Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Once in a Blue Moon" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth 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. The Hornet comes to rest on the floor of a vast cavern ten miles below the lunar surface, near where the Rocket VII has landed. Downey admits that he was placed on board the Rocket IV by billionaire Aleck Carter, who has discovered an underground lunar civilization. While investigating, the three men are captured by a featureless green sphere . . .

* * *

Consciousness returned swiftly and painlessly. Clark Peters sat up on the hard floor he found under him and took in his surroundings with unbelieving eyes. He was in a great circular hall of many tall columns and with a high arched ceiling that glowed with the rosy light they had seen in the pit bottom. The air was fresh and warm. Mort Saunders lay close by, still unconscious, but breathing normally and with good color in his cheeks.

A quick search appraised Pete of the fact that they were without their weapons.

“You companion will recover shortly,” a voice sounded in his ears. No, it was not a voice; a mental impression more accurately. There had been no sound in the chamber.

Looking swiftly around him, Pete saw one of the spheres like those which had captured them. Certainly they were made of gleaming blue-white metal, yet they were possessed of miraculous powers of locomotion and of other qualities that made it certain they were not ordinary mechanisms of human manufacture. These things had brains. This one was resting on a tripod made of a multicolored translucent material like stained glass.

“I suppose that’s what talked to me,” Pete muttered foolishly.

“You have guessed the truth, Earth-man,” came the quick mental response. “And you may speak freely that which is in your mind. Or speak not at all, if you choose. We may communicate regardless. And the Great Ones of Luna have commanded me to enlighten you.”

Pete hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and regarded the metal globe curiously. After this experience, nothing he might see within this mad satellite or on its surface would surprise him.

“There are still more surprising things,” the mental reply flashed back. The eerie globe needed only his thoughts, not his speech.

And thought-images flickered across Pete’s mind in swift succession, after the fashion of a panoramic motion picture. Rather they flashed as shimmering light-images on the surface of the mysterious sphere. He saw that Mort Saunders had drawn himself erect and was staring goggle-eyed, plucking nervously at the bristles of his red mustache. Mort was seeing the same things, getting the same reactions as was Pete.

Under the sphere’s strange telepathic influence, the hall of the many columns faded away in blue mists and was gone. It seemed they were drifting freely in space then, Pete and Mort and the shimmering globe, hovering in the enormity of a cosmos where three other objects, three suns of indigo hue, bathed them in eerie light that altered all things in their perceptions.

They were deep in the moon’s interior, their minds were informed, hundreds of miles below the surface. Earth’s satellite was hollow! And the three suns lighting the blue realm were huge masses of lunium, charged with the sub-electronic forces and mind-energies of ancient Luna, possessed of powers far greater than those of the insignificant Lesser One which had been detailed as the mentor and guard of the Earth-men. The Terrestrials were in the presence of the Great Ones of a blue moon, in a realm unknown to the science of Earth.

Many puzzling things were made clear to Pete and Mort. The old uncertainty of astronomers as to why the moon always presented the same side to the mother planet was explained away. The hollowed-out heart of Luna, a cavity some twelve hundred miles in diameter, is concentric with the outer surface. But the Great Ones, enormous gravity masses in the Earth-moon system, hovered constantly near the huge lunium deposits in the inner wall that was nearest the mother planet. Luna’s center of gravity being thus offset a considerable distance from its mathematical center, Earth’s powerful attraction acted more strongly on the heavy side, keeping the same face of the satellite always in view. As a round-bottom, weight-loaded toy stands erect, so the moon maintained its position with respect to earth.

Millions of years older than Earth’s civilization, the original inhabitants of Luna had taken to their inner region when the atmosphere outside thinned out and had escaped. Evolution through subsequent ages made of them the complex, atomic structure now represented by the spheres which seemed to the Terrestrials only like globes of polished metal. These metal balls, the true Lunarians, were capable of existence without an atmosphere and without food. But there were the pigmy folk, cave-dwellers primarily and much lower in the evolutionary scale, and the Great Ones had decreed that these be cared for until the end of time. The Lesser Ones were their guardians and protectors.

And then had come the minions of Aleck Carter, stumbling accidentally into the great shaft which connected with the inner regions. The omniscient Great Ones envisioned their coming and sent the sub-electronic energies into the pit to break their fall. And there at the bottom of the pit, the pigmy folk had made friends with the first Terrestrials they had ever seen.

But the Great Ones and the Lesser Ones were suspicious of these visitors who had come to trade the bounty of the mother planet for their own vast deposits of lunium.

“Trade!” Pete blurted out the unnecessary words. “What can Aleck Carter offer in trade? How can he hope to acquire a monopoly of the metal which is so plentiful on the moon’s surface?”

If a smooth metallic sphere can shrug its shoulders, this Lesser One did that very thing -- mentally.

“You shall judge for yourselves,” its unspoken message came. “We go to the abode of the pigmies.”

* * *

Again there was the confusing sense of change. The blue mists came and advanced before them in tiny weaving wisps, then coalescing into shapes that were gigantic yet familiar in form. An endless vista of blue columns appeared before them, and they set foot on solid ground again. The Lesser One drifted before them as they walked.

“Are we awake, Mort?” Pete whispered.

“In my humble opinion we’re not,” Saunders returned. “Or else we are both quite hopelessly dotty. This business with the big ones and the little ones is too much --“

“No, Mort, look! There’s Aleck Carter himself.”

The avenue of the blue pillars had opened out into a great amphitheatre where hundreds of the pigmy folk were gathered about the machine which had been taken from Rocket VII. And in their midst was Carter, the man who was possessed of more ill-gotten wealth and vicious commercial influence than any man in the history of Earth -- bossing a gang of Terrestrials, riggers and mechanics, as if he were an ordinary foreman!

It all came to Pete then in a flash of understanding. Carter was reaching out for new worlds to conquer. If he could manipulate matters so as to obtain exclusive control of the supply of lunium, he alone of all humans would be able to traffic with the Martians and Venerians and with whatever races there might be found on other planets of the solar system. But to have risked the rocket trip itself; it was incredible.

“Huh!” Saunders grunted. “The old boy has let himself in for something this time. Look at him; his chest is puffing up like a pouter pigeon’s. And he’s yelling himself hoarse.”

“This Terrestrial plans to move Luna to Earth and has promised the pigmy folk everything which is available there,” came the mental advice of their attending sphere. “Everything, comfortable homes, fresh air in abundance for their weakened lungs, food for their primitive stomachs.”

“What!” Pete shouted. “He’s crazy. It can’t be done; the tides of Earth would submerge the land. There would be --“

“Only too well are these things known to the Great Ones.” There was dignity and patience in the unspoken voice of the Lesser One. “A vast cataclysm would result were this Terrestrial to succeed in his mad purpose. His own scientists should be able to tell him these things.”

“Certainly, certainly,” Saunders sputtered. “I myself, with my -- huh -- extensive knowledge of electricity and other natural forces might enlighten him. If he would listen.”

“Electricity?” The mental reaction of the sphere was questioning. “That is the force the Terrestrial is using. It is unfamiliar to us and we would know of its nature.”

Mort Saunders floundered hopelessly in the effort to explain. But it was apparent that the Lesser One gathered from his chaotic thoughts that which his rebellious tongue was unable to put into words.

“An elementary form of energy we have not developed,” the sphere commented wordlessly. “Our own sub-electronic energy is greatly superior. But there are possibilities in this force, and we would guard against the evil that might arise from these possibilities.”

“Then why not step in a put a stop to the thing?” the query rose to Pete’s lips. “Surely the Great Ones are powerful enough.”

“Yes,” the Lesser One assented. “But you forget, Earth-man. The pigmies have their own minds in the matter. It is not permitted that we interfere with them or assist them unless they call upon us for help.”

“It might be too late when they do,” Pete growled. He had no idea as to what deviltry Carter was planning, but he knew from past performance that it boded no good to the strange inhabitants of Luna -- nor to his own world.

“That is true, Earth-man, and is the reason we have brought you here with your friend. The Great Ones approve of you and bid me work to the end that you might be enlisted in their service.”

“You -- you mean to try and forestall Carter’s plans?” Pete asked incredulously.

“That is the plea of the Great Ones.”

Plea! These incomprehensible brain machines and energy sources of the blue realm were capable of forcing their will on Earth, man and pigmy alike. They had superhuman power over ordinary matter and were disseminators of unknown forces that could be as destructive as ten thunderbolts in one, yet they chose to plead with him and Mort. Pete could not bring himself to believe his senses.

“Huh!” Mort Saunders exclaimed. “We can do it, Pete. We’ll show Carter and his gang. We’ll --“

“Don’t know as I’d go so far as to say that,” Pete drawled. “You have an exalted opinion of yourself, Mort, and of me. But we can try.”

Some unexplainable force radiated by the expectant Lesser One was permeating his being, buoying him up. Fantastic as were his surroundings, mysterious as were the activities of the Lunarians and of Carter, his old Earth spirits and courage were returning. In Aleck Carter and his gang of hirelings there was a tangible inimical force; these could be fought with their own guile and weapons. And in the Great Ones and the Lesser Ones there were powerful friends.

“We can try,” Pete repeated softly. And the light of battle was in his eyes.

Mort Saunders grinned and tweaked his mustache apologetically.

A bright glow illuminated the surface of the Lesser One. In its approving telepathic reply there was exultation. And, quite as if the sphere had reached out with invisible arms to hand them over, their bullet projectors were restored to their hands. The Terrestrials gaped in amazement.

But the feel of the cold tube was comforting in Pete’s hands. He fingered the weapon lovingly.

“You will likewise learn of the Dark Ones of Luna,” came from the sphere. And there was sinister meaning in the telepathic flash.

Pete thought instantly of Slim Downey.

“No,” came from the Lesser One. “The Dark Ones are of our own realm. The Terrestrial youth was returned to his fellows. His thoughts were not wholly good, although at first the Great Ones were inclined to approve of him. And so he was sent to rejoin his former associates.”

With that information imparted, their attending sphere melted into the blue shadows of the great pillars and was gone. Pete and Mort stood there alone, gazing each into the puzzled eyes of the other.

* * *

“Illusions?” Mort whispered hesitantly.

“No, siree. Brain cases, these spheres, and real; impregnable housings of the most remarkable intellects in the universe. Superhuman minds with godlike emotions, and endowed with supernatural powers. All-seeing, all-knowing, all . . . oh, dammit, I’m talking like a preacher. You know what I mean.”

“Yes.” Mort Saunders turned toward the amphitheatre as in a daze. “But there’s nothing supernatural about them,” he argued. “It’s only that they know of forces we can’t comprehend. They --“

A whirling sound rose up from Carter’s mechanism and they saw the pigmy folk scatter and draw away from the devil-machine of the Earth-men. Mort and Pete ran swiftly down the sloping floor into the arena.

Unnoticed by Carter and his crew, and unmolested by the excited pigmy folk, they wormed their way through the press and drew near to the scene of action. And then they saw that the floor was of transparent crystal. Beneath them yawned the great cavity of the blue realm, infinitely vast and mysterious. The enormous globes that were the Great Ones hovered over there in all their majesty and silent watchfulness like heavenly bodies in a cosmos within this strange world of ancient Luna. Living, thinking mechanisms of slumbering potentialities.

Carter’s machine rested on skids that partly bridged the crystal floor. It was a ponderous thing and incorporated a mighty atomic power planet and two huge beam transmitters. There were frequency converters as well, like those of the Hornet, but vastly larger than hers.

“Lord!” Pete gasped, “the fool means it. He intends to energize the main lunium deposit.”

“No -- see there!” Mort returned. “The projectors are trained on the Great Ones themselves.”

It was true; Carter’s crew was preparing to send twin beams of ionized air across the gulf to carry the energizing frequencies to the very bodies of the Great Ones.

Thunderstruck, Pete stood undecided. They were in the shelter of a column where blue light from below struck up to mingle with the rosy illumination of the high arches above. Of course they might ruin Carter’s machine with their ultralite bullets -- easily. But their own lives would then be forfeit. Even if they could overcome Carter’s gang there were the pigmies to be dealt with. Thousands of them would stream in from the labyrinth of passageways; tens of thousands. And besides, Pete wasn’t sure of his ground; he saw Mason and Thornhill over there by the machine, and Zimmerman -- three of Earth’s greatest men of science, whom Carter’s gold had bought. Surely these men could not be contemplating a move that meant disaster on Earth.

His indecision was ended by a warning cry from Mort; a strangling horror-filled yell that caused Pete to whirl suddenly, crouching with his bullet projector in hand.

Behind them, a monstrous, black creature stood staring with red saucer-eyes; an object like a huge football poised on a single support that was more like the stem of a plant than the limb of an animal. Yet this thing was undoubtedly of the animal class -- and intelligent.

One of the Dark Ones of Luna!

Pete pressed the release of his bullet projector, but, even as the propelling ray sped forth, the creature was covered with a shroud of green vapor such as that which had enclosed Rocket VII. The ultranite charge exploded with a deafening crash, but made no impression on the green armor. And a quavering wail of terror rose up from the throats of the thousands of pigmies. The great amphitheatre was in instant confusion.

A sharp mental command came then from out of the green cloud; an order that carried with it the compulsion of a nameless force. Pete’s grip on the bullet projector was loosened, struggle though he might, and the weapon clattered to the floor. He was rooted to the spot, his limbs trembling and muscles paralyzed. Mort Saunders had slumped to the base of the column, a quivering nerveless heap in the blast of energy that radiated from the Dark One.

With a twang like that of a snapped violin string, the green vapor disrupted, and the Dark One trailed off silently across the arena, its single supporting member drawing up within the mass of the black ovoid as a terrapin withdraws its limbs into its shell. Drifting in mid-air as the Lesser Ones did, the weird shape hovered in the midst of Carter’s crew when it came to rest.

Others of the eerie creatures converged on the scene and the shoutings of the pigmy multitude rose high and menacing. Aleck Carter had leagued himself with the Dark Ones of Luna.

Desperately Pete set his will to the task of unbending his cramped fingers. Muscles refused his bidding and his knees gave way beneath his stiffened body. He crumpled helplessly to lie on his face, staring into the depths of the blue moon, his numbed lips framing wordless supplications to the Great Ones.

And everywhere about him were the pigmies; cold scaly hands pawed at him and rolled him over. Vacant bulging eyes peered into his own; cavernous mouths of scarlet jabbered. He struck out feebly and to no avail. There was not the strength of an infant in his puny blows.

It was all over; they were carrying him and Mort to the center of the arena, to Aleck Carter and the Dark Ones.

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