Page:Amazing Stories Volume 01 Number 02.djvu/90

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185
OFF ON A COMET

successfully grapple with them, or in any way mitigate their consequences."

There was a general attitude of attention. It was surprising how calmly they proceeded to discuss the circumstances that looked so threatening and ominous.

"First of all," resumed the lieutenant, "we will specify the different ways in which the shock may happen."

"And the prime fact to be remembered," interposed Servadac, "is that the combined velocity of the two bodies will be about 21,000 miles an hour."

"Express speed, and no mistake!" muttered Ben Zoof.

"Just so," assented Procope. "Now, the two bodies may impinge either directly or obliquely. If the impact is sufficiently oblique, Gallia may do precisely what she did before; she may graze the earth; she may, or she may not, carry off a portion of the earth's atmosphere and substance, and so she may float away again into space; but her orbit would undoubtedly be deranged, and if we survive the shock, we shall have small chance of ever returning to the world of our fellow-creatures."

"Professor Rosette, I suppose," Ben Zoof remarked, "would pretty soon find out all about that."

"But we will leave this hypothesis," said the lieutenant; "our own experience has sufficiently shown us its advantages and its disadvantages. We will proceed to consider the infinitely more serious alternative of direct impact; of a shock that would hurl the comet straight on to the earth, to which it would become attached."

"A great wart upon her face!" said Ben Zoof, laughing.

The captain held up his finger to his orderly, making him understand that he should hold his tongue.

"It is, I presume, to be taken for granted," continued Lieutenant Procope, "that the mass of the earth is comparatively so large that, in the event of a direct collision, her own motion would not be sensibly retarded, and that she would carry the comet along with her, as part of herself."

"Very little question of that, I should think," said Servadac.

"Well, then," the lieutenant went on, "what part of this comet of ours will be the part to come into collision with the earth? It may be the equator, where we are; it may be at the exactly opposite point, at our antipodes; or it may be at either pole. In any case, it seems hard to foresee whence there is to come the faintest chance of deliverance."

"Is the case so desperate?" asked Servadac.

"I will tell you why it seems so. If the side of the comet on which we are resident impinges on the earth, it stands to reason that we must be crushed to atoms by the violence of the concussion."

"Regular mincemeat?" said Ben Zoof, whom no admonitions could quite reduce to silence.

"And if," said the lieutenant, after a moment's pause, and the slightest possible frown at the interruption—"and if the collision should occur at our antipodes, the sudden check to the velocity of the comet would be quite equivalent to a shock in situ; and, another thing, we should run the risk of being suffocated, for all our comet's atmosphere would be assimilated with the terrestrial atmosphere, and we, supposing we were not dashed to atoms, should be left as it were upon the summit of an enormous mountain (for such to all intents and purposes Gallia would be), 450 miles above the level of the surface of the globe, without a particle of air to breathe."

"But would not our chances of escape be considerably better," asked Count Timascheff, "in the event of either of the comet's poles being the point of contact?"

"Taking the combined velocity into account," answered the lieutenant, "I confess that I fear the violence of the shock will be too great to permit our destruction to be averted."

A general silence ensued, which was broken by the lieutenant himself. "Even if none of these contingencies occur in the way we have contemplated, I am driven to the suspicion that we shall be burnt alive."

"Burnt alive!" they all exclaimed in a chorus of horror.

"Yes. If the deductions of modern science be true, the speed of the comet, when suddenly checked, will be transmuted into heat, and that heat will be so intense that the temperature of the comet will be raised to some millions of degrees."

No one having anything definite to allege in reply to Lieutenant Procope's forebodings, they all relapsed into silence. Presently Ben Zoof asked whether it was not possible for the comet to fall into the middle of the Atlantic.

Procope shook his head. "Even so, we should only be adding the fate of drowning to the list of our other perils."

"Then, as I understand," said Captain Servadac, "in whatever way or in whatever place the concussion occurs, we must be either crushed, suffocated, roasted, or drowned. Is that your conclusion, lieutenant?"

"I confess I see no other alternative," answered Procope, calmly.

"But isn't there another thing to be done?" said Ben Zoof.

"What do you mean?" his master asked.

"Why, to get off the comet before the shock comes."

"How could you get off Gallia?"

"That I can't say," replied the orderly.

"I am not sure that that could not be accomplished," said the lieutenant.

All eyes in a moment were riveted upon him, as, with his head resting on his hands, he was manifestly cogitating a new idea. "Yes, I think it could be accomplished," he repeated. "The project may appear extravagant, but I do not know why it should be impossible. Ben Zoof has hit the right nail on the head; we must try and leave Gallia before the shock."

"Leave Gallia! How?" said Count Timascheff.

The lieutenant did not at once reply. He continued pondering for a time, and at last said, slowly and distinctly, "By making a balloon!"

Servadac's heart sank.

"A balloon!" he exclaimed. "Out of the question! Balloons are exploded things. You hardly find them in novels. Balloon, indeed!"

"Listen to me," replied Procope. "Perhaps I can convince you that my idea is not so chimerical as you imagine." And, knitting his brow, he proceeded to establish the feasibility of his plan. "If we