‘But that’s not the Gloria Mundi,’ she said. ‘It’s got queer letters on it; I can’t read them. I don’t understand what’s happened.’
Vaygan looked incredulous.
‘But wait a minute.’ He pressed another switch. A metallic voice came from another speaker. Vaygan asked a question and listened attentively to the reply. He turned back to Joan.
‘They say another rocket landed two hours before dawn.’
‘Then this must be it, but where is ours?’
He altered the switches. Again the panel appeared as a window through which they saw a scene from far above. The country seemed to move slowly beneath them as on a panorama. A second silver shell came into view.
‘There she is,’ Joan said quickly.
Again there came that uncanny sense of falling. This time there was no doubt. She could read Gloria Mundi in large letters just abaft the cabin windows. Through the fused quartz of the window she was even able to make out Dale’s features. He was staring intently at something beyond their field of view. Before she could suggest it, Vaygan had altered the controls to show a party of men crossing the sand with that odd, high stepping action which the low gravity induced. She noticed that they wore oxygen masks of an unfamiliar pattern and that they carried rifles.
‘The men from the other rocket,’ she said.
‘Your friends don’t seem pleased to see them,’ he remarked.
Again the screen altered. The familiar living room of the Gloria Mundi appeared so that Joan was almost able to believe herself seated in it. She could see Dale’s back as he stood staring out of the window. The doctor was rubbing his eyes and yawning. Dugan had taken a pistol from a locker and was loading a clip with cartridges. Froud had set up a movie camera beside Dale at the window. He was attempting to prevent all three legs of the tripod from slipping on the metal floor and to work the instrument at the same time.
‘We will listen to them, and you shall tell me what they are saying,’ Vaygan suggested. He pressed over another small switch.
An eruption of outrageous profanity in Froud’s voice tore through the room.
Vaygan looked startled.
‘What was that?’ he asked.
‘Quite untranslatable, I’m afraid. Poor dear! How I must have cramped his style all these weeks.’
CHAPTER XX. KARAMINOFF MAKES PROPOSALS.
‘AND may the blasted thing blister in hell,’ Froud hoped fervently. He looked round wildly for inspiration and caught sight of the doctor.
‘Here, Doc, drop the exercises and for Heaven’s sake come and hold this thundering contraption while I work it. Must get a shot of these chaps, whoever they are.’
The doctor ambled across amiably and laid hold of the tripod. Froud busied himself with focus and aperture awhile. Dugan slipped the loaded pistol into his pocket and joined them.
‘Who the dickens do you think they are?’ he asked. The question was directed at Dale, but it was Froud who answered.
‘Well, there’s one thing they’re not, and that’s Martians. See the way they keep on nearly falling over themselves? Wonder if we looked as damn silly at first?’ he said, as he set the camera going.
The approaching party stopped a hundred yards away and appeared to consult. Of the six men, the tallest was obviously the leader. They watched him raise his arm and point to the Union Jack which Dale had set up. He made some remark which amused the rest. Dale frowned as he watched, not so much at their actions as at his inability to identify the leader. He had no longer any doubt that this second rocket also came from Earth, and the number of men capable of making the flight was limited. It was practically impossible that he should not have met or at least known the man by hearsay. But the oxygen masks worn by all six were fitted with goggles and completely obscured the faces save for chins and mouths.
The party resumed its clumsy advance, making for the window. In the Gloria Mundi’s living room there was silence save for the clicking of the camera. Froud broke it.
‘This ought to make a good picture: “March of the Bogey Men of Mars,”’ he said.
A few paces away the newcomers halted again. One could catch the gleam of eyes behind the glasses, but it was still impossible to identify the features. The leader was looking at Dale. He was making signs, pointing first to himself and then to the Gloria Mundi. Dale hesitated, then he held up three fingers and nodded, indicating the position of the entrance. He turned to Dugan.
‘See to the airlock, but don’t let more than three of them in, to begin with.’
Dugan crossed the room and pulled over the lever opening the outer door. The glow of a small bulb told him that someone had stepped into the lock. He pressed back the lever, spun the wheel of a stopcock and watched the pointer of the pressure dial slide back from the neighbourhood of seven towards the normal fifteen pounds. Froud swivelled his camera round and reset it.
‘This,’ he remarked to the unresponsive Dale, ‘is where you step forward with a bright smile and say: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”’
The inner door of the lock swung open and the tall man entered, stooping a little to avoid striking his head. Inside the room he straightened up and then raised his hand to slip the mask from a long, tanned face. His black, deep sunk eyes watched Dale keenly as he nodded a greeting.
‘How do you do, Mr. Curtance?’ he said. He spoke in good enough English, but it lacked tonal variation. He turned to the journalist.
Froud’s mouth opened, he blinked slightly and quickly recovered himself.
‘Well! Well! Well!’ he remarked.
‘You might introduce me,’ the man suggested.
‘Of course. Gentlemen, may I present Comrade Karaminoff, he is Commissar of ‘ He broke off. ‘What are you Commissar of just now?’ he inquired.
The tall man shrugged. ‘Suppose you say Commissar without portfolio at present. One hopes in time to be Commissar for Interplanetary Affairs.’
‘Oh,’ said Froud mildly. ‘Your hopes were never modest, were they, Karaminoff? Do you remember the time I met you at Gorki? It I remember rightly you were hoping then to be Commissar for the North American Continent.’
‘I know. We were misled. The country is still too bourgeois but it is improving. Quite soon now it will become a Soviet.’
Dale stepped forward. He spoke brusquely:
‘Are we to understand that you are the commander of a ship sent here by the Russian Government?’
‘That is so, Mr. Curtance. The Tovaritch of the U.S.S.R.’
‘The Tovaritch’ But the rumours of her existence were expressly denied by your government.’
‘Yes, it seemed politic to us after all, it was our own affair. The Americans kept quiet about theirs, too.’
The entire personnel of the Gloria Mundi gaped at him stupidly.
‘The Americans) Good God! You don’t mean to say that they’ve got one, too?’
‘But certainly. The Keuntz people. Your information does not seem to have been very full, Mr. Curtance.’
‘But ‘ Words failed Dale. He stood dumbfounded, staring at the Russian.
‘It would seem to be raining rockets. Most disappointing,’ said Froud. ‘Tell us, Karaminoff, how many more?’
The other shook his head.
‘No more. There was an-er-accident to the German one. Possibly you read about it: it was reported as an explosion in a munitions factory. It would probably have been the best of the lot. The Germans are very clever, you know, and very anxious for colonies.’
‘And so there was an-er-accident, was there? H’m, Dale only just frustrated an-er-accident to the Gloria Mundi. Very interesting.’
There was a pause during which Karaminoff introduced the other two Russians whom Dugan had admitted. He added:
‘And now, I think, it is necessary for us to have some discussion.’
‘Just a minute,’ Froud put in. ‘I’m a bit puzzled by several things. Did you start after or before us?’
‘A day or so later.’
‘And with millions of square miles of planet to choose from you had the luck to land next door to us?’
‘Oh, no, not luck.’ The Russian shook his head emphatically. ‘We followed you with telescopes. We saw the flames of your rockets as you landed and we marked the spot. Then we held off a little.’
‘You what?’ Dugan burst in. ‘We held off.’ !
Dugan stared first at him and then at Dale. Both of them knew that the Gloria Mundi could never have performed such a manoeuvre. An involuntary tinge of respect came into Dugan’s voice as he said:
‘Your Tovaritch must be a wonderful ship.’
‘She is,’ Karaminoff told him with complacence.
There was a pause. Karaminoff crossed to the western window and looked out thoughtfully. The dreary bushes were waving their papery leaves, the breeze raised occasional scurries of reddish dust, but his eyes were not on these things. He was watching an entirely terrestrial phenomenon the Union Jack fluttering from its pole.