‘Damn the things,’ muttered the doctor. ‘I believe they know we’re caught.
They’re only machines. They don’t need food and drink, and if they need air at all, they’ve got enough. Standing there like that, using no fuel whatever their fuel may be they’re good for a century if they like. We’ve got to move sooner or later and, damn them, they know we’ve got to move.’
‘No good getting the wind up,’ Dale advised curtly. ‘We can last a good many hours yet. Something may happen before then.’
Froud agreed. ‘A planet capable of producing things like that is capable of making anything happen. How long is the night in these parts?’
‘Not much longer than at home. We’re pretty near the equator.’
The first moon, Deimos, slid up from the ragged horizon, and the sand turned silver beneath it. The polished hull of the ship glittered under it, seeming tantalizingly close, but the rank of machines also gleamed, drawn across the way. The moonlight seemed to invest the metal shapes with a harsher relentlessness, and the sharp shadows it cast from them were even more uncouth than the originals. The men lay silent, each racking his brains for a plan. Nearly two hours passed, and the night be came brighter still.
‘Lord, isn’t that glorious?’ Froud said.
The second moon, the smaller Phobos, raced up the sky, rushing to overtake Deimos. They looked up at it.
‘What a speed! You can see it go.’
Dugan was the least impressed.
‘You’d show speed, too, if you had to do the round trip in seven and a half hours,’ he said practically.
Dale rose suddenly to his feet.
‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to make a break for it. You can cover me. Those machines must have packed up for the night. They’ve not moved since before sunset.’
But he was wrong. He had gone less than a dozen yards before the rank stirred, clanking faintly in the thin air. He hesitated and advanced a further couple of paces.
‘Come back,’ Dugan called. ‘You’ll never be able to rush it at that distance.’ Dale recognized the truth of it. Even with the increased speed and agility which Mars gave he would not stand a chance of escaping all the tentacles which would grope for him. He turned reluctantly and came slowly back.
Phobos overtook its fellow moon and disappeared. Before long Deimos had followed it round to the other side of the world. In the succeeding dimness the machines were scarcely distinguishable. The four men depended on their ears to give them the first warning of movement, but there was nothing to hear save the faint singing of the wind stirred sand. They began to suffer from hunger and thirst particularly thirst. The small quantities of water in their bottles had long ago given out, and their only food, hard cakes of chocolate, had increased their desire for drink. More than an hour passed without anyone speaking.
‘There’s only one thing for it,’ Dale said at last. ‘We shall have to do the attacking. If our ammunition holds out we may have a chance, if it doesn’t, well, it can’t be as bad as what will happen if we stay here. The orders will be: “Shoot for their lenses, and keep clear of their tentacles.” ‘
In his own mind he had not much doubt that he was suggesting the impossible, but with a choice between a quick end and lingering asphyxiation he preferred the former both for himself and for his men.
‘You, Dugan and Froud, take the sides ‘
‘Wait a minute! What’s that?’ The doctor held his head a little on one side, listening. The others caught the sound. A deep throbbing, growing momentarily louder. They placed it somewhere beyond the canal. Evidently the diaphragms of the machines had picked it up too. The line could be seen faintly stirring.
Low in the western sky a gleam of red light became visible. The throbbing grew quickly to a thunderous roar. Dugan was the first to see the effect on the machines. He looked down in time to see them scampering for the cover of the bushes.
‘Now’s our chance,’ he cried, and with the others behind him he ran down that side of the Sandhill which was closest to the Gloria Mundi.
The noise from the sky became a crashing, deafening din. Whatever was up there seemed to be making straight for them. Dale and Froud flung themselves flat on the sand with their hands clamped over their ears, and a moment later the other two did the same. The whole world seemed to be cracking and trembling with a noise which split the very sky asunder. Louder and yet louder until noise could be no louder. A sheet of flame like a long fiery banner trailed across the sky bathed the desert with a queer, unnatural light. There was a tremor of the ground. Abruptly the noise stopped, leaving behind it a shocking silence. A scorching breath as hot as a flame itself swept over the sand. A rush of cooler air followed, raising a miniature sandstorm. Froud rolled over on his side, blinking at Dale through the dust. Dale was temporarily deaf from the uproar, and though he saw Froud’s mouth moving, he could hear nothing. But he guessed the question.
‘That,’ he bawled back, ‘was another rocket.’
Dale looked out of the window. The other rocket lay perhaps two miles away, her after part just visible above the curve of a Sandhill.
‘But where the devil can she have come from?’ he asked at large for approximately the tenth time.
The four of them were safely back in the living room. The Gloria Mundi was intact. The machines they had seen moving about her had either been unable to open her or uninquisitive enough to be satisfied with an exterior examination. In her crew, curiosity about the new arrival was warring with a desire for sleep. In any case they must wait before finding out more, for the oxygen cylinders needed recharging a process which would normally have been Burns’ job, but which now fell to Dugan.
‘Heaven knows,’ said Froud. ‘Bigger than the G.M., isn’t she?’
‘Difficult to tell. She may be nearer than she looks. Distance is so damned deceptive here.’
The doctor joined them.
‘What next?’ he asked. ‘Do we look for Joan, or do we investigate the stranger?’
Dale frowned. ‘If we had any clue at all, I’d say look for her, but as it is, what can we do? We’ve not the slightest idea what happened to her, we daren’t split up to search, in fact we can’t even risk searching all four of us together. Honestly, I don’t think there’s much hope.’
‘I see.’ The doctor nodded slowly. ‘You think she’s gone the way Burns went?’
‘Something like that, I’m afraid.’
They all stared out over the inhospitable desert, avoiding one another’s eyes.
‘A very brave lady. I’m glad she was right,’ said the doctor.
There was a long pause before Froud said, with unwanted diffidence:
‘May I suggest that rather than investigate the stranger, as Doc puts it, we let the stranger investigate us? To tell you the truth, I’m beginning to feel that this place is far less healthy than we suppose; certainly it’s not as empty as we thought, and it seems to me that if anyone is to be caught in the open either by the machines returning or by anything else that may show up, it would be better if it were the other fellows.’
Dale hesitated. He was actively anxious to find out more about the other rocket, yet Froud had made a point.
‘You think the machines will come back?’
‘If the arrival of one rocket interested them, the arrival of two should interest them still more,’ Froud fancied. The doctor supported him.
‘I don’t see that we are justified in exposing ourselves to unnecessary risks. After all, our trip here will have been of no use to anyone if we don’t make the trip back again.’
‘And you, Dugan?’ Dale asked.
Dugan looked round, his hand still on the valve of the oxygen chargers. ‘I don’t care: But I do know one thing: I want to get back to Earth. And I want to tell all those people who laughed at Joan and her father that they were right. Just now it all rather depends, doesn’t it, on whether we’ve any chance of getting back at all?’
‘Well, we hadn’t a large margin of spare fuel to begin with, and Joan’s extra weight made us use more than we had reckoned. Have we enough to take us back, and to stop when we get there?’
All three looked at Dale. He answered slowly:
‘I think we have anyway, we’ve more than a sporting chance of making it. You see, whereas six of us came here, it seems that only four will return. Besides, there are quite a number of heavy things such as rifles and ammunition which we can jettison. They’ll be of no further use to us after we leave here.’