The End Of Tao

: 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


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Tao had indeed withdrawn to the Dark City, we learned positively.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


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


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


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


"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


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


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


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


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


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.