Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

At the end of two hours she faced her teacher with tears in her eyes. She could identify certain things in the room, the stools, the window, the bowls on the table, and that was almost the limit of her progress. She was both miserable and exasperated. There was so much she wanted to ask about himself, his city and the machines. To write all that would be slow and tedious, moreover, she had quickly discovered the limitations of her own vocabulary. She smoothed over her wax tray and wrote:

‘I can’t understand. It is too difficult,’ with a sense that their minds were working by different rules, each incapable of grasping the difficulties which beset the other. Something the same situation might have occurred, she felt, if Alice had tried to teach French to the Mad Hatter. It appeared too, that the stimulating effect of the drink was wearing off, for she again felt tired and sleepy.

The man took the tray from her and read the message. He looked at her intently again, seeming to examine her from a new angle. After a pause he wrote beneath her own words.

‘I could, if you like, try ‘

She could not understand the final word: it was new to her, but she agreed almost without hesitation. Disgusted with her own failure to learn, but still more desperately anxious to know his language, she scarcely cared what means he took to achieve it as long as they were successful. His own expression was not entirely confident.

‘With us it would be certain,’ he wrote, ‘but your mind may be different. I will try.’

She allowed him to lead her across to the divan and lay down there as he directed. He drew one of the stools close beside it and sat down, holding her gaze unwaveringly with his own. His eyes seemed to lose all expression. They no longer looked at hers, but through them as though they were exploring the mind behind: compelling and examining with utter impersonality her most secret thoughts. A moment of panic seized her as her feelings revolted against the invasion of her privacy, and she tried to shake his visual hold, but his eyes broke down her resistance, forbidding her even to close her lids. The room began to whirl, becoming unreal and distorted as though it were slipping away. Not only the room, but herself and everything about her was slipping away. Only the eyes in a blurred face remained steady. Her own clung to them as to the only fixtures in a reeling universe.

It was as though she were waking from sleep, yet with a sense of exhaustion. The eyes were still fixed on her own, but as she watched they lost intensity as if they ‘withdrew from her into themselves. The face about them became clear and then the room beyond. Her sense of time had gone awry: it seemed both long ago and yet only a few minutes since she had lain down, but she could see that outside there was complete darkness and both the moons had set. She turned her head back to face the man on the stool once more.

‘I’m so tired,’ she said. ‘I want to sleep.’

‘You shall,’ he said. He carefully rearranged the rug which she had not known was covering her. .

Not until he had gone from the room did she realize that he had understood her, and she, him.

At her second waking he was beside her again, offering her a bowl of the same colourless liquid that she had drunk the night before. The sun was shining into the room from the clear, purplish sky. She did not speak until she had handed the empty bowl back to him.

‘Your name is Vaygan?’ she asked, but before he could answer she added: ‘Of course it is. I know it is, but I don’t understand how I know it. It’s strange I’m speaking your language now, but I feel as if it were my own. I don’t have to think about it. You hypnotized me?’

‘Something like that,’ he agreed,’ ‘but more complex. I put you into a trance and taught you. It is difficult to explain simply. One can in certain circumstances and for certain purposes alter the mind. No, “alter” is the wrong word. It is more as if one inserted a new section of knowledge in the mind. Tell me, how do you feel now?’

‘Rather bewildered,’ Joan smiled.

‘Of course. But no more than puzzled?’

‘No.’ a sudden misgiving took her. ‘You haven’t done anything to my mind. Not done anything which will make me not me I mean, make me think differently?’

‘I hope not, in fact, I think not. I was most careful. It was very difficult. Your mind seems less clear than ours. There are overlaps between unconnected subjects and impediments to a proper balance of judgment so that it works differently. Its logical processes are slow, its illogical conclusions very frequent, but also slow. I took a long time: it would have been no good to either of us if I had spoilt it.’

‘I don’t think I quite understand that.’

‘Shall I say that your mind has more vitality but poorer control than ours?’

‘All right, we’ll let it go at that for the moment. As long as I’m sure that I’m still me, I don’t mind.’

And, surprisingly, she found that she did not mind. She did not in the least resent his violation of her most secret thoughts now that it was an accomplished fact, though she knew that she would have shrunk from the prospect had she fully understood his intentions the previous night. Subsequently she wondered more than once whether he had not seen the likelihood of resentment and taken means to prevent it. For the present her delight at the annihilation of the language obstacle easily swept away other considerations.

She demanded to know more of the machines, of life on Mars, of himself and his people. The questions poured out in a string, making him smile.

‘You are so eager,’ he said, as if in apology. ‘So anxious to learn. We must have been like that once long ago.’

‘Long ago?’

‘I meant when our race was young. We are old now: our planet is old: we are born old compared with the oldest of you. Had you come just a few centuries later, you might have found no men; our long history would have ended. You ask of life on Mars. I scarcely know how to answer you for life, to you, is a thing of promise, whereas for us but I shall show you. This city you are in was called is called Hanno. It is the biggest of the seven cities which are still inhabited, yet there are no more than three thousand men and women in it now. Fewer and fewer children are born to us. Perhaps that is well. Each generation only prolongs our decay. We have had a glorious past but a glorious past is bitterness for a child with a hopeless future. For you who think of life as striving, it will be difficult to understand.’

‘But can you do nothing?’ Joan asked. ‘You must know so much. Can’t you find out why less children are born, and cure it?’

‘We could, perhaps, but is it worth it? Would you wish to bear a child for a life of imprisonment able to live only in our artificial conditions such as this? We have tried all we can. We have even created monsters; scarcely human creatures which were able to live in the thin air. But it needs more than mere physical strength to survive on a planet such as this where nothing useful as food can grow. Our monsters were too unintelligent to survive we ourselves, too, unadapted physically. Life as you see it means very little to us now. Quite soon we shall be gone and there will be only the machines.’

‘The Machines?’ Joan repeated. ‘What are the Machines? They are the puzzle which brought me here.’ She told him of the machine which had somehow reached Earth.

‘I felt nervous of it,’ she owned, ‘and I felt nervous of your machines last night. I think that is the first reaction of all of us to our own machines. Some never get beyond it, others get used to it, but when we think of machines we feel that in spite of all they have given us and all they do for us there is something malignant about them. Their very presence forces us down ways we do not want to go. We have felt that since we first had them; there have been books, plays, pictures with the malevolence of the Machine for their theme. The idea persists of the eventual conquest of man by the Machine. You don’t seem to see them like that.’

‘We don’t. But I told you that our minds work differently in many ways. Our first, simple machines were designed to help us over difficulties, and they were successful.’

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