Chapter IV

Tortured Hours

IT SEEMED to me during the seemingly-endless hours of that day that these questions were making of my mind a chaos of wild suggestions and counter suggestions. The whole strange thing that had occurred, that was occurring, was so utterly alien to the natural course of events, so utterly inexplicable by any natural reasons, that it was only with an effort that I could consider it even in the hope of finding some explanation.

And as explanation there was none I could only give the thing up at last, ceasing my attempts to comprehend, and concentrating my scattered thoughts as much as possible upon the predicament in which we now found ourselves.

That our situation was in truth a desperate one was more and more apparent to us every hour. For as the burning sun slowly traversed its path across the heavens overhead, blazing down upon us and all about us with its full blistering heat, we saw that escape was as remote as ever.

The great flesh monsters in the clearing, whom I had hoped the sun’s heat would drive to the shelter of their spheres, seemed quite unaffected by it. It was a thing that puzzled me somewhat since it seemed to me that creatures from some cavernous and sunless space beneath would needs be seared to death by the scorching rays of the equatorial sun.

But it was apparent that those rays harmed them not at all. And high overhead the great ring of circling spheres still patrolled watchfully, still hummed here and there in their watch of the country around their great shaft, so that to break from our retreat though for but a moment would be suicide.

Yet suicide it seemed to Darrell and myself to stay in that retreat as the slow hours of that day dragged past. For we knew that not much longer could we stand this killing combination of heat, hunger and thirst. Our lack of water, indeed, we appeased a little by chewing a twig from time to time but our hunger was steadily growing and the heat of the blazing sun above was penetrating to us and making us dizzy.

Once, I remember, I returned to realization of my surroundings from such a giddiness to find myself standing erect and would have stumbled into the clearing had not Darrell held me back. Yet the great white monsters there at the shaft’s mouth remained there still as watchfully as ever, their cube-containers of the yellow ray always in their grasp or at hand.

Once we saw them draw out from their spheres flexible metal tubes which they inserted in the small holes or apertures in their mouths. We guessed that they were feeding, were drawing from containers or reservoirs in the spheres some liquid or semi liquid food.

Save for this incident, there was no break in the deadly monotony of the hours. As, after a time that seemed an age, we saw the sun settling westward my tortured state of mind became all but unbearable.

And then, as night crept again swiftly across the world, the great ring of circling spheres above snapped into being again their white stabbing searchlight beams, keeping still their never ceasing and enigmatic watch. The three spheres around the great shaft sent their own beams stabbing forth to bathe all the clearing about them in white light also.

Sunk into a torpor of despair, Darrell and I were roused shortly after the coming of night by a sudden swift flurry of action in one of the rivers north of us. There was the swash of some great reptile in its waters and at the sound from one of the circling spheres above a narrow yellow my cut down toward the creature, blasting it instantly from existence with a sharp detonation.

I saw the yellow beam stabbing downward, guessed its nature, surmising it to be some form of electronic stream shot with intense concentrated power. This, as I was later to learn, was correct, the yellow ray being in effect a highly concentrated stream of independent electrons, which were gathered in a special de atomizing chamber and then shot forth in a concentrated stream with terrific power.

It was thus very much similar in some ways to the well known Coolidge or cathode ray of our own scientists. But it was immeasurably more concentrated and forceful so that it had upon all matter it touched an annihilating effect.

 

THE yellow electron stream was of such force as to wreck completely all atomic structures it touched, by smashing the revolving electrons of that matter’s atoms into their central protons or knocking them completely loose from those protons. Thus in an instant it destroyed the matter it touched, transforming it into a comparatively tiny scattered swarm of protons and loose electrons.

It was by means of a similar ray of gigantic size and power that the flesh monsters had driven their great shaft upward to earth’s surface. And it was the same ray in an altered form that was used to drive the great spheres at such speed through the air, a projector at the rear of each sphere shooting forth a somewhat less powerful fanlike ray into the air behind.

This weaker and broader ray, invisible because of its weakness, had not enough force or concentration to destroy the air behind it with its broad electron stream. But it shot forth at sufficient speed against the air’s atoms to result in a definite push against them, its push being utilized to send the sphere driving forward, its direction being altered by changing the direction of the rear-projector, while its speed was varied by increasing or decreasing the force of the electron stream.

During our watch so far Darrell and I had divined some of these facts—but as I saw the yellow ray stab downward to the north of us it suggested something to me. I turned swiftly to Darrell and then in a tense whisper outlined to him my plan.

I felt that it held our only chance of action, since I knew that we could not lie much longer in our retreat, fighting the combined influences of heat, hunger, thirst and mental agony. It was with conviction that I told, Darrell the scheme, wild as it was, held our only hope.

“It’s our one chance, Darrell,” I whispered. “Our one chance to get down that great shaft—to follow Kelsall and Fenton into whatever strange world they’ve been taken and rescue them, bring them back!”

Darrell slowly nodded. “We’ll have to try it, Vance. If we could get free—could warn the world of the coming of these things—we’d do so swiftly enough. But there’s no chance for us to get out of this place with all those spheres above and there is a chance to get down the shaft.”

“It’s so, Darrell,” I said. “And if we can get down there, bring Kelsall and Fenton back with us, we should be able to break through these guarding spheres here and carry the truth to the world.”

We were both silent for a moment, as a little to the north and above a sphere hummed past with white beam circling. Then, half  rising, I began to carry out our risky plan of action.

Turning a glance first upon the things in the clearing, I saw that the three spheres still rested around the great shaft, the flesh monsters were still grouped around and partly within them. Their white beams bathed all the clearing.

If we were to steal one of those spheres, as we planned now to do, we must get those great creatures away from them, if only for a moment. To achieve that purpose I moved silently in the darkness on the ground and in the growths about us.

In a moment my groping fingers encountered that which they sought, a long and heavy section of dead limb that lay rotting in the mold beside us. I grasped it tightly and then Darrell and I were creeping from our place of concealment in the thick brush, were creeping out until we crouched down just at the clearing’s edge, our eyes upon the group of spheres and flesh monsters at its center around the shaft’s mouth.

We waited there, all nerves taut, waited until the humming spheres that came and went high above seemed for the moment to have passed over and beyond us. Then, half rising, I whirled the big length of wood silently around my head and then threw it with all my force toward the river west of us. It splashed loudly, the sound tremendous in my strained ears amid the comparative silence that had lain all about us.

Instantly the flesh monsters around the spheres had risen, listening. The next moment they were hurrying with great effort across the clearing toward the river west of it, forsaking the spheres for the moment to investigate the source of that splashing noise, their ray cubes ready in their grasp.

Tensely we watched as they hastened away and saw that in only one of the spheres, that nearest us, did there seem still to be any of the creatures, two of them remaining inside as though on guard. The remainder of the flesh creatures were already halfway to the river.

Darrell and I saw instantly that to overcome the two creatures whom we could glimpse in the nearest sphere was our single chance. So, silently but as swiftly as possible, we crept out into the clearing and the white light that lay scross it toward that nearest sphere!

 

AS WE crept out into that white light, our automatics ready in our grasp, I heard the whistling speech of the creatures, that were almost at the river’s edge. I prayed that none might turn back toward us, that none of the spheres might hum down over us in those seconds.

On toward the nearest sphere we moved, half crawling, half running, keeping out of line with its round open door so that the two creatures inside might not glimpse us. It was the sphere furthest from the creatures at the river bank and in the moments that we crept toward it we kept its great round gleaming bulk as well as we could between those flesh monsters and ourselves.

Hearts pounding with excitement and suspense, we neared the sphere. As though to favor our venture the humming spheres that came and went above seemed to have expanded their ring still further or to be hovering over the land around the clearing rather than over the clearing itself.

I could glimpse their flashing white beams high in the darkness to north and south, could glimpse too the unchanging white stars above. I could hear the whistling speech-sounds of the two flesh monsters inside the sphere as we crept nearer its open door.

Another moment and we were peering within. The sphere’s interior was divided into compartments by square walls within it. From the round door a narrow corridor led across the sphere’s mass toward a small control room on its opposite side, one in which we could glimpse the switches and strange instruments that guided the great sphere’s operation.

The door was near the ground, the corridor through the sphere slanting upward. It was in this corridor that the two flesh monsters were standing, their backs toward us. They were gazing in the other direction through the transparent wall or window of the control room to the river bank, where their fellows were now hastening.

Without a sound Darrell and I crept through the door’s round opening into the corridor behind the two great creatures, noting that each held in its grasp one of the ray-cubes. Up the corridor’s slanting floor, into the sphere, we moved toward them. Another moment would have seen us directly upon them but at that instant Darrell’s foot slipped upon the floor of the metal sided corridor.

As he fell the two creatures whirled instantly toward us! But as their strange arms flashed up with the ray cubes in their grasp we leaped upon them. Before they had time to give warning to their fellows with a single whistling cry we were grappling with them in a swift intense fury!

I felt the great mass of the monster with whom I struggled pressing down upon me, felt its thick strange arms reaching to grip me or to bring the metal cube of the yellow ray into play. But the creature seemed capable of moving each big arm or limb only with an effort.

Before it could crush me to the floor I raised the pistol in my hand, pressed its muzzle between the great staring eye and the horizontal row of holes that was its mouth. As I pressed the trigger there was a muffled report and the great mass before me tumbled downward, carrying me to the corridor floor with it.

I sprang up to find the other monster had borne Darrell against the wall with all its great weight. But Darrell’s pistol had come up against the creature’s body and as muffled reports sounded simultaneously from our weapons it too fell. But this one, in the instant before it died, gave vent to a great whistling cry!

Instantly its cry was answered by other cries from the mass of flesh monsters at the river’s edge. As we thrust the two lifeless creatures out of the sphere we saw the others rushing madly across the clearing toward us! I shouted hoarsely to Darrell, sprang down the sphere’s little corridor into the controlroom at its end, cast for a moment an agonized glance around that little room.

The whole curving front was one great transparent window, through which I could see the flesh monsters hobbling toward us. They had not loosed upon us the rays of the cubes they carried, thinking no doubt that in the sphere were still their two fellows. I surveyed swiftly the controls of the sphere thaf lay before me.

The main feature of those controls seemed to be a row of metal studs set into a low panel, in front of which rose from the floor two low metal standards. Upon the top of each was set horizontally a small metal wheel, I grasped these wheels, turned them, twisted them, but there came no response from the great sphere’s mechanism. In another moment the flesh creatures outside would reach us!

I heard Darrell shout something to me, reached forward then in desperation and began snapping out the studs in the panel, one after another. Then, as I tried the centermost of those studs there sounded suddenly a welcome and powerful humming from somewhere in the sphere beneath us.

From outside came whistling cries as the flesh monsters rushed over the last few yards of the clearing toward our sphere’s door. I heard Darrell’s gun cracking as he strove to hold them back. For an instant they fell back before his fire but then, seeing through the door that the sphere held none of their fellows, they were raising their deadly cubes toward us!

At that moment my hands flashed back to the two wheels, turned them again. As the first of them moved beneath my hands the great bulk of our humming sphere jerked suddenly up and forward over the great black mouth of the mighty shaft!

Hanging above its black depths I heard cries from the flesh creatures below, glimpsed them running suddenly toward the two other spheres at the shaft’s edge, heard the clang of our own sphere’s round door as Darrell slammed it shut.

Then I spun the central wheel and even as the running flesh creatures sent a dozen yellow beams stabbing toward us our great sphere plunged suddenly downward! Downward into the blackness of the shaft at the sphere’s full speed, downward toward whatever mighty mystery or menace lay below!


Original publication: Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall 1929  Copyright © 1929 Stellar Publishing, Inc. Revised version originally published in Fantastic Story Quarterly, Spring 1950  Copyright © 1950 Better Publications, Inc. Electronic version Copyright © 2009 Haffner Press. All Rights Reserved.