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The First World War is raging, and in the USA there is a huge demand for copper, so much that the deepest mines on record have been dug for it. At a depth of forty thousand feet a track of fossilized footprints are found. Footprints shaped like shoes, three inches long. Two mining engineers go down and discover not only are there footprints down there, but several more than previously reported.

A few days later the miners refuse to work in that shaft. They say they’ve seen a man-shaped figure, eighteen inches high, walk through solid stone. The engineers see more fossil tracks, tracks that definitely weren’t there the last time they looked. They hide, and finally catch a glimpse of one of the beings, passing through stone and leaving footprints in their wake:

The tiny thing was dressed in some sort of shiny stuff, like metal, that crisscrossed it in strips. It reminded me of something, and finally I got it. Our early airmen, trying for altitude records high in the stratosphere, had laced their bodies with heavy canvas strips to keep them from disrupting outward in the lessened pressure of the heights. The metallic-looking strips lacing this little body looked like those.

“It must be that the thing comes from depths that make this forty-thousand-foot level seem high and rarefied,” I whispered.

There’s something I find really appealing about these beings. Their insubstantiality is a much more plausible spin on the classic ‘intelligent race beneath the surface’ trope than usual, and I like that the humans are encountering explorers rather than the civilisation proper. And though the creatures turn out to be dangerous, the engineers initially can’t do anything: There was something deadly about those eyes peering at us through the misty concrete. Something that would have sent our hands leaping for our guns had not the thing been so little. You can’t physically fear a doll only a foot and a half high.

The Microscopic Giants by Paul Ernst

Availability: print, scanned magazine pages online

Word count: 6,200

First published: Thrilling Wonder Stories, Oct 1936

Where to find it: Scans of the original magazine publication are available on PulpGen as a PDF download here.

Science Fiction Terror Tales, edited by Groff Conklin, 1970, Pocket Books

Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum, edited by Alfred Hitchcock, 1981, Fontana Lions

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