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For a long time the machine men wandered over the dreary surface of the earth, and then 25X-987 suggested a change of territory to explore. In the s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p, they moved around the earth to the other side, still keeping to the belt of shadowland which completely encircled the globe like some gigantic ring. Where they now landed arose a series of cones with hollow peaks.
"Volcanoes!" exclaimed the professor.
"Extinct ones," added the machine man.
Leaving the s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p, the fifty or more machine men, including also Professor Jameson, were soon exploring the curiously shaped peaks. The professor, in his wanderings had strayed away from the rest, and now advanced into one of the cup-like depressions of the peak, out of sight of his companions, the Zoromes.
_Eternity or Death_
He was well in the center of the cavity when the soft ground beneath him gave way suddenly and he catapulted below into the darkness. Through the Stygian gloom he fell in what seemed to be an endless drop. He finally crashed upon something hard. The thin crust of the volcano's mouth had broken through, precipitating him into the deep, hollow interior.
It must have been a long ways to fall--or so it had seemed. Why was he not knocked senseless or killed? Then he felt himself over with three tentacles. His metal legs were four broken, twisted ma.s.ses of metal, while the lower half of his cubic body was jammed out of shape and split. He could not move, and half of his six tentacles were paralyzed.
How would he ever get out of there? he wondered. The machine men of Zor might never find him. What would happen to him, then? He would remain in this deathless, monotonous state forever in the black hole of the volcano's interior unable to move. What a horrible thought! He could not starve to death; eating was unknown among the Zoromes, the machines requiring no food. He could not even commit suicide. The only way for him to die would be to smash the strong metal head, and in his present immovable condition, this was impossible.
It suddenly occurred to him to radiate thoughts for help. Would the Zoromes receive his messages? He wondered how far the telepathic messages would carry. He concentrated the powers of his mind upon the call for help, and repeatedly stated his position and plight. He then left his mind clear to receive the thought answers of the Zoromes. He received none. Again he tried. Still he received no welcoming answer.
Professor Jameson became dejected.
It was hopeless. The telepathic messages had not reached the machine men of Zor. They were too far away, just as one person may be out of earshot of another's voice. He was doomed to a terrible fate of existence! It were better that his rocket had never been found. He wished that the Zoromes had destroyed him instead of bringing him back to life--back to this!
His thoughts were suddenly broken in upon.
"Don't give up hope!"
If the professor's machine body had been equipped with a heart, it would have sung for joy at these welcome thought impressions. A short time later there appeared in the ragged break of the volcano's mouth, where he had fallen through, the metal head of one of the machine men.
"We shall have you out of there soon," he said.
The professor never knew how they managed it for he lost consciousness under some strange ray of light they projected down upon him in his prison. When he came to consciousness once more, it was to find himself inside the s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p.
"If you had fallen and had smashed your head, it would have been all over with you," were the first thought impulses which greeted him. "As it is, however, we can fix you up first rate."
"Why didn't you answer the first time I called to you?" asked the professor. "Didn't you hear me?"
"We heard you, and we answered, but you didn't hear us. You see, your brain is different than ours, and though you can send thought waves as far as we can you cannot receive them from such a great distance."
"I'm wrecked," said the professor, gazing at his twisted limbs, paralyzed tentacles and jammed body.
"We shall repair you," came the reply. "It is your good fortune that your head was not crushed."
"What are you going to do with me?" queried the professor. "Will you remove my brains to another machine?"
"No, it isn't necessary. We shall merely remove your head and place it upon another machine body."
The Zoromes immediately set to work upon the task, and soon had Professor Jameson's metal head removed from the machine which he had wrecked in his fall down the crater. All during the painless operation, the professor kept up a series of thought exchanges in conversation with the Zoromes, and it seemed but a short time before his head surmounted a new machine and he was ready for further exploration. In the course of his operation, the s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p had moved to a new position, and now as they emerged 25X-987 kept company with Professor Jameson.
"I must keep an eye on you," he said. "You will be getting into more trouble before you get accustomed to the metal bodies."
But Professor Jameson was doing a great deal of thinking. Doubtlessly, these strange machine men who had picked up his rocket in the depths of s.p.a.ce and had brought him back to life, were expecting him to travel with them and become adopted into the ranks of the Zoromes. Did he want to go with them? He couldn't decide. He had forgotten that the machine men could read his innermost thoughts.
"You wish to remain here alone upon the earth?" asked 25X-987. "It is your privilege if you really want it so."
"I don't know," replied Professor Jameson truthfully.
He gazed at the dust around his feet. It had probably been the composition of men, and had changed from time to time into various other atomic structures--of other queer forms of life which had succeeded mankind. It was the law of the atom which never died. And now he had within his power perpetual existence. He could be immortal if he wished!
It would be an immortality of never-ending adventures in the vast, endless Universe among the galaxy of stars and planets.
A great loneliness seized him. Would he be happy among these machine men of another far-off world--among these Zoromes? They were kindly and solicitous of his welfare. What better fate could he expect? Still, a longing for his own kind arose in him--the call of humanity. It was irresistible. What could he do? Was it not in vain? Humanity had long since disappeared from the earth--millions of years ago. He wondered what lay beyond the pales of death--the real death, where the body decomposed and wasted away to return to the dust of the earth and a.s.sume new atomic structures.
He had begun to wonder whether or not he had been dead all these forty millions of years--suppose he had been merely in a state of suspended animation. He had remembered a scientist of his day, who had claimed that the body does not die at the point of official death. According to the claims of this man, the cells of the body did not die at the moment at which respiration, heart beats and the blood circulation ceased, but it existed in the semblance of life for several days afterward, especially in the cells of the bones, which died last of all.
Perhaps when he had been sent out into s.p.a.ce in his rocket right after his death, the action of the cosmic void was to halt his slow death of the cells in his body, and hold him in suspended animation during the ensuing millions of years. Suppose he should really die--destroying his own brain? What lay beyond real death? Would it be a better plane of existence than the Zoromes could offer him? Would he rediscover humanity, or had they long since arisen to higher planes of existence or reincarnation? Did time exist beyond the mysterious portals of death? If not, then it was possible for him to join the souls of the human race.
Had he really been dead all this time? If so, he knew what to expect in case he really destroyed his own brain. Oblivion!
Again the intense feeling of loneliness surged over him and held him within its melancholy grasp. Desperately, he decided to find the nearest cliff and jump from it--head-first! Humanity called; no man lived to companion him. His four metal limbs carried him swiftly to the summit of a nearby precipice. Why not gamble on the hereafter? 25X-987, understanding his trend of thought, did not attempt to restrain him.
Instead, the machine man of Zor waited patiently.
As Professor Jameson stood there meditating upon the jump which would hurl him now into a new plane of existence--or into oblivion, the thought transference of 25X-987 reached him. It was laden with the wisdom born of many planets and thousands of centuries' experience.
"Why jump?" asked the machine man. "The dying world holds your imagination within a morbid clutch. It is all a matter of mental condition. Free your mind of this fascinating influence and come with us to visit other worlds, many of them are both beautiful and new. You will then feel a great difference.
"Will you come?"
The professor considered for a moment as he resisted the impulse to dive off the declivity to the enticing rocks far below. An inspiration seized him. Backing away from the edge of the cliff, he joined 25X-987 once more.
"I shall come," he stated.
He would become an immortal after all and join the Zoromes in their never-ending adventures from world to world. They hastened to the s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p to escape the depressing, dreary influence of the dying world, which had nearly driven Professor Jameson to take the fatal leap to oblivion.