Chapter 9 - Prospecting Begins

WE ceased to gaze. We turned to each other, the same thought, the same
question in our eyes. For these plants to grow, there must be some air,
however attenuated, air that we also should be able to breathe.

"The manhole?" I said.

"Yes!" said Cavor, "if it is air we see!"

"In a little while," I said, "these plants will be as high as we are.
Suppose - suppose after all - Is it certain? How do you know that stuff
is air? It may be nitrogen - it may be carbonic acid even!"

"That's easy," he said, and set about proving it. He produced a big piece
of crumpled paper from the bale, lit it, and thrust it hastily through the
man-hole valve. I bent forward and peered down through the thick glass for
its appearance outside, that little flame on whose evidence depended so

I saw the paper drop out and lie lightly upon the snow. The pink flame of
its burning vanished. For an instant it seemed to be extinguished. And
then I saw a little blue tongue upon the edge of it that trembled, and
crept, and spread!

Quietly the whole sheet, save where it lay in Immediate contact with the
snow, charred and shrivelled and sent up a quivering thread of smoke.
There was no doubt left to me; the atmosphere of the moon was either pure
oxygen or air, and capable therefore - unless its tenuity was excessive -
of supporting our alien life. We might emerge - and live!

I sat down with my legs on either side of the manhole and prepared to
unscrew it, but Cavor stopped me. "There is first a little precaution," he
said. He pointed out that although it was certainly an oxygenated
atmosphere outside, it might still be so rarefied as to cause us grave
injury. He reminded me of mountain sickness, and of the bleeding that
often afflicts aeronauts who have ascended too swiftly, and he spent some
time in the preparation of a sickly-tasting drink which he insisted on my
sharing. It made me feel a little numb, but otherwise had no effect on me.
Then he permitted me to begin unscrewing.

Presently the glass stopper of the manhole was so far undone that the
denser air within our sphere began to escape along the thread of the
screw, singing as a kettle sings before it boils. Thereupon he made me
desist. It speedily became evident that the pressure outside was very much
less than it was within. How much less it was we had no means of telling.

I sat grasping the stopper with both hands, ready to close it again if, in
spite of our intense hope, the lunar atmosphere should after all prove too
rarefied for us, and Cavor sat with a cylinder of compressed oxygen at
hand to restore our pressure. We looked at one another in silence, and
then at the fantastic vegetation that swayed and grew visibly and
noiselessly without. And ever that shrill piping continued.

My blood-vessels began to throb in my ears, and the sound of Cavor's
movements diminished. I noted how still everything had become, because of
the thinning of the air.

As our air sizzled out from the screw the moisture of it condensed in
little puffs.

Presently I experienced a peculiar shortness of breath that lasted indeed
during the whole of the time of our exposure to the moon's exterior
atmosphere, and a rather unpleasant sensation about the ears and
finger-nails and the back of the throat grew upon my attention, and
presently passed off again.

But then came vertigo and nausea that abruptly changed the quality of my
courage. I gave the lid of the manhole half a turn and made a hasty
explanation to Cavor; but now he was the more sanguine. He answered me in
a voice that seemed extraordinarily small and remote, because of the
thinness of the air that carried the sound. He recommended a nip of
brandy, and set me the example, and presently I felt better. I turned the
manhole stopper back again. The throbbing in my ears grew louder, and then
I remarked that the piping note of the outrush had ceased. For a time I
could not be sure that it had ceased.

"Well?" said Cavor, in the ghost of a voice.

"Well?" said I.

"Shall we go on?"

I thought. "Is this all?"

"If you can stand it."

By way of answer I went on unscrewing. I lifted the circular operculum
from its place and laid it carefully on the bale. A flake or so of snow
whirled and vanished as that thin and unfamiliar air took possession of
our sphere. I knelt, and then seated myself at the edge of the manhole,
peering over it. Beneath, within a yard of my face, lay the untrodden snow
of the moon.

There came a little pause. Our eyes met.

"It doesn't distress your lungs too much?" said Cavor.

"No," I said. "I can stand this."

He stretched out his hand for his blanket, thrust his head through its
central hole, and wrapped it about him. He sat down on the edge of the
manhole, he let his feet drop until they were within six inches of the
lunar ground. He hesitated for a moment, then thrust himself forward,
dropped these intervening inches, and stood upon the untrodden soil of the

As he stepped forward lie was refracted grotesquely by the edge of the
glass. He stood for a moment looking this way and that. Then he drew
himself together and leapt.

The glass distorted everything, but it seemed to me even then to be an
extremely big leap. He had at one bound become remote. He seemed twenty or
thirty feet off. He was standing high upon a rocky mass and gesticulating
back to me. Perhaps he was shouting - but the sound did not reach me. But
how the deuce had he done this? I felt like a man who has just seen a new
conjuring trick.

In a puzzled state of mind I too dropped through the manhole. I stood up.
Just in front of me the snowdrift had fallen away and made a sort of
ditch. I made a step and jumped.

I found myself flying through the air, saw the rock on which he stood
coming to meet me, clutched it and clung in a state of infinite amazement.

I gasped a painful laugh. I was tremendously confused. Cavor bent down
arid shouted in piping tones for me to be careful.

I had forgotten that on the moon, with only an eighth part of the earth's
mass and a quarter of its diameter, my weight was barely a sixth what it
was on earth. But now that fact insisted on being remembered.

"We are out of Mother Earth's leading - strings now," he said.

With a guarded effort I raised myself to the top, and moving as cautiously
as a rheumatic patient, stood up beside him under the blaze of the sun.
The sphere lay behind us on its dwindling snowdrift thirty feet away.

As far as the eye could see over the enormous disorder of rocks that
formed the crater floor, the same bristling scrub that surrounded us was
starting into life, diversified here and there by bulging masses of a
cactus form, and scarlet and purple lichens that grew so fast they seemed
to crawl over the rocks. The whole area of the crater seemed to me then to
be one similar wilderness up to the very foot of the surrounding cliff.

This cliff was apparently bare of vegetation save at its base, and with
buttresses and terraces and platforms that did not very greatly attract
our attention at the time. It was many miles away from us in every
direction, we seemed to be almost at the centre of the crater, and we saw
it through a certain haziness that drove before the wind. For there was
even a wind now in the thin air, a swift yet weak wind that chilled
exceedingly but exerted little pressure. It was blowing I round the
crater, as it seemed, to the hot illuminated side from the foggy darkness
under the sunward wall. It was difficult to look into this eastward fog;
we had to peer with half-closed eyes beneath the shade of our hands,
because of the fierce intensity of the motionless sun.

"It seems to be deserted," said Cavor, "absolutely desolate."

I looked about me again. I retained even then a clinging hope of some
quasi-human evidence, some pinnacle of building, some house or engine, but
everywhere one looked spread the tumbled rocks in peaks and crests, and
the darting scrub and those bulging cacti that swelled and swelled, a flat
negation as it seemed of all such hope.

"It looks as though these plants had it to themselves," I said. " I see no
trace of any other creature."

"No insects - no birds, no! Not a trace, not a scrap nor particle of
animal life. If there was - what would they do in the night?... No;
there's just these plants alone."

I shaded my eyes with my hand. "It's like the landscape of a dream. These
things are less like earthly land plants than the things one imagines
among the rocks at the bottom of the sea. Look at that yonder! One might
imagine it a lizard changed into a plant. And the glare! "

"This is only the fresh morning," said Cavor.

He sighed and looked about him. "This is no world for men," he said. "And
yet in a way - it appeals."

He became silent for a time, then commenced his meditative humming.

I started at a gentle touch, and found a thin sheet of livid lichen
lapping over my shoe. I kicked at it and it fell to powder, and each speck
began to grow.

I heard Cavor exclaim sharply, and perceived that one of the fixed
bayonets of the scrub had pricked him. He hesitated, his eyes sought
among the rocks about us. A sudden blaze of pink had crept up a ragged
pillar of crag. It was a most extraordinary pink, a livid magenta.

"Look!" said I, turning, and behold Cavor had vanished.

For an instant I stood transfixed. Then I made a hasty step to look over
the verge of the rock. But in my surprise at his disappearance I forgot
once more that we were on the moon. The thrust of my foot that I made in
striding would have carried me a yard on earth; on the moon it carried me
six - a good five yards over the edge. For the moment the thing had
something of the effect of those nightmares when one falls and falls. For
while one falls sixteen feet in the first second of a fall on earth, on
the moon one falls two, and with only a sixth of one's weight. I fell, or
rather I jumped down, about ten yards I suppose. It seemed to take quite a
long time, five or six seconds, I should think. I floated through the air
and fell like a feather, knee-deep in a snow-drift in the bottom of a
gully of blue-gray, white-veined rock.

I looked about me. "Cavor!" I cried; but no Cavor was visible.

"Cavor!" I cried louder, and the rocks echoed me.

I turned fiercely to the rocks and clambered to the summit of them.
"Cavor!" I cried. My voice sounded like the voice of a lost lamb.

The sphere, too, was not in sight, and for a moment a horrible feeling of
desolation pinched my heart.

Then I saw him. He was laughing and gesticulating to attract my attention.
He was on a bare patch of rock twenty or thirty yards away. I could not
hear his voice, but "jump" said his gestures. I hesitated, the distance
seemed enormous. Yet I reflected that surely I must be able to clear a
greater distance than Cavor.

I made a step back, gathered myself together, and leapt with all my might.
I seemed to shoot right up in the air as though I should never come down.

It was horrible and delightful, and as wild as a nightmare, to go flying
off in this fashion. I realised my leap had been altogether too violent. I
flew clean over Cavor's head and beheld a spiky confusion in a gully
spreading to meet my fall. I gave a yelp of alarm. I put out my hands and
straightened my legs.

I hit a huge fungoid bulk that burst all about me, scattering a mass of
orange spores in every direction, and covering me with orange powder. I
rolled over spluttering, and came to rest convulsed with breathless

I became aware of Cavor's little round face peering over a bristling
hedge. He shouted some faded inquiry. "Eh?" I tried to shout, but could
not do so for want of breath. He made his way towards me, coming gingerly
among the bushes.

"We've got to be careful," he said. "This moon has no discipline. She'll
let us smash ourselves."

He helped me to my feet. "You exerted yourself too much," he said, dabbing
at the yellow stuff with his hand to remove it from my garments.

I stood passive and panting, allowing him to beat off the jelly from my
knees and elbows and lecture me upon my misfortunes. " We don't quite
allow for the gravitation. Our muscles are scarcely educated yet. We must
practise a little, when you have got your breath."

I pulled two or three little thorns out of my hand, and sat for a time on
a boulder of rock. My muscles were quivering, and I had that feeling of
personal disillusionment that comes at the first fall to the learner of
cycling on earth.

It suddenly occurred to Cavor that the cold air in the gully, after the
brightness of the sun, might give me a fever. So we clambered back into
the sunlight. We found that beyond a few abrasions I had received no
serious injuries from my tumble, and at Cavor's suggestion we were
presently looking round for some safe and easy landing-place for my next
leap. We chose a rocky slab some ten yards off, separated from us by a
little thicket of olive-green spikes.

"Imagine it there!" said Cavor, who was assuming the airs of a trainer,
and he pointed to a spot about four feet from my toes. This leap I managed
without difficulty, and I must confess I found a certain satisfaction in
Cavor's falling short by a foot or so and tasting the spikes of the scrub.
"One has to be careful you see," he said, pulling out his thorns, and with
that he ceased to be my Mentor and became my fellow-learner in the art of
lunar locomotion.

We chose a still easier jump and did it without difficulty, and then leapt
back again, and to and fro several times, accustoming our muscles to the
new standard. I could never have believed had I not experienced it, how
rapid that adaptation would be. In a very little time indeed, certainly
after fewer than thirty leaps, we could judge the effort necessary for a
distance with almost terrestrial assurance.

And all this time the lunar plants were growing around us, higher and
denser and more entangled, every moment thicker and taller, spiked plants,
green cactus masses, fungi, fleshy and lichenous things, strangest radiate
and sinuous shapes. But we were so intent upon our leaping, that for a
time we gave no heed to their unfaltering expansion.

An extraordinary elation had taken possession of us. Partly, I think, it
was our sense of release from the confinement of the sphere. Mainly,
however, the thin sweetness of the air, which I am certain contained a
much larger proportion of oxygen than our terrestrial atmosphere. In spite
of the strange quality of all about us, I felt as adventurous and
experimental as a cockney would do placed for the first time among
mountains and I do not think it occurred to either of us, face to face
though we were with the unknown, to be very greatly afraid.

We were bitten by a spirit of enterprise. We selected a lichenous kopje
perhaps fifteen yards away, and landed neatly on its summit one after the
other. "Good!" we cried to each other; "good!" and Cavor made three steps
and went off to a tempting slope of snow a good twenty yards and more
beyond. I stood for a moment struck by the grotesque effect of his
soaring figure - his dirty cricket cap, and spiky hair, his little round
body, his arms and his knicker-bockered legs tucked up tightly - against
the weird spaciousness of the lunar scene. A gust of laughter seized me,
and then I stepped off to follow. Plump! I dropped beside him.

We made a few gargantuan strides, leapt three or four times more, and sat
down at last in a lichenous hollow. Our lungs were painful. We sat holding
our sides and recovering our breath, looking appreciation to one another.
Cavor panted something about "amazing sensations." And then came a thought
into my head. For the moment it did not seem a particularly appalling
thought, simply a natural question arising out of the situation.

"By the way," I said, "where exactly is the sphere?"

Cavor looked at me. "Eh?"

The full meaning of what we were saying struck me sharply.

"Cavor!" I cried, laying a hand on his arm, "where is the sphere?"