Astounding Stories of Super-Science, December 1930 online

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upon a fruit like a striped pepper that stung his mouth and tongue while
he scarcely felt it. References to Earth things plainly were to be
avoided: the visions they brought before one's eyes were unnerving.

They made a pretence of sleeping in case they were being observed, and
it was some hours later when the two stood quietly beside the open
window. As Sykes had seen, there were branches of a pale, twisted
tree-growth close outside. McGuire tried his weight upon them, then
swung himself out, hand over hand, upon the branch that bent low beneath
him. Sykes was close behind when he clambered to the ground to stand for
some minutes, listening silently in the dark.

"Too easy!" the lieutenant whispered. "They are too foxy to leave
a gateway like that - but here we are. The shore is off in this

The dark of a night unrelieved by a single star was about them as they
moved noiselessly away. They followed open ground at first. The building
that had been their brief prison was upon their right; beyond and at the
left was where the ship landed - it was gone now - and beyond that the
wall of vegetation.

And again, in the dark, McGuire had an uncanny sense of motion. Soft
bodies were slipping quietly one upon another; something that lived was
there beyond them in the night. No sound or sign of life came from the
house; no guard had been posted; and McGuire stopped again, before
plunging into the tangled growth, to whisper, "Too easy, Sykes! There's
something about this - "

* * * * *

He had pushed aside the fronds of a giant fern; a cautious step
beyond his hands touched a slippery, pliant vine. And his whisper
ended as he felt the thing turn and twist beneath his hand. It was
alive! - writhing! - cold as the body of a monster snake, and just as
vicious and savage in the way that it whipped down and about him in
the gloom of the starless night.

The thing was alive! It threw its coils around his body in an embrace
that left him breathless; a slender tendril was tightening about his
neck; his hands and arms were bound.

His ankle was grasped as he was whirled aloft - a human hand that gripped
him this time - and Sykes, forgetting discretion and the need for
silence, was shouting in the darkness that gave no clue to their
opponent. "Hang on!" he yelled. "I've got you, Mac!"

His shouts were cut short by another serpent shape that thrashed him and
smashed the softer growing things to earth that it might wrap this man,
too, in its deadly coils.

McGuire felt his companion's hold loosen as he was lifted from the
ground; there were other arms flailing about him - living, coiling things
that seemed to fight one with another for this prize. Abruptly,
blindingly, the scene was vividly etched before him: the strange trees,
the ferns, the writhing and darting serpent-arms! They were illumined in
a dazzling, white light!

He was in the air, clutched strangely in constricting arms; an odor of
rotted flesh was in his nostrils, sickening, suffocating! Beyond and
almost beneath him a cauldron of green gaped open, and he saw within it
a pool of thick liquid that eddied and steamed to give off the stench
of putrescence.

All this in an instant of vision - and in that instant he knew the death
they courted. It was a giant pod that held that pool - one of the growths
he had seen ranged out like a line of sentinels. But the terrible
tendrils that had been coiled and at rest were wrapped about him now,
drawing him to that reeking pool of death and the waiting thick lips
that would close above him. Sykes, too! The tendrils that had clutched
him were whisking his helpless body where another gaping mouth was
open -

* * * * *

And then, in the blazing light that was more brilliant than any light of
day in this world, the hold about McGuire relaxed. He saw, as he fell,
the thick, green lips snap shut; and the arms that had held him pulled
back into harmless, tight-wound coils.

Their bodies crashed to earth where a great fern bent beneath them to
cushion their fall. And the men lay silent and gasping for great choking
breaths, while from the building beyond came the cackle and shrieking of
man-things in manifest enjoyment of the frustrated plans.

It was the laughter that determined McGuire.

"Damn the plants!" he said between hoarse breaths. "Man-eating
plants - but they're - better - than - those devils! And there's only - one
line of them: I saw them here before. Shall we go on? - make a break for

Sykes rolled to the shelter of an arching frond and, without a word,
went crawling away. McGuire was behind him, and the two, as they came to
open ground, sprang to their feet and ran on through the weird orchard
where tree trunks made dim, twisting lines. They ran blindly and
helplessly toward the outer dark that promised temporary shelter.

A hopeless attempt: both men, knew the futility of it, while they
stumbled onward through the dark. Behind them the night was hideous
with noise as the great palace gave forth an eruption of shrieking,
inhuman forms that scattered with whistling and wailing calls in all

* * * * *

A mile or more of groping, hopeless flight, till a yellow gleam shone
among the trees to guide them. A building, beyond a clearing, gave a
bright illumination to the black night.

"We've run in a circle," choked McGuire, his voice weak and uncertain
with exhaustion. "Like a couple of fools! - "

He waited until the heavy breathing that shook his body might be
controlled, then corrected himself. "No - this is another - a new one - see
the towers! And listen - it's a radio station!"

The slender frameworks that towered high in air glowed like flame - a
warning to the ships whose lights showed now and then far overhead. And,
clear and distinct, there came to the listening men the steady,
crackling hiss of an uninterrupted signal.

Against the lighted building moving figures showed momentarily, and
McGuire pulled his friend into the safe concealment of a tangle of
growth, while the group of yelling things sped past.

"Come on," he told Sykes; "we can't get away - not a chance! Let's have a
look at this place, and perhaps - well, I have an idea!" He slipped
silently, cautiously on, where a forest of jungle ferns gave promise of
safe passage.

* * * * *

Some warning had been sounded; the occupants of the building were
scattered to aid in the man-hunt. Only one was left in the room where
two Earth-men peeped in at the door.

The figure was seated upon an insulated platform, and his long hands
manipulated keys and levers on a table before him. McGuire and Sykes
stared amazedly at this broadcasting station whose air was filled with a
pandemonium of crashing sound from some distant room, but McGuire was
concerned mainly with the motion of a lean, blood-red hand that swung
an object like a pointer in free-running sweeps above a dial on the
table. And he detected a variation in the din from beyond as the pointer
moved swiftly.

Here was the control board for those messages he had heard; this was the
instrument that varied the sending mechanism to produce the wailing
wireless cries that made words in some far-distant ears. McGuire, as he
slipped into the room and crept within leaping distance of the grotesque
thing so like yet unlike a man, was as silent as the nameless, writhing
horror that had seized them in the dark. He sprang, and the two came
crashing to the floor.

Lean arms came quickly about him to clutch and tear at his face, but the
flyer had an arm free, and one blow ended the battle. The man of Venus
relaxed to a huddle of purple and yellow cloth from which a ghastly face
protruded. McGuire leaped to his feet and sprang to the place where the
other had been.

"Hold them off as long as you can!" he shouted to Sykes, and his hand
closed upon the pointer.

Did this station send where he was hoping? Was this the station that had
communicated with the ship that had hovered above their flying field in
that far-off land? He did not know, but it was a powerful station, and
there was a chance -

* * * * *

He moved the pointer frantically here and there, swung it to one side
and another; then found at last a point on the outside of the strange
design beneath his hand where the pointer could rest while the crashing
crackle of sound was stilled.

And now he swung the pointer - upon the plate - anywhere! - and the noise
from beyond told instantly of the current's passage. He held it an
instant, then pushed it back to the silent spot - a dash! A quick return
that flashed back again to bring silence - a dot! More dashes and dots
... and McGuire thanked a kindly heaven that had permitted him to learn
the language of the air, while he cursed his slowness in sending.

Would it reach? Would there be anyone to hear? No certainty; he could
only flash the wild Morse symbols out into the night. He must try to get
word to them - warn them! And "Blake," he called, and spelled out the
name of their field, "warning - Venus - "

"Hold them!" he yelled to Sykes at the sound of rushing feet. "Keep them
off as long as you can!"

"... Prepare - for invasion. Blake, this is McGuire...." Over and over,
he worked the swinging pointer into symbols that might in some way, by
some fortunate chance, help that helpless people to resist the horror
that lay ahead.

And while heavy bodies crashed against the door that Sykes was holding,
there came from some deep-hidden well of memory an inspiration. There
was a man he had once met - a man who had confided wondrous things; and
now, with the knowledge of these others who had conquered space, he
could believe wholly what he had laughed and joked about before. That
man, too, had claimed to have travelled far from the earth; he had
invented a machine; his name -

The pointer was swinging in frenzied haste to spell over and over the
name of a man, and the name, too, of a forgotten place in the mountains
of Nevada. It was repeating the message; then finished in one long
crashing wail as a cloud of vapor shot about McGuire and his hand upon
the pointer went suddenly limp.


Captain Blake's game of solitaire had become an obsession. He drove
himself to the utmost in the line of duty, and, through the day, the
demands of the flying field filled his mind to forgetfulness. And for
the rest, he forced his mind to concentrate upon the turn of the cards.
He could not read - and he must not think! - so he sat through long
evenings trying vainly to forget.

He looked up with an expressionless face as Colonel Boynton entered the
room. The colonel saw the cards and nodded.

"Does that help?" he asked, and added without waiting for an answer, "I
don't like cards, but I find my mathematics works well.... My old
problems - I can concentrate on them, and stop this eternal, damnable
thinking, thinking - "

There was something of the same look forming about the eyes of
both - that look that told of men who struggled gamely under the sentence
of death, refusing to think or to fear, and waiting, waiting,
impotently. Blake looked at the colonel with a carefully emotionless
gaze. "It's hell in the big towns, I hear."

The Colonel nodded. "Can't blame them much, if that's what appeals to
them. A year and a half! - and they've got to forget it. Why not crowd
all the recklessness and excesses they can into the time that is
left? - poor devils! But for the most part the world is wagging along,
and people are going through the familiar motions."

"Well," said Blake, "I used to wonder at times how a man might feel if
he were facing execution. Now we all know. Just going dumbly along,
feeling as little as we can, thinking of anything, everything - except
the one thing. They've turned to using dope, a lot of them, I hear.
Maybe it helps; nobody cares much. Only a year and a half."

* * * * *

He raised his face from which all expression was consciously erased.
"Any possible hope?" he asked. "Or do we take it when it comes and fight
with what we've got as long as we can? There was some talk in the papers
of an invention - Bureau of Standards cooperating with the big General
Committee to investigate. Anything come of it?"

"A thousand of them," said the colonel, "all futile. No, we can't expect
much from those things. Though there's a whisper that came to me from
Washington. General Clinton - you may remember him; he was here when the
thing first broke - says that some scientist, a real one, not another of
these half-baked geniuses, has worked out a transformation of some kind.
It was too deep for me, but it is based upon changing hydrogen into
helium, I think. Liberates some perfectly tremendous amount of power.
The general had it all down pat - "

He stopped speaking at the change in Captain Blake's face. The careful
repression of all emotions was gone; the face was suddenly alive -

"I know," he said sharply; "I remember something of the theory. There is
a difference in the atoms or their protons - the liberation of an
electron from each atom - matter actually transformed into energy;
theoretical, what I have read. But - but - Oh my God, Boynton, do you mean
that they've got it? - that it will drive us through space?"

* * * * *

The colonel drove one fist into the palm of his other hand. "Fool!
Idiot!" he exclaimed, and it was evident that the epithets were intended
for himself.

"I had forgotten that you had been trained along that line. The general
wants a man to work with them, somewhat as a liason officer to link the
army requirements closely with their developments; we are hoping to work
out a space ship, of course. You are just the man; I will radio him this
minute. Be ready to leave - " The slamming of the door marked a hurried
exit toward the radio room.

And abruptly, stifflingly, Captain Blake dared to hope. "Scientists will
come through with something, some new method of propulsion. All the
world is looking to them!" His thoughts were leaping from one
possibility to another. "Some miracle of power that will drive a fleet
through space as they have done, to battle with the enemy on his own
ground - "

Could he help? Was there one little thing that he could do to apply
their knowledge to practical ends? The thought thrilled him with
overpowering emotion an hour later as he felt the lift of the plane
beneath him.

"Report to General Clinton," the colonel's reply had said. "Captain
Blake will be assigned to special duty." He opened the throttle to his
ship's best cruising speed, but his spirit was soaring ahead to urge on
the swift scout ship whose wings drove steadily into the gathering

* * * * *

And then, after long hours, Washington! Brief words with many men - and
discouragement! The seat of government of the United States was a city
of despondent men, weary, hopeless, but fighting. There was a look of
strain on every face; the eyes told a story of sleepless nights and
futile thinking and planning. Blake's elation was short lived.

He was sent to New York and on into the state, where the laboratories of
a great electrical company had turned their equipment from commercial
purposes to those of war. Here, surely, one might find fuel to feed the
dying embers of hope; the new development must give greater promise than
General Clinton had intimated.

"Nothing you can do as yet," he was told, when he had stated his
mission. "It is still experimental, but we have worked out the
transformation on a small scale, and harnessed the power."

Captain Blake was in no mood for temporizing; he was tired with being
put off. He stared belligerently at the chief of this department.

"Power - hell!" he said. "We've got power now. How will you apply it? How
will we use it for travelling through space?"

The great man of science was unmoved by the outburst. "That is
poppycock," he replied; "the unscientific twaddle of the sensational
press. We are practical men here; we are working to give you men who do
the fighting better ships and better arms. But you will use them right
here on Earth."

The calm assurance of this man who spoke with a voice of such confidence
and authority left the flyer speechless. His brain sent a chaos of
profane and violent expletives to the lips that dared not frame them.
There was no adequate reply.

* * * * *

Blake jammed his hat upon his head and walked blindly from the room.
Heedless of the protests of those he jostled on the street he went
raging on, but some subconscious urge directed his steps. He found
himself at the railway. There was a station, and a grilled window where
he was asking for a ticket back to Washington. And on the following
day -

"There is nothing I can do," he told General Clinton. "It is hopeless. I
ask to be relieved."

"Why?" The general snapped the question at him. What kind of man was
this that Boynton had sent him?

"They are fools," said Blake bluntly, "pompous, well-meaning fools! They
are planning better motors, more power" - he laughed harshly - "and they
think that with them we can attack ships that are independent of the

"Still," asked General Clinton coldly, "for what purpose do you wish to
be relieved? What do you intend to do?"

"Return to the field," said Captain Blake, "to work, and put my planes
and personnel in the best possible condition; then, when the time comes,
go up and fight like hell."

An unusual phrasing of a request when one is addressing one's commander;
but the older man threw back his shoulders, that were bending under
responsibilities too great for one man to bear, and took a long breath
that relaxed his face and seemed to bring relief.

"You've got the right idea," - he spoke slowly and thoughtfully - "the
right philosophy. It is all we have left - to fight like hell when the
time comes. Give my regards to Colonel Boynton; he sent me a good man
after all."

* * * * *

Another long flight, westward this time, and, despite the failure of his
hopes and of his errand, Blake was flying with a mind at peace. "It is
all we have left," the general had said. Well, it was good to face
facts, to admit them - and that was that! There was no use of thinking or
worrying.... He lifted the ship to a higher level and glanced at his
compass. There were clouds up ahead, and he drove still higher into the
night, until he was above them.

And again his peace of mind was not to last.

It was night when he swung the ship over his home port and signalled for
a landing. A flood of light swept out across the field to guide him
down. He went directly to the colonel's quarters but found him gone.

"In the radio room, I think," an orderly told him.

Colonel Boynton was listening intently in the silent room; he scowled
with annoyance at the disturbance of Blake's coming; then, seeing who it
was, he motioned quickly for the captain to listen in.

"Good Lord, Blake," he told the captain in an excited whisper; "I'm glad
you're here. Another ship had been sighted; she's been all over the
earth; just scouting and mapping, probably. And there have been signals
the same as before - the same until just now. Listen! - it's talking
Morse! - it's been calling for you!"

He thrust a head set into Blake's hands, then reached for some papers.
"Poor reception, but there's what we've got," he said.

* * * * *

The paper held the merest fragments of messages that the operator had
deciphered. Blake examined them curiously while he listened at the
silent receiver.

"Maricopa" - the message, whatever it was, was meant for them, but there
were only parts of words and disjointed phrases that the man had written
down - "Venus attacking Earth ... Captain Blake ... Sykes and...."

At the name of Sykes, Blake dropped the paper.

"What does this mean?" he demanded. "Sykes! - why Sykes was the
astronomer who was captured with McGuire!"

"Listen! Listen!" The colonel's voice was almost shrill with excitement.

The night was whispering faintly the merest echo of a signal from a
station far away, but it resolved itself into broken fragments of sound
that were long and short in duration, and the fragments joined to form
letters in the Morse code.

"See Winslow," it told them, and repeated the message: "See Winslow at
Sierra...." Some distant storm crashed and rattled for breathless
minutes. "Blake see Winslow. This is McGuire, Blake. Winslow can
help - "

The message ended abruptly. One long, wailing note; then again the night
was voiceless ... and in the radio room at Maricopa Flying Field two men
stood speechless, unbreathing, to stare at each other with incredulous
eyes, as might men who had seen a phantom - a ghost that spoke to them
and called them by name.

"McGuire - is - alive!" stammered Blake. "They've taken him - there!"

* * * * *

Colonel Boynton was considering, weighing all the possibilities, and his
voice, when he answered, had the ring of conviction.

"That was no hoax," he agreed; "that quavering tone could never be
faked. That message was sent from the same station we heard before. Yes,
McGuire is alive - or was up to the end of that sending.... But, who the
devil is Winslow?"

Blake shook his head despairingly. "I don't know," he said. "And it
seems as if I should - "

It was hours later, far into the night, when he sprang from out of a
half-conscious doze to find himself in the middle of the floor with the
voice of McGuire ringing clearly in his ears. A buried memory had
returned to the level of his conscious mind. He rushed over to the
colonel's quarters.

"I've got it," he shouted to that officer whose head was projecting from
an upper window. "I remember! McGuire told me about this Winslow - some
hermit that he ran across. He has some invention - some machine - said he
had been to the moon. I always thought Mac half believed him. We'll go
over Mac's things and find the address."

"Do you think - do you suppose - ?" began Colonel Boynton doubtfully.

"I don't dare to think," Blake responded. "God only knows if we dare
hope; but Mac - Mac's got a level head; he wouldn't send us unless he
knew! Good Lord, man!" he exclaimed, "Mac radioed us from Venus; is
there anything impossible after that?"

"Wait there," said Colonel Boynton; "I'll be right down - "


Lieutenant McGuire awoke, as he had on other occasions, to the smell of
sickly-sweet fumes and the stifling pressure of a mask held over his
nose and mouth. He struggled to free himself, and the mask was removed.
Another of the man-creatures whom McGuire had not seen before helped him
to sit up.

A group of the attenuated figures, with their blood-and-ashes faces,
regarded him curiously. The one who had helped him arise forced the
others to stand back, and he gave McGuire a drink of yellow fluid from a
crystal goblet. The dazed man gulped it down to feel a following surge
of warmth and life that pulsed through his paralyzed body. The figures
before him came sharply from the haze that had enveloped them. A window
high above admitted a golden light that meant another day, but it
brought no cheer or encouragement to the flyer. McGuire felt crushed and
hopeless in the knowledge that his life must still go on.

If only that sleep could have continued - carried him out to the deeper
sleep of death! What hope for them here? Not a chance! And then he
remembered Sykes; he mustn't desert Sykes. He looked about him to see
the same prison room from which he and Sykes had escaped. The body of
the scientist was motionless on the hammock-bed across the room; an
occasional deep-drawn breath showed that the man still lived.

No, he must not leave Sykes, even if he had the means of death. They
would fight it through together, and perhaps - perhaps - they might yet be
of service, might find some way to avert the catastrophe that threatened
their world. Hopeless? Beyond doubt. But he must hope - and fight!

The leader had watched the light of understanding as it returned to the
flyer's eyes. He motioned now to the others, and McGuire was picked up
bodily by four of them and carried from the room.

* * * * *

McGuire's mind was alert once more; he was eager to learn what he could
of this place that was to be their prison, but he saw little. A glory of
blending colors beyond, where the golden light from without shone

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Online LibraryVariousAstounding Stories of Super-Science, December 1930 → online text (page 5 of 19)