Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Lost Comet" and "Sheena and the Crawling Death"

A short SF story from Fantastic Comics #11. (Jan-Feb. 1955). Previously only available online in scanned JPGs as part of the whole comic book. A two-page near future SF story that, while abrupt, is surprisingly restrained. "Lost Comet" by anonymous, originally scanned and uploaded by "Tigger"

And a short Sheena story from Jumbo Comics #87 (May 1946). Previously only available online in scanned JPGs as part of the whole comic book. "Sheena and The Crawling Death" by Morgan W. Thomas, originally scanned and uploaded by "builderboy"

JUNE 21, 1963—SOMEWHERE IN SPACE — This is my first, and I am very much afraid, my last dispatch from the rocket ship METEOR. There is small chance of this message ever reaching Earth, much less the copy desk of my paper, but I am writing it with an eye cocked for a miracle. Besides it is my job as the only newspaper man on this space craft. If this piece is ever read on Earth I hope my readers will forgive the errors and the bad writing. I am working in cramped quarters, and already the air is going bad. None of us aboard have much longer to live.

At long last, since I am about to die, I can defy my bosses and write this story as I darn well please. So I will reverse the usual journalistic procedure of cramming all the facts in the lead, and write the story in ascending fashion, and according to chronology.

You will have read in all the papers, of course, about Operation Satellite. The painstaking construction, after many failures, of a practical space ship powered by atomic energy. You know of the deadly intensity of the race between the great powers to be the first to establish bases on the moon. One other country, which I shall not mention by name here, was very close on our heels. It had, in fact, already sent two rocket ships into space without success. There was no time to make all the minute preparations which are really necessary for such a venture as this. And it was the omission of some of these preparations that has brought about our failure and doomed everyone of us.

Two days ago our ship stood in the great launching ramp at Kelly Field. We were ready at last. Our leader, Certain Hugh Brace. spoke in a hushed voice.

"Stand by the jets! Open energizers! Man the pressure pumps and all members of the crew secure cushion belts and don blackout masks! Command ..."

When the Captain snapped out the word "command" we were off. A pillar of fire built beneath the ship, shoving us into the sky at a terrific rate. We were slammed back into Our specially built seats, powerless to move, powerless to breathe. Through the eye pieces of my blackout mask, constructed to keep us from fainting at the terrible initial speed, I peered outward and down. Already, as soon as I could bring my eyes to focus, Earth was receding at an incredible rate. I could plainly see how the Earth curved. It was like standing on a step ladder and looking down at one of the globes used in schools. Soon I could plainly discern the gray bulk of the American continent, and to either side of it the lighter tones of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Suddenly the terrible weight seemed to be lifted from our bodies and Captain Brace came along the narrow cat walk and spoke to me.

"How do you feel. Talcott?" He chuckled. "We're doing over six thousand miles an hour, you know. And we're out of Earth's gravity now. Right out in space. No air. Nothing!"

"Mind if I walk around Captain?" I was familiar with the ship, of course, as familiar as the carefully selected crew, since I had been writing articles about it for so long, but I wanted to see every detail as it was in actual operation.

The Captain grinned. "Sure thing. But don't fall out an escape hatch into space. You would just be stuck in space for the rest of your life. There is no pull of gravity here, as you know. You'd just have to stay there and float around Earth in an orbit for the rest of your life, like the moon itself."

He passed on and left me with a rather sickly smile at the grim joke. Outside the ship there was no air. I wouldn't live long out there.

I was about to leave my seat, and was unfastening my belt which kept me from floating around in midair, when I saw the package of cigarettes. I had laid it on the seat beside me at the takeoff, forgetting to put it securely in my pocket. Naturally. as soon as we passed beyond Earth's gravity there was nothing to hold it down, it had no ‘weight, and now it was floating over my head, close to the ceiling of the ship. As I reached for it I felt like a conjurer doing a trick.

Carefully fitting my feet into the open "shoes," or cleats, which led along the cat walk, and kept me from flying into the air like the pack of cigarettes, I went back to the operations cubicle. Susan Cain, the only woman on board, was busily working over a chart as I entered.

"Hi," she smiled. "How do you like it, news hawk? Put anything on the 'wires for your paper yet?"

"That's what I came. to see you about." I said. "How soon can I send a dispatch back to the States, or, I mean to Earth?" After all, it takes some time to get used to being an inter-planetary reporter.

It was then I noticed her frown. "I didn't want to tell you," she said, "but something has gone wrong with our space radar. We tried to contact Earth a little time ago, to report our progress, but it was no soap. Of course there's always the rocket carriers."

These gadgets, the rocket carriers, had been designed to carry emergency messages back to Earth. None of us thought much of them, but they were better than nothing at all. Actually they were akin to the pneumatic tubes used to carry change and bills in department stores, except that they were bigger and had a small rocket motor attached. The theory was that the motor would carry them back into Earth's gravity and then they would fall and, we hoped, be found. Of course there was always the possibility they would fall into the ocean, or some other spot where no one would ever spot them.

Susan was still frowning. Her skin was grayish, and around her eyes- were the taut little lines that we had all developed over the past few days. The strain had been terrific. But now she seemed especially Upset.

"Something's gone wrong," I said. It wasn't a question. I knew.

She put a finger on the chart. For the first time I saw what I thought was. fear come into her brown eyes. "Not really Wrong," she said. "At least I hope not. It's just that ..."

I moved beside her and stared down at the chart. "It's just what? Come on, give. I'm the press, remember."

Her finger tapped the paper. "Our charting wasn't as accurate as it might have been, you know. There was no time for everything. Oh, we chose the best time of year, when the Earth and Moon are in the most favorable relative positions, and we tried to chart our course to avoid obstacles of any kind, but after all we had no real way of knowing what is out here. And I've been reading Matson's report, issued about six months ago, in which he prognosticates a field of asteroids moving across our course at just about this. time, I'm worried, Deke!"

"Shucks," I told her. "Asteroids can't hurt us much. Besides ..."

Right then it happened. A shocking, careening blow! The spaceship seemed to turn on its side and dive. The impact knocked both the girl and myself out of our floor cleats and the next moment we were floating wildly in midair, grabbing frantically at each other. By the time we managed to claw our way back to the floor, and stability, Captain Brace came into the cubicle. His face was pale and little sweat beads grew on his upper lip.

"Meteor!" he said. "Struck us a glancing blow. Wouldn't have been so bad, but it hit aft, just where the jet tubes lead into the superstructure. The worst possible place. We've lost headway already, and pretty soon we'll come to a dead stop."

The girl stared at him. "And we're drifting! The blow would give us impetus enough to throw us off our course and start us into an orbit. Can they fix the jets, Captain?"

"We'll try our best, of course." He glanced at me. "Better prepare yourself for a nice long stay in outer space, Talcott. No use trying to kid you about it. If we can't fix things up we're here to stay—until our air runs out. That will be a matter of some weeks, of course, but it might as well be tomorrow. If we can't help ourselves there isn't a chance on Earth—or of anyone on Earth—helping us."

After he left Susan and I stared at each other. "Fine thing," I said. "Me with the biggest story off of Earth and no way to send it to the paper."

"Write it," she told me. "And put it in a rocket carrier. It just might make it back."

So I wrote it. I am finishing it now as I listen to the clank of tools and the subdued voices of desperate men. They are working, I think hopelessly, against time. The look on Captain Brace's face tells the story. We're here to stay—until,. our air goes.

This story may never be read. I'm going to put it in a rocket carrier and start it back toward Earth. I hope it makes connections. But whether it does or not, I know that we are only the first. Other men, brave men, will come after us, will secure the bases on the moon we need so desperately For the nation that first builds those bases will dominate the Earth with atomic rocket weapons. I know that nation will be America, who will do it for the sake of peace and not for war. I think this is farewell from the crew of the METEOR.

Goodbye, Earth!


GESA had long been acclaimed as the swiftest runner in all the Murombu tribe. Now he ran as he had never ran before, though his chest was torn by pain fangs and his legs seemed made of dead wood. And try as he would, he could not keep from casting fearful backward glances at the jungle trail. After many years they had come back! They were not far behind Him now, approaching the village of his people. His tribe, and himself, were doomed—unless Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, would help them.

"Wah!" Gesa feared that even Sheena, mighty as she was, would not be able to do anything against them!

An hour later Gesa gasped out his story to Sheena. As she listened her eyes narrowed and her brow wrinkled in thought. Then she gave Gesa food and drink and left him, swinging lithely up to the tree hut where Bob was busy tending the wound of little Chim. A few days before Chim had been shot by a vicious white hunter and could not yet walk.

Bob's eyes Widened in horror as Sheena told him what she had heard. "But the village," he gasped. "The village of the Murombu—it's directly in their path!"

"Yes," said Sheena. "We go to see if we can save the village and my people. Hurry! Little Chim must remain here, since he cannot travel speedily."

She patted the chattering little chimpanzee on his fuzzy head and a few moments later she and Bob were swinging off toward the not too distant danger. Bob walked on the jungle trail below, while Sheena swung through the trees overhead. In an hour they came to the end of the jungle, and saw a great lush plain stretching out before them. Not far away, by a quiet stream, was the village of the Murornbu.

Sheena swung through the trees overhead.

It was a strange sight they saw—and heard! The village gates were open and through them poured the people who for so long had dwelt in peace in that placid spot. There was nothing peaceful about the scene, however, as the men, women, and children pushed and jostled one another, each carrying his meager possessions as best he could. Even as Sheena and Bob watched a girl, carrying an infant, stumbled and fell and the crowd pushed on unheeding, trampling her into the dust.

Sheena looked at Bob. "They are senseless with fear. But I must speak with them—they must work and stand together if they would live!"

Sheena leaped lightly down from her tree perch and advanced toward the frightened throng. She held aloft one hand and, gradually, the sound of the people diminished. Then Sheena spoke.

"Put down your burdens," commanded Sheena. "You must obey my orders. Now, men and women all, gather the dry wood which you will find in the jungle and carry it to beyond your village. Hasten—for there is not much time. I will show you-how to defeat them!"

One old crone ran forward and kissed Sheena's hand. "We obey," she said "We knew you would not fail us, Sheena."

Immediately the people set about executing Sheena's orders. Meantime, Sheena and Bob went on to the village and there, from a point of vantage on the wall, they saw for the first time the dreaded thing that had come to the jungle.

Ants! Millions of black ants, each an inch in length, marching together in a writhing black column across the land. Even Sheena drew her breath in a quick gasp of horror. Not often did the ants come, but when they did nothing could stand before them. As they watched they saw a water buffalo, trying to flee before the murderous horde, stagger and fall. Bob averted his eyes for a moment and when he looked back there was nothing—nothing but bare white bones!

Working like slaves, with Sheena's calm voice serving as a whip lash, the people gathered and piled the brush before their village. Then they sought out every available bit of coconut oil and poured it over the brush. Sheena bid them wait, then, until the first of the ants reached the wall of brush. Then she seized a flaming brand and tossed it far out into the center of the tinder-like brush. The stuff caught with a roar and in a moment the area before the village was an inferno. Sheena and Bob, with the people of the village huddling about them, fell back away from the flames and waited.

Soon an exultant shout went up. The column of ants had turned and was marching off at right angles to the village! The crowd of joyous people thronged about Sheena, pressing her hands, trying to kiss the hem of the short garment she wore, anything to express their gratitude and joy.

But Bob and Sheena stared at one another, a sudden painful knowledge leaping into the eyes of both.

"Chim!" cried Bob "The ants are heading toward the jungle . . . our tree hut . . . Chim can't walk!"

"Hurry!" Sheena went off, running gracefully, without a single backward glance.

The next hour was sheer torture for Bob. Run as he would he could not keep up with Sheena, flashing through the trees overhead. And to add to his discomfort and peril were the wild animals which now crossed the trail, snarling and bellowing their rage and fear of the ants. And always just behind him was that writhing black column. The ants moved incredibly fast, almost as fast as Sheena and Bob themselves, There would be little time when they finally arrived at the tree hut.

It happened suddenly. Bob, running hard, rounded a bend in the jungle trail and came face to face with a tiger! The beast, frightened beyond caring what happened to it, snarled and lunged at the startled Bob.

"Sheena!" Bob had time for only one outcry, then the tiger was upon him, fierce claws and fangs seeking his life. He had not even time to draw his revolver.

Like some tawny goddess of revenge Sheena came down out of the trees. Her knife rose and fell and the tiger writhed in its death throes. But Sheena paid it no heed. She was bending over Bob.

"Bob! Are you badly hurt?"

Bob tried to grin back at her "I—I don't think so. But my ankle . . . can't' walk. . . ."

Sheena bent and lifted him to her back. As best he could he helped by clinging with both arms about her neck, but he knew that the burden was too much for even Sheena. Before a minute had passed she was breathing heavily. "Put me down," Bob begged her. "Save yourself, Sheena. The ants are very close now."

It was true. Close by they could hear the screams of animals as the ants devoured them, and once they heard a scream which sounded human. Bob shuddered and again asked Sheena to put him down.

"No," gasped Sheena. "Look—the tree hut. And little Chim . . he approaches!"

Dragging himself painfully, Chim reached them and began to chatter. Soon Sheena understood. The ants had already reached the tree hut! Bob, from where he was resting on the ground, saw an expression of dismay, almost of fear, cross Sheena's face.

Then she turned to him. "Take Chim in your arms," she commanded. "There is one chance! If we can reach the Gorge Of Skulls before the ants devour the giant vines we cart swing across the safety. They will not be able to cross the Gorge!"

Once more Sheena lifted Bob, to her back, but this time he cradled little Chim in his arms. Sheena staggered now and her breathing was a tortured, rasping sound. They were approaching the Gorge as the first ants reached them. Bob, looking down, saw that Sheena's legs were black with them. As best he could, he slapped at them, crushing them, but always another swarmed. upward. Pain bit at Bob's eyes as one of the ants fastened cruel pincers into his flesh.

Then Sheena had one of the thick, gnarled vines in her hands. She gave a mighty push with her feet and they went sailing dizzily out into space. A thousand feet below them glistened the skulls from which the Gorge took its name.

Cr-a-c-kkk . . . Bob looked up. Just over his head the vine was parting. The ants had eaten even that through. As it parted he tried to scream a warning but no sound would come. Then they were falling . . . falling . . .

Minutes later Sheena, Bob and Chim stood and watched the baffled ant column wind away down the edge of the Gorge. They had fallen but a few feet, having been already across when the vine snapped.

Bob was silent, patting little Chirn on the head. Sheena must have read his thoughts, for she said, "Do not grieve, Bob. We will build another tree hut. And the jungle will be as before in a short time. The jingle law says that the strong and the crafty survive." Sheena smiled, "And who can say that we are not strong—and crafty."

[Editing Note on "Sheena and the Crawling Death"] The original printing had some instances of obvious editing/typesetting errors. These have been corrected as unobtrusively as possible. The Sheena illustration was not originally with this story, but was in the same issue. I make no claims of copyright on these stories from the public domain.]


Blue Tyson said...

Thanks! :)

Dave Tackett said...

My pleasure! Although, these very short (Ave. 1500 words) stories from the comics of the 1940s and 1950s aren't always the best written, they are kind of fun.