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 II: Escape
CHAPTER II. Escape
Two days, while a cold sun peeped above an icy horizon! Two days of driving, eager work on the installation of massive motors—yet motors so light that one man could lift them—then Harkness prepared to leave.
"Wealth brings care when it comes," he told Chet, "but it leaves plenty of trouble behind it when it goes. I must get back to New York and throw what is left of my holdings to the wolves; they must be howling by this time to find out where I am. I'll drop back here in a week."
There were instruments to be installed, and Chet would look after that. He would test the motors where the continuous explosion of super-detonite would furnish the terrific force for their driving power. Then the exhaust from each port must be measured and thrusts equalized, where needed, by adjustment of great valves. All this Chet would finish. And then—a test flight. Harkness hoped to be back for the first try-out of the new ship.
"I'll be seeing you in a week," he repeated. "You'll be that long getting her tuned up."
But Chet Bullard grinned derisively. "Two days!" he replied. "You'll have to step some if you get in on the trial flight. But don't worry; I won't take off for the Dark Moon. I'll just go up and play around above the liner lanes and see how the old girl stunts."
Harkness nodded. "Watch for patrol ships," he warned. "There's no traffic directly over here—that's one reason why I chose this spot—but don't let anyone get too close. Our patents have not been applied for."
Harkness spent a day in New York. Then a night trip by Highline Express took him to London where he busied himself for some hours. Next, a fast passenger plane for Vienna.
In other days Walter Harkness would have chartered a private ship to cut off a few precious hours, but he was traveling more economically now. And the representatives of his foreign competitors were not now coming to see him; he must go to them.
At the great terminal in Vienna a man approached him. "Herr Harkness?" he inquired, and saluted stiffly.
He was not in uniform. He was not of the Allied Patrol nor of any branch of the police force that encircled the world in its operations. Yet his military bearing was unmistakable. To Harkness it was reminiscent of old pictures of Prussian days—those curious pictures revived at times for the amusement of those who turned to their television sets for entertainment. He had to repress a smile as he followed where the other led him to a gray speedster in a distant corner of the open concourse.
He stepped within a luxurious cabin and would have gone on into the little control room, but his guide checked him. Harkness was mildly curious as to their course—Schwartzmann was to have seen him in Vienna—but the way to the instrument board was barred. Another precise salute, and he was motioned to the cabin at the rear.
"It is orders that I follow," he was told. And Walter Harkness complied.
"It could happen only here," he told himself. And he found himself exasperated by a people who were slow to conform to the customs of a world whose closely-knit commerce had obliterated the narrow nationalism of the past.
They landed in an open court surrounded by wide lawns. He glimpsed trees about them in the dusk, and looming before him was an old-time building of the chateau type set off in this private park. He would have followed his guide toward the entrance, but a flash of color checked him.
Like a streak of flame a ship shot in above them; hung poised near the one that had brought them and settled to rest beside it. A little red speedster, it made a splash of crimson against the green lawns beyond. And, "Nice flying," Harkness was telling himself.
The hold-down clamps had hardly gripped it when a figure sprang out from an opened door. A figure in cool gray that took warmth and color from the ship behind—a figure of a girl, tall and slender and graceful as she came impulsively toward him.
"Monsieur Harkness!" she exclaimed. "But this is a surprise. I thought that Herr Schwartzmann was to see you in Vienna!" For a brief moment Harkness saw a flicker of puzzled wonderment in her eyes.
"And I am sorry," she went on, "—so very sorry for your misfortune. But we will be generous."
She withdrew her hand which Harkness was holding. He was still phrasing a conventional greeting as she flung him a gay laugh and a look from brown eyes that smiled encouragement. She was gone before he found words for reply.
Walter Harkness had been brought up in a world of business, and knew little of the subtle message of a woman's eyes. But he felt within him a warm response to the friendly companionship that the glance implied.
Within the chateau, in a dark-paneled room, Herr Schwartzmann was waiting. He motioned Harkness to a chair and resumed his complacent contemplation of a picture that was flowing across a screen. Color photography gave every changing shade. It was coming by wireless, as Harkness knew, and he realized that the sending instrument must be in a ship that cruised slowly above a scene of wreckage and desolation.
He recognized the ruins of his great plant; he saw the tiny figures of men, and he knew that the salvage company he had placed in charge was on the job. Beyond was a stretch of rippling water where the great wave had boiled over miles of land and had sucked it back to the ocean's depths. And he realized that the beginning of his conference was not auspicious.
After the warmth of the girl's greeting, this other was like a plunge into the Arctic chill of his northern retreat.
"I have listed every dollar's worth of property that I own," he was saying an hour later, "and I have turned it over to a trustee who will protect your rights. What more do you want?"
"We have heard of some experimental work," said Herr Schwartzmann smoothly. "A new ship; some radical changes in design. We would like that also."
"Try and get it," Harkness invited.
The other passed that challenge by. "There is another alternative," he said. "My principals in France are unknown to you; perhaps, also, it is not known that they intend to extend their lines to New York and that they will erect great terminals to do the work that you have done.
"Your father was the pioneer; there is great value in the name of Harkness—the 'good-will' as you say in America. We would like to adopt that name, and carry on where you have left off. If you were to assign to us the worthless remains of your plant, and all right and title to the name of Harkness Terminals, it might be—" He paused deliberately while Harkness stiffened in his chair. "It might be that we would require no further settlement. The balance of your fortune—and your ship—will be yours."
Harkness' gray eyes, for a moment, betrayed the smouldering rage that was his.
"Put it in plain words," he demanded. "You would bribe me to sell you something you cannot create for yourselves. The name of Harkness has stood for fair-dealing, for honor, for scrupulous observance of our clients' rights. My father established it on that basis and I have continued in the same way. And you?—well, it occurs to me that the Schwartzmann interests have had a different reputation. Now you would buy my father's name to use it as a cloak for your dirty work!"
He rose abruptly. "It is not for sale. Every dollar that I own will be used to settle my debt. There will be enough—"
Herr Schwartzmann refused to be insulted. His voice was unruffled as he interrupted young Harkness' vehement statement.
"Perhaps you are right; perhaps not. Permit me to remind you that the value of your holdings may depreciate under certain influences that we are able to exert—also that you are in Austria, and that the laws of this country permit us to hold you imprisoned until the debt is paid. In the meantime we will find your ship and seize it, and whatever it has of value will be protected by patents in our name."
His unctuous voice became harsh. "Honor! Fair dealing!" He spat out the words in sudden hate. "You Americans who will not realize that business is business!"
Harkness was standing, drawn unconsciously to his full height. He looked down upon the other man. All anger had gone from his face; he seemed only appraising the individual before him.
"The trouble with you people," he said, "is that you are living in the past—way back about nineteen fourteen, when might made right—sometimes."
He continued to look squarely into the other's eyes, but his lips set firmly, and his voice was hard and decisive.
"But," he continued, "I am not here to educate you, nor to deal with you. Any further negotiations will be through my counsellors. And now I will trouble you to return me to the city. We are through with this."
Herr Schwartzmann's heavy face drew into lines of sardonic humor. "Not quite through," he said; "and you are not returning to the city." He drew a paper from his desk.
"I anticipated some such verdammpt foolishness from you. You see this? It is a contract; a release, a transfer of all your interests in Harkness, Incorporated. It needs only your signature, and that will be supplied. No one will question it when we are done: the very ink in the stylus you carry will be duplicated. For the last time, I repeat my offer; I am patient with you. Sign this, and keep all else that you have. Refuse, and—"
"Yes?" Harkness inquired.
"And we will sign for you—a forgery that will never be detected. And as for you, your body will be found—a suicide! You will leave a letter: we will attend to all that. Herr Harkness will have found this misfortune unbearable…. We shall be very sad!" His heavy smile grew into derisive laughter.
"I am still patient, and kind," he added. "I give you twenty-four hours to think it over."
A touch of a button on his desk summoned the man who had brought Harkness there. "Herr Harkness is in your charge," were the instructions to the one who stood stiffly at attention. "He is not to leave this place. Is it understood?"
As he was ushered from the room, Walter Harkness also understood, and he knew that this was no idle threat. He had heard ugly rumors of Herr Schwartzmann and his methods. One man, he knew, had dared to oppose him—and that man had gone suddenly insane. A touch of a needle, it was whispered….
There had been other rumors; Schwartzmann got what he wanted; his financial backing was enormous. And now he would bring his ruthless methods to America. But there he needed the Harkness standing, the reputation for probity—and Walter Harkness was grimly resolved that they should never buy it from him. But the problem must be faced, and the answer found, if answer there was, in twenty-four hours.
An amazing state of affairs in a modern world! He stood meditating upon his situation in a great, high-ceilinged room. A bed stood in a corner, and other furniture marked the room as belonging to an earlier time. Even mechanical weather-control was wanting; one must open the windows, Harkness found, to get cooling air.
He stood at the open window and saw storm clouds blowing up swiftly. They blotted the stars from the night sky; they swept black and ominous overhead, and seemed to touch the giant trees that whipped their branches in the wind. But he was thinking not at all of the storm, and only of the fact that this room where he stood must be directly above the one where Schwartzmann was seated. Schwartzmann—who would put an end to his life as casually as he would bring down a squirrel from one of those trees!
And again he thought: "Twenty-four hours!… Why hours? Why not minutes?… Whatever must be done he must do now. And might made right: it was the only way to meet this unscrupulous foreign scoundrel."
A wind-tossed branch lashed at him. On the ground below he saw the man who had brought him, posting another as a guard. They glanced up at his window. There would be no escape there.
And yet the branch seemed beckoning. He caught it when again it whipped toward him, and, without any definite plan, he lashed it fast with a velvet cord from the window drapes.
But his thoughts came back to the room. He snatched suddenly at the covers of the bed. What were the sheets?—fabric as old-fashioned as the room, or were they cellulex? The touch of the soft fabric reassured him: it was as soft as though woven of spider's web, and strong as fibres of steel.
It took all of his strength to rip it into strips, but it was a matter of minutes, only, until he had a rope that would bear his weight. The storm had broken; the black clouds let loose a deluge of water that drove in at the window. If only the window below was still open!
He found the middle of his rope, looped it over a post of the bed, and, with both strands in his grasp, let himself out and over the dripping sill.
Would the guard see him, or had he taken to shelter? Harkness did not pause to look. He left the branch tied fast. "A squirrel in a tree," he thought: the branch would mislead them. His feet found the window-sill one story below. He drew himself into the room and let loose of one strand of his rope as he entered.
Schwartzmann was gone. Harkness, with the bundle of wet fabric in his hands, glanced quickly about. A door stood open—it was a closet—and the rain-drenched man was hidden there an instant later. But he stepped most carefully across the floor and touched his wet shoes only to the rugs where their print was lost. And he held himself breathlessly silent as he heard the volley of gutteral curses that marked the return of Herr Schwartzmann some minutes later.
"Imbecile!" Schwartzmann shouted above the crash of the closing window. "Dumkopff! You have let him escape.
"Give me your pistol!" Harkness glimpsed the figure of his recent guard. "Get another for yourself—find him!—shoot him down! A little lead and detonite will end this foolishness!"
From his hiding place Harkness saw the bulky figure of Schwartzmann, who made as if to follow where the other man had gone. The pistol was in his hand. Walt Harkness knew all too well what that meant. The tiny grain of detonite in the end of each leaden ball was the same terrible explosive that drove their ships: it would tear him to pieces. And he had to get this man.
He was tensed for a spring as Schwartzmann paused. From the wall beyond him a red light was flashing; a crystal flamed forth with the intense glare of a thousand fires. It checked the curses on the other's thick lips; it froze Harkness to a rigid statue in the darkness of his little room.
An emergency flash broadcast over the world! It meant that the News Service had been commandeered. This flashing signal was calling to the peoples of the earth!
What catastrophe did this herald? Had it to do with the Dark Moon? Not since the uprising of the Mole-men, those creatures who had spewed forth from the inner world, had the fiery crystal called!… It seemed to Harkness that Schwartzmann was hours in reaching the switch…. A voice came shouting into the room:
"By order of the Stratosphere Control Board," it commanded, "all traffic is forbidden above the forty level. Liners take warning. Descend at once."
Over and over it repeated the command—an order whose authority could not be disregarded. In his inner vision Harkness saw the tumult in the skies, the swift dropping of huge liners and great carriers of fast freight, the scurrying of other craft to give clearance to these monsters whose terrific speed must be slowly checked. But why? What had happened? What could warrant such disruption of the traffic of the world? His tensed muscles were aching unheeded; his sense of feeling seemed lost, so intently was he waiting for some further word.
"Emergency news report," said another voice, and Harkness strained every faculty to hear. "Highline ships attacked by unknown foe. Three passenger carriers of the Northpolar Short Line reported crashed. Incomplete warnings from their commanders indicate they were attacked. Patrol ship has spotted one crash. They have landed beside it and are reporting….
"The report is in; it is almost beyond belief. They say the liner is empty, that no human body, alive or dead, is in the ship. She was stripped of crew and passengers in the air.
"We await confirmation. Danger apparently centered over arctic regions, but traffic has been ordered from all upper levels—"
The voice that had been held rigidly to the usual calm clarity of an official announcer became suddenly high-pitched and vibrant. "Stand by!" it shouted. "An S. O. S. is coming in. We will put it through our amplifiers; give it to you direct!"
The newscaster crackled and hissed: they were waiving all technical niceties at R. N. Headquarters, Harkness knew. The next voice came clearly, though a trifle faint.
"Air Patrol! Help! Position eighty-two—fourteen north, ninety-three—twenty east—Superliner Number 87-G, flying at R. A. plus seven. We are attacked!—Air Patrol!—Air Patrol!—Eighty-two—fourteen north, ninety-three—twenty—"
The voice that was repeating the position was lost in a pandemonium of cries. Then—
"Monsters!" the voice was shouting. "They have seized the ship! They are tearing at our ports—" A hissing crash ended in silence….
"Tearing at our ports!" Harkness was filled with a blinding nausea as he sensed what had come with the crash. The opening ports—the out-rush of air released to the thin atmosphere of those upper levels! Earth pressure within the cabins of the ship; then in an instant—none! Every man, every woman and child on the giant craft, had died instantly!
The announcer had resumed, but above the sound was a guttural voice that shouted hoarsely in accents of dismay. "Eighty-seven-G!" Schwartzmann was exclaiming, "—Mein Gott! It iss our own ship, the Alaskan! Our crack flyer!"
Harkness heard him but an instant, for another thought was hammering at his brain. The position!—the ship's position!—it was almost above his experimental plant! And Chet was there, and the ship…. What had Chet said? He would fly it in two days—and this was the second day! Chet had no radio-news; no instrument had been installed in the shop; they had depended upon the one in Harkness' own ship. And now—
Walt Harkness' clear understanding had brought a vision that was sickening, so plainly had he glimpsed the scene of terror in that distant cabin. And now he saw with equal clarity another picture. There was Chet, smiling, unafraid, proud of their joint accomplishment and of the gleaming metal shape that he was lifting carefully from its bed. He was floating it out to the open air; he was taking off, and up—up where some horror awaited.
"Monsters!" that thin voice had cried in a tone that was vibrant with terror. What could it be?—great ships out of space?—an invasion? Or beasts?… But Harkness' vision failed him there. He knew only that a fast ship was moored just outside. He had planned vaguely to seize it; he had needed it for his own escape; but he needed it a thousand times more desperately now. Chet might have been delayed, and he must warn him…. The thoughts were flashing like hot sparks through his brain as he leaped.
He bore the heavier body of Schwartzmann to the floor. He rained smashing blows upon him with a furious frenzy that would not be curbed. The weapon with its deadly detonite bullet came toward him. In the same burst of fury he tore the weapon from the hand that held it; then sprang to his feet to stand wild-eyed and panting is he aimed the pistol at the cursing man and dragged him to his feet.
"The ship!" he said between heavy breaths, "—the ship! Take me to it! You will tell anyone we meet it is all right. One word of alarm, one wrong look, and I'll blow you to hell and make a break for it!"
The pistol under Harkness' silken jacket was pressed firmly into Schwartzmann's side; it brought them safely past excited guards and out into the storm; it held steady until the men had fought their way through blasts of rain to the side of the anchored ship. Not till then did Schwartzmann speak.
"Wait," he said. "Are you crazy, Harkness? You can never take off; the trees are close; a straight ascent is needed. And the wind—!"
He struggled in the other's grasp as Harkness swung open the cabin door, his fear of what seemed a certain death overmastering his fear of the weapon. He was shouting for help as Harkness threw him roughly aside and leaped into the ship.
Outside Harkness saw running figures as he threw on the motors. A pistol's flash came sharply through the storm and dark. A window in the chateau flashed into brilliance to frame the figure of a girl. Tall and slender, she leaned forward with outstretched arms. She seemed calling to him.
Harkness seized the controls, and knew as he did so that Schwartzmann was right: he could never lift the ship in straight ascent. Before her whirling fans could raise her they would be crashed among the trees.
But there were two helicopters—dual lift, one forward and one aft. And Walt Harkness, pilot of the second class, earned immediate disbarment or a much higher rating as he coolly fingered the controls. He cut the motor on the big fan at the stern, threw the forward one on full and set the blades for maximum lift, then released the hold-down grips that moored her.
The grips let go with a crashing of metal arms. The bow shot upward while a blast of wind tore at the stubby wings. The slim ship tried to stand erect. Another furious, beating wind lifted her bodily, as Harkness, clinging desperately within the narrow room, threw his full weight upon the lever that he held.
The full blast of a detonite motor, on even a small ship, is terrific, and the speedster of Herr Schwartzmann did not lack for power. Small wonder that the rules of the Board of Control prohibit the use of the stern blast under one thousand feet.
The roaring inferno from the stern must have torn the ground as if by a mammoth plow; the figures of men must have scattered like leaves in a gusty wind. The ship itself was racked and shuddering with the impact of the battering thrust, but it rose like a rocket, though canted on one wing, and the crashing branches of wind-torn trees marked its passage on a long, curving slant that bent upward into the dark. Within the control room Walter Harkness grinned happily as he drew his bruised body from the place where he had been thrown, and brought the ship to an even keel.
Nice work! But there was other work ahead, and the smile of satisfaction soon passed. He held the nose up, and the wireless warning went out before as the wild climb kept on.
Forty thousand was passed; then fifty and more; a hundred thousand; and at length he was through the repelling area, that zone of mysterious force, above which was a magnetic repulsion nearly neutralizing gravity. He could fly level now; every unit of force could be used for forward flight to hurl him onward faster and faster into the night.
Harkness was flying where his license was void; he was flying, too, where all aircraft were banned. But the rules of the Board of Control meant nothing to him this night. Nor did the voluble and sulphurous orders to halt that a patrol-ship flashed north. The patrol-ship was on station; she was lost far astern before she could gather speed for pursuit.
Walter Harkness had caught his position upon a small chart. It was a sphere, and he led a thin wire from the point that was Vienna to a dot that he marked on the sub-polar waste. He dropped a slender pointer upon the wire and engaged its grooved tip, and then the flying was out of his hands. The instrument before him, with its light bulbs and swift moving discs, would count their speed of passage; it would hold the ship steadily upon an unerring course and allow for drift of winds. The great-circle course was simple; the point he marked was drawing them as if it had been a magnet—drawing them as it drew the eyes of Walt Harkness, staring strainingly ahead as if to span the thousands of miles of dark.
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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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