Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

Joan watched the six legged machines scurrying across the open space in front of her. Some were carrying burdens in the tentacles, others held the tentacles coiled to their sides. Most of them moved at a similar constant speed, though now and then one obviously in a hurry would scamper past, skilfully weaving its way through the lines at twice the average pace. The sight of the interweaving streams of traffic and the kaleidoscopic shifting of bright moving parts had a dazzling, dizzying effect on her. She waited for the confusion which a collision must bring, but there were no entanglements. No two machines even touched, for though there was no mass control the precise judgment of each appeared to be infallible. For the first time she felt an inkling of what Vaygan had tried to tell her.

These were not machines as she knew them. They were not the advanced counterparts of anything on Earth, but something altogether new. They did not live, in her sense of the word, yet they were not inert metal. They were a queer hybrid between the sentient and the insentient.

And she could not quell a rising sense of misgiving and outrage; she was unable to silence the voice of prejudice and self defence which, to crush the suspicion that these monsters might be better fitted to survive than were her own kind, insisted that they should not exist and that they were in some ill defined, superstitious sense wrong.

An idea more fantastic, yet more acceptable to her prejudices, occurred to her.

‘They haven’t brains inside those cases?’ she asked Vaygan beside her.

‘Yes Oh, I see what you mean. No, we’ve never been able to transplant a human brain into a machine, though it has been tried. It would not have been very useful if it had succeeded. For instance, you would have seen a dozen collisions by now if human brains had been in charge. Our responses are not quick enough. You are wasting time by thinking anthropomorphically. The machines are the machines.’

He led her across the open space (once, he told her, a garden which their utmost efforts had failed to preserve; now a waste, as aridly depressing as a parade ground) and turned into one of the wider streets which ran from it. Joan kept closely beside him, overcoming with difficulty the fear that the rushing mechanisms about them would trample them to death by a misjudgment. To the end she could never fully believe that their control was superior to her own, but she grew easier as she noticed how the traffic divided for them and that danger was never really imminent. After a short time she had recovered enough equanimity to listen to Vaygan’s talk.

In its time, he was telling her, Hanno had been the home of between five and six million people. Nowadays the machines had adapted much of it for their own use while the rest stood empty save for the airtight building where the surviving men and women dwelt.

‘Where are they?’ Joan put in. ‘I haven’t seen anyone but you yet. When can I see the rest?’

‘Perhaps tomorrow. They insist that you shall be medically examined first. You may easily be a carrier of Earth germs which would be fatal to us.’

‘But if to them, why not to you?’

‘Someone had to take the risk.’ He smiled at her. ‘I’m glad it was L’

Joan hesitated. Then it became possible only to change the subject.

‘Why are there none of them in the streets?’

He explained that the majority never left the central building. ‘We can if we want to,’ he added, ‘but we seldom want to. We are almost museum pieces. They scarcely need us any longer.’

She frowned. ‘They’ evidently meant the machines.

‘I know it must sound silly, but I still can’t help thinking along my old lines. I don’t understand why they haven’t conquered you and wiped you out. And yet you, yourself, seem to think of them as friends almost protectively.’

‘Can you not bring yourself to see that machines are not the enemies, but the complements of mankind? It is of your kind of machine I am talking now Clearly you do not in the least appreciate what you have found. Humanity is flexible, machinery is not. If you do not adapt to it, it will conquer you. You must learn to use the controls of the car that is carrying you, or it will run away with you.’ He paused, and then went on: ‘But that applies to you to whom the machine is new. With us it is utterly different. You say our attitude to them is protective. That is true. They are our future all the future we have. Did I not tell you that they are the children of our brains? They are the final extension of ourselves, so that we have every reason to be proud, not jealous of them.

‘But circumstances on your Earth give another aspect. The larger planet has the longer life. Your race’s day is far from done, so you are both jealous and afraid of the machines. It may be that you will be jealous of them to the end, for the end of man on Earth will not be like his end on Mars. Because our planet is small, the end has come early in evolution no more natural forms can develop here. But Earth is barely in her middle age; there is time yet for many kinds of creatures to rule her. It may easily be that you will strangle yourselves with your own machines and thus make your own prophecies come true, and that another creature will arise to look back on man as man looks back on the reptiles.’

‘No,’ Joan’s objection was a reflex. ‘Mankind must be the peak.’

‘What vanity! I tell you, the great Lords of the Earth are yet to come. They may evolve from man, or they may not. But if they do, they will not be men as we know them. There is change always change. Even on this dying planet we are the instruments which have evolved new lords to come after us: perhaps they will make others to follow them. Do you really think that for all the millions of years to come you can face Nature unchanged? We have tried, and changed even as we tried. And now that we have made the machines to fight Nature we find that we are no more than the tools of that evolution which is Nature herself. We say we fight her while we do her bidding the joke is on us.’

Vaygan led on. He showed her magnificent halls, bare and deserted, great libraries where were books printed upon imperishable sheets, but with the characters all but faded from the pages. She saw that long stretches of the shelves gaped empty. The machines had taken all of any use to them: the rest dealt with human beings they were no longer needed. He took her through galleries which he himself had never seen before, filled with sculptures upon which the settling dust had mounted age by age. They went into theatres whose strange circular stages had known no actors for thousands of years. He tried, in a place not unlike a television or cinema theatre, to give her a glimpse of the thriving Hanno of long ago, but the machinery was corroded and useless. He showed her a hall filled with queer little cars which had once raced along the streets outside. She was surprised at the preservation of it a11. A city on Earth neglected for a fraction of the time that Hanno had been empty would have fallen into mounds of ruin. Vaygan ascribed it partly to the dryness of Mars and the lack of growing things, and partly to the hardness of the materials. ‘But, even so,’ he said, ‘if you look at the corners of the buildings you will see that they are not as sharp as they were. The wind has fretted the sand against them, but I think, in the end, that they will outlast the wind.’

They came to districts where they were completely alone, with the streets as empty as the buildings to either side of them. The effect was melancholy. Joan began to long for activity and movement again, even if it were only the bustle of the machines. She fancied that Vaygan, too, seemed relieved when she suggested that they should turn back.

‘Now I will show you that part of Hanno which is not dead,’ he said.

He took her into one of the factories where machines made more machines. She looked about it, hoping to understand a little of what was going on and vainly trying to change a lifetime’s habits of thought. She felt that once her mind would accept the idea of a living machine as an accomplished fact she would be able to sympathize with Vaygan’s attitude. But still her reason balked at it. To advance the theory in the living room of the Gloria Mundi had been one thing: to accept the reality of it was quite another. Was it, she wondered, a part of that inadaptability Vaygan had spoken about? She followed thoughtfully as he led on into another hall.

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