Pulp Horror Unearthed: Bubble of Destruction (BEYOND #2, Jan 1951)
Ethan let the armful of wood he was carrying fall. It struck the stone floor near the fire, and the walls flung back a reverberating echo mixed with a peculiar ringing. As the echoes died, the ringing carried on. Slowly it swelled. Higher and higher its pitch and volume went, until it reached a piercing quality that pressed into their eardrums and numbed their brains.
Ethan swung around, his broad back pressed against the ancient wall, his rifle ready.
Abruptly, as though cut off with a knife, the sound ceased. Silence rushed in upon them.
Ethan recovered first. Still on the alert, he eased over and peered into the grotto.
“What—what was it?” Daniel’s voice was weak.
“Echos,” Ethan snapped. He set his rifle down close by the grotto wall.
Daniel’s lips trembled. “Ethan. Are we—are we in—” His eyes completed the question.
Ethan nodded. “Couldn’t help it, Kid,” he said, “No other place to go.”
The ringing sound came again. Dimly, faintly in the distance, it seemed to have the musically sweet tone of an angelus at evening. Yet indescribably mixed, covered, hidden, was a wildly ringing note of terror, of uncouthness, of unholiness.
Ethan whirled, reaching for his rifle. Color drained from his face as though wiped with a chalk-loaded rag. His eyes widened, the whites showing ghastly blue. The muscles in his thick neck contracted spasmodically. His gaze focused at something by the fire!
Hypnotically pulled, yet with his flesh crawling, Daniel gazed down. There, from between the ancient flagstones, at a point almost where Ethan had dropped the wood, something stirred. Something that seemed like a wisp of smoke crawling up from between a moss-filled crack in the floor, but with more of a body—a subsistency—than smoke. It formed a ball, a little ball as big as one of Ethan’s fists, and it had a tail which reached down into the crack.
This tail seemed to be feeding it. It grew and grew, its center hollow, its walls a thin transparent membrane like a soap bubble. The firelight gleaming on its awful sides, the mucilaginous substance whirled about in a gamut of running whorls of color. Blood red, intestine blue, gangrene green, proud flesh yellow, all mirrored before his startled gaze.
The bubble grew and grew until it was large enough for a man to stand erect in it. With a crack, the tail snapped. The ringing sound increased. The bubble bounced lightly once or twice, detoured a little to avoid the leaping flames of the fire, and rolled straight at Ethan!
Ethan’s rifle leaped to his shoulder. Orange flame spurted. The report lost itself in the horrid ringing sound.
The surface of the bubble flicked lightly at the point where the bullet struck. No hole appeared. The bubble rolled imperturbably on. Again the rifle spurted, and again, again. The bubble never paused.
It was quite close now, hemming Ethan in between itself and the wall. With a curse, he flung the rifle straight at the awful thing. It struck it full in the center, passed completely through both its sides, and bounced dully on the rocks behind. No hole appeared in the whirling iridescence.
The bubble touched Ethan! His head penetrated, the vicious hull surrounded him. He struck out right and left. Where his fists landed, the walls bulged out, then snapped resiliently back.
Ethan’s face took on a red, purplish hue. The collar seemed to tight, his cheeks puffed out, his uniform fitted him too snugly. He was swelling. It seemed as if the bubble were creating a vacuum inside itself, causing the natural pressure inside Ethan’s body to stretch his tortured flesh to the breaking point.
He was moving more slowly now. Nervelessly—and with difficulty—his hand fumbled at his bayonet. With an effort, he pulled it from its scabbard. Once, twice, three times he stabbed at the encircling wall. The steel penetrated, the blade passing easily through, reflecting the firelight. When it was withdrawn, there was no hole!
The bayonet fell from Ethan’s hand. His head sagged to one side; crimson froth covered his distorted features, blood oozed from pores of the skin. His eyes were staring, growing larger.
Ethan’s movements ceased, he seemed lifeless, but held erect by some invisible force. His arms were a formless mass hanging to his sides, his head no longer human. He grew more and more misshapen and formless.
Daniel hid his eyes, clapping his hands to his ears to shut out the horrible, nerve-wracking ring.
Sound like a liquid explosion broke through his guard. He looked again. The inside of the ball was covered solidly with red—red blood swirling and eddying, the whole thing opaque.
Gradually the coating of blood thinned, separated itself into reddish streaks, disappeared. Daniel could see through the bubble again. It seemed to be filled with a light haze which rotated at great speed.
A clear space appeared in the center, first no bigger than a doorknob, but growing larger until it was nothing but a shell within a shell, then it disappeared. The intensity of the ringing died down, the Bubble rolled back, leaving a shredded mass of clothing lying by the fire.
Daniel lay in his blanket. After his first involuntary cry, he had not made a sound. Wordlessly, he prayed that the Bubble might not know of his presence.
It lay swaying lightly, on the other side of the fire like some animal which has feasted on its kill and is heavy and satisfied. Stealthily, Daniel drew the blanket up until it covered most of his face, leaving only his eyes and forehead exposed.
The Bubble stirred. Slowly, terribly, it began to roll towards his niche. Daniel screamed.
A few feet from the entrance the Bubble stopped. The fire had been built too near the wall, and it could not pass without the flame touching its obscenely glittering sides.
It drew back, hesitated, went forward again. Again, with uncanny human intelligence, it stopped just in time. It drew back and stood swaying, then in a horribly inexorable manner, it rolled slowly around to the other side of the entrance where the fire was not so close.
Daniel cringed back to the farthest corner of the grotto, almost shrinking into the cracks. The Bubble appeared at the entrance.
Its upper edge touched the top, the rough stone dented the filmy luminous skin. It stopped. It was too big to get into the grotto.
It swayed impotently in the doorway for a moment, then began to shrink in size. It was going to make itself smaller so that it could enter!
Like a frightened rat in a trap, Daniel wriggled his wounded body to the other side of the square grotto, seeking an opportunity for a wild dash for freedom. The Bubble rolled a little so that it covered that side. Frantically, Daniel threw himself to the opposite side. Again, like a spectre of death, it blocked his way.
The Bubble tried the entrance again. Its top barely touched the lintel of the entrance. It was almost small enough.
A few seconds swaying, another try, and the Bubble rolled in, its bulk nearly filling the little cubicle like a ball in a box.
Daniel threw himself against the north wall, pressing himself to the floor. The Bubble touched the floor in front of him and the wall above, but his body as yet was out of its clutching reach by a few inches.
The ringing increased. The Bubble shuddered and swayed. It was growing larger.
Its top touched the ceiling—its surface flattening and conforming to the rough arch. Its sides, too, were flattening by the pressure, reaching down and down towards Daniel. Soon it would completely fill the chamber, changing its shape by swelling against the sides of the niche until it should be square.
Daniel reached for the side of the opening, the glittering surface of the Bubble but a few inches from his face. His nerveless fingers groped for the edges of the rough stone. With a desperate effort, he hauled himself towards the outer air.
As his head and shoulders came outside, he felt a peculiar sensation on his foot—the foot which was not injured. Something seemed to be hailing him back, sucking on his flesh like a clammy kiss. Frantically, he kicked. The grasp on his foot loosed with the feeling of coming out of soft mud. He half fell, half rolled free of the doorway.
He scrambled to his feet. Outside the circle of the light thrown by the fire, all was blackness. Inside the grotto, the Bubble sides glared a malevolent red. It was ringing with an angry turbulent sound.
Daniel fled for the darkness. At his first step his wounded foot collapsed, he pitched headlong on the floor. Wildly he scrambled on all fours, unmindful of the sharp stones which lacerated his knees. His injured foot dragged behind, leaving a faint trail of blood.
Over his shoulder, he saw the Bubble emerging from the grotto. With incredible speed, it rolled after him, narrowly avoiding the fire. The ringing sound grew louder.
Daniel tensed his muscles, threw himself to one side, his wounded foot banging cruelly on the stone. The Bubble rushed by, so close he felt the surge of fetid air.
He cast his eyes wildly around. The space between the fire and the wall might offer safety. He doubled back, clawing rabidly.
The Bubble checked its speed, rolled around in a wide arc, started back. Daniel was close to the fire now. He could feel the heat of the flames on his cheek. The wild ringing was beating loudly in his ears. Without looking, he knew the Bubble was gaining. A damp mist over him, choking out his breath with its fetid odor. He threw himself forward, gathering all his strength in a last effort. And then it touched him!
A thousand pitchforks seemed to stab at his flesh. His breath was tortured, labored. Wildly, his arms flailed about him. Wherever he turned, his blows were bounced back at him by a glistening wall. He was inside the Bubble!
His eyes seemed swollen shut. His lips felt puffy. He could hardly move his limbs. He put his hand into his pocket. Numbed fingers encountered something rough, something with a surface divided in squares—a hand grenade!
Dimly, Daniel’s mind went back to his school days in the oil fields. He remembered the oil well fires he had seen. Fires which had defied water and sand, but which a dynamite blast had blown to pieces—completely out.
His swollen fingers tugged at the firing pin. Weakly, it moved. A little, not enough. Another pull.
A searching flash of flame. A deafening, rending explosion. Darkness.
… Weeks later, peasants brought in two identification tags which, with some shredded bits of rags and equipment, they had found in the old cavern. Two more names were added to the others which had disappeared.
But there were no more after that day.
This short story was published in BEYOND #2, by Ace Comics, Jan 1951. The original is in the Public Domain.
This re-transcribed version has revisions and is NOT in the Public Domain.
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