A Subterranean Adventure can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



Wonder Stories

JUNE, 1930


OUR readers are probably all acquainted with that masterpiece of science fiction "Below the Infra-Red." Now we offer our readers a further delight from this author, in the present story.

Mr. Bauer himself calls the present story his best work, and the editors after reading the story can heartily agree with him.

Here we have a swiftly moving tale of the adventures of two intrepid explorers into the unknown dangers of the earth's interior. They had hoped to drive a tunnel clear through the earth, but instead they came upon something so remarkable and experienced such mysterious things that even to the teller of the story, they escape belief.

Mr. Bauer as the narrator of tales of strange places and strange events has few equals. And though, to the unthinking person, the present story may be unbelievable, yet by the magic of words, Mr. Bauer convinces us against our own will.


A Subterranean Adventure

By George Paul Bauer

STOP, Denniston!—For heaven's sake, stop! There's somebody lying on the road ahead—just where it turns!"

With a screeching of protesting brakes, and the dull grinding of rubber against stone, the large touring-car came to a sudden, sliding halt, in perilous proximity to the outer edge of the narrow mountain road; and its occupants, a party of four young men in hunting togs, piled out hurriedly. By the light of dawn they gathered about the still figure of a man, lying on his face in the dust.

Evidently the unfortunate fellow had been the victim of an atrocious assault, for the uncovered part of his strong body was a mass of bruises, half-healed welts and criss-cross cuts such as viciously applied whip-lashes would leave; the ends of his fingers were raw and covered with congealed blood, the nails of several being completely torn off.

He appeared to be dead; for his body was quite cold to the touch. But the coldness might have been due in part to the icy mountain air, against which his meager costume furnished inadequate protection. He was dressed in nothing but two wide belts of violet-colored leather, laced in front, one about his chest and one about his loins, to the latter of which a pair of very short pants, like athletic trunks, was attached. There were very heavy metallic clasps riveted into the back of each belt, the purpose of which was not apparent.

"Poor devil!" one of the hunters commented, pityingly. "I wonder what, in the name of wonders, he was doing in this icy, uninhabited wilderness, dressed like that ? And look at those queer, laced boots he is wearing: The way they're cut up, he must have been traveling many miles over sharp rocks."

"Looks to me like some kind of circus performer in that rig," another of the party remarked thoughtfully. "Chances are somebody had it in for him, kidnapped him from the show, brought him out here somewhere, beat him up and dumped him. The work of a gang, I'd say. What do you think, Denniston?"

Frederick Denniston, a journalist, the owner of the automobile, was down on his knees, carefully examining the unconscious man in his quick and efficient manner. He gave a sudden exclamation. "Why, he's still alive! Here, give me a hand, some of you fellows 1 There's only one thing to do, take him back to Denver to a hospital as quick as we can. I know none of you will mind if we postpone our trip until tomorrow."

There was an instant and unanimous assent to this. And a few minutes later they had wrapped the unfortunate man in blankets and coats, and were traveling back to the capital city of Colorado in all haste.

* * * * *

"He's been badly manhandled, and has been through an extraordinary amount of overexertion and exposure," the hospital surgeon diagnosed. "But with his build and constitution he'll be O.K. inside of ten days."

This was good news to the hunters, and before they left the hospital they had jointly arranged that their unknown charge was to have the best care that money could buy.

It was quite natural, of course, that when, about a week later, the four men returned from their successful hunting trip, they should motor at once to the hospital.

"He's almost as good as new," the doctor answered to their eager inquiries. "All he needs now is plenty of good food, and air and sunshine somewhere out in the country."

Denniston beamed delightedly.

"And I've got the very place for him—my bachelor home, three miles out of town. He can get all the fresh air and sunshine he wants, and Mrs. Hall, my housekeeper, is the best cook in Denver."

The surgeon nodded approvingly.

"Fine! And perhaps you'll have better luck than any of us at the hospital in finding out his identity, and just what had been happening to him previous to your discovery of him. Beyond stating that he is an American, and that his name is Ned Gothram, he has been about as communicative as my pet skeleton. The fellow is a mystery, if ever there was one. I'd give a lot to hear his story."

An Unparalleled Undertaking

THE stag dinner at Frederick Denniston's bachelor home in honor of his convalescent guest, Ned Gothram, was a perfect success. Besides the host and Gothram only three others, the hunting companions of Denniston, had been invited, and all of them had thoroughly enjoyed the excellent viands provided by Mrs. Hall, the journalist's treasured housekeeper and cook. At the end of the meal the host rose to his feet, and proposed a toast to the health of his convalescent guest, which his three friends enthusiastically seconded.

In answer to the toast, and amidst expectant silence, Ned Gothram rose to his full height of six feet and five inches, and faced them gravely. His sonorous voice was vibrant with feeling when he spoke.

"Gentlemen—friends," he began slowly, "I feel that any words of mine would be quite inadequate to express my appreciation of what you have done for me. I only hope that sometime in the future I shall be able to reciprocate, in a small measure a least, your wonderful help and kindness to me."

Denniston raised his hand in a deprecatory gesture.

"My dear fellow, what my friends here and I were privileged to do for you, you would have equally done in our place, I'm sure of that. So please don't mention it. And we don't want you to feel under the slightest obligation to us. We did only what was our plain duty." There was a unanimous and emphatic assent from the others.

Gothram nodded, and his deep-lying, dark gray eyes shone out at them in warm friendliness and gratitude.

"That's the true Christian way of looking at it," he agreed. "But there's one thing which, I hope, you'll allow me to do—for I feel that it's your right to know —and that is, to tell you my story. It is, however, so utterly incredible and fantastic, that I doubt if any of you will believe a word of it!"

His glance passed from one to another, and he smiled sadly. In that moment it seemed to the others that the deep lines of suffering in his intellectual face were suddenly accentuated, and his strong mouth compressed, as if to prevent a sob from escaping.

"But, my dear fellow—" Denniston protested, "you are under no obligation to tell your story, you know, unless you especially want to. As a journalist and writer, I confess I'm intensely interested, and so are my friends here. But I'm also sure that none of us would think for a moment of prying into your private affairs."

Again there was a unanimous assent from Denniston's three friends.

Gothram's eyes thanked them. "I shall be only too glad to tell you my story," he said simply.

"In that case let's go to the den, and make ourselves comfortable," Denniston invited, and led the way.

When they were all established in various easy chairs, equipped with smoking material, and when the fire in the spacious fire-place began to crackle pleasantly with the addition of a new log, all eyes turned expectantly to Gothram. He sat hunched forward in his chair, staring at the fire, and his wide, bulging brow was corrugated with concentrated thought as he evidently arranged the details of his story in his mind. Then, without preamble, he began:

SOME time ago I conceived a wonderful idea! Listen, and learn into what utterly strange situations, fantastic adventures, and terrible misfortunes an idea may lead one!

To be brief, my unprecedented idea was the complete piercing of the Earth, a matter of some 7,925 miles, bymeans of a vertical shaft; thereby connecting the approximate geographical center of the United States with a point near its antipodes1 in Asia, providing the most direct route of communication between the two continents.

1: On the directly opposite side of the earth.

It is scarcely necessary to point out what immense advantages such an intercontinental route would have over all surface routes, whether on the sea, or the land, or by air, if it could be made a reality. And it was this very thing that I proposed to do.

My idea was the result of an accidental discovery.

Ever since my college days I have been a dabbler in the sciences, especially in chemistry and electricity, and, being a man of independent means and a bachelor, I indulged in my hobby to the full. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that I followed the lead of many eminent scientists, and tried to find a means of disrupting the atom and liberating its immense energy.

I did not succeed in disrupting the atom. But one day I did make a monumental discovery.

To ease my mind from too much concentrated application to my atomic researches, I decided one day to play at haphazard experimenting, as I frequently did. There was a large block of granite in my laboratory, and I idly amused myself by alternately spraying this with various chemical mixtures and then concentrating upon the sprayed area a reflected stream of electric waves of a very high frequency.

Imagine my surprise, when suddenly the entire sprayed area, about six inches square, dissolved into a gray-colored gas, and rose to the very ceiling of the room!

The chemicals had soaked into the granite to a depth of a quarter of an inch, and every bit of the treated rock had disappeared cleanly, as if it had been chiselled out. Through mere chance I had stumbled upon a most remarkable discovery! I bored dean through the great block of granite in my laboratory inside of a few minutes, and vaporized pieces of flint and of quartzite, and other minerals I had found.

That night I was unable to go to sleep. I tried to realize just what my discovery was worth. I visualized the entire mining industry revolutionized. Tunneling would become mere child's play, without drilling and without dynamite. The hardest rocks could be evaporated with ease.

And then, from somewhere in the outer void, the idea came into my mind—an idea so gigantic that its possibilities staggered me.

At first I rejected it as a mere fantastic dream. But as time went on the thought gradually fascinated me more and more. I decided to keep my discovery of rock dissolution a secret, and to carry out my immense, unparalleled project.

Just about this time my orphan nephew, Teddy Cranston, came back from college. He was the son of one of my sisters, and since her death I had been his guardian. He had just obtained his diploma as mechanical engineer, and I knew that he would be an invaluable aid to me in building the machine I had in mind.

When I confided my idea and plans to him, he thought at first that I was joking. But when I finally convinced him that I was serious, he was wildly enthusiastic.

"Great Jupiter—what a whale of a project!" he exulted. "Let's get started right away, Uncle Ned." That was Teddy all over. Full to the tips with youthful strength and energy, and ready to go at a word.

Of course, we both realized fully that for such a prodigious undertaking it would be absolutely necessary for me to interest some of the most prominent capitalists in the country. And we likewise knew that, in order to interest capital, we had to show them something concrete and practical, or they would not consider the proposition for a moment. Therefore we proceeded to "show" them.

No sooner had we finished our drawings and blue prints, than I ordered material for the construction of the machine we had designed. When this arrived, I engaged a number of skilled and discreet machinists, and hired Teddy to boss them. Naturally we did not take the workingmen into our confidence, but since I paid them exceptionally well, they did not seem to mind the secrecy, thinking, no doubt, that Teddy and I were two invention cranks who must be humored.

The work progressed rapidly, and in a little over six months of intense labor the great machine was standing completed upon the very spot at which it was to descend into the mysterious interior of the Earth.

CHAPTER II
Into the Unknown

THE workmen had all departed, and Teddy and I stood before the huge machine we had built, viewing our handiwork with intense pride. I will not tire you with a description of mechanical details. Suffice it to say that the Penetrator—we had named it that—was formed like a great projectile. It was standing upright upon the heavy concrete floor where it had been built, and its height, from its flaring base to the tip of its oval-shaped head, was forty-five feet, its diameter being one-third of that.

In the massive base of the Penetrator the disintegrating apparatus was located, and its extreme upper point terminated in a short shaft, to which a large, threebladed propeller was attached. This was driven by a high-speed electric motor, and was designed, during the process of penetration, to hurl to the surface the vaporized rock which escaped upward through perforations in the flared base. But the most peculiar part of the Penetrator was its climbing mechanism: a massive, square-sided ring of steel plate, surrounding the machine at about three-quarters of its height, and divided into four sectors by four gaps at right angles to each other, in each of which a great cog-wheel with eight massive teeth was located. As the Penetrator descended into the earth, four special disintegrating nozzles automatically formed holes in the sides of the shaft into which the teeth of the cog-wheels engaged.

Thus, by means of its eight electric motors, the climbing apparatus could raise the machine up or lower it, either automatically or by direct control. Of course, during penetration it worked automatically, lowering the Penetrator as fast as the rock at its base was disintegrated and vaporized.

Our great adventure was at hand!

"Do you realize that this is apt to be a dangerous, and even fatal venture?" I said to my nephew seriously.

He nodded indifferently, keeping his admiring gaze fixed on the Penetrator. "Of course I do, Uncle Ned. But that makes it all the more fascinating! Question before the house is: when do we start? I'm anxious to go."

It was the true pioneer spirit, and my heart warmed to him as never before. I knew right then and there that I could never have picked a better traveling companion. He would be absolutely dependable under any conditions and in any emergency; of that I felt sure.

"Well, you're not any more anxious to go than I am," I told him laughingly. "All we need is to take aboard some water and provisions against any possible emergency. Let's start right now."

He gave an enthusiastic college yell, and then ran towards the house at full speed, in search of old Stubbs, my man of all work. In less than half an hour we were ready to start. An amusing incident happened then. Old Stubbs, on the point of stepping out of the control room, which was situated just under the dome, stopped to stare suspiciously at the complicated apparatus on the walls and ceiling, and at the intricacies of the control board and the control table in front of it.

He frowned heavily, and scratched his gray head.

"Mebbe you know what you're doin', Mr. Ned," he said dubiously. "But—I dunno. Somethin' tells me there's goin' to be trouble with all that there newfangled contraption. Yessir—there's sure goin' to be trouble."

Both Teddy and I laughed heartily because of the doleful expression on the old man's wrinkled, kindly face.

"Rubbish!" I declared confidently. "I don't expect the slightest trouble, Stubbs. So, don't worry. At any rate, we'll let you know by radio in case anything should happen to go wrong."

But Stubbs was not at all convinced by my confidence, and after we had shaken his hand in good-by, and I had given him his final instructions, he passed out to the elevator in the construction frame still shaking his head and muttering to himself.

Teddy and I looked at each other and grinned amusedly. But if in that moment I could have seen into the future—

(At this point an expression of intense pain passed over the face of the narrator, and he put one hand over his eyes as if to shut out some awful sight. But after a few moments he managed to control his emotions, and continued).

I started the synthetic generator, tested it to my satisfaction, and told Teddy to clamp down the manhole door. My hand trembled as I pressed down the lever that controlled one of the large switches in the compartment immediately beneath the control room. Then, while Teddy watched me fascinatedly, I pressed home three other levers in rapid succession.

Down! Down! Down!

A TREMOR passed through the Penetrator—we felt it sinking—

"It works! It works!" yelled Teddy delightedly, and in his exuberant joy began to dance a jig.

For a few minutes both of us were kept busy; I at the control board and table, and Teddy at various mechanisms about the room. But when presently I glanced at the dials of the two recording depth meters, I literally gaped with amazement. Unless both instruments were inaccurate, the Penetrator had descended to a depth of six hundred feet in four minutes!

Teddy, who was as much astonished as I, made a quick computation on a handy pad. "Great Jupiter! That means that we are traveling into the earth at the rate of almost forty-two miles a day!" he cried exultantly.

This speed, of course, exceeded our most sanguine expectations. Further calculation on Teddy's part revealed the fact that at this rate it would take approximately six and one-half months to complete the 7,925 mile long shaft.

Down! down! down!

"How far down do you intend to go this trip, Uncle Ned?" Teddy inquired, when, after the first hour, we had reached a depth of nine thousand feet.

I pointed to the dials of the two thermostats on the control board, which were registering an outside temperature of 122 degrees.

"As soon as I have found out with absolute certainty whether or not the temperature increases beyond a certain depth," I replied.

"Hm! doesn't look to me as if that temperature increase theory of about one degree for every sixty feet of depth holds good in this particular neighborhood," Teddy commented sceptically, gazing at the thermostat dials. "According to the scientists the outside temperature should now be 222 degrees instead of 122."

I glanced at the depth meters, which now recorded 10,000 feet.

"Yes, but even at that, the actual outside temperature must be several degrees less than indicated," I reminded him, "because the disintegrating process itself generates quite a little heat. But let's wait and see."

I looked at the thermometer, and found that it registered an inner temperature of 105 degrees. "Turn on the cooling plant, will you, Teddy?" I suggested. "It's getting rather stuffy in here."

"I thought you'd soon get hot under the collar, uncle o' mine," he said laughingly, as he threw the switch of the small motor pump, which quickly sent a refrigerating mixture through several copper coils about the room. In a very few minutes the temperature of the control room was down to 85 degrees, and the thermostatic control cut out the motor.

Down! down! down! Hour after hour; mile after mile!

Teddy and I, lunching at the edge of the control table, glanced at the instruments on the control board behind it, found that we were almost three and one-half miles down, and that the outside temperature was now 125 degrees. For the preceding quarter of an hour this had been maintained steadily.

"How about it now, Uncle Ned?" my nephew asked, chewing busily.

"I think we'll keep on just a little longer," I replied thoughtfully. "I have to be quite sure about that temperature proposition, you know, or I'll never be able to interest capital in my scheme."

"Well, there's one thing they can never kick about," he commented. "They'll save billions by not having to timber or concrete the shaft."

"That is a most important item," I agreed smilingly. "It's a happy coincidence that the disintegrating process changes the rock at the edges to a glass-like hardness. And, besides, the process does not crack nor disturb the rock in the least. That's another immense advantage over the mining method of drilling and blasting."

"It's that all right," Teddy agreed. "But say—hadn't we better radio a message of good cheer to old Stubbs? He might already be thinking of notifying our sorrowing relatives."

"By all means, cheer him up," I agreed laughingly. Whistling happily, he cut in the radio set, while I turned back to my business of controlling the Penetrator.

The Catastrophe

TEDDY had just passed into the tiny pantry which immediately adjoined the control room, when suddenly, without the slightest warning, the floor of the room seemed literally to drop away from my feet. All the blood from my body seemed to rush up into my brain with a terrific resistless force. There was a frightful roaring in my ears, and a pressure in my head as though it would burst asunder. My legs and lower body felt cold and dead. I had a blurred vision of Teddy staggering in from the pantry—heard his voice as if from an immense distance—

With all the power of my will I struggled to my feet. Then a tremendous jar—a crushing of my body under an awful weight—and then an all-obliterating blackness overwhelmed my mind....

By slow degrees a humming sound penetrated to my consciousness. For a long time I lay prostrate and dazed, listening to it, and wondering where I was and why my head felt so dull and my body so leaden. Gradually, very gradually, gleams of memory began to flicker into the dark recesses of my mind. And then suddenly, with a sort of painful stab, my mind leaped back to that awful drop through space—

By an intense effort of my will, I forced my bruised, protesting body to my knees and looked anxiously around for my nephew. He lay in a huddled heap in the shadow of the control table, and a sob rose to my lips at the thought that he was dead. I forced my pain-racked limbs to drag me to his side, and managed to turn him onto his back, so that the light of the single remaining electric globe shone on him.

Blood was flowing from a deep scalp wound, where his head had evidently struck the sharp edge of a steel table leg. Trembling with anxiety I pressed my ear to his heart and sobbed for joy when I found that it was still beating. By means of the rigid chair and the table, I managed to pull myself to my feet, and staggered into the kitchenette for the emergency kit. As I was finishing the dressing of his wound, Teddy regained consciousness. With my aid he managed to sit up.

"What in Jupiter happened, Uncle Ned?" he asked dazedly, putting a hand to the bandage on his head. "I felt the floor dropping away from under my feet, and was coming in to see what was the matter—and then something, some great force, seemed to land squarely on top of me, and smashed me to the floor. That's all I remember."

I told him that my experience had been similar to his, and helped him to his feet. By common impulse our gaze went to the depth meters, and what we saw there rooted us to the spot as if we were paralyzed.

Both depth meters indicated a depth of sixty-five miles!

"Great Jupiter—what a drop!" Teddy breathed in awe.

"It's impossible! It can't be true!" I said dazedly. "There must be some mistake. We just dropped into some sort of cavity in the earth, and when we struck, the instruments were jarred out of order."

"But you're all wrong, Uncle Ned," Teddy disagreed. "I recollect the speed of that drop. If we had hit anything hard at that velocity, the Penetrator would have been a mass of splinters, and neither one of us would be here to tell the tale." He put a hand to his head and grimaced with pain.

"We did strike something, though," I persisted. "That was what knocked both of us unconscious. And that's the very reason why I think that the depth meters are wrong. It seemed hardly more than a couple of minutes from the time when I felt the floor of the control room dropping away from my feet, until I was hurled to the floor by some great weight—the power of momentum no doubt, due to the fact that the Penetrator had struck something. The Penetrator could not have dropped over sixty miles in that short space of time."

Teddy made a quick calculation upon the pad on the control table, and presently turned to me. "I remember the formula, and here is the result: It took us very nearly two minutes and twenty-two seconds to drop the sixty miles." he announced triumphantly. "The average speed must have been terrific. No doubt the outside wall of the Penetrator was fairly sizzling from the friction of the increasingly heavy air. If it hadn't been for that insulation between the two walls we would have been fried alive, I guess."

"All that may be quite true," I admitted thoughtfully. "But don't forget that your formula doesn't take into consideration the retarding effect of the increasingly dense air, to say nothing of the cuplike base of the Penetrator, which must have acted like a sort of parachute. If we did drop sixty miles, you may be sure that it took a bit longer than two minutes and twenty odd seconds. But there is one thing certain—we did strike something; because the Penetrator is at rest."

Despite his pain Teddy grinned at me.

"Good logic, Uncle Ned," he admitted. "But I bet a dozen new socks we struck something very, very soft, or we would be angels by now."

Again I became aware of the humming sound above, and realized that it was the great exhaust fan. I shut it off, and with sudden thought tried the disintegrating apparatus, listening through the acoustic tube. After a minute or so I disconnected the switch of the disintegrator and turned to Teddy.

"Whatever we struck has absolutely ruined the disintegrating apparatus." I announced. "No doubt the base has been completely smashed."

After a short consultation we decided to open the manhole and find out where we had landed.

CHAPTER III
Trapped in the Depths

VERY, very carefully we loosened the clamps of the manhole door. And presently a peculiar odor, hauntingly familiar somehow, penetrated to us. However, the odor appeared not to interfere with our breathing, and we loosened the clamps still more, expecting every moment an avalanche of water, or possibly mud, to enter.

The manhole was open at last, and we stared out into a region of impenetrable blackness. But there was an atmosphere. And while it was peculiarly heavy, it did not materially interfere with our breathing.

"By Jonah!" I cried, as sudden realization came to me. "That smell—I believe—quick! Teddy, get me that long extension light, will you?"

With willing alacrity my nephew wonderingly brought the light, and I lowered it quickly over the edge of the manhole, illuminating a wide, dully gleaming surface.

"Great Jupiter—we're afloat on a subterranean sea!" Teddy cried.

I said nothing; but quickly passed my index finger over the near surface of the machine and smelled of it. Without a word I held my finger under Teddy's nose. Then we stared at each other in amazement.

The Penetrator was floating vertically upon an ocean of crude oil!

A thought struck Teddy and he laughed.

"Let's incorporate right now, Uncle Ned, and form a rival company to Universal Oil," he suggested. "All we have to do is to drop down pumps and a pipe line, of sixty-five miles, and we'll be ready to supply the world. How does that strike you?"

"Fine!" I said ironically. "It ought to be easy. But supposing we shelve the oil business for the present, and think about getting back to the surface. How does that strike you?"

"Great!" he laughed. "I'd almost forgotten about that little matter. But— by the way—how do you account for all this oil way down here below the surface, Uncle Ned?"

"That's a matter of conjecture, of course." I replied thoughtfully. "However, the theory is that crude oil is due to the residue of fishes and other inhabitants of oceans during pre-human ages of the world. It is conceivable that, as the result of some great volcanic upheaval, a deep crevice was opened in the earth at the bottom of some great body of water, precipitating its contents—water, fishes and all—into this place, which appears to be some sort of immense cavern. Here the creatures died, and from their decaying bodies this oil was gradually formed."

"Sounds logical," Teddy agreed. "But what do you suppose became of all the water?"

"I have an idea that most of it is right below this oil," I replied. "That is, of course, if my theory is right. At any rate we'll find out about the water right away."

In brief order, by means of a short length of three-inch pipe, and some wood, leather, and wire, I had fashioned a depth bucket, such as well-drillers use, and we lowered quickly to a depth of fifty feet. I pulled the spring of the trap, and a lot of air bubbles rose sluggishly to the surface, indicating that the bucket was filling. We soon had it up, and to my disgust it was filled to the top with the heavy, smelly oil.

"Never mind," I answered Teddy's laugh of amusement. "We'll see the next time."

The next laugh was mine though, for from a depth of one hundred feet the bucket came up filled with fresh water.

"We now have plenty of water and oil for our generator, and can charge our batteries to our heart's content," I commented. "The next thing is to travel until we find the shore of this lake or sea, or whatever it is, and try to discover some way back to the surface. At any rate, we can't very well afford to stay here and twiddle our thumbs."

"But how, in the name of Jupiter, are we going to travel—build a boat or something?" Teddy asked curiously. "We haven't any material."

"Let's rest and recuperate for a while," I suggested "And while we do, I'll tell you my scheme."

* * * * *

Five hours later we were under way. Our manner of locomotion was unique, to say the very least. It will be remembered that the Penetrator had four great climbing cog-wheels of eight huge teeth each, and it was these wheels which we utilized for the purpose of propelling the great, clumsy machine over the strange sea of crude oil.

During our terrific fall one of the great cog-wheels had become completely smashed, and in consequence the main fuse of the climbing apparatus had blown, fortunately stopping it, and thus saving the rest from damage. The broken wheel was almost in line with the manhole, which was again lucky for us. We disconnected it and the one next to it from the circuit, and connected the two on the opposite side in such manner that they could act on the heavy oil, and propel the Penetrator forward, acting similarly to the paddles of a river steamer, while a slight change in the adjustment of the wheels enabled us to steer our craft.

While I managed our clumsy craft, Teddy took his station at the open manhole, to the side of which we had clamped an improvised search light of a cluster of high-power nitrogen lamps and a large silvered lamp shade. He was the captain, so to speak, and I was chief engineer.

By means of a small compass, I steered in a general westerly direction. This might appear ridiculous at that depth in the earth. But it was really the only way of getting somewhere, and prevented us from running in circles. Meanwhile both of us amused ourselves with guessing what we would find at the end of our voyage.

The Flying Mystery

WE had been traveling thus for a number of hours, when a sudden shout from my nephew called me quickly to his side. He was staring intently at something high up, far ahead of us.

"What's the matter? What are you looking at?" I inquired, curiously.

He shook his head and frowned perplexedly.

"I don't exactly know, Uncle Ned," he said, "but I could almost swear that just a moment ago I saw something move, way up there—something like a large white bat—just beyond the ray of the searchlight."

I leaned back and laughed uproariously.

"A bat! And at this depth in the earth. That's the best joke I've heard for a long time, Teddy!"

He grinned somewhat sheepishly, but kept on staring into the mysterious shadows far ahead of us.

"It does sound rather ridiculous," he admitted. "But at the same time—There! there!—don't you see it?" he interrupted himself excitedly, "—about forty-five degrees up and straight ahead of us?"

With both hands I shaded my eyes from the glare of the searchlight, and gazed intently to where he pointed. For a few moments I could discern nothing. Then I saw it—a whitish, fluttering object, which the reflection from our searchlight's beam revealed indistinctly in the surrounding gloom.

To say that I was amazed would be putting it mildly. For some minutes I was unable to do anything but peer silently at that inexplicable phenomenon. A bat or bird down here? It was utterly beyond reason. Undoubtedly it was some sort of flying creature, for as my sight became better adjusted, I could distinctly see the slow beat of its white wings. But the peculiar thing about it was the fact that, with relation to the Penetrator, it appeared to be stationary. Quite obviously it was going in the same direction as we, and at exactly the same speed.

"Why, it's impossible!" I said, when my astonishment finally allowed me to speak. "There can't possibly exist any living creature at this depth!"

It was Teddy's turn now to laugh.

"Quite true, uncle o' mine," he chaffed. "True theoretically, I admit. But there it is just the same, all argument and theory to the contrary. Question before the house is: What is it? And why is it?"

I shook my head in bewilderment. "I haven't the least idea. What do you think?"

"How about a pterodactyl, or some other one of those pre-historic fowls?" he hazarded... "Couldn't it be one of those?"

"Rubbish!" I snorted in disgust. "Just remember that those 'pre-historic fowls,' as you call them, were carnivora.2 What possible animal food could they find to live on down here, sixty-five miles below the surface of earth? Try again."

2: They lived on animal food.

Teddy frowned thoughtfully, peering ahead at the object under discussion. He threw out his hands in a giving gesture.

"I don't know, of course," he admitted, "and one guess is as good as another; but isn't it possible there might be other animals down here on which they feed?"

"Sure, why not?" I mocked. "Soon we'll come to a cabbage patch, with rabbits and things in it, and there'll be a house or two, and some hearty farmer and his buxom wife will be calling to us to stay and have lunch with them."

With that I left Teddy to his speculations, and went back to my difficult task of running and directing my awkward vessel on its uncertain course, wondering meanwhile what and where our destination would be, and if we would ever be able to return again to our own world. Or would we, I thought, die a miserable death down there in that subterranean world of unknown dangers?

An hour or so later Teddy called to me again.

"A strange thing happened just now," he announced, animatedly. "I was watching that thing ahead, when suddenly a long, thin ray of greenish-white light flashed from it four or five times in rapid succession. And almost immediately afterwards there was a similar flashing somewhere far ahead, as if there was another one of them, and they were signalling to each other."

"Signalling!" I snorted incredulously. "Maybe it's an underground mail-plane," I added, sarcastically, "signalling to the aerodrome that it's going to land."

"Great Jupiter!" cried Teddy, suddenly, gazing at me in strange excitement, "I believe—" Then, evidently anticipating further ridicule on my part, he caught himself, and went back to his business of looking ahead for land.

I wondered in amusement what new idea had come into his fertile mind. Then I resumed my fruitless speculation about how we were going to get back to the surface. Impatiently I wished that we might land somewhere, and find out the why and the how of things.

CHAPTER IV
An Incredible Discovery

"LAND ahead!"

At Teddy's long-awaited, welcome call I rushed to his side, and together we viewed the strange shore ahead, which, in a startlingly vivid white cliff formation, rose from that black ocean of oil like a world of spirits from the darkness of night. Its lofty walls reached to unfathomable heights, and on either side it stretched its ghostly arms until it shaded into impenetrable gloom beyond the range of our searchlight.

As we drew nearer, it was plainly evident that there was no beach, such as the waves of water on the surface form, simply because down here there was no wind, and consequently no motion existed in this strange sea of oil and water.

"It'll be difficult to find a landing, I suppose," I said to Teddy. "We'll have to nose in very carefully and see what we can discover."

Very slowly we worked the Penetrator around a low peninsula which jutted out like a long, white and curved arm, into the tiny bay which it partly enclosed. Foot by foot we eased the great machine into the innermost curve of the peninsula, where there was a rocky shelf which, in my opinion, would make an ideal landing place; provided, of course, the deep draft of the Penetrator allowed it to approach closely enough. But apparently at that point the white cliff dropped straight down into the depths, for, with the motors completely stopped, our clumsy vessel finally bumped gently against the rock shelf without having touched bottom once.

By means of a small extension ladder, which we laid from the lip of the manhole to the shore, we landed quickly, fastening the Penetrator to projections in the rock. And now that the motors and the climber machine were stopped, we perceived that the silence was profound—a tomb-like silence, which, in some indefinable manner which neither of us could explain, seemed menacing.

"I wonder what became of our friend, the bat?" Teddy said, musingly, staring into the deep shadows overhead. "Do you know, Uncle Ned, I think we were very foolish to come without weapons. I have a queer feeling that from somewhere in that darkness about us something is watching us with hostile intentions."

"Rubbish!" I answered. "What, in Jonah's name, would we do with any weapons down here where there isn't anything to shoot at? You're letting your imagination run away with you again, Teddy. Whatever it was has no doubt been scared away by our coming, and chances are we'll never see it again."

After eating a substantial lunch, we equipped ourselves with a canteen full of water and our powerful flashlights, together with some extra batteries, and started out on an exploring trip. We left the searchlight turned on and struck inland along the avenue of its powerful beam, which we had directed straight towards the great cliff walls beyond the strip of plateau on which we were standing.

It was rather rough going, for the rock was very uneven, and as sharp and hard as glass. Apart from its color it reminded me of obsidian and of lava. Small pieces of it which our feet happened to strike gave off clear musical sounds.

"These rocks would be great for a xylophone." Teddy commented jokingly. "When we have settled down for good down here, and I have a lot of spare time, I'll build one and start a jazz band."

"Yes." I said, falling in with his mood. "And you might be able to get your friend, Mr. Bat, to beat the drums for you."

We had traveled about a hundred yards or so, heading for a gap in the cliff, when suddenly a peculiar sound broke the sepulchral silence, and brought us to an abrupt halt.

It was as if somewhere, a long distance away, in the direction of the cliff, an immense bell or gong had been struck, the unutterably deep tone of which trembled through the vastness of the cavern in a manner which was indescribably weird and awesome.

"What in Jupiter's name is that, Uncle Ned?" Teddy's voice was tense with excitement, and his eyes shone eagerly as he stared in the direction of the strange sound.

I shook my head bewilderedly. "You've got me. I haven't the least idea what it can possibly be," I confessed. "But undoubtedly it was due to some natural cause."

We were at the black gap in the cliff now, and discovered that it was not a gap at all, but the mouth of some other cavern or some passage piercing the vast white wall of stone.

"It seems to me the sound we heard must have come from that opening," I suggested. "It probably leads to another cave."

"Very likely," Teddy agreed, "and maybe there we'll also find the explanation for that flying mystery."

"Teddy, I've just about come to the conclusion that your white bat was merely an optical illusion on .the part of both of us," I said, thoughtfully. "It was probably due to some defect or speck in one of the light globes, greatly magnified by the curved reflector."

"But you are evidently forgetting the flashes of green light, Uncle Ned," said Teddy, grinningly. "Do specks generally signal to each other."

"You never can tell!" I answered, grinning back at him. "They might, at that!"

A Vast City!

WE switched our flashlights and entered the black opening in the cliff. A current of fresh air met us, indicating that there was a space or passage somewhere beyond, which might possibly connect with the surface. Otherwise, how could this current of fresh air be explained?

It was an irregular, zig-zagging passage in which we found ourselves, evidently following a natural cleavage between two rock formations, and the floor of it dipped and rose continually. The height too varied anywhere from twenty to fifty feet or so.

We must have been traveling through the passage for a mile or more, when suddenly it took a sharp turn to our right, and about one hundred feet ahead of us we saw its end, outlined sharply with bright orange-colored light!

This totally unexpected phenomenon brought us to an abrupt stop.

"Great Jupiter!" exclaimed Teddy, in astonishment. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that we have arrived at the surface, and that there is old Sol himself shining in and welcoming us back."

"That light is probably the reflection of volcanic fires," I suggested. "And quite likely we shall find that the peculiar booming sound we heard a while back was due to the explosion of volcanic gases."

But my nephew scarcely stopped to listen. With an impetuous dash he covered the remaining yards to the mouth of the passage, and a few moments later I heard his cry of utter amazement. I joined him quickly then, and together we gazed in wordless awe at the incredible spectacle before us.

Several hundred feet below the mouth of the passage there opened a wide valley—of blue-green meadows, and of vast fields of green and gold and purple, and of strange, immense trees of brilliant coloring, extending into the far distance beyond the reach of our vision.

At first, coming out of the darkness of the passage, our eyes were rather blinded by the strong, golden light which poured down over all that strange land from what appeared to be a great number of miniature suns, high up in the unfathomable heights above.

Gradually, as our eyes became accustomed to the glare, our vision extended, so that presently, far in the distance, we saw the glistening waters of a great river, which appeared to traverse the valley in a diagonal direction. And upon the far bank of the river, shining like a multitude of glistening white monuments, we saw a vast city!

As if drawn by a magnet, we stepped forth from the mouth of the passage, keeping our fascinated gaze riveted upon that marvellous sight. A subterranean city! It passed my comprehension.

Suddenly, without the least warning, we heard the rapid beating of many wings about us, and the next moment an avalanche of winged creatures, hurled themselves upon us from the air. I began to struggle violently, knocking my assailants to right and left A quick anxious glance showed me that with his great strength and boxing prowess my nephew had downed three or four of them. Then something icy cold touched the back of my neck, and suddenly every vestige of strength seemed to be withdrawn from my body, leaving it numb and lifeless.

But—strange circumstance—although my entire body was now in a sort of cataleptic state, yet my senses of sight and hearing remained unimpaired, and I could note quite clearly everything that was going on.

Evidently Teddy had met the same fate at almost the same time, for out of the corner of one eye I perceived his still, rigid form lying nearby. I tried to call out to him, but found that my vocal chords were likewise paralyzed. Then I turned my attention to our strange captors, so far as I could, with a rigid head and neck, and closely observed those within my range of vision.

Undoubtedly they were human beings. Their bodies were well developed, and they seemed of average human height. But their shoulders and necks were extraordinarily massive, and I immediately perceived the reason for this: The head of each was almost double the size of either Teddy's or mine!

But there was another thing about these strange people which astonished me—their extraordinary fairness, and the vivid coloring of their intelligent, mobile features.

The Winged People

HOWEVER, there was not the least doubt in my mind of their sex, for they were all of strong, masculine type. One of them stood at my feet with his back turned to me, and I had an excellent chance to study his flying apparatus. It was of apparently simple mechanical construction, and there was none of the complicated machinery with which we of the surface world are familiar. With deep interest I observed the simple and effective way in which they had folded back the large, bat-like wings of a peculiar, almost transparent fabric, and I wondered what their driving power might be.

The powerful wings were attached to a sort of metallic shield on the back, resembling the cellular structure of a honey-comb, which in its turn seemed to be strongly fastened to two wide belts of heavy, shining fabric, colored with alternate vertical, purple and yellow stripes. To the loins was fastened a pair of very short pants, almost like athletic trunks, and another belt was passed about the chest, tightly laced, and held up by broad straps passing over the shoulders. They wore no head-covering over their long, black hair, but their feet were encased in laced boots, to the back of which the lower ends of the wings were attached.

However, I had only a few, moments in which to observe all this, for almost immediately four men, each grasping one of my limbs, placed me upon my back in a sort of net. Before I had time to wonder about the meaning of this, they unfolded their wings in a way I could not discern, and each of them clutched a corner of the net on which I lay. The next moment they rose high into the air with me, and the yellow glare of the many little suns, far, far above us, beat unmercifully down into my face, so that I had to shut my eyes tightly. With an ever growing wonder I speculated as to what those strange lights might be, and who or what these remarkable subterranean people were.

Then, too, I worried about my nephew, and hoped nothing worse had happened to him than to me. What an extraordinary situation ours was, to be sure—to be carried through the air at a great height in a net, as a fish is carried to the shore in a seine, and towards a fate which, like that of a fish, might well end in death!

How long I was thus carried through the surprisingly fresh and sweet-smelling atmosphere of this amazing subterranean world I could not guess. But presently, from some distan...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.