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Arisia'19 Student Writing Contest - 2nd Place Winner

The Center of the Earth

By Blue Spitzer

"Persistence, persistence, persistence." With every repetition Emmett Perret knocks his head against the whiteboard. Blue dry-erase marker is coming off on the tip of his nose. "Persistence, persis—no, not you, Percy."

A gray cat with daisy-yellow eyes has approached Emmett's feet. The cat, christened Persistence by Emmett three years ago, has learned to respond to his name well.

"I'm trying to motivate myself," Emmett explains. "Another failed attempt. I thought I had it this time."

Percy nuzzles Emmett's leg with his caterpillar-fur nose.

Emmett sighs. "There's either too much force, and the whole thing just explodes, or not enough force, and it doesn't make it past the first mile."

Emmett is trying to do one of those things no one has ever done before: reach the center of the Earth. For years, he's been working on a machine that could travel to Earth's core. No one knows exactly why he's so obsessed, nor can they talk him out of it. Many have tried. All have failed. Emmett even moved away from his family to set himself in what he has calculated to be the prime location for his project.

"But I can't stop now," says Emmett, still talking to the cat. He talks to the cat quite a lot. An abnormal amount, in fact. "Not after so many years of work. Thanks, Percy. You always keep me motivated."

Oh, the irony, thinks Percy. If only Emmett could know that he, Percy, is the one creating all the major difficulties. In fact, the most recent problem is only a problem because every night, Percy tinkers with the machine ever-so-slightly so it goes either too fast or too slow.

"Persistence!" cries Emmett again, with enthusiasm. He flings open the door of his garage office and rushes outside into the drizzle. Percy pads to the open doorway to watch as Emmett picks up various pieces from the machine's explosion. It has remained mostly intact this time, but Emmett will need days to get it back together.

Poor Emmett, thinks Percy. He really is something of a genius. His machine would be nearly perfect now if it weren't for Percy's interference.

But Emmett cannot be allowed to reach the center of the Earth.

Four hours later, Emmett has boarded his bike to go into town. Stubborn struggling to repair his machine's paneling has yielded into the admittance that he will have to buy new material. Also, he has observed, he needs more cereal.

"Coming, Percy?" Emmett calls, patting the bike's front basket. Percy crouches in the office doorway, tail flicking. He resents the rain.

"See you later, then," Emmett says before pedaling off.

Percy watches until Emmett disappears into the gray forest path that eventually leads into town. Then the cat leaps onto the table in the center of the garage office and pads through metal scraps to the undamaged core of Emmett's machine. Percy's yellow eyes scan for the piece he needs. There it is—a small part of the interior structure with such a peculiar shape that Emmett had to weld it himself. Percy hesitates for a moment, then reaches forward one paw. In midair, the paw transforms into a fine talon, perfect for prying out the small piece. Percy tugs out the metal shape, takes it in his jaws, and quickly transforms the paw back with a glance over his shoulder. There isn't another house outside Emmett's for miles. Still, he can never be too careful.

Percy darts across the lawn into the shelter of the woods. As he trots through the tree trunks, he thinks of the hours Emmett spent, losing nights of sleep, to shape this one piece to perfection. It really is a shame.

He drops the piece down a chipmunk hole and makes back for the house.

It isn't raining hard, but Emmett is soaked by the time he gets to his last stop—the grocery store. He picks out a few boxes of cereal. At the register today is Marcy, one of Emmett's coworkers. Emmett works four days a week at the store and earns just enough money to pay for his little shack of a house and other essentials. Any money he needs for the machine, he has to save or scavenge. It was just last month that he went without electricity to pay for a crucial part of the engine.

"Evenin', Emmett. How goes the rocket?" says Marcy.

"Actually, it's not a rocket, it's—" Emmett begins, but the laughter in Marcy's mascara-framed eyes stops him there. "It's all right," he finishes instead.

That night Emmett lies awake in bed, the day's frustration tickling his skin. First, the explosion, and then the realization that he had lost one of the machine's intricate core pieces. A good portion of the evening was spent tearing apart his garage office, looking for that annoyingly important piece of metal. It was no use. The piece was gone.

"I can't believe I lost it, Percy," Emmett says, stroking the fur on Percy's spine. "How stupid of me! It's going to take days to remake that piece."

Percy purrs, trying to be comforting. He wishes he could tell Emmett that it isn't his fault, that he, Percy, is the one causing the problems. And he wishes he could tell Emmett it isn't personal. Just part of his mission.

Emmett sighs, still stroking Percy. "Imagine what it might be like at the center of the Earth," he says, in a softer tone. "And imagine if my machine could be the first to reach it! Once I get it down there, I could start bringing up materials samples, or taking measurements, or— or—even taking videos! Imagine, Percy, videos of the center of the Earth."

Emmett is so easily motivated, thinks Percy. Most humans would have given up.

"Videos of the center of the Earth," repeats Emmett dreamily. His hand comes to a rest on Percy's back.

Percy closes his eyes and images appear. Black, porous rock, glowing magma, the intricate, curving tunnels. The homesickness is dull by now, but still there.

Percy doesn't need to imagine the center of the Earth. He has been there—in fact, it is his home.

The next day is one of those unfortunate days when Emmett has to work. It's unfortunate for Emmett because he has to work, and unfortunate for Percy because Emmett isn't around to talk to him. Emmett awakes before sunrise, and Percy watches from his spot in the warm blankets as Emmett prepares for his day. Emmett is not looking forward to the chilly bike ride into town. The only part of the day he is looking forward to is the few hours in the evening that he'll spend on his machine.

"Bye, Percy. See you later," Emmett says over his shoulder. The door slams. It can only be slammed, stubborn as it is. Emmett never bothers locking it. He has nothing worth stealing.

With Emmett gone, Percy has nothing to do. He has damaged the machine enough for now—Emmett will become suspicious if he overdoes it. Percy drifts in and out of sleep, thankful that his cat form is content to rest all day. He dreams sometimes of his true form, missing it almost as much as his home. But of course, he can't inhabit his true form up here. It would not survive.

Emmett returns at six, soaked with rain. Percy still can't understand how anyone can tolerate the weather's changing whims.

Emmett props his bike against the outer wall of the garage and hurries in the front door. "Come on, Percy!" he calls. "We've got a lot to do!" Without so much as taking off his jacket, Emmett heads into the garage office. Percy hops from his place on the bed and follows along.

Emmett, still dripping, makes for his records, or rather the haphazard village of paper stacks that holds all his plans and charts. He wipes his hands on his jeans and begins leafing through the piles.

"I know I kept it...should be near the top...look, Percy! Here!" He holds up a diagram of the mysteriously missing metal piece. It's drawn on half of a napkin. "Now I just have to make it again."

Emmett toils until almost midnight. Finally Percy decides it's time for intervention— Emmett has to work again the next two days.

"What is it, Percy?" Emmett asks after Percy taps his ankle six times. Percy angles his head toward the clock. "Right. Thanks." Emmett sets down his work, lingers for a moment, then follows Percy out of the office.

When they've both settled in bed, Emmett says to Percy, "You know, days like this make me wonder if it's worth it."

Percy's ears prick up of their own accord. His cat form tends to do that. Could this be the moment Emmett finally gives up? That would mean a successful end to Percy's mission, but the prospect brings him no joy.

Emmett rolls onto his back. "I have doubts, I really do. You know better than anyone. But we can't give up."

Percy would have smiled if it came naturally to this form. Humorous to think that even for a moment he had truly entertained the idea that Emmett would give up.

"If I just persist, I know I can do it," Emmett goes on. "If I work hard, I'll get there someday. I'll reach the center." He lightly pats Percy's head. "Night, Percy."

Percy lies awake for most of the night. The house is cold and damp, but the knowledge that Percy is the only reason Emmett hasn't succeeded is pressing into Percy's fur like furnace heat.

Emmett spends a day at work. Percy spends a day catching up on sleep. Then Emmett spends the night on his machine, making faster progress than usual. Percy watches.

That night, when Emmett is asleep, Percy creeps from the bed and onto the windowsill.

He can't use the creaky front door, but his shape-shifting abilities make the window a viable exit.

He checks that Emmett is still asleep before becoming a tiny ant and crawling through a crack in the window pane. Once outside, he takes his cat form again and makes for the meeting place.

Tonight is one of his tri-annual progress reports, the only contact he has with another being from his home. He slinks through the night woods until he comes upon a large Golden Retriever—the chosen form of the one he is meeting. He draws to a halt.

"Hello, Jane," Percy says, using his companion's surface-world name.

"State your name," Jane barks, literally, thanks to her dog form. "And your mission."

"You know both those things."

"I ask for identification purposes."

"How do you expect I should know our language if I am not who you know me to be?"

"State your name and mission."

Percy's tail flicks. "Persistence Perret," he says, using his surface-world name. After three years, it seems almost more real than the other. "Sent to the surface-world on a mission to prevent human Emmett Perret from creating a machine capable of reaching the center of the Earth."

Jane dips her head. "Good to see you, Persistence. Has the human given up yet?"

"You know, Emmett just calls me Percy."

Jane waits for an answer.

Percy's tail flicks again. "He has not. Despite countless setbacks and disruptions, he remains as motivated as ever."

"You've got to break that determined spirit of his."

"It isn't as easy as we expected," Percy says. "He overcomes all odds with tireless passion. The man even named his cat Persistence. What human does that?"

"Are you saying you cannot complete the mission?"

"No!" Percy assures her. He hesitates for a moment, considering how to voice the concerns that have been growing in his mind. "Not...exactly. But I'm beginning to think the mission in its original design cannot be completed at all."

"It's the only option," says Jane. "Emmett Perret must be discouraged from reaching the Earth's center."

"There is no discouraging him," Percy insists.

"I think you have grown too fond of this human," Jane says. "You are too gentle—you can't bear to see him give up. Why don't you come back home? I can take over."

"No!" Percy cries again. "That won't be necessary."

"Tell you what," says Jane. "I don't go back down for another day. Take tomorrow, come up with an alternative plan, and present it to me. If it seems viable, your mission will be changed. Otherwise, I will take over and you can return home."

"Deal," says Percy, wondering how he can possibly re-create a three-year-old mission in one single day. He'll have to adopt Emmett's policy of stubborn determination.

The next day, looking for inspiration, Percy decides to accompany Emmett to work. He is fitted with a harness, and rides hunched down in the basket of Emmett's bike. Technically, there are no pets allowed in the grocery store, but no one minds Percy and Emmett.

After an uneventful morning, Percy and Emmett head to the small café in the store's left side for lunch break. They take a corner table, and Emmett stares out the window.

A couple pauses as they pass by. "Hello, Emmett," says the woman.

People know Emmett. It's hard to remain discreet when building a machine that frequently explodes.

Emmett blinks and looks away from the window. "Hello."

"Have you reached Mars yet?" asks the woman, snickering.

"Well, I'm not trying—" Emmett stops himself. "No, not yet."

"Maybe you'll be the first to discover alien life!" the woman exclaims.

"Yes, maybe," says Emmett submissively.

"Aliens might be more similar to you than us normal people," the man puts in. "Maybe you'll find your kind."

The couple walks away, giggling. "What a lunatic!" whispers the woman, loud enough for Emmett and Percy to hear.

For a moment Percy thinks he might like to pounce on them, but then he gets an idea.

"State your name."

"Persistence Perret."

"State your mission."

"Jane, we did this last night!"

Stoic Jane gives in. "Alright. What do you have for me?"

They are meeting again in the woods.

"The purpose of my mission is to keep our home from being discovered by those who live above," Percy says. "We feared that if Emmett were to reach the center of the Earth, it would clear the way for research by other parties who would disrupt our society."

"Yes," Jane puts in.

"But I have reason to believe this isn't the case," Percy says. "Emmett's determination to complete this project may very well outlast our own to stop him. But I have observed human nature and human society, and I can promise that if Emmett reaches the center of the Earth, it will not matter." Percy pauses. "Because no one will believe him. People like Emmett have no voice in this world. Even if he were to travel to our home himself, and come back up announcing that a secret world of shape-shifters dwells in the Earth's core, he would merely be denounced as a madman."

Percy stops, awaiting Jane's decision.

"I think you're onto something," says Jane. "Yes—yes! The answer was so simple all along."

"My mission has changed, then?" says Percy.

"I'll have to get confirmation," says Jane. "I'll be back as soon as I can with the final verdict. But I don't foresee opposition. Truly a great idea, Persistence."

Two Years Later

Percy—the name stuck—stands in the back of a crowded barn. He's taken a different form, a slight woman with gray streaks in her hair. This form is better equipped for his new mission: monitoring the small group that believes Emmett.

Percy's idea was approved, and he was allowed to stop foiling Emmett's plans. Emmett reached the center of the Earth in under a year. As anticipated, no one believed him.

Well, not no one, muses Percy, looking around the barn. These seventeen humans are the only ones who know the truth: that Emmett Perret built a machine capable of traveling to the Earth's core. And they are all disregarded as conspiring radicals, just as Percy predicted. To be safe, Percy keeps an eye on them. But it isn't a full-time job, and he is finally able to return home.

He doesn't resent these visits to the surface-world. It is pleasant to see Emmett, who was greatly distressed when his beloved cat disappeared. Little does he know, that same "cat" frequents his presentations.

Emmett is at the front of the barn, about to tell the story of his invention.

"Hello, everyone," says Emmett.

If only, thinks Percy, he could be as comfortable now as he was when he talked to his cat.

"Thank you for coming. As you know, I have invented a machine capable of reaching the Earth's core." A round of applause. Emmett's face goes red. "Thank you. But I couldn't have done it without Persistence." He pauses and smiles. "Both the motivating quality and...a cat."

In the back of the barn, Persistence smiles too.