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Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

Joan said nothing. She barely followed his words and their meaning was lost, but with her eyes on his she saw more than he told. His hands took hers, trembling a little. His broad chest rose and fell with deeper breaths. It seemed to her as though a lay figure of a man were coming to life.

‘You!’ he whispered. ‘You have lent me life for a little while. You have fanned a spark which was almost dead, and it hurts me, Joan. It hurts me. . .’

CHAPTER XXII. A SIEGE IS RAISED.

DUGAN knocked up a switch and the spare bulb of the searchlight mounted at the window in a temporary reflector went dead. He snatched up a pair of field glasses and pointed them at the group on the sand hill close by the bushes. For some minutes he watched the flashes from a bright piece of metal held in a man’s hand. Then he lowered the glasses, flashed out the sign for ‘message received’ on the searchlight bulb, and turned to the others.

‘They say their air supply is good for another eight hours yet,’ he said.

The four looked at one another.

‘Well, is there anything we can dot’ asked the doctor.

‘Damned if I can think of it,’ Dale muttered.

Froud looked again at the party on the sand hill. In the dry air it was possible to make out even at that distance the overalled figures of the four Russians and the ring of imprisoning machines.

‘I’m feeling a bit of a swine,’ he said. ‘Sheer human decency ought to have made us warn them. Instead, I just encouraged Karaminoff to go head first into trouble.’

‘I shouldn’t worry about that. They wouldn’t have believed us, and they were bound to meet the machines sooner or later,’ the doctor told him.

Froud grunted. ‘Maybe. All the same there’s a hell of a difference between trying to save a man and shoving him in. However, he did at least have the sense to get back when he saw what was coming out of the bushes. But what the devil can we do about it? They’ve got them the same way as they got us. They’ve been there nearly six hours now, and it’s not likely they’ll be interrupted this time…’ He broke off. ‘Hi, Dugan, they’re flashing.’

Dugan put up his glasses once more. After a minute:

‘Can’t read it. Must be signalling their ,own ship again,’ he announced.

Froud pressed his face against the window in an effort to look astern. The fact that the window was set in the curving bow restricted his field, but he could see enough half a dozen of the grotesquely assembled machines posted unmovingly opposite the entrance port.

‘Still there,’ he said gloomily. He crossed the room and sat down on the side of one of the couches. ‘This is a hell of a mess. It’s dead certain that if we go out there we’ll get caught too, and that won’t help anybody. But if we’re ever going to get away, we’ve got to get out sooner or later to upend the ship and that’s going to be no light job. Seems to me as if Joan and Burns had the better deal, after all at least it was over quickly … Why the devil can’t they let us alone, anyway?’

‘To divide their planet between us?’ asked the doctor.

‘Rot. Those things out there can’t reason like that. If they were human beings, there’d be some sense in their resentment. But machines I ask you, why should machines attack us at sight?’

‘Metal, I think,’ Dugan contributed unexpectedly. ‘They seem to be short of it. You saw how they rebuilt themselves from one another’s parts. They could get a lot of metal from a ship like this.’

‘That’s true,’ Froud agreed. ‘With us out of the way they could break her up. I wonder if you’ve hit it?’

‘I suppose it wouldn’t be possible for us to remove ourselves?’ the doctor suggested tentatively. ‘I mean, to shoot the G.M. along the ground by use of the tail rockets?’

‘We’d be more likely to dig into a sand hill and bury ourselves on a surface like this,’ Dale thought.

‘And it wouldn’t do us much good if we did move a few miles,’ Froud added. ‘Our friends the nickel plated nightmares would just come along too.’

‘Well, damn it all, we can’t just sit here doing nothing,’ Dugan said. explosively. But he offered no alternative. Nor, it seemed, could anyone else. For a time an uninspired silence hung over the room.

‘It’s all so darned silly,’ Froud murmured at last, ‘that’s what gets me down. We push off with world acclaim, we successfully avoid all the perils of space and arrive here safely only to find (a) that the place is overrun with idiotic looking machines; (b) that two other rockets have also pushed off, but without the acclaim; and (c) that our only safety from the said idiotic machines is to stay bottled up in here. It simply isn’t good enough. It’s not at all the sort of thing that put Raleigh and Cook in the history books.’

‘Besides,’ said the doctor, ‘think of the yarns of heroism you’ll have to invent for public consumption if ever we do get back.’

Dugan began to flash his light again.

‘Asking if their ship’s still bottled up too,’ he explained.

They watched him transmit, and receive his answer.

‘Well?’ asked Dale.

‘Yes. They left two men aboard the Tovaritch and machines are now parking round the entrance to keep ’em there. The two they sent back the one I pipped and the other don’t seem to have turned up. Either the machines have jumped on them, or they’re holding out somewhere behind those dunes.’

‘Then there were eight altogether on the Tovaritch. Pretty good,’ Dale admitted grudgingly.

‘It’s a pity,’ remarked Froud, ‘that nobody thought to load a few hand grenades. One or two among that bunch by the door ought to tangle ’em up enough to put ’em out of action ‘ He paused as if a new thought had struck him. ‘I say,’ he went on excitedly, ‘why don’t we make some? There are enough explosives on board of’ one kind and another, God knows.’

They all turned to Dale. He thought for a moment.

‘All right. I expect some more machines will turn up, but it’s worth trying.’

‘Anyway, it may give us long enough to get Karaminoff and Co. out of their jam,’ Dugan agreed. ‘I’ll signal him what we’re doing, and he can pass it on to the men on the Tovaritch to do the same.’

‘Pity we can’t signal them direct,’ Dale said. He looked out of the other window. ‘If she’d only landed a few feet farther to the left we could have seen her windows and there wouldn’t be any need for this three cornered ‘ He broke off suddenly as a string of machines came scuttling at top speed round the flank of an intervening sand hill. ‘Hullo, what the devil’s happening now?’

The others crowded up to him. They watched the machines swerve on to a course headed for the bushes. A moment later they were followed by a dozen or so more, also travelling fast. Away to the left Froud noticed a series of reflected flashes crossing the crest of another dune.

‘More active ironware on the way,’ he announced. ‘What the dickens is up now? Whatever it is, these nearer chaps don’t seem to care for it. Watch their dust.’

The unwieldy cavalcade lumbered past, making the best speed its ill assorted parts would allow. Froud dashed across to the other window.

‘The ones round Karaminoff are sheering off, too,’ he reported. ‘Streaking for the ‘

‘Good God!’ said Dugan’s voice. ‘Look at that!’

He pointed wildly at an object which had suddenly made an appearance on the top of the dune between themselves and the other ship. A strange, tank like device supported by innumerable short legs which ended in wide round plates. It stopped abruptly on the crest. The sunlight reflecting from its curved casework and the glittering of its lenses made it hard to look at. A sudden discharge of bright blue flashes snapped from its bows, and immediately consternation smote the fleeing machines. There were no missiles, no visible causes for the turmoil into which they were thrown, yet the disorganization was complete. They lost their course and began to run this way and that with a wild, senseless flourishing of tentacles and jointed levers. Their ill matched legs bore them on erratic lines so that they fouled one another and crashed ponderously together. A number tripped and fell, breaking or twisting the legs of others. There was a fresh salvo of flashes from the large machine, and the confusion grew. Had such a thing been possible, the crew of the Gloria Mundi would have said that they were watching machines go mad. They became a berserk mass of milling, flailing metal, surging this way and that, hopelessly tangled and interlocked, crashing and buffeting back and forth in an insane melee. The tank like contrivance trundled down the hill, still emitting its blue flashes and driving the machines to even greater frenzies of self destruction. A dozen or more coffin shaped objects ran in its wake. Except for the lack of one pair of legs they were identical with that in Joan’s pictures.

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