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THE FIRES BENEATH THE DESERT

First episode, taken from The Wizard issue: 1037 November 13th 1943.

The astounding story of a descent into the earth’s eternal flames.

THE FIRE-PROOF MEN

The hot southern Californian sun blazed down on the tangle of rocks at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains. Of many colours and many shapes were the boulders. It was as though some giant had been playing marbles, tossing fragments of the cliffs from him in playful mood. Some of these heaps towered several hundred feet above the level of the sand, casting huge shadows with ungainly shapes. Suddenly the outline of one of these shadows was broken by the appearance of a bulge. A queer figure had appeared on the skyline. Well over six feet in height, enormously broad, the figure had two legs like a human being, but was of ungainly shape. The head was square, glittering like silver, and had a narrow window in the front through which peered two eyes dimly seen because of the darkness of the medium through which they peered. There were neither ears nor nose. The body grew out of the head without a neck to separate them. It was circular, belted with thick ridges which were flanged like those of a radiator. There were many of these flanges, and they all curved downwards. Similar flanges, but shallower in depth, covered the arms and the legs. Hands consisting of a thumb and one thick finger terminated the end of these arms. “Well, how do you find it?” came a voice from below. “Pretty hard going?” The wheezing noises quickened. From within the square head came a muffled reply, a moment later amplified by some unseen electrical mechanism. “Phew, it’s hard work, Doctor! It’s as bad as trying to climb a mountain in a suit of armour.” “What about the temperature?” came the same voice from below. “Are you sweating?” The grotesque figure swayed to and fro. “No, it’s quite cool. In fact, I’m shivering at this moment yet the sun must be darned hot, judging by the glare. “It’s at least 110 in the shade,” said the tall, grey-haired man who stood in the shade of some giant cactus, beside the two sweating mules which had carried them to the spot. Jess Warden eased his right leg, and winced. It was just like moving inside steel plating, though his covering was of asbestos and other heat insulating materials. He was still breathing hard from the effects of the climb. His husky form had been strained to the utmost, but he had proved one thing. The Stratton Heat-Resisting Suit was a success. He was as cool as though on a Swiss mountain side in the snow, although outside there was an inferno of heat. He would never have believed it possible, if he had not experienced it. He reached the bottom without trouble, and Dr Stratton patted his protected shoulder. “Good work, Jess. That was a severe test. Now for the heat. These cactus are as dry as tinder, and full of oil. We’ll have a grand fire in a minute. He led the mules some distance away, then returned to the thick clump of cactus. For a few moments he knelt and struck matches amongst the fibres which had turned down from the lower stems of the plants. These caught rapidly. In less than two minutes flames were roaring fifteen feet into the air. The slight wind from the Colorado Desert fanned the fire vigorously. Cactus after cactus caught, until the clump became one roaring inferno of flame. The heat was so intense that Dr Stratton had to hurriedly retreat. “Now, Jess!” he said. Jess Warden looked at the furnace before him, and hesitated. Anyone would have done so. For quite ten seconds he studied the sheet of fire, then walked forward. He did so swiftly. For one thing the asbestos suit he wore was too heavy, and he knew it was part of the test that he should take his time. Step by step he approached the wall of flame, and finally disappeared within it, forcing his way through blazing branches which snapped to his touch. The dark windows of his helmet protected him from the full glare, but he could see every detail of his surroundings. His heavy feet crushed the smouldering fronds beneath them. He was hedged in by fire hot enough to have melted lead, yet he felt no heat. At the middle he stopped, and stood there patiently whilst the fire died down. It was one of those intense, quick conflagrations which were all over in ten minutes. When the smoke cleared the grotesque shape of the man in the Stratton Heat-Resisting Suit was in the same spot. Dr Stratton started forward nervously. “Jess!” he called. “Jess Warden!” “Hullo, there!”

 

The asbestos-clad man stirred and walked towards him. “Afraid I dozed a little. I was just pleasantly warm.” “Warm!” cried the inventor of the suit. “The temperature in there must have been 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Are you sure you felt no discomfort?” “None, except that the edge of the collar rubs my neck a little,” growled Jess Warden, and he quickly raised his hands and unfastened the square helmet, lifted it off without trouble, blinking about him painfully in the full dazzle of the sunshine. “Phew, it’s hot out here!” Dr Stratton plunged forward and gripped his armoured hand. “You know what this means, Jess?” “Sure We’ll be able to go on the trip you’ve planned. We’ll be able to head for the centre of the earth, and I’ll be able to plant my explosives where they’ll do the most good. We’ll be able to save the coastal belt from future earthquake shocks.” “Yes, we’ll be able to work in temperatures hitherto believed impossible to human beings. It’s a great step forward in science, Jess!” Jess Warden made for one of the mules and retrieved a water bottle, from which he took a deep swig. He was a burly, matter-of-fact mining engineer, an expert in handling explosives, and he was now about to begin perhaps the strangest job of his life. This part of California, south of Los Angeles, was notorious for earthquake shocks. During the past ten years there had been six major earthquakes and several minor disturbances. Cities had been levelled, and thousands of lives had been lost. There had been some talk of evacuating the zone. Scientists had declared these earth disturbances were due to pockets of compressed gas which sought to escape. As there were no faults in the strata to allow the pent-up vapour to get away, it had to burst its way out, so causing earthquakes. Owing to the hardness of the rock formations a shock administered at the edge of the Colorado Desert was felt as far away as Los Angeles. What those pent-up gasses needed was an outlet, some form of crater through which they could escape. For years the scientific experts had studied the matter, and they had calculated that if anyone could penetrate deeply enough into the earth, and cause an explosion at the right spot, the direction of the earthquake shocks could be altered. The desert would receive the disturbances instead of the fertile coastal belt. Jess Warden had been interested because he was one of the foremost authorities on explosives. He had volunteered for the job, and had offered to penetrate the Bernardino Caves to a depth hitherto unvisited by man. Then he had come up against the snag that the deeper he went into the crust of the earth the higher the temperature. No living man could work and move ten miles below the earth’s surface in this volcanic zone. Temperatures would roast a man to death. So the scheme had died a natural death, until Dr Stratton had come along with his idea of a heat-resisting suit. Today Jess Warden had proved to his own satisfaction that the suit was better than anything hitherto known. As far as he was concerned he was willing to take the plunge. Not twenty miles to the north were those remarkable caves which had never yet been explored, and which were believed to lead to the bowels of the earth. In the Stratton Heat-Resisting Suits he was ready to make the attempt to carry explosives to the spot where they could crack the strata and release the gases. “We need two more good men to come with us,” growled Warden as he rid himself of the heavy outfit and stowed it on to a mule. “I don’t need more than four all told.”

 

Dr Stratton’s eyes were bright. He was the inventor of the suit, but would have had no chance of using it under such fantastic conditions if he had not been invited on this expedition. His greatest ambition was to study conditions deep within the earth’s crust. “My only worry is about your explosives,” he said. “I know of none that could be carried through fire without burning, if not exploding.” “I do!” growled Jess Warden promptly. “Nitrogenulene is the stuff for the job. Put it in the hottest furnace and it will not burn or explode. Nothing but an electric disturbance can send it off. That’s the stuff I’m going to use.” They stirred up the mules, and headed for the distant town of Salton, on the lake of that name.

THE BOILING LAKE

The Bernardino Caves were one of the show places of that part of California. With accredited guides it was possible to wander for miles underground, viewing strange stalactites and other living rock formations, cathedral pillars of natural formation, and subterranean lakes where blind fish lived. Thousands of tourists came every year to see the wonders of the caves. But none of the visitors had ever penetrated as far as the sloping tunnel down which four men were picking their way this autumn afternoon. They were ten miles from the entrance to the caves, and each man carried a sizeable load on his back. Besides a Stratton suit apiece, they had weapons, explosives in sealed containers, electric torches of great power and a distilling apparatus for water. They were not wearing their asbestos suits as that moment, and beads of sweat trickled down their faces as they followed Jess Warden. Next to the explosives expert came Dr Stratton, his long legs moving with effortless ease over the rough ground. Behind these two came Gordon Traill and Bob Yule, two students of geology, who had been chosen for their toughness and their disregard of danger. Incidentally, they had contributed to the expenses of the expedition. The Warden expedition to the centre of the earth was underway. They had left the outer world three hours earlier, and were heading into the unknown. No charts existed of the tunnels they were covering, but in order that they should be able to find their way back after their task was done, the rear man carried a canister which automatically dripped a tiny spot of vivid blue colouring every ten yards. This concentrated colour spread over a wide area. Neither heat nor moisture could erase it. So the blue trail was being left behind them, and the concentrated glare of their portable searchlights picked out the way ahead. The place they sought was many miles below the earth’s surface. With them they carried special instruments for checking their depth. So far they had made good progress. The temperature was rising. There was not the slightest doubt about that. Beads of perspiration trickled down their faces, and their loads seemed to get heavier and heavier. At last they came to a huge, airy cavern where natural seats of lava rock tempted them to rest. Wearily they unslung their loads, and Jess Warden mopped his head. “What’s our actual depth below the surface now, Doc?” Doctor Stratton consulted his meter. “Thirty thousand feet! That’s a little less than six miles. We’ve done pretty well, it’s almost a record, I should think.” “But how do we know we can keep on descending?” asked Gordon Traill, who had poked his nose into many kinds of trouble during his twenty one years. “Because this was obviously once an escape vent for lava, which must have come from somewhere near the earth’s centre,” replied Stratton. “Unless there is a blockage due to a fall, we should be able to keep going a very long way. Have you noticed your loads are getting heavier?” “Yes,” growled Bob Yule. “Things always seem heavier when you’ve carried ‘em a few miles.” “But in this case they actually are heavier,” the scientist explained. “The nearer you get to the earth’s centre the stronger the pull of gravity. The change is so great that I doubt if we’ll be able to support the weight of our own bodies at a depth of more than a hundred miles.”

 

He pressed a switch which caused the ray from his torch to taper to a narrow beam carrying many hundreds of feet. At the end of it, a quarter of a mile away across the vast cavern, something was stirring. A flat boulder was moving across the floor towards them. “G-gosh!” spluttered Gordon Traill. “It’s moving!” They sat there watching the fantastic object approaching. Before long they could hear a scraping noise, as though something hard was being moved over a rocky surface. The thing which came towards them was six feet in diameter, and appeared to have neither feet, head, nor eyes. Something like panic seized them. They felt their mouths dry. When it was within fifty paces, the lights still directed on it, the rock rose on end, revealing on the underside a gaping maw, unwinking eyes, and short legs. “Ugh!” grunted Jess Warden, and the report of his long-range automatic pistol nearly deafened them. Three times he fired a heavy nickel-nosed bullet into the hideous thing, and as the third bullet struck home the creature dropped flat and lay still. It did not even quiver, but they had the feeling it was not dead. They had a feeling that unseen eyes watched them from somewhere. Every moment they expected to see the rocky slab rise up and rush at them. “Come on!” muttered Dr Stratton, and they circled wide towards the centre of the cave as they edged around the monster. Obviously a tortoise of some variety, but of what species I cannot say. Perhaps it’s harmless.” “I wouldn’t like it to fall on me,” growled the explosives expert, and hustled them along at top speed until they were a good half mile from the spot. Even then they kept their eyes open for other flat rocks, and every time they saw a likely looking slab they gave it a wide berth. Then a new sound came to their ears, that of running water. Somewhere ahead there was a waterfall. The cave was narrowing to form another tunnel. Strange lava formations were on either side. Under their feet pumice stone crunched. Piles of white ash were disturbed by the wind of their passing. The air became hotter and hotter, and a little later their lights shone on clouds of steam. Cautiously they approached. They found themselves confronted by a lake of steaming water which completely barred their way. Bob Yule stooped and put a finger into the lake, jumping back hurriedly when he burnt himself. “Boiling!” he cried. “That water’s almost boiling, and—” He made a frantic leap away from the water’s edge as something red and snaky lashed upwards at his face. The others had a vision of a long, eel-like object with a flat head and gnashing teeth, then it fell back into the steaming water and disappeared from view. Steam drifted across the lake and blotted out everything. Somewhere they could hear water bubbling. “What—what was it?” gasped Bob Yule. “How can anything live in that temperature? I tell you the water’s almost boiling!” “Temperatures are comparative,” said Doc Stratton. “A Polar bear would die at the Equator, and a Bengal tiger would soon die at the North Pole. There may be living creatures which like much higher temperatures than ourselves. There is no reason why some reptiles should not exist in boiling water.” This was true enough, and they kept their distance as they watched for the eel to reappear. Its teeth had looked vicious. It did not show itself again, and they wondered how they were going to cross this lake. Their searchlights, narrowed down to thin pencils of light, showed them it was little more than four hundred yards wide. The tunnels continued on the other side. There was no way round. The water came high up the rocks on either flank. There was not even a narrow ledge along which they might crawl. The water had to be crossed. As they stood there great bubbles appeared on the surface, proof of the subterranean fires below. They were looking at a vast natural kettle. They could only guess the immense heat needed to raise so much water to boiling point. Then a slithering, rattling noise behind them made them shine their torches in the other direction. Down the slope by which they approached came two of the living slabs which had previously startled them. There was no way of retreat. Behind the four men was the boiling lake. The two monsters blocked the passage ahead.

 

Jess Warden fingered his automatic, but guessed the upper part of the fantastic creatures was impervious to bullets. Only if they exposed their undersides was it possible to shoot them. “Flat to the walls!” he whispered, and they flattened themselves on either side to the walls, hugging their kit in their arms, wondering if these huge creatures had the power of scent. It was uncanny to see what seemed rocks moving. In grain and texture the surface of these rocks appeared to be natural. There were even patches of lichen on them. If they had been still no one would have believed them alive. Turning neither to right nor left, the immense creatures ignored the silent men and reached the water’s edge. Without pause they slithered in, and, to the amazement of Jess Warden and his comrades, they floated. Gently they began to move away, using their tentacles beneath them as paddles. They moved very slowly, and the explosives expert suddenly ran forward. “What about rafting over on them?” he asked. “They can’t turn over in the water. Let’s ferry across on them!” He jumped on to the back of the nearest, and it paid not the slightest attention to him, though ripples in the water told that it was moving almost imperceptibly. There was ample room for several men to balance themselves with their kit, but there was little time to lose, for the monsters were drifting further into the lake. The two younger men took the plunge on to the second of the creatures, and Doc Stratton jumped over beside Warden. As he landed he tripped, and would have gone into the boiling lake if his companion had not saved him. The monster beneath him did not even quiver. It was obvious that their hard backs had no feeling. The air out there was hot and steamy. It was like being in the hot room of a Turkish baths. What with the moist temperature and the tension of being in such a precarious position, the four adventurers felt the sweat running down them. Slowly but surely the unnamed monsters moved into the centre of the lake. It suddenly occurred to Jess Warden to wonder if they ever dived, but he did not voice his fears to his comrades. There was no turning back. The suspense lasted a long time, and for the last part of their journey they were assailed by hordes of livid red eels which leapt out of the steaming water and snapped at their legs. The passengers were obliged to kick and strike in all directions. There were hard bumps when the monsters reached the other side. Clumsily they attempted to climb the slope, and while they were seeking to get hold their passengers jumped ashore and ran their hardest.

 

A DEMON OF THE FLAMES

Running was no easy matter in that underground world. On this side of the lake the temperature was far higher, and they were not at all surprised when presently they saw a ruddy glow at the end of a steep downward grade. “We’re coming to volcanic fires,” murmured Doc Stratton. “Shall we put on the suits, Warden?” Jess Warden mopped his face. “We’ll go as far as possible without ‘em. What beats me is the sulphur in the air. The place reeks of sulphur. Will your air filters in the helmets make it easier for us to breathe?” “You’ll breathe freely as long as there is any oxygen to breathe,” Stratton told him. “I think we’d better get dressed before the fumes affect us. Wheezy chests will do us little good.” The explosives expert agreed, and they paused to help each other into the heavy asbestos and insulated steel suits. By the time they were all four completely dressed they were as grotesque as the queer rock monsters which had carried them across the boiling lake. Doc Stratton’s claims were justified. Not only did they feel cooler inside those suits, but the air seemed fresher and easier to breathe. The only handicap was the stiffness of their movements. Speech was easy by means of microphones and amplifiers. Their voices boomed out in eerie fashion in these underground tunnels. They shouldered their loads of explosives, ropes, weapons, and provisions, then continued on their way, their eyes saved from the ruddy glow ahead by the cleverly darkened lenses in their observation windows. It began to look as though a cauldron of fire awaited them at the foot of the slope. They wondered if they would be able to cross. Dr Stratton had no doubts. He pushed to the forefront, and it was he who discovered the flames came from the walls to right and left, forced as though from giant blowpipes, roaring and flaring the full width of the tunnel. Obviously gases under pressure had become ignited, and were perpetually burning at this point. The surface of the rocks was becoming soft and spongy through the heat. Dr Stratton moved between the converging flames and let them play on him. No finer demonstration of the protective value of his equipment could have been given. He stood there and beckoned to the others, then moved on, picking his way through pools of molten lava which covered the floor. The others hesitated, then followed. They found no discomfort. They were as cool as in the open air. They were completely insulated from the flames. The fiery zone lasted for only a dozen yards, then came a pit from which sulphurous fumes poured, blotting out everything beyond. It was not even possible to see how wide the pit was. It looked a formidable obstacle. Jess Warden moved to the edge and pulled out an extending rod which he carried as a walking stick. This extended to more than a dozen feet, but less than a third of that was required to reach the other side.

 

The fumes were pouring from a narrow trench which could be easily leapt. Even though they knew this, it needed nerve to step blindly into those yellow fumes. Jess Warden set the example, and was glad he did not have to step any further in that heavy garb. Ahead the slope on which they stood ran steeply downwards. Fire burst from a dozen different holes in the floor, and gushed from the wall on the right. It was as light as day. They needed no torches. Banks of yellow fungus grew thickly at the foot of the rocky walls, shining as though covered with some sticky substance. The effect was unhealthy in the extreme. They almost expected to see snakes wriggling out from these heat defying thickets. Then Jess Warden glanced at the thermometer fastened outside his suit, and saw the temperature was eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It did not seem likely that life could be supported in such temperatures unless protected by some such suit as the one he wore. Thud! Crash! The others had crossed safely. Dr Stratton staggered, was steadied by Jess Warden, and stared with glistening eyes at the inferno ahead. “We’re getting down to the volcanic strata now,” he shouted. “We’re down more than forty thousand feet. We ought to—” His voice broke off, and they turned their heads to see why he was staring straight ahead of him. Wending its way between the columns of fire which shot up from the ground before them was a nightmarish object which seemed too impossible to be true. It was shaped like a crocodile, but more than forty feet long. It was a bright yellow in colour, with black spots. Two horns projected from its head above the eyes. And the eyes themselves were covered by so many thicknesses of white skin or bone that they appeared to be protected by white spectacles. The terrific heat, the licking flames, which sometimes touched its armoured body, seemed not to worry the monster. It had obviously spotted the newcomers, and was heading straight for them. “Well, I’ve heard that salamanders can walk through fire, but that’s no salamander!” roared Jess Warden. “It’s a species of the same kind,” gasped Doc Stratton, and clicked the shutter of the specially protected camera which he had brought with him. “Whoever thought to find life at this depth! It—it’s wonderful!” “Wonderful!” spluttered Gordon Traill. “It’s horrible. The brute is about to attack—run!” Swinging its long tail from side to side, the creature hurried towards them. They saw its big feet were webbed like those of a duck, but the substance was evidently incombustible, for when it rested on red hot rock it did not even smoulder. The four venturers into the centre of the earth tried to run, but those fireproof suits were not made for running. The nine inch soles, designed for walking over hot rock, were as heavy as diving boots.

 

They felt like men in a nightmare, weighed down as they struggled along. The giant salamander swerved in their direction, taking a short cut through a wall of flame. Steadily it overhauled them, until its jaws were within a yard of Bob Yule’s legs. Seeing the young fellow’s peril, Jess Warden stopped and turned, firing three shots in quick succession into the gaping mouth. The noise of the shots was almost drowned by the roar of the flames around them. Puffs of burning gas came noisily from the rocky crevices. Steam escaped hissing from the ground at their feet. The stricken beast stopped, closed its mouth quickly, and shook its head. Its eyes changed from white to red, then back to white. A shudder of colours seemed to pass up and down its spine. The others ran on. Jess Warden stood his ground, and clicked another magazine into his automatic. He knew it was useless to shoot again until the monster opened its mouth. His three shots did not appear to have been fatal. For quite twenty seconds they eyed each other, and Warden thought of something tied to his belt. It was only a small container of Nitrogenulene, the fireproof explosive which he intended giving a big try out when the right spot in the earth’s crust was reached, but there was a new type of electrical detonator attached to this to cause an explosion on impact. He moved back a few paces, and the monster raised its head higher. The man loosened the container on his belt and gripped it firmly, glancing to see if the catch that protected the detonator was released. The immense creature eyed him warily, blinking slowly behind the covering which evidently protected its eyeballs from heat. Then its tail began to lash swiftly from side to side, and he knew it was about to charge again. “Jess!” came the voice of someone well in the rear, but Jess Warden was keen on his experiment. He raised his hand and hurled the container under the monster’s nose, landing it with a solid impact which had the desired effect. There was a blue flash, a puff of smoke, and Jess Warden found himself knocked flat on his back as though by a giant fist. Jarred to the teeth, he lay there gasping, conscious of a vivid light which was far more dazzling than anything he had seen in the underworld before. Pieces of stone and rock cascaded around him, and one piece struck his chest, but the thick asbestos suiting protected him. Dust and smoke drifted by, but the brilliant light still persisted. He finally staggered to his feet and stared in awe. Where the giant salamander had stood there was now a gaping hole in the ground. From this leapt flames as bright as those from acetylene gas. They rose to the vaulted roof hundreds of feet overhead. The monster had vanished, swallowed up by these flames.

 

The floor on either side of the miniature crater was beginning to crack. One crack reached almost to Warden’s feet. He jumped back just in time. There was a mighty crash. The floor disappeared over a space of many square yards. More fire bubbled and roared out. Gases were released and exploded on contact with the flames. The world seemed filled with fire. He realised that even the walls and roof of the cave could not stand much heat. Everything would collapse very soon. “Run!” he heard himself shouting inside his helmet, and knew his microphone had been jarred out of order. “Run!” Almost blinded in spite of his protective lenses, he grabbed his equipment from the ground and staggered off in search of his comrades. There was so much smoke pouring past him that he could not see anyone. The exploding gases drowned any cries they might have been making. He knew something more than usually terrible was about to happen, and wondered if he would have to face the ordeal alone.

THE FIRES BENEATH THE DESERT 12 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues 1037 – 1048 (1943 - 1944)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007