"Curse them," said Lambert. "I wish I could really get hold of some of them. Perhaps, Madge, I will be able to think of some escape for us from this Hell's Dimension."
"Yes, darling. I could not bear to think that we are eternally damned to exist among these beings, hurt by them and unable to get away. How I wish we were back in the laboratory, at the tea table. How happy we were there!"
"And we will be again, Madge." Lambert was far from feeling hopeful, but he tried to encourage the girl into thinking they might get away.
However, he was unable to dissimulate. She felt his anguish for her safety. "But I know now that you love me. I can feel it stronger than ever before, John. It seems like a great rock to which I can always cling, your love. It projects me from the hatred that these beasts pour out against us."
Since they had no sense of time, they could not tell how long they were allowed to remain unmolested. But in each other's company they were happy, though each one was afraid for the safety of the loved one.
They spoke of the mortal life they had lived, and their love. They felt no need of food or water, but clung together in a dimensionless universe, held up by love.
* * * * *
The lull came to an end, at last. There was no change in the coppery vagueness about them which they sensed as the surrounding ether, but all was changeless, boundless. Lambert, close to Madge Crawford, felt that they were about to be attacked.
He had swift, temporary impressions of seeing saucerlike, unblinking eyes, and then hordes of bizarre inhabitants started to climb up to their perch.
For a short while, Lambert and Madge fought them off, thrusting at them, seeming to push them backward down the intangible slope; the cries which the dematerialized humans uttered also helped to hold the leaders of the attacking army partially in check, but the vast number of beings swept forward.
The thrusts of the torture-fields they emanated became more and more racking, as the two unfortunates shuddered in horror and pain.
The power to demonstrate loud noise was evidently impossible to the creatures, for their only sounds came to Madge Crawford and John Lambert as long-drawn out, almost unbearable squeaks, mouse-like in character. Perhaps they had never had the faculty of speech, since they did not need it to communicate with one another; perhaps they realized that the racket they could make would hurt them as much as it did their enemies.
Lambert, Madge clinging to him, was forced backward down the slope, and the beings had the advantage of height. He could not again reach the eminence, but the way behind seemed to clear quickly enough, though thrusts were made at him, innumerable times with the torture-fields.
The hordes pushed them backward, and ever back.
* * * * *
They were forced on for some distance. As they retreated, the way become easier, and fewer and fewer of the beings impeded the channel along which they moved, though in front of them and on all sides, above, beneath, they were pressed by the hordes.
"They are forcing us to some place they want us to go," said Lambert desperately.
"We can do nothing more," replied the girl.
Lambert felt her quiet confidence in him, and that as long as they were together, all was well.
"Maybe they can kill us, somehow," he said.
And now, Lambert felt the way was clear to the rear. There was a sudden rush of the creatures, and needlelike fields were impelled viciously into the spaces the two humans occupied.
Madge cried out in pain, and Lambert shouted. The throng drew away from them as suddenly as it had surged forward, and an instant later the pair, clinging together, felt that they were falling, falling, falling....
"Are you all right, Madge?"
But he knew she was suffering. How long they fell he did not know, but they stopped at last. No sooner had they come to rest than they were assailed with sensations of pain which made both cry out in anguish.
There, in the spot where they had been thrust by the hordes, they felt that there was some terrific vibration which racked and tore at their invisible forms continuously, sending them into spasms of sharp misery.
They both were forced to give vent to their feelings by loud cries. But they could not command their movements any longer. When they tried to get away, their limbs moved but they felt that they remained in the same spot.
* * * * *
The pain shook every fraction of their souls.
"We—we are in some pit of hell, into which they have thrown us, John," gasped Madge.
He knew she was shivering with the torture of that great vibration from which there was no escape, that they were in a prison-pit of Hell's Dimension.
But he was powerless to help her. He suffered as much as she. Yet there was no weakening of his sensations; he was in as much torture as he had been at the start. He knew that they could not die and could never escape from this misery of hell.
Their cries seemed to disturb the vacuum about. Lambert, shivering and shaking with pain, was aware that great eyes, similar to those which they had thought they saw above, were now upon them. Squeaks were impressed upon him, squeaks which expressed disapprobation. There were some of the beings in the pit with them.
Madge knew they were there, too. She cried out in terror, "Will they add to our misery?"
But the creatures in the vacuum were pinned to the spots they occupied, as were Madge and Lambert. From their squeaks it was evident they suffered, too, and were fellow prisoners of the mortals.
"Probably the cries we make disturb them," said Lambert. "Vibrations to which we and they are not attuned are torture to the form we are in. Evidently the inhabitants of this hell world punish offenders by condemning them to this eternal torture."
"Why—why did they treat us so?"
"Perhaps we jarred upon them, hurt them, because we were not of their kind exactly," said Lambert. "Perhaps it was just their natural hatred of us as strangers."
* * * * *
They did not grow used to the terrible eternity of torments. No, if anything, it grew worse as it went on. Still, they could visualize no end to the existence to which they were bound. Throbs of awful intensity rent them, tore them apart myriad times, yet they still felt as keenly as before and suffered just as much. There was no death for them, no release from the intangible world in which they were.
Their fellow prisoners squeaked at them, as though imploring them not to add to the agony by uttering discordant cries. But it was impossible for Madge to keep quiet, and Lambert shouted in anguish from time to time.
There seemed to be no end to it.
And yet, after what was eternity to the sufferers, Madge spoke hopefully.
"Darling John, I—I fear I am really going to die. I am growing weaker. I can feel the pain very little now. It is all vague, and is getting less real to me. Good-by, sweetheart, I love you, and I always will—"
Lambert uttered a strangled cry, "No, no. Don't leave me, Madge."
He clung to her, yet she was becoming extremely intangible to him. She was melting away from his embrace, and Lambert felt that he, too, was weaker, even less real than he had been. He hoped that if it was the end, they would go together.
Desperately, he tried to hold her with him, but he had little ability to do so. The torture was still racking his consciousness, but was becoming more dreamlike.
There was a terrific snap, suddenly, and Lambert lost all consciousness....
* * * * *
Lambert, opening his eyes, felt his body writhing about, and experienced pain that was—mortal. A bluish-green light dazzled his pupils and made him blink.
Something cut into his flesh, and Lambert rolled about, trying to escape. He bumped into something, something soft; he clung to this form, and knew that he was holding on to a human being. Then the light died out, and in its stead was the yellow, normal glow of the electric lights. Weak, famished, almost dead of thirst, Lambert looked about him at the familiar sights of his laboratory. He was lying on the floor, close by the metal plate, and at his side, unconscious but still alive to judge by her rising and falling breast, was Madge Crawford.
Someone bent over him, and pressed a glass of water against his lips. He drank, watching while a mortal whom Lambert at last realized was Detective Phillips bathed Madge Crawford's temples with water from a pitcher and forced a little between her pale, drawn lips.
Lambert tried to rise, but he was weak, and required assistance. He was dazed, still, and they sat him down in a chair and allowed him to come to.
He shuddered from time to time, for he still thought he could feel the torture which he had been undergoing. But he was worried about Madge, and watched anxiously as Phillips, assisted by another man, worked over the girl.
At last, Madge stirred and moaned faintly. They lifted her to a bench, where they gently restored her to full consciousness.
When she could sit up, she at once cried out for Lambert.
The scientist had recovered enough to rise to his feet and stagger toward her. "Here I am, darling," he said.
"John—we're alive—we're back in the laboratory!"
"Ah, Lambert. Glad to see you." A heavy voice spoke, and Lambert for the first time noticed the black-clad figure which stood to one side, near the switchboard, hidden by a large piece of apparatus.
"Dr. Morgan!" cried Lambert.
Althaus Morgan, the renowned physicist, came forward calmly, with outstretched hand. "So, you realized your great ambition, eh?" he said curiously. "But where would you be if I had not been able to bring you back?"
"In Hell—or Hell's Dimension, anyway," said Lambert.
He went to Madge, took her in his arms. "Darling, we are safe. Morgan has managed to re-materialize us. We will never again be cast into the void in this way. I shall destroy the apparatus and my notes."
Doherty, who had been out of the room on some errand, came into the laboratory. He shouted when he saw Lambert standing before him.
"So you got him," he cried. "Where was he hidin'?"
His eyes fell upon Madge Crawford, then, and he exclaimed in satisfaction. "You found her, eh?"
"No," said Phillips. "They came back. They suddenly appeared out of nothing, Doherty."
"Don't kid me," growled Doherty. "They were hidin' in a closet somewhere. Maybe they can fool you guys, but not me."
Lambert spoke to Phillips. "I'm starving to death and I think Miss Crawford must be, too. Will you tell Felix to bring us some food, plenty of it?"
One of the sleuths went to the kitchen to give the order. Lambert turned to Morgan.
"How did you manage to bring us back?" he asked.
* * * * *
Morgan shrugged. "It was all guess work at the last. I at first could check the apparatus by your notes, and this took some time. You know you have written me in detail about what you were working on, so when I was summoned by Detective Phillips, who said you had mentioned my name to him as the only one who could help, I could make a good conjecture as to what had occurred. I heard the stories of all concerned, and realized that you must have dematerialized Miss Crawford by mistake, and then, unable to bring her back, had followed her yourself.
"I put on your insulation outfit, and went to work. I have not left here for a moment, but have snatched an hour or two of sleep from time to time. Detective Phillips has been very good and helpful.
"Finally, I had everything in shape, but I reversed the apparatus in vital spots, and tried each combination until suddenly, a few minutes ago, you were re-materialized. It was a desperate chance, but I was forced to take it in an endeavor to save you."
Lambert held out his hand to his friend. "I can never thank you enough," he said gratefully. "You saved us from a horrible fate. But you speak as though we had been gone a long while. Was it many hours?"
"Hours?" repeated Morgan, his lips parting under his black beard. "Man, it was eight days! You have been gone since a week ago last night!"
Lambert turned to Phillips. "I must ask you not to release this story to the newspapers," he begged.
Phillips smiled and turned up his hands in a gesture of frank wonder. "Professor Lambert," he said, "I can't believe what I have seen myself. If I told such a yarn to the reporters, they'd never forget it. They'd kid me out of the department."
"Aw, they were hidin' in a closet," growled Doherty. "Come on, we've wasted too much time on this job already. Just a couple of nuts, says I."
* * * * *
The sleuths, after Phillips had shaken hands with Lambert, left the laboratory. Morgan, a large man of middle age, joined them in a meal which Felix served to the three on a folding table brought in for the purpose. Felix was terribly glad to see Madge and Lambert again, and manifested his joy by many bobs and leaps as he waited upon them. A grin spread across his face from ear to ear.
Morgan asked innumerable questions. They described as best they could what they could recall of the strange dominion in which they had been, and the physicist listened intently.
"It is some Hell's Dimension, as you call it," he said at last.
"Where it is, or exactly what, I cannot say," said Lambert. "I surely have no desire to return to that world of hate."
Madge, happy now, smiled at him and he leaned over and kissed her tenderly.
"We have come from Hell, together," said Lambert, "and now we are in Heaven!"
* * * * *
The World Behind the Moon
By Paul Ernst
[Sidenote: Two intrepid Earth-men fight it out with the horrific monsters of Zeud's frightful jungles.]
Like pitiless jaws, a distant crater opened for their ship. Helplessly, they hurtled toward it: helplessly, because they were still in the nothingness of space, with no atmospheric resistance on which their rudders, or stern or bow tubes, could get a purchase to steer them.
Professor Dorn Wichter waited anxiously for the slight vibration that should announce that the projectile-shaped shell had entered the new planet's atmosphere.
"Have we struck it yet?" asked Joyce, a tall blond young man with the shoulders of an athlete and the broad brow and square chin of one who combines dreams with action. He made his way painfully toward Wichter. It was the first time he had attempted to move since the shell had passed the neutral point—that belt midway between the moon and the world behind it, where the pull of gravity of each satellite was neutralized by the other. They, and all the loose objects in the shell, had floated uncomfortably about the middle of the chamber for half an hour or so, gradually settling down again; until now it was possible, with care, to walk.
"Have we struck it?" he repeated, leaning over the professor's shoulder and staring at the resistance gauge.
"No." Absently Wichter took off his spectacles and polished them. "There's not a trace of resistance yet."
They gazed out the bow window toward the vast disc, like a serrated, pock-marked plate of blue ice, that was the planet Zeud—discovered and named by them. The same thought was in the mind of each. Suppose there were no atmosphere surrounding Zeud to cushion their descent into the hundred-mile crater that yawned to receive them?
"Well," said Joyce after a time, "we're taking no more of a chance here than we did when we pointed our nose toward the moon. We were almost sure that was no atmosphere there—which meant we'd nose dive into the rocks at five thousand miles an hour. On Zeud there might be anything." His eyes shone. "How wonderful that there should be such a planet, unsuspected during all the centuries men have been studying the heavens!"
Wichter nodded agreement. It was indeed wonderful. But what was more wonderful was its present discovery: for that would never have transpired had not he and Joyce succeeded in their attempt to fly to the moon. From there, after following the sun in its slow journey around to the lost side of the lunar globe—that face which the earth has never yet observed—they had seen shining in the near distance the great ball which they had christened Zeud.
* * * * *
Astronomical calculations had soon described the mysterious hidden satellite. It was almost a twin to the moon; a very little smaller, and less than eighty thousand miles away. Its rotation was nearly similar, which made its days not quite sixteen of our earthly days. It was of approximately the weight, per cubic mile, of Earth. And there it whirled, directly in a line with the earth and the moon, moving as the moon moved so that it was ever out of sight beyond it, as a dime would be out of sight if placed in a direct line behind a penny.
Zeud, the new satellite, the world beyond the moon! In their excitement at its discovery, Joyce and Wichter had left the moon—which they had found to be as dead and cold as it had been surmised to be—and returned summarily to Earth. They had replenished their supplies and their oxygen tanks, and had come back—to circle around the moon and point the sharp prow of the shell toward Zeud. The gift of the moon to Earth was a dubious one; but the gift of a possibly living planet-colony to mankind might be the solution of the overcrowded conditions of the terrestial sphere!
"Speed, three thousand miles an hour," computed Wichter. "Distance to Zeud, nine hundred and eighty miles. If we don't strike a few atoms of hydrogen or something soon we're going to drill this nearest crater a little deeper!"
Joyce nodded grimly. At two thousand miles from Earth there had still been enough hydrogen traces in the ether to give purchase to the explosions of their water-motor. At six hundred miles from the moon they had run into a sparse gaseous belt that had enabled them to change direction and slow their speed. They had hoped to find hydrogen at a thousand or twelve hundred miles from Zeud.
"Eight hundred and thirty miles," commented Wichter, his slender, bent body tensed. "Eight hundred miles—ah!"
A thrumming sound came to their ears as the shell quivered, imperceptibly almost, but unmistakeably, at the touch of some faint resistance outside in space.
"We've struck it, Joyce. And it's much denser than the moon's, even as we'd hoped. There'll be life on Zeud, my boy, unless I'm vastly mistaken. You'd better look to the motor now."
* * * * *
Joyce went to the water-motor. This was a curious, but extremely simple affair. There was a glass box, ribbed with polished steel, about the size and shape of a cigar box, which was full of water. Leading away from this, to the bow and stern of the shell, were two small pipes. The pipes were greatly thickened for a period of three feet or so, directly under the little tank, and were braced by bed-plates so heavy as to look all out of proportion. Around the thickened parts of the pipes were coils of heavy, insulated copper wire. There were no valves nor cylinders, no revolving parts: that was all there was to the "motor."
Joyce didn't yet understand the device. The water dripped from the tank, drop by drop, to be abruptly disintegrated, made into an explosive, by being subjected to a powerful magnetic field induced in the coils by a generator in the bow of the shell. As each drop of water passed into the pipes, and was instantaneously broken up, there was a violent but controlled explosion—and the shell was kicked another hundred miles ahead on its journey. That was all Joyce knew about it.
He threw the bow switch. There was a soft shock as the motor exhausted through the forward tube, slowing their speed.
"Turn on the outside generator propellers," ordered Wichter. "I think our batteries are getting low."
Joyce slipped the tiny, slim-bladed propellers into gear. They began to turn, slowly at first in the almost non-existent atmosphere.
"Four hundred miles," announced Wichter. "How's the temperature?"
Joyce stepped to the thermometer that registered the heat of the outer wall. "Nine hundred degrees," he said.
"Cut down to a thousand miles an hour," commanded Wichter. "Five hundred as soon as the motor will catch that much. I'll keep our course straight toward this crater. It's in wells like that, that we'll find livable air—if we're right in believing there is such a thing on Zeud."
* * * * *
Joyce glanced at the thermometer. It still registered hundreds of degrees, though their speed had been materially reduced.
"I guess there's livable air, all right," he said. "It's pretty thick outside already."
The professor smiled. "Another theory vindicated. I was sure that Zeud, swinging on the outside of the Earth-moon-Zeud chain and hence traveling at a faster rate, would pick up most of the moon's atmosphere over a period of millions of years. Also it must have been shielded by the moon, to some extent, against the constant small atmospheric leakage most celestial globes are subject to. Just the same, when we land, we'll test conditions with a rat or two."
At a signal from him, Joyce checked their speed to four hundred miles an hour, then to two hundred, and then, as they descended below the highest rim of the circular cliffs of the crater, almost to a full stop. They floated toward the surface of Zeud, watching with breathless interest the panorama that unfolded beneath them.
They were nosing toward a spot that was being favored with the Zeudian sunrise. Sharp and clear the light rays slanted down, illuminating about half the crater's floor and leaving the cliff protected half in dim shadow.
The illuminated part of the giant pit was as bizarre as the landscape of a nightmare. There were purplish trees, immense beyond belief. There were broad, smooth pools of inky black fluid that was oily and troubled in spots as though disturbed by some moving things under the surface. There were bare, rocky patches where the stones, the long drippings of ancient lava flow, were spread like bleaching gray skeletons of monsters. And over all, rising from pools and bare ground and jungle alike, was a thin, miasmic mist.
* * * * *
Sustained by the slow, steady exhaust of the motor, rising a little with each partly muffled explosion and sinking a little further in each interval, they settled toward a bare, lava strewn spot that appealed to Wichter as being a good landing place. With a last hiss, and a grinding jar, they grounded. Joyce opened the switch to cut off the generator.
"Now let's see what the air's like," said Wichter, lifting down a small cage in which was penned an active rat.
He opened a double panel in the shell's hull, and freed the little animal. In an agony of suspense they watched it as it leaped onto the bare lava and halted a moment....
"Seems to like it," said Joyce, drawing a great breath.
The rat, as though intoxicated by its sudden freedom, raced away out of sight, covering eight or ten feet at a bound, its legs scurrying ludicrously in empty air during its short flights.
"That means that we can dispense with oxygen helmets—and that we'd better take our guns," said Wichter, his voice tense, his eyes snapping behind his glasses.
He stepped to the gun rack. In this were half a dozen air-guns. Long and of very small bore, they discharged a tiny steel shell in which was a liquid of his invention that, about a second after the heat of its forced passage through the rifle barrel, expanded instantly in gaseous form to millions of times its liquid bulk. It was the most powerful explosive yet found, but one that was beautifully safe to carry inasmuch as it could be exploded only by heat.
"Are we ready?" he said, handing a gun to Joyce. "Then—let's go!"
* * * * *
But for a breath or two they hesitated before opening the heavy double door in the side of the hull, savoring to the full the immensity of the moment.
The rapture of the explorer who is the first to set foot on a vast new continent was theirs, magnified a hundredfold. For they were the first to set foot on a vast new planet! An entire new world, containing heaven alone knew what forms of life, what monstrous or infinitesimal creatures, lay before them. Even the profound awe they had experienced when landing on the moon was dwarfed by the solemnity of this occasion; just as it is less soul stirring to discover an arctic continent which is perpetually cased in barren ice, than to discover a continent which is warmly fruitful and, probably, teeming with life.
Still wordless, too stirred to speak, they opened the vault-like door and stepped out—into a humid heat which was like that of their own tropical regions, but not so unendurable.
In their short stay on the moon, during which they had taken several walks in their insulated suits, they had become somewhat accustomed to the decreased weight of their bodies due to the lesser gravity, so that here, where their weight was even less, they did not make any blunders of stepping twenty feet instead of a yard.
Walking warily, glancing alertly in all directions to guard against any strange animals that might rush out to destroy them, they moved toward the nearest stretch of jungle.
* * * * *
The first thing that arrested their attention was the size of the trees they were approaching. They had got some idea of their hugeness from the shell, but viewed from ground level they loomed even larger. Eight hundred, a thousand feet they reared their mighty tops, with trunks hundreds of feet in circumference; living pyramids whose bases wove together to make an impenetrable ceiling over the jungle floor. The leaves were thick and bloated like cactus growths, and their color was a pronounced lavender.
"We must take back several of those leaves," said Wichter, his scientific soul filled with cold excitement.
"I wish we could take back some of this air, too." Joyce filled his lungs to capacity. "Isn't it great? Like wine! It almost counteracts the effects of the heat."
"There's more oxygen in it than in our own," surmised Wichter. "My God! What's that!"
They halted for an instant. From the depths of the lavender jungle had come an ear shattering, screaming hiss, as though some monstrous serpent were in its death agony.
They waited to hear if the noise would be repeated. It wasn't. Dubiously they started on again.
"We'd better not go in there too far," said Joyce. "If we didn't come out again it would cost Earth a new planet. No one else knows the secret of your water-motor."
"Oh, nothing living can stand against these guns of ours," replied Wichter confidently. "And that noise might not have been caused by anything living. It might have been steam escaping from some volcanic crevice."
They started cautiously down a well defined, hard packed trail through thorny lavender underbrush. As they went, Joyce blazed marks on various tree trunks marking the direction back to the shell. The tough fibres exuded a bluish liquid from the cuts that bubbled slowly like blood.
* * * * *
To the right and left of them were cup-shaped bushes that looked like traps; and that their looks were not deceiving was proved by a muffled, bleating cry that rose from the compressed leaves of one of them they passed. Sluggish, blind crawling things like three-foot slugs flowed across their path and among the tree trunks, leaving viscous trails of slime behind them. And there were larger things....
"Careful," said Wichter suddenly, coming to a halt and peering into the gloom at their right.
"What did you see?" whispered Joyce.
Wichter shook his head. The gigantic, two-legged, purplish figure he had dimly made out in the steamy dark, had moved away. "I don't know. It looked a little like a giant ape."
They halted and took stock of their situation, mechanically wiping perspiration from their streaming faces, and pondering as to whether or not they should turn back. Joyce, who was far from being a coward, thought they should.
"In this undergrowth," he pointed out, "we might be rushed before we could even fire our guns. And we're nearly a mile from the shell."
But Wichter was like an eager child.
"We'll press on just a little," he urged. "To that clear spot in front of us." He pointed along the trail to where sunlight was blazing down through an opening in the trees. "As soon as we see what's there, we'll go back."
With a shrug, Joyce followed the eager little man down the weird trail under the lavender trees. In a few moments they had reached the clearing which was Wichter's goal. They halted on its edge, gazing at it with awe and repulsion.
* * * * *
It was a circular quagmire of festering black mud about a hundred yards across. Near at hand they could see the mud heaving, very slowly, as though abysmal forms of life were tunneling along just under the surface. They glanced toward the center of the bog, which was occupied by one of the smooth black pools, and cried aloud at what they saw.
At the brink of the pool was lying a gigantic creature like a great, thick snake—a snake with a lizard's head, and a series of many-jointed, scaled legs running down its powerful length. Its mouth was gaping open to reveal hundreds of needle-sharp, backward pointing teeth. Its legs and thick, stubbed tail were threshing feebly in the mud as though it were in distress; and its eyes, so small as to be invisible in its repulsive head, were glazed and dull.
"Was that what we heard back a ways?" wondered Joyce.
"Probably," said Wichter. His eyes shone as he gazed at the nightmare shape. Impulsively he took a step toward the stirring mud.
"Don't be entirely insane," snapped Joyce, catching his arm.
"I must see it closer," said Wichter, tugging to be free.
"Then we'll climb a tree and look down on it. We'll probably be safer up off the ground anyway."
* * * * *
They ascended the nearest jungle giant—whose rubbery bark was so ringed and scored as to be as easy to climb as a staircase—to the first great bough, about fifty feet from the ground, and edged out till they hung over the rim of the quagmire. From there, with the aid of their binoculars, they expected to see the dying monster in every detail. But when they looked toward the pool it was not in sight!
"Were we seeing things?" exclaimed Wichter, rubbing his glasses. "I'd have sworn it was lying there!"
"It was," said Joyce grimly. "Look at the pool. That'll tell you where it went."
The black, secretive surface was bubbling and waving as though, down in its depths, a terrific fight were taking place.
"Something came up and dragged our ten-legged lizard down to its den. Then that something's brothers got onto the fact that a feast was being held, and rushed in. That pool would be no place for a before-breakfast dip!"
* * * * *
Wichter started to say something in reply, then gazed, hypnotized, at the opposite wall of the jungle.
From the dense screen of lavender foliage stretched a glistening, scale-armored neck, as thick as a man's body at its thinnest point, which was just behind a tremendous-jawed crocodilian head. It tapered back for a distance of at least thirty feet, to merge into a body as big as that of a terrestial whale, that was supported by four squat, ponderous legs.
Moving with surprising rapidity, the enormous thing slid into the mud and began ploughing a way, belly deep, toward the pool. Shapeless, slow-writhing forms were cast up in its wake, to quiver for a moment in the sunlight and then melt below the mud again.
One of the bloated, formless mud-crawlers was snapped up in the huge jaws with an abrupt plunge of the long neck, and the monster began to feed, hog-like, slobbering over the loathsome carcass.
Wichter shook his head, half in fanatical eagerness, half in despair. "I'd like to stay and see more," he said with a sigh, "but if that's the kind of creatures we're apt to encounter in the Zeudian jungle, we'd better be going at once—"
"Sh-h!" snapped Joyce. Then, in a barely audible whisper: "I think the thing heard your voice!"
The monster had abruptly ceased its feeding. Its head, thrust high in the air, was waving inquisitively from side to side. Suddenly it expelled the air from its vast lungs in a roaring cough—and started directly for their tree.
"Shoot!" cried Wichter, raising his gun.
* * * * *
Moving with the speed of an express train, the monster had almost got to their overhanging branch before they could pull the triggers. Both shells imbedded themselves in the enormous chest, just as the long neck reached up for them. And at once things began to happen with cataclysmic rapidity.
Almost with their impact the shells exploded. The monster stopped, with a great hole torn in its body. Then, dying on its feet, it thrust its great head up and its huge jaws crunched over the branch to which its two puny destroyers were clinging.
With all its dozens of tons of weight, it jerked in a gargantuan death agony. The tree, enormous as it was, shook with it, and the branch itself was tossed as though in a hurricane.
There was a splintering sound. Wichter and Joyce dropped their guns to cling more tightly to the bole of the drooping branch that was their only security. The guns glanced off the mountainous body—and, with a last convulsion of the mighty legs, were swept underneath!
The monster was still at last, its insensate jaws yet gripping the bough. The two men looked at each other in speechless consternation. The shell a mile off through the dreadful jungle.... Themselves, helpless without their guns....
"Well," said Joyce at last. "I guess we'd better be on our way. Waiting here, thinking it over, won't help any. Lucky there's no night, for a couple of weeks at least, to come stealing down on us."
* * * * *
He started down the great trunk, with Wichter following close behind. Walking as rapidly as they could, they hurried back along the tunneled trail toward their shell.
They hadn't covered a hundred yards when they heard a mighty crashing of underbrush behind them. Glancing back, they saw tooth-studded jaws gaping cavernously at the end of a thirty-foot neck—little, dead-looking eyes glaring at them—a hundred-foot body smashing its way over the trap-bushes and through tangles of vines and down-drooping branches.
"The mate to the thing we killed back there!" Joyce panted. "Run, for God's sake!"
Wichter needed no urging. He hadn't an ounce of fear in his spare, small body. But he had an overwhelming desire to get back to Earth and deliver his message. He was trembling as he raced after Joyce, thirty feet to a bound, ducking his head to avoid hitting the thick lavender foliage that roofed the trail.
"One of us must get through!" he panted over and over. "One of us must make it!"
It was speedily apparent that they could never outrun their pursuer. The reaching jaws were only a few yards behind them now.
"You go," called Joyce, sobbing for breath. He slowed his pace deliberately.
"No—you—" Wichter slowed too. In a frenzy, Joyce shoved him along the trail.
"I tell you—"
He got no further. In front of them, where there had appeared to be solid ground, they suddenly saw a yawning pit. Desperately, they tried to veer aside, but they were too close. Their last long birdlike leap carried them over the edge. They fell, far down, into a deep chasm, splashing into a shallow pool of water.
A few clods of earth cascaded after them as the monster above dug its great splay feet into the ground and checked its rush in time to keep from falling after them. Then the top of the pit slowly darkened as a covering of some sort slid across it. They were in a prison as profoundly quiet and utterly black as a tomb.
* * * * *
"Dorn," shouted Joyce. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," came a voice in the near darkness. "And you?"
"I'm still in one piece as far as I can feel." There was a splashing noise. He waded toward it and in a moment his outstretched hand touched the professor's shoulder.
"This is a fine mess," he observed shakily. "We got away from those tooth-lined jaws, all right, but I'm wondering if we're much better off than we would have been if we hadn't escaped."
"I'm wondering the same thing." Wichter's voice was strained. "Did you see the way the top of the pit closed above us? That means we're in a trap. And a most ingenious trap it is, too! The roof of it is camouflaged until it looks exactly like the rest of the trail floor. The water in here is just shallow enough to let large animals break their necks when they fall in and just deep enough to preserve small animals—like ourselves—alive. We're in the hands of some sort of reasoning, intelligent beings, Joyce!"
"In that case," said Joyce with a shudder, "we'd better do our best to get out of here!"
But this was found to be impossible. They couldn't climb up out of the pit, and nowhere could they feel any openings in the walls. Only smooth, impenetrable stone met their questing fingers.
"It looks as though we're in to stay," said Joyce finally. "At least until our Zeudian hosts, whatever kind of creatures they may be, come and take us out. What'll we do then? Sail in and die fighting? Or go peaceably along with them—assuming we aren't killed at once—on the chance that we can make a break later?"
"I'd advise the latter," answered Wichter. "There is a small animal on our own planet whose example might be a good one for us to follow. That's the 'possum." He stopped abruptly, and gripped Joyce's arm.
From the opposite side of the pit came a grating sound. A crack of greenish light appeared, low down near the water. This widened jerkily as though a door were being hoisted by some sort of pulley arrangement. The walls of the pit began to glow faintly with reflected light.
"Down," breathed Wichter.
* * * * *
Noiselessly they let themselves sink into the water until they were floating, eyes closed and motionless, on the surface. Playing dead to the best of their ability, they waited for what might happen next.
They heard a splashing near the open rock door. The splashing neared them, and high-pitched hissing syllables came to their ears—variegated sounds that resembled excited conversation in some unknown language.
Joyce felt himself touched by something, and it was all he could do to keep from shouting aloud and springing to his feet at the contact.
He'd had no idea, of course, what might be the nature of their captors, but he had imagined them as man-like, to some extent at least. And the touch of his hand, or flipper, or whatever it was, indicated that they were not!
They were cold-blooded, reptilian things, for the flesh that had touched him was cold; as clammy and repulsive as the belly of a dead fish. So repulsive was that flesh that, when he presently felt himself lifted high up and roughly carried, he shuddered in spite of himself at the contact.
Instantly the thing that bore him stopped. Joyce held his breath. He felt an excruciating, stabbing pain in his arm, after which the journey through the water was resumed. Stubbornly he kept up his pretence of lifelessness.
The splashing ceased, and he heard flat wet feet slapping along on dry rock, indicating that they had emerged from the pit. Then he sank into real unconsciousness.
The next thing he knew was that he was lying on smooth, bare rock in a perfect bedlam of noises. Howls and grunts, snuffling coughs and snarls beat at his ear-drums. It was as though he had fallen into a vast cage in which were hundreds of savage, excited animals—animals, however, that in spite of their excitement and ferocity were surprisingly motionless, for he heard no scraping of claws, or padding of feet.
Cautiously he opened his eyes....
* * * * *
He was in a large cave, the walls of which were glowing with greenish, phosphorescent light. Strewn about the floor were seemingly dead carcasses of animals. And what carcasses there were! Blubber-coated things that looked like giant tadpoles, gazelle-like creatures with a single, long slim horn growing from delicate small skulls, four-legged beasts and six-legged ones, animals with furry hides and crawlers with scaled coverings—several hundred assorted specimens of the smaller life of Zeud lay stretched out in seeming lifelessness.
But they were not dead, these bizarre beasts of another world. They lived, and were animated with the frenzied fear of trapped things. Joyce could see the tortured heaving of their furred and scaled sides as they panted with terror. And from their throats issued the outlandish noises he had heard. They were alive enough—only they seemed unable to move!
There was nothing in his range of vision that might conceivably be the beings that had captured them, so Joyce started to lift his head and look around at the rest of the cavern. He found that he could not move. He tried again, and his body was as unresponsive as a log. In fact, he couldn't feel his body at all! In growing terror, he concentrated all his will on moving his arm. It was as limp as a rag.
He relaxed, momentarily in the grip of stark, blind panic. He was as helpless as the howling things around him! He was numbed, completely paralyzed into immobility!
The professor's voice—a weak, uncertain voice—sounded from behind him. "Joyce! Joyce!"
He found that he could talk, that the paralysis that gripped the rest of his muscles had not extended to the vocal cords. "Dorn! Thank God you're alive! I couldn't see you, and I thought—"
"I'm alive, but that's about all," said Wichter. "I—I can't move."
"Neither can I. We've been drugged in some manner—just as all the other animals in here have been drugged. I must have got my dose in the pit. I was cut, or stabbed, in the arm."
* * * * *
Joyce stopped talking as he suddenly heard steps, like human footsteps yet weirdly different—flap-flapping sounds as though awkward flippers were slapping along the rock floor toward them. The steps stopped within a few feet of them; then, after what seemed hours, they sounded again, this time in front of him.
He opened his eyes, cautiously, barely moving his eyelids, and saw at last, in every hideous detail, one of the super-beasts that had captured Wichter and himself.
It was a horrible cartoon of a man, the thing that stood there in the greenish glow of the cave. Nine or ten feet high, it loomed; hairless, with a faintly iridescent, purplish hide. A thick, cylindrical trunk sloped into a neck only a little smaller than the body itself. Set on this was a bony, ugly head that was split clear across by lipless jaws. There was no nose, only slanted holes like the nostrils of an animal; and over these were set pale, expressionless, pupil-less eyes. The arms were short and thick and ended in bifurcated lumps of flesh like swollen hands encased in old-fashioned mittens. The legs were also grotesquely short, and the feet mere shapeless flaps.
It was standing near one of the smaller animals, apparently regarding it closely. Observing it himself, Joyce saw that it was moving a little. As though coming out of a coma, it was raising its bizarre head and trying to get on its feet.
Leisurely the two-legged monster bent over it. Two long fangs gleamed in the lipless mouth. These were buried in the neck of the reviving beast—and instantly it sank back into immobility.
Having reduced it to helplessness—the monster ate it! The lipless jaws gaped widely. The shapeless hands forced in the head of the animal. The throat muscles expanded hugely: and in less than a minute it had swallowed its living prey as a boa-constrictor swallows a monkey.
* * * * *
Joyce closed his eyes, feeling weak and nauseated. He didn't open them again till long after he had heard the last of the awkward, flapping footsteps.
"Could you see it?" asked Wichter, who was lying so closely behind him that he couldn't observe the monstrous Zeudian. "What did it do? What was it like?"
Joyce told him of the way the creature had fed. "We are evidently in their provision room," he concluded. "They keep some of their food alive, it seems.... Well, it's a quick death."
"Tell me more about the way the other animal moved, just before it was eaten."
"There isn't much to tell," said Joyce wearily. "It didn't move long after those fangs were sunk into it."
"But don't you see!" There was sudden hope in Wichter's voice. "That means that the effect of the poison, which is apparently injected by those fangs, wears off after a time. And in that case—"
"In that case," Joyce interjected, "we'd have only an unknown army of ten-foot Zeudians, the problem of finding a way to the surface of the ground again, and the lack of any kind of weapons, to keep us from escaping!"
"We're not quite weaponless, though," the professor whispered back. "Over in a corner there's a pile of the long, slender horns that sprout from the heads of some of these creatures. Evidently the Zeudians cut them out, or break them off before eating that particular type of animal. They'd be as good as lances, if we could get hold of them."
* * * * *
Joyce said nothing, but hope began to beat in his own breast. He had noticed a significant happening during the age-long hours in the commissary cave. Most of the Zeudians had entered from the direction of the pit. But one had come in through an opening in the opposite side. And this one had blinked pale eyes as though dazzled from bright sunlight—and was bearing some large, woody looking tubers that seemed to have been freshly uprooted! There was a good chance, thought Joyce, that that opening led to a tunnel up to the world above!
He drew a deep breath—and felt a dim pain in his back, caused by the cramping position in which he had lain for so long.
He could have shouted aloud with the thrill of that discovery. This was the first time he had felt his body at all! Did it mean that the effect of the poison was wearing off—that it wasn't as lastingly paralyzing to his earthly nerve centers as to those of Zeudian creatures around them? He flexed the muscles of his leg. The leg moved a fraction of an inch.
"Dorn!" he called softly, "I can move a little! Can you?"
"Yes," Wichter answered, "I've been able to wriggle my fingers for several minutes. I think I could walk in an hour or two."
"Then pray for that hour or two. It might mean our escape!" Joyce told him of the seldom used entrance that he thought led to the open air. "I'm sure it goes to the surface, Dorn. Those woody looking tubers had been freshly picked."
* * * * *
Three of the two-legged monsters came in just then. They relapsed into lifeless silence. There was a horrible moment as the three paused over them longer than any of the others had. Was it obvious that the effects of the numbing poison was wearing off? Would they be bitten again—or eaten?
The Zeudians finally moved on, hissing and clicking to each other. Eventually the cold-blooded things fed, and dragged lethargically out of the cave in the direction of the pit.
With every passing minute Joyce could feel life pouring back into his numbed body. His cramped muscles were in agony now—a pain that gave him fierce pleasure. At last, risking observation, he lifted his head and then struggled to a sitting position and looked around.
No Zeudian was in sight. Evidently they were too sure of their poison glands to post a guard over them. He listened intently, and could hear no dragging footsteps. He turned to Wichter, who had followed his example and was sitting up, feebly rubbing his body to restore circulation.
"Now's our chance," he whispered. "Stand up and walk a little to steady your legs, while I go over and get us a couple of those sharp horns. Then we'll see where that entrance of mine goes!"
He walked to the pile of bones and horns in the corner and selected two of the longest and slimmest of the ivory-like things. Just as he had rejoined Wichter he heard the sound with which he was now so grimly familiar—flapping, awkward footsteps. Wildly he signaled the professor. They dropped in their tracks, just as the approaching monster stumped into the cave.
* * * * *
For an instant he dared hope that their movement had gone unobserved, but his hope was rudely shattered. He heard a sharp hiss: heard the Zeudian flap toward them at double-quick time. Abandoning all pretense, he sprang to his feet just as the thing reached him, its fangs gleaming wickedly in the greenish light.
He leaped to the side, going twenty feet or more with the press of his Earth muscles against the reduced gravity. The creature rushed on toward the professor. That game little man crouched and awaited its onslaught. But Joyce had sprung back again before the two could clash.
He raised the long horn and plunged it into the smooth, purplish back. Again and again he drove it home, as the monster writhed under him. It had enormous vitality. Gashed and dripping, it yet struggled on, attempting to encircle Joyce with its stubby arms. Once it succeeded, and he felt his ribs crack as it contracted its powerful body. But a final stroke finished the savage fight. He got up and, with an incoherent cry to Wichter, raced toward the opening on which they pinned their hopes of reaching the upper air.
Hissing cries and the thudding of many feet came to them just as they reached the arched mouth of the passage. But the cries, and the constant pandemonium of the paralysed animals died behind them as they bounded along the tunnel.
* * * * *
They emerged at last into the sunlight they had never expected to see again, beside one of the great lavender trees. They paused an instant to try to get their bearings.
"This way," panted Joyce as he saw, on a hard-packed path ahead of them, one of the trail-marks he had blazed.
Down the trail they raced, toward their space shell. Fortunately they met none of the tremendous animals that infested the jungles; and their journey to the clearing in which the shell was lying was accomplished without accident.
"We're safe now," gasped Wichter, as they came in sight of the bare lava patch. "We can outrun them five feet to their one!"
They burst into the clearing—and halted abruptly. Surrounding the shell, stumping curiously about it and touching it with their shapeless hands, were dozens of the Zeudians.
"My God!" groaned Joyce. "There must be at least a hundred of them! We're lost for certain now!"
They stared with hopeless longing at the vehicle that, if only they could reach it, could carry them back to Earth. Then they turned to each other and clasped hands, without a word. The same thought was in the mind of each—to rush at the swarming monsters and fight till they were killed. There was absolutely no chance of winning through to the shell, but it was infinitely better to die fighting than be swallowed alive.
* * * * *
So engrossed were the Zeudians by the strange thing that had fallen into their province, that Joyce and Wichter got within a hundred feet of them before they turned their pale eyes in their direction. Then, baring their fangs, they streamed toward the Earth men, just as the pursuing Zeudians entered the clearing from the jungle trail.
The two prepared to die as effectively as possible. Each grasped his lace-like horn tightly. The professor mechanically adjusted his glasses more firmly on his nose....
With his move, the narrowing circle of Zeudians halted. A violent clamor broke out among them. They glared at the two, but made no further step toward them.
"What in the world—" began Wichter bewilderedly.
"Your glasses!" Joyce shouted, gripping his shoulder. "When you moved them, they all stopped! They must be afraid of them, somehow. Take them clear off and see what happens."
Wichter removed his spectacles, and swung them in his hand, peering near-sightedly at the crowding Zeudians.
Their reaction to his simple move was remarkable! Hisses of consternation came from their lipless mouths. They faced each other uneasily, waving their stubby arms and covering their own eyes as though suddenly afraid they would lose them.
Taking advantage of their indecision, Joyce and Wichter walked boldly toward them. They moved aside, forming a reluctant lane. Some of the Zeudians in the rear shoved to close in on them, but the ones in front held them back. It wasn't until the two were nearly through that the lane began to straggle into a threatening circle around them again. The Zeudians were evidently becoming reassured by the fact that Wichter continued to see all right in spite of the little strange creature's alarming act of removing his eyes.
"Do it again," breathed Joyce, perspiration beading his forehead as the giants moved closed, their fangs tentatively bared for the numbing poison stroke.
* * * * *
Wichter popped his glasses on, then jerked them off with a cry, as though he were suffering intensely. Once more the Zeudians faltered and drew back, feeling at their own eyes.
"Run!" cried Joyce. And they raced for the haven of the shell.
The Zeudians swarmed after them, snarling and hissing. Barely ahead of the nearest, Joyce and Wichter dove into the open panel. They slammed it closed just as a powerful, stubby arm reached after them. There was a screaming hiss, and a cold, cartilagenous lump of flesh dropped to the floor of the shell—half the monster's hand, sheared off between the sharp edge of the door and the metal hull.
Joyce threw in the generator switch. With a soft roar the water-motor exploded into action, sending the shell far into the sky.
"When we return," said Joyce, adding a final thousand miles an hour to their speed before they should fly free of the atmosphere of Zeud, "I think we'd better come at the head of an army, equipped with air-guns and explosive bombs."
"And with glasses," added the professor, taking off his spectacles and gazing at them as though seeing them for the first time.
Four Miles Within
A COMPLETE NOVELETTE
By Anthony Gilmore
The Monster of Metal
[Sidenote: Far down into the earth goes a gleaming metal sphere whose passengers are deadly enemies.]
A strange spherical monster stood in the moonlight on the silent Mojave Desert. In the ghostly gray of the sand and sage and joshua trees its metal hide glimmered dully—an amazing object to be found on that lonely spot. But there was only pride and anticipation in the eyes of the three people who stood a little way off, looking at it. For they had constructed the strange sphere, and were soon going to entrust their lives to it.
"Professor," said one of them, a young man with a cheerful face and a likable grin, "let's go down now! There's no use waiting till to-morrow. It's always dark down there, whether it's day or night up here. Everything is ready."
The white-haired Professor David Guinness smiled tolerantly at the speaker, his partner, Phil Holmes. "I'm kind of eager to be off, myself," he admitted. He turned to the third person in the little group, a dark-haired girl. "What do you say, Sue?"
"Oh, let's, Father!" came the quick reply. "We'd never be able to sleep to-night, anyway. As Phil says, everything is ready."
"Well, I guess that settles it," Professor Guinness said to the eager young man.
Phil Holmes' face went aglow with anticipation. "Good!" he cried. "Good! I'll skip over and get some water. It's barely possible that it'll be hot down there, in spite of your eloquent logic to the contrary!" And with the words he caught up a large jug standing nearby, waved his hand, said: "I'll be right back!" and set out for the water-hole, situated nearly a mile away from their little camp. The heavy hush of the desert night settled down once more after he left.
* * * * *
As his figure merged with the shadows in the distance, the elderly scientist murmured aloud to his daughter:
"You know, it's good to realize that my dream is about to become a reality. If it hadn't been for Phil.... Or no—I really ought to thank you, Sue. You're the one responsible for his participation!" And he smiled fondly at the slender girl by his side.
"Phil joined us just for the scientific interest, and for the thrill of going four miles down into the earth," she retorted at once, in spite of the blush her father saw on her face. But he did not insist. Once more he turned, as to a magnet, to the machine that was his handiwork.
The fifteen-foot sphere was an earth-borer—Guinness's own invention. In it he had utilized for the first time for boring purposes the newly developed atomic disintegrators. Many holes equally spaced over the sphere were the outlets for the dissolving ray—most of them on the bottom and alternating with them on the bottom and sides were the outlets of powerful rocket propulsion tubes, which would enable it to rise easily from the hole it would presently blast into the earth. A small, tight-fitting door gave entrance to the double-walled interior, where, in spite of the space taken up by batteries and mechanisms and an enclosed gyroscope for keeping the borer on an even keel, there was room for several people.
The earth-borer had been designed not so much for scientific investigation as the specific purpose of reaching a rich store of radium ore buried four miles below the Guinness desert camp. Many geologists and mining engineers knew that the radium was there, for their instruments had proven it often; but no one up to then knew how to get to it. David Guinness did—first. The borer had been constructed in his laboratory in San Francisco, then dismantled and freighted to the little desert town of Palmdale, from whence Holmes had brought the parts to their isolated camp by truck. Strict secrecy had been kept. Rather than risk assistants they had done all the work themselves.
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes passed by, while the slight figure of the inventor puttered about the interior of the sphere, brightly lit by a detachable searchlight, inspecting all mechanisms in preparation for their descent. Sue stood by the door watching him, now and then turning to scan the desert for the returning Phil.
It was then, startlingly sudden, that there cracked through the velvet night the faint, distant sound of a gun. And it came from the direction of the water-hole.
Sue's face went white, and she trembled. Without a word her father stepped out of the borer and looked at her.
"That was a gun!" he said. "Phil didn't have one with him, did he?"
"No," Sue whispered. "And—why, there's nobody within miles of here!"
The two looked at each other with alarm and wonder. Then, from one of the broken patches of scrub that ringed the space in which the borer stood, came a mocking voice.
"Ah, you're mistaken, Sue," it affirmed. "But that was a gun."
David Guinness jerked around, as did his daughter. The man who had spoken stood only ten yards away, clearly outlined in the bright moonlight—a tall, well-built man, standing quite at ease, surveying them pleasantly. His smile did not change when old Guinness cried:
"Quade! James Quade!"
The man nodded and came slowly forward. He might have been considered handsome, had it not been for his thin, mocking lips and a swarthy complexion.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Guinness angrily. "And what do you mean—'it was a gun?' Have you—"
"Easy, easy—one thing at a time," said Quade, still smiling. "About the gun—well, your young friend Holmes said, he'd be right back, but I—I'm afraid he won't be."
* * * * *
Sue Guinness's lips formed a frightened word:
Quade made a short movement with his left hand, as is brushing the query aside. "Let's talk about something more pleasant," he said, and looked back at the professor. "The radium, and your borer, for instance. I hear you're all ready to go down."
David Guinness gasped. "How did you know—?" he began, but a surge of anger choked him, and his fists clenched. He stepped forward. But something came to life in James Quade's right hand and pointed menacingly at him. It was the stubby black shape of an automatic.
"Keep back, you old fool!" Quade said harshly. "I don't want to have to shoot you!"
Unwillingly, Guinness came to a stop. "What have you done with young Holmes?" he demanded.
"Never mind about him now," said Quade, smiling again. "Perhaps I'll explain later. At the moment there's something much more interesting to do. Possibly you'll be surprised to hear it, but we're all going to take a little ride in this machine of yours, Professor. Down. About four miles. I'll have to ask you to do the driving. You will, won't you—without making a fuss?"
Guinness's face worked furiously. "Why, you're crazy, Quade!" he sputtered. "I certainly won't!"
"No?" asked Quade softly. The automatic he held veered around, till it was pointing directly at the girl. "I wouldn't want to have to shoot Sue—say—through the hand...." His finger tightened perceptibly on the trigger.
"You're mad, man!" Guinness burst out. "You're crazy! What's the idea—"
"In due time I'll tell you. But now I'll ask you just once more," Quade persisted. "Will you enter that borer, or must I—" He broke off with an expressive shrug.
David Guinness was powerless. He had not the slightest idea what Quade might be about; the one thought that broke through his fear and anger was that the man was mad, and had better be humored. He trembled, and a tight sensation came to his throat at sight of the steady gun trained on his daughter. He dared not trifle.
"I'll do it," he said.
* * * * *
James Quade laughed. "That's better. You always were essentially reasonable, though somewhat impulsive for a man of your age. The rash way you severed our partnership, for instance.... But enough of that. I think we'd better leave immediately. Into the sphere, please. You first, Miss Guinness."
"Must she come?"
"I'm afraid so. I can't very well leave her here all unprotected, can I?"
Quade's voice was soft and suave, but an undercurrent of sarcasm ran through it. Guinness winced under it; his whole body was trembling with suppressed rage and indignation. As he stepped to the door of the earth-borer he turned and asked:
"How did you know our plans? About the radium?—the borer?"
Quade told him. "Have you forgotten," he said, "that you talked the matter over with me before we split last year? I simply had the laboratory watched, and when you got new financial backing from young Holmes, and came here. I followed you. Simple, eh?... Well, enough of this. Get inside. You first, Sue."
Trembling, the girl obeyed, and when her father hesitated Quade jammed his gun viciously into his ribs and pushed him to the door. "Inside!" he hissed, and reluctantly, hatred in his eyes, the professor stepped into the control compartment after Sue. Quade gave a last quick glance around and, with gun ever wary, passed inside. The door slammed shut: there was a click as its lock shot over. The sphere was a sealed ball of metal.
Inside, David Guinness obeyed the automatic's imperious gesture and pulled a shiny-handled lever slowly back, and the hush that rested over the Mojave was shattered by a tremendous bellow, a roar that shook the very earth. It was the disintegrating blast, hurled out of the bottom in many fan-shaped rays. The coarse gray sand beneath the machine stirred and flew wildly; the sphere vibrated madly; and then the thunder lowered in tone to a mighty humming and the earth-borer began to drop. Slowly it fell, at first, then more rapidly. The shiny top came level with the ground: disappeared; and in a moment there was nothing left but a gaping hole where a short while before a round monster of metal had stood. The hole was hot and dark, and from it came a steadily diminishing thunder....
* * * * *
For a long time no one in the earth-borer spoke—didn't even try to—for though the thunder of the disintegrators was muted, inside, to a steady drone, conversation was almost impossible. The three were crowded quite close in the spherical inner control compartment. Sue sat on a little collapsible stool by the bowed, but by no means subdued, figure of Professor David Guinness, while Quade sat on the wire guard of the gyroscope, which was in the exact center of the floor.
The depth gauge showed two hundred feet. Already the three people were numb from the vibration; they hardly felt any sensation at all, save one of great weight pressing inwards. The compartment was fairly cool and the air good—kept so by the automatic air rectifiers and the insulation, which shut out the heat born of their passage.
Quade had been carefully watching Guinness's manipulation of the controls, when he was struck by a thought. At once he stood up, and shouted in the elderly inventor's ear: "Try the rockets! I want to be sure this thing will go back up!"
Without a word Guinness shoved back the lever controlling the disintegrators, at the same time whirling a small wheel full over. The thudding drone died away to a whisper, and was replaced by sharper thundering, as the stream of the propulsion rockets beneath the sphere was released. A delicate needle trembled on a gauge, danced at the figure two hundred, then crept back to one-ninety ... one-sixty ... one-forty.... Quade's eyes took in everything.
"Excellent, Guinness!" he yelled. "Now—down once more!"
The rockets were slowly cut; the borer jarred at the bottom of its hole; again the disintegrators droned out. The sphere dug rapidly into the warm ground, biting lower and lower. At ten miles an hour it blasted a path to depths hitherto unattainable to man, sweeping away rock and gravel and sand—everything that stood in its way. The depth gauge rose to two thousand, then steadily to three and four. So it went on for nearly half an hour.
At the end of that time, at a depth of nearly four miles, Quade got stiffly to his feet and once more shouted into the professor's ear.
"We ought to be close to that radium, now," he said. "I think—"
But his words stopped short. The floor of the sphere suddenly fell away from their feet, and they felt themselves tumbled into a wild plunge. The drone of the disintegrators, hitherto muffled by the earth they bit into, rose to a hollow scream. Before the professor quite knew what was happening, there was a stunning crash, a shriek of tortured metal—and the earth-borer rocked and lay still....
* * * * *
The whole world seemed to be filled with thunder when David Guinness came back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and stared up into a darkness to which it took him some time to accustom himself. When he did, he made out hazily that he was lying on the floor of a vast dark cavern. He could dimly see its jagged roof, perhaps fifty feet above. There was the strong smell of damp earth in his nostrils; his head was splitting from the steady drone in his ear-drums. Suddenly he remembered what had happened. He groaned slightly and tried to sit up.
But he could not. His arms and legs were tied. Someone had removed him from the earth-borer and bound him on the floor of the cavern they had plunged into.
David Guinness strained at the rope. It was futile, but in doing so he twisted his head around and saw another form, similarly tied, lying close to him. He gave a little cry of relief. It was Sue. And she was conscious, her eyes on his face.
She spoke to him, but he could not understand her for the drone in his ears, and when he spoke to her it was the same. But the professor did not just then continue his effort to converse with her. His attention was drawn to the borer, now dimly illuminated by its portable light, which had been secured to the door. It was right side up, and appeared to be undamaged. The broad ray of the searchlight fell far away on one of the cavern's rough walls. He could just make out James Quade standing there, his back towards them.
He was hacking at the wall with a pick. Presently he dropped the tool and wrenched at the rock with bare hands. A large chunk came loose. He hugged it to him and turned and strode back towards the two on the floor, and as he drew near they could plainly see a gleam of triumph in his eyes.
"You know what this is?" he shouted. Guinness could only faintly hear him. "Wealth! Millions! Of course we always knew the radium was here, but this is the proof. And now we've a way of getting it out—thanks to your borer! All the credit is yours, Professor Guinness! You shall have the credit, and I'll have the money."
Guinness tugged furiously at his bonds again. "You—you—" he gasped. "How dare you tie us this way! Release us at once! What do you mean by it?"
* * * * *
Quade smiled unpleasantly. "You're very stupid, Guinness. Haven't you guessed by now what I'm going to do?" He paused, as if waiting for an answer, and the smile on his face gave way to a look of savage menace. For the first time his bitter feelings came to the surface.
"Have you forgotten how close I came to going to jail over those charges of yours a year ago?" he said. "Have you forgotten the disgrace to me that followed?—the stigma that forced me to disappear for months? You fool, do you think I've forgotten?—or that I'd let you—"
"Quade," interrupted the older man, "you know very well you were guilty. I caught you red-handed. You didn't fool anyone—except the jury that let you go. So save your breath, and, if you've the sense you were born with, release my daughter and me. Why, you're crazy!" he cried with mounting anger. "You can't get away with this! I'll have you in jail within forty-eight hours, once I get back to the surface!"
With an effort Quade controlled his feelings and assumed his oily, sarcastic manner. "That's just it," he said: "'once you get back!' How stupid you are! You don't seem to realize that you're not going back to the surface. You and your daughter."
Sue gasped, and her father's eyes went wide. There was a tense silence.
"You wouldn't dare!" the inventor cried finally. "You wouldn't dare!"
"It's rather large, this cavern," Quade went on. "You'll have plenty of room. Perhaps I'll untie you before I go back up, so—"
"You can't get away with it!" shouted the old man, tremendously excited. "Why, you can't, possibly! Philip Holmes'll track you down—he'll tell the police—he'll rescue us! And then—"
Quade smiled suavely. "Oh, no, he won't. Perhaps you remember the shot that sounded from the water-hole? Well, when I and my assistant, Juan, heard Holmes say he was going for water, I told Juan to follow him to the water-hole and bind him, to keep him from interfering till I got back up. But Mr. Holmes is evidently of an impulsive disposition, and must have caused trouble. Juan, too, is impulsive; he is a Mexican. And he had a gun. I'm afraid he was forced to use it.... I am quite sure Philip Holmes will not, as you say, track me down."
David Guinness looked at his daughter's white face and horror-filled eyes and suddenly crumpled. Humbly, passionately, he begged Quade to take her back up. "Why, she's never done anything to you, Quade!" he pleaded. "You can't take her life like that! Please! Leave me, if you must, but not her! You can't—"
* * * * *
But suddenly the old man noticed that Quade was not listening. His head was tilted to one side as if he was straining to hear something else. Guinness was held silent for a moment by the puzzled look on the other's face and the strange way he was acting.
"Do you hear it?" Quade asked at last; and without waiting for an answer, he knelt down and put his ear to the ground. When he rose his face was savage, and he cursed under his breath.
"Why, it's a humming!" muttered Professor Guinness. "And it's getting louder!"
"It sounds like another borer!" ventured Sue.
The humming grew in volume. Then, from the ceiling, a rock dropped. They were looking at the cavern roof and saw it start, but they did not hear it strike, for the ever-growing humming echoed loudly through the cavern. They saw another rock fall; and another.
"For God's sake, what is it?" cried Guinness.
Quade looked at him and slowly drew out his automatic.
"Another earth-borer, I think," he answered. "And I rather expect it contains your young friend Mr. Holmes. Yes—coming to rescue you."
For a moment Guinness and his daughter were too astounded to do anything but gape. She finally exclaimed:
"But—but then Phil's alive?"
James Quade smiled. "Probably—for the moment. But don't let your hopes rise too high. The borer he's in isn't strong enough to survive a fifty-foot plunge." He was shouting now, so loud was the thunder from above. "And," he added, "I'm afraid he's not strong enough to survive it, either!"
When Phil Holmes started off to the water-hole, his head was full of the earth-borer and the imminent descent. Now that the long-awaited time had come, he was at fever-pitch to be off, and it did not take him long to cover the mile of sandy waste. His thoughts were far inside the earth as he dipped the jug into the clear cool water and sloshed it full.
So the rope that snaked softly through the air and dropped in a loop over his shoulders came as a stark surprise. Before he knew what was happening it had slithered down over his arms and drawn taut just above the elbows, and he was yanked powerfully backwards and almost fell.
But he managed to keep his feet as he staggered backward, and turning his head he saw the small dark figure of his aggressor some fifteen feet away, keeping tight the slack.
Phil's surprise turned to sudden fury and he completely lost his head. What he did was rash; mad; and yet, as it turned out, it was the only thing that could have saved him. Instinctively, without hesitating one second, and absolutely ignoring an excited command to stand still, he squirmed face-on to his aggressor, lowered his head and charged.
The distance was short. Halfway across it, a gun barked, and he heard the bullet crack into the water jug, which he was still holding in front of himself. And even before the splintered fragments reached the ground he had crashed into the firer.
He hit him with all the force of a tackling lineman, and they both went down. The man grunted as the wind was jarred out of him, but he wriggled like an eel and managed to worm aside and bring up his gun.
Then there was a desperate flurry of bodies in the coarse sand. Holmes dived frantically for the gun hand and caught it; but, handicapped as he was by the rope, he could not hold it. Slowly its muzzle bent upward to firing position.
Desperately, he wrenched the arm upwards, in the direction it had been straining to go, and the sudden unexpected jerk doubled the man's arm and brought the weapon across his chest. For a moment there was a test of strength as Phil lay chest to chest over his opponent, the gun blocked between. Then the other grunted; squirmed violently—and there was a muffled explosion.
A cry of pain cut the midnight air, and with insane strength Holmes' ambusher fought free from his grip, staggered to his feet and went reeling away. Phil tore loose from the rope and bounded after him, never feeling, at the moment, his powder-burned chest.
And then he halted in his tracks.
A great roar came thundering over the desert!
* * * * *
At once he knew that it came from the earth-borer's disintegrators. The sphere had started down without him.
He stood stock still, petrified with surprise, facing the sound, while his attacker melted farther and farther into the night. And then, suddenly, Phil Holmes was sprinting desperately back towards the Guinness camp.
He ran until he was exhausted; walked for a little while his legs gathered more strength, and his laboring lungs more air; and then ran again. As the minutes passed, the thunder lessened rapidly into a muffled drone; and by the time Phil had panted up to the brink of the hole that gaped where but a little time before the sphere was standing, it had become but a distant purr. He leaned far over and peered into the hot blackness below, but could see nothing.
Phil knelt there silently for some minutes, shocked by his strange attack, bewildered by the unexpected descent of the borer. For a time his mind would not work; he had no idea what to do. But gradually his thoughts came to order and made certain things clear.
He had been deliberately ambushed. Only by luck had he escaped, he told himself. If it hadn't been for the water jug, he'd now be out of the picture. And on the heels of the ambush had came the surprising descent of the earth-borer. The two incidents coincided too well: the same mind had planned them. And two, men, at least, were in on the plot.... It suddenly became very clear to him that the answer to the puzzle lay with the man who had ambushed him. He would have to get that man. Track him down.
Phil acted with decision. He got to his feet and strode rapidly to the deserted Guinness shack, horribly quiet and lonely now in the bright moonlight. In a minute he emerged with a flashlight at his belt and a rifle across his arm.
Once again he went over to the new black hole in the desert and looked down. From far below still came the purr, now fainter than ever. His friend, the girl he loved, were down there, he reflected bitterly, and he was helpless to reach them. Well, there was one thing he could do—go man-hunting. Turning, he started off at a long lope for the water-hole.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later he was there, and off to the side he found the marks of their scuffle—and small black blotches that could be nothing but blood. The other was wounded: could probably not get far. But he might still have his gun, so Phil kept his rifle handy, and tempered his impatience with caution as he set out on the trail of the widely spaced footprints.
They led off towards the nearby hills, and in the bright moonlight Phil did not use his flashlight at all, except to investigate other round black blotches that made a line parallel to the prints. As he went on he found his quarry's steps coming more closely together: becoming erratic. Soon they showed as painful drags in the sand, a laborious hauling of one foot after the other.... Phil put away his light and advanced very cautiously.
He wondered, as he went, who in the devil was behind it all. The radium-finding project had been kept strictly secret. Not another soul was supposed to know of the earth-borer and its daring mission into the heart of the earth. Yet, obviously, someone had found out, and whoever it was had laid at least part of his scheme cunningly. An old man and a girl cannot offer much resistance: he, Phil, would have been well taken care of had it not been for the water jug. So far, there were at least two in the plot: the man who had ambushed him and the unknown who had evidently kidnapped both Professor and Sue Guinness. But there might be still more.
There might be friends, nearby, of the man he was tracking. The fellow might have reached them, and warned them that the scheme hadn't gone through, that Phil was loose. They could very easily conceal themselves alongside their partner's tracks and train their rifles on the tracker....
The trail was leading up into one of the canons in the cluster of hills to the west. For some distance he followed it up through a slash of black below the steep moonlit heights of the hills to each side—and then, suddenly, he vaguely made out the forms of two huts just ahead.
Immediately he stooped low, and went skirting widely off up one side. He proceeded slowly, with great caution, his rifle at the ready. At any moment, he knew, the hush might be split by the cracks of waylaying guns. Warily he advanced along the narrow canyon wall above the huts. No lights were lit, and the place seemed unoccupied. He was debating what to do next when his attention was attracted to a large dark object lying in the canyon trail some twenty yards from the nearest hut. Straining his eyes in the inadequate moonlight, he saw that it was the outstretched figure of a man. His quarry—his ambusher!
* * * * *
Phil dropped flat, fearful of being seen. Keeping as best he could in the shadows, fearing every moment to hear the sharp bark of a gun, he crawled forward. It took him a long time to approach the sprawled figure, but he wasn't taking chances. When within twenty feet, he rose suddenly and darted forward to the man's side.
His rapid glance showed him that the fellow was completely out: and another quick look around failed to show that anyone else was watching, so he returned to his examination of the man. It was the ambusher, all right: a Mexican. He was still breathing, though his face was drawn and white from the loss of blood from a wound under the blood-soaked clothing near his upper right arm. A hasty search showed that he no longer had his gun, so Phil, satisfied that he was powerless for some time to come, cautiously wormed his way towards the two shacks.
There was something sinister in the strange silence that hung over them. One was of queer construction—a windowless, square, high box of galvanized iron. The other was obviously a dwelling place. Carefully Phil sneaked up to the latter. Then, rifle ready, he pushed its door open and sent a beam of light stabbing through the darkness of the interior.
There was no one there. Only two bunks, a table, chair, a pail of water and some cooking utensils met his view. He crept out toward the other building.
Come close, Phil found that a dun-colored canvas had been thrown over the top of it, making an adequate camouflage in daytime. The place was about twenty feet high. He prowled around the metal walls and discovered a rickety door. Again, gun ready, he flung it open. The beam from his flash speared a path through the blackness—and he gasped at sight of what stood revealed.
There, inside, was a long, bullet-like tube of metal, the pointed end upper-most, and the bottom, which was flat, toward the ground. It was held in a wooden cradle, and was slanted at the floor. In the bottom were holes of two shapes—rocket tubes and disintegrating projectors. It was another earth-borer.
* * * * *
Phil stood frozen with surprise before this totally unlooked-for machine. He could easily have been overcome, had the owner been in the building, for he had forgotten everything but what his eyes were staring at. He started slowly around the borer, found a long narrow door slightly ajar, and stepped inside.
This borer, like Guinness's, had a double shell, and much the same instruments, though the whole job was simpler and cruder. A small instrument board contained inclination, temperature, depth and air-purity indicators, and narrow tubes led to the air rectifiers. But what kept Holmes' attention were the wires running from the magneto to the mixing chambers of the disintegrating tubes.
"The fools!" he exclaimed, "—they didn't know how to wire the thing! Or else," he added after a moment, "didn't get around to doing it." He noticed that the projectile's interior contained no gyroscope: though, he thought, none would be needed, for the machine, being long and narrow, could not change keel while in the ground. Here he was reminded of something. Stepping outside, he estimated the angle the borer made with the dirt floor. Twenty degrees. "And pointed southwest!" he exclaimed aloud. "This borer would come close to meeting the professor's, four miles under our camp!"
* * * * *
At once he knew what he would do. First he went back to the other shack and got the pail of water he had noticed, and took this out where the Mexican lay outstretched. He bathed the man's face and the still slightly bleeding bullet wound in his shoulder.
Presently the wounded man came to. His eyes opened, and he stared up into a steel mask of a face, in which two level black eyes bored into his. He remembered that face—remembered it all too well. He trembled, cowered away.
"No!" he gasped, as if he had seen a ghost. "No—no!"
"Yes, I'm the man," Holmes told him firmly, menacingly. "The same one you tried to ambush." He paused a moment, then said: "Do you want to live?"
It was a simple question, frightening in its simplicity.
"Because if you don't answer my questions, I'm going to let you lie here," Phil went on coldly. "And that would probably mean your death. If you do answer, I'll fix you up so you can have a chance."
The Mexican nodded eagerly. "I talk," he said.
"Good," said Phil. "Then tell me who built that machine?"
"Senor Quade. Senor James Quade."
"Quade!" Phil had heard the name before. "Of course!" he said. "Guinness's old partner!"
"I not know," the Mexican answered. "He hire me with much money. He buy thees machine inside, and we put him together. But he could no make him work—it take too long. We watch, hear old man go down to-night, and—"
* * * * *
The greaser stopped. "And so he sent you to get me, while he kidnapped the old man and his daughter and forced them under the ground in their own borer," Holmes supplied, and the other nodded.
"But I only mean to tie you!" he blurted, gesturing weakly. "I no mean shoot! No, no—"
"All right—forget it," Phil interrupted. "And now tell me what Quade expects to do down there."
"I not know, Senor," came the hesitant reply, "but...."
"But what?" the young man jerked.
Reluctantly the wounded Mexican continued. "Senor Quade—he—I think he don' like thees old man. I think he leave heem an' the girl down below. Then he come up an' say they keeled going down."
Phil nodded grimly. "I see," he said, voicing his thoughts. "Then he would say that he and Professor Guinness are still partners—and the radium ore will belong to him. Very nice. Very nice...."
He snapped back to action, and without another word hoisted the Mexican onto his back and carried him into the shack. There he cleansed the wound, rigged up a tight bandage for it, and tied the man to one of the cots. He tied him in such a fashion that he could reach some food and water he put by the cot.
"You leave me like thees?" the Mexican asked.
"Yes," Phil said, and started for the door.
"But what you going to do?"
Phil smiled grimly as he flung an answer back over his shoulder.
"Me?—I'm going to fix the wiring on those disintegrators in your friend Quade's borer. Then I'm starting down after him." He stopped and turned before he closed the door. "And if I don't get back—well, it's just too bad for you!"
* * * * *
And so, a little later, once more the hushed desert night was cleft by a furious bellow of sound. It came, this time, from a narrow canyon. The steep sides threw the roar back and back again, and the echoes swelled to an earth-shaking blast of sound. The oblong hut from which it came rocked and almost fell; then, as the noise began to lessen, teetered on its foundations and half-slipped into the ragged hole that had been bored inside.
The descent was a nightmare that Holmes would never forget. Quade's machine was much cruder and less efficient than the sphere David Guinness had designed. Its protecting insulation proved quite inadequate, and the heat rapidly grew terrific as the borer dug down. Phil became faint, stifled, and his body oozed streams of sweat. And the descent was also bumpy and uneven; often he was forced to leave the controls and work on the mechanism of the disintegrators when they faltered and threatened to stop. But in spite of everything the needle on the depth gauge gradually swung over to three thousand, and four, and five....
After the first mile Holmes improvised a way to change the air more rapidly, and it grew a little cooler. He watched the story the depth gauge told with narrowed eyes, and, as it reached three miles, inspected his rifle. At three and a half miles he stopped the borer, thinking to try to hear the noise made by the other, but so paralyzed were his ear-drums from the terrific thunder beneath, it seemed hardly any quieter when it ceased.
His plans were vague; they would have to be made according to the conditions he found. There was a coil of rope in the tube-like interior of the borer, and he hoped to find a cavern or cleft in the earth for lateral exploring. He would stop at a depth of four miles—where he should be very near the path of the professor's sphere.
But Phil never saw the needle on the gauge rise to four miles. At three and three quarters came sudden catastrophe.
He knew only that there was an awful moment of utter helplessness, when the borer swooped wildly downwards, and the floor was snatched sickeningly from under him. He was thrown violently against the instrument panel; then up toward the pointed top; and at the same instant came a rending crash that drove his senses from him....
"You Haven't the Guts"
"Just as I thought," said James Quade in the silence that fell when the last echoes had died away, and the splinters of steel and rock had settled. "You see, Professor, this earth-borer belongs to me. Yes, I built one too. But I couldn't, unfortunately, get it working properly—that is, in time to get down here first. After all, I'm not a scientist, and remembered little enough of your borer's plans.... It's probably young Holmes who's dropped in on us. Shall we see?"
David Guinness and his daughter were speechless with dread. Quade had trained the searchlight on the borer, and by turning their heads they could see it plainly. It was all too clear that the machine was a total wreck. It had pitched over onto one side, its shell cracked and mangled irreparably. Grotesque pieces of crumpled metal lay all around it. Its slanting course had tumbled it within fifteen yards of the sphere.
In silence the old man and the girl watched Quade walk deliberately over to it, his automatic steady in his right hand. He wrenched at the long, narrow door, but it was so badly bent that for a while he could not get it open. At last it swung out, however, and Quade peered inside.
After a moment he reached in and drew out a rifle. He took it over to a nearby rock, smashed the gun's breech, then flung it, useless, aside. Returning to the borer, he again peered in.
Sue was about to scream from the torturous suspense when he at last straightened up and looked around at the white-faced girl and her father.
"Mr. Holmes is tougher than I'd thought possible," he said, with a thin smile; "he's still alive." And, as Sue gasped with relief, he added: "Would you like to see him?"
* * * * *
He dragged the young man's unconscious body roughly out on the floor. There were several bad bruises on his face and head, but otherwise he was apparently uninjured. As Quade stood over him, playing idly with the automatic, he stirred, and blinked, and at last, with an effort, got up on one elbow and looked straight at the thin lips and narrowed eyes of the man standing above. He shook his head, trying to comprehend, then muttered hazily:
Quade did not have time to answer, for Sue Guinness cried out:
"Phil! Are you all right?"
Phil stared stupidly around, caught sight of the two who lay bound on the floor, and staggered to his feet. "Sue!" he cried, relief and understanding flooding his voice. He started towards her.
"Stand where you are!" Quade snapped harshly, and the automatic in his hand came up. Holmes peered at it and stopped, but his blood-streaked face settled into tight lines, and his body tensed.
"You'd better," continued Quade. "Now tell me what happened to Juan."
Phil forced himself to be calm. "Your pal, the greaser?" he said cuttingly. "He's lying on a bunk in your shack. He shot himself, playing with a gun."
Quade chose not to notice the way Phil said this, but a little of the suave self-confidence was gone from his face as he said: "Well, in that case I'll have to hurry back to the surface to attend to him. But don't be alarmed," he added, more brightly. "I'll be back for you all in an hour or so."
At this, David Guinness struggled frantically with his bonds and yelled:
"Don't believe him, Phil! He's going to leave us here, to starve and die! He told us so just before you came down!"
* * * * *
Quade's face twitched perceptibly. His eyes were nervous.
"Is that true, Quade?" Holmes asked. There was a steely note in his voice.
"Why—no, of course not," the other said hastily, uncertain whether to lie or not. "Of course I didn't!"
Phil Holmes looked square into his eyes. He bluffed.
"You couldn't desert us, Quade. You haven't the guts. You haven't the guts."
His face and eyes burned with the contempt that was in his words. It cut Quade to the raw. But he could not avoid Phil's eyes. He stared at them for a full moment, trembling slightly. Slowly, by inches, he started to back toward the sphere; then suddenly he ran for it with all his might, Holmes after him. Quade got to it first, and inside, as he yanked in the searchlight and slammed and locked the door, he yelled:
"You'll see, you damned pup! You'll see!" And there was the smothered sound of half-maniacal laughter....
Phil threw all his weight against the metal door, but it was hopeless and he knew it. He had gathered himself for another rush when he heard Guinness yell:
"Back, Phil—back! He'll turn on the side disintegrators!"
Mad with rage as the young man was, he at once saw the danger and leaped away—only to almost fall over the professor's prone body. With hurrying, trembling fingers he untied the pair's bonds, and they struggled to their feet, cramped and stiff. Then it was Phil who warned them.
"Back as far as you can! Hurry!" He grabbed Sue's hand and plunged toward the uncertain protection of a huge rock far in the rear. At once he made them lie flat on the ground.
* * * * *
As yet the sphere had not stirred nor emitted a whisper of sound, though they knew the man inside was conning the controls in a fever of haste to leave the cavern. But they hadn't long to wait. There came a sputter, a starting cough from the rocket tubes beneath the sphere. Quickly they warmed into life, and the dully glimmering ball rocked in the hole it lay in. Then a cataract of noise unleashed itself; a devastating thunder roared through the echoing cavern as the rockets burst into full force. A wave of brilliant orange-red splashed out from under the sphere, licked back up its sides, and seemed literally to shove the great ball up towards the hole in the ceiling.
Its ascent was very slow. As it gained height it looked—save for its speed—like a fantastic meteor flaming through the night, for the orange plumage that streamed from beneath lit the ball with dazzling color. A glowing sphere, it staggered midway between floor and ceiling, creeping jerkily upwards.
"He's not going to hit the hole!" shouted Guinness.
The borer had not risen in a perfectly straight line; it jarred against the rim of the hole, and wavered uncertainly. Every second the roar of its rockets, swollen by echoes, rose in a savage crescendo; the faces of the three who watched were painted orange in the glow.
The sphere was blind. The man inside could judge his course only by the feel. As the three who were deserted watched, hoping ardently that Quade would not be able to find the opening, the left side-rockets spouted lances of fire, and they knew he had discovered the way to maneuver the borer laterally. The new flames welded with the exhaust of the main tubes into a great fan-shaped tail, so brilliant and shot through with other colors that their eyes could not stand the sight, except in winks. The borer jerked to the right, but still it could not find the hole. Then the flames lessened for a moment, and the borer sank down, to rise again a moment later. Its ascent was so labored that Phil shouted to Professor Guinness:
"Why so slow?"
And the inventor told him that which he had not seen for the intolerable light.
"Only half his rockets are on!"
* * * * *
This time the sphere was correctly aimed, however, and it roared straight into the hole. Immediately the fierce sound of the exhaust was muffled, and in a few seconds only the fiery plumage, shooting down from the ceiling, showed where the machine was. Then this disappeared, and the noise alone was left.
Phil leaped forward, intending to stare up, but Guinness's yell halted him.
"Not yet! He might still use the disintegrators!"
For many minutes they waited, till the muffled exhaust had died to a drone. There was a puzzled expression on the professor's face as the three at last walked over and dared peer up into the hole. Far above, the splash of orange lit the walls of the tunnel.
"That's funny!" the old man muttered. "He's only using half the rockets—about ten. I thought he'd turn them all on when he got into the hole, but he didn't. Either they were damaged in the fall, or Quade doesn't see fit to use them."
"Half of them are enough," said Phil bitterly, and put his arm around the quiet girl standing next to him. Together, a silent little group, they watched the spot of orange die to a pin-point; watched it waver, twinkle, ever growing smaller.... And then it was gone.
Gone! Back to the surface of the earth, to the normal world of reality. Only four miles above them—a small enough distance on the surface itself—and yet it might have been a million miles, so utterly were they barred from it....
* * * * *
The same thought was in their minds, though none of them dared express it. They were thinking of the serene desert, and the cool wind, and the buttes and the high hills, placid in the moonlight. Of the hushed rise of the dawn, the first flush of the sun that was so achingly lovely on the desert. The sun they would never see again, buried in a lifeless world of gloom four miles within.... And buried alive—and not alive for long....
But that way lay madness. Phil Holmes drove the horrible thoughts from his brain and forced a smile to his face.
"Well, that's that!" he said in a voice meant to be cheerful.
The dim cavern echoed his words mockingly. With the earth-borer gone—the man-made machine that had dared break a solitude undisturbed since the earth first cooled—the great cavern seemed to return to its awful original mood. The three dwarfed humans became wholly conscious of it. They felt it almost a living thing, stretching vastly around them, tightening its unheard spell on them. Its smell, of mouldy earth and rocks down which water slowly dripped, filled their nostrils and somehow added to their fear.