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The End Of Tao







From: The Fire People

The scene of desolation that met us in the Lone City was at once
extraordinary and awesome. It seemed impossible that our rays, acting for
so brief a period, could have done so much damage. The city was nothing
more than a semicivilized settlement of little, flat-topped stone houses.
Our rays, striking these, had discharged harmlessly into the ground. But
the interiors had been penetrated through windows and doors, and
everything inflammable about them, as well as about the streets, had been
destroyed.

The people had taken refuge in cellars underground and in caves and
crevices--wherever they could find shelter. But even so, there were a
thousand dead in that city that morning, and rapidly spreading disease
would shortly have killed them all. They came out of their hiding places
little by little as we entered the streets, and stood about in groups
staring at us sullenly. They seemed mostly old men and women and children,
the younger men having fled with Tao's army. They were heavy-set, pathetic
people, with broad, heavy faces, pasty-white skin, and large protruding
eyes. We were in the Lone City nearly a month, burying the dead, doing
what we could for the people, and destroying or removing the apparatus Tao
had left behind him.

The Lone City, before the banishment of Tao, had been one of the most
primitive settlements of the Twilight region. It was in the other
hemisphere that the Twilight Country was more densely populated; but since
this Lone City was so close to the Great City it had become the scene of
Tao's exile.

This region about the Lone City was of the most barren of the whole
Twilight country. Its people were almost entirely meat eaters. Back toward
the Dark Country great bands of animals like caribou roamed. Living almost
entirely in darkness, they had little power of sight, and were easy prey
to hunters.

Their hides, which were covered with short, white fur, provided clothing;
a form of candle was made from their fat, and used for lighting; and their
flesh provided food. The Dark City, some two hundred and fifty miles away,
was the center from which most of these animals were obtained.

"Then, that's where Tao has been getting his supplies from," Mercer
exclaimed, as we heard all this from one of the Twilight People. "And
that's where he has gone now."

Tao had indeed withdrawn to the Dark City, we learned positively. And more
than that, we learned that he had factories there as well as here. We
found in the Lone City some eight of the interplanetary vehicles--most of
them almost entirely completed. The fact that Tao had abandoned them so
readily made us believe he had others in the Dark City.

There seemed a curious lack of appliances for protection against the ray.
This we attributed to two causes--that Tao had managed to take most of
them with him, and that his supply of fabric came from distant cities on
the other side of the globe. Within a month after we had occupied the Lone
City we were again ready to start forward. It had been an irksome month
for Mercer, and not a day had passed without my receiving a truculent
declaration from him that we were fools to allow Tao to escape so easily.

Our occupation of the Lone City was to continue. On this second expedition
farther into the Twilight Country I took with me a much smaller and more
select force. We had before us a land journey of some two hundred and
fifty miles, through an unknown, barren country, in which it would be
difficult for us to maintain ourselves, so I was determined to be burdened
with as few men as possible.

Our force consisted of all the older men trained in the operation of the
larger projectors and rockets; a variety of mechanics and helpers, men
selected for their physical strength; a corps of young men to the number
of fifty, and fifty girls.

We did not take the platforms, for I assumed it would be too cold for the
girls to make sustained flights. Against this cold we provided ourselves
well with the white furry garments of the Twilight People. I need not go
into details of our march to the Dark City. It occupied some three weeks.
We met with no opposition, passing a few isolated settlements, whose
inhabitants rather welcomed us than otherwise.

This region we passed through took us almost to the ill-defined borders of
the Dark Country. It was not mountainous, but rather more a great broken
plateau with a steady ascent. Each day it grew darker and colder, until at
last we entered perpetual night. It was not the sort of night we know on
earth, but a Stygian blackness.

We used little torches now, of the light-ray current, and our little army,
trudging along in their lurid glare, and dragging its wagons piled high
with the projectors, presented a curious and weird picture. The country
for the most part was barren rock, with a few stunted trees growing in the
ravines and crevices. There was an abundance of water.

We encountered several rainstorms, and once during the last week it snowed
a little. Except for the storms, the wind held steady, a gentle breeze
from the colder regions in front blowing back toward the Light Country
behind us.

During the latter days of our journey I noticed a curious change in the
ground. It seemed now, in many places, to be like a soft, chalky
limestone, which ran in pockets and seams between strata of very hard
rock. I called Miela's attention to it once, and she pointed out a number
of irregular shaped, small masses of a substance which in daylight I
assumed might be yellow. These were embedded in the soft limestone.

"Sulphur," she said. "Like that on your earth. There is much of it up
here, I have heard."

The Dark City occupied a flat plateau, slightly elevated above the
surrounding country, and on the brink of a sheer drop of some six or seven
thousand feet to an arm of the polar sea.

Our problems now were very different from when we had laid siege to the
Lone City. The conformation of the country allowed us no opportunity to
approach closer than two or three miles to the barrage of light we must
expect. We could not reach the city from these nearest points with our
projectors.

There were many lateral ravines depressed below the upper surface of the
main plateau, and though the light-rays from the city, directed
horizontally, would sweep their tops, we found we could traverse many of
them a considerable distance in safety. But from the bottoms of them we
could only fire our rockets without specific aim and our projectors not at
all.

Only by the most fortuitous of circumstances did we escape complete
annihilation the first moment we appeared within range. We had no idea
what lay ahead--although the guides we had brought with us from the Lone
City informed us we were nearing our destination--and the scene remained
in complete darkness until we were hardly more than five miles outside
Tao's stronghold.

Then, without warning, his lights flashed on--not only a vertical barrage,
but a horizontal one as well--sweeping the higher points of the entire
country around for a distance of twelve or fifteen miles.

We were, at the moment, following the bottom of a narrow gully. Had we
been on any of the upper reaches of the plateau we would undoubtedly have
been picked out by one of the roving beams of light and destroyed.

We camped where we were, and again for several days I attempted nothing,
devoting myself to a thorough exploration of the country about us. The
Dark City appeared impregnable. Beams of light from Tao's larger
projectors were constantly roaming about the entire plateau that
surrounded it, and every higher point of vantage from which one of ours
could have reached them must have been struck by their rays a score of
times a day.

It will be understood, of course, that any place where we could mount one
of the higher powered projectors, a task of several hours at best, and
strike the city, must of necessity be also within range of their rays, for
theirs were as powerful as ours. Upon observation I felt convinced that
should we attempt to mount a projector anywhere on these higher points it
would be sought out and destroyed long before we could bring it into
action.

That this was Tao's stronghold, and not the Lone City, now became evident.
I could readily understand why he had retreated here. Fully four times as
many projectors as he had in operation in the Lone City were now in
evidence. Those of shorter range, and spreading rays, kept the entire
country bathed in steady light for several miles around him, while the
larger ones--a hundred of them possibly--roved constantly over the black
emptiness beyond.

From our encampment we could advance but little farther. Fortunately,
retreat was open to us; and once beyond the circle of steady light, we had
no difficulty in moving about in the darkness, even though momentarily we
frequently were within range of the single light-beams, had they chanced
to swing upon us.

This was the situation which, even Mercer agreed, appeared hopeless. We
explored the brink of the precipice below which lay the sea. It was a
sheer drop of many thousand feet. Although a descent might have been made
closer to the Dark City, certainly it was not possible at any point we
could reach. We sent our girls down, and they reported that from below it
appeared probable that access to the ocean was had by the Dark City some
miles farther along. They went but a short distance, for Tao's lights were
occasionally sweeping about; and more than that, they could make but very
short flights, owing to the cold.

To starve Tao out appeared equally as impractical as a direct attack. With
our little army we could not surround the city on a circumference of some
eighty miles. We might, indeed, have barred the several roads that entered
it, but it seemed probable that if Tao wanted to come out he would come,
for all we could do to stop him. And yet to starve him out seemed our only
possible plan.

"We'll have to send back for reenforcements," I told Mercer, Miela and
Anina at one of our many conferences. "An army of several thousand, if we
can maintain it up here."

And then, the very next day, Mercer and Anina came forward with their
discovery. We had set up our encampment of little black fabric tents in a
ravine some six miles outside the city, securely hidden by surrounding
cliffs. Above us across the black sky the greenish-red beams of Tao's
light-rays swept continually to and fro. Miela and I were sitting together
disconsolately in our tent, reviewing the situation, when Mercer and Anina
burst in. They had been roaming about together, exploring the country, and
came in now full of excitement and enthusiasm to tell us what they had
found. We two were to accompany them. They would tell us no more than
that; and as soon as we had all eaten we started off. It would be a trip
of several hours, Mercer said, and would take us around to the other side
and partly behind the Dark City.

We followed no road, but scrambled along over the open country, picking
our way as best we could, and using the lights from the city to give us
direction. The two girls half walked, half flew, and Mercer and I, with
our ability to take huge leaps, made rapid progress.

The night was black--that unluminous blackness that seems to swallow
everything, even objects near at hand. We made our way along, using little
hand searchlights that threw a red glare a short distance before us.

We kept down in the gulleys as much as possible, avoiding the higher
places where Tao's long-range beams were constantly striking, and passed
around in front of the Dark City, keeping always at least five miles away.

We had been traveling two or three hours, and still Mercer and Anina gave
us no clew to what we were about to see. It began to snow. Huge, soft
flakes soon lay thick on the ground.

"Mercer, where are you taking us?" I exclaimed once.

"You shall see very soon now," Anina answered me. "What we have found,
Ollie and I--and our plan--you shall understand it soon."

We had to be content with that. An hour later we found ourselves well
around behind the Dark City and hardly more than four miles outside it. A
great jagged cliff-face, two hundred feet high perhaps, fronted us. We, at
its base, were on comparatively low ground here, with another low line of
cliffs shading us from the light-beams of the city.

Mercer and Anina stopped and pointed upward at the cliff. A huge seam of
the soft, chalky limestone ran laterally for five hundred feet or more
across its face. I saw embedded in this seam great irregular masses of
sulphur.

"There you are," said Mercer triumphantly. "Sulphur--stacks of it. All we
have to do is set fire to it. With the wind blowing this way--right toward
the city--" His gesture was significant.

The feasibility of the plan struck us at once. It was an enormous deposit
of free sulphur. From this point the prevailing wind blew directly across
the city. The sulphur lay in great masses sufficiently close together so
that if we were to set fire to it in several places with our small
light-ray torches we could be assured of its burning steadily. And its
fumes, without warning, blowing directly over the city--I shuddered as the
whole thing became clear to me.

"Good God, man--"

"That'll smoke 'em out," declared Mercer, waving his hand again toward the
cliff. "I ask you now, won't that smoke 'em out?"

"Tao's men--yes." Miela's face was grave as she answered Mercer's
triumphant question. "It will do that, Ollie. Kill them all, of a
certainty; but that whole city there--"

Mercer stared at his feet, toying idly with the little torch in his hand.

"Can you think of any other way to get at Tao?" he asked.

Anina met my eyes steadily.

"There is no other way," she said quietly. "It must be done. It is your
world--your people--we must think of now. And you know there is no other
way."

We decided at last to try it. Once we had made the decision, we proceeded
as quickly as possible to put the plan into execution. We moved our
encampment farther away, well out of danger from the fumes.

We mounted several of the projectors in positions where their rays could
reach the surrounding country, and the sky, although not the city itself.
Then, ordering our men and girls to hold themselves in readiness for
whatever might occur, we four went off together to fire the sulphur.

The wind was blowing directly toward the city as we stood at the base of
the cliff, a silent little group. I think that now, at this moment, we all
of us hesitated in awe at what we were about to do.

Mercer broke the tension.

"Come on, Alan--let's start it off. Now is the time--a lot of places at
once."

We flashed on our little light-rays, and in a moment the sulphur was on
fire at a score of different points. We drew off a few hundred feet to one
side and sat down to watch it in the darkness. Overhead Tao's red beams
swept like giant search-lights across the inky sky.

The sulphur started burning with tiny little spots of wavering blue flame
that seemed, many of them, about to die away. Gradually they grew larger,
spreading out slowly and silently in ever-widening circles. Under the heat
of the flames the sulphur masses became molten, turned into a viscous dark
red fluid that boiled and bubbled heavily and dropped spluttering upon the
ground.

Slowly the blue-green flames spread about, joining each other and making
more rapid headway--a dozen tiny volcanoes vomiting their deadly fumes and
pouring forth their sluggish, boiling lava. The scene about us now was
lighted in a horrible blue-green glare. A great cloud of thin smoke
gathered, hung poised a moment, and then rolled slowly away--its deadly
fumes hanging low to the ground and spreading ever wider as though eager
to clutch the unsuspecting city in their deadly embrace.

The entire face of the cliff was now covered with the crawling blue fire,
lapping avidly about with its ten-foot tongues. We drew back, staring
silently at each other's ghastly green faces.

"Let's--let's get away," Mercer whispered finally. "No use staying here
now."

We hurried back to the nearest place where one of our projectors was set
up. The two men guarding it looked at us anxiously, and smiled
triumphantly when Miela told them what we had done. We stood beside them a
moment, then Miela and I climbed to an eminence near by from which we had
an unobstructed view of the city.

The light-barrage still held steady. The individual, higher-powered
projectors as before swung their beams lazily about the country. We sat
partly in the shelter of a huge bowlder, behind which we could have
dropped quickly had one of them turned our way.

"Soon it will be there," Miela said softly, when we had been sitting quiet
for a time.

I did not answer. It was indeed too solemn a thing for words, this
watching from the darkness while an invisible death, let loose by our own
hands, stole down upon our complacent enemies.

A few moments more we watched--and still the scene before us showed no
change. Then, abruptly, the lights seemed to waver; some of the beams
swung hurriedly to and fro, then remained motionless in unusual positions,
as though the men at their levers in sudden panic had abandoned them.

My heart was beating violently. What hidden tragedy was being enacted
behind that silent barrier of light? I shuddered as my imagination
conjured up hideous pictures of that unseen death that now must be
stalking about those city streets, entering those homes, polluting the air
with its stifling, noisome breath, and that even at this distance seemed
clutching at my own lungs.

I suppose the whole thing did last only a moment. There was little in
what we saw of significance had we not known. But we did know--and the
knowledge left us trembling and unnerved.

I leaped to my feet, pulling Miela after me, and in a few moments more we
were back beside the projector we had left with Mercer and Anina. Suddenly
a white shape appeared in the sky over the city. It passed perilously
close above the shattered light-barrage and came sailing out in our
direction.

Mercer jumped for the projector, but I was nearer, and in a moment I had
flashed it on.

"It's Tao!" Mercer shouted. "He--"

It was one of Tao's interplanetary vehicles, rising slowly in a great arc
above us. I swung our light-beams upward; it swept across the sky and fell
upon the white shape; the thing seemed to poise in its flight, as though
held by the little red circle of light that fastened upon it, boring its
way in. Then, slowly at first, it fell; faster and faster it dropped,
until it struck the ground with a great crash--the first and only sound of
all this soundless warfare.

* * * * *

It was three days before the great sulphur deposit we had ignited burned
itself out. The lights of the city had all died away, and blackness such
as I never hope to experience again settled down upon the scene.

We approached the Dark City then; we even entered one or two of its
outlying houses;, but beyond that we did not go, for we had made certain
of what we wanted to know.

I remember my father once describing how, when a young man, he had gone to
the little island of Martinique shortly after the great volcanic outbreak
of Mount Pelee. I remember his reluctance to dwell upon the scenes he saw
there in that silent city of St. Pierre--the houses with their dead
occupants, stricken as they were sitting about the family table; the
motionless forms in the streets, lying huddled where death had overtaken
them in their sudden panic. That same reluctance silences me now, for one
does not voluntarily dwell upon such scenes as those.

A day or so later we found the interplanetary projectile which had sought
to escape. Amid its wreckage lay the single, broken form of Tao--that
leader who, plotting the devastation of two worlds for his own personal
gain, had at the very last deserted his comrades and met his death alone.





Next: The Return

Previous: The Siege Of The Lone City



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