The Space Eaters (4/4)

It was past midnight when the telephone rang. I laid down the book I was reading and lowered the receiver.

“Hello. Who is there?” I asked.

“Frank, this is Howard!” The voice was strangely high-pitched. “Come as quickly as you can. They’ve come back! And Frank, the sign is powerless. I’ve tried the sign, but the droning is getting louder, and a dim shape….” Howard’s voice trailed off disastrously.

I fairly screamed into the receiver. “Courage, man! Do not let them suspect that you are afraid. Make the sign again and again. I will come at once.”

Howard’s voice came again, more hoarsely this time. “The shape is growing clearer and clearer. And there is nothing I can do! Frank, I have lost the power to make the sign. I have forfeited all right to the protection of the sign. I’ve become a priest of the Devil. That story—I should not have written that story.”

“Show them that you are unafraid!” I cried.

“I’ll try! I’ll try! Ah, my God! The shape is….”

I did not wait to hear more. Frantically seizing my hat and coat, I dashed down the stairs and out into the street. As I reached the curb a dizziness seized me. I clung to a lamp-post to keep from falling, and waved my hand madly at a fleeing taxi. Luckily the driver saw me. The car stopped, and I staggered out into the street and climbed into it.

“Quick!” I shouted. “Take me to 10 Brooklyn Heights!”

“Yes, sir. Cold night, ain’t it?”

“Cold!” I shouted. “It will be cold indeed when they get in. It will be cold indeed when they start to….”

The driver stared at me in amazement. “That’s all right, sir,” he said. “We’ll get you home all right, sir. Brooklyn Heights, did you say, sir?”

“Brooklyn Heights,” I groaned, and collapsed against the cushions.

As the car raced forward I tried not to think of the horror that awaited me. I clutched desperately at straws. It is conceivable, I thought, that Howard has gone temporarily insane. How could the horror have found him among so many millions of people} It cannot be that they have deliberately sought him out. It cannot be that they would deliberately choose him from among such multitudes. He is too insignificant—all human beings are too insignificant. They would never deliberately angle for human beings. They would never deliberately trawl for human beings—but they did seek Henry Wells. And what did Howard say} “I have become a priest of the Devil.” Why not their priest! What if Howard has become their priest on Earth} What if his story has made him their priest!

The thought was a nightmare to me, and I put it furiously from me. He will have courage to resist them, I thought. He will show them that he is not afraid. “Here we are, sir. Shall I help you in, sir?”

The car had stopped, and I groaned as I realized that I was about to enter what might prove to be my tomb. I descended to the sidewalk and handed the driver all the change that I possessed. He stared at me in amazement.

“You’ve given me too much,” he said. “Here, sir…”

But I waved him aside and dashed up the stoop of the house before me. As I fitted a key into the door I could hear him muttering: “Craziest drunk I ever seen! He gives me four bucks to drive him ten blocks, and doesn’t want no thanks or nothin’….”

The lower hall was unlighted. I stood at the foot of the stairs and shouted. “I’m here, Howard! Can you come down?”

There was no answer. I waited for perhaps ten seconds, but not a sound came from the room above.

“I’m coming up!” I shouted in desperation, and started to climb the stairs. I was trembling all over. They’ve got him, I thought. I’m too late. Perhaps I had better not—great God, what was that!
I was unbelievably terrified. There was no mistaking the sounds. In the room above, someone was volubly pleading and crying aloud in agony. Was it Howard’s voice that I heard? I caught a few words indistinctly. “Crawling—ugh! Crawling—ugh! Oh, have pity! Cold and clee-ar. Crawling—ugh! God in heaven!”

I had reached the landing, and when the pleadings rose to hoarse shrieks I fell to my knees, and made against my body, and upon the wall beside me, and in the air—the sign. I made the primal sign that had saved us in Mulligan Wood, but this time I made it crudely, not with fire, but with fingers that trembled and caught at my clothes, and I made it without courage or hope, made it darkly, with a conviction that nothing could save me.

And then I got up quickly and went on up the stairs. My prayer was that they would take me quickly, that my sufferings should be brief under the stars.

The door of Howard’s room was ajar. By a tremendous effort I stretched out my hand and grasped the knob. Slowly I swung it inward.

For a moment I saw nothing but the motionless form of Howard lying upon the floor. He was lying upon his back. His knees were drawn up and he had raised his hand before his face, palms outward, as if to blot out a vision unspeakable.

Upon entering the room I had deliberately, by lowering my eyes, narrowed my range of vision. I saw only the floor and the lower section of the room. I did not want to raise my eyes. I had lowered them in self-protection because I dreaded what the room held.

I did not want to raise my eyes, but there were forces, powers at work in the room, which I could not resist. I knew that if I looked up, the horror might destroy me, but I had no choice.

Slowly, painfully, I raised my eyes and stared across the room. It would have been better, I think, if I had rushed forward immediately and surrendered to the thing that towered there. The vision of that terrible, darkly shrouded shape will come between me and the pleasures of the world as long as I remain in the world.

From the ceiling to the floor it towered, and it threw off blinding light. And pierced by the shafts, whirling around and around, were the pages of Howard’s story.

In the center of the room, between the ceiling and the floor, the pages whirled about, and the light burned through the sheets, and descending in spiraling shafts entered the brain of my poor friend. Into his head, the light was pouring in a continuous stream, and above, the Master of the light moved with a slow swaying of its entire bulk. I screamed and covered my eyes with my hands, but still the Master moved—back and forth, back and forth. And still the light poured into the brain of my friend.

And then there came from the mouth of the Master a most awful sound…. I had forgotten the sign that I had made three times below in the darkness. I had forgotten the high and terrible mystery before which all of the invaders were powerless. But when I saw it forming itself in the room, forming itself immaculately, with a terrible integrity above the downstreaming light, I knew that I was saved.

I sobbed and fell upon my knees. The light dwindled, and the Master shriveled before my eyes.

And then from the walls, from the ceiling, from the floor, there leapt flame—a white and cleansing flame that consumed, that devoured and destroyed forever.

But my friend was dead.

Frank Belknap Long, 1928

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