(before you read this here below, read Chapter 1 here)
— K. Shivarama Karanth
“THE FIRST VOYAGE”
Today is a momentous day. The first of March. Everyone stands on the shores of Gateway Island with an air of anticipation and impatience. (Readers, the group considered their secret location a doorway that would lead them to Mercury and so had named it Gateway Island.) This was the date they had all previously agreed upon. Kline and Dennis will have to embark on this historic journey without the outside world having any knowledge of it. But the joy and enthusiasm they had earlier has waned. Even Kline looks downcast. The fact that Loben is not with them is preying on his mind. “Why has Loben not returned even after so many days have passed?” he thinks, worrying for his friend. But even in such circumstances he didn’t want to step back on a decision they’d take. He was stubborn in that way.
“Whatever happens, we need to start today itself” he thinks and in the moment, “But how can we leave before Loben returns?”. Sensing his conflict, Wilson suggests, “Can we not postpone the launch?”. Kline doesn’t agree. Neither does he explain his reasons for saying so. Their new space-plane stands ready. Everyone on the island base is waiting to see it soar away. Daylight fades. The stars slowly start twinkling in the sky. “Come my friend, let us go. What else can we do now but leave”, a crestfallen Kline says to Dennis as he makes his way to the space-plane. A lone tear escapes from his eye. Wiping it off before anyone can notice it, he boarded the space-plane. The designated time of launch is close.
The rest of the people in the group were still wondering among themselves, “Where is Loben? Couldn’t he be here by now at least?”, oblivious to the fact that Kline and Dennis were making their way to the space-place. Suddenly, less than half a mile from where they were standing on the shore, Loben’s submarine surfaced. Overjoyed, everyone started waving at him. Kline noticed this and in that instant the shadow passed from his face.
What followed was a conversation on other matters between the two friends. Checking all the instruments on the space-plane, Kline and Dennis prepared themselves for launch. Joy, excitement, fear, impatience were all reflected in their faces as these two brave adventurers hugged each other. Kline switched on the space-plane. What now? In a few moments, they would get on and lift-off towards Mercury. Suddenly, remembering that was one last thing he’d forgotten to give Kline, Loben reached out and stuffed a small object in Kline’s pocket.
Soon, the space-plane disappeared into the sky at an astounding speed. Prof. Du Bois and Loben quickly made their way to the observatory and started looking at the craft through the telescope. The rest of the group stayed back on the shore gazing at the craft and finally started walking back to the base. The space-plane that was just a speck had by now disappeared from sight. It would take Kline and Dennis three to four months to reach Mercury. There was nothing to do now except wait by their instruments until the two landed at their destination and transmitted any news.
Our readers would be curious to know what transpired in the conversation between Kline and Loben, as also about the construction of the space-plane and its functioning. We will attempt to describe this incredible interplanetary vessel to the best extent possible.
But first, the matter of the news that Loben had come carrying. To understand that, all we need to do is listen in on the conversation that followed between the people left behind.
Prof. Du Bois: Old friend, all of us were exhausted just waiting for you. Even allowing for delays and a slow, careful journey, we had expected you here by the twentieth of February. What is the reason behind this inordinate delay?
Loben: I would have been on my way here much before that. But some domestic matters made it impossible for me to leave as scheduled.
Edmund Wilson: Domestic matters? What domestic matters could a bachelor like you have?
Loben: If it was my own personal affair, I would not have bothered too much. But this was a matter with Kline’s family. Every time I went to meet her, his wife would insist on coming here with me. But with no way to bring her here without arousing suspicion, I kept making excuses. This time when I went to their house, I found her bed-ridden and sick.
Loben: What can I say, friends? She passed away waiting to get one last glimpse of her husband. I made all the arrangements post her death, finished her funeral and only then could I leave.
Prof. Du Bois: What did you hope to achieve by giving us this news now? If you had informed us earlier, I would have volunteered to go to Mercury in Kline’s place. Poor fellow. It is a very unfair thing we have done, letting him embark on such a journey in a state of grief.
Loben: I spoke to him about this very same thing. I tried to impress upon him that he should not be the one to go. But he brushed aside my objections just as he refused to be swallowed by sadness. Leaving now as planned is the right thing to do he said. Despite his grief, I could see his enthusiasm and thus, I could not but wish him well and let him leave.
Wilson: Truly, such commitment to our project is commendable.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Loben went and opened it to let one of the workers in, who then proceeded to place a small package on the table at which they sat. “Oh what a careless fool I am!” exclaimed Loben as he collapsed into a chair. The blood has drained from his face. Shocked at his reaction, the others made haste to open the package. What did they see inside? The Light-o-Phone that Kline and Dennis were meant to take with them. It had been left behind!
Meanwhile aboard the space-plane, the Light-o-Phone was furthest on Kline’s mind and he would not think about it till he reached the end of their journey. The first thing he had done after lift-off was to inspect the pendant Loben had given him. It was a keepsake that his wife – on her deathbed, having given up all hope of ever seeing her husband again – had sent to Kline to remember her by. Was it an expensive, jewel-encrusted pendant made of a precious metal? Not at all! It was a simple pendant made out of ordinary copper. The only thing that could be considered valuable about it were the two words inscribed on them. This pithy statement was the distillation of his wife’s life experience, what she had learnt through her dealings with people throughout her life. Her final gift to him.
Turning the pendant around, Kline finally saw the words, “Ignore gold”. Kline did not have an inkling of what she meant by that. But since his wife had sent this message to him it must be important he thought. Keeping the pendant safely back in his pocket, he looked out of the window. What did he see in the space he was travelling in? Trees? People? Dwellings? Nothing. All he saw, in every direction were just the silently twinkling stars. Letting out a sigh, he made his way next to the navigation instruments and sat down.
Now it's time for a few words about this new interplanetary space-plane: The craft was oval in shape. But its extremities were not as curved like an egg but sharper like the ends of a boat. It had four propellers at each end. Currently the four propellers in the front were working, accelerating the space-plane forward. If the propellers at the rear of the craft were switched on instead of the ones in the front, the space-plane would move in reverse. It was impossible to accurately measure the speeds that the space-plane was capable of. When it was in motion, you could only see the propellers. If you saw the space-plane while in flight, it would be impossible to sight by the time you blink again.
What about the two voyagers during their journey of 48 million miles; how would it go? As soon as they boarded the craft, they shut all the windows and concentrated on their journey wasting no time. Once they reached outer space there would be no air to breathe. For this reason, apart from supplies of food, they also carried with them canisters of life-sustaining gas. They would get their supply of oxygen from these to last them for the duration of their onward journey. It was their firm belief that Mercury had a breathable, Earth-like atmosphere.
On to the question of the space-plane’s energy source. This too was the result of Kline and Loben’s extraordinary prowess. If they used petrol as the source of energy for the craft, it would never attain the speeds required to reach Mercury and neither would it be possible for any vessel to carry the large amount of liquid fuel required onboard. This they had known from the outset. That is why the first device they invented and constructed was an engine that could generate electricity in outer space. I has been surmised by some that this device worked on the principles of a repeating rocket, but that would mean the craft would not be capable of a return journey. But such matters are beside the point. Let us return to the matter at hand, which is that this was a self-powered space-plane that could generate as much electricity as it needed through the entire duration of its journey. With no limit on the power it could generate to power itself, it could achieve impossibly fast speeds. Over the course of its journey, the space-plane would reach a region where the gravitational pull on it from Earth would be the same as that of Mercury’s. A little beyond this point in interplanetary space, there was no further need for the front propellers. The reason? Mercury’s gravity would start to pull the space-plane towards itself. But this does comes with its own risk. The closer the craft gets to Mercury, the faster it will accelerate. The higher its speed, the more are its chances of crashing into the planet and getting destroyed completely. This why the space-plane had been equipped with rear propellers which would, once switched on, pull the craft in the opposite direction. By controlling the rotary speed of the rear propellers it was possible to slowly land the craft without any danger to its occupants.
Given that the space-plane was almost completely opaque and that its occupants would need to see and know where they are, it was also equipped with a viewing instrument. Through this, its occupants could look at their surroundings and gauge their current location and thus steer the craft towards Mercury. Across the exterior of the space-plane ‘glass-eyes’ had been installed. These are not really eyes made of glass but newly invented instruments that can be said to like telescopes. Whatever was outside the space-plane, these ‘glass-eyes’ would not just reflect but magnify manifold, while at the same time, combining the views from all directions into a single picture so that they could see Mercury clearly.
What else did these voyagers need? A place to sit and sleep in comfort that would not be affected by the vagaries of the space-plane’s acceleration and changes in direction. This problem was solved with the use of delicate instruments and a mariners compass so that they would not be affected in the least by the law of inertia. All these and many such fantastic instruments were being used by the two intrepid voyagers in their first voyage.
Let us return now to the people left behind on Gateway Island. It has been three months since they have been separated from their two friends. They have not been able to spot or locate the space-plane using their telescope. The reason? At the distance it is at, that craft is smaller than a minuscule speck. They have also been unable to know about the progress their friends have made and their current situation. The reason? The two voyagers simply forgot to take the Light-o-Phone along with them. All that the group now awaits is that one signal that their friends have landed on Mercury safely. The signal in question being the light from an immensely powerful electric torch that was stored on the space-plane. Loben, Prof. Du Bois and Wilson had confidence in their friends that when they reach Mercury, the torch would be the first equipment they would use and so had trained their telescopes on spotting the light from the torch – instead of looking for the space-plane – in hopes of catching the signal. One they eagerly awaited. As per their calculations, they should have spotted the signal in the fourth month itself.
It has been five months now. And the people on Gateway Island have yet to see the signal or any signs of it.
As regards Kline and Dennis in the space-plane – in the second month itself, on schedule, they had reached the region where the gravitational pull from Earth was the same as that from Mercury. They had switched off the front propellers of the space-plane as planned. It was now being pulled towards Mercury through its gravity alone. In the third month, once their craft had started to accelerate extremely fast, they switched on the rear propellers to stabilise its speed.
At some point, Kline looked at the shimmering planet fast approaching, checked their speed and relative location as always and said, “Okay then, we shall reach in another two days”.
Dennis: Two more days you say? Why so?
Kline: Yes. Our rear propellers are counteracting the gravitational pull of Mercury but it seems our speed is still steadily increasing.
What he did not say was that he was now truly worried. To land on Mercury is one thing. But to land alive was another matter altogether; it seemed like a remote possibility now. He calmed himself and tried to think. He switched on the front propellers too but reversed the direction of their rotation. This helped reduce the speed of the space-plane.
They were now a few miles from the surface of Mercury. But where do they land? A little further away, Kline saw a region that was blue in colour. Assuming it to be an area of an ocean deep enough, Kline decided that it would be the ideal location to land, if not to float. His guess turned out to be right. It was indeed an ocean. But the clear black objects under its surface indicated rocks, which most likely meant it was not of great depth. If the ocean had been deep enough, the space-plane would’ve sunk to its depths and then slowly risen back up to float on its surface. But unfortunately our space-plane, having crashed into this water, disappeared beneath the surface never to be seen again!
NEXT: Chapter 3 – ARE THEY HUMAN? OR INHUMAN?