“Now that’s a mighty queer noise.” Jerry Foster told himself. He dropped the pack from his shoulders and leaned closer to the canyon rim.
Miles behind him was the last beaten trail: Jerry wanted peace and solitude and quiet. And now the quiet of the silent mountains was disturbed.
From far below came a steady, muffled roar. Faint it was, and distant, but peculiar in its unvarying, unceasing rush.
“Not water,” Jerry concluded; “not enough down there. Sounds like--like a wind--like a wind that can’t quit.
“Oh well--” He shrugged his shoulders and slipped into the straps of his pack. Then he went back again to the granite ledge. “I wonder if there’s a way down,” he said.
There was, but it took all of Jerry’s strength to see him safely through. On a fan-shaped talus of spreading boulders he stopped. There was a limestone wall beyond. And at its base, from a crevice that was almost a cave, came a furious rush of air and steam.
It touched him lightly a hundred feet away, and he threw himself flat to escape the hot blast. Endlessly it came, with its soft, rushing roar, a ceaseless, scorching blast from the cold rocks.
“That’s almighty funny,” mused Foster, and sniffed the air. There was no odor.
“And is it hot!” he said. “Nothing like that in my geology book. And what is beyond? Looks like concrete work, as if someone had plastered up the cave.” He picked his way quickly across the rock slope.
It was hard going. Below him the rocks and dirt went steep to the canyon floor. At its foot the blast swept diagonally over the slope.
He must see what lay beyond...
“Curious,” he thought; “curious if that is nature’s work--and a lot more so if it isn’t.”
A rock rolled beneath his feet. Another! He scrambled and fought desperately for foothold in the slipping earth. Then, rolling and clawing, he rode helpless on the slide straight toward the mysterious blast. He felt it envelop him, hot and strangling. His lungs were dry and burning ... the blazing sun faded from the rocks ... the world was dark...
Darkness was still about him when he awoke. But it was cool; the air was sweet on his lips. And it was not entirely dark.
He turned his head. He was in a room. On a rough-hewn table a candle was burning. Its light cast flickering shadows on walls of stone.
Rumbling in his ears was the sound of the blast that had overwhelmed him. It echoed, seemingly, from far back in the stone cliff.
Jerry made a move to sit up. He found that his hands and feet were tied, his body bound to the rough board bed.
At the sound of his stirring, a figure came out from the farther shadow. It was that of a man. Jerry looked at him in silence. He was tall, his thin erectness making him seem abnormal in the low room. The lean face was unshaven, and from under a thatch of black hair a pair of deep-set eyes stared penetratingly at the figure on the rude bed.
“Well,” asked Jerry, at length, “what’s the big idea?”
There was no reply. Only the intent, staring eyes.
“You got me out of that man-trap of yours,” Jerry continued. “You saved my life.”
The tall man finally spoke. “Yes, I saved your life. You missed the hottest part of the exhaust. I pumped you full of oxygen.”
“Then why tie me up like this?” Jerry Foster was frankly puzzled.
“You are lucky to be alive. Spies are not always allowed--” He interrupted himself abruptly. “You are a reporter,” he stated.
“Wrong,” said Jerry Foster.
“Who sent you?”
“Nobody sent me. I heard the noise of your infernal blast-furnace and came down to have a look.”
“Who sent you?” repeated the man. “Goodwin? The Stillwater crowd? Who was it?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” protested Jerry. “I don’t know who your Goodwin or Stillwater people are. I don’t know who you are--I don’t give a damn. Take these ropes off and cut out the melodrama. I’ll go on my way, and I don’t care if I never see you again.”
“That’s a lie.” The tall figure leaned over to shake a bony fist.
“You’d report to Goodwin. He stole my last invention. He’ll not get this.”
Jerry considered the wild figure carefully. “He’s a nut,” he thought.
When he spoke, his voice was controlled.
“Now, see here,” he said: “I don’t know anything about this. I’m Jerry Foster, live in San Francisco--”
“So does Goodwin.”
“Confound you and your Goodwin! So do a million other people live there! I’m getting away from there; I’m heading into the hills for a short vacation. All I want is to get away from the world. I’m looking for a little peace and quiet.”
The thin man interrupted with a harsh laugh.
“Come here spying,” he said, “and tell me you want to get away from the world.” Again he laughed shrilly.
“And I am going to be your little fairy godmother. I wish you were Goodwin himself! I wish I had him here. But you’ll get your wish--you’ll get your wish. You’ll leave the world, you shall, indeed.”
He rocked back and forth with appreciation of his humor.
“Didn’t know I was all ready to leave, did you? All packed and ready to go. Supplies all stowed away; enough energy stored to carry me millions of miles. Or maybe you did know--maybe there are others coming...” He hurried across the room to open a heavy door of split logs in the rock wall.
“I’ll fool them all this time,” he said; “and you’ll never go back to tell them.” The door closed behind him.
“Crazy as a bed-bug,” Jerry told himself. He strained frantically at the ropes that bound him. “Looks bad for me: the old bird said I’d never go back. Well, what if I die now ... or six months from now?
Though I know that doctor was wrong.”
He tried to accept his fate philosophically, but the will to live was strong. And one of his wrists felt looser in its bonds.
Across the room his pack lay on the floor, and in it was a heavy forty-five. If he could get the pistol ... A knot pulled loose under his twisting fingers. One hand was free. He worked feverishly at the other wrist.
The ropes were suddenly loose. He pulled himself to his feet, took a moment to regain control of cramped muscles, then flung himself at the pack. When the heavy door opened he was behind it, his pistol in his hand.
There was no struggle: the lanky figure showed no maniacal fury.
Instead, the man did a surprising thing. He sank weakly upon the rough bunk where Jerry had lain, his face buried in his thin hands.
“I should have let you die,” he said slowly, hopelessly. “I should have let you die. But I couldn’t do that ... And now you’ll steal my invention for Goodwin.”
Jerry was as exasperated as he was amazed.
“I told you,” he almost shouted. “I never knew anyone named Goodwin! I don’t care a hoot about your invention. And as for letting me die--why didn’t you? That’s a puzzle: you were about to kill me, anyway.”
“No,” said the other patiently. “I wasn’t going to kill you.”
“You said I’d never go back.”
“I was going to take you with me.”
“Take me where?”
“To the moon,” said the drooping figure.
Jerry Foster stared, open-mouthed. The pistol lagged in his limp hand.
“To the moon!” he gasped.
Then: “See here,” he said firmly. “I’ve got you where I want you.”--he held the pistol steady--”and now I’m going to learn what’s back of this. I think you are crazy, absolutely crazy. But, tell me, who are you? What do you think you’re doing? What was the meaning of that roaring blast?”
The man looked up. “You don’t know?” he asked eagerly. “You really don’t?”
“No,” said Jerry; “but I’m going to find out.”
“Yes,” the other agreed. “Yes, you can, now that you’ve got the upper-hand. I guess I was half crazy when I thought I had been spied out. But I’ll tell you.”
He sat erect. “I am Thomas J. Winslow,” he said, and made the statement as if it were an explanation in itself.
“Well,” said Jerry, “that’s no burst of illumination to my ignorance.
The man called Winslow was ready--anxious--to talk.
“I am an inventor. I have made millions of dollars”--Jerry looked at the disheveled apparel of the speaker and smiled--”for other people.
The Stillwater syndicate stole my valveless motor. Then I developed my television set. Goodwin beat me out of that: he will have it on the market inside of a year. I swore they should never profit by this, my greatest invention.”
Jerry was impressed in spite of himself by the man’s earnest simplicity.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’ve broken the atom,” said Winslow. “First tore the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen apart--dissociated them in the molecule of water--and have resolved them into their energy components. That’s what you heard--the reaction. It it self-sustaining, exothermic. That hot blast carried off the heat of my retort.”
Winslow rose from the bunk. Gone was his listless despondency.
“Put up that gun,” he said: “you don’t need it now. I think we understand each other better than we did.” He crossed with quick strides to the door leading into the cliff.
“Come with me,” he told Foster. “I am leaving to-day. You will not stop me. But before I go I will show you something no other man than myself has ever seen.”
He led the way through the doorway. There was another room beyond, Jerry saw. It was a cave. Plainly Winslow had taken these caves in the rocks and had made of them a laboratory.
A lantern gave scant illumination: Jerry made out a small electric generator, and that was all. He felt a keen disappointment. Somehow this thin-faced man had communicated to him something of his own belief, his own earnestness.
“What kind of a laboratory do you call this?” he demanded. But the other was busy.
In the wall an opening had been closed with a small iron door, with cement around it. Winslow opened it and reached through. He was evidently adjusting something.
The little dynamo began to hum. There was a crackling hiss from beyond the iron doorway. The opening was flooded with a clear blue light.
Then the roar began. It was tremendous, deafening, in the echoing cave.
“You may look now,” said Winslow, and stood aside.
Jerry peered through. There was another cave beyond. In it was a small metal cylinder, a retort of some kind. The blue light came from a crooked bulb beyond. The retort itself was white-hot, despite a stream of water flowing upon it. A cloud of steam drove continuously out and up through a crevice in the rocks.
The water flowed steadily from some subterranean stream in the limestone formation. It was diverted for its cooling purposes, but a portion also flowed continuously into the retort. Jerry’s eyes found this, and he could see nothing else. For, before his eyes, the impossible was occurring.
The retort was small, a couple of feet in diameter. It had no discharge pipes, could hold but a few gallons. Yet into it, in a steady stream, flowed the icy water. Gallons, hundreds of gallons, flowing and flowing, endlessly, into a reservoir which could never hold it.
The inventor watched Foster with complacent satisfaction.
“Where does it go?” Jerry asked incredulously.
“Into nothingness,” was the reply. “Or nearly that!”
“See?” He held up a flask of pale green liquid. “And this,” he added, exhibiting another that was colorless.
“I have worked here for many months. I have converted thousands of thousands of gallons of water. It has flowed into that retort, never to return. I have gathered this, the product, a few drops at a time.
“The protons and the electrons,” he explained, “are re-formed. They are static now, unmoving. Call this what you will--energy or matter--they are one and the same.”
“Still,” said Jerry, gropingly, “what has all that to do with the moon? You said you were going there.”
“Yes,” agreed the inventor. I am going, and this is the driving force to carry me there. I pass a certain electric current through these two liquids. I carry the wires to two heavy electrodes. Between them resolution of matter occurs. The current carries these two components to again combine them and form what we call matter, the gases hydrogen and oxygen.
“Do I need to tell you of the constant, ceaseless and tremendous explosion that follows?
“But enough of this! You said I was crazy. I gave you a few bad hours.
I have shown you this much as a measure of recompense. You have seen what no other man has ever seen. It is enough.”
He motioned Foster through the door. The roaring ceased. The inventor returned shortly, the two flasks of liquid in his hands. He transferred both to two metal containers that were ready for the precious load. He carried them with the utmost care as he went out of doors.
Once he returned, and Jerry knew by the crashes from the inner room that the laboratory work was indeed done. There would be nothing left to tell the secret to whomever might come.
He followed Winslow outside, trailing him toward a wooded knoll. There was a clearing among the trees. And in it, hidden from all sides, his eyes found another curious sight.
On the ground rested a dirigible in miniature. Still, it was small, he reasoned, only by comparison with its monster prototype: actually it was a sizable cylinder of aluminum that shone brightly in the sun. It was bluntly rounded at the ends. There were heavy windows, open exhaust ports, a door in the side, pierced through thick walls.
Winslow vanished within, while Jerry watched in pitying wonder.
Despite its size, it was a toy, an absurd and pitiful toy. Real genius and lunacy had many an over-lapping line, Jerry reflected as he approached to look inside. But he found Winslow in a room surrounded by a network of curving, latticed struts. The machine was no makeshift of a demented builder: it was a beautiful bit of construction that Jerry Foster examined.
“How did you ever get it here?” he marveled. “What you had in the cave you could pack in, but this--all these parts--castings--cases of supplies--”
The inventor did not even turn. He was busy with some final adjustments.
“Flew it in,” he said shortly. “Built it in an old shop I owned out near Oakland.”
“And it flew?” Jerry was still incredulous.
“Certainly it flew! On a drop or less of the liquids you saw.” He pointed to a heavy casting at the center of the machine. There were braces tying it strongly to the entire structure, braces designed to receive and transmit a tremendous thrust.
“This is the generator. Blast expelled through the big exhaust at the stern. These smaller exhausts go above and below--right and left at the bow. Perfect control!”
“And you flew it here!” Jerry was still trying to grasp that incontrovertible fact. “And you were going to take me to the moon, you said.”
He looked above him where a pale, silvery segment showed dimly in the sky. “But why the moon?” he questioned. “Even granting that this will fly through space...”
“It will,” the other interrupted. “I tried it. Went up to better than fifty miles.”
Jerry Foster took a minute to grasp that statement, then continued:
“Granting that, why go to the moon? There is nothing there, no air to speak of, no water! It’s all known.”
The inventor turned to face the younger man in the doorway.
“There is nothing known,” he stated. “The modern telescopes reach out a million light years into space. But the one place they have never seen--can never see--is less than two hundred and fifty thousand miles away. The moon, as of course you know, always keeps the same side toward us. The other side of the moon has never been seen.
“Listen,” he said, and his deep-set eyes were afire with an intense emotion. “The moon is no tiny satellite; it is a sister planet. It is whirled on the end of a rope (we call it gravitation), swung around and around the earth. How could there be water or anything fluid on this side? It is all thrown to the other side by the centrifugal force. Who knows what life is there? No one--no one! I am going to find out.”
Jerry Foster was silent. He was thinking hard. He looked about him at the clean hills, the trees, the world he knew. And he was weighing the secure life he knew against a great adventure.
He took one long breath of the clear air as one who looks his last at a familiar scene. He exhaled slowly. But he stepped firmly into the machine.
“Winslow,” he said, “have you any rope handy?”
The inventor was annoyed. “Why, yes, I guess so. Why? What do you want of it?”
“I want you to tie me up again,” said Jerry Foster. “I want you to carry me off as you planned. I want to go with you.”
The tall man stared at the quiet, determined face before him. Slowly his own strained features smoothed into kindly lines. He grasped tight at Jerry’s hand.
“I was dreading that part of it,” he confessed slowly: “going alone.
It would have been lonely--out there...”
The shining cylinder of aluminum alloy was hurtling through space. No longer was it a ship of the air; it had thrown itself far beyond that thin gaseous envelope surrounding the earth; out into the black and empty depths that lay beyond. And in it were two men, each reacting in his own way to an adventure incredible. One was deep in the computation of astronomical data; the other athrill with a quivering, nerve-shaking joy that was almost breath-taking.
A metal grating that had formed the rear wall of their cabin was now the floor. Winslow had thrown the ship into a vertical climb that made of their machine a projectile shooting straight out from the earth.
Gravitation held them now to the grating floor. And, stronger even than the earth-pull, was the constant acceleration of motion that made their weight doubled again and again.
The inventor moved ponderously, with leaden limbs, to take sights from the windows above, to consult his maps of the sky, check and re-check his figures. But Jerry had eyes only for the earth they had left.
Flat on the grating he lay, his eyes over a thick glass in a proturbance of the shell that allowed him to stare and stare at what lay directly below. He watched the familiar things of earth vanish in fleecy clouds; through them there formed the great ball, where oceans and continents drew slowly into focus.
And now he was filled with a sense of great solitude. The world, in its old, familiar companionship, was gone--probably forever. The earth--his earth--his world--that place of vast distances on land and on sea, of lofty mountain ranges and heaving oceans, of cities, countries, continents--was become but a toy. A plaything from the nursery of some baby god, hanging so quiet in space he could almost reach and take it in his hands.
Beyond it the sun was blaring, a hard outlined disc in the black sky.
Its rays made shining brilliance of a polar ice-cap.
Jerry Foster closed his eyes and drew back from the glass. Again he was aware of the generator, whose endless roar reverberated in their compartment. A smaller but similar apparatus was operating on one of the liquids from the inventor’s laboratory to generate oxygen and release it inside the room. An escape valve had been set to maintain one atmosphere of pressure about them. Water dripped from a condenser where both gases were formed to burn into water vapor and cool to liquid form.
One of the windows below admitted a shaft of direct sunlight; it illumined their room with a faint glow. It would never cease, Jerry knew. They were in a place of eternal sunshine, yet a realm of an endless night. Above him, as Jerry raised his head, the windows framed nothing but utter blackness, save where some brilliant point marked the presence of a star. He missed the soft diffusion of light that makes daylight on earth. Here was only the one straight beam that entered one window to make a circle of light on the opposite wall.
Jerry looked from a window of heavy glass at the side. This had been the bottom of their ship when they left. And he found in the heavens the object of their quest. Clear-cut and golden was half the circle; the rest glowed faintly in the airless void. He tried to realize the bewildering fact--the moon, this great globe that he saw, was rushing, as were they, to their trysting-place in space.
Jerry stared until his eyes were aching. His mind refused to take hold upon the truth he knew was true. He was suddenly tired, heavy with weariness that was an aftermath of his emotional turmoil. He let his heavy body relax where some blankets had piled themselves upon the grated floor. The roar of the generator faded into far silence as he slipped into that strange spaceless realm that men call sleep.
The human mind is marvelous in its power of adjustment, its adaptability to the new and the strange. The unbelievable is so soon the commonplace. Jerry Foster was to sleep more than once in this tiny new world of Winslow’s creating, this diminutive meteor, inside which they lived and moved and thought and talked. The fact of their new existence soon ceased as a topic of wonder.
They alternated in their rest. And they counted the passage of time by the hours their watches marked, then divided these hours into days out there where there were no days. Seven of them had passed when the hour came that Winslow chose for checking their speed.
They were driving directly toward the moon, which was assuming proportions like those of earth. The pilot admitted a portion of the blast to a bow port, and the globe ahead of them gradually swung off.
The pilot was reversing their position in space to bring the powerful blast of their stern exhaust toward the moon, so as to resist somewhat its increasing pull.
Now their stern windows showed the approaching globe. It was slowly expanding. They were falling toward it. The inventor moved a rheostat, and from behind them the stern blast rose to a tremendous roar. The deceleration held them with unbearable weight to the rear of the cabin.
No thought now for the shining earth, yellow and brilliant in the velvet sky above. Jerry Foster watched through the slow hours as the globe beneath them enlarged and expanded in ever-increasing slowness.
Slowly their falling motion slackened as they cushioned against the terrific thrust of the exhaust below.
The globe ceased to grow and held constant. Winslow cut the exhaust to a gentler blast. They were definitely within the moon’s gravitational field; their last hold upon the earth was severed. The great globe was revolving beneath them.
“How about it?” Foster asked breathlessly. “It doesn’t revolve like that--not the moon!”
“We have approached from the earth side,” said the other, “but we have overshot it. Say that the moon is revolving, or say that we are swinging about it in an orbit of our own--it is all the same thing.”
“And soon,” he added slowly, “we shall see...” He faltered and his lips trembled and refused to frame the words of a dream that was coming true. “We shall see ... the lost side of the moon. What will it be ... what--will--it--be... ?”
To Foster the whole experience had now the unreality of a dream. He could not bring himself into mental focus. His thoughts were blurred, his emotions dead.
They were approaching the moon, he told himself. It was the moon that was there below them, slowly enlarging now, as their own earth had hung below them, but dwindling, when they left.
“The moon!” he told himself over and over. “The moon--it is real!” But the numbness in his brain would not be shaken off.
His voice, when he spoke, was casual. He might have been speaking of any commonplace--a ball-game, or a good show.
“The sun is coming from my right,” he said. “We are going around toward the dark side of the moon. Shall you land there?”
Winslow shook his head. “Wait,” he said, “and watch.”
Jerry returned to his circle of glass.
There was a shading of light on the surface below him. From the right the sun’s brilliance threw black shadows and bright beams transversely over a wilderness of volcanic waste. And beyond, where the rays could not reach, was a greater desolation of darkness, its blackness relieved only by a dim light. He realized with a start of amazement that the dim light he saw was that of their own earth far above: it was lighting their approach to this sister orb.
Their side-motion was swift as they drew nearer. Another hour and more, and they were drawing toward an expanse of utter darkness. The earth-light was fading where they passed. They were approaching, in very fact, the other side of the moon.
What was below? What mysteries awaited them? He shivered, despite the warmth of the generator, cherry-red, that heated the snug cabin; shivered with unformed thoughts of unknown terrors. But he forced his voice to calm steadiness when he repeated his question to Winslow.
“Must we land there?” he asked. “In the dark?”
The inventor was piloting his ship with ceaseless concentration. Their falling speed was checked; they were close enough so that the whistling of air was heard merging with the thunder of their exhaust.
He moved the rheostat under his hand, and the thunder slackened.
“No,” he said. “You are forgetting your astronomy. This ‘other side’ is subject to the same conditions as the near side. The sun shines on them alike, but alternately. We are rounding the limb away from the sun. We find, as you see, a darkness that is absolute except for the light of the stars. Here the earth never shines, and the sun only during the lunar day. But the sun is creeping down this other side.
Their day, equal to fifteen of our days, is beginning. We shall come into the light again. I am checking our motion across the surface. We shall land, when it seems best, later on. There will be light.”
The thin strong hands of the pilot played over the current and valve controls. Their ship slowly swung and dipped to a horizontal position.
A blast from below held them off from the moon. A bow port was roaring as their speed slowly decreased.
Minutes merged endlessly into long hours as Jerry’s eager eyes strained to detect some definite form on the surface beneath. Dimly a glow appeared far ahead; slowly the darkness faded. They were moving ahead, but their wild speed was checked. And slowly the new earth below took on outline and form as the sun’s glow crept over it.
What would the light disclose? His mind held irrationally to thoughts his reason would have condemned. He found himself watching for people, for houses, lights gleaming from windows. This, in a region of cold that approached the absolute zero. The reality came as a shock.
The first rays that crept into vision were silvery fingers of light.
They reflected up to the heights in glittering brilliance. They gathered and merged as the ship drove on toward the sunrise, and they showed to the watching eyes a wondrous, a marvelous world. A world that was snowbound, weighted and blanketed with a mantle of white.
To Jerry the truth came as a crushing, a horrible blow. He turned slowly to look at his companion; to look and be startled anew by the happiness depicted on the lean face.
“I knew it,” the pilot was saying. “I always knew it. But now--now...” He was speechless with joy.
“It’s terrible!” said Foster. He almost resented the other’s elation.
“It’s a hell! Just a frozen hell of desolation.”
“Man--man!” was the response, “can’t you see? Look! The whiteness we see is snow, a snow of carbon dioxide. The cold is beyond guessing.
But the clear places--the vast fields--it’s ice, man, it’s ice!”
“Horrible!” Jerry shuddered.
“Beautiful,” said the other. “Marvellous! Think, think what that means. It means water in the hot lunar day. It means vapor and clouds in the sky. It means that where that is there is air--life, perhaps.
God alone knows all that it means. And we, too, shall know...”
The ship settled slowly to the surface of the new world. Black blobs of shadow become distinct craters; volcanoes rose slowly to meet them, to drift aside and rise above as they sank to the floor of a valley.
They came to rest upon a rocky floor.
On all sides their windows showed a waste of torn and twisted rock.
Volcanic mountains towered to the heights, their sides streaked with masses of lava, frozen to stillness these countless years from its molten state. The rising sun, its movement imperceptible, cast long slanting rays between the peaks. It lighted a ghostly world, white with thick hoar-frost of solid carbon dioxide. A silent world, locked in the stillness of cold near the absolute zero. Not a breath of air stirred; no flurry of snow gave semblance of life to the scene. Their generator was stillen, and the silence, after the endless roaring of endless days, was overpowering.
But Winslow pointed exultantly from one window, where an icy expanse could be seen. “That will be water,” he said; “water, when the sun has risen.”
He turned on the generator for warmth. The cold was striking through the thick insulated walls. They sat silent, peering out upon that boundless desolation, upon a world’s breathless nakedness, exposed for the first time in all eternity to human eyes.
Jerry’s mind was searching for some means of expression, but the words would not come. There were neither words nor coherent thoughts to give vent to the emotions that surged within him.
Their watches showed the passage of nearly two earth days before they dared venture forth. They watched the white mantle of frost vanish into gas. From the darkness that they called “west,” winds rushed shriekingly into the sunrise.
“Convection currents,” Winslow explained; “off under the sun. In the direct rays the heat grows intense; the air rises. This is rushing in to fill the void. It will serve our ends, too. It will churn the air into a mixture we can breathe, dispel the thick layer of CO_2 that must have formed close to the ground.”
More hours, and the icy sheet was melting. A film of water rippled in the gusts of wind. Winslow opened the release valve that would permit the escape of air from their chamber, equalizing the pressures within and without. The air hissed through the valve, and he closed it so the escape was gradual.
“We must exercise,” he told Jerry. “We will decompress slowly, like divers coming up from deep-sea work. But watch yourself,” he warned.
“Remember you are six times as strong as you were on the earth. Don’t jump through the roof.”
THE valve had ceased to hiss when Winslow opened it wide. The air in their cabin was thin; their lungs labored heavily at first. Jerry felt as he had felt more than once at some great elevation on earth. But they lived, and they could breathe, and they were about to do what never man had done--to set foot on this place men called the unknown side of the moon.
Earth habits were strong: Jerry brought his pistol and a hunting knife out of his pack and hung them at his belt, as the inventor opened the door and sniffed cautiously of the air.
Jerry Foster’s blood was racing; the air was cold on his face as he rushed out. But it brought to his nostrils odors strange and yet strangely familiar. He was oddly light-headed, irresponsible as a child as he shouted and danced and threw himself high in the air, to laugh childishly at the pure pleasure of his light landing.
The sun made long shadows of two ludicrous figures that went leaping and racing across the rocks. Their strength was prodigious, and they were filled with an upwelling joy of living and the combined urge of an eternity of spring-times. The very air tingled with life; there was overpowering intoxication in this potent, exhilarating breath from a world new-born.
The ground that they crossed so recklessly was a vast honeycomb of caves. Between the rocks the soil was soft with the waters from melting ice, and the men laughed as they floundered at times in the oozing mud. Beyond was a lake, and it was blue with a depth of color that was almost black, a reflection of the deep, velvet blackness of the sky overhead. And beyond that was the sloping side of an extinct volcano.
“Up--up!” Jerry shouted. “From up there we will see the whole world--the whole moon!” He laughed as he repeated the exultant phrase:
“The moon--the whole moon!”
Despite their strength which carried them in wild bounds across impassable chasms, their laboring lungs checked them in the ascent.
The joyous inebriation was wearing off. Winslow met his companion’s eyes sheepishly as they stopped where a sheer cliff of basalt above caught and held the warmth of the sun’s rays. Behind them it rose a straight hundred feet, and before stretched a vast panorama. The sun was mounting now in the sky. It brought into strong relief the welter of volcanic waste that extended in bold detail through the clear air far out to the horizon, where, misty and dim, the first vaporous clouds were forming from the steaming earth.
And as they watched, the depressing bareness and emptiness of that gray-black expanse was changing. Far to the east a pink flush was spreading on the hills. It wavered and flowed, and it changed, as they watched, to deep areas of orange and red. The delicate pink swept in waves over valleys and hills, a vast kaleidoscopic coloration that rioted over a strange world.
In silence it spilled into the valley below. The slope they had traversed was radiant with color.
At their feet the ground was in motion: it heaved and rolled in countless places. Rounded shapes in myriads were emerging.
Plants--mushroom growths--poured up from the earth to drink in the sunshine of their brief summer. They burst the earth to show unfolding leaves or blunted, rounding heads, that grew before the men’s incredulous eyes.
Winslow was the first to recover from the stupefying beauty of the spectacle.
“The machine!” he gasped. “Back to the ship! We’ll be swamped, overwhelmed...” He rushed madly back down the slope.
Jerry was beside him, a revulsion of feeling driving him to frantic efforts. The piercing beauty that had enthralled him has become a thing of terror. The soft, pulpy, growing things that crushed beneath his feet were a menace in their lust for life.
They were a mile and more from the machine. Could they ever find it, Jerry wondered. The whole landscape was changed; bare rocks were half-hidden now under clinging, creeping vines. Only the sun remained as a guide. They must go toward the sun and a little north.
He followed Winslow, who was circling a huge area of weird growths that already were waist high. They leaped across a gaping chasm and fought their way over a low hill, rank with vegetation, only to be confronted by a maze of great stalks--stalks that sprouted as they watched, dismayed, and threw out grotesque and awkward branches.
They made one futile effort to force their way, but the trunks, though pliant, were unyielding. To attempt to find their way through the labyrinth was folly.
“We’ve got to keep on trying,” said Jerry Foster. “We’ve got to get back, or...”
Winslow, as the look in his eyes showed, needed no ending to that sentence. There was the summer of a lunar day ahead; the inventor did not need to be told of the scorching, broiling heat that would wither the land when the sun struck from straight overhead. And in their ship was food and water and a means of transport to the cooler heights above.
It was Jerry who took charge of the situation. Here was a prodigious laboratory in which Winslow’s science was useless, but in fighting with nature--even nature in as weird and terrifying a mood as this--Jerry felt himself not entirely incompetent.
He looked about him. It had been but an hour since they watched the first onslaught of this life that engulfed them. And now they were cut off. Through an opening, where bare rocks made a rift in the vegetation, he saw again the high ground where they had stood. There was more rock there on the volcanic slope: the growing things were in clumps--islands, rather than continents of rank growth.
“We must go back,” he told Winslow, “and climb while we can. Get to the high ground, take bearings on the place where we left the ship.
We’ll look over the ground and figure some way to get there.”
Winslow nodded. He was plainly bewildered, lost in the new jungle. He followed Jerry, who bounded across a crevice in the earth. The ground was rotten with the honeycomb of caves and cracks.
Jerry forced his way through and over a rock heap, where the thick trunks of nightmare trees were spaced farther apart. There was an opening ahead; he started forward, then stopped abruptly and motioned the other to silence.
From beyond there came sounds. There was rending of soft, pliant tissue. The sound came through the thin air from a grove up ahead, where big plants were waving, though the wind had long since ceased.
To their ears came a snoring, blubbering snuffle. A stone was dislodged, to come bounding toward them from the hillside; the soft plants were flattened before it. The men cowered in the shelter of a giant fungus.
Beyond the rocks, above the mottled reds and yellows of the grotesque trees, a head appeared. It waved at the end of a long, leathery neck.
All mouth, it seemed to the watchers, as they saw a pair of short forelegs pull the succulent tops of the giant growth into a capacious maw. Below, there was visible a part of a gigantic, grayish body. It was crashing down toward them, eating greedily as it came.
“Back,” said Jerry softly. “Go back to that cave. We will hide there in some crack in the ground.”
They picked their way noiselessly over the rocks. The cave they had crossed offered a refuge from the beast. It went slantingly down into the ground, a great tunnel, deep in the rock. They dropped into the opening and started forward, only to recoil at the fetid stench that assailed their nostrils.
“A bear pit,” gasped Jerry. “Great Heavens! What a smell!”
They stopped, dismayed. Far below them in the bowels of some subterranean passage was the crashing of loose stone; a scrambling and scratching of great claws came echoing to them. They leaped madly for the outer air.