The Space Eaters (2/4)

For several minutes there was no sound in the room save the scratching of his pen as it moved across the paper. For several minutes there was silence—and then the shrieks commenced. Or were they wails?

We heard them through the closed door, heard them above the moaning of the foghorns and the wash of the waves on Mulligan’s Beach. We heard them above the million sounds of night that had horrified and depressed us as we sat and talked in that fog-enshrouded and lonely house. We heard them so clearly that for a moment we thought they came from just outside the house. It was not until they came again and again—long, piercing wails—that we discovered in them a quality of remoteness. Slowly we became aware that the wails came from far away, as far away, perhaps, as Mulligan Wood.

“A soul in torture,” muttered Howard. “A poor, damned soul in the grip of the horror I’ve been telling you about—the horror I’ve known and felt for years.”

He rose unsteadily to his feet. His eyes were shining and he was breathing heavily.

I seized his shoulders and shook him. “You shouldn’t project yourself into your stories that way,” I exclaimed. “Some poor chap is in distress. I don’t know what’s happened. Perhaps a ship foundered. I’m going to put on a slicker and find out what it’s all about. I have an idea we may be needed.”

“We may be needed,” repeated Howard slowly. “We may be needed indeed. It will not be satisfied with a single victim. Think of that great journey through space, the thirst and dreadful hungers it must have known! It is preposterous to imagine that it will be content with a single victim!”

Then, suddenly, a change came over him. The light went out of his eyes and his voice lost its quiver. He shivered.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m as mad as the yokel who was here a few minutes ago. But I can’t help identifying myself with my characters when I write. I’d described something very evil, and those yells—well, they are exactly like the yells a man would make if—if….”

“I understand,” I interrupted, “but we’ve no time to discuss that now. There’s a poor chap out there”—I pointed vaguely toward the door—”with his back against the wall. He’s fighting off something—I don’t know what. We’ve got to help him.”

“Of course, of course,” he agreed, and followed me into the kitchen.

Without a word I took down a slicker and handed it to him. I also handed him an enormous rubber hat.

“Get into these as quickly as you can,” I said. “The chap’s desperately in need of us.”

I had gotten my own slicker down from the rack and was forcing my arms through its sticky sleeves. In a moment we were both pushing our way through the fog.

The fog was like a living thing. Its long fingers reached up and slapped us relentlessly on the face. It curled about our bodies and ascended in great, grayish spirals from the tops of our heads. It retreated before us, and as suddenly closed in and enveloped us.

Dimly ahead of us we saw the lights of a few lonely farms. Behind us the sea drummed, and the foghorns sent out a continuous, mournful ululation. The collar of Howard’s slicker was turned up over his ears, and from his long nose moisture dripped. There was grim decision in his eyes, and his jaw was set.

For many minutes we plodded on in silence, and it was not until we approached Mulligan Wood that he spoke.

“If necessary,” he said, “we shall enter the wood.”

I nodded. “There is no reason why we should not enter the wood,” I said. “It isn’t a large wood.”

“One could get out quickly?”

“One could get out very quickly indeed. My God, did you hear that?”

The shrieks had grown horribly loud.

“He is suffering,” said Howard. “He is suffering terribly. Do you suppose—do you suppose it’s your crazy friend?”

He had voiced a question which I had been asking myself for some time.

“It’s conceivable,” I said. “But we’ll have to interfere if he’s as mad as that. I wish I’d brought some of the neighbors with me.”

“Why in heaven’s name didn’t you?” Howard shouted. “It may take a dozen men to handle him.” He was staring at the tall trees that towered before us, and I didn’t think he really gave Henry Wells so much as a thought.

“That’s Mulligan Wood,” I said. I swallowed to keep my heart from rising to the top of my mouth. “It isn’t a big wood,” I added idiotically.

“Oh, my God!” Out of the fog there came the sound of a voice in the last extremity of pain. “They’re eating up my brain. Oh, my God!”

I was at that moment in deadly fear that I might become as mad as the man in the woods. I clutched Howard’s arm.

“Let’s go back,” I shouted. “Let’s go back at once. We were fools to come. There is nothing here but madness and suffering and perhaps death.”

“That may be,” said Howard, “but we’re going on.”

His face was ashen beneath his dripping hat, and his eyes were thin blue slits.

“Very well,” I said grimly. “We’ll go on.”

Slowly we moved among the trees. They towered above us, and the thick fog so distorted them and merged them together that they seemed to move forward with us. From their twisted branches the fog hung in ribbons. Ribbons, did I say? Rather were they snakes of fog— writhing snakes with venomous tongues and leering eyes. Through swirling clouds of fog we saw the scaly, gnarled boles of the trees, and every bole resembled the twisted body of an evil old man. Only the small oblong of light cast by my electric torch protected us against their malevolence.

Through great banks of fog we moved, and every moment the screams grew louder. Soon we were catching fragments of sentences, hysterical shoutings that merged into prolonged wails. “Colder and colder and colder… they are eating up my brain. Colder! Ah-h-h!”

Howard gripped my arm. “We’ll find him,” he said. “We can’t turn back now.”

When we found him he was lying on his side. His hands were clasped about his head, and his body was bent double, the knees drawn up so tightly that they almost touched his chest. He was silent. We bent and shook him, but he made no sound.

“Is he dead?” I choked out. I wanted desperately to turn and run. The trees were very close to us.

“I don’t know,” said Howard. “I don’t know. I hope that he is dead.”

I saw him kneel and slide his hand under the poor devil’s shirt. For a moment his face was a mask. Then he got up quickly and shook his head.

“He is alive,” he said. “We must get him into some dry clothes as quickly as possible.”

I helped him. Together we lifted the bent figure from the ground and carried it forward between the trees. Twice we stumbled and nearly fell, and the creepers tore at our clothes. The creepers were little malicious hands grasping and tearing under the malevolent guidance of the great trees. Without a star to guide us, without a light except the little pocket lamp which was growing dim, we fought our way out of Mulligan Wood.

The droning did not commence until we had left the wood. At first we scarcely heard it, it was so low, like the purring of gigantic engines far down in the earth. But slowly, as we stumbled forward with our burden, it grew so loud that we could not ignore it.

“What is that?” muttered Howard, and through the wraiths of fog I saw that his face had a greenish tinge.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “It’s something horrible. I never heard anything like it. Can’t you walk faster?”

So far we had been fighting familiar horrors, but the droning and humming that rose behind us was like nothing that I had ever heard on Earth. In excruciating fright, I shrieked aloud. “Faster, Howard, faster! For God’s sake, let’s get out of this!”

As I spoke, the body that we were carrying squirmed, and from its cracked lips issued a torrent of gibberish: “I was walking between the trees looking up. I couldn’t see their tops. I was looking up, and then suddenly I looked down and the thing landed on my shoulders. It was all legs—all long, crawling legs. It went right into my head. I wanted to get away from the trees, but I couldn’t. I was alone in the forest with the thing on my back, in my head, and when I tried to run, the trees reached out and tripped me. It made a hole so it could get in. It’s my brain it wants. Today it made a hole, and now it’s crawled in and it’s sucking and sucking and sucking. It’s as cold as ice and it makes a noise like a great big fly. But it isn’t a fly. And it isn’t a hand. I was wrong when I called it a hand. You can’t see it. I wouldn’t have seen or felt it if it hadn’t made a hole and got in. You almost see it, you almost feel it, and that means that it’s getting ready to go in.”

“Can you walk, Wells? Can you walk?”

Howard had dropped Wells’s legs, and I could hear the harsh intake of his breath as he struggled to rid himself of his slicker.

“I think so,” Wells sobbed. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s got me now. Put me down and save yourselves.”

“We’ve got to run!” I yelled.

“It’s our one chance,” cried Howard. “Wells, you follow us. Follow us, do you understand? They’ll burn up your brain if they catch you. We’re going to run, lad. Follow us!”

He was off through the fog. Wells shook himself free, and followed like a man in a trance. I felt a horror more terrible than death. The noise was dreadfully loud; it was right in my ears, and yet for a moment I couldn’t move. The wall of fog was growing thicker.

“Frank will be lost!” It was the voice of Wells, raised in a despairing shout.

“We’ll go back!” It was Howard shouting now. “It’s death, or worse, but we can’t leave him.”

“Keep on,” I called out. “They won’t get me. Save yourselves!”

In my anxiety to prevent them from sacrificing themselves I plunged wildly forward. In a moment I had joined Howard and was clutching at his arm.

“What is it?” I cried. “What have we to fear?”

The droning was all about us now, but no louder.

“Come quickly or we’ll be lost!” he urged frantically. “They’ve broken down all barriers. That buzzing is a warning. We’re sensitives— we’ve been warned, but if it gets louder we’re lost. They’re strong near Mulligan Wood, and it’s here they’ve made themselves felt. They’re experimenting now—feeling their way. Later, when they’ve learned, they’ll spread out. If we can only reach the farm….”

“We’ll reach the farm!” I shouted as I clawed my way through the fog.

“Heaven help us if we don’t!” moaned Howard.

He had thrown off his slicker, and his seeping wet shirt clung tragically to his lean body. He moved through the blackness with long, furious strides. Far ahead we heard the shrieks of Henry Wells. Ceaselessly the foghorns moaned; ceaselessly the fog swirled and eddied about us.

And the droning continued. It seemed incredible that we should ever have found a way to the farm in the blackness. But find the farm we did, and into it we stumbled with glad cries.

“Shut the door!” shouted Howard.

I shut the door.

“We are safe here, I think,” he said. “They haven’t reached the farm yet.”

“What has happened to Wells?” I gasped, and then I saw the wet tracks leading into the kitchen. Howard saw them too. His eyes flashed with momentary relief.

“I’m glad he’s safe,” he muttered. “I feared for him.”

Then his face darkened. The kitchen was unlighted and no sound came from it.

Without a word Howard walked across the room and into the darkness beyond. I sank into a chair, flicked the moisture from my eyes, and brushed back my hair, which had fallen in soggy strands across my face. For a moment I sat, breathing heavily, and when the door creaked, I shivered. But I remembered Howard’s assurance: “They haven’t reached the farm yet. We’re safe here.”

Somehow, I had confidence in Howard. He realized that we were threatened by a new and unknown horror, and in some occult way he had grasped its limitations.

I confess, though, that when I heard the screams that came from the kitchen, my faith in my friend was slightly shaken. There were low growls, such as I could not believe came from any human throat, and the voice of Howard raised in wild expostulation. “Let go, I say! Are you quite, mad? Man, man, we have saved you! Don’t, I say—let go of my leg. Ah-h-h!”

As Howard staggered into the room I sprang forward and caught him in my arms. He was covered with blood from head to foot, and his face was ashen.

“He’s gone raving mad,” he moaned. “He was running about on his hands and knees like a dog. He sprang at me, and almost killed me. I fought him off, but I’m badly bitten. I hit him in the face—knocked him unconscious. I may have killed him. He’s an animal—I had to protect myself.”

I laid Howard on the sofa and knelt beside him, but he scorned my aid.

“Don’t bother with me!” he commanded. “Get a rope, quickly, and tie him up. If he comes to, we’ll have to fight for our lives.”

What followed was a nightmare. I remember vaguely that I went into the kitchen with a rope and tied poor Wells to a chair; then I bathed and dressed Howard’s wounds, and lit a fire in the grate. I remember also that I telephoned for a doctor. But the incidents are confused in my memory, and I have no clear recollection of anything until the arrival of a tall, grave man with kindly and sympathetic eyes and a presence that was as soothing as an opiate.

He examined Howard, nodded, and explained that the wounds were not serious. He examined Wells, and did not nod. He explained slowly, “His pupils don’t respond to light,” he said. “An immediate operation will be necessary. I tell you frankly, I don’t think we can save him.”

“That wound in his head, Doctor,” I said. “Was it made by a bullet?”

The doctor frowned. “It puzzles me,” he said. “Of course it was made by a bullet, but it should have partially closed up. It goes right into the brain. You say you know nothing about it. I believe you, but I think the authorities should be notified at once. Someone will be wanted for manslaughter, unless”—he paused—”unless the wound was self-inflicted. What you tell me is curious. That he should have been able to walk about for hours seems incredible. The wound has obviously been dressed, too. There is no clotted blood at all.”

He paced slowly back and forth. “We must operate here—at once. There is a slight chance. Luckily, I brought some instruments. We must clear this table and—do you think you could hold a lamp for me?”

I nodded. “I’ll try,” I said.

“Good!”

The doctor busied himself with preparations while I debated whether or not I should phone for the police.

“I’m convinced,” I said at last, “that the wound was self-inflicted. Wells acted very strangely. If you are willing, Doctor….”

“Yes?”

“We will remain silent about this matter until after the operation. If Wells lives, there would be no need of involving the poor chap in a police investigation.”

The doctor nodded. “Very well,” he said. “We will operate first and decide afterward.”

Howard was laughing silently from his couch. “The police,” he snickered. “Of what use would they be against the things in Mulligan Wood?”

There was an ironic and ominous quality about his mirth that disturbed me. The horrors that we had known in the fog seemed absurd and impossible in the cool, scientific presence of Dr. Smith, and I didn’t want to be reminded of them.

The doctor turned from his instruments and whispered into my ear. “Your friend has a slight fever, and apparently it has made him delirious. If you will bring me a glass of water I will mix him a sedative.”

I raced to secure a glass, and in a moment we had Howard sleeping soundly.

“Now then,” said the doctor as he handed me the lamp. “You must hold this steady and move it about as I direct.”

The white, unconscious form of Henry Wells lay upon the table that the doctor and I had cleared, and I trembled all over when I thought of what lay before me: I should be obliged to stand and gaze into the living brain of my poor friend as the doctor relentlessly laid it bare.

With swift, experienced fingers the doctor administered an anesthetic. I was oppressed by a dreadful feeling that we were committing a crime, that Henry Wells would have violently disapproved, that he would have preferred to die. It is a dreadful thing to mutilate a man’s brain. And yet I knew that the doctor’s conduct was above reproach, and that the ethics of his profession demanded that he operate.

“We are ready,” said Dr. Smith. “Lower the lamp. Carefully now!”

I saw the knife moving in his competent, swift fingers. For a moment I stared, and then I turned my head away. What I had seen in that brief glance made me sick and faint. It may have been fancy, but as I stared at the wall I had the impression that the doctor was on the verge of collapse. He made no sound, but I was almost certain that he had made some horrible discovery.

“Lower the lamp,” he said. His voice was hoarse and seemed to come from far down within his throat.

I lowered the lamp an inch without turning my head. I waited for him to reproach me, to swear at me perhaps, but he was as silent as the man on the table. I knew, though, that his fingers were still at work, for I could hear them as they moved about. I could hear his swift, agile fingers moving about the head of Henry Wells.

I suddenly became conscious that my hand was trembling. I wanted to lay down the lamp; I felt that I could no longer hold it.

“Are you nearly through?” I gasped in desperation.

“Hold that lamp steady!” The doctor screamed the command. “If you move that lamp again—I—I won’t sew him up. I don’t care if they hang me! I’m not a healer of devils!”

I knew not what to do. I could scarcely hold the lamp, and the doctor’s threat horrified me.

“Do everything you can,” I urged, hysterically. “Give him a chance to fight his way back. He was kind and good—once!”

For a moment there was silence, and I feared that he would not heed me. I momentarily expected him to throw down his scalpel and sponge, and dash across the room and out into the fog. It was not until I heard his fingers moving about again that I knew he had decided to give even the damned a chance.

It was after midnight when the doctor told me that I could lay down the lamp. I turned with a cry of relief and encountered a face that I shall never forget. In three-quarters of an hour the doctor had aged ten years. There were dark hollows beneath his eyes, and his mouth twitched convulsively.

“He’ll not live,” he said. “He’ll be dead in an hour. I did not touch his brain. I could do nothing. When I saw—how things were—I—I—sewed him up immediately.”

“What did you see?” I half-whispered.

A look of unutterable fear came into the doctor’s eyes. “I saw—I saw….” His voice broke and his whole body quivered. “I saw… oh, the burning shame of it… evil that is without shape, that is formless….”

Suddenly he straightened and looked wildly about him.

“They will come here and claim him!” he cried. “They have laid their mark upon him and they will come for him. You must not stay here. This house is marked for destruction!”

I watched him helplessly as he seized his hat and bag and crossed to the door. With white, shaking fingers he drew back the latch, and in a moment his lean figure was silhouetted against a square of swirling vapor.

“Remember that I warned you!” he shouted back; and then the fog swallowed him.

Howard was sitting and rubbing his eyes.

“A malicious trick, that!” he was muttering. “To deliberately drug me! Had I known that glass of water….”

“How do you feel?” I asked as I shook him violently by the shoulders. “Do you think you can walk?”

“You drug me, and then ask me to walk! Frank, you’re as unreasonable as an artist. What is the matter now?”

I pointed to the silent figure on the table. “Mulligan Wood is safer,” I said. “He belongs to them now!”

Howard sprang to his feet and shook me by the arm.

“What do you mean?” he cried. “How do you know?”

“The doctor saw his brain,” I explained. “And he also saw something that he would not—could not describe. But he told me that they would come for him, and I believe him.”

“We must leave here at once!” cried Howard. “Your doctor was right. We are in deadly danger. Even Mulligan Wood—but we need not return to the wood. There is your launch!”

“There is the launch!” I echoed, faint hope rising in my mind.

“The fog will be a most deadly menace,” said Howard grimly. “But even death at sea is preferable to this horror.”

It was not far from the house to the dock, and in less than a minute Howard was seated in the stern of the launch and I was working furiously on the engine. The foghorns still moaned, but there were no lights visible anywhere in the harbor. We could not see two feet before our faces. The white wraiths of the fog were dimly visible in the darkness, but beyond them stretched endless night, lightless and full of terror.

Howard was speaking. “Somehow I feel that there is death out there,” he said.

“There is more death here,” I said as I started the engine. “I think I can avoid the rocks. There is very little wind and I know the harbor.”

“And of course we shall have the foghorns to guide us,” muttered Howard. “I think we had better make for the open sea.”

I agreed.

“The launch wouldn’t survive a storm,” I said, “but I’ve no desire to remain in the harbor. If we reach the sea, we’ll probably be picked up by some ship. It would be sheer folly to remain where they can reach us.”

“How do we know how far they can reach?” groaned Howard. “What are the distances of Earth to things that have traveled through space? They will overrun Earth. They will destroy us all utterly.”

“We’ll discuss that later,” I cried as the engine roared into life. “We’re going to get as far away from them as possible. Perhaps they haven’t learned yet! While they’ve still limitations we may be able to escape.”

We moved slowly into the channel, and the sound of the water splashing against the sides of the launch soothed us strangely. At a suggestion from me, Howard had taken the wheel and was slowly bringing her about.

“Keep her steady,” I shouted. “There isn’t any danger until we get into the Narrows!”

For several minutes I crouched above the engine while Howard steered in silence. Then, suddenly, he turned to me with a gesture of elation.

“I think the fog’s lifting,” he said.

I stared into the darkness before me. Certainly it seemed less oppressive, and the white spirals of mist that had been continually ascending through it were fading into insubstantial wisps. “Keep her head on,” I shouted. “We’re in luck. If the fog clears, we’ll be able to see the Narrows. Keep a sharp lookout for Mulligan Light.”

There is no describing the joy that filled us when we saw the light. Yellow and bright it streamed over the water and illuminated sharply the outlines of the great rocks that rose on both sides of the Narrows.

“Let me have the wheel,” I shouted as I stepped quickly forward. “This is a ticklish passage, but we’ll come through now with colors flying.”

In our excitement and elation we almost forgot the horror that we had left behind us. I stood at the wheel and smiled confidently as we raced over the dark water. Quickly the rocks drew nearer until their vast bulk towered above us.

“We shall certainly make it!” I cried.

But no response came from Howard. I heard him choke and gasp.

“What is the matter?” I asked suddenly, and turning, saw that he was crouching in terror above the engine. His back was turned toward me, but I knew instinctively in which direction he was gazing.

The dim shore that we had left shone like a flaming sunset. Mulligan Wood was burning. Great flames shot up from the highest of the tall trees, and a thick curtain of black smoke rolled slowly eastward, blotting out the few remaining lights in the harbor.

But it was not the flames that caused me to cry out in fear and horror. It was the shape that towered above the trees, the vast, formless shape that moved slowly to and fro across the sky.

God knows I tried to believe that I saw nothing. I tried to believe that the shape was a mere shadow cast by the flames, and I remember that I gripped Howard’s arm reassuringly.

“The wood will be destroyed completely,” I cried, “and those ghastly things with us will be destroyed with it.”

But when Howard turned and shook his head, I knew that the dim, formless thing that towered above the trees was more than a shadow.

“If we see it clearly, we are lost!” he warned, his voice vibrant with terror. “Pray that it remains without form!”

It is older than the world, I thought, older than all religion. Before the dawn of civilization men knelt in adoration before it. It is present in all mythologies. It is the primal symbol. Perhaps, in the dim past, thousands and thousands of years ago, it was used to—repel the invaders. I shall fight the shape with a high and terrible mystery.

Suddenly I became curiously calm. I knew that I had hardly a minute to act, that more than our lives were threatened, but I did not tremble. I reached calmly beneath the engine and drew out a quantity ot cotton waste.

“Howard,” I said, “light a match. It is our only hope. You must strike a match at once.”

For what seemed eternities Howard stared at me uncomprehendingly. Then the night was clamorous with his laughter.

“A match!” he shrieked. “A match to warm our little brains! Yes, we shall need a match.”

“Trust me!” I entreated. “You must—it is our one hope. Strike a match quickly.”

“I do not understand!” Howard was sober now, but his voice quivered.

“I have thought of something that may save us,” I said. “Please light this waste for me.”

Slowly he nodded. I had told him nothing, but I knew he guessed what I intended to do. Often his insight was uncanny. With fumbling fingers he drew out a match and struck it.

“Be bold,” he said. “Show them that you are unafraid. Make the sign boldly.”

As the waste caught fire, the form above the trees stood out with a frightful clarity.

I raised the flaming cotton and passed it quickly before my body in a straight line from my left to my right shoulder. Then I raised it to my forehead and lowered it to my knees.

In an instant Howard had snatched the brand and was repeating the sign. He made two crosses, one against his body and one against the darkness with the torch held at arm’s length.

For a moment I shut my eyes, but I could still see the shape above the trees. Then slowly its form became less distinct, became vast and chaotic—and when I opened my eyes it had vanished. I saw nothing but the flaming forest and the shadows cast by the tall trees.

The horror had passed, but I did not move. I stood like an image of stone staring over the black water. Then something seemed to burst in my head. My brain spun dizzily, and I tottered against the rail.

I would have fallen, but Howard caught me about the shoulders. “We’re saved!” he shouted. “We’ve won through.”

“I’m glad,” I said. But I was too utterly exhausted to really rejoice. My legs gave way beneath me and my head fell forward. All the sights and sounds of Earth were swallowed up in a merciful blackness.

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