Marooned in Andromeda

Clark Ashton Smith

"I'm going to put you fellows off on the first world of the first planetary system we come to."

The icy deliberation of Captain Volmar's tones was more terrible than any show of anger would have been. His eyes were chill and sharp as the sapphire lights in snow; and there was a fanatic rigor in the tightening of his lips after the curtly spoken words.

The three mutineers looked sullenly at each other and at the captain, but said nothing. The leveled automatics of Volmar and the three other members of the space-flier's crew made all appeal or argument seem absurd. They knew that there could be no relenting on the part of that thin, austere mariner of the interstellar gulfs, who had dreamt of circumnavigating space and thus becoming the Magellan of the constellations.

For five years he had driven the great vessel further and further away from the earth and the solar system, which had long ago dwindled into points of telescopic light — for five years he had hurled it onward at more than the speed of cosmic rays, through the shoreless, bottomless night, among the shifting stars and nebulae. The configuration of the skies had changed beyond all recognition; the Signs were no longer those that are known to terrestrial astronomers; far-off stars had leapt into blazing suns and had faded back to stars; and there had been a flying glimpse of stranger planets. And year by year the cold terror of the endless deeps, the vertiginous horror of untold infinitude, had crept like a slow paralysis upon the souls of the three men; and a nostalgia for the distant earth had swept them with unutterable sickness; till they could bear it no longer, and had made their hasty, ill-planned attempt to secure control of the vessel and turn it homeward.

There had been a brief, desperate struggle. Forewarned by a subtle instinct, Volmar had suspected them and had been in readiness; and he and the men loyal to him had armed themselves furtively in preparation, while the others had made their attack bare-handed, man to man. All of the mutineers were wounded, though not seriously, before they could be subdued; and blood dripped from their wounds on the floor of the flier, as they stood before Volmar.

Albert Adams, Chester Deming and James Roverton were the names of the mutineers. Adams and Deming were quite young, and Roverton was now verging upon early middle-age. Their very presence in Volmar's crew was proof of intellectual ability and prime physical fitness, for all had been subjected to examinations of the most rigorous and prolonged order. A high knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and other branches of science had been required, as well as a mastery of mechanics; and perfect sight, hearing, equilibrium and a flawless constitution were likewise requisite. Also, it goes without saying that they belonged to a most active, adventurous type: for no ordinary men would even have volunteered for such a project as Volmar's. Innumerable voyages had already been made to the moon and the nearer planets; but, previous to this, aside from the one trip made to Alpha Centauri by the Allen Farquhar expedition, no one had dared the outer deep and the constellations.

Volmar and the three who had remained faithful to him were all of the same breed: men of religious, well-nigh inhuman devotion to an idea, scientists to whom nothing mattered apart from science, who were capable of martyrizing themselves and others if by so doing they could prove a theory or make a discovery. And in Volmar himself there was a spirit of mad adventure, a desire to tread where no man had been before; the cold flame of an imperial lust for unexplored immensitude. The mutineers were more human; and the years of bleak confinement in the space-flier, among the terrific pits of infinity, remote from all that is life to normal beings, had broken down their morale in the end. Few, perhaps, could have endured it as long as they.

"Another thing," the chill voice of Volmar went on: "I shall put you off without weapons, provisions or oxygen-tanks. You will have to shift for yourselves — and of course, the chances are that the atmosphere, if there is any, will prove unfit for human respiration. Jasper will now proceed to truss you up, so that there won't be any more foolishness."

Alton Jasper, a well-known astronomer, who was first mate of the flier, stepped forward and bound the hands of the mutineers behind them with rope. Then they were locked in a lower apartment of the vessel, above the manhole that gave entrance and egress. This apartment was insulated from all the rest; and the manhole could be opened from the higher rooms by means of an electrical device. There the mutineers lay in absolute darkness, except when someone entered with a meager allotment of food and drink.

Aeons seemed to pass, and the three men abandoned all efforts to keep a reckoning of time. They spoke little, for there was nothing to speak of but failure and despair and the dreadful unknown fate ahead of them. Sometimes one of them, particularly Roverton, would gallantly try to crack a jest; but the laughter that answered the jest was the last flare of a courage tried almost beyond human endurance.

One day, they heard the voice of Volmar addressing them through the speaking-tube. It was far-off and high and thin, like a voice from some sidereal altitude.

"We are now approaching Delta Andromedae," the voice announced. "It has a planetary system, for two worlds have already been sighted. We shall make a landing, and put you off on the nearest one, in about two hours."

The mutineers felt a sense of comparative relief. Anything, even sudden death from the inhalation of some irrespirable atmosphere, would be better than the long confinement. Stoically, like condemned criminals, they prepared themselves for the fatal plunge into the unknown.

The black minutes ebbed away, and then the electric lights were turned on. The door opened, and Jasper came in. He removed the bonds of the three men in silence; then he retired, and the door was locked upon them for the last time.

They were aware, somehow, that the flier had slackened its speed. They tried to stand up, with their stiffened limbs, and found it hard to maintain their equilibrium, for they had long been habituated to a rate of movement far beyond that of any cosmic body. Then they were aware that the vessel had stopped: there was a sudden jolt that flung them against the wall, and a cessation of the engines' eternal drone. The silence was very strange, for the throbbing of the great electromagnetic motors had long been as familiar to them as the beating of their own blood.

The manhole opened with a harsh, metallic screech, and there was a faint glimmering of bluish-green light from without. Then there came a gust of acrid air, and a waft of indescribable smells that were unlike anything on earth. The mutineers heard the voice of Volmar once more:

"Out with you — and make it quick. I've no more time to waste on rubbish."

Holding his breath, Roverton approached the manhole, crawled through, and climbed down the steel ladder that ran along the outer side of the flier. The others followed him in turn. They could see little, for apparently it was night in the new world on which they were being landed. They seemed to hang over an indefinite abyss with no bottom, but on reaching the end of the ladder, they found solid earth beneath their feet. The air, though sharp and unpleasant to the nostrils, was apparently breathable. They took a few careful steps, keeping close together, on a surface that was smooth and level to their tread. While they were trying to adjust their senses to the dim surrounding, they saw the vague bulk of the flier begin to move, and then heard the prodigious roar of its ascent to the skies.

"Marooned!" said Roverton, with a short laugh. "Well, there's one safe bet — we're the first mutineers who have ever been put off in Andromeda. I vote that we make the most of the experience. The air hasn't killed us yet, so evidently it contains a proportion of hydrogen and oxygen not too dissimilar from that of the earth's atmosphere. And, with such air, there is a good chance of finding plant-life, or even animal-life, of types that will afford edible substances."

The three men peered about, straining thei__eyes in an effort to penetrate the blue-green darkness. None of them was unimaginative; and they felt the thrill of an eeriness beyond all parallel, an overpowering strangeness that preyed upon their nerves with a million intimations of unrevealed and formless things never before conceived by man. Their situation was unthinkably desolate; but behind the desolation there seemed to lurk the multitudinous and multiform teeming of unearthly life. However, they could see nothing tangible, except some vague unmoving masses that resembled large boulders. The air was a little chill, and its acrid character became more noticeable, in unison with a peculiar darkness.

The skies above were faint and vaporous, with a few stars glowing dully in their depths. Some of the stars were momentarily obscured then disclosed, as if there were some movement or change in the occluding medium. Everywhere there was the sense of abysmal and immeasurable distance; and the mutineers were conscious of an odd, terrific vertigo, as if the horizontal spaces on all sides might draw them in like some unfathomable gulf.

Roverton stepped forward toward one of the boulder-like masses, taking careful note of the gravitational pull exerted by the ground. He was not quite sure, but thought that he experienced a sense of weight, of difficulty in locomotion, slightly beyond that which is felt on our earth

"I think this world is a little larger or heavier than our own," he announced. The others followed him, and were aware of like sensations. They stopped uncertainly, wondering what was to be done next.

"I suppose the sun will rise some time," observed Deming. "Delta Andromedae is a sizable affair, and seemingly the warmth it affords is comparable to that of our sun. Doubtless it will yield a similar illumination. In the meanwhile we might as well sit down and wait, if this is a bona fide boulder."

He seated himself on the dark mass, which was almost circular in form and was perhaps eight feet in diameter by three in height, with a gently rounded top. The others followed suit. The object seemed to be covered with a sort of thick, shaggy, resilient moss.

"This is luxury," exclaimed Roverton. "I'd like to take a nap." Neither he nor any of the others, however, was in any state to permit of slumber. All were ungovernably excited by the novelty of their position, and were aware of a terrible disquietude, a wild nervousness due to the shock of being plunged among alien atmospheric and geologic forces, the magnetic emanations of a soil untrod by human foot. Of this soil itself they could determine nothing, except that it was moist and was apparently devoid of grass or plant-forms.

They waited. The darkness was like the slow oozing of a cold, glaucous eternity. The mutineers carried watches, which perforce had run down during their period of incarceration. They wound and set these watches going, and struck a match occasionally to note the passage of time — a proceeding which struck them all with its absurdity, since there was no means of knowing whether or not the twenty-four hours of the terrestrial day would correspond in any manner to the diurnal period of this new world.

Hours dragged on. They talked with sporadic and feverish loquacity in an effort to fight down the nervousness of which all were uncontrollably conscious. Strong and mature men though they were, they felt at times like children alone in the dark, with a horde of monstrous unknown terrors pressing about them. When silence fell, the unformulable weirdness and horror of the environing gloom seemed to draw closer; and they dared not be still for very long. The hush of the dim heavens and the dimmer ground was oppressive with unimaginable menace. Once, they heard a far-off sound, like the whirring and jarring of a rusty crank. It soon ceased, and was not repeated; but at long intervals there were sharp, tiny stridulations, like those of insects, which appeared to come from the nearer distance. They were so high and harsh that the teeth of the three men were actually set on edge by them.

Suddenly, they all perceived that the darkness was beginning to lighten. A chill glimmering crept along the ground, and the boulder-like masses defined themselves more clearly. The light was very peculiar, for it appeared to emanate from the soil and to tremble upward in visible waves like those of heat. It was faintly iridescent, like the nimbus of a cloudy moon; and, gathering strength, it soon became comparable to earthly moonlight in its illuminative power. Beneath it, the soil displayed a greenish-grey color and a consistency resembling half-dried clay. The sides of the boulder-forms were plainly lit, through their tops remained in shadow. The moss-like substance covering them was of a purple hue, and was very long and coarse and hairy.

The mutineers were greatly puzzled by the light. "Is it some sort of radioactivity ?" queried Roverton. "Is it phosphorescence? Is it due to some luminous micro-organism — a kind of noctiluca?"

He stooped down and peered closely at the trembling waves of iridescence. He gave an exclamation. The light, as it rose, seemed to be full of infinitesimal motes, which hovered about a foot from the ground at their highest flight. They poured unceasingly to this level in teeming millions.

"Animaculae of some unknown kind," decided Roverton. "Evidently their bodies are highly luminescent-one could almost read a book by this light." He took out his watch and found that the figures were clearly distinguishable.

After awhile the weird luminosity began to subside, and ebbed along the soil as it had come. The re-established darkness, however, was not of long duration. Soon the landscape declared its outlines again; and this time the illumination came in a normal manner, like the twilight of a misty dawn. A plain with barely perceptible undulations, and having scores of the boulder-forms scattered about it, was now visible for some distance, till it was lost among the streamers of curling vapor that rose all about. A sluggish, leaden-colored stream ran through the plain, about two hundred feet from where Roverton and his fellows were sitting, and vanished in the mist. Soon the vapors, hueless at first, were tinged with deepening colors — pink and saffron and heliotrope and purple — as if an aurora were rising behind them. There was a brightening in the center of this prismatic display; and it was surmised that the solar body, Delta Andromedae, had now ascended above the horizon. The air grew rapidly warmer. Seeing the nearby stream, the men all realized that they were excessively thirsty. Of course, the water might not be drinkable; but they decided to chance it. The fluid was peculiarly thick, milky and opaque. The taste was a trifle brackish; but nevertheless, it allayed their thirst; and they felt no immediate ill-effects.

"Now for breakfast, if we can find it," said Roverton. "We lack nothing but food-stuffs, utensils and fuel."

"I can't see that we'll find any by staying where we are," observed Adams. "Of all the desolate holes! Let's go." A discussion arose as to which direction they should take. They all sat down again on one of the mossy purple masses, to decide the momentous problem. The landscape was equally barren and dreary on all sides; but at last they agreed to follow the flowing of the leaden stream, which ran toward the auroral display. They were about to rise, when the boulder-form on which they were sitting seemed to heave upward suddenly. Adams found himself sprawling on the ground, but the other two were quick enough to save themselves from a like fate. Startled, they leapt away; and turning back, they saw that the great mass had opened, as if cloven through the center, revealing an immense hollow lined with a whitish material that resembled the interior of an animal's stomach. The material trembled incessantly, and a glutinous liquid welled from within it, like saliva or digestive fluid.

"Heavens!" ejaculated Roverton. "Who ever dreamt of anything like that? Is it plant, animal, or both ?"

He approached the mass, which gave no sign of movement apart from the trembling. Apparently it was rooted, or deeply embedded in the ground. As he drew near, the production of the glutinous liquid became more copious.

A sharp stridulation, similar to the noises heard during the night, was now audible. Turning, the mutineers saw a most singular creature flying toward them. It was large as a Chinese teal, but presented the general appearance of an insect rather than a bird. It had four large, pointed, membranous wings, a fat grub-like body marked off into segments, a thin head with two black periscope-like attachments rising above it, a dozen long intricate antennae, and a greenish-yellow beak shaped like that of a parrot. The body and head were a loathsome verminous gray. The thing flew past Roverton and lit on the substance he had been inspecting. Crouching down on four short, rudimentary legs, it started to sip the fluid with its beak, trailing its wings as it did so. The fluid welled as if in waves, and the wings and body of the creature were soon glistening with slime. Presently it ceased to sip, its head sank in the fluid, it struggled feebly to free itself, and then lay still.

"Ugh!" said Deming. "So that's the idea. A sort of Andromedan pitcher-plant or fly-trap. If the flies are all like that we'll need tennis-rackets for swatters."

As he spoke, three more of the insect creatures flew past, and began to repeat the actions and the fate of their predecessor. No sooner were they securely imprisoned, when the shaggy mass proceeded to close itself till the white lining was no longer discernible. The cleavage where it had opened could barely be detected; and once more the thing presented the appearance of a mossy boulder. Looking about, the mutineers saw that others of the purple masses had opened and were awaiting their victims.

"Those things could easily devour a man," meditated Roverton. "I'd hate to be caught in one of them. Let's get out of this if there is a way out."

He led the way along the sluggish stream. As they went, they saw many more of the gigantic flying insects, which paid no apparent attention to them. After they had gone a few hundred yards, Roverton almost trod on a black creature shaped like an enormous blindworm, which was crawling away from the stream. It was three feet long. Its movements were extremely torpid, and the men passed it with a shudder of repulsion, for the thing was more loathsome than either a snake or a worm

"What's that?" Roverton had stopped, and was listening. The others also paused and listened intently. They all heard the sound of dull, muffled blows, at an indeterminate distance in the fog. The sound was quite rhythmic in its repetition, but ceased at intervals. When it stopped, there was a sharp, shrill, multitudinous cheeping.

"Shall we go on ?" Roverton had lowered his voice cautiously. "We're without weapons; and hell knows what we'll get into. We may find intelligent beings; but there's no means of knowing beforehand whether or not they will prove hostile."

Before his companions could answer, the fog parted and revealed a singular spectacle. No more than a hundred yards down the stream, a dozen pygmy-like beings, about two feet in height, were gathered around one of the purple masses. With instruments whose general form suggested knives and axes, they were cutting away the moss-like integument from the mass and hewing great slabs of the white fleshy material within. Even at that distance, it could be seen that the mass was quivering convulsively, as if it felt their blows.

Suddenly the hewing was suspended. Once more the cheeping sound arose. The pygmies all turned and seemed to be gazing toward Roverton and his companions. Then the sound changed and took on a high, chirping note, like a summons. As if in answer, three monstrous creatures appeared from the fog. Each of them was twenty feet in length, they were like fat lizards in their general form and had an indefinite number of very short legs on which they crawled or waddled with amazing swiftness. Each of them had four saddles of a fantastic type arranged at intervals along its back. They crouched down, as if at a word of command, and all the pygmies swung themselves with incredible celerity into the saddles. Then, to an accompaniment of shrill pitterings, the unearthly cavalcade advanced upon the travelers. There was no time to even think of fleeing. The speed of the lizard-creatures was far beyond that of the fleetest runner: in a few instants they loomed upon the three men, surrounding them and hemming them in with their mammoth length. The creatures were both grotesque and terrible, with their squat, toadlike heads and their puffed bodies mottled in sinister designs with dull blues and rusty blacks and clayish yellows. Each of them had a single bulging eye that glowed with a ruddy phosphorescence in the middle of its face. Their ears, or what appeared to be such, drooped along their jowls in wrinkled folds and hung down like wattles.

Their riders, seen close at hand, were equally bizarre and hideous. Their heads were large and globular, they were cyclops-eyed, but possessed two mouths, one on each side of an appendage like the trunk of an elephant, which depended almost to their feet. Their arms and legs were of the normal number, but seemed to be very supple and boneless, or else had a bone-structure radically different from that of earth-vertebrates. Their hands were four-fingered and were webbed with translucent membranes. Their feet were also webbed, and terminated in long, curving claws. They were altogether naked; were seemingly hairless; and their skin displayed a leaden pallor. The weapons they carried were made of some purplish metal, colored like permanganate of potash. Some were halberds with short handles; and others were crescent-shaped knives weighted at the top of the blade with heavy knobs.

"God !" cried Roverton. "If we only had elephant-guns and automatics !"

The pygmies had stopped their mounts and were gibbering excitedly as they stared with their round orbs at the earth-beings. The sounds they made were scarcely to be duplicated by human vocal chords.

"Mlah! mlah! knurhp! anhkla! hka! lkai! rhpai! " they chattered to each other.

"I guess we're as much of a novelty to them as they are to us," observed Adams.

The pygmies seemed to have arrived at a definite decision. They waved their weapons and chirped, and their lizard-steeds swung round in a semi-circle till all were in a position upstream from the mutineers. They advanced, and the pygmies pointed onward with their weighted knives and halberds as if enjoining the men to precede them. There was nothing to do but obey, for the lizard-creatures opened yawning mouths that were fanged like caverns of stalactites and stalagmites, when they drew near. Roverton and his fellows were forced to proceed at a marathon-like pace in order to keep ahead of them.

"They're herding us like cattle !" Roverton cried.

When they came abreast of the purple-covered mass which the pygmies had been hewing into slabs, a halt was made and the slabs were loaded into large panniers which were then attached to the backs of the monsters by means of a curious harness that looked as if it were wrought of animal intestines. The men were herded in the center of the cavalcade while this work was going on. There was no possible escape; and they resigned themselves with as much scientific calm as they could muster.

After the loading had been accomplished, the pygmies resumed their advance along the stream, driving their captives before them. The fog had now begun to lift and disappear, and a dim yellow solar orb, slightly larger than our sun, became discernible low in the heavens above a remote horizon of serrate peaks. The river turned abruptly after a mile or so and wound away through the desolate plain toward a large lake or sea that filled the further distance with a semi-hue of dull purple. Here the cavalcade left the stream, marshaling its prisoners towards the far-off mountains.

The landscape grew barer and even more desert-like in its character as Roverton and his companions stumbled onward before the gaping maws of the monsters. There were no more of the insect-devouring shaggy masses, nor even insects themselves nor any other forms of life. The plain was like a vast level of dried primordial ooze, or the bed of some vanished ocean.

Hunger and weariness assailed the men. They were driven ever onward at a merciless, unremitting pace, till they panted for breath and their muscles grew leaden with fatigue. Hours seemed to pass; but the dim sun rose no higher above the horizon. It swung in a low arc, like the sun of sub-polar lands. The mountains drew no nearer, but receded on the vast vague skies.

The plain began to reveal details hitherto unnoticed. Low hills sprang up, the undulations deepened. Bare ravines of dark, sullen, semi-basaltic stone intersected it at intervals. Still there were no signs of life, no plants, no trees, no habitations. The mutineers wondered wearily where they were being taken, and when they would reach the destination sought by their captors. They could not imagine what it would be like.

Now they were driven along a ravine in which ran a rapid stream. The ravine grew deeper; and sheer cliffs, increasing in height to a hundred feet or more, hemmed it in on each side. Rounding a sharp turn, the men saw before them a broad space of level shore, and above the shore a cliff that was lined with several rows of cavern-mouths and little steps cut in the stone. Dozens of pygmies, of the same type as their captors, were gathered before the entrances of the lower caves. An animated chattering arose among them at sight of the cavalcade and its prisoners.

"Troglodytes," exclaimed Roverton, feeling in spite of his fatigue the keen interest of a man of science. He and his companions were immediately surrounded by the pygmies, some of whom, on closer inspection, appeared to be of a different sex from the ones they had first encountered. There were also a few infants, the smallest of which were little larger than guinea-pigs.

The members of the cavalcade dismounted and proceeded to unload the panniers with the assistance of the others. The slabs of fleshy white substance were piled on the ground beside several large flat mortars of stone. When the unloading was completed, the pygmies laid some of the slabs in these mortars and began pounding them with heavy pestles. They made signs to the men, enjoining them to do likewise.

"I suppose the stuff is used for food," surmised Adams. "Maybe it's the staff of life among these creatures." He and the others selected pestles and started to pound one of the slabs. The material was easily reduced to a fine, creamy paste. It gave off a pungent odor that was far from unpleasant; and in spite of certain highly repulsive memories the three men became conscious that they were extremely hungry.

When all the mortars were full of paste, the pygmies began to devour it without any further formality, using not only their webbed hands but their prehensile trunks to convey the stuff to their double mouths. They motioned to the men that they also should eat.

The paste had a saline flavor and vaguely resembled a mixture of sea-fish with some nutritious root-vegetable. It was quite palatable on the whole; and it served to allay the pangs of hunger in a fairly satisfactory manner. At the end of the meal a sort of fermented beverage, yellow-green in color, was brought out in shallow vessels of earthen-ware. The taste was disagreeable and very acrid; but all fatigue disappeared after a few sips; and the mutineers were able to survey their situation with new hopefulness and courage.

Several hours were now spent in pounding up the reminder of the slabs. The paste was stored in broad-mouthed urns and these urns were carried into the lower caves. Roverton and his comrades were signed to assist in this work. The caves were too low to permit their standing upright and were very dark and shadowy, with many ramifications of irregular size. The furnishings were quite primitive, as was to be expected; though there was a welcome degree of cleanliness. They were full of a smoke-like smell, and in one of them a little fire was burning. The fuel resembled some sort of peat. There were tiny couches covered with furless skins, probably those of creatures similar to the lizard-things.

The low sun had gone down behind the cliffs when the last urn was carried into the caverns. A cold green twilight gathered along the streams, thickened by the rising wispy vapors. The lizard-monsters were led away to a cave larger than the rest, lying at some distance apart. Obviously it served as a stable. Then the pygmies retired by twos and threes to their caverns, after indicating a grotto which the men were to occupy. Four pygmies, armed with their queer halberds and heavily weighted knives, remained on guard in front of the entrance.

Darkness flowed into the grotto like a rising sea of stealthy silent ripples. With its coming, an odd lethargy overpowered the men — a reaction from all the stress and strain and hardship they had endured, from the tax of all the new, unearthly impressions their nerves had sustained. They stretched out on the stone floor, using the little couches along the wall for pillows. In a few minutes they were asleep.

They awoke with the sound of myriad cheepings and chatterings outside their cavern in the pale mistiness of dawn.

"Sounds like a caucus," surmised Roverton as he crawled toward the entrance. Peering out, he saw that more than a hundred pygmies, half of whom must have come from some other community, were collected on the stream-bank and were seemingly engaged in an earnest debate. All of them kept looking with their round orbs toward the cave occupied by the mutineers. Their words, expressions, gestures, were so remote from anything familiar to humanity, that it was impossible to guess the trend or import of their debate, or to know whether the decision at which they were arriving was friendly or inimical.

"They give me the creeps," said Deming. "We don't know whether they're going to eat us or elect us for their tribal deities."

Apparently at a word of command, the guards approached the cavern-mouth and motioned the men to come forth. They obeyed. Platters full of the white paste and cups of a sweetish ebon-black beverage were set before them; and while they ate and drank, the whole assemblage looked on in silence. Somehow, there seemed to be a change in the attitude of the pygmies; but the nature of the change, or what it might portend, was beyond surmise. The whole proceeding was extremely mysterious and had almost the air of some sinister sacrament. The black beverage must have been mildly narcotic, for the men began to feel as if they were drugged. There was a slight deadening of all their senses, though their brain-centers remained alert.

"I don't like this," murmured Roverton. He and the others felt a growing disquietude, for which they could assign no determinate reason. They were not re-assured when the three lizard-monsters, followed by two more of a similar type, re-appeared along the stream-bank. All were mounted by armed pygmies who, when they approached, made signs that the men should precede them along their line of march. The mutineers started down-stream, with the mounted guards and the whole assemblage following them.

Soon the bank grew narrower and the walls above more precipitous. The foothold narrowed to a yard-wide path, beside which the waters rushed with sullen vehemence in a series of torrential rapids teethed with yellow foam. Passing a turn in the wall, the men saw that the bank ended in a large cavern-mouth. Beyond, the cliffs rose perpendicularly from the torrent.

The three hesitated as they neared the cavern. What fate was before them they could not conjecture; but their sense of alarm and disquietude increased. They looked back and saw that the foremost lizard-thing was close upon them, yawning more horribly than the black cave in front. They thought of leaping into the stream; but the headlong torrent was full of sharp rocks; and a roaring from beyond the cliff betokened the nearness of a waterfall. The walls above the path were impossible to climb; so they entered the cavern.

The place was quite roomy in distinction to the caves inhabited by the pygmies, and the men were not forced to stoop at any time. But, blinded with the daylight they had left, they stumbled over stones and against the winding walls as they groped in utter darkness. A gust of chill and noisome air came forth like a subterranean wind from the heart of the cavern; and one of the monsters was breathing at their heels. They could see nothing, could be sure of nothing; but perforce they must go on, not knowing if the next step would plunge them into some terrific pit or bottomless gulf. A sense of uncanny menace, of weird unhuman horror, increased upon them momently.

"This place is dark as the coal-cellars of Hades," jested Roverton The others laughed bravely, though their nerves were on edge with sinister expectation and uncertainty.

The draft of dank, mephitic air grew stronger. The smell of stagnant, sunless waters, lying at some unfathomable depth, mingled in the men's nostrils with a nauseating reek as of bat-haunted catacombs or foul animal-dens.

"Phooey !" grumbled Deming. "This is worse than Gorgonzola and fox-guts all in one."

The floor of the cavern began to slope downward. Step by step the descent steepened like some infernal chute, till the mutineers could hardly keep their footing in the dark.

Remote and faint, like a little patch of phosphorescence, a light dawned in the depths below. The walls of the cavern, dolorously ribbed and arched, were now distinguishable. The light strengthened as the men went on; and soon it was all about them, pouring in pale-blue rays from an undiscerned subterranean source.

The incline ended abruptly, and they came out in a vast chamber full of the queer radiance, which appeared to emanate from roof and walls like some kind of radioactivity. They were on a broad semi-circular shelf; and, crossing the shelf, they found that it terminated sharply and fell sheer down for perhaps fifty feet to a great pool in the center of the chamber. There were ledges on the opposite side of the cavern at the same level as the one on which they stood; and there were smaller caves that ramified from these ledges. But apparently none of the caves was attainable from the ledge where the incline had ended. Between, were perpendicular walls that could afford no moment's foothold anywhere.

The three men stood on the brink above the pool and looked about hem. They could hear the shuffling of the first lizard-monster on the incline and could see the baleful glaring of its single eye as it came forward.

"This looks like the last page of the last chapter." Roverton was now leering down at the pool. The others followed his gaze. The waters were dusky, stirless, dull, ungleaming, beneath the bluish glow from the cavern-sides. They were like something that had been asleep or dead for thousands of years; and the stench that arose from them suggested ages of slow putrefaction.

"Good Lord ! What is that ?" Roverton had noticed a change in the waters, an odd glimmer that came from beneath their surface as if a drowned moon were rising within them. Then the dead calm of the pool was broken with a million spreading ripples, and a vast head, dripping with loathsome luminescence, upreared from the waters. The thing was seven or eight feet wide, it was hideously round and formless and seemed to consist mainly of gaping mouths and glaring eyes all strewn together in a mad chaos of malignity and horror. There were at least five mouths, each of them large enough to devour a man at one swallow. They were fangless, and elastically distensible. Scattered among them, the eyes burned like satanic embers.

One of the lizard-monsters had crawled forth on the shelf. Scores of the pygmies were crowding beside and behind it, and some of them now advanced till they were abreast of the men. They stared down at the fearsome thing in the pool and made uncouth gestures and genuflections with heads, hands and long prehensile trunks, as if they were invoking or worshiping it. Their shrill voices rose in a rhythmically wavering chant.

The men were almost stupefied with horror. The creature in the gulf was beyond anything in earthly legend or nightmare. And the rites of the obeisance offered by the pygmies was unbelievably revolting.

"The thing is their god," Roverton cried. "Probably they are going to sacrifice us to it."

The ledge was not thronged with pygmies; and the lizard-monster had pushed forward till the three men had no more than standing room on the brink of the gulf, in a crescent-like arc formed by its body.

The ceremony performed by the pygmies came to an end, their genuflections and chantings ceased, and all turned their eyes in a simultaneous unwinking stare on the mutineers. The four who were mounted upon the lizard-creature gave vent in unison to a single word of command.

"Ptrahsai! " The monster opened its maw and pushed forward with its squat jowl. Its horrible teeth were like a moving porticullis. Its breath was like a fetid wind. There was no time for terror, and no chance to resist: the men tottered and slipped on the narrowing verge, and toppled simultaneously into space. In his fall Roverton clutched automatically at the nearest of the pygmies, caught the creature by its trunk, and bore it along as he hurtled through the air. He and his companions plunged with a huge splash into the pool and sank far below the surface. With a concerted presence of mind they all came up as dose to the cavern-wall as they could and began to look for possible foot-holds. Roverton had not lost his grip on the pygmy. The creature howled ferociously when its head came above the water, and tried to claw him with its long toenails.

The precipice was bare and sheer from the water's edge, with no visible break anywhere. The men swam desperately along it, searching for an aperture or a ledge. The thing of mouths and eyes had begun to move toward them, and they felt sick with terror and repulsion at the sight of its slow, phosphorescent gliding. There was a damnable deliberation, a dreadful leisureliness in its motion, as if it knew that there was no way in which its victims could evade the elastic yawning of those five abominable mouths. It approached, till the cavern-wall beside the swimmers grew brighter with the foul effulgence of its looming head. They could see beneath and behind the head the distorting glowing of a long, formless body submerged in the black abysses of the pool.

Roverton was nearest to the monster when it came abreast. Its malignant bulging eyes were all bent upon him and its foremost mouth opened more widely and slavered with an execrable slime. Now it loomed athwart him, and he could feel the unutterable corruption of its breath. He was driven against the cavern-wall; and, managing to steady himself for a moment, he pushed the pygmy toward the approaching mouth. The pygmy yelled and struggled in a frenzy of fear till the awful slobbering lips had closed upon it. The monster paused as if its appetite and curiosity were appeased for the nonce; and the three men took advantage of this to continue their exploration of the wall.

Suddenly they perceived a low aperture in the smooth cliff, into which the waters flowed with a gentle rippling. The aperture was narrow and its roof was not more than a foot above the surface. It might or might not afford an escape from the pool; but no other possible exit could be detected. Without hesitation Adams swam into the opening and the others followed him.

The water was still deep beneath them and they did not touch bottom anywhere. The walls of the little cavern were luminous at first; but the luminosity soon ceased and left them in absolute darkness. As they swam onward, they could no longer judge the extent of the air-space above them. At no time, however, were they compelled to dive beneath the surface; and they soon found that the cave was now wide enough to permit their moving side by side. They perceived also that they were caught in the flow of an ever-strengthening current which carried them on with considerable velocity. Since there was no sign of pursuit from the monster in the pool, the men began to feel a faint quickening of hope. Of course the stream might carry them to the very bowels of this terrific transstellar world, or might plunge at any moment into some dreadful gulf; or the roof might close in and crush them down beneath the noisome strangling waters. But at any rate they felt that there was a chance of ultimate emergence; and anything almost would be better than the proximity of the luminescent monster with mephitic breath and myriad eyes and mouths. Probably the cave in which they now swam was far too narrow to permit the entrance of its loathly bulk.

How long the three men floated in the swiftening current, it was impossible for them to know. As far as they could tell, there was no change in their situation; nor could they estimate how far they had gone in this underground world. The darkness weighed upon them, seemingly no less opaque and heavy than the water itself and the cavern-walls. They resigned themselves to the obscure progression of the stream, saving their strength as much as possible for any future emergency that might arise.

At length, when it seemed that they were irretrievably lost in the solid abysmal murk, when their eyes had forgotten the very memory of sight, the darkness before them was pierced by a pinpoint of light. The light increased by slow, uncertain degrees, but for awhile they were doubtful as to its nature, not knowing whether they were approaching another vault of phosphorescence, or the actual outer daylight. However, they were thankful for its dim glimmering. The stream had become still swifter and rougher, with boulder-cloven rapids in which their descent was impetuous and dangerous. More than once the men were almost thrown against the dark and jagged masses that towered about them.

All at once the current slackened and the seething rapids died in a broad pool above which the arching of the lofty cavern-dome was now discernible. The light poured in a stream of pale radiance across this pool from what was evidently the cavern's mouth; and beyond the mouth a large sheet of sun-white water stretched away and was lost in the luminous distance.

All three men were suddenly conscious of a crushing, dragging fatigue — an overwhelming reaction from all the peril and hardship they had undergone. But the prospect of emergence from this underworld of mysterious horror prompted them to summon their remaining strength with sodden limbs, they swam toward the cavern-mouth and floated through its black arch into the silvery dazzle of a great lake. The lake was probably the same body of water they had seen from afar on the previous day. Its aspect was ineffably weird and desolate. High cliffs with many buttresses and chimneys overhung the cavern from which they had emerged, and ran away on either side in gradually descending lines till they ceased in long flats of ooze and sand. There was no trace of vegetation anywhere — nothing but the wart stone of the cliffs, and the gray mud of the marshes, and the wan, dead waters. And at first the men thought that there was no life of any kind. They swam along the cliff, looking for a place to land. The levels of ooze and sand were seemingly miles away; and their progress in the sluggish lake was excruciatingly slow and tedious. They felt as if the strange, lifeless waters had soaked them to the bone; and a deadly inertia dragged them down and drugged their very senses till everything became blurred in a monotone of faintness. They were all too exhausted to speak or even think. Dimly, despairingly, they plowed on toward the receding goal of the far-off shore. Somehow, they were aware that a shadow had fallen upon them, breaking the diffused glare of the foggy sun. They were too weary to look up, or even speculate as to the origin of the shadow. Then they heard a harsh, jarring cry and a beating as of stiff, enormous wings, and something swooped down and hovered above them. Turning their heads in the water, the three men saw an incredible sight. The thing that shadowed them was a mammoth bird-like creature with ribbed and leathern wings that were at least fifty feet from tip to tip. It suggested that prehistoric flying monster, the pterodactyl; and also it suggested a pelican, for beneath its seven-foot beak there hung a prodigious pouch. Scarcely crediting their eyes, the swimmers stared at the hovering apparition. It glowered upon them with malevolent orbs of fire big as dinner-plates; and then, with horrible swiftness, it descended. Adams, who was nearest, felt the huge beak close upon him and lift him from the water; and before he could realize what was happening he found himself in the interior of the pouch. Deming was seized and deposited beside him a moment later; and Roverton, who had instinctively dived beneath the surface, was retrieved and drawn out by the questing beak as if he had been a flounder, and joined the other two.

Utterly stunned, they groped about in the noisome darkness of the pouch and were thrown prostrate in a heap as they felt the monster rise and soar heavenward. There were eel-like things that squirmed beneath them; and they breathed a medley of suffocating stenches. They could see nothing; but the gloom in which they lay was not absolute blackness, for the walls of the pouch were sufficiently permeable by light to create a blood-like dusk. The men could hear the loud beating of the leathern wings, could feel the rhythmic throb of their vibration; and while they were trying to habituate themselves to the unique situation they had the sense of being borne onward in vertiginous flight at a great altitude. Roverton was the first to speak.

"Of all the ineffable predicaments! Even a fiction-writer wouldn't dare to imagine this, I suppose the creature has a nest somewhere and it's carrying us home to provide food for its young or its mate."

"Or," suggested Adams, "having caught a supply of live meat, it's going off somewhere to secure its vitamins."

A faint laughter greeted the jest.

"Well," put in Deming, "we're getting a free ride, anyhow — for once we're not having to walk, run or swim."

Time passed in a doubtful, confused way. The beating of the wings had died to a swish of rushing air as about the unflapping level of flight of some giant vulture or bird of prey. Still there was the sense of prodigious speed, of horizon on horizon left behind, of plains and waters and mountains slipping away beneath in a swift recession.

The men grew sick and dizzy with the noxious air of their prison; they fell into periods of semi-consciousness from which they revived with a start. In the novel horror of their position, they almost lost the feeling of identity. It was as if they were part of some monstrous dream or hallucination.

After an undetermined lapse of time, they felt a slackening of the headlong flight and then heard once more the thunderous flap of those huge wings as the bird sank groundward. It seemed to descend from an alp-surpassing height, with tremendous velocity.

Now the descent was arrested with abrupt ease, like the stopping of an elevator. A sudden glimmering of light in the interior of the pouch, and Roverton and his companions were aware that the creature had opened its bill as if to seize something. Then, with a raucous, deafening cry, it began to thresh about as in some stupendous convulsion, and the men were thrown violently from side to side in the tossing pouch. It was impossible to imagine what had happened — the whole occurrence was supremely mysterious and terrifying. Adams and Deming were knocked almost senseless by the shaking they received; and Roverton alone was able to retain anything like full cognizance. He realized that the bird was engaged in some sort of struggle or combat. After a brief interval its heavings became less tumultuous and powerful; and at last, with one hoarse, diabolic shriek, it appeared to collapse and lay still except for an occasional shuddering that shook body and neck and was communicated to the pouch. These shudderings diminished in force and frequency. The bird was now lying on its side, and the light entered the pouch directly through its wide-open beak.

Making sure that his companions had recovered their senses, Roverton crawled toward the light. The others followed in turn. Wriggling out through the slimy mouth, from which a frothy blood-like fluid was dripping, Roverton stood up dizzily and looked around.

The scene upon which he bad emerged was wilder and madder than the grotesqueries of fever-delirium. For an instant he thought that the things about him were products of hallucination, were born of his overwrought nerves and brain. The flying monster was stretched on the ground and was wrapped from head to tail in the coils of something which Roverton could only designate to himself as a vegetable anaconda. The coils were pale-green with irregular brown and purplish mottlings and were manifestly hundreds of feet in length. They terminated in three heads covered with mouths like the suckers of an octopus. The coils had encircled the bird many times, and were evidently possessed of enormous constrictive power, for they had tightened upon their prey so that the body bulged between them in loathsome knots and protuberances. They were visibly rooted in a black, viscid-looking soil, and were swollen at their base like the bole of some ancient tree. The three heads had applied themselves to the back of their prostrate victim and were obviously drawing sustenance from it with their myriad suckers.

All around, in the veering vapors that rose from the ground like steam, there loomed the tossing tops and writhing trunks, branches and feelers of a medley of half-ophidian or half-animal plant-forms. They varied in size from vines that were no larger than coral snakes, to amorphous bulks with a hundred squirming tentacles, huge as the kraken of mythology. They were no less diverse than the plant-forms of a terrestrial jungle, and all of them were hideously alive. Many were devoid of anything that suggested leaves; but others had fingerlike fronds or a sort of foliage that resembled a network of hairy ropes, and which undoubtedly served the same purpose as a spider web, for in some of these nets queer, uncouth insects and birds had been caught. Others of the trees bore tumescent oval or globular fruits, and fleshy-looking flowers that could close like mouths upon their prey. Overhead, through the steaming vapors, a hot, swollen sun flamed down from an almost vertical altitude. Roverton realized that the bird-monster, flying at many hundreds of miles an hour, must have carried himself and his companions to a sub-tropic zone of the world in which they were marooned.

Adams and Deming had now crawled out and were standing beside Roverton. For once none of the three could utter a word, in the profound stupefaction with which they surveyed their surroundings. Instinctively they all looked for an avenue of escape in the rows of vegetable monstrosities that hemmed them in on all sides. But there was no break anywhere — only a writhing infinity of things that were plainly poisonous, maleficent and inimical. And somehow they all felt that these plant-entities were conscious of their presence, were observing them closely, and, in some manner not cognizable by human senses, were even discussing or debating them.

Adams ventured to take a step forward. Instantly a long tentacle shot out from the nearest of the kraken-like forms and encircled him. Struggling and screaming, he was drawn toward the great dark lumpish mass from which the tentacles emanated. There was an open cuplike mouth of vermilion, fully a yard wide, in the center of this mass; and before his companions could even move, Adams was thrust into the mouth which forthwith closed upon him like the mouth of a tightened sack, Roverton and Deming were petrified with horror. Before they could even think of stirring from where they stood, two more of the tentacles shot out and gripped each of them about the waist. The grip was firm as an iron rope; and both were conscious of a sort of electric shock at the contact — a shock which served to stun them still further. Almost fainting, they were held erect by the horrible coils.

Nothing more happened for a brief interval. The incomprehensible strangeness of their position, the manifold fatigues and ordeals of the day, together with the shock of those coils, had dazed the two men so that they could hardly grasp the fate of their companion and their own imminent doom.

Everything became unreal, misty, dream-like. Then, through the vagueness that enveloped their senses, they saw that the dark mass at the core of the tentacles was beginning to move and heave. Soon the heavings turned to convulsions that became more and more violent. Roverton and Deming fell to the ground as the coils loosened their hold, and saw the lashing of a score of tentacles in the air above, tossing from side to side about the agitated central mass. Then, from this mass, the body of Adams was ejected, to fall beside Roverton and Deming. Obviously human flesh had not agreed with the digestion of the Andromedan plant-monster. The mass continued to heave and palpitate, and its myriad arms waved through the air as if in agony.

The two men dared not look at the body of their erstwhile comrade. Sick, and utterly spent with weariness and horror, they lay prostrate on the ground. After awhile they felt the tentacles encircle them once more; but they were not drawn toward the central mouth but were lifted and dragged away toward the tangle of unearthly forms behind the vegetable kraken. Here they were caught by the supple serpentine limbs of other living plants and were drawn onward through the jungle.

They were dimly aware of multiform mouths that gaped or puckered in the air beside them, they felt the antennae-like tendrils that swayed and groped, they saw the poising branches armed with dart-like thorns, they saw the crimson ell-wide blossoms with cloven tongues from which a venomous honey dripped. And all around they heard the moan or shriek or hiss of animals snared by the demoniacal growths, and saw the yawning mouths that devoured their victims bodily, or the suckers that fastened upon them like the lips of vampires. But among these terrors and horrors of a transstellar flora the two men passed unharmed, untouched, and were drawn from coil to lethal coil, from net to fatal net, through the unimaginable woods. It was as if all these carnivorous and deadly things had been warned of their inedible nature, and were thrusting them away.

At length the light grew stronger and the men perceived that they were approaching the jungle's edge. The last of the plant-krakens gave them a vehement fling with its great arms, and the steaming soil of a flat, treeless plain hovered and reeled before them as they fell unconscious in the open sunlight.

Roverton was the first to recover his senses. Feeling very weak and dizzy, with blurred thoughts and vision, he tried to sit up, and fell back helplessly. Then as his eyes and brain began to clear, a little strength returned to him, and a second effort was more successful. His first thought was of his comrade, for whom he now looked. Deming still lay where he had fallen, in a prone and sprawling posture.

Several hours must have elapsed, for the sun was now hanging above the edge of the plain, and the tall, columnar vapors were tinted as with the flames of an aurora. The very soil itself, wet and glistening, had taken on a reflection of prismatic hues. Turning, Roverton saw behind him at a little distance the fearsome jungle from which he and Deming had been so summarily ejected by the sarcophagous trees and plants. The jungle was comparatively quiescent now; but its branches and boles were still swaying slightly; and a low, sibilant sound arose from among them like the hissing of an army of serpents.

Roverton managed to stand up. He tottered like a fever-patient, and could scarcely keep from falling. His mouth was parched and fiery with an all-consuming thirst; and his head throbbed like a beaten drum. Seeing a pool of water not far away, he started toward it, but was forced to finish his journey on hands and knees. He drank, and felt amazingly refreshed by the dark, bitterish fluid. Filling his cap (which he had somehow managed to retain through all the vicissitudes of the past two days) with the water, he went back to his companion, walking erect this time, and sprinkled some of the fluid on Deming's face. Deming stirred, and opened his eyes. In a brief while he was able to drink the remainder of the contents of the cap, and then succeeded in standing up and taking a few steps.

"Well, what's the next number on the program ?" he queried. His voice was cracked and feeble, but indomitably gallant.

"Damned if I know," shrugged Roverton. "But I move that we get as far as possible from that beastly jungle." Neither he nor Deming could bear to think of Adams' fate or the abominable things they had seen and heard and felt. The whole experience was unendurable to human nerves, and revulsion sickened the two men as the memory of it arose on the threshold of their brains. Resolutely they turned their backs to the carnivorous forest, and staggered away toward the dim and fuming horizon with its banners of rainbow splendor.

The landscape through which they now wandered was like the bottom of a newly dried ocean. It was one vast level of reeking clay, of a peculiar consistency, which yielded a little like rubber or some resilient fabric beneath their feet, without breaking through. The sensation afforded by treading upon it was uncanny and disconcerting. At every step they fully expected to sink down in some bog or quicksand. They realized why they had not suffered any contusions or broken bones when the living trees had hurled them forth with such irresistible violence.

There were many pools of water in the plain; and once the men were compelled to deviate from their course by a narrow, winding lake. The aspect of the resilient ooze was indepictably monotonous and was unrelieved by any vegetable growth or outcropping of mineral. But somehow it was not dead, but conveyed a sense of somnolent vitality, as if it possessed a dark, secret life of its own.

The vapors parted in the oblique rays of the sun. Not far ahead, Roverton and Deming now perceived a low table-like elevation. Even at first sight, it suggested an island; and as the men neared it the characteristics it revealed were indicative that it really had been such, and that the plain around it had been the bed of a shallow sea at no very ancient date. There were wave-marks in the soil about the base; and, in contradistinction to the utter barrenness of the plain, there were boulders and tree-forms on its long undulating sides; and several ruinous walls and monoliths of an unearthly architecture were visible on the broad, flat summit.

"Now for some Andromedan archaeology," Roverton commented, pointing to the ruins.

"Not to mention some more botany," added Deming.

Both of them peered with considerable caution and trepidation at the foremost trees and plants. These were similar in type to the monstrosities of the jungle; but they were more sparse and scattered; and somehow there was a difference. When Deming and Roverton approached them the nature of the difference became manifest. The ophidian branches dropped and trailed on the ground, and were strangely still and unmoving. Seen closer at hand, they were withered and mummified. It was evident to these scientists that the trees had long been dead.

Not without repulsion, Roverton broke off the end of one of the hanging tentacles. It snapped easily; and he found that he could crumble it into fine powder between his fingers. Realizing that there was nothing to be feared, he and Deming began to climb the slope toward the fantastic ruins.

The soil of the hill, a sort of grey and purple marl, was firm beneath their feet. They reached the summit as the sinking sun began to disappear behind a far-off line of cliffs that rose like the core of a continent from the plain.

Circled about with rows of the dead plant-monsters, there stood in the center of the summit the strange ruins that Roverton and Deming had descried from below. They gleamed in the light with a dull luster, and appeared to be made of some foreign stone that was heavily impregnated with metal. They were apparently the remnants of several immense buildings, and bore the marks of some awful cataclysm that had carried away their super-structures and even much of the floor-work and foundations. One of the walls retained a doorway that was oddly high and narrow and was wider at top than at bottom. Also, there were some queer windows close to the ground. The men wondered at the physical characteristics of the race that had reared such edifices. From a human standpoint everything about the ruins was architecturally abnormal.

Roverton approached one of the monoliths. It was square in shape, was forty feet high by seven in diameter, and had manifestly been taller at one time, for the top was riven and jagged where it had been broken off abruptly. It was wrought of the same material as the walls. A series of bas-reliefs, intermingled with columns of hieroglyphic letter-forms, had been carved about the base. The bas-reliefs depicted beings of a curious type, with long thin trunks terminating at each end in a multitude of many-jointed limbs. The heads of these creatures, or what appeared to be such, were at the nether extremity of the trunks, and had two mouths that were set above a double row of eyes. Ear-like appendages drooped from the chins. The lower limbs ended in bird-like claws and the upper in broad, umbrella-shaped webs whose use was beyond conjecture. Roverton exclaimed with amazement as he called Deming's attention to these figures. Whether such beings represented an extinct race, or whether their prototypes were still to be found in this outré world, was of course an irresolvable problem. But the men felt that this mystery too would soon be solved. It would be solved whether they liked it or not.

The men were too worn out with their herculean ordeals to devote much time and energy to speculation of this order. They found a sheltered place in the angle of one of the walls, and sat down. Perforce they had eaten nothing since the food provided by the pygmies at early dawn; and seemingly there was no immediate prospect of finding any. They were desperate and there seemed no hope to lighten the depression that closed in about these doomed men.

The sun had gone down, leaving an erubescent twilight that stained the soil, the ruins and the dead trees as with a deepening tide of blood. A preternatural silence prevailed — a silence fraught with the sense of foreign mystery, the burden of ultramundane antiquity that clung to those strange ruins. The men lay down and began to doze.

They awoke simultaneously, without knowing for a brief moment what it was that had aroused them. The twilight had turned to a rich violet, though the walls and trees were still clearly distinguishable. Somewhere in this twilight, there was a shrill, strident humming that grew louder momentarily.

All at once the humming was near at hand, in midair. It soared to a deafening clamor. Roverton and Deming saw that a swarm of giant insects with curving five-inch bills were hovering about them as if uncertain whether or not to attack. There seemed to be hundreds of these formidable-looking creatures. One of them, bolder than the others darted forward and stung Deming on the back of his left hand till its beak almost protruded from his palm. He cried out with the pain, and truck the insect with his other fist. It squashed beneath the blow and fell to the ground, emitting a nauseous stench.

Roverton sprang to his feet and broke off a bough from one of the trees. This he waved at the swarm, which retreated a little but did not disperse. An idea came to him, and he thrust the bough into Deming's hand, saying:

"If you can keep them off, I'll try to build a fire"

While Deming waved his ineffectual weapon at the hesitating army Roverton broke off more of the dead, tentacle-like boughs, piled them, and crushed others into a heap of fine dust with his heel. Then, in the twilight, he found two small fragments of the metallic stone from which the buildings had been wrought; and striking the fragments together, he obtained a spark which fell into the dust-pile and ignited it. The stuff was highly combustible, for in less than a minute the heap of boughs was burning brightly. Terrified by the blaze, the insects fell back; and their stridulation soon diminished and sank away in the distance.

Deming's hand was now painfully swollen and throbbing from the sting he had received.

"Those brutes would have finished us if they had been nervy enough to attack in force," he observed.

Roverton piled more fuel on the fire, in case the swarm should return.

"What a world !" he ejaculated. "I wish Volmar were here, confound him!"

As he spoke, there was a far-off droning in the crepuscular sky. For a moment, the men thought that the insect swarm was coming back to assail them again. Then the droning deepened to a great roar. The roar was somehow familiar, though neither could determine at first the memory which it tended to evoke. Then, where stars were beginning to pierce the vague heavens, they saw the indistinct bulk that descended toward them.

"My God! Is that the space-flier?" cried Deming.

With a final roaring and screeching of its propellers, the bulk came to rest within fifty feet of the fire. The light flickered on its metal sides and revealed the well-known ladder down which the three mutineers had climbed in an alien darkness.

A figure descended the ladder and came toward the fire, it was Captain Volmar. His face was drawn and livid in the firelight, and looked older than the two men remembered it. He greeted them stiffly, with an odd trace of embarrassment in his manner,

"I'm certainly glad to have located you," he announced, without waiting for Roverton or Deming to return too his salutation. "I've been flying around this damn planet all day, hoping there was one chance in a trillion of finding you again. I didn't take any bearings when I put you off in the night, so of course I had no idea where to look. I was about to give it up, when I saw the fire and decided to investigate."

"If you'll come back with me," he continued, "we'll let bygones be bygones. I'm short-handed now, and am going to give up the trip and start back for the solar system. We began to develop engine-trouble not long after we put you off; and two of the men were electrocuted by a short-circuit before the trouble was remedied. Their bodies are floating somewhere in mid-ether now — I gave them a space-burial. Then Jasper fell ill, and I've been running the flier single-handed for the past twenty-four hours. I'm sorry I was so hasty with you — I certainly put you off on an impossible sort of world. I've been all over it today, and there's nothing anywhere but seas, deserts, marshes, mud-flats, jungles of crazy-looking vegetation, a lot of equally desolate ruins, and no life except overgrown insects, reptiles, and a few cliff-dwelling pygmies in the sub-polar regions. It's a wonder that even two of you have managed to survive. Come on — you can tell me your story when we're aboard the flier."

Roverton and Deming followed him as he turned and re-ascended the ladder. The manhole closed behind them with a clang that was more grateful to their ears than music. A minute more, and the flier was climbing the heavens along the crepuscular curve of the planet, till it soared into the daylight of Delta Andromedae. Then it rushed on through the sidereal gulfs, till the great sun became a star and began to resume its wonted place in an ever-receding constellation.

Printed from: www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/125
Printed on: November 18, 2017