"The dormant ones must have a retreat so well hidden that they would not be disturbed during the thousand centuries that must elapse before they could be awakened. The Shining Ones sped back to their base on the North American continent and in the three months remaining to them they prepared this cavern here in the heart of the mountain. Radium bulbs supplied its light. For the unfailing source of electrical energy needed to course through the dormant bodies and keep them alive they tapped the magnetic field of the planet itself, the force produced as the Earth rotates in the sun's electrical field like an armature spinning within the coils of a dynamo."
It was Foster who broke in with the question that was in the thoughts of the entire party. "Just where do you come in on all this?" he asked bluntly. "And what was your reason for bringing us here?"
There was blazing contempt in Layroh's rich voice as he turned toward Foster. "Yaharigan of Earth!" he jeered. "Your brain is as stupid as the feeble brains of those true yaharigans of Rikor whose physical structure your human bodies so closely resemble. Have you not guessed yet that I am no contemptible creature of Earth--that this human shell I wear is nothing but a cleverly contrived disguise? Look, yaharigans, look upon the real face of the one who has come to restore the Earth to its rightful masters!"
With a single swift movement, Layroh snatched the colored goggles from his face and flung them aside. There was a smothered gasp of horror from the group. They saw now why Layroh had always worn those concealing lenses. There were no eyes in that bronzed face, nothing but two empty sockets. And from deep within the skull there glowed through those gaping sockets a seething pool of lurid red--the nucleus spot of a Shining One!
Reeling backward with the rest of the men from the horror of the glowing thing within the skull, Foster dazedly heard Layroh's resonant voice ring exultantly on: "My ancestors were among the twenty Shining Ones who remained active. After placing their comrades in their long sleep those twenty survivors set up signal apparatus in the cavern so that it could be found again no matter how much the outside terrain might change. Then they filled in the entrance tunnel with synthetic rock and embarked for Rikor.
"There upon that dying planet generations passed. When the time came that Rikor's sun again neared Earth, so rigorous had life become upon Rikor that only six Rikorians remained alive. In order to increase our chances of winning through on the perilous trip to Earth, each of us traveled in a separate space ship. The precaution was well taken. We encountered a dense cloud of meteors near Alpha Centauri and I was the only survivor."
Layroh gestured briefly toward the rows of many-armed metal engines. "There are the normal vehicles for a Shining One's body--armored machines powered by sub-atomic motors and with appendages equipped for every task of peace or war. This synthetic human figure which I now wear was donned only in order that I might have no difficulty in mingling with Earthmen while I sought the cavern. It is an exact replica of the body of an Atlantean, including artificial vocal chords. Even the colored goggles necessary to hide the glowing red of my nucleus are similar to those worn by Atlantean scientists while working with their ray machines--"
Layroh was abruptly interrupted by a scream of maniacal fury from Olsen, a shambling Swede who stood near the edge of the group. Ever since Layroh's unmasking the Swede had been staring at him with eyes rigidly wide in terror like those of a bird confronting a snake. The steady contemplation of the horror of the blaring red thing behind Layroh's empty eye-sockets had apparently at last driven the Swede completely insane. He snatched a revolver from his belt as he leaped forward, and fired once. His shot struck Layroh in the forehead.
The bullet ripped through the surface of Layroh's face, then glanced harmlessly aside as it struck metal underneath. Layroh never even staggered from the impact. The black ray from the projector caught Olsen before he could fire again. There was a searing flash of flame, then a swiftly melting cloud of blue-white radiance, and the Swede was gone.
Layroh swung the projector back to menace the others. "I had forgotten that yaharigans of Earth have weapons that might be annoying," he said evenly. "Two more of you have pistols--Garrigan and Ransome. Toss them away from you at once. Hesitate--and the black ray speaks again."
Sullenly the two men obeyed his order.
"Good," commended Layroh. "In the pits where you are going you will have little use for pistols. When I again take you from those pits you will quickly learn why I brought you with me. Yaharigans, I have called you, and yaharigans you shall be--Earthly counterparts of those miserable beasts of Rikor who have for ages been bred only for the one purpose of supplying food for the Shining Ones. I knew that when I found the cavern the process of awakening the Shining Ones would require that they be carefully fed with the calcium and lime from the bones of living yaharigans, the normal food of all Rikorians.
"The few yaharigans I had brought from Rikor were consumed on my long trip to Earth. So I had to recruit a party of human beings to go with me and serve as the necessary food for the Shining Ones. My search for the cavern took longer than I had expected for I knew only its approximate location. My own body at last had to have sustenance. Last night the Negro, Jeff Peters, provided that sustenance.
"I shall feed those of you who remain to the first group of Shining Ones to be awakened. After that we shall be strong enough in numbers to sally forth and capture ample food for awakening the rest of our comrades. Then in our full strength we shall emerge and again become masters of a planet upon which your crude race shall exist only as yaharigan herds for our sustenance."
Layroh's resonant voice ceased. Keeping the black ray projector alertly covering the men, he strode over to a closed metal door in the wall just beyond them. He took a small tube from a rack beside it and opened the door by sending a flash of yellow light into the mechanism of its lock.
"Into the pits until I am ready for you," he commanded curtly. "They were first constructed for keeping our own yaharigans while we were working in the cavern, and they should serve just as well for you."
With the memory of Olsen's tragic fate still fresh in their minds, the men obediently filed into the next room, with Layroh bringing up the rear. The room was little more than a single large cell carved from the living rock, and lighted by a single radium bulb in the ceiling.
Its smooth glasslike floor was broken at intervals of ten feet by circular pits fifteen feet deep. At Layroh's order the men entered the floor-pits, one man to each pit. As Foster lowered himself into one of them he saw how grimly efficient a trap the pit was.
An unusually tall and active man might be able to jump high enough to touch the edge, but the effort would be useless. Those glass-smooth edges were so cunningly rounded that they offered no possible purchase for clutching fingers. The diameter of the pit, ten feet, was too great to permit any effort at climbing by wedging one's body between two opposing walls.
Layroh sent every man into the pits but one.
"You will return to the cavern with me, Carter," he ordered. "I have need for you at once."
They heard the door clang shut as Layroh and Carter left the pit room. Chaos reigned as the men flung their bodies against the pit walls in efforts to escape. There was the click of metal as several of them tried with pocket knives to chip finger-holes in the walls, but the glassy surfaces were of diamond hardness.
Foster's brain was numb with despair as he began to realize the true meaning of those sleeping things out in the cavern. Death in some unknown and horrible form was imminent for himself and his companions, he knew, but his thoughts were going far beyond that, to the time when the Shining Ones would emerge in all their resistless power to ravage and conquer a helpless world.
There could be little doubt as to the futility of Earth's best efforts against the advanced science of these invaders from far-off Rikor. Encased in their colossal machine-bodies of glittering metal, and armed with such terrible weapons as the black ray projector, the Shining Ones would be as invulnerable as men trampling an anthill underfoot.
The future status of mankind upon the Earth would be that of vast herds of human yaharigans, probably bred for ever greater bone content as men breed cattle for superior food values. The picture aroused Foster to a fury of cold desperation. If they could only escape from the pits there might be a chance to trap Layroh and slay him before he brought those hordes of opalescent slugs to life. Then escape from the cavern itself would be an easy matter. Even if the outer door had been locked since they passed through it Layroh had the light-key and Foster remembered the combination.
Half a dozen wild schemes flitted through Foster's brain, only to be discarded as futile. Then suddenly he thought of something that had every chance of success if only they were given time enough. Layroh in his arrogance had forgotten that his prisoners were not naked brutes of Rikor. In the very clothing the men wore was the means of escape from the pits.
Foster's voice cut through the babel in the room until he gained everyone's attention.
"Our only chance for escape is to get a rope between two pits," he said curtly. "Then one man can climb out while the other holds the rope. We'll have to make that rope from our clothing. No one man can get a strip strong enough, so we'll have to work the strips to a central man who can braid them into a single heavy rope. I'm near the center. Get the strips to me. Tear your clothing into ribbons, and knot them together. Use your knives, watches, anything to weight one end of the strip. Then cast until you get contact with the pit next to you. That way all the strips can be worked to me."
A period of feverish activity followed while the men went to work. Layroh also was busy. Through several narrow ventilating slits high in the cavern wall they heard the hum of machinery.
The first of the men finished knotting their ropes together. With weighted ends muffled to deaden their fall upon the rock floor, they began casting to get contact with their neighbors.
Success came slowly. There were often scores of blind casts made before a weighted end came into an adjoining pit. But the time finally came when Foster had a twenty-five-foot length of rope strong enough to bear his weight. He already had a single strand making contact with Garrigan in the next pit. Garrigan drew the heavier rope in to him, then acted as an anchor while Foster climbed to the floor above.
His downstretched hand pulled Garrigan to freedom. Getting the other men up to the floor was the work of but a few moments. They were a weird-looking crew in the torn fragments of clothing that remained to them. Foster stationed them beside the locked cavern door so that they would be hidden behind it when it opened.
"Wait till Layroh is safely inside," he ordered, "then rush him. Get that black ray thing out of commission first. Without that, we should be more than a match for him. In the meantime you come with me, Garrigan. Maybe we can get a look into the cavern."
By climbing on Garrigan's broad shoulders Foster found that he had a clear view through one of the narrow ventilating slits. Layroh had made efficient use of the time since he had left the pit room. Suspended from softly glowing wires in the large central glass case was a circular group of ten of the Shining Ones.
Foster's eyes widened in horror as he saw the object in which the trailing tendrils of the luminous slugs were sunk. It was the naked body of Carter. As those sucking tendrils drew out the substance of his skeleton, Carter's body was changing slowly, horribly, sinking into a flabby mass of puttylike flesh.
The dormant bodies of the great slugs glowed perceptibly brighter as they fed, and the pulsations of opalescence quickened. The Shining Ones were beginning to awaken. Faint but unmistakable there came to Foster's ears a low singing drone from the group.
He shuddered. He knew now why Jeff Peters' shadow had seemed so grotesquely boneless. That droning buzzing sound he had heard from the black tent had been the feeding cry of a Shining One--of Layroh. Then, his horrible feast ended, Layroh had blasted what remained of his victim into nothingness with the black ray.
Foster was abruptly startled into action as Layroh turned from watching the central case. Picking up the black ray projector, he started toward the pit-room door. Foster scrambled down. With Garrigan he joined the tensely waiting group beside the door.
There was the sound of the mechanism unlocking. The door opened and Layroh came striding in. In a concerted rush the men were upon him. Foster's hurtling dive for the black ray projector knocked the apparatus out of Layroh's hands. It crashed to the floor with a violence that left it shattered and useless. Swept off his feet by the savage fury of the unexpected attack, Layroh went to the floor beneath the writhing group of men.
The metal sinews of his magnificent body brought him to his knees in one mighty effort, but the numbers of his assailants were too great. Again he was beaten down while powerful hands tore at his limbs. The metal of the ingenious machine that was Layroh's body began twisting and giving way before the savagery of the assault.
He staggered to his feet, flinging the men aside in one last mad surge of power, and lurched toward the cavern. His effort to slam the door closed behind him was blocked by the swift leap of two of the men. Layroh staggered on into the cavern. Then suddenly the torn framework of his legs collapsed completely, and he fell heavily on his back.
The men surged forward with a shout of triumph. But before they could reach Layroh's prostrate figure one of his hands reached up and opened his skull as one opens the hinged halves of a box. From within the skull there rolled a great shining slug, a sinisterly beautiful figure of glowing opalescence, with a scarlet nucleus! For one breath-taken instant it rose to its full height of four feet, hesitated, as if warily regarding the horror-struck men, then with tendrils pressed into its body until it was nearly spherical, the slug that had been Layroh rolled like a ball of living fire across the cavern toward the cluster of machines. Foster snatched up one of the discarded pistols from the floor and fired twice at that hurtling globe of flame, but both shots missed.
A moment later the slug reached the machines. It fled swiftly past a group of smaller mechanisms and selected a gleaming metal colossus whose size and formidable armament indicated that it was designed primarily as an instrument of war. With whipping tendrils the slug swarmed up one of the metal legs and into a small crystal-walled compartment in the forward end of the machine.
There was the crackling hiss of unleashed sub-atomic forces somewhere within the metal body. The machine moved in fumbling uncertainty for a moment as the slug fought to get control of mechanism that had lain idle for a thousand centuries! Then swiftly full control came, and the machine came charging toward the men.
They broke in wild panic before the onslaught of the metal monster. As an engine of war it was invincible. Six feet in height and nearly twenty feet in length, it maneuvered upon its jointed legs with bewildering speed and efficiency. A score of rodlike arms projected from the main trunk, arms that were equipped for nearly every purpose. Some ended in pincers, others in barbed points, and others in clusters of flexible metal tentacles.
One of the men screamed in terror and broke for the door back into the pit room. Foster flung him aside and slammed the door shut and locked.
"You'd be trapped like a rat in there," he grated. "Our only chance is to stick together and fight it out."
It was a chance that seemed increasingly slight as they tried to close in upon the machine. Garrigan had recovered the other pistol from the floor. He emptied it into the metal monster at a range of less than ten feet but the bullets glanced harmlessly off as from armor plate.
The machine fought back with deadly efficiency. One of the dagger-pointed arms impaled a man like a speared fish. Pincers closed upon the neck of another, half tearing his head from his body. With the strength of desperation the men wrecked the pillars-and-diaphragm apparatus and from the debris tore metal fragments to serve as clubs. Their blows against the thing's pistonlike legs failed to even shake it. Two more men died before the grim efficiency of the stabbing arms.
Foster had held the remaining bullets in his own pistol, waiting for a chance to use them against some vulnerable spot in the machine, but he saw none. There was a bare chance that if he could gain the machine's back he might find some crevice through which he could send a telling shot. Cramming the pistol into his belt, he watched his chance, then used the debris of the wrecked apparatus as a stepping stone for a running leap that landed him solidly on top of the metal bulk just back of the crystal compartment.
He fumbled for the pistol in his belt, but before he could even touch it a tentacle-tipped arm lashed down toward him, picked him off the thing's back, and flung him with terrific force high into the air....
For a breathless moment he saw the girders and cables of the ceiling hurtling toward him. Instinctively he grabbed with both hands at one of the lower girders as his body thudded into it. His clutching fingers slipped momentarily, then held, leaving him dangling there at arms' length thirty feet above the floor.
His wits swiftly clearing from the shock of that mighty toss through space, Foster scrambled up on the narrow girder. Sitting astride the metal beam, he looked down at the scene below.
The battle down there was nearly over. The glowing slug in the machine was now obviously trying to capture the remaining men alive for further use. Instead of slaying, its lashing arms fought only to stun and cripple.
Six of the men still remained on their feet but they were trapped in an angle between heavy apparatus and one of the walls. In the central case the ten semi-dormant slugs, still too inactive to take part in the battle themselves, seemed watching the conflict with great unwinking eyes of crimson.
Foster groaned. The metal colossus was too powerful for their feeble efforts. It would take a bolt of lightning to have any effect upon that mighty engine of war. At the thought, Foster's heart leaped in sudden inspiration. There was lightning, the terrific electrical force of a spinning planet, in the cables up here among the girders, if he could only release it.
Slightly below his position and barely six feet away from him one of the main power cables of the cavern was suspended from heavy insulators. If the cable had ever had an insulating sheath around it the fabric had vanished during the centuries for the dull silver-colored metal was now completely bare.
If that naked cable could be dropped into contact with Layroh's machine-body, the entire power of one of the cavern's main lines would be grounded through the metal of the machine. The position of the cable with regard to where the machine was now, was perfect for the scheme. If Foster could sever the cable just opposite him there was an excellent chance that the longer one of the free ends would drop directly upon the machine.
And in his possession he had a possible means of severing that cable--the pistol that was still crammed in his belt. There were four shots remaining in the pistol. The cable was barely half an inch thick, but the range was so short that he could not very well miss. If the silver-colored metal was as soft as it looked, the heavy bullets should be enough to tear through it.
Foster thrust the pistol as close to the cable as he could reach. Then, with the muzzle scarcely a yard from the silver strand, he fired. The heavy bullet caromed from the cable's surface, but not before it had torn a gash nearly a third of the way through it.
There was a sudden cessation of activity below as the slug in the machine looked up at the sound of the shot. Swift inspiration seized Foster and he promptly sent his next shot down at the machine itself. The bullet glanced harmlessly off, but his ruse worked. Apparently believing that Foster was merely trying another futile attack upon it, the machine turned its attention back to the men it had cornered. Foster could be attended to later.
Foster slipped and nearly fell just as he fired at the power line the next time and his shot missed. That left him only one remaining cartridge. Aiming with infinite care he sent his last shot smashing squarely into the part of the cable remaining intact.
It trembled and sagged as the bullet cut the remaining metal nearly through. Only a bare thread was left, yet that thread held. Sick at heart over the narrow margin by which his effort had failed, Foster stared in despair at the nearly severed cable. It needed only one solid blow to tear that last thread of metal apart, but the cable was just far enough away to be effectively beyond his reach.
Then suddenly Foster's eyes narrowed. There was a way remaining by which the weakened power line could be broken. A single hurtling dive out and downward from the girder would send his own body crashing squarely into the metal strand. Beneath the smashing impact of his one hundred and eighty pounds the nearly severed cable was certain to break.
Foster shuddered as he realized what that dive into space would mean. He was not thinking of the fall itself. The thirty-foot drop to the diamond-hard floor of the cavern would in all probability mean death or broken bones, but that was a hazard which Foster was willing to take.
It was the thought of what would happen in the brief moment of contact when his body met that bare cable that drained the color from Foster's face. There was the terrific electrical energy from a spinning world coursing through that silver strand, a force that in all probability was powerful enough to instantly char a human body to a glowing cinder!
If he could only insulate his body at the point where it would touch the cable he might have at least a chance of surviving the contact. The only possible insulating medium he had was the clothing he wore--a pair of heavy corduroy trousers and the sleeveless remnant of a woolen shirt. They could be rolled into a bundle that would be bulky enough to at least give him some protection from contact with the bare cable.
Laying the empty pistol on the girder beside him, he stripped as quickly as his precarious perch would permit. Then, using the pistol as a central core to give body to the bundle, he swathed it deep within the folds of the clothing, making a thick roll that he could hold in his right hand as he leaped.
At best the insulating qualities of the roll would be far from perfect, yet it might serve to minimize the effects of the cable's charge enough to give him some chance of escaping alive. His contact with the power line would be only for the fractional part of a second and his body would be completely in the air at the time, out of direct contact with anything through which the cable's charge might ground.
Foster crouched on the girder, his eyes fixed upon the scene below as he tensely waited for the best moment to make the leap. The machine had shifted its position slightly while he had been stripping. It was now too far over the right to be under the cable when it fell.
For a moment as the machine maneuvered still farther over to the right in its conflict with the cornered men, Foster was afraid that his opportunity had passed. An idea came to him and he yelled directions. One of the men suddenly dashed to the left, apparently in a last frantic effort to escape the metal colossus. The machine flashed quickly over to head the fugitive off. The maneuver brought it for the moment directly under Foster's position.
Foster's muscles tensed swiftly, then flung his body headlong out into space. His aim was perfect. The bulky roll of cloth in his outstretched right hand struck the cable squarely with all the force of his hurtling body behind it.
There was a searing flash of blue flame as the last thread of the cable snapped, and a tearing flood of agony that blotted all consciousness from Foster's brain as his falling body hurtled on toward the cavern floor.
He struggled slowly back to consciousness to find Garrigan and another of the men working over him. There was the stabbing pain of broken bones in his left ankle. With the men helping him, he sat up and looked around.
The scene was one of utter chaos and destruction. The falling cable had obviously found its mark on Layroh's machine-body and in its last furious convulsions the metal colossus had completely wrecked the great glass case in the center of the cavern floor.
The machine itself was now nothing more than a tangled heap of twisted metal. In its shattered crystal compartment was a torn blob of swiftly blackening gelatin--all that remained of Layroh, the Shining One. Other shredded figures of dead flesh marked where the ten half-awakened slugs had died in the wreckage of the glass-walled case.
And in the many tiers of small cells along the cavern's back wall were more figures of death. The severed cable had been the source of the energy that had kept those dormant figures alive. When that energy ceased death had come quickly. Those figures in the cells were no longer Shining Ones. Their bodies were already swiftly darkening in decay.
Foster smiled grimly as he looked around the cavern. There were scientific treasures here that would revolutionize a world. It was a fitting retribution for the Shining Ones. When they had destroyed Atlantis they had robbed Earth of countless centuries of scientific knowledge and progress. Now, here in the cavern that had at last become their tomb, they were leaving a legacy of science that would go far toward repaying that ancient debt.
THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.
by H.G. Wells