A Journey in Other Worlds by J. J. Astor - HTML preview

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The Honey Of Death


At first nothing seemed to have been disturbed, when they suddenly perceived that both forelegs were missing. On further examination they found that the ponderous tail, seven feet in diameter, was cut through in two places, the thicker portion having disappeared, and that the heavy bones in this extremity of the vertebral column had been severed like straws. The cut surfaces were but little cooler than the interior of the body, showing how recently the mutilation had been effected.

"By all the gods!" exclaimed Bearwarden, "it is easy to see the method in this; the hunters have again cut off only those parts that could be easily rolled. These Jovian fellows must have weapons compared with which the old scythe chariots would be but toys, with which they amputate the legs of their victims. We must see to it that their scimitars do not come too near to us, and I venture to hope that in our bullets they will find their match. What say you, doctor?"

"I see no depression such as such heavy bodies would necessarily have made had they been rolled along the ground, neither does it seem to me that these curious tracks in the sand are those of men."

The loose earth looked as if the cross-ties of some railroad had been removed, the space formerly occupied having been but partly filled, and these depressions were across the probable direction of motion.

"Whatever was capable of chasing mastodons and carrying such weights," said Ayrault, "will, I suspect, have little to fear from us. Probably nothing short of light artillery would leave much effect."

"I dare say," replied Bearwarden, "we had better give the unknown quantity a wide berth, though I would give a year's salary to see what it is like. The absence of other tracks shows that his confreres leave 'Scissor- jaw' alone."

Keeping a sharp lookout in all directions, they resumed their march along the third side of the square which was to bring them back to the Callisto. Their course was parallel to the stream, and on comparatively high ground. Cortlandt's gun did good service, bringing down between fifty and sixty birds that usually allowed them to get as near as they pleased, and often seemed unwilling to leave their branches. By the time they were ready for luncheon they saw it would be dark in an hour. As the rapidity of the planet's rotation did not give them a chance to become tired, they concluded not to pitch their camp, but to resume the march by moonlight, which would be easy in the high, open country they were traversing.

While in quest of fire-wood, they came upon great heaps of bones, mostly those of birds, and were attracted by the tall, bell-shaped flowers growing luxuriantly in their midst. These exhaled a most delicious perfume, and at the centre of each flower was a viscous liquid, the colour of honey.

"If this tastes as well as it looks," said Bearwarden, "it will come in well for dessert"; saying which he thrust his finger into the recesses of the flower, intending to taste the essence. Quietly, but like a flash, the flower closed, his hand being nearly caught and badly scratched by the long, sharp thorns that now appeared at the edges.

"Ha!" he exclaimed, "a sensitive and you may almost say a man-eating plant. This doubtless has been the fate of these birds, whose bones now lie bleaching at its feet after they have nourished its lips with their lives. No doubt the plant has use for them still, since their skeletons may serve to fertilize its roots."

Wishing to investigate further, Bearwarden placed one of the birds they had shot within the bell of another flower, which immediately contracted with such force that they saw drops of blood squeezed out. After some minutes the flower opened, as beautiful as ever, and discharged an oblong ball compressed to about the size of a hen's egg, though the bird that was placed within it had been as large as a small duck. Towards evening these flowers sent up their most beautiful song, to hear which flocks of birds came from far and near, alighting on the trees, and many were lured to death by the siren strains and the honey.

Before resuming their journey, the travellers paid a parting visit to the bell-shaped lilies on their pyramids of bones. The flowers were closed for the night, and the travellers saw by the moonlight that the white mounds were simply alive with diamond-headed snakes. These coiled themselves, flattened their heads, and set up such a hissing on the explorers' approach that they were glad to retire, and leave this curious contrast of hideousness and beauty to the fire-flies and the moons. Marching along in Indian file, the better to avoid treading on the writhing serpents that strewed the ground, they kept on for about two hours. They frequently passed huge heaps or mounds of bones, evidently the remains of bears or other large animals. The carnivorous plants growing at their centre were often like hollow trees, and might easily have received the three travellers in one embrace. But as before, the mounds were alive with serpents that evidently made them their homes, and raised an angry hiss whenever the men approached.

"The wonder to me," said Bearwarden, "is, that these snakes do not protect the game, by keeping it from the life-devouring plants. It may be that they do not show themselves by day or when the victims are near, or that the quadrupeds on which these plants live take a pleasure, like deer, in killing them by jumping with all four feet upon their backs or in some other way, and after that are entrapped by the flowers."

Shortly after midnight they rested for a half hour, but the dawn found them trudging along steadily, though somewhat wearily, and having about completed the third side of their square. Accordingly, they soon made a right-angle turn to the left, and had been picking their way over the rough ground for nearly two hours, with the sun already high in the sky, when they noticed a diminution of light. Glancing up, they saw that one of the moons was passing across the sun, and that they were on the eve of a total eclipse.

"Since all but the fifth moon," said Cortlandt, "revolve exactly in the plane of Jupiter's equator, any inhabitants that settle there will become accustomed to eclipses, for there must be one of the sun, and also of the moons, at each revolution, or about forty-five hundred in every Jovian year. The reason we have seen none before is, because we are not exactly on the equator."

They had a glimpse of the coronal streamers as the last portion of the sun was covered, and all the other phenomena that attend an eclipse on earth. For a few minutes there was a total return to night. The twinkling stars and other moons shone tranquilly in the sky, and even the noise of the insects ceased. Presently the edge of the sun that had been first obscured reappeared, and then Nature went through the phenomenon of an accelerated dawn. Without awaiting a full return of light, the travellers proceeded on their way, and had gone something over a hundred yards when Ayrault, who was marching second, suddenly grasped Bearwarden, who was in front, and pointed to a jet-black mass straight ahead, and about thirty yards from a pool of warm water, from which a cloud of vapour arose. The top of the head was about seven feet high, and the length of the body exceeded thirty feet. The six legs looked as strong as steel cables, and were about a foot through, while a huge, bony proboscis nine feet in length preceded the body. This was carried horizontally between two and three feet from the ground. Presently a large ground sloth came to the pool to drink, lapping up the water at the sides that had partly cooled. In an instant the black armored monster rushed down the slope with the speed of a nineteenthcentury locomotive, and seemed about as formidable. The sloth turned in the direction of the sound, and for a moment seemed paralyzed with fear; it then started to run, but it was too late, for the next second the enormously exaggerated ant--for such it was--overtook it. The huge mandible shears that when closed had formed the proboscis, snapped viciously, taking off the sloth's legs and then cutting its body to slivers. The execution was finished in a few seconds, and the ponderous insect carried back about half the sloth to its hidingplace, where it leisurely devoured it.

"This reminds me," said Bearwarden, "of the old lady who never completed her preparations for turning in without searching for burglars under the bed. Finally she found one, and exclaimed in delight, 'I've been looking for you fifty years, and at last you are here!' The question is, now that we have found our burglar, what shall we do with him?"

 "I constantly regret not having a rifle," replied Cortlandt, "though it is doubtful if even that would help us here."

 "Let us sit down and wait," said Ayrault; "there may be an opening soon."

Anon a woolly rhinoceros, resembling the Rhinoceros tichorhinus that existed contemporaneously on earth with the mammoth, came to drink the water that had partly cooled. It was itself a formidable-looking beast, but in an instant the monster again rushed from concealment with the same tremendous speed. The rhinoceros turned in the direction of the sound, and, lowering its head, faced the foe. The ant's shears, however, passed beneath the horn, and, fastening upon the left foreleg, cut it off with a loud snap.

 "Now is our chance," exclaimed Cortlandt; "we may kill the brute before he is through with the rhinoceros."

 "Stop a bit, doctor," said Bearwarden. "We have a good record so far; let us keep up our reputation for being sports. Wait till he can attend to us."

The encounter was over in less than a minute, three of the rhinoceros's legs being taken off, and the head almost severed from the body. Taking up the legs in its mandibles, the murderous creature was returning to its lair, when, with the cry of "Now for the fray!" Bearwarden aimed beneath the body and blew off one of the farther armoured legs, from the inside. "Shoot off the legs on the same side," he counselled Ayrault, while he himself kept up a rapid fire. Cortlandt tried to disconcert the enemy by raining duck-shot on its scale- protected eyes, while the two rifles tore off great masses of the horn that covered the enormously powerful legs. The men separated as they retreated, knowing that one slash of the great shears would cut their three bodies in halves if they were caught together. The monster had dropped the remains of the rhinoceros when attacked, and made for the hunters at its top speed, which was somewhat reduced by the loss of one leg. Before it came within cutting distance, however, another on the same side was gone, Ayrault having landed a bullet on a spot already stripped of armour. After this the men had no difficulty in keeping out of its way, though it still moved with some speed, snipping off young trees in its path like grass. Finally, having blown the scales from one eye, the travellers sent in a bullet that exploded in the brain and ended its career.

"This has been by all odds the most exciting hunt we have had," said Ayrault, "both on account of the determined nature and great speed of the attack, and the almost impossibility of finding a vulnerable spot."

 "Anything short of explosive bullets," added Bearwarden, "would have been powerless against this beast, for the armour in many places is nearly a foot thick."

"This is also the most extraordinary as well as most dangerous creature with which we have, had to deal," said Cortlandt, "because it is an enormously enlarged insect, with all the inherent ferocity and strength. It is almost the exact counterpart of an African soldierant magnified many hundred thousand times. I wonder," he continued thoughtfully, "if our latter-day insects may not be the deteriorated (in point of size) descendants of the monsters of mythology and geology, for nothing could be a more terrible or ferocious antagonist than many of our well-known insects, if sufficiently enlarged. No animal now alive has more than a small fraction of the strength, in proportion to its size, of the minutest spider or flea. It may be that through lack of food, difficulties imposed by changing climate, and the necessity of burrowing in winter, or through some other conditions changed from what they were accustomed to, their size has been reduced, and that the fire-flies, huge as they seemed, are a step in advance of this specimen in the march of deterioration or involution, which will end by making them as insignificant as those on earth. These ants have probably come into the woods to lay their eggs, for, from the behaviour of the animals we watched from the turtle, there must have been several; or perhaps a war is in progress between those of a different colour, as on earth, in which case the woods may be full of them. Doubtless the reason the turtle seemed so unconcerned at the general uneasiness of the animals was because he knew he could make himself invulnerable to the marauder by simply closing his shell, and we were unmolested because it did not occur to the ant that any soft-shelled creatures could be on the turtle's back."

"I think," said Bearwarden, "it will be the part of wisdom to return to the Callisto, and do the rest of our exploring on Jupiter from a safe height; for, though we succeeded in disabling this beauty, it was largely through luck, and had we not done so we should probably have provided a bon bouche for our deceased friend, instead of standing at his grave."

 Accordingly they proceeded, and were delighted, a few minutes later, to see the sunlight reflected from the projectile's polished roof.