By J. L. Ender
I’d given up screaming. I was terrified and sick, but what was the point? No one could save me now. The descent seemed endless, like I was doomed to fall for eternity. The throb of my heartbeat in my ears had faded, and my nausea was subsiding, as though even my body had resigned itself.
Cities passed in a blur as I fell. Villages, taverns, and cheerily lit inns, all of them built around the Drop, a borehole dug through the Earth.
As mankind had descended toward the hollow Core of our world, we’d built our civilization along the way. I’d heard stories of vast digging machines rusting away miles under the Earth’s crust.
The further I fell, the more advanced and shinier the buildings set into the walls of the Drop became. Stone castles with black arch openings gave way to white stucco and windows that shed buttery illumination through diamond-shaped panes.
A train slid its way up the side of the bore hole, rattling my eardrums. I caught a brief glimpse of a freckled little girl holding a teddy bear. She tugged on her father’s sleeve, but by the time he turned around, I was long gone.
Stucco turned to garishly decorated wood, with houses and businesses painted in bright greens, blues, yellows, and reds. The brief pop of color transformed into stainless steel buildings that gleamed with hard, artificial light.
Seconds into this new phase of architecture, I nearly smacked into the side of a long, blue autobus ferrying passengers from one side of the Drop to the other.
The driver pulled off his cap and poked his head out. “Hey kid! Grab onta somethin’!”
“Help!” I gasped, doubting he’d even hear me.
“Sorry!” he called. “These old buses don’t go up and down!”
The brief exchange made me aware of a startling possibility. A conversation— however brief— whilst hurtling toward one’s doom is usually impossible.
Am I slowing down? When the idea occurred to me, I didn’t dare believe it. But minutes later, there was no denying it. I was decelerating. Perhaps my bones wouldn’t be smashed into gravy!
Not so endless after all. A massive, fan-like apparatus splayed beneath me, the contraption creating a pocket of warm, somewhat musty air to break my fall. Around me, dull silver buildings pocked with large, iridescent bubbles of glass protruded from the walls. In one bubble, a boxy robot clattered along a sterile white hallway.
The fan, which lay enclosed in a cage of fine silver mesh, gave ever so slightly as I landed butt-first onto it. I stared upward, breathing hard, heart still hammering in my chest. The sky hung miles above me, a tiny pinpoint of blue. Firm black rock hemmed in the fan, which narrowed the borehole to half the width it had been above.
I stood, wobbling, and nearly lost my footing. My windburned, tender face ached. Already the eternal descent had faded from my memory like a bad dream, too terrible to dwell on. Though I knew that whatever form my waking thoughts took, my sleep would be haunted by that fall for the rest of my life.
The center of the Earth—for where else could it be?—was muggy, the air thick with that stale odor common to basements and deep cellars cobwebbed by spiderlings.
“Fell over the guardrail, did we?” The voice made me jump, the mesh rippling as I took a startled step back.
A man in a bright blue cap watched me from a colorful control console near the far edge of the great fan. The blades had slowed to a stop, revealing complex gears and pulleys, through which I glimpsed a tiny circle of blue just like the one above me.
“I thought I was going to fall forever,” I panted. The possibility raised goosebumps on my arms. The sky was above me and at my feet.
“You think we wouldn’t have some kind of safety measures down here?” The man shook his head and grinned sardonically. “We’d have a whole pile of you dumb kids by now!”
“Why didn’t— how did we not know—”
“We can’t advertise this! Everybody would use it, and it’s not perfect. You get hit by a hovercrane or autobus on your way down, and this little air pocket isn’t good for much, is it?”
It made sense, though I could have done with the safety net being a little higher up. I decided to let it go, relieved I hadn’t splattered myself against the Earth’s Core.
My shabby clothes and tanned skinned must’ve projected the image of a hick Surface boy to the pale engineer in his fine blue coat. I felt in my pockets. Their emptiness wouldn’t help my case. If I pulled out my wallet, I was certain a fly would buzz out.
Wait… I patted my back pocket. Nope. My wallet was gone. Lovely.
“Don’t reckon you’d spare pocket change for a train ride?”
“Eh, I suppose.” He tossed me a silver dollar. “Oh, and kid?”
“Yes?” I fingered the coin. It bore an unfamiliar face. Core currency.
The man kicked the mesh. The metal grating swayed sickeningly beneath my feet. “Do us all a favor and keep this place to yourself, okay?”
“Sure,” I replied. “On one condition.”
I pointed to my feet, at the second borehole leading to the far side of the world.
“I want to go that way.”