Chapter 9

 

The earth and the moon had been left more than a hundred million miles behind in the depths of Space, and the Astronef had crossed this immense gap in eleven days and a few hours; but this apparently inconceivable speed was not altogether due to the powers of the Space-Navigator, for her commander had taken advantage of the passage of the planet along its orbit towards that of the earth. Hence, while the Astronef was approaching Mars with ever-increasing speed, Mars was travelling towards the Astronef at the rate of sixteen miles a second.

The great silver disc of the earth had diminished until it looked only a little larger than Venus appears to human eyes. In fact the planet Terra is to the inhabitants of Mars what Venus is to us, the Star of the Morning and the Evening.

Breakfast on the morning of the twelfth day—or, since there is neither day nor night in Space, it would be more correct to say the twelfth period of twenty-four earth-hours as measured by the chronometers—was just over, and Redgrave was standing with Zaidie in the forward end of the deck-chamber, looking downwards at a vast crescent of rosy light which stretched out over an arc of more than ninety degrees. Two tiny black spots were travelling towards each other across it.

Ah,” she said, going towards one of the telescopes, “there are the moons. I was reading my Gulliver last night. I wonder what the old Dean would have given to be here, and see how true his guess was. Are we going to land on them?”

I don’t see why we shouldn’t,” he said. “I think we might find them convenient stopping places; besides, you know this isn’t only a pleasure-trip. We have to add as much as we can to the sum of human knowledge, and so of course we shall have to find out whether the moons of Mars have atmospheres and inhabitants.”

What, people living on those wee things!” she laughed. “Why they’re only about thirty or forty miles round, aren’t they?”

About,” he said, “but then that’s just one of the points I want to solve; and as for life, it doesn’t always mean people, you know. We are only a few hundred miles away from Deimos, the outer one, and he is twelve thousand five hundred miles from Mars. I vote we drop on him first and let him carry us towards Phobos. And then when we’ve examined him we’ll pay a visit to his brother and take a trip round Mars on him. Phobos does the journey in about seven hours and a half, and as he’s only three thousand seven hundred miles above the surface, we ought to get a very good view of our next stopping-place.”

That ought to be quite delightful,” said Zaidie. “But how commonplace you are getting, Lenox. That’s so like you Englishmen. We are doing what has only been dreamt of before, and here you are talking about moons and planets as if they were railway stations.”

Well, if your Ladyship prefers it, we will call them undiscovered islands and continents in the Ocean of Space. That does sound a little bit better, doesn’t it? Now I think I had better go down and see to my engines.”

When he had gone, Zaidie sat down to the telescope again and kept it focussed on one of the little black spots travelling across the crescent of Mars. Both it and the other spot rapidly grew larger, and the features of the planet itself became more distinct. Soon even with her unaided eyes she could make out the seas and continents and the mysterious canals quite plainly through the clear, rosy atmosphere, and, with the aid of the telescope, she could even see the glimmering twilight which the inner moon threw upon the unlighted portion of the planet’s disc.

Deimos grew bigger and bigger, and in about half an hour the Astronef grounded gently on what looked to Zaidie like a dimly lighted circular plain, but which, when her eyes became accustomed to the light, was more like the summit of a conical mountain. Redgrave raised the keel a little from the surface again and steered towards a thin circle of light on the tiny horizon.

As they crossed into the sunlit portion it became quite plain that Deimos, at any rate, was as airless and lifeless as the moon. The surface was composed of brown rock and red sand broken up into miniature hills and valleys. There were a few traces of bygone volcanic action, but it was evident that the internal fires of this tiny world must have burnt themselves out very quickly.

Not much to be seen here,” said Redgrave, as he came up the companion-way, “and I don’t think it would be safe to go out. The attraction is so weak here that we might find ourselves falling off with very little exertion. Still, you may as well take a couple of photographs of the surface, and then we’ll be off to Phobos.”

Zaidie got her apparatus to work, and when she had taken her slides down to the dark-room, Redgrave turned the R. Force on very slightly and Phobos began to sink away beneath them. The attraction of Mars now began to make itself strongly felt, and the Astronef dropped rapidly through the eight thousand miles which separate the inner and outer satellites.

As they approached Phobos they saw that half the little disc was brilliantly lighted by the same rays of the sun which were glowing on the rapidly increasing crescent of Mars beneath them. By careful manipulation of his engines Redgrave managed to meet the approaching satellite with a hardly perceptible shock about the centre of its lighted portion, that is to say the side turned towards the planet.

Mars now appeared as a gigantic rosy moon filling the whole vault of the heavens above them. Their telescopes brought the three thousand seven hundred and fifty miles down to about ten. The rapid motion of the tiny satellite afforded them a spectacle which might be compared to the rising of a moon glowing with rosy light and hundreds of times larger than the earth. The speed of the vehicle of which they had taken possession, something like four thousand two hundred miles an hour, caused the surface of the planet to apparently sweep away from below them, just as the earth seems to glide from under the car of a balloon.

Neither of them left the telescopes for more than a few minutes during this aerial circumnavigation. Murgatroyd, outwardly impassive, but inwardly filled with solemn fears for the fate of this impiously daring voyage, brought them wine and sandwiches, and later on tea and toast and more sandwiches; but they took no moment’s heed of these, so absorbed were they in the wonderful spectacle which was swiftly passing under their eyes.

The main armament of the Astronef consisted of four pneumatic guns, which could be mounted on swivels, two ahead and two astern, which carried a shell containing either one of two kinds of explosives invented by her creator.

One of these was a solid, and burst on impact with an explosive force equal to about twenty pounds of lyddite. The other consisted of two liquids separated by a partition in the shell, and these, when mixed by the breaking of the partition, burst into a volume of flame which could not be extinguished by any known human means. It would burn even in a vacuum, since it supplied its own elements of combustion. The guns would throw these shells to a distance of about seven terrestrial miles. On the upper deck there were also stands for a couple of light machine guns capable of discharging seven hundred explosive bullets a minute.

Professor Rennick, although a man of peace, had little sympathy with the laws of “civilised” warfare which permit men to be blown into rags of flesh and splinters of bone by explosive shells of a pound weight and upward, and only allow projectiles of less weight to be used against “savages.” There was no humbug about him. He believed that when war was necessary it had to be war—and the sooner it was over the better for everybody concerned.

The small arms consisted of a couple of heavy ten-bore elephant guns carrying three-ounce melinite shells; a dozen rifles and fowling-pieces of different makes of which three, a single and a double-barrelled rifle and a double-barrelled shot-gun, belonged to her Ladyship, as well as a dainty brace of revolvers, one of half a dozen braces of various calibres which completed the minor armament of the Astronef.

The guns were got up and mounted while the attraction of the planet was comparatively feeble, and the weapons themselves therefore of very little weight. On the surface of the earth a score of men could not have done the work, but on board the Astronef, suspended in Space, her crew of three found the work easy. Zaidie herself picked up a Maxim and carried it about as though it were a toy sewing-machine.

Now I think we can go down,” said Redgrave, when everything had been put in position as far as possible. “I wonder whether we shall find the atmosphere of Mars suitable for terrestrial lungs. It will be rather awkward if it isn’t.”

A very slight exertion of repulsive force was sufficient to detach the Astronef from the body of Phobos. She dropped rapidly towards the surface of the planet, and within three hours they saw the sunlight, for the first time since they had left the earth, shining through an unmistakable atmosphere, an atmosphere of a pale, rosy hue, instead of the azure of the earthly skies. An angular observation showed that they were within fifty miles of the surface of the undiscovered world.

Well, we shall find air here of some sort, there’s no doubt. We’ll drop a bit further and then Andrew shall start the propellers. They’ll very soon give us an idea of the density. Do you notice the change in the temperature? That’s the diffused rays instead of the direct ones. Twenty miles! I think that will do. I’ll stop her now and we’ll prospect for a landing place.”

He went down to apply the repulsive force directly to the surface of Mars, so as to check the descent, and then he put on his breathing-dress, went into the exit-chamber, closed one door behind him, opened the other and allowed it to fill with Martian air; then he shut it again, opened his visor and took a cautious breath.

It may, perhaps, have been the idea that he, the first of all the sons of Earth, was breathing the air of another world, or it might have been some property peculiar to the Martian atmosphere, but he immediately experienced a sensation such as usually follows the drinking of a glass of champagne. He took another breath, and another, then he opened the inner door and went back to the lower deck, saying to himself: “Well, the air’s all right if it is a bit champagney; rich in oxygen, I suppose, with perhaps a trace of nitrous-oxide in it. Still, it’s certainly breathable, and that’s the principal thing.”

It’s all right, dear,” he said as he reached the upper deck where Zaidie was walking about round the sides of the glass dome gazing with all her eyes at the strange scene of mingled cloud and sea and land which spread for an immense distance on all sides of them. “I have breathed the air of Mars, and even at this height it is distinctly wholesome, though of course it’s rather thin, and I had it mixed with some of our own atmosphere. Still I think it will agree all right with us lower down.”

Well, then,” said Zaidie, “suppose we get below those clouds and see what there really is to be seen.”

As there’s a fairly big problem to be solved shortly I’ll see to the descent myself,” he replied, going towards the stairway.

In a couple of minutes she saw the cloud-belt below them rising rapidly. When Redgrave returned the Astronef was plunging into a sea of rosy mist.

The clouds of Mars!” she exclaimed. “Fancy a world with pink clouds! I wonder what there is on the other side.”

The next moment they saw. Just below them at a distance of about five earth-miles lay an irregularly triangular island, a detached portion of the Continent of Huygens almost equally divided by the Martian Equator, and lying with another almost similarly shaped island between the fortieth and the fiftieth meridians of west longitude. The two islands were divided by a broad, straight stretch of water about the width of the English Channel between Folkestone and Boulogne. Instead of the bright blue-green of terrestrial seas, this connecting link between the great Northern and Southern Martian oceans had an orange tinge.

The land immediately beneath them was of a gently undulating character, something like the Downs of South-Eastern England. No mountains were visible in any direction. The lower portions, particularly along the borders of the canals and the sea, were thickly dotted with towns and cities, apparently of enormous extent. To the north of the Island Continent there was a peninsula, which was covered with a vast collection of buildings, which, with the broad streets and spacious squares which divided them, must have covered an area of something like two hundred square miles.

There’s the London of Mars!” said Redgrave, pointing down towards it; “where the London of Earth will be in a few thousand years, close to the Equator. And, you see, all those other towns and cities are crowded round the canals! I daresay when we go across the northern and southern temperate zones we shall find them in about the state that Siberia or Antarctica are in.”

I daresay we shall,” replied Zaidie; “Martian civilisation is crowding towards the Equator, though I should call that place down there the greater New York of Mars, and—see—there’s Brooklyn just across the canal. I wonder what they’re thinking about us down there.”

Phobos revolves from west to east almost along the plane of its primary’s equator. To left and right they saw the huge ice-caps of the South and North Poles gleaming through the red atmosphere with a pale sunset glimmer. Then came the great stretches of sea, often obscured by vast banks of clouds, which, as the sunlight fell upon them, looked strangely like earth-clouds at sunset.

Then, almost immediately underneath them, spread out the great land areas of the equatorial region. The four continents of Halle, Galileo, and Tycholand; then Huygens—which is to Mars what Europe, Asia, and Africa are to the Earth, then Herschell and Copernicus. Nearly all of these land masses were split up into semi-regular divisions by the famous canals which have so long puzzled terrestrial observers.

Well, there is one problem solved at any rate,” said Redgrave, when, after a journey of nearly four hours, they had crossed the western hemisphere. “Mars is getting very old, her seas are diminishing, and her continents are increasing. Those canals are the remains of gulfs and straits which have been widened and deepened and lengthened by human, or I should say Martian, labour, partly, I’ve no doubt, for purposes of navigation and partly to keep the inhabitants of the interior of the continents within measurable distance of the sea. There’s not the slightest doubt about that. Then, you see, there are scarcely any mountains to speak of so far, only ranges of low hills.”

And that means, I suppose,” said Zaidie, “that they’ve all been worn down as the mountains of the earth are being. I was reading Flammarion’s ‘End of the World’ last night, and he, you know, describes the earth at the last as just one big plain of land, no hills or mountains, no seas, and only sluggish rivers draining into marshes.

I suppose that is what they’re coming to down yonder. Now, I wonder what sort of civilisation we shall find. Perhaps we shan’t find any at all. Suppose all their civilisations have worn out and they are degenerating into the same struggle for sheer existence those poor creatures in the moon must have had.”

Or suppose,” said Redgrave rather seriously, “we find that they have passed the zenith of civilisation, and are dropping back into savagery, but still have the use of weapons and means of destruction which we, perhaps, have no notion of, and are inclined to use them? We’d better be careful, dear.”

What do you mean, Lenox?” she said. “They wouldn’t try to do us any harm, would they? Why should they?”

I don’t say they would,” he replied; “but still you never know. You see, their ideas of right and wrong and hospitality and all that sort of thing may be quite different to what we have on the earth. In fact, they may not be men at all, but just a sort of monster with perhaps a superhuman intellect with all sorts of extra-human ideas in it.

Then there’s another thing,” he went on. “Suppose they fancied a trip through Space, and thought that they had as good a right to the Astronef as we have? I daresay they’ve seen us by this time if they’ve got telescopes, as no doubt they have, perhaps a good deal more powerful than ours, and they may be getting ready to receive us now. I think I’ll get the guns in place before we go down, in case their moral ideas, as dear old Hans Breitmann called them, are not quite the same as ours.”