Astounding Stories of Super-Science August 1931: Brood of the Dark Moon – Chapter III

Astounding Stories of Super-Science August 1931: Brood of the Dark Moon - Chapter III
Astounding Stories of Super-Science August 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Brood of the Dark Moon – Chapter III: Out of Control

CHAPTER III. Out of Control

Walter Harkness had built this ship with Chet's help. They had designed it for space-travel. It was the first ship to leave the Earth under its own power, reach another heavenly body, and come back for a safe landing. But they had not installed any luxuries for the passengers.
In the room where the three were confined, there were no self-compensating chairs such as the high-liners used. But the acceleration of the speeding ship was constant, and the rear wall became their floor where they sat or paced back and forth. Their bonds had been removed, and one of Harkness' hands was gripping Diane's where they sat side by side. Chet was briskly limbering his cramped muscles.
He glanced at the two who sat silent nearby, and he knew what was in their minds—knew that each was thinking of the other, forgetting their own danger: and it was these two who had saved his life on their first adventure out in space.
Walt—one man who was never spoiled by his millions; and Diane—straight and true as they make 'em! Some way, somehow, they must be saved—thus ran his thoughts—but it looked bad for them all. Schwartzmann?—no use kidding themselves about that lad; he was one bad hombre. The best they could hope for was to be marooned on the Dark Moon—left there to live or to die amid those savage surroundings; and the worst that might happen—! But Chet refused to think of what alternatives might occur to the ugly, distorted mind of the man who had them at his mercy.
There was no echo of these thoughts when he spoke; the smile that flashed across his lean face brought a brief response from the despondent countenances of his companions.
"Well," Chet observed, and ran his hand through a tangle of blond hair, "I have heard that the Schwartzmann lines give service, and I reckon I heard right. Here we were wanting to go back to the Dark Moon, and,"—he paused to point toward a black portlight where occasional lights flashed past—"I'll say we're going; going somewhere at least. All I hope is that that Maxie boy doesn't find the Dark Moon at about ten thousand per. He may be a great little skipper on a nice, slow, five-hundred-maximum freighter, but not on this boat. I don't like his landings."
Diane Delacouer raised her eyes to smile approvingly upon him. "You're good, Chet," she said; "you are a darn good sport. They knock you down out of control, and you nose right back up for a forty-thousand foot zoom. And you try to carry us with you. Well, I guess it's time we got over our gloom. Now what is going to happen?"
"I'll tell you," said Walter Harkness, looking at his watch: "if that fool pilot of Schwartzmann's doesn't cut his stern thrust and build up a bow resistance, we'll overshoot our mark and go tearing on a few hundred thousand miles in space."
Diane was playing up to Chet's lead.
"Bien!" she exclaimed. "A few million, perhaps! Then we may see some of those Martians we've been speculating about. I hear they are handsome, my Walter—much better looking than you. Maybe this is all for the best after all!"
"Say," Harkness protested, "if you two idiots don't know enough to worry as you ought, I don't see any reason why I should do all the heavy worrying for the whole crowd. I guess you've got the right idea at that: take what comes when it gets here—or when we get there."
Small wonder, thought Chet, that Herr Schwartzmann stared at them in puzzled bewilderment when he flung open the door, and took one long stride into the room. Stocky, heavy-muscled, he stood regarding them, a frown of suspicion drawing his face into ugly lines. Plainly he was disturbed by this laughing good-humor where he had expected misery and hopelessness and tears. He moved the muzzle of a detonite pistol back and forth.
"You haff been drinking!" he stated at last. "You are intoxicated—all of you!" His eyes darted searching glances about the little room that was too bare to hide any cause for inebriation.
It was Mam'selle Diane who answered him with an emphatic shake of her dark head; an engaging smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Mais non! my dear Herr Schwartzmann," she assured him: "it is joy—just happiness at again approaching our Moon—and in such good company, too."
"Fortunes of war, Schwartzmann," declared Harkness; "we know how to accept them, and we don't hold it against you. We are down now, but your turn will come."
The man's reply was a sputtering of rage in words that neither Chet nor Harkness could understand. The latter turned to the girl with a question.
"Did you get it, Diane? What did he say?"
"I think I would not care to translate it literally," said Diane Delacouer, twisting her soft mouth into an expression of distaste; "but, speaking generally, he disagrees with you."
Herr Schwartzmann was facing Harkness belligerently. "You think you know something! What is it?" he demanded. "You are under my feet: I kick you as I would meinen Hund and you can do nothing." He aimed a savage kick into the air to illustrate his meaning, and Harkness' face flushed suddenly scarlet.
Whatever retort was on Harkness' tongue was left unspoken; a sharp look from Chet, who brought his fingers swiftly to his lips in a gesture of silence, checked the reply. The action was almost unconscious on Chet's part; it was as unpremeditated as the sudden thought that flashed abruptly into his mind—
They were helpless; they were in this brute's power beyond the slightest doubt. Schwartzmann's words, "You know something. What is it?" had fired a swift train of thought.
The idea was nebulous as yet … but if they could throw a scare into this man—make him think there was danger ahead…. Yes, that was it: make Schwartzmann think they knew of dangers that he could not avoid. They had been there before: make this man afraid to kill them. The dreadful alternative that Chet had feared to think of might be averted….
All this came in an instantaneous, flashing correlation of his conscious thoughts.
"I'll tell you what we mean," he told Schwartzmann. He even leaned forward to shake an impressive finger before the other's startled face. "I'll tell you first of all that it doesn't make a damn bit of difference who is on top—or it won't in a few hours more. We'll all be washed out together.
"I've landed once on the Dark Moon; I know what will happen. And do you know how fast we are going? Do you know the Moon's speed as it approaches? Had you thought what you will look like when that fool pilot rams into it head on?
"And that isn't all!" He grinned derisively into Schwartzmann's flushed face, disregarding the half-raised pistol; it was as if some secret thought had filled him with overpowering amusement. His broad grin grew into a laugh. "That isn't all, big boy. What will you do if you do land? What will you do when you open the ports and the—?" He cut his words short, and the smile, with all other expression, was carefully erased from his young face.
"No, I reckon I won't spoil the surprise. We got through it all right; maybe you will, too—maybe!"
And again it was Diane who played up to Chet's lead without a moment's hesitation.
"Chet," she demanded, "aren't you going to warn him? You would not allow him and his men to be—"
She stopped in apparent horror of the unsaid words; Chet gave her an approving glance.
"We'll see about that when we get there, Diane."
He turned abruptly back to Schwartzmann. "I'll forget what a rotten winner you have been; I'll help you out; I'll take the controls if you like. Of course, your man, Max, may set us down without damage; then again—"
"Take them!" Schwartzmann ungraciously made an order of his acceptance. "Take the controls, Herr Bullard! But if you make a single false move!" The menacing pistol completed the threat.
But "Herr Bullard" merely turned to his companion with a level, understanding look. "Come on," he said; "you can both help in working out our location."
He stepped before the burly man that Diane might precede them through the door. And he felt the hand of Walt Harkness on his arm in a pressure that told what could not be said aloud.
There were pallid-faced men in the cabin through which they passed; men who stared and stared from the window-ports into the black immensity of space. Chet, too, stopped to look; there had been no port-holes in that inner room where they had been confined.
He knew what to expect; he knew how awe-inspiring would be the sight of strange, luminous bodies—great islands of light—masses of animaculae—that glowed suddenly, then melted again into velvet black. A whirl of violet grew almost golden in sudden motion; Chet knew it for an invisible monster of space. Glowingly luminous as it threw itself upon a subtle mass of shimmering light, it faded like a flickering flame, and went dark as its motion ceased.
Life!—life everywhere in this ocean of space! And on every hand was death. "Not surprising," Chet realized, "that these other Earthmen are awed and trembling!"
The sun was above them; its light struck squarely down through the upper ports. This was polarized light—there was nothing outside to reflect or refract it—and, coming as a straight beam from above, it made a brilliant circle upon the floor from which it was diffused throughout the room. It was as if the floor itself was the illuminating agent.
No eye could bear to look into the glare from above; nor was there need, for the other ports drew the eyes with their black depths of unplumbed space.
Black!—so velvet as to seem almost tangible! Could one have reached out a hand, that blackness, it seemed, must be a curtain that the hand could draw aside, where unflickering points of light pricked through the dark to give promise of some radiant glory beyond.
They had seen it before, these three, yet Chet caught the eyes of Harkness and Diane and knew that his own eyes must share something of the look he saw in theirs—something of reverent wonder and a strange humility before this evidence of transcendent greatness.
Their own immediate problem seemed gone. The tyranny of this glowering human and his men—the efforts of the whole world and its struggling millions—how absurdly unimportant it all was! How it faded to insignificance! And yet….
Chet came from the reverie that held him. There was one man by whom this beauty was unseen. Herr Schwartzmann was angrily ordering them on, and, surprisingly, Chet laughed aloud.
This problem, he realized, was his problem—his to solve with the help of the other two. And it was not insignificant; he knew with some sudden wordless knowledge that there was nothing in all the great scheme but that it had its importance. This vastness that was beyond the power of human mind to grasp ceased to be formidable—he was part of it. He felt buoyed up; and he led the way confidently toward the control-room door where Schwartzmann stood.
The scientist, whom Schwartzmann had called Herr Doktor Kreiss, was beside the pilot. He was leaning forward to search the stars in the blackness ahead, but the pilot turned often to stare through the rear lookouts as if drawn in fearful fascination by what was there. Chet took the controls at Schwartzmann's order; the pilot saluted with a trembling hand and vanished into the cabin at the rear.
"Ready for flying orders, Doctor," the new pilot told Herr Kreiss. "I'll put her where you say—within reason."
Behind him he heard the choked voice of Mademoiselle Diane: "Regardez! Ah, mon Dieu, the beauty of it! This loveliness—it hurts!"
One hand was pressed to her throat; her face was turned as the pilot's had been that she might stare and stare at a quite impossible moon—a great half-disk of light in the velvet dark.
"This loveliness—it hurts!" Chet looked, too, and knew what Diane was feeling. There was a catch of emotion in his own throat—a feeling that was almost fear.
A giant half-moon!—and he knew it was the Earth. Golden Earth-light came to them in a flooding glory; the blazing sun struck on it from above to bring out half the globe in brilliant gold that melted to softest, iridescent, rainbow tints about its edge. Below, hung motionless in the night, was another sphere. Like a reflection of Earth in the depths of some Stygian lake, the old moon shone, too, in a half-circle of light.
Small wonder that these celestial glories brought a gasp of delight from Diane, or drew into lines of fear the face of that other pilot who saw only his own world slipping away. But Chet Bullard, Master Pilot of the World, swung back to scan a star-chart that the scientist was holding, then to search out a similar grouping in the black depths into which they were plunging, and to bring the cross-hairs of a rigidly mounted telescope upon that distant target.
"How far?" he asked himself in a half-spoken thought, "—how far have we come?"
There was an instrument that ticked off the seconds in this seemingly timeless void. He pressed a small lever beside it, and, beneath a glass that magnified the readings, there passed the time-tape. Each hour and minute was there; each movement of the controls was indicated; each trifling variation in the power of the generator's blast. Chet made some careful computations and passed the paper to Harkness, who tilted the time-tape recorder that he might see the record.
"Check this, will you, Walt?" Chet was asking. "It is based on the time of our other trip, acceleration assumed as one thousand miles per hour per hour out of air—"
The scientist interrupted; he spoke in English that was carefully precise.
"It should lie directly ahead—the Dark Moon. I have calculated with exactness."
Walter Harkness had snatched up a pair of binoculars. He swung sharply from lookout to lookout while he searched the heavens.
"It's damned lucky for us that you made a slight error," Chet was telling the other.
"Error?" Kreiss challenged. "Impossible!"
"Then you and I are dead right this minute," Chet told him. "We are crossing the orbit of the Dark Moon—crossing at twenty thousand miles per hour relative to Earth, slightly in excess of that figure relative to the Dark Moon. If it had been here—!" He had been watching Harkness anxiously; he bit off his words as the binoculars were thrust into his hand.
"There she comes," Harkness told him quietly; "it's up to you!"
But Chet did not need the glasses. With his unaided eyes he could see a faint circle of violet light. It lay ahead and slightly above, and it grew visibly larger as he watched. A ring of nothingness, whose outline was the faintest shimmering halo; more of the distant stars winked out swiftly behind that ghostly circle; it was the Dark Moon!—and it was rushing upon them!
Chet swung an instrument upon it. He picked out a jet of violet light that could be distinguished, and he followed it with the cross-hairs while he twirled a micrometer screw; then he swiftly copied the reading that the instrument had inscribed. The invisible disk with its ghostly edge of violet was perceptibly larger as he slammed over the control-ball to up-end them in air.
Under the control-room's nitron illuminator the cheeks of Herr Doktor Kreiss were pale and bloodless as if his heart had ceased to function. Harkness had moved quietly back to the side of Diane Delacouer and was holding her two hands firmly in his.
The very air seemed charged with the quick tenseness of emotions. Schwartzmann must have sensed it even before he saw the onrushing death. Then he leaped to a lookout, and, an instant later, sprang at Chet calmly fingering the control.
"Fool!" he screamed, "you would kill us all? Turn away from it! Away from it!"
He threw himself in a frenzy upon the pilot. The detonite pistol was still in his hand. "Quick!" he shouted. "Turn us!"
Harkness moved swiftly, but the scientist, Kreiss, was nearer; it was he who smashed the gun-hand down with a quick blow and snatched at the weapon.
Schwartzmann was beside himself with rage. "You, too?" he demanded. "Giff it me—traitor!"
But the tall man stood uncompromisingly erect. "Never," he said, "have I seen a ship large enough to hold two commanding pilots. I take your orders in all things, Herr Schwartzmann—all but this. If we die—we die."
Schwartzmann sputtered: "We should haff turned away. Even yet we might. It will—it will—"
"Perhaps," agreed Kreiss, still in that precise, class-room voice, "perhaps it will. But this I know: with an acceleration of one thousand m.p.h. as this young man with the badge of a Master Pilot says, we cannot hope, in the time remaining, to overcome our present velocity; we can never check our speed and build up a relatively opposite motion before that globe would overwhelm us. If he has figured correctly, this young man—if he has found the true resultant of our two motions of approach—and if he has swung us that we may drive out on a line perpendicular to the resultant—"
"I think I have," said Chet quietly. "If I haven't, in just a few minutes it won't matter to any of us; it won't matter at all." He met the gaze of Herr Doktor Kreiss who regarded him curiously.
"If we escape," the scientist told him, "you will understand that I am under Herr Schwartzmann's command; I will be compelled to shoot you if he so orders. But, Herr Bullard, at this moment I would be very proud to shake your hand."
And Chet, as he extended his hand, managed a grin that was meant also for the tense, white-faced Harkness and Diane. "I like to see 'em dealt that way," he said, "—right off the top of the deck."
But the smile was erased as he turned back to the lookout. He had to lean close to see all of the disk, so swiftly was the approaching globe bearing down.
It came now from the side; it swelled larger and larger before his eyes. Their own ship seemed unmoving; only the unending thunder of the generator told of the frantic efforts to escape. They seemed hung in space; their own terrific speed seemed gone—added to and fused with the orbital motion of the Dark Moon to bring swiftly closer that messenger of death. The circle expanded silently; became menacingly huge.
Chet was whispering softly to himself: "If I'd got hold of her an hour sooner—thirty minutes—or even ten…. We're doing over twenty thousand an hour combined speed, and we'll never really hit it…. We'll never reach the ground."
He turned this over in his mind, and he nodded gravely in confirmation of his own conclusions. It seemed somehow of tremendous importance that he get this clearly thought out—this experience that was close ahead.
"Skin friction!" he added. "It will burn us up!"
He had a sudden vision of a flaming star blazing a hot trail through the atmosphere of this globe; there would be only savage eyes to follow it—to see the line of fire curving swiftly across the heavens…. He, himself, was seeing that blazing meteor so plainly….
His eyes found the lookout: the globe was gone. They were close—close! Only for the enveloping gas that made of this a dark moon, they would be seeing the surface, the outlines of continents.
Chet strained his eyes—to see nothing! It was horrible. It had been fearful enough to watch that expanding globe…. He was abruptly aware that the outer rim of the lookout was red!
For Chet Bullard, time ceased to have meaning; what were seconds—or centuries—as he stared at that glowing rim? He could not have told. The outer shell of their ship—it was radiant—shining red-hot in the night. And above the roar of the generator came a nerve-ripping shriek. A wind like a blast from hell was battering and tearing at their ship.
"Good-by!" He had tried to call; the demoniac shrieking from without smothered his voice. One arm was across his eyes in an unconscious motion. The air of the little room was stifling. He forced his arm down: he would meet death face to face.
The lookout was ringed with fire; it was white with the terrible white of burning steel!—it was golden!—then cherry red! It was dying, as the fire dies from glowing metal plunged in its tempering bath—or thrown into the cold reaches of space!
In Chet's ears was the roar of a detonite motor. He tried to realize that the lookouts were rimmed with black—cold, fireless black! An incredible black! There were stars there like pinpoints of flame! But conviction came only when he saw from a lookout in another wall a circle of violet that shrank and dwindled as he watched….
A hand was gripping his shoulder; he heard the voice of Walter Harkness speaking, while Walt's hand crept over to raise the triple star that was pinned to his blouse.
"Master Pilot of the World!" Harkness was saying. "That doesn't cover enough territory, old man. It's another rating that you're entitled to, but I'm damned if I know what it is."
And, for once, Chet's ready smile refused to form. He stared dumbly at his friend; his eyes passed to the white face of Mademoiselle Diane; then back to the controls, where his hand, without conscious volition, was reaching to move a metal ball.
"Missed it!" he assured himself. "Hit the fringe of the air—just the very outside. If we'd been twenty thousand feet nearer!…" He was moving the ball; their bow was swinging. He steadied it and set the ship on an approximate course.
"A stern chase!" he said aloud. "All our momentum to be overcome—but it's easy sailing now!"
He pushed the ball forward to the limit, and the explosion-motor gave thunderous response.
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