Astounding Stories, March, 1931 – various authors

The first tremor that set the timbers of the house to creaking brought Garry Connell out of his bunk and into the middle of the floor. Then the floor heaved and ‘dobe walls swayed while the man fought to keep his footing and pull himself through the doorway to the safety of the dark night. The earthquake that came with the spring of 1932 was on. It is magic against magic as Garry Connell bluffs for his life with a prehistoric savage in the heart of Sentinel Mountain. He was nauseated with that deathly sickness that only an earthquake gives, and he dropped breathlessly in the shelter of a date palm while the earth beneath him rolled and groaned in agony. A deeper roar was rising above all other sounds, and Connell looked up at the nearby top of Sentinel Mountain. The stars of the desert land showed clear; the grim blackness of Sentinel’s lone peak rose abruptly from the sand of the desert floor in darker silhouette against the velvet of a midnight sky. And the mountain was roaring. Softened by the distance, the deep, grumbling bass sang thunderingly through and above the other noises of the night, as if old Sentinel itself were voicing its remonstrance against this disturbance of its age-long rest. The grumbling died to a clatter of falling boulders a hundred yards away at the mountain’s base, and Connell’s eyes discerned a puff of vaporous gray, a cloud of wind-blown dust, high up on the mountain’s flank. “Holy cats!” said Garry explosively, “what a slide! That must have ripped the old boy wide open.” His eyes followed the white scar far up on the mountainside, followed it down to the last loosened stones that had crashed among the date palms of Miramar ranch. “I don’t just like the idea of the whole mountain moving in on me,” he told himself; “I’ll have to go up and look at that to-morrow.” t was afternoon of the following day when Garry rolled blankets and food into a snug pack and prepared for the ascent. “Guess likely I’ll sleep out to-night,” he mused and looked at the pistol he held in his hand.

“I don’t want that thing slapping against me,” he argued; “too darned hot! And there’s nothing to use a gun on up on Sentinel…. Oh, well!” He threw the holster upon his bunk and dropped the automatic into the pack he was rolling. “I’ll take it along. Might meet up with a rattler.” He brushed the sandy hair from his wet forehead and straightened to his full six feet of slender height before he slipped the straps of his pack about his shoulders. And a broad grin made pleasant lines about his gray eyes as he realized the boyish curiosity that was driving him to a stiff climb in the heat of the day. There was no real trail up the thousand-foot slope of Sentinel Mountain. Prospectors had been over it, doubtless, in earlier days, but in all of Garry’s twenty-one years no one besides himself had ever made the ascent. There was nothing in all that solitary, desolate peak to call them; nothing, for that matter, to beckon Garry, except the hot desert days, the cool breath of evening and the glory of nights when the stars hung low over all the miles of sand and sagebrush that reached far out to the rippling sand-dunes shimmering in the distance. Nothing, that is, but the “feel” of the desert—and young Garry Connell was desert-born and bred.

He stopped once and dropped his pack while he mopped his wet face. From this point he could see his own ranch spread below him. Miramar, he had named it—”Beautiful Sea.” The name was half an affectionate mockery of this land where the nearest water was fifty miles away, and half because of the sea of blue that he looked at now. Garry had never ceased to wonder at the mirage. It was always the same in the summer heat—a phantom ocean of water. Garry’s eyes loved to follow the quivering blue expanse that seemed so cool and deep. It rippled softly away to end in a line of white, like distant breakers on the horizon’s rolling dunes. This had been the bed of an ocean in some distant past, and that ancient ocean could never have seemed more real than this; yet Garry knew that this sea would vanish with the setting sun. He had watched it often.

hundred yards farther and he stopped again. It was no well-trodden path that Garry followed, but he knew his landmarks. There was the big split rock a half mile ahead, and the three-branched cactus beside it. But between these and the place where Garry stood was a fan-shaped sweep of boulders— and this where smooth going had been before. He forgot for the moment all discomfort. He stood staring under the hot sun that cast purple shadows beside the weathered rocks, and his eyes followed up the scarred mountainside. “That whole ledge that stood out up there—that’s gone!” he told himself. “The whole side of the mountain just shook itself loose….” Far above, his eyes found another towering mass that reared itself menacingly. “That will come down next time,” he said with conviction, “and I don’t want to be under it when it breaks loose.

” Then his searching eyes found the lower ledge and its shattered remains. It had held a welter of rocks above it as a dam holds the pressure of water—and the dam had burst. The torrent of stone from above had swept into motion and carried with it the accumulation of loose rubble below. Where the ledge had been was now a cliff—a sheer wall of rock. It had been covered before by the talus that was swept away. Garry’s eyes narrowed to see more plainly under the sun’s glare. He was staring not alone at the cliff but at a shadow within it—a black shadow in the white face of the cliff itself. “That was all covered up before,” Garry stated; “buried for thousands of years, I suppose. But it can’t be a cave; not a natural one, at least. There are no caves in this rock.

” He stopped at times for breath, and his wonder grew as he climbed and the black mark took clearer form. At last he stood panting before it, to stare deep into the utter blackness of a passageway beyond an entrance of carved stone. It was carved; there was no mistaking it! Here was a passage that nature had never formed. He took a quick stride forward to see the tool marks that showed on hard walls where symbols and figures of strange design were carved. An intrusion of harder rock had formed a roof, and they had cut in below — “They!” He spoke the word aloud. Who were “they?” e remembered the scientist who had stopped at the ranch some time before, and he recalled enough of the talk of Aztec and Toltec and Mayas to know that none of these old civilizations could explain the things he saw. “This goes way back beyond them—it must,” he reasoned. And there were pictures, long forgotten, that came to his mind to show him a vision from the past—figures whose coppery faces shone dark above their brilliant, colored robes—slaves, toiling and sweating to drive this tunnel into solid rock. He was suddenly a-quiver with a feeling of the presence of living things. His breath seemed stifled within him as he stepped into the dark where a pencil of light from his pocket-flash made the blackness more intense.

He tried to shake off the feeling, but an indefinable oppression was heavy upon him; the weight of the uncounted centuries these walls had seen filled him with strange forebodings. His feet stumbled and scuffed over chips of stone; he steadied himself against the wall at times as he followed the corridor that went down and still down before him. It turned and twisted, then leveled off at last, and Garry Connell drew himself up sharply with a quick-drawn breath. His flash was making a circle of light a dozen steps ahead, and showed a litter of sharp stone fragments. And, scattered over them, a tangle of bones shone white; one skull stood upright to stare mockingly from hollow sockets. The sudden white of them was startling in the black pit. “Bones!” he said, and forced himself to disregard the echoes that tried to shout him down; “just bones! And the old-timers that wore them haven’t been using them for thousands of years.” He moved forward with determined steps to the end of the passage that finished in solid stone. He stopped abruptly. At closer range was something that froze him to a tense, waiting crouch.

This wall of solid stone—it was not solid as it had seemed. There was a doorway; the stone was swung inward; and at one side in a straight-marked crack, he saw a thread of light. He snapped off his own flash. Someone was there! Someone had beaten him to it! He held himself crouched and rigid at the thought. But who could it be? The utter silence and the steady, unchanging, pale-green light showed him the folly of the thought. There was no one there; there couldn’t be anyone. is hand, that trembled with excitement, reached across and over the skeleton remains posted like a ghostly guard before the door. He threw his weight upon the stone. Its bearings groaned, but it moved at his touch. The stone swung slowly and ponderously into a silent room, and Garry Connell stared wide-eyed and wondering where rock walls, in carved and colored brilliance reflected the softest of diffused light.

A great room, hewn from the solid rock!—and Garry tried to see it and all that it held at one glance. He grasped the extent of the stone vault, a hundred feet across; the distant walls were plain in the soft light. One high point of flashing color caught his eye and held it in marveling amazement. A thing of beauty and grace. It was a shining, silvery shape like a mushroom growth; it towered high in air, almost to the ceiling, a slender rod that swelled and opened to a curved and gleaming head. Graceful as a fairy parasol, huge enough to shelter a giant, it was like nothing he had ever seen. But there was no time now for conjectures. He made no effort to understand; he wanted only to see what might be here; and his eyes flashed quickly over sculptured walls and a stone floor where metal boxes were arranged in orderly rows. Hundreds of them, he estimated; huge cases, some eight or ten feet long. Two nearby were raised above the floor on bases of carved stone.

Lusterless gray in color—metal, unmistakably—and in them…. “No use getting all hopped up over treasure hunting,” Garry had told himself. But under all his incredulous amazement had been flickering thoughts of what he might find. He stared hungrily at those two boxes near him. Each of the hundreds was big enough to hold a fortune. He reached for a metal bar beside the scattered bones, and, like a man in a sleep-walking dream, he stepped across those relics of earlier men and entered the room that they had guarded. The light stopped him for a moment. He puzzled over it; stared wonderingly at a circle of glowing radiance in the roof of stone. It reminded him of something … the watch on his wrist … yes, that was the answer—some radio-active substance. His eyes came back to the nearest chest, and he jammed the point of his corroded bar beneath the flange of a tight-fitting lid.

he hidden room was cool, but Garry Connell wiped the sweat from his eyes when he ceased his frantic efforts. The metal bar clanged loudly upon the floor beside him. He stood, breathing heavily, his eyes on the metal cover that refused to move. And in the silence there came to him again that strange, prickling apprehension. He caught himself looking quickly behind him as if to find another person there. His eyes were accustomed now to the pale light, and the sculptured figures on the walls stood out with startling distinctness. Garry turned to look at the nearer wall and the figure that was repeated over and over again. It was a man, tall and lean, his robes, undimmed by the years, blazed in crimson and gold. But the face above! Garry shivered in spite of himself at the devilish ugliness the artist had copied. It was dead black in color, with slitted eyes that had been touched up artfully to bring out their venomous stare.

The head itself rose up to a rounded point that added to the inhuman brutality of the face. He was seated on a throne, Garry saw, and other figures, less skilfully carved, were kneeling before him. Again, he was standing above a prostrate enemy, a triple-pointed spear raised to deliver the final blow. Silently, Garry let his eyes follow around the room with its repetition of the horrible being who was evidently a king. Then he whistled softly. “Nice kind of hombre, he must have been,” he said. And, “Boy,” he told the carved image familiarly, “whoever you were, you’ve been dead a long time, and I don’t mind telling you I’m glad of it.” He was slowly circling the first casket. Beyond it was the slender rod with its mushroom head that seemed more like a bell as he looked from below. The head’s inner surface was emblazoned, like the figures on the wall, with crimson and gold in strange designs.

He saw now that the base of it was connected with a smaller box, placed like the two beside it on a stone pedestal. He came slowly beside it to study the box with narrowed eyes. He expected the metal cover would be as immovable as the others, and he started back and caught his breath sharply as the metal raised at his touch and the green radiance from above flashed back from within the box in a thousand scintillant lights. Then he stooped to see the brilliant, silvery sheen of metal wheels that moved on jeweled bearings. mechanism of some sort—but what? he wondered. He had some knowledge of the stream of electrons that discharged continuously from the light above, and he knew how they could charge an electroscope that would automatically discharge to produce motion. He nodded in half-understanding as the fluttering gold-leaf fell and allowed a tiny wheel to move one notch in its escapement. “Clockworks!” he told himself—it was as near as he could come to a name for the machine—”and it’s been running here all this time…. What for, I wonder? What was it supposed to do?” He stared again at the bell-shape towering above him, but its purpose was beyond guessing: it was a part of the machine. His eyes came back to the mechanism itself.

There was a splinter of stone…. Garry reached for it unthinkingly, but his hand was checked in mid-air. The fragment was wedged beneath a tiny lever, holding it erect. “That’s the answer,” Garry whispered. “The machine was left open,”—he felt of the cover that had been dented by some heavy blow, and saw sharp splinters of rock beneath his feet—”a rock fell from the roof, flaked off and dropped onto the machine, and a splinter jammed this little lever. But the machine has been ticking along….” His fingers reached for the stone. “Let’s go!” he said, and grinned broadly at the thoughts that were in his mind. “Let’s see what the machine would have done!” The fragment came away within his hand, and he saw the lever fall slowly. There was motion within the case—wheels and shining spheres that touched one upon another were spinning in gleaming circles of silvery green—and from above he heard the first faint whisper of a sound.

It came from the bell, and Garry drew back to stare upward. The first soft humming of the clear bellnote was incredibly sweet. It rose in pitch while the volume increased, till the musical note was lost in the rising roar that resounded from walls and roof. Higher it rose; it was a scream that was human in its agony, prodigious in its volume!

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