Four Miles Within
A Death More Hideous
Quade was there first.
When they burst out of a narrow crevice, not far from the funnel-shaped opening they had originally entered, they saw him standing beside the open door of the sphere as if waiting. The searchlight inside was still on, and in its shaft of light they could see that he was smiling thinly, once more his old, confident self. It would only take him a second to jump in, slam the door and lock it. He could afford a last gesture...
The three stopped short. They saw something he did not.
“So!” he observed in his familiar, mocking voice. He paused, seeing that they did not come on. He had plenty of time.
He said something else, but the two men and the girl did not hear what it was. As if by a magnet their eyes were held by what was hanging above him, clinging to the lip of the hole the sphere had made in the ceiling.
It was an amoeba, another of those single-celled, protoplasmic mounds of flesh. It had evidently come down through the hole; and now it was stretching, rubber-like, lower and lower, a living, reaching stalactite of whitish hunger.
Quade was all unconscious of it. His final words reached Phil’s consciousness.
“ ... And this time, of course, I will keep the top disintegrators on. No other monster will then be able to weigh me down!”
He shrugged his shoulders and turned to the door. And that movement was the signal that brought his doom. Without a sound, the poised mass above dropped.
James Quade never knew what hit him. The heap of whitish jelly fell squarely. There was a brief moment of frantic lashing, of tortured struggles--then only tiny ripples running through the monster as it fed.
Sue Guinness turned her head. But the two men for some reason could not take their eyes away...
It was the girl’s voice that jerked them back to reality. “The other!” she gasped. “It’s coming, behind!”
They had completely forgotten the mass in the tunnel. Turning, they saw that it was only fifteen feet away and approaching fast, and instinctively they ran out into the cavern, skirting the sphere widely. When they came to Quade’s wrecked borer Phil, who had snatched a glance behind, dragged them down behind it. For he had seen their pursuer abandon the chase and go to share in the meal of its fellow.
“We’d best not get too far away,” he whispered. “When they leave the front of the borer, maybe we can make a dash for it.”
For minutes that went like hours the young man watched, waiting for the creatures to be done, hoping that they would go away. Fortunately the sphere lay between, and he was not forced to see too much. Only one portion of one of the monsters was visible, lapping out from behind the machine...
At last his body tensed, and he gripped Sue and her father’s arm in quick warning. The things were leaving the sphere. Or, rather, only one was. For Phil saw that they had agglutenated--merged into oneness--and now the monster that remained was the sum of the sizes of the original two. And more...
They all watched. And they all saw the amoeba stop, hesitate for a moment--and come straight for the wrecked borer behind which they were hidden.
“Damn!” Phil whispered hoarsely. “It’s still hungry--and it’s after us!”
David Guinness sighed wearily. “It’s heavy and sluggish, now,” he said, “so maybe if we run again ... Though I don’t know how I can last any longer...”
Holmes did not answer. His eyes were narrowed; he was casting about desperately for a plan. He hardly felt Sue’s light touch on his arm as she whispered:
“In case, Phil--in case ... This must be good-by...”
But the young man turned to her with gleaming eyes. “Good-by, nothing!” he cried. “We’ve still got a card to play!”
She stared at him, wondering if he had cracked from the strain of what he had passed through. But his next words assured her he had not. “Go back, Sue,” he said levelly. “Go far back. We’ll win through this yet.”
She hesitated, then obeyed. She crept back from the wrecked borer, back into the dim rear, eyes on Phil and the sluggish mass that moved inexorably towards him. When she had gone fifteen or twenty yards she paused, and watched the two men anxiously.
Phil was talking swiftly to Professor Guinness. His voice was low and level, and though she could not hear the words she could catch the tone of assurance that ran through them. She saw her father nod his head, and he seemed to make the gesture with vigor. “I will,” she heard him say; and he slapped Phil on the back, adding: “But for God’s sake, be careful!”
And with these words the old man wormed inside Quade’s wrecked borer and was gone from the girl’s sight.
She wanted desperately to run forward and learn what Phil intended to do, but she restrained herself and obeyed his order. She waited, and watched; and saw the young man stand up, look at the slowly advancing monster--and deliberately walk right into its path!
Sue could not move from her fright. In a daze she saw Phil advance cautiously towards the amoeba and pause when within five feet of it. The thing stopped; remained absolutely motionless. She saw him take another short step forward. This time a pseudopod emerged, and reached slowly out for him. Phil avoided it easily, but by so narrow a margin that the girl’s heart stopped beating. Then she saw him step back; and, snail-like, the creature followed, pausing twice, as if wary and suspicious. Slowly Phil Holmes drew it after him.