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The Finding of Haldgren
by Charles Willard Diffin
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* * * * *

Beside him and above he heard the swishing flutter of other wings; he felt himself lifted from the floor; he was being floated out above the luminous pit by the flying things that held him.

No direct glare came from below, but a soft violet radiance. It shone full upon him—past him—to light up and give detail to those faces that had been featureless before. Chet had just one moment of fascinated staring into the diabolical, pasty faces where narrow, red eyes stared back into his. Then the squealing voices were stilled!

One, louder than the rest, rasped an order. And again Chet felt the hands relax; once more he was falling, down—down—and still down—until he knew that his velocity of fall meant an impact he could never survive.

And, curiously, as he fell, his mind was entirely unconcerned with his own fate. For himself, he had accepted death. But he saw for what seemed like hours a vision of a familiar control room and an Irish pilot who sat by the controls. He was looking sharply ahead, he was checking speed, he was landing softly—safely—on a familiar field of Earth....

That passed; and, following, came a feeling of regret, a deep hurt and a rage at his own inability to be of help. For, above him, through the luminous air, he saw another body falling, and he knew that the girl, too, had been thrown to the same fate.

* * * * *

Those eyes of blue had locked with his for but a few brief seconds. Who she was—what she was—he had no way of knowing. But in that instant of mental meeting there had passed a flash between the two that had burned deeply into Chet's real and hidden self.

Chet, himself, had he been in laughing mood, might have smiled at the idea of affection being born in that brief time. Yet he might have asked instead how long was needed to bridge the sharp gap of a radio-power transmitter; how much time was needed for anode and cathode each to recognize the other. Something of this was passing in confusion through his mind while his more conscious faculties were tensing his body for the fatal impact he knew must come.

Without thinking the thought in words he knew that the luminous walls had receded. They were more distant now; their glow came to him from far above, and, as his falling body turned again and again in air, he saw that below him was nothing but a vast emptiness filled with luminous vapors that swirled and writhed.

Then the last gleam of lighted walls faded; he was falling at terrific speed through a black tempest whose winds tore and screamed about him.

* * * * *

It was his own falling speed that made these winds; there remained with him enough of reasoning power to realize this. And he waited, and marveled that he could fall so tremendous a distance. First had been the great shaft down which he had plunged; then, as it widened, had come this greater void. The crater of Hercules must have opened, into a vast shell or a cavern of incredible depth. The winged things of the Moon knew of it; they had cast him to his death—him and the girl.

Her slowly turning body was not far away; it was as if they two hung suspended in air, while frightful blasts of whatever gas filled this space whipped and shrieked past and wrapped them round with a terrific pressure. And then the tempest ceased. Slowly the blasts diminished; the pressure relaxed; gradually the sense of falling passed away, and with this there came a glimpse of light.

Again the walls glowed as they had before, but far off in the distance. Chet saw them grow luminous while he seemed hung motionless in space. Then once more they drew away from him; once more he knew he was falling away from that light—plunging again into the depths he had traversed.

And now, despite the oxygen that came to him uninterruptedly, he found his head swimming. The limit of human endurance had been reached.

Desperately he tried to bring his reason to bear upon this miracle that had happened. He had not struck; instead of falling to his death he had cushioned against something; he was falling again where, not far away, another metal-clad figure hung limply in air and fell as he fell. And with that knowledge the whirling turmoil within his brain ended in a blood-red flashing that went finally to merciful darkness....

* * * * *

That darkness still wrapped him thickly about when he regained consciousness—a darkness saved from utter black only by a faint luminosity that seemed to penetrate and be part of the air about him.

Still hardly more than half-conscious, lying, it seemed, on a soft bed where he was weightless, he stirred and flung out one arm. From his fingertips he saw whirls of violet light sweep out and away, as vortices might have been set in motion by a swimmer in a more liquid medium.

Fascinated, failing utterly to comprehend where he was, he moved his hands deliberately, swept one arm from side to side—and a number of luminous whirlpools went spinning out into space. And then he remembered.

He remembered the terrific fall that miraculously brought him back to a place of light like that where his fall had begun. He remembered beginning the second fall; and, while he still could not know what it meant, he knew that he must have been unconscious for hours. And, with that, his thoughts came back to the girl. For the first time he found leisure to give mental voice to his wonderment.

The mystery of it all!—of her presence here on the Moon! Again he was overwhelmed with the wonder of his surprising discovery. It was nearly beyond belief; almost he doubted the reality of what his own eyes had seen.

* * * * *

But there was no doubting his own presence here in this strange place. The unreality of it—the strangeness of his own sensations—were borne in upon him. Where was he? he asked. What was this soft cushion upon which he rested so lightly? He tried to sit up and found that he merely twisted his body and set other eddies of light into motion.

Cautiously, he swung one arm out as far as he could reach. There was nothing there. He moved the arm down; reached with his hand beneath him—and still there was nothing tangible! Through his mind swept a gripping fear, a wordless, incoherent terror of something he could not name. Desperately he wanted to touch something firm and solid; lay his hands upon something he knew was real; and he flung out arms and legs in a paroxysm of futile effort.

He seemed hung in nothingness, an utter emptiness where nothing moved; only the ghostly whirls of light that ran lazily away from his beating hands until they died silently away into darkness, swallowed up in this unspeakable horror of soundless space. And, when he had quieted again, he knew with a dreadful certainty that there was nothing there; he was suspended in a great void—immersed in an ocean of some unknown gas.

The sense of loneliness that filled him was devastating. He could have faced death as he had faced it before, unflinchingly; that was all in the day's work. But here was something that tested sanity itself. Could he but touch something substantial, he told himself, it would help him to keep a grip on reality; even to see and feel one of the winged horrors would be in a way a relief.

* * * * *

His struggles had ceased; all about him the atmosphere was quivering and writhing with whirling light that swirled and danced and mingled one glowing vortex with another. Then it, too, died; and, through the dark that was relieved only by the faint luminosity of the quiescent gas, he saw far off a point of light.

Here was something to which he could pin his eyes; something outside of himself and the horror of nothingness in which he was immersed. He stared through the window of his helmet while the light grew and expanded into nebulous, cloudy glowing that faded and was gone.

Again it came and died; and a third time. And then Chet Bullard swore loudly and harshly within the silence of his own metal sheath, while he cursed his own dullness that had kept him from instant comprehension.

That light was far away, but, "Keep moving!" Chet called, hoping that his voice might span the void. "Keep moving so I can see your light! I'll try to swim over."

He threw himself over with a convulsive jerk and flattened the palms of his hands in a breaststroke, while he kicked with his feet against the dense atmosphere about him. And he saw with delight that the whirling ripples of light moved back of him; he felt that he was making some headway, slight though it must be.

* * * * *

He saw her at last, and heard her call:

"I am swimming, too," she cried. "How wonderful to see you! This loneliness! It is horrible—unbearable!"

"I understand," Chet said; "it is pretty bad."

Then, at sound of a stifled sob, he gripped one reaching hand hard and tried to bring himself out from under the pall that numbed his own mind; he even attempted to force a note of lightness into his words.

"I've flown everything with wings," he told her, "but this is the first time I ever flew myself. Guess I was never properly designed."

Feeble, this attempt at humor; but there was none to note the strained edge in his tone, only a girl, whose metal-clad hand closed in a tight hold upon his.

"You can joke—now," she said with a catch in her voice that showed how desperately hard she was trying to meet Chet's fortitude and force her own words to steadiness. "That takes—real nerve. I like that!"

Then she added: "But it's hopeless; you know that. They've got us. And now that some of them have been killed they will—they will—"

And the trace of Chet's strained smile that lingered on his lips, could she have seen it, would have appeared grim.

"Whatever it was you didn't say, I agree with. I imagine the finish will not be pleasant." Once more he was facing the inevitable; and, as before, he faced it squarely and knowingly, then put it completely from his mind. There was so much he must know before that adventure's end was reached.

"Tell me," he demanded, "who are 'they'? Where are they? How many are there of them? And where have they got us? What kind of a place is this, where all natural laws are suspended, where gravitation is at zero?

"And, for heaven's sake, tell me: who are you? Where are you from? How did you get here on the Moon?"

* * * * *

That uncontrollable catch in the girl's voice had taken on a trace of brave laughter that overlay the trembling sob in her throat.

"That is a lot of information," she said, "and I am afraid it will not make much difference if you know. Oh, I wish I had some atom of encouragement for you! I do not know who you are either—and you have been so brave! You have come here, I brought you with my signals for help—brought you to your death.

"For it is death! This is the end of our adventuring—mine and yours as well—here at the center, the exact center of the Moon."

"Ah-h!" answered Chet Bullard softly, as understanding came to him. "I should have guessed it. The atmospheric pressure and density—and we fell past the center, then back again; we've been vibrating back and forth until we came to rest at last. And now we die! Well, it might have been worse."

He was staring out through the little window of his helmet, staring into the faintly luminous atmosphere, facing the end of his brave fling with fortune. It was an instant before he realized that there was something moving in the void. He pressed softly upon the hand he held and pointed.

"See!" he said in a hushed tone. "There is something there!"

* * * * *

It took form slowly, a shapeless, round blur in the pale light. Inch by inch it drifted toward them, until Chet moved one hand abruptly and found he had created a ripple of light by which he could see more clearly. And he saw before him a bulging, membraneous sac.

It had been smoothly spherical before; it heaved itself into strange protuberances as he watched. He flipped his hand to set up another vortex of light, and he saw the first rip that formed in the membrane.

Before his staring eyes the bag burst open; and Chet, who had wished for some substantial thing, even a denizen of this wild world, found his wish fulfilled. For the thin membrane tore in a score of places to release a body from within—a shapeless, huddled mass of chalk-white flesh in a wrapping of black leather that unfolded before his eyes and became wings which waved feebly in their first attempt at flight.

The pallid body, supple as a giant worm, jerked spasmodically and turned sightless eyes toward the watching Earth-folk. Then, as if drawn by some magnet, invisible in the distance, the black wings began to beat the air, and the creature moved off in a straight line toward some unknown goal.

* * * * *

Another of the membraneous spheres drifted past in the light that came from those fluttering wings. A second showed in repulsive shininess. Chet was aware that there were many of the things about.

"Eggs!" he exclaimed with a disgust that partook of nausea, "And the damnable thing hatched—right here!—before our eyes!"

And the girl gave the final explanation: "The Moon is just a great shell. They lay their eggs, these half-human creatures that you saw, and attach them to the inner surface of that shell. Then at a certain period they come loose and float away. I never knew what became of them; now I understand at last."

"You know all this!" protested Chet. "How can you know it? How long have you been here?"

"I kept track of time for a while," said the voice beside him; "then I forgot it when they took Frithjof away. But it must be about five years. Five years of terror and vain hopes and wild plans for escape! And now it ends—after five years!"

And Chet Bullard, within his metal helmet, was repeating in bewilderment: "Five years! Haldgren left five years ago! What does it mean?"

Nor did he pause to realize that through his amazement was woven a thread of another hue, tinged faintly with jealousy that demanded of him: "Frithjof! Who is Frithjof who was taken away?"

Chet's mind was filled with a confusion of questions that jostled one another to silence when he tried to give them expression. And there was little time for questioning.

* * * * *

He saw other floating eggs whose membraneous coverings had turned leathery and opaque. And he saw white phantom figures who gathered those eggs. One came near till Chet could make out the repulsive face and black, staring eyes with their fiery red center. It was one of the things that had captured him; he saw it move swiftly on broad wings. It held a leathery egg in its curled-claw hands while its long tail whipped around and laid the egg open with one slash of a sharp spiked point.

One more of the young of this horrible species was liberated and went winging away into the dark, only the whirls of light in the atmosphere marking the beating of its wings.

Chet's eyes followed it to see far out beyond a light that expanded as it drew near. The beaten atmospheric gas was whipped to cold flame where some ten or a dozen phantom demons came swiftly on toward the waiting humans.

They were swarming about in an instant. Chet had no time for even a shouted warning before he felt himself seized by their long, bony claws. Then a net of rough-fibered rope was flung about him, and he felt it draw tight as the winged beasts lifted him up and out into the void.

"Wrong again!" Chet told himself ruefully. "We don't die at the center of the Moon, after all!" But, as the whipping wings drove whirling blasts of violet light back upon him he could find nothing of comfort in the thought that some different experience still lay ahead.



CHAPTER VII

The Gateway to Hell

Spud O'Malley, at the controls of the ship, held the craft in a vertical lift while his eyes clung in horrible fascination to the mirrors that showed from a lower lookout the volcanic floor falling away. Amazement had almost stifled his breathing, until at last he let go a long breath that ended in a curse.

"The outrageous, damned things!" he breathed. "Jumping, they were, and leaping, and flying on their leather wings like a lot of black bats out o' hell! And I'm thinkin' that's where they've taken Chet Bullard, and never again will he hold a ship like 'twas in the hollow of his hand, and him settin' it down like a feather!

"And: 'Fly back home!' he says to me. I can do it, too; thanks to his teachin'. But fly back and leave that bhoy in the hands of those murderin' devils!—'tis little he knows the Irish!"

He was talking half under his breath, murmuring to himself as if it helped him to see clearly the situation that must be faced.

"But to get to him—that's the trouble. I saw a big door go shut in that stone floor. They're cunnin', clever beasts; I'll say that for 'em. And there was a raft of 'em; and plenty more down in hell where they live, I've no doubt."

He moved forward on the ball-control, and the great ship swept like a silvery shadow through the night toward the distant, lighted crater rim. This he could see clearly, but the other side of the ring of mountains was black with shadow.

And, far out beyond, spread like a cloud over all the desolate world, was blackness. Spud drove the ship up another five thousand feet, and still that darkness spread out in inky pools where only an occasional mountain peak caught the flat rays of the sun.

* * * * *

And what had Chet called these dark areas? "Lake of Dreams" and "Lake of Death." Spud's superstitious mind was a-quiver with dread and an ominous premonition to which the empty, frozen wastes below him gave added force.

"I'll have to wait," he told himself. "The light of the Moon—I mean the Earth—is bright, but not bright enough. I'll just wait till the Sun climbs higher. When it shines down into that hole that is the gateway to hell—and well I know it—then I can see what is there. Then, maybe, I can find some way to get inside; and I hope the lad lives till I get there."

He circled back; swept down in a long, leisurely flight, and came again to the place of gently sloping rock where Chet had first landed. And he searched till he found the identical spot and laid the ship down on a level keel.

Far away the Sun was gilding the hard outlines of mountains that ringed them in. Spud did not know how long he must wait. Had he realized that it must be a matter of days it is probable he would have donned the metal suit and started out. But instead he busied himself in a careful investigation of the storeroom and a check-up of ammunition and supplies that were there.

* * * * *

The lunar day, as all Earth-men know, is a matter of nearly fifteen of Earth's days. Spud O'Malley was wild with impatience when at last the Sun was striking less flatly across the land and he knew that the time had come when he could start.

He had sensed the change that took place in the world outside; from the lookouts of the control room he had seen the bare rocks lose their white markings of hoar frost and at last actually quiver with heat as the Sun beat upon them. He had seen the growing things that crept from every crevice and hollow—pale, colorless mosses that threw out long tendrils which licked across the hot rocks as if hungry for the nourishment the thin air brought.

Spud knew nothing of the carbon dioxide which these pale green growths could combine with water under the Sun's hot rays and build into vegetable tissue. But he marveled again and again at the hungry things that made a mesh of ropy strands across the smooth area about the ship. They even hung in drooping masses from the weird rocks beyond; and, so light they were, they raised their heads hungrily in air, while the corded tendrils even threw themselves in contorted writhings at times when the Sun struck with increasing warmth.

"A dead world!" said Spud scornfully. "How much the scientists back there don't know! First those livin', flyin' devils; and now this! The whole place is fairly wrigglin' with life."

* * * * *

It was then that he made one last flight over the inner crater and saw light on the floor of stone in the funneled depths. Then he sent the ship like a rocket down to the shelf of rock where Chet had begun his descent; and he worked with trembling fingers to adjust the metal suit and regulate the oxygen supply.

He waited only to strap a couple of detonite pistols about him; then, with never a backward look, he let himself out through the air-locking doors and started pell-mell toward the inner crater.

Like Chet, he had learned to gage his tremendous strength; like the master pilot, he threw himself down the rocky slope. But where Chet had leaped and stumbled in the darkness, O'Malley worked in full light.

He came at last to the rocky floor where molten stone in ages past had hardened to seal the throat of this vent. Hundreds of feet across, Spud estimated; smooth in appearance from above, but broken with deep crevasses and excrescences where hot, fluid stone had frozen in its moment of bubbling turbulence. And, in one place, where the floor was smooth, Spud found what he was searching for: a circular, metal ledge that projected above the smooth rock; and, within it, a still smoother sheet of what appeared to be hammered metal.

"A door it is," whispered the pilot, half-fearful of listening ears, "and the gateway to Hell!" He grinned broadly at some thought. "And here I've been told 'twas, of all places, the easiest to get into; one little slip from grace and there you were! Sure, and the priests were as wrong as the scientists. It must be Heaven that's easy to crash, for the front door of Hades is shut fast without even a keyhole to peep through."

* * * * *

Then his face sobered to its customary homely lines. "The poor bhoy!" he exclaimed. "I've got to get in some way. I wonder how hard and thick it is."

He was raising a mass of black, shining rock in his hands—a fragment that his strength would not have moved a fraction of an inch on Earth. He steadied it above his head, preparing to crash it upon the metal door; then waited; stared incredulously at the black metal sheet; lowered the great stone silently and turned to leap mightily yet with never a sound for the shelter of an upflung saw-toothed ridge.

And, from its shelter, he watched the black door swing smoothly into the air, while, from the gaping black mouth of the pit beneath, incredible man-shapes of fish-belly white drew themselves up to the edge of the pit and perched there, where they might stretch their long necks into the light of the Sun.

Below them, Spud saw, dangled long, rat-like tails; and their wings, black and leathery, hung down too from their backs or dragged on the rocks behind where some three or four of the owl-eyed creatures crawled out and walked across the rock toward the place where an Irish pilot waited and stared with unbelieving and horrified eyes from the concealment of his rocky fort.



CHAPTER VIII

The Fires

Great vortices of whirling light rolled out to either side in an endless pyrotechnical display to show the power of those flailing wings that were bearing Chet and his companion through the dark void—bearing them to some destination Chet could not envisage.

His body turned in space at times, and he saw the spreading cone of luminous gas behind them like the wake of a great ship in a phosphorescent sea. The hiss and threshing of many wings came unceasingly. Once he swung close to another body clad like his own and, like him, enmeshed in a net. And he saw in the light of the luminiferous air the girl's wide, staring eyes. Then she was gone, and all about was only the whip of wings and the flashing whirls of light.

He tried to form some picture of this sphere through whose center, empty but for this gas, he was being swung. That first fall had carried him down the tube of some volcanic blow-pipe; he had fallen straight for what seemed like hours. And that had been through the crust of this great, hollow globe. Then the center!—but of this he dared make no estimate; he knew only that the huge leather wings were threshing the dense air in an untiring rhythm and that he was being carried for a tremendous distance at remarkable speed.

It became soothing, that rushing, swinging sweep of his body through space. There was death ahead, without doubt—but what of that? He was sleepy—sleepy—and beyond this nothing mattered. Just to sleep, to drift off in spirit into a void like this through which he was swinging....

And so traveled Chet Bullard, one time Master Pilot of Earth, through, the heart of another world—on and endlessly on, while leather-winged demons dragged him after, flying straight away from the center of the Moon toward a place and events unknown.

But Chet Bullard had ceased to note the passing hours or the swirling gases that came alight at the beating of those wings; he was asleep in a stupor that was as deep as it was timeless.

* * * * *

He opened his eyes at last; it seemed but a moment that he had slept. But now there was no rushing hiss of air, nor was he being lifted in a great net. He lay instead upon a support of some kind, and about him all was still.

Not at first did he observe the exquisite carving of the yellow bed on which he lay; that came later. The fact that its massive gold and its scrollwork of inlaid platinum were worth a fortune meant nothing to him then. His eyes were held by the immensity of the great room and the intricate series of arches that made up a vaulted ceiling.

It shone with a light of its own, that carved ceiling; no least lovely detail was lost. And Chet found his eyes roving from one to another of angel figures that seemed suspended in air.

The white of purest alabaster was theirs; and their outstretched wings, too, were white. He realized confusedly that they were like the black demons—like them and yet entirely unlike. For, where the black-winged ones had been ugly of feature, with every mark of degeneracy, these were the ultimate of loveliness in face and form. Figures of men he saw, stalwart and strong, yet perfectly proportioned; and the others—the women and girls—were superhuman in their ethereal beauty.

"Angels!" breathed Chet and turned his head slowly to see the exquisite figures that seemed hovering above the whole vast room in silent benediction. "Angels—no less! And they're carved from stone! Those black devils never did it. What does it mean? What does it mean!"

And not until then did Chet realize a wonderful thing. So enthralled had he been by the wonder of this hovering angel band he had not realized that he was seeing them with no helmet glass between; he was lying disrobed on his couch of pure gold.

* * * * *

For an instant, panic seized him. Without his helmet and the oxygen supply, he must strangle. And then he knew that he was breathing naturally in an atmosphere like that of Earth but for the strange fragrances that swept to him on the soft, warm air.

He came slowly to his feet and steadied himself with one hand on the scrollwork of the bed. Then memories rushed in upon him, and he lived again the long, sickening fall through the heart of this world, the finding of the girl of mystery, hung like himself in the immensity of the inner world, their capture; and the band of black-winged ones who swung them through space in nets that drew tightly about them.

The girl! Again he saw the clear look from those eyes of blue. It was she who had signaled; it was she whom he had come through vast space to rescue. And now she was lost!

Chet stared slowly about him at the magnificence of the tremendous room. He saw more delicate figures done in inlay on the walls; he knew that he was in a place whose beauty and wealth should have set his nerves tingling; and all he sensed was the loneliness of this place where he was the only living occupant.

* * * * *

He found his Earth-clothes beside the golden couch. He had put them on and was examining the suit and helmet to learn with relief that they were intact when the first sound came to him. From an arched entrance across the room were coming shuffling figures whose black wings were wrapped about their chalk-white bodies. Only their pallid faces showed, ghastly and inhuman, as the eyes glowed redly from their deep black sockets. Chet still held the suit in his hands as the black-winged ones came toward him across the floor, and he carried it with him as he moved unresistingly where they led him with the pull of their claw-like hands upon his arms.

"No gun!" he told himself hopelessly. "Not a chance if I put up a fight! They've got me and got me right. Now what I need to do is to be good—lay low—find out something about all this, and find her!" He could not name the girl whose eyes were haunting him in their appealing loveliness; he could think of her only as the mystery girl, and he accepted without surprise or denial the fact that the finding of her outweighed all else that this new world might hold for him.

As the shuffling figures closed about him and led him away he found relief in the thought of his ship, of Spud's safety, and of his return to the world that they both knew as home.

"Never again for me!" said Chet softly beneath his breath. "But Spud will get there. Perhaps he is there now—no telling how long I have slept!"

* * * * *

He saw it all so plainly: saw the Irish pilot bringing the ship to rest at the great Hoover Terminal. And he saw, too, a relief expedition that would be organized by Harkness and that must arrive too late. To suppose that any help might reach him here inside this wild world was too much; Chet looked with judicially appraising eyes at the things about him and could not allow himself to be deceived. There was no hope; but he made one resolve and made it grimly in words that never reached his lips.

"Give me half a chance at them, Walt," he promised, "and if ever you do get inside here, you'll know where I've been. I'll find the girl first—I must do that—then I'll give these devils something to remember me by before they put us away for good!" And now the face of the pilot was almost happy as he stared at the snarling, twisted features of those that led him unresistingly through a series of stone rooms that seemed without beginning or end. He even disregarded the spiked tails that whipped at him with heavy blows to hurry him along.

"If I had a gun," he told them inaudibly, "I'd take you on right now. But you got that, or I lost it in the scuffle, so I'll just twist your scrawny necks in my bare hands when the time comes. And it's coming, you ugly devils! It's coming!"

Their claws pulled roughly at him to hurry him into another room. And where before he could see nothing of a beautiful room because of the absence of a pair of smiling eyes, he now saw nothing else for their presence. For, across the great hall, whose walls and ceilings glowed softly with yellow light, his eyes swept unerringly to a slim figure in a pilot's suit—to an oval face and blue eyes and red lips that could still curve into a trembling smile of welcome as he drew near.

* * * * *

Forgotten was the grip of sharp-spiked, clawing hands; even the anticipated sweets of revenge were lost from Chet's mind. He knew only that he had found her—the mystery girl—and that the blue eyes were locked with his in an intimacy that set something deep within him into a turmoil of emotion.

And instead of the countless questions he had expected to launch upon her when again they met, he found his lips trembling and wordless—until they uttered one hoarse ejaculation of: "Thank God!"

But the girl seemed to understand, for she reached one slender hand to touch him lightly upon the arm where these gripping claws had been. "Yes," she whispered; "I was afraid, too—afraid for you!"

More whispered words, but they were lost to Chet in the babel of sound that engulfed them. Those who had brought him had moved silently, and the throng of some hundred or more that waited beside the girl had been mute. But now they burst into a chorus of shrill cries whose keenness stabbed at Chet's ears.

A pandemonium of the same high-pitched squeals, he had heard before—this was all that he could distinguish at first. Then the shrill sounds broke into words and unintelligible phrases, and he knew they were talking among themselves.

* * * * *

They quieted at a sound from the girl. She had turned to face them, and she forced her own soft voice into a shrill pitch as she spoke to them. Their clamor broke out once more as she ceased, but it was more subdued. Chet could hear her as she turned toward him.

"They think you are Frithjof," she explained.

"You talked with them?" asked Chet incredulously.

"But certainly; have I not been here for five years? They have their language—but enough of that now. They are angry. They sent Frithjof away; they tell me now that he escaped; they think you are he—that you have changed your appearance with magic—that the ship they saw was summoned by your magic. They say they will kill us both; throw us to the fires!"

"Wait!" almost shouted Chet to make himself heard above the din of shrieking voices. "I've got to know! Who are you? Who is Frithjof? How did you get here? Where are you from? Tell me quickly! It may give me something to go on; it may mean a chance for delay."

And if Chet had not been out of breath from the shouted questions, he would surely have been left breathless by their amazing answer.

"I thought you knew," said the girl as the din of shrillness subsided. There seemed to Chet a note of hurt in her voice. "I thought you knew, that you had come here knowing. I am Anita, and Frithjof is my brother—Frithjof Haldgren! I stowed away on his ship; he did not know. I was only thirteen then.... And now, is Frithjof forgotten back in that world that we left?"

Again that note of disappointment; the pilot sensed it even through the tenseness of the moment when both Earth-folk knew that death stood close at their side. He answered quickly:

"I came for your brother. I saw your signals. I came to find Haldgren and to save him. And I have failed. But if death, as you say, is all we can expect, let me say this: 'I have failed, but I have found you; and whatever comes I am content.'"

* * * * *

The blue eyes were wide; they were looking at him with a searching glance that changed to a childish candor while a flush stole over the pale face. She reached out one hand toward his. "We could have been happy," she said simply; "and now—now we must face the fires—together."

"I don't know just what you mean by that," spoke Chet softly, "but, whatever it is, there is a little matter of a fight first."

He released her hand and moved swiftly between her and the nearer of the throng; and his blood pulsed strongly through him as he faced a battery of hostile red eyes and knew that he was preparing for his last fight.

A hand clutched at his arm. "Not now!" begged Anita Haldgren's voice. "Wait! They will not all come. I too, can fight; but we cannot face so many!"

The rat-tails of the nearest beasts were whipping to and fro; the eyes in the chalky faces were like living coals where the ashes have been freshly blown. Chet stepped back beside the girl, and he made no protest as the black claws seized him and the sharp talons dug into his flesh. But he whispered to the one who was hurried along beside him: "You are right; I'll be good as long as we stay together. But if not—if we're separated—if they take you away—"

And the girl nodded quick agreement with his unspoken words.

* * * * *

Chet set his teeth together to make more bearable the pain of those gripping claws; but the hurt was easier to bear when he saw that the girl was more carefully treated. She was close ahead as his captors hustled him from this room into others and yet others, all carved from the solid rock.

What a people this must be who could do such work as this! Again the sense of amazement struck through to Chet despite the pain—amazement and a feeling of an inexplicable incongruity when he saw the leather-winged creatures that had him in their grip. And again there were figures high overhead—white, floating figures on pinions of pure white; their faces, kindly and serene, looked down upon the motley throng.

"Look above you!" gasped Chet. "Anita! What are they? Not like these devils!"

And the girl ahead half-turned her head to answer: "Ancestors! A thousand generations back! They have come down to this state now—degenerated."

Chet saw one of the beasts who held her jerk her sharply about, and he knew that his remaining questions must wait—wait forever, perhaps, and remain unsaid.

They came at last to a place where Chet found the answer to one question he had not dared ask; a place where gaping chasms in the floor glowed red with the wrath of unquenched fires. And the girl, Anita, when they had been placed by themselves against a glowing, lighted wall of rock, stared steadily at those pits and the sulphurous fumes that vomited out at times; then turned and spoke to the pilot in a voice steady and sure.

"It will be over quickly," she assured him. "Frithjof said that the heat, like the warmth of this whole inner world, comes from the contraction of the rocks in the cold of night. There is great pressure developed ... but he never learned the source of the light in the walls."

* * * * *

Talking to still the beating of a heart pulsing with dread, perhaps! Chet had no mind for explanations. Before him were a score of yawning clefts in a rocky floor; one was larger than the rest; there were figures whose white bodies glowed red in its reflected light as they floated on black wings high above; the light of those hidden fires blazed and died intermittently. There death was waiting, while these demons—these degenerate half-men, living products of a dying race—whipped the air in a frenzy of expectation as they darted above those chasms that were like rifts in the rock roof of hell.

Chet did not answer the statements of the girl. Instead he turned and gathered her once into his arms, while his lips met hers to find a ready response. Her face, so calm and pale, was turned upward to his. And his own voice trembled at first; then was steady and firm.

"I love you. I've come a long way to tell you, and I didn't know why I came. And now it is too late."

"Anita Haldgren," he said, and let his voice linger as he repeated the name, "Anita Haldgren—a beautiful name—a beautiful soul! And now—" He released her quickly and swung to meet a rush of beastly things that half-ran, half-flew across the great room.

* * * * *

Outstretched arms of white that ended in black claws! Snarling, grinning teeth in faces of dead-white flesh! Barbed tails that hissed through the air as they swung down upon him! And Chet Bullard, his blond hair shining like the gold that was inlaid and encrusted upon the walls of the room—Chet Bullard, Master Pilot, once, of a distant Earth—did not wait for the assault to reach him, but sprang in upon the beastly things with swinging fists that came up from beneath to crash into grinning faces; to smash dully into white, scabrous flesh; or catch beneath the angle of out-thrust jaws jolt the ghastly faces into awkward angles.

They went down before him at first. Then the long rat-tails came whipping over, the demon-heads, ripping down with slashing blows on the pilot's head and shoulders. Off at one side, a dozen paces away, a slender figure tore loose from gripping claws. Chet saw it; he freed himself for an instant to leap to her side. She was tugging at a bar of gold, a scepter in the hands of a sculptured figure in the wall. It would have been a serviceable weapon, but it bent slowly. Another of the beasts was upon her as Chet sprang.

This one went down beneath the chopping right that Chet shot to a lean, white jaw; then a barbed tail caught him a blow that laid his shoulder open. Another descended—and another. The pilot sank to the floor. Anita was beside him, shielding him with her own body from the rain of blows. Then they were buried beneath a great weight of odorous bodies—till Chet, after a time, felt himself dragged to his feet.

* * * * *

His head, was ringing with the shrieks of the shrill-voiced mob. He was still struggling, still fighting blindly, as the clamor ceased. Then he stood erect and motionless as he heard the voice of Anita Haldgren.

"It's Frithjof!" she cried. "Oh, my dear—my dear! It's Frithjof! I heard him! But he can't reach us—he can't help us! I will try to reason with these beasts—bargain with them—make them afraid! I will tell them it is magic."

And, as her voice, high-pitched in the language of this race, rose in protest against them, Chet heard what the girl had detected first: a sharp, metallic rapping within the wall, a rapping that was dulled by distance but whose separate blows were distinct; and he knew, with a knowledge that came from somewhere else than his bewildered brain, that the raps were forming dots and dashes. They were talking Morse!

The girl's frenzied appeal ended in a din of shrieks; a horde of man-beasts swept into the air and launched themselves in a solid mass upon the two. Chet saw Anita for one instant as he felt himself lifted in air. About him was a pandemonium of flailing wings; ahead and below was the red of hidden fires. They were being lifted out and over the pits.

One instant only, while tortured eyes smiled bravely into his; then a great pit-mouth that gaped a horrible welcome up ahead. So plainly Chet saw it! He could not tear his eyes away. He saw the red, smoking breath of it; he saw a rocky lip that shone like one great ruby.

* * * * *

It was impossible! Even the blast of air that tore at him meant nothing at first! But it was happening! Before his eyes it was happening! Chet watched dumbly, uncomprehendingly, as that great overhanging rock tore itself into fragments that rose screamingly into the air or fell to the depths beneath.

Another section of solid floor erupted a hundred feet across the room! The destruction was being kept away, Chet knew. And then, while a roar like all the thunders of Earth reverberated deafeningly through the rock room, the claws that gripped him relaxed their hold.

He fell, nor felt the impact of his fall. He came to his feet, ran stumblingly to the edge of the nearest pit where he threw his arms about the body of a girl and dragged her to safety. And while he did it he was babbling in broken sentences:

"It's detonite! Your brother!... Where did he get it?... Detonite!... Oh, my dear—my dear!"

And his arms were tight about her while he held his body between her and the explosions that tore at the floor in an inferno of crashing explosions out beyond—until three of the demon-beasts, red with the reflected fires of that subterranean hell, flew down like black-winged bats bent on vengeance. And Chet, laughing at their numbers, sprang out with hard fists swinging in well-directed blows, and welcomed them as only an Earth-man could.



CHAPTER IX

O'Malley Investigates

Spud O'Malley's twinkling Irish eyes had seen strange sights in his years of piloting an Intercolonial freighter; he had touched at odd corners of the Earth. But never had he seen such creatures as confronted him now.

Sheltered behind a jagged ridge of volcanic rock in the inner crater of the great ring of Hercules, he stared in utter horror at the figures that approached. For to Spud, with all his inherited ancestral faith in gnomes and pixies, these bat-winged things were nothing less than people of the under world—demons from some purgatory of the Moon—devils, living and breathing, spewed out from that buried hell for a moment of relaxation from their horrid work.

And, coming directly toward him across a level lava bed, three of the things, with leather wings trailing, were approaching. Spud was unmoving; his feet might have been one with the volcanic rock on which he stood for any ability of his to raise them. Only his eyes turned slowly in their sockets to stare wildly at the three who drew near; who glimpsed his awe-stricken eyes behind his helmet glass; and who uttered shrill, screaming cries that brought the rest of the unholy crew leaping and flapping across the rocks.

And, within that helmet, Spud's lips moved unconsciously to repeat prayers he would have sworn were forgotten these many years. There was a pistol at his belt where his hand was resting; another hung at his other side. But the man made no move to defend himself; he was struck numb and nerveless, not through fear, but through that horror which comes with seeing one's most gruesome superstitions come true. Spud O'Malley, who would have laughed at devils and believed in them while he laughed, knew now that they were real. They had captured Chet; they were about to take him, too, to the hell that was their home.

* * * * *

And still he did not move while the demon figures pressed closer, while their wild, shrieking cries echoed within his helmet; while they lashed their scaly tails, and at last leaped in unison upon the helpless man.

And then, with that first touch, Spud O'Malley, who had not only seen strange creatures but had fought with them, came to himself—and the hand that rested upon a detonite pistol moved like the head of a striking snake.

The roar of detonite was strained and thin in the light atmosphere of this globe; it seemed futile compared with its usual thunderous report. But its effects were the same as might have been expected on Earth!

Spud was hurled to the rocky floor, as much by the closeness of the exploding shells as by the weight of the bodies that came upon him. He fell free of the first leaping things that went to fragments in mid-air as his pistol checked them. And he made no effort to arise, but lay prostrate, while he swung that slender tube of death about him and saw the winged beasts shattered and torn—until there were but five who ran wildly with frantic, flapping wings; and these the tiny shells from Spud's gun caught as they ran when the Irishman sprang to his feet and took careful aim across the jagged rocks.

"Saints be praised!" the pilot was saying over and over. "Saints be thanked!—even the Devil's imps can't stand up to detonite shells! And Chet, the poor lad!—his gun must have been knocked from his hand; he was fightin' in the dark, too! And they took him down there, they did!—down where I'm goin' to see if the lad is still livin'."

And Spud O'Malley, though he believed fully in the demoniac nature of these opponents and never for an instant thought but that he was descending into an inferno of the Moon, strode with steady steps toward the portal of that Plutonic region and lowered himself within.

* * * * *

That ring of metal, huge and accurately formed, made Spud pause in thought; the massive metal door that came up from below to fit that ring snugly—that, too, looked more like the work of human hands than of demons. The pilot was frankly puzzled as he tentatively moved a lever down below that door and saw the huge metal mass swing shut.

About him the walls were glowing. He saw, in the floor, another circular door, but found no lever with which to operate it. Nor did he search for one, since he could have no way of knowing that here was where Chet had gone. But, from the corridor where he stood other lighted passages led; and one slanted more steeply than the rest.

"That's the way I'm goin'," announced Spud. "I know that, and it's all I do know; I'm goin' down till I find some place where the devils live and where Chet may be."

The passage took him smoothly down. It turned at times, and smaller branches split off, but he followed the main corridor that he had selected for his route. And he paused, at last, beside a metal frame in the rock wall, where the door that fitted so tightly in the frame was not like the others he had seen. For the first ones, though cleverly fashioned and machined, were of iron, rusted red with the ages; while this one that was before him now was paneled and decorated with sweeping scrolls. And, above this portal that seemed hermetically sealed, was a white figure such as Chet had seen.

* * * * *

Spud's gaze traveled up to it slowly, and his knees were trembling as they had not done when facing the black-winged ones. "'Tis an angel," he whispered, "or the statue of one! And that explains it all. 'Tis them that has done all this—these passages, and the sweet-fittin' doors. And do they live here? I wonder. Heaven help me if I meet them, for never could I shoot at one of them, the pretty things!"

He was still gazing in rapt wonder that was near to worship when the great door began to move. He saw the first hair-line crack, and the thin line of light was like a hot wire across his eyes, so quickly did he respond. Beyond, where he had not yet gone, was a branching passage. All the walls glowed softly with light—no shelter of darkness was his—but Spud leaped for the little passage and raced down it until a turn screened him from sight.

"That's movin'!" he congratulated himself. "What an athlete I'm becomin'!" And it was fortunate for the pilot that the ceiling was high, for his tremendous Earth-strength propelled him in unbelievable bounds.

He still moved on silently, for far ahead in the corridor something had caught his eyes. And he stopped finally beside a little car; then saw that he had been following a single rail, buried under the dust of ages on the corridor floor.

The monorail car lay on its side. At one end of it was a motor. Not a motor such as men had built, Spud confessed, but an electric motor none the less. And beyond this, where the passage ended, was a wall veined thickly with gold.

* * * * *

Ropy strands of the metal shone reddish-yellow in the soft light of the walls; detached pieces lay on the floor and in the car itself. Spud regarded it with amazement, but the wealth he was witnessing left him cold; another thought was forcing itself into his brain.

That thought took more definite form when another corridor took him to rooms where great metal cases were neatly stacked; other adjoining rooms held strange machinery and appliances on metal stands.

"Lab'ratories!" said the amazed man explosively. "And storehouses, too! Neither angels nor devils did this; 'tis the work of men—and I know how to get along with men. I'll go find them. Belike they have saved the lad, Chet, and he'll be waitin' to see me."

He raced back along the corridor, but stopped short at its end, where he had taken flight from the larger passage. There was sound of shrieking voices, and Spud dropped to the floor to present as small a view as possible to the half-human things that trailed their black wings past the metal entrance; then he crept cautiously to peer around the corner, when the last one had gone.

They were waiting out beyond; Spud watched them intently. They had great nets of rope in which were living things that struggled and writhed.

He saw one of the creatures stoop to break off a protruding end of pinkish, nameless substance; the thing seemed to struggle in his hands while he took it to his mouth and munched on it. Even when Spud realized that this living food was vegetation of some sort, he was still sickened with the sight of its being taken alive into the bodies of these Moon-beasts.

* * * * *

One of the ugly figures raised a black-clawed hand to seize a lever let flush into the wall. It had been concealed. Spud saw the door open; saw the waiting horde troop through, dragging their loaded nets; and he saw the door close silently, while the actuating lever moved back to its former position.

And Spud, speaking half aloud, counted slowly to a hundred, then another hundred, as a gage of the time while he waited for those beyond the door to move on. But at the count of two hundred his eager hands were upon the lever, while his eyes were hungry to stare beyond the opening door.

They found nothing but emptiness when the door swung wide. Another room of luminous walls; another door in the farther wall. The man moved slowly through the doorway one cautious step at a time and stared about.

He found a lever like the others, moved it—and saw the door close silently behind him. Another lever was near the second door; he pulled carefully, steadily, upon it.

There was no movement of the door, but something had occurred as he knew by the hissing sound that came from above his head. Its source he could not find; its result was most startling. For, where before his suit had bulged out roundly with the inner pressure of one atmosphere, it now became less taut—and it hung loosely about him when the hissing ceased.

"An air-lock," said Spud joyfully, "or I'm a rat-tailed imp myself! That means a heavier air-pressure inside. And now I know 'tis men folks I'm goin' to see!"

* * * * *

The lever moved easily now, and the second door swung open and closed behind him as before. Spud tore recklessly at the fastening of his suit, regardless of the fact that an increased pressure might still come from some gas that would mean death to a human. But, like Chet, he found the air fragrant and pure, and he rid himself of the encumbering suit, strapped the pistols at his waist, rolled the suit to a bundle he could sling over one shoulder, and moved carefully as a cat as he went forward through a corridor that led down and still down.

As he went the empty labyrinth of halls filled him with a horrible depression; yet there was beauty everywhere—beauty whose delicacy of curve and color filled even the untrained mind of Spud O'Malley with a thrill of delight.

There were halls and vast rooms without number; there were carvings that glowed with a light of their own—figures so filled with the very spirit of livingness that they seemed stepping out from the cold walls to greet him; there were more celestial hosts of purest white poised apparently in mid-flight.

There were marvelous, rioting waves of color that pulsed and throbbed through the walls and the very air of some rooms; and there were articles of furniture—carved tables, chairs—objects whose purpose Spud could not guess. But, except for the occasional sound of shrill, squeaking voices in the distance, there was no sign of the presence of the builders, the men Spud had hoped to find.

And he knew at last that his quest was hopeless. The dust of uncounted centuries that lay thickly upon all was evidence as convincing as it was mute.

"There's naught but the devils!" Spud despaired. "The others—saints be helpin' of them!—have been gone for more years than a man dares think of. So, the devils it is; I'll follow them—I'll go where they are. But I'm not so sure at all of findin' the lad now."

* * * * *

That high-pitched chattering that had come to him at times was his only guide now. It seemed echoing in greater volume from one passage that slanted down more sharply than the rest. Spud followed it, clinging with hands and feet to the steep-pitched floor; but some sudden impulse seized him and compelled him to stop at intervals while he drew a pistol from his belt. Its grip was of steelite that rang sharply as a bell when he struck it upon the walls. And he tapped out the general call of the Service time after time; then strained his faculties in eager listening until he went hopelessly on.

But he repeated the call. "For the lad may hear it and be heartened," he argued. "And if he's free to do it he'll answer—though I think I'd break down and cry with joy did I hear an answerin' rap."

And still the chattering grew louder, while the watching, creeping man moved stealthily on. A wave of gas came to him once and set him choking, while far ahead he saw a reflected glow more red than the pale, lucent shimmering of the walls.

He stopped dead still as once more there flooded through him a thousand unnamed fears of this domain of the Evil One where he would trespass. But he forced his feet to carry him on until he could peer down through a rift in the rock floor to behold another room whose walls glowed redly with the light of fires far down in hot-throated pits.

* * * * *

There were figures whose white bodies shone as redly in that glow—figures that floated on outspread leather wings of dead black. Small wonder that the mind of Spud O'Malley found here the confirmation of his worst fears; small wonder that his trembling lips whispered: "'Tis Hell! 'Tis Hell, at last!"

But there was that which froze his quivering nerves to cold quiet, which set his lips into a grim, straight line and held him motionless above the opening from which he saw the room below—as, from a flurry of bodies against one far side, he saw a girl emerge.

She was in the hands of the black-winged beasts who carried her into the air then swung out toward the fiery pit. And Spud's incredulous: "Oh, the poor, beautiful darlin'!" rose unconsciously to his lips to die away in a quick-drawn breath. For, from the mass of bodies, another figure was tossed up into the air to be gripped by black, waiting claws—and Spud knew that he was seeing Chet Bullard, fighting, struggling, in the grasp of these demons from the Pit.

* * * * *

The fumes from that inferno rose straight up. They passed out at another funnel-shaped throat except for an occasional eddy that whirled back toward the watching man. But Spud O'Malley, hanging precariously from that opening above, knew nothing of the sulphurous fumes or of the tight band they clamped about his throat. He was taking careful aim at the first of the flying beasts, found Chet in his line of fire, and snapped forward his pistol to fire at the lip of the pit instead. And he slipped forward the continuous discharge lever that caused the pistol to shake in his hand as it emptied its capacious magazine in a furious rain of bullets whose every end was tipped with the deadliest explosive of Earth.

The floor rose up toward him in a spouting volcano of fire, while Spud glared wildly through glazed and blinded eyes and swung his pistol to rake the flying horde where he knew Chet was not.

He saw, through the haze that was sweeping before him, Chet's sprawled body on the floor; he saw him leap to his feet and rush to the rescue of the girl. Then the empty pistol slipped from Spud's nerveless hand; and his other, that had clung with unshakable grip to a sharp edge of rock, relaxed, while he plunged headlong toward the floor below.



CHAPTER X

One Stroke for Freedom

In that subterranean chamber of the Moon, where the angry red of still deeper fires flared fitfully; where winged demons, like evil creatures of a drug-crazed dreamer's mind, darted shrieking through the sulphurous air, it was a slender, blue-eyed girl who took control of events.

She it was who, when the explosions of detonite had ceased, saw the fall of a body from high above. She saw it strike upon a mound of dead Moon-beasts; saw the homely, human features as the body rolled to the floor; and it was she who threw herself upon it protectingly when one of the enemy wounded dragged his broken wings trailing across the stone that he might reach that human face with his distended claws.

"A man!" Anita Haldgren screamed. "It's a man—help me!" And Chet was beside her in an instant to drag the limp body to safety.

"Spud!" he shouted. "It's Spud O'Malley! He never went back! He came down here to save us!"

He grabbed up the gun where it had fallen; saw the empty magazine; then flung himself down beside the unconscious figure of Spud while he tore at the fastenings of the second weapon.

"His suit!" he shouted to the girl. "Get his suit! It's there where he fell! Bring yours and mine, too!"

He was hardly able to gage his own strength here where all weights were one-sixth of their equivalent on Earth. He stooped and swung the chunky body of Spud across his shoulder as easily as he would have lifted a child. And, having done it, he was entirely at a loss as to where to go.

Across the great room was a throng of leaping, flapping things; more were pouring in from open doors. Chet stood hesitant and bewildered, until Anita spoke.

"Come!" she called, and darted toward a narrow entrance.

* * * * *

The clamorous shrieking from the horde of Moon-beasts marked their swooping assault upon the two, and Chet paused to send them three shots that checked the advance. Then, with the body of Spud held tightly, he sprang where Anita had gone.

She was waiting, but gave Chet no chance to question her. "Come!" she commanded again, and ran on as before. But, as Chet gained her side, she offered between gasping breaths an explanation.

"Five years they kept us ... like animals in a cage ... but there was a place ... a sacred place ... they let us go there.... And they let us make signal lights from outside ... they called it magic.

"And now Frithjof has escaped ... he will go to the sacred room ... only there would he be safe...."

They had turned and twisted through narrow passages. Anita, it seemed, was plotting a course through less frequented thoroughfares of this strange city. But they came at last to a vast auditorium into which they peered from a half-opened door.

The room was of preposterous size, and Chet marveled at the minds that had conceived and wrought so tremendous an undertaking. And he saw plainly in his own mind the throngs of serene-faced beings who must have folded their white wings softly about them to gather there for worship. But more plainly still he saw the jostling, squealing crowd that was there that instant before his eyes.

Hundreds of them—thousands, it might be—and the sound of their shrill voices made hideous echoes from the high-flung ceiling of the great hall. The dry rustling of their leather wings was an unceasing rush of sound.

* * * * *

Some who seemed to be leaders stood above the rest on a platform which formed the base of a terraced formation against the far wall of the room. Even at a distance Chet could see and wonder at the simple beauty of that place of metals and jewels where the great ones of an earlier race had once stood.

Back of those who harangued the crowd the terraces built themselves up to a pyramid against the rock wall; and on either side, opening upon the platform base, was a doorway of noble proportions, whose metal doors of burnished reds and browns were closed.

"The sacred room," whispered Anita, "beyond those doors. Frithjof has closed them. He is there. I know it—I know it!"

Chet was still holding the body of O'Malley. Only his choked breathing showed that he still lived, but now he stirred and struggled in Chet's grasp, while he struck out blindly and hoarse sounds came from his throat.

Chet clapped one hand over the pilot's mouth. "For the love of heaven, Spud," he said fiercely, "be still! Don't speak—don't say a word! It's Chet—Chet Bullard! I've got you, we're all right!"

The pilot's struggles ceased, and Chet eased him to the floor where he sat still gasping for breath; the fumes from that place of death had been strangling in his throat.

Beside him Chet heard the girl repeating in softest tones the name she had heard for the first time.

"Chet—Chet Bullard! How odd a name! But I love it—I couldn't help but love it."

* * * * *

In the great room were some who had turned toward the sound of Chet's scuffling; they were walking slowly toward the half-opened door.

"Come!" said Anita Haldgren again, and fled like a slender, golden-haired wraith down the narrow hall.

More twisting passages until Chet was hopelessly lost. But he no longer needed to carry O'Malley, who was running beside him, and he had implicit faith in the girlish guide who went before. He was not surprised when they came after many detours to a narrow door of wrought metals in white and gold, whose inset designs were worked in glowing jewels.

Nor was he surprised when the door opened in response to a series of knocks from Anita's hand that spelled SOS in the code he knew, and a man, whose long hair and beard hung about a face as handsome as that of a Viking of old, stood motionless in that doorway.

But the surprise of that flaxen-haired giant can be only imagined when a young man whom he had never seen on Earth or Moon stepped forward from his sister's side with outstretched hand.

"I am Bullard," said the slim young man, "Master Pilot of the World—or at least that was my rating up to the time I left in search of you. And now, Pilot Haldgren, we've a ship outside, and, if you'd care to go back with us—"

And with equal casualness the blond Viking replied: "You came in search of us! You saw our signals! After all this time! Yes, we shall be glad to go back with—we shall be glad—yes—"

But his deep, rumbling voice broke into something like a sob, and he turned with outstretched arms to stumble blindly toward his sister, who buried her face in his torn and ragged blouse.

* * * * *

"You came in search of us—you came through space just to find and rescue us!" Haldgren, it seemed, could not recover from the effects of this unbelievable fact. He was gripping hard at the hand of Chet Bullard, while his other great arm was thrown about the shoulders of Spud O'Malley.

"But now that you are here, what is to be done? Every exit will be guarded; we are shut off from the outer world by a hundred locked doors and by thousands of those beasts."

He took his arm from Spud's shoulder to point toward the great doors, beyond which was a rising clamor of shrill sound.

"They will break in here soon; they would have been here before had they known of the old lost entrance of the priests that Anita and I found. We're as bad off as ever, I am afraid. There will be no holding them now."

"I can hold some," said Chet, and touched his weapon. Haldgren nodded his shaggy head.

"Some, but not many of the thousands we must face before ever we fight our way through to the outer world. No, my friend Bullard, that will never save us; we are doomed!"

But Chet, unwilling to accept or share the other's convictions, was seeing again the great room beyond those doors—a room of vast proportions; of high-arched, vaulted ceiling where sweeping curves all centered and ended in one tremendous central point. It hung down, that point, a blazing pendant—an inverted keystone; through some magic of that ancient people all the colors of the spectrum had been made to ebb and flow like rainbows of living light.

* * * * *

But something deeper than the beauty of this had impressed Chet. A master pilot does not study design of structures, even structures meant for travel through the air, without gaining knowledge of architectural fundamentals; his mind, subconsciously, had been following strains and stresses through those super-imposed curves. He turned abruptly to Haldgren with a question.

"It seemed to me when I was following Anita that we climbed upward; we were always running upward through the passages. We must be near the surface of the Moon; is that true?"

Haldgren nodded slowly. "I think so—yes! In the great room out there are windows of quartz high in the ceiling. You could not see them from where you were, but they are there. I have seen them lighted; I think it was the light of the sun."

"In that case," said Chet quietly, "I will ask you to open those doors."

"But they will come in!" the big man protested.

"They will not come in."

Chet turned to the girl. "I will ask you, my dear, to accompany me—if you have faith."

And, to that, Anita Haldgren granted not even a word of reply. She moved more swiftly than her brother to a controlling lever in the wall ... and the ponderous doors swung slowly back.

* * * * *

Beyond those opening doors a din of shrieks went abruptly still. They rose again in a squeaking babel of amazement and again were silenced as Chet Bullard stepped through the arch. Beside him was the slender figure of Anita; following was a stocky man whose unhandsome, face was alight with a broad grin.

"Go to it, my bhoy!" Spud O'Malley was saying. "I don't know what you're up to, but you'll be countin' me in—and here's hopin' you give those devils hell!"

And, behind them all, in great strides that brought him up with the rest, came Haldgren, recovered now from the stupefaction that had held him momentarily. The four went silently where Chet led to the highest point of the great terraced rostrum.

It was a stepped pyramid, Chet found, split in half and the half placed against the wall. There was a stairway of smaller steps where priests, some thousands of years before, had made their way to the top. And the dust of centuries arose in smoky puffs as the four trod that path where the holy ones had gone. Below them the silence was ending in sibilant hissing calls as the black-winged beast-men watched that procession to the heights. Some few had launched themselves into the air, Chet saw when he turned.

"Tell them to go back," he said to Anita; "tell them to listen to what I have to say!" There followed immediately the sound of Anita's soft voice distorted to shrill sounds that echoed throughout the hall.

"Tell them now," said Chet when the hall was still, "that I have come from another world. Tell them that I hold the thunderbolts of their ancient gods in my hands. Then tell them if they permit us to depart we will go and leave them in peace. But if they try to harm us, the temple of their gods will be destroyed, and they, too, shall die. Tell them!"

* * * * *

There was something of unwonted solemnity in the voice of the master pilot—something of quiet power and the dignity that became a messenger of the gods—as he gave his orders and faced the throng.

And there was the patience of a god who is sickened of slaughter as he faced the discordant din and the threatening forward surge of the demon throng below. The girl had spoken, and the air was black with their threshing wings, while still Chet waited with outstretched hand.

To the creatures below—the things half-men and half-beasts—the shining tube in that extended hand meant nothing of threat. And even to the Irish pilot, who stood silently watching, the gesture seemed futile.

"You've overplayed your hand, lad," he said in a tone of despair. "'Tis no little gun like that will stop them now!"

He was watching that hand and the shining tube; watching in amazement as he saw it swing slowly up toward the advancing horde risen level with them in the air—up above their massed blackness of wings—on and up, until the tube was pointing toward the base of a carven pendant, whose blending colors were fairy lights at play.

And still the weapon waited until the snarling faces of the enemy were close. Then the pistol cracked once, and the roar of its exploding shell came thundering after.

For an instant all motion ceased; the very wings of the flying beasts seemed frozen rigid in mid-flight. Then the whole of the vast room was in motion.

* * * * *

A rush of escaping air whirled upward the black-winged monsters in an inverted maelstrom of shrieking winds. And, falling to meet them, came an enormous pendant whose rioting colors seemed glorying in their own death. And with that came the swift disintegration of the vaulted arches where the one central supporting point of their intricate maze had been shattered; till, with a crashing avalanche of sound that obliterated the thundering echoes of the detonite charge, the entire ceiling, that seemed now like the roof of a mighty world, roared down to destruction.

The pyramidal rostrum was at one side. A cascade of shattered rock fell like a curtain before it—a kindly curtain that hid from human sight the hideous slaughter of a demoniac mob. It was still falling; the imprisoned air was gathering added force to rush upward, screaming as if the very winds were insane with joy at their release, when the great arms of Frithjof Haldgren closed about the others of the group and half carried them, half hurled them, down the slope.

* * * * *

The echoing clang of great doors was still with them as the bellowing voice of Haldgren was heard.

"Get into your suits! The internal pressure is lost." Even as he spoke the big man was clutching at his throat, though the closing doors of the sacred room had given them respite. "Quick! They have emergency doors. They will close them—but this part is cut off. In only minutes there will be no air!"

But it was Chet who snapped shut the closure of Anita Haldgren's suit before he pulled on his own. And he grinned happily through the glass of his helmet as he saw the others safely encased, while their suits slowly bulged as the pressure of the air about them went down and their own tanks of oxygen took up the task of maintaining one atmosphere of pressure.

In silence the great doors of the sacred room swung back; in silence, as before, the Earth-folk passed through where chaos had reigned. Chet checked them; he threw one arm clumsily around the figure of Anita Haldgren while he turned to her brother.

"The door is open, Frithjof Haldgren," he said, and pointed upward at the black vault of the heavens where a massive ceiling had been. In that immensity of space, framed in the torn outlines of a shattered world, shone a great globe—a globe like a giant moon. The Earth, unbelievably bright, was beckoning them once more.

"The door is open," Chet repeated; "do you still wish to go home?"



CHAPTER XI

"Bullard, of the I.B.C.!"

The controls of a meteor ship held steady without the touch of the pilot's hand. Chet Bullard was staring at a radiocone on the instrument board in the control room where a voice from some super-powered station was calling. His own radio had been crackling a call, and now this response was coming across the void.

"Orders from the Stratosphere Control Board: You will proceed at once to New York. Radiobeacon 2X12 will guide you down. Your message received and we acknowledge report of the finding of the space-flyer, Pilot Haldgren. Do not discharge any passengers and land nowhere else than at New York without direct orders of the Board. Keep your directional signal on full power; our cruisers will pick you up in the highest level. Signed: Commander of Air."

Spud O'Malley, it was, who broke the silence of the room where only the sound of the terrific exhaust came thinly through.

"May divils confound him! And it's back on the Moon with those other beasts I'm wishin' I was. At least a man can get close enough to slam them in their ugly faces; but the Commander and his cruisers! Sure, there's nothin' we can do!"

"Just take our medicine," said Chet Bullard quietly. "But I have proved him wrong; Haldgren, here, is the living evidence of that. And I said I would laugh him from the Service—well, I'm not so sure of that."

"But surely," broke in Haldgren's booming voice, "there will be only praise for what you have done. I do not understand—"

"You don't know the Commander, my boy," Spud broke in dryly. "And you don't know that the lad, here, defied him to his face and ran the gantlet of his cruisers' guns to get away and go after you."

"Ah!" grunted the giant. "And now I understand. It is the old story—an incompetent man in a place of authority—"

* * * * *

Chet broke in.

"Not quite right; this Commander of ours has done much—he is a driver of men—but there are some of us who think he lacks vision. He can never see beyond the stratosphere he rules so ably; and his position is supreme."

"There is still the Governing Council—we will appeal—"

But the master pilot was not listening to Haldgren's words; his slim, sensitive hand was reaching for the ball-control to build up still more the tremendous blast of a forward exhaust that was checking their speed and making them as heavy as if their bodies were of meteoric iron.

A forward lookout showed a black globe; its circle was rimmed with fire from the Sun that it blotted out. A hemisphere of night lay below—the black, mysterious night of a waiting Earth. But one strong signal came in on the instruments at Chet's side to show him where on that horizon was New York; and the call of a flagship of cruisers was flashing before him as the lift of the Repelling Area was felt.

"Follow!" flashed the order. "You will follow to New York!" And, through the black night, faint flashes of light marked the fleet of swift guardians of the skies that closed in, then swept downward and out—an impregnable convoy about the speeding, roaring ship.

And there was that in Chet's face as he handled the controls that brought Anita Haldgren to his side that she might lift his free hand in wordless comfort and press it to her face.

* * * * *

That venerable and beloved man, the President of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, stood silent before a vast audience. Throughout the great auditorium was silence; each of the gathered thousands was listening to the shrieking sirens from the landing field on the roof overhead.

Skylights above showed the night air ablaze with red, through which the vivid green of landing signals pierced in staccato bursts. From the roof of that building to the highest level of the stratosphere the air was cleared; no craft of the Service would venture to pierce the barrage of light and radio waves that hemmed that aerial shaft. And down the shaft, in a thunder of roaring exhausts, came a shining shape.

She sparkled and flashed in the crimson and green of that emergency light, and from her bow poured a tornado that blasted the air, then streamed out behind in hot gas like a comet of flame. Then the thunders died; the shining shape turned once slowly in air to show her blunt nose and cylindrical body before she settled softly as a homing bird to the embrace of great waiting arms of steel. And, inside the building, a white-haired man was saying:

"They are here! Thank God, they are here! Their radio has prepared us; our signals have guided them home. And now it is not New York, nor even the United States of America alone who attends; the whole world will be summoned. Look!"

* * * * *

Behind, and high above him on a wall, was a radio panel. Its signal lamps went suddenly dark. The thin, blue-veined hand of the speaker was pointing.

"Only twice has the world-call flashed: once when the Molemen came and the future of the world was at stake; once when the Dark Moon crashed down from the void and the serpents of space menaced aerial traffic. And now—once again!—the whole world is summoned! Every city and hamlet of Earth—every ship of the air and the sea—every vessel on the ocean, under the ocean, and in the air levels above—"

His voice broke sharply. From the panel there came a thin call, a quivering that was more a trembling than a sound; it reached out to touch raspingly the nerves of every listener. Then the whole board burst forth in a flash of fire where a flaming crystal leaped to life—and none could see that pulsing flame without thrilling to the knowledge that it was calling a whole world with its wordless summons.

The light died; a television detector whined as its motors came to speed; and each watcher knew that the waiting world was connected with that auditorium in New York; all that happened, there—each sight and sound—was circling the globe.

An announcer's voice roared briefly before the regulator cut down on its volume.

"You are seeing the Radio-central Auditorium in New York. On the landing stage above, after a journey of five hundred thousand miles, a strange craft has settled to rest. Its pilot: Chester Bullard, once rated as Master Pilot of the World! Its journey, now safely completed: from the Earth to the Moon, and return!

"The world is waiting to greet Pilot Bullard, though of this he, as yet, is unaware. World-wide radio control is now transferred to Radio-central Auditorium in New York! They are coming! They are entering!"

* * * * *

But the thousands gathered in that great hall heard no other words from the radiocone. Their attention was focused upon the broad stage, where, descending from a lift, a strange group stepped out upon the stage, stood an instant in startled wonder that was near embarrassment, then took the seats to which they were shown.

And again the venerable President of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale was speaking.

"It is less than a month since I stood here before you, when, as again is true to-night, the entire personnel of the executives of the Stratosphere Control Board was gathered to do honor to the pioneers of space—the discoverer—"

On the stage near the speaker, Chet Bullard stared in consternation at a girl in a pilot's suit as grimed and ragged as his own. His gaze passed on to the set features of Pilot O'Malley—to the blue eyes of a flaxen-haired giant—then on to where Walt Harkness and Diane, his wife, sat regarding him with happy smiles. Dimly Chet heard the man at the speakers' stand.

"—and on that other occasion, Mr. Bullard refused a decoration tendered him and marking him as the first to travel through airless space.

"I have here"—the speaker smiled slightly as he extended his hand where a jewel flashed fire from a velvet case—"the identical jewel and medal. And to-night, while the peoples of Earth are gathered throughout the world to do honor to Mr. Bullard, it has been given to me the proud privilege of welcoming him home."

* * * * *

He turned and held out a beckoning hand toward Chet. In a daze the younger man arose and moved beside the one who had called him.

"And now, Chester Bullard, on behalf of the Governing Council of the Ruling Nations of this Earth, I greet you: Pilot of the Stratosphere no longer—but Pilot of Endless Space! The world welcomes you; and, through me, it places in your hands this jewel.

"But you will observe that we older ones may still learn, and we do not repeat our former mistake. We hand you this medal, emblematic of the first penetration of space, to do with as you will."

The thin hand was shaking as the speaker turned and swept the audience with one all-inclusive gesture.

"To you who are before me now; to you out beyond wherever parallels of longitude and latitude are known—I present the Columbus of the Stars!—Chester Bullard!"

And suddenly Chet found himself alone in a pandemonium of sound. From the countless faces that blurred into one unrecognizable sea came a roar of human voices like waves thundering against storm-worn cliffs; above the clamor was the sound of shrieking sirens; and through all, when it seemed that no other sound could be heard, came the full-volume, nerve-stunning clangor from the radiocone's wide-opened throat as the trumpets and brass of all the monster bands of Earth broke forth, under radio control, in one synchronous song—till even that was drowned under the roaring welcomes in strange tongues as the nations of Earth cut in.

* * * * *

And Chet Bullard, his blouse still torn where a Commander of Air had ripped off a three-starred emblem of a Master Pilot, shook his blond head to clear it of the confusion that seemed beating him down. And he stared and stared, not at the rioting throng before him, but at something he could in part comprehend—a glowing, flashing jewel that rested in his hand. And slowly there crept into his eyes a look of understanding, while a ghost of a smile twitched and tugged at the corners of his mouth.

The hall, which one instant was a bedlam of roaring voices, went silent as Chet Bullard raised his hand. He was still smiling as he bowed toward the white-haired man whose happy face belied the moisture in his eyes; then he faced the throng, and his voice held no hint of trembling or uncertainty.

"The Columbus of the Stars! I thank you for that title, which I can accept only most humbly. For I ask you to go back with me into history and remember, as I am remembering, that before Columbus there were others whose names are lost.

"The Norsemen—those Vikings of old!—who dared the unknown seas, were first. And again history repeats. But this time the pioneer will not remain unknown. I have been to the Moon; I have reached out into space—but I followed another's trail.

"Frithjof Haldgren!" he shouted, and extended a hand toward the gentle giant whose face was aflame as he came to Chet's side. "Frithjof Haldgren, I present you to the world. Only one can be the first; and yours is the honor and glory. This medal is yours alone; I place it where it belongs!"

* * * * *

And Frithjof Haldgren, white of face and lips now instead of fiery red, stood silent and trembling while Chet fastened a jewel upon his grimy tattered blouse; then retired to his chair as if beaten back by the rolling waves of sound.

But to Chet, as he watched the man go, came a quick sense of disappointment. Unconsciously, his hand went to the same place on his own chest where had rested an emblem he had prized above all else—and now his searching fingers found only the mark of his disgrace. Then he knew again that the aged President was speaking, while he held Chet beside him with one detaining hand.

"We older ones have served, perhaps; we have done what we could; we pray that the world is better for our efforts! And we shall continue to serve; yet it is to youth that we must look for the progress which is to come.

"Today we face a new life whose horizons, once bounded by the limiting air, have been pushed back. We have conquered space, and before us is the waiting marvel of man's extension of his activities throughout the universe.

"How far shall we go in this new and endless sphere? With interplanetary travel, what is our goal? Only youth can give the answer. And in the hands of youth must the command of this great adventure be placed.

* * * * *

"Gentlemen, the Governing Council of the Ruling Nations of this Earth has created a new command. By the acts of this man who stands beside me, and by his fellow-explorer, Walter Harkness, the Council has been forced to take this step.

"That command will rank second only to the Governing Council itself; a body of men shall compose it who shall be known as the Interstellar Board of Control." He turned squarely toward Chet. "I am placing in your hands, Mr. Bullard, your commission as Commander of that Board. The best minds of all nations will be at your call. Will you accept—will you gather these men about you and do your part in this great work for the greater future of mankind?"

The ears of a listening world waited long for an answer. But the eyes of that world saw a figure whose blond head was suddenly lowered as if to hide a betrayal of what was in his heart; they saw him raise his bowed head to stare mutely toward a girl whose eyes of blue were swimming with happy tears as she gave him a trembling smile—and only then did they see Chet Bullard draw himself erect, while his voice went out with the speed of light to a waiting world.

"I accept, Mr. President. Proudly—humbly—I accept!"

And the eyes of the world, if they were understanding eyes, must have smiled with his, as the Commander of the Interstellar Board of Control grasped, among others, the congratulatory hand of his subordinate, the Commander of Air.

But if there were any who expected to read mockery in those smiling eyes, they had yet to learn the measure of Commander Bullard—"Bullard, of the I.B.C.!"

THE END

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