The Cavern World

by James P. Olsen

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: A great oil field had gone dry--and Asher, trapped far under the earth among the revolting Petrolia, learns why.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“Impossible! What sort of creatures would they be, that could live two miles beneath the surface of the earth? Surely, Asher, you are joking!”

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.”

“Yes,” 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 minute.”

“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?

“Well, 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 do?”

“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 it it.”

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.

“Pressure-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 gases.”

“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?”

What 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 the table.”

“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 remarkable.”

“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...”

“Men,”--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...

At 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 ear-drums ceased.

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, everything ready.

His 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 earth.

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 the surface.

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.

Asher 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 vibration.

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, nevertheless.

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.

It 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 vomited!

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.

With 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 knocked away.

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.

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