Escape on Venus

Chapter XLV

Edgar Rice Burroughs

THE VERY largest guns of the battleship hurl shells weighing a thousand pounds to a distance of about fifteen miles, while smaller bore guns hurl five hundred pound shells from twenty to twenty-five miles. These guns are used when the enemy is below the horizon, as the t-ray and the r-ray describe no curve in their flight. Moving as they do always in a straight line, the target must be visible to the gunner.

The leading destroyers and cruisers were now out of sight, bearing down on the enemy to get their terribly destructive t-ray guns into action. Enemy shells were bursting all about us; our battleships were firing salvo after salvo.

Presently the battleships leaped forward at accelerated speed, rolling and bumping over the uneven ground so that the sensation was much the same as being on the deck of an ocean-going ship in a heavy sea; yet the firing never ceased.

I saw a direct hit on the superstructure of the next ship in line. Every man on the bridge of that ship must have been killed instantly. Though it seemed to me like a man without eyes, it kept its place in line and continued firing; its commander and his staff operating it from an armored control room in the bowels of the ship from radio instructions received from the flagship. While handicapped, it was still able to fight.

“You see what I meant,” said the officer who had advised me to go below, nodding in the direction of the wreck of the superstructure.

“I see,” I said, “but it is far more interesting here than it would be below.”

“You will find it still more interesting when we close with the enemy,” he said.

We could now see our cruisers and some of the destroyers ahead. They were closely engaged with some enemy craft and at last we saw the big battleships of the enemy coming up over the curve of the planet; and in another half hour we were in the thick of it. The little scout ships were buzzing around like mosquitos, and they and the destroyers were launching wheeled torpedos at the enemy ships, while enemy ships of the same class were attacking us similarly.

The booming of the big guns had given place to the hissing of t-rays, which are capable of destroying nearly all forms of matter.

These ships have two forms of protection, heavy armorplate against shells, over which lies a thin protective coating which is impervious to t-rays, but which can be dissolved by a certain chemical. And now that the two fleets were in close contact, another form of gun was brought into action, which fired shells containing this acid, and when a direct hit was made you could see a great blotch on the side of the hit ship where the t-ray protective material had been dissolved, and the armorplate beneath was exposed. Immediately the ship was vulnerable to t-rays on this spot and the t-ray guns of opposing ships were at once trained on it; and it became the strategy of such a ship to continually maneuver so that this vulnerable spot was not presented to the enemy.

As we approached the vortex of the battle I discovered that one of its most interesting phases centered about the little wheeled torpedos. Mounted on a tricycle undercarriage, they are self-propelling, and are supposed to move in a straight-line toward the target at which they are aimed when they are launched, thus naturally a rough terrain will deflect them; and they are really highly effective only at very close range. Their purpose is to disable the heavy, endless belts upon which the lantars run after the manner of our own caterpillar tractors and tanks. One of the functions of the little scout ships is to destroy enemy torpedos as well as to launch their own; and this they do with small t-ray guns. To me, these would be the most interesting ships to command. They are amazingly fast and maneuverable and the busiest things I ever saw, darting to launch a torpedo, zigzagging out again at terrific speed to avoid t-ray fire, or chasing an enemy torpedo to put it out of commission.

The flagship was in the thick of the battle now, and I soon found more interesting things than the little scout ships close at hand, for we were engaged in a duel with the men on the superstructure of an enemy warship close off our starboard side. Six of our men were already dead and one of our guns had been put out of action. A chemical shell had hit its shield, removing the protective coating and exposing it to the deadly t-ray fire of the enemy. The t-rays opened a big hole in it, and the gunners dropped one by one. Two men were dragging another shield to the gun and I gave them a hand. We held it in front of us to protect us from enemy fire, but in getting it into position my companions exposed themselves, and both were killed.

I looked around to see if someone was coming to command the gun, but I found that everyone else on the bridge had been killed, with the exception of the crews of the other guns, one of which was now being fired by the only remaining officer. So I took my place on the seat at the gun’s breech and glued my eye to the little periscope which barely topped the shield. I was entirely protected from everything but shellfire until another chemical shell should strike my shield.

Through the periscope I could plainly see the bridge of the enemy ship, and I could see that they were not much better off than we. The deck was littered with dead, and it was evident that two of their guns were out of commission. Below me the two ships were hurling broadsides of chemical shells and t-rays into one another’s hulls. There was a gaping hole in the side of the enemy ship, but our t-rays had not yet reached a vital spot.

Now I turned the periscope back on the enemy bridge and saw a foot protruding beneath the shield of the gun directly opposite me. I set my sights on the foot and blew it off. I heard the fellow scream and then I saw him roll to the deck. He should have held onto himself better, for now his head was exposed, and a couple of seconds later that followed his foot. The gun, however, kept on firing. There might be two more gunners behind that shield.

The t-ray travels in a straight path, not much greater in diameter than an ordinary lead pencil. The two bursts that I had fired from the gun had convinced me that it was an extremely accurate weapon. Naturally, the rolling and the bumping of the two ships as they forged along side by side made almost any hit more or less of an accident. No matter how much a ship rolls, there is an instant at each end of its roll when it is static, and it was at this instant that I had fired my two bursts. Now I determined to try for another lucky shot, and sought to train my gun on the tiny opening in the muzzle of the enemy gun that was facing me. If I could strike that tiny target, the gun would be permanently disabled. Following that little target with my sight was nerveracking. I fired a dozen bursts without accomplishing anything and then for a fraction of a second the two ships seemed to stand perfectly still simultaneously. My sight was directly on the opening in the muzzle of the enemy gun as I pressed the button which liberates the t-ray. I could see the gun quiver as the t-rays bored completely through it, and I knew that I had made a direct hit and that that gun would fire no more.

Only one gun was now in action on the enemy bridge, and I could see two of its gunners lying dead outside the shield; so I was pretty sure that it was manned by only one man and that the surviving gunner or gunners of the piece I had hit would try to reach the remaining gun and reinforce its crew; so I turned my piece on the space between the two guns and waited. Sure enough, both gunners started to dart across simultaneously and I got them both.

Looking around for new worlds to conquer, I turned my periscope on other parts of the enemy battleship. It had taken a terrific beating, but most of its guns were still in action. I saw a point, very low down on the hull, where a chemical shell had burst. It was on the armored apron that protects the running gear. I turned my piece on that spot and pressed the button. It was impossible to hold it there constantly because of the movement of the two ships, but I had the satisfaction of seeing a hole appear in the armor; and I kept on plugging away at it until there was a hole there as big as a man’s head, exposing the great metal track upon which the monster traveled. The track was moving so fast that the t-rays were spread over a considerable surface, with the result that no immediate effects were observable; but presently I saw the tracks crumple beneath the giant wheels, and jam. Instantly the battleship swung toward us with the blocking of its wheels on the port side, while the starboard side was still in motion. We veered away at full speed just in time to avoid a collision; and then, as the enemy ship came to a stop, we left her to the mercy of the destroyers and scout ships that swarmed around her like hyenas and jackals.

For the first time since I had manned the gun I had an opportunity to look about me and I saw that the enemy fleet was in full flight, with our destroyers and cruisers harassing it. Astern as far as the eye could see the plain was dotted with disabled ships of both sides, and I could see hand to hand fighting on the ground as the Falsans sought to take prisoners.

Night was falling and the flagship was signaling the fleet to return to formation. As far as I was concerned, the battle was over; and as I looked around the bridge I could appreciate why the officer had suggested that I go below. He and I and two gunners were the only survivors of the engagement. As I stood up and surveyed the carnage, he came over and spoke to me.

“You fought that gun well,” he said.

“Not much like a Pangan spy, do you think?” I said, smiling.

“No, nor not much like a man who has never seen a lantar before,” he said.

“I have seen other ships, and fought them too, but they sailed on oceans and not on land.”

“You will get plenty more fighting tomorrow,” he remarked. “We should reach Hor by early afternoon, and then there will really be fighting.”

“What is this war all about?” I asked.

“It’s a matter of grazing land for the herds,” he replied. “Panga wants it all. So we have been fighting over it for the last ten years, and while we have been fighting, the men of Hangor have stolen nearly all of their herds and the men of Maltor have stolen nearly all of ours.”

“Doesn’t either side ever win any decisive battles?” I asked.

“Our fleet always defeats theirs,” he replied. “But so far we have been unable to take the city of Hor; that would decide the war.”

“And then what?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said, “but the chances are we will go to war with Maltor to recover our stolen herds.”

After the battle a couple of hospital ships and a transport came up from the rear. The transport brought replacements and the hospital ships took the wounded aboard. Most of the night was devoted to making repairs and there was little sleep.

When morning broke I saw two very strange looking craft that had come up during the night. They were heavily armored, enormous monstrosities, with cone-shaped prows that came to a point about fifteen feet above the ground. Each had four very heavy guns pointing straight ahead just in rear of the cones. The muzzle of each gun was flush with the surface of the armorplate, the guns themselves being hidden in the interior of the hull. There was one on either side, one above, and one below the prow; lighter, protective t-ray guns, fired from ports along the sides and at the stern. The hulls were cylindrical in shape and the whole ship looked like an enormous torpedo. I could not see what their purpose could be, for it was evident that their maneuverability would be very poor.

Shortly after daylight we got under way, and soon thereafter Danlot sent for me.

“Your conduct during yesterday’s action has been reported to me,” he said. “Your action was highly commendable and I would like to show my appreciation in some way.”

“You can do that,” I replied, “by permitting me to rejoin my mate.”

“That was another matter I wished to speak to you about,” he said. “Your mate is missing.”

“Missing!” I exclaimed. “What do you mean? Was she killed during yesterday’s action?”

“No,” he replied. “Vantor’s body was found in his cabin this morning. He had been stabbed through the heart, and your mate was not on the ship when they searched it for her.”

Escape on Venus - Contents    |     Chapter XLVI

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