A mechanical voice chattering urgently cut across all other sounds. Its speed and harshness made it impossible for Joan to catch the words, but she thought it was saying something about a rocket. Vaygan flipped over a switch and the interior of the Gloria Mundi faded from the screen, simultaneously her crew’s voices were cut off.
‘Where?’ Vaygan asked sharply.
The voice gabbled a string of unintelligible directions which started him readjusting his dials and switches. The screen lost its opaqueness once more and took on a uniform purple tinge. Until a wisp of tenuous cloud drifted across Joan did not realize that it was showing the Martian sky. Vaygan was watching it intently, slowly turning his dials. Presently a bright spark slid in from one side, and he gave a grunt. Evidently he had found what he wanted. He manipulated the controls to keep it in the middle of the screen.
‘What is it?’ Joan asked.
‘Another rocket like yours.’
‘Another?’ She remembered what the Russian had said about an American rocket.
‘Can’t you get a closer view of it?’ she asked.
‘Not yet. It’s too far away.’
They watched for a time in silence. Swiftly the spark grew from a mere dot to a flaring mass as the rocket dived lower and closer. The tubes were working furiously to break her long fall, belching out vivid gushes of white hot fire which was carried back along her sides to die in tattered banners of flame in her wake. Nearer and nearer she came, falling like a meteor wrapped in her own inferno of flame. It seemed impossible that in such a blast the ship herself should not be incandescent. Yet she was not out of control. Perceptibly she was slowing. But Vaygan murmured:
‘She’s coming in too fast far too fast.’
He could alter the angle of view now so that they seemed to look down on her as they followed her course. The Martian landscape streamed below her in an approaching blur. For a second she slipped out of the picture. Vaygan spun a control and picked her up again. She was dropping fast. Her rockets were erupting like miniature volcanoes, but still her speed was prodigious. The sand hills below her hurtled past indistinguishably. Joan’s fists clenched as she watched, and she found herself holding her breath.
‘They can’t they can’t land at that speed,’ she cried. ‘Oh!’
Vaygan put his free hand over hers, he said nothing.
She wanted to shut out the sight, but her eyes refused to leave the screen.
The rocket was nearly down now. A few hundred feet only above the desert, still going a thousand miles an hour. Joan gave a little moan. It was too late now. They could never get up again; they would have to land. The rocket sank lower, skimming the tops of the sand hills. Then the inevitable end began.
She touched and sprang, twirling and twisting, end over end a hundred feet into the air, as though the planet had tried to hurl her back into the sky. She dropped. Again she was flung up like a huge spinning shuttle gleaming with flame and reflected sunlight. She fell for the third time into a belt of bushes, firing them as she bounced, bumped and slithered towards the canal beyond.
The embankment almost saved her. For an uncertain moment she teetered on the edge. Then she tilted and half rolled, half slid into the water. A huge frothy column rose into the purple sky and two hundred yards of the bank went out of existence as she blew up.
Vaygan watched the water pouring out over the desert and the flame racing along the line of dry bushes. But Joan saw nothing of this, for she had fainted.
CHAPTER XXI. HANNO.
JOAN recovered to find Vaygan’s arm supporting her while with his other hand he held a bowl for her to drink from. At the same time he was talking loudly, issuing instructions for the repair of the broken embankment and warning of the fire spreading through the bushes, apparently to the empty room.
As her eyes opened his tone changed and he looked at her anxiously.
‘You’re all right now?’
‘I think so. It was silly of me to faint. I’m sorry.’
‘Does it often happen?’
She shook her head. ‘No. It was seeing that terrible crash.’
He looked at her as though he were puzzled.
‘Emotion? Can emotion do that to you?’ he said wonderingly.
‘Do you mean to say that you’ve never seen anyone faint before?’
‘Never. We don’t.’
Joan looked over his shoulder at the wall beyond. The vision panel had resumed its customary smoky grey appearance.
‘That’s a very wonderful instrument,’ she said. ‘But I don’t like it. It spies on people.’
He seemed surprised that it was new to her, and amused when she told him that television on Earth needed a transmitter.
‘But how primitive! This is much easier. Two beams are directed at once. The point where they meet is focused on the screen. By narrowing the beams their intensity is increased in a smaller field bringing the subject up to life size if necessary. It is quite simple.’
Joan shook her head. ‘It sounds complicated to me. I’m afraid I’m not very good at understanding things like that.’
He looked at her, and smiled. ‘You say that, but what you really mean is: “I don’t want to understand things like that.” Why?’
‘It’s true,’ she admitted. ‘But why, I can’t tell you. It’s an instinct, I suppose. Perhaps I feel that if I understood too much of things I should become part of a thing myself, instead of a person. I’m afraid of losing something, but I don’t know quite what Or do you think that’s merely the rationalization of a lazy mind?’
‘No. You’re mind is not lazy. But I don’t understand you. What can you lose by knowing more? Surely, the more you know of things the more you master them?’
‘Yes. I know that’s sensible, but my instinct is against it. Perhaps I inherit it from primitive ancestors. They thought it dangerous to know too much, so they just worshipped or accepted. Perhaps we shall outgrow it. In fact, when it concerns something I really want to know about, like your running machines, I don’t feel any of that reluctance to learn.’
‘You shall see more of them soon. But first, won’t you tell me what they were saying in your rocket? What was it all about, and why did they have those pieces of coloured cloth?’
‘Coloured cloth? Oh, flags. Those are national emblems; they were put up to claim the territory.’
‘You still have nations! How strange. We had nations long ago. Our children sometimes play at nations even now: it is a phase they go through. But tell me what they were saying.’
He listened with amusement as she took him in as much detail as she could remember through the exchanges between her companions and the Russians, but when she had finished, there was something wistful in his expression. For a time he did not speak, but sat with his eyes on the window, gazing unseeingly over the desert.
‘What are you going to do? Do you think your people will ally with them?’ she asked.
‘That? Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that. It was of men in your rocket and in the other: such men as we used to have here. The other is for the machines to decide, it is their world now.’
“Their world,”’ Joan repeated. ‘Then the machines do rule you.’
‘In a sense the machine must rule from the moment it is put to work. One surrenders to its higher efficiency that is why it was made. But it is really truer to say that we co-exist.’
Joan got up. ‘Won’t you show me your machines? Let me see them at work whatever it is that they do then, perhaps, I shall understand better. I’m still not at home with the idea of an individual, independent machine.’
‘It may help you to understand both of us and the machines,’ Vaygan agreed.
They left the building together by way of the airlock which she had used the previous night. On Vaygan’s insistence she was wearing a Martian space suit, a smaller edition of the one he wore himself. It was far less cumbersome than the overall from the ship, but the thin, silvery material of which it was made insulated her from the outer temperature completely, and the glasslike globe covering her head was far less tedious to wear than an oxygen mask. Thin diaphragms set in the globe could transmit her own voice and pick up external noises, and as she crossed the threshold of the outer doors she became aware of sounds of movement all about her.
No individual or particular noise predominated. The effect was rather a compound murmur, faint hummings, continuous clickings and scutterings mingling with the subdued harshness of dehumanized voices. It was not the steady rhythm of a machine shop with its mechanical purr and rattle, nor the hubbub of a crowded street on Earth, yet it seemed to hold something of the two.