Friday, 6 April 2012

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

I haff here,” said Doktor Professor von Schtinkerfussen, pulling open the shed’s door, “der machine I told you about. Like this, the vorlt has nefer seen.”

Rupert and Eugenia stared at the strange object that took up the centre of the shed’s dirt floor. It was a sphere with thick round windows studding the walls, and an armoured hatch set in the curved side. Though rather higher than a large man, it still seemed small for the awe-inspiring mission for which it was destined.

“Is” Eugenia whispered.

“That is so, mein friends,” the good Doktor Professor said, the light overhead gleaming on his bald pate. “Vorking days and nights for these last two years, I haff, with mein own two hands, this made. I wanted to keep it a secret, understand you, from reporters und other troublesome people.”

“I must congratulate you, Doktor Professor.” Walking across the floor to the wonderful machine, Rupert bent slightly to peer through the nearest of the round windows. It was set in the metal somewhat below the equator of the sphere, so that it pointed downwards. “It does look cosy inside.”

“Ja, I haff it padded inside, so it will from too much cold und heat insulated be.” With simple pride, the little scientist patted the side of the machine. The dull silvery metal shivered slightly at his touch. “Also,” he added, “if it happens something hard to strike, the padding the occupants from injury will save, nicht wahr?”

“You think of everything, Professor,” Eugenia exclaimed, clasping her hands under her chin. Her ethereal and beautiful features were pink with excitement. “You’re wonderful!”

“Really, Ginny,” Rupert said, “the Professor isn’t looking for you to gush all over him.” Twisting the end of his moustache between his fingers, he began walking slowly round the machine, peering up at it. “Are you sure it will work?”

“It has in der tests,” the Professor responded, cleaning his thick spectacles on his coat. “Der models also vorked. Aber one must der final step self take, is das not so?”

“I suppose,” Rupert said, not sounding altogether convinced. “And you want to go now?”

“Aber I will not leave alone.” The Doktor Professor’s eyes twinkled. “You will with me come, mein young friends, will you not?”

“Us?” Rupert exclaimed. “But, Professor, I mean to say, it’s not that I’m scared, but don’t you think that the honour of the first trip should be yours alone? You’re the inventor of this wonderful contraption, and so it will be invidious of us to detract from your glory by sharing in the first manned trip. It’s only right that you should have all the honour.”

“Oh, Rupert,” Eugenia snapped, “don’t be such a ninny.” Smiling, she turned to the Professor. “Of course we’d love to come,” she said. “Do we start right away?”

“Of course,” Doktor Professor von Schtinkerfussen said, and, lifting a panel in the side of the spherical hull, pressed down on a lever. With a hiss and a soft thud, the armoured hatch swung open. “After you, mein friends. Perhaps you first, dear young lady?” With a hand below her elbow, he helped Eugenia inside. Rupert, who had gone a slight greenish colour, followed without a word. The Professor clambered in last, and pressed a button. With another hiss and thud, the hatch swung shut.

Inside, the machine was surprisingly roomy, so that even with the three of them it did not feel particularly crowded. The padded walls were studded with boxes and dials, with strange levers and knobs set here and there, and amber lights set in the roof overhead glowed down warmly on them.

“Please sit you yourself down, und yourself comfortable make.” The Professor swung down three seats from recesses in the wall, beaming. “As you see, mein friends, I arrangements for der three of us already haff made. Food und drink for us there is, also.”

“This is so exciting,” Eugenia said. “What an adventure!”

Rupert, still silent, wiped his face with a handkerchief. His greenish colour had deepened, and Eugenia fought down the urge to poke him with her parasol. She retied the string of her bonnet, loosening it slightly, and wished she could have removed her tall buttoned-down boots. The inside of the machine was really rather warm.

“Also!” The Doktor Professor turned a lever. “Here goes.” An eerie moan sounded from below the floor, climbing slowly in pitch. Motors began to grind and clatter, and the entire machine started to vibrate.

“When do we start?” Rupert asked after the vibration and clatter had gone on for a while. He seemed to have recovered a little of his colour. “It seems to be taking rather a long time. Maybe it isn’t working properly?”

“But we already haff started, mein young friend.” Doktor Professor von Schtinkerfussen peered at him, and pointed to a dial on which a hand was crawling slowly across the arc of numbers. “Already we are far beneath der ground.”

Startled, for she had felt no descent, Eugenia turned to the window at her shoulder. Through the thick round pane of glass, the world outside was completely dark. The shed and its lights had vanished.

“Soon,” said the Professor, “we shall at der depth of der deepest mines be.” He rubbed his hands together. “Und dann we will of all the people of the vorlt be the ones, who deepest under der ground haff been.”

“But there’s nothing to see outside,” Eugenia objected. “I can’t see a thing.”

“There will be, when we haff gone deep enough,” the Professor said. He fiddled with a knob here, and pressed a lever there, and the moan grew to a whine, and the whine to an eldritch scream. “There,” he said, “now we faster descending are.”

“You mean,” Eugenia said, “we’re drilling through the ground?” It brought to her mind an image of the machine spinning round and round, and that made her feel suddenly queasy. “Is that what we’re doing?”

“No, no, mein dear young Fraülein.” The Professor shook his head indulgently. “Atomic rays I discovered have, und made generators for, under der machine which fitted are. They melt der way through rocks und soil, like a hot knife through butter.”

“The wonders of modern science,” Eugenia murmured. “I shouldn’t really be surprised, since it is almost the end of the nineteenth century, but still, I am.”

“Tell us again, Professor, about your theories.” Rupert had recovered his normal complexion and only a slight sheen of sweat now lay across his handsome features. His immense shoulders flexed as he adjusted his coat. “What were you saying about the cities at the core?”

“Ja,” Doktor Professor von Schtinkerfussen said. “I was saying, das all people wrong are, who say the earth is only a solid ball of rock und iron, floating on top of a molten core. It is not true, und I, Ludwig von Schtinkerfussen, shall prove it once und for all.” He took off and polished his spectacles. “Der Earth,” he said, “more than only one intelligent species has. Man is not alone. We haff equals, und they live far below us, in cities at der core.”

“But how is that possible?” Rupert asked. “The pressure of the rock above –“

“They adapted to it are, of course.” The Doktor Professor opened a box and took out a paper. “See here, mein young friends. This is a picture I haff taken by der new X Rays, of der world far down at der core.”

Rupert and Eugenia leaned together over the paper. It was as though they were looking down from a mountaintop at a distant plain, Eugenia thought, or from a balloon; and those concentric rings and radial lines were the streets of some town far, far below.

She must have said something of this aloud, because the Professor nodded approvingly. “But precisely, my dear young lady. Those are der avenues of some gigantic city, so great that we cannot even begin to it imagine. You may understand how big if I say das that city bigger than Switzerland, perhaps, is.”

Rupert snorted. “You’re imagining things, Professor. It’s just some kind of mineral formation, perhaps.”

“Minerals? In those lines so straight? I never haff about such mineral deposits in all my life heard.”

“Well, then,” Rupert argued, “maybe it’s like one of those buried cities the archaeologists keep digging up. Maybe it’s Atlantis or one of the other cities of the ancients, which got buried with the passage of time.”

“Maybe,” the Professor said equably. “Perhaps you are right, mein young friend, though I cannot see how it so deep could be. We shall for ourselves find out, shall we not?” He smiled at Eugenia. “Und what do you think, Fraülein?”

“What must they be like?” Eugenia wondered. “Do you think they’ll be like us? Just think,” she added, “another race of humans, with their own languages and customs. Perhaps, Rupert, there will be a girl like me, and someone like you, among them, and perhaps someone like the Professor here too.”

“Really, Ginny,” Rupert said, “you’re being ridiculous. These so-called creatures don’t even exist. It’s all a story.”

“They vill not like us be, dear lady,” the Professor said, ignoring Rupert. “Under the pressure und temperature they tolerate must, they must very different be.” He put the photograph away and took out bottles of lemonade. “You are thirsty, mein friends?”

Realising that she was actually rather thirsty, Eugenia sipped at the lemonade. The inside of the machine was perceptibly warmer, and, ignoring Rupert’s disapproving glare, she undid her bonnet and took it off. “If they aren’t like us,” she asked, “what are they like?”

“Gott knows,” Doktor Professor von Schtinkerfussen said. “But living as they do, they must be able to withstand high pressure und great heat. Living without lights, blind they must be, but some way of building they must have, like hands, or claws.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Rupert exploded. “The whole thing is impossible.” He paused suspiciously. “How is it that we haven’t ourselves been crushed flat by the pressure by now?” he demanded. “We must be a fair long way down.”

“Further than you imagine,” the Professor said, and indicated the gauge. “Soon, ve into der mantle of der earth shall be. But der atomic rays we generate, they melt der rock around us, so we sink through them like water. Das ist why we have not by the pressure flattened been.”

“And how do we get up again?” Rupert demanded.

“Nothing simpler,” the Professor chuckled. “You need not fear have. We just have to reverse the direction of the atomic beams, und up we again vill go.”

Rupert was still not satisfied. “Just suppose,” he said, “that your fantastic theory is correct, and that these creatures and their cities below us actually exist. What do they eat and drink?”

“Perhaps they on der energies of der earth’s core subsist,” the Professor said. “Perhaps they farms below haff, of which we can nothing now know. But we shall.”

It had grown torrid in the machine, and finally Eugenia, unable to tolerate the heat any longer, took off her boots and stockings and hitched her skirts to her knees. Rupert, of course, frowned angrily, but it looked more as though he wished he could remove his tie and waistcoat, and was envious because he dared not. The Doktor Professor, who had no such inhibitions, was already in his shirt sleeves.

“We are in der mantle now,” the Professor said, checking his gauges, and pressed more levers and buttons. The eldritch scream of the machine rose to a demonic wail. “Now faster still we go.”

Eugenia leaned back and stared out of the window, fighting down a shudder at the thought of the immensity of rock above and on all sides. She had a mental image of them, like an infinitesimal dot travelling through the great stony ball of the planet. How tiny they must be, in relation to the gigantic globe of the world!

“And yet,” she thought, “tiny as we are, we humans have conquered the planet. And, if writers like Monsieur Verne and Mr Wells are correct, someday we shall reach the moon, and perhaps even the stars.”

Then she looked across at her companions; at Rupert, alternatively fretfully pulling at his collar and twisting the ends of his moustache. He was big, strong and handsome, the very image of a hero, and she wondered if it were disloyal of her to suddenly think of him as a relic of a bygone age, when brute strength mattered and not simple common sense. Certainly, he looked ridiculous now, sweating in his waistcoat and high collar, and that simply because he could not bring himself to remove them. She shook her head and wiggled her bare toes appreciatively. If he chose to suffer, she thought, that was his problem. Maybe he would learn a lesson from it, though she doubted that.

Then she looked at the Professor, small, middle-aged and pudgy, his bald head shining in the amber light as he bent over a cluster of instruments adjusting one and then another. “Perhaps,” she thought, “it is the people like him who will inherit the future; ugly little men with big brains, who spend their time thinking and inventing, while the Ruperts of the world go on hunting trips in the colonies and spend their evenings in their clubs, drinking and telling tall stories. But must it be one or the other? If you really look at it, aren’t they both men – human beings, perhaps not so very dissimilar as all that? And are they really that different from some black Zulu or yellow Chinaman, or other of the savage races?”

That led her to wondering about the creatures which inhabited the city the Professor said lay under them. Perhaps, of course, there was no such city; perhaps Rupert was right and it was only some sort of mineral formation. But she found herself believing that there was such a city; the Professor was certain enough of it. Perhaps there would be a whole network of cities, spread across the globe, under oceans and continents; there would be entire civilisations under the crust of the planet, huddled around the core.

“And in that case,” she murmured aloud, “we are a race which has dominion over only the surface of the world – and there is another which owns the planet beneath us.”

“What’s that?” Rupert stared at her. “What are you babbling about, Ginny?”

“Nothing,” Eugenia told him. “Forget it.” She began to feel tired and sleepy. The machine was now very hot and stuffy, and she could not in any decency take off any more clothing. The trip seemed to have gone on a very long time. Leaning back against the padding, she closed her eyes.

Something brought her out of her doze. For a moment she couldn’t identify what it was, and then she realised that the demented shriek of the machine had changed pitch and slowed to a throaty moan once more. “What’s happened?” she asked through dry lips. “Is something wrong?”

“Nein, nein,” the Doktor Professor said. He seemed quite as full of energy as ever, darting around the chamber like a cheery, tubby little sparrow. “We are now almost to the level of der city arrived. We must now slow down.”

“All right, Professor,” Rupert said. “Suppose these fantastic creatures of yours exist and have constructed this city you speak of. Since there’s no light down there, how do we even see them?”

“All taken care of has been, Junge.” The Professor indicated a switch. “We haff, set into der hull, powerful searchlights. When it required is, I shall turn them on.”

Barely listening to them, Eugenia rubbed her eyes and looked again through the window. Something seemed different, somehow, she could not say what it was. Then she saw that the pitch darkness outside the window was not quite as deep and homogeneous as it had been.

“Professor,” she said, “there’s something down there, below us. I can see something.”

Frowning, the Professor peered down through another window, and then, with an abrupt movement, turned off the light. The machine was plunged into darkness, but it wasn’t as complete as it might have been. And, looking down through her window, Eugenia realised why.

It spread as far as the eye could see, a great tangled net, glowing faintly blue, lines and arcs and whorls. It grew perceptibly as they watched, the lines broadening as they rose, turning from barely visible hair-thin traces to broad avenues, running between huge dark masses like buildings. The Professor’s fingers moved again on the controls, and the machine slowed still further, the moan dropping to a scarcely audible murmur.

“Mein Gott,” the Professor said. “So I was right, und more than right. Here we haff not just a city – we haff a living city, with lights und buildings, avenues und intersections. Wunderschön! Am morgen, in die Uni...” He trailed off into muttered German as the machine slowed almost to a crawl.

“Professor,” Rupert said, “all right, I admit you were correct. But what do we do now?”

“We get closer,” said the little scientist, “und dann I shall take photographs, with der photographic apparatus I haff in the bottom of der hull. It is wonderful, is it not?”

“Yes,” Eugenia whispered. She felt torn between wonder and a vague dread. She wished, obscurely, that they were already rising away from the strange city beneath. “Be careful, Professor.”

By now they were so close to one of the glowing avenues that they could see clearly that the black masses on either side were buildings, great windowless blocks of stone, carved into such grotesque shapes that the eye could not fully follow their curves and lines, their margins bent and flowed together under the heat and pressure of the thousands of millions of tons of rock above. And along the avenue there was movement, too; a slow humped movement, as though the very surface of the way heaved and rippled and twitched. Eugenia looked at that movement and her mouth grew even drier; she tried to swallow and could not.

“We shall der searchlight turn on now,” the Doktor Professor announced. “Und then we shall photographs take.” Unerringly, in the darkness of the chamber, his fingers found the correct switch, and turned the light on.

A few moments later the machine was rising up through the rock, the murmur given way to an insane screeching, the entire sphere trembling from the force of its ascent. Eugenia held on frantically to the edge of her seat, convinced that if she let go, she would be bodily thrown across the chamber. And yet she would not for a moment want that insane speed reduced; she wanted it to travel faster still.

“Did you see them?” Rupert was shouting. “Did you see those things?”   

Eugenia did not reply. Her eyes were shut tight, her heart hammering. Try as she might, she could not remove the image in her mind’s eye, of what she had seen in the moments that the searchlight had illuminated the avenue, before it had burned out. She could see them, as if they lay now, before her; the great crusted crablike bodies, flattened from the pressure and repulsive, set around with claws; the tiny, questing eyes, set as in the turrets of a battleship, turning upwards. She remembered the weapon they had raised towards the sphere, and the spitting red arc that had cut towards them and destroyed the searchlight.

“They knew we were coming,” she said factually, when at last the sphere had risen far enough that the Professor had slowed its ascent to some extent. “They were waiting for us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rupert snapped. “How could those...beasts...have known?”

“How should I know? What makes you think they’re beasts, Rupert? Could beasts build a city like that? Could beasts have struck at us with a weapon like that?”

“What weapons?” Rupert twirled his moustache furiously. “It was just a malfunction of this machine.”

“Oh, yes, you know everything.” Eugenia turned to the other man. “What do you think, Professor?”

“I think,” the Professor said, “that we better electric shielding must have.” He clicked at the switch several times, but the light in the chamber failed to turn on. “Und I think that we must more careful be, next time we down there go.”

“What?” Rupert yelled. “Are you thinking about going down there again? Well, leave me out of it, and Ginny too.”

“Don’t you think Ginny should be allowed to make up her own mind?” Eugenia asked. “Really, Rupert, I don’t know what you think of me sometimes. It’s as if you think I’m your property or something.”

“I have a moral responsibility towards you,” Rupert began. “If you’re going to behave like a shameless hussy, it’s bad enough, but I will not allow you to endanger yourself. What will everyone say?”

Eugenia sighed. She turned away from Rupert, who was still ranting, and looked down again through her window. The great network of lines had almost vanished in the darkness below, and she was about to give way to relief when she stiffened suddenly.

“Rupert,” she said very quietly. “Shut up and look down there.”

A bright blue dot was swimming up at them from the city. It was obviously larger and faster than their own sphere, and as obviously following in their tracks.

“Another machine, it is,” the Professor said. He sounded shaken for the first time. “These creatures, they are coming after us.”

“They’re climbing faster than we are,” Eugenia said matter-of-factly. “They’ll catch us long before we reach the surface.” She laughed suddenly. “Rupert,” she said, “you didn’t think these creatures existed. Now, you’re going to be introduced to one. Are you planning to tell it that it doesn’t exist? Will you refuse to shake its hand?”

Rupert did not answer.

“Whatever are we going to do, Rupert?” Eugenia whispered.

There was still no answer.

They watched the brilliant point of light climb up through the rock towards them.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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