(part 5) (review)
This is the sixth and final 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. Underneath the temple was a smooth, round shaft that extended 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 to try to travel to the moon. Courtland convinced him that they could use the compound to build their own spaceship. Over the course of the next five months, they did so, preparing to take off on April 1...
The Face of Isis
By Cyril G. Wates
Chapter VI: The Flight of the Chariot
After lunch, the two men made their final arrangements. No one knew of their rash plan. The Austrian mechanics had returned to town three days before. The Professor had given his housekeeper a few days holiday to visit her daughter in a near-by village. All personal matters had been arranged with a view to the possibility of disaster. Neither Courtland nor the Professor had any near relatives to mourn them if they should never return.
At five o'clock they left the house and walked to their chariot, the vehicle in which they hoped to accomplish what their ancient Egyptian forerunner had attempted so many generations ago. Courtland helped the Professor through the open porthole and followed him. They swung the heavy glass door into place and secured it with the bolts provided for that purpose. As Courtland tightened the nuts, he found himself wondering if he would ever loosen them again or whether another hour would find the chariot bearing two more corpses into space to join the frozen body of Kut-Amen-Pash.
The Professor started the oxygen apparatus and the carbon dioxide absorber. There was nothing more they could do. Their preparations were complete to the smallest detail. Nine minutes had still to elapse before the moon rose.
They took their places side by side in the center of the chariot. Two heavy handles were bolted to the sides, to be gripped at the moment of departure, thus counteracting any possible shock, although the Professor believed that no such shock would be experienced.
Through the front port, Courtland could see a little circle: the upper half, sky, crimson with the reflected light of the setting sun; the lower half, the hazy green of the distant horizon. It struck Courtland that this semi-circle of green was perhaps his last vision of the earth.
Suddenly the upper edge of the green was cut by a tiny dot of gleaming silver. It was the moon, keeping her tryst with her would-be explorers. They would wait until the horizon bisected the disk. Slowly the Face of Isis was unveiled to the gaze of her modern worshippers.
Sixty seconds more. The Professor turned and met Courtland in a long handclasp. Then the two men grasped the handles. The Professor's left hand rested on the switch which would release the acid and start them on their flight. Courtland's eyes were on the swinging chronometer and he counted off the seconds aloud.
"Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. GO!"
There was a slight hissing as the sulphuric acid flooded the trays beneath the floor. For an instant nothing happened. Then there was a rending, crashing roar. The chariot rocked and trembled as if under the impact of a terrific bombardment. Courtland was hurled to the floor. His head came into violent contact with a box of supplies and he lost consciousness.
When Courtland came to his senses, it was with a terrible feeling of physical oppression, unlike anything he had ever experienced. He was lying on his face and for a moment he thought that something must have fallen upon him from above; some tremendous weight which had pinned him to the floor. He struggled vainly to raise himself to his knees.
There was no sensation of movement, but he knew that there would be no such sensation if the chariot were flying through space, no matter what the velocity. He wondered whether this pitiless pressure that was crushing him was due to the swift acceleration of their fall toward the moon.
He managed to turn his head to one side and saw the outline of the Professor's body lying where he had fallen.
"Hello, Professor! We seem to have started. Are you all right?"
There was no answer. Courtland struggled to pull himself along the floor but finally gave up on the attempt in exhaustion. He felt no pain, but his entire body seemed paralyzed.
The interior of the chariot was dark, save that a faint light filtered through the portholes on one side. Courtland determined that he could make one mighty effort to raise himself to the level of the nearest opening. Bracing his muscles, he succeeded in getting to his hands and knees. For a few seconds he maintained this position. It was as though he were Atlas struggling to uphold the world on his shoulders. His brain swam with agony.
Then his straining muscles gave way, and he was hurled forward once more into unconsciousness.
* * *
When he came to himself for the second time, it was to hear the Professor giving voice to a most choice and unscholastic assortment of profanity. The little man was stamping up and down the floor of the chariot, cursing everything and everyone from Osrah the High Priest to the entire cosmic universe.
Courtland sat up and stared at the Professor in amazement. The mysterious paralysis had departed and so had the darkness. The little room was flooded with sunlight and lurid with expletives.
"Why, Professor, what on earth's the matter?" stammered Courtland, "have we missed the moon or something?"
"Matter? You may well ask what on earth's the matter!" raved the Professor, furiously. "Everything on earth's the matter! Missed the moon? No, we haven't missed the moon! We've never had a chance to miss the confounded thing! We've never started!"
"Never started!" yelled Courtland, jumping to his feet and rushing to the porthole.
He looked out, not on the empty abyss of interplanetary space or the barren wastes of a frozen lunar landscape, but on the gracious verdure of a New Hampshire hillside. The sun shone, the birds sang, the wind stirred amongst the leaves as it had done on the day before. The chariot still rested on its rails at the summit of the hill! Everything was unchanged.
No, not quite everything, for the clump of trees which had surrounded and hidden the interplanetary vessel, was leveled to the ground as though by a mighty hurricane. The chariot was almost buried by a tangled mass of trunks and branches. It was only due to the staunch construction of laminated steel and asbestos that the two adventurers had not been crushed to death by the falling timber.
So their high hopes had ended in failure. The magic powder in the golden casket was nothing but a huge fiasco, a practical joke brought to its conclusion after three thousand years, on the first of April! And yet the powder must have possessed some strange properties, after all. Something must have occurred when the acid mingled with it in the trays. What was it that had hurled them into unconsciousness? What was it that had produced Courtland's extraordinary paralysis? What had uprooted those great trees and flung them down upon the chariot?
To these questions and many others like them, they could find no answer. Afterwards, when an analysis of the residue in the trays revealed nothing more mysterious than magnesium sulphate, they were no nearer a solution than before. The white, crystalline contents of the trays might serve mankind in homely ways, but as an aid to the conquest of the universe, were valueless.
Professor Wadsworth, crushed and crestfallen, buried himself in his studies of the Mexican Settlement. Courtland returned to Boston and devoted himself to business. A year later Courtland received a heavy express package, which on being opened, was found to contain the golden casket. In the casket was a thick manuscript and this letter:
My dear Courtland:
To you, my favorite pupil and companion in adventure, I am sending the manuscript of my book, A History of the Egyptian Migration in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. This work, the carefully thought-out result of my investigations and studies, I beg you will publish. I have placed a sum at your disposal sufficient to cover the cost of publication. Should any profits accrue from the sale of the book, you will place the same at the disposal of the Peabody Museum for the purpose of improving the Egyptian and Mexican collections. May I impose upon your friendship to do me this last favor?
I am sailing for Mexico tomorrow. While there, I hope to find traces of the landing of that expedition which, I firmly believe, set sail from the Moroccan coast, ninety generations ago, leaving behind the body of the High Priest to guard the temple whence their leader had departed on his ill-advised attempt to set his all-conquering foot upon the Face of Isis.
Do I still believe the truth of the inscriptions on the casket, you ask? Yes, most emphatically I do! My dear boy, I have a confession of weakness to make. Only two months after our miserable failure, I discovered the explanation of what took place. It was I, I alone in my self-satisfied ignorance, who was responsible for casting away the greatest opportunity ever vouchsafed to man. But what is the use of crying over spilt milk?
As I was saying, two months after we parted, I was visiting Dr. John Plattmore in New York. Dr. Plattmore, as you know, is the greatest living authority on Egyptian hieroglyphics. One evening, while we were discussing the probable extent of chemical knowledge in the Fifth Dynasty, I happened to mention solvents and particularly sulphuric acid.
"But, my dear Professor," exclaimed Plattmore, "the inorganic acids are a comparatively modern discovery. It is quite certain that nothing was known of them at the period we are discussing."
I drew the symbols which I had read as "sulphuric acid" in translating the inscription on the casket and asked the Doctor how he would interpret them.
"Literally, of course, they mean 'the fleshburner' or 'that which destroys the flesh,' but there is no doubt that they refer to one of the caustic alkalies; the hydroxides of either potassium or sodium. The Egyptian priests must have been familiar with these substances and the methods of extracting them from wood ashes and sea-weed."
With the Doctor's words came a flood of enlightenment. I realized the cause of our failure, and the reasons for the extraordinary phenomena which accompanied it. As you are fully aware, acids and alkilis are directly opposite in their chemical reactions. Presuming that the powder in the casket acquired antigravitational properties by the addition of an alkili, what would take place as the result of adding an acid?
Why, the area covered by the powder would become tremendously permeable to gravity, just as the presence of a piece of iron increases the permeability of a magnetic field. In simple words, the force of gravity would be many times multiplied. Our weight, increased from its normal value to, perhaps, half a ton or more, crushed us to the floor and rendered us helpless. The trees which stretched their branches above the chariot were unable to resist the strain of their own weight and came crashing down upon us, rending their roots from the ground.
You will ask, my dear Courtland, why an analysis of the residue failed to reveal the presence of any strange substance. I have no doubt that the original powder was a compound of magnesium with some unknown element. The latter, which should have been rendered opaque to gravity under the action of an alkili, passed off in gas by combination with the hydrogen of the acid. So long as the gas remained in the trays our weight was enormously increased, but during our period of unconsciousness, this gas leaked away and its effect was destroyed.
I should have told you this long ago, but in my fallen pride, I was ashamed to admit that our failure was due to my unwillingness to consult a higher authority than myself. Forgive me if you can, but believe me, my dear Courtland, your old friend and fellow student,
MYRON B. WADSWORTH.
(part 5) (review)