Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931: Dark Moon - Chapter IVby@astoundingstories
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Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931: Dark Moon - Chapter IV

by Astounding StoriesJuly 10th, 2022
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How often are the great things of life submerged beneath the trivial. The vast reaches of space that must be traversed; the unknown world that awaited them out there; its lands and seas and the life that was upon it: Walter Harkness was pondering all this deep within his mind. It must have been the same with Chet, yet few words of speculation were exchanged. Instead, the storage of supplies, a checking and rechecking of lists, additional careful testing of generators—such details absorbed them.

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Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Dark Moon - Chapter IV: The Rescue in Space

CHAPTER IV. The Rescue in Space

How often are the great things of life submerged beneath the trivial. The vast reaches of space that must be traversed; the unknown world that awaited them out there; its lands and seas and the life that was upon it: Walter Harkness was pondering all this deep within his mind. It must have been the same with Chet, yet few words of speculation were exchanged. Instead, the storage of supplies, a checking and rechecking of lists, additional careful testing of generators—such details absorbed them.

And the heavy, gray powder with its admixture of radium that transformed it to super-detonite—this must be carefully charged into the magazines of the generators. A thousand such responsibilities—and yet the moment finally came when all was done.

The midnight sun shone redly from a distant horizon. It cast strange lights across the icy waste. And it flashed back in crimson splendor from the gleaming hull that floated from the hangar and came to rest upon the snowy world.

The two men closed the great doors, and it was as if they were shutting themselves off from their last contact with the world. They stood for long moments, silent, in the utter silence of the frozen north.

Chet Bullard turned, and Harkness gripped his hand. He was suddenly aware of his thankfulness for the companionship of this tall, blond youngster. He tried to speak—but what words could express the tumult of emotions that arose within him? His throat was tight....

It was Chet who broke the tense silence; his happy grin flashed like sunshine across his lean face.

"You're right," he answered his companion's unspoken thoughts; "it's a great little old world we're leaving. I wonder what the new one will be like."

And Harkness smiled back. "Let's go!" he said, and turned toward the waiting ship.

The control room was lined with the instruments they had installed. A nitron illuminator flashed brilliantly upon shining levers—emergency controls that they hoped they would not have to use. Harkness placed his hand upon a small metal ball as Chet reported all ports closed.

The ball hung free in space, supported by the magnetic attraction of the curved bars that made a cage about it. An adaptation of the electrol device that had appeared on the most modern ships, Harkness knew how to handle it. Each movement of the ball within its cage, where magnetic fields crossed and recrossed, would bring instant response. To lift the ball would be to lift the ship; a forward pressure would throw their stern exhaust into roaring life that would hurl them forward; a circular motion would roll them over and over. It was as if he held the ship itself within his hand.

Chet touched a button, and a white light flashed to confirm his report that all was clear. Harkness gently raised the metal ball.

Beneath them a soft thunder echoed from the field of snow, and came back faintly from icy peaks. The snow and ice fell softly away as they rose.

A forward pressure upon the ball, and a louder roaring answered from the stern. A needle quivered and swung over on a dial as their speed increased. Beneath them was a blur of whirling white; ahead was an upthrust mountain range upon which they were driving. And Harkness thrilled with the sense of power that his fingers held as he gently raised the ball and nosed the ship upward in meteor-flight.

The floor beneath them swung with their change of pace. Without it, they would have been thrown against the wall at their backs. The clouds that had been above them lay dead ahead; the ship was pointing straight upward. It flashed silently into the banks of gray, through them, and out into clear air above. And always the quivering needle crept up to new marks of speed, while their altimeter marked off the passing levels.

They were through the repelling area when Harkness relinquished the controls to Chet. The metal ball hung unmoving; it would hold automatically to the direction and speed that had been established. The hand of the master-pilot found it quickly. They were in dangerous territory now—a vast void under a ceiling of black, star-specked space. No writhing, darting wraith-forms caught the rays of the distant sun. Their way seemed clear.

Harkness' eyes were straining ahead, searching for serpent forms, when the small cone beside him hummed a warning that they were not alone. Another ship in this zone of danger?—it seemed incredible. But more incredible was the scream that rang shrilly from the cone. "Help! Oh, help me!" a feminine voice implored.

Harkness sprang for the instrument where the voice was calling. "We aren't the only fools up here," he exclaimed; "and that's a woman's voice, too!" He pressed a button, and a needle swung instantly to point the direction whence the radio waves were coming.

"Hard a-port!" he ordered. "Ten degrees, and hold her level. No—two points down."

But Chet's steady hand had anticipated the order. He had seen the direction-finder, and he swung the metal ball with a single motion that swept them in a curve that seemed crushing them to the floor.

The ship levelled off; the ball was thrust forward, and the thunder from the stern was deafening despite their insulated walls. The shuddering structure beneath them was hurled forward till the needle of the speed-indicator jammed tightly against its farthest pin. And ahead of them was no emptiness of space.

The air was alive with darting forms. Harkness saw them plainly now—great trailing streamers of speed that shot downward from the heights. The sun caught them in their flight to make iridescent rainbow hues that would have been beautiful but for the hideous heads, the sucker-discs that lined the bodies and the one great disc that cupped on the end of each thrusting snout.

And beneath those that fell from on high was a cluster of the same sinister, writhing shapes which clung to a speeding ship that rolled and swung vainly in an effort to shake them off.

The coiling, slashing serpent-forms had fastened to the doomed ship. Their thrashing bodies streamed out behind it. They made a cluster of flashing color whose center point was a tiny airship, a speedster, a gay little craft. And her sides shone red as blood—red as they had shone on the grassy lawn of an old chateau near far-off Vienna.

"It's Diane!" Harkness was shouting. "Good Lord, Chet, it's Diane!"

This girl he had told himself he would forget. She was there in that ship, her hands were wrenching at the controls in a fight that was hopeless. He saw her so plainly—a pitiful, helpless figure, fighting vainly against this nightmare attack.

Only an instant of blurred wonderment at her presence up there—then a frenzy possessed him. He must save her! He leaped to the side of the crouching pilot, but his outstretched hands that clutched at the control stopped motionless in air.

Chet Bullard, master-pilot of the first rank, upon whose chest was the triple star that gave him authority to command all the air-levels of earth, was tense and crouching. His eyes were sighting along an instrument of his own devising as if he were aiming some super-gun of a great air cruiser.

But he was riding the projectile itself and guiding it as he rode. He threw the ship like a giant shell in a screaming, sweeping arc upon the red craft that drove across their bow.

They were crashing upon it; the red speedster swelled instantly before their eyes. Harkness winced involuntarily from the crash that never came.

Chet must have missed it by inches, Harkness knew; but he knew, too, that the impact he felt was no shattering of metal upon metal. The heavy windows of the control room went black with the masses of fibrous flesh that crashed upon them; then cleared in an instant as the ship swept through.

Behind them a red ship was falling—falling free! And vaporous masses, ripped to ribbons, were falling, too, while other wraith-like forms closed upon them in cannibalistic feasting.

Their terrific speed swept them on into space. When the pilot could check it, and turn, they found that the red ship was gone.

"After it!" Harkness was shouting. "She went down out of control, but they didn't get her. They've only sprung the door-ports a crack, releasing the internal pressure." He told himself this was true; he would not admit for an instant the possible truth of the vision that flashed through his mind—a ripping of doors—a thrusting snout that writhed in where a girl stood fighting.

"Get it!" he ordered; "get it! I'll stand by for rescue."

He sprang for the switch that controlled the great rescue magnets. Not often were they used, but every ship must have them: it was so ordered by the Board of Control. And every ship had an inset of iron in its non-magnetic hull.

His hand was upon the switch in an agony of waiting. Outside were other beastly shapes, like no horror of earth, that came slantingly upon them, but even their speed was unequal to the chase of this new craft that left them far astern. Harkness saw the last ones vanish as Chet drove down through the repelling area. And he had eyes only for the first sight of the tiny ship that had fallen so helplessly.

Ahead and below them the sun marked a brilliant red dot. It was falling with terrific speed, and yet, so swift was their own pace, it took form too quickly: they would overshoot the mark.... Harkness felt the ship shudder in slackening speed as the blast from the bow roared out.

They were turning; aiming down. The red shape passed from view where Harkness stood. His hand was tight upon the heavy switch.

Chet's voice came sharp and clear: "Rescue switch—ready?" He appeared as cool and steady as if he were commanding on an experimental test instead of making his first rescue in the air. And Harkness answered: "Ready."

A pause. To the waiting man it was an eternity of suspense. Then, "Contact!" Chet shouted, and Harkness' tense muscles threw the current into crashing life.

He felt the smash and jar as the two ships came together. He knew that the great magnets in their lower hull had gripped the plates on the top of the other ship. He was certain that the light fans of the smaller craft must have been crushed; but they had the little red speedster in an unshakable grip; and they would land it gently. And then—then he would know!

The dreadful visions in his mind would not down.... Chet's voice broke in upon him.

"I can't maintain altitude," Chet was saying. "Our vertical blasts strike upon the other ship; they are almost neutralized." He pointed to a needle that was moving with slow certainty and deadly persistence across a graduated dial. It was their low-level altimeter, marking their fall. Harkness stared at it in stunned understanding.

"We can't hold on," the pilot was saying; "We'll crash sure as fate. But I'm darned if we'll ever let go!"

Harkness made no reply. He had dashed for an after-compartment to their storage place of tools, and returned with a blow-torch in his hand. He lit it and checked its blue flame to a needle of fire.

"Listen, Chet," he said, and the note of command in his voice told who was in charge, at the final analysis, in this emergency. "I will be down below. You call out when we are down to twenty thousand: I can stand the thin air there. I will open the emergency slot in the lower hull."

"You're going down?" Chet asked. He glanced at the torch and nodded his understanding. "Going to cut your way through and—"

"I'll get her if she's there to get," Harkness told him grimly. "At five hundred, if I'm not back, pull the switch."

The pilot's reply came with equal emphasis. "Make it snappy," he said: "this collision instrument has picked up the signals of five patrol-ships a hundred miles to the south."

They dropped swiftly to the twenty level, and Harkness heard the deafening roar of their lower exhausts as he opened the slot in their ship's hull. He dropped to the red surface held close beneath, while the cold gripped him and the whirling blasts of air tore at him. But the torch did its work, and he lowered himself into the cabin of the little craft that had been the plaything of Mademoiselle Diane.

The cabin was a splintered wreck, where a horrible head had smashed in search of food. One entrance port was torn open, and the head itself still hung where it had lodged. The mouth gaped flabbily open; above it was the suction cup that formed a snout; and above that, a row of staring, sightless eyes. Chet had slammed into the mass of serpents just in time, Harkness realized. Just in time, or just too late....

The door to the control room was sprung and jammed. He pried it open to see the unconscious body that lay huddled upon the floor. But he knew, with a wave of thankfulness that was suffocating, that the brute had not reached her; only the slow release of the air-pressure had rendered her unconscious. He was beside her in an instant.

He was dimly aware of the thunder of exhausts and the shrill scream of helicopters as he reached the upper surface of the red ship and forced his unconscious burden into the emergency slot above his head.

"They're here!" Chet was shouting excitedly. "We're ordered to halt. Looks as if our flight was postponed." He tried to smile, but the experiment was a failure.

"I am dodging around to keep that big one from grabbing us with its magnet. Schwartzmann is aboard one of the patrols; they think the girl is in her ship. They won't fire on us as long as we hang on. But we'll crash if we do that, and they'll nail us if we let go."

Harkness had placed the girl's body upon the floor. His answer was a quick leap to the pilot's side. "See to her," he ordered; "I'll take the ship. Stop us now? Like hell they will! What's all our power for?"

One glance gave him the situation: the big gray fighter above, slipping down to seize them with her powerful magnets; four other patrol cruisers that slowly circled, their helicopters holding them even with the two ships that clung together in swift descent.

Chet was right; no burst of speed could save them from the guns of the patrols if they dropped the red speedster and made a break for it. They thought Diane was still in her ship, and a patrol would have the little craft safe before she had dropped a thousand feet. Their own stern exhaust would be torn by a detonite shell, and the big cruiser would seize them in the same way. No—they must hang onto the girl's ship and outmaneuver the others. He pressed the metal ball forward to the limit of its space, and the stern exhaust crashed into action with all the suddenness of his own resolve.

The ship beneath him threw itself straight ahead, flashed under the patrol-ship that blocked them, and was away. The weight below, and its resistance to the air, dragged them down, but Harkness brought the ball up, and the ship answered with a slow lift of the bow that aimed them straight out into space.

A vertical climb!—and the voice from the instrument beside him was shouting orders to halt. On each side were patrol-ships that roared upward with him.

"Cut those motors!" the voice commanded. "Release that ship! Halt, or we will fire!"

Harkness threw his ship into a wild spiral for reply, and the thin crack of guns came to him from outside. Down! A headlong dive! Then out and up again!

He was through the repelling area in a twisting, rocking flight. Not hit as yet; they had to aim carefully to avoid damaging the red craft.... He was straining his eyes for a glimpse of serpent-forms, and he laughed softly under his breath at thought of his strange allies. Laughed!—until he saw them coming.

He slammed down the switch on his own broadcast sender. "Back!" he shouted; "back, all of you! Look up! Look above you! The monsters are coming!—the air-beasts!—they are attacking!"

He threw his own ship into a dive; saw the others do likewise; then leaped for the switch on the rescue magnets and pulled it open.

He felt the red ship fall clear. He swung his own ship free and aimed it out and up on a long line of speed. Beside him a voice from a distant, fleeing patrol was shouting; "Come back, you fool! Down! Down, through the R. A.!"

One backward glance showed him that his pursuers were safe. The serpents had turned to pursue him, and other writhing luminosities were falling from above. He swung head on, his motors wide open, his speed building up and up, to crash softly through the advance guard of the giant creatures out of space.

Nothing could stop him! He was trembling with the knowledge, and with the sheer joy of the adventure. Nothing could check them; neither cruisers nor monsters; nothing of earth or of space. They were free; they were on their way out—out where a new world awaited—where the Dark Moon raced on her unlighted path!

For the moment he had forgotten their passenger. The thrill of combat and the ecstasy of winning freedom for their great adventure had filled him to forgetfulness of all else.

"We're off!" he shouted. "Off for the Dark Moon!" Then he remembered, and turned where Chet was supporting the head of a slim girl whose eyes opened to look about, to glance from Chet to Harkness and back to Chet who was holding her.

"You saved me," she breathed, "from them!" She raised one hand weakly to cover her eyes at memory of those writhing shapes, then let it fall as other memories crowded in.

"The patrol-ships!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "You must...." Her voice trailed off into silence.

She was able to stand, and with Chet's help she came slowly to her feet as Harkness reached her. His voice was harsh and scornful; all elation had left him. He forced himself to hold his unsmiling gaze steadily upon the soft brown eyes that turned to his.

"Yes," he said; "we must 'surrender'—that was the word you wanted. We must surrender!... Well, Mam'selle Diane, we're not in a surrendering mood to-day. We've got away; made our escape!"

He laughed loudly and contemptuously, though he winced at the look of hurt that opened the brown eyes wide.

"You brought the patrol," he went on; "you learned where we were—"

"Herr Schwartzmann did," she interrupted in a quiet voice. "He located you; your signals were picked up.... They left two hours before I did," she added enigmatically. "I had to fly high, above the R. A. for greater speed."

Walt Harkness was bewildered. What did this mean? He tried to preserve the pose of hard indifference that was becoming increasingly difficult.

"More generosity?" he inquired. "You had to see the end of the hunt—be in at the death?"

"In at the death!" she echoed, and laughed in a tone that trembled and broke. "I nearly was, truly. But, no, my dear Monsieur Harkness: incredible as it seems, in view of your unfriendly reception, I came to warn you!... But, enough of that. Tell me—you see how interested I am in your plans?—what did you say of the Dark Moon?"

Walter Harkness tried to rearrange his jumbled thoughts. She had come to warn them. Was this true? Or was this girl, who laughed so lightly, playing with him?

"Yes," he said dully, "we were bound for the Dark Moon. The Patrol couldn't stop us, nor the beasts that have paralyzed the flying service of the earth; but you have done it. We will turn back at once, and return you safely—"

He was again at the controls, one hand extended for the metal ball, when her slim hand closed upon his wrist.

"I know Herr Schwartzmann's plans," she said quietly. "He would ruin you; seize your ship; steal for himself the glory of your invention. Would you go back and deliver yourself into his hands—because of me?"

The brown eyes, Harkness found, were upon his with an expression he could not fathom.

"Yes," he said simply.

And still the eyes looked into his. There was laughter in them, and something else whose meaning was concealed.

"I ask you not to do this," she was saying. "You will succeed; I read it in your face. Let me go with you; let me share in the adventure. I am begging this of you. It is your turn to be generous."

Harkness' hand upon the metal ball held it motionless within its enclosing cage. From astern there came to him the muffled roar of a blast that drove them on and out into space—black, velvety space, thick-studded with sharp points of light.... He stared into that wondrous night, then back into the eyes that looked steadily, unfathomably, into his.... And his hand was unresisting as the strong, slender fingers about his wrist drew it back....

They were off for the Dark Moon: their journey, truly, was begun. And this girl, whom he had told himself to forget, was going with them. There was much that he did not understand, but he knew that he was glad with a gladness that transcended all previous thrills of the perilous plan.

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