‘We can afford to slow up more gently than we accelerated,’ Dale told them. ‘In fact, we’ll have to, because I’ve got to see where we’re going. Now, couches everyone.’
‘How I hate that order,’ murmured the doctor, as he obeyed and fastened his straps, this time unaided.
‘Ready? Here goes then,’ Dale said.
He pushed forward his lever. The Gloria Mundi quivered throughout her structure. The droning roar of the rocket tubes grew louder. Bodies that had been weightless for nearly three months felt a curious sense of heaviness descend upon them. The pressure increased, the more unpleasant for its unfamiliarity. The speed indicator began to back to less fantastic figures as they approached on a spiral which took advantage of the planet’s rotation. Two thousand miles above the surface Dale found that his ship was still going too fast. He advanced the lever farther.
‘Ugh,’ grunted Froud. ‘Happy landing he muttered, before he gave himself up to contemplation of his own discomfort. .
The power of the rocket discharges increased. The passengers’ symptoms became unpleasantly like those attending their start.
CHAPTER XIV. BURNS PLAYS A HAND.
THE Gloria Mundi landed close to one of the vegetation belts which wrap Mars in a large meshed web. Inevitably she toppled on her side, rolling and bumping as she slithered to a final stop. She came to rest with two of her windows buried in the sand and another staring straight up into a purplish blue sky. But the time Joan managed to crawl from her couch back into the main room, the shutters on the other two windows had been swung back and a jostling was going on for vantage points. The doctor surrendered his place to her, and withdrew. It was his job, in his capacity of the expedition’s chemist, to analyse a sample of the atmosphere.
Joan gazed upon a Martian landscape for the first time. And she was disappointed. So poor a climax it looked for so much endurance. In spite of reason, their subconscious expectations had been higher, or, at least, different. Now that they saw what had been foretold, she, and Dugan beside her, felt let down.
It was a desert. A vista of reddish rocks and drifted sand, arid and hot, extending to the limits of their view. A dreary waste upon which nothing moved or grew; where the sun caught in glittering points upon harsh crystalline fragments, emphasizing its inhospitality. Her spirits fell. Such a land could produce nothing, nothing at all. They had been right, those who had said that Mars was only a lifeless globe. Perhaps life, after all, was just an accident which had happened once . . .
Then it was borne in upon her that Dale and Froud at the other window were exclaiming excitedly. Even Burns was contributing a few sentences. She hurried across the floor (which had been the wall when the rocket was erect) and joined them.
Stunted, rusty looking bushes of unfamiliar shapes dotted the sand at some distance from this side of the ship, stragglers from a main front of vegetation which began about a mile away. Poor stuff it was, scraggy and parched and brittle in appearance, but it represented life. The bushes had evolved here, what else might not have arisen? And they still lived. The planet was not yet dead while sap still flowed, however thinly through those twisted stems and coppery, spade shaped leaves which fluttered a little in the breeze. The sight which excited the rest into exclamations, kept her silent.
The doctor’s voice suddenly drew their attention. He had made his tests of the atmosphere.
‘The components,’ he was saying, ‘seem to be much the same as our own, and not in very different proportions, save for a lower percentage of carbon dioxide. It will be perfectly safe for us to breathe it, but the pressure is considerably less than our accustomed fifteen pounds, so that it will be necessary for us to wear oxygen masks to supplement it. You will all be relieved to hear that we shall not have to use the cumbrous space suits, but, in view of the high temperature in the sun, we shall have to wear heat insulated overalls.’
There was a rush for the lockers, and a babble of talk as they pulled on the stiff overalls.
‘Thank God we’ve not got to use the space suits,’ said Froud. ‘Not only do they smell abominably, but it’s quite impossible for a bloke to show the dignity proper to Earth’s ambassadors when he’s dressed up like a cross between a deep sea diver and an Eskimo. Not, of course, that we’ll look any too handsome in oxygen masks, but we’ll be able to give them a suggestion of the true human shape.’
Joan was wrestling with one of the spare overall suits which was several times too large for her.
‘Well, none of your machines has come to look us up yet,’ Dale said, as he adjusted the oxygen pack over his shoulder blades.
‘You wait a bit.’ She attempted a light tone. ‘They’ll turn up. It’s not likely that a thing like the Gloria Mundi can have come roaring into Martian skies quite unnoticed.’
‘If there’s anything beyond a lot of mangy looking bushes to notice her,’ he answered sceptically.
‘Give them time,’ she said.
‘Quite,’ the doctor agreed. ‘You can’t expect them to just pop up from the ground. If they exist at all, we don’t know how far they may have to come. This doesn’t look like a residential district even for machines. By the way, where are we?’
‘Bit north of the equator. That’s as much as I can tell you.’ Dale crossed to a locker. As he opened it, he said: ‘Everyone is to take a rifle and a belt of ammunition. I know it may seem a ridiculous thing to do, but remember that we know nothing at all about this place. Appearances may be quite deceptive.’
‘What? Me, too?’ Froud expostulated. ‘But, look here, what with movie cameras and still cameras and whatnot, I’m going to look like a bazaar and exchange column already. Have a heart.’
‘They don’t weigh as much here as they do at home,’ was Dale’s only consolation. ‘We can’t afford to take any risks. Where life is possible for bushes, it’s quite likely to be possible for other things.’
‘Ah, the Wellsian crabs again.’
‘We’ll see. In any case, nobody is to split off from the rest until we know a bit more. That clear? We keep together.’
He dealt out the light rifles and bandoliers and waited while they were slung. There was a further delay while Froud attached to himself camera cases, stand holders, light meters, extra lens carriers, etc. At last:
‘Behold! The human Christmas Tree,’ he said.
Dale saw to the adjustments of the masks and tubes which fed oxygen through the nose, leaving the mouth free. When he was assured that they were all working properly, he crossed to the entrance port and for the first time in the seventy four days since they had left Earth, swung it open. One by one he passed his crew through the airlock.
Joan, the last to emerge, save for Dale himself, crossed the coarse, reddish sand to Froud’s side. He was taking a series of snapshots of the uninspiring view.
‘Martian idea of a landscape pretty inferior,’ he said, conversationally. ‘I must say this place is something of a flop. We’ve got deserts every bit as good at home, and no need to dress up for them. Now I suppose I had better take a shot or two of the old G.M., to be entitled: “Earth’s Adventurers at Their Goal,” or “The Triumph of “ ‘
‘Shush!’ said Joan.
‘What do you mean: “shush”?’
She nudged him, and nodded towards the entrance port. Dale had just left the airlock; in one hand he carried a trowel, and in the other, a rod with a flag attached to it. The rest watched while he dug a small hole, planted his pole, and stamped the red sand back about its base. He stood back. The Union Jack unfolded gently in the light Martian breeze. Dale saluted.
‘In the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second of England, I proclaim this land a part of the British Commonwealth of Nations. In her name, and in the name of all the peoples of the Commonwealth, I honour the brave men who gave their lives that this thing might be done. To their memory let it be dedicated, to their glory let it thrive. They gave us this land, not in bloodshed, but with their life’s blood. May we prove worthy of their trust.’
In the silence which followed an air of constraint fell over the party. The doctor looked a little quizzically at Dale and then let his gaze wander to the journalist. But Froud did not catch his eye. True to his training, he was apparently interested only in providing a record of the occasion, and all his attention was engaged by the manipulation of a small movie camera.