Desperately, I quickly turned the dial until the two red marks coincided. A great weight, soft and enveloping, seemed to drop upon me. The senses of sight and hearing and feeling all left me. I could only think--and my thoughts were horrible.
Then, suddenly, there was a terrific crash of sound, and my senses returned.
I looked around. It seemed that an instant before I had been standing there in Vic's laboratory, slowly turning the second of the two dials, while the four lights beat down upon my body. And now ... and now I was standing in the open, on another world. A nightmare world that words seem inadequate to describe.
The sky was an angry, sulphurous green, pressing low upon a country utterly flat and nearly barren. The only sign of vegetation I could perceive were strange growths that remotely resembled trees--inverted trees, with wide-spreading branches hungrily nursing the black and barren soil, and gnarled, brief roots reaching out tortured arms toward the forbidding sky.
To my left, and some distance away, a vast number of blunt and ugly towers rose against the sinister skyline, but no form of animal life seemed in evidence. Wonderingly, my head whirling, whether from my strange experience or from the shock of finding myself in what was obviously another world, I do not know, I turned toward the city. And as I took my first step, there materialized suddenly out of the thin and ill-smelling air, the figures of perhaps a dozen monstrous creatures.
They were, in effect, men. That is, they had a head, a torso, two arms and two legs apiece. But they were not human. Those huge round eyes, unblinking and browless, were not human, nor were their slitted, sunken mouths. They were not human beings; they were images of despair.
Their thin legs seemed to buckle at the knees, their arms drooped from their shoulders, their mouths sagged at the corners, even their huge ears hung down like a hound's. Their round, dark eyes, deeply recessed, were caverns of despair.
They were clothed in some coarse, black stuff that bristled as though loosely woven of stiff hair, and yet which was not a true fabric, for it seemed to move within itself, and scintillate, as though composed of billions of restless motes. And as the strange creatures closed in quickly, I saw that theirs was not solid flesh, but, like the clothing that partially covered them, an attenuated substance that was not quite real.
Have you ever sat close to the screen in a motion picture theatre, so that the graininess of the moving film was visible? These creatures were like such shadows, seen in three dimensions.
I retreated two or three swift steps, jerking the revolver from my pocket.
"Back!" I warned, hoping they would understand the tone of voice if not the words. "Back--or I'll pot a couple of you!"
They glanced at each other, swiftly, almost as though they understood. It seemed to me that their mouths lifted; that they almost smiled. Then they rushed at me.
I had only one box of cartridges, besides those in the cylinder of my gun. I didn't know what might be in store for me, and I took no chances.
My first shot sent one of the creatures spinning to the ground. Two more were almost upon me before I could level the weapon and pull the trigger again. I got them both.
The rest of that unholy crew were grinning, and their eyes were shining with anticipation. They closed in upon me eagerly, each apparently doing everything in his power to invite my attention. It was bewildering, and I watched them warily, suspecting a trick. There were only three more cartridges left in my gun, and I did not dare replace the fired shells for fear they would rush me when the action was open and the gun momentarily useless.
I was just about to risk one more cartridge when another figure materialized in the ranks of the enemy; a taller, commanding figure, with a shining jewel, perhaps a mark of authority, dangling from his corded brown throat.
The others fell back instantly, and the newcomer approached me swiftly, holding out his hands as though in supplication.
So I was to receive a cordial welcome after all! I breathed a sigh of relief, and pocketed the weapon--and instantly the dark eyes flashed angrily. I held out both hands, to show that they were empty, trying to express my willingness to be friends.
He hesitated, and then uttered a high-pitched sound that I presumed to be a word of command. Before I could free the gun again, the creatures had me, and while their flesh looked more unnatural and unreal than ever, at close range, their long fingers gripped me like talons of steel. The being which had uttered the command disappeared, and my captors led me, struggling and protesting, toward the black, ugly towers of the city.
Over the barren, rocky ground we hurried; past the wretched hovels on the outskirts of the city, and through crooked, dismal streets, toward the center of the city.
A great crowd of creatures similar to my captors hemmed us in. Before us, they thinned into nothingness as we approached, only to swarm into being in some other spot. It was terrifying; an unbelievable experience that made me question my sanity. The only vestige of comfort left me was the hope that they were taking me to Hope and Vic.
At the entrance of one of the huge misshapen black buildings, the creature with the brilliant stone at his throat appeared as suddenly as a light flashes up in the darkness. With him were two others, each wearing a similar jewel of authority. They stood aside for us to enter, and then followed us down a long corridor which was not lighted by any device I could discern, and yet which was not dark.
A broad door swung open, and I was thrust through the doorway.
"Pete!" shouted a familiar voice, and I scrambled to my feet. There was Vic, his red hair tousled, and his face gray with worry. Behind him, her big blue eyes brimming, her lips quivering, was Hope.
"Vic! Well, here I am. And Hope, dear...."
My voice trailed off. These were not Vic and Hope before me; they were unreal creatures, like the beings which had captured me. I could recognize the face and the figure of the woman I loved and of her brother; but they seemed to have no substance.
Hope suddenly put her arms about me. She was sobbing.
"Don't, Peter!" she whispered.
"Don't look at me like that. I know how you feel. You--you and Vic--you aren't real to me, either! We're just shadows--lost souls...."
"Buck up, Hope!" Vic's voice was kindly, yet firm and gravely commanding. "We're all right. Only--temporarily--we're Infra-Medians. Sit down, Pete, and let's talk. It may be that there's no time to lose in making some plans."
"First of all," I insisted, "tell me where we are; what's happened to us. Do you know?"
"Where we are? Surely. Looking at it in one way, we're less than a mile from my laboratory."
"But, Vic!" I protested. "Do you really mean that we're less than a mile from your laboratory; from our own world? If we were, we could see it; we'd bump into our own trees and houses and people; we'd be knocked down by automobiles, and--"
"Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Old law of simple physics. Is that what you mean?" interrupted Vic.
"And a body; what's that?"
"A body? Why, matter, I suppose."
"And matter is what?"
"Anything that occupies space," I replied triumphantly. I had remembered that much from my physics classes.
"True," smiled Vic. "But let's see. It is possible to have sound and light in the same place, isn't it? We can even add other things: heat and electricity, for example. Speaking of electricity, a tremendous current of it adds nothing to the weight of the wire carrying it, and nothing to its bulk, unless we have a heating overload. Current enough to kill a thousand men, or to do the work of a million horses, weighs nothing, is invisible, and actually does nothing until released in some form or other, either by accident or design."
"True, but electricity isn't matter. Our old world is matter; I'm matter, and you're matter. Why don't we bump into things?"
"Our old world is matter, true enough, but for the rest, you're wrong, Pete, old son. You're not matter, any more. You're something else. In terms of our own being, you do not exist in your present form. This world does not exist. And the reverse is just as true."
I stared at him, bewildered.
"What am I, then--a ghost?"
"Nothing of the sort. You're old Pete Grahame, a darned good half-back, and the world's rottenest scientist. Only you've been passed into another form of being, through the action of four little quartz bulbs whose periods of vibrations form a beat--but that's over your head, Pete, old son, and we'll have time to talk over details when we get back. Right now, we're in somewhat of a jam." Instinctively, he glanced at Hope; it was her danger, and not his own, that had brought that haggard pallor to his face in so short a time.
"That's what I don't understand. What do these people--if you can call them that--want of us?"
Vic looked down, frowning.
"I'm not sure I'm right," he replied after a moment, "but if I am--they wish us to kill them. As many as possible.
"When I found myself here, I wandered nearly to the city before I was molested. When they did appear, and tried to lay hands on me, I warned them back, and finally shot one of them.
"The effect was magical. They seemed unable to believe the evidence of their eyes. They rushed me eagerly, each seeming to beg for a bullet.
"I gave them what they wanted, still hoping I could frighten them away. A great crowd formed around me, and the rabble was sent flying by a number of the men who seem to hold some office, distinguished by a jewel-like emblem around their throats. If I read their actions correctly, they claimed the privilege of death by virtue of their greater authority.
"Well, I finally decided that my gun did anything but frighten them. They were angry when I refused to do any more slaughtering, and led me here. Every once in a while one of the captains would come in and command me to kill him. I refused, for that's the only trump card I held.
"When Hope, here, acted like the foolish little kid she is, she was not even armed, and they rushed her here without delay. My theory is that these people live in a dreary world in which there is no pleasure. Their faces seem to show that. Apparently they live a very long time, and have no means of shortening that life. They are not intelligent. Things that would kill a man of our own world have no effect on them, for remember that they are not physical beings. You have seen them appear out of thin air, and dissolve in the same fashion?"
"That is simply their mode of transportation. They pass invisibly through the air, just as electricity passes through a wire; quickly, invisibly, silently. Then they assume their original form where they will--just, again, as electricity passes from the end of the wire exactly the same as it entered it, allowing only for voltage drops and some other factors that aren't pertinent here.
"What we must do, and right now, is to settle upon some means of getting to the proper spot at the proper time. You marked the moment of your departure, I suppose?"
"Exactly." I glanced down at my wrist watch, and noted with relief that it was still running. I observed then, for the first time, that the watch, my clothing, and even my hand, were not real; they were like the rest of the things in this monstrous state that Vic called Infra-Media. "I left at three after ten. It's now fourteen minutes of eleven--Good Lord! Less than an hour since I stood there in your laboratory!"
"Then our next chance to get back will be at three minutes after one," nodded Vic. "I wonder if there is any chance of--"
Before he could complete the sentence the door was flung open, and five of the older men, led by a sixth with a larger jewel at his throat, filed solemnly into the room and motioned that we were to leave.
At the doorway, a double file of creatures closed in about us, and we were led, by long corridors and mighty winding ramps, toward the top of the building.
"Now what?" I whispered to Vic.
"I don't know. That chap with the big stone at his throat seems to be the head man of the city. I think his name is Ee-pay; the others seem to call him that. Maybe it's just a title. But what they're up to now, I can't even guess. Keep your eyes open for a chance to get away, though. How are you feeling, Hope?"
"All excited!" She tried to smile, and almost succeeded. Hope was game all the way through. "What an adventure this will be to talk about when we're old and rheumatic!"
"Good kid!" said Vic, and I pressed her hand as comfortably as I could. We turned a bend in the long ramp we had been climbing, and came out upon the vast, level top of the building.
Thousands of the unreal creatures of this world were crowded around a vast, hideous image that rose from the center of the space; a monster so terrible that Hope cried out at the sight, and Vic exclaimed under his breath.
For myself, I seemed stricken dumb; I could only stare at this black and ghastly god of these people.
The carven image was perhaps thirty feet in height, and represented a figure crouched upon its knees, its head bent very low and at the same time tilted at a grotesque angle so that the face smiled heavenward; the hands, palms upward, extended invitingly just below the chin.
As our party appeared, an aisle opened, and we were marched through the assembled crowd, directly toward the idol. A high-pitched, sibilant chant arose from the multitude, and a procession of very ancient beings, whom I took to be the priests of this god, came in single file from behind the black god, directing the chanting with movements of their arms. They were lighter in color than the others, and much more intelligent, to judge by their faces. Their eyes held none of the sadness which was the most marked characteristic of the others. Each wore upon his forehead a gleaming scarlet stone, bound in place by a circlet of black metal, or what looked like metal.
We paused, and the chanting went on and on, until I began to wonder if anything would ever happen. And then, at last the chanting ceased, and three of the priests moved toward us, followed by an elderly being who wore the same symbol of power or authority that I had already noted upon the creature Vic called Ee-pay.
One of the priests spoke sharply, commandingly, to Ee-pay, and the latter nodded--not agreeably it seemed to me.
"The old boy doesn't like these other chaps; priests, I take it," whispered Vic. "I think they've been messing up his plans. See; he's motioning us to watch."
The priests led the old man back to the idol. Eagerly, he clambered upon the outstretched hands, and stood there facing the grinning face, stroking the polished cheeks with beseeching fingers. The priests sank to the floor, bending themselves in mockery of the image. Four times they touched their foreheads to the ground, and as the fourth gesture was completed something moved swiftly behind the lips of the image, as though a plate had lifted for a moment and dropped again.
There was a sharp, murmuring sound, as of a harp-string softly plucked. A scarlet haze of light shot forth from the mouth of the black god, and the old man stepped back sharply as though struck by some invisible agent. He would have fallen, but as he crumpled, his body seemed to soften and shatter into a scintillating cloud. An instant later there was no trace of him anywhere.
"Hm-m! The great reward for some notable service rendered, I imagine," whispered Vic. "Those priests are wiser than the rest of this crew. They deal death sparingly, and that makes them great. They love life like a man of our earth; perhaps because they've found out how to enjoy it."
"But what does the work; what killed him?" I asked breathlessly.
"Can't say, Pete. You can't name things here in terms of our own world. Some natural force they've corraled, I imagine. They control it with that shutter behind the lips of the image. Did you notice it?"
"Yes. I suppose one of the priests operates it from some hidden room. Whatever it is, it certainly does the work. And what do you suppose they want us to do now?"
The three priests were coming toward us, smiling. I didn't like their smiles; they were meant to be benign, but there was a cruel and vindictive twist to their lips which chilled me through and through.
"Keep your hand on your gun," said Vic swiftly. "I don't like the looks of these chaps."
The priests stopped before us and their leader began a long harangue in a screechy voice which set my nerves on edge. When he had finished he held out his hands toward me, and motioned toward the waiting idol.
Ee-pay spoke up in sharp protest, and thrust himself between me and the priest. For a moment, due to this obviously unexpected interruption, everything was in confusion.
"Pete!" Vic was whispering excitedly in my ear. "Listen, Pete, I think I see through this. These priests have heard about us and our death-dealing ability. They're jealous; they want a corner on that. Old Ee-pay figures maybe we could do him a favor in that line, and that's why he's arguing. The priests want to honor us for the good we've done--by giving us the reward we've just seen. So--"
Before he could finish, Ee-pay was thrust aside by a group of angry guards, and I was jerked away. Hope screamed, and out of the tail of my eye I saw both Vic and Hope struggling frantically to free themselves from an overwhelming number of guards. Vic tried to shout something, but a claw-like brown hand was immediately thrust over his mouth.
The guards who held me, followed by the priests, made their way toward the extended palms which formed the altar of this strange black god whose favor was death. At a command from the priests, the guards lifted me to the altar and then stood watchfully below, gazing up at me with puzzled, mournful, envious eyes.
I saw the priests crouch low, and make their first beseeching bow, in imitation of the black god. Frantically, I looked about me, seeking some avenue of escape.
Below me, hemming me in, were the guards; a triple ring of them, through which I knew I could not escape. Behind me, for I was facing the multitude, was the hideous, grinning face of the idol.
The priests bowed a second time.
Both Hope and Vic were fighting desperately, but there were at least ten guards to each of them. I lifted my hand and waved a farewell, hoping that one of them at least would see the gesture and know that my last thought was of them.