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Chapter 5 A Desperate Act

  • The ship that Chet Bullard and Harkness had designed had none of th_nstruments for space navigation that the ensuing years were to bring. Chet'_ccuracy was more the result of that flyer's sixth sense—that same uncann_ower that had served aviators so well in an earlier day. But Chet was glad t_ee his instruments registering once more as he approached a new world.
  • Even the sonoflector was recording; its invisible rays were darting downwar_o be reflected back again from the surface below. That absolute altitud_ecording was a joy to read; it meant a definite relationship with the world.
  • "I'll hold her at fifty thousand," he told Harkness. "Watch for some outlin_hat you can remember from last time."
  • There was an irregular area of continental size; only when they had crossed i_id Harkness point toward an outflung projection of land. "That peninsula," h_xclaimed; "we saw that before! Swing south and inland… . Now down forty, an_ast of south… . This ought to be the spot."
  • Perhaps Harkness, too, had the flyer's indefinable power of orientation. H_uided Chet in the downward flight, and his pointing finger aimed at last at _luster of shadows where a setting sun brought mountain ranges into stron_elief. Chet held the ship steady, hung high in the air, while the quick- spreading mantle of night swept across the world below. And, at last, when th_ittle world was deep-buried in shadow, they saw the red glow of fires from _idden valley in the south.
  • "Fire Valley!" said Chet, "Don't say anything about me being a navigator.
  • Wait, you've brought us home, sure enough."
  • "Home!" He could not overcome this strange excitement of a homecoming to thei_wn world. Even the man who stood, pistol in hand, behind him was, for th_oment, forgotten.
  • Valley of a thousand fires!—scene of his former adventures! Each fumerole wa_dding its smoky red to the fiery glow that illumined the place. There wer_agged mountains hemming it in; Chet's gaze passed on to the valley's end.
  • Down there, where the fires ceased, there would be water; he would land there!
  • And the ship from Earth slipped down in a long slanting line to cushio_gainst its under exhausts, whose soft thunder echoed back from a bare expans_f frozen lava. Then its roaring faded. The silvery shape sank softly to it_ocky bed as Chet cut the motor that had sung its song of power since th_oment when Schwartzmann had carried him off—taken him from that frozen, forgotten corner of an incredibly distant Earth.
  • "Iss there air?" Schwartzmann demanded. Chet came to himself again with _tart: he saw the man peering from the lookout to right and to left as if h_ould see all that there was in the last light of day.
  • "Strange!" he was grumbling to himself. "A strange place! But those hills—_aw their markings—there will be metals there. I will explore; later I return: I will mine them. Many ships I must build to establish a line. The firs_ransportation line of space. Me, Jacob Schwartzmann—I will do it. I will haf_ore than anyone else on Earth; I will make them all come to me crawling o_heir bellies!"
  • Chet saw the hard shine of the narrowed eyes. For an instant only, he dared t_onsider the chance of leaping upon the big, gloating figure. One blow and _uick snatch for the pistol!… Then he knew the folly of such a plan: Schwartzmann's men were armed; he would be downed in another second, his bod_ shattered, jellied mass.
  • Schwartzmann's thoughts had come back to the matter of air; he motioned Che_nd Harkness toward the port.
  • Diane Delacouer had joined them and she thrust herself quickly between the tw_en. And, though Schwartzmann made a movement as if he would snatch her back, he thought better of it and motioned for the portal to be swung. Chet felt hi_lose behind as he followed the others out into the gathering dark.
  • The air was heavy with the fragrance of night-blooming trees. They were clos_o the edge of the lava flow. The rock was black in the light of a starry sky; it dropped away abruptly to a lower glade. A stream made silvery sparklings i_he night, while beyond it were waving shadows of strange trees whose trunk_ere ghostly white.
  • It was all so familiar… . Chet smiled understandingly as he saw Walt Harkness'
  • arm go about the trim figure of Diane Delacouer. No mannish attire coul_isguise Diane's charms; nor could nerve and cold courage that any man migh_nvy detract from her femininity. Her dark, curling hair was blowing back fro_er upraised face as the scented breezes played about her; and the soft beaut_f that face was enhanced by the very starlight that revealed it.
  • It was here that Walt and Diane had learned to love; what wonder that th_ragrant night brought only remembrance, and forgetfulness of their presen_light. But Chet Bullard, while he saw them and smiled in sympathy, kne_uddenly that other eyes were watching, too; he felt the bulky figure of Her_chwartzmann beside him grow tense and rigid.
  • But Schwartzmann's voice, when he spoke, was controlled. "All right," h_alled toward the ship; "all iss safe."
  • Yet Chet wondered at that sudden tensing, and an uneasy presentiment foun_ntrance to his thoughts. He must keep an eye on Schwartzmann, even more tha_e had supposed.
  • Their captor had threatened to maroon them on the Dark Moon. Chet did no_uestion his intent. Schwartzmann would have nothing to gain by killing the_ow. It would be better to leave them here, for he might find them usefu_ater on. But did he plan to leave them all or only two? Behind the steady, expressionless eyes of the Master Pilot, strange thoughts were passing… .
  • There were orders, at length, to return to the ship. "It is dark already,"
  • Schwartzmann concluded; "nothing can be accomplished at night.
  • "How long are the days and nights?" he asked Harkness.
  • "Six hours." Harkness told him; "our little world spins fast."
  • "Then for six hours we sleep," was the order. And again Herr Schwartzman_onducted Mademoiselle Delacouer to her cabin, while Chet Bullard watche_ntil he saw the man depart and heard the click of the lock on the door o_iane's room.
  • Then for six hours he listened to the sounds of sleeping men who were sprawle_bout him on the floor; for six hours he saw the one man who sat on guar_eside a light that made any thought of attack absurd. And he cursed himsel_or a fool, as he lay wakeful and vainly planning—a poor, futile fool who wa_nable to cope with this man who had bested him.
  • Nineteen seventy-three!—and here were Harkness and Diane and himself, capture_y a man who was mentally and morally a misfit in a modern world. A throw- back—that was Schwartzmann: Harkness had said it. He belonged back in ninetee_ourteen.
  • Harkness was beyond the watching guard; from where he lay came sounds o_estless movement. Chet knew that he was not alone in this mood of hopeles_ejection. There was no opportunity for talk; only with the coming of day di_he two find a chance to exchange a few quick words.
  • The guard roused the others at the first sight of sunlight beyond the ports.
  • Harkness sauntered slowly to where Chet was staring from a lookout. He, too, leaned to see the world outside, and he spoke cautiously in a half-whisper:
  • "Not a chance, Chet. No use trying to bluff this big crook any more. He'_ere, and he's safe; and he knows it as well as we do. We'll let him ditc_s—you and Diane and me. Then, when we're on our own, we'll watch our chance.
  • He will go crazy with what he finds—may get careless—then we'll seize th_hip—" His words ended abruptly. As Schwartzmann came behind them, he wa_asually calling Chet's attention to a fumerole from which a jet of vapor ha_ppeared. Yellowish, it was; and the wind was blowing it.
  • Chet turned away; he hardly saw Schwartzmann or heard Harkness' words. He wa_hinking of what Walt had said. Yes, it was all they could do; there was n_hance of a fight with them now. But later!
  • Diane Delacouer came into the control-room at the instant; her dark eyes wer_till lovely with sleep, but they brightened to flash an encouraging smil_oward the two men. There were five of Schwartzmann's men in the ship beside_he pilot and the scientist, Kreiss. They all crowded in after Diane.
  • They must have had their orders in advance; Schwartzmann merely nodded, an_hey sprang upon Harkness and Chet. The two were caught off their guard; thei_rms were twisted behind them before resistance could be thought of. Dian_ave a cry, started forward, and was brushed back by a sweep of Schwartzmann'_rm. The man himself stood staring at them, unmoving, wordless. Only the fles_bout his eyes gathered into creases to squeeze the eyes to malignant slits.
  • There was no mistaking the menace in that look.
  • "I think we do not need you any more," he said at last. "I think, Her_arkness, this is the end of our little argument—and, Herr Harkness, you lose.
  • Now, I will tell you how it iss that you pay.
  • "You haff thought, perhaps, I would kill you. But you were wrong, as you man_imes have been. You haff not appreciated my kindness; you haff not understoo_hat mine iss a heart of gold.
  • "Even I was not sure before we came what it iss best to do. But now I know. _aw oceans and many lands on this world. I saw islands in those oceans.
  • "You so clever are—such a great thinker iss Herr Harkness—and on one of thos_slands you will haff plenty of time to think—yess! You can think of your goo_riend, Schwartzmann, and of his kindness to you."
  • "You are going to maroon us on an island?" asked Walt Harkness hoarsely.
  • Plainly his plans for seizing the ship were going awry. "You are going to pu_he three of us off in some lost corner of this world?"
  • Chet Bullard was silent until he saw the figure of Harkness struggling t_hrow off his two guards. "Walt," he called loudly, "take it easy! For God'_ake, Walt, keep your head!"
  • This, Chet sensed, was no time for resistance. Let Schwartzmann go ahead wit_is plans; let him think them complacent and unresisting; let Max pilot th_hip; then watch for an opening when they could land a blow that would count!
  • He heard Schwartzmann laughing now, laughing as if he were enjoying somethin_ore pleasing than the struggles of Walt.
  • Chet was standing by the controls. The metal instrument-table was beside him; above it was the control itself, a metal ball that hung suspended in ai_ithin a cage of curved bars.
  • It was pure magic, this ball-control, where magnetic fields crossed an_ecrossed; it was as if the one who held it were a genie who could throw th_hip itself where he willed. Glass almost enclosed the cage of bars, and th_hole instrument swung with the self-compensating platform that adjuste_tself to the "gravitation" of accelerated speed. The pilot, Max, had move_cross to the instrument-table, ready for the take-off.
  • Schwartzmann's laughter died to a gurgling chuckle. He wiped his eyes befor_e replied to Harkness' question.
  • "Leave you," he said, "in one place?  _Nein!_  One here, the other there. _housand miles apart, it might be. And not all three of you. That would be s_nkind—"
  • He interrupted himself to call to Kreiss who was opening the port.
  • "No," he ordered: "keep it closed. We are not going outside; we are going up."
  • But Kreiss had the port open. "I want a man to get some fresh water," he said;
  • "he will only be a minute."
  • He shoved at a waiting man to hurry him through the doorway. It was only _entle push: Chet wondered as he saw the man stagger and grasp at his throat.
  • He was coughing—choking horribly for an instant outside the open port—the_ell to the ground, while his legs jerked awkwardly, spasmodically.
  • Chet saw Kreiss follow. The scientist would have leaped to the side of th_tricken man, whose body was so still now on the sunlit rock; but he, too, crumpled, then staggered back into the room. He pushed feebly at the port an_wung it shut. His face, as he turned, was drawn into fearful lines.
  • "Acid!" He choked out the words between strangled breaths.
  • "Acid—sulfuric—fumes!"
  • Chet turned quickly to the spectro-analyzer: the lines of oxygen and nitroge_ere merged with others, and that meant an atmosphere unfit for human lungs!
  • There had been a fumerole where yellowish vapor was spouting: he remembered i_ow.
  • "So!" boomed Schwartzmann, and now his squinting eyes were full on Chet.
  • "You—you  _schwein_! You said when we opened the ports there would be _urprise! Und this iss it! You thought to see us kill ourselves!
  • "Open that port!" he shouted. The men who held Chet released him and spran_orward to obey. The pilot, Max, took their place. He put one hand on Chet'_houlder, while his other hand brought up a threatening metal bar.
  • Schwartzmann's heavy face had lost its stolid look; it was alive with rage. H_hrust his head forward to glare at the men, while he stood firmly, his fee_ar apart, two heavy fists on his hips. He whirled abruptly and caught Dian_y one arm. He pulled her roughly to him and encircled the girl's trim figur_ith one huge arm.
  • "Put you  _all_  on one island?" he shouted. "Did you think I would put yo_all_  out of the ship? You"—he pointed at Harkness—"and you"—this time it wa_het—"go out now. You can die in your damned gas that you expected would kil_e! But, you fools, you imbeciles—Mam'selle, she stays with me!" Th_truggling girl was helpless in the great arm that drew her close.
  • Harkness' mad rage gave place to a dead stillness. From bloodless lips in _halk-white face he spat out one sentence:
  • "Take your filthy hands off her—now—or I'll—"
  • Schwartzmann's one free hand still held the pistol. He raised it with deadl_eliberation; it came level with Harkness' unflinching eyes.
  • "Yes?" said Schwartzmann, "You will do—what?"
  • Chet saw the deadly tableau. He knew with a conviction that gripped his hear_hat here was the end. Walt would die and he would be next. Diane would b_eft defenseless… . The flashing thought that followed came to him as sharpl_s the crack of any pistol. It seemed to burst inside his brain, to lift hi_ith some dynamic power of its own and project him into action.
  • He threw himself sideways from under the pilot's hand, out from beneath th_eavy metal bar—and he whirled, as he leaped, to face the man. One lean, brow_and clenched to a fist that started a long swing from somewhere near hi_nees; it shot upward to crash beneath the pilot's outthrust jaw and lift hi_rom the floor. Max had aimed the bar in a downward sweep where Chet's hea_ad been the moment before; and now man and bar went down together. In th_ame instant Chet threw himself upon the weapon and leaped backward to hi_eet.
  • One frozen second, while, to Chet, the figures seemed as motionless as i_arved from stone—two men beside the half-opened port—Harkness in convulsiv_rithing between two others—the figure of Diane, strained, tense and helples_n Schwartzmann's grasp—and Schwartzmann, whose aim had been disturbed, steadying the pistol deliberately upon Harkness—
  • "Wait!" Chet's voice tore through the confusion. He knew he must gri_chwartzmann's attention—hold that trigger finger that was tensed to send _etonite bullet on its way. "Wait, damn you! I'll answer your question. I'l_ell you what we'll do!"
  • In that second he had swung the metal bar high; now he brought it crashin_own in front of him. Schwartzmann flinched, half turned as if to fire a_het, and saw the blow was not for him.
  • With a splintering crash, the bar went through an obstruction. There was soun_f glass that slivered to a million mangled bits—the sharp tang of meta_roken off—a crash and clatter—then silence, save for one bit of glass tha_ell belatedly to the floor, its tiny jingling crash ringing loud in th_eathly stillness of the room… .
  • It had been the control-room, this place of metal walls and of shining, polished instruments, and it could be called that no longer. For, battered t_seless wreckage, there lay on a metal table a cage that had once been forme_f curving bars. Among the fragments a metal ball that had guided the grea_hip still rocked idly from its fall, until it, too, was still.
  • It was a room where nothing moved—where no person so much as breathed… .
  • Then came the Master Pilot's voice, and it was speaking with quiet finality.
  • "And that," he said, "is your answer. Our ship has made its last flight."
  • His eyes held steadily upon the blanched face of Herr Schwartzmann, whose lim_rms released the body of Diane; the pistol hung weakly at the man's side. An_he pilot's voice went on, so quiet, so hushed—so curiously toneless in tha_ilent room.
  • "What was it that you said?—that Harkness and I would be staying here? Well, you were right when you said that, Schwartzmann: but it's a hard sentence, that—imprisonment for life."
  • Chet paused now, to smile deliberately, grimly at the dark face so bleache_nd bloodless, before he repeated:
  • "Imprisonment for life!—and you didn't know that you were sentencing yourself.
  • For you're staying too, Schwartzmann, you contemptible, thieving dog! You'r_taying with us—here—on the Dark Moon!"