Like pitiless jaws, a distant crater opened for their ship.
Helplessly, they hurtled toward it: helplessly, because they were still in the nothingness of space, with no atmospheric resistance on which their rudders, or stern or bow tubes, could get a purchase to steer them.
Professor Dorn Wichter waited anxiously for the slight vibration that should announce that the projectile-shaped shell had entered the new planet’s atmosphere.
“Have we struck it yet?” asked Joyce, a tall blond young man with the shoulders of an athlete and the broad brow and square chin of one who combines dreams with action. He made his way painfully toward Wichter. It was the first time he had attempted to move since the shell had passed the neutral point--that belt midway between the moon and the world behind it, where the pull of gravity of each satellite was neutralized by the other. They, and all the loose objects in the shell, had floated uncomfortably about the middle of the chamber for half an hour or so, gradually settling down again; until now it was possible, with care, to walk.
“Have we struck it?” he repeated, leaning over the professor’s shoulder and staring at the resistance gauge.
“No.” Absently Wichter took off his spectacles and polished them.
“There’s not a trace of resistance yet.”
They gazed out the bow window toward the vast disc, like a serrated, pock-marked plate of blue ice, that was the planet Zeud--discovered and named by them. The same thought was in the mind of each. Suppose there were no atmosphere surrounding Zeud to cushion their descent into the hundred-mile crater that yawned to receive them?
“Well,” said Joyce after a time, “we’re taking no more of a chance here than we did when we pointed our nose toward the moon. We were almost sure that was no atmosphere there--which meant we’d nose dive into the rocks at five thousand miles an hour. On Zeud there might be anything.” His eyes shone. “How wonderful that there should be such a planet, unsuspected during all the centuries men have been studying the heavens!”
Wichter nodded agreement. It was indeed wonderful. But what was more wonderful was its present discovery: for that would never have transpired had not he and Joyce succeeded in their attempt to fly to the moon. From there, after following the sun in its slow journey around to the lost side of the lunar globe--that face which the earth has never yet observed--they had seen shining in the near distance the great ball which they had christened Zeud.
Astronomical calculations had soon described the mysterious hidden satellite. It was almost a twin to the moon; a very little smaller, and less than eighty thousand miles away. Its rotation was nearly similar, which made its days not quite sixteen of our earthly days. It was of approximately the weight, per cubic mile, of Earth. And there it whirled, directly in a line with the earth and the moon, moving as the moon moved so that it was ever out of sight beyond it, as a dime would be out of sight if placed in a direct line behind a penny.
Zeud, the new satellite, the world beyond the moon! In their excitement at its discovery, Joyce and Wichter had left the moon--which they had found to be as dead and cold as it had been surmised to be--and returned summarily to Earth. They had replenished their supplies and their oxygen tanks, and had come back--to circle around the moon and point the sharp prow of the shell toward Zeud. The gift of the moon to Earth was a dubious one; but the gift of a possibly living planet-colony to mankind might be the solution of the overcrowded conditions of the terrestial sphere!
“Speed, three thousand miles an hour,” computed Wichter. “Distance to Zeud, nine hundred and eighty miles. If we don’t strike a few atoms of hydrogen or something soon we’re going to drill this nearest crater a little deeper!”
Joyce nodded grimly. At two thousand miles from Earth there had still been enough hydrogen traces in the ether to give purchase to the explosions of their water-motor. At six hundred miles from the moon they had run into a sparse gaseous belt that had enabled them to change direction and slow their speed. They had hoped to find hydrogen at a thousand or twelve hundred miles from Zeud.
“Eight hundred and thirty miles,” commented Wichter, his slender, bent body tensed. “Eight hundred miles--ah!”
A thrumming sound came to their ears as the shell quivered, imperceptibly almost, but unmistakeably, at the touch of some faint resistance outside in space.
“We’ve struck it, Joyce. And it’s much denser than the moon’s, even as we’d hoped. There’ll be life on Zeud, my boy, unless I’m vastly mistaken. You’d better look to the motor now.”
Joyce went to the water-motor. This was a curious, but extremely simple affair. There was a glass box, ribbed with polished steel, about the size and shape of a cigar box, which was full of water.
Leading away from this, to the bow and stern of the shell, were two small pipes. The pipes were greatly thickened for a period of three feet or so, directly under the little tank, and were braced by bed-plates so heavy as to look all out of proportion. Around the thickened parts of the pipes were coils of heavy, insulated copper wire. There were no valves nor cylinders, no revolving parts: that was all there was to the “motor.”
Joyce didn’t yet understand the device. The water dripped from the tank, drop by drop, to be abruptly disintegrated, made into an explosive, by being subjected to a powerful magnetic field induced in the coils by a generator in the bow of the shell. As each drop of water passed into the pipes, and was instantaneously broken up, there was a violent but controlled explosion--and the shell was kicked another hundred miles ahead on its journey. That was all Joyce knew about it.
He threw the bow switch. There was a soft shock as the motor exhausted through the forward tube, slowing their speed.
“Turn on the outside generator propellers,” ordered Wichter. “I think our batteries are getting low.”
Joyce slipped the tiny, slim-bladed propellers into gear. They began to turn, slowly at first in the almost non-existent atmosphere.
“Four hundred miles,” announced Wichter. “How’s the temperature?”
Joyce stepped to the thermometer that registered the heat of the outer wall. “Nine hundred degrees,” he said.
“Cut down to a thousand miles an hour,” commanded Wichter. “Five hundred as soon as the motor will catch that much. I’ll keep our course straight toward this crater. It’s in wells like that, that we’ll find livable air--if we’re right in believing there is such a thing on Zeud.”
Joyce glanced at the thermometer. It still registered hundreds of degrees, though their speed had been materially reduced.
“I guess there’s livable air, all right,” he said. “It’s pretty thick outside already.”
The professor smiled. “Another theory vindicated. I was sure that Zeud, swinging on the outside of the Earth-moon-Zeud chain and hence traveling at a faster rate, would pick up most of the moon’s atmosphere over a period of millions of years. Also it must have been shielded by the moon, to some extent, against the constant small atmospheric leakage most celestial globes are subject to. Just the same, when we land, we’ll test conditions with a rat or two.”
At a signal from him, Joyce checked their speed to four hundred miles an hour, then to two hundred, and then, as they descended below the highest rim of the circular cliffs of the crater, almost to a full stop. They floated toward the surface of Zeud, watching with breathless interest the panorama that unfolded beneath them.
They were nosing toward a spot that was being favored with the Zeudian sunrise. Sharp and clear the light rays slanted down, illuminating about half the crater’s floor and leaving the cliff protected half in dim shadow.
The illuminated part of the giant pit was as bizarre as the landscape of a nightmare. There were purplish trees, immense beyond belief.
There were broad, smooth pools of inky black fluid that was oily and troubled in spots as though disturbed by some moving things under the surface. There were bare, rocky patches where the stones, the long drippings of ancient lava flow, were spread like bleaching gray skeletons of monsters. And over all, rising from pools and bare ground and jungle alike, was a thin, miasmic mist.
Sustained by the slow, steady exhaust of the motor, rising a little with each partly muffled explosion and sinking a little further in each interval, they settled toward a bare, lava strewn spot that appealed to Wichter as being a good landing place. With a last hiss, and a grinding jar, they grounded. Joyce opened the switch to cut off the generator.
“Now let’s see what the air’s like,” said Wichter, lifting down a small cage in which was penned an active rat.
He opened a double panel in the shell’s hull, and freed the little animal. In an agony of suspense they watched it as it leaped onto the bare lava and halted a moment...
“Seems to like it,” said Joyce, drawing a great breath.
The rat, as though intoxicated by its sudden freedom, raced away out of sight, covering eight or ten feet at a bound, its legs scurrying ludicrously in empty air during its short flights.
“That means that we can dispense with oxygen helmets--and that we’d better take our guns,” said Wichter, his voice tense, his eyes snapping behind his glasses.
He stepped to the gun rack. In this were half a dozen air-guns. Long and of very small bore, they discharged a tiny steel shell in which was a liquid of his invention that, about a second after the heat of its forced passage through the rifle barrel, expanded instantly in gaseous form to millions of times its liquid bulk. It was the most powerful explosive yet found, but one that was beautifully safe to carry inasmuch as it could be exploded only by heat.
“Are we ready?” he said, handing a gun to Joyce. “Then--let’s go!”
But for a breath or two they hesitated before opening the heavy double door in the side of the hull, savoring to the full the immensity of the moment.
The rapture of the explorer who is the first to set foot on a vast new continent was theirs, magnified a hundredfold. For they were the first to set foot on a vast new planet! An entire new world, containing heaven alone knew what forms of life, what monstrous or infinitesimal creatures, lay before them. Even the profound awe they had experienced when landing on the moon was dwarfed by the solemnity of this occasion; just as it is less soul stirring to discover an arctic continent which is perpetually cased in barren ice, than to discover a continent which is warmly fruitful and, probably, teeming with life.
Still wordless, too stirred to speak, they opened the vault-like door and stepped out--into a humid heat which was like that of their own tropical regions, but not so unendurable.
In their short stay on the moon, during which they had taken several walks in their insulated suits, they had become somewhat accustomed to the decreased weight of their bodies due to the lesser gravity, so that here, where their weight was even less, they did not make any blunders of stepping twenty feet instead of a yard.
Walking warily, glancing alertly in all directions to guard against any strange animals that might rush out to destroy them, they moved toward the nearest stretch of jungle.
The first thing that arrested their attention was the size of the trees they were approaching. They had got some idea of their hugeness from the shell, but viewed from ground level they loomed even larger.
Eight hundred, a thousand feet they reared their mighty tops, with trunks hundreds of feet in circumference; living pyramids whose bases wove together to make an impenetrable ceiling over the jungle floor.
The leaves were thick and bloated like cactus growths, and their color was a pronounced lavender.
“We must take back several of those leaves,” said Wichter, his scientific soul filled with cold excitement.
“I wish we could take back some of this air, too.” Joyce filled his lungs to capacity. “Isn’t it great? Like wine! It almost counteracts the effects of the heat.”
“There’s more oxygen in it than in our own,” surmised Wichter. “My God! What’s that!”
They halted for an instant. From the depths of the lavender jungle had come an ear shattering, screaming hiss, as though some monstrous serpent were in its death agony.
They waited to hear if the noise would be repeated. It wasn’t.
Dubiously they started on again.
“We’d better not go in there too far,” said Joyce. “If we didn’t come out again it would cost Earth a new planet. No one else knows the secret of your water-motor.”
“Oh, nothing living can stand against these guns of ours,” replied Wichter confidently. “And that noise might not have been caused by anything living. It might have been steam escaping from some volcanic crevice.”
They started cautiously down a well defined, hard packed trail through thorny lavender underbrush. As they went, Joyce blazed marks on various tree trunks marking the direction back to the shell. The tough fibres exuded a bluish liquid from the cuts that bubbled slowly like blood.
To the right and left of them were cup-shaped bushes that looked like traps; and that their looks were not deceiving was proved by a muffled, bleating cry that rose from the compressed leaves of one of them they passed. Sluggish, blind crawling things like three-foot slugs flowed across their path and among the tree trunks, leaving viscous trails of slime behind them. And there were larger things...
“Careful,” said Wichter suddenly, coming to a halt and peering into the gloom at their right.
“What did you see?” whispered Joyce.
Wichter shook his head. The gigantic, two-legged, purplish figure he had dimly made out in the steamy dark, had moved away. “I don’t know.
It looked a little like a giant ape.”
They halted and took stock of their situation, mechanically wiping perspiration from their streaming faces, and pondering as to whether or not they should turn back. Joyce, who was far from being a coward, thought they should.
“In this undergrowth,” he pointed out, “we might be rushed before we could even fire our guns. And we’re nearly a mile from the shell.”
But Wichter was like an eager child.
“We’ll press on just a little,” he urged. “To that clear spot in front of us.” He pointed along the trail to where sunlight was blazing down through an opening in the trees. “As soon as we see what’s there, we’ll go back.”
With a shrug, Joyce followed the eager little man down the weird trail under the lavender trees. In a few moments they had reached the clearing which was Wichter’s goal. They halted on its edge, gazing at it with awe and repulsion.
It was a circular quagmire of festering black mud about a hundred yards across. Near at hand they could see the mud heaving, very slowly, as though abysmal forms of life were tunneling along just under the surface. They glanced toward the center of the bog, which was occupied by one of the smooth black pools, and cried aloud at what they saw.
At the brink of the pool was lying a gigantic creature like a great, thick snake--a snake with a lizard’s head, and a series of many-jointed, scaled legs running down its powerful length. Its mouth was gaping open to reveal hundreds of needle-sharp, backward pointing teeth. Its legs and thick, stubbed tail were threshing feebly in the mud as though it were in distress; and its eyes, so small as to be invisible in its repulsive head, were glazed and dull.
“Was that what we heard back a ways?” wondered Joyce.
“Probably,” said Wichter. His eyes shone as he gazed at the nightmare shape. Impulsively he took a step toward the stirring mud.
“Don’t be entirely insane,” snapped Joyce, catching his arm.
“I must see it closer,” said Wichter, tugging to be free.
“Then we’ll climb a tree and look down on it. We’ll probably be safer up off the ground anyway.”
They ascended the nearest jungle giant--whose rubbery bark was so ringed and scored as to be as easy to climb as a staircase--to the first great bough, about fifty feet from the ground, and edged out till they hung over the rim of the quagmire. From there, with the aid of their binoculars, they expected to see the dying monster in every detail. But when they looked toward the pool it was not in sight!
“Were we seeing things?” exclaimed Wichter, rubbing his glasses. “I’d have sworn it was lying there!”
“It was,” said Joyce grimly. “Look at the pool. That’ll tell you where it went.”
The black, secretive surface was bubbling and waving as though, down in its depths, a terrific fight were taking place.
“Something came up and dragged our ten-legged lizard down to its den.
Then that something’s brothers got onto the fact that a feast was being held, and rushed in. That pool would be no place for a before-breakfast dip!”
Wichter started to say something in reply, then gazed, hypnotized, at the opposite wall of the jungle.
From the dense screen of lavender foliage stretched a glistening, scale-armored neck, as thick as a man’s body at its thinnest point, which was just behind a tremendous-jawed crocodilian head. It tapered back for a distance of at least thirty feet, to merge into a body as big as that of a terrestial whale, that was supported by four squat, ponderous legs.
Moving with surprising rapidity, the enormous thing slid into the mud and began ploughing a way, belly deep, toward the pool. Shapeless, slow-writhing forms were cast up in its wake, to quiver for a moment in the sunlight and then melt below the mud again.
One of the bloated, formless mud-crawlers was snapped up in the huge jaws with an abrupt plunge of the long neck, and the monster began to feed, hog-like, slobbering over the loathsome carcass.
Wichter shook his head, half in fanatical eagerness, half in despair.
“I’d like to stay and see more,” he said with a sigh, “but if that’s the kind of creatures we’re apt to encounter in the Zeudian jungle, we’d better be going at once--”
“Sh-h!” snapped Joyce. Then, in a barely audible whisper: “I think the thing heard your voice!”
The monster had abruptly ceased its feeding. Its head, thrust high in the air, was waving inquisitively from side to side. Suddenly it expelled the air from its vast lungs in a roaring cough--and started directly for their tree.
“Shoot!” cried Wichter, raising his gun.
Moving with the speed of an express train, the monster had almost got to their overhanging branch before they could pull the triggers. Both shells imbedded themselves in the enormous chest, just as the long neck reached up for them. And at once things began to happen with cataclysmic rapidity.
Almost with their impact the shells exploded. The monster stopped, with a great hole torn in its body. Then, dying on its feet, it thrust its great head up and its huge jaws crunched over the branch to which its two puny destroyers were clinging.
With all its dozens of tons of weight, it jerked in a gargantuan death agony. The tree, enormous as it was, shook with it, and the branch itself was tossed as though in a hurricane.
There was a splintering sound. Wichter and Joyce dropped their guns to cling more tightly to the bole of the drooping branch that was their only security. The guns glanced off the mountainous body--and, with a last convulsion of the mighty legs, were swept underneath!
The monster was still at last, its insensate jaws yet gripping the bough. The two men looked at each other in speechless consternation.
The shell a mile off through the dreadful jungle ... Themselves, helpless without their guns...
“Well,” said Joyce at last. “I guess we’d better be on our way.
Waiting here, thinking it over, won’t help any. Lucky there’s no night, for a couple of weeks at least, to come stealing down on us.”
He started down the great trunk, with Wichter following close behind.
Walking as rapidly as they could, they hurried back along the tunneled trail toward their shell.
They hadn’t covered a hundred yards when they heard a mighty crashing of underbrush behind them. Glancing back, they saw tooth-studded jaws gaping cavernously at the end of a thirty-foot neck--little, dead-looking eyes glaring at them--a hundred-foot body smashing its way over the trap-bushes and through tangles of vines and down-drooping branches.
“The mate to the thing we killed back there!” Joyce panted. “Run, for God’s sake!”
Wichter needed no urging. He hadn’t an ounce of fear in his spare, small body. But he had an overwhelming desire to get back to Earth and deliver his message. He was trembling as he raced after Joyce, thirty feet to a bound, ducking his head to avoid hitting the thick lavender foliage that roofed the trail.
“One of us must get through!” he panted over and over. “One of us must make it!”
It was speedily apparent that they could never outrun their pursuer.
The reaching jaws were only a few yards behind them now.
“You go,” called Joyce, sobbing for breath. He slowed his pace deliberately.
“No--you--” Wichter slowed too. In a frenzy, Joyce shoved him along the trail.
“I tell you--”
He got no further. In front of them, where there had appeared to be solid ground, they suddenly saw a yawning pit. Desperately, they tried to veer aside, but they were too close. Their last long birdlike leap carried them over the edge. They fell, far down, into a deep chasm, splashing into a shallow pool of water.
A few clods of earth cascaded after them as the monster above dug its great splay feet into the ground and checked its rush in time to keep from falling after them. Then the top of the pit slowly darkened as a covering of some sort slid across it. They were in a prison as profoundly quiet and utterly black as a tomb.
“Dorn,” shouted Joyce. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” came a voice in the near darkness. “And you?”
“I’m still in one piece as far as I can feel.” There was a splashing noise. He waded toward it and in a moment his outstretched hand touched the professor’s shoulder.
“This is a fine mess,” he observed shakily. “We got away from those tooth-lined jaws, all right, but I’m wondering if we’re much better off than we would have been if we hadn’t escaped.”
“I’m wondering the same thing.” Wichter’s voice was strained. “Did you see the way the top of the pit closed above us? That means we’re in a trap. And a most ingenious trap it is, too! The roof of it is camouflaged until it looks exactly like the rest of the trail floor.
The water in here is just shallow enough to let large animals break their necks when they fall in and just deep enough to preserve small animals--like ourselves--alive. We’re in the hands of some sort of reasoning, intelligent beings, Joyce!”
“In that case,” said Joyce with a shudder, “we’d better do our best to get out of here!”
But this was found to be impossible. They couldn’t climb up out of the pit, and nowhere could they feel any openings in the walls. Only smooth, impenetrable stone met their questing fingers.
“It looks as though we’re in to stay,” said Joyce finally. “At least until our Zeudian hosts, whatever kind of creatures they may be, come and take us out. What’ll we do then? Sail in and die fighting? Or go peaceably along with them--assuming we aren’t killed at once--on the chance that we can make a break later?”
“I’d advise the latter,” answered Wichter. “There is a small animal on our own planet whose example might be a good one for us to follow.
That’s the ‘possum.” He stopped abruptly, and gripped Joyce’s arm.