Justus Miles was sitting on a bench in the park, down at the heels, hungry, desperate, when a gust of wind whirled a paper to his feet. It was the advertising section of the New York Times. Apathetically, he picked it up, knowing from the past weeks’ experience that few or no jobs were being advertised. Then with a start he sat up, for in the center of the page, encased in a small box and printed in slightly larger type than the ordinary advertisement, he read the following words: “Wanted: Soldier of Fortune, young, healthy; must have good credentials. Apply 222 Reuter Place, between two and four.” It was to-day’s advertising section he was scanning, and the hour not yet one.
Reuter Place was some distance away, he knew, a good hour’s walk on hard pavement and through considerable heat. But he had made forced marches in Sonora as badly shod and on even an emptier stomach. For Justus Miles, though he might not have looked it, was a bona fide soldier of fortune, stranded in New York. Five feet eight in height, he was, loose and rangy in build, and with deceptively mild blue eyes. He had fought through the World War, served under Kemal Pasha in Turkey, helped the Riffs in Morocco, filibustered in South America and handled a machine-gun for revolutionary forces in Mexico. Surely, he thought grimly, if anyone could fill the bill for a soldier of fortune it was himself.
222 Reuter Place proved to be a large residence in a shabby neighborhood. On the sidewalk, a queue of men was being held in line by a burly cop. The door of the house opened, and an individual, broad-shouldered and with flaming red hair, looked over the crowd. Instantly Justus Miles let out a yell, “Rusty! By God, Rusty!” and waved his hands.
“Hey, feller, who do you think you’re shovin’?” growled a hard-looking fellow at the head of the line, but Justus Miles paid no attention to him. The man in the doorway also let out an excited yell.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the Kid! Hey, Officer, let that fellow through: I want to speak to him.”
With the door shut on the blasphemous mob, the two men wrung each other’s hands. Ex-Sergeant Harry Ward, known to his intimates as “Rusty,” led Justus Miles into a large office and shoved him into a chair.
“I didn’t know you were in New York, kid. The last I saw of you was when we quit Sandino.”
“And I never suspected that 222 Reuter Place would be you, Rusty. What’s the lay, old man, and is there any chance to connect?”
“You bet your life there’s a chance. Three hundred a month and found. But the boss has the final say-so, though I’m sure he’ll take you on my recommendation.”
He opened a door, led Justus Miles through an inner room, knocked at a far door and ushered him into the presence of a man who sat behind a roll-topped desk. There was something odd about this old man, and after a moment’s inspection Justus Miles saw what it was. He was evidently a cripple, propped up in a strange wheelchair. He had an abnormally large and hairless head, and his body was muffled to the throat in a voluminous cloak, the folds of which fell over and enveloped most of the wheelchair itself. The face of this old gentleman--though the features were finely molded--was swarthy: its color was almost that of a negro--or an Egyptian. He regarded the two men with large and peculiarly colored eyes--eyes that probed them sharply.
“Well, Ward, what is it?”
“The man you advertised for, Mr. Solino.”
Solino regarded Justus Miles critically.
“You have been a soldier of fortune?” he asked. He spoke English with the preciseness of an educated foreigner.
“Yes, sir. Rusty--that is, Mr. Ward knows my record.”
“I was his sergeant in France, sir; saw fighting with him in Morocco, Turkey, Nicaragua--”
“You can vouch for him, then; his character, courage--”
“You couldn’t get a better man, sir. If I had known he was in town I would have sent for him.”
“Very well; that is sufficient. But Mr.--Miles did you say?--understands he is embarking on a dangerous adventure with grave chances of losing his life?”
“I have faced danger and risked my life before this,” said Justus Miles quietly.
The other nodded. “Then that is all I am prepared to tell you at this time.”
Justus Miles accompanied Ward to his room where the latter laid out for him a change of clothing. It was luxurious to splash in warm water and bath-salts after the enforced griminess of weeks. The clothes fitted him fairly well, the two men being of a size. Lounging in his friend’s room after a substantial meal, and smoking a Turkish cigarette, he questioned Ward more closely.
“Who is the old fellow?”
“I don’t know. He hired me through an advertisement and then set me to employing others.”
“But surely you know where we are going?”
“Hardly more than you do. Solino did say there was a country, a city to be invaded. Whereabouts is a secret. I can’t say I care for going it blind, but neither do I like starving to death. I was in about the same shape you were when you applied. Desperate.”
Justus Miles stretched himself comfortably.
“A spiggoty by the looks of him,” he said; “negro blood, no doubt. Well, fighting’s my trade. I’d rather cash in fighting than sit on a park bench. I suppose the old boy will tell us more in good time, and until then we’re sitting pretty, with good eats to be had; so why worry?”
And yet if Justus Miles had been able to look ahead he might not have talked so blithely.
During the week that followed his employment, he saw nothing of Solino, though Ward met the old man for a few moments every day to receive his instructions. “It puzzles me,” he confessed to Miles, “how the old chap lives. There’s a private exit to the street from his rooms, but I could swear he never goes out. How could he in that wheelchair--no attendant. And yet he must. How would he get food?”
Justus Miles smiled lazily. “No mystery at all, Rusty. We’re gone for hours at a time. What’s to prevent him from phoning to have his meals brought in?”
“But I’ve questioned them at the restaurant and they say--”
“Good Lord!--is there only one restaurant in Manhattan?”
Yet Justus Miles himself could not help feeling there was something mysterious about Solino, but just how mysterious he did not realize--until, one evening, he stood with a half dozen of his fellow adventurers in a lonely spot on the Long Island coast and watched the darkness deepen around them. “We shall wait,” said Solino presently, “until the moon comes up.”
The moon rose at about nine o’clock, flooding the beach and the heaving expanse of water with a ghostly light. From the folds of Solino’s cloak, close about his muffled throat, a peculiar ray of green light flashed out over the water. In answer, a green light flashed back, and presently, something low and black, like the body of a whale half submerged, stole towards the beach. Scarcely a ripple marked its progress, and the nose of it slid up on the sand. “Good Lord!” whispered Miles, grasping Ward by the arm: “it’s a submarine!”
But the craft on which the surprised soldiers of fortune gazed was not an ordinary submarine. In the first place, there was no conning tower; and, in the second, from the blunt nose projected a narrow gangway bridging the few feet of water between the mysterious craft and the dry beach. But the men had little time to indulge in amazement. “Quick,” said Solino; “load those boxes onto the gangway. No need to carry them further.” He himself wheeled his chair into the interior of the submarine, calling back, “Hurry, hurry!”
The adventurers accomplished the loading in a few minutes. “Now,” came the voice of their employer, “stand on the gangway yourselves. Steady; don’t move.”
Under their feet they felt the gangway vibrate and withdraw from the land. For a moment they were in utter darkness; then a light flashed up and revealed a long, box-like room. The opening through which they had come had closed, leaving no sign of its existence.
In the center of the room stood a mechanism like a huge gyroscope, and a plunging piston, smooth and black, went up and down with frictionless ease. In front of what was evidently a control board sat a swarthy man with a large hairless head and peculiarly colored eyes. The adventurers stared in surprise, for this man, too, sat in a wheelchair, seemingly a cripple; but unlike Mr. Solino he wore no cloak, his body from the neck down being enclosed in a tubular metal container. The body must have been very small, and the legs amputated at the hips, since the container was not large and terminated on the seat of the peculiar wheel chair to which it seemed firmly attached.
Solino did not offer to introduce them to the man at the control board, who, aside from a quick look, paid them no attention. He ushered them ahead into another, though smaller cabin, and after indicating certain arrangements made for their comfort, withdrew. From the slight sway of the floor under their feet and the perceptible vibration of the craft, the adventurers knew they were under way.
“Well, this is a rum affair and no mistake about it,” said one of them.
“A freak--a bloomin’ freak,” remarked another whose cockney accent proclaimed the Englishman.
“Yuh’re shore right,” said a lean Texan. “That hombre out there had no legs.”
“Nor hands either.”
Miles and Ward glanced at one another. The same thought was in both minds. Neither of them had ever seen Mr. Solino’s hands. A rum affair all right!
Hours passed. Some of the men fell to gambling. At intervals they ate. Twice they turned in and slept. Then, after what seemed an interminable time, Solino summoned Miles and Ward to his presence in the control room. “It is time,” he said, “that you should know more of the enterprise on which you have embarked. What I say, you can communicate to the other men. A year’s salary for all of you lies to your credit at the Chase Bank of New York. And this money will not be your sole reward if you survive and serve faithfully.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Ward; “but now that we are well on our way to our destination, could you not tell us more about it? You have said something of a city, a country. Where is that country?”
“Down,” was the astounding answer.
“Down?” echoed both men.
“Yes,” said Solino slowly, “down. The gateway to that land is at the bottom of the ocean.”
As the two men gaped at him, incredulous, an awful thing happened. With an appalling roar and a rending of steel and iron, the submarine halted abruptly in its headlong flight, reared upward at an acute angle and then fell forward with a tremendous crash. The adventurers were thrown violently against a steel bulkhead, and slumped down unconscious...
How long they lay there insensible they never knew. Justus Miles was the first to come to, and he found himself in Stygian blackness. “Rusty!” he called, feeling terribly sick and giddy. Only silence answered him. “Good God!” he thought, “what has happened?” His hand went out and recoiled from something soft and sticky. Gingerly he sat up. There was a lump on his head. His body felt bruised and sore but it was evidently sound. He recollected the small but powerful flashlight in his pocket, and drew it forth and pressed the button. A reassuring pencil of light pierced through the gloom. Even as it did so, someone groaned, and Ward’s voice uttered his name.
“Is that you, Kid?”
“It’s me, all right.”
“You ain’t hurt?”
“Nothing to speak of. How about you?”
“O. K., I guess. An awful headache.”
“Can you stand up?”
Ward’s face appeared in the ray of light, pale and blood-streaked.
“I wonder what happened.”
“It sounded like a collision.”
They stared at one another with fearful eyes. A collision while underseas in a submarine is a serious matter.
Justus Miles ran the beam of his torch this way and that, and saw that the room was in a fearful confusion. The gyroscopic mechanism had broken from its fastenings and rolled forward. Somewhere beneath its crushing weight lay the control board and the swarthy operator. Then they saw Solino, still in his overturned wheelchair, the cloak drawn tightly about himself and it; but the top of his head was crushed in like an eggshell. Justus Miles had touched that head when he stretched out his hand in the darkness.
He and Ward had been saved from death as by a miracle. Over their heads the great piston had hurtled, killing Solino and tearing through the steel partition into the chamber beyond, visiting it with death and destruction. One hasty examination of that place was enough. The men in there were dead.
Sick with horror, the two survivors faced the stark reality of their terrible plight. Trapped in an underwater craft, they saw themselves doomed to perish even more miserably than their companions. As the horrible thought sank home, a cool breath of air, suggesting the smell of stagnant salt water, blew through an opening created by the crushing of the plates in the vessel’s hull--an opening larger than the body of a man. Miles and Ward stared at it with puzzled eyes. With such a hole in her hull, the boat should have been admitting water and not air. However, they approached the gap and examined it with their torches.
“Here goes,” Ward said after a moment’s hesitation, and clambered through the opening, followed by his friend. When they were able to make out their surroundings, they saw that they were in a vast tunnel or cavern, the extent of which was shrouded in darkness. How the submarine had left the ocean and penetrated to this cavern it was impossible to say; but evidently it had come so far over a shining rail, a break in which had caused the disaster. The cavern or tunnel was paved with disjointed blocks of stone which once might have been smooth and even, but which now were disarranged by time and slimy with dampness and seagrowths. In the clammy air Miles involuntarily shuddered. “Good Lord, Rusty, we’re certainly up against it! The only fellow who could tell us our whereabouts is dead!”
Ward’s jaw tightened. “That rail leads somewhere: it’s our only hope. But first let us get our guns and some food.”
They were fortunate enough to discover several thermos bottles unbroken. Hot coffee revived their fainting spirits. Treating their bruises and cuts as well as they could, they left the submarine or car--it seemed to have been convertible for use either in water or on rail--and trudged ahead.
Beyond the break that had caused the wreck, the rail stretched away into illimitable blackness. Over rough stones, stumbling into shallow pools of water, the light of their torches serving but faintly to show the depressing surroundings, the two men plunged. Neither of them was without fear, but both possessed the enduring courage of men habituated to facing danger and sudden death without losing control of their faculties.
Time passed, but they had no means of telling how much, since their wrist watches no longer functioned. But after a while they noticed that the grade was upward and the going easier. At the same moment, Ward called attention to the fact that, even without electric torches, it was possible to see. All around the two Americans grew a strange light--a weird, phosphorescent glow, revealing far walls and massive pillars.
Now they could see that they were in a vast chamber, undoubtedly the work of human hands; a room awe-inspiring to behold, and even more than awe-inspiring in the reflections it forced upon their minds. Passages radiated on either hand to mysterious depths, and great bulks loomed in the spectral light. Justus Miles gave a low cry of amazement when a closer investigation revealed those bulks to be the wrecks of mighty and intricate machines, the use of which it was vain to conjecture. He looked at Ward.
“Solino spoke of a city down in the ocean. Can this be it?”
Ward shook his head. “Everything here is old, abandoned. Look--what is that?”
The figure of a giant creature, carved either from stone or marble and encrusted with phosphorous, stood lowering in their path. It was that of a winged beast with a human head. Its features were negroid in character; and so malignant was the expression of the staring face, so lifelike the execution of the whole statue, that a chill of fear ran through their veins. It was in Ward’s mind that this gigantic carving was akin to the ones he had seen in Egypt, and as old, if not older.
Beyond the statue the rail curved and the grade leveled; and, rounding the bend, they were amazed to come upon a sort of “yard” where the rail stopped. In that enclosure, on several sidings, were submarine cars similar to the wrecked one they had abandoned. But that was not the sight which brought them to a breathless halt. Beyond the sidings stood what appeared to be a small building of gleaming crystal.
After a moment of breathless wonder they cautiously approached the bizarre structure. No dampness or phosphorus impaired the clarity of its walls. The material composing them felt vibrantly warm to the touch. It was not glass, yet it was possible to look without difficulty into the interior of the building, which appeared to be one large room containing nothing but a central device not unlike the filaments of an electric bulb. In fact, the whole building, viewed from the outside, reminded the two adventurers of a giant light globe. The filaments radiated a steady and somehow exhilarating light. The door--they knew it was a door because an edging of dark metal outlined its frame--gave admittance to the room.
“Shall we?” questioned Miles; and Ward answered doubtfully, “I don’t know. Perhaps...”
But at last they turned the golden knob, felt the door give to their pressure, and stepped through the entrance into the soft radiance of the interior. Unthinkingly, Ward released his hold on the knob and the door swung shut behind them. Instantly there was a flash of light, and they were oppressed by a feeling of nausea: and then, out of a momentary pit of blackness, they emerged to find that the room of crystal had oddly changed its proportions and opaqueness. “Quick!” cried Ward; “let us get out of this place.” Both men found the door and staggered forth.
Then, at sight of what they saw, they stood rooted to the spot in sheer amazement. The gloomy tunnel and the sidings of submarine cars had vanished, and they were standing in a vast hall, an utterly strange and magnificent hall, staring up into the face of a creature crudely human and colored green!
The green man was almost of heroic proportions; he was clad in but a breech-clout, and was so broad as to appear squat in stature. He carried a short club, and appeared almost as dumbfounded as the two Americans. A moment he regarded them, then, with a ferocious snarl of rage, he hurled himself upon the startled Ward and half clubbed, half pushed him to the floor. Recovering from his momentary inaction and realizing the danger in which his friend stood, Miles shouted and leaped upon the green man’s back, fastening his sinewy fingers about the giant’s throat.
But the latter was possessed of incredible strength, and, straightening up, he shook off Miles as a bear might shake off an attacking dog, and threw him heavily to the floor. Then the green giant whirled up his club, and it would have gone hardly with Miles if Ward had not remembered his automatic and fired in the nick of time. As if poleaxed, the green man fell; and both the adventurers recovered their feet.
“Look out!” shouted Ward.
Through a wide entrance came charging a dozen greenish giants. Miles fired both his pistols. The leader of the greenish men paused in mid-leap, clawing at his stomach.
“This way, Kid!” yelled Ward; “this way!”
Taking advantage of the confusion in the ranks of the attackers, the two sprang to where an exit in the far wall promised an avenue of escape. Down a broad passage they rushed. Seemingly the passage ended in a cul-de-sac, for a wall of blank whiteness barred further progress. Behind them came charging the greenish giants uttering appalling cries. Desperately the two Americans turned, resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible; but at that moment happened a sheer miracle. The blank wall divided, revealing a narrow crevice through which they sprang. Noiselessly the crevice closed behind them, shutting out the green pursuers, and a voice said--a voice in precise but strangely accented English:
“We have been expecting you, gentlemen, but--where is Solino?”
Never would Miles and Ward forget the amazement of that moment. They were in a place which looked not unlike a huge laboratory. Then they saw it was a lofty room containing a variety of strange mechanisms. But it was not on these their eyes focussed. Confronting them in odd wheelchairs, with hairless heads projecting from tubular containers like the one they had seen encasing the man at the control board of the submarines, were all of half a hundred crippled men!
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Miles, “I must be seeing things!”
“Where is Solino?” demanded the voice in strangely accented English.
Ward saw that the question came from an individual in a wheelchair a few feet in front of them.
“Solino is dead,” he answered.
“Dead?” A ripple of sound came from the oddly seated men.
“Yes, the submarine car was wrecked in the tunnel, and everyone aboard was killed save us two.”
The hairless men looked at one another. “This is Spiro’s work,” said one of them, still in English; and another said, “Yes, Spiro has done this.”
Miles and Ward were recovering somewhat from their initial astonishment. “What place is this?” asked the former.
“This is Apex--or, rather, the Palace of the Heads in Apex.”
The Palace of the Heads! The two Americans tried to control their bewilderment.
“Pardon us if we don’t understand. Everything is so strange. First the submarine was wrecked. Then we entered the crystal room and the tunnel vanished. We can’t understand how this place can be at the bottom of the Atlantic.”
“It isn’t at the bottom of the Atlantic.”
“Not at the bottom? Then where?”
“It isn’t,” said the voice slowly, “in your world at all.”
The import of what was said did not at first penetrate the minds of the Americans. “Not in our world?” they echoed stupidly.
“Come,” said the crippled man smiling inscrutably, “you are tired and hungry. Later I shall explain more.” His strangely colored eyes bored into their own. “Sleep,” said his voice softly, imperatively; and though they fought against the command with all the strength of their wills, heaviness weighted down their eyelids and they slept.
From dreamless sleep they awakened to find that fatigue had miraculously vanished, that their wounds were healed and their bodies and clothes were free of slime and filth. All but one of the crippled men--for so in their own minds they termed the odd individuals--had gone away. That one was the man who had first addressed them.
“Do not be alarmed,” he said. “In our own fashion we have given you food and rest and attended to your comfort.”
Ward smiled, though a trifle uncertainly. “We are not easily frightened,” he replied.
“So! That is good. But now listen: my name is Zoro and I am Chief of the Heads of Apex. Ages ago we Heads lived on a continent of your Earth now known to scholars as Atlantis. When Atlantis sank below the waves--in your sacred book that tragedy is known as the Flood--all but a scattered few of its people perished. I and my companions were among the survivors.”
The Americans stared at him unbelievingly. “But that was a hundred thousand years ago!” exclaimed Ward.
“Three hundred thousand,” corrected Zoro.
They stared at him dumbly.
“Yes,” said Zoro; “it sounds incredible to your ears, but it is true. Mighty as is the industrial civilization of your day, that of Atlantis was mightier. Of course, the country wasn’t then called Atlantis; its real name was A-zooma. A-zooma ruled the world. Its ships with sails of copper and engines of brass covered the many seas which now are lands. Its airships clove the air with a safety and speed your own have still to attain. The wealth of the world poured into A-zooma, and its rulers waxed vain-glorious and proud. Time after time the enslaved masses of A-zooma and of conquered countries rose in great rebellions. Then against them marched the “iron baylas” breathing death and destruction, and from the air mighty ships poured down the yellow fog...”
Zoro paused, but presently went on: “So we ruled--for ten thousand years; until the scientists who begot those engines of destruction became afraid, because the serfs themselves began to build secret laboratories. We of the priesthood of science saw the inevitable disaster. Long ago we had put off our bodies--”
Zoro smiled at the Americans’ amazement. “No,” he said, “I am not a cripple in a wheelchair. This tubular container holds no fleshly body. Inside of it is a mechanical heart which pumps artificial blood--blood purified by a process I will not describe--through my head. It also contains certain inner devices under my mental control, devices that take the place of human hands and feet. Only by accident or through lack of certain essentials can I die.”
His listeners stared at him in awe. “You mean,” faltered Miles, “that save for your head you are all--machine?”
“Practically, yes. We priest-scientists of the Inner Mystery prolonged life in such fashion. I was three thousand years old when--But enough! I will not weary you with a recital of how the slaves burrowed the bowels of A-zooma and of how the masters loosed against them the forces of the atom. Suffice it to say that on an island we built our vast system of buildings--or tunnel as you choose to call it--and sealed them away from the outside world, entrance being made by submarines through automatically controlled locks.
“At about this time our experiments opened up another realm of existence, manifesting at a vibratory rate above that of earth. To this new realm we brought workers who built the City of Apex and the palace you are in. But, unfortunately, we brought with us no weapons of offense, and in the new world we had neither the material nor the delicate mechanisms and factories to reproduce them. However, for countless ages there was no rebellion on the part of the workers who, even in A-zooma, had worshipped us as gods. They were born, grew old and died, but we abode forever. Besides, in the City of Apex they were freer than they had ever been before, merely having to furnish our laboratories with certain raw materials and the wherewithal to sustain the blood supply on which our lives depend. But, of late, they have made common cause with the original inhabitants of this plane, the green men--”
The green men! As if the words were a signal, a dreadful thing happened. Out of a far shadow leaped a lean and hideous monster. To Miles’ startled eyes it seemed to grow as it leaped. Thin, unbelievably thin it was, yet swelling at the head. From between two goggle-eyes writhed a rope-like trunk. Twelve feet in the air its head towered over Zoro. “Look out!” screamed the American.
Zoro’s chair seemed to jump. Too late! Around the tubular container wrapped the snake-like trunk, plucking the wheelchair and its occupant from the floor and dangling them high in air. “Shoot!” cried Zoro.
Miles shot. His bullet ploughed through the unbelievably thin body and ricochetted from a pillar beyond. Ward fired with better effect. One of the goggle eyes spattered like glass. Under a fusillade of bullets the monster wilted, giving expression to a weird, shrill cry. Zoro dangled head downwards. To drop from such a height on his skull would probably be fatal.
But the monster did not drop him. Instead, in its death agony, its grip tightened, and the Americans witnessed an incredible sight. Before their very eyes the monster began rapidly to shrink. Its tenuous body telescoped together, becoming thinner and thinner in the process, until on the floor there lay the lifeless body of a snake-like creature not more than six inches in length!
“Good Lord!” breathed Miles.
Zoro who had escaped unscathed from his perilous plight, regarded it with his peculiarly colored eyes.
“It is a tah-a-la,” he said, “and must have entered the room at the same time you did. The green men often capture and train them for hunting. When about to seize their prey their bodies have the power of enormously stretching.” Outwardly he seemed unaffected by the danger safely passed and waved away several of his fellows who had wheeled to the spot attracted by the noise of the pistols. The Americans were more shaken. “Perhaps,” said Ward, “there is danger of--”
“None,” replied Zoro. “I know there are no other tah-a-las inside these rooms, since it is the nature of these beasts to rush to each other’s aid when they scream. And as for outside attacks, the laboratories are insulated against any the insurgent workers can make. Their weapons are poor--the green men use but clubs. No, it is not their attacks we fear but their refusal to furnish us with supplies. They worshipped us as gods, and the giving of supplies was long a religious rite. But now they doubt our divinity, and, since they no longer listen to or obey our decrees, we have no means of punishing them. Spiro is responsible for this.”