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The doctor, who was easily the most musical of the four men, sang in a cheerful baritone:
"The owl and the pussy-cat went to sea In a beautiful, pea-green boat."
The geologist, who had held down the lower end of a quartet in his university days, growled an accompaniment under his breath as he blithely peeled the potatoes. Occasionally a high-pitched note or two came from the direction of the engineer; he could not spare much wind while clambering about the machinery, oil-can in hand. The architect, alone, ignored the famous tune.
"What I can't understand, Smith," he insisted, "is how you draw the electricity from the ether into this car without blasting us all to cinders."
The engineer squinted through an opal glass shutter into one of the tunnels, through which the anti-gravitation current was pouring. "If you didn't know any more about buildings than you do about machinery, Jackson," he grunted, because of his squatting position, "I'd hate to live in one of your houses!"
The architect smiled grimly. "You're living in one of 'em right now, Smith," said he; "that is, if you call this car a house."
Smith straightened up. He was an unimportant-looking man, of medium height and build, and bearing a mild, good-humored expression. Nobody would ever look at him twice, would ever guess that his skull concealed an unusually complete knowledge of electricity, mechanisms, and such practical matters.
"I told you yesterday, Jackson," he said, "that the air surrounding the earth is chock full of electricity. And—"
"And that the higher we go, the more juice," added the other, remembering. "As much as to say that it is the atmosphere, then, that protects the earth from the surrounding voltage."
The engineer nodded. "Occasionally it breaks through, anyhow, in the form of lightning. Now, in order to control that current, and prevent it from turning this machine, and us, into ashes, all we do is to pass the juice through a cylinder of highly compressed air, fixed in this wall. By varying the pressure and dampness within the cylinder, we can regulate the flow."
The builder nodded rapidly. "All right. But why doesn't the electricity affect the walls themselves? I thought they were made of steel."
The engineer glanced through the dead-light at the reddish disk of the Earth, hazy and indistinct at a distance of forty million miles. "It isn't steel; it's a non-magnetic alloy. Besides, there's a layer of crystalline sulphur between the alloy and the vacuum space."
"The vacuum is what keeps out the cold, isn't it?" Jackson knew, but he asked in order to learn more.
"Keeps out the sun's heat, too. The outer shell is pretty blamed hot on that side, just as hot as it is cold on the shady side." Smith seated himself beside a huge electrical machine, a rotary converter which he next indicated with a jerk of his thumb. "But you don't want to forget that the juice outside is no use to us, the way it is. We have to change it.
"It's neither positive nor negative; it's just neutral. So we separate it into two parts; and all we have to do, when we want to get away from the earth or any other magnetic-sphere, is to aim a bunch of positive current at the corresponding pole of the planet, or negative current at the other pole. Like poles repel, you know."
"Listens easy," commented Jackson. "Too easy."
"Well, it isn't exactly as simple as all that. Takes a lot of apparatus, all told," and the engineer looked about the room, his glance resting fondly on his beloved machinery.
The big room, fifty feet square, was almost filled with machines; some reached nearly to the ceiling, the same distance above. In fact, the interior of the "cube," as that form of sky-car was known, had very little waste space. The living quarters of the four men who occupied it had to be fitted in wherever there happened to be room. The architect's own berth was sandwiched in between two huge dynamos.
He was thinking hard. "I see now why you have such a lot of adjustments for those tunnels," meaning the six square tubes which opened into the ether through the six walls of the room. "You've got to point the juice pretty accurately."
"I should say so." Smith led the way to a window, and the two shaded their eyes from the lights within while they gazed at the ashy glow of Mercury, toward which they were traveling. "I've got to adjust the current so as to point exactly toward his northern half." Smith might have added that a continual stream of repelling current was still directed toward the earth, and another toward the sun, away over to their right; both to prevent being drawn off their course.
"And how fast are we going?"
"Four or five times as fast as mother earth: between eighty and ninety miles per second. It's easy to get up speed out here, of course, where there's no air resistance."
Another voice broke in. The geologist had finished his potatoes, and a savory smell was already issuing from the frying pan. Years spent in the wilderness had made the geologist a good cook, and doubly welcome as a member of the expedition.
"We ought to get there tomorrow, then," he said eagerly. Indoor life did not appeal to him, even under such exciting circumstances. He peered at Mercury through his binoculars. "Beginning to show up fine now."
The builder improved upon Van Emmon's example by setting up the car's biggest telescope, a four-inch tube of unusual excellence. All three pronounced the planet, which was three-fourths "full" as they viewed it, as having pretty much the appearance of the moon.
"Wonder why there's always been so much mystery about Mercury?" pondered the architect invitingly. "Looks as though the big five-foot telescope on Mt. Wilson would have shown everything."
"Ask doc," suggested Smith, diplomatically. Jackson turned and hailed the little man on the other side of the car. He looked up absently from the scientific apparatus with which he had been making a test of the room's chemically purified air, then he stepped to the oxygen tanks and closed the flow a trifle, referring to his figures in the severely exact manner of his craft. He crossed to the group.
"Mercury is so close to the sun," he answered the architect's question, "he's always been hard to observe. For a long time the astronomers couldn't even agree that he always keeps the same face toward the sun, like the moon toward the earth."
"Then his day is as long as his year?"
"Eighty-eight of our days; yes."
"Continual sunlight! He can't be inhabited, then?" The architect knew very little about the planets. He had been included in the party because, along with his professional knowledge, he possessed remarkable ability as an amateur antiquarian. He knew as much about the doings of the ancients as the average man knows of baseball.
Dr. Kinney shook his head. "Not at present, certainly."
Instantly Jackson was alert. "Then perhaps there were people there at one time!"
"Why not?" the doctor put it lightly. "There's little or no atmosphere there now, of course, but that's not saying there never has been. Even if he is such a little planet—less than three thousand, smaller than the moon—he must have had plenty of air and water at one time, the same as the Earth."
"What's become of the air?" Van Emmon wanted to know. Kinney eyed him in reproach. He said:
"You ought to know. Mercury has only two-fifths as much gravitation as the earth; a man weighing a hundred and fifty back home would be only a sixty-pounder there. And you can't expect stuff as light as air to stay forever on a planet with no more pull than that, when the sun is on the job only thirty-six millions miles away."
"About a third as far as from the Earth to the sun," commented the engineer. "By George, it must be hot!"
"On the sunlit side, yes," said Kinney. "On the dark side it is as cold as space itself—four hundred and sixty below, Fahrenheit."
They considered this in silence for some minutes. The builder went to another window and looked at Venus, at that time about sixty million miles distant, on the far side of the sun. They were intending to visit "Earth's twin sister" on their return. After a while he came back to the group, ready with another question:
"If Mercury ever was inhabited, then his day wasn't as long as it is now, was it?"
"No," said the doctor. "In all probability he once had a day the same length as ours. Mercury is a comparatively old planet, you know; being smaller, he cooled off earlier than the earth, and has been more affected by the pull of the sun. But it's been a mighty long time since he had a day like ours; before the earth was cool enough to live on, probably."
"But since Mercury was made out of the same batch of material—" prompted the geologist.
"No reason, then, why life shouldn't have existed there in the past!" exclaimed the architect, his eyes sparkling with the instinct of the born antiquarian. He glanced up eagerly as the doctor coughed apologetically and said:
"Don't forget that, even if Mercury is part baked and part frozen, there must be a region in between which is neither." He picked up a small globe from the table and ran a finger completely around it from pole to pole. "So. There must be a narrow band of country where the sun is only partly above the horizon, and where the climate is temperate."
"Then—" the architect almost shouted in his excitement, an excitement only slightly greater than that of the other two—"then, if there were people on Mercury at one time—"
The doctor nodded gravely. "There may be some there now!"
From a height of a few thousand miles Mercury, at first glance, strongly reminded them of the moon. The general effect was the same—leaden disk, with slight prominences here and there on the circumference, and large, irregular splotches of a darkish shade relieved by a great many brilliantly lighted areas, lines, and spots.
A second glance, however, found a marked difference. Instead of the craters, which always distinguished the moon, Mercury showed ranges of bona fide mountains.
The doctor gave a sigh of regret, mixed with a generous amount of excitement. "Too bad those mountains weren't distinguishable from the earth," he complained. "We wouldn't have been so quick to brand Mercury a dead world."
The others were too engrossed to comment. The sky-car was rapidly sinking nearer and nearer the planet; already Smith had stopped the current with which he had attracted the cube toward the little world's northern hemisphere, and was now using negative voltage. This, in order to act as a brake, and prevent them from falling to destruction.
Suddenly Van Emmon, the geologist, whose eyes had been glued to his binoculars, gave an exclamation of wonder. "Look at those faults!" He pointed toward a region south of that for which they were bound; what might be called the planet's torrid zone.
At first it was hard to see; then, little by little, there unfolded before their eyes a giant, spiderlike system of chasms in the strange surface beneath them. From a point almost directly opposite the sun, these cracks radiated in a half-dozen different directions; vast, irregular clefts, they ran through mountain and plain alike. In places they must have been hundreds of miles wide, while there was no guessing as to their depth. For all that the four in the cube could see, they were bottomless.
"Small likelihood of anybody being alive there now," commented the geologist skeptically. "If the sun has dried it out enough to produce faults like that, how could animal life exist?"
"Notice, however," prompted the doctor, "that the cracks do not extend all the way to the edge of the disk." This was true; all the great chasms ended far short of the "twilight band" which the doctor had declared might still contain life.
But as the sky-car rushed downward their attention became fixed upon the surface directly beneath them, a point whose latitude corresponded roughly with that of New York on the Earth. It was a region of low-lying mountains, decidedly different from various precipitous ranges to be seen to the north and east. On the west, or left-hand side of this district, a comparatively level stretch, with an occasional peak or two projecting, suggested the ancient bed of an ocean.
By this time they were within a thousand miles. Smith threw on a little more current; their speed diminished to a safer point, and they scanned the approaching surface with the greatest of care. The architect, who was a New Yorker, was strongly reminded of the fall aspect of the Appalachians; but Van Emmon, who was born and raised on the Pacific coast, declared that the spot was almost exactly like the region north of San Francisco. "If I didn't know where I was," he declared, "I'd be trying to locate Eureka right now."
The engineer smiled tolerantly. He had spent several years in Scotland, and he felt sure, he obligingly told the others, that this new locality was far more like the Ben Lomond country than any other spot on earth. He was so positive, he made the doctor, a New Zealander, smile quite broadly.
"It is just like the hills near my home," he stated, with an air of finality which made further discussion useless.
"There's a river!" the architect suddenly exclaimed, pointing; then added, before the others could comment, "I mean, what was once a river." They saw that he was right; an irregular but well-defined streak of sandy hue trickled down the middle of their chosen destination—a long, L-shaped valley, surrounded by low hills.
"That's the most likely place, outside of the twilight zone, for life to be found," remarked the doctor. "Neither mountainous nor dead level."
He added: "The spectroscope has plainly shown that there's water vapor in what little air there is. Must be precious little. If the air was as humid as the earth's, we couldn't see the surface at all from this height."
The inviting-looking valley was now less than a hundred miles below. Inviting, however, only in outline; in color it was a grayish buff, scorched and forbidding. The hills were yellower, and an alkali white on their summits.
"Do either of you fellows see anything GREEN?" demanded the engineer, a little later. They were silent; each had noticed long before, that not even near the poles was there the slightest sign of vegetation.
"No chance unless there's foliage," muttered the doctor, half to himself. The builder asked what he meant. He explained: "So far as we know, all animal life depends upon vegetation for its oxygen. Not only the oxygen in the air, but that stored in the plants which animals eat. Unless there's greenery—"
He paused at a low exclamation from Smith. The engineer's eyes were fixed, in wonder and excitement, upon that part of the valley which lay at the joint of the "L" below them. It was perhaps six miles across; and all over the comparatively smooth surface jutted dark projections. Viewed through the glasses, they had a regular, uniform appearance.
"By Jove!" ejaculated the doctor, almost in awe. He leaned forward and scrubbed the dead-light for the tenth time. All four men strained their eyes to see.
It was the architect who broke the silence which followed. The other three were content to let the thrill of the thing have its way with them. Such a feeling had little weight with the expert in archeology.
"Well," he declared jubilantly in his boyish voice, "either I eat my hat or that's a genuine, bona fide city!"
As swiftly as an elevator drops, and as safely, the cube shot straight downward. Every second the landscape narrowed and shrunk, leaving the remaining details larger, clearer, sharper. Bit by bit the amazing thing below them resolved itself into a real metropolis.
Within five minutes they were less than a mile above it. Smith threw on more current, so that the descent stopped; and the cube hung motionless in space.
For another five minutes the four men studied the scene in nervous silence. Each knew that the others were looking for the same thing—some sign of life. A little spot of green, or possibly something in motion—a single whiff of smoke would have been enough to cause a whoop of joy.
But nobody shouted. There was nothing to shout about. Nowhere in all that locality apparently was there the slightest indication that any save themselves were alive.
Instead, the most extraordinary city that man had ever laid eyes upon was stretched directly beneath. It was grouped about what seemed to be the meeting-point of three great roads, which led to this spot from as many passes through the surrounding hills. And the city seemed thus naturally divided into three segments, of equal size and shape, and each with its own street system.
For they undoubtedly were streets. No metropolis on earth ever had its blocks laid out with such unvarying exactness. This Mercurian city contained none but perfect equilateral triangles, and the streets themselves were of absolutely uniform width.
The buildings, however, showed no such uniformity. On the outskirts of this brilliantly tan mystery the blocks seemed to contain nothing save odd heaps of dingy, sun-baked mud. On the extreme north, however, lay five blocks grouped together, whose buildings, like those in the middle of the city, were rather tall, square-cut and of the same dusty, cream- white hue.
"Down-town" were several structures especially prominent for their height. They towered to such an extent, in fact, that their upper windows were easily made out. Apparently they were hundreds of stories high!
Here and there on the streets could be seen small spots, colored a darker buff than the rest of that dazzling landscape. But not one of the spots was moving.
"We'll go down further," said the engineer tentatively, in a low tone. There was no comment. He gradually reduced the repelling current, so that the sky-car resumed its descent.
They sank down until they were on a level with the top of one of those extraordinary sky-scrapers. The roof seemed perfectly flat, except for a large, round, black opening in its center. No one was in sight.
When opposite the upper row of windows, at a distance of perhaps twenty feet, Smith brought the car to a halt, and they peered in. There were no panes; the windows opened directly into a vast room; but nothing was clearly visible in the blackness save the outlines of the opening in the opposite walls.
They went down further, keeping well to the middle of the space above the street. At every other yard they kept a sharp lookout for the inhabitants; but so far as they could see, their approach was entirely unobserved.
When within fifty yards of the surface, all four men made a search for cross-wires below. They saw none; there were no poles, even. Neither, to their astonishment, was there such a thing as a sidewalk. The street stretched, unbroken by curbing, from wall to wall and from corner to corner.
As the cube settled slowly to the ground, the adventurers left the deadlight to use the windows. For a moment the view was obscured by a swirl of dust, raised by the spurt of the current; then this cloud vanished, settling to the ground with astounding suddenness, as though jerked down by some invisible hand.
Directly ahead of them, distant perhaps a hundred yards, lay a yellowish-brown mass of unusual octagonal shape. One end contained a small oval opening, but the men from the Earth looked in vain for any creature to emerge from it.
The doctor silently set to work with his apparatus. From an air-tight double-doored compartment he obtained a sample of the ether outside the car; and with the aid of previously arranged chemicals, quickly learned the truth.
There was no air. Not only was there no oxygen, the element upon which all known life depends, but there was no nitrogen, no carbon dioxide; not the slightest trace of water vapor or of the other less known elements which can be found in small amounts in our own atmosphere. Clearly, as the doctor said, whatever air the astronomers had observed must exist on the circumference of the planet only, and not in this sun- blasted, north-central spot.
On the outer walls of the cube, so arranged as to be visible through the windows, were various instruments. The barometer showed no pressure. The thermometer, a specially devised one which used gas instead of mercury, showed a temperature of six hundred degrees, Fahrenheit.
No air, no water, and a baking heat; as the geologist remarked, how could life exist there? But the architect suggested that possibly there was some form of life, of which men knew nothing, which could exist under such circumstances.
They got out three of the suits. These were a good deal like those worn by divers, except that the outer layer was made of non-conducting aluminum cloth, flexible, air-tight, and strong. Between it and the inner lining was a layer of cells, into which the men now pumped several pints of liquid oxygen. The terrific cold of this chemical made the heavy flannel of the inner lining very welcome; while the oxygen itself, as fast as it evaporated, revitalized the air within the big, glass- faced helmet.
Once safely locked within the clumsy suits, Jackson, Van Emmon, and Smith took their places within the vestibule; while the doctor, who had volunteered to stay behind, watched them open the outer door. With a hiss all the air in the vestibule rushed out; and the doctor earnestly thanked his stars that the inner door had been built very strongly.
The men stepped out on to the ground. At first they moved with great care, being uncertain that their feet were weighted heavily enough to counteract the reduced gravitation of the tiny planet. But they had been living in a very peculiar condition, gravitationally speaking, for the past three days; and they quickly adapted themselves. After a little shifting about, the three artificial monsters gave their telephone wires another scrutiny; then, keeping always within ten feet of each other, so as not to throw any strain on the connections, they strode in a matter- of-fact way toward the nearest doorway.
For a moment or two they stood outside the queer, peaked archway, their glimmering suits standing out oddly in the blinding sunlight. Then they advanced boldly into the opening; in a flash they vanished from the doctor's sight, and the inklike blackness of the opening again stared at him from that dazzling wall.
The geologist, strong man that he was, and by profession an investigator of the unknown—Van Emmon—took the lead. He stalked straight ahead into a vast space which, without any preliminary hallway, filled the entire triangular block.
Before their eyes were accustomed to the shadow—"Pretty cold," murmured the architect into the phone transmitter; it was fastened to the inside of the helmet, directly in front of his mouth, while the receiver was placed beside his ear. All three stopped short to adjust each other's electrical heating apparatus. To do this, they did not use their fingers directly; they manipulated ingenious non-magnetic pliers attached to the ends of fingerless, insulated mittens.
Before they had finished, the builder, who had been puzzling over the extraordinary suddenness with which that cloud of dust had settled, received an inspiration. He was carrying note-book and camera. With his pliers he tore out a sheet from the former, and holding book in one hand and the leaf in the other, he allowed them to drop at the same instant.
They reached the ground together.
"See?" The architect repeated the experiment. "Back home, where there's air, the paper would have floated down; it would have taken three times as long for it to fall as the book."
Smith nodded, but he had been thinking of something else. He said gravely: "Remember what I told you—it's air that insulates the earth from the ether. If there's no air here—" he glanced out into the pitiless sunlight—"then I hope there's no flaw in our insulation. We're walking in an electrical bath."
They looked around. Objects were pretty distinct now. They could easily see that the floor was covered with what appeared to be machines, laid out in orderly fashion. Here, however, as outside, everything was coated with that fine, cream-colored dust. It filled every nook and cranny; it stirred about their feet with every step.
The geologist led the way down a broad aisle, on either side of which towered immense machinery. Smith was for stopping to examine them one by one; but the others vetoed the engineer's passion, and strode on toward the end of the triangle. More than anything else, they looked for the absent population to show itself.
Suddenly Van Emmon stopped short. "Is it possible that they're all asleep?" He added that, even though the sun shone steadily the year around, the people must take time for rest.
But Smith stirred the dust with his foot and shook his head. "I've seen no tracks. This dust has been lying here for weeks, perhaps months. If the folks are away, then they must be taking a community vacation."
At the end of the aisle they reached a small, railed-in space, strongly resembling what might be seen in any office on the earth. In the middle of it stood a low, flat-topped desk, for all the world like that of a prosperous real-estate agent, except that it was about half a foot lower. There was no chair. For lack of a visible gate in the railing, the explorers stepped over, being careful not to touch it.
There was nothing on top of the desk save the usual coat of dust. Below, a very wide space had been left for the legs of whoever had used it; and flanking this space were two pedestals, containing what looked to be a multitude of exceedingly small drawers. Smith bent and examined them; apparently they had no locks; and he unhesitatingly reached out, gripped the knob of one and pulled.
Noiselessly, instantaneously, the whole desk crumbled to powder. Startled, Smith stumbled backwards, knocking against the railing. Next instant it lay on the floor, its fragments scarcely distinguishable from what had already covered the surface. Only a tiny cloud of dust arose, and in half a second this had settled.
The three looked at each other significantly. Clearly, the thing that had just happened argued a great lapse of time since the user of that desk officiated in that enclosure. It looked as though Smith's guess of "weeks, perhaps months," would have to be changed to years, perhaps centuries.
"Feel all right?" asked the geologist. Jackson and Smith made affirmative noises; and again they stepped out, this time walking in the aisle along the outer wall. They could see their sky-car plainly through the ovals.
Here the machinery could be examined more closely. They resembled automatic testing scales, said Smith; such as is used in weighing complicated metal products after finishing and assembling. Moreover, they seemed to be connected, the one to the other, with a series of endless belts, which Smith thought indicated automatic production. To all appearances, the dust-covered apparatus stood just as it had been left when operations ceased, an unguessable length of time before.
Smith showed no desire to touch the things now. Seeing this, the geologist deliberately reached out and scraped the dust from the nearest machine; and to the vast relief of all three, no damage was done. The dust fell straight to the floor, exposing a brilliantly polished streak of greenish-white metal.