CHAPTER XVII. MAKING ACQUAINTANCES.
THE four men lying prone on the top of the sand hill watched the string of metal machines which had emerged from the scrub. The creation which Joan’s photographs had shown them had seemed weird, but these newcomers were a nightmare. They all felt a hysterical disbelief of their own senses: the things they saw must be a hallucination. Dugan, with an attempt at light-heartedness, said:
‘I know what it is. Someone’s been putting alcohol in my air supply.’ But his intended nonchalance was belied by the tremor in his voice.
Froud blinked at the mechanical cavalcade. He shook his head decidedly.
‘I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe it,’ he said.
No two of the machines were alike. They differed in shape, size and form both of their main casings and of their appendages. Some were spherical bodied, some cubical, some pyramidal, some rectangular and a few of the roughly coffin shape that Joan had described to them. The only point which they all held in common was that each moved upon struts of one kind or another; not a wheel was to be seen. Froud stared particularly at one egg-shaped monstrosity. It was supported on one side by two long jointed stilts which were splayed out widely to compensate for the three scurrying, but far shorter legs on the other side. Another, a torpedo-like contrivance, had only one leg on either side at the rear and upheld its forepart on a kind of skid, One of the spheres managed to get along on a tripod of unequal struts, clanking and clattering as it lurched about. Many of the cases were discoloured by smears of a kind of rust and patched in places with plates of non-matching metals; here and there one could see parts which had been painted, but not one of the machines was the same colour all over.
‘Crazy, crazy, crazy. It can’t be real,’ Froud repeated.
‘If I read of this, I should throw the book away,’ said the doctor. ‘But it exists; it’s real. There must be some kind of reason for it somewhere.’
The ungainly machines spread out into a crescent formation and continued to approach, the faster reducing their speeds to the lumbering pace of the slower.
‘When I give the word,’ Dale said. ‘Aim for their lenses-and go easy on the bullets, we’ve got none to waste.’
‘I suppose they are hostile,’ Froud put in; ‘but you remember what Joan said-‘
‘These aren’t the things she talked about. Besides, I’m remembering what Burns looked like, and not taking any chances,’ Dale said.
He waited patiently. They were within sixty yards when he gave the order to fire.
The result of the first volley was unexpectedly gratifying. The advance stopped dead. One machine dropped to the ground with its metal legs splayed out around it. Another burst into fragments with a surprising concussion. A third ran amuck. It staggered, turned half round, then with tentacles flailing wildly and a great clanking proceeding from its loosely articulated parts, it set off drunkenly over the desert as fast as five ill-matched legs could carry it. Dale gave the order for a second round.
One more machine fell. The legs of a second jammed so that it ploughed round in a circle. The undamaged machines began to retire, dragging the injured with them. Frond dropped his rifle and seized a camera.
‘Study of a flock of What-have-yous in full retreat,’ he murmured.
‘She was right about one thing-they can think,’ the doctor said. ‘They’re not just remote control mechanisms-they’re intelligent, self-contained machines.’
‘Maybe,’ Froud grunted, ‘but it seems to me precious like the kind of intelligence you find in mental homes. And I feel a bit that way myself. Damn it all, it can’t be real-even here. It’s-it’s a kind of dream made of Lewis Carroll and Karel Capek rolled together. There’s no sense in machines like this. Just look at ’em. What the hell’s the good of ’em?’
‘Yes, but remember the one in Joan’s photographs. It was all right. Queer as it looked to us, it was at least logically designed and all of a piece. Something’s gone wrong with these. They aren’t reasonable-sort of crazy bad jokes. Look at that square chap.’
He pointed at one of the cubes. From its lower corners sprang two well-paired metal legs and one entirely dissimilar leg, while the fourth was upheld by a flexible tentacle. It was busily engaged in dragging away one of the broken machines by means of other tentacles protruding from three of its upper corners.
‘I’ve got an idea about that. Keep your eye on it for a bit,’ advised Dale.
When it had reached what it evidently considered a safe distance, the cube stopped; a lens set in one of its sides was brought to bear, and it probed inquisitively about in the wreckage. Apparently satisfied, it lowered its own casing to the ground and began industriously to dismember the other machine. Five minutes later it stood erect again, but with a difference. It rested now upon four legs and four tentacles waved from its top corners. By taking a leg from its wrecked companion, it had been enabled to shift the jury-leg tentacle back to its rightful position. Now, apart from minor discrepancies in the length of the legs, it was complete and ready for anything.
‘Well, that settles it. We’re all quite mad,’ said Froud. ‘Queer,’ muttered the doctor, ‘indecent, too, somehow.—A kind of mechanical cannibalism.’
He watched another machine with ludicrously ill assorted members approach the casualty and exchange a badly damaged tentacle for one in better condition.
‘Do you suppose that the ultimate is a kind of super monster built entirely of spare parts?’
‘Don’t ask me anything,’ Froud told him. ‘I’m still feeling as if my middle name were Alice.’
The surviving machines having stripped the fallen of all useful parts reformed their ranks and began to advance again.
‘Same as before,’ Dale ordered.
The second repulse was almost a duplication of the first.
‘It’s easy. We’ll be all right as long as the shots and the air hold out,’ he decided, ‘but God knows what’s happened to Joan.’
Joan’s captor sped over the desert with scarcely a sound save the scraping of its metal feet on the coarse sand and an occasional clink as they struck fragments of stone. Only the faintest low-pitched hum told of the machinery at work within the casing; machinery which was acting with a flawless accuracy and judgment beyond the capacity of any animal creation. Not once did it hesitate and not once did it err in placing the six hurrying legs. The smooth, relentless perfection of its progress over the rough ground was uncanny; every climb and every descent was made without a suggestion of a slip or stumble.
After her first shock she had struggled desperately, but, held as she was, it was impossible for her to reach the pocket where her pistol lay. In her panic she battered on the casing until her hands became sore even in their thick gloves, but upon the machine it had no effect whatever. After that, she relapsed into a fatalistic acceptance of the situation. At the rate they had travelled it would take her hours to find her way back over the desert. As far as she could, she resigned herself to face whatever fate the machine intended for her.
Once in the journey she had caught sight of a group of machines to the west: and they had seen her captor, too. They came scuttering awkwardly but speedily to investigate. Her machine swerved and put on speed. It left them behind easily. But the sight of them bewildered her even as, had she known it, a similar sight was bewildering Dale and the rest. The queer, distorted mechanisms which she had glimpsed did not fit in at all with the logical world she had pictured. And her machine had avoided them as if it were-well, afraid was obviously a foolish word to apply to a machine, but it had certainly made off with a speedy discretion, not dropping back to its earlier pace until they were out of sight. Was it one of such things, she wondered, which had so narrowly missed her in the bushes? The sun sank, and a brief twilight quickly gave way to a star-pricked darkness. It was strange to gaze up and see the stars looking again as they had looked from Earth: twinkling points in a bed of darkest blue, no longer flaring sparks in the utter blackness of space. The fading of the daylight seemed to have no effect upon the machine’s judgment, for their pace was undiminished. Daylight, darkness or, subsequently, the cold deceptive rays of the Martian moons made no difference to its accuracy. But into Joan’s mind that moonlight, flooding across the waste of shining sand and throwing clear-cut purple shadows beneath the rocks, drove still deeper the sense of desolation and decay.