only myself who asked the question through those next long hours, but perhaps I was the only one in whose mind was a disturbing certainty that the answer was mine if I could but grasp it.
I was remembering Paris; I was thinking of that peaceful, happy city before the First of May, before the world had gone mad and a raging, red beast had laid it waste and overrun it. And of Paul Stravoinski—my friend "Straki" of college days—who had warned me. He had known what was coming. He himself had said that he had prayed to "them" for delay; that in a few weeks he would do—what?... And suddenly I knew.
Paul had succeeded; his research had ended in the dissection of the atom; he had unleashed the sub-atomic power of matter. Only this could explain the wild flight through the sky, the terrific explosion at the Capitol. It was Paul—my friend, Paul Stravoinski—who was imposing his will upon the world.
I said nothing as I took off; the swiftest plane was at my command. I might be wrong; I must not arouse false hopes; but I must find Paul. And the papers were black with scareheads of another threat as I left Washington:
"You have twenty-four hours to surrender. There shall be one last day of grace." Signed: "Paul."
There was more of the wild talk of the beauties of this new dispensation—a mixture of idealistic folly and of threats of destruction. I needed no more to prove the truth of my suspicions. No one but the Paul I had known could cling so tenaciously to his dreams; no one but he could be so blind to the actual horror of the new oligarchy he would impose upon the world.
I flew alone; no one but myself must try to hunt him out. I paid no attention to the radio direction of the last message; he would fly far afield to send it; distance meant nothing to one who held his power. I must look for him at his laboratory, that cluster of deserted buildings that stood all alone by a distant railway siding; it was there he had worked.
He met me with a pistol in his hand—a tiny gun that fired only a .22 calibre bullet.
"Put down your pop-gun," I told him and brushed through the open door into the room that had been his laboratory. "I am unarmed, and I'm here to talk business.
"You are 'Paul'!" I shot the sentence at him as if it were a bullet that must strike him down.
He did not answer directly; just nodded in confirmation of some unspoken thought.
"You have found me," he said slowly; "you were the only one I feared."
Then he came out with it, and his eyes blazed with a maniacal light.
"Yes, I am Paul! and this 'pop-gun' in my hand is the weapon that destroyed your Capitol at Washington. The bullet contained less than a grain of tritonite; that is the name I have given my explosive."
He aimed the little pistol toward me where I stood. "These bullets are more lightly charged—they are to protect myself—and the one ten-thousandth of a milligram in the end of each will blow you into bits! Sit down. I will not be checked now. You will never leave this place alive!"
"Less than a grain of tritonite!"—and I had seen a great building go down to dust at its touch! I sat down in the chair where he directed, and I turned away from the fanatical glare of Paul's eyes to look about me.
There was poverty here no longer; no makeshift apparatus greeted my eyes, but the finest of laboratory equipment. Paul read my thoughts.
"They have been liberal," he told me; "the Central Council has financed my work—though I have kept my whereabouts a secret even from them. But they would not wait. I told you in Paris, and you did not believe. And now—now I have succeeded! the research is done!"
He half turned to pick up a flake of platinum no larger than one's finger-nail; it was a weight that was used on a delicate balance.
"Matter is matter no longer," he said; "I have resolved it into energy. I hold here in my hand power to destroy an army, or to drive a fleet of ships. I, Paul, will build a new world. I will give to man a surcease from labor; I will give him rest; I will do the work of the world. My tritonite that can destroy can also create; it shall be used for that alone. This is the end of war. Here is wealth; here is power; I shall give it to mankind, and, under the rule of the Brotherhood, a united world will arise and go forward to new growth, to a greater civilization, to a building of a new heaven on earth."
He was pacing up and down the room. His hands were shaking; the muscles of his face that twitched and trembled were moulded into deep lines. I sat there and realized that within that room, directly before my eyes, was the Dictator of the World. It was true—I could not doubt it—Paul Straki of college days had made his dreams come true; his research was ended. And this new "Paul" who held in those trembling hands the destinies of mankind, at whose word kings and presidents trembled, was utterly mad!
I tried to talk and tell him of the truth we knew was true. He would have none of it; his dreams possessed him. In the bloody flag of this new Russia he could see only the emblem of freedom; the men who marched beneath that banner were his brothers, unwitting in the destruction they wrought. It was all that they knew. But they fought for the right. They would cease fighting now, and would join him in the work of moulding a new race. And even their leaders, who had sometimes opposed—were they not kind at heart? Had they not checked the advance of an irresistible army to give him and his new weapon an opportunity to open the eyes of the people? Theirs was no wish to destroy; their hearts ached for their victims who refused to listen and could be convinced only by force.
And as he talked on there passed before my eyes the vision of an aerial torpedo and a blood-red ship above, where these "kindly" men who were Paul's allies turned the instrument of death upon huddled, screaming folk—and laughed, no doubt, at such good sport.
I thought of many things. I was tensed one moment to throw myself upon the man; and an instant later I was searching my mind for some argument, some gleam of reason, with which I could tear aside the illusions that held him. I saw him cross the room where a radio stood, and he switched on the instrument for the news-broadcast service. The shouting of an excited voice burst into the room.
"The Reds have advanced," said the voice. "Their armies have crossed the Connecticut line. They are within ten miles of the American forces. The twenty-four hours of grace promised by the tyrant 'Paul' was a lie. The battle is already on."
I saw the tall figure of Paul sink to its former stoop; the lameness that had vanished in the moment of his exaltation had returned. He limped a pace or two toward me.
"They said they would wait!" His voice was a hoarse whisper. "General Vornikoff himself gave me his promise!"
I was on my feet, then. "What matter?" I shouted. "What difference does it make—a few hours or a day? Your damned patriots, your dear brothers in arms—they are destroying us this instant! And not one of our men but is worth more than the whole beastly mob!"
I was wild with the picture that came so clear and plain before my eyes. I had my pistol in my hand; I was tempted to fire. It was his whisper that stopped me.
"They have crossed Massachusetts! And Maida is there in Melford!"
There was no resisting his strength that tore my weapon from me. His tritonite pistol was pressed into my side, and his hand upon my collar threw me ahead of him toward a rear room, then out into a huge shed. I had only a quick glimpse of the airplane that was housed there. It was a white cylinder, and the stern that was toward me showed a funnel-shaped port.
I was thrown by that same furious strength through a door of the ship; I saw Paul Stravoinski seat himself before some curious controls. The ship that held me rose; moved slowly through an opened door; and with a screech from the stern it tore off and up into the air.
I have said Paul could fly; but the terrific flight of the screaming thing that held us seemed beyond the power of man to control. I was stunned with the thundering roar and the speed that held me down and back against a cabin wall.
How he found Melford, I cannot know; but he found it as a homing pigeon finds its loft. He checked our speed with a sickening swiftness that made my brain reel. There were red ships above, but they let the white ship pass unchallenged. There were no Red soldiers on the ground—only the marks where they had passed.
From the distance came a never-ceasing thunder of guns. The village was quiet. It still burned, blazing brightly in places, again smouldering sluggishly and sending into the still air smoke clouds whose fumes were a choking horror of burned flesh. There were bodies in grotesque scattering about the streets; some of them were black and charred.
Paul Stravoinski took me with him as he dashed for a house that the flames had not touched. And I was with him as he smashed at the door and broke into the room.
There was splintered furniture about. A cabinet, whose glass doors had been wantonly smashed, leaned crazily above its fallen books, now torn, scuffed and muddy upon the floor. Through a shattered window in the bed-room beyond came a puff of the acrid smoke from outside to strangle the breath in my throat. On the floor in a shadowed corner lay the body of a woman—a young woman as her clotted tangle of golden hair gave witness. She stirred and moaned half-consciously.... And the lined face of Paul Stravoinski was a terrible thing to see as he went stumblingly across the room to gather that body into his arms.
I had known Maida; I had seen their love begin in college days. I had known a laughing girl with sunshine in her hair, a girl whose soft eyes had grown so tenderly deep when they rested upon Paul—but this that he took in his arms, while a single dry sob tore harshly at his throat, this was never Maida!
There were red drops that struck upon his hands or fell sluggishly to the floor; the head and face had taken the blow of a clubbed rifle or a heavy boot. The eyes in that tortured face opened to rest upon Paul's, the lips were moving.
"I told them of you," I heard her whisper. "I told them that you would come—and they laughed." Unconsciously she tried to draw her torn clothing about her, an instinctive reaction to some dim realization of her nakedness. She was breathing feebly. "And now—oh, Paul!—Paul!—you—have come—too late!"
I hardly think Paul knew I was there or sensed that I followed where he carried in his arms the bruised body that had housed the spirit of Maida. He flew homeward like a demon, but he moved as one in a dream.
Only when I went with him into the room where he had worked, did he turn on me in sudden fury.
"Out!" he screamed. "Get out of my sight! It is you who have done this—your damned armies who would not do as I ordered! If you had not resisted, if you had—"
I broke in there.
"Did we do that?" I outshouted him, and I pointed to the torn body on a cot. His eyes followed my shaking hand. "No, it was your brothers—your dear comrades who are bringing the brotherhood of men into the world! Well, are you proud? Are you happy and satisfied—with what your brothers do with women?"
It must be a fearful thing to have one's dreams turn bitter and poisonous. Paul Stravoinski seemed about to spring upon me. He was crouched, and the muscles of his thin neck were like wire; his face was a ghastly thing, his eyes so staring bright, and the sensitive mouth twisting horribly. But he sprang at last not at me but toward the door, and without a word from his tortured lips he opened it and motioned me out.
Even there I heard echoes of distant guns and the heavier, thudding sounds that must be their aerial torpedoes. My feet were leaden as I strained every muscle to hurry toward my ship. Through my mind was running the threat of the Russian, Vornikoff: "We even tell you the date: in thirty days." And this was the thirtieth day—thirty days that a state of war had existed.
The battle was on; the radio had spoken truly. I saw its raging fires as I came up from our rear where the gray-like smoke clouds shivered in the unending blast. But I saw stabbing flames that struck upward from the ground to make a wall of sharp, fiery spears, and I knew that every darting flame was launching a projectile from our anti-aircraft guns.
The skies were filled with the red aircraft of the enemy, but their way was an avenue of hell where thousands of shells filled the air with their crashing explosions. There were torpedoes, the unmanned airships whose cargo was death, and they were guided to their marks despite the inferno that raged about the red ships above.
I saw meteors that fell, the red flames that enveloped them no redder than the bodies of the ships. And, as I leaped from my plane that I had landed back of our lines, I sensed that the enemy was withdrawing.
There was a colonel of artillery—I had known him in days of peace—and he threw his arms around me and executed a crazy dance. "We've beaten them back, Bob!" he shouted, and repeated it over and over in a delirium of joy.
I couldn't believe it; not those cruisers that I had seen over Paris. Another brief moment showed my fears were all too rational.
A shrieking hailstorm of torpedoes preceded them; the ships were directing them from afar. And, while some of the big shells went wild and overshot our lines, there were plenty that found their mark.
I was smashed flat by a stunning concussion. Behind me the place where Colonel Hartwell had stood was a smoking crater; his battery of guns had been blasted from the earth. Up and down the whole line, far beyond the range of my sight, the eruption continued. The ground was a volcano of flame, as if the earth had opened to let through the interior fires, and the air was filled with a litter of torn bodies and sections of shattered guns.
No human force could stand up under such a bombardment. Like others about me, I gripped tight upon something within me that was my self-control, and I marveled that I yet lived while I waited for the end.
Beyond the smoke clouds was a hillside, swarming with figures in red; solid masses of troops that came toward us. Above was the red fleet, passing safely above our flame-blasted lines; there were bombs falling upon those batteries here and there whose fire was unsilenced. And then, from the south, came a roar that pierced even the bedlam about me. The sun shone brightly there where the smoke-clouds had not reached, and it glinted and sparkled from the wings of a myriad of our planes.
There was something that pulled tight at my throat; I know I tore at it with fumbling hands, as if that something were an actual band that had clamped down and choked me, while I stared at that true line of sharp-pointed V's. The air-force of the United States had been ordered in; and they were coming, coming—to an inevitable death!
I tried to tear my eyes away from that oncoming fleet, but I could not move. I saw their first contact with the enemy; so small, they were, in contrast with the big red cruisers. They attacked in formations; they drove down and in; and they circled and whirled before they fluttered to earth....
Dimly, through the stupor that numbed my brain, I heard men about me shouting with joy. I felt more than saw the fall of a monster red craft; it struck not far away. The voices were thanking God—for what? Another red ship fell—and another; and through all the roaring inferno a sound was tearing—a ripping, terrible scream that went on and on. And above me, when I forced my eyes upward, was a flash of white.
It darted like a live thing among the red ones whose guns blazed madly—and the red ships in clotted groups fell away and over and down as the white one passed. They had been burst open where some power had blasted them, and their torn hulls showed gaping as they fell.
For a time the air was silent and empty above; the white, flashing thing had passed from sight, for the line of red ships was long. Then again it returned, and it threw itself into the mad whirl in the south where the air-force of the American people was fighting its last fight.
I was screaming insanely as I saw it come back. The white ship!—the blast of vapor from its funneled stern—It was Paul!—Paul Stravoinski!—Paul the Dictator!—and he was fighting on our side!
His ship had been prepared; I had seen the machine-guns on her bow. Paul was working them from within, and every bullet was tipped with the product of his brain—the deadly tritonite!
The white flash swung wide in a circle that took it far away. It came back above the advancing army of the Reds. It swerved once wildly, then settled again upon its course, and the raging hell that the Reds had turned loose upon our lines was as nothing to the destruction that poured upon the Red troops from above.
A messenger of peace, that ship; I knew well why Paul had painted it white. And, instead of peace—!
He was flying a full mile from our lines, yet the torn earth and great boulders crashed among us even then. There were machine-guns firing ceaselessly from the under side of the ship. What charges of tritonite had the demented man placed in those shells?
Below and behind it, as it flashed across our view, was a fearful, writhing mass where the earth itself rose up in unending, convulsive agony. A volcano of fire followed him, a fountain of earth that ripped and tore and stretched itself in a writhing, tortured line across the land as the white ship passed.
No man who saw that and lived has found words to describe the progress of that monstrous serpent; the valley itself is there for men to see. The roar was beyond the limit of men's strained nerves. I found myself cowering upon the ground when the white ship came back; I followed it fearfully with my eyes until I saw it swoop falteringly down. Such power seemed not for men but for gods; I could not have met Paul Stravoinski then but in a posture of supplication. But I leaped to my feet and raced madly across the torn earth as I saw the white ship touch the ground—rise—fall again—and end its flight where it ploughed a furrow across a brown field....
I raised Paul Stravoinski's head in my arms where I found him in the ship. An enemy shell had entered that cabin; it must have come early in the fight, but he had fought gamely on. And the eyes that looked up into mine had none of the wild light I had seen. They were the eyes of Paul Straki, the comrade of those few long years before, and he smiled as he said: "Voila, friend Bob: c'est fini! And now I go for a long, long walk. We will talk of poetry, Maida and I...."
But his dreams were still with him. He opened his eyes to stare intently at me. "You will see that it is not in vain?" he questioned; then smiled as one who is at peace, as he whispered: "Yes, I know you will—my friend, Bob—"
And his fixed gaze went through and beyond me, while he tried, in broken sentences, to give the vision that had been his. So plain it was to him now.
"The wild work—of a mistaken people. America will undo it.... A world at peace.... The vast commerce—of the skies—I see it—so clearly.... It will break down—all barriers.... A beautiful, happy world...."
His lips moved feebly at the last. I could not speak; could not even call him by name; I could only lean my head closer to hear.
One whispered word; then another: a fragment of poetry! I had heard him quote it often. But the whispered words were not for me. Paul was speaking to someone beside him—someone my blind, human eyes could not see....
I am writing these words at my desk in the great Transportation Building in New York. It stands upon the site of the Chrysler Building that towered here—until one of the flying torpedoes came over to hunt it out. They landed several in New York; how long ago it all seems that the threat of utter destruction hung over the whole nation—the whole world.
And now from my window I see the sparkling flash of ships. The air is filled with them; I am still unaccustomed to their speed. But a wisp of vapor from each bell-shaped stern throws them swiftly on their way; it marks the continuous explosion of that marvel of a new age—tritonite! There are tremendous terminals being built; the air-transport lines are being welded into efficient units that circle the world; and the world is becoming so small!
The barriers are gone; all nations are working as one to use wisely this strange new power for the work of this new world. No more poverty; no more of the want and desperate struggle that leads a whole people into the insane horrors of war; it is a glorious world of which we dream and which is coming slowly to be....
But I think we must dream well and work well to bring to actuality the beautiful visions in those far-seeing eyes of the man called Paul—Dictator, one time, of the whole world.
LISTENING TO ANTS
Two scientists of the University of Pittsburgh recently perfected an apparatus for detecting the sounds of underground communications among ants. A block of wood was placed upon the diaphragm of an ordinary telephone transmitter, which in turn was connected through batteries and amplifiers to a pair of earphones. When the termites crawled over the block of wood the transmitter was agitated, resulting in sound vibrations which were clearly heard by the listener at the headset.
When the ants became excited over something or other their soldiers were found to hammer their heads vigorously on the wood. This action could be clearly seen and heard at the same time. The investigators found that the ants could hear sound vibrations in the air very poorly or not at all, but were extremely sensitive to vibrations underground. For this reason it was thought that the head hammering was a method of communication.
Because of this sensitivity to substratum vibrations, ants are seldom found to infest the ties of railroads carrying heavy traffic, or buildings containing machinery.
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Various. 2010. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, June 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31893/31893-h/31893-h.htm#Page_356
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