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VOL. VII, No. 1 CONTENTS JULY, 1931
COVER DESIGN H. W. WESSO Painted in Water-Colors from a Scene in "The Doom from Planet 4."
THE DOOM FROM PLANET 4 JACK WILLIAMSON 5 A Ray of Fire, Green, Mysterious, Stabs Through the Night to Dan on His Ship. It Leads Him to an Island of Unearthly Peril.
THE HANDS OF ATEN H. G. WINTER 20 Out of the Solid Ice Craig Hews Three Long-Frozen Egyptians and Is at Once Caught Up into Amazing Adventure. (A Complete Novelette.)
THE DIAMOND THUNDERBOLT H. THOMPSON RICH 46 Locked in a Rocket and Fired into Space! Such Was the Fate which Awaited Young Stoddard at the End of the Diamond Trail!
THE SLAVE SHIP FROM SPACE A. R. HOLMES 68 Three Kidnapped Earthlings Show Xantra of the Tillas How "Docile" Earth Slaves Can Be.
THE REVOLT OF THE MACHINES NAT SCHACHNER AND ARTHUR L. ZAGAT 86 Something in the Many-Faceted Mind of the Master Machine Spurs It to Diabolical Revolt Against the Authority of Its Human Masters.
THE EXILE OF TIME RAY CUMMINGS 109 Only Near the End of the World Does Fate Catch Up with Tugh, the Cripple Who Ran Amuck Through Time. (Conclusion.)
THE READERS' CORNER ALL OF US 129 A Meeting Place for Readers of Astounding Stories.
* * * * *
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* * * * *
The Doom from Planet 4
By Jack Williamson
[Sidenote: A ray of fire, green, mysterious, stabs through the night to Dan on his ship. It leads him to an island of unearthly peril.]
"S O S. S O S. S O S." Three short, three long, three short, the flashes winked from the dark headland. Dan McNally, master and owner of the small and ancient trading schooner, Virginia, caught the feeble flickering light from the island as he strode across the fore-deck. He stopped, stared at the looming black line of land beneath the tropical stars. Again light flashed from a point of rock far above the dim white line of phosphorescent surf, spelling out the signal of distress.
"Somebody bane callin' with a flashlight, I t'ank," the big Swede, Larsen, rumbled from the wheel.
Dan thought suddenly of a reply. He rushed into the charthouse, to return in a moment with a lighted lantern and a copy of the Nautical Almanac which would serve to hide the flame between flashes. He flashed an answer.
Again the pale light flickered from the dark mass of land, spelling words out rather slowly, as if the sender were uncertain in his knowledge of Morse. Surprised as Dan had been by the signal from an island marked on the charts as uninhabited, he was astonished at the message that now came to him.
"You are in terrible danger," he read in the flashes. "Dreadful thing here. Hurry away. Radio for warships. I am—"
The winking light suddenly went out. Dan strained his eyes to watch the point where it had been, and a few seconds later he saw a curious thing. A darting, stabbing lance of green fire flashed out across the barren, rocky cliff, lighting it fleetingly with pale green radiance. It leapt out and was gone in an instant, leaving the shoulder of the island dark as before.
Dan watched for long minutes, but he saw nothing more brilliant than the pale gleam of phosphorescence where the waves dashed against the sheer granite wall of the island.
"What you t'ank?" Larsen broke in upon him.
* * * * *
Dan started, then answered slowly. "I don't know. First I thought there must be a lunatic at large. But that green light! I didn't like it."
He stared again at the looming mass of the island. Davis Island is one of the innumerable tiny islets that dot the South Pacific; merely the summit of a dead volcano, projecting above the sea. Nominally claimed by Great Britain, it is marked on the charts as uninhabited.
"Radio for warships, eh?" he muttered. A wireless transmitter was one of many modern innovations that the Virginia did not boast. She had been gathering copra and shell among the islands long before such things came into common use, though Dan had invested his modest savings in her only a year before.
"What would anyone want with warships on Davis Island?" The name roused a vague memory. "Davis Island?" he repeated, staring in concentration at the black sea. "Of course!" It came to him suddenly. A newspaper article that he had read five years before, at about the time he had abandoned college in the middle of his junior year, to follow the call of adventure.
The account had dealt with an eclipse of the sun, visible only from certain points on the Pacific. One Dr. Hunter, under the auspices of a Western university, had sailed with his instruments and assistants to Davis Island, to study the solar corona during the few precious moments when the shadow covered the sun, and to observe the displacement of certain stars as a test of Einstein's theory of relativity.
The reporter had interviewed the party at San Francisco, on the eve of sailing. There had been photographs of the chartered vessel, of Dr. Hunter and his instruments, and of his daughter, Helen, who acted as his secretary. She looked not at all like a scientist, Dan recalled. In fact, her face had seemed rather pretty, even in the blurred newspaper half-tone.
But the memory cast no light upon the present puzzle. In the rambling years that had led him to this spot upon the old Virginia, he had lost touch with the science that had interested him during his college days. He had heard nothing of the results of the Hunter expedition. But this island had been its destination.
* * * * *
He turned decisively to the man at the wheel. "Larsen, we'll stand well offshore till daylight," he said. "Then, unless we see something unusual, we can sail in and land a boat to—"
The sentence was never finished. Through the corner of his eye, Dan saw a ray of green light darting toward them from the island. A line of green fire seemed to reach out and strike him a physical blow. Green flame flared around him; and somehow he was hurled from the bridge, clear of the rail and into the sea.
His impression of the incident was very confused. He seemed to have struck the water with such force that his breath was knocked out. He struggled back to the surface, strangling, and coughing the bitter brine from his lungs. It was several minutes before he was comfortably treading water, and able to see what had happened.
The old schooner was then a hundred yards away, careening crazily, and drifting aimlessly before the light breeze. The strange green fire had vanished. Parts of the ship apparently had been carried away or disintegrated by the ray or the force of which it was a visible effect. The mainmast was down, and was hanging over the side in a tangle of rigging.
Bright yellow flames were dancing at a dozen points about the wreckage on the listing deck. A grotesque broken thing, queerly illuminated by the growing fires, was hanging over the wheel—the body of Larsen. No living thing was visible; and Dan, after a second look at the wreck of the bow, knew that he must be the sole survivor of the catastrophe.
"Too bad about the boys," he muttered through teeth that chattered, for the cold water had already chilled him. "And poor old Larsen."
He thought again of the warning flashed from the shore. "Guess there must be something hellish afoot after all," he muttered again. "The flicker of green that stopped the signals, and the green fire that got us—what can they mean?" He looked toward the looming black shadow of the island, and began divesting himself of his clinging, sodden garments. "I don't wonder somebody wanted battleships. But even a battleship, if that green ray hit it—"
He drew a deep breath and ducked his head while he unlaced his shoes and kicked out of them. Then, with a final look at the burning wreck of the Virginia, he tore off the last bit of his underclothing and swam for the shore in an easy crawl.
* * * * *
The rocky ramparts of Davis Island were three or four miles away. But there was no wind; the black sea was calm save for a long, hardly perceptible swell. A strong swimmer and in superb condition, Dan felt no anxiety about being able to make the distance. There was danger, however, that a shark would run across him, or that he could not find a landing place upon the rocky shore.
Four bells had rung when he had seen the first flash; it had been just ten o'clock. And it was some four hours later that Dan touched bottom and waded wearily up a bit of smooth hard beach, through palely glittering phosphorescent foam.
He rubbed the brine from his tired limbs, and sat down for a time, in a spot where a fallen boulder sheltered his naked body from the cool morning wind. In a few moments he rose, flexed his muscles and peered through the starlit darkness for a way up the cliff behind the beach. He found it impossible to distinguish anything.
"Got to keep moving, or find some clothes," he muttered. "And I may stumble onto what made the green light. Darn lucky I've been so far, anyhow. Larsen and the others—but I shan't think of them. Wonder who was flashing the signals from the island. And did the green fire get him?"
He turned to look out over the black plain of the sea. Far out, the Virginia lay low in the water, a pillar of yellow flame rising from her hull. As he watched, the flame flickered and vanished: the old schooner, he supposed, had sunk. Then he noticed a pale glow come into being among the stars on the eastern horizon.
"Hello," he muttered again. "So we're going to have a moon? In the last quarter, but still it ought to light me up from this beach."
A moment later the horns of the crescent had come above the black rim of the sea. Dan waited, swinging his arms and tramping up and down on the sand, until the silvery moon had cleared the horizon and illuminated the rugged face of the cliff with pale white radiance.
He chose a path to the top of the cliff and clambered up, emerging in a jungle-like thicket of brush. Picking his way with the greatest caution, yet scratching his naked skin most painfully, he made his way for a few yards through the brush to a point of vantage from which he could look about.
He was, he perceived, in a narrow valley or ravine, with rugged black walls rising sheer on either side. The silvery light of the crescent moon fell upon the rank jungle that covered the narrow floor of the canyon, which rose and dwindled as it penetrated inland.
* * * * *
Gazing up the canyon, Dan gasped in amazement at what he saw.
Mars, the red planet, hung bright and motionless, low in the western sky, gleaming with deep bloody radiance. Directly beneath it, bathed in the white light of the moon, was a bare, rocky peak that seemed the highest point of the island. And upon that highest pinnacle, that chanced to be just below the ruddy star, was an astounding machine.
Three slender towers, of a white metal that gleamed in the moonlight with the silvery luster of aluminum, rose from the rocky peak. They supported, in a horizontal position, an enormous metal ring. It must be, Dan reckoned swiftly, at least a hundred feet in diameter, and held a hundred feet above the summit of the mountain.
The huge ring gleamed with a strange purple radiance. A shimmering mist of red-violet light surrounded it. An unknown force seemed to throb within the mighty ring, drawing the mantle of purple haze about it.
And suspended inside the ring and below it was a long, slender needle of dazzling white light. To Dan, from where he stood in the canyon, it seemed a fine, sharp line, though he knew it must be some kind of pointer, luminous with the strange force pulsing through it.
The strange needle wavered a little, with quick, uncertain motions. The brilliance of its light varied oddly; it seemed to throb with a queer, irregular rhythm.
And the gleaming needle pointed straight at the planet Mars!
Dan stood a long time, watching the purple ring upon the silver towers, with the shining white needle hanging below it. He stared at Mars, glowing like a red and sinister eye above the incredible mechanism.
His mind was in a wild storm of wonder shot with fear. What was the meaning of the gleaming ring and needle? What connection did this great device have with the signal of distress from the cliff, and the green fire that had destroyed the Virginia? And why did the glowing needle point at Mars?
* * * * *
He did not know when he first began to hear the sound. For a time it was merely part of the strange mystery of the island, only another element in the atmosphere of fear and wonder that surrounded him. Then it rose a little, and he became suddenly sharply conscious of it as an additional menace. The sound was not loud, but deep and vibrant. A whir or hum, like that of a powerful, muffled motor, but deeper than the sound of any motor man has ever made. It came down the gorge, from the direction of the machine on the mountain.
That deep, throbbing noise frightened Dan as none of his previous experiences had done. Shivering from fear as much as from cold, he crouched down beside a huge boulder in the edge of the tangle of brush that covered the bottom of the ravine. His heart pounded wildly. He was in the clutches of an unreasoning fear that some terrible Thing had seen him, and was about to seek him out. For a moment he had to use all his will to keep himself from panic flight through the brush. The unknown is always terrible, and he had invaded the domain of a force he could not understand.
In a moment, however, he recovered himself. He would be as safe there in the jungle, he thought, as anywhere on the island. He thought of starting a fire, then realized that he had no matches, and that he would not dare to make a light if he were able. He pulled a few handfuls of dry grass to make a sort of bed, upon which he huddled up, thanking his lucky stars that the island was in semi-tropical latitudes.
His mind returned again to the riddles that confronted him: the green flash and the strange mechanism on the peak. He recalled fantastic stories he had read, of hermit scientists conducting amazing experiments in isolated parts of the world. Presently he decided that something of the kind must be on foot here.
"The green flash is a sort of a death ray," he summed up, aloud. "And they shoot it from that bright needle. No wonder they don't want to be bothered! Somebody may be fixing to upset civilization!
"But it's queer that the needle points at Mars...."
Of this last fact, which might have been a clue to the most reasonable solution of the mystery, if a rather astounding one, he was able to make nothing. In fact, huddled up on his pile of grass in some degree of comfort, he presently went to sleep, still pondering in vain upon this last clue.
* * * * *
He was awakened by a soft, insistent purring sound, rather like that of a small electric motor run without load at very high speed. Recollection of the night's events came abruptly to him, and he sprang to his feet in alarm, finding his muscles sore and stiff from his cramped position.
From one side Dan heard the rumble of thunder, and, glancing up, saw that the sky above the sea was overcast with a rolling mass of dark, menacing clouds. There was a strange portentous blackness about these storm clouds that filled him with a nameless fear.
Suddenly he was struck with the thought that it was not thunder that had wakened him. The noise he had heard had not the rumbling or booming quality of thunder. As he stood there he again became conscious of the low, whirring sound, behind him. He whirled around to face it. The shock of what he saw left him momentarily dizzy and trembling—though undoubtedly his surroundings had much to do with its effect upon him.
The sound came from a glistening metal machine which stood half-hidden in the brush a dozen yards away looking at him!
The thing was made of a lustrous, silvery metal, which Dan afterwards supposed to be aluminum, or some alloy of that metal. Its gleaming case was shaped more like a coffin, or an Egyptian mummy-case, than any other object with which he was familiar, though rather larger than either.
That is, it was an oblong metal box, tapering toward the ends, with the greatest width forward of the middle. Twin tubes projected from the end of it, lenses in them glistening like eyes. Just below them sprang out steely, glistening tentacles several feet long, writhing and twitching as if they were alive. The tangle of green brush hid the thing's legs, so that Dan could not see them.
* * * * *
Suddenly it sprang toward him, rising ten feet high and covering half the distance between them. It alighted easily upon the two long, jointed metal limbs upon which it had leapt, and continued to keep the lens-tubes turned toward Dan, so he knew that the grotesque metal thing was watching him.
The limbs, he observed, were similar to the hind legs of a grasshopper, both in shape and position. And evidently the thing leapt upon them in about the same way. Then he noticed another curious thing about it.
Three little bars of metal projected above the thickest part of its case, on the upper side. Their ends were joined by a little ring, three inches across. The tiny metal ring glowed with purple luminosity. A purple haze seemed to cling about it, as to the huge ring Dan had seen on the towers above the peak. And suspended inside this ring was a tiny metal needle, shimmering with pulsating white fire.
On the back of this metal monster was a miniature replica of the strange mechanism upon the pinnacle. The little needle pointed up the canyon. A glance that way showed Dan that it pointed at the great device upon the mountain, which looked even more brilliant on this gloomy morning than in the uncertain radiance of the moon. The colossal ring was shrouded in a splendid mantle of purple flame; and the long, slender needle, which seemed to have swung on down to follow Mars below the horizon, still throbbed with scintillating white fire.
For several minutes the two stood there, studying each other. A naked man, tense and bewildered in the presence of mysterious forces—and a grotesque machine, cased in gleaming white metal, whose parts seemed to duplicate most of the functions of a living creature.
Then one of the writhing tentacles that shot from the "head" of the machine reached back under the metal case, and reappeared grasping what appeared to be a flat disk of emerald, two inches across and half an inch thick.
This green disk it held up, with a flat side toward Dan. There was no sound, but a flash of green light came from it, cutting a wide swath into the jungle, and littering its path with smoking and flaming debris.
* * * * *
But Dan, expecting something of the kind, had flung himself sidewise into the shelter of the boulder beside which he had slept. Behind it, he gathered his feet under him, picked up a rock of convenient size for throwing, and waited, ready and alert.
He heard the soft humming sound on the other side of the boulder. A glittering object flashed above him. Crashing through the brush the metal monster came to earth on the same side of the boulder with him.
But the metal thing had not turned in its flight: consequently its rear end was toward Dan. As it began cumberously to turn about, he hurled his rock with an accuracy that came of a boyhood on the farm. Instinct had made him try for the little ring and needle on the back of the monster, apparently its most vulnerable part.
Whether by luck or skill, the rock struck the gleaming ring, crushing it against the needle—and instant paralysis overtook the metal thing. Its tentacles and limbs became fixed and rigid, and it toppled over in the brush.
Dan walked over to it, and examined it briefly. The green disk had fallen on the ground, and he picked it up. It was made of emerald crystal, it had a little knob of glistening metal set in one side. Rather afraid of it, Dan forebore to twist the knob. But he still clutched it in his hand a few moments later, when, partly for fear that others of its kind would come to succor the fallen monster, and partly to secure shelter from the threatening rain, he retired into the shadows of the tangled jungle.
He spent perhaps half an hour in creeping back to what he supposed a place of comparative safety. For some time he lay there in the cool gloom, brushing occasional insects off his bare skin, wishing by turns that he had a cup of coffee and a good beefsteak, and that he could puzzle out a logical solution of all the astounding things he had met in the island. After the encounter with the metal monster, he felt his theory of the hermit scientists a bit inadequate.
* * * * *
Presently his attention was attracted by the unmistakable mew of a kitten. Then he heard the padding sound of cautious human footsteps, and a clear feminine voice calling "Kitty, kitty," in low tones. The steps and the voice seemed coming toward him; since there was no sound of crackling brush, he supposed there was a trail which he had not found.
"Hello," he ventured, when the voice seemed only a few yards away through the green tangle.
At the same instant a gray kitten appeared out of the underbrush, and frisked trustfully across to him. He put out a hand, caressed it, picked it up. In a moment the feminine voice replied, "Hello yourself. Who are you?"
A crackling sound came from the brush, as if the speaker were starting toward him. Dan, abruptly conscious of his lack of attire, said quickly, "Wait a minute! I haven't anything on, you see. I'm Dan McNally. I owned the schooner that something happened to off the island last night."
A delicious, trilling laugh greeted the panic of his first words. Then the clear, sweet voice, serious again, replied, "So you swam ashore from the boat I signaled?"
"Gee, but I'm glad to find you! And you say you haven't any clothes? I wonder what...." The voice paused reflectively, then resumed, "Here's a sheet that I got to signal with in the daytime, if I had a chance. You might wrap it around you until we find something better."
The low, liquid laugh rang out again; again there was a rustling in the brush, and presently an arm appeared, holding a rolled-up sheet.
"All right," he called. "Throw it this way."
* * * * *
In a moment, with the sheet draped around him like a Roman toga, and the kitten on his arm, he advanced to meet the owner of the beautiful voice.
At the trail he met a trim, active-looking young woman, clad in out-of-door attire and with a canvas knapsack on her back. Bareheaded, she wore her brown hair closely shingled. Her face, Dan recognized from the photograph he had seen five years before, though it was more lovely than the splotched newspaper picture had hinted. Her brown eyes were filled with laughter at his predicament and his present unusual garb.
He bowed with mock gravity and said, "How do you do, Miss Helen Hunter?"
Brown eyes widened in surprise. "You know me?" she asked.
"Not half so well as I hope to," he grinned.
Then, handing her the kitten, he spoke seriously. "What about this island? The green flashes? The big machine on the mountain? The metal thing that jumps about like a grasshopper? What's it all about? You know anything about it?"
"Yes, I know a good deal about it," she told him soberly. "It's rather a terrible story. And one you may not believe—no, you've seen them! But the kitten is hungry, and you must be, too, if you swam ashore."
"Well, yes, I am." Dan admitted.
The storm clouds were drifting out to sea; the sun was beginning to assert itself, and it now lighted up the scene with a cheerful brightness. She slung off her pack and sat down cross-legged at the side of the trail. Dan sat down opposite her as she opened the knapsack and produced a can of condensed milk, one of sardines, a can-opener, and half a loaf of bread.
"I had to select my supplies rather at random," she said, "and you'll have to make the best of them."
She started to open the sardines. "You'd better give it to me," Dan advised. "You might cut your hand."
"You think so?" she asked, deftly lifting the lid, fishing out a fish for the kitten, and presenting the can to Dan. Then with capable hands she broke off a large chunk of bread, which she handed him.
"Go ahead and finish this up," she said. "I've already had breakfast." She punched two holes in the end of the milk can, and poured some of the thick yellow fluid into the palm of her left hand, from which she let the kitten lap it.
"And now for the mystery of the island," Dan demanded, forgetting bread and sardines in his eagerness.
* * * * *
The girl turned her face to him. "I'm Helen Hunter, as you seem to know," she began. "I came here with my father five years ago to observe an eclipse of the sun. When it was all over, and the ship called to take us off, he decided to send the results of our observations by one of the other men. He wanted to stay here to carry on another experiment—the one that led to that machine on the hill. Part of the other men were willing to stay. The yacht left us here, and has been back from San Francisco every six months since, with mail and supplies."
"And what was the experiment?" Dan demanded eagerly.
"Have you ever looked at Mars through a good telescope?" she countered. "Then you must have seen the canals—straight dark lines running from the white polar caps to the equatorial zone. All scientists did not agree as to what they were, but nobody could suggest a natural origin for them.
"My father was one of those who thought that the canals were fertile, cultivated strips, irrigated with water brought down from the melting ice-caps. Irrigation systems meant intelligent life upon the planet, and his experiment was an attempt to communicate with that intelligence."
"And he succeeded?" Dan was astounded.
"Yes. The means was simple enough: other men had suggested it years before, in fact. Any fairly bright light on Mars—such as the beam of a searchlight directed toward earth—would be visible in a good telescope, when the planet is favorably situated: it follows that such a light on earth should be visible to an observer with a similar instrument on Mars.
"It was possible, of course, but unlikely, that Mars would have intelligent inhabitants still ignorant of the telescope. It was also possible that their senses would be different from ours—that, if they saw at all, it would be with a different part of the spectrum. Father took the chance. And he succeeded.
"The call was simple: merely three flashes of light, repeated again and again. We used a portable searchlight, mounted on a motor-truck, such as is used in the army. The three flashes meant that we were on the third planet of the solar system. The answering call, from the fourth planet, should be four flashes, of course.
"For three nights we kept signaling. One of the men watched the motor-generator, and I operated the searchlight, swinging it on Mars and off again, to make the flashes. Dad kept his eye screwed to the telescope. Nothing happened and he got discouraged. I persuaded him to keep on for another night, in case they hadn't seen us at first; or needed more time to get their searchlight ready.
"And on the fourth night poor Dad came out of the observatory, shouting that he had seen four flashes."
* * * * *
Dan gasped, speechless with astonishment. "Then that machine, with the needle pointing at Mars, and the green flashes, and the thing that jumped at me—"
Helen waved a white hand for silence. "Just keep cool a minute! I'm coming to them.
"The four flashes just began it. In a few days Dad and the Martians were communicating by a sort of television process. He would mark off a sheet of paper into squares, blacken some of the squares to make a picture or design, then have me send a flash for each black square, and miss an interval for each white one, taking them in regular order. The Martians seemed to catch on pretty soon; in a few days Dad was receiving pictures of the same sort.
"Rather a slow way of communication, perhaps. But it worked better than one might think at first. In a month Dad had received instructions for building a small machine like that big one on the hill. It is something like radio—at least it operates with vibrations in the ether—but it's as much ahead of our radio as an airplane is in advance of a fire-balloon. I understand a good bit about it, but I won't try to explain it now.
"And in the next three years Dad learned no end of things from the people on Mars. One queer thing about it was, that they never let us see them on the television apparatus, no matter how many of their scientific secrets they gave us. Dad and I exhibited ourselves, but I don't know yet what the Martians look like—though I have made a guess.
"By the end of the third year they had showed Dad how to make one of those metal things—"
"Like that one that jumped at me?" Dan broke in with a shudder.
"Yes. They seem almost alive; but they are machines, like our robots, and controlled by the radio apparatus. The eyes use photo-electric cells, and relay what is before them to the Master Intelligence." The girl spoke these last words in a low tone, shrinking involuntarily. She paused a moment, then shrugged and continued.
"The first machine did not obey my father. It was controlled by signals that came from Mars, over the big station on the hill. And it went to work, making more apparatus, building more machines, enlarging the receiving station. It worked in obedience to the Master Intelligence on Mars!
"That was a year ago. The last time the yacht called, my father and the other men still hoped to control the machines. They let her go back without us. The machines tolerated us a while; paid no attention to us; they were busy working mines and building huge, strange things that must be flying machines; the plateau on the other side of the peak is crowded with them.
"For the machines are preparing to leave the island! They are going to conquer the world for the Master Intelligence on Mars!
"Months ago my father discovered this, and realized that he had loosed doom upon the earth. He and the three other men planned to destroy that big station on the peak. All the signals to the machines are relayed through that, from Mars. The machines seemed to pay no heed as they made their preparations.
"Then one night, about three weeks ago, they tried to dynamite the station." The girl's shoulder trembled; she paused to brush a tear from her eye, then went on hastily, in a voice grown husky with emotion. Dan felt an odd desire to take her slight form in his arms and comfort her in her grief.
"The machines had seemed heedless, but they were ready. They had those disks that throw the green fire: we had not seen them before. And—well, all four of them were killed."
Dan handed her the disk of green crystal he had taken from the thing that had attacked him. She examined it silently, then went on.
"Dad had left me in bed, but I heard an explosion. I think the bombs went off when the green fire struck them. I knew what had happened, and got out of the house just before the machines arrived. They wrecked the place with their green flashes.
"And for the last three weeks I've been hiding in the jungle, or watching for ships. Three times I've raided the ruins of the house for something to eat: fortunately it didn't burn, like your ship. And that's all, I suppose—except I'm awfully glad that you got ashore."
"Thanks," Dan said, earnestly. "And what are we going to do now?"
* * * * *
"I don't know," Helen answered in a troubled tone. "I'm afraid. Afraid for all humanity. On the television, I've seen enough of Mars to be sure that it is a world of machines, controlled by one Master Intelligence. And even that may be a machine. We make machines that compute the tides and carry out other computations that are almost beyond the power of the human mind: why couldn't a machine think?
"The Master Intelligence of Mars plans to add the Earth to his domain. Unless we can do something to stop it, in a few years the world will be overrun with gigantic robot-machines, controlled by force from across the gulf of space. Humanity cannot resist them. Imagine a battleship pitted against that green annihilating ray, and all the other science of an elder planet!
"Life is to be blotted out! The Master Intelligence of Mars will rule two worlds of mechanical monsters!"
Dan sat in a dazed vision of horror to come, until Helen straightened up as if shaking off a mantle of fear, and smiled heroically, if a bit wanly.
"Now you must eat your bread and sardines, to give you strength to fight for humanity!" she cried, with a laugh that she strived, not too successfully, to make cheerful and gay.
Obediently, he began to eat, finding an excellent appetite....
It was several minutes later that he fancied he heard a whirring and crackling in the brush behind them. He sprang to his feet in alarm.
"It can't be far back to where I left the machine," he cried. "Do you suppose there's danger that—"
The mechanical ears of the metal things may have picked up the sound of his voice: but in any event, green flame flashed about them on the instant. Feeling a sudden protective impulse, Dan started toward Helen. That was his last recollection, before what seemed a terrific concussion swept him into the abyss of unconsciousness....
* * * * *
His first thought, when he awakened, was of the girl. But he was alone in the silence of the canyon. He sat up, realizing that many hours had passed, for the air was growing cool again, and the sun was low behind the peak at the head of the ravine. The huge, mysterious machine of the purple ring and the vibrating white needle were blazing splendidly.
He took more detailed stock of his immediate surroundings. The tangle of brush that had sheltered them had been cut away by the green annihilating ray. Charred stumps remained to show where it had fired bushes beyond the trail. His own shoulder was blistered, a hole was burned in the sheet wound about him, and the hair was singed from the back of his head.
Suddenly trembling with horror, he looked about for anything to show that Helen had perished by the ray. Discovering nothing, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"She must be still alive, anyhow," he muttered. "And I've had another lucky break! The ray was too high to get me. They must have left me for dead."
Presently he became conscious of torturing thirst. He retired through the brush, along the rocky wall of the canyon. By sunset he came upon a little natural basin in a rock, half full of rain water. It was none too clean, but he drank his fill of it, and felt relief.
Looking up the canyon, he could see the great mechanism on the peak, gleaming in the dusk. Intensely-glowing purple mist clung about the great metal ring, and the slender, delicate needle swung below it, still vibrating, still throbbing with brilliant, white radiance. It pointed at the red eye of Mars, which had just winked into view.
Dan stared at it a long time.
"It all sounds crazy," he muttered, "but it isn't! The Master Intelligence of Mars, she said, is controlling the mechanical things through that! The doom of the Earth is coming through that white needle! If only I could smash it, somehow!"
He looked down at the white folds of the sheet that draped him, and clenched his hands impotently. "No gun! Not even a pocket-knife. Nothing but my bare hands!" He bit his lip.
* * * * *
Still he stared challengingly at the gleaming mechanism on the peak. An idea slowly took form in his mind; an exclamation abruptly escaped him. Narrowly he eyed the trussed girders of the silver towers which supported the great ring, muttering to himself.
"Yes, I can do it! If I don't get caught! I can climb it, well enough. The needle looks a bit frail. I should be able to smash it! I'd like to see Helen again, though."
He gathered the sheet around him, and began picking a cautious way up the canyon, staying always in the cover of boulders or brush. A few times he disturbed a rock, or snapped a twig beneath his foot. Then he waited out of sight for long minutes, though he had no reason to believe that the metal monsters were on the alert for him.
"I've got to do it! The world depends on it!" he kept saying again and again in his mind.
The quick darkness of the tropics had fallen almost before he started. But he welcomed the night, for, if it made his own silent progress more difficult, it reduced the hazard that he would be discovered.
Gauging the time by the slow wheeling of the diamond-like stars across the velvet sky, he thought that two hours had passed when he reached the head of the canyon. He stood up cautiously to survey the little plateau at the summit of the hill.
It was several acres in extent, quite level, and almost clear of vegetation. At the farther side was a pile of wreckage, which, he supposed, had been the quarters of Dr. Hunter's party, before they had been destroyed.
Many huge machines stood about the plateau, vast, dark masses looming in the starlight. Mostly they were either not running or very silent in operation; but a very deep, vibrant humming sound came from one near him. Smaller shapes were moving about them, with long easy leaps. These, he knew, were the mechanical monsters, though it was too dark to distinguish them.
* * * * *
But by far the most prominent object upon the plateau was the enormous gleaming thing that Helen had said was the station over which came the signals from the Master Intelligence on Mars. One of its three towers sprang up not far from where he stood. The huge, refulgent ring, swathed in its mist of purple fire, was a full hundred feet above him; and the slender needle, pulsing with white flame, swinging within and below the colossal ring, was itself a hundred feet in length.
The white needle, for all its length, seemed hardly thicker than a man's finger. It was mounted at the top of a curiously complex and delicate-looking device that spread broadly out between the three towers, below the center of the huge purple ring.
Dan looked at it and decided that his plan had at least a chance of success—though he had no hope that it would not be fatal to him.
Quickly and silently he ran to the base of the mighty silver towers nearest him and began to climb the side toward the ravine, where the maze of girders would hide him, at least partially, from any watchers back on the plateau. The starlight and the faint weird radiance of the purple ring above sufficed to guide him.
The cross-braces on the girder he had chosen were spaced closely enough to serve as the rungs of a ladder. Dan climbed easily, pausing twice for breath, and to look down at the dark plateau. The vast, humming machines loomed up strangely in the pale purple light that fell from the gleaming ring.
Once he looked across toward the other side of the island. The surface there was more level. He glimpsed tiny moving lights, and huge stationary masses, apparently as large as ocean liners. He had an impression of a vast amount of mechanical activity, proceeding in the darkness very rapidly, and in a silent and orderly fashion.
"The expeditionary force of the Master Intelligence of Mars," he thought, "preparing to set out against humanity! And what I can do is the only chance to stop it!"
* * * * *
He climbed again with renewed energy. A few yards more brought him to the colossal metal ring. Resting upon the three towers, it was a circular band of shining metal a foot thick and as wide as a road. The intense purple glow extended several feet from its surface.
Dan touched it tentatively. He felt a tingling electric shock. And he thought he could feel a radiation coming from it, giving him a curious sensation of cold. As he reached his hands up and grasped the upper edge of the great ring, he felt what seemed a physical current of cold.
Controlling his tendency to shiver, he climbed upon the last brace, and, lifting his weight with his hands, threw himself face down upon the flat upper surface of the vast ring. He lay bathed in cold purple fire. He tingled with the chill of it. A frozen current seemed to penetrate his body. Involuntarily he trembled, lost his grip and dangled precariously from the rim.
Only a frantic scrambling restored his hold. Then, fighting the sensation of freezing cold that came from the mist of purple flame, he drew himself forward and got to his feet upon the broad surface of the metal ring. On both sides it curved away like a circular track. Red-violet fire shimmered about it, bathing him to the waist in a chilling torrent.
Through coruscating frozen flame he waded to the inner rim of the colossal ring. Below him hung the needle, a mere straight line of white fire, a hundred feet in length. Eye-dazzling radiance scintillated along it, waxing and waning with a curious throbbing rhythm. The needle vibrated a little, but it pointed directly at the red point of Mars, now almost directly overhead.
Repressing a shudder, Dan looked down at the complex and delicate apparatus upon which the slender needle was mounted. It was a light frame of white metal bars, with spidery coils and huge glowing tubes and flimsy spinning disks mounted in it. The gleaming needle was mounted much like a telescope at the top of the device, fully fifty feet below him.
"Looks flimsy enough," Dan muttered. "I'll go through it like a sixteen-inch shell! Who would have thought I'd end this way!"
* * * * *
He stepped back for a moment, and stood on the polished metal, hidden to the waist in cold purple flame. Lest it impede his movements, he tore the sheet from him and threw it aside. He let his eyes sweep for a last time over the familiar constellations blazing so splendidly in the black sky above. He had a pang of heartache, as if the stars were old friends. His glance roved fondly over the dark, indistinct masses of the island, and across the black plain of the sea.
"Well, no good in waiting," he muttered again. "Sorry I can't see Helen. Hope she gets off all right."
He backed to the outer rim and drew a deep breath, like one about to dive. Then, with set face, he sprinted forward. As he did so a blinding flash of green light flickered up before him. He ducked his head and leapt from the inner edge of the vast glowing ring.
For long seconds, it seemed, he was plunging down through space, feet first. Air rushed screaming about his ears. But his mind was quite calm, and registered an astonishingly large series of impressions.
He saw the delicate, gleaming machine rushing up to meet him, the shimmering white needle swung on its top.
He took in the silent, dark plateau, with the masses of the great machines rising like ominous shadows here and there, and the mechanical monsters leaping busily about it, almost invisible in the dim, ghostly radiance that fell from the purple ring.
He saw a vivid flame of green reach up past him from somewhere below. He knew, without emotion or alarm, that he had been discovered, and that it was too late for his discoverers to stop him.
He found time, even, for a fleeting thought of death. His mind framed the question, "What will I be in a moment from now?"
Then he had struck the great white needle, and was crashing into the delicate apparatus below it. Waves of pain beat upon his mind like flashes of blinding light. But his last mental image, as he passed into oblivion, was a picture of Helen's face. Oddly, it was not her face as he had last seen it, but a reproduction of the old newspaper half-tone, curiously retouched with life and color.
* * * * *
There is little more to tell. It was some weeks later when Dan came back out of a world of delirium and dreams, to find himself lying on his back in a tent, very much bandaged. He was alone at the moment, and at first could not recall that tremendous last day of his conscious life.
Then he heard a thrillingly familiar feminine voice calling "Kitty, kitty, kitty." He tried to move, a dull pain throbbed in his breast, and a groan escaped him. In a moment Helen appeared; the gray kitten was forgotten. She looked very anxious and solicitous—and also, Dan thought, very beautiful.
"No, no!" she cried. "You are going to be all right! Dad made me learn a little elementary medicine before we came here, and I know. But you mustn't speak! Not for days yet! I'll have to guess what you want. And you can wink when I guess the right thing.
"Gee, but I'm glad you've come to! You'll be as well as ever, pretty soon. The kitten was lots of comfort. Still—"
Dan attempted to move. She leaned over him, shifted his weight and smoothed the sheet with strong, capable hinds. "You want to know about what happened to the machine monsters?"
"Well, you remember when they found us, and shot the green ray at us. They left you there—I thought you were dead—and carried me up here on the hill. Perhaps they wanted me for a laboratory subject to test the green ray on, or something of the kind. Anyhow, they carried me into a big shed filled with strange machines.
"They kept me there until that night. Then, all of a sudden, they all—stopped! They froze! They were dead!
"The tentacles of the one that was holding me were set about me. But I worked free, and got out of the shed. It took all night. And when I came out, just at sunrise, I saw that the purple fire was gone from the great ring. The needle was knocked down, and the apparatus smashed.
"I found you there in the wreckage. You made a human bullet of yourself to smash it! The greatest thing a man ever did!"
* * * * *
Though normally rather modest, Dan felt a glow of pride at the honest admiration ringing in her clear voice, and shining from her warm brown eyes.
"So I gathered up what was left of you," she went on, "and tried to put you back together again. A good many bones were broken, and you had more cuts and bruises than I could mention; but the apparatus had broken the force of the fall, and you were still alive. You are remarkably well put together, I should say; and unusually lucky, as well!
"And, well, the machines and apparatus are scattered about all over the island. Every one of them stopped the instant you smashed the connection with the directing intelligence on Mars. There'll be quite a stir in the scientific world, I imagine, in about three weeks, when the yacht comes and carries us back with a lot of plans and specimens. We must send about a thousand engineers back here to study what we leave behind us.
"And do you want anything else?" She bent over and watched his bandaged face. Looking up into her bright eyes, thrilling to the cool, comforting pressure of her hand on his forehead, Dan reflected. Then he winked.
"Something you want me to do?"
"When? Right now?"
"After the yacht comes."
"What is it?" She looked him in the eye, blushed a little, and laughed.
The Hands of Aten
A COMPLETE NOVELETTE
By H. G. Winter
[Sidenote: Out of solid ice Craig hews three long-frozen Egyptians—and is at once caught up into amazing adventure.]
The sleek black monoplane came scudding out of the south, flying low over fields of ice and snow that were thawing slowly under the heat of the arctic sun. After a long time it wheeled, circled gradually, and then, as if it had found what it had been looking for, came lightly down and skidded to a graceful halt in a low flat area between some round-topped hillocks. A fur-clad figure emerged from the enclosed cockpit and climbed a low ridge into the wan sunlight above.
For a while the man looked around, getting his bearings. Miles on every side stretched the great rough plains of ice—ice that became a broad path of glittering diamonds where it led toward the low-hung sun, far in the south. Perhaps a quarter mile in that direction lay the white rise of a hill much larger than its fellows, probably, the man thought, a volcano. Towards it he laboriously made his way. His tiny figure was only a speck on the far-flung, deserted landscape—a human mite, puny and futile against the giant, hostile white waste.
The sky was clear and cloudless, the sun unusually warm. So warm, indeed, that long clefts, caused by the unequal expansion of the ice, appeared here and there. The man from the plane had not gone more than fifty yards when he halted sharply. With a crack like thunder, a cleft had opened at his very feet—a rift ten feet deep in places, apparently bottomless in others, and very long. Not wanting to go around it, he slid down one side and, with an ice pick, started to hack a foothold in the opposite bank.
It was then that the man saw the thing—something sticking from the ice just above his head. As he stared at it, amazement appeared on his bronzed face. He looked around bewilderedly, then peered still more closely into the bluish depths of the crystal wall.
The head of a spear was jutting from the ice. And the spear was held by a man entrapped within the wall.
* * * * *
The details of the ice-held figure were but slightly blurred, for it was only a few feet from the surface. It was that of a man, and it was plain that he was not an Eskimo. He was locked in a distorted position, as if caught unawares by a terrific weight of sliding snow. And he had been caught, seemingly, when in the act of hurling his weapon.
For a long time the man from the plane peered at his discovery. Then his blue eyes followed slowly the direction in which the spear was pointing, and he gasped, and took a few quick steps further down the cleft. There, in the opposite wall, were two more bodies.
These, though, were of man and woman. They were even closer to the surface of the ice. Crouched over, the man's left hand was craned as if to protect his companion from some peril—from the cataclysm that had trapped them, it might have been. Or perhaps from the spear of the other.
The fur-muffled figure stood motionless, gazing at them. His ice pick was held limply, his eyes were wide. Then, suddenly, the pick was grasped firmly, and flakes of ice flew under its level blows as he started to carve his find from their frozen tomb.
The man was trembling with wild excitement when at last the stiff form of the woman was extricated. She was not so much a woman as a girl, really—and she was beautiful. But the man from the plane evidently didn't care so much about that; nor even her almost miraculous state of preservation. He rubbed away some of the coating of ice from her face, and stared most intently at her forehead. Then he stood upright, and said, simply:
"Well, I'll be damned!"
* * * * *
If Wesley Craig had been merely what he was listed as on the roster of the Somers Arctic Expedition of 1933—that is, a geologist—he would not have been so astounded. But his life work, really, was archaeology. He had spent years delving in the ruins of ancient temples, especially, those of old Egypt. He knew the ancient language as well as anyone knew it, and was familiar with every known detail of the civilization of the Pharaohs. And, being so, he was now properly confused. For every bit of his knowledge told him that this girl, whom he had found in the wastes of the arctic, was of Egyptian stock.
A certain tiny hieroglyph traced on her smooth forehead—the intricate band around her fine hair—the very cut of the frozen robe she wore—Egyptian—every one of them!
Yet, stubbornly, Wesley Craig wouldn't admit it. Not until he had cut the two men from the ice and hauled all three laboriously up the side of the cleft and stretched them out on the level ice, did he have to. He couldn't deny it, then. In some mysterious way, Egypt was connected with the three rigid bodies.
For the two men were garbed as warriors, and their helmets and harness and sword-sheaths were indisputably of Egyptian design.
There, however, the similarity between the two ended. The one with the spear was big-muscled and burly; the other much slighter of build. This latter, Craig guessed, had been fleeing with the girl when icy death had overwhelmed them.
* * * * *
But he did not then try to go into that, the story that some sudden cataclysm had cut short. His fervor, as an Egyptologist, was afire. He was burning with eagerness to get these bodies back to the main base of the Somers Expedition, some three hundred miles south. Into the learned circles of Egyptology, of archaeology, they'd throw a bomb-shell that would make nitroglycerine seem like weak tea.
Craig couldn't taxi his plane closer; he would have to carry them to it; and to do this he began to carefully massage all the larger pieces of ice from the girl's limbs and clothing, to make her lighter. At the Somers base they could all be re-frozen, to maintain their perfect preservation.
It was while he was diligently rubbing that he fully realized the girl's beauty. Delicate, cleanly cut features; fine, large eyelids; tiny, slender hands. Save for her icy pallor, she might almost have been merely asleep as she lay on the snow.
Wes Craig finished massaging the girl and then went on and did the same for the two warriors. For an hour he carefully and reverently released them from the reluctant fingers of their icy death, and he was a little tired from his exertions and his great excitement when at last he finished and stood erect, resting. But he did not stand quiet for long. A sudden gleam lit his eyes: a mad idea had come to him.
"Won't hurt to try!" he muttered excitedly, and the next moment his lithe figure was running over the slippery ice bank to his airplane, out of sight behind the nearby hillocks.
* * * * *
Wes Craig worked from a sub-base on his sole expeditions to chart the various mountains and ranges in the islands off north-east King Charles Land, within the Arctic Circle. He had only one partner, a mechanic, who stayed behind on his shorter trips. And therefore all manner of emergency devices were stowed in the cockpit of his plane: a tiny folding tent, an amazingly light sled, a large store of compressed food—and a large vial of Kundrenaline and a hypodermic needle.
Kundrenaline was still somewhat of an unknown quantity in 1933. Kund, the German, had developed it but a year before. The fluid was already standard beside the operating tables of the world's most modern hospitals, so valuable had its qualities proven to be. It had actually restored life after hours of death. A complex mixture of concentrated adrenaline and highly compressed liquid food, it gave a tremendous stimulation to the heart, at the same time providing the body with energy food to withstand the shock.
It was meant for emergency use on the Somers Expedition. But Wes Craig wasn't going to use it for that. He was going to use it for an experiment—a crazy experiment, he told himself. Fish—many forms of life—withstand freezing in solid ice without hurt. Human beings—? It wouldn't hurt to try, anyway, his mind kept repeating.
Fifteen minutes saw him back beside the rigid bodies, and kneeling over the girl. The sun had warmed her body somewhat, and the glistening rheum of frost had melted from all three. Hardly breathing from his suspense, Wes filled the needle's chamber full and plunged it into the firm white flesh just above the girl's silent heart.
A short laugh came from him—an ironic laugh. It seemed idiotic to even think of restoring her to life, even if she had been dead only a week or so. It was quite—
And then his thoughts stopped.
"My God!" he said suddenly.
For a tide of faintest color had surged through the girl's wan cheeks. And her slim figure had stirred perceptibly on the sheet of ice!
"By heaven, she's coming to!" Craig muttered unbelievingly.
* * * * *
Pressing his ear to her chest, he detected a faint and labored beating of her heart, stirring from its cold sleep as the terrific stimulation jolted it back to life. The girl's eyelids flickered; a tiny sigh escaped her full lips. Craig took off his heavy parka and laid it over her. Trembling with tremendous excitement, he tore himself away from the miracle of re-created life, and strode to the body of the young man who was apparently her partner.
Again he administered the Kundrenaline. Then he went to his first discovery—the heavily built, powerful warrior whose spear had stuck out of the ice. The hypodermic was once more filled, and the fluid plunged into his body. Even as a faint moan came from the younger man, the warrior's heart started to beat.
Perspiring, breathing quickly, vial and needle still in his hands, Wes stood off and surveyed the three.
The girl's hands were moving fitfully; strange, racking gasps came from her throat. The other two were similarly affected. Almost frightened, held motionless by the weirdness of it, the American watched.
The heavily built warrior was tossing in a series of convulsions. His legs kicked out spasmodically, arms jerked and clenched, and the helmeted head rolled from side to side. Then the man lay still for as long as a minute; but, just as Craig was about to go to him, his legs tensed once again, and, staggering drunkenly, he got to his feet.
He looked around wildly, but did not see the dumbfounded Craig, for his eyes fell on the figure of the younger man. He too had risen, swaying on weak legs. And the girl was sitting up and staring at the two of them.
* * * * *
And then, grotesquely, preluded by a cry from the woman, the tragedy which death had once cut short was enacted out, there on the rough sheet of ice and snow.
The man with the spear fixed his eyes on the girl's young partner, raised his weapon, leveled it unsteadily, and tossed it weakly forward. The pointed end clipped its target and sent him reeling, with a thin trickle of slow blood running from his right shoulder. The girl staggered to her feet and ran between the two. But the big warrior's hand swept her aside, and a short sword leaped from its sheath at his waist.
Wes was stupidly staring, unable to move. The combatants were utterly unconscious of him. The younger one, painfully wounded, drew his own sword and swayed forward to meet his enemy.
The fight was grotesque. Both were weak, unsteady. The short swords stabbed slowly, missing by yards in their drunken course. Hatred was on the big man's dark face, and a fierce lust for blood. It was only when the weapons clashed loudly together that Craig came out of his daze.
"Stop!" he yelled, jumping forward. "Wait! Stop!"
All three turned and looked full at him. And then death, which had been banished for but a few minutes, swooped swiftly once more on the young man. While he stood peering, bewildered, at Craig, the huge warrior steadied his blade and drove it home through his unguarded chest. The man slid over the edge of the ice into the cleft below.
The girl shrieked again and went down to his fallen figure, while the victor waved his bloody sword aloft with a shout of triumph. Then, without hesitation, he leaped at the American.
Wes was taken wholly by surprise. He dropped the vial of Kundrenaline and the hypodermic, and he heard them crash and break at his feet as he fumbled for his automatic, in a holster at his belt. But the warrior was upon him. His crimsoned blade swung high, gleamed downward, and smote Wesley Craig square on the side of the head.
Lucky for him, the flat of the sword had been used—but it was enough. The American reeled under the terrific swipe. He had a last glimpse of two inflamed eyes, of a savage, contorted face; then the universal whiteness went black, and he fell, and the whole incredible scene passed from his consciousness....
* * * * *
Just how long he had remained unconscious, Wesley Craig had no means of determining. His head was hurting devilishly; for a moment he thought that his plane had crashed, and that he was lying in the wreckage. Then he tried to move his hands, and found that he couldn't. They were bound. His eyes opened.
He discovered that he was lying flat on the ice, hands tied behind his back. Somebody was moaning softly. It was the girl. She too was tied. Wes tried to sit up; and a hand grasped his shoulder tightly and yanked him to his feet.
The big warrior who had felled him, his bloody sword still in hand, stared closely at the American, and fingered his fur jacket curiously. Presently he muttered a few words in some strange tongue. When Craig did not reply, he again spat out the words, his dark brows bunching malevolently. And this time Wes understood part of what he said.
He was speaking ancient Egyptian!
That proved it. These three, who but half an hour before were dead and entombed in the ice, were Egyptians. Trying to cope with his returning bewilderment, Craig racked his brains for remnants of the difficult language. And finally said laboriously:
"Who—who art thou?"
A torrent of words broke from the warrior. Only a few were understandable.
"Shabako—Pharaoh Shabako!" And he repeated Craig's question: "Who art thou?"
The girl was sitting up now, and peering at the American. Her eyes were still tear-filled, for the dead body of the young man was at her side. She cried out a warning, and Craig caught most of it.
"Be careful, Stranger! He will slay thee as he slew Inaros!"
"Answer me! Who art thou?" repeated the warrior angrily. His patience was short; he played with the hilt of his sword.
"I come," said Wesley Craig slowly, groping for words, "from a far country. I found the three of you in this ice—dead. I brought thee back to life."
* * * * *
There was an astounded silence. Then the man who called himself Shabako deliberately cuffed his prisoner on the cheek. "Blasphemer!" he roared. "To claim the powers of the gods! Thou shall die for that! Yea, the ice entrapped me when I was about to slay the guilty Inaros—but our mighty god Aten restored me to life! Enough! The priests shall deal with thee!"
He jerked the trembling girl to Craig's side, and with a prick of his sword in their backs made them go forward. The American was too bewildered to think evenly. Why, the god Aten was the Sun God!—the divinity Egypt worshipped in five hundred B.C.? How had these warm-blooded people come to the far north? Where did they live? And what fate lay in store for him?
He felt none too optimistic about his position. He knew that it would be two weeks before Somers, at the main base, would become alarmed at his absence. Unless, of course, the mechanic at the sub-base tried to beat his way back on foot, which was only barely possible.... Then he discovered that his automatic was still in its holster; it was slapping against his thighs; and he felt more hopeful.
The girl trudged tiredly at his side. Shabako was a few feet behind, grumbling and urging his captives along.
"Where does he drive us?" Craig asked softly. "What is thy name—and why did he slay thy companion?"
Her frightened eyes slanted towards his face. "To the Temple of the Sun God, Stranger," she whispered. "And there—" She broke off, to get control of the emotion she was feeling.
"The God's awful hands!... Taia is my name. I do not know how I am once again alive, when a short while ago I was dead—but it matters not. I am a priestess of Aten, a virgin of the Temple. Inaros, he—he who lies behind—dared to love me. But a few hours gone he committed sacrilege, hiding in the Temple, so he could watch me. Pharaoh Shabako chanced on him, threatened death to us and pursued us out here. And then of a sudden, when Shabako was hurling his spear, we were entrapped ... and died...."
It was a strange story of forbidden love, one that might have been enacted in age-old times beneath the shadows of the pyramids. Craig began, "How did—" but a harsh voice cut his question short.
"Silence, infidel! Stir thy feet! This ice cools my blood!"
* * * * *
The American's plane, hidden from view behind the hillock, was left farther and farther in the rear, and Wes was surprised to find that he was being driven up the very slopes of the ice-covered hill he had come to investigate.
At the top, he saw that the hill was a volcano, as he had guessed. There, in the center, was a wide gaping hole from which, in past ages, fiery streams of lava and ashes had belched forth. He was amazed to see that rude steps had been hacked in one side of the great cleft, and that they led sharply downwards. A faint warmth reached him, and he observed that there was but little ice in the crater cup, and none on the rocky walls where the hewn steps led down. It was here that these warm-blooded people lived!
As soon as Taia reached the steps she began to descend them, but Craig wasn't so docile. He told himself that this was his last chance; once below, surrounded by numbers, there might be no opportunity to strike for freedom. His eyes narrowed as he groped for a plan. If he could butt his brawny captor, strike him fairly in the solar plexus, and, while he lay helpless, cut his bonds with the sword....
He whirled around. Reverting to football tactics, he tensed his lean, hard body and plunged squarely at Shabako.
The Pharaoh was taken completely by surprise, and went sprawling; but the sword did not pitch from his hand. He had received a stiff, shrewd blow, but only a glancing one, for he had twisted his body at the last second. Now, sputtering with wrath, he scrambled to his feet and whipped back his blade for a killing slice at the American.
It was Taia who saved him, then. In a flash she threw herself against the sword arm and deflected the sweep.
"Wait, O Pharaoh!" she cried breathlessly. "The priests will claim this stranger; 'tis they who must decide his fate! Do not kill him here!"
Shabako's face was livid with wrath; rage choked him; but he paused. The girl's aptly timed words had told. He was obviously not decided as to what to do. There was a pause, while the sword pointed straight at Craig's chest; then, grumbling, the Egyptian let down his weapon.
"But try no more of thy tricks, dog!" he said harshly. "Else thy death come before its time!"
Taia glanced appealingly at Wes. Her eyes were half-frightened. Craig smiled wryly. "Lead on!" he said.
* * * * *
Years of time fell away with each of their descending steps. Egypt stirred under the dust of the centuries; Egypt lived again, though in a sad mockery of her former glory. It was like a descent into a new world, yet a world that was, at the same time, as old as man's civilization....
Fifty or more steps they trudged down, then came suddenly to two dark corridors, both of which slanted steeply into the bowels of the earth. The one they took was mystic with deep shadows thrown by flaring oil lamps, cunningly imbedded in the walls of rock; and immediately into Wes's mind came the memory of a corridor he had once walked through in old Egypt, a corridor that pierced to the heart of a pyramid and the somber vault of a mummy who had once been revered as the Pharaoh Aknahton. In his nostrils now there seemed to be that same, musty, age-old smell; the same hushed gloom was about him; his eyes saw dimly on the walls the same rows of hieroglyphs telling of long-past deeds of warriors and priests.
But there the similarity ended. In Egypt it had been a dead Pharaoh; here, though even yet he could hardly believe it, a living one—living by grace of modern science—walked warily behind him, and a living virgin of the temple at his side. The sword of the Pharaoh was pricking his back.
The passageway they trudged down became one of many. Others angled from it frequently, all dark, all hushed, all seemingly devoid of people. The volcano—extinct, almost surely, for the warmth was only that of the earth—was honey-combed with corridors. The marvelous ingenuity of the Egyptian race had come into play in fashioning this warm home in the barren arctic wastes. But Craig's ever-alert eyes warned him of what was to come. The characters, the hieroglyphs, the rude forms of Egyptian gods on the jagged walls were of degenerate character—and always, when degeneration sets in, the cruellest form of worship has been chosen. The worship of Aten, the Sun God, Wes recalled, was one that demanded human sacrifice....
* * * * *
Still they went down. Savage crevices, split in the days when the volcano roared with fire and gushing lava, were skirted; crude, ladders reached down ever-recurring pits, beneath which there was always another corridor, and always leading down. Craig could not reckon the depth they must be at; he knew that the heat was growing, though, and that his skin was wet with perspiration beneath his furs. He started to ask Taia the question that ceaselessly tormented him—how her race had come to the arctic; but a prick from Shabako's sword silenced him.
Then the passageway they were in widened. There was a bend just ahead. Through the gloom came the sonorous chant of many voices.
"The Temple!" whispered Taia.
They turned the bend, and saw, ahead, lit by a thick cluster of oil lamps which threw a broad swathe of yellowish light, two tall columns of corrupt Egyptian design. They framed the entrance to the Sun God's Temple. The full volume of a chant of worship from inside poured through them.
Shabako's sword brooked no pause. He drove his prisoners straight through.
A host of impressions thronged Wes's bewildered eyes: a huge, misty-dark room, columns lining it—the vague form of a great idol squatting at the far end, massed people bowed before it—a weird chant rising into murmuring echoes along the high, dim ceiling. There were priests standing rigidly in front of the idol, their hands stretched high; and every eye was upon them. None saw the three in the doorway until a roar split the drone of worship.
"Way! Way for thy Pharaoh, Shabako the Fourth!"
* * * * *
Shabako had stepped for the moment in front of his prisoners. His sword blade was waved aloft; his bawl rudely interrupted the ceremony. The chant stopped, and silence fell as the priests whirled around. The worshippers, too, turned and stared at the man who had broken the service with his imperious command.
"Way!" the vibrant voice cried again. "Aside for thy Pharaoh, who returns to the shrine of Aten, Father of Life!"
Some sixty bewildered faces peered at the man. The silence of the buried Temple was solid, awesome. Through the mist of wreathing incense-smoke and heavy shadows the giant head of the idol stared down, cruel in the coldness of the rock it had been chiselled from.
But a pathway cleared in the thick of the crowd, and, without a glance to either side, Shabako's proud figure strode down it, driving his prisoners before him.
Craig heard low gasps of astonishment, glimpsed the people fall back as he walked forward, saw the amazement in their eyes. The statue of the god seemed to grow as he neared the altar; it was in squatting posture, with hands outstretched, one above the other. The American was to learn the reason for that position later. Now he had only a fleeting impression of it, for a man stepped from his ceremonial position beside the god's feet and met Shabako halfway.
His face was thin and cunning, with slanted rat's eyes. Ornate head-dress and stiffly inlaid robes denoted him to be the High Priest. He held a claw-like hand high.
"Hold!" he bade shrilly. "Who art thou to come thus into the Temple, calling thyself Shabako—Shabako, who has been dead these twenty years?"
* * * * *
The words were a thunderbolt of surprise, both to the Pharaoh and Taia, and to Wes Craig. He could not see Shabako's face, but he saw his tall form pause, and his tensed muscles relax.
"Dead ... these twenty years?" the Egyptian at last repeated slowly, struggling to overcome the shock. "Why, 'twas but a few hours ago that I left this Temple, in pursuit of—" He peered at the priest's sly face. "Who art thou?" he demanded suddenly.
"Hrihor, High Priest of Aten."
Craig heard the girl whisper something, inaudible because of her surprise, but Shabako's bewildered voice cut in:
"Hrihor! It cannot be! Thou art not Hrihor! When last I saw Hrihor, he was an under-priest of twenty. Ay was High Priest of the Temple! Call him! Where is Ay?"
"Dust," said the priest. "Dust these ten years and more."
Wes's senses were reeling. The bodies in the ice—he had taken it for granted they had only lain there for days; a week at most. That they had been entrapped for twenty years was incredible. Had he known that, he would not even have thought of using the Kundrenaline. Twenty years ago he had been a boy of eight; it meant—Lord!—it meant the youthful girl beside him was twice her age; and Shabako an old man! Old—yet young! Fantastic, unimaginable—yet true!
He saw Shabako pass a hand over his face, as if his body were suddenly tired; but the next moment it tautened again and he swung around. His face was unreadable. A multitude of conflicting emotions struggled there. He strode to a group of several of the older men.
"Look at me!" he cried, facing them squarely. "Look well at my features! Am I not he who twenty years ago—as the High Priest says—pursued the priestess and her lover into the land of ice? Am I not the man who ruled thee? Am I not Shabako? Is this not the priestess, Taia?"
They stared at him. Remembrance suddenly gleamed on their faces. A thin, cracked voice shrilled:
"Yea! Thou art Shabako! Thou art Shabako as he was twenty years ago—old, yet without the lines of age on thy brow! And the priestess—well do I remember her. That is she!"
A hand pointed at the trembling girl; all eyes centered on her. The High Priest's mouth dropped open, and he believed.
* * * * *
Then Shabako breathed deeply, drew himself up and with kingly dignity faced the ranks of his people, sword again held imperiously aloft.
"Thou hast seen!" he cried. "Thou hast heard! Here is the guilty Taia—and here am I, returned to thee, still with the strength of my prime! As I was about to slay the rash Inaros, the ice entrapped us, and for twenty years we lay thus, while my spirit pursued those two guilty ones across the River of Death. Then Aten aided me, filled my veins with His holy fire and melted the ice from our bodies. We lived and breathed again. With His divine help I slew Inaros and brought the transgressing virgin back to the Temple. Twenty years have passed—but of years Aten thinks nothing. Give praise to our God!"
A breathless silence swallowed his shout. Then a mighty roar burst out, an exultant roar that soared up past the impassive image of the god and rolled in thunderous echoes along the roof. "Praise to Aten! Praise to Aten!"
Wesley Craig smiled wryly. He could hardly credit the Kundrenaline's power in wiping twenty years away; but it was evidently true. Shabako, he saw, really believed the superstition-conceived story he had just spun, so—now what?
The High Priest was staring at him malevolently, his slanted eyes fastened on his garb of furs. His weedy voice pierced through the echoes.
"O divine Shabako," he questioned shrilly, "who is this stranger?"
The Pharaoh's glance was contemptuous. "A blasphemer," he said harshly. "One who dares claim—"
But Wes had understood the question. He stepped forward. Frankly and simply, he told his story.
"I found thy ruler and the maid and her lover in the ice, entrapped," he concluded. "I cut them out and, with a fluid which is of common knowledge in my country, restored them to life. I told this to Shabako, but he overpowered me and—"
"Hear thou!" bawled the Pharaoh, furiously breaking in. "Blasphemy! He claims the might of the God! Back, dog, lest I kill thee here myself!"
Wes saw how hopeless it was; he shrugged and stepped back. He read all too plainly the hatred in Shabako's eyes; his frank story had also apparently inflamed the High Priest against him. There was not a friend in the whole Temple, save the girl—and the next moment Hrihor walked to her.
His slanted eyes ran over her figure. A sneering smile appeared. "So!" he observed mockingly. "Taia is returned to the Temple! Yes, well do I remember thee now—the scornful cast of thy mouth, the proud bearing of thy head. Even Aten thou were scornful of, I remember. Aten remembers too!" He turned slightly. "Listen, O Shabako. Three days ago thy elected successor, Siptah, died. We had met to choose a new ruler. But, by the will of the God, thou art returned and art again Pharaoh. Thy people are grateful to Aten. In twelve hours a sacrifice shall proclaim our gratitude." His crafty eyes again swung to the girl. "There!" he shrilled, "—she pays for her sin. She is the sacrifice!"
There was a great shout from the crowd, but the words that Shabako then cried savagely were plainly audible to Wes Craig.
"Aye. Taia. O High Priest—and the blasphemous stranger, too! Both shall die in the hands of Aten!"
The priest nodded, smiling cruelly. "'Tis well, Shabako. Both shall die!"
Taia's frightened eyes met Craig's, then lifted to the form of the idol. He too peered up at it, and for the first time its hideousness and the cold-blooded cruelty of its design struck him.
The rudely carved figure was a full forty feet high. The impassive face, horrible in the lifelessness of rock, stared unseeingly down on its worshippers. One gross black hand was held some ten feet above the palm of the other, and, inserted in its palm, was a long, keen-pointed blade. The living sacrifice would be tied to the lower palm; the upper, by some trickery, would be made to slowly descend....
* * * * *
A surge of panic swept over Craig. In his mind he saw the slight, helpless form of the girl strapped to that grim paw, saw the knife inch down, saw it touch and prick and finally drive through her heart. And it would be the same for him! A flame of blind fury burst in him, making him reckless; mad.
"The hell we die!" he yelled, in English, and with a great bound he was at Taia's side. A priest leaped for him, but Craig shot a foot out and sent him sprawling. Then, with eyes flaming and legs outthrust, he stood in front of the girl, facing the worshippers.
"Fools!" he roared. "Listen to me! My words are truthful! I do not lie, as does thy Pharaoh! I can prove that which I say! I can—"
"Take him!" the High Priest shrieked. "Forward! Take him!"
Craig could handle one or two, but not a dozen. A mass of men, women, soldiers, priests, swept at him. There was a brief moment of struggle, of oaths and shouts and excited yells from the crowd in the Temple, till something thudded into the American's head and he went down. Feet trampled him; men surged over him; then blessed unconsciousness en-wrapped him, and he knew no more.
He did not hear, as did Taia, Shabako's command:
"To a chamber with them! Guard them well, till the time of sacrifice!"
* * * * *
A small party, led by the stocky figure of the captain of the Pharaoh's guard, wound its way through a network of corridors, past jagged walls down which water slowly dripped, across a swaying bridge of hides that spanned an awful chasm in the volcano's very heart, and came at last to a large dark hole in the rock.
The captain turned. "In there!" he commanded harshly. The two figures, man and girl, were dumped like sacks of flour into the gloomy chamber. The men who had carried them turned and tramped away; the captain faced one who had stayed.
"Guard them with thy life, Sitah. Thou knowest the payment for carelessness."
Sitah nodded grimly. He was fully armed, with spear and sword. He sat down outside the dark hole, and the captain retraced his steps. The pad of his feet on the floor died away, and then, for a long time, there was silence.
Perhaps every five minutes Sitah turned and stared down into the hole behind, ears craned for the slightest sound. But none came. The two inside, no doubt, were asleep.
It was very hot, down in the deep-buried corridor, and though Sitah was accustomed to the heat, he soon found his eyelids drooping and his whole body crying out for sleep. But he did not go to sleep. He knew too well what would befall him in Aten's hands if he did. He had seen many old men and women die in those hands, on ceremony days—old people who croaked in helpless agony as the keen knife blade dropped slowly down toward them, paused a second, inches from their hearts, and then plunged in with a rush. Old men and women, useless, their years of service gone. Yes, and many unwanted girl children....
That was what the Sun God demanded. His hands reached ever for human bodies. It was cruel, but he was a god; and who was to question the will of a god?
* * * * *
Sitah was very glad when, after six hours of lonely vigil, another guard relieved him and took his place outside the dark hole. Sitah spoke humorously to him, a grim kind of humor, as befitting one who has seen much death.
"They sleep, Hapu," he said, nodding into the prison. "But soon a longer sleep will come for them—the sleep of the knife!" He chuckled as he made his way far below, to his bed. A few hours of rest and he would be in fine fettle for the ceremony.
The relieving guard grunted and peered into the cell. He saw two dark figures outstretched, mere blobs of black, a little blacker than the shadows. Yes, they slept....
He sat down on the bench Sitah had just vacated. He had four hours to wait. Then the priests, led by Hrihor, would come, and the ceremony would begin, and the god's hands would move together. It would be a fine show! He looked forward to it keenly. It would be delicious to see that girl Taia bared to the knife. It would please the god: seldom did his hands hold such a beautiful sacrifice. And the queer stranger, too—he would probably die very noisily. When he saw the knife sliding down, he would regret his blasphemy and shriek for forgiveness!
For along time Hapu sat quite motionless. He was a good watchdog. Hours passed; his vigil was nearing its end; the priests would soon come. Soon—
A slight noise came from the cell behind him.
He whirled around. The noise came again, louder. A voice cried out.
"Water! Water! I am dying!"
Hapu grunted. It was the stranger's voice. The stranger must not die; it would spoil the ceremony; Aten would be wroth. He stared into the hole.
One of the figures was tossing, writhing painfully. The agonized cry echoed again. "Water! Please! I am dying!"
Hapu strode into the cell.
For a moment he stood still, peering down at the tossing figure. His brain suddenly shouted alarm. This was no human body! "What—" he began.
But the question was never finished. Something hard crashed into the back of his skull; his spear dropped with a clank, and he slumped to the floor.
* * * * *
Out of the shadows, behind, a man emerged and bent down over the outstretched figure of the guard. A smile appeared on the man's lean face: the guard was out—cold. It took Wes Craig just a moment to ascertain this; then he tiptoed over to a dark form that lay on the floor—the girl, whose pale, anxious face peered up out of the shadows. Craig cut her bonds with the guard's sword and raised her to her feet. She stood close to him, clinging to him, trembling, almost not believing she was free.
Her eyes were filled with awe as she looked up into the American's eyes. "First thou didst restore me to life," she whispered, "and now thou hast broken thy bonds. Surely, thou must be a god!"
Wes smiled. "It was simple, Taia. Look! This buckle on my belt—'tis sharp. I edged it round and cut the rope. It was slow work, else we would have been free long before."
"But I saw thee toss and writhe on the floor, and cry out for water!"
Craig kicked a pile of furs that had been heaped one on top of the other, and tied together with thread from an unraveled woolen mitten. "This was my body," he said coolly. "Furs. The cell must be a storeroom for them—lucky for us. I was standing with a rock in my hand near the door, when I cried out for water.... We shall not die in Aten's hands, Taia! See—I have a sword. With luck—"
There was a warmer quality than reverence in Taia's eyes when she spoke—though she did not realize it. "Then come quickly, O Stranger!" she said. "The guard has been changed once; the time for sacrifice nears!"
Craig nodded. Only a sword was in his hand; his automatic, he found, had been taken from him while he lay unconscious in the Temple, probably desired as a curious heathen object. The discovery, made when he had cut his bonds, had been a serious blow to his hopes: with a sword, he was only a human being, but with a gun he might have passed as supernatural to this primitive race.
But it could not be helped. He peered to each side, gestured to the girl, and together they started up the sloping incline of the corridor.
* * * * *
The heat of the earth was great, down where they were, and it made the passageway muggy and odorous. Fitful shadows were flung by widely separated oil lamps as they pressed forward—grotesque splotches of black that half a dozen times tightened the American's grasp on his sword, sure that a guard had come upon them. He knew that their margin of time in which to effect escape was small, and he gradually quickened their pace, sacrificing caution for speed. Taia's hand was in his left; and he had just turned to her to ask if they were taking the best course up to the surface, when suddenly she stopped short.