Title: A Vision of Venus Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301931h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
THIS is a very nice story, verging on the short, short order, and will be enjoyed by all of our readers. We have not had a story by Mr. Kline for some time and we are sure this one will be welcome. There is a love motif, but not of an order to excite opposition from our readers.—Ed
DR. MORGAN, scientist and psychologist, stared fixedly into the crystal globe before him, as he sat in the study of his strange mountain observatory. For many years, he had been communicating with people on Mars and Venus by means of telepathy, and recording these communications.
Just now, he had established rapport with Lotan, a young plant hunter for the Imperial Government of Olba, the only nation on Venus which had aircraft. He was seeing with Lotan's eyes, hearing with his ears, precisely as if this earthly scientist were Lotan the Olban. The electrodes of his audio-photo thought recorder were clamped to his temples, and every thought, every sense impression of Lotan's was, for the time, Dr. Morgan's.
Lotan's little one-man flier was behaving badly. He had just come through a terrific storm in which he had lost his bearings. His navigating instruments were out of commission and his power mechanism was growing weaker. It would be necessary for him to land and make repairs, soon.
For many months he had sought the kadkor, that rare and valuable food fungus which had once been cultivated in Olba, but had been wiped out by a parasite. His sovereign had offered him the purple of nobility and a thousand kantols of land, if he would but bring him as many kadkor spores as would cover his thumb nail. But so far his quest had been fruitless.
Far below him the Ropok Ocean stretched its blue-green waters for miles in all directions—a vast expanse of sea and sky that teemed with life of a thousand varieties. There were creatures of striking fantastic beauty and of terrifying ugliness. A number of large, white birds, with red-tipped wings and long, sharply curved beaks, skimmed the water in search of food. Hideous flying reptiles, some with wing-spreads of more than sixty feet, soared quite near the flier, eyeing it curiously as if half minded to attack. They would scan the water until they saw such quarry as suited them, then, folding their webbed wings and dropping head first with terrific speed, would plunge beneath the waves, to emerge with their struggling prey and leisurely flap away.
The sea itself was even more crowded with life. And mightiest of all its creatures was the great ordzook, so immense that it could easily crush a large battleship with a single crunch of its huge jaws.
But these sights were no novelty to Lotan, the botanist. What he hoped to see, and that quickly, was land. Failing in this, he knew by the way the power mechanism was acting, that he would soon be compelled to settle to the surface of the Ropok probably to be devoured, ship and all, by some fearful marine monster.
Presently he caught sight of a tiny islet, and toward this he directed his limping ship with all the force of his will. For his little craft, which looked much like a small metal duck boat with a glass globe over the cockpit, was raised, lowered, or moved in any direction by a mechanism which amplified the power of telekinesis, that mysterious force emanating from the subjective mind, which enables earthly mediums to levitate ponderable objects without physical contact. It had no wings, rudder, propeller or gas chambers, and its only flying equipment, other than this remarkable mechanism, were two fore-and-aft safety parachutes, which would lower it gently in case the telekinetic power failed.
Normally the little craft could travel at a speed of five hundred miles an hour in the upper atmosphere, but now it glided very slowly, and moreover was settling toward the water alarmingly. Lotan exerted every iota of his mind power, and barely made the sloping, sandy beach when the mechanism failed completely.
As he sprang out of his little craft, Lotan's first care was for his power- mechanism. Fortunately the splicing of a wire which had snapped repaired the damage.
He looked about him. At his feet the sea was casting up bits of wreckage. It was evident that a ship had gone to pieces on the reef—the work of the recent storm. The body of a drowned sailor came in on a comber. But it did not reach the shore, for a huge pair of jaws emerged from the water, snapped, and it was gone. In the brief interval he recognized the naval uniform of Tyrhana, the most powerful maritime nation of Venus.
Then his attention was attracted by something else—tracks freshly made, leading from a large piece of wreckage across the soft sand and into the riotous tangle of vegetation that clothed the interior. They were small— undoubtedly the tracks of a woman or boy.
Lotan followed, resolved to try to rescue this marooned fellow-being, before taking off.
He plunged into a jungle that would have appeared grotesque to earthly eyes. The primitive plants of Venus, which bear no fruits, flowers nor seeds, but reproduce solely by subdivision, spores or spawn, assume many strange and unusual forms and colors. Pushing through a fringe of jointed, reed-like growths that rattled like skeletons as he passed, he entered a dense fern- forest. Immense tree-ferns with rough trunks and palm-like leaf crowns, some of which were more than seventy feet in height, towered above many bushy varieties that were gigantic compared to the largest ferns of earthly jungles. Climbing ferns hung everywhere, like lianas. Creeping ferns made bright green patches on the ground. And dwarf, low-growing kinds barely raised their fronds above the violet-colored moss which carpeted the forest floor.
The trail was plain enough, as the little feet had sunk deeply into the moss and leaf-mould. It led over a fern-clothed rise to lower marshy ground, where fungus growths predominated. There were colossal toadstools, some of which reared their heads more than fifty feet above the ground, tremendous morels like titanic spear heads projecting from the earth, squat puff-balls that burst when touched, scattering clouds of tiny black spores, and grotesque funguses shaped like candelabra, corkscrews, organ pipes, stars, flued funnels and upraised human hands.
But Lotan gave no heed to these. To him they were quite commonplace.
As he hurried along the trail, there suddenly came from the tangle ahead a horrible peal of demoniacal laughter. It was quickly echoed by a dozen others coming from various points in the fungoid forest. He dashed forward, gripping his weapons, for he recognized the cry of the hahoe, that terrible carnivore of the Venerian jungles. It had discovered a victim and was summoning its fellows.
Like all Venerian gentlemen, Lotan wore a tork and scarbo belted to his waist. The tork was a rapid-fire weapon about two feet long, of blued steel. It was shaped much like a carpenter's level, and fired by means of explosive gas, discharging needle-like glass projectiles filled with a potent poison that would instantly paralyze man or beast. The scarbo was a cutting, thrusting weapon with a blade like that of a scimitar and basket hilt.
As he abruptly emerged into a little clearing, he saw a slender, golden- haired girl who wore the silver and purple of nobility, clinging to the cap of a tall fungus. Below her, snarling, snapping and leaping upward, were a half dozen hahoes, huge brutes somewhat like hyenas, but twice as large as any hyena that ever walked the earth, and far more hideous. They had no hair, but were covered with rough scales of black color, and mottled and spots of golden orange. Each beast had three horns, one projecting form either temple and one standing out between the eyes. Two of them were gnawing at the stem of the fungus, and had mad such headway that it seemed likely to topple at any moment.
With a reassuring shout to the frightened girl, Lotan whipped out his scarbo, and elevating the muzzle of his tork, pressed the firing button. Horrid death- yells from the hahoes followed the spitting of the tork, as the deadly glass projectiles did their work. In less than a minute four of the brutes lay dead at the foot of the fungus, and the other two had fled.
But during that time, brief as it was, another flesh-eater of Venus, far more fearful than the hahoes, had seen the girl and marked her for its prey.
As Lotan looked upward, about to speak to the girl, she screamed in deadly terror, for a man-eating gnarsh had suddenly swooped downward from the clouds. Seizing her in its huge talons, it flapped swiftly away.
Lotan raised his tork, then lowered it with a cry of despair. For even though he might succeed in killing the flying monster without striking the girl, a fall from that dizzy height would mean sure death for her.
There was a bare possibility, however, that the gnarsh would not eat her until it reached its eyrie, which would be situated on some inaccessible mountain crag. As there were no mountains on the island, the monster would probably head for the mainland, and he could follow in his flier.
He accordingly turned, and dashed back to where his airship lay. Leaping into the cabin, he slammed the door. The little craft shot swiftly upward to a height of more than two thousand feet. Already the gnarsh was more than a mile away, flapping swiftly westward with its victim dangling limply.
Like an avenging arrow, the tiny craft hurtled after the flying monster. As he came up behind it, Lotan drew his scarbo, and opening the cabin door, leaned out.
Almost before the gnarsh knew of his presence, the botanist had flung an arm around the girl's slender waist. With two deft slashes of his keen blade, he cut the tendons that controlled the mighty talons. They relaxed, and with a choking cry of relief, he dragged her into the cabin. Turning his craft, he aimed his tork and sent a stream of deadly projectiles into the flying monster. Its membraneous wings crumpled, and it fell into the sea.
Unconscious of what he was doing, the plant-hunter kept his arm around the girl's waist—held her close. He slammed the door, and turning, looked into her eyes. In them he read gratitude—and something more that thrilled him immeasureably. With that brief look went the heart of Lotan. He was drawing her nearer, crushing her to him, unresisting, while the ship hurtled forward, when he remembered that she was of the nobility, and he only a botanist. The jewels that glittered on her garments would have ransomed a rogo [King]. And he was a poor man. He released her.
"You are of Tyrhana?" he asked.
"I am Mirim, daughter of Zand, Romojak [Admiral] of the Fleets of Tyrhana," he replied. "And you, my brave rescuer?"
"Lotan, plant hunter for His Imperial Majesty, Zinlo of Olba," he replied. "My navigating instruments are out of commission, but when we strike the shore line, which we are sure to do by proceeding westward, I can find the way to Tyrhana and take you home." "Home," she said, and there was a sob in her voice. "I have no home, now. My mother died when I was born. My father went down with his ship in the great storm that cast me on that terrible island. Now I return to the loneliness of a great castle filled with slaves." Burying her face in her hands, she burst into tears.
His arm encircled her grief-shaken body, and his hand stroked her soft, golden hair.
"Mirim, I—" he began, then stopped resolutely. The gulf between them was too great. Now if he had but found the kadkor and won the reward, he would be her equal—could ask her hand in marriage. He gasped, as that which had been in the back of his mind, endeavoring to fight its way into his objective consciousness, suddenly occurred to him. He had seen the kadkor. It had been a kadkor that Mirim had climbed to escape from he hahoes. But in the excitement of the moment his mind had only registered the fact subjectively. Back there on that tiny islet, now several hundred kants away, was the object of his quest. but he did not know its bearings, and had not even a compass to guide him. He might search a lifetime and not find that islet again.
Presently the girl ceased her sobbing, sat up and began to adjust her disheveled garments. She detached her belt pouch and handed it to him.
"Will you empty this for me, please? she asked. "It came open and got filled with some horrid gray spores."
Lotan looked at the spores, and his heart gave a great leap of joy, for they were the spores of the kadkor, scraped from the gills of the fungus by her open belt pouch as the girl had been dragged aloft.
"I'll keep these, if you don't mind," he said, "for to me they are worth the purple, and a thousand kantols of land. Moreover, they give me the courage to say that which has lain in my heart since first I looked into your eyes. I love you, Mirim. Will you be my wife?"
"Take me, Lotan," was all she said, but her lips against his told him all.
Title: Spawn of the Comet Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301941h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
Silently, without warning they came,those fishermen of deep space who spread their net for man—living flying saucers the Earth must destroy—yet who multiplied by dying!
AS THE coming of that singular visitor from sidereal space known as the "great comet of 1847" or "Green's comet," Has been duly recorded by those whose duty it is to chronicle such events, I will merely mention it in passing. But mention it I must, as it is so unmistakably linked with that menace to all terrestrial life which immediately followed its departure for the cosmic vastnesses, and which came so near to terminating the tenure of mankind on the earth.
It was called "Green's comet," after Sir George Green, the eminent English astronomer who discovered it. Long before it had reached the outer limits of the solar system it blazed with a light that marked it as no ordinary visitor from the interstellar voids.
Indeed, it appeared to have so large and compact a nucleus that scientists feared the entire solar system would be upset by its visit. But when it passed the orbits of the outer planets and relative perturbations were computed, it was found that despite its great size, its mass was not so formidable as to be alarming.
Because it did not develop a tail as it neared the sun, its immense coma—the nebulosity or head, surrounding the nucleus—was thought to consist of millions of small meteoroids, while what had previously been mistaken for the outside surface of a solid nucleus was spectrascopically proven to be the outer limit of an atmosphere quite like our own, but so filled with clouds of vapor that it was impossible to see the nucleus itself.
It was believed that the comet's atmosphere was warmed and the coma made incandescent by the friction of the meteoroids as they passed through its upper atmosphere, and also by the countless thousands of collisions which took place among them.
There was one thing, however, that caused considerable apprehension. Although the earth, so I am informed, once passed through the tail of a comet without injury, astronomers had computed that on its return journey from its circuit of the sun the head of this comet would pass quite near the earth—might even collide with it.
In consequence, certain religious leaders became vociferous in their prophecies regarding the immediate end of the world with attendant fire, brimstone and such fearsome accessories. The tailless comet, surrounded by that bright, nebulous, translucent coma of huge dimensions, was an exceedingly Striking and brilliant spectacle. These prophets of destruction could nightly point to it and thereby gain many followers who garbed themselves in nightgowns and congregated on roof tops, singing psalms and waiting for the fiery chariot to come and taxi them up through the pearly gates.
But, strange to say, though on its return journey from the sun, the comet came within half a million miles of the earth—a very short distance as cosmic space is figured—and for a time looked larger and brighter than the full moon, there were no other signs of its immediate proximity than a few extra storms, earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, and a protracted and exceedingly brilliant meteoric shower.
It was that which followed this sudden and unexpected call of our bright visitor from the silent, star-strewn solitudes, which came so near to causing the end of the world, which, for the human race, amounts to the same thing.
And it is this calamity which I have set myself the task of chronicling in order that future generations may know the truth of the matter from at least one eyewitness.
I WAS spending the week-end in the country with Sue.
To me, Dick Perry, one of the cave-dwelling desk slaves in Chicago's busy Loop, that was the height of bliss. Sue Davis, the eminent biologist and biochemist, was my fiancee. We were at the Davis country home.
The comet had come and gone, and the earth, as well as all earthly creatures, had settled down to its former more or less well-ordered existence.
It was Saturday forenoon—one of those drowsy, peaceful, pleasant mornings in late July so characteristic of the verdant Mississippi Valley. Sue and I had gone for a stroll on the farm, had crossed a field of nodding, fragrant clover, and had paused where a single huge hackberry tree cast its speckled shade over a small grass plot.
I was lying on my back in the grass and gazing dreamily up into the clear blue sky, while Sue, seated beside me, wove a garland of clover blossoms. Feeling poetic—I was but twenty-two and Sue nineteen—I began to compare the blue eyes with that of the heavens, and the spun gold of her hair with the sunbeams that danced down through the gently waving hackberry leaves, and to compose a verse suited to my mood. But there came a droning sound, louder than that made by the thousands of bees in the clover.
"The mail plane is coming in," said Sue. "Sit up, lazybones, and watch it land. The field is only a mile from here."
As I sat up the unmistakable droning of an airplane grew louder. Looking skyward, I could not see it at first. But I did see something which I had- not noticed before—a small, wispy white cloud scudding rapidly northward. Then I saw the plane coming from the west.
It appeared to me that cloud and plane were traveling at about the same speed, and if either changed its velocity or direction, they would meet. Nothing phenomenal in that, of course. I have often seen planes fly through the clouds. But here were the only cloud and the only plane in sight, and it would be interesting, I thought, if they should meet when each had so much open space in which to travel.
As they drew closer together I saw that the cloud was considerably higher than the plane.
"They won't meet, after all," I said, half to myself, half to my fair companion.
But scarcely had the words left my lips ere a strange thing happened. It appeared to me that the cloud, which was roughly disk-shaped with a few ragged streamers beneath, tilted and glided downward toward the level of the plane.
It came to me in the next instant that from our viewpoint the motions of all heavenly objects near the zenith must necessarily be relative—that the plane might have ascended toward the cloud. And yet this would not account for the apparent tilting of the cirrus disk.
Plane and cloud met. For a moment the airplane was completely concealed. But as it emerged once more into view I noticed that it was beginning a steep climb.
"He must be going to loop the loop," I said, but the words had scarcely left my lips when the motor died. It appeared that the pilot had misjudged the amount of speed necessary for the climb and had not opened the throttle enough. The plane appeared to stop for a moment—then fell backward and downward, went into a sideslip, and hurtled groundward, out of control.
Sue gripped my arm and uttered a little scream of terror. We both leaped to our feet just as the ship crashed in a pasture not more than a half mile from where we stood, and about an equal distance from the landing field.
"Oh, how terrible!" Sue exclaimed. "Let's run over and see what we can do. The pilot may not be dead."
"Not one chance in a thousand for that," I answered, "the way he crashed. But we'll hurry over anyway."
We ran across the clover field and climbed the pasture fence.
AS WE neared the wreck we saw three men, evidently from the airport, coming from the other direction. They arrived at the spot when we did.
The plane had struck with one wing down. That wing was partly crumpled by the shock of the collision. The nose was buried in the soft, boggy ground of the pasture, and the fuselage was a twisted wreck. Hanging about it like an invisible aura was a sickening, musty odor—a revolting, charnel scent, as if some ancient grave had been desecrated.
Fearing the effect on Sue of the horrible sight which I felt positive would be revealed, I suggested to her that she look the other way when two of the men from the airport went into the wreck for the remains of the pilot.
But the cries of horror which I expected to Lear from the two men did not materialize. Instead, they uttered exclamations of astonishment.
The man who was standing outside the wreck called to one of them:
"What's the matter, Bill?"
"We can't find no sign of a body here," was the reply. "This crate must have been flying without a pilot."
"Maybe Jackson fell out before the crack-up," said the man outside.
"Must have been a long time before, if he did," was the answer, "because I was watching the ship come in, and I'd have seen him if he fell out. Besides, she behaved all right until she passed through the cloud:"
"He might have fallen out in the cloud," said the man outside.
"And then flew away with it? Don't talk foolish."
"Well, anyway, he's not here. Whew! What a smell! Notice it?"
"Notice it! I'm strangling!"
The three men dragged out the mail sacks, shouldered them, and moved off in the direction of the landing field.
Sue and I were turning to go when my attention was attracted by several long, silky bits of what appeared to be hair or thread, caught in the rudder. Puzzled by the presence of material of this sort in so unusual a place, I walked closer to examine it. On nearer inspection it appeared like glossy blond hair of rather coarse texture.
I touched a strand of it with an inquisitive forefinger, and an astounding thing happened. With lightning-like rapidity that part of it which dangled beyond my finger and the rudder to which it was attached, assumed the shape of a spiral spring and jerked my finger toward the rudder.
Automatically I attempted to jerk my finger away. But the. effort was unavailing. Despite the apparent flimsiness of the strand which held it, it was bound as tightly to that rudder as if it had been held by a length of piano wire.
The strand, I observed, was caught in a cleft where the wood had split. I had been pulling downward from this point. I pulled a second time, this time upward, and the strand instantly came free, but it was no sooner freed from the crotch than it wrapped its remaining coils around my finger.
"What are you doing?" asked Sue.
"I have discovered something very strange," I replied, showing her my tightly wrapped finger.
"Why, it's nothing but a hair," she said, and attempted to pull it from my finger, which was already beginning to show signs of congested circulation. But she could neither stretch nor break it. And the two ends had, twisted about each other, forming a splice that was as tight and immovable as the other loops.
"Don't touch it!" I warned her, withdrawing my finger. "It's not a hair."
"Then what is it?" she asked, surprised.
"I don't know," I responded, "but something more sinister than you imagine. There are two more hanging on the rudder. Don't go near them. I'll try to get them and take them to your father for examination. Whatever they axe, they seem to be endowed with life and an unbelievable amount of strength."
I obtained a dry weed-stalk near by and touched one of the remaining strands with it. To my surprise it did not move, but hung as limp and lifeless as if it had been what it appeared to be—a hair or thread.
Breaking the stalk in two, I caught the two strands between the two pieces of weed-stalk, and turned them until I had enough purchase to pull them from the cleft. I continued to turn them until they were wound around the stalks. Then Sue and I left for the house.
The walk of a mile and a half to the Davis home occupied only twenty-five minutes. But before we had traversed half that distance my finger, which had turned blue and begun to throb unmercifully, started to bleed where the strands surrounded it. These strands, which I was unable to pull off, continued to sink deeper into my flesh as if they slowly contracted, and I was conscious of a burning sensation, as if some powerful corrosive were searing the wound.
Upon entering the house we found Sue's father, Professor Absolom Davis, working in small but excellently equipped experimental laboratory.
A small man with a pointed, iron gray beard, he is scarcely taller than his daughter, who is five feet two. Yet he has always appeared to me as a man of concentrated, dynamic energy. Despite the fact that we had apparently interrupted some intensely engrossing experiment as we burst unceremoniously into his laboratory, he beamed cordially at us through his large, thick-lensed glasses, and exclaimed:
"Well, well! Back so soon? Did you have a pleasant stroll?"
I briefly related to him the incidents that had just taken place—showed him the strands I had wrapped around the sticks, after warning him not to touch them, and also exhibited my tightly wrapped finger.
After examining it for a moment, he poured some alcohol into a test tube and. plunged the numbed digit into it. There was no result except an increased burning sensation where the strands had broken through the skin.
Wrinkling his brow in puzzlement, he put some alcohol into a second test tube, and into this dropped a small quantity of clear, pungent-smelling liquid. I was ordered to plunge my finger into this, but the result was no different than before, except that the burning was slightly intensified.
AFTER watching it for a moment, the professor prepared a third solution, using distilled water instead of alcohol, and dropping into it something with a peculiar, almond-like odor. Almost instantly the two spliced tendrils uncurled, and upon removing my finger from the test tube I was able to unwind the coils as easily as if they had been common thread.
Directing me to thoroughly wash my hands at once, the professor took a pair of surgical scissors and cut off a piece of the substance which had been wrapped around my finger.
The stuff seemed difficult to cut, and snapped like a piece of steel wire when severed. Then he put it under a compound microscope and examined it. The experiment which he had previously been conducting seemed completely forgotten in the excitement of this new investigation.
"What is it?" I asked, after washing my hands.
He continued to peer through the microscope, slightly moving various adjustments. Without replying to my question, he took the piece he had been examining and immersed it in a blue solution. Again he slid it under the microscope. Then he snipped off a second piece, immersed it in a pink solution, and carefully examined it.
Presently he looked up. Apparently the question which I had asked some minutes before had just broken through his preoccupation.
"I don't know what it is," he said, "except that it is organic and apparently constructed of thousands of long, thin, and extremely tough contractile fibres in a clear plasmic substance which is interlaced with chains of fatty cells that indicate the presence of some sort of a nervous system. This, to judge from the way the strands behave, is both motor and sensory. There are also waxy cells which evidently contain the corrosive digestive fluid which cut through your skin so readily. Here, look for yourself."
I peered through the microscope, but to my untrained eye it appeared that a thin cable, partly pink and partly translucent, crossed the round field. There were specks, blotches, and chains of tiny globules, but they meant nothing to me.
While Sue was looking at it, the professor prepared a slide by coating it with some sticky substance. Then he carefully snipped off a small piece of one of the strands I had brought in on the two stalks, so it fell on and stuck to the slide.
This done, he removed the slide containing the pink-stained fragment, and put the sticky slide in its place.
After examining it for some time in silence, he took down a large glass mortar from a shelf. Holding the two sticks containing the wound strands over this, he snipped off a piece about two inches in length, letting it fall into the mortar.
Then he went outdoors. A few minutes later he returned with an earthworm about six inches in length wriggling in his fingers.
"In the interests of science," he said, and dropped the worm into the mortar. It fell on the strand which he had previously placed there, and which, at the touch of the worm, seemed instantly galvanized into life. With amazing speed it coiled itself around the squirming creature. Then the coils slowly tightened, the worm becoming more convulsive in its movements, and leaving little streaks of slime on the smooth surface of the mortar as it lashed about in all directions.
Presently the worm was cut in two. Between the severed halves lay a small, slime-smeared coil of what looked like hair. Slowly this coil opened until it had reached its previous length of about two inches. The head end of the worm, more active than the tail, again blundered against the threadlike thing. Once again it was seized in the thin, powerful coils, then slowly cut in two.
"What is it, professor?" I asked.
Continuing to stare at the contents of the mortar through his thick glasses, he replied:
"At present I can only say that it is, without a doubt, a clue to the disappearance—the almost certain death—of Jackson, the aviator. Beyond that I can tell you nothing definite—not unless further experiments reveal something which I have not yet discovered. Run along, now, you and Sue. I must be alone. There is important work to be done. There are investigations to be made which may be of incalculable benefit to the human race—may even save humanity from the worst menace by which it has ever been confronted!"
SUE and I lunched together, served by Wong, the efficient Chinese butler. The professor never took lunch, and Mrs. Davis had driven to Sterling, a near-by town, for the purpose of doing some shopping. Late that afternoon she returned.
A small, sweet-faced, white-haired woman, Mrs. Davis is rarely perturbed. Sue and I were consequently amazed to hear her talking excitedly to the professor in the laboratory. Then both of them came into the drawing-room where we were seated.
"Some strange things have been happening to-day," she said as she greeted us. "Banker Crolius, of Sterling, while driving home from the country club in his roadster, suddenly disappeared. A farm hand who saw him in the car only a moment before his disappearance, describes a strange cloud which was mingled with the dust thrown up by his car, but which separated from it and sailed away as soon as the car overturned in the ditch. The motorcycle policeman who found the empty car reported that there was a nauseating odor around it, but no sign of Crolius."
"He must have shared the fate of Jackson," I said.
"Without a doubt," said the professor. "But that is not all. Look at this; it's positively ghastly."
He passed me a copy of the evening paper which his wife had just brought from Sterling. Together, Sue and I scanned the glaring headlines, and read the article which followed:
TAMPICO CITIZEN BADLY INJURED BY FALLING SKULL
Believed to Be That of Missing Aviator, Jackson
William Aldrich, a citizen of Tampico, was seriously injured today while walking on the main street of his home town, when a human skull which had apparently fallen from the sky struck him on the right shoulder. It fell with such force that he was knocked down. Examination by a physician revealed two broken bones beneath a very painful bruise. Near the fallen skull the metal frames and broken glass of an aviator's goggles were found.
A moment later a number of other bones, which Dr. Brown of Tampico pronounced those of a human being, fell nearly a block from where Mr. Aldrich had been struck down. These bones were so white and dry that the doctor declared they must have been exposed to the weather for a long period of time.
Among these bones were found a cigarette lighter, some coins, a bunch of keys, several buttons and buckles, and a wrist watch on an aviator's identification bracelet. Despite the fact that Pilot Jackson disappeared not more than two hours before this happened, it is thought that he has been murdered in some mysterious way, and his bones dehydrated and dropped, for the bracelet is his, and descriptions of the other articles tally with those he was known to have carried.
"Do you think they were really Jackson's bones?" I asked the professor.
"I think it highly probable that they were," he replied.
"Come into my laboratory, Dick," he said. "I have something to show you."
As Professor Davis led me into his laboratory, his eyes sparkled with excitement behind his thick-lensed glasses. He bent over the mortar into which he had dropped the mysterious fragment of hairlike substance and the earthworm, earlier in the afternoon. Then a look of amazement came over his features.
"Really," he said, "this is most remarkable! Look here, Dick. The creature has grown more swiftly than I thought possible."
I, too, looked into the mortar.
To my surprise I saw that the two inch piece of the odd material had a mushroom-like growth on one end. This end was raised nearly an inch above the bottom of the bowl as if the mushroom growth were a little balloon, gradually lifting the hairlike strand. But this was not all, for sprouting beneath the cap were many other hairs, shorter than the original one, but of the same diameter and evidently growing at an astonishing rate of speed.
"Do you know what it is?" I asked.
"I believe," said the professor, "that we are confronted by a creature unknown to science, and up to the present day, entirely outside the experience of mankind. Unless other similar incidents have occured recently, the strange fates of Jackson and Crolius are unique in the annals of the world. Without a doubt, Crolius and Jackson met the same fate—were attacked either by the same creature or by one like it. And this"—pointing to the thing in the mortar—"is perhaps a reproduction of that creature. I say'perhaps' because even among the creatures known and classified by science we find numerous instances of offspring which, in certain stages of their existence, bear very little resemblance to their parents."
"Do you mean to tell me," I said, "that the hairlike strand was an egg or spore from which this creature in the mortar is developing?"
"Not precisely that," replied the professor. "It seems that we have to do, here, with a creature that reproduces itself by fission or subdivision—or at least a creature which has the power to do so, even though it may normally reproduce its kind by spores, spawn or eggs.
"I think that we can safely assume, in this case, that the division was accidental so far as the intention of the creature itself is taken into account. The hairlike tentacle was caught in the airplane rudder when creature and plane were both traveling swiftly at right angles to each other's courses. As a result three of these tentacles caught in the splintered rudder were tom loose and carried down with the ship. With my scissors I farther divided the tentacle before placing it in the mortar.
YOU WILL observe that those tentacles which are still coiled around the sticks on which you brought them have neither moved nor shown any signs of growth. Our experience shows that they will not move unless touched by living organic matter—food. And food, which I supplied in the form of an earthworm, is undoubtedly the reason the piece in the mortar was enabled to grow.
"I have been watching this one closely, and have learned something more. The tentacles themselves, as we have learned before, are not stimulated to action except when touched by organic food, but once the umbrella-like crown has grown above them, they are led to the food by the crown's perception of motion. The worm, as you will observe, has all been devoured, or rather, absorbed, except a few segments from the posterior extremity. These segments are quite near the original and longest tentacle, but they are motionless. The growth of the creature has ceased for a lack of food, with this food quite near it, yet I saw it travel toward and capture the wriggling anterior end again and again until it had consumed all of it.
"We have here an analogy with the two tragedies which took place to-day. Swift movement, apparently, had attracted the parent of this creature to its prey, both in the case of Jackson and that of Crolius—assuming, of course, that both men were taken by the same monster."
"Then," I said, "you are of the opinion that this little creature in the mortar is a miniature replica of the thing that took Jackson?"
"That," said the .professor, "is only problematical. It may be of an entirely different form. To draw an analogy from a creature well known to science, and probably the one most closely resembling this creature with which we have to deal, take the chrysaora, a kind of jellyfish. In one state of its existence it is a minute, flat, worm-like affair. This eventually settles down on the sea bottom and turns into a hydra—a tube-like organism with threads. The hydra not only reproduces many other hydras, but eventually turns into the segmented strobila, like a stack of saucers. This, in turn, produces the free-swimming disk-shaped medusa, which is the adult jellyfish.
"But while the Jellyfish is in the hydra stage, many strange monsters, entirely different in appearance from any of these creatures, have been produced by artificial division. For that reason it is possible that the individual we have here is nothing like the parent from which it sprang. The fact that the creature more nearly resembles a jellyfish than any other earthly creature—that it is in fact a sort of medusa of the air—makes this analogy all the more plausible."
He pushed the few remaining posterior segments of the earthworm into contact with the trailing tentacle, then watched reflectively while the creature, drawing its umbrella-like cap down to the morsel, slowly consumed it.
Scarcely had the last trace of the earthworm disappeared, ere the creature rose once more, but this time it was able to lift the weight of the tentacle, and started to float upward like a toy balloon dragging the string to which it is attached.
Galvanized into action by this unexpected development, the professor jumped for a butterfly net which was hanging on a hook near-by. His swift motion evidently attracted the creature, for it darted after him, its long original tentacle as well as the shorter ones it was developing, outstretching toward him. But despite his age, the professor was as dexterous through long practice with a butterfly net as is many a younger man with a racquet or foil, and with a quick movement he brought it down over his quarry.
On a table In one corner of the room was a large, finely meshed cage. This cage contained a half dozen cocoons and three large, brightly colored cecropia moths which had just emerged, and which the professor had confined for later observation.
Opening the door of the cage, the professor pushed in the butterfly net, permitting his captive to float up out of the meshes. Then, removing the net, he closed the door and watched the thing floating about in the air near the top of the cage, while he mopped from his brow the perspiration which his sudden and unaccustomed exertions had engendered.
"I suppose the thing will eat my cecropias," he said, "but in the meantime we may learn something more of the habits of this medusa of the air."
Scarcely had he spoken, ere one of the cecropias spread its newly opened wings and started to fly across the cage. With a quick dart, the medusa pounced upon it, and its tentacles wound themselves around the fat, soft body. For a few seconds, the moth fluttered helplessly—then it fell to the floor of the cage, while the wiry tentacles of its remorseless enemy sank deeper and deeper into its yielding thorax and abdomen.
It was the professor who first noticed that the medusa—for such we had begun to call it—no longer depended on its tentacles for the absorption of its food, but had developed a number of small, slightly projecting sucker mouths which all but covered the under surface of the cap. With these it was able to assimilate much more rapidly than before.
In an incredibly short space of time the cecropia had completely disappeared, while the medusa, its cap now doubled in size and its tentacles uniformly about three inches in length, slowly floated about the cage, the frilled edges of its cap rippling like thin fabric stirred by a breeze, but actually doing the work of propelling the creature through the air.
"What do you suppose makes it float?" I asked.
"I've been wondering," replied the professor. "Possibly it has the power to generate a gas lighter than air, which keeps it up. It might, for example, have the power to separate the pure hydrogen gas from the moisture in the air. By Jove! If that is it—"
The professor hastily secured a large test tube, a razor-sharp scalpel, and his butterfly net. Cautiously opening the door of the cage, he inserted the net and soon had the medusa in its folds. Immersing the creature in a large pan of water, he held the inverted, water-filled test tube down over it, and sliding the scalpel under the edge, inserted it in the creature's cap. A tiny bubble arose in the tube.
The professor plunged the scalpel into a different spot, and another bubble traveled to the top of the tube, the creature's arms writhing meanwhile like a nest of snakes. Again and again he pricked the cap until about a half inch of water in the test tube was displaced by gas.
Permitting the rest of the water to run out of the tube, and tossing the medusa back into the cage, where it no longer floated about in the air, but lay writhing and squirming on the floor, the professor carried the tube, still inverted, to a nearby table.
"If this is hydrogen, Dick," he said, "I've found a way to rid the world of this menace."
"How is that?"
"By fire," he answered. "A spark, a shell, a rocket, or an explosive bullet will turn each creature into a roaring furnace of flame."
Standing the inverted tube on the table for a moment, he picked it up with a test tube holder. Then he lighted a taper and held the flame in the mouth of the tube. Nothing happened. He thrust the flame still higher. It sputtered and went out.
"No use, Dick," he said. "Had that been hydrogen, we should have had a small explosion. It's something else. I'll have to make further tests."
Still keeping the tube inverted, he inserted a rubber stopper in the mouth. Then he stood it upside down on the table.
At this moment- Sue entered through the door which led to the drawing room.
"Mother and I just heard fearful news on the radio," she said. "Thirty-six airplanes in various parts of the country have crashed. The occupants have not been found. More than a hundred people have disappeared while driving their automobiles, and most of the machines have been wrecked as a consequence. Recognizing the fact that something in the air must have snatched these people from their, machines, the government has sent scout and combat planes to investigate. Similar reports have been received from Canada and Mexico, and the air forces of these two countries are patrolling the skies in an effort to learn the cause of the mystery. What does it mean? What can we do?"
"It means," said the professor soberly, "that I must get in touch with the War Department at once and tell them what little I know. Then I must, somehow, continue my experiments."
AFTER DINNER the professor and I returned to his laboratory. He had called the War Department, and supplied them with such information as he had.
We found the caged medusa more than doubled in size, floating about as if searching for more prey. The cecropias had all been devoured. The punctures made by the professor's scalpel had disappeared, and the cells which he had deflated were not only increased in size proportionately to the animal's growth, but completely filled out with gas once more.
While I watched it moving about, the professor tested the gas which he had confined in the tube. Presently he called to me:
"I've found it, Dick. It's helium. How the creature obtains it so rapidly is a mystery to me, as there are only four parts to every million parts of air, and proportions in its organic food must be very slight. But it is unmistakably helium, so fire will only be effective against it in such local areas as it can reach directly."
"But what about explosive shells?" I asked.
"The monsters could be blown into fragments. of course," he replied, "but remember, each fragment would become a new monster. Fighting these giant medusae of the skies with shells would simply mean multiplying them."
"Then what can we do?" I asked.
"That," he replied, "is what we must find out as quickly as possible. In order to do this we must take some risks. We must experiment and observe until we can find the weak spot in this creature's defense. I am about, to sacrifice to- morrow's roast for the good of the cause."
So saying, he went out, and I heard him talking to the cook in the kitchen. A moment later he returned with a raw leg of lamb which he thrust into the cage.
The medusa, evidently attracted by the movement, soared downward, tentacles extended, as we had previously seen it do when attracted by the motion of organic matter. A tentacle touched the raw meat and in a moment the creature had settled down over the roast to feed.
The professor sighed.
"My favorite food," he said, "but it is going in a good cause. And we have, so the cook tells me, a smoked ham which will go well with some fresh eggs."
The medusa fed noiselessly, but with apparent voracity. As the meat dwindled in bulk, the body of the medusa increased in size, its tentacles lengthened proportionately.
Almost before we realized it, the body of the creature was more than a foot in diameter, while the tentacles had reached a length of nearly eighteen inches, yet the roast was not more than half consumed. Then a queer thing happened. The cage began to fill with vapor—silvery white like a cirrus cloud on which the sun is shining. And I began to grow increasingly conscious of a sickening, musty odor like that I had noticed at the wreck of Jackson's plane.
The professor, alert scientist that he was, seized a glass tube and a rubber plug for each end. Then he rushed out into the Kitchen. A few moments later he returned with the tube packed full of crushed ice. He wiped it thoroughly with a towel, then opened the door of the cage and thrust the tube into the densest part of the vapor.
When he withdrew it, it was covered with large drops of moisture.
These he scraped into a test tube which he held up to the light for a moment, shaking it slightly as if to note its viscosity. Then he went to the table, put it in a test tube rack, and quickly prepared a number of solutions in other tubes. Into each of these he dropped a minute quantity of the liquid he had collected—pausing in each instance to note the result.
In watching him, I had forgotten to keep an eye on the cage. Presently I thought of it once more and turned to look at it. To my surprise I saw that it was completely hidden by a dense cloud of vapor—a disk-shaped cloud that was a perfect miniature copy of that into which Pilot Jackson had plunged, never to emerge.
The professor looked up from his experiments.
"Water, Dick," he said, "nothing but water. The mystery is, how is it able to collect and hold a cloud symmetrically around it? I rather suspect—"
He paused in amazement as he suddenly noticed how large and dense the cloud had become around the cage.
"Why, this is astounding, Dick," he said. "I had no idea it could grow so huge on a few pounds of meat. Perhaps we had better—"
He was interrupted this time by a rending crash, which came from the interior of the cloud. Then it rose toward the ceiling, and on the table our startled eyes saw the remains of the cage with its four sides bulged out, its top tilted back, and its frame splintered. Lying on the bottom of the cage, as white as if it had been kiln-dried, was the leg bone which had been in the roast.
The disk-shaped cloud, now nearly four feet in diameter, was floating around the edges of the ceiling, evidently looking for a means of egress from the room. Beneath it trailed more than a hundred squirming, wriggling tentacles, partly concealed by several little ragged streamers of vapor.
"Don't move, Dick," said the professor softly. "We are both in deadly peril. I have a plan."
Slowly, cautiously, he reached beneath the table. He groped there for a moment, then brought out a gasoline blowtorch, Turning a valve, he filled the generator. Then he struck a match and ignited it.
I noticed that when he made the quick motion necessary for the lighting of the match, the tentacles of the creature floating above us suddenly extended toward him as if attracted by the movement.
The professor noted this, also, and worked the air pump of the torch slowly and carefully, while he kept an eye on the medusa. The creature had halted, its tentacles still extended toward him, as if undecided whether to attack or not. Presently it began to float slowly in his direction.
Knowing that he would be unable to get his torch going in time to use it effectively, I looked about for a weapon. Across the room, at a distance of about ten feet from me, was the professor's golf bag. The driver and brassie reared their heads invitingly above the other clubs. If I could but get one of them!
The medusa drew nearer and nearer to the professor, who coolly continued to work the pressure pump. The torch began to roar, but I knew it would not be in operation for at least another half minute, and the exploring tentacles were now less than a foot from the Scientist.
Had I been content to move slowly, I might have averted that which followed. But I arose with rash haste and leaped toward the golf clubs.
Before I could make a second move, with a suddenness that was appalling, the monster pounced on me. At the first touch of those wiry tentacles I felt a terrific shock, as if a powerful electric current had passed through my body. Every muscle was numbed, stiffened. I was unable to move a finger.
A second shock followed—a third. There was a roaring in my ears; there rose a penetrating stench like that of burning feathers. I could feel the wiry tentacles biting into my flesh, yet the numbing waves that came from them rendered the wounds almost painless.
The roaring sound increased. I heard a horrible, wailing shriek. Then things went black before my eyes and I lost consciousness.
WHEN I came to my senses once more, I was lying on a davenport in the drawing- room. The professor was holding a phial of some pungent aromatic beneath my nostrils, while Sue and Mrs. Davis chafed my hands.
I blinked, sat up, and tried to remember what had happened. Then it all came back to me—the grip of wiry tentacles, the roaring sound, the numbing shocks, the sickening stench, and that horrible shriek. I remembered it as sounding something between the wail of a steam siren and the scream Of a woman.
"Better lie down for a while, Dick," cautioned the professor. "You've had a narrow escape. If that animated galvanic battery had been just a little more powerful you could never have recovered from those shocks."
I leaned back on the cushions, for it made me giddy to sit up.
"I passed out when the thing screamed, or at least I thought it screamed," I said. "What followed?"
"When you thought it screamed," said the professor, "you were right. It screamed not once, but again and again. It roared before it screamed. Didn't you hear it roar?"
"I heard a roaring sound," I replied. "I didn't know whether it was made by the torch or the creature."
"Possibly it was both," said the professor. "The roaring of the monster sounded very like the roaring of the torch, except that it was louder. It began to roar as soon as its tentacles touched you. I could tell by the spasmodic jerking of your muscles that it was sending ah electric current through your body, and quite a powerful one.
"There are a few animals already known to science which have this power. Some of them are deep sea creatures, but the electric eel of Brazil is the most striking example. This eel, when its electrical organs are fully charged, is said to be capable of rendering a man or a large animal unconscious from electric shock. So it is not surprising that this creature, so many times larger than the largest electric eel, was able to do the same for you with a number of shocks.
"My torch began to function just as the creature attacked you, and I first tried to rescue you by burning off the wiry tentacles. But it had so many of these in reserve that the task seemed endless. I, too, was attacked and had the creature's store- of electrical energy not been depleted by the shocks it had sent through your body, it is probable that both of us would have been rendered unconscious and ultimately devoured. As it was, I was rapidly becoming helplessly entangled in the tentacles, so I turned the torch on the monster's body. It was then that it shrieked—not once, but many times. The volume of its terrible voice was astounding; its weird tones were horrible to hear!
"But the torch finally won. All the tentacles let go except those which had been burned off, and the thing, after bumping around on the walls for a time, flew against the window screen with such force that it was ripped from the frame. Then it disappeared, still screaming weirdly, into the night.
"I made a very weak solution of prussic acid and painted the remaining tentacles with this. There were quite a few around your arms, legs and body. One also was tightly'bound around your forehead. All relaxed instantly when the solution' was applied. I then used it on the tentacles which still clung to me, after which Wong and I carried you here."
"Was it prussic acid solution you used on my finger this morning?" I asked. "That stuff that had a bitter almond odor?"
"That was it," replied the professor. "Prussic acid has a paralyzing effect on the nervous system. It is a good thing that I learned, this morning, that it will cause the tentacles of these creatures to relax. It would have been dangerous to have had to experiment with the longer tentacles in the position they had gripped you this evening."
"I have always thought," I said, "that the touch of prussic acid to the human skin was poisonous, particularly to a cut surface, and that one whiff of the fumes was usually deadly."*
"So it is," replied the professor. "In a sufficiently strong solution it would be deadly to apply it to an abraded skin, arid' one whiff of prussic or hydrocyanic acid gas is usually lethal. But the solution I used was diluted sufficiently to make it safe for application to the human skin, or even to an open wound. I purposely made a weak solution this morning, intending to make it a little stronger if necessary, but as you saw, it worked."
At this moment, Wong entered with a tea tray and a steaming pot of fragrant Darjeeling.
I sat up for my cup of tea, and we discussed the strange incidents of the day.
Then Mrs. Davis ordered us all to bed with a firmness that would not be gainsaid.
EARLY the next morning Wong awakened me with a gentle knock at my door, and upon my bidding him enter, brought me a demi-tasse and cigarettes.
"Plofessey Davis like see you along lab'toly plenty quick," he said.
"Tell him I'll be right down," I replied.
I dressed and hurried downstairs. The professor was waiting in his laboratory.
"Dick," he said, "something has happened since last evening that has, it seems to me, a rather sinister significance. I haven't told my wife or Sue, as I don't wish to alarm them."
"What has happened?" I asked.
"Come with me," he replied. "I told my wife you and I were going for a walk, so we can go out without arousing her suspicion. Sue, I believe, is still sleeping. The poor child is exhausted after the ordeal of yesterday."
After threading our way among the various outbuildings, we entered the lane between a corn and wheat field which led to the pasture. Traversing the lane, we came to the pasture itself. Sue and I had crossed it only the day before, and it had revealed at that time, only the undulating, blue grass.
But overnight there had sprouted, near Its center, a colony of gray-white growths, varying in height from three to nearly twelve feet. They were roughly cylindrical In shape, and their tops were fringed with squirming, wiry tentacles, some of which reached nearly to the ground, while others stood at various angles at or near the horizontal, and still others reached skyward.
That the movements of the tentacles were not due to the morning breeze was quite evident from the fact that they moved in all directions. The cylindrical stalks, also, bent in various directions from time to time, almost as if they were bowing to each other, and those that bent toward us revealed cavernous openings at their tops, greatly resembling the mouths of anemones.
The wind, blowing from them to us, carried the revolting charnel smell that had become so familiar to us.
"What are they?" I asked.
"You know as much as I," replied the professor. "They may be one of the life phases of the cloud-medusae. From the similarity of their tentacles, and the analogy we have in our submarine medusae, as well as the similar, I might say identical stench that emanates from them, I am inclined to think this is the case. Yet they might be a totally different race of creatures, which have traveled to us simultaneously with the medusae, from the space wanderer which we believe is responsible for this unprecedented invasion. Only a careful observation of them will tell."
While we were talking, Jake Smith, the professor's farm hand, approached, driving a herd of cattle before him with the assistance of a young collie. The racket they made—the clatter of hoofs, the bawling of cattle and calves, the barking of the dog, and the shouts of the man-seemed to have a magnetic effect on the strange growths before us, for instantly all bent toward the herd, mouths gaping and tentacles wriggling menacingly.
With the herd were three calves which showed a tendency to wander. While the collie was bringing in one of these strays another got away and scampered straight toward the mysterious growths. As it drew near them, all bent toward it, and when it would have run between two of the tallest, the nearer, arching its cylindrical stem like a striking serpent, suddenly pounced upon it and bore it struggling and bawling, aloft, hopelessly entangled in the myriad tentacles.
Then the mother cow, evidently attracted by the cries of distress of her doomed offspring, dashed after it. By the time she reached the thing that held her calf aloft, the little creature's cries had ceased. She ran helplessly around the stem for a moment, then backed up as if about to charge it head on. But she backed within range of the tentacles of three more of the horrible monstrosities, which instantly bent over and seized her, holding her helpless.
The farm hand and dog rushed after her, but the man was warned off by the professor, and he succeeded in calling off the dog before it was too late.
"Go back to the house, Dick," said the professor. "Bring my blowtorch as quickly as you can. Also my twelve-gauge pump gun and twelve-gauge double barrel, with as many shells as you can carry. I'll stay here and watch. Hurry!"
As fast as my legs would carry me, I dashed toward the house. I found the professor's blowtorch in the laboratory where he had left it the night before; and having gone shooting with him many times, I knew where to find the weapons.
Slipping into a hunting coat, I loaded the game pockets with the torch and all the ammunition they would safely bear. Then, taking the two guns, I hurried back to the pasture.
The professor had. approached to within fifty feet of the outer line of monsters. One of these, the one which had captured the calf, had grown considerably taller. Whereas it had been about twelve feet in height before, it was now nearer eighteen and still growing. The remains of the calf, still clutched to the mouth-like opening at the top, were barely visible as a rounded, dark mass showing here and there in the wilderness of tentacles which surrounded it.
The three creatures that had captured the cow had also increased in size, and what we could see of the helpless bovine had dwindled tremendously. They continued their arched position over the carcass, feeding noiselessly, and apparently without any competition among themselves, unless it was one of speed.
"Quick!" said the professor. "Give me the torch. I can be generating it while you load the gun."
I handed him the torch and proceeded to load the two shotguns.
"What can we do with shotguns against these monsters?" I asked.
"Nothing, at present," he replied, lighting the generator of the torch and working the pressure pump, "but if a certain theory of mine is correct we will soon have considerable use for them."
"Which gun do you want?" I asked.
"The double barrel," he replied. "When you start you will probably have to shoot straight and often. I only want the double barrel in case of an emergency, as I plan to use the torch. Give me about a dozen extra shells."
I HANDED him the shells, and he put them in his pockets after looking at the wadded ends.
"Number fours," he said. "About as good as any, I guess. Did you bring nothing but fours?"
"I also brought a dozen loads of buckshot," I replied, "and one box of number twos."
"We'll try the fours first, at any rate," he said. "Now I want you to watch the creature that captured the calf."
I looked, and saw that it had now reached a height of about twenty feet. Its victim seemed entirely consumed. But the startling thing I noticed was the strange metamorphosis that was taking place in the shape of the creature itself. The cylindrical body seemed to be separating into a number of disk- shaped segments, piled one on top of the other like stacked dishes. Tentacles were beginning to branch out from the top of each segment.
"If I am not mistaken," said the professor, "the top segment will presently arise and sail away, or rather attempt to sail away, for as soon as it flies clear of the others, I want you to shoot it down. If it is far enough from them to make it safe for me to approach it, I can then destroy it with the torch."
It was not long before a dense cloud of vapor formed around the top segment. Suddenly it rose and turned over, dropping the whitened bones of the calf. Then it sailed slowly away over the heads of its fellows, its wiry tentacles trailing below. As soon as it was beyond range of their tentacles,"I fired into the most dense part of the cloud. It dipped slightly. Again I fired, and it slowly sank to the ground.
"Watch the next one," shouted the professor, running to the one I had brought down, torch in one hand and shotgun in the other. "Don't let any of them get away."
As he turned his torch on the writhing, squirming mass that lay on the ground, it gave vent to a shriek similar to the one which had rung in my ears the night before. Again and again it shrieked under the relentless flame. The noise distracted my attention for a moment and I looked back at the monster I was supposed to be watching, just in time to see a second cloud-covered medusa sail away. Two shots brought this one to the ground as they had the former. Meanwhile the shrieks of the first creature ceased and the professor moved on to the second to start another pandemonium with his searing torch.
Pushing four more shells into the magazine, I waited for the next medusa to arise. The farm hand had, meanwhile, come up with another blowtorch and a double-barreled shotgun.
"The professor told me to pen up the cows and bring these," he said.
"Light your torch," I told him. "As soon as you get it going you can help the professor."
"What in tarnation's he burnin'?" asked Smith, priming his own torch. "Smells like feathers or old shoes, or somethin'."
"It's worse than either," I replied. "When you get your torch going I'll show you what to do."
Before the farm hand succeeded in getting his torch to roaring, two more medusae arose, and I brought them down. But, unfortunately, I fired at one too soon and it fell among its treelike fellows where the professor did not dare to approach it.
The professor was searing his fourth medusa when I shot down the sixth, telling Smith to watch the professor, then imitate him.
Before the seventh arose, the fifth, which I had shot down among the others, got up once more, thus affording me a demonstration of the marvelous recuperative powers of these creatures. Although I must have riddled and emptied practically every helium-filled cell in its body, it had closed the rent and refilled them in this marvelously short space of time. This time I was careful not to shoot until it had cleared its treelike fellows.
Twenty flying medusae in all arose from the stalk that had devoured the calf. When I had shot down the last one, I saw that the three creatures that had seized the cow had relinquished her dry bones, and were also forming into segments. It was evident that I would have to do some fast shooting when these segments started to fly.
Before the first one arose, Sue came cantering up on Blue Streak, her favorite saddle horse. It was her custom to ride each morning before breakfast, and hearing the shooting, she had ridden out to investigate.
"What are these things, and what in the world are you doing?" she asked.
"They are medusae passing through one of their life stages," I replied, "and I'm shooting them down as fast as they start to fly, while your father and the hired man kill them with the torches."
"Can't I help you?" she asked. "Please let me do something."
"My supply of shells is running low," I said. "You might dash back to the house and get me as many as you can carry—fours, twos, and threes."
"Splendid!" she replied, wheeling her mount. "I'll bring my gun, too, and help you."
I had thought to keep her out of danger for the time being by sending her back to the house, but to my horror, the first three disks from the three monsters that had devoured the cow, rose, turned over, and sailed after her, evidently attracted by the rapid movement of her mount.
I brought down the foremost with two quick shots, but in my haste and anxiety I missed the second, so I was forced to waste two more charges on it. I fired my last shot at the third, causing it to sag slightly, then pushed another shell into the magazine and quickly pumped it into the chamber. But to my horror I saw that I dared not fire again. The medusa was now so close to Sue that to fire would mean that she and her mount must surely be struck.
Shouting to the others to attract their attention, I started after Sue on the run. But before I had taken a dozen steps I groaned in anguish as I saw the monster dart downward, its tentacles encircling horse and rider. The roaring sound which it made as it attacked was punctuated by screams of pain and terror from girl and horse as the electrically charged tentacles seized them.
"Turn your horse, Sue!" I shouted. "Ride this way!"
But Sue was by this time enveloped in the dense cloud which surrounded the monster's disk-like body.
THE medusa was clinging tenaciously to horse and rider when I shouted to Sue to turn her mount. She must have heard me, for the horse suddenly wheeled and came galloping in my direction.
I could not see Sue, who was completely enveloped by the cloud which surrounded her attacker, but knew that she must be struggling frantically in its clutches, from the way it moved.
Calling to Blue Streak, I seized his bridle, but he was so terrified he dragged me fully a hundred feet before I could bring him to a stop.
In the meantime the professor and Smith arrived with their guns and torches. They started in at once, burning the writhing tentacles first. This frightened the horse still more, and he pranced while I clung to the bridle.
It only took the two men a few minutes to get Sue out of the saddle and destroy the shrieking creature that had attacked her, but to me those minutes seemed like hours. She was unconscious, apparently from the electrical shocks. Giving Smith the reins to hold, I helped the professor as he bent over her, painting the tentacles that still encircled her body and arms with diluted prussic acid from the bottle he had in his pocket.
As I was chafing her hands, I saw the last of the medusae rise and sail away, avoiding us—probably because of the smell of its burned comrade. They had all escaped while we were fighting to save Sue. We took her to the house, where we left her under her mother's care.
That afternoon I drove to Sterling in the professor's sedan to get some oxyacetylene torches which we planned to use as weapons of defense. As I sped along over the smooth concrete pavement I was surprised and horrified at the number of colonies of stalk medusae that had sprung up overnight. Some of the cornfields were nearly obliterated by them. And in a few of the pastures I saw individuals undergoing the metamorphosis which indicated that they had been well fed.
Upon my arrival in Sterling, I stopped at a garage which I knew did welding, and tried to buy an outfit from them. They had only one, which was not for sale, but referred me to a wholesaler who would sell me as many outfits as I wanted.
I repaired to the office of the wholesaler, and bought three outfits with extra drums of gas, which I loaded into the back of the sedan. The wholesaler told me that the government had issued a warning to use only closed automobiles and airships. Several medusae, he said, had been shot down with anti-aircraft guns, but no means had been devised of dispatching them after they fell, and they had eventually escaped. Machine gun bullets fired from airplanes, he said, had proved ineffective, although some of the medusae thus attacked had been noticed to fly erratically or sink slightly for a time.
The medusae, he said, had spread to every continent of the world, and an international conference was being held for the purpose of devising a method of combating this menace to humanity.
I stopped at a grocery store and filled every available space in the car with bacon, ham, flour and canned goods. Then, after buying all the papers I could get containing news of the latest developments of the medusae invasion, I took to the highway.'
I got back to the farmhouse without Incident, but the proximity of the stalk medusae to the edges of the road made it evident that another such trip would soon be out of the question.
Smith and the professor met me as I drove up. The latter looked into the tonneau.
"Got three outfits, I see, and a supply of groceries. Good boy! We'll need them. Let Smith have the car, now, and come up to the house."
I got out, glad to stretch my cramped limbs, and turned the wheel over to Smith.
As the professor and I walked to the house together, he said:
"I've been watching these stalk medusae, and have not only learned something about their feeding habits, but how they begin life on our earth."
"Really!" I replied. "That's important. Tell me about it."
"Yes. They begin life as microscopic, ribbon-like spores—the probable form in which, they left Green's comet to colonize our earth. The weight of one of these spores, even in proportion to its minute size, is so infinitesimal that it can float for great distances in even the slightest air currents. It seems, also, to have some electromagnetic faculty which enables it to seize and utilize magnetic lines of force, thus making it possible for it to travel in interplanetary and interstellar space. Its presence here seems to indicate that it has this power, and I have found it is unharmed by liquid air, which approaches the cold of space.
"As the creature reproduces by division, a single spore arriving on any stellar body where life and growth are possible can quickly colonize that body.
"Having arrived on earth, I find that a spore immediately sends roots into the soil like a plant, but that it also extends its tentacles in the air in search of animal food. It thus feeds above and below the soil, becoming the stalk medusa so horribly familiar to us. When it reaches a certain size, each stalk turns into twenty saucer-shaped disks, which soon become flying medusae.
"At my suggestion, the government is now experimenting with flame throwers as a means for combating the menace. They are efficient for short distances, and in such limited areas as can be covered by them, but they are far from being the solution of our problem. We must find some other, swifter way. I have ordered some supplies sent from Washington for -the purpose of experimenting along these lines. They are being shipped to our local airport. But it will- be difficult, if not impossible, to get them, as the roads are now blocked by the medusae, as well as the fields and pastures."
"Can't they fly over us and drop them?" I asked.
"As the shipment will contain some very powerful explosives, I'm afraid that wouldn't be practical," said the professor.
AT THIS juncture Smith came in to report that the oxyacetylene outfits were ready to use, and that quite a number of stalk medusae were springing up around the house.
The professor and 1 went out and found that Smith had rigged up the outfits quite ingeniously. Each one was installed on a wheelbarrow with the nozzle fastened on the end of a twelve-foot bamboo pole. This pole was laid across a rack which Smith had built on the front of the vehicle, enabling a man to move the outfit about without having to hold onto the pole or turn out the gas.
Each of us took one of the outfits and immediately began the war of extermination against the stalk medusae surrounding the house and other buildings. It was slow work, as there were thousands of them. But after several hours of strenuous endeavor, we had spaces cleared around the buildings wide enough to forestall any immediate attacks from the creatures.
We then turned our weapons over to the three remaining farm hands, who, under Smith's supervision, began widening the clear space we had made. The professor and I returned to the house.
Scarcely had we entered the drawing room when the voice of a very excellent soprano who was singing over the radio was suddenly stilled, and an announcer cut in:
"Sorry to have to interrupt the program," he said, "but I have just received an important announcement by telephone. The Chicago air scouts report that an immense number of the flying, cloud-hidden monsters that are menacing the world are congregating far out over Lake Michigan. The attention of the scout fleet was first drawn to them by hideous, howling noises, so loud that even at a distance of a mile they were easily audible above the roaring of the airplane propellers. Upon investigating, the scouts saw the monsters forming in a long line not more than two hundred feet above the lake.
"These strange creatures appeared to be carrying on an intelligent conversation with each other by means of terrific howls, and at times, seemed to be silenced by a leader, which addressed them all collectively. They are now bearing down on the City of Chicago, and every person is warned to stay within doors, keeping all doors and windows closed.
"Regardless of the heat, fires should be immediately kindled in all furnaces, boilers, stoves and fireplaces as a measure of defense. It is thought that the smoke, cinders and sparks may be distasteful to the monsters, and the fire will keep them from reaching down chimneys with their deadly tentacles. Our air force is trying to break up the line by dropping bombs on it, but as fast as a gap is opened the creatures close it once more. Take heed, everybody, on peril of your lives! Stay inside. Keep doors and windows locked. Build fires."
"Just as I feared," said the professor. "These creatures from another world, perhaps from another universe are more intelligent than they at first appeared to be. They are beginning, now, to work in groups—to exercise their intelligence as well as their instinct for the capture of food. Man has proved a wily and elusive food morsel, so they are uniting forces and trawling for him. Think of it, Dick! A group of monsters from outside space trawling for men, exactly as men trawl for fish! Seems absolutely incredible, doesn't it?"
"It does," I answered. "It also seems impossible that they should have suddenly begun talking to each other. So far we have heard, none of these creatures talked to each other before."
"I don't see anything so surprising about that," said the professor. "We discovered that they had voices, and powerful ones, when I burned the one that attacked you. It is quite possible that, although endowed with voices as soon as they reach the flying stage, they do not actually learn to converse until they reach a certain stage of development. This is true of all creatures with voices—true of man himself.
"A peculiarity of the flying medusae is that they make no sound when cut or blown to pieces. Cutting, puncturing or tearing them evidently does not hurt them. They seem to know, instinctively, that it will not kill them, but that it works actually as a form of artificial reproduction by fission, as each fragment will eventually become a new individual. Burning, however, is different. Burning destroys the living tissues beyond repair. And when they are burned, they shriek. They evidently know that burning means death."
The professor paused, then spoke very solemnly: "Dick, we have a greater menace in the medusae than even I, who recognized their extremely dangerous character from the first, ever thought possible. There is no telling how intelligent they are, or what faculties they can develop in adapting themselves to terrestrial environment. It is evident that the adults, at least, have auditory organs. They could not converse vocally without them.
"They apparently have a sense of smell, also, by which they locate their prey. The swift motion of the prey evidently aids this sense, just as waving a bottle of perfume beneath the nostrils makes the aroma more rapidly perceptible than when it is held still.
"They have, I have concluded, no organs of sight—or only imperfectly developed ones. No doubt the comet on which we believe they came has been away from the sun for so many thousands of years that its surface was constantly in darkness. The light from the meteoroids of the coma, when they are made incandescent by passage through the upper regions of the comet's atmosphere, could scarcely penetrate the thick clouds which our astronomers observed any better than they could penetrate an exceedingly dim twilight. Under the circumstances, organs of sight would have been useless, and would probably have atrophied had the creatures originally possessed them.
"It may be that under the conditions which they find on our planet, these monsters will be able to develop their organs of sight. Nor have we plumbed the limit of their intelligence. They may, for all we know, be as intelligent as man himself, or more so."
At this moment Wong entered, and bowed obsequiously.
Captain Felton like make talk Plofessey Davis a long telumphone," he announced.
"Excuse me," said the professor. "It's probably news of the supplies from Washington."
He went to the writing desk and picked up the receiver-transmitter.
"Yes, captain? They are here, you say? I don't know how I'll be able to get them.
"All right, captain."
Putting down the phone, he turned to me.
"Don't be foolhardy, Dick," he said. "You can't go to that airport on the ground, and you have no means of flying there. Why, the attempt would be suicidal!"
"Nevertheless," I replied, "I have a plan for getting through, and I believe I can make it work."
MY PLANS for making the trip to the airport did not include the use of either the automobile or the road. The land leading to the highway was now almost a solid mass of stalk medusae, and the highway itself had been declared impassable, blocked as it was by the interlacing tentacles which grew clear up to the edge of the concrete. I did have a plan however, which I thought quite capable of being carried into effect.
Among the farm implements was a powerful caterpillar tractor. When I told the professor that I intended to use it and take a short cut across the fields, he was dumbfounded.
"Why, Dick, that would be fatal. There isn't even a cab over it for protection. I can't think of permitting it."
"What if I turn it into a tank first?" I asked.
"Into a tank? How?"
"There are plenty of materials and tools. The old chicken house you tore down had a sheet metal roof. Fastened on two-by-fours and well braced, this will make a cab that will be as good a protection as a closed automobile. And with a few lights of glass from your greenhouse we can make a windshield that will answer our purpose. With one man driving and another using an acetylene torch, we can go through almost anything short of a stone wall. The torch will not only burn any medusae that may impede our progress, but will cut through the wire fences."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the professor. "It sounds feasible enough. Get Smith to help you build that tank. I suppose it will take several days, but the thing will be almost invincible, once it is constructed."
"I don't think it will take two of us long to build," I answered. "We should have it ready for the trip by tomorrow afternoon."
"If you do, so much the better," said the professor. "Go ahead, and while you are at it, I'll do some more experimenting."
Smith and I set to work on our tank shortly thereafter. The other farm hands, reinforced at times by the professor, kept after the stalk medusae that continued to sprout near the buildings, using the acetylene torches. But just outside the little circle kept cleared around the buildings was a solid forest of stalk medusae that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. And the air was heavy with the sickening, musty stench that exuded from their silver-gray bodies and deadly tentacles.
While Smith and I worked on our tank, Sue came out from time to time to tell us , of the latest developments as announced on the radio. Once die brought us lemonade, and again, tea, sandwiches and cakes.
According to the latest reports, the medusae had adopted their trawling tactics everywhere. Yet they appeared to be aware that their intended prey was thickest in the cities, and swooped down on them in great numbers.
Some cities were approached during fogs or rainstorms when the coming of the medusae went unnoticed, and as a result, thousands of people perished. Even the smallest towns and villages had their lookouts posted, and when a suspicious cloud was sighted whistles were blown, bells rung, and shots fired, in order that everyone might seek cover.
Thousands of stalk medusae were sprouting in city lawns and parks, and as a result every fire-making apparatus that could be secured was pressed into use.
It was not until after dinner that night that we heard for the first time of individual medusae attacking closed houses, insinuating their fine tentacles through crevices around windows and doors, keyholes, or any other openings, until they were able to find and kill the inmates by terrific electrical shocks; after absorbing them through the tentacles alone, they would move on again in search of other prey.
Householders were warned to keep torches ready, to have fires going at all times, and to keep soldering irons, pokers, tongs and shovels red-hot, to be used in case of attack. They were warned, also, that when touching a tentacle with a metal object they should wear rubbers and either insulate the grip of the weapon they were using or wear rubber gloves.
That night we took turns watching, the professor, Smith, Wong, and I, with the furnace going full blast and every window and door tightly closed. As it was unusually warm we made a most uncomfortable night of it.
It was three o'clock on the following afternoon before Smith and I were ready to start across the fields to the airport in our tank.
Smith, who had handled tractors for many years, was to do the driving, while I managed the torch. In addition to these weapons and the pump-gun, we carried a bottle of dilute prussic acid solution and a small brush to be used for removing any tentacles that might wrap themselves around us. My right arm, which projected from the side of the cab through a hole cut especially for the purpose, was protected by sheet metal armor, and my hand, with which I grasped the pole to which the nozzle was fastened, was covered by a heavy leather gauntlet to which Sue had stitched tiny overlapping plates of metal.
Sue, Mrs. Davis, the professor, and the entire entourage were present to see us off.
Farewells and godspeeds were said, and we lumbered off across the barnyard and into the pasture lane.
At the mouth of the lane we encountered our first stalk medusae. They bent down to receive us, and their writhing tentacles whipped menacingly around us. But the tractor knocked the stalks down and trundled over them, almost as if they had not been there, while the spurting acetylene flame instantly severed every tentacle it touched.
We made slow but steady progress, leaving a writhing, squirming, stinking trail of crushed and scorched medusae behind us. After we crossed the pasture we cut our first fence with the acetylene torch, and entered what had been the clover field.
As I looked at the weird, unearthly landscape, I was struck by its ..contrast with the pleasant scene it had presented two days before, when I had lain in the speckled shade of the hackberry tree listening to the bees droning in the sweet-scented clover while Sue wove a garland of blossoms.
Where the clover had been, the ground was dry and bare between the ugly, tentacle-crowned, silver-gray stalks. The hackberry tree, stripped of its leaves and drained of its sap, stood a gaunt, lifeless skeleton, its bare limbs stretched heavenward as if in a plea for vengeance on its merciless destroyers.
The droning of the bees, the chirping of the crickets, and singing of birds—all were stilled, to be replaced by one monotonous and sinister sound— the rustling of countless millions of writhing, squirming tentacles. And the pleasant fragrance of clover and wild-flowers had given away to the disgusting decay-smell of the medusae.
We lumbered slowly across the former clover field, cut a second fence, and entered the pasture in which Pilot Jackson had crashed two days before. Here we found more and larger medusae than we had previously encountered, and our progress was for a time considerably retarded But we got across at last, cut a third fence, and entered what had once been a cornfield.. Like the other fields we had crossed, it was completely denuded of vegetation by the rankly growing crop of the invaders from the moon.
As we approached the airport we saw with relief that the landing field had been kept clear of medusae. A squad of men using a flame thrower were kept busy destroying such sprouts as cropped up from time to time.
The surface of the entire field was blackened by the repeated burning to which it had been subjected.
When we cut our last fence and entered the landing field, we were greeted by a loud cheer from a group in front of the airport, and they crowded curiously around us as we approached.
Captain Felton, in charge of the port, greeted us cordially, and ordered the munitions loaded for us. They consisted of several cases of hand grenades, a trench mortar with ammunition, an anti-aircraft gun with ammunition, a machine gun with ammunition, and a number of unloaded shells with material for loading them. As we knew very little about these weapons we detailed a corporal named Ole Hansen to go with us and show us how to assemble and use them.
In a few minutes a sergeant reported that our cargo was loaded. After we had taken leave of the captain and stowed Ole Hansen among the munitions, Smith climbed into the driver's seat. I lighted my torch and took my position beside him.
The men at the airport cheered us and wished us luck as we trundled off over the scorched field.
Soon we were smashing and burning our way back over the path by which we had come. We made much better time than before as the medusae over which we had previously passed were badly crippled, and those on either side had many of their tentacles burned away.
It was not until we were on the last lap of our journey, crashing through the lane that led to the cattle pens, that Smith noticed something amiss at the Davis house.
"Mr. Perry!" he cried in horror. "Look! Look over there toward the house!"
I looked, and the blood froze in my veins, for where the house should have been plainly visible, I could see only a dense, silver-gray cloud. As we approached it there came plainly to our ears above the sound of our motor the roaring sound which a giant medusa makes when it attacks.
THAT SURE must be a big one from the size of the cloud," said Smith, as he urged the tractor forward to where the huge medusa was attacking the house.
"Ay tank we ban going to have one hal of a fight pretty quick," said Ole, as he loosened the lid of a case of hand grenades.
Smith stopped our tank about a hundred feet from the house. Then we all got out and stepped behind it, using it for a breastwork. Ole tore the lid off his case of grenades, took one out, and setting the timer, hurled it with an expert overhand throw so it exploded just above the top of the cloud. The sound it made was barely audible above the terrific roaring of the giant medusa.
A group of squirming, twisted tentacles reached out at us from the cloud mass as if in reprisal, but I burned them off with the torch.
Smith seized the shotgun, and fired six charges into the portion of the cloud where he thought the disk-like body of the monster was located, and Corporal Hansen continued his bombardment with hand grenades. But neither seemed to have any effect on the medusa.
"If the damned thing would only get mad and chase us," shouted Smith, "we could lure it away with the tank."
"Perhaps I can make it mad with the torch," I said, and started toward the house.
But Smith seized my arm.
"Hold on there," he said. "Do you want to commit suicide? One jolt from the batteries of that thing and I reckon you'll be through for keeps. Besides, you might set the house afire."
By this time Ole had used up his box of grenades. Instead of getting more, he dragged out the machine gun and began assembling it.
"Damn' grenades don't work so gude," he said, "but I bet you dis baby will give it hal."
I handed the torch to Smith, and, reloading the pump gun, began a bombardment of the upper part of the cloud. I doubt whether it had much effect on the huge, medusa, but it was all that I could do, and it relieved by feelings somewhat, for I was badly worried. We had found nobody about the place, and, for all we knew, Sue and her parents had already been killed by the monster. It might merely be lingering to absorb their bodies through its tentacles before leaving. There was no way of communicating with them if they were alive, because of the terrific roaring sound made by the attacking medusa.
I was reloading the gun for the third time, and Ole had just finished assembling his machine gun, when the sound made by the monster suddenly changed. At first I thought the professor had succeeded in burning it, causing it to shriek, but this sound was not a shriek. It was not exactly like a howl, but sounded more like a moan—a groaning, unearthly sound so loud that it nearly split my eardrums.
Petrified into inactivity for a moment by this new development, the three of us stood spellbound, watching for the creature's next move. There was a terrific agitation which lasted for some time, accompanied by the unearthly moaning and groaning in ever increasing crescendo. From time to time we could see the ends of writhing tentacles projecting beyond the periphery of the cloud mass, squirming as if the creature were in horrible agony.
"Ay tank dot teeng ban purty damn sick," said Ole, coolly loading his machine gun. "What say we give him some more hal?"
"Wait, Ole," I said. "Something has happened that we don't know- anything about."
Scarcely had I spoken ere the writhing and groaning of the monster suddenly ceased and the cloud around it began slowly to dissolve.
Then, to my intense relief, I heard the voice of Professor Davis.
"Dick! Smith! Don't do any more shooting. The thing is dead, and we are all safe in the house."
As the cloud dissolved it revealed a most astounding and hideous spectacle. Sprawled over the roof, and almost completely hiding it, was the limp, sagging body of the medusa. It lay there like an immense slimy silver-gray pancake with frilled edges, its tentacles trailing limply to the ground in all directions. The body was fully thirty feet in diameter, and the tentacles were at. least thirty-five feet long.
Th © professor opened the door of his laboratory. In his hand was a pair of scissors. He snipped off an end of one of the tentacles which hung in front of the door—then gingerly touched it with his finger tip. It remained motionless. He touched another tentacle, and it did not move. Then he pushed them all aside and leaped out, running toward us and shouting like a schoolboy:
"Eureka! I've found it! I've found it!" "Found what?" I asked.
"The very thing that I used in the first place to make the tentacles relax—prussic acid," he replied. "Prussic acid or some of its derivatives will do the trick."
With his scissors the professor snipped the remaining tentacles from before the door. Then he held it open for us to enter.
Sue and her mother were waiting there to greet us, and were as relieved to know that I was still alive as I was to learn that they had escaped death. They both shed tears of joy, and I must confess that, as I kissed them, my own eyes were moist.
The professor put in a call for Washington, and the imperturbable Wong brought tea.
"After you and Smith left," the professor told me, "I was busy in my laboratory, when Sievers, one of the farm hands, came rushing in, shouting that a big cloud was coming toward the house. I went out to observe it, and one look through my binoculars convinced me that it was a flying medusa. I told Sievers to bring the other two men into the house at once, and that all of them should bring their rubber boots and raincoats from their quarters.
"As swiftly as possible we closed every window and door, and started a fire in the furnace and one in the grate in the living room. Then I distributed rubber gloves—luckily I have a good supply on hand at all times for laboratory work. In the meantime Sue primed and lighted the two blowtorches for me, and we had two of the portable oxyacetylene outfits for use, one on the first floor and one on the second.
"It suddenly grew so dark outside that we were forced to turn on the lights. I knew then that the monster had settled on the roof to begin its attack. Stationing Sievers and the other two men on the second floor, two to manage the acetylene outfit, and one to use the blowtorch, I remained on the first floor with my wife and daughter, Nora the cook, and Wong. Mrs. Davis and Nora stayed in the center of the living room, Sue guarding them with a blowtorch, while Wong and I patrolled the lower floors with the portable acetylene outfit." The professor paused for breath.
"Almost immediately," he resumed, "the long, deadly tentacles began worming themselves in around doors and windows and through keyholes. Wong and I were busy, hurrying from one place to another and burning them off, and I could tell from the sounds upstairs that the men stationed there were equally busy.
"Although the roaring of the monster made it difficult for. us to distinguish what was going on outside, I faintly heard your shots and the explosions of the grenades. Sue had turned the radio on to top-volume so I might hear the latest reports while working in my laboratory, and it added its raucous notes to the bedlam of sounds.
"MOST of the announcements had to do with the war against the medusae, and one of them was being made just at an instant when I was looking into the drawing room to see how the ladies were getting along. It stated that a nurseryman near Plano, Illinois, had reported that a number of stalk medusae which had grown in a grove of cherry laurel at his nursery had collapsed as if dead, and were beginning to give off a most abominable odor.
"The statement of this fact set me to thinking. I remembered that prussic acid had apparently paralyzed the tentacles on which I first experimented. Prussic, or as it is technically known, hydrocyanic acid, is present in the cherry laurel in considerable quantities. In this case it was evident that the acid had not only paralyzed but had killed the medusae.
"Leaving Wong to patrol alone for a few moments, I rushed into my laboratory. Unfortunately, my supply of prussic acid was reduced to about a minimum—not enough even to begin with. Then I remembered that most of the cyanides have similar toxic effects to those of hydrocyanic acid; and I was well supplied with potassium cyanide, which I use for dispatching insects. The next question was, how to poison the medusa with potassium cyanide.
"I finally decided to try shooting it through the crystals. Accordingly I removed the shot loads from two shells and replaced them with potassium cyanide. Each shell held nearly a half ounce of the crystals. Wadding and crimping them once more, I loaded my shotgun with them. Then I saturated a handkerchief with a neutralizing solution, making an emergency gas mask, and went to the door of the laboratory, I cocked both barrels, opened the door a little way, and pushing the gun out, muzzle upward, discharged them both. I instantly jerked the door shut, expecting a hundred tentacles -to dart after me, but not one appeared. Then I heard the struggles and groans of the monster and knew that my shot had told.
"After the medusa had ceased to groan and writhe, I was reasonably certain that it was dead. I did not, however, know whether or not life still remained in the tentacles. So I snipped one off and investigated. You know the rest."
At this point the telephone rang, and the professor communicated his important tidings to the Secretary of War.
That afternoon was a rather busy one for all of us. We treated machine gun bullets with potassium cyanide solution, and dropped the crystals into shotgun shells. We coated hand grenades with potassium cyanide, mixed with a flour and water paste. Then we began our war of extermination.
The machine gun, we soon found, was the most efficient weapon. After we had exhausted our other munitions, we left the shooting to the skillful corporal, while we performed the disagreeable task of removing the immense, stinking carcass of the giant medusa from the roof. We had to cut it and drag it away in sections, and this nauseating work occupied most of the afternoon.
It was soon learned that even in minute quantities prussic acid, and most of the cyanides, were deadly to the medusae. Their remarkable powers of absorption and assimilation which made their rapid growth possible acted for their destruction when the one poison that had proved so deadly to them was introduced.
It was found that if a single attached tentacle of a stalk medusa were touched with a small quantity of potassium cyanide or prussic acid solution, the entire animal would be poisoned fatally in less than ten minutes.
Airplanes armed with machine guns, the bullets of which were coated with potassium cyanide or other prussic acid derivatives, applied over a thin coating of wax to prevent any chemical action, cruised the skies in search of the flying medusae, and brought them down by the hundreds.
Such products as oil of cherry laurel-technical oil of bitter almonds, and other commercial products containing prussic acid, were found efficient as coatings for bullets.
Closely following on the heels of the first day's prussic acid warfare, a new problem presented itself. The bodies of the dead monsters seemed to putrefy almost as rapidly as they had been able to grow, and not only contaminated the air with a horrible odor, but constituted a menace to public health.
It was Professor Davis who suggested that they be used to fertilize the ground which they had so lately despoiled not only of organic life but of many of its life-maintaining elements. In the country this was done chiefly by cutting them up with sharp disk harrows, then plowing them under.
More, than a year passed before the medusae were no longer counted a menace, but in two years it was generally believed that they had been totally exterminated.
As I write the final page of this strange chronicle I am seated at the edge of a certain clover field—the field beside which I was lying in the mottled shade of the hackberry tree nearly three years ago, while Sue wove a garland of clover blossoms—the field which I later saw denuded of all life save the hideous, tentacled stalk medusae.
Above us towers a gaunt specter—the only visible reminder of that terrible scourge that visited the earth three years ago. The dead hackberry still extends its naked limbs heavenward, but now as if in thanksgiving for the vengeance that has been consummated.
The bees are humming busily in the fragrant clover once more. The mail plane is winging its swift way, undisturbed, to the airport. And Sue, my wife, is weaving a garland of clover blossoms.
Title: The Malignant Entity Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301951h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
I TELL you, Evans," said Dr. Dorp, banging his fist on the arm of his chair for emphasis, "the science of psychology is in much the same stage of development today as were the material sciences in the dark ages."
"But surely," I objected, "the two centuries of investigation just past have yielded some fruit. It cannot be that the eminent men who have devoted the greater part of their lives' to this fascinating subject have labored in vain."
The doctor stroked his iron-gray Van Dyke meditatively.
"With a few—a very few exceptions, I'm afraid they have," he replied, "at least so far as their own deductions from observed phenomena are concerned."
"Take Sir Oliver Lodge, for example—" I began. "The conclusions of Sir Oliver will serve as an excellent example for my analogy," said the doctor. "No doubt you are familiar with the results of his years of painstaking psychical research as expounded in his books."
"I believe he has become a convert to spiritism," I replied.
"With all due respect to Sir Oliver," said the doctor, "I should say that he has rather singled out such facts as suited his purpose and assembled them as evidence to support the spiritistic theory. It may seem paradoxical to add that I believe he has always been thoroughly conscientious in his investigation and sincere in his deductions."
"I'm afraid I do not quite follow you."
"There are times in the life of every man," continued the doctor, "when emotion dethrones reason. At such crisis the most keen-witted of scientists may be blinded to truth by the overpowering influence of his own desires. Sir Oliver lost a beloved son. Only those who have suffered similar losses can appreciate the keen anguish that followed his bereavement, or sympathize with his intense longing , to communicate with Raymond. Most men are creatures of their desires.
They believe what they want to believe. Under the circumstance it was not difficult for a clever psychic to read the mind of the scientist and tell him the things he wanted to hear."
"But what of the many investigators who have not been similarly influenced?" I inquired. "Surely they must have found some basis—"
I was interrupted by the entrance of the doctor's housekeeper who announced- -
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, a gentleman to see you, sir."
"Show him in," Dr. Dorp said rather petulantly. His frown of annoyance changed to a welcoming smile of recognition at sight of the tall, bulky individual who strode through the doorway.
"How are you, Doc," roared the big man as they shook hands cordially. "Haven't bothered you for a long time, have I? Got a case for you now that will make you put on your thinking cap all right."
"Sounds interesting," replied the doctor. "Let me present an old friend of mine, Mr. Evans, who writes a story every now and then when the spirit moves him. Mr. Evans, Chief McGraw of the detective bureau. We were just discussing our mutual hobby, psychic phenomena, when you came in," he continued after we had acknowledged the introduction.
"No doubt Chief McGraw's communication is of a confidential nature—" I began, with the purpose of taking leave of my host.
"Nothing secret about it so far as Dr. Dorp and his friends are concerned," interrupted the chief. "It may be that if you are a psychologist you can offer some solution of the mystery. Of course, I don't exactly know whether it's a case for a psychologist or not. Damned curious thing, and ghastly too."
"Stay and listen if you are interested," said the doctor.
"If it has any smattering of psychology or the occult, you know my failing," I responded.
"Can't say as to that," said the chief. "It's queer enough, though-and horrible. You gentlemen have heard of Professor Townsend, I presume."
"You mean Albert Townsend, the chemist and inventor?" asked the doctor. "Assuredly. Who hasn't heard of him and his queer theories about creating life from inert matter? What has he done now?"
"I don't know whether it's something he did or something that was done to him, but anyway he's dead."
"That's the point I want you to help me clear up. I don't know. His daughter 'phoned the office this morning and asked for me. When I got on the wire I could hardly understand her, she was so hysterical. Sobbed out something about her father being gone and a human skeleton lying on the floor of his laboratory. I jumped in the car and took Hirsch, the finger- print expert out there with me. We found the frightened girl weeping in the arms of a motherly neighbor, who informed us that the laboratory was on the second floor.
"The whitened skeleton of Professor Townsend, fully clothed in garments that hung like rags on a scarecrow, lay on the floor of the laboratory,"
"You made sure, of course, that it really was the skeleton of the Professor."
"Beyond the least shadow of doubt. In the first place it was clothed in the professor's garments. His watch with his name in the back was ticking in the vest pocket. His monogrammed ring, a present from his daughter, circled a bony finger. On the bones of his right forearm were the marks of a fracture that had healed and the skull was slightly indented above the right temple. These marks resulted from an automobile accident in which the professor was injured two years ago. To make assurance doubly sure, we called in his dentist who readily identified his own work on the teeth."
"When was the professor last seen alive?"
"That is the feature that makes the affair so uncanny. He was alive, and apparently normal mentally and physically, at dinner last evening." "Most amazing!" exclaimed Dr. Dorp. "Suppose we go out—"
"Just what I was going to suggest." replied the chief. "My car is waiting outside. Would you care to accompany us, Mr. Evans?"
"He would perish from curiosity if he couldn't see the thing through now," said the doctor when I hesitated. "Come along with us, old man. If two minds are better than one, then surely three minds are superior to two."
We piled into the chief's roomy roadster and were soon speeding toward the house of mystery.
Two Mysterious Deaths
PRESENTLY the car stopped before a two-story brick house. Its upper windows, with shades half drawn, appeared to stare down at us with a look of sly cunning as if endeavoring to conceal some fearful secret.
A short chunky individual, smooth-faced and with a decidedly florid complexion, met us at the door. Chief McGraw introduced him as Hirsch, the fingerprint expert.
"All alone, Hirsch?" asked the chief, looking about as we entered the spacious living room.
"Might as well be," replied Hirsch. "Miss Townsend is in her room with a neighbor. The cook and housemaid are out in the kitchen, scared green." "Coroner been here?"
"No. He called me up about twenty minutes ago and said he had an inquest to attend to on the south side. Told me he didn't know how soon he could get here, but it would be several hours, at least." "How about the prints?"
"All the finger prints in the laboratory seem to have been made by the same person, evidently the professor."
"Hum. Better 'phone headquarters right away and have them send Rooney out. He might come in handy to guard the death room in case the coroner is late."
"All right sir. I'll call up right away."
"Now gentlemen," said the chief, turning to the doctor and me, "let us go upstairs."
We followed him up the thickly carpeted stairway and along A broad corridor at the end of which he opened a door.
I started involuntarily at sight of the grinning, ghastly thing that lay on the floor. Not so Dr. Dorp. He knelt beside it and examined it minutely, his keen gray eyes alert for every detail. He even touched his fingers to the white forehead and prodded the shadowy depths of the empty eye sockets.
At length he rose and washed his hands at the porcelain lavatory.
"It seems incredible," he said, "that this man could have been alive yesterday."
"Just what I was thinking," responded the chief. "Those bones could not have been drier or whiter if they had bleached in the sunlight for the last ten years."
The doctor now turned his attention to the contents of the laboratory. He examined the collection of retorts, test tubes, breakers, jars, dishes and other paraphernalia spread on a porcelain-topped table set against the wall and reaching half the length of the room. The walls were shelved clear to the ceiling, and every shelf was crowded to its utmost capacity with bottles, jars and cans containing a multitude of chemicals. To these he gave but scant attention.
In the center of the immaculate white tile floor stood an open, glass-lined vat. From its height and diameter I estimated its capacity at about sixty gallons. This vat was more than a third full of a colorless, viscous liquid that gave off a queer, musty odor.
"What do you suppose that stuff is?" I asked Dr. Dorp.
"Looks like a heavy albuminous or gelatinous solution," he said. "Possibly it is some special compound the professor employed in his experiments. Mediums of this nature are often used in the cultivation of colonies of bacteria and it is possible that he intended to use it as a carrier and food for the organisms it was his ambition to create synthetically."
"Any idea what caused the death of the professor?" asked the chief.
"I have a theory," replied Dr. Dorp, "but it seems so illogical, so wildly impossible, so—er, contrary to the teachings of science that I prefer to keep it to myself for the present, at least."
A heavy tread sounded in the hallway and a moment later a blue-uniformed officer entered.
"Hello, Rooney," greeted Chief McGraw. "I want you to see that no one disturbs this room or its contents until the coroner arrives. We are going downstairs now. Keep a weather eye on things and I'll send a man to relieve you soon. If either of these gentlemen wants to come in at any time you may admit him.
"Yes, sir. I'll remember them."
We trooped down stairs. Two women were seated in the living room. Chief McGraw presented us to the younger, who proved to be the professor's daughter, Dorothy Townsend. She was a slender girl about twenty years of age with pale, regular features and a wealth of gold-brown hair. Her large, expressive eyes were red with recent weeping and her lips quivered slightly as she bowed to us in turn and introduced us to the stout, middle-aged neighbor, Mrs. Harms, who had been endeavoring to comfort her.
"Hirsch and I are going to run down to headquarters for a couple of hours," said the chief. "Would you prefer to come with us or stay here and look around?"
"I think we had better look around a bit if you don't mind," replied: the doctor.
"All right. I'm going to send a man to relieve Rooney at six. Will be along myself a little later. If you discover anything new call me up."
When the two men were gone the doctor bowed before Miss Townsend.
"May I have a few words with you in private?" he asked.
"Certainly," she replied, rising, "in Father's study if you wish."
They entered the study, which was directly off the living room, and closed the door. They must have been gone about a half hour, but it seemed like two hours to me as, fidgeting inwardly, I listened to Mrs. Harms' family history, her account of the death of her beloved husband, and minute descriptions of six operations she had undergone, each time, to use her own expression, "standing at the entrance of death's door." She assured me, also, that she knew what it was to have death in the. home. The Grim Reaper had visited her family a score of times, she averred, and only three weeks before, one of her roomers had been found dead in bed.
She prattled on with scarce a pause until the door of the study opened. I was glad when she went upstairs with Miss Townsend and left Dr. Dorp and me together.
"Come into the study," he said. "I have learned some interesting things, and it is possible that more awaits us in here."
Professor Townsend's study was neither large nor pretentious. It was obviously the retreat of a profound student as attested by the book-lined walls, many of the volumes of which were worn with much handling. The furniture consisted of a large, roll-top desk, a smaller typewriter desk on which stood a hooded machine, a filing cabinet, two office chairs and three comfortable overstuffed chairs, one beside the window, the other two placed conveniently under wall lights for reading.
A thick pile of typewritten manuscripts lay on the roll-top desk. The doctor divided them, handing me half and settling himself comfortably in one of the overstuffed chairs with the other half.
"Miss Townsend kindly brought these out of the files for me," explained the doctor. "I think it possible that they may shed some light on the mysterious cause of the death of their author. We can save time dividing the work."
"I believe I can conduct a more intelligent search if-you will give me some idea of what I am to look for," I said.
"Quite so," he agreed. "I had forgotten for the moment that you were not familiar with the details of my interview with Miss Townsend. Let me review it briefly.
"She finished school nearly a year ago, and since that time has been acting as her father's secretary, typing his manuscripts and attending to much of his voluminous correspondence.
"He had been working day and night in his effort to prove his theory that a living organism can be created from inorganic matter. During their months of close association she found him extremely irritable until one morning about three weeks ago. It appeared that his very nature had changed over night and she assumed that he had made some important discovery. She remembers the exact date owing to the fact that Mrs. Harms' roomer was found dead in bed on the night of the supposed discovery. This roomer, who was living under an alias, was found to be a notorious character known as Immune Benny, and is alleged to have committed numerous crimes, among which were several revolting murders, without ever having been convicted.
"After that night the professor's jubilant attitude kept up until death. He paid no attention to his correspondence or manuscripts and spent the greater part of his time in his laboratory, presumably experimenting with numerous live animals which he had delivered each day. His first experiments, she stated, were with mice, rats and guinea pigs. He next used cats, rabbits and small dogs, then larger dogs until, on the day before his death he had two huge mastiffs brought to the house and took them into the laboratory. None of the animals taken behind the door ever reappeared, and she quite naturally assumed that they had been the subjects of vivisection. My theory, is that he—" The doctor was interrupted by a loud rap at the study door. He rose and opened it, revealing a sturdy' uniformed policeman. A frightened housemaid peered around his huge bulk. The man seemed greatly perturbed. His voice shook as he asked—
"He's on guard in the laboratory," replied the doctor. "Are you the man sent to relieve him?" "I'm Officer Burke. The maid, here, showed me to the laboratory, but Rooney ain't there. It's a horrible place. Don't blame him for leavin'."
"Yes. That skeleton on the floor isn't exactly pretty."
"That skeleton? You mean them skeletons* There was two of them, and one was dressed in a cop's uniform!"
With an exclamation of surprise and horror, the doctor threw down the manuscripts he was holding and rushed for the stairway. I followed breathlessly.
A Strange Diary
WHAT we saw in that awful room of death confirmed our wildest fears. A skeleton, with the bones whitened like those of the professor, lay on the floor facing the doorway. One bony arm was stretched across the threshold as if its owner had been attempting to drag himself from the room when struck down. A blue uniform bagged loosely over the bones, and on the feet were the heavy, hobnailed, square-toed shoes I' had noticed on Rooney's feet some time before.
The doctor squinted at the star on the breast of the recumbent figure. Then he turned to Officer Burke who had come up behind us.
"What was Rooney's number?" he asked.
"Then this is Rooney's uniform and it probably is his skeleton. 'Call up the chief and tell him what happened. This is horrible—diabolical!"
"Your theory," I said, "does this shed any light on it?"
"On the contrary," he replied, "It makes the case more baffling than ever. It seems incredible that such things can really happen. I tell you, Evans, there is some mysterious force at work here—something new and unheard of in the annals of scientific research. It is my opinion that the late Professor Townsend chanced upon some force hitherto unknown to scientists and played with it like a little child with fire until it suddenly destroyed him. The death of Officer Rooney is ample proof that this terrible force, whatever it may be, survived him.
"Now let us conjecture regarding the nature of this thing that has taken the lives of two human beings. We know that the professor's chief ambition was to create life from inert matter. All of his experiments in the laboratory were made with this object in view. All his printed works show plainly his firm belief that the thing could be accomplished, some of them going so far as to point out the processes by which he believed protoplasm, the primitive basic life substance, might be analyzed. As protoplasm is a compound of almost unlimited complexity in its physical and chemical constitution, our most skilled chemists have been unable to unravel its secrets. In fact, the further a chemist gets in his attempts at analysis the more baffling and complex he finds it to be. Being a compound composed of complex substances which are in turn composed of others still more complex, and so on, ad infinitum, its secrets are fully as inscrutable as those of the starry universe.
"The professor's first step, therefore, in this seemingly impossible undertaking, would be to analyze protoplasm. Assuming that he succeeded in reducing it to its basic elements his next problem would be to take similar elements and, through a process even more complex than the previous one, assemble and re-assemble them until they were capable of sustaining life.
"Let us suppose that he did these things. Let us assume that he has succeeded in creating protoplasm. What next? We will say that he has taken some primitive form of life for a pattern, a moneron, perhaps, the most simple type of animal, consisting of a single cell of protoplasm. There still exists a difference between the moneron and the synthetically created cell. Chemically and physically they are the same, but the moneron is alive.
"What is life? Broadly defined as we recognize it on this earth, it is a temporary union of mind and matter. There may be, and probably is another kind of life which is simply mind without matter, but we of the material world know it not. To us, mind without matter or matter without mind are equally dead. The moneron has a mind—a soul—a something that makes it a living individual. Call it what you will. The professor's cell of man-made protoplasm has not. Can you conceive of any possible way in which he could, having reached this stage, create an individual mind or soul, an essence of life that, once united with his cell of protoplasm would form an entity?"
"It seems impossible," I admitted.
"So it seems," he replied, "yet it is only on such an hypothesis that I can account for the mysterious deaths of the professor and Officer Rooney."
"But I don't see how a moneron or a creature remotely resembling one could kill and completely devour a man in less than two hours," I objected.
"Nor I," agreed the doctor. "In fact I am of the opinion that, if the professor did succeed in creating life, the result was unlike any creature large or small, now inhabiting the earth—a hideous monster, perhaps, with undreamed of powers and possibilities—an alien organism among billions of other organisms, hating them all because it has nothing in common with them—a malignant entity governed solely by the primitive desire for food and growth with only hatred of and envy for the more fortunate natural creatures around it."
"If the professor did succeed in creating or discovering such a creature," I said, "it is evidently in this house at this very moment. Unless it has the faculty of making itself invisible a thorough search should reveal its whereabouts, for having consumed two men it must be a monster of no mean proportions."
"That is true," replied the doctor, "however, we have another hypothesis that is equally worthy of our consideration if we accept the premise that the professor created a living creature. Judging from his writings he spent a considerable portion of his time studying and experimenting in microbiology. Suppose he succeeded in creating a microscopic organism, and that organism had the power to reproduce its kind. If it reproduced by fission, that is, by simply dividing itself after it had attained a certain size, the only check to its increase would be death or lack of food. The more food it could obtain that much more rapidly would it and its descendants multiply. Countless billions of such creatures might occupy this room and yet be invisible without the aid of a compound microscope. There is ample room for a swarm of such creatures numerous enough to devour a man to float in the air above our heads without revealing its presence." The words of the doctor affected me strangely. Involuntarily I looked upward, half expecting a swarm of man-eating microbes to descend and devour me. For a moment I was seized with a feeling of panic so strong I could scarcely restrain myself from leaping for the door. The fact that the sun had just set and dusky shadows were thickening in the room augmented the illusion. I crossed the floor nervously and pressed the switch beside the door. Instantly the place was flooded with blue-white light from a cluster of powerful globes depending from the middle of the ceiling.
As I was recrossing the room my eyes fell on the contents of the glass-lined tank. I stared unbelievingly for a moment, then called Dr. Dorp.
"What is it, Evans?" he asked.
"The liquid in this tank," I replied. "It has changed color. Something has turned it pink." "The effect of the artificial light, no doubt," he said, coming up beside me. Then I saw the expression of doubt on his face change to one of surprise and wonder.
"You are right," he exclaimed. "It has not only changed color but a still more remarkable transformation has taken place. When we noticed it this afternoon, the tank was a third full of the colorless liquid. This pink fluid reaches half way to the top!"
A Drawer Filled With Bones
HE tread of many feet sounded in the hall.
Chief McGraw paused in the doorway, staring down at the blue-clad skeleton on the floor, a look of horror on his face. Behind him were four policemen in uniform.
"Is—is that the skeleton of poor old Rooney?"
McGraw asked. It's too ghastly a thing to believe. "I'm afraid it is," replied Dr. Dorp.
The chief knelt and examined the star on the bagging blue coat.
"It's hellish, positively hellish," he said, rising. "Do you know what killed him?"
"We are working on a theory—" began the doctor, but was interrupted by the chief.
"Theories be damned!" he snapped. "Work on your theories if you want to. This thing has gone too far. I'm going to get some facts'." He swung on the four men behind him. "Search the house," he said. "Look sharp for anything of a suspicious nature. An infernal machine, perhaps, or a blood sucking animal. There is a man-killer of some kind, human or otherwise, hidden in this house, and it's our business to find it."
When the men. had departed he stepped over Rooney's skeleton.
"I'll search this room myself," he said.
He did, with professional thoroughness, looking for hidden panels and sounding the walls, both in the open areas and behind the shelves, for hollow spaces. Then he began opening the drawers in a tall cabinet that stood in one corner, disclosing surgical and dissecting instruments of various kinds, an indexed set of microscope slides with some extra lenses, platinum dishes; porcelain drying pans, crucibles, glass rods and tubing, pipettes, rubber tubing and stoppers, rubber gloves and aprons, and other miscellaneous laboratory paraphernalia.
The bottom drawer of the cabinet was quite large and deep. The chief cried out excitedly when he saw its contents.
"Good Lord! Look at that!" he exclaimed.
It was filled to the top with dry, white bones. "Nothing but the bones of small animals," said Dr. Dorp, picking up a skull. "This, for instance, is the skull of a dog." Then, taking up another: "Here is the skull of a rabbit. Notice the characteristic chisel-shaped teeth. This one beside it once supported the be-whiskered countenance of a common house cat."
"What do you suppose he was doing with them?" asked the chief.
"It is my belief that they were brought here to be killed and devoured by the same thing that killed the professor and Rooney."
"And that thing is—"
"At present, merely a shadowy theory, although it most certainly has an existence. There is a power in this house that is a menace to everyone under this roof—a malignant entity that destroys human beings in some mysterious manner unparalleled in the annals of science or human experience. This much we know, reasoning from effects. Reasoning from possible causes we are aware that the hobby of Professor Townsend was the endeavor to create a living thing from inorganic matter, and putting the two together it seems to me that the logical hypothesis would be that he either succeeded in creating a monster of a sort unknown to biologists, or discovered and developed unheard of powers and habits in a creature already known." "If there's such a thing in this house, believe me I'm going to find it," said the chief, stamping out of the room.
"Now that we have a few moments to ourselves," said Dr. Dorp when McGraw had departed, "let us conduct a search, or rather an inquiry on our own account. I perceive that we have a very excellent compound microscope at our disposal and am curious to examine the liquid which-has so mysteriously risen and changed color in the tank."
He took a blank slide from the cabinet drawer and a small glass rod from the table. As he was about to dip the rod in the liquid he uttered a low exclamation of surprise.
"What's up now?" I asked.
"This amazing liquid has again become transparent," he replied. "The red tint is gone."
He plunged the tip of the rod into the viscous liquid, twisted it slightly and withdrew it. Although the liquid seemed quite heavy it slipped from the end of the rod much after the manner of the white of an egg. After considerable juggling he succeeded in obtaining a small amount which he smeared on the slide. He then placed the slide in position and adjusted the microscope with a practiced hand.
"Well," I asked, after he had peered into the eyepiece for a full ten minutes, "what is the stuff, anyway?".
"Here, look for yourself," he replied.
What I saw in the field of the microscope appeared to be a mesh work or foam work of exceedingly fine bubbles or perhaps globules. Granules of different sizes' and shapes seemed imbedded in these globules and the whole was dotted at intervals with small white objects. While I watched several of these white objects seemed to dissolve and disappear. All of them apparently were endowed with life for I noticed that they expanded or contracted spasmodically and seemed endeavoring to push their way through the surrounding bubbles.
"Seems to be a sort of foam," I said, "with something alive floating in it."
"The foam, as you call it, bears a singular resemblance to the basic life principle, protoplasm, when seen under the microscope," replied the doctor.
"But those white things—" I began.
"The white things," he went on, "are the living remnants of a complex organism that has been destroyed. They are waging an unequal and hopeless battle against assimilation by the globules that surround them. These faithful guardians of the organism when alive still fight, and will continue to fight the enemy until, figuratively speaking, the last man falls."
"But what are they?" I demanded.
"Unless I am very much mistaken," he replied, "they are—"
His answer was cut short by the appearance of Chief McGraw.
"Coroner and jury are downstairs," he said tersely. "I suppose they'll want your testimony. I'll leave a couple of men on guard here if you want to come down."
"Let us go down to the study and complete our perusal of the professor's manuscripts while the jury is in session," said the doctor. "We can thus save considerable time and will be on hand when they are ready to question us."
We met Coroner Haynes and his jurors at the foot of the stairs. They were about to go up for an inspection of the laboratory and its gruesome contents.
Dr. Dorp switched on one of the reading lamps and closed the door. Then he established himself in a comfortable chair with a pile of manuscripts and I followed his example. We found essays and articles on almost every subject pertaining to the transmission or generation of life. There were papers on anatomy, bacteriology, cell-structure, microbiology and embryology. There' were treatises on evolution, spontaneous generation, and the structures and habits of micro-organisms. A forceful and extremely impressive essay set forth the astounding theory that all life was merely a form of force generated from matter. The reasoning was, of course, purely analogical. The professor's Contention, stated briefly, was that just as electricity, a force that is invisible and indefinable, is generated by the friction of particles of certain kinds of matter, so life is generated and springs into being when certain other types of matter come together in the right proportions and combinations.
"What is your opinion of this theory?" I asked Dr. Dorp.
"It is most cleverly put, but false because based on the false premise of the materialists that there are but two things in the universe, matter and force. They do not recognize the power that controls the force which moves the matter toward a fixed objective. That' power is mind. Thus, to them, all life and all mind are merely forms of force generated originally from inert matter."
"If the professor succeeded in creating a living thing from inert matter," I said, "it seems to me that he has demonstrated his proposition."
"Because he was experimenting with dead matter and not with mind or living creatures. There would be no mind or soul involved to inherit its being from a parent mind or soul. A new life entity would be generated, as it were, from matter which formerly contained no life."
"I think," said the doctor quietly, "you would have stated the proposition more accurately had you said that a life entity—a mind without a body—had been induced to enter the body synthetically created."
Our discourse was interrupted by Chief McGraw, who informed us that we were wanted by the coroner.
The Coroner's Jury
DR. DORP did the talking before the coroner's jury. All the way through his testimony was negative. When asked if he had any idea what killed the professor and the policeman he replied that he had several ideas, but none of them would be worth bringing before the jury without more facts to substantiate them. I could see that his purpose was to get the inquest over with as soon as possible so we might continue the investigation.
After due deliberation a verdict of "Death from cause or causes unknown," was brought in and the coroner departed with his men.
"Now that the inquest is over, what do you suggest?" McGraw asked the doctor.
"My suggestion is that we immediately destroy the liquid in the glass-lined tank in the laboratory."
"Because I am convinced that it is at least one. of the causes of the deaths that have taken place in this house."
"I suppose you have a good reason for your assumption."
"An excellent one, I believe. While you and your men were searching the house, Mr. Evans and I conducted a little investigation of our own. We put some of the liquid under the compound microscope and as we both saw the same things I am convinced that my eyes did not deceive me. Tell the chief what you saw, Evans."
I described the foam work, the granules and the white objects which appeared to be alive and struggling to escape.
"All Greek to me," said the chief. "What was it?"
"The foam work with its accompanying granules closely resembled protoplasm, the basic life substance."
"And the white things—"
"Were white blood corpuscles from the veins of a human being. They were the strongest of the human body cells to resist assimilation and consequently the last to succumb. The red corpuscles turned the liquid pink for a while but they had disappeared before we made our microscopic examination."
"Good Lord, why didn't you tell me this before?", demanded the chief. "Let's go up and destroy the stuff now. Those two men up there might be killed any minute."
We found the two policemen unharmed and made our plans for the destruction of the substance in the-tank. Several demijohns of acid stood under the table and the doctor selected one nearly full of sulphuric acid.
"Open the windows," he ordered. "This is going to make a horrible stench."
Then he removed the rubber stopper from the mouth of the demijohn and I helped him hoist it to the edge of the tank. The searing liquid struck the heavy fluid in the tank with a hissing sound and bored into it like hot water poured in a snow bank. The jelly-like mass quivered slightly, and pungent, nauseating fumes arose to torment our nostrils.
Then, suddenly, as if in horrible pain and awakened to the danger of its dissolution, the plasmic substance began to heave and billow toward the top of the tank with a movement suggestive of the writhing of a huge coiled serpent in its death agony. By directing the stream of acid at the various peaks that arose we endeavored to keep it all washed down to a common level. Then a dozen peaks rose simultaneously and I noticed that one was capped with a round ball in the center of which was a black spot.
"The nucleus!" cried the doctor excitedly, shifting the demijohn. "Pour it on the nucleus!"
We were too late. The thing upreared itself with amazing speed and lopped over the edge of the tank opposite us. We dropped the nearly-emptied demijohn into the tank and rushed around to intercept it, just in time to see the ball containing the black spot separate itself from the stringy mass by which it was suspended, drop to the floor and roll under the table.
An exciting chase of several minutes ensued. The thing darted, or rather, rolled from place to place with amazing rapidity. The tile floor was cracked in a dozen places by blows from the clubs of the two policemen who assisted us. At length we drove it into the corner beneath the lavatory and advanced in close formation. I had armed myself with a large spatula, the doctor gripped a heavy pestle, the two policemen had their clubs and the chief held his automatic pistol in readiness.
As we drew close we moved with extreme caution, our nerves taut, our weapons ready to strike when the thing should make its dash for liberty. We waited breathlessly, but no movement came from the corner. I prodded the space behind the water pipes with my spatula. Still no sign of the thing we were after. Then I peered behind them and saw the reason—a hole an inch in diameter in the tile floor, probably drilled in the wrong place by a careless plumber and left unfilled because it was out of sight.
When I pointed it out to Dr. Dorp he shook his head solemnly.
"The Malignant Entity has escaped," he said. "No one in this house—in this community, even—is safe until it is captured or killed."
"You don't mean to tell me that little thing we were chasing around the room could kill anybody," said the chief.
"I am not so sure that it could kill any one now that it has been reduced to the size of a golf ball, although the cytoplasm surrounding the nucleus evidently has the power of quickly dissolving and assimilating living tissues. Its growth, apparently, is only limited by the amount of food it can find."
"Maybe we'd better get the women out of the house," said the chief.
"The sooner, the better. I suggest also that you surround the place with men armed with shotguns. If that thing gets out and starts to grow I shudder to think of what may happen. Children will not be safe outside their own homes, and perhaps not even within them. Adults will be attacked as soon as the creature has attained sufficient size, and there is always the possibility that it may have the power to reproduce its kind. Organisms of this kind, as a rule, multiply with exceeding rapidity. Think of a thousand or perhaps a million such monsters roaming through the land. It is almost impossible to kill them because of the power we have just witnessed, of leaving the body, no matter how large it has grown, taking with it only enough cytoplasm to protect the nucleus and make a new start."
We were all gasping from the fumes that came out of the tank, and glad to get out of the laboratory.
When all were assembled in the living room the chief phoned headquarters for men and shotguns while Dr. Dorp and I explained what we had found to Miss Townsend.
After we had described our adventure in detail, the doctor said:
"It seems strange that your father left no records of his experiments with the monster."
"I feel quite sure that he left a record of some sort, though I have never seen it," replied Miss Townsend.
"Have you any idea where it is?"
"Perhaps in his safe in the study."
"I do not remember seeing a safe in the study." "Naturally. It is hidden. Come and I will show you where it is."
We followed her into the study and she swung back one of the bookcases which was hung on concealed hinges, revealing a small wall safe,
"Would you mind opening it for us?" asked the doctor.
She turned the dial to number twelve, then pulled the lever. It did not move. She seemed surprised, set the dial more carefully and tried again with the same result.
"It's no use, I guess," she said. "The last number of the combination is twelve. He usually turned it back to one and then it was only necessary to turn it to twelve to open it. He must have locked it last night."
"Don't you know the combination?"
"No. Father was the only one who knew that." "I wonder if you would object to our blowing the safe," he asked.
"Not if it will be of any assistance to you."
Chief McGraw, who had just finished calling headquarters, came into the room.
"Think you can get us a safe-cracker tonight, Chief?" asked the doctor.
"Get you most anything you want. What's in the safe?"
"We believe it contains some valuable information regarding the thing we were chasing a while ago." "I'll get a man out here right away," said McGraw, going once more to the phone.
Officer Burke escorted Miss Townsend, Mrs. Harms and the two servants to the Harms home, where they were to spend the night.
Shortly afterward there arrived twenty policemen armed with shotguns and carrying several dozen bulls-eye lanterns. They brought extra weapons which were distributed to all of us who remained in the house, the chief, the doctor, the four policemen and myself. Burke was to remain on guard next door.
A ring of lanterns was placed around the house and the twenty armed men were posted at intervals between them. We then divided our forces as follows: One policeman was placed on guard in the laboratory. Chief McGraw with another policeman patrolled the upper rooms and halls. The doctor and one policeman remained on the first floor and I, accompanied by a strapping young fellow named Black, who had recently been admitted to the force, did sentry duty in the basement.
THE Townsend basement was divided into three rooms, each lighted rather dimly by the yellow rays from an incandescent globe suspended on a short drop-cord. The furnace room and coal bins were situated at the rear end. The middle compartment contained a miscellaneous assortment of boxes, barrels, garden tools, household tools, canned fruits, empty fruit jars, bottles, and what not. The front room was used as a laundry.
Officer Black and I searched each room thoroughly, using a flash light in the dark corners and moving everything that wasn't fastened to the floor or walls. Several mice jumped out from behind boxes and barrels, but we saw no sign of the creature we were hunting.
We were peering behind the furnace when several loud squeaks came to us from the middle room.
With shotgun held in readiness, I moved stealthily toward the point from which the sound came. There, in the center of the floor almost under the yellow electric light bulb, I saw the fast disappearing body of a mouse under a mass of plasmic jelly.
My first impulse was to shoot, but on second thought, I decided to attempt to capture the thing alive if possible. Instructing Black to hold his weapon in readiness in case I failed, I unscrewed the lid from a large empty fruit jar and walked softly toward the center of the floor. I expected the thing to spring away, but to my surprise it lay almost motionless on the body of its victim. I could see streaks of bright red flowing through the jelly-like mass as blood of the mouse was drawn up for assimilation.
I clapped the mouth of the jar over the creature and still it made no effort to escape. Then, sliding a fire shovel which Black brought me, under the thing and its victim, I turned the jar right side up. It fell to the bottom of the receptacle, still clinging to the now formless mass that had once been a mouse and making no effort to escape. I put the lid in place and screwed it down tight.
"Now try to get away, you devil!" I cried, shaking the jar exultantly.
I almost dropped it a moment later as a muffled explosion jarred the building. Then I remembered Chief McGraw's safe-cracker, and hurried upstairs.
When I reached the living-room, Dr. Dorp was emerging from the study in a cloud of plaster dust. In his hand was a thick, loose-leaf book.
"I have the professor's diary," he called excitedly.
"Don't get fussed over such trifles," I replied. "Look what I've got. Caught it alive, too."
I put the jar on the table and he squinted at it for a moment. The blood- bloated monstrosity had separated its shapeless hulk from the whitened bones of its victim and was sluggishly crawling up the side of the glass.
"You caught it, sure enough," he said. "I only hope it hasn't any little sons or daughters about."
"I'll keep the house under guard for a couple of days," said Chief McGraw, who had come down to learn the result of the cracksman's labors. "If there are any more of these things around they ought to show themselves by that time."
The doctor drew a chair up to the table and eagerly scanned the pages of the diary while we watched the antics of the thing in the jar. It kept getting lighter colored all the time, and more lively. By the time the cytoplasm had become transparent it was racing around, contorting its body into all kinds of shapes—flat, oval, and round. At times it put forth pseudopods, sometimes elongating them until it resembled a small cuttle fish.
"September twenty-third was the night Immune Benny died wasn't it, Chief?" asked the doctor.
"Then this diary tallies with Miss Townsend's testimony. Here is the professor's entry.
"'September 23, Nearly Midnight.
"'Eureka! I have succeeded. I placed a tiny drop of syntheplasm on the slide tonight as 1 have done a thousand times before, and covered it with a weak, sterile solution of gelatine.
"'I watched it steadily for a half hour but nothing happened until, suddenly, I noticed a tiny black spot forming in its center. I am positive there were no animalcules either in the syntheplasm or the solution, yet no sooner had the black spot become readily distinguishable than my speck of syntheplasm began moving about as if searching for food. Evidently it cannot subsist on gelatine.
"'I next introduced a rhizopod into the solution. -My animal slightly resembles it, but is larger and gets about much faster. I wanted to compare the two but the rhizopod was quickly devoured; Now I know what to feed it.'"
"It is growing late so I will not read all the details to you," continued the doctor. "Suffice to say that the professor discovered his synthetically created creature would feed on nothing but living creatures. He fed it so many microscopic animals the second day that it grew to a size visible to the naked eye. Then he fed it gnats, mosquitos, flies, beetles, and finally mice, when it became so large he was forced to transfer it from the small porcelain dish in which he kept it, to a much larger one.
"The thing grew at a prodigious rate of speed. Its growth seemed only limited by the amount of living creatures it was permitted to devour-. At length he was compelled to keep it in the glass-lined tank which he had been using for the culture of infusoria. Its victims were thrown into the tank alive and were quickly killed by the monster. He noticed that it was sluggish while assimilating its food, but moved with cat-like quickness when hungry. Though it had no eyes it seemed to sense the approach of food in some way and, toward the last, stretched forth pseudopods and snatched the animals from his hands.
"Yesterday the professor led two mastiffs into the room. Hardly had he closed the door of the laboratory before the monster was out of the tank.
It killed and devoured the two big dogs in less than a half hour—then crawled back sluggishly into the tank to digest its meal. Thus ends the written record of the professor's adventures with the Malignant Entity. His whitened bones on the floor of the laboratory are mute testimony of what occurred."
There was a moment of awed silence when the doctor finished his narrative. His eyes fell on the struggling thing in the glass jar.
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked.
"Come," he said, taking up the jar and starting for the basement. "I will show you."
The chief and I followed him down the basement stairs and into the furnace room. He opened the fire-door and tossed the jar on the glowing coals.
The thing raced about spasmodically for a moment in the intense heat, then fell huddled in the bottom of the jar. Suddenly, as if inflated from beneath, it puffed upward and outward, almost filling the receptacle in a shape that resembled a human head. I thought this only a figment of my imagination at first—blinked—and yet a second time. The face of a man stared back at me from behind the curved glass, eyes glowing with malevolent hatred, and lips drawn back in a snarl that revealed crooked, yellow fangs. For a moment only the vision held. The next instant the jar was empty of all save a tiny pile of white, flaky ash and the bones of the mouse.
Dr. Dorp shut the door suddenly and noisily.
"That face," I exclaimed. "Did you see it also?"
"A queer distortion of the gas-inflated protoplasm," he replied.
Chief McGraw seemed greatly perturbed. He drew a long black cigar from his pocket, lighted it and puffed nervously for a moment.
"Distortion, hell," he muttered. "It was a perfect double for the face of Immune Benny!"
Title: The Metal Monster Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301961h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
When the most powerful artillery, deadly bacteria and explosives known, and the most destructive methods available fail to be effective against some enemy's unknown weapon of war, it is time, very frequently, to turn to some simple means of combat and attack. Paradoxically, though, it is the simple thing that is so difficult to hit upon. In fact, like some of the greatest discoveries and inventions, the most destructive chemical solutions are often discovered by sheer accident. For instance, who could ever have thought purposefully of the chemical that was finally adopted by the hero of this story?—Ed.
MUCH has been written about the terrific cataclysm of 1960—the eruption of the volcano, Coseguina, with its accompaniment of earthquakes, fires, floods and storms, which carried death and destruction into Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The world has been told by a thousand writers, with a thousand different viewpoints, of the awful blackness, so much more intense and so far greater in extent than "La Oscuridad Grande"—"The Great Darkness" of 1835—as to relegate the former event, awe-inspiring as it was, to insignificance.
Eyewitnesses who were fortunate enough to escape with their lives from the devastated cities, have described their varying sensations when, with noon and midnight alike, tiles slid from the roofs, walls crumbled, buildings crashed to the shaking earth like houses of cards, bells tolled futilely in cracked towers, and the air was filled with shrieks, prayers and choking dust.
But, immense and devastating as it was, it is not of this cataclysm that I would write, but of that infinitely more terrible menace to all mankind which closely followed it—which was, in fact, loosed on the inhabitants of the earth's crust as a direct result of the eruption. For I was an eyewitness of the first appearance of the Metal Menace, as well as a direct participant in the action that followed, as men struggled to shake off the fetters with which the slimy intelligences of the nether world were slowly and surely shackling and enslaving them.
It is difficult to attempt to write in an orderly fashion of those nerve- racking, reason-destroying events when they are yet so close to me, but life is fleeting, death may come to me at any moment, and there are many facts which are known to me alone, and which should be preserved for posterity. For this reason, I begin my task as chronicler now, instead of waiting for time to bring order and clarity to the vision. -Walter Stuart.
"HOOVER," I shouted through the control room phone, and my pilot, Art Reeves, skillfully banked, returning the Blettendorf electroplane almost to the exact spot and holding it there suspended with helicopters whirring.
We were directly above the crater of Coseguina. But six months had passed since its eruption, the most spectacular and destructive in the history of the world, yet it had not only ceased to smoke, but the hot lava, which had bubbled and seethed for some months in this immense cauldron of Mother Nature, had suddenly receded, and there remained a yawning black shaft, the bottom of which was sunk so far into the bowels of the earth as to be invisible.
It was to investigate this singular and previously unheard of phenomenon that my chief, the secretary of the American Geographic Association, had sent me from Chicago in the Blettendorf, together with Pat Higgins, my photographer and assistant, and Pilot Reeves.
"Descend," I said, and we began swiftly and smoothly to drop toward the yawning blackness beneath us.
Pat flashed on his keel and side lights and started his automatic cameras clicking. Four of them, like the lights, were trained on the crater walls, and the fifth was pointed straight down through the floor.
The top of the crater was fully a mile in diameter, but as we descended, the walls gradually drew closer together. Presently, when our magnetic altimeter showed that we were nearly five thousand feet below sea level, the shaft assumed a uniform diameter of about two hundred feet.
"Faith," said Pat with a grin, "this must be where the bottom dropped out of the kettle. If this keeps up, we'll be having tea with the devil in a couple of hours." I mopped the perspiration from my brow. The air in the cabin had grown uncomfortably warm. A glance at the thermometer showed a temperature of 120 degrees.
"I'm afraid we won't be able to get much closer to His Plutonic Majesty without asbestos suits," I replied. "Besides, the heat will thin our oil until its lubricating value will be nil. If we burn out a couple of helicopter bearings, we're due for a long, hard drop.
"Sure, we'd be old and gray by the time we hit the bottom," said Pat.
Watching the thermometer and magnetic altimeter, I saw that the heat was increasing at the rate of about one degree to every hundred feet of descent. When it reached 135 degrees I ordered Reeves to hover.
"We've come as far as we dare in this machine," I told Pat. "I'll take a look through the binoculars before we ascend."
I pointed my 50X Zeiss glasses downward in an effort to see the bottom of the shaft. But adjust them as I would, I could see only a tiny black speck where the seemingly converging walls—due to perspective—of the pit ended. I did notice something else, however, which caused me to utter an involuntary exclamation of surprise. The walls of the pit beneath us were of gleaming, silvery looking metal, and winding up around them was a railed metal stairway. On this stairway there was a movement—a constant flow of shiny metal globes rolling upward.
Rapidly shifting the focus for a nearer view I looked for the top of the metal wall. I found it in a moment, and the powerful glasses brought every detail so close that it seemed as if I could almost reach out and touch the gleaming railing of the spiral stairway. Never, so long as I live, will I forget the strange, almost unbelievable sight that greeted my eyes.
Standing along the railing near the end of the stairway, were four grotesque creatures, somewhat man-like in form. Their bodies were glistening metal globes, like Osage oranges, from which, in lieu of arms and legs, there projected four tentacles, apparently constructed of many little globes strung together like beads. Perched on similar but shorter tentacles above the body spheres were smaller globes, evidently the heads of the creatures. They had enormous goggling eyes, literally like headlights, both in shape, and from the fact that they cast their own rays before them.
The first three of these strange beings carried long pipes slightly curved at the upper ends. The lower ends were attached to flexible tubes greatly resembling conduit, which trailed down the stairway. The fourth held a straight cylinder about three inches in diameter and four feet in length.
The first three individuals were exceedingly busy. In fact they seemed to be the sole structural workers on the stupendous metal shaft that was swiftly rising from the bowels of the earth. The metal globes which were rolling up the stairway were of three sizes, and appeared to be living creatures, for when they reached the ends of their respective lines, all sprouted the queer tentacle-like arms and legs of the four larger creatures, and projected globular heads from their round interiors. Then those of the largest size sprang up, one by one, to the top of the unfinished wall, where they retracted their heads and limbs and rolled closely together.
AS soon as each new globe was in position, the foremost of the three large workers cemented it in place with a stream of gleaming liquid resembling quicksilver, that poured from the tube he carried, and filled in the interstices until a glistening, pebble-grained wall resulted.
The rolling globes of the middle size leaped from the end of their line to make the stairway in the same manner, cemented in place by the second tube- bearer, while those of the smallest size formed the railing and its supporting bars, and were fused into place by the third large worker.
I was dumbfounded. The idea of a race of metal beings building a structure with their own bodies, cheerfully and willingly, was almost unthinkable for me. It was something quite beyond my point of view. But then, a coral polyp's viewpoint as it fuses its body in with millions of others to form an atoll of a reef is also far from the understanding of individualistic men.
"Haven't seen a banshee, have you, chief?" asked Pat. who had noticed my startled expression.
"Take a look for yourself," I responded. "I want to know if you can see what I see."
Focusing his own binoculars he looked, then exclaimed: "Holy smokes! And I thought all the fairies were in Ireland! It's the Little People, sure as my name's Pat Higgins!"
I was looking at the fourth of the larger individuals, the one that carried the tube, wondering what his function was. Suddenly, as if attracted by the intensity of my gaze, he flashed his great goggle eyes upward. For an instant he gazed at the electroplane. Then he pointed his cylinder upward, and there was a crash of broken glass as a projectile struck the floor window.
As we were without weapons, I shouted an order to Reeves:
"Ascend! Full speed!"
"Sure, that one must have been a guard," said Pat, shutting off his clicking cameras. "Wonder what that was he fired at us."
The floor lurched as our craft shot swiftly upward. Something rolled against my foot. It was a shiny metal globe about two inches in diameter—evidently the missile which had been fired from the cylinder.
"Here it is, Pat," I said, and picked it up.
But scarcely had I done so, when it shot out segmented, tentacle-like arms and legs, and- a head that was a tiny, goggle-eyed miniature of the creature which had fired it. One of the metal tentacles whipped down on the back of my hand with a stinging blow, so startling me that I dropped the thing. It instantly scurried for the broken floor window, but Pat with a "No you don't!" scooped it up in his empty binocular case and fastened down the lid.
"My grandfather once caught a fairy," said Pat, "and devil a bit of good luck did he have after that. It brought him to an early grave in his ninety-seventh year."
We emerged into the light of day, and Pat shut off his lights.
"Back to Leon," I ordered, and Reeves started the three propellers roaring as he pointed the nose of our craft up over the crater rim.
For our powerful electroplane, capable of a speed of five hundred miles an hour, the sixty-mile trip back to Leon would only have been a matter of a few minutes. But we were not destined to complete it, for scarcely had we passed over the ruins of Viejo, a little more than half the distance, ere Pat, who had been looking backward toward Coseguina, called my attention to the fact that an immense metal globe had shot up out of the crater and was following us through the air at a pace so much swifter than our own that we seemed, by comparison, to be standing still.
I focused my glasses on the big globe as it hurtled swiftly toward us. It was about a hundred and fifty feet in diameter, and constructed of the same gleaming metal that we had noted in the shaft. A minute, and it loomed, immense and menacing, almost upon us.
"Drop," I ordered Reeves.
He shut off the forward propellers, set the wings at perpendicular, and reversed the helicopters. We dropped, just in time, the immense globe hurtling over us with terrific speed. Its momentum must have carried it at least five miles ahead of us before it could turn to come back. In the meantime, we had descended to within a thousand feet of the earth.
"Hover," I shouted to Reeves, but scarcely had he checked our downward progress, less than five hundred feet from the ground, when the globe returned, plunging straight at us.
Reeves managed to swerve slightly to one side before it struck, but our left wing was torn off, and we spun crazily beneath the supporting helicopters. Then a blade broke, and we went into a swift nose dive.
I caught a fleeting glimpse of the ash-covered ruins of a great hacienda rushing up to meet us. Then there was a terrific crash—and darkness.
AN immense cloud of volcanic dust arose as we crashed through the tile-less frame of the hacienda roof. Our second helicopter had retarded our fall sufficiently to prevent fatalities, but we were badly shaken up.
The dust was so thick that I could scarcely see my hand before my eyes. The helicopter had ceased to whirl as we struck. The motor was dead.
"All right, Pat?" I asked.
"Safe and sound, chief," he replied.
"And you, Reeves?"
"Not hurt a bit."
"Good. We'd better get out of here at once and try to find a place to hide. That globe will be right back after us, I'm afraid."
Scarcely had I spoken, ere something ground against the roof, and there was a metallic clank as if a chain had been tossed to the floor.
"Follow me," I called, softly, and leaping out of the side door, groped my way through the dust cloud which was beginning to settle a little. The floor was covered to depth of more than a foot with fluffy volcanic ash, making the going difficult.
Presently my outstretched hands encountered a wall, and I followed this to a doorway. Stumbling through, I entered a large room that was in semi-darkness. I felt a hand on my arm. Then Pat whispered:
"They're after us! Hear 'em clanking around in the next room?"
"Where's Reeves?" I asked.
"Don't know. Must have found a place to hide."
We came to another doorway. The door was half ajar, and we squeezed through. We found ourselves in a small clothes closet.
I peered through the interstice between door and frame. The dust was settling rapidly, and the room into which we had crashed was partly visible through the first doorway we had entered. A number of metal creatures like those we had seen in the shaft were swarming over the wreck. Their globular bodies gleamed in the sunlight which filtered through the dust into the hole we had smashed in the roof. And hanging down through that hole was a thick metal cable or tentacle composed of globular segments which tapered slightly toward the tip.
The creatures investigating the wreck of the electroplane were about four feet in height—the same stature as the structural workers we had observed in the shaft. Suddenly I heard the voice of Reeves:
"Let go of me, damn you!"
In a cloud of swirling dust he was dragged by two of the creatures, each of which had hold of an arm, out into the sunlight. His head and clothing were thickly covered with volcanic ash. Evidently he had missed the doorway, had dug in, and had just been discovered.
Twisting, kicking and cursing, he was dragged up toward the huge tentacle. It whipped around his waist, then jerked him aloft, out of our sight. In a moment it dropped once more. With remarkable agility, the metal beings swarmed up. Then it was withdrawn, there was a clank like that of huge metal door being closed, and the roof creaked as if a great weight had been lifted from it.
"They've gone," said Pat, "and they've got Reeves!"
"Poor devil! And we couldn't do a thing! Come on." I led the way to the room into which the ship had crashed. Quickly mounting to its top, I climbed up on the unbroken helicopter blade and leaped to the roof. The huge metal sphere had disappeared.
Pat came up beside me.
"It's a long walk to Leon," he said, "and my wrist radiophone is smashed. How's yours?"
I tested it. It was tuned for just such an emergency, with that of my secretary, Miss Davis, who was back in the Hotel Soledade at Leon.
It worked. Her answer came back, clear and distinct.
"Yes, Mr. Stuart."
"Higgins and I cracked up on the roof of a large hacienda, about ten miles northwest of Leon. Send a helicopter taxi for us at once.
"Yes, Mr, Stuart. Right away."
I broke the connection, then turned to Pat.
"Think we can save any of those pictures?" I asked. "Why not, chief? The fuselage wasn't wrecked. I'll go down and get them."
The helicopter taxi arrived just as Pat came up with the cameras. We got aboard.
"Soledade Hotel," I told the driver.
In five minutes he lowered us to the flat hotel roof. I paid him while Pat unloaded the cameras. We passed them to a couple of liveried attendants, who led the way to our suite.
Miss Davis arose from her typewriter desk, concern in her eyes, as we entered.
"Was anyone injured? Why, where's Mr. Reeves?
"Not dead, so far as we know," I replied. "Captured. I'll explain later. Get me the secretary of the Association at once, on the radiovisiphone. Then the President of Nicaragua."
"But President Monteiro and his daughter are here in the hotel," said Miss Davis. "They came from Managua, today. Relief work, you know."
"All right. Get Secretary Black. Then I'll look up President Monteiro."
The face of my chief presently appeared in the radiovisiphone disc.
"Stuart!" he exclaimed. "What are you up to now?"
"Turn on your recorder," I replied. "Then I'll tell you."
"It's on. Go ahead."
I DID. I related every detail of the strange sights we had just witnessed, and the incredible experience through which we had just passed.
When I finished, he said:
"If anyone but you had told me this. Stuart, I'd think it some sort of a practical joke. But you are such a serious person, I believe you. Yet it's possible that you were suffering from an hallucination."
"I'll send you photographs within ten hours," I said. "Cameras don't have hallucinations."
"Right. I'll notify the War Department. Remain within call. Off."
As he spoke the word "Off," the connection was automatically broken. His face faded from the disc.
Miss Davis had gotten the President of Nicaragua on the room visiphone.
"President Monteiro will see you in ten minutes," she said. "He is in Parlor L."
I went into the next room, where Pat was busy developing his films. He had taken his small metal captive from his binocular case and confined it in a stout bird cage with a small padlock on the door. It was leaning against the bars, watching him with its round, headlight eyes, as I entered.
"Get your stuff in shape so you can leave it, Pat," I said. "We're going to call on President Monteiro in ten minutes, and take the prisoner with us."
Ten minutes later I knocked on the door of President Monteiro's suite. Pat stood behind me with his caged prisoner. We were ushered in by an attendant. The president, a small dark man with a carefully trimmed iron gray beard, was seated behind a large mahogany table. Beside him, with her hand on his shoulder, stood a slender, brown-eyed girl, apparently about twenty years of age. I recognized her instantly from the photographs I had seen of her, as Dolores Monteiro, daughter of the president, and the most famous beauty in the two Americas.
The president greeted me cordially. I introduced my assistant, and he presented us to his daughter. An attendant placed chairs.
Selecting a long, thin cigar from a humidor, and pushing it toward me with a gesture of invitation, the president said:
"And now, Senor Stuart, what is this important message you have for me?"
Briefly I told him of our strange experience—the astounding sights we had witnessed, and our narrow escape. He smoked with countenance unruffled until the end. Then he said:
"Understand me, senor, I am not doubting your word. But a story so strange as yours needs substantiation. You will not mind if I—ah—investigate further?"
"That is precisely what I hope you will do," I replied. "We have brought an exhibit, however, which I believe will convince you—a miniature specimen of the strange race of metal creatures we saw."
I lifted the cage, and put it on the table. The little creature inside it focused its huge headlight eyes inquiringly on each of us in turn, as if wondering what to expect next.
"Looks like a man-made automaton," commented the president.
"True," I replied, "yet it, and its larger fellows which we encountered, acted as if endowed with intelligence."
"You think these creatures will be—hostile?"
"Judging by their past actions, yes."
"Hum. We'll try them a little further."
He pressed a button on the table. A buzzer sounded in the next room and a uniformed aide came in.
"Dispatch three combat ships, fully armed and manned, to the crater Coseguina at once," he ordered. "Tell them to be on the lookout for flying globes and strange metal beings, but to make no hostile move unless attacked. Have one descend as far as possible into the crater while the other two stand by to guard it. If attacked, they are to defend themselves to the best of their ability. And let me hear their reports."
The aide bowed and withdrew.
"Perhaps you would like to see some photographs," I suggested.
"With pleasure," replied the president.
"I'll make some quick prints and bring them up," said Pat, rising. "Shall I leave the prisoner here?"
" Yes, leave him," said Monteiro. "I want to examine him further."
Pat went out and closed the door. The president poked an inquiring finger through the bars at the little creature in the cage, then withdrew it hastily with an exclamation of surprise as it struck at the encroaching digit with one of its tentacle arms.
"Per Dios!" he exclaimed. "This one, at least, is hostile. We shall soon find out about the others."
We did not have long to wait. The radiovisiphone hummed, and the face of the squadron commander's operator appeared in the disc.
"We are hovering over the southern rim of Coseguina. RX-337 hang? over the northern rim. RN-339 is above the shaft. It descends. A huge sphere has come out to meet it. They collide. The 339 falls, a mass of wreckage. Our machine gunners are spraying the globe with bullets, as are those of the 337. It darts for the 337, which tries to elude it, but is brought down with one side torn off. It is coming at us. Our commander has ordered a retreat. It is too swift for us. It is almost upon us.
We are d-"
There was a terrific crash, and the disc went blank. Tensely, we waited in front of the disc—the president, the girl and I. It continued blank. Monteiro rushed into the next room. I could hear him volleying orders.
Suddenly I was aware that my wrist was tingling. Someone was trying to call me. I pressed the connection of my wrist radiophone.
"Mr. Stuart Mr. Stuart!" It was the voice of Reeves.
"Art Reeves!" I exclaimed, "where are you?"
"Not much tine. Called to warn you. That little metal man guided them to you. Keep him in darkness. Leave at once. They're coming for me. Must-"
"Quick!" I said. "We must get out of here!"
Stripping the scarf from the table, I was about to muffle the cage when something struck the window-screen—ripped it away. A huge tentacle whipped into the room. Clinging to it were four of the globular metal creatures. One picked up the cage, a second seized the girl, and the other two pounced upon me, gripping my arms with their powerful tentacles. As helpless as if I had been held in a steel vise, I saw girl and cage jerked out of the window and upward. Then the big tentacle returned, wrapped around my waist, and dragged me after them.
I WAS thrown into a small, brilliantly lighted room. A heavy metal door clanged shut behind me. To all appearances the floor, walls and ceiling were constructed of seamless brown metal, without windows or doors. Even the source of the light was invisible. It seemed to radiate from the six metal surfaces that surrounded me.
On the floor lay the girl, a look of terror in her eyes.
Bending over, I lifted her to a sitting posture. The floor lurched suddenly, and I sprawled beside her. Recovering my balance, I asked:
"Are you hurt, senorita?"
"No, senor, but I am very frightened. Where are we?"
"If I'm not mistaken," I replied, "we're riding in one of the swift flying globes of the metal people."
In a few minutes there was a second lurch, followed by a sudden jolt that threw us both flat. Then a door opened in the apparently solid wall, and four of the metal creatures came in. Helping us to our feet, they hustled us out upon a platform constructed from brown metal. It was part of an extensive system of docks, along which hundreds of the globes rested. Countless others were arriving and leaving, from and for all points of the compass. Far above these flying globes I could see, through a dim haze, a great self-luminous dome—the ceiling of this tremendous underground world.
But most amazing of all was the immense city of gleaming white metal which surrounded the docks—a city of glistening towers, walls and battlements, all metal.
But conductors led us to a queer brown-metal vehicle—flat, with a hand-rail traversing the center longitudinally. In lieu of wheels, it traveled on four spheres, which supported it on idling bearings. There were no seats. Our captors, after bundling us aboard, indicated that we must stand, gripping the rail in the center.
The vehicle started smoothly, accelerating with great rapidity. I was unable to see any controls, and none of our captors seemed to be driving or steering it. Emerging from the dock, we rolled out on a broad, smooth street, paved with brown metal. Many vehicles like that we occupied were traversing this street, some of them at terrific rates of speed. Some had passengers, some carried materials of various kinds, and some were empty.
Moving in and out among the vehicles, and often traveling at even greater speeds, were thousands of silvery metal globes of divers sizes. I noticed some of them no larger than buckshot, while others were easily ten feet in diameter. I saw them, from time to time, stop at the entrances of buildings, put forth arms, legs and heads, and enter. Others, coming out of the buildings, retracted their limbs and heads and rolled swiftly away. I judged them to be factories, and afterward confirmed this belief.
We passed a building under construction, and I saw that it was being put together in the same manner as the metal shaft I had seen rising in Coseguina—the bodies of thousands of these strange creatures being utilized as building material.
Presently we drew up before a metal wall about fifty feet in height. Two massive gates, which had previously appeared as part of the wall itself, swung back, revealing a winding metal roadway which led to an immense building that stood in the center of the most unusual garden I have ever seen.
Instead of grass, flowers, shrubs and trees, it was filled with mosses, moulds, fungae, lichens and other thallophytic growths. Short velvety gray moss carpeted the lawn. There were clumps of huge mushrooms and morels, of many shapes, sizes and colors. But the most striking of all were the varieties of gigantic slime moulds.
The leocarpus fragilis with its gleaming golden spore cases shaped like elongated eggs, a mycetozoan on the borderland between the animal and vegetable kingdoms, grew to a height of ten feet. Globe-shaped physariums attained a diameter of three to four feet. And the dusky plumes of the stemonitis, massed in large clumps, waved twenty feet above our heads. Not so pleasing to look upon were the slimy, gelatinous plasmodia of the various species, flowing sluggishly about in the areas to which they had been confined, questing the food which they must have in order to produce the beautiful plumes, globes, baskets and ovoid spore cases of mature ones.
They were all creatures of the darkness—conceived and developed without sunlight—unable even to exist in the direct rays of the lord of the solar system, but multiplying and growing prodigiously, here in this weird, pale light of the nether world.
We came to a stop before what looked like the unbroken wall of the building, but here again a previously invisible door opened, revealing a circular doorway about fifteen feet in diameter.
Here we left our strange vehicle, and walked between our guards along a narrow corridor until we came to a great central foyer which evidently reached to the top of the building. Looking up, I could see galleries encircling it at each level, clear to the top. On the floor of this room near its center was a ring of black discs, each about ten feet in diameter, encircled by a narrow railing. Our captors led us out on one of these and directed us to grip the railing, whereupon it shot up into the air with considerable speed, then slanted over toward one of the higher balconies.
Peering over the railing, I saw that we were being lifted by a gigantic segmented tentacle emerging from the floor where the disc had been. After we had been deposited on the balcony the disc swiftly returned to its original position.
MANY round doors opened on the balcony, and we were conducted through one of these along a corridor to a second, much larger doorway, on each side of which stood two guards carrying metal tubes. They paid no attention to us as we were ushered into a magnificently furnished room which contrasted oddly with the plain brown metal corridors and foyer. The foyer was thickly and richly carpeted, the walls were decorated with murals near the bottom and bas reliefs above, and the ceiling was of luminous yellow metal, which shed a soft, amber light over the whole scene.
At the far end of the room a figure reclined beneath a green and gold canopy, upon a luxuriously cushioned dais raised about three feet above the level of the floor. As we drew near the throne, the figure sat up. I gazed aghast at the thing that confronted us.
At first I thought it a living human skeleton, but as we drew closer, I saw that its flesh and skin were transparent, its bones and teeth translucent, and its viscera and nervous system opaque. Its immense head, fully twice as large in proportion to its size as that of any earthly man, was encircled by a jewel- encrusted gold band, which supported an immense emerald at the center of the forehead. It wore no clothing, but its waist was encircled by a belt of golden links from which a dagger with a jeweled hilt, and several other instruments or weapons, I knew not which, depended. Its feet were enclosed in pointed golden slippers.
The horrible creature arose as our conductors brought us to a halt, and stepped forward to examine us. It poked me in the midriff with an inquisitive, gelatinous finger, pulled down my chin to look into my mouth, and felt my arms and legs. Wherever it touched me, it left prints of slime very much like those left by a garden slug. Its fingers felt cold and clammy.
Having completed its examination of me, the thing returned to its dais and reclined. Then, to my surprise, it addressed, or seemed to address me in English.
"I am disappointed in you, Walter Stuart. Although my other prisoner, Arthur Reeves, looked up to you as a leader, you are one of the creatures of the lower order. And your cranial capacity precludes the possibility of a brain large enough to receive and retain the higher training. Are there no creatures of the higher order upon the outer crust of the earth?"
"I take it," I replied, "that you consider yourself a creature of the higher order."
"I rule the creatures of the higher order," was the reply.
"These men of metal?"
"No, small-brained one. They are machines of my invention. I rule the people of my race—the higher order of creatures—the Snals. With the aid of my metal creatures, my Teks, I conquered the inner world—brought every Snal nation under my rule. They are irresistible, my Teks, when I direct them. I am Zet, conqueror and emperor of the inner world."
"I am puzzled to know," I said, "how you learned English."
"Your brain is even more deficient than I suspected," said Zet. "Our conversation is one of thoughts, not words."
"But I am speaking, and you seem to speak," I insisted. "I can hear you."
"You can speak and hear in a dream," said Zet, "yet you actually do neither. Call this a dream if you like. Or bring up, if you wish, those other words in your mind—telepathy or clairaudience. Our subjective minds are conversing without the employment of physical means. The conversation is instantly transferred to the objective consciousness.
"But who are you to question Zet, ruler of the inner world? Answer my question."
"There are no Snals on the outer crust of the earth," I said. "It is dominated by creatures called men, of which I am a specimen."
"That is unfortunate," said Zet. "I had hoped to find creatures of a higher order to conquer. But the outer crust will make a mighty empire—and I can set my Snals to rule over these inferior animals called men. It may be, too, that we can improve the race. Perhaps my nobles will take some of your females into their seraglios, thus founding a new race. Our bodies are more fragile than yours. Your brains are inferior to ours. A fusion of the races may prove of great benefit to both. It is worth trying."
"I'm not so sure that our brains are inferior," I retorted. "On the outer crust people born with heads as large as yours are usually imbeciles."
"And in the inner world, people born with heads as small as yours are invariably microcephalous idiots," he said, apparently unruffled. "But it may be that I can use you. I'll have you examined by my scientists. I couldn't use your assistant, Reeves. He disobeyed my first order and communicated with you. To disobey is death."
"You mean you killed him?"
"I did not slay him in anger, as you seem to think. He was turned over to my scientists for a thorough physical examination which they were very anxious to make. He was the first man they had ever seen, and they desired to take him apart."
"And they did this while he lived?"
"Partly. I understand that he died shortly after the examination began."
Vivisection! Poor Art Reeves cut open alive! And at the order of this big- headed, slimy monstrosity before me. Furious anger fired me—quadrupled my strength for the moment. With a sudden jerk, I twisted my arms free of the metal tentacles that held them, and leaped for the dais. My fingers ached to clutch the gelatinous throat of the thing that had ordered his death.
With lightning quickness, the hand of Zet jerked a small tube from his belt—pointed it at my breast. I felt a terrific shock, as if a powerful electric current were passing through my body. My muscles grew rigid—immobile. I seemed rooted to the floor. Then the two Teks leaped forward, seized my arms and dragged me back to my original position.
Zet replaced the tube in his belt.
"So," he said, "you are even more of an animal than I suspected. In one instant, you permitted your emotions to completely overthrow your reason. I doubt if I can use you. But my scientists will find out while I examine this other creature, which appears to be a female."
I saw the girl shudder as Zet arose and walked toward her. Then, struggling futilely, I was dragged away by the two Teks.
MY TWO metal captors took me down the corridor and out upon the balcony. Here they placed me on a railed black metal disc similar to that which had lifted us from the first floor, and we were hoisted to the second balcony above. Then they led me down another corridor, and through a circular door into a large room in which more, than a hundred Snals were working, some seated at tables, others standing before high benches on which were flasks, tubes, retorts, immense magnifying glasses, and much other paraphernalia I did not recognize.
I was conducted to a square, glassed-in room in the center of this vast laboratory, where a Snal with a head even larger than that of Zet, sat at a metal table. This room, with its glass partitions, was so situated that he could look into any corner of the laboratory without leaving his seat.
Fastened to a metal band that encircled his head was an immense lens that covered both eyes and most of his nose, so magnifying those hideous features that they were out of proportion with the others, and creating a most grotesque effect.
The two Teks forcibly seated me in a gray metal chair across the table from the Snal, and departed. I was surprised that this slimy, gelatinous individual would allow me in his presence without the Teks to guard me, but learned the reason when, under his steady gaze, I tried to shift to a more comfortable position. I was as firmly attached to the metal chair, which was in turn attached to the floor, as if I had been bound with steel bands. Yet the invisible force that held me did not manifest itself except when I tried to shift my position on the chair.
The Snal stood up, squinting at me through his huge lens. Through his transparent body and his translucent ribs, I could see his heart beating, his lungs inflating and deflating, and his stomach expanding and contracting as it disposed of his last meal. It was evident from his demeanor that he thought me an exceedingly queer looking creature. The feeling was mutual.
"You have been sent to me for examination, Walter Stuart," he said, finally. "I am Hax, chief scientist of the Snal empire."
"I suppose you'll take me apart to find out what makes me go, as you did poor Reeves," I replied.
"You say 'poor Reeves,'", he answered. "That is bad. It indicates the exercise of emotion, rather than reason. No, I do not intend taking you apart—not just now, at least. You are to be tested mentally."
He pushed a shiny metal sphere on the table before me. Suddenly it appeared to become transparent.
"A good beginning," said Hax. "You have the vision. It may be that we can use you. Step into this scene."
Suddenly, as I gazed into that metal globe, I felt myself drawn into it—felt that it had enlarged until it was as high as the sky.
I was moving—walking on a metal stairway. Globes were rolling up beside me, becoming Teks, springing up to the top of a wall. In my hands—not hands, tentacles—I held a bent tube from which gleaming liquid metal poured forth each time I pressed a small button on the side. My torso was spherical—a shining globe of metal.
When I had cemented the globe in place I waited for another to climb up beside it. Meanwhile, I glanced over the rim of the wall. It was level with the crater rim of Coseguina. And between me and that rim, thousands of other workers like myself were building a metal city on the sloping sides of the crater. Their animated building material was coming up the shaft in a steady stream, rolling up a spiral ramp that had been constructed at one side. On the crater rim, a great metal dome was rising—swiftly closing inward and upward toward the center with amazing rapidity—shutting out the daylight from above.
Reflecting the sunlight from their shimmering sides, a dozen huge, flying globes slowly circled overhead.
The vision suddenly faded. I was back in the laboratory, glued to the metal chair—a human being once more.
"You have followed well," said Hax. "Now let me see if you can control."
From beneath the table he produced two electrodes on insulated wires. He directed me to grasp one in each hand. Then once more the globe before me became clear—expanded.
I was in a huge warehouse at the peak of a pile of metal globes. I was a metal globe! I could look out through my own metal torso as if it had been a pane of glass.
"Descend." A voice came from somewhere beside me, yet I saw no one.
I rolled from my position, and down the side of the pyramid of globes. When I was half way down, the voice said: "Stop."
I halted, clinging to the slanting surface by some magnetic force which I was able to control.
I shut off the force, and rolled to the floor,
I thrust out leg and arm tentacles, put forth my metal head with its great goggling eyes, and scrambled to my feet.
"Back to your place."
Suddenly retracting head and limbs, I rolled back to the top of the pyramid and lay still.
The vision faded. Once more I sat in the laboratory before this strange scientist.
"You can control," he said. "That is good. If you can do this there are others of your race who can also do it. Your mind is unusually strong considering the smallness of your brain. We can use you."
"For what?" I asked.
"For that which you have just done. To control a Tek. Every Tek, large or small, is controlled by a Snal. By using your people to control the Teks, we will release thousands of Snals for other, more intellectual duties, to which their greater minds are suited."
"You mean," I said, "that you intend to make slaves of my people—slaves who will labor with their minds rather than their bodies?"
"Of those who can pass the test, yes. The others will go to feed the plasmodia of the slime moulds which we cultivate for food. Thus we can make use of all. There will be no waste. We are efficient, we Snals."
"Perhaps. But you haven't conquered mankind, and I don't believe you will."
"In order that you may entertain no false hopes," said Hax, "I'll show you what is now transpiring. Watch the globe."
I did. It suddenly became transparent. I was a goggle-eyed Tek, seated high in the air in a metal room situated in a great dome which covered the crater Coseguina. The work of building had been completed with incredible swiftness. I was surrounded by metal, yet I had the power of looking through it at any point by flashing a special ray from between my eyes.
A FLEET of twelve battleships was approaching from the south. They flew the flag of Nicaragua. Another fleet of seven, flying the flag of Honduras, approached from the north, across the Gulf of Fonseca. The two fleets deployed, and formed a semicircle, fronting the isthmus on which the volcano was situated. From the land side an immense army approached behind a long line of great, rumbling tanks. And two fleets of mighty aerial battleships closed in above, attended by several hundred relatively small but exceedingly swift helicopter electroplanes.
Suddenly, as if every gun in the attacking force were under single control, a terrific bombardment began. Shells from the battleships and artillery rained on that metal dome. Immense bombs were dropped by the aerial battleships and electroplanes. Projectiles of smaller caliber, from seventy-fives down to thirty-forties, rattled against that great hemisphere of gleaming metal. But not one shell or projectile so much as dented it.
This bombardment lasted for perhaps five minutes without interruption, and without any visible effect on the great dome. Then, suddenly, a thousand doors that had hitherto appeared to be a part of the solid metal, opened. From each door emerged a flying globe. Like a swarm of angry bees defending a hive, they hurtled at the attackers. Bullets rattled and shells burst against them without effect.
Two globes descended on a Nicaraguan battleship, one above the fore deck, the other near the stern. Long metal tentacles slithered down, gripping the front and rear turrets. And down these tentacles swarmed the Teks. They plunged into the turrets—down the ladders. Each Tek, as it emerged, dragged a human prisoner. One by one these prisoners were passed up into the globes. The Teks followed. The tentacles were drawn up. And the battleship, out of control, traveled aimlessly in a circle as the globes returned with their prisoners.
This scene was, at the same time, being enacted on all the other battleships. Other globes seized the aerial battleships with their powerful tentacles, boarded them, took off the men, and left them to drift unguided, or to crash. One by one the electroplanes were caught and denuded of men. The army attempted to retreat, but this was quickly prevented by a row of globes which formed on the ground, stretching across the peninsula. The Teks swarmed everywhere. Men were pulled out of the tanks—dragged away from the field pieces, or caught as they attempted to flee or hide.
All the battleships were circling erratically. There were several collisions. One ship went down, rammed by another. Aerial battleships and electroplanes were continually crashing to the ground or falling into the Gulf and the ocean. Huge tanks, driverless, climbed the peak as far as the edge of the dome, stood up, grinding at the shimmering metal, and fell over backward, their motors roaring, to tumble down the steep slope they had climbed, and smash to masses of twisted wreckage at the bottom.
In less than thirty minutes after the bombardment began, the last globe returned to the dome. And so far as I could see, not a single one of the fighters who had attacked so valiantly by land, sea and air, was left to tell the tale.
THE scene faded. Once more I was back in the laboratory with Hax. His colorless, glass-like eyes leered at me through the huge lens.
"You see," he said, "how hopeless it is for mankind to resist us. We are invincible."
"You have but defeated the forces of two small nations," I replied. "The earth has not yet begun to fight. Her scientists will find a way to defeat you."
"Her scientists are weak-minded children, compared to the most ignorant Snals," he said, contemptuously. "They are creatures of a lower order, fit only for slaves. And you will go now to begin your slavery with the rest."
Two Teks suddenly appeared behind me. Seizing my arms, they lifted me from the chair and hurried me away. As I left the laboratory the mocking laughter of Hax followed me.
The Teks took me out of the building the way I had come. One of the queer, rolling vehicles was waiting. My hands were forced down on the central rail, which glowed as if with some radioactive force. They stuck there, and try as I could, I was unable to remove them.
We passed through the gates in the wall, and threaded the city streets to a great, large structure near the cocks. A number of other similar vehicles with glowing handrails were waiting around the building. And thousands of prisoners, disembarking from arriving globes, were being herded into this building by the Teks.
Others were being driven out of another entrance I noticed that some were forced to grasp the shining hand rails, while others were bound, hand and foot, with wire, and stacked on the vehicles like cord wood. At first I saw only soldiers, sailors and airmen, wearing the uniforms of Nicaragua and Honduras. But the globes presently began to disgorge loads of civilians—-men, women and children, whites, mestizos, Indians and Negroes, evidently taken in raids on the nearby territory.
The vehicles, loaded with their human freight and each presided over by a Tek, began to form in a long line. When a train of about six hundred had been formed, we left. All traffic had evidently been stopped to let us through, for although I could see many vehicles on the other streets those through which our leader piloted us were deserted.
The vehicle in which I was riding was a half mile or so behind the one which led the procession. About half of the vehicles were loaded with the bound prisoner; and half with those held by the luminous hand rails. A load of the poor bound wretches was just ahead of me. I could hear their piteous moans. Their wrists and ankles were so tightly bound with wire that they were cut and bleeding. And those at the bottom of the pile were crushed by the weight of the ones above them.
Our train soon passed through the city, ani out upon a great metal causeway that stretched above a weird and unusual landscape of grotesque thallophytic growths. These were in orderly array, and tended by Teks. Among the cultivated plants I saw a number of varieties of gigantic slime moulds. They were cultivated in pits about twelve feet in diameter, set in rows with metal runways between them. Some of the pits contained great masses of naked, polynuclear protoplasm—the plasmodia which would later develop into adult slime moulds.
As we passed along through these fields I noticed that, from time to time, one of the cars containing the bound human beings was shunted off the causeway and along one of the tracks which ran between the plasmodium pits. Watching one of these as we sped past, I saw the Tek lift a bound human being and hurl his helpless victim into one of the pits. At the next pit he stopped and repeated the process. The grim prophecy of Hax was already coming to pass.
The men who were fastened on the vehicle on which I rode numbered about twenty. There were five naval officers, five seamen, eight Indians and two Negroes. The man just ahead of me wore the uniform of a lieutenant.
"What did they do to you in the round building, Senor?" I asked him in Spanish.
"We were given a test to see if we could control those metal creatures, senor," he replied. "Those who could not pass the test—many of them women and children—were bound with wire. It is horrible. What are they doing with them?"
I told him. He ground his teeth and cursed luridly. Presently he asked:
"And what will they do with the rest of us?"
"As long as we can serve," I replied, "we'll probably be slaves. After that, food for the plasmodia."
Of the six hundred vehicles that left the city, about three hundred drew up before a great, dome-like building. The others, with their wire-bound victims, had been shunted away to the slime mould farms.
A great circular door opened in the apparently solid wall of the building. The Tek who presided over our vehicle shut off the current in the rail, releasing our hands. Then we were herded into the building with the others—whites, mestizos, Indians and Negroes, men and women, mixed indiscriminately.
The first room in which we found ourselves was an immense lobby which encircled the building. This room proved to be the living and sleeping quarters of the Snal workers, whose places we human slaves were to take. While one-half of the workers labored in the inner rooms, the other half slept and took recreation in this apartment. Their bunks were metal cylinders about three feet in diameter and seven feet long, stacked three rows high along the outer wall. They contained no padding or covers, and were as private as gold-fish bowls. The tired workers, without bothering to disrobe, crawled into them and stretched out on the cold metal when ordered to do so by their overseers. They crawled out again to receive their meagre rations and to resume work when their sleep period had elapsed.
The overseers wore round, pointed helmets and complete . suits of scale-armor made from a dull-surfaced, dark brown metal. Their weapons were paralyzing ray tubes, like that which Zet had used on me, and queer, double-edge weapons, the blades of which looked like two meat-axes welded together, back to back, with handles about eighteen inches in length hooked at the end to hang from their belts; they carried slender metal rods about eight feet in length, the pointed ends of which continually glowed at a red heat.
WE were forced to disrobe and don the coarse aprons. In each apron were two pockets, one of which contained a glass flask and the other a shallow bowl. As fast as we donned our slave raiment, we were driven in single file past a counter, where we were issued water in our flasks and a thick, jet black porridge, which I afterward learned was made from the spores of a species of slime mould, in our bowls. It had a rank, musty flavor, and I could not stomach it at first, but as it was the only food given us, we had to eat it or starve. Most of us eventually got so we could consume the portions served us, although I doubt if anyone really learned to like the stuff.
After we had been given our garments and rations, we were herded into the immense central control room. The floor of this room rose in circular concentric terraces conforming to the contour of the domed roof above, and ending in a small round platform occupied by the chief overseer, who could thus look down on the entire workroom.
Set against the faces of the terraces were curved tables. Twenty workers were seated at each table, gazing into their control globes and gripping their electrodes. Each table was presided over by an armed and armored overseer, who gazed into a large globe mounted on a tripod, in which he could watch the collective activities of the Teks controlled by his workers. A worker, caught shirking or making an error, was punished by a searing touch from the red-hot point of the overseer's long rod.
I was assigned to a seat between two Snal workers, and noticed that this arrangement was maintained with the other slaves—first a Snal, then a human slave. The young lieutenant who had ridden on the same vehicle with me was seated just beyond the Snal at my right.
At a sharp command from the overseer, I grasped my controls and gazed into my globe. I instantly found myself a Tek, operating a gigantic mechanical shovel that was scooping up what looked like white sand from the floor and walls of a huge pit and dropping it into vehicles with globe-wheels and hopper-shaped bodies. These vehicles, each operated by one Tek, moved past in a steady stream as fast as I filled them with the white sand. One immense shovelful sufficed to fill each vehicle.
Other Teks labored nearby with similar mechanical shovels. The vehicles, I noticed, were all moving toward a great structure some distance away, from which columns of smoke or vapor were rising, and from which, at times, lurid flashes of light gave a blood-orange tint to the surrounding landscape and to the vapors that floated beneath the great vault, high overhead.
It dawned on me that this white sand must be a metallic ore—a salt of some metal—and that the building to which it was being taken was a smelter or refinery.
As I sat there working, it seemed that I developed the faculty of being two places at once—thinking two sets of thoughts at the same time. Objectively, I sat and worked in the control room. Subjectively, I operated the mechanical shovel. It was like playing a piano and singing at the same time—or perhaps more like singing an air and playing a violin obbligato. Doing two things at once, one objectively, the other subjectively, yet conscious of doing both.
The Snals had permitted me to retain my wrist chronometer, though my radiophone was taken from me. They had learned its use when Art Reeves had sacrificed his life to warn me—all to no avail.
The chronometer showed that our day was divided into two periods of about ten hours each—a work period and a rest period. The work period lasted for ten solid hours without intermission, nor were we permitted to take our hands from the electrodes even for an instant during that period. When the work period was finished, the second shift of workers was ready to take our places. We were then issued water and black porridge, and permitted to roam about in our living quarters for about an hour. At the end of the hour, however, we were peremptorily ordered into our sleeping cylinders for eight hours. We were then ordered out, fed and watered, and at the end of another hour, marched into the control room to relieve the shift that had been working while we slept and rested.
The division in which I worked, labored unremittingly at digging and loading a seemingly endless desert of white ore. I learned from workers in other divisions that some of them were engaged in smelting the ore, some in building metal cities and warehouses, others in building flying globes, and still others in transporting materials and prisoners through the streets of the subterranean cities and along the metal causeways that connected them.
With the aid of my chronometer I kept careful track of the outer world time.
Within two weeks after my arrival, every worker Snal in the building had been replaced by a human slave. The only Snals remaining were the armed and armored overseers.
I often thought of Dolores Monteiro as I had last seen her, shuddering before Zet, the slimy emperor of the nether world, and wondered what had become of her. She was a lovely creature, and unspoiled, despite the adulation she had always received.
Although certainly not human, Zet greatly resembled a human being in form. He had spoken of an experiment—an attempt at crossing the races. And I feared that the beauty of this girl might have tempted him to force her into his own seraglio. The thought was revolting. And the uncertainty was almost as maddening as the definite knowledge would have been.
During the hours after and before the sleeping periods, I used to walk around the building, scanning the faces of all the white females. At the end of a month I was still looking for her, but looking hopelessly.
Then, one day, I was startled by the familiar sound of a girl's voice behind me!
IT was Dolores Monteiro who had called to me. She was wearing the coarse slave apron, but even in this rough garment she was ravishingly beautiful. My heart stood still as I looked down into her eyes for a moment, scarcely realizing that the object of my long quest stood before me.
"Senorita!" I exclaimed. "I've been looking for you everywhere."
"And I for you," she replied. "When were you sent here?"
"That first day," I answered. "And you?"
"Shortly after you left me standing before Zet," she replied. "But this is an immense place—almost a city."
"Then Zet did not harm you?"
"No," she replied, "but I will never forget the feel of his cold, slimy hands on me." She shuddered at the memory. "It was nauseating. Ugh!"
"Yes, I know," I said. "But didn't he do or say anything else?"
She answered me, almost in a whisper.
"That is the reason I had to find you. He did say something else, and ordered me not to tell. To disobey him is death, they say, but I must confide in you."
"Don't say it," I warned her.
"But I must. There is a reason. He said I would be sent away with the other slaves for the time being, to learn to work and to become accustomed to the ways of his people. But he said, also, that he would give positive orders that I should not be harmed, for someday soon he would honor me by sending for me."
She nodded despairingly.
"I should kill myself at the first opportunity, of course, but I wanted to find you first—to tell you, the one person I know and can trust in this horrible place, so that if you live and some day meet my father and mother you can tell them the truth. They might otherwise think that I—that I went willingly. And there is no hope of escape. So you see why I had to tell you."
"'While there is life there is hope,'" I quoted. "Don't give up. Will you meet me at this spot after the work period?"
The call to work sounded as I spoke.
"I'll be here," she replied, and hurried away.
Some moments later I sat down at my work table, my senses in a whirl. My electrodes lay untouched before me, until a searing pain on my bare shoulder and the smell of my own burning flesh brought me to a realization of my surrroundings.
"To work, quickly!" snarled my overseer, "or there will be a worse burn."
I snatched the electrodes, and with my shoulder smarting from the touch of the red hot rod started my Tek at its apparently endless task of shoveling white ore.
The young naval lieutenant, whose alert, snapping, black eyes missed very little, saw my punishment and forgot, for a moment, to watch his globe. During that moment I saw his Tek topple from the platform on which it was working and fall into the pit.
With an angry roar the overseer seared the lieutenant's back.
"Dolt!" he thundered. "Get that Tek up at once, or I'll burn you to a crisp."
What happened after that took place so quickly that it was all over in less than a minute.
With a roar as angry as that of the overseer the peppery young lieutenant dropped his electrodes, stood erect, and sprang at the throat of his tormenter. So quick and unexpected was the attack that he was almost upon the astonished overseer before the latter realized what had happened.
Snatching his paralyzing ray cylinder from his belt, the Snal pointed it at the lieutenant, freezing him in his tracks. Then he stepped back and with a fiendish grin at his helpless victim thrust the red hot point through the brave lad's heart. Withdrawing it deliberately, he shut off the paralyzing ray, permitting the body to slump to the floor.
This exhibition of cruelty so filled me with rage and revulsion that I was tempted to hurl my globe at the Snal's head, and follow the throw with an attack. But the thought of Dolores deterred me. She would be waiting for me—expecting me to meet and help her.
Another slave was thrust into the lieutenant's place, and his body was carried out by two Teks.
"Take heed, slaves, from the death of your fellow," said the overseer, "and rebel not against authority lest you share his fate."
Dolores met me at the beginning of the rest period, and we went together for our food and water, then sat down on the stone floor to eat.
Before we had finished eating, a number of Teks came in, bearing the sections of a huge metal screen, which they welded smoothly together and set up in the middle of the floor. Several Snals came a short time thereafter, and connected it with a complicated-appearing machine, while the slaves flocked curiously around.
When their work was finished, a life size image appeared on the screen. It was Zet, ruler of the nether world, his emerald diadem sparkling above his slimy features.
He began to speak and every voice was hushed. To me, he seemed to be speaking English. Dolores told me afterward that she thought he was speaking Spanish. And a Misskito Indian I later interrogated was positive the great "Glass Face" had spoken his native dialect.
Zet told us that the screen had been installed for our entertainment and information, and that, through it, he would keep us constantly posted on the progress of his conquest of the world. We would thus be made to realize, he said, how hopeless it would be for us to rebel against the fate which nature had intended for us—that of serving the Snals, who were as superior to us as we were to the beasts we had domesticated. He ended by promising that those of us who served faithfully and well would be rewarded later, when his empire was established, by easier work and positions of power among our fellows.
Zet's image faded from the screen. It was followed by that of another Snal—a short, stocky individual, whose ornaments were richly powdered with jewels.
"I am the Voice," he said. " I speak for Zet, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds. Behold the progress of his conquests."
THE image faded and a large map of the Americas appeared on the screen,
"The portions marked in green are under the dominion of Zet," said the Voice. "He moves slowly but surely, taking what he wants when he wants it."
From the northern border of Mexico, through Central America, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, the map was shaded green! And all this in thirty days!
The map faded, and in its place we were shown moving pictures in full color. Managua, rebuilt capital of Nicaragua, was shown first. In the heart of the city rose an immense metal dome—shiny and incongruous, like some false growth appearing on the fair body of the earth. We were shown a glimpse of an inner room of the great dome. President Monteiro and his staff were here, guarded by Teks and bullied by an armored Snal who seemed to be Zet's vice-regent of the nation. There were other, flatter domes near the outskirts of the city. Beneath these, beds of slime mould had been planted. They were being tended by human slaves, and fed both with the bodies of men and domestic animals. Just outside this ring was another, in which were taller domes like the one we were in—control buildings in which human slaves toiled with their minds, that the Teks might work the will of their Snal masters.
We saw flashes of other capitals, each with its great shining dome centrally located, and its encircling rings of metal-covered slime mould beds and control buildings. Bogota, Caracas, Quito, Mexico City, San Jose, San Salvador and the rest, all were under the yoke of the conquerors.
Teks rolled about the streets—swarmed everywhere, searching out human victims to be dragged before the conquering Snals, who remained in their huge metal buildings or in the flying globes. Tiny Teks no larger than pin heads spied on the people unseen. Conspirators against the tyranny were thus quickly detected, captured and fed to the plasmodia.
We were shown the northern battle front, where the United States had stretched a huge army from gulf to ocean to protect its territory. It was not a battle, but a farce, in which the Teks were sent out at will of the controlling Snals, to drag men from the trenches, the tanks, or the decks and cabins of aircraft, and whirl them away in the flying globes, against which the most powerful weapons of the world were powerless. New weapons were being tried—oxy- acetylene flame-throwers—that would cut through steel plates as if they had been paper—bombs, loaded both with nitric and sulphuric acids, in the hope that these might prevail against the obstinate metal. But they had no more effect on it than water has on glass.
Some of these things we saw. Some were told to us by the Voice. But I do not think there was a man or woman in the building who was not convinced of the truth of all of them, and the utter hopelessness of our situation. Man's knell of doom had sounded. His place in the sun was being slowly but surely wrested from him by these slimy intelligences of the nether world.
The South American republics had also extended a great defensive line across their continent. But it was even less of an obstruction to the conquerors than that of the United States.
After each work and sleep period, Dolores and I met at the same spot. We would eat our block porridge together, then go and stand in front of the screen to learn the latest news of the earth's conquest.
In another thirty days the southern half of the United States and more than half of South America were under the sway of the Snals. The opposing armies had been completely routed, and most of their field equipment destroyed. Our screen was tuned in with exploring globes flying over the areas as yet unconquered. And they showed people fleeing northward in every means of conveyance at their disposal. Canada swarmed with refugees. Air- and water-liners loaded to capacity were leaving for Europe, Africa and Asia. And the advance of the metal menace continued steadily, relentlessly.
Dolores came to mean much to me—more than the whole world. I had never told her, had not more than touched her hand. But she could do more with her eyes than can most girls with arms and lips.
It was because of the hopelessness of our situation that I did not speak to her of love or marriage. I suspected, however, that she knew of my love, and dared to hope that she returned it.
I always looked forward to my meetings with her as the only bright spots in this career of mental drudgery. Like those of the other slaves, my brain was being turned into a machine to work the will of the Snals. And it might have become as dulled and listless as did the others had it not been for her bright companionship.
During those first two months the Snal overseers began to select women from among the slaves to share their quarters with them. Each overseer had a private apartment, jutting out from the outer wall of the building at its base. These apartments were set at intervals, clear around the building, and where their round doors were placed, no sleeping cylinders were piled. Some went fearfully, under the threat of the red hot torture rods. But many preferred to die in agony.
A number of overseers had asked for Dolores—my own, a tall fellow named Lak, among them. But the head overseer had his orders. She was to be saved for Zet until such time as the ruler should send for her, unless- Every overseer knew that she had been commanded to keep this secret from the other slaves—that if she disobeyed, death would be the penalty. And each overseer combined in his person, the powers of judge, jury and executioner.
Many times I noticed Lak watching us furtively when we were together. Once I turned, and saw him standing close behind us as we watched the news screen. But even then, I did not guess his purpose.
It was, when I had computed that about two months of earth time had passed, that I eagerly sought our rendezvous after a work period, but Dolores was not there. I waited more than ten minutes, but she did not put in an appearance. Then I noticed a Misskito Indian, seated nearby licking his porridge—smudged fingers and eyeing me significantly.
"You look for white senorita?" he asked.
"Yes. Have you seen her?"
"In there," was the laconic answer. He pointed with his porridge-smeared thumb to the door of Lak's apartment
I LOOKED cautiously about me. None of the Snals seemed to be watching my movements. Endeavoring to appear unconcerned, I walked slowly toward the door of Lak's apartment. It took less than a minute to reach the edge of the pile of sleeping cylinders. Again I glanced slowly around. So far as I could see, neither Snal nor slave was paying any attention to my movements.
Dodging into the passageway between the piles of cylinders, I tiptoed to the door. It was closed, but gave when I tried the fastening. I opened it cautiously for a little way, Lak was standing with his back to me, holding Dolores by her shoulders. Neither could see me.
Entering soundlessly, I closed the door.
Lak was saying:
"You have earned death, slave-girl, but I can save you. Only I heard you tell the secret of Zet to the slave-man. You must make your choice now—your life or the love of Lak."
I had heard more than enough. With a single bound, I stood beside them. Seizing the armored shoulder of the Snal, I spun him half around.
His burning rod stood in a rack, but his chopper and paralyzing ray cylinder still hung from his belt. With a grunt of surprise and anger, he grabbed for the latter. But his visor was up and I swung for his face.
The result was astounding—and sickening. My arm was buried, half way up to my elbow in his great round head. My fist had crashed through his nose and the frontal bones of his face, clear into his, huge, mushy brain.
With a feeling of intense disgust, I withdrew my arm, and the metal-clad body clanked to the floor. As best I could, I cleaned the slime from my arm with a coverlet dragged from Lak's luxurious sleeping cylinder.
Dolores, who had bravely faced her persecutor to the end, now collapsed, with her face in her hands, and began weeping softly. I was about to try to comfort her, when I noticed something sputtering on the floor at her feet. Puzzled, I bent forward to investigate. A great tear trickled down between her fingers—fell to the metal floor. And where it struck, the sputtering commenced anew, while beneath it a patch of white crystals was forming.
The floor, unlike that of the main building, was made of the white metal that had defied shells, solid shot, oxy-acetylene flames and two of the strongest acids known to man, yet here it was, changing to a white powder beneath a woman's tears. After each tear drop fell the sputtering soon ceased. But the white spots spread with amazing rapidity. Presently, several of them ran together, then collapsed, revealing the wild thallophytic growths of subterranean jungle about ten feet below the floor. The hole widened rapidly, the metal flaking away in white crystals. It undermined the body of Lak, and it fell into the undergrowth while Dolores and I looked on amazed.
"A way out!" I exclaimed. "Come on!"
After dropping Lak's burning rod, I swung down on the edge of the still- widening orifice, and let go, alighting in the muck among the soft growths, with scarcely a perceptible jar.
Dolores bravely followed, and I caught her in my arms.
I stripped off the overseer's belt, which contained his paralyzing ray cylinder and chopper. When I had it strapped around my waist, I caught up the burning rod, and we hurried away through the grotesque fungoid growths.
A few steps took us out from beneath the building, which stood on metal stilts set into the soggy soil. As we emerged under the luminous dome of this strange underground world, the light grew much stronger and the vegetation taller.
Soon we were hurrying through a forest of thick slimy trunks, some of them eight to ten feet in diameter at the base and fifty to sixty feet in height—the stems of colossal mushrooms. Often we found our way blocked by these immense fungoids which had crashed to the ground, and for the remains of which, lichens and slime moulds of many varieties contended. Giant mosses of endless shapes and hues formed most of the undergrowth, and algae dominated the thousands of stagnant pools. From time to time the immense, umbrella-shaped caps overhead opened their gills to discharge millions of spores that glittered in the queer phosphorescent light as they swirled downward to settle over the weird landscape.
The animal, as well as the vegetable kingdom, was represented in variety and profusion. The lower orders dominated in size as well as in numbers. Fat, gray slugs, three feet and more in length, fed on the juices of the various plants about us. Snails of infinite variety and immense size left their slimy trails everywhere. I recognized glass snails, amber snails, agate snails, and most striking of all, great rams-horn snails as tall as camels.
Insect monstrosities buzzed busily about, or scampered over the moss. An immense thousand-legged worm, fully twenty feet in length, startled us as it crossed our path. A huge green beetle as large as a Shetland pony charged us with its huge four-foot mandibles distended, but backed up and hastily scampered away at a touch from my searing rod. A mosquito, as large as a crane, buzzed about us for some time, until I killed it with a lucky thrust through the head.
The air was heavy with the musty odors of the fungoid growths, the sickening charnel scent of the slimy creatures that lived in their moist depths, and the reek of decaying organic matter.
Stumbling, slipping, sliding, sometimes sinking knee-deep in clinging muck or splashing through water above our waists, we pressed onward, our sole desire being to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the slave quarters.
As we hurried along I pondered much on the miracle that had wrought our deliverance from the apartment of Lak. What could there be, I wondered, in this woman's tears, that had destroyed a metal which had defied projectiles, explosives, heat, and powerful acids? In this solution of this mystery lay the key to the door of knowledge which, if once opened, would deliver the world from bondage.
And why, I wondered further, had this miracle not been wrought before? Surely many of the captured woman and children had dropped tears in the metal globes, on the metal vehicles in which they had been hauled, and on the tentacle-like arms of their captors. Then I recalled that the room in the globe that had brought me in, a prisoner, was of brown metal, as were the bodies of the vehicles in which we had been carried, and the highways over which we had traveled. The arms of the Teks, although of white metal, were of a duller cast than the globes and heads, as were the tables, globes and electrodes in the control room. The floor of the building, except in the private apartments of the overseers which jutted out over the jungle, were of stone.
But all this did not explain the enigma.
After five hours of wearisome travel, we were glad to stop and sit down on the moss for a breathing spell. I took a drink of water from my flask. It was nearly half full. I shuddered at the thought of having to drink the foul, stagnant water we had encountered. Dolores also drank some water and replaced her flask in her apron pocket.
"I'm hungry," she announced. "Do you suppose any of these plants are edible?"
"No doubt," I replied, "and it's equally probable that some of them are so poisonous that a mouthful or two would prove fatal. The question is, which are poisonous and which are edible. We have no way of knowing."
"Then what are we to do?"
"We may run across some of the varieties of slime moulds that the Snals cultivate for food," I replied. "Their spores are good to eat. And in the palace gardens I saw some gigantic morels. I think we would be safe in using these for food if we could find any. In the outer world the morel is the one mushroom form that is never poisonous."
"In that case," she said, "let us look for morels."
Rested by our brief pause, we resumed our journey. Presently the character of the vegetation changed as we came out of the marshy country to higher and drier ground. The moss was replaced by short, white snake grass. And huge, jointed reeds began to take the place of the tall mushrooms.
We had not gone far when we came to a group of large mounds uniformly about fifty feet in diameter and twenty feet high.
"I'm going up and have a look around," said Dolores, and suited her action to her words by scampering up the side of the mound. She had not taken more than five steps when one foot broke through into a compartment underneath. She withdrew it with a scream of pain, and came running toward me, her knee bleeding. Then a white thing about eighteen inches in height, popped out after her and pursued her on six rapidly moving legs. Behind it came another and another, and I recognized them for what they were—giant termite as large as pet bulldogs and ten times as dangerous.
I ran toward her, my burning rod ready for action, but before I reached her a veritable army of the formidable creatures came rushing toward us from around both sides of the mound, their great hooked mandibles snapping menacingly.
"No use to argue with those things," I shouted. "We wouldn't have a Chinaman's chance. Can you run?"
"And how!" she replied, passing me like a bullet.
I was not slow to follow, but I soon saw that we were being outstripped by the swift, six-legged creatures behind us, and that it would only be a matter of a few moments before we would be pulled down and torn to pieces.
"Climb something," I cried. "It will be our only chance to hold them off."
Dolores leaped for the nearest jointed stalk, and scrambled up, I at her heels, just as the foremost termites came snapping up behind us.
I thrust the point of my burning rod into the open mouth of the leader, and sent it tumbling back on those behind it. Then an astounding thing happened. There was a roar overhead as if a dozen helicopter blades had suddenly gone into action, and the stalk to which we were clinging left the ground with amazing rapidity.
I glanced upward and saw the reason. Instead of a scaly plant stalk, we were clinging to the slender, segmented body of an immense insect! And already we were so high above the ground that to let go would mean certain death!
THE huge insect to which we were clinging flew off with incredible speed. Its immense wings, which when quiescent I had taken for the spatulate leaves of a strange subterranean plant, whirred so rapidly that they were invisible. The creature itself greatly resembled a titanic dragon fly, with its massive head, great bulging eyes, and long, relatively slender body. It flew at an elevation of about a thousand feet, and watching the ground, I calculated that it was carrying us at a speed of over a hundred miles an hour.
Clinging to the rim of the huge segment with one hand, and gripping the round body with both legs, I watched the rapidly changing landscape beneath us. Presently, all signs of vegetation ceased, and we were flying over a barren, gleaming white area of dunes and hollows.
On the next segment in front, Dolores was clinging tightly with hands and arms, and I noticed that she, too, was anxiously watching the landscape below. I shouted to her, but she could not hear me because of the whirring of the huge wings. And I could not creep nearer to her without danger of losing my grip on our living aircraft and pitching to sudden death below.
So occupied was I in watching the landscape beneath that I did not notice the immense black thing, flashing downward at us from above, until it struck. Huge teeth sunk into the thorax of the giant dragon fly, just back of the head. Its wings quivered, then hung limply. It was a swift, clean kill. We were borne swiftly aloft in a steep spiral and I had an opportunity to observe the thing that was carrying us. It was an immense, black-skinned hairless bat. The body of the insect trailed almost vertically, making it much more difficult to hang on than when it had been flying horizontally. It appeared that the giant bat had not even noticed us, taking us for part of its victim's body.
As we spiraled higher and higher, the light grew stronger above us, while the outlines of the ground below became more and more blurred and indistinct.
Up and up we went through the drifting, diaphanous mists until we were just under the luminous dome of this weird nether world, fully five miles above the ground. My eyes were dazzled by the brightness of the rugged, luminous, and probably radioactive stone that formed the vault.
The bat hovered for a moment beneath a huge jagged opening in the dome. As it did so I saw that there were a number of similar openings nearby. Then it flew upward and to one side, alighting in a self-illuminated cave about a hundred feet square.
I wondered why the monster had not devoured its victim on the wing as outer world bats habitually do, but I realized the reason when two of its offspring, which had been hanging upside down from a ledge at the back of the cave, fluttered to the floor and rushed toward the parent, screeching and flapping excitedly.
The adult bat laid the insect on the floor with us still clinging to it, then turned and dived back through the opening.
Judging by the size of the parent, the two youngsters that were rushing toward us were about a quarter grown. But this did not prevent them from being exceedingly formidable antagonists, for each stood more than ten feet in height, and was armed with long sharp teeth as well as wicked looking claws on wing joints and hind feet. Dolores and I both sprang to our feet and backed away as they pounced on the insect and began feeding voraciously, as if each feared that it would get less than the other would.
My first impulse was to look for some way of escape while the two immense youngsters were occupied with their feast. Bidding Dolores secrete herself behind one of the boulders that cluttered the floor, I made a careful search, circling behind the young bats and returning in front of them. They watched me with their black, beady eyes, but evidently did not think me quite as tempting a morsel as the insect.
Having assured myself that there was no way out of the cave except that by which we had come, I returned to the boulder with the beady eyes of the bats still following me as they finished the remains of the ill-fated dragon fly.
Our situation appeared utterly hopeless. There we were, five miles above the surface of the nether world, and we knew not how many uncounted miles below the surface of the earth, imprisoned with two hungry beasts larger and more formidable than the greatest of the outer world carnivora. Moreover, we might expect at any moment, the arrival of one or both of the parents—creatures four times as large as the ones we now faced.
There seemed little question but that the young bats would attack us, and that was quickly resolved, for as soon as they had finished their feast and licked their chops for a moment, they came hopping and flapping toward us.
With Lak's paralyzing ray cylinder in my left hand, and his burning rod in my right, I leaped up on the boulder, behind which Dolores crouched.
As soon as they were within striking distance, both of them reached out to seize me, whereupon I held the one on my left with the paralyzing ray and lunged at the other with the burning rod. I struck for the eye, but the beast dodged and the point seared itself into the hunched shoulder, instead.
With a siren-like shriek of rage and pain the burned creature jerked back out of reach of the point, toppled on the edge of the entrance for a moment, and then fell, squawking and fluttering, down the steep shaft. As it had not learned to fly, it was undoubtedly dashed to pieces on the ground five miles below. At any rate, I did not see it again.
The other young bat, held by the powerful paralyzing ray, stood helplessly while I plunged the point of the burning rod into its heart. Then, as I withdrew the rod and shut off the ray, a shudder ran through its frame and it toppled over on its back, dead.
ALTHOUGH we had vanquished our immediate enemies, we were a long way from being out of our predicament.
Dolores came out from behind the boulder, and together we examined the fallen monster.
Presently she said:
"Tell me the truth, Wallace. Is there no way out? No hope of escape?"
"I'm afraid not," I replied.
"Then we are to die here together. It doesn't matter how. We'll be slain by the mother bat when she returns, or perhaps by her mate. Even if you conquer both monsters with the weapons of Lak, we're trapped here to die of hunger and thirst. In one case it will be a matter of a few hours, the other a few days. Am I not right?"
"It looks that way," I replied, kicking absently at the tip of one of the webbed wings, my head turned away to hide my feelings.
"Wallace! Look at me!"
I turned, and she came up very close, her glorious face upturned to mine.
"Wallace, isn't there something you would like to say to me before we—are taken by death?"
There was that in her eyes which sent the hot blood coursing through my veins, and made me forget the peril in which we stood. The burning rod clattered to the floor of the cave as I crushed her to me—claimed her sweet lips.
"But, Wallace. You have said nothing," she panted.
"I can't make you pretty speeches," I replied, "nor can I croon sweet love songs. But I love you, Dolores. You know that now."
"I have known it all along," she confessed, "but I wanted to hear you say it. Dios, how I love you, my big American! And we are to die so soon."
Her arms went around my neck—clung there, and she buried her face in my shoulder, weeping softly.
Desperately I looked about me. There must be a way out. I must think. I must plan.
Suddenly an idea came to me.
"Don't cry, dear," I said. "I think I've hit on a plan."
"What is it?" she asked eagerly,
"There is enough material in the webbed wing of that young bat to make a parachute that will carry us both to the ground," I said, "and I'm going to try to make one."
"I'll help you," she replied. "Let's work fast. The mother bat may come back at any moment."
Using Lak's keen, two-edged chopper, I quickly severed the immense wings from the body. In the webs there was material enough for our purpose, and to spare. I cut a number of long strips to serve as rope, and with these, Dolores stitched the larger pieces together, punching the holes with the tip of the burning rod.
When I had exhausted the supply of web which we could spare for this purpose, I skinned the immense carcass, and cut the hide into strips two inches in width. I fastened the ends of these around the edge of the parachute, while Dolores finished her job of fastening the larger pieces together.
This work completed I drew all of our guy straps together, and tied them to a ring-strap, cut trebly wide that it might stand the extra strain. To this I added a strong loop on each side, forming a swing seat for each of us, and we stepped back to view the result of our labor.
It appeared exceeding crude and awkward, but it would be strong enough.
"Are you ready to make the jump?" I asked.
I slipped the loop of her swing strap around her, cautioning her to hold on with both hands.
"We'll drag the whole thing clear up to the edge," I said, "then jump out away from the ledge as far as possible. Otherwise the 'chute may catch on the edge and swing us back against the face of the rock."
Luck had favored us thus far by the prolonged absence of the mother bat, and I wondered, as I arranged the folds of the 'chute on the rim of the abyss if it would fail us now.
For a moment I strained Dolores to me in a farewell kiss. Then I caught up the burning rod, and with a: "one, two, three!" we leaped.
For several seconds we hurtled downward at a breathtaking speed. The walls of the shaft vanished, and we were shooting down through the mists of the nether world sky, our speed unslackened. "It hasn't opened," I thought. "We're doomed." But even as this thought came to me, the guy straps suddenly tightened with a jerk. One of them snapped and fell down, trailing its wet inner surface over my shoulder. Our speed slackened. A few seconds more, and we were gliding smoothly downward. The immense web that had been designed to support the huge body of the bat in flight easily sustained us.
A CRY of exultation came to my lips, but it quickly changed to an exclamation of horror as I suddenly saw, flapping toward us, the immense black bulk of the mother bat. She was carrying a huge beetle in her mouth, but dropped it as she came closer and scented the hide of her dead offspring. With a horrible shriek, more powerful and ear-splitting than the sound of a steam siren, she dived straight at us, her immense maw gaping, her lips drawn back in a hideous snarl that revealed her big, ugly teeth.
I whipped the paralyzing ray cylinder from my belt, and gripped both it and the strap at my left with my left hand, while I couched the burning rod beneath my right arm. I had my misgivings as to whether or not the rays would have any effect on so huge a bulk, but it was our only hope.
To my surprise and relief, it worked. The giant bat, unable to move her wings, turned over and began hurtling groundward in a nose dive. But she had not fallen far before the rays ceased to affect her, whereupon she righted herself and came back at us.
Again I turned the rays on her and again she plunged downward, only to right herself and come back as fiercely as ever. She repeated the process persistently, and to my horror I noticed that she was able to get a little closer each time. The battery was growing weaker.
Presently she came so close that I thrust the burning rod into her mouth. With a snarl, she clamped her huge teeth down on it, snapping the metal shaft as if it had been matchwood. She opened her mouth once more and shook her head, attempting to dislodge the searing point, but it had already passed her throat, and was burning its way down into her vitals.
With a horrid, gurgling scream, she went into her last nose dive, falling like a plummet. I saw her strike the ground several seconds later, but we were drifting in an air current that had, in the meantime, carried us some distance to one side. I noticed for the first time that we were above a huge expanse of glistening, barren white dunes. A short time thereafter we alighted, sinking to our ankles in a substance which I readily recognized—the white crystals which my Tek had been loading these many days, to be hauled to the smelter. It was the material from which the Snals manufactured their miraculously hard metal.
Disentangling ourselves from our straps, we set out over the rolling dunes. As all directions were alike to us, we set our faces toward what looked like a rugged mountain range, some of the jagged peaks of which pierced the clouds. Our water supply had dwindled to a swallow apiece. And we were ravenously hungry.
For hour after hour, we plunged onward, through the weird light of the changeless day. We stopped once, exhausted, and slept for twelve hours by my chronometer. Upon awakening, we drained our water flasks, and pressed forward once more. But so great was the distance of these mountains, which at first had only seemed a few miles away, that they appeared to recede as we advanced toward them.
Another four hours of walking, however, made the outlines of the mountains bulk much nearer. And where there are mountains, there are usually springs or streams. After a brief rest, we set forth once more. But it was not long before Dolores staggered and fell. I tried to pick her up, and fell beside her. My strength was fast waning. I tried to murmur a few words of encouragement to her, but my lips were dry—my tongue so swollen that they sounded like the muttering of a drunken man. It did not matter, however, as she had swooned away.
After a brief breathing spell, I arose, and taking Dolores in my arms, proceeded, carefully conserving my strength and pausing at short intervals to rest.
We were less than a mile from the nearest mountain when Dolores regained consciousness. She immediately insisted that I set her on her feet. I did so, and found that, after her rest she could make better progress than I.
I was floundering along, so exhausted that I staggered as if intoxicated, when suddenly she clutched my arm.
"Look!" she cried. "Water, just ahead!"
Together we stumbled out of the loose sands of the white desert to a flat formation of lava rock. About half way between us and the mountain we had made our objective, a small circular pool of water gleamed in the weird light.
The sight renewed my strength, yet it seemed ages before we reached the side of the sparkling pool.
"Take it easy," I cautioned. "Bathe your face first, and sip slowly."
We threw ourselves flat at the-edge of the pool. I bathed my parched face, then sipped up a few drops from the hollow of my hand. But scarcely had the liquid entered my mouth than I spat it out in dismay. It was loaded with salt. Glancing at Dolores, I saw that she had made the same disappointing discovery.
I sat up wearily—despondently—and she crept over to me, resting her head against my shoulder.
"What a dreadful disappointment," she said.
Suddenly I heard a familiar clanking sound behind me. Glancing back, I saw a flying globe which had descended, not fifty feet from us. The clanking sound was caused by the long, segmented cable it had dropped. Down this cable swarmed a score of Teks. Then they spread out in a wide semicircle and ran toward us. There was no mistaking their purpose. And no question but what, if we were captured, Zet would impose the death penalty on both. It would be as well to die fighting.
I stood up, and with Lak's chopper in my hand, awaited the attack.
AS I stood in front of the briny pool, defiantly shaking the chopper of Lak at the advancing Teks, an idea came to me—an idea born of a theory which I had been pondering since the tears of Dolores miraculously opened our way to escape from the slave quarters.
Our metal enemies were almost upon us when I bent and, with my arm about her waist, helped Dolores up.
"Come," I whispered. "Into the water."
We turned and ran, splashing through the heavy brine. A few steps, and it reached our waists. The Teks splashed in after us. The circle was closing in at both ends. Suddenly their metal torsos began to sputter and pop, flaking away in a white powder wherever the brine had spattered.
"Splash them," I told Dolores, and used the flat of the chopper to deluge those nearest me. She bravely-splashed those on her side. Presently a Tek stumbled—sank beneath the surface. Above the spot the water effervesced like champagne. Another sank—a third. Two that had only been slightly splashed tried to make the shore. I followed them, deluging them with brine. They sank down, sputtering and melting away in the shallows.
In less than five minutes the twenty Teks were a semicircle of wreckage, consisting mostly of neck, arm and leg tentacles, covered with masses of fluffy white crystals.
Dolores and I climbed up on the bank. Despite our thirst and weariness we felt refreshed by our salt-water plunge.
"If I could only fly that globe," I said, "we might still have a chance to get away."
"Why, I can do that," she said. "For the past forty work-periods I have controlled a Tek flying a freighter, which carried liquid metal from a smelter to a factory."
"Suppose there are more Teks aboard," I said.
"Not likely," she replied. "A crew always consists of twenty. The pilot could lock the controls and land with the rest."
"Well, we'll take a chance, but with a little preliminary preparedness," I said. "Let me have your flask."
She handed me her glass flask, and I filled both hers and mine with salt water. Pocketing one, and carrying the other in my hand, I walked up beneath the globe. The cable did not, as I expected, whip around my waist. "I guess you were right, after all," I said. "Come on." She came up beside me, but scarcely had she done so ere the cable swiftly wrapped around both of us, jerking us up through the round door. It put us down upon a floor of brown metal in front of a Tek that had one tentacle on the control board.
"So, small-brained ones, you thought to escape me!" The voice issued from the metal mouth, but I recognized it instantly. - It was the voice of Zet, emperor of the nether world.
"We came near doing it, Zet," I replied. "For small-brained ones we didn't do so badly."
"Ha! Ha! Ha! What foolish bunglers you are, to be sure. To pit your puny intellects against mine. Ho! Ho! Ho! But I must bring you before me. I would pass judgment in person."
The tentacle of the Tek jerked a lever and the door clanged shut behind us. Our waists were still gripped by the huge tentacle, but I could move my arms freely. Suddenly uncorking the flask I held in my hand, I splashed brine on the spherical body in front of me and on the round head. Some of it ran down the head-hole into the mechanism.
Globe and head began sputtering furiously—flaking away as white powder.
"Fool!" said the metal mouth in the voice of Zet. "I pass judgment now!"
The arm tentacle jerked a lever, and the huge cable that encircled us, slowly tightened its folds, squeezing the breath out of us. Drawing the chopper from my belt, I struck at the tentacle that clung to the lever. It sagged, but hung on. Again I struck, exerting all my strength, and the blade severed it. Not being of the hard, white metal, it was vulnerable.
With a corner of the blade I struck up the lever. The coils of the cables instantly loosed us. The Tek attempted to swing around—to use the other arm tentacle. But it was too far gone. It staggered and fell to the floor with a shower of white powder.
Dolores sprang to the control board. She pressed a lever, and the globe lurched violently as it sprang upward. She moved another lever, and we settled down to a straight course.
Above the controls two round lights hung on head-straps. Dolores took them down, handed one to me, and strapped the other around her head.
"If you will put that on," she said, "you can look out through any part of the globe with it. The invisible rays are turned on or off simply by raising your eyebrows."
I strapped on my light and found that it worked as she had said.
"Funny they left these things hanging here," I said "when the Teks have them already built into their heads."
"Sometimes the Snals fly these globes in person," she replied. "They are kept here for that purpose."
I raised my eyebrows and my light clicked on. The rays which emanated from it must have been effective only for a short distance, for, though they made the globe appear transparent, everything beyond it looked perfectly natural. Looking downward through the floor, I saw that we were above a jungle of primordial growths. I was gazing at the queer plants and beasts beneath us, when Dolores suddenly cried:
"A globe pursues us! We are discovered!"
"Slow up and let it come close to us," I said. "Then open the door."
I had corked, and was holding Dolores' flask, still half full of brine. The other globe shot swiftly up behind us.
I lurched over to the door and grasped the rail beside it, holding the flask poised in my other hand.
"All right," I shouted.
The door swung open. The other globe was now less than fifty feet from us. I hurled the flask and had the satisfaction of seeing it break against the pursuing globe, scattering its contents over the gleaming surface.
The door clanged shut, but I continued to watch the pursuing globe by means of my penetrating head light. A sputtering white patch instantly appeared where the brine had struck. Soon this was replaced by a gaping hole with rapidly widening white edges, from which fluffy crystals were flaking.
Dolores accelerated our speed and shot upward. The other globe attempted to follow, but it was rapidly losing power. Soon more than half of its surface had disappeared, exposing its mechanism and inner room, swarming with Teks. Another moment, and it hurtled groundward, burying itself in the soft muck of the swamp.
DOLORES straightened our course once more Ahead of us lay the metal city to which we had first been brought—the capital of the nether world. And about five miles to our right was a great cone of lava nearly two miles high. Above this cone was the gleaming mouth of a metal shaft which thousands of globes were constantly entering and leaving.
"Steer for the shaft," I said. "Perhaps we can bluff our way through to the outer world. They can't tell who is in this globe, can they?"
"Not unless they use the penetrating rays," she replied, "and they can only do that at close range. I don't think we can make our way through. However, Zet will expect us to try, and will be prepared."
"Then we'll try another way," I said.
A moment later we plunged into the shaft—shot swiftly upward. The speed of the globe was terrific. I had no means of computing it. And because of this, I had no idea how many miles of shaft we had traversed when we suddenly shot up beneath the huge metal dome that covered Coseguina.
Dolores brought the globe almost to a stop—hovering uncertainly.
"Now where?" she asked.
I recalled my two visions of this dome—the first when it was in the process of building—the second after it was completed.
"Not the ports," I said. "They'll surely catch us there. Fly close to the wall."
She instantly brought the globe to within ten feet of the arching wall.
"Open the door."
As the door flew open I hurled my flask of salt water at the wall. The flask shattered, spreading the brine over an area about ten feet in diameter.
Another globe, apparently noting our strange actions, shot upward toward us to investigate. Dolores saw it, closed the door, and flew away, circling the huge dome. A second globe rose to cut us off. Then a third and a fourth. Dolores managed, somehow, to dodge all of them. Soon the dome swarmed with flying globes, all of which looked alike. We were darting in and out among the others, and I doubt whether more than one or two of their pilots had any idea which globe we were in. Several globes collided, bouncing apart like billiard balls, but undented and apparently unharmed.
Twice we flew past the rapidly widening hole in the dome where I had hurled the salt water, but each time it was too small for us to squeeze through. Then we were herded away from it by the other globes for several minutes. By dint of much skillful manipulation on the part of Dolores, we managed to get back to it. This time there was room to spare.
"At last!" I cried, as we shot out into the sunlight which we had not seen for more than two months.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" said Dolores. "Now where shall we go?"
"Get some altitude," I replied. "Then we'll look around. We must find a place to hide, first of all."
Far out on the Pacific, I saw a rain storm coming.
"Quick!" I said. "Into that storm!"
A long trail of globes was after us, and more were continually emerging from the dome like a cloud of angry wasps. We plunged toward the storm. In less than two minutes we were in it. At least a thousand globes were on our trail by that time, but once we got into the thick clouds, they could not see us, nor we them. We veered off sharply to the right, traveling at tremendous speed. Presently our globe popped out of the clouds into the sunlight once more.
Coseguina had been left at least a hundred miles behind, and we were traveling toward the northwest, near the coast of Salvador.
Looking downward, I suddenly spied beneath the water, the slender, shadowy forms of a fleet of submarines—about twenty in number.
"If I only had my wrist-radiophone," I said.
"I managed to keep mine," said Dolores, and reaching into the coils of her dark hair, she extracted it and handed it to me. "I thought it might be useful in an emergency" she added.
"It certainly will," I responded, working the call plunger and constantly changing the wave lengths, saying each time: "Ahoy, submarine fleet."
Presently I got a reply. "Who calls the fleet?"
"Wallace Stuart," I responded, "in the flying globe above you with Senorita Monteiro. We just escaped from the Snals."
"Come closer, and show yourself at the door, Wallace Stuart," was the reply.
Dolores dropped the globe to within a hundred feet of the water. She pressed the lever that opened the door, and I leaned out gripping the hand rail. Then the submarine just beneath us began to rise. Presently its tower emerged from the water. Then up came its turrets, rails and deck. A hatch swung open, and two men came out. One wore the uniform of a U. S. naval officer. The other was in civilian clothes. To my surprise I recognized my former assistant, Pat Higgins.
"Pat!" I shouted down to him. "What the devil are you doing on the iron fish?"
"Secretary Black ordered me to bring him the Coseguina films in person," he said, "when he heard you were captured. But after I got back I enlisted in the naval air service and came down here to do some scrapping. I was lucky enough to dodge the globes until yesterday. Then one, bad cess to it, cut me down. My pontoons saved me until this ship came along and took me off. So here I am. It's sure good to see you alive and well again, chief."
While he was talking, Dolores had gently lowered our globe until it swung just a few feet above the deck. She locked the controls, and came over beside me, whereupon both men instantly doffed their hats. I dropped to the deck of the submarine and gave her a hand down. Pat introduced me to the officer, Rear Admiral Eldridge, in command of the fleet. I introduced the officer to Dolores, and we all went below. A few moments later the ship submerged, leaving the globe to drift aimlessly a few feet above the surface of the Pacific.
Our first request, as we were ushered into the admiral's cabin, was for water. We drank eagerly, but sparingly. Then I told the admiral the amazing secret of the supposedly indestructible metal.
"Salt!" he exclaimed. "Who would have thought it? And here we have had millions of tons at our disposal without thinking to try it!"
"I believe it's really the chlorine that does the trick," I replied. "The metal, I know not what to call it, must be an element unknown to our outer world chemists. In its natural state it is combined with chlorine, forming a white salt. This white salt is mined, with the chlorine removed, leaving the basic metal, which is in the form of an impalapable powder. This powder is mixed with a liquid preparation, forming a colloidal solution that acts much like cement. The liquid evaporates quickly, leaving the solid metal, the particles cohering because they have regained the water of crystalization lost in the refining process."
"But what causes the rapid action of the salt on the metal?" asked the admiral.
"The chlorine in the salt," I said, "apparently has a much stronger affinity for the strange metal than it has for sodium. As soon as the two come in contact in an aqueous solution, the chlorine is torn away from the sodium, to unite with the other metal, forming the white crystals which are the chloride of the metal, and in which state it is stable in nature. The effervescing is caused by the escaping hydrogen displaced by the sodium as it unites with the water to form sodium hydroxide. It is plain that but very small quantities of of chlorine are necessary for the conversion of large areas of metal. It may be, also, that the process, once started, mysteriously rejuvenates itself in some way, like the mysterious 'disease' which attacks and often destroys old bronzes that have come in contact with saline solutions."
"We'll let the theories go for the present," he replied, "and broadcast the news. We'll tell 'em to use salt water, but also to try chlorinated water, potassium chloride, calcium chloride, hydrochloric acid—anything they happen to have handy that is a chlorine compound or solution."
"Have they captured Chicago yet?" I asked.
"They have every big city in the United States," he replied, "and many of the smaller ones. But they haven't taken the radios out of the homes, nor the salt. Excuse me while I broadcast. Boy, there's going to be some revolution!"
He went out to the radio room, and a steward brought in two large, juicy steaks, to which Dolores and I did full justice during his absence.
When he returned I submitted a plan which had occurred to me for attacking Coseguina. If it worked as I hoped it would, the communication between the upper and lower worlds would be severed forever.
All the rest of that day we were preparing for the attack—loading shells with wet salt and preparing special salt water bombs for the six small diving electroplanes which clung to the deck of each submarine. And while we made our preparations, we cruised slowly toward our objective.
IT was dark, and a steady rain was falling when we hove to about a mile from Coseguina Point. The huge metal dome above the crater gleamed brightly with each recurring flash of lightning. The rest of the time it showed merely as an immense, dark bulk, except at rare intervals when its lighted ports opened to admit or let out flying globes, speeding on the errands of the slimy lord of the nether world.
The upper works of twenty-four submarines silently emerged from the surface of the water. And like a frightened covey of quail there suddenly rose from the decks a hundred and forty-four diving electroplanes, their props and helicopters whirring.
There was an interval of four minutes, during which every submarine swung broadside, thus presenting simultaneously its front and rear turret guns toward the enemy.
When the four minutes were up the bombardment commenced. At first only the flashing of the guns and the bursting of the shells and bombs were visible, but soon great holes through which the light escaped began to appear in the dome.
Out of the dome swarmed the globes by thousands. But after a few volleys, the fleet again began to submerge. By the time the globes arrived, all were safely beneath the surface. The electroplanes, also, were well concealed, flying about in the rain clouds, high above the fast-dissolving dome.
The fleet now lined up with every prow pointed toward a narrow inlet that cut into the shore line. Something shot from the prow of the flagship and, traveling just beneath the surface, streaked straight for the inlet. It had not gone more than a quarter of a mile before a second torpedo from the boat next to it shot out with the same objective. The other boats discharged their torpedoes, each in turn, keeping them about a quarter of a mile apart.
Just as the fifth torpedo was launched, the first one struck the shore. There was a terrific explosion the shock of which came back through the water, jarring our ship tremendously. But when the debris had settled, the inlet was deeper by a full eighth of a mile. The second torpedo, following the path of the other unswervingly despite the agitation of the water, blasted away another eighth of a mile of earth, leaving a great hole into which the water rushed. And following these in rapid succession came the others, swiftly cutting a huge canal an eighth of a mile in width from the Pacific straight through the lava- clad shoulder of the volcano.
The great dome, meanwhile, was swiftly melting away—crumbling to white powder which was washed down by the rain. And whirling erratically about it, like mayflies around a street light, were the mighty fighting globes of Zet—impotent, utterly helpless against this attack by enemies they could not see or reach.
It took forty-five torpedos to blast the canal all the way to the shaft. But long before this was accomplished most of the huge metal dome had melted away.
With a swift rush of swirling waters, the mighty Pacific surged into the crater—formed a whirlpool just above the mouth of the shaft.
The diving electroplanes, no longer concerned about the dome, began attacking the globes, using hollow bullets filled with salt water in their machine guns. The submarines stuck the muzzles of their anti-aircraft guns up out of the water, and at_ each explosion of a well-aimed shell one or more of the globes was spattered with thick brine.
Flying globes, their shells eaten away as if by immense white cankers, fell into the water around us by hundreds. A few of them dived into the water-filled shaft. Several others hurtled away, to escape in the darkness. But most of them were destroyed.
The battle over, Dolores, Pat and I flew to Managua in one of the diving electroplanes. We found that the people had received our radio message and had acted promptly. The ring of flat domes that had encircled the city was a circle of white ruins. And the immense dome that had arisen in the center of the town was a mass of brown metal wreckage covered with white powder and strewed with the arm, neck and leg tentacles of defunct Teks.
Much of this had been accomplished by wet salt, fired from shotguns, rifles and pistols and much by hurled bottles filled with brine.
WE found President Monteiro established in temporary quarters until such time as a new capitol building could be constructed. He wept as he embraced Dolores and wrung the hands of Pat and me.
Messages were coming in over the radiovisiphone. Everywhere the Teks, globes, domes and equipment were being destroyed by the simple means we had discovered, and the Snal overlords were being killed or captured. In New York fireboats had sprayed brine on the great dome that dominated Manhattan from its place on the Battery. Everywhere globes and Teks had been destroyed with brine-filled shells and hollow projectiles filled with wet salt.
In Chicago the fire department had melted away the huge dome that squatted in the center of the Loop, by using chlorinated water. The metal shackles were dropping from the world. Millions of human slaves were being set free to return to homes and families.
While we were seated in President Monteiro's office, listening to the radiovisiphone announcements, a tall, huge-headed Snal prisoner was brought in. He had been riding in a flying globe, shot down by a band of Misskito Indians. To my surprise I recognized Hax, chief scientist of the Snals, who had been on a tour of inspection.
"So," he said, eyeing me coolly as I stared at him in surprise, "you discovered the secret of the metal. You have done well for a small-brained creature."
"The tears of a woman revealed it to me," I replied. "I don't profess to understand the thing now."
"The power of Zet is destroyed," he said, "nor do I greatly care. I was opposed to this conquest from the beginning. Now I am cut off from my world forever. I am willing to trade my scientific knowledge for a chance to live and continue my experiments."
"I believe the Associated Governments of the Earth will grant you that," said President Monteiro.
"I can make you flying globes," said Hax, "that will utilize the terrific power of the Earth's magnetic lines of force. I can show you how to construct metal servants—Teks—that will respond to your thought waves as readily as your own bodies. I can make you—"
"I doubt," said the president, dryly, "whether the world will want any of these. We'll see."
"One thing I can't understand," I said, "is why the crater of Coseguina cooled so rapidly."
"I'll explain that," said Hax, blinking at me through his huge lens. "We had always suspected the existence of the outer world, but never were we able to reach it. Our borings invariably entered strata of molten rock too hot to work. We had experienced many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but ours were always above, rather than below us. The vents always sealed themselves eventually by the slow cooling of the lava. But after the terrific eruption of Coseguina, which had poured out millions of tons of hot lava on the surface of our world, forming an immense cone that reached almost to the vault, our investigating scientists noticed that the vent did not seal itself after the lava flow ceased, and that our atmospheric pressure had increased as if another atmosphere had been superimposed on it.
"The vent was, at first, too hot for the Snals to investigate, but we sent our proxies, the Teks, in flying globes. Having ascertained that it led to an outer world, we cooled it swiftly with a spray of liquid helium—then lined it with a metal shaft impervious to further incursions of hot lava. What happened later was inevitable.
"As soon as we discovered that there were living, intelligent creatures in the outer world, Zet, ambitious conqueror of our world, laid his plans to conquer yours. I objected, but I was overruled.
"You know the rest, and I am hungry, thirsty and weary."
The president signed to the guards, who took him away.
* * *
Two years have passed since those events took place, yet I can see them as clearly as if they had occurred but yesterday. For three months after the canal was blasted through the wall of Coseguina, the Pacific continued to flow into the shaft. Then the whirlpool disappeared, and a level crater lake was formed. Hax told us that it was impossible for the nether world to have been completely filled with water in that time—that its inhabitants must have found some way to stem the flow.
He may be right. I do not know, nor do I care much, so long as its slimy intelligences are kept where they belong—in the dank, musty regions where they were evolved. For then I will feel more assurance about the future of a certain little curly-headed, brown-eyed fellow Dolores has just brought to my study, pajama-clad, to say "good night" to his daddy.
The years pass quickly, and it will not be long before Wallace, Jr., must shift for himself in the world that was saved by his mother's tears.
Note—Mycetozoan is formed from two Greek words, the first meaning "fungus" and the other meaning "animal." This won an old name for the fungus, myxomycetes, which was considered by some authorities to be an animal. The name myomycetes means slime fungus; the idea of the animal relationship is generally thrown out, although some still consider the fungus as belonging to the lowest order of animals. The dispute indicated is an old one. The English language name is slime moulds. They increase by division and finally aggregate or fuse into masses of protoplasm, called plasmodia. These masses are often found on decaying logs.
Title: The Revenge of the Robot Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301971h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
The Age of Miracles produces an amazing suicide and a triumphant return from death. A million dollar prize is offered—and won—for the most perfect automation. —Ed.
THE dessert had just been served at the annual banquet of the International Society of Robot Fabricators, where five thousand members of the society and their guests sat at a huge V-shaped table in the auditorium of the American Institute of Science on Chicago's lake front.
Orville Matthews, President of the United States, and himself a scientist of note, held a goblet close to the microphone before him, and tapped it gently with his spoon. The chatter of voices was instantly hushed as the sound was amplified in the vast auditorium.
The President stood up and shook back his mane of snow-white hair.
"Most of you," he said, "have some inkling of the announcement I am about to make, since the deliberations of our legislative body are not carried on in secret. You know that Congress voted an appropriation of one million dollars to be offered as a prize for the most outstanding achievement in science during the year 1999, the prize to be paid on January 1st, 2000, and the nature of the achievement to be determined by the President and his Cabinet.
"We have made vast strides in scientific achievement during the past fifty years. For instance, my good friend, Herr Doktor Ludwig Meyer, came here from Berlin in less than an hour in his stratosphere rocket plane. My friend Sir Chauncey Newcomb of London made it here in less than half an hour by patronizing the Transatlantic Vacuum Tunnel System.
"We have-many other splendid conveniences and inventions which, fifty years ago, were only dreamed of, but which to us of today are commonplace. However, there is one thing which man has not yet invented—a machine that will think for itself—a robot that will not merely respond to the orders of its controller, but will, in addition, reason inductively and deductively—a machine that will think analytically, creatively, and independently.
"The robot that wins this great prize must be constructed in the semblance of a human, being. It must not be subject to any outside control but, as I have said, must do its own thinking and direct its own actions. In case such a robot is not constructed, the prize money will be returned to the Treasury of the United States. If more than one such robot is constructed, the one which most perfectly simulates man physically, and which shows the strongest and most desirable mental characteristics, will win the prize.
"The competition is open to people of all nations, and I trust that every robot inventor will decide to compete. You have one year in which to perfect such a robot. Permit me to wish you luck."
The thunderous applause which greeted the President's announcement was followed by a thousand heated arguments. Many contended that such a robot was an impossibility. Others felt that it might be constructed, but a year was a very short time in which to perfect it.
There was one scientist who did not join in the discussion. Albert Bradshaw had devoted twenty of the thirty years of his life to intensive laboratory work, with the result that he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. In spite of the slow wastage of the disease, he was strikingly handsome—the hectic flush rather heightening the youthful appearance of his face.
His frank blue eyes were filled with devotion as he looked down into the sparkling black ones of his vivacious dinner companion and nurse, Yvonne D'Arcy. Tonight her appearance was far from professional, with her glossy black hair done in the latest mode, and her smart evening gown that tastefully set off her youthful charms.
"Enjoying it?" he asked her.
"So much," she smiled. "But we must go now. The exertion and excitement aren't good for you."
"All right," he answered agreeably. "Let's go."
Many admiring pairs of eyes followed the handsome couple as they made their way toward the checkroom. Among these were a pair of near-sighted grey eyes, peering through a thick-lensed pince-nez. Their look of admiration, however, was for the girl alone. For the man they had only an envious, malignant glare. Hugh Grimes, millionaire inventor of the Grimes Radio-Controlled Robots, which were employed by millions both in the United States and abroad, adjusted his pince-nez, stroked his neatly trimmed Van Dyke, and replied abstractedly to a statement made by the beefy, pendant-jowled Dr. Ludwig Meyer of Berlin, who sat at his right. Then, excusing himself, he rose and marched in the wake of the young couple who had just left their table.
There was a deadly glitter in his weak, watery eyes as he contemplated the back of the young man before him. As if to reassure himself, he dipped thumb and forefinger into his vest pocket and caressed a small, globular object that nestled there.
ALBERT BRADSHAW returned to his home weak and exhausted; yet he insisted on going into his laboratory to resume his work on the two figures, one in the semblance of a man, and the other a woman, which had occupied his working hours during the past ten years.
He bent over the male figure before him, and removed the wig and skull-case, revealing an intricate maze of delicate wheels, springs, bulbs and tubes. Then he went to the spotless white sink, and, reaching above it, took down from the shelf a bottle marked "Solution X-4, 337." Unstopping the bottle, he poured a small quantity of the solution into a test tube. From an airtight container he extracted a thin strip of blue litmus paper.
Suddenly there was a crash and a tinkle of glass from the- window across the room directly behind him, followed by the plop of a small globe which shattered against the enameled back of the sink.
Before he had time to hold his breath, Bradshaw inhaled a whiff of the iridescent greenish gas which mushroomed out from the shattered globe. A searing pain shot through his nasal passages, throat and lungs. He instantly expelled his breath, then held it, and whirled in time to catch sight of a bearded face twisted in a malignant grin. A pair of nearsighted eyes glittered at him through a pince-nez. Then the face disappeared.
Suddenly Bradshaw noted that the litmus in his hand had turned pink. Dropping it, he reached up, seized a bottle marked "Ammonia" and smashed it in the sink. Then, with his seared, disease-weakened lungs nearly bursting with the agony of holding his breath, he dashed out of the laboratory.
In the hallway he collided with Yvonne. He collapsed in her aims a moment later as she sought to steady him.
"Acid gas of some sort," he groaned. "Tried to neutralize it with ammonia."
Quickly she brought a cushion from the davenport propped it under his head.
"The doctor should be here any minute on his regular visit," she said, "but I'll call him, anyway."
She hurried to the radiovisiphone, and pressed a button. When the disc was illuminated she twirled a dial in a combination of four letters and six numbers.
The rugged, homely features of a young man appeared in the disc.
"What's the matter, Yvonne?" he asked? "Patient worse?"
"He's just inhaled poison gas," she gasped. "Do hurry, Doctor."
"Be right over," he replied, and the disc once more went dark.
Through the window behind the disc she saw two men loading something into the back of a helicopter limousine. A third, whom she recognized as Hugh Grimes, climbed in behind the controls, and the craft roared upward.
A moment later the whir of the physician's helicopter coupe was audible outside the window. Then young Dr. Frank Gunning came dashing up the steps and through the door.
Bradshaw was breathing convulsively, his face twisted in agony. There was a bluish tinge around his mouth.
"Cyanosis," said the young doctor, after a brief examination. "We'll have to administer oxygen and a stimulant."
He picked up the patient and carried him to his bedroom. For more than two hours he and the nurse worked over Bradshaw with the portable oxygen set. Then the blue area around the mouth began to disappear.
A sedative was given, and the tortured patient slept while the doctor made a complete examination with his portable Super X-Ray fluoroscope.
Yvonne tiptoed out behind the doctor when he left, and stopped him in the hallway.
"Is there any chance for him?" she asked steadily.
"It's tough, Yvonne." His voice was brusque. "Al has about six months to live. That gas burned most of the healthy lung tissue that remains to him."
Yvonne caught her breath, and turned away to hide the tears that flooded her great dark eyes. The doctor pretended not to notice.
"By the way," he said, "how did he happen to breathe that poison gas? Was it a laboratory accident?"
"Worse," she replied. "It—it was premeditated murder. Hugh Grimes' work. He came here often, discussing his theories with Albert. Albert foolishly showed him his new robots. I think he was afraid Albert's creations might replace his own—also, that they might win the prize."
"Professional jealousy, eh?"
The voice of Albert Bradshaw broke into their conversation with unexpected suddenness. They whirled, and saw him standing in the doorway behind them, supporting himself against the jamb.
"Albert! You must get back to bed at once," admonished Yvonne.
"Not until I've had a look in the laboratory," replied Bradshaw.
"Take it easy, old man. I'll carry you." The doctor moved quickly to his side.
"No, damn it! I'm not done in yet. I'll walk."
Bradshaw gritted his teeth, and, supported by the nurse on one side and the doctor on the other, made his unsteady way down the hall to the laboratory. Cautiously Gunning opened the door and sniffed. There was a faint odor of ammonia—nothing more.
"I guess it's diluted enough so we can go in," he said. "Must be a window open."
There was. Two French windows, one with a shattered pane, were wide open. It had been easy for the marauder to reach in from the terrace and unfasten the catch.
Bradshaw pointed a shaking hand toward the center of the room. "Just as I suspected," he cried. "The robots are gone! And look there at my molds!"
The two elaborately constructed molds which he had used over and over in casting experimental male and female figures were smashed beyond repair.
Bradshaw sagged weakly. "Help me back to bed," he groaned." His eyes burned feverishly. "That devil has set me back temporarily, but he hasn't beaten me yet."
Once they had him back in bed, the doctor said: "This is a case for the police. We'll prefer charges of attempted murder and robbery against Grimes."
"We'll do nothing of the sort," Bradshaw .told him. "I don't want either of you to say a word about this—not until I tell you to. I'll beat Grimes in my own way. All I need is to rest and gather a little strength. Now, Doc, give me a sedative and get the hell out of here."
AFTER two weeks of careful nursing by Yvonne, supplemented by daily calls from Dr. Gunning, Albert Bradshaw went back to his laboratory.
"Molds!" he told Yvonne. "I must have new ones, immediately. It will mean days lost—weeks—no, wait. I have a better plan."
"What is that?"
"You and I will do very well for models. All we need is some plaster of Paris and vaseline. The old cases can easily be repaired. I'll make a mold from your body, and you make one from mine."
"Splendid!" she answered. "That will be a great time-saver."
They made the molds that day, and on the following day Bradshaw went feverishly to work. In the weeks that followed, he was often interrupted by prolonged coughing spells, most of which ended in hemorrhages, but he carried resolutely on.
Five months elapsed before he had the bodies ready. He then started work on the heads; and, in the midst of this work, collapsed.
Yvonne immediately called Dr. Gunning, and the physician came in a hurry. He found his patient unconscious, and after making an examination shook his head dubiously.
"If he gets through another twenty-four hours, I'll be amazed," he said. "Al is through. If it hadn't been for that gas, he might have got through to see his robots tested. - As it is—" Carefully he prepared his hypodermic syringe, while Yvonne bared and sterilized an emaciated arm. Then he shot the needle home. Presently a touch of color came to the white cheeks, and the breathing became more regular. Bradshaw's eyes opened.
"Doc," he said, "you practice at the Emergency Hospital. Do you suppose you could get me two people—a man and a woman—" He was interrupted by a violent fit of coughing, and Yvonne gently wiped a trickle of red from the corner of his mouth.
"Al, I hate to tell you this," the doctor said gently, "but you're about through. Hugh Grimes is your murderer—"
With a sudden surge of strength the sick man sat up. "I have a plan to be revenged on Grimes. You two can help me. You must!"
"What is It, dear?" Yvonne asked. Bradshaw sank back exhausted upon the pillow. When he spoke again, his voice was so weak that it was almost inaudible. The two people he held most dear, Yvonne, his beloved, and Gunning, his friend, bent low that they might catch his dying message.
HUGH GRIMES rose late the next morning. After his bath and breakfast he twirled the dial of the radiovisiphone beside him. It was time for the morning news broadcast of the International Newscasters.
The announcer appeared on the disc, holding a manuscript.
"Albert Bradshaw, known the world over for his marvelous inventions, passed on last night. His death was the culmination of a long, brave battle against pulmonary tuberculosis."
Grimes smiled. "Too bad," he told his valet. "Poor chap has had a tough time of it. And yet, it's an ill wind that blows nobody good. It will mean just one less major competitor in the robot field."
"Yes, sir. Quite so, sir," the valet replied. "All finished, sir."
"Good! I'll go now and see how my robots are coming on."
He spent the next few hours in his laboratory. There were two robots there, a male and a female figure—the robots he had stolen from Bradshaw's laboratory, and changed somewhat to disguise their identity. In the afternoon he ordered an expensive wreath sent to the home of Bradshaw. The following day he attended the funeral, viewed Bradshaw's cold remains in the flower-banked casket, and extended his condolences to relatives, close friends, and the heart-broken Yvonne.
Time passed very slowly for Hugh Grimes, but eventually the great day arrived—the day of the contest.
Again five thousand people were seated at a V-shaped table in the auditorium of the Institute of Arts and Sciences. And again President Matthews presided. A space had been cleared in the center of the V, so that all might view the antics of the robots.
Grimes sat across the table from Yvonne D'Arcy. She was radiantly beautiful in her dinner gown of black trimmed with silver. At her left was the burly young doctor, looking just a bit uncomfortable in his dinner clothes.
Now the President was calling the meeting to order. The hum of conversation ceased. Lights were dimmed, and a spotlight cast a huge white circle on the cleared space between the tables.
Le Blanc, the French inventor, was the first to put his robot through its paces. It made a speech, did staggering sums in arithmetic without paper or pencil, and even wrote its name. It read passages from a French novel, sang and wrote a number of sentences dictated by its inventor. Then the President gave it a set of facts, and asked it what conclusion it reached from these facts. The conclusion was illogical.
"Ze Gallic mind," Le Blanc hastened to explain. "We are not a logical people; we are people of what you call ze emotion, not ze reason."
The President and his Cabinet, acting as judges, looked incredulous. A bevy of scientists examined the mechanism of the robot. A psychologist was called in. After deliberating, they decided that the robot was operated by a device which amplified the power of telekinesis—that power by which mediums levitate ponderable matter without touching it—and that it was controlled by telepathy—a mechanical recipient en rapport with some human agent. The psychologist quickly located the agent—a young lady who had accompanied Le Blanc.
"I suggest," said President Matthews, "that if they are any other entries similarly controlled, they be immediately withdrawn, for they will surely be discovered. Remember, to win this contest the robot must reason for itself! There can be no outside control of any kind!"
A number of entries were immediately withdrawn. However, Dr. Ludwig Meyer of Berlin did not hesitate for a moment. He had entered eight robots.
They came goose-stepping out into the spotlight, dressed like soldiers of the World War, with steel helmets, rifles and bayonets.
"Mein schildren, giff a demonstration of the trench fighting during the Vorld Var," commanded Dr. Meyer. "Broceed."
The robots instantly divided into two parties, four on a side, and savagely attacked each other with fixed bayonets. One by one, they went down, until only one robot with a battered helmet and torn sleeve remained standing.
"Hans," said the doctor, addressing the remaining robot, "come here."
The robot goose-stepped toward the doctor and stood stiffly at attention.
"Vill you question him, Mr. President?" Dr. Meyer suggested.
"How old are you, Hans?" the President asked.
"Six months," was the ready reply.
"Quite a big boy for your age. You speak English well."
"I speak many languages und I speak all of them veil."
At this point one of the judges nudged the President.
"Don't look now," he said, "but when you question the robot, observe the doctor. He always holds that big seal ring on his right hand near his mouth."
"But you speak English with a German accent, Hans," continued the President with a smile-.
"Dot's because German iss my native tongue," Hans replied promptly.
The President glanced slyly at the doctor, and observed that he had raised the ring to his lips.
"May I see that ring you are wearing, Herr Doktor," the judge asked politely.
"Look at it if you vant too," the doctor replied, "but don't remove it from my finger. I've made a vow sever to take it off."
"Don't tell me you are superstitious, Doctor." Carefully the judge examined the ring which the scientist held before him. He had palmed a small jeweler's screw driver, and suddenly he brought it into play, with the result that a monogrammed hinged lid sprang upward, revealing the hollow interior of the ring.
The scientist withdrew his hand with an oath, and his florid jowls turned a deep purple.
WHAT did you see in the ring?" the President asked.
"A radio transmitter, Mr. President," was the reply.
"We have located a radio receiving set in the robot," called one of the others.
Without a word Dr. Meyer rose and waddled toward the door. One by one, his fallen robots arose and goose-stepped after him, Hans bringing up the rear. As Hans went out the door he turned, placed his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers at the assemblage, producing a gale of laughter.
"Now we come to the entry of Hugh Grimes," announced the President when the laughter had subsided. "I believe you have two robots, Mr. Grimes. Where are they?"
"They have been in this room for some time, witnessing the ludicrous performance staged by the learned Herr Doktor Meyer," Grimes replied.
A young couple, wearing evening clothes, arose from the end of the table where they had been sitting for the past fifteen minutes, and walked into white circle of light.
A murmur of astonishment went up from the audience. Those who had observed the entrance of the couple, and had seen them conversing with animation while they laughed at the antics of the learned doctor's robots, were more than astounded— they were awe-stricken.
"You don't mean to tell us that these two are robots!" exclaimed the President.
"I most assuredly do," replied Grimes. "And before the demonstration takes place, I insist that I be searched by your radio experts and that you put two of your best psychologists near me. I want it absolutely proved that I am not controlling them either by mental or electrical means."
"Very well, we'll have you searched," answered the President. "And while we're at it, we'll have the couple examined to see if they really are mechanical beings."
The examination was conducted, and the examiners pronounced themselves satisfied with Grimes and the two figures.
Young Doctor Gunning nudged Yvonne. "Those are the robots stolen from Al's laboratory?"
"Yes," she whispered in reply. "No one but Albert ever made robots so nearly perfect."
"Now that the examiners are satisfied," said Grimes, "permit me to introduce Gwendolyn and Percival. If the orchestra will play a waltz, they will dance for you."
The orchestra obliged, and the robots waltzed gracefully about in the circle of light. Then Percival held up his hand for silence.
"My partner and I," he said, "challenge the two best bridge players in the house to a game. If there is any doubt in your minds that we can reason intelligently, I think we can readily allay it."
A table and cards were brought, and two volunteer bridge players took their places. Both men were members of the Cabinet and judges of the contest, and both were acknowledged the two best bridge players of their set.
At first, the two Cabinet members appeared to underrate the prowess of their mechanical adversaries. Presently, however, they began to wear worried frowns, and before long both threw down their hands in defeat.
"It's absolutely uncanny," said Andrew Gorman, Secretary of Agriculture. "They seem to read our minds."
"Are there any further questions, Mr. President?" asked Percival. "Do you wish us to submit to further examination?"
"One moment, please." The President turned to confer with the two discomfited Cabinet members, and also summoned the technicians.
Hugh Grimes looked on with a triumphant smile. Presently he became aware that someone had slipped unobtrusively into a chair beside Yvonne. He glanced closely at the man, and his face blanched at what he saw. For the man was either Albert Bradshaw, or his twin! He had the same sunken chest, the deep blue eyes, the hollow cheeks with their consumptive flush. The man even raised his hand to cover a cough, in the manner so characteristic of Albert Bradshaw.
Yet Hugh Grimes had seen the fellow lying dead in his coffin seven months before—had seen the coffin closed, and had later witnessed the cremation!
The man turned and whispered something to Dr. Gunning, who got up and strode toward the door from which the various robots had emerged.
Then Grimes tore his fascinated gaze away from this twin of his murdered rival as he heard the President speaking:
"It is the opinion of the judges," said President Matthews, "that the robots Percival and Gwendolyn, created by that famous scientist Hugh Grimes, fulfill all the conditions necessary for the winning of the prize. If there are no further entries, we will consider the contest closed, and award the prize."
He looked around the room.
Suddenly the twin of Albert Bradshaw stood up.
"Mr. President," he said, "there is another entry. I request that you hold the. contest open a few moments longer."
"Whose entry?" the President asked. "And who are you?"
"The entry of Albert Bradshaw." The second question went unanswered.
"But Bradshaw died several months ago," the President answered.
"Does that disqualify him?"
The President turned to his fellow judges, and conferred with them for a moment.
"No, it doesn't disqualify him. Produce the entry,"
"I am that entry," was the reply. The President stared at the speaker for a moment.
"By the Lord Harry!" he gasped. "It's Bradshaw himself, come to life!" The newcomer pushed back his chair and strode out into the spotlight.
"As I previously informed you," he said, "I am Bradshaw's entry—Bradshaw's reasoning robot, if you please.
I am not going to do any card tricks for you. But I am going to expose the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on a group of gullible scientists. Hugh Grimes, do you mind having your two entries step once more into the spotlight?"'
"Why—er—not at all." Grimes nervously adjusted his pince-nez. "Percival. Gwendolyn'. Come here." The two robots that had put on such a convincing performance a moment before remained motionless.
"You will notice that they do not respond," said Bradshaw's entry. "It is because they are controlled from outside, and that control has been broken."
At this moment young Doctor Gunning stepped into the spotlight, grasping a frightened young man by his coat collar.
"This man," continued the Bradshaw robot, "is Grimes' laboratory assistant, Carl Overton. I believe his name is known to all of you, since he is the international bridge champion. Bring him here, will you, Doctor?" Expertly, he went through the pockets of the young man, and produced two flat rectangular objects studded with a number of buttons and each topped by a small visiphone disc.
"Those robots were stolen from Bradshaw, who made the control boxes I now hold, after Grimes had attempted to murder him with poison gas—an attempt which resulted in his death five months later. These robots cannot reason for themselves; therefore they are ineligible to win the prize which you were so ready to award them. I will let them tell you their own astonishing story."
He manipulated several buttons on the control boxes, and the two rigid robots immediately came to life. Clasping hands, they ran out into the spotlight.
"We were created by Albert Bradshaw," said Percival.
"And Mr. Grimes stole us from Mr. Bradshaw's laboratory," said Gwendolyn.
Grimes' face blanched. He rose to steal away, but two burly Secret Service men seized his arms and forcibly seated him.
Grimes broke a window and hurled a poison gas bomb through," continued Percival; "He didn't try to hide his face from Bradshaw, as he thought the latter would surely die in horrible agony. The fact that Bradshaw was holding a strip of blue litmus paper temporarily prolonged his life. The paper was turned red by the acid gas, and he broke a bottle of ammonia, thereby neutralizing it and preventing it from searing him further. Had it not been for this, he would never have been able to reach the door."
"When Mr, Bradshaw left the laboratory," continued Gwendolyn, "Grimes had two of his men carry us away."
"That's so," broke in Yvonne D'Arcy. "I saw Grimes and two men load both robots into the helicopter limousine and roar away."
"Enough," said President Matthews. Mr. Grimes, you are under arrest for murder, robbery and fraud. Mr. Overton, you also are under arrest for complicity.
"And now, Mr. Bradshaw, or Mr. Bradshaw's entry, as you choose to call yourself, you have not proved to us that you are a robot, independently thinking." ~
"Both points are easily proven, Mr. President," smiled the robot, advancing. He rolled up a sleeve, and taking a knife from his pocket, slit the skin of an arm. It did not bleed, and the muscles and tendons revealed beneath were undeniably artificial. Then he opened his shirt front, slit his chest, and revealed mechanism.
"You are undoubtedly a robot," admitted the President. "Now, will you be good enough to show us your reasoning mechanism?"
"First," said the robot, "I will tell you what Bradshaw discovered after more than twenty years of research. There can be no reasoning or thought without life. All life as we know it is a combination of two things—mind and matter. We have never been able to discover any form of life that is not a combination of both. The brain is not the mind, but in human beings it is the medium through which it makes itself manifest. Behold!"
He snatched off the blond wig and skull-case. The astounded onlookers saw a human brain snugly encased in a transparent skull-shaped receptacle. Tenuous, fine strands, almost invisible, extended in an intricate network over the delicate brain membranes. The hairlike strands almost completely covered the cerebellum and cerebrum, converging in the sickle-shaped partition of the falx cerebri, which divides the two hemispheres of the cerebrum. The entire brain was immersed in some viscous solution, and the fascinated audience could see it envelop the exposed furrows and convolutions.
The robot continued: "At first it was the intention of Bradshaw to obtain the brains of two individuals at the point of death, one a male and the other a female, and preserve them in this solution, which prevents organic tissue from wearing out and which also provides enough nourishment to last each brain a thousand years. Once destroyed, cells do not replace themselves—and they feed very slowly. Bradshaw perfected his solution after years of experimentation with the brains of lower animals.
"Science has proven that thought impulses are electrical in nature. Bradshaw effected a way to isolate the multiple thousands of nerve fibres, neurilemma, ganglia, axons and other essential parts of the nervous system. The olfactory nerves, the optic, auditory, motor, hypoglossal and other of the cranial nerves—all are connected to mechanical muscles, and the slightest electrical impulse motivates the mechanical robot. The brain, of course, gives off these electrical impulses.
"But before Bradshaw could obtain the two brains, he found himself at the point of death. He called upon his two friends, Frank Gunning, the surgeon, and Yvonne D'Arcy, his nurse, to transplant his brain in this solution.
"Mr. President, judges and spectators of this contest—as you may readily see, I am a robot physically. Mentally, I am Albert Bradshaw. Since there was no specification in the contest rules that organic as well as inorganic matter might not be used, I submit that I am the robot for which you offered the grand prize—the reasoning robot."'
The President turned and conferred with his Cabinet members for a few moments. Then he stood up.
"It is the unanimous opinion of the judges of this contest that the prize of one million dollars be awarded to the robot of Albert Bradshaw," he announced.
"I thank you, Mr. President and gentlemen," bowed the robot. "And now, since I am to depart once and for all upon that greatest of all adventures, death, I will first make a few bequests. To you, Mr. President, I hand my complete plans and formula for the construction of reasoning robots. By the employment of these plans and formulae, everyone who wishes to do so and whose brain is not too badly injured, may add to his short span of physical life a thousand useful years.
"One half of the prize—five hundred thousand dollars, I set aside for a fund to be devoted to the manufacture of reasoning robots. The other half I bequeath to my friends, Dr. Frank Gunning and Yvonne D'Arcy. I once thought that Yvonne loved me with a devotion that would endure, but now, since I have become a robot, I see how it is between these two, that it was my friend the doctor whom she really loved—so I wish much happiness to both.
"You will now see a demonstration of the way a reasoning robot can end his existence any time he cares to do so."
He took a small hammer from his coat pocket, and raised it over his head.
"Are there any questions before I break this glass shell that will release me?"
There was a scream from Yvonne. She ran up to him, caught his arm and snatched the hammer away.
"So! You thought I didn't love you, Albert!" she cried. "You were always inclined to be obtuse where women were concerned, however brilliant in other ways. I'll show you whether I loved you. Look!"
She snatched at her hair, tore a glossy black wig away, together with a skull- case, revealing another brain suspended in a glass container.
"I am a robot," she cried, "the robot you molded with your own hands! Do you want more proof than this?"
"But how—" stammered the bewildered Bradshaw.
"After Dr. Gunning had removed your brain and sealed it in the container," she said, "I asked him to do the same with mine. He refused. Said it would be murder and tried to dissuade me. For months I begged him to perform the operation. That is why you saw us so much together. Finally, in desperation yesterday, I swallowed a corrosive chemical that would burn out my abdominal organs without injuring my brain. The doctor tried to use a stomach pump. I fought him off until he knew it was too late to save my life.
"When at last I sank to the floor, in agony, he agreed to perform the operation, and mercifully administered the anesthetic. I awoke as I am now—a robot—your robot. Don't you want me, dear?"
Bradshaw clapped on his own wig and skull case, and gently replaced those of Yvonne.
Suddenly he caught the slight, black-haired figure in his arms.
"Darling, I want you for a thousand years."
Title: The Thing That Walked in the Rain Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301981h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
NOT so long ago it was a common thing to hear lengthy "discussions about glands—all kinds of glands—anywhere at all. But though the subject of ductless glands has gone beyond the "fad" stage, gland experts continue their serious and intensive experiments. Much has recently been established as fact in the field of possibilities, but the science of glands is still in its infancy. It is hard to say what strides it will make in the near future. Our well-known author needs no introduction to our readers. Obviously, though, he has made a study of the subject of glands, and he gives us his findings in a most absorbing bit of scientific fiction. We know this tale will gain Mr. Kline many new readers.—Ed.
IT all comes back to me as I take up my pen—a horrid shriek of pain and terror from high in the air, an enormous thing, taller than a tree, silhouetted against a background of lightning-illuminated storm clouds, like some gigantic tumble-weed, striding over the jungle, walking on its branches. And weaving high above the tree tops in the grip of those branches, a limp and helpless human being.
Again I feel a great, green snaky think strike me—knock me down, A band of stinging, burning agony, encircles my body. I hammer it ineffectually with my empty gun.
Once more I see Anita, hopeless terror in her eyes, a green arm around her slender waist, dragged away with incredible swiftness.
But I must begin at the beginning.
CERRO VERDINEGRO is only one of the lesser volcanic peaks that clutter tip the Nicaraguan landscape in such generous numbers. But to the members of our party, trudging doggedly toward it through the dense tropical jungle, it had an importance out of all proportion to its diminutive size.
Pedro Ortiz, our guide, a swarthy mestizo with a thin, carefully trained black moustache, an admirable tenor voice and a penchant for flamboyant raiment, usually avoided speaking its name, when he had occasion to refer to our destination, but merely mentioned it as "that mountain," or "that place." When its name was spoken in his presence he invariably crossed himself piously with a fervent: "Maria Madre preserve us!"
The two Misskito Indians whose keen machetes were carving the way for us, and the eighteen others who trudged behind in single, file, bearing our supplies, had grown more fearful day by day as we drew nearer our destination, so we were kept in constant trepidation lest they bolt and leave us stranded.
Tall, gaunt, bespectacled and bewhiskered, Professor Charles Mabrey, explorer and naturalist, had undertaken the leadership of the expedition for the purpose of clearing up the mystery surrounding the strange disappearance of his friend and colleague, Dr. Fernando de Orellana. And he made it plain that he did not, for one moment, countenance the weird, incredible story which linked that disappearance with the traditional mystery of the extinct volcano. It was his frank and unalterable opinion that the doctor had been murdered by the natives, and that they had invented the outré story of a man-eating monster inhabiting the crater lake purely to shield themselves from punishment. Although I had called his attention to the fact that as soon as the doctor had disappeared the natives had sent a runner to Managua to announce the fact, and that it did not seem likely they would do such a thing, if they had killed him, his only retort was that it was obvious I was not conversant with the complex ramifications of native cunning.
But to one member of our party, ' was a mountain of tragedy—a tomb, perhaps, that concealed the remains of a beloved parent. Anita de Orellana, motherless for many years, and now a full orphan if the native report of her father's death were true, bravely bore the rigors and hardships of our expedition despite the fact that she had been gently raised—had, in fact, been called from a young ladies' school in New York by the news of her father's strange disappearance. She appeared so small, so slight, so fragile, that often on the trail I felt like picking up the slender, khaki-clad form, as one might pick up and carry a tired child. In her big brown eyes, which she endeavored to keep cheerful, I frequently detected the hint of tears which she bravely hut vainly tried to suppress.
As for me, Jimmie Brown, the least important member of the party, I had joined the expedition at the invitation of Professor Mabrey, my friend and companion of many a jaunt into strange places and dangerous situations. I may as well confess that my hobby is exploration, and my means of livelihood a portable typewriter and a camera. There is a strain of the Celt in me, which perhaps accounts for my penchant for adventure, as well as for my red hair, blue eyes, and scant sprinkling of freckles. To me, the peak of ' was, at first, merely another adventure. But after I came to know Anila, it was something more. A mystery that must be solved. Perhaps a death to be avenged. The professor had introduced us at the dock and we had become acquainted on the voyage to Nicaragua.
As we suddenly emerged from the humid jungle into the clearing where the native huts were clustered, Cerro Verdi negro loomed tip, sinister, menacing gigantic in its nearness. Our last view of the mountain, previous to our plunge into the jungle, had been from a distance of more than ten miles, from which it appeared in a blue haze. On close observation the reason for its name was manifest, for the vegetation that covered its sloping sides was a darker green than that of the surrounding country—probably, the professor told us, because its soil was more fertile.
On entering the village we were greeted by barking dogs, pot-bellied brown- skinned children, slouching, greasy looking squaws in various states of undress, and their no more attractive appearing lords and masters.
Pedro addressed a few words to a white-haired and exceedingly wrinkled old fellow, who pointed toward a path which led up the mountainside, and beside which a little stream trickled. Leaving the natives still gaping and chattering, we filed away between the small gardens of squash and beans, and on up the slope, following a path which cut through the riotous tangle of dark green vegetation.
After about a half hour of climbing, we came to a small clearing, in the center of which was a cottage with a screened porch. Near the cottage was the source of the little stream we had been following—a clear spring that gushed from the mountain side. Opposite this, was a native hut. A neglected, weed- choked garden mutely attested the recent cessation of human care. The dark green rim of the crater loomed not more than a quarter of a mile above us.
Dropping their burdens, our carriers grouped themselves around Pedro and began chattering vociferously. The professor led the way into the cottage. Anita and I followed.
Although the doors were unlocked, it was apparent that nothing had been disturbed. The professor pooh-poohed the idea of native honesty, but believed this singular phenomenon might be due to superstitious fear.
WE found ourselves in a large and roughly but comfortably furnished room, the walls of which were lined with books. A homemade desk, table and filing cabinet occupied one corner. Three doors other than that which led from the porch were cut into the walls. One led to a small bedroom in which there was a cot surrounded by mosquito netting. Another led to a larger room, evidently the doctor's laboratory, the shelves of which were filled with bottles, jars and boxes. It was equipped with a number of small tanks, a large table on which were a compound microscope, numerous retorts and test tubes, and other paraphernalia of the biologist, bacteriologist and biochemist.
The third door led into a small kitchen, equipped with an oil stove, a small sink, table and chairs. It contained a considerable quantity of tinned supplies, neatly arranged on the shelves. The table had been set for one, and the dishes held the dried remains of a meal which apparently had not been touched.
"It is evident, Anita," said the professor, gently, "that whatever took your father away did so quite unexpectedly. There are no signs of violence, so a ruse of some sort must have been used, tie was about to sit down to this meal, no doubt, when called outside on some pretext. But he never returned to finish the meal."
The girl's eyes filled with tears.
"Poor, dear Dad," she said. "He was always so good to me, and I need him so."
"There, there, my dear. I know just how you feel." The professor spoke soothingly, and put his arm around her shoulders. In a moment she was sobbing in the hollow of his khaki-clad arm.
I felt a queer lump rising in my throat. It was the first time I had heard her cry.
At this moment, Pedro came in.
"Pardon, senor," he said to the professor, "but those damn' Misskitos raise too mooch hal outside."
"What's wrong, Pedro?" asked the professor, patting the girl's head consolingly.
"They say mus' go long way by dark. They would like to 'ave the pay, now."
"Go a long way? Why?"
"They 'fraid thees mountain." Here Pedro rolled his eyes and crossed himself.
"To be sure. I had forgotten." The professor released Anita, who had stilled her sobbing and was gazing at Pedro, tears trembling on her long, curved lashes. "Tell them I'll come out and pay them right away." Pedro returned the questioning look of Anita with an expression of dog-like devotion. Fearful as he was of the mysterious mountain, I believe it was this devotion to Anita, more than the money we paid him, that kept him from leaving us.
He bowed politely to Mabrey:
"Si, senor. I tal them."
We followed him outside a moment later, and the professor opened a pocket of his money belt. One by one, he handed each Indian his wages. When he had paid the last man, he addressed Pedro.
"Ask them," he said, "if there are any brave men among them."
Our guide spoke to the group collectively, and a vociferous chattering began, which lasted for some time. Presently it quieted down, and Pedro said:
"They say, senor, that they are all brave men. But they say, also, that they cannot fight a monster taller than a tree, weeth a thousan' legs, and eet foolish to try.
"Tell them that we are going to try, and ask if there are two of them willing to stay if their daily wages are doubled."
More chattering, and presently two men wearing the air of martyrs stepped out of the ranks, while the others filed away, traveling with far greater speed than they had ever attained during our journey.
"Quarter them in the hut," ordered the professor.
"And now," he said, turning lo Anita and me, "we'll get settled, and then down to business."
THAT afternoon, when our luggage had been stowed away and we had partaken of a very satisfactory meal prepared by Anita in her father's kitchen, the three of us, Anita, Mabrey and I, started to follow the well-worn path which led over the crater rim. Pedro and the two Misskitos, squatting around their cook-fire before the hut, watched us depart with ominous glances, much as if we were being led before a firing squad.
When we reached the rim, we looked down upon a lake of glassy smoothness, which faithfully mirrored the sky and the encircling crater. So peaceful and beautiful did it appear, that the idea of a man-destroying monster inhabiting its pellucid depths seemed ridiculous.
"This lake, according to an old tradition," said the professor, "is bottomless, and inhabited by a terrible monster, which emerges from the water on rainy nights, searches until it has found a human victim, and returns to its watery lair deep in the bowels of the earth. Natives who profess to have seen this awful creature say it is taller and bigger than a tree and has a thousand snaky heads. Many years ago, the story goes, beautiful maidens with stones tied to their feet were thrown into the lake at regular intervals decided by the priests. These sacrifices, it is said, prevented the monster from leaving its lair and raiding the villages.
"With the advent of Christianity, the priests of the new religion abolished the custom, and it is said that for many years the monster again committed its terrible depredations. Then, so the story goes, it slept for three hundred years. But of late, it is said, the monster has awakened, and recommenced its raids on the populace. And now, when any man, woman or child disappears during a rainstorm, the monster is blamed and the new priests are cursed. There are, of course, boas, anacondas, jaguars and pumas in these jungles, but their depredations are never taken into account. I am inclined to think that the entire myth may have been started by the raids of an enormous boa, which is a water-loving snake, and often reaches a size that renders it fully capable of crushing and devouring a human being.
"So much for the legend. Now for the facts."
We descended the path which led down to the margin of the lake. It wound through a thick growth of trees and shrubs, the size of which attested their great age and the tremendous length of time which had elapsed since the volcano had last erupted. At the rim of the lake, the path turned to the right, following the water's edge.
The professor, who was in the lead, suddenly uttered an exclamation of surprise and increased his pace. Hurrying after him, I too gasped in amazement at what I saw. For there in that setting of jungle growth was a weather-worn stone structure so skillfully wrought that it might have been the product of an advanced civilization. Rising to a height of about twenty-five feet above the surface of the lake, and with half of its base jutting out into the water, was a stone structure which supported on its top, a huge rock slab, one end of which projected out over the lake like a diving board. A flight of steps led up to the top from the rear.
Just behind this, sunk into the stone paving in the shape of a crescent moon was a stone reservoir filled with water. Each point of the crescent brought up almost at the margin of the lake, where a slab of pumice permitted the lake water to filter through, thus keeping it perpetually filled. Back of this reservoir rose, tier upon tier of semicircular steps, to a height of about fifty feet, like the seats of an amphitheatre. A stone bridge spanned the center of the crescent, and at the top and center of the amphitheatre a great, elaborately carved slab of rock was set into the mountainside. Surrounded by hieroglyphics, the main figure on this slab was a huge multi-headed serpent. The sides of the altar were also decorated with this figure in bold relief, surrounded by pictographs and hieroglyphics,
"Without a doubt," said the professor, "this is the place of sacrifice mentioned in the legends. And that figure, the many-headed serpent, is no doubt an idealized conception of the monster—probably a huge anaconda—to which the victims were fed."
We circled the reservoir, crossed the little bridge, and mounted to the top of the altar. Walking out on the stone slab, I looked straight down into the clear depths below. The reason for the Indian belief that the lake was bottomless was instantly apparent, for although I could see downward for a great distance—could even detect fish swimming far below—I could not see the bottom.
We descended the steps once more, and the professor, with notebook and pencil began jotting down the writing on the side of the altar, for future comparison with the various Central American codices he had brought with him.
Anita, in the meantime, bent over and examined the water in the reservoir.
"What a pretty green water plant," she said. Then she reached beneath the water, but withdrew her hand with a jerk and a little exclamation of fear. "Why. it moved! It's crawling away!"
The professor and I both reached her side at the same time, A small, green, bushy-looking thing about an inch in diameter was creeping toward the center of the pool, using its branches as legs. The bottom of the pool was dotted with many others, growing with their branches extended upward like shrubs.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A hydropolyp," said the professor, "but of a kind I have never seen or heard of before. Although there are many varieties of salt water hydropolyps only three fresh water varieties are known in the Americas, the hydra, the cordylophora and the microhydra. There is a green variety called hydra viridiae, but it is purely a salt water animal. This is interesting! We must take a specimen back to the doctor's laboratory for examination."
He reached into the water and grasped one of the bush-like forms, but instantly let go and jerked his hand up out of the water, while the creature turned over and crawled away.
"My word!" he said. "My word! I'd forgotten that some of these creatures have nematocysts—stinging nettle cells! Anyway, we'll have to bring a specimen jar with us. The things would shrivel up if exposed to the air for a short time."
So engrossed had we been in our amazing discoveries that we had failed to notice the approach of a very black rain cloud. My first intimation of its presence was the splash of a huge raindrop on my shoulder. This was followed by a swift patter, and then a veritable deluge.
"Come," said the professor, "we must get back to the cottage. This may last for hours."
I was about to turn away with the others when I noticed through the sheets of rain, a disturbance in the water just in front of the stone diving platform that evidently was not caused by the torrential downpour. Then I distinctly saw a green serpentine thing reach up out of the water. It was followed by several more, groping and lashing about blindly, like earthworms, exploring the ground around their lairs.
"Look!" I cried excitedly.
THE professor looked with a gasping: "Good God!" and Anita with a scream of fear. One of the lashing arms reached toward us, and we scrambled, slipping and stumbling, up the winding path with a speed of which I had not thought any of us capable.
The rain pelted us unmercifully until we reached the cottage, but with the usual perversity of rainstorms, ceased almost as soon as we had attained shelter.
"What was it?" I asked, as we stood there, making little pools on the floor of the screened porch.
Mabrey mopped his wet face with his handkerchief. "God only knows!" he replied. "I'm willing to concede, however, that it wasn't an anaconda. Let's get into some dry things."
Anita retired to her father's bedroom to change, while the professor and I went into the kitchen to discard our wringing wet garments, rub down, and put on dry ones.
When we emerged into the living room once more we found Anita seated at her father's desk. She had rumpled her dark-brown shingle-bobbed hair to dry it. and I thought she looked more beautiful than ever.
"I've found something interesting," she announced, "perhaps a key to the mystery. It's father's diary."
"A diary," said the professor, "is a personal and sacred thing."
"But it says: 'For my daughter, Anita, when I am gone,'" replied the girl, "and instructs me to communicate the contents to you, Uncle Charley."
"That's different," said the professor, settling himself comfortably and loading his pipe. "Suppose you read it to me."
"I'll go out on the porch," I said.
"No, stay, Jimmie," begged Anita. "There's nothing secret about it. After all, even if there were, you are in this adventure with us—one of us. Sit down and smoke your pipe. I'll read it to both of you.
"The first part," continued Anita, "tells Dad's reason for coming here—to investigate the persistent legend of a terrible monster living in the crater lake. We all know that. He soon found the place of sacrifice and brought away some of the hydropolyps for examination in a temporary laboratory he had set up in a hut, while native workmen, under his direction, were building this house for him. Then he—"
She was interrupted by the slam of the screen door and the sound of footsteps on the porch. Pedro stood, bowing in the doorway.
"Pardon senorita y senores," he said, "but three Indios come in strange dress. Almost they are 'ere. I await instructions."
"Find out who they are and what they want," said Mabrey.
Pedro bowed and departed, and we all went to the window to watch him meet the newcomers. Our two Misskitos, we noticed, arose at their approach and bowed very low. The strangers were attired in garments unlike anything worn today, except perhaps on feast days or at masquerades or pageants. One Indian, much taller than the other two, was more richly and gaudily attired. And into his feather-crown were woven the red plumes of the quetzal, the sacred bird whose plumage might be worn only by an emperor under the old regime.
The tall red man spoke a few words to Pedro in an authoritative manner, and the latter, after making obeisance, turned and hurried back to us.
"He ees the great Bahna, the holy one!" said Pedro. "He would 'ave speech weeth the senores."
"All right. We'll see him," replied Mabrey. "Send him in."
A few moments later Pedro bowed the tall Indian and his two companions into the room. The two shorter men stood with arms folded, one at each side of the doorway, but the tall man advanced to meet us.
"I have come," he said in English as good as our own, "to warn you to leave. You are in great danger."
"From whom do you bring the warning, and what is the danger?" asked the professor.
The Indian's face remained expressionless—immobile. "The great god, Nayana Idra, speaks through me. I am his prophet. Not so long ago I warned the man whom you came to seek. He would not heed my warning, and he is gone. So you seek fruitlessly. You dare the wrath of the Divine One in vain. Go now, before it is too late, or on your own heads let the blame rest for that which will follow."
"Am I to understand that you are threatening us with the vengeance of this fabulous monster living in your alleged bottomless lake?" asked the professor, a trace of anger in his voice. "You seem well educated, and I confess that I am puzzled by a man of your apparent learning professing such superstitions."
"I have studied the learning of your people," replied Bahna, evenly, "but I have studied many things besides. You overreach yourself in calling them superstitions. They are the religion of my race, of which I am the hereditary leader. They are truths which you would neither appreciate nor understand. I have come to warn you, neither as a friend nor as an enemy, but solely as the mouthpiece of Nayana Idra, whom I serve."
"And who, pray tell, is Nayana Ira?"
"Nayana," said Bahna, with the air of a teacher lecturing a class, "is the Divine One, Creator of All Things. When he chooses to assume physical form he is Nayana Idra, the Terrible One, wreaking vengeance on those who have ignored or defied him."
"In his physical form," said the professor, "what does he look like?"
Bahna pointed to one of two great golden discs suspended in the pierced and stretched lobes of his cars. On it was graven a multi-headed serpent like that cut in the rock at the place of sacrifice.
"This," he said, "is man's crude conception of his appearance."
"May I ask," said Mabrey, "in what manner you received the message which you have conveyed to us from this alleged deity?"
His features as inscrutable as ever, the Indian drew a roll of hand-woven cloth from beneath his garments. Then, glancing about him, as if looking for a place to spread it, he walked to the desk, behind which Anita was sitting, unrolled it, and laid it down before us.
"There," he said, "is the message. Heed it and you will live. Disregard it, and you will meet with a fate more terrible than you can imagine."
We looked at the cloth curiously. It was embroidered with hieroglyphic symbols resembling those cut in the face of the sacrificial altar.
"When I awoke this morning," said Bahna, "this magic cloth was spread over me. The message says: 'Today there will come to the mountain three white strangers with their servants, to seek him on whom our vengeance had fallen. They are not of our people, and cannot understand our truths. Neither can they become our servants. You will warn them to leave, lest our wrath fall upon them.'"
"You seem," said the professor, "to have cooked up a most interesting, if unconvincing cock-and-bull story. If you are able to make yourself understood to Nayana, you may tell him for us that we will come and go as we please. And now, Bahna, I bid you good afternoon." By not so much as the flicker of an eyelash did Bahna betray the slightest emotion. Folding his cloth, he replaced it under his clothing and marched majestically through the doorway, followed by the two men who had accompanied him. We watched the three until they disappeared in the jungle. Then the professor reloaded his pipe, lighted it, and sat down in his chair.
"Now," he said, "we can go on with the diary." Anita sat down at the desk, reached for the diary, looked surprised, then alarmed, and searched fearfully, frantically through the books and papers on the desk. Then she sank back with a look of despair.
"I'm afraid we can't," she said, weakly. "The diary is gone!"
AFTER our evening meal, Professor Mabrey and I sat on the porch smoking our pipes and listening to the patter of the rain and to the almost incessant rumbling of thunder that had commenced with the advent of darkness. Anita was inside, looking through her father's papers. The cook-fire of Pedro and the two Misskitos had sputtered and gone out, and I guessed that they were, by now, comfortably installed in the mosquito-bar draped hammocks they had swung in the hut.
"This chap Bahna sure slipped one over on us," I remarked, thinking of the episode of the afternoon, "Seems to me there must have been something important in that diary—something he was afraid to have us see."
"Undoubtedly," replied the professor. "It was careless of me not to watch. These natives are deucedly tricky."
"Speaking of natives," I said, "I've been wondering if Bahna really is a native. He certainly doesn't look like the other Indians here. And he's educated."
"I've been wondering the same thing, myself," replied Mabrey. "Bahna is not a native name. I doubt if it is a proper name at all. Sounds more like a title. And his features were more Aryan than Mongoloid. With a turban instead of a feather crown he'd pass for a Hindu."
"Hasn't it been determined that there is some connection between the religions and traditions of the Far East and those of the early American civilizations?" 1 asked. "Seems to me I've heard or read something of the sort."
"It is a subject," he replied, "on which ethnologists have never agreed. It's pretty generally conceded, I believe, that all American Indians are members of the Mongolian race—blood brothers of the Chinese, Japanese, Tibetans, Tartars, and other related peoples of the Old World. Students of symbology have found evidence which seems to link all the great civilizations of antiquity. And Colonel James Churchward has correlated them all as evidence that the first civilization developed in a huge continent called Mu, situated in the Pacific Ocean, and, like the fabulous continent of Atlantis, sinking beneath the waves after its mystic teachings, had prevailed in the Americas, the then still flourishing Atlantis, Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, India and other coexistent civilizations.
"The royal race of Incas, it is said, more nearly resembled Aryans than Mongols, while many of the Aztecs had a strongly Semitic cast of countenance. It's a pity that the destructive fanaticism of the conquering Spaniards made it impossible for us to learn more than a very small part of the religions and traditions of these peoples. According to our recent tricky visitor, as well as our own observations, there must have existed here at one time a cult worshipping Nayana, or Nayana Idra, a many-headed serpent."
"Which brings us," I replied, "to the consideration of what we saw in the lake during the shower this afternoon. I'm positive that I saw several green, snake- like things of immense size, waving above the water. You saw it, too, as did Anita."
"The whole thing," said the professor, "smacks of the magic of India. Standing in the midst of a crowd, a Hindu fakir throws a rope up in the air. To every member of that crowd it appears to stand stiffly erect while he climbs to its top. But to the eye of a camera, it is lying stretched out on the ground while the fakir creeps its length on all fours. Mass hypnotism. The same thing is true of the trick of growing a rose from a seed in a few minutes, while playing a hautboy. The rose simply does not exist, except in the minds of the audience. And neither, I am convinced, does the monster we saw this afternoon have any existence, except, perhaps in the minds of the credulous natives who have been taught to believe in it. We have been hoaxed, and I, for one, don't propose to give any credit to the reality of the thing."
"It certainly looked real enough to me," I said, "and there wasn't any fakir in sight to hypnotize us."
"He wouldn't need be in sight," replied the professor. "Our minds were all prepared for the thing before it happened—our imaginations keyed to the highest pitch. A fertile field for the mass hypnotist."
AT this moment, Anita, who had been standing in the doorway for some time listening to our discussion, came out on the porch.
"I've just found something," she said, "which proves that my father believed in the reality of the Nayana Idra."
"What is it?" asked the professor.
"A short time ago I went into the bedroom for a handkerchief. Dad's khaki jacket was hanging there, and I noticed a book protruding from the pocket. It was his notebook, done in pencil, and very sketchy and incomplete. But I'm sure that if we can guess some of the things that are implied by these notes we can find the key to the mystery, which Bahna stole when he took the diary. Evidently the notations in the diary were mostly elaborations of these notes, written in ink in order that a complete and permanent record might be preserved."
"And you say he believed in the existence of the monster?"
"Without a doubt. Listen to this:
"'Another native stolen from village last night during rain. Went to see tracks. Like those of enormous serpents—many of them.'
"And here's a note made some days later:
"'Saw it for first time today, during shower. Great green arms writhing above water. Heard sound. Turned and strange Indian was standing behind me. Seemed to materialize from nowhere. Must be secret entrance in rock. Dressed like ancient high priest. Name Bahna, Called thing "Nayana Idra." Warned me away. I laughed. Went on fishing my specimens from the reservoir to take back for observation. When I looked again he had disappeared.'"
"Which goes to prove my hypnotic theory," said the professor. "Bahna was standing behind him, influencing his imagination with his subtle art when he thought he saw the monster."
"Here's a note made a week later," said Anita.
"'Some trouble to decipher characters. Mystic symbols to be read only by adepts of inner circle. Will figure out formula yet. Tried the ipecacuanha. Hydras all dead. Must have been too strong. Ancient high priests clever biologists and chemists. Created and destroyed own gods at will. Must try weaker solution. May have been modified by something else.'"
"What do you make of that, professor:" I asked.
"It seems that my friend, the doctor, was on the wrong track," said the professor. "He thought the things real instead of fantasies. He should have called the ancient priests clever psychologists instead of biologists."
"But what of the ancient formula? And what was he doing to the hydras with the ipecacuanha?" I asked.
"The formula was probably a lot of mummery he replied, "like burning incense in a temple, or like the magic philters which still persist in our time and are efficient only to the extent that they inspire faith or wield the power of suggestion. The fact that they used ipecacuanha in this formula it not significant, as I see it. It contains emetine, a powerful emetic or an active poison, according to the dosage. I can understand that the hydras would be killed by a strong solution, as it is known to be particularly destructive to amoeboid life."
"But where do these strange hydras fit in:" "Accessories to the mummery, somehow," lie replied, "Possibly living miniature replicas of the fabulous monster, to assist in establishing belief in the creature, Giving color and mystery to the thing, like the doves of Isis, or the white dove that supposedly whispered heavenly secrets in the ear of Mohammed, while extracting a pea therefrom."
"Here is a later note about the hydras," said Anita. "'Weaker solution killed all but one. Put this under glass. Gonads seem to have atrophied. Died shortly after return to solution. Something wrong.'"
"It seems to me," I said, "that the doctor was convinced there was some connection between the hydras and this mystery, and that he was experimenting to find out what it was. Evidently he had some ancient documentary evidence of the mystical nature to go on."
"And being mystical in nature," retorted Mabrey, "it was probably as unreliable as it was unscientific."
At this moment our discussion was broken into by a loud shriek of fear and agony from the direction of the hut. Peering out through the screen, I made out, by the almost constantly recurring flashes of lightning, two figures running as if the very devil were after them. One plunged into the jungle and the other came dashing toward the cottage.
Then I heard a final, despairing shriek, which seemed to come from high in the air. Looking upward I beheld, silhouetted against the background of lightning- illuminated clouds, an enormous thing taller than a tree, with hundreds of branches, or legs. It appeared like some gigantic tumble-weed walking on its branches through the jungle with terrific, Brobdingnagian strides. And waving helplessly above the tree-tops in the grip of one of these branches was the limp and helpless figure of one of our Misskitos.
Meanwhile, the man who had been running toward the cottage arrived—bolted up the steps and through the door. It was Pedro.
"Maria Madre save us all!" he panted, his eyes rolling with terror. "Eet's come! Eet took Jose! Reached through the door and jerked heem out of his hammock! Hide! Hide queeck, or eet weel get you all!" Without stopping to think I dashed out of the house, unholstering my colt forty-five. Then I emptied its six chambers at the great trunk, swaying there above the tree-tops. Whether or not I hit it I do not know. There was no apparent effect. But an enormous tentacle came slithering down toward me, then another and another, blindly searching the clearing like exploring earthworms.
"Come in here, you fool!" shouted Mabrey. "Come in, I tell you!"
As if in a daze, I stood there, unheeding, watching the monstrosity that towered above me. Then a great, green, snaky thing struck me, knocked me down. Stinging, numbing pains shot through me. I was up in an instant, but it found me again—wrapped around my body, pinioning one arm—a band of stinging, burning agony. I pounded it ineffectually with my empty gun.
Mabrey leaped out—a machete gleaming in his hand. I was swung swiftly upward. The machete flashed, and I was dropped flat on my back in the mud. Big as I am, Mabrey caught me up and half carried half dragged me into the house, that severed, stinging, snakey thing still wrapped around me. He flung me savagely on the floor of the living room, and hurriedly closed all the doors and windows. The snakey arm relaxed, and I got up, still in excruciating agony from that stinging, nettle-like embrace.
Immense slimy tentacles were sliding over the roof, exploring the walls, pressing on the window panes. The arm that held me was writhing on the floor, a viscous green fluid oozing from the severed stump. It filled the room with a musty, unclean smell—a sickening charnel odor, as if an ancient tomb had been desecrated.
"Your machetes" shouted Mabrey. "Watch the window! It may break the glass!"
Scarcely had he spoken ere a window pane shattered—fell in a tinkling shower. A writhing green arm shot through the opening, touched Anita, and wrapped around her slender waist.
As she screamed in deadly terror and pain I sprang to her assistance. But she was jerked toward the window with incredible swiftness.
I SWUNG my machete at the writhing thing that was dragging Anita toward the window. It moved downward as I struck, and consequently was only cut half through—green liquid oozing from the wound. Goaded to a frenzy by the cries of the tortured girl, I slashed again and again at the great green arm, not realizing that my second blow had bitten clear through, and that I was merely cutting the severed end to pieces.
The oozing stump was withdrawn through the broken window. Brought to a realization of what I was doing, I turned and found Anita swaying—about to fall. The relaxed tentacles had slipped from her, but I knew from experience the stinging wounds it had left. She was biting her lips—attempting to suppress her moans of agony. I caught her in my arms—spoke to her soothingly. And she sobbed hysterically, her head on my shoulder.
Suddenly I was aware of a change outside. The patter of the rain had ceased. The muttering of the thunder was dying in the distance. And the mighty tentacles no longer slithered and groped outside the cottage. Suddenly the moon appeared from behind a cloud, flooding the drenched mountainside with its soft light. A gigantic figure like a huge upturned, uprooted tree appeared on the rim of the crater, wobbled unsteadily for a moment, and then disappeared.
"It's gone, Anita!" I said. "The thing has gone back to its lair! We're saved !"
"I'm so glad," she whispered, "but I am hurt—terribly."
The professor had gone into the laboratory. In a moment he returned with bottles, gauze and cotton. After washing our smarting, itching wounds with alcohol, he swabbed them with mercurochrome. Presently I felt some relief, and Anita, plucky little thing that she was, declared that her pains were gone.
Pedro made coffee, which he served piping hot to all of us. Nobody cared to sleep, so we sat and smoked, sipping our coffee and discussing our terrible visitor.
The professor, of course, said nothing more about his theory of mass hypnotism. Nor did I have the heart to twit him about it. He had saved my life. No doubt his presence of mind in closing the doors and windows had saved all of us.
He examined the two green things that had ceased to writhe on the floor, except when touched. Then they showed startling reactions.
"They are hollow," he said, "with terminal orifices much like the mouths of anemones. The tubes are lined with cells that digest the creature's food, taken in through the orifices. The ectoderm-the outer skin—is dotted with the stinging nettle cells which can be employed either for defense or aggression. Without a doubt the thing is an ambulatory hydra—a gigantic individual belonging to the strange species we saw in the reservoir. Throw the filthy things out, Pedro. The stench is nauseating."
Impaling one of the green things on his machete, Pedro held it at arms' length, dragged it to the screen door and flung it outside. He returned for the other and handled it in a like manner, then closed the door softly and tiptoed back into the room.
"Seex men come!" he said excitedly, "over the hut. They get here een a minute!"
The professor, Anita and I hurried to the window. Clearly visible in the moonlight were six figures, poking about the ruins of the native hut. One, taller than the others and wearing a large feather crown, was familiar to all of us.
"It's Bahna," said Mabrey, "with five of his followers. No doubt he means trouble, or he wouldn't have brought all those men with him. See to your side arms, everybody. Don't start anything, but he ready to finish anything they may start."
I loaded my emptied forty-five. Pedro and the professor were similarly armed with forty-fives and heavy machetes. Anita carried a thirty-eight and a lighter machete. Our shotguns and rifles stood in a corner.
"You stand guard over those guns, Pedro," ordered Mabrey. "We'll use our side arms if attacked, and make a dash for the other weapons, but we don't want to appear hostile unnecessarily. It may provoke an attack."
We took seats and waited, tensely alert. The professor and I smoked our pipes. Pedro puffed at his inevitable cigarette.
The splashing of footsteps sounded on the rain-soaked ground outside. The screen door opened. There was the tramp of feet on the porch. Then Bahna stalked into the room, his features as expressionless and inscrutable as before. Behind him walked five Indians. Two took positions on each side of the door. The other remained standing in the doorway with arms folded.
The professor nodded pleasantly, as if such visits in the dead of night were of ordinary occurrence. He was an admirable actor.
"Evening, Bahna," he said. "Beautiful night after the rain. Won't you sit down and have some coffee?" Bahna stared straight at the professor, his face expressionless as a moulded death mask.
"I warned you," he said, "of the wrath of Nayana Idra. You did not heed my warning. Had I not risked my own life to beseech him to leave, your lives would have been forfeit."
"And who," asked the professor evenly, "is Nayana Idra? I saw no such person."
"If you saw him not, then are you blind indeed," replied Bahna, "for he has carried one of your servants away with him, and another lies at the edge of the clearing, dead from fright. He looked upon the Divine One, and died."
"Perhaps you refer to the giant ambulatory hydra as Nayana Idra," said the professor. "We saw that, to be sure. If you prevailed upon it to leave, we are much obliged, as it is a disagreeable beast. But I was of the opinion that it had left because the rainstorm had ceased. Couldn't stay in the open air long, you know, unless the rain was falling. It would be dehydrated."
"I was about to warn you to leave, for the second and last time," said Bahna, "but it seems that you have been prying into secrets that do not concern you. Under the circumstances, I can no longer permit you to go."
"Indeed!" The professor stood up. "Get this, Bahna. We'll come and go as we damn please."
The Indian suddenly whipped something from beneath his clothing. It looked like a glass ampulla. With his other hand he drew a handkerchief from his pocket, held it over his nostrils. Then he shattered the ampulla on the floor. Instantly the air was filled with an acrid odor. Through a dim haze I saw the other Indians holding cloths to their noses. I tried to reach for my forty- five, but couldn't raise my arm. My senses whirled. The room, its figures distorted, seemed to revolve about me. Then I lost consciousness.
WHEN I came to my senses once more I was in total darkness, lying, bound hand and foot, on a cold, damp stone floor. My head felt as big as a balloon. Every muscle of my body ached as if it had been pounded. And recurrent waves of nausea added to my general feeling of unpleasantness. Someone was speaking in the darkness quite near me. I recognized the voice of the professor.
"Must have been a concentrated, highly volatile solution of some member of the hemp family in that ampulla," he was saying. "Possibly cannabis indica the stuff your people call inirijuana, Pedro."
"Ees damn' bad stoiff, I tal you," said Pedro. "I feel lak I been dronk for whole year and the wild horse, she's jom all over me."
Then I heard the voice of Anita.
"Isn't that something like hashish, Uncle Charley?" .she asked.
"It is hashish, or bhantj, so called in the Orient."
Evidently I had been the last to recover from the torpor induced by the drug.
"A clever chemist, that Bahna," the professor was saving, when we were suddenly half blinded by an unexpected glare of light.
A door had been silently opened by an Indian. Just behind it was a room flooded with sunlight shining in through a large, iron-barred window. The Indian came in, followed by three companions. Each carried a machete with which he cut the ropes from our ankles. Then we were helped to our feet.
"Holy One send for you," was the curt remark of the leader. They led us away through the sunny room, and along a narrow hallway which presently opened into another room lighted by sputtering candles set at intervals in holders in the wall, and giving off a heavy perfume of cloying sweetness.
Seated on a glittering, jewel-encrusted golden throne on a dais at one end of the room, was Bahna, staring straight ahead of him, his features as inscrutable and expressionless as if they had been of graven bronze.
Our four conductors stood us in a row before the throne. Then they departed noiselessly, leaving us alone with Bahna. lie addressed 11s collectively, his expression changeless.
"Twice," he said, "have you earned death, and twice has the great god, Nayana Idra, spared you. Nayana Idra seeks votaries, not corpses, therefore I, his mouthpiece, offer you a final opportunity to live. The Divine One can use all of you, alive and well—can bring happiness and greatness to all. Your scientific knowledge, Professor Mabrey, can be employed in his service. You might in time, become one of his adepts—help to spread his religion as it was spread before, and will be again, to the four corners of the earth. He could use your strong arm, Jimmie Brown, and yours, Pedro, to fight in his service. He requires a High Priestess Consort for his earthly vicar, such a one as Senorita de Orellana, with youth, culture and beauty. Make oath, all of you, that you will observe his commands as administered through me, that you will make no attempts to escape, and you will be admitted as honored members of our cult. I await your answers."
"You won't have to wait long for mine," replied Mabrey. "It's 'No.'"
"That goes for me, too," I said.
"And for me," said Anita.
"An' for me," said Pedro defiantly, "you can pliz go to hal."
"Perhaps," said Bahna, apparently unperturbed, "you will all he glad to decide otherwise when you have seen what you shall shortly see. For I swear to you all, that your fate shall be as the fate of the one who is about to die. if you persist in your folly."
He clapped his hands, and four Indians came in to take us away.
WE were conducted from the throne room to another smaller one, where our hands were unbound and we were given breakfast, while a guard, armed with a machete, stood over each of us. After breakfast our hands were bound behind our backs once more, and we were all very effectually gagged. Then we were taken to the sunny room through which we had passed some time before, and led up to the barred window. Looking down from this I saw that we were just above the place of sacrifice which we had observed the day before. The window through which we were looking had been concealed from below by the jungle growth.
Evidently a ceremony was about to take place, for the terraces were lined with what appeared to be four orders of priests, from neophytes to acolytes. Bahna, the adept, was nowhere in sight. Just as the sun reached the meridian, the priests began chanting a somber, dirge-like melody in a minor key, to the weird accompaniment of drums and reed instruments. This chant kept up for perhaps five minutes. Looking around, I saw that the shores of the lake were lined with thousands of spectators, who must have been drawn from a large part of the surrounding territory.
The chanting suddenly ceased, and eight acolytes stepped forward, blowing conch shells. The din was terrific. The other priests were shouting something in which I could catch, from time to time, the word "Nayana Idra." I judged from their manner that they were crying a summons to their snakey god. Suddenly I saw, waving above the water, writhing and twisting in their green and menacing ugliness, the tentacles of the gigantic hydra.
All noise ceased as if at some secret sign, and standing in a wisp of curling smoke on the top terrace below me, apparently materialized from nowhere to this spot directly in front of the great engraved stone, I recognized the tall form of Bahna, attired in brilliant ceremonial robes and wearing a hideous mask, Beside him stood an Indian maiden, naked save for an extremely short apron of plaited sisal, and some jeweled breast ornaments. Her head was covered by a black cloth hood, and to her bands, which were bound behind her, was tied a heavy, grooved stone that must have weighed at least twenty-five pounds.
As Bahna advanced with slow, measured steps, the priests began a soft, weird chant. Descending the terraces, he guided the girl, who was not only unable to see because of her black mask, but from her automaton-like movements, was either under the influence of some drug or hypnotism.
When the High Priest and his victim crossed the bridge and neared the altar steps, the chanting increased in volume. Drums, reed instruments and conches once more added to the din. The volume of sound was terrific—almost car- splitting when, after mounting the steps, priest and sacrifice reached the top of the altar.
Babna led the girl out on the stone which projected over the water, For a moment he stood there looking down at the writhing green arms below. Then there was a quick, outward thrust of his arm, the flash of a brown body in the air, and a boiling and seething of the water for a moment after it disappeared.
Scarcely had the boiling subsided, ere the high-priest himself, holding his hands for a moment above his head, dived straight down into the water.
I was astounded—mystified. It seemed to me that this was nothing short of suicidal. But then I was not, as Professor Mabrey had previously remarked, conversant with the complex ramifications of savage cunning. It was an act which was capable of producing a powerful effect on the minds of the watchers—would prove to them that Bahna was really friendly with this terrible god—if Bahna should later reappear before them alive.
The din continued. Suddenly 1 was aware that Bahna was again standing in a cloud of smoke on the center of the top terrace before the graven stone plate. His costume and mask were as dry as they had been before he took the plunge into the water.
The weird music ceased. But there went up from the throats of the watchers a great cry of applause.
Bahna removed his mask. Then holding his hands aloft, he stilled the shouting of the multitude and addressed them in a language which I was unable to understand. They listened silently—raptly. It was plain that he had tremendous power over these simple people.
Then our Indian guards led us away from the window, removed our gags, and confined us once more in our lightless prison.
For many hours, during which time we slept once and were fed twice, we were left to discuss and meditate on the threats of Bahna, there in the darkness. Then the door opened once more and four Indian guards came in to escort us away, our hands still bound behind our backs. They led us along the familiar route to the throne room. After conducting us before the throne, they left silently.
His features inscrutable as ever, Bahna surveyed us all. Then he clapped his hands.
From a doorway at the right of the throne, a door opened, and marching stiffly erect between two Indians, his hands, like ours bound behind his back, there entered a short, black-bearded, brown-eyed man of professional aspect, with thick-lense glasses.
"Dad!" cried Anita.
"Anita mia!" he answered, "and Charlee, amigo! I feared you would come, but could not warn you."
"It's all right, old pal," said the professor. "We'd have come anyway, warning or no warning."
And so 1 knew that this man was Anita's father, Dr. Fernando de Orellana.
Bahna raised his hand. The two men who were leading the doctor, whirled him about and marched him out of the room. When the door had closed behind him the man on the throne spoke.
"Senorita de Orellana," he said, "I have permitted you to look upon your father, alive and well. If, by high noon today you have willingly become High Priestess of Nayana Idra, which is the greatest honor I can bestow upon you, your father will still be living and unharmed. If not, then will he suffer the fate meted out to the girl in the black mask at high noon yesterday, and you, willing or unwilling, will have become my slave and handmaiden.
"My people have demanded your death—have said that by raiding your camp Nayana Idra signified his desire for a white girl. But I, the mouthpiece of the great god, can tell them it was a white man they wanted. It is thus that I can save you. And as I have four white prisoners, any one will do for the sacrifice. I will permit you to choose which of these men shall live, and which man will die. One must be sacrificed at high noon, today.
"You have had sufficient time since yesterday to think this offer over. Now let me have your answer."
"My father! You would sacrifice him if I should refuse to become your High Priestess?"
"If you do other than consent now, there will be no hope for him."
"And if I do consent, only one of the others will die? You promise me that?"
"I promise that."
"They are all my very dear friends. They have risked their lives to come here with me, to search for my father. Spare me all their lives, and I consent."
"You ask too much, senorita. I cannot disappoint my people."
"Then I refuse."
"Think of your father."
"Very well. Your refusal is his death warrant, and you are my slave. When my flock has grown I will have many beautiful white slaves, though none. I swear, so beautiful as you."
He stood up and slowly drew a jeweled dagger—the only weapon that he carried—from its hilt in his sash. Then he descended the dais, while we watched him tensely, wondering what he was going to do.
My heart leaped to my throat, and I stood tensely, ready to hurl myself at him, bound hands and all, as he stepped up before Anita. He looked down at her for a moment. Then he spun her around, and cut her bonds.
"You are one slave I will not find it necessary to bind, little dove," he said, "although I shall probably have to cage you."
He replaced the dagger in the sheath, took both her little hands in one of his, and with the other chafed her wrists.
"You will not find me an ungentle master," he said. "When you have learned obedience."
Anita suddenly withdrew her hands, held one to her eyes, and swayed slightly, about to fall. Bahna quickly caught her in his arms.
"Let me go!" she cried weakly. "Let me go! I can stand!"
He released her, his mask-like features as inscrutable as ever.
"Very well," he replied. "You are coming with me now, willingly or unwillingly, as I decreed. I hope it will not be necessary for me to use force."
"It will not be necessary," she replied, "if you will first permit me to bid my good friends farewell."
"Do so," he said, "and quickly."
She came and stood before me, looked up into my eyes and put her arms around me.
"Good-bye, Jimmie," she said. "You have been a good and true friend."
"And you have been a brave and wonderful little pal," I replied, feeling, at the same time, something cold and sharp against my wrists. A slash, and they were free.
"Stand thus for a minute," she whispered. Aloud she said: "I'm glad, so glad to have known you, Jimmie, and to have been a wonderful pal. I'll always remember. Adios!"
"Adios!" I replied, still holding my hands behind me. I saw that during her apparent fainting spell she had secured Bahna's keen dagger and slipped it up her sleeve.
The High Priest evidently did not suspect her.
She went to Mabrey next, repeated her farewells, and with her arms around his lanky form, cut his bonds.
Then she stepped before Pedro.
"What!" said Bahna, losing his inscrutability for a moment, "Do you embrace a servant?"
"A faithful servant, yes."
It was then that he suspected, missed his dagger, and saw through the trick. With a snarl like that of an enraged animal, he leaped toward her. Whereupon I sprang in front of him to bar his progress.
"Fool!" he mouthed, and clapped his hands. But this action left his jaw exposed, and I swung in a right hook with all my weight behind it.
It floored him, but he was up in an instant, and I found him no mean antagonist. He was not only a boxer, but was evidently familiar with wrestling and jiu-jitsu as well. Before I had any intimation of what he was about he had seized my wrist, dragged it across his shoulder, and heaved me over his head with all his enraged strength.
As I thudded to the floor, he leaped toward me. At the same time four Indians brandishing machetes rushed into the room.
"Surrender, fools," called Bahna.
Anita had just cut Pedro's bonds. He had the dagger. It flashed outward from his hand, and the foremost machete wielder went down, coughing bloody bubbles— his throat transfixed.
With a single bound the professor secured the machete of the fallen man. And Pedro, at his heels, retrieved the dagger. I leaped to my feet, but was met by Bahna. His strong, wiry fingers seized my throat, pressed down on my windpipe. Black specks danced before my eyes. I tried to shake myself free, lashing out blindly with short rights and lefts to the body of my foe.
But the fingers dosed relentlessly. I felt my senses leaving me.
IT was the voice of Anita that recalled me to my senses. Otherwise I would have gone down beneath the choking, vise-like fingers of Bahna, never to rise again. My short-arm body blows, it seemed, had begun to take effect. I felt my opponent weakening—his fingers slipping from my throat.
Shaking myself free, I mechanically applied a hold, which had always been one of my favorites in wrestling—the crotch and half-nelson. With the tremendous leverage which it gave me, I easily swung the High Priest aloft, then crashed him to the floor, falling upon him in order that the breath might be knocked from his body.
Still able to see only my antagonist, and without heed to my surroundings, I was surprised when, as we struck the floor together and I slid forward, my head encountered the body of another man. Bahna went limp, and I lay there panting for breath, waiting for my vision to clear.
My sight came back to me presently, and I was able to breathe without rattling my palate against the roof of my mouth. Then I saw that Bahna had fallen upon the outstretched arm of the Indian whose throat had been transfixed by Pedro's dagger. Anita was bending over me, pulling ineffectually at my shoulders in an effort to help me up.
"Come," she said, "his back is broken. Bahna is dead."
And so there passed the brilliant mind of the High Priest into the knowledge of that eternity of which he and his kind professed to teach, his back broken by the outstretched arm of his fallen servant.
I stood up, swaying like a drunken man, while Anita steadied me, her arm around my waist. Pedro and the professor, their machetes dripping, were reconnoitering at the door through which the doctor had been taken. The three remaining Indians lay on the floor in pools of their own blood. A machete is a messy weapon.
"Can you walk, Jimmie?" asked Anita. "We want to look for Dad."
"Sure can. Give me one of those meat axes."
She pressed a blood-stained machete into my hand. We were all armed, now, Pedro, in addition to a machete, carrying the dagger with which he could do such deadly execution.
With Mabrey leading the way, we crept off down the unexplored passageway along which Dr. de Orellana had been taken. Upon rounding a bend, we came suddenly upon an Indian guard. The professor leaped forward to attack, but Pedro's dagger flashed, its deadly work completed before the guard could even cry out or draw his weapon.
He slumped in front of a doorway before which he was evidently doing sentinel duty. We entered, and found ourselves in an immense, splendidly equipped laboratory. Chained to a table before which he was working with test tubes and retort, was the doctor. And near him, machete in hand,, stood the other guard.
The doctor and Indian both saw us coming at the same time. The guard opened his mouth, about to cry out, when the little man at the table hurled the contents of his test tube into it. Strangling and coughing, the Indian raised his weapon to put an end to his prisoner, but before it descended, the professor's blade split his head open and he fell to the floor, dead.
We found the keys to the doctor's chains in his pocket and quickly released him. In turn the doctor embraced his daughter and his friend. Then Pedro and I were presented.
The doctor greeted us cordially, with all the courtly dignity of the Spanish gentleman. Then his leisurely manner vanished.
"We 'ave moch work to do, amigos," he said. "Two things there are, which must be accomplished. Thees monster must be keeled, and then we must escape the superstitious natives who are assembling to see the sacrifice. Weeth the help of my frien', Charlee, eet can be accomplished, but I must be in command.
"You, Jeemie, weel take Anita up to the observation room where you weel see the last sacrifice. Charlee and Pedro weel be my assistants."
I took Anita up to the room from which we had watched the last ceremony, after the doctor had insisted that I would only be in his way, and that it would be necessary to do some things which it would not be pleasant or seemly for Anita to witness.
As the sun reached the zenith there was a repetition of the ceremony we had witnessed the day before. The waving green arms of the hydra appeared again, amid the din of conches and the shouting for Nayana Idra. Then the noise ceased, and I was startled to see, standing in the thinning smoke screen where Bahna had stood the day before, someone of his precise height and build, garbed and masked in his ceremonial accoutrements. This time, instead of leading a native girl, the High Priest appeared to be half dragging, half carrying the body of a white man, dressed in the clothing of the professor and wearing the black hood over his head.
It was only because I knew that Bahna was dead, that I was able to discern that the professor was dragging the body of the High Priest. Make-up and acting were so clever, however, that Anita was deceived into thinking that Bahna had come to life. With a cry of horror she clutched my arm.
"Quick! We must save him!"
I reassured her, whereupon she relaxed in the hollow of my arm, and, in the pleasure of her sudden nearness, I almost forgot to watch the ceremony.
Exactly duplicating the exhibition of the day before, the professor hurled the limp body to the monster that waited to receive it in the water below. For a moment he watched it disappear in the pellucid depths—then dived exactly as the priest had dived. A short time later he reappeared in a puff of smoke, dry- clad, on the rock below us, spoke a few words to the multitude, and dismissed them. Then the smoke arose around him once more, and when it floated away he had disappeared.
Anita and I hurried through the throne room into the laboratory. There we found the professor, the doctor, and Pedro.
"How did you do it, professor?" I asked.
"My part was easy," replied Mabrey. "After we had prepared the body and dressed it in my clothing, I put on the make-up and stood with it in the revolving door—the one that looks like a carved slab cut into the crater wall. A puff of smoke, a quick turn, and I stood outside at the correct moment. After feeding the hydra, I waited for it to sink out of sight, then dived and swam back through the opening which leads back under the altar and into the laboratory. Here I made a quick change, putting on dry raiment that duplicated what I was wearing, and once more reappeared. I spoke a few words and made a few passes that the doctor had taught me then disappeared by means of the smoke and the revolving door.
"You may be surprised to know that the monster was not called by the conches nor the yowling of the priests, but by tapping two stones together under water in the underground stream that communicated with the lake from the laboratory. It had been trained to respond to this signal by using it each time it was fed.
"But it was the doctor who was the brains of the whole thing and who made everything possible. He can explain the facts of our coup better than I."
"Knowing what I know it was ver' simple," said the doctor. "First I tal you about thees Bahna. He ees well educated and ees really a descendant of an ancient race of priests—a cult that existed all over the world in olden times. In India it worshiped Narayana, the divine one, creator of all things. Narayana is pictured as a seven-headed serpent.
"In Greece it worshiped the Hydra. Nayana Idra is evidently a corrupted combination of the two words, Narayana and Hydra, used on this continent by the old adepts whose game was stopped at this place by the advent of the Spaniards, Bahna is a contraction of Bab Narayana, or the gate, or door to Narayana—in other words, the way to God.
"Thees Bahna was perhaps the only one in the world who knew the inner secrets of the old cult. How he learned them, I know not. Perhaps he succeeded in doing what I tried to do—deciphering the old rock inscriptions, so cleverly conceived and executed that they have one set of meanings for a neophyte, a second more secret meaning for an acolyte, and a more secret symbolical meaning for an adept—a man of the inner circle.
"They were clever biologists and chemists, those old adepts, although weeth the cleverness was meexed a certain amount of superstition.
"They learned, somehow, that eef a certain ambulatory hydra were immersed in a solution of ipecacuanha and other herbs in just the right proportion, and later removed to pure water and well fed, its growth limitations would be removed, that ees, it would continue to grow as long as it continued to live and feed, like a reptile. Of course many of the hydras immersed in the solution died, but they believed that when one survived and began to grow, the soul of Nayana had entered into it, and that the great god was thus assuming physical shape.
"I was learning these things by experimenting with the hydras from the reservoir, and by deciphering the inscriptions. Bahna discovered this, and as I knew too much for his safety, captured my servant and me one evening, as he was putting my meal on the table, by putting us to sleep with a glass bomb. My servant was fed to the hydra, but because of my scientific knowledge I was kept a prisoner to help the adept in his work."
"How did the solution remove the growth limitations of the hydras, doctor?" I asked.
"It seems to 'ave operated by atrophying the gonads, which are situated in the ectoderm, either destroying or modifying their hormones. This type of hydra is hermaphrodite and does not bud or multiply by fission, so naturally its reproductive functions are stopped by this treatment. Reproduction begins when the limit of growth has been nearly attained in the normal creature, but by destroying the normal functions of the gonads, reproduction is eliminated, and growth continued indefinitely.
"Having found a way to construct so awful a god, it was necessary for the adepts to find a way to destroy it when it had sufficiently terrified and subdued the populace to give the priests undisputed power. This was done, I found, by filling the body of a victim with a solution of aconite, which was deadly to the monster. Bahna, however, was a modern scientist, and obtained, I found, a large quantity of refined pseudo-aconitine, the most deadly poison known to science. It was this poison which he intended to use in one of his victims after the people in this neighborhood had been properly subdued and he was ready to destroy the monster. Weeth the help of Charlee and Pedro, I injected it into the hydra's veins after draining them of blood. My friend Charlee dismissed the people so they would not discover that their terrible god had been killed, or that any deception had been practiced on them, thus paving the way for our escape. Let us go and see if the poison has worked."
We went hack to the observation room and looked out. The crater was entirely emptied of human beings. And floating on the surface of the water, moving limply up and down with the waves that rippled across the lake, was an enormous green tangle—the limbs that had once walked in the rain, terrorizing the countryside. Thousands of fish, of many sizes and varieties, were tearing at them with such voracity that it was evident they would soon disappear.
"Bahna ees dead," said the doctor, "and his man-made god died weeth him. So ends the chapter. But you, Jeemie, who are so full of questions, permit me to ask you one. Why ees it that you and Anita stay so closely together, your arms around each others?"
I'm sure my face turned three shades redder than was its normal wont. But Anita snuggled closer, reassuringly.
"You are so good at deciphering mysteries, doctor," I said. "Why not figure this one out?"
Whereupon, reading the consent in her starry eyes, upturned to mine, I kissed her full upon the lips.
"Por Dios! exclaimed the doctor, his arms around us both, "I geeve up! The man who can explain the mystery of love has not yet been born!"
Title: Stolen Centuries Author: Otis Adelbert Kline * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0601531h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jun 2006 Most recent update: Apr 2013 This eBook was produced by Richard Scott and Colin Choat, and updated by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
Bleary-eyed and unkempt, with a three days' growth of beard covering his lean jowls, his threadbare suit unpressed and baggy, Fred "Fly" Jorgeson shuffled to the park bench, sat down heavily, and sighed dejectedly.
Jorgeson had seen better days—much better. For years he had made a splendid living with his "Human Fly" act, climbing the sides of skyscrapers as an advertising stunt while crowds gaped, watching for him to fall.
He had never fallen, but others of his profession had, and finally the authorities everywhere had prohibited such exhibitions. No more Human Fly acts would be permitted. Ergo, Fly Jorgeson, as he was called everywhere, was suddenly without the highly paid jobs and the adulation of the crowds which had been the breath of life to him.
He had never saved his money, had learned no other trade or profession, and with millions of trained men jobless, he found it impossible to get work. He soon found himself flat broke. He then took to panhandling, usually getting enough nickels and dimes in a day for his food and a cheap flop. His last dime was now gone. Soon he must leave the languid comfort of the park bench and resume his panhandling, in order to obtain the food and the flophouse bunk that would see him through the night.
A discarded newspaper lay on the bench beside him, and picking it up, he glanced idly through the "Help Wanted" columns of the classified section. Suddenly, a small ad caught and held his attention: WANTED: Experienced mountain climber. Easy work. Excellent pay. Applicants call in person, 1332 Poinsetta Drive, and ask for Professor Hartwell.
Jorgeson frowned and considered. That address would be at least a five mile walk from where he sat. But didn't he walk a good fifteen to twenty miles a day, anyway? And the panhandling might even be better out Poinsetta way, whether he landed the job or not.
He tore the ad from the paper, thrust it into his coat pocket, lurched to his feet, and slouched off on his way.
1332 Poinsetta Drive was a typical California bungalow, set in a spacious grounds, dotted with trees and surrounded by a high, woven wire fence.
Jorgeson stood for a moment, peering through the wire meshes of the gate, trying to gather courage to enter. He was painfully conscious of his unshaven, unkempt appearance. For a moment, he was tempted to turn away and give up the quest.
Then he saw a white-haired, bespectacled man of about his own size and build emerge from a side door and walk out into the yard. He made a queer, clucking noise, and a squirrel came scampering down the nearest tree, then ran toward him and halted with bushy tail arched.
The man produced an acorn from a bulging coat pocket, and handed it to the squirrel, which sat there on its haunches, nibbling and jerking its tail. It was soon followed by another and another, until no less than a dozen squirrels surrounded the old man.
This sight decided Jorgeson. Undoubtedly, this was Professor Hartwell. A man who was kind to animals would also be likely to be kind to a fellow human being in distress. The Fly opened the gate and entered.
The squirrels scampered away at his approach. The old man rose to his feet, rattling the acorns in his pocket as he appraised the Fly with keen gray eyes that looked out through his gold-rimmed glasses from beneath bushy white brows.
"Well, what can I do for you?" he asked crisply.
"I've come in answer to your ad in today's paper," Jorgeson replied.
"You are an experienced mountain climber?" the old man asked.
"I can climb anything that's climable," Jorgeson responded.
The professor considered, stroking his chin as he looked the Fly over from head to foot.
"Hm-m. Your appearance isn't particularly prepossessing—but you're my only applicant, thus far. There must be a dearth of unemployed mountain climbers in these parts. Are you strong?"
"My muscles are still hard, and my wind is still good. Feel."
Jorgeson flexed a biceps, and the professor thumbed it for a moment. Then he poked his back, leg and abdominal muscles.
"Pretty fair, at that," he said. "I guess you'll be able to make it. You are hired for two days. The pay, when you've completed the job, will be one thousand dollars. Satisfactory?"
Jorgeson gulped in surprise, and nodded, too astounded for words.
"Good. Then come with me. I'll fix you up with a shave, a bath, a square meal, and some clothing and shoes. You and I are about the same size, and I believe my spare outfit will fit you. Come along."
Jorgeson followed the professor into the house, and through a long room that was fitted up as a laboratory, with an imposing array of test tubes, microscopes, cages of fruit flies, guinea pigs, and the usual paraphernalia of the biochemist, then down a hallway and into a tiled bathroom.
An hour later, bathed, shaved, fed and wearing a pair of his employer's whipcords, with high-laced, hobnailed boots, flannel shirt, and leather windbreaker, the Fly felt like a new man as he helped the professor load the luggage into the tonneau of a large, powerful sedan.
They sped away, heading for the mountains. Jorgeson grew quite curious about this mysterious trip. However, the professor was not communicative. Presently they turned off the paved highway, and took to a rutted dirt road, which circled steeply upward through the trees. This was succeeded after several miles by a little used "stump" road cut through the timber.
This road came to a sudden end at the base of a steep cliff, which was almost perpendicular. The professor climbed out stiffly, and Jorgeson got out on his side, flexing his muscles, numbed by the long ride.
"Think you can climb that with a load on your back?" asked the professor, nodding toward the cliff.
"For me, climbing that will be like taking candy from a baby," the Fly replied, with a grin.
"Good. We'll camp here for the night, then tackle it the first thing in the morning. But now we eat."
Jorgeson's eyes bulged as he turned and saw the elaborate array of cans, parcels and bottles the professor was setting out on the checkered oil cloth he had spread on the ground. The old man, noting his look of astonishment, smiled slightly.
"This is to be my last dinner for a long time. Also, it is a celebration of the culmination of a lifetime of labor and research."
"Looks like a banquet, to me," said the Fly.
"Let us make it a banquet—for two," the professor replied. "We'll eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow—" he paused for a moment, as if he had been about to say something he wished to conceal—"for tomorrow we part forever!" he finished.
Jorgeson joined in the preparations with gusto—and in the feast that followed. They washed down their caviar and anchovies with a fifth of sherry. Their green turtle soup with a quart of sauterne. A bottle of Burgundy blended perfectly with their thick steaks, smothered in mushrooms. And another of Pedro Domigue, 1882, flamed blue above their crepes suzettes and topped off their café cognac.
The Fly was in a roseate glow. The professor grew talkative, even boastful.
"I suppose you've been wondering what all this is about, Jorgeson," he said. "Wasn't going to tell you at first, but hell, you're a good fellow, and have turned out to be a real pal, helping me celebrate and everything, so why shouldn't I tell you? I've got everything fixed, so there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it, anyhow." The professor paused, drew a deep breath.
"Do you realize that you are the last man I am going to see for three centuries! Picture that, Jorgeson. In three hundred years I'll be alive, just as I am today, ready to step into a new world—the hero of the hour —with historical knowledge that will have been long forgotten."
The Fly looked at him skeptically, as he mixed himself another coffee and brandy, half and half.
"I see you don't believe me," said the professor, reaching for the brandy bottle as Jorgeson put it down. "But it's a fact, nevertheless."
He took a small leather case from his breast pocket. Opening it, he revealed a hypodermic syringe on one side, a small brown bottle on the other.
"See that bottle?" he asked. "Elixir of life, that's what it is. Temporary immortality in a bottle. Tomorrow I'll shoot that into my arm— go to sleep for three centuries, and wake up, alive and well."
"How do you know you can do all this?" asked Jorgeson, interested in spite of his skepticism.
"Experiments. Thousands of them. Mediterranean fruit flies, guinea pigs, monkeys, white mice. Proper dosage puts any of them into a state of suspended animation for four of their normal lifetimes. And they wake up at the proper time—depending on the dosage and the weight of the animal— carrying on from where they left off, and living out the balance of their lives as if nothing had happened. Talk about Rip Van Winkle! What was supposed to happen to him could really happen to anyone—except the aging process —with my serum."
But how do you know what might happen to your body while you're sleeping? Cold, storms, attacks of animals—how can you survive these?"
"Simple. All taken care of. I've got a vault all built—airtight, insulated against outside temperatures, prevents dehydration, freezing or overheating. Air conditioning apparatus that will start up as soon as I move and have to breathe again. Man, didn't I tell you I've been preparing this for a lifetime?"
"But how will you be able to get out of the vault? I suppose there will be a thick, heavy door. What if you are too weak to move it when you awaken?"
"Just a matter of perfect timing. The door will open automatically at the right time. In fact, I've made it so it can't be opened any other way— to keep out possible vandals. Know anything about the equinoxes?"
The Fly harked back. After all, he had had an education.
"Very little. Studied it in school. They shift periodically, don't they?"
"Precisely. And what effect does that have on the stars in the northern heavens? Right now, Polaris is the North Star. But do you know that about in the year B. C. 3,000, Alpha Draconis was the polestar, and that some 12,000 years from now Vega will occupy that position?
"Man, the movements of the Earth around the sun and on its axis, despite the slight polar wobble, can be more safely depended on over a period of years, than the most precise and efficient instruments invented by man." "But, I don't see—"
"I'll explain. I've a tube shaped like a telescope trained on the northern sky in a certain direction. Beneath it, is a composite and extremely complicated device of my own invention, protected by a small dome of quartz, and operating like a photoelectric cell, but with this difference. It doesn't respond every time light strikes it. There must be a special combination of light rays—a combination of certain pinpoints of light, in short, agreeing precisely, not with the stars which are shining in that tube tonight, but with those which will shine into it three centuries hence, when the Earth has shifted its position relative to the sidereal system." "And then what happens?"
"Simple enough. It will work just like the time lock on a safe. The mechanism for opening the door is set in motion—the door swings open."
"Not so simple," the Fly disagreed. "What if it should be a cloudy night?"
"That's provided for also. There will be enough food, water and air in the vault to last ninety days. The chances are millions to one that there will be at least one clear night during that period. And only one will be required for my purpose."
At this point, Jorgeson noted that the professor's head was beginning to nod. A moment later, he rose, mumbling something about bedtime, and retired to his mattress.
For a long time the Fly lay awake, looking up at the gleaming stars, and thinking.
If only he could get that bottle of serum—immure himself in the vault. He was a misfit in this generation. All of his chances had vanished. True, he would have a thousand dollars tomorrow, but he knew himself too well to believe he would have it long. There would be a spree of spending, and within a month at the most he would be back on the street panhandling.
But if he could wake up in a new world three centuries hence—a world in which he could emerge as a hero, the center of attraction, the wonder of all time, a man who had remained in a state of suspended animation for three centuries—what a chance there would be for him to live as he had lived in the good old days—or even better.
As for that old codger snoring across from him, what good would it do him to traverse the gap of three centuries? Why, he must be at least sixty-five years old—with one foot in the grave. He would totter into it a few years after he woke up. But the Fly, a man of thirty, could look forward to perhaps a half century of life. Thinking along these lines, and trying to evolve some scheme that would enable him to take the place of the professor, he presently fell asleep.
Jorgeson woke with a hangover. The professor, however, showed no signs of his celebration; he was as businesslike and taciturn as if nothing had happened. He dosed the Fly with aspirin and black coffee, and, after they had had their bacon and eggs, they loaded the equipment which the professor wished to move up to his vault, on their backs. They bound themselves together with a twenty-foot length of rope, and taking up their alpenstocks, began their climb up the steep slope.
To the Fly, accustomed to supporting himself for long stretches on the side of a building, the climb was ridiculously easy. The professor, though surprisingly strong and agile for an old man, could not have made it without help.
After a climb that took them well into midmorning, they reached a ledge about two feet in width. Above this ledge, the cliff towered, as sheer and straight as the side of a building, for about a hundred feet. The Fly wondered how he was going to be able to get the old man up that wall. Then he noticed a knotted rope with a hook at the end, dangling within easy reach from the top of the cliff.
The professor unstrapped his pack and lowered it to the ledge. Then he fastened it to the hook in the end of the rope, and went up, hand over hand, with surprising ease for a man of his age. Jorgeson decided that he must have made this trip many times before—perhaps alone, perhaps with others to accompany him as far as the ledge. Obviously, he must have moved a great many heavy things to the cliff top during the time when he was building his vault.
Tilting his head far back, the Fly saw the old man crawl over the edge of the cliff. A moment later, he began pulling up the pack he had hooked on the end of the rope. Once he had it on the cliff top, he dropped the rope again.
"Take off your pack and fasten it on the hook," he ordered.
Jorgeson complied, and watched Hartwell draw up the second pack. To the surprise of the Fly, he did not drop the rope again. Instead, he held a leather wallet out over the edge and dropping it, said:
The Fly caught it, and opening it, found within ten crisp one hundred dollar bills.
He looked up, and saw that the old man was watching him.
"Your job is over, and that's your pay," he said. "From here, I carry on alone. You know something I had intended no man of this generation to know. But, before anyone can get here, I'll be sealed in my vault, which is well- camouflaged. I wouldn't advise you to try to find it. And don't try to drive the car back to town. I smashed the carburetor, this morning. Take it off, walk back to town, and buy a new one. Then you can come back and drive the car away. It is yours, with everything in it."
He drew back out of sight without a word of farewell, and Jorgeson, after standing and staring until his neck ached, realized that he had gone for good. What should he do now? Should he return to his world, the owner of a car and a thousand dollars, to tell a strange, incredible story which no one would believe? Or should he try to steal this coveted spanning of the centuries for himself?
A crafty gleam came into his eyes. He was glad, now, that he had not told the old man he was the Human Fly. The old buzzard might have taken other precautions. But he would never suspect that he could climb that cliff with ease.
Fifteen minutes later, the Fly was peering cautiously above the edge of the cliff. The coil of knotted rope was lying where the old man had left it, but the two packs were gone, and the professor was not in sight.
The Fly found himself on a flat-topped pinnacle, strewn with boulders, and cut by arroyos in which sparse vegetation grew. The professor had chosen well in selecting this retreat. No plane could land here, and no ordinary mountain climber would be likely to negotiate the steep cliffs that surrounded the pinnacle. Only a Human Fly could make it without the aid of a rope or a long ladder.
A brief search revealed a well-defined path. He followed it quietly and cautiously.
Presently, he heard the sound of hammering just ahead of him. He parted the bushes and peered through. There before him was the professor, standing in front of the open door of his vault, knocking the crate from a machine which, a moment later, he carried inside and bolted in place.
The machine in place, the professor took the leather case from his pocket, and from it removed the syringe and bottle of serum. He filled the syringe, then began to roll up his sleeve.
It was now or never for Jorgeson. Catching up a heavy stone, he bounded noiselessly forward.
The old man turned, apparently about to close the vault door before injecting the serum. He caught sight of his assailant for an instant— then the heavy rock came down on his skull crushing it like an eggshell.
The Fly snatched the syringe as Hartwell slumped to the floor, dead.
Flinging the rock out into the bushes, he grasped the old man's collar, and dragged the limp body out through the door. For a moment, he thought of burying it. Then he remembered that this would take time, and that the professor had told him everything had been timed, almost to the minute. He must close the door and take the serum now if he wished to wake up at the proper time. It should affect him exactly as it would have the professor, because he was of the same size and build, and almost the same weight.
He sprang inside the vault and swung the heavy door shut after him. The locking bars fell into place. There was, he observed, a porthole in the north side, filled with heavy glass to admit light only. The unlocking mechanism was invisible to him—must be fastened somewhere outside—would have to be, as a matter of fact, to catch the starlight.
For a moment panic seized him as he realized that the mechanism would not open the door for three hundred years. He rushed to the door, wrenched at the handle, determined to give up the whole idea, and flee. But it would not budge. The professor had told the truth. It could only be opened by the mechanism. And it would not open for three hundred years. He had to take the serum, now, or die like a rat in a trap.
There was a low cot at the back of the room. He sat down on this and bared his arm. Then he closed his eyes, inserted the needle, and sent the plunger home. His head reeled dizzily as he flung the empty syringe from him and sank back on the cot. Then came oblivion.
* * * * *
Gradually, consciousness returned to Jorgeson. He opened his eyes and looked about him for a moment before he remembered where he was. It did not seem that more than five minutes had elapsed since he had sunk back upon the cot, unconscious. That serum was a fraud. But was it?
By the reflected sunlight that came through the porthole, he was able to see everything in the room, even though he was so weak he could scarcely lift his hand. Presently, he moved an arm, raised it above his head. Something gray and fluffy fell away from it—something which had once been a woolen sleeve, but now was nothing but dust and lint.
He raised a foot. The remains of his whipcord trousers floated away in the tiny air current the movement had caused. The high-laced boot crumbled to powder.
Presently, he managed to sit up, and found himself as naked as the day he was born. The bedding on the cot had turned to dust and lint. Only the seasoned wooden frame and slats remained. Even the springs had rusted completely away.
He staggered to his feet and made his way to the provision compartments. Eagerly he gulped water—then broke the seal of a food jar and filled his empty stomach.
Having drunk and eaten, he felt stronger. It was true! It was true! He had survived for three centuries. The professor had planned well, and he was to reap the fruits of that endless planning and toil. Soon the stars would open the door for him and he could walk out into a strange, new world.
He went to the porthole and looked out. To his surprise, he was unable to see the northern sky. Yet it had been plainly visible through the porthole when he had first entered the cave. Instead of the sky, he now saw a solid mass of rustling leaves—oak leaves.
Why, what could this mean? There had been no oak tree there when he went to sleep. Standing on tiptoe, he peered downward. Yes, a mighty oak stood there, rooted before the door. And the scattered remains of a human skeleton lay among its gnarled roots.
A human skull grinned up at him—a skull that had been crushed in on one side.
It was the skull of Professor Hartwell grinning up at him! Why was it grinning? Well, all skulls grinned. But this one had a particularly malicious grin—as if some dark secret were about to be revealed. What was this secret?
Obviously, oak trees came from acorns. And the professor, he remembered, habitually carried acorns in his pockets—for the squirrels. So, by throwing the body of the professor in front of the door, he, himself, had planted the oak tree. The body had protected and fertilized the sprouting acorn.
But what of that? Something in the back of Jorgeson's mind seemed to be trying to get a message through—a warning of impending disaster.
Then, suddenly, he knew.
The oak tree standing there meant his doom. No starlight could penetrate through those thick leaves in the right combination to open the door of the vault. He could not open it himself. And he could not get out through the small, eight-inch porthole.
He had exactly ninety days to live—ninety days of hell. Never would he be able to see the new world of his hopes and dreams.
He picked up the food jar he had just emptied and shattered it on the floor. Then, taking up a jagged fragment, he slashed his wrists, and watched his life blood drip on the floor until consciousness left him once more— but this time forever.