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Central London, 1899
On the edge of a century's turning, London was a sprawling mosaic of crooked tile roofs, shuttered windows, cobblestone streets, and garbage-strewn alleyways. Fog crept through the city like pestilence, mixing with the foul breaths of smoke from coal grates and great belches from factory smokestacks. Cold buildings huddled together as if seeking warmth against the night's chill.
Nearly two millenia of history had seen London evolve from a Roman settlement to a Saxon stronghold, then a burgeoning commercial center and religious axis. Ultimately, London became a pinnacle of European political might as well as a powerful industrial hub. World-shaking events would begin -- or end -- here.
For decades now this place had endured the turns of the industrial revolution, which had transformed it from a grand city of one million inhabitants into a vast metropolis teeming with more than four times as many people, all of them trying their best to survive.
In the distance Big Ben chimed its lonely but predictable tones. Most people no longer even awakened to the clock tower's hourly ritual, especially not so late. The steady sequence of gongs drifted past like a lullaby, reassuring the city's sleeping inhabitants that all was well.
Big Ben fell silent again, and so did the streets.
Then a low rumble started deep underground, as if the convoluted sewers near the Thames suffered from indigestion.
In Moorgate Passage, a pair of dogs hungrily dug through garbage in search of edible scraps, as they did every night. They half-heartedly snarled at each other, too hungry to notice the mysterious sounds.
But the noise rose steadily in volume, like buried, restless thunder. The ominous trembling grew louder and louder, shaking forcefully until it rattled loose roof slates and chimney pots....
One mutt lifted his head and pricked his ears. The second dog used the opportunity to seize a rank-smelling fish head from the trash heap and bounded away with his prize. Then he, too, paused, whining. His jaws opened and the moist fish head fell to the slick street. The rumble grew more ominous, a different sort of growl.
The two dogs snarled at the sound that seemed to come from everywhere beneath and around them, then they scuttled away in fear. The second mutt doubled back to snatch up the fish head, then sprang down the alley just as the sound reached an explosive roar.
A dark brick wall at the opposite end of the alley split and broke as something huge, black, and mechanical hammered its way up from beneath the streets, knocking bricks and timbers apart. Walls fell, brushed aside from the leviathan as if they were little more than dust and dry leaves.
Both dogs ran for their lives as the immense subterranean machine roared and clanked after them.
Though he had been deeply asleep, immersed in dreams of playing in the park with his father on a Sunday afternoon, Bartholomew Dunning sat up quickly in bed. The pallid six-year-old boy clutched an old woolen blanket and stared into the faint light that came through the window of his cellar bedroom. On a narrow brick windowsill above the bed, his tin toy horse and buggy shuddered and rattled, as if they had come alive.
The rumbling made the entire tenement shake. Dust sprinkled down from the ceiling, captured in the hazy moonlight that penetrated the fog.
Bartholomew wanted to call out for his father, but he knew Constable Dunning would be out walking the streets, keeping London safe, as he did every night...all night. But right now the boy wanted his father. He pulled the blanket up to his chin, hoping to hide. But the noise grew louder.
The toys jittered and wobbled, then finally tumbled off the windowsill. More dust sifted down from the tenement ceiling, and Bartholomew could hear shouts from the residents in the floors above.
Gathering his courage, thinking of his father in his fine policeman's uniform striding down dark alleys and arresting pickpockets and murderers, Bartholomew scurried out of bed as the monstrous noise came deafeningly close. Someone upstairs let out a loud yell.
Because his father worked every night, and slept most of the day, Bartholomew could spend time with him only on Sunday. But Constable Dunning put food on the table and coal in the grate for the boy and his two sisters; they had to care for themselves without a mother to watch over them. His sisters snored together in the inner room, not even awakened by the noise. It was up to the boy to see what was happening outside.
Shrill whistles pierced the growing noise, and he took comfort in knowing the police were rushing to the scene.
Bartholomew went to the window, stood on tiptoe, and used the flat of his hand to wipe fog from the pane. The glass remained blurry from the grime outside, but an immense shadow passed along the street. When he pressed his face close, the boy could see well enough that his eyes widened in fear.
Massive mechanical treads rolled past at street level, crushing cobblestones, clanking and clattering like the loudest factory line.
Bartholomew's windows splintered and fell in. He screamed, scrambling backward as the whole frame came crashing down. Part of the wall and ceiling slumped under the crushing passage of the huge vehicle. Broken bricks and crumbling mortar buried and destroyed his toy horse and buggy.
He crawled for shelter under his bed, a place usually reserved for nighttime monsters. Right now, though, the boy was only afraid of the very real and tangible beast outside.
Then the mechanical juggernaut surged past, smashing gutters and shouldering aside brick corners that got in its way.
As dust and rubble continued to patter all around him, Bartholomew peered out from his hiding place. Safe, for now.
But he knew his father was out in the streets, armed with little more than his whistle and truncheon. Even a stern constable in a clean uniform would be no match for that thing.
Tabard Row had been quiet all evening, and Constable Dunning paused in his rounds to smoke his pipe. He took a long draw on the tobacco, savoring the moment of bliss.
His children were home together, asleep. Their mother had died of consumption two years earlier, and the boy Bartholomew had been forced to grow up much faster than he should have. Once, he'd playfully tried on his father's constable cap, and it had nearly fallen down to his small shoulders. Bartholomew was the man of the house whenever his father left to patrol the night streets, and the boy took his responsibilities with admirable, heart-aching seriousness, though his father occasionally saw him playing with his toys. Just a little boy, no more than six years old.
At least he was safe tonight....
Constable Dunning's peaceful feeling was suddenly shattered by the pitiful wailing of dogs. A moment later a monstrous rumble shook the ground, accompanied by breaking glass and shattering walls.
Dunning drew his baton and trotted toward the sound, by habit tapping his truncheon on the wall as he went, making a sound like rapid gunfire. Shrill whistles sounded the alarm from other officers heading in the same direction. Drawing a deep breath, he blew a long high-pitched note on his own whistle.
"It's down in Moorgate Passage!" one of the policemen called, joining up with Dunning. They ran together, reacting out of instinct without stopping to worry about the nature of the threat. From the sound of it, this was more serious than a drunken brawl, a cutpurse, or a pair of whores trying to claw each others' eyes out.
The two constables sprinted onto Threadneedle Street, heading for Moorgate. Dunning stumbled and nearly sprawled on his face in a filthy gutter as he and his companion collided with a pair of utterly terrified dogs racing in the opposite direction, off into the night.
"Bleedin' ratbags! What's gotten into 'em?" said Dunning.
Then again, perhaps the mutts had the right idea.
Like a factory-made demon, a giant armor-plated machine careened around -- and through -- a corner of the narrow street, demolishing everything in its path.
"Good Christ!" Dunning's companion skittered to a halt, eyes wide. His truncheon drooped in his grip, laughably insignificant compared to the mechanized titan lurching toward them with a roar of engines and a belch of oily exhaust smoke.
It was a tank vehicle plated with thick iron sheets riveted into place on a body that rode on implacable paired tracks. Glaring headlamps shone forward like the baleful gaze of a dragon. Its reinforced bow slammed like a battering ram through the wall, knocking it down without pause. The heavy treads crushed fallen bricks into powder. Dunning couldn't even guess how many tons the vehicle must weigh.
Three other constables converged from their own beats, stopped in their tracks. "It's an infernal juggernaut!"
"Run!" Dunning's tone was urgent as he backed away. Not cowardly -- just sensible. There would be no real protection against a mechanized leviathan that could plow through solid walls.
While three of the policemen staggered backward, Dunning's companion took an unexpected initiative. Swallowing hard, he raised his truncheon, stepped into the middle of the street, and blew his whistle again for good measure. He stood his ground in the glare of the behemoth's headlights, raised his hand, and said, "Halt! In the name of the Queen!"
"Get out of the way, you fool!" Dunning shouted.
When the land ironclad did not slow down, the man tried to dodge into a doorway, but the lumbering vehicle filled the narrow street. The young constable was caught between the treads and went down. His scream was cut short with a wet, squelching sound under the increasing roar of the demonic engines.
The tank moved onward, without pause.
Sickened and angry, Dunning ran to his comrade's aid, but he arrived too late. Courageously -- though futilely -- he beat the metal monster with his baton and his fists. He made barely a mark on the thick plating.
Ignoring him, the land ironclad rolled on down the street.
Dunning ran after the machine, not knowing how he might stop its inexorable progress. The street opened up, away from the crowded slums, grimy pubs, and dim opium dens. Ahead stood a particularly impressive building with an ornate multistoried facade of marble columns, graceful statues, and stately blocks of gray-white stone.
Dunning's stomach clenched as he glanced up at the deeply engraved words bank of england on the lintel over the building's main entrance. "Not the Old Lady," he muttered, hardly able to conceive of such a violation.
The tank rolled toward it, picking up speed.
The privately owned bank, often referred to as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, had been established more than two centuries earlier. In the past two hundred years, the Bank of England had become more than simply a financial institution: The Old Lady was a symbol of England itself.
The juggernaut smashed into the bank's broad central door. Columns broke apart and tumbled down; the massive locked door collapsed inward.
And the mammoth machine kept moving forward all the way into the financial fortress, undeterred.
The tank's heavy treads, now bloodstained, clattered down a flight of marble steps that groaned and cracked under the immense weight. Picking up speed, the land ironclad ground its way across the polished marble floor of the lobby.
A night contingent of British soldiers guarding the bank drew their guns and opened fire. Like hail pattering on a tin roof, the bullets ricocheted ineffectually off the iron armor plates. The panicked soldiers leaped aside as the tank smashed through teller desks, back offices, records archives, private consultation rooms lined with security boxes -- and finally into the vault room.
Constable Dunning came running after it, picking his way through the rubble of stone and splintered wood and glass. He was aghast at the sheer carnage all around him. The soldiers recovered themselves then yelled indignant threats after the rampaging machine. Scrambling together, they all raced toward the vault room.
As if stymied, the mechanical monster came to rest against the massive iron door of the vault.
Dust and debris settled in ominous silence as Dunning and the soldier guards crept purposefully into the vault room. "Hah!" Dunning called, a bit disoriented by the frantic activity going on around him. "That door's too solid even for a beast like that!"
Several other constables, panting hard from their long run, entered the bank and stared at all the destruction.
The tank just sat there, throbbing, pressed up against the thick vault door. It seemed to be defeated...or simply gathering its breath, preparing to strike again.
The shaken soldiers arose and, together with the constables, encircled the machine. Dunning edged closer, peering at one of the scraped plates on the front of the tank. "What is it doing?" he asked, not expecting an answer.
With a loud clang, a panel opened and two human eyes stared out through the narrow slot. Dunning sprang back with a yelp. The slot slammed shut. "There're men inside that thing!"
Clanking, winding, slotting sounds began to emanate from within the mechanical beast. A panel thwacked open on top of the machine, and a fat cylinder extended, swiveled about in search of a target, then locked into place. It was aimed at the vault door.
Everyone there could recognize a cannon barrel when they saw it.
"Get back!" shouted Dunning. He clapped his hands over his ears, but many of the others didn't react quickly enough.
The weapon fired with a deafening sound as if all the heavens had cracked asunder. The shock wave in the enclosed vault room threw constables and soldiers to the ground. The merciless cannon fired again, and then a third time.
Finally, the massive, dented vault door teetered, slumped, and at last fell inward. It crashed to the stone floor with a sound as deafening as the artillery explosions.
The air inside the ruined bank was thick with choking dust. The men's ears were bleeding. Dunning shook his head to clear it; with the back of one hand, he wiped powder and sweat from his eyes.
A thick metal hatch opened high on the juggernaut's flank and a step ladder cantilevered down. Men wearing easily recognizeable German army uniforms emerged, led by a pale-eyed man who wore cruelty on his face as naturally as another man might wear a moustache. The uniformed men carried sleek, modern-looking snub-nosed firearms and boxy radio sets on their hips.
Constable Dunning had never seen anything like it. He had heard, though, the Kaiser had been stepping up his war effort, planning against the British Empire. And here was the proof!
The foremost invader turned back to the dark interior of the massive ironclad machine. He spoke in clipped German. "We are ready, Herr Fantom."
Only then did their leader step into the open, emerging from the infernal machine. Dramatically garbed in black clothes and a sweeping cape, the man cut a formidable presence. He wore gleaming black boots, crisp gloves -- and a frightening silver mask that hid most of his features. Dunning caught only a partial glimpse of a terribly disfigured face.
Dunning stared, burning the Fantom's face into his memory. He had read something about a similar murderous villain who had terrorized the Paris Opera House, not many years ago. But that Fantom had supposedly been killed....
Now the man in the metal mask gazed around the room, ignoring the astonished constables and soldiers as if they were no more relevant than insects.
"Ah, I love a night out in London," the leader said in German. "Leutnant Dante, instruct our men to go about their work. We have other appointments to keep."
The cruel-faced Dante dispatched a team of German soldiers who scrambled out of the land ironclad and into the vault. Others, brandishing their futuristic snub-nosed weapons, held the intimidated bank soldiers and constables at bay.
When the invaders marched brazenly into the ruins of the Bank of England vault, one of the British guards broke free. "Here now, you can't be -- "
With a flourish, the Fantom pulled out a snub-nosed gun and callously shot the outspoken British guard between the eyes. As the guard crumpled, the masked leader tossed his gun to Lieutenant Dante. "Leave one of them alive to tell the tale. Only one. What you do with the rest...I leave to your vivid imagination."
Striding through the debris, his cape flowing behind him as if no dust would dare cling to his black clothes, the Fantom entered the vault, leaving Dante and the others to their given tasks.
As the ruthless executions began, Constable Dunning squeezed his eyes shut and thought of his children.
As the crack of gunfire and pleading screams resounded from outside the vault, the Fantom's Germans used crowbars and the butts of their weapons to break open security boxes of all sizes. The men spilled the contents onto the floor -- bank notes, gold, jewelry, bonds -- but they were searching for something in particular.
An eager henchman picked up a gold brick and could not help admiring it. "Such treasures."
"Treasure, yes," the Fantom agreed, hardly sparing a glance for the chunk of precious metal. "Some worth more than others."
With a gloved hand, the masked man snapped the latch of a mahogany plan-chest and reverently drew open the long drawer to reveal a sheaf of fragile parchment. He lifted one sheet, then another. Behind the metal mask his eyes darted back and forth.
The pages of age-yellowed paper bore hand-drawn architectural plans of a city on water, its deep foundations crumbling and cavernous. In spite of the faded ink, the detail was incredible, drawn by a genius centuries ago.
"Ah, here is the key to our labyrinth." The horribly scarred lips, barely visible beneath the silver mask, smiled. The Fantom snatched up the pages and swept out of the vault, ignoring the rest of the gold and treasure. "Time to go. We have what we need."
Outside, Constable Dunning huddled in horror and misery, his face spattered with blood. As relieved as he was to be alive, he felt a piercing guilt at being the only survivor among dozens of slaughtered policemen and soldier guards. The German henchmen ignored him as they climbed back aboard the land ironclad.
The Fantom also vanished inside the vehicle, while his lieutenant spared a final glance for the surviving constable, who seemed oblivious to the departing soldiers. Dante said to him, "Count your blessings."
Then he swung the hatch shut, and the land ironclad roared back off the way it had come.
Copyright © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.