At that moment, at six o'clock, the lunar pole appeared. The disc only presented to the travellers' gaze one half brilliantly lit up, whilst the other disappeared in the darkness. Suddenly the projectile passed the line of demarcation between intense light and absolute darkness, and was plunged in profound night !
For three hundred and fifty-four hours and a half, nearly fifteen days, the three adventurers were doomed to ride through the wilderness of interplanetary space in pitch darkness, although, fortunately, they were able to light up their cabin artificially. The face of the moon above which they were now floating was never visible from the earth.
Why hadn't the Columbiad been drawn by the gravitational pull of the moon down on to it's surface? That was the puzzle that teased Barbicane's scientific mind. No more than twenty-five miles had separated it from the lunar disc, so it must have come strongly within the moon's influence.
It its speed had been enormous, he could have understood that the fall would not have taken place; but, with a relatively moderate speed, that resistance to the moon's attraction could not be explained. Was the projectile under some foreign influence ? Did some kind of body retain it in the ether ? It was quite evident that it could never reach any point of the moon. Whither was it going? Was it going farther from, or nearing the disc ? Was it being borne in that profound darkness through the infinity of space ? How could they learn, how calculate, in the midst of this night ? All these questions made Barbicane uneasy, but he could not solve them.
Certainly, the invisible orb was there, perhaps only some few miles off; but neither he nor his companions could not see it. If there was any noise on its surface, they could not hear it. Air, that medium of sound, was wanting to transmit the groanings of that moon which the Arabic legends call "a man already half granite, and still breathing."
One must allow that that was enough to aggravate the most patient observers. It was just that unknown hemisphere which was stealing from their sight. That face which fifteen days sooner, or fifteen days later, had been, or would be, splendidly illuminated by the solar rays, was being lost in utter darkness. In fifteen days where would the projectile be ? Who could say ? Where would the chances of conflicting attractions have drawn it to ? The disappointment of the travellers in the midst of this utter darkness may be imagined. All observation of the lunar disc was impossible. The splendour of the starry world drew them to the windows of their moving ship.
Long did the travellers stand mute, watching the constellated firmament, upon which the moon, like a vast screen, made an enormous black hole. But at length a painful sensation drew them from their watchings. This was intense cold, which soon covered the inside of the glass of the scuttles with a thick coating of ice. The sun was no longer warming the projectile with its direct rays, and thus it was losing the heat stored up in its walls by degrees. This heat was rapidly evaporating into space by radiation, and a considerably lower temperature was the result. The humidity of the interior was changed into ice upon contact with the glass, preventing all observations.
"Well !" observed Michel, "we cannot reasonably complain of the monotony of our journey ! What variety we have had, at least in temperature. Now we are blinded with light and saturated with heat, like the Indians of the Pampas ! now plunged into profound darkness, amidst the cold like the Esquimaux of the north pole. No, indeed ! we have no right to complain; nature does wonders in our honour."
Experimenting and note-taking with all the calmness of men who foresaw a future safe landing on their parent Earth, Barbicane, Nicholl and Ardan sailed on round the moon without power to guide or alter the course of their spaceship, which was at the mercy of elements they could not account for, let alone control.
The vast disc of the moon hung below them at an unknown distance "like an enormous black screen upon the firmament." Barbicane and Nicholl both agreed that whether the Columbiad was following a parabola or a hyperbola, it was certainly following an "open curve" into infinite space, and that it "would never again meet either the earth of the moon."
What it did meet very soon, however, was a meteor, and this gave them some of the most terrible moments of suspense that they had experienced since being launched on their hazardous journey into unknown space.
Suddenly, in the midst of the ether, in the profound darkness an enormous mass appeared. It was like a moon, but an incandescent moon, whose brilliancy was all the more intolerable as it cut sharply on the frightful darkness of space. This mass, of a circular form, threw a light that filled the projectile. The forms of Barbicane, Nicholl, and Michel Arden, bathed in its white sheets, assumed that livid spectral appearance which physicians produce with the fictitious light of alcohol impregnated with salt.
"By Jove !" cried Michel Arden. "We are hideous. What is that ill-conditioned moon ?"
"A meteor," replied Barbicane.
"A meteor burning in space?"
This shooting globe, suddenly appearing in shadow at a distance of at most 200 miles, ought, according to Barbicane, to have a diameter of 2,000 yards. It advanced at a speed of about one mile and a half per second. It cut the projectile's path, and must reach it in some minutes. As it approached it grew to enormous proportions.
Imagine, if possible, the situation of the travellers ! It is impossible to describe it. In spite of their courage, their sang-froid, their carelessness of danger, they were mute, motionless with stiffened limbs, a prey to frightful terror. Their projectile, the course of which they could not alter, was rushing straight on this ignited mass, more intense than the open mouth of an oven. It seemed as though they were being precipitated towards an abyss of fire.
Barbicane had seized the hands of his two companions, and all three looked through their half-open eyelids upon that asteroid heated to a white heat. If thought was not destroyed within them, if their brains still worked amidst all this awe, they must have given themselves up for lost.