February 1931, страница 1
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Astounding Stories, February, 1931, by Various
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Title: Astounding Stories, February, 1931
Release Date: September 28, 2009 [EBook #30124]
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Werewolves of War
By D. W. Hall
[Sidenote: The story of the "Torpedo Plan" and of Capt. Lance's heroic part in America's last mighty battle with the United Slavs.]
But this time, Lance swore, they'd not get away without paying dearly for it!
Under the mesh of his gas-mask the lean lines of his jaw went taut. Tense, steely fingers flipped to the knobbed control instruments; the gleaming single-seater scout plane catapulted in a screaming somersault. Lance's ever-wary sixth sense told him the tongues of disintegrating flame had licked the plane's protected belly, and for the fact that it was protected he thanked again his stupendous luck. He pulled savagely at the squat control stick; the four Rahl-Diesels unleashed a torrent of power; and the slim scout rose like a comet, and hurtled, the altitude dial's nervous finger proclaimed, to ten thousand feet. Lance eased off the power, relaxed slightly, and glanced below.
They'd started off a squadron of fifteen planes. Thirteen had crumpled beneath that treacherous, stabbing curtain of disintegrating flame. Only two of them were left--he and Praed.
Praed, of course!
The fellow's plane was pirouetting nearby. Lance was the squadron leader. He jammed his thin-lipped mouth close to the "mike" and rasped:
"They trapped us again! There's some damn spy at our base. Stand by, Praed! They'll send up a few men to wipe us out, too ... and we're goin' to square the account!"
He listened for Praed's answer. Presently it came.
"I can't! They got two of my motors. I'm limping badly. We'd better beat it while we can."
Lance's mouth curled. He roared:
"Go on, then, beat it! But I'm goin' to take a couple of 'em, anyway." Disgusted, filled with red anger, he flung the phones from his head, watched Praed's plane whirl its stubby nose for home, settled himself alertly in the low, padded seat and concentrated his attention on the ground below.
He'd been right. Tiny, gray-clad figures were pouring from their barracks, rushing madly towards the dozen or so planes neatly drawn up on the field. Lance's mouth twitched. They probably wondered, down there, why the devil he didn't beat it--like Praed! He stroked the lever which controlled his five gas bombs, centered his battery of incendiary-bullet machine-guns and ruthlessly shoved the control stick full over.
* * * * *
The Rahl-Diesels pumped at full power; his plane plummetted downwards with the speed of light, a hurtling shell of steel. His unexpected move took the men below by surprise. Lance knew they needed at least ten minutes to prepare another salvo of disintegrating flame; he had about four minutes left.
There was a restless, thudding chatter, and his bullets began to mow them down.
Lance could see the horrified expressions of the men beneath, and chuckled grimly as they sought to escape the wrath of his hot guns. He flung bursts of spouting, acid-filled lead at the defenseless planes, and saw two of them collapse in shrouds of acrid white smoke. And still he dove.
At a bare one hundred feet he tugged the control stick back, and the tiny scout groaned under the pull of her motors. Then her snout jolted upwards. Lance pounded the gas bomb lever, and smiled a tight smile as he sensed the five pills sloping down from their compartment in the scout's belly.
A second later came a rolling, ear-numbing crash. Lance, safe at a perch of a few thousand feet, grinned as his narrowed eyes beheld the sticky curtain of death-crammed gas hug over the enemy base.
"That'll quiet 'em for a few minutes!" he muttered savagely.
A few minutes--but not more. And he had no more bombs; his ammunition belts were nearly depleted. "I guess," he murmured, "I'd better follow that quitter, Praed. I've paid 'em for the boys they got, anyway!"
He levelled the plane out, threw a last glance at the carpet of gas he had laid, and spurred the purring Rahl-Diesels to their limit. His speed dial flashed round to five hundred, five-fifty--seventy--and finally rested, quivering, at the scout's full six hundred miles per hour.
Under the streamlined plane's speeding body the gnarled, bomb-torn terrain of Nevada hurtled by. A rather sad frown creased Lance's prematurely old brow as he glimpsed it. Thousands of lives had been thrown into that ground; the hot, tumbled waste was doused with freely-sacrificed blood, the blood of whole regiments of America's heroic First Home Army. Martyred men! Lance couldn't help swearing to himself at the bitter thought of that terrible reckoning day. It was the price his country had paid for her continued ignoring of the festering peril overseas. Slaughtered like sheep, those glorious regiments had been! Helpless, almost, before the ultra-modern war weapons of the United Slav hordes, they'd stopped the numbingly quick advance merely by the weight of their bodies. Like little Belgium, in 1914. They'd held the Slavs to California, ravished, war-desolated California.
* * * * *
The thin front-line trenches far behind, Lance began a slanting dive that raised his speed well over six hundred. Through the front magnifying mirror he spied the squat khaki buildings of his base. Werewolves of War, the batch of planes he belonged to had been christened, and it was a richly deserved title. In front of the front they fought, detailed to desperate, harrying missions, losing an average of ten men a day. The ordeal of gas and fire and acid bullets added five years to a man's brow overnight--if he served with the Werewolves of War.
Lance was only twenty-four, but his hair was splotched with dead gray strands; his eyes were hard and weary; his face lined with new wrinkles. Ah, well, it was war--and a losing war, he had to admit, that they fought. If a miracle didn't come, America would crumble even as old Europe had, before the overwhelming Slavish troops.
Even now, as Lance knew through various rumors, the Slavs were massed for a grand attack. And with what could America hold them back?
His helicopter props spun, and the scout nestled down lightly on the tarmac. Lance switched off the faithful Rahl-Diesels, swung open the tiny door and leaped from the enclosed cockpit.
"Sir," he rapped to thin, stern-browed Colonel Douglas, "there's no longer any doubt in my mind. This is the fifth time we've been anticipated--trapped! The enemy is informed directly of the attacking plans of our scout details. There's a spy at this base!" He lowered his eyes for a second and said in a queer tone of voice: "Thirteen of 'em went down to-day."
Colonel Douglas' tired face showed the never-ceasing strain he was under. He clasped hands behind his back, took a few nervous turns up and down the small office and finally, with a somewhat hopeless sigh, muttered:
"I know, Lance, I know. The devils! They seem to be aware of everything we plan. Yet what can we do? Look at the territory our front lines cover! More than two thousand miles of loosely held ground. And we're so damnably organized, man! Look here!"
* * * * *
He strode to the huge map which covered entirely one wall of the little room and ran his forefinger down the long red line, signifying the American front, whi
"It's so damned easy," Colonel Douglas said, "for a spy to slip over." He sighed again. "I fought in the scrap of 1917 as a kid of twenty; it was different then. But this is 1938, and it's a scientific war we're trying to fight." He sat down in his swivel chair. "How--how did they wipe you out to-day?"
"That blasted disintegrating flame again," Lance told him swiftly. "It's obvious, Colonel: how did the Slavs know we were going to raid that comparatively unimportant base of theirs at such and such a time? They had the flame shooters all ready for us--and at a place where they've never had them before! We came up at twenty-five thousand feet, dropped down in a full power dive, and"--he gestured widely--"biff! The flames caught us neatly at the regulation thousand feet. They got thirteen men. Only two got away, Praed and myself." His keen eyes were inquiring, and the colonel interpreted their look correctly.
"Praed," he murmured. "Yes, I saw him come back, by himself. He said you were following. Two of his motors were shot. He seems to bear a charmed life, doesn't he?"
Lance nodded. He didn't like to hint at the thought he had in mind. It seemed a cowardly, stab-in-the-back thing to do. Yet it was duty, and there was no questioning duty.
"I've never seen Praed shoot down an enemy plane," he said slowly. "This is the fifth time we've been ambushed--and Praed's never been caught. Somehow, he's always seemed to be aware of what was coming."
"You mean--?" the colonel questioned.
Lance shook his head. "I don't want to commit myself, Colonel Douglas, but--I'm suggesting that we--well--keep our eyes peeled, and perhaps watch certain members of the outfit more closely."
* * * * *
Douglas rose as his orderly, Ranth, came into the room. "Find Lieutenant Praed for me," the colonel ordered crisply. Then, turning to Lance, he said: "You'd better knock off a few hours' sleep. You are worn out."
Lance watched the orderly, Ranth, salute and leave. Ranth was heavy, thick-built, with closely set eyes. The young squadron leader was suddenly conscious that he was, as the colonel said, worn out; his limbs seemed leaden, his eyelids heavy. "I think you're right, sir," he murmured, and walked out onto the field.
Seeing Praed's machine drawn up with the overall-clad figure of a mechanic fussing at its motors, he wandered over to survey it. The scout was an exact replica of his, a model of the famous Goshawk type. It was all motor--everything being sacrificed to speed. On either side of the stubby brow of the fuselage, which held the death-dealing battery of three machine-guns, were set the four Rahl-Diesel motors, back to back. The pilot's tiny enclosed cockpit was thus surrounded by engines. In the V-shaped, smooth-lined wings were the two helicopter props; further back, inside the steel-sheathed, bullet-like fuselage, the radio outfit and fuel tanks. The craft's rounded belly covered the gas bomb compartment.
The mechanic was a little cockney Englishman, a fugitive, like all his countrymen, from the horror which had stricken England suddenly and left her wallowing in her life blood. He looked up at Lance, and a smile broke forth on his wizened, sharp little face.
"It's got me beat, sir," he said in his curious, twanging voice. "Lieutenant Praed, 'e sez to me, 'Somethin' wrong with two of me motors,' 'e sez. 'They quit on me quite sudden like. Look 'em over, will you?' 'e sez. So I been lookin' 'em over. But they ain't nothin' wrong with the bloody things, sir--nothin' at all!"
"It does seem funny, doesn't it, Wells?" Lance said levelly. He'd known it all along. Praed was a quitter--a yellow-belly--besides being--But he stopped there. He had no definite proof. It was unjust to accuse a man of that without definite, positive proof.
The little mechanic muttered some mysterious cockney curse, and then said, in an admiring tone:
"'Ow many of the swines' planes 'ave you shot down now, sir?"
"About twenty, I think," Lance told him gruffly. The cockney shot his breath out with a whistle.
"Cripes! You'll be up to that there Captain Hay soon if you keeps it up, sir!"
Lance laughed. Hay, the almost legendary hero of the American Air Force--who had shot down, so latest rumors said, fifty Slav planes--was far above him. "I'll never reach Hay's record, Wells. I'll be doing pretty well if I bag half as many!" Then, seeing Ranth, the orderly, followed by Praed, he strode quickly away and came face to face with the latter.
* * * * *
For a moment the two men eyed each other, a taut silence between them. Praed's thin, sun-blackened countenance was immovable, masklike. His blue-green eyes met Lance's steadily. Finally Lance snorted and burst out:
"Why the hell did you run away, Praed? Scared stiff?"
Praed's low voice, devoid of all trace of emotion, asked: "What makes you think I was scared, Lance?"
"You know damn well what makes me think it! That lousy crack about your motors being shot!"
"Two of my motors were limping."
Lance gave a sarcastic chuckle. "Ask Wells about that, why don't you? He's got a few ideas on the subject."
Praed repeated: "Two of my motors were limping," and abruptly he turned away, leaving Lance fuming, and went into Colonel Douglas' office.
What would Douglas say to him? Accuse him outright of his suspicions? Put him under arrest as a spy? But he couldn't do that: there was, after all, no proof. Lance swore to himself; then, feeling a wave of weariness surge over him, went to the shack he was quartered in, kicked off his battered boots, stripped away his Sam Browne, and flung his lean body out on the hard, gray-sheeted cot. Seconds later he was lost in the sleep that comes to the physically exhausted. The desperate situation America was in, the whole savage war--everything, faded from his mind.
But to right and left of that cot stretched others--empty. The brave squadron Lance had led into the blue sky that morning now lay charred skeletons around the flame-throwers that had struck them down.
And in a dozen other aircraft bases behind the hard pressed lines were other empty cots. Time and time again the Slav planes shot down two to the Americans' one; time and time again the treacherous disintegrating flames--the weapon which baffled America's scientists--had struck down whole squadrons that had been lured into traps, even as Lance's had been lured.
And even the Slav forces pushed forward....
"You're wanted by Colonel Douglas, sir."
Lance felt a hand jarring his shoulder; he turned sleepily over, yawned, and stared up into the dark, full-cheeked face of Ranth, the orderly.
"Colonel Douglas wants you," repeated Ranth. "It's five o'clock, sir."
Wearily Lance pulled on his boots and adjusted the military belt. The night was hot and sticky; somewhere, miles to the rear of the base, the batteries of long-distance guns were beginning their nightly serenade. Lance followed the orderly's broad, chunky back to the colonel's office.
The colonel gazed up with tired eyes from the welter of maps on his desk.
"Lance," he said, "I'm changing the routine of the night patrol. A fresh batch of youngsters came in this afternoon to fill the empty files; two dozen new planes arrived by transport, too. I'm sending ten of them over for the night patrol; Stephens will take your place. I've got another errand for you--and Praed."
Lance was conscious that Ranth was standing quietly behind the colonel's chair. Douglas ordered him to attend to some errand and the orderly left.
"I had an interview with Praed," the colonel went on. "I didn't exactly accuse him of anything definite, but I think I threw a bit of a scare into him. To-night we'll give him the acid test.
"You and he will fly over to-night to investigate Hill 333. There have been rumors that the Slavs are massing there, and we want positive information. There's sure to be a fight. Watch Praed carefully. If he steers clear of any scrapping, well have enough to court-martial him on. Understand?"
"Right. It's a dangerous errand, Lance, bu
The young man laughed briefly. "No danger of that. When do we take off, sir?"
Douglas consulted his watch. "Seven-fifteen. Come and get the dope from these maps. Hill 333's rather difficult to find."
"Anything been happening at the front, sir?"
The colonel passed both fine-fingered hands over his lined face. He said quietly: "Yes. The Slavs took twenty-five miles from us down in the lower sector. Just wiped our boys out. Those damnable flame-throwers and bullet-proof tanks, supported by God knows how many hundreds of planes. It's hell, Lance! Headquarters thinks they're going to unleash a general attack all along the line in the next few days. And our resources--well, our back's against the wall. We're coming to death grips, man."