Ward's face appeared in the ray of light, pale and blood-streaked.
"I wonder what happened."
"It sounded like a collision."
They stared at one another with fearful eyes. A collision while underseas in a submarine is a serious matter.
Justus Miles ran the beam of his torch this way and that, and saw that the room was in a fearful confusion. The gyroscopic mechanism had broken from its fastenings and rolled forward. Somewhere beneath its crushing weight lay the control board and the swarthy operator. Then they saw Solino, still in his overturned wheelchair, the cloak drawn tightly about himself and it; but the top of his head was crushed in like an eggshell. Justus Miles had touched that head when he stretched out his hand in the darkness.
He and Ward had been saved from death as by a miracle. Over their heads the great piston had hurtled, killing Solino and tearing through the steel partition into the chamber beyond, visiting it with death and destruction. One hasty examination of that place was enough. The men in there were dead.
Sick with horror, the two survivors faced the stark reality of their terrible plight. Trapped in an underwater craft, they saw themselves doomed to perish even more miserably than their companions. As the horrible thought sank home, a cool breath of air, suggesting the smell of stagnant salt water, blew through an opening created by the crushing of the plates in the vessel's hull--an opening larger than the body of a man. Miles and Ward stared at it with puzzled eyes. With such a hole in her hull, the boat should have been admitting water and not air. However, they approached the gap and examined it with their torches.
"Here goes," Ward said after a moment's hesitation, and clambered through the opening, followed by his friend. When they were able to make out their surroundings, they saw that they were in a vast tunnel or cavern, the extent of which was shrouded in darkness. How the submarine had left the ocean and penetrated to this cavern it was impossible to say; but evidently it had come so far over a shining rail, a break in which had caused the disaster. The cavern or tunnel was paved with disjointed blocks of stone which once might have been smooth and even, but which now were disarranged by time and slimy with dampness and seagrowths. In the clammy air Miles involuntarily shuddered. "Good Lord, Rusty, we're certainly up against it! The only fellow who could tell us our whereabouts is dead!"
Ward's jaw tightened. "That rail leads somewhere: it's our only hope. But first let us get our guns and some food."
They were fortunate enough to discover several thermos bottles unbroken. Hot coffee revived their fainting spirits. Treating their bruises and cuts as well as they could, they left the submarine or car--it seemed to have been convertible for use either in water or on rail--and trudged ahead.
Beyond the break that had caused the wreck, the rail stretched away into illimitable blackness. Over rough stones, stumbling into shallow pools of water, the light of their torches serving but faintly to show the depressing surroundings, the two men plunged. Neither of them was without fear, but both possessed the enduring courage of men habituated to facing danger and sudden death without losing control of their faculties.
Time passed, but they had no means of telling how much, since their wrist watches no longer functioned. But after a while they noticed that the grade was upward and the going easier. At the same moment, Ward called attention to the fact that, even without electric torches, it was possible to see. All around the two Americans grew a strange light--a weird, phosphorescent glow, revealing far walls and massive pillars.
Now they could see that they were in a vast chamber, undoubtedly the work of human hands; a room awe-inspiring to behold, and even more than awe-inspiring in the reflections it forced upon their minds. Passages radiated on either hand to mysterious depths, and great bulks loomed in the spectral light. Justus Miles gave a low cry of amazement when a closer investigation revealed those bulks to be the wrecks of mighty and intricate machines, the use of which it was vain to conjecture. He looked at Ward.
"Solino spoke of a city down in the ocean. Can this be it?"
Ward shook his head. "Everything here is old, abandoned. Look--what is that?"
The figure of a giant creature, carved either from stone or marble and encrusted with phosphorous, stood lowering in their path. It was that of a winged beast with a human head. Its features were negroid in character; and so malignant was the expression of the staring face, so lifelike the execution of the whole statue, that a chill of fear ran through their veins. It was in Ward's mind that this gigantic carving was akin to the ones he had seen in Egypt, and as old, if not older.
Beyond the statue the rail curved and the grade leveled; and, rounding the bend, they were amazed to come upon a sort of "yard" where the rail stopped. In that enclosure, on several sidings, were submarine cars similar to the wrecked one they had abandoned. But that was not the sight which brought them to a breathless halt. Beyond the sidings stood what appeared to be a small building of gleaming crystal.
After a moment of breathless wonder they cautiously approached the bizarre structure. No dampness or phosphorus impaired the clarity of its walls. The material composing them felt vibrantly warm to the touch. It was not glass, yet it was possible to look without difficulty into the interior of the building, which appeared to be one large room containing nothing but a central device not unlike the filaments of an electric bulb. In fact, the whole building, viewed from the outside, reminded the two adventurers of a giant light globe. The filaments radiated a steady and somehow exhilarating light. The door--they knew it was a door because an edging of dark metal outlined its frame--gave admittance to the room.
"Shall we?" questioned Miles; and Ward answered doubtfully, "I don't know. Perhaps...."
But at last they turned the golden knob, felt the door give to their pressure, and stepped through the entrance into the soft radiance of the interior. Unthinkingly, Ward released his hold on the knob and the door swung shut behind them. Instantly there was a flash of light, and they were oppressed by a feeling of nausea: and then, out of a momentary pit of blackness, they emerged to find that the room of crystal had oddly changed its proportions and opaqueness. "Quick!" cried Ward; "let us get out of this place." Both men found the door and staggered forth.
Then, at sight of what they saw, they stood rooted to the spot in sheer amazement. The gloomy tunnel and the sidings of submarine cars had vanished, and they were standing in a vast hall, an utterly strange and magnificent hall, staring up into the face of a creature crudely human and colored green!
The green man was almost of heroic proportions; he was clad in but a breech-clout, and was so broad as to appear squat in stature. He carried a short club, and appeared almost as dumbfounded as the two Americans. A moment he regarded them, then, with a ferocious snarl of rage, he hurled himself upon the startled Ward and half clubbed, half pushed him to the floor. Recovering from his momentary inaction and realizing the danger in which his friend stood, Miles shouted and leaped upon the green man's back, fastening his sinewy fingers about the giant's throat.
But the latter was possessed of incredible strength, and, straightening up, he shook off Miles as a bear might shake off an attacking dog, and threw him heavily to the floor. Then the green giant whirled up his club, and it would have gone hardly with Miles if Ward had not remembered his automatic and fired in the nick of time. As if poleaxed, the green man fell; and both the adventurers recovered their feet.
"Look out!" shouted Ward.
Through a wide entrance came charging a dozen greenish giants. Miles fired both his pistols. The leader of the greenish men paused in mid-leap, clawing at his stomach.
"This way, Kid!" yelled Ward; "this way!"
Taking advantage of the confusion in the ranks of the attackers, the two sprang to where an exit in the far wall promised an avenue of escape. Down a broad passage they rushed. Seemingly the passage ended in a cul-de-sac, for a wall of blank whiteness barred further progress. Behind them came charging the greenish giants uttering appalling cries. Desperately the two Americans turned, resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible; but at that moment happened a sheer miracle. The blank wall divided, revealing a narrow crevice through which they sprang. Noiselessly the crevice closed behind them, shutting out the green pursuers, and a voice said--a voice in precise but strangely accented English: "We have been expecting you, gentlemen, but--where is Solino?"
Never would Miles and Ward forget the amazement of that moment. They were in a place which looked not unlike a huge laboratory. Then they saw it was a lofty room containing a variety of strange mechanisms. But it was not on these their eyes focussed. Confronting them in odd wheelchairs, with hairless heads projecting from tubular containers like the one they had seen encasing the man at the control board of the submarines, were all of half a hundred crippled men!
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Miles, "I must be seeing things!"
"Where is Solino?" demanded the voice in strangely accented English.
Ward saw that the question came from an individual in a wheelchair a few feet in front of them.
"Solino is dead," he answered.
"Dead?" A ripple of sound came from the oddly seated men.
"Yes, the submarine car was wrecked in the tunnel, and everyone aboard was killed save us two."
The hairless men looked at one another. "This is Spiro's work," said one of them, still in English; and another said, "Yes, Spiro has done this."
Miles and Ward were recovering somewhat from their initial astonishment. "What place is this?" asked the former.
"This is Apex--or, rather, the Palace of the Heads in Apex."
The Palace of the Heads! The two Americans tried to control their bewilderment.
"Pardon us if we don't understand. Everything is so strange. First the submarine was wrecked. Then we entered the crystal room and the tunnel vanished. We can't understand how this place can be at the bottom of the Atlantic."
"It isn't at the bottom of the Atlantic."
"Not at the bottom? Then where?"
"It isn't," said the voice slowly, "in your world at all."
The import of what was said did not at first penetrate the minds of the Americans. "Not in our world?" they echoed stupidly.
"Come," said the crippled man smiling inscrutably, "you are tired and hungry. Later I shall explain more." His strangely colored eyes bored into their own. "Sleep," said his voice softly, imperatively; and though they fought against the command with all the strength of their wills, heaviness weighted down their eyelids and they slept.
From dreamless sleep they awakened to find that fatigue had miraculously vanished, that their wounds were healed and their bodies and clothes were free of slime and filth. All but one of the crippled men--for so in their own minds they termed the odd individuals--had gone away. That one was the man who had first addressed them.
"Do not be alarmed," he said. "In our own fashion we have given you food and rest and attended to your comfort."
Ward smiled, though a trifle uncertainly. "We are not easily frightened," he replied.
"So! That is good. But now listen: my name is Zoro and I am Chief of the Heads of Apex. Ages ago we Heads lived on a continent of your Earth now known to scholars as Atlantis. When Atlantis sank below the waves--in your sacred book that tragedy is known as the Flood--all but a scattered few of its people perished. I and my companions were among the survivors."
The Americans stared at him unbelievingly. "But that was a hundred thousand years ago!" exclaimed Ward.
"Three hundred thousand," corrected Zoro.
They stared at him dumbly.
"Yes," said Zoro; "it sounds incredible to your ears, but it is true. Mighty as is the industrial civilization of your day, that of Atlantis was mightier. Of course, the country wasn't then called Atlantis; its real name was A-zooma. A-zooma ruled the world. Its ships with sails of copper and engines of brass covered the many seas which now are lands. Its airships clove the air with a safety and speed your own have still to attain. The wealth of the world poured into A-zooma, and its rulers waxed vain-glorious and proud. Time after time the enslaved masses of A-zooma and of conquered countries rose in great rebellions. Then against them marched the "iron baylas" breathing death and destruction, and from the air mighty ships poured down the yellow fog...."
Zoro paused, but presently went on: "So we ruled--for ten thousand years; until the scientists who begot those engines of destruction became afraid, because the serfs themselves began to build secret laboratories. We of the priesthood of science saw the inevitable disaster. Long ago we had put off our bodies--"
Zoro smiled at the Americans' amazement. "No," he said, "I am not a cripple in a wheelchair. This tubular container holds no fleshly body. Inside of it is a mechanical heart which pumps artificial blood--blood purified by a process I will not describe--through my head. It also contains certain inner devices under my mental control, devices that take the place of human hands and feet. Only by accident or through lack of certain essentials can I die."
His listeners stared at him in awe. "You mean," faltered Miles, "that save for your head you are all--machine?"
"Practically, yes. We priest-scientists of the Inner Mystery prolonged life in such fashion. I was three thousand years old when--But enough! I will not weary you with a recital of how the slaves burrowed the bowels of A-zooma and of how the masters loosed against them the forces of the atom. Suffice it to say that on an island we built our vast system of buildings--or tunnel as you choose to call it--and sealed them away from the outside world, entrance being made by submarines through automatically controlled locks.
"At about this time our experiments opened up another realm of existence, manifesting at a vibratory rate above that of earth. To this new realm we brought workers who built the City of Apex and the palace you are in. But, unfortunately, we brought with us no weapons of offense, and in the new world we had neither the material nor the delicate mechanisms and factories to reproduce them. However, for countless ages there was no rebellion on the part of the workers who, even in A-zooma, had worshipped us as gods. They were born, grew old and died, but we abode forever. Besides, in the City of Apex they were freer than they had ever been before, merely having to furnish our laboratories with certain raw materials and the wherewithal to sustain the blood supply on which our lives depend. But, of late, they have made common cause with the original inhabitants of this plane, the green men--"
The green men! As if the words were a signal, a dreadful thing happened. Out of a far shadow leaped a lean and hideous monster. To Miles' startled eyes it seemed to grow as it leaped. Thin, unbelievably thin it was, yet swelling at the head. From between two goggle-eyes writhed a rope-like trunk. Twelve feet in the air its head towered over Zoro. "Look out!" screamed the American.
Zoro's chair seemed to jump. Too late! Around the tubular container wrapped the snake-like trunk, plucking the wheelchair and its occupant from the floor and dangling them high in air. "Shoot!" cried Zoro.
Miles shot. His bullet ploughed through the unbelievably thin body and ricochetted from a pillar beyond. Ward fired with better effect. One of the goggle eyes spattered like glass. Under a fusillade of bullets the monster wilted, giving expression to a weird, shrill cry. Zoro dangled head downwards. To drop from such a height on his skull would probably be fatal.
But the monster did not drop him. Instead, in its death agony, its grip tightened, and the Americans witnessed an incredible sight. Before their very eyes the monster began rapidly to shrink. Its tenuous body telescoped together, becoming thinner and thinner in the process, until on the floor there lay the lifeless body of a snake-like creature not more than six inches in length!
"Good Lord!" breathed Miles.
Zoro who had escaped unscathed from his perilous plight, regarded it with his peculiarly colored eyes.
"It is a tah-a-la," he said, "and must have entered the room at the same time you did. The green men often capture and train them for hunting. When about to seize their prey their bodies have the power of enormously stretching." Outwardly he seemed unaffected by the danger safely passed and waved away several of his fellows who had wheeled to the spot attracted by the noise of the pistols. The Americans were more shaken. "Perhaps," said Ward, "there is danger of--"
"None," replied Zoro. "I know there are no other tah-a-las inside these rooms, since it is the nature of these beasts to rush to each other's aid when they scream. And as for outside attacks, the laboratories are insulated against any the insurgent workers can make. Their weapons are poor--the green men use but clubs. No, it is not their attacks we fear but their refusal to furnish us with supplies. They worshipped us as gods, and the giving of supplies was long a religious rite. But now they doubt our divinity, and, since they no longer listen to or obey our decrees, we have no means of punishing them. Spiro is responsible for this."
"Spiro?" questioned the two men.
"He whom we raised to the dignity of godhead on the accidental death of Bah-koo, causing a deep sleep to fall upon him in the temple and grafting his head upon the mechanical body left by the latter. Twice before we had done this with citizens of Apex, and how were we to know that Spiro would resent it? True, he was in love with Ah-eeda, but the physical passions of men die with the organisms that give them birth. For three years he dwelt with us in the laboratories, learning the wisdom of the Heads, and then,"--Zoro's face became forbidding--"he denounced us to the people. Though there was more or less discontent, they would never have dared defy us save for him. He told them that our curses could do no harm, that we were merely the heads of men like himself and would die if they refused to give us the wherewithal to renew blood.
"But this refusal of theirs is an evil thing," he cried, looking at the Americans with his strangely colored eyes. "It violates the custom of ages, and strikes at the very roots of our existence. So we held council and sent two of our number to Earth after men and weapons to enforce our demands. For years we had watched Earth, seen its myriad civilizations rise and fall, studied the coming of America to power and importance. So it was to America that Solino went, by way of the tunnel that still exists under the Atlantic--"
"And hired us," interrupted Ward, "and brought us to the tunnel in the submarine-car where we--"
"Stepped into the crystal chamber," finished Zoro. "That chamber is a re-vibrating device of certain rays and chemicals. The shutting of the door closed the switches and hurled your bodies to where a receiving-station on this plane integrated them again."
So they were not at the bottom of the ocean. They were--stupendous thought--living in a new world of matter!
"Spiro suspected our plans," continued Zoro. "He isolated us in our laboratories, and, by means of a crystal tube, went through to the tunnel, tore up a section of track, and wrecked the submarine-car. But his act was only partially successful. You two escaped death; you are here; you are ready to keep faith and fight in our service."
"We are ready to fight," assented Miles and Ward. The situation was certainly an unusual one, and one they did not clearly understand; but theirs was the simple code of the mercenary soldier--they would fight for whoever hired them, and be loyal as long as their wages were paid.
"Then there is no time to lose," exclaimed Zoro. "Already our blood grows thin. You must go back to the wrecked submarine and retrieve your weapons."
"There is a sending tube in the next compartment."
They followed Zoro through lofty rooms filled with amber light until they came to one wherein were assembled the rest of the Heads. Zoro spoke to them swiftly in a strange, flowing tongue. Then he conducted the two Americans to a crystal chamber at the end of the room and bade them enter it. The vibrant light caressed their limbs.
"When I close this door," he said, "you will find yourselves back in the tunnel. Board one of the submarine-cars on the siding and proceed to the wreck." He gave them detailed instructions how to operate the car. "Then get your weapons and return. Do you understand?"
"The workers possess no arms the equal of machine-guns and bombs. They will be at your mercy. Remember that you are fighting for our lives and that, if you save them, your reward will be great. Fear nothing."
The door closed. After a moment there was a blinding flash, a moment of swooning darkness, and then they were staring through transparent walls into the phosphorescent gloom of the underseas crypt. Suddenly, what they had recently undergone seemed the product of an illusion, a dream. Ward shook himself vigorously. "I guess it was real enough," he said. "Let us see if the car works."
They ran out to the wreck and returned without trouble. The machine-gun was mounted for action and the gas-bombs slung over their shoulders in convenient bags. "All right," said Miles tensely, "let us go."
Again they entered the crystal chamber; again there was the flash of light and the sensation of falling into darkest space. Then, in a moment it seemed, they were stepping into the hall from which they had fled pursued by the green men--only for the second time, to be confronted by a crowd of hostile giants. "Don't fire, Kid!" yelled Ward. "It's no use to kill them uselessly. Give them the bombs!"
Disconcerted by the attack of tear-gas, the green men broke and fled. "After them," panted Ward: "we've got them on the run!"
Thrilling to the lust of battle, the two Americans emerged into an open square. They had little time to note the odd buildings and strange statues. Coming towards them with leveled weapons, the nature of which they did not know, was a band of short men--that is, short in comparison with the greenish giants. Behind this company appeared still another, and another. Tear-gas was useless to stop their onward rush. "All right," yelled Miles, "it's lead they want!"
The machine-gun spat a hail of bullets. Before the first withering blast the swarthy men recoiled in confusion. Then a second volley scattered them like chaff. Miles and Ward were conscious of no pity for the dead and wounded lying on the pavement of yellow stone. This was their profession, the stern business of which they were masters. In France they had seen worse sights, and in Nicaragua and Mexico. They swept destructively out of the square and into a long tree-lined avenue. This might be another world or dimension but its trees looked not unlike those of tropical America.
In a short while the radiating streets were cleared of crowds and the cries of the mob died away. Miles and Ward paused in the shadow of an overhanging wall and wiped their faces. "That was quick work, all right," said Ward; and, even as he said it, the wall seemed to fall upon their unprotected heads and crush them into unconsciousness....