Dale finished his ceremony.
‘What now?’ Dugan asked, breaking the silence self consciously.
‘That seems to be the only way worth looking,’ Froud said. He pointed towards the bushes. The doctor. agreed:
‘I must have some specimens of those; the sooner the better.’
‘All right.’ Dale produced a small compass. ‘Heaven knows where the magnetic centre of this place is, but it’s got one somewhere, luckily. If we assume that it is in the north it will give us something to go by. That means that the bushes are due west. Don’t forget what I said about keeping together.’
The thicker vegetation, when they reached it, proved to be much the same as the stunted bushes in all except size. Before long, it became clear that the party, with the exception of the doctor, was unspokenly endorsing Froud’s opinion of the red planet. The twisted stems of the bushes were hollow and so brittle as to prove no obstacle. Their advance was accompanied by a sharp crackling of broken branches mingled with the papery rustling of the subsiding foliage, but the view of brown thickets continuously before them was as monotonous as the desert behind them.
After half an hour’s progress, the only member of the band who did not feel that attainment can be the most potent source of dissatisfaction was the doctor. With what seemed to be a singularly slight supply of fuel he managed t o keep his botanical fervour at high pressure, continually causing delays by his determination to secure a specimen which, to the inexpert eye, showed no difference from the many shoots, leaves, branches and roots he had already put in his boxes.
The vegetation belts bordering the Martian canals vary in width according to the nature of the soil. In satisfactorily porous regions they may extend as far as twenty miles to either side, but in others they dwindle into desert at no more than a mile or two from the bank. It was owing to the chance which had landed the Gloria Mundi beside one of the narrower fertile strips that her crew was able to notice a change in the condition of the plants when they had covered a little more than a mile. The bushes, though at first unchanged in type, were healthier and better nourished. It became a little less easy for them to force their way through. Moister stems bent more and broke less easily. Moreover, to the doctor’s delight, a few new variations were to be seen farther on. He pounced with enthusiasm upon a number of bulbous, olive brown plants not unlike spineless cacti, and held forth with an excitement which left the rest cold.
‘Look like old leather bags to me,’ Froud told him. ‘How much farther into this not so virgin forest do you propose to lead us?’ he added disconsolately to Dale.
‘A bit farther yet,’ Dale told him. ‘Doe’s got to get all the odds and ends he can, and it looks as if there might be more variety ahead.’
As they continued, now with little enthusiasm, an uphill slope of the ground became increasingly perceptible. Almost another mile must have been covered when Dale stopped suddenly and held up his hand. They stopped wonderingly in a silence broken only by the rubbing together of the harsh stems and a flutter of leaves.
‘What is it?’ Joan asked.
Dale relaxed his listening attitude.
‘I thought I heard something ahead a sort of clanking noise. Didn’t anyone else?’
They shook their heads, and he owned that he might have been mistaken. But, in spite of his words, his manner was more cautious as they went on and the rest caught from it a sense of expectation. A little later it was Joan who stopped them with a sudden command:
But again the silence remained unbroken save by natural stirrings.
‘What’s the idea?’ Froud inquired. ‘Are you trying to make it more exciting by putting the wind up us . . .?’
‘Shut up’ snapped Dale.
Faintly, but quite unplaceably, the whole party distinguished a sound of crackling somewhere not far away. Without a word, Dale unslung his rifle and released the safety catch. He moved ahead, holding it ready. But whatever had been responsible for the sound was not in his path, nor did it betray its presence again. Nevertheless.
‘This place doesn’t seem to be quite empty, after all,’ Dugan said. ‘It must have been something pretty big.’
As the bushes became stronger and higher and the going more difficult, Dale took the lead, and they fell without prearrangement into single file. The ground changed its character, becoming softer and less desiccated. Before long, Dale was calling back that it was lighter ahead, and a few minutes later, they emerged into the open. In the astonished silence Dugan said:
‘I suppose this is a canal, and not a sea?’
To both right and left the bank stretched away in an unbroken line. In front, the water reached to the horizon, ruffled lightly by the breeze, and sparkling in the sunlight. Dale tasted the water and spat it out again; it was brackish.
‘All the same, it’s one of the canals. They’re a good many miles wide, remember, even the smallest of them.’ ‘And the horizon’s closer than it is at home,’ the doctor put in. ‘It’s almost incredible that they should have been made artificially and we don’t seem to be much closer to knowing who or what made them. The slope we’ve been climbing must have been the stuff which they ‘
‘Look! What’s that?’ Dugan cried in sudden excitement.
He was pointing away to the left. A dark object, difficult to make out at such a distance, was pushing its way through the water. A fleck of white at the nearer end suggested a low bow wave. Dale pulled out his field glasses.
‘What is it?’ Froud asked, striving to erect a tripod and change the lens of his camera simultaneously. ‘Coming this way?’
‘Can’t see. There’s not much of it above the waterline. Shaped something like a whale. Seems to be going due south.’
‘Here, let me look.’ The doctor almost snatched the glasses and hurriedly refocused. But he could make out no more. It was even impossible for him to decide whether he was looking at a living creature or a form of vessel. He swore fluently.
‘How about letting off a few shots to attract its attention,’ Dugan suggested. But Dale disapproved.
‘No, there’s no telling what that might let us in for and we’re a good distance from the Gloria Mundi. It’ll be better to go a bit cautiously till we know more.’
Froud had set up his small camera behind an enormous lens, and was hopefully taking a series of pictures, with Dale, Dugan and the doctor standing beside him, straining their eyes to catch more details. An exclamation behind them caused all four to turn at once.
Burns was facing them. His left arm was around Joan’s waist, holding her with her back pressed against his chest. In his right hand he held a pistol.
Dale frowned and his eyes narrowed; he opened his lips to speak, but changed his mind. The look on the engineer’s face warned him to be cautious. With an effort he cleared his frown; his voice sounded almost casual as he asked:
‘Hullo, what’s the trouble, Burns?’
At the same time he kept his eyes on the girl’s face, trying to convey by his attitude that she could behave calmly. It seemed that she understood, for he noticed that she relaxed a trifle, but he had reckoned without his companions.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? Take your hands off her, damn you,’ Dugan shouted.
He stepped forward with his fists clenched.
‘Get back,’ snapped the engineer. ‘Get back, or I’ll drill you.’
There could be no doubt that he meant it. Dugan hesitated and then sullenly retreated. Froud yawned.
‘What’s all this about? It seems very dramatic,’ he remarked.
Burns turned his attention from Dugan and glared at the journalist.
‘And don’t you be too free with your words. I owe you something, don’t forget. You know what it’s about, all right; you all know, damn well. Do you think I didn’t know what was going on all the way here? Do you think I don’t know why I wasn’t wanted? You’ve all had your fun, damn you, now I’m going to have mine.’
Froud assumed an expression of puzzlement.
‘Do you mean?’
‘Shut up, you.’
‘But, look here, Burns, you’re making a mistake, you know ‘ Dale began in reasonable tones.
‘Oh, I am, am I? I’d be making a big one if I believed you. You! I suppose you think I didn’t see the way you changed to her after you’d had her?’
‘Damn you. I didn’t ‘
‘Oh, so you didn’t? and I suppose the rest of you didn’t either? What do you think I am blind? To hell with the ruddy lot of you. I saw you all sneaking off to the storeroom different times. Having her as you wanted and leaving me out as if I wasn’t human. And thinking I’d stand for it. Well, I did but I’m not doing it any longer. It’s my turn now. And there’s not going to be any sharing.’