From Supernatural Stories 41 - 1961
THE GREEN SARCOPHAGUS
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“They prised up the jeweled lid and gazed in terror on the long-dead face . . .”
It was a cold, grey, foggy, thick, winter morning. Alf, Harry and Fred were leaning disconsolately on the handles of their respective pick, shovel and crowbar — except that a crowbar doesn’t have a handle and is less comfortable to lean on.
“I reckon there ought to be a law against Mondays,” said Harry gloomily. “I don’t like Mondays!”
“I don’t like any ruddy days,” said Fred dolefully.
“I don’t like work!” said Alf.
“At least you’re honest,” said Harry with a grin. “Never mind, mate, ‘ave a fag.” He produced a battered old tin that had originally been designed to hold cough sweets, the corners were dented and the original painting and lettering had been worn so thin by years of contact with a grimy thumb that they were scarcely decipherable. But something about somebody-or-other’s super lozenges could be vaguely discerned by someone who had been as familiar with the tin as its owner.
They lit up and sent little puffs of yellowish brown smoke up into the yellow-brown fog.
“You know, sometimes,” said Alf, “I get to thinking about life . . .”
“You think?” exploded Harry. “Cor, stone the crows!”
“Yer, I do, honest,” rejoined Alf. “You know, sort of get to wondering what it’s all about.”
“Well, what is it all about?” demanded Fred.
“Don’t keep taking the mickey!” retorted Alf. “I mean it seriously.”
“So do I,” said Fred. “I wasn’t taking the mickey. We get here on a Monday morning, and we’re all as brassed off as can be. Nobody wants to be here. I don’t ruddy well want to be here, and I know darned well that you don’t either. There’s tharsands of other blokes like us, and there’s tharsands of other blokes in shops and offices and factories and they don’t want to be there either.”
“Well, why do we do it?”
“We gotta have money, we gotta eat.”
“Yer, I know, I know,” said Alf thoughtfully. “But I was thinking about years ago, the cavemen and all that jazz. They didn’t used to have to do this!”
“No, they had it a ruddy sight ‘arder than we ‘ave,” rejoined Fred. “No telly, no washing machines — nothing! Just a flippin’ ‘ole in a rock and a fire what p’raps took you a week to light. And ruddy great — what do they call them things with the big teeth?”
“Sabre-tooth tigers,” vouchsafed Harry. “I saw one in the British Museum not long ago. Sort o’ reconstruction o’ one it was, they’d mounted up. Savage-lookin’ swine he was. Teeth like flippin’ pick-axes. Well, go on, Alf, what were you saying about cave men, anyway?”
“Well, I was saying they didn’t have to do all this — they could please themselves. They didn’t have to go by the clock. We’ve sort of got involved too much in society.”
“Well, you can’t help getting involved in it, if you live in it,” replied Fred.
“I think I know what he means,” said Harry, “I often feel the same way, only I don’t often put it into words, What it really boils down to is this, we’ve built ourselves a society like birds build a nest — only they’ve got more sense, ‘cos they build a nest to suit their purposes — we’ve built a society that doesn’t really suit ours. The trouble is we’ve built it without really knowing what we were doing. We’re like blind men the whole world — heaping bricks together and hoping that something useful will come out of it. Only we can’t see the whole thing, ‘cos we’ve got our nose too close to the bricks. Maybe we ain’t quite blind, maybe we can see just the one little brick in front of us. We know enough to lift it up and put it on top of the next one, and plaster it in place, and that’s all there is. We don’t know about the tharsands of other blokes who are putting their bricks up. At the finish we’ve built something, and Gawd alone knows what we’ve built. And Gawd alone knows whether it was worth building. We’ve got it, and we’re stuck with it because the cement has hardened, and it’s too late to take the bricks down again. You can’t go back, not even as far as yesterday. What’s done is done, some geezer said: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on . . .’ Well, they weren’t his exact words, but it was something like that, It’s like writing your initials in wet concrete, once it’s set you can’t wash ‘em out.”
“No, but you can break concrete and start again,” said Alf.
“Not the concrete of society, you can’t break,” said Fred. “You break yourself against it, but you can’t break it.”
They stood, three puzzled, disconsolate figures in the early morning winter fog, leaning on their tools; thinking about things that were so vast that the greatest minds in the universe had given up thinking about them, and said that the questions were insoluble.
A short, round, bowler-hatted figure came bustling through the fog, picking its way over excavation notices, ropes and heaps of tools; threading its way between compressors and power tools; threading its way pompously and imperiously through the external, physical evidence of the work which it supervised.
“Now come along, chaps, let’s get a start!”
“Oh, holy smoke!” murmured Fred. “Here it comes! Wouldn’t you think they’d have a lay in on a Monday? Mornin’, foreman.” He omitted the “good” and his mind meant “bad”.
“Mornin’ all,” returned the foreman. “Now then, come on, let’s get movin’. Get the blood stream going, get circulatin’. Do you think this is the way to get the job finished?”
Nobody answered; slowly — as slowly as possible — they began moving towards the trench. The trench was wet and the trench was cold, and the trench had the stink and stench of wet clay. And they thought of other men lying comfortable in their beds until the respectable hour of nine or ten, while they faced the cold grimness of early morning.
“Look lively, look lively!” urged the foreman. “This is London, you know! We can’t waste all day on this!”
The fitters and engine operators were turning up. The reverberating roar of compressors shattered the early morning air. Compressors and power drills and power tools and mechanical grabs. But their trench was in a very awkward position and it had to be hand-dug. It had to be hand-dug because below it there were pipes and mains and sewers and other fragile structures. The nerves, the sub-surface nerves of a great sleeping city. Its comunications, its eliminations, and a thousand-and-one other things. The great city slept. Only its hardiest and sturdiest sons were moving themselves at this unearthly hour. The great city slept while men with mattocks and picks and drills and shovels cut and gouged into her streets, and down past her pipes; down though her sewers; down past her electric wiring and her subways, for the work had to go deep, very deep. It was a new experimental project and it required a shaft over a hundred feet down at one point. Down and down, and ever lower, shoring up as they went, digging and cutting; cutting and digging; breaking it up and lifting it out; up and down; down into the mould and then up above the head, and sweat began to mingle with the cold grey fog. Still they dug and still they worked, and every now and again they would stop and rest aching muscles and tired bone upon a shovel handle or a pick handle, or against a board. They would rest as long as they dared, until the pompous little foreman in the bowler hat reappeared and barked encouraging phrases like “Get on with it!” or “Come on, we haven’t got all day!” or “This is London, you know, not the South Sea Islands.”
“This is London,” repeated Fred. “Not the South Sea Islands! Look at that blasted fog, you’d never think it was half-past-nine in the morning! Look at it, it’s still like flaming midnight. I wonder what that stuff does to a man? Eats into his chest and his eyes and his nose and his ears. Rots his throat, rots his lungs, rots him all through. See over there?” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the Embankment. “Old Cleopatra’s needle, we can’t see it, but we know where she lies . . .”
“Yes?” said Alf. “What of it?”
“They brought that over here about 70 or 80 years ago, didn’t they?”
“So I read somewhere,” agreed Harry.
“When they brought that over here, it was bright pink — bright pink! And now it’s as black as yer ‘at, just about.” He paused, then went on, “The London fog and the London air has done more to that stone in a few years than the clean hot air of Egypt did in two thousand years! I read that in a book. I know that’s right. Thousands of years in the desert did less ‘arm to that bit of stone than sixty or seventy years in London! I did read somewhere that they tried to clean it up for the Queen’s Coronation, back in ‘53.”
“Well, why didn’t they?” asked Harry. “It outer ha’ bin cleaned up for the Coronation.”
“They tried to,” said Fred, “only it wouldn’t clean! The muck and the grit and the acid out o’ the air ‘ad bit into it so deep, it was just no good. They could ha’ sanded it down, I suppose, but that wouldn’t have left none of the old hieroglyphics on it at all. They’d all corroded away, solid stone, all corroded away. If it’ll do that to a bit of solid stone, Gawd almighty what’ll it do to a man? That’s why I always drink beer. . . .”
“What the ‘ell ‘as that got to do with corrosion?”
“Everything! I ‘eard some old temperance bloke sayin’ once that you ought to drink water, so I jumped up at the back of the meetin’ —”
“What the ‘ell were you doin’ in a temperance meetin’?”
“Oh, I’d gone there to make a bit o’ trouble!”
“Uh, just like you! Well, what ‘appened, then?”
“I was tellin yer — I ‘opped up at the back o’ this meetin’ and’ I says to ‘im, ‘Just a minnit, mate — you tell me to drink water?’ ‘That’s right, sir,’ he says to me in one o’ these ‘ere posh voices, ‘Water is the best possible drink for your health.’ ‘Jest a minnit,’ I said, ‘water will mess your boots up, you know, and if you’d paddled about in water as long as I ‘ave it’ll perish leather! If it’ll perish leather, what’ll it do to a man’s liver?’ Then ‘e said, ‘Never mind that, just think what happens to the healthy animals that drink water, look at a horse and a dog and a cow, think how healthy they are!’ So I says, ‘Sir, I beg to disagree with you.’ Everybody turned round in the ‘all and began murmuring, you know. He says, ‘How do you disagree?’ So I said, ‘Well, it’s like this, you just said horses, dogs and cows don’t drink beer, and are ‘ealthier than men wot do.’ ‘Yes, that was my supposition,’ he says. ‘Well, a dog is worn up by the time he’s fourteen, and the old horse is done time he’s thirty — I reckon a cow’s about the same, p’raps a bit younger. But you take a man, well I can point out blokes in this city over a hundred years of age, and they’ve drunk a glass of bitter every day of their lives — now tell me it’s bad for you!’ He couldn’t answer that.”
“I bet he couldn’t,” said Alf. “That reminds me of a yarn I once heard about a temperance bloke who went round to see some old bloke of a hundred. ‘I understand,’ he says, ‘that you are one hundred years of age and that you have never smoked a cigarette, that you have never had a glass of beer, that you have never been out with women — is that right?’ Well, the poor old fella lay there, a bit sickly-looking, pale, you know, propped up on cushions, hands shaking, head a-noddin’, and he Said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ ‘Oh, splendid, splendid, what a wonderful example to us all,’ said the temperance man, and he asked the old boy to sign a statement which he’d got ready, to the effect that the old boy was as old as he said he was, and that he attributed his great age to never having drunk, smoked or gone out with a gal. So the old boy signs with a feeble, shaking old hand, and suddenly there’s an ‘ell of a racket from upstairs. The temperance bloke looks up and says, ‘Good gracious, what’s that?’ And they could hear singin’ and dancin’ and girls giggling, obviously a party goin’ on, a real ‘ell of a party! The old man in the bed suddenly bursts into tears and the temperance worker says, ‘Whatever’s the matter, my dear sir?’ And the old boys says, ‘Oh, I’m so ashamed, that’s my dear old father — he’s drunk again!’”
The general laughter was interrupted by the arrival of the foreman.
“Now then, now then, this isn’t the Palace of Varieties, mate. Come on, get digging!”
“I’d like to dig something for ‘im!” gritted Alf.
“I know exactly what you mean, I’d come and help you, mate! I’d get up at six o’clock on a Sunday morning to dig that fur ‘im!”
“You’re a couple of nice friendly fellas,” said their mate. “Oh, well, let’s get on with it!” He paused and signaled for silence, his pick had just struck something exceptionally hard. “‘Ere, call old bowler-’at-and-misery back ‘ere and ask ‘im if ‘e knows what this flaming thing is, will you?”
“Did you call me?” A bowler hat appeared over the slit.
“Yep! There’s something ‘ere. Have you got the plan, please?”
“I’ll come down and have a look,” said bowler hat, He scrambled down the ladder boards to where the three workmen were scraping soil, mud and clay from something hard and something big. Something which projected into their part of the diggings.
“I don’t know what it is. It’s not a pipe, there’s nothing marked on the map here. It might be one of those old 17th century sewers that never got recorded, but I shouldn’t think so. Then again, it might not. There’s no telling what the ‘ell it is.”
“Look, I’ve got underneath it now,” said Fred.
“Does it run right across?”
“No, it just sticks out into the digging.” They worked at it for five minutes, and then they had cleared it. It was an object with rounded corners, sticking out about eighteen inches from the side of the trench. In all it would have been perhaps four or five feet around it. It was not a perfect pipe, not a perfect cylinder by any means, yet neither was it square and angular. The end was rather like a plumber’s pipe joint, when a joint is folded over and sealed. It was difficult to see very clearly in that dull grey, shadowy fog light, yet they guessed that it was a dull greenish colour. . . .
“Wonder what the ‘ell it is,” said the foreman in bewilderment. “Anybody got a bit o’ rag?”
Fred handed over a grimy relic that had once been a pair of underpants. The foreman rubbed hard against the green, clay-covered object; the clay came off quite easily. The green colouring showed through much more clearly.
“It’s definitely green, isn’t it?” said Alf.
The foreman nodded. “Any of you chaps got a knife?”
Harry passed one across. The foreman made an experimental scratch — or attempted to make an experimental scratch — no result.
“Well, I’m damned,” he said, “I can’t scratch it. It’s not stone. It’s some kind of metal, and what ruddy metal, too!” He tried again. “Can’t dent it. Here, give me that pick.” He took a swing at it with a pick. There was a dull, hollow, clanging sound.
“Careful,” said Fred, “it might be a bomb!”
“That’s no bomb,” said the foreman. “Anyway, where did it come in — if it did come in? We’ve had all the blitz plans from the Defence Office, there’s no bomb here . . . not a thing that wasn’t accounted for.”
“What is it then?” persisted Fred.
“I don’t know,” said the foreman. “This is queer. Damnably queer. If it had been steel I’d have made a scratch on it with a pick.”
“If it was thick steel —”
“I’d have made a mark — stands to reason! That pick is good hard steel — cutting steel. Well, if you bash two lumps of steel together they’ll mark each other, you know jolly well if you keep bashing a hammer on a nail, even though the hammer is a lot harder than the nail you’re going to get some kind of mark on your hammer . . . only a little mark, but you get a mark, I wasn’t expecting to bust it wide open, I only wanted to make a mark on it, to show that it could be marked. We got nothing.”
The four of them stood looking at it in bewilderment.
“Well, I can’t get round the ruddy thing, that’s going to be a blasted nuisance if I try and dig round that all day!”
“Yes, I see that,” said the foreman. “You can get on at the other end of the trench, can’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose so. I don’t like that thing sticking out there, it sort of gives me the creeps.”
The foreman looked up towards the daylight above. “She’s some way down, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is — she’s a ‘ell of a way down. Do you think it’s anything natural?”
“Natural?” asked the foreman, “When it’s hollow? Come off it!” He paused, “I tell you what you chaps had better do, you know what the Ministry of Works is like if we find any important object of archaeological interest — I reckon we’d better get the ruddy thing dug out, then we can hoist it up.”
“Fair enough,” said Alf. It made a break from the monotony. Made a change from the dull routine of digging holes in the road and filling them up again. Here was a new objective. Something to dig out. Nothing that looked very brilliant or beautiful, just strange. A semi-cylindrical green thing.
“I don’t like it,” said Harry, “it gives me the creeps. Let’s hurry up and dig it out, and then we can get it out of the place. All right?”
“Suit yourself,” said Fred.
They began slowly, carefully clearing away the earth around the green cylinder. They were strong men despite their grumbles and they were not afraid of work, but it took them the best part of the day to get that cylinder clear. The sun, what little there was of it that day, had set behind a watery sheath of clouds; the night-wrack rolling up ragged and sinister behind the fog; the diffused light of a desultory street lamp their only illumination.
The cylinder was about eight feet long; it tapered a little towards the ends. It was covered, so they guessed, with some kind of decoration. Lines, dashes, curves, star-like markings. Spirals, dots and indentations that were too rhythmic to have been made by any accidental erosion; any pitting due to chemical activity in the soil. Besides what could affect a thing that was able to withstand a blow from a steel pick? The foreman and one of the mobile crane drivers came over.
“It’ll be a helluva job to get my crane over here!” came Charlie’s voice from the top of the trench. “Do you want a sling or a couple of hooks?”
“Have to be a sling, Charlie,” shouted Fred.
They got the bands of the sling under the strange green object. Charlie looked at the weight gauge.
“That’s queer,” he said.
“What’s the matter?” asked the foreman.
“Well, look here, she’s almost up to danger load.”
“Almost up to danger load! What, that thing? You’ve got a five-ton crane there, mate! Can’t weigh more than a ton at the most!”
The men in the trench, of course, had not made any attempt to lift the object. They had merely cleared the earth away from around it, leaving it propped by one end, and the other resting on the floor of the trench. There was room to get the sling straps beneath it and to refasten them at the top.
“Well, you come and look, unless the gauge has gone for a Burton. May be sticking on something.”
“Have you blokes got that thing clear?”
“As far as we can see, yes,” answered Fred.
“I’ll pass you a tilly lamp down there.” The lamp, gleaming in the fog, came down over the edge of the trench. By its rays they could see that the strange tapering object was clear.
“All you’ve got to do is swing it and lift it,” said Fred, “she’s not jamming on anything.”
“O.K. Must be the gauge gone,” decided the foreman. Despite his short temper and his other faults he was a good man at heart and he put the safety of his men far higher than they ever knew.
“Wait a minute, Charlie,” he said, “I’m going to get those boys out of that trench, just in case it isn’t the gauge. This is something strange, completely unknown, it may be made of some sort of metal that we’ve never heard of. If you’re up to maximum load and your ruddy cable snapped —” He drew his finger across his throat in a sinister, significant gesture.
“I want you three blokes up here before we start lifting. Right?”
“Right,” echoed Alf, and deep within himself the more human spark of him warmed towards the foreman. Symbol of hated authority he might often be, but Alf knew that deep down he was a human being just as they were, and that whatever his other faults, and however he might seem to grumble when the job seemed to be taking too much time, he would take no chances with their safety. He was never a man to skimp safety details. Slave-driver yes — but wise enough to take care of his “slaves”.
They scrambled up the ladder board and stood watching as Charlie struggled and heaved at the controls of his powerful mobile crane, to swing the green object into an elevatable position. They could see how tight the steel cables and chains were being pulled.
“Do you think that sling is going to hold?” asked Alf.
Charlie shook his head. “I doubt it, mate.” He turned to the foreman. “It’s a damn good job you got the boys out, I don’t like this one little bit.”
Inch by inch — for Charlie was a very skillful crane operator — the unbelievably heavy object came surface-wards.
“Watchit,” warned Fred, “she’s rubbing on the side, Charlie.”
“Yea, I know.” Charlie was watching as the weight gauge bobbed up and down between five and seven tons. “This is fantastic,” he murmured, “It looks as though that thing was being pulled down by some invisible force. It doesn’t want to come up!”
He turned to the foreman. “Do you think we could get a second crane on?”
“We could try. I should have to drive him round the block from the other side . . .”
“I think I can hold it,” said Charlie, “but I think she’s going to’ snap — she may even snap the gib-iron.”
“All right, I’ll see if I can get one of the other boys on the other side.”
“See if you can get old Gordon — he’s about the best bloke we’ve got. He’d stand a better chance of getting this up than I would,” said Charlie ungrudgingly. “He’s been doing it a lot longer. He can use a crane arm like a skilled angler can pull a ten-pound trout in on a three-pound line!”
“Gordon’s a good man,” agreed the foreman. “I’ll get him.”
Old Gordon was just knocking off. He put down his cup of tea and wiped its remains from an enormous, shaggy, walrus moustache,
“Charlie can’t ‘andle it?” he said. “Well, ‘ow big is it?”
“Never mind the questions, come and have a look, Gordon, there’s a good fella,” said the foreman.
“Right-o,” agreed Gordon.
The foreman climbed aboard his crane cab with him and the two of them moved off around the block through the gloom, and came up to the trench on the other side.
“What do you make of that, Gordon?”
“It’s a queer thing,” said Gordon. “It’s a very queer thing. What’s your weight gauge say, Charlie?”
“About five-and-a-half when I’m standing still,” said Charlie.
“Five-and-a-half?” echoed Gordon. “Stone the crows! It’s a bit much, isn’t it? It don’t look more than a ton!”
“That’s what I thought,” said the foreman, “that gauge all right, do you think?”
“Bin all right all day,” said Charlie.
“Gauges don’t often go,” put in Gordon. “I’ve never known it happen all the time I’ve been driving a crane. If they go they just bust back to either full reading or zero. They don’t give a false reading.”
“O.K. What do you think we’re going to do about it?”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing — you don’t want to send a man down there to get another sling on. I’ll use a double bracer on that. I’ll pass you a couple of ropes over your side of the trench, then we’ll lower the loop. Then two blokes on this side can slide underneath, still keeping on the surface, you see, slide along under Charlie’s jib arm, get their ropes up and under, then — it’s only a two-foot trench — they can sling a board across, walk back to me, fasten those ropes high up on my sling arm, and we’ll have a double brace. I certainly wouldn’t send anybody down there with a weight like that, not without lowering it to the bottom first, and that would be a waste of what you’ve done.”
“Right,” agreed the foreman,
It was no easy job, fixing the double brace in the darkness, but they managed it. The foreman sent one of the young labourers for two more tilly lamps, and working by the powerful glare, the two cranes began heaving; nursing it along; two highly-skilled men doing a job with masterly precision. Inch by inch it came up. Over the roar of his winch and motors Gordon shouted across to Charlie:
“What’s your reading?”
“‘Bout three-and-a-half, what’s yours?”
“Same,” said Gordon. They continued to pull,
“Mine’s dropping to three as we get higher,” shouted Charlie over the roar.
Gordon nodded through his cab, his face wobbled whitely in the glare of the tilly. Only about six or seven feet separated the strange green object from the surface now,
The foreman and the three labourers watched with bated breath as the two steel fishermen wrestled with their monstrous catch. Five . . . four . . . three . . . the foreman felt that he could have leaned over the top of the trench and touched it. Two . . . one . . . and it was up! It was up over the top of the trench, gleaming in the lamplight, throwing back dark green, sinister reflections.
A ring of strained white faces looked at it.
“Wonder what the blazes that is?” said the foreman for the hundredth time. By skillful manoeuvre and manipulation the two crane drivers lowered it to the road surface, well clear of the edge of the trench. Gordon and Charlie clambered down, switched off engines, and went to inspect their “catch”.
The foreman picked up a tilly lamp and held it close to the surface,
“I can’t make this out — look at all these marks and writing?”
“We noticed them,” said Fred. “Funny, isn’t it? You think it’s writing, do you? I thought it was just decoration.”
“Do you know what this blasted thing reminds me of?” said the foreman, snapping his fingers as an idea struck him,
Alf looked at him questioningly, the whites of his eyes shone brightly as he looked up, reflected by the paraffin glare.
“I remember one wet afternoon I had nothing better to do I went round the British Museum. This thing looks just a little bit like one of those things they put the Egyptian mummies in!”
“Oh, I know what that is,” said Charlie. “Er — it begins with ‘s’ — sar — something.”
“Sarcophagus,” said the foreman.
“That’s the word! The sort of outer casing of the coffin, that’s what it is. Do you think we’ve found something here that could be a burial cask?”
“Cor, he must have been a big bloke,” put in Charlie. “Look at it!”
“Yea, I know,” agreed the foreman. “I don’t like the look of it very much either, sort of sinister, creepy-looking thing. I tell you what we’ll do. Two of you stay here with it —”
“I’m glad you didn’t say one of us stay here with it,” put in old Gordon, “because I’d have said not me, guvnor, thank you.”
“Two of you stay here. You two had better stay because they’re your cranes, you and Charlie stay. You other blokes can nip off home if you want to, if not you can hang on. I’m going down the road to ‘phone up somebody at the Ministry of Works, and if I can’t get anybody there I’ll get one of the museum blokes to come and have a look. We don’t want to go and damage it, or let anybody get to it, if it’s valuable. It might be some completely unknown branch of history that we’ve uncovered here. Just think of it. We know it was the Egyptians who used to do these sort of things — well it might be that there was some completely unknown Egyptian settlement in London, or something like that — even before the Romans came,”
“Cor, that’s a long time ago,” said Fred, whose idea of dates was vague. There were three date lines in his mind-the coming of the railways, the coming of the Romans, and the cave men who had been before them. He had them in the right order, but the spaces between were a little hazy. “It was a long time ago,” he repeated thoughtfully. “‘Bout the same time as Stonehenge, maybe?”
“Maybe,” agreed the foreman, whose dates were a little more concise than Fred’s, but not so’s you’d notice it. He went down to the ‘phone box, and by a chance in several thousand which was one of those odd little fortuitous occurrences, he dialed the wrong number. Instead of a blasé
official from some Ministry department, dealing with oceans of red tape, he hit just one wrong hole on the dial, and got instead the one man in London who was not only interested, but knew what he was talking about.
Val Stearman picked up the receiver.
“Ministry of Works?” enquired the foreman. Val gave a non-committal grunt. Wrong number calls bothered him, for he was a busy man, but this one sounded vaguely promising.
“Go ahead,” he said. La Noire looked up from her magazine.
“Who’s that?” she asked quietly.
“Sssshh,” said Val as he put his hand over the receiver. “Some bloke thinks we’re the Ministry of Works.”
“Oh lor,” said La Noire, “what a bore.”
“They’re the chaps who deal with the archaeology side of things,” informed Val. “This fellow sounds to me as though he might be foreman on a — by George, I’m right!”
The foreman was rapidly explaining what they had found, and where.
“We’ll send a man over,” said Val, non-committally. “Thank you very much.” And he hung up,
“Listen, darling,” he said to his wife, “there’s a gang of labourers busy digging up a comer not far from the Embankment — they’ve just churned up a strange green cylinder. They say it’s about eight feet long, covered with unknown hieroglyphics, and it was about thirty-five feet down!”
“Good heavens! That’s a depth!”
“You’re telling me — because that part of the city lies low, that’s prehistoric depths, and what’s more, they couldn’t dent it with a pick-axe.”
“I don’t like the sound of this,” said La Noire. “It sounds sinister! Evil!”
“Come on, let’s get the car, we’re going places,” said Val. The big, powerful Stearman sports car began probing its way through the winter fog. La Noire was carrying the photographic equipment. Val jumped out and began examining the object when they arrived.
“You from the Ministry of Works — you the gentleman I rang up?” enquired the foreman with just a trace of suspicion in his voice. For Val looked far too young and vigorous and virile to have festered his life away in an office at any Ministry.
“I’m the gentleman you ‘phoned —”
“That’s all right,” said the foreman. Val was a past master at the non-committal answer, and this looked like being too big a scoop to pass up. “I’d like to have a word with the men who found it.” Alf and Harry had gone home, but Fred the lugubrious remained.
“We were digging in this trench,” said Fred, “when we uncovered the end of this object.” He pointed to the deep slit that they had been cutting into the skin of the London street, “and we got the crane drivers over — they’ll be able to tell you the rest.”
“Very strange,” said old Gordon. “My mate here, young Charlie, came over first and got to work on it, and he didn’t like the reading on his weight gauge on his crane, so he sent for a second crane, and they came for me.”
“That’s right,” put in the foreman. “We drove round the block to get to it, because we couldn’t get to it from this side. We had to take it from the other side if we were going to do any good. We got a double bracer on —”
“Double bracer?” queried Val.
“Oh, that’s a technical term for the kind of sling he used,” said the foreman. “Anyway, they got it to the surface and laid it here, we just had a look at it, and it seemed to be covered in some kind of ancient markings.”
“Got any ideas about what it might be?” said Val. “Were you warned on your maps and plans about any ruins in the vicinity?”
“Well not exactly —” the foreman decided to stick his neck out — “I think it’s a sarcophagus,” he blurted.
Val was surprised to hear archaeological technicalities from a man from whom he had expected to hear constructional technicalities.
“You do, eh? Are you interested in archaeology?”
“Well — a little bit,” said the foreman, swelling with almost visible pride. “Just a little bit, you know. I think it’s a sarcophagus,” he repeated, rattling the word off the end of his tongue as though he enjoyed the taste of it.
“May I have that tilly lamp over here’?” said Val.
“Certainly, certainly.” The foreman brought it over himself.
“Um — what do you think of it, darling?” he asked La Noire who was examining it closely. She touched it with dainty, sensitive fingers, then she shuddered.
“I don’t like it,” she whispered, “there’s something sinister here. Something evil, that thing is not physically vibrating, but vibrating in a spiritual radionic way. It’s pulsating evil. . . . If there was ever such a thing as evil radioactivity, that’s what that thing has got. I can’t describe it any more accurately than that . . . it’s unbelievably horrible. It’s so powerful it’s sending out an aura-not visible, but perceptible all the same. . . .”
“What do you make of these marks?” asked Val.
“Definitely writing of some kind. They look like the old mnemonic script from Easter Island, or runes — they’re fantastically old — fantastically old,” she repeated. “Yet how well they are preserved, as though they had been cut this morning.”
Val took a powerful, steel-bladed knife out of his pocket. One blade was made of case-hardened steel of phenomenal strength. He attempted to cut a scratch in the surface of the sarcophagus — no scratch resulted. He whistled softly under his breath, and said to the foreman:
“Do you know what that blade is made of?”
“Case hardened steel, I’d say, sir, by the look of it,” he replied.
“And that wouldn’t scratch it!”
“I knew it wouldn’t, sir — I tried with a pick-axe, I took a swing at the thing.”
“You did what?” said Val.
“Took a swing at it,” said the foreman. “Couldn’t even dent it! And the weight — one ton I could understand, but five or six!”
“Well, we can’t leave it here all night,” said Val. “I’ll make arrangements for it to be taken into one of the museum laboratories. Will you just stay here with it till I’ve made the necessary arrangements?”
“Of course,” agreed the foreman.
La Noire was taking flash photographs of the man who had discovered the weird green sarcophagus. Val returned.
“I’ve made arrangements with Professor Clitheroe to take it into his museum,” he said. “They’ll be sending a truck along pretty shortly. The Ministry of Works or the Museum will pay the expenses of your firm, if you’ll make arrangements with your clerical staff, will you?”
“Yes — that’ll be all right.”
“We could lock it up in the museum garage for the evening and get to work on it in the morning. We have our own lifting equipment once we get the staff in, but it’s a little difficult at night, as you realise.”
“Yes, yes, quite so — after all it’s been there two or three hundred years —”
“More like two or three thousand,” said Val.
“Two or three thousand,” gasped the foreman. Stearman was nodding. “I’ll tell you this, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And I’ve seen plenty of these things — if it is a sarcophagus. It certainly looks as if it might be. There’s probably a whole series, one inside the other. This is only the outer casing.”
“I’m glad of that,” said the foreman. “I should hate to meet a bloke that big.”
“Oddly enough — so would I,” said Val Stearman, “because if this is just a single coffin, rather than an outer protective one — whoever he is must have been about eight feet tall, and twice as broad as any of us . . . that is, if it’s a human shape.”
“You don’t think this is anything unhuman, do you, not anything from space like that Quatermass experiment?”
“No, this isn’t a thing from space, I don’t think — that kind of thing happens in books. This is reality, you’ve just dug it up! It’s literally a very down-to-earth thing. Yet there are features about it that — look, you’re a technical expert,” he broke off suddenly.
“Yes,” said the foreman.
“What’s the hardest metal you know of?”
“Well, stalite, I suppose? That doesn’t wear, it just burns when it gets hot, we use it for drill tips. Armour-piercing shells they used to use it on —”
“Yes, I know about that,” said Val. “Well, then, stalite is the hardest metal we know — what would be the effect of striking stalite with steel? Case hardened steel, would you mark it?”
“Oh yes, you’d make a mark, It would be difficult but you would make a mark.”
“Precisely what I thought,” returned Val. “I’ve tried case hardened steel, you’ve tried a steel pick, and neither of us made a mark, a scratch, a dent, or any indication at all that we’d attempted to do so! Agreed?”
“Yes,” nodded the foreman.
“Now,” went on Val, “this thing wasn’t put here yesterday or the day before, and yet it was put here by someone or something, or some society, some group of somethings who knew enough technology to be capable of creating a metal which is far harder than the hardest metal that we’ve got. Wait a minute, I’m going to make another ‘phone call.”
He rang a friend at another laboratory, for Val Stearman had the right contacts in the right places. Twenty minutes later another car pulled up, and a bearded scientist moved uncertainly towards them through the darkness, wiping fog from his glasses, carrying a small but highly sensitive geiger counter. The foreman recognised it at once.
“Good lord, sir, you don’t mean to say you think this thing is radioactive, do you? Here’s me and my men been messing about with it all the time.”
“I’ve been here as well,” said Val. “If you’re radioactive, so am I. I don’t think it’s a question of any dangerous radioactivity. I’m just wondering whether there is — Oh, hallo, Bill.”
The bearded, steam-glassed scientist was kneeling over the object.
“What the devil have you got here, Val?”
“I think it’s a sarcophagus — so does our friend here,” rejoined Val, indicating the foreman. “I think it’s a sarcophagus of incredible age. It was found at a depth of thirty-five feet, lying in the clay.”
“And you think it may be radioactive?”
Val explained about its resistant properties.
“Well I’m damned,” said the scientist. He unsheathed the highly sensitive geiger counter and began running it across the surface of the cylinder. He paused, a thoughtful frown on his face, and turned up the volume of the geiger counter to its maximum level.
“You’re right,” he said softly, “it is!”
“Dangerously so?” enquired the anxious foreman, thinking again of his men.
“Oh no,” said the scientist. “There’s about a fifth of the radioactivity here that there is in a luminous wrist watch! Or television screen. Very little indeed, it would be quite indetectable on an ordinary piece of equipment. This is a laboratory geiger counter. It’s highly sensitive. It has a two-scale reading. To mark either roentgens or deci-roentgens. This thing has been radioactive at some time in its past — quite highly so I would suggest. I imagine when it was created it was very radioactive indeed, but not now . . . certainly not now.”
“I see,” said Val, “it was very nice of you to come, Bill.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me? I’m hanging on to this! I want to see the outcome.”
“I’m taking it round to Professor Clitheroe’s place,” said Stearman, “lock it in his garage for the night.”
“Good idea,” said Bill, “won’t take any harm there.”
The Professor’s museum truck arrived, and by careful manipulation the crane drivers got the sarcophagus on board. Val signed the foreman a receipt, and he and Bill and La Noire watched the green sarcophagus go jolting away into the darkness, in the direction of the museum outbuilding.
“Better meet you round there in the morning,” said Bill. “Not going to do anything on that tonight, are you?”
“Not much I can do,” said Val. “If it had been one of the easily-openable variety I might have got old Clitheroe on the job, and we’d have had it opened.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I think we’re going to need power cutting tools of the very highest order to get any change out of that.”
“I’m inclined to agree with you. May even need some kind of cyclotron — by the way, Val, I’m working on a secret project, which is to do with atomically hardening structures — that’s why this thing struck me rigid when I saw it. After you’ve spent months working on something, it’s a bit of a shaker to find that some goon did it five or six thousand years ago!”
“You’d put it as old as that, would you?” said Val.
“Oh, I would,” said Bill. “The radioactive life would tend to indicate a life somewhere in that region, But of course we can work the thing out in greater detail and accuracy tomorrow.”
“I think we ought to buy these chaps a drink before we go, don’t you?” said Val.
The foreman licked his lips appreciatively.
“You say two of your chaps went home?” asked Val. He fished in his pocket. “Well give them half-a-dollar each from me, in the morning, and the rest of you, let’s go and see if we can sink a pint of best black brew over here.”
They made their way towards the hospitable doors of the nearest hostelry, and there, over full tankards, they discussed the strange mystery of the weird green sarcophagus.
* * *
It was morning, a bright clear morning, and a wintry sun, thin but bright, was percolating with moderate success through the windows of Professor Augustus Clitheroe’s laboratory. The Professor was not alone, Val Stearman and La Noire were with him. The three were in complete physical contrast; La Noire with her ageless Cleopatra-like beauty, her dark almost blue-black hair rippling round the exquisite face which it framed, her figure the envy of a Venus. Val Stearman, tall, bronzed, early middle-aged, with a thick crop of curly brown hair, just beginning to grey a fraction at the temples, a strong face, a face that had been around. He was muscled like a heavyweight prizefighter, with a brain that most university graduates would envy. Augustus Clitheroe had a domed forehead like a flesh-coloured colander; his beady bright eyes hid behind gigantic horn-rimmed spectacles; his microscopic body seemed over-powered by the size of his head. He was the school-boy’s dream of a “mad professor”. He was almost too good to be true, and yet, if he looked the part physically, he acted it all the more so in real life. He was the most typical professor that Val Stearman had ever met — the most typical professor that anyone had ever met, for that matter — hawk-like, quixotic, completely immovable when on the track of something in his own particular line of study. He was a cross between an eagle and a bloodhound, and he combined with that the tenacity of a bulldog, and the body of a tadpole. But whatever nature had done to him, by way of playing a horrible joke on his torso, his mind more than compensated for it, for Augustus Clitheroe had far more letters after his name than in it, and a great many more which he never troubled to use. Brilliant wasn’t the word. He was superb. Though primarily noted for his work in the archaeological field, there was nothing to which he could not turn his hand and his mind with almost limitless success. His greatest failure in life, as he admitted frankly and rather ruefully, was his inability to grow hair on the gigantic dome that served him as a skull. He was as innocent of hirsute growth as a newly-polished billiard ball.
The three of them were examining the green sarcophagus which had been brought into the laboratory with great difficulty by many assistants, ropes, slings and hoists. Augustus Clitheroe had ordered it to be properly cleaned, and was poring over the inscription.
“You think it is language, then, prof.?” asked Stearman.
“Oh, indubitably, indubitably,” said Clitheroe. “There can be not the slightest possible doubt of that!” His voice was thin, reedy and professor-ish. “Not the slightest possible doubt whatever. This is more than a mere pattern. It has certain unmistakable and undeniable language characteristics. I would say, too, that just like the Easter Island script, this is mnemonic.”
“You can tell that so soon?” asked Stearman.
“So soon?” said Clitheroe with a look of mock incredulity, “I’ve been looking at it for seven minutes! It is a mnemonic script, without any possible doubt. The incidence of the characters is far too numerous for it to be any form of sound representation as we understand it.”
“Unless,” said Stearman, in a rather faraway tone, “they are the sound representations of a society which had a range of modulations in excess of the human voice.”
“You’re talking like an intelligent man for once,” said Clitheroe. “I had already thought of that possibility. But even allowing for an infinite number of sound modulations in the audible range, there are still too many characters.”
“I think you’re being a bit dogmatic,” said Val. “Look, prof., if you allow a wider voice range, and allow a higher degree of intelligence to go with it, you increase the permutations almost limitlessly.”
“No matter how intelligent you are, no matter how wide a vocabulary you have, you still use the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, I believe, Mr. Stearman?”
“Sorry,” said Val, “you’re right, of course.”
“The degree of intelligence would in no way affect the number of sounds producible — do you agree?”
“Yes,” said Stearman, abashed. “I agree, professor, I’ll leave the thinking to you!”
“Thank you,” answered Clitheroe, “it is my province, you know. It is the one thing that I am able to do efficiently.”
“But what a thing,” murmured Stearman,
La Noire was smiling. To those who didn’t know Augustus Clitheroe intimately, he was a little monster, a midget Tasmanian devil. But to those who did know him, his bark was all on the surface. A heart of gold beat within that diminutive body beneath the gigantic head.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is to open the thing,” the professor remarked suddenly. “Yes, we must open it, the sooner the better. It’s been closed far too long.”
“What do you think it is,” said Val.
“Judging by the weight? Hmmm, I’d say it was some kind of atomically condensed material.”
“Atomically condensed?” asked Val. “I’m not quite with you, prof.”
“Oh dear me! Have I got to stop and explain elementary physics to you? Now listen, my boy, if you take an atom it is composed of electrons, neutrons, positrons and a nucleus — do you agree? In other words you have the moving particles and the central particles, and a great deal of empty space between. But if you can condense the particles into a solid lump, dispense with that space, you’d be able to get enough coal into a thimble to sail the Queen Mary twenty times round the world. If you could condense the stuff that thimble full of coal would weigh several million tons. See what I mean? Get rid of the gaps. Crush the atoms down to size.” Stearman was nodding.
“I understand,” said La Noire. “You think that the metal —”
“If it is metal — I have yet to be convinced of that!” snapped Clitheroe. “Never take anything for granted, young woman, never! Especially men,” he added with a laugh. “Now then, if this thing is what we believe it to be — an atomically condensed material, then the atoms of its original structure have been made to follow reduced orbits. Obviously it hasn’t been shrunk to its optimum size, because if it had — and going by the weight of it — you could put five tons of matter on the end of your fingernail as far as space went. It’s only been slightly atomically condensed but that would be enough to account for the hardness. I wonder what we can do with it? I think we’ll try some stalite drills.” He picked up a telephone.
Augustus Clitheroe was one of those men who could get things done, get them done fast, and get them done exactly when and how he wanted them. He rang several Government departments, becoming more and more choleric and apoplectic each time. Finally he got the particular Minister he wanted, and got the all clear.
“Now we’ve got some money to spend,” he said at last. “Dozy lot! Take some waking up! Time gets wasted, wasted!”
Val Stearman raised an eyebrow. Augustus Clitheroe had accomplished more in fifteen minutes of telephoning than some people can accomplish in three months of patient letter writing and petitioning.
He picked the phone up again and began ordering stalite drills and equipment from a large commercial supplier. “And I want immediate delivery! Is that clear? You take that order round to your assembly shop, and get that stuff round here within ten minutes! Otherwise the order’s off, and so is a lot more, and so is the rest of my contract!”
A quiet, rather desperate salesman on the other end of the wire was saying “Yes, Professor Clitheroe. Certainly, Professor Clitheroe. I’ll do my very best, professor.”
“I want results, not excuses! Ten minutes from now! That equipment has got to be in my office by 10.7 on the dot!”
The salesman hung up.
“I’ll stir these people up,” said Clitheroe with a jovial smile. “Life is too slow if you let it go its own pace, my boy. Accelerate it. Inject it with fuel, give it verve, sparkle! That’s what we want, verve, sparkle and kick!”
“You’re so right,” agreed Val Stearman with a laconic grin at La Noire.
Ten minutes later precisely, the door opened.
“Good, just in time! I was about to cancel the contract! Put the stuff over here, I’m getting impatient.” He lit a cigar — a fat, expensive cigar, and supervised the unloading.
“Good, good,” he said as each item was unpacked. “Now assemble it.”
“I deliver it —”
“Assemble it!” barked Clitheroe, making a threatening movement towards the telephone.
“We shouldn’t really, sir. Oh, all right!”
“I should think so too!”
When the cutting equipment was assembled and ready beside the strange green sarcophagus, which the workmen had been eyeing with increasing curiosity, Clitheroe produced a pound note each for them, and waved them to the door.
“Thank you, sir!”
“I ask for service, and I’m prepared to pay when I get it!”
The workmen disappeared thankfully, still showing signs of their bewilderment.
“Now then, young fella,” said the professor to Stearman, “just get yourself on the other side of that drill, will you, and we’ll see what we can do with this sarcophagus. There’s one thing — we haven’t got to worry about clamping it down, weighing what it does! Good job these benches are all heavily reinforced otherwise it would be through the floor! For that matter it’s a good job the floor is heavily reinforced as well, eh, eh?”
“Yes, it is,” agreed Val.
Clitheroe himself was so mercurial a personality, so volatile a conversationalist, that failure to give immediate answers to his remarks was interpreted by him as inability to comprehend. And before his listener could so much as open his mouth to frame a question, Clitheroe was barking the remark again, as though hammering it home to a backward child. It was a habit which even his oldest and closest friends — people like Stearman and La Noire and Bill, the atomic scientist — found just a little annoying at times. Augustus Clitheroe was not by any means an “easy” man to get on with.
There was a powerful, whirring roar, as the drilling equipment snapped into life.
“Come and give a hand,” barked Clitheroe over the roar. Stearman came and stood beside him, and lent his colossal weight. The drill dashed itself furiously up against the side of the sarcophagus. Clitheroe and Stearman watched as the stalite-tipped drill that would have gone through almost anything, burnt itself out without so much as making a scratch on the green sarcophagus.
“Well, damn and blast my buttons,” said Clitheroe, puffing furiously at his cigar. “This is a nice howd’yedo. Let’s try another bit.”
“Please yourself,” said Val, “but I think it’s a waste of time, prof.”
“So do I frankly, but I rather enjoy this drilling business.”
Clitheroe skillfully took out the burnt drill stump and placed a fresh bit in situ.
“I don’t think we’re going to have any success,” said Val pessimistically.
The new bit appeared to cut at the side of the sarcophagus, but nothing but the stink of oxidising stalite was produced.
“Oh take the dam’ bit out!” said Clitheroe and flung himself down on the stool. He pushed his glasses up to his forehead and wiped sweat from his eyes.
“Blasted nuisance,” he said bitterly. “Now then — what’s the next thing? I think I’ll try some heat treatment on it. Pretty useful little bit of stuff over here in the corner of the lab. I used it to open something else up. Don’t want to damage the contents . . . don’t think it will . . . I can localise it quite a lot. I call it the Clitheroe improved oxy-acetylene supercharger — watch this. There’s a few more thousand degrees than I like to think of, in an area the size of a pinhead. Put these goggles on and come and have a look. You too, young woman!”
“But I’m not standing anywhere near it!”
“Don’t argue — do as you’re told. Do as you’re told or go and make us a cup of tea!”
“I’d sooner watch.”
“O.K. Then put the goggles on! I’m not such an old fool that I can’t recognise a pair of pretty eyes when I see ‘em. I shouldn’t like to see you get yours burnt. There’s going to be a lot of dazzle. Just put those on, La Noire, there’s a good girl.”
“Right-o, professor,” she said with a gentle smile, “Anything you say!”
It was impossible not to be captivated by the mercurial Clitheroe. Val and La Noire donned the thick, welders’ glasses and watched the gnome-like professor bring up another piece of equipment. He coupled up his oxygen and acetylene cylinders, and did strange things to the nozzle and jet, and a kind of pump arrangement that supplied a third gas from yet another cylinder labeled “Clitheroe X fuel”. “My own invention,” he said proudly. “Frightened the War Ministry will get to hear about it though — they’ll snap the dam’ thing up! I want to keep it here for my own private work! Blasted nuisance some of these people. Seem to think they own a man’s body and soul because they pay his salary — or part of it. I know my secret’s safe with you — even if you are a so-and-so journalist.”
“When I’m with you, I’m off duty,” said Val. “I hold the privilege of your friendship in too high esteem to risk it for a bit of cheap sensationalism.”
“Otherwise you wouldn’t be in my lab at all,” returned Clitheroe. “Can’t abide ordinary journalists. You’re an exception, Stearman!”
He turned to his equipment again. “Now let’s see what this will do — got any cupra-nickel in your pocket? Shilling, half-crown?”
Val produced a new two-shilling piece.
“That’s got a pretty high melting point,” said the professor. “It’s not a soft metal, by any means, as you’ll agree. Put it down there on that asbestos pad!”
Obligingly, Stearman did so.
“Now, this is about one-tenth of what my flame can do,” said Clitheroe with pride. He lit his torch, turned on the cylinders and pressed the valve. The cupra-nickel coin dissolved in a blob of molten, oxidised metal.
“Good God! And that’s about a tenth of what you can do? It’ll rip this thing in half! Ought to.”
“Let’s try it on one corner first, so if there’s any documents inside we don’t burn ‘em all to blazes.”
“Documents?” echoed Val.
“Well, why not? If a society is technologically advanced enough to create a thing like this, it could certainly create documents. Unless they’ve reached a stage of development where writing has become obsolete, but I wouldn’t think so, judging from the sarcophagus itself. Unless those mnemonic characters have a purely ritualistic significance. Just as anachronistic survivals hang on in some of our terrestrial religions.” He got to work on the corner of the green sarcophagus. Nothing happened. Nothing happened at all. He burnt the nozzle off his cutter, and exhausted his supplies of oxygen, acetylene and Clitheroe X fuel.
“Damn and blast me!” exploded the professor, “This doesn’t seem to be our day, does it?” He picked up the telephone again. “Is that Industrial Diamonds? Put me through to the supply manager. Yes, I’ve got a Ministry order form. Yes . . . Yes . . . O.K. How quickly can you get them in? No, this is not the British Museum, this is Professor Clitheroe. C-l-i-t-h- Oh, you know who! Now, get me some action! I’ll have the P.M. breathing down your neck, if you delay me.”
“He is a firebrand, isn’t he?” whispered La Noire.
“Firebrand is hardly the word for it,” returned Val. “He’s done more in a morning than most men achieve in half a lifetime.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” said Clitheroe over his shoulder. “I’ve only got one ear glued to this ‘phone. Don’t flannel.”
“I’m not flannelling,” protested Stearman. “(a) because I don’t believe in it, and (b) because it wouldn’t have any effect on you.”
“Two sound reasons! There’ll be some industrial diamonds coming over in a few minutes — quite a stack as a matter of fact. If you fancy any new jewellery, Mrs. Stearman, now’s the time to grab and help yourself!”
“They’re not polished, are they?” said La Noire.
“No — they’re cut, but not polished. Don’t look very good, but they’re worth quite a bit. We’ll see what we can do when they get here.”
“Do you think diamonds will cut that thing?”
“Could do, could do. Not very hopeful, though.” He looked ruefully at the burnt-out stalite bits, and his heat cutter. “Things don’t look too bright at all, do they?”
Val shook his head.
“Drawn a double blank so far, and what I want is the double six,” said Clitheroe. “Still time, though — Ah, that’ll be my diamonds.”
A special messenger handed over a sealed package. Clitheroe signed for it and dismissed the messenger with an airy wave. He began loading diamond-tipped drills into the cutting equipment.
“Here we go. Look out, whoever you are in there!” He knocked playfully on the lid of the green sarcophagus. There was a sudden deathly silence in the room.
“By God, did you hear that?” gasped Stearman. Clitheroe nodded.
Something had knocked back!
They stood in stunned silence for about five minutes. It was the gnome-like professor who recovered himself first “Diamond drills will do it,” he said. “It must have been a strange trick of the echo, we don’t know how that thing is built inside. It may be a series of echo chambers.”
“Echo chambers don’t knock back,” said Stearman.
“They could if they were built in the right order and design,” said Clitheroe. “I could design an echo chamber that would give the exact effect of someone knocking back. Sort of conjuring trick, the thing I’d do for a hobby.”
“Be an elaborate conjuring trick,” retorted Stearman grimly. He felt suddenly afraid, as he had never felt afraid before. Surely nothing could be alive after all those years? All those centuries under the Thames mud? Under the alluvial delta upon which London stood? “It must have been there thousands of years,” he said.
“I agree, I agree,” said the professor. “And you heard something knock.”
“I thought I did,” said Val. “Maybe something just fell off the bench at the same time?”
There was another knock from inside the green cylinder. An unmistakable knock.
“Well, let’s get on with it,” said the professor calmly as though he was about to open a tin of sardines instead of the most weird and terrifying thing that had ever been unearthed. He burnt out all the diamond drills — about a thousand pounds’ worth — before he gave up. There was a very, very faint indentation on one side of the green sarcophagus.
“I don’t know whether we put that there, or whether it ruddy well was there!” said the professor angrily. “It’s all very frustrating indeed! I’m determined to get in there, if I bust in the attempt. Now, we’ve used stalite, heat, and diamonds. I’ll try a bit of percussion, and see if I can knock the thing apart. It may have a fault line somewhere. See that pulley up there, Stearman? You’re a bit younger than I am, just nip up there with this hawser, and pass it over the pulley.”
“Sure thing,” said Val.
Half-an-hour later they had rigged up a very passable piledriver.
“I wonder if we can knock some sense into this thing. I’ll teach it to knock back at me!” said Clitheroe. The one thought in his mind was to get the cylinder open. All other considerations had gone. That cylinder had to be opened at all costs and he was going to open it!
Their improvised piledriver came crashing down, fair and square in the centre of the green sarcophagus. There was a loud noise and a bit of vibration-nothing else. They spent fifteen minutes dropping the piledriver in the same spot. Fifteen wasted minutes, for nothing happened at all. Nothing except a lot of noise, nothing except the expenditure of a lot of sweat.
“Damn and blast, it’s fantastic,” snapped Clitheroe. “Stalite, heat, diamonds, percussion! We’ve tried them all. Solvents!” he cried suddenly, leaping in the air, like an old Greek shouting out “Eureka”. “Solvents! Of course! It must be some kind of chemical reagent. Luckily we have plenty of them here. If we can’t cut it or break it or burn it, we’ll dissolve it!”
They tried. They used all the known solvents, and several others that were Clitheroe’s invention in their entirety. They used acids and alkalis. Finally, as a rather desperate last resort, Clitheroe began smearing the thing with corrosives. But the green sarcophagus remained as tightly closed as it had done beneath the earth.
“Take it outside,” said the professor darkly. “Take it outside and blast it open, that’s what we’ll do.”
It took every man they had to get the green sarcophagus out of the laboratory into the wide concrete yard.
Choosing his spot carefully Augustus Clitheroe wedged the sarcophagus with heavy reinforced concrete poles, and planted a heavy charge directly beneath it. A directional charge.
“If that doesn’t open it up, nothing ruddy well will,” he said. “Nothing short of an atom bomb.”
The charge went off; the green sarcophagus leapt a few feet into the air, scattering reinforced concrete over quite a wide area. It remained obstinately closed. Augustus Clitheroe nearly burst a blood vessel in his aggravation. He stormed around the yard, and then stormed back into his laboratory.
“Go away and have some lunch,” he snarled. “I’m going to sit and think this out!”
Val and La Noire obligingly departed.
“I’m getting quite worried about the old boy,” said La Noire. “If he doesn’t get in there pretty soon, he’ll burst!”
“Rather what I was thinking,” agreed her husband. “He’s a dear old fellow, but he takes life too seriously.”
“He takes that green cylinder too seriously, I must say,” said La Noire.
“Oh, don’t think he ever admits defeat,” said Val. “There’s the heart of a warrior encased in that microscopic body, and as long as he’s got anything left to fight with, he’ll fight.”
As soon as they had finished lunch they went back to the museum, into his laboratory. The professor sat where they had left him, the great head buried in his hands. So deep was he in concentration that he was oblivious to all else. Oblivious to everything save his own thoughts.
“There’s got to be a way of getting into that thing,” he kept saying over and over and over again. “There’s got to be!” Suddenly he gave another of his familiar explosive shouts, uncoiled from the stool like a steel spring, grabbed for a scribbling pad, and began writing down complicated symbols that were far beyond Val Stearman’s mathematical comprehension.
“He’s on to something,” Val whispered to his wife.
“Something that bodes no good for the green sarcophagus,” she said, quietly. “I hope he doesn’t open it, and yet in another way I hope he does. I’m frightened of what we’re going to find when he does penetrate the thing.”
“Yes,” agreed Stearman, “so am I. Very frightened indeed! It could be almost anything in there, and as for those knocking sounds, they send icy chills running down my spine, the thought of something that could have survived all these thousands of years under the earth!”
The professor finished his rapid calculations, his eyes were alight with a burning, fiery intensity as he stood and looked down triumphantly at the green sarcophagus.
“I’ve got it! I’m sure I’ve got it! It’s all a matter of vibration. Finding the right frequency! Finding the right frequency will separate the molecular structure! It might even affect the atomic condensation. Now then, a tone generator, that’s what we want. A pure note tone generator!”
He took the equipment from its case and lined it up carefully beside the green sarcophagus. He plugged in and switched on. He spent a long time adjusting knobs and dials and levers, weird, eerie, vibratory noises shattered the ear until Stearman put his hands over his ears.
“Better put these on,” said the professor. “It’s going to be even more unpleasant in a minute!” He handed ear pads across, looking for all the world like old-fashioned radio headphones. Val and La Noire slid them on gratefully. The ghastly noises rose and fell, now mercifully muffled by the ear pads, and suddenly, unbelievably, the impossible happened. Augustus Clitheroe struck exactly the right vibration! The green sarcophagus shimmered and then split into a thousand tiny pieces, that fell to the floor with a tinkling crash. And there before them lay a thing. A thing nearly eight feet long. A thing that was in its own way a foul and terrifying caricature of humanity. An evil thing, an ugly thing. A thing that looked as though it was as old as the universe, and as powerful. It gave vent to a low bestial growl, and sat up. . . .
As though by a process of reaction rather than by a process of thought, Val Stearman’s gun was in his hand.
The heavy automatic pointed towards the eight-foot monstrosity that now dominated the scene. Val Stearman’s eyes had narrowed to two slits of grey steel.
“Shall I shoot, prof.?”
“Not unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said Clitheroe. “This thing is unique, even though it’s hideous.”
He himself was holding a small glass phial.
“What have you got there?” whispered Val from the corner of his mouth.
Neither of them took their eyes off the creature. La Noire was watching it too, her beautiful face set in an expression of incredulity rather than fear.
“What is it, Val?” she gasped.
“I don’t know,” rejoined Stearman. “I’ve seen some queer things, honey, but —” he shook his head. “This beats the band. It looks like the great grandfather of every thing horrible.”
“It’s moving,” said the professor. “It’s coming closer.”
Inch by inch, grotesque step by grotesque step, the thing was reducing the gap between them.
“This would be a good time to try your anaesthetic gas,” said Stearman.
“As soon as I throw it, rush for the doorway,” said Clitheroe. “Hold you breath until you have the door closed behind you.”
“Will do,” replied Stearman.
La Noire was nearest the door. The phial left the professor’s hand and splintered at the thing’s feet. They waited to see no more. Holding their breath they dived through the door and slammed it to behind them. Val noticed that foam rubber effectively sealed off the laboratory.
“You seem to be prepared for every contingency.”
“I have to be — there are one or two peculiar characters who want to get their hands on some of my secret processes. I’ve stirred them up one way and another, believe you me! I shall never forget seeing the look on that chap’s face when he opened my safe and walked into a flood of nitric acid!”
“I should think you’re a good man to stay away from if a man has burglarious intentions!”
Strange sounds were coming from the laboratory, coughing, choking, gurgling sounds . . .
“I think we’ve got him,” said the professor.
There was a crash as of a heavy body falling to the floor. Clitheroe opened the door and staggered back again, coughing.
“Hasn’t cleared yet,” he gasped. “Blasted stuff!” He pressed a button by the side of the door, and inside the laboratory they heard the whir of an electric fan starting up.
“That’ll disperse it.”
“That’s a handy gadget, too,” commented Stearman.
“Ah, I abound with them,” said the professor. “They grow out of my brain like prickles on the back of a porcupine! Now I think it’s safe for us to enter.”
The three of them made their way cautiously into the laboratory.
“Yes, it’s cleared,” said Val. The creature from inside the sarcophagus lay prostrate on the floor, his hideous face distorted into an expression of savage rage and frustration, as though, as consciousness bad slipped from it, it had realised what had been done to it.
“Get it strapped down, over here, on the table,” said the professor. Between them they managed to lift it fairly easily, mainly due to Stearman’s tremendous muscles, for when it was really necessary Val was one of those supremely strong men who could raise nearly a quarter of a ton from the ground.
“Must have been the sarcophagus that was weighty,” he said as they deposited the creature on the table top, flat on its back.
“Hmm. We shall want thick leather straps and possibly chains,” said the professor. “He won’t be out for very long, that gas is strong, but temporary in effect. It would have been a pity to shoot him, you know.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Val. “I’m a scientist in my own humble way, and I’m all in favour of the scientific method, only I think we’d have got far more from a post-mortem examination.”
“Post-mortem examination be damned,” exploded Clitheroe. “I want to discuss his culture, I want to know where he comes from. He can’t tell me that when he’s dead. It may be necessary to kill him afterwards, but I want to extract all the possible information from the thing first.”
“You’re a cold-blooded devil in your own way, sometimes, aren’t you?” said Val.
They strapped the creature down with thick leather bands and chains.
“I think that should hold him,” said Clitheroe with satisfaction. “Yes — I’m sure it will.”
The thing was already showing some signs of movement. The great head was jerking from side to side. The eyes flickered open and regarded them balefully. Two hideous, gleaming, blemished orbs stared up at them, from beneath thick, shaggy inhuman brows.
“If it’s as intelligent as I suspect,” said the professor, “it may very easily be capable of telepathic communication.” He closed his eyes, wrapped in thought. The expression on the creature’s face changed.
“You’re getting somewhere,” said Val.
“Yes, I know,” said Clitheroe, in a distant, faraway voice, as though his whole consciousness was not focused upon the answer. The larger part of his magnificent mind was busy contacting and communicating with the creature. “Yes, I can sense it, I’m getting somewhere now . . .”
Val, too, tried, but unsuccessfully, to get into telepathic communication with this strange monster from the green sarcophagus.
“No good, prof.,” he said, “you’ll have to tell me.”
La Noire looked at Val uncertainly.
“I think I could, but I don’t want to. I know I could contact him, Val, but that mind is so evil I shrink from it. It’s so hideous I don’t even want mental contact with it.”
“It’s all right,” said Val, “I understand, we’ll let the prof. do the telepathy.”
Clitheroe was talking in a strained, high-pitched voice, like an old-fashioned medium in a rather corny, melodramatic, spiritualistic trance:
“Why have you bound me? Why have you bound me? Where am I? Who are you? What place is this?”
Then they heard the professor speaking as though to himself.
“My name is Clitheroe, I am a professor, we are called humans. This is the planet Earth. We found you inside a container, under the ground. How long have you been there?”
Before they could get any sort of an answer, the cords and bands and chains parted. Clitheroe was standing quite close to the creature, and a blow from its massive forearm sent him reeling back across the laboratory like a skittle that’s been struck by a heavy ball in a bowling alley. Stearman’s gun was out again.
“Don’t shoot him, please . . . please,” cried the professor.
“Stand still,” commanded Val, thrusting the gun menacingly forward. The monstrosity advanced towards him.
“La Noire,” he spoke out of the corner of his mouth, “you’ve got to contact the swine. Give him a mental picture of a gun going off and killing him. He doesn’t seem to be able to get anywhere near my mind — I suppose I’m too crude. My thoughts are on too earthy a level, to be capable of being transmitted.”
He pointed the gun at the creature’s midriff, one of its great claw-like hands was upraised. “If he doesn’t understand within three seconds, he’s dead,” said Stearman.
“I’ll try,” said La Noire, and desperately conjured up a picture of a gun. She sent her own perfectly balanced mind probing out through the strange darkness of telepathic communication, trying to touch the fronds of the alien intelligence. Tried and failed. All she could encounter was a great wall of rage and fury and bewilderment.
“I can’t reach him, Val,” she panted.
Stearman pressed the trigger. The heavy silver shot took the thing fair and square in the chest.
“Oh, no!” wailed Augustus Clitheroe, “Oh, no, Val, please!”
Three times more Stearman fired and at every shot the creature jerked — and then the shots were having no more effect than airgun slugs on an angry tiger.
The thing kept coming. . . .
Coming straight for him, he slipped out of the way, dodged swiftly behind a table. A great hideous hirsute monster struck and pawed at the air above his head.
“Good God,” said the professor, “the thing’s invulnerable, quite, quite invulnerable.”
There wasn’t even any blood on it, and yet Val knew that every bullet had struck home, and it wasn’t the strange resistance which the vampire and the ghoul are able to offer to ordinary weapons of lead or iron, for Val Stearman used silver bullets. He had fought with the dark occult powers before. He knew that silver, the holy metal, and flasks of consecrated water were of more avail than conventional arms. But this thing didn’t even respond to them. La Noire took a silver cross from around her neck and held it up in front of the thing. It might have been a piece of paper or a blade of grass that she held out. . . .
“It’s no good,” said Val, “it doesn’t respond. “Whatever else it is, it is not an occult manifestation of evil.”
“It is evil,” said La Noire, “I can sense it. It’s terribly evil!”
“It’s an evil so powerful,” said Val, “that it doesn’t respond to the conventional weapons of light. We’ve used a silver bullet and a silver cross. I don’t suppose that Scripture or holy water, or bell, book and candle would have more effect on it than that.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” replied his wife, “I can sense that. In its own hideous way it’s laughing at us. We are completely ineffectual against it.”
“Well, what can we use?” said Val. “In heaven’s name what can we use?”
“This isn’t anything like those creatures we’ve met before,” said La Noire. “It’s not a manifestation of the black, occult, evil powers, it’s not one of the minions of darkness. It’s not one of the vassals of Satan like a vampire, or a werewolf, or a ghoul, or even a poltergeist. It’s something bigger, stronger, far more terrifying.”
“What is it, then?” asked Val for the tenth time.
“I don’t know what it is.”
“I don’t either,” said Augustus Clitheroe in a dull, flat voice.
The thing had them at bay. It moved round till it stood between them and the door.
“The gas worked last time,” said Val. “Got another one?”
“Yes, I have,” said the Professor, “but we can’t get to the door — wait a minute, there are respirators in this cupboard here. Quick!”
Dodging every lunge the creature made he flung the vital breathing apparatus across to them, donned one himself, skidded behind a bench out of the way of an outflung paw, and crashed another anaesthetic capsule on to the ground again.
This time the creature sniffed hard through a distorted nostril and gave vent to a wild screaming laugh.
“Saints preserve us,” gasped Clitheroe. “It doesn’t work!”
Val’s brain was racing. “No, because it is able to adapt to it, now. I think I know roughly how this thing is defeating our efforts! There is something in its metabolism which enables it to adapt very swiftly, physically. Where it came from God alone knows. What it was doing in that green sarcophagus heaven only knows . . . but we can know a little about it without knowing everything. That seems to be its method.”
“You’re probably right,” said Clitheroe. “What are we going to do?”
“You tell me — you’re the brains department,” said Stearman as he dodged another blow from the great claws,
“No organism can adapt to its own waste products,” said the professor suddenly. “It’s quite obvious that that thing is breathing.”
They still had their respirators on.
“I have a cylinder of carbon dioxide here, there is every possibility — though it is distorted — that it breathes oxygen and emits CO2 as a waste product. If I can fill this room with CO2 that ought to do it. You will find a small oxygen cylinder at the front of your respirators. As I have told you before, I am prepared for almost any contingency!”
Val and La Noire turned on the cylinders, the professor flung open the valve of the compressed tank of carbon dioxide. Had it not been for the oxygen in their respirators, they would have found breathing difficult, if not impossible.
The strange creature from the green sarcophagus suddenly slumped to the floor.
They stood over it in triumph.
As the seconds turned to minutes it was obvious that a strange and final change was coming over the creature.
It was beginning to melt . . . turning to a liquid, which in turn evaporated into a thin gas, which shimmered and dispersed into the carbon dioxide atmosphere and disappeared altogether.
“Done it,” said Val through the thickness of the respirator, “By the stars we’ve done it. It’s gone, it’s finished.”
“Finished,” echoed Clitheroe, “and there are three questions in my mind, Mr. Stearman. What was it? Where did it come from? And shall we ever see its like again? Other men dig — what will they find?”
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