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 VI: Trapped
Walter Harkness, piloting his ship to a slow, safe landing on a new world, had watched his instruments with care. He had seen the outer pressure build up to that of the air of Earth; the spectro-analyzer had shown nitrogen preponderating, with sufficient oxygen to support life. And, below him, a monstrous thing that flopped hurriedly away on leather wings had told him that life was there.
But what would that life be? This was the question uppermost in the minds of all three as they stepped forth—the first of Earth's people to ask the question and to find the answer.
Chet had gone to their stores. He strapped a belt about his waist, a belt banded with a row of detonite cartridges, and a pistol hung at his hip. He handed another to Harkness. But the pistol he offered Diane was refused.
"My many accomplishments," she laughed, "do not include that. I never could shoot—and besides I will not need to with both of you here." Her hand was resting confidently upon Chet's arm as they followed where Harkness led.
The heavy grass, standing waist-high in the little valley where their ship was at rest, stirred to ripples of vivid green as a light breeze touched it. Above, the sun shone warm upon this world of tropical growth. Harkness, listening in the utter silence for sounds that might mean danger, let his eyes follow up the rugged wall of rock that hemmed them in on two sides. It gleamed with metallic hues in the midday glare. He looked on to the sun above.
"A dark moon!" he said wonderingly. "Dark!—and yet it is blazing bright. Why can't we see it from Earth? Why is it dark?... I've an idea that the gas we came through is the answer. There is metal, we know, that conducts an electric current in only one direction: why not a gas that will do the same with light?"
The pilot was listening, but Diane seemed uninterested in scientific speculations. "The trees!" she breathed in rapture; "the marvelous, beautiful trees!"
She was gazing toward distant towering growths where the valley widened. Like no trees of Earth, these monsters towered high in air, their black trunks branching to end in tendrils that raised high above them. And the tendrils were a waving, ever-moving sea of color, where rainbow iridescence was stabbed through with the flash of crimson buds. A down-draft of air brought a heady, intoxicating odor.
And still there was silence. To Walter Harkness, standing motionless and alert amidst the waving grass, it seemed a hush of waiting. A prickle of apprehension passed over his skin. He glanced about, his pistol ready in his hand, looked back for a moment at the ship, then smiled inwardly in self-derision of his fear as he strode forward.
"Let's have a look at things," he said with a heartiness not entirely sincere. "We'll discover nothing standing here."
But the silence weighed upon them all as they pressed on. No exclamations of amazement from them now, no speculations of what might lie ahead. Only wide-eyed alertness and a constant listening, listening—until the silence was broken by a scream.
A man it seemed at first, when Harkness saw the figure leap outward from the cliff. A second one followed. They landed on all fours upon a rock that jutted outward toward the trees.
The impact would have killed a human, but these creatures stood upright to face the concealment from which they had sprung. One was covered with matted, brown hair. Its arms were long, and its fists pounded upon a barrel-like chest, while it growled hoarsely. The other ape-thing, naked and hairless, did the same. They were both uttering those sounds, that at times seemed almost like grunted words, when the end came.
A swishing of leather wings!—a swooping, darting rush of a huge body!—and one of the ape-men, as Harkness had mentally termed them, was struggling in the clutch of talons that gripped him fast.
The giant bat-shape that had seized him reached for the other, too. A talon ripped at the naked face, but the ape-man dodged and vanished among the rocks.
With pounding wings, the bat swept off in lumbering flight, but with its burden it seemed heavy, and failed to rise. The trees were close, and their waving tentacles drew back, then shot out to splash about the intruder. The talons released their hold, and the huge leather wings flapped frantically; but too late. Both captor and captive were wrapped in an embrace of iridescent arms and held struggling in mid-air, while the unmoving watchers below stood in horror before this drama of life and death.
Then a red bud opened. It was enormous, and its flowery beauty made more revolting the spectacle of the living food that was thrust within its maw.
The bud closed. Its petals were like lips.... And Diane, in white-faced horror, was clinging to the protecting arm of Chet Bullard beside her. Chet, too, had paled beneath his tan. But Walter Harkness, though white of face, was staring not at the crimson bud, shut tightly about its living food, but upward toward the broken, rocky face of the cliff.
The flying thing, the unnamed horror of the air, had come silently from on high. None of them had seen it until it struck, and he was sure that the ape-men had been taken unaware. Then what had frightened them? What other horror had driven them in screaming terror to that fearful spring out into the open where they must have known danger awaited?
Did a rock move? he wondered. Was the splotch of color—that mottling of crimson and copper and gray—a part of the metallic mass? He rubbed his smarting eyes—and when he looked again the color was gone. But he had a conviction that eyes, sinister and deadly, had been staring into his, that a living mass had withdrawn softly into a shadowed cave, and that the menace that had threatened the ape-men was directed now toward them.
Was this the reason for the silence? Was this valley, so peaceful in its sunlit stillness, a place of death, from which all living things kept clear? Had the ape-men been drawn there through curiosity at seeing their ship float down?
And the quiet beauty of the valley—it might be as horrible a mockery as the blazing splendor of those things ahead—those beautiful and horrible eaters of flesh! His voice was unsteady as he turned toward the others.
"Let's call this off," he said: "there is something up there. We'll go back to the ship and get up in the air again. We'll find a healthier place to land."
Like Harkness, Chet Bullard held his pistol ready in his hand. "Something else?" he inquired. "You saw something?" And Harkness nodded grimly.
They retraced their steps. A half-mile, perhaps. It had seemed long as they ventured forth, and was no shorter now. And the gleaming, silvery shape of the ship was entirely lovely to their eyes as they approached.
Harkness circled the blunt bow with its open exhaust high above his head. On the far side was the port where they had emerged; its open door would be welcome in its promise of safe seclusion. His sigh of relief was echoed by the two who followed, for the horror and apprehension had been felt by all. But the breath choked abruptly in his throat.
Before them was the door, its thick metal wide-swung as they had left it. But the doorway itself, where warm darkness should have invited, was entirely sealed by a web of translucent stuff.
Harkness approached to look more closely. The substance was glistening and smooth—yellowish—almost transparent. It was made up of a tangle of woven cords which clung tightly to the metal sides. Harkness reached out in suddenfury to grip it and tear it loose. He grasped the slippery stuff, stumbled—and hung suspended by a tenacious hold that gripped his hand where it had touched, and would not let go.
His arm swung against it, and his shoulder. They were instantly immovable. And he knew in a single terrifying instant his utter helplessness. He saw Chet Bullard's hands come up, and he found his voice in time to scream a harsh warning to him.
"Tear me loose!" he commanded, "but don't touch the damned stuff!" It took the combined strength of the pilot and the girl to free him, and Harkness had to set his teeth to restrain an exclamation of pain as his hand came slowly from the web that clung and clung and would not let go.
From his place upon the ground he saw Chet raise a broken piece of rock. It was like metal, and heavy, as the pilot's efforts proved, though it was surprisingly small in size. He saw Chet raise it above his head and crash it upon the thick web that filled the door. And, as his own aching arm had been held, the rock was seized in the tough strands, which gave back only slightly under the blow.
Harkness scrambled to his feet. The fury that had possessed him made the hurt of his arm unfelt. What devil's work was this that barred them from the safety of the ship? The memory of that other menace, half-seen among the rocks, was strong upon him.
"Stand back!" he shouted to Chet and the girl, and he raised his pistol to send a charge of detonite into the unyielding mass. Here was power to tear the clinging-stuff to atoms.
He felt Chet's body plunge upon him an instant before he fired, and his pistol was knocked up and flew outward from his hand. He heard the pilot's voice.
"Walt!" Chet was saying. "For God's sake come out of it! Are you crazy? You might have wrecked that door-port so we never could have fixed it; or the bullet could have gone on through to explode inside the ship. Either way we would never get back: no leaky hull would ever let us make the trip home!"
Chet was right: Harkness knew it in a moment. He knew the folly of what he would have done, yet knew, too, that desperate measures were needed and needed quickly. The eyes of a devil had held his own from the darkness of the rocks, and the same rock wall came close to where they stood. He was in command; it was up to him—
The moment of indecision ended as a mass of viscous fluid splashed heavily against the ship. Harkness whirled about to face the rocks. He was calm now and controlled, but under his quiet courage was a fear that gripped him. A fear of what he should find! But the reality was so far beyond any imagined terror as to leave him cold.
Above them and thirty feet away on a rocky ledge was a thing of horror. Basilisk eyes in a hairy head; gray, stringy hairs; and the fearful head ended in narrow, outthrust jaws, where more of the gray hairs hung like moss from lips that writhed and curled and sucked at the air with a whistling shrillness. Those jaws could crush a man to pulp. And the head seemed huge until the body behind it came into view.
The suddenness with which the great body rose showed the strength of the beast. A prodigious sack, like black leather, with markings of crimson and copper!—and the straggling, ropy hairs on it were greenish-gray like the lustre of the rocks at its back.
It stood upright on great hairy legs. The eyes shot forward on protruding antennae. The sack-like body flexed to bring the rear part under and forward. It was aiming at them.
Harkness seized the slim figure of the girl who stood, mute with horror, beside him. He threw her roughly to the ground, for the meaning of the viscous splash was plain.
"Down!" he shouted to Chet. "Down on the ground!" And he felt the swish of another liquid mass above his head as he obeyed his own command.
He felt for his pistol, then remembered it was gone—lost when Chet sprang upon him. But Chet had his.
"Shoot!" he ordered. "Shoot the damned thing, Chet! Kill the spider!"
Spider! He had named it unconsciously. But the name was inadequate, for here was a thing of horror beyond even a spider of prodigious size. This peaceful valley!—and here was its ruler, frightful, incredibly loathsome!
He waited for the sound of a shot. A cursing, instead, was the only reply: Chet was not firing! Harkness whirled to see the pilot pinned by one arm to the web.
The fluid had caught him; he had not dropped quickly enough. And his right hand that had been raised, and the pistol it held, were clamped fast to the awful stuff.
There was no word of appeal, no call for help, yet Chet Bullard must have known what this meant. But neither did Harkness wait for that word. One spring, and he had the pilot by the waist, and he felt the weight of the girl's slim body added to his as her arms went about him to help. Chet's face went chalk-white as the hand tore loose. The pistol remained buried in the clinging stuff.
From the corner of his eye, Harkness saw the monster crouched to spring. He was half dragging the other two as he stooped and ran for the bow of the ship. The monstrous body thudded against the metal hull behind them.
The leap was prodigious. He saw the sack-like body fall inert, the great, hairy legs shaking. For the moment, the attacker was helpless: but the respite was brief, as the glaring eyes plainly told.
Below the ledge where the beast had been was an opening in the rocks—a bit of black shadow that was darker than the lustrous metal of the cliff. There was a chance—
"I can make it," Chet was saying, as Harkness dragged him on; "help Diane!" But the girl had sprung before them to gain a foothold and extend a helping hand. And they were back in the darkness of a rocky cave before the sunlit entrance was blocked by a hairy head and a horrible, slavering mouth on a body too huge to enter.
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Various. 2009. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, May1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30532/30532-h/30532-h.htm#Page_148
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