Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

‘There’s no such thing as no gravity,’ he told him severely.

‘Is there not, now? Well, it feels as if there is, blast it,’ said the other ungratefully.

‘Don’t let Doc bother you,’ advised Froud, pausing in the act of reaching for his shoes. ‘You were quite in the best tradition. Wells’ and Verne’s people biffed about just like that. I say, can’t we open one of those shutters?’

Dugan looked at the still horizontal Dale.

‘Better wait for orders.’

‘That’s all right.’ Dale’s voice came weakly. ‘Go ahead if the windows aren’t broken. I’ll lie here a bit.’

The three began to tackle one of the shutters while the doctor searched in his case for a syringe before moving over to Dale. There was some difficulty in unscrewing the. shutters. With no weight in their bodies to act as leverage every movement required purchase in the opposite direction, but at length the shutter was made to swing back.

Stars like diamonds, bright and undiffused, shone in brilliant myriads against a velvet blackness. Bright sparks which were great suns burnt lonely, with nothing to illuminate in a darkness they could not dissipate. In the empty depths of space there was no size, no scale, nothing to show that a million light years was not arm’s length, or arm’s length, a million light years. Microcosm was confused with macrocosm.

For a short time no one spoke, then:

‘Where’s the Earth?’ Froud asked.

‘She’ll rise soon. We’re twisting slightly,’ Dugan told him.

They waited while the flaring stars slipped slowly sideways. A dark segment began to encroach, blotting everything else from sight. It swung farther and farther across their sky until upon its far edge, seemingly above them, gleamed the crescent Earth. Froud murmured half to himself: ‘My God, isn’t she a beauty? Shimmering like a pearl.’

The vast crescent had not the hard, clear outline of the moon. A cool, green blue light flooded out from it as it hung huge and lucent in the sky, softened as though by a powdering of some celestial bloom.

Sunset had just overtaken Europe and the nightline was moving out on to the Atlantic. The Americas showed their zigzag close to the outer edge, and the greater ranges of their mountains were still just discernible. It was strange to think that high in those mountains were observatories where even now telescopes were trained upon them. Still more odd to think of all the millions of men swarming with all their unimportant importance upon that beautiful piece of cosmic decay . . .

Dale and the doctor moved across and joined them. The rocket was still twisting, carrying the Earth out of sight. A sudden glare from the window took them all by surprise.

‘Shut it quick, or we’ll all be cooked,’ ordered Dale.

The sun had ‘risen’ as a mass of naked, flaring flames; its heat was intense, and its brilliance too vivid to be suffered. Dugan and Burns together slammed the shutter across.

Dale turned and made his way to the control seat where he began to study the dials and gauges. The maximum thermometer showed that the acceleration had been controlled well below the danger point. The air pressure and condition meters read as he had expected. The speed dial, of course, remained steady at just over seven miles a second. Not until he came to the fuel level register did he find any great deviation from his expectations, but in front of that dial he paused, frowning. There was an appreciable difference between the estimate he had made and the reading it gave. He was puzzled.

‘That’s queer,’ he murmured to Dugan, beside him.

‘It’s not a great error besides, we’ve gone over the seven a second mark,’ said the other.

‘I know, but, allowing for that, it’s wrong. It’s one of the simplest calculations of the lot the amount of power required to raise a given weight at a given speed its elementary. We can’t have gone wrong over that half a minute.’

He took a slide rule from a drawer and did some rapid calculation.

‘Somewhere between a hundred and thirty and a hundred and forty pounds, I make it. Now how the hell can we have gained that, I wonder?’

‘You pushed up the acceleration during the fifth minute.’

‘I know. I’ve compensated for that.’ He spoke to the rest. ‘Has any one of you brought anything extra aboard?’

Froud and Burns shook their heads. Their possessions had been weighed to an ounce. Doctor Grayson looked a trifle sheepish.

‘Well?’ Dale snapped.

‘Er-my small grand daughter, you know. She insisted that I must have a mascot.’ He fumbled in a pocket and produced a cat made of black velvet. It wore a bushy tail and an arrogant expression.

Dale smiled. ‘Probable weight, one ounce. We’ll forgive you that, Doc. But you didn’t bring, for instance, that microscope of yours?’

‘No, unfortunately. You ought to have let me have that, you know, Dale. It might have been very valuable to us.’

‘So might a whole lot of things, but we’ve had to do without them. Are the rest of you absolutely sure that you’ve nothing extra?’

They all shook their heads.

‘Well, it’s an odd point, but apart from that, everything has gone like clockwork.’

‘If you had my inside, you couldn’t say that,’ Froud observed. ‘I ache, not only all over, but all through. I’ve got serious doubts whether my stomach will ever expand again, and the very thought of food. . .’ He pulled an expressive face.

‘What’s next?’ Dugan asked of Dale.

‘Correct our course, and stop this twisting. Couches everyone.’

Froud groaned. ‘Oh, my God. Again?’

‘It’s nothing much this time, but it might throw you about a bit.’

For twenty minutes he and Dugan in the control seats corrected and recorrected in a series of jerks.

‘That’s all for the present,’ Dale said, at length. ‘You can get up now, and if you want to open a shutter, that’s the shady side, over there.’ Turning to Dugan, he added: ‘Get me charts one, two and three and we’ll mark the course in detail.’

Dugan left the room by a trap door in the floor Beyond extended a metal ladder. The ladder could not be said to lead down, for there was now neither ‘up’ nor ‘down’ within the rocket, but it offered its rungs for the purpose of towing oneself along. The living and control room of the Gloria Mundi was situated forward, in the nose. Its floor was circular, and the walls, by reason of the projectile shape, converged slightly towards the ceiling. Dale had decided that a separate navigation room was unnecessary. Rocket flight, once the gravitation of Earth has been offset, is not, strictly speaking, a flight at all, but a fall. When in free space and on the correct course, the only attention required is that of slight modifications by short bursts on the steering tubes. Since it would be theoretically possible for the ship to keep her calculated track without any correction until she was slowed for landing, he considered that the provision of a special navigation cabin would be a waste of space.

Round the walls of the main room the five shuttered windows were set at equal intervals. Between them, and capable of operation when the shutters must be closed, were mounted telescopic instruments ingeniously made to pierce the double hull. Now that a radius of movement was no longer necessary, the five slung couches could be packed more closely together, a table with a magnetized surface screwed to the floor and other adaptations made for the sake of comfort during a fall which must last almost twelve weeks.

Beyond the trap door were the store rooms for food and other necessities. Batteries for lighting and heating. The air supply and purification plant. A small cabin, little more than a cupboard, for use in emergency as a sick bay. A work bench, a small light lathe and rack of tools for minor repairs, and even a corner fitted as a galley though the anticipated difficulties of weightless cooking precluded hope of many hot meals.

With this second level, the habitable portion of the rocket ended. Beyond lay the fuel tanks with their tons of explosives, the mixing chambers and the pumps supplying the combustion chambers whence the expanding gases would roar from the driving tubes.

Dugan towed himself towards that part of the storeroom where the charts were kept. He pushed off and floated towards the floor; his magnetized soles met it with a slight click, and immediately he began to feel more normal. Although one had expected it, there was a slight sense of uncanniness attending a weightless condition. He bent down, pulled open the long front of the chart locker, and then stood staring. When he had last seen them the charts had been neatly rolled into cylinders; now most of them had been flattened out by the pressure of acceleration. That caused him no surprise: what did, was the unmistakable toe of a boot protruding from between the folds of paper.

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Categories: Wyndham, John