OF COURSE, at the time that I had been killed in our little war down on Earth, there had not been a great deal of aerial activity; I mean, no great mass flights. I know there was talk that either side might send over hundreds of ships in a single flight, and hundreds of ships seemed a lot of ships; but this day, as I followed my squadron commander into battle, there were more than ten thousand ships visible in the sky; and this was only the first wave. We were climbing steadily at terrific speed in an effort to get above the Kapars, and they were doing the same. We made contact about twelve miles above the ground, and the battle soon after developed into a multitude of individual dog-fights, though both sides tried to keep some semblance of formation.
The atmosphere of Poloda rises about one hundred miles above the planet, and one can fly up to an altitude of about fifteen miles without needing an oxygen tank.
In a few minutes I became separated from my squadron and found myself engaged with three light Kapar combat planes. Ships were falling all around us, like dead leaves in an autumn storm; and so crowded was the sky with fighting ships that much of my attention had to be concentrated upon avoiding collisions; but I succeeded in manoeuvring into a commanding position and had the satisfaction of seeing one of the Kapars roll over and plummet toward the ground. The other two were at a disadvantage, as I was still above them and they turned tail and started for home. My ship was much faster than one of theirs, and I soon overhauled the laggard and shot him down, too.
I could not but recall my last engagement, when I shot down two of three Messerschmitts before being shot down myself; and I wondered if this were to be a repetition of that adventure—was I to die a second time?
I chased the remaining Kapar out over the enormous bay that indents the west coast of Unis. It is called the Bay of Hagar. It is really a gulf, for it is fully twelve hundred miles long. An enormous island at its mouth has been built up with the earth excavated from the underground workings of Unis, pumped there through a pipe that you could drive an automobile through.
It was between the coast and this island that I got on the tail of this last Kapar. One gunner was hanging dead over the edge of the cockpit, but the other was working his gun. Above the barking of my own gun I could hear his bullets screaming past me; and why I wasn’t hit I shall never know, unless it was that that Kapar was Poloda’s worst marksman.
Evidently I wasn’t much better, but finally I saw him slump down into the cockpit; and then beyond his ship I saw another wave of Kapar flyers coming, and I felt that it was a good time to get away from there. The Kapar pilot that I had been pursuing must have seen the new wave at the same time that I did, for he turned immediately after I had turned and pursued me. And now my engine began to give trouble; it must have been hit by the last spurt from the dead gunner’s piece. The Kapar was overhauling me, and he was getting in range, but there was no answering fire from the gunners in my after cockpit. I glanced back to find that they were both dead.
Now I was in a fix, absolutely defenseless against the ship pulling up behind me. I figured I might pull a fast one on him; so I banked steeply and dived beneath him; then I banked again and came up under his tail with my gun bearing on his belly. I was firing bullets into him when he dived to escape me, but he never came out of that dive.
To the west the sky was black with Kapar ships. In a minute they would be upon me; it was at that moment that my engine gave up the ghost. Ten or eleven miles below me was the coast of Unis. A thousand miles to the northeast was Orvis. I might have glided 175 or 180 miles toward the city, but the Kapars would long since have been over me and some of their ships would have been detached to come down and put an end to me. As they might already have sighted me, I put the ship into a spin in the hope of misleading them into thinking I had been shot down. I spun down for a short distance and then went into a straight dive, and I can tell you that spinning and diving for ten or eleven miles is an experience.
I brought the ship down between the coast and a range of mountains, and no Kapar followed me. As I climbed out of the pilot’s cockpit, Bantor Han, the third gunner, emerged from the ship.
“Nice work,” he said, “we got all three of them.”
“We had a bit of luck,” I said, “and now we’ve got a long walk to Orvis.”
“We’ll never see Orvis again,” said the gunner.
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“This coast has been right in the path of Kapar flights for a hundred years. Where we are standingwas once one of the largest cities of Unis, a great seaport. Can you find a stick or stone of it now? And for two or three hundred miles inland it is the same; nothing but bomb craters.”
“But are there no cities in this part of Unis?” I asked.
“There are some farther south. The nearest is about a thousand miles from here, and on the other side of this range of mountains. There are cities far to the north, and cities east of Orvis; but it has never been practical to build even underground cities directly in the path of the Kapar flights, while there are other sections less affected.”
“Well,” I said, “I am not going to give up so easily. I will at least try to get to Orvis or some other city. Suppose we try for the one on the other side of these mountains. At least we won’t be in the path of the Kapars every time they come over.”
Bantor Han shook his head again. “Those mountains are full of wild beasts,” he said. “There was a very large collection of wild animals in the city of Hagar when the war broke out over a hundred years ago. Many of them were killed in the first bombing of the city; but all their barriers were broken down, and the survivors escaped. For a hundred years they have ranged these mountains and they have multiplied. The inhabitants of Polan, this city you wish to try to reach, scarcely dare stick their heads above-ground because of them. No,” he continued, “we have no complaint to make. You and I will die here, and that will mean that we have lost four men and one pursuit plane to their three light combat ships and, possibly, twenty men. It is a mighty good day’s work, Tangor, and you should be proud.”
“That is what I call patriotism and loyalty,” I said; “but I can be just as patriotic and loyal alive as dead, and I don’t intend even to think of giving up yet. If we are going to die anyway, I can see no advantage in sitting here and starving to death.”
Bantor Han shrugged. “That suits me,” he said. “I thought I was as good as dead when you tackled those three combat planes, and the chances are that I should have been killed in my next engagement. I have been too lucky; so, if you prefer to go and look for death instead of waiting for it to come to you, I’ll trot along with you.”
So Bantor Han and I took the weapons and ammunition of our dead comrades and entered the Mountains of Loras.
I was amazed by the beauty of these mountains after we entered them. We were about eight or nine hundred miles north of the Equator and the climate was similar to the south temperate zone of Earth in summertime. Everything was green and beautiful, with a profusion’ of the strange trees and plants and flowers which are so like those of Earth, and yet so unlike. I had been cooped up for so long in the underground city of Orvis that I felt like a boy just released from a schoolroom for a long vacation. But Bantor Han was uneasy. “Of course, I was born here in Unis,” he said, “but being on the surface like this is to me like being in a strange world, for I have spent practically all of my life either underground or high up in the air.”
“Don’t you think that this is beautiful?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “I suppose it is, but it is a little bewildering; there is so much of it. There is a feeling of rest, and quiet, and security down there in underground Orvis; and I am always glad to get back to it after a flight.”
I suppose that was the result of living underground for generations, and that Bantor Han had developed a complex the exact opposite of claustrophobia. Possibly it has a name, but if it has I never heard it. There were streams in the mountains, and little lakes where we saw fish playing, and the first animal that we saw appeared to be some sort of an antelope. It was armed with long, sharp horns, and looked something like an addax. It was standing with its forefeet in shallow water at the edge of a lake, drinking, when we came upon it; and as it was up-wind from us it did not catch our scent. When I saw it I drew Bantor Han into the concealment of some bushes.
“There is food,” I whispered, and Bantor Han nodded.
I took careful aim and brought the animal down with a single bullet through the heart. We were busy carving a few steaks from it when our attention was attracted by a most unpleasant growl. We looked up simultaneously.
“That’s what I meant,” said Bantor Han. “The mountains are full of creatures like that.”
Like most of the animals that I have seen on Poloda, it did not differ greatly from those on Earth; that is, they all have four legs, and two eyes, and usually a tail. Some are covered with hair, some with wool, some with fur, and some are hairless. The Polodian horse has three-toed feet, and a little horn in the center of his forehead. The cattle have no horns nor are their hoofs cloven, and in fighting they bite and kick like an earthly horse. The horses are the saddle animals and beasts of burden, and occasionally are used for food. The cattle are definitely beef animals, and the cows give milk. The creature that was creeping toward us with menacing growls was built like a lion and striped like a zebra, and it was about the size of an African lion. I drew my pistol from its holster, but Bantor Han laid a hand upon my arm.
“Don’t shoot it,” he said, “you may make it angry. If we go away and leave this meat to it, it probably will not attack us.”
“If you think I am going to leave our supper to that thing, you are very much mistaken,” I said. I was amazed at Bantor Han. I knew that he was no coward. He had an excellent record in the fighting service and was covered with decorations. But everything here on the ground was so new and strange to him. Put him twelve miles up in the air, or a hundred feet underground, and he wouldn’t have backed down for man or beast.
I shook his hand off and took careful aim just as the creature charged, with a charge for all the world like an African lion. I let him have it straight in the heart—a stream of four or five bullets, and they almost tore him apart, for they were explosive bullets.
Civilized, cultured, as these Unisans are, they use both dumdum and exploding projectiles in their small arms. When I commented on the fact to one of them, he replied: “This is the complete war that the Kapars asked for.”
“Well,” exclaimed Bantor Han, “you did it, didn’t you?” He seemed surprised that I had killed the beast.
We cooked and ate the antelope steaks, and left the rest where it lay, for we had no means of carrying any of it with us. We felt much refreshed, and I think that Bantor Han felt a little safer now that he had found that we were not going to be eaten up by the first carnivorous animal that we met.
It took us two days to cross through this mountain range. Fortunately for us, we had tackled it near its extreme northern end, where it was quite narrow and the mountains were little more than large hills. We had plenty to eat, and were only attacked twice more by dangerous animals, once by a huge creature that resembled a hyena, and again by the beast that I have named “the lion of Poloda.” The two nights were the worst, because of the increased danger of prowling carnivora. The first we spent in a cave, and took turns standing watch, and the second night we slept in the open; but luck was with us and nothing attacked us.
As we came down out of a canon on the east side of the mountains we saw that which brought us to a sudden stop—a Kapar plane not half a mile from us, on the edge of a little ravine that was a continuation of the canon we were in. There were two men beside the plane, and they seemed to be digging in the ground.
“Two more Kapars for our bag, Bantor Han,” I said.
“If we get them and destroy their plane, we can certainly afford to die,” he said.
“You’re always wanting to die,” I said reproachfully. “I intend to live.” He would have been surprised had he known I was already dead, and buried somewhere 548,000 light-years away! “And furthermore, Bantor Han,” I added, “we are not going to destroy that plane; not if it will fly.”
We dropped into the ravine and made our way down toward the Kapars. We were entirely concealed from above, and if we made any noise it was drowned out by the noise of the little brook running over its rocky bed.
When I thought we had gone far enough, I told Bantor Han to wait and then I clambered up the side of the ravine to reconnoiter. Sure enough, I had hit the nail right on the head. There were the two Kapars digging away, scarcely a hundred feet from me. I crouched down and beckoned Bantor Han to come up.
There is no chivalry in complete war, I can assure you. Those two Kapars didn’t have a chance. They were both dead before they knew there was an enemy within a thousand miles. Then we went to see what they had been at, and found a box beside the hole which they had been excavating. It was a metal box with a waterproof top, and when we opened it we found that it contained two complete blue uniforms of the Unis Fighting Corps, together with helmets, boots, ammunition belts, daggers, and guns. There were also directions in the Kapar language for entering the city of Orvis and starting numerous fires on a certain night about a month later. Even the location of the buildings that might most easily be fired, and from which the fires would spread most rapidly, was given.
We put the box aboard the ship and climbed in.
“We’ll never make it,” said Bantor Han. “We’re bound to be shot down.”
“You’re certainly determined to die, aren’t you?” I said, as I started the engine and taxied for the take-off.