Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931: Dark Moon - Chapter IXby@astoundingstories
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Astounding Stories of Super-Science May 1931: Dark Moon - Chapter IX

by Astounding StoriesJuly 15th, 2022
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It is doubtful if Walter Harkness heard or consciously saw that fleeing tribe. He saw only the glorious sunlight and its sparkling reflection upon the stream; and in his nostrils was the scent of roasting meat to rouse him to a frenzy.

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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 IX: The Throwers of Thunder

CHAPTER IX. The Throwers of Thunder

It is doubtful if Walter Harkness heard or consciously saw that fleeing tribe. He saw only the glorious sunlight and its sparkling reflection upon the stream; and in his nostrils was the scent of roasting meat to rouse him to a frenzy.

For seven Earth days he and Chet had kept account of the hours. How long after that they had followed their stumbling course he could not have told. Time ceased to be measured in hours and days; rather was it reckoned in painful progress a foot at a time up rocky burrows, helping, both of them, to ease the path for the girl who struggled so bravely with them, until aching muscles refused to bear them further. Then periods of drugged sleep with utter fatigue for an opiate—and on again in hopeless, aimless wandering.

And now, the sun! And he was plunging his head into icy water to drink until he strangled for breath! He knew that Chet and Diane were beside him. A weak laugh came to his lips as he sat erect: the girl had drunk as deeply as the rest—and now she was washing her hands and face.

The idea seemed tremendously amusing—or was it that the simple rite indicated more than he could bear to know? It meant that they were safe; they had escaped; and again a trifle like cleanliness was important in a woman's eyes. He rocked with meaningless laughter—until again a puff of wind brought distinctly the odor of cooking food.

A hundred feet away, up higher in the valley, were the first of the fires. Harkness came to his feet and ran—ran staggeringly, it is true, but he ran—and he tore at some hanging shreds of smoking meat regardless of the burn. But the fierce gnawing at his stomach did not force him to wolf the food. He carried it back, a double handful of half-cooked meat, to the others. And he doled it out sparingly to them and to himself.

The cold water had restored his sanity. "Easy," he advised them; "too much at first and we're done for."

He was chewing on the last shred when a thought struck him; he had been too stunned before to reason. For the first time he jerked up his head in startled alarm. He looked carefully about—at the meat on its pointed stakes, at the distant fires, at the open glade below them and the dense jungle beyond where nothing stirred.

"Cooked meat!" he exclaimed in a whisper. "Who did it? This means people!"

The memory that had registered only in some corner of a mind deeper than the conscious, came to the surface. "I remember," he said. "There were things that ran—men—apes—what were they?"

"Oh, Lord!" Chet groaned. "And all I ask is to be left alone!" But he wearily raised himself upright and verified the other's words.

"They ran toward that opening among those trees. And I'll bet they live in these caves up here behind us. I got a whiff of them as we came past: they smelled like a zoo."

They had come out on top of the lava-flow, close to its end. The molten rock had hardened to leave a drop of some forty feet to the open glade below. Beyond that the jungle began, but behind them was the lava bed, frozen in countless corrugations. Harkness rose and helped Diane to her feet: they must force their aching muscles to take up their task again.

He peered up the valley where a thousand fires smoked. "That stream," he said, "comes in from a little valley that branches off up there. We had better follow it—and we had better get going before that gang recovers from its surprise."

They were passing the first of the fires where the meat was smoking when Chet called a halt. "Wait a bit," he begged: "let's take a sirloin steak along—" He was haggling at a chunk of meat with a broken flint when a spear whistled in and crashed upon the rocks.

Harkness saw the thrower. Beyond the lava's edge the jungle could be seen, and from among the spectral trees had darted a wild figure whose hairy arm had snapped the spear into the air.

There were more who followed. They were sliding down the slender trunks that supported the branches and leafy roof high above the ground. To Harkness the open doorway to the jungle seemed swarming with monkey-men. The movement of the three fugitives had been taken as a retreat, and the courage of the cave-dwellers had returned.

Harkness glanced quickly about to size up their situation. To go on was certain death; if these creatures came up to meet them on the lava-beds, the end was sure. The escarpment gave the three some slight advantage of a higher position.

One vain wish for the pistol now resting in the deep grass beside a vanished ship; then he sprang for the weapon that had been thrown—it was better than nothing—and advanced cautiously to the lava's edge.

No concealment there; no broken rocks, other than pieces of flint; a poor fortress, this, that they must defend! And the weapons of their civilization were denied them.

Another spear hummed its shrill song, coming dangerously close. He saw women-figures that came from the jungle with supplies of weapons. Short spears, about six feet long, like the one he held. But they had others, too—long lances of slender wood with tips of flint. Thrusting spears! He had a sickening vision of those jagged stone heads ripping into their bodies while these beasts stood off in safety. It was thus that they killed their prey. And Diane—he could not even spare her—could not give her the kind oblivion of a mercy-shot!

The other two were lying beside him now at the edge of the sloping cliff. The bank of shining gray was not steep; the enemy would climb it with ease. Hopeless! They had won through for this!... Harkness groaned silently in an agony of spirit at thought of the girl.

"Oh, for one detonite shell to land among them!" he said between clenched teeth—then was breathless with a thought that exploded within his mind.

His fingers were clumsy with haste as he fumbled at the head of the spear. The sharp-edged stone was bound to its shaft with sinew, wound round and round. The enemy were out in the open; he spared an instant's look to see them advancing. A clattering of falling spears sounded beyond, but the weapons were overcast, thanks to the protection of the rocky edge.

"A shell!" Harkness spoke with sharp intensity. "Give me a cartridge from your belt, quick!"

Chet handed him one. Harkness took one look, then pulled a cartridge from his own belt.

"That explains it," he was muttering as he worked, "—the big explosion when I smashed the rocks. You've got ammunition for your pistol, but you put rifle cartridges in my belt—and service ammunition at that. No wonder they raised the devil with those rocks!"

His fingers were working swiftly now to bind the slender cartridge to the spear. A chipped out hollow in the flint made a seat. He gave silent thanks for Chet Bullard's mistake. Chet had slipped; he had filled Harkness' belt with ammunition that would have been useless for the pistol—but it was just what he needed here.

So intent was he on his task that he hardly heard the yelling chorus from below. It swelled to a din; but his work was finished, and he looked up.

One figure in advance of the rest had been urging them on, and they came in a wild rush now. Walt Harkness scrambled to his feet. Tall and sinewy, his broad shoulders, scantily covered by the rags of blouse that remained, were turned sideways as he raised the spear. The yelling from below swelled louder and more shrill.

This strange one from another tribe—he was unarmed except for one of their own spears. The curious covering on his body was flapping in the breeze. Nothing here, surely, to hold a hunting-tribe in check.

The spear rose slowly in the air. What child of the tribe could not have thrown it better! They came on faster now; the leader had almost reached the place where the spear was dropping down. He must have laughed, if laughter had yet been born in such a breast, at the futile weapon dropping point first among the rocks.

One little shell, a scant three inches long, no thicker than the stylus on milady's desk! But here was service ammunition, as Harkness had said; and in the end of the lead a fulminate cap was buried—and a grain of dense, gray dust!

There was no flame—only a concussion that cracked upon one's ears, and flying rock fragments that filled the air with demoniac shrieks. And then that sound was lost in the shriller cries of terror and pain as the ape-men broke for the trees.

Harkness saw some of them who rose and fell again to rise no more, and one who dragged himself slowly from the blast that had struck him down. But his eyes came back to another spear in his hands, and his fingers were tearing at the sinew wrapping.

The spear bent in his hands; the wood was flexible and springy. It was Diane who offered the next suggestion. She, too, was working at another spear—what wonder if her breath came fast!—but her eyes were alight, and her mind was at work.

"Make a bow!" she exclaimed. "A bow and arrow, Walter! We are fighting primitive men, so we can't scorn primitive weapons." She stopped with a little exclamation of pain; the sharp tip of the flint had cut her hand.

Chet's spearhead was unloosed. He tried the spring of the shaft. "Bully girl, Diane!" he said, and fell to gouging out a notch with the sharp flint near the end of the shaft.

The sinew made a string. Three slender sticks lying about whose ends had been sharpened for use on the meat: they would do for arrows. Each arrow must be notched and headed with an explosive shell, and there were many of them.

Chet sprang to his feet at last. Forgotten was the fatigue that had numbed him. A wild figure, his clothes in rags, his short, curling hair no longer blond, his face a mottling of brown and black, where only here and there the white skin dared show through—he executed an intricate dance-step with a bed of lava for a floor, while he shouted:

"Bring on your fighters! Bring 'em on! Who's going to stop us now?"

They were free to go, but Harkness paused at a renewed screaming from the jungle. Again the hairy ones poured forth into the open glade. He had half raised his bow, with arrow ready, before he saw that this was no attack.

The screams merged discordantly with other sounds—a crashing of uprooted trees—a chorus of harsh coughing—snorting—unrecognizable noises. And the people were cowering in terror.

They half-ran toward the safety of their caves, but the throwers of thunder, the demons on the lava bed, were between them and their homes. They turned to face the jungle, and the wild sounds and crash of splintered wood that drew near.

Harkness saw the first head that appeared. He stared in open-mouthed amazement at the armored monster. Thick plates of shell covered its mammoth body and lapped part way over the head to end at beady, wicked, red eyes on either side of a single curved horn.

An instant the animal waited, to glare at the cowering human forms it had tracked to their lair; others crashed through beside it; and in that instant Harkness recognized the huddled group below as brothers. Far down they were, in the long, weary path that was evolution, and hardly come as yet to a consciousness of self—but there were those who leaped before the others, their long spears couched and ready; they were defending the weaker ones at their backs; they were men!

And Harkness was shouting as he raised his crude bow. "Shoot!" he ordered. "Kill the brutes!" His own arrow was speeding true.

The rush of mammoth beasts was on as he fired, but it was checked as quickly as it began. An inferno of explosions rose about the rushing bodies; crashing detonations struck two of them down, their heads torn and crushed. Between the helpless, primordial men and the charging beasts was a geyser of spouting earth and rocks, through which showed ugly heads and tremendous bodies that wheeled and crashed madly back into the jungle growth.

Harkness suddenly realized that only he and Chet had fired. Diane's bow was on the ground. He saw the girl beside it, sitting upright; but her body was trembling and weaving, and she was plainly maintaining her upright posture only by the greatest effort.

He was beside her in an instant. "What is it?" he demanded. "Are you hurt? What is it?"

She raised her hand that he might see; her lips, seemed almost too numb for speech.

"Only a scratch," she whispered, but Harkness saw her eyes glazing. He dropped to his knees and caught her swaying body in his arms.

"A scratch," she repeated in a fading voice, "from the spear.... Poison ... I think."

A head appeared over the lava crest. Harkness saw it vaguely. He knew that Chet had the newcomer covered; his bow was drawn. It meant nothing to him, for Diane was wounded—dying! Dying, now, in his arms....

The ape-man came on; he was grovelling upon the ground. He was hairless, like the one they had seen escape the attack of the giant bat, and his cheek was slashed with a healing cut that might have been made by a ripping talon. He abased himself before the awful might of these creatures who had saved them. And he made motions with his arms to picture how they had sailed down from the skies; had landed; and he had seen them. He was plainly petitioning for pardon and the favor of these gods—when he dropped his animal head to stare at the girl and the cut hand that Harkness held in his.

The blue discoloration of the wound must have been plain in its significance. The hairless one sprang abruptly to his feet and darted toward a cave. He was back in a moment; and, though be approached with wriggling humility, he reached the girl and he ventured to touch the discolored hand with a sticky paste. He had a gourd that he held to the girl's lips.

Harkness would have struck it away; he was beside himself with grief. But Chet interposed.

"Give it to her," he said in a sharp, strained voice that told of his own dismay. "I think the beggar knows what he's about. He is trying to help."

The lips were lax; only a little of the liquid found its way down her throat. But Harkness, after minutes of agony, saw the first flutter of lids that betokened returning life....

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