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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Land of the Changing Sun By Will N. Harben Characters: 16104

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The sun was, indeed, slowing up. The two men peered out at the door.

"It would be unlucky for us if it should not come so near to the earth as it did on the other side," whispered Branasko.

"I can hardly feel any motion to the thing at all," replied the American. "Look! for some reason it is not so dark below. I can see the rocks. Surely we have already passed over the wall."

"That's so," returned the Alphian. "Come; we must be quick and watch our opportunity to land. I can't imagine where the light comes from unless it be from the people waiting for the arrival of the sun." Every instant the speed was lessening. Overhead the cables were beginning to creak and groan, and, now and then, the great globe swung perilously near some tall stony peak, or passed under a mighty stalactite. Slower and slower it got till, when within a few feet of the ground, it stopped its onward motion and only swung back and forth like a pendulum.

"Quick," whispered Branasko, "we must get down while it is swinging, no time to lose-not an instant!" And as the sun moved backward, with his hand on the doorsill, he leaped to the earth. Johnston followed him. They were not a moment too soon, for about fifty yards away they saw a body of sixty or seventy men with lights in their hands hastening toward them.

"Just in time," exulted Branasko, and he quickly drew Johnston into a little cave in the face of a cliff. Crouching behind a great rock, they saw and heard the men as they approached.

Some of them walked around the sun, and two, evidently in authority, entered the door. The others were placing ladders against the side of the sphere, when suddenly there was a loud clattering in the interior, a whirling of wheels under the platform above, and the surface of the sun burst into light.

The two refugees were momentarily blinded. Branasko had the presence of mind to quickly draw his companion down close to the earth behind the rock. "They could see us in the light," he whispered.

There was a joyous clamoring of voices among the men, and they withdrew several yards to look at the sun. This drew them nearer the hiding-place of the two refugees.

"Only an accident," said a voice; "it won't happen again."

Then one of them went into the sun and the lights died out. In a moment the sun began to move. Slowly and majestically it swept over the rocky earth, followed by the crowd, till it reached a great hole and sank into it.

"Gone into the tunnel," said the Alphian, as the crowd disappeared behind the cliff.

"What are we to do now?" asked Johnston. "We certainly can't go through with the sun."

"Wait till the next trip," grimly replied Branasko.

The rumbling noise from the big hole gradually died away, and the two men left their hiding-place.

"What is that?" asked Johnston. He pointed to the west, where a red light shone against the towering cliffs.

"It must be the internal fires," answered Branasko, with a noticeable shudder. "Let's go nearer; I have heard that there is a point near here where one can look down into the Lake of Flame."

"The Lake of Flame!" echoed the American, "What is that?" "It is where all of the dead of Alpha is cast by the black 'vultures of death.'"

Johnston said nothing, for it was difficult to keep up with the Alphian, who was bounding over rocks and dangerous fissures toward the red glow in the distance.

At every step the atmosphere got warmer, and they detected a slight gaseous odor in the air. Finally, after an arduous tramp of an hour, they climbed up a steep hill and looked sharply down into a vast bubbling lake of molten matter more than a thousand yards below. Branasko noticed a stone weighing several tons evenly balanced on the verge of the great gulf, and pushed it with both his hands. It rocked, broke loose from its slender hold on the cliff and bounded out into the red space. Down it went, lessen-ing as it sank till it became a mere black speck and then disappeared.

"That's where the dead go," said Branasko gloomily.

Just then the American, happening to glance up, saw something like a huge black bird with outspread wings circling about in the red light over the pit. Branasko saw it, too, and his face paled and a tremolo was in his voice when he spoke.

"It is one of the 'vultures of death;' don't stir; we won't be seen if we remain where we are!" The strange machine sank lower over the lake of fire, till, as if buoyed up on the hot air, with faintly quivering wings, it paused. A man opened a door of the black car and carelessly threw out the bodies of a woman and a child.

The bodies whirled over and over and disappeared in the pit, and the man closed the door. The machine then rose and gracefully winged its flight to the east. In a moment others came with their grim burdens, and still others, till the mouth of the pit was dark with them.

"Something has happened," whispered Branasko, "some great calamity, for surely so many people do not die in Alpha in a single day."

For an hour they watched the coming and going of the vultures, till, finally the last one hovered over the lake of fire. Suddenly the machine swerved so near to Branasko and Johnston that they shrank close to the earth to keep from being seen. Something was evidently wrong with the machine, for there was a wild look of desperation on the driver's face as he tugged excitedly at the pilot-wheel. But all his efforts only caused the air-ship to dart irregularly from side to side, and, now and then, to strike the rocks of the pit's mouth, to shoot up suddenly, or to sink dangerously down toward the fire.

"He is losing control of it," whispered Branasko, "he does not know what to do. See, he is trying to lighten the load, by kicking out the body."

That was true, and, as the machine made a sudden plunge toward the cliff a few yards to the left of the refugees, the dead body, which the driver had managed to move to the door with his feet, fell out and lodged upon the edge of the cliff instead of falling into the fiery depths. The machine bounded up a few yards and paused, now apparently under the control of its driver. The man looked down hesitatingly at the corpse for a moment and then lowered the machine to the sloping rock near where the body lay. He alighted and cautiously crept down the steep incline to the body. He raised it in his arms and was about to cast it from him when his foot slipped, and with a cry of horror he fell with his burden over the cliff's edge into the red abyss.

Johnston uttered an exclamation of horror, but Branasko was unmoved. After a moment he rose, and carefully scanning the space overhead, he crawled on hands and knees toward the machine. Johnston heard him chuckling to himself and uttering spasmodic laughs, and he watched him closely as he reached the machine. For several minutes he seemed to be inspecting it critically, both inside and out; then he stood away from it, a bold, black silhouette on a background of flame, and motioned the American to come to him.

Johnston promptly, but not without many misgivings, obeyed his signal. "What are you up to?" asked he, as the Alphian assisted him to rise from his hands and knees.

Branasko touched the machine and smiled. His face was shining with enthusiasm.

"The question of our returning to Alpha is settled," he said sententiously.

"How?"

"We can go in this."

"Can you manage it?"

"Easily; that fellow must have been drunk; the machine is in good order, I think."

"When do you propose to start?" and the American eyed the funeral-car dubiously.

"The night is before us; we could not get a better time." As he spoke he entered the car and laid his hand on the wheel. Johnston, obeying his nod, followed, shuddering as he remarked the traces of blood on the floor.

"All right!" Branasko turned the wheel slowly, and the wings outside began to flap, and the car mounted into the air like a startled bird and flew out quickly over the pit.

Branasko bit his lip, and Johnston heard

him stifle an exclamation of impatience. As for the American, he was at once thrilled and fascinated by the awful sight below; he could now see beneath the overhanging mouth of the pit, and look far down into a boundless lake of molten matter that seemed as restless as an ocean in a storm.

Then the air became so hot he could hardly breathe. He looked at the Alphian in alarm. The latter was whirling the wheel first one way and then another with a startled look of fear in his eyes, and then Johnston noticed that the walls of the pit were rising about them, and the black canopy overhead rapidly receding.

They were sinking down into the fire.

Almost wild with terror, the American sprang toward the wheel, but Branasko pushed him away roughly.

"Stand back," he ordered gruffly. "It is the heat; let me alone!"

The American sank into his seat. The heat became more and more intense. Both men were purple in the face, and the perspiration was rolling from their bodies in streams. Down sank the machine.

"I can't manage it," said Branasko hoarsely, "we'd as well give up." Just then Johnston noticed the mouth of a cave behind Branasko.

"Look," he cried, "can't we get into it?"

Branasko looked over his shoulder, and, as he saw the cave, he uttered a glad cry. He quickly turned the wheel and drew out a lever at his right. The machine obeyed instantly; it swerved round suddenly and dived into the cave. The cool air soon revived them, and Branasko had little trouble in bringing the car to a resting-place on the rocky floor of the cave. Before them hung impenetrable darkness, behind a curtain of red light.

"We are in a pretty pickle now," said Johnston despondently, as they alighted from the car.

"Nothing to do but to make the best of it," sighed Branasko.

"Perhaps this cave may lead out into some place of safety."

Johnston's eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the gloom, and he began to peer into the darkness.

"I see a light," he exclaimed; "it cannot be a reflection from the fire in the pit, for it is whiter."

The Alphian gazed at it steadily for a moment, then he said decidedly: "We must go and see what it is." Without another word he started toward the white, star-like spot, sliding his hand over the rocky wall, and springing over a fissure in the floor.

Gradually the light grew brighter, till, as they suddenly rounded a cliff, a grand sight burst upon their view. They found themselves in a vast dome-shaped cavern, thousands of yards in diameter and height. And almost in the centre of the floor, from a red and purple mound of cooling lava, leapt a white stream of molten matter from the floor to the dome. And in the black dome, where the lava turned to molten spray, hung countless stalactites of every color known to the artistic eye. And from the foot of the fountain ran a tortuous rivulet that lighted the walls and roof of a narrow chamber that extended for miles down toward the bowels of the earth.

Branasko was delighted.

"The king does not know of this," he declared, "else he would make it accessible to his people, and call it one of the wonders of Alpha. By accidentally sinking into the pit we have discovered it. But," he concluded, "we must at once try to find some way out other than that by which we came."

They turned from the beautiful fountain, and, holding to each other's hands, and aided by the light behind them, they stumbled laboriously through the semi-darkness. Branasko's ears were very acute. He paused to listen.

"Hark ye!" he cautioned.

The combined roar of the pit and the fountain of lava had sunk to a low murmur, but ahead of them they now heard a rushing sound like a distant tornado.

"Come on," said the Alphian, and he drew his companion after him with an eagerness the American was slow to understand. The light in the cavern gradually grew brighter. By a circuitous route they were again approaching the pit of fire, though it was still hidden from sight.

Finally they reached a point where the wind was blowing stiffly, and further on a volume of cold spray suddenly dashed upon them and wet them to the skin. And when their eyes had become accustomed to the rolling mist, they saw a great lake, and pouring into it from high above was a mighty waterfall.

"Mercy!" ejaculated the Alphian, in great alarm. "If this is salt water we are lost. All Alpha will come to an end!"

"What do you mean?" And Johnston wondered if Branasko's trials and struggle could have turned his brain.

"If it be salt water, then it has broken in from the ocean above Alpha," he explained. "The king has often said that not a drop of the ocean has ever entered the great cavern."

Branasko stooped and wet his hand in a little pool at his feet. "I am almost afraid to taste it," said he, holding his hand near his mouth. "It would settle all our fates." He waited a moment and then touched his fingers to his tongue.

"Salt!" That was all he said for several moments. He folded his arms and looked mutely toward the boiling lake. Presently he raised his eyes to the great hole in the roof, and groaned: "The break is gradually widening. These stones are freshly broken, and the great bowl is filling."

"It will fill all Alpha with water and drown every soul in it," added the terrified American.

"That, however, is not the most immediate danger," said Branasko wisely. "They would first suffocate, and later their bodies would be swallowed up in the stomach of the earth."

"What do you mean?"

Branasko shrugged his shoulders. "As soon as this bowl is filled with water, which would not take many hours, it would run over into the lake of fire and produce an explosion that would rend Alpha from end to end."

"Who knows, it might turn the whole Atlantic into the centre of the earth, and destroy the entire earth." But Branasko was unable to grasp the full magnitude of the remark, for to him the world was simply a vast cavern lighted by human ingenuity. He fastened a narrow splinter of stone upright in the shallow water at his feet, and, lying down on his stomach with his eyes close to it, he studied it for several minutes. When he got up, a desperate gleam was in his dark eyes.

"It is rising fast," he said. "We must attempt to get to the capitol and warn the king. It is possible that he may be able to stop the opening. The only thing left to us is to try our machine again."

Johnston found it hard to keep pace with him as he bounded out of the mist and on toward the faint glow ahead. Reaching the flying machine Branasko entered it and turned on a small electric light.

"Ah," he grunted with satisfaction, "I have found a light. I can now see what is the matter with it."

Johnston stood outside and heard him hammering on the metal parts in the car, and became so absorbed in thinking of the peril of their position that he was startled when Branasko cried out to him:-"All right. I think we can make it do; a pin has lost out, but perhaps I can hold the piece in place with my foot. If only we can stand the heat of the pit long enough to rise above it, we may escape."

Johnston followed him into the car. Branasko seated himself firmly and gave the wheel a little turn. Slowly the machine rose. "See!" cried Branasko, "it is under control. We must not be too hasty. Now for the pit!"

The heart of the American was in his mouth as the long black wings waved up and down and the air-ship, like some live thing, shuddered and swept gracefully out of the mouth of the cave into the glare and heat of the pit.

"Hold your breath!" yelled Branasko, and he bent lower into the car to escape the shower of hot ashes that was falling about them. Far out over the lake in a straight line they glided, and there came to a sudden halt. Johnston's eyes were glued on his companion's face. Branasko sat doubled up, every muscle drawn, his eyes bulging from their sockets. Would he be strong enough? To Johnston everything seemed in a whirl. The walls of the pit were rising around them.

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