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Fireflies on the dark meadow of Earth ... The men and women looking up through the dome in the center of the crater of Eratosthenes were too stunned to cry out, and some did not understand all at once the meaning of those pinpoints on the shadowy face of the new Earth, the lights blossoming outwards, then dying. So bright they could be seen through the cloudmasses covering a large part of Europe. So bright they could be located as London, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Leningrad, Rome, Reykjavik, Athens, Cairo...
Then, a flare near Moscow that spread out and out and out...
Some in the dome recovered more quickly than others. Scone and Broward, two of the Soviet North American officers present at the reception in honor of the South Atlantic Axis officers, acted swiftly enough to defend themselves.
Even as the Axes took off their caps and pulled small automatics and flat bombs from clips within the caps, the two Americans reached for the guns in their holsters.
Too late to do them much good if the Argentineans and South Africans nearest them had aimed at them. The Axes had no shock on their faces; they must have known what to expect. And their weapons were firing before the fastest of the Soviets could reach for the butts of their guns.
But the Axes must have had orders to kill the highest ranking Soviets first. At these the first fire was concentrated.
Marshal Kosselevsky had half-turned to his guest, Marshal Ramirez-Armstrong. His mouth was open and working, but no words came from it. Then, his eyes opened even wider as he saw the stubby gun in the Argentinean's hand. His own hand rose in a defensive, wholly futile, gesture.
Ramirez-Armstrong's guntwanged three times. Other Axes' bullets also struck the Russian. Kosselevsky clutched at his paunch, and he fell face forward. The .22 calibers did not have much energy or penetrate deeply into the flesh. But they exploded on impact; they did their work well enough.
Scone and Broward took advantage of not being immediate targets. Guns in hand, they dived for the protection of a man-tall bank of instruments. Bullets struck the metal cases and exploded, for, in a few seconds, the Axes had accomplished their primary mission and were now out to complete their secondary.
Broward felt a sting on his cheek as he rolled behind the bank. He put his hand on his cheek, and, when he took it away, he saw his hand covered with blood. But his probing finger felt only a shallow of flesh. He forgot about the wound. Even if it had been more serious, he would have had no time to take care of it.
A South African stepped around the corner of the bank, firing as he came.
Broward shot twice with his .45. The dark-brown face showered into red and lost its human shape. The body to which it was now loosely attached curved backwards and fell on the floor.
"Broward!" called Scone above the twang and boom of the guns and the wharoop! of a bomb. "Can you see anything? I can't even stick my head around the corner without being shot at."
Broward looked at Scone, who was crouched at the other end of the bank. Scone's back was to Broward, but Scone's head was twisted far enough for him to see Broward out of the corner of his eye.
Even at that moment, when Broward's thoughts should have excluded everything but the fight, he could not help comparing Scone's profile to a face cut out of rock. The high bulbous forehead, thick bars of bone over the eyes, Dantesque nose, thin lips, and chin jutting out like a shelf of granite, more like a natural formation which happened to resemble a chin than anything which had taken shape in a human womb.
Ugly, massive, but strong. Nothing of panic or fear in that face; it was as steady as his voice.
Old Gibraltar-face, thought Broward for perhaps the hundredth time. But this time he did not feel dislike.
"I can't see any more than you, Colonel," he said.
Scone, still squatting, shifted around until he could bring one eye to bear fully on Broward. It was a pale blue, so pale it looked empty, unhuman.
"Now," said Broward. "A bomb got General Mansfield and Colonels Omato and Ingrass. That gives you a fast promotion, sir."
"We'll both be promoted above this bank if an Axe lobs a bomb over," said Scone. "We have to get out of here."
Scone frowned--granite wrinkling--and said, "It's obvious the Axes want to do more than murder a few Soviets. They must plan on getting control of the bonephones. I know I would if I were they. If they can capture the control center, every Soviet on the Moon--except for the Chinese--is at their mercy. So..."
"We make a run for the BR?"
"I'm not ordering you to come with me," said Scone. "That's almost suicide. But you will give me a covering fire."
"I'll go with you, Colonel."
Scone glanced at the caduceuses on Broward's lapels, and he said, "We'll need your professional help after we clean out the Axes. No."
"You need my amateurish help now," said Broward. "As you see"--he jerked his thumb at the nearly headless Zulu-- "I can handle a gun. And if we don't get to the bonephone controls first, life won't be worth living. Besides, I don't think the Axes intend taking any prisoners."
"You're right," said Scone. But he seemed hesitant.
"You're wondering why I'm falling in so quickly with your plan to wreck the control center?" said Broward. "You think I'm a Russky agent?"
"I didn't say I intended to wreck the transmitters," said Scone. "No. I know what you are. Or, I think I do. You're not a Russky. You're a..."
Scone stopped. Like Broward, he felt the rock floor quiver, then start shaking. And a low rumbling reached them, coming up through their feet before their ears detected it.
Scone, instead of throwing himself flat on the floor--an instinctive but useless maneuver--jumped up from his squatting position.
"Now! Now! The others'll be too scared to move!"
Broward rose, though he wanted to cling to the floor. Directly below them--or, perhaps, to the side but still underground--a white-hot "tongue" was blasting a narrow tunnel through the rock. Behind it, also hidden within the rock, in a shapressed photons would dissipate.
"Follow me!" said Scone, and he began running.
Broward took a step, halted in amazement, called out, "The suits ... other way!"
Then, he resumed running after Scone. Evidently, the colonel was not concerned about the dome cracking wide open. His only thought was for the bone-phone controls.
Broward expected to be cut down under a storm of bullets. But the room was silent except for the groans of some wounded. And the ever-increasing rumble from deep under.
The survivors of the fight were too intent on the menace probing beneath them to pay attention to the two runners--if they saw them.
That is, until Scone bounded through the nearest exit from the dome in a great leap afforded by the Moon's weak gravity. He almost hit his head on the edge of the doorway.
Then, somebody shot at Broward. But his body, too, was flying through the exit, his legs pulled up, and the three bullets passed beneath him and blew holes in the rock wall ahead of him.
Broward slammed into the wall and fell back on the floor. Though half-stunned, he managed to roll past the corner, out of line of fire, into the hallway. He rose, breathing hard, and checked to make sure he had not broken his numbed wrists and hands, which had cushioned much of his impact against the wall. And he was thankful that the tongues needed generators too massive to be compacted into hand weapons. If the Axes had been able to smuggle tonguers into the dome, they could have wiped out every Soviet on the base.
The rumble became louder. The rock beneath his feet shook. The walls quivered like jelly. Then...
Not the ripping upwards of the floor beneath his feet, the ravening blast opening the rock and lashing out at him with sear of fire and blow of air to burn him and crush him against the ceiling at the same time.
From somewhere deep and off to one side was an explosion. The rock swelled. Then, subsided.