Richard F. Searight
Now that the reign of terror induced by the Cosmic Horror (as the phenomenon has been repeatedly termed by the press) in Clinton County and the surrounding territory has come to an end, countless inquiries have poured in on me. A scientific monograph has already been published relating such facts as were obtained through the connection of Professor Elton and myself with activities of the Horror, but these findings were necessarily too inadequate to satisfy the many speculations regarding the origin and real nature of the visitant.
The worldwide interest in the matter has decided me to set down, simply and concisely, the story of the natural happenings, as seen by a layman who was unfortunate enough to be involved in the affair.
The whole frightful train of events began towards the close of my annual summer vacation. For years I have been accustomed to leave by legal practice in the city and spend this period with Professor Wayne Elton on his small country estate near Clinton. The professor had been blamed, indeed censured bitterly by some of his colleagues, for his initial part in the matter, yet I think all will agree that he has made full reparation for the damage wrought by his curiosity.
It had been one of those breathlessly hot, muggy evenings, with a thunder storm in the offing. Even Elton, a man as impervious to heat as anyone I have ever known, was content, for the moment, to relax the bundle of nerves and muscles which composes his lean frame, and devote himself to a cigar.
Finally the storm broke, and rain fell in torrents. After its passing we resumed our porch seats, drinking in the refreshing breeze which had sprung up and reveling in the relief from the cloying heat. I thought of the approaching end to my visit, and my eyes roved regretfully over the dim panorama of rolling countryside stretching away under the clean-washed stars.
Elton's incisive voice broke in on my reverie.
"Look, Creighton! A meteor!"
My gaze followed his pointing finger.
"Looks as though it would land close to use," I commented lazily. Together we watched the fiery mass rushing earthward. It was close, indeed; so close we could almost feel the rush of air disturbed by its swift descent.
"Unless I'm all wrong, it fell in the field just across the highway from us," said Elton after a moment, running a restless hand through his greying hair. "No detonation, so it must have landed in one piece. This is luck! I've always wanted a meteorite of my own to analyze.
"It ought to be easy enough to find," he continued. "No moon tonight, but I think I know just about where it struck. I'll rout out old Jenkins to help us look. Come along."
With his usual impetuousness he was already on his way to the back of the big house. I followed at the best pace my waistline would permit, reflecting that the years since we had been room mates at the university had made little inroad on his dynamic energy.
Our search did not meet with success quite as soon as Elton appeared to expect, but an hour later found the three of us grouped about the meteorite. It was a fair-sized one, a foot in diameter, and recognizable only by the black fused crust, thin and glossy, which covered it. It lay nearly buried in the loam of the field where it had fallen in a natural hollow of the ground, causing it to escape detection for a time.
Jenkins, the aging gardener and utility man of the estate, set down his lantern.
"There's a hoist in the garage that we can use," he told us. "I'll bring it over on the little truck, if you want."
"All right," approved the scientist, "do that. We'll dig the stone out and take it back on the truck, then."
The meteorite -- a remarkably symmetrical one -- was soon in place in the back of the pick-up truck. It was strangely lacking in weight; in fact I believe we could have carried it to the house between us. This phenomenon whetted Elton's already keen curiosity and he was more than excited. Another factor that increased his interest in the acquisition was the faintly repellent magnetic quality which emanated from it. It was something altogether too palpable to be dismissed as a figment of the imagination, yet hardly strong enough to attempt to identify or even describe.
"Some new element," Elton informed me positively. "Some sort of radioactive substance. Never felt anything like it before. This is a real find, old man. Just wait, and you'll see history in the making when I analyze it."
Presently the thing reposed on the floor of the big, brightly-lit laboratory. Elton took a few photographs from different angles, then set the camera away with an oddly puzzled look on his face.
"Have you noticed this, Creighton?" he inquired, pointing to a section of the meteorite.
I had observed the peculiarity of which he spoke, but my lack of familiarity with things scientific had prevented any comment. Briefly, it was this: while the meteorite seemed to be composed of solid rock, now that the black crust had been scraped away, we could see, inset on one side, a slab of what looked like some unfamiliar greenish metal. Its margins were so clearly defined as to give an impression of artificiality to its prescience.
"You think that's the new element you spoke of?" I asked.
"Maybe. Anyway, it's unlike any metal I know of. But, if you've noticed, you can touch the meteorite anywhere and get that sensation. Whatever is giving it off may be part of the substance of the stone itself. However, that's something I'll have to determine by analysis. Help me put it under the rock grinder, Jenkins. I want some dust to work with."
I glanced half humorously at my wrist watch. It was nearly midnight but my friend was in no mood to postpone his investigations. With Jenkins' help he clamped the stone in position on the low platform of the big rock grinder, a relic of his transitory interest in geology which had stood idle for years in a corner of the room.
He was promptly fussing with the grinder's long unused electrical connections. He hooked them to a motor which the laboratory boasted and, by some unfortunately chance, succeeded in obtaining a complete circuit at once. The motor began to hum and the high-speed rotating grinding disc started its flashing revolutions. Elton three a lever and the disc began a slow descent. We stood back to escape the flying particles which would result from its contact with the meteorite.
It reached the stone, and a grinding noise, like the sound of a dentist's drill tremendously amplified, rose above the drone of the motor. The surface of the mass began to level off beneath the friction.
Then I stared in amazement at an unexpected development. The grinding disc had broken through a cortex -- the meteorite was hollow! Elton leaped to the switch and shut off the power while I stepped over to inspect the hole. The opening exposed was small but I could see that the interior was larger and filled with a brilliant, pulsating light. A wave of intense heat swept up into my face and I back away, astonished and perplexed. Then a strange thing happened.
From the small, jagged opening issued a radiant vapor of some luminous substance which seemed strangely cohesive in its nature although it rose like a gas. I billowed up from the hole and expanded into a dense fiery ball, like a sphere of molten metal, perhaps three fee across and shimmering with unearthly lustre. It floated in the air at the height of a man's head, a coruscating brilliant thing, palpitating with an anomalous vibrant life. It radiated heat and we felt again the queer magnetic current, but now infinitely stronger.
I edged further away, thoroughly bewildered and frightened, while Elton and Jenkins backed against the far wall, their fascinated gaze riveted on the weird phenomenon. Then it happened, with the speed of light. One moment the fiery mass was hovering lightly before the grinder; the next it had streaked across the intervening space like a scintillating bolt of lightning and wrapped the gardener round in lustrous, amorphous folds.
Elton shouted something unintelligible, then raced across the room to the desk where he kept his pistol. I stood rooted in my tracks, stunned with surprise and horror. Jenkins was enveloped in a molten, glowing garment which covered him from head to foot. He swayed, then crashed to the floor. In a few seconds, it seemed, the fiery substance withdrew its folds and rose again into the air, resuming its former spherical shape. It swung lightly above the motionless body, pulsating rapidly, while a deepening reddish tinge blended with the original white-hot hue.
Then Elton was at my side, pumping shot after shot into it from his automatic. But the thing continued to hover over its victim, swaying slightly after each report, yet apparently unharmed by the impacts of the heavy bullets which crashed on into the wall behind it. The pistol became silent but the menacing swinging motion of the unholy creature continued. A warning struck into my dazed brain -- I have see a tiger lash its tail rhythmically with just that effect before it spring. I grasped Elton's arm and dragged him back in desperate haste.
"Get away quick," I gasped, as I urged him back. "It's going to attack again!"
Only one way of retreat lay open. The thing's position cut off escape through the doors, and we fled towards the small storeroom opening off the far end of the laboratory. Only a second or two could have ellipsoid in our wild dash to this refuge, but as we crashed through its door, I saw, over my shoulder, the fiery globe streaking towards us with incredible speed. We slammed the door and I drove home the bolt. At the same instant a thud sounded itself over the glass which occupied the upper panel of the door. Soul shaking sucking sounds came through the thin wood, and a wave of heat crept into the little room.
I realized at once that we were trapped. The storeroom was little more than a cubby-hole used for the storing of bulky chemicals and odds and ends of discarded equipment from the laboratory. There was no window, no means of egress but the door, and if the weird menace could gain entrance we would be helpless to escape it. I crouched against the far wall, my eyes glued in a helpless, fascinated stare on the crimson threat which blotted out our view of the laboratory.
We were safe for the moment, but glass and wood seemed poor barriers against such an abnormal creation. For all we knew it might possess other powers than those it had displayed -- such as penetrating through certain kinds of solids; or perhaps the terrific heat of its presence could melt the glass. Already the temperature of the cramped space was rising rapidly and we were drenched with perspiration.
Then another source of danger appeared. In the light of the unshaded bulb which Elton had snapped on, I saw a thin wisp of smoke curling into the storeroom from between the door and its jamb. Apparently the heat pressed against the outside was igniting the wood.
Elton was poking about in the miscellaneous junk piled around the room's sides. Now he stooped and snaked out a length of old rubber hose. He measured it with his eye and nodded.
"I've got an idea," he announced. "I --"
"Look at the door," I broke in, "ideas won't help in another minute -- the place will be on fire."
He cast a startled glance over his shoulder as a puff of white smoke burst in upon us, followed by the crackling of flames from without as the fire gained a hold. With desperate speed he fitted one end of the hose over the mouth of the water faucet above the mop sink at the side of the room. Dimly divining his intention, I held it in place. He opened the transom over the door ever so slightly, and thrust the other end of the tubing far enough through the crack to point downwards on the outside.
"I don't know if this will do any good, Creighton," he muttered as he worked, "we can only try." Then: "Turn the water on full force -- quick!"
The glass was cracking in the heat as I turned the handle. A stream of icy water gushed down and deluged the Horror which clung outside. Suddenly the glass was clear and through the cascading water I saw the creature, now a shapeless, tentacled mass, swirling and twisting violently about the laboratory, a cloud of steam surrounding it.
The water continued to course down the outside of the door, and clouds of smoke arose as the fire was extinguished. A good part of the fumes worked their way into the storeroom and set us coughing and choking, but the discomfort passed unnoticed. We watched anxiously as the ruddy monster pursued its wild gyrations as it suddenly flashed through one of the open windows and away into the night, as though sucked up by some cosmic draft.
Thankfully we pulled back the door and stumbled from the suffocating place into the cleaner air of the laboratory where the breeze from the open windows was rapidly dissipating the smoke. A glance at the burned and blackened woodwork, and we made our way to where Jenkins had fallen.
He lay flat on his back, a ghastly sight. Through the charred shreds of clothing adhering to the cooked flesh I could see that his entire body was scorched and blackened. The balls of his eyes were seared by the heat of the fiery shroud which had enveloped him, and his whole frame was strangely shriveled and shrunken. He must had died instantly, yet a more frightful death could scarcely be imagined.
Elton stared at the shocking remains of his old employee, with mounting horror in his eyes. I felt very near collapse as I regarded the fate we had so narrowly escaped. At length:
"Every drop of blood seems to have been drained from his body," muttered the scientist unbelievingly.
I felt a nauseated understanding of the deepening crimson hue which had marked the creature as it rose from its victim.
An hour later, Sheriff Hugh Walters stood looking down at the body of Jenkins, and the color slowly ebbed beneath his rich mahogany tan. The puzzled skepticism which I had seen in his eyes, as he listened in the library to the outline of the evening's happenings, had vanished. He turned abruptly away.
"This is bad business, professor," he stated tritely. "I've seen some awful sights since I've been on this job, but nothing like this."
He passed through the laboratory to the storeroom, and looked inside, his keen, casual-seeming glance taking in each detail.
"You're sure this thing is alive?" he asked as we started back to the library. "Couldn't it be some sort of electrical power gone wrong?"
Elton shook his head emphatically. "No such luck. I thought of something of the sort, at first, but every move it made was proof, not only of life, but of intelligence. No, we've got a mighty dangerous creature to combat; a devilish thing which has no right to existence on this earth."
Walters settled his long, rangy frame in one of the library chairs and began to chew on a fresh cigar.
"You think, then," he began, "that it's apt to attack others?"
Elton turned in his restless pacing. "I'm almost sure of it. I'll admit there's a possibility that conditions of temperature and atmosphere here may prove unsuitable for it. It may try to return to its original habitat, or it may die, but I don't think we can depend on it. We should take steps at once to protect people."
"The fact that we found it sealed in the meteorite," he continued, "is most significant. I found that the metal slab which was set into the stone was put there to seal shut an opening! It was fused with the rock at the edges, inside and out. I believe this means that some form of intelligence, possibly on some distant planet, found the creature a menace, imprisoned it and set it adrift in space; probably because they lacked the means of destroying it outright. And it looks bad for our chances of killing it, if a science capable of capturing the thing and projecting it into space was still unable to do so."
He resumed his interminable pacing about the room while the sheriff and I digested this thought.
"What's your theory about its physical nature?" I asked presently.
He pondered for a moment. "I think it's probably a combination of pure force, perhaps electrical in character, and attenuated substance. A creature absolute alien to life as we know it. The substance is there, because it absorbed the blood from Jenkins' body" -- the sheriff made a wry face -- "but it wasn't dense enough to offer resistance to my bullets. There's a theory out now that all life originally evolved from heat -- probably as good a guess as any. Perhaps this thing was spawned by some world in the outer reaches of space -- or closer, for that matter. But speculation won't help us any on that point."
"Funny sort of creature," commented Walters, as the other paused. "If your gun wouldn't hurt it, how are we going to go about killing it if it starts to make trouble?"
"That's just the point I'm trying to bring out," returned my friend with a touch of irritation. "It's going to be a problem, but substance can be destroyed -- any substance -- if the right means is used. Water made it retreat, but I doubt if it would actually destroy it. High powered projectiles . . . explosives . . . fire might do it if the heat could be made sufficiently intense; or a high voltage charge of electricity. But those are all pretty hard to bring into action against anything that moves so fast, and none of them are certain because we know so little of its nature."
Walters looked discouraged. A little more talk and he rose to his feet. "I'll be out again in the morning," he told us. "There's nothing I can do tonight. We'll talk it over again then, and decide on some plan if it seems necessary."
The morning was far advanced when I awoke from the heavy slumber, shot with gruesome dreams, into which I had sunk on retiring. I hurried down to the dining room and saw with relief that Elton had just taken his seat. He was sipping his coffee as he unfolded the late edition of the morning paper. I dropped down across from him and began to attack such portions of the mean as had appeared.
His startled gasp interrupted me. I looked up to see him staring at the front page of the paper, his face quite white. In almost a single movement I was around the table and peering over his shoulder at the item designated by his finger.
Obviously a last minute insert, it read:
An unidentified air mail pilot crashed early this morning in a field three miles west of Clinton. The plane and body were found shortly after daylight by searches who had heard the crash. The appearance of the body will provide a puzzle for examining physicians. While almost every inch of the skin had been badly burned, no traces of fire was found in the plane, which, with the mail, was intact, aside from damage caused by the fall. The sheriff's department is conducting an investigation and it is intimated that the cooperation of Federal operatives is expected.
A brief, unadorned story, plainly shorn of detail to make the edition, but it gripped my mind as a superlative horror. My thoughts reverted to the murderous space traveler. What malignant, rapacious entity from the boundless depths of space had we loosed on the world? Like the genie in the fable it had been bottled up and helpless; in all innocence we had brought about its release, and now it was beginning the nightmare career of preying on humanity which Elton had feared.
I stumbled back to my seat. My friend continued to stare at the article, his lips pressed into a thin line. At length he folded the paper carefully and laid it aside, then turned to me.
"Just what I was afraid of, Creighton. The thing has struck again. Lord only knows how many victims it will claim before we can destroy it -- and I'm responsible for it all . . ."
A haunted, remorseful look had come into his eyes.
"You're not to blame," I told him quickly. "No one could have dreamed that such a thing was possible, and you acted in good faith when you brought the meteorite here and opened it. You're not at fault, at least not intentionally."
"No, of course not," he returned quickly, suddenly recovering his usual vigorous outlook. "But I did the damage and I'll undo it. Somehow, I'm going to destroy that creature if it's the last thing I ever do."
"And I'll help you all I can," I assured him warmly. "I'll stay on here till it's killed. Between us we may be able to trap it. At least we know more about it than anyone else."
Similar reports began to fill the press, and terrible days followed. Corpses were found in isolated places each morning, every drop of blood extracted from their bodies. Automobiles were discovered wrecked and twisted along the highways, no trace of fire about them, unless perhaps a slight charring of the upholstery, but with the drivers done to death in the same frightful manner. Always the Horror struck at night; always the victims were alone, and there were few who laid eyes on it and lived to tell of what they saw.
Warnings were issued by the state government. Everyone, especially those residing beyond the confines of towns and cities, was urged to remain indoors at night. Strong parties of state police, sheriffs' deputies and volunteers scoured the territory in which the deaths took place, patrolling the highways at night and searching for a possible hiding place of the creature by day. The Horror seemed to confine its depredations to an area of approximately a hundred square miles about Professor Elton's estate, and this gave hope, at first, that its lair might be located without much difficulty. But, as day followed day without progress, and the monster continued to prey unseen and unrestrained upon its victims, we began to despair.
That was a period of nightmare existence. All the everyday pursuits, all the commonplace routine of life, were forgotten in the fight to check the ravages of the visitant from the voids of space. My readers will recall that the press of the world was filled with lurid accounts of the strange form of life which was devouring the blood of unfortunate men. They called it the Cosmic Horror, and printed long speculations and scientific comments regarding its origin and nature.
Professor Elton became the target for acrimonious criticism from certain of his colleagues for his unconventional action in appropriating the meteorite for his own use, it being suggested that had the stone been mounted in some museum, as would ordinarily have been its fate, the Horror might never have escaped. All this was beside the point, but it preyed on Elton's mind and he devoted himself grimly to plans to undo the damage.
We spent the days conferring with various officials, trying to devise action to end the reign of terror which had developed in the region. The nights we passed usually with Sheriff Walters, cruising about the district in a cabin plane borrowed from the county airport. Walters had thrown himself unreservedly into the fight, and had collected and carried in the plane every modern means of destruction which had been suggested by science to combat the creature.
In addition to a machine gun, synchronized to pour its deadly stream of lead between the whirling helicopter blades, we carried a supply of hand grenades, two vicious sub-machine guns shooting explosive bullets, and stick of special dynamite with detonator caps attached. Finally, there was a pressure tank of water with a hose, to be used in defense if that should prove necessary.
But, though we roved the heavens night after night, while automobile loads of officers patrolled the roads below, the creature eluded us. Its continued presence in the locality was evidenced only by fresh victims found each morning. It seemed to possess an uncanny faculty for distinguishing between its helpless prey and the hunters -- some of whom traveled alone as decoys -- and of keeping hidden from sight except when actually striking.
The Governor of the State was on the verge of declaring martial law in the district when the tenth night passed with no casualty reported on the following day. The populace throughout the area was thoroughly frightened, indeed panic-stricken, and was heeding the repeated warnings of the authorities. Sheriff Walters was jubilant when Elton and I met him that evening at the airport, preparatory to taking off for the night's patrol.
"It means the thing didn't get any food last night," he explained, as he made an unusually careful, last minute inspection of his arsenal inside the plane. "It's probably good and hungry by now and maybe it'll get desperate and attack us. If it does -- well, we'll find out what all this stuff here will do to it." He grinned hopefully as he took his place beside Elton and myself in the rear section of the ship's cabin. Walters was brave enough. He welcomed the prospect of coming to grips with the creature; but then he had never seen it -- in action.
Besides the three of us in the rear, the plane carried its pilot and a deputy, also a flier, who occupied the other front seat. Spread before us in the back section were the weapons we hoped to use.
We took off smoothly as the late dusk deepened into night and the lights of Clinton began to twinkle out. The breathless heat of the evening was relieved by a fresh breeze as we spiraled up to a thousand feet, then leveled off for the long leisurely cruise. A higher altitude, Walters felt, would put us at too great a disadvantage if we were to surprise the creature in the act of attacking a person on the ground.
Hour after hour slipped by while we maintained the routine vigil. It had resolved itself into a monotonous, wearisome task of late, but this night I had an uneasy foreboding that action was coming at last. As the sheriff had said, it seemed logical that the creature might adopt bolder tactics.
The full moon rose, flooding the landscape below with a far-flung silver glory. At length it passed behind a bank of clouds and the chill of approaching dawn crept into the air. I was glancing at my watch when Elton suddenly gripped my arm.
"Off to the left there -- about the same height we are! See it?"
I did; a gleaming point of light in the distance, larger than a star, and rapidly growing. It bore down on us with terrific speed, looming large and menacing in seconds.
"Quick, boys!" ordered Walters. "Up with those windows! Close them all tight." As he spoke, he lifted one of the sub-machine guns while Elton took the other. On the far side I followed the example of the men in front, sliding up my glass so that now the only avenue open to attack was the window beside the sheriff.
Another low-voiced command, and the pilot throttled the ship down to even slower speed. Walters was giving the creature every encouragement, but I think, too, that he had some idea of slower speed rendering our offense more effective.
Then like a streaking ball of fire, the Horror was upon us, swooping out of the dark straight for the open window.
The two machine guns roared side by side across the window ledge, pouring a steady stream of bullets at the onrushing creature. Abruptly it checked its charge and began to swing along even with the plane, behind the end of the wing and within twenty feet or so of the window. There was no missing the glittering target. The high explosive projectiles tore through and through its tenuous form, meeting enough resistance from it to explode in a cracking roar of sound; but the thing continued to maintain its position, floating along at the same distance from the ship.
Walters flung his gun aside. "No use! Bullets won't hurt the damn thing! Give me the grenades."
I passed him the opened box of percussion hand grenades. They, too, met sufficient resistance to make them detonate, and he hurled them, one after the other. The margin of safety was slight -- had the target been closer to ourselves or to the wing tip we would not have dared to use them. The night was filled with crashing detonations, and flaming explosions blended with the sheen of the creature and wiped it from our sight for long seconds. Walters concluded his onslaught with the special, straight-nitroglycerine dynamite, and the place rocked as the rending concussions blasted the air.
But the creature still swept along beside us when he stopped. It was weaving about, stretching out loathsome little feelers of light as though to learn the nature of the noise and flashes. Apparently the terrific disintegrating powers of the explosives had not affected it in the slightest.
"Good Lord! It's indestructible!" exclaimed Elton harshly. And indeed it seemed that modern science lacked the means to end this life from the voids of space. The most powerful short range weapons at our command had failed against it.
And now, seeming to recover from its surprise at the strange reception, or perhaps sensing that no more entertainment was to be offered, it returned to its original purpose of attack. Slowly it drew towards the window, closer and closer. Walters awoke to the danger. He turned up the glass and shouted to the pilot: "Give her all you can, Jack! We've got to get away."
The man opened his throttle wide. The heavy ship gathered speed and vibrated in every part as it roared through the darkness. For a moment the gleaming menace dropped behind. Then, with incredible swiftness, it was abreast of us again and, curving in under the wing, had landed with a heavy jar against the pilot's window, where it spread and covered the glass, a molten-hued, pulsating amorphity. The flier gave one frightened look, then turned his head away, wide-eyed fear stamped on his face.
The Horror maintained its hold on the glass with ease, and now, in the light from the cabin, I saw the means. Countless little tentacles projected from the main body, pressing against the transparent surface to somehow create the necessary suction. There was something infinitely repulsive in the rapacious, alien intelligence displayed by the creature, and I shuddered as I watched.
Elton was working with deft haste at the attachments of the water-filled pressure tank -- something we had never thought to use. He dare not open the window against which the creature had spread itself. After having seen it pour through the small hole in the meteorite like a gas, we knew this was too desperate an expedient. Instead, he thrust himself in beside the pilot, opening the small front window slightly from the top. A veritable gale from the propeller swept into the cabin. Elton slipped the nozzle of the hose through the opening and directed it around the corner, pointing down the side of the plane. At his signal I turned the valve and a rush of water foamed along the ship's side and back into the night.
But the Horror continued to cling in spite of it. Perhaps the water was too diffused, coming in too fine a spray due to the ship's motion, to affect it; perhaps the thing itself was too hungry to care about discomfort. At any rate, the small tank had emptied almost before we realized it, and Elton closed the glass, his face a study in puzzled desperation.
The tentacles fascinated me. The creature covered the entire window, its flattened body overlapping onto the structure of the ship. I noticed now that the tentacles clinging to the glass were stretching and contracting, stretching and contracting. . . . Suddenly, in a flash of understanding, I knew what the movement meant: the creature was exerting a vicious effort of suction against the glass, at the same time holding its position by maintaining a grip on the plane's frame!
Even as comprehension flooded my mind, its purpose was achieved. A tinkle of broken glass sounded above the bellow of the motor and a jagged piece of window came away in the grip of the tentacles.
Instantly the creature was flowing through the opening. The pilot, his face contorted with terror, half rose to fling himself back, but swift as thought the Horror struck. The man stood for a moment, wrapped in a sheet of living, vibrant flame, then collapsed to lie motionless across his seat. The evil, magnetic aura filled the ship, palpable as an electric current, and heat from its presence beat upon us.
Elton jerked an automatic from his pocket and sent a stream of lead into the recumbent form. Whether he was making a final, close-range attack on the creature, or whether his object was to give a quick and painless death to its victim, I never asked. The body jerked spasmodically under the impact of the steel-jacketed bullets, but I have always like to believe that men died at the first touch of this scintillating doom.
As the bark of the pistol ceased, the frightful repast was finished. Slowly the Horror flowed up from its prey and resumed its normal spherical shape, while the remains of the pilot slumped, blackened and lifeless, across the leather seat. The creature hovered lightly in the narrow space, palpitating rapidly, while the revolting crimson glow spread through it. The place rush unguided through the darkness, held to its course by the automatic stabilizing power of its design.
The deputy had crawled back and crouched at my feet, his face a mask of fright. We stared in horrid fascination at the evilly glowing sphere in which the shades of crimson played and melted, absorbing and obliterating the hungry molten hue. My eyes wavered for a moment and I noted with an odd, subconscious detachment, that, in this moment of supreme stress, the sheriff's jaws still clamped mechanically on his dead cigar, though his face was ashy beneath its tan.
If the thing chose to attack, nothing could save us, and the wise rose in me for a clean death, if I must die. My gaze still riveted on the balefully shimmering monster, I leaned toward the dynamite, resolved to blow the ship and all its cargo of human life to eternity before submitting to that foul embrace.
But, as my hand trembled on the brink of destruction, reprieve came. Slowly the creature swirled to the window and slipped through the jagged opening like lambent, gleaming serpent. Outside it reformed and shot away, downward and on a tangent to our course. In half a minute it had disappeared as though passing behind some obstruction.
The moon's rays burst suddenly through the scudding clouds, lighting up the landscape below. The sheriff brushed a hand across his eyes and the dazed look began to die out of them. He glanced around, then:
"Bob!" he called sharply. "Bob! Get up and take those controls."
The brusk tone penetrated the cloud of fright which numbed the deputy's mind. His face became more composed as he crawled over to his seat, carefully avoiding contact with the body of the flier, and grasped the control stick.
During the past few moments my gaze had rested on the silvered terrain below with an odd, detached send of familiarity. Something was striving to come to the front of my mind. That long rampart of hills . . . fishing excursions; motor trips . . . I had been over every foot of them. Suddenly, I knew.
"Elton," I exclaimed, "did you notice where the thing disappeared?"
They both turned and looked at me, puzzled.
"That line of hills," I continued. "It never rose above them! Don't you know what's there?"
I wanted to test my theory, as well as my knowledge of local geography, by getting their reaction before I divulged it. Walters still looked blank, but, after a long glance downwards, understanding broke over Elton's face.
"Dinosaur Cave! You mean --"
"Of course. It couldn't have gone anywhere else when it vanished the way it did. That's where it's been hiding by day -- it must be!"
Grim exultation shone from his eyes as he turned to meet the sheriff's corroborative nod.
Dinosaur Cave! That endless ramification of gloomy caverns stretching back and down beneath the hills to unguessed depths. I remembered a report by one of Walter's assistants, mentioning a cursory examination of this cave as part of a routine hunt through the several similar formations in the district. Nothing suspicious had been found and no more comprehensive examination was made at the time, owing, I suppose, to the physical difficulties of covering so vast a space.
Dawn was breaking as the deputy brought our ship to rest in a plowed field. He was far too shaken to remain at the controls for the flight back to the airport; indeed, we were fortunate in achieving a safe landing at all, for, as the plane rolled to a stop, he fell forward in a dead faint.
We had scarcely reached home when Elton plunged into a fever of activity. Visitors, long distance calls, telegrams -- I marveled at the man's tireless vitality as he brought his planes to completion. I crept away for a few hours rest. He had promised to call me in time for the final act of our battle against the Horror, and I threw myself across the bed, fully clothed, to drop almost instantly into a heavy sleep.
The sun was dropping in the west when he shook me awake.
"Walters and I are going in alone," he explained, as I hastily gulped a cup of coffee. "A mob of men in that cave would spoil any chance of catching the creature unawares."
Then we were roaring along the concrete in the big police sedan, driven by one of Walters' deputies with the sheriff beside him. On the rear seat, carefully placed between Elton and myself, was a large crated wax container filled with anhydrous hydrofluoric acid which had been shipped by air express from the city that morning.
"I don't know whether it will do the job or not, Creighton," the scientist admitted with a tired smile, as we purred along. "Hydrofluoric acid is the most deadly stuff known to science. Like fluorine, its base, it attacks almost all known substances violently. Many of them it ignites spontaneously. After our failure last night, I decided that chemicals were our only recourse -- all other weapons had proved worthless. So we have the acid, and this." He drew forth a strange looking weapon; a sort of long pistol with an over-developed midsection and a huge bore.
"Something new from the secret arsenal of the War Department," he explained, meeting my wondering gaze. "It shoots a good sized capsule of trinitrotoluene -- T.N.T. The chamber holding the capsule has a heating element built into it which will melt the T.N.T. in three seconds. The discharge is effected by compressed air, and it has an accurate range up to one hundred feet. The Secretary of War sent it by special plane after I talked to him on the telephone this morning."
I stared. "But how do you expect to use them?"
"I don't know. I'm staking everything on taking the creature unawares, and on these things being able to definitely effect it. A long chance, Creighton. If I only knew the chemical nature of that part of the creature which is real substance, I could tell how it would react. But I don't, and I'm not likely to get an opportunity to analyze it, so I'm taking a chance. Walters wants to go along and help, but you're not going into the cave. You'll wait outside with the deputy and if we're not back by seven o'clock you can report us missing. But don't look for us till morning!"
I stared at him coldly. "If you think I'm going to sit safely outside while you go in there, perhaps to your death, you're crazy. I'm going along and do what I can to help."
His keen eyes probed into mine; then the grim-set lines of his face softened.
"Of course you can come with me, Old Man," he exclaimed, an odd embarrassment in his voice. "We've face it together so far and we'll finish together if you say so. I knew you'd want to come, but I honestly wish you wouldn't. You see, Walters has his duty as an officer to consider, and I have the responsibility for having started the trouble. But you have no obligation in the matter and it smacks almost of suicide for you to join us."
"Forget it, Elton," I ordered gruffly.
Now the car slowed down, then turned off into a tortuous, rutted dirt road. I knew it for the little-used lane which ran past the mouth of Dinosaur Cave, and recognition brought an apprehensive thrill. Steadily the car mounted along the winding path, leaving the plowed lands behind and entering a region of rank vegetation sprouting unchecked along the road. The hills towered to our right, intercepting the slanting rays of the sun, and to the left the ground fell away, behind a dense tangle of shrubbery, to the tilled fields below.
At length we rounded a bend and the black mouth of the cave, overhung with an unwholesome looking network of vines and creepers, opened from the hillside. The car pulled off onto the uneven, grass-grown shoulder.
"Here we are, sir," announced the deputy, ill-concealed nervousness in his voice.
We got out, Elton handling the wax jug carefully. With a screwdriver he removed the wooden crating, and we were ready.
"Wait till seven o'clock, Barnes -- no later," instructed the sheriff. "That will give you time to get to my office before dark. We'll be back here by then unless we decide to spend the night inside," he added, with grim humor.
The man nodded and settled back in his seat. Walters picked up the wax flask by its inset handle and we pushed aside the growth about the opening and entered the cavern.
A wave of dank, faintly stirring air met us like a blow in contrast to the warm summer afternoon we had left. It struck a chill into my body and a sense of foreboding to my heart. Elton drew a flashlight from his pocket and set a cone of cold illumination through the gloom. In a sweeping circle he revealed the uneven rock floor, strewn with dead leaves and mold near the entrance, and the rough walls and vaulted ceiling. The cave was about twenty feet wide at its start and ran back into the mounting hills like a natural tunnel.
Its branches and ramifications were endless, as I have said before, and it had never been extensively explored because there had never been anything especially interesting about it. Even its name, so far as I could discover, had no basis in fact. Where the branching galleries led, or in what part the Horror might lurk, no one could say. As we continued I began to feel that it was a desperate, all but hopeless venture.
We picked our way carefully over a floor which became littered with broken stone as we penetrated deeper. The entrance dwindled to a point of light far in the rear, and we began to pass the mouths of smaller tunnels, opening black and mysterious off the main artery. I wondered again how Elton expected to locate the creature in this underground maze.
We had progressed for perhaps twenty minutes, in dead silence, when we came to a branching of the main passage. The fork to the left continued on into blackness at our own level, but the one on the right began a definite downward trend at the point of divergence, as I could see in the wavering rays of the electric torch. Unhesitatingly Elton chose this path. We entered a narrowing, descending passage where shadows flickered weirdly on walls covered with moisture. The dampness in the air became more noticeable and from far ahead I heard the trickle of running water.
Down. Down. . . . Walters came to an abrupt stop.
"Elton," he protested in a guarded whisper, "I think it's foolish to go any deeper into this shaft. It'll be dark outside before we know it; the thing will start on its regular nightly hunt, and we'll be trapped. I didn't think three of us could find it -- these caves are too big."
Elton did not answer. From far in the distance ahead there came a faint rustling sound, as of some leathery substance brushing or dragging against the rocky surface. We listened intently. The noise stopped. Then:
"No, Walters. I'm still playing my hunch. I'm going straight ahead. We'll turn back in time to get out before dark if we don't find it, but I think we're on the right track."
The sheriff grumbled to himself and we started again. The tunnel broadened out presently and, so far as I could judge, the walls fell away from the flashlight's radius, and the unseen dimensions of the place impressed me as huge.
Then, through the damp air with its taint of mold and corruption, floated that repellent, magnetic current which we had come to associate with the close presence of the Horror. Elton made a satisfied sound and we pressed forward cautiously along the lane of light from his lamp.
Again our ears caught that faint rustling sound, still ahead but much nearer. Elton stopped and snapped off the flashlight. Darkness wrapped us like a tangible thing. The silence was absolute. Here, then, in the very bowels of the earth, far below the clean air and sunshine of the world of men, the foul enormity must lie hidden, waiting for nightfall before coming forth on another raid to satisfy its ravenous appetite.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the stygian blackness, I discerned ahead and to our right, a ghostly glimmer, more like a dim phosphorescent glow than a light. With infinite care we picked our way soundlessly through the dank gloom, the magnetic current growing ever stronger. We rounded a bend in the cavern's wall and stopped before the source of the light, the mouth of a roomy, rockbound alcove opening off the main artery.
Within lay a sight of soul-freezing horror, as alien to our earth as though we stood in the depths of some strange planet. The floor shelved downward from the opening, and along one side ran the blind brook we had heard from afar. The details of the place are vague in my mind for my gaze was instantly held by the source of the faint glow which permeated the place.
It was a great flat shape, porous and leathery, lying on the rocky floor on the far side of the chamber, and pulsating slowly and evenly. Even as we watched, it stirred slightly and the dry rustle sounded, startlingly loud in this place of silence. It was the Horror at rest! Around it clustered a group f similar flat shapes, but only a fraction of its size. All palpitated slowly, rhythmically; all emitted the same dim radiance. Dried excreta, very like the droppings of birds, littered the floor, and a nameless odor joined the overpowering magnetic emanation.
"Good God!" breathed Elton from beside me. "The thing has propagated! A devil's spawn from hell, waiting to get loose on the world!" His whispered words held uncontrollable loathing.
I made no reply -- I was too shaken by that abominable sight. Then Walters stirred, cautiously, restlessly. A pebble, dislodged by his groping foot, came loose and rattled down into the alcove. Instantly the flat leathery growths began to fill out, began to glow more and more brilliantly; a weird effulgence filled the chamber and eerie shadows quivered on the walls. My heart pumped furiously and my muscles tensed, as the parent creature, wide awake and ready for action, swelled into the glittering globular shape we had come to know so well and floated lightly into the air.
Elton drew the trinitrotoluene pistol from his pocket and pressed the small lever which actuated the heating element.
"You first, Walters," he grated between clenched teeth. "Aim at that knob of rock above it; then run like hell!"
The Horror began to sway. It was as though a great molten ball were suspended by a chain and swinging slowly in short arcs. The preliminary to its flashing attack! Its offspring clustered beneath it on the floor, blasphemous little spheres of potential destruction. The time was ripe.
I stood back out of the way. Walters hurled the wax juge of hydrofluoric acid straight at a projecting point of rock above the creature. The flask shattered to bits and the Horror beneath was sprayed with the deadly stuff. For once man's quickness had outmatched its own. As I watched, flames burst from it -- the clean flames of real combustion. Then came a hissing of air beside me as Elton fired the pistol.
I had a glimpse of the chamber, a flame filled inferno -- then the terrific rending power of the T.N.T. had brought down the roof. It collapsed with a series of hollow booming roars, and the visitor from space, with its foul progeny, was buried under tons of shattered rock.
We had leaped back into the main tunnel to crouch behind a jagged outcropping of the cavern's floor. Flying fragments filled the air and the force of the concussions shook the cave and flattened us behind our rampart. A stench unbearable issued from the direction of the monster's lair.
When the dust and smoke and fumes had cleared away, we saw that the mouth of the chamber was sealed to its roof by a great pile of crushed and broken stone which flowed far out into the main cavern.
We turned away. In our hearts welled relief and thankfulness too great for words as, shaken, bruised and blackened, we began the long walk back through the darkness to the world of light and men; the world we had perhaps saved from ultimate destruction by a constantly multiplying band of nightmare Horrors.
Created: December 26, 2006