Hobart Madison pursed his lips in a whistle of incredulous surprise as he regarded the object that lay in the palm of his hand. An ordinary pebble, it seemed to be, but a pebble in which a strange fire smouldered and showed itself here and there through the dull surface.
“Would you mind repeating what you just said, Van?” he asked.
“You heard me the first time. I say that that’s a diamond and that it came from the moon.” Carl Vanderventer glared at his friend in resentment of his doubting tone.
“Mean to tell me you’ve been there? To the moon?”
“Certainly not. I’m not a Jules Verne adventurer. But I’m telling you that stone is a diamond of the first water and that it came from the moon. Weighs over a hundred carats, too. You can have it appraised yourself if you think I’m kidding you.”
Bart Madison laughed. “Don’t get sore, Van,” he said. “I’m not doubting your word. But Lord, man--the thing’s so incredible! It takes a little time to soak in. And you say there are more?”
“Sure. This one’s the largest of five I’ve found so far. And there’s other stuff, too. Wait till you see. Fossils, beetles and things. I tell you, Bart, the moon was inhabited at one time. I’ve the evidence and I want you to be the first to see it.” The eyes of the young scientist shone with excitement as he saw that his friend was roused to intense interest.
“So that’s what all your experimenting has been aimed at. No wonder it cost so much.”
“Yes, and you’ve been a brick for financing me. Never asked a question, either. But Bart, it’ll all come back to you now. Know how much that stone’s worth?”
“Plenty, I guess. But, forget about the financing and all that. Where’s this laboratory of yours?” Madison had pushed his chair back from his desk and was reaching for his hat.
“Over in the Ramapo Mountains, not far from Tuxedo. I’ll have you there in two hours. Sure you can spare the time to go out there now?” Vanderventer was enthusiastically eager.
“Spare the time? You just try and keep me from going!”
Neither of them noticed the sinister figure that lurked outside the door which led into the adjoining office. They chattered excitedly as they passed into the outer hall and made for the elevator.
Vanderventer’s laboratory was a small domed structure set in a clearing atop the mountain and well hidden from the winding road which was the only means of approach. Though Bart Madison, who had inherited his father’s prosperous brokerage business, had financed his friend’s research work ever since the two left college, this was his first visit to the secluded workshop, and its wealth of equipment was revealed to him as a complete surprise. He had always thought of Van’s experiments as something beyond his ken; something uncanny and mysterious. Now he was convinced.
The most prominent single piece of apparatus in the laboratory was a twelve-inch reflecting telescope which reared its latticed framework to a slit in the dome overhead. Paralleling its axis and secured to the same equatorial mounting was a shining tube of copper which bristled with handwheels and levers and was connected by heavy insulated cables to an amazing array of electrical machinery that occupied an entire side of the single room.
“Regular young observatory you’ve got here, Van,” Bart commented when he had taken all this in in one sweeping glance of appraisal.
“Yeah, and then some. Not another like it in the world.” Van was busying himself with the controls of his electrical equipment, and a powerful motor-generator started up with a click and a whirr as he closed a starting switch.
Madison watched in silence as the swift-fingered scientist fussed with the complicated adjustments of the apparatus and then turned to the massive concrete pedestal on which his telescope was mounted. At his touch of a button the instrument swung over on its polar axis to a new position. The slit in the dome was opened to the afternoon sky, revealing the lunar disc in its daytime faintness.
“You can see it just as well in daylight?” Bart asked as his friend peered through the eyepiece of the telescope and continued his adjustments.
“Sure, the surface is just as bright as at night. Doesn’t seem so to your eye, but it’s different through the telescope. Here, take a look.”
Bart squinted through the eyepiece and saw a huge crater with a shadowed spire in its center. Like a shell hole in soft earth it appeared--a great splash that had congealed immediately it was made. The cross-hairs of the eyepiece were centered on a small circular shadow near its inner rim.
“That,” Van was saying, “is a prominent crater near the Mare Nubium. The spot under the cross-hairs is that from which I have obtained the diamonds--and other things. Watch this now, Bart.”
The young broker straightened up and saw that his friend was removing the cover from a crystal bowl that was attached to the lower end of the copper tube that pointed to the heavens at the same ascension and declination as the telescope. The air of the room vibrated to a strange energy when he closed a switch that lighted a dozen vacuum tubes in the apparatus that lined the wall.
“You say you bring the stuff here with a light ray?” he asked.
“No, I said with the speed of light. This tube projects a ray of vibrations--like directional radio, you know--and this ray has a component that disintegrates the object it strikes and brings it back to us as dissociated protons and electrons which are reassembled in the original form and structure in this crystal bowl. Watch.”
A misty brilliance filled the bowl’s interior. Intangible shadowy forms seemed to be taking shape within a swirling maze of ethereal light that hummed and crackled with astounding vigor. Then, abruptly, the apparatus was silent and the light gone, revealing an odd object that had taken form in the bowl.
“A starfish!” Bart gasped.
“Yeah, and fossilized.” Van handed it to him and he took it in his fingers gingerly as if expecting it to burn them.
The thing was undoubtedly a starfish, and of light, spongy stone. Its color was a pale blue and the ambulacral suckers were clearly discernible on all five rays.
“Lord! You’re sure this is from the moon?” Bart turned the starfish over in his hand and gazed stupidly at his friend.
“Certainly, you nut. Think I had it up my sleeve? But here, watch again, there’s something else.”
The crackling, misty light again filled the bowl.
“Suppose,” Bart ventured, “you bring in something large--big as a house, let’s say. What would it do to your machine?”
“Can’t. The ray’ll only pick up stuff that’ll enter the bowl. Look--here’s the next arrival.”
The mysterious light died down and the scientist picked up the second object with trembling fingers. It was a knife of beautiful workmanship, fashioned from obsidian and obviously the work of human hands.
“There! Didn’t I tell you?” Van gloated. “Guess that shows there were living beings on the moon.”
He made minute changes in the adjustment of his marvelous instrument and Bart watched in dazed astonishment as object after object materialized before their eyes. There were fragments of strange minerals; more fossils, marine life, mostly; a roughly beaten silver plate; three diamonds, none of which was as large as what Van had taken to New York, but all of considerable value.
“This’ll be something for the papers, Van!” Bart Madison was visioning the fame that was to come to his friend.
“Yeah, all but the diamonds.”
“All but the diamonds is right!”
These words were spoken by a sarcastic voice, chill as an icicle, that came from the open door. They wheeled to look into the muzzles of two automatic pistols that were trained on them by a stocky individual who faced them with a twisted, knowing grin.
“Danny Kelly!” Bart gasped, raising his hands slowly to the level of his shoulders. He knew the ex-army captain was a dead shot with the service pistol, and a desperate man since his disgrace and forced resignation. “What’s the big idea?” he demanded.
“You don’t need to ask. Refused me a loan this morning, didn’t you? Now I’m getting it this way.” Kelly turned savagely on Van, prodding his ribs with a pistol. “Get ‘em up, you!” he snapped.
Van had been slow in raising his hands, gaping in stupefied amazement at the intruder. Now he reached for the ceiling without delay.
“You’ll serve time for this, Danny!” Bart shouted.
“Shut up! I know what I’m doing. And back up, too--where--no, the other door.” Kelly was forcing him toward the door of the cellar at the point of one pistol as he kept Van covered with the other.
Bart clenched his fist and brought it down in a sudden sweeping blow that raked Kelly’s cheek and ear with stunning force. But the gunman recovered in a flash, dropped the muzzle of his pistol and pulled the trigger. Drilled through the thigh, Bart staggered through the open door and fell the length of the stairs into the darkness of the cellar. Kelly laughed evilly as he slammed the door and turned the key.
“Hold it, you!” he snarled as he swung on Van who had dropped his hands and crouched for a spring. “If I drill you, it won’t be through the leg. I’ll take those diamonds now.”
He pocketed one of his pistols, and, keeping the other pressed to the pit of Van’s stomach, went through his pockets. Then he added those on the tray by the crystal bowl to the collection, and transferred the entire lot to his own pocket.
“Now, you clever engineer,” he grinned, “we’ll just operate this trick machine of yours for a while and collect some more. Hop to it!” He watched narrowly as Van stretched his fingers to the controls. “No monkey business, either,” he grated; “you’ll not change a single adjustment. I’ve been listening to you and I know the clock of the telescope is keeping the ray trained on the same spot. You just operate the ray and nothing else. Get me?”
Van did not think it expedient to tell him of the drift caused by inaccuracies in the clock and perturbations of the moon’s motion. He was playing for time, trying to plan a course of action.
“There may not be any more diamonds,” he offered as he tripped the release of the ray.
“Oh, there’ll be more. Don’t try to kid me.”
An irregular block of quartz materialized in the bowl and Kelly tossed it to the floor in savage disgust. Then a small diamond, very small; but he pocketed it nevertheless. The next object was a strange one--a dried seed pod about six inches in length and of brilliant red color. The ray had shifted to a new position on the lunar surface. Another and another of the strange legumes followed, one of them bursting open and scattering its contents, bright red like the enclosing pod to rattle over the floor like tiny glass beads. Kelly snorted his disgust.
“Still some sort of vegetation out there,” Van muttered. The eternal scientist in the man could not be downed by a mere hold-up.
“Can the chatter!” Kelly snarled as the crystal bowl gave up another of the useless pods and still another. He gathered up the evidence of lunar vegetation, a half dozen of the pods, and threw them through the open doorway with a savage gesture. “You trying to put one over on me?” he bellowed.
“How can I?” Van retorted mildly. “I haven’t touched a handwheel.” He was wondering vaguely whether this lunar seed would grow in earthly soil; what sort of a plant it would produce under the new environment.
Kelly was becoming nervous now. It seemed that little was to be gained by hanging around this crazy man’s laboratory. He had a sizable fortune in rough stones already. That big one alone, when properly cut into smaller stones, would make him independent. Maybe there weren’t any more, anyway. And the longer he stayed the greater chance there was of getting caught.
The advent of another of the pods decided him. A quick blow with the butt of his pistol stretched Van on the floor and Kelly fled the scene.
Bart was pounding furiously on the cellar door when Van first took hazy note of his surroundings. Several uncertain minutes passed before he was able to stagger across the room and release his friend.
“Where is he?” Bart demanded, swaying on his feet and blinking in the sudden light.
“Gone. Socked me and beat it with the diamonds.” Van was mopping the blood from his eyes with a handkerchief. “Are you hit bad?” he inquired.
“No, just a flesh wound. Hurts like the devil, though. How about yourself?” Bart limped to his side and sighed with relief when he examined his bleeding scalp. “Not so bad yourself, old man. Where’s your first aid kit?”
Van was still somewhat dazed and merely pointed to the cabinet. “Fine pair we turned out to be!” he grumbled after his head had cleared a bit under Bart’s vigorous cleansing of the cut on his temple. “Here we stood, meek as a couple of lambs, and let that guy get away with murder.”
“Yeah, but those forty-fives made the difference. Ouch!” Bart winced as his friend poured fresh iodine over the wound in his leg. “Have a heart, will you?”
They were startled into silence by a hoarse, strangled scream that came from outside the laboratory. “Help! Help!” someone repeated in a panicky voice--a voice which at once ended on a gurgled note of despair.
“It’s Kelly!” Bart whispered. “He’s come back. Something’s happened to him.” He started for the open door.
“Wait a minute. It may be a trick to get us outside where he can pop us off.”
“No, it isn’t. For God’s sake, look!” Bart had reached the door and was pointing at the ground with shaking forefinger.
The entire clearing seemed to be alive with wriggling things--long rubbery tentacles that crawled along the ground, reaching curling ends high in the air and had even started climbing the trees at the edge of the clearing. Blood red they were, and partially transparent in the light of the setting sun; growing things, attached by their thick ends to swelling mounds of red that seemed anchored to the ground. Translucent stalks rose from the mounds and sprouted huge buds that burst and blossomed into flaming flowers a foot in diameter, then withered and went to seed in a moment of time. But always the weaving tendrils shot forth with lightning speed, reaching and feeling their uncanny way along the ground and over tree stumps into the woods. One of them emerged from a hollow stump with its slender end coiled around the tiny body of a chattering gray squirrel.
“The moon flowers!” Van cried.
“What do you mean--moon flowers?”
“Dried seed pods. They came over into the bowl, and Kelly threw them out. Now look at the damned things. They’re alive!”
Kelly’s voice came to them once more from behind the barrier of rapidly growing vegetation. “Help!” he screeched. “I’ll give back the diamonds--anything! Only get me away from the things!”
“Ought to let ‘em get him,” Van growled.
Bart shivered. “Too horrible, Van. Got an ax or anything?”
“There’s a hatchet around back. Maybe we can--”
But the young broker had scuttled around the corner of the building and Van looked after him anxiously. The vile red tendrils were reaching for the east wall of the laboratory, and he saw that their inner surfaces were covered with tiny suckers like those on the arms of a devil-fish. Carnivorous plants, undoubtedly, these awful half-animal, half-vegetable things whose seed had been transported across a quarter million miles of space. Man eaters! Deadly, and growing with incredible speed. Even the short-lived flowers were fearsome, as they opened their scarlet pansy-like faces and stared a moment before they folded up and shriveled into the seed cases like those that had materialized in the crystal bowl.
Then he noticed that the pods were opening and spreading more of the terrible seed. Nothing could stop this weird growth, now. It would cover the country like a sea of flaming horror, overcoming and devouring every living thing. Cold fear clutched at Van as he realized the enormity of the calamity that had come to the earth.
Bart was skirting the edge of the clearing with the hatchet in his hand, and Van tried to call out to him, to warn him. But his voice caught in his throat, and instead he ran to his assistance, circling the spreading menace to get around behind where Kelly was still shouting. Damn Kelly anyway! This never would have happened if he hadn’t come on the scene!
Kelly was in the woods, wedged into the crotch of a tree and striking wildly at the clutching tendrils with his clubbed pistol. They mashed easily and dripping red, but were not to be deterred from their ghastly purpose. Kelly’s time would have indeed been short had not his erstwhile victims come to the rescue. One of the thickest of the twining things encircled his body and had him pinned to the tree. His breath was coming in gasps as its tightening coils increased their pressure. His coarse features were livid and his eyes bulged from their sockets.
Bart hacked and hacked at the rubbery growth until he had him free; jerked him from his perch, blubbering and whining like a schoolboy. His shirt had been torn from his breast and they saw a great red welt where the blood had been drawn through the pores by those terrible suckers.
“Look out, Bart!” Van shouted.
Another of the creeping things had come through the underbrush and was wrapping its coils around Bart’s ankle. Another and another wriggled through, and soon they were battling for their own freedom. Kelly staggered off into the woods and went crashing down the hill, leaving them to take care of themselves as best they might.
The stench of the viscous liquid that oozed from the injured tendrils was nauseous; it had something of a soporific effect; and the two friends found themselves fighting the terror in a growing mist of red that blinded and confused them. Then, miraculously, they were free and Van assisted Bart as they ran through the forest. When they reached the road, weak and out of breath, they were just in time to see Kelly’s roadster vanish around the bend.
“Yeah, he’d give back the diamonds--the swine!” Van muttered vindictively. Then, shrugging his shoulders, “Well, they won’t be much good to him, anyway. Wouldn’t be any good to us either, as far as that goes.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t they real?” Bart was raising himself painfully into the seat of Van’s car, his wounded leg suddenly very much in the way.
“Sure they’re real. But don’t you realize what this thing means--this ungodly growth that’s started?”
“Why--why, no. You mean it’ll keep on growing?”
“And how! Those inner stalks drop a new batch of seeds every five minutes or so. Presto!--a flock of new plants spring up ten feet from the first; dozens of them for every pod that drops. You know how geometrical progression works out. They’ll cover the whole country--the whole world. Lord!”
“Man alive, this is terrible! I hadn’t thought of that before. What’ll we do?”
“Yeah, that’s the question: what can we do?” Van started his motor and jerked the car to the road. “First off, we’re going to get away from here--fast!”
Bart gripped his arm as he shifted into second gear. “Look, Van!” he babbled. “They’re out of the woods already. Loose! The red snakes are loose from their stalks. They’re alive, I tell you!”
It was true. Several of the slimy red things were wriggling their way over the macadam like great earthworms, but moving with the speed of hurrying pedestrians. Free, and untrammeled by the roots and stems of the mother plants, they had set forth on their own in the search for beings of flesh and blood to destroy. Millions of their kind would follow; billions!
In sudden panic Van stepped on the gas.
Fifteen minutes later, with shrieking siren, a motorcycle drew alongside and forced them to the curb. “Where’s the fire?” the sarcastic voice of a stern-visaged officer demanded, when Van had brought his car to a screeching stop. Seventy-five, the speedometer had read but a moment before.
“It’s life and death, officer,” Van started to explain. “We must get to the proper officials to warn the--”
“Aw, tell it to the judge! Come on now, follow me.”
“But officer, there’s death on its way from the hills, I tell you. Red, creeping things that’ll be here in a couple of hours--”
“Get away, from that wheel. I’ll drive you in meself. You’re fulla applejack.”
Bart had opened the door on his side and was limping his way around the back of the car. This was serious. They had to get away; had to spread the word in a way that would be believed before it was too late. The officer was tugging at Van’s arm, astonishment and black rage showing in his weather-beaten countenance. Speeding, drunk, resisting an officer--they’d never get out of this mess! A swift uppercut interrupted the proceedings. Bart’s leg was numb and stiff, but his good right arm was working smoothly and with all its old time precision. His second punch was a haymaker. With his full weight behind it, it drove straight to the chin and stretched the officer on the concrete. Thoughtfully, Bart removed his pistol from its holster before scrambling in at Van’s side.
“Boy, now we’re in for it!” he gasped.
“And we might as well make a good job while we’re at it.” Van let in his clutch with a jerk, and again they were breaking all traffic regulations.
It was dusk when they roared in through the gate at the Rockland County Airport and pulled up at the hangar office. Van rushed in, shouting for Bill Petersen, and Bart followed. A slender, fair-haired youth in rumpled flying togs greeted them.
“Bill, my friend, Bart Madison,” Van blurted without pausing for breath. “Listen, we’ve got to have a plane right away. Got one with a radio?”
“Yes, but what’s all the rush? Where you going?”
“Albany. Right away. Make it snappy, will you?”
“Sure, but what’s it all about?” Young Petersen was leading them to the field where a sleek mono-plane was in waiting as if they had ordered it. “Warm her up, Joe,” he called to the mechanic.
“Listen, Bill--I never lied to you, did I?” Van asked, when they were seated in the plane’s cabin.
“Not that I know of. But sometimes I’ve thought you were lying, until I saw with my own eyes the things you had told me about. What is it this time?”
“Death and destruction. Coming down out of the Ramapos. We’ve got to warn the country. Plants, Bill--squirmy red plants with long feelers that can twist around a man and devour him. Half animal, they are, and the feelers break loose and crawl by themselves. Multiplying like nothing you ever saw. Millions of them in an hour.”
“What?” Petersen stared incredulously as his motor roared into life. Then he gave his attention to the business of taking off. He jerked the thumb of his free hand toward the radio.
Van’s expert fingers manipulated the switches and dials of the portable apparatus, and its vacuum tubes glowed into life. “2BXX calling 2TIM,” he droned into the microphone.
“Who’s that?” Bart asked. The drone of the motor was barely audible in the closed cabin and did not interfere.
“The Times. Trying to get Johnny Forbes. If anyone can get this thing across, he can. Wait a minute, here they are.” He closed his eyes as he listened to the murmuring voice in the headphones.
Then he was talking rapidly, forcefully, and the young flyer gazed with owlish solemnity at Bart as they listened to his conversation. It was plain that Bill was but half inclined to believe, though impressed by the earnestness and evident apprehension displayed by his two passengers.
“Yes, 2BXX,” Van was saying. “Connect me with Johnny Forbes, please--in a hurry. Yes ... Hello, Johnny, it’s Van--Carl Vanderventer, you know. Yes; got a scoop for you, but first I want you to get it in the broadcasts. Get me? It’s about a man-eating plant that’s starting to overrun the country. No--listen now, I’m not dreaming--listen--”
The frantic scientist rambled on and on about the seed from the moon, the red death that was creeping down from the mountains, the horror of the calamity as he and Bart had visioned it. Then, with a sudden note of despair, his voice trailed off into nothingness and he turned a drawn white face to his two friends.
“Laughed at me. Hung up on me,” he groaned. “Good God! We’ve got to do something--quick!”
“Be in Albany in an hour,” the pilot suggested. “What you going to do there?” He believed, now. His expression of horror showed it.
“See the governor. But, man, it’s an hour wasted! We must stir up the country--get the word to Washington--everywhere. It might be possible to fight the things some way if we can mobilize State and National resources quickly enough. Bill, Bart, what can we do?”
The plane sped on through the night under control of her gyro-pilot as the three men racked their brains for a solution of the problem. If a hard-boiled newspaper man would not believe the story, who could?
“I’ve got it!” Bart shouted suddenly. “Can either of you pound a key--code, I mean?”
“Sure, I can. Then what?” Petersen returned.
“Fake an S. O. S. Don’t you see? All broadcasting has to stop, and every ship at sea, every air liner in this part of the country’ll be listening--standing by. Give ‘em the story in code. Let ‘em think we’re in a ship from the moon--captured by Lunarians who are here to destroy the world with this weed of theirs--anything. Make it as weird as possible. Most everyone’ll think it’s a hoax, but there are ten thousand kids--amateurs--who’ll be listening in. Somebody’ll believe it, and, believe me, there’ll be some investigating in the neighborhood of the growth in no time.”
“By George, I believe that’ll do it!” Van exclaimed. “And the broadcasters listen in for an S. O. S. themselves. Got to, you know, so they know when to start up again. Some smart announcer will tell the story--maybe even believe it. The trick will work, sure as shooting!”
The pilot glanced at his instruments and saw that the automatic gyro-apparatus was functioning properly. Then he moved over to the radio and threw the switch that put the key in circuit instead of the microphone. Rapidly he ticked off the three dots, three dashes, and again three dots that spelled the dread danger signal of the air. Over and over he repeated the signal, and then he listened for results.
“It worked!” he gloated, after a moment. “They’re all signing off--the broadcasters. The Navy Yard in Brooklyn gives me the go-ahead.”
He pounded out the absurd message with swift fingers, pausing occasionally to ask a pertinent question of Van or Bart. At Van’s request he added a warning to all residents of New York State west of the Hudson River and of northern New Jersey to flee their homes without delay. He even asked that the message be relayed to the governors of the two states, and that Governor Perkins of New York be advised that they were on their way to Albany to discuss the situation. But he balked at the story of the Lunarians, telling instead the equally strange truth regarding the origin of the deadly growth, and adding the names of Van and Bart to lend authenticity to the tale.
Then he signed off and switched the radio receiver to the loud speaker before returning to the pilot’s seat.
Bart tuned in on the various broadcasters as they resumed their programs, finally settling on WOR, Newark, whose announcer was reading the strange message to his radio public with appropriate comment. A crime and an outrage he called it, an affront to the industry and to the public. An insult to the government of the United States. But wait! A telephone call had just been received at the station from the village of Sloatesburg. A reputable citizen of that town had reported the red growth at the edge of the State road--huge red earthworms wriggling across the concrete. Another call, and another! The announcer’s voice was rising hysterically.
“It did work, Bart,” Van exulted. “Now the hell starts popping.”
Governor Perkins met them in person when they arrived at the Municipal Airport in Albany. A great crowd had gathered in the shadows outside the brilliance of the flood lights, and a police escort rushed them to the governor’s private car.
“Here’s where you go to the Bastille for socking that cop,” Van observed. His spirits had risen appreciably since that successful S. O. S. call.
But the governor was in a serious mood, as they made their way toward the executive mansion through the milling crowds that lined the hilly streets of the capital city of New York State. Proofs had not been lacking of the truth of Bill Petersen’s radio warning. Already the spreading red death had covered a circle some eight miles in diameter, covering farm lands and destroying the crops, blocking the roads and trapping many on the streets and in their homes in nearby towns. More than a hundred had lost their lives, and thousands were fleeing the threatened area. The country was in an uproar.
“Gentlemen,” the governor said, when they had reached the privacy of his chambers, “this is a serious matter, and no time must be lost in dealing with it. Nevertheless, I want you, Mr. Vanderventer, to tell your story of the thing to me and to the radio system of the United States Secret Service. The President himself will be listening, as will the chief executives of most of the states. Hold nothing back, as the fate of our people is at stake.”