‘It’s natural, isn’t it? The first thing one wants to know about any machine is: “What is it for?” You can’t get much further till you know that. The second is: .”What makes it go?” and we’ve no answer to that, either.’
‘As far as we are concerned,’ Joan asked, ‘does either of those questions matter as much as: “How did it become what it is?”’
‘I don’t know. I’m going to wait till I see one, and ask it if I see one. The whole darned thing’s too hypothetical for me,’ Froud said shortly and, for him, unexpectedly.
Though there were times when the topic palled as indeed all topics palled, yet it remained frequently recurrent, and, becoming more accustomed, lost in the process much of its first fantastic quality. Familiarity admittedly breeds contempt where one’s own preconceptions were at fault, but it is no less efficient at clearing up one’s mental miscarriages. The occupants of the Gloria Mundi would have been surprised could they have made a direct comparison between their earlier defensive ridicule and the state of. hypothetical acceptance which they gradually reached. The only one who yielded no ground either in conviction or assertion was Joan unless that were also true of Burns.
But Burns was inscrutable. He had withdrawn into an aloofness which began to cause both the doctor and Dale serious misgiving. At times there was a look on his face and a curious glitter in his eyes which gave the former a very lively apprehension of trouble to come. Then he would sink back again into a less alarming, but no more healthy apathy from which it appeared impossible to rouse him. Since his frustrated assault upon Joan he had not troubled her actively. She could not decide in her own mind whether he was restrained by the thought of Froud’s pistol which she habitually carried in her pocket, or by some mental process of his own. Nevertheless, she felt to some extent responsible for his isolation. Although she knew that Froud had not told the rest of the incident and that Burns’ withdrawal was entirely voluntary, an instinct urged her to approach him and, if possible, draw him back into the party. For the first time she waived her resolution and singled one of the men out for special attention.
She took to including him pointedly in the general conversation; asking him. questions unnecessarily to bring him out of his retirement. Frequently they remained unanswered, apparently unheard, and upon the occasion when he did reply, it was usually in monosyllables. But she persisted in spite of his stubbornness.
The climax came one ‘day’ over a month after they had passed the half way stage. Under a fortnight now separated them from the end of the journey. An enlivened sense of expectation among the rest was making the engineer’s isolation even more pronounced. Joan, feeling for some half understood reason that the solidarity of the group was essential, sat down next to him and began to ask questions on the wear of rocket tube linings. The rest did not catch his reply, but they saw her stiffen and flush and noticed the gleam of anger in her eyes. Dugan chose to interfere. He walked across and demanded to know what Burns had said. Burns ignored him. Dugan repeated, angrily:
‘What did you say to Miss Shirning just now?’
Burns looked up slowly. In his eyes was that expression which had worried the doctor, but he spoke calmly enough:
‘You mind your own business.’
Dugan scowled, and looked questioningly at Joan. She shook her head.
‘It was nothing,’ she said.
Burns grinned unpleasantly.
‘You see, she doesn’t mind. And if you still want to know, I told her to stop bitching about here and to go and ‘
But Dugan had his excuse. Before the engineer could finish, he had lunged at him. It was a clumsy stroke. Forgetful of his weightless condition, he misjudged it hopelessly. The blow missed the jaw and took the other on the shoulder; ineffectually, for his back was against the wall: Before any of the rest could interfere, Burns brought up one hard knobbly fist in a jolt to Dugan’s chin, which broke the younger man’s contact with the floor and sent him drifting obliquely upwards across the room. Burns laughed for the first time in weeks as the other struggled to make contact with his feet on the curved ceiling. Dugan, further infuriated by the sound, managed it at last. He turned, crouched a moment, and then launched himself back. But he did not reach the engineer. Dale and Froud, by common consent, intercepted his flight and dragged him to the floor.
Froud has since been heard to lament the necessity. A fight unhampered by gravity promised to be a uniquely interesting spectacle, but he agreed with Dale that it could not be risked.
Joan moved away from Burns whose grin grew the more sardonic as he watched her go. Froud and Dale hung on to Dugan while his anger cooled into sullenness. The little flare was allowed to fade into unsatisfactory inconclusiveness, but it left behind it an increased hostility between the participants, and an increased misgiving among the rest. The gap between them and the engineer, already too wide, was enlarged.
‘Not long now,’ said the doctor.
He and Joan were standing beside one of the windows. The pink disc had swelled to about the size of the full moon seen from Earth. It seemed to hang a little above them, looking only just out of reach. One would have only to be a little taller, it seemed, to stretch out and. pluck the shining ball from the sky. It was so near now, and yet mysterious and secret as ever.
So puzzling, too, with its criss-cross markings which might be canals, its white capped poles which almost certainly were ice bound. The telescopic instruments had told them scarcely anything, for it proved to be exasperatingly impossible to keep them trained steadily upon one spot. Froud was sure that he had seen a glint of water in one of the dark markings, but no one could support him. The doctor claimed to have caught a glimpse of a stone formation which could not be natural, but it had been no more than a glimpse, and he had been unable to pick it up again. The rest had distinguished nothing.
‘Only four days more,’ the doctor amplified.
‘An age. Four of the longest days I shall ever spend,’ she said, without turning. ‘Somehow, now that we are so near, I’m afraid. For the first time I am beginning to doubt whether it ever really happened. Suppose it was all a dream that the machine never really existed at all …’ Her voice trailed away. They gazed up at the planet in silence for some minutes before she went on:
‘If it isn’t true if they’re right after all, and Mars is only a dead world with nothing left, or if it has not even lived, what shall I do? I can’t go back and face them . . . I couldn’t face any of you . . . I’ll kill myself.’ It was her first sign of weakness. Her first admission of the questioning doubt which had nagged more and more insistently during the last weeks. Suppose after all that they had been wrong? That she and her father had been cruelly hoaxed? No, that was impossible. Such a machine could not have been built on Earth, and yet . . .
The doctor had turned away from the window and was watching her closely.
‘That’s not like you,’ he said, with a frown. ‘You’ve not been sleeping properly lately.’
‘Not much,’ she admitted. ‘It’s this getting so close, and yet not knowing any more than when we left. Suppose . . .’
‘You’ve got to stop supposing. You’re getting edgy, and that’s no help to any of us. Let me give you some stuff.’
‘All right.’ She nodded wearily. ‘But not just yet. Let me watch a little longer.’
He grunted. ‘There’s nothing to see yet. Old Mars is keeping his secrets well.’
‘I’m afraid,’ Joan repeated. ‘If I was right if that machine was an individual, what does it mean? What are we going to meet there? How are they likely to deal with us? It frightens me, Doc. Inhuman machines…’
He took her by the arm. ‘This sort of thing won’t do, Joan. You’re working yourself up to no purpose. I’ll give you that sedative.’
‘Yes.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘This isn’t like me, is it? I’m sorry. You won’t tell the others?’
‘I won’t if you’ll take the stuff right away. A good long sleep’ll do you a world of good. Make you see everything differently. Come along.’
Dale fastened the safety belt and anchored himself into the control seat.
‘Shutters closed,’ he ordered.
The great curve of the planet now occupied half the field of view, and it was with reluctance that his crew withdrew to swing the shutters across.