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Futile Attacks







From: The Fire People

There seemed to be no pursuit. In a few moments I was clear of the camp
and hidden in the darkness of the desert. I ran perhaps half a mile, then
I slowed down to a walk, completely winded. Turning, I could see behind me
the lights of the camp. I doubted if even now they had missed me. The bomb
dropped by the airplane and the plane itself falling almost, in their
midst must have plunged them for the time into confusion.

I kept on walking rapidly. The desert here was almost pathless;
occasionally I would cross a wandering wagon track, but none of them
seemed going in my direction. After a time I was not sure what my
direction was; all about me was a luminous darkness--and silence.

I found myself now almost exhausted from my exertions of the day. I
decided to go possibly a mile farther--to be well away from the
Mercutians--and then to lie down and sleep until daylight.

In about fifteen minutes more I concluded I had gone far enough, and,
lying down on the sand, was soon fast asleep. When I awoke it was
daylight, with the sun just rising.

With returning consciousness I looked about me in sudden fear, but there
was no one in sight. I ate the bread and meat I had in my pocket, and,
feeling much refreshed, but thirsty, I started again for Garland.

I made the town soon after noon that day. The little automobile was still
standing in the garage, and I started it without trouble. Before I left I
went up to the porch of the house.

The bodies of Mercer and the Mercutian were still lying there. I dragged
Mercer's body down the steps and put it into the back seat of the car
Then I started off. I stuck to the main road, and went through Mantua at
top speed, apprehensive that some of the Mercutians might be there. This
town, like Garland, was completely burned. Only the chimneys were left
standing amid piles of ashes.

At Frannie I took on two passengers. There was much curiosity on the part
of those I met along here, but I was unwilling to explain, deciding it
best to wait and tell my whole story to the military authorities at
Billings.

It was early afternoon when I got back to Billings. This was March 12. I
turned Mercer's body over to the police, who promptly took me in charge. I
gave them a brief outline of what had occurred. General Price, whose
command of the United States military operations against the Mercutians
was announced to the country two days later, had arrived that morning in
Billings by airplane. I demanded to see him, and when my business was
explained to him he granted me an immediate interview.

General Price was a man about fifty, a kindly gentleman of the old
Southern type, yet of thoroughly military demeanor. I told him everything
that had happened to me in detail as complete as I possibly could.
Mercer's body was examined that same afternoon. It was found to have been
drilled completely through the chest by a hole about the diameter of a
lead pencil. This hole did not seem to have been made by the passage of
any foreign object, but had more the aspect of a burn. I understood
then--Mercer had been killed by a tiny light-ray projector, with a short,
effective radius, aimed probably like a revolver.

What I was able to tell General Price about the Mercutians naturally was
invaluable to him. He asked me then to remain close to him during the
forthcoming operations. We arranged that I was on honor to give nothing
out to my paper without his approval.

The situation, as it appeared during the next few days, was not one of
grave danger. We were able to gage now with fair probability of
correctness the offensive strength of our enemies. They had no means of
transportation--could only move from their present position slowly and
with extreme difficulty. The possibility of the vehicle itself moving
occurred to us; but, as I pointed out, the task of replacing their heavy
apparatus in it, and then reassembling the apparatus in a new position,
made such a step impractical.

The only weapon the Mercutians had displayed so far was the light-ray in
its several forms. This seemed effective for ten miles at most. That the
Mercutians could be attacked by our artillery and destroyed seemed
certain.

By the 20th General Price had mobilized some ten thousand men. They
encamped on the prairie near Billings. The artillery was moved down to a
point near the Wyoming State line, about fifteen miles directly north of
the Mercutian camp.

Six days before this, forty-eight hours after I had returned to Billings,
observation planes had reported the establishment of two more light-rays,
similar in appearance to the first. During the succeeding days others
rapidly appeared. By the 20th there were probably thirty of them
altogether.

The reports stated that all were set up within a space seemingly of a few
hundred yards. They were of different diameters; some projected in
parallel rays, others spread out fan-shaped. These latter appeared not to
carry so far. The first one that had appeared, it was judged, had the
longest effective radius of them all.

During these days and nights preceding the 20th the light-rockets had been
fired with increasing frequency, but none was observed to carry over six
or eight miles. By this time the burned area for a circle of ten miles all
around the Mercutian camp was entirely depopulated, and no additional
destruction was reported.

On the night of the 20th, firing by directions from captive balloons, the
United States artillery began its bombardment from the Montana-Wyoming
line. After sending over some twenty shells, the firing ceased. It was
learned then that they had proven utterly ineffective. The diverging rays
of the Mercutian light had thrown a barrage around their position. The
shells striking the light had all exploded harmlessly in the air.

Subsequent bombardments made that night met with no better success. The
fact became obvious then that to artillery fire the Mercutians were
impregnable. For several days no further military operations were
attempted, with the exception of an occasional shell futilely thrown
against the light-rays.

The newspapers during these days were full of discussions--scientific and
otherwise--as to how this strange enemy of mankind could be destroyed or
dislodged. This was like no other warfare in history. The newspaper
statements gave the inference that General Price was entirely at a loss
how to proceed.

As a matter of fact, the press was quite correct in that assumption; and,
since the Mercutians were making no offensive moves, General Price decided
to do nothing until he was better informed.

I was fortunate enough to be present the next day at a conference the
general had with several scientific men who had come to Billings to meet
him. It was the opinion of these men of science that no artillery fire
could penetrate the light-barrage the Mercutians had thrown about them. No
airplane attack was practical, and to attack them from the ground with
infantry would be absurd.

On the other hand, it seemed obvious that the Mercutians could make no
offensive move either. They had probably already done all the damage that
they could. If matters were allowed to remain as they now were--thus
avoiding the useless sacrifice of men--inevitably the time would come when
the food supply the Mercutians had brought with them would be exhausted.
Meanwhile, if the invaders decided to move in their vehicle to another
location, they could not do so suddenly without abandoning their
apparatus.

Any lessening in the number of light-rays in operation could be taken as
an indication that a move of this kind was in preparation, and the warning
would give General Price time to execute any attack that in the meantime
might be planned.

It was decided then to remain comparatively inactive and await
developments from the opposite side.

During the three months that followed this decision artillery bases were
located at intervals on a circumference of about fifteen miles around the
Mercutian center. These were all on desert country. Lines of communication
between them were established, and the air above was thoroughly patrolled
night and day.

The ten thousand men under General Price it was not thought necessary or
advisable to augment. They were deployed around this circumference in
front of the artillery, nearer the ten-mile limit. Machine-gun outposts,
manned by volunteers exclusively, were established in Garland, Mantua and
other points within the area controlled by the light. These were for the
purpose of preventing, or reporting, any possible movements on foot of the
Mercutians.

During this time the government was, naturally, subjected to much harsh
criticism for its waiting attitude. It was suggested that armored
tanks--relics of the World War--could be put into commission. These, under
cover of darkness, could be used to rush the Mercutian position. This
obviously was an absurd plan, since the light-ray would instantly raise
the temperature of the metal composing the car to such a height that the
men inside would be killed--not to mention the fact that all explosives
in the car would be instantly detonated.

Another suggestion was that a night raid be made upon the outposts of the
camp by a few men armed with machine guns fired from the shoulder, in an
effort to capture one of the Mercutians garbed in a suit impervious to the
light. With this suit even one man with a machine gun would probably be
able to clean out the Mercutian camp.

This plan evoked much favorable comment. This black material, once in our
possession, could be analyzed and possibly be duplicated in quantity by
us. It seemed the logical way of making progress.

But, unfortunately, conditions around the Mercutian camp at present were
not the same as that night when I escaped. At that time it would have been
feasible; now it was impossible, for all the invaders were within the
small circle of projectors, and the ground outside this circle was never
free from the diverging rays of the light. Also, as one newspaper article
replied, even with such a suit of armor a man with a machine gun could do
little, for the light would instantly render useless the gun itself.

So the controversy went on, and General Price waited, knowing that each
day must bring the enemy nearer starvation. Such was the condition of
affairs in the latter part of June.

Then, one morning, I received a telegram from Alan Newland in Florida. I
had been corresponding with him at intervals, but he had never given me a
hint of what had happened down there.

The telegram read:

Important Mercutian development here.
Keep absolutely secret. Join us here at once.
Answer.

I wired him immediately. Three days later I was at Bay Head.





Next: Miela's Story

Previous: The Escape



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