COMPLETE NOVELETTE, 14119 words Astounding Stories 1931
Far down into the earth goes a
gleaming metal sphere whose passengers are deadly
spherical monster stood in the moonlight on the silent
Mojave Desert. In the ghostly gray of the sand and sage
and joshua trees its metal hide glimmered dully—an amazing
object to be found on that lonely spot. But there was only
pride and anticipation in the eyes of the three people who
stood a little way off, looking at it. For they had
constructed the strange sphere, and were soon going to
entrust their lives to it.
said one of them, a young man with a cheerful face and a
likable grin, "let's go down now! There's no use waiting
till to-morrow. It's always dark down there, whether it's
day or night up here. Everything is ready."
white-haired Professor David Guinness smiled tolerantly at
the speaker, his partner, Phil Holmes. "I'm kind of
eager to be off, myself," he admitted. He turned to the
third person in the little group, a dark-haired girl.
"What do you say, Sue?"
Father!" came the quick reply. "We'd never be able to
sleep to-night, anyway. As Phil says, everything is
"Well, I guess
that settles it," Professor Guinness said to the eager
face went aglow with anticipation. "Good!" he cried.
"Good! I'll skip over and get some water. It's barely
possible that it'll be hot down there, in spite of your
eloquent logic to the contrary!" And with the words he
caught up a large jug standing nearby, waved his hand,
said: "I'll be right back!" and set out for the
water-hole, situated nearly a mile away from their little
camp. The heavy hush of the desert night settled down once
more after he left.
As his figure
merged with the shadows in the distance, the elderly
scientist murmured aloud to his daughter:
"You know, it's
good to realize that my dream is about to become a
reality. If it hadn't been for Phil.... Or no—I really
ought to thank you, Sue. You're the one responsible for
his participation!" And he smiled fondly at the slender
girl by his side.
"Phil joined us
just for the scientific interest, and for the thrill of
going four miles down into the earth," she retorted at
once, in spite of the blush her father saw on her face.
But he did not insist. Once more he turned, as to a
magnet, to the machine that was his handiwork.
fifteen-foot sphere was an earth-borer—Guinness's own
invention. In it he had utilized for the first time for
boring purposes the newly developed atomic disintegrators.
Many holes equally spaced over the sphere were the outlets
for the dissolving ray—most of them on the bottom and
alternating with them on the bottom and sides were the
outlets of powerful rocket propulsion tubes, which would
enable it to rise easily from the hole it would presently
blast into the earth. A small, tight-fitting door gave
entrance to the double-walled interior, where, in spite of
the space taken up by batteries and mechanisms and an
enclosed gyroscope for keeping the borer on an even keel,
there was room for several people.
had been designed not so much for scientific investigation
as the specific purpose of reaching a rich store of radium
ore buried four miles below the Guinness desert camp. Many
geologists and mining engineers knew that the radium was
there, for their instruments had proven it often; but no
one up to then knew how to get to it. David Guinness
did—first. The borer had been constructed in his
laboratory in San Francisco, then dismantled and freighted
to the little desert town of Palmdale, from whence Holmes
had brought the parts to their isolated camp by truck.
Strict secrecy had been kept. Rather than risk assistants
they had done all the work themselves.
passed by, while the slight figure of the inventor
puttered about the interior of the sphere, brightly lit by
a detachable searchlight, inspecting all mechanisms in
preparation for their descent. Sue stood by the door
watching him, now and then turning to scan the desert for
the returning Phil.
It was then,
startlingly sudden, that there cracked through the velvet
night the faint, distant sound of a gun. And it came from
the direction of the water-hole.
Sue's face went
white, and she trembled. Without a word her father stepped
out of the borer and looked at her.
"That was a
gun!" he said. "Phil didn't have one with him, did he?"
whispered. "And—why, there's nobody within miles of here!"
The two looked
at each other with alarm and wonder. Then, from one of the
broken patches of scrub that ringed the space in which the
borer stood, came a mocking voice.
mistaken, Sue," it affirmed. "But that was a gun."
jerked around, as did his daughter. The man who had spoken
stood only ten yards away, clearly outlined in the bright
moonlight—a tall, well-built man, standing quite at ease,
surveying them pleasantly. His smile did not change when
old Guinness cried:
The man nodded
and came slowly forward. He might have been considered
handsome, had it not been for his thin, mocking lips and a
"What are you
doing here?" demanded Guinness angrily. "And what do you
mean—'it was a gun?' Have you—"
thing at a time," said Quade, still
smiling. "About the gun—well, your young friend Holmes
said, he'd be right back, but I—I'm afraid he won't be."
lips formed a frightened word:
Quade made a
short movement with his left hand, as is brushing the
query aside. "Let's talk about something more pleasant,"
he said, and looked back at the professor. "The radium,
and your borer, for instance. I hear you're all ready to
gasped. "How did you know—?" he began, but a surge of
anger choked him, and his fists clenched. He stepped
forward. But something came to life in James Quade's right
hand and pointed menacingly at him. It was the stubby
black shape of an automatic.
"Keep back, you
old fool!" Quade said harshly. "I don't want to have to
Guinness came to a stop. "What have you done with young
Holmes?" he demanded.
about him now," said Quade, smiling again. "Perhaps I'll
explain later. At the moment there's something much more
interesting to do. Possibly you'll be surprised to hear
it, but we're all going to take a little ride in this
machine of yours, Professor. Down. About four miles. I'll
have to ask you to do the driving. You will, won't
you—without making a fuss?"
worked furiously. "Why, you're crazy, Quade!" he
sputtered. "I certainly won't!"
Quade softly. The automatic he held veered around, till it
was pointing directly at the girl. "I wouldn't want to
have to shoot Sue—say—through the hand...." His finger
tightened perceptibly on the trigger.
man!" Guinness burst out. "You're crazy! What's the idea—"
"In due time
I'll tell you. But now I'll ask you just once more," Quade
persisted. "Will you enter that borer, or must I—" He
broke off with an expressive shrug.
was powerless. He had not the slightest idea what Quade
might be about; the one thought that broke through his
fear and anger was that the man was mad, and had better be
humored. He trembled, and a tight sensation came to his
throat at sight of the steady gun trained on his daughter.
He dared not trifle.
"I'll do it,"
laughed. "That's better. You always were essentially
reasonable, though somewhat impulsive for a man of your
age. The rash way you severed our partnership, for
instance.... But enough of that. I think we'd better leave
immediately. Into the sphere, please. You first, Miss
"I'm afraid so.
I can't very well leave her here all unprotected, can I?"
was soft and suave, but an undercurrent of sarcasm ran
through it. Guinness winced under it; his whole body was
trembling with suppressed rage and indignation. As he
stepped to the door of the earth-borer he turned and
"How did you
know our plans? About the radium?—the borer?"
Quade told him.
"Have you forgotten," he said, "that you talked the matter
over with me before we split last year? I simply had the
laboratory watched, and when you got new financial backing
from young Holmes, and came here. I followed you. Simple,
eh?... Well, enough of this. Get inside. You first, Sue."
girl obeyed, and when her father hesitated Quade jammed
his gun viciously into his ribs and pushed him to the
door. "Inside!" he hissed, and reluctantly, hatred in his
eyes, the professor stepped into the control compartment
after Sue. Quade gave a last quick glance around and, with
gun ever wary, passed inside. The
door slammed shut: there was a click as its lock shot
over. The sphere was a sealed ball of metal.
Guinness obeyed the automatic's imperious gesture and
pulled a shiny-handled lever slowly back, and the hush
that rested over the Mojave was shattered by a tremendous
bellow, a roar that shook the very earth. It was the
disintegrating blast, hurled out of the bottom in many
fan-shaped rays. The coarse gray sand beneath the machine
stirred and flew wildly; the sphere vibrated madly; and
then the thunder lowered in tone to a mighty humming and
the earth-borer began to drop. Slowly it fell, at first,
then more rapidly. The shiny top came level with the
ground: disappeared; and in a moment there was nothing
left but a gaping hole where a short while before a round
monster of metal had stood. The hole was hot and dark, and
from it came a steadily diminishing thunder....
For a long time
no one in the earth-borer spoke—didn't even try to—for
though the thunder of the disintegrators was muted,
inside, to a steady drone, conversation was almost
impossible. The three were crowded quite close in the
spherical inner control compartment. Sue sat on a little
collapsible stool by the bowed, but by no means subdued,
figure of Professor David Guinness, while Quade sat on the
wire guard of the gyroscope, which was in the exact center
of the floor.
The depth gauge
showed two hundred feet. Already the three people were
numb from the vibration; they hardly felt any sensation at
all, save one of great weight pressing inwards. The
compartment was fairly cool and the air good—kept so by
the automatic air rectifiers and the insulation, which
shut out the heat born of their passage.
Quade had been
carefully watching Guinness's manipulation of the
controls, when he was struck by a thought. At once he
stood up, and shouted in the elderly inventor's ear: "Try
the rockets! I want to be sure this thing will go back
Without a word
Guinness shoved back the lever controlling the
disintegrators, at the same time whirling a small wheel
full over. The thudding drone died away to a whisper, and
was replaced by sharper thundering, as the stream of the
propulsion rockets beneath the sphere was released. A
delicate needle trembled on a gauge, danced at the figure
two hundred, then crept back to one-ninety ... one-sixty
... one-forty.... Quade's eyes took in everything.
Guinness!" he yelled. "Now—down once more!"
were slowly cut; the borer jarred at the bottom of its
hole; again the disintegrators droned out. The sphere dug
rapidly into the warm ground, biting lower and lower. At
ten miles an hour it blasted a path to depths hitherto
unattainable to man, sweeping away rock and gravel and
sand—everything that stood in its way. The depth gauge
rose to two thousand, then steadily to three and four. So
it went on for nearly half an hour.
At the end of
that time, at a depth of nearly four miles, Quade got
stiffly to his feet and once more shouted into the
"We ought to be
close to that radium, now," he said. "I think—"
But his words
stopped short. The floor of the sphere suddenly fell away
from their feet, and they felt themselves tumbled into a
wild plunge. The drone of the disintegrators, hitherto
muffled by the earth they bit into, rose to a hollow
scream. Before the professor quite knew what was
happening, there was a stunning crash, a shriek of
tortured metal—and the earth-borer rocked and lay
The whole world
seemed to be filled with thunder when David Guinness came
back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and stared up
a darkness to which it took him some time to accustom
himself. When he did, he made out hazily that he was lying
on the floor of a vast dark cavern. He could dimly see its
jagged roof, perhaps fifty feet above. There was the
strong smell of damp earth in his nostrils; his head was
splitting from the steady drone in his ear-drums. Suddenly
he remembered what had happened. He groaned slightly and
tried to sit up.
But he could
not. His arms and legs were tied. Someone had removed him
from the earth-borer and bound him on the floor of the
cavern they had plunged into.
strained at the rope. It was futile, but in doing so he
twisted his head around and saw another form, similarly
tied, lying close to him. He gave a little cry of relief.
It was Sue. And she was conscious, her eyes on his face.
She spoke to
him, but he could not understand her for the drone in his
ears, and when he spoke to her it was the same. But the
professor did not just then continue his effort to
converse with her. His attention was drawn to the borer,
now dimly illuminated by its portable light, which had
been secured to the door. It was right side up, and
appeared to be undamaged. The broad ray of the searchlight
fell far away on one of the cavern's rough walls. He could
just make out James Quade standing there, his back towards
He was hacking
at the wall with a pick. Presently he dropped the tool and
wrenched at the rock with bare hands. A large chunk came
loose. He hugged it to him and turned and strode back
towards the two on the floor, and as he drew near they
could plainly see a gleam of triumph in his eyes.
"You know what
this is?" he shouted. Guinness could only faintly hear
him. "Wealth! Millions! Of course we always knew the
radium was here, but this is the proof. And now we've a
way of getting it out—thanks to your borer! All the credit
is yours, Professor Guinness! You shall have the credit,
and I'll have the money."
furiously at his bonds again. "You—you—" he gasped. "How
dare you tie us this way! Release us at once! What do you
mean by it?"
unpleasantly. "You're very stupid, Guinness. Haven't you
guessed by now what I'm going to do?" He paused, as if
waiting for an answer, and the smile on his face gave way
to a look of savage menace. For the first time his bitter
feelings came to the surface.
forgotten how close I came to going to jail over those
charges of yours a year ago?" he said. "Have you forgotten
the disgrace to me that followed?—the stigma that forced
me to disappear for months? You fool, do you think I've
forgotten?—or that I'd let you—"
interrupted the older man, "you know very well you were
guilty. I caught you red-handed. You didn't fool
anyone—except the jury that let you go. So save your
breath, and, if you've the sense you were born with,
release my daughter and me. Why, you're crazy!" he cried
with mounting anger. "You can't get away with this! I'll
have you in jail within forty-eight hours, once I get back
to the surface!"
With an effort
Quade controlled his feelings and assumed his oily,
sarcastic manner. "That's just it," he said: "'once you
get back!' How stupid you are! You don't seem to realize
that you're not going back to the surface. You and your
Sue gasped, and
her father's eyes went wide. There was a tense silence.
dare!" the inventor cried finally. "You wouldn't dare!"
large, this cavern," Quade went on. "You'll have plenty of
room. Perhaps I'll untie you before I go back up, so—"
"You can't get
away with it!" shouted the old man, tremendously excited.
"Why, you can't, possibly! Philip Holmes'll track you
down—he'll tell the police—he'll rescue us! And then—"
suavely. "Oh, no, he won't. Perhaps you remember the shot
that sounded from the water-hole? Well, when I and my
assistant, Juan, heard Holmes say he was going for water,
I told Juan to follow him to the water-hole and bind him,
to keep him from interfering till I got back up. But Mr.
Holmes is evidently of an impulsive disposition, and must
have caused trouble. Juan, too, is impulsive; he is a
Mexican. And he had a gun. I'm afraid he was forced to use
it.... I am quite sure Philip Holmes will not, as you say,
track me down."
looked at his daughter's white face and horror-filled eyes
and suddenly crumpled. Humbly, passionately, he begged
Quade to take her back up. "Why, she's never done anything
to you, Quade!" he pleaded. "You can't take her life like
that! Please! Leave me, if you must, but not her! You
the old man noticed that Quade was not listening. His head
was tilted to one side as if he was straining to hear
something else. Guinness was held silent for a moment by
the puzzled look on the other's face and the strange way
he was acting.
"Do you hear
it?" Quade asked at last; and without waiting for an
answer, he knelt down and put his ear to the ground. When
he rose his face was savage, and he cursed under his
"Why, it's a
humming!" muttered Professor Guinness. "And it's getting
"It sounds like
another borer!" ventured Sue.
grew in volume. Then, from the ceiling, a rock dropped.
They were looking at the cavern roof and saw it start, but
they did not hear it strike, for the ever-growing humming
echoed loudly through the cavern. They saw another rock
fall; and another.
sake, what is it?" cried Guinness.
Quade looked at
him and slowly drew out his automatic.
earth-borer, I think," he answered. "And I rather expect
it contains your young friend Mr. Holmes. Yes—coming to
For a moment
Guinness and his daughter were too astounded to do
anything but gape. She finally exclaimed:
smiled. "Probably—for the moment. But don't let your hopes
rise too high. The borer he's in isn't strong enough to
survive a fifty-foot plunge." He was shouting now, so loud
was the thunder from above. "And," he added, "I'm afraid
he's not strong enough to survive it, either!"
Holmes started off to the water-hole, his head was full of
the earth-borer and the imminent descent. Now that the
long-awaited time had come, he was at fever-pitch to be
off, and it did not take him long to cover the mile of
sandy waste. His thoughts were far inside the earth as he
dipped the jug into the clear cool water and sloshed it
So the rope
that snaked softly through the air and dropped in a loop
over his shoulders came as a stark surprise. Before he
knew what was happening it had slithered down over his
arms and drawn taut just above the elbows, and he was
yanked powerfully backwards and almost fell.
But he managed
to keep his feet as he staggered backward, and turning his
head he saw the small dark figure of his aggressor some
fifteen feet away, keeping tight the slack.
turned to sudden fury and he completely lost his head.
What he did was rash; mad; and yet, as it turned out, it
was the only thing that could have
saved him. Instinctively, without hesitating one second,
and absolutely ignoring an excited command to stand still,
he squirmed face-on to his aggressor, lowered his head and
was short. Halfway across it, a gun barked, and he heard
the bullet crack into the water jug, which he was still
holding in front of himself. And even before the
splintered fragments reached the ground he had crashed
into the firer.
He hit him with
all the force of a tackling lineman, and they both went
down. The man grunted as the wind was jarred out of him,
but he wriggled like an eel and managed to worm aside and
bring up his gun.
Then there was
a desperate flurry of bodies in the coarse sand. Holmes
dived frantically for the gun hand and caught it; but,
handicapped as he was by the rope, he could not hold it.
Slowly its muzzle bent upward to firing position.
wrenched the arm upwards, in the direction it had been
straining to go, and the sudden unexpected jerk doubled
the man's arm and brought the weapon across his chest. For
a moment there was a test of strength as Phil lay chest to
chest over his opponent, the gun blocked between. Then the
other grunted; squirmed violently—and there was a muffled
A cry of pain
cut the midnight air, and with insane strength Holmes'
ambusher fought free from his grip, staggered to his feet
and went reeling away. Phil tore loose from the rope and
bounded after him, never feeling, at the moment, his
And then he
halted in his tracks.
A great roar
came thundering over the desert!
At once he knew
that it came from the earth-borer's disintegrators. The
sphere had started down without him.
He stood stock
still, petrified with surprise, facing the sound, while
his attacker melted farther and farther into the night.
And then, suddenly, Phil Holmes was sprinting desperately
back towards the Guinness camp.
He ran until he
was exhausted; walked for a little while his legs gathered
more strength, and his laboring lungs more air; and then
ran again. As the minutes passed, the thunder lessened
rapidly into a muffled drone; and by the time Phil had
panted up to the brink of the hole that gaped where but a
little time before the sphere was standing, it had become
but a distant purr. He leaned far over and peered into the
hot blackness below, but could see nothing.
there silently for some minutes, shocked by his strange
attack, bewildered by the unexpected descent of the borer.
For a time his mind would not work; he had no idea what to
do. But gradually his thoughts came to order and made
certain things clear.
He had been
deliberately ambushed. Only by luck had he escaped, he
told himself. If it hadn't been for the water jug, he'd
now be out of the picture. And on the heels of the ambush
had came the surprising descent of the earth-borer. The
two incidents coincided too well: the same mind had
planned them. And two, men, at least, were in on the
plot.... It suddenly became very clear to him that the
answer to the puzzle lay with the man who had ambushed
him. He would have to get that man. Track him down.
Phil acted with
decision. He got to his feet and strode rapidly to the
deserted Guinness shack, horribly quiet and lonely now in
the bright moonlight. In a minute he emerged with a
flashlight at his belt and a rifle across his arm.
Once again he
went over to the new black hole in the desert and looked
down. From far below still came the purr, now fainter than
ever. His friend, the girl he loved, were down there, he
reflected bitterly, and he was helpless
to reach them. Well, there was one thing he could do—go
man-hunting. Turning, he started off at a long lope for
later he was there, and off to the side he found the marks
of their scuffle—and small black blotches that could be
nothing but blood. The other was wounded: could probably
not get far. But he might still have his gun, so Phil kept
his rifle handy, and tempered his impatience with caution
as he set out on the trail of the widely spaced
They led off
towards the nearby hills, and in the bright moonlight Phil
did not use his flashlight at all, except to investigate
other round black blotches that made a line parallel to
the prints. As he went on he found his quarry's steps
coming more closely together: becoming erratic. Soon they
showed as painful drags in the sand, a laborious hauling
of one foot after the other.... Phil put away his light
and advanced very cautiously.
He wondered, as
he went, who in the devil was behind it all. The
radium-finding project had been kept strictly secret. Not
another soul was supposed to know of the earth-borer and
its daring mission into the heart of the earth. Yet,
obviously, someone had found out, and whoever it was had
laid at least part of his scheme cunningly. An old man and
a girl cannot offer much resistance: he, Phil, would have
been well taken care of had it not been for the water jug.
So far, there were at least two in the plot: the man who
had ambushed him and the unknown who had evidently
kidnapped both Professor and Sue Guinness. But there might
be still more.
There might be
friends, nearby, of the man he was tracking. The fellow
might have reached them, and warned them that the scheme
hadn't gone through, that Phil was loose. They could very
easily conceal themselves alongside their partner's tracks
and train their rifles on the tracker....
The trail was
leading up into one of the cañons in the cluster of hills
to the west. For some distance he followed it up through a
slash of black below the steep moonlit heights of the
hills to each side—and then, suddenly, he vaguely made out
the forms of two huts just ahead.
stooped low, and went skirting widely off up one side. He
proceeded slowly, with great caution, his rifle at the
ready. At any moment, he knew, the hush might be split by
the cracks of waylaying guns. Warily he advanced along the
narrow cañon wall above the huts. No lights were lit, and
the place seemed unoccupied. He was debating what to do
next when his attention was attracted to a large dark
object lying in the cañon trail some twenty yards from the
nearest hut. Straining his eyes in the inadequate
moonlight, he saw that it was the outstretched figure of a
man. His quarry—his ambusher!
flat, fearful of being seen. Keeping as best he could in
the shadows, fearing every moment to hear the sharp bark
of a gun, he crawled forward. It took him a long time to
approach the sprawled figure, but he wasn't taking
chances. When within twenty feet, he rose suddenly and
darted forward to the man's side.
glance showed him that the fellow was completely out: and
another quick look around failed to show that anyone else
was watching, so he returned to his examination of the
man. It was the ambusher, all right: a Mexican. He was
still breathing, though his face was drawn and white from
the loss of blood from a wound under the blood-soaked
clothing near his upper right arm. A hasty search showed
that he no longer had his gun, so Phil, satisfied that he
was powerless for some time to come, cautiously wormed his
way towards the two shacks.
something sinister in the strange silence that hung over
them. One was of queer construction—a windowless,
square, high box of galvanized iron. The other was
obviously a dwelling place. Carefully Phil sneaked up to
the latter. Then, rifle ready, he pushed its door open and
sent a beam of light stabbing through the darkness of the
There was no
one there. Only two bunks, a table, chair, a pail of water
and some cooking utensils met his view. He crept out
toward the other building.
Phil found that a dun-colored canvas had been thrown over
the top of it, making an adequate camouflage in daytime.
The place was about twenty feet high. He prowled around
the metal walls and discovered a rickety door. Again, gun
ready, he flung it open. The beam from his flash speared a
path through the blackness—and he gasped at sight of what
was a long, bullet-like tube of metal, the pointed end
upper-most, and the bottom, which was flat, toward the
ground. It was held in a wooden cradle, and was slanted at
the floor. In the bottom were holes of two shapes—rocket
tubes and disintegrating projectors. It was another
frozen with surprise before this totally unlooked-for
machine. He could easily have been overcome, had the owner
been in the building, for he had forgotten everything but
what his eyes were staring at. He started slowly around
the borer, found a long narrow door slightly ajar, and
like Guinness's, had a double shell, and much the same
instruments, though the whole job was simpler and cruder.
A small instrument board contained inclination,
temperature, depth and air-purity indicators, and narrow
tubes led to the air rectifiers. But what kept Holmes'
attention were the wires running from the magneto to the
mixing chambers of the disintegrating tubes.
"The fools!" he
exclaimed, "—they didn't know how to wire the thing! Or
else," he added after a moment, "didn't get around to
doing it." He noticed that the projectile's interior
contained no gyroscope: though, he thought, none would be
needed, for the machine, being long and narrow, could not
change keel while in the ground. Here he was reminded of
something. Stepping outside, he estimated the angle the
borer made with the dirt floor. Twenty degrees. "And
pointed southwest!" he exclaimed aloud. "This borer would
come close to meeting the professor's, four miles under
At once he knew
what he would do. First he went back to the other shack
and got the pail of water he had noticed, and took this
out where the Mexican lay outstretched. He bathed the
man's face and the still slightly bleeding bullet wound in
wounded man came to. His eyes opened, and he stared up
into a steel mask of a face, in which two level black eyes
bored into his. He remembered that face—remembered it all
too well. He trembled, cowered away.
gasped, as if he had seen a ghost. "No—no!"
"Yes, I'm the
man," Holmes told him firmly, menacingly. "The same one
you tried to ambush." He paused a moment, then said: "Do
you want to live?"
It was a simple
question, frightening in its simplicity.
"Because if you
don't answer my questions, I'm going to let you lie here,"
Phil went on coldly. "And that would probably mean your
death. If you do answer, I'll fix you up so you can have a
nodded eagerly. "I talk," he said.
Phil. "Then tell me who built that machine?"
Señor James Quade."
had heard the name before. "Of course!" he
said. "Guinness's old partner!"
"I not know,"
the Mexican answered. "He hire me with much money. He buy
thees machine inside, and we put him together. But he
could no make him work—it take too long. We watch, hear
old man go down to-night, and—"
stopped. "And so he sent you to get me, while he kidnapped
the old man and his daughter and forced them under the
ground in their own borer," Holmes supplied, and the other
"But I only
mean to tie you!" he blurted, gesturing weakly. "I no mean
shoot! No, no—"
right—forget it," Phil interrupted. "And now tell me what
Quade expects to do down there."
"I not know,
Señor," came the hesitant reply, "but...."
"But what?" the
young man jerked.
wounded Mexican continued. "Señor Quade—he—I think he don'
like thees old man. I think he leave heem an' the girl
down below. Then he come up an' say they keeled going
grimly. "I see," he said, voicing his thoughts. "Then he
would say that he and Professor Guinness are still
partners—and the radium ore will belong to him. Very nice.
He snapped back
to action, and without another word hoisted the Mexican
onto his back and carried him into the shack. There he
cleansed the wound, rigged up a tight bandage for it, and
tied the man to one of the cots. He tied him in such a
fashion that he could reach some food and water he put by
"You leave me
like thees?" the Mexican asked.
said, and started for the door.
"But what you
going to do?"
grimly as he flung an answer back over his shoulder.
to fix the wiring on those disintegrators in your friend
Quade's borer. Then I'm starting down after him." He
stopped and turned before he closed the door. "And if I
don't get back—well, it's just too bad for you!"
And so, a
little later, once more the hushed desert night was cleft
by a furious bellow of sound. It came, this time, from a
narrow cañon. The steep sides threw the roar back and back
again, and the echoes swelled to an earth-shaking blast of
sound. The oblong hut from which it came rocked and almost
fell; then, as the noise began to lessen, teetered on its
foundations and half-slipped into the ragged hole that had
been bored inside.
The descent was
a nightmare that Holmes would never forget. Quade's
machine was much cruder and less efficient than the sphere
David Guinness had designed. Its protecting insulation
proved quite inadequate, and the heat rapidly grew
terrific as the borer dug down. Phil became faint,
stifled, and his body oozed streams of sweat. And the
descent was also bumpy and uneven; often he was forced to
leave the controls and work on the mechanism of the
disintegrators when they faltered and threatened to stop.
But in spite of everything the needle on the depth gauge
gradually swung over to three thousand, and four, and
After the first
mile Holmes improvised a way to change the air more
rapidly, and it grew a little cooler. He watched the story
the depth gauge told with narrowed eyes, and, as it
reached three miles, inspected his rifle. At three and a
half miles he stopped the borer, thinking to try to hear
the noise made by the other, but so paralyzed were his
ear-drums from the terrific thunder beneath, it seemed
hardly any quieter when it ceased.
His plans were
vague; they would have to be made according to the
conditions he found. There was a coil of rope in the
tube-like interior of the borer, and he hoped to find a
cavern or cleft in the earth for
lateral exploring. He would stop at a depth of four
miles—where he should be very near the path of the
But Phil never
saw the needle on the gauge rise to four miles. At three
and three quarters came sudden catastrophe.
He knew only
that there was an awful moment of utter helplessness, when
the borer swooped wildly downwards, and the floor was
snatched sickeningly from under him. He was thrown
violently against the instrument panel; then up toward the
pointed top; and at the same instant came a rending crash
that drove his senses from him....
Just as I
thought," said James Quade in the silence that fell when
the last echoes had died away, and the splinters of steel
and rock had settled. "You see, Professor, this
earth-borer belongs to me. Yes, I built one too. But I
couldn't, unfortunately, get it working properly—that is,
in time to get down here first. After all, I'm not a
scientist, and remembered little enough of your borer's
plans.... It's probably young Holmes who's dropped in on
us. Shall we see?"
and his daughter were speechless with dread. Quade had
trained the searchlight on the borer, and by turning their
heads they could see it plainly. It was all too clear that
the machine was a total wreck. It had pitched over onto
one side, its shell cracked and mangled irreparably.
Grotesque pieces of crumpled metal lay all around it. Its
slanting course had tumbled it within fifteen yards of the
In silence the
old man and the girl watched Quade walk deliberately over
to it, his automatic steady in his right hand. He wrenched
at the long, narrow door, but it was so badly bent that
for a while he could not get it open. At last it swung
out, however, and Quade peered inside.
After a moment
he reached in and drew out a rifle. He took it over to a
nearby rock, smashed the gun's breech, then flung it,
useless, aside. Returning to the borer, he again peered
Sue was about
to scream from the torturous suspense when he at last
straightened up and looked around at the white-faced girl
and her father.
"Mr. Holmes is
tougher than I'd thought possible," he said, with a thin
smile; "he's still alive." And, as Sue gasped with relief,
he added: "Would you like to see him?"
He dragged the
young man's unconscious body roughly out on the floor.
There were several bad bruises on his face and head, but
otherwise he was apparently uninjured. As Quade stood over
him, playing idly with the automatic, he stirred, and
blinked, and at last, with an effort, got up on one elbow
and looked straight at the thin lips and narrowed eyes of
the man standing above. He shook his head, trying to
comprehend, then muttered hazily:
Quade did not
have time to answer, for Sue Guinness cried out:
"Phil! Are you
stupidly around, caught sight of the two who lay bound on
the floor, and staggered to his feet. "Sue!" he cried,
relief and understanding flooding his voice. He started
you are!" Quade snapped harshly, and the automatic in his
hand came up. Holmes peered at it and stopped, but his
blood-streaked face settled into tight lines, and his body
continued Quade. "Now tell me what happened to Juan."
himself to be calm. "Your pal, the greaser?" he said
cuttingly. "He's lying on a bunk in your shack. He shot
himself, playing with a gun."
Quade chose not
to notice the way Phil said this, but a little of the
suave self-confidence was gone from his face as he said:
"Well, in that case I'll have to hurry back to the surface
to attend to him. But don't be alarmed," he added, more
brightly. "I'll be back for you all in an hour or so."
At this, David
Guinness struggled frantically with his bonds and yelled:
him, Phil! He's going to leave us here, to starve and die!
He told us so just before you came down!"
twitched perceptibly. His eyes were nervous.
"Is that true,
Quade?" Holmes asked. There was a steely note in his
course not," the other said hastily, uncertain whether to
lie or not. "Of course I didn't!"
looked square into his eyes. He bluffed.
desert us, Quade. You haven't the guts. You haven't the
His face and
eyes burned with the contempt that was in his words. It
cut Quade to the raw. But he could not avoid Phil's eyes.
He stared at them for a full moment, trembling slightly.
Slowly, by inches, he started to back toward the sphere;
then suddenly he ran for it with all his might, Holmes
after him. Quade got to it first, and inside, as he yanked
in the searchlight and slammed and locked the door, he
you damned pup! You'll see!" And there was the smothered
sound of half-maniacal laughter....
Phil threw all
his weight against the metal door, but it was hopeless and
he knew it. He had gathered himself for another rush when
he heard Guinness yell:
Phil—back! He'll turn on the side disintegrators!"
Mad with rage
as the young man was, he at once saw the danger and leaped
away—only to almost fall over the professor's prone body.
With hurrying, trembling fingers he untied the pair's
bonds, and they struggled to their feet, cramped and
stiff. Then it was Phil who warned them.
"Back as far as
you can! Hurry!" He grabbed Sue's hand and plunged toward
the uncertain protection of a huge rock far in the rear.
At once he made them lie flat on the ground.
As yet the
sphere had not stirred nor emitted a whisper of sound,
though they knew the man inside was conning the controls
in a fever of haste to leave the cavern. But they hadn't
long to wait. There came a sputter, a starting cough from
the rocket tubes beneath the sphere. Quickly they warmed
into life, and the dully glimmering ball rocked in the
hole it lay in. Then a cataract of noise unleashed itself;
a devastating thunder roared through the echoing cavern as
the rockets burst into full force. A wave of brilliant
orange-red splashed out from under the sphere, licked back
up its sides, and seemed literally to shove the great ball
up towards the hole in the ceiling.
Its ascent was
very slow. As it gained height it looked—save for its
speed—like a fantastic meteor flaming through the night,
for the orange plumage that streamed from beneath lit the
ball with dazzling color. A glowing sphere, it staggered
midway between floor and ceiling, creeping jerkily
"He's not going
to hit the hole!" shouted Guinness.
The borer had
not risen in a perfectly straight line; it jarred against
the rim of the hole, and wavered uncertainly. Every second
the roar of its rockets, swollen by echoes, rose in a
savage crescendo; the faces of the three who watched were
painted orange in the glow.
The sphere was
blind. The man inside could judge his course only by the
feel. As the three who were deserted watched, hoping
ardently that Quade would not be able to find the opening,
the left side-rockets spouted lances of
fire, and they knew he had discovered the way to maneuver
the borer laterally. The new flames welded with the
exhaust of the main tubes into a great fan-shaped tail, so
brilliant and shot through with other colors that their
eyes could not stand the sight, except in winks. The borer
jerked to the right, but still it could not find the hole.
Then the flames lessened for a moment, and the borer sank
down, to rise again a moment later. Its ascent was so
labored that Phil shouted to Professor Guinness:
"Why so slow?"
inventor told him that which he had not seen for the
"Only half his
rockets are on!"
This time the
sphere was correctly aimed, however, and it roared
straight into the hole. Immediately the fierce sound of
the exhaust was muffled, and in a few seconds only the
fiery plumage, shooting down from the ceiling, showed
where the machine was. Then this disappeared, and the
noise alone was left.
forward, intending to stare up, but Guinness's yell halted
"Not yet! He
might still use the disintegrators!"
minutes they waited, till the muffled exhaust had died to
a drone. There was a puzzled expression on the professor's
face as the three at last walked over and dared peer up
into the hole. Far above, the splash of orange lit the
walls of the tunnel.
the old man muttered. "He's only using half the
rockets—about ten. I thought he'd turn them all on when he
got into the hole, but he didn't. Either they were damaged
in the fall, or Quade doesn't see fit to use them."
"Half of them
are enough," said Phil bitterly, and put his arm around
the quiet girl standing next to him. Together, a silent
little group, they watched the spot of orange die to a
pin-point; watched it waver, twinkle, ever growing
smaller.... And then it was gone.
Gone! Back to
the surface of the earth, to the normal world of reality.
Only four miles above them—a small enough distance on the
surface itself—and yet it might have been a million miles,
so utterly were they barred from it....
thought was in their minds, though none of them dared
express it. They were thinking of the serene desert, and
the cool wind, and the buttes and the high hills, placid
in the moonlight. Of the hushed rise of the dawn, the
first flush of the sun that was so achingly lovely on the
desert. The sun they would never see again, buried in a
lifeless world of gloom four miles within.... And buried
alive—and not alive for long....
But that way
lay madness. Phil Holmes drove the horrible thoughts from
his brain and forced a smile to his face.
that!" he said in a voice meant to be cheerful.
The dim cavern
echoed his words mockingly. With the earth-borer gone—the
man-made machine that had dared break a solitude
undisturbed since the earth first cooled—the great cavern
seemed to return to its awful original mood. The three
dwarfed humans became wholly conscious of it. They felt it
almost a living thing, stretching vastly around them,
tightening its unheard spell on them. Its smell, of mouldy
earth and rocks down which water slowly dripped, filled
their nostrils and somehow added to their fear.
As they looked
about, their eyes became accustomed to the dim, eery,
phosphorescent illumination. They saw little worm-like
creatures now and again appear from tiny holes between
stalagmites in the jagged floor; and, as Phil wondered in
his mind how long it would be before they would be reduced
to using them for food, a strange mole-sized
scraped from the darkness and pecked at one of them. As it
slithered away, a writhing shape in its mouth, Holmes
muttered bitterly: "A competitor!" Vague, flitting forms
haunted the gloom among the stalactites of the distorted
ceiling—hints of the things that lived in the terrible
silence of this nether world. Here Time had paused, and
life had halted in primate form.
A little moan
came from Sue Guinness's pale lips. She plucked at her
arm; a sickly white worm, only an inch long, had fallen on
it from the ceiling. "Oh!" she gasped. "Oh!"
Phil drew her
closer to him, and walked with her over to Quade's wrecked
borer. "Let's see what we've got here," he suggested
The machine was
over on its side, the metal mangled and crushed beyond
repair. Nevertheless, he squeezed into it. "Stand back!"
he warned. "I'm going to try its rockets!" There was a
click of broken machinery, and that was all. "Rockets
gone," Phil muttered.
another lever over. There was a sputter from within the
borer, then a furious roar that sent great echoes beating
through the cavern. A cloud of dust reared up before the
bottom of the machine, whipped madly for a moment, and
sank as the bellow of sound died down. Sue saw that a
rocky rise in the floor directly in front of the
disintegrators had been planed off levelly.
out. "The disintegrators work," he said, "but a lot of
good they do us. The borer's hopelessly cracked." He
shrugged his shoulders, and with a discouraged gesture
cast to the ground a coil of rope he had found inside.
he swung around. "Professor!" he called to the old figure
standing bowed beneath the hole in the ceiling. "There's a
draft blowing from somewhere! Do you feel it?"
with his hands a moment and nodded slowly. "Yes," he said.
from this way!" Sue said excitedly, pointing into the
darkness on one side of the cavern. "And it goes up the
hole we made in the ceiling!"
eagerly to the old inventor. "It must come from
somewhere," he said, "and that somewhere may take us
toward the surface. Let's follow it!"
"We might as
well," the other agreed wearily. His was the tone of a man
who has only a certain time to live.
But Phil was
more eager. "While there's life, there's hope," he said
cheerfully. "Come on, Sue, Professor!" And he led the way
forward toward the dim, distorted rock shapes in the
The roof and
sides of the cavern angled down into a rough, tunnel-like
opening, from which the draft swept. It was a heavy air,
weighted with the smell of moist earth and lifeless water
and a nameless, flat, stale gas. They slowly made their
way through the impeding stalagmites, surrounded by a dark
blur of shadows, the ghostly phosphorescent light
illuminating well only the few rods around them. Utter
silence brooded over the tunnel.
when they had gone about seventy-five feet. "I left that
rope behind," he said, "and we may need it. I'll return
and get it, and you both wait right here." With the words
he turned and went back into the shadows.
He went as fast
as he could, not liking to leave the other two alone. But
when he had retrieved the rope and tied it to his waist,
he permitted himself a last look up as he passed under the
hole in the ceiling—and what he saw there tensed every
muscle in his body, and made his heart beat like mad.
Again there was a tiny spot of orange in the blackness
yelled excitedly. "Sue! Come here! The
sphere's coming back!"
There was no
doubt about it. The pin-point of light was growing each
second, with the flame of the descending exhausts.
Guinness and his daughter ran from the tunnel, and, guided
by Phil's excited ejaculations, hurried to his side. Their
eyes confirmed what his had seen. The earth-borer was
said bewilderedly, "those rockets were enough to lift
This was a
mystery. Even though ten rockets were on—ten tiny spots of
orange flame—the sphere came down swiftly. The same force
which some time before had lifted it slowly up was now
insufficient. The roar of the tubes rose rapidly. "Get
back!" Phil ordered, remembering the danger, and they all
retreated to the mouth of the tunnel, ready to peep
cautiously around the edge. Holmes' jaws were locked tight
with grim resolution. Quade was coming back! he told
himself exultantly. This time he must not go up alone!
half-formed resolutions were idle. He could not know what
frightful thing was bringing Quade down—what frightful
experience was in store for them all....
Spawn of the
In a crescendo
of noise that stunned their ears, the earth-borer came
down. Tongues of fire flared from the hole, speared to the
ground and were deflected upward, cradling the metal ball
in a wave of flame. Through this fiery curtain the machine
slowly lowered to the floor, where a shower of sparks
spattered out, blinding the eyes of the watchers with
their brilliance. For a full minute the orange-glowing
sphere lay there, quivering from the vibration; then the
exhausts died and the wave of flame wavered and sank into
nothingness. While their ear-drums continued the thunder,
the three stared at the borer, not daring to approach, yet
striving to solve the mystery of why it had sunk despite
the up-thrust of ten rocket tubes.
As their eyes
again became accustomed to the familiar phosphorescent
illumination, pallid and cold after the fierce orange
flame, they saw why—and their eyes went wide with surprise
A strange mass
was covering the top of the earth-borer—something that
looked like a heap of viscid, whitish jelly. It was
sprawled shapelessly over the round upper part of the
metal sphere, a half-transparent, loathsome stuff, several
feet thick in places.
Holmes, striving to understand what it could be, saw an
awful thing. "It's moving!" he whispered, unconsciously
drawing Sue closer. "There's—there's life in it!"
were running through the mound of jelly, pulsings that
gave evidence of its low organism. They saw little ripples
of even beat run over it, and under them steady, sluggish
convulsions that told of life; that showed, perhaps, that
the thing was hungry and preparing to move its body in
quest of food.
It was alive,
unquestionably. The borer lay still, but this thing moved
internally, of itself. It was life in its lowest, most
primate form. The mass was mind, stomach, muscle and body
all in one, stark and raw before their startled eyes.
"Oh, God!" Phil
whispered through the long pause. "It can't be real!..."
monster amoeba," David Guinness's curiously cracked voice
said. "Just as it exists on the surface, only
microscopically. Primate life...."
The lock of the
earth-borer clicked. Phil gasped. "Quade is coming out!"
he said. A little cry of horror came from Sue. And the
metal door opened.
stepped through, automatic in
hand. He was fresh from the light inside, and he could not
see well. He was quite unconscious of what was oozing down
on him from above, of the flabby heap that was carefully
stretching down for him. He peered into the gloom, looking
for the three he had deserted, and all the time an arm
from the mass above crept nearer. Sue Guinness's nerves
suddenly gave, and she shrieked; but Quade's ears were
deaf from the borer's thunder, and he did not hear her.
It was when he
lifted one foot back into the sphere—probably to get out
the searchlight—that he felt the thing's presence. He
looked up—and a strange sound came from him. For seconds
he apparently could not move, stark fear rooting him to
the ground, the gun limp in his hand.
Then a surge
ran through the mound of flesh, and the arm, a pseudopod,
reached more rapidly for him.
It stung Quade
into action. He leaped back, brought up his automatic, and
fired at the thing once; then three times more. He, and
each one of the others, saw four bullets thud into the
heap of pallid matter and heard them clang on the metal of
the sphere beneath. They had gone right through its
flesh—but they showed no slightest effect!
evidently unwilling to leave the sphere. Jerking his arm
up he brought his trigger finger back again. A burst of
three more shots barked through the cavern, echoing and
re-echoing. The man screamed an inarticulate oath as he
saw how useless his bullets were, and hurled the empty gun
at the monster—which was down on the floor now, and
bunching its sluggish body together.
went right into it. They could all see it there, in the
middle of the amorphous body, while the creature stopped,
as if determining whether or not it was food. Quade
screwed his courage together in the pause, and tried to
dodge past to the door of the sphere; but the monster was
alert: another pseudopod sprang out from its shapeless
flesh, sending him back on his heels.
The feeler had
all but touched Quade, and with the closeness of his
escape, the remnants of his courage gave. He yelled, and
turned and ran.
He ran straight
for the three who watched from the tunnel mouth, and the
mound of shapeless jelly came fast on his trail. It came
in surging rolls, like thick fluid oozing forward; it
would have been hard to measure its size, for each moment
it changed. The only impression the four humans had was
that of a wave of half-transparent matter that one instant
was a sticky ball of viscid flesh and the next a rapidly
advancing crescent whose horns reached far out on each
flank to cut off retreat.
Phil jerked Sue around and yelled at the professor to run,
for the old man seemed to be frozen into an attitude of
fearful interest. Bullets would not stop the thing—could
anything? Holmes wondered. He could visualize all too
easily the death they would meet if that shapeless, naked
protoplasmic mass overtook and flowed over them....
But he wasted
no time with such thoughts. They ran, all three, into the
Quade caught up
with them quickly. Personal enmity was suspended before
this common peril. They could not run at full speed, for a
multitude of obstacles hindered them. Tortuous ridges of
rock lay directly across their path, formations that had
been whipped in some mad, eon-old convulsion and then,
through the ages, remained frozen into their present
distortion; black pits gaped suddenly before them;
half-seen stalagmites, whose crystalline edges were
razor-sharp, tore through to their flesh. Haste was
perilous where every moment they might stumble into an
unseen cleft and go pitching into awful depths below. They
were staking everything on the draft that blew steadily
their faces; Phil told himself desperately that it must
lead to some opening—it must!
But what if the
opening were a vertical, impassable tunnel? He would not
think of that....
Guinness tired fast, and was already lagging in the rear
when Quade gasped hoarsely:
at a constant distance behind them, it came on. It was as
fast as they were, and evidently untiring. It was in its
own element; obstacles meant nothing to it. It oozed over
the jagged ridges that took the humans precious moments to
scramble past, and the speed of its weird progress seemed
to increase as theirs faltered. It was a heartless mass
driven inexorably by primal instinct towards the food that
lay ahead. The dim phosphorescent illumination tinged its
flabby tissues a weird white.
they stumbled through narrowed. Long irregular spears of
stalactites hung from the unseen ceiling; others, the
drippings of ages, pronged up from the floor, shredding
their clothes as they jarred into them. One moment they
were clambering up-hill, slipping on the damp rock; the
next they were sliding down into unprobed darkness,
reckless of where they would land. They were aware only
that the water-odorous draft was still in their faces, and
the hungry mound of flesh behind....
"I can't last
much longer!" old Guinness's winded voice gasped. "Best
leave me behind. I—I might delay it!"
Phil went back, grabbed him by the arm and dragged his
tired body forward. He was snatching a glance behind to
see how close the monster was, when Sue's frightened voice
reached him from ahead.
"There's a wall
here, Phil—and no way through!"
And then Holmes
came to it. It barred the passage, and was apparently
unbroken. Yet the draft still came!
where the draft enters!" he yelled. "You take that side!"
And he started feeling over the clammy, uneven surface,
searching frantically for a cleft. It seemed to be
hopeless. Quade stood staring back into the gloom, his
eyes looking for what he knew was surging towards them.
His face had gone sickly white, he was trembling as if
with fever, and he sucked in air with long, racking gasps.
"Here! I have
it!" cried the girl suddenly at her end of the wall. The
other three ran over, and saw, just above her head, a
narrow rift in the rock, barely wide enough to squirm
through. "Into it!" Phil ordered tersely. He grasped her,
raised her high, and she wormed through. Quade scrambled
to get in next, but Holmes shoved him aside and boosted
the old man through. Then he helped the other.
A second after
he had swung himself up, a wave of whitish matter rolled
up below, hungry pseudopods reaching for the food it knew
was near. It began to trickle up the wall....
The crack was
narrow and jagged; utterly black. Phil could hear Quade
frantically worming himself ahead, and he wondered
achingly if it would lead anywhere. Then a faint, clear
voice from ahead rang out:
Phil breathed more easily. The next moment Quade scrambled
through; dim light came; and they were in another vast,
The crack came
out on its floor-level; Guinness was resting near, and his
daughter had her hands on a large boulder of rock. "Let's
shove it against the hole!" she suggested to Phil. "It
might stop it!"
good!" he exclaimed, and at once all four of them strained
at the chunk, putting forth every bit of strength they
had. The boulder stirred, rolled over, and thudded neatly
in front of the crack, almost completely
sealing it. There was only a cleft of five inches on one
expression of relief died in their throats. A tiny trickle
of white appeared through the niche. The amorphous monster
was compressing itself to a single stream, thin enough to
squeeze through even that narrow space.
They could not
block it. They had nothing to attack it with. There was
nothing to do but run.... And hope for a chance to double
As nearly as
they could make out, this second cavern was as large as
the first. They could dimly see the fantastic shapes of
hundreds of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Clumps
of stalagmites made the floor a maze which they threaded
painfully. The strong steady draft guided them like a
radio beacon, leading them to their only faint hope of
escape and life. Guinness, very tired, staggered along
mechanically, a heavy weight on Phil's supporting arm;
James Quade ran here and there in frantic spurts of speed.
Sue was silent, but the hopelessness in her eyes tortured
Phil like a wound. His shirt had long since been ripped to
shreds; his face, bruised in the first place by the borer
he had crashed in, now was scratched and bloody from
contact with rough stalagmites.
warning, they suddenly found among the rough walls on the
far side of the cavern, the birthplace of the draft. It
lay at the edge of the floor—a dark hole, very wide.
Black, sinister and clammy from the draft that poured from
it, it pierced vertically down into the very bowels of the
earth. It was impassable.
crumpled at the brink; "It's the end!" he moaned. "We
can't go farther! It's the end of the draft!"
blocked their forward path completely. They could not go
ahead.... In seconds, it seemed, the slithering that told
of the monster's approach sounded from behind. Sue's eyes
were already fixed on the awful, surging mass when a voice
off to one side yelled:
It was Phil
Holmes. He had been scouting through the gloom, and had
The other three
ran to him. "There's another draft going through here," he
explained rapidly, pointing to an angled crevice in the
rocky wall. "There's a good chance it goes to the cavern
where the sphere and the hole to the surface are. Anyway,
we've got to take it. I'd better go first, after this—and
you, Quade, last. I trust you less than the monster
He turned and
edged into the crack, and the others followed as he had
ordered. Quickly the passageway broadened, and they found
the going much easier than it had been before. For perhaps
ten minutes they scrambled along, with the draft always on
their backs and the blessed, though faint, fire of hope
kindling again. In all that time they did not see their
pursuer once, and the hope that they had lost it brought a
measure of much needed optimism to drive their tired
bodies onward. They found but few time-wasting obstacles.
If only the tunnel would continue right into the original
cavern! If only their path would stay clear and
But it did not.
The sound of Phil's footsteps ahead stopped, and when Sue
and her father came up they saw why.
"A river!" Phil
standing on a narrow ledge that overhung an underground
river. A fetid smell of age-old, lifeless water rose from
it. Dimly, at least fifty feet across, they could see the
other side, shrouded in vague shadows. The inky stream
beneath did not seem to move at all, but remained smooth
and hard and thick-looking.
They could not
go around it. The ledge was only a few feet wide, and
blocked at each side.
"Got to cross!"
Phil said tersely.
sickly-faced, stared down.
"There—there might be other things in that water!" he
Phil contemptuously. "You'd better stay here." He turned
to the others. "I'll see how deep it is," he said, and
without the faintest hesitation dove flatly in.
washed back, and they saw his head poke through,
sputtering. "Not deep," he said. "Chest-high. Come on."
He reached for
Sue, helped her down, and did the same for her father.
Holding each by the hand, Sue's head barely above the
water, he started across. They had not gone more than
twenty feet when they heard Quade, left on the bank, give
a hoarse yell of fear and dive into the water. Their dread
pursuer had caught up with them.
followed—on the water! Phil had hoped it would not be able
to cross, but once more the thing's astounding
adaptability dashed his hopes. Without hesitation, the
whitish jelly sprawled out over the water, rolling after
them with ghastly, snake-like ripples, its pallid body
standing out gruesomely against the black, odorous tide.
Quade came up
thrashing madly, some feet to the side of the other three.
He was swimming—and swimming with such strength that he
quickly left them behind. He would be across before they;
and that meant there was a good chance that the
earth-borer would go up again with only one passenger....
against the water, pulling Sue and her father forward as
best he could. From behind came the rippling sound of
their shapeless pursuer. "Ten feet more—" Holmes
began—then abruptly stopped.
There had been
a swish, a ripple upstream. And as their heads turned they
saw the water part and a black head, long, evil,
glistening, pointing coldly down to where they were
struggling towards the shore. Phil Holmes felt his
strength ooze out. He heard Professor Guinness gasp:
Its head was
reared above the surface, gliding down on them silently,
leaving a wedge of long, sluggish ripples behind. When
thirty feet away the glistening head dipped under, and a
great half-circle of leg-thick body arched out. It was
like an oily stream of curved cable; then it ended in a
pointed tail—and the creature was entirely under water....
strength Phil hauled the girl to the bank and, standing in
several feet of water, pushed her up. Then he whirled and
yanked old Guinness past him up into the hands of his
daughter. With them safe, and Sue reaching out her hand
for him, he began to scramble up himself.
But he was too
late. There was a swish in the water behind him, and
toothless, hard-gummed jaws clamped tight over one leg and
drew him back and under. And with the touch of the
creature's mouth a stiff shock jolted him; his body went
numb; his arms flopped limply down. He was paralyzed.
cried out. Her father stared helplessly at the spot where
his young partner had disappeared with so little
"It was an
eel," he muttered dully. "Some kind of electric eel...."
realized the same thing. A moment later his face broke the
surface, but he could not cry out; he could not move his
little finger. Only his involuntary muscles kept
working—his heart and his lungs. He found he could control
his breathing a little.... And then he was wondering why
he was remaining motionless on the surface. Gradually he
came to understand.
He had not felt
it, but the eel had let go its hold on his leg, and had
disappeared. But only for a moment. Suddenly, from
somewhere near, its gleaming body writhed crazily, and a
terrific twist of its tail hit Phil a glancing blow on the
chest. He was swept under, and the water around him became
a maelstrom. When next he bobbed to the tumultuous
surface, he managed to get a much-needed
breath of air—and in the swirling currents glimpsed the
long, snake-like head of the eel go shooting by, with thin
trickles of stuff that looked like white jelly clinging to
what was happening. The eel had been challenged by the
ameboid monster, and they were fighting for possession of
him—the common prey.
became an inferno of whipping and lashing movements, of
whitish fibers and spearing thrusts of a glistening black
electric body. Unquestionably the eel was using its
numbing electric shock on its foe. Time and time again
Phil felt the amoeba grasp him, searingly, only to be
wrenched free by the force of the currents the combat
stirred up. Once he thudded into the bottom of the river,
and his lungs seemed about to burst before he was again
shot to the top and managed to get a breath. At last the
water quieted somewhat, and Phil, at the surface, saw the
eel bury its head in a now apathetic mound of flesh.
It tore a
portion loose with savage jaws, a portion that still
writhed after it was separated from the parent mass; and
then the victor glided swiftly downstream, and disappeared
under the surface....
helplessly on the inky water. He could see the amoeba
plainly; it was still partly paralyzed, for it was very
still. But then a faint tremor ran through it; a wave ran
over its surface—and it moved slowly towards him once
Phil tried to retreat. The will was there, but the body
would not work. Save for a feeble flutter of his hands and
feet, he could not move. He could not even turn around to
bid Sue and David Guinness good-by—with his eyes....
Then a fresh,
loved voice sounded just behind him, and he felt something
tighten around his waist.
right, dear!" the voice called. "Hang on; we'll get you
Sue had come in
after him! She had grasped the rope tied to his belt, and
she and her father were pulling him back to the bank!
He wanted to
tell her to go back—the amoeba was only feet away—but he
could only manage a little croak. And then he was safe up
on the ledge at the other side of the river.
of strength filled his limbs, and he knew the shock was
rapidly wearing off. But it was also wearing off of the
monster in the water. Its speed increased; the ripplings
of its amorphous body-substance became quicker, more
excited. It came on steadily.
While it came,
the girl and her father worked desperately over Phil,
massaging his body and pulling him further up the bank. It
had all but reached the bank when Holmes gasped:
"I think I can
walk now. Where—where did Quade go to?"
gestured over to the right, up a dim winding passage
through the rocks.
"Then we must
follow—fast!" Phil said, staggering to his feet. "He may
get to the sphere first; he'll go up by himself even yet!
I'm all right!"
words, he could not run, and could only command an awkward
walk. Sue lifted one of his arms around her shoulder, and
her father took the other, and without a backward glance
they labored ahead. But Phil's strength quickly returned,
and they raised the pace until they had broken once more
into a stumbling run.
How far ahead
James Quade was, they did not know, but obviously they
could follow where he had gone. Once again the draft was
strong on their backs. They felt sure they were on the
last stretch, headed for the earth-borer. But, unless they
could overtake Quade, he would be there first. They had no
illusions about what that would mean....
A Death More
Quade was there
When they burst
out of a narrow crevice, not far from the funnel-shaped
opening they had originally entered, they saw him standing
beside the open door of the sphere as if waiting. The
searchlight inside was still on, and in its shaft of light
they could see that he was smiling thinly, once more his
old, confident self. It would only take him a second to
jump in, slam the door and lock it. He could afford a last
stopped short. They saw something he did not.
observed in his familiar, mocking voice. He paused, seeing
that they did not come on. He had plenty of time.
something else, but the two men and the girl did not hear
what it was. As if by a magnet their eyes were held by
what was hanging above him, clinging to the lip of the
hole the sphere had made in the ceiling.
It was an
amoeba, another of those single-celled, protoplasmic
mounds of flesh. It had evidently come down through the
hole; and now it was stretching, rubber-like, lower and
lower, a living, reaching stalactite of whitish hunger.
Quade was all
unconscious of it. His final words reached Phil's
"... And this
time, of course, I will keep the top disintegrators on. No
other monster will then be able to weigh me down!"
He shrugged his
shoulders and turned to the door. And that movement was
the signal that brought his doom. Without a sound, the
poised mass above dropped.
never knew what hit him. The heap of whitish jelly fell
squarely. There was a brief moment of frantic lashing, of
tortured struggles—then only tiny ripples running through
the monster as it fed.
turned her head. But the two men for some reason could not
take their eyes away....
It was the
girl's voice that jerked them back to reality. "The
other!" she gasped. "It's coming, behind!"
completely forgotten the mass in the tunnel. Turning, they
saw that it was only fifteen feet away and approaching
fast, and instinctively they ran out into the cavern,
skirting the sphere widely. When they came to Quade's
wrecked borer Phil, who had snatched a glance behind,
dragged them down behind it. For he had seen their pursuer
abandon the chase and go to share in the meal of its
"We'd best not
get too far away," he whispered. "When they leave the
front of the borer, maybe we can make a dash for it."
that went like hours the young man watched, waiting for
the creatures to be done, hoping that they would go away.
Fortunately the sphere lay between, and he was not forced
to see too much. Only one portion of one of the monsters
was visible, lapping out from behind the machine....
At last his
body tensed, and he gripped Sue and her father's arm in
quick warning. The things were leaving the sphere. Or,
rather, only one was. For Phil saw that they had
agglutenated—merged into oneness—and now the monster that
remained was the sum of the sizes of the original two. And
watched. And they all saw the amoeba stop, hesitate for a
moment—and come straight for the wrecked borer behind
which they were hidden.
whispered hoarsely. "It's still hungry—and it's after us!"
sighed wearily. "It's heavy and sluggish, now," he said,
"so maybe if we run again.... Though I don't know how I
can last any longer...."
Holmes did not
answer. His eyes were narrowed; he was casting about
desperately for a plan. He hardly felt Sue's light touch
on his arm as she whispered:
Phil—in case.... This must be good-by...."
But the young
man turned to her with gleaming eyes. "Good-by, nothing!"
he cried. "We've still got a card to play!"
She stared at
him, wondering if he had cracked from the strain of what
he had passed through. But his next words assured her he
had not. "Go back, Sue," he said levelly. "Go far back.
We'll win through this yet."
then obeyed. She crept back from the wrecked borer, back
into the dim rear, eyes on Phil and the sluggish mass that
moved inexorably towards him. When she had gone fifteen or
twenty yards she paused, and watched the two men
talking swiftly to Professor Guinness. His voice was low
and level, and though she could not hear the words she
could catch the tone of assurance that ran through them.
She saw her father nod his head, and he seemed to make the
gesture with vigor. "I will," she heard him say; and he
slapped Phil on the back, adding: "But for God's sake, be
And with these
words the old man wormed inside Quade's wrecked borer and
was gone from the girl's sight.
desperately to run forward and learn what Phil intended to
do, but she restrained herself and obeyed his order. She
waited, and watched; and saw the young man stand up, look
at the slowly advancing monster—and deliberately walk
right into its path!
Sue could not
move from her fright. In a daze she saw Phil advance
cautiously towards the amoeba and pause when within five
feet of it. The thing stopped; remained absolutely
motionless. She saw him take another short step forward.
This time a pseudopod emerged, and reached slowly out for
him. Phil avoided it easily, but by so narrow a margin
that the girl's heart stopped beating. Then she saw him
step back; and, snail-like, the creature followed, pausing
twice, as if wary and suspicious. Slowly Phil Holmes drew
it after him.
To Sue, who did
not know what was his plan, it seemed a deliberate
invitation to death. She forgot about her father, lying
inside the mangled borer, waiting. She did not see that
Phil was leading the monster directly in front of it....
It was a
grotesque, silent pursuit. The creature appeared to be
unalert; its movements were sloth-like; yet the girl knew
that if Phil once ventured an inch too close, or slipped,
or tried to dodge past it to the sphere, its torpidness
would vanish and it would have him. His maneuvering had to
be delicate, judged to a matter of inches. Tense with the
suspense, the strain of the slow-paced seconds, she
watched—and yet hardly dared to watch, fearful of the
awful thing she might see.
It was a
fantastic game of tag her lover was playing, with death
the penalty for tardiness. The slow, enticing movements
were repeated again and again, Phil advancing very close,
and stepping back in the nick of time. Always he barely
avoided the clutching white arms that were extended, and
little by little he decoyed the thing onward....
Then came the
end. As Holmes was almost in front of the wrecked machine,
Sue saw him glance quickly aside—and, as if waiting for
that moment when he would be off guard, the monster
whipped forward in a great, reaching surge.
nerves cracked: she shrieked. They had him! She started
forward, then halted abruptly. With a tremendous leap,
Phil Holmes had wrenched free and flung himself backwards.
She heard his yell:
There was a
sputter from the bottom of the outstretched borer; then,
like the crack of a whip, came a bellow of awful sound.
A thick cloud
of dust reared up, and the ear-numbing thunder rolled
through the cavern in great pulsing echoes. And then Sue
Guinness understood what the young man had been about.
disintegrators of James Quade's borer had sent a broad
beam of annihilation into the monster. His own machine had
destroyed his destroyer—and given his intended victims
their only chance to escape from the dread fate he had
schemed for them.
Sue could see
no trace of the creature in its pyre of slow-swirling
dust. Caught squarely, its annihilation had been utter.
And then, through the thunder that still echoed in her
ear-drums, she heard a joyful voice.
"We got 'em!"
dusty haze Phil appeared at her side. He flung his arms up
exultantly, swept her off the ground, hugged her close.
"We got 'em!"
he cried again. "We're free—free to go up!"
Guinness crawled from the borer. His face, for the first
time since the descent, wore a broad smile. Phil ran over
to him, slapped him on the back; and the older man said:
"You did it
beautifully, Phil." He turned to Sue. "He had to decoy
them right in front of the disintegrators. It was—well, it
"All credit to
Sue: she was my inspiration!" Phil said, laughing. "But
now," he added, "let's see if we can fix those dead
rocket-tubes. I have a patient up above—and, anyway, I'm
not over-fond of this place!"
The three had
won through. They had blasted four miles down from the
surface of the earth. The brain of an elderly scientist,
the quick-witted courage of a young engineer, had achieved
the seemingly impossible—and against obstacles that could
not have been predicted. Death had attended that
achievement, as death often does accompany great forward
steps; James Quade had gone to a death more hideous than
that he devised for the others. But, in spite of the
justice of it, a moment of silence fell on the three
survivors as they came to the spot where his fate at last
had caught up to him.
But it was only
a moment. It was relieved by Professor Guinness's picking
up the chunk of radium ore his former partner had hewn
from the cavern's wall. He held it up for all to see, and
"Here it is,"
he said simply.
Then he led the
way into his earth-borer, and the little door closed
quietly and firmly into place.
For a few
minutes slight tappings came from within, as if a wrench
or a screwdriver were being used. Then the tappings
stopped, and all was silence.
A choke, a
starting cough, came from beneath the sphere. A torrent of
rushing sound burst out, and spears of orange flame
spurted from the bottom and splashed up its sides, bathing
it in fierce, brilliant light. It stirred. Then, slowly
and smoothly, the great ball of metal raised up.
It hit the edge
of the hole in the ceiling, and hung there, hesitating.
Side-rockets flared, and the sphere angled over. Then it
slid, roaring, through the hole.
spots of orange from its rocket-tube exhausts died to
pin-points. There were now almost twenty of them. And soon
these pin-points wavered, and vanished utterly.
Then there was
only blackness in the hole that went up to the surface.
Blackness in the hole, calm night on the desert above—and
silence, as if the cavern were brooding on the puny
figures and strange machines that had for the first time
dared invade its solitude, in the realms four miles within