Chapter 10

 

The words were hardly out of his mouth before Zaidie, who still had her glasses to her eyes, and was looking down towards the great city whose glazed roofs were flashing with a thousand tints in the pale crimson sunlight, said with a little tremor in her voice:

Look, Lenox, down there—don’t you see something coming up? That little black thing. Just look how fast it’s coming up; it’s quite distinct already. It’s a sort of flying-ship, only it has wings and, I think, masts too. Yes, I can see three masts, and there’s something glittering on the tops of them. I wonder if they’re coming to pay us a polite morning call, or whether they’re going to treat us like trespassers in their atmosphere.”

There’s no telling, but those things on the top of the masts look like revolving helices,” replied Redgrave, after a long look through his telescope. “He’s screwing himself up into the air. That shows that they must either have stronger and lighter machinery than we have, or, as the astronomers have thought, this atmosphere is denser than ours, and therefore easier to fly in. Then, of course, things are only half their earthly weight here.

Well, whether it’s peace or war, I suppose we may as well let them come and reconnoitre. Then we shall see what kind of creatures they are. Ah, there are a lot more of them, some coming from Brooklyn, too, as you call it. Come up into the conning-tower, and I’ll relieve Murgatroyd, so that he can go and look after his engines. We shall have to give these gentlemen a lesson in flying. Meanwhile, in case of accidents, we may as well make ourselves as invulnerable as possible.”

A few minutes later they were in the conning-tower again, watching the approach of the Martian fleet through the thick windows of toughened glass which enabled them to look in every direction except straight down. The steel coverings had been drawn down over the glass dome of the deck-chamber, and Murgatroyd had gone down to the engine-room. Fifty feet ahead of them stretched out the long, shining spur, of which ten feet were solid steel, a ram which no floating structure built by human hands could have resisted.

Redgrave was standing with his hand on the steering-wheel, looking more serious than he had done so far during the voyage. Zaidie stood beside him with a powerful binocular telescope watching, with cheeks a little paler than usual, the movements of the Martian air-ships. She counted twenty-five vessels rising round them in a wide circle.

I don’t like the idea of a whole fleet coming up,” said Redgrave, as he watched them rising, and the ring narrowing round the still motionless Astronef. “If they only wanted to know who and what we are, or to leave their cards on us, as it were, and bid us welcome to the world, one ship could have done that just as well as a fleet. This lot coming up looks as if they wanted to get round and capture us.”

It does look like it,” said Zaidie, with her glasses fixed on the nearest of the vessels; “and now I can see they’ve guns too, something like ours, and perhaps, as you said just now, they may have explosives that we don’t know anything about. Oh, Lenox, suppose they were able to smash us up with a single shot.”

You needn’t be afraid of that, dear,” he said, putting his arm round her shoulders. “Of course it’s perfectly natural that they should look upon us with a certain amount of suspicion, dropping like this on them from the stars. Can you see anything like men on board them yet?”

No, they’re all closed in just as we are,” she replied; “but they’ve got conning-towers like this, and something like windows along the sides. That’s where the guns are, and the guns are moving. They’re pointing them at us. Lenox, I’m afraid they’re going to shoot.”

Then we may as well spoil their aim,” he said, pressing one of the buttons on the signal-board three times, and then once more after a little interval.

In obedience to the signal Murgatroyd turned on the repulsive force to half power, and the Astronef leapt up vertically a couple of thousand feet. Then Redgrave pressed the button once and she stopped. Another signal set the propellers in motion, and as she sprang forward across the circle formed by the Martian air-ships, they looked down and saw that the place which they had just left was occupied by a thick greenish-yellow cloud.

Look, Lenox, what on earth is that?” exclaimed Zaidie, pointing down to it.

What on Mars would be nearer the point, dear,” he said, with what she thought a somewhat vicious laugh. “That, I’m afraid, means anything but a friendly reception for us. That cloud is one of two things—it’s the smoke of the explosion of twenty or thirty shells, or else it’s made of gases intended to either poison us or make us insensible, so that they can take possession of the ship. In either case I should say that the Martians are not what we should call gentlemen.”

I should think not,” she said angrily. “They might at least have taken us for friends till they had proved us enemies, which they wouldn’t have done. Nice sort of hospitality that, considering how far we’ve come, and we can’t shoot back, because we haven’t got the ports open.”

And a very good thing too!” laughed Redgrave; “if we had had them open, and that volley had caught us unawares, the Astronef would probably have been full of poisonous gases by this time, and your honeymoon, dear, would have come to a somewhat untimely end. Ah, they’re trying to follow us! Well, now we’ll see how high they can fly.”

He sent another signal to Murgatroyd, and the Astronef, still beating the Martian air with the fans of her propellers, and travelling forward at about fifty miles an hour, rose in a slanting direction through a dense bank of rosy-tinted clouds, which hung over the bigger of the two cities—New York, as Zaidie had named it.

When they reached the golden-red sunlight above it the Astronef stopped her ascent, and then, with half a turn of the steering-wheel, her commander sent her sweeping round in a wide circle. A few minutes later they saw the Martian fleet rise almost simultaneously through the clouds. They seemed to hesitate a moment, and then the prow of every vessel was directed towards the swiftly moving Astronef.

Well, gentlemen,” said Redgrave, “you evidently don’t know anything about Professor Rennick and the R. Force; and yet you ought to know that we couldn’t have come through Space without being able to get beyond this little atmosphere of yours. Now let us see how fast you can fly.”

Another signal went down to Murgatroyd, the whirling propellers became two intersecting circles of light. The speed of the Astronef increased to a hundred-and-fifty miles an hour, and the Martian fleet began to drop behind and trail out into a triangle like a flock of huge birds.

That’s lovely; we’re leaving them!” exclaimed Zaidie, leaning forward with the glasses to her eyes and tapping the floor of the conning-tower with her foot as if she wanted to dance, “and their wings are working faster than ever. They don’t seem to have any screws.”

Probably because they’ve solved the problem of bird’s flight,” said Redgrave. “They’re not gaining on us, are they?”

No, they’re at about the same distance.”

Then we’ll see how they can soar.”

Another signal went down the tube. The Astronef’s propellers slowed down and stopped, and the vessel began to rise swiftly towards the zenith, which the sun was now approaching. The Martian fleet continued the impossible chase until the limits of the navigable atmosphere, about eight earth-miles above the surface, was reached. Here the air was evidently too rarefied for their wings to act upon. They came to a standstill, looking like links of a broken chain, their occupants no doubt looking up with envious eyes upon the shining body of the Astronef glittering like a tiny star in the sunlight ten thousand feet above them.

Well, gentlemen,” said Redgrave, after a swift glance round, “I think we have shown you that we can fly faster and soar higher than you can. Perhaps you’ll be a bit more civil now. If you’re not we shall have to teach you manners.”

But you’re not going to fight them all, dear, are you? Don’t let us be the first to bring war and bloodshed with us into another world.”

Don’t trouble about that, little woman, it’s here already,” he replied, a trifle savagely. “People don’t have air-ships and guns which fire shells or poison-bombs, or whatever they were, without knowing what war is. From what I’ve seen, I should say these Martians have civilised themselves out of all emotions, and, I daresay, have fought pitilessly for the possession of the last habitable lands of the planet.

They’ve preyed upon each other till only the fittest are left, and those, I suppose, were the ones who invented the air-ships and finally got possession of all that was worth having. Of course that would give them the command of the planet, land and sea. In fact, if we are able to make the personal acquaintance of the Martians, we shall probably find them a set of over-civilised savages.”

That’s a rather striking paradox, isn’t it, dear?” said Zaidie, slipping her hand through his arm; “but still it’s not at all bad. You mean, of course, that they may have civilised themselves out of all the emotions until they’re just a set of cold, calculating, scientific animals. After all they must be something of the sort, for I’m quite sure we should not have done anything like that on earth if we’d had a visitor from Mars. We shouldn’t have got out cannons and shot at him before we’d even made his acquaintance.

Now, if he, or they, had dropped in America as we were going down there, we should have received them with deputations, given them banquets, which they might not have been able to eat, and speeches, which they would not understand, and photographed them, and filled the newspapers with everything that we could imagine about them, and then put them in a palace car and hustled them round the country for everybody to look at.”

And meanwhile,” laughed Redgrave, “some of your smart engineers, I suppose, would have gone over the vessel they had come in, found out how she was worked, and taken out a dozen patents for her machinery.”

Very likely,” replied Zaidie, with a saucy little toss of her chin; “and why not? We like to learn things down there—and anyhow that would be much more really civilised than shooting at them.”

While this little conversation was going on, the Astronef was dropping rapidly into the midst of the Martian fleet, which had again arranged itself in a circle. Zaidie soon made out through her glasses that the guns were pointed upwards.

Oh, that’s your little game, is it!” said Redgrave, when she had told him of this. “Well, if you want a fight, you can have it.”

As he said this, his jaws came together, and Zaidie saw a look in his eyes that she had never seen there before. He signalled rapidly two or three times to Murgatroyd. The propellers began to whirl at their utmost speed, and the Astronef, making a spiral downward course, swooped down on to the Martian fleet with terrific velocity. Her last curve coincided almost exactly with the circle occupied by the ships. Half-a-dozen spouts of greenish flame came from the nearest vessel, and for a moment the Astronef was enveloped in a yellow mist.

Evidently they don’t know that we are air-tight, and they don’t use shot or shell. They’ve got past that. Their projectiles kill by poison or suffocation. I daresay a volley like that would kill a regiment. Now I’ll give that fellow a lesson which he won’t live to remember.”

They swept through the poison-mist. Redgrave swung the wheel round. The Astronef dropped to the level of the ring of Martian vessels, which had now got up speed again. Her steel ram was directed straight at the vessel which had fired the last shot. Propelled at a speed of nearly two hundred miles an hour, it took the strange-winged craft amidships. As the shock came, Redgrave put his arm round Zaidie’s waist and held her close to him, otherwise she would have been flung against the forward wall of the conning-tower.

The Martian vessel stopped and bent up. They saw human figures more than half as large again as men inside her staring at them through the windows in the sides. There were others at the breaches of the guns in the act of turning the muzzles on the Astronef; but this was only a momentary glimpse, for in a second the Astronef’s spur had pierced her, the Martian air-ship broke in twain, and her two halves plunged downwards through the rosy clouds.

Keep her at full speed, Andrew,” said Redgrave down the speaking-tube, “and stand by to jump if we want to.”

All ready, my Lord!” came back up the tube.

The old Yorkshireman during the last few minutes had undergone a transformation which he himself hardly understood. He recognised that there was a fight going on, that it was a case of “burn, sink and destroy,” and the thousand-year-old Berserker awoke in him just, as a matter of fact, it had done in his lordship.

They can pick up the pieces down there, what there is left of them,” said Redgrave, still holding Zaidie tight to his side with one hand and working the wheel with the other, “and now we’ll teach them another lesson.”

What are you going to do, dear?” she said, looking up at him with somewhat frightened eyes.

You’ll see in a moment,” he said, between his shut teeth. “I don’t care whether these Martians are degenerate human beings or only animals; but from my point of view the reception they have given us justifies any kind of retaliation. If we’d had a single port-hole open during the first volley you and I would have been dead by this time, and I’m not going to stand anything like that without reprisals. They’ve declared war on us, and killing in war isn’t murder.”

Well, no, I suppose not,” she said; “but it’s the first fight I’ve been in, and I don’t like it. Still, they did receive us pretty meanly, didn’t they?”

Meanly? If there was anything like a code of interplanetary morals or manners one might call it absolutely caddish. I don’t believe even Stead himself could stand that—unless, of course, he wasn’t here.”

He sent another message to Murgatroyd. The Astronef sprang a thousand feet towards the zenith; another touch on the button, and she stopped exactly over the biggest of the Martian air-ships; another, and she dropped on to it like a stone and smashed it to fragments. Then she stopped and mounted again above the broken circle of the fleet, while the pieces of the air-ship and what was left of her crew plunged downwards through the crimson clouds in a fall of nearly thirty thousand feet.

Within the next few moments the rest of the Martian fleet had followed it, sinking rapidly down through the clouds and scattering in all directions.

They seem to have had enough of it,” laughed Redgrave, as the Astronef, in obedience to another signal, began to drop towards the surface of Mars. “Now we’ll go down and see if they’re in a more reasonable frame of mind. At any rate we’ve won our first scrimmage, dear.”

But it was rather brutal, Lenox, wasn’t it?”

When you are dealing with brutes, little woman, it is sometimes necessary to be brutal.”

And you look a wee bit brutal right now,” she replied, looking up at him with something like a look of fear in her eyes. “I suppose that is because you have just killed somebody—or somethings—whichever they are.”

Do I, really?”

The hard-set jaw relaxed and his lips melted into a smile under his moustache, and he bent down and kissed her.

Well, what do you suppose I should have thought of them if you had had a whiff of that poison?”

Yes, dear,” she whispered in between the kisses, “I see now.”