Chapter 25: Survival of the Fittest

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. I’m serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

That night seemed eternal. It was arctic long, and blacker than the sins of man. We huddled close to the fire while the tireless Bakketes mounted guard in wide circles over our head. Hours went by and there was no sign of the return of light.

I knew that The Shaft had failed. It was in the grip of the flood. Beneath the waters of the river that spread until it was a lake and vast inner seas, there was a world of diamonds. I knew that I would never see it again – nor possess the wealth I dreamed of.

“You heard what Zorimi said,” Morgo ventured. “He was right. The caves will fill with men and beasts fighting for their lives. Man will go down. They will flee up here – and we will be driven through the Door of Surrilana into the freezing outer world that is encased in ice. I have been told about it.”

“But beyond the ice, Morgo,” I said, “there are warm jungles – and civilization. You are an American and so is Nurri Kala. You can return to your own land – to friends and relatives.”

“We are savages, Derro,” he laughed. “Who would ever believe I am the person you say?” I showed him the Bibles. “They are nothing. I cannot even remember my life before the caves. It is here that I belong – it is here that I must fight – or die!”

I looked across the flames at Nurri Kala. “It is time for you to decide. I am ready to try to escape with the Bakketes – to fly into the outer world.”

“No, Derro. Give me a little more time. I am very frightened.” She was suppliant, and neither Morgo nor I would insist on an answer to the question of our fate.

My thoughts were presently directed toward the imminence of a battle in the caves. Man would fight man. Animal would destroy animal. And then man and animal would seek supremacy for the little food these barren wastes in the high cold caves provided. I was determined not to leave before Nurri Kala’s decision, for she might elect to go with me, and I did not want to go without her.

Weapons for the defense of our lives were essential. I asked Morgo about arming the Bakketes, who had arms and hands, but he said they had never profited by his lessons in the past with slingshot or knife. Their intelligence was limited. And I had only the rifle and ammunition that would be nothing in the face of a mass attack.

The machine gun in the plane! It flashed across my mind. That was just the thing to hold an army at bay! It was well oiled, and might have withstood the mild weather in Shamman, where it fell with the Junkers.

I told this to Morgo and he was skeptical of its value. But Nurri Kala respected the use of my weapons and insisted that we try to find it. Baku was summoned and he seemed to remember the location of the crashed plane.

I showed Nurri Kala how to use the rifle and when she demonstrated the ability to handle its simple mechanism, I took off with Baku, Morgo and a large number of Bakketes. The girl was left by the hidden fire, heavily guarded by bat men who were instructed to hide her in the stalactites above, at the slightest sign of trouble.

We entered Shamman, where there was no gray light of day. In seeking the location of the Junkers, we course far over the land dotted with the many fires of the primitive men who stayed close to them, wondering what blight had come upon them. I heard the snarls of foraging animals, attacking each other in the darkness, the cries of men and women caught unawares by the sudden appearance of a herd of squealing Mannizans, the peculiar cries of the Hoatzins in search of prey, and the fearful cacklings of the bewildered and vicious Cicernas. All, with their backs to the proverbial wall, were now more dangerous than in less troublous times.

My heart fell when we flew low, trying to find the monolith that marked the resting place of the plane. I had heard the hush-hush of the black ants – those carnivorous Husshas who now needs must feed on human flesh, for the vegetation was eaten away from Shamman. Below was a floor of horrible death – a floor the most primitive of men never had to tread in fighting for existence.

Morgo called to me. He should that something was happening in the end of Shamman near Kahli’s tunnel. I looked toward the groups of fires there and saw them extinguished, one by one, as though some unseen hand was drawing a cover over the ground.

Curious, we flew toward that end to ascertain the trouble. Shrieks and cries of fear and pain rent the darkness. Shamman bats crossed our path and paid no attention to us.

Then I heard the gurgling sound of flowing water. The flood had reached Shamman. The nearer we flew toward it, the louder it became until it was the song of a tyrannical, hungry torrent gushing up from Kahli throug the tunnel.

Shamman was doomed.

The flood was claiming its territory.

The exodus into the cave where Nurri Kala stayed was under way. We could hear the tramp of feet moving in its direction, the calls and screams of animals clashing with the men invisible to us. The air was again a flutter of birds’ wings.

We despaired of finding the machine gun, and returned to the defense of the girl. I suddenly realized that it had been sheer folly to leave her while we went on this wild goose chase.

A flock of Hoatzins struck at us in the dark. They were flying blindly. Ravenously they fastened themselves upon our flesh to satisfy their hunger. I felt the bite of a hundred wing claws about my face and head and the Bakketes screeched while Morgo bellowed with the horrible little pains. Our knives were impotent against the hundreds of frightened flesh eaters, and only the wit of the Bakketes saved us from being pecked to death in the air.

They dropped to the ground and there beat off the Hoatzins with their wings while Morgo and I used our hands, wringing feathered necks and tearing claws from our shins. No sooner had the claw-winged creatures fled than we found ourselves hemmed in by Cicernas. The startled Bakketes rose without us.

I cursed the fate that sent me to die so far from Nurri Kala. God knows what would happen to her now! Morgo met the rush of the first chicken, catching it about the neck with his arm. This once he did not use his knife. Instead his hands twisted the long neck til it broke. He signaled loudly for Baku and, when I felt something touch my shoulders, I wheeled about with my knife and plunged it blindly into the breast of a Bakkete, thinking it a Cicerna.

Baku caught me and whirled me away from the reach of the beaks with Morgo. The chickens, cheated of human flesh, quickly turned to their own plentiful dead for a meal.

The pandemonium on the floor of Shaman increased as the word spread that the flood had reached that high level. We could hardly hear ourselves think in the uproar of voices, human and animal.

Baku, by some uncanny instinct, finally found the plane. It had been overrun and devoured by the ants, but the machine gun, a Vickers, was gone. And so were the cartridge cases and boxes that held the Very lights. Who had beaten us to the gun? There were fresh footprints in the chalky ground. Silurians! And undoubtedly under Zorimi’s orders.

“Zorimi has the gun!” I cried to Morgo. “That means annihilation for all who oppose him now. He knows how to use it.”

“So be it,” he said philosophically. “Let us hurry back to Nurri Kala.”

We had hardly gotten into the air when a burst of yellow light shattered the darkness. It hung in midair and then gently floated earthward, lighting the floor below. Someone had set off a Very light – one from the Junkers!

The shambles portrayed in the rays of the yellow light was awful. Men were at death’s grip with men. The old fight for the right of way between the lofty stalagmites set up a new problem here in Shamman. And Mannizans and Husshas struggled with one another to satisfy hunger.

A python lashed itself about a Cicerna and was preparing to eat while the chicken pecked its coils to pieces.

The salamanders ran riot, their bodies moving through the shadows like slow tracer bullets from a Spandau. Silurians and Shammans and the blond men from Zaan looked up at the Very light in holy awe and then fell upon each other again, some fighting for a knife, a cut of meat, a bundle of herbs carried from the greener caves.

But was interested me most was a party of Shammans carrying the machine gun and its cartridge cases on their shoulders. Zorimi was with them and it was he who had set off the Very light to impress the primitive peoples of his power to bring light out of darkness. His guttural harange came up to us as the light struck the ground and sputtered out, leaving a heavier darkness behind.

I ordered Baku to drop upon the machine gun carriers. Morgo heard me and pleaded with me to stay with him but when he saw our headlong flight, he joined it.

We landed beside the man who had the gun on his shoulder. Our appearance out of the air, like evil spirits suddenly materialized, startled him. I caught the gun as it slid from his back and passed it to a Bakkete. I seized the cartridge cases and Morgo, understanding, told the other bat men to pick them up. Then I dashed in Zorimi’s direction. I wanted very badly those Very lights.

I did not find the magician – but the box of lights were on the ground. These were consigned to another carrier. The Shammans, weary and hungry, put up no fight, but accepted our materialization with resignation. They stood dumbly aside while we robbed them of the most valuable weapon of the hour, a machine that could fire a hundred pieces of hot lead a minute – that could wipe out an army when one man pressed the trigger.

Zorimi, far off in the darkness, was calling for his bats and salamanders. Again we had outwitted him. But it for the last time.

With our loot in safe hands we returned to the fire where we found Nurri Kala waiting for us. She had killed a small Mannizan with the rifle, had skinned it and was roasting some meat over the blaze.

What I deemed was the day wore on. All was night for us. Bakketes reported the arrival of people in the far end of the cave, and we put out our fire. I busied myself with the machine gun, fitting the cartridge belts into place. The gun was thick with oil, and I cleaned it as best I knew how.

Morgo watched me use it on the shadowy spire of a monolith a hundred yards away. I pressed the trigger, the belt raced through the chamber and the mouth of the gun was a spitting torch of orange light. The spire crumbled and vanished. Morgo was astonished. I was happy, for the gun was still working.

Baku reported a miniature plateau, the top of a broken-off stalagmite. It could hold fifty men, he said, and Morgo decided that we would be safer up there than down on the floor. We repaired to the crag with our arsenal, the Very lights, meat and wood for a long fire. The Bakketes were kept hard at it replenishing the supply for the fire that meant warmth for us all.

The crag commanded on all sides of the cave and we had only Shamman bats to fear. The fire was built in a hollow where we could huddle when night came, and the Vickers gun was mounted on a natural rampart from which it could sweep and spray the three possible approaches from the mound.

Hours went by and we heard nothing. Bakketes reported that large numbers of men and beasts were in the cave but they were strangely silent. Shamman bats soared over us, betraying themselves by their wing beats, but nothing happened. The silence surprised me. Was this more of Zorimi’s magic? I suspected as much.

Once in the flying forces, I had been sent up to the front line trenches for observation purposes. The stillness then was much like it was in this black hole in Kanchenjunga’s bowels. The Germans were getting ready for a barrage. We had not been told, but the very idea of a mass attack was in the air then, as it was now.

Zorimi had lost his diamond treasure. His domain was underwater. The two white men he hated most were at large – and a menace to the secrets he labored to hold – the secret of the mountain and its wealth. Time and again they had tricked him, defied his magic. And now they held the girl he wanted, the girl whom he had called his slave.

I told Morgo that Zorimi was responsible for the peculiar quiet and he would not believe me. He had no explanation to offer, and he was worred, though unafraid. He eyed my machine gun hopefully while I showed the girl how it operated. He refused to take a quick lesson.

Nurri Kala agreed with me that Zorimi was concentrating his efforts on us. By the power of Her of the Three Heads, he had in some way organized the fugitives from the flood. In one last assault, they would try to accomplish his ends so that he might enjoy his triumph of evil and take the girl into my world under the wings of the Shamman bats.

“There is still time to escape through Surrilana,” I said to Morgo, hoping to convince him that his days in the caves were numbered. “It is futile to entrench ourselves here and attempt to fight.”

“Go – if you want to, Derro. No one will stop you. But here I must stay. I shall not run away from Zorimi. With his death, I am sure peace can be restored among the peoples and beasts of this world.

To Be Concluded!