‘Stop it l You make me feel like a guinea pig. I’m prepared to forget for twelve weeks that I’m a woman; why can’t they do the same?’
‘Perhaps you’re not as successful at it as you think you are. Besides, both of them resented your presence here from the start, so up pop our old friends sex antagonism, desire for domination and the rest of the famous cast. As long as you hold them off, they’ll harry you at least, Burns will and if you don’t hold them off, they’ll despise you.’
‘Wonderfully cheering, aren’t you?’ she said.
‘Of course, I might take to sleeping in the storeroom,’ he suggested.
‘Thereby introducing another old friend propinquity? No, that won’t do.’
‘I was afraid it mightn’t. You know,’ he went on, with an air of detachment, ‘you’re trying the impossible. How, with your figure and your face, you can solemnly expect five normal men for twelve solid weeks to oh, all right.’ He dried up at the sight of her warning expression.
Twenty minutes or so later Froud re-entered the living room. Burns greeted him with a scowl. Dugan inquired sympathetically if he were feeling better and received an assurance that the crisis had now passed. Froud crossed to the locker devoted to his private belongings and fumbled about in it. Presently he found what he wanted; a small, plated pistol. He took it out and slipped it into his pocket. The others stared in astonishment.
‘For Joan,’ he explained airily. ‘She thought she saw a rat.’
‘A rat here? Don’t talk rot,’ said Dale.
‘Oh, I don’t know wonderfully enterprising things, rats. Anyway, she thought so. Apparently she’s a dead shot on rats. She and her father used to pot them in their Welsh cottage by the hundred. So I said I’d lend her this in case she should see it again.’
He left the incredulous group, and returned to the girl.
‘Here you are,’ he said, handing the weapon across.
She took it, cautiously.
‘How do they work? I’ve never used one before.’ ,
CHAPTER XII. SPECULATION.
THE crossing of the invisible half way mark produced a sense of accomplishment which temporarily, at least, led to a better feeling on hoard the Gloria Mundi. The petty irritation with the personal habits of other people which close proximity aggravates, loomed for the time being less offensively large. The fact that Dale habitually scrubbed his teeth for no less than ten minutes, ceased to count against him; the doctor no longer caused general frowns when he blew his nose with sonorous trumpeting; they ceased to round on Dugan for the unmusical series of yawns with which he announced his wakening; even Froud was forgiven his irritating habit of drumming with his fingers or indulging in some other irksome mannerism. In the general thaw Dale regained his usual geniality. He appeared to have forgiven Joan’s intrusion, seeming to be relieved that she had refused his advances, and more sure of his ground, as a result of the rebuff. At moments Froud even wondered if Dale had been deliberately putting her to the test, but he found himself unable to make up his mind on the point. Whatever the cause, they were thankful for the change and to find that though he still denied the possibility of a Martian origin for Dr. Shirning’s machine, yet he was interested in it to the point of questioning Joan for all the details she could give. Though his present attitude was an immense improvement on the contemptuous silence he had maintained, they had not yet prevailed upon him to join the language class.
The exception to this refraternization movement was Burns. He remained a determined and sulky isolationist, seldom speaking to the rest, joining in none of the occupations they devised to pass the time, and watching them out of his aloofness in a way which got on the nerves of the whole party. Indeed, the doctor held that much of the group’s newly found mutual tolerance was due to this external source of irritation. Moreover, after regarding the engineer with professional detachment, he became aware of an unprofessional sense of apprehension. Six weeks of the outward journey still to go and after that, the return trip to be faced . . . He decided that he was not happy at the prospect. Burns was, or soon would be, in a state which called for handling with care, and in the circumstances he was scarcely likely to get it.
The thought turned him to a study of the rest. Dale had given him some uneasy moments in. the earlier stages, but the reasons had been complicate responsibility, organization, resentment of the stowaway, troubles before the start, and he understood, too, that Mrs. Curtance had been no help to her husband in the circumstances, it was understandable that his reactions should be extreme. He was thankful that Dale had got over it so well, and he had little fear now of it reviving.
And Dugan. Well, Dugan had obviously fallen for the girl. That was all to the good if the girl could maintain her present attitude. The boy was curiously young for his age in some ways sheep’s eyes, and all that, apparently quite content to worship without wanting. Froud? Mentally he shook his head and gave Froud up. Anyway, be imagined that Froud’s emotions seldom got the better of his reason. Himself he saw in a kindly avuncular role towards the whole party, the girl included. It would have hurt him considerably to know that Dugan privately regarded him as an unreliable individual of the genus roué.
It was three terrestrial days past the half way that Joan sprang another surprise on the party.
Dale and Dugan had just finished making one of their periodical checks.
‘Dead on the course,’ Dale told them. ‘It’s surprising how little correction we’ve needed. We know so little of space yet that I was prepared to find all sorts of unguessed sources of deflection.’
‘Even so,’ Froud put in, ‘this three dimensional navigation business seems pretty tedious. It needs so many readings. Why, if there were much correction to be done, you two would be taking angles and levels and things all the blessed time. I suppose in the days to come, when large passenger liners and freighters go flinging themselves about all over the solar system and people look back at us and wonder how our little cockleshell survived even the take off I suppose then they will all travel on some kind of directional beam system. Like the things they use for air liners in fogs at home only, of course, it won’t be ordinary radio. The trouble is to find some kind of radiation besides light which will get through the heavy side layers.’
‘On the contrary, the trouble is to avoid the cranks who say they’ve found it already,’ Dale told him. ‘Why, half the number of experimental transmitters offered to me for this trip would have weighed as much as the Gloria Mundi herself.’
‘Most of them certainly. There were one or two I’d like to try sometime, though, but I couldn’t afford risking the extra weight this time.’
‘You won’t need to. Not if we find the creatures which sent Joan’s machine. They appear to have solved the problem completely,’ Dugan said.
‘Provided that control of the machine was exercised from Mars, they do,’ The doctor agreed. ‘But we’ve no proof that it was. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it may have been built on Earth.’
‘Unlikely,’ Froud thought. ‘After all, it stands to reason that a man who could invent such a thing is not going to use it just for a joke. Why that dodge of prehensile tentacles alone would revolutionize the entire carrying trade.’
The doctor spoke impatiently. ‘Of course it’s unlikely. The whole thing’s unlikely. But there are plenty of possibilities. Even if the machine did come from Mars, there must have been some kind of ship which landed it. Why shouldn’t the source of the remote control have been in that ship, and the means used, ordinary radio?’
‘But it wasn’t ordinary radio,’ Joan put in. ‘My father looked for that very thing, and there was no sign of it.’
‘Well, it seems to me that it must have been controlled from some place on the Earth’s surface because the responses were immediate, instantaneous from what you told us and how do you account for that if the messages had to go all the way to Mars and back?’
‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ Froud admitted.
‘I’ve been wondering,’ said Joan, ‘when somebody was going to see that difficulty.’
They all looked at her.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Dugan.
‘Well, even light going at 186 thousand miles a second is going to take an appreciable time getting to Mars and back, and there would be an added delay of the operator’s responses. And yet the machine’s reactions were immediate faster than ours. I tested that.’