In the frozen wastes at the bottom of the world two explorers find a strange pool of white fire—and have a strange adventure.
"The Lake of Light"
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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?"
"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."
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.
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."
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.
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!
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.
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."
"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 good 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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
"Anyhow," she said later, "it is good to have both of you here with me. I am sorry indeed for you that you may never see your country again. But it is good fortune for me. I was so lonely."
"These damned crabs don't know me!" Ray Summers muttered. "They think I'll play around like a pet kitten, for the rest of my life! They'll get their eyes opened. We'll spend the winter on Palm Beach yet!"
"It seems to me that we're rather outnumbered." I said. "And it's rather more pleasant in here than outside."
"I'm going to get that rifle," Ray declared, "and give these big crabs a little respect for humanity!"
"Let's rest up a while first, anyhow," I urged.
"You may sleep," she told us. "The Things never come here. And they said they would not harm you, if you did not try to go out."
We lay down on the silken beds. In a few minutes I was sleep. I awoke to feel a curious unease, a sense of impending catastrophe. Ray was bending over me, his face drawn with anxiety.
"Something's happened!" he whispered. "She's gone!"
I sat up, staring into the liquid blue vastness of the tall cylinder above us.
"Listen! What's that?"
A deep bell-note sounded out, brazen, clanging. Sonorous, throbbing, mighty, it rang through the cylindered rooms. Slowly it died; faded to silence with a last ringing pulse. Tense minutes of silence passed. Again it boomed out, throbbed, and died. After more long minutes there was yet a third.
Ray started; ran to the arched door. We looked out upon the dense forest of gold and crimson mushrooms that grew below the black cavern roof. Before us, across a few hundred yards of bare rocky beach, was the edge of the crystal lake with the city of blue cylinders upon its floor.
"God! What's that?" Ray gripped my arm crushingly.
A thin wailing scream came across the beach from the black lake. A piteous sound it was, plaintive, pleading. Higher and higher it rose, until it was a piercing silver note. Clear and sweet it was, but inexpressibly lonely, sorrowful, mournful. It sank slowly, died away. Again it rose and fell, and again.
"It's Mildred!" I gasped. "Didn't she say something about singing to the crabs?"
"Yes! I think she did. Well, if that's singing, it's wonderful! Had me feeling like I'd never see another human. But listen—"
Mildred sang not words but notes of pure music.
The gay song died.
And the strong clear voice rose again with the force and challenge of bugle notes, with a swift marching time beating through it. It throbbed to a rhythm strange to me. It set my feet tingling to move; it set my heart to pulsing faster. It was a challenge to action, to battle.
Unconsciously obeying the suggestion of the song, Ray whispered, "Let's get over and see what's going on."
We leaped through the door and ran across four hundred yards of rocky beach to the edge of the lake. We stepped on a granite bluff a few yards above the water, to gaze upon as strange a sight as men ever saw.
The black water lay before us, a transparent crystal sheet. On its rocky bottom we could see the innumerable clusters of upright azure cylinders that were the city of the crabs. The blue cylinders seemed to bend and waver in the water.
A hundred yards away from us, over the dark water, was Mildred. She stood on a slender azure cylinder that came just to the surface. Tall, slender, superbly graceful, with only the scant bodice of green silken stuff about her, she looked like the statue of a goddess in white marble. Her head was thrown up, golden-brown hair fell behind her shoulders, and the pure notes of her song rang over the water.
Beyond her, all about her, were thousands upon thousands of the giant crabs, swimming at the surface of the water. Their green antenna rose above the water, a curious forest of luminous tentacles, flexing, wavering. Green coils moved and swung in time to the strange rhythm of her song.
The last note died. Her white arms fell in a gesture of finality. The thousands of twisting green antennae vanished below the water, and the giant red crabs swam swiftly back to the tall blue cylinders of their submerged city.
Her voice rang out in a golden shout of welcome. With a clean dive she slipped into the water and came swimming swiftly toward us. Her slim white body glided through the crystal water as smoothly as a fish. Reaching the shore she sprang to her feet and ran to meet Ray.
"The Things come together when the giant bell rings, to listen to my song," she said. "They like my singing, as they liked mother's. But for that, they would not let us live. That is the reason they would not let us go."
"I like your singing, too," Ray informed her. "Though at first you made me cry. It was so lonely."
"The song was lonely because I have been lonely. Did you hear the glad song I sang because you have come?"
"Sure! Great stuff! Made me feel like a kid at Christmas!"
"Come," she said. "We will eat."
Like a child, she took Ray's hand again, smiling naively up at him as she led the way toward the three sapphire cylinders.
Back in the blue-vaulted dining room, Ray made Mildred sit with me at the little metal table while he served the little brown cakes and the dark-red soup and the fragrant amber drink. Mildred got up and brought a great metal bowl filled with tiny purple fruits that had a delicious, piquant tang.
Ray was deeply thoughtful as he ate. Suddenly he sat back and cried out:
"I've got it!"
"Got what?" I demanded.
"I want that rifle! Mildred can find out where it is. Then, when she sings, the crabs will all come. I'll get the gun, while she is singing, and hide it. Then when it comes time to get out, she will sing while you and I are getting our packs up the cliff. I can cover them with the rifle while she gets up to us."
"Looks good enough," I agreed, "provided they all come to hear the singing."
My feet were much better than they had been, and Mildred dressed them again with the yellow oil. Ray examined them, said that I should be able to walk as well as ever in a few days.
Considerable time went by. Since the crabs had taken our watches, we had no very accurate way of counting days; but I think we slept about a dozen times. Ray and Mildred spent a good deal of time together, and seemed not altogether to hate each other. By the end of the time my feet were quite well; I did not even lose a toe.
We went over our plans for escape in great detail. The crabs had confiscated our clothing. Mildred managed to secure the return of her furs, and, incidentally, while she was about it, learned where the rifle was.
Fortunately, perhaps realizing that it would be ruined by water, the crabs had not taken it to their submerged city. Being amphibious, they lived above water as easily as below, and much of their industrial equipment was above the surface. The great pumps which lifted the white phosphorescent liquid from the canals back to the cone above the ground were located beyond the great lake. I did not see the place, but Ray tells me that they had great engines and a wealth of strange and complex machinery there. It was at these pumps that they had left our rifle and instruments, as Mildred found when she was recovering her furs.
They had taken our food, and we prepared as much more as we could carry, arranged sacks for it, and made quilted garments for ourselves.
I waited above the beach, enchanted by the haunting, wordless melody of the gongs. It seemed that only a few minutes had passed, though it may have been an hour or more, when Ray was by my side again. He flourished the rifle.
"I've got it! In good shape, too. Hasn't even been fired, though it looks like they have opened a box of cartridges, and cut open one or two. Maybe they didn't understand the outfit—or it may be such a primitive weapon that they aren't interested in it."
We hurried up to the building of blue cylinders and carefully hid the gun and ammunition, as well as a sun compass, a pair of prism binoculars, and a few other articles Ray had recovered.
In a few minutes Mildred, having seen Ray's return, finished her song and ran up to join us. We arranged our packs, and waited the next call of the throbbing brazen gong to make the attempt for freedom.
We slept twice again before the clang of the great gong. Ray and Mildred were always together; I could not see that they were at all impatient.
The bell note came, the awful brazen vibration of it ringing on the black cavern roof. It came when we were eating, in the liquid turquoise radiance of the lofty cylinder. We sprang out. Ray gave his last directions to Mildred.
"Give us time to get to the top of the cliff by the shining fall. Then swim ashore and run. They may not notice. And if they do, we give 'em a taste of lead!"
I was not very much surprised when he took the girl in his arms and put a burning kiss on her red lips. She gasped, but her struggles subsided very quickly; she clung to him as he freed her.
She paused a moment in the door, before she ran down across the beach. A radiant light of joy was burning in her great blue eyes, even though tears were glistening there.
I stepped confidently out of the jungle into the clearing below the splendid opalescent fall of fire—and threw myself backward in trembling panic. A flaming crimson ray cut hissing into the towering mushrooms above my head.
Mildred's confidence that the crabs would all gather at the ringing of the gong had been mistaken. The two guards had been waiting at the foot of the ladder, their flaming heat-rays ready for use.
As I dived back into the jungle, I heard two quick reports of the rifle. I scrambled awkwardly to my feet, beneath the heavy pack. Ray stood alert beside me, the smoking rifle in his hand. The giant crabs had collapsed by the foot of the ladder, in grotesque and hideous metal-bound heaps of red shell and twisted limb. Blood was oozing from a ragged hole in the head of each.
"Glad they were here," Ray muttered. "I wanted to try the gun out on 'em. They're soft enough beneath the shell; the bullet tears 'em up inside. Let's get a move on!"
He sprang past the revolting carcasses. I followed, holding my nose against their nauseating, charnel-house odor. We scrambled up the metal ladder.
As we climbed, I could hear the haunting melody of Mildred's wordless song coming faint across the distance. Once I glanced back for a moment, and glimpsed her tiny white figure above the black water, with the thousands of green antennae rising in a luminous forest about her.
We reached the top of the cliff, where the opalescent river plunged down in the flaming fall. Ray chose convenient boulders for shelter and quickly we flung ourselves flat. Ray replaced the fired cartridges in the rifle and leveled it across the rock before him. I unslung the binoculars and focussed them.
"Watch 'em close," Ray muttered. "And tell me when to shoot."
In fifteen minutes the slender white form of Mildred appeared at the foot of the ladder. She sprang over the dead crabs and scrambled nimbly up. Soon she was halfway up the face of the cliff, and there had been no sign of discovery. My hopes ran high.
I was sweeping the whole plain with the binoculars, while Ray peered through the telescopic sights of the rifle. Suddenly I saw a giant crab pause as he lumbered along the edge of the black lake. He rose upright; his shining green antennae wavered. Then I saw him reaching with a knobbed claw for a slender silver tube slung to his harness.
"Quick! The one by the lake! To the right of that canal!"
I pointed quickly. Ray swung his gun about, aimed. A broad red beam flashed from the tube the thing carried, and fell upon the cliff. The report of Ray's rifle rang thunderously in my ears. The red ray was snapped off abruptly, and the giant crab rolled over into the black water of the lake. Half a dozen of the huge crabs were in sight. They all took alarm, probably having seen the flash of the red ray. They raised grotesque heads, twisted stalked eyes and waved green antennae. Some of them began to raise the metal tubes of the heat-ray.
"Let's get all there are in sight!" Ray muttered.
He began firing regularly, with deliberate precision. A few times he had to take two shots, but ordinarily one was enough to bring down a giant crab in a writhing red mass. Three times a red ray flashed out, once at the girl clambering up the ladder, twice at our position above the precipice. But the intense color of the ray announced its source, and Ray stopped each before it could be focussed to do damage.
I looked over at Mildred and saw that she was still climbing bravely, a little over a hundred feet below.
Intense, ruby-red rays flashed up from the lake shore. Twice, one of them beat scorchingly upon us for a moment. Once a rock beside us was fused and cracked with the heat. But Ray fired rapidly, and the rays winked out as fast as they were born.
He was powder-stained, black and grimy. The heat-ray had singed his clothing. He was dripping perspiration. The gun was so hot that he could hardly handle it. But still the angry bark of the rifle rang out, almost with a deliberate rhythm. Ray was a fine shot in his youth on his father's Arizona ranch, but his best shooting, I think, was done from above that cascade of liquid fire, at the hordes of monster scarlet crabs.
Mildred scrambled over the edge, unharmed. Her breast was heaving, but her face was bright with joy.
"You are wonderful!" she gasped to Ray.
We seized the packs and beat a hurried retreat. A crimson forest of the heat-rays flashed up behind us, and flamed upon the black walls and roof of the cavern until glistening lava became incandescent, cracked and fused.
We were below the line of the rays. Quickly we made the bend in the cavern and followed at a halting run up the path beside the shimmering river of opalescent light. Before us the torrent of fire fell in a magnificent flaming arc from the roof.
We rounded the pool of lambent milk of flame, passed the roaring torrent of coruscating liquid radiance and reached the ladder in the square, metal shaft. "If we can get to the top before they can get up here, we're safe," Ray said. "If we don't, this shaft will be a chimney of fire."
In the haste of desperation, we attacked the thousand-foot climb. I went first, Mildred below me, and Ray, with the rifle, in the rear. Our heavy packs were a terrible impediment, but we dared not attempt to go on without them. The metal rungs were four feet apart; it was no easy task to scramble from one to the next, again and again, for hundreds of times.
The cold gray light of the polar sky came about us; a dull, purple-blue square grew larger above. I clambered over the last rung, flung myself across the top of the metal shaft. Looking down at the tiny fleck of white light so far below, I saw a bit of red move in it.
"A crab!" I shouted. "Hurry!"
Mildred was just below me. I took her pack and helped her over the edge.
Red flame flared up the shaft.
We reached over, seized Ray's arms and fairly jerked him out of the ruby ray.
The bitterly cold wind struck our hot, perspiring bodies as we scrambled down the rungs outside the square metal shaft. Mildred shivered in her thin attire.
"Out of the frying pan into the ice box!" Ray jested grimly as we dropped, to the frozen plain.
Quickly we tore open our packs. Ray and I snatched out clothing and wrapped up the trembling girl. In a few minutes we had her snugly dressed in the fur garments that had been Major Meriden's. Then we got into the quilted garments we had made for ourselves.
The intensely red heat-beam still flared up the shaft. Ray looked at it in satisfaction.
"They'll have it so hot they can't get up it for some time yet," he remarked hopefully.
We shouldered our packs and set out over the wilderness of snow, turning our backs upon the metal-bound lake of fire, with the tall cone of iridescent flame rising in its center.
The deep, purple-blue sky was clear, and, for a rarity, there was not much wind. I doubt that the temperature was twenty below. But it was a violent change from the warm cavern. Mildred was blue and shivering.
Then Ray went out and soon returned with a sealed tin of oil from the wrecked plane, with which he lit the primus stove. Soon the tent was warm. We melted snow and cooked thick red soup. After the girl had made a meal of the scalding soup, with the little golden cakes, she professed to be feeling as well as ever.
"We can fix our plane!" Ray said. "There's a perfectly good prop on Meriden's plane!"
We went back to the wreck, found the tools, and removed an undamaged propeller. This we packed on the sledge, with a good supply of fuel for the stove.
"I'm sure we're safe now, so far as the crab-things go," he said. "I don't fancy they'd get around very well in the snow."
In an hour we broke camp, and made ten miles of the distance back to the plane before we stopped. We were anxious about Mildred, but she seemed to stand the journey admirably; she is a marvelous physical specimen. She seemed running over with gay vivacity of spirit; she asked innumerable questions of the world which she had known only at second-hand from her mother's words.
We found the plane safe. It was the work of but a short time to remove the broken propeller and replace it with the one we had brought from the wrecked ship. We warmed and started the engine, broke the skids loose from the ice, turned the plane around, and took off safely from the tiny scrap of smooth ice.
Mildred seemed amazed and immensely delighted at the sensations of her first trip aloft.
A few hours later we were landing beside the Albatross, in the leaden blue sea beyond the ice barrier. Bluff Captain Harper greeted us in amazed delight as we climbed to the deck.
"You're just in time!" he said. "The relief expedition we landed came back a week ago. We had no idea you could still be alive, with only a week's provisions. We were sailing to-morrow. But tell us! What happened? Your passenger—"
"We just stopped to pick up my fiancee," Ray grinned. "Captain, may I present Miss Mildred Meriden? We'll be wanting you to marry us right away."