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The Lava Sea Tunnel by Francis G Rayer and E R James

This short story first appeared in the magazine Authentic Science Fiction Monthly, Issue Number 43, dated March 1954. Editor H J Campbell.
Country of first publication: United Kingdom (Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland) and Northern Ireland).
This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved.


Suppose no one had split the atom What would we do when coal and oil ran out?

The Lava Seas Tunnel by F. G. Rayer and E. R. James

"Sit over there!" Steve Martel snapped. He twisted round in his seat and impatiently grasped the last switch on the panel. His eyes narrowed as he looked back over his shoulder. "If you want to climb back to the surface I'll give you five minutes. If not, sit by the communications panel. You can't stand, and you've made us late enough!"

The latecomer looked hurt. He hesitated, then stepped down to the insulated floor of the circular control room. Steve Martel flicked down the switch and the great, curved hatches swung together. He examined the fuel gauges, now standing at maximum, and the radar scanner, which revealed the rock strata below the machine. When he signalled, they would commence to bore down through those pictured layers- down through the Earth's crust, until the deepest mines were like mere pin-pricks when compared with the depth of their shaft. Millions of tons of solid rock would be above them . .

He refused to think of it, but his throat felt dry as he switched on the internal 'phone connected with the engine room.

"McGilligan, prepare motors!"

"Yes, sir..."

A low sound began, mounting to a growling rumble. Steve Martel turned in his seat to the officer who had taken his position at the communications panel. The officer nodded. Martel switched his 'phone to his observation engineer, Hedgerley, below him in the nose of the mighty boring machine.

"Ready, Hedgerley ?"
"Ready, sir."

How smooth the reply was, Steve Martel thought. How strongly it contrasted with his own tension! But then, Hedgerley had not taken part in the earlier deep boring, when.... But that was one of the things he must try not to think of.

"Couple all drives," he ordered.
"Completed, sir."

Martel depressed the master switch. A screaming roar shook the floor, echoing like the tattoo of a drum. Hedgerley's voice came over the reproducer.

"Temperature of rock twelve graduations above melting level. Depth of liquid lava increasing. Two...five...ten feet. Heat dispersing at maximum rate permissible. Ready for stage two." Then, in less mechanical tones: "It's going to work!"

Martel wiped his brow. Of course it was going to work, he thought. It had before- when there had been the accident which he must try to forget.

"Prepare stage two!" he ordered.

Turbines whined and flames glowed redly through the observation ports of indestructible mica. Below them, the rock made molten by the huge flame projectors was being sucked away. It would be ejected upon the walls of the boring, giant sprocket holes being formed in it as it solidified, so that the machine could wind itself back up to the Earth's surface. Steve Martel checked that the mechanism was working correctly, then operated controls which lowered the machine ponderously to the new bottom of the shaft.

Twice he repeated the sequence, then changed to automatic control. An inferno raged below, then the suction turbines screamed. Came a moment's silence, then the huge machine sank a further stage.

He turned in his chair to the communications operator. "Send following report to surface: Going down; will repeat signal every twelve boring cycles."


The operator's face was scarcely visible behind the padding of his heat resistant suit. He nodded.

"Reporting as directed sir!"

Steve Martel nodded with satisfaction. The youngster had pluck and he could forgive him for his lateness, now. Flame boring was no job for weaklings. Grown men could tremble as ruddy light flickered beyond the mica windows, and the machine shuddered while molten rock splashed up through the heat-exchanger engines, to be plastered on the rocky walls above. Building its own shaft as it descended, the mighty machine was terrifying.


Forty boring cycles had been reported when McGilligan's voice came through the amplifier. "Ten degrees temperature increase in the heat batteries, sir."

Martel watched the climbing needles on his panel. Perspiration stood on his forehead. "Report increase to surface." he ordered, over his shoulder.

It was already too hot, Steve Martel thought. The machine worked as in the heart of a fiery furnace, and their safety depended upon maintaining a bearable temperature. Martel thought of his son, and how they had discussed this problem only the night before. Dave had agreed that it could be dangerous.

"I'd like to come, dad," he had said.

Steve Martel had shook his head. "No, son. Not this time."

They had left it at that. Martel had not told his son all the reasons why he could not go...

McGilligan's voice came through the speaker in an abrupt cry, halting Steve Martel's thoughts. "The heat disperser's not working, sir! Halt the descent!"

Martel's hand closed over the switches; the rumbling below slowly subsided as fuel was cut off from the jets. "A fault has developed?" he demanded.

"Yes, sir!" McGilligan's voice quivered. "In the thermostats. It'll take... well, two hours at least, to clear. I knew the final construction was rushed too much! Things were not checked properly...

"All right," Martel interrupted. "It's not for us to complain, but to patch things up!"

He went to the communications panel, made a report, then jammed the microphone back into the operator's hand. The operator seemed stunned by the news, he thought. But he was not the regular officer. The latter had reported ill, and a substitute had been arranged at the last moment. Martel had scarcely looked at him.

"Come and watch, if you like," he said. "Nothing for you to do here, for the moment."

He climbed down to the central deck. The door of a mica dome in the hull was open, showing instruments and tools inside. From slots near their feet, fumes rose, catching their throats. A large man was climbing down a metal ladder to the heat-exchanger housing which ringed the whole machine.

"McGilligan's soft," Martel grunted, watching him. "But he's the best man I could get."

The operator shielded his face from the rising heat, nodding. Steve Martel wondered whether he knew that there had been an accident before, and that they had been buried alive. The deep boring was dangerous. They aimed to penetrate to the fires at the Earth's core, whose heat could be tapped to provide power for industries above. Only in that way could industry be saved.

There was no more coal to mine, and no more oil to draw to the surface.

"If we don't get power, we're finished," Martel had said. "There's no other way to get enough for industrial purposes..."

Two and a half hours later the descent began again. From his central controls Martel gave orders; behind him, the communications officer transmitted reports to the surface. The hours dragged. Steve Martel felt his clothing sticking to his back and his eyes and head ached. Many things could happen. Once before, a nozzle had become blocked and the fuel blown back, melting steel like butter... That danger was one of the reasons why Dave could not come.

An abrupt shudder ran through the hull. A hammering sounded on its shell. Awakened from his thoughts, Martel grasped the master switch and dragged it over.... fumes swirled round him, and his last thought was that perhaps, after all, a nozzle had become blocked once again.

He became conscious slowly, heat searing his face and throat. He struggled to his knees. Before him was a jagged rent in the hull. Flames licked through it, lapping round the communications operator, who lay near his seat.

Martel dragged himself up, blinded by smoke. The operator's leather outer garment was burning. He beat out the flames, grabbed an extinguisher, and directed its jet round the control room and through the 'fissure in the hull. Coughing, he wiped his brow, and his eyes returned to the operator.

The helmet was gone. Golden ringlets covered the head and Steve Martel felt astonishment.

"Dave!" he whispered.

The centre hatch opened and Hedgerley's face appeared. Martel dragged his gaze from his son.

"All right, Hedgerley?"

"Well enough... the blow-back missed me." His eyes went to the operator and his brows rose. "Just a kid. Too bad."

"Too bad," Martel agreed. He thought it best to say no more. He supposed that Dave had taken the position of the usual operator at the last moment- but that could wait. At the moment, the first thing was to get the boy to safety. There were three collapsible balloons... the machine's "life boats"- which could be released in emergency. With some luck, perhaps a lot, Martel thought grimly, one of the balloons might float up the shaft to the open world above.

Dave was stirring. Steve Martel made his face grim, and when Dave's eyes opened, Steve glared.

"What do you think you're doing, son, pulling tricks like this? You're going up in one of the life-balloons, now!"

Dave looked rebellious. "I'll not! You can't make me!"

Martel admired the other's spirit, but did not let that show. "You'll do as you're told!" he snapped.

"I'll not, then! There are only three balloons- for all of us!"

There was no answer to that, Steve Martel knew. He fumed, and abruptly wondered what had happened to McGilligan.

"We'll see!" he said

He took down a respirator, adjusting it as he went. The outside compartment was intact. McGilligan, trembling like a jelly, was inside it, and Martel dragged him out.

"Pull yourself together, man! There's work to be done!"

McGilligan shivered. "Leave me alone. I've had enough!"

"Not while I'm boss!" Martel snapped. "Get back to work." He saw Dave had followed, and glared at him. "And you too! While you're here you're under my command!"

Dave grinned. "Thanks... sir."

They started to try to repair the damage. Knowledge of the enormous weight of rock stretching above them oppressed Martel. So did the knowledge that Dave was in danger. After sixteen hours of almost unbroken labour the store of spares was almost empty, but the huge machine was again in workable order.

"We'll take six hours rest," he decided.

Hedgerley and McGilligan exchanged glances; Dave said nothing, and Martel returned to his control chair, where he fiddled with the controls uneasily. The silence oppressed him. It was so like that first time, when he had been buried under tons of debris. The hours had grown slowly into days, hope of rescue completely abandoned...

He paced the floor, unable to sleep. His boots rang on the metal, leaving deep silence when he stopped. Once he heard voices below. He returned to his seat and calculated the depth to which they had penetrated. The figure stunned him. Already two miles of rock extended above. Suppose the tunnel cracked, he thought, and the debris thundered down upon them? That would be worse than the first time. He mopped his face, heard a sound, and looked at the door. Dave stood there. He came in slowly.

"Dad, what's wrong?"

Steve Martel grinned crookedly. "Too good a memory, son. Stay and talk."

Dave shook his head. "I came to tell you that Hedgerley and McGilligan are up to something..."

Martel remembered the voices, whispering. He followed Dave down the ladder. A light showed, and a voice came from the deck below. McGilligan was on his knees, clawing at the fused rock below the machine, a torch in his hand. He looked up, waved, and dragged stones from his pockets.

"Diamonds, Martel! Big as eggs! We're rich!"

Martel dropped lightly down to the bottom of the boring, still hot to his touch. "We're prospecting for heat... power!" he snapped. "Not diamonds. Money is no use when industry cracks up! We're boring again in five hours. Get back inside!"

McGilligan laughed unevenly. "Think you're always boss, eh ?" he said. One hand went into a pocket and came out holding a gun. "I'm not boring any more," he said. "Not a foot!"

We'll see!" Martel said

He sprang. A foot caught in a crack in the uneven floor and he stumbled. The weapon exploded above his head. He twisted, but McGilligan had leapt for the deck edge and disappeared. Martel scrambled up, and halted. McGilligan was boring the weapon into Dave's chest.

"Stop, or I'll fire!" His eyes were red and wild. "Get inside! You're fools to think I'm staying down here any longer!"

Fuming, Martel retreated into the store room. He saw that Hedgerley was already there, then the door slammed on them and its bolt rattled into place. There was silence. Martel took up one of the tools littering the floor, and attacked the door. Once he paused as there was a jerk.

"He's taken a life-balloon Hedgerley said, uneasily.

At last the door swung open under Martel's blows. The instruments in the control room had been smashed and were useless. The transmitter was ruined, though Steve Martel saw that the receiver still functioned. Both McGilligan and the third balloon had gone.

Minutes passed, and the receiver began calling them. They listened helplessly, unable to reply, and at last the voice dropped silent. They were once again on their own, Martel thought. It had been like that once before. But this time he would not admit failure. If he did, there could never be another attempt.

"If we can get the machine working, we go down," he stated at last.

Hedgerley looked at him in amazement. "It's crazy!"

Dave appeared to have recovered, and shook his head. "It's not crazy if dad says it's not!"

Steve Martel felt proud, but did not look at his son. "We need the power," he said. "We need to make this a success. We always knew stocks of coal and oil wouldn't last for ever."

They were silent. Hedgerley seemed to be fighting an internal battle, then his lips compressed. "Very well, I'm with you," he said.

An hour later the machine had begun its descent again. Martel wondered whether the patched-up equipment would stand the strain. The minutes lengthened into hours, and they sank lower and lower, every steel plate vibrating with the roar of the burning jets. It was almost unendurably hot, and at length he ordered a halt. Dave had just taken over his watch, and his tired eyes shone. Both knew that they were very near to success.

"We'd better wait for some of the heat to dissipate," Martel said.

After resting, they burned their way downwards for another hour. Martel switched off the power, rising stiffly. Dave was huddled in his chair asleep. Martel realised that he himself was the only one who had not slept for twenty hours, and he returned to his chair, to settle down to sleep.

He awoke with an odd feeling of being unable to move. His wrists and ankles were bound to the chair, and he raised his gaze to meet Hedgerley's eyes.

"You've made a mistake," Hedgerley said, thinly. "A big mistake. I draw two pay packets... one from your firm, and one from a foreign country we don't need to mention." His lips compressed. "I came to see that this job is a failure- and such a failure that no one will try again! I'm going up in one of the balloons, Martel, and leaving you here." He laughed harshly. "Up there, I shall tell them a story which will earn me a medal! That'll be funny, eh? And among other things, I'll tell them both you and your communications operator are dead!"

Martel struggled, and Hedgerley laughed again. "I'll not only do my job, but make myself look a hero," he said. "This is your last mistake."

He dragged the chair to the central trap and pushed it over. Still bound to it, Martel landed heavily on the floor below and Hedgerley looked down from above.

"Goodbye, Martel..."

He went from view; his footsteps crossed the floor, then came silence. Martel wondered what had happened to Dave, who had been sleeping too. He began to struggle. His bonds seemed a trifle less tight, and he judged that the fall had loosened them. The chair was of hard-wood. He exerted all his strength, and heard something splinter as one arm came abruptly free.

Within moments he had wriggled from the ropes. As he stood swaying and rubbing his wrists, a slight jar shook the machine. Another life-balloon had been cast free, he realised, and was presumably now rising up through the shaft to safety. He wondered whether Hedgerley had taken the precaution of damaging the only remaining balloon. Probably.

The light had gone out, and he crawled to the centre of the room. The ladder was gone. Drawn up by Hedgerley, he realised, so that he could not get into the control room above.

He searched the walls, found a mica observation window, and at last got it open. He scrambled through into the boring, still so hot that it scorched his clothing. There was just sufficient space for him to squirm upwards between the machine and the tunnel wall, until he could reach the deck above. But the central control room was empty.

"Dave!" he called

There was no answer. He rested, then went up through the hatch to the top of the machine, trying not to think of the miles of rock stretching above him, or of what might have happened to Dave.

The last life-balloon was still there, and he dragged open the door of the tiny, suspended cabin. Dave lay on the floor, and his eyes were just opening.

"We... don't... give up dad," he whispered.

Steve Martel gazed at him. There was a bruise on his forehead, and he breathed unevenly in the stifling air. Slowly Martel realised that scorching fumes were rising about them... which meant that they were very near, indeed, to success! But Hedgerley would say that the machine had been destroyed and that the attempt was unsuccessful. As a result, there would never be another attempt.

"We can't give up, now, dad," Dave said.

Martel bit his lips. It was a big risk. The machine was becoming more and more unsafe, and the temperature mounted steadily.

"Just a little farther down dad," Dave said.

Steve Martel turned abruptly. If his son would risk it-so would he, he thought. He went to the control room and sank stiffly into the seat. Once again flames rushed and roared from the jets below and splashes of molten lava flamed outside the windows. But the machine did not sink. The hull shuddered, and from above came a fearful grating sound. Dave had followed him, and his face was white.

"We're jammed, dad," he said.

Martel reversed the machinery, flinging the mighty borer up and down as he strove to release it. It trembled, clawing upwards on the sprocket slots, then stuck. He flung it down again, then up. Down once more- and abruptly the floor lurched. Martel felt fear run along his spine. The bottom seemed to have fallen out of the shaft, and they were plummeting downwards...

He switched off. The floor sloped more and more steeply, then, with a grating thud, they were still. Through the window near them, which sloped sharply, red light streamed. Martel went slowly to it and gazed down, appalled at what he saw. Below stretched a great sea of leaping flame and incandescent gas, glaring behind fumes which rose thickly. Here, he realised, was the very cauldron they had come to seek. From it, heat could be taken through great pipes to the surface, there to provide power for enormous industrial machines.

He looked upwards. Glowing debris was plunging past the window. Masses of rock were breaking away from the tunnel above. The hull of the borer shuddered, slipping gradually downwards.

He clawed up the sloping floor and flung the sprockets into reverse. They grated on the rock; the machine heaved, then settled down a little lower. He switched to neutral hastily, wondering how long the machine would continue to cling to the slots in the crumbling tunnel walls.

This was like the first time, he thought, but worse. Abruptly the panic which he had held at bay so long returned. The task was accomplished- but he was trapped. Trapped, again. He sank his face into his hands, hiding the glare beyond the mica window. This time they were too deep for a rescue party to reach them, even if there was time... And Hedgerley had damaged the last balloon.

The floor trembled again, and he felt it was slipping. Then a hand came on his shoulder, turning him gently.

"Dad ..."

He opened his eyes. "You shouldn't have come, Dave. I told you not to. You should be above- safe."

"I... wanted to come," Dave said.

Martel felt overwhelming pride. "You're a brave man, son. It's a pity it's too late. Hedgerley had jammed the balloon release mechanism. I noticed that, but didn't tell you..."

"I noticed too- and I've freed it!"

With the hope in the voice and the tugging on his shoulder, Martel came to life.

"Freed it!"

"Yes- that's what I came to tell you!"

"Then what are we waiting for!"

They scrambled to the top deck, and into the tiny cabin suspended from the balloon. Below them, the machine lurched, and Steve Martel operated the release., Like a bubble the balloon bobbed upwards, rising through the tunnel. Below, the machine vanished abruptly from view; fumes and sparks raced up by them, and Martel gripped Dave's shoulder.

"We've done it, son," he said.


F.G. Rayer and E.R. James.


This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved. F.G. Rayer's Estate contacts: W Rayer and Q Rayer. May not be reprinted, republished, or duplicated elsewhere (including mirroring on the Internet) without consent.

F G Rayer died July 1981.

E R James died on 2nd November 2012,leaving a daughter, Hazel.