Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 2
CHAPTER TWO - Prisoner of the Aztecs
Outside, constant streams of infantry and artillery plodded by, the enlisted men---entirely unaware that they were marching to almost certain death. The officers at that table in Provisional Headquarters, however, knew it only too well....
They talked in low, grim tones. There was a strange expression in the eyes of all of them--the look of brave men who know Death waits for them, yet who cannot understand its nature. Most men are willing to fight for a righteous cause against a known force. But it takes brave men indeed to face death in a horrible, unknown manner....
The man at the head of the table was addressing the others: "Gentlemen," he said in weary tones, "I have just had a report from the front. The Aztecs are advancing across the border. Major-General Oppington reports that he has lost five hundred troops without being able to strike a blow. The artillery cannot be brought into action--each gun crew that approaches a piece of ordnance immediately explodes into bits--as if by a time bomb. Our planes go up, and then seem to set a direct course for Mexico. Not one of them returns. Whole squads of men defending our positions are suddenly exploded, and the Aztecs march ahead without opposition. Gentlemen--" The general arose at the head of the table. His eyes lowered before the gaze of the assembled officers. "I have ordered Major-General Oppington to fall back!"
A stocky, bullet-headed colonel of Intelligence leaped to his feet at the opposite end of the table "Do you mean to say, sir, that you ordered a retreat? We have thirty thousand men in this corps area; are we to run away from a rabble of peons and mestizos led by a madman who has named himself an emperor?"
The general sighed wearily. "Why not, Colonel? We are faced by some mysterious force that we cannot understand. Our men explode from within--as if they had swallowed dynamite. Do you expect me to send more of our boys out to be slaughtered in the same way? God, man--" the general's face was twisted with passion--"it---it's uncanny, gruesome; like marching against eternity. I won't do it, I tell you! I won't sacrifice any more lives!"
"But, sir," the colony protested, "if Major--General Oppington retreats, it will leave no opposition between the Aztecs and Fort Sam Houston. If the Aztecs take Houston, they'll have a solid footing in the United States!"
The general shrugged. "Let them take it, Colonel Lacon. I'll order Houston evacuated. The Aztecs will have to hold up their advance there for at least a day in order to organize their position and bring up provisions. It'll give us a breathing spell--"
He stopped as a second lieutenant entered, saluted and said: "Colonel Grant's respects, sir. The Fifty-sixth Regiment is ready to be reviewed, sir, before marching."
The general nodded and the lieutenant left. The staff officers all gazed at their commander gravely. He turned from the table said slowly: "I'll review them, anyway. But I'm going to countermand their marching orders."
The officers followed him out into the night. Flares lighted the entire field. Regimental bands were playing as men marched by. A whole regiment of United States infantry--a powerful, almost invincible fighting machine, stepping as one man; fifteen hundred men, comprising a unit of military strength that could have routed a dozen Roman legions.
The general sighed as he and his staff saluted the passing colors. "I wish," he murmured to his aide, "that the man they're sending from Washington would come soon. It'll be a relief to turn over the responsibility for all these men to someone else." He gulped, as his aide eyed him sympathetically. "God! I have never shirked responsibility before in my life. But this--"
HIS words were drowned by the sudden thunderous explosion that seemed to roll over the field of marching men. Suddenly all those uniformed men seemed to disintegrate before the very eyes of the general and his staff. Individual explosions followed each other with crackling rapidity as if an immense hand were sweeping over the field and touching a match to groups of firecrackers, one after the other.
Bits of flesh and bone, bits of torn clothing, filled the air, rained down upon the heads of the transfixed staff. The air grew stifling, hard to breathe, filled with the stench of scorched flesh. A haze gathered over the field through which it was difficult to see.
And abruptly as it had come, the holocaust passed. The air cleared slightly. And the general and his staff stared with dread-filled eyes at that field. Not a single man of that marching regiment was left alive. The ground was strewn with blood and bits of flesh and torn clothing. In the space of one minute an entire regiment had been annihilated as by a breath from some unseen god!
The general staggered backward, leaned against the wall of his headquarters for support. Suddenly he had become an old man. He tried to speak, but no words came from his lips. He could only gaze in stupefaction at his officers.
And from far above to the north, there came to their ears the drone of a plane. The colonel of Intelligence gulped, said: "T-that must be the man from Washington, sir. My God! He's come just in time to see death and destruction!"
The general pulled himself together. "This is the
end!" he grated hoarsely. "We can't fight a thing like this. When that
plane lands, I'm going to turn over--"
"Wait, sir!" the colonel of Intelligence exclaimed. "His motor's cut out. He's coming from the north, with the wind. He couldn't be landing that way. He's out of control!"
Indeed, the heavy army transport seemed to be acting erratically above that field of carnage. It swooped low over the heads of the staff officers, with the motor dead; then once more they heard it cough, burst into its droning roar. It was working again. They watched the pilot climb, try to bank, and once more they strained eagerly as they heard the engine go dead.
Again and again, white stretcher bearers patrolled the field in a vain search for a single living man, the general and his aides watched that plane try to veer into the wind for a landing; and each time they heard the engine die.
The colonel of Intelligence exclaimed: "He can't make it, sir. His motor is all right, but there's some sort of air pocket up there that cuts it off. What?"
He ceased talking, watched intently as a small figure legged over the side of the plane, hurtled toward them. A parachute billowed out, the sudden drop of the figure was broken, and they all ran toward the spot where he would fall.
Before they got there, the figure landed. Several enlisted men helped him out of his parachute harness, and he stood erect just as General Everard and his staff came running up.
The general came to a halt, staring in amazement, as did the other officers, at the freckle-faced, tough-looking Irish lad who faced them.
General Everard demanded: "Who in tarnation are you? How did you get into that army plane?"
But the boy paid him no attention for the moment. He was gazing upward anxiously, watching the transport. It was now a good distance away, winging its way southward. His lips moved, and he said under his breath, with his eyes still on the plane: "Good luck to you, Jimmy! I wish--" his lips trembled, and he gulped a little--"that you'd let me go along!"
Abruptly the boy turned, drew from his pocket a slip of paper.
"General Everard?" he asked, eyeing the four silver stars on that officer's uniform. The general nodded, puzzlement and irritation showing in his seamed face. "This message is for you, general, from Operator 5--the man you were expecting from Washington. He wrote it up there in the plane when he found we couldn't land."
THE general took the slip of paper, growled: "I don't understand this. Instead of a man they send me a boy--!" His words trailed off as he read the note by the glare of one of the flares:
To General Everard, Commanding Third Army:
Impossible to land due to mysterious atmospheric conditions. We are being compelled, by some strong power, to fly south toward the area under occupation by the Aztecs. Our radio sending-set does not function. Apparently the Aztecs plan to force us to land within their lines and to capture us. I shall do so in hope of securing valuable information. In the meantime, would advise you retreat upon Fort Sam Houston. The bearer of this note is Tim Donovan, my unofficial assistant. Keep him close to you, as any messages I may be able to send will be in code which he can easily read.
General Everard glanced up from the strange note, written hastily in pencil, eyed the boy. "How do I know," he demanded, "that this is authentic? How do I know that the man who wrote this note is really Operator 5? How do I know that your name is--" he looked at the paper---"Tim Donovan?"
Tim Donovan said quietly: "That is easily proved, sir." He glanced at the colonel of Intelligence, raised his right hand. Upon his finger there gleamed a ring with a death's-head skull, peculiarly fashioned. "You are an Intelligence officer, sir," he said. "Do you recognize this ring?"
The colonel took the boy's hand in his own, studied the ring. Then he nodded. "This is the ring, General Everard. All Intelligence officers have been instructed. There is a certain mark on it that identifies it as authentic. This boy is really Tim Donovan, who has been assisting Operator 5 remarkably well for some time. This lad is too young to be admitted to the Secret Service yet, but--"
Tim Donovan said urgently: "If you're satisfied about me, general, let's get to a wireless receiving-set as quickly as possible. Ji--I mean---Operator 5, may send through a message at any moment."
The general nodded. "All right. Operator 5 is our only hope now. The Aztecs seem to be able to annihilate our entire forces at will. Guns are no good against them!"
IN THE army plane, which was soon lost to sight in the engulfing darkness to the south of provisional headquarters, the pilot sat grim-lipped at his controls. Behind him, his passenger stared ahead through the night. Jimmy Christopher, known in the Secret Service only as Operator 5, had taken off his own helmet and goggles, and was gazing ahead, regardless of the furious wind that lashed at him. His sharp, intelligent, clean-cut face was like that of some young god, riding the skies fearlessly toward whatever fate might hold....
Down below he could see, faintly in the night, the terrain of Texas--broad, parched fields upon which there was no life whatsoever. But soon the panorama changed. Little, motionless dots flecked the landscape below--thousands of them. Jimmy Christopher's pulse raced. He knew only too well what those little dots were--the pitiable, torn remains of what had once been stalwart United States Army soldiers, and their officers; all horridly mangled and torn by this strange force that Montezuma controlled.
Far to the east were dark moving specks---the remnants of the first line divisions, In retreat. And soon there came into the range of Operator 5's vision the forces of the Aztecs, encamped in a huge circle upon the plain.
He tapped the pilot on the shoulder, motioned to him to attempt a landing. The pilot nodded, and the plane veered down. And almost at once the twin motors sputtered, grew silent!
Jimmy Christopher felt a strange tightness in the atmosphere; breathing became more difficult. Frantically the pilot fought his controls, managed to keep the plane level. And in a moment, the motors coughed, resumed their rhythmic beat. The plane spurted ahead, and the pilot turned his head to Jimmy, his lips formed panicky words: "They won't let us land! We've got to go on!"
Operator 5 nodded. His face was eager with expectation. He motioned the pilot to continue along the same course. They had enough fuel to keep them in the air for hours. There was no immediate danger.
Below them there passed in swift panorama the huge encampment of the Aztec invaders---thousands upon thousands of orderly tents, with watch fires burning brightly. Those invaders, he reflected bitterly, were safe from attack by the troops of the United States. Every detachment that had advanced against them had been destroyed by the invisible force--the same invisible power that was compelling this plane to continue on its southward course.
They passed a thin, twisting silver band that bisected the earth below; Jimmy Christopher knew it was the Rio Grande. Now they were over Mexico....
Several times the pilot tried to descend, and each time the same phenomenon occurred--the motors went dead until he brought the plane up again, in the path of its southward Eight. It was uncanny, chilling; the feeling that unseen eyes were watching them, driving them along.
At last, Jimmy's sharp eyes discerned the gleaming sheen of water. He drew in his breath sharply at the beauty of the scene below him---Mexico City, sitting high on its natural plateau, on the edge of Lake Tezcuco.
The white macadam roads leading toward the city were covered with moving lines of men and trucks, marching northward. More forces for the invasion of America! And far over the plateau were more moving masses of men; a mere handful against the vast armies which the United States could muster, but invincible now with the aid of the terrible weapon that their master had acquired....
And now, when the pilot attempted to veer into the wind and land, there was no dying of motors. The plane dropped slowly under his skillful manipulation toward a field to the east of the city, illuminated by huge incandescent bulbs....
A LINE of Aztec infantry was drawn up to meet them as the plane coasted to a stop, and mechanics ran out to help them.
When the motors were shut off, Jimmy Christopher said to the pilot: "Here we are, lieutenant. Keep a stiff upper lip. They didn't bring us here just to sacrifice us on their alters. But if we have to die, let's go out like men!"
They shook hands, descended from the plane. A tall man in brilliant uniform stepped forward, saluted gravely. He was lean-featured, thin-lipped, with sharp eyes that roved over Jimmy's well-knit figure like those of a hangman. There was a note of wonder in his voice as he said: "Are you then, that so dangerous person who is known as Operator 5? I expected an older man."
Jimmy said curtly: "I am Operator 5."
"That, my friend," the officer said, "is but a number. What is your name?"
Jimmy grinned. "Operator 5 will have to do you. Only my friends call me by name."
The officer smiled thinly. "You are another of those who need coaxing, no? No matter. At the palace we will know how to make you loquacious. Come!"
He turned, stalked across the landing field. A file of soldiers opened, took position on either side of Jimmy. Jimmy said to the pilot: "They don't want you, old man. Stay by the plane if you can."
The two men shook hands, and the pilot said earnestly: "Good luck, Operator 5!"
At the edge of the field, a large closed car was waiting. The Aztec officer got in first, then Jimmy was motioned in. Two soldiers sat on the rear seat, on either side of him, while the officer sat on one of the forward folding seats. The car got in motion.
Jimmy said: "Would it be too much, sir, to ask where we are going?"
The officer turned his head, gazed at him a moment, then answered: "You are being taken to an interview with our emperor--Montezuma the Third. Be careful how you speak to him. If you are wise, you will answer his questions more fully than you have answered mine."
Jimmy relaxed in his seat, thoughtfully. Why Montezuma should have gone to this trouble to bring him here, he could guess. As Operator 5 of the United States Secret Service, it might well be assumed that he was in possession of all the secrets of defense of the country. If they should torture him....
Jimmy Christopher's lips set firmly.