The space machine, p.20
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       The Space Machine, p.20
 

          

  In the heat of the moment I cursed myself for not having realized that these towers themselves must be mobile. It was true that I had never before seen one in motion, but none of my speculations about their use had made any kind of consistent sense.

  We were still increasing our speed, moving in a wide formation towards the enemy city.

  In the van was a line of the vehicles. They were flanked on each side by four of the towers. Behind them, spread out in a second rank about half a mile long, were ten more of the ground-vehicles. The rest, including the tower on which I stood, holding on for dear life, followed in open formation behind. Already we were moving at such a speed that the legs were throwing up a cloud of sand and grit, and the wake from the leading vehicles was stinging my face. My own machine ran smoothly on, the engine humming powerfully.

  Within about a minute we were travelling as fast as any steam train could go, and here the speed stayed constant. There was no longer any question of escaping from this frightful situation; it was all I could do to stay upright and not be dislodged.

  My downfall was nearly precipitated when, without warning, a metal flap opened beneath my legs! I hauled myself to one side away from it thankful that the motion of the machine was steady, and watched incredulously as there unfolded from the aperture an immense metal contraption, extended on telescopic rods. As it brushed within a few inches of my face I saw to my horror that the object mounted was the barrel of one of the heat-cannons. It raised itself higher, until it was protruding above the roof of the tower by some eight feet or more.

  Ahead of us I saw that the other towers had also extended their cannons, and we plunged on across the desert, headlong in this most bizarre of cavalry-charges!

  I was now almost blinded by the sand being thrown up by the leading vehicles, so for the next minute or two I was unable to see more than the two hurtling towers immediately ahead of my own. The leading vehicles must have wheeled to left and right suddenly, for without warning there came a break in the cloud of grit and I was able to see directly ahead.

  We had been flung, by the diversion of the leading vehicles, into the front-line of the battle!

  Ahead of me now I could see the machines of the defending city coming across the desert to meet us. And what machines they were! There were few of the ground-vehicles, but the defenders strode confidently towards us on their towers. I could hardly believe what I saw. These battle-machines easily dwarfed those of my side, rising at least one hundred feet into the air.

  The nearest to us were now less than half a mile away, and coming nearer with every second.

  I stared in amazement at these Titans striding towards us with such effortless ease. The assemblage at the top of the three legs was no unadorned platform, but a complicated engine of tremendous size. Its walls were littered with devices of inconceivable function, and where on the smaller watch-towers, was the black oval window, was a series of multi-faceted ports, winking and glittering in the sunlight. Dangling articulate arms, like those of the spider-like handling-machines, swung menacingly as the battle-machines advanced, and at each joint of the incredible legs, bright-green flashes emanated with every movement.

  They were now almost upon us! One of the towers that ran to the right of mine let fly with its heat-cannon, but ineffectually. An instant later more towers on my side fired at these mammoth defenders. There were several hits, evidenced by brilliant patches of fire that glowed momentarily against the upper plat form of the enemy, but none of the battle-machines fell. They came on towards us, holding their fire but weaving from side to side, their slender metal legs stepping gracefully and nimbly over the rocky soil.

  I realized that my whole body was tingling, and there was a crackling noise above my head. I glanced up, and saw a queer radiance about the muzzle of the heat-cannon, and saw that it must, be firing at the defenders. In the instant it took me to so glance up, the defending battle-machines had passed our lines, still holding their fire, and the watch-tower on which I stood turned sharply to the right.

  Now began a sequence of attacking manoeuvres and evasive tactics that had me simultaneously in fear for my life and aghast with the fiendish brilliance of these machines.

  I have compared our running attack to that of a cavalry-charge, but I soon saw that this had merely been the preamble to the battle proper. The tripodal legs did more than facilitate a fast forwards motion; in close combat they allowed a manoeuvrability unequalled by anything I had ever seen.

  My tower, no less than any other, was in the thick of the fighting. As one with the others, the driver of my watch-tower wheeled his machine from side to side, spinning the platform, ducking, flailing the metal legs, balancing, charging.

  All the while, the heat-cannon unleashed its deadly energy, and in that mêlée of whirling, pirouetting towers the beams seared through the air, striking home, flaring constantly against the armoured sides of the upper platforms. And now the defenders were no longer holding their fire; the battle-machines danced through the confusion, letting fly their deadly bolts with horrifying accuracy.

  It was an unequal conflict. Not only were the towers of my side dwarfed by the hundred-feet high defenders, but outnumbered too. For every one of the towers on my side there seemed to be four of the giants, and already their beams of destructive heat were having a telling effect. One by one the smaller towers were struck from above; some exploded violently, others simply toppled to the ground, making ever more hazardous the up thrown soil on which the battle was pitched. Now it was that I became frightened for my own life, realizing that if the fortunes of the battle continued, it was only a matter of seconds before I was struck down.

  I was, therefore, greatly relieved when the tower on which I stood abruptly wheeled round and hastened from the centre of the fighting. In all the confusion I had been able to do no more than maintain my hold, but as soon as we were away from the immediate dangers I discovered that I was shaking with fear.

  I had no time to recover my poise. Instead of retreating fully, the tower hurried around the fringes of the battle, and joined two others which had similarly separated themselves. Without a pause we rejoined the fight, following what was clearly a pre-arranged tactical plan.

  Marching as a phalanx we advanced towards the nearest of the colossal defenders. As one, our three cannons fired, the beams concentrating on the upper part of the glittering engine. Almost at once there came a minor explosion, and the battle-machine whirled uncontrollably round and crashed to the ground in a thrashing of metal limbs.

  So excited was I by this demonstration of intelligent tactics that, I found myself cheering aloud!

  However, this battle would not be won by destroying one defender, a fact well understood by the monstrous drivers of these watch-towers. The three of us hurtled on into the fighting, heading towards our second intended victim.

  Once again we were attacking from the rear, and as the heat-beams came into play the second defender was disposed of as spectacularly and efficiently as the first.

  Such fortune could not last for ever. Scarcely had the second battle-machine fallen to the ground than a third stood before us. This one did not have its attention diverted by the ineffectual sniping of the other attackers—for there were few left in the fray—and as we plunged towards it the barrel of its heat-cannon was turned full on us.

  What happened next was over in seconds, and yet I can recall the incident in detail, as if it had unfolded over a matter of minutes. I have said that we charged as a phalanx of three; I was mounted on the tower which was to the right and on the outside of the group. The battle-machine’s heat-beam fell full across the tower in the centre, and this exploded at once. So great was the blast that only the fact that I was thrown against the telescopic mount of the cannon saved me from being dashed to the ground. My tower was damaged by the blast, a fact which became instantly clear as it lurched and staggered wildly, and as I clung to the telescopic mount I awaited our crashing to the desert floor as an already establish
ed matter of fact.

  The third of the attacking towers, though, was as yet undamaged, and it marched on towards its taller antagonist, the heat-cannon playing its beam without effect across the armoured face of the defender. It was a last, desperate attack, and the monstrous creature which drove the tower must have expected its own annihilation at any moment. Although the defender responded with its own heat-cannon, the watch-tower went on unheeding, and flung itself suicidally against the very legs of the other. As they made contact there was a massive discharge of electrical energy, and both machines fell sideways to the ground, their legs still working wildly.

  As this happened I was fighting for my own survival, clutching the telescopic rods of the cannon-mount as the damaged tower staggered away from the battle.

  The first shock of damage had passed, and the driver—brilliant and evil—had managed to regain a semblance of control. The wildness of the tower’s career was corrected, and with some unevenness of gait, which would have been enough to throw me to the ground had I not had a firm purchase on the mounting, it limped away from the fracas.

  Within a minute, the battle—which still continued—was half a mile behind us, and some of the tension which had gripped me began to drain away. Only then did I realize that but for the faint humming of the engines, and the intermittent clangour of crashing machines, the entire engagement had been conducted in a deadly silence.

  v

  I did not know how badly damaged the ambulant tower had been, but there was an unprecedented grinding noise whenever one of the three legs bore the weight. This could not be the only damage, though, for I could tell that the motive power was failing. We had left the battle at a considerable velocity, having gained momentum during the charge, but now we were moving much slower. I had no real measure of speed, but the grinding of the damaged leg came at less frequent intervals and the air no longer roared past my ears.

  The original charge across the desert had taken me much nearer to the city, a fact for which I had been thankful, but now we were heading away from it, towards one of the banks of red weed.

  My immediate concern was how I could leave my perch on the tower. It seemed to me that the monster-creature which sat at the controls might well attempt a repair of his tower, and would leave the platform to do so. If that was to happen, I had no desire to be anywhere near at the time. There was, though, no chance for me to escape until the tower halted.

  I became aware of a pressure in my left hand, and looking down at it for the first time since the tower had lurched into battle I found that I was still holding Amelia’s hand-bag. How it had not been dropped in the excitement of the fighting I did not know, but some instinct had made me retain it. I changed my position cautiously, taking the bag into my other hand. I had suddenly remembered the blade I had placed inside it, and I took it out, thinking that at last I might need it.

  The tower had virtually halted now, and was walking slowly through an area of irrigated land where green crops grew. Not two hundred yards away I could see the scarlet weed-bank, and working at its base, hacking at the stems and releasing the sap, were the slaves.

  There were many more than any group I had seen in Desolation City, and the wretched people were working in the slimy soil as far along the weed-bank as I could see in either direction. Our arrival had not gone unnoticed, for I saw many of the people look in our direction before turning back hurriedly to their work.

  The damaged leg was making a terrible noise, setting up a metallic screech whenever it took the weight, and I knew we could not travel much further. At last the tower came to a halt, the three legs splayed out beneath us.

  I leaned over the edge of the platform roof, trying to see if it would be possible to shin down one of the legs to the ground.

  Now the excitement of the battle was past, I found my thoughts were more pragmatic. I had, for a time, been aroused by the thrill of the fighting, even to the extent of admiring the plucky way the smaller force had thrown itself against the far superior defenders. But on Mars there was no element of goodness in the monster-creatures; I had no place in this war between monsters, and the fact that chance had placed me on one of two warring sides should not have beguiled me into spurious sympathies. The creature which had driven this tower into battle had earned my respect for its valour, but as I stood on the roof of the platform, planning my escape, its essential cowardice and beastliness were suddenly revealed.

  I heard again the crackling noise above my head, and I realized the heat-cannon was being fired.

  At first I thought that one of the defending battle-machines must have followed us, but then I saw where the deadly beam was being directed. Far away, over to the right, flame and smoke were leaping up from the weed-bank!

  I saw several slaves caught, by the full force of the beam, and they fell, lifeless, to the muddy ground.

  The monster was not content with this atrocity, for then it started to swing the cannon to the side, sweeping the beam along the weed-bank.

  The flames burst and leapt, as if spontaneously, as the invisible beam touched on vegetation and slave alike. Where the malign heat fell on the spilled sap, gouts of steam exploded outwards. I could see the slaves struggling to escape as they heard the screams of those afflicted, but in the swampy mire in which they had to work it was difficult for them to scramble away in time. Many of them threw themselves prostrate in the mud, but others were killed instantly.

  This unspeakable deed had been continuing for no more than two or three seconds before I took a part in ending it.

  Ever since I had understood the full monstrosity of the power these beings held, a part of my self had been overwhelmed with hatred and loathing of the monsters. I did not need to debate the rights or wrongs of this: the monster with its damaged tower, taking its unpardonable spite on the helpless humans below, with cold deliberation and serene malice.

  I took a deep breath, then turned away from the awful sight. Fighting down the revulsion within me, I reached for the handle of the metal door built into the sloping roof of the tower. I turned it in vain; it seemed to be jammed.

  I glanced back over my shoulder. The heat-beam was still creeping along the weed-bank, wreaking its hideous carnage…but now some of the slaves nearest to the vindictive tower had seen me, for one or two of them were waving helplessly as they struggled through the swamp to avoid the beam.

  The handle was one I had not seen or used on Mars before, but I knew that it could not be a sophisticated lock, for the monster itself, with its clumsy tentacles, must be capable of using it. Then, on an inspiration, I turned it the other way, the way that on Earth would normally close a lock.

  Instantly, the handle turned and the door sprung open.

  Filling most of the interior of the platform was the body of the monster; like a sickening bladder, the grey-green sac bulged and pulsed, shining moistly as if with perspiration.

  In utter loathing I swung my long blade down, bringing it smartly against the very centre of the back. The blade sunk in, but as I withdrew it for a second plunge I saw that, it had not penetrated the sponge-like consistency of the creature’s flesh. I stabbed again, but with as little effect.

  However, the creature had felt the blows even if it had not been harmed by them. A vile screech was emitted from the beak-like mouth at its front, and before I could evade it one of the tentacles slithered quickly towards me and wrapped itself about my chest.

  Taken unawares, I stumbled down into the interior of the platform, pulled forward by the tentacle, and was dragged between the metal wall and the nauseous body itself!

  My knife-arm was not constricted, and so in desperation I hacked again and again at the serpentine tentacle. Beside me the monster was braying hoarsely, in fear or in pain. At last, my knife was beginning to tell, for the pressure of the tentacle eased as I drew blood. A second tentacle slinked towards me, and just in time I slashed the first one away, causing blood to pump from the wound. As the second tentacle wound itself about my kni
fe-arm, I panicked momentarily, before transferring the blade to my other hand. Now I knew the vulnerable place on the tentacle, it took only seconds to hack it away.

  My exertions, and the drag of the tentacles, had taken me to the very front of the platform, so that I was before the face of the monster itself!

  Here it was as if the whole interior was alive with the tentacles, for ten or a dozen were wrapping themselves around me. I cannot record how appalling was that touch! The tentacles themselves were weak, but the combined effect of several, stroking and clutching me, was as if I had fallen headlong into a nest of constrictors. Before me, the beak-like mouth opened and closed, shrieking in pain or anger; once the beak closed around my leg, but there was no strength in it and it was not able even to rip the cloth.

  Above all were the eyes: those large, expressionless eyes, watching my every action.

  I was now in trouble, for both my arms were pinned, and although I still held the knife I could not use it. Instead, I kicked at the soft face before me, aiming at the roots of the tentacles, the shrilling mouth, the saucer eyes…anything that came within range. Then at last my knife-arm came free, and I slashed wildly at any part of the filthy body that presented itself.

  This was the turning-point in the squalid affair, for from then on I knew I could win. The front of the creature’s body was firm to the touch, and therefore vulnerable to the knife. Every blow I landed now drew forth blood, and soon the platform was a bedlam of gore, severed tentacles and the frightful screams of the dying monster.

  At last I drove the blade straight in between the creature’s eyes, and with one last fading scream it finally expired.

  The tentacles relaxed and sagged to the floor, the beak-mouth fell open, from within the corpse there came a long eructation of noxious vapours and the great lidless eyes stared bleakly and lifelessly through the darkened oval window at the front of the platform.

  I glanced through this window just once, and saw dimly that the massacre had been brought to a timely end. The weed-bank no longer shot forth flame, although steam and smoke still drifted from various places, and the surviving slaves were dragging themselves from the mire.

 
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