The Greatest Adventure
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by John Taine
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: Dr. Lane likes old fossils. He even buys them. Saliors who have sailed to far off places bring him odd "finds" because they know the doc is likely to buy them. One day the Captain shows up with a find that truly intrigues Lane. Dr. Lane has money so he makes a deal with the Captain: show me where you found this specimen and he'll finance the search for oil in the region of the find. Edith, the doc's daughter, tags along. It turns out she learns to fly the only airplane that they will have on the expedition. Drake also comes along and is the one to decipher the strange images on the rocks that have been found and those to be discovered. Ole Hansen is the Captain's mate and is smarter than they think. He reads a lot and his knowledge of various topics helps them out frequently. A strange mix of folks off on an adventure that leads them to more than they anticipated. This makes for a classic sci-fi novel that is really interesting to read. Frankly, it reads like a movie. It is so well-written that you can visualize the scenes. Highly recommended!
eBook Publisher: Gate Way Publishers,
eBookwise Release Date: June 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [302 KB]
Reading time: 187-262 min.
BIRD OR REPTILE?
Undoubtedly Dr. Eric Lane was a man to be envied. With ordinary luck he might yet look forward to thirty-five years of the keenest pleasure a highly intelligent and healthy man can experience, the discovery of natural laws and their application to the good of his fellow men.
Although today was his fortieth birthday he felt not a day over eighteen. He smiled as the thought occurred to him, for it reminded him of his daughter Edith. She was just the age that he felt.
"We're a pair of kids," he laughed, looking fondly at the white and gold porcelain image of a sleepy tomcat, which she had deposited on his worktable as a birthday offering. Their appreciation of cats was but one among scores of likings which they shared in perfect understanding. Edith's gift of sympathy no doubt was responsible for her father's continued widowerhood. Not once in the ten years since his wife's death had Dr. Lane thought of marrying. His wife had been like Edith, quick to understand when he left the thought but half expressed, and tactfully willing to let him think in silence for days when the mood was on him. Her early death had broken him for a year or two, but with Edith and his work to live for he had gradually taken a grip on himself and set his face to the future.
"I wonder what she is doing," he mused, dwelling affectionately on the sleepy cat of her offering. As if in answer to his unspoken thought the study door opened noiselessly two inches. An appraising brown eye took in the situation.
"Come in," he called. "I'm not working. Your precious cat makes me long to sleep."
Edith entered. "Have you everything you want?" she asked, ready to withdraw at the slightest symptom of work on her father's part.
"Everything," he replied with a smile, "but you. Come in and stay a bit. Birthdays come only once a year."
Edith joined him by the worktable with its litter of microscopes and queer looking specimens pallid in their neatly stoppered alcohol jars.
"Do you know," he said, "it sometimes scares me a little?"
"What scares you, dear?" she queried, for once at a loss.
"Why, that I do have everything I want."
"Well, why shouldn't you? Surely you have earned it."
"So have thousands of other men. Yet they have nothing while I have everything."
"Oh," she laughed, "it isn't so bad as all that. You are not a billionaire. Nor do you want the whole earth as some of the others do, and cry when they can't get it."
"Still," he persisted, "there are thousands of men as able as I am who slave all their lives and have nothing but a bare living to show for all their labor."
He strolled over to the French windows and stood gazing absently at the clear spring beauty of San Francisco Bay and the tawny Marin hills on the farther shore. With all the world to choose from he had selected this spot as his abiding place, high upon Telegraph Hill overlooking San Francisco and the whole sublime sweep of the harbor. Often he would stand at this window for an hour at a time, lost in thought, only half consciously watching the swift white ferry boats rounding Goat Island with the clock-like precision of mechanical toys.
In all weathers the colorful panorama of bay, city and steep hills had a stimulating yet soothing effect on his mind. Although much of his work with the strangely diseased things of the sea was not beautiful, the ever changing beauty of his outlook seemed to infuse him with inexhaustible energy for the repellent drudgery which is the necessary foundation of any scientific advance. The warm spring breeze rustling the leaves of the young eucalyptus by the open window brought him back to the present and his surroundings.
"Yes," he continued, "there is young Drake, for instance, twenty-nine and as poor as a crow. When I was his age I had been a millionaire several times over for almost six years. Yet Drake has a fundamentally better mind than I have. He simply did not have my chance. That is all."
"But suppose he had been given your chance," Edith protested, "could he have taken it?"
"No," her father replied thoughtfully. "There's not a grain of business sense in him. Still, for all that, I maintain that his head is better than mine."
"Then why doesn't he use it?" There was just a tinge of scorn in Edith's retort. Her father glanced up at her face in surprise.
"I thought you and Drake were great pals," he said.
"We are, she admitted readily enough. "But the sheer futility of his everlasting inscriptions rather gets on my nerves. I do wish he would turn his brains to something less trivial."
"How do you know his work is so useless?" the Doctor parried.
"Oh, if you are going to begin one of your scientific attacks on me," she laughed, "I'll retire at once to my humble corner. I'm routed. But can't you see," she protested earnestly, "that all his deciphering of outlandish inscriptions cannot make an atom of difference, one way or the other, to human beings today? What does it matter how a half-civilized race, extinct centuries ago, predicted eclipses of the moon? And who on earth cares whether they counted by twenties instead of by tens as we do? Will it make life more endurable for any human being to know how those dead and forgotten people disposed of their corpses?"
"Perhaps," the Doctor hazarded with a smile, "you would prefer to see our young friend Drake turning his unique talents to the unsolved problem of infant colics?"
"It would be more useful," she flashed.
"But consider," her father demurred, "what would become of the Mexican and Guatemalan inscriptions in the meantime. Who would ever read them, fully and satisfactorily? If Drake can't do it, nobody can. After his brilliant success with the Bolivian puzzles he is almost certain to make short work of the rest."
"Yes," Edith admitted. "And if he does, what then?"
"Why, my dear, he will have saved numberless future generations of young Drakes from wasting their lives on a useless piece of tomfoolery."
She laughed. "I knew when we began that you would corner me. Still, I'm morally right, because you slipped out by the back door. That isn't what you really think of Drake's work."
"It isn't, angel child," he admitted. "You must look at life in a broader way. The conquest of disease and the discovery of the origin of life are not even half the problem. As the old fellows used to say, the whole is one, and you can't change the smallest part in any place without altering the entire fabric everywhere. Drake's Bolivian hieroglyphics are just as vital a part of science as are the obscure fish parasites that I mess with in the hope of learning something about cancer. And I shouldn't wonder," he concluded half seriously, "if some day Drakes's work gives us a clue to the central problem."
"And shows us what life is?" she laughed. "When it does, I'll eat that."
She pointed to a particularly loathsome reptile in a glass jar. It was one of the Doctor's favorites, as the tumor to which it had succumbed appeared to be something unique in the history of disease.
"You will eat it without salt or pepper?" he stipulated.
"Absolutely," she agreed.
"Very well then. We shall see."
Edith turned to go. "Shall I send up anyone who comes with a real specimen?"
"Only if it looks pretty good."
"Pretty bad, you mean. All right, I'll inspect the horror and use my judgment."
With a last smile she was gone as noiselessly as she had come. She had her work, and the Doctor his. Her morning would be begun in a short conference with the Chinese servants, short because both she and they were efficient and wasted no words. Then she might work for an hour or two among her flowers in the English garden which was her pride, before settling down to the serious business of the day. This consisted of systematic reading directed by her father. At her own request he had mapped out a course of study and experiment which would enable her to understand something of what he was attempting to do. For two hours every evening a young doctor just from the University eked out his meager practice helping her over the rough places in the day's work. In this way she made rapid and substantial progress. She never bothered her father with difficulties that any competent teacher could set right.
During the sunny part of the day she studied under the pepper trees by the gate, to be ready to receive and pay the Italian and Japanese fishermen who brought the curiosities of their catches to her father. All up and down the Pacific Coast, and even to Hawaii and far-off Japan, Dr. Lane of San Francisco was a celebrity among the fishermen and sailors. They knew him only distantly and impersonally as a deluded crank eager to pay one dollar apiece for curiously diseased and otherwise unsaleable fish. For weird monstrosities from the deep-sea levels he had been known to give as high as ten dollars each. What he did with all these abominations they never inquired. Sufficient unto their ignorance was the price thereof.
Occasionally some ambitious sailor would offer Edith his ingenious masterpiece of months of painstaking work in the forecastle. This usually took the form of a fantastic kelp and cocoanut mermaid, or an elaborately contrived sea-serpent of fish bladders and sea-weeds. One such offering convinced him that he had been wasting his time. Edith recognized the subtle distinction between abandoned nature and the highest art at the first glance. If the fraud was sufficiently horrible and otherwise pleasing she would buy it for her own collection, intending, as she told her father when he protested at her growing collection of freaks, some day to write a monograph on marine diseases of the imagination.
Left to himself the Doctor returned to the open window.
Spring fever was upon him. Work and all its paraphernalia appeared as an insult to nature. Accordingly he yielded himself to the soft influences of the warm breeze and the flashing blue and silver glory of the bay. Standing there he let the memories of a busy lifetime stream through his mind and out to the future with all its promise of great things to be.
Ever since his school days he had been bitten by the ambition to trace life to its secret source and lay bare its mystery. To create life, or at least to control and direct it when once created, that was the great problem. Then, when he had begun to learn something of systematic biology, he had seen the utter hopelessness of a direct attack. Wasting no time he had turned his energies elsewhere, to humbler things, in order that he might, if lucky, surprise the enemy unaware. For he realized that a wholesale creation of a fully living organism by artificial means was probably centuries beyond the capabilities of science, and his was too high an intelligence to waste itself on unsolvable riddles. If in laborious investigations of lesser problems he might catch a glimpse of the goal he would be happy, provided only that his search was not otherwise fruitless and bore abundant good to humanity in the alleviation of pain and preventable misery. But he would not waste his gifts on crass impossibilities.
His course at first had been hard and indirect. Forced by poverty to work his way through school and college, he had come early to a wisdom far beyond his years. With absolute clarity he had seen that freedom from worry over money matters is the first essential for genuinely creative scientific work. While constantly harassed by poverty he had been powerless to concentrate his abilities on any problem worth the solving. He therefore decided in his second college year to swerve aside temporarily from his ambition and make money. To the regret of his instructors he abruptly threw up the study of medicine and changed over to geology.
The new science was congenial. At many points it touched the past story of life if not the present. Putting every ounce of brain and energy into the work, he mastered the geology of coal and oil formations and graduated easily at the top of his class.
He was now twenty. The day after graduation he shipped as a coal passer on a steamer bound for China. Arrived there, ignorant though he was of the language, he disappeared into the interior.
His subsequent career is one of the classics of mining engineering. In eighteen months he had located one of the richest anthracite fields in the history of coal. Moreover he had obtained from the Chinese government certain concessions which, if worked, would make him one of the hundred richest white men in the world. All he had to do was to stay on the ground and let his prize develop. Capital would come almost unasked.
It was here that he showed the stuff he was made of. Instead of degenerating into a money-making machine he placed all his rights in the hands of an English company. Within six weeks he had sold out for ten million dollars cash all of his interest which, if nursed with ordinary business acumen, would have netted him a hundred million before he died. But he had no time to squander in making money. The most precious years of his life were slipping through his hands, and he was still but half educated for the work he had set himself.
While idling about Shanghai waiting to close up his business he met and married the English girl who for eight years made him a flawlessly happy man.
Having invested his fortune in government bonds he forgot it and proceeded with his wife to Vienna to finish his medical education. That accomplished, he left his wife and infant daughter with his mother, and took a year's holiday with half a dozen friends exploring the southernmost extremity of Patagonia in a fossil hunting expedition.
The fossils aroused his purely biological interests. On returning to civilization he again went with his wife to Europe. There he specialized for two years in the great centres of pure biology. At twenty-seven, on returning to America, he felt himself fitted to begin useful work.
Resolutely putting from his mind the fantastic hope of discovering the origin of life, he concentrated his powers on the difficult problems of cell growth. Thus gradually and naturally was he led to the study of cancer, on which he had now been engaged for about ten years, publishing little but learning much, if only in a negative way. Always, subconsciously, at the back of his mind loomed up the greater problem. In his reading and in his experimental investigations he let slip no chance of following out the slightest clue. These excursions into the unpractical sometimes cost him weeks of precious time. Yet he never regretted them, for the least profitable yielded two or three definite facts worth the having.
With singular detachment he had kept his mind free from speculative theories. He followed neither Driesch nor Loeb. To him vitalism and mechanism, as judged by their positive achievements, were equally impotent to describe life. One side philosophized without experiment, while the other, experimenting blindly without reason, contented itself with a vague reference to electricity as the probable source of all living phenomena. Profound technicalities like the intriguing "polarity" and "heliotropism" that seemed to the unthinking to "explain" so much while in fact they explained nothing but their authors' taste in names, left him cold. All this might be the first step, but surely it was no more. With the rapidly changing fashions in science and the influx of men of genius into biology, ten years might see polarity displaced by some newer fetish equally noncommittal. In the meantime he would remain neutral.
The door opened softly and Edith appeared.
"Oh," she said, "you're not working. I'll bring him up, then."
"Bring who up?"
But Edith had vanished. Presently she reappeared, ushering in a gray-bearded stranger, evidently a seafarer. The newcomer carried a tar-soaked box about four feet long and ten inches square.
"This is Captain Anderson," she said. "He insisted on showing you what he has brought himself."
"Pleased to meet you, Captain," said the Doctor, advancing to shake hands with his visitor. "Won't you sit down?"
"After you have seen what's in here."
Captain Anderson produced a huge clasp knife and proceeded methodically to pry off the lid of his long box. As he worked crystals of rock salt spilled out over the table and floor. The mess seemed to trouble him not at all. Evidently he had great faith in the soothing efficacy of his pickled monster, whatever it might be.
At last the cover was off and the closely packed salt invitingly ready to be scooped out by the handful. The Captain used both hands. Then, reaching in, he got the deceased monstrosity by what had been its neck, gave it a vigorous shake to free it from the last crystals of salt, and asked complacently, "Isn't he a little peach?"
Edith, case-hardened as she was to monstrosities, could not repress a gasp and a shudder of repulsion. Lane looked paralyzed.
"Good Lord," he exclaimed, "what is it? Bird or reptile?"