The Midget From the Island - Cover

The Midget From the Island

by H.G. Winter

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Garth Howard, prey to half the animals of the forest, fights valiantly to regain his lost five feet of size.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

In the chill of an early morning, a rowboat drifted aimlessly down the Detroit River. It seemed to have broken loose from its mooring and been swept away; its outboard motor was silent and it swung in slow circles as the currents caught at it. But the boat carried a passenger. A man’s nude body stretched face downward in it.

It was a startling figure that lay there. The body was fully matured and had a splendid development of rounded muscles--and yet it was not more than three feet in length. A perfectly formed and proportioned manikin! The two officers in the harbor police launch which presently slid alongside to investigate were giants in comparison.

They had not expected to find such weird cargo in a drifting rowboat. They stared at the naked, unconscious midget in utter amazement, as if seeing a thing that could not be real. And when one of them reached down to lift the tiny body aboard, his eyes went wider with added surprise. His lift was inadequate. The dwarf’s weight was that of a normal-sized man!

This was mystery on mystery. But they got the uncannily heavy figure aboard at last and ascertained that, though the skin showed many wounds and was blue from long exposure, the heart was still beating. And realizing that the life might flicker out beneath their eyes unless they took action immediately, they proceeded to work over him.

After some minutes, the dwarf gave signs of returning consciousness. His lids fluttered and opened, disclosing eyes that filled suddenly with terror as they stared into the faces, huge in comparison, that leaned over his. One of the officers said reassuringly:

“You’re all right, buddy: you’re on a harbor police launch. But who in the devil are you? D’you speak English? Where’d you come from?”

The midget struggled to speak; struggled desperately to tell something of great importance. They bent closer. Gasping, high-pitched words came to their ears, and the story that those words told held them spellbound. When the shrill voice ceased and the dwarf sank back into the coat they had thrown around him, the two policemen gazed at each other. One whistled softly, and his companion said soberly:

“We’d better phone up and have the local police tend to this right away, Bill.”

Thus, two hours later, several miles up the river, another launch containing three officers came to its destination, a solitary, thickly-wooded island that brooded under a cloak of silence where the river leaves broad Lake St. Clair. The launch crept up to a mooring post a few feet from a small, rough beach, and was tied there. Quickly, the men waded ashore and tiptoed up a winding trail that was barred from the sun by dank foliage. They soon came to a clearing where a large cabin had been built. There, one of them whispered, “Guns out!”

Then the three men crossed the clearing and cautiously entered the cabin.

For a moment there was silence. Then came a terrified shout, followed by the bunched thunder of a succession of pistol shots. The reverberations slowly died away, and some time later the policemen reappeared and stood outside the door.

One of them, dazed, kept repeating over and over, “I wouldn’t have believed it! I wouldn’t have believed it!” and another nodded in wordless agreement. The third, white-faced, stared for a long time unseeingly at the cloud-flecked bowl of the sky...

But it would be best, perhaps, to tell the story as it happened.

The incredible events that shaped it began two nights before, when the larger of the two rooms in the island cabin was bathed in the bald glare of a strong floodlight that threw into sharp prominence the intent features of two men in the room, and the complicated details of the strange equipment around them.

Garth Howard, the younger of the two, was holding a tiny, squawling, spitting thing, not more than three inches long, which might have seemed, at a quick glance, to have been a normal enough kitten. Closer inspection, however, would have revealed that it had a thick, smooth coat, a lithe, fully developed body and narrowed, venomous eyes--things which no week-old kitten ever possessed. It was a mature cat, but in the size of a kitten.

Howard’s level gray eyes were held fascinated by it. When he spoke, his words were hushed and almost reverent.

“Perfect, Hagendorff!” he said. “Not a flaw!”

“The reduction has not improved her temper,” Hagendorff articulated precisely. His deep voice matched the rest of him. Garth Howard’s clean-muscled body stood a good six feet off the floor, yet the other topped him by inches. And his face compared well with his bulky body, for his head was massive, with overhanging brows and a shaggy mop of blond hair. Athlete and weight-lifter, the two looked, but in reality they were scientist and assistant, working together for a common end.

The room in which they stood was obviously a laboratory. Bulky gas engines and a generator squatted at one end; tables held racks of tools and loops of insulated wiring and jars of various chemicals. One long table stretched the whole length of the room, placed flush against the left wall, whose rough planking was broken by a lone window. There were racks of test tubes on this table, and tools, carelessly scattered by men intent on their work.

Still another table was devoted to several cages, containing the usual martyrs of experimental science: guinea pigs and rabbits, rats and white mice. Beside these was a large box, screen topped, in which, in separate partitions, were a variety of insects: beetles and flies and spiders and tarantulas.

But the thing that dominated the laboratory was the machine on the long table against the wall. Its chamber, the most striking feature, was a cube of roughly six feet, built of dull material resembling bakelite. Wires trailed through it from the glittering plate, which was the chamber’s floor, and a curved spray-shaped projector overhead, to an intricately constructed apparatus studded with vacuum tubes. A small switchboard stood beside the chamber, and from it thick cables led to the generator in the rear of the room.

“Let us return her to normal,” Hagendorff rumbled after a moment or two devoted to prodding and examining the diminutive cat. “Then for the final experiment.”

One whole wall of the cubical chamber was a hinged door, with a tier of several peep-holes. Garth Howard swung the door open, placed the tiny, struggling cat inside and quickly closed it again. “Right,” he said briefly, and pressed his eyes to the bottom peep-hole.

A switch was pulled over, and the dynamo’s drone pulsed through the room. Hagendorff’s fingers rested on a large lever that jutted from the switchboard. Slowly, he pulled it to one side.

The imprisoned cat, small as a rat, had been nervously whipping its tail from side to side and meowing plaintively; but, as the lever swung over, there came a change. The vacuum tubes behind the switchboard glowed green; a bright white ray poured from the spray in the chamber, making the metal plate below a shimmering, almost molten thing. The animal’s legs suddenly braced on it; its narrowed eyes widened, glazing weirdly, while the tail became a stiff, bristling ramrod. And, as a balloon swells from a strong breath, the cat’s body increased in size. It grew not in spurts, but with a smooth, flowing rhythm: grew as easily as a flower unfolding beneath the sun.

In only a few seconds its original size was attained. Howard raised his hand; the lever shot back and the white beam faded into nothingness. A full sized and very angry cat tore around the inside of the chamber.

“Normal?” Hagendorff questioned. The other nodded and prepared to open the door.

“Wait! She always was a little undersized; I give her a few inches more as a reward.”

“Not too much,” warned Garth. “She’s got a nasty temper; we don’t want a wildcat prowling round here!”

The white beam flashed, the tubes glowed and almost instantly flickered off again. When the chamber’s door was opened, an indignant and slightly oversized cat bounded through, leaped from the table with a squawled oath of hatred and streaked into the front room of the cabin.

Garth turned and faced Hagendorff, a smile on his lips and a gleam in his eyes. He ran his fingers through his black hair.

“Well,” he said, “now it’s time for the final experiment. Who shall it be?”

Hagendorff did not answer at once, and the American went on:

“I think it’d better be me. There’s a slight risk, of course, and I, as the inventor, could never ask an assistant to do anything I wouldn’t. Is it all right with you?”

Hagendorff nodded quickly in answer. Garth stood reflecting for a moment.

“Guinea pigs, rabbits and insects have survived reduction to one-twentieth normal size,” he said slowly. “It should be safe for the human body to descend just as far. But stop me at about two feet this first time. I’m not taking any chances; I want to be alive and kicking when I announce the success of my experiments to the scientific world.”

His assistant said nothing.

“Well, here goes,” Garth added. “I’d better take off my clothes if I don’t want to be buried in them. They’re not affected by the process. Must be because of the lack of organic connection between their fibers and the human body.”

A few minutes later, nude, he jumped onto the laboratory table. He presented a perfect specimen of well-developed manhood as he stood before the door of the chamber. His smooth skin, under which the rounded muscles rolled easily, gleamed white beneath the glare of the floodlight. His gray eyes glanced at the stolid assistant, who already had one hand on the switchboard’s lever. Garth saw that the hand was trembling slightly, and smiled as he realized Hagendorff was as excited as he. He said:

“I’ll leave the door ajar, so you can more easily watch every phase of the reduction. If it’s painful--well, I guess I can stand anything a cat can!”

Then, stooping slightly, Garth stepped in and drew the door almost shut.

He relaxed as much as possible from the tremendous excitement that filled him, and nodded at Hagendorff.

“I’m ready,” he said. “Go ahead!”

The ray came to his body as the crash of thunder comes to the ear. His nerves leaped as it struck and enveloped him. He felt as if he were entombed in ice, and yet his veins were aflame. Fiery shafts fanged him all through and resolved, presently, into a measured, tingling beat.

His thoughts raced. He knew that those minute particles of matter, the atoms of his body, were being compacted; he sensed that his legs were rigid, his body stiff, his eyes clamped ahead in a glazed stare. He was only half-conscious of the objects outside, but the dim sight of them was fantastic and nauseous.

There was Hagendorff’s face peering in at him--growing! Swelling as the cat’s body had swollen; and yet receding and rising until Garth, momentarily forgetting that he was the one whose size was changing, thought that the man’s titanic body would fill the room. But the room was growing, too: the stools were becoming leviathans of wood, the walls were like cliffs, the compact switchboard was a large surface of black, and the chamber in which he stood grew into a high-roofed vault, its sides shooting up and retreating as if shoved by invisible hands.

And still he sank, and still the terrible light devoured him.

Suddenly a delirious sensation engulfed him; his senses went reeling away, and he staggered. Then with a wrench he came to. As he regained control of his mind he knew the lever had been switched off and the process completed.

He found that he was gasping. He passed a hand over his sweat-studded face and looked around.

Outside was the room of a giant. And in a moment a giant became visible. His vast bulk filled the chamber’s doorway; his mammoth face peered in. Garth’s eardrums quivered from a deep bass rumble, sounding like thunder on a distant horizon.

“Are you all right, Howard?”

A finger half the length of his own arm reached forward and prodded him. For a second Garth could do nothing but stare at it. It brought home to him starkly the puny size of his body, only two feet in height. He felt suddenly afraid. But that was foolish, he thought; and he laughed, his voice ludicrously high and shrill.

“I’m all right,” he cried. “But I can hardly understand you. If I were much smaller, I probably couldn’t--your voice’d seem so deep. Gangway, Hagendorff, I’m coming out!”

His eyes were just below the level of the giant’s shoulders. He stepped from the black chamber and stared amazedly at the room, at the chairs, the objects in it--at the laboratory table on which he was standing, along which he might have sprinted thirty yards. A surge of exultant animal spirits flowed through him. His dream had become a reality; the machine had passed its last test! His body was sound and whole; he felt perfectly natural; he had not changed, save in size; and in size he was like Gulliver, confronted with a Brobdingnagian room!

He hurdled a five-inch-high box of tools, ran down the creaking table and stood laughing in front of a rack of test tubes half as high as he was. Three strides took Hagendorff opposite him; and from above the thunderous voice rumbled:

“What were your sensations?”

“Probably as close as man’ll ever get to the feelings of a spark of electricity!” the midget replied. “But bearable, though I was freezing and burning at the same time. My body was rigid, paralyzed--just like the animals we used. I couldn’t move.”

“You’re sure you couldn’t move? You were helpless?”

The booming voice throbbed with sudden interest. Garth looked up curiously. “No,” he repeated. “I couldn’t move. But lift me down, Hagendorff. I want to take a walk on the floor.”

A hand wrapped around his body, tensed and strained upwards. The two-foot-high man was not quite pulled off the table. Then Hagendorff grunted and relaxed his grasp.

“I had forgotten,” he rumbled. “Your weight remains the same. You are one-third my size, yet you weigh almost as much as I do. Weight, which is the sum of the mass of all the atoms in you, is not, naturally, affected by compacting those atoms.”

It was only by a great effort that he was able to deposit the manikin on the floor.

For a while Garth strolled around, savoring to their full the fantastic sensations his diminished stature gave him, at once amused and somehow frightened by the overwhelming size of the laboratory. To his eyes, the tables were like bridges; Hagendorff’s broad figure loomed monstrously over him, and the guinea pigs and rabbits in their cages seemed as big as fair-sized dogs. With a grin, he looked up at the giant who was his assistant.

“Think I’ll make the return trip, and give you a chance,” he said. “I’ve had my share, and the process has been proven. It’s weird, being down in this new world all alone. I’d hate to think what would happen if a rat came along!”

Silently, Hagendorff stooped and grasped him again. But Garth, when he stood once more inside the chamber, regarded his huge, rough-moulded face curiously.

“Say,” he said, puzzled, “your hands are trembling like the devil! What’s wrong? You’re more nervous than I am!”

Hagendorff did not answer. He advanced to the switchboard. His narrowed, deep-set eyes shot a quick glance at the small, nude man inside the chamber, and for a second one hand hovered over the lever on the panel.

In that tense second a flash of intuition, of deadly fear, came to Garth Howard, and he leaped wildly forward. But his rear foot did not leave the floor of the chamber, and his shout of alarm was choked midway. Again the fierce ray paralyzed every muscle in him, and he was locked motionless where he was.

Helplessly, his glazed eyes stared at Hagendorff, while every moment his rigid little body melted downwards. He was becoming rapidly smaller, not larger!

Through the agony of the stabbing electrical waves, in vain Garth tried to wrench his legs free. The few inches that separated him from the door were an impassable barrier. Sheer panic clutched him. He was trapped. But why? Why had Hagendorff tricked him?

As if reading the question, the giant outside came close to the chamber’s door and regarded his captive with eyes that were lit by a peculiar flame. He grunted, then reached backward and returned the switchboard lever almost to the neutral point, reducing the speed of the decreasing process.

“Yes, that is better,” the German gloated, in a deep, satisfied tone. “It will be slower, now. Slower--and more interesting to watch! ... I fancy your eyes are reproachful, my friend. Why have I done it, you wonder? Ach! This machine, it will startle the world of science; it will make its inventor famous--not? Yes; and did you think I was going to stand by and see all the credit go to you? No! To me it shall go--me alone! And you--” He chuckled and rubbed his hands before going on.

“You shall be what the newspapers call a martyr to science. You shall sink to a foot, to six inches--to one inch--even less, I think! Eventually the reduction will kill you, of course; and your body shall be proof of how you died--in an experiment--and shall also prove the machine’s power and my genius!”

He laughed thunderously, a blond and malevolent titan. He did not notice that, with the lessening of the reduction’s speed, a slight trace of control over his muscles had returned to the midget inside. His tiny body was slowly diminishing, and complete, hopeless paralysis and death was not far away. But Garth was fighting every second, fighting desperately with the trace of strength he possessed to slide to the door, break the contact and get out from under the ray’s remorseless influence. Almost imperceptibly, the effort lacerating him with pain, he slid his feet forward. Hagendorff talked on. He seemed to be blinded by the vision of the fame his treachery would bring him.

“We shall have an experiment, my Professor; and then you will have an interesting death! The ray will suck you down; you will crumple and crumple till you’re not much bigger than my thumbnail! And then I shall--ah!

Garth had torn loose. Calling on every ounce of strength and will, the midget, now no more than one foot high, had reached the edge of the floor plate and pitched out onto the long laboratory table.

Giant and dwarf faced each other. For a moment neither spoke or moved. A breathless tensity hung over the laboratory. The machine droned on, forgotten. From outside, startlingly near, came the eery hoot of an owl.

A tight smile broke through the angry surprise on Hagendorff’s face. “Well, well!” he said, with gargantuan, macabre humor. “We object! It was foolish, eh, to reduce the power? Next time, it shall not be so. We--object!

With the word, he lunged, and his bulky arms lashed down in a wide, grasping sweep.

But Garth’s taut muscles, retaining all the strength and vigor of their normal size had been awaiting just such a move, and his tiny body described the arc of a tremendous leap that neatly vaulted one huge arm and started him sprinting swiftly down the table.

At the end he wheeled, and before the other overcame his surprise at such a nimble retreat, burst out indignantly:

“For God’s sake, Hagendorff, what’s come over you? Be sensible! You can’t do this; you can’t really mean it! Why--”

“So!” roared the assistant, and his rush cut short the midget’s shrill, frantic words. But his grasp this time was better judged; Garth felt the great fingers slip over his body. Remembering his strength, he lashed out at one with all his might. Hagendorff grunted with pain; but instead of continuing the attack, he suddenly turned and strode to the door leading into the other room, and closed it with a bang.

“You cannot escape,” he growled, advancing again; “you merely delay.”

Panting, Garth glanced around the room. He was, in truth, trapped. There was but the one door; and even if he could reach it, he could not get it open, for the handle would be far above him. The room was a sealed arena. For a little while it would go on--a wild leaping and dodging on the table, a hopeless evading of mammoth hands ... and then, inevitably, would come a crushing grip on his body, followed by experimentation and the agony of death in the black chamber.

Fearful, he waited, a perfect, living statuette, twelve inches high...

A grunt preluded the giant’s vicious charge. The American staggered from the brush of a sweeping hand; then, twisting mightily, he dove under it, like a mouse slipping under the paw of a cat. In doing so he fell sprawling; and though he was up in a moment, his arm was held. A hoarse, exultant rumble came to his ears.

“Caught, my friend!”

But Hagendorff spoke too soon. With a great wrench, Garth broke free, and made a tigerish dash back along the table toward the window. And even as the clumsy titan jumped to the side and grabbed again at him, he hurled his tiny, heavy body against the pane, and went plunging through a shower of glass into the cool dark night outside.

He fell five feet, and the wind was jarred out of him as he crashed through the branches of a bush under the window into the sodden earth beneath. Unhurt, save for a few lacerations from the glass, he staggered to his feet, gasping for his breath, and started to run across the clearing towards the fringe of dense forest growth that ringed the cabin.

Then he heard thunderous footsteps and, a second later, the sound of the front door being pulled open. Garth turned in his tracks, and stumbled back beneath the cabin, thanking heaven that it was raised on short stilts. But the ruse did not give him much of a start, and by the time he had painfully threaded his way between the piles of timber left underneath the cabin, Hagendorff had discovered the trick and was scouting back.

Then, with the strength of the hunted, Garth was out from under the other side and sprinting for the doubtful sanctuary of the forest.

His tiny feet, carrying the weight of a normal-sized man, sank ankle high into the muddy ground, several times almost tripping him. Even as he got to where a trail through the bush began, and passed from the cold starlight into spaces black with clustered shadows, he heard a bellow from behind, and, glancing back, saw a monstrous shape come leaping on his tracks.

He had only seconds in which to find refuge; he could not stick to the trail. Thick bush, dank and heavy from recent rains, was on either side, fugitive streaks of pale light from above painting it eerily. Garth plunged into the matted growth, dropped to hands and knees and wormed forward away from the trail. Earth-jarring footbeats sounded close. With frantic haste he wrenched though the scratching tendrils and came to a miniature clearing.

He saw the tilted shape of a rotted tree-stump, its roots half washed away and exposing a narrow crevice between them. Gasping, the nude, foot-high figure tumbled down into it, and lay there, trying to hush his labored breathing.

He was a mere twenty feet from the trail; and though to him the bush was a jungle, to his pursuer it was only chest-high. A towering shadow moved along the trail. The thud of heavy footbeats came more slowly to the listening midget. Hagendorff was searching, puzzled by the vague shadows, for where Garth had left the path.

Silence fell.

Garth’s heart was pounding like a trip-hammer. He held himself alert, ready, if need be, to struggle up from the moist crevice and dart on further into the bush. He could not see the giant, but could picture his huge, sullen face all too clearly. Still no sound came. Risking all, he gripped a root and hauled himself up slightly. Then he peered around the stump.

Hagendorff was standing in the thick of the bush. He was not ten feet away, striving in the gloom to discern the other’s tell-tale tracks. Garth drew his head back, hardly daring to breathe. Shivering, his naked body miserably cold, he waited, pressed down in the soggy earth. His betraying tracks were there; the shadows alone befriended him.

The silence was drawn so fine that the faint cheep of a night-bird sounded startlingly loud. But then came thunder that sent the bird winging away in fright, and the night and the forest echoed with the roar of a wrathful, impatient human voice.

“You hear me, wherever you are! And hear this: I leave you now, but in ten minutes I have you! You little fool--you think you can get free? It is only by minutes you delay me!”

Snarling a curse, the treacherous giant turned and crashed through the bush and took his huge form striding back towards the cabin.

Garth was thinking of many things as he scrambled back wearily from his refuge to the trail. He was cursing the unwanted publicity which prying reporters had given his work in Detroit, and which had led him to lease the lonely island and build a laboratory in the wilderness. Had it not been for that publicity, he would never have needed an assistant, and the vision of fame would never have come to delude Hagendorff and turn his thoughts towards murder.

His position seemed a horrible delirium from which he must presently awake. Naked, dwarfed by each ordinary forest weed, unarmed, and trembling from the wind-sharpened night, he hardly knew which way to turn. His body was blotched with blood and mud, and under it the ragged gashes made by glass and bush stung painfully; he was hungry and stiff and tired and miserable. He remembered Hagendorff’s threat of capturing him in ten minutes, and forced a smile to his face.

“Looks kind of bad,” he muttered, using his voice in an attempt to dispel some of the lonely grip of the night, “but we’ll keep moving, anyway! He’s coming back soon. Let’s see: I’d better make for the stream. It’ll be hard for him to follow my tracks through that. And then...”

Then--what? The island was small. He realized he could not stand many hours of exposure. Inevitably--But he turned his mind from the future and its seeming hopelessness, and concentrated on the immediate need, which was to hide himself. Forcing the pace, he struck off on a shambling trot down the dim trail, on into the deepening, sinister shadows towards the island’s lone stream.

Obstacles that normally he would not have noticed made his path tortuous. His great weight sank his feet ankle-high in the moist, uneven ground. Time and time again he stumbled over some imbedded rock that, potato-sized, was like a boulder to him. Time and time again he fell, and when he rose his legs were plastered with soggy earth that did not dry; and the damp, fallen leaves and twigs he pitched into clung to his coating of mud. Each broken limb and branch, dropped from the whispering gloom of the trees above, drained the energy from his tiring muscles. Soon he was conscious of a vague numbness creeping over him, a deceptive, drowsy warmth into which he longed to sink, but which he drove back by working his arms and legs as vigorously as he could.

On he went, with teeth clenched and eyes fixed on the half-seen trail ahead--a fantastic, tiny creature hunted like a wild animal by a giant of his own kind!

Presently, through the shroud of darkness traced by ghostly slivers of starlight, came the sound of trickling water. The trail rose, dipped down; and through that hollow crawled the stream, winding from a hidden spring to the encompassing river below. Garth was winded when he came to it; to his eyes it seemed a small river. His legs were so numb they hardly felt the cold bite of the water that lapped around them.

Some furry water animal leaped away as Garth trudged upstream, alarmed by the strange midnight visitant and the self-encouraging mutterings of a shrill human voice...

He had waded what seemed to him a weary distance--in reality only a few hundred yards--through the winding, icy creek, when suddenly he halted and stood stock-still. Listening, he heard the ordinary sounds of the wind through the fir-spires, and the slow trickle of water; heard the beating of his own heart. Nothing else. And yet ... He took another step.

Then he swung quickly around and peered back, senses alert. There was no mistaking the sound that had come again. It was the crunch of heavy feet, thudding at even intervals on damp earth. They were Hagendorff’s; and he was armed with light!

A long beam of white speared through the tangle of bush and tree trunks far below. It came slanting down from above, prying for the story recorded by miniature footprints in the ground. By its distance from him, Garth could tell Hagendorff had come to where his trail led into the stream. The ray held steady for minutes. Again it prowled nervously around, hunting for tell-tale signs, sweeping in widening circles. Then, it was punctuated by the crunch of a boot.

The giant was following upstream!

With the flashlight, he might even be able to trace the prints in the bed of the creek. Stooping, Garth crept ahead, as silently as he could, though the stir of water at his feet seemed terribly loud. There were keen ears behind, craned for sounds like that. He knew he would have to hide again--quickly--and at that moment he saw a place.

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