‘Well, thank Heaven for some machines which look as if they had been built by men who were at least fairly sane,’ said Dugan.
‘Allegory,’ said Froud. ‘Order putting paid to Chaos.’
‘But why should there be chaotic machines at all?’ asked the doctor.
‘Why,’ Froud countered, ‘should Chaos ever have existed?’
The big machine ceased its fusillade. The recent besiegers appeared to have reduced themselves to a few heaps of scrap metal. Froud admired the efficiency of the operation. He said admiringly:
‘You know, that’s one of the bigger ideas. Just send your opponents potty, and watch them wipe one another out. We must take the notion back with us. Now, what do you suppose happens next?’
CHAPTER XXIII. EXPULSION.
AT first Joan did not know why she awoke. The room was silent and dark. Vaygan had not woken. She lay still and quiet, pressed against his side, with her head on his shoulder, listening to his breathing; her left arm lay across his chest, rising and falling gently with its rhythm. Then, gradually she became aware of another sound a faint, familiar humming somewhere close by which told her that a machine was in the room. She held her breath to listen, and then relaxed. What did it matter? Let the machines run about like the silly toys they were. They no longer had any importance.
There was a cold touch on her shoulder, and a harsh, metallic voice spoke out of the darkness. She sat up swiftly. Vaygan woke too as his arm fell from about her. He put his hand over hers.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘A machine,’ she said, almost in a whisper. ‘It touched me.’
With his other hand he found the switch, and the ceiling diffused a gradually increasing light. The machine was standing close beside the bed with its cold, blank lenses turned full on them.
‘What is it?’ Vaygan repeated, but this time he asked the question of the machine.
As before, Joan was unable to follow the harsh rapidity of its mechanical speech, but she watched the expressions on Vaygan’s face as he listened, and her heart sank. After a few questions which involved lengthy answers he turned to her. She knew from the look in his eyes what he was going to say before she heard the words.
‘The medical report was unfavourable you carry dangerous bacteria. It says that you will have to go.’
‘No, Vaygan. It’s wrong. I’m healthy and clean.’
He took both her hands in his.
‘My dear, it is true. The tests can’t lie. I was afraid of it. The Earthly bacteria you carry might start a disease here which would wipe all my people out and you, they say, are not immune from many of the bacteria we carry. It would be both suicide and murder for your people and mine to mix.’
‘But you and I, Vaygan. We?’
He agreed softly. ‘I know, my dear I know.’
‘Oh, let me stay. Let me stay here with you…’
‘It is not possible. They say you must go.’
‘They? The Machines?’
‘Not just the Machines. My people say it.’
Joan dropped back and hid her face in the pillow. Vaygan slid one arm round her bare shoulders. With his other hand he stroked her hair.
‘Joan. Joan. Listen. You could not stay here. Even mixing with us you could not live our life for you it would be only a slow death. You would be lonely as no one has ever been lonely before. Your heart would break, my dear and mine, too, I think. I could not stand seeing you crushed by hopelessness. The very old and the very young have nothing to share. For a few moments you and I have met. For a time at least I have known through you how I might have lived; almost I have known how it feels to belong to a race in its youth. Now it is finished, but I shall never forget, for you have given me something which is beautiful beyond all I ever dreamed.’
Joan raised her face and looked at him through tears.
‘No, Vaygan. No. They can’t make me go now. A few days a week. Can’t they let us have just a week?’
The voice of the machine broke in harshly.
‘It says that there is not much time,’ Vaygan told her. ‘The rocket must start just after dawn, or it will have to wait another day.’
‘Make it wait, Vaygan. Keep me here and make it wait one more day.’
‘I couldn’t if I would.’ He looked at the machine. ‘It’s their world now, and they don’t want you. That is the message you are to take back to Earth with you. Earth is to leave Mars alone. Some years ago they sent a ship to Earth to prospect, and when it came back, that was their j decision: They mean it, Joan.’
But she seemed not to hear him. She put up her hand and gripped his shoulder.
‘Vaygan, you shall come back with us. Why shouldn’t you come back? There’ll be room in the Gloria Mundi. I can persuade Dale to take you, you can get him some more fuel if necessary. Yes, you must. Oh, say you’ll come, Vaygan, my dear.’
He looked sadly into her face.
‘I can’t, Joan.’
‘But you must. Oh, you shall.’
‘But, my darling, don’t you see? I must not mix with your race any more than you with mine.’
He slipped from the bed. He stood beside it for a moment, looking down at her. Then he pulled the coverlet aside and picked her up. She clung to him.
‘Oh, Vaygan. Vaygan.’
‘Hoy!’ said Dugan. ‘You’re the prize scholar. What’s this chap trying to tell us?’
Froud joined him at the window and together they watched the antics of the machine below. It was scratching characters very busily on a carefully smoothed piece of ground.
‘Quite a little sand artist, isn’t he?’ Froud said. ‘As far as I can see, it’s an instruction that we must leave one something after dawn.’
‘What do you mean “one something”?’
‘I suppose it’s a measure of time of some kind.’
‘Very helpful. Hi, Dale l’
‘What is it?’ Dale looked up irritably from his calculations.
‘Sailing orders, but we can’t read ’em.’
‘Well, if you can’t, you can’t. My reckoning came out at one hour and twenty minutes after dawn, which means that we’ve now got’ he glanced at the clock’thirty two minutes to go.’
Froud drifted over to another window. Across the intervening dunes he could see the Tovaritch glistening in the early light. Like the Gloria Mundi she had been raised to the perpendicular with her blunt nose pointing to the sky. He frowned, wondering how the machines had accomplished the erection in so short a time, wondering too if the occupants of the Tovaritch had also suffered the indignity of being flung in a heap as the ship suddenly tilted beneath them.
‘There’s one thing I can’t forgive,’ he muttered to no one in particular,’ ‘and that’s their keeping us bottled in here while they tipped it up. I’d have given a lot to see how they did it, and to get some pictures of it.’
‘It was too dark for pictures, anyhow,’ the doctor told him consolingly, ‘but I do wish they’d given us some warning. Nearly cracked my skull on the floor as we went up. Would have done if one wasn’t so light here.’
Froud took no notice of him. He was going on. ‘I’ve covered a few dud assignments in my time, but of all the flops, this is the floppiest. We come here, we get chased about by crazy machines and we get told to go home again by slightly less crazy machines. We don’t know what makes them work, who made them, how they made them, where they made them, when they made them, nor why they made them. In fact, we don’t know a blasted thing, and the whole outing has been too damn’ silly for words. We’ve lost Joan, poor kid, and Burns was laid out for nothing. If this is interplanetary exploration, give me archaeology.’
‘On the other hand,’ the doctor put in, ‘we know that life still exists here by the canals. I’ve got some specimens, you’ve got some photographs. Dale has proved that it is possible to make a flight between ‘
‘Hullo’ Froud interrupted. ‘Here’s something in a hurry, just look at it.’ He watched a bright speck tearing towards them and covering the successive lines of dunes at a prodigious pace.
‘It looks different from the rest. I believe it’s carrying something. Where are those glasses? It is. It’s holding a man in those tentacle things. It’s coming here. Stand by the airlock, Dugan.’
Dugan obediently pulled over the lever for the outer door.
‘How’s he going to reach it?’ he began, but a shout from Froud cut him short.