Monday, December 14, 2009
"Once in a Blue Moon" by Harl Vincent, part 3
This is the third installment of "Once in a Blue Moon", a Gernsback Era science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent. The story was first published in the Winter 1932 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly and reprinted in the 2001 anthology Rainbow Fantasia.
The story so far:
On June 6, 2019, the lunar mining ship Moon Rocket IV is half a mile south of Tycho Crater, mining the mineral lunium that makes interplanetary travel economical. The captain sees another ship, the Rocket VII, go down near Theophilus Crater, and orders auxiliary pilot Clark Peters to go to their rescue. The only men available to accompany Peters are Morton Saunders, an electrician in his fifties, and "Slim" Downey, a young stowaway. Taking the Rocket IV's tender, the Hornet, the three men are north of Tycho Crater when Peters mentions to Downey that they are searching for the Rocket VII. Downey becomes frantic and tries to sieze control of the Hornet, and the tender dives into a deep chasm, then loses power . . .
* * *
Mort Saunders blundered into the control room. “Huh!” he exploded. “Machinery’s dead. I swear I did everything, Pete; no one could --“
He broke off grunting as he collided with the wriggling, whimpering thing that was Slim Downey. Pete heard him swear softly in the hollow silence and Stygian gloom.
The emergency lights flashed on then, illuminating the control room with their dim soft glow. Their batteries, at least, had not failed them. And Pete switched on the forward searchlight, sending forth its dazzling beam into the blackness of the pit.
Slim Downey yelled then, coughing painfully. “No, Pete, not the lights! They’ll see us. Turn them off.”
“You shut up,” the pilot snapped. Pete had thought there was a moving mass down there in the depths.
“Oh, God! -- you’ve got to listen.” Downey was dragging himself to his knees; his teeth chattered uncontrollably.
Pete growled savagely, continuing his search of the depths. The Hornet was dropping with swift acceleration into a seemingly bottomless pit that was fully a half mile across. Utterly helpless she was, her atomic motors paralyzed by some strange force that surrounded them.
“In my opinion,” Saunders was saying, “the boy knows something. I’d do as he says, Pete.”
“I’ll say he knows something!” Pete had caught the gleam of a huge steel cylinder down there; Rocket VII, without a doubt. And the big rocket ship was dropping even faster than they. He pulled on the switch and once more darkness closed in about them.
He reached for Slim Downey, saw a violent corona discharge crackling as his fingers closed in on the trembling arm. The very air of the control room was electrified.
The youngster moaned as Pete’s grip dug into his yielding flesh. “Let up, Pete,” he whined. “I do know something.”
“Spit it out then!” Pete relaxed his grip somewhat.
“It’s a -- a big job of Aleck Carter’s. His men were here before on the first trip of Rocket VI. There’s a world inside here, Pete, and it’s peopled with ghastly little devils that Carter wants to hook up with. Keep the lights off, for God’s sake. We may get away.”
“A hidden world!” Pete gasped. “How do you know?”
“Never mind. I know, all right --“ Slim blubbered as Pete’s fingers dug deeper. “Carter put me on Rocket IV,” he moaned then. “I won’t do his dirty work, though -- damned if I will. You’re the boss, Pete. I’ll do anything you say, see if I don’t.”
“I’ll see that you do,” Pete grated, shoving the lad away in disgust. So Aleck Carter was mixed up in this thing! His minions had found their way even here and were planning some new deviltry that would involve humanity still deeper in his toils. Carter, with his billions in wealth, would buy an entire civilization, good or bad, to serve his own ends.
“Huh!” Saunders blurted out of the darkness. “A likely story. You and I, Pete, will get at the truth of it when we --“
“When we crash? You’re optimistic, Mort.”
“There won’t be any crash,” Slim broke in eagerly. “This force of the pit will --“
And then, as if to belie his words, the Hornet struck heavily on the starboard side amidships. She rolled over and pitched the three men in a scrambling heap, then slid nose down along a gentle declivity, bouncing and careening over the rough surface. There was a ripping screech below as her landing gear was torn loose and she pitched over on her nose, coming to rest at an angle of about forty-five degrees.
“Well, I don’t know now,” Pere drawled. “This seems almost like a crash to me.”
His cheek was pressed to the icy glass of one of the floor ports and the wriggling weight of Mort Saunders lay across his shoulders. But there was no hiss of escaping air; the lunium hull of the staunch vessel was unpunctured.
* * *
Rosy light streamed in through the ports and they saw they were in an enormous cavern where Rocket VII stood solidly on her base, nose skyward and unharmed. The Hornet lay on a slope several hundred yards away, partly submerged in the powdery surface and hidden from the lower portion of the great rocket ship.
Mort Saunders pointed to the instrument panel. “We’re ten miles below the surface, Pete,” he exclaimed. “And, in my humble opinion, the pit has an atmosphere of some sort. Look at the manometer.”
The outside pressure was indicated at about seventeen inches of mercury, not much lower than that on the mountain tops of Terra. If this was air in the pit, they would be able to venture outside without their bulky Metz suits and oxygen helmets. The temperature was much higher than on the surface, showing as 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pete whistled. “This will be something to write home about,” he remarked. “What next, I wonder?”
“You -- you’re not leaving the Hornet?” Slim Downey asked.
“Nothing else but,” he said cheerfully, “and you’re coming with us, my boy. Here, Mort, we’ll have to use the lead boots.”
He had started toward the airlock where the heavy equipment needed in the moon’s low gravity was stowed, when there came the gentle rising purr of the atomic motors. The paralyzing effect of the pit had been released or “turned off.” Quickly Pete threw the starting lever forward and the purring died off into silence.
“You could leave at once --“ Slim Downey began.
“Not on your life! We’ll see this thing through, now we’re here. Step lively, boy.”
“You’re the boss,” the lad replied meekly. But his eyes did not meet those of the big man who stood menacingly over him.
With the lead-soled boots strapped to their feet, they dragged themselves out from the artificial earth-gravity of the Hornet’s interior, dropping one at a time to the thick dust of the lunar cavern floor. A sound of clanking machinery and the shouting of many voices came from beyond the knoll where the rocket ship reared its great bulk.
A curious sense of light-headedness came to Clark Peters with the breathing in of the thin, sharp air. His vision was distorted in the wavering roseate light. Young Downey had slipped to his knees and was wriggling his way to the top of the knoll.
“Stay where you are,” Pete called out cautiously. “And no signals to your friends, either.” Suddenly it had come to him that there was more to the Yellow Kid than he had thought.
The young fellow halted, crouching, and grinned over his shoulder. “You’re the boss, Pete,” he replied. But there was a new courage in his slightly superior smile, the courage of desperation and of a dark knowledge that was his.
Pete fingered the cold tube of the bullet projector he carried. He had taken care that only Mort and himself were thus armed, and with more than a hundred rounds of the ultranite ammunition in the possession of each, he was confident of their ability to cope with almost any situation. But he was darkly suspicious of young Downey.
Scrambling to the side of the strangely metamorphosed youngster, he raised his head to peer out over the vast floor of the cavern. Mort Saunders, with much puffing and grunting, drew himself alongside.
A scene of intense activity centered about the five massive pillars of Rocket VII’s base. Queer, stunted creatures, thousands of them it appeared, were clustering there before a massive mechanism that was being lowered from the crane arm of the rocket ship. Impossible pigmy beings that stood erect on two legs, bodies covered with iridescent scales, long arms dangling. Globular, hairless heads of chalky white, with bulging eyes and cavernous, scarlet mouths. And twenty or thirty Terrestrials in this midst, fraternizing with the ugly monstrosities!
“A rummy lot, in my opinion. Huh!” There was utter loathing in Mort Saunders’ much-used exclamation. That “huh” of his was capable of expressing his every mood and reaction.
Pete’s blood froze in his veins at the sound of a demonical shriek that rose unexpectedly from the lips of Slim Downey. He clapped an enormous paw over the crazy youngster’s mouth and shook him violently.
“Idiot!” he hissed. “You’ll have them on us like a pack of wolves.”
Things happened at once when Slim’s yell rang out in the huge open space at the pit bottom. There was a bedlam of shouting over by the rocket ship, unintelligible, gulping screeches of the moon-men and hoarse curses in vivid English. A muffled explosion sounded from behind the great vessel and a swirling cloud of faintly luminous green vapor rose swiftly, forming itself into an immense shimmering bubble that closed down over the scene. Rocket VII and the polyglot pack at its base were completely enclosed.
And Slim Downey developed muscles of steel and the agility of a cat. Like a coiled spring suddenly released, he popped out from beneath Pete’s swiftly flung bulk, leaving the amazed pilot to sprawl in the thick dust. And then he was sprinting toward the shining green bubble.
“Damned little rat!” Saunders snarled. “That’s enough for you.” He raised his bullet projector and fired from the hip.
“Mort, don’t!” Pete struck upward at the slender weapon, his arm deflecting the tube just as the propelling ray spat forth.
The explosive bullet went wide of its mark and an appalling crash echoed in the pit as its energy was expended harmlessly on the rubbery surface of the green vapor dome. The mighty force of the ultranite charge would have shattered a monolith, yet the gleaming bubble merely shivered under the impact, changing its smooth contour not at all.
Slim Downey tossed back a tantalizing laugh.
And now three globular objects burst out from the hemisphere of green; solid metallic shapes, apparently about four feet in diameter, drifting unsupported through the rare air of the lunar pit, coming swiftly in the direction of the knoll and floating waist high above the cavern floor. Still laughing crazily, young Downey flung himself on the nearest of the spheres and was immediately absorbed into the body of the uncanny thing. Just melted into its embrace and was swallowed up bodily as if the thing were a ball of jelly.
It might have been the disappearing act of a vaudeville magician. The weird globe changed not one whit in size or appearance, but halted its progress and hovered there in midair as if awaiting its fellows, which continued in their deliberate movement toward the remaining two Terrestrials.
Mort Saunders went berserk, firing rapidly from his bullet projector. Ear-shattering reverberations echoed in the cavern as ultranite charges exploded in swift succession against the spheres. But the drifting globes only came on the faster, their surfaces unmarred and undeterred in their ghastly purpose.
“Run for it, Mort!” Pete shouted, wheeling about to suit his own action to the words. “Quit shooting; they’re too close.”
He groaned as Saunders staggered and fell. One of the spheres was upon the older man in an instant. With a sucking, whistling sound the sturdy body was merged with its mysterious substance. Gone; vanished, Mort had, as Slim had vanished. Like water absorbed by a sponge.
Unreasoning fear had Pete in its grip. It was as if his feet were rooted to the spot. A nightmare! His voice, when he essayed a yell of unalloyed terror, died chokingly in his parched throat. Then the clammy metal of the third sphere enwrapped him.
The rosy light of the cavern was dimmed. Flame-shot blackness was in Pete’s vision. Frigid, unyielding metal congealed about him. Icy fingers of steel twisted in his vitals and he knew no more.