At the Earth's Core
At the Earth's Core
Edgar Rice Burroughs
IN THE FIRST PLACE PLEASE BEAR IN MIND THAT I do not expect you tobelieve this story. Nor could you wonder had you witnessed a recentexperience of mine when, in the armor of blissful and stupendousignorance, I gaily narrated the gist of it to a Fellow of the RoyalGeological Society on the occasion of my last trip to London.
You would surely have thought that I had been detected in no less aheinous crime than the purloining of the Crown Jewels from the Tower,or putting poison in the coffee of His Majesty the King.
The erudite gentleman in whom I confided congealed before I was halfthrough!—it is all that saved him from exploding—and my dreams of anHonorary Fellowship, gold medals, and a niche in the Hall of Fame fadedinto the thin, cold air of his arctic atmosphere.
But I believe the story, and so would you, and so would the learnedFellow of the Royal Geological Society, had you and he heard it fromthe lips of the man who told it to me. Had you seen, as I did, thefire of truth in those gray eyes; had you felt the ring of sincerity inthat quiet voice; had you realized the pathos of it all—you, too,would believe. You would not have needed the final ocular proof that Ihad—the weird rhamphorhynchus-like creature which he had brought backwith him from the inner world.
I came upon him quite suddenly, and no less unexpectedly, upon the rimof the great Sahara Desert. He was standing before a goat-skin tentamidst a clump of date palms within a tiny oasis. Close by was an Arabdouar of some eight or ten tents.
I had come down from the north to hunt lion. My party consisted of adozen children of the desert—I was the only "white" man. As weapproached the little clump of verdure I saw the man come from his tentand with hand-shaded eyes peer intently at us. At sight of me headvanced rapidly to meet us.
"A white man!" he cried. "May the good Lord be praised! I have beenwatching you for hours, hoping against hope that THIS time there wouldbe a white man. Tell me the date. What year is it?"
And when I had told him he staggered as though he had been struck fullin the face, so that he was compelled to grasp my stirrup leather forsupport.
"It cannot be!" he cried after a moment. "It cannot be! Tell me thatyou are mistaken, or that you are but joking."
"I am telling you the truth, my friend," I replied. "Why should Ideceive a stranger, or attempt to, in so simple a matter as the date?"
For some time he stood in silence, with bowed head.
"Ten years!" he murmured, at last. "Ten years, and I thought that atthe most it could be scarce more than one!" That night he told me hisstory—the story that I give you here as nearly in his own words as Ican recall them.
TOWARD THE ETERNAL FIRES
I WAS BORN IN CONNECTICUT ABOUT THIRTY YEARS ago. My name is DavidInnes. My father was a wealthy mine owner. When I was nineteen hedied. All his property was to be mine when I had attained mymajority—provided that I had devoted the two years intervening inclose application to the great business I was to inherit.
I did my best to fulfil the last wishes of my parent—not because ofthe inheritance, but because I loved and honored my father. For sixmonths I toiled in the mines and in the counting-rooms, for I wished toknow every minute detail of the business.
Then Perry interested me in his invention. He was an old fellow whohad devoted the better part of a long life to the perfection of amechanical subterranean prospector. As relaxation he studiedpaleontology. I looked over his plans, listened to his arguments,inspected his working model—and then, convinced, I advanced the fundsnecessary to construct a full-sized, practical prospector.
I shall not go into the details of its construction—it lies out therein the desert now—about two miles from here. Tomorrow you may care toride out and see it. Roughly, it is a steel cylinder a hundred feetlong, and jointed so that it may turn and twist through solid rock ifneed be. At one end is a mighty revolving drill operated by an enginewhich Perry said generated more power to the cubic inch than any otherengine did to the cubic foot. I remember that he used to claim thatthat invention alone would make us fabulously wealthy—we were going tomake the whole thing public after the successful issue of our firstsecret trial—but Perry never returned from that trial trip, and I onlyafter ten years.
I recall as it were but yesterday the night of that momentous occasionupon which we were to test the practicality of that wondrous invention.It was near midnight when we repaired to the lofty tower in which Perryhad constructed his "iron mole" as he was wont to call the thing. Thegreat nose rested upon the bare earth of the floor. We passed throughthe doors into the outer jacket, secured them, and then passing on intothe cabin, which contained the controlling mechanism within the innertube, switched on the electric lights.
Perry looked to his generator; to the great tanks that held thelife-giving chemicals with which he was to manufacture fresh air toreplace that which we consumed in breathing; to his instruments forrecording temperatures, speed, distance, and for examining thematerials through which we were to pass.
He tested the steering device, and overlooked the mighty cogs whichtransmitted its marvelous velocity to the giant drill at the nose ofhis strange craft.
Our seats, into which we strapped ourselves, were so arranged upontransverse bars that we would be upright whether the craft wereploughing her way downward into the bowels of the earth, or runninghorizontally along some great seam of coal, or rising vertically towardthe surface again.
At length all was ready. Perry bowed his head in prayer. For a momentwe were silent, and then the old man's hand grasped the starting lever.There was a frightful roaring beneath us—the giant frame trembled andvibrated—there was a rush of sound as the loose earth passed upthrough the hollow space between the inner and outer jackets to bedeposited in our wake. We were off!
The noise was deafening. The sensation was frightful. For a fullminute neither of us could do aught but cling with the proverbialdesperation 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 distancemeter read?"
That and the speedometer were both on my side of the cabin, and as Iturned to take a reading from the former I could see Perry muttering.
"Ten degrees rise—it cannot be possible!" and then I saw him tugfrantically upon the steering wheel.
As I finally found the tiny needle in the dim light I translatedPerry's evident excitement, and my heart sank within me. But when Ispoke 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 cannotbudge her out of the vertical alone. God give that our combinedstrength 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 thegreat wheel would yield on the instant to the power of my young andvigorous muscles. Nor was my belief mere vanity, for always had myphysique been the envy and despair of my fellows. And for that veryreason it had waxed even greater than nature had intended, since mynatural pride in my great strength had led me to care for and developmy body and my muscles by every means within my power. What withboxing, football, and baseball, I had been in training since childhood.
And so it was with the utmost confidence that I laid hold of the hugeiron rim; but though I threw every ounce of my strength into it, mybest effort was as unavailing as Perry's had been—the thing would notbudge—the grim, insensate, horrible thing that was holding us upon thestraight road to death!
At length I gave up the useless struggle, and without a word returnedto my seat. There was no need for words—at least none that I couldimagine, unless Perry desired to pray. And I was quite sure that hewould, for he never left an opportunity neglected where he mightsandwich in a prayer. He prayed when he arose in the morning, heprayed before he ate, he prayed when he had finished eating, and beforehe went to bed at night he prayed again. In between he often foundexcuses to pray even when the provocation seemed far-fetched to myworldly eyes—now that he was about to die I felt positive that Ishould witness a perfect orgy of prayer—if one may allude with such asimile to so solemn an act.
But to my astonishment I discovered that with death staring him in theface Abner Perry was transformed into a new being. From his lips thereflowed—not prayer—but a clear and limpid stream of undilutedprofanity, and it was all directed at that quietly stubborn piece ofunyielding mechanism.
"I should think, Perry," I chided, "that a man of your professedreligiousness would rather be at his prayers than cursing in thepresence of imminent death."
"Death!" he cried. "Death is it that appalls you? That is nothing bycomparison with the loss the world must suffer. Why, David within thisiron cylinder we have demonstrated possibilities that science hasscarce dreamed. We have harnessed a new principle, and with itanimated a piece of steel with the power of ten thousand men. That twolives will be snuffed out is nothing to the world calamity that entombsin the bowels of the earth the discoveries that I have made and provedin the successful construction of the thing that is now carrying usfarther and farther toward the eternal central fires."
I am frank to admit that for myself I was much more concerned with ourown immediate future than with any problematic loss which the worldmight be about to suffer. The world was at least ignorant of itsbereavement, while to me it was a real and terrible actuality.
"What can we do?" I asked, hiding my perturbation beneath the mask of alow and level voice.
"We may stop here, and die of asphyxiation when our atmosphere tanksare empty," replied Perry, "or we may continue on with the slight hopethat we may later sufficiently deflect the prospector from the verticalto carry us along the arc of a great circle which must eventuallyreturn us to the surface. If we succeed in so doing before we reachthe higher internal temperature we may even yet survive. There wouldseem to me to be about one chance in several million that we shallsucceed—otherwise we shall die more quickly but no more surely than asthough we sat supinely waiting for the torture of a slow and horribledeath."
I glanced at the thermometer. It registered 110 degrees. While wewere talking the mighty iron mole had bored its way over a mile intothe rock of the earth's