Froud broke in as he paused:
‘It is really the same as my reason. News gathering. The difference is that your news is specialized. We are all gatherers of news which is another name for knowledge so now we’re back where you started.’
‘Well, what do you expect to find?’ the doctor asked him.
‘I don’t really know. I think most of all I want evidence of the existence of a race of creatures who built the Martian canals.’
Dugan broke in. ‘Canals! Why, everybody knows that that was a misconception from the beginning. Schiaparelli just called them canali when he discovered them, and he meant channels. Then the Italian word was translated literally and it was assumed that he meant that they were artificial works. He didn’t imply that at all.’
‘I know that,’ Froud said coldly. ‘I learnt it at school as you did. But that doesn’t stop me from considering them to be artificial.’
‘But think of the work, man. It’s impossible. They’re hundreds of miles long, and lots of them fifty miles across, and the whole planet’s netted with them. It just couldn’t be done.’
‘I admit that it’s stupendous, but I don’t admit that it’s impossible. In fact, I contend that if the oceans of the Earth were to dry up and our only way of getting water was to drain it from the poles, we should do that very thing.’
‘But think of the labour involved!’
‘Self preservation always involves labour. But if you want to shake my faith in the theory that the Martian canals were intelligently constructed, all you have to do is to account for their formation in some other way. If you’ve got an idea which will explain nature’s method of constructing straight, intersecting ditches of constant width and hundreds of miles in length, I’d like to hear it.’
Dugan looked to Dale for assistance, but the latter shook his head.
‘I’m keeping an open mind. There’s not enough evidence.’
‘The straight lines are evidence enough for me,’ Froud went on. ‘Nature only abhors a vacuum in certain places, but she abhors a straight line anywhere.’
‘Aye,’ Burns agreed, emerging unexpectedly from his customary silence. ‘She can’t draw a straight line nor work from a plan. Hit and miss is her way an’ a lot of time she wastes with her misses.’
‘Then, like me, you expect to find traces of intelligent life?’ the journalist asked him.
‘I don’t know, that’s one of the things I’m hoping to find out. Though now you’re asking me, I never did see why we should think that all God’s creatures are to be found on one wee planet.’
‘I’m with you there,’ the doctor agreed. ‘Why should they? It seems to me that the appearance of life is a feature common to all planets in a certain stage of decay. I’d go further. I’d say that it seems likely that in one system you will find similar forms of life. That is, that anywhere in the solar system you will find that life has a carbon basis for its molecules, while in other systems protoplasm may be unknown though life exists.’
‘That’s beyond me,’ Dugan told him. ‘Are you trying to lead up to a suggestion that there are, or were, men on Mars?’
‘Heavens no! All I am suggesting is that if there is life it will probably be not incomprehensibly different in form from that we know. Fundamentally it will depend on the molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon which go to make up protoplasm. What shapes it may have taken, we can only wait and see.’
‘What a unique opportunity for reviving the traveller’s tale as an institution,’ put in Froud. ‘We could have a lot of fun telling yarns about dragons, unicorns, Cyclops, centaurs, hippogriffs and all the rest of them when we get home.’
‘You’ve forgotten that you’re the camera man of this expedition. They’d demand photographs,’ Dale reminded him. Froud grinned.
‘The camera never lies but, oh, what a lot you can do with a photograph before you print it. It’ll be amusing,’ he went on, ‘to see which of the story tellers was nearest the truth. Wells, with his jelly like creatures, Weinbaum, with his queer birds, Burroughs, with his menageries of curiosities, or Stapledon, with his intelligent clouds? And which of the theorists, too. Lowell, who started the canal irrigation notion, Luyten, who said that the conditions are just, but only just, sufficient for life to exist at all, Shirning, who?’
He stopped suddenly. The rest, looking at him in’ surprise, saw that he had turned his head and was looking at the girl. And she was returning his stare steadily. Her expression told them nothing. Her lips were slightly parted. She seemed to breathe a little faster than usual. Neither of them spoke. Dugan said:
‘Well, what did what’s his name say, anyway?’
But the rest took no notice. The doctor was frowning slightly, as if in an effort of memory. Dale looked frankly bewildered, the more so for he noticed that even Burns’ attention had been caught. Froud, with his eyes still on the girl’s face, raised his eyebrows interrogatively. She hesitated for a second and then gave an all but imperceptible nod.
‘Yes,’ she said slowly, ‘I suppose they’ll have to know now.’ Froud twisted round to face the others.
‘Gentlemen, the mystery of the Gloria Mundi is solved. I present, for the first time on any space ship, Miss Joan Shirning.’
The effect of the announcement was varied.
‘So that was it,’ the doctor murmured half aloud, as he looked at the girl again. Burns nodded, and eyed her in the manner of one reserving judgment. Dugan goggled, and Dale merely increased his expression of bewilderment.
‘What’s it all about?’ he asked irritably.
‘Good Lord, man. Surely you can’t have forgotten the Shirning business already?’
‘I seem to have heard the name somewhere, but what and when was it?’
‘About five years ago. Grand newspaper stunt. Started off great and then flopped dead. You couldn’t help’
‘I must have been away, besides, I spent the last part of 1976 in a Chinese hospital over that Gobi Desert crash. What was the Shirning business?’ Froud looked at the girl again.
‘Miss Shirning will be able to tell you about it better than I can, it’s her story.’
‘No.’ Joan shook her head. ‘I’d rather you told what you know of it first.’
After a moment’s hesitation Froud agreed.
‘All right. And then you can fill in the details. As far as I can remember, it went like this. John Shirning, F.R.S., D.Sc., etc., was professor of Physics at Worcester University. It’s not a large place, and they were lucky to have him, because he was a biggish shot in the physics world. However, he’d been there several years, and it seemed to suit him all right. Well, sometime in the autumn of 1976 he mentioned to a friend, in confidence, that he had come by a remarkable machine which he could not understand either in principle or operation. As far as he knew, it was unique, and in the course of the conversation, he let slip the suggestion that it might even be of extra-terrestrial origin.
‘Well, the friend was less of a friend than Shirning thought. Either he really thought that Shirning was going dotty, or else he wanted to create the impression that he was. Anyway, he started spreading the yarn left and right. Now, mind you, if it had been about any Tom, Dick or Harry, nobody would have taken any notice, but because the tale was hitched on to Shirning, people began to get curious. They started hinting about it and soon got to asking him outright what this mysterious thing was, and he made the primary mistake of not denying the whole thing and stamping on it then and there. Instead, he told them to mind their own damned business, which, of course, they did not. Then, after a bit, the Press got hold of it, and started being funny at his expense.
‘The University faculty stood it for a week or so, and then they tackled him. Told him he was making the place a laughing stock, and would he please give a public denial of the story right away. Then he shook them a bit by saying he couldn’t do that because, in his opinion, it was the truth. Of course they opened their eyes, pulled long faces, shook their heads and didn’t believe him and you can hardly blame them. So, to cut it short, he said that the thing, whatever it was, had been in his house for nearly a month now and he was more convinced than ever that no one on Earth had the knowledge necessary to make it. And if they didn’t believe him, he’d show it to them the next day what was more, he’d show it to the Press, too, and he defied any of them to explain what the thing was, or on what principles it worked.