When the Sleepers Woke

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Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Astounding Stories November 1932. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

All his strength went into that trick. All his strength went into that trick.

When the Sleepers Woke

By Arthur Leo Zagat

Only two small groups of people—enemies—survive the vast desolation of the Final War.

“Prepare for battle!” The command crackled in Allan Dane’s helmet. “Enemy approaching from southeast! Squadron commanders execute plan two!” Allan settled back in the seat of his one-man helicopter, his broad frame rendered even bulkier by the leather suit that incased it. He was tensed, but quiescent. Action would be first joined sixty miles away, and his own squadron was in reserve.

Over New York and its bay the American air fleet was in motion. Suddenly movement ceased, and the formation froze. Ten flying forts were each the apex of a far-spread cone, axis horizontal, whose body was the fanned back-ranging of its squadron of a thousand helicopter planes. The cones bristled oceanward from the sea-margin of New York, their points a fifty-mile arc of defiance, their bases tangent to one another, almost touching the ground at their lower edges, then circling upward for ten thousand feet. From van to rear each formation was five miles in length.

Behind and above, the main body of the fleet sloped in echeloned ranks, hiding the threatened city with an impenetrable terraced wall of buzzing helios and massive forts. Up, back, up, back, the serried masses reached, till the rearmost were twenty-five thousand feet aloft. And farther behind, unmoving on their six-mile level, were the light ‘copters of the reserve. Dane gazed down that tremendous vista to the far-off front line, and swore softly. Just his luck to be out of the scrap: the enemy would never penetrate to these northern out-skirts of New York.

“Men of the fleet!” General Huntington’s voice sounded from his flagship, the Washington. Somehow its gruffness overrode the mechanical quality of the intra-fleet radio transmission. Almost it seemed he was there in the tiny cabin. “Reports have at this moment been received that our attack fleets have been everywhere successful. Our rocket ships have destroyed Tokyo, Addis Ababa, Odessa, Peiping and Cape Town, and are now ranging inland through enemy territory.”

Even through the double leather of his helmet a roar came to Allan. He felt his craft vibrate to the exultant cheers of the fleet. His own mouth was open, and his throat rasping….

But“—the single syllable choked the surge of sound—”London, Paris, and Berlin have fallen to the enemy.” The words thudded in the pilot’s ear-phones. “San Francisco is being attacked. Communication with New Orleans has failed. The enemy are in sight of Buenos Aires—” The general broke off, and Allan sensed dully that there was other news, news that he dared not give the fleet.

The gruff voice changed. “Men of the fleet, New York is in our charge. The enemy is upon us, the battle is commencing. The issue is in your hands.”

Pat on his last word, a dark cloud spread along the south-eastern horizon. From the spear-heads of the cone formations great green beams shot out across the sea. Orange flame flared in answer, all along the black bank that was the enemy fleet. Where the green beams struck the orange blinked out, and the blue of sky showed through. And the American ships were as yet untouched. A great shout rose to Allan’s lips—that they had the range on the enemy, and the attack defeated before it was well begun.

But was it? Swift as the American rays scythed destruction along the enemy line, the gaps filled and lethal orange leaped out again. Now the black cloud was piling up, was rising till it was a towering curtain against the sky. On it came, like some monstrous tidal wave. Great rents were torn through it by the stabbing beams of the flying forts, holes where ships and men had been whiffed into dust by the hundred. But the attack came on.

Now all the great defensive cones burst into an emerald blaze as the smaller ships loosed their bolts. And from the terraced slope of the supporting fleet a hundred steel ovoids lumbered forward to meet the threat. All the vast space between the hosts, mountain-high from the sea’s surface, was filled with dazzling light, now green, now orange, as the conflicting beams crossed and mingled. There were gaps in the advancing curtain that did not fill, but the defending cones were melting away, were disappearing, were gone.

“Flight ZLX prepare for action!” Dane’s eyes flicked over the gages, checking in routine precaution. He started when he saw the V of the chronometer’s hands. Only six minutes had passed since the battle’s start—it seemed hours. And already the reserve was being called on! He was suddenly cold. Out there, over the bay, the enemy forces had ceased their advance. The American first line cones were gone—true enough, but the support fleet was still intact. Some new element had entered the battle, visible as yet only in the Washington’s powerful television view-screens. The flight adjutant’s voice again snapped a command:

“Direction vertical. Thirty thousand feet. Full speed. Go!”

Dane jerked home his throttle. The battle shot down, and his seat thrust up against him. Something hurtled past, blurred by the speed of its descent. The plane rocked to a sudden detonation, and Allan fought to steady it. Then he had reached the commanded height. At sixty thousand feet the helio vanes were useless, only the power of the auxiliary rocket-tubes maintained his altitude.

“Formation B. Engage the enemy!” came the order.

They were just ahead, a dozen giant craft, torpedo-shaped and steel-incased, the scarlet fire of their gas blasts holding them poised steady in their fifty-mile-long line. From curious swellings that broke the clean lines of their under-bodies black spheres were dropping in steady streams. Allan knew then whence came the crash that had rocked his ship as she rose. These were bombs, huge bombs, charged with heaven alone knew what Earth-shaking explosive. They were catapulting down, an iron death hail, on the fleet and the city twelve miles below!

The enemy’s strategy was clear. While his main fleet was engaging the American defense in a frontal attack, these huge rocket-bombers had looped unseen through the stratosphere to this point of vantage. The planes that had leaped to this new menace swept toward the bombers in three parallel lines, above, to right and left of them. Allan’s plane leaping to position at the very end of one long line. The three leaders reached the first rocket-ship, and their green beams shot out. In that instant the enemy craft seemed to explode in intense blue light. Then the awful dazzle was gone. The rocket ship was there, just as before, but the American helio-planes were gone, were wiped out as though they had never been. The next trio, and the next, rushed up. Again and again came that flash of force, annihilating them. Superbly the tiny gnats that were the American planes plunged headlong at the hovering Leviathan of the air and were whiffed into nothingness. Sixty brave men were dancing motes of cosmic dust before the shocked commander could sound the recall.

The helicopter squadron curved away, still keeping its ordered lines, but orange flame leaped out from all twelve of the enemy vessels, orange flame that caught them, that ran along their ranks and sent them hurtling Earthward—blackened corpses in blazing coffins. “Abandon ships!” The adjutant’s last order crisped, coldly metallic, soldierly as ever. In the next breath, as Allan reached for the lever that would open the trapdoor beneath him, he saw the command-ship plunge down, a flaring comet.

Above Allan Dane, the twenty-foot silk of his parachute bellied out in the denser air of the lower heights. His respirator tube was still in his mouth, and the double, vacuum-interlined leather of his safety suit had kept him from freezing in the spatial cold of the stratosphere. He looked south.

All the proud thousands of the defense fleet were gone, blown to fragments by the time bombs from above. The city was hidden in a thick, muddy-yellow fog. “Queer,” the thought ran through his brain, “that there should be fog in mid-afternoon, under a blazing sun.” Then he saw them, the circling black ships of the enemy, trailing behind them long wakes of the drab yellow vapor that drifted heavily down to shroud New York with—gas!

Allan felt nauseated as he imagined a fleeting picture of the many-leveled city, of its mist-darkened streets with swarming myriads of slumped bodies clogging the conveyor belts that still moved because no hand was left to shut them off; of women and children, and aged or crippled men strewn in tortured, horrible attitudes in all the roof-parks, in their homes, in every nook and cranny of the murdered city. He looked beneath his drifting descent and saw roads that were rivers, alive with every manner of fleeing conveyance, and he groaned, knowing that in moments the pursuing ships would send down their lethal mist to put an end to that futile flight.

Sugar Loaf Mountain rose toward him. At its very summit was a clearing among the trees, and, incongruously motionless in that world where every one was rushing from inescapable death, a man stood calmly there, gazing up at him. Allan screamed down to him! “Run! You fool. Run or the gas will get you!”

Of course the man could not hear that cry, but one tiny arm rose and pointed south. Allan followed the direction of the gesture and saw a black plane veering toward him. Then orange flared from it, though it was distant, and a wave of intolerable heat enveloped him. Something cried within him: “Too far—he’s too far off to kill me with his beam!” Then he knew no more.

From New York, from devastated San Francisco, from Rio, from Buenos Aires, from fifty other desolated points along the seaboards of the Americas, the black fleets swept along the coasts and inland, vomiting their yellow death till all the continents were blanketed with life-destroying gas. And in Europe and Australasia the destroying hordes, having smashed the proud defenses of the coastlines, engaged in the same pursuit, till in one short week all the lands of the Western Allies were swept clear of life. Then the Eastern ships turned homeward, to wait until the vapor they had strewn had lost its virulence, and the teeming masses of the East might take possession of the half world the ebony-painted destroyers had conquered. The black fliers turned homeward, but there was no homeland left for them to seek!

For though the defense fleets of the Western Coalition had been everywhere beaten, their attack squadrons had been everywhere successful. All Asia and Africa lay under a pall of milky emerald gas as toxic, as blasting, as the Easterners’ yellow.

And the Westerners were returning too!

In their teleview screens the commanders of the black swarms, and of the white thousands, sought their home ports, and saw the world to be a haze-covered sphere where not even a fly could live. Then, as if by common accord, the white ships and the black sped across lifeless hemispheres to meet in mid-air over the long green swells of the Pacific. They met, and on the instant they were at each others’ throats like two packs of wild dogs, killing, killing, killing till they themselves were killed. No quarter was asked in that fight, and none given. No hope of victory was there, nor fear of defeat. Better swift death in the high passion of combat, than slow, hopeless drifting over a dead world.

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