Mac ran forward, cursing. He grabbed an oxy tank and pulled it to safety. Most of the thrower fuel was safe in the camp, but the tanks outside would be badly needed if the attack continued in force. But regiments of ‘pedes had by-passed the ammunition and posted guards to prevent their being rescued.
Hard-faced, Mac ordered a fishmen to go out into the enclosure with him. While Mac kept back the horde with a hail of fire, the shivering native pulled a tank into the compound. Mac increased the size of the raiding parties. Again and again they sallied out, until the bulk of the abandoned fuel was saved.
Sweating, Mac signaled to Limpy in the blockade house. The hermetic doors in the wall slid shut. The natives stood on the ledge on the inner side of the rampart, watching with horror-filled eyes as the fiendish beasts tried to scale the concave surface.
Mac called Swede by radio, then trudged through the mud to the blockade house. The three men met in the lookout room.
Seeing Swede, Mac realized for the first time how dirty, wet and exhausted he was himself. They were both blackened with mud and flame blasts, their clothing grimy and sopping.
Limpy’s good eye was harrowed, the frozen side of his face contorted in an evil grin.
“Poor Al,” muttered Swede. He sank down ponderously on a chair. “He was a game little fellow. I’ll miss him.”
Without replying, Limpy turned around. He stared sightlessly through the infra-red windows at the white fog and the eternal mud, the seething mass of centaurpedes and the shaking, gabbling fishmen. All around the mine, seeming to reach every horizon, stretched the completely encircling army of vermin. But that was not what Limpy was seeing.
Mac came over to the window. “I saw Al die, too,” he said in a harshly gentle voice. “If I have to kick off that way, I hope I’ll be as brave as he was.”
“Maybe you’ll get your chance sooner than you think,” Limpy snarled. “Six armies against us, one dead, our boat no good, the fence useless, the fishmen demoralized—” He whirled. “What are we waiting for? Why don’t we blow up the place and quit?”
“Because we still have a chance,” Mac answered. “They’ve taken our first line of defense, but we still have the second.”
“The wall?” Swede grunted. “Think that’ll stop them long?”
“Long enough,” promised Mac. “It’s thirty times as high as they are, and three feet out of plumb-line with the bottom. Before they figure out how to get across, maybe Adonis City’ll be able to send us a rocket. Get them on the radio, anyhow, Limpy. We’re carrying the whole weight of the attack. They’ve got to give us a ship.”
Limpy shuffled to the panel. He set the dials, then spoke mechanically into the microphone: “Adonis City. Limpy Austin calling Adonis City….” Several minutes went by. He looked up. “They don’t answer.”
“Keep trying,” Mac said. “Everybody must be calling them from all the other mines.”
“That’s what I mean,” Swede put in earnestly. “We fight; the other mines fight. Sometimes we win; sometimes the ‘pedes do. Whatever happens, it’s never finished. We spoil their old tricks, so they figure out new ones. They’re devils, Mac. We can never lick them for good.”
“Someday, somebody will,” Mac said stubbornly.
He gripped the sill and stared out through the infra-red glass. In the outer compound was a black fester of centaurpedes, crawling like gigantic lice before the concrete barricade.
“Nothing can stop them,” Swede said beside him. “They’ll find a way of getting over. They always do. And then—”
Mac’s skin began to creep. To be eaten, the flesh stripped off your bones while you’re alive and screaming…. The fence had halted them, and they’d built pyramids. When flame-throwers cut down the pyramids, they used catapults. Now the wall was holding them back, but they’d work out some method of hurtling over.
Then those armored bodies would push back the defenders until they could retreat no farther. Before those steel-hard mandibles, one man after another would go down, a living skeleton, covered with black, crawling vermin….
Mac shuddered. “As long as that wall holds them,” he said, “it isn’t hopeless. But the sooner the boat gets here, the better off we’ll be. Are you trying Adonis City, Limpy?”
“All over the dial!” Limpy groaned. “They don’t answer!”
Swede shook his head. “The fishmen know what the odds are. Look at that.”
Mac saw three natives fling up their arms, claw over the wall and throw themselves into the ‘pedes’ jaws. They fought to their feet and raced toward the fence, but their fleetness didn’t save them. Long before they reached the wire, they were black and shapeless, covered from head to foot with clinging, rending animals.
“The fence,” Swede explained quietly. “That’s why they went crazy.”
Far to the right, a corps of centaurpede engineers had hauled up the huge tree trunk. Using it as a battering ram again, they smashed down a section of the barrier. Now they were rushing in, tearing the chargeless fence to pieces. As the two men watched tensely, another section collapsed with a splash into the mud. Instantly, the ‘pedes began moving it toward the concrete wall.
“I knew they’d find a way,” said Swede. “They’re going to use the fence segments as ladders.” He turned away.
Mac, continuing to stare down, suddenly stiffened. The ‘pedes were acting queerly, moving around sluggishly, as if they had lost interest in their task! He frowned and faced his companions.
“That’s funny,” he muttered. “They’re stopping—they seem confused.”
Limpy shrugged and went on twirling the dials. Swede glanced out, then looked at Mac with upraised eyebrows.
“They look the same to me,” he said slowly. “You seeing things, Mac?”
Startled, MacAloon shot his gaze back to the scene below. Swede was right! The ‘pedes had resumed their work! Mac stood still for a moment, his mind racing swiftly, trying to grasp the significance of that momentary halt. Then he whirled, facing Limpy.
“What were you doing just a moment ago?”
Limpy raised his head from the dials. “Trying all the wave lengths. Adonis City isn’t on its usual—”
“I thought so!” Mac yelled triumphantly. “Get back to the length you had before!”
“But there wasn’t any answer.”
“They’re halfway to the wall,” Swede muttered abstractedly.
“Get that wave length again!” Mac snapped.
Limpy’s right shoulder shrugged. He twisted the dial gently while MacAloon turned back to the window and stared out tensely.
“Hold it!” he suddenly ordered. “Don’t touch those dials!”
Swede and Limpy looked at him puzzledly. He pointed down at the swarming enclosure. Limpy shuffled over to him, followed the direction of his finger.
“They’ve dropped the fence,” whispered the lookout. “They don’t seem to know what they’re doing.”
“Yah,” Swede said in an awed voice.
Below, the centaurpedes were moving about aimlessly, as if they had forgotten their orders. They had completely lost their terrible machine-like precision!
“I don’t get it,” Swede complained in bewilderment. “What’s wrong with them?”
Mac’s grin was hard and tight. “They’re directed by a central brain, a sort of queen ‘pede which coordinates their actions by ultra-short-wave commands, the way a queen bee directs a beehive. That’s the secret of their synchronization!”
“And I was working the ultra-short—” Limpy stopped, stunned.
“That’s the idea,” Mac nodded. “Our signals blanket theirs! They can’t get orders from the main intelligence, so they don’t know what to do!”
For a moment, the men were silent. Slowly, then, Swede said: “Now all we have to do is kill the brain.”
“Yeah,” Limpy agreed bitterly. “What a chance of getting through! Where’s the queen ‘pede, or the brain, or whatever it is?”
Mac squinted through a pair of binoculars. He gazed along that meandering tangle of disorganized vermin. Abruptly, he halted. A mile beyond the ravaged fence was a small patch of integrated activity, a regiment of centaurpedes that still functioned in unison.
“There’s the truth,” he muttered. “Or more likely, there are six of them, one from each undersea colony. They probably formed a council of war to attack us. That’s why we almost lost.”
“Almost?” Swede echoed. “But we can’t fight them now!”
Mac shook his head. “We won’t lose,” he said grimly. “I’m going to kill the council of war.”
“You’re crazy!” Limpy cried. “You’d have to run through a mile of mud and ‘pedes. Brain or no brain to direct them, they’ll pull you down instinctively. Mac, you won’t have a chance!”
MacAloon looked out at the wandering army. “I think I will,” he said. He went to the door. “They won’t attack together. Open the wall, Limpy. Don’t mind if a few ‘pedes get through. You can take care of them. Just keep that ultra-short-wave blanket clamped down over their minds. So long.”
He ran down the metal steps and across the mud toward the smelter. Tearing open the door of the closed-cabin tractor, he jumped inside and slammed the port shut. He started the motor, drove past the blockade house. Swede and Limpy were at the window. Mac waved.
A door in the wall swung wide for him. He tooled through, the door closed and he was among the centaurpedes. Infinitely disgusting things, a few individuals attacked the tractor in blind rage, clamping their mandibles on the steel parts and clinging senselessly. Others gaped up in blank wonder as the machine bore down on them. He heard them crack and squish beneath the threads.
He drove straight at the fence. It went down and he was out of the enclosure, entirely surrounded by vermin. On all sides, farther than he could see, were purposeless animals, no longer in orderly ranks, obeying a single dictate. How long would they remain severed from the controlling brains?
Desperately, Mac fixed in his mind the position of the place where he had seen unified activity. He headed directly for the war council of intelligent centaurpedes.
The treads of his tractors made sucking, splashing sounds through the mud. ‘Pedes, not bright enough by themselves to get out of the way of danger, died by the thousands under the grinding chains.
He was drawing closer, into the thickest cluster of all. The vermin here were also wandering around, but they seemed to be trying to make up their minds. Mac knew the blanketing wave was weaker here, that the council of queens ‘pedes was struggling to get its nearer minions under control again. Before that happened, they had to be destroyed.
But where were they? Two hundred yards away was a great battle square of centaurpedes, setting themselves with idiot bravery to stop his invincible machine. Mandibles opened wide, they crouched back, ready to spring and rend the indestructible steel.
Were the ‘pede dictators in the center of that battalion? Theoretically, they should be, but Mac knew better than to expect the obvious. Were they brain-like, slug-like, or did they hide their vast significance behind protective disguises of mediocrity, pretending to be nothing but ordinary centaurpedes?
The tractor lumbered on across the mud, smashed into that wall of nauseating bodies. The cracking and squashing made his stomach heave, yet he kept grinding ahead.
“Damn your murdering hearts, where are you?” he bit out.
He crashed through the battalion, started to turn back for another charge. Instead, he clamped his teeth together and continued savagely. Far before him, he had seen several ‘pedes, identical with the rest, racing in different directions toward the ocean. They had set up a rear guard to cover their retreat.
He wrenched the wheel aside. Crack!
“One!” he gloated.
Another was scampering furiously twenty feet ahead. He drove down on it, exulted when he heard the treads crush the hard chitinous shell.
The revolting beasts were fleet, but the tractor was swifter. One after another, he ran them down, his lips twisting in a fierce grin each time he heard one squash beneath his treads.
At last, two miles from camp, he stopped. He had destroyed the last ‘pede trying to escape to the ocean. But had he killed the brains that had directed this gigantic assault on the mine?
He pivoted and started back to the compound. The ‘pedes were still ambling around, following their single purposes. He could never have got through if the ultra-short wave hadn’t actually blanketed the brains’ commands. But were the animals merely disorganized only as long as the broadcast continued, or had their rulers really been killed?
Mac reached the mine. Limpy opened a gate in the concrete wall, and he drove through. A moment later, he was in the lookout wall, standing beside his two partners, gazing out the window.
“Did you get them?” Limpy asked breathlessly.
Mac leaned forward and watched with intent eyes. Slowly, like brainless creatures gradually coming to a decision, the endless mob of centaurpedes began moving away. They didn’t march, as they had advanced to the attack. They wandered off in the general direction of the sea from which they had sprung.
“I got them,” Mac said. He straightened and turned around wearily. “Get in touch with Adonis City, Limpy. Give them the wave length that blankets the queen ‘pedes’ instructions. Tell them to relay the information to mines that are under siege.”
“We’ve won?” asked Swede incredulously.
“Yes,” Mac replied. “And this time it’s for good. We’ll be able to beat off every attack from now on. Only, I don’t think they’ll go on fighting much longer. They’ll have to quit.”
Swede sat down ponderously. “I’m glad, Mac. Not for us; for Al. He didn’t die uselessly.”
“No,” Mac said. “He didn’t.”
Fumbling with the radio dials, Limpy grinned. None but his close friends could know that grief made his grin wider and more evil-looking than ever.