The Battle

: 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."