Tomorrow I’m going to officially throw my hat in the ring as a candidate for President of the United States.
The Mad Scientist and the Snooty Professor
Professor Scrumtumbler lifted a handful of red sand to his nose and smelled the heavy scent of iron.
“I think I know where we are,” he said.
Professor Limefellow had wandered a few steps farther into the desert and looked towards a ridge of sheer rock that extended straight out of the surrounding sands for what might have been hundreds of miles. Far, far beyond that, a bulging, cone-shaped mountain projected to dizzying altitudes in the pale gray sky.
“Our location is impossible to determine,” Limefellow concluded. “We could be anywhere on Earth.”
“Wrong,” Scrumtumbler dropped the sand and wiped his hands on his filthy lab coat. “We are, in fact, on Mars.”
“Preposterous,” Limefellow said perfunctorily.
“Look at the moons,” Scrumtumbler pointed up at two glowing shapes in the sky. They appeared to be the same color as the Earth’s moon, but these were lumpy and misshapen like pock-marked potatoes.
Limefellow gazed at them for a moment before shaking his head. “A trick of the light,” he said. “An atmospheric anomaly.”
“Look over there,” Scrumtumbler pointed to a glittering circle of light at the base of the rock ridge. “There are lights over there. Civilization.”
“It’s a long way,” Limefellow said. “And the natives might not be friendly.”
“They never are,” Scrumtumbler said. “But just think of it: every step takes us closer to fame, fortune, and discovery.”
“Every step takes me closer to exposing your fraudulent claims to the whole world.” Limefellow retrieved a canteen from his briefcase and took a drink of water before handing it to Scrumtumbler.
Scrumtumbler took a drink and handed the canteen back. “If this really is Mars,” he said. “You’ll have to discredit me on two worlds.”
Limefellow nodded. “That shouldn’t be too difficult.”
The Fortune Hunter
The Amazon was the next to approach, leaning heavily on a staff with one hand as she seized Jack in a fierce hug with her other.
“Adonia,” she said, pointing to herself.
“Adonia?” Jack repeated. “That’s your name? Mine’s Jack. It was a pleasure to fight beside you.”
Seeing the looks they gave each other, Maia was about to make herself scarce, but Jack beckoned her closer.
“Can you translate? I’ve got something I really need to tell Adonia.”
“I’m not sure,” Maia folded her arms. “It sounds like she’s speaking ancient Greek, which I only know as a written language. But maybe…”
Maia grabbed a stick and scratched the Greek letters into the ground. It was a simple greeting, but Adonia responded immediately, using her staff to repeat the greeting and then commence a longer message.
“It says…” Maia studied the script, puzzling over a few of the characters. “The gist is that she wants you to stay here with her.”
Jack sighed heavily and thought for a long moment. Adonia started scrawling another message before he began to speak.
“Tell her this,” Jack said. “Tell her that I want very badly to stay, but it can’t happen. I have a duty to get my crew back home safely. Tell her that… that I hope she understands. If I weren’t the kind of man to carry out my duty, I wouldn’t be worthy of her.”
Maia watched the Amazon’s sentences take shape and had to suppress a laugh. “Adonia just wrote that she wants to come with you, but she has a duty to stay here.” Maia looked up at Jack. “She says she hopes you understand. Seems like you two are just peas in a pod.”
“Maybe I’ll come back someday,” Jack said hopefully.
“Of course you will,” Maia said. “You’ll have to find her again when you come back to pick me up.”
“To… to pick you up?” Jack looked surprised. “You’re not coming back on the drilling machine?”
“Are you kidding?” Maia lifted her hat to wipe her brow with the back of her wrist. “My pockets are still empty, and this place is filled with tombs to be raided and loot to be plundered.”
“I promised I’d get everyone back safe—”
“Save it for people who need you,” Maia rested her shotgun across her shoulder. “This is going to be fun.”
Maia accompanied the expedition back to the drill sight and stood by until the dented, scratched steel hull disappeared into the ground and the rumbling faded away beneath her feet. She spent a long while studying the distant landscape that curved upwards into the mists in all directions. Finally, she plucked a strand of grass, held it aloft and let it float down. Her compass still didn’t work, but if the ancient city had been to the north then the wind carried the blade of grass towards the southwest, where she could see a sparkling blue sea in the distance.
It was as good a direction as any, so she adjusted her hat and set off to continue her expedition.
The Fortune Hunter
Maia had searched the grassy clumps all around the pylon, but she had not found the onyx skull. In all the confusion, it was entirely possible that someone else had grabbed it and run off. One more thing von Wartenburg owes me, she thought.
A clanking and a grinding behind her announced the presence of the Professor’s drilling machine entering the city square. Jack Steele popped out of the hatch and hopped down to the ground.
“I think I can get us back home,” he announced. “It’s not like it requires too much steering.”
“Thank goodness,” Celeste said, her voice so hoarse it was barely audible. Maia couldn’t help smirking as she watched the actress: when they started the jouney, she wore a red, sequined dress and high heels. Now she was clad in the remains of a second-hand army uniform with the sleeves torn completely away, and her once-lustrous hair now hung in a clump down her back. Somehow the right leg of her trousers had been split from the hem almost all the way to the hip. Maia shook her head: even after all the actress had been through, she still managed to show off her gamms.
Celeste climbed the short ladder and was lowering herself into the drilling machine when her friend, the talking chimpanzee, scampered up after her. One of his arms was in a sling, but Maia could see that his injury had improved even in the short span of time since they had fended off the tyrannosaur. Her own bruises, too, had disappeared with remarkable quickness. Something in the sunlight or in the air of the Hollow Earth seemed to promote life and vigor, and Maia decided she liked that feeling.
From atop the hull of the drilling machine, Thelonius bowed courteously to Jack. “Excuse my presumptuousness,” the chimp-man said in his strange, gruff voice. “I set out on an expedition to prove the existence of what I call The Surface Earth. Might I travel with you to your native land? It would be the most important discovery since the invention of blasting powder.”
Jack shrugged. “I just wish the professors were still here to answer your questions.”
“About that,” Maia asked. “Where are those two?”
“Safe,” Jack said. “I hope.” Then he looked around at the handful of others who had come to the expedition’s aid. “Anyone else want to go back with us? I can’t promise a safe trip.”
Maia watched as the panther-woman disappeared into the shadows, but Trotsky the Titan stepped to Jack’s side and enveloped his shoulder in one humongous hand.
“Sorry, buddy,” Jack said, his voice suddenly filled with regret. “You’re just too big to fit inside that tin can. Maia—can you translate for me? Tell him—tell him I’m sorry to have to leave him.”
“I think he already knows,” Maia watched as the giant stepped back and waved like a child. His big eyes were glistening with tears but a fond smile was forming under his beard.
The Imperiled Actress
The dinosaur sneezed again and shook its head convulsively, then coiled in on itself like a cat about to pounce, its eyes locked on the pylon. But before it could crash through the stone structure, Jack Steele stepped forward from the rubble of a nearby building. He had recovered a submachine gun, which he used to drill a tight red pattern just below the tyrannosaur’s ribs.
The tyrannosaur turned and made ready to stomp Jack out of existence when Maia sprinted in from the opposite direction, rolled to her back almost at the dinosaur’s feet and fired her shotgun up into its pale underbelly.
The tyrannosaur yelped and its head swung around, its jaws open wide to snatch up this newest threat, but Maia was on her feet and running to keep behind in the dinosaur’s blind spot behind its tail.
As the dinosaur turned around in place, a chunk of masonry sailed through the air to strike it on the flank, followed almost immediately by another small boulder that splintered against the tyrannosaur’s knee. These had been hurled by a giant, bearded man who now rushed to Jack’s side, scooping up a chunk of granite on his way. As he approached, a flight of arrows peppering the dinosaur’s haunch, and Celeste saw that they had come from the bows of two women, one who looked like she was half panther, and the other tall and beautiful. The tall woman’s leg was bound in a crude splint that forced her to fire from a seated position, but this seemed to have little effect on her ability to launch arrows with great power and accuracy.
The Tyrannosaur wheeled and spun, uttering shortened roars and angry snaps of its teeth. It was doing something Celeste would not have guessed possible: it was backing down. It stepped away from the pylon slowly, eyeing its foes as it hissed like an angry cat.
Thelonius finally had the blunderbuss primed, and he handed it to Celeste. She aimed it down at the tyrannosaur but did not fire. She could see her allies below were also reloading, knocking their arrows, or searching for more stones. Yet they, too, held back as the tyrannosaur’s burning orange eyes flashed at each of them in turn.
For a moment, Celeste wondered if it was simply readying itself for another charge. It could kill any one of them it chose to—most easily her, simply by knocking into the pylon—but her friends were spread out and ready, and they might be able to gravely injure the beast. She prayed that somewhere in that tiny reptilian brain, the tyrannosaur was aware that discretion would be the better part of monstrousness.
The tyrannosaur roared again and took another step backwards, then two more. Seemingly satisfied that no one would pursue, it ducked its head quickly, like a bird pecking at seeds, and came up with the trampled body of a Nazi between its teeth. It eyed the living humans for another moment, probably to see if they would make a challenge for its kill, but none did. Apparently satisfied, the tyrannosaur turned and loped of towards the jungle, limping slightly.
Celeste dropped the blunderbuss and allowed herself to collapse to her knees in relief. Somewhere past the walls, she could hear the heavy tread of the tyrannosaur’s feet carrying it away into the jungle, and she thought she heard one last gargantuan sneeze.
The Imperiled Actress
Celeste looked at her friends down below. They were running as fast as they could, but she could tell they didn’t have a chance. Maia might be able to get away, but Jack seemed so beat up that he was barely able to stand. The tyrannosaur would make short work of him before moving on to the others.
Celeste did the only thing she could: she screamed. Her throat felt shredded after her long ordeal, and what came out of her mouth was little more than a strangled shout that cut off suddenly and painfully as the muscles in her larynx gave out. If she had screamed that way in her audition, she never would have been cast as Victim #2 in Reggie Sparks’s film Death in the Dark. But here it proved to be enough.
The tyrannosaur ground to a halt, leaving long trenches in the sun-baked dirt behind each of its feet. Its massive head spun to find her at the top of the pylon. Celeste had always assumed that reptiles didn’t have emotions, or at least that they didn’t express them in any way she could recognize, but as she peered into the black slits at the center of those huge orange eyes, she understood that this beast recognized her—and hated her. Its hatred of her scream had carried it through the jungle, and the destruction it had wreaked today had not been for the sake of animalistic hunger or territorial instinct or even wanton cruelty. It had attacked because it hated her, and it was a beast that knew only to destroy that which it hated.
And now, here it was, only separated by a small matter of elevation. This would be nothing to the dinosaur: with a butt of its mighty head it could crack the pillar in half and send Celeste and Thelonius plummeting to the ground. All it was waiting for, perhaps, was for Celeste to scream so that it could have the pleasure of cutting off the hateful noise in mid-burst.
But Celeste was done screaming. Instead, she aimed Thelonius’s blunderbuss down at the beast.
“How about a snoot full of silverware?” she rasped.
The gun slammed into her, bruising her shoulder as it belched forth a clap of thunder and a cloud of white smoke. Dozens of forks that Thelonius had pilfered from the zeppelin’s kitchen rained down onto the beast’s head. The tyrannosaur flinched and blinked, narrowly saving its eyes, but the utensils impaled themselves all along the gargantuan face like needles in a pincushion. The tyrannosaur opened its mouth as if to roar, but instead sneezed mightily, and from her elevation Celeste thought she could see the sunlight glinting off a fork lodged inside the beast’s nostril.
Celeste had no idea how to reload the blunderbuss, so she handed it back to Thelonius who began by stuffing another gunpowder cap down its barrel. Reloading his weapon was a slow process even without an injured shoulder, and Celeste could see that the tyrannosaur was not about to wait for her to deliver another volley.
The Imperiled Actress
Celeste had been observing quite a light-show beneath her as the portal had remained open, but then the tyrannosaur slammed into the side of the pillar and the gateway through space snapped shut as if someone had pulled the plug on the movie projector.
The impact warped the pillar on which she and Thelonius were perched, and the two skidded towards the edge. Celeste dropped off the side, her legs dangling down the side as her palms slipped along the smooth stone. She would have dropped like a stone had not Thelonius managed to grab the higher edge with his prehensile feet and pull her in with his uninjured arm.
Celeste righted herself just in time to see the biplane heading back in for a low strafe, its guns blazing as it skimmed over the roofs of the ancient city. But the tyrant king of dinosaurs wasn’t about to let this insult pass. With a tremendous lunge, the beast propelled itself high into the air. The pilot of the biplane must have seen it coming, because he stopped firing and banked sharply upwards. It wasn’t enough: the tyrannosaur had probably hunted flying reptiles larger than the biplane, and it had aimed itself like an arrow. As it passed, it snagged the plane’s starboard wings in its massive jaws and ripped them cleanly free of the fuselage.
The tyrannosaur landed with an eerie grace that belied its ten-ton body. The biplane slammed into the ground behind it. For a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, the cloud of black smoke and orange flames framed the dinosaur’s gigantic brown body, projecting its long, powerful shadow towards Celeste. Slowly, deliberately, the tyrannosaur turned back towards the pylon. It eyed the members of the expedition—the last human beings unlucky enough to remain within the tyrannosaur’s new hunting ground. It licked its lips, allowing chunks of the wood and metal that had been the airplane’s wing to fall to the ground at its feet.
The Mad Scientist
Scrumtumbler, finally free of von Wartenburg’s mystical power, turned to call to Kate through the portal. But before he could speak, a rumbling in the ground caused her image to flicker out and be replaced by a dense rainforest, which in turn transformed into a darkened swamp.
“Heads up!” Jack shouted, pointing up at the tyrannosaur that now charged at them. It was still in pursuit of the biplane, but its path carried it right past them. With each of its gargantuan footfalls, the portal shifted to show a new destination.
Scrumtumbler could see that even if the dinosaur didn’t pause its pursuit to eat one of them, it would still trample them all as it ran.
“Through the gate!” Jack shouted.
“But the frequency isn’t stable!” Scrumtumbler shouted back. “If we go through now, there’s no telling where we’ll end up!”
“If we stay here, we’re lizard food!” Jack grabbed Limefellow by the back of his jacket and flung him through the gate and then pushed Scrumtumbler after him.
Scrumtumbler found himself landing on dusky red sand. He turned to look back through the portal to see Jack leaping towards them, with the tyrannosaur bearing down from behind. An instant before Jack could pass through the portal, there was a roar and a crash and the portal winked out of existence.
Scrumtumbler desperately groped at the space where the portal had been only a moment before, but he found only dry, empty air.
The Mad Scientist
Kate drew her pistol out and aimed right back at him, and Reggie fumbled out his little double derringer. Dr. Scott looked worriedly back and forth at all their faces.
“Your weapons are useless,” Clem said. “I took the liberty of unloading them while you slept.”
Kate and Reggie exchanged a meaningful glance.
“As long as you have us,” Kate said, “at least give us an explanation for why you’re doing this. You owe us that much.”
“I owe you nothing. The secret must be kept, you see.”
“Yeah, we figured you’d say that,” Kate said. “But that’s okay. We already know everything: you’re a member of a secret society called the Terra Arcanum and you’re sworn to protecting the secret of the Hollow Earth.”
Clem’s eyes went wide is surprise. “What—how could you—?”
“We found the information on the Terra Arcanum in the file I took from the Nazi headquarters,” Dr. Scott said. “You remember that file, I’m sure. You tried so hard to get us to leave it behind, after all.”
“After we passed that file around,” Kate explained. “All your actions started to make sense. How Scrumtumbler suddenly disappeared. How you were the only one left behind. How much you knew about the Nazi plans and the way you used us to get inside their headquarters.”
“And don’t forget how you burned down Dr. Scott’s research books,” Reggie added. “Yeah, we know about that, too.”
“Yes,” Dr. Scott added, an uncharacteristic flash of anger in his eyes. “Yes, we most certainly will not forget about the burning of my research.”
“Well, I must congratulate you,” Clem said crisply. “You’ve done a cracking good job of figuring me out. But by learning this much, you have signed your own death warrants.”
He pulled the trigger. There was a loud snap, but nothing else. He pulled the trigger again. Still nothing. Frantically, he dry-fired his gun a half dozen times, but got no result.
“Oh, one thing we forgot to mention,” Reggie said. “We kept a close eye on you ever since reading that file. When I noticed that you were secretly unloading our guns, we secretly unloaded yours.”
“And then we loaded ours back up,” Kate said, aiming the long barrel of her c96 at his heart. Without taking her eyes off of Clem, she called to Dr. Scott. “Hey, Doc, while you’re searching for the professor, how about you find some nice spot for us to push Clem through to make sure this portal actually works. Considering that he’s so keen on the Hollow Earth, maybe he wants to go take a vacation there.”
Dr. Scott gave a snappy salute, and even by the strange light emitted by the opening portal, Kate could see Clem’s face lose its color.
“But—but the secret,” Clem stammered. “The secret must be kept!”
“Here’s a secret you don’t have to keep,” Kate gave him a shove towards the portal. “You just got aced by Kate Boone, Daredevil Pilot!”