They found him no great way from the edge of the desert. His body lay in the centre of the track, face to the sky. It was nasty. Of the girl there was no sign.
The four stopped abruptly. The sight was sickening.
‘Good God,’ said Froud. ‘What can have done that?’
He looked nervously about him. There was no hint of anything lurking in the bushes, no sound but the fretting together of the dried stems and whispering rustle of the leaves. Yet a short while ago something had been here something big and dangerous. The doctor knelt down without a word. He raised the trampled and broken body, slipped the rifle slings from the shoulders and handed the weapons back to their owners. There were six among the four of them. Dugan took two. Dale bent down and eased his second out of the dead hands. Its magazine was empty. He reloaded before he spoke. The rest waited for him with their eyes restlessly searching the thickets and the rifles ready in their hands.
‘She may have run on to the ship,’ he said. ‘We’d better look. Later, when we know what we are up against, we’ll come back for poor Burns.’
They went on. Slowly this time. Doing their best to minimize the crackling of each step. They explored the meshed bushes around them with apprehensive glances, fearful of seeing an unexpected movement. But still nothing showed and no suspicious sound came to their ears.
The vegetation became shorter and sparser, and they knew with relief that they were nearing the desert once more. Once on the open sand they would be safe from a surprise attack. In the tall scrub the advantage lay overwhelmingly with the attacker. A hundred yards more and they had reached the edge. The taller growths gave way quite abruptly to the little, knee high withered shrubs. Beyond lay the rolling dunes of reddish sand and occasional outcrops of rock, and across them they could see the Gloria Mundi a glitter with slanting rays of the sun. An audible sigh of relief rose from all four of the men.
‘I don’t know what I’ve been waiting for, but thank God it hasn’t happened,’ said Froud.
‘There are rare times when we are in complete agreement,’ the doctor admitted.
‘What was that?’ Dugan said sharply.
‘What was what?’
‘I saw something flash, close to the G.M.’
‘Probably Joan showing she’s seen us,’ Froud suggested. ‘I expect she’s-yes, there it is again.’
‘Damn. I must have left my glasses by the water,’ Dale said.
‘Well, we’re certainly not going back to fetch them, so let’s get on.’
They had covered half the distance when Dale called another halt.
‘It seems to me I can see things moving just by her,’ he said.
‘You’re right,’ Dugan agreed. ‘But I can’t make out what they are. Do you think ‘ ‘Look!’ cried the doctor. His voice held a panicky sound which made them spin round.
Emerging from the bushes they had just left was a procession which left them speechless.
Dale alone kept his presence of mind. Close beside them was a small hillock of broken rocks and drifted sand. He gave the order to run for it.
‘And hold your fire till I give the word,’ he added; as they flung themselves flat upon the top.
CHAPTER XVI. JOAN STARTS A JOURNEY.
JOAN, who was in front, had been the first to see the thing. They were in a hurry-at least, Burns was, and, in the circumstances, that meant that she was, too. He had waited just long enough to fire the single warning shot which had sent Dugan back to the rest before urging her swiftly on their way. His manner had changed. With the others safely out of sight, his confidence became displaced by a nervous anxiety to put the stout hull of the Gloria Mundi between himself and dangers known or unknown as soon as possible. She noticed, moreover, that he had put his pistol back in his pocket, and was holding one of the rifles ready for an emergency. The altered attitude increased her nervousness of the surroundings, but it made him seem more normal. And his eyes no longer held that cruel gleam which had made her feel weak almost to the point of panic.
As they hurried on, her thoughts ran ahead. She had nothing to fear from him now, until they reached the rocket. But once inside it, with the outer door closed . .? They would take off their oxygen masks. Then the padded overalls. She would have a chance to reach the pistol in her pocket-That was it. While he was struggling out of his protective suit, her chance would come. It would put him at her mercy for a few necessary moments. And there must be no mistake. For the sake of the rest as well as for herself she could risk no mistake ….
The bushes around them were drier now; the ground underfoot, sandier. Quite soon they would reach the open desert. It would not take long to reach —Then she had seen it. A glimpse of something glittering bluely which moved in the bushes to the right. She swerved wildly away from it. A kind of jointed rod swept out from it, barely missing her arm, and a sudden terror seemed to stab her in the chest. She sprang forward, running and leaping without daring to look behind. She heard Burns’ cry of surprise. There was the sound of a shot and then of a fusillade as the automatic rifle emptied itself. The noise drove her on faster. There was a cry, like a thin scream behind her, and terror seemed to give her wings so that she flew through the bushes. She never looked back.
Then the bushes abruptly finished and she stumbled out among the little wizened shrubs. But she did not check her headlong flight. She had no intention of stopping before the Gloria Mundi’s door was safely shut between her and whatever had been in the bushes. Not until she was half-way across the sand did she catch sight of the things which were moving around the rocket. Then, in dismay, she checked herself. She could not risk going on to meet them, but she dared not face the bushes again. There was nothing for it, but to wait where she was. Dale and the rest must have heard the shots; they would be here soon. She looked round, searching for a hollow where she could lie hidden until they should come.
A sudden glitter on top of one of the rocky ridges away to her right caught her eye. She started, looking more attentively. It flashed again, without any doubt the reflection from a swiftly moving metal object. She stood rigidly watching it as it approached rapidly. Each time it breasted a ridge or a sandy hummock she could distinguish more details. Soon there could be no doubt that it was the counterpart of the machine in her photographs-with the difference that it scurried along on six legs instead of eight. Joan stood, waiting for it.
At twenty yards’ distance it stopped and turned its lenses on her. A series of sounds in metallic timbre came from one of the openings in its casing. In the thin air they sounded harsh and attenuated. Joan, after a moment’s hesitation, advanced to a smooth patch of sand and wrote there a few characters with her forefinger. Then she stood back and waited.
The machine approached with no sound but the thudding of its six feet on the sand. It stopped close to the scratched characters, examining them carefully. Joan had written that she came from Earth, and peacefully.
Again the metallic tones issued from its speaker. She smoothed the sand and began to write again.
‘Write. I cannot understand speech.’
One of the machine’s four tentacles whipped forward. it scrawled swiftly:
‘How do you know our writing?’
Laboriously, compared with the machine’s swift action, Joan drew her reply.
‘A machine came to Earth.’
‘Did it bring you? Where is it?’ scribbled the machine.
‘No, it was’-she hesitated-‘broken,’ she finished.
She watched it as it began to write again. Suddenly, with no more than three characters completed, it stopped. Before she could guess its intention it had dashed forward. Two of the metal tentacles wrapped round her and lifted her. A third flashed out, striking at something behind her, and meeting it with a clang. Held as she was, she could not see what threatened. $he was only aware of a jointed metal arm which whipped past her head and fell with a harmless clatter on the case of the machine which held her. The surprise was so complete; the action so unexpected as utterly to bewilder her. The next thing she knew was that she was travelling across the desert in the grasp of a machine which sped at a prodigious pace towards the south.