The two friends gave each other a hug.

“I wanted you to stay in bed,” wailed Spookie. “It’s only going to take one of us…!”

“How could you go off without me! Do you think I’d let you face the Earthspot on your own?”

In the steamy spotlights, the CTB began to creak down once more on its long chain. Dyspepsia saw bubbling water welling up around the portholes. There was a clang as the chain was unhooked. Then they were dropping like a cannonball down the boiling well, sinking down… down… deeper than Challenger Deep.

The cryo units woke up and began humming. The one behind Dyspepsia started blowing a freezing draught down her neck. Soon their panting breath made fist-shaped clouds in the chill air.

But the air wouldn’t stay chilled for long. Soon it would get hot—really hot. Maybe hot enough to bake them alive. Dyspepsia hoped that wouldn’t happen until they’d had their fight with the Earthspot.

“Now you’re here, I’m so glad you’re with me,” said Spookie. “I was frightened all on my own.”

Dyspepsia said, “Stop worrying, I’m here now. And everything’s going to be all right.”

But of course it was going to be far from all right. At the bottom, they’d come face-to-face with the biggest terror anyone can imagine—a super-smart dragon, swallowing up the Earth.

Soon bubbles stopped rushing upwards past the portholes and they stopped feeling they were floating in fizzy pop. They were sinking in superheated water. It stopped feeling so cold and became quite cosy.

Pity it wasn’t going to stay like that.

“It’ll be a long time before we get to where we’re going,” said Spookie. “Know any good jokes?”

“Time’s going to drag a bit,” said Dyspepsia. “I wish I’d brought the Scrabble.”

“I know,” said Spookie. “Let’s play I-Spy. You start.”

“I spy, with my little eye,” said Dyspepsia, “something beginning with E…”

“No you can’t,” said Spookie. “Not for another three hours yet.”

Over the next three hours, it gradually grew hotter and hotter. The Hawking radiation grew brighter and brighter, glaring through the portholes of the CTB, until Dyspepsia could see everything around her, even with her eyes closed. Under her admiral’s uniform, she still had her nightie on. So she took the uniform off and dropped it in the wet. She’d never have an occasion to wear it again.

Spookie however couldn’t take her fur off, so she just had to suffer in the heat. But it wouldn’t be for long, now. Up in the empty complex, she imagined the metallic voice was saying, “Earthspot minus ten seconds… nine… eight… seven…”

Now they were at the bottom, floating in superheated water, over a lava lake stretching the full width of the well at that level: a quarter of a kilometre. It seethed and slopped in slow motion, flinging up shining gobbets of lava.

Spookie sang quietly to herself, “Oh Earthspot… spotty-spotty-spot… where are you?”

Then they saw it.

It rose from the lava lake in a vast swan-neck of molten rock, shedding shining droplets in a long trail. It looked like the neck of a diplodocus skeleton: a glowing one. It reared up to meet them, to swallow them and crush them to nothing: the first two victims out of an eventual seven billion.

Even though the Earthspot has swallowed a billion tonnes of rock, it was still no bigger than a pea. But, as its coating of lava fell away in droplets, it shone out brighter and brighter. Spookie put on dark glasses and made a grab for it with the lobster claws, meaning to cram it in the tokamak. But, hotter than an oxy-cutter, it scornfully snipped off a claw, just as you might prune a rose bush. Next it snipped off the other claw, which followed its partner into the lava lake.

Next it snipped off the tokamak.

Then it drew back, as if to take a good look at the CTB and decide what to do next.

In desperation, Spookie fired the nuclear torpedo.

It missed!

“Did you see that?” she howled. The Earthspot had spread itself out like four fingertips. Three virtual images and one real one, but there was no way of telling which was which.

The torpedo hit the wrong one and passed straight through it. Then it sped off into the distance, towards the glassy wall. But, instead of running slap-bang into it, it turned round and sped back the other way.

Now the Earthspot had shed the last of its jacket of lava, shrinking to a naked point of intense light. It probed and bumped the steel framework around the CTB.

Suddenly, with a screech and a roar, it fastened onto the side of the pressure vessel and started melting its way in. The two pals screamed and hugged each other tightly. The cryomagnetic shield collapsed and everything started plunging down the shining throat.

Just at that moment, the torpedo came back and found its mark.

…to be continued.