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The Battle

From: The Fire People

We swept out over the Great City, flying in the battle-formation we had
used many times before on our trips about the country. Mercer's platform
and mine were some fifty feet apart, leading. Behind us, in a great
semicircle, the girls spread out, fifty little groups of ten, each with
its single leader in front. Below, a hundred feet perhaps, the fifty other
girls darted back and forth, keeping pace with us. The aspect of these
girls, flying thus to battle, was truly extraordinary. The pink-white
flesh of their bodies; their limbs incased in the black veiling; their
long black or golden hair; and the vivid red or blue feathered wings
flashing behind those wide, fluttering, flimsy black shields--it was a
sight the like of which I never shall see again.

There was almost no wind, for which I was thankful, as it made our
maneuvers in the air considerably less difficult. When we reached the
Narrow Sea our patrols reported that Tao's ships were still in the river,
waiting for others from the Lone City to join them. We hastened on, for I
wished to meet them as near the Twilight shore as possible.

We believed, from the reports our girls had brought us, that the enemy
would have some twenty or thirty boats, most of them similar to that in
which Mercer and Anina weathered the storm on the way to the Water City.

We assumed that the men in the boats would be armed with the hand
light-ray cylinders. These projected a beam not over four inches broad and
had an effective range of about five hundred feet. The boats probably
would carry large projectors also. They might be set up in the boats ready
for use, or they might not.

What range they would have we could not estimate, though we hoped we
should encounter nothing more powerful than this one Miela and I had on
the platform. Its beam was about twenty inches wide, its effective radius
something like a thousand feet.

We did not expect to encounter the very large projectors. We had some in
the Great City with a range of something like ten miles, and others of
lesser range that spread the ray out fan shape. But these were extremely
heavy, and we were confident it would not be practical to mount them in
the boats.

We sighted the enemy in the Narrow Sea just before the Twilight shore was
reached. The first intimation we had was the sight of one of the narrow
beams of red-green light flashing about in the twilight. As we crept
closer, at an altitude of some two thousand feet, we saw the dim outlines
of the boats in the water below.

There were, I made out, some ten or fifteen in sight. They were heading
out into the sea in single file. Miela and I had carefully discussed the
tactics we were to employ. Mercer understood our plans, and we had three
or four girls detailed to fly close to the platforms and carry our orders
about to the leaders of the various little squads.

We sighted the boats when we were about a mile away, and, as I have said,
at an altitude of some two thousand feet. They must have seen us soon
afterward, for many light-rays now began flashing up from them.

So far as I could determine, each boat seemed armed only with one mounted
projector; these I believed to be of somewhat similar power to our own.
Our first move was to poise directly over the enemy, rising to an altitude
of twenty-five hundred feet. The boats kept straight on their way, and we
followed them, circling overhead in lengthening spirals, but keeping well
out of range.

I had ordered that none of the rays be flashed at this time, and it must
have been difficult for the men in the boats below to see us in the dusk,
shrouded as we were in black. They sent up a rocket once; it mounted above
us in a slow flaming arc, hung poised an instant, and then descended,
plunging into the sea a mile or so away. We heard distinctly the hiss of
its contact with the water, and saw, like a quickly dissipating mist, the
cloud of steam that arose.

We were not armed with these rockets, for to discharge them from the
platforms would have been impractical. But we did not fear them being used
against us. Even if true aim had been possible, we could easily avoid
their slow flight.

The protecting canopy below the sides of our platform made it difficult to
see what was going on below us. Miela and I lay prone, with our heads
projecting over its forward end. In this position we had an unobstructed,
though somewhat limited, view. The girls carrying us could see nothing.
They were guided by watching the other girls flying near them, and by
Miela's constant directions.

For some ten or fifteen minutes we circled about over the leading boat.
The Twilight shore was now almost over the horizon. The boats showed as
little black patches on the gray-black of the sea, but the lights flashing
up from them were plainly visible.

The boat that led the line was quite perceptibly drawing away from the
others. Already it was a thousand feet or more ahead of the nearest one
following. We waited through another period. This leading boat was now
beyond range of the others, and, being isolated, I decided to attack it.

"Miela," I said, "tell them all to maintain this level. You and I will go
down at that first boat. Have them all remain up here. Tell Mercer if
anything goes wrong with us to act as he thinks best."

We waited while these commands were circulated about. Mercer's platform
swept close over us, and he shouted: "We won't stay up here."

I persuaded him finally, and then we directed our girls to circle slowly
downward with our platform. I ordered a slow descent, for I was in no mind
to rush blindly into range of their ray.

We drooped down in a spiral, until at about fifteen hundred feet I ordered
the girls to descend no farther. So far as I could make out now, this boat
was protected from above by a broad overhanging canopy. Its sides
evidently were open, or nearly so, for we could see now the smaller rays
flashing out horizontally.

The large projector was mounted in the bow beyond the canopy. Its beam
obviously could be directed into the air, for it was now swinging up
toward us. But in the horizontal position its range was limited to an arc
in front of the boat. I saw then that our play was to attack from a low
level, since only in that way could we expect to reach a vulnerable spot
in the boat's armor. And I believed that if we could keep behind it they
could not reach us with their larger projector.

We swooped downward almost to the water level, and reached it a thousand
feet perhaps off to one side of the boat and partly behind it. The smaller
projectors flashed out at us, but we were beyond their range. The
projector in the bow swung back and forth, and as we skimmed the surface
of the water, heading toward the boat, it turned to face us.

What followed happened so quickly I had no time to consult with Miela. She
directed our flight. I turned the current into our projector and tried to
bring its beam to bear on the boat. We approached within some eight
hundred feet of it, darting back and forth, sometimes rising a hundred
feet or more, sometimes skimming the surface, but always keeping behind
the boat as it turned in an endeavor to face us.

My light-ray beam hit the water frequently, with a great boiling and
hissing, sending up clouds of steam that for a moment obscured the scene.
Once or twice our opponent's beam flashed over us, but we were beyond its
arc before they could bring it directly to bear.

I grew confused at the rapid turns we made. The dark outlines of the boat,
with its twenty or thirty flashing red and green lights, seemed everywhere
at once. I swung my projector about as best I could, but the swiftly
shifting target seemed too elusive. Once, as we dropped suddenly downward,
I thought we should plunge into the hissing, roaring water below. Again,
the opposing ray swung directly under us, as we darted upward to avoid it.

"I can't make it, Miela," I said. "Hold steady toward them if you can."

She did not answer, but kept her face over the platform's end and issued
her swift directions to the girls. Once, as we tilted sharply upward, I
caught a glimpse of a black-shape sweeping past, overhead. It was Mercer's
platform, flying unswervingly toward the boat, its red-green beam steady
before it like a locomotive headlight. We turned to follow; my own light
swung dangerously near Mercer, and I turned the current off hastily.

The wind of our forward flight whistled past my ears; Miela's directions
to the girls rose shrill above it. I caught a glimpse of the darting
lights of the boat ahead. Then, when we were hardly more than six hundred
feet away, Mercer's light picked it up. I saw the little lurid red circle
it made as it struck the boat's canopy top, and roved along it end to end.
Mercer's platform darted lower, and from that angle his light swept under
the canopy. A man's scream of agony came to us across the water. The
lights on the boat were extinguished; only the yellow glare of the flames
rising from its interior fittings remained.

Then, a moment later, the boat's stern rose into the air, and it slid
hissing into the water, leaving only a little wreckage and a few
struggling forms on the swirling surface.

We swung sharply upward. Again Mercer's platform--its light now
extinguished--swept directly over us. His exultant voice floated down.

"We did it, Alan! We did it! Come on up!"

We rose to the upper air, where the girls were still circling about. The
other boats were keeping on their course, spreading farther apart now to
be out of range of each other's projectors. I had hoped they would turn
back with this catastrophe to their leader, but they did not.

I consulted hastily with Miela, and then we gave the order for a general
attack, allowing each of the leading girls to act as she saw fit.

Like a great flock of birds we swooped downward upon our prey, spreading
out to attack all the boats at once. The girls now turned on their hand
lights--a myriad tiny beams darting about in the semidarkness.

I cannot attempt to describe the scene that followed. It can be imagined,
perhaps, but not told in words. As we swept within range of the lights
that swung up from below to meet us, I saw a girl, flying alone, pass
directly through one of the red beams. It seemed to strike her sidewise.
In an instant she had passed beyond it. I saw the dim outlines of her form
as she fluttered onward, wavering and aimless like a wounded bird. And
then she fell, turning over and over as with one wing she strove vainly to
support herself, until at last, wrapped in the sable shroud of her shield,
she plunged with a great splash into the sea.

The flashing light-rays all about us now seemed mingled in inextricable
confusion. The girls must have passed through them frequently, protected
by their shields; and I know our platform was several times struck by them
from below. The absence of sound was uncanny. Only the whistling wind of
our flight, the flapping of the girl's wings, and the hissing of steam as
our rays struck the water, accompanied this inferno of light.

We swept beyond the boat we had singled out, passing five or six hundred
feet above it, and in the effort to avoid its ray turning so that I was
unable to bring mine upon it. As we rose again, beyond it, I saw a boat
off to the left in flames. A dozen girls had rushed upon it, darting in
among its smaller rays to where their own would be effective. But there
was only one girl above it now, struggling brokenly to maintain herself in
flight. The boat sank with the roar of an explosion of some kind, but in
the sudden darkness about I could still see this lone wounded girl
fluttering onward.

We were not far away; I pointed her out to Miela, and instead of swinging
back we kept on toward her. We contrived to pass close under her, and she
fell abruptly almost into my arms. I stretched her out gently on the
platform and turned back to Miela, who was kneeling behind our projector.

We were now nearly half a mile from the nearest of the boats. Several of
them evidently had been sunk, and two or three others were sinking. One I
could make out heading back for the Twilight shore; above it the lights of
our girls following showed vivid against the dark-gray sky. Where Mercer's
platform was I could not tell.

Miela gripped my shoulder.

"See, Alan--there!" She pointed off to one side. "One of the boats tries
to escape."

We were now some five hundred feet above the water. Half a mile beyond us,
all its lights out, one of the boats was scurrying away, on across toward
the Light Country. For some reason none of our girls seemed following it.

Miela issued a sharp command; we swooped downward at lightning speed and,
barely skimming the surface, flew after this escaping enemy. Whether its
larger projector had been rendered inoperative, or many of its crew
killed, or whether it thought merely to escape us and make a landing in
the Light Country, I did not know.

Whatever the reason, no lights showed from this boat as we drew after it.
I had our own light out. When we came close within range I flashed it on
suddenly. We were flying steadily, and I picked up the boat without
difficulty, raking it through from stern to stem under its protecting
canopy. I could see the canopy drop as its supporting metal framework
fused in the heat of the ray; flames rose from the interior wooden
fittings; the boat's stern seemed to melt away as the thin metal was
rendered molten; the water about it boiled under the heat. A cloud of
steam then rose up, obscuring it completely from my sight.

I switched off the light. We continued on, rising a little. The steam
dissipated. Directly below us on the bubbling, swirling water a few
twisted black forms bobbed about. We were so close now I could see them
plainly. I looked away hastily.

We swung back toward the Twilight shore, rising sharply. There seemed now
only one boat afloat. Far above it I saw a tiny black oblong that I knew
was Mercer's platform. A swarm of other dots, with the tiny pencils of red
light flashing from them, showed where the cloud of girls were swooping
down to the attack. Now that we were out of the action, I had opportunity
to watch what was going on more closely.

This last engagement seemed to last less than a minute. The girls darted
fearlessly downward among the rays that swung up from the boat. Scores of
them were hit; I could see their forms illuminated for an instant by the
lurid red and green light. Some passed through it safely; many fell. But
those who got within range hit the boat without difficulty. Its lights
went out suddenly and a moment later it sank. The girls' lights flashed
off, and they rose again into the air--tiny black shapes circling about
Mercer's platform.

The scene now seemed suddenly very dark, peaceful and still. A great
weight lifted from my heart, though it still remained heavy with what I
had seen. I turned to Miela; her face was white and drawn.

"We have won, my girl," I said.

She smiled wanly.

"We have won. But, oh, Alan, that women should have to do such deeds!"

Her eyes shone with the light of a soul in sorrow.

"Pray to your God now, my husband, that this war may be the last, for all
time, in all the universe."

Next: The Siege Of The Lone City

Previous: Preparations For War

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