Astounding Stories of Super-Science August 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Brood of the Dark Moon - Chapter V: A Desperate Act
The ship that Chet Bullard and Harkness had designed had none of the instruments for space navigation that the ensuing years were to bring. Chet's accuracy was more the result of that flyer's sixth sense—that same uncanny power that had served aviators so well in an earlier day. But Chet was glad to see his instruments registering once more as he approached a new world.
Even the sonoflector was recording; its invisible rays were darting downward to be reflected back again from the surface below. That absolute altitude recording was a joy to read; it meant a definite relationship with the world.
"I'll hold her at fifty thousand," he told Harkness. "Watch for some outline that you can remember from last time."
There was an irregular area of continental size; only when they had crossed it did Harkness point toward an outflung projection of land. "That peninsula," he exclaimed; "we saw that before! Swing south and inland.... Now down forty, and east of south.... This ought to be the spot."
Perhaps Harkness, too, had the flyer's indefinable power of orientation. He guided Chet in the downward flight, and his pointing finger aimed at last at a cluster of shadows where a setting sun brought mountain ranges into strong relief. Chet held the ship steady, hung high in the air, while the quick-spreading mantle of night swept across the world below. And, at last, when the little world was deep-buried in shadow, they saw the red glow of fires from a hidden valley in the south.
"Fire Valley!" said Chet. "Don't say anything about me being a navigator. Wait, you've brought us home, sure enough."
"Home!" He could not overcome this strange excitement of a home-coming to their own world. Even the man who stood, pistol in hand, behind him was, for the moment, forgotten.
Valley of a thousand fires!—scene of his former adventures! Each fumerole was adding its smoky red to the fiery glow that illumined the place. There were ragged mountains hemming it in; Chet's gaze passed on to the valley's end.
Down there, where the fires ceased, there would be water; he would land there! And the ship from Earth slipped down in a long slanting line to cushion against its under exhausts, whose soft thunder echoed back from a bare expanse of frozen lava. Then its roaring faded. The silvery shape sank softly to its rocky bed, as Chet cut the motor that had sung its song of power since the moment when Schwartzmann had carried him off—taken him from that frozen, forgotten corner of an incredibly distant Earth.
"Iss there air?" Schwartzmann demanded. Chet came to himself again with a start: he saw the man peering from the lookout to right and to left as if he would see all that there was in the last light of day.
"Strange!" he was grumbling to himself. "A strange place! But those hills—I saw their markings—there will be metals there. I will explore; later I return: I will mine them. Many ships I must build to establish a line. The first transportation line of space. Me, Jacob Schwartzmann—I will do it. I will haff more than anyone else on Earth; I will make them all come to me crawling on their bellies!"
Chet saw the hard shine of the narrowed eyes. For an instant only, he dared to consider the chance of leaping upon the big, gloating figure. One blow and a quick snatch for the pistol!... Then he knew the folly of such a plan: Schwartzmann's men were armed; he would be downed in another second, his body a shattered, jellied mass.
Schwartzmann's thoughts had come back to the matter of air; he motioned Chet and Harkness toward the port.
Diane Delacouer had joined them and she thrust herself quickly between the two men. And, though Schwartzmann made a movement as if he would snatch her back, he thought better of it and motioned for the portal to be swung. Chet felt him close behind as he followed the others out into the gathering dark.
The air was heavy with the fragrance of night-blooming trees. They were close to the edge of the lava flow. The rock was black in the light of a starry sky; it dropped away abruptly to a lower glade. A stream made silvery sparklings in the night, while beyond it were waving shadows of strange trees whose trunks were ghostly white.
It was all so familiar.... Chet smiled understandingly as he saw Walt Harkness' arm go about the trim figure of Diane Delacouer. No mannish attire could disguise Diane's charms; nor could nerve and cold courage that any man might envy detract from her femininity. Her dark, curling hair was blowing back from her upraised face as the scented breezes played about her; and the soft beauty of that face was enhanced by the very starlight that revealed it.
It was here that Walt and Diane had learned to love; what wonder that the fragrant night brought only remembrance, and forgetfulness of their present plight. But Chet Bullard, while he saw them and smiled in sympathy, knew suddenly that other eyes were watching, too; he felt the bulky figure of Herr Schwartzmann beside him grow tense and rigid.
But Schwartzmann's voice, when he spoke, was controlled. "All right," he called toward the ship; "all iss safe."
Yet Chet wondered at that sudden tensing, and an uneasy presentiment found entrance to his thoughts. He must keep an eye on Schwartzmann, even more than he had supposed.
Their captor had threatened to maroon them on the Dark Moon. Chet did not question his intent. Schwartzmann would have nothing to gain by killing them now. It would be better to leave them here, for he might find them useful later on. But did he plan to leave them all or only two? Behind the steady, expressionless eyes of the Master Pilot, strange thoughts were passing....
There were orders, at length, to return to the ship. "It is dark already," Schwartzmann concluded: "nothing can be accomplished at night."
"How long are the days and nights?" he asked Harkness.
"Six hours," Harkness told him; "our little world spins fast."
"Then for six hours we sleep," was the order. And again Herr Schwartzmann conducted Mademoiselle Delacouer to her cabin, while Chet Bullard watched until he saw the man depart and heard the click of the lock on the door of Diane's room.
Then for six hours he listened to the sounds of sleeping men who were sprawled about him on the floor; for six hours he saw the one man who sat on guard beside a light that made any thought of attack absurd. And he cursed himself for a fool, as he lay wakeful and vainly planning—a poor, futile fool who was unable to cope with this man who had bested him.
Nineteen seventy-three!—and here were Harkness and Diane and himself, captured by a man who was mentally and morally a misfit in a modern world. A throw-back—that was Schwartzmann: Harkness had said it. He belonged back in nineteen fourteen.
Harkness was beyond the watching guard; from where he lay came sounds of restless movement. Chet knew that he was not alone in this mood of hopeless dejection. There was no opportunity for talk; only with the coming of day did the two find a chance to exchange a few quick words.
The guard roused the others at the first light of sunlight beyond the ports. Harkness sauntered slowly to where Chet was staring from a lookout. He, too, leaned to see the world outside, and he spoke cautiously in a half-whisper:
"Not a chance, Chet. No use trying to bluff this big crook any more. He's here, and he's safe; and he knows it as well as we do. We'll let him ditch us—you and Diane and me. Then, when we're on our own, we'll watch our chance. He will go crazy with what he finds—may get careless—then we'll seize the ship—" His words ended abruptly. As Schwartzmann came behind them, he was casually calling Chet's attention to a fumerole from which a jet of vapor had appeared. Yellowish, it was; and the wind was blowing it.
Diane Delacouer came into the control-room at the instant; her dark eyes were still lovely with sleep, but they brightened to flash an encouraging smile toward the two men. There were five of Schwartzmann's men in the ship besides the pilot and the scientist, Kreiss. They all crowded in after Diane.
They must have had their orders in advance; Schwartzmann merely nodded, and they sprang upon Harkness and Chet. The two were caught off their guard; their arms were twisted behind them before resistance could be thought of. Diane gave a cry, started forward, and was brushed back by a sweep of Schwartzmann's arm. The man himself stood staring at them, unmoving, wordless. Only the flesh about his eyes gathered into creases to squeeze the eyes to malignant slits. There was no mistaking the menace in that look.
"I think we do not need you any more," he said at last. "I think, Herr Harkness, this is the end of our little argument—and, Herr Harkness, you lose. Now, I will tell you how it iss that you pay.
"You haff thought, perhaps, I would kill you. But you were wrong, as you many times have been. You haff not appreciated my kindness; you haff not understood that mine iss a heart of gold.
"Even I was not sure before we came what it iss best to do. But now I know. I saw oceans and many lands on this world. I saw islands in those oceans.
"You so clever are—such a great thinker iss Herr Harkness—and on one of those islands you will haff plenty of time to think—yess! You can think of your goot friend, Schwartzmann and of his kindness to you."
"You are going to maroon us on an island?" asked Walt Harkness hoarsely. Plainly his plans for seizing the ship were going awry. "You are going to put the three of us off in some lost corner of this world?"
Chet Bullard was silent until he saw the figure of Harkness struggling to throw off his two guards. "Walt," he called loudly, "take it easy! For God's sake, Walt, keep your head!"
This, Chet sensed, was no time for resistance. Let Schwartzmann go ahead with his plans; let him think them complacent and unresisting; let Max pilot the ship; then watch for an opening when they could land a blow that would count! He heard Schwartzmann laughing now, laughing as if he were enjoying something more pleasing than the struggles of Walt.
Chet was standing by the controls. The metal instrument-table was beside him; above it was the control itself, a metal ball that hung suspended in air within a cage of curved bars.
It was pure magic, this ball-control, where magnetic fields crossed and recrossed; it was as if the one who held it were a genie who could throw the ship itself where he willed. Glass almost enclosed the cage of bars, and the whole instrument swung with the self-compensating platform that adjusted itself to the "gravitation" of accelerated speed. The pilot, Max, had moved across to the instrument-table, ready for the take-off.
Schwartzmann's laughter died to a gurgling chuckle. He wiped his eyes before he replied to Harkness' question.
He interrupted himself to call to Kreiss who was opening the port.
"No," he ordered; "keep it closed. We are not going outside; we are going up."
But Kreiss had the port open. "I want a man to get some fresh water," he said; "he will only be a minute."
He shoved at a waiting man to hurry him through the doorway. It was only a gentle push; Chet wondered as he saw the man stagger and grasp at his throat. He was coughing—choking horribly for an instant outside the open port—then fell to the ground, while his legs jerked awkwardly, spasmodically.
Chet saw Kreiss follow. The scientist would have leaped to the side of the stricken man, whose body was so still now on the sunlit rock; but he, too, crumpled, then staggered back into the room. He pushed feebly at the port and swung it shut. His face, as he turned, was drawn into fearful lines.
"Acid!" He choked out the words between strangled breaths. "Acid—sulfuric—fumes!"
Chet turned quickly to the spectro-analyzer; the lines of oxygen and nitrogen were merged with others, and that meant an atmosphere unfit for human lungs! There had been a fumerole where yellowish vapor was spouting; he remembered it now.
"So!" boomed Schwartzmann, and now his squinting eyes were full on Chet. "You—you schwein! You said when we opened the ports there would be a surprise! Und this iss it! You thought to see us kill ourselves!"
"Open the port!" he shouted. The men who held Chet released him and sprang forward to obey. The pilot, Max, took their place. He put one hand on Chet's shoulder, while his other hand brought up a threatening, metal bar.
Schwartzmann's heavy face had lost its stolid look; it was alive with rage. He thrust his head forward to glare at the men, while he stood firmly, his feet far apart, two heavy fists on his hips. He whirled abruptly and caught Diane by one arm. He pulled her roughly to him and encircled the girl's trim figure with one huge arm.
"Put you all on one island?" he shouted. "Did you think I would put you all out of the ship? You"—he pointed at Harkness—"and you"—this time it was Chet—"go out now. You can die in your damned gas that you expected would kill me! But, you fools, you imbeciles—Mam'selle, she stays with me!" The struggling girl was helpless in the great arm that drew her close.
Harkness' mad rage gave place to a dead stillness. From bloodless lips in a chalk-white face he spat out one sentence:
"Take your filthy hands off her—now—or I'll—"
Schwartzmann's one free hand still held the pistol. He raised it with deadly deliberation; it came level with Harkness' unflinching eyes.
"Yes?" said Schwartzmann. "You will do—what?"
Chet saw the deadly tableau. He knew with a conviction that gripped his heart that here was the end. Walt would die and he would be next. Diane would be left defenseless.... The flashing thought that followed came to him as sharply as the crack of any pistol. It seemed to burst inside his brain, to lift him with some dynamic power of its own and project him into action.
He threw himself sideways from under the pilot's hand, out from beneath the heavy metal bar—and he whirled, as he leaped, to face the man. One lean, brown hand clenched to a fist that started a long swing from somewhere near his knees; it shot upward to crash beneath the pilot's out-thrust jaw and lift him from the floor. Max had aimed the bar in a downward sweep where Chet's head had been the moment before; and now man and bar went down together. In the same instant Chet threw himself upon the weapon and leaped backward to his feet.
One frozen second, while, to Chet, the figures seemed as motionless as if carved from stone—two men beside the half-opened port—Harkness in convulsive writhing between two others—the figure of Diane, strained, tense and helpless in Schwartzmann's grasp—and Schwartzmann, whose aim had been disturbed, steadying the pistol deliberately upon Harkness—
"Wait!" Chet's voice tore through the confusion. He knew he must grip Schwartzmann's attention—hold that trigger finger that was tensed to send a detonite bullet on its way. "Wait, damn you! I'll answer your question. I'll tell you what we'll do!"
In that second he had swung the metal bar high; now he brought it crashing down in front of him. Schwartzmann flinched, half turned as if to fire at Chet, and saw the blow was not for him.
With a splintering crash, the bar went through an obstruction. There was sound of glass that slivered to a million mangled bits—the sharp tang of metal broken off—a crash and clatter—then silence, save for one bit of glass that fell belatedly to the floor, its tiny jingling crash ringing loud in the deathly stillness of the room....
It had been the control-room, this place of metal walls and of shining, polished instruments, and it could be called that no longer. For, battered to useless wreckage, there lay on a metal table a cage that had once been formed of curving bars. Among the fragments a metal ball that had guided the great ship still rocked idly from its fall, until it, too, was still.
It was a room where nothing moved—where no person so much as breathed....
Then came the Master Pilot's voice, and it was speaking with quiet finality.
"And that," he said, "is your answer. Our ship has made its last flight."
His eyes held steadily upon the blanched face of Herr Schwartzmann, whose limp arms released the body of Diane; the pistol hung weakly at the man's side. And the pilot's voice went on, so quiet, so hushed—so curiously toneless in that silent room.
"What was it that you said?—that Harkness and I would be staying here? Well, you were right when you said that, Schwartzmann; but it's a hard sentence, that—imprisonment for life."
Chet paused now, to smile deliberately, grimly at the dark face so bleached and bloodless, before he repeated:
"Imprisonment for life!—and you didn't know that you were sentencing yourself. For you're staying too, Schwartzmann, you contemptible, thieving dog! You're staying with us—here—on the Dark Moon!"
(To be continued.)
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Various. 2010. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, August 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33016/33016-h/33016-h.htm#Brood_of_the_Dark_Moon
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