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Toward The Eternal Fires







From: At The Earth's Core

I WAS BORN IN CONNECTICUT ABOUT THIRTY YEARS ago. My name is David
Innes. My father was a wealthy mine owner. When I was nineteen he
died. All his property was to be mine when I had attained my
majority--provided that I had devoted the two years intervening in
close application to the great business I was to inherit.

I did my best to fulfil the last wishes of my parent--not because of
the inheritance, but because I loved and honored my father. For six
months I toiled in the mines and in the counting-rooms, for I wished to
know every minute detail of the business.

Then Perry interested me in his invention. He was an old fellow who
had devoted the better part of a long life to the perfection of a
mechanical subterranean prospector. As relaxation he studied
paleontology. I looked over his plans, listened to his arguments,
inspected his working model--and then, convinced, I advanced the funds
necessary to construct a full-sized, practical prospector.

I shall not go into the details of its construction--it lies out there
in the desert now--about two miles from here. Tomorrow you may care to
ride out and see it. Roughly, it is a steel cylinder a hundred feet
long, and jointed so that it may turn and twist through solid rock if
need be. At one end is a mighty revolving drill operated by an engine
which Perry said generated more power to the cubic inch than any other
engine did to the cubic foot. I remember that he used to claim that
that invention alone would make us fabulously wealthy--we were going to
make the whole thing public after the successful issue of our first
secret trial--but Perry never returned from that trial trip, and I only
after ten years.

I recall as it were but yesterday the night of that momentous occasion
upon which we were to test the practicality of that wondrous invention.
It was near midnight when we repaired to the lofty tower in which Perry
had constructed his "iron mole" as he was wont to call the thing. The
great nose rested upon the bare earth of the floor. We passed through
the doors into the outer jacket, secured them, and then passing on into
the cabin, which contained the controlling mechanism within the inner
tube, switched on the electric lights.

Perry looked to his generator; to the great tanks that held the
life-giving chemicals with which he was to manufacture fresh air to
replace that which we consumed in breathing; to his instruments for
recording temperatures, speed, distance, and for examining the
materials through which we were to pass.

He tested the steering device, and overlooked the mighty cogs which
transmitted its marvelous velocity to the giant drill at the nose of
his strange craft.

Our seats, into which we strapped ourselves, were so arranged upon
transverse bars that we would be upright whether the craft were
ploughing her way downward into the bowels of the earth, or running
horizontally along some great seam of coal, or rising vertically toward
the surface again.

At length all was ready. Perry bowed his head in prayer. For a moment
we were silent, and then the old man's hand grasped the starting lever.
There was a frightful roaring beneath us--the giant frame trembled and
vibrated--there was a rush of sound as the loose earth passed up
through the hollow space between the inner and outer jackets to be
deposited in our wake. We were off!

The noise was deafening. The sensation was frightful. For a full
minute neither of us could do aught but cling with the proverbial
desperation of the drowning man to the handrails of our swinging seats.
Then Perry glanced at the thermometer.

"Gad!" he cried, "it cannot be possible--quick! What does the distance
meter read?"

That and the speedometer were both on my side of the cabin, and as I
turned to take a reading from the former I could see Perry muttering.

"Ten degrees rise--it cannot be possible!" and then I saw him tug
frantically upon the steering wheel.

As I finally found the tiny needle in the dim light I translated
Perry's evident excitement, and my heart sank within me. But when I
spoke I hid the fear which haunted me. "It will be seven hundred feet,
Perry," I said, "by the time you can turn her into the horizontal."

"You'd better lend me a hand then, my boy," he replied, "for I cannot
budge her out of the vertical alone. God give that our combined
strength may be equal to the task, for else we are lost."

I wormed my way to the old man's side with never a doubt but that the
great wheel would yield on the instant to the power of my young and
vigorous muscles. Nor was my belief mere vanity, for always had my
physique been the envy and despair of my fellows. And for that very
reason it had waxed even greater than nature had intended, since my
natural pride in my great strength had led me to care for and develop
my body and my muscles by every means within my power. What with
boxing, football, and baseball, I had been in training since childhood.

And so it was with the utmost confidence that I laid hold of the huge
iron rim; but though I threw every ounce of my strength into it, my
best effort was as unavailing as Perry's had been--the thing would not
budge--the grim, insensate, horrible thing that was holding us upon the
straight road to death!

At length I gave up the useless struggle, and without a word returned
to my seat. There was no need for words--at least none that I could
imagine, unless Perry desired to pray. And I was quite sure that he
would, for he never left an opportunity neglected where he might
sandwich in a prayer. He prayed when he arose in the morning, he
prayed before he ate, he prayed when he had finished eating, and before
he went to bed at night he prayed again. In between he often found
excuses to pray even when the provocation seemed far-fetched to my
worldly eyes--now that he was about to die I felt positive that I
should witness a perfect orgy of prayer--if one may allude with such a
simile to so solemn an act.

But to my astonishment I discovered that with death staring him in the
face Abner Perry was transformed into a new being. From his lips there
flowed--not prayer--but a clear and limpid stream of undiluted
profanity, and it was all directed at that quietly stubborn piece of
unyielding mechanism.

"I should think, Perry," I chided, "that a man of your professed
religiousness would rather be at his prayers than cursing in the
presence of imminent death."

"Death!" he cried. "Death is it that appalls you? That is nothing by
comparison with the loss the world must suffer. Why, David within this
iron cylinder we have demonstrated possibilities that science has
scarce dreamed. We have harnessed a new principle, and with it
animated a piece of steel with the power of ten thousand men. That two
lives will be snuffed out is nothing to the world calamity that entombs
in the bowels of the earth the discoveries that I have made and proved
in the successful construction of the thing that is now carrying us
farther and farther toward the eternal central fires."

I am frank to admit that for myself I was much more concerned with our
own immediate future than with any problematic loss which the world
might be about to suffer. The world was at least ignorant of its
bereavement, while to me it was a real and terrible actuality.

"What can we do?" I asked, hiding my perturbation beneath the mask of a
low and level voice.

"We may stop here, and die of asphyxiation when our atmosphere tanks
are empty," replied Perry, "or we may continue on with the slight hope
that we may later sufficiently deflect the prospector from the vertical
to carry us along the arc of a great circle which must eventually
return us to the surface. If we succeed in so doing before we reach
the higher internal temperature we may even yet survive. There would
seem to me to be about one chance in several million that we shall
succeed--otherwise we shall die more quickly but no more surely than as
though we sat supinely waiting for the torture of a slow and horrible
death."

I glanced at the thermometer. It registered 110 degrees. While we
were talking the mighty iron mole had bored its way over a mile into
the rock of the earth's crust.

"Let us continue on, then," I replied. "It should soon be over at this
rate. You never intimated that the speed of this thing would be so
high, Perry. Didn't you know it?"

"No," he answered. "I could not figure the speed exactly, for I had no
instrument for measuring the mighty power of my generator. I reasoned,
however, that we should make about five hundred yards an hour."

"And we are making seven miles an hour," I concluded for him, as I sat
with my eyes upon the distance meter. "How thick is the Earth's crust,
Perry?" I asked.

"There are almost as many conjectures as to that as there are
geologists," was his answer. "One estimates it thirty miles, because
the internal heat, increasing at the rate of about one degree to each
sixty to seventy feet depth, would be sufficient to fuse the most
refractory substances at that distance beneath the surface. Another
finds that the phenomena of precession and nutation require that the
earth, if not entirely solid, must at least have a shell not less than
eight hundred to a thousand miles in thickness. So there you are. You
may take your choice."

"And if it should prove solid?" I asked.

"It will be all the same to us in the end, David," replied Perry. "At
the best our fuel will suffice to carry us but three or four days,
while our atmosphere cannot last to exceed three. Neither, then, is
sufficient to bear us in the safety through eight thousand miles of
rock to the antipodes."

"If the crust is of sufficient thickness we shall come to a final stop
between six and seven hundred miles beneath the earth's surface; but
during the last hundred and fifty miles of our journey we shall be
corpses. Am I correct?" I asked.

"Quite correct, David. Are you frightened?"

"I do not know. It all has come so suddenly that I scarce believe that
either of us realizes the real terrors of our position. I feel that I
should be reduced to panic; but yet I am not. I imagine that the shock
has been so great as to partially stun our sensibilities."

Again I turned to the thermometer. The mercury was rising with less
rapidity. It was now but 140 degrees, although we had penetrated to a
depth of nearly four miles. I told Perry, and he smiled.

"We have shattered one theory at least," was his only comment, and then
he returned to his self-assumed occupation of fluently cursing the
steering wheel. I once heard a pirate swear, but his best efforts
would have seemed like those of a tyro alongside of Perry's masterful
and scientific imprecations.

Once more I tried my hand at the wheel, but I might as well have
essayed to swing the earth itself. At my suggestion Perry stopped the
generator, and as we came to rest I again threw all my strength into a
supreme effort to move the thing even a hair's breadth--but the results
were as barren as when we had been traveling at top speed.

I shook my head sadly, and motioned to the starting lever. Perry
pulled it toward him, and once again we were plunging downward toward
eternity at the rate of seven miles an hour. I sat with my eyes glued
to the thermometer and the distance meter. The mercury was rising very
slowly now, though even at 145 degrees it was almost unbearable within
the narrow confines of our metal prison.

About noon, or twelve hours after our start upon this unfortunate
journey, we had bored to a depth of eighty-four miles, at which point
the mercury registered 153 degrees F.

Perry was becoming more hopeful, although upon what meager food he
sustained his optimism I could not conjecture. From cursing he had
turned to singing--I felt that the strain had at last affected his
mind. For several hours we had not spoken except as he asked me for
the readings of the instruments from time to time, and I announced
them. My thoughts were filled with vain regrets. I recalled numerous
acts of my past life which I should have been glad to have had a few
more years to live down. There was the affair in the Latin Commons at
Andover when Calhoun and I had put gunpowder in the stove--and nearly
killed one of the masters. And then--but what was the use, I was about
to die and atone for all these things and several more. Already the
heat was sufficient to give me a foretaste of the hereafter. A few
more degrees and I felt that I should lose consciousness.

"What are the readings now, David?" Perry's voice broke in upon my
somber reflections.

"Ninety miles and 153 degrees," I replied.

"Gad, but we've knocked that thirty-mile-crust theory into a cocked
hat!" he cried gleefully.

"Precious lot of good it will do us," I growled back.

"But my boy," he continued, "doesn't that temperature reading mean
anything to you? Why it hasn't gone up in six miles. Think of it,
son!"

"Yes, I'm thinking of it," I answered; "but what difference will it
make when our air supply is exhausted whether the temperature is 153
degrees or 153,000? We'll be just as dead, and no one will know the
difference, anyhow." But I must admit that for some unaccountable
reason the stationary temperature did renew my waning hope. What I
hoped for I could not have explained, nor did I try. The very fact, as
Perry took pains to explain, of the blasting of several very exact and
learned scientific hypotheses made it apparent that we could not know
what lay before us within the bowels of the earth, and so we might
continue to hope for the best, at least until we were dead--when hope
would no longer be essential to our happiness. It was very good, and
logical reasoning, and so I embraced it.

At one hundred miles the temperature had DROPPED TO 152 1/2 DEGREES!
When I announced it Perry reached over and hugged me.

From then on until noon of the second day, it continued to drop until
it became as uncomfortably cold as it had been unbearably hot before.
At the depth of two hundred and forty miles our nostrils were assailed
by almost overpowering ammonia fumes, and the temperature had dropped
to TEN BELOW ZERO! We suffered nearly two hours of this intense and
bitter cold, until at about two hundred and forty-five miles from the
surface of the earth we entered a stratum of solid ice, when the
mercury quickly rose to 32 degrees. During the next three hours we
passed through ten miles of ice, eventually emerging into another
series of ammonia-impregnated strata, where the mercury again fell to
ten degrees below zero.

Slowly it rose once more until we were convinced that at last we were
nearing the molten interior of the earth. At four hundred miles the
temperature had reached 153 degrees. Feverishly I watched the
thermometer. Slowly it rose. Perry had ceased singing and was at last
praying.

Our hopes had received such a deathblow that the gradually increasing
heat seemed to our distorted imaginations much greater than it really
was. For another hour I saw that pitiless column of mercury rise and
rise until at four hundred and ten miles it stood at 153 degrees. Now
it was that we began to hang upon those readings in almost breathless
anxiety.

One hundred and fifty-three degrees had been the maximum temperature
above the ice stratum. Would it stop at this point again, or would it
continue its merciless climb? We knew that there was no hope, and yet
with the persistence of life itself we continued to hope against
practical certainty.

Already the air tanks were at low ebb--there was barely enough of the
precious gases to sustain us for another twelve hours. But would we be
alive to know or care? It seemed incredible.

At four hundred and twenty miles I took another reading.

"Perry!" I shouted. "Perry, man! She's going down! She's going down!
She's 152 degrees again."

"Gad!" he cried. "What can it mean? Can the earth be cold at the
center?"

"I do not know, Perry," I answered; "but thank God, if I am to die it
shall not be by fire--that is all that I have feared. I can face the
thought of any death but that."

Down, down went the mercury until it stood as low as it had seven miles
from the surface of the earth, and then of a sudden the realization
broke upon us that death was very near. Perry was the first to
discover it. I saw him fussing with the valves that regulate the air
supply. And at the same time I experienced difficulty in breathing.
My head felt dizzy--my limbs heavy.

I saw Perry crumple in his seat. He gave himself a shake and sat erect
again. Then he turned toward me.

"Good-bye, David," he said. "I guess this is the end," and then he
smiled and closed his eyes.

"Good-bye, Perry, and good luck to you," I answered, smiling back at
him. But I fought off that awful lethargy. I was very young--I did
not want to die.

For an hour I battled against the cruelly enveloping death that
surrounded me upon all sides. At first I found that by climbing high
into the framework above me I could find more of the precious
life-giving elements, and for a while these sustained me. It must have
been an hour after Perry had succumbed that I at last came to the
realization that I could no longer carry on this unequal struggle
against the inevitable.

With my last flickering ray of consciousness I turned mechanically
toward the distance meter. It stood at exactly five hundred miles from
the earth's surface--and then of a sudden the huge thing that bore us
came to a stop. The rattle of hurtling rock through the hollow jacket
ceased. The wild racing of the giant drill betokened that it was
running loose in AIR--and then another truth flashed upon me. The
point of the prospector was ABOVE us. Slowly it dawned on me that
since passing through the ice strata it had been above. We had turned
in the ice and sped upward toward the earth's crust. Thank God! We
were safe!

I put my nose to the intake pipe through which samples were to have
been taken during the passage of the prospector through the earth, and
my fondest hopes were realized--a flood of fresh air was pouring into
the iron cabin. The reaction left me in a state of collapse, and I
lost consciousness.





Next: A Strange World

Previous: Prologue



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