The space machine, p.14
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       The Space Machine, p.14
 

          

  There were two such industrial concentrations: the large one we had seen from the train, which lay to the north, and a smaller one built beside the canal to the south-east.

  In terms of resident population, Desolation City was very small indeed, and it was this aspect which had most prompted Amelia to give it its unprepossessing name.

  That the city had been built to accommodate many thousands of people was quite obvious, for buildings there were many and open spaces there were few; that only a fraction of the city was presently occupied was equally apparent, and large areas were laid to waste. In these parts many of the buildings were derelict, and the streets were littered with masonry and rusting girders.

  We discovered that only the occupied parts of the city were lighted at night, for as we explored the city by day we frequently found areas of decay where none of the towers was present. We never ventured into these regions at night, for quite apart from being dark and threatening in their loneliness, such areas were patrolled by fast-moving vehicles which drove through the streets with a banshee howling and an ever-probing beam of light.

  This sinister policing of the city was the first indication that the Martian people had inflicted on themselves a régime of Draconian suppression.

  We often speculated as to the causes of the under-population. At first we surmised that the shortage of manpower was only apparent, created by the quite prodigious amount of effort poured into the industrial processes. By day we could see the industrial areas beyond the city’s perimeter, belching dense smoke from hundreds of chimneys, and by night we saw the same areas brightly lit as the work continued; thus it was that we assumed most of the city’s people were at work, labouring around the clock through work-shifts. However, as we grew more used to living in the city, we saw that not many of the ruling-class Martians ever left its confines, and that therefore most of the industrial workers would be of the slave class.

  I have mentioned that the city was circular in shape. We discovered this by accident and over a period of several days, and were able to confirm it later by ascending one of the taller buildings in the city.

  Our first realization came as follows. On our second or third full day in Desolation City, Amelia and I were walking northwards through the city, intending to see if we could cross the mile or so of desert between us and the larger of the two industrial concentrations.

  We came to a street which led directly northwards, seeming to open eventually on to the desert. This was in one of the populated areas of the city, and watch-towers abounded. I noticed, as we approached, that the tower nearest to the desert had stopped rotating to and fro, and I pointed this out to Amelia. We considered for a few moments whether or not to continue, but Amelia said she saw no harm.

  However, as we passed the tower it was quite obvious that the man or men inside were rotating the observation-platform to watch us, and the dark, oval window at the front mutely followed our progress past it. No action was taken against us, so we continued, but with a distinct feeling of apprehension.

  So taken were we with this silent monitoring that we fetched up unexpectedly and shockingly against the true perimeter of the city; this took the form of an invisible, or nearly invisible, wall, stretching from one side of the roadway to the other. Naturally enough, we thought at first that the substance was glass, but this could not be the case. Nor was it, indeed, any other form of material that we knew. Our best notion was that it was some kind of energetic field, induced by electrical means. It was, though, completely inert, and under the gaze of the watch-tower we made a few rudimentary attempts to fathom it. All we could feel was the impermeable, invisible barrier, cold to the touch.

  Chastened, we walked back the way we had come.

  On a later occasion, we walked through one of the empty quarters of the city, and found that there too the wall existed. Before long we had established that the wall extended all around the city, crossing not just streets but behind buildings too.

  Later, from the aspect of the roof, we saw that few if any of the buildings lay beyond this circle.

  It was Amelia who first posited a solution, linking this phenomenon with the undoubted one that air-density and overall temperature in the city were higher than outside. She suggested that the invisible barrier was not merely a wall, but in fact a hemisphere which covered the entire city. Beneath this, she said, air-pressure could be maintained at an acceptable level, and the effect of the sun through it would be closely akin to that of a glasshouse.

  iii

  Desolation City was not, however, a prison. To leave it was as easy as it had been for us to enter it initially. On our journeys of exploration we came across several places where it was possible merely to walk through some specially maintained fault in the wall and enter the rarefied atmosphere of the desert.

  One such fault was the series of doors and corridors at the railway terminus; there were similar ones at the wharves built by the canals, and some of these were immense structures by which imported materials could be taken into the city. Several of the major streets, which ran towards the industrial areas, had transit buildings through which people could pass freely.

  What was most interesting of all, though, was that the vehicles of the city were able to pass directly through the wall without either hesitation or detectable leakage of the pressurized atmosphere. We saw this occur many times.

  I must now turn the attention of this narrative towards the nature of these vehicles, for among the many marvels Amelia and I saw on Mars these numbered among the most amazing.

  The fundamental difference lay in the fact that, unlike Earth engineers, the Martian inventors had dispensed with the wheel entirely. Having seen the efficiency of the Martians’ vehicles I was, indeed, forced to wonder how far Earthly developments in this field had been retarded by the obsession with the wheel! Furthermore, the only wheeled vehicles we saw on Mars were the crude hand-carts used by the slaves; an indication of how lowly the Martians considered such methods!

  The first Martian vehicle we saw (not counting the train in which we had arrived, although we assumed that this too was without wheels) was the one which had raced through the streets that first dismal night in Desolation City. The second we saw was during the morning of the next day; that too was moving at such a lick that we were left with a confused impression of speed and noise. Later, however, we saw one moving more slowly, and later still we saw several at rest.

  To say that Martian vehicles walked would be inaccurate, although I can think of no closer verb. Beneath the main body (which, according to its use, was designed in a fashion more or less conventional to us) were rows of long or short metal legs, the length being determined by the kind of use to which the vehicle was put. These legs were mounted in groups of three, connected by a transmission device to the main body, and powered from within by some hidden power source.

  The motion of these legs was at once curiously life-like and rigidly mechanical: at any one time only one of the three legs of each mounting would be in contact with the ground. In motion, the legs would ripple with a quasi-peristaltic motion, the two raised legs reaching forward to take the load, the third one lifting and reaching forward in its turn.

  The largest vehicle we saw at close quarters was a goods-haulage machine, with two parallel rows of sixteen groups of these legs. The smallest machines, which were used to police the city, had two rows of three groups.

  Each leg, on close examination, turned out to be made of several dozen finely-machined disks, balanced on top of each other like a pile of pennies, and yet activated in some way by an electrical current. As each of the legs was encased in a transparent integument, it was possible to see the, device in operation, but how each movement was controlled was beyond us. In any event, the efficiency of these machines was in no doubt: we frequently saw the policing-vehicles driving through the streets at a velocity well in excess of anything a horse-drawn vehicle could attain.

  iv

  Perhaps even more puzzlin
g to us than the design of these vehicles was the men who drove them.

  That men were inside them was apparent, for on many occasions we saw ordinary Martians speaking to the driver or other occupants, with spoken replies coming through a metal grille set in the side of the machine. What was also quite clear was that the drivers were in positions of extraordinary authority, for when addressed by them the Martians in the street adopted a cowed or respectful manner, and spoke in subdued tones. However, at no time did we see the drivers, for all the vehicles were totally enclosed—at least, the driver’s compartment was enclosed—with only a piece of the black glass set at the front, behind which the driver presumably stood or sat. As these windows were similar to those we saw on every watch-tower, we presumed that they were operated by the same group of people.

  Nor were all the vehicles as prosaic as maybe I have made them appear.

  Confronted, as we were, with a multitude of strange sights, Amelia and I were constantly trying to find Earthly parallels for what we saw. It is likely, therefore, that many of the assumptions we made at this time were incorrect. It was relatively safe to assume that the vehicles we thought of as drays were just that, for we saw them performing similar tasks to those we knew on Earth. There was no way, though, of finding an Earthly equivalent for some of the machines.

  One such was a device used by the Martians in conjunction with their watch-towers.

  Directly outside the dormitory building we settled in, and visible to us from our hammocks, was one of the watch-towers. After we had been in occupation for about eight days, Amelia pointed out that there appeared to be something wrong with it, for its observation platform had ceased to rotate to and fro. That night we saw that its light was not on.

  The very next day one of the vehicles came to a halt beside the tower, and there took place a repair operation I can only describe as fantastic.

  The vehicle in question was of a type we had occasionally seen about the city: a long, low machine which, above its drive-leg platform, was an apparent mass of glittering tubing, heaped in disorder. As the legged vehicle halted beside the watch-tower, this confusion of metal reared itself up, to reveal that it possessed five of the peristaltic legs, the remainder of the appendages being a score or more of tentacular arms.

  It stepped down from the platform of the vehicle, the jointed arms clanging and ringing, then walked the short distance to the base of the tower with a movement remarkably like that of a spider. We both looked, for some clue as to how the thing was being driven, but it seemed that either the monstrous machine had an intelligence of its own, or else it was controlled in some incredible way by the driver of the vehicle, for there was plainly no one anywhere near it. As it reached the base of the tower, one of its tentacles was brought into contact with a raised metal plate on one of the pillars, and in a moment we saw that the observation platform was lowering. Apparently it could lower itself only so far, for when the platform was about twenty feet from the ground the tentacular device seized the tower’s legs in its horrid embrace, and began to climb slowly upwards, like a spider climbing a strand of its web.

  When it reached the observation-platform it settled itself in position by clinging on with its legs, and then with several tentacles reached through a number of tiny ports, apparently searching for the parts of the mechanism which had failed.

  Amelia and I watched the whole operation, unnoticed inside the building. From the arrival of the legged vehicle to its eventual departure, only twelve minutes elapsed, and by the time the iron monster had returned to its place on the rear of the vehicle, the observation-platform had been raised to its erstwhile height, and was rotating to and fro in its usual way.

  v

  So far, I have not had much to say about our day-to-day survival in this desolate city, nor, for the moment, will I. Our internal preoccupations were many and great, and, in several ways, more important than what we were seeing about us. Before turning to this, though, I must first establish the context. We are all creatures of our environment, and in disturbingly subtle ways Amelia and I were becoming a little Martian in our outlook. The desolation about us was reaching our souls.

  vi

  As we moved about the city one question remained ever unanswered. That is to say: how did the ordinary Martian occupy his time?

  We now understood something of the social ramifications of Mars. This was in effect that the lowest social stratum was the slave-people, who were forced to do all the manual and demeaning tasks necessary to any civilized society. Then came the Martians of the city, who had powers of supervision over the slaves. Above these were the men who drove the legged vehicles and, presumably, operated the other mechanical devices we saw.

  It was the city-dwelling Martians in whom we were most interested, for it was among them that we lived. However, not all of these were occupied. For instance, it took relatively few of them to supervise the slaves (we often saw just one or two men able to control several hundred slaves, armed with only the electrical whips), and although the vehicles were many in number, there were always plenty of people in the city, apparently idle.

  On our perambulations Amelia and I saw much evidence that time hung heavy on these people. The nightly carousing was obviously a result of two factors: partly a way of appeasing the endless grief, and partly a way of expressing boredom. We frequently saw people squabbling, and there were several fights, although these were dissipated instantly at the sight of one of the vehicles. Many of the women appeared to be pregnant; another indication that there was not much to occupy either the minds or the energies of the people. At the height of the day, when the sun was overhead (we had come to the conclusion that the city must be built almost exactly on the Martian equator), the pavements of the streets were littered with the bodies of men and women relaxing in the warmth.

  One possibility that would account for the apparent idleness was that some of them were employed in the near-by industrial area, and that the Martians we saw about the city were enjoying some leave.

  As we were both curious to see the industrial areas and discover, if we could, what was the nature of all the furious activity that took place, one day, about fifteen days after our arrival, Amelia and I determined to leave the city and explore the smaller of the two complexes. We had already observed that a road ran to it, and that although the majority of the traffic was the haulage type of vehicle, several people—both city-dweller and slave—were to be seen walking along it. We decided, therefore, that we would not attract unwanted attention by going there ourselves.

  We left the city by a system of pressurized corridors, and emerged into the open. At once our lungs were labouring in the sparse atmosphere, and we both remarked on the extreme climate: the thin coldness of the air and the harsh radiance of the sun.

  We walked slowly, knowing from experience how exercise debilitated us in this climate, and so after half an hour we had not covered much more than about a quarter of the distance to the industrial site. Already, though, we could smell something of the smoke and fumes released from the factories although none of the clangour we associated with such works was audible.

  During a pause for rest, Amelia laid her hand on my arm and pointed towards the south.

  “What is that, Edward?” she said.

  I looked in the direction she had indicated.

  We had been walking almost due south-east towards the industrial site, parallel to the canal, but on the far side of the water, well away from the factories, was what appeared at first sight to be an immense pipeline. It did not, however, appear to be connected to anything, and indeed we could see an open end to it.

  The continuation of the pipe was invisible to us, lying as it did beyond the industrial buildings. Such an apparatus would not normally have attracted our attention, but what was remarkable was the fact of the intense activity around the open end. The pipe lay perhaps two miles from where we stood, but in the clear air we could see distinctly that hundreds of workers were swarming about the p
lace.

  We had agreed to rest for fifteen minutes, so unaccustomed were we to the thin air, and as we moved on afterwards we could not help but glance frequently in that direction.

  “Could it be some kind of irrigation duct?” I said after a while, having noticed that the pipe ran from east to west between the two diverging canals.

  “With, a bore of that diameter?”

  I had to admit that this explanation was unlikely, because we could see how the pipe dwarfed those men nearest to it. A reasonable estimate of the internal diameter of the pipe would be about twenty feet, and in addition the metal of the tube was some eight or nine feet thick.

  We agreed to take a closer look at the strange construction, and so left the road, striking due south across the broken rock and sand of the desert. There were no bridges across the canal here, so the bank was as far as we could proceed, but it was close enough to allow us an uninterrupted view.

  The overall length of the pipe turned out to be approximately one mile. From this closer position we could see the further end, which was overhanging a small lake. This had apparently been artificially dug, for its banks were straight and reinforced, and the water undermined at least half of the length of the pipe.

  At the very edge of the lake, two large buildings had been constructed side by side, with the pipe running between them.

  We sat down by the edge of the canal to watch what was happening.

 
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