WE TOOK OFF the next morning just before dawn, thousands of planes of all descriptions. We were to fly at an altitude of twelve miles, and as we gained it, four of Omos’ eleven planets were visible in the heavens, the nearest less than six hundred thousand miles away. It was a gorgeous sight indeed. Around Omos, the sun of this system, revolve eleven planets, each approximately the size of our Earth. They are spaced almost exactly equi-distant from one another; the path of their orbits being a million miles from the center of the sun, which is much smaller than the sun of our own solar system. An atmospheric belt seventy-two hundred miles in diameter revolves with the planets in the same orbit, thus connecting the planets by an air lane which offers the suggestion of possible inter-planetary travel; this Harkas Yen told me might have been achieved long since had it not been for the war.
Ever since I came to Poloda my imagination has been intrigued by thoughts of the possibilities inherent in a visit to these other planets, where conditions almost identical with those on Poloda must exist. On these other planets there may be, and probably are, animal and plant life not dissimilar from our own, but which there is little likelihood that we shall ever see while complete war is maintained upon Poloda.
I had a long flight ahead of me, and speculating on interplanetary travel helped to pass the time away. Kapara lies on the continent of Epris, and Ergos, the capital of Kapara, is some eleven thousand miles from Orvis; and as our slowest planes have a speed of five hundred miles an hour, we were due over Ergos a couple of hours before dawn of the following day. As all three of my gunners are relief pilots, we relieved each other every four hours. Bantor Han was not with me on this flight, and I had three men with whom I had not previously flown. However, like all of the men of the fighting forces of Unis, they were efficient and dependable.
After crossing the coastline of Unis we flew three thousand and five hundred miles over the great Karagan Ocean, which extends for eighty-five hundred miles from the northern continent of Karis to the southernmost tip of Unis, where the continents of Epris and Unis almost meet.
At an altitude of twelve miles there is not much to see but atmosphere. Occasional cloud banks floated beneath us, and between them we could see the blue ocean, scintillating in the sunlight, looking almost as smooth as a millpond; but the scintillation told us that high seas were running.
About noon we sighted the shore of Epris; and shortly after, a wave of Kapar planes came to meet us. There were not more than a thousand of them in this wave; and we drove them back, destroying about half of them, before a second and much larger wave attacked us. The fighting was furious, but most of our bombers got through. Our squadron was escorting one of the heavy bombers, and we were constantly engaged in fighting off enemy attack planes. My plane was engaged in three dog-fights within half an hour, and I was fortunate to come through with the loss of only one man, one of the gunners in the after cockpit. After each fight 1 had to open her up wide and overtake the bomber and her convoy.
The cruising speed of these pursuit ships is around five hundred miles an hour, but they have a top speed of almost six hundred miles. The bombers cruise at about five hundred, with a top speed around five hundred and fifty.
Of the two thousand light and heavy bombers that started out with the fleet on this raid, about eighteen hundred got through to Ergos; and there, believe me, the real fighting commenced. Thousands upon thousands of Kapar planes soared into the air, and our fleet was augmented by the arrival of the survivors of the dog-fights.
As the bombers unloaded their heavy bombs we could first see the flames of the explosions and then, after what seemed a long while, the sound of the detonation would come to us from twelve miles below. Ships were falling all about us, ours and the Kapars. Bullets screamed about us, and it was during this phase of the engagement that I lost my remaining after cockpit gunner.
Suddenly the Kapar fleet disappeared, and then the anti-aircraft guns opened up on us. Like the anti-aircraft guns of Unis, they fire a thousand pound shell twelve or fifteen miles up into the air, and the burst scatters fragments of steel for five hundred yards in all directions. Other shells contain wire nets and small parachutes, which support the nets in the air to entangle and foul propellers.
After unloading our bombs, some seven or eight thousand tons of them, upon an area of two hundred square miles over and around Ergos, we started for home, circling to the east and then to the north, which would bring us in over the southernmost tip of Unis. I had two dead men in the after cockpit; and I hadn’t been able to raise the gunner in the belly of the ship for some time.
As we circled over the eastern tip of Epris, my motor failed entirely, and there was nothing for me to do but come down. Another hour and I would have been within gliding distance of the tip of Unis, or one of the three islands which are an extension of this tip, at the southern end of the Karagan Ocean.
The crews of many ships saw me gliding down for a landing, but no ship followed to succor me. It is one of the rules of the service that other ships and men must not be jeopardized to assist a pilot who is forced down in enemy country. The poor devil is just written off as a loss.
I knew from my study of Polodian geography that I was beyond the southeastern boundary of Kapara, and over the country formerly known as Punos, one of the first to be subjugated by the Kapars over a hundred years before.
What the country was like I could only guess from rumors that are current in Unis, and which suggest that its people have been reduced to the status of wild beasts by years of persecution and starvation.
As I approached the ground I saw a mountainous country beneath me and two rivers which joined to form a very large river that emptied into a bay on the southern shoreline; but I found no people, no cities, and no indication of cultivated fields. Except along the river courses, where vegetation was discernible, the land appeared to be a vast wilderness. The whole terrain below me appeared pitted with ancient shell-craters, attesting the terrific bombardment to which it had been subjected in a bygone day.
I had about given up all hope of finding a level place on which to make a landing, when I discovered one in the mouth of a broad canon, at the southern foot of a range of mountains.
As I was about to set the ship down I saw figures moving a short distance up the canon. At first I could not make out what they were, for they dodged behind trees in an evident effort to conceal themselves from me; but when the ship came to rest they came out, a dozen men armed with spears and bows and arrows. They wore loincloths made of the skin of some animal, and they carried long knives in their belts. Their hair was matted and their bodies were filthy and terribly emaciated.
They crept toward me, taking advantage of whatever cover the terrain afforded; and as they came they fitted arrows to their bows.