Chapter One       Chapter Two

Chapter Three       Chapter Four       Chapter Five

Chapter 3

UNDER THE SEA

GREEN depths that swirled about us, shafts of yellow light that swung and stabbed through them, rushing cruisers and detonating guns and drone of motors and wild shouts—all these merged and mingled in one great phantasmagoria of strange impressions in those first moments. I had shot under the ocean’s surface in my cruiser many a time before,but never in battle.And now,with our two great fleets plunging down into those peaceful depths, all about me seemed for a moment a strange dream.Then I saw before us, the cruisers of the First Air Chief and those about him, dark long bulks that gleamed there in the depths beneath us as the yellow shafts of light struck and crossed them.

Peering downward, figure tensed over the wheel, Macklin was holding the cruiser behind those rushing ones ahead, and now, looking away to the right, I could make out the dark, long bulks of the European cruisers also. And across the gap from fleet to fleet were hurtling storms of the heat-shells still, shot forth by our great heat-guns whose valve-breeches made them capable of underwater operation. And as they burst there broke from them the same great flare of light and heat as in the air above, little affected for the moment by the waters about them, destroying in that moment the ships they struck and making the waters about those fusing ships boil terribly with their terrific released heat.

But straight downward through those boiling waters swirled and swept the following cruisers of the two great fleets. As our guns thundered there in the great deep, as heat-shells raced and broke and flared about us, I saw schools of fish and strange sea-creatures and denizens, for a moment in the gIow of the yellow searchlights or the flares of bursting heat-shells.The fish were all striving desperately to escape from this hell of battle and death that we men had carried down with us. And still downward—our two great columns were racing, hanging to each other with fierce, resistless tenacity, raking each other still with the great heat-guns as we shot lower into the mighty depths!

Finally Hilliard dashed up into the bridge-room from below.

“This can’t keep on much longer!” he cried. “The cruiser’s walls can’t stand this heat and speed!”

“It’ll have to keep on as long as the First Air Chief keeps on!” I shouted to him, over the drone of motors and thunder of guns. “If the battle is to end for both fleets here—let it!”

But I saw even in that moment that Hilliard was right, and that the walls about us, the transparent metal of the windows, had become searing to the touch. Not only had we raced through areas of water boiling at terrific temperatures from heat-shells that had burst in ships there, but our own immense speed was producing by its friction with the waters a heat that was almost softening the cruiser’s walls.Yet I saw that still the First Air Chief’s cruiser was rushing deeper and deeper before us, and that still the great column of our own fleet and that of the European fleet were following locked in that colossal death-grip, their heat-guns thundering still toward each other.

I could see too that the cruisers of the European fleet were suffering far more than our own in this awful undersea battle, since there in the green depths, only able to half see each other and to aim their heat-guns by the uncertain light of their searchlights, their greater numbers were of but small advantage to them.And our gunners, following the former orders of the First Air Chief, were concentrating their fire upon the European column’s head, so that when ships were struck there by heat-shells, changed to motionless white-hot wrecks in the waters, those behind were unable in the green depths to see them in time to swerve aside, and so crashed into the fusing wrecks and were themselves destroyed. It was a maneuver that the First Air Chief had long before explained to us for use in undersea warfare, and now it was proving of the highest effectiveness and score after score of the European ships were flaring and crashing in their opposing column.

For only a moment more, though, did the two great columns continue thus, for then the European fleet, feeling the great losses which it was experiencing in this terrific underwater combat, responded suddenly to some order, curving sharply upward again. Instantly the First Air Chief snapped an order from the distance-phone, and instantly our own great column of ships had turned upward too, had curved upward through the waters after the racing European fleet like wheeling sharks after prey, their guns and ours still beating a tattoo of thundering death there in the great depths. Now as we rushed upward again at undiminished speed the waters were becoming green and translucent once more. Then as we flashed up through those green depths, heat-guns sounding still from fleet to fleet, the cruisers ahead and above us, and then our own, burst suddenly up from the waters into the sunlit air once more! 

 

INTO THE CLOUDS

SURELY some battle out of a nightmare was this, in which our two great masses of cruisers hung still with deadly purpose upon each other. Macklin and Hilliard and I aware of ourselves now only as infinitesimal and unreasoning parts of this mighty fleet about us, moved upward, miles again above the waves. The two rushing fleets slowed, halted, as though by mutual purposes. Slowed and halted there in two great masses of cruisers in mid-air, our own to the west and the European one to the east, and then, with every heat-gun detonating and with the air between them seemingly filled with shining, hurtling shells, they were hanging motionless in a mighty death-grip!

The great struggle for its sheer intensity was appalling, as the two giant fleets hung there unmoving, high in the air, each unheeding its own danger, intent only upon annihilating the other. I was aware, as though I were a spectator, that I was shouting hoarse commands into the order-phone, that in obedience to those commands our gun-crews beneath were working the great heat-guns like madmen, loosing an unceasing hail of shining shells toward the fleet opposite, shouting as they did so even as Macklin and Hilliard were shouting wildly beside me. I was aware of heat-shells that seemed exploding all around us, of brilliant and unceasing flares of blinding heat and light that burst in dozens each second amid either fleet, their cruisers whirling downward now in score of hundreds.

I know now that that motionless battle there in mid-air could not have exceeded a few minutes, yet then it seemed an eternity. I was aware dimly that our ships were falling faster than the Europeans, that their greater numbers were telling upon us once more here in the open air, and that but few more than a thousand ships were left to us, no more than half of our original number.Yet more than twice that number of European cruisers remained, smothering us with shining shells! Then suddenly the silver-striped ship of the First Air Chief, that had swayed beside our own, turned westward, and at the same momentYarnall’s voice came sharply from the distance-phone.

“Retreat formation!” he was shouting. “All ships retreat westward at full speed!”

“Retreat!” My cry was one of incredulity, of mad anger. Retreat—we were beaten, then, our great battle lost—I was aware of Macklin hovering in irresolutely over the wheel, of Hilliard almost sobbing in his rage.

Then despite our fury the sense of discipline was reasserting itself, and with the First Air Chief’s ship at its head, our great mass of ships was turning, was forming swiftly into a great T, the longer column or stem of it pointing westward, moving westward at swiftly mounting speed with the flagship at its head, while the shorter column or head of the T lay across its rear at right-angles.This protected us somewhat from the European fleet that now was leaping swiftly after us, triumphant, exultant at our flight. Our stern guns still firing toward them as they leapt upon our track, we raced westward, on until at full speed. And now, even as the thunder of guns still came to our ears from behind, a dull, dead silence reigned over our own ship, and those about us, Macklin and Hilliard as silent beside me as myself, a silence of the apathy of utter dismay and despair. For never, surely, had any American fleet ever thus fled homeward, before, pursued by a conquering enemy.

On to the westward though we raced still, our rear-guard line of cruisers now the targets of numberless heat-guns. Still cruisers among them were being destroyed by the heat-shells, and still, too, they were striking savagely back to find their marks here and there among the mass of our pursuers. On and on we rushed, the European fleet closing gradually toward us, and now we were but a score or so of miles from the coast, I knew, and should be sighting the great double-line of our air-forts that were hanging far out to sea. It was the one chance of escape for our outnumbered fleet, I knew, to gain the shelter of those great forts. And now it was clear that it was with this object that the First Air Chief was leading our fleet in full retreat westward. But as we gazed ahead, we saw that though we should have been within sight of them the great air-forts were nowhere to be seen! Save for a great, long bank of floating white clouds ahead the sky was completely empty, and of the air-forts there was no trace!

“The air-forts gone!” I cried.“Our last chance gone!”

“But our fleet’s going on!” exclaimed Macklin. “The First Air Chief’s leading us into those clouds!”

 

THE AMBUSH

 

GAZING ahead, incredulous, I saw in a moment that it was so, that the First Air Chief’s cruiser was flying straight on toward the great long bank of clouds ahead, leading our whole fleet into their fleecy white masses. Even as I stared unbelievingly, I saw his silver-striped ship rush into those clouds and vanish from view, and after it were rushing our own ship and all those about us, all the long mass of our fleet! Unable to credit my eyes, almost, I stared, for it was a suicidal maneuver, to attempt to elude our pursuers in those fleecy masses.They needed only to surround the cloud bank and then wait and destroy us one by one as we emerged again.Yet even as I gazed forward our ships were speeding into the white masses of vapor, after our flagship, our rear cruisers still returning the fire of our pursuers.Then as our own cruiser flashed into them, all things vanished from about us save the thick masses of cloud vapor that hemmed us in, that seemed to press against our windows, curtaining all things else from sight!

I stared forth tensely with Macklin and Hilliard in a vain attempt to see through those masses, heard the thunder of guns still going off blindly somewhere in the great cloud-mass behind us, knew that in the wild heat of pursuit the European fleet had rushed after us into that great cloud-bank.Then came a swift order of “All ships halt!” from the distance-phone, and as we came swiftly to a halt there in the blinding, fleecy masses, motors droning still, we heard the crash of ship on ship behind us in the cloud-bank as the foremost cruisers of the European fleet drove blindly into our own, then halted fearfully themselves, milling confusedly about in fear of farther collisions and with neither fleet firing now in the absolute blindness that held each ship. Thus the two mighty fleets hung there for the moment blind and helpless in the huge cloud-bank, and in that moment there came again the First Air Chief ’s voice from before us in a swift, shouted command.

“All American Federation ships—drop!”

Before the order had ceased to echo Macklin’s hand had flashed to the power-stud, and as the great drone of our motors suddenly lessened our cruiser dropped downward like a falling stone, plunged downward until in a moment more it had ripped through the great fleecy mass of the cloud-bank and into the open clear air beneath it, leaving the great European fleet for the moment still in it. And in that moment, even as our cruisers halted their plunging downward fall, there came a great hissing sound from above as of the hissing of terrific jets of air, and at the same instant we saw the mighty cloud-bank above breaking up, disintegrating, its great fleecy masses whirling suddenly away in all directions, driven away in a moment as though by mighty winds, breaking away in formless flying vapors! Breaking away to leave clear air where they had been, to leave the European fleet hanging there, appearing to our sight suddenly as a confusedly milling mass of numberless ships above us! And coming to—? on either side of that confused mass of ships was the great double line of our giant air-forts!

“The air-forts!” My cry was echoed in that moment by Macklin and Hilliard beside me, by all in our cruiser, in our fleet.

The air-forts! On either side of the disorganized European fleet they hung, in their mighty double line, and as that fleet saw them now for the first time with the sudden disappearance of the cloud-bank that had hidden them, it seemed to hang motionless still as though stunned with astonishment.Then the great heat-guns of the air-forts had swung toward them, were thundering in swift chorus, were loosing storm upon storm of heat-shells upon the confused, astounded ships that swung between them! Were pouring forth in that awful moment all the concentrated fire of their mighty batteries upon the European ships caught between them.

The air-forts! And it was between them, between their two mighty lines, that the First Air Chief had purposely led the European fleet, I saw now. For this, then, was the new device of the air-forts of which he had spoken to us before our start, this device which enabled them to surround themselves with a great cloud-bank that kept them hidden from all and unsuspected by any enemy. Some device for projecting forth great masses of water-vapor it must be, that had enabled them to form that great artificial cloud-bank about themselves. And when the First Air Chief, staking all upon the device, had led the pursuing European fleet into that great cloud-bank, into that giant ambush of the air-forts, then with our own fleet dropping down out of it they had needed only to disperse the artificial cloud-mass about them by means of great air-jets of terrific power, to disperse the cloud-mass and to turn all the fury of their great guns upon the European fleet that hung still dazed there in the withering fire of those suddenly unmasked batteries!

For now above us the European ships, whirling aimlessly about in that terrific fire that raked them from either side, were falling faster still! Their own shells burst and flared along the sides of the great air-forts, but were too few in number to cripple or destroy any of those gigantic, heavily-armored edifices. And at that moment, even as the European ships strove to mass together to escape from that great death-trap of the air, the First Air Chief ’s ship was slanting up toward them, and now we needed no orders to follow as we raced up after him. Up until our great fleet rushing upward in a single mass was pouring up before us a third terrific fire of heat-shells which, added to that of the air-forts on either side, sent blinding death-flares dancing and leaping over all the mass of ships above us.

“They’re turning!” cried Hilliard.“They’re fleeing!”

HOMEWARD

 

FLEEING! Even as our fleet shot up toward them the European ships, reduced now to hardly more than two thousand in number, and unable to bear the terrific fire concentrated upon them from three directions, were soaring frantically upward above the air-forts, up and away to the eastward, massing together in a close-bunched, irregular formation. And our fleet had shot up after them, sending a rain of shining messengers of death among them as we shot after them, pursuing them with bow-guns firing just as minutes before they had pursued us.Then, broken and disorganized and incapable of further resistance for the time being, the great European fleet was drawing away from us as an order from the First Air Chief halted our wild pursuit. Outnumbered still as we were by two to one we could not carry the pursuit too far from our supporting air-forts.

As we halted, we saw the European ships racing on in a struggling mass, dwindling and vanishing from us quickly against the gathering dusk eastward.Then our own battered cruisers were turning, heading back westward, back toward the brilliant, waning sunset, and with our flagship at our head until we paused above the air-forts.There, with the wild exultation of victory we three in the bridge-room, Macklin, Hilliard and myself, and our crew and all the cruiser crews about us, expressed ourselves in great roaring shouts. And then, once more, there came from the distance-phone before us the voice of the First Air Chief.

“Cruiser-captains and men of this fleet,” he said, “we have beaten back the first attack of the European Federation fleet. And I have received but now a distance-phone message from the Second Air Chief, commanding the western fleet out of San Francisco. He reports that his own fleet, meeting the oncoming Asiatic Federation fleet, was able after a battle as terrific as our own to drive it back also, by using the same cloud-ambush device in the air-forts as we used here.Thus on this day to west and east we have accomplished the impossible.”

He paused, and at his words, his news, a wilder cheer went up from all our ships and air-forts, hanging motionless there against the crimson of the dying sunset. But now, his voice solemn, the First Air Chief went on.

“We have won today, in east and west, but what we have won is but a respite. The mighty European and Asiatic Federations have gathered all their forces to annihilate our American Federation.Their great fleets have been cut in half by these two battles, but so have ours.And they not only outnumber us still by far,but they can build new cruisers faster than we. Undoubtedly within weeks, days perhaps, there will come another mighty onslaught from them, from west and east, an onslaught for which they have been preparing and are preparing some colossal and terrible plan or weapon of which we know nothing. It is some unknown device that it is rumored will enable them to move gigantic forces upon us. We must stand against them, nor can we hope to surprise them with the cloud-ambushes used by us today.Yet whatever forces they bring against us, whatever giant new weapons or terrific attacks they loose upon us, whatever is the great end of this Last Air War that today has started, you of the American Federation fleet can be proud always of the way this first battle was fought and won!”

There was silence a moment and then another shattering cheer. And then, the First Air Chief ’s cruiser leading, our fleet was moving smoothly westward toward the sunset, and toward New York. As we moved on our watchful patrols were already out from the fleet’s main body to north and south, while behind us the great air-forts, slowly and ponderously, were following us, spreading into a long single line which with the ceaseless patrols was to guard us from any surprise attacks or raids.Already, by now, the dusk was gathering behind and about us, the sunset’s light waning in the west.And by the time that our fleet came again in sight of NewYork the great air-city’s outline was visible only as a mass of brilliant lights floating high in the gathering darkness. The mighty city, as we learned, had begun to move eastward to meet us upon hearing of the results of the day’s battles, and now glimmered before us like a great mass of brilliant gathered stars, the giant beams of its searchlights sweeping the night.

Onward and down toward the mighty city shot our fleet, and as Macklin and Hilliard gazed down with me we saw the cruisers that landed upon the white-lit plazas across the immense floating city surrounded at once by joyful crowds, their weary crews carried high on shoulders.The whole great city, indeed, was rejoicing, though that rejoicing was not extravagant, being tempered by the knowledge that it was but the first attacks of the European and Asiatic Federations and that other and greater attacks might be expected to follow soon. So although the great city blazed with lights as our fleet slanted down toward it, its great towers and pinnacles and pyramids seeming like magic palaces of radiance floating there in the night of the upper air, yet its great watchful searchlights stabbed and circled still, and there came and went still high above it and to north and east and south the humming patrols, on guard now and challenging every craft that approached the city.

Then our cruiser was landing, and Macklin and Hilliard and I were emerging from it with our crew, mindless of the shouting crowds that surrounded every landing plaza, stumbling in our utter weariness through those crowds to our barracks, to fall into a stupor-like sleep of utter exhaustion . . .

 

THE RESPITE ENDED

 

IT WAS the middle of the afternoon when we awoke, more than a score of hours later. Our quarters lay in one of the uppermost levels of the great barracks-tower, and as I rose and after dressing joined Macklin and Hilliard at the window, we could see far out over the air-city’s great expanse. Above us blazed the afternoon sun shining on numberless patterned windows of all the gigantic metal towers about us. Far overhead there still hummed and flashed the ceaseless patrols, still watchfully hovering above and around New York. Beneath on the city’s landing plazas, there rested still the hundreds of cruisers of our returned fleet, and now we saw that upon the great central plaza where our own ship lay there were gathered now some two hundred and fifty of our twelve hundred and fifty ships, and that about these central ships were swarming a great horde of mechanics and attendants; caring for and inspecting their great motors, filling the liquid-air tanks that supplied constant breathable air, refilling their magazines with shining masses of heat-shells.

I turned puzzled toward the other two. “Strange that they should be giving such swift attention to those two hundred and fifty cruisers,” I said.

Macklin nodded, frowning. “And our cruiser among them,” he commented. “One would almost think that—” He stopped short as our door snapped open and an attendant stepped inside, saluting.

“Captain Martin Brant to report at once to the First Air Chief ’s headquarters in the tower,” he said, “and all cruiser officers and crews of Squadrons 1 to 4 to rejoin their ships at once!”

Again he saluted and disappeared, leaving us staring blankly at each other.Then we were struggling into the tight black jackets of our uniforms, were striding out in a moment and down to the great air-city’s “ground” level in one of the building’s electrostatic-motored cagelifts.Through the crowded streets we strode, seeing now that in all those streets other black-uniformed men of the squadrons named were pressing toward their cruisers in the central plaza.Then we three had reached that central plaza, from whose center rose the mighty electric power-tower, and around which the two hundred and fifty cruisers rested, all of our first four squadrons that had survived the battle.

Already, I saw, the crews of those cruisers were taking their places within them, and as Macklin and Hilliard took up their positions in our own I strode on across the plaza toward the huge tower’s base, in which were the headquarters of the First Air Chief. Passing challenging guards at its door, I passed through a few narrow white-lit ante-rooms, and then had stepped into the great circular room that was his innermost office. The curving walls of that room were covered with panel after panel of instruments and switches, which controlled the vast electrical currents that rushed down from the electric-tower’s tip and transformers to those motors in the city’s base. Near the room’s center was the battery of six great switches which controlled the city’s direction of motion, moving it in any direction at will at slow and ponderous speed, the speed-control’s gleaming knob beside them. And beyond the controls of the great air-city, there stood a great table-map of the world, upon which a myriad of red circles automatically showed the position of the world’s air-cities.

Behind this table-map, as behind a desk, the First Air Chief was sitting as I entered, while around the panelled walls there moved a half-dozen black-jacketed attendants constantly watching and controlling the flow of current from the power-tower’s tip to its motors.The First Air Chief, as I entered, motioned me silently to a metal seat before himself, at the great table-map’s edge, and then for a moment contemplated me in silence, as though considering his words before speaking. Regarding me intently, he began.

“For a second time, Captain Brant,” he was saying, “I have summoned you here to me, but this time alone, and with the two hundred and fifty remaining cruisers of our first four squadrons summoned also outside.You are wondering, no doubt, why I have done so.

“The victory we have gained is, as I said, but a respite. We know that the two great Federations, though beaten back with great losses will soon be launching another and a far greater attack upon us, one against which I think we cannot stand. From the European Federation to the east and from the Asiatic Federation to the west that mighty second attack will be loosed upon us, with some terrible new weapon or plan whose nature we cannot guess. For though hundreds of agents have been sent by us to all the European and Asiatic air-cities, months before the outbreak of this war even, they have been either captured and made away with, or have been able to report only that immense preparations of some sort are going in in those cities, in Berlin and Peking especially.And the rumors which have reached us through them indicate that whatever great new colossal weapon or thing they are devising at Berlin and Peking, it is one which, they boast, will enable them to sweep all our cities from the air in a single mighty attack.

“You see, then, that to wait for them to develop their great weapon or plan, to await this terrible attack without action, is but to pave the way for our own doom.We must strike out to halt them, to cripple or destroy their great secret plans, must strike at the European and Asiatic Federations both before they expect us. And that is why I have called you here to me. For it is my intention to launch a great raiding attack of our own at both Berlin and Peking. If we can strike a smashing blow at those two air-capitals, can damage or destroy the great military preparations within their arsenals, which must hold their great secret also, we shall have crippled, for the time being, their plans and shall have gained time for us to learn and counteract those plans. Even now our two hundred and fifty ships are ready and wait to start for Berlin, while from San Francisco a similar number will raid westward to Peking. And it is my order that you, Captain Brant, shall command this great raid eastward, for your conduct in the great battle of yesterday proves you worthy of the command. So soon after that battle, our enemies will never dream of our lesser forces attacking them, so now is your great chance to strike back at them, to flash across the Atlantic in a great surprise raid and strike down out of the night with all your power at the great air-capital of Berlin!”

 

 To Be Continued . . .

 

Copyright © 1929 Stellar Publishing Corporation. Electronic edition Copyright © 2014 Haffner Press.