It seemed to her that already they had been travelling for several hours, but there was no sign that this nightmare journey would ever finish; she began to fear that, for her, it would end in the air in her pack giving out. She would die, gasping for breath, and this metal monster would go rushing on across the desert, bearing only her corpse. She had not thought to ask Dale how long the air would last, and every moment became haunted by the fear that she might even now be drawing her last breath. Then, like a sudden message to rouse her out of her despondency, there came the glint of lights somewhere ahead. They showed only for a few seconds before the next rise blotted them out, but they gave her new hope. She thanked God that something somewhere on Mars had need of artificial light ….
A few more miles of desert fell behind and the machine’s feet began to click upon a hard, level surface. A high, black bulk rose in front of them, cutting an increasing patch of darkness in the moonlit sky. The machine held straight on into the shadows. Tall walls reared up on either hand, shutting them into a trench of darkness. The sky overhead was suddenly blotted out. Of the lights she had seen there was now no trace. Not the faintest glimmer broke the pressing blackness. Yet there was a pervading sense of movement all about, of things which were stirring close by in a gloom which her frightened eyes tried in vain to penetrate. From time to time something would brush gently against her in passing and in her ears was a continuous pattering of metal upon stone, but try as she would, she could discern no more than an occasional deeper darkness-as likely as not, a trick of her straining eyes.
Then, at last, she saw the lights again. A turn brought them face to face with a tall building, its facade studded with glowing windows. At ground level a large open doorway poured a fan-shaped beam over the open space in front. By its light she was able to see a number of machines, similar to that which held her, hurrying to and fro. Without a pause she was hurried into a group of several others which was approaching the doorway. Just across the threshold she was set down. A few metallic sounds issued from her machine’s speaker, then it was gone, scurrying away into the outside darkness. A moment later massive doors slid together, cutting off all hope of escape.
Joan, stiff and giddy from her imprisonment in the constricting tentacles, leaned weakly against the wall while her circulation painfully restored itself. She looked about her with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. The room was some thirty feet square, bare and cold.
Two sides of it were formed of smoothly dressed, reddish stone, another by the doors through which she had entered, and the fourth, opposite them, by a pair of similar doors. For company she had some half-dozen of the six-legged machines. None of them paid any attention to her, and when after an apparently purposeless interval, the doors on the far side opened, they at once scurried busily away. Joan followed, wonderingly.
Her first impression was of a city of light within the city of darkness-an impression which, she was to find later, fell but little short of the truth. She entered a vast circular hall filled with light from sources which she could not detect. The high roof was slightly domed and must, she thought, have been fully three hundred feet above her at its centre. The width of the place was fully twice its height. Broad balconies, interconnected in some places by staircases and in others by slopes, circled the walls at even intervals. From them arched openings led back into unseen passages or rooms. Round the ground-floor level a series of similar though larger arches was spaced, and between them in constant streams moved machines seeming perpetually in a hurry. She watched them a while as they passed, some burdened, others with their tentacles coiled in rest, but all moving at a constant speed upon their unguessable errands. The only sounds were the scuttering shuffle of their feet and the aggregate purring of the instruments within the casings. She watched them with a kind of absent wonder, at a loss to know what she should do next. The object which had driven her on to the Gloria Mundi had been accomplished. Now that she was free of the tentacles her fear of the machines had subsided, but she felt stranded and forlorn. She wondered why they had brought her here, but because they were machines they were alien, and their motives were likely to be un-understandable. She was tempted to accost one and make it understand what she wanted. But what did she want? Not, certainly, to be carried back across those miles of desert with an ever-increasing fear of her air giving out ….
Then, abruptly, her decision was taken out of her hands. A touch on her arm caused her to turn, and she found herself face to face, not with a machine, but with a man.
For several seconds she stared at him without moving. So far from wearing protective clothing, he was clad only in a pair of kilted shorts made from some gleaming material and fastened about his waist by a worked metal belt. His skin was of a reddish tinge, his chest broad and deep, and he was but little taller than herself. His head, beneath its covering of black hair, was of quite unusual size, and the ears, though they were not unsightly and grew closely, were decidedly bigger than those of any Earthman. The rest of his features were unusual only for the fineness of their formation without suggesting weakness and their regularity without loss of character. The eyes were dark and yet penetrating. They seemed to suggest a faint long melancholy, yet they were not truly sad. A queer creature, she thought, but with a kind of charm … Then, as she watched, there came a slight crinkling at the corners of the eyes and a friendly smile about his mouth. She never again thought of him as a ‘queer creature’ . . . .
He lifted one hand and signed that she should take off the oxygen mask, but she hesitated. It might be safe enough for him, but her lung capacity could scarcely compare with that beneath his great chest. He repeated the sign insistently, pointing back towards the doors through which she had come. It occurred to her for the first time that the purpose of the double doors must have been that of an airlock. She lifted her mask experimentally. It seemed all right; moreover, as she breathed with out its assistance she realized that the air was not only denser within the building, but warmed. She slipped the mask right off with a sigh of relief. It became the man’s turn to stare, and hers to return the friendly smile. He spoke. She guessed that he was using the same language as the machines, but his voice was full and pleasing. She shook her head, still smiling, but it was clear that the gesture was as unfamiliar to him as his words were to her. She ripped open the fastener of her suit impatiently and felt in her pockets. No pencil nor pen, but among other femininities almost unused during the voyage she found a lipstick: that would have to serve. She crouched down and explained her difficulty in carmine characters on the floor. The man understood: he took the lipstick from her and wrote an instruction for her to follow him.
CHAPTER XVIII. NEWCOMERS.
THE sun sank lower and the shadows stretched long distorted fingers across the desert as though the powers of darkness were reaching out to grasp the land. Desert and sky were repainted by the reddened glow, and even the bushes to the west lost for a few short minutes their dreary reality and underwent a fiery glorification. Presently the last arc sank below their tops; a few fugitive red gleams escaped between the swaying branches, and then night came. Through their padded suits the men from the Gloria Mundi felt something of the chill which crept across the Martian sands.
Four times the rank of machines had made a suicidal advance, and four times it had retreated to re-equip itself with parts of the fallen. Now it stood inactive, but ominous; a line of grotesque shapes in dim silhouette against the darkening sky.
The situation was telling on the four men. The very inhumanity of their enemies, their uncanniness and, above all, their unknown potentialities made it impossible for them to maintain the front they might have shown to normal dangers. Their minds seemed to alternate between contempt for mere undirected mechanism, and an exaggerated fear of it. The predicament was getting on their nerves.