Four Miles Within
A strange spherical monster stood in the moonlight on the silent Mojave Desert. In the ghostly gray of the sand and sage and joshua trees its metal hide glimmered dully--an amazing object to be found on that lonely spot. But there was only pride and anticipation in the eyes of the three people who stood a little way off, looking at it. For they had constructed the strange sphere, and were soon going to entrust their lives to it.
“Professor,” said one of them, a young man with a cheerful face and a likable grin, “let’s go down now! There’s no use waiting till to-morrow. It’s always dark down there, whether it’s day or night up here. Everything is ready.”
The white-haired Professor David Guinness smiled tolerantly at the speaker, his partner, Phil Holmes. “I’m kind of eager to be off, myself,” he admitted. He turned to the third person in the little group, a dark-haired girl. “What do you say, Sue?”
“Oh, let’s, Father!” came the quick reply. “We’d never be able to sleep to-night, anyway. As Phil says, everything is ready.”
“Well, I guess that settles it,” Professor Guinness said to the eager young man.
Phil Holmes’ face went aglow with anticipation. “Good!” he cried. “Good! I’ll skip over and get some water. It’s barely possible that it’ll be hot down there, in spite of your eloquent logic to the contrary!” And with the words he caught up a large jug standing nearby, waved his hand, said: “I’ll be right back!” and set out for the water-hole, situated nearly a mile away from their little camp. The heavy hush of the desert night settled down once more after he left.
As his figure merged with the shadows in the distance, the elderly scientist murmured aloud to his daughter:
“You know, it’s good to realize that my dream is about to become a reality. If it hadn’t been for Phil ... Or no--I really ought to thank you, Sue. You’re the one responsible for his participation!” And he smiled fondly at the slender girl by his side.
“Phil joined us just for the scientific interest, and for the thrill of going four miles down into the earth,” she retorted at once, in spite of the blush her father saw on her face. But he did not insist. Once more he turned, as to a magnet, to the machine that was his handiwork.
The fifteen-foot sphere was an earth-borer--Guinness’s own invention. In it he had utilized for the first time for boring purposes the newly developed atomic disintegrators. Many holes equally spaced over the sphere were the outlets for the dissolving ray--most of them on the bottom and alternating with them on the bottom and sides were the outlets of powerful rocket propulsion tubes, which would enable it to rise easily from the hole it would presently blast into the earth. A small, tight-fitting door gave entrance to the double-walled interior, where, in spite of the space taken up by batteries and mechanisms and an enclosed gyroscope for keeping the borer on an even keel, there was room for several people.
The earth-borer had been designed not so much for scientific investigation as the specific purpose of reaching a rich store of radium ore buried four miles below the Guinness desert camp. Many geologists and mining engineers knew that the radium was there, for their instruments had proven it often; but no one up to then knew how to get to it. David Guinness did--first. The borer had been constructed in his laboratory in San Francisco, then dismantled and freighted to the little desert town of Palmdale, from whence Holmes had brought the parts to their isolated camp by truck. Strict secrecy had been kept. Rather than risk assistants they had done all the work themselves.
Fifteen minutes passed by, while the slight figure of the inventor puttered about the interior of the sphere, brightly lit by a detachable searchlight, inspecting all mechanisms in preparation for their descent. Sue stood by the door watching him, now and then turning to scan the desert for the returning Phil.
It was then, startlingly sudden, that there cracked through the velvet night the faint, distant sound of a gun. And it came from the direction of the water-hole.
Sue’s face went white, and she trembled. Without a word her father stepped out of the borer and looked at her.
“That was a gun!” he said. “Phil didn’t have one with him, did he?”
“No,” Sue whispered. “And--why, there’s nobody within miles of here!”
The two looked at each other with alarm and wonder. Then, from one of the broken patches of scrub that ringed the space in which the borer stood, came a mocking voice.
“Ah, you’re mistaken, Sue,” it affirmed. “But that was a gun.”
David Guinness jerked around, as did his daughter. The man who had spoken stood only ten yards away, clearly outlined in the bright moonlight--a tall, well-built man, standing quite at ease, surveying them pleasantly. His smile did not change when old Guinness cried:
“Quade! James Quade!”
The man nodded and came slowly forward. He might have been considered handsome, had it not been for his thin, mocking lips and a swarthy complexion.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Guinness angrily. “And what do you mean--’it was a gun?’ Have you--”
“Easy, easy--one thing at a time,” said Quade, still smiling. “About the gun--well, your young friend Holmes said, he’d be right back, but I--I’m afraid he won’t be.”
Sue Guinness’s lips formed a frightened word:
Quade made a short movement with his left hand, as is brushing the query aside. “Let’s talk about something more pleasant,” he said, and looked back at the professor. “The radium, and your borer, for instance. I hear you’re all ready to go down.”
David Guinness gasped. “How did you know--?” he began, but a surge of anger choked him, and his fists clenched. He stepped forward. But something came to life in James Quade’s right hand and pointed menacingly at him. It was the stubby black shape of an automatic.
“Keep back, you old fool!” Quade said harshly. “I don’t want to have to shoot you!”
Unwillingly, Guinness came to a stop. “What have you done with young Holmes?” he demanded.
“Never mind about him now,” said Quade, smiling again. “Perhaps I’ll explain later. At the moment there’s something much more interesting to do. Possibly you’ll be surprised to hear it, but we’re all going to take a little ride in this machine of yours, Professor. Down. About four miles. I’ll have to ask you to do the driving. You will, won’t you--without making a fuss?”
Guinness’s face worked furiously. “Why, you’re crazy, Quade!” he sputtered. “I certainly won’t!”
“No?” asked Quade softly. The automatic he held veered around, till it was pointing directly at the girl. “I wouldn’t want to have to shoot Sue--say--through the hand...” His finger tightened perceptibly on the trigger.
“You’re mad, man!” Guinness burst out. “You’re crazy! What’s the idea--”
“In due time I’ll tell you. But now I’ll ask you just once more,” Quade persisted. “Will you enter that borer, or must I--” He broke off with an expressive shrug.
David Guinness was powerless. He had not the slightest idea what Quade might be about; the one thought that broke through his fear and anger was that the man was mad, and had better be humored. He trembled, and a tight sensation came to his throat at sight of the steady gun trained on his daughter. He dared not trifle.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
James Quade laughed. “That’s better. You always were essentially reasonable, though somewhat impulsive for a man of your age. The rash way you severed our partnership, for instance ... But enough of that. I think we’d better leave immediately. Into the sphere, please. You first, Miss Guinness.”
“Must she come?”
“I’m afraid so. I can’t very well leave her here all unprotected, can I?”
Quade’s voice was soft and suave, but an undercurrent of sarcasm ran through it. Guinness winced under it; his whole body was trembling with suppressed rage and indignation. As he stepped to the door of the earth-borer he turned and asked:
“How did you know our plans? About the radium?--the borer?”
Quade told him. “Have you forgotten,” he said, “that you talked the matter over with me before we split last year? I simply had the laboratory watched, and when you got new financial backing from young Holmes, and came here. I followed you. Simple, eh? ... Well, enough of this. Get inside. You first, Sue.”
Trembling, the girl obeyed, and when her father hesitated Quade jammed his gun viciously into his ribs and pushed him to the door. “Inside!” he hissed, and reluctantly, hatred in his eyes, the professor stepped into the control compartment after Sue. Quade gave a last quick glance around and, with gun ever wary, passed inside. The door slammed shut: there was a click as its lock shot over. The sphere was a sealed ball of metal.
Inside, David Guinness obeyed the automatic’s imperious gesture and pulled a shiny-handled lever slowly back, and the hush that rested over the Mojave was shattered by a tremendous bellow, a roar that shook the very earth. It was the disintegrating blast, hurled out of the bottom in many fan-shaped rays. The coarse gray sand beneath the machine stirred and flew wildly; the sphere vibrated madly; and then the thunder lowered in tone to a mighty humming and the earth-borer began to drop. Slowly it fell, at first, then more rapidly. The shiny top came level with the ground: disappeared; and in a moment there was nothing left but a gaping hole where a short while before a round monster of metal had stood. The hole was hot and dark, and from it came a steadily diminishing thunder...
For a long time no one in the earth-borer spoke--didn’t even try to--for though the thunder of the disintegrators was muted, inside, to a steady drone, conversation was almost impossible. The three were crowded quite close in the spherical inner control compartment. Sue sat on a little collapsible stool by the bowed, but by no means subdued, figure of Professor David Guinness, while Quade sat on the wire guard of the gyroscope, which was in the exact center of the floor.
The depth gauge showed two hundred feet. Already the three people were numb from the vibration; they hardly felt any sensation at all, save one of great weight pressing inwards. The compartment was fairly cool and the air good--kept so by the automatic air rectifiers and the insulation, which shut out the heat born of their passage.
Quade had been carefully watching Guinness’s manipulation of the controls, when he was struck by a thought. At once he stood up, and shouted in the elderly inventor’s ear: “Try the rockets! I want to be sure this thing will go back up!”
Without a word Guinness shoved back the lever controlling the disintegrators, at the same time whirling a small wheel full over. The thudding drone died away to a whisper, and was replaced by sharper thundering, as the stream of the propulsion rockets beneath the sphere was released. A delicate needle trembled on a gauge, danced at the figure two hundred, then crept back to one-ninety ... one-sixty ... one-forty ... Quade’s eyes took in everything.
“Excellent, Guinness!” he yelled. “Now--down once more!”
The rockets were slowly cut; the borer jarred at the bottom of its hole; again the disintegrators droned out. The sphere dug rapidly into the warm ground, biting lower and lower. At ten miles an hour it blasted a path to depths hitherto unattainable to man, sweeping away rock and gravel and sand--everything that stood in its way. The depth gauge rose to two thousand, then steadily to three and four. So it went on for nearly half an hour.
At the end of that time, at a depth of nearly four miles, Quade got stiffly to his feet and once more shouted into the professor’s ear.
“We ought to be close to that radium, now,” he said. “I think--”
But his words stopped short. The floor of the sphere suddenly fell away from their feet, and they felt themselves tumbled into a wild plunge. The drone of the disintegrators, hitherto muffled by the earth they bit into, rose to a hollow scream. Before the professor quite knew what was happening, there was a stunning crash, a shriek of tortured metal--and the earth-borer rocked and lay still...
The whole world seemed to be filled with thunder when David Guinness came back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and stared up into a darkness to which it took him some time to accustom himself. When he did, he made out hazily that he was lying on the floor of a vast dark cavern. He could dimly see its jagged roof, perhaps fifty feet above. There was the strong smell of damp earth in his nostrils; his head was splitting from the steady drone in his ear-drums. Suddenly he remembered what had happened. He groaned slightly and tried to sit up.
But he could not. His arms and legs were tied. Someone had removed him from the earth-borer and bound him on the floor of the cavern they had plunged into.
David Guinness strained at the rope. It was futile, but in doing so he twisted his head around and saw another form, similarly tied, lying close to him. He gave a little cry of relief. It was Sue. And she was conscious, her eyes on his face.
She spoke to him, but he could not understand her for the drone in his ears, and when he spoke to her it was the same. But the professor did not just then continue his effort to converse with her. His attention was drawn to the borer, now dimly illuminated by its portable light, which had been secured to the door. It was right side up, and appeared to be undamaged. The broad ray of the searchlight fell far away on one of the cavern’s rough walls. He could just make out James Quade standing there, his back towards them.
He was hacking at the wall with a pick. Presently he dropped the tool and wrenched at the rock with bare hands. A large chunk came loose. He hugged it to him and turned and strode back towards the two on the floor, and as he drew near they could plainly see a gleam of triumph in his eyes.
“You know what this is?” he shouted. Guinness could only faintly hear him. “Wealth! Millions! Of course we always knew the radium was here, but this is the proof. And now we’ve a way of getting it out--thanks to your borer! All the credit is yours, Professor Guinness! You shall have the credit, and I’ll have the money.”
Guinness tugged furiously at his bonds again. “You--you--” he gasped. “How dare you tie us this way! Release us at once! What do you mean by it?”
Quade smiled unpleasantly. “You’re very stupid, Guinness. Haven’t you guessed by now what I’m going to do?” He paused, as if waiting for an answer, and the smile on his face gave way to a look of savage menace. For the first time his bitter feelings came to the surface.
“Have you forgotten how close I came to going to jail over those charges of yours a year ago?” he said. “Have you forgotten the disgrace to me that followed?--the stigma that forced me to disappear for months? You fool, do you think I’ve forgotten?--or that I’d let you--”
“Quade,” interrupted the older man, “you know very well you were guilty. I caught you red-handed. You didn’t fool anyone--except the jury that let you go. So save your breath, and, if you’ve the sense you were born with, release my daughter and me. Why, you’re crazy!” he cried with mounting anger. “You can’t get away with this! I’ll have you in jail within forty-eight hours, once I get back to the surface!”
With an effort Quade controlled his feelings and assumed his oily, sarcastic manner. “That’s just it,” he said: “‘once you get back!’ How stupid you are! You don’t seem to realize that you’re not going back to the surface. You and your daughter.”
Sue gasped, and her father’s eyes went wide. There was a tense silence.
“You wouldn’t dare!” the inventor cried finally. “You wouldn’t dare!”
“It’s rather large, this cavern,” Quade went on. “You’ll have plenty of room. Perhaps I’ll untie you before I go back up, so--”
“You can’t get away with it!” shouted the old man, tremendously excited. “Why, you can’t, possibly! Philip Holmes’ll track you down--he’ll tell the police--he’ll rescue us! And then--”
Quade smiled suavely. “Oh, no, he won’t. Perhaps you remember the shot that sounded from the water-hole? Well, when I and my assistant, Juan, heard Holmes say he was going for water, I told Juan to follow him to the water-hole and bind him, to keep him from interfering till I got back up. But Mr. Holmes is evidently of an impulsive disposition, and must have caused trouble. Juan, too, is impulsive; he is a Mexican. And he had a gun. I’m afraid he was forced to use it ... I am quite sure Philip Holmes will not, as you say, track me down.”
David Guinness looked at his daughter’s white face and horror-filled eyes and suddenly crumpled. Humbly, passionately, he begged Quade to take her back up. “Why, she’s never done anything to you, Quade!” he pleaded. “You can’t take her life like that! Please! Leave me, if you must, but not her! You can’t--”
But suddenly the old man noticed that Quade was not listening. His head was tilted to one side as if he was straining to hear something else. Guinness was held silent for a moment by the puzzled look on the other’s face and the strange way he was acting.
“Do you hear it?” Quade asked at last; and without waiting for an answer, he knelt down and put his ear to the ground. When he rose his face was savage, and he cursed under his breath.
“Why, it’s a humming!” muttered Professor Guinness. “And it’s getting louder!”
“It sounds like another borer!” ventured Sue.
The humming grew in volume. Then, from the ceiling, a rock dropped. They were looking at the cavern roof and saw it start, but they did not hear it strike, for the ever-growing humming echoed loudly through the cavern. They saw another rock fall; and another.
“For God’s sake, what is it?” cried Guinness.
Quade looked at him and slowly drew out his automatic.
“Another earth-borer, I think,” he answered. “And I rather expect it contains your young friend Mr. Holmes. Yes--coming to rescue you.”
For a moment Guinness and his daughter were too astounded to do anything but gape. She finally exclaimed:
“But--but then Phil’s alive?”
James Quade smiled. “Probably--for the moment. But don’t let your hopes rise too high. The borer he’s in isn’t strong enough to survive a fifty-foot plunge.” He was shouting now, so loud was the thunder from above. “And,” he added, “I’m afraid he’s not strong enough to survive it, either!”