Snap was unarmed, but he flung his hands out menacingly. The figure, which may perhaps not have been aware of our city safeguard, was taken wholly by surprise. A human figure. Seven feet tall, at the least, and therefore, I judged, doubtless a Martian man. The black cloak covered his head. He took a step toward us, hesitated, and then turned in confusion.
Snap’s shrill voice was bringing help. The whine of a street guard’s alarm whistle nearby sounded. The figure was making off! My pencil-ray was in my hand and I pressed its switch. The tiny heat-ray stabbed through the glare, but I missed. The figure stumbled, but did not fall. I saw a bare gray arm come from the cloak, flung up to maintain its balance. Or perhaps my pencil-ray of heat had seared the arm. The gray-skinned arm of a Martian.
Snap was shouting, “Give him another!” But the figure passed beyond the actinic glare and vanished.
We were detained in the turmoil of the corridor for ten minutes or more with official explanations. Then a message from Halsey released us. The Martian who had been following us in his invisible cloak was never caught.
We escaped from the crowd at last and made our way back to the Planetara, where the passengers were already assembling for the outward Martian voyage.
I stood on the turret-balcony of the Planetara with Captain Carter and Dr. Frank, the ship surgeon, watching the arriving passengers. It was close to the zero hour: the level of the 314 stage was a turmoil of confusion. The escalators, with the last of the freight aboard, were folded back. But the stage was jammed with the incoming passenger baggage: the interplanetary customs and tax officials with their X-ray and Zed-ray paraphernalia and the passengers themselves, lined up for the export inspection.At this height, the city lights lay spread in a glare of blue and yellow beneath us. The individual local planes came dropping like birds to our stage. Thirty-eight passengers for this flight to Mars, but that accursed desire of every friend and relative to speed the departing voyager brought a hundred or more extra people to crowd our girders and bring added difficulty to everybody.
Carter was too absorbed in his duties to stay with us long. But here in the turret Dr. Frank and I found ourselves at the moment with nothing much to do but watch.
“Think we’ll get away on time, Gregg?”
“No,” I said. “And this of all voyages––”
I checked myself, with thumping heart. My thoughts were so full of what Halsey and Carter had told us that it was difficult to rein my tongue. Yet here in the turret, unguarded by insulation, I could say nothing. Nor would I have dared mention the Grantline Moon Expedition to Dr. Frank. I wondered what he knew of this affair. Perhaps as much as I––perhaps nothing.
He was a thin, dark, rather smallish man of fifty, this ship’s surgeon, trim in his blue and white uniform. I knew him well: we had made several flights together. An American––I fancy of Jewish ancestry. A likable man, and a skillful doctor and surgeon. He and I had always been good friends.“Crowded,” he said. “Johnson says thirty-eight. I hope they’re experienced travelers. This pressure sickness is a rotten nuisance––keeps me dashing around all night assuring frightened women they’re not going to die. Last voyage, coming out of the Venus atmosphere––”
He plunged into a lugubrious account of his troubles with space-sick voyagers. But I was in no mood to listen. My gaze was down on the spider incline, up which, over the bend of the ship’s sleek, silvery body, the passengers and their friends were coming in little groups. The upper deck was already jammed with them.
The Planetara, as flyers go, was not a large vessel. Cylindrical of body, forty feet maximum beam, and two hundred and seventy-five feet in overall length. The passenger superstructure––no more than a hundred feet long––was set amidships. A narrow deck, metallic-enclosed, and with large bulls-eye windows, encircled the superstructure. Some of the cabins opened directly onto the deck. Others had doors to the interior corridors. There were half a dozen small but luxurious public rooms.
The rest of the vessel was given to freight storage and the mechanism and control compartments. Forward of the passenger structure the deck level continued under the cylindrical dome-roof to the bow. The forward watch-tower observatory was here; officers’ cabins; Captain Carter’s navigating rooms and Dr. Frank’s office. Similarly, under the stern-dome, was the stern watch-tower and a series of power compartments.Above the superstructure a confusion of spider bridges, ladders and balconies were laced like a metal network. The turret in which Dr. Frank and I now stood was perched here. Fifty feet away, like a bird’s nest, Snap’s instrument room stood clinging to the metal bridge. The dome-roof, with the glassite windows rolled back now, rose in a mound-peak to cover this highest middle portion of the vessel.
Below, in the main hull, blue-lit metal corridors ran the entire length 315 of the ship. Freight storage compartments; gravity control rooms; the air renewal systems; heater and ventilators and pressure mechanisms––all were located there. And the kitchens, stewards’ compartments, and the living quarters of the crew. We carried a crew of sixteen, this voyage, exclusive of the navigating officers, and the purser, Snap Dean, and Dr. Frank.
The passengers coming aboard seemed a fair representation of what we usually had for the outward voyage to Ferrok-Shahn. Most were Earth people––and returning Martians. Dr. Frank pointed out one. A huge Martian in a gray cloak. A seven-foot fellow.“His name is Set Miko,” Dr. Frank remarked. “Ever heard of him?”
“No,” I said. “Should I?”
“Well––” The doctor suddenly checked himself, as though he were sorry he had spoken.
“I never heard of him,” I repeated slowly.
An awkward silence fell suddenly between us.
There were a few Venus passengers. I saw one of them presently coming up the incline, and recognized her. A girl traveling alone. We had brought her from Grebhar, last voyage but one. I remembered her. An alluring sort of girl, as most of them are. Her name was Venza. She spoke English well. A singer and dancer who had been imported to Great-New York to fill some theatrical engagement. She’d made quite a hit on the Great White Way.
She came up the incline, with the carrier ahead of her. Gazing up, she saw Dr. Frank and me at the turret window and waved her white arm in greeting. And flashed us a smile.
Dr. Frank laughed. “By the gods of the airways, there’s Alta Venza! You saw that look, Gregg? That was for me, not you.”
“Reasonable enough,” I retorted. “But I doubt it––the Venza was nothing if not impartial.”
I wondered what could be taking Venza now to Mars. I was glad to see her. She was diverting. Educated. Well-traveled. Spoke English with a colloquial, theatrical manner more characteristic of Great-New York than of Venus. And for all her light banter, I would rather put my trust in her than any Venus girl I had ever met.The hum of the departing siren was sounding. Friends and relatives of the passengers were crowding the exit incline. The deck was clearing. I had not seen George Prince come aboard. And then I thought I saw him down on the landing stage, just arrived from a private tube-car. A small, slight figure. The customs men were around him: I could only see his head and shoulders. Pale, girlishly handsome face; long, black hair to the base of his neck. He was bareheaded, with the hood of his traveling-cloak pushed back.
I stared, and I saw that Dr. Frank was also gazing down. But neither of us spoke.
Then I said upon impulse, “Suppose we go down to the deck, Doctor?”
He acquiesced. We descended to the lower room of the turret and clambered down the spider ladder to the upper deck-level. The head of the arriving incline was near us. Preceded by two carriers who were littered with hand-baggage, George Prince was coming up the incline. He was closer now. I recognized him from the type we had seen in Halsey’s office.
And then, with a shock, I saw it was not so. This was a girl coming aboard. An arch-light over the incline showed her clearly when she was half way up. A girl with her hood pushed back; her face framed in thick black hair. I saw now it was not a man’s cut of hair; but long braids coiled up under the dangling hood.Dr. Frank must have remarked my amazed expression.
“Little beauty, isn’t she?”
“Who is she?”
We were standing back against the 316 wall of the superstructure. A passenger was near us––the Martian whom Dr. Frank had called Miko. He was loitering here, quite evidently watching this girl come aboard. But as I glanced at him he looked away and casually sauntered off.
The girl came up and reached the deck. “I am in A 22,” she told the carrier. “My brother came aboard two hours ago.”
Dr. Frank answered my whisper. “That’s Anita Prince.”
She was passing quite close to us on the deck, following the carrier, when she stumbled and very nearly fell. I was nearest to her. I leaped forward and caught her as she went down.
“Oh!” she cried.
With my arm about her, I raised her up and set her upon her feet again. She had twisted her ankle. She balanced herself upon it. The pain of it eased up in a moment.
“I’m––all right––thank you!”
In the dimness of the blue-lit deck, I met her eyes. I was holding her with my encircling arm. She was small and soft against me. Her face, framed in the thick, black hair, smiled up at me. Small, oval face––beautiful––yet firm of chin, and stamped with the mark of its own individuality. No empty-headed beauty, this.“I’m all right, thank you very much––”
I became conscious that I had not released her. I felt her hands pushing at me. And then it seemed that for an instant she yielded and was clinging. And I met her startled, upflung gaze. Eyes like a purple night with the sheen of misty starlight in them.
I heard myself murmuring, “I beg your pardon. Yes, of course!” I released her.
She thanked me again and followed the carrier along the deck. She was limping slightly from the twisted ankle.
An instant, while she had clung to me––and I had held her. A brief flash of something, from her eyes to mine––from mine back to hers. The poets write that love can be born of such a glance. The first meeting, across all the barriers of which love springs unsought, unbidden––defiant, sometimes. And the troubadours of old would sing: “A fleeting glance; a touch; two wildly beating hearts––and love was born.”
I think, with Anita and me, it must have been like that....
I stood gazing after her, unconscious of Dr. Frank, who was watching me with his humorous smile. And presently, no more than a quarter beyond the zero hour, the Planetara got away. With the dome-windows battened tightly, we lifted from the landing stage and soared over the glowing city. The phosphorescence of the electronic tubes was like a comet’s tail behind us as we slid upward.
At the trinight hour the heat of our atmospheric passage was over. The passengers had all retired. The ship was quiet, with empty decks and dim, silent corridors. Vibrationless, with the electronic engines cut off and only the hum of the Martel magnetizers to break the unnatural stillness. We were well beyond the earth’s atmosphere, heading out in the cone-path of the earth’s shadow,in the direction of the moon.