Part of: Secrets of Space
From: Pharaoh's Broker
We counted seven successive returns of the peaks of the Andes, and being
by that time certainly six million miles from the Earth, we could
distinguish them no longer. Then followed what I remember as a very long
and unspeakably monotonous period, without any adequate method of
marking the time. Our days became a full week long, for the only way we
could guess at the time was by the quarterings of the Moon. We could
still see her about the size of a marble in the telescope, and as her
crescent began to wane, and finally her light entirely disappeared, we
knew she was then just between us and the Earth, and shining upon that
planet as a Full Moon. This was due to occur fifteen days after our
departure. Then we watched her grow from a thin crescent to a bright
quarter, and we knew another week had elapsed.
"We shall soon be able to determine one date with absolute certainty," I
said to the doctor, when we must have been some twenty days out. "I have
been reading up your almanack, and I find there is a total eclipse of
the Sun by the Moon on June 29th."
"You might as well try to eclipse him with a straw-hat, as far as we are
concerned," he replied. "The Moon will necessarily be on the further
side of the Earth when that occurs, and the eclipse will barely reach
the Earth. It will fall short of us by a matter of some thirty million
It was soon after this that we gave up observing the Earth as a planet,
put on our darkened lens, and proceeded to hold her as a spot in the Sun
a little to the left of his centre. The Moon remained a tiny spot of
light outside for a few days; but finally she entered the Sun also, and
was seen as a faint spot travelling toward the Earth-spot.
Although the dazzling quality of the light, into which we had emerged
after the second day, was finally beginning to wane and pale a little,
Mars was still invisible. In fact, no stars or planets were visible;
only the gleaming Sun with the Earth-spot upon it. Our thermometer was
poorly placed in the glare of the Sun at the rear; but it showed the
heat was decreasing, and from a temperature of thirty-five degrees,
observed at the end of the second day, it had now fallen to twelve, and
was diminishing regularly about two degrees daily as nearly as we could
Our appetites were steadily failing, and for two very good reasons: the
unsuitable foods and the impossibility of getting any exercise. There
was no such thing as getting any healthy actions of the body. Nothing
had any weight, and such a thing as physical labour was impossible on
the face of it. I attempted to go through regular courses of gymnastics
at frequent intervals; but as my body and its members weighed nothing,
my muscles found nothing whatever to expend their force upon. I thought
myself worse than Prometheus bound upon his rock, for he could at least
struggle with the birds of prey and pull upon his chains! I might as
well have been utterly paralyzed, and I actually began to fear that I
should lose all my strength, and that my muscles would forget their
And our foods could not have been more unsuitable. The light vegetable
diet which this lack of exercise called for was impossible. We had never
had any fresh vegetables or fruits, and our tinned and canned supplies
of these had been rapidly exhausted. We had plenty of solid, meaty foods
and beef essences; but our systems did not require these, and at last
absolutely refused to have them. I lived for days at a time upon beer
and biscuits, and looked longingly at my cigars. I believed I could have
existed comfortably and luxuriously upon smoke alone. My dreams were
filled with visions of ripe, luscious fruits and fresh, crisp
vegetables. When I awoke, I loathed the only foods we had.
I believe I should finally have given up eating, had I not hit upon a
method of exercise at last. It was a sort of rowing or pulling machine,
which I rigged up by running a bar through one end of the doctor's
spring scales, and fastening the other end to the foot of my bed. I
pulled vigorously against this spring for hours at a time, and was
delighted to find that my strength had not left me, and that I could
easily lift as much as these scales had been made to weigh. I remember
the returned appetite with which I enjoyed potted meat and a tinned
pudding, after the first hour of as vigorous exercise as our rarefied
air would permit.
The Moon-spot had disappeared and gone to her eclipse behind the Earth,
when an incident occurred to vary the monotony of our existence a
little, and to suggest to me a diversion that had been hitherto
forbidden. Our supply of water in the outer tank had long ago boiled
away, and I had lighted the gas to heat water for the doctor's coffee. I
had taken the cup up to him and remained chatting with him, when
presently I smelled something burning from the compartment below. I
descended quickly, and saw that my light bedclothes, which now weighed
less than a feather, and often floated from their place, had been drawn
into the flame by the draft of the burning gas. They were floating about
the compartment now, all aflame and threatening to set fire to
everything. We had not a drop of water to spare; but for once I thought
of the right thing to do without hesitation. I pushed out the
ventilating cylinder, hurried back to the doctor's compartment and
thrust in the bulkhead. Within two minutes all the air had escaped from
my room, and the fire had died for lack of oxygen. I waited a few
minutes longer for the smoke to escape, and then we admitted condensed
air, but only to the remarkably low pressure of eighteen. Within five
minutes the compartment was ready again, and there was not a trace of
smoke or smell of fire to be perceived.
"I congratulate you on your quick perception and prompt action," said
the doctor when it was over.
"Quick rubbish!" I exclaimed. "I have been a dundering fool for four
weeks by the Moon! I might just as well have been smoking ever since I
contrived this self-ventilating arrangement. The compartment becomes a
perfectly clean vacuum at each operation, yet I had to wait for this bed
clothing to catch fire before I could think of so simple a thing!"
It was at the meal time just preceding the next changing of air that I
opened the last tin of canned peas, as a sort of treat for the doctor to
offset my expected revel in fragrant tobacco. I prepared half the
quantity for him, but left my portion in the tin until I should be
hungrier. With the prospects of a good smoke before me, I had no
appetite for food. I put in the bulkhead to prevent the smoke from
entering his compartment and lighted my Havana. Then I took Two-spot on
my lap and stretched myself for a reverie. On Earth, smoking time had
been my period for reflection. And far back on that distant planet, what
were they doing now? In that one busy corner that had known me, they had
probably wondered at my disappearance for a day or two; but after the
month that had passed I was certainly forgotten. There were few back
there whom I cared for, and not many had much reason to remember me. My
interests, my desires, my hopes were all ahead of me on a new planet.
And what was waiting for me on Mars? Discovery, riches perhaps, and a
measure of fame when I returned. Then I thought of the numberless
problems that the next few weeks must solve for us. Would there be
intelligent inhabitants on Mars? Would they be in the forms of men or
beasts? Would they be civilized or savage? Would they speak a language,
and how could we learn to communicate with them? Would they have foods
suitable to us; indeed, would the very air they breathed be fit to
sustain our lives? Should we find them peaceable, or, if warlike, should
we be able to cope with them?
These thoughts were interrupted by the doctor, who called feebly to me
to come up. "Don't eat any of the peas," he said weakly. "There was a
queer taste about them, and they have made me deathly sick."
He was very wretched, and grew rapidly worse. I immediately saw that it
was a severe case of poisoning, and I did everything I could to relieve
him, but he groaned in agony for several hours. Finally he fell asleep,
but his rest was disturbed by fits of delirium, in which he raved wildly
in German mixed with English. As he slept I had time to think the matter
over carefully. After all, it was a thing which required only simple
remedies, and I had administered them. It was only a question of a
little nursing and a careful diet, and he would be well again.
But his fever increased and his delirium became more frequent, and I
began to appreciate that the derangement incident to the poisoning had
prepared the way for a more serious illness. During his ravings I caught
a glimpse of the struggling and ambitious side of his nature, which he
always so carefully repressed.
Once I heard him mumble this to himself in German: "Kepler perceived a
little, he saw dimly; Newton comprehended the easy half; but Anderwelt,
Anderwelt of Heidelberg, grasped the hidden meaning!"
In spite of all my attentions (I did not then understand the nature of
Space Fever, of course), he was growing steadily worse, and I was
becoming desperate. I could not afford to have him ill long. The
currents would probably continue to work fairly well until it became
necessary to reverse them, and that time was not far off. Unless they
were reversed exactly at the right moment, we might fall into the
neutral spot and be held there for ever. Even if I managed to stop the
negative current, and succeeded in falling towards Mars, I could not
regulate the positive current so as to temper our fall and make a safe
landing. It was equally dangerous to remain fixed in space, or to fall
headlong upon a planet and be smashed, or be buried miles deep if the
projectile did not collapse.
I had no way of telling how much time passed, but it seemed to me a very
long period, and he grew steadily worse as we approached the neutral
point. I tried to rouse him from his delirium. I addressed him
jocularly, then commandingly, then beseechingly. And he answered me
always with reflections from that other side of his nature which one
rarely saw when he was well.
"Hast thou seen red ants crawling upon a cherry? Such are the mere
circumnavigators of a globe! What! Hath not the world forgotten a
Columbus? How long, then, will it remember---- Hast thou no cooler
water? This is tepid and bitter!"
Ever since the last quarter of the Moon, which must have been ten days
ago, there had not been the slightest perceptible evidence of movement.
The standards by which we judge motion on the Earth had failed ever
since we left the atmosphere. There was no rushing or whizzing; we
passed nothing; all the ordinary evidences of speed were absent. When
you lie in the state-room of a smoothly moving steamer, no forward
motion is perceptible. If you see another ship pass near by, you get a
sudden surprising idea of the speed. If you watch the receding water,
you appear to be going forward slowly; and if you watch the spray at the
bow or the wake astern, you appreciate the movement more fully. But if
the waves or the tide happen to be running with the ship, she has
apparently almost stopped, when really her speed has been somewhat
accelerated. If you watch the distant stars, you can scarcely perceive
any motion at all; and if the clouds should be moving in the same
direction as the ship, her motion appears reversed.
We had none of these things by which to judge, and we appeared to be
hanging perfectly still in space, though the doctor had assured me we
were travelling at least five hundred miles a minute. This was rational,
as it agreed with the diminishing size of the Earth; but it required an
effort of faith on my part to believe that we had been moving at all.
But suppose we should gradually lose our speed and stop in a neutral
point, how should I know it? The Earth now was, and had been for ten
days, a mere spot on the Sun. While Mars had been visible, he had never
increased in size in the telescope, and he was now invisible. The only
way I could tell would be to wait until after many days had elapsed, and
if Mars did not finally come into view, I should know something was
wrong. But it would be too late then; there would be no winds or tides,
no weight or buoyancy, nothing to move us out of that dreadful calm
where even gravity does not exist. That must be avoided at every cost!
But might we not be very near it now? Weight had been practically
nothing for a month, within an hour it might be positively nothing,
The doctor's mutterings interrupted these thoughts. "The power with
which to travel was so simple and so vast! It all lay hidden in that
elementary law of magnetism, like poles repel and unlike poles attract.
But the road to travel and the problems by the way, those were the hard
He was putting them all in the past tense, as if he had already solved
them! But what was that law of magnetism he mentioned? Perhaps he would
reveal his secrets to me in his ravings! I must mark every word he said;
for it was clear I must solve the problem, he would not be well in time.
I must brush the cobwebs from my meagre science and struggle with his
"Unlike poles attract," he had said. Then Earth and matter must normally
have unlike poles, and to make Earth repel matter it would only be
necessary to change the polarization of the matter. Yes, he had told me
it was all accomplished by polarizing the steel and iron of the
projectile! When they were made the same pole as the Earth, then she
repelled them. But if the whole thing were so simple, why had it never
been discovered before? Ah, that is the strong shield behind which
incredulity always takes refuge!
I ventured near the gravity apparatus and examined it carefully. There
was a small thing which looked like the switchboard of a telegraph
office. The perforations in it were all in a row, and the ten holes were
now filled with little brass pegs, which were suspended from above on
small spiral springs. These were evidently the points of communication
of the negative current to the framework of the projectile. It certainly
would do no harm to pull out one of these pegs, as that would only
slightly diminish the current. At least I would risk it. My fingers had
scarcely closed upon the brass, when I was given such a violent shock as
to be thrown powerfully across the compartment; and had my body weighed
anything, my bones would certainly have been broken by the concussion.
My arm and shoulder did not recover from the stinging and deadening
sensation for some time. I noted the little peg I had pulled out hanging
by its spiral spring just above the hole it had filled. It would be
worth my life to remove the other nine in the same way.
Besides, how would I know when the time came to remove them? My eyes
fell upon the two large leaden balls suspended from short copper
chains. I had seen these before, but now I thought I understood them.
They would swing whichever way gravity attracted. They hung down toward
my compartment now, and if we ever passed the dead line, they would hang
forward toward Mars. But in the neutral point what would they do? When
the gravity of planets neutralized each other, the steel of the
projectile would repel these balls towards its centre, which would tend
to put them both in the same spot and thus bring them together.
Moreover, they would slightly attract each other. Yes, it was quite
certain that these had been devised as a Gravity Indicator, and they
would tell me when we were approaching a dead line, when we were in it,
and when it was safely passed. But all that would do me but little good
unless I could manage the currents.
I sat thinking this over a long time, when it suddenly occurred to me
that the doctor would recognise, even in his delirium, the importance of
action when these two balls came together. As soon as they had
approached each other, I must lift him up and show them to him. The
brain that had made them would know their meaning, and know how to act
even in illness! Perhaps I was like a drowning man clutching at a straw;
but from the moment I thought of this I believed firmly that the
solution of the whole problem would come in this manner. My hopes were
ready to hang on the slightest peg. It consoled me to remember some
instances where men temporarily insane had been brought to consciousness
by impending danger, or by the sight of what last weighed upon their
When I glanced at the balls next, I saw that their chains lacked an inch
of being parallel. They were already moving slowly inward toward each
other. I noted that the chains, which ran through the balls and were
connected with a small copper plate on the bottom of each, were just
long enough to allow the bottom edges to touch, if they were drawn as
far toward each other as possible.
The doctor's fever was at its very worst, but that did not dampen my
hopes. The balls were gradually drawing nearer together. I wished them
to be quite close before I made the supreme trial which was to liberate
us or leave us prisoners in space for ever! Presently I loosened the
knotted sheets which held him to his bed, and lifted the feverish man,
as I might have carried a doll, and brought him in full view of the
"Doctor, listen now and look," I said firmly and commandingly.
"Always stubborn and unbelieving!" he raved. "I must take it to a new
country, to America, where they invent things themselves, and are
willing to listen, and anxious to try!"
"Doctor, don't you know me? It is I, Werner, who helped you. This is a
crisis for us! Do you see those approaching balls? You know what they
mean! You must save us."
"Thou'rt too busy, like all the rest! Why, then, remember that to-morrow
will despise those who are so busy with to-day! Opportunity has knocked
and listened for thee and thou hast bade her begone!"
"Listen, Doctor. I am he who heard you and gave you the pink cheque. I
am he who refused three times to go with you and then came at last. I am
he who was afraid of the light, who dodged the Moon, and chaffed you
about the pump. Do you not remember it all? Come, you are no longer ill.
There is work to do. Have you forgotten the leaden balls? See! they are
touching each other now, and we are in the dead-line, the neutral spot,
the one danger of the trip which you acknowledged."
But it was useless. He remembered nothing, his eyes were dim and vacant,
and the great brain that had planned all this was overthrown by fever.
The experiment had failed and we were lost!
I tied him gently back on his bed and turned in desperation to the
apparatus, deciding to risk my life to pull out those nine pegs with my
hands, one after another.
My God! they were already out! Every one of them was hanging by its
spiral spring, just above the hole it had filled. The switchboard had
opened a little and released them. It was all automatic! The contact of
the copper surface of the balls had completed a short circuit which cut
the negative current. He had thought of it all, even to this emergency,
and the machine could take care of itself!
And in the wave of thankfulness and rejoicing which swept over me, I
sank on my knees and kissed the forehead of the feverish old man again
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