The roar of the motor rang loud in the frosty air above a desert of ice. The sky above us was a deep purple-blue; the red sun hung like a crimson eye low in the north. Three thousand feet below, through a hazy blue mist of wind-whipped, frozen vapor, was the rugged wilderness of black ice-peaks and blizzard-carved hummocks of snow--a grim, undulating waste, black and yellow, splotched with crystal white. The icy wind howled dismally through the struts. We were flying above the weird ice-mountains of the Enderby quadrant of Antarctica.
That was a perilous flight, across the blizzard-whipped bottom of the world. In all the years of polar exploration by air, since Byrd’s memorable flights, this area had never been crossed. The intrepid Britisher, Major Meriden, with the daring American aviatrix whom the world had known as Mildred Cross before she married him, had flown into it nineteen years before--and like many others they had never returned.
Faintly, above the purring drone of the motor, I heard Ray Summers’ shout. I drew my gaze from the desolate plateau of ice below and leaned forward. His lean, fur-hooded face was turned back toward me. A mittened hand was pointing, and thin lips moved in words that I did not hear above the roar of the engine and the scream of the wind.
I turned and looked out to the right, past the shimmering silver disk of the propeller. Under the blue haze of ice-crystals in the air, the ice lay away in a vast undulating plain of black and yellow, broken with splotches of prismatic whiteness, lying away in frozen desolation to the rim of the cold violet sky. Rising against that sky I saw a curious thing.
It was a mountain of fire!
Beyond the desert of ice, a great conical peak pointed straight into the amethystine gloom of the polar heavens. It was brilliantly white, a finger of milky fire, a sharp cone of pure light. It shone with white radiance. It was brighter, far brighter, than is the sacred cone of Fujiyama in the vivid day of Japan.
For many minutes I stared in wonder at it. Far away it was; it looked very small. It was like a little heap of light poured from the hand of a fire-god. What it might be, I could not imagine. At first sight, I imagined it might be a volcano with streams of incandescent lava flowing down the side. I knew that this continent of mystery boasted Mt. Erebus and other active craters. But there was none of the smoke or lurid yellow flame which accompanies volcanic eruptions.
I was still watching it, and wondering, when the catastrophe took place--the catastrophe which hurled us into a mad extravaganza of amazing adventure.
Our little two-place amphibian was flying smoothly, through air unusually good for this continent of storms. The twelve cylinders of the motor had been firing regularly since we took off from Byrd’s old station at Little America fifteen hours before. We had crossed the pole in safety. It looked as if we might succeed in this attempt to penetrate the last white spot on the map. Then it Happened.
A sudden crack of snapping metal rang out sharp as a pistol report. A bright blade of metal flashed past the wing-struts, to fall in a flashing arc. The motor broke abruptly into a mad, deep-voiced roar.
Terrific vibration shook the ship, until I feared that it would go to pieces.
Ray Summers, with his usual quick efficiency, cut the throttle.
Quickly the motor slowed to idling speed; the vibration stopped. A last cough of the engine, and there was no sound save the shrill screaming of the wind in the gloomy twilight of this unknown land beyond the pole.
“What in the devil!” I exclaimed.
“The prop! See!” Ray pointed ahead.
I looked, and the dreadful truth flashed upon me. The steel propeller was gone, or half of it at least. One blade was broken off at a jagged line just above the hub.
“The propeller! What made it break? I’ve never heard--”
“Search me!” Ray grinned. “The important thing is that it did. It was all-metal, of course, tested and guaranteed. The guarantee isn’t worth much here. A flaw in the forging, perhaps, that escaped detection.
And this low temperature. Makes metal as brittle as glass. And the thing may have been crystallized by the vibration.”
The plane was coming down in a shallow glide. I looked out at the grim expanse of black ice-crags and glistening snow below us, and it was far from a comforting prospect. But I had a huge amount of confidence in Ray Summers. I have known him since the day he appeared, from his father’s great Arizona ranch, to be a freshman in the School of Mines at El Paso, where I was then an instructor in geology. We have knocked about queer corners of the world together for a good many years. But he is still but a great boy, with the bluff, simple manners of the West.
“Do you think we can land?” I asked.
“Looks like we’ve got to,” he said, grimly.
“And what after that?”
“How should I know? We have the sledge, tent, furs. Food, and fuel for the primus to last a week. There’s the rifle, but it must be a thousand miles to anything to shoot. We can do our best.”
“We should have had an extra prop.”
“Of course. But it was so many pounds, when every pound counted. And who knew the thing would break?”
“We’ll never get out on a week’s provisions.”
“Not a shot! Too bad to disappoint Captain Harper.” Ray grinned wanly.
“He ought to have the Albatross around there by this time, waiting for us.” The Albatross was the ship which had left us at Little America a few months before, to steam around and pick us up at our destination beyond Enderby Land. “We’re in the same boat with Major Meriden and his wife--and all those others. Lost without a trace.”
“You’ve read Scott’s diary--that he wrote after he visited the pole in 1912--the one they found with the bodies?”
“Yes. Not altogether cheerful. But we won’t be trying to get out. No use of that.” He looked at me suddenly, grinning again. “Say, Jim, why not try for that shining mountain we saw? It looks queer enough to be interesting. We ought to make it in a week.”
“I’m with you,” I said.
I did not speak again, for the jagged ice-peaks were coming rather near. I held my breath as the little plane veered around a slender black spire and dropped toward a tiny scrap of smooth snow among the ice-hummocks. I might have spared my anxiety. Under Ray’s consumately skilful piloting, the skids struck the snow with hardly a shock. We glided swiftly over the ice and came to rest just short of a yawning crevasse.
“Suppose,” said Ray, “that we spend the first night in the plane. We are tired already. We can keep warm here, and sleep. We’ve plenty of ice to melt for water. Then we’re off for the shining mountain.”
I agreed: Ray Summers is usually right. We got out the sledge, packed it, took our bearings, and made all preparations for a start to the luminous mountain, which was about a hundred miles away. The thermometer stood at twenty below, but we were comfortable enough in our furs as we ate a scanty supper and went to sleep in the cabin of the plane.
We started promptly the next morning, after draining the last of the hot chocolate from our vacuum bottles, which we left behind. We had a light but powerful sporting rifle, with telescopic sights, and several hundred rounds of ammunition. Ray put them in the pack, though I insisted that we would never need them, unless a quick way out of our predicament.
“No, Jim,” he said. “We take ‘em along. We don’t know what we’re going to find at the shining mountain.”
The air was bitterly cold as we set out: it was twenty-five below and a sharp wind was blowing. Only our toiling at the sledge kept us warm.
We covered eighteen miles that day, and made a good camp in the lee of a bare stone ridge.
That night there was a slight fall of snow. When we went on it was nearly thirty-five degrees below zero. The layer of fresh snow concealed irregularities in the ice, making our pulling very hard.
After an exhausting day we had made hardly fifteen miles.
On the following day the sky was covered with gray clouds, and a bitterly cold wind blew. We should have remained in the tent, but the shortage of food made it imperative that we keep moving. We felt immensely better after a reckless, generous fill of hot pemmican stew; but the next morning my feet were so painful from frost-bite that I could hardly get on my fur boots.
Walking was very painful to me that day, but we made a good distance, having come to smoother ice. Ray was very kind in caring for me. I became discouraged about going on at all: it was very painful, and I knew there was no hope of getting out. I tried to get some of our morphine tablets, but Ray had them, and refused to be convinced that he ought to go on without me.
On the next march we came in sight of the luminous mountain, which cheered me considerably. It was a curious thing, indeed. A straight-sided cone of light it was, rather steeper than the average volcano. Its point was sharp, its sides smooth as if cut with a mammoth plane. And it shone with a pure white light, with a steady and unchanging milky radiance. It rose out of the black and dull yellow of the ice wilderness like a white finger of hope.
The next morning it was a little warmer. Ray had been caring for my feet very attentively, but it took me nearly two hours to get on my footgear. Again I tried to get him to leave me, but he refused.
We arrived at the base of the shining mountain in three more marches.
On the last night the fuel for the primus was all gone, having been used up during the very cold weather, and we were unable to melt water to drink. We munched the last of our pemmican dry.
A few minutes after we had started on the last morning, Ray stopped suddenly.
“Look at that!” he cried.
I saw what he had seen--the wreck of an airplane, the wings crumpled up and blackened with fire. We limped up to it.
“A Harley biplane!” Ray exclaimed. “That is Major Meriden’s ship! And look at that wing! It looks like it’s been in an electric furnace!”
I examined the metal wing; saw that it had been blackened with heat.
The metal was fused and twisted.
“I’ve seen a good many wrecks, Jim. I’ve seen planes that burned as they fell. But nothing like that. The fuselage and engines were not even afire. Jim, something struck out from that shining mountain and brought them down!”
“Are they--” I began.
Ray was poking about in the snow in the cockpits.
“No. Not here. Probably would have been better for them if they had been killed in the plane. Quick and merciful.”
He examined the engines and propellers.
“No. Seems to be nothing wrong. Something struck them down!”
Soon we went on.
The shining mountain rose before us like a great cone of fire. It must have been three thousand feet high, and about that in diameter at the bottom. Its walls were as smooth and straight as though turned from milky rock crystal in a gigantic lathe. It shone with a steady, brilliantly white radiance.
“That’s no natural hill!” Ray grunted beside me as we limped on.
We were less than a mile from the foot of the cone of fire. Soon we observed another remarkable thing about it. It seemed that a straight band of silvery metal rose from the snow about its foot.
“Has it a wall around it?” I exclaimed.
“Evidently,” said Ray. “Looks as if it’s built on a round metal platform. But by whom? When? Why?”
We approached the curious wall. It was of a white metal, apparently aluminum, or a silvery alloy of that metal. In places it was twenty-five feet high, but more usually the snow and ice was banked high against it. The smooth white wall of the gleaming mountain stood several hundred yards back from the wall.
“Let’s have a look over it.” Ray suggested. “We can get up on that hummock, against it. You know, this place must have been built by men!”
We clambered up over the ice, as he suggested, until our heads came above the top of the wall.
“A lake of fire!” cried Ray.
Indeed, a lake of liquid fire lay before us. The white aluminum wall was hardly a foot thick. It formed a great circular tank, nearly a mile across, with the cone of white fire rising in the center. And the tank was filled, to within a foot of the top, with shimmeringly brilliant white fluid, bright and luminous as the cone--liquid light!
Ray dipped a hand into it. The hand came up with fingers of fire, radiant, gleaming, with shining drops falling from them. With a spasmodic effort, he flung off the luminous drops, rubbed his hand on his garments, and got it back into its fur mitten.
“Gee, it’s cold!” he muttered. “Freeze the horns off a brass billy-goat!”
“Cold light!” I exclaimed. “What wouldn’t a bottle of that stuff be worth to a chemist back in the States!”
“That cone must be a factory to make the stuff.” Ray suggested, hugging his hand. “They might pump the liquid up to the top, and then let it trickle down over the sides: that would explain why the cone is so bright. The stuff might absorb sunlight, like barium sulphide. And there could be chemical action with the air, under the actinic rays.”
“Well, if somebody’s making cold light, where does he use it?”
“I’d like to find out, and strike him for a hot meal,” Ray said, grinning. “It’s too cold to live on top of the ground around here.
They must run it down in a cave.”
“Then let’s find the hole.”
“You know it’s possible we won’t be welcome. This mountain of light may be connected with the vanishing of all the aviators. We’d better take along the rifle.”
We set off around just outside the white metal wall. The snow and ice was irregularly banked against it, but the wall itself was smooth and unbroken. We had limped along for some two miles, or more than halfway around the amazing lake of light. I had begun to doubt that we would find anything.
Then we came to a square metal tower, ten feet on a side, that rose just outside the silvery wall, to a level with its top. The ice was low here; the tower rose twenty feet above its unequal surface. We found metal flanges riveted to its side, like the steps of a ladder.
They were most inconveniently placed, nearly four feet apart; but we were able to climb them, and to look down the shaft.
It was a straight-sided pit, evidently some hundreds of feet deep. We could see a tiny square of light at the bottom, very far away. The flanges ran down the side forming the rungs of a ladder that gave access to whatever lay at the bottom.
Without hesitation, Ray climbed over the side and started down. I followed him, feeling a great relief in getting out of the freezing wind. Ray had the rifle and ammunition strapped to his back, along with a few other articles; and I had a small pack. We had abandoned the sledge, with the useless stove and the most of our instruments.
Our food was all gone.
The metal flanges were fully four feet apart, and it was not easy to scramble down from one to another; certainly not easy for one who was cold, hungry, thirsty, worn out with a week of exhausting marches, and suffering the torture of frozen feet.
“You know, this thing was not built by men,” Ray observed.
“Not built by men? What do you mean?”
“Men would have put the steps closer together. Jim, I’m afraid we are up against something--well--that we aren’t used to.”
“If men didn’t build this, what did?” I was astounded.
“Search me! This continent has been cut off from the rest of the world for geologic ages. Such life as has been found here is not common to the rest of the earth. It is not impossible that some form of life, isolated here, has developed intelligence and acquired the power to erect that cone of light--and to burn the wing off a metal airplane.”
My thoughts whirled madly as we clambered down the shaft.
It must have taken us an hour to reach the bottom. I did not count the steps, but it must have been at least a thousand feet. The air grew rapidly warmer as we descended. We both took off most of our heavy fur garments, and left them hanging on the rungs.
I was rather nervous. I felt the nearness of an intelligent, hostile power. I had a great fear that the owners of those steps would use them to find us, and then crush us ruthlessly as they had brought down Meriden’s plane.
The little square of white light below grew larger. Finally I saw Ray swing off and stand on his feet in a flood of white radiance below me.
The air was warm, moist, laden with a subtle unfamiliar fragrance that suggested growing things. Then I stood beside Ray.
We stood on the bare stone floor of a huge cavern. It must have been of volcanic origin. The walls glistened with the sparkling smoothness of volcanic glass. It was a huge space. The black roof was a hundred feet high, or more; the cave was some hundreds of feet wide. And it sloped away from us into dim distance as though leading into huger cavities below.
The light that shone upon us came from an amazing thing--a fall of liquid fire. From the roof plunged a sheer torrent of white brilliantly luminous fluid, falling a hundred feet into a shimmering pool of moon-flame. Shining opalescent mists swirled about it, and the ceaseless roar of it filled the cave with sound. It seemed that a stream of the phosphorescent stuff ran off down the cave from the pool, to light the lower caverns.
“Very clever!” said Ray. “They make the stuff up there at the cone and run it in here to see by.”
“This warm air feels mighty good,” I remarked, pulling off another garment.
Ray sniffed the air. “A curious odor. Smells like something growing.
Where anything is growing there ought to be something to eat. Let’s see what we can find.”
Only black obsidian covered the floor about us. Cautiously we skirted the overflowing pool of white fire, and followed down the stream of it that flowed toward the inner cavern. We had gone but a few hundred yards when suddenly Ray stopped me with a hand on my arm.
“Lie flat!” he hissed. “Quick!”
He dived behind a huge mass of fire-born granite. I flung myself down beside him.
“Something is coming up the trail by the shining river. And it isn’t a man! It’s between us and the light; we should be able to see it.”
Soon I heard a curious scraping sound, and a little tinkle of metal. I caught a whiff of a powerful odor--a strange, fishy odor--so strong that it almost knocked me down.
The thing that made the scraping and the tinkle and the smell came into view. The sight of it sickened me with horror.
It was far larger than a man; its body was heavy as a horse’s, but nearer the ground. In form it suggested a huge crab, though it was not very much like any crustacean I had ever seen. It was mostly red in color, and covered with a huge scarlet shell. It had five pairs of limbs. The two forward pairs had pinchers, seemingly used as hands; it scraped along on the other three pairs. Yard-long antennae, slender and luminously green, wavered above a grotesque head. The many facets of compound eyes stood on the end of foot-long stalks.
The amazing crab-thing wore a metal harness. Bands of silvery aluminum were fastened about its shell, with little cases of white metal dangling to them. In one of its uplifted claws it carried what seemed to be an aluminum bar, two feet long and an inch thick.
It scraped lumberingly past, between us and the racing stream of white fire. It passed less than a dozen feet from us. The curious fishy smell of it was overpowering, disgusting.
Sweat of horror chilled my limbs. The monster emanated power, sinister, malevolent power, power intelligent, alien and hostile to man.
I trembled with the fear that it would see us, but it scrambled grotesquely on. When it was twenty yards past, Ray picked up a block of black lava that lay beneath his hand and hurled it silently and swiftly. It crashed splinteringly on the rocks far beyond the creature, on the other side of the stream of light.
In fascination I watched the monster as it paused as if astonished.
The glittering compound eyes twisted about on their stalks, and the long shining green tentacles wavered questioningly. Then the knobbed limbs snapped the white metal tube to a level position. A metallic click came from it.
And a ray of red light, vivid and intense, burst from the tube. It flashed across the river of fire. With a dull, thudding burst it struck the rocks where the stone had fallen. It must have been a ray of concentrated heat. Rocks beneath it flashed into sudden incandescence, splintered and cracked, flowed in molten streams.
In a moment the intensely brilliant ruby ray flashed off. The rocks in the circle where it had struck faded to a dull red and then to blackness, still cracking and crumbling.
To my intense relief, the monstrous crab lumbered on.
“That,” Ray whispered, “is what got Major Meriden’s airplane wing.”
When we could hear its scraping progress no longer, we climbed up from behind our boulder and continued cautiously down the cavern, beside the rushing luminous river. In half a mile we came to a bend. Rounding it, we gazed upon a remarkable sight.
We looked into a huge cavity in the heart of the earth. A vast underground plain lay before us, with the black lava of the roof arching above it. It must have been miles across, though we had no way to measure it, and it stretched down into dim hazy distance. Its level was hundreds of feet below us.
At our feet the glistening river of fire plunged down again in a magnificent flaming fall. Below, its luminous liquid was spread out in rivers and lakes and canals, over all the vast plain. The channels ran through an amazing jungle. It was a forest of fungus, of mushroom things with great fleshy stalks and spreading circular tops. But they were not the sickly white and yellow of ordinary mushrooms, but were of brilliant colors, bright green, flaming scarlet, gold and purple-blue. Huge brilliant yellow stalks, fringed with crimson and black, lifted mauve tops thirty feet or more. It was a veritable forest of flame-bright fungus.
In the center of this weirdly forested subterranean plain was a great lake, filled, not with the flaming liquid, but with dark crystal water. And on the bottom of that lake, clearly visible from the elevation upon which we stood, was a city!
A city below the water! The buildings were upright cylinders in groups of two or three, of dozens, even of hundreds. For miles, the bottom of the great lake was covered with them. They were all of crystal, azure-blue, brilliant as cylinders turned from immense sapphires. They were vividly visible beneath the transparent water. Not one of them broke the surface.
Through the clear black water we saw moving hundreds, thousands of the giant crabs. The crawled over the hard, pebbled bottom of the lake, or swam between the crystal cylinders of the city. They were huge as the one we had seen, with red shells, great ominous looking stalked eyes, luminous green tentacular antennae and knobbed claws on forelimbs.
“Looks as if we’ve run on something to write home about,” Ray muttered in amazement.
“A whole city of them! A whole world! No wonder they could build that cone-mountain for a lighting plant!”
“When they got to knocking down airplanes with that heat-ray,” he speculated, “they were probably surprised to find that other animals had developed intelligence.”
“Do you suppose those mushroom things are good to eat?”
“We can try and see--if the crabs don’t get us first with a heat-ray.
I’m hungry enough to try anything!”
Again we cautiously advanced. The river of light fell over a sheer precipice, but we found a metal ladder spiked to the rock, with rungs as inconveniently far apart as those in the shaft. It was five hundred feet, I suppose, to the bottom; it took us many minutes to descend.
At last we stepped off in a little rocky clearing. The forest of brilliant mushrooms rose about us, great fleshy stalks of gold and graceful fringes of black and scarlet about them, with flattened heads of purple.
We started eagerly across toward the fungoid forest. I had visions of tearing off great pieces of soft, golden flesh and filling my aching stomach with it.
We were stopped by a sharp, poignantly eager human cry.
A human being, a girl, darted from among the mushroom stalks and ran across to us. Sobbing out great incoherent cries, she dropped at Ray’s feet, wrapped her arms about his knees and clung to him, while her slender body was wracked with sobbing cries.
My first impression was that she was very beautiful--and that impression I was never called upon to revise. About her lithe young body she had the merest scrap of some curious green fabric--ample in the warm air of the great cavern. Luxuriant brown hair fell loose about her white shoulders. She was not quite twenty years old, I supposed; her body was superbly formed, with the graceful curves and the free, smooth movements of a wild thing.
Ray stood motionless for a moment, thunder-struck as I was, while the sobbing girl clung to his knees. Then the astonishment on his face gave place to pity.
“Poor kid!” he murmured.
He bent, took her tenderly by the shoulder, helped her to her feet.
Her beauty burst upon us like a great light. Smoothly white, her skin was, perfect. Wide blue eyes, now appealing, even piteous, looked from beneath a wealth of golden brown hair. White teeth, straight and even, flashed behind the natural crimson of her lips.
She stood staring at Ray, in a sort of enchantment of wonder. An eager light of incredible joy flamed in her amazing eyes; red lips were parted in an unconscious smile of joy. She looked like the troubled princess in the fairy tale, when the prince of her dreams appeared in the flesh.
“God, but you’re beautiful!” Ray’s words slipped out as if he were hardly conscious of them. He flushed quickly, stepped back a little.
The girl’s lips opened. She voiced a curious cry. It was deep toned, pealing with a wonderful timbre. A happy burst of sound, like a baby makes. But strong, ringing, musically golden. And pathetically eager, pitifully glad, so that it brought tears to my eyes, cynical old man that I am.
I saw Ray wipe his eyes.
“Can you talk?” Ray put the question in a clear, deliberate voice, with great kindness ringing in it.
“Talk?” The chiming, golden voice was slow, uncertain. “Talk? Yes. I talked--with mother. But for long--I have had no need to talk.”
“Where is your mother?” Ray’s voice was gentle.
“She is gone. She was here when I was little.” The clear, silvery voice was more certain now. “Once, when I was almost as big as she--she was still. She was cold. She did not move when I called her.
The Things took her away. She was dead. She told me that sometime she would be dead.”
Bright tears came in the wide blue eyes, trickled down over the perfect face. A pathetic catch was in the deliberate, halting voice. I turned away, and Ray put a handkerchief to his face.
“What is your name? Who are you?” Ray spoke kindly.
“I am Mildred. Mildred Meriden.”
“Meriden!” Ray turned to me. “I bet this is a daughter of the major and his wife!”
“Father was the major,” the girl said slowly. “He and mother came in a machine that flew, from a far land. The Things burned the machine with the red fire. They came here and the Things kept them. They made mother sing over the water. They killed father. I never saw him.”
“I know,” Ray, said gently. “We came from the same land. We saw your father’s machine above.”
“You came from outside! And you are going back? Oh, take me with you!
Take me!” Piteous pleading was in her voice. “It is so--lonely since the Things took Mother away. Mother told me that sometime men would come, and take me away to see the people and the outside that she told me of. Oh, please take me!”
“Don’t worry! You go along whenever we leave--if we can get out.”
“Oh, I am so glad! You are very good!”
Impulsively, she threw her arms around Ray’s neck. Gently, he disengaged himself, flushing a little. I noticed, however, that he did not seem particularly displeased.
“But can we get out?”
“Mother and I tried. We could never get out. The Things watch. They make me come to the water to sing, when the great bell rings.”
“Are these things goods to eat?” I motioned to the brilliant fungal forest. I had begun to fear that Ray would never get to this very important topic.
Blue eyes regarded me. “Eat? Oh, you are hungry! Come! I have food.”
Like a child, she grasped Ray’s hand, pulled him toward the mushroom jungle. I followed, and we slipped in between the brilliantly golden, fleshy stalks. They rose to the tangle of bright feathery fringes above, huge and substantial as the trunks of trees.
In a few minutes we came to a wide, shallow canal, metal-walled, through which a slow current of the opalescent, luminous liquid was flowing. We crossed this on a narrow metal foot-bridge, and went on through the brilliant forest.
Suddenly we emerged into a little clearing, with the black waters of the great lake visible beyond it, across a quarter-mile of rocky beach. In the middle of the open space, rose three straight cylinders of azure crystal, side by side. Each must have been twenty feet in diameter, and forty high. They shone with a clear blue light, like the cylindrical buildings we had seen in the strange city of the crab-creatures below the great lake.
Mildred Meriden, the strangely beautiful girl who had known no other world than this amazing cavern empire where giant crabs reigned, beckoned us with unconscious queenly grace to enter the arched door in the blue sapphire wall of her remarkable abode of clustered cylinders.
The crystal of the walls seemed luminous, the lofty cylinders were filled with a liquid, azure radiance. The high round room we entered was strangely furnished. There was a silken couch, a bathing pool of blue crystal filled with sparkling water, a curious chest of drawers made of bright aluminum with a mirror of polished crystal, its top bearing odd combs and other articles. The furnishings must have been done by the giant crabs, under human direction.
Mildred led us quickly across the room, through an arched opening into another. A round aluminum table stood in the center of the room, with two curious metal chairs beside it. Odd metal cabinets stood about the shining blue walls. The girl made us sit down, and put dishes before us.
She gave us each a bowl of thick, sweetish soup, darkly red; placed before us a dish piled high with little circular cakes, crisp and brown, which had a tantalizing fragrance; poured for each of us a transparent crystal goblet full of clear amber drink.
We fell to with enthusiasm and abandon.
“The Things made this place for father,” the girl told us, as she watched us eat, attentively replenishing the red soup in the great blue crystal bowl, or the little cakes, or the fragrant amber drink.
“They would give him anything he wanted. But he tried to go away with mother, and they killed him.”
“We must get out of here,” Ray declared when at last we had done. “We must get together a lot of food, and enough clothing for all of us. We ought to be able to make it to the edge of the ice-pack. We’ve got to give these crab-things the slip; we ought to get off before they know we’re here--unless they already do.”
Mildred was eagerly attentive: she was so unused to human speech that it took the best of her efforts to understand us, though it seems that her mother had given her quite a wide education. She promised that there would be no difficulty about the food.
“Mother taught me how to fix food,” she said. “She always said that sometime men would come, with weapons of fire and great noise that would tear and kill the Things. I have food ready, in bags--more than we can carry. I have, too, the furs that mother and father wore.”
She ran into another room and returned with a great pile of fur garments, which we examined and found to be in good condition.
“Now is the time,” Ray said. “I’d like to know more about the big crabs, but there’ll be a chance for that, later. Mildred is the important thing, now. We must get her out. Then we can tell the world about this place and come back with a bigger expedition.”
“You think we can reach the coast?”
“I think so. It might be hard on Mildred. But we will have food; we can probably find fuel for the stove in Meriden’s plane, if the tanks were well sealed. And Captain Harper should have a relief party landed and sent to meet us. We should have only three or four hundred miles to go alone.”
“Three or four hundred miles, over country like we’ve been crossing in the last week, with a girl! Ray, we’d never make it!”
“It’s the only chance.”
I said nothing more. I knew that I could stand no such march on my frozen feet, but I resolved to say nothing about it. I would help them as far as I could, and then walk out of camp some night. Men have done just that.
Mildred brought out sacks of the little cakes, and of a red powder that seemed to be the dried and ground flesh of a crimson mushroom. We made a pack for each of us, as heavy as we could carry.
Just before we were ready to start Ray took off my footgear and treated my feet from his medicine kit. I had feared gangrene, but he assured me that there was no danger if they were well cared for.
Walking was still exquisitely painful to me as we slipped out through the arched door and into the fungoid forest beyond the three blue cylinders.
As rapidly and silently as possible we hastened through the brilliant fungous forest, across the river of opalescent liquid, to the foot of the fall of fire. A weird and splendid sight was that sheer arc of shimmering white flame, roaring into a pool of opal light, and surrounded with a mist of moon-flame.
We reached the foot of the metal ladder spiked to the rocks beside the fall and started up immediately. The going was not easy. The packs of food, heavy enough when we were on level ground, were difficult indeed to lift when one was scrambling up over rungs four feet apart.
Ray climbed ahead, with a piece of rope fastened from his waist to Mildred’s, so that he could help her if she slipped. I was below the girl. We were halfway up the rock when suddenly a glare of red light shone upon me, casting my shadow sharply on the cliff. I looked up and saw the broad, intensely red beam of a heat-ray like that we had seen the giant crab use.
The ray came, evidently, from the shore of the great lake with its submerged city of blue cylinders. It fell upon the face of the cliff just above us. Quickly the ladder was heated to cherry red. The face of the rock grew incandescent, cracked. Hot sparks rained down upon us.
Slowly the ray moved down, toward us.
“Guess we’d better call it off,” said Ray. “They have the advantage right now. Better get to climbing down, Jim. This ladder is going to be burning my hands pretty soon.”
I climbed down. Mildred and Ray scrambled down behind me.
The ray followed us, keeping the metal at a cherry red just above Ray’s hands.
I looked down and saw a dozen of the giant crabs lumbering up out of the fungoid jungle from the direction of the great lake. Hideous things they were, with staring, stalked eyes, shining green antennae, polished red shells, claw-armed limbs. Like the one that had passed us in the upper cavern, they wore glistening white metal accoutrements.
We clambered down, with the red ray following.
I dropped to the ground among them, wet with the sweat of horror. I reeled in nausea from the intolerable odor of the crab-things; it was indescribable, overpowering.
Curious rasping stridulations came from them, sounds which seemed to serve as means of communication, and which Mildred evidently understood.
“They say that you will not be harmed, but that you must not go out,” she called down.
I was seized by the pincher-like claws, held writhing in an unbreakable grasp, while the glittering eyes twisted about, looked at me, and the shining green tentacles wavered questioningly over me. My stomach revolted at the horrible odor.
The crabs tore off my pack, even my clothing. Ray was similarly treated as soon as he reached the ground. Though they took Mildred’s pack, they treated her with a curious respect.
In a few minutes they released us. They had taken the packs, the rifle and ammunition, our medicine kit and the few instruments we had brought with us down the shaft, even our clothing. They turned us loose stark naked. Ray’s face and neck went beet-red when he saw Mildred standing by him.
The rasping sound came from one of them again.
“It says you may stay with me,” Mildred said. “They will not harm you unless you try again to get away. If you do, you die--as father did.
They will keep what they took from you.”
Several of the creatures went scraping off, carrying the articles they had taken from us either in their claws or in the metal cases they wore. Several waited, staring at us with the stalked compound eyes, and waving the green antennae as if they were organs of some special sense.
Two of the creatures waited at the foot of the metal ladder, holding the long slender white tubes of the heat-ray in their claws.
“They say we can go now,” Mildred said.
She led the way toward the edge of the brilliant jungle. She seemed to be without false modesty, for I saw her glancing with evident admiration at Ray’s lithe and powerful white-skinned figure. We followed her into the giant mushrooms, glad to escape the overpowering stench of the crabs.
In a few minutes we arrived again at the strange building of the three blue cylinders. Mildred, noticing our discomfort, produced for each of us a piece of white silken fabric with which we draped ourselves.
She had noticed my difficulty in walking on bare feet. She had me bathe them, then dressed them with a soothing yellow oil, and bandaged them skilfully.