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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Land of the Changing Sun By Will N. Harben Characters: 10038

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Johnston clung tenaciously to the rock. He tried to look down to see if the barge had passed beneath him, but the intense strain on his arm now drew his head back, so that he could not do so. Once more he made an effort to regain his position on the rock, but he was not able to raise himself an inch.

He felt certain that the fall would kill him, and he groaned in agony. His fingers were benumbed and beginning to slip. Then he fell. The air whizzed in his ears. He tried to keep his feet downward, but it was no use. He was whirled heels over head many times, and his senses were leaving him when he was restored by a plunge into the cold water.

Down he sank. It seemed to him that he never would lose his momentum and that he would strangle before he could rise to the surface. Finally, however, he came up more dead than alive. He had narrowly missed the flat-boat, for he saw it receding from him only a few yards away. On the shore stood Branasko motioning to him; and, slowly, for his strength was almost gone, Johnston swam toward him.

The latter waded out into the shallow water and drew him ashore.

"You had a narrow escape," he said, with a dry laugh. "I saw the boat come from under the cliff just as you hung down from the ledge. At first I hoped that you would get back on the rock, but when I saw you try and do it and fail I thought that you were lost."

The American could not speak for exhaustion; but, as he looked at the departing craft with concern, Branasko laughed again: "Oh, you thought it had a crew; so did I at first, but it has no one aboard. It is drawn by a cable, and seems to be laden with coal."

"Did they notice our fall up there?" panted Johnston, nodding toward the lights in the distance.

"No, they are farther away than I thought."

"Well, what ought we to do?" "Hide here among the rocks till our clothing dries and then look about us. We have nearly twenty-four hours to wait for the sun to return through the tunnel."

"Where is the tunnel?"

"Over on the other side of that black hill. There, you can see the mouth of the tunnel through which the sun comes."

"We need sleep," said the Alphian, when their clothing was dry, "and it may be a long time before we get a chance to get it. Let us lie down in the shadow of that rock and rest."

Johnston consented, and, lying down together, they soon dropped asleep. They slept soundly.

Johnston was the first to awake. He felt so refreshed that he knew he must have been unconscious several hours. He touched Branasko and the latter sat up and rubbed his eyes and looked about him bewildered.

"I had a horrible dream," he said shuddering. "I thought that we were in the sun and over the capital city when it fell down. I thought the fall was awful, and that all Alpha was aflame. Then the fires went out. Everything was black, and the whole world rang with cries of terrified people. Ugh! I don't want to dream so again; I'd rather not sleep at all. But hush! what is that?"

Far away, as if in the centre of the earth, they heard a low monotonous rumbling. They listened breathlessly. Every moment the sound increased. They could feel the ground trembling as if shaken by an earthquake.

"It is the coming sun," said Branasko. "We must get nearer the tunnel and see what can be done. It would be useless to try to go back now."

Stealing along in the shadow of the cliffs to keep from being seen by the workmen on the plateau above, they climbed over a rocky incline and saw in the side of a towering cliff, a great black hole. It was the mouth of the tunnel. Into it ran eight wide tracks of railway and six mammoth cables each twenty or thirty feet in diameter.

"The sun cannot be far away now," remarked the Alphian.

"Is it not lighted?"

"I presume not; I think it comes through in darkness. The light is saved for its passage over Alpha."

"Would it not be as safe for us to attempt to walk through the tunnel to the palace of the king?"

"Never; it would be over fifty miles in utter darkness. There may be a thousand trestles and bridges over frightful chasms: for the most part, I have heard the tunnel is a natural channel or a succession of caverns united by tunnels. The other is the safer way, though it certainly is risky enough."

Louder and nearer grew the rumbling noise, and a faint light began to shine from the tunnel and flash on the cliff opposite.

"It is the sun's headlight," explained Branasko.

Johnston was thrilled to the centre of his being as he saw the light playing over the polished tracks and cables and illuminating the walls of the great tunnel.

Suddenly there was a deep, mellow-toned stroke of a bell in the sun, and, as the two men shrank involuntarily into the deeper shade of the cliff, the great globe, a stupendous ball of crystal, five hundred feet in height, slowly emerged from the mouth of the tunnel and came to a stop under the opening in the rock which led to the space above.

"What had we better do now?" said J

ohnston.

"Wait," cautioned Branasko, and he drew the American to a great boulder nearer the sun, from behind which they could, without being seen, watch the action of the crowd of workmen that was hurriedly approaching. They placed ladders of steel against the sides of the sun and swarmed over it like bees.

"They are cleaning the glass and adjusting the lights," said the Alphian; "wait till they go round to the other side. Don't you see that square opening near the ground?"

The American nodded.

"It is the door," said Branasko, "and we must try to enter it while they are on the other side. Let us slip nearer; there is another rock ahead that we can hide behind." Suiting the action to the word, Branasko led the way, stooping near to the ground until both were safely ensconced behind the boulder in question. They were now so near that they could hear the electricians rubbing the glass.

One who seemed to be superintending the work opened the door and went into the sun and lighted a bright light. From where they were crouched Johnston and Branasko caught a view of a little hall, a flight of stairs, and some pictures on the walls.

Presently the man extinguished the light and came out.

"They are removing their ladders from this side," said Branasko in a whisper. "Be ready; we must act quickly and without a particle of sound. Run straight for that door and climb up the steps immediately."

The men had all gone round to the other side, and no one was in sight.

"Quick! Follow me," and bending low to the earth the Alphian darted across the intervening space and into the doorway. Johnston was quite as successful. As he entered the door he saw Branasko crawling up the carpeted stairs ahead of him, and, on his all-fours, he followed. The first landing was large, and there in the wall they found a closet. It would have been dark but for a dim light that streamed down from above. Branasko opened the closet door. "We must hide here for the present," he whispered.

They had barely got seated on the floor and closed the door when a bright light broke round them and they heard somebody ascending the stairs. The person passed by and went on further up. The two adventurers dared not exchange a word. They could hear the footsteps above and the sound of the electricians outside as they polished the lights and moved their ladders from place to place.

"If he should stay, what could we do?" asked Johnston, after a long pause, and when the footsteps sounded farther away.

"There are two of us and one of him," grimly replied the brawny Alphian.

Johnston shuddered. "Let's not commit murder in any emergency," he said.

"It would not be murder; every man has a right to save his own life."

Nothing more was said just then, for the footsteps were growing nearer. The man was descending. He crossed the landing they were on and went down the last flight of stairs and out of the door.

Branasko rubbed his rough hands together. "We are going alone," he said with satisfaction.

There was a sound of sliding ladders on the walls outside. The workmen had finished their task. A moment later a great bell overhead rang mellowly; the colossal sphere trembled and rocked and then rose and swung easily forward like the car of a balloon.

"We are rising," said the Alphian, in a tone of superstitious awe. Johnston said nothing. There was a cool, sinking sensation in his stomach and his head was swimming. Branasko, however, was in possession of all his faculties.

"We shall soon be through the shaft we first discovered and throw our light over Alpha." As he spoke the space about them broke into blinding brightness and for a few moments they could only open their eyes for an instant at a time. After a while Branasko opened the closet door and they went up the stairs.

The first apartment they entered was most luxuriously furnished. Sofas, couches and reclining-chairs were scattered here and there over the elegant carpet, and statues of gold and marble stood in alcoves and niches and strange stereopticon lanterns, hanging from the ceiling threw ever-changing and life-like pictures on the walls. The light streamed in from without through small circular windows. After they had walked about the room for some minutes, the Alphian pointed to a half-open door and a staircase at one side of the room.

"I think it leads to some sort of observatory on top," he said. "I have heard that when the royal family makes this voyage they are fond of looking out from it. Suppose we see." Johnston acquiesced, and Branasko opened the door. From the increased brightness that came in they were assured that the stairs led outward.

Ascending many flights of stairs and traversing a narrow winding gallery which seemed to be gradually sloping upward, they finally reached the outside, and found themselves on a platform about forty feet square surrounded by iron balustrades. Above hung impenetrable blackness, below curved a majestic sphere of white light.

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