Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Once in a Blue Moon" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second 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.

* * *

Moon Rocket IV was the first of her kind to be equipped with a lunium-hulled tender. It was the only form of light craft which could navigate over the moon’s surface. Airplanes and helicopter planes were useless on account of the absence of an atmosphere. But the slender, torpedo-bodied blue ship, provided by the owners of Rocket IV, could rise swiftly above the tallest lunar spire when her lunium plates were negatively energized and made speedy progress forward under the tremendous blasts from her single swiveled rocket-tube astern.

Clark Peters had conceived a deep affection for the little vessel and had christened her the Hornet when first he heard the spiteful, high-pitched hum of her frequency converters. The name had stuck.

Pete faced Morton Saunders in the airlock that berthed the Hornet. Saunders was a character and not at all as useless as the captain had indicated. Probably fifty or fifty-five years of age, he was totally bald, but his square face was set off with remarkable bristling brows and mustache of unbelievably deep red hue. A conceited ass in the eyes of the miners, but he’d been places and seen things in his day. And he was a crackerjack electrician.

“Mort,” Pete was saying, “Cap is sending us out after a ship that only now came in from home. Rocket VII. She went overhead like a streak and was lost in the direction of Theophilus.”

“Huh,” Saunders exclaimed with a grimace. “Another crackup?”

“Don’t know as I’d go so far as to say that,” Pete answered slowly. “Maybe yes, maybe no. She’s a queer bird, Mort; turned us down when we hailed her. And the optophone man didn’t show his face.”

“Huh! Nice, friendly folks, I’d say. We’ll have to put ‘em in their place. You and I, Pete –“

“You sent for me, Mr. Peters?” a respectful voice broke in from the inner door of the lock.

“Slim” Downey, a light-haired lad in his early twenties, stood their uncertainly, and Pete eyed him contemptuously. One didn’t address any man as “mister” on board the Rocket IV -- excepting the captain. Downey was a stowaway and there was considerable mystery as to the history of his immediate past. General opinion in the miners’ mess had it that he was a fugitive from justice. “Yellow Kid,” they called him. Certain it was that he acted jumpy, scared of everything and everybody. But at times there would come into his mild blue eyes a gleam of intense feeling that belied his meek demeanor.

“I did,” Pete snapped. “Bolt home the inner door, kid.”

“We -- we’re going out in the Hornet, Mr. Peters?” the lad faltered, paling swiftly.

“Right. What’s wrong with you -- no guts? And listen, I’m not Mister Peters either -- get that?” Pete glowered, baiting the lad.

Downey flushed as swiftly as he had paled and a fierce glitter shot out from beneath his quickly narrowed brows. “I get you -- Pete,” he said in edgy tones. And then he turned jerkily to the bolts of the door clamps.

Pete hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and grinned at Saunders. “May make a man of him, Mort – this expedition,” he whispered.

“Huh!” Saunders sniffed disdainfully and tugged at his fiery mustache. “In my humble opinion, the boy is a --"

But Downey had finished his task and now whirled to face the two older men. “I’m with you,” he said unexpectedly. “Let’s go.”

Pete stared in amazement. The flush still mantled the youngster’s smooth cheeks and his chin was raised. But the cold fire was dying out of the pale blue eyes. They were mild once more and dropped before the fixity of Pete’s regard.

“All right, kid, we go,” Pete growled. “And make it snappy.” His gaze, puzzled now, did not leave the slim figure as the Yellow Kid scrambled through the entrance port of the Hornet.

With the Hornet’s atomic motors running at full speed, the turning gear that projected from her nose made quick work of unscrewing the circular outer port of the airlock. There was the swift hiss of escaping air as the hinged door swung outward, the shrill note of the frequency-converters within, and the little vessel raised lightly from her cradle. Pete pressed the rocket-tube control and, with the staccato barking of the blasts astern, they shot out into the frigidity and semi-darkness of the long lunar night.

Slim Downey crouched by one of the floor ports of the control room as Pete drove the Hornet out over the huge crater of Tycho at top speed. He was utterly appalled by the altitude and by the swift rush into the desolate wastes of the cold satellite, Pete thought. Mort Saunders was in the motor compartment, starting their oxygen apparatus.

They lunged out over the towering serrated rim at the far edge of the crater and drove along above the mile-wide streak of cobalt blue -- that was a lode of pure lunium -- the great moon ray that extended the entire distance from Tycho to Theophilus. What enormous wealth would be his who might convey but a small fraction of that vast deposit to Earth!

Pete searched the horizon with the telescope, but could make out nothing to indicate where the Rocket VII had landed, if indeed it had landed. In the mellow earth-light the moon’s rugged contours stood out against the diamond-studded ebony of the firmament in sharp relief, barren and forbidding, yet softened somehow by the thick dust of ages that lay like a vast blanket over all.

Pockmarked and scarred, lonely and mysterious as a graveyard, cooled to a temperature one hundred degrees below zero during the long night of more than fourteen earth-days, and heated to near the boiling point during the equally long lunar day, there were still optimists of Terra who made bold to predict that the godforsaken satellite would one day become a vast hive of industry and be peopled by hundreds of thousands of Earth’s workers. Clark Peters was not one who believed them. A prospecting trip was one thing, with every hope of a quick return to civilization; permanent residence was quite another matter.

A grotesque dark blot spread along the rim of a small crater ahead of them, then was lost astern as they sped past directly overhead, all that was left of Moon Rocket III! Pete saw that young Downey had risen from his crouching position at the floor port and was eyeing him intently. The lad was chalky white and his lips trembled.

“Tha-that was a wreck, wasn’t it?” he babbled.

“Well, I don’t know, now,” Pete drawled. “Seems to me it’s better called a tomb. Used to be Rocket III, that mess, and there are some ninety-odd corpses spread around down there.”

“Good Lord!” Downey fell gloomily silent for a moment, then turned on the pilot in a sudden panic. “Where are we headed?” he demanded.

Pete grinned. “Who knows?” he replied with aggravating calm. “Perhaps for another such tomb. At any rate, we’re hunting another ship -- Rocket VII. She came over from home ten minutes before we set out.”

Downey yelled in what seemed like utter demoralization. “No, no!” he screeched. “Not that, man! You don’t know --" And then he wound his slender fingers around Pete’s wrist, fingers that gripped like steel.

Astonished, the pilot loosed the controls and tore his arm free.

“What the devil!” he roared. “You yellow cur --"

And then Clark Peters found he had a young wildcat on his hands.

“You can’t!” Downey was jabbering. “Not Rocket VII. You can’t -- I won’t let you.”

A sharp-knuckled fist caught Peters behind the ear with painful force. The frantic youth squirmed in under Pete’s arms before the amazed pilot was able to stop him. The lad was tugging at the controls, snarling like an animal at bay, staring wild-eyed. There was but one thing to do and Pete did it.

Lashing out with a huge fist, he doubled the boy up with a swift blow to the solar plexus. Not his usual hard-driven punch, but enough. The Yellow Kid slumped to the floor plates, moaning and gasping.

Careering violently, the Hornet headed madly toward the surface. Pete dove for the controls and endeavored to right her. But in that instant they swooped down into the deep chasm of a rill. Pete caught a momentary glimpse of this vast gulf that was swallowing them up, a yawning abyss into whose depths the Hornet plunged. Murky blackness enveloped them.

And the motors stopped with a despairing, trailing whine.

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