(part 4) (part 6)
This is the fifth installment of "The Face of Isis" by Cyril G. Wates, a Gernsback-era science fiction story first published in the March 1928 issue of Amazing Stories and never reprinted.
The story so far: the narrator, Pete the Polliwog, runs into Elliott Courtland, an old schoolchum, during a business trip to Boston. Courtland casually mentions a story about their chemistry professor, Myron Wadsworth, and an adventure involving "the Face of Isis". At Courtland's house, Courtland shows Pete an ancient Egyptian casket made of solid gold, and tells how he came by it.
Two years after graduating from Harvard, Courtland was invited by Wadsworth to take part in an expedition to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to look for traces of an Egyptian migration to Mexico. They found a tall pillar known to the locals as Djibel el Sheetan, Satan Mountain, with an ancient Egyptian temple on top. Below the temple was a smooth, round shaft that went the length of the pillar. At the bottom of the shaft was a mausoleum with a sarcophagus that was empty except for the golden casket, which was filled with a mysteriously heavy metallic powder. After translating the inscription on the casket, Wadsworth realized that the ancient Egyptians had discovered a mineral compound that was opaque to gravity, and that an Egyptian Pharaoh had used it to try to travel to the moon. Courtland convinced him that they could use the compound to build their own spaceship...
The Face of Isis
By Cyril G. Wates
Chapter V: The Chariot of Isis
Ten days later, the two adventurers were aboard a steamer, en route from Liverpool to New York. Their excitement at the prospect of their insane adventure had increased, rather than diminished, with the flight of time. They discussed it endlessly from every conceivable viewpoint.
In London, Courtland had bought every available book of fiction dealing with imaginary flights to other planets. On board he read them aloud to the slightly contemptuous Professor.
"It won't do any harm to get other people's ideas sir," said Courtland in reply to a particularly violent snort from the Professor, as the result of the account of Cavor's departure into space.
"I am not objecting to the ideas, but to the lack of them," grunted the Professor. "These space flyers all go the same way -- straight up! Whereas, if you cut off the effect of gravity upon a body, that body will not go up, at all!"
"Not go up?" exclaimed Courtland. "Then where will it go?"
"Along of course!" said the Professor.
"Along! I don't understand."
"Let me ask you a question," said the Professor, sitting up in his deck chair. "Suppose you mounted an electromagnet on the edge of a large wheel and caused a piece of soft iron to adhere to one pole of the magnet. When the wheel is rotating, in what direction would the piece of iron move, if you suddenly shut off the magnetizing current?"
Courtland thought for a moment.
"Why, at a tangent to the rim of the wheel, I suppose," he offered, finally.
"Exactly! And when we shut off the force of gravity between our car and the earth, it will move away from the Earth tangentially, not straight up."
"Well, but," said Courtland slowly, "the shaft in the Djibel el Sheetan pointed straight up."
"Quite true," said the Professor. "That was because the High Priest knew nothing about the reason for making it any other way. As a matter of fact, the Pharaoh's chariot or coffin, whichever you like to call it, never went through the hole in the temple roof, at all."
"Never went through the hole?" queried Courtland doubtfully.
"Certainly not!" snapped the Professor. "When it started from the bottom, it traveled very slowly until it reached the mouth, level with the floor of the temple. Then it flew off, not vertically but horizontally, just skimming the floor."
"But in that case," objected Courtland, "it would have crashed against the sides of the stone bowl."
"Undoubtedly it would have done so, but for the speed attained in the shaft, which was probably sufficient to lift it above the edge of the bowl. For this reason we should build our car on level tracks on the top of a hill. There is a hill near my home in New Hampshire which will be perfectly suitable."
Upon Courtland devolved the work of designing their "Chariot" as they always called it. The Professor was wrapped up in the theoretical, the scientific end of the enterprise. He spent the days in the study of his cottage in the New Hampshire hills, gushing forth, like a scientific fountain, a steady stream of formulas, curves, graphs and drawings.
Meanwhile Courtland rushed back and forth from Boston with a truck they had bought and which he drove himself. Secrecy was essential. If once word of their plans leaked out, they would be overwhelmed by reporters and curiosity mongers of all sorts. That was the kind of thing they wished to avoid. Once the journey was an accomplished fact, they, or at least the Professor, would welcome all the publicity in the world. As for Courtland, it was the adventure which appealed to him. He cared nothing for the fame it would bring.
The work was carried on by foreign workmen, brought from Boston. First Courtland and the Professor selected a suitable spot in the middle of a dense clump of trees at the summit of a low hill. A roadway running east and west was cleared and the tracks laid part way down the slope, although the Professor anticipated that the chariot would leave the ground within a hundred yards of the starting point.
The chariot was to be long and streamlined, to reduce friction while passing through the atmosphere. It was to be shaped like a torpedo cut in half lengthwise, so that the bottom was practically flat. Courtland suggested and carried out a new method of construction, consisting of many layers of very thin sheet steel, alternating with asbestos. These layers were built on a rough wooden framework, and held together by rivets, none of which passed entirely through. This was to reduce the heat-conducting powers of the sides.
* * *
When the asbestos-steel body was complete, the wooden framework was removed and the chariot was ready for its inner fittings.
During the evenings, the two adventurers had long talks. One of the first things Courtland wanted to know was how long the journey would take.
"The motion of the chariot on leaving the surface of the earth," elucidated the Professor, "will be entirely due to the rotation of the earth on its axis. The surface of the earth in this latitude is moving at approximately 600 miles per hour. At that velocity it would take us seventeen days to reach the moon."
"That seems pretty slow traveling compared to the interplanetary journeys in fiction," objected Courtland.
"You must not overlook the fact that there is a second factor which will greatly increase our speed. From the moment we leave the earth, that body will cease to exist, so far as any effect of gravity upon the chariot is concerned. We shall fall upon the moon with a continually accelerated velocity, just as any free body in space would fall. Our speed at any moment will be the speed of a free, falling body, plus six hundred miles per hour, which is our speed due to the centrifugal force of the earth's rotation."
"But how shall we know the exact moment to start in order to hit the moon?" asked Courtland. "With so many factors to consider, it seems a frightfully complicated problem. What with the rotation of the earth, the earth's movement in its orbit, the moon's movement in its orbit and the attraction of the moon, our chances of making connection with the Face of Isis seem pretty slim."
"The complication is only apparent," replied the Professor, "because all movement is purely relative and we are only concerned with the movement of the chariot in relation to the moon. All we have to do is start at moon-rise, when the moon is full, with the chariot pointing east; that is approximately at the lunar sphere. The chariot, affected only by its initial movement and by the attraction of the moon, will follow a curve and fall to the surface of the moon. Accuracy of aim is not a prime requisite at all."
More than once Courtland ventured to raise doubts as to the wisdom of expending so much effort without first conducting some preliminary experiments with the contents of the casket. He also suggested the advisability of calling into consultation some great authority on Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The Professor was adamant. Once convinced of the correctness of his translation, he adhered to it rigidly; neither would he tolerate the wasting of one grain of the precious powder.
"Authorities! Experiments!" he sputtered. "My authority is sufficient and experiments are unnecessary. We will stake our all on the one great experiment."
So the time passed until at last, the chariot stood ready upon its rails. It measured only sixteen feet in length and about six in diameter. The outside was painted dull black, to enable it to absorb as much heat as possible from the sun's rays. There were a number of small portholes, one of which was made removable to enable the travelers to enter, after which it could be made secure by means of bolts and a rubber gasket.
In the interior were stored the various supplies required for the trip. There was food for two months, a special form of gasoline stove for cooking and heating, together with all sorts of scientific appliances. The pointed ends of the chariot were partitioned off and filled with oxygen cylinders. There was an apparatus which the Professor had designed for purifying the air, to keep the content of carbon dioxide to a breathable percentage.
Penetrating the sides of the chariot were four curved tubes. The inner ends of these tubes were provided with airtight breeches, like torpedo tubes, into which charges of slow-burning explosive could be introduced for the purpose of controlling the movement of the chariot in space. As the Professor pointed out, when they reached a predetermined point in their journey, it was only necessary to rotate the chariot more or less on its longitudinal axis, in order to reduce its speed to the amount desired. They would land on the moon "upside down," so that the gravity screen would not counteract the attraction of the lunar mass. When they wished to return, they would simply roll the chariot over on its base, and they would be off.
Most important of all was the equipment for handling the anti-gravitational powder itself. There was a false floor in the chariot and under this were a series of flat trays containing the powder. A most ingenious arrangement, designed by the Professor and carried out by Courtland himself, allowed the trays to be flooded with sulphuric acid by simply closing a switch. Thus the gravity screen would take effect over the whole floor uniformly and there would be no danger of an upset at the start.
On March 27th, just five months from the day when they had set sail on their voyage to Morocco, all preparations were complete. Everything that human ingenuity could devise to insure the success of the undertaking had been done. There remained only one thing. Would the mysterious powder acquire the properties they believed? Or was the old high priest playing a joke on them?
Courtland was for trying their fate at once, but the Professor urged that they should wait until the night of the full moon.
"The moon will be full on April 1st," he said. "By waiting until then, the moon, earth and sun will be in line, and there will be very little chance of the superior attraction of the sun diverting us from our course."
"Well, I'm not particularly keen to investigate the solar granulations at close quarters," Courtland said, "but it seems like tempting fate to start on a day like that. I'm not superstitious, but April 1st! I suppose we're a couple of fools, but that seems like rubbing it in!"
The fateful day dawned clear and bright, a glory of blue and green and gold. Nature went about her business as usual, quite unperturbed by the threatened invasion of her planetary sanctuaries. When Courtland walked up the hill to make a last inspection of the chariot, he tried in vain to conjure up sentiments appropriate to the occasion. He thought of the effect, with which Verne described the emotions of the three adventurers shut up in the projectile, as they waited for the pressure of a button to blast them into space. He felt that on the eve of such an unprecedented adventure, he too, should experience a great spiritual uplift or depression, a flood of anticipation or fear.
He tried in vain to bring his mind into the state which all writers of fiction regard as indispensable to such a time. But somehow, it wouldn't do! His reason told him that in less than twelve hours he would be hurled into space, but his instincts simply refused to believe his reason. This day was just like any other. The sun shone, the birds sang, the wind whispered in the leaves. Everything was as usual except the gloomy shadow among the trees on the hill top, that black mass crouching like a devilish insect, or like an overgrown and misshapen slug.
(part 4) (part 6)