Melbourne and Mars/Chapter 12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


More Wonders.

WE who dwell in Mars, a planet that has lost its water surfaces to some extent and increased its land in like proportion, do not travel much by sea. Millions never see the oceans, even though they travel at times a good deal. Still, in so vast a population of happy and healthful people living under a benign and well nigh perfect legislation, there are many who travel for information and pleasure, and many whose occupation necessitates constant movement. Some spend the greater part of their forty-nine days in travel and some go to a warmer zone for the winter in order to work there.

The travelling accommodation of the planet is sometimes severely taxed. So much so that the Central Executive advise certain trades to take their holidays at certain periods or between certain months at their convenience, that too many may not be on the move at one time.

This ocean boat, though not one of the largest, can berth and accommodate two thousand five hundred people. It has three decks available for passengers extending from end to end of the ship. The work of the ship is done on the fourth deck. The great motors work there, and the accumulators, weighing some three thousand tuns, are stored in the lowest hold as ballast.

Long voyages have not to be provided for; there is not room in our oceans for a long voyage. We travel nearly one hundred miles an hour, and so complete our ocean journey in little more than two days. Our boat looks very plain; there are no masts, spars nor funnels. Nothing on the upper deck but the bridge, the cook's kitchens, and the ventilators for the lower decks.

Providing for us all is a very easy task, as on land we have but one meal except the little breakfast for mothers and young children, and this meal, though good and plentiful, very rarely consists of more than two courses. We have very little waste of food. Plates are not sent away with their contents almost untested because other courses on the card are likely to be more palatable.

During our brief voyage I made the acquaintance of several young men and women who were going to the metropolis for the purpose of passing examinations or for study. They were all remarkably eager and intelligent, but our conversations were none of them exactly worthy of being recorded.

At twenty-one o'clock of the third day, after a run of fifty-five hours over smooth waters, we drew near the port of Granby, the greatest western port of the central ocean. I went to the cabin and called Grayson, as I had no desire to be separated from him. We saw a number of great boats. I had no idea that there were so many. Going past them all was quite a long walk. About half of them were evidently used like the one we had just left, for passenger traffic only. There were also some very large cargo boats. The concourse of people was very great. Many had come to welcome friends and relatives, and others were there for amusement. It was two hours after sunset, but the abundance of electric lights, none of which were permitted to glare or cast strong shadows, shed a soft radiance upon the scene and almost compensated for the absence of the sun.

In spite of the crowd we were soon comfortably settled in our hostel. There are many large ones in Granby, this being the largest of a ring of ports surrounding the central ocean. Here we had the same springy and silent paths and freedom from dust, noise, and dirt, that I noticed in port Howard. As in all other places the houses were not crowded together; there is no need for anything of the kind. Most of the workers prefer to travel a few miles when the labors of the day are over. The great depôts are built close together and as near to the loading wharves as possible but there is no visible traffic between them and the ships, and yet a boat containing many thousands of tons is unloaded or loaded in a day of five hours the load passing along tubes, some pneumatic, some containing small railways, and some an Archimedean screw.

Grayson and I did not spend any time amongst these wonders, as they were to my provincial eyes, though he advised me to see some of them when opportunity served, as a mechanic could not know too much about machinery.

Next morning I was up with the sun and got a good view of Granby, the wharves and piers and the ocean, from a tower built on an eminence in one of the ornamental recreation grounds in the city. From the top of Mount Weston I had seen the sun sink apparently into a bed of liquid fire, and from my present stand I saw him rise as if from the same bed.

His coming was heralded by the tuneful voices of thousands of feathered songsters, who lifted up their songs of praise; and I hope I may be pardoned for saying that I felt so full of happiness and life, so thankful for all the good things placed in my pathway that I, too, out of pure joy and gladness, sang a prayer of thanksgiving.

'Amen,' said a deep, strong voice behind me. I turned quickly, and looked into the eyes of a man. Large and dark were these eyes, and full of depth and power. He was a strong and sturdy man in the very prime of early manhood, being apparently about seventeen years of age. His head, face, attitude and general appearance all told of physical and mental strength and force of character.

'Yes, Amen,' be repeated. 'Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see the happiness of youth, and to hear it ascribed to the proper sources, the Giver of Good.'

'Can we ascribe good to any other source?' I asked.

'Not directly, but some people are ungrateful, some proud, some indifferent. We are not yet perfect in this best of possible worlds. However, I have a purpose in interrupting your Matin song: you are Charles Frankston; your friend Grayson sent for me an hour ago, and finding you had gone out he asked me to follow you, adding that you would be sure to go to the nearest eminence.

'My old friend must he very observant. I have only travelled with him five days, and in that time have only climbed Mount Weston.'

'Probably he has read the aspiring, climbing, upstriving nature in your features.'

By this time we were nearly back at the hostel, but instead of going in we met Grayson, who introduced the stranger as Harry Brand, the Electrical Engineer-in-Chief for the Port of Granby. Hearing of the important position he held I was no longer surprised that he should be a man of power of body and mind; an average man could not control interests so vast. He and his staff had to keep in working order the thousands of miles of transmitters that supply heat, light, and power to houses and manufactories, and also to provide the motive power used in the scores of great depôts mentioned. In addition to this they had to be ready to charge three or four thousands of tons of accumulators in the holds of the great ships.

'Our friend Brand,' said Grayson, taking my arm as we walked along, 'is going to take us down into a hole some seven miles deep, and show us where he gets his electricity from.'

'Have you been before?' asked I.

'No,' replied Grayson, 'I have frequently promised myself the pleasure but have found some reason hitherto for hurrying past. This time I have two strong young men to help me, and I am not tied for time.'

As he spoke we drew near one of the red balls mounted on the top of a post, indicating to travellers by air boat where they can drop to charge with electricity. Close to it was a little building placed over a stairway that appeared to lead straight down towards the centre of the planet. We all three went down the stair, Brand taking the lead.

The stairway was a spiral one of fifty steps, and at the bottom we found an open space, a few small rooms and a combination of closed car and electric motor, this being adapted for the carriage of four people, one of whom had to manipulate the machinery. Grayson and I were going straight to the car, which was obviously intended for our use, when Brand called us back.

'It will be necessary,' says he, 'for you, my friends, to remove your outer clothing and put on these garments, and when we have to leave the car these will have to be added,' pointing to helmets with clear glass fronts and little knapsacks at the back, 'Were you to attempt the journey as you are you would never return.'

In a few minutes we had made the exchange and taken our seats, and the car began to move rapidly down an incline.

'This car,' remarked Brand, 'is made of glass, and the outer clothing you are now wearing is also glass. We shall probably have to pass through what will appear very dangerous, and we shall not be able to speak to each other; in such cases follow me.'

'I was not aware,' said Grayson, 'that we were taking such risks in visiting your domain. It is scarcely fair to young Frankston, for an old man like me the risk is less. I am at the end of my usefulness; he is just beginning his.'

'It is true,' said Brand, 'that our risks increase, but we have made such an important find in the very bottom of our mine that in spite of risk we cannot leave off increasing the danger. We have only forty men at work, and each man thoroughly understands the situation. All the men work under diver's conditions lest a breath of air should carry a lightning flash through a man, and each tool is handled with thick insulators. Were a man to wear an insulator through, and touch a tool with his bare hand, he would be killed; but every man knows that. We are working with five changes of men, and not stopping night nor day, except for Sabbath. Indeed, I have an emergency permit from the Executive to work Sabbath also, if circumstances make that step necessary.'

All this time we were running down a pretty steep incline; about one in ten I estimated it. I could see that Brand was not using the motor, that he was only holding us back with a foot-brake.

'How far have we to go,' I asked.

'About seventy miles in this carriage, and then straight down another half mile.'

'And this slope is about one in ten, is it not?'

'It is.'

'Then we shall be seven miles below the surface when the car stops and another half mile. You go a great depth for your electricity at Granby,' said I.

'We get something more than electricity here,' replied Brand. 'You will see shortly. We are more than half way, and I saw the storm signals at the electrometer as we passed. Whatever happens sit still, and have no fear.'

Blash! blash!! blash!!! in blue, red and blinding white light, accompanied by a crackling as of ten thousand little explosions, and then all was dark again. Was I struck blind? If so, the operation was painless, and I was not hurt in any other way. No, I could see again, and there was Brand at the brake, and the car was just going on as before, lit by its own lamp and sending rays before it by the headlight.

'That was a rather astonishing experience, Harry,' said Grayson; 'are we likely to have much more of it?'

'Yes, we shall see a lot of that kind. It is comparatively harmless. We might have walked through that and lived,' said Brand. 'We sometimes have to go through miles of what we call spearheads and flames, and to work amongst lightnings and thunders. So long as we are covered and insulated we are quite safe, but the men who work here are classed as first rank, which is equal to double the pay of ordinary miners, for they have to have rare fortitude and courage.'

Again blaze and glare, this time in yellow light, while the cavern rumbled and roared with crashing, deafening rock-pounding thunders. Bayonet-shaped streaks of white lightning all the time shooting towards us and passing the car. Steadily on we went, Brand never showing a sign of tremor, and the car going no slower nor quicker, but just straight on and down and down.

Darkness and silence again for about ten minutes, and then Brand says, 'We are at our journey's end for the present, but before leaving the car we must put on our head-pieces; without them we should not live a thousandth part of a second in such a storm as that we have just passed through. You have no need to be afraid as regards breathing; there is six hours store of air in that little knapsack.'

In a few moments we could only look at each other through a glass; we could not hear nor speak.

Brand touched me on the shoulder and gave Grayson some sign, and we looked round and saw that a cage had come from somewhere out of the deep, and we were invited to enter.

Down again and still down. I began to wonder if ever I should get to the surface and breathe the free air and see the sun again.

The cage stopped and Brand got out, and signed for us to follow. This we did, going erect and walking on a firm path. All the drives in the Martial mines are made secure, are well lit, and high enough and wide enough to permit free movement. We followed Brand for about a mile, and as we went we kept meeting little trucks running along a narrow railway. I could see that most of these trucks were laden with some kind of metal, but I did not try to find out what it was at that juncture.

When we had walked about a mile we turned down a side drive and went about two hundred yards further, and there we found several men cutting pieces out of a vast solid mass of bright yellow metal. The mass was all round them. They seemed to be in a chamber with metal walls, and to be just chopping away at the walls to make the room larger. I could then see that they were getting out such a solid mass of copper as has never been seen nor heard of in any of our mining annals before. Brand gave us each a piece, but could not say a word about it, and while we stood there several flashes of fire appeared to come out of the wall. Though men were working at the face they did not even turn away; the insulation of their bodies and tools being perfect there was nothing to fear. Sometimes, however, the mine is filled as with a mass of flame; there is then danger from heat.

Having shown us the working, and given us some idea of the vastness of the mass of pure copper to be out out, Brand led us back to the bottom of the shaft. He rang for a cage and sent word that men were coming up. This appeared to be customary, the cage giving an overhead protection.

Swiftly up we went, and I was not sorry to rise out of those stifling and dangerous depths. Suddenly, and with a jerk that threw us up to the roof of the cage, we stopped, and in a few seconds something heavy fell down upon the cage.

'What has happened?' I tried to say, but found that the mask and headpiece prevented utterance most effectively. Brand broke a corner off our roof and enabled us to look up. We could see coils of a broken rope, and up towards the mouth of the shaft a mass of what appeared to be fire. We were imprisoned in the shaft and could neither get up nor down. Brand wrote on a board for us the words, 'An unusual electric storm is raging above us; imprisoned here until men can get through to help us, we have each four, hours' air; cannot remove masks; a few breaths of what is around us would produce asphyxia and probably kill us; we must wait.'

For three hours we waited, and all the time the fires filled the shaft above us. Grayson was silent and almost motionless; Brand never ceased to watch for the coming of help; I grew anxious and frightened. I had no wish to die just on the threshold of what might be a grand and happy life.

More time passed, and then we heard someone on the roof. We looked out. A man was trying to find the end of rope, evidently with the intention of drawing it up, splicing it, and pulling up the cage. Brand put his watch up through the hole he had made and pointed out the time; he then wrote some instructions on a slip of paper, These the man took, and troubling no further about the cage, put himself in a sling of rope and got drawn rapidly upwards. His life and ours hung on that rope. If it got burnt with another storm he would fall, and Brand's instructions would never reach the surface. I learned afterwards that all the ropes used were insulated with glass fibre, the kind used in weaving the garments we wore.

Brand tore away at the roof, and I helped him to make the hole larger. We made it so that one of us could have crept out, but we could do nothing with the heavy tangled coils of rope above us.

More time passed and my head began to feel full and hot, and strange lights began to dance before my eyes. I then began to feel sleepy and dizzy, and a sickly, faint sensation stole over me. I made efforts to rally, and looked through Brand's glass at his face; it was very pale and troubled. He tore a piece of paper and wrote, 'Do not breathe when they change h—,' and then he staggered and would have fallen if I had not caught him. In a few seconds more we were both on the floor of the cage somehow, and the last thing I saw was something coming through the broken roof and Grayson taking hold of it.

A little later—how much later I could not tell—I found Brand and Grayson leaning over me, and making the movements necessary to produce respiration. I rose to my feet; we all three shook hands. The fresh helmets Brand had sent for had come in time. We had each six hours more air—our lives ware saved.

Why had Grayson been so still? While we fumed about and looked up and worked he sat still; why this indifference? He was a philosopher and a mathematician, and also an old man. He knew that he could make his air last longer by keeping still and breathing little, and so he was able to help us when no other help could get near. When Brand and I fell unconscious he was ready to receive the headpieces that had come a few minutes too late, and with a, skill and strength wonderful in a man of his years he had half raised Brand and screwed off his helmet and put another on. Brand immediately recovered, and then the two did a like service for me; but I had been out of life for five minutes and did not rally so easily. Grayson had saved us all by his foresight and promptness.

We could not yet speak, but we knew the danger was past, for the rope was going up from the roof and we should be drawn up long before our air was exhausted. In another hour we were being welcomed to the surface by some forty-two masked and insulated men. Of necessity there was no cheering, but the faces behind the glasses were cheerful and smiling, and the clasp of friendly hands was better than the embrace of death.

The men below were now ringing for a cage. The shift had not come to relieve them at the usual time and so they had come to see what was the matter. They had to be hurriedly got up I thought, but I learned afterwards that they could get fresh charges of air in their knapsacks at certain places in the mine, and had done so on this occasion; being in the shaft we had no such chance.

Brand left the men to get up and down as best they could, and took Grayson and me to see the Granby cables. There were ten of them, each about eighteen inches in diameter, and apparently growing out of the solid rock. Each cable had in it a thousand insulated copper wires of various diameters, and a central core an inch through, meant to carry electricity to fill up the accumulators of ocean-going boats.

Brand asked us if we were willing to go and see the loadstone quarries. They were within half a mile, and were not down a shaft.

Grayson declined, but would wait in the insulated car till we came back. I feeling sure that Grayson was weary enough, and having had enough adventure for one day, declined also. We entered the car, removed our helmets, and in little more than an hour, and without further adventure, reached the surface.

How strange the open air felt, and how old the day was: it was hard to believe that it wanted yet two hours of sunset, and that we had only been below eight hours. It seemed to me eight years since I had helped the birds to welcome the sun still shining.

To the hostel we all three directed our steps, and over a late dinner recounted our feelings and sensations as we underwent them in enforced silence. Brand had the most to say, for he had to explain what we had seen.

'The find of copper you have seen,' said he, 'is one of the most fortunate of discoveries. The copper mines near the surface were almost worked out and the demand for copper is very great, and will be for a long time to come. I had been trying to carry electricity through other media, but found it not so good as the copper.'

'But this,' said I, 'is a very rich, heavy copper.'

'Yes, I know what you are going to say,' returned Brand, 'it contains gold and silver. If there was a good market for gold it would pay to extract it; but you see jewellery is not much worn, personal possessions conferring no distinction, and the coinage days are past and gone. Your medal is issued by the Central, but so few of those are in use that a ton of gold might serve the government indefinately.

'And the shaft, is not that a very ancient means of getting down for metals?' asked Grayson. 'I remember that the earth men used that means and similar winding gear, except for the motive power and the insulated rope.'

'The shaft,' answered Brand, 'is an expedient. It is sunk where it is in order that it may not interfere with the railway extension. Next year the cars will go direct from the surface and the copper will be cut out in bricks. The spiral line will corkscrew itself five miles more downward, and the copper field will be uncovered.'

'A spiral line,' said I, very much astonished; 'is the line we travelled to-day a spiral?'

'It is; and much of it is cut through solid loadstone, the kind of rock most used in accumulators. We get electricity, loadstone and copper from under our feet; part of the copper is under the ocean.'

'And what has been done with all the material taken out of that immense spiral?' I enquired.

Grayson answered:—'Some of the hills in this district are like Mount Weston, artificial; they have been made hundreds of years ago. Granby is a very ancient port, and its electrical works date from the Black Century. Our friend Harry Brand has had a thousand predecessors, who have in turn made improvements, and carried out the original plan to its present stage of completion.'

'And the copper?' I asked.

'That is a very fortunate find,' said Brand, again taking the conversation; 'we were boring to see how far the loadstone extended and cut into that bed. It lies as if a cavern had been run full of molten copper at some warm period, or as if a lake, of very uneven depths, had been filled and covered to the present depth during geological times.'

'To-day is not a fair sample of the days down there, I hope?' asked Grayson, looking very serious.

'No; I have not seen a storm rage as long for years as the one that kept us in that shaft. Nor have I had so narrow an escape since I have been connected with it; the rescuers made the mistake of acting as if we had recharged. When we left we had air for three and a half hours, and never expected any delay. Two minutes more would have finished us. The men below had no idea that anything had happened. The mine will be almost absolutely safe when we get down to it the proper way; meanwhile we shall soon have copper enough, and can give up the present working.'

Harry Brand shortly afterwards took his departure.