Transcribers note: This etext was produced from Astounding Stories April 1932. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
[Chet Ballard answers the pinpoint of light that from the craggy desolation of the moon stabs out man's old call for help.]
The Finding of Haldgren
A Complete Novelette
By Charles Willard Diffin
The venerable President of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale had been speaking. He paused now to look out over the sea of faces that filled the great hall in serried waves. He half turned that he might let his eyes pass over the massed company on the platform with him. The Stratosphere Control Board—and they had called in their representatives from the far corners of Earth to hear the memorable words of this aged man.
From the waiting audience came no slightest sound; the men and women were as silent as that other audience listening and watching in every hamlet of the world, wherever radio and television reached. Again the figure of the President was drawn erect; the scanty, white hair was thrown back from his forehead; he was speaking:
" ... And this vast development has come within the memory of one man. I, speaking to you here in this year of 1974, have seen it all come to pass. And now I am overwhelmed with the wonder of it, even as I was when those two Americans first flew at Kittyhawk.
"I, myself, saw that. I saw with these eyes the first crude engine-bearing kites; I saw them from 1914 to 1918 tempered and perfected in the furnace of war; I saw the coming of detonite and the beginning of our air-transport of to-day. And always I have seen brave men—men who smiled grimly as they took those first crude controls in their hands; who laughed and waved to us as they took off in the 'flying coffins' of the great war; who had the courage to dare the unknown dangers of the high levels and who first threw their ships through the Repelling Area and blazed the air-trails of a new world.
"And to-day I, who have seen all this, stand before you and say: 'Thank God that the spirit of brave men goes on!'
* * * * *
"It has never ended—that adventurer strain—that race of Viking men. We have two of them here to-night. The whole world is pausing this instant wherever men are on land or water or air to do honor to these two.
"They do not know why they are here. They have been summoned by the Stratosphere Control Board which has delegated to me the honor of making the announcement."
The tall figure was commandingly erect; for an instant the fire of youth had returned to him.
"Walter Harkness!" he called. "Chester Bullard! Stand forth that the eyes of the world may see!"
Two men arose from among the members of the Board and came hesitantly forward. Strongly contrasting was the darkly handsome face of Harkness, man of wealth and Pilot of the Second Class, and the no less pleasing features of Chet Bullard, Master Pilot of the World. For Bullard's curling hair was as golden as the triple star upon his chest that proclaimed his standing to the world and all the air above.
The speaker was facing them; he turned away for a moment that he might bow to a girl who was still seated next to the chair where Walt Harkness had been.
"To Mrs. Harkness," he said, "who, until one month ago, was Mademoiselle Delacouer of our own beloved France, I shall have something further to say. She, too, has been summoned by the Board, but, for now, I address these two."
* * * * *
Again he was facing the two men; and now he was speaking directly to them:
"Pilot Harkness and Master Pilot Bullard, for you the world has been forced to create a new honor, a new mark of the world's esteem. For you two have done what never men have done before. We who have preceded you have subdued the air; but you, gentlemen, you—the first of all created beings to do so—have conquered space.
"And to you, because of your courage; because of your dauntless pioneer spirit; because of the unconquerable will that drove you and the inventive genius that made it possible—because all these have set you above us more ordinary men, since they have made you the first men to fly through space—it is my privilege now to show you the honor in which you are held by the whole world."
The firm voice quavered; for a moment the old hands trembled as they lifted a blazing gem from its velvet case.
"Chester Bullard, Master Pilot, on behalf of the Stratosphere Control Board I bestow upon you—"
* * * * *
Every radiophone in the world must have echoed that sharp command; every television screen must have shown to a breathless audience the figure whose blond hair was awry, whose lean face was afire with protest, as Chet Bullard sprang forward with upraised hand.
"You're wrong—dead wrong! You're making a mistake. I can't accept that!"
The master pilot's voice was raised in earnest protest. He seemed, for the moment, unaware of the thousands of eyes that were upon him; heedless of the gasp of amazement that swept sibilantly over the vast audience like a hissing wave breaking upon the beach. And then his face flushed scarlet, though his eyes still held steadily upon the startled countenance of the man who stood transfixed, while the jewel in his hand took the light of the nitron illuminators above and shot it back in a glory of rainbow hues.
From the seated group on the platform a man came forward. Commander of the Air, this iron-gray man; he was head of the Stratosphere Control Board, supreme authority on all matters that concerned the air levels of the whole world; Commander-in-Chief of all men who laid hands on the controls of a ship. He spoke quietly now, and Chet Bullard, at his first word, snapped instantly to salute, then stood silently waiting.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded the voice of authority. The voice seemed soft, almost gentle, yet each syllable carried throughout the hall with an unmistakable hint of the hardness of a steelite shell beneath the words.
"The eyes of the world are upon us here; the whole world is gathered to do you honor. Is it possible that you are refusing that which we offer? Why? You will speak, please!"
And Chet Bullard, standing stiffly at attention before his commander, spoke in a tone rendered almost boyish by embarrassment.
* * * * *
"I can't accept, sir. Pilot Harkness will bear me out in this. You would decorate us for being the first to navigate space; but we are not the first."
"Continue!" ordered the quiet voice as Chet paused. "You refer to Haldgren, probably."
"To Pilot Haldgren, sir."
"This is absurd! Haldgren was lost. It is supposed that he fell back into the sea, or struck some untraveled part of Earth."
"I have checked over his data, sir. It is my opinion that he did not fall; his figures indicate that he must have thrown his ship beyond the gravitational influence of Earth."
The Commander eyed the master pilot coldly. "And because you think that your conclusions are more accurate than those of my own investigating committee, you refuse this honor!
"Attention!" he snapped sharply. "The entire Service of Air is being rendered ridiculous by your conduct! I command you to accept this decoration."
"You are exceeding your authority, sir. I refuse!"
Suddenly the frozen quiet of the Commander's face was flushed red with rage. "Give me that insignia!" he demanded, and pointed to the triple star on Chet Bullard's breast. "Your commission is revoked!"
* * * * *
To the last breathless spectator in the farthest end of the great hall the white pallor of Chet Bullard's face must have been apparent. One hand moved toward the emblem on his blouse, the cherished triple star of a master pilot of the World; then the hand paused.
"I have still another reason for believing Haldgren is alive," he said in a cold and carefully emotionless voice. "Are you interested in hearing it?"
"Speak!" ordered the Commander.
Chet Bullard, still wearing the triple star, crossed quickly to a phone panel in the speaker's stand at one side of the stage. He jerked out an instrument. The buzz of excited whispering that had swept the audience gave place to utter silence. Each quiet, incisive word that Chet spoke was clearly heard. He gave his call number.
"Bullard; Master Pilot, First Class; Number U.S. 1; calling Doctor Roche at Allied Observatory, Mount Everest. Micro-wave, please, and connect through for telefoto-projection."
A few breathless seconds passed, while Chet aimed an instrument of gleaming chromium and glass, whose cable connections vanished in the phone panel recess. He focused it upon an artificially darkened screen above and behind the grouped figures on the stage. Then:
"Doctor Roche?" Chet queried.
And, before the whole audience, the dark screen came to life to show a clear-cut picture of a man who sat at a telescope; whose hand held a radiophone; and who glanced up frowningly and said: "Yes, this is Doctor Roche."
Chet's response was immediate.
"Bullard speaking; Chet Bullard, at New York. When I was in your observatory yesterday, Doctor, you said that you had seen flashes of light on the Moon. You remember that, don't you? You saw them some months ago while I was on the Dark Moon."
* * * * *
The man in that distant observatory was no longer scowling at this interruption of his work. His smile was echoed by the cordial tone of his voice that rang clearly through the great hall.
"Correct, Mr. Bullard. An observer at our two hundred-inch reflector reported them on two successive nights. They were inside the crater of Hercules."
From his place at the center of the stage the waiting Commander of Air protested:
"Come—come! We know all about that, Bullard. Are you trying to say—"
The voice of the astronomer was speaking again:
"You will no doubt be interested to know that the lights occurred again yesterday at about this time.... Let me see if they are on now. I will have the two hundred-inch instrument used as before, and will show you what we see.
"Watch your screen, but don't expect to find any substantiation of your wild theory that these lights have a human origin." He laughed softly. "No atmosphere to speak of there, you know; we have determined that very definitely."
On the screen the picture of the smiling man flashed off; it was replaced by an unflickering darkness that came abruptly into softly shaded light. There was an expanse of volcanic terrain and a round orifice of tremendous size, where the sunlight cast black shadows. Other shaded portions about were like rocky, broken ground.
* * * * *
To Chet, staring at the strange conformation, came the quick sense of hanging above that ground and looking down upon it. And he knew that in New York he was looking through a great telescope down under the world and was staring straight down into the throat of an extinct volcano on the Moon.
There were few wonders of the modern world that could thrill the master pilot with any feeling of amazement, but here was a new experience. He would have spoken, would have ejaculated some word of wonder, but for the new light that claimed his eyes and brain.
The volcano, even in death, was ages old; its cold desolation showing plainly on the screen. No fires poured now from a hot throat; the molten sea that once had raged within had hardened and choked that vast throat with rock that had frozen to make one enormous plain. Ringed about by the jagged sides of the tremendous volcano, the floor within seemed smooth by comparison, except for another depression at its upper edge.
Here was another and smaller crater inside the great ringed wall of Hercules. The light of the sun struck slantingly across to throw one side of the gigantic cup into shadow, while the opposite rim blared brightly in the lunar dawn. And within the smaller crater, too, one side was dead black with shadow.
Dead!—No moving thing—no sign of life or indication that life might ever have been! A dead world, this!—its utter desolation struck Chet's half-uttered exclamation to a hoarse whisper of dismay. In all the universe what less likely place might one discover wherein to look for man?
* * * * *
His gaze was held in fascinated hopelessness on the barren, mountainous ring, on the inner inverted cone, on the shadow within that smaller crater—on a tiny pinpoint of light that was flashing there!... He hardly knew when he raised one trembling hand and pointed, while a voice quite unlike his own said huskily:
"Look! Look! I told you it was so!... There! In that little crater!—it's signaling! Three dots—now three dashes—three dots again! The old S O S!—the old call for help! It's Haldgren!"
Again the screen showed the smiling scientist.
"Caught them just right," he said, "and glad to be of service. Now, if there's anything else I can do—"
"Thanks!" said Chet in that same strained voice. "Thanks! There's nothing else." A switch clicked beneath his hand, and once more the screen was dark.
"Those dots and dashes! The old S O S! Who could doubt now?" Chet was telling himself this when the Commander's voice broke in harshly.
"Even you must see the absurdity of this, Bullard. You have heard this astronomer tell you what the rest of us knew for ourselves—that there is no air on the Moon; that it is impossible for a human being to live there. And you would have us believe that a man has lived there for five years!
"But I am taking your distinguished record into account; I am overlooking your insubordination and the folly of your reasoning. Perhaps your feeling about Haldgren does you credit; but Haldgren is dead. Now I am giving you another chance: I order you to come forward and receive this honor, which is an honor to the entire Service of Air."
* * * * *
Chet was staring in open amazement. "No air on the Moon," this man had said. And what of that? Neither was there air in interplanetary space, yet he had traveled there. It was inconceivable that this imperious and dictatorial man could be so blind.
"I can't do it, sir," he tried to explain. "You surely can't disregard that message, the old call for help. We were using that, you know, when Haldgren took off five years ago."
No longer did a masking softness overlay the hard brittleness of the Commander's voice.
"Your star!" he snapped. "You are no longer in the Service, Bullard!"
But Chet Bullard, as he stepped forward that the Commander might rip the triple star from his chest, was not alone. Walt Harkness was only a Pilot of the Second Class, but he stripped the emblem from his own silken blouse and placed it in the Commander's outstretched hand beside Chet's star.
"Permit me, sir, to share Mr. Bullard's enviable humiliation," he observed with venomous courtesy; and added:
"Whatever similar honors were in store for Mrs. Harkness and myself are respectfully declined. We, too, are of the opinion that Pilot Haldgren deserves them instead of us."
For an instant Chet's flashing smile drew his face into friendly lines. "Thanks!" he said.
But all friendliness was erased as he swung back upon the Commander.
* * * * *
No thought now of the thousands of staring faces or of the millions throughout the world who were watching him and were hearing his words. Chet Bullard clipped those words into curt phrases, and he shot them at his superior officer as if from a detonite gun:
"You think your judgment better than mine—you've dropped me from the Service—and you've got the power to make that stick! But you're wrong, sir, dead wrong! And I'll make you admit it, too.
"No—don't interrupt! I'm going to say what I please, and this is it, Commander:
"Hang onto that jewel you were giving me. Keep it ready. For I'm going to the Moon. I'm going to find Haldgren, if he's still living when I get there. And, at the least, I will bring back some record to show he is the man we should honor.
"Haldgren, alive or dead, was the first man to conquer space. Neither Harkness nor I would steal an atom of his glory. I'll have the proof when I come back. And when I come—"
* * * * *
For an instant the ready grin that marked Chet's irresistible good nature lighted up his face with a silent echo of some laugh-provoking thought occurring in his mind.
"—when I do come, Commander, I will make you eat your words. It's you who will be out of the Service then, laughed out!"
The Commander smiled, too; smiled coldly, complacently, while his head shook.
"Again you are mistaken," he told Chet; "never again will you fly as much as one foot above Earth."
And still Chet's grin persisted. "Commander," he said, "a man in your position should not make so many mistakes. I am going—I give you warning now—going to the Moon. And you haven't enough Patrol Ships in all the air levels of Earth to hold me back, once I'm on my way!"
And every television screen of Earth showed a remarkable scene: a red-faced, choleric Commander of the Air, who shouted that a group of officers might leap forward to do his bidding; a dark-haired man and a girl who sprang beside him. The bodies of the two were interposed for an instant between the officers' weapons and a fair-haired man.... And the lean young man, with his shock of golden hair thrown back from his face, leaped like a panther in that same instant; drew himself to an open window; threw himself through, and vanished among the brilliant lights and black shadows of a New York night.
But, as he fought his way free of the throng outside, there came above the clamor of an excited crowd the voice of Walt Harkness in cryptic words:
"The ship is yours, Chet," the fugitive heard Harkness call; "it's in cold storage for you!"
A Dirty Red Freighter....
Chet Bullard was more at home among the air-lanes of Earth than he was on solid ground. But he oriented himself in an instant; knew he was on a cross street in the three hundred zone; and saw ahead of him, not a hundred feet away, the green, glowing ring that marked a subway escalator.
In the passing throng there were those who looked curiously at him. Chet checked his first headlong flight and dropped to an unhurried walk.
About him, as he well knew, the air was filled with silent radio waves that were sounding the alarm in every sentry box of the great city. They would reach the aircraft terminals and the control room of every ship within a fixed radius. He had dared the wrath of one of the most powerful officials of Earth; no effort would be spared to run him down; his picture would be flashing within ten minutes on every television screen of the Air Patrol. And Chet Bullard knew only one way to go.
Of course they would be watching for him at the airports, yet he knew he must get away somehow; escape quickly—and find some corner of the world where he could hide.
He was in the escalator, and wild plans were flashing through his mind as he watched the levels go past. "First Level; Trains North and South; Local Service. Second Level; Express Stop for North-shore Lines. Third Level; Airport Loop Lines; Transatlantic Terminals—"
Chet Bullard, his hair still tangled on his hatless head, his blouse torn where a hand had ripped off the Master Pilot's emblem, stepped from the escalator to a platform, then to a cylindrical car that slid silently in before him and whose flashing announcement-board proclaimed: "Hoover Airport Express. No Intermediate Stops."
* * * * *
Would they be watching for him at the great Hoover Terminal on the tip of Long Island? Chet assured himself silently that he would tell the world they would be. But even a fugitive may have friends—if he has been a master pilot and has a lean, likable face with a most disarming grin.
Where would he go? He did not know; he had been bluffing a bit and the Commander had called him when his hand was weak; he had no least idea where he could find their ship. If only he had had a chance for a word with Walt Harkness: Walt had been flying it; he had left it apparently in a storage hangar.
But where? And what was it that Walt had called out? Chet was racking his brains to remember.
"The ship is yours," Walt had shouted ... and something about "storage." But why should he have laid up the ship; why should he have stored it?
Chet saw the lights of subterranean stations flashing past as the car that held him rode silently through a tube that it touched not at all. He knew that magnetic rails made a grillwork that surrounded the car and that drew it on at terrific speed while suspending it in air. But he would infinitely have preferred the freedom of the high levels, and his own hand on a ship's controls.
A ship!—any ship!—but preferably his ship and Walt's. And Walt had said something of "storage—cold storage." The words seemed written before him in fiery lines. It was a moment before he knew what he had recalled. Then a slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he turned and stared through a window that showed only blackness.
"Cold storage!" That was good work on Walt's part. He had been forced to shout the directions before them all, yet tell none of those others about him where the ship was hidden. Chet was picturing that place of "cold storage" as he smiled. The fact that it was some thousands of miles away troubled him not at all.
* * * * *
The great Hoover Terminal was a place where night never came. Its daylight tubes wove a network of light about the stupendous enclosure, their almost silent hissing merged to an unceasing rush of sound, so soft as to be unheard through the scuffing feet and chattering voices of the ever-hurrying crowds.
From subways the impatient people came and went, and from highway stations where busses and private cars drove in and away. The clock in the squat tower swung its electrically driven hands toward the figure 22; there lacked but two hours of midnight, and a steady stream of aircraft came dropping down the shaft of green light that reached to and through the clouds. There would be many liners leaving on the hour; these that were coming in were private craft that spun their flashing helicopters like giant emeralds in the green descending light, while the noise of their beating blades filled the air with a rush of sound.
Outside the entrance to the Passenger Station, Chet Bullard withdrew himself from the surging press of hurrying men and women and slipped into a shadowed alcove. Two passing figures in the gray and gold of the Air Patrol scanned the crowd closely; Chet drew himself into the deeper shadows and waited until they were by before he emerged and followed the shelter of a coffee-house that extended toward another entrance to the field, where pilots and mechanics passed in and out.
* * * * *
A bulletin board showed in changing letters of light the official assignment of landing space. And, though every passing eye was turned toward it, Chet knew that each man was intent upon the board and not on the shadowed niche in the building behind it. He watched his chance and slipped into that shadow.
Unseen, he could see them as they approached: men in the multicolored uniforms of many lines, who paused to read, to exchange bantering shop-talk—and to pass on.
Many voices: "Storm area, over the South-shore up to Level Six. You birds on the local runs had better watch your step" ... "—coming down at Calcutta. Yeah, a dirty, red-bottomed freighter that rammed him. I saw it take off two of his fans, but Shorty set the old girl down like a feather on the lift of the four fans he had left. You said it—Shorty's a real pilot...."
Another pause; then a growling voice that proclaimed complainingly: "Lord, but I'm tired! All right, Spud; grin, you damned Irishman! But if you had been hauling the Commander all over Alaska to-day and then got ordered out again just as you were set for a good sleep, you'd be sore. What in thunder does he want his ship for to-night, I ask you?"
* * * * *
Chet, crouching still lower in the little retreat, stiffened to attention at the reference to the Commander. So the "big boss" had ordered out his own cruiser again! He listened still more intently to the voice that replied.
"Sure, and it's thankful you sh'u'd be to be holdin' the controls on a fine, big cruiser like that; though, betwixt you and me, 'tis myself that don't envy you your job. Me and my old freighter, we go wallowin' along. And to-night I'm takin' her home for repairs—back to the fact'ry in Rooshia where they made her; and the devil of a job it will be, for she handles with all the grace of a pig in a puddle."
Chet risked a glance when the sound of heavy footsteps indicated that one of the two speakers had gone on alone to the pilots' gate. Before the huge bulletin board, in pilot's uniform and with the markings of a low-level man on his sleeve, stood the sturdy figure of the man called Spud. He started back at sight of the face peering out at him, but Chet whispered a command, and the man moved closer to the hiding place behind the board.
There were others coming in a laughing group up the walk; daylight tubes illuminated the approach. Chet spoke hurriedly.
"I'm in a devil of a mess, Spud. Will you lend a hand? Will you stand by for rescue work?"
And Spud studied the bulletin board as he growled:
"Lend a hand?—yes, and the arm with it, Mr. Bullard. You stud by me once whin I needed help; and now you ask will I stand by for rescue work. Till we crash—that's all, me bhoy!"
* * * * *
Spud's speech was tinged with the brogue of Erin; it grew perceptibly more pronounced as his quick emotions took hold of him.
"Quiet!" said Chet. "Wait till they pass!"
The newcomers stopped for no more than a glance. Then:
"I'm demoted," Chet told the round-eyed man who stared unbelievingly at the vacant place on Chet's blouse. "The air's hot with orders for my arrest. I've got to get out, and I've got to do it quick."
And now there was only a trace of the brogue in Spud's voice. Chet knew the trick of the man's speech; touch his heart and his tongue would grow thick; place him face to face with an emergency and he would go cold and hard, while the good-natured phrasing of his native sod went from him and he talked fast and straight.
"The devil you say!" exclaimed Spud. "What you've done I don't know, nor yet why you did it. But, whatever it was, I don't believe you let that triple star go for less than a damned good reason. Now, let me think; let—me—think—"
A figure in gray and gold was approaching, a member of the Air Patrol. Spud's tongue was lively with good-natured raillery as he fell into step and drew the officer with him through the pilots' gate, while Chet, from his shadow, saw with satisfaction the apparent desertion. He had known Spud O'Malley of old. Spud was square—and Spud had wanted time for thinking.
There were many who passed Chet's hiding place before a cautious whisper came to him and he saw a hand that thrust a roll of clothing around the edge of the bulletin board.
"Put 'em on!" was the order of Spud. "And smear your yellah hair with the grease! Work fast, me bhoy!"
* * * * *
The command was no less imperative for being spoken beneath Spud's breath, and for the first time Chet's hopes soared high within him. It had all been so hopeless, the prospect of actual escape from the net that was closing about him. And now—!
He unrolled the tight package of cloth to find a small can of black graphite lubricant done up in a jacket and blouse. Both were stained and smeared with grease; they were amply large. Chet did not bother to strip off his own blouse; he pulled on the other clothes over his own, and his face was alight with a grin of appreciation of Spud's attention to details as he took a daub of the grease, rubbed it on his hands, then passed them through his hair.
"Yellah," Spud had said, but the description was no longer apt. And the man who stepped forth beside Spud O'Malley in the uniform of an engineer of a tramp freighter looked like nothing else in the world but just that.
"Come on, now!" ordered Spud harshly, as a figure in gray and gold appeared around the corner of the coffee shop. "You're plinty late, me fine lad! Now get in there and clean up that dirty motor and get her runnin'! Try out every fan on the old boat; then we'll be off.
"You're number CG41!" he whispered. And Chet repeated the number as he followed the pilot through the gate.
"O.K.," said the guard at the gate, "and I'll bet he gives you hell and to spare!"
Chet slouched his shoulders to disguise his real height and followed where Spud O'Malley, with every indication of righteous anger, strode indignantly down the pavement, at the far end of which was a battered and service-stained ship.
* * * * *
Her hull of dirty red showed mottlings of brown; she was sadly in need of a painter's gun. She would groan and squeal, Chet knew, when the fans lifted her from the hold-down clutch; and she couldn't fly at over twenty thousand without leaking her internal pressure through a thousand cracks that made her porous as an old balloon—but to Chet's eyes the old relic of the years was a thing of sheer beauty and grace.
O'Malley was leading through an open freight hatch; Chet followed, and, at his beckoning hand, slipped into a dingy cabin.
"Lay low there," the pilot ordered, and still, as Chet observed, his speech showed how clearly the man was thinking, since the emergency still existed "I've cleared some time ago, Mr. Bullard; we're ready to leave as soon as we get the dispatcher's O.K."
The minutes were long where Chet waited in the pilot's cabin. Each sound might mean a last-minute search of departing ships, but he tried to tell himself that the attention of the officers would be centered upon the passenger liners.
Beyond, where he could see out into the control room, a white light flashed. He heard the bellowing orders of the Irishman at the controls. And, as other sounds reached his ears, he had to grip his hands hard while he fought for control of the laughter that was almost hysterical. For, beneath him, he felt the sluggish lift of the ship, and, from every joint and plate of this old-timer of the air, came squawking protests against the cruel fates that drove her forth again to face the buffeting, racking gales.
But the blue light of an ascending area was about them, and Spud O'Malley was shouting from the control room:
"Sure, and we're off, Mr. Bullard. Now do ye come up here and tell me all about it—but I warn you, I'll not be believin' a word—"
Up From Earth
Chet had plenty of time in which to acquaint Pilot O'Malley with the facts. And, when he had told his story, it did his sick and worried mind good to hear the explosive stream of expletives that came from the other's lips. Yet, despite the Irishman's anger, it was noticeable that he closed the tight door of the control room before he said a word.
"Only a skeleton crew," he explained. "Just the relief pilot and the engineers and a man or two in the galley, and I trust 'em all. But you can't be too careful.
"The Commander," he concluded, "is gettin' to be more an emperor than a Commander, and somethin's got to be done. Discipline we must have, 'tis true; but this kotowin' to His Royal Highness and all o' that—devil a bit do I like it! If only you could show him up, Mr. Bullard—but of course you can't."
"I'm not so sure," Chet responded. "What I told the big boss wasn't all bluff. Haldgren did go out, five years ago this month. We have the record of a Crescent liner's captain who saw Haldgren's little ship shoot through the R.A. and go on out as if it were going somewhere. And now we have these flashes!
"Do you see what that means, Spud? An SOS! Nobody but an Earth-man would send that, and we wouldn't do it now. We would just press the lever of our emergency-call, and every receiver within a thousand miles would pick up the scream of it.
"But we've had this Dunston Emergency Transmitter less than four years. Haldgren knew only the old S O S. And remember this: three dots, three dashes and three dots don't just happen. They showed up on the Moon. They were repeated the next night. Somebody sent them! Who was it?"
* * * * *
And Pilot O'Malley gave the only obvious answer:
"There's only yourself and Mr. Harkness and Pilot Haldgren that could have got there. 'Twas Haldgren, of course! What a pity that you can't go; 'tis likely the poor bhoy needs help."
"Five years!" mused Chet. "Five long years since he left! He must have landed safely—and then what? After five years comes a signal and that signal a call for help that no pilot worthy the name would disregard....
"Where are we bound?" he demanded abruptly.
"Rooshia," said O'Malley. "I disremember the name—'tis on my orders—but I know it's a long way up north."
"Spud," said Chet, "you're a rotten pilot; you're one of the worst I ever knew. Careless—that's your worst fault—and if anybody doubts that they'll believe it after this trip. For, Spud, if you're any friend of mine, and I know you are, you're going to lose your bearings, and kick this old sky-hog a long way beyond that factory she is bound for. And you're going to set me down in a God-forsaken spot in the arctic where I'm pretty sure I'll find a ship waiting for me.
"And, if you just stick around for a while after that, you will see me take off for the Moon. Then, if Haldgren is there—"
Chet failed to finish the sentence; he was staring through a rear lookout, where, over the arc of the Earth's horizon, could be seen a thin crescent Moon; about it drifting clouds made a halo.
The eyes of Spud O'Malley followed Chet's, and his imaginative faculties must have been stimulated by Chet's words, for he gazed open-mouthed, as if for the first time he visioned that golden scimitar as something more substantial than a high-hung light. He drew one long incredulous breath before he answered.
"What position, sir? Say the word and I'll lose myself so bad we'll be over the Pole and half-way to the equator again!"
"Not that bad," was Chet's assurance. "Just spot this ship over 82:14 north, 93:20 east, and I'll give you local bearings from there."
Then to himself: "'Cold storage,' Walt said; he meant our old shop, of course. Probably had a hunch we would need it."
But to the pilot he said only the one word: "Thanks!"—though the grip of his hand must have spoken more eloquently.
* * * * *
The eastbound lanes of the five thousand level saw them plod slowly along, while faster and better-groomed ships slipped smoothly past; then the red hull rose to Level Twelve and swung out upon the great circle course that would bear them more nearly in the direction of the destination Chet had given. There were free levels higher up in which they could have laid a direct course, but the Irish pilot did not need Chet to tell him that the old hull would never stand it. Her internal pressure could never have been maintained at any density such as human lungs demanded.
But they were on their way, and Chet's customary genial expression gave place to one of more grim determination as he watched the white-flecked ocean drift slowly past below.
Once a patrol ship spoke to them. Daylight had come to show plainly the silver hull with the distinctive red markings of the Service that slipped smoothly down from above to hang poised under flashing fans like a giant humming-bird. Her directed radio beam flashed the yellow call signal in O'Malley's control room.
* * * * *
Chet was beside him, and the two exchanged silent glances before O'Malley cut in his transmitter. He must give name and number—this signal was a demand that could not be disregarded—but on the old freighter was no automatic sender that would flash the information across to the other ship; the pilot's voice must serve instead.
"Number three—seven—G—four—two!" he thundered into the radiophone. "Freighter of the Intercolonial Line, without cargo—"
"For the love of Pete," shouted the loudspeaker beside him in volume to drown out the pilot's words, "are you sending this by short wave, or are you just yelling across to me? Calm down, you Irish terrier!"
Then, before the pilot could reply, the voice from the silver and red patrol ship dropped into an exaggerated mimicry of the O'Malley brogue—
"And did yez say 'twas a freighter you had there? Sure, I thot at th' very last 'twas a foine big liner from the Orient and Transpolar run, dropped down here from the hoigh livils! All right, Spud; on your way! But don't crowd the bottom of the Twelve Level so close. This is O—sixteen—L; Jimmy Maddux. By—by! I'll report you O.K."
* * * * *
Again Chet looked at the pilot silently before he glanced back at the vanishing ship, already small in the distance. He repeated the Patrol Captain's words:
"You will 'report us O.K.'—yes, Jimmy, you'll do that, and if they want to find us again you can tell them right where to look."
"I'm pushin' her all I can, Mr. Bullard," said Spud. "'Tis all she can do.... And now do ye go into my cabin—there's two berths there—and we'll just turn in and sleep while my relief man takes his turn. But go in before I call him; there's not a soul on the ship besides ourselves knows that you're here."
And, in the cabin a short time later, Pilot O'Malley chuckled as he whispered: "I gave the lad his course. And Mac will follow it, but it'll niver take him near to the part of Rooshia he expects it to. Still, the record's clear as far as he's concerned; I've got it in the log. Mac's a good lad, and I wouldn't have him get into trouble over this."
* * * * *
In the freighter's cabin the chronometer was again approaching the hour of twenty-two; for nearly twenty-four hours the ship had been on her plodding way. And, lacking the A.D.D.—the Automatic Destination Detector—and other refinements of instrumental installations of the passenger ships, Pilot O'Malley had to work out his position for himself.
And where a faster craft would have driven through with scarcely a quiver, the big ship trembled with the buffets and suction of a wintry blast that drove dry snow like sand across the lookout glasses. The twelve thousand level was an unbroken cloud of snow—a gray smother where the red ship's blunt and rusty bow nosed through.
O'Malley clung to the chart table as the air gave way beneath them and the ship fell a hundred feet or more before her racing fans took hold and jerked her back to an even keel. He managed to check his figures, then moved to the door of his cabin, opened it and called softly.
Chet was beside him in an instant. It had seemed best that he remain in hiding, and he knew what the pilot's call meant. "Made it, did you!" he exclaimed. "Now I'll take a look about and pick up my bearing points."
But one look at the ports and he shook his head.
"That's dirty," he told O'Malley, and his eyes twinkled as he felt the old ship rear and plunge with the lift of a driving gale; "and how the old girl does feel it! She can't rip through, and she can't go above. You've had some trip, Spud; it's been mighty decent of you to go to all this—"
* * * * *
A flashing of yellow light on the instrument panel brought his thanks to a sudden halt. A voice, startling in its sudden loudness, filled the little room.
"Calling three—seven—G—four—two! Stand by for orders! Patrol O—sixteen—L sending; acknowledge, please!"
Chet's eyes were staring into those of O'Malley. "That's Jimmy Maddux back on our trail," he said. "Now, what has got them suspicious?"
He glanced once at the collision instrument. "He's right overhead at thirty thousand," he added; "and there are more of them coming in from all sides. Now what the devil—"
Spud O'Malley had his hand on the voice switch. "Be quiet!" he commanded; then spoke into the transmitter—
"Three—seven—G—four—two acknowledging!" he said, and again Chet observed how all trace of accent had departed from his voice; it was an indication of the moment's tenseness and of the pilot's full understanding of their position.
The answering order was crisply spoken; this was a different Jimmy Maddux from the one who had chaffed the Irish pilot some hours before.
"Stand by! We're coming down! Records at Hoover Terminal show two men reporting at pilots' gate under the number of your engineer, CG41. Hold your ship exactly where you are; we're sending a man aboard!"
* * * * *
Chet had moved silently to the controls. The old multiple-lever instrument—he knew it well! But he looked at Spud O'Malley and waited for his nod of assent before he presumed to trespass on another pilot's domain. Then he shifted two little levers, and the ship fell away beneath them as it plunged toward the Earth.
And Pilot O'Malley was explaining to the Patrol Ship Captain as best he could for the rolling plunge of the careening ship:
"I can't hold her, sir. And you'd best be keepin' away. It's stormin' fearful down here, and I can't rise above it! Keep clear!—I'm warnin' you!" The hum of their helicopters rose to a shrill whine as Chet drove the ship out and down through the smothering clouds. "You must hear her fans on your instruments; you can see how we're pitchin'!"
He switched off the transmitter for a moment and faced Chet. "They've been checkin' close," he stated. "That was my engineer's number I gave you as we came through the gate. And, of course, he had given it before when he reported in. Now we're up against it."
The collision instrument was humming with the sound of many motors, and warning lights were giving their silent alarm of the oncoming ships.
"They're comin' in," Spud went on hopelessly, "like a flock of kites in the tropics when one of them's found somethin' dead—and it's us that's the carcass!"
* * * * *
But Chet was not listening. The snowy clouds had broken for an instant; their ship had driven through and beneath them. Through the wild, whirling chaos of white there came for an instant a rift—and far across an icy expanse Chet glimpsed a range of black hills!
He spoke sharply to the pilot. "That's Jimmy Maddux above us—kid him along, Spud! Tell him we're coming up, don't let him grab us with his magnets! This is putting you in a devil of a hole, old man. I'm sorry!—but we've got to see it through now.
"You can never set this ship down, Spud; that patrol would be on our backs in half a second. And they'd knock me out with one shot the minute I stepped outside."
The clear space in the storm had filled again with the dirty gray of wind-whipped snow; off at the right a dim glow of distant fires was the midnight sun as it shone for a brief moment. One blast, more malignant in its fury than those that had come before, tore first at the blunt bow, then caught them amidships to roll the big, sluggish freighter till her racked framework shrieked and chattered.
Spud pointed through a rear lookout where a silvery Patrol Ship flashed down through the clouds. "There's Jimmy!" he shouted. "He's takin' no chances of our landing—he's right on our tail!"
* * * * *
But Chet Bullard, his hands working at the control levers, was staring straight ahead into that gray blast; and his eyes were shining as he pulled back on a lever that threw them once more into the concealment of the whirling clouds above.
"Spud," he was shouting, "have you got a 'chute? You freighters have 'em sometimes. Get me a 'chute and I'll fool them yet! I saw the shed—our hangars—our work shop! There's where our ship is!"
They were lost once more in the snow that seemed to be driving past in solid drifts. Chet heard Spud shouting down a voice tube. And, curiously, it was plain that the Irish pilot had lost all tenseness from his voice; he was happy and as carefree as if he had found the answer to all his perplexing questions. He was calling an order to his relief pilot.
"Mac—do ye break out two parachutes, me lad! Bring 'em up here, and shake a leg! No, there's nothin' to worry about—divil a thing!"
Then, into the transmitter, he shouted thickly as he switched the instrument on:
"Jimmy, me bhoy, kape away! Kape away, I'm tellin' you, or ye'll have me Irish temper disturbed, and I'm a divil whin I'm roused! What do I know about your twin ingineers? Wan of thim makes trouble enough for me! Now take yourself away, and don't step on the tail of this ship or we'll go down to glory together!—unless we go to another terminal and find oursilves in hell, and us all covered wid snow. Think how divilish conspicuous you'd be feelin'—"
* * * * *
A discord of voices silenced his laughing banter; on the instrument board the warning light was flashing imperatively. Above the bedlam of voices one stood out, and all other commands went silent before the voice of authority.
"Silence! This is the Commander of Air! Orders for O—sixteen—L: seize that ship! Your magnets!—disregard damage!—get your magnets on that ship and hold her. We are coming down—"
Chet reached for the transmitter switch and opened it that their voices might not go beyond the control room.
"Lots of company; they seem pretty certain that they're on the right track. And the big boss himself is coming down to call. Can't you hurry those 'chutes?"
The control room door was flung open as the figure of a young man stumbled through and dropped two bundles of cloth and webbing upon the floor. He clung to the door-frame as Chet threw the big freighter into a totally unexpected maneuver that rolled them down and away from a silver-bellied ship above. Then the levers moved again, and the ship went hard-a-port as Chet caught again one fleeting glimpse of shadow below that could only be the markings of a building he had known well.
"Hold her there, Spud!" he shouted. "He'll be back in a minute or two! He'll get us next time!"
Chet was reaching for the straps of a 'chute. He had the webbing about him when he stopped to waste precious seconds in wide-eyed staring at the figure of Spud O'Malley.
* * * * *
Spud was pulling at a recalcitrant buckle. He had motioned the relief pilot to take the controls, and now the bulk of a parachute pack hung awkwardly behind him.
"Spud!" Chet shouted. "You're not stepping out too! It's no sure thing with these old 'chutes; they're probably rotten! Stay here! Tell 'em I stuck you up with a gun!—tell 'em I made you bring me—"
"If you must talk," said Spud O'Malley calmly, and pulled a strap tight across his chest, "do ye be tryin to work while you talk. Get that harness on! If I let you stow away on my ship you can do no less than take me along on yours!"
A crashing impact drove the men to the floor in a sprawling heap; Chet pulled the last strap tight as he lay there. The lookouts were black above where the belly of a Patrol Ship clung close.
"Jimmy knows how to obey orders," said Chet as he came to his feet. "No cable magnets for Jimmy! He just smashed down on top of us, ripped off our fans and grabbed hold." He was helping Spud to his feet as he spoke.
"Mac, me bhoy," the pilot told his assistant, "the log has it all, the whole story. There'll be no trouble for you at all."
He yanked quickly at the port-opening switch, and the big steel disk backed slowly out of its threaded seat and swung wide.
* * * * *
Chet drew back one involuntary step as a blast of icy wind drove stinging snow into his face. Then, without a word, he gave Spud O'Malley a joyous grin and threw himself out into the void....
And, later, as he released the 'chute where a wind was dragging him violently across an icy expanse, he was laughing exultantly to see another 'chute whirled into the enshrouding drifts, while the chunky figure of a man came scrambling to his feet that he might shake a fist into the air toward some hidden enemy and shout into the storm epithets only half-heard.
"—and be damned to ye!" Chet heard him conclude; then was close enough to throw one arm about the figure and draw him after where he made his way toward a building that was like a mountain of snow.
Spud must have marveled at the craft within; at her sleek, shining sides; the flat nose that ended in a black exhaust port. He was examining the other exhausts that ringed her round when Chet pulled out a lever from the streamlined surface and swung open an entrance port.
He motioned Spud into the brilliantly lighted interior, where nitron illuminators were almost blinding as they shone of gleaming levers and dials of a control room like none that Spud O'Malley had ever seen.
Chet had thrown the building's doors open wide; a whirling motor had drawn them back on hidden tracks. Now he closed the entrance port with care, then glanced at his instruments before he placed his hand on a metal ball.
* * * * *
It hung suspended in air within a cage of curved bars. It was a modification of the high-liner ball-control, and it was new. Walt Harkness had had it installed to replace a more crudely fashioned substitute that had brought them safely back from the Dark Moon. The name of that new satellite was on Chet's lips as his thin hand rested delicately upon the ball.
"It's not the Dark Moon this time, old girl," he told the ship, "though you've taken me there twice. But we're going up just the same, and I told the Commander he hasn't Patrol Ships enough to hold us back." His fingers were gripping the little ball—lifting it—moving it forward....
And, as if he lifted the ship itself, the silent cylinder came roaring into life. Within the great building was a thundering blast that made the voice of the storm less than a whispering breath. It came but faintly through the heavily insulated walls, but Chet felt the lift of the ship, and that joyous smile was crinkling about his eyes as the silvery cylinder floated smoothly out of her shelter into the grip of the wind.
His eyes were on an upper lookout, where clouds were driving away like a curtain unrolled. More cloud banks were coming, but, for a time, the heavens were clear where the great red hull of a rusty freighter hung helpless beneath a red and silver Patrol Ship whose magnets held fast to its prey.
* * * * *
There were other shapes in the markings of the Service that shot slantingly down. Chet thought again of the carrion birds; then he saw the gold star on the bow of a great cruiser and knew from that ship that the Commander must be seeing their own below. Then he eased gently forward on a tiny ball—forward and forward, while the compensating floor of the control room swung up behind them and seemed thrusting up with unbearable weight.
There were flashes from the cruisers above, and flashes of red on the ice behind with fountains of shattered ice and rock; detonite works its most terrible destruction on a surface that is brittle and hard. But of what avail are detonite shells against a craft whose speed builds up to something greater than the muzzle velocity of a shell?—a silvery craft that sweeps out and out toward a black mountain range; then swings slowly up in a curve of sheer beauty that bends into banked masses of clouds—and ends.
But within the control room, Chet Bullard, no longer Master Pilot of the World, but master, in all truth, of space, knew that his ship's flight was far from ending. He turned to grin happily at his companion.
"We're off!" he shouted. "And it's thanks to you that we made it. If Haldgren's alive he'll have you to thank; for it's you that has done the trick so far!"
But Spud O'Malley answered soberly as he stared up and out into the blackness of levels he had never seen.
"I've helped," he admitted; "I've helped a bit. But it's a divil of a job of navigatin' that's ahead. And that's up to you, Chet Bullard; 'tis no job for an old omadhaun like mesilf!"
Chet felt the lift of the Repelling Area as they shot through. Ahead was the black velvet night that he knew so well; its silent emptiness was pricked through with bright points of fire.
"I found the Dark Moon," he said slowly, "and that you can't see at all. This other will be easy."
There was no boastfulness in the tone, and Spud O'Malley nodded as he glanced respectfully at the young man who threw back his disheveled mop of hair from a lean face and marked down some cryptic figures on a record sheet.
Chet Bullard was on the job ... and his passenger, it would seem, was satisfied that his unbelievable adventure was well begun.
Life Monstrous and Horrible
"It looks," said Spud O'Malley, "as if some bad little spalpeen of the skies had thrown pebbles at it when 'twas soft. It's fair pockmarked with places where the stones have hit."
He was staring through a forward lookout, where the whole sky seemed filled with a tremendous disk. One quarter was brilliantly alight; it formed a fat crescent within whose arms the rest of the globe was held in fainter glowing. By comparison, this greater portion was dark, though illuminated by earthlight far brighter than any moonlight on Earth.
But light or dark, the surface showed nothing but an appalling desolation where the rocky expanse had been still further torn and disrupted—pockmarked, as O'Malley had said, with great rings that had been the walls of tremendous volcanoes.
Chet was consulting a map where a similar area of circular markings had been named by scientists of an earlier day.
"Hercules," he mused, and stared out at the great circle of the moon. "The crater of Hercules! Yes, that must be it. That dark area off to one side is the Lake of Dreams; below it is the Lake of Death. Atlas! Hercules! Suffering cats, what volcanoes they must have been!"
"I don't like your names," objected O'Malley. "Lake of Death! That's not so good. And I don't see any lake, and the whole Moon is wrong side up, according to your map."
Chet reached for the ball-control, moved it, and swung their ship in a slow, rotary motion. The result was an apparent revolution of the Moon.
"There, it's right side up," Chet laughed; "that is, if you can tell me what direction is 'up' out here in space. And, as for the names, don't let them disturb you; they don't mean anything. Some old-timer with a little three-inch telescope probably named them. The darker areas looked like seas to them. Astronomers have known better for a long time; and you and I—we're darned sure of it now."
* * * * *
The great sea of shadow, a darker area within the shaded portion whose only light came from the Earth, was plainly a vast expanse of blackened rock. An immense depression, like the bottom of some earlier sea, it was heaved into corrugations that Chet knew would be mountain-high at close range. Marked with the orifices of what once had been volcanoes, the floor of that Lake of Death was hundreds of miles in extent.
But as for seas and lakes, there was no sign of water in the whole, vast, desolate globe. An unlikely place, Chet admitted, for the beginning of their search, and yet—those flashes of light!—the S O S! They had been real!
The bow blast had been roaring for over an hour; their strong deceleration made the forward part of the ship seem "down." And down it was, too, by reason of the pull of the great globe they were approaching. But the roaring exhaust up ahead was checking their speed; Chet measured and timed the apparent growth of the Moon-disk and nodded his satisfaction at their reduced speed.
"This will stop us," he said. "I didn't know but we would have to swing off, shoot past, and return under control. But we're all right, and there is the place we are looking for—the big ring of Hercules, the level floor of rock inside it. And over at one side the smaller crater—"
* * * * *
He was gazing entranced at the mammoth circle that had been a volcano's throat—the very one he had seen flashed on the screen. He moved the control to open a side exhaust and change their direction of fall. He was still staring, with emotions too overwhelming for words, and Spud O'Malley was silent beside him, as the great ring spread out and became an up-thrust circle of torn, jagged mountains some thirty or more miles across and directly below.
They fell softly into that circle. Its mountainous sides were high; they blocked off the view of the enormous terraces beyond that had been the crater's sloping sides.
From the direction that had suddenly become "east," the rising sun's strong light struck in a slant to make the bar rocks seem incandescent. On one side the giant rim of the encircling mountains was black with shadow. The shadow reached out across the vast, rocky floor almost to the foot of the opposite wall many miles away. It enveloped their falling ship like a cushioning, ethereal sea: velvety, softly black, almost palpable.
It was wrapping them about in the darkness of night as Chet's slender hand touched so delicately upon the ball-control—checked them, eased off, drew back again until the thundering exhausts echoed softly where their ship hung suspended a hundred feet above a rocky floor. The shrouding darkness erased the harsh contours of mountain and plain; it seemed shielding this place of desolation and horror from critical, perhaps unfriendly eyes of these beings from another world. And Chet laid their ship down gently and silently on the earthlit plain as if he, too, felt this sense of intrusion—as if there might be those who would resent the trespass of unwanted guests.
But Spud O'Malley must have experienced no such delicacy of feeling. He let go one long pent-up breath.
"And may the saints protect us!" he said. "The Lake of Death outside, and inside here is purgatory itself, or I don't know my geography. But you made it, Chet, me bhoy; you made it! What a sweet little pilot you are!"
* * * * *
"There's air here," Chet was telling his companion later; "air of a sort, but it's no good to us."
He pointed to the spectro-analyzer with its groupings of lines and light bands. "Carbon dioxide," he explained, "and some nitrogen, but mighty little of either. See the pressure gage; it's way down.
"But that won't bother us too much. We've got some suits stowed away in the supplies that will hold an atmosphere of pressure, and their oxygen tanks will do the rest. We were ready for anything we might find on our Dark Moon trip, but we didn't need them there. Now they'll come in handy."
"That's all right," O'Malley assured him; "I've gone down under water in a diving suit; I've gone outside a ship for emergency repairs in a suit like yours when the air was as thin as this; I can stand it either way. But what I want to know is this:
"What the divil chance is there of findin' your man, Haldgren, in such a frozen corner of purgatory as this? How could he live here? Here you've come in a fine, big ship, and his was a little bit of a bullet by comparison. Yet I doubt if you could live here for five years with all your big oxygen supply. Now, how could he have done it with his little outfit?
"And what has he eaten? Does this look like a likely place for shootin' rabbits, I ask you? Can a man catch a mess of fish in that empty Lake of Death? Or did Haldgren bring a sandwich with him, it may be?"
* * * * *
Chet Bullard shook his head doubtfully.
"Don't get sarcastic!" he grinned. "You can't think of any wilder questions than I have asked myself.
"He couldn't have lived here, Spud; that's the only answer. It just isn't humanly possible. All I know is that he did it. I can't tell you how I know it, but I do. Those lights were a human call for help. No living man but Haldgren could have flashed them. He's alive—or he was then; that's all I know."
Spud crossed the control room as he had done a score of times to look through a glass port at the world outside. Chet, too, turned to the lookout by which he stood and stared through it. The men had found themselves surprisingly light within the ship. They had been compelled to guard against sudden motion; a step, instead of carrying them one stride, might hurl them the length of the room. This lowered gravitational pull helped to explain to the pilot that outer world.
There, close by, was the rocky plain on which he had landed the ship: Smooth and shiny as obsidian in places, again it was spongy gray, the color of volcanic rock, bubbling with imprisoned gases at the instant of hardening. It stretched out and down, that gently rolling plain, for a thousand yards or more, then ended in a welter of nightmare forms done in stone. It was like the work of some demented sculptor's tortured brain.
* * * * *
Jutting tongues of rock stood in air for a hundred—two hundred—feet. Chet hardly dared estimate size in this place where all was so strange and unearthly. The hot rock had spouted high in the thin air, and it had frozen as it threw itself frantically out from the inferno of heat that had given it birth. The jets sprayed out like spume-topped waves; they were whipped into ribbons that the winds of this world could not tear down, and the ribbons shone, waving white in the earthlight. The tortured stone was torn and ripped into twisted contortions whose very writhing told of the hell this had been. Its grotesque horror struck through to the deeper levels of Chet's mind with a feeling he could not have depicted in words.
From the higher elevation where their ship lay he could look out and across this welter of storm-lashed rock to see it level off, then vanish where another crater mouth yawned black. Here was the inner crater! It had seemed small before; it was huge now—a place of mystery, a black, waiting throat into which Chet knew he must go—a place of indefinable terror.
But it was the place, too, whence strange flashes had come, flashes that had told of the distress and suffering of men since the time when wireless waves had been widely used. The old call—the S O S!—it had come from that throat; it had seemed a call sent directly to him! And Chet Bullard's eyes held steadily toward that place of mystery and of a sender unknown.
"I'm going down," he told himself more than O'Malley. "There's something about it I can't understand, something pretty damnable about it, I admit. But, whatever it is, that's what I am here to find out."
"'Tis a divil of a place to die," said O'Malley, "and not one I'd pick out at all. But it may be we won't have to. I'm goin' along, of course."
* * * * *
The master pilot was reaching for the flexible metal suit he had brought from the store room. It was air-tight, gas-proof; it would hold an internal pressure far beyond anything the wearer would demand; and its headpiece was flexible like the body of the suit, and would fit him closely.
He drew the suit up over the clothes he wore and closed the front with one pull of a metal tab. Within, soft rubber-faced cushions had interlocked; the body would fasten to the headpiece in the same way. But Chet paused with the headpiece in his hand.
He looked at the glass window that would be before his eyes; at the thin diaphragms that would come over his ears and that would admit all ordinary sounds; and he tried out the microphone attachment that he could switch on to bring to his ears the faintest whisper from outside. All this he examined with care while he seemed to be thinking deeply. Then he straightened and looked at his companion.
"No, Spud, you're not going," he said. "This is my job. You'll stay with the ship. You and I make a rather small army: we don't know yet what we may be up against, and we mustn't risk all our forces in one advance. I'll see what is there; and, in case anything happens, you can take the ship back. I've taught you enough on the way over; I had this very thing in mind."
He slipped the helmet over his blond head before O'Malley could reply.
* * * * *
The ear-pieces and the microphone allowed him to hear. Another diaphragm in the center of the metal across his chest took his own voice and shouted it into the room.
"Sure, I know you want to go. Spud; but you'll have to stay in reserve. Now show me how well you can fly the ship. Lift her off; then drift over that crater, and we'll have a look-see!"
Spud O'Malley's face was glum as he obeyed. Spud had seen nothing but death in this place of horror—Chet had observed that plainly—yet it was equally plain that the Irish pilot was finding the order to live in safety a bitter dose. But Spud knew how to take orders; he lifted the little ball gently and swung the ship out toward the blackness of that deeper pit.
Chet was watching the changing terrain. He saw the place of solid-spouted rock end; saw it flatten out to an undulating surface that had rolled and heaved itself into many-colored shapes. Even in the earthlight the kaleidoscopic colors were vivid in their changing reds and blues and yellow sheens. Then this surface sloped sharply away, though here it was rough with broken rock where half-hardened lava, coughed from that throat, had fallen back and adhered to the molten sides.
This rock in the inner crater was gray, pale and ghostly in the earthlight. It went down and still down where Chet's eyes could not follow—down to an utter blackness. Chet was staring speculatively at that waiting dark when the first flash came.
Blindingly keen! A flash of white light!—another and another! It blazed dazzlingly into their cabin in vivid dashes and dots—the same signal as before was being repeated!
* * * * *
A hundred yards away was a little shelf of rock. Chet jerked at O'Malley's shoulder with his metal-cased hand and pointed. "Set her down!" he ordered "Let me out there! We can't put the ship down where those lights are; the throat is too narrow; there may be air-currents that would smash us on a sharp rock. I'll go down! You wait! I'll be back."
He was opening the inner door of the entrance port. Another closure in the outer shell made an air-lock. He took time for one grip at the hand of Spud O'Malley, one grin of excited, adventurous joy that wrinkled about his eyes behind the window of his helmet—then he picked up a detonite pistol, examined again its charge of tiny shells, jammed it firmly into the holster at his waist and swung the big door shut behind him.
And Pilot O'Malley watched him go with a premonition that he dared not speak. He heard the closing of the outer door; saw the tall, slender figure in a metal suit like a knight of old as Chet waved once, settled the oxygen tank across his shoulders and picked his way carefully over a waste of shattered stone that led down and down into the dark.
Then the Irishman looked once at the suit he had expected to wear, stared back where the figure of Chet had vanished, then dropped his head upon his hands while his homely face was twisted convulsively.
* * * * *
It had come so soon! The great adventure was upon them before he had realized. The reconnaissance—the flashes—and then Chet had gone! And now he was alone in a silent ship that rested quietly in this soundless world. The silence was heavy upon him; it seemed pressing in with actual weight to bear him down. It was shattered at the last by the faintest of whispered echoes from without.
Spud was on his feet in an instant, his eyes straining at one lookout after another, each giving him a view of only the desolation he knew and hated.
What could it have been? he demanded. He found and rejected a dozen answers before he saw, far down in the black crater-mouth, a flash of red; then heard again that ghost of a sound and knew it for what it was.
Thick walls, these of the space ship, and insulated well; and the thin atmosphere of this wild world could cut a blast of sound to a mere fraction of its volume! But the walls were admitting a fragmental echo of what must have been a reverberating voice. They were quivering to the roar of exploding detonite!
It was Chet! He was fighting, he was in trouble! Spud's trembling hands steadied upon the metal control; he lifted the ship as smoothly as even Chet might have done, and he drove it out and down into a throat too narrow for safety, but where the tiny, red flash of a weapon had called with an S O S as plain as any lettered call—a message to which brave men have everywhere responded.
* * * * *
He saw Chet but once. The master pilot had shown him the flare release lever; he moved it now, and the place of darkness was suddenly blinding with light. There were rocks close at hand; the crater had narrowed to a funnel throat that was cut and terraced as if by human hands. Below, it ended in a smooth stone floor where the lava had sealed it shut.
From a terrace came the gleaming reflection of Chet's suit. Miraculously the gleam was doubled, as if another in similar garb stood at his side. And beyond, from blocks of stone, came leaping things—living creatures!
The light died. Spud realized he had not opened the release lever full. He fumbled for it—found it, jammed it over! And in the light that followed he saw only empty, terraced walls where nothing moved, and a lava floor below that, for an instant, gaped open, then again was smooth and firm.
And the thunder of his ship's exhausts came back to him from those threatening walls to tell of a loneliness more certain and terrible than any solitude he had found in the silence where he had waited above.
But through all his dismay ran an undercurrent of puzzled wonderment. For here on a dead world, where all men agreed there could be no life, he had seen the impossible.
Only one glimpse before the light had died; only for an instant had he seen the things that leaped upon Chet—but he knew! Never again could any man tell Spud O'Malley that the Moon was a lifeless globe ... and he knew that the life was of a form monstrous and horrible and malign!
"And I've Brought You to This!"
The master pilot, when he stepped forth upon that weird globe which was the Moon, found himself plunged into a spectral world. Even from within the air-tight suit, through whose helmet-glass he peered, he sensed, as he had not when inside the ship, the vast desolation, the frozen emptiness of this rocky waste.
His suit of woven metal was lined throughout with heavy fabric of insuline fibers, that strange product brought from the jungle heat of the upper Amazon to keep out the bitter cold of this frozen world. His ship was felted with the same material between its double walls; without it there would have been no resisting the cold of these interstellar reaches.
But, despite the padding within his suit, he felt the numbing cold of this dead world strike through. And the bleak and frigid barrenness that met his gaze was so implacably hostile to any living thing as to bring a shudder of more than physical cold.
No warming sun, as yet, reflected from the rocks. About him was the blackness of a fire-formed lithosphere, whose lighter veining and occasional ashy fields were made ghostly in the earthlight.
One slow, all-seeing glance at this!—one moment of wondering amazement when he tilted his head far back that he might look up to the mouth of the crater and see, in a dead-black sky, the great crescent of earth—a vast, incredible moon peeping over the serrate edge. Then, as if the interval of time since leaving the ship had been measured in hours instead of brief seconds, he remembered the flashing lights that had signaled from below.
* * * * *
His first step carried him, slipping and sprawling awkwardly, across a rocky slope white with the rime of carbon dioxide frost. He came to his feet and turned once to wave toward the ship where he knew Spud O'Malley must be watching from a lookout. Then, moving cautiously, to learn the gage of his own strength in this world of diminished weights, he started down.
Rough going, Chet found; the wall of this great throat had not hardened without showing signs of its tortured coughing. But Chet learned to judge distance, and he found that a fifty-foot chasm was a trifle to be crossed in one leap; huge boulders, whose molten sides had frozen as they ran and dripped, could be surmounted by the spring of his leg muscles that could throw him incredibly through the air. And always he went downward toward the place where the lights had flashed.
They came once more. He had descended a thousand feet, he was estimating, when the black igneous rocks blazed blindingly with a reflected light like that of a thousand suns.
Another hundred feet below, down a precipitous slope, was a broad table of rock. He saw it in the instant before he threw one metal-clad arm across the eye-piece of his helmet to shut out the glare. And he saw, in that fraction of a second, a moving figure, another like himself, clad in an armored suit whose curves and fine-woven mesh caught the light in a million of sparkling flames.
It was Haldgren, he told himself; and there was something that came chokingly into his throat at the thought. That lonely figure—one tiny dot of life on a bleak and lifeless stage! It was pitiful, this undying effort to signal, to let his own world know that he still lived.
* * * * *
Chet did not put it into coherent words, but there was an overwhelming emotion that was part pity and part pride. He was suddenly glad and thankful to belong to a race of men who could carry on like this—who never said die. And, as the glare winked out, he threw himself recklessly down that last slope and brought up in a huddle at the feet of the one who had started back in affright. There was one metal-cased hand that went in a helpless gesture to the throat; the figure, all silvery white in the dim Earth-glow, staggered back against a wall of rock; only by inches did it miss a fall from the precipice edge where the rock platform ended.
From the floor, where his fall had flung him in awkward posture, Chet saw this; saw it and marveled vaguely. What picture he had formed of Haldgren—what he had expected of him—he could not have told. Certainly it was not this slenderly youthful figure, nor this reaction that was more of fright than startled amazement. And the voice! Surely he had heard an involuntary, half-stifled scream!
He came slowly to his feet. And he was wondering now if his deductions had been wrong. He had been to sure that the sender of those messages was an Earth-man; he had been so certain of finding Haldgren.
* * * * *
Slowly he crossed the table of rock toward the waiting figure; gently he extended his hands, palms upward, in a gesture of peaceful promise. Whoever, whatever this was—this Moon-being who had signaled and in doing so had happened upon the letters that had a definite meaning of Earth—Chet knew he must not frighten him. One outstretched hand touched the metal that cased an arm; moved upward to the headpiece, as close-fitting as his own; tilted it that the light of Earth might shine within and show him what manner of being he had found.
And Chet, who had seen strange creatures on that Dark Moon where he and Harkness had explored, was prepared, despite the suit so like his own, to see some weird being of this newer world. But for what the soft light of that distant Earth disclosed he was entirely unprepared.
Eyes, blue and lovely as an azure sea but wide with terror and dismay; eyes that showed plainly a consternation of unbelief that changed slowly, as the blue eyes stared into Chet's gray ones, until they were suddenly misty with tears; and the figure sagged and would have dropped at his feet had he not caught it in his arms.
He heard his own voice exclaiming in wonderment: "A girl! One of our own kind! Out here! On the Moon!"
And another voice, sweetly tremulous, replied:
"Oh, it's true—it's true! You have come! You read my call! Oh, I hardly dared hope—"
Then the thrilling ecstasy of happiness in the voice gave place to accents of dismay as some horror of fear swept in upon her.
"And I've brought you to this! You will be lost! Quick! Climb for your life! I will come after. Quick! Quick!"
* * * * *
There was agony in the voice now, and the figure wrenched itself from Chet's arms to point one slender hand upward in frantic urging, while yet the head turned that the eyes might look backward as if some danger threatened from below.
"I've got a ship," Chet assured her. "God knows who you are or how you got here, but it's all right now. We'll leave."
He had regained his grip upon one of those slender hands and was preparing to swing her up to the top of an incredibly high rock. Her scream checked him and sent his one free hand to the detonite pistol at his waist.
"Behind you!" she cried. "Look back! They have come out!"
The crater-pit behind and below them was black with the inky blackness of smooth, fire-formed rock. Its many facets were smooth and polished; they made mirrors, many of them, for the earthlight reflected from the crater mouth. They served to diffuse this dim light and throw it again upon the monstrous blacknesses that were swarming from below.
"Men!" thought Chef in one instant of half-comprehension. Then, as he saw the chalk-white bodies, the dead and flabby whiteness of their faces from which red eyes stared, he revised his estimate; here was nothing human.
The pistol was in his hand, but as yet he had not fired. Only the terror in the girl's voice had told him that these were enemies; he waited for a closer view or for some direct attack, and needed to wait but a moment.
Only an instant after he had seen, the chalk-white bodies clustered below were in motion. They came leaping up the smooth expanses of rock, and they were obscured at times as if by black curtains that were drawn across their bodies. Then they would flash out again in dead-white nakedness.
* * * * *
It was uncanny. Chet had a feeling that they were wrapping themselves in black invisibility. Only when a score of the white things threw themselves out into space did he know the truth.
Out and upward they sprang, to soar above Chet's head and land on the slope above. All escape was cut off now; but it was not this thought that held Chet motionless for that moment of horror. It was the glimpse he had had against the light of the crater mouth of beating, flailing wings that whipped the thin air above him; of curved claws; and of long, horrible tails that might have belonged to giant rats. And the demoniac cries that the thin air brought him were no more suggestive of devils unleashed than were the leathery wings and the fleshy tails of the beasts.
Yet it was not this alone that stunned the mind of the master pilot, but the horrible incongruity, of this monstrous inhumanness allied with the human form of their bodies. And throughout he observed, with a curious sense of detachment, the furious beating of the wings, almost useless in the thin air, and the expansion and contraction of sac-like membranes on each side of the necks which he took to be auxiliary lungs.
* * * * *
It was the girl's action that brought Chet to his senses. She moved slowly across the smooth table of rock toward the three or four beasts who had gained its level. Her head was bowed in utter dejection; Chet sensed it as plainly as if she had spoken. She held out her hands helplessly toward the creatures—and in that instant Chet's pistol spoke.
Tiny shells, those of a detonite pistol, and the grain of explosive in the tip of each bullet is microscopic. But no body, human or inhuman, be it made of flesh, can withstand the shattering concussion of that exploding shell.
The beasts beside that figure, slenderly girlish even in its metal sheath, fell into the pit beyond; their screams rang horribly as they fell. There were others who took their places, and they, too, vanished under the smashing shots.
And then, after timeless moments of waiting, while the only sound was the half-audible voice of the girl who sobbed: "Now you are surely lost. They will kill you—you should not have fired—I should never have brought you here"—there came the familiar thunder of a ship's exhausts.
Down from above, a black shadow came silently crashing; a blaze of light terrific in its brilliance brought an exclamation to Chet's lips and hope to his heart.
"Spud! You old fool, you're coming to get us!"
But the words ended with an avalanche of bodies that threw themselves down the black slope. There were others coming from below, leaping from the stones. The ledge was filled with them.
Chet was firing blindly as he felt himself borne down—felt long fingers that ripped, then closed about his throat and jammed the metal of his suit in chokingly. He heard the beating of giant wings about him; felt himself half-carried and half-thrown toward a floor of rock far below.
There was an opening that loomed blackly in that floor; one glimpse of his surroundings Chet had before the press of bodies closed him in. They were forcing the shining, silvery figure of a girl into that black opening—dropping her! Then he felt himself hurled into the same void, while above him a ship of space thundered vainly from her great exhausts as if roaring in rage at her own futility.
Heart of the Moon
In the grasp of the winged creatures' long, clawed hands Chet was helpless. He was struggling vainly when they released their hold and he felt himself falling into a pit that, as far as he knew, was a bottomless abyss. He was still struggling to right himself in mid-air when he struck.
To fall even so short a distance on Earth would have meant instant death. Here, where gravitation's pull was but one-sixth that of Earth, he still struck on a rocky floor with a thud that made him sick for lack of breath.
Above him was a pale circle of light. Tipping the edge of a vast crater mouth high above was a rim of brilliance. Earthlight! Chet was suddenly certain that he was seeing that glow for the last time as the circle went black, and there came to him the unmistakable clang of metal where a door was shut.
Through the countless mingled emotions that filled him he was wondering what manner of creatures these were into whose hands he had fallen. Intelligent, beyond a doubt, in their own way; he could not question the evidence of his own eyes and ears. They were able to work in metals and to seal the mouth of this lunar tomb.
But he was still alive; he could not give up now. This adventure upon which he had launched with such high hopes had turned out differently than expected; but, he told himself, it was not ended yet.
And, instead of a lifeless globe, he had found this: a place peopled with strange, half-human life. And, more marvelous still, instead of Haldgren, whom he had come to seek, there had been a girl!
* * * * *
Chet had recovered his ability to breathe, had made sure that the oxygen tank was intact; and now he called softly into the blackness of this dark vault where he had seen her thrown.
"Are you alive?" he asked. "Can you hear me?"
For answer came quick rustling of moving bodies, the smooth rasping of wings on leathery wings, hands that fumbled for him, then closed about arms and legs and throat, while in his ears was a chattering of high-pitched squeals. Again he was lifted in air, held there in the grip of a score of lean, long-fingered hands. He was nerving himself to undergo without flinching whatever new torture might be in store. Yet he thrilled inexplicably as through the sounds of these things about him, he heard a muffled: "Yes—yes! Oh, I am glad—"
The sentence was unfinished. Before Chet's eyes a light was growing. A mere slit at first, it grew to a luminous circle in the rocky floor. And as it opened, he felt the pressure of his metal suit upon his body, where before it had been slightly ballooned by the pressure of oxygen he had maintained.
With the opening of this door to another subterranean chamber had come a renewed atmospheric pressure. And now, in the denser gas, he saw, in ghastly silhouette against the lighted pit, flying figures that floated and soared on outstretched wings of inky black.