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Title: In Caverns Below

Author: Stanton A. Coblentz

Illustrator: Frank R. Paul

Release date: November 24, 2021 [eBook #66815]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at




[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Wonder Stories March, April, May 1935.
It was published later using the title Hidden World.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

If we were told to list a dozen writers whom we considered great science-fiction authors, we should certainly place the name of Stanton A. Coblentz high up in the list.

When Coblentz writes a short story, it is excellent, but when he composes a novel, such as the present one, you will have to go far and wide to find a better story.

We sincerely believe that "In Caverns Below" will go down in science-fiction history with the other novels of Stanton A. Coblentz and will be re-read by the ever-growing multitude of science-fiction fans during future decades.

Here we find everything that distinguishes our author's work from all others—what more can we say?

It is now five years since Philip Clay and I were given up by the world as lost, five years since we plunged into that appalling adventure from which, even today, we have barely begun to recover. During nine tenths of that time, we dwelt far from the sight of our fellow men in a remote and incredible land of wizardry and terror; we made discoveries which, we are certain, have never been surpassed since Columbus voyaged westward to the New World; we encountered perils that we still shudder to recall, and experienced triumphs that make us sigh regretfully in recollection. And it is only by the rarest of good fortune that we survive to tell the story to those who, long ago, wept at the news of our passing.

One fact in the case, and only one, will be remembered by the public. In the autumn of 1929, newspapers throughout the country reported that Philip Clay and Frank Comstock, mining engineers and boon companions, disappeared in the depths of a silver mine in Nevada. It was generally believed that a cave-in of unexplained origin had been responsible for their death, and that they had been crushed beyond recognition, for no trace of their mutilated bodies was ever found. The world, with its insatiable appetite for tragedy and horror, was naturally interested for a time, but as the days and weeks wore by and no further news was forthcoming, public attention was diverted to other affairs, and Comstock and Clay were forgotten....

Yet it is I, Frank Comstock, who write these words. It is I, Frank Comstock, who a few months ago returned as if from the grave, to announce that Clay and I had not been killed in the mine disaster. It is I, Frank Comstock, who have come back to record my experiences, and to proclaim that, even in this twentieth century, there are more worlds about us than our philosophy has ever taken into account.

Let me therefore go back over these harrowing five years and try to report, as simply and accurately as I can, each episode in the whole chain of extraordinary events.

It will be needless to linger over the preliminaries, to tell how Clay and I, chums at college, had been partners since our graduation from Western Institute of Mining twelve years before, how we had pooled our fortunes and joined our lives and spent all of our time in mutual experiments and enterprises in the back-regions of Montana, Idaho, and other states of the mountain belt. Passing over all this, let me tell how, in September, 1929, we were called to pass judgment upon the old Carlson Flat silver mine, which an eastern syndicate was just reopening in a particularly remote region of central Nevada. I recall how, for two days, we trailed with our pack-team over the desert mountains, our nostrils assaulted by the fine alkaline dust and our eyes wearied by the never-ending gray and yellow of the sagebrush. "A God-forsaken country!" muttered Clay, his fine blue eyes lighted with a reminiscent gleam, as he thought of the wooded mountains of the north. "Heavens, but I'll be thankful when we get out of here!"

Little, however, did he realize how long it would be before we would get out!

At last, to our relief, we reached Carlson Flat—as desolate a spot as was imaginable, at the edge of a narrow barren plateau just beneath a projecting stony ridge that beetled a thousand feet above us. Fortunately, the location mattered little, since we spent most of the time underground; but we did not particularly relish our task in that old, long-abandoned mine, whose shafts were not only unusually dank and narrow, but exceptionally deep. For some reason that I cannot explain, a premonition came to us both; it was as if some voice from within us cried out, "Flee! Flee, before it is too late!" We seemed to read some nameless menace in those dark sloping galleries, lighted only by the fluttering illumination of our torches; and, accustomed though we were to underground labyrinths, we somehow could not laugh away the sense of peril that confronted us in every foot-fall and shadow.

"Guess we're growing soft-headed in our old age!" suggested Clay, with a forced attempt at jocularity.

But I still recall how his rugged face, indistinctly visible in the glare of the flashlight, took on a troubled expression as he uttered these words; and I know how his unspoken fears communicated themselves to me in a shudder of apprehension.

None the less, being reasonable beings, we would not let our misgivings deter us from investigating the mine. Would that we had taken warning from our own sense of danger! For, on the third day, we were hurled into catastrophe.

It was then that we had decided to inspect the furthest and deepest section of the diggings. Accompanied by two or three workmen and an official of the company, we made our way tortuously through galleries that seemed miles long, and penetrated the dim, dank descent hundreds of feet beneath the desert floor. As we groped and fumbled silently downward, I was in far from a cheerful mood, for that weird, mysterious feeling of peril was still with me, the feeling of walking into a trap! Besides, as if to lend a basis of reason to my forebodings, what was that sudden faint trembling of the earth that I seemed to feel every now and then, that occasional rude jarring of the gallery floor, as if from the concussion of a distant explosion?—or was it only my imagination?

"Did you feel that?" I demanded of Clay, upon being shaken by the severest of the tremors. But he merely snapped, "Feel what?" and the pale light of the torches did not reveal the workings of his features.

"Seemed like an earthquake to me!" I muttered, as the ground beneath my feet once more gave a slight, almost imperceptible fluttering.

"Earthquake? Nonsense!" flung back Clay. "How could it be? We're way out of the earthquake belt, aren't we?"

I mumbled in the affirmative, but was not reassured.

Nevertheless, we said no more about the matter, and a few minutes later we had reached the lower limits of the mine. Forgetting my fears, I had pushed on with Clay ahead of our companions and was just turning my flashlight on an ore-producing ledge at the bottom of the gallery ... when suddenly there occurred that event which only too completely justified my alarm.

Like many of life's crises, it was all over in a minute. Yet it seemed infinitely prolonged, seemed packed with the experience of hours, of days, almost of years. I can still relive the dagger-shaft of terror that shot through me when the earth, without warning, gave a quick convulsive lurch, like the deck of a vessel in a storm at sea; I can still hear the sharp frightened exclamation from the throat of Clay and the startled shouts of our companions from down the tunnel. Once more I listen to the crunching, grinding, and groaning of the earth and the low rumbling from far subterranean depths; I am again pitched headlong to the floor as the ground beneath us heaves and threshes; I catch the panic-gleam in the eyes of my companion as he tries vainly to clutch a projecting spike of rock; then for an instant, as the commotion momentarily subsides, I almost succeed in regaining my feet, only to be hurled down again with a fury that leaves me bruised and bleeding.

As I strive for the second time to pick myself up, my ears ring with a tumult as of an avalanche. With terrorizing force, the crash and thunder of falling rock breaks upon my stunned senses; the roof of the gallery has collapsed, and Clay and I are cut-off from our companions in a chamber only a few yards across, at the extreme end of the tunnel!

Prisoners, both of us! By the wavering rays of a flashlight, we see ourselves entombed in a stone-walled cell deep underground! But even as this realization sweeps across our minds, still greater dread overwhelms us. Our world again sways like a drunken sailor, there is a fresh roaring in our ears, a huge rock is dislodged and crashes down from the roof with a howl of demoniac menace, and then, at our very feet, the tortured earth groans and opens, and a huge black fissure spreads out beneath us!

Desperately, like mountain climbers on a crumbling precipice, we strive to maintain our balance on the narrow floor of our prison. But we are as helpless as babes. We see the fissure widening, spreading out like the pitchy jaws of doom; we know that, in an instant, we will no longer have a foothold; then, at the moment of supreme horror, the light in Clay's flashlight flickers and goes out, and we are plunged into utter darkness....

At the same time, clutching instinctively at the overhanging rocks, which delay, but cannot halt our flight, we feel ourselves slipping. I hear once again Clay's cry of consternation; I hear the uproar of sliding earth and rock; I feel my arms and shoulders bruised and mangled; I have a sense of suffocation, a sense of being buried beneath tons of dead matter; then, all at once, a veil of quietness, of vacancy, of oblivion blots out my consciousness.


A Mysterious Light

I have always marvelled that Clay and I lived through the cataclysm. But probably we owe our survival to the fact that the fissure, far from being perpendicular, sloped at an angle of only thirty or forty degrees, so that, while rolling over and over in our descent, we were at least spared a direct drop.

At all events, we finally did come to a stop without receiving any fatal hurt. It may have been minutes, or it may have been hours, before I recovered consciousness; but when at length I came to myself, it was with a dull aching in the head, and with a sensation of soreness in every limb and muscle.

"Where am I?" I gasped, still but hazily aware of what had happened, and with the sickly, absurd feeling that perhaps I had died and was reawakening in the Afterlife. And it was only the sound of another human voice that brought me once more to my senses.

"Where are you? Would to God I knew!—down in hell, I guess!" came in mumbled accents from an unseen figure.

"Much hurt, Phil?" I jerked out, striving vainly to locate my friend amid the impenetrable blackness. And, as I spoke, I moved to a sitting position and made my first effort to extricate myself from the rocks and dust that buried me almost waist-deep.

"No, not hurt much!" came Clay's drawled reply. "A few little cuts and bruises, more or less, and one black eye. But what does that amount to? Couldn't use the eye down here, anyway!"

And then, after a moment of silence, he asked, "How about you, Frank? Hope you're not banged up too much."

"No, I'm all right," I protested, as stanchly as I could, considering that I felt as if I had been run through a threshing-machine.

"We'll sure be able to collect big damages!" proceeded Clay, as optimistically as though we had already made our escape. "But say, old pal, you certainly were right about the earthquake! That one was a whopper! I didn't know they had them around this part of the country!"

"Neither did I!" I declared. And, even as I spoke, a violent shudder once more went through me. The earth was again trembling!

"Guess the climate here isn't any too healthy!" decided my friend, while from somewhere amid the darkness, I heard him shaking off the débris and struggling to his feet. "Don't know where we are, Frank, but I wouldn't mind being anywhere else! Come! Where are you, old fellow?"

As we had lost the flashlights in our fall, it took us several anxious minutes to locate one another amid that tar-like blackness. Several times we stumbled over unseen obstacles, and more than once we followed a false lead; but at length, guided by the sound of each other's voices, we brushed shoulders in the darkness. And thenceforth, like lost children, we held hands lest we lose track of each other.

Where had we fallen?—to what hidden cavern deep in the earth's maw? This was the question we asked ourselves many times, as we groped our way down the sloping floor, we could not guess whither. Yet each moment we were making discoveries. After a few minutes, as we shuffled cautiously forward, we had passed the débris-littered area and found a smooth stone floor slanting beneath our feet. And we discovered that, a yard or two to each side of us, was a polished stone wall!

"Holy Jerusalem!" whistled my companion. "Who'd have thought the mine reached down this far?"

"Mine?" I returned, derisively. "Your misfortunes must have gone to your head, Phil! When did you ever see a mine with polished walls?"

"Well, what is it if not a mine?" he flung back in gruff challenge. "What is it? Just tell me that!"

Not being able to answer, I remained silent. But a strange suspicion, which had been forming in my mind, was gradually deepening; and involuntarily I shuddered once more and pressed closer to my friend—nor was I reassured by the renewed trembling of the earth which from time to time interrupted our ruminations.

I am afraid that grim conjectures came into the mind of Clay also, for he remained tense and silent for many minutes as we continued to fumble, like blind men, down those uncanny subterranean corridors.

"The devil take us both!" he at last muttered, with an attempted levity that did not serve to conceal his alarm. "You'd think we were going straight down to Dante's Inferno! Why, I can almost feel the little imps dancing in the darkness all about us!"

"The imps be damned!" I snapped in unseemly irritation.

"Most likely, that's what we'll be," he returned, wryly. And then, in soberer tones, he spoke again.

"But seriously, old man, where do you suppose we are?—in the pit of some extinct volcano?"

"Possibly—but that doesn't explain why the walls are so smooth and even."

"No, it doesn't. However, mightn't it be the channel of a dried-up subterranean river? In the course of ages, the water might have washed the walls smooth."

"It might have," I conceded, briefly. Yet deep within me, there was the feeling, the persistent feeling, that it was not water that had hollowed out the passageway.

For ten or fifteen minutes we plodded on without a word, moving at a snail's pace in our anxiety, and not aware of any change in our environment. The walls were still as polished and regular as ever; the blackness was as absolute and as unbroken; the occasional jarring of the earth continued at uneven intervals, growing a little more pronounced than before, but disturbing us less, since we were now becoming used to it.

Then, unexpectedly, the gallery curved, turning almost at right angles; and, as we felt our way around the bend, it curved again at an even sharper angle; then it curved once more, while, as if to add to our bewilderment, we discovered several side-galleries branching off in various directions.

At the same time, the thuddings of the earth grew more severe than ever and they were accompanied by rumblings, roars, and reverberations of terrifying force and insistency. Crash after crash burst upon our ears as if from some remote storm-center—crash after crash that echoed and re-echoed eerily in that narrow corridor, until our ear-drums ached from the strain and our agitated hearts pumped with a thumping rapidity.

What could it be?—some volcanic disturbance in the heart of the earth? So we were inclined to believe as, sweating with fear, we halted for a consultation. In another moment, might we not feel the reek of sulphur in our nostrils and gasp our last beneath the suffocating fumes?

For several minutes we conferred, but could reach no conclusion. Standing there against the invisible cavern wall, with the earth almost constantly quivering and with low, gruff, distant detonations dinning upon our ears, we found it difficult, almost impossible to exchange ideas. That terror which is close to madness was upon us both; and since the most difficult thing to do was to do nothing at all, it was not long before we were on our way again.

A moment later we were to receive a sharp surprise. Groping around another bend in the gallery, we were startled to see, far ahead of us, an indistinct patch of light. Vaguely rectangular in shape, and of an unearthly greenish hue, it wavered and flickered strangely, at times almost disappearing, at times flaring to a hectic, momentary brilliance, shot through with flashes of red, orange, and violet. And, simultaneously, the far-off thunders grew more deep-throated, with occasional snarls and reports as of siege-artillery.

"Sacred Catfish!" muttered Clay in awe-stricken tones. "You could almost believe the old yarns about Satan and his court of devils!"

I must confess that, hard-headed man of science though I pride myself on being, a wave of superstitions fright went through me at these words; some old ancestral terror had gripped me until my legs shook and all but sank beneath me. Nevertheless, I strove desperately to rally what remained of my strength.

"Court of devils?" I tossed back, mockingly. "The only devils are in your imagination, Phil! It's clear enough what's wrong; the earth is suffering from a little fit of indigestion, something out of gear down here in her volcanic entrails. Most likely it'll clear up any moment."

Hardly were these words out of my mouth when the earth gave a lurch so violent that we were both knocked off our feet. And for one instant, the light from down the gallery became a sun-like illumination, by whose glare I caught a glimpse of Clay's harried face, scarred and red with newly clotted blood, with one eye half closed, and with a long gash across the great dome of his forehead.

Probably I did not present a more inviting sight, for, as we both picked ourselves up from the cavern floor, he exclaimed, "Say, old fellow, I ought to have your picture now! The way you're looking, you'd scare off a brigade of fighting Hottentots!"

Not thanking him for this compliment, I started away again along the gallery, whose walls were now and then dimly visible by the flickering light from ahead. All lingering idea that it was the channel of a subterranean river was now dissipated! To our astonishment, we saw that the ceiling formed a perfect triangle, an inverted V like the roof of a house! Here was the handiwork of man—or else we were both dreaming! But what man before us had penetrated to these abysmal labyrinths?

But it was useless to speculate. Let us go forward and find out! It is difficult for me today to say how Clay and I, fear-stricken and wounded, found courage to press on through that hideous, down-sloping cavern, where at any moment we might expect annihilation. Perhaps it was that we realized the impossibility of retracing our footsteps through the darkness; perhaps it was that the light ahead, mysterious and frightening as it was, seemed less to be dreaded than the gloom behind; perhaps it was that curiosity, which so often is the father of recklessness, led us on moth-like toward the seduction of the far-off radiance.

In any case, we did continue to move forward, though very slowly and cautiously; and as by degrees we approached the light, we were relieved to find that the earth trembled less violently and less often, and that the illumination down the passageway grew more steady and distinct.

"See, Phil, I told you the earthquakes would be over soon!" I reassured my companion; and he, not venturing a reply, merely quickened his footsteps, as if in tacit agreement.

Little did either of us foresee how much more violent, how much more amazing, how much more terrifying our adventures would be after we had gained the longed-for haven of the light.


The Brink of the Abyss

At last we were drawing near the mysterious light. It had now ceased to flicker and shone with a steady greenish-yellow glare, so bright as to illuminate the gallery with a weird radiance, wherein we could clearly distinguish each other's features. The source of the light, however, remained an enigma; while we, pressing on with increasing boldness, were resolved to discover its nature or perish in the attempt.

In a few minutes we had reached the end of the corridor, and, turning sharply, we found ourselves in a wider passageway penetrated by scores of cross-galleries and ending, about a hundred yards beyond, in a perfect blaze of greenish light.

"Lord in Heaven!" exclaimed the awe-stricken Clay, as we reached the new thoroughfare. "Are we dreaming?—or am I simply crazy?"

"Guess we're both crazy!" I muttered. And then, shielding my eyes from the glare and nerving myself for a supreme effort, I said, "Come on; let's find out what's what!"

"Might as well die exploring!" he conceded grimly as we resumed our pilgrimage.

I now noticed for the first time that Clay was walking with a slight limp; I also noticed that his rude mining costume was not only soiled with great streaks and blotches of black, but was ripped and torn in a hundred places, exposing the bare skin every here and there, so that he looked a perfect ragamuffin. But my own clothes, I could see, were in an equally sorry condition.

As we slowly covered the hundred yards to the end of the second gallery, Clay's mind seemed to center on somber thoughts. I could see the bleak furrows on his long, lean, battered face; I could read his disconsolate expression as, with a great hairy hand, he thoughtfully stroked his dishevelled red locks. But I was little prepared for his next words.

"Say, Frank, if anything happens to me, see that my old mother back in Denver gets my watch as a remembrance. And tell her I was thinking of her at the last—"

"The devil I will! Tell her yourself! What's getting into you, Phil?" I interrupted, almost savagely. "Haven't you as good a chance as I of getting out of this infernal mess?"

"I suppose I have, at that!" he acknowledged, wryly. "Guess it's both of us, or neither!"

At this point our conversation was interrupted by our arrival at the end of the second gallery, where we were to make a discovery compared with which our previous surprises appeared insignificant.

I remember that it was Clay, who, preceding me by half a dozen feet, was the first to stop short and gasp out his astonishment.

"God above!" I heard his swift exclamation; and I observed how, stricken all but speechless, he gaped open-mouthed into the green-lighted vacancy beyond. "God above!" he murmured a second time, before a dumbfounded silence overwhelmed him.

At a bound I had gained his side; and I too, as I gazed in bewilderment before me, seemed to have lost my tongue. "Merciful Heavens!" was all I could mumble in my amazement. "Merciful Heavens, what's this?" And I rubbed my eyes and pinched my sides, to make sure that I was not dreaming.

How shall I describe that stupendous scene which suddenly unfolded before us? Surely, the discoverer of a new planet could not have had a deeper sense of awe and wonder! For it was literally a new world that we beheld. The gallery had ended as if on the brink of a precipice; we were staring down, through yellowish-green abysses, into a chasm as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon of Arizona—as wide and deep, but by no means as irregular—by no means so narrow at the bottom! Unlike the great gorge of the Colorado River, it showed no unevenness of structure; sheer stone walls, straight and precipitous as the walls of a room, shot down beneath us a mile deep; sheer stone walls, equally precipitous and straight, rose opposite us at a distance of more than a mile, and between them spread the bare, level floor of the cavern, which reached to our right and left to an incalculable remoteness.

An unspeakably weird sensation overcame me as I gazed, in the thunderstricken silence, at that tremendous excavation. There was such an atmosphere of unreality about it all that only by degrees did my startled senses absorb the details—the gentle curve of the ceiling, which, arching but a few hundred feet above us, revealed fantastic figures, vaguely man-shaped, that stood out sharply in cameo—the multitude of greenish-yellow bulbs which, square or rounded or elongated into rods and spirals, studded the walls by the thousand and hung in long strings from above—the small round openings like the portholes of a vessel, which dotted the opposite side of the cavern in inestimable myriads, confronting us in scores of horizontal lines, and the little door-like apertures that opened at regular intervals all along the cavern floor.

Long and intently we gazed into that miraculous abyss; many minutes must have passed while we stood there spellbound. It was I that first regained some measure of composure; with a shock, I saw my companion standing entranced, so near the brink of the precipice that I trembled for his safety.

With a hasty gesture, I pulled him back a step. "Better watch out, Phil!" I warned, "else I won't have even your watch to bring back to your mother!"

Like a man in a daze, he wiped a grimy hand over his carrot-colored hair. "Good thing she can't see me now!" he gasped. "Lord preserve me! she'd be offering up prayers for the soul of her poor boy lost in Hell!"

"Lost in Hell is right!" I acknowledged, grimly.

"If I hadn't bit my lips to make sure I was alive, Frank," he continued, with an ugly grimace of his scarred face, "I'd think we had both died and were wandering around somewhere in the devil's back yard!"

Before I had had time to reply, fresh alarm swept aver us both; once more the earth wavered violently and the distant thunders and detonations burst out with renewed fury. At the same time, a shaft of violet light, from some unknown source, shot across the cavern with lightning swiftness. Then, in the barest fraction of a second, waves of orange light and of vermilion followed; then, while Clay and I stared at each other in consternation, the greenish-yellow luminaries all flickered and seemed about to be extinguished. Simultaneously, our ears were struck by a distant blast of sound, a little like the notes of a bugle; and the next instant, as the greenish-yellow lights regained their former brilliancy, a scene of startling activity became visible on the cavern floor.

Had we obeyed the dictates of our hammering hearts, we should have turned and fled. The impulse to flee was, indeed, powerful within us; but partly because we did not wish to seem cowards in each other's eyes, and partly because of our insatiable curiosity, we fought down our self-protective instinct, flung ourselves full-length upon the gallery floor, crept to the edge of the abyss, and gazed across. And there, in that recumbent position, like small boys secretly watching a ball game, we witnessed a spectacle so unimaginably strange that I cannot recall it even today without a shudder of the old horror.



From our vantage-point near the cavern roof, we could not clearly follow all that was happening a mile beneath; however, we were able to observe more than a little. In the beginning, we were astonished to see the doors at the base of the excavation all thrown open, to admit a multitude of black ant-like mites, which we did not at first recognize as human beings. So minute were they, in view of their distance, that they might have been mere swarming insects. To discover much about their appearance or costume was out of the question; nevertheless, we were not long in learning their nature, for they immediately drew themselves up into precise rectangular formations, each of which was divided into scores of long, mathematically even columns.

"By Heaven!" I gasped, as I lay peeping across the edge of the abyss. "If it isn't an army!"

"Sure enough, an army!" agreed Clay, his mouth agape till the lower jaw seemed ready to drop off. "I'll swear they look like the devil's own recruits! Just see the banners gleaming!"

By straining my eyes, I could distinguish flashes of yellow and purple, as from the waving of battle flags.

"Say, look down there!" my companion ejaculated the next second, leaning over the edge of the void until I feared he would take a mile-long fall. "There's not one army! There's two!"

"Sure you're not seeing double, old pal?" I demanded. And then, at the risk of losing my own balance, I leaned out fully as far as Clay, staring into the dreadful chasm directly below.

It was indeed as my friend had said! Just under us was a second army, its innumerable multitudes arrayed in neat rectangles, and its banners flashing in vermilion and green!

From the opposite sides of the cavern the two great masses of men, each composed of scores of thousands of individuals, were approaching one another with slow and gracefully coördinated movements. Had they a hostile intent?—or were they merely on friendly parade? So quietly were they advancing that both Clay and I leapt to the latter explanation. It would not be long before we would learn our mistake!

"By my grandmother's ghost, Frank! Where do all those fellows come from?" exclaimed Clay, turning toward me with eyes bulging in wonder and alarm. "What would you have said only yesterday, old chap, if some one had drawn you a picture of all this?"

"I'd have said he was dafter than a mad hatter!"

"Chances are we'd have had him locked up!" agreed Clay. "Say, do you know—"

But he was not to complete his sentence. For at this point a never-to-be-forgotten demonstration burst forth.

It was as if the entire cavern had shot all at once into flames. It was as if a thunder-storm of unparalleled fury had flared simultaneously at a hundred points. There came a wave of dazzling white light which flashed across the cavern on a jagged course and all but blinded us; then, while our stunned senses reeled beneath the blow, we were smitten by a clap of thunder so severe that our ear-drums fairly rang. Almost instantly, other detonations followed, with a banging as of tremendous explosions; and new lightnings streaked and blazed, with red and green and orange coruscations as their long twisting lances zigzagged from wall to wall. At the same time, the ground began to shake once more, to shake so violently that we had to cling desperately to a rocky ledge; and from moment to moment the tremors increased in severity. At last we could understand the source of the earthquakes!

New lightnings streaked and blazed with red and green and orange coruscations as their long twisting lances zigzagged from wall to wall.

Speechless as deaf-mutes, Clay and I stared across at one another in horror. But in his startled eyes I read a message: "Come, let's go!" And his hand was motioning away down the gallery.

Gladly I would have followed his suggestion. But I was as if glued to the ledge. My panic-stricken muscles would not obey my will; I quivered, rose to my knees, and then dropped down full-length once more, terrified lest the heaving earth should pitch me over the cavern edge.

Yet terror could not subdue curiosity; I still gazed down at that fantastic cavern floor, over which the colored lightnings flickered. And what a ghastly discovery I made! Where were those orderly armies that had thronged across the abyss a minute before?

For a moment, I merely gaped wide-eyed, wondering if my senses were deceiving me. The armies had both vanished! In their place were multitudes of black specks strewn pell-mell about the cavern floor, in all manner of distorted positions, some of them bunched together in great dark heaps, some of them clustered amid little new-made crimson patches!

"Do you see? Do you see?" I exclaimed, when a lull in the thunder once more permitted conversation. "Shot to tatters, the whole lot of them!"

"Shot to tatters!" Clay echoed, his bruised face performing wry antics as he spoke. "Wonder what the whole infernal mess was all about."

"Marvelous, anyway, how they use their lightnings to kill," I commented.

"Marvelous the way both sides won!" he snapped back. "Doesn't seem to be much left of either of them!"

In this statement, however, Clay was mistaken. We were soon to learn that all too much was left of both factions.

While the lightnings still leapt and vaulted through space, crossing and criss-crossing the atmosphere with dagger-flames of blue and yellow, there rose a low, regular, distant rumbling—a rumbling too even and continuous for thunder, and yet more ominous-sounding than thunder, since it gained each moment in force and volume and had a monotonous, rhythmical, thudding effect reminding one of the motor of some great machine.

"God be merciful, what's this coming?" suddenly cried my companion, pointing far down the cavern. "See, Frank! Can you make out what it is?"

At the renewed risk of falling over the edge, I peered in the indicated direction; and, as I did so, I received perhaps the severest shock I had yet had on this day of horrors. "Lord Almighty!" I gasped. "It's a battleship on wheels!"

"It's not one of them! It's two!" shouted Clay.

And indeed, two monster shapes, each as large as the dreadnoughts of a modern navy, were gliding toward us out of the greenish-yellow glare far to the right. With long, pointed, steel-like prows, thin tapering sterns, and squat funnels belching smoke and steam, they had the shape and appearance of warships, except that they displayed no masts or gun-turrets. But little dark tubes curving from their sides looked very much like guns.

"See the wheels," yelled Clay, trying to make himself heard above the increasing uproar of the monsters' approach; and I observed how scores of wheels, each of them twenty or thirty feet across, were arranged all along the sides of the great machines, bearing them forward with the speed of an ocean liner.

"Seems to be in a hurry!" I yelled back, as I noticed with what steady roaring haste the vessels pressed forward.

But I had no time to wonder what the machines might be, or what incredible people, populating the abysses of the earth, had developed such giant mechanisms. Before I had half recovered from my surprise, I was aware that Clay, no longer able to make his voice heard above the din of the approaching monsters, was nudging my elbow and pointing in great agitation to our left.

"See! See there!" I read the unexpressed words on his lips. "Just look at that! Just look! Just look!"

Well might he be agitated. From far down the cavern to our left, three more land-battleships were rumbling toward us, shooting out flashes of red and white lightning like a challenge, while hastening to meet the other Titans as though intending a head-on collision.



Straight on and on the two sets of battle-monsters came, their ugly pointed forms half-concealed in puffs and streamers of black smoke. Waving at the stern of one group, we could distinguish banners of yellow and purple, while the other group displayed green and vermilion flags; but otherwise it was hard to tell them apart. On the decks of all the vessels alike we could see swarms of animated black specks; from the curved tubes at their sides we observed darts of lightning intermittently shooting; and meantime their rumbling and roaring made a pandemonium as of a thousand locomotives in simultaneous action.

As they drew near each other, the two groups did not relax their speed. Indeed, their pace was only accelerated! With the velocity of motor cars on a highway, they raced to within a few hundred yards of each other, as if intending to ram and destroy. There came a prodigious hissing of steam as they rolled toward the death-grip; for a moment, the five rushing monsters were obscured amid clouds of vapor, through which the blue and yellow lightnings flared in innumerable bolts. Then our aching ears caught the shock of a concussion so severe that for a second we were stunned; then other shocks, equally severe, followed one upon the other, as though a mile high giant were delivering blows with a sledgehammer; then, while the earth reeled and staggered, we were too dazed to be aware of anything except a stupendous uproar and commotion.

But by slow degrees, the din subsided. By slow degrees, the wavering ground regained its balance. Bewildered and still trembling, Clay and I nerved ourselves to peer out again across the cavern edge. Yet for a minute we saw nothing; the depths of the canyon were blanketed in a fuming yellow vapor which obscured everything like a heavy fog and tormented our nostrils with acrid odors.

Owing to our physical discomfort, we did not know how or when the mists were dissipated. But when at last Clay leaned across the cavern edge once more, he uttered a surprised "Battle over! Say, it looks like a tie!"

"Like a tie?" I echoed, staring into the pit. "But where under Heaven—where under Heaven are the fighters?"

"There aren't any more fighters!" mumbled Clay—and this was the literal truth. The great battle machines, which had snorted and thundered so violently a few minutes before, were no longer to be seen! Instead, we looked out upon a spectacle of wild devastation. The rocky ground, plowed up and torn as by Titanic dredges, had been beaten into ridges and furrows like the waves of a stormy sea; the opposite canyon wall had been wrecked as if with dynamite, and great masses of broken boulders were heaped up where the porthole-like openings had stared.

But were there no signs at all of the land-battleships? Yes—here and there along the scarred and charred pit-floor, we saw twisted rods and wires! Here and there were bent and dented iron plates; here and there were contorted coils, broken rods, fragments of wheels and axles—mute testimonials to the fate of those five battle monarchs!

For a long while we gaped in silence at that desolate battlefield. How inconceivably powerful were these mysterious people of the depths! What gigantic forces they controlled to be able to blow up huge steel vessels like toys! In contemplation of such unheard-of might, I felt overwhelmed with awe, and I felt crushed, humbled by my own feebleness.

But quite different was Clay's reaction. I saw his lower lip curl in a faintly contemptuous expression as he spoke.

"You know, Frank, what I'm beginning to think? These caves are inhabited by a lot of crazy men—blank, raving lunatics, the whole set of them! Why, if they had the sense of a two-year-old, they'd know enough not to fight when they'd all be blown to smithereens!"

"Looks that way, doesn't it?" I conceded, begrudgingly. "But how could we expect to have any wars at all, if every one had the sense of a two-year-old?"

Clay opened his mouth to reply. But before he could utter a word, an event occurred that turned our thoughts to other subjects.

From the cavern walls opposite us, where the little round openings had not been blown away in the recent engagement, a shaft of red lightning leapt, striking not many yards below us with an ear-splitting din. And almost instantly another bolt shot out, and another, and another still, each of them coming nearer us than the last, while our ears rang with the heavy explosive uproar. That we were not killed instantly was due more to luck than to our swift action.

Yet we were not slow about rising and fleeing. Startled as we were, we realized the nature of the onslaught. We had been seen, mistaken for enemies, and fired upon! Hostile marksmen, armed with thunderbolts, were seeking our lives!

Even as we sprang up and away, a deafening crash resounded at our heels, and we knew that the ledge where we had lain had been hit and shattered. The next instant, as we darted along the gallery, an even louder crash burst forth, and a huge rocky mass, dislodged from the gallery roof, came roaring and clattering down almost at our feet.

In that desperate crisis, it was each for himself. As if by instinct, I knew that if I remained in that main passageway a second longer, I would be struck and killed; as if by instinct, I turned in my flight and darted off into the shelter of one of the many side-galleries. And such was the impulse of my terror that I did not halt even when reaching this relative safety, but kept on at full speed down the vaguely lighted corridor, until at last my panting breath and pounding heart forced me to stop.

Then, wheeling about, I was swept by a new rush of alarm. Where was Clay?

In the fury of my panic, I had forgotten him. And now he was not to be seen!

"Phil! Phil!" I cried, suddenly aware of an aloneness, an isolation such as I had never felt before. "Phil! Phil! Phil!"

But my words rang uncannily down the dim gallery, with echoes like devil's mockery. "Phil! Phil! Phil! Where are you, Phil? Where are you?" I shouted again and again. But still only the echoes came back to me, like the voice of my own despair, "Where are you, Phil? Where are you?"

And then, as I still called without reply, there came a thought that all but paralyzed me with dread. What if my friend had not been so fortunate as I? What if he had been hit by one of the death-bolts?

As this new fear shot over me, I raised my voice more loudly than ever, "Phil! Phil! Phil! Answer me, Phil! Where are you? Where are you?" As though the sound of my own shouts would still the tumult storming within me!

Furiously I retraced my footsteps. Back along the side-gallery I dashed, back to the main corridor where I had last seen my old chum. "Phil! Phil! Phil! Where are you?" I still shouted as I approached; and my heart sank as my voice, husky from the strain, cried out those unavailing words.

Then, with a final throb of expectation, I entered the corridor and started out across its greenish-yellow spaces. And, as I did so, I gave a gasp, and hope died within me. The gallery was empty! Clay was nowhere to be seen!



For a long, blank moment of dismay and horror, I stood staring out across that deserted passageway. I was as one who, in mid-ocean, suddenly feels the waves foaming over him with no sign of a rescuing sail. Not until this instant had the full terror of my plight overwhelmed me; not until this instant had I felt utterly hopeless and helpless. Now that Clay was gone, it was as if the very under-pinnings of my world had been torn from beneath me.

Yet my alarm was not for myself. It was of Clay that I was thinking; it was Clay's tormented face that flashed before my mind as if surrounded by a red glare of danger. And the conviction came to me, irrational yet irresistible, that he had either been slain or was in mortal peril.

Goaded by that dread, I shook myself out of the inaction that had seized me as I regained the main gallery. I forgot my personal risk; I scarcely cared whether or not a death-bolt felled me; I began running furiously up and down, as recklessly as one who courts his own destruction. Still no trace of Clay! Surely, he would not willingly have deserted me! But had he too rushed into one of the side-corridors? Then why had he not returned? Had he not heard my shouting? Would he not shout for me as well?

While these and other questions shot across my mind in baffling succession, I peered fruitlessly into the shadows of half a score of side-galleries; and into each of them I called as loudly as my cracked and broken voice would permit; "Phil! Phil! Phil! Where are you? Where are you, Phil?"

But still only the mocking echoes came back to taunt me.

Had I been a more cautious man, I would have been less ready to cry out into those mysterious depths. For, while I accomplished nothing for Clay, I was weaving a grim net of danger about my own head....

I had called into the tenth or eleventh passageway, when an answering yell met my ears—not the welcome voice I craved, but a high-pitched cry in some unknown tongue, a cry of such unspeakable shrillness and ferocity that I stopped short as if paralyzed and felt my knees faltering beneath me and my hair bristling.

Almost at the same instant, a grisly apparition glided forth amid the dimness of the side-gallery. I say apparition, for, although it was solid flesh and blood, it flashed upon me like a ghost—worse than a ghost!—like the phantom of death himself! Imagine a man-sized figure, robed from head to foot in black, and with a sable hood, the shape of a fool's cap! Imagine a face of spectral, chalky white! Imagine a toothless mouth leering with wide-gaping jaws; imagine the creature starting forward with black-gloved hands extended, and with that hideous shriek still shrilling from its lips; imagine—

But I did not take time for further observation. Despite all the strain I had endured, my legs retained their vigor. Not for nothing had I been on the track team at college! But alas!—as I rushed like a hounded deer along the main gallery, I was dashed to grief. I do not know what betrayed me—perhaps a crevice in the floor, perhaps only a pebble; at all events, I pitched ingloriously head over heels and came painfully to a halt.

Hastily picking myself up, regardless of a bruised shin and aching knee-joint, I was about to resume my flight—when I found my pathway blocked. All about me, at distances of from ten to twenty yards, were dozens of beings so strange that they might have been dwellers of another planet.

They were riding cross-legged on curious low cars of about the size and shape of children's coasters—little wheeled vehicles, three or four feet long, a foot high, and a foot wide, which, with a buzzing of motors, darted back and forth nervously, frequently colliding with one another in their haste. This it was which explained their rapidity in over-taking me.

But more astonishing than the machines were the creatures themselves. For a moment, as they ringed me about in a gaping crowd, I had the uncanny sensation of being imprisoned by phantoms. Like him who had started me on my flight, they were all black-clad from crown to heel; they all had faces which, snowy white, seemed scarcely human in their bloodless pallor. Their hair, protruding in long tufts from beneath their cone-shaped hats, was either paper-white or gray; their eyes, narrower than those of most men, gave the impression of being not fully open, and were curiously pink or salmon-colored; their noses were flat and stubby, their chins weak and almost unnoticeable, while their narrow chests were so stooped and pinched that I could have believed the whole lot of them to be consumptives.

Had it not been for the latter features, I might have mistaken them all for women; for they wore long skirts which came down well below the knees. The impression of femininity, moreover, was re-inforced by the V-shaped slits in the backs of their costumes, and by the black pencilling of the eyebrows, which were overlooked by little snake-like curves, painted as if for artistic effect.

But at the first horrified glimpse, I did not observe all these details. I merely noticed how the creatures surrounded me, keeping at a distance of not less than ten yards, while rolling restlessly back and forth in their little cars; I noticed how several of them carried long dragon-shaped banners of green and vermilion, and how others bore little pistol-like implements, from which every now and then a forked lightning-shaft flashed toward the ceiling. And as I gazed out at the strangers, every other thought was lost in the despairing sense that I was trapped.

Yes!—I was trapped as completely as though they had me in irons. The circle about me was unbroken, and there was no way of escape!

Several minutes went by, during which nothing of importance happened. The creatures stared at me, almost glared at me, with every expression of interest; some of them jabbered to one another in those peculiar high-pitched voices so unpleasant to my ears; others pointed at me with curious gestures that may have indicated surprise, derision, or anger; one of them even stepped forth a little and addressed me in particularly loud and rasping tones, of which I could understand not one word.

But when I, in my turn, called out to them as a test, "Who are you? Where am I?" they answered with a round of such unpleasant, grating laughter that I resolved to hold my tongue thenceforth. Evidently English was not spoken in the caverns beneath the earth.

I do not know whether the people interpreted my words as mockery, or were incensed by my failure to answer them intelligibly. In any case, I could see an expression of hostility, of suspicion deepening in their salmon eyes, and knew that I had provoked their disfavor. But I was little prepared for their next action. From a rifle-like machine in the hand of the foremost man, a coil of wire leapt forth; and, before I realized the intention or had had a chance to evade it, the coil had fallen over my neck and was tightening about my shoulders, drawing my arms together against my sides and binding me as helplessly as a lassoed steer.

Naturally, I struggled, but the chief effect was to provoke more of that unpleasant grating laughter. The metal, which was thick as my index finger, would not yield to my most frantic efforts. The more I writhed, the more deeply it cut into my flesh; and the more deeply it cut into my flesh, the more heartily the chalky-faced folk laughed at my groans.

Then after a minute or two, my captors began pulling at the wire. While some of the little coaster-like machines rolled behind me, and some rolled ahead, but none approached within ten yards, I was led away down one of the side-galleries, like a dog at the end of a string, toward a fate I could hardly conjecture.


Deeper and Darker

In the course of my thirty-eight years, I have made more than one hair-raising expedition. I have clung to the slippery sides of precipices; I have rolled in a ship at sea, with the decks all awash beneath the mountainous waves; I have been lost in the burning desert and all but blistered to death; I have roamed glacial barrens, and remote caves, and serpent-infested jungles. But never have I been stricken with such fear, never have I suffered such nightmare agonies as during that journey at the end of a wire, among the clattering groups of pit-dwellers.

So bewildered was I, so frightened, and at the same time so angered, that for a long while I kept little track of where we went. I only knew that we were making our way down, down, down, among a multitude of galleries that curved, and curved again, and branched and inter-branched with baffling intricacy—galleries illuminated with a greenish-yellow glow by the multitudes of orbs placed at regular intervals along the walls and ceiling. It seemed that we travelled for miles, while my captors, on their queer wheeled machines, rolled ahead of me and behind, but never came within yards of personal contact; and minute by minute the wire cut more deeply into my skin, checking the circulation and making it hard for me to hold back a cry of pain.

After a time, however, I began to take closer note of my surroundings. I remember, for example, catching a glimpse of a huge, rapidly revolving wheel, larger than a barn-door, from which a strong draft of cool air was blowing; I saw through a half-closed door into a hall filled with machines as high as a five-story building; I was dazzled by flashes of sun-brilliant lights, and once or twice my ears were smitten with thunderblasts; I crossed a bridge over a subterranean torrent, in which I could see half-submerged, illuminated vessels; I passed walls lined with little round lighted windows, within which I could distinguish shadowy figures moving; I shuffled along corridors where long pipes, coils, and strands of wire ran along the walls for great distances.

Absorbed in these sights, I had regained something of my composure before there occurred an event which, for a time, unnerved me completely. Coming to the end of a narrow passageway, we found ourselves facing a thoroughfare which, to my unaccustomed eyes, seemed like a parade-ground of demons. Along a gallery fifty or sixty yards across, a multitude of little cars were shooting back and forth with prodigious rapidity. None of them were any larger than the tiny coaster-like machines of my captors, but all were moving with such speed that it was difficult, and at times impossible, to follow their movements. Worst of all, they seemed to pursue no regular route, but looped and curved at all crazy angles, and so many were the near-collisions that it made me dizzy merely to look at the vehicles.

Across this mad avenue my captors set forth with the utmost nonchalance, weaving their way in and out as unconcernedly as though not in danger of being knocked to eternity. And I, though I strained back at my wire till the blood came, was forced to follow. Imagine my terror! The diabolical little machines, like bolts out of a cannon, came racing toward me from all sides, and none would relax its speed as it approached! I felt one of them flitting just to my rear with a rush of wind; another almost scraped the tips of my shoes as it darted in front of me; a third would certainly have ended my days on earth had it not swerved by a fraction of an inch just as it was about to destroy me. Little wonder that, by the time I had reached the further side, I was near to nervous prostration!

I was just heaving a sigh of relief at my deliverance, when there came a loud crash from behind me; and, glancing back, I saw two of the little cars jumbled together in a distorted heap, their drivers sprawled with outstretched limbs along the cavern floor. One of them, lying motionless in a pool of blood, was evidently already beyond help; the other was twisting and groaning miserably. But the other riders were shooting back and forth with the same reckless haste as ever, and no one seemed to pay the unfortunates any attention.

Amid all my trials, I had one cause to be thankful: we were to cross no other driveway that day! Fifteen minutes later, we had reached our destination; we emerged into a long, straight cavern, with walls several hundred feet apart and a vaulted ceiling fifty yards high; and one of my captors, flinging open a little door at one side, motioned me to enter.

Not being allured by the vague, indistinctly lighted interior, I stood still and made no attempt to obey—at which my master went off into a fit. A reddish tinge transformed the normal chalky white of his face; his black-gloved hands shook wrathfully and he uttered a howl of shrieking command.

Although I did not understand the words, I could guess their meaning; however, I still held my ground, disobedient and determined.

At this, my tormentor, growing more angry still, consulted briefly with one of his fellows; then, with a resolute motion, he seized a long two-pronged pole from the cavern wall and thrust this weapon forward so as to catch me between the prongs.

Thus held, I was helpless; and though I howled my resentment, I was shoved through the door like a captive beast. The next moment, I heard the heavy hinges rattling to a close, and with a bang like thunder, the door slammed in my face. At last I was in prison!

By the pale greenish-yellow light, I found myself in a room about twenty-five feet square, with only one small window, and with a low ceiling that curved down almost to meet the floor. One or two stone benches and tables, but no chairs, were scattered about this compartment; while, at the further end, half a dozen white-faced and black-robed creatures were cowering miserably.

But when, with the friendliest of intentions, I approached these fellow-sufferers, they cringed and withdrew into the remotest corner, trembling, and uttered sharp, menacing exclamations of fear. Why were they so afraid of me? Was it that they had never seen a man of my race?

Being denied their company, I deposited myself on a stone bench across the room from them, and, with my head buried in my hands, began drearily reviewing my predicament. Who were these chalk-faced people? How did they manage to live here beneath the earth? Why had no one ever heard of them before? What did they intend to do with me? What had happened to Clay? Was he alive or dead? These questions, and a thousand more, flitted through my mind in a mad, almost delirious succession, while, at the same time, I became increasingly aware of a great fatigue, and increasingly conscious of being hungry and thirsty.

My head was aching and my tongue was growing dry within my mouth by the time the prison door opened once more and one of the chalk-faces entered and deposited a bowl of water and some marble-sized purple capsules on a table a few yards from me.

To my surprise, my cell-mates all at once made a dash, as if to seize these articles, but withdrew in a panic when I stepped forth, and I was left in undisputed possession of the prizes.

At one gulp, I consumed the water; then, feeling somewhat better, I took up the purple capsules and examined them with interest. As I did so, a grim suspicion came into my mind. I do not know what it was that gave me this idea—perhaps the vivid color of the pellets; it flashed over me that these were poison potions, intended as an easy means of disposing of me. Probably it was from this fate that my cell-mates, unfriendly though they seemed, had wished to save me in rushing for the capsules.

What was more natural therefore than that, horrified by my suspicions, I should seize the capsules and dash them along the floor? But what was more astonishing than the actions of my cell-mates, who, with wild whoops and cries, leapt after these scattered purple globules? I noticed how they all showed an almost ravenous greed, each fighting to be first; I also noticed how, as if stricken blind, they began to grope strangely as they drew near the objects, feeling with clumsy hands across the floor and apparently finally locating them by touch alone.

Surely, it was not the dimness of the light that caused this queer conduct, for they had seen the capsules plainly enough at a distance!

It was at this point that I made my first great discovery about the chalk-faces. They were unable to see things clearly close at hand! Doubtless, their long residence underground had affected their vision.

It was at this point, also, that I made my second great discovery. The purple pellets were good to eat! That was manifest, for my cell-mates, having seized them, thrust them eagerly into their toothless mouths and smacked their lips in relish.

Cursing my reckless folly in throwing the capsules away, I made a rush toward my cell-mates, and, by grasping desperately, managed to seize the last of the globules barely in time to save it from the chalk-faces. And then tentatively I put it into my mouth, ready to spit it out at any indication of poison. But I might have spared my fears. It had a delicious nutty flavor, and was evidently concentrated food of a high quality, for I felt a new surge of strength in my veins the moment I had consumed it.

It was well that I had taken even this small amount of nourishment; I was to need all my spare energy in the dread ordeal that lay ahead.


Beneath the Ray

In the first dismal moment of my imprisonment, I had anticipated days, weeks, or even months of confinement. But I might have spared my fears. I was soon to be released—although under the last conditions I would have chosen. And the period of my incarceration, though brief in duration, was to be savage in the torments it inflicted.

Two or three hours after I had been jailed, the prison door was shoved violently inward to admit such a ferocious-looking gang of invaders that my cell-mates all murmured in fright and huddled together at the extreme end of the room. I too gave a little gasp of alarm, then tried hard to make myself inconspicuous in a dark corner under the low-hanging ceiling. In astonishment only exceeded by my apprehension, I saw a troop of ten beings, who had evidently made every effort to appear inhuman. The head of each was enveloped in a triangular mask of steel which came to a hatchet-like point in front and displayed hideous gaping apertures for the eyes, mouth, and nostrils; their bodies were encased in dark cloth covered with thin flakes of steel which clattered as they walked; their feet, which carried long spike-like spurs both in front and behind, were clothed in iron-plated boots that ran almost to the knees; their right hands bore shining weapons, shaped a little like sawed-off shotguns, the ends of which scintillated with flying sparks.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about them was the manner in which they walked. They all stepped forward with movements so stiff and regular that I had a fleeting suspicion that they were animated machines; their arms swayed up and down, up and down, in perfect time with those of their companions; their feet always left the ground with a peculiar high-swinging motion, like that of prancing horses, although their pace was by no means a prancing one; the sound of their footsteps reminded me of cavalry trotting.

Of course, I recognized their nature very quickly. Their automatic and mechanical movements made it evident that they were soldiers.

At a steady pace, they approached my cell-mates, who were shaking and howling with dread; then abruptly they halted, and their leader pointed at one of the poor wretches and snapped out a sharp order.

Instantly the victim uttered a cry, as of lamentation and dismay; then, sagging to the floor, he was seized by one of the warriors and dragged away, while the whole party left the room at their odd prancing march.

As the door rattled to a close behind them, my remaining cell-mates all dashed toward the one small window, fighting and wrestling with one another to gain a favorable position. And all the while, from the lips of them all, there issued the dreariest, most doleful wails that ever grated on my ears.

Noting their excitement, and not wishing to be left behind if there was anything to see, I too darted toward the window. And lo and behold!—the effect was magical! Avoiding contact with me as though I were a plague-bearer, the chalk-faces all made way before my coming, and, whimpering with fear, retreated to the further end of the room. Thus I was left in undisputed possession of the view!

It was a strange sight that I beheld as I peered out between the iron bars—a sight in some ways more appalling than even the clash of the land-battleships. Glancing out into the broad, high corridor just outside our prison, I saw my late cell-mate being borne away to the opposite wall, where he was tied against a stone column shaped like a gallows. Then, while a group of about fifty chalk-faces gathered around, gibbering and gesticulating, one of the soldiers uttered what sounded like a warning cry, at which the spectators all withdrew to a respectable distance, and a curious-looking machine was wheeled on to the scene.

Not until its brown cloth cover had been removed, and it had been put into operation, could I guess its nature. Although it rested, like a camera, on an iron tripod, it was unlike any other machine I had ever observed; it consisted, in the main, of a series of prisms and lenses, of various shapes and colors, some of them transparent and but a few inches across, but the foremost of them rounded in form, stained a deep opaque blue, and fully a yard in diameter. Behind the lenses, there were numbers of bulbs and wires, and of battery-like tubes; while the whole instrument, when in operation, made a constant whirring sound, a little like a motion picture projector.

What interested me most of all, however, was the weird light which, issuing from the foremost lens, was not scattered or diffused like most rays, but drew sharply to a focus twenty or twenty-five yards ahead of the machine, making a long cone of the most uncanny violet illumination I had ever seen.

Even now, I was not certain of the dread purpose of the apparatus. But from the hush of awe-stricken expectancy that had come over the spectators, I surmised that something extraordinary was in store. Nor was I to be disappointed. One of the soldiers, operating the machine, turned the violet light-rays on and off two or three times as if for practice, then gradually moved the instrument so that it pointed directly toward the wretch tied against the stone column.

There followed a moment of silence, during which the operator looked through a little glass tube, as if to make sure of his position and distance; then he raised his black-gloved hand in an urgent gesture, and the silence became more absolute than ever, except for a moaning sound from the tied man; then he took out a little instrument like a watch and gazed at it intently, as if keeping careful count of the time....

The next instant, while I still wondered what was to happen, I heard the low regular whirring of the machine. The cone of violet light shot out, its focus directly at the prisoner's heart. Then the man sagged and would have fallen except for the ropes that held him. A strangled cry issued from his throat; dark foam appeared upon his lips; his face, for an instant, became ghastly purplish red, then turned gray and colorless....

Three or four seconds, and all was over. The victim gave a last convulsive quiver; the violet light no longer played; the whirring sound had ceased. But one of the soldiers, whistling a tune, cut the lifeless form free; and the people, with a loud babbling chatter, surged back and forth across the gallery as if nothing had occurred.

The explanation now was clear enough to me. I knew that the machine generated not only violet but ultra-violet rays of a penetrating power to reach the heart and check its action by tearing down the tissues.

Having seen enough for one day, I sank back upon a stone bench, clasping my aching forehead with both hands and telling myself that I had fallen amongst the most barbarous race ever known. True, they were wonderfully advanced scientifically, but would any civilized people execute a man with a death-ray? Would they not, rather, resort to humane devices, such as hanging, the guillotine, or the electric chair?

While absorbed in these ruminations, I was startled to see the prison door burst open once more, admitting the squad of ten soldiers who advanced with the same machine-like movements and prancing steps as before, singled out another of my cell-mates, bore the cringing victim away, and promptly executed him by means of the violet-ray.

Four times in the course of the next hour they returned, and each time withdrew one of my fellow prisoners, who shortly afterwards said his last farewell to this world.

What had these men done to justify such treatment? Surely, they were criminals of a desperate calibre!

With this reflection, I sought to console myself and to drive out a terrorizing premonition. But it was by no means consoling to find myself at length alone in the prison, while the last of my cell-mates was being crumpled to death by the violet rays.

Would I now be left to myself? Fervently I prayed to remain undisturbed for a time, so that the pulsing in my head might subside. But my prayer was not to be answered. Immediately after disposing of the last chalk-face, the soldiers returned. I heard the banging of the door, as it swung on its hinges with a rattling like the thunder of the gates of doom; I heard the warriors, with their clattering steely garments and triangular hatchet helmets as they solemnly approached; I saw their leader lift a black-clad hand and point in my direction with a motion as automatic as it was inexorable; and, cowering in the furthest dim recess of the prison, cornered beyond hope of escape, I felt as if I had already heard the summons of the Last Bugler trumpeting in my ears.



Had I been a condemned criminal sentenced to the electric chair, my torments would have been less hard to bear. For then, at least, I would have known that I was suffering justly; I would have been surrounded by people of my own kind and race; I would have had time in which to prepare myself, and I would have had to face no such diabolical instrument as the violet-ray. Oh, how I loathed the sight of that machine. Even today I cannot think of it without an involuntary start of fright! Yet, apparently, there was no power on Heaven or Earth to save me from it. Coolly, deliberately, with the most matter-of-fact manner, my oppressors dragged me out of prison, pulled me at the end of a wire to the stone column that had witnessed the six executions, and, still not approaching me, hurled some heavy iron strands around the column in such a way as to hold me tightly against it.

Now it seemed to me that I was living through some horrible nightmare, persecuted by devils. I saw the ghastly black-and-white figures of the spectators crowded at a safe distance, their salmon eyes glittering with pitiless curiosity; I saw the ten soldiers with their hatchet helmets looking on like the creatures of some delirious vision; I saw the death-machine being moved into place and watched the operator as he peered through the little glass tube as if to make sure of his aim. Then, while I gave a convulsive shudder and grew limp with fright, the executioner lifted his hand to signify that all was ready....

The following seconds seemed each as long as whole hours. For the first time since my childhood, I had an impulse to pray; my lips opened, as if to gasp out a supplication to that Supreme Power in whom I no longer believed; but nothing except a cracked, dry sound came forth, and I half imagined I already heard my own death-rattle. In that final second, I seemed to live through my whole life again, as the drowning are said to do; I was a child in my mother's arms; I was a youth at college; I was a grown man making love to that auburn-headed one who might even now be my bride, if—

But at this point my remembrances ceased. My ears caught the tell-tale whirring of the death-machine; my eyes beheld the cone of violet light, its thin point tapering toward my breast; and, straining with a last futile effort against the imprisoning wires, I thought that my days on earth were over.

Several seconds, long-protracted, tortured seconds—went by. I was aware of a faint warmth, a slight tickling sensation above the heart—and that was all. Was my death to be painless?

Then, in a wild rush, hope came flooding back upon me. Might I not, after all, be saved? Was I immune to the effects of the rays?

Yes!—the miracle had happened! Suddenly the whirring of the machine ceased, the violet-ray snapped off, and the spectators, surging back and forth with excited cries, showed that they shared my own surprise at the failure of the execution.

But was I actually saved? Again I heard the fearful buzzing of the machine; again the cone of violet light pointed toward me; again I felt that ticking sensation in my breast. But I still defied the rays of death!

After the third fruitless attempt, the chalk-faces seemed ready to abandon the effort. I saw the soldiers gathered in a little knot as though in conference; I heard the spectators noisily talking with explosive exclamations; then, after a minute, to my great relief, one of the helmeted ones reached out with a long forked pole and loosened the wires that bound me.

A moment later, I was a free man! Still mystified as to the reason for my escape, I felt impulsively at my chest, wondering if I had not been wounded, ever though I felt no pain. And, as I did so, sudden light dawned upon me. Beneath my coat, which had been punctured with a little round incision like a bullet-hole, I felt a small familiar bulge. And reaching into an inner pocket, I drew forth a little leather-covered notebook! A deep, charred perforation, reaching almost through the heavy back cover, showed what it was that had checked the deadly rays!

Had my enemies taken the trouble to search me in advance, I would not have escaped so easily. Only their irrational dread of approaching me could account for this omission!

But let me not exult prematurely! Now that the cause of the interference had been discovered, what was to prevent my captors from subjecting me once more to the violet rays?

Evidently, the same idea occurred to them as well. Seeing me take the notebook out of my pocket, they uttered shrill exclamations of interest, and the soldiers motioned me to surrender it. At first I refused, but they bound me again with wires shot from one of the rifle-like machines, forcing me to drop the book, which one of the chalk-faces instantly drew toward him with a pronged pole.

But as he could not see clearly at close range, he placed it twenty or thirty feet away, and examined it through a sort of binoculars, while one of his companions turned the pages. I do not know what he found to interest him, for all that it contained was some mining notes with some printed matter bearing statistical information, such as the names and populations of leading cities, the capitals of states, etc. Besides, it was to be presumed that he could not read English! Nevertheless, he uttered significant grunts as he looked from page to page, and one would have thought he had gained invaluable knowledge!

All this was, however, of little consolation to me, for I still expected to be executed the next minute. And was I not justified in this expectation, judging from the way the operator of the death-machine was testing the apparatus, turning the violet-ray on and off every few seconds as if for practice?

Indeed, had it not been for the arrival of Professor Tan Trum, my execution would have been postponed but a few minutes.

I mentioned the name of this renowned individual as I afterwards learned it; for, at the time, of course, I knew nothing of his distinguished reputation. I was only aware of the approach of a chalk-face of unusual appearance. He was much taller and thinner than any of his companions, being well over six feet in height and lean in proportion, and he bent far forward as he walked. His gray hair fell in long braids and curls from his massive brow; his embroidered robe rippled almost to his ankles; and his face, instead of being cleaned-shaven like that of his fellows, showed a long grizzled beard, neatly parted in the center.

At his approach, the others withdrew, not exactly with deference, but with a little of the awe of children at the appearance of some authoritative adult, while he, not heeding them in the least, pushed his way to the front of the crowd, took out his binoculars, and peered at my notebook from a convenient distance.

As he did so, I could see his little reddish eyes beaming enthusiastically. But I was little prepared for the whoop of joy which he let out, or for his excited leap and rush in the direction of my notebook. Approaching it, he had to grope like a blind man, since he had even more trouble than his countrymen in seeing near at hand. However, he finally managed to locate it, and, hugging it to his side as though it were some rare art treasure, he uttered another cry of delight.

The next moment, I noticed that his eyes were fastened upon me, but I felt more friendliness than hostility in his glance; indeed, it turned out that, for the first time since arriving in these nether depths, I had found a defender. I realized that I personally interested him less than did my notebook, yet he was so grateful that I could have kissed his hand when he motioned to my captors, speaking sharply and angrily, and they once more untied my bonds.

Yet I was to be disappointed if I imagined the ordeal to be over. I was, indeed, relieved of the fear of instant execution; but other trials and perils followed immediately. No sooner was I released from the wires than the Professor issued an order and several of the little coaster-like cars were wheeled up. What was my horror when I was motioned to take my place on one of them! However, it was useless to protest. Upon my refusal to obey commands, I was pitched on to one of the vehicles with a two-pronged pole and was made to understand that any attempt to escape would be severely treated. So I lay on the car at full length, clinging to a little board projecting in front, instead of squatting with crossed legs, in the manner of the natives. Loud was their laughter to see me take this position, and great was their surprise that I appeared to have no knowledge of the steering mechanism; but they solved the difficulty by hitching my machine with a wire to another, which forthwith dragged it away.

The ride that followed did not last more than ten minutes, but it was an expedition through Hell itself. My mind kept no clear track of details; I only know that we roared through narrow tunnels, lurched at breakneck speed around curves, shot across causeways and bridges, raced along avenues where other cars swept past in a gray whirl of speed, and finally came to a halt with such abruptness that I was pitched forward off my perch, and was only saved from serious injury by falling on Professor Tan Trum, who drove the car ahead of mine.

Not being versed in the native language, I did not know what epithets of abuse he used; but the sparks that flashed from his salmon eyes, and the sharp tones of his indignant voice, testified to his anger as he picked himself up, nursed a bruised arm, and brushed out the rumpled embroidery of his gown. But, infuriated as he was, I could see that his first thought was for my notebook, which he still firmly clutched. Finding this unharmed, he seemed consoled for his injuries.

We were now joined by half a dozen more chalk-faces, including several soldiers, who had followed us on other cars, and the whole party, without delay, started down a brilliantly lighted gallery toward a great shining hall. As always, most of the chalk-faces kept at a distance from me, some of them trotting half a dozen yards behind, and others as many yards ahead; but Professor Tan Trum, surprisingly, seemed willing to walk at my side—an act of friendliness which filled me with deep gratitude.

As we drew near the hall, my companions slackened their pace; when we had come within a stone's throw of the entrance, I was startled to see a row of soldiers, their faces hidden in triangular helmets, their right hands clutching pikes twenty feet high. They all stood stiff as stone and made no response to our salutes; in fact, such was their lifeless rigidity that at first I supposed them to be, not living men, but statues.

However, after one of our attendants had spoken, slipping a little something into their hands, two of the soldiers proved themselves to be human after all; they moved aside a few feet, making room for us to pass; and, while their pikes gleamed high above us, we entered the hall beyond.

I was now surprised to see my companions drop to their knees and move forward on all fours in a grovelling attitude which I could not be persuaded to imitate until a sharp cuff on the small of the back taught me discretion. Even Professor Tan Trum had fallen into a most ungainly and unbecoming posture; his lanky form, as he crept forward foot by foot on his hands and knees, impressed me as so ridiculous that I could not restrain a burst of laughter, which cost me a second and even more severe cuff on the back.

But what was it that filled the chalk-faces with such humility? Had they entered the shrine of a god—or the throne-room of their king? After a moment, I accepted the latter explanation, although nothing very kingly-looking met my eyes. There was, to be sure, plenty of pomp and display; the walls of the hall, which was at least a hundred yards across, were emblazoned with multitudes of brilliant white, red, and yellow lights; enormous dragon-shaped banners of green and vermilion hung from the high fretted ceilings, interspersed with long strings of swords, pikes, and helmets; in the center, on a raised platform of polished red sandstone, sat the most remarkable individual it had ever been my fortune to behold.

Let me say, to begin with, that he was the smallest man I had encountered outside of a circus. He may have been four feet high, but I doubt it; his lean and weazened frame may have been as stout as that of an eight-year-old, but again I doubt it. The legs, thin as those of a paralytic, were little more than two dangling sticks; his arms were scarcely better developed; his head was bald, his mouth toothless, and his fingers without nails; his eyes were covered with instruments like binoculars, through which he could see only with difficulty; his ears were hidden by a mass of wires, and by black projections like telephone receivers; his nostrils were encased in rubber-like tubes, connecting with steel tanks which, as I later learned, contained oxygen; his mouth, likewise, was fitted with breathing tubes, which I saw him remove only in order to talk, which he did by means of a megaphone.

In other words, the poor creature seemed to have scarcely one of his natural faculties intact!

Yet, to judge from the way in which he was dressed, he was a personage of note. I shall spare the reader an account of his apparel, except to say that, unlike his fellows, he was robed not in black, but in resplendent green and saffron, with a purple crest upon his hairless pate, and with a string of huge rubies dangling about his neck. Personally, I did not care for the color scheme, but he himself was apparently well pleased with it, for all about him, in a gleaming circle, a row of large mirrors was displayed, and through these he was feasted with a constant view of himself and could catch every turn and nod and twist of his imperial countenance. Moreover, other mirrors, spaced at intervals about the room, caught the reflections of the ones nearest him and magnified them so that, in no matter what direction one looked, one was sure to catch the image of that green-and-saffron figure.

It was appropriate that throughout the greater part of the room, except for the reflection of the central dignitary, there should be nothing at all. But just around him, with a mincing and obsequious manner, twenty attendants stood in waiting on the sandstone platform; whenever he made a move or a gesture, were it only to smooth out his dress or scratch the back of his neck, at least half of them would rush up to serve him. I well remember their consternation on one occasion when their master, with the most undignified suddenness, bent forward and sneezed; for a moment, not knowing what was the trouble, I thought I was witnessing a riot as the twenty attendants, like one man, leapt forward to readjust the nose-tubes, which had been blown out of place.

All this I observed while my companions and I, on our hands and knees, crept up to the throne of the potentate. Why should the chalk-faces, absurd as they were, do reverence to such a monarch? I wondered, for I now had no doubt that this was their royal lord. But knowing that there is no accounting for political tastes, I dismissed the mystery as beyond solution; and, for the sake of good form, I remained crouching in a respectful attitude after we had finally halted twenty yards from the throne.

For half an hour we remained on all fours, miserably waiting—at least, I was miserable. During all this time the sovereign seemed to take no note at all of our existence, but remained seated in a sort of dreamy trance, as if brooding on the mystic bliss of Nirvana. Unfortunately, it was the rule among the chalk-faces that subjects could not speak until spoken to; hence we might have remained stooping there all day, and still not have gained an audience, had the dignitary not eventually caught sight of me and become interested.

So interested was he, in fact, that he rose from his seat and tottered to the edge of the platform—a distance of fully six feet, which he accomplished with the utmost difficulty, while three attendants supported him on each side. Then, for at least a minute, he stared at me intently through his binoculars until, exhausted from the effort, he had to be carried to his chair and fanned back to life again.

This process consumed at least ten minutes, during which we all had to remain in the same uncomfortable attitude. But at length the regal one, restored by the fanning of his servants and strengthened by hypodermic injections, was revived sufficiently to be able to speak through the megaphone which a slave lifted to his mouth. Of course, I did not know what he said, but the words were high-pitched and squeaky and rasped upon me like the edge of a file; but the effect was, at least, most welcome, for all of us, with sighs of relief, were able to rise to our feet.

Now Professor Tan Trum, after a flourish and a low bow, waved my notebook high in the air for all to see and launched forth into speech. And what a speech it was. The words seemed to trip and fall over one another, as they came out in a rattling torrent; many minutes went by with scarcely a pause for breath, while all the other chalk-faces made scarcely an effort to conceal their yawns. At last even the monarch, apparently, could endure it no longer; he lifted his arm in a gesture of command, motioned for the megaphone, and snapped out two short words—which instantly put an end to Tan Trum's discourse.

Not until much later did I learn that the ruler had granted everything the professor had asked, nor did I know how deeply everything that had happened affected myself. But his speech, as I afterwards read it in the court records, ran something as follows:

"Lord High Dictator Thuno Flâtum, sovereign of the great empire of Wu and illustrious ruler of the Underworld and the Overworld, I prostrate myself before you! Long may your distinguished might endure! Long may your power cause the nations to shake! I come to you today on a momentous mission, and I trust you will let no thought of my personal unworthiness deter you from that just decision for which you are so rightly renowned. Know, O Thuno Flâtum, that this day a stranger of queer and unprepossessing appearance has been found in our midst. His dark skin and gray eyes proclaim him to be a member of one of those colored races of which ancient traditions tell. But he was at first mistaken for a spy sent out against us by our enemy, Zu, in the war now being waged. This view was re-inforced by the fact that he was found in the Scouting Galleries, just above Black Ravine, where the forces of Your Highness have this day won such a glorious victory. Hence he was sentenced to be executed, in accordance with that good old maxim, 'In wartime, kill first and investigate afterwards.'

"But, as fortune would have it, I arrived in time to save him. Your Highness will observe the curious little book which I carry in my hand; this proves him to be not a spy after all, but a creature of some outside race who arrived in some manner beyond our imagining. It is preposterous, of course, to suppose that he came from the Overworld, which, as our scientists have conclusively proved, is incapable of supporting life, since all living things would be instantly killed by the sunlight and fresh air. But may he not have come from caverns deep down in the earth's center, where we have never penetrated?

"This is my theory, Your Highness, and it is supported by the queer writing in his book, which I take to be the hieroglyphics of the crude and undeveloped race of which he is a member. As a philologist, I cannot but be interested, and as a student of primitive writing, I consider that here is an unparalleled opportunity for scholarly research. So I request, Your Highness, that you permit me to take him to my own home, where I will care for him and will attempt, in case his mind be capable of absorbing a few simple facts, to educate him in the rudiments of our language, so as better to study his habits in the interests of science. I will deliver a full report in not less than three octavo volumes, before the Royal Institute of Anthropological Abnormalities, and meanwhile will put up a bond to take every reasonable care of the prisoner and not to let him bite any one or escape...."

Such was the opening of Professor Tan Trum's speech, which continued in the same vein for thirty pages. It is little wonder, therefore, that the patience of Dictator Thuno Flâtum finally weakened, and that, with his permission, I left the hall in the company of Professor Tan Trum, to be launched by him into a new and unpredictably strange career.


Some Riddles Solved

The home of Professor Tan Trum was typical of the so-called "Second Class" citizen of the country of Wu. It was composed of five or six small rooms, excavated out of solid rock, and opening on one of the numerous side-galleries that threaded the underworld. There were no windows, but light was provided by the yellowish-green electric bulbs; while a constant supply of air was forced in through whirling fan-like devices located in little orifices near the front door. All in all, the Professor's abode was comfortable enough, although I could never accustom myself to the stone chairs and tables, to the stone beds without pillows, or to the grotesque hangings and adornments, composed of small likenesses of swords, helmets and land-battleships, which constituted the native idea of art.

The family of the Professor included his wife, Tan Tal, and his three daughters, Loa, Moa, and Noa. In them I made my first acquaintance with the feminine half of the population—and not few or slight were the surprises which they gave me! To begin with, there was the trouble of telling them apart, and in distinguishing the oldest from the youngest. On first entering the house, I assumed that Tan Tal, the mother, was the most youthful of the girls, while Loa, the last-born daughter, struck me as undoubtedly the parent. And this mistake, absurd as it may seem, was only natural, owing to the peculiar ideas of beauty entertained by the ladies of Wu.

For it was their opinion—in which the men seemed to share—that the supreme mark of a woman's loveliness was her wrinkles, and that the more wrinkles she boasted, particularly around the eyes and on the neck, the more alluring was her appearance. Hence all the damsels used to spend hours a day with wrinkle-producing creams, with permanent "wrinkle-wavers," and with other devices to create creases in their naturally smooth countenances; and only the old and matronly women, who were past the stage of trying to shine before their lovers, could afford to neglect the cosmetic arts and to let their features unwrinkle themselves.

It was for this reason that the young Loa, who, as I was later told, had barely reached seventeen, impressed me as a hag of advanced years. Her cheeks, her forehead, and her neck were furrowed in such a fashion as to remind me of a crone of ninety; while she was rendered all the more hideous, to my way of thinking, by the cream-colored paint with which she had daubed her lips, and by the fact that her eyelashes, in accordance with native custom, had been shaved away. Yet in the estimation of the chalk-faces, she was supremely beautiful!

There was another fact about Loa—and about all the other ladies—which grated horribly on my sensibilities. This was that, while the men wore skirts, the women all went around in trousers! All females, above the age of four or five, wore loose, pajama-like pantaloons of various colors; and it was considered unseemly, not to say indecent, for a lady to appear in any other costume; in fact, one of the maidens of my acquaintance was denied admittance to the best social circles because once, in jest, she had donned her brother's skirts.

In the same way, I myself was looked upon with suspicion, not to say contempt, because the trousers which I wore were considered unbecoming for a gentleman. Some persons, seeing me from a distance, made a mistake as to my sex, while others were so shocked that they went away shuddering with noses pointed high in the air in horror. Only after Professor Tan Trum had been officially notified of my delinquency, and had remedied the situation by providing me with one of his old black skirts, was I able to appear in respectable society.

I am sure that any of the local youths would have envied me the privilege that I now endured for several hours each day. This was to be instructed in the native language and institutions by the "beautiful" Loa. Professor Tan Trum, of course, supervised my education, but was so absorbed in his researches into the roots of extinct verbs that he could not give me more than a few minutes a day. Hence, it was natural that his daughter, having little else to do with her time, should be my instructress.

I must confess that she took her task, on the whole, conscientiously enough, although her first efforts were not to teach me the language, but to teach me how to pencil my eyebrows, whiten my cheeks and lips, and bleach my hair, so as to conform to the native idea of masculine beauty. Failing in these efforts, she resigned herself with a sigh to the inevitable; yet from the too-gentle and yearning way in which she glanced at me from time to time, I could see that my charms, such as they were, had had too much of an effect on her impressionable young heart. Already I had intimations that trouble was brewing!

But let me pass from this subject, for the present, to mention some of the astonishing facts I learned under her tutorage. First, of course, there was the necessity of studying the native language; but, fortunately, I made rapid steps in this direction, not so much because of any natural ability, as for the fact that Loa was a capable teacher, and because I made every effort to remember when she pointed to object after object and mentioned its native name, and then, after a time, began linking the words into simple sentences. I was like a little child first learning the language of its parents; but having, I confidently believe, a quicker intelligence than a child's, I was not long in absorbing the rudiments of the vernacular. Within two or three weeks, I could exchange elementary ideas; within a month, I could conduct a brief conversation; while, in less than three months, I was able to carry on an extended colloquy with any member of Tan Trum's household, and would not miss more than an occasional word, due to the limits of my vocabulary.

Strange, unbelievably strange, were my discoveries as to my new home. The underworld, composed of the twin countries of Wu and Zu, reached for hundreds of miles in all directions, and probably underlay not only most of Nevada, but much of Utah, Arizona, and adjoining states. This whole vast universe, comprising a multiplicity of great caverns and smaller connecting galleries, some of which reached down eight or ten miles, was inhabited by a population variously estimated as between forty and fifty millions—all of them chalk-faced and salmon-eyed, like the ones I had already seen. Neither Loa nor her father could tell me how long they had dwelt underground; their written records dated back thousands of years, and their claim was "Forever"! While there were traditions that once they had lived above ground, in a land of blue skies and open air from which they had been driven to escape annihilation in warfare, there were now no intelligent men to believe such tales, which were not only preposterous on the surface, but had never been proven by historical research. It was generally held that human life had originated in caves underground, and that, as population multiplied, men had excavated new caves and corridors to take care of the surplus millions.

So accustomed had the people become to their subterranean environment that it was impossible for them to appear above ground, unless they wore heavy metallic suits, like those of undersea divers, in order to protect them from the rays of the sun, which their white skins, having lost all pigment in the course of the ages, were no longer able to endure. Hence their belief, which scientists had verified by means of elaborate mathematical proofs, that no life could endure above ground, and hence the fact that none of them had ever been observed by our race; for only once every score of years would any scientist of Wu venture above ground, and even then he would emerge in some desert place where no human habitation existed.

But how did the millions of Wu and Zu manage to preserve life underground? How did they contrive to eat, breathe, and clothe themselves? That was one of the first questions I asked; and the answer came to me partly from Loa, and partly from my own observations.

The secret, as I had early surmised, was to be found in the prodigious scientific development of the Underworld. I do not exaggerate when I say that they were centuries in advance of our own race; they had evolved mechanical formulae and devices of which we have not the remotest conception. As an engineer by profession, I was naturally much interested in this phase of their growth; and while I was not able to study or understand all their numerous contrivances, yet I could understand enough to fill me with amazement and admiration. Every phase of the life of Wu, I found, depended upon science. Without it, they could not have existed for a single day; it was both astonishing and frightening to know how completely these people had come to rely upon their own inventions.

I shall not take time, at this point, to dwell upon all their elaborate appliances—which, indeed, would require a separate volume even for their enumeration. I shall leave out of account the intricate ventilating system, by which they pumped an adequate supply of air from the outer world; for I shall have occasion to refer to this again. Likewise, I shall not now describe their military engines, of which I have already given some idea, but which I was later to observe more intimately. I shall begin, therefore, by telling of the manufacture of food and clothing, which was conducted on principles I had never before considered possible.

Let me say, by way of explanation, that my food in the Professor's house had consisted entirely of queer-looking ingredients, comprised in part of purple capsules, such as I had been given in prison, and in part of a stringy, fibrous substance reminding me of seaweed. I was told, indeed, that the wealthier sections of the population occasionally enjoyed delicacies such as fish from subterranean rivers, and mushrooms grown in specially prepared cellars; but if Professor Tan Trum could afford such luxuries, he would not waste them on a barbarian such as myself.

My clothes, likewise, were of a substance I could not recognize—a woven substance a little like hemp and yet clearly not hemp, for it was not quite so coarse. But the fibres, on the other hand, did not resemble those of linen, cotton, silk, or wool. What could it be? The answer, as I learned from Loa, was that the native clothing, and likewise the food, was manufactured synthetically. From the most ordinary chemical ingredients—from oxygen and hydrogen as contained in water, from carbon as contained in carbon dioxide or in coal, from the nitrogen found in the air, and from the sulphur and phosphorus of the mines—they would create compounds resembling natural organic products.

The simplest of all to manufacture were starch and sugar, and a fibre like the cellulose of plants. For these, all that was required was a brilliant lamp, imitating the qualities of sunlight, a chemical cell which utilized the lamp-rays as the chlorophyll of the vegetable kingdom utilizes the solar beams, and an adequate supply of water and carbon. Thus the people might obtain all the carbohydrates they required for the table, and also all the fibres needed for weaving into paper and clothes; for, since cellulose constitutes the main ingredient of cotton and other vegetable fabrics, it was possible to produce a synthetic equivalent of the garments worn in the world above.

More difficult was the problem of the nitrogenous foodstuffs; but here again the ingenuity of the chalk-faces had proved equal to the task. I was never able to understand by exactly what process they had succeeded in combining nitrogen with oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and other substances to form albumin; but it is certain that this is precisely what they did, fusing the elements by means of an electric current and several catalytic agents, whose nature I was unable to learn.

Let me say, at this point, that I made every effort to find out; but the formula was the carefully guarded secret of the National Food Producers, Unlimited, a privately owned corporation, which was forbidden by law to tell the people the truth about the food they ate. Hence my efforts not only met with no success, but were so resented that I was threatened by the Company with imprisonment on the charge of unpatriotic activities.

In other fields, however, I was better able to satisfy my curiosity. I learned something of the power-system, by means of which the chalk-faces kept their factories running, excavated and illuminated the galleries, and conducted their warfare; I was told that they generated electrical energy in part from the flow of underground rivers, and in part by means of a chemical discovery made so long ago that no one remembered the inventor. This was the compound knows as Mulflar, an explosive at times beneficial, and at times annihilating in its effects.

Once again I was unable to discover the formula, for this was the exclusive property of the National Power Producers, who found it their most lucrative source of dividends, and had long ago succeeded in passing a law prohibiting themselves from making the facts public. The general principles underlying the invention, however, were well known. Mulflar was made by the union of nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulphur with carbon, hydrogen, and one or two other elements in a compound both simply and easily produced. Its distinctive feature was its chemical unstability; its atoms would disintegrate and explode upon the slightest shock or upon the application of a spark, releasing a prodigious amount of energy through the conversion of that active element, hydrogen, into the chemically inert helium.

So great was the explosive power of Mulflar that a single gram, properly directed, was capable of blowing a hundred pounds of rock or iron to the height of half a mile. Naturally, a substance so dangerous had to be carefully controlled; and though accidents sometimes did occur, resulting in the occasional loss of a few hundred lives, in general it was highly adaptable to industrial uses. Shot off in small quantities in cannon-like tubes of specially prepared steel, it was used to set great dynamos into action, and consequently to furnish the larger part of the electricity indispensable to life. It was the energy of Mulflar, passed into storage batteries, that made it possible to run those little coaster-like cars with which I had had such a frightening experience; it was the energy of Mulflar that kept the lights and the ventilation in operation, that ran the food and clothing factories, and that pumped fresh water into pipes throughout the length and depth of the land.

But, at the same time, it was the energy of Mulflar that proved to be the worst enemy of the people. Never had I seen more convincing proof of how the most beneficial inventions may be transformed into engines of destruction! For it was Mulflar that accounted for the deadliness of the warfare waged by the chalk-faces; it was Mulflar that had produced those lightnings which Clay and I had watched in such fascinated horror; it was Mulflar that had supplied the motive-power for the land-battleships; it was Mulflar that had blown those gigantic machines to tatters. And it was Mulflar that was responsible for even more horrendous implements, which I was later to observe.

But before I report my discoveries in this regard, I must describe other peculiarities of the chalk-faces. And I must tell of one saddening conversation which I had with Loa and her father—a conversation which crushed one lingering spark of hope that had survived until then in the face of all discouragements.

This was in connection with my friend Clay. Hardly an hour went by but that I thought of him and his disappearance; hardly an hour but that I wondered whether he were alive or dead. True, I had heard nothing of him; but he might have been safe and well only a stone's throw away, and I would not have known it, since, at the time, I was confined in the Professor's house as closely as in a prison. Consequently, as soon as I was able to speak a few words in the native language, I asked about my friend.

The result could not have been more disappointing. Both Professor Tan Trum and his daughter looked astonished when they understood the nature of my inquiry. "What!" gasped my protector, with a sincerity that I could not question. "You say there were two like you? I wish there were! That would double the opportunities for verification of my theories!"

"Another like you?" questioned Loa, in milder tones; and then burst into a giddy explosion of laughter. "Why, that's just too good for words! I'm sure there couldn't be two like you in the whole deep world!"

Not knowing whether to take this as a compliment or not, I said nothing, while the Professor continued.

"My dear friend, if another man like you had been found anywhere in Wu, we would know of it instantly. The news would be flashed from end to end of the country—just as your own arrival has been."

"My friend wasn't exactly like me," I explained, fighting against a sinking sensation that all but overcame me. "He was taller, and his hair was red—"

For the first time in my experience, the Professor bent nearly double with laughter, his great ungainly frame rocking back and forth in mirth. It seemed minutes before he and Loa could suppress their merriment. "His hair was red?" echoed Tan Trum, riotously. "Red? Red, you say? My dear man, who ever heard of red hair?"

And both he and his daughter went off again into spasms of laughter.

My only consolation was the reflection that, although Clay appeared hopelessly lost, still, if he ever were found, I would hear of it, since no red-haired man had ever been seen before in all the land of Wu.


Fresh Surprises

While I was questioning Professor Tan Trum and his family in regard to the underworld, they were equally eager in making inquiries as to my own land.

Naturally, they were anxious to know where I had come from, and how I had arrived; but, unfortunately, they already had their own theories on the subject, and nothing that I could say was able to change their views. Since they had decided that I had escaped from some cavern far below them, my story that I had come from the so-called "Overworld" met with incredulous smiles. Their attitude was about what our own would be if some stranger should assert that he came from the depths of the sea. "No use trying to deceive us!" they cried reprovingly. "The Overworld is not capable of supporting life!"

And then curiously they asked, "Are the people where you come from all colored like you?"

"Colored?" I flung back, a little irritated. "I haven't a speck of colored blood in my veins! I'm American white, every inch of me!"

"White?" they jeered, pointing to my face, with its rosy complexion. "What! you call that white? Why, you're pink!"

And loud was the laughter that convulsed the family group.

"If you're white, then what are we?" demanded Loa, insolently indicating her own snowy features.

I had nothing to say in reply. I could see that, by comparison with the chalk-faces, I was indeed the member of a colored race.

"My dear young man," consoled Professor Tan Trum, with the most unbearable superciliousness, "do not let the matter of your origin grieve you. We know that birth is not a matter of choice, and if nature has made you a member of an inferior race, at least it speaks well for you that you could rise to join us."

"But I didn't rise to join you!" I insisted. "I descended! I fell into your world by accident, through a fissure caused by the shocks of your warfare."

This explanation, however, was ignored, while the members of the family exchanged significant glances, as if to say that I was the most incorrigible liar they had ever met.

It was Tan Tal, the charming wife of Tan Trum, who put the next question.

"Where you come from, is there only one country?—or is there more than one, so as to give you someone to fight with?"

"Oh, there are many countries!" I declared. "We have simply no end of lands to fight with!"

At this announcement, the three young daughters of the family tittered uncontrollably, with the most amused expressions on their milky, wrinkled countenances.

"Why, how funny!" laughed Loa.

"How confusing!" giggled Moa.

"How absurd!" roared Noa. "Then how do you know which one to fight first?"

Professor Tan Trum, unlike his daughters, had been listening with an unsmiling solemnity of manner. I could see that he did not consider my statement comical; his massive brow was furrowed with profound thought as he replied.

"That is an excellent idea, young man—to divide yourselves into many countries. It is plain that even the barbarians have ideas. Up here, you see, we have only two nations, Wu and Zu. Hence we are much handicapped, from the military point of view. If we want to go to war, we have only one possible enemy, and that at times grows monotonous. Again, it becomes difficult sometimes to find excuses for hostilities. They say that only this year our Secretary of National Defense—poor fellow!—was driven out of his mind to find a plausible reason for declaring war on Zu. However, if we had had some other country to oppose, there would have been no problem at all."

"Yes, that is so, father," agreed Loa, who by this time had ceased laughing. "Why not recommend to Dictator Thuno Flâtum that we split up into several countries?"

"Excellent!" concurred Tan Tal. "Then we could go to war to defend the rights of small nations!"

"But I don't quite understand," I put in, finding the conversation getting wholly away from me. "You're talking as if war is a good thing! Up in our world, we call it a curse!"

"A curse?" echoed all the members of Tan Trum's family. "A curse? Why, what nonsense!" And loud was the laughter of the ladies.

"Don't let anyone here catch you saying that!" warned the Professor, scowling severely. "If one of the Government Police overheard you, you'd be court-martialed!"

Appalled at the enormity of my offense, I gaped at the Professor in awe-stricken silence.

"There's no use talking," mused Tan Tal, shaking her head sadly, "the savagery of the colored races is unquenchable. To think they're actually opposed to warfare!"

"It's so unenlightened of them!" condemned Loa.

"So disgusting!" jeered Moa.

"So barbarous!" groaned Noa. "Really they must still be in the Stone Age!"

"You see, my dear young man," explained the Professor, turning to me not unkindly, as he observed my bewilderment, "we live in an age of unreason. Unreason and science—these are the two features of our life. And both of these tell us that man is a fighting animal. Biology assures us that he was created with the instinct of aggression, which is necessary for the sake of self-preservation; and psychology declares that all the instincts planted in him by nature must be satisfied. Accordingly, men must satisfy their instinct of self-preservation by destroying one another. That fact was demonstrated long ago by the philosophers—to question it would be heresy. So you see, my good young friend, why it is necessary to fight?"

There was a vague suspicion in my mind that this argument, reasonable as it seemed, might not be altogether sound; but before I had had time to formulate any objections, Tan Tal once more lifted her voice.

"Besides, there is another reason. If we didn't fight, think of the loss to industry! Think of all the millions invested in Mulflar Works, and in land-battleship factories! Why, if we didn't have any war, all this capital would be wasted."

"Yes, and my stocks in Mulflar Products, Amalgamated, would go down to nothing!" groaned the Professor, who seemed to regard this as the culminating argument.

Taking advantage of a gap in the conversation, I was now able to ask the question that had long been puzzling me.

"What is the present war all about, Professor Tan Trum? What is the issue, the principle behind it?"

"Issue? Principle behind it?" shouted Tan Trum, while the ladies struggled to hold back a fresh outburst of laughter. "What makes you think there is any issue, any principle behind it? We are fighting for the national honor—and, certainly, there is no principle behind that!"

The Professor paused, energetically stroking his two-pointed beard, glaring at me as though I had been guilty of some offense against decency.

"There has to be an official reason for the war, of course," he resumed, more mildly. "In this case, we were driven to our wits' end, and couldn't think of anything better than the old Nullnull dispute."

"Nullnull dispute? What's that?"

The five chalk-faces all stared at me a little blankly, as if surprised that there was anyone who had not heard of the Nullnull dispute.

However, the Professor condescendingly undertook to explain.

"On the borderline between Wu and Zu is the province of Nullnull. This is composed of a series of desert caverns, a dozen miles long and about half as wide. They say that once it was valuable land, containing lakes and streams and rich ore deposits; but it has been so shot to pieces that no one lives there now, and it is worthless for everything except as a place to fly the national flag. It is therefore highly coveted by both Wu and Zu. In the course of the last thousand years, it has changed hands one hundred nineteen times, belonging first to one country, and then to the other, and every time it has been recaptured there has been an excuse for another war, for of course the citizens of the defeated land would not be content to have Nullnull wrenched away from them. Thus the military ardor of the citizens of both countries has been kept at fever pitch, and we have had no trouble in advancing our Military Birth Extension Program."

"Military Birth Extension Program?" I cried. "What under heaven is that?"

"What do you think it is?" demanded Tan Trum, a flare of irritation in his salmon eyes. "Exactly what the name implies! In order to keep a war going, what do we need most of all, besides money and ammunition? Naturally, man-power! But present-day warfare is so efficient that man-power does not last long. It is estimated that the military turnover is seventy-five per cent a year."

"Military turnover? And what is that?"

"Just what the term implies! The percentage of men turned over to the ranks of the immortals."

"You mean, the percentage killed?"

Tan Trum and the four ladies all glared at me as though I had committed an impiety. The Professor stroked his beard in indignation; the mouths of Loa, Moa, and Noa all gaped wide with horror.

"Killed? Killed, young man?" thundered Tan Trum. "Never use that word in connection with war! It is not permitted! It is illegal, unpatriotic! No one is ever killed in war! Millions are sent to the Blessed Caverns, or converted into deathless heroes, or become the Unknown Warriors! But no one is ever killed! That is forbidden by law!"

"Young man," remonstrated Tan Tal, "remarks like yours are enough to ruin military morale!"

"If we didn't know you spoke in ignorance, sir, we would have you examined by the Intelligence Department, which would most likely have you executed for free speech!" threatened the Professor.

After a moment, however, he seemed softened by my contrite expression; and, regaining his good humor, continued.

"But I was going to explain about our Military Birth Extension Program. The principle is very simple. We have introduced Birth Uncontrol, and made it compulsory by law. The idea is that all families should have as many children as possible—sons, so that they may go out to fight for their country, and daughters, so that they may bear more sons to fight for their country. All couples married for ten years or over are required to pay a tax for every child which they have less than seven; while, for every child after the seventh, they receive a bonus. This system works so well that we are able to keep our population stationary."

"Stationary?" I cried. "At that rate, it ought to double every generation!"

"It would—except for the military turnover. As it happens, our boys are all enlisted in the reserve corps of the army at the age of six, and from that time forth are trained for the next war. So rigorous is the discipline that fifty per cent never reach sixteen. This is, in fact, one of the great merits of the system, as it ensures the survival of the fittest. At sixteen the youths are enrolled in the active army, and are sent to the front to face the boys of Zu. They then are offered the hope of being permitted to retire from military life at eighteen, if they should reach that age. But fifteen out of sixteen, in the course of these two years, enjoy the fate of heroes and go over to the Blessed Caverns."

I was about to comment, but refrained, for fear of breaking some penal law.

"Besides being profitable, it is a great honor to have many children," continued the Professor, with zest. "Mothers are given an honorary gold crescent for every son born to them; and fathers receive an honorary crescent of silver. Immediately upon the death—" here Tan Trum paused, and coughed in great embarrassment—"I mean to say, immediately upon the turnover of a son, the mother and father each receive another honorary crescent. It is this that makes Birth Uncontrol such a success."

"Well, Professor, you yourself don't seem to have starred in that line," I remarked, with a side glance at Loa, Moa, and Noa, who surprised me by averting their eyes and sighing. "With only three daughters to your credit—"

"Three daughters?" bellowed Tan Trum, his long black-gloved hand shaking in uncontrollable ire. "And what, pray, of my five sons?"

"Yes, what of our five sons?" echoed Tan Tal, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.

"Well, what of them?" I demanded.

"They have all gone to the Blessed Caverns!" sighed the Professor.

"I have five extra crescents for the dear boys!" confided Tan Tal, wiping a second tear from her eye. "Poor darlings! The oldest was just seventeen when he—when he was turned over. I shall always be proud of their record!"

"I too!" coincided Tan Trum. "It shall always be a source of melancholy gratification to look at my five extra silver crescents, which shall contribute to my honor forever."

"To your honor?" I cried. "Who was it, then, that died?"

"Something in me died forever when they—when they were turned over," he mourned, drawing up his gaunt face in a preternaturally long, solemn expression.

Tan Tal, meanwhile, with all the suppressed fury of outraged motherhood, was glaring at me as if to devour me whole. "Barbarian!" she challenged. "What makes you think they died? They shall live forever in our memory! They shall endure in the annals of their country! They shall live here—here, in the shrine of my breast!"

So speaking, she smote the designated part of her anatomy a blow severe enough to do herself physical injury.

"They shall live forever—here in the shrine of my breast!" thundered the Professor, hitting his bony thorax a resounding smack.

Concluding that these people, though normally sane, had gone mad on this one topic, I thought it best to change the subject. "Did you say all the boys of Wu are enlisted in the army?" I inquired. "Are there no exceptions?"

"I didn't say there were no exceptions," stated the Professor, assuming a milder manner. "Naturally, there are! All sons of Second and Third Class citizens must go to war. But sons of First Class Citizens are exempted."

"First Class Citizens? Who are they?"

"Why, haven't I told you of our three classes? The division is an ancient one, and is the basis of our social life. The Third Class, which is the most numerous, is sometimes also called the Hungry Class; its members are notable for doing most of the country's hard work, and for being so poor that they rarely have enough to eat. The people of this class are prohibited by law from thinking, lest thought lead them to revolt. Above them is the Second or Sedentary Class—to which I have the honor of belonging—its members usually have enough to eat, hence a mild amount of thought is permissible, so long as it doesn't give birth to free speech. But over us all is the First or Master Class, which makes up less than one per cent of the population and owns ninety-eight per cent of the country. This, of course, is the class that rules us."

"But I thought Dictator Thuno Flâtum ruled you."

"Thuno Flâtum is the head of the Master Class."

"Let's hope he isn't typical of them," I was on the point of declaring, remembering this puny individual, with his artificial eyes, ears, and breathing apparatus. But, fortunately, I held my tongue and did not make any such treasonous remark.

"Thuno Flâtum was chosen by the Master Class as their leader," continued Tan Trum, "since he was considered the strongest of them all. In other words, his senses, his legs, and his lungs were the most atrophied."

Since this was just a bit confusing, I began to wonder if Tan Trum, after all, were not out of his head.

"You see," he explained, "for ages the Master Class has prided itself on its pure blood. None of its members, under pain of death, has ever been permitted to intermarry with a Second or Third Class citizen. The result of this long interbreeding has been a distinctive type, unlike us low-grade people. Thanks to their lives of luxury, and to their constant use of wheeled vehicles, the Masters have all but forgotten how to use their legs, which have become thin and shriveled; in the same way, since they have never filled their lungs by exercise or labor, their breathing apparatus has almost withered away; while, since they have rarely used their eyes or ears, these organs too have become worthless without artificial aid. All these qualities, consequently, are regarded as signs of superiority—or of 'green blood,' as aristocracy is called among us; and that Master whose lungs are the frailest, whose legs are the feeblest, and whose vision is the dimmest, is chosen to lead the country, since the purity of his lineage is the most unquestioned."

Being unable to understand this arrangement, which somehow did not strike me as altogether sensible, I was so undiplomatic as to let my doubts be known. "I don't see why the people stand for it," I blurted out. "I don't see why they let these frail little Masters rule them, own most of the property, and be excused from fighting, when they—"

But that was as far as I proceeded. The horrified faces of my hearers warned me to halt. Never, I am certain, had such impious words entered their ears before!

It was a full minute before any of them was able to find speech. "Well, I never!" gasped Loa at length, her features more wrinkled than ever as she made a grimace of disgust. "I didn't know we had a radical right in our own home!"

"A poisonous radical!" cried Moa. "Who would have believed it?"

"The next thing, he'll be demanding the single standard in justice, or some other crazy new-fashioned notion!" exclaimed Noa.

"He may even be asking honest politics!" contributed Tan Tal, glowering at me with a resurgence of her previous indignation.

"This is serious indeed!" conceded the Professor, his long head wagging with laconic severity. "Of course, allowances must be made for barbarians; you can't expect to civilize them in a minute. So I'll tell you what we'll do, folks. We'll take him down tomorrow to the Commissioner of Public Thought, and make him swallow the Oath of Fidelity. After that, if he makes any more disloyal statements, he will have to take the responsibility."

"Good! Very good!" cried the ladies in chorus. "We should have done that long ago!"

"But who's the Commissioner of Public Thought?" I inquired. "And what's the Oath of Fidelity?"

"You'll find out, young man, after you've swallowed it!" snapped the Professor. "And now you've had enough of my time for one day! I must get back to my researches on the history of the comma in ancient literature!"

So saying, the Professor glided from the room with long strides of his great, ungainly legs, while the four ladies regarded me more than a little coolly, like one who has betrayed a strange and criminal turn of mind.


I Swallow the Oath

It was on the following day that Professor Tan Trum, true to his promise, took me to visit the Commissioner of Public Thought. Or, rather, it was on the following "wake"; for the chalk-faces, not having the guidance of the sun, divide time into periods of about twelve hours each, which are known alternately as "sleeps" and "wakes."

As this was the first time I had been out of the Professor's house for months, except for occasional visits to back galleries for exercise, I strode along at his side with great glee as he led me through the winding thoroughfares toward the office of the Commissioner. Several times, in my joy at being out, I walked carelessly ahead of my companion, and narrowly missed being felled by one of the small coaster-like vehicles, or "scootscoots," as they were called; but despite such near-mishaps, I kept up my good spirits until we had reached our destination, a long gloomy chamber where fifty chalk-faces were already waiting in line.

"The Commissioner's Headquarters are always crowded," stated the Professor, as we took our places at the foot of the procession. "You see, all Second and Third Class citizens are required to swallow the Oath of Fidelity twice a year."

"What's the purpose of that?" I inquired; but the Professor merely shook his head and did not deign to answer. However, I saw how the first in line, having finished his business, passed out a gleaming bit of silver, which was promptly rung up on a cash register by a little chalk-face seated at a table; and later I observed how each successive person, before leaving the room, similarly disposed of a bit of silver, which likewise was rung up on the cash register.

For over an hour we remained standing in line; and, to amuse himself during the interval, Tan Trum read out to me in loud tones the various signs and placards that hung about the room—signs and placards which I was not yet able to decipher unaided.

"Lower class citizens should be seen and not heard!" read the Professor, sonorously. "And the less seen the better!" Then, turning to me, he commented, "That is a good old maxim dating back thousands of years to Tit Wit, our greatest lawgiver.

"A little thought is a dangerous thing," continued Tan Trum, turning back to the signs, "and much thought is impossible. Therefore the ideal citizen will live in a state of sublime thoughtlessness.

"That is a rule we always do our best to follow," he remarked, turning to me with a boastful smile. "It is the first of the Silver Rules of Conduct—silver being our most valued metal, you know.

"But I suppose it's useless to try to drill such high principles into the barbarian mind," he meditated. "However, here's the second Silver Rule.

"Thoughtlessness is the best policy," he read. "It ensures one the respect of one's superiors, the confidence of one's equals, and a successful career in business or politics."

Seeing that I had no comment to make, my guide proceeded to the third Silver Rule.

"Thoughtlessness is next to godliness. A thoughtless mind and soul are the purest creation of the divine. He who thinks not will be content. He who thinks not will not spend time on vain revolts. He who thinks not will never suffer from headaches."

There were eleven other Silver Rules, all of which the Professor read with gusto; but my attention had wandered and I scarcely heard what he said. My mind was far away; I was thinking of Clay and asking myself where he was, if indeed he were alive at all; I was picturing my friends in the Overworld, and wishing I might see them once more, and wondering, as I had wondered so often, whether there were not some way to climb back through the maze of caverns toward the sunlight and blue skies....

I was awakened from my reveries by hearing a voice snap, "Next!" and feeling the Professor grab my sleeve and thrust me forward. To my surprise, I saw that I was now first in line.

Before me sat a scowling little individual at a stone table, with a cash register as tall as a grandmother's clock towering above him.

"Well? What is it?" he barked.

"This is my protégé," explained the Professor, coming forward. "Being a barbarian, he knows little of our laws, and I therefore thought it best to give him the Oath of Fidelity before it is too late."

"That's all very well," snarled the official, "but who's going to pay?"

"I'll attend to that," agreed Tan Trum. "As a member of the teaching profession, I'm allowed a ten per cent discount."

"Very well!" the other consented. "All accounts strictly cash!" And then, while the Professor muttered something about "Fidelity oaths come high this year," the official reached for a long roll of paper printed with minute characters, which he read aloud from across the room by means of binoculars, proceeding at such speed and in such mumbling tones that I could not distinguish a word he said!

Having finished, he thrust the paper forward, pushed a pen into my hand, and directed, "Sign here!"

Although not well versed in the native handwriting, I was able to make a mark that passed as my signature.

With a sigh of relief, I turned away, when I heard the official's voice ringing out behind me, "Wait a minute! You've forgotten to swallow the Oath!"

Unable to imagine what he meant, I wheeled about, and saw that the paper I had just signed was being rolled into a little pellet in the official's hands.

"Here! Swallow this!" he ordered, tossing it to me after it had been reduced to the size and shape of a marble.

"Swallow it?" I echoed. "What for?"

I was aware that several persons behind me in line were tittering; but I was still unable to take the command literally.

"Do as the man says!" I heard the Professor's irritated voice shrilling in my ear. "What use is the Oath of Fidelity if you don't swallow it—and swallow it whole?"

I reached for the pellet and regarded it suspiciously. It was hard and unappetizing, and I would about as soon have swallowed a stone.

"What are you waiting for?" demanded the official, his pinkish eyes aflame with anger. "Don't you want to swallow it after all? Or will we have to call the police and force it down your throat?"

Realizing that he was in deadly earnest, I could no longer hesitate, but slowly lifted the pellet toward my lips.

As I did so, I noticed that it had a bad odor, suggestive of decay; hence I was more reluctant than ever to swallow it.

But alas!—there was no hope! "I suppose we'll have to force it down your throat after all!" threatened the one-eyed one—at which, in sheer desperation, I thrust the oath into my mouth....

But not so easily could I gulp it down. The seconds that followed were among the most miserable of my existence. Have you ever, dear reader, experienced the sensation of choking? Have you ever felt a piece of foreign matter stuck in your throat, cutting off your breath? This was exactly my plight, for the Oath of Fidelity got caught, and would not go either up or down.

They tell me that my face went blue in the ensuing struggle, and that I sank down and almost fainted. I was aware that Tan Trum, half beside himself with excitement, was pounding vigorous blows on my back; I was aware that some one had snatched a tool like a pair of pliers, and was forcing it down my throat; but I knew little besides this, except the desperate craving for air, and the furious wish not to die, not to die just yet....

But at last, thanks to heroic efforts, the refractory Oath went down the passageway after all, and the reviving air entered my lungs. A minute longer, and the Oath would have killed me....

As I gradually regained my senses, I saw the Professor passing out a bright piece of silver, and heard the ringing of the cash register.

"Congratulations, young man!" exclaimed Tan Trum, heartily, as he led me away. "The Oath of Fidelity pretty nearly didn't take—but I'm glad you swallowed it after all. Now you're a full-fledged citizen of Wu!"

"Full-fledged citizen? And what does that mean?"

"It means you've promised to obey all the laws of the land. It means you've pledged allegiance to Dictator Thuno Flâtum, promised to honor him, to obey all his orders unquestioningly and never to utter a word against him. It means you've vowed to lead a life of one hundred per cent thoughtlessness. It means, finally, that you guarantee to live in Wu the rest of your days, and never to attempt to leave, under penalty of death."

"But I didn't guarantee anything of the kind!" I protested, perceiving that new and unexpected obstacles were being placed between me and escape.

"Indeed you did!" he denied. "Didn't you sign the Oath?"

"Yes, but I didn't understand what it said."

"That doesn't matter. No one is supposed to understand. Understanding is a sign of thought, and thought is a sign of disloyalty. But you did swallow the Oath, didn't you? That's what makes it legal!"

Not yet did I realize that this was but one of many unpleasant things I should have to swallow during my stay in Wu!


An Official Visitor

Now that I had swallowed the Oath and become a full-fledged citizen, my life took a sharp turn—though whether for the better, I could hardly say. As a free man, I was permitted to wander unescorted through many of the streets and side-galleries; yet it seemed to me that I had really less freedom than when confined in the Professor's home. I was now officially on the Government books, being known as Citizen No. 44,667,023 XZ, Third Class; I had had my photograph taken and filed with the War Department, my physical measurements recorded and filed with the Police Department, and my toe-prints registered and filed with both the War and the Police Departments. Worst of all, I was now to receive a visit from a sub-agent of the Ministry of Public Unemployment.

This event occurred on the fifth day—or the fifth "wake"—after I had swallowed the Oath. I well remember the occasion; I had been practicing writing the native language, under the tutorage of Loa; and having noticed a light of warning fondness in her salmon eyes, I was desiring some tactful way of escape ... when I was startled by the entrance of Moa, who informed me that a visitor wished to see me.

A visitor to see me! Who knew me well enough to call upon me down in this Nether World? For one mad, hopeful instant, the thought came to me that perhaps it was Clay! Perhaps, after all, he had survived and discovered my hiding-place!

But no! In the next room, a weakened little chalk-face with the features of a fox arose to receive me. "Citizen Number 44,667,023 XZ, Third Class?" he inquired.

"I believe that is my name," said I, although not quite certain yet whether I were an "XZ" or an "XY."

"I have been detailed to investigate your case," he declared, in such a businesslike manner that I had a momentary tremor, imagining him to be a detective. "I do not know why the Government has overlooked you so long; I understand, sir, that you have been illegally living in a state of unemployment."

"Illegally—living in a state of unemployment?" I gasped.

"So I am told!" he continued, with unsmiling severity. "Do you not realize, sir, that unemployment is a crime? That is to say, in all except First Class citizens, who are paid a salary by the State for being unemployed."

Fearing that I was about to be punished, I remained silent and anxiously regarded my visitor.

"However, we do not wish to be severe with you," he conceded, still scowling. "This is, after all, your first dereliction, and I have been instructed to let you off with a reprimand. But we must immediately end your unemployment."

"Very well," I assented, vastly relieved.

"The question is, what valuable labor can you perform?" asked the chalk-face, taking a chart out of his pocket and withdrawing across the room so as to examine it through an instrument that looked like a pair of opera glasses. "Fortunately, owing to the unusual turnover of the present war, an exceptional number of positions are vacant just now."

"Good! What are they?"

My visitor drew up his lean, white face into a puzzled frown, and answered in a drawl.

"Well, let's see. There are so many, it's hard to know where to begin. Now here's one that might do. In the thought-inoculation department of the army."


"Yes, you see it's necessary to be sure that no private in the army should ever have a thought; otherwise, how could we maintain discipline? We have found it isn't safe to rely on laws only, so we have invented an anti-thought serum, which acts on the nervous system so as to paralyze the thought-centers of the brain. The results are excellent; the recruit has no power left except to obey orders—which makes him a perfect soldier."

"A very good idea," I acknowledged, wishing I might have the formula of this wonderful serum to bring home for use in our own armies.

"A derivative of the same drug, known as 'the Mu' is fed by big business firms to employees. It is taken internally, and the results are said to be excellent.... However, a job in this department is not for you!" concluded the agent, sadly. "You're a barbarian, and what do barbarians know of thought-prevention?"

"More than you think!" I snapped, defensively.

"Now here's another good job," he went on, still gazing at the chart by means of the opera glasses. "We're in need of spies. The recent turnover in that department—"

"No, thanks!" I decided. "I don't care to be a spy—"

"But think of the honor! No profession is more esteemed! If you survive, you'll be given a high position in the diplomatic corps; and if, on the other hand, you are turned—"

"That's just it! I'm satisfied not to be turned over!" I asserted, remembering the prison I had occupied just after my arrival, and the execution of my cell-mates beneath the violet ray.

"It's a glorious death—I mean to say, a glorious turnover!" argued my visitor. And then, with a disappointed expression, "However, if you're not out for honors, I suppose we can find you some humbler job. What about a position in the Mulflar Works?"

"But is that safe?"

"Safe?" The Unemployment Agent glared at me angrily. "Who cares if it is safe? Of course it isn't! You may be blown to shreds and splinters any wake! But what of that? Is anything safe in modern life? It's all a matter of the degree of risk! And, besides, the salary is high."

"I'm not greedy for a high salary," I remarked.

"Oh, well, if that's the way you feel, of course we can fix you up!" returned the chalk-face, contemptuously. "There's never much demand for low-paying jobs."

Again he stared at the chart, and, after a moment of indecision, suggested, "Let's see now—we might make you valet to a First Class Citizen. The wages are not very good, but the work is easy. All you would have to do would be to dust off your master's eye-tubes, or hold his megaphone to his mouth when he speaks, or adjust his breathing tubes when they get out of order, or merely stand in his reception hall and look stiff and official when he receives visitors. And whenever he kicks you or cuffs you or calls you names, you would have to bow respectfully, and say 'Thank you, sir!' What do you say?"

"Haven't you anything else?" I asked, in desperation.

The agent scowled again. "You're a hard man to suit!" he declared. "I really don't know what else to offer you. If you weren't a barbarian, we might place you in the Department of Public Unenlightenment—vulgarly known as the Censorship Bureau—whose business it is to keep the public from knowing too much. But no—that won't do at all! Third Class citizens are not eligible!"

Once more he paused, his long black-draped fingers tapping at his knees; and for a moment I feared that no further suggestions would be forthcoming.

But he was a resourceful man; at last, with a shout of triumph, he exclaimed, "Ah!—now I have it! Just the thing! The very thing!"

"The very what?" I asked, hoping he would have a better suggestion this time.

"The very job for you!" he ejaculated, slapping his knee in delight. "I congratulate you, young man! You're a lucky individual! A very lucky individual!"

"How so?" I asked doubtfully.

"Very lucky, I assure you!" he repeated. "We need more office help for the Ventilation Company. You see, too many of their employees have volunteered for the war—and have been turned over. So they have a job just waiting for you in the air-supply division. You may begin tomorrow."

"But what is the Ventilation Company? And what's the air-supply division?" I demanded, none too certain that I wished to accept.

"Take my word, it's just the thing for you! No ability required! No thought necessary! Merely do what you are told! And get paid regularly every five wakes!"

"But what's the job like?"

"You'll find out after you're on it! Time enough to worry then!"

Further discussion followed; but as the agent had no job which he recommended so highly as the ventilating one, I ended by reluctantly accepting.

Immediately upon securing my assent, the visitor let out a whoop of joy; then, drawing forth a printed sheet and a pencil, he flung them at me, and directed, "There! Sign on the dotted line!"

Hesitantly I did as directed, and the agent immediately snatched up the paper, folded it into an inner pocket, left me instructions where and when to report to work, bowed, and gingerly left.

Not until later did I learn that, as a commission for securing me the work, I had signed over to him all my wages for the first fifty-two "wakes!"


The Last Straw

The Ventilating Company, as I soon discovered, was the most powerful corporation in Wu. It was literally the breath of the country, for it controlled the fresh air-supply, and, with the aid of ninety-six subsidiaries, was said to be highly influential in finance, politics, and war. Owned by a group of First Class citizens, who supported themselves in luxury on a fraction of their dividends, the Company was declared to number Dictator Thuno Flâtum himself among its stockholders; hence its interests were carefully considered in the councils of State, and a recommendation of its Directorate was tantamount to the enactment of a law. It was common gossip that more than one war had been commenced on the decision of the Ventilating officials, and that the current conflict with Zu had been stimulated by them, owing to the fact that the workers had been threatening a strike, and that it was believed that they needed something to distract their attention.

Whatever one might think of the management, one could easily understand the influence of the Ventilating Company. Truly, it brought a marvelous service to the people! The more I observed the vast system of air-tubes and wheels, the more I admired the ingenuity of its creators. I was informed how ventilating pipes, opening in narrow ducts in the Overworld, received a constant supply of the fresh air that always blew in that uninhabitable domain; and I was told how this air, forced downward by mighty pumps operated by the power of Mulflar, was delivered in pipes and conduits to every gallery, chamber and private residence in Wu. This it was that kept the air always fresh and sweet, and that had averted those noisome odors usually found in underground passageways. Yet stop the ventilating wheels for a few short hours only, and the whole country would be faced with danger of suffocation. Little did I realize what a deadly advantage I was later to find in this fact!

My work for the Ventilating Company began humbly enough in view of the tremendous rôle I was to play. Perched on a stone chair behind a stone railing in a large, draughty gallery, where a perfect torrent of air was blowing in order to display "ventilating efficiency," I had to interview customers, hear their complaints, accept the service fees which they paid every twenty "wakes," and attempt to sell the various air-machines displayed about the room. "Do your cleaning by air." "Have you tried our automatic air-baths?" "Remove dust and germs; air-filters at reduced rates." "Air-rays for health—recommended by leading physicians." "Air-heating apparatus—guaranteed for hot air." These were but a few of the signs I saw scattered about me on a multitude of curious-looking instruments, some of them reminding me of electric toasters, others of vacuum cleaners, and a few looming large and imposing like great dynamos.

Although I still did not know the principles behind these inventions, I was able to sell them easily enough. All I had to do was to look knowing, point to the company's guarantee, and state that the objects were on sale for a limited period only; and the prospective customers, particularly if of the fair sex, were rarely able to resist the lure, even though they understood nothing of the point or purpose of the apparatus they purchased. The sale of articles under such conditions, I found, was known to the people of Wu as "good business." It was said that, as a result of such "good business," nine-tenths of the population was constantly in debt to the Ventilating Company.

The other phases of my work were less interesting. What I particularly disliked was listening to complaints—and what a stream of them there were! Sometimes the line of complainers reached all the way across the office and fifty yards down the adjoining gallery! Here, for example would come a testy-looking old chalk-face, with a squeaky wail, "My air-service has been very poor of late! Haven't been able to breathe properly for wakes!"

... And after I had promised to send an air-man around to his home to see if his brakes were not out of order, a querulous young woman, hideous with wrinkles, would exclaim, "See here, young man! Look at this bill! It's robbery, highway, robbery! The meter must be wrong! I'm positive we couldn't have breathed that much air!" ... Following her in line would be a miserable-looking old dame, who would gloomily display a printed notice, "If you do not pay your bill within five wakes, we will turn off your air-supply." ... "If you do that, we'll all smother!" she would moan. "You must give us more time to pay!"

But I would have to inform her that the rules of the Company made no exception; that she might smother, for all the Ventilating officials cared.

There were constantly other complaints, of an equally grievous nature—complaints from persons whose air-supply was too hot, and from persons whose air-supply was too cold, and from persons whose air-supply had been interrupted, and from persons with an oversupply of air, and from persons who had ordered Grade A air for the children, and received only Grade B—in other words, so numerous were the charges that one would have supposed the entire country to be suffering from air-complaints.

My hours in the Ventilating Office were ten each wake, with one wake out of every five off duty. I was expected to stay half an hour after the office formally closed, in order to clean a great ventilating duct, which opened in a corner of the room. This was a task I disliked even more than listening to complaints; I would be obliged to creep into the tube, which was wide enough to admit two men standing abreast, and would have to reach into its dark recesses with a mop, so as to remove all dust and foreign matter. The tube, I was told, connected with the Upper Ventilating Corridors, and had to be kept in condition if our product were to remain pure.

After I had been in the Ventilating Office for twenty or thirty wakes, I could see that, in the monotonous routine of my labors, I was beginning to fall into that thoughtlessness which was the ideal of the chalk-faces. I had, in fact, been commended for speaking in that automatic manner and acting with that vacuity of expression which betokens an empty mind and an efficient worker; hence I began to fear that I would suffer from softening of the brain if I did not find some way to escape. But how was escape possible? Ever since swallowing the Oath of Fidelity and being granted my freedom, I had been looking about me for means of returning to the Overworld; but so completely had I been hedged about that the attempt had seemed hopeless. However, the time was soon coming when, in sheer desperation, I was to make the dash for liberty.

There was something else besides discontent with my work, which was urging me to flee. Although now supposedly a wage-earning citizen, I was still living upon the bounty of Professor Tan Trum, since my pay was going to the Unemployment Agent. Even after he had received his share, I should have to pay an Employment Tax to the Government, and various fines and charges to the Ventilating Company, and a fee for joining the Ventilation Union; and, after that, I would have to buy War Bonds from the Government, and pay War Taxes, and Residence Taxes, and Food Taxes, and Clothing Taxes, and Water Taxes, and Air Taxes, and several other taxes—so that, at a moderate estimate, it would be three years before I would have a penny for myself. During the first two and a half years, the more I worked, the more deeply I would be in debt!

Now all this would have occasioned me no worry; for the natives of Wu consider it honorable to be in debt, the more so the better; and, besides, Professor Tan Trum, thanks to his profits from his Mulflar stocks, was well able to support me. But what I could not endure was the necessity of living in the Professor's home—of living there in daily contact with his daughter Loa.

Alas! I was hopelessly trapped! I do not blame the poor girl; for some mysterious reason, she had succumbed to my attractions, and the melting light in her salmon eyes had long ago warned me to be cautious. Unfortunately, it had never occurred to her that she was not equally attractive. It was positively pitiable, the way she devoted herself for hours a day to her wrinkling-machine, diligently putting new wrinkles into her face, since the old ones did not suffice to win my affection! And it was even more pitiable the way she turned, still hopeful, to a new method, and began "producing," as they say in the native vernacular—in other words, adding on flesh by "producing powders," "producing baths," a "producing diet," and other means recommended by the dictators of fashion.

Now whatever I might have said about Loa's face when I first met her, I had thought her form perfect. But, owing to her "producing" methods, she soon grew rotund; her features bulged and puffed, with a double chin; her stomach protruded; her legs became so fat that she waddled when she walked; her arms, once graceful, seemed little more than flabby masses of flesh. Oh, if she had only been content to remain as nature had made her! Had she but retained her natural form and unwrinkled countenance, who knows? I might have come to love her! But, as it was, she daily grew more hideous in my eyes. And no word or hint of mine could deter her from her purpose. Fatness, next to wrinkles, was considered the supreme sign of beauty in women; and she seemed never to suspect that I would not be dazzled by her corpulent loveliness.

Since I had no choice but to remain in the same house with her, I of course had to be civil; but I thought it the best policy to avoid her as much as possible. Unhappily, in my ignorance of native customs, I was pursuing the road straight to ruin!

This fact became painfully evident one day when Professor Tan Trum, pausing in his researches into some dead and buried language, summoned me to his study and indicated that he had something important to say.

I noticed that he hemmed and hawed to an unusual degree as he motioned me to a seat opposite him, and seemed actually embarrassed as he began.

"My dear young man," he at last said, rising, and coming over to place a fatherly hand on my shoulder, "I have been requested—er—requested to speak to you by my daughter Loa. For a long time I have been—er—observing how matters are between you two."

"Why, I—I have always treated her like a gentleman," it was on my lips to say, feeling that he was about to upbraid me for my coldness.

But the kindly smile on his long, lean face showed that I had mistaken his intention.

"I have been observing—yes, observing how matters are between you," he repeated, gradually warming to his subject. "With becoming modesty, you have not made any undue approach. You have kept your feelings to yourself, as was only proper, in view of your Third Class status; you would not insult a Second Class lady by openly declaring yourself. But I have been observing, my dear young man, I have been observing! How, after all, could any one resist the allurements of my Loa?"

So astonished was I at this speech that I sat gaping at the Professor, my jaw hanging loose, as though I had been accused of a crime.

"Yes, I have been observing!" he went on, with a paternal blandness of manner. "I have been consulting with Loa, as was only a father's place, and have been assured that she—she reciprocates your feelings."

"She reciprocates my feelings?" I echoed, with a sudden sense that the world was falling from under my feet.

"Yes, she reciprocates your feelings! It is only natural, young man, that you should be overwhelmed—it isn't often that a Second Class lady reciprocates the feelings of a Third Class suitor! But I have no prejudices in the matter at all, my boy, no prejudices at all! Though you're a barbarian by birth, you've recently grown civilized! So, since my daughter is willing, I can only give my blessings! May your union be crowned with—"

But I did not hear the end of the sentence. My head was reeling; I believe I sank to the floor in a swoon. When I came to myself again, Loa was bending over me tenderly, tears in her eyes, a bottle of some strong-smelling solution in her hand. And in the background I saw the Professor looming, still smiling the same benignant smile. "Poor young man!" I thought I heard him say. "The shock of this happiness was more than he could bear!"

It was then that I decided that safety lay in flight.



It was what was known to the chalk-faces as the "mid-sleep." The lights of the public galleries had been dimmed to a slumberous dullness; the lamps of the houses had been extinguished, the ventilating currents were turned low; and only an occasional belated wayfarer or military guard, darting through the deserted thoroughfares an his little "scootscoot," gave proof that life still went on in the land of Wu.

At this silent hour, when the house doors stared in black, almost invisible lines along the empty passageways, a figure might have been seen stealthily emerging from one of the doorways and slinking off down a narrow side-corridor. Had one followed in his footsteps, one would have observed how he wound and twisted through a multitude of lanes, sometimes pausing as if uncertain of his course, sometimes huddling in fright in some dismal alley while a "scootscoot" glided past, but gradually making his way upward amid the intricacy of the Underworld.

That fleeing figure, as the reader will have guessed, was none other than myself. Only half a dozen hours had passed since Professor Tan Trum had made the shattering revelation about Loa; and I was now resigned to taking whatever risks lay in the outside world. My preparations, it is true, had been less complete than would have been desirable; but I had, at least, found time to ransack the Professor's pantry and to secrete a pound or two of concentrated food in my clothing, in addition to a flask of water; and thus equipped, I had determined to venture abroad. As for my direction—I must confess that I was none too certain of it, but I had found an old map in the kitchen closet, and had studied it as well as my haste permitted, in the hope that it would show me the way through the upper corridors to the Overworld and safety.

Let it not be supposed that I had not weighed the dangers. I knew that I might be seized by the police, that I might be punished as a vagrant or a spy, or that, even if recognized when caught, I would be charged with breaking my Oath of Fidelity, and would be subject to the death penalty. But what were such perils beside the certainty that, if I remained in Tan Trum's home, I should have to marry his daughter?

So I stole away hopefully, in the dead of the "mid-sleep," resolved to escape or perish in the attempt. How far I was from foreseeing the outcome! For several hours I advanced with the caution of a cat, and almost with the silence of a cat, since I had removed my heavy native sandals, in order to walk the more noiselessly. But I was not certain what to do after the "sleep" was over. Suddenly I was aware of an ear-ripping sound, like the blast of a siren; the lights in the galleries flashed into brilliance and I realized that a new "wake" had begun, and that it would henceforth be impossible to conceal myself.

I was now in a section of the Underworld I had never before visited. The narrowness and dinginess of the galleries; the dusty, dirt-encrusted walls and floors; the foulness of the air, which was not clear and filtered as in other regions; the nauseating odors, as of overcrowded humanity; the naked glare of the lights, unprotected by the yellow-green screens common everywhere else—these and a hundred other signs showed that I was in an inferior district.

This fact became even more evident when, after a time, swarms of people began to pour through little round holes in the ground into all the passageways. Never before had I seen such desolate-looking chalk-faces! The clothes of the great majority were in rags; the original fabric was overlaid with a thousand strips and patches, and, in many cases, bits of the naked skin showed through; some of the men were without shoes, and some without coats, and a few were without even the skirts that were the emblem of masculinity. As for the women—they were equally tattered, their skirts and trousers often resembling crazy-quilts; but they had the advantage of being less fat and wrinkled than their more fortunate sisters, and I thought many of them quite attractive. Most of them carried babes in their arms, or else a crowd of urchins tagged at their coat-tails; and the children, too, were clad in threadbare scraps, some of them being almost naked—which fact did not seem to bother them at all, for they rollicked and shouted quite as happily as children the world over. Their elders, however, were drawn and sad of appearance, and a majority had those pinched and ravaged faces which come of privation.

Was this a district of criminals and outcasts? But no! A prominent sign informed me otherwise. "Residential section—Third Class," I read. Now I understood why the Third Class was called the Hungry Class.

As a majority of the men I passed bore picks, spades, and shovels, I realized that they were laborers on their way to work. These, fortunately, took no note of me, but slouched onward with downcast eyes that seemed to see nothing besides the path on which they walked. Some of the women, however, did stare at me a little curiously, giving me the uneasy sense that I might be reported; while now and then some man or woman, of especially squalid and ragged appearance, would stop me with a piteous, "Stranger, haven't you a mite of silver to spare?... I haven't had a scrap to eat since wake before last." Or, again, "Stranger, haven't you something for the children? The taxes took all our money, and there's nothing left to feed the babies with." Or else some small boy or girl would accost me, opening his hand with a piteous expression, "Stranger, we're hungry!" And the drawn and hollowed faces would show that they spoke truly!

With these poor wretches I shared the concentrated food I had taken from the Professor's house—and it was pathetic to see with what eagerness they snatched at the food capsules, and how ravenously they devoured them.

"What is the matter?" I asked one of the beggars, as I doled out my last capsule. "Do none of you needy folk work?"

"Do none of us work?" The man stared at me with manifest surprise. "Say, you must be one of those Second Class swells, to ask such a question!"

I assured him that, on the contrary, I was Third Class, but from another part of the country; and at this he looked a little mollified, and went on to explain.

"Well, I don't know how it is where you come from, but here we all work. We have to, on account of the unemployment law. Even the children—those not in the army—are compelled to work from seven years of age. But, of course, we don't get any wages till the First Class Citizens take out their dividends, which are guaranteed by law at fifty per cent a year; and what is left is usually just about enough to pay the First Class landlords. If we have anything over for food or clothing, we consider ourselves lucky."

Feeling indignant against the whole First Class, I proceeded on my way; and, hastening up a long, dark corridor, I sought to escape from this miserable Third Class district. Finally, after several hours, I found myself in a more pleasant and airier realm, but not wholly to my liking. The caverns were much roomier, but the atmosphere was vaguely disagreeable with the odor of smoke. "Where am I?" I wondered, as I approached an open space, where acres of huge cardboard boxes were piled to a height of fifty feet, surrounded by tall barbed wire fences. But, on consulting my map, I was unable to solve the enigma; it was impossible to say whether I was in the "Storage Grottoes," "The Surplus Food Chambers," or the "Military Warehouses," all of which looked alike on the chart. The one thing certain was that I was lost.

Nevertheless, I felt it best not to worry; and, pressing on my way around the mountains of boxes, I soon discovered the source of the smoke. A few hundred yards ahead of me, the door of an enormous furnace opened, revealing gigantic flickering flames, whose heat disturbed me, even at this distance.

Undoubtedly, had I been a cautious man, I would now have retreated. But I was possessed by the demon of curiosity, particularly as I saw two men working in front of the furnace, stripped to the waist and grimy with soot and perspiration, while with rapid movements they reached for the cardboard boxes, throwing them one after another through the furnace mouth.

At first I thought they were madmen; but soon decided that the boxes contained waste matter or fuel, with which to keep the fires burning; and with this belief in mind, I hastened eagerly forward. Never have I forgotten the surprise I received!

As I drew near, the men paused to rest from their exertions, while mopping their steamy brows, and panting heavily.

"Well, partner," I heard one of them declare after closing the furnace door, "that makes eleven gross so far this wake!"

"Nearer twelve, if you're asking me!" stated the other. "Say, have we got to those food capsules yet?"

"Not yet! We're still working on the clothes! There's a couple of hundred tons more to burn. After that, I don't know how many thousand tons of food!"

Bewildered, I returned to my original supposition that the men were mad. Yet it seemed to me that they looked normal enough.

"Beg pardon, friends," I asked, stepping to within a few feet of them, "I don't like to intrude, but I'm a stranger around these parts. Wonder if you'd mind telling what's in those boxes?"

I was now so close to the men that they could not see me clearly.

"You must be a stranger, if you don't know what's in them!" ejaculated one of the laborers. "I thought everyone knew!"

"Just what we've been saying!" added the other. "Food and clothing, of course!"

"Not good food and clothing?"

The two workers stared at me oddly. "Why not?" demanded the first of the pair. "The very best! We're getting rid of the country's overproduction!"

"Say, haven't you ever been to school?" challenged the second. "Don't you know that overproduction is bad for business? It causes depressions, low dividends, and low wages! So when we've made more of a product than anyone can buy, the only thing to do is to burn it! 'Burn your way to prosperity'—that's an old motto! The more we burn, the more prosperity!"

"Why, that's elementary!" added the first worker. "It's taught to every child in kindergarten! By destroying things, you will raise prices, which is the chief object of civilization; since the more we have to pay for things, the more prosperous we will be. Everybody knows that! It's the First Law of Thoughtlessness, taught by all leading economists."

Personally, I have never claimed to know anything of economics, which has always struck me as a subject too deep for my comprehension; still, I could not see why so much good food and clothing need be destroyed when so many Third Class citizens hadn't enough to eat or wear. And so I humbly asked why the surplus, instead of being burned, could not be distributed among the poor.

But I had little expected the effect of my inquiry. Even before the words were out of my mouth, I could see the faces of my hearers growing wry with horror.

"Say, brother," exclaimed the more pugnacious-looking of the pair, "you must be one of those anarchists we've been hearing about! How can we give the food and clothing to the poor? They haven't anything to pay for it, have they?"

"Raise their wages!" I suggested.

But my words went unheeded. "By my father's pink eyes!—we haven't time to waste on any red revolutionist!" snarled the man. "Radicals like you want to ruin the country! Now get out of here, with your crazy new-fashioned ideas, or I'll report you to the militia! Get out quick!"

This final argument being a clinching one, particularly since backed up with two heavy pairs of fists, I conceded the point, and started away hastily. As I turned down a side-gallery and caught my last glimpse of the men, the furnace door stood open again, and they were pitching great boxes into the flames with furious energy, as if eager to make up for lost time!


The Green and Vermilion

Not half an hour after my encounter with the furnace workers, I had an even more surprising experience. I was still gradually working my way upward through the interminable labyrinths, when unexpectedly I came out on a broad thoroughfare, where great multitudes of chalk-faces were convening. From the manner in which they lined themselves along the sides of the avenue, leaving the center clear, I knew that some sort of a spectacle was expected; and this excited my curiosity, so much so that I again forgot caution, mingled with the crowds, and pushed forward so as to secure a position in the front row. Once more, fortunately, I was protected by the inability of the natives to see things near at hand; I was now so hemmed in by them that they did not view me as I really was, and accordingly I felt safer than if observed at a distance.

No sooner had I edged my way to the front than the crowd broke into cheers, which were dinned and repeated in ever-growing volume, while the spectators seemed to grow mad with excitement, and jumped and stamped in glee, and flung their arms high in air, and shouted till their lungs were hoarse. What they were shouting about was not quite clear to me, although I made an effort to join in the chorus; I thought, however, that I could make out something like, "Long live the green and vermilion! Long live the green and vermilion!" and at first the impression came to me that I was about to witness a football game. Only on this ground could I explain the mad agitation of the people.

But as the tumult subsided, a great banner hanging from the ceiling reminded me that green and vermilion were the national colors of Wu. I would now have guessed the nature of the celebration, even had it not been for my conversation with the jovial-looking, portly chalk-face just to my right. This gentleman, whose cheers had roared into my ears until I was almost deafened, turned to me genially as soon as the shouting had died down, and made a remark to me, with an expectant smile.

"Well, guess they'll be coming any minute now!"

"Guess they will!" I agreed, although I still had only the vaguest notion who "they" might be.

"This is General Bing's greatest triumph!" went on my garrulous neighbor. "Just imagine, he's retaken three-fifths of the lower left-hand corner of Nullnull—at a cost of only a million and a quarter lives! Marvelous, I call it!"

"Marvelous!" I concurred.

"True, he couldn't hold it very long," went on my companion, ruefully. "He was outnumbered too strongly. But he did keep it a good three-quarters of a wake! And they say that, when retreating, he didn't have to vacate more than four-fifths of the lower left-hand corner of Nullnull, at a cost of another million and a quarter lives. An extraordinary strategic victory, I call it!"

"Extraordinary!" I acknowledged.

"So it's only proper, isn't it, that Thuno Flâtum, our good Dictator, should grant a triumphal procession, in order that we may pay public tribute to the greatness of General Bing? Look! here they come!"

Suddenly the mob let out such a howl of acclaim that I had to clap my palms to my ears for protection. To the accompaniment of blaring horns, and of a clanging instrument known as a "bange," which made a noise resembling a cannonade, an elegant-looking procession of dignitaries rode into view on slow-moving little "scootscoots." On one of the foremost cars, surrounded by a bodyguard of a hundred warriors and several scores of obsequious valets, rode a man in a gorgeous crimson uniform—none other than General Bing himself! The exalted rank of this personage would, of course, have been apparent from many facts: the long ear-tubes, the projecting eye-tubes, the nose-tubes and mouth-tubes, and his dwarfish stature and weazened legs, all of which proved him to be a kinsman of Dictator Thuno Flâtum—in short, a First Class Citizen!

Just why the General should have been so popular with the Second and Third Classes was more than I could understand; but so great was public admiration that many heads bowed themselves into the gutter as he passed, while countless eyes shed tears of happy emotion.

"You see, he bears a charmed life," stated the portly neighbor to my right. "All generals bear charmed lives; that's why we honor them as heroes. In order to keep their lives charmed, they direct the battles from a distance of fifty miles, sometimes more; for what a loss to the country if they should be—er—turned over!"

"Yes, what a loss!" I coincided.

The main body of the procession was now passing—and a gallant sight it was! There were several other generals who, like Commander-in-Chief Bing, were dressed either in crimson, or in crimson striped with black; there were hundreds of banners of green and vermilion, and several yellow-and-purple banners said to have been captured during the strategic retreat from Nullnull; there were scores of large-sized "scootscoots" laden with blackened uniforms taken from the enemy; there were several dozen war-heroes, who had received the "Dictatorial Badge of Honor," and were so covered with decorations that it was impossible to see their faces; there were innumerable placards proclaiming the vastness of the recent victories, which, it seemed, were without precedent "in the history of civilized massacre"; and there were, finally, thousands of common soldiers, who walked twenty abreast with the peculiar high-swinging foot motion of the native infantry, reminding me once more of prancing horses, except for the slowness and automatic precision with which they advanced.

All these men wore helmets, of the peculiar hatchet shape I had already observed; and in their hands, instead of swords or rifles, they carried long poles. On the top of each of these I observed curious round glittering objects which, at the first glimpse, looked most attractive, for the wiry sheaths caught the light and flashed it back resplendently. But, on a closer view, I shuddered and turned pale. Under each of the gleaming metallic coverings, there leered a naked skull!

While I reeled backward, horrified at this sight, I heard the cheers of the throng. "Look at the proofs of our victory! The proofs of our victory! Proofs of our victory! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" they howled, pointing to the shining protuberances on the poles. Evidently their vision was so poor that they could not see beneath the sparkling surface!

Following the foot soldiers, dozens of huge vans came rumbling down the avenue, electrically propelled, and bearing great machines that I can only describe as dragons of a hundred necks, since their steel bodies bristled with scores of long tapering tubes, twenty feet high, and pointing in all directions, like the throats of siege guns.

Their steel bodies bristled with scores of long tapering tubes, twenty feet high, and pointing in all directions, like the throats of siege guns.

"Just look at them! Just look!" excitedly sputtered the neighbor to my right, while I was wondering what these engines might be. "If there's not the lightning-spitters!"

"The lightning what!" I demanded.

"Lightning-spitters!" he cried, his voice barely audible above the rumbling of the machines. "Of course, you've heard of them! One of the most remarkable inventions of modern times!"

Even as he spoke, a blade of orange electricity shot from one of the machines, darting to the ceiling in a swift zigzag, and was succeeded instantly by blades of green and crimson light, while miniature thunders rolled.

Now all at once I understood the nature of the machines! They were the source of those lightnings which had wiped out whole armies in the battle cavern, before the dazzled eyes of Clay and myself! They were the same lightnings that had threatened us both, and that might, for all I knew, have taken Clay's life!

"Of course, those are only toy lightnings, for demonstration purposes," my portly neighbor rambled on, while other shafts of colored light shot harmlessly upward. "But these same machines have wiped out whole armies!"

"What's the principle behind them?" I asked.

My neighbor shrugged his shoulders. "How do I know? It's a carefully guarded secret of the authorities. However, they say that the power of Mulflar is used to generate electricity in the machine—to generate it in such excessive quantities that the engine becomes supercharged and releases its energy through the tubes in tremendous lightning blades."

"I see," said I. "The machine becomes somewhat like a thunder-cloud, supercharged with positive electricity—"

"Thunder-cloud?" demanded my companion. "What's that?"

I perceived that I had used the wrong illustration, for, of course, thunder-clouds were not known underground.

"The only trouble," proceeded my neighbor, after I had vainly tried to convey an idea of the nature of a thunder-cloud—"the only trouble is in aiming the lightnings. Of course, we try to direct them accurately through the different tubes, but they don't always go where we want them to. You can never tell where the lightning will strike."

"I should call that a fatal difficulty," said I.

"Not at all! Wherever it hits, it's certain to kill—that is to say—" here he paused, greatly embarrassed—"that is to say, to turn over some of the enemy. And that, after all, is the only thing that counts!"

I was about to reply, remarking that I perhaps owed my life to the inexpertness of the foe in aiming the lightnings, when all at once the crowd broke into song, chanting the National Anthem in a tumultuous chorus as the last of the lightning-spitters rolled past.

Unfortunately, I have forgotten all the stanzas except the first two; but these, which I give in a translation that does scant justice to the magnificence of the original, will illustrate the theme and idea of the whole:

Let us fight forever!
We'll be conquered never
While we've heads to sever
From our brutish foes!
Let us fight forever
With a gay endeavor!
We are keen and clever
With electric blows!
Where the lightning flashes
In mechanic clashes,
And the thunder crashes,
Grind our foes to dust!
How our fury slashes,
Dealing scarlet gashes,
Till the earth is ashes—
Lord, in Thee we trust!

The crowd had just completed the twenty-first stanza, and was singing the chorus with resounding gusto, when I suddenly observed something that made me lose all interest in the celebration. Among the throngs across the gallery, I caught sight of an ugly-looking chalk-face, with thin slits of eyes and a twisted nose, who was staring at me with such an intent scrutiny that I felt a chill traveling down my spine. Did he suspect me of being a spy?—or was he an agent of the government, sent to arrest me for breaking my Oath of Fidelity and running away from the Ventilation Office?

Now all at once I remembered that I was a fugitive from justice; and, with a tremor of terror, I pushed my way back into the crowd, resolved on instant flight; while the neighbor to my right, having finished singing the National Anthem, stepped forward with an excited cry, and exclaimed, "Oh, just look! The Subterrains are coming; the Subterrains are coming!"

But I did not wait to see the Subterrains, whatever they might be. The vision of that man with the thin slits of eyes and twisted nose drove all other thoughts from my mind as I wormed my way deeper into the mob; and the dread of being taken back to face the violet-ray or marry Loa lent haste to my footsteps.

Yet it was not to be long before I would learn the nature of the Subterrain.


Through the Phonoscope

I can scarcely recall where I wandered in my haste; I only know that I followed long twining aisles in a half-darkness, beset by the vision of a man with slit eyes and twisted nose. I must have traveled half a mile before at length I turned to glance behind me, confident of having thrown off my pursuer. But how cruelly I was surprised! About a hundred yards down the gallery, advancing toward me at no uncertain pace, strode a chalk-face whom I thought I recognized by his slit eyes. Owing to the distance, I may have been mistaken; but, in any case, I thought it wiser to flee than to investigate, and put on my best sprinting gait as I slipped around a bend in the corridor and off along a narrow, down-curving passageway.

Less than a minute later, I passed another turn in the gallery, and came out, to my surprise, among a crowd of natives in a wide grotto dominated by a sign in glowing crystalline letters: "Phonoscope Theatre: Admission, One Silver Finger."

Now I had no notion what a "phonoscope theatre" might be, but I knew that a "silver finger" was a fair-sized sum of money—equivalent to the returns from an average day's labor. Needless to say, I had never yet had such a sum; hence it might have seemed sheer madness to follow the idea that leaped into my mind—to seek refuge in the theatre. Yet I had not a moment's hesitation. Mingling with the crowd, I pressed forward in a long line filing past a ticket-taker; and since, of course, I was without the requisite slip of paper, I determined upon strategy to admit me. Taking advantage of the chalk-faces' inability to see things near at hand, I seized a little strip of cardboard which chanced to be in my pocket (it had been used for jotting down some notes during my lessons from Loa) confidently thrust this into the ticket-taker's hand, and cried, "Free pass!" knowing that he would have to hold it off at a distance and examine it with binoculars before discovering the fraud. Then, while the puzzled official was inspecting the ticket, I allowed the impatient mob behind to press me forward and lost no time about passing the theatre door.

It seemed to me that, as I entered, I heard a confused shouting outside, and some imprecations calling down the Seven Furies on someone's head. However, I paid little attention, but remained nicely hidden in the midst of the crowd as I shuffled down a long aisle in the most peculiar amusement place I had ever seen.

It had, indeed, some resemblance to theatres as I had known them, but was nearer in appearance to the amphitheatres of the Greeks. Beneath a ceiling that arched to a hundred feet or more, long rows of benches sloped down toward an open central space or stage, on which a tall chalk-face with a long three-pointed beard was holding forth sonorously; while all the spectators, curiously enough, were looking and listening through queer instruments projecting from the benches, and rarely seemed to heed the speaker.

As quickly and inconspicuously as possible, I slipped into one of the seats, feeling that I had at last eluded my pursuer, and began to examine the instruments in front of me, of whose purpose I remained in doubt. There were tubes like earphones, attached by wires to a little electric socket; and there were other tubes resembling small telescopes, also attached by wires to a socket. What use could there be for telescopes in this auditorium?

So I asked myself, as, following my neighbors' example, I tried to adjust the instruments. But so cumbrous were they that it was minutes before I had discovered their purpose.

While I was struggling with the tubes, I heard the voice of the speaker.

"Fellow citizens of the Second and Third Classes, you are about to witness an extraordinary exhibition. Until three years ago, when that marvelous invention, the Phonoscope, was perfected, it would not have been possible safely to witness what you are now about to see. For the benefit of those still unacquainted with this masterly machine, I would say that if you will arrange the eye- and ear-pieces, and step on the little lever to your left, you will be just in time for the beginning of the performance."

In a few seconds more, I had managed to adjust the earphones and the telescope-like tubes; and, following the speaker's advice, I stepped on a little steel rod reminding me of the brake of an automobile. And instantly there occurred the most remarkable transformation I have ever witnessed.

So sudden was the change that I would have rubbed my eyes like one in a daze, had they not been pressed close to the lenses. At first I imagined I was dreaming; the theatre, the long rows of benches, the tall form of the speaker, had vanished from view; the shuffling, grating noises of people passing down the aisles, the sonorous voice of the long-bearded one in front, had all been obliterated. But new sounds, new sights crowded upon my bewildered senses.

Looking out upon an enormous cavern like the one where Clay and I had witnessed the battle, I saw swarms of warriors, tens of thousands strong, moving in serried ranks across a smooth stone floor, while a crashing as of many spears was in my ears and a booming like distant thunder.

"You now behold a battlefield a hundred miles away," I heard the speaker proclaim, when, in order to relieve my aching ears, I had removed the earphones. "The Phonoscope, you see, is connected by wires with scores of points on the battlefield. Motion picture cameras, at the other end of the line, are constantly photographing the sights, which are conveyed to you by an apparatus like television, except that you may see directly instead of gazing at a screen. At the same time, radio transmitters catch the sounds and bring them to your ears, so that you may see and hear the battle from a safe distance. It is hardly necessary to remind you that before the invention of the Phonoscope, no one except generals and field-marshals could enjoy such a privilege."

I was still observing how the army, with yellow-and-purple banners afloat, was advancing across the field; but I was so interested in the speaker's words that I was reluctant to clap on the earphones again.

"Thanks to the Phonoscope," he went on, "war has become much more interesting than ever before. Previously we had to observe it through the newspapers, which was altogether too tame. Or else we had to go to war ourselves—in which case we were all too likely to be—er—turned over. But now, for the payment of a fee, we can enjoy the spectacle without enduring any of its hardships. You do not know how much more popular this has made the fighting. Besides—" here the speaker paused, and a smile of glowing pleasure overspread his countenance—"Besides, it has at last put war on a business basis. The fees from the Phonoscope Theatre have been most satisfactory—most satisfactory. Last year alone the Government reaped dividends of eleven per cent!"

It was at this point that my attention was distracted from the speaker to the battlefield. Out of little round orifices on the cavern walls, showers of pale phosphorescent silvery orbs suddenly flashed, falling like shooting stars upon the floor where the purple-and-yellow army was maneuvering. And all at once those regular, serried ranks became like a column of ants on whom one has poured hot water. The wildest disorder prevailed; squadrons of men seemed literally to wither away; I saw a myriad forms convulsed on the ground, writhing and gesticulating in mortal anguish, while other myriads fled pell-mell in all directions.

At the same time, slipping on the earphones, I heard a confused wailing and groaning, like the agonized cries of a multitude; and so desolate, so heart-rending was this sound that I had to snatch the earphones off instantly.

"You have just beheld the attack of the radium bombs," the speaker was stating, in matter-of-fact tones. "Radium bombs, as you are aware, represent the most advanced method of scientific slaughter. They are more effective than dynamite or even than Mulflar, for they not only kill all who happen to be near when they fall, but, after falling, they continue indefinitely to be radioactive, so that all who approach are afflicted with terrible and incurable sores. That is why you see the surviving soldiers fleeing so madly. For the same reason, whole vast regions, far beyond the present battle lines, have been transformed into a permanent public menace."

I wondered how the chalk-faces obtained radium enough to use so widely; but the speaker was not long in informing me.

"At one time, you know, we could secure the element only in insignificant quantities. But science is great, and surmounts many obstacles. About twenty years ago, the renowned chemist Blo Bla discovered that, by means of a new solution composed of a chromium-phosphorus compound (the exact formula of which is strictly guarded) we might extract it efficiently from the pitchblend that abounds throughout our caverns.

"It was then that we first conceived the idea of using it for military purposes. Our main difficulty was not so much in securing the radium as in manufacturing it into bombs; and this problem we solved by devising a missile with a body of some less deadly metal, such as iron or lead, and with a radioactive surface. Unfortunately, there is one minor disadvantage; the bombs can be made only at a considerable cost to the workers, who—well, whose turnover, I am sorry to say, is one hundred per cent every ninety wakes. But such, my friends, is war! Is it not all for the honor of the country? To end one's days in a radium factory is considered a glorious turnover!"

For several minutes the speaker rambled on in this vein, telling how the enemy, Zu, had been so dastardly as to duplicate the radium bombs, at a great cost to the army of Wu.... Then, suddenly stopping in midsentence, he broke into an exclamation I could hardly catch: "Look carefully, my friends! Look carefully! The Subterrain is coming! The Subterrain! The Subterrain!"

Anxious not to miss anything of interest, I clapped the earphones on again and glanced once more at the battlefield. And, as I did so, a scene of shattering fury burst upon my view.

For one instant, I was aware of the wide cavern floor, with the stricken multitudes still writhing piteously, while other multitudes still fled toward the safety of the walls. But, the next instant, all this had vanished. There was a terrific upheaval of earth and rock, which for a fraction of a second covered all things in a great blur; the walls of the cavern sagged, and in places collapsed in avalanches; the floor became jagged as a lunar landscape, with sharp craters and deep ravines, and hillocks, bluffs, and gulches where all had been flat and smooth a moment before. And in my ears was such a thundering that I reeled and was all but knocked over.

Hastily snatching off the earphones, I remained gazing with absorbed interest upon that hideous scene. To my horror, I could no longer see any trace of the purple-and-yellow army. The fugitives, no less than the victims of the radium bombs, had all disappeared! And, as the visible sign of their destruction, a long, thin, dark metallic tube was projecting from the broken center of the floor, like the neck of some great carnivorous dinosaur.

"Ah, that is fine, isn't it, my friends? A very satisfactory enemy turnover! Very satisfactory, indeed!" the voice of the speaker rang out, with gloating pleasure. "You see that long tube jutting above the floor. That is the tip of the Subterrain! You all know, of course, about this marvelous engine. It is generally conceded to be the greatest invention of modern times. No other contrivance has ever produced half so great a turnover. It was the creation of the renowned engineer Hizz Crazz, who, about fifty years ago, decided that war was getting too tame, since it was fought all on the surface of the galleries. Why not make a machine, he asked, which would travel underground as our submersible vessels travel beneath rivers and lakes?

"The result was the Subterrain. The principles behind it are admirably simple; the weapon, which is a relatively slender steel cylinder accommodating five or six men, gradually works its way through a narrow excavation already prepared for it by a machine like a powerful well-borer—the 'cave-blaster,' which operates by the power of Mulflar, and has made it possible to dig our gigantic war-galleries.

"But let me go on to tell about the Subterrain itself. Affixed to its prow is an electric dredge which tears up the earth before it and deposits it behind; by this means, the Subterrain digs its way forward at the rate of a quarter of a mile an hour. Meanwhile, its crew, confined in their narrow compartment, are kept alive by air supplied through long connecting tubes, in the manner of divers. A delicate instrument, with a radio attachment, informs the men when they are in the neighborhood of an enemy cavern—for, of course, the machine is never used except in wartime. Being within a few feet of a hostile gallery, the Subterrain halts, retreats a short distance into the tunnel it has bored, and launches a Mulflar torpedo—whose effects, as you have observed, are terrible beyond description."

It seemed to me that I had now seen enough of the Phonoscope exhibition for one day, and I began to glance about me for the most inconspicuous way of retreating. But since a crowd of new arrivals were coming toward me down the aisle, the moment did not seem opportune.

"Great as are the merits of the Subterrain," the speaker continued, "it cannot be denied that it has some minor drawbacks. One of these is that there is no longer any security for the civilian population during wartime. One never knows when a Subterrain, boring unnoticed beneath one's feet, may launch a Mulflar bomb directly at one. It is impossible to say how many thousands of noncombatants have been turned over in this manner since the war began. Even First Class Citizens have not been spared—an intolerable form of barbarity, which will now—thank the Lord!—be ended by a humanitarian treaty which has just been negotiated, confining attacks of the Subterrains to regions occupied by Second and Third Class Citizens."

It was at this point that I lost interest in the speech. The newcomers having by this time reached their seats, I had risen to leave ... when my eyes were riveted on a chalk-face just appearing at the door. Whether he had come by accident or by design I was never to learn; but there at the entrance, staring at me with a fascinated gaze, was my friend of the slit eyes and twisted nose!

Not waiting to make his closer acquaintance, I darted toward a dark passageway marked "Exit." And instantly he set up such a howl that the whole theatre was aroused, and the speaker, startled, halted midway in his address. "Thief! Robber! Bandit!" was dinned from behind me. "Catch him! Catch him! Catch him! He's a deserter from the war! Catch him! Catch him!"

As I darted into the passageway at a speed that did justice to my college track training, it was only too evident that the slit-eyed one, who was apparently a detective, had mistaken me for someone else. But I did not wait to inform him of his error. Well knowing that the penalty for a war deserter was death by the violet-ray, well knowing that the chalk-faces would execute me first and exonerate me afterwards, I did not check my pace for so much as a fraction of a second as I dashed away with half the theatre audience at my heels.

The violet-ray would not have been needed after all, had that bloodthirsty mob laid hands upon me. "Lynch him! Lynch him! Lynch him!" screeched the leaders of the multitude, as they raced after me along the curving galleries. "Lynch him! Burn him! Tear him to bits! The rat! Cur! Viper!"

There were also other epithets, some of them quite untranslatable; while, as I rushed around the bends of those branching corridors, I could feel the blood-lust of the rabble behind me, could hear their cries growing more excited, could hear the rattling of pebbles and great rocks flung after me by the ardent onsweeping patriots.

Then, suddenly, above the din and screaming of the throng, my ears caught the screech of a whistle, and I knew that the police were being summoned, and that, in another minute, I would be trapped beyond possibility of escape.

In that critical moment, while my breath came hard and fast and my heart hammered like a great weight, I slipped around a turn that hid me temporarily from my pursuers. And, at the same instant, the saving suggestion came to me. There, on the pavement in front of me, was an iron lid as large as the manhole of a sewer; its top bore the prominent letters, "Property of the Ventilation Company! Keep off!"

Clearly, this was no time for hesitation. With a swift downward lunge, I thrust the iron lid out of place; with a leap and a plunge, I dropped into the gaping black hole; and with a desperate wrench of my arms, as I came to a halt on a slippery steel surface, I pulled the lid into place above me.

The next instant, secure in that cranny amid the darkness, I could hear the mob surging and stamping above my head.


Mishap Upon Mishap

It is impossible to say how long I lay there cramped in the gloom. It may have been only minutes, but it seemed hours, while the howls and wailings of the rabble came to my ears through the thin slit of iron that saved me from their fury. "This way! No, that way! No, you fools, the other way!" I heard them shrilling in their confusion, as their feet went scampering in a hundred directions. "Catch him! Catch him! Don't let the villain get away! We'll teach him; we'll teach him! We'll make mincemeat of the devil!" And then, more sinister still, I heard someone exclaiming, "Hey, boys, got the rope?... Knot it tight there!..."

At these words I felt an intense desire to creep farther down into my hiding place, but was unable to do so. My feet were resting on a ledge only a foot or two wide, and beneath me vacancy seemed to yawn. I felt sure that I was on the brink of a precipice, for a pebble or fragment of metal, accidentally dislodged by my foot, rattled for a long while as it descended. Meantime I was in as uncomfortable a position as one could imagine; huddled against the iron most awkwardly while a chilly breath of air continually blew over me. I was not only catching cold, but—much worse—had reason to fear that I might sneeze at any moment, so betraying my hiding-place.

At last, however, the tumult of the multitude subsided, and I could hear the shouting of my pursuers at a distance, and then at a farther distance, and then die out entirely ... so that I knew, to my enormous relief, that they had gone off on the wrong scent.

Even so, it did not seem safe to lift the iron lid as yet—who knew what member of the mob might not be lurking about? And so I remained crouched there in the darkness, waiting, waiting....

But I had delayed too long. After a while, I again heard the sound of voices, of voices lifted in loud excitement. Were my pursuers returning? Not so! As I held my breath and listened, I recognized that these were different voices. "The ventilation! What's happened to the ventilation?" I could hear one of the newcomers crying. "Something must have blocked it! It's not been working right!"

"Been out of gear half an hour, at least!" returned another. "They say the disturbance centers somewhere up this way!"

"Hard to tell where the trouble is!" grumbled a third. "Complaints coming in for miles around!"

"Well, if anything got into one of those pipes," declared the first, "it would stop the air currents over the whole district!"

As I listened to this conversation, a thrill of horror and a sense of guilt shot over me. All too well I understood what was blocking the ventilation!

"Remember that last time!" continued one of the men. "Some big rats got caught in one of the tubes! We had to shoot in some Mulflar, and blow them to cinders!"

By this time the men were almost directly above me, and I was fervently praying for them to pass on without suspecting my presence. But such, alas!—was not to be. Just as the heavy feet of the foremost rattled on the iron lid above my head, I was overwhelmed by the desire to sneeze. The impulse came so suddenly that it was impossible to check; the best I could do was to muffle it, so that it had a stifled sound not at all like a sneeze—though still, unfortunately, all too audible.

I could hear the men pausing just above my head, with surprised exclamations. I knew that they were listening, waiting; I could almost feel their attention focused in my direction.

"What's that?" one of them snapped. "Didn't it sound like a rat?"

"Sure enough!" cried another. "A rat! That's what's stuffed up the ventilation!"

"Most likely a whole colony of rats!" added a fourth. "They grow big down here, you know!"

"And here's the very place!" took up the first. "Right in this air-tube! Well, we'll fix them all right!" And I could hear the man rattling at the iron lid above my head.

Never before had I wished so ardently for the power of invisibility. Never had I had such a desire to compress myself to a thimble's size. Hopelessly I huddled against my iron ledge; then, fearing that I would be seen, I resorted to the desperate expedient of hanging over the brim, holding on to the ledge with both hands, while my body lay along an iron surface sloping at an angle of forty-five degrees.

No sooner had I gained this position than I heard the lid heavily clanging out of place; and a flood of light burst upon me. In the glare above, several chalk-faces were staring down at me!

"There it is! A big rat! A mighty big one! One of the biggest I ever saw!" exclaimed one of the men, in awed tones.

Evidently, because of their inability to see things near at hand, they had mistaken me for a rodent!

"Well, we'll get rid of him fast enough!" a second man declared. "Just one minute there! Let me have that brush! I'll spray him with poison!"

It had never occurred to me, until that moment, to have any sympathy with a trapped rat. But I could feel boundless sympathy as a huge brush, malodorous with some vile-smelling concoction, was thrust through the opening directly at my face.

I do not know whether I cried out in my terror. But I do know that my hands, as I struggled to evade that foul oncoming weapon, lost their precarious grip on the ledge. And, the next instant, I had gone shooting off into the darkness.

To this day, I believe that it is a miracle that I survived. Certainly, the gods of good fortune were with me in the ensuing plunge. I could easily have broken my head or caved in my ribs against the steel projections of the ventilating system. Only sheer lucky chance, and the fact that the ventilating tubes were not perpendicular, saved me from what, in the words of the natives, would have been a sudden and horrible "turnover." Down, down, down, I shot, skimming around curves, banging against unseen bends and corners, tumbling head over heels in a mad dash, wherein it was impossible to regain my balance. Surely, no circus performer ever took so strange, so perilous a dive! Only now and then could I momentarily check my speed, when the tube, for a few feet, became almost horizontal; but always it would dip sharply again, and I would go falling once more through the darkness.

It seemed that I had traveled thus for miles when suddenly, with a terrific bang, I collided with a wall, and came to a halt, stunned, bruised, and bleeding in fifty places. With painful difficulty, I picked myself up, while noting with relief a slit of light through the partition I had just struck. It was, in fact, not a wall at all, but a partly opened door!

Then, as my dazed senses gradually cleared, I became aware of something familiar in my surroundings. Did this not resemble the ventilating duct, which opened on the office where I had worked, and which I had so disliked to clean with a mop?

Still feeling somewhat dizzy, I crept out of the doorway and found myself in a large, well-lighted chamber—not, indeed, my former place of employment, but so similar that I knew it to be another office of the Ventilation Company.

Before I had had time to reflect on my plight, or wonder what next to do, I was startled to see four or five men who, drawn by the noise of my arrival, came rushing out of several adjoining rooms.

Upon seeing me, they stopped short with loud, excited cries, whose import I could not quite gather. I only knew that they were employees of the Ventilation Company; that they were pointing in much agitation to my pitiful self, with my torn clothes and blood-smeared features—and that, in another moment, they would seize me and carry me away to some new punishment.

Had I had the energy, I would have crawled back into the ventilating tube for safety. But so weak had I become that I could only fall sagging to the floor and wait despairingly while the chalk-faces drew near.

"Who in the name of Thuno Flâtum are you? Where did you come from?" demanded the foremost of the strangers, as he regarded my battered form. "You know, it's forbidden to enter the ventilating ducts!"

"Yes, I know!" I moaned. And then—I cannot say by what inspiration—I added, "I am an employee of the Company."

"Oh, an employee of the Company?" The chalk-faces stared at one another significantly, and their manner became more friendly. "Of course, that's different!"

Yet their next words struck me like a deadly shock.

"We had better go and report to the Manager!" they all decided while I sought to dissuade them with my last remaining gasp of energy. Into my mind had flashed visions of the penalty for my various breaches of duty. Well I knew that any Underworld judge would be justified, three times over, in sentencing me to the violet-ray!

But, plead as I might, the ventilating men were inexorable. "No, we must report to the Manager! The rules require it!" they insisted, as one of them set off to perform his dread duty.

This assertion was to me as the last straw. Weakened by the day's torments and by loss of blood, terrified at the thought of the ordeal that awaited me on the Manager's arrival, I could not endure this new shock; a merciful unconsciousness swept over me, numbing my pain and blurring my mind to nothingness.


Affliction and Triumph

Great as had been the surprises of the last few hours, still stranger events awaited me....

After swooning away in the Ventilation Office, I remained unconscious for a long while—so I was afterwards told. When I came to myself again, it was after a period of blankness, varied by nightmares in which I saw Loa bending over me solicitously, her milky face more wrinkled than ever, her fat form bulging until she resembled a monstrous dumpling. Awakening from a long-protracted dream of this character, wherein I fled down endless labyrinths in the vain attempt to elude the enchantress, I found myself in a place so mysterious that I cried out involuntarily in my bewilderment.

I was lying at full length, in a sort of bed or couch, with a sheet drawn over me up to the neck; and I was conscious that all my clothes had been removed, except for a single shirt-like covering, and that my head was swathed in bandages. To my right rose a bare wall, and above me, at a height of three or four feet, stared a blank ceiling; while to the left, across an aisle little more than a yard wide, I beheld a sight that gave me the confused impression that I was back again in the Overworld, in a Pullman car. In neat rows of berths, arranged one above the other, three tiers high, dozens of men were reclining, one to each cot, all of them buried up to the neck beneath the sheets!

Where was I? In prison? In a ward for the insane? In a death-cell, awaiting execution by some new device more terrible than the violet ray?

As these questions, and others equally frightening, rushed across my mind, I began gradually to observe other details. I saw the wires, with pulley-like attachments, which ran through minute holes in the ceiling to each of the berths and carried little rattling cars no larger than a small ink bottle; I saw the vials and tubes, filled with variously colored liquids and powders, which stood on a neatly numbered shelf just above my head; and I noted that a copper wire, attached to my left wrist, ran the length of the bed and out through an opening in the wall, and that similar wires led to each of the other berths.

Although the suspicion came to me that these might be intended for the simultaneous electrocution of us all, I was so weak and weary that even the dread of imminent death could not disturb me for long; I sank back upon a pillow composed of some straw-like substance, closed my eyes, and fell into a refreshing slumber....

From this sleep I was aroused with a start by the sound of someone talking in a voice of thunder. How my heart hammered as I awoke from that pleasant doze! How I shuddered! What chills crept up and down my spine! In my bewildered state of mind, it took me a minute to discover that there was no speaker visible, and that the voice—transmitted by radio—issued from a huge horn projecting from the ceiling behind me.

Unfortunately, I had missed the first words of the talk; but, judging from what I later heard, I believe I can reproduce it fairly accurately.

"Mechanical Hospital Number 807 QL. Third Class! It is now precisely fifteen minutes and eleven seconds after the start of the wake! Time to take your morning tonic! This you will find on the shelf above you: Number 36 A, in the blue vial. Dissolve two pellets in the distilled water which you will find in Number 36 B. Drink slowly, and finish with an ounce of the liquid in 36 C. Then recline, and return to sleep. Our next announcement will be for the mid-morning repast!"

With an uncanny suddenness, the machine snapped into silence, while the occupants of all the other berths, rising slightly out of bed, reached for the indicated vials and consumed the contents as the voice had directed. For my own part, however, I was too sick and too bewildered to seek to follow instructions; I merely sank down into bed again, thinking that if this were a hospital, certainly it was the queerest I had ever viewed.

But still stranger experiences awaited me. The very next moment I unwittingly made a blunder that led to new discoveries. Finding that the wire about my wrist irritated me, since it dug into the flesh and checked the circulation, I pulled at it viciously, and succeeded in removing it. But no sooner had I disentangled the obstruction than I was shocked by hearing a bell clanging just above my head, reminding me of a burglar-alarm. And, from the radio-speaker on the ceiling, a voice bawled reprovingly.

"The patient who has just removed his wrist-register will kindly fasten it on again. We cannot expect to cure him unless this is left securely in place. For the benefit of any persons still ignorant of the facts, we may repeat that the wrist-register is the essence of modern medicine. By means of a faint but constant electric current, it records the patient's pulse, temperature, and respiration, which are noted down in the chart-room by automatic wired connections. Thus we are aware of the patient's condition minute by minute, and are able to eliminate the necessity of expensive attendants. It is this device which has made the Mechanical Hospital possible, and has enabled Third Class Citizens to enjoy the benefits of modern medical knowledge."

As I hastily readjusted the wire, I marveled at the medical advances of the chalk-faces, who have progressed so far above us of the Overworld. None the less, how I would have welcomed the presence of a flesh-and-blood physician!

Let me now pass over the space of a few hours, during which I dozed from time to time, and from time to time took food or drugs in accordance with the radio instructions, which were constantly awakening me from the most invigorating slumbers. The next important event occurred toward the close of the "wake," when the radio announced "Visitors' Hour."

Needless to say, this announcement did net interest me at first, for who was there to see me? Who, in fact, even knew of my presence here?

Yet once again I had miscalculated. I was to receive not one visitor, but several—in fact, two distinct groups! And one group was to be more alarming than the other.

No sooner had "Visitors' Hour" begun than I heard four or five heavy pairs of feet shuffling down the aisle in my direction; and, peering out of the bed toward the newcomers, I was electrified with fright at the sight of several familiar faces. There were the very men, the employees of the Ventilation Company, who had met me yesterday after my ignominious descent, and had threatened to call the Manager. And among them—might heaven preserve me!—I noticed the tigerish face of the Manager himself!

Only on one other occasion—when I had begun work in the Ventilation Office—had I encountered this individual, who answered to the name of Go Grabl. But never could I forget the occasion; he had insisted so severely on my duties to the Company, and had pointed out the penalties for violation of the rules so explicitly, that I had thought of him somewhat as the small boy thinks of the rod-wielding pedagogue.

And now here he was, cornering me where I was not able to escape him! Could he not at least wait until I was well?

Shuddering, I turned my face toward the wall, so as to shut out the sight of the intruder. But all to no avail! I heard him, along with the other men, halting opposite my berth; and I could not but catch the tones of their conversation.

"There he is!" exclaimed the first of the visitors; and I could imagine with what contempt he pointed to me. "All beaten up and abraded from knocking about inside the tube!"

"No wonder!" declared a second. "He must have gone through at least two miles of pipe!"

"When did you say he would be well again?" I heard the powerful voice of the Manager. "Naturally, we can do nothing until then!"

"They say he'll be out in a few wakes," returned the first. "Only suffering from shock, along with surface scratches and bruises."

"Good!" bawled the Manager. "It would be awkward if he had been turned over!"

Oh, would these men never go away and leave me in peace? In despair, I turned toward them, and opened my mouth to speak. Alas!—they would not let me get a word in edgeways!

But what was this that they were saying? Could I believe my ears? Or was I only dreaming?

"It was a wonderful performance," one of the ventilating employees was declaring. "Yes, a wonderful performance! Personally, I never saw anything like it. To creep for miles through the ventilation tubes, all the way from his office to ours! To dust them out and brush away all obstructions, at the risk of his life! Why, I assure you, Go Grabl, it was heroism! We were all dumbfounded! The best of it was he succeeded! He repaired the ventilation! From the moment he left the duct, the air currents were working properly again!"

Could it be that I was not dreaming, after all?

"Such modesty I never saw before!" a second employee was relating. "Can you believe it, Go Grabl, when we promised to report the affair to you, he tried to dissuade us! He seemed positively eager not to take the credit!"

"Such self-effacement," rang out the heavy voice of the Manager, "is much to the credit of any worker! It is the ideal that the Company demands! We will not forget such devoted service!"

And then, nodding to me with a smile, while I vainly strove to get in a word at last, he counseled, "Quiet there, my good man, quiet! In your condition, it is best not to speak; you need all your energy to get well. But I want you to know that your heroic deeds will not be soon forgotten. You will be rewarded, my dear man, you will be rewarded. And now, good-bye! Good-bye!"

"Good-bye! Good-bye!" echoed the other ventilation employees, and all bowed low to do me honor.

Spellbound, I had no word to say; but as they filed off down the aisle, I could hear the Manager's pleased voice.

"We will report this exploit in our monthly Company booklet, as an example to all our workers! It will live in the annals of the Company; yes, it will live in the annals of the Company!"

While I was wondering if they were crazy or I, I heard heavy footsteps thumping toward me along the aisle and glanced out of bed to receive a new shock.

Waddling forward as fast as her corpulent form would permit, and with an ingratiating smile on her wrinkled face, was none other than Loa! And behind her, benignantly beaming, loomed her father, Professor Tan Trum!

"Well, well, well, my boy!" rattled the latter, as he made his way toward my berth. "Here you are at last! We have been waiting for you in the reception room a full hour—a full hour, by my watch! They are not very courteous in these Third Class hospitals! But Loa wanted to come—so here we are! It would hardly be proper to let a respectable girl come alone to such quarters," he finished, as he surveyed the three tiers of berths with a disapproving sniff of his uptilted nose.

"Oh, my dear, my dear, I'm so glad we've come!" enthused Loa, scarcely waiting for her father to end. "We've heard all about it! The Wakely Screamer tells the story in headlines! It even has pictures, showing how you climbed up the Ventilation Tube! How brave you were, my dear! How very brave! It makes me feel so honored to know—well, to know that I can call such a man my very own!"

And she reached out her capacious arms as if to enfold me—with the result that I felt ready to swoon again.

"You can't imagine how nervous I was about you last night, my dear, when you didn't come home!" continued Loa, in a fluent stream. "I was afraid you were lost! But father—father here wasn't worried. He was so absorbed in his researches into the antiquity of the hyphen, he only growled and said, what if you did get lost? The streets are as safe as our own home! But I didn't get a wink of sleep—not one wink!—until I read the news in the Screamer. Now, of course, I understand why you didn't come back!"

No defeated general, suddenly realizing that his most carefully laid strategy has failed, could have had a more bitter sinking sensation than overcame me at that moment. Evidently Loa and her father had not even guessed that I had run away!

"My dear boy," the Professor continued, still glancing disparagingly about the room, "what a miserable rat-hole they've given you to sleep in! You can't remain here! We'll arrange to take you back home immediately!"

"Yes, of course, we'll arrange immediately!" coincided Loa, beaming upon me with a devouring smile. "You poor dear! We'll give you better treatment! I'll take care of you myself!"

Overwhelmed at this idea, I opened my mouth to protest; but the words stuck in my throat and would not come. Instead, I uttered something halfway between a gasp and a sob.

"No, no, dear, don't exert yourself!" urged Loa. "Don't thank us yet! You're still too weak to speak! But we'll see the authorities—and have all the arrangements made."

The truth is that I was too weak to speak—much too weak! As Professor Tan Trum nodded good-bye and disappeared along the aisle, followed by his daughter, who smiled at me in the most infatuated way imaginable, I relapsed momentarily into a state of coma, from which I was a long while in recovering.

It is doubtful if I would have recuperated at all, in less than several "wakes," had it not been for a message that came to me an hour or two later, sealed in an envelope that shot to my bedside through a pneumatic tube. This was so unexpected, and so heartening, that it helped me more than all the hospital tonics, and even enabled me, for a time, to drive away the dread vision of Loa.

The letter, written on the embossed stationery of the Ventilation Company, ran as follows:

"No. 44,667,023 XZ, Third Class,
c/o Mechanical Hospital No. 807 QL,
Third Class.

"Dear Sir:

"By virtue of your distinguished services on the line of duty, we are honored, on the recommendation of our Manager, Go Grabl, to promote you from Ventilating Clerk to Ventilating Inspector, the appointment to take effect as soon as you are able to return to work. In your new capacity, your hours will be half what you formerly served, and by way of compensation, your salary will be doubled. We remain,

"Appreciatively yours,
"(Per Do Quil, Ninety-Eighth Vice-President)."

It is from my appointment as Ventilating Inspector that I date the beginning of my phenomenal rise in the affairs of the Underworld.


Ordeal and Crisis

For seven "wakes" I remained in the hospital. Even though I did not at all like the place, with its automatic service and its total absence of living attendants, still I lived in hourly dread of being removed and sent back to Professor Tan Trum's home. I knew that, true to his word, he had put in an application to have me taken out; but what I did not know was that a thousand formalities had to be observed before the application could be granted. There were blanks to fill out, and signatures to secure, and affidavits to sign, and fees to pay, and half a score of clerks to affix their approval; hence, while Tan Trum and Loa were doing their frantic best to obtain the release permit, the "wakes" continued to slip past, and I remained in the hospital. In the course of time, indeed, Tan Trum's application was duly approved—but not before I had already been discharged as cured.

It is a testimony to a naturally strong constitution that I was able to escape in seven "wakes"; for my worries and torments while in that hospital were innumerable.... I shall not describe them all; let me only say that the newspaper reporters alone were enough to give me a daily attack of chills and fever. The gentlemen of the press, thanks to the special privileges of their profession, did not confine themselves to "Visitors' Hour"; at any time of the day or night they would rouse me from pleasant slumbers, in order to secure my personal story for the Wakely Blare, or in order to learn my views on the topics of the day, such as the reasons for the peculiar charms of the women of Wu, or the desirability of improving men's clothing styles by further enlarging the V-slit on the back.

Naturally, I was irritated by such questions, and persistently refused to reply, for I did not see how my work for the Ventilation Company qualified me to express myself on native fashions, feminine beauty, or politics. The reporters, however, seemed to feel otherwise; and, in no way discouraged by my failure to speak, they were so obliging as to make my opinions for me when I would not mention them myself. Thus, I was later shown long articles in which I was described as "speaking volubly," and in which I read the views credited to me on subjects so diverse as "The Merits of Thuno Flâtum," "The Natural Superiority of Wu to Zu," "The Future of the Scootscoot," "Why I Am in Love With Wrinkles," etc.

It was with intense misgivings that I awaited my release, for how now avert the day of reckoning? How save myself from the fatal necessity of returning to Tan Trum's home? Luckily, this problem was solved for me by the Ventilation Company. Upon presenting myself for work, I was informed that the Company provided living quarters for its Inspectors in a great dormitory, so that they might be subject to call at any hour. While it was not compulsory to reside there, I had not the least hesitation about my course. I hastily dictated a letter to Tan Trum and his daughter, thanking them for past favors, but assuring them that, "much to my regret, the exigencies of my new work make it impossible for me to continue to accept your hospitality." I also promised that, as soon as I was able, I would pay back the sum I owed Tan Trum.

Unhappily, this was not the last I was to see of the Professor, nor of the Professor's daughter. But before reporting my next encounter with them, let me tell of my new duties for the Ventilation Company.

As was to be expected, in view of the doubling of my salary, my new labors were much less exacting than the old. It was my duty to travel from place to place, inspecting the ventilating tubes and outlets, and removing obstructions (this being assumed to be my specialty); and in order to accomplish this task, wherein I was pretty much my own master, I had to ride one of the Company-owned little vehicles, or "scootscoots," which I so intensely loathed. However, I found it easy enough to run the machine, whose driving mechanism, which was guaranteed as "moron-proof," was as simple as that of an elevator. But I was never able to balance myself on it cross-legged with the native ease, which came only of long practice; nor could I ever quite master my dread of an early and sudden "turnover," for I constantly observed collisions on all main thoroughfares; and since there were no traffic rules, speeding drivers shooting recklessly at one in all directions, survival was a matter of sheer good luck.

But by taking roundabout ways and choosing the less frequented thoroughfares, I succeeded in reducing the risk, till I estimated that I was about as safe as a voyager through a submarine zone in wartime, or a lone transoceanic aviator. So fortunate was I, indeed, that in the first few months I only suffered half a dozen minor mishaps. Except for some bruises on the head and shoulders, an abrasioned knee and a sprained wrist, I might be said to have escaped unscathed.

In the course of my new activities, I had an opportunity to inspect the ventilation in all its details, learning by precisely what system of motors, pumps, valves, and pipes the fresh air was forced down from the Overworld and distributed throughout Wu, somewhat as the lungs distribute oxygen to the body. Being an engineer not only by profession but by inclination, I made a more careful study of the details than duty required, until I had mastered the facts as a watchmaker masters the mechanism of a clock. But as yet I had no thought beyond my own natural mechanical interests, and had no anticipation of the striking part my newly acquired knowledge was to play.

It did, indeed, occur to me that, by exploring the ventilating connections with the outer world, I might find a way to escape from Wu. But, remembering my harrowing experiences on my first attempt at escape and knowing that a second attempt might not end so fortunately, I decided to bide my time and make no rash or premature dash for freedom.

Had it not been for one fact, I should have found life as Ventilating Inspector almost pleasant. The fly in the ointment was the menace of Loa. I use the word "menace" advisedly, for this is what it seemed to me. Not even by removing to the Ventilation Dormitory could I relieve myself of her attentions! Of course, I scrupulously avoided her whenever possible—but this proved to avail me little. Before I had been working in my new position for ten "wakes," disconcerting rumors began to reach my ears.

"Well, partner," another Inspector exclaimed one day, slapping me on the back with comradely good humor, "we hear you're in luck! Say, invite us to the wedding, won't you? How did you ever find such a lovely girl? So fat and wrinkled, they say! And the daughter of a Second Class professor! Congratulations! May you have fourteen sons, to provide a glorious turnover for our country!"

Naturally I grew indignant at these words, and strenuously denied having matrimonial intentions. But my companions smiled knowingly, nudged one another, and protested, "Oh, you can't fool us! We know! We know! The rumor is everywhere about! You've been engaged for wakes and wakes! Why, the Screamer announced it issue before last!"

"The Screamer—announced it?" I gasped.

"Of course! Can't keep it secret any longer, partner!"

In despair, I sank down upon a seat, my face buried in my hands, my spirit a prey to the darkest melancholy. Apparently everyone was bent on forcing me into a union with Loa!

Meanwhile the girl herself went her way in the blithe assurance that our nuptials would soon be celebrated. Only one "wake" after the ventilating employees mentioned the article in the Screamer, Loa herself visited me in the company of her father.

As they announced themselves unceremoniously into my rooms in the dormitory, they succeeded in cornering me beyond hope of escape.

I noticed that Loa, as she entered, was pouting a little, and was eyeing me reproachfully, and for a moment the wild hope came to me that perhaps she was angry, and had come to release me from the entanglement.

No such optimism, however, was justified. "Why haven't you come to see me all this time, dear?" she began, somewhat accusingly, but in a manner that showed her willingness to be forgiving.

"Now, Loa darling," remonstrated the Professor, "haven't I told you a thousand times that it isn't becoming for a Third Class man to call on a Second Class lady?—no, not even when they're engaged! So, of course, Loa, you must come to him instead. He has a right to feel offended at your neglect."

But I confessed to feeling no offense, and Loa, her resentment quickly dissipated, advanced toward me with a smile.

"See, dear, what I have for you," she announced, taking a little gleaming object from her handbag. "It's all yours! Your wedding ring!"

"My wedding ring?" I ejaculated, feeling ready to sink through the floor.

"Of course," she declared. "Don't you know it's the custom for the lady to give the gentleman a ring?"

"Now, Loa, how could you expect him to know?" demanded Tan Trum reprovingly. "After all, he was born a barbarian, and still isn't familiar with civilized ways."

"Yes, I had forgotten," admitted Loa, apologetically. "Here, dear, is the ring!" And while I sank down in consternation, wishing to fight off the gift but not knowing how to refuse, she slipped a little ruby-studded silver band onto the small finger of my left hand.

"There, dear!" she went on rapturously. "Isn't it beautiful? It's ruby, the color of your heart's blood!"

I mumbled something, expressive neither of thanks nor of appreciation, but apparently my hearers did not quite catch my words. As I snatched at the ring, with the idea of removing it, I was diverted from my purpose by feeling Loa's arms about my neck, and for a moment we were locked in an embrace more satisfying, I hope, to her than to me.

It was Professor Tan Trum who, at this point, unwittingly saved the day.

"Here, my dears," he said, unfolding an enormous document with a silver seal. "Here, my dears, is the license! There are only a few minor details to be filled out."

I do not know why, but some strange, irrational hope flashed into my heart at sight of that document.

Yet as I glanced over the paper, I saw very little to inspire hope. I read that, as my one and only legal wife, I guaranteed to take, Loa, the daughter of Professor Tan Trum; that I agreed to obey the Population Laws and produce as many sons as possible for the benefit of the Fatherland; and that I promised to rear my children and conduct my own married life according to the best accepted principles of Thoughtlessness. At the bottom of the page, I noticed, there was a space for a notary's signature, which had not yet been filled out; and under Loa's name I read, written elaborately in gilded letters, "Eugenically approved!"; while beneath my own name no such inscription appeared.

As delicately as I could, I called this fact to the attention of Professor Tan Trum. But he, as if bent on destroying my last remaining shred of hope, answered me.

"Oh, my dear boy, don't let that worry you! Don't let that worry you at all! A mere formality, I assure you! A fine, stalwart man like you—even if you were born a barbarian—won't have any trouble meeting eugenic requirements. Not the least. In fact, I'm determined to clear away this last technical obstacle at once. So I've a little surprise for you. I've brought the Eugenics Inspector here with us. He's waiting right now in the gallery!"

While I gave a horrified gasp, the Professor went to the door, flung it open, and called to someone outside. And immediately a rat-faced little runt of a native, whose tall pointed hat bore an engraved steel sign, "Eugenics!" entered and bowed low. "Is this the bridegroom?" he inquired, pointing at me.

"Yes, yes," acknowledged the Professor. "Come right this way! My daughter and I will withdraw, leaving you to perform the tests by yourself. We will be waiting outside."

Since there was no choice in the matter, I had to agree to the ordeal. And the Inspector, who declared himself to be a practicing physician, put me through a severe examination, in which he tested my heart, my lungs, and all my other organs by means of a wonderful little instrument which, upon being placed on the skin, immediately registered any pathological condition, by recording the exceedingly faint electrical reactions of the body.

But alas!—he could find nothing wrong with me! "My dear young man," he congratulated me at the conclusion of the test, "you bewilder me! It is rarely that I have come across so perfect a case! I will rate you 99 and 44/100 per cent! From the point of view of Eugenics, you are Grade A!"

Probably the Inspector did not understand why I looked so downcast at this pronouncement, and why I begged, almost forlornly, "But is there no other test? You're sure you can't disqualify me?"

"Have no fear!" he assured me.

And then, glancing at a little document across the room from him, he added, "To be sure, there are a few questions I must ask, in accordance with the law. But they are mere matters of form which, I am certain, will give you no trouble."

Thereupon he began to fling out scores of queries, in regard to my age, my occupation, my father's age, my mother's age, the age of my sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., when they were "turned over." To all these questions, most of which struck me as utterly silly, I replied as best I could; and always the Inspector would nod with a pleased "Very good!" and congratulate me on my perfect record.

At last he had come to the final question, and inquired, in a perfunctory manner, "Military experience? Military experience of your father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers?"

"Well," said I, not in the least anticipating the effect my words were to have, "I served among my own people in a World War, being in the Commissary Department for three months. My father never was in any war; neither were my grandfathers nor great-grandfathers, so far as I know."

Suddenly the Inspector shot out of his seat and leaped toward me as though I had confessed complicity in a crime.

"What?" he demanded. "Your family has never been to war? It has no military record at all?"

"My family were all distinguished scholars and scientists."

"Scholars and scientists?" he flung back, wrathfully. "Scholars and scientists? What do they amount to? When did they ever fight for their country? How do you expect, young man, to bring forth a capable progeny to be turned over in the next war unless you have a good fighting ancestry?"

Before this question I remained mute. The first wild surge of hope was beginning to well up in my heart.

"How do you expect, young man," repeated the Inspector, growing more irate every moment, "to bring forth a capable progeny unless you have had a good fighting ancestry? No, sir, I am sorry to say I cannot approve of you as eugenic! To permit your marriage would be to encourage the growth of an unfit, non-combatant population! I regret it very much, sir, but I must stamp your application, 'Disapproved!'"

And, with that, the Inspector made a contemptuous bow, and went stamping out of the room.

A few minutes later, after Loa had heard the news and had left my apartment with heartbroken sobs, I executed a solitary dance of joy. At last I was free, completely free! And how I blessed my father and my father's father for having had no fighting experience!


Strike! Strike! Strike!

The "wakes" went by and gathered into months, and the months lengthened into a year, and still I performed my duties as Ventilation Inspector, and could discover no way of escape to the Overworld, and no prospect of a change in the ordered monotony of my existence. Was I to pass my whole life thus, and to end my days among the labyrinths of Wu?

So I often asked, while wondering if it would not be wise to attempt some new dash for liberty—even though the end might be arrest and the violet ray! Then all at once, when I was just finishing my first year as Inspector, my life underwent an extraordinary change.

The occasion was one of those periodic strikes which menace the economic security of Wu and enable the people to enjoy the perils and horrors of warfare even when war has not been officially declared. On this particular occasion, the strike was especially dangerous; for those guardians of the public health, the Ventilation employees, were determined to leave work. Not, indeed, had all the Ventilation employees so resolved, but in some sections they were unanimous in their revolt, and the uprising had become so serious that Dictator Thuno Flâtum was said to have interrupted a fishing expedition for nearly an hour while he debated the situation with high officials.

Personally, I looked upon developments with gravest misgivings, for the Ventilation Brotherhood, composed of fifty thousand workers, had issued the following ultimatum:

"To the Directors of the Ventilation Company of Wu, Unlimited, we pay our respects, and submit that:

"Within three wakes, they must grant all our demands, or we will turn off the country's air-supply.

"Not a ventilation wheel will turn, not a breath of fresh air will blow until our terms are complied with.

"If thousands of citizens, including many First Class men and women, should be suffocated as a result, we shall profoundly regret their fate, but sentimental considerations, naturally, cannot deter us."

The demands of the strikers—who were mostly Third Class citizens, of the kind that did a maximum of work for a minimum of returns—were as follows:

1. That wages be high enough to permit the men to eat every other "wake."

2. That hours be short enough to permit them to sleep every other night.

3. That the Company supply free air to the homes of all its employees.

These demands—which were variously branded by officials of the Company as "Inordinate," "Preposterous," and "Impossible"—were condemned in no uncertain terms by all First Class citizens, who upbraided the unpatriotic attitude of the strikers and pointed out that, should their terms be met, the Ventilation Company could not guarantee to pay its stockholders more than eleven per cent a year.

"The arrogance of the people knows no limits!" stated one high dignitary, who was believed to enjoy the confidence of no less a personage than Thuno Flâtum himself. "If we were to grant these exactions, the next thing they would ask would be separate houses for each family, or Grade A air, or reduction of taxes on the food, clothing, and water of the Third Class! Doubtless they would expect the First Class, who are legally tax-exempt, to meet these bills instead! No! Obviously such insubordination must be checked before it poisons the entire life of society!"

This sentiment being echoed by First Class citizens everywhere, a battle to the finish was promised. "We will smother rather than submit!" rang out the defiance of the rulers.... "Then we will all smother together!" thundered the retort of the strikers. And already, two "wakes" before the expiration of the ultimatum, serious complications were reported; dozens of strikers, going quietly about their way bearing banners, "We demand a breathing wage!" had been shot in the back by electric bolts launched by the police, in return for what the Wakely Screamer denounced as "their treasonous and seditious interference with business."

If this were but the beginning, a civil war seemed in prospect!

Now, I personally had little interest in the strike, for my work as Ventilation Inspector was fairly easy, my wages were fairly good, and I could see no advantage in facing suffocation merely in order to improve laboring conditions. Besides, I had had the temerity to consult a historical reference work, and knew that ventilation strikes had been occurring at intervals of about thirty years for centuries, and that in every case hundreds of thousands of persons—mostly invalids, women and children, in no wise connected with the strike—had been turned over as a result of interference with the air-supply; while the strikers, if they had been permitted to return to work at all after the settlement, had done so on worse conditions than before.

For this reason, I steadily refused to join the protesting group.

As the time approached for the strikers to put their ultimatum into effect, I could see how excited the people were growing. Business had virtually come to a standstill; along avenues once crowded with dashing vehicles, the "scootscoots" had almost ceased to run; in every side-gallery one could see little knots of chalk-faces anxiously talking, their drawn features and worried eyes bearing testimony to the concern they felt. "And so you think they will really strike?" one would ask.... "Undoubtedly!" another would reply. "I stored up containers of oxygen months ago, for an emergency!"... "Oh, what will I do about the baby's air!" a third would sigh. "I'm sure there'll be a terrible turnover if this keeps up!"... "Never fear!" would be the response. "What's the army for? The government has saved it for just this occasion!"

Meanwhile, the Screamer reported that Dictator Thuno Flâtum was still enjoying his fishing expedition. He had just caught a seven-ounce minnow, it was said, which he had been able to draw out of a subterranean lake by means of a new automatic fishing reel.

At the beginning of that wake on which the ultimatum expired, I reported for work as usual to the Ventilation Office. But, to my surprise, the place was almost deserted; the dozens of regular employees were conspicuously absent; only a worn old drudge of a janitress, languidly mopping the floor, greeted me upon my arrival.

She seemed, indeed, astonished to see me. "Say!—but you are brave, young man!" she gasped. "Don't you value your life?"

"Don't I value my life?" I echoed.

"Bless me, it won't be worth much if those strikers find you!" she exclaimed, looking up from her pail of sops. "They wouldn't do anything to me, for I'm only a useless old woman. But you, sir—they'll wipe the floor with you for not joining the strike!"

"Oh, have no worry; I'm able to defend myself!"

She stared at me as if wondering whether I were a prodigy or a madman.

"Do you think so?" she shot out. "Well, then you ought to see what they did to my neighbor, young Mr. Ty Tan. He was as big and brawny a young man as you ever saw—took all the prizes in boxing and wrestling. Well, he wouldn't join the water workers when they went out year before last, and turned off our drinking supply. Poor fellow! I've always felt so sorry for him!"

"What did they do to him?"

"Poor fellow!" she reiterated. "Poor fellow! It was so foolish of him, so foolish! When Mr. Ty Tan wouldn't strike—"

Abruptly she halted. I saw her staring toward the door, an expression of surprise and fear in her eyes, while she shrank back as if from some approaching menace.

Wheeling about, I saw half a dozen ugly-looking men just entering. On their breasts were prominent banners, reading: "Ventilation Strike. Sub-committee No. 116."

With a threatening expression, the newcomers drew near. "We were just looking around, to see that no one was working!" snarled the leader, as he glared in my direction. "You know, brother, it isn't good for the health to be working nowadays."

Steadily I eyed the men, and deliberately drew a step nearer. "Is that a threat, or a challenge?" I demanded.

"Have it as you will!" he growled. "I give you a fair chance, brother, if you want to walk out of here alive—"

Already I had resolved on my course. Striding forward before the man could finish his sentence, I put my full one hundred and seventy pounds into an uppercut that caught him squarely on the point of the chin, and sent him reeling to the floor.

Not being able to see clearly close at hand, he had been unable to ward off the blow!

Even as he fell, I followed up my advantage. Being now within arm's reach of his companions, I began to rain blow upon blow, which they also, because of their defective vision for things close at hand, were unable to guard against. In less time than it takes to recount, three of the men had followed their leader to the floor; while the remaining two, not knowing what sort of a fighting tornado they had encountered, had turned and taken to their heels.

With eyes of admiration and wonder, the scrubwoman stared at me as I returned from the encounter. "If only Ty Tan could have fought like that!" she sighed. "Poor Ty! He mightn't have ended as he did!" And then, warningly, "Still, sir, I would advise you to look out. They won't let it go at that. They'll see that you're turned over, if they have to bring out a whole striking brigade."

"Let them do their worst!" I snorted. And I sat down, crossed my legs, and complacently awaited developments. I could foresee that I was to have a busy day.


Blows and Counter-Blows

Less than twenty minutes later, a second Striking Sub-committee arrived. Its members were eight in number, and their method of swaggering hostility was such that I had no difficulty in repeating my previous tactics. Before they realized what I was about, I had gotten too close for them to see me clearly and I aimed my blows so accurately that, in less than a minute, half the gang lay stretched upon the floor. The others, not quite realizing what had struck them, were not long in resorting to that discretion which most men prefer to valor. Dashing to the door, they leaped upon their "scootscoots," which awaited just without, and darted away with a lunatic recklessness, while I stood staring after them with an amused smile. As yet I did not suspect how tragic the occasion was to be.

While my felled opponents were staggering to their feet and retreating by a side-entrance, the sound of a frightful crash came to my ears; and, rushing out and around a bend in the gallery, I saw that a crowd had gathered, while in their midst was a shapeless mass that I could hardly recognize.

Horrified, I shielded my eyes from the sight; and only by degrees did the dread truth dawn upon me; the escaping members of the Sub-committee, in their haste, had collided with some other "scootscoots," and all four members had been "turned over."

But such incidents being of daily occurrence, I tried not to let my mind dwell upon it; and, returning to my seat in the Ventilation Office, I quietly awaited the next development.

Not being good at presaging the future, I could not have known how the news of my exploit was to spread; and how, fanned by rumor, it was to grow to gigantic proportions. As luck would have it, a reporter for the Wakely Blare, on the rampage for material, happened to be present at the scene of the collision; and though he had small idea what had happened, he had no hesitation about accepting the word of onlookers who knew as little about the affair as he did. Consequently he radioed his paper a story so good that the editor decided to make it headline material—in other words, he printed it in red ink all over the front page, while other news items were driven to footnotes on back pages.

This article—which is too long to repeat in its entirety—was to the effect that a regiment of strike-breakers had appeared, no one knew where from, under the leadership of a redoubtable giant capable of "turning over" any adversary at a blow. So tremendous was the power of this group that opponents were said to be under a fatal spell, so that even fugitives from their vengeance came to certain disaster. As proof of this fact, the paper cited the destruction of the four members of the Sub-committee—whose numbers, however, were given as fourteen....

Now the speed of the papers of Wu in printing the news is phenomenal. Thanks to automatic typesetters, which take down the articles from radio dictation, a matter of only minutes need elapse between the occurrence of an event and its appearance in print. In fact, on some occasions the news is reported in "extra-extra" and "super-extra-extra" editions even while the event is happening; it is recorded that once the Screamer, in a special "scoop"—or "raid," as the natives call it—announced the death of a high official seventeen minutes before he actually breathed his last.

Hence it is not surprising that, less than half an hour after I had routed the second Sub-committee, papers telling of the exploit were being flaunted in all the main galleries by the newsgirls (there were no newsboys, since all the boys had gone to war).

Now if truth be told, the Blare was extremely glad of the opportunity to print this story, since, like all the papers, it was owned by a group of First Class citizens, and therefore was profoundly "anti-strike," and eager to play up any account hostile to the strikers. This it was which, along with the desire for circulation—for which several newspaper proprietors had been known to commit murder—explained the prompt featuring of the article.

Even so, the effect of the article would not have been possible had it not been for one little weakness of the people of Wu. In most ways, they are not a credulous folk; indeed, one may show them a plain fact ninety-nine ways without convincing them; but when a statement is once in print, they consider it inviolable. Never would it occur to them to question any remark, once it has been subjected to the sacred art of typography. They imagine that there is a sort of magic connected with printer's ink, which abhors falsehood somewhat as water abhors fire, and in this superstition the educated seem to share along with their more ignorant brothers.

As a consequence, the rumor of my prowess, once it had attained the dignity of a place in the Blare, had taken on the sanctity of established knowledge.

In view of the fact that the circulation of the Blare was somewhere in the millions (it being prescribed as compulsory reading for all persons with a mental age of twelve or under), it was not an hour before I, along with my imagined regiment of supporters, had become a subject of discussion for all Wu. And the effect upon the strikers may well be imagined. It hit them in that vital spot, their morale, with the result that many began to hesitate whether to remain on strike, and in some districts it was reported that the men were going back to work and ventilation was being restored. Most of all, the ignorant were disturbed by that passage in the story which told of the "mysterious spell" afflicting all opponents of the new strikebreaker. As this was nothing tangible for anyone to combat, it was all the more capable of arousing the terror of the masses, who, being well grounded in all the precepts of thoughtlessness, were unable to save themselves by reason.

The consequence was such as to endanger the strike itself. The members of the Central Strike Committee, threatened with disaffection on all sides, began to fear that their movement would collapse ignominiously. Hence they took immediate measures to hit back at the source of their trouble.

It was only about two hours after the little episode between myself and the second Striking Sub-committee, and I was lounging in my chair in the Ventilation Office, finding things becoming just a little boresome. The heavy, languid air, growing hot and foul now that the ventilation had been turned off, was telling upon my nerves; I was getting anxious to go into action again and do something more to end the strike. How I would have welcomed the appearance of another Sub-committee!

But no Sub-committee called. Evidently none could be found to meet me face to face, after the tales of my prowess! Instead, I was startled to hear a rattling sound in a pneumatic tube just to my right, and to note the arrival of a letter in a little steel container, which stated:


"But most of all, to the strikebreaker who has been decimating our men with an army corps of hired thugs.

"We extend our greetings, and suggest that you immediately withdraw your horde of brigands.

"If you do not see fit to comply with this recommendation before the close of the present wake, and to surrender your arms and position, we shall make a complete turnover of you and your men.

"Yours, with many remembrances of the day,
"The Central Striking Committee,
By order of the Grand Commander of the Silver Legion of Wu."

Now I must confess that I read these words not without a shudder. The members of the Silver Legion, having been to war, had had long experience in crime and hence were renowned for the blackness of their deeds; and it seemed possible that they would make good their threat, and, by means of Mulflar, the violet ray, or some other nefarious device, would speedily "turn me over."

However, I had now gone too far to retreat; if I were to die, I would at least die fighting. After thinking the matter over for a few minutes, I came to the conclusion that, as I had little actual power, my only hope lay in a good old-fashioned "bluff."

And so, without further waste of time, I wrote the following message:

"To the Central Striking Committee:

"I thank you for your respected communication, and for your greetings, which I return herewith.

"I beg leave to inform you that I have no intention of withdrawing with my host of patriotic followers. I suggest, for my part, that you send in peace terms and settle the Ventilation Strike immediately.

"Should you not do so, I shall lose no time in giving a manifestation of my wrath.

"Yours, with the utmost courtesy,
"High Chief Commander Citizens' Anti-Strike League."

Having awarded myself this title as a final stroke of genius, I dispatched the letter through a pneumatic tube and sat down to await results.


I Become Second Class

In spite of strikes and minor catastrophes, the war between Wu and Zu was still being waged. Of late, however, it had grown a bit dull and unexciting; both factions had been entrenching themselves for a dogged fight over Nullnull; and, except for the periodic capture and recapture of a few square yards and the daily "turnover" of several thousand men on each side, nothing of much consequence was happening. It is this fact that explains the interest in the Ventilation Strike; for the people of Wu, thanks to their scrupulous practice of thoughtlessness, require something to keep them constantly entertained.

Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Zu had not forgotten that they were still fighting; and when they heard of the ventilation troubles in Wu, they hailed the news with vast secret jubilation, and their statesmen and generals chuckled and vowed to take advantage of the opportunity. This meant, of course, that they were determined to produce a great enemy "turnover"; while, in order to accomplish this end, they had to resort to the Subterrains, those formidable machines which bored underground and attacked by means of Mulflar torpedoes.

The result was that, on the day the strike was officially declared, half a dozen Subterrain assaults were launched in widely scattered districts throughout Wu. Always the destruction was enormous, although the "turnover," according to treaty, was limited to Second and Third Class citizens. But the facts were not known until long afterwards, and then but imperfectly, since the papers, in their pre-occupation with weightier matters, rarely had space to give to enemy triumphs. Hence the explosion that wrecked the headquarters of the Central Striking Committee was not generally ascribed to its actual source.

There is no question, in view of subsequent investigations, that this represented but one of the series of Subterrain attacks; however, it occurred at such a time and in such a way that another interpretation seemed possible. The Head of the Committee was known to have received my letter of defiance, and had just called his secretary to dictate an ultimatum, which would end my revolt once and for all ... when suddenly the earth rose beneath his feet, and he and a corps of his assistants were "turned over" in a disaster that left their offices a charred heap of ruins.

Naturally, both the Blare and the Screamer were delighted to report the tragedy; and having already learned of my letter to the Committee, the editors of both journals concluded that the occasion called for another "Extra-extra," which they proceeded to issue without allowing time for second thought. Since great minds, even in Wu, tend to run in the same channel, the position taken by both editors was identical: that the blow had been struck by the "Citizen's Anti-Strike Committee," whose "High Chief Commander" was fulfilling his promise to give a "manifestation of his wrath."

Now I have always been convinced that the attack upon the headquarters of the Central Committee would have ended the strike, whether or not I had had any connection with the affair. The workers, deprived of their leaders, would have been disorganized; and disorganization would have led to the collapse of the whole movement. But, as it happened, no one seemed to realize this; no one ever thought of disagreeing with the Blare and the Screamer, which, in order to make sensational news stories, gave me the entire credit for the accomplishment. Not half a dozen hours had passed after the Subterrain attack before the strike was officially over; the laborers, intimidated by dread of a foe who could take deadly and mysterious vengeance, were afraid to remain defiant; and such was their general level of thoughtlessness that reason had no power against their superstitious terror.

Even while the strike was being settled, I received a visit from a distinguished delegation. I was still seated in the Ventilation Office, gnawing at a lunch of concentrated food capsules and amusing myself by reading of my alleged exploits in the Screamer, when the blast of a whistle at the door made me leap up with a start. Would I have another Striking Sub-Committee to fight? No!—nothing so alarming! Riding toward me on "scootscoots" decorated with green and vermilion, and surrounded by dozens of obsequious lackeys, were three chalk-faces whose shriveled forms, profuse adornments, and artificial eyes, ears, and breathing apparatus proclaimed them to be First Class citizens.

In accordance with the requirements of good form, I bowed low, sweeping the floor with the palm of my hand as a sign of deference; but at the same time I was sorely troubled, for what could such dignitaries desire of me?

Without acknowledging my bow, one of the First Class men lifted a megaphone to his mouth and addressed me abruptly, as was deemed only proper in the presence of a menial.

"Tell me, sir, are you the High Chief Commander of the Citizens' Anti-Strike Committee?"

With a gasp, I acknowledged being the person referred to.

The entire procession had now come to a halt at a distance of about twenty feet, and I could see how the three First Class citizens were turning their telescope-like eye-pieces in my direction.

"You have done a noble service in the cause of your country and of the First Class," continued my interlocutor. "I shall not question you too much on your methods, lest they prove, well—shall we say in violation of the letter of the Criminal Code? Allow me to introduce myself, sir, as the thirteenth Vice-Executive Director of the Ventilation Company."

Once more I bowed low, taking care to sweep the floor with the palm of my hand.

"And I," testified the second First Class man, also through a megaphone, "am one of the seventeen Political Settlers of the Ventilation Company."

"Political Settlers?" I questioned, again performing a perfunctory bow.

"Yes, indeed!" stated the man, looking a little offended at my ignorance. "Very important work we do, too! It is our business to settle things with politicians and political job-sellers."

"And I, sir," the third of my First Class visitors informed me with a blare of his megaphone, "am the Senatorial Representative of the Ventilation Company."

"Senatorial Representative?"—after another bow.

"Of course! I am the delegate elected by the Ventilation Company, in accordance with law, to represent its interests in the Senate. Don't you know, sir, that every concern doing a business of more than eleven millions annually is expected to have a representative in the Senate?"

Knowing nothing of this matter, I thought it best to change the subject. "And to what, gentlemen," I inquired, "do I owe the honor of this visit?"

It was the thirteenth Vice-Executive Director that undertook to reply.

"You may well ask that question, sir. Not once in ten thousand wakes is a Third Class citizen, such as you appear to be, flattered with a visit from the First Class. But your case, sir, is exceptional. Owing to your unusual services on behalf of the anti-strikers, we have been appointed by the Directors of the Ventilation Company as a committee of three to express our personal approval and appreciation."

"I thank you, gentlemen," said I, once more bowing low, but wondering if my visitors had gone through all this hocus-pocus merely in order to express an empty approval.

"You are the sort of man, sir, that the Company likes to have in its employ," announced the Political Settler. "Your talents are being wasted—thrown away—here in this Third Class office. We have decided to elevate you to a more worthy post."

"Yes, sir," the Senatorial Representative took up the report, "we will appoint you to the Engineering Department. As Ventilating Engineer, you will have two thousand men under your employ, who will be subject to your orders in all things. This is how we will show our appreciation!"

This time, when I bowed to the floor, it was as an expression of sincere gratitude. I could scarcely believe that such a magnificent promotion awaited me!

"There is only one difficulty," the thirteenth Vice-Executive Director bewailed, shaking his head ruefully. "The law forbids an appointment to the Engineering Department to any one except a First or Second Class citizen."

At these words, my heart sank within me. From the beginning, I had felt that the promised appointment was too good to be true. "Well, I don't insist on remaining Third Class!" I groaned.

The Political Settler beamed upon me, and drew his eye-pieces a little closer against his weazened face.

"That's just what I was thinking!" he declared. "I knew you wouldn't insist on remaining Third Class! Well, where there's a politician, there's a way—as the ancient saying goes. The law, to be sure, distinctly says that no Third Class citizen may ever become Second Class; but we'll get around that by proving to the courts that you really were Second Class all along. Leave that to me, sir—as a Political Settler, that's my specialty!"

I bowed gratefully once more, and assured the man that I had always felt misplaced in the Third Class.

But even as I spoke, doubt overcame me. What if there were some hidden flaw in the offer? What if I should have to pay a heavy fee for being made Second Class, or should be taxed beyond my capacity? And so I promptly made inquiries on these points.

If it had been possible for First Class citizens to laugh, my hearers would surely have done so. As it was, their slender forms shook slightly in testimony to the merriment they felt, and a sound like a dry rattle issued from between their thin lips.

"Pay a tax for being made Second Class?" growled the Senatorial Representative, with the manner of one who has been insulted. "I should say not! Quite the contrary! My colleagues and I have taken care of that! Why, sir, you will get a tax refund for the taxes you paid in the Third Class!"

"Tax refund?" I demanded, thinking I had not heard rightly.

"Yes! You see, the principle is quite fair and simple," explained the Political Settler. "Taxation, as all authorities agree, should be placed where it bears least heavily. Now there are ten times as many Third Class citizens as First and Second class combined, so naturally they are much more able to bear the weight of taxation. Therefore all taxes are placed on the Third Class."

Now I had not always admired the logic of the chalk-faces; but on this occasion, seeing that I was about to be favored so richly, it seemed to me that their reasoning was perfect.

"Only one thing more!" continued the Political Settler. "There's the matter of your salary. Considering that you won't have any more taxes to pay, I trust you will find it sufficient to have your present remuneration quadrupled."

For a moment I stood gaping at my benefactor, wondering if he were trying to make sport of me. But my hesitation was strangely misconstrued.

"Well, sir, I don't blame you for being in doubt," sympathized the thirteenth Vice-Executive Director. "You really should get more than that, in order to keep up your position in the Second Class. I'll speak to the other Directors, and see if they can't do something better for you. Perhaps they'll consent to giving you an annual bonus. Meanwhile you may report for work the wake after next."

"Thank you, thank you exceedingly!" I acknowledged, bowing to the floor for about the twentieth time.

Then, while my visitors uttered sharp orders to their lackeys and wheeled ceremoniously away, I sank down upon my chair in a daze of astonishment. Certainly, if all that I had been promised should come to pass, I was the luckiest man in Wu!


A Bold Stroke

The duties and obligations of my new position were formidable—if one looked at them merely on paper. I was the official possessor of seven titles and sub-titles, from Supervising Engineer to Sub-Director of the Airways; I was the occupant of a capacious suite of rooms, with a huge private office importantly marked "Hours by appointment only"; I had the promised two thousand employees, from office girls to "Ventilating Linemen," all of them strictly at my bid and call; and I was provided with whole libraries of literature and a list of "55 everyday rules," which, I was told, I must scrupulously follow.

However, I hardly glanced at these rules, and never so much as turned the pages of the instruction books; for I found that my assistants, at less than a tenth of my salary, did all the work, while my only task of any consequence was to sign my pay-check every five "wakes." This, naturally, left me with much time upon my hands; yet I did not waste my hours, but devoted them to enlarging my knowledge of the ventilation system, until there was no man in all Wu who understood the apparatus so thoroughly as I. It was not to be long before I should put my information to use.

In spite of my good fortune—good fortune that made me the envy not only of the Third Class but of thousands of Second Class citizens—I was still not contented, for there were many worries on my mind. One was the dread of encountering Loa, whom I had never seen since being declared eugenically unfit; I had, indeed, no intention of seeing her if I could avoid it, but from time to time I ran across her father, Professor Tan Trum, and always he would look at me with a reproachful air, and inquire, "Why don't you come around to the house sometime, my boy? Loa has been asking about you. Now that you are Second Class, like us, it can no longer be your Class delicacy that keeps you away." And always I would apologize, make some excuse—the pressure of work, etc.—and promise to pay him a visit as soon as I was able. But secretly I was trembling. Who knew but that Loa and her father would find some way of setting aside the eugenics provision?

This brings me to my second great worry. Day by day I was growing more weary of the Underworld and of its network of galleries and chasms illuminated with the weird greenish-yellow light; day by day I was becoming more hungry for a sight of the open earth and its blue skies, its stars and its sunlight and the faces of my own people. And my thoughts were constantly upon means and opportunities of escape. But I still was hopelessly imprisoned. More carefully than ever before, I took stock of my position and found that the only connection between the Underworld and the Overworld was by means of the ventilating tubes, some of which admitted the fresh air from above, and others of which were the outlets for used and vitiated air. But all these vents had been placed under a military guard, for fear of attack by Zu, and it was therefore impossible to approach them. Even could I have approached, however, it would have been doubtful if I could have climbed to safety through those steep and tortuous tubes.

Therefore I was forced to postpone hope of rescue till a remote and improbable future; and though the thought was never far from my mind, I gave myself to more immediate concerns.

Before I had been Ventilating Engineer for many "wakes," I began to turn my attention to a project so vast, so ambitious, so astonishing in its possibilities that I might have been deemed a madman merely to conceive of it. It was the Ventilation Strike which had first put the idea into my mind; and while in the beginning it had seemed too fantastic for consideration, the idea kept recurring and haunted me by day and in my dreams, until at length I weighed its advantages dispassionately, and decided that it was not so impractical as it had seemed. And thereupon I took the first steps toward that upheaval later known as the Ventilating Revolution.

Had it not been for a discovery which I had made a few days before, the Ventilating Revolution would not have been possible. During my investigation of the air system, I had come across a certain little wheel, rusty with age and disuse, which I had turned with surprising results. Upon being jerked slightly to the right, this wheel set into operation an electric current which released a steel partition in the central ventilating tube, blocking the channel somewhat as the human breathing apparatus would be blocked by a pebble in the windpipe. It was quite by accident that I had made the discovery, and at first I had merely amused myself by choking the ventilation for periods of a few seconds each—not long enough for the effects to be noticed.

But gradually, as I toyed with the wheel, a startling realization came to me. Its rusted condition showed that it had not been used recently; indeed, it may have been neglected for decades or even for centuries. Was it not likely that the chalk-faces, because of their inability to see clearly close at hand, had overlooked its existence? Was it not conceivable that their ancestors, whose eyes had been less subject to that paralysis of the muscles of accommodation which came of a prolonged underground life, had been better able to see things close at hand, and had made use of this little wheel, whose very existence and purpose were now unknown and forgotten?

So I asked myself; and later experience was to give me an affirmative answer.

The wheel, located in an unfrequented side-gallery a few hundred yards from my office, now became the crux of a daring scheme. Suppose that I were to stage a private strike? Suppose that, on my own account, I should turn off the air-supply? Suppose that I were to deliver an ultimatum to the rulers, demanding some supreme prize for myself—yes, even demanding that I be made First Class, and be given an important post in the Government! More than that! Why should I not myself take control? Why not displace Thuno Flâtum? Certainly, I could not be less fitted to rule!

To such dizzy heights did ambition lead me! As I have already said, I dismissed the idea at first as impractical—preposterous! Yet gradually, despite myself, I was captivated. Did I not have all resources at my disposal? Would not the people be helpless once their air had been shut off? Would they not grow as panicky as during the recent strike and gladly grant anything I asked?—and would I not be helped by the reputation which those anti-strike organs, the Blare and the Screamer, had unwittingly built up for me?

Besides, was not my present position ideal for success? Two thousand ventilating employees, being subject to my orders, would follow wherever I led; for such was their state of thoughtlessness that they would act first and inquire afterwards, if at all, and would not know whether they were shutting off the air-supply or turning it on.

Despite all these advantages, however, there were scruples and doubts that preyed upon my mind. Well I knew the results if my one-man strike should fail; I would be seized as a traitor to the Ventilation Company and sentenced to the violet ray! And even if the strike were to succeed—would it be worth the cost? For my own part, I could provide against the air-stoppage by supplying my office through a small pipe specially connected with the main ventilating artery; but the millions of common people would have no such protection, and, if the strike were long protracted, many of them might be stifled. On what grounds could I justify such loss of life?

The answer, however, was ready at hand. Could I attain my objective and supplant Thuno Flâtum as Dictator, I would take steps to end the war with Zu—in fact, to outlaw war forever—and the millions of lives thus saved would far outbalance the paltry few destroyed by the lack of ventilation. "The gain justifies the means!" I told myself, quoting an old adage of the chalk-faces; and, fortified by this high moral axiom, I decided to take the plunge.

The following day all Wu was thrown into a furor. Another ventilation strike had been declared, stated the Blare and the Screamer in a series of "Super-extra-extras." The air-supply had been cut off entirely—and no one knew who the strikers were or what they demanded. It was suspected that spies from Zu were behind the plot.


Insurrection in the Air

Two "wakes" had gone by without ventilation. The land of Wu was in a state of profound disorder—disorder compared with which the disturbances of the previous strike were as nothing. Once more business had come to a standstill; once more the thoroughfares, usually crowded, were almost deserted by the "scootscoots"; once more the chalk-faces stood about in little knots, anxiously talking, their drawn features and worried eyes bearing testimony to the concern they felt. But now the temper of the masses was much uglier than before. On the former occasion, they had been fighting for a principle, and public opinion had been with the strikers; but the present outbreak did not seem to involve any principle at all. It meant merely suffering, loss, and danger without any corresponding gain, and the people were both frightened and indignant, and in their anger and fear they had no hesitation about blaming the government for their trouble, on the theory that governments should know how to rectify all unknown ills and cataclysms.

Consequently the Second and Third Class citizens, though usually meek as babes owing to their thoughtlessness, were becoming unruly and rebellious. They gathered in wild bands and processions, parading through the First Class districts and shouting, "We want air! We want air!" They stormed at the doors of the Ventilation Company, and even at the palace of Thuno Flâtum and demanded, "Air for our children! Air for our children!" They grew so bold as to flaunt placards, "A new deal in air!" "Give us a safe and sane air administration!" and "We stand for public ownership of the air!" And as if such radical declarations were not sufficient, some of the ardent air-lovers burst out in riots, wherein, on several occasions, the stone columns of First Class dwellings were scarred and damaged, and more than one First Class citizen was made to flee for his life. The insurrectionists, to be sure, were always suppressed by the police, who, with rare good marksmanship, boasted a 98% record of hits against rebellious backs; moreover, they made excellent use of the "sneeze-gas bomb" (a clever little weapon which produced a thousand sneezes to the milligram). Yet in the face of all such discouragements, the rebel tide was rising, and the authorities were frankly worried.

Now I must confess that, after two "wakes," the state of the public galleries was deplorable. The atmosphere, stagnant, hot, and heavy, reminded me of nothing so much as a New York subway at rush hours; the odors were such that one would have held one's nose had it been possible to do so and breathe; the depletion of the oxygen had advanced so far that many persons were complaining of headaches, while many others felt as languid and dull as if they had been drugged. Plainly, matters were becoming serious—so serious that even I, when I stepped out now and then into the public corridors in order to sample the air, winced and shuddered and wondered if I had not carried things too far.

But grave though the situation was becoming, there was now no turning back. Either I must carry the strike to a successful culmination—or else I must fail beyond hope of recovery.

While the whole country was being reduced to a state of acute distress, no one as yet suspected the source of the trouble. Yet, all the while, I was secretly moving toward my objective. As soon as the strike began, I dispatched a message to Dictator Thuno Flâtum through one of those pneumatic tubes which provide automatic mail service throughout Wu; and since there was no way of tracing any letter back to its point of origin amid the ramifications of the postal system, I knew that I was perfectly safe in this course. And, at the same time, I took care that Thuno Flâtum's reply should reach me in a manner equally safe.

The following was my message:

"To His Abysmal Excellency
Thuno Flâtum
First of the First Class
Prime Dictator and High Chief Potentate of Wu

"Greetings, along with a humble word from one of your subjects. The air has been turned off, and will remain off until such time as I decide to turn it on again. If, in the meanwhile, you wish the ventilation restored, kindly announce in the Blare or the Screamer when and where you will grant me an audience. But before our meeting can take place, you must guarantee, on your word of honor and that of your ancestors, not to permit me to be molested in any way. Should this condition be violated, the country will remain airless forever.

"Yours militantly,
resident People's Better Air Association."

On the following "wake" I dispatched a similar message, and again on the third "wake"; while Thuno Flâtum, with characteristic stubbornness, still withheld his reply. He had had the poor discretion, however, to give out my letters to the newspapers (or, rather, his secretary had had such poor discretion, for Thuno Flâtum was known to be too busy fishing ever to read his correspondence). Hence both the Blare and the Screamer, on three successive "wakes," reproduced my communications in full, commenting that they were manifestly the work of a madman who should be hunted by the police and sentenced to the violet ray. Subsequent developments showed that the editor of neither paper suspected what an effect the public announcements were to have.

Meanwhile the officers of the Ventilation Company, driven almost insane by the failure of the air-supply, had turned from their customary task of counting dividends in order to try to trace the reason for the lack of ventilation. All their inspectors and engineers were made to work overtime; I myself, much to my amusement, was instructed to exert myself diligently to locate the trouble; and, of course, I made a great show of seeming to comply, and bustled about my headquarters officiously, flinging out orders by the dozen, and sending off my subordinates to search in places where, I knew, they would find nothing. That the cause of the air-stoppage would not be discovered seemed a foregone conclusion; for the chalk-faces, thanks to their inability to see clearly close at hand, might search for years without being able to notice the all-important little wheel.

By the third "wake," the Directors of the Ventilation Company were in despair, Thuno Flâtum and the other high officers of the state were said to be wearing a worried expression; the Dictator had cancelled an engagement to play "poli-boli" (an athletic game, played with marbles, especially popular with First Class citizens); and riots were breaking out in scores of widely scattered places. Unless imminent relief were forthcoming, as the Screamer plainly hinted in an editorial, the "sneeze-gas bombs" would not be able to control the mobs.

At the same time, the Blare, in a front-page article, reversed its previous attitude, and advised the Dictator to see "the madman who insolently terms himself President of the People's Better Air Association." Conditions were becoming so critical, the paper pointed out, that it would be wise to clutch at any straw; indeed, the scarcity of air was ruining business, as was evident from the fact that bank clearings had gone down 75% in the past two "wakes." If the strike continued another three or four "wakes," the cost might well rise as high as 100,000,000 "silver fingers." The possible cost in life was not considered.

The argument of the Blare, as might have been foreseen, proved unanswerable. The people, loyal as always to the printed word, were clamorous in demanding that their Dictator see the "President of the People's Better Air Association"; and no one seemed to remember that only a few hours before, they had been equally clamorous in begging their Dictator to refuse the interview. But such little reversals of opinion were so common in Wu that I was not even surprised.

Immediately I began making preparations for that meeting which I now knew to be inevitable. It was not half an hour later when a new edition of the Blare declared that Thuno Flâtum was awaiting my visit, and, in fact, had high hopes that our interview would end the strike. And it was but a few minutes after reading this announcement when I set out on my private "scootscoot" for the palace of the Dictator.

I did not, however, go alone. To appear before the sovereign unattended did not seem either wise or safe, particularly since I had to present a proposal which, to say the least, was very bold. But who was to accompany me? This question was very simply answered. Had I not two thousand ventilation employees who were at my beck and call in all things? Why not pick an escort of, say, about three or four hundred?

To be sure, I did not wish to take any of my attendants into my confidence or let them suspect what I was attempting. But such was their stage of trained thoughtlessness that it was as easy to keep the truth from them as from a three-year-old. Besides, there was a clever little device which I might employ to prevent them from manifesting any spark of intelligence. This was in the nature of the drug already mentioned, the drug known as the "muffler"—which employers had been wont to feed to employees, and which, by paralyzing the cerebral centers, suspended all mental processes except the purely automatic ones, so that the victims could take orders with mechanical perfection, but were incapable of knowing, thinking, or feeling.

As the Ventilation Company, in the course of its business, always had a large supply of this drug on hand, I fed it to about 400 of my followers; and then, its action being immediate, I ordered them all to take their places at once in "scootscoots" and follow me.

With this magnificent array of supporters in my wake, I lost no time in setting off on my visit to Thuno Flâtum.



Realizing that I was attempting an experiment which might lead to disaster, I took one or two simple precautions before visiting Thuno Flâtum. The first was to disguise myself, for I did not want it known that it was a stranger, a foreigner, a "colored barbarian," who was challenging the throne of the Dictator. The disguise was accomplished simply enough, largely by means of some chalk-like powder, with which I made my face milky pale; in addition, I used a pair of heavy amber glasses, so as to conceal the gray of my eyes; and I steeped my hair in an ashen dye, in order to give it the complexion considered normal. Thus equipped, I was hardly to be distinguished from the average man of Wu.

But as I drew near the Dictator's headquarters, it occurred to me to take another precaution. Was I not in danger from fanatics who, furious at my interference with the air-supply, might waylay me and seek my life? With this thought in mind, I dropped back to a position toward the rear of the procession, after giving instructions as to where my henchmen were to proceed. And well that I did so! When we had come to within half a mile of that brilliant cavern where Thuno Flâtum held court, we were impeded by a rabble, partly curious, partly hostile, who flung stones and epithets, and distributed some "sneeze-gas bombs," by which half a score of my followers were disabled.

Fortunately, I myself emerged unharmed; and a few minutes later I arrived, with the majority of my followers, in that great hall which I so well remembered from my previous visit to the Dictator. As on the former occasion, the entrance was guarded by a row of soldiers with twenty-foot pikes and triangular helmets, who stood statuesque and stone-like, not making so much as a gesture upon our arrival; as on the former occasion, the walls were emblazoned with white, red, and yellow lights, with enormous dragon-shaped banners of green and vermilion, and with long lines of swords, pikes and helmets. And, also as on the former occasion, Dictator Thuno Flâtum sat before the rows of great mirrors on the raised platform, adorned with purple crest and a great string of rubies, while twenty attendants stood about, solicitous to watch every move and gesture of their imperial master.

But how different was this arrival from my previous visit! Then I had been forced to grovel and to approach the sovereign on all fours, waiting impatiently until his lordship should condescend to notice my existence. But today I marched boldly forward, with no hint of deference; and my attendants, reduced to such a state of thoughtlessness that they did not know themselves to be in the presence of Thuno Flâtum, unquestioningly followed my example. Not till I was at the very pedestal of the throne did I pause; and then it was without any sign of submission.

"Thuno Flâtum," I announced, with an abrupt bow, "here I am! I come at your summons, as the President of the People's Better Air Association!"

It was easy to see that my words had produced consternation. The helmeted guards, clearly revealed by their reflections in the mirrors, unbent from their stony rigidity sufficiently to allow the pikes to tremble in their hands; the body servants of Thuno Flâtum seemed paralyzed with amazement, and for the moment forgot their attentions to their regal master in order to stare at me in petrified unbelief. And a group of spectators, doing obeisance upon their hands and knees, collapsed with surprise, and did not regain their composure for many minutes.

Apparently never before had Thuno Flâtum been addressed so familiarly!

The monarch himself seemed dumbfounded and leaned forward in his chair until I feared he would fall out, staring at me with his binocular-like eye-pieces as if trying to see right through me.

It was a moment before any of his attendants could recover themselves sufficiently to lift the megaphone to his mouth.

"What is that you say?" he squeaked, when at length he was equipped with his speaking tube. "Do you know that you are addressing the Prime Dictator and High Chief Potentate of Wu?"

"To be sure, Your Abysmal Excellency, that is why I am here," I returned, suavely. "It would hardly suit my purpose to waste time on any lesser official."

The "Prime Dictator" glared at me. Owing to the eye-pieces, the ear-pieces, and the nose-pieces that covered his face, it was impossible to see his expression clearly; yet I am sure he glared at me. And his puny little form shook with such a violence of wrath that not until his attendants had fanned him for five minutes and applied doses of cold water was he able to find words again.

"Who are you, to speak to me in this manner?" he at length demanded, in accents which showed that he had not pierced my disguise. "Your tones are the uncultivated ones of some Third Class viper! Do you not realize that you have been guilty of Contempt of the First Class—an offense worse than treason? Better men have been executed for less atrocious crimes!"

Exhausted with the effort of this long speech, Thuno Flâtum had to be fanned again by his lackeys and allowed several minutes in which to recuperate.

"What's to prevent me from punishing your insolence?" he finally resumed. "Suppose I order you to be violet-rayed? I've more than a mind to do so!"

Through the mirrors, I could see how the guards behind me began to creep forward, with their pikes pointed in my direction, as if eager to commit capital punishment upon me.

Though I could not repress a shudder, I knew that I had no course except to be bold. "Punish me if you wish, Your Abysmal Excellency," I challenged, "but my followers cannot be disposed of so easily. Those you see here are as nothing to the hosts waiting to avenge me."

"What do I care for your followers?" snapped Thuno Flâtum. "You cannot cow me with threats! Men of my Class have ruled for a hundred generations, and there has never been a revolt!"

"All the more reason that one is due now!" I insisted. "Remember, Your Abysmal Excellency, what power I hold! I am more precious to you and your people than a thousand times my weight in silver!"

Through the mirrors behind me, I could see that the guards were still creeping forward. Also, I could detect a gleam of mirth in the salmon eyes of some of the spectators, and realized that my words had been taken less seriously than I could have wished.

But my trump card was still up my sleeve.

"Remember, Your Abysmal Excellency," I warned, "only one man in all Wu is able to restore your ventilation. That man is I. If I perish, the secret perishes with me, and you will all be turned over by lack of air."

Half-suppressed groans from the spectators, and from Thuno's attendants, showed that this bolt had struck home.

"How do I know you speak truth?" demanded the Dictator, with a furious blare of the megaphone.

"Test me, Your Abysmal Excellency. If you will agree to my terms, I will restore the ventilation at any moment you stipulate."

"You talk like a madman!" barked my opponent through his megaphone. And then, after a moment's hesitation, "Still, there can be no harm in hearing your offer. If you do not keep your promise, there will always be time for punishment. What are your terms?"

For a moment I did not answer. I stood staring at the Dictator intently and was moved almost to pity for this contemptible being, with his shrivelled limbs and artificial organs. Nevertheless, I picked my words with the utmost caution, for I could see the guards behind me still creeping forward by inches, while my own followers made way before them; and I knew that the success or failure of my venture might depend upon my next utterance.

I knew that the success or failure of my venture might depend upon my next utterance.

"Your Abysmal Excellency," I began, "according to all reports, you have ruled long and notably. You have performed great services for the First Class and for your country. But it is not fair that any man, however willing, be harnessed too long with the yoke of state. After a time, his shoulders should be relieved of the burden, so that he may enjoy the pleasures of private life. It is for this reason, Your Abysmal Excellency—"

At this point, my speech was rudely halted. A blast of the Dictator's megaphone rang through the audience-chamber as shrilly as a cry for help. And Thuno Flâtum, straining forward with quivering form and face that turned all colors from white to purple, staggered out of his seat in his rage, shook his midget fist at me, and collapsed.

It was several minutes before his attendants could fan him back to life and his thoughts could find expression.

"What!" he howled through the megaphone, after being restored to himself. "What is that you suggest? You impudent rat! Do you have the daring, the effrontery to ask that I—that I step down—"

Choked by the fury of his own words, he was unable to continue.

An uneasy glance at the mirrors showed me that the guards were still creeping up from behind, while my followers made way before them like sheep. I did not care for the looks of their long gleaming pikes, nor did I like the fascinated glances which the spectators were fastening upon the pike-bearers, as if awaiting some interesting exhibition.

Therefore I realized that I must lose no time. "Your Abysmal Excellency," I pleaded, hastily, "you have caught my idea. For the good of your country and the restoration of ventilation, it is time that you step down, and that I step up—"

By now the Dictator had regained his breath sufficiently to interrupt me by bellowing through the megaphone. "So, you insolent hound! Now we have your terms, have we? You would displace me on the throne! You would displace me—me Thuno Flâtum, the High Chief Potentate of Wu! Seize him, guards! Seize him!"

Before I had time to leap aside, I felt heavy arms about my shoulders and found myself pinned in the iron grip of three guardsmen.

Though ready to collapse once more with the effort of so much speaking, Thuno Flâtum was able to bawl once more.

"Take him away! Away! At once! Waste no time! I'll sign the death warrant!"

Vainly I strove to command my followers, to order them to my rescue. But, automatons that they were, they failed at the crisis; something had gone wrong with the operation of the drug, and they seemed powerless to obey.

As the guards started to drag me off, I saw how excitedly the Dictator's twenty attendants were laboring to restore him to life.

"One minute!" I shouted to the guards. "I must have another word with his Abysmal Excellency!"

The guards stood hesitating. One of them pulled rudely at my shoulders, while I repeated the request; but the others seemed doubtful, and by virtue of loud appeals I was able to restrain them until Thuno Flâtum had recovered.

"Take him away! Away! At once!" reiterated the ruler angrily through his megaphone. "I'll sign the death warrant! We'll kill him by inches with sulphur fumes—"

While the guards started to drag me away once more, and my mind conjured up visions of suffocation by sulphur, I cried out in a last desperate plea.

"One minute, Your Excellency! Remember, if I die, you all die too! Without me, the air will remain off forever!"

"Without you, the air will remain off forever?" echoed Thuno Flâtum. "Then let it stay off! What do I care? Have I not my oxygen tanks?"

And derisively he pointed to the steel tanks connecting with his breathing tubes.

Quick as a flash, I saw my opportunity. "So you would breathe while your people smother?" I demanded. And then, turning to the guards, "Do your duty, men! Take me away! Thuno Flâtum, your master, will still breathe oxygen, while you will all smother!"

The effect of these words was electrical. One of the guards, releasing me with a hurried gesture, reached for his three-pointed helmet and flung it off, to reveal a gasping, perspiring individual close to the last stages of exhaustion.

"I'm through!" he groaned. "By the gray hairs of my ancestors, I'm through! For wakes and wakes I've been suffocating in this steel case! I'm not going to go without air altogether! Let some one else be turned over if they want! I'm going on strike!"

"So am I!" announced a second guard, snatching off his helmet.

"So am I!" snapped a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, until, in a moment, all the pike-bearers stood unhelmeted and rebellious. "I'm going on strike! On strike! On strike!"

"We want air!" one of them started the cry. And "We want air, we want air, we want air!" began to echo and reverberate throughout the whole great hall. And the guards, surging forward in an angry mass, lost all semblance of military order, but swung their pikes furiously in a chaos of rushing, pushing, scuffling, shouting forms.

For a moment, Thuno Flâtum was too thunderstricken for words. Then, as his attendants crowded about him protectively, I thought I heard his voice lifted during a momentary lull in the storm. "This is sedition! Sedition! I'll have you all violet-rayed! I'll have you all—"

But I did not hear the conclusion of the speech. Taking advantage of the hubbub, I had started hastily toward the door, ordering my attendants to follow.

An instant later, as I slipped into the safety of the passageway, I was aware only of the hoarse yelling of the guardsmen and of the confusion of waving pikes. At last the Revolution had begun!



Hardly had I escaped from Thuno Flâtum's audience hall when I noticed an athletic looking individual darting from the direction of the throne-room. Breaking through the ranks of my followers in frantic agitation, he headed straight toward me; while I, imagining him to be an agent of justice, hastened my footsteps in the effort to regain my "scootscoot," which was waiting a few hundred yards away.

But my efforts were futile. I was too greatly impeded by my attendants, who had been reduced to such thoughtlessness that they would not get out of my way; and, try as I might, my pursuer was gaining upon me. "Wait a minute there! Just a minute!" he shouted, when he had come within a few dozen yards. "Just a minute! I've something to tell you!"

But, of course, the only effect was to spur my flight.

Nevertheless, he finally caught up with me, puffing and panting prodigiously, just as I had reached my "scootscoot" and was about to dash away. And only then, as I turned in alarm to confront him, did I recognize the official yellow badge of the press!

"I represent the Screamer!" he gasped, when he had halfway regained his breath. "Let me have your story! Quick! The Blare man will be here any minute!"

Surely enough, another individual, racing toward us from far down the gallery, proved to be a reporter for the Blare!

All at once I realized how foolish my flight had been. Though still in a hurry to get away, I could find time to present my story to both newspapers, with a wealth of detail. Although I did not quite foresee the results, I already had a suspicion that the Blare and the Screamer would prove my salvation.

In less than an hour the new editions were on sale, competing with one another in the sensationalism of their reports. "Air special! Air special!" I heard the newsgirls crying from the court outside my apartment window, as I paced back and forth, trying to decide on my next action. "Insurrection in the guards! Thuno Flâtum defied! Mysterious stranger demands throne as price of air! Read all about the great rebellion! Super-super-extra-extra! Super-super-extra-extra!"

Naturally, I rushed out into the gallery to buy a paper, but was able to do so only with the greatest difficulty, for people were flocking from all sides to get copies, and supplies were soon exhausted. However, I did manage to get a Screamer, and this is what I read:



Guards in a Commotion! Back Claims of Audacious Intruder!

There followed a highly colored account of the day's events, in which I was described as a "madman seeking to start revolution," while Thuno Flâtum was represented as "defending his position with the indomitable might and valor for which the First Class is so justly noted." It was admitted, however, that I was formidable, being backed by an army variously estimated as between ten thousand and a hundred thousand fanatics, of whom several thousand had accompanied me to the Dictator's throne-room. In the face of such a menace, Thuno Flâtum was more than courageous—so the papers said—to resist my demands, even though the country should have to remain unaired for a few "wakes" more.

As I glanced up from the paper, I could see that the people around me were profoundly affected by the news. For once, it seemed, an action of Thuno Flâtum had not met with unquestioning approval....

"What's that?" I heard a chalk-face to my left growling savagely. "So we're to remain without air? Meanwhile the First Class can breathe from oxygen tanks! Let's have air, I say! Air, air, air! What do I care who's on the throne, so long as we can breathe.... Tell me, what do you think, brother?" he demanded, turning in my direction.

"I thoroughly agree!" said I.

"So do I!" exclaimed an indignant voice from our right. "The children haven't had a good clean breath for three wakes! Let Thuno Flâtum's own children be turned over, if he likes! I want air for mine!"

"So do I! So do I!" other voices joined in. "Air, air for our children!" And hundreds enthusiastically echoed this sentiment.

I was not unprepared for the events of the next few hours. Toward the close of the "wake," I went out to stroll along one of the main galleries; and, seeing a crowd assembled in a great open chamber or public square, I hastened forward with the feeling that extraordinary news was abroad. Nor was I mistaken, although at first, amid the babbling of many tongues, I was unable to discover what had happened. All that I knew was that the people were gathered about in groups, chattering excitedly, and that the words "Thuno Flâtum! Thuno Flâtum! Thuno Flâtum!" mingling with cries of "Air! Air! Air!" occurred again and again. But though I accosted many persons in my eagerness for information, none would take time to answer by more than mumbled, incoherent phrases.

Yet by mixing with the crowd and listening, I managed to hear some tell-tale remarks.... "Why, I thought Thuno would rule forever!" one voice exclaimed: .... "Where did he run to?" demanded another.... "I don't know. They say he's hiding in the Third Class basements!" contributed a third.... "But I've heard he's gone fishing!" a fourth added.... "Who's at the head of things now?".... "No one, they say, till we get the air back."

From these scraps of conversation, one fact at least was plain. But who had overthrown the Dictator? And was his fall actual or but a ruse?

Gradually, however, other details became evident. Led by the revolting guards, a mob had stormed Thuno Flâtum's palace, demanding immediate air, even though the Dictator must retire in favor of "the mysterious stranger with the amber glasses." And when the ruler had refused, the tempest of resentment had risen and forced him to flee.

It was but a short while later when, as I had expected, the Blare and Screamer came out with new editions. Their version, however, differed considerably from what I had just heard. For the benefit of his health, which had been affected by the strain of duties of state, the Dictator had been advised by his physicians to take a brief vacation, his whereabouts being concealed so that he might enjoy the greater seclusion. Both papers ended with the pious hope that their good sovereign might speedily recover.

But both, at the same time, suggested that if the self-termed "President of the People's Better Air Association" would restore the ventilation without further delay, he would find the people ready to grant any reasonable demand.

Acting upon this hint, I dispatched immediate letters to both newspapers. At precisely four hours and a quarter after the beginning of the following "wake" I would turn on the air. And, exactly one hour and a quarter later, I would appear in the Dictator's throne-room, where Thuno Flâtum's guards might identify me as "the mysterious stranger" of the amber spectacles. I would, of course, claim my reward immediately, and would make no guarantee for the continuance of ventilation unless all my demands were granted.

Having dispatched these messages, I yawned and settled down for a good night's sleep. I had need of rest, for tomorrow, I knew, might be one of the crowning days of my career.


Luma the Illustrious

The following "wake" I arose early, since there were many things to keep me busy. First of all, I carefully prepared a speech and wrote a letter, which I secreted in my pocket for use later in the day; next I resumed my disguise, with the amber spectacles, the gray-dyed hair, and the chalk-colored face; and then, taking care not to be seen, I made my way to the side-gallery containing the rusty old wheel that controlled the country's ventilation. There I waited, watch in hand, and at precisely the promised minute, I gave a turn to the wheel, and was instantly rewarded by feeling an invigorating breeze.

Now, hastily, I made my way in a "scootscoot" toward Thuno Flâtum's palace, where I was expected an hour and a quarter later. Gathering a hundred ventilating employees about me, and ordering them to keep closely at my side, I acquired a bodyguard suitable for the royal position I hoped to assume; and, with these surrounding me, I hastened to keep my appointment.

As we sped through the various corridors, I noticed that the air was again in motion, that the heavy depressing atmosphere of the past few days was already being dissipated. And the people, observing the change, were crowding out of their homes in throngs, shouting and screaming at the tops of their lungs, "The ventilation! The ventilation! The ventilation has been restored!"—while in their jubilant excitement, they waved banners and blew horns and beat drums and distributed showers of little colored paper like confetti—behaved generally like school children at a festival.

Drawing near the Dictator's palace, we were impeded by the multitudes who came forth to greet us, shouting and gesticulating and executing little whirling dances to show their pleasure. All along the galleries they flaunted flags and placards bearing curious inscriptions: "Our kingdom for a breath!"—"We demand our daily air!"—"Air for all classes!"—"By air, and air only, shall we be ruled!"—"Where the ventilation fails, the people perish!" and—last, but not least—one that I may translate freely as follows, "Who steals my purse steals trash, but he who filches from me my good air has left me poor indeed!"

It was with difficulty that I made my way through the long gallery to Thuno Flâtum's throne-room, for the crowds, recognizing me by the amber glasses, insisted in pressing all about us. Only the protective screen of a hundred attendants saved me from being crushed to death or torn limb from limb in the people's eagerness to catch a glimpse of me and show their appreciation.

At length, however, I did reach the throne-room, where the guards acknowledged my presence by bowing till their palms scraped the floor, in the established fashion. As befitted a superior, I seemed not to notice their salutations, but strode at a slow and stately pace toward the center of the hall, and then, while thousands watched me in gaping amazement, I mounted the raised platform of red sandstone, and stood on the throne of the Dictator.

As I reached this regal eminence, suddenly someone waved his hands furiously and broke into cheers; and the multitude, accepting this as their signal, echoed the cries in a roar of acclaim that did not die down for many minutes.

It was long before, by flinging both arms high in air and shouting, I was able to bring order to the gathering and to launch forth upon the speech I had prepared.

"Fellow citizens of the First, Second, and Third Classes," I began, "this is indeed an auspicious occasion. For the first time in more than three wakes, we can all breathe freely again. At great cost of personal sacrifice and labor, I have found a way to turn on the ventilation—"

At this point another salvo of cheers broke forth, combined with a pandemonium of stamping feet, by which my hearers sought to emphasize their applause.

"At great cost of personal sacrifice and labor," I resumed, "I have saved you all, my fellow citizens. For this service I claim no personal reward, for the satisfaction of rescuing my countrymen will always be sufficient compensation. However, I have a message to deliver. It is from your Dictator, his Excellency, Thuno Flâtum."

The throng had all at once become silent; several thousand pairs of eyes and ears strained forward eagerly, intently, while, with a flourish, I removed a silver-sealed document from an inner pocket.

"Here is a letter from Thuno Flâtum," I declared, well knowing that the people, being unable to see clearly close at hand, would have no way of detecting the falsehood. "Before I read it, let me introduce myself by the name which our beloved Dictator has always applied to me. I am called Luma the Illustrious."

"Luma the Illustrious! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah for Luma the Illustrious!" thundered the mob, while hundreds bowed in token of obeisance. "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" And from the rear of the hall there came a flaunting of green and vermilion banners, in testimony to the patriotic significance of the occasion.

"Now listen carefully to the words of Thuno Flâtum!" I shouted, unfolding the letter I myself had written a few hours before.

And when the crowd had once more grown silent, I read in sonorous tones:

"To His Highness, Luma the Illustrious

"Greetings and heartiest regards

"Since my poor health makes it necessary for me to renounce the duties of State for a time, I wish that you, Your Highness, would rule in my place during my absence. I am confident that it would be impossible to find any one more competent than your eminent self. During my absence, the people must grant you the same unquestioning respect and obedience they would accord to myself.

"Faithfully your servant,
Prime Dictator and High Chief Potentate of Wu."

For a moment, as I folded the document back into my pocket, a thunderstricken silence possessed the people. Then all at once they broke into such an uproar as I had never heard before. "Long live Luma! Long live Luma! Long live Luma the Illustrious!" They cheered and yelled, while writhing and leaping and stamping and dancing in irrepressible glee. "Long live Luma! Long live Luma the Illustrious!" My ruse had succeeded even beyond my expectations!

Now, as never before, I realized the advantages of thoughtlessness. My hearers, being all Second and Third Class citizens, had been so thoroughly trained in this creed that it had never occurred to them to question my assertions. Already I had resolved that, as Dictator, I would make thoughtlessness compulsory.

But alas for my high hopes! Just as I was mentally congratulating myself on my success, there occurred an event that seemed likely to undo all I had accomplished. The audience had scarcely ceased shouting "Long live Luma! Long live Luma! Long live Luma the Illustrious!" when a commotion arose at the corner nearest the entrance, and I could see the guards swaying back and forth, as if to throw out some troublesome intruder.

"What is it, men? What is it?" I shouted, indiscreetly, not in the least suspecting the source of the disturbance.

Momentarily the commotion ceased, while the husky voice of one of the guards shouted back.

"Your Abysmal Excellency, what shall I do? There is a man here who claims to be Thuno Flâtum!"

At these words, I was as near to heart failure as I ever hope to be. Momentarily a mist passed before my eyes, and I felt myself quivering and clutching at an iron railing for support. Then, as the attack of vertigo passed, I could see how the crowd, awed by the magic words "Thuno Flâtum," had made way near the source of the commotion, leaving a figure to wheel toward me on a "scootscoot," accompanied by half a dozen attendants.

How well I recognized that shrivelled form, with the bald head, the toothless mouth, the ear-pieces and eye-pieces, the nose-tubes and the megaphone! His royal garments were, it is true, a little frayed and damaged; the purple crest upon his head was torn and bedraggled, the green and saffron of his uniform was soiled with muddy blotches, and the string of huge rubies no longer dangled about his neck. Nevertheless, I had seen enough of the Dictator to identify him even in his present shabby plight!

"Your Abysmal Excellency, this man claims to be Thuno Flâtum!" repeated one of the guards, as the figure on the "scootscoot" drew to within a few yards of the sandstone platform.

"Thuno Flâtum! Thuno Flâtum! He claims to be Thuno Flâtum!" I could hear the mob echoing in surprise.

"I am Thuno Flâtum!" avowed the intruder with an angry squeak through the megaphone. "I am Thuno Flâtum!"

In that crucial fraction of a second, while all the world seemed to reel about me, I realized that in an instant I might come crashing down from my new-won eminence! I must act quickly—else all was lost!

I do not know what it was that, in that desperate emergency, put the saving thought into my mind. But my brain was working with the fury of fever, and somehow, goaded by terror, I leapt at the one means of salvation.

"Seize that man! Seize him! Seize him!" I cried, pointing to the newcomer with a swift imitation of anger. "It is a penal offense to impersonate the Dictator!"

"It is a penal offense, a penal offense to impersonate the Dictator!" echoed the multitude.

"But I am not impersonating the Dictator! I am Thuno Flâtum! I am Thuno Flâtum!" insisted the puny figure on the "scootscoot," while his thin right arm shook in my direction in impotent wrath.

"Look at him! Just look at him! He claims to be Thuno Flâtum!" I howled, with a sudden pretense at laughter; and rocked back and forth in feigned mirth. "When did Thuno Flâtum ever wear soiled saffron? When did he appear without the royal rubies? Guards, seize the impostor!"

"Look at him! Look at him! Just look at him! When did Thuno Flâtum ever wear soiled saffron?" yelled the mob, roaring with me in amusement more genuine than my own.

At the same time, the heavy arms of a guard closed about the feeble, resisting figure.

"But I am, I am Thuno Flâtum!" he wailed for the last time. "It is you, you who are the impostor! Only listen, only listen—"

At this, he was greeted with louder laughter than ever, and the thunders of public merriment drowned out his words. Luckily for me, he was hidden from the sight of the majority; while those close at hand could not see him clearly enough for recognition.

"Guards, place him in a cell!" I shouted, when the peals of mirth had begun to subside. "He is a dangerous madman! We will keep him locked up until—until Thuno Flâtum returns!"

As a corps of guards disappeared down a side-passage with the manacled Dictator and his attendants, the crowd burst once more into cheers, "Long live Luma! Long live Luma! Long live Luma the Illustrious!"


New Storm-Clouds

In order to press on to more crucial events, I shall not linger over my first few months as Dictator. Clad in the magnificence of my new office, I dwelt in a spacious suite of rooms with palatial adornments and scores of attendants; I enjoyed the applause and veneration of millions who bowed before me as before a god; my comings and goings were heralded with blasts of trumpets and the rattle of military trappings; I held court daily on the throne of Thuno Flâtum, decided matters of public policy and law and issued orders which, theoretically, could be disobeyed only under pain of death.

Nevertheless, not all flowed smoothly. To begin with, there was the secret opposition which I had to face. Both the Second Class and the Third had accepted me readily enough as sovereign in the absence of Thuno Flâtum and never so much as inquired why Thuno remained so long on his vacation; but the First Class, it appeared, had not been trained to an equal degree of thoughtlessness, and hence could not accept me so unquestioningly. Many were the murmurs of complaint that came to my ears; it was muttered that "Luma the Illustrious" was not really "First of the First Class," as he claimed to be; that, indeed, he was not First Class at all, but came of plebian birth. In proof of this blasting accusation, it was pointed out that Luma was too healthy to be First Class; that his limbs were not shrivelled enough and he could actually walk long distances, like any Third Class nobody; that his natural eyesight was good, his ears useful without hearing tubes, and his lungs capable of functioning without artificial aid; while he was neither bald nor toothless, as every "green-blooded" aristocrat should be. In other words, he was a mere undistinguished interloper, without noble lineage or antecedents.

So persistent did such complaints become that I finally resolved on desperate measures, and secretly instituted a drive against the First Class. One by one the worst offenders disappeared from home, to take up their lodgings in some remote cell; and only after detectives had thus disposed of five hundred trouble-makers did the other First Class citizens appear to agree on the wisdom of holding their tongues. Thereafter all who questioned the legitimacy of my rule did so strictly in private; and the First Class was as open as the two other classes in acknowledging me as lord supreme.

Meanwhile I was having other difficulties, due to my zeal to remedy certain evils. While living as Second and Third class citizen, I had observed scores of things which had seemed in need of reform; and I now set about, as energetically as I could, to better the condition of the people. But how obstinately the people objected to any betterment!

For example, there was the matter of the "scootscoots." Having been shocked at the innumerable accidents, which cost hundreds of lives each day and more than once had nearly terminated my own existence, I set about to establish a system of traffic rules. These were really what we of the Overworld would consider simple and reasonable: that all "scootscoots" keep to the right of the road, that green and red lights be installed to guide traffic at intersections, and that no "scootscoot" be permitted to travel faster than two miles a minute. Yet what an uproar was created by these innovations! It was found, indeed, that wherever the new rules were applied, the death-rate fell more than ninety per cent—but what did this mean to the speed-hungry chalk-faces?—nothing—less than nothing!

"Luma interferes with the rights of private property!" cried the affronted people. "He seeks to destroy individual initiative! He attacks our ancient freedom to do as we wish with our own property! If a man owns a 'scootscoot,' why can't he drive it any way he wants? Traffic laws are confiscation!"

Against this uproar it was impossible to make any headway. The new rules were violated almost as a matter of principle; people would risk fine and imprisonment sooner than submit. Bootlegging on the traffic regulations soon became a popular sport; men would openly boast of having offended, and violations became so frequent that, in disgust, I abandoned the law, and the people, with shouts of joy, returned to their old round of injuries and "turnovers."

Equally saddening were my experiences with the new food and clothing laws. Remembering my earlier observations, remembering how the Third Class had often been ragged and hungry and how vast quantities of good food and clothes had been consigned to the furnaces, I decreed that henceforth excess commodities should be distributed to the poor. But alas—what a blunder this was! The outcry over the traffic rules was as nothing compared with the storm of protests that greeted my latest move.

"What! Give the excess to the poor?" howled the First and Second Classes in an indignant chorus. "Encourage shiftlessness and indolence? Reward improvidence and laziness? Overturn that good old economic rule, 'He who has most shall give least?' Did our fathers give to the poor? Did they not burn their excess? Then why depart from their time-honored rule? To change now would be to insult their memories!"

Most vigorous of all, however, were the protests of the National Food Producers and the United Clothing Manufacturers, Unlimited.

"Your Excellency should realize," they wrote me in an open letter, published in both the Blare and the Screamer, "that the profits of business and consequently the prosperity of the nation depend upon a scarcity of the vital commodities. So long as there is scarcity, people will pay high prices and stockholders will reap huge dividends; but as soon as abundance occurs, prices will sink and dividends will correspondingly wane. This is, you will agree, an intolerable condition, and should be avoided by every means at our disposal. Accordingly, we recommend that you repeal the law forbidding us to burn surplus products."

Naturally, I paid no heed to this appeal; but I knew that I was treading on dangerous ground. From the First and Second Classes came renewed groans and rumblings of discontent, which, despite all the efforts of the police, I could not suppress; while, to my despair, I learned that hundreds of tons of food and clothing were still feeding the flames each "wake," regardless of all my vigilance. Worst of all, the Third Class—to whom I distributed vast amounts of commodities—were unsatisfied with what I gave them and clamored for more in such a grumbling, discontented chorus that I had almost more to fear from them than from the other classes.

Yes, hard and bitter, hard and bitter is the path of a Dictator! Before a few months were over, I began to wish I had not launched forth on my new career.

To make matters still more serious, resentment at my other reform measures was almost equally heated. Thus, there was the order against adulteration of the air-supply, which brought down on me the wrath of my old employer, the Ventilation Company; there was the rule raising the military age of children from six to eight, which sent legions of patriots fuming to my palace in protest; there was the law that spies must receive a trial before being executed—which provoked widespread denunciation on the ground of its "sentimental weakness"; and there was the enactment taxing the First and Second Classes no less than the Third—which almost led to armed rebellion before, in self-defense, I withdrew it and restored the good old conditions, in which only the Third Class paid taxes.

Yes, hard and bitter was my path as Dictator! And, after the first half year, it was to grow harder and bitterer still.

But before I tell of my further public difficulties, let me mention one private vexation. This was in connection with my good old friends, Professor Tan Trum and his daughter Loa.

For a long while, I had been out of touch with this estimable pair, and I had hoped that, in my new rôle as "Luma the Illustrious," I would be able to elude them entirely. But such was not to be. One day, when delivering a public address in my throne-room, I chanced to notice two familiar faces among the front ranks of spectators, and I saw how a certain fat and bewrinkled lady was nudging an elderly man, while pointing at me in excited recognition. Alas!—even my amber spectacles and whitened face had not saved me!

It was only a few "wakes" later when Tan Trum, accompanied by his daughter, paid me a visit. In view of their many past kindnesses, I could not refuse them an audience, as I would have liked to do; but I foresaw that I was to have a difficult time. And, indeed, they were to make things more than difficult!

After congratulating me on my rise, which they ascribed to the training I had had at their hands, the Professor approached a delicate subject. Judging from the ogling glances which Loa cast me, and the admiring light in her little salmon eyes, it was all too evident that she, magnanimous creature, was willing to forgive me for past rebuffs!

"How happy your success makes me, my dear boy!" enthused Tan Trum, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. "How very happy! A great burden has been removed from us all. You need no longer be debarred—er—debarred from lifelong bliss. Loa has been faithful to you, my boy!"

"Yes, I have been faithful!" echoed the blushing damsel, with her wrinkled face downcast.

"We well realize your position, my dear friend," continued the Professor, beaming upon me in apparent unconsciousness of my growing consternation. "Weighed down by cares of State, you have had no time to pay us a visit. Besides, it would be unseemly for a man in your high position to visit our humble quarters. To be sure, you might have summoned us here, but perhaps you hesitated, fearing to shock us too greatly. Is that not so, my boy?"

"Yes, that is so!" I groaned.

"You see, Loa," the Professor went on, turning in a congratulatory manner to his daughter, "you see what a considerate lover you have! I always said that you were lucky, my dear. Yes, you are lucky, both of you! I wish you many, many happy years, blessed by—"

In desperation, I was ready to clutch at any straw. Remembering my last escape from the persistent pair, I interrupted Tan Trum hastily.

"But have you forgotten, Professor? Have you forgotten? Don't you recall the eugenics test?"

Both my visitors smiled upon me benignly, as one might smile at the recollection of sorrow outlived.

"Of course, we recall!" testified Tan Trum. "It was one of the great griefs of our life. Poor Loa! How she wept! I actually feared for the girl's health. It was seven wakes before she began to show a normal interest in her wrinkles again!"

"I didn't care what happened to me!" added Loa, looking up with a demure twinkle in her eye. "Since you were lost to me, it didn't seem to matter if I lost all my fatness. But now, of course, my dearest, all that is over!"

"Yes, now, thank the gods, all that is over!" piously echoed the Professor.

"I don't see quite how," I replied, weakly, while a stabbing sensation seemed to take me at the heart.

"Why, it's all as plain as light," declared Tan Trum, still smiling. "Be more cheerful, my dear boy! Since you are now a law to yourself, what do you care about eugenics? You can declare yourself eugenically fit, and who will dare to contradict you?"

All at once, as I realized the truth of these words, I felt a profound regret at having become Dictator.

"To be sure, your former disbarment was valid enough," rambled on the Professor, while in Loa's eyes I caught an adoring flash. "Having no military ancestry, you naturally weren't qualified to become the father of a family. But now that you are in a high position, your sons won't have to go out to fight and be turned over—"

I do not know how or why—perhaps it was the Professor's reference to fighting—but at this point an idea leapt into my head.

"All that is true," I broke in. "I have, as you declare, no fighting ancestry. Therefore, before assuming domestic responsibilities, I must justify myself in my own eyes, if not in those of the people. I have decided that before I can—er—before I can accept my happiness, I must go forth to the field of honor. Tomorrow I lead the army to battle!"

This decision, though reached this very moment, now seemed unalterable and final—my one hope of escape.

Both the Professor and his daughter looked downhearted.

"Oh, but that isn't necessary, my dear boy!" frowned the former. "You have too high a conception of honor!"

"Why, it's unheard of! The leaders of the country never go forth to fight!" pleaded Loa, beginning to pout a little. "Their place is to make others fight! Their own lives are too valuable to risk being—being turned over!"

"What do I care for the risk, when my country's welfare is at stake?" I demanded, vaingloriously.

And then, firmly entrenched in my new decision, I repeated, "Tomorrow I go forth to the field of honor! Upon my return I shall send for you both. Meanwhile kindly give my regards to Tan Tal, Moa, and Noa."

As the tall form of the Professor, drooping a little gloomily, left the audience chamber side by side with the rotund figure of his daughter, I still did not know that I had done more than to postpone the inevitable; nor had I any intimation of that whirlwind of events which was to make this my last meeting with Tan Trum and his family.


News from Zu

Anxious as I had been to avoid complications with Loa, her coming had not been the only reason for my sudden decision. For a long while, the difficulties occasioned by my reform measures had been growing more serious and the voices of popular complaint more menacing; hence I was anxious to find some way of diverting public attention. Moreover, the war with Zu, which dragged on interminably, was daily becoming more vexing; I still did not dare to antagonize public opinion by ending the conflict, as I had originally planned; and, to make matters worse, the enemy had lately attacked with new energy and resourcefulness. Already they had wrested from us a stretch of Nullnull seven yards deep and fifty-nine yards wide—a defeat which, though our papers did their best to conceal it, had somehow become public knowledge, vastly weakening my prestige.

I therefore realized that, in order to regain the ground I had lost, Wu must retake the ground it had lost; and I understood that, in attaining this objective, my presence on the field would be the best stimulus to the troops. Not that I actually cared a pin for Nullnull; but, knowing my reputation to be at stake, I was willing to risk all for the sake of a little of this barren land. As to whether I was competent to lead the troops, I felt no doubt at all; all our generals were so thoroughly versed in thoughtlessness that they did not seem hard to surpass; and, besides, had I not had six months' experience during the World War, as a lieutenant in the Commissary Department?

No action since I had become Dictator evoked such enthusiastic response as the announcement that I was about to command the army. The Blare and the Screamer, commending me in full-page editorials, expressed their thanks that I was ready to bring my people to "the most glorious turnover in history"; the masses, acclaiming me in wild demonstrations, cheered and celebrated until one would have thought I had already achieved a victory, instead of merely having promised one; a delegation of generals did me the honor of a personal visit and embarrassed me by presenting their plans, which were featured by an attack on the babes of Zu, whom they intended to slay in the cradle, in order to avoid having to slay them later on the battlefield.

Now I confess that my own plans were a little vague. So weary had I become of the Underworld that I did not particularly care if I should be "turned over" in the next engagement; however, I still had some principles and did not hesitate to antagonize the generals not only by rejecting the assault on the infants, but by vetoing other projects, such as the one calling for a Subterrain of unprecedented power, which would shatter the roof above the capital of Zu, burying the city and all its people amid the ruins.

Not quite realizing how the disgruntled generals were to conspire against me in secret, I set out on a "scootscoot" in the midst of an army of a hundred thousand picked soldiers, who, with their three-pointed helmets gleaming savagely while they marched with their peculiar prancing movement, made a resplendent and magnificent display. As we proceeded along the main avenues and galleries, the people came out to greet us with drums and banners, while they were shouting exultantly, "Have a successful turnover! A successful turnover! A successful turnover!" And the waving of banners, the stamping of feet, the discharging of toy explosives, and the glances of admiring eyes were such as to make the heart rejoice, in haughty contempt of any minor incident, such as a "turnover."

Owing to the torrential applause, my advance was greatly retarded and several "wakes" were consumed in the march to the "depths," as the natives termed the battle front. And, during the interval, tremendous changes were afoot. We caught intimations of these in the bulletins from Zu, which stated that the enemy, terrified at reports of my approach, were already thinking of retiring from the "top-line depths." Due to the happy intervention of our Bureau of Public Delirium (otherwise known as the "Propaganda Office") our spies in Zu had spread alarming reports as to the new Dictator of Wu; I was represented as a giant eight feet tall, who, thanks to his amber glasses, had a supernatural faculty of seeing close at hand, and was therefore irresistible in battle. The people of Zu—who, it appeared, had been as well-trained in thoughtlessness as their rivals in Wu—had been greatly impressed by such reports, which they never thought of questioning, particularly as the stories were circulated by those leading papers, the Fizz and the Pratler; and the consequence was that a wave of fear was shooting through the country.

To this day I am not certain just what changes occurred in that disturbed land. Our own papers, of course, were scrupulously unreliable, since a biased attitude was regarded as a patriotic duty; nevertheless, I knew that there must be some kernel of truth amid all the multitudes of rumors. Stories of riots and insurrections; stories of anti-war demonstrations; stories of the citizens' open refusal to go forth and be "turned over"; stories of a rebellion of the Third Class against the First and Second—all these came to us in such a continual stream that it was clear that something highly significant was developing.

Yet I was little prepared for the sequel when, on the fourth "wake" since my departure for the "depths," we reached the actual war area. I recognized the region easily enough, by the tremendous chasms, such as the one which Clay and I had observed on our arrival in Wu; besides, I could read everywhere the effects of warfare in the torn and broken galleries, the corridors with walls blown out and with ceilings sagging or fallen, the rutted and broken roads, threaded with deep gullies, and the general effect of blackness and devastation, which had blotted out every sign of human life.

Now it was that I began to look eagerly for the enemy, who were rumored to be in hiding hereabouts. My scouts pushed on ahead, being told to report any sign of hostile activity; while I, pitching camp in the wilderness at one corner of Nullnull, impatiently awaited that engagement which would either "turn me over" or make my reputation forever as the savior of Wu.

But once more I was to be disappointed. It has been regarded as one of the first principles of warfare, in all lands and ages, that, in order to fight, one must have an enemy—and, in this case, where was the enemy? Alas!—he could not be found! Had he undertaken a "strategical retreat"? This seemed quite possible, for nowhere amid all that ravaged land could we catch sight of a warrior of Zu. It now appeared that we could take all Nullnull without any loss of life; but this, being against all established precedents, which required a large "turnover," would have gained me no glory. Hence I could do nothing but wait, hoping that the men of Zu would be so obliging as to show themselves as targets; and, while I waited, several more "wakes" dragged past, and I was told that my own people were beginning to grumble at my want of action and were demanding more definite "results."

I was on the point of marching on, although much against my better judgment (for I feared a trap), when one "wake" a courier dashed into camp, breathless with haste, and demanded to see me at once. At first the man was so agitated that his face, instead of being chalky-pale, was flushed a deep scarlet; and, upon being ushered into my presence, he was unable to do more than gasp out a few meaningless monosyllables.

"Your Excellency—Excellency," he panted, when, having made deep obeisance, he stood before my chair, streaming with perspiration. "Your Excellency, I—I have just come from Zu!"

"Yes—what of it?" I demanded.

"Oh, Your Excellency—Your Abysmal Excellency, the most wonderful news!" ejaculated my visitor, as by degrees he regained his breath. "The most marvelous, most miraculous news!"

"What news? Out with it!"

Still panting, and with chest powerfully heaving, the man paused for a moment, the better to regain control of himself.

"Your Abysmal Excellency," he resumed, in a less excited manner, although with his tense emotion still manifest, "I have just been in Zu! I have seen what none of our countrymen have seen! The news is still censored. But I know that I speak truth. There has been a revolution in Zu!"

"A revolution?" I cried, leaping to my feet, while my caller's excitement began to take fire in me.

"Indeed, Your Excellency, a great revolution! The people have risen up and driven Oono Yuno, the old Dictator, from the throne. It was not because of the war, Your Excellency. They say he did not give them the right capsules to eat. And now they have a new Dictator."

"New Dictator? Who may he be?"

"I wish I knew, Your Excellency. Nobody seems to know. He calls himself Rah the Righteous. He is said to have the strangest looks of any man in the world."

"What does he look like?" I demanded, growing more interested each moment.

My informant hesitated. An expression of fear shot across his face, now growing chalky white once more. "You are sure that you will not punish me, Your Excellency? The tales are so strange that you will not believe them. I do not know if I believe them myself."

"Come, tell me everything!" I insisted, half convinced that I was about to hear some fairy story. "I will not have you punished."

"Well, Your Excellency, I know you will laugh. No man like him has ever been seen before. They say his eyes are blue. And his hair is red."

"Eyes blue? Hair red?" I gasped. And I reeled backwards and felt ready to collapse. Had not the Tan Trums assured me, long ago, that red-haired natives were unheard of? And had not my lost friend Clay boasted locks of a bright carrot hue?


Rah the Righteous

Hardly had the courier left when I hastily dictated a letter:

"To His Abysmal Excellency
Rah the Righteous
Dictator of Zu

"Whereas our army has been maneuvering for wakes on the outskirts of Nullnull, and has been unable to find any of your followers to turn over, we conclude that your citizens are too craven to join us in battle, and therefore demand that you cede the whole of Nullnull to us immediately and unconditionally. Otherwise, beware!

"Belligerently yours,
Luma the Illustrious,
Prime Dictator and High Potentate of Wu."

This letter was, of course, duly written on the official stationery in the handwriting of the court scribe, and was in the common language used by both Wu and Zu. But underneath the formal message, to which I affixed my signature with a flourish, I added the following words in English:

"For God's sake, Phil, is it you? If so, let's get together! Frank."

Knowing that these words would convey no meaning unless the new Dictator of Zu were my old friend, I hurriedly delivered the letter to a messenger who, carrying the pink badge of neutrality, was allowed to travel through enemy territory unmolested.

Within a few hours, Rah the Righteous would have the communication; hence it was with the utmost impatience that I waited. Meanwhile copies of my message were sent to the Blare and the Screamer, which printed it conspicuously, with laudatory comments on my "firmness" and "courage" in dealing with Zu.

Before the "wake" was over, the reply was in my hands:

"To His Abysmal Excellency
Luma the Illustrious Dictator of Wu

"Whereas I have just received your missive, and have read it with astonishment at your effrontery, I refuse unqualifiedly to accept any of your terms, and demand that you, for your own good, cede the whole of Nullnull to us.

"Defiantly yours,
Rah the Righteous,
Dictator Supreme and Sovereign Commander of Zu."

It was with an amused smile that I read the above message. But what a leap my heart gave, how I paused in startled delight and almost cried out for joy at a little postscript, scribbled in English, in a well-known handwriting:

"Thank heaven, Frank, it's you! I'd given you up ages ago! Meet me the beginning of tomorrow wake at the end of gallery C 341, at the northeast end of Nullnull. Better come disguised. Phil."

Still unable to overcome my astonishment at the prospective reunion with my old friend, whom I had long lamented as lost, I passed a sleepless night; and hours before the brightening camp-lights had announced the beginning of the new "wake," I had risen from bed, disguised myself by means of a steel helmet and a long flowing black robe, and slipped away silently through the wilderness of galleries that tunneled the borderland of Nullnull.

I well knew that the adventure was not without its perils; nevertheless, the hope of seeing Clay again more than sufficed to overcome my fears. Guided by a flashlight, I kept on at a steady pace through the darkness, until at length a welcome sign, stamped in the rock of the cavern wall, informed me that I had reached gallery C 341.

Down this thoroughfare, which wound tortuously, I proceeded at an increasing pace, while my eyes explored the shadows in the hope of encountering a well-known figure. But it seemed as if I had traveled miles before finally the gallery came to a dead end just ahead, and I stopped short, dismayed and baffled. My friend was not to be seen!

Then, as I paused, removing my helmet for the sake of comfort and wondering whether to retrace my steps, a vague shape withdrew from the dimness behind a shelf of rock. At first, amid the blackness of the cavern, illuminated only by my flashlight, the newcomer seemed more like a ghost than a human being; while, startled by his eerie appearance, and by his head and shoulders muffled in a heavy cape, I hesitated to speak.

But, even at that instant, a well-known voice rang through the air: "Frank!"

"Phil!" I called back; and, the next moment, we were gripping each other's hands in a fervent clasp.

I do not know how long we lingered there, bound in that delighted handclasp, or clapping each other on the shoulders with affectionate glee; while, overcome by emotion, we were too greatly stirred for coherent speech.

"Well, old fellow, let's have a look at you!" at last ejaculated Clay, pulling out a flashlight and casting the rays full upon my face. "Say, how you've changed! You're looking like your own grandfather!"

"Years have gone by, you know," I returned, not pleased by this compliment. "Now let's take a glance at you!"

Clay pulled down the mantle that had half hidden his features, and I saw that his red locks were as abundant as ever—in fact, had grown long as those of a bobbed-haired girl. He had also sprouted a full red beard, which greatly added to his impressiveness, while his face had subtly, unmistakably changed, and deeply graven lines along his cheeks and brow bore evidence of recent suffering.

"Say, old pal, I never expected to see you again this side of Saint Peter's gate!" declared Clay, while I was examining his changed features. "I thought the lightnings had got you long ago, in the battle cavern, when we both ran for dear life!"

"I thought they had got you! I never heard a word of you again till yesterday!"

"Nor I of you! By the devil—we're going to have a good time hearing of each other's troubles! I've had my share, Frank! And you look as if you've had yours!"

"Oh, I've been all right," said I. "Let's hear your story first!"

"No, yours first!" he insisted, and seemed so bent on having his way that I yielded. Both of us took seats on a rocky ledge amid the obscurity, and for the next twenty minutes I recited the highlights of my recent adventures.

"Jumping snakes, old fellow, but you've had a time of it!" exclaimed Clay, when I had finished. "Ought to put it in a book when you get back! But, at that, I don't think you've got me beat one whit!"

"No? What happened to you?"

Clay settled back on the ledge, as if seeking a more comfortable berth; and it was a moment before he spoke. Meanwhile it seemed to me that I saw, from behind a bend in the gallery, a sudden flutter of light, and a suspicious shadow moving. But thinking this no more than a sentinel on his rounds, I tried to dismiss it from my mind.

"Well, old pal, let's go back to when we parted," Clay began his narrative, with a reminiscent drawl. "Both of us were pretty much in a hurry, with lightning bolts flashing all around and likely to knock us to the other side of tomorrow. I remember scampering down the main gallery, with the lightning just about missing me on every side; then I dashed off down a side-gallery, where the lightning couldn't hit; but I was so mightily scared that I ran till my legs gave out. Then suddenly I noticed that you were gone, and it came to me that you had either been hit, or else had dashed off down another side-gallery. So I started back and lost my head so completely that I cried out, 'Frank! Frank!' at the top of my voice. Well, I had to pay for that folly! It wasn't a minute before I was surrounded by white-faced savages, whooping like wild Indians; and they lost no time about tying me with wire and carting me away. Later I learned, that they were war-scouts from Zu, spying on their dear old enemies of Wu.

"They bore me to their own country and threw me into a dungeon as a prisoner of war. Once or twice they were on the point of executing me, but my red hair interested them so much that they changed their minds just in time to save my neck. Finally they decided to exhibit me in a circus as a 'Wild man from Poko'—the name they give to the center of the earth, where they thought I hailed from. But one day, owing to my ability to see close at hand, I managed to pick the circus lock and escaped. I turned my hair white by means of some stolen dye and whitened my face also—then played highwayman, waylaying an obliging old gentleman and forcing him to change clothes with me—so that I could now pass as a native. By this time I had learned a good deal of the language and was able to start life as a Third Class citizen, after being sponsored by an agent of the Department of Public Unemployment, who arranged to have me swallow the Oath of Fidelity and take a regular job, in return for signing over my wages for the first hundred wakes."

"So, after all, Zu doesn't seem very different from Wu," I commented.

Clay laughed. "From all I can make out," he observed, "they're as much alike as the two halves of a split orange. Guess that's why they hate each other so heartily."

"Guess so," said I, while, as Clay settled back to resume his story, I thought, for a second time, that I could see that mysterious light and that strange shadowy form flitting across the darkness far down the gallery.

"My new work," continued my friend, "was as an employee of the Synthetic Capsule Producers, who manufacture all the country's food. By heaven!—how I loathed that job! All I had to do all day was to mix vitamins in the bread-capsules, making sure that they got just the right proportion of every vitamin from A to X. I didn't stick at that long, however; being able to see close at hand, I made myself so useful that I was promoted time after time, and after about a year became a Second Class citizen. All the while I was looking for a way to escape to the Overworld, but couldn't find any; also, I made a thousand inquiries about you, but no one had ever heard of any gray-eyed man like you. So I kept on working for the Capsule Producers, who still kept promoting me, until at last I was General Distribution Manager—which means that I had pretty much the freedom of the works, without anything much to do except draw my pay. Then it was that I started the Great Salt Revolt."

"Great Salt Revolt?"

"Yes, haven't you heard of it? About the biggest thing that ever happened in Zu! All began through an accident, too, or rather, through experiment. You see, it had struck me that these chalk-faces didn't put salt enough in their food, and you know how I've always liked salt; so one fine wake, when no one was looking, I emptied a few kegs of good old sodium chloride into a batch of dough being made into capsules for the whole country. The results were excellent, I thought—for the first time since reaching Zu, I could eat dinner with relish. But the natives didn't agree. You ought to have seen the faces they made when they tasted those capsules. Some of them grew deadly sick—suffered acute indigestion, convulsions, and other severe symptoms, for they had been so long with only a bare pinch of salt that their systems couldn't stand the added dose. I tell you, I never saw such wild times. There was riot, insurrection, almost civil war! The people thought they'd been poisoned, and they stormed about the Dictator's palace, crying, 'We want better food, better food, better food!' It was the funniest thing I ever saw."

"But, certainly, they could recognize the taste of salt!" I objected. "And, besides, chemists could analyze the capsules."

"No, they couldn't recognize the taste!" denied Clay. "They've always had salt in such minute quantities that they don't know what it tastes like. And as for the chemists—of course, they made the analysis, but who would believe them? The people had been so well-trained in thoughtlessness that they couldn't recognize the obvious. So they went right on believing they'd been poisoned."

"Even so," I argued, "what was to prevent the authorities from throwing away the salted food and distributing new capsules?"

"Nothing, nothing at all would prevent it!" Through the darkness, from the ledge of rock where Clay sat, I heard a peal of laughter. "Nothing at all to prevent it, Frank! They did just as you say! But they were reckoning without me!"

"Without you?"

"Yes, without me! You see, I had my own little game to play. It had come to me that whoever controlled the food controlled the country—and I was getting tired of a second-rate position. In my job as General Distribution Manager, it was easy enough to get access to the food vats—and I arranged to have a few more kegs of salt poured into the capsule mixture every time as it was made.

"Then how the sparks did fly! The people, hit in their most vital spot, were in a revolutionary mood; already old Oono Yuno was tottering on his throne. When I felt that it was about time to strike, I circulated an anonymous letter, stating that I, and I alone, knew how to remove the poison from the food—and offering to give a demonstration. I won't weary you now, Frank, with the details; it's enough to say that, when the people found that I could keep my promise and give them unadulterated food, they hailed me as their savior, threw over Oono Yuno and his party, whom they blamed for the bad capsules, and installed me in his place as Dictator, pledged to a policy of 'No salt in the bread!' So here I am! A wonderful sort of Dictator, don't you think?"

Once more Clay's laughter rang merrily through the darkness.

"We're a beautiful pair of Dictators, Phil!" said I, joining in his laughter.

But my mirth was cut short abruptly, for did I not again see a mysterious shadow shifting amid the dimness far down the gallery?

Clay, however, could see nothing, though he strained his eyes in the attempt. Dismissing the apparition as a creature of my imagination, he slapped me heartily on the shoulder, and resumed. "Yes, old boy, we've both struck our gait at last! A lovely couple of dictators! But say, don't you know that we shouldn't meet like this for a friendly chat? We're supposed to be enemies!"

"Yes, deadly enemies!" I laughed, giving him a playful jab in the ribs.

"If we were found together, it would be treason!" he went on, lightly. "Dictators of rival countries aren't expected to be friends! It's against all the rules!"

"Well, I'll tell you, Phil," I urged, coming to the matter that was closest to my heart, "we don't have to keep on breaking the rules. What do you say if we both chuck this dictator job and make a dash for home and the open air? I know all about the ventilation flues, and if we tried the climb, by means of ropes—"

Even through the shadows, I could see my friend shaking his head disapprovingly. "Hold on there, just a minute, Frank! What the devil's getting into you!" he interrupted, a little resentfully. "Here I am, beginning to enjoy myself for the first time, and now you tell me to leave! I've only been Dictator a few wakes, you know. I want to hang on a while and find out what it feels like."

"Oh, you'll find out, all right!" I predicted, remembering my own experiences.

"Besides," he pursued, in a little more somber tone, "don't you think that we both ought to try to settle things down here before making our get-away? I mean, about this war. What it's all about, I don't know—so why not end it? Suppose we fix up a little treaty?"

"A very good idea," I agreed.

"We'll have to split up Nullnull between Wu and Zu about fifty-fifty. Then we'll both claim a glorious victory, and the most thoughtless patriots everywhere will be satisfied. First, of course, you and I will have to conduct some diplomatic negotiations, couched in the deadliest and dullest language. Then we'll meet formally as enemies, and sign the treaty. After that, the war will be over, and everyone will go home happy."

"Splendid!" I approved. Yet already a suspicion crossed my mind that not everything would work out as Clay had predicted.

"Well, old fellow, I suppose I'd better get along back to my followers," remarked my friend, as he rose from his ledge and took my hand in a warm grip. "Might be missed if I stayed away too long. Guess you're in the same boat yourself. Good-bye, old pal! See you again soon!"

How soon he was to see me, and under what distressing circumstances, was a matter still beyond my knowing.

Yet, as I started off again through the black recesses, the sight of a shadowy shape and of a faint swaying light startled me once more like a silent warning.


Toppling Thrones

According to our agreement, the Dictator of Zu and I lost no time about negotiating for peace. Our messages, true to the native custom, were phrased in the most pompous and ponderous language, conveying the impression that we disdained words of under six syllables; yet we were not so ruled by formality that we lost sight of our object. Within about thirty "wakes," we had come to the stage of arranging an armistice; and Clay and I, meeting with great bluster and ceremony at the border line of the two countries, but giving no sign of mutual recognition except for an occasional sly wink, duly affixed our signatures to the document which officially ended the war between Wu and Zu.

All this, however, was not quite so easy as it may sound. Both of us were splashing in stormy waters—more stormy, perhaps, than either of us realized. I was unable to keep close track of events in Zu, for the waves were dashing so threateningly over my own head that I had no time for outside affairs. But I was soon to learn how closely Clay's experience paralleled mine.

Never had any of my acts aroused such opposition as the attempt to establish peace. Even the move to tax the First and Second Classes had been less tempestuously received; the Blare and the Screamer openly condemned me as "capitulating to the enemy," and were not silenced even by my threat to suspend their publication; the people rose in mass demonstrations, shouting "Down with Zu! Down with Zu!" I was the recipient of innumerable petitions which warned against "Peace without victory!" and protested that "No honorable settlement is possible until the enemy turnover is double our own."

At the same time, insidious propaganda was being passed by word of mouth through every pit and gallery of the land. "What is to become of the munition makers if we end the war?" it was asked. "They will lose heavily on their investments." ... "Yes, and a million men will be thrown out of work," it was added ... "Have we none of the ancient hardihood of our fathers?" others would cry. "Do we pusillanimously dread to be turned over?" ... "Let us not surrender until Nullnull is wholly ours!" still others would shout. "We must make the world safe for the First Class!" And, mingled with these cries, there were exclamations about "The lofty ideals of the battle caves!" "The triumph of thoughtlessness!" and "The turnover to end turnovers!" until the people were in such a frenzy that nothing I said was able to reach them.

I was fast approaching despair and was even debating whether it would not be better to renew the war than to risk a revolution, when a series of unprecedented events put an end to all my plans.

Early one "wake" shortly after rising from a sleepless bed, I picked up a copy of the Screamer and was greeted by news that, I fear, made my eyes fairly bulge out of my head:


Rah the Righteous Overthrown!

Country in Turmoil!

"A counter-revolution broke out yesterday in Zu, owing to charges of military authorities that Dictator Rah the Righteous was betraying his people into a disgraceful peace. Substantiating their accusations of treason against the people's interests, they produced the testimony of two sworn witnesses who asserted that one wake, shortly after Rah's accession to power, they followed him as he made his way in disguise into a remote gallery at the border line of Nullnull. There he held an illicit conversation with one whom, they say, is high in the circles of the Government of Wu; in fact, they claim to have identified the second man as no less a personage than our own Dictator.

"This tale, which can only be held to be a gross libel so far as Luma the Illustrious is concerned, has been accepted without question by the people of Zu. As a result, they have stormed the royal palace, demanding resumption of the war and threatening the life of Rah the Righteous, who is now known as Rah the Treasonous. Rah himself is believed to have escaped, although there are reports that he was lynched by an infuriated mob. The former Dictator, Oono Yuno, is said to be on his way back to resume power."

It is impossible to describe with what emotion I read this account. That the throne of Zu had cracked; that the Dictatorial power had been split asunder; that the renewal of war was likely—all this appeared as nothing; my one great, my overwhelming concern was with Clay. Where was he now? Had he escaped the maddened multitude? Or was he already a martyr to their bloodthirsty frenzy?

With excited haste, I rushed to my secretary and gave orders that scouts be sent out, and that if any one answering to the description of the former Dictator of Zu was found, he was to be offered a sanctuary in Wu. There seemed, it is true, small chance that he would be found; but, in my terror for my friend's safety, I wished to leave no stone unturned.

Hardly had I issued my orders when one of my palace guards approached with every evidence of excitement. After bowing to the floor in the established manner, he addressed me hastily.

"Your Abysmal Excellency, there is a vagabond outside who asks to see you. I told him it was impossible, that you were tied up in a conference; but he insisted until I had a mind to throw him into the dungeon to cool his impatience. Finally he gave me a bit of paper, and said that if I passed it to you, you would understand. He must be a madman, Your Excellency, for the paper is filled with a meaningless scrawl."

"Let me see it!" I demanded as I fairly snatched at the rumpled notepaper which the guard held out.

I am sure that the man, thoughtless though he was trained to be, was surprised to note the gasp of astonished joy with which I glanced at the paper, and the agitated haste with which I demanded, "Quick! Show the visitor in!"

As the guard saluted and left, I began to pace rapidly back and forth, while reading over and over again those few words in a handwriting I knew so well!

A minute later, a queer-looking figure entered the room. I do not wonder that the guard had called him a vagabond; his robe was ripped and torn in a hundred places, and here and there it was stained with splashes of blood; a dark hood was drawn over his face, concealing the hair and the features; his eyes looked out at me from behind binoculars, such as were worn by near-sighted citizens; his long, cone-shaped hat was battered and dented as if from a scuffle, and the black glove was missing from his right hand.

My visitor waited until the guard had left; then he removed his binoculars and threw off his hood to reveal a figure familiar and yet strange. For a moment I gaped in astonishment at that closely cropped head and that face from which every vestige of a beard had been shaved—at those eyes, deeply sunken as if from a sleepless vigil—at the long, drawn features, with the worn and ravaged lines. "Phil!" I exclaimed. "I hardly recognized you!"

"No wonder!" he returned, wearily, as he sank down upon a chair, "I've been through hell itself!"

"But you're here at last! That's the main thing!" I rejoiced. "Heavens, you don't know how worried I was!"

"You don't know how worried I was, old pal!" he replied as he wiped his perspiring brow and shook his shorn head dolefully. "I ought to have taken your advice, Frank. This Dictator business doesn't agree with me!"

"How did you escape?" I inquired. "The paper says—"

"Says that Rah the Righteous is about done?" he interrupted. "Well, there isn't so very much left of him. There wouldn't have been even mince meat if that mob had gotten me. It was a mighty close call."

He paused, mopped his brow once more, and continued.

"By God! When I heard the rabble streaming through the streets, crying for my blood, you can believe me, old man, I was scared. I had to think fast! I took just about the quickest shave of my life, cutting off my red hair and whiskers. Then I pasted them on a dummy, which I placed near the palace entrance. While the mob was storming the gates, trying to get at that old scarecrow, I slipped on these binoculars and hood, dressed in servant's clothes, went out by the back entrance, mixed with the mob, and even joined in yelling, 'Down with Rah the Righteous!' and finally escaped through a side-gallery and took a 'scootscoot' here. I've been all night at it! At the border of Wu I had a tussle with some sentries and laid three of them flat before I made my get-away. That explains my nice society appearance, old pal."

With a rueful grimace, he looked down at his torn, blood-spattered clothes.

"Well, don't mind that, Phil, old boy!" I said, coming to him and slapping him heartily on the shoulder. "I'll look out for you now. We've stuck together most of our lives, and I guess we can stick it out just a little longer."

Yet, even as I uttered these words, I realized how embarrassing it would be for me to be found sheltering the runaway Dictator of Zu.


Toward the Light

It was only three "wakes" later when catastrophe struck.

During the interval, I had been sheltering Clay the best I could, trying to keep him disguised and hidden, laying out a future course of action. Many were our hurried little talks in which we decided that the only safety for either of us lay in the Overworld; however, since premature flight would be worse than none at all, we were making our plans coolly and deliberately. Already I had withdrawn the military guard from the tubes; I had secreted a quantity of hooks, ropes, and other climbing tackle at the base of one of the flues, which, I knew, led upward to the Overworld; I had taken steps to secure quantities of concentrated food, medical supplies, and other necessities, to be strapped in knapsacks about our backs.

But before these projects were complete, the tempest broke. Each day I had seen it brewing more threateningly, and all my efforts against it were fruitless. The report of the overthrow of the dictator of Zu and the statement that he and I had been suspected of collusion had taken dangerous fire in the public mind; demagogues, too numerous to suppress, had risen to warn the people that I was "conspiring against their interests"; and these charges, added to complaints about my conclusion of an "inglorious peace," could not but have an effect upon a public so far advanced in thoughtlessness as the people of Wu.

Worst of all my visitor from Zu, on the third "wake" after his arrival, had unwittingly betrayed me. It would be impossible, I knew, for him to stay hidden forever; but I had hardly expected him to reveal himself just when he did—not that I blame him. The whole affair was an unfortunate accident; for when he came out of the rooms where I had told him to remain, he had expected to find me alone. But alas! I was just being interviewed by a reporter for the Screamer! Too late I saw Clay, on whose face a stubbly red beard was again beginning to sprout. Too late I motioned him to retreat. The knowing gleam in the eyes of the reporter showed that he had seen all!

To threaten the journalist, to offer him a bribe, would only have been to make him more suspicious, and hence more dangerous; my only hope was that he would misinterpret what he had seen. But in this hope I was to be cheated. Only a few hours later, the Screamer appeared with a special edition, describing the "mysterious stranger" seen in the home of Luma the Illustrious—a stranger whose "foreign origin" was evident from his queer appearance. It was stated that his eyes were of an outlandish blue, and that his stubbly hair was faintly red—a color attributed to only one man in all history. Could it be that the outcast Dictator of Zu had found shelter beneath Luma's roof? Was Luma plotting with Rah the Righteous against his own people?

I have always held that the citizens of Wu cared little about Rah the Righteous; but so perilously inflamed were they that it required no more than a spark to set off the conflagration.

The storm burst over me with cataclysmic suddenness, I had been having one of my many little discussions with Clay, talking over old times and planning for the future, when I heard a tremendous thumping at the door. I opened it to admit one of the guards who entered in such excitement that he forgot the customary formality of bowing till his palm scraped the floor. His face, normally white, had grown red with agitation; his hands fluttered; his salmon eyes gaped wide with bewilderment and alarm. "Excellency!" he gasped. "Your Abysmal Excellency! Quick! The mob! The mob! Come! Look! See! Quick!"

"What's that?" I demanded, startled. "What about the mob?"

"Come! Look! See!" he repeated, starting away down the long greenish-yellow gallery.

Exchanging frightened glances, Clay and I followed in silence until we had reached the further end of the palace, where the guard lifted a little slit of stone in one of the walls—a fragment barely an inch across, just enough to permit us a peep through the thick partition, while keeping us safe from observation.

Instantly a confusion of savage cries came to our ears—cries fierce, shrill, blood-curdling as the war-shouts of embattled Apaches. "Down with Luma! Down with Luma! Down with Luma! Lynch him! Stab him! Massacre him!" I heard, mingled with yells of, "Back with Thuno Flâtum! Back with Thuno Flâtum! Long live Thuno Flâtum!" And, peering through the little slit in the wall, I witnessed a sight that made my heart give a ferocious leap and my hair prickle as if ready to stand on end.

Back and forth, through the gallery outside, an excited throng was parading. Hundreds deep, they moved with a swarming fury; their eyes showed fierce and bloodshot in the greenish-yellow light; their arms swung through the air with vehement gesticulations. Some brandished sticks and poles frenziedly; some held ropes coiled into nooses; some waved faggots ready for lighting, while all, as if possessed by demons, howled over and over again that bloodthirsty refrain, "Down with Luma! Down with Luma! Down with Luma! Kill the traitor! Murder him! Turn him over!"

At the same time, there came a tremendous battering sound from one corner of the wall—a sound as of a sledgehammer striking.

"They're pounding down the gates!" whispered the guard as he hastily shoved the slit of stone into place again. "Can't hold them back much longer!"

"Can't hold them back!" I moaned agreement, knowing that no wild beast was more to be feared than that mad rabble. And then, frantically turning to Clay, who stood watching with eyes half popping out of his head in horror, I screamed, "Come! There's no time to lose!"

At sprinting speed, we ran back through the gallery, then down a side-passage beneath the palace, where we paused long enough to secure provisions and disguise ourselves—Clay by assuming again the garb in which he had escaped from Zu, and I by smearing my face with white powder, exchanging my royal clothes for a plain black robe, and covering my eyes with dark glasses.

Already, from the palace above us, we could hear the screaming of the mob.

"They've broken in!" I muttered. "In a minute they'll be down here!"

"Let's be off!" he nodded; and while the howling of the multitude grew louder, we started off down a dark and winding tunnel sloping deep underground.

Neither of us spoke as we hastened along, scarcely daring to turn on a flashlight to guide us. But well enough we knew our destination—the base of the ventilating flue, where we had concealed the climbing tackle by which we hoped to reach the Overworld.

In a straight line, this point was not far; but, in order to avoid detection, we had to circle miles out of our way, through obscure and little-used corridors. Hence hours passed before we had approached the safety point. And then, for a few minutes, we had to face a greater peril. Separating us from the ventilation flue was a stretch of a more frequented avenue, from which neither of us might easily escape.

Yet, there being no choice, we faced the danger resolutely, and, trusting to our disguise, stepped boldly out of hiding.

Emerging into the wider thoroughfare, we found the people crowding back and forth excitedly; but, fortunately, none seemed to take notice of us. The "scootscoots" rushed hither and thither as crazily as ever, several of them missing us by inches; while a newsgirl raced here and there squeaking furiously, "Latest Screamer! Buy the latest Screamer! Super-super-super-extra-extra-extra! Great revolution! Luma the Illustrious abdicates! Thuno Flâtum restored to power! Super-super-super-extra-extra-extra!"

"Super-extra-extra! Buy the latest Blare!" I heard from another side. "War with Zu breaks out again! Thuno Flâtum sends troops to the depths! Huge turnover! Subterrain attacks renewed! Buy the latest Blare! Super-extra-extra!"

As if to emphasize the truth of these words, we caught a glimpse of marching helmeted forms, hundreds upon hundreds, tramping with a prancing military motion along a side-gallery, while over them the green and vermilion banners demonstratively waved.

At the same time, a turn in the gallery enabled us to glance into the mile-deep vastness of a prodigious chasm, such as we had seen on arriving in the Underworld. Far beneath us, in the eerie depths, we observed multitudes of tiny forms, drawn up in military columns and regiments; while from the walls of the abyss, great shafts of lightning, white and violet and orange and green, began to dart to the accompaniment of portentous thunders.

But all these sounds and sights were swept from our consciousness by demonstrations of a still more alarming nature. Straight toward us, from down the gallery, a swarm of Third Class citizens came flocking, thousands deep, wielding spears and ropes and clubs, while they hoarsely shouted.

"Down with Luma the Illustrious! Down with Luma! Grab the traitor! Tear him to bits! Gouge out his heart! Turn him over! Down with him! Down with him! Down with him!"

"Quick!" I whispered to Clay, and we slid across the avenue and into a smaller gallery which, a few yards farther on, gave access to the ventilating flue.

"Down with Luma! Down with Luma! Lynch the coward! Tear him to bits! Down with him! Down with him! Turn him over!" I heard the mob repeating, with rising fury, as the ventilating lid slammed to a close above our heads—and the multitude, not observing us, went shouting on its way down the avenue.

The next moment Clay and I had seized the ropes and hooks and had begun the climb back to the Overworld.

There is no need to dwell upon our adventures when, tied together with ropes like mountain climbers, we accomplished the ascent through the air-tubes. Several hours later, thanks to my expert knowledge of the ventilation system, we had wearily reached the outlet, and, for the first time in years, stood beneath the open sky, blinking in the bright sunlight and exposing our skin to the luxury of the breeze....

It was days later when we reached civilization. For scores of miles we made our way, scarcely knowing where, across the sagebrush barrens of the Nevada desert; and had we not found water by melting the snow from the sunless shelves of the peaks, while nourishing our bodies by concentrated food capsules from Wu, we would not have survived to tell the story. Even as it was, we had reached the last stages of exhaustion when, tattered and torn, with our food exhausted and our faces covered with a ragged growth of beard, we stumbled into a mining camp near the California border. The startled miners had the surprise of their lives when two strangers, still dressed fantastically in the pointed hats and black skirts of Wu, suddenly made their appearance; and it is not surprising that we were mistaken for madmen and that our story was greeted with derisive laughter.

But now that we have been restored to our homes and friends and are once more full of life and activity, I do not hesitate to make the facts public, so that the world may know of the unsuspected civilization inhabiting the chasms beneath the Nevada desert. It is the purpose of Clay and myself to lead an expedition back to Wu and Zu, so that we may fathom their miraculous scientific secrets, many of which we have been unable to penetrate; and it is our hope that we may set forth at an early date, for we do not know how soon, in their renewed strife over Nullnull, the people of the Underworld may blow themselves out of existence, leaving no more than their blackened labyrinths and crumbling galleries to prove that they ever have lived.