Chapter V

Down the Shaft

IN THAT first moment, as we flashed down into the great shaft’s darkness, all my efforts were bent upon the single object of keeping our plunging sphere from crashing into the shaft’s sides. The white beams of light that stabbed from our sphere were the one means of judging our distance from the shaft’s sides.

The sides, as seen in our beams’ light, were but a swift blur of matter. At the awful speed with which our sphere was whirling downward nothing more of them was to be seen. And as I hunched there over the twin control wheels, whose use I had half learned and half divined in the first awful moments of the great sphere’s rush, it seemed impossible that, unused as I was to its operation, I could keep our round vehicle from crashing.

Gripping the wheels, having found that one was to control the direction of the sphere’s motion and the other its speed, I strove to keep our great globe rushing straight downward. In another moment I found that one of the myriad strange instruments placed above the panel of studs was in the nature of a flight level indicator. By keeping the red dot that moved along this instrument’s graduated length exactly at its center I was keeping the sphere falling exactly downward.

With this discovery I breathed a little easier, then stiffened as Darrell, who was crouching beside me, gave a startled cry. He was pointing through the upper portion of our curving control room window.

“Above us, Vance!” he was crying. “Two spheres—they’re pursuing us down the shaft!”

I whirled the speed wheel again and as the humming beneath us waxed deeper our great sphere shot ahead faster and faster. It seemed straining beyond its normal speed in its wild rush straight toward the center of the earth. But above the white beams were dropping nearer, overtaking us, operated as they were by the flesh creatures who understood them far better than I. They had means of increasing their speed that I did not know.

For long minutes we rushed down, pursuers and pursued plunging at a speed that was slowly causing the sphere to become hotter and hotter. Down into and through darkness unimaginable. Then as they drew steadily closer, the two spheres shot two narrow yellow rays stabbing down toward us!

I cried hoarsely to Darrell as I swerved our downrushing sphere almost to the great shaft’s side to evade them. “The rays—they mean to get us with the rays!”

“Not if we can strike back at them!” he shouted. “If I could find the control of our own sphere’s rays—”

He was frantically examining the myriad strange instruments and switch batteries that were set in the little control room’s sides. In another instant their rays shot down toward us again, their white light beams holding us in their glare. But with another wild swerve of the sphere I managed to escape the twin shafts of destruction. This time, though, I almost crashed the sphere into the other uprushing wall of the great shaft. I knew that we could not continue to escape them thus for long.

Then came another shout from Darrell and I turned to see that he had gripped a strange control set beside the control room’s window, a metal globe that was a tiny replica of our great globe with small studs set at six equidistant points on its spherical surface.

Darrell pressed upon the stud at the little sphere’s top. As he did so there stabbed suddenly upward from the top of our own sphere a brilliant yellow beam that leaped upward and just between our two pursuers overhead! For an instant they seemed daunted by that unexpected shaft, fell back above us a little, but then they were plunging down again with renewed speed, their own yellow beams clashing and crossing with ours in the shaft.

 

NEVER could there have been combat so wild and strange as that between three great spheres rushing down into the darkness and mystery of the great shaft, into the depths of the earth. I heard Darrell’s hoarse exclamation as he sent our own rays stabbing up toward our pursuers, heard even above the great humming of the spheres and the rush of air about us the dull and distant detonations caused by the rays striking the great shaft’s walls.

Whirling our plunging sphere precariously to this side and that, grazing the shaft’s walls in wild efforts to escape the yellow rays that stabbed down about us, I realized that the two pursuing spheres above were drawing closer and closer. They would soon be upon us and able to loose their rays upon us without a chance of our escaping them.

In one last desperate expedient lay our only hope of escape. Above the wild melange of sound about us I shouted a few brief words to Darrell. He nodded swiftly as he understood my plan. Gripping the wheels tightly, I waited for a breathless instant, then suddenly closed the speed control, whirling its wheel around and slackening the downward speed of our great sphere with breathtaking swiftness.

So unexpected was that slowing of ours that, even as I hoped, the two spheres above were past us on either side before they could comprehend our action or could slow their own spheres. In the next moment, as we hung for a moment above them, Darrell sent our yellow ray stabbing down upon them, striking both spheres squarely.

For a moment they seemed to hesitate and then, as the brilliant beam of death struck them, both seemed to melt abruptly and vanish! Then came the sharp detonations caused by the surrounding air rushing into the vacuum left by the spheres’ annihilation.

We were alone in the darkness of the great shaft, moving downward now at slow speed as we relaxed, half disbelieving our escape from those two relentless enemies. The only sound now was the humming of our own sphere and as we looked up and downward we saw that the only light in the great shaft was that of our own sphere’s white beams, circling slowly about as our globe of metal moved downward.

“We got both spheres!” Darrell exclaimed, leaning wearily against the wall.

“Yes, and no more will be after us from above,” I said, glancing upward. “They had no time to give the alarm to the other scores of spheres watching above.”

“We’ve escaped them, at least,” Darrell said. “But what lies beneath?”

“We must be many miles down the shaft already,” I said, “but there’s no change that I can see in the shaft’s size or darkness. We must simply keep on, Darrell.”

I opened again the speed control. As our sphere shot downward once more, falling smoothly again into the great shaft’s dark depths, we watched carefully the few details of its walls that were visible in the light of the white beams.

Minutes before, during our wild running fight, we had flashed past and beneath the levels of limestone and sandstone and all the upper strata. As far as we could make out in the uncertain vision of our downward rush we were now falling between walls of igneous fire formed rock. the great shaft’s opening having been driven smoothly and vertically up through them.

Down—down—down—the shaft seemed endless to me as I gazed into the unfathomable darkness that lay beneath us, a darkness in which the beams of our sphere seemed overwhelmed. We were humming downward at a speed that was as great almost as that of our first rush.

As the moments sped past I knew that we must be sinking farther and farther beneath the surface of earth each moment. Yet still the darkness and the curving walls of the great shaft about us were the same.

Intent upon the darkness below, in the hope of glimpsing something in that darkness, neither Darrell nor I noticed until moments later an item which had been thrusting itself upon us increasingly with each passing moment. The sphere and the air inside it were growing steadily hotter.

 

AS OUR minds took in this fact we exchanged sudden glances. Already we were breathing with some difficulty and already the metal of the sphere about us seemed to have become almost too hot to touch. As we gazed downward we saw in the darkness beneath a strange feeble glow of light, a flickering sulphurous light that was becoming slowly stronger.

Already, I knew, we must be hundreds of miles beneath earth’s surface. And as the sulphurous glow beneath us grew in intensity, as the heat about us became stronger and stronger, it seemed that our sphere must needs be falling straight to a fiery death. Yet the great shaft’s walls fell still vertically downward and though the walls of rock seemed glowing themselves with their own great heat I held the sphere’s course straight downward with Darrell beside me gripping my arm.

There could be no doubt that the walls about us were radiating their own intense heat and light. I held the sphere as exactly as possible to the shaft’s center and we fell on downward, away from those glowing walls of rock.

Within moments the glow about and beneath us had become intense, terrible, and we could see that they were of solid rock no longer but of glowing, half melting, half fusing rock, becoming less and less solid.

We could glimpse flashing portions of the walls flowing and moving slowly in thick molten currents, their fierce light strong upon us. It was as though we were falling through the center of a fiery hell. The terrific heat that radiated from the walls seemed to wither us as we crouched there!

The metal of the sphere had become burning to the touch, the air within it all but stifling. As we choked and panted I knew that even to brush against the molten walls through which we were falling would be to annihilate our sphere in their searing heat. It seemed incredible that they had not flowed in upon the shaft and closed it.

“We can’t go on,” Darrell gasped, his face flushed, his eyes rolling wildly. “This is unbearable.”

I agreed weakly. I felt as though I could stand it for only a few minutes more. We were reaching the end. But then a sudden thought flashed through my tortured brain. How did those fleshy monsters stand it? They must have some means to protect themselves against a furnace in which no living thing could exist.

I told Darrell my thought. His head jerked up suddenly.

“Yes, that must be so. But how?”

“The controls,” I said, “try them. There must be one to handle it.”

And as I slackened the speed so that we were jerked against the floor of the sphere Darrell with his last strength fingered the other strange controls that lined the panels, trying this one and that. There was one set like a knob that caught his attention. It was on a wall and apparently had no relation to the others.

“I don’t know what we’re doing,” he laughed weakly, “I may be plunging us to destruction with this.”

“It’s destruction anyway,” I murmured. “Do anything to get us from this unbearable heat.”

I saw him turn the knob clear around. And of a sudden there came a loud sputtering and whistling as of air being suddenly swirled. It seemed as though a tornado had broken loose outside our car. I had to use all my energy to keep the car on its path.

But to my utter surprise and relief in a few seconds the air became gradually cooler. The walls, which had begun to take on a reddish glow, went dark again. I saw Darrell smile at me weakly and then slump to the floor in a dead faint.

Although the air was becoming cooler the walls of the shaft were just as hot. These creatures then had some strange means of getting a local refrigeration. The violent displacement of the air was caused by the cooled air about our car giving way to the more heated.

In a few minutes the atmosphere of the car had become bearable again. In fact it was steadily growing cold. Slowing up the car I reached over and, letting go of the control wheel for a moment, flipped halfway back the knob that Darrell had turned. The air became slightly warmer and the raging of the driven air outside subsided somewhat.

Darrell gradually came back to consciousness as we plunged down again. He slowly rose to his feet and gazed about him unsteadily.

“We’re saved again.” He smiled. “And what now?”

What now? That was the question in my own mind.

Then there was a sudden increase in the thunderous sound and fierce light and searing heat about us. We seemed for an instant to be whirling down into solid flames about and beneath us. As in a flash, a great circular opening in the walls of fiery light appeared directly beneath us. Our sphere fell downward still at its tremendous speed and we shot suddenly into open space, into a vast, apparently empty space.

“Through!” Darrell shouted as we shot on, downward with the shafts opening and the molten walls above us. “We’ve got through!”

“Through!” I repeated, unconsciously bringing our falling sphere to a halt. “Through—but into what?”

 

FOR, as we hung there, our first wild moment of exaltation over, Darrell and I gazed out our sphere’s window with an amazement that each moment deepened. For the space that stretched now about and below us was vast, gigantic!

Just above us was stretched over our heads, like a vast glowing roof, a far stretching surface of molten glowing rock, a fiery sea of intense heat and light from horizon to horizon, literally, hanging above our heads like a strange sky of flowing flame!

We could see slow vast currents in that molten roof above us, could see also in it a round dark opening just above us, the opening of the shaft down which we had come, the shaft that led up to earth’s surface!

Our eyes followed the giant curve of that fiery roof, saw that it was like a great dome above us, like the dome of earth’s own sky, but a sky of glowing fire, curving downward so far away that we could hardly glimpse it. Thus the earth was really a gigantic hollow shell that enclosed within itself a vast space that to our stunned eyes seemed immeasurable.

We were within earth’s shell! And that shell of a thickness of not more than a thousand miles even as men had found, grew in temperature with each mile of its depth. Its inner surface was a giant sea of molten rock, clinging to the inner surface of earth’s shell as unalterably as earth’s seas cling to its outer shell because the center of gravity of the giant shelf lay somewhere within its own thickness!

And that was why the molten sea of the roof that curved above us and beneath and all about us did not fall upon us. It could not any more than earth’s seas can all fall outward into space. But the greatest wonder was to come. For of a sudden we saw below us as though suspended in the hollow of the great shell a great sphere.

A world! A great spherical world that was half the diameter of this great hollow space, that hung beneath us at its center, motionless but turning! A great world, here inside our own world’s shell, warmed and lit by the never ceasing glowing light and heat from the molten inner surface that enclosed the space in which it hung!

“A world!” my exclamation was stunned, awed. “A world hidden here at earth’s heart.”

Darrell’s voice was as hushed with awe as my own. “A world in this great space inside our own world! And turning even as earth is turning, Vance!”

As we gazed tensely down we could make out more features of its gleaming surface, could see that it was covered with vaguely-glimpsed structures silhouetted in the light of the encircling molten shell. We could make out too the great outlines of some colossal greater structure almost directly beneath us and could glimpse, even from our height, swarms of swift shapes driving to and fro above this strange world’s surface!

I pointed eagerly down toward them. “Those spheres, Darrell!” I exclaimed. “Those gleaming buildings—it means that this is the flesh creatures’ world—that it is down here they took Kelsall and Fenton!”

 

DARRELL nodded, his eyes alight, “They’re down here somewhere if they’re still living. But have we any chance to get to them, Vance, to get them clear and back up the shaft?”

“We must try,” I said. “In this sphere we can at least move about over the surface of this world without the flesh creatures suspecting our presence. If we can find some trace of them, we should be able to get to them and get back to the shaft.”

“It’s our one chance,” Darrell agreed.

I nodded grimly, gripping the control wheels once more, and then as I turned them our great sphere was failing again, humming straight down toward the great turning world beneath us. Above us the great molten glowing roof of this vast space was receding.

Gazing out as we fell, Darrell and I were able to appreciate to the full the vast size of this great hollow at earth’s heart, this colossal space enclosed by earth’s great shell. For to us it seemed that we were falling through open space, a space hounded in all directions not by blue sky but by a great glowing curving roof.

Within moments we had fallen so near to it that the turning world seemed to fill all space beneath us, shutting from view the other curving molten inner side of earth’s shell that stretched far beneath it. We could see that this spherical world was covered almost completely with strange gleaming structures, rectangular in form and rather flat, mighty structures between which there ran the narrow streets.

The streets gleamed as did the great structures in the glow of the molten sky surrounding this world. When we dropped nearer we saw why they did so, saw that streets and structures alike were transparent! They were built of some transparent metal or alloy that made them seem like giant structures of glass.

Coming closer and closer through the flat transparent roofs and walls we could make out vaguely the swarming masses of great white flesh monsters and the strange masses of objects and mechanisms that those buildings held!

It was a city in which level was built upon level, numberless strata of streets and structures lying over each other, their transparent roofs and streets and walls allowing the light and heat that beat down upon this world to penetrate to the lowest levels! Here and there we could make out great well like openings that dropped down through countless levels, while almost beneath us upon the uppermost level lay the greatest and strangest structure visible on this strange world’s surface.

It was a giant black shining disk, quite flat, fully five hundred feet in diameter. Beside it lay a smaller and similar disk, but a hundredth of the larger one’s diameter. Besidle both disks were a row of great transparent buildings or structures, crowded with half glimpsed mechanisms which seemed in themselves more or less transparent and with countless flesh creatures. And this great disk was of the same diameter as the great open shaft through which we had come!

Even as that fact impressed itself upon my brain Darrell cried out, pointed downward toward the great swarms of spheres moving to and fro over the world beneath us. We had been humming swiftly down toward them without giving them attention for the moment, engrossed as we were by the astounding spectacle of the strange world.

But now, as Darrell shouted, I felt a sudden stab of icy fear. For those swarming spheres had given way to all sides beneath us and up through them was rushing a close-massed swarm of more than a hundred gathered spheres, a hundred spheres that were whirling swiftly straight up toward ourselves!


Original publication: Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall 1929  Copyright © 1929 Stellar Publishing, Inc. Revised version originally published in Fantastic Story Quarterly, Spring 1950  Copyright © 1950 Better Publications, Inc. Electronic version Copyright © 2009 Haffner Press. All Rights Reserved.