Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

My father, not unreasonably, was very annoyed. Not only had his car been damaged, but he considered himself very lucky not to have been involved in a nasty accident through no fault of his own. He had caught a glimpse of the frightened face of the man who had dashed across his lights, and there was no doubt that the horses were terrified. He stopped his engine and listened for a moment to the hoof beats clattering away down the road before he got out to investigate. The damage was purely superficial and would not affect the car’s running, but he determined to make his complaint at the farm before he went on. By this time the daylight was almost gone and it seemed darker to him than it actually was, for he had been using his headlights. That is why he was half way across the yard before he saw the machine.

It was standing close by a dung heap on the far side, and once he had seen it, he was surprised that he had not caught sight of it the moment he passed the gate, for against the darkness of the sheds its polished metal gleamed with a brightness altogether unexpected in farm implements. He stopped and stared at it, seeing more details as his eyes grew accustomed to the dusk. He was intrigued because he could not conceive of its purpose, and he approached it more closely out of curiosity.

Oddly enough, he entirely failed to connect it with the alarm of the man and the horses. Probably as his interest was aroused, they temporarily slipped his mind.

Well, I’ve shown you pictures of the machine. What did you make of it at first sight? My father, finding it in the semi darkness, and predisposed to consider it some kind of farm implement, could make nothing of it at all. There it stood, a box like body on eight jointed supports, with its other members curled up, two on each side, looking like large spiral sea shells, and its lenses glinting a little in what light was left. He walked right round it, growing more and more puzzled, for he could see no projection which looked like a control, no means of starting it to work, and, most mysterious of all, no indication whatever of the kind of work it might do once it were started. It struck him as strange, too, that a brand new machine should be left in the open like that without even a cover.

He went up to it and put his hand on the casing. The metal was quite cold, but he fancied he felt the slightest tremble of vibration, as though perhaps a smoothly mounted gyroscope were running inside it. He put his ear against it to listen, and there seemed to be a suggestion of a low, faint thrumming. Then he was suddenly startled. One of the metal spirals uncoiled itself and reached out like a feeler. It gave him a shock, he says, not only because it was unexpected, but because it happened in complete silence. He retreated a few paces, thinking he must have touched a control by accident, and wondering what the result would be. Then he learnt what had scared the horses. The thing began to walk towards him . . .

My father is, I think, as brave as most men, but no braver, and he did what most men would have done. He ran.

And the machine followed. He could hear its metal feet scuttering behind him.

He .jumped into his car and started it up. With the engine roaring, he slammed in the gear and let in the clutch. But the car did not take up as it should. Something seemed to be holding it back. Suddenly there was a cracking and rending and he shot forward. He looked back, but he could see nothing in the darkness. Glancing over the side of the car, he found that the whole running board and rear wing had been torn away. He soon got into top, and with the car humming along satisfactorily his panic calmed a little. In fact, he began to feel thoroughly ashamed of himself, the more so when he realized that he, an educated man, had reacted in precisely the same way as the labourer and the horses. He began to tell himself that he couldn’t leave the matter like this that his own self respect demanded that he should go back and discover what kind of a machine it could be, and that he must have been mistaken in thinking that it was following him. Whether or not he would have gone back, I don’t know, for while he was trying to make up his mind, he happened to look to his right and saw that the machine was running alongside.

He clutched at the wheel, the car swerved and bumped on to the grass verge. He managed to get it back, missing a telegraph post by inches, then he stole another glance to his side, hoping to find that he had been mistaken; but there was no hallucination, the machine was still running level with him.

Then he really gave way to panic. He put his foot on the accelerator and let the car full out. The speedometer went up into the seventies, and for some seconds he was fully occupied with keeping on the road. Not until he reached a straight stretch did he have a chance to look round. When he did, it was to find that the machine was making quite as good a pace as himself. just then a car appeared ahead. The machine gleamed in its headlights and he saw it drop back to give the other room to pass. He made a desperate effort to force a few more miles an hour out of his car, but it was no good, a few seconds after the other car had passed the machine had drawn level again.

He had to slow down for the lanes near home. They were narrow enough to force the machine behind again and for a time he hoped that it had given up. He swung into our drive, braking hard, and before the engine had stopped turning he was out of his seat, running for the front door. He had just got it open when there was a scuttering on the gravel behind him. He turned, but too late; the thing was half across the threshold when he tried to close the door. It just pushed him aside and forced its way in.

And there it stayed. We were both terrified of it at first, and I don’t understand now why we didn’t run somewhere for help. I suppose we must have been even more afraid of its following us out into the darkness than of staying in the house with it. Indoors we did at least have light to see what it was doing.

And it did nothing. I came downstairs to see my father standing in the hall and looking at it in a helpless way. He told me not to come any closer, and explained what had happened. I was a little incredulous, but he certainly was looking very shaky. I suggested that he should have some brandy, and to my amazement, when we went into the dining room, the machine followed.

The brandy helped to restore his balance and to get rid of some of his fright. After all, whatever the thing was, it didn’t seem to be dangerous. And, seeing it more clearly, his curiosity grew again. Not only was it quite unlike anything he had ever heard of, but some of its principles were quite novel. A machine capable of running at seventy miles an hour on legs was astounding enough, but other things worried him still more, for instance, nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has succeeded in making prehensile metal tentacles such as this machine carried. Then, while he was still staring at it, the most incredible thing of all happened it spoke. At least, a strange metallic chattering came from one of the diaphragms set close to the front lenses (Joan paused and looked at her audience. None of the five made any remark. She went on.)

The thing had apparently come to stay, and after a while we were in no hurry to lose it. My father quickly became ashamed of his earlier fright and grumbled at his loss of faith in himself. ‘No better than a savage,’ he would say. ‘My first reaction to the incomprehensible was superstitious funk. Just like a savage who sees a motor car for the first time. I’ve only a thin crust of reason, through which the barbarism is likely to break at any moment ‘ And he went on in this strain until he had resurrected his self respect to the point where the machine was no more frightening than a clockwork mouse. But his interest in it increased almost to an obsession. He became afraid that other people would find out about it and want to remove it before he had discovered its secret. Save in that one incautious moment that Mr. Froud told you about, I don’t believe he mentioned it to a soul. He would spend hours a day examining it and trying to find out how it worked, but he never did. One time he even went as far as to remove the upper part of the casing, but he could make nothing of the machinery inside; he could not even comprehend the motive force; it was something utterly and completely new to him. When he became too interested and started poking about inside, it slowly uncoiled one of its tentacles, pushed him gently aside and replaced its cover itself.

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Categories: Wyndham, John