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
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
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
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
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