The space machine, p.15
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       The Space Machine, p.15
 

          

  At the moment many of the men at the nearer end of the pipe were concentrating on extracting from it a huge vehicle which had emerged from the interior. This was being guided out of the pipe, and down a ramp to the desert floor. Some difficulty seemed to have arisen, for more men were being force-marched across to help.

  Half an hour later the vehicle had been successfully extricated, and was moved some distance to one side. Meanwhile, the men who had been working by the end of the pipe were dispersing.

  A few more minutes passed, and then I suddenly pointed.

  “Look, Amelia!” I said. “It is moving!”

  The end of the pipe nearer to us was being lifted from the ground. At the same moment the further end was sinking slowly into the lake. The buildings at the edge of the lake were the instruments of this motion, for not only were they the pivot by which the pipe turned, but we also heard a great clattering and roaring from engines inside the buildings, and green smoke poured from several vents.

  The raising of the pipe was the work of only a minute or so, because for all its size it moved smoothly and with precision.

  When the pipe had been lifted to an angle of about forty-five degrees from horizontal, the clattering of the engines died away and the last traces of the green smoke drifted to one side. The time was near midday, and the sun was overhead.

  In this new configuration the pipe had taken on the unmistakable appearance of a vast cannon, raised towards the sky!

  The waters of the lake became still, the men who had been working had taken refuge in a series of buildings low on the ground. Not realizing what was about to happen, Amelia and I stayed where we were.

  The first indication that the cannon was being fired was an eruption of white water boiling up to the surface of the lake. A moment later we felt a deep trembling in the very soil on which we sat, and before us the waters of the canal broke into a million tiny wavelets.

  I reached over to Amelia, threw my arms around her shoulders and pushed her sideways to the ground. She fell awkwardly, but I flung myself over her, covering her face with my shoulder and wrapping my arms about her head. We could feel the concussions in the ground, as if an earthquake were about to strike, and then a noise came, like the deepest growlings in the heart of a thundercloud.

  The violence of this event grew rapidly to a peak and then it ended as abruptly as it had begun. In the same instant we heard a protracted, shrieking explosion, howling and screaming like a thousand whistles blown simultaneously in one’s ear. This noise started at its highest frequency, dying away rapidly.

  As the racket was stilled, we sat up and looked across the canal towards the cannon.

  Of the projectile—if any there had been—there was no sign, but belching from the muzzle of the cannon was one of the largest clouds of vapour I have ever seen in my life. It was brilliant white, and it spread out in an almost spherical cloud above the muzzle, being constantly replenished by the quantities still pouring from the barrel. In less than a minute the vapour had occluded the sun, and at once we felt much colder. The shadow lay across most of the land we could see from our vantage point, and being almost directly beneath the cloud as we were, we had no way of estimating its depth. That this was considerable was evidenced by the darkness of its shadow.

  We stood up. Already, the cannon was being lowered once more, and the engines in the pivotal buildings were roaring. The slaves and their supervisors were emerging from their shelters.

  We turned back towards the city, and walked as quickly as we could towards its relative comforts. In the moment the sun had been shaded the apparent temperature around us had fallen to well below freezing point. We were not much surprised, therefore, when a few minutes later we saw the first snowflakes falling about us, and as time passed the light fall became a dense and blinding blizzard.

  We looked up just once, and saw that the cloud from which the snow fell—the very cloud of vapour which had issued from the cannon!—now covered almost the entire sky.

  We almost missed the entrance to the city, so deep was the snow when we reached it. Here too we saw for the first time the dome-shape of the invisible shield that protected the city, for snow lay thickly on it.

  A few hours later there was another concussion, and later another. In all there were twelve, repeated at intervals of about five or six hours. The sun, when its rays could penetrate the clouds, quickly melted the snow on the city’s dome, but for the most part those days were dark and frightening ones in Desolation City, and we were not alone in thinking it.

  vii

  So much for some of the mysteries we saw in the Martian city. In describing them I have of necessity had to portray Amelia and myself as curious, objective tourists, craning our necks in wonder as any traveller in a foreign land will do. However, although we were much exercised by what we saw, this seeming objectivity was far from the case, for we were alarmed by our predicament.

  There was one matter of which we rarely spoke, except obliquely; this was not because we did not think of it but because we both knew that if the subject were raised then there was nothing hopeful that could be said. This was the manifest impossibility that we should ever be able to return to Earth.

  It was, though, at the centre of our very thoughts and actions, for we knew we could not exist like this for ever, but to plan the rest of our lives in Desolation City would be a tacit acceptance of our fate.

  The nearest either of us came to confronting our problem directly was on the day we first saw how advanced was the Martians’ science.

  Thinking that in a society as modern as this we should have no difficulty in laying our hands on the necessary materials, I said to Amelia: “We must find somewhere we can set aside as a laboratory.”

  She looked at me quizzically.

  “Are you proposing to embark on a scientific career?” she said.

  “I’m thinking we must try to build another Time Machine.”

  “Do you have any notion of how the Machine worked?”

  I shook my head. “I had hoped that you, as Sir William’s assistant, would know.”

  “My dear,” Amelia said, and for a moment she took my hand affectionately in hers, “I would have as little idea as you.”

  There we had let it rest. It had been an extreme hope of mine until then, but I knew Amelia well enough to appreciate that her reply meant more than the words themselves. I realized she had already considered the idea herself, and had come to the conclusion that there was no chance that we could duplicate Sir William’s work.

  So, without further discussion of our prospects, we existed from day to day, each of us knowing that a return to Earth was impossible. One day we should have to confront our situation, but until then we were simply putting off the moment.

  If we did not have peace of mind, then the physical needs of our bodies, were adequately met.

  Our two-day sojourn in the desert had not apparently caused lasting harm, although I had contracted a mild head-cold at some time. Neither of us kept down that first meal we ate, and during the night that followed we were both unpleasantly ill. Since then we had been taking the food in smaller quantities. There were three of the dining halls within walking distance of our dormitory, and we alternated between them.

  As I have already mentioned, we slept in a dormitory to ourselves. The hammocks were large enough for two people, so, remembering what had passed between us earlier, I suggested a little wistfully to Amelia that we would be warmer if we shared a hammock.

  “We are no longer in the desert, Edward,” was her reply, and from then we slept separately.

  I felt a little hurt at her response, because although my designs on her were still modest and proper I had good cause to believe that we were less than strangers. But I was prepared to abide by her wishes.

  During the days our behaviour together was friendly and intimate. She would often take my hand or my arm as we walked, and at night we would kiss chastely before I turned my back to allow her to undress. At s
uch times my desires were neither modest nor proper, and often I was tempted most inappropriately to ask her again to marry me. Inappropriate it was, for where on Mars would we find a church? This too was a matter I had to put aside until we could accept our fate.

  On the whole, thoughts of home predominated. For my own part I spent considerable time thinking about my parents, and the fact that I would not see them again. Trivialities occupied me too. One such was the irresistible certainty that I had left my lamp burning in my room at Mrs Tait’s. I had been in such high spirits that Sunday morning I departed for Richmond that I did not recall having extinguished the flame before I left. With irritating conviction I remembered having lit it when I got out of bed…but had I left it burning? It was no consolation to reason with myself that now, eight or nine years later, the matter was of no consequence. But still the uncertainty nagged at me, and would not leave me.

  Amelia too seemed preoccupied, although she kept her thoughts to herself. She made an effort not to appear introspective, and affected a bright and lively interest in what we saw in the city, but there were long periods in which we were both silent, and this was itself significant. An indication of the degree to which she was distracted was that she sometimes talked in her sleep; much of this was incoherent, but occasionally she spoke my name, and sometimes Sir William’s. Once I found a way of asking tactfully about her dreams, but she said she had no memory of them.

  viii

  Within a few days of our arrival in the city, Amelia set herself the task of learning the Martian language. She had always had, she said, a facility with languages, and in spite of the fact that she had no access to either a dictionary or a grammar she was optimistic. There were, she said, basic situations she could identify, and by listening to the words spoken at the time she could establish a rudimentary vocabulary. This would be of great use to us, for we were both severely limited by the muteness imposed upon us.

  Her first task was to essay an interpretation of the written language, in the form of what few signs we had seen posted about the city.

  These were few in number. There were some signs at each of the city’s entrances, and one or two of the legged vehicles had words inscribed upon them. Here Amelia encountered her first difficulty, because as far as she could discern no sign was ever repeated. Furthermore, there appeared to be a great number of scripts in use, and she was incapable of establishing even one or two letters of the Martian alphabet.

  When she turned her attention to the spoken word her problems multiplied.

  The major difficulty here was an apparent multitude of voice-tones. Quite apart from the fact that the Martians’ vocal chords pitched their voices higher than would have been natural on Earth (and both Amelia and I tried in private to reproduce the sound, with comical effects), there was an apparently endless subtlety of tone variations.

  Sometimes a Martian voice we heard was hard, with what we on Earth would call a sneer lending an unpleasant edge to it; another would seem musical and soft by comparison. Some Martians would speak with a complex sibilance, others with protracted vowel-sounds and pronounced plosives.

  Further complicating everything was the fact that all Martians appeared to accompany their conversation with elaborate hand and head movements, and additionally would address some Martians with one voice-tone, and others in a different way.

  Also, the slave-Martians appeared to have a dialect all of their own.

  After several days of trying, Amelia came to the sad conclusion that the complexity of the language (or languages) was beyond her. Even so, until our last days together in Desolation City she was trying to identify individual sounds, and I was very admiring of her diligence.

  There was, though, one vocal sound whose meaning was unmistakable. It was a sound common to all races on Earth, and had the same meaning on. Mars. That was the scream of terror, and we were to hear much of that eventually.

  ix

  We had been in Desolation City for fourteen days when the epidemic struck. At first we were unaware that anything was amiss, although we noticed some early effects without realizing the cause. Specifically, this was that one evening there seemed to be far fewer Martians present in the dining hall, but so accustomed were we to odd things on this world that neither of us attributed to it anything untoward.

  The day following was the one on which we witnessed the firing of the snow-cannon (for such was what we came to call it) and so our interests lay elsewhere. But by the end of those days when snow fell more or less without let over the city, there was no mistaking that something was seriously wrong. We saw several Martians dead or unconscious in the streets, a visit to one of the dormitories was confirmation enough that many of the people were ill, and even the activities of the vehicles reflected a change, for there were fewer of them about and one or two were clearly being used as ambulances.

  Needless to say, as the full realization came to us, Amelia and I stayed away from the populated areas of the city. Fortunately, neither of us displayed any symptoms; the stuffiness as a result of my head-cold stayed with me rather longer than it might have done at home, but that was all.

  Amelia’s latent nursing instincts came to the surface, and her conscience told her she should go to help the sick, but it would have been grossly unwise to do so. We tried to cut ourselves off from the anguish, and hoped the, disease would soon pass.

  It seemed that the plague was not virulent. Many people had contracted it, and by the evidence of the number of bodies we saw being transported in one of the legged vehicles we knew that many had died. But after five days we noticed that life was beginning to return to normal. If anything, there was more misery about than ever before—for once we felt the Martians had good cause—and there were, regrettably, even fewer people in the underpopulated city, but the vehicles returned to their policing and haulage, and we saw no more dead in the streets.

  But then, just as we were sensing the return to normal, there came the night of the green explosions.

  Chapter Ten

  A TERRIBLE INVASION

  i

  I was awakened by the first concussion, but in my sleepy state I presumed that the snow-cannon had been fired once more. During those nights of its firing we had grown accustomed to the tremors and distant explosions. The bang that woke me, though, was different.

  “Edward?”

  “I’m awake,” I said. “Was that the cannon again?”

  “No, it was different. And there was a flash. It lighted the whole room.”

  I stayed silent, for I had long since learned the futility of speculating about what we saw in this place. A few minutes passed, and the city was unmoving.

  “It was nothing,” I said. “Let’s go back to sleep.”

  “Listen.”

  Some distance away, across the sleeping city, a policing-vehicle was driving quickly, its banshee siren howling. A moment later a second one started up, and passed within a few streets of where we lay.

  Just then the room was lit for an instant with the most vivid and lurid flash of green. In its light I saw Amelia sitting up in her hammock, clutching her quilt around her. A second or two later we heard a tremendous explosion, somewhere beyond the city’s limits.

  Amelia climbed with the usual difficulty from the hammock, and walked to the nearest window.

  “Can you see anything?”

  “I think there’s a fire,” she said. “It’s difficult to tell. There is something burning with a green light.”

  I started to move from my hammock, for I wished to see this, but Amelia stopped me.

  “Please don’t come to the window,” she said. “I am unclothed.”

  “Then please put something on, for I wish to see what is happening.”

  She turned and hurried towards where she placed her clothes at night, and as she did so the room was once more filled with brilliant green light. For a moment I caught an inadvertent glimpse of her, but managed to look away in time to spare her embarrassment. Two seconds la
ter there was another loud explosion; this was either much closer or much larger, for the ground shook with the force of it.

  Amelia said: “I have my chemise on, Edward. You may come to the window with me now.”

  I normally slept wearing a pair of the Martian trouser-garments, and so climbed hastily from the hammock and joined her at the window. As she had said, there was an area of green light visible away towards the east. It was neither large nor bright, but it had an intensity about the centre of the glow that would indicate a fire. It was dimming as we watched it, but then came another explosion just beside it and I pulled Amelia away from the window. The blast effect was this time the greatest yet, and we began to grow frightened.

  Amelia stood up to look through the window again, but I placed my arm around her shoulder and pulled her forcibly away.

  Outside, there was the sound of more sirens, and then another flash of green light followed by a concussion.

  “Go back to the hammocks, Amelia,” I said. “At least on those we will be shielded from the blast through the floor.”

  To my surprise Amelia did not demur, but walked quickly towards the nearest hammock and climbed on. I took one more look in the direction of the explosions, staring past the watch-tower that stood outside our building and seeing the ever-spreading diffusion of green fire. Even as I looked there was another brilliant flare of green light, followed by the concussion, and so I hurried over to the hammocks.

  Amelia was sitting up in the one I normally used.

  “I think tonight I should like you to be with me,” she said, and her voice was trembling. I too felt a little shaken, for the force of those explosions was considerable, and although they were a good distance away were certainly greater than anything in my experience.

  I could just make out her shape in the darkened room. I had been holding the edge of the hammock in my hand, and now Amelia reached forward and touched me. At that moment there was yet another flash, one far brighter than any of the others. This time the shock-wave, when it came, shook the very foundations of the building. With this, I threw aside my inhibitions, climbed on to the hammock, and wriggled under the quilt beside Amelia. At once her arms went around me, and for a moment I was able to forget about the mysterious explosions outside.

 
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