Dugan nodded. ‘I hadn’t thought of that. Well, then,
I’m with Froud and Doc. Let the other rocket people come and look at us if they want to.’
Several hours later Dale still sat by the window, keeping watch. Occasionally he looked across at one of the others, half enviously. He wished that he too could have lain down to catch up some overdue sleep, but he knew that it would be useless for him to attempt it while the problem of the other ship’s identity remained unsolved.
It was possible that the ship was native to Mars, but he did not find it easy to swallow such a palatable hope. She was meant for space travel no doubt about that. Other wise she would have had wings, big wings, too, in this thin air. Was she, he wondered, a Martian space ship returning home from another planet, possibly from Earth? Joan’s story seemed to show that this world had sent out at least one messenger successfully. Again he was anxious to think so, but all the time something at the back of his mind was repeating insistently the thing he least wanted to believe: that this ship had followed the Gloria Mundi from Earth.
That was the fear which would not let him rest. He had been the first to reach Mars, but that was a job only half done. He must be the first to tell Earth about Mars. The leader of the first successful interplanetary journey in the history of the world. Dale Curtance, the Conqueror of Space a name which should never be forgotten. And now he faced the possibility of a rival who might snatch immortality out of his very hands.
Had he been able, he would have taken off this very moment, heading the Gloria Mundi for Earth with all the speed of which she was capable, but it was impracticable for several reasons, of which the most immediate was that she now lay on her side. Before they could start, they would have to raise her to the perpendicular.
Dale was not a good loser. He had won too often since that day when he had led the first equatorial dash round the world. The Martian venture was to be the crown of his career. Not for the five million dollars to hell with that, he had spent more than that on building and fuelling the G.M. No, it was for the triumph of being not just the first, but for a time the only man to have linked the planets. It was the thought that this other ship might mean his failure in that which kept him at the window for almost unendurable hours while his companions slept and daylight came again.
Again he asked himself who could have sent her. The Keuntz people? Had he been misinformed about them after all? Yet who else in the world could have built a ship capable of it?
Then, on the crest of a rise in the direction of the other ship appeared a few black dots. Machines or men? He found the spare pair of glasses and focused them. Then he crossed hurriedly to the sleepers and shook them.
‘Wake up, there!’
‘Damn you,’ murmured Froud. ‘Machines back?’
‘No, men from the other ship. Coming this way.’
CHAPTER XIX. VAYGAN.
THEY stopped in a room which led by a short passage off the third balcony level. The man signed to Joan to remain, and she seated herself on a box like stool with a padded top while he disappeared through another doorway.
As she waited she examined the place by the light which diffused evenly from the entire ceiling. It was a bare, severely simple room. The furnishings consisted of several similar padded stools, one larger cube, presumably for use as a table, and a low, broad seat which might be either couch or bed, set against one of the walls. The side opposite the entrance was completely taken up by a single window through which she could see the great bulks of black buildings silhouetted against the moonlit sky and, between them, a glimpse of the desert stretching coldly away to infinity.
The floor and the solid walls were coloured a pale green. On the left was the opening through which her guide had gone, to either side of it were set rectangular panels of a smoky grey, glass like substance suggesting more purpose than mere decoration. Here and there in the other walls narrow slits outlined the doors of cupboards or removable panels set flush. To the right, close to the end of the divan like seat, she noticed a control board with a great show of levers and knobs.
It seemed a bleak place, with something of an institutional air: not unfriendly, but impersonal. It needed furnishing with books, a picture or two and flowers. Then she laughed at herself disapproving of a room here because it was not like a room at home! Books and pictures here and flowers. With a sudden sadness she wondered how many long ages had passed since this weary old planet had grown its last flower … . This room was too hard, too purely utilitarian. Better suited for housing a machine than a human being; one could not feel that it was lived in yet her guide was human enough ….
The warmth of her padded overall became oppressive in the heated building, and the man returned to find her in the process of disentangling herself from it. He placed the two bowls of liquid which he was carrying upon the larger cube and approached with curiosity. Her leather suit seemed to puzzle him; he fingered it, feeling its texture, but could make nothing of it. She thought that he watched her with a faint amusement as she ran a comb through her hair.
Momentous occasions so seldom come up to expectations, she told herself. This was a turning point in history: the people of two planets were meeting for the first time and she was behaving as if she had dropped in to pay a call. It was an occasion which called for one of those undying remarks with which historical characters have greeted the successive crises of the race. Instead, she was combing her hair …. Oh, well, there was no audience here; she could think up the immortal phrase later on probably most of the historical characters had done the same. She smiled again at the Martian and took the bowl he was offering.
The colourless liquid in it was not water. It had a faint, indeterminable flavour and a greater consistency. Whatever it was, its tonic properties were immense; new strength and a feeling of well being seemed to pour into her. The man nodded as if satisfied with the effect. He opened one of the panels in the right hand wall and withdrew two trays of wax like substance. He scratched the surface of one with a series of characters and handed it to her. The other he kept himself. Joan prepared to give her whole mind to her first lesson in spoken Martian.
The method of instruction appeared at first to be simple. He would write a word with which she was already familiar, saying it aloud at the same time, while she then attempted to repeat it after him. She had expected that the process of turning her written vocabulary into vocal would present no great difficulties. She saw herself able in a very short time to rattle off the words she held in her mind’s eye. But her disillusionment was rapid. She found herself quite unable to grasp the principles of its expression. To begin with she had it settled in her own mind that the characters were of the nature of phonetic signs that a certain sign, for in stance could be said to represent ‘t’. But she found that though it might represent ‘t’ for the first two or three times she met it, it was just as likely to turn up in a word with no ‘t’ value at all. As in English ‘c’ may be either ‘k’ or ‘s’, and ‘s’ may be either ‘c’ or ‘z’, so, but with much more bewildering variation, were the Martian characters capable of changing their values. Finer gradations in vowel sounds almost eluded her ear even after constant repetition, but worse still was the discovery of a number of consonants in the form of unfamiliar clicking sounds which utterly defeated her best efforts at imitation. It was no good that her teacher should sit opposite her, mouthing exaggeratedly in encouragement; they were tricks his tongue had learned in early youth, her own refused to perform them.
She felt a growing sense of desperation. It was ridiculous that she should have worked so hard upon the script only to be baffled by this business of turning it into sound. She had an exasperating feeling that there was a principle somewhere that. she had missed; a principle which once grasped would make the whole thing as clear as daylight. But if there was it continued to elude her. The longer the lesson went on, the deeper she got bogged in misunderstanding and the wilder grew her guesses at the sounds of the words she wrote.