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Authors: John Wyndham

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy

Stowaway to Mars

BOOK: Stowaway to Mars
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Stowaway to Mars
John Wyndham
Contents
Chapter I.   DEATH OF A STRANGER.

JAKE REILLY, the night watchman, made his usual round without any apprehension of danger. He was even yawning as he left the laboratory wing and came into the main assembly hangar. For a moment he paused on the threshold, looking at the structure in the centre of the floor. He wondered vaguely how they were getting on with it. Mighty long job, building a thing like that. It hadn't looked any different for months, as far as he could see.

But Jake could not see far. The towering object of his inspection was so closely scaffolded that only here and there could the dim lights filter between the poles to be reflected back from a polished metal surface.

'Workin' inside it mostly, now, I s'pose,' he told himself.

He switched on his lamp and let its white beam wander about inquisitively. The floor plan of this, the central part of the building, was circular. Around the walls lathes, power drills and other light machine tools were disposed at intervals. The constructional work cut off his view of the opposite wall, and he moved round it, conscientiously conducting his search. He let his light play upwards, sweeping the narrow gallery which circled the wall, and noticing that the doors giving upon it were all shut. He sent the beam still higher, above the level of the dim, shaded lights, to the distant roof. There was a criss-crossing of heavy girders up there, supporting huge pulley blocks. The cables and chains depending from them came curving down, looped back out of the way now on to iron hooks on the walls. He tilted his lamp so that its bright circle ran down the curved metal side again.

'Like bein' inside a blessed gasholder, that's what it is,' he told himself, not for the first time.

'Pile o' money that thing must've cost, and I don't s'pose it'll ever go.'

A sudden sound caused him to stiffen. Somewhere there had been a faint clink of metal upon metal. He transferred his lamp to his left hand, and a large, black, businesslike pistol suddenly appeared in his right. He swung the light around, sweeping the dimmer parts of the place with its beam.

'Now then. 'Oo's there? Come out of it,' he ordered.

There was no answer. His voice boomed round the metal wall, slowly diminishing into silence.

'Better come out quick. I got a gun,' Jake told the dimness.

He began to back towards the door where the alarm button was situated. No good trying to get the man single handed in here. Might chase him round and round that scaffolding for hours.

'Better come quiet, 'nless you want a bullet in you,' he said.

But still there was no reply. He was in reach of the alarm now. He hesitated. It might have been only a rat. Better be sure than sorry, though. He hung the lamp on the little finger of his pistol hand and reached, without turning, for the switch.

There was a sudden 'phut' somewhere in the shadows. Jake shuddered convulsively. The pistol and the lamp clattered together to the ground, and he slumped on top of them.

A dark figure slipped from behind the scaffolding and ran across the floor. It bent for a moment over the fallen watchman. Reassured, it dragged the body aside, and laid it inconspicuously behind one of the lathes. Returning, it kicked the lamp away, picked up the fallen pistol and slid it into its own pocket. For some seconds the dark figure stood silent and motionless, then, satisfied that there had been no alarm, it raised its arm and took steady aim at the nearest of the dim lamps. Four times came the muffled 'phut' as of a stick hitting a cushion, and each time it was followed by a not very different sound as an electric globe collapsed into fragments. In the utter darkness followed clicks which told of a new magazine sliding into the pistol. Then, with a series of carefully shielded flashes, the intruder made his cautious way towards the central scaffolding.

A door of the balcony suddenly opened, letting a fan of light into the blackness.

'Hullo,' said a voice, 'what's happened to the lights? Where's that fool Reilly?

Reilly! Where the devil are you?' it bawled.

The figure on the floor below delayed only an instant, then it raised its pistol against the man silhouetted in the doorway. Again came the muffled thud. The man above disappeared, and the door slammed shut. The man with the pistol muttered to himself as he continued on his way to the scaffolding.

He had barely reached it when a blaze of intense floodlighting threw every detail of the place into view. He looked round wildly, dazzled by the sudden glare, but he was still alone. Again he raised his pistol, training it on one of the blinding floods. 'phut.' There went one, now for the next.

But there was to be no next. The roar of an explosion, thunderous within the metal walls, made him miss his aim. He turned swiftly. There was a second roar.

The impact of a heavy bullet spun him round and sent him crashing headlong against the foot of the scaffolding.

'Got him,' a voice announced.

The door in the gallery opened wide again.

'Damned lucky he didn't get you,' said another.

'Awkward angle for him. He hit the rail,' the first replied, calmly.

A babble of men's voices was heard approaching rapidly. A door on the opposite side of the ground floor was thrown back to reveal a tousle headed, sleepy eyed group. It was evident that the sound of shots had awakened them, and they had delayed just long enough to slip greatcoats over their pyjamas and to seize their weapons. One of the men in the gallery called down:

'It's all right. We got him. He's round this side.'

The two of them made their way along the gallery to the staircase while the newcomers crossed the floor. By the time they had descended there was a small crowd round the body of the intruder. The man who was kneeling beside it looked up.

'He's dead,' he said.

'How's that, Doctor? I didn't '

'No, you got him in the shoulder, he knocked his head against one of the poles as he fell.'

'Damn. I'd have liked to have got something out of him. Anything to show who he is?' He looked round at the assembled men. 'Where the devil's that Reilly got to? Go and fetch him, someone.'

One of the group made off for the purpose. Close by the door he stopped at the sight of afoot protruding from behind the lathe mounting. He looked more closely, and called to the others.

'Here's Reilly. He got him, I'm afraid.'

The doctor rose from beside the first corpse and hurried across. One look at the watchman was enough.

'Poor old Jake, right in the heart.' He turned back to the tall man who had been on the gallery. 'What had we better do with them, Mr. Curtance?'

Dale Curtance frowned and hesitated a moment.

'Better bring them both up to my office,' he decided. The doctor waited until the bearers had retired, closing the door behind them, then he looked across at Dale.

'What actually happened?' he asked.

Dale shrugged his shoulders.

'I know about as much as you do. I had been working late in here with Fuller. We didn't hear anything at least, I didn't. Did you, Fuller' The secretary shook his head. Dale went on: 'Then when we went out to the gallery the lights were out, and somebody using a silencer took a pot shot at me. Naturally, we went back and turned on the floods, then I potted him.'

'You don't know him?'

'Never seen him before as far as I know. Have either of you?'

Both the others shook their heads. The doctor crossed to the body and continued the examination which had been cut short by the finding of the watchman.

'Not a thing on him,' he announced, after a while. 'Shouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be a foreigner; clothes aren't English, anyway.' There was a considerable pause.

'You realize, of course,' the doctor added, 'that we shall have to have the police in?'

Dale frowned. 'We can't er?'

'No, we certainly cannot. Why, all the men in the place will know about it by now. It'd be bound to leak out pretty soon. And that wouldn't look too good. No, I'm afraid you'll have to go through with it.'

Dale was still frowning. 'Damnation! That means the end of our privacy. The papers will be splashing it all round. The place will be overrun with reporters sniffing into every corner and trying to bribe everybody. I wanted to keep it quiet for months yet and now they'll get the whole thing. Oh, hell!

Fuller, the secretary, put in 'Does it really matter very much now? After all, we're well into construction nobody else could possibly build a challenger in the time available. It doesn't seem to me that we've really much to lose except our peace, of course.'

'That's true,' Dale nodded. 'It's too late for them to start building now, but we're going to be pestered and hindered at every turn. And once the secret's out, it won't all be unintentional hindering.'

The doctor paused in the act of lighting his pipe. He looked thoughtfully at Dale.

'It strikes me that the secret's already been blown. What do you suppose he was nosing around for?' He nodded in the direction of the black suited corpse. 'He wasn't just a casual burglar, you can depend on that. Silenced gun, no marks of identification, knew his way about here. No, somebody's on to you already, my boy, and whoever it is sent a spy to get hold of some more details or to do some damage.'

'But it's too late. Nobody could build in time. We shall have all our work cut out to finish by the end of September ourselves.'

'Unless,' said the doctor, gently, 'unless they are building already. Two can play at secrecy. One of the odd things about you men of action is that you so frequently forget that there are other men of action. Well, now I suppose we'd better call the police.'

 

Chapter II.   DALE.

DALE CURTANCE could not be called a man without fear. Not only because a man without fear is a man without imagination, but also because the old terrors die hard and the world has so multiplied the causes of fear that no one is left entirely unafraid. But, looking at Dale, at his six foot, broad shouldered form, his long arms with their strong, freckled hands, his blue eyes, cold and hard as ice, one could seem to see far back along a line of Norse descent to less complex ancestors: stern fighters who, sword in hand, feared nothing in this world and little in the next for they honoured Odin only to secure for themselves an eternity of battle among the champions of Valhalla. Of Dale, their descendant into a world where the battle is not necessarily to the strong, nor even the race to the swift, it might truthfully be said that he feared less and dared more than his fellows.

But this is an age of hair splitting. Many could be found to say that while Dale's Norse ancestors were physically courageous, they were spiritually cowardly that the motive of their courage was the fear of losing a reputation for valour. .

Dale should not have married at least, he should not have married a woman of Mary's type. And inwardly Mary herself knew that now.

He should have swept up one of the worshipping little things he had thrilled in the past. He should have installed in his home one of those pretty little goldenheads whose hope it was, and whose perpetual joy it would be, that she was the chosen and the closest to the hero acclaimed by millions. The envy of those millions would have been her constant nourishment; she would have lived in the reflected blaze of his triumphs, and all might have been happy ever afterwards or until Dale should break his neck.

Mary had not been a worshipper. She had not the temperament though she could not, at first, remain quite insensitive to the glamour of his success. It may have been her calm in contrast with the bubbling delight of the others which attracted him at their first meeting. He may have been in a mood which was tired of popular triumph and easy conquest. Whatever the cause, he fell very blindly in love with her. And Mary did not fall in love; she began to love him in a way which he never could and never did understand.

This morning, sitting up in bed with the newspaper spread across the untouched breakfast tray, she went back over it all.

A swift wooing and a swift marriage. She had been swept by a word out of her calm life into an insane volution of publicity. Her engagement had been a time of pesterment by interviewers, offers for signed articles, requests from photographers, suggestions by advertisers. The Press had played the occasion up well: they had even taken her own wedding away from her and substituted a kind of public circus.

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