‘The following day he allowed about twenty five of us to come to the show I was covering it for the Poster and we were all crowded into one room of his house while he gave a great harangue about his machine. We listened, some of us bored, and some of us quite impressed, while the University authorities looked just plain worried. Then he said we should see for ourselves. He had just opened the door to lead us to his lab. when his daughter by the way, I apologize to Miss Shirning for being so long in recognizing her when she came running in to say that the thing had gone.’
‘You mean stolen?’ Dale asked.
‘No, that would have been fishy enough at the critical moment, but this was worse. She said it had dissolved itself with chemicals in the lab. Shirning sprinted along with the rest of us behind him. All we saw was a large pool of metal all over the floor, and he went nearly frantic…
‘Well! I mean to say! Can’t you imagine the results? It was a gift to the cheap rags. They made whoopee with it, and tore Shirning to bits for a public holiday. He had to resign his post right off. It was the end of him as far as his career was concerned.
‘But, if it was a stunt, the most puzzling thing about it was, why should he do it? And, even more pertinently where a man of his talent was concerned, why should he do it so badly? A man of his standing had no need of even mild stunts for self advertisement, let alone an impossible thing like this. The most charitable talked darkly of overwork, but he didn’t look overworked to me. After that, he and Miss Shirning disappeared, and it all petered out as these things do.
‘That’s a straight view of the public side of the affair, isn’t it, Miss Shirning?’
‘That’s what happened, Mr. Froud. And considering what most of the other journalists there wrote in their papers afterwards, I think you are being very fair.’
‘Don’t be too hard on them. They had to earn their bread.’
‘They earned it by breaking my father.’
‘Sounds like nonsense to me,’ Dale put in. ‘Do you mean to tell me that Shirning actually claimed that this machine was not made on Earth, at all? That it got there from another planet?’
‘To be accurate,’ the girl told him, ‘it came from Mars.’
‘Oh,’ said Dale, and a prolonged silence fell over the living room of the Gloria Mundi.
‘You still stick to it, then, both of you?’ Froud said, at last.
‘And so I suppose we have found out at last why you are here?’
‘I don’t see that that gives you any good reason for stowing away on my ship,’ Dale said. ‘Even if you do stand by such a fantastic yarn, we should find out what there is on Mars whether you’re with us or not.’
‘I told you before that I came to help,’ said the girl calmly. ‘I wrote to you, but you didn’t answer my letter, so I came.’
‘You wrote! My God! The moment the news of this flight got out half the world started writing to me. I had to have a batch of secretaries to sort the mail. They put the stuff into piles: would be passengers, mystic warnings, crazy inventors, plain nuts, beggars, miscellaneous. Which was yours? The odds are in the favour of “plain nuts”; it was the biggest class.’
‘I offered my services.’
‘Of course. So did a million or so others. How?’
‘As an interpreter.’
Another withering silence fell on the room. Froud was unable to restrain a chuckle as he caught sight of Dale’s face.
‘Look here, young woman,’ said the latter, when he had recovered his power of speech, ‘are you trying to have a game with me? If so, I don’t think it’s very funny.’
‘I’m perfectly serious.’
‘Evidently it was the “plain nuts” list. However, I can play, too. May I ask what University is now giving degrees in conversational Martian?’
Joan continued to face him unabashed. She said, slowly:
‘Nor is that very funny, Mr. Curtance. I can’t speak it, but I can write it. I fancy that I am the only person on Earth who can though I may be wrong in that.’
‘No,’ said Dale, ‘don’t qualify. I’m thoroughly prepared to believe that you’re unique.’
She studied him for a moment.
‘In this matter, I am. And,’ she added, ‘I have also had a unique opportunity of studying the particular type of facetiousness to which the subject gives rise. I suggest that as you have now allowed your reflexes to relieve themselves in the conventional style, you might, just for the time being, control your brain after the manner of an intelligent person.’
‘Atta girl!’ murmured Froud appreciatively, during the subsequent pause.
Dale reddened. He opened his mouth to speak, and then thought better of it. Instead, he relapsed into a condition akin to sulks.
‘Miss Shirning,’ said Froud, ‘as you know, I was at that meeting at your father’s house. I didn’t think it funny, as the others mostly did. I knew your father’s reputation too well to put it down as a hoax. Besides, nobody watching him closely could have had any doubt that he believed every word he was saying. But after the anticlimax, of course, he could do nothing, and neither of you would tell us a word more of the story. What was it?’
‘What good would it have been? We’d lost the only true proof the machine itself. Anything we could have said would have been more fuel for the humorists.’ She looked at Dale as she spoke.
‘Machine!’ said the doctor, emerging explosively from his silence. ‘You keep on talking about a machine. Good heavens, girl, there are thousands of different kinds of machines, from sewing machines to mechanical navvies. What was this language teaching machine of yours a kind of tele-typewriter?’
‘No. Nothing like that. Nothing like anything we know. I can show you, if you’re really interested.’
‘Of course I’m interested. If it’s true, I’m interested in what you found. If it’s not true, I’m interested in your mental condition. The one thing I’m sure about was that it wasn’t an intentional hoax, or you wouldn’t be here. Is that fair enough?’
‘All right,’ she agreed. She fumbled in a pocket and produced half a dozen pieces of paper. ‘After it destroyed itself, our only record was a movie we had made of it. These are enlargements from that film.’
The doctor took the photographs. Frond came behind him and looked over his shoulder. In the background he recognized a view of Shirning’s house at Worcester, but the object on the lawn in the foreground caused him to give an exclamation of surprise. It appeared to consist of a metallic casing, roughly coffin shaped and supported horizontally upon four pairs of jointed metal legs. Four of the pictures were taken from various angles to give a good idea of the whole, and one of them, which included Joan Shirning standing beside it, enabled him to estimate the length of the casing at a few inches under six feet. Another was a close up of one end, showing a complicated arrangement of lenses and other instruments grouped upon the front panel, and the last gave detail of a section of the side, showing the attachment to the casing of two lengths of something looking not unlike armoured hose save that each piece tapered to its free end. Looking again at the full length photographs Frond saw that, in some, all four of these side members were closely coiled against the body of the machine, while, in others, they were outstretched, apparently in the act of waving about.
‘Dear me,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘So that was the great Whatsit as it appeared in life.’
The doctor grunted. ‘But what did it do? What was it for? People don’t just make machines because they like them, they make them to do something.’
‘That,’ said Joan, ‘is exactly what we thought. It could do quite a lot of things. But my father thought still thinks, in fact that its primary purpose was communication.’
Dale silently held out his hand, and the doctor passed the photographs across, saying to the girl:
‘Won’t you tell us the whole thing from the beginning and let’s see what we can make of it?’
‘I second that,’ Frond added.
The girl glanced at the other three. They said nothing. Dale was looking in a puzzled fashion at the photographs. Dugan avoided her eye. Burns maintained his stolid, non-committal front.
Joan made up her mind. ‘I will, but on condition that you don’t interrupt, and that you keep your questions till the end.’
The two men nodded.
CHAPTER X. JOAN TELLS.
ON the twenty third of September, that year (she began), my father had gone over to Malvern on some business which I forget now. It was just after dusk when he started to motor home to Worcester. The distance, as you probably know, is not far, no more than ten miles, and less than that to our house, for we lived on the Malvern side of Worcester. He had covered about one third of the distance and was slowing down for a corner which is awkward because it coincides with a farm crossing, when he heard a loud shout of alarm. A man ran out of the farmyard on the right at top speed. My father just managed to miss him by violent braking as he crossed the road. At the same time there was a great clattering of hooves and two heavy cart horses, snorting with terror, thundered out of the. gateway. They swerved at the sight of the car and one missed it entirely, but the other lurched against it, buckling up one wing like cardboard and smashing the side lamp. It staggered a bit, then it recovered itself and galloped off.