The Finding of Haldgren
Chapter 9: 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.