Chapter 18

 

A few moments later he sent a signal to Murgatroyd in the engine-room. The propellers began to revolve slowly, beating the dense air and driving the Astronef at a speed of about twenty miles an hour through the depths of this strangely peopled ocean.

They approached nearer and nearer to the surface, and as they did so the uncanny creatures about them grew more and more numerous. They were certainly the most extraordinary living things that human eyes had ever looked upon. Zaidie’s comparison to the whale and the jelly-fish was by no means incorrect; only when they got near enough to them they found, to their astonishment, that they were double-headed—that is to say, they had a head with a mouth, nostrils, ear-holes, and eyes at each end of their bodies.

The larger of the creatures appeared to have a certain amount of respect for each other. Now and then they witnessed a battle-royal between two of the monsters who were pursuing the same prey. Their method of attack was as follows: The assailant would rise above his opponent or prey, and then, dropping on to its back, envelop it and begin tearing at its sides and under parts with huge beak-like jaws, somewhat resembling those of the largest kind of the earthly octopus, only infinitely more formidable. The substance composing their bodies appeared to be not unlike that of a terrestrial jelly-fish, but much denser. It seemed from their motions to have the tenacity of soft indiarubber save at the headed ends, where it was much harder. The necks were protected for about fifty feet by huge scales of a dull, greenish hue.

When one of them had overpowered an enemy or a victim the two sank down into the vegetation, and the victor began to eat the vanquished. Their means of locomotion consisted of huge fins, or rather half-fins, half-wings, of which they had three laterally arranged behind each head, and four much longer and narrower, above and below, which seemed to be used mainly for steering purposes.

They moved with equal ease in either direction, and they appeared to rise or fall by inflating or deflating the middle portions of their bodies, somewhat as fish do with their swimming bladders.

The light in the lower regions of this strange ocean was dimmer than earthly twilight, although the Astronef was steadily making her way beneath the arch of the rings towards the sunlit hemisphere.

I wonder what the effect of the searchlight would be on these fellows!” said Redgrave. “Those huge eyes of theirs are evidently only suited to dim light. Let’s try and dazzle some of them.”

I hope it won’t be a case of the moths and the candle!” said Zaidie. “They don’t seem to have taken much interest in us so far. Perhaps they haven’t been able to see properly, but suppose they were attracted by the light and began crowding round us and fastening on to us, as the horrible things do with each other. What should we do then? They might drag us down and perhaps keep us there; but there’s one thing, they’d never eat us, because we could keep closed up and die respectably together.”

Not much fear of that, little woman,” he said, “we’re too strong for them. Hardened steel and toughened glass ought to be more than a match for a lot of exaggerated jelly-fish like these,” said Redgrave, as he switched on the head searchlight. “We’ve come here to see strange things and we may as well see them. Ah, would you, my friend. No, this is not one of your sort, and it isn’t meant to eat.”

An enormous double-headed monster, apparently some four hundred feet long, came floating towards them as the searchlight flashed out, and others began instantly to crowd about them, just as Zaidie had feared.

Lenox, for Heaven’s sake be careful!” cried Zaidie, shrinking up beside him as the huge, hideous head, with its saucer eyes and enormous beak-like jaws wide open, came towards them. “And look! there are more coming. Can’t we go up and get away from them?”

Wait a minute, little woman,” replied Redgrave, who was beginning to feel the passion of adventure thrilling along his nerves. “If we fought the Martian air fleet and licked it I think we can manage these things. Let’s see how he likes the light.”

As he spoke he flashed the full glare of the five thousand candle-power lamp full on to the creature’s great cat-like eyes. Instantly it bent itself up into an arc. The two heads, each the exact image of the other, came together. The four eyes glared half-dazzled into the conning-tower, and the four fearful jaws snapped viciously together.

Lenox, Lenox, for goodness’ sake let us go up!” cried Zaidie, shrinking still closer to him. “That thing’s too horrible to look at.”

It is a beast, isn’t it?” he said; “but I think we can cut him in two without much trouble.”

He signalled for full speed. The Astronef ought to have sprung forward and driven her ram through the huge, brick-red body of the hideous creature which was now only a couple of hundred yards from them; but instead of that a slow, jarring, grinding thrill seemed to run through her, and she stopped. The next moment Murgatroyd put his head up through the companion-way which led from the upper deck to the conning-tower, and said, in a tone whose calm indicated, as usual, resignation to the worst that could happen:

My Lord, two of those beasts, fishes or live balloons, or whatever they are, have come across the propellers. They’re cut up a good bit, but I’ve had to stop the engines, and they’re clinging all round the after part. We’re going down, too. Shall I disconnect the propellers and turn on the repulsion?”

Yes, certainly, Andrew!” cried Zaidie, “and all of it, too. Look, Lenox, that horrible thing is coming. Suppose it broke the glass, and we couldn’t breathe this atmosphere!”

As she spoke the enormous, double-headed body advanced until it completely enveloped the forward part of the Astronef. The two hideous heads came close to the sides of the conning-tower; the huge, palely luminous eyes looked in upon them. Zaidie, in her terror, even thought that she saw something like human curiosity in them.

Then, as Murgatroyd disappeared to obey the orders which Redgrave had sanctioned with a quick nod, the heads approached still closer, and she heard the ends of the pointed jaws, which she now saw were armed with shark-like teeth, striking against the thick glass walls of the conning-tower.

Don’t be frightened, dear!” he said, putting his arm round her, just as he had done when they thought they were falling into the fiery seas of Jupiter. “You’ll see something happen to this gentleman soon. Big and all as he is there won’t be much left of him in a few minutes. They are like those monsters they found in the lowest depths of our own seas. They can only live under tremendous pressure. That’s why we didn’t find any of them up above. This chap’ll burst like a bubble presently. Meanwhile, there’s no use in stopping here. Suppose you go below and brew some coffee and bring it up on deck while I go and see how things are looking aft. It doesn’t do you any good, you know, to be looking at monsters of this sort. You can see what’s left of them later on. You might bring the cognac decanter up too.”

Zaidie was not at all sorry to obey him, for the horrible sight had almost sickened her.

They were still under the arch of the rings, and so, when the full strength of the R. Force was directed against the body of Saturn, the vessel sprang upwards like a projectile fired from a cannon.

Redgrave went back into the conning-tower to see what happened to their assailant. It was already trying to detach itself and sink back into a more congenial element. As the pressure of the atmosphere decreased its huge body swelled up into still huger proportions. The scaly skin on the two heads and necks puffed up as though air was being pumped in under it. The great eyes protruded out of their sockets; the jaws opened widely as though the creature were gasping for breath.

Meanwhile Murgatroyd was seeing something very similar at the after end, and wondering what was going to happen to his propellers, the blades of which were deeply imbedded in the jelly-like flesh of the monsters.

The Astronef leaped higher and higher, and the hideous bodies which were clinging to her swelled out huger and huger. Redgrave even fancied that he heard something like the cries of pain from both heads on either side of the conning-tower. They passed through the inner cloud-veil, and then the Astronef began to turn on her axis, and, just as the outer envelope came into view the enormously distended bulk of the monsters collapsed, and their fragments, seeming now like the tatters of a burst balloon than portions of a once living creature, dropped from the body of the Astronef, and floated away down into what had been their native element.

Difference of environment means a lot, after all,” said Redgrave to himself. “I should have called that either a lie or a miracle if I hadn’t seen it, and I’m jolly glad I sent Zaidie down below.”

Here’s your coffee, Lenox,” said her voice from the upper deck the next moment, “only it doesn’t seem to want to stop in the cups, and the cups keep getting off the saucers. I suppose we’re turning upside down again.”

Redgrave stepped somewhat gingerly on to the deck, for his body had so little weight under the double attraction of Saturn and the Rings that a very slight effort would have sent him flying up to the roof of the deck-chamber.

That’s exactly as you please,” he said, “just hold that table steady a minute. We shall have our centre of gravity back soon. And now, as to the main question, suppose we take a trip across the sunlit hemisphere of Saturn to, what I suppose we should call on Earth, the South Pole. We can get resistance from the Rings, and as we are here we may as well see what the rest of Saturn is like. You see, if our theory is correct as to the Rings gathering up most of the atmosphere of Saturn about its equator, we shall get to higher latitudes where the air is thinner and more like our own, and therefore it’s quite possible that we shall find different forms of life in it too—or if you’ve had enough of Saturn and would prefer a trip to Uranus——”

No, thanks,” said Zaidie quickly. “To tell you the truth, Lenox, I’ve had almost enough star-wandering for one honeymoon, and though we’ve seen nice things as well as horrible things—especially those ghastly, slimy creatures down there—I’m beginning to feel a bit homesick for good old Mother Earth. You see, we’re nearly a thousand million miles from home, and, even with you, it makes one feel a bit lonely. I vote we explore the rest of this hemisphere up to the pole, and then, as they say at sea—I mean our sea—’bout ship, and try if we can find our own old world again. After all, it is more homelike than any of these, isn’t it?”

Just take our telescope and look at it,” said Redgrave, pointing towards the Sun, with its little cluster of attendant planets. “It looks something like one of Jupiter’s little moons down there, doesn’t it, only not quite as big?”

Yes, it does, but that doesn’t matter. The fact is that it’s there, and we know what it’s like, and it’s home, if it is a thousand million miles away, and that’s everything.”

By this time they had passed through the outer band of clouds. The vast, sunlit arch of the Rings towered up to the zenith, apparently spanning the whole visible heavens. Below and in front of them lay the enormous semicircle of the hemisphere which was turned towards the Sun, shrouded by its many-coloured bands of clouds. The R. Force was directed strongly against the lower ring, and the Astronef descended rapidly in a slanting direction through the cloud-bands towards the southern temperate zone of the planet.

They passed through the second, or dark, cloud-band at the rate of about three thousand miles an hour, aided by the repulsion against the Rings and the attraction of the planets, and soon after lunch, the materials of which now consented to remain on the table, they passed through the clouds and found themselves in a new world of wonders.

On a far vaster scale, it was the Earth during that period of its development which is called the Reptilian Age. The atmosphere was still dense and loaded with aqueous vapour, but the waters had already been divided from the land.

They passed over vast, marshy continents and islands, and warm seas, above which thin clouds of steam still hung, and as they swept southward with the propellers working at their utmost speed they caught glimpses of giant forms rising out of the steamy waters near the land, of others crawling slowly over it, dragging their huge bulk through a tremendous vegetation, which they crushed down as they passed, as a sheep on Earth might push its way through a field of standing corn.

Other and even stranger shapes, broad-winged and ungainly, fluttered with a slow, bat-like motion through the lower strata of the atmosphere.

Every now and then during the voyage across the temperate zone the propellers were slowed down to enable them to witness some Titanic conflict between the gigantic denizens of land and sea and air. But Zaidie had had enough of horrors on the Saturnian equator, and so she was content to watch this phase of evolution working itself out (as it had done on the Earth thousands of ages ago) from a convenient distance. Wherefore the Astronef sped on without approaching the surface nearer than was necessary to get a clear general view.

It’ll be all very nice to see and remember and dream about afterwards,” she said, “but I don’t think I can stand any more monsters just now, at least not at close quarters, and I’m quite sure that if those things can live there we couldn’t, any more than we could have lived on Earth a million years or so ago. No, really I don’t want to land, Lenox; let’s go on.”

They went on at a speed of about a hundred miles an hour, and, as they progressed southward, both the atmosphere and the landscape rapidly changed. The air grew clearer and the clouds lighter. Land and sea were more sharply divided, and both teeming with life. The seas still swarmed with serpentine monsters of the saurian type, and the firmer lands were peopled by huge animals, mastodons, bears, giant tapirs, mylodons, deinotheriums, and a score of other species too strange for them to recognise by any Earthly likeness, which roamed in great herds through the vast twilit forests and over boundless plains covered with grey-blue vegetation.

Here, too, they found mountains for the first time on Saturn; mountains steep-sided, and many Earth-miles high.

As the Astronef was skirting the side of one of these ranges Redgrave allowed it to approach more closely than he had so far done to the surface of Saturn.

I shouldn’t wonder if we found some of the higher forms of life up here,” he said. “If there is any kind of being that is going to develop some day into the human race of Saturn it would naturally get up here.”

I should hope so,” said Zaidie, “and just as far as possible out of the reach of those unutterable horrors on the equator. That would be one of the first signs they would show of superior intelligence. Look! I believe there are some of them. Do you see those holes in the mountain-side there? And there they are, something like gorillas, only twice as big, and up the trees, too—and what trees! They must be seven or eight hundred feet high.”

Tree-men and cave-dwellers, and ancestors of the future royal race of Saturn, I suppose!” said Redgrave. “They don’t look very nice, do they? Still, there’s no doubt about their being far superior in intelligence to those other brutes we saw. Evidently this atmosphere is too thin for the two-headed jelly-fishes and the saurians to breathe. These creatures have found that out in a few hundreds of generations, and so they have come to live up here out of the way. Vegetarians, I suppose, or perhaps they live on smaller monkeys and other animals, just as our ancestors did.”

Really, Lenox,” said Zaidie, turning round and facing him, “I must say that you have a most unpleasant way of alluding to one’s ancestors. They couldn’t help what they were.”

Well, dear,” he said, going towards her, “marvellous as the miracle seems, I’m heretic enough to believe it possible that your ancestors even, millions of years ago, perhaps, may have been something like those; but then, of course, you know I’m a hopeless Darwinian.”

And, therefore, entirely horrid, as I’ve often said before, when you get on subjects like these. Not, of course, that I’m ashamed of my poor relations; and then, after all, your Darwin was quite wrong when he talked about the descent of man—and woman. We—especially the women—have ascended from that sort of thing, if there’s any truth in the story at all; though, personally, I must say I prefer dear old Mother Eve.”

Who never had a sweeter daughter than——!” he replied, drawing her towards him.

Very prettily put, my Lord,” she laughed, releasing herself with a gentle twirl; “and now I’ll go and get dinner ready. After all, it doesn’t matter what world one’s in, one gets hungry all the same.”

The dinner, which was eaten somewhere in the middle of the fifteen-year-long day of Saturn, was a more than usually pleasant one, because they were now nearing the turning-point of their trip into the depths of Space, and thoughts of home and friends were already beginning to fly back across the thousand-million-mile gulf which lay between them and the Earth which they had left only a little more than two months ago.

While they were at dinner the Astronef rose above the mountains and resumed her southward course. Zaidie brought the coffee up on deck as usual after dinner, and, while Redgrave smoked his cigar and Zaidie her cigarette, they luxuriated in the magnificent spectacle of the sunlit side of the Rings towering up, rainbow built on rainbow, to the zenith of their visible heavens.

What a pity there aren’t any words to describe it!” said Zaidie. “I wonder if the descendants of the ancestors of the future human race on Saturn will invent anything like a suitable language. I wonder how they’ll talk about those Rings millions of years hence.”

By that time there may not be any Rings,” Lenox replied, blowing one of blue smoke from his own lips. “Look at that—made in a moment and gone in a moment—and yet on exactly the same principle, it gives one a dim idea of the difference between time and eternity. After all it’s only another example of Kelvin’s theory of vortices. Nebulæ, and asteroids, and planet-rings, and smoke-rings are really all made on the same principle.”

My dear Lenox, if you’re going to get as philosophical and as commonplace as that, I’m going to bed. Now that I come to think of it, I’ve been up about fifteen Earth-hours, so it’s about time I went and had a sleep. It’s your turn to make the coffee in the morning—our morning, I mean—and you’ll wake me in time to see the South Pole of Saturn, won’t you? You’re not coming yet, I suppose?”

Not just yet, dear. I want to see a bit more of this, and then I must go through the engines and see that they’re all right and ready for that thousand million mile homeward voyage you’re talking about. You can have a good ten hours’ sleep without missing much, I think, for there doesn’t seem to be anything more interesting than our own Arctic life down there. So good-night, little woman, and don’t have too many nightmares.”

Good-night!” she said; “if you hear me shout you’ll know that you’re to come and protect me from monsters. Weren’t those two-headed brutes just too horrid for words? Good-night, dear!”