The Cavern World by James P. Olsen
A great oil field had gone dry—and Asher, trapped far
under the earth among the revolting Petrolia, learns why.
mpossible! What sort of creatures would they be, that could live two
miles beneath the surface of the earth? Surely, Asher, you are
R. Briggs Johns, mighty power back of Stan-America Oil Corporation,
looked at Blaine Asher closely, expecting to see the chief geologist
and scientist of the company laugh. But Blaine Asher did not laugh.
Serious, his rather thin face grave as he leaned his tall, muscular
body above a torsion machine he was adjusting, there was nothing to
indicate he had the faintest idea of a joke.
"Why damn it, Asher!" Johns insisted wrathfully, "you don't really
mean that. And"—he took a nervous turn around the laboratory—"if
such a wild thing were possible, what has that to do with our trouble?
You haven't led me on to spend a million dollars drilling a
thirty-six-inch hole, just so you could test a fantastic theory?"
"You know better than that." Asher wiped his hands and leaned against
a table. Johns, looking into the cool gray eyes of the man before him,
did know better. Blaine Asher was more than just a geologist or
scientist. Well he might be termed a master geo-metallurgist. Johns
nodded, wiping beads of perspiration from his brow.
"You say impossible—and want to know how those creatures cause this
field, the largest oil field in the world, to start going bone dry
over night. All right:
"Remember how you laughed when I told you that oil would some day be
mined instead of pumped or flowed from the earth? You couldn't see how
one central shaft could be sunk, then tunnels run back underneath the
oil strata, tapping the sand from the bottom and letting the oil run
down to be pumped out one shaft. Yet, that way, we would get all the
oil, instead of the possible one-eighth of the total amount as we get
by present methods.
"Now, you have seen that done. And you said that was impossible."
es," Johns objected, "but those test wells we mined were only a few
hundred feet deep. Wells in this field are eight thousand feet deep!
Think of the heat, man! You can't do it. And as for people—"
"Your great field has suddenly gone dry, almost in a month's time,"
Asher stopped him. "What is happening here can happen elsewhere. Only,
formations in this field are more suited to there being life—or
something—below us. Stan-America is going broke. Many others have
already gone broke. Still, that oil couldn't have gotten away.
"As for heat—yes, we know that oil is hot when it comes up from the
oil sand at eight thousand feet, or from ordinary wells at three to
six thousand feet. But"—Asher lit a cigarette and inhaled
deeply—"gas coming out of the same well is cold! So cold it forms
frost inches thick on pipes and tanks.
"Rock pressure—the pressure of the earth—forcing up the gas, causes
that. Why couldn't that same pressure cool great caverns below the
granite cap below the oil sands? It could. For that matter, I know
that same pressure will generate useful power. I'll show you that in a
"All right!" Johns chewed his cigar almost savagely. "Say, then, that
you can work down there, nearly two miles underground; granted that we
can tunnel from beneath the sands and pump more oil from one central
shaft than we now do from fifty wells—what has that to do with this
tosh about a race of people?"
"They are not people, perhaps." Asher grinned at the "there, I've
stuck you!" look on Johns' face. "Let's say, rather, creatures. Have
you ever met Lee Wong, the great Chinese scientist, or his Russian
geological collaborator, Krenski? No?
ell, I have. I met them in Paris in 1935—five years ago. They're
brilliant men, and they've prepared some wonderful papers. Brilliant,
I said: they are also dangerous. They claim, you know, that the
fossils we now drill up come from a lost race—people who went into
the earth while man, like us, was coming up onto the earth from the
water. Some claim those fossils have been on the surface at one time,
and were silted over. But eight thousand feet is a lot of silt, Johns:
ever thought of that?"
"Good God!" Johns gasped hoarsely. "You almost make me believe you are
right. But, supposing there is such a race of things—what will you
"This." Asher drew back a curtain that was stretched across one end of
the laboratory. "You know I was working on a cage in which to descend
into that eight-thousand-foot well you've drilled—the well you're
going to use to try and find why this field is suddenly gone dry. This
Johns stared, shook his head wonderingly and stared again. Before him,
ready to be transported to the well that was larger than any ever
drilled before, stood what Blaine Asher called his Miner, for want of
a better name.
A thick steel tube, it was. Twelve feet long and large enough around
that a man might stand inside of it. The top was welded on in much the
manner a top is welded on an ordinary hot-water heater, and had
connections for hose in it. At the height of a man's eyes heavy
windows were set in, and in one side was a door just large enough to
admit a man's body. This door sealed tight the minute it closed.
"It looks like—like some sort of a deep sea diving outfit," Johns
said as he walked around the braces that held the Miner upright. "But
all those gadgets inside and on the bottom—?" He indicated the
strange instruments that could be seen when the door was opened, and
the queer glass tubes that projected from the very bottom.
ressure-power units—my own invention," Asher told him. "For ten
years I've been working on this. I knew that some day I would want to
explore the oil caverns beneath the earth, so I made ready.
"As I told you, rock pressure, or earth pressure, is a tremendous
thing. It is power, so I figured how to use it. Under artificial
pressure, I have tried out my Miner and its equipment.
"Those tubes sticking from the bottom contain something you are
familiar with: non-burning and non-explosive helium gas. I have
discovered a way, by their use, to create power that will melt away
rock or iron—literally dissolve it into nothing! Not in an hour, or
minutes. In seconds, Johns!
"The pressure of the earth acts as my generator. The pressure action
on the filaments of platinum, and several compositions I have no time
to explain now, causes heat. Call it friction of compressed air, if
you wish. As neon gases carry an electric spark, so does this helium
carry the power generated by earth pressure. The pressure below earth
acts on the delicate coils and points of my generator. This bit of
power is carried into the helium tubes, and by a system of vacuum
power, is increased millions of times. Thus, the tiny spark of a cigar
lighter would electrocute a hundred men!"
"I—you mean somewhat like a violet ray is increased in the lightning
tubes?" Johns strove to grasp the foundation of the thing.
"Yes, the foundation of it all—with the earth's pressure the power
motive," Asher nodded. "So, after my Miner is on the bottom of our
well, I can burn—or dissolve—a room as large as this laboratory in a
few minutes. The whole thing is no mystery after you learn it—not
nearly so much as radium, or radio, was. Merely creating a spark of
electricity and fanning it through a vacuum and a conductor of massed
"But"—Johns had unconsciously dropped his voice to a whisper—"what
of these strange creatures? How would you deal with them? Damn it,
Asher, I think I'm beginning to believe this nutty idea of yours. Any
man who can generate power with the pressure of air as it is packed by
earth must know what he is talking about!"
"I have but one protection against anything down there that tries to
harm me," Asher said simply. "That is this—see?"
hat he held up looked like an old-fashioned six shooter. It was
fitted with a platinum-sealed box in the place where a cylinder would
have been. The barrel looked like some queer, blue glass.
"Do you see that test tube?" Asher pointed to a glass tube on a table
a few feet away. "Now watch."
He pressed a tiny ratchet under his thumb. A snapping, buzzing noise
filled the laboratory. Johns gave an exclamation of wonder and awe.
Quickly, the test tube started to melt into a pool of molten glass.
Asher increased the pressure of his ratchet trigger. The tube was
knocked to the floor.
"Static electricity—always some form of electricity," said Asher
grinning at the astonished oil baron. "Conductor coils here," he
continued as he tapped the sealed cylinder, "are charged much as a
flash-lamp battery. The charged conductors attract the static
electricity of the air, and, in a manner similar to the action of the
power generator, increase power. There is a slight difference: by
turning quick power on my static gun, I can cause the charge to knock
down and merely electrocute, as I knocked the half-melted tube from
"I can understand that, a little," Johns sighed profoundly. "It's the
same juice that causes a gasoline truck to catch fire if you don't
have a ground chain on it somewhere. But, just the same, I claim it's
"Not half as remarkable as what I expect to find two miles down when I
descend to-morrow." Asher had a dreamy look in his eyes. "I wonder:
new ways to get petroleum wealth ... a strange people...."
en,"—Asher, a tight-fitting asbestos composition suit covering him
from foot to neck, spoke tersely—"when you get me on bottom, stop
every bit of machinery, and don't dare pull up until I give the
signal. If I'm down there the entire day, all right. But"—he smiled,
trying to make light of the danger—"if I don't signal within
thirty-six hours, pull up anyhow."
From the bull-wheels of the drilling rig Asher spooled out some of the
air-hose cable through which air blown over ice would be pumped into
the Miner; then when the long steel cylinder was over the hole and
ready, he turned to the company officials and government scientists
and engineers around him in the boarded-up derrick.
"Possibly I can get a survey in an hour. Perhaps I'll have to come
back to the surface and make adjustments to my equipment. That remains
to be seen.... Now, let's get low."
He adjusted a helmet over his head. It looked much like the helmet
worn by a sea diver, except that it had no connecting hose for air.
The windows in the helmet, which contained pressure lights, worked on
the same principle as the disintegrating rays of the Miner. When Asher
turned the ratchet that set the little pressure machine into motion, a
violet tinged green ray of great lighting power shot out and
increased, by weight of air, or atmosphere beneath the earth, the
power of one tiny spark a million times.
Without ceremony or farewell, Asher crawled inside his tube. The door
was closed and he fastened it from inside. For a moment, wild panic
assailed him. But he fought it off, becoming again less the feeling
human and more the cold calculator of advanced science. The light from
outside, coming in through the windows of the Miner, was shut off. The
long steel cage clanked against the sides of the special casing in the
well, and Blaine Asher was on his trip into a lower world never before
visited by man.
That was what Asher believed. But, had he known what waited for him,
two miles into the bowels of the earth....
t five hundred feet, the descent stopped, giving him time to adjust
himself to the pressure change. The gas and oil had been eased out of
the hole. That is, the casing had been run on through the producing
strata, shutting it off. Asher signaled by buzzer, and a stream of the
ice-washed air flowed down to him.
Three thousand feet! Six thousand feet! More than a mile down! Sweat
poured from his body in streams, and the air coming into the Miner
through the hose did not relieve him. It was hot—almost unbearably
so. His ears were roaring. The dark of his tube was relieved as he
turned on his pressure lamps. He adjusted the pressure discs over his
ears by twisting a thumbscrew on his helmet, and the pounding of his
Gasping, he watched the depth meter in front of him. It did not seem
as if he was moving, but the indicator now showed more than seven
thousand feet. It moved around slowly and more slowly; trembled at
eight thousand—and stopped.
Like the snapping of a man's fingers, the temperature inside the Miner
changed. Asher was now fifty feet below the bottom of the oil and gas
sands, and if his theory about rock pressure worked.... It was
working. Frost was forming on the inside of the Miner!
"I'm right—right—right!" Asher thought, elated, sending his buzzer
signal up to those so far above. The icy air through his hose changed
to air of normal temperature. He signaled for slack in the lowering
cable, then prepared for the greatest test of all.
Cramped, with hardly room to move, he studied his gages. Helium tubes
at the proper pressure for compressing the tiny spark of the pressure
generator, so it would flare a million times stronger under the action
of the vacuum tubes: diamond and cut-glass tubes in the bottom of the
Miner, thermoed with layers of quicksilver: everything cleared,
is hand shaking, Asher pushed the tiny switch that brought his
filament points trembling together under the atmospheric pressure so
far underground. A tiny spark danced and throbbed through the tiny
glass tube before him, beginning to buzz as it started the circuit of
increasing coils, and soon humming and vibrating as the helium and
vacuum tubes swelled it to full power. Spark after spark, increased
almost beyond imagination, followed one after another. The Miner
throbbed and shook.
White-faced, Asher touched the little lever that opened the blasting
outlets in the bottom. Almost instantly the Miner dropped a full six
inches—went on, down to a foot. Asher, pride of success choking him,
pulled the lever hard over, which brought some of the tubes beneath
him spreading out, to blast away the earth on each side of him.
He signaled for more and more slack as the depth indicator showed he
had burned, or disintegrated, his way down to thirty feet beyond the
original bottom of the hole. He was below the bottom of the protecting
wall of casing now—at the mercy of the pressure of two miles of
Slowly, setting all his bottom tubes to cutting away on all sides of
him, he started hollowing out enough room to step out into. His
lights, when he looked through the windows, showed ghostly on earth
ten feet on each side of him. Ten more minutes and he had created a
room nearly twenty-five feet square—a man-made cave, two miles below
There was something akin to awe in the feelings of Asher when he
opened the little door, crawled out and stood erect. The pressure
lamps in his helmet lit up the room he had made. There were no sounds,
just a vague, ringing silence.
Then so quickly that it robbed him of his senses, two things happened.
A hundred yards away from the well in which he had descended, another
well, drilled by another oil company, was shot. Three hundred quarts
of nitro-glycerine were set off in the hole.
sher screamed and clamped his ear discs down tight. It seemed the
very gods of thunder were shrieking and raging in his head; every
nerve and fiber in his body throbbed and tingled with the hellish
On his knees, where the shock had thrown him, in darkness beyond
description, Asher realized the lights from the Miner no longer shone
out. Frantically, he adjusted the small lights in his helmet and got
them to sending off their rays again. Then, an icy hand seemed to
squeeze his heart, turning his blood to ice-water in his veins. He
cursed himself for not foreseeing that some company might shoot a well
close by, while he was underground.
He turned. The Miner was all right, but Blaine Asher was trapped! For
the walls of the hole below the bottom of the casing had caved. Thirty
feet of rock, sand and conglomerate matter were between him and the
bottom of the pipe.
He was trapped—two miles below the earth. There was no hope of
rescue, the hope that miners feel in deep shafts. There could be no
rescue for Asher. No one could get to him. He cried out his horror,
fighting to keep from swooning.
The helmet hampered him. He turned on a small pressure lamp attached
to the belt at his waist, and chanced taking the helmet off. Dank and
nauseous was the air that he breathed, since it no longer came through
the filters in his helmet. But it was air that would serve,
A crackling, rumbling sound caused him to turn quickly. Eyes wide, he
stared at the long crack that was opening before him.
Asher was between two layers of granite—one layer under him, and
another above him, just below the oil sands. Now, as the crack between
these two layers widened, he could see it slope downward until it
ended in a great cavern that stretched endlessly away beyond the beams
of his light.
t wasn't this crack that caused Blaine Asher, an iron-hearted man of
science, to choke and sag down to a sitting position, his knees
refusing to support him. No—it was the terrible, Godless,
unbelievable Things that scurried around in the smooth rock hall
that stretched away into the cavern.
Frozen with soul-chilling fear, Asher stared with eyes that bulged.
What were they? Spawned neither of God nor Satan—what could they be?
Black-skinned—or was it skin?—like rubber, with round bodies, like
black basket balls inflated to triple size; bodies that seemed to
ripple, distort, swell and contract with life within life.
Short, foot-long stems that must have been legs, ending in round balls
that served as feet, no doubt. Tentacles, Asher would have called
them, six feet in length, thick as mighty cables and dotted with
suckers like the tentacles of an octopus. And heads—Asher gagged and
Not heads. Just masses of the black body substance as large as the two
fists of a man. In each head was a crooked black gash for a mouth.
There were no eyes that Asher could see. Yet, these Things seemed to
see one another, and emitted strange, chill, squeaking sounds!
As Asher watched, the Things sensed his presence. A half hundred of
them rose and started toward him. They did not walk, nor did they
crawl. Undulating, contorting strangely, they came on with incredible
speed, long tentacles waving before them; slithering on the rocky
floor of the cavern; making those odd squeaking noises.
As they neared him, Asher sprang to his feet, backing up against the
pile of cavings beside the Miner. A long tentacle whipped out and
wrapped around his leg. A short, snout-tentacle quivered toward his
face. There was strength beyond imagining in the grip on him.
ith an almost animal snarl the man from the earth's surface moved to
protect himself from these creatures, surely of the lowest living
order. He grabbed into the pocket of his loose asbestos composition
suit, and his fingers closed comfortingly around the static gun.
He aimed it, and the Thing gripping him was hurled back upon the
others. Crackling, snapping viciously, the charges of electricity that
were drawn from the very earth increased in the gun and spumed out
like lightning bolts. The Things squeaked excitedly and surged
forward. Asher's finger pulled the ratchet trigger full force, and
like dew before a strong shaft of sunlight, the gruesome Things were
Hating the sight, Asher changed the charge of his gun, cutting the
size of the path the volts covered, thereby increasing the potency of
the discharge. The piled bodies sizzled, and to Asher's nose came a
sulphurous smell. Then, there was nothing at all....
Sick, he put the gun back into the deep pocket and leaned on the wall.
He turned around again to the pile of cavings that barred his way from
the surface, and dug like a madman with his bare hands. The Miner was
weighed down, and he could not use it anyhow. The blasting tubes were
on the bottom, and could not be shifted to the top.
Suddenly he stopped his crazed work, raised his head and listened. "My
God!" he gasped hoarsely, "am I stark mad?" He thought he must be, for
the voice of a human being came to his ears.
"You will be pleased, Blaine Asher, to turn around! And do not make
any foolish moves, I warn you."
"Lee Wong! Krenski!" Asher turned, face to face with the
super-scientists of whom he had spoken to R. Briggs Johns the day
before. Asher shook his head. More of the terrible dream, this meeting
two humans down in the earth's core.
ost right, honorable Asher." Lee Wong bowed mockingly. He and
Krenski were garbed in loose-fitting garments of much the same style
as Asher. In their hands, they carried static guns. Not the small gun,
such as Asher had concealed in his pocket. More like heavy air drills,
Asher frowned at the lamps they carried. He knew by the dazzling
action of the rays that they were pressure lamps. But they gave off
much better light than those of his own invention. They had gone him
one better there.
"Did—did you see them?" Asher gulped. "And how—how did you get down
here? Tell me!" He took a step toward Lee Wong, intending to lay his
hand on the Chinaman, to make sure he was live flesh and blood, and
not a figment of his disordered brain.
"Stand where you are!" Lee Wong snapped. He held the heavy static gun
up and Asher felt a light charge tingle his body. "Those Things of
which you speak—I assume you mean the Petrolia. Ah, yes, we see them.
Every day, we see them. For us they work. They work, my dear Blaine
Asher, tapping upward into the oil sands; sands that are burial places
of countless millions of generations of Petrolia; of lost races that
once ruled supreme over these underground worlds.
"How simple, to take the oil from below—the oil you want so much
above. Someone must do the work. I and Krenski found the Petrolia
ready and willing. Being creatures of feeling, with little sense, we
were able to bend their dying wills to do our work. You see, we made
them feel we would save them, a dying race, from extinction! They do
Asher was bewildered by the enormity of the thing. "You mean these
Things you have called Petrolia actually work for you? And that you
saved them from becoming extinct?"
xactly," Lee Wong nodded, seeming to be enjoying himself. "Like
humans of the surface, Petrolia live on the dead. I mean, wherever we
get our living food from the earth, we plant our dead back in that
earth. Petrolia are spawned in beds of petroleum. Just as eels seek
deep water to lay their eggs, so do Petrolia go to the oil strata to
spawn future tribes.
"When we pump out the oil, they have no—shall we say
"hatching?"—beds. But now, by tapping and bringing down the oil, we
have assured them more spawning pits. They will increase, and we have
made them sense it. For that matter, the very oil they breed in, gives
them sustenance. That is why they are black fleshed and blooded, and
have suckers instead of mouths, as a black man is black through ages
beneath hot suns.
"It's easy for us, who are wiser than other men, to figure what
oilfield might contain such people. We have a rapid elevator
connecting us to the surface. And—"
"Then," Asher almost shouted, "I'm not trapped!"
"No?" Lee Wong wrinkled his forehead quizzically. "You should realize
that we cannot allow you to go back to the surface—alive, or any
other way. We intend to increase the Petrolia, spreading them to other
underground, yet uninhabited worlds. You would spoil that.
"No, you will never return to the surface. They cannot haul your tube
to the top, so they will think you perished in it. And"—Lee Wong
shrugged—"it might have been better if you had, Mr.—"
"I wouldn't!" the yellow man snarled. He rolled the ratchet of his
static gun and Asher was hurled to the floor by the heavy shock.
Wisely, he stood up, keeping his hands well away from the pocket in
which his own gun rested. He doubted whether his little static gun
could compete with the guns of the others, but it was something. They
had not thought to search him—perhaps they might not. It was his only
ee Wong bowed low again, motioning Asher to go ahead. "Now you shall
see what we have done. We are proud, and we know you can appreciate
our workings. You will be glad to learn why we do as we are doing; you
will be intrigued as a fellow scientist. Then, so sad to say, you must
perish for having gained that very knowledge."
Asher shrugged, and through half-closed lids he eyed Lee Wong and the
rather small, slender Krenski, of the high brow and large head. Then
he walked ahead of them. Head up, shoulders back, he walked carelessly
down the wide hall—a hall that led into the main cavern of that
It was large—fully a hundred feet in a rough square. Not fifteen feet
from floor to ceiling at any point, it followed the course of the two
layers of granite between which it was sandwiched. Other long halls,
or crevices, ran in every direction out of this main cavern. In the
walls, in niches and cracks, the superior pressure lamps had been
placed, throwing a bright, eery light over it all.
Asher recoiled suddenly at the sight of hundreds of Petrolia that
swarmed the hallways, and they seemed to sense another presence beside
that of Lee Wong or Krenski. A choked, gurgling sound came from the
Chinaman, and they disappeared down the halls, squeaking angrily as
"Our control room," explained Lee Wong waving his hand about him. He
pointed to a dozen twenty-four inch pipe-lines that ran along the low
ceiling, coming from as many different halls into the room, but all
going out the same large hall, larger than the rest. "There are the
arteries of our system. There is the oil that is so—shall we say
strangely?—missing in your wells." He smiled, a taunting, mocking
light in his eyes.
"You well understand how we do it. Above us, just below the oil
strata, is a steel, trough-shaped roof. The oil, tapped from below,
drains into these, and then into these pipe-lines. If we were working
from above, now, we would run it to a central shaft, and pump it out.
We do not want it on the surface, however."
hen why in the name of hell do you want it?" Asher barked, a tense
note of anger in his voice. "And what do you do with it?" These two
were humans. At least, they were in man-form, if not in feeling. And
the Petrolia could be handled. Asher was getting mad, and his fear
"Come." Lee Wong led the way under the pipe-lines, down the large
hall. Krenski, his heavy static gun ready, walked at Asher's back.
They came out into another cavern that stretched beyond the powerful
lights. The sound of their voices echoed like thunder of the drums of
Thor, and Asher realized this cavern might stretch away in Stygian
blackness for hundreds of miles.
Asher marveled, for the floor of this cavern dropped at least five
feet below the level of the control room or incoming hallways, forming
a natural reservoir. A reservoir for the big streams of oil that were
pouring into it from the pipe-lines.
The rumble of the oil as it came in and splashed out in a never-ending
stream, and the rumble of the oil streams above them as the precious
fluid flowed down into the plated drain roof, sounded like the tramp
of the weary feet of the damned, as it echoed back and forth across
the mighty cavern.
"Our storage." Lee Wong stood at the edge and explained. "Also, as you
may see, a concentration incubator, or spawning bed and food storage
for our Petrolia."
Blaine Asher looked again at the rippling oil at his feet. He choked
brokenly and stepped back a pace. For the oil near the bank was alive!
It rippled and splashed, teeming with life. By the strange alchemy of
breeding in oil and living on oil as man lives on bread, that lake of
oil was a mass of growing Petrolia. Millions—yes, countless
billions—of them! Hideous, foul Things that would be turned loose
with the rest in that nightmare world—that would be taken to other
buried worlds to start new races.
ut why—why?" Asher almost screamed the words at Lee Wong.
"Petrolia will be our armies, protecting our underground wealth," Lee
Wong answered him. "They will be our faithful workers, under no
command but mine. For, even Krenski has not mastered the over-control
it takes to handle them!
"Gradually, as happened to the field we are now under, all oil fields
will go dry. We will be getting the oil from below, and putting it in
storage in mother earth. Think, Blaine Asher, what it will mean!"
There was a fanatical light in Lee Wong's beady eyes.
"A world without petroleum is a world without power. No oil for fuel;
no gasoline, lubricants or by-products of any sort. No airplanes could
fly; tanks, tractors, oil-burning trains and ships; mechanical
appliances—nothing could run. We now take the oil from America.
Later, when our Petrolia have increased and we have devised means of
moving them, we will go to all oil-producing countries.
"We will secrete the oil and paralyze the world. Now, in Russia and
China and India, our societies are organizing and growing. They will
handle the weakened, powerless nations, and I shall be ruler of the
universe, surface and beneath, with Krenski to aid me, you see. It it
wonderful, is it not? And, knowing what you do, having seen what you
have, could you call it impossible?"
Blaine Asher groaned. It was not impossible, he knew. Unreal;
monstrous—but never impossible. A region of hideous Petrolia; a world
stripped of automotive and mechanical power, its fuel held in the
hands of a few, far underground—it was terrible to think of.
And Asher the only one who knew. The only one who could avert such a
thing. The fate of an entire world was in his hands. And he would soon
Die? No! Blaine Asher swore silently to himself that no power in
existence should keep him from destroying these two fiends. It had to
He dared not fail.
onderful, stupendous thing," he forced himself to smile. "I'd like
to grasp the hand of the genius who devised and carried out such a
He took a step toward Lee Wong, right hand extended, his left slipping
toward the pocket where his own static gun rested.
Lee Wong extended his own right band. Something in the chill, flint
look of Asher's eyes must have warned him. Even as Asher's fingers
closed around his hand, he tried to jerk back.
"Destroy him!" he cried out to Krenski.
Asher dropped to one knee, letting his static gun remain in his
pocket. His left hand closed around Lee Wong's wrist as the Oriental
tried to pull away. Krenski was bringing the heavy, cylinderlike gun
up and aiming it at Asher.
Asher twisted on one knee, his teeth gritted, braced to receive the
shock from the gun. He jerked Lee Wong's arm down, heaved and came to
his feet. Crying out, arms and legs flailing, the Chinaman catapulted
toward Krenski—and just at the instant Krenski fired!
The sickening smell of cindered flesh was in Asher's nostrils as he
turned and ran back up the main hallway. He glanced back over his
shoulder as he ran, and shuddered at the black mass lying at Krenski's
feet. Lee Wong was no more. Wide-eyed, the Russian stared at the thing
at his feet. Then, with a fiendish shriek, turned and brought the gun
into line on the fleeing Asher.
A crackling charge of electricity singed the back of Asher's head as
he dove head first around the corner of the hall into the control
cavern. He reasoned that Krenski had sent a full charge after him, and
hope kindled higher in his breast. For Asher believed his smaller
static weapon was as strong as that of the other. At that, it would be
a test, and Asher dared not take chances.
e crouched in the door of another hallway, waiting. Cursing, Krenski
dashed into the control cavern. Asher brought his gun up and fired.
But even as he pulled the trigger, a long tentacle reached from the
dark crevice behind him and jerked his arm. His charge snapped by the
Russian, warning the other that Asher, too, was dealing with powerful
electric rays that meant death should they touch.
Asher yielded to the tug of the slimy, sulphur-smelling tentacle,
letting it pull him into the crevice, the charges of Krenski's weapon
crackling by him, leaving his skin dry, and a powdery sensation in his
In the shelter of the crevice, Asher turned his gun upon the Petrolia
that gripped him. The tentacles fell away, fading to nothingness
before the charges that showed quivery blue in the dark. Like
catacombs, one crevice opened into another. Asher darted into the next
crevice and edged cautiously toward the control cavern.
The angry buzzing and snapping of Krenski's weapon caused him to duck
instinctively, although no deadly charges came his way.
"Oh, God!" he heard the Russian's high-pitched voice, agonized,
wailing, "they're coming in—they're coming in!"
A squeaking and slithering, now greater than ever, rose above all
other sounds. And Asher realized what Krenski meant. Lee Wong had said
that only he could control the Petrolia. They were swarming into the
control room now. That was what Krenski was shooting at.
The squeaking sounds came up the crevice in which Asher was and a
cold, clammy sweat broke out all over him. He could blast a thousand
of them into nothing. But by sheer force, more body than his light
static gun could down, they would overwhelm him.
His mind raced swiftly. He remembered the location, out in the control
room, of the cage elevator that ran to the surface. It had not been
hurt by the glycerine blast that had trapped Asher. The elevator shaft
from the control room was cased clear into the cavern floor, and the
blast had not jarred this far.
e wheeled and sent another charge of static electricity into the
crevice back of him, then lunged out into the control room. It would
be his own weapon against Krenski's, and a chance to gain the bottom
of the shaft.
Krenski—piled, charred heaps of the Petrolia around him, which had
momentarily cleared the attack—was running across the control room.
Like a seething wave, the foul Petrolia undulated from every crevice
and hallway, coming in to fresh attack. The Russian, terror lending
him speed, raced for the cage at the foot of the shaft that led to the
surface. At the same time Asher ran out.
Nearly a hundred feet apart, on opposite sides of the cavern, they
stopped. Krenski turned his heavy weapon toward Asher at the same time
Asher sent his own gun crackling and snapping out blue, fiery flame.
Side-stepping, now crouching, now dodging to this side and that, they
fought their strange duel. Asher's right arm was burned, his hair
singed from his head, and his body jarred again and again as Krenski
touched him. Krenski, groaning through gritted teeth, suffered burns
all over his chest and left leg.
As the Petrolia came on, and the lightning play of deadly electric
charges continued, Asher made a discovery. He noticed that the rays,
or charges, of the two guns, when they met in mid-air, caused blue
flame, and that the charge went no farther.
It did it again. The two charges met, crackled to explosion in the
air. Krenski, too, noticed it, and he also noticed that the Petrolia
were almost upon them again. Coming on in a wave that could not be
e looked at Asher, and met the dare in Asher's eyes. Straight at each
other, neither moving, they shot their static charges. Neither would
move: it was a challenge from Asher that Krenski had to meet. One of
them would have to die before the other would be able to gain the cage
in the shaft. There could be no compromise, and only one man at a time
could go surfaceward. If they continued to dodge and fight, the
Petrolia would overwhelm them.
Power against power, they fought it out.
Asher's finger tightened on his trigger release until it seemed the
skin would split; then he caused his hand to tremble just enough to
make his electric charges cover the space in which Krenski's charges
traveled. Hissing, spitting, flashing explosions, giving off sounds
and light like big explosions of flash powder, the charges met.
Asher tingled from head to foot, and thrilled to the very marvel of
the thing. Two deadly beams of electricity, holding each other off!
In one long, continuous flash, the contact point of the charges began
to shift. Closer and closer, as the force of superior charges cleaved
through the other, the contact points neared Krenski. He saw death
upon him, for in another instant, Asher's charges would hurl his own
bolts back upon him. The smaller weapon of Blaine Asher, attracting
more static electric currents by reason of having a small attracting
battery inside, where the larger gun of the other depended upon
magnets for attraction, was triumphing.
Krenski's mustache and light beard singed and curled. He cried out,
stepped back, throwing up his arms as death flashed through his body.
is gun playing about him, Asher raced toward the big valves and gates
that shut off the drain of the pipe-lines. Burning, reeking of sulphur
and burned leather, the Petrolia vanished before him. But, as he
turned, the drainage system that was robbing the field shut off. They
had blocked his way again!
Too many to blast away altogether, they pressed in. Asher leaped
forward, feet kicking, left fist smashing out, static gun crackling as
if to tell him that nothing could stop them. Tentacles gripped at him,
the foul, stinking smell gagged him. But the squeaks of the Petrolia
"Squeak, damn you!" Asher shouted wildly, kicking, shooting and
hitting, gaining toward the shaft. "Squeak—for all the damned Things
that ever bred below the earth cannot stop one surface man!"
He burned and fought his way through and jumped into the cage as his
gun electrocuted two of the Petrolia that tried to weave in after him.
As he slammed the door, Asher was conscious that something was
happening. He hesitated, just long enough to see the cavern start
buckling and caving. The pressure of the oil, now shut off, was
filling back toward the surface, creating a mighty pressure downward.
The surface wells would produce man's power-fuel once more.
Asher slammed the door, turned on the power, and the cage shot upward.
A half hour later, those waiting on the floor of the derrick above the
hole in which Asher had gone down, started. Asher, burned, wounded,
blood streaming from his battered body, staggered in and collapsed at
can't believe it! Insane! Impossible! Yet, every well in this field
has started producing again! And when we went to that old, abandoned
wildcat well, we found the shaft opening! I had it covered up, as you
R. Briggs Johns paced up and down the laboratory floor, talking to
Asher, who had just arisen from his bed, two weeks after he had
collapsed at their feet in the derrick. Still bandaged, he was a
different Blaine Asher. His face was lined, and the hair next to his
scalp nearly snow white.
"I'll be able to do some walking around outside in a few days," Asher
declared as he cleaned a test tube and placed it in a rack. "I can
locate several wells over that underground storage cavern, and you can
recover that oil. But you can't mine this field.
"Twenty years, perhaps, and you can. But it will take that long for
those Petrolia to die out. We've got to get the oil out from below to
a point where they can no longer spawn. We will apply mining in other
fields—but not here!"
"Not here," Johns repeated, shuddering.
"It's up to you to see no one else tries it." Asher lit a cigarette
and nodded at Johns. "Get control of the field—anything. Tell the oil
men something. But don't tell then the truth. They wouldn't believe
you. They would call you raving mad.
"The world does not know. It would not believe. Can we do other than
R. Briggs Johns, sick of thinking of the cavern world and horrible
things below them, knew they could not.