"They'd better not. You know what happened to him."
"Yeah. Chucked into the ray. Well, he didn't give the burial squad any work." And the two laughed, a laugh that had more than a hint of sadistic cruelty in it. "If I had my way," the nurse went on, "I'd do the same with all these nuts that come back from the scout ships raving of home and mother. It's my idea that they're all bluffing. It's a good way to be shipped to the rear, where the captured dames are. Say, did I tell you about the last time I was on leave--"
The two whispered, their heads close together. My brain was working frantically. Things had gone well so far, but I had to get out of here before the morning, or I'd be sent to the base and lose all that I had gained by my daring.
The door snapped open. "Smirnow!" (Atten-shun!) * * * * *
I was on my side, facing away from the wall. I remained so, staring blankly across the room. I hoped the inspection would be over quickly. The fewer the enemy officers I had looking me over, the better. Someone back there was snapping questions. That voice--where had I heard it before?
"Your patient. What's his trouble?"
"Amnesia, sir. One of the scouts."
"Oh, yes. Let's look at him."
Someone was walking across the room, then standing above me. His hand was just at the level of my eyes--a hand with the little finger twisted queerly into the palm. I knew that hand: it was the Ferret's! A cold shiver ran up my back. I almost stopped breathing.
Of all the infernal luck in the world, to have the Ferret walk in here! He was chief of the Red's Intelligence Service, the shrewdest, sharpest, cruelest of them all. Many of our best men had gone west because of his uncanny instinct for piercing disguise. They said he could smell an American. And many of our most strictly guarded plans had been smashed through his infernally clever spying. Only a month before I had him in my clutches; saw the very rope around his neck. But he had slipped away, and left me empty-handed and kicking myself for an ass.
I held my breath as I felt those gimlet eyes of his boring into me. Would he sense who I was? Surely he could hear the pounding of my heart. How long he stood there I don't know. It seemed like hours. I tautened, waiting for him to call out, determined to sell my life as dearly as I could.
But for once the Ferret was fooled. He turned away. "Take us into your kitchen," he snapped at the nurse, then there was the tramping of feet and the slamming of a door.
The breath whistled from me in relief. I turned cautiously. I was alone. Now was my chance. I jumped from the bed and started toward the window. Once out, I'd find some place to hide. I let my face relax; there was no use for that particular disguise any longer. The window was up. I was on the sill. Another second and I'd be out in the open.
"Just where do you think you're going?" came the Ferret's silky, cruel voice. I whirled. There he was, just inside the door. His little black eyes glinted dangerously over his hooked nose and sharp chin.
"Oh--Bolton! Something made me turn back. Glad to see you."
His hand flashed to the ray-tube in his belt. At the same moment I left the window sill in a desperate leap. Clear across the room I sprang, and before he had time to pull his weapon I had one hand clamped around his wrist, the other clutching his throat. We crashed to the ground.
I was in pyjamas, barefooted, he fully clothed. His leather shoes drove into me viciously, even as his face turned purple. The pain was excruciating, but I dared not cry out. His left thumb found my eye, was digging in.
The crash of our fall must have been heard outside; another moment and all would be lost. I was momentarily on top as we rolled across the floor. With a supreme effort I pulled his head away from the floor, then crashed it down. He slumped; lay still.
The door knob was turning as I jumped frantically through the window. I heard a cry behind me. Rough, uneven ground. No one about. To my right was a rocky cliff, and at its base what looked like the mouth of a cave. Any port in a storm: I dived into it.
It was a cave, all right, or rather a narrow tunnel winding some distance into the cliff. I ran back at top speed, till I crashed into the end of the passage.
I crouched there, panting. It was beastly cold, and the dampness struck into my bones. I shivered, then laughed grimly. I wouldn't shiver long. When the Ferret came to and revealed that Eric Bolton was around, there wouldn't be a stone left unturned till I was found. Those birds had good cause to want me rubbed out.
Already I could hear faint shouts from without. The chase was on. I was caught, right enough. Trapped like any rat.
I felt around me in the darkness and my hand lighted on a round stone. It just fitted my fist. Well, I'd get one of them, anyway, when they found me. Cold comfort in that, but I didn't feel like giving in tamely.
Footsteps sounded out at the tunnel end. So soon! I gripped my rock tightly, and waited.
But--it sounded like only one man. I drew myself together. Maybe I had a chance. A dim glow showed where the passage curved, then a disk of light flashed on the wall and flitted about. The fool!
The steps came on, slowly, stumblingly. The disk of light grew smaller as its source drew nearer. Then he was around the corner, bulked for a moment against his own light as it was reflected from the wet wall. That moment was enough! The stone left my hand with all the force I possessed. It went straight to its mark: a sickening thud told me that. The form dropped, and the flashlight clinked on the rocks.
I listened. Still the shouts from without, but no steps inside. I was safe for a time. But the searcher would surely be missed, and others would come looking for him. I had only one chance. I shrugged my shoulders. I couldn't lose anything. If I stayed here my goose was cooked.
By the light of the flashlight I examined my quarry. A renegade Frenchman, apparently. A private. In a trice I had his uniform on me and had twisted my features to match his. Little did I think when I acted under the Klieg lights that the fate of two continents would some day depend on this gift of mine.
He stirred; groaned. I hesitated. Then--well, I couldn't chance his crawling out. His ray-tube was newly charged. I left a heap of ashes there as I walked away....
I was outside the cave. I darted a glance around. My refuge was not the only hole in sheer rock; it was literally honeycombed. From one, then another of the cavern mouths a soldier emerged. Each strode across the uneven, rocky plain to where an officer stood with what was apparently a map in his hand. As each searcher saluted and reported, the officer made a mark on the map. Someone came out from the cave-mouth next to mine. I fell in behind him.
"No one in cave twenty-one, sir."
"To your post."
The private turned on his heel and marched off to take his place in a company formation that was rapidly taking shape near by. My turn was next. What was the number of my cave? A mistake now, and I was through.
I saluted. "No one in cave twenty, sir."
"To your post."
Had I hit it? When the final check-up came would there be two reports for one cave, none for another?
A front rank man moved aside. Good: that meant my place was just behind him. My luck was holding. And never did a man need luck more!
Now was my first chance to look about, to discover what sort of place this was. It was an oval plain, roughly a mile wide by five miles long. Buildings, squat structures of corrugated iron, were scattered here and there. In the distance, to my left, what seemed a great hole in the ground glowed; a huge disk of light.
Dry land, here, where there should be nothing but a waste of waters!
Puzzled, I strained to see what bordered the plain. It was a tall cliff, running all around, and towering high in the air. But it wasn't rock, for it glowed strangely green in the flood of light that illumined the place. And it was clean cut, rising sheer from the unevenness of the ground.
Then I remembered. The vertical green wall that soared above me as I lay dazed from Jim's blow. The translucent green wall in whose depths I had seen the blind fish rushing toward me. Water! The sea! Impossible! There were scientific miracle-workers in the enemy's ranks, but they couldn't have hollowed out a pit such as this in mid-ocean; forced back the very ocean to create this amphitheatre, this dry plain on the Atlantic's very bottom: held back the unthinkable weight of Earth's waters by a nothingness. Incredible!
Yet the accomplished fact stared me in the face.
My eyes traveled up that impossible wall. It must have been at least six hundred feet high. At its summit, in a murky haze that heaved and billowed, I made out strange, dim bulks that hung, unsupported. A long line of them, a long ellipse following closely the curving of the cliff. Underneath the nearest, barely perceptible, I could make out a lens-shaped cage of wire. I began to understand.
Overarching everything was a great dome of heaving cloud.
The long line snapped into immobility.
"By the left flank, march!"
We were moving, marching. Then my ruse had succeeded. I had chosen the right cave number. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The command for route order was given, and at once a buzz of talk broke out around me. "Damn them, they're sending us right off to work! We missed our mess, hunting for that damned spy. But that don't mean anything. It's back to the tunnel for ours."
"Oh, quit your bellyaching, Andreyeff. Another week, and we'll be in New York. Just think of it, the richest city in the world to loot! And women! Why, they tell me the American women are to the Frenchies and the cold English-women as the sun is to the stars. What's a meal more or less when you think of that?"
An obscene laugh swept through the ranks. Guttural voices boasted of past exploits--black deeds and sadistic cruelties that had marked the trail of the hordes sweeping over Europe from the windy Asiatic steppes.
As we marched, I noticed a peculiarity of the rocky floor. There were no sharp edges, no sudden cleavages in the uneven terrain. It looked, for all the world, as though the stone had been melted, then frozen again in a moment. An unbelievable pattern was forming itself in my mind. If what I thought were true--!
The command came to halt.
We had reached the blazing disk I had seen from afar. It was a tremendous shaft, dropping straight into the very bowels of the earth. Two hundred feet across, a blinding glare streamed up from the pit. From far beneath came shoutings, the clank of machinery, a growling roar.
Other companies marched up and halted at the pit edge. My outfit were whites--Russians, French, Germans. But the others were black, brown, yellow--all the motley aggregation of races that formed the Red cohorts, the backbone of the Great Uprising. As the "At ease" order snapped out a babel of tongues rose on the air. Every language of Earth was there save English. The Anglo-Saxons had chosen tortured death rather than submission to the commands of their conquerors.
A huge platform rose slowly up in the shaft and came to a stop at the ground level. It was solidly packed with another throng of soldiers in the gray-green of the enemy. They marched off and we took their place.
Down, down, we went, till it seemed that our destination was the center of the earth. Louder and louder grew the growling roar, the ponderous thud and clank of huge machines.
We were in a huge chamber, hollowed out of the solid rock. Thousands of men bustled out among great piles of lumber and steel rails. Huge cranes rolled here and there, swinging their ponderous loads. Officers shouted crisp orders. Green-uniformed privates sprang to obey.
But no time was given me to get more than a glimpse of all this activity. From out the gaping mouth of a hundred-foot-wide tunnel a long train of flat cars came gliding. It halted and swayed on the single rail, and the whir of the gyroscopic balancers filled the cavern. A sharp order, and my companions leaped for the cars, lay prone on the steel car-beds, and passed their belts through projecting loops. I wondered, but imitated them. I buried my face in my arms, as the others were doing.
There came the eery shriek of a siren: the train was moving. Swiftly it gathered speed till it seemed as though my protesting body was being forced through a wall of air grown suddenly solid. Myriad fingers pulled at me, seeking to hurl me to destruction. Even through my protecting arms my breath was forced back into my lungs, choking me. The wind howled past with the wail of a thousand souls in torment.
Just as the limit of endurance was reached the terrific speed slackened, and the long train ground to a halt. "All off! Lively now!" came the command.
We were at the rail-head, and before me was the face of the tunnel. Queer, hooded figures were there bending over wheeled tripods, manipulating what appeared to be searchlights. But no shafts of light leaped from the lenses. The tripods were rolling steadily forward.
I looked at the tunnel face again, then, startled, back to the hooded men. I rubbed my eyes. Was I seeing things? No, by all that was holy, it was so! The distance between the machines and the end wall of the passage had not changed, but men and rock were ten--fifteen--twenty feet away! They were boring; boring into the solid rock at tremendous speed. And the rock was melting, vanishing, disappearing into nothingness in the awful blast projected from those machines!
I gaped--my pose, my danger, forgotten. Almost as fast as a man could run, the tunnel extended itself. It was phantasmal, incredible!
A rough hand seized me from behind. I whirled, my heart in my mouth. It was the burly sergeant. "What the hell are you dreaming about, Renaud? Hop to it. Over there, on that shoring job. Get busy now, or--" The threat in that unfinished sentence chilled me by its very vagueness.
My squad was hauling heavy timbers, setting them up where a fault showed in the rocky roof of the tunnel. I joined them but my thoughts were a madly whirling chaos.
The pattern was complete now. The long, curving under-water ridge on Jim's chart--this tunnel was boring through it. Whatever it was that those tripods projected--a new ray it must be--it was melting a passage six hundred miles long. Under our rafts, under our fleets, under our coast defenses--to come up far behind our lines. The ridge joined the coast just south of New York. Some night, while our generals slept in smug complacency, all that gray green horde of wolves would belch forth--from the very earth.
And the Americans would follow Europe into hell!
Five minutes passed. I looked again at the face of the tunnel, drawn by an irresistible fascination. It had advanced a full quarter of a mile. Like fog before a cloud-piercing searchlight, the age-old rock was dissolving before the ray. At this rate America's doom would be sealed in a week. And I, alone among these thousands, was helpless to avert the climaxing menace.
A howl of rage came from the sergeant. I turned. A diminutive German, his face pale green with fatigue, had stumbled and fallen under the weight of a heavy timber.
The swarthy non-com was kicking him with a cruel boot. "Get up, you; get up before I brain you!"
The sprawling man looked up, fear staring from his deep-sunk eyes. "Aber, ich bin krank."--"I am sick; I can't stand the work; it is too schwer, too heavy," he faltered.
"Sick?" the Russian roared. "Sick? I'll sick you! You're lazy, too damned lazy to do a little work. I'm tired of this gold-bricking around here. I'm going to make an example of you that the rest of you dogs won't forget in a hurry." His face was purple with rage. He bent, seized the fallen man and dragged him out from under the crushing bulk. Then, raising the struggling wretch over his head as lightly as though he were an infant, he ran forward, toward the ray projectors.
Shriek after shriek pierced the hot air, such howls of utter fear and agony, as I hope never to hear again. The little figure, held high in the huge paws, writhed and tossed, to no avail.
The sergeant reached the nearest tripod. His brawny arms flexed; straightened. The German swept up and over the head of the operator, and dropped in front of the machine. Then--he vanished. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was there between projector and rapidly retreating wall!
A horrible retching tore my stomach; I swayed dizzily. The utter brutality, the finality of the thing! "And any more of you carrion that I catch slacking will get the same thing," the Russian said. "You, Renaud, I've got my eye on you. Watch out!" The sergeant's voice rasped through the mist about me. I shoved my shoulder under one end of an eight by eight and plunged into the back breaking labor. But one thought hammered at my reeling brain: "The New York! That's what happened to her!"
The long hours of toil at last ended. We were again in the entrance cavern, waiting for the elevator platform. It was unaccountably delayed: the last batch had gone up fifteen minutes before. The men about me chafed and swore. They were impatient for mess and bed.
Bit by bit I had reconstructed all the elements of this unprecedented operation. The ray, the blasting ray that whiffed into non-existence all that it touched, was the keynote. The great plain had been cleared by the ray. The dim shapes floating high in that far-circling ellipse were pouring down the dreadful vibrations, thus holding back the sea in a marvelous green wall. I remembered the sea-monster that had dashed at me and vanished. That proved it. The dome of cloud was camouflage, or the product of the processes of destruction going on underneath: it didn't matter. What mattered was that it was interlaced by a network of ray beams. It was an impenetrable wall, a perfect defense. Boxed in on all sides by such a barrier, how was I to get out word of the menace? How was it to be combatted even if our forces knew of the danger? A hundred plans flooded my wearied brain, to be rejected one by one.
A mocking, ribald cheer arose from the men around me. The platform was ascending. Why the long delay? A premonition of disaster chilled me. I shrugged it aside.
We were at the top. A long line of soldiers curved about the mouth of the pit. The next shift waiting to go down? No--they made no move to approach. And each one was holding his ray-tube at the ready. This was the guard. At a table nearby a knot of officers was gathered. Papers of some sort were piled high on it. Again the icy finger of dread touched me. One of the officers moved aside, revealing the profile of his companion. The Ferret. Then I knew I was done for!
My eyes darted here and there, seeking escape. No hope--the heavily armed guard was all around; the platform blocked the shaft mouth. A dash would be self-betrayal--suicide.
Mechanically I obeyed the sergeant's barked commands. We were in single file. We were moving toward that ominous table where the Ferret stood, a sardonic smile on his sharp-featured face. I could make out a livid weal across his throat. I had left my mark on him. That was some satisfaction.
The head of the line reached the table. They were fingerprinting the leader! A lieutenant extracted a paper from the pile and handed it to the Ferret. He made momentary comparison of something on the paper with the mark the soldier had just made. Then the next man stepped up, while the first made off across the plain.
Of course! Simple: how very simple! And yet it had caught me! The service records of the men had their fingerprints, just as in our own forces. And each man in the area was being checked up. Trust the Ferret to think of that. He knew that I'd be somewhere in their ranks, impersonating one of their men. Well, I was in for it. The last trick in our long game was his.
My turn. No use going through the motions. I bent down a moment, then straightened. "Oh, hello, Bolton," the Ferret said, thrusting out his hand, the one with the twisted finger. I had resumed my own visage. "Didn't think you could get away with it, did you?"
Chagrined as I was, I put a good face on it. The Ferret and I had run up against each other many many times. Cheerfully, either of us would have cut the other's throat. But--we played the game.
"Hello, Rubinoff," I responded. "You seem to have me, just now. But try and hold me."
The Ferret threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, I think you'll find it a little difficult to get away this time." I thought so, too, but did not voice my thought.
The smile left Rubinoff's face. He snapped an order. A squad advanced from the guard. Handcuffs clicked around my wrists, the mates of each were fastened to the arms of two guardsmen. I was securely chained. They were taking no chances.
"Take him to the special cell in the guard-house." The lieutenant saluted. I was marched off. Then I was not to be summarily executed. I was not as much relieved as you might think. You see, I knew the Ferret. We had raided one of his hangouts once; just missed him. But we found an M.I.S. man there whom Rubinoff had been--questioning. We thanked God when he died.