Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

Somewhere about nine thirty Police Gyrocurt Number 4 came hovering close to Number 5. Number 4’s pilot picked up a megaphone and shouted across:

‘Just look at ’em down there. Bill. Like a bloomin’ ant’eap, ain’t it?’

Bill, in Number 5, nodded.

‘If they keep on comin’ in at this rate, we’ll lave to start parking them vertical,’ he bawled back.

That part of the Plain which lay below them had undergone a transformation. Outside the five mile circle of the beacon balloons acres of country were covered with parked cars and ‘planes. From them crowds of black dots were stippled inwards, growing denser as they converged. The barrier which held the public back out of harm’s way appeared already as a solid black ring two miles in diameter and of greater thickness on the western side where the several stands, broadcasting and observation towers and various other temporary structures were situated. Finally, in splendid isolation in the exact centre, could be seen the Gloria Mundi herself.

The portable sheds of those who had attended to the last tests and adjustments had been cleared away leaving only discoloured rectangles of grass to show where they had stood for the last fortnight. Gone also was the galvanized iron fence which had served to keep back the curious during that time, and the rocket, still shrouded in canvas, was left with a cordon of police as her only guard.

By midday the crowd was still swelling. The refreshment stalls were beginning to wonder whether the supply would hold out, and in accordance with economic laws were raising their prices. A self appointed prophet beneath a banner, consenting that ‘God’s Will be Done’, patiently warned a regrettably waggish audience of the sacrilegious aspect of the occasion. Up on the broadcast tower an announcer told the world, confidently:

‘It’s a beautiful day. Couldn’t be better for it. The crowds are still coming in as they have been all day, and although the take off is timed for half past four, the excitement is already tremendous. I expect you can hear the noise they are making out there. There must be over half a million people here now. Don’t you think so, Mr. Jones?’

Mr. Jones was understood to suggest three quarters of a million as the minimum.

‘Perhaps you’re right. At any rate there are a lot of them, and it really is a beautiful day. Don’t you think so, Mr. Jones?’

Rumours flocked to the Press Stand and to the rooms beneath it like iron filings to a magnet.

‘Her tubes won’t stand it,’ said Travers of the Hail. ‘Man I know, metallurgist in Sheffield, told me for a fact that there is no alloy known which will stand up to such a temperature’

‘She can’t rise,’ Dennis of the Reflector was saying. ‘She’s too heavy. Man in Commercial Explosives showed me the figures. She’ll turn over and streak along the ground and I hope to God she doesn’t come my way.

‘If she gets up,’ conceded Dawes of Veracity, ‘she’s not got a chance in hell of getting out of the gravity pull. Take my word for it, it’s going to be another Drivers business’

Tenson of the Co-ordinator knew for a fact that the drive for the rapid construction had meant incomplete testing.

‘Sheer madness,’ was the Excess man’s view. ‘Rockets have got to be small. Might as well try to fly St. Paul’s as take up this great thing’

A small, insignificant member of the crowd plucked at Police Sergeant Yarder’s sleeve and pointed upwards.

‘Look, Officer, there’s a gyrocurt inside the beacons.’

Sergeant Yarder shaded his eyes and followed the line of the pointing finger.

‘That’ll be Mr. Curtance and the rest, sir. Got to let them through, or there wouldn’t be no show.’

Others had noticed the ‘plane’s arrival. A sound of cheering rose, faint at first, but growing in volume until it swept up in a great roar from tens of thousands of throats as more and more of the spectators realized that Dale was here at last. The ‘plane dropped slowly and landed. The door opened and Dale could be seen waving in reply. He stepped to the ground and his four chosen companions followed. A few moments later they were all hidden from the crowd by a converging rush of movie vans and Presscars. The gyrocurt took off again and the mob of vans and cars moved closer to the still shrouded rocket.

The announcer up in the broadcasting tower talked excitedly into his microphone:

‘He’s here l you have just seen Dale Curtance arrive to make his interplanetary attempt. They’re moving over now towards the rocket. The five are somewhere in the middle of that group there. The crowd is shouting itself hoarse. Here, we are more than a mile from the rocket itself, but we arc going to do our best to show you the unveiling ceremony. Just a minute, please, while we change the lens.’

The scene on the vision screens flickered and then blurred as the tele-optic was swung in. It refocused, searched, and finally came to rest on Dale and the group about him. He stood on a temporary wooden dais at the rocket’s foot. In one hand he held the end of a rope which ran upwards out of television screen’s field.

‘Now we are going over to hear Mr. Curtance himself speak through the microphone which you can see beside him,’ said the announcer.

A sudden, expectant silence fell on the crowds. Those who had brought portable screens with them watched Dale step forward smiling. The rest shaded their eyes to gaze at the group a mile away and imagine that well known smile as a hundred loudspeakers spoke at once:

‘Anything I could say in answer to such a salute as you have given me must be inadequate. All that I can say, on behalf of my companions and myself, is “Thank you”. We are going to do our best to prove ourselves worthy of such a reception. Again, “Thank you”.’

He paused and tightened his hold on the hanging rope.

‘And now,’ he added, ‘here is my Gloria Mundi.’

He pulled on the rope. For a breathless second nothing seemed to happen. Then the canvas fell away from the top, slithering down the polished metal sides to subside in billowing waves on the ground. The earlier cheers had been but a murmur compared with the volume of sound which now roared from the packed crowds.

The Gloria Mundi gleamed in the sunlight. She towered on the level plain like a monstrous shell designed for the artillery of giants; a shapely mass of glistening metal poised on a tripod of three great flanges, her blunt nose pointing already into the blue sky whither if all went well she would presently leap.

And then, surprisingly, the cheering died away. It was as though it had come home to the mass of sightseers for the first time that the five men on the platform were volunteers for almost certain death; that the shell like shape beside them was indeed a shell, the greatest projectile the world had ever seen, and that all of it, save for a small part near the nose where the circular windows showed, was filled with the most powerful known explosives.

When the crowd began to talk again a new note was dominant. The spirit of bank holiday jubilation had become impregnated with anxiety and a sense of trepidation. Even the phlegmatic Sergeant Yarder was aware of its injection.

The proposed flight had hitherto stirred his imagination only slightly; and that because the crowd attending its start was the largest on record. Now he looked across at the rocket with a new curiosity. Why wasn’t the Earth big enough for them? It must be a queer kind of man who could find so little of interest in all the five continents and seven seas that he wished to shoot himself out into the emptiness of space. And what good would it do anybody; even if they managed it? What good had any of these rockets ever done? Even Drivers’ Right round the Moon hadn’t meant anybody’s betterment. There had been millions of money wasted and scores of good men killed . . .

The sergeant sniffed and pulled out his watch. It was useful, though not an instrument of precision.

‘Just gone ‘alf past three. They got an hour yet,’ he murmured, half to himself.

His small neighbour ventured a correction.

‘Twenty to four, I think, Sergeant. They’ll be going inside soon.’

The sergeant shook a disapproving head.

‘Why do they do it? Blamed if I’d ever go up in one of them things not for millions, I wouldn’t. Bein’ a national ‘ero’s all right but it ain’t much good to you if you’re all in little bits so small that nobody can find ’em And it ain’t no good if you go the way Drivers did, poor devil.’

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