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. VOL. VII, NO. 2 - The Moon Weed
By Harl Vincent
Bart hacked and hacked at the rubbery growth.
Hobart Madison pursed his lips in a whistle of incredulous surprise as he regarded the object that lay in the palm of his hand. An ordinary pebble, it seemed to be, but a pebble in which a strange fire smouldered and showed itself here and there through the dull surface.
"Would you mind repeating what you just said, Van?" he asked.
"You heard me the first time. I say that that's a diamond and that it came from the moon." Carl Vanderventer glared at his friend in resentment of his doubting tone.
"Mean to tell me you've been there? To the moon?"
"Certainly not. I'm not a Jules Verne adventurer. But I'm telling you that stone is a diamond of the first water and that it came from the moon. Weighs over a hundred carats, too. You can have it appraised yourself if you think I'm kidding you."
"Sure. This one's the largest of five I've found so far. And there's other stuff, too. Wait till you see. Fossils, beetles and things. I tell you, Bart, the moon was inhabited at one time. I've the evidence and I want you to be the first to see it." The eyes of the young scientist shone with excitement as he saw that his friend was roused to intense interest.
"So that's what all your experimenting has been aimed at. No wonder it cost so much."
"Yes, and you've been a brick for financing me. Never asked a question, either. But Bart, it'll all come back to you now. Know how much that stone's worth?"
"Plenty, I guess. But, forget about the financing and all that. Where's this laboratory of yours?" Madison had pushed his chair back from his desk and was reaching for his hat.
"Over in the Ramapo Mountains, not far from Tuxedo. I'll have you there in two hours. Sure you can spare the time to go out there now?" Vanderventer was enthusiastically eager.
"Spare the time? You just try and keep me from going!"
Neither of them noticed the sinister figure that lurked outside the door which led into the adjoining office. They chattered excitedly as they passed into the outer hall and made for the elevator.
Vanderventer's laboratory was a small domed structure set in a clearing atop the mountain and well hidden from the winding road which was the only means of approach. Though Bart Madison, who had inherited his father's prosperous brokerage business, had financed his friend's research work ever since the two left college, this was his first visit to the secluded workshop, and its wealth of equipment was revealed to him as a complete surprise. He had always thought of Van's experiments as something beyond his ken; something uncanny and mysterious. Now he was convinced.
The most prominent single piece of apparatus in the laboratory was a twelve-inch reflecting telescope which reared its latticed framework to a slit in the dome overhead. Paralleling its axis and secured to the same equatorial mounting was a shining tube of copper which bristled with handwheels and levers and was connected by heavy insulated cables to an amazing array of electrical machinery that occupied an entire side of the single room.
"Regular young observatory you've got here, Van," Bart commented when he had taken all this in in one sweeping glance of appraisal.
"Yeah, and then some. Not another like it in the world." Van was busying himself with the controls of his electrical equipment, and a powerful motor-generator started up with a click and a whirr as he closed a starting switch.
Madison watched in silence as the swift-fingered scientist fussed with the complicated adjustments of the apparatus and then turned to the massive concrete pedestal on which his telescope was mounted. At his touch of a button the instrument swung over on its polar axis to a new position. The slit in the dome was opened to the afternoon sky, revealing the lunar disc in its daytime faintness.
"You can see it just as well in daylight?" Bart asked as his friend peered through the eyepiece of the telescope and continued his adjustments.
Bart squinted through the eyepiece and saw a huge crater with a shadowed spire in its center. Like a shell hole in soft earth it appeared—a great splash that had congealed immediately it was made. The cross-hairs of the eyepiece were centered on a small circular shadow near its inner rim.
"That," Van was saying, "is a prominent crater near the Mare Nubium. The spot under the cross-hairs is that from which I have obtained the diamonds—and other things. Watch this now, Bart."
The young broker straightened up and saw that his friend was removing the cover from a crystal bowl that was attached to the lower end of the copper tube that pointed to the heavens at the same ascension and declination as the telescope. The air of the room vibrated to a strange energy when he closed a switch that lighted a dozen vacuum tubes in the apparatus that lined the wall.
"You say you bring the stuff here with a light ray?" he asked.
"No, I said with the speed of light. This tube projects a ray of vibrations—like directional radio, you know—and this ray has a component that disintegrates the object it strikes and brings it back to us as dissociated protons and electrons which are reassembled in the original form and structure in this crystal bowl. Watch."
A misty brilliance filled the bowl's interior. Intangible shadowy forms seemed to be taking shape within a swirling maze of ethereal light that hummed and crackled with astounding vigor. Then, abruptly, the apparatus was silent and the light gone, revealing an odd object that had taken form in the bowl.
"A starfish!" Bart gasped.
"Yeah, and fossilized." Van handed it to him and he took it in his fingers gingerly as if expecting it to burn them.
The thing was undoubtedly a starfish, and of light, spongy stone. Its color was a pale blue and the ambulacral suckers were clearly discernible on all five rays.
"Lord! You're sure this is from the moon?" Bart turned the starfish over in his hand and gazed stupidly at his friend.
"Certainly, you nut. Think I had it up my sleeve? But here, watch again, there's something else."
The crackling, misty light again filled the bowl.
"Suppose," Bart ventured, "you bring in something large—big as a house, let's say. What would it do to your machine?"
"Can't. The ray'll only pick up stuff that'll enter the bowl. Look—here's the next arrival."
The mysterious light died down and the scientist picked up the second object with trembling fingers. It was a knife of beautiful workmanship, fashioned from obsidian and obviously the work of human hands.
"There! Didn't I tell you?" Van gloated. "Guess that shows there were living beings on the moon."
He made minute changes in the adjustment of his marvelous instrument and Bart watched in dazed astonishment as object after object materialized before their eyes. There were fragments of strange minerals; more fossils, marine life, mostly; a roughly beaten silver plate; three diamonds, none of which was as large as what Van had taken to New York, but all of considerable value.
"This'll be something for the papers, Van!" Bart Madison was visioning the fame that was to come to his friend.
"Yeah, all but the diamonds."
"All but the diamonds is right!"
These words were spoken by a sarcastic voice, chill as an icicle, that came from the open door. They wheeled to look into the muzzles of two automatic pistols that were trained on them by a stocky individual who faced them with a twisted, knowing grin.
"Danny Kelly!" Bart gasped, raising his hands slowly to the level of his shoulders. He knew the ex-army captain was a dead shot with the service pistol, and a desperate man since his disgrace and forced resignation. "What's the big idea?" he demanded.
"You don't need to ask. Refused me a loan this morning, didn't you? Now I'm getting it this way." Kelly turned savagely on Van, prodding his ribs with a pistol. "Get 'em up, you!" he snapped.
Van had been slow in raising his hands, gaping in stupefied amazement at the intruder. Now he reached for the ceiling without delay.
"You'll serve time for this, Danny!" Bart shouted.
"Shut up! I know what I'm doing. And back up, too—where—no, the other door." Kelly was forcing him toward the door of the cellar at the point of one pistol as he kept Van covered with the other.
Bart clenched his fist and brought it down in a sudden sweeping blow that raked Kelly's cheek and ear with stunning force. But the gunman recovered in a flash, dropped the muzzle of his pistol and pulled the trigger. Drilled through the thigh, Bart staggered through the open door and fell the length of the stairs into the darkness of the cellar. Kelly laughed evilly as he slammed the door and turned the key.
"Hold it, you!" he snarled as he swung on Van who had dropped his hands and crouched for a spring. "If I drill you, it won't be through the leg. I'll take those diamonds now."
He pocketed one of his pistols, and, keeping the other pressed to the pit of Van's stomach, went through his pockets. Then he added those on the tray by the crystal bowl to the collection, and transferred the entire lot to his own pocket.
"Now, you clever engineer," he grinned, "we'll just operate this trick machine of yours for a while and collect some more. Hop to it!" He watched narrowly as Van stretched his fingers to the controls. "No monkey business, either," he grated; "you'll not change a single adjustment. I've been listening to you and I know the clock of the telescope is keeping the ray trained on the same spot. You just operate the ray and nothing else. Get me?"
Van did not think it expedient to tell him of the drift caused by inaccuracies in the clock and perturbations of the moon's motion. He was playing for time, trying to plan a course of action.
"There may not be any more diamonds," he offered as he tripped the release of the ray.
"Oh, there'll be more. Don't try to kid me."
An irregular block of quartz materialized in the bowl and Kelly tossed it to the floor in savage disgust. Then a small diamond, very small; but he pocketed it nevertheless. The next object was a strange one—a dried seed pod about six inches in length and of brilliant red color. The ray had shifted to a new position on the lunar surface. Another and another of the strange legumes followed, one of them bursting open and scattering its contents, bright red like the enclosing pod to rattle over the floor like tiny glass beads. Kelly snorted his disgust.
"Still some sort of vegetation out there," Van muttered. The eternal scientist in the man could not be downed by a mere hold-up.
"Can the chatter!" Kelly snarled as the crystal bowl gave up another of the useless pods and still another. He gathered up the evidence of lunar vegetation, a half dozen of the pods, and threw them through the open doorway with a savage gesture. "You trying to put one over on me?" he bellowed.
"How can I?" Van retorted mildly. "I haven't touched a handwheel." He was wondering vaguely whether this lunar seed would grow in earthly soil; what sort of a plant it would produce under the new environment.
Kelly was becoming nervous now. It seemed that little was to be gained by hanging around this crazy man's laboratory. He had a sizable fortune in rough stones already. That big one alone, when properly cut into smaller stones, would make him independent. Maybe there weren't any more, anyway. And the longer he stayed the greater chance there was of getting caught.
The advent of another of the pods decided him. A quick blow with the butt of his pistol stretched Van on the floor and Kelly fled the scene.
Bart was pounding furiously on the cellar door when Van first took hazy note of his surroundings. Several uncertain minutes passed before he was able to stagger across the room and release his friend.
"Where is he?" Bart demanded, swaying on his feet and blinking in the sudden light.
"Gone. Socked me and beat it with the diamonds." Van was mopping the blood from his eyes with a handkerchief. "Are you hit bad?" he inquired.
"No, just a flesh wound. Hurts like the devil, though. How about yourself?" Bart limped to his side and sighed with relief when he examined his bleeding scalp. "Not so bad yourself, old man. Where's your first aid kit?"
Van was still somewhat dazed and merely pointed to the cabinet. "Fine pair we turned out to be!" he grumbled after his head had cleared a bit under Bart's vigorous cleansing of the cut on his temple. "Here we stood, meek as a couple of lambs, and let that guy get away with murder."
"Yeah, but those forty-fives made the difference. Ouch!" Bart winced as his friend poured fresh iodine over the wound in his leg. "Have a heart, will you?"
They were startled into silence by a hoarse, strangled scream that came from outside the laboratory. "Help! Help!" someone repeated in a panicky voice—a voice which at once ended on a gurgled note of despair.
"It's Kelly!" Bart whispered. "He's come back. Something's happened to him." He started for the open door.
"Wait a minute. It may be a trick to get us outside where he can pop us off."
"No, it isn't. For God's sake, look!" Bart had reached the door and was pointing at the ground with shaking forefinger.
The entire clearing seemed to be alive with wriggling things—long rubbery tentacles that crawled along the ground, reaching curling ends high in the air and had even started climbing the trees at the edge of the clearing. Blood red they were, and partially transparent in the light of the setting sun; growing things, attached by their thick ends to swelling mounds of red that seemed anchored to the ground. Translucent stalks rose from the mounds and sprouted huge buds that burst and blossomed into flaming flowers a foot in diameter, then withered and went to seed in a moment of time. But always the weaving tendrils shot forth with lightning speed, reaching and feeling their uncanny way along the ground and over tree stumps into the woods. One of them emerged from a hollow stump with its slender end coiled around the tiny body of a chattering gray squirrel.
"The moon flowers!" Van cried.
"What do you mean—moon flowers?"
"Dried seed pods. They came over into the bowl, and Kelly threw them out. Now look at the damned things. They're alive!"
Kelly's voice came to them once more from behind the barrier of rapidly growing vegetation. "Help!" he screeched. "I'll give back the diamonds—anything! Only get me away from the things!"
"Ought to let 'em get him," Van growled.
Bart shivered. "Too horrible, Van. Got an ax or anything?"
"There's a hatchet around back. Maybe we can—"
But the young broker had scuttled around the corner of the building and Van looked after him anxiously. The vile red tendrils were reaching for the east wall of the laboratory, and he saw that their inner surfaces were covered with tiny suckers like those on the arms of a devil-fish. Carnivorous plants, undoubtedly, these awful half-animal, half-vegetable things whose seed had been transported across a quarter million miles of space. Man eaters! Deadly, and growing with incredible speed. Even the short-lived flowers were fearsome, as they opened their scarlet pansy-like faces and stared a moment before they folded up and shriveled into the seed cases like those that had materialized in the crystal bowl.
Then he noticed that the pods were opening and spreading more of the terrible seed. Nothing could stop this weird growth, now. It would cover the country like a sea of flaming horror, overcoming and devouring every living thing. Cold fear clutched at Van as he realized the enormity of the calamity that had come to the earth.
Bart was skirting the edge of the clearing with the hatchet in his hand, and Van tried to call out to him, to warn him. But his voice caught in his throat, and instead he ran to his assistance, circling the spreading menace to get around behind where Kelly was still shouting. Damn Kelly anyway! This never would have happened if he hadn't come on the scene!
Kelly was in the woods, wedged into the crotch of a tree and striking wildly at the clutching tendrils with his clubbed pistol. They mashed easily and dripping red, but were not to be deterred from their ghastly purpose. Kelly's time would have indeed been short had not his erstwhile victims come to the rescue. One of the thickest of the twining things encircled his body and had him pinned to the tree. His breath was coming in gasps as its tightening coils increased their pressure. His coarse features were livid and his eyes bulged from their sockets.
Bart hacked and hacked at the rubbery growth until he had him free; jerked him from his perch, blubbering and whining like a schoolboy. His shirt had been torn from his breast and they saw a great red welt where the blood had been drawn through the pores by those terrible suckers.
"Look out, Bart!" Van shouted.
Another of the creeping things had come through the underbrush and was wrapping its coils around Bart's ankle. Another and another wriggled through, and soon they were battling for their own freedom. Kelly staggered off into the woods and went crashing down the hill, leaving them to take care of themselves as best they might.
The stench of the viscous liquid that oozed from the injured tendrils was nauseous; it had something of a soporific effect; and the two friends found themselves fighting the terror in a growing mist of red that blinded and confused them. Then, miraculously, they were free and Van assisted Bart as they ran through the forest. When they reached the road, weak and out of breath, they were just in time to see Kelly's roadster vanish around the bend.
"Yeah, he'd give back the diamonds—the swine!" Van muttered vindictively. Then, shrugging his shoulders, "Well, they won't be much good to him, anyway. Wouldn't be any good to us either, as far as that goes."
"What do you mean? Aren't they real?" Bart was raising himself painfully into the seat of Van's car, his wounded leg suddenly very much in the way.
"Sure they're real. But don't you realize what this thing means—this ungodly growth that's started?"
"Why—why, no. You mean it'll keep on growing?"
"And how! Those inner stalks drop a new batch of seeds every five minutes or so. Presto!—a flock of new plants spring up ten feet from the first; dozens of them for every pod that drops. You know how geometrical progression works out. They'll cover the whole country—the whole world. Lord!"
"Man alive, this is terrible! I hadn't thought of that before. What'll we do?"
"Yeah, that's the question: what can we do?" Van started his motor and jerked the car to the road. "First off, we're going to get away from here—fast!"
Bart gripped his arm as he shifted into second gear. "Look, Van!" he babbled. "They're out of the woods already. Loose! The red snakes are loose from their stalks. They're alive, I tell you!"
It was true. Several of the slimy red things were wriggling their way over the macadam like great earthworms, but moving with the speed of hurrying pedestrians. Free, and untrammeled by the roots and stems of the mother plants, they had set forth on their own in the search for beings of flesh and blood to destroy. Millions of their kind would follow; billions!
In sudden panic Van stepped on the gas.
Fifteen minutes later, with shrieking siren, a motorcycle drew alongside and forced them to the curb. "Where's the fire?" the sarcastic voice of a stern-visaged officer demanded, when Van had brought his car to a screeching stop. Seventy-five, the speedometer had read but a moment before.
"It's life and death, officer," Van started to explain. "We must get to the proper officials to warn the—"
"Aw, tell it to the judge! Come on now, follow me."
"But officer, there's death on its way from the hills, I tell you. Red, creeping things that'll be here in a couple of hours—"
"Get away, from that wheel. I'll drive you in meself. You're fulla applejack."
Bart had opened the door on his side and was limping his way around the back of the car. This was serious. They had to get away; had to spread the word in a way that would be believed before it was too late. The officer was tugging at Van's arm, astonishment and black rage showing in his weather-beaten countenance. Speeding, drunk, resisting an officer—they'd never get out of this mess! A swift uppercut interrupted the proceedings. Bart's leg was numb and stiff, but his good right arm was working smoothly and with all its old time precision. His second punch was a haymaker. With his full weight behind it, it drove straight to the chin and stretched the officer on the concrete. Thoughtfully, Bart removed his pistol from its holster before scrambling in at Van's side.
"Boy, now we're in for it!" he gasped.
"And we might as well make a good job while we're at it." Van let in his clutch with a jerk, and again they were breaking all traffic regulations.
It was dusk when they roared in through the gate at the Rockland County Airport and pulled up at the hangar office. Van rushed in, shouting for Bill Petersen, and Bart followed. A slender, fair-haired youth in rumpled flying togs greeted them.
"Bill, my friend, Bart Madison," Van blurted without pausing for breath. "Listen, we've got to have a plane right away. Got one with a radio?"
"Yes, but what's all the rush? Where you going?"
"Albany. Right away. Make it snappy, will you?"
"Sure, but what's it all about?" Young Petersen was leading them to the field where a sleek mono-plane was in waiting as if they had ordered it. "Warm her up, Joe," he called to the mechanic.
"Listen, Bill—I never lied to you, did I?" Van asked, when they were seated in the plane's cabin.
"Not that I know of. But sometimes I've thought you were lying, until I saw with my own eyes the things you had told me about. What is it this time?"
"Death and destruction. Coming down out of the Ramapos. We've got to warn the country. Plants, Bill—squirmy red plants with long feelers that can twist around a man and devour him. Half animal, they are, and the feelers break loose and crawl by themselves. Multiplying like nothing you ever saw. Millions of them in an hour."
"What?" Petersen stared incredulously as his motor roared into life. Then he gave his attention to the business of taking off. He jerked the thumb of his free hand toward the radio.
Van's expert fingers manipulated the switches and dials of the portable apparatus, and its vacuum tubes glowed into life. "2BXX calling 2TIM," he droned into the microphone.
"Who's that?" Bart asked. The drone of the motor was barely audible in the closed cabin and did not interfere.
"The Times. Trying to get Johnny Forbes. If anyone can get this thing across, he can. Wait a minute, here they are." He closed his eyes as he listened to the murmuring voice in the headphones.
Then he was talking rapidly, forcefully, and the young flyer gazed with owlish solemnity at Bart as they listened to his conversation. It was plain that Bill was but half inclined to believe, though impressed by the earnestness and evident apprehension displayed by his two passengers.
"Yes, 2BXX," Van was saying. "Connect me with Johnny Forbes, please—in a hurry. Yes.... Hello, Johnny, it's Van—Carl Vanderventer, you know. Yes; got a scoop for you, but first I want you to get it in the broadcasts. Get me? It's about a man-eating plant that's starting to overrun the country. No—listen now, I'm not dreaming—listen—"
The frantic scientist rambled on and on about the seed from the moon, the red death that was creeping down from the mountains, the horror of the calamity as he and Bart had visioned it. Then, with a sudden note of despair, his voice trailed off into nothingness and he turned a drawn white face to his two friends.
"Laughed at me. Hung up on me," he groaned. "Good God! We've got to do something—quick!"
"Be in Albany in an hour," the pilot suggested. "What you going to do there?" He believed, now. His expression of horror showed it.
"See the governor. But, man, it's an hour wasted! We must stir up the country—get the word to Washington—everywhere. It might be possible to fight the things some way if we can mobilize State and National resources quickly enough. Bill, Bart, what can we do?"
The plane sped on through the night under control of her gyro-pilot as the three men racked their brains for a solution of the problem. If a hard-boiled newspaper man would not believe the story, who could?
"I've got it!" Bart shouted suddenly. "Can either of you pound a key—code, I mean?"
"Sure, I can. Then what?" Petersen returned.
"Fake an S. O. S. Don't you see? All broadcasting has to stop, and every ship at sea, every air liner in this part of the country'll be listening—standing by. Give 'em the story in code. Let 'em think we're in a ship from the moon—captured by Lunarians who are here to destroy the world with this weed of theirs—anything. Make it as weird as possible. Most everyone'll think it's a hoax, but there are ten thousand kids—amateurs—who'll be listening in. Somebody'll believe it, and, believe me, there'll be some investigating in the neighborhood of the growth in no time."
"By George, I believe that'll do it!" Van exclaimed. "And the broadcasters listen in for an S. O. S. themselves. Got to, you know, so they know when to start up again. Some smart announcer will tell the story—maybe even believe it. The trick will work, sure as shooting!"
The pilot glanced at his instruments and saw that the automatic gyro-apparatus was functioning properly. Then he moved over to the radio and threw the switch that put the key in circuit instead of the microphone. Rapidly he ticked off the three dots, three dashes, and again three dots that spelled the dread danger signal of the air. Over and over he repeated the signal, and then he listened for results.
"It worked!" he gloated, after a moment. "They're all signing off—the broadcasters. The Navy Yard in Brooklyn gives me the go-ahead."
He pounded out the absurd message with swift fingers, pausing occasionally to ask a pertinent question of Van or Bart. At Van's request he added a warning to all residents of New York State west of the Hudson River and of northern New Jersey to flee their homes without delay. He even asked that the message be relayed to the governors of the two states, and that Governor Perkins of New York be advised that they were on their way to Albany to discuss the situation. But he balked at the story of the Lunarians, telling instead the equally strange truth regarding the origin of the deadly growth, and adding the names of Van and Bart to lend authenticity to the tale.
Then he signed off and switched the radio receiver to the loud speaker before returning to the pilot's seat.
Bart tuned in on the various broadcasters as they resumed their programs, finally settling on WOR, Newark, whose announcer was reading the strange message to his radio public with appropriate comment. A crime and an outrage he called it, an affront to the industry and to the public. An insult to the government of the United States. But wait! A telephone call had just been received at the station from the village of Sloatesburg. A reputable citizen of that town had reported the red growth at the edge of the State road—huge red earthworms wriggling across the concrete. Another call, and another! The announcer's voice was rising hysterically.
"It did work, Bart," Van exulted. "Now the hell starts popping."
Governor Perkins met them in person when they arrived at the Municipal Airport in Albany. A great crowd had gathered in the shadows outside the brilliance of the flood lights, and a police escort rushed them to the governor's private car.
"Here's where you go to the Bastille for socking that cop," Van observed. His spirits had risen appreciably since that successful S. O. S. call.
But the governor was in a serious mood, as they made their way toward the executive mansion through the milling crowds that lined the hilly streets of the capital city of New York State. Proofs had not been lacking of the truth of Bill Petersen's radio warning. Already the spreading red death had covered a circle some eight miles in diameter, covering farm lands and destroying the crops, blocking the roads and trapping many on the streets and in their homes in nearby towns. More than a hundred had lost their lives, and thousands were fleeing the threatened area. The country was in an uproar.
"Gentlemen," the governor said, when they had reached the privacy of his chambers, "this is a serious matter, and no time must be lost in dealing with it. Nevertheless, I want you, Mr. Vanderventer, to tell your story of the thing to me and to the radio system of the United States Secret Service. The President himself will be listening, as will the chief executives of most of the states. Hold nothing back, as the fate of our people is at stake."
So Van faced the microphone and related the history of his work in the little laboratory in the Ramapo Mountains. He told of his interest in the earth's satellite, and of his first unsuccessful experiments with ultra-telescopes in the endeavor to explore its surface close at hand; of the failure of a space-ship he had built; of the final discovery of the ray, by means of which it was possible to transport solid objects from the one body to the other. He told of the discovery of man-made relics and of fossils; he told of the diamonds, and of the attack by Dan Kelly which had resulted in the spreading of the seed of the deadly moon weed. He even related the incident of the traffic policeman, at which the governor smiled.
"That has been reported," he said, "and you need have no fear on that score.—The charges will be dropped. I now ask that you give us your opinion as to the best method of combatting this new enemy. Have you any ideas?"
"I have not, sir," Van replied gloomily, "though I believe it can be done only from the air. Possibly bombing, or a gas of some sort—I don't know. It will take time, Mr. Governor."
"Yes, and meanwhile the thing is overwhelming us at what rate?"
"As nearly as I can estimate it, the growth is moving with a speed of four or five miles an hour."
"I'm afraid so."
A sharp buzz from the instrument on the governor's desk interrupted them. "The President," he whispered.
"That is enough, Governor," came the husky tones of President Alford's voice. "I shall communicate with Secretary Makely at once. All available army bombing-planes will be rushed to the scene. You, sir, will mobilize the militia, as will the governors of the other states. Meanwhile, this young scientist is to report to the Bureau of Scientific Research in Washington—to-night. Have him bring a supply of these seeds with him."
That was all. Governor Perkins offered no comment, but merely rose from his seat to indicate that the discussion was ended. A solemn silence reigned in the room.
"Let's go!" exclaimed Bill Petersen suddenly, unawed by the presence of the governor. "My ship's waiting, and we can stop off for a couple of those pods and still make Washington in two hours. Come on!"
Governor Perkins smiled. "Good luck, boys," he said, as they were ushered from the room. "My car will return you to the airport. And remember, the country will be watching you now, and expecting much from you. Good-by."
They were to recall his words in the dark days ahead.
Before they had reached Newburgh, they saw a dull red glow in the skies that told them the news broadcast to which they had been listening had not exaggerated. The red growth was luminous in darkness. Off there to the south-west, it was as if a vast forest fire were lighting the heavens. No wonder the panics and rioting were getting out of control of the police!
Coming up over Bear Mountain, they caught their first glimpse of the sea of fire that was the red death by night. Like a vast bed of glowing embers it covered the countryside, extending eastward to Haverstraw where it was temporarily halted by the broad Hudson. It was a shimmering, undulating mass of living, luminous things, eating their horrible way through all organic matter that stood in their path. Writhing, squirming, all-absorbing monsters that sent out an advance guard of independent snake-like tendrils to capture and hold for the lagging mother-plants whatever of live stock and humanity they were able to find.
"Think they'll get over the river, Van?" Bart asked.
"Sure they will. Every fugitive who had a narrow escape after being in contact with the things is a potential carrier of the seed. I found several of them sticking to my clothing after we got away. I picked a couple off your coat, but didn't tell you."
"Lord! What did you do with them?"
"Put them in the ash receiver in my car—like a fool. Wouldn't have to go down for more if I'd kept them."
"Well, it can't be helped now. We'll have a job getting some down there now, too."
"I'll say so." Van lapsed into gloomy silence.
They were over the landing field above Tomkins Cove, and Bill turned on the siren whose raucous shriek operated the mechanism of the floodlight switches by sound vibrations. The field sprang into instant illumination, and they circled it once before swooping to a landing. They were but a mile from the advancing terror.
"We'll have to make it snappy," Van grunted. "We've got about twelve minutes to get the pods and get back to the ship. The damn things'll be here by that time."
They scrambled over fences and pushed through thickets. The lighted windows of a deserted farmhouse were directly ahead, and they ran through the open gate and across the fields. Ever, the glow of the weed grew brighter. A terrified horse galloped wildly past them and crashed into the fence, whinnying piteously as it went down with a broken leg. They could see the red rim of the advancing horror just beyond the road.
One of the detached tendrils slithered past, each glowing coil distinctly visible.
"Lucky the things can't see!" Bart shuddered.
"Yeah," said Van. "Have to dodge 'em to get in close enough to one of the plants. Keep your eyes peeled now, you fellows, in case one of us gets caught."
A terrific explosion rocked the ground. They had paid no heed to the roaring of motors overhead. The bombers were on the job! Shooting skyward, a column of flame not a hundred yards from them showed where the high explosive had landed in the red mass. Then, slimy wriggling things rained all about them, fragments of the red weed that still squirmed and crawled and clung. Bill Petersen yelled and clutched at his neck where one of the things had taken hold.
Another warning whistle of a falling bomb. Crash! More of the horror raining down and splattering as it fell. Whistle—crash! A huge blob of quivering, luminous jelly fell before them—a portion of one of the mother-plants. Crash! Crash!
"Run!" Van shouted. "Run for the plane. We'll never make it now. Damn those bombers, anyway!"
All along the advancing front, the bombs were bursting, shattering the air with their detonations and scattering the glowing red stems and tendrils in all directions. The din was appalling, and the increasing brightness of the crimson glow added to the horror of the situation. Stumbling and cursing, they ran for the plane.
"Fools! Fools!" Bill was shouting. "Can't they see the field and the plane? Why in the devil are they dropping them so near?"
Then Bart was down, clawing at a three-foot length of red tendril that had fallen on him and borne him to the earth.
"Bart! Bart!" Van turned back and was tearing at the thing with fingers that were slippery with the sap that oozed from its torn skin. Monstrous earthworms! Cut them apart and each portion lived on, took on new vigor. And these vile things could sting like a jellyfish! Where each sucker touched the skin a burning sore remained.
Bill helped them break away from the thing, and all three fought on toward the lights of the landing field. Only a short way off now; it seemed they would never reach it. The bombers were dropping their missiles with unceasing regularity, and the red death only spread the faster.
When they scrambled into the cabin of the plane, the red wall of creeping horror was almost upon them. Advancing speedily out from the red-lit darkness, it seemed to halt momentarily, when it emerged into the brilliance of the great arc-lights which illuminated the field. Then, more slowly and with seemingly purposeful deliberation, the wriggling feelers reached out from the mass and bore down upon them. Bill slammed the door and latched it, then fumbled frantically with the starter switch. A most welcome sound was the answering roar of the motor.
The pilot yanked his ship into the air, taking off with the wind rather than running the risk of remaining on the ground long enough to taxi around and head into it. The plane acted like a frightened bird as Bill struggled with the controls, darting this way and that, and once missing a crash by inches as the tail was lifted by the treacherous ground wind. Then they were clear, and slowly gained altitude in a steep climb.
"Whew!" Van exclaimed, mopping his red-splattered forehead with his handkerchief. "That was a narrow squeak, boys. And we haven't got the seeds yet—unless we can find a few on our clothing."
"Who said so?" Bart gloated. "Look at this."
He opened his clenched fist and disclosed one of the pods, unbroken and gleaming horribly scarlet in the dim light of the cabin. Bill heaved a sigh of relief as he banked the ship and swung around toward the south. He had dreaded another landing near the sea of moon weed. Van chortled over their good fortune as he examined the mysterious pod. One good thing the bombers had done, anyway! Blew one of the things into his friend's hands.
Bart and the young pilot found themselves very much out of the picture when they reported with Van at the Research Building in Washington. The Government had no use for them in this emergency: it was the scientist they wanted, and he was immediately rushed into conference with the heads of the Bureau. His two friends were left to shift for themselves, and they joined the crowds in the street.
The name of Carl Vanderventer was on everyone's tongue. Cursing and reviling him, they were, for the hare-brained experiment which had been the cause of the terrible disaster. Fools! Bart seethed with rage and nearly came to blows with a number of vociferous agitators who were advocating a necktie-party. Why hadn't the officials published the entire story as Van told it over the Secret Service radio? There was no mention of Dan Kelly in the broadcast news, nor of the fact that the police were searching for him in every city and town in the country. Another instance of the results of secrecy in governmental activities!
"We'd better find ourselves a room and turn in," Bart growled. "Let's get out of this mob before I slam somebody."
Bill Petersen was only too willing. He was suddenly very tired.
In the Willard Hotel they were assigned to an excellent room, and Bart insisted on switching on the broadcasts and listening to the news. Far into the night he sat by the loud-speaker, or paced the floor as an exceptionally calamitous happening was reported. But Bill slept through it all.
The army bombers had been recalled. Their efforts had worked more harm than good. The invincible moon weed now had crossed the Hudson River at Nyack and Piermont. Tarrytown was overrun, and many of the inhabitants had lost their lives either in the maws of the insatiable monsters or in the panics and rioting that accompanied the evacuation of the town.
New Jersey was covered as far south as New Brunswick, and west to Phillipsburg and Belvidere. At Mauch Chunk the contents of twenty oil tanks had been diverted to the Delaware River, and the floating oil film was proving at least a temporary protection to a considerable portion of the state of Pennsylvania. In New York State the growth had buried hill and valley, town and village, as far as Monticello, and, along the Hudson, extended as far north as Kingston. At Poughkeepsie, on the opposite side of the river, frantic householders had armed themselves with rifles and shotguns, and were killing off all refugees who attempted to land from boats at that point. But the militia was on guard at the bridges, assuring safe crossing to the thousands who fled the red death over these routes. There was no keeping the seed of the moon weed from finding its way east.
At some points fire had been used with considerable success as a barrier, hundreds of acres of forest lands being destroyed in the endeavor to stem the crimson tide. But, after the ashes were cool, germination would recur, and the weed would continue on its triumphant way. Acid sprays and poison-gas of various kinds had been tried without appreciable effect. The casualty estimates already ran into the tens of thousands; rumor had it that nearly one hundred thousand had lost their lives in the city of Newark alone. There was no way in which the figures could be checked while everything was in a state of confusion.
Communication lines were broken, roads blocked, gas and electric supply systems paralyzed and the railroads helpless. Trains could not be driven through the glutinous, wriggling mass that piled high on the tracks. Only the radio and the air lines were operative in the stricken area, and even these were of little value to the unfortunates who, in many cases, were surrounded and cut off from all hope of succor.
At four in the morning, with aching heart and reeling brain, Bart threw himself on the bed without undressing and fell into the troubled sleep of exhaustion and despair.
The next day brought no encouragement, though it was reported that the growth developed with less rapidity after sunrise than it had during the night. Bart endeavored to get Van on the telephone, but was curtly informed by the operator at the Research Building that no incoming calls could be transferred to the laboratory where he was working. Knowing his friend, he pictured him as working feverishly with the Government engineers and giving no thought to sleep or food. He'd kill himself, sure! But such a death, even, was preferable to the red one of the moon weed.
The Canadians and Mexicans had been quick to protect their borders and forbid the landing of any American aircraft or the passage of trains and automobiles. But the seed had reached Europe, one of the twelve-hour night air-liners having carried a thousand refugees who had sufficient foresight and the means to engage passage. It was a world catastrophe they faced!
By mid-afternoon the streets of Washington were almost deserted. It was less than twenty-four hours since the first moon seed took root, and already the crimson growth had progressed nearly a hundred miles southward from the point of origin! Another twenty or thirty hours and it would reach the capital city—unless Van and those engineers over in the Research Building discovered something; a miracle.
Bart tried the telephone once more and was overjoyed when the operator, all apologies now, informed him that Van had been trying to reach him for several hours.
"Listen, old man," his friend's voice came over the wire: "I've been worried as the devil not knowing where you were. I want you and Bill to stick around where I can get you at any time. I may need you. Where are you staying?"
"The Willard. Have you doped out something?" Bart answered in quick excitement.
"Maybe. Can't let anything out yet—not till we've tested it thoroughly. But I can tell you that a hundred factories are already working on machines we've devised. By good luck it only means minor changes to an apparatus that is on the market in large quantity."
"Great stuff. The city's nearly emptied itself, you know, and, boy, how they've been razzing you over the radio and in the papers—howling for your hide, the whole country."
"I know." Van's voice was calm, but Bart sensed in it something of a cold fury that was new to him in his friend. The young scientist was bitterly resentful of the attitude of the public.
"Can we see you, Van?"
"No, nor call me either. Better hang around the hotel and wait for a call from me. So long now, Bart. I've got to get busy."
Bart gazed solemnly at Bill Petersen, who had been listening abstractedly to the one-sided conversation. Bill had given up hope and was resigned to the inevitable.
"Says he may need us, Bill," said Bart.
"Yeah? Well, we'll be ready for anything he wants us to do. It's no use though—anything."
"What do you mean—no use? You never saw Van licked yet, did you?"
"Sure I did. By his super-telescopes and the rocket ship."
"But this is different." Bart was a staunch defender of his friend. He glared at Bill for a moment and then switched on the news broadcast which he knew he detested.
The progress of the moon weed continued unabated. In the city of New York a million souls were reported as having lost their lives, and this in spite of the difficulty experienced by the uncanny moon weed in obtaining a foothold in Manhattan. It had been thought that the asphalt and concrete would prove an effective barrier, and so they did for a time. But, with the seed active in the parks and along the water fronts, it was not long before the powerful roots of the greedy plants worked their way underneath, ripping up pavements and wriggling into cellars as they progressed. The city was a mass of wreckage and a maelstrom of fighting, dying humanity.
Whole regiments of the National Guard were wiped out as they fought off the weed with ax and bayonet, in the effort to provide time for the refugees to clear from their homes in certain localities. All transportation facilities to the south and west were taxed to the utmost. There was fighting and killing for the possession of automobiles and planes and for room in trains and buses. Air-line terminals and railroad stations were the scenes of dreadful massacres as the police and military guards fought off the crazed and desperate creatures who attacked them en masse. And still the news announcers prated of the responsibility of one Carl Vanderventer.
The telephone bell rang, and Bart answered it in relief. At last they were to see some action! But no, it was merely the desk clerk, notifying him that all employees were leaving the hotel and that they would be left to shift for themselves. Yes, there was plenty of food in the kitchens; they were welcome to it. And a permanent telephone connection would be made to their room. The frightened clerk wished them luck.
In endless monotone, the voice of the news announcer droned on. Binghamton and Elmira, Albany and Schenectady, New Haven, Philadelphia, Allentown—all had succumbed. The casualty estimates now ran into the millions. The mist, the red mist that rose from the steaming weed, was drifting westward and spreading the seed with ever increasing rapidity. For now the monstrous growth from out the sky was adapting itself to its environment; providing the seed with feathery tufts that permitted the winds to carry them far and wide like the seed of a dandelion.
"Turn off that damn thing!" Bill shouted. And he jumped to his feet, his eyes glinting strangely in the twilight gloom of the room. Bill was close to the breaking point.
"Guess you're right," Bart mumbled. "Not good for either of us to listen to that stuff." He switched off the receiver, and they sat in silence as darkness fell over the city.
Bill shivered and felt for the button of the electric light which he pressed with a trembling finger. They blinked in the sudden illumination, but it cheered them somewhat. It was not good to sit in the darkness and think. Besides, they knew that the turbine generators of Potomac Edison were still running. Some brave souls were sticking to their jobs—for a time, at least.
"God!" Bill suddenly groaned, after an endless time of dead silence. "My sister! Lives in Pittsburgh, you know. Wonder if she and the kids got away. It won't be long before the damn stuff gets there."
Bart thanked his lucky stars that he had no family ties. "Oh, they've had plenty of warning," he tried to console Bill. "Hours, you know; and the westbound lines are in good shape from there. I wouldn't worry about them if I were you."
There was utter silence once more. Even the customary street noises was lacking. Both men jumped nervously when the shrill siren of a police motorcycle sounded in the distance. Bart thought grimly of his fracas with the officer who had tried to arrest Van. How long ago that seemed, and how inconsequential an incident!
Their windows faced north, and by midnight they could make out the red glow of the moon weed, that awful band of flickering crimson that painted the horizon the color of blood. The telephone clamored for attention and Bill stifled a hysterical sob as the terrifying sound broke the eery stillness.
Van was on the way to get them! He had a Government car and they were to go to Arlington for Bill's plane. Then what? He refused to commit himself: they must follow him blindly. Anything was better than this inactivity, though. Bart shouted with glee.
"We're going north," Van replied shortly, in answer to Bart's question when they entered the official car in front of the hotel, "after Dan Kelly."
"After Dan Kelly? Got a line on him?"
"Yes. Secret Service reports him in Toronto. The Canucks are after him now, but, by God, I'm going to get him myself!"
Van was haggard and wan, his eyes gleaming with a fanatical light. The strain had done something to him—something Bart didn't like at all. This was a different Van from the man who had entered his office two days previously. Unshaven and unkempt, he looked and talked like a drunken man on the verge of delirium tremens.
"What's the idea, Van?" he asked gently.
So that was it! The combination of gruelling labor in the effort to save mankind from the dread moon weed, and bitter censure from the very people he was trying to save, had been too much for Van. He had developed a fixation, unreasoning and murderous; he'd get even with the man who had caused the trouble. And nothing could deter him from his purpose: Bart could see that. Might as well humor him and help him. It made little difference, anyway, with the red doom spreading at its present rate. They'd all be victims in a few days.
They were speeding through the streets of Washington at a break-neck rate. Van bent over the wheel, and like a demented man glued his wildly staring eyes to the road.
"What about your work?" Bart asked, after a while. "Has anything been accomplished?"
"Yes and no. They'll be ready to shoot in a few hours. Don't know whether it'll be a complete success or not. But I sneaked away anyhow. This other thing's more important to me right now."
"What's the dope? Can you tell us now?"
"Sure. I've got one of the machines in the car and I'll explain when we're on our way to Canada."
This wasn't like Van. Never secretive and always in good humor, he was treating his friends like annoying strangers.
"You can't land in Canada," Bill ventured, as they pulled up at the gate of the airport.
"Like hell I can't! You watch my smoke, and let any bloody Canuck up there try and stop me!"
He was lifting a small black case from the luggage carrier of the car as he replied. Bart silenced the airman with a look.
When they had taken off and were well under way, Van opened his black case and set a vacuum-tube apparatus in operation. They were nearing the fringe of the glowing sea of red that was the vast blanket of moon weed. It now extended to within a few miles of Baltimore and stretched northward as far as the eye could see.
"It was a cinch," Van was explaining. "When I first saw that the growth slowed up under the arc-lights at Tomkins Cove it gave me the glimmering of an idea. Then, on the following day, when we learned that the weed spread more slowly in sunlight, I was convinced. The stuff is dormant on the moon, you know."
"Why?" Bart asked breathlessly.
"Because there is no atmosphere surrounding the moon, and the sun's rays are not filtered before they reach its surface as they are here. The invisible rays, ultra-violet and such, are present in full proportion. And the moon weed can not flourish when subjected to light of the higher frequencies. It died out when the moon lost its atmosphere, and only revived on being brought to earth—probably a million times more prolific in our dense and damp atmosphere and rich soil. The thing's a cinch to dope out."
"Yeah!" Bart commented drily. Van was now talking and he could have bitten off his tongue for interrupting him.
This machine of Van's was a generator of invisible light in the ultra-indigo range, Van explained. You couldn't see its powerful beam, but they had proved in the laboratory that it was certain doom to the moon weed. They had grown the stuff from seed in steel cages, and played with it until they were all satisfied. Now would come the final test. Ten thousand planes were being equipped with the new generator, which was merely an adaptation of standard directional television transmitters, and to-night these would start out to fight the weed. It was a cinch!
Beneath them the red cauldron seethed and tossed as they sped northward; the crimson blanket of death that was steadily covering the country.
"Drop to a thousand feet, Bill," the scientist called, "and then watch below. But, don't slow down. We've got to get to Toronto!"
The ship nosed down and soon leveled off at the prescribed altitude. Van's vacuum tubes lighted to full brilliancy, and a black spot appeared on the glowing surface just beneath them, a black spot that extended into a streak as the plane continued on its way. They were cutting a swath of blackness fifty feet wide through the heart of the growth!
"See that!" Van gloated. "It's killing them by millions! And the best of it is the effect it leaves behind. The soil is permeated to a depth of several inches and the stuff will not germinate in the spots where the ray has contracted. Oh, it works to perfection!"
Bill was exuberant; his hopes revived miraculously. He gave his motor the gun and got out of it every last revolution that it could turn up. He must get Van to Canada! Not such a bad idea, this going after Kelly, at that!
Bart was voluble in his praise, then caught himself short as he remembered that he had doubted Van but a half hour previously: doubted him and despaired. Now Van, lapsing into gloomy silence after his triumph, was again thinking of nothing but revenge. The getting of Dan Kelly meant more to him now than the extinction of the moon weed.
When they landed at the Toronto Airport they were welcomed with open arms instead of with rifle fire as Bill had anticipated. The news had gone forth. Already a thousand planes flying over the United States were driving back the sea of destruction. The invisible ray was a success, and the name of Carl Vanderventer was now a thing with which to conjure, rather than one on which to heap imprecation and insult. Van grimaced wryly at this last bit of news.
Danny Kelly? No one at the airport had ever heard of him. Van telephoned in to the city; to Police Headquarters. Yes, they had apprehended the fugitive American at the request of Washington, but he was a slippery customer. He had escaped. Van raged and fumed.
Of what use were the congratulations of the night flyers who still loitered in the hangar; of what consolation the radio reports of the success of the ultra-indigo ray in the States and in Europe? He had come after his man and he'd failed. Defeat was a bitter pill.
The news broadcasts from the States were jubilant and became increasingly so during the night. The moon weed was being driven back on a wide front and by morning would be entirely surrounded. There would be no further loss of life and little more destruction of property. Carl Vanderventer had saved the day! Van grunted his disgust whenever an announcer mentioned his name.
When daylight came they prepared to return. Little use there was of searching the highways and byways of Canada for the fugitive. He'd simply have to wait until the Canadians were able to get a line on Dan Kelly again.—It was maddening! But Bart was glad. The light of reason was returning to his friend's eyes in the reaction.
Then there was a telephone call from the city for Van. Police Headquarters wanted him. The fanatical glint returned to his eyes when he ran for the hangar to answer the call. Perhaps they had already captured Kelly! And he had an order in his pocket for the man's return to the States. He'd been made a deputy, and with Kelly released to him anything might happen. Something would happen.
But the police were reporting the unexplainable reappearance of the moon weed just outside the city limits at a point near Cookesville. Would Mr. Vanderventer be so kind as to fly over there and destroy it before any lives were lost? He would.
The growth had covered an acre of ground by the time they reached the spot designated. But it was the work of only a minute to blast it out of existence with the ultra-indigo ray. Van surveyed the blackened and shriveled mass with satisfaction.
"Let's land and take a look at it," he said.
Bart thought he saw a look of exultation flash over his careworn features.
Soon they were wading deep in the blackened remains of the moon weed. The stems and tendrils snapped and crumbled into powder as they passed through. The stuff was done for, no question of that.
Bill Petersen yelled and pointed a shaking forefinger at an object that lay in the blackened ruin. It was a human skeleton, the bones bare of flesh and gleaming white in the light of the early morning sun. Van was on his knees, quick as a flash, feeling around the grewsome thing: pawing at the shreds of clothing that remained.
Then he was on his feet, his face shining with unholy glee. In his hands were a half dozen small, smooth objects which looked like pebbles. The diamonds!
"I thought so!" he exclaimed. "It's Kelly. Only way the seed could have gotten up here. He had some on his clothes and didn't know it. I couldn't get him myself—but anyway I'm satisfied."
He staggered and would have fallen, had not Bart caught him in his arms. Poor old Van! Nearly killed him, this thing had, but he'd be himself again, after it was all over. No wonder he'd gone out of his head with the horror of it, and the blame that had been so cruelly laid on him! No wonder he'd become obsessed with this idea of getting square with Dan Kelly! But now he was content: sleeping like a babe in Bart's arms.
Tenderly they carried him to the plane and laid him out on the cushions in back. They'd let him sleep as long as he could; return him to Washington where he'd receive his just dues in recognition for his services. Then would follow the work of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Van would glory in that.
Bart regarded his sleeping friend thoughtfully as they winged their swift way toward the American border. The harsh lines that had showed in his face during the past few hours were smoothed away and in their place was an expression of deep contentment. He was at peace with the world once more. Good old Van.
What a difference there would be when he awakened to full realization of the changed order of things! What satisfaction and relief!
About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books. This book is part of the public domain.
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#Page_236
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.