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The Siege Of The Lone City







From: The Fire People

Our losses totaled nearly a hundred and fifty girls. We brought back with
us on the platforms but six wounded. I shall never forget that hour we
spent searching among the wreckage--those blackened, twisted forms of what
had once been men and women. I shall not describe it.

Of all the boats which Tao had dispatched on this ill-fated expedition,
only one escaped to return with news of the disaster. I was glad now that
one, at least, had survived, for the report it would give would, I felt
sure, dissuade Tao from making any other similar attempt at invasion.

Our broken little army made its way slowly back to the Great City. We
went, not in triumph, but indeed with all the aspect of defeat. The people
received us in a frenzy of joy and gratitude to the girls for what they
had done.

This first battle took place, as I have said, just after we four had
returned from our tour of the Light Country, and before the recruiting of
the young men was fairly under way. To this recruiting it proved an
extraordinary stimulus. The girls, having been in successful action,
stirred the young men of the nation as probably nothing else could, and
all over the country they came forward faster than they could be enrolled.

It was two or three days after the battle that Miela came to me one
morning with the wounded girl she and I had rescued in the air.

"We have a plan--Sela and I--my husband," she said.

The girl seemed hardly more than a sweet little child--fifteen or sixteen,
perhaps. It gave me a shock now to realize that we had allowed her to go
into such a combat. One of her blue-feathered wings was bound in a cloth.
Its lower portion, I could tell, had been burned away.

"Never will she fly again, my husband," said Miela, "for she is one of
those who has sacrificed her wings that we might all be safe from the
invader."

She then went on to explain that now, while this feeling of gratitude to
the girls ran so high among the people, the time seemed propitious for
changing the long-hated law regarding their wings. I had not thought of
that, but agreed with her wholly.

I called the people into the castle gardens that same night. Never had I
seen such a gathering. We allowed fully ten thousand to come in; the rest
we were forced to send away.

Miela made a speech, telling them that in recognition of the girls'
services in this war, I had decided to allow them henceforth to keep their
wings unmutilated after marriage. We exhibited this little girl, Sela, as
one who had given her power of flight, not as a sacrifice on the altar of
man's selfishness, but in the service of her country. Then Sela herself
made a speech, in her earnest little child voice, pleading for her
sisters.

When she ended there may have been some unmarried men in our audience who
were still against the measure--doubtless there were--but they were afraid
or ashamed to let their feeling be known. When the meeting broke up I had
ample evidence of the people's wishes upon which to proceed.

Within a week my congress met, and the law was repealed. We informed the
other cities of this action, and everywhere it was met with enthusiasm.

Enlistment and war preparations went steadily on, but despite it all there
were more marriages that next month--three times over--than in any before.
I had now been in power some three months, and the time was approaching
when we were ready to make our invasion of the Twilight Country. We had
been maintaining a rigid aerial patrol of the Narrow Sea, but no further
activities of the enemy had been threatened.

The expedition, when it was ready, numbered about a thousand young men,
each armed with one of the hand light-ray cylinders; fifty officers, and
about fifty older men in charge of the projectors and rockets, who, for
want of a better term, I might call our artillery corps. There was also
the organization of girls, and a miscellaneous corps of men to handle the
boats, mechanics to set up the projectors, and a commissariat.

The thousand young men represented those we had selected from the several
thousand enlisted in the Great City. All the rest, and the many thousands
in the other cities, we were holding in reserve.

We took with us, on this invading expedition, only small-wheeled trucks,
on which to convey the larger projectors, and storage tanks and other
heavy apparatus, for the Lone City river ran directly to the point where
we planned to conduct our siege.

Some forty large boats were required to carry the men, ammunition and
supplies. Mercer and I, with Anina and Miela, traveled as before through
the air on the two platforms with the girls. We crossed the Narrow Sea
without incident and entered the river.

Several hours up, the river narrowed and entered a rocky gorge, four or
five hundred feet wide and a thousand feet deep, with almost perpendicular
sides. Along one of these ran the Lone City trail. We passed through this
gorge. The river here flowed with a current that amounted almost to
rapids. Our boats made slow progress. Finally we emerged into an even
wilder country, almost devoid of trees. Here we made our first night's
encampment.

Noon of the next day found us approaching the Lone City. We did not need
to surmise now that Tao would be warned, for far away on the horizon ahead
we saw the beams from his great projectors mounting up into the blackness
of the sky. Some four miles from the Lone City the river we were ascending
swept off to the right. This was its closest point to the city, and here
we disembarked. There were several docks and a few houses, but we found
them all deserted.

The Lone City was particularly well suited to defense, even though the lay
of the country was such that we were enabled to approach here within four
miles, and establish our base in comparative safety. The country was wild
and rocky, with few trees. The river bed lay in a canyon. From where we
landed, a valley so deep and narrow, it might almost be termed a canyon,
also led up to the city.

This valley was some two miles wide, with a level floor, and precipitous,
rocky sides towering in many places over a thousand feet. Above it
stretched a broken plateau country. The valley had many sharp bends and
turns, as though in some distant past it had been the bed of a great river
that had eroded its tortuous course through the rock.

The Lone City lay shut in at the bottom of this valley between two of its
bends. It was a settlement of perhaps ten thousand people, the only city
in the Twilight Country, with one exception, on this hemisphere of
Mercury.

We established our field base here at the river, and I devoted the next
few days to informing myself of the exact lay of the country, and the
methods of defense of the city Tao had provided.

I found this defense the height of simplicity, and for its purpose as
effective as it well could be. A vertical barrage of light surrounded the
city, extending upward into the air with the most powerful projectors some
ten or fifteen miles, and, with those of the spreading rays, forming a
solid wall of light at the lower altitudes. There were no projectors past
the first turn in the valley toward the river--where they could have been
directed horizontally--and none of them on the cliff tops above the city.
Thus, although we could not get over this light-barrage, we could approach
it closely in many places.

Tao's tactics became immediately evident. He had thrown an almost
impregnable barrier close about him and, trusting to its protection, was
making no effort to combat us for the moment with any moves of offense.

My first endeavor was to find a position on top of the cliffs from which
the city could be reached with a projector. It was practically the only
thing to do. The city could not be approached in front from the valley
floor; its entire surface beyond the turn was swept by the light-rays.
Approach from below in the rear was likewise barred.

Had the barrage been not so high our girls might have flown over it and
dropped bombs, or we might have sent rockets over it and dropped them into
the city. Neither of these projects was practical. The girls could not fly
over that barrage. It was too cold in the higher altitudes. Nor could we
send rockets over, for rockets sent through the light were exploded before
they could reach their mark.

The projectors along the sides of the city were located for the most part
a hundred feet or more back from the base of the surrounding cliffs. This
allowed them to cut the cliff face at the top. It will be understood then
that we could approach the brink of the cliff in many places, but never
sufficiently near to be able to direct our rays downward into the city.

These cliffs were exceedingly jagged and broken. They overhung in many
places. Great rifts split them; ravines wound their way down, many of
these with small, stunted trees growing in them. A descent from the summit
to the floor of the valley, had we been unimpeded by the light, would in
many places not have been difficult.

During the next week, we succeeded--working in the prevailing gloom--in
establishing a projector at the mouth of a ravine which emerged at the
cliff face hardly a hundred feet from the valley bottom. This point was
below the spreading light-rays which swept the cliff top above. We mounted
the projector without discovery, and, flashing it on suddenly, swept the
valley with its rays. An opposing ray from below picked it out almost
immediately, and destroyed it, killing two of our men.

The irregularities of the cliffs made several other similar attempts
possible. We took advantage of them, and in each case were able to rake
the valley with our fire for a moment before our projector was located and
destroyed. One, which we were at great pains to protect, was maintained
for a somewhat longer period.

I believed we had done an immense amount of damage by these momentarily
active projectors, although our enemy gave no sign.

We then tried dropping rockets at the base of the lights in the valley.
There were few points at which they could be reached without striking the
rays first. But we persisted, sending up a hundred or more. Most were
ineffective; a few found their mark, as we could tell by a sudden "hole"
in the barrage, which, however, was invariably repaired before we could
make it larger.

These activities lasted a week or more. It began, to look as though we had
entered upon a lengthy siege. I wondered how long the city's food supply
would last if we settled down to starve it out. The thought came to me
then that Tao might be almost ready for his second expedition to the
earth. Was he indeed merely standing us off in this way so that some day
he might depart in his vehicle before our very eyes?

Tao began to adopt our tactics. Without warning one day a projector from a
towering eminence near the city flashed down at the river encampment. That
we were not entirely destroyed was due to the extreme watchfulness of our
guards, who located it immediately with their rays. As it was, we lost
nearly a hundred men in the single moment it was in operation.

We then withdrew our camp farther away down the river, to a point where
the conformation of the country made a repetition of this attack
impossible. A sort of guerrilla warfare now began in the mountains. Our
scouting parties frequently met Tao's men, and many encounters, swiftly
fatal to one side or the other, took place. But all the time we were able,
at intervals, to rake the valley with our fire for brief periods.

Mercer constantly was evolving plans of the utmost daring, most of them
indeed amounting practically to suicide for those undertaking them. But I
held him back. Our present tactics were dangerous enough, although after
the first few fatalities we succeeded in protecting our men, even though
our projectors were invariably destroyed.

One of Mercer's plans we tried with some success. There were some places
in the light-barrage that were much less high than others. We devised a
smaller rocket that could be fired from the platforms. Mercer took it up
some twenty thousand feet, and sent several rockets over the light, which
we hoped dropped into the city.

A month went by in this way. We were in constant communication by water
with the Great City, receiving supplies and reenforcements of men and
armament. And then gradually the situation changed. Over a period of
several days our hand-to-hand encounters with the enemy grew less
frequent. Finally two or three days went by without one of them taking
place.

We became bolder and prepared to establish several projectors at different
points for simultaneous fire at a given signal. The light-barrage in the
valley remained unchanged, although now its beams held steady instead of
sometimes swinging to and fro. We dislodged one of its projectors with a
rocket, making a hole in the barrage, which this time was not repaired.
And then, to our amazement, the lights one by one began to die away. We
ceased operations, waiting. Within half a day they had all vanished, like
lights which had flickered and burned out.

Mercer, unthinking, was all for an instant attack. We could indeed have
swept the valley now without difficulty; but there were thousands of
people in the city--non-combatants, women and children--and to murder them
to no purpose was not the sort of warfare we cared to make.

It seemed probable that Tao had evacuated his position. The valley beyond
the city led up into the mountains toward the Dark City, almost on the
borderland of the frozen wastes of the Dark Country. Tao had protected
this valley from behind so that we had been unable to penetrate it without
making a detour of over twenty miles. This I had not done, although had
the siege lasted longer I think with our next reenforcement we should have
attempted it.

With the extinguishing of the lights our long-range activities ceased. We
anticipated some trick, and for several days remained quiet. Our girls
could have flown over the city; but this I would not allow, fearing that a
ray would bring them suddenly down.

Miela and myself, occupying one of the stone houses down by the river,
held a consultation there with Mercer and Anina.

Mercer, as usual, was for instant action.

"We might as well march right in," he declared. "They're out of business,
or they've gone--one or the other."

"To the Dark City they have gone, I think," Anina said.

"I think so, too," Mercer agreed.

"I'll go in alone on foot," I said, "and find out what has happened."

But Miela shook her head.

"One who can fly will go more safely. I shall go."

"Not you, my sister," Anina said quietly. "Warfare is not for you--now.
That you can understand, can you not? I shall go."

Mercer insisted on accompanying her; and he did, part of the way, waiting
while she flew close over the city. It was several hours before they
returned, reporting that the place was almost in ruins, and that Tao and
his men had fled some time before, leaving the light-barrage to burn
itself out. The next day, with our men in the black cloth suits of armor
marching up the valley, and the girls with their black shields flying
overhead, we took possession of all that remained of the Lone City.





Next: The End Of Tao

Previous: The Battle



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